Archive for the ‘Eco-Criticism’ Category

Art in the Anthropocene | Xavier Cortada

November 30, 2014
Global View of the Arctic and Antarctic on September 21, 2005. Courtesy NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio The Blue Marble data is courtesy of Reto Stockli (NASA/GSFC).

Global View of the Arctic and Antarctic on September 21, 2005. Courtesy NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio The Blue Marble data is courtesy of Reto Stockli (NASA/GSFC).

The introduction to the current issue of the Journal American Art takes as its starting point Astrid, a work by Xavier Cortada. “The works were made in Antarctica, about Antarctica, using Antarctica as the medium (provided to me by the very researchers who inform us about Antarctica).”
The Introduction goes on to open up a series of key issues for both art and for ecocriticism in the Anthropocene. Read on here

Only Human? Thom Van Dooren on Vultures and on Snails

November 19, 2014

Last Sunday Thom Van Dooren spoke about extinction at the first Only Human? Festival in Glasgow, part of the nationwide Arts & Humanities Research Council Being Human Festival.  Previous posts have highlighted key quotes from his book Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction.  Thom very kindly agreed to us sharing recordings of his narratives of Vultures (which features in Flight Ways) and of Snails, which is as yet unpublished.

Thom Van Dooren on Vultures and Snails (link to SoundCloud playlist)


A few other links that might be useful:

International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Red List

Scottish Natural Heritage Advisory Note 48, Priority Species in Scotland: plants

Scottish Natural Heritage Advisory Note 49, Priority Species in Scotland: animals

Bird Life campaign to ban vetinary Diclofenac

Scientific American blog Extinction Countdown

Only Human discussion with Thom Van Dooren, 16 November, Glasgow

November 7, 2014

The chapter on albatrosses ends with the following challenge,

As nesting birds quietly ignored my close presence, I reflected that perhaps what is most tragic about the current situation is not the “failure” of albatrosses to adjust or adapt to new threats and an altered environment: intensive long-line fishing or brightly colored plastics that look like food.  Rather, what is most tragic is another failure to adapt.  Our own failure – in which some societies and some people are far more complicit than others – to come to terms with our own relatively new capacity to systematically alter environments in a way that undermines possibilities of life for other living beings and, ultimately, for ourselves.  Perhaps it is we who have not yet “evolved” into the kinds of beings worthy of our own inheritances. (p.43)

Van Dooren’s Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction constantly questions human exceptionalism.  One of the tropes of modern urbanisms and contextual or social arts practices is ‘place-making,’ perhaps something we might assume to be uniquely human until we read of the Little Penguins inhabiting New South Wales, Australia.  Van Dooren challenges the way we use the word ‘habitat’ when talking about other species’ places where we use the word ‘home’ for our own (p.80),

It is precisely this inability or unwillingness to recognize penguins’ relationships with local places as significant – as meaningful and vital – that enables us to so blithely evict them from a shoreline.  In this context, what has been usurped is not a home, not a meaningful and important place, but a piece of interchangeable “habitat.”  And so the inability or refusal to recognize how penguins relate to particular places undermines the significance of their relationships to these places and, in so doing undermines the importance of the claim that they make on them.  But penguins do not occupy “habitats.” Rather, they inhabit experiential worlds in which a burrow might meaningfully be understood as a “home.”

Please come and talk about extinction and human exceptionalism on Sunday 16 November at 12.30 in the James Arnott Theatre, Gilmorehill, University of Glasgow – part of the Only Human? Glasgow programme.

Only Human? 14-16 November

October 29, 2014

Only Human? 14-16 November Poster

Picture after picture [by photographer Chris Jordan] depicts the decomposed bodies of albatross chicks – just bones, feathers, and a beak remaining, and in the middle of each, a multicolored pile of plastic and other debris: cigarette lighters, bottle tops, toy soldiers, and so many other little items.”

