Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

Beverly Naidus: The ZAD Becomes Compost? LONG LIVE THE ZAD!

April 13, 2018

This post comes from Beverly Naidus, a friend and colleague. Her attention is focused on the ZAD (zone à défendre) after visiting in October. Recent events have made it urgent to relay her experience and why the destruction of this place in France matters. A month ago we drew attention to the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest’s issue #10 Climate Atlas. The point of the Atlas is to focus on where new forms of relations between humans and other living things are being developed. The editors of JOAAP #10 said, “In the face of climate change, we prioritize lifes’ capacity to organize its own variation.” The French State is attempting to stamp out a beautiful example of self-organisation.


April 10, 2018, Tacoma, WA, USA

IMG_2503

When something you have witnessed, loved and cared for is destroyed and uprooted, whether it is a forest, a species, a community or a culture, it can wreck the spirit. The trauma of these violent actions, informed by greed and ignorance, can ripple out widely, encouraging resistance, but it requires attention. In order for the suffering to become compost from which we can plant our visions again, it needs amplification. Writing in the wee hours, on the Pacific coast of North America, I am hoping that these words will be heard, knowing that our peaceful warrior friends in the northwest of France are facing violence today.

Yesterday evening I learned that the ZAD had been invaded by 2500 French police wielding tear gas and driving bulldozers. They destroyed hand-built homes, greenhouses and community spaces and have been pushing people off the land. Gardens that have been lovingly tended and harvested for many years have been trashed. There seems to be not enough bodies assembled to create the physical resistance required to stop the perpetrators. It feels like a lost cause. I am breathing through the shock of this and hoping that a phoenix will rise out of the ashes. Here’s today’s news and here’s another blog [and this Call for Intergalactic Solidarity Actions was published recently. Ed]

In October 2017 we were able to visit the ZAD, a wonderful and complex community in France that inspires revolutionary thoughts and actions. Most folks, including activist folks, on this side of the pond have never heard of the ZAD. We’ve been too busy with the ever-escalating messes in our own backyards to pay much attention to visionary projects elsewhere. But fortunately, I have known of the activist artist, John Jordan, one of the key residents and spoke-persons for the ZAD, for many years. He made a contribution to my book, Arts for Change: Teaching Outside the Frame (New Village Press, 2009) and has kept me informed about the ZAD via email and social media.

IMG_2554

For those who are unaware of this remarkable place, it’s been a European symbol of contemporary resistance against development and fossil fuels. A coalition of movements including environmental activists, local farmers and unionists, anarchists, students and creative resistors of all sorts has prevented the building of an airport, and formed the largest autonomous zone in Europe, 4000 acres inhabited by 250 or so squatters who make up about 60 collectives. The land has been occupied since 2009 as part of a 50 year struggle against the development of the airport.

IMG_2549

This is not going to be an essay to describe the history and theories informing the ZAD. The reader can research that information online, but instead this brief piece will attempt to frame a vision before it slips the collective memory. ZAD is the acronym for zone à défendre (translated as “the Zone to Defend”).

We arrived at the train station at Notre-Dames des Landes on a sunny afternoon in late October 2017. John and his partner, Isa, met us and drove us to the beautiful bocage (a landscape that mixes woodlands and pasture) that makes up the ZAD. John explained that designing a landscape to feature “bocage” is one of the best ways to sequester CO2. Many traditional, small farmers have been working the land this way for centuries.

IMG_2436

John told us that our visit was well-timed, a party was already in progress at the Ambazada, a newly built barn-like space for meetings, dances, concerts and feast. We joined this celebration of the community that gave everyone an opportunity to share updates on different coalitions and actions. People of all ages were sitting around on benches, inside and outside this structure, many in deep conversations. Laughter often erupted, local wine was being shared and a pleasant haze of French cigarette smoke greeted us. John introduced us to people, some were local residents, and a few were visitors, like us, from all over the world. We were invited to grab plates and fill them generously with delicious home-made cuisine. I was struck by the plenty. Huge blocks of cheese and pâté were laid out along with bowls of salads and fruits. A crepe station and the lovely people working there supplied the crowd with warm, tasty regional fare (on the southern edge of Brittany. We made our way to one of the big tables to learn more about this unusual community.

IMG_2457

fullsizeoutput_2e4a

Over the past three decades, my partner, Bob Spivey, and I had been eager to learn about alternative communities, places where people were living out a vision of how to resist the dominant culture and its rape of the land and community. I had first been interested in collective living when I was a teenager and tasted a bit of it by living on a kibbutz. Unfortunately, the joys of sharing abundance, child care and work, were drowned out by the poison of the racism I witnessed there. Along with government policies that over the past five decades have become increasingly fascist. I was determined to look for other models, ones that were not so contaminated by an ideology of superiority and the propaganda of “safety through aggression.”

We visited co-housing communities on the west coast of the US, the remnants of back-to-the-land communes in New England, NY and Canada, as well as an eco-village in the north of Italy, and while they all had pieces of the puzzle that attracted us, certain vital qualities were missing. Our years of working with the Institute for Social Ecology had given us a vision of what a non-colonizing, permaculture design-informed, ecologically sound, equitable, diverse, revolutionary, liberated world might look like. We saw evidence of this vision at the ZAD.

IMG_2548

Every morning we would wake up to the sounds of John’s collective making breakfast in the house where we were hosted. The pantry was filled with boxes of fruit and vegetables. Fresh bread and eggs seemed to magically arrive. A chalk board displayed the tasks of the day and people took up their responsibilities with apparent ease.

IMG_2469

In the four days we were there we walked the land meeting members of the 60 collectives that have carved out space, built amazing structures and gardens while sharing childcare, bread, cheese, produce, tools, skills and libraries. We spent time in long conversations, climbed the beautifully built lighthouse for an exquisite sunset view, shared meals, sank into the literature provided at the welcome house, met grad students and journalists who are studying the ZAD, talked about the art and cultural democracy that was emerging from daily life, learned about ongoing conflicts between the specie-ists (those who are informed by deep ecology, who don’t believe that humans are special), the global justice activists and the traditional farmers, and discovered that this is the real work of making this vision come alive.

fullsizeoutput_2e43

John shared the history of battles on the land and how old coalitions between trade unions, farmers and activists were revitalized to create solidarity against the airport. We learned how art, play and humor kept the whole process joyful, even in the face of violence. It was inspiring, but we left knowing that romantic dreams were not enough to make this community sustainable. It required gritty, uncomfortable, daily work to keep people communicating productively with each other. Solidarity was not a given. Doing ongoing anti-oppression work and non-violent conflict resolution would be the continuing task of this visionary place.