“Millions of years of albatross evolution – woven together by the lives and reproductive labours of countless individual birds – comes into contact with less than 100 years of human “ingenuity” in the form of plastics and organochlorines discovered or commercialized in the early decades of the twentieth century.”

Reading Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction by Thom Van Dooren in preparation for chairing a discussion on Sunday 16th November at the Only Human? Festival in Glasgow.  [note: the discussion on Sunday 16th is with the author Thom Van Dooren]

The humanities and creative practices have a role in comprehending the meaning of the anthropocene, where all of the world is affected by one/our species. We have a role in addressing extinction, the end point of millions of years of the evolution of, for example, the albatross becoming itself as a species, and its-selves as individuals. We have a role in challenging human exceptionalism.  Face it, we need to talk about it.

Content of Nothing :: Part 8 :: ….it moves, actually, in a Reticulum

September 17, 2014
Judy Spark, Untitled, digital print (300 x 140mm approximately) 2013

Judy Spark, Untitled, digital print (300 x 140mm approximately) 2013

Judy Spark: You remarked earlier that you feel that for you it’s “important to keep a lightness to creative work” and I would certainly agree with you on this and I think that this does bear even more import for visual than for written work. Other than the ‘academic’ aspect of some written work, I’m not sure that I can articulate exactly why I think this just yet, but it is something I think about. You also quoted Rebecca Solnit – that “the ‘results’ or ‘outcomes’ of creative work are nonlinear and unpredictable” and I would certainly agree with that, but again, this for me, seems to stand particularly for visual over written work. Perhaps is just the way that I go about a piece of writing: I know roughly what I am setting out to say, but probably not, at the beginning, how I will say it. Whereas with visual work, I think that I almost deliberately set to one side what I think I want to say, in order to allow the work to ‘make itself’, to borrow Carol Becker’s term. Then, I work out through a sort of retrospective process exactly what it is I’ve been doing. The whole process is a little bit more under my control than that might make it sound, but it is a process that I have had to learn, and in fact am still learning, to trust.

Samantha Clark: Yes, the retrospective view is when we get to figure out what was actually going on. It’s intrinsic to the reflective process, and here we might get bogged down in definitions of ‘practice-led’ or ‘practice-based’ – ‘practice-following’ research feels most apt sometimes – we do it and then figure it out later. I had a conversation with a colleague who is a social scientist recently. She seemed very surprised that we don’t figure it all out first, assemble all the theory, work out the method, and then just carry out the process we planned. The practice follows a hunch, or launches from a familiar point of departure and sees where it ends up. As you say, it can be quite instinctual. You make a leap, take a bit of a chance (it might not work), and then the research fleshes it out. I think we can become too apologetic about this. I take heart when I read about scientists and the so-called scientific method and find that it’s not so very different sometimes. Kekule saw the structure of benzene in a dream. CTR Wilson built the first cloud chamber on a bit of a whim, to recreate some of the mists and coronas he’d seen walking on the hills – he had no idea his apparatus would reveal the tracks of subatomic particles. According to Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock, ‘you work with so-called scientific methods to put it into their frame after you know’. (Rosen, 1994: 486) Agnes Arber recognised this thought process not as a linear progression but as a reticulated network of associations, analogies and resonances, which were translated into words and equations only with a struggle, after the original, nonverbal and empathic insight. ‘The experience of one’s own thinking suggests that it moves, actually, in a reticulum (possibly of several dimensions) rather than along a single line…A reticulum.… cannot be symbolized adequately in a linear succession of words.’ (Arber, 1854: 18) And here’s the mathematician Poincaré: ‘It is by logic that we prove, but by intuition that we discover…logic teaches us that on such and such a road we are sure of not meeting an obstacle; it does not tell us which is the road that leads to the desired end. For this it is necessary to see the end from afar, and the faculty that teaches us to see is intuition.’ (Poincaré,1914: 130)