IMG_2511

Now in this moment of extreme attacks from the State, it is important to remember that the seeds planted by ZAD can be broadcast widely, and we can be encouraged that it has survived and thrived in very difficult conditions. New communities of this kind will be forming all over the world as the dominant culture continues to crumble. We must take heart, be resilient when there are losses and persist in making our visions emerge. Share this story with others, find ways to organize and educate in your own communities. LONG LIVE THE ZAD!

zadnyc10a

Flyer being handed out at French Embassies and Consulates


Beverly Naidus, interdisciplinary artist, author and facilitator of a socially engaged, studio arts curriculum, has been creating interactive installations and mixed media projects for several decades. Inspired by lived experience, topics in her art focus on environmental and social issues. After tasting success in the mainstream art world, she became deeply committed to art that emerges from communities struggling against oppression of all kinds. She is currently on the faculty of the University of Washington, Tacoma.

www.beverlynaidus.net

All photos courtesy of Beverly Naidus

Tim Collins: Review of LRG’s What is Landscape Justice and Why Does it Matter?

February 26, 2018

In the second of two pieces resulting from Landscape Research Group (LRG) events, Tim Collins (with input from Reiko Goto) reports on the Debate focused on Landscape Justice held in London on Wednesday 7 December 2017.


At this event, landscape justice issues discussed included deeply troubling, indeed dark and bloody national narratives underpinning what is presented today to be pristine and wild exemplary European forest; critical/creative legal maneuvers set to music to intervene in transnational oil and gas pipelines in the USA; the deep historic tensions over Land ownership in Scotland; and finally the framework for an ethical-aesthetic duty – a sense of justice owed to more-than- human interests.

Organized and facilitated by the Landscape Research Group (and in particular development manager Sarah McCarthy) the host for the debate was Chris Dalglish, Chair of LRG and social archaeologist. The panel comprised the landscape historian and theorist Ken Olwig from Denmark; eco-artist and activist Aviva Rahmani from New York City; Peter Peacock, former Labour MSP and policy director of Community Land Scotland; and Emily Brady, a philosopher with a focus on environmental aesthetics and ethics living and working in Edinburgh. Both Olwig and Brady are expatriate Americans.

Prior to travelling for the event, Reiko Goto and I had spent time reading to clarify our understanding of the key term and its meanings. The baseline is perhaps encapsulated in the LRG research strategy which views the challenges of landscape justice as a systemic problem of, “…inter-connected social, cultural, economic and environmental benefits and burdens, goods, services and agencies, which arise from landscape itself.” The research statement conflates landscape with land – the surface of the earth distinguished by boundaries of ownership and control. Landscape is generally more of an aggregate term. The European Landscape Convention understands it as land that is: “…perceived by local people or visitors, which evolves through time as a result of being acted upon by natural forces and human beings”. I will expand in the conclusion.

After a practical orientation by Sarah, Chris Dalglish in his role as Chair provided a brief overview of the issues surrounding the meaning and value of Landscape Justice (LJ) and how we would help to address these questions through conversations with our four speakers; but also in a larger dialogue amongst ourselves. With 12 present and former trustees of LRG in attendance and an additional 37 members of the group in the audience the event began with Ken Olwig as the first speaker.

The questions:

  • what is landscape justice and why does it matter?
  • why we should strive for landscape justice, and
  • how we might achieve landscape justice by linking research, policy and practice.

Ken Olwig

Prof Olwig is a historian and critical theorist, an author of a series of texts that examine how landscapes affect language, social, cultural and political process. For his presentation he prepared a series of slides outlining literature that contributes ideas to our present understanding of justice, nature, nationality and landscape with a focus on Europe. He began with the French philosopher Montesquieu before touching on the tensions between ideals, rhetoric and the lives of Scottish authors James Macpherson recognized for being the controversial ‘translator’ (from Scottish Gaelic) of the epic Ossian poems in the first half of the 18 th century and Sir Walter Scott who chronicled the conflicts of Highland life in the last half of the 18th century. His talk was dense and moved quickly through ideas, times and places.

Beginning with Montesquieu he talked about wild nature and the tension between ideas about environmental determinism and freedom from oppression, including theories of separate and opposing executive forces at the national level that would shape constitutions around the world. He then went on to Macpherson whose ‘Gaelic translations’ have been consistently challenged but widely read. A narrative of ancient legends and a description of the beauty of the Highlands, the Ossian epic is internationally recognized for its impact on the Romantic Movement. (He was also known for clearing his own Highland Estate of forests, reshaping landforms and obliterating the Gaelic place names where he could.) Referencing Sir Walter Scott, Olwig drew our attention to passages that suggested the Highlands were drained of nature. He also asked us to consider landscapes where culture was superfluous to emergent meaning largely defined by science. He relied on Simon Schama’s treatise on landscape and its relationship to ideas of culture and national identity as the central thread to the talk. Using Schama’s text Olwig put a critical framework in place to help us consider how landscape and its range of narratives shape national self-perception.

Schama’s text also became the focal point of his conclusion: the clash between recent ecological conceit in the European Union about ‘wild’ nature in the Białowieża forest of Poland and the despotic and fascist interests that claimed the forest as a symbolic validation of their values. He explained that the forest had undergone cycles of harvest and destruction and conservation and protection for centuries. It had been hailed as a wild centerpiece of cultural import for one despotic national interest after another. From the point of view of ‘wild’ ecology all apex predators including bears, wolves and lynx were exterminated in the mid 18th century. During the First World War the last of the wild bison were lost. British lumber merchants would contribute to the decimation of the forest after the war, while Polish scientists would reassemble the bison herd from zoo specimens. In the midst of World War II, Białowieża became a focal point of the fascist Nazi Lebensraum initiative, with ethnic cleansing to remove the resident population followed by radical restoration plans to extend the forest and reverse-engineer extinct species to create a hunting park. The Teutonic narrative of the Nazis would subsume the historic Polish-Lithuanian narrative of that forest, and in retreat the Nazis would burn historic hunting lodges and exterminate the bison, eagles, elk and wolves which were the symbolic focal point of their interest in that place. The subsequent Soviet occupation would then manage the forest frontier for state security. Yet the narrative of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries including the rhetoric of the European Union assume Białowieża to be the largest ‘remnant’ wilderness in Europe, ignoring a social, cultural and political history that complicates that point of view. This was a significant historical narrative, a robust provocation to begin the ‘debate’ about landscape and the location and meaning of justice.

Aviva Rahmani

Dr. Aviva Rahmani is an eminent ecoartist and researcher, with a background in music. She discussed her current project Blued Trees Symphony (2015 ongoing) which integrates the arts, sciences, and policy, resulting in a work that is intellectually challenging and beautiful at the same time.

She began by saying: “I am interested in artwork that results in solutions to difficult problems.” She presented as a researcher with a background in art and science with important collaborators in the fields of biology and paleoecology.

Blued Trees Symphony is a musical composition painted on trees across 50 acres in a forest that lies in the path of the Algonquin Incremental Market (gas) pipeline. The intent was to contest Eminent Domain (understood as Compulsory Purchase in the UK) by establishing an artwork copyrighted onsite, painted on trees as part of the forest. The Visual Rights Act (1990) would then be used to prevent mutilation, or modification of the artwork, actions prejudicing the artist’s honor or reputation.

Rahmani introduced the work with by talking about conversations in 2015 with ‘Frack Busters’ http://www.frackbustersny.org/ an activist group that wanted to discuss the work of Peter von Tiesenhausen. Canadian Tiesenhausen used his artwork on his family land, and his Moral Right for it to not be mutilated, as a means of holding oil pipeline developers at bay. The question was could an artwork be created and Copyrighted in the United States to similar effect, with the potential to block pipeline construction?

Rahmani began her effort in Peekskill, New York, working at the invitation of landowners wrestling with Eminent Domain related to the pipeline. Walking the site, mapping as she went, relying on her music training, she began to see a score marked out, to be played across multiple trees. If done right the score (multiple segments of copyright artworks) would put Copyright in conflict with Eminent Domain.

Each musical notation is a painted onto the tree using a casein slurry of non-toxic ultramarine blue and buttermilk that is conducive to the growth of moss. Installed along potential pipeline sites, Rahmani worked with lawyers to secure copyright of each element of the score. Conceptually this first (copyrighted) piece was an overture, which the artist introduced to us by singing. The painted notation on the trees was beautiful. Although a final slide showing notated trees cut down in Peekskill was disconcerting.

Rahmani then transitioned into a discussion of the work as it has been presented in galleries in New York and South Korea. She also discussed the ongoing legal nature of this work and an important new development in Virginia. She concluded with a few thoughts of the global impact of climate change and the need to reorganize information to have an impact. The last slide was a diagram that began with a specific art history that is the context for this work. Eminent Domain is the focal point and artists’ Copyright is the methodological action in this research. Broader questions attendant to the work include an evolving understanding of the public good and ongoing challenges to environmental law in the US and earth rights worldwide.

Peter Peacock

Peter Peacock was the policy director at Community Land Scotland at the time of the debate. He has served as a member of Scottish Parliament (1999-2011). He is recognized for expertise in community ownership, cultural heritage and land reform. Peter began his talk by describing the Highlands of Scotland as land with high conservation and recreational value, but land ownership limited to a few elite families. It has the most inequitable land ownership statistics in the western world. The clearances of the nineteenth century removed the resident population to enable new land management and economies of sheep and cattle. The Highlands were increasingly devoid of people; he described it as a landscape where full life is lost.

Peacock explained that he understands Landscape Justice as an opportunity to articulate divergent positions; a dialogic space where multiple points of view inform aspirations for Highland places. He envisions the Highlands as a place where a wider range of people have opportunities for housing and land investment rather than the limitations of tenancy arrangements. He recapped the history of Scottish Government policies and investment mechanisms which had initiated community buyouts and public land ownership and relate this to emergent ideas in National Landscape Policy and the factors that complicate that dialogue. Firstly, much policy is written from the position of Edinburgh, disengaged from nature and actual land-use practices. Many urbanites engage with the Highlands through panoramic aesthetic values, placing a premium on a view of desolate landscapes and ideals of wild nature devoid of human interest. Recent national wild lands mapping actually supports extant ideas and aesthetic interests doing little to shift the dominance of large estate owners. There is a tension between those that want to see the Highlands with a diverse array of ‘ordinary’ people living equitably, and this ‘wild land’ idea. The response of Community Land Scotland is to enable an informed, balanced debate between estate owners, land-use professionals and local interests. They work to enable best methods and a variety of means for communities to come together and make a difference in land ownership and management. He described a need for research that supports ordinary people and their interests in the Scottish Highlands, along side new scientific ideas, theories and practical methods that enable power sharing. These are the key landscape justice challenges in the Scottish Highlands.

Emily Brady

Professor Brady is a philosopher who has written books and articles on environmental aesthetics and the sublime. She introduced her interests as a mix of environmental philosophy and ‘landscape as place’. She extended the days’ discussions by bringing the discussion of landscape justice to the moral and ethical duty owed to the more-than-human; introducing ideas of interaction and interrelationships between bipeds, quadrupeds, winged and rooted beings. She started with Aldo Leopold’s ideas about a land ethic, a community of interests that has an interpersonal dimension an individual social/land dimension, and a moral duty to other things that occupy the land along with us. She described a move from a ‘conqueror’ relationship to a ‘citizen’ relationship that is well aware of the more-than-human component. So for her landscape justice is essentially a multi-species justice – a weak anthropocentrism. It is an ecologically informed idea of justice. Species decline becomes a significant issue. Her philosophical project is to articulate the intellectual underpinnings of justice itself as a concept. It is informed by human-to-human interrelationships between indigenous, racially and culturally differentiated communities. Philosophy contributes to an understanding of the ethical duty, and its historic and theoretical development. It is about attachment to beings other than ourselves, but it is also about a sense of virtue or humility in the face of a significant living otherness.

Brady went on to outline her heroes and heroines including Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac; Rachel Carson author of Silent Spring; Robert Bullard the original voice in ideas about environmental racism and environmental justice; Val Plumwood the noted ecofeminist who wrote Feminism and the Mastery of Nature and an artist; and Patricia Johanson who has consistently argued that her work is about healing the earth and creating spaces in urban places for endangered and threatened species. She closed by arguing that aesthetics is sensory not scenery, it is about being immersed and in an integrated relationship (subject – object – environment) relationship rather than a subject that engages (or views) an object. She closed with images of her currently favourite public art: large scale images created by the London-based artist known as ATM; a muralist creating large urban and rural drawings, paintings and murals of birds threatened with extinction. Brady provided a classic LRG conclusion, robustly interdisciplinary while focused on an evolution of thinking about aesthetics and ethics. She brought the question of landscape justice to an appropriately expansive idea of more-than-human ethical duty.