JS: Yes, for a while I think the notion of ‘intuition’ in art making was very unpopular, was regarded as something that only happened in ‘women’s art’! The next time I hear anyone slight the part of intuition in making art, I’ll most certainly produce that Poincaré quote, it’s perfect! I sometimes wade into the practice ‘led’ / ‘based’ / ‘following’ debate by stating that I have a ‘research led practice’; the argument behind this will be stronger once I’ve worked out exactly what I mean. In any case, it has something to do with listening and with trust. I’m really interested in this notion of waiting, of listening / active listening or attentiveness in making – you touched on this earlier when we were talking about drawing. Heidegger talks about the poet’s primary role as one of listening before anything is made of that experience. This waiting is as much a part of the process of making as gathering and focus are; all play a part in solving what arises, until the thing is re-solved. But the waiting/listening is difficult; I’ve used the notion of tuning a radio in relation to this, the idea of being on the best frequency and the act of deliberately re-tuning attention – back to Buddhist contemplative practice, or it’s western equivalent, mindfulness. But what about the consequences of not listening, pouncing before things are ready; that desire to fill gaps or absences, to have the art work, poem, writing take a familiar shape….and by a deadline?!


Becker, C. (2004) “Intimate, Immediate, Spontaneous, Obvious: Educating the Unknowing Mind” in Baas, J. and Jacob, M.J. (eds) Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, Berkley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press

Rosner, M. (1994) Journal of Advanced Composition Vol 14:2 Values in Doing and Writing Science: The Case of Barbara McClintock [Available online. Accessed 4.12.13]

Arber, A. (1954) The Mind and the Eye: A Study of the Biologist’s Standpoint, Cambridge Science Classics

Poincaré, H. (1914) Science and Method, London and New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons

Heidegger, M. (1971) On the Way to Language, New York: Harper & Row

Content of Nothing :: Part 7 :: Making and Writing

September 10, 2014

Judy Spark: We have talked about ‘hope’ and about ‘wonder’ but looking around at those mechanisms that will seek to commodify almost every realm of human endeavour the second it appears, it’s easy to feel a bit dispirited sometimes, despite the legions of creative practitioners who are standing up to this – or that play along with it in order to! Is for instance, the creeping ‘academisation’ of creative practice something that we should worry about in this respect? This development is surely bound up with the commodification of ‘knowledge’ and in a way that is closely aligned with what Tim Kasser (mentioned in the last post) would call ‘extrinsic’ values? In any case, for me, writing happens differently to making – though listening is still a major component – but I’ll need to think about what makes them different.

Samantha Clark: For me, it’s important to keep a lightness to creative work, not to let it become too sure of its own rightness, or too didactic. It needs to be a little uncertain, always in a questioning stance. But, like you, I’m also drawn to the academic, philosophical work. For me, the two are in direct conversation, I don’t draw a line, though as I’ve said, I like that I can load the academic work with all the baggage so the art can have more lightness. But it’s not done in the hope that I might make better art as a result of all that booklearning, but because I like to stretch my mind that way. But I recognise it’s not that way for everyone. As for writing v. visual, creative work in either medium feels like a similar process…you hold an idea, thought, sensation, moment in your mind, turn it over and over, and it’s quite fuzzy and indistinct at first, but then something begins to crystallise out. Maybe it’s a word. Maybe it’s a sound. Maybe it’s an image. Maybe it’s an image that conjures up certain words. Maybe it’s a word that conjures a particular image. But whatever it is it seems somehow to resonate. And so you set it down. Then another word, image, sound seems to sit alongside it in a way that is more than the sum of the two, and so you just keep going. It always feels like stepping out blindly, one foot after another, into a white fog hoping the ground will be there when you step onto it.