Conclusion

Debate was perhaps a poor choice of words to use to describe this event. It began as a series of lectures contributing to an attempt to define the meaning of landscape justice, as well as its fundamental social and cultural import. Underpinning this was a question of how research into the topic might support LRG’s Research Strategy and its goals of empowering people to critically appreciate and understand the range of values and actions that might contribute to just and sustainable relationships to landscape. The room was filled with an exciting mix of academics and professionals as well as a handful of policy experts from a range of age groups, disciplines, nations and cultural backgrounds. The initial programme was run more like a series of lectures than a debate with four 20 minute presentations, followed by a half hour question and answer period. After a coffee and tea break we were assigned to groups to discuss the key questions. Working groups were followed by a recap and some discussion in a closing plenary. The interdisciplinarity of the event was exciting, the lectures were brilliant but perhaps the audience would have benefitted from a pause, where we were might be able to ask some specific questions of the individual speakers. Finally it wasn’t clear how the collective deliberation would inform the LRG’s interests. Was it more than a talking shop?

Nonetheless, there were significant provocations made that day that are worth talking about. The four presentations offered significant challenges to the way landscape is ‘normally’ perceived and addressed by both academics and the general public. In each case these were challenging and innovative views. But of the fundamental questions… What does landscape justice mean? What are its key values? And how does research contribute to new understanding and action? The presentations perhaps only provided us with specific insight on particular values (representations of history; legal constructions; rural re-population; and aesthetics). It contributed to LRG’s unique and innovative approach to all the ways that research contributes to landscape questions, but the actual meaning of the term Landscape Justice remains somewhat elusive.

As indicated in the introduction we had spent a bit of time to understand what the LRG (and its publications) have to say about the meaning of Landscape Justice.

LRG Chair Dalglish has a published an article on the topic on the Community Land Scotland website and there is a 2016 editorial on the topic by Anna Jorgenson, Editor of the Landscape Research Journal. Dalglish (a social archaeologist) follows Aldo Leopold’s ideas of a ‘land community’ engaging humans and more than humans in an interdependent network. He differentiates this multi-species ‘landscape’ community from the human-centric definition used by European Landscape Convention. He also juxtaposes this land community idea against a general reading of environmental justice as a focus on the impacts and constraints that disadvantage human communities. Nonetheless, his understanding of Landscape Justice is a materialist distributive approach to value and impact:

“Landscape justice is a matter of the distribution of harms and benefits relating to the landscape. It concerns procedure, or fairness in the way decisions are made about the landscape. …It is a matter of capabilities, i.e. people’s capacity to achieve the outcomes they desire with regard to the landscape.” (2017, Dalglish).

While his focus is on decisions and the social capacity for affective discourse, land-based material interests and equitable consideration of harms and benefits are the underlying driver.

Anna Jorgenson (a landscape architect) is more oriented to land based benefits and impacts.

“It means addressing unequal (human) access to landscape goods and resources, including cultural resources or unequal exposure to environmental degradation and risk.” (2016, Jorgenson).

Like Dalglish, Jorgenson raises questions about rights for a broad range of non-human others, ecosystems and landscapes. Her editorial closes with a focus on the current refugee crisis and landscape injustice as ‘both a cause and an outcome’ of economic hardship and political oppression. She outlines how a refugee situation has an impact on original and destination landscapes, challenging the social and legal perception of who has rights to remain, rights to entry and unsettles the meaning of national borders. So in each instance, these LRG thinkers see land-based conflicts driving Landscape Justice, although the work is realized through discourse in a range of social-political settings.

The fundamental question that occupied us on the long train ride home the next day was about the difference between land and landscape. Is landscape a discursive public space, differentiated from issues of land ownership access and equity? The issues of justice as it refers to landscape are about having a voice that is heard in the debate about landscape cause and effect, meaning and value. This is embedded in Dalglish’ and Jorgenson’s positions and is a thread running through the expert testimony presented on the day. Olwig suggested that the dominant scientific culture of ecosystem science seeking to protect the Białowieża Forest ignores its complicated social/political history which has actually shaped its ecology. Rahmani offered a critical creative response to legal tools, specifically Eminent Domain, the use of which simply shuts down all debate about values. Peacock gave us a glimpse into a centuries old culture in Scotland where a few families dominate land-use decision-making by the weight of their property holdings and historic political strengths. Finally, Brady asked us to think about how the voice of the more-than-human enters the discourse of environmental justice through ethical and aesthetic consideration. Without a doubt, the LRG hosted a provocative day of discussion that raised issues relevant to a broad range of disciplines.

The meaning of Landscape Justice is perhaps still hanging in the air unresolved – as we struggle with the idea of landscape itself, a concept that is generative and morphological (like art) and as a result very difficult to pin down with closed definitions. If we think of it as a discursive space, then deliberation becomes a structure for relational definition. Justice in turn is about having access to and potential impact upon the discourse at hand.


This article is a result of a dialogue between Reiko Goto Collins and Tim Collins. We were in different working groups (and had very different experiences) We discussed the issues on the way down in the train, then discussed the event at length on the way back. We also corresponded a bit with colleagues who were also present at the event. We outlined this paper from our notes at the kitchen table over a series of mornings. Tim took on the task of writing, Reiko provided critical input again at the final stage of writing.

Report on AALERT

February 22, 2018

vn-aalert-workshop-twitterslide1

This is a quick and personal reflection on the Art and Artists in Landscape and Environmental Research Today workshop (AALERT) held at the National Gallery London 15 Feb jointly sponsored by the Landscape Research Group and the Valuing Nature Programme of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), and supported by the Landscape & Arts Network. This is not an overview of the content of the day, including excellent presentations by Prof Stephen Daniels, Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway or the many threads and contributions. The intention is to focus on the key points in relation to the stated aim – understanding the contribution artists and art make to landscape and environmental research. We understand a more detailed summary will be published by the organisers.

The day brought together artists with natural and social scientists, and humanities academics. The key question was and remains what contribution art and artists can make to landscape and environmental research. The day was organized around questions of agency, value and how to embed artists with other disciplines. The fundamental problem is that many people don’t understand artists’ research. That being said, everyone ‘knows’ that there is a contribution. Most people don’t agree with Lewis Wolpert when he said,

“Although science has had a strong influence on certain artists – in the efforts to imitate nature and thus to develop perspective or in the area of new technologies – art has contributed virtually nothing to science.” (Wolpert, 2002)

Tim Collins opened proceedings with a quote highlighting that artists want to be dealt with as researchers rather than as subjects of research

“In the first place, the scene of research, centred on academic and scientific communities, will encounter new actors who will have to be considered no longer as objects of study, but as inquiring subjects themselves: the artist and the artist-as-researcher…. This means that, fourthly, research cultures will potentially be enriched with new narratives, discourses and modes of knowledge including knowledge of making (techne) and knowledge of the value systems that inform making (phronesis).” (Coessens et al., 2009, pp91-92)

This point is important because art and artists are often spoken for and about not least by art historians but also by anthropologists and other social scientists. We might argue that these interlocutors use evidence in forms which are ‘inter-operable’ with other forms of research evidence. The manifestation of artists’ research is at its core about making room to re-experience the world as (slightly) different, to pick up on Clive Cazeaux’s articulation. This ‘seeing it differently’ – and here we mean seeing in the widest sense, as in ‘understanding the possibility that it isn’t as we assume’ – is maybe neither quantitative nor qualitative. The concepts we use to understand the world shape both how and what we perceive. And also form how we make the world. This critical insight is valuable.

To be clear there are at least two meanings of research when used by artists (and even artists in the room conflated these). Pretty much all contemporary artists do research in the process of making work. In particular artists doing work with other disciplines, in public places, etc and in particular in landscape and environment, do a lot of research across a whole range of dimensions – social, historical, geographical, geological, ecological, etc – as preparation for making work. Sometimes this involves discovering new or forgotten things and sometimes it is functionally ‘familiarisation’ and assemblage of knowledge about a place or issue. Some artists do research informed by the same criteria as other academics – making a contribution to knowledge characterised by ‘originality, significance and rigour’. Artists don’t have to be in academic positions in research active institutions to do this, and in fact there is a long history of artists shaping our understanding of the world and sharing methods and processes so that others can learn. One difference, in addition to going beyond the specific project needs, is that the latter has a public dimension to the process and product which enables others to learn from it. Another difference is the positioning of the work with a social historical discourse. This in turn is one of the validations of the originality, significance and rigour requirement (which has been standardised over 26 years of UK research assessment).

The lack of awareness of this and its manifestation in artist-led work receiving 4* ratings in the 2014 REF was a cause of some frustration during the day.

Fundamentally each discipline and practice has a different way of knowing the world which are all equally valid. The challenge is that the ‘wicked’ problems we are facing including climate disruption, biodiversity loss and a warming planet require us to work together across traditional boundaries in teams. And teams need to understand each other. A quick rehearsal of Basarab Nicolescu’s formulation is useful (Nicolescu, 1997). He starts from the point that disciplines are valuable in themselves. He then talks about multi-disciplinary in terms of co-ordination of different disciplines’ methods; interdisciplinary in terms of learning from each other and hybridising; and trans-disciplinary as working across different levels of reality particularly where they are incommensurable e.g. between the scientific and the spiritual or data and emotions. He suggests that artists are particularly good at this.

Collins cited John Roberts, offering an articulation of this particular quality and its complexities. Roberts argues that art has a complex relationship with society at once enmeshed and autonomous. In particular he argues that, “one of the still operative functions of the artist – exploited extensively at the moment, as it is – is his or her ability to work with, reflect on, move through various non-artistic disciplines and practices without fully investing in them.” (Roberts, 2016, p112). Roberts calls this ‘adisciplinarity’ and he says,

“[t]his is because it is not the job of art to defend or extend the truth claims of a particular discipline, but to reflect on the discipline’s epistemological claims and symbolic status within the totality of non-art/ art disciplines and their social relations. When art draws, for example, from a particular scientific discipline such as physics, this is not in order to defend the truths of a particular branch of physics, but, rather, to use such truths as a reflection on physics as such, or as a means to reflect on the truth claims of other disciplines and practices.” (Roberts, p114)

This clarifies another aspect of discussion which focused on agency and autonomy. For artists to do what they do in terms of Roberts’ description, in terms of ‘seeing and/or making it differently’ they need a degree of autonomy, yet at the same time to work with others. This distinctive position, often within a team, is challenging and needs to be valued by others (including other academics but also funders and policy-makers), supported and given space. It raises anxiety in a risk averse culture. But it is fundamental to the contribution that art and artists can make, even if it is an idea that many struggle to recognise or understand how to ‘operationalise’.

One aspect which relates to this is that as artists (and curators, producers, writers) we have become very good at learning the languages of other disciplines and practices, their forms of evidence and their policy frameworks. The converse of this is that we don’t seem to have been very effective at articulating our forms of knowledge to other researchers and practitioners (this problem is as true in the context of arts and health as it is in research-led work).

Another related complexity flushed out during the day was that the conditions of participation need to be attended to, and the Artist Placement Group was referenced, including John Latham’s conceptualisation of the ‘Incidental Person’ as well as his and Barbara Steveni’s operating principles of Open Brief leading to Feasibility Study, the need for a willing host, and the need for commensurate pay (Steveni, 2003). This methodology has been developed within the arts to structure conditions for work in non-arts contexts.

This rich and provocative event opened up real questions on the contribution, conceptual and practical, of artists to landscape and environmental research. It opened up issues which need deeper reflection and consideration because without question the ‘wicked problems’ are increasingly the focus of research and policy. Whilst the Valuing Nature Programme may be nearing the conclusion of this phase of work it is highly likely that the next cycle of research will be larger with more challenging issues to address and it would be good to see more artists as Principal Investigators, Co-Investigators and Research Fellows helping to shape these projects, not just communicate the findings.

As the noted anthropologist Tim Ingold said recently,

“But while mainstream science continues to think of art as a medium for the communication of its own findings, it is now art, rather than science, that is leading the way in promoting radical ecological awareness.” (Ingold, 2017)

Ingold is echoing Roberts’ construction of arts adisciplinary role, pointing to the ways in which artists are re-imagining, even re-creating, our relationships with ecologies whether that is in the form of greater awareness and sensitivity or activism (and a range of other possibilities). All of these practices draw on the truths of various ecological sciences but also ask whether those truths are sufficient to articulate the value of the ecologies they claim to explain. The activists also use art to engage with the symbolic status of both the art and non-art social constructions (e.g. the social license to operate provided to the fossil fuel industry through sponsorship of cultural institutions). But that’s another subject.


Coessens, K., Douglas, A. and Crispin, D. 2009. The Artistic Turn: A Manifesto. Leuven University Press.