Samantha Clark working on ‘Wake,’ 2013, photo: Michael Wolchover

Samantha Clark working on ‘Wake,’ 2013, photo: Michael Wolchover

JS: Yes, that is a highly accurate description of the process! It seems that neither of us really make a line between the processes of writing and making. Something led both of us to the MAVE; perhaps a desire for rigour in the philosophical subject area that might not be found within the fine art MA (I very much liked the reference you made to the notion of the ‘personal trainer’ to get you through all those philosophical texts!) Perhaps this latter point, about rigour, could be a bit contentious given the current phenomenon of the interdisciplinary MA? I mean because maybe some of those fine art crossover MAs think that this is what they’re offering – and I hasten to add, maybe by now they do, but contentious also because of the number of artists that are beginning to take on this ‘training’ – Isn’t making art enough!? Stupidly, it becomes about what’s ‘fashionable’…if enough people do it, institutions think everyone should, and so begin to structure their courses accordingly; and so we end up with, for instance, the debacle over the PhD potentially becoming the ‘terminal’ degree in fine art instead of the MA – James Elkins and Brad Buckley have both written well about this.

For me, a lot about the way I work has to do with recognising the multitude of other ways that artists work; it’s to do with the generosity / gift / love element of contributing to a dialogue. In short, I don’t work the way I do because I think it’s the ‘right’ or ‘only’ way to work – and I’m sure you don’t either – it is about ‘following your nose, as a way of making that sort of contribution.

SC: Yes, I see what you mean. For bookish types like us it’s fine, but there are some very fine artists around for whom this is such an imposition, this expectation that you should be an artist AND an academic, that making art is no longer enough, you have to also be able to theorise it extensively, and write about it academically. I suppose it’s an inevitable outcome of the process of Art Schools becoming part of Universities. It’s worth pointing out that art education in Germany has not gone down this path. So there are alternative routes. And artists don’t HAVE to be in the academy to practice, unlike a philosopher, for example. Artists can and do exist completely outwith the academic world, but are just subject to a whole other set of pressures – commercial ones – which they navigate with varying degrees of success and equanimity. Unless you are financially independent (with your own gallery and PR to boot), you’re going to have to navigate either, or more likely both, of these worlds. And it’s going to be a continual adjustment. Well, that’s my thinking anyway. Maybe I’m fudging it, but wherever there is money there is an agenda. As education becomes increasingly monetised this will change, but still, for all its many faults, the world of Higher Education inspires me more than the commercial art world, and fits more closely with my values. Not a perfect fit, but good enough for me to make some creative headway.

JS: Yes, I feel that inhabiting that world works for me too. It seems the best place to be, to return to hopefulness for a moment, of formalising my hopes of contributing fully to, and of getting something back from, on-going philosophic discourse of environment (and for you too perhaps, through the field of creative writing). Of course it is possible to contribute in this way as an artist, and though it is at least beginning to be widely accepted that artists have much to offer within such discourse, I feel that they are also generally expected to bring an artist’s perspective to the mix, whatever that means! In my experience, I still think that it is difficult to shake off the perception of the artist as being some free spirit that can drift in bringing their artist’s perspective, like some elixir, to every problem. I wonder if there is still the tendency to regard this perspective as a form of idealism, a sort of blue sky thinking outside of real world solutions to problems?

Perhaps it’s not important but I noticed very recently, when under pressure to refine REF statements in fact, that it was, for me, very important that the written output stood as something undertaken by a person who is writing as opposed to the notion that the writing might take on some form/character as a result of having been written by an artist. Indeed it’s perhaps the case that being ‘An Artist’ actually hinders dialogue over some things, but you go to a conference, first just as another ‘someone’ who has written something and then it comes out in conversation that you are also an artist, that seems to work better!?

Buckley, B. And Conomos, J. (2009) Rethinking the Contemporary Art School: The Artist, the PhD, and the Academy, Halifax, Canada: The Press of The Nova Scotia College

Elkins, J. (2009) Artists with PhDs: On the new Doctoral Degree in Studio Art, Washington, DC: New Academia Publishing

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