Ingold, T. 2017. The Art of Paying Attention. Aalto University. http://artofresearch2017.aalto.fi/keynotes.html accessed 16 February 2018

Nicolescu, B. 1997. The transdisciplinary evolution of learning. In Proceedings of the International Congress on What University for Tomorrow? Towards a Transdisciplinary Evolution of the University, Locarno, 30 April-2 May.
http://www.learndev.org/dl/nicolescu_f.pdf

Roberts, J., 2016. Revolutionary Time and the Avant-Garde. Verso

Steveni, B. 2003. Repositioning Art in the Decision-Making Processes of Society. In Interrupt Symposia. https://web.archive.org/web/20090107002604/http://interrupt.org.uk/symposia/educator/repositioning-art/ accessed 19 February 2018

Wolpert, L. 2002. Which Side Are You On? The Observer. 10 March. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2002/mar/10/arts.highereducation accessed 16 February 2018

Call for Artists: WetlandLIFE

June 7, 2017
priory-country-park_ta-13

Fenlake Meadows. Photo: Tim Acott

The WetlandLIFE Research Team are looking for artists whose work can contribute to our knowledge and appreciation of wetlands and mosquitoes. By this we mean artworks, in any medium, that seek to influence our awareness, understanding, attitudes, emotions, values or behaviour towards them, and the ecological and social interactions that have brought them into being. This might be done by communicating the findings of researchers about wetlands and mosquitoes to new audiences, challenging how we think about them, or changing how we feel about them – perhaps helping us connect with them in new ways.

This is an exciting opportunity for artists to work alongside local communities and a diverse team of environmental researchers to show how art can influence how we value nature and ecosystem services. The focus of work will be on the Somerset Levels, Humber Levels and Thames Estuary, although reference will also be made to a broad range of inland and marine wetlands across England to capture the diversity of these places.

We are offering three bursaries of £5,000 each (total of £15,000). Artists can apply for the total amount – and create work that relates to the project’s three case study sites or to wetlands in general – or for one bursary worth £5000 – perhaps focusing specifically on one of the sites. We welcome applications from consortiums of artists working together to address all three sites. The bursaries cover the artist(s) fees, accommodation and travel, and all costs associated with the production and display of the artworks.

Artworks by the successful artist/s will be included in a final touring exhibition, planned in early/mid 2019, which will visit each of the three case study sites.

The full brief is available on the WetlandLIFE website.

WetlandLIFE is one of the projects funded through the multi-Research Council Valuing Nature Programme.

Anne Douglas – Low Carbon Futures: what have the arts and humanities got to do with it?

May 30, 2017

How many lawyers does it take to make Scotland low carbon? How many artists? You might think it doesn’t matter – it’s the scientists, engineers and politicians who will make the difference.

But increasingly it is recognised that our addition to fossil fuels is as much cultural as it is infrastructural. Single occupancy car use is related to our western individualism as is the instant, always ‘on’ culture of 24/7 which leaves no ‘down time’ and means that everything is available always (including summer fruits in the middle of winter) . The overarching question throughout the two days whether explored philosophically, legally or in terms of journalism, was How have we constructed this culture?” Before we can change it, we need to grasp our entanglements.

Connecting with a Low Carbon Future, University of Stirling, Law and Philosophy Department 19th-20th April, 2017

This conference explored what the arts and humanities can offer the transition to a low carbon future. Until recently the issue has been dominated by science and technology but there is a growing recognition that transition is equally a social and cultural issue.

Co-ordinated by Professor Gavin Little, Department of Law and Philosophy, as part of a research project funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the ambition for the event was high. The conference drew research papers from throughout Europe deliberately clustered into humanities disciplines that were closely related: law and politics; philosophy, culture and history; theatre studies and literature; visual arts, media and cultural studies.

The convenors framed a number of challenges. What might the humanities offer in terms of:

  • identifying barriers to low carbon transitions
  • achieving transition in ways that are ethically just
  • understanding and influencing political power?

Researchers across all domains are accustomed to revealing to peers what they understand differently as a consequence of a process of inquiry – negotiating knowledge within a discipline. It is a kind of test in the company of others equally equipped with the relevant expertise to judge the level, depth and authority of what is claimed. We work within disciplines as knowledge domains and traditionally in the arts and humanities, as lone researchers.

This gathering challenged us to undertake a different approach.

Firstly, arts and humanities disciplines needed to open up their discrete and individualistic ways of knowing, to come together on a shared issue: transition to a low carbon future. The parallel sessions organised in the closely aligned discipline clusters revealed clearly how the issue of transition reaches to the heart of how we, as human beings, make meaning and confer value. At no point to my knowledge was the potential of arts and humanities research on the issue in question. Nonetheless it became clear that it would take time to figure out how to be effective in an area normally associated with science and technology.

Secondly transition necessitates dialogue across disciplines but frequently when such dialogues take place, they only operate at a very superficial level. This gathering encouraged us to encounter other ways of knowing and examine the assumptions and constraints of other knowledge practices (as well as our own). A better understanding of assumptions and constraints might forge new connections across the different disciplines representing the arts and humanities.

Thirdly, knowledge of transition needs practical and experiential as well as theoretical ways of knowing. This was possibly the least developed aspect. As academics we are accustomed to being experts that draw from human society, its materials and practices, for the purposes of analysis and to pass wisdom on as the end point of the research process. This linearity and its implicit power relationship needs to be rethought to construct modalities of co-researching with non academic partners. This was touched on through notions of action, activism and practice based research but not perhaps yet fully grasped in the discussions as a radically different research approach.

Across the two days we encountered rich narratives of research that revealed the degree to which the arts and humanities try to understand the future from the past. The rate and nature of climate change has in many ways confounded learning in this way – climate change provokes us to think outside of the limits of our current knowledge and imagine what might be. Putting the issue of escalating change vividly, Professor Jose Albelda Raga, artist and ecologist from the Polytechnic University of Valencia in his co-authored paper with Nuria Sanchez, cited the Global Footprint Network that had proposed that our current rate of consumption will shortly exceed 1.5 planets while we only have the knowledge to inhabit one.

For some, notably Julian Dobson from Sheffield Hallam, who has been researching institutions committed to low carbon cultures, we need to become less dependent upon what has gone before and carefully examine systems in relation to logics of value – a university will value education whereas a local government will value civic responsibility. Inevitably there will be discord but this can become a creative opportunity if we forgo a set of cultural values based in expectation (of a secured life style, within an economic systems based in growth and development) to values of hope. It is only by relinquishing expectation that we could ever countenance our own possible extinction. The juxtaposition of the values represented by, on the one hand, expectation and on the other, hope is particularly challenging. One is focused on ‘what we have’ and the other on ‘what we might need’…

Professor Janet Stewart, University of Durham, delivered the first keynote. She framed the complexities and sheer difficulties of the issues of a low carbon future by evidencing how since 19th century industrialisation, metaphors of extraction had become hardwired into our everyday thinking, locking us into particular ways of imagining ourselves in the world. These both reveal and conceal the implications of fossil fuel dependence.

Stewart explored how photography for example is materially tied into the oil industry even though this is not explicitly acknowledged. It is also the main medium through which we are trained to see and celebrate extractive processes, for example in museum displays that draw on earth sciences. She referenced the recent development of energy displays in Vienna’s Museum of Technology. In various seductive ways oil culture and fossil fuel dependence in the 21st century had become ‘hidden from plain view’. We pretend, for example, that digital communication is in some sense immaterial, or at least drawing on ‘clean energy’, while in fact the storage and transfer of digital data is causing significant environmental problems.

Stewart’s keynote offered a number of important insights that were revisited across the two days, principally the recognition of how difficult it is to escape from current ways of thinking and acting. We are consistently reinforcing what Stewart termed ‘extractive seeing’ as a cultural regime and find it hard to escape the control that such a regime exercises. We ‘mine information’ and ‘read deeply’. To move away from this type of control, we need to think about ‘decarbonised seeing’ to begin to displace ‘extractive seeing’ and to come to the surface in reading the world.

Dr Pietari Kappa, University of Warwick, resonated the gap between subject matter and material practices in the film industry. Film producers might draw attention to the need for a low carbon future through the content of a film narrative but rarely produced film following low carbon practices. A much quoted example was the Mad Max film series, a dystopian narrative about a post oil culture that has been produced through conventional high carbon consumption. The whole industry is rife with contradiction and in some cases, forms of delusion. He placed ICT technologies at a carbon footprint of 3 per cent which equates with flights.

mad-max-fury-road-soundtrack

Other presentations (notably Louise Guibrunet, University of London, and her exploration of the informal labour of refuse collectors in Mexico City) emphasised the importance of contradiction as a research tool and that meaning cannot be abstracted out of and away from the context of experience. The standoff between local government in Mexico City and an informal, but essential, public service of waste collection helped her to grasp the social, cultural, economic and political issues of waste pickers in a particular suburb of Mexico City. Echoing Julian Dobson’s point about discord in civic life, she pointed out that the Mexican government, unlike other areas of Latin America, could not formally recognise the important work of waste pickers because such work was illegal. This locked in the problem of escalating waste in the city centre. Arriving at shared meaning involves taking on perspectives that might radically differ from our own, not as a process of measurement or aggregation but as an encounter with difference that at some point requires resolution to move on, even if that resolution is to live with the contradiction.

In this respect the significance of practice outside of the academic institution, formed an important issue within some of the sessions, but perhaps insufficiently. This issue was revisited in the plenary. In this presentation Dr Dominic Hinde, University of Edinburgh, an environment correspondent working globally, emphasised the need to draw together the practice of journalism with research practice to ensure that a topic as pressing as the Anthropocene did not disappear from view. Journalism as a practice was in chaos economically and politically. Reporting the Anthropocene demanded a practice that was not caught up in capitalism. It needed to be a research practice that was decolonised, e.g. by forming global networks of mutually supportive researchers/practitioners.

The role of the imagination appeared in many guises. Without imagination it would be impossible to think ‘time’, to conceive a time long before human existence or, as we currently understand the future, long after such existence has ceased. Imagination and language, working in the contexts of particular interests, make visible and also conceal what we think to be ‘true’ or ‘real’. Camille Biros and Caroline Rossi, Université Grenoble Alpes, have undertaken to analyse the corpus of the United Nations and a selection of NGOs to track and define justice through these texts, using particular software. The research sets out to map the different interests at work in full knowledge that the least responsible are the most effected. It also reveals that justice is largely defined from the perspective of human self- interest. It is worth noting perhaps that this focus runs counter to recent developments to grant legal status, ‘personhood’, to aspects of ‘nature’ such as New Zealand’s Whanganui River, sacred to the Maori people.

whanganui-stories-pic-template-upper-river-02

In introducing the plenary session, Professor Little explored the challenges of interdisciplinarity that occur in opening up new research domains such as Energy Humanities and Environmental Humanities. He stressed the value of discipline specific knowledge, its rigorous evolution and identifiable expertise. He re-iterated Joe Moran’s notion of inter-disciplinarity – it challenges old disciplines to interact and contribute expertise to a common practice. He drew a distinction between radical and moderate forms of collaboration where the former attempts to cross significant boundaries such as literature and hard sciences, risking superficiality and the latter has a more moderate, but potentially more profound ambition to interact with expertise that is more alike and by implication, less superficial e.g. politics and media. Hence the conference was structured in relation to close discipline alliances. Gavin Little made a powerful case for why issues such as a low carbon future cannot be left to science and technology alone as they demand a tectonic shift in human thought and value systems.

I share the concern to avoid superficiality, the tendency particularly in science/art collaborations to bolt the arts onto science in a purely illustrative function. It is interesting to note how rarely artists, for example, collaborate with disciplines that are close to them, preferring instead to make alliances with scientists. This is evident in the practice of the Harrisons, ecology artists, that our own paper*, co-authored with Chris Fremantle, addressed. Our point was to develop a framework for understanding the contribution the arts could make to transition. We looked at the early work of Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, founders of the art and ecology movement. In particular we focused on the way in which their approach constructs dialogue across disciplines (including the sciences), contexts (local/global), constituencies (institutions, individuals, organisations) focused on a very particular ecological issue – the food chain of catfish, the ecological interdependence between algae and brine shrimp. In other words their practice begins with a very local observation from which a conversation is generated that involves whoever can support, problematize or imagine the implications of single instance of organic life for planetary well-being.

The Harrisons frame questions, for some of which there is no known methodology. They engage the imagination of multiple contributors in speculating on the implications of certain hard won insights that emerge through shared inquiry. Alongside this kind of speculative imagination that draws rigorously on evidence based research, there is practical wisdom – knowledge and experiences of place and dwelling in everyday life. They show how the arts, and by extension the humanities, draw together rigour with participation /collaboration, imagination with data and its interpretation. Arguably all these are essential to facing a future that will be completely different from the past and present.

In other words climate change and the move towards a low carbon future, it would appear, is pushing us in the arts and humanities to move quickly and in multiple directions – to move beyond a love of well honed skills/methods to become immersed in issues as they appear in life, in places, with individuals and communities, to see ourselves as part of the materiality of experience and to develop our research from a proactive, if not activist, position.

In the plenary, Nuria Sanchez made a radical proposal for developing the discussion out of her experience of delivering an innovative interdisciplinary Diploma in sustainability, ecological Ethics and environmental education at the University of Valencia, led by Professor Jose Albelda . She proposed that we start with a question core to transition, using the conference to generate a paper by working in interdisciplinary teams that would be presented as the end point of a conversation. This proposal, completely alien to most arts and humanities academics would on the one hand require teamwork and the negotiation of the boundaries of several disciplines and on the other speed, for she proposed that the paper might be written in a couple of days.

What are the wider implications of Nuria’s proposal?

It would mean centring our questions on matters of the environment whether or our disciplines were accustomed to framing such questions i.e. questions that at the point of posing them, may not be possible to answer from within a single discipline.

It would mean listening deeply to forms of expertise beyond our own discipline and figuring out the relationship that that discipline’s way of knowing bears to our own, encountering and embracing difference as well as discord as a creative, generative force.

It would mean rethinking rigour. This is currently invested in selecting and applying method appropriately but may came to mean understanding the degree to which method itself shapes and limits what can be known. It would mean developing skills in constructing relations (across disciplines as well as non academic partnerships), skills of empathy and of the imagination.

It would mean rethinking the dichotomy between ‘pure’ ‘primary’ research and ‘functional’ ‘urgent’ research, questioning the assumption that primary research is not functional or pure research is not urgent. In other words new ways of thinking about life on earth through literature might be recognised as as urgent as understanding bark beetle infestations.

It would mean rethinking economies of research, Ecology and economy share the same root of ‘oiko’ meaning ‘home’. Instead of research feeding capitalist economies i.e. research that makes money and addressing the side effects that follow, this approach demands that we rethink how to manage resources in sustaining life to narrow the gap between rich and poor as part of taking take care of the environment.


Notes

* Abstract: How do artists meet the challenges of a low carbon future? The poetics of ecology art practice
Anne Douglas and Chris Fremantle

We are accustomed to analysing and evaluating the work of art in ecology in terms of a ‘one-off’ project or intervention, as subject matter more than process. We argue that it is the poetics of a practice taken as a whole that is key to understanding how artists address the challenges of a low carbon future.

A practice is simultaneously a belief about what can be known (an ontology) and a form of action in the world. Ontologies underpin discipline specific knowledge. They are powerful. They draw on existing knowledge (epistemologies) and follow explicit approaches (methodologies) in order to create a position of authority through consensus, conformity and verification within each discipline’s community.

In contrast, an artist’s practice is put together/ made by an individual. It evolves over time, subjectively. The artist as ecologist works with the complexity of specific experiences and contexts, open to divergent, contradictory views and values. Managing complexity is important to ecology’s tracing of relations and interdependencies within natural systems.

Drawing on the work of Helen Mayer and Newton Harrison as a foundational practice in art and ecology since the early 1970s, we will establish a framework for understanding how the arts in ecology enable us as critical citizens to take, rather than defer, responsibility to science or governments. The Harrisons’ practice is driven by carefully framed questions that enable participants to judge what is important/unimportant in a particular situation. They deploy a metaphor for sharing knowledge and understanding. ‘Conversational drift’ forms and informs slowly like a glacier, gathering momentum while creating the energy for change.

Review: Gut Gardening

March 24, 2017

FP03_Cover

Ewan Davidson reviews Gut Gardening, Food Phreaking:issue 03 from the Center for Genomic Gastronomy, published Oct 2016.  You can order copies here.

Ewan Davidson is a blogger and self-identified psychogeographer (riverofthings.wordpress.com). His recent wanderings have taken back into familiar territories, those of ecology, natural metaphors and causality, he first visited as a student thirty years ago. He is also really fond of lichens and birdwatching.


It is only about a decade since the microbiome became a thing. Fuzzy boundaried notions collect all kinds of aspirational, utopian fluff, and the microbiome – a paradigmatic concept of the cyber-age – has the capacity to multiply these as quickly as (aerobic) bacteria grow on a Petri dish.

The role of microbiologists is to culture the useful part of these into something that might grow and become valued. The Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health in Aberdeen has been involved in this research effort and the artists/designers known as The Center for Genomic Gastronomy have been Leverhulme Artists in Residence involved in the dissemination of the stuff.

The most recent publication in their Food Phreaking series of pamphlets, Gut Gardening, reaches for a compromise between populist publicity, sober accounting and dis-illusion. Most writing about the microbiome oscillates between potential and entropy in this way. For example the story which most of us will have heard in some form concerns the microbial base for obesity. This is drawn from a research programme described at length in I Contain Multitudes (Yong 2016) where generations of lab mice have been grown in a sterile environment, gnotobiosis, and are used as receptacles of cultures of microbes from obese or normal humans. Fat gut microbes produced fat mice, which in turn produced the headlines about gut microflora creating obesity, which in turn received the ‘Overselling the Microbiome Award’, which has at least 38 former winners for extrapolations from interesting test results (others including cures for IBD, diabetes and mental illness, as well as jeremiads about the harm of antibiotics).

This particular replication keeps happening because the scientists had to move beyond the simple correlation of one thing with another, and see if there were links which might be predictable or causal. This has proved much more complicated – in the case of our mouse, food, genetics and the developmental stage all matter. The gut microbiome, when studied closely, stopped being one thing and became many.

FP03_1

To improve the chance of establishing causality in the lab, anaerobic chamber cultures of the various bacterial species are grown in separate wells. They are mixed by a robot into different recipes, which are then transplanted into the gnotobiotic mice. The conclusions drawn from extensive trials are that 11 bacterial species are involved in some way in promoting obesity (in mice, and perhaps humans) and two other species seem to inhibit. But only if certain other factors apply, and only, so far, under controlled conditions.

Meanwhile in the outside, more chaotic world (what the scientists I trained with used to call ‘the field’, with heavily inverted commas) the Human Microbiome Project, collecting submitted poo samples, has established that there is no such thing as a typical US volunteer gut community. Nicola Twilley, blogger and gastrophile, writes in Gut Gardening,

‘It now seems our gut microbiome is not a single organ,that can function well or badly. Instead it is a series of negotiations and trade offs, in which distinctions between good and bad have been increasingly difficult to extract from the white noise generated by up to a thousand different microbial spp, all interacting with each other in ways that we mostly don’t yet understand.’

The Scottish biologist D’Arcy Thomson’s 80 year old view that ‘we have come to the edge of a world of which we have no experience and where all our preconceptions must be recast’ (1992) still seems apt.

FP03_2

Dr Wendy Russell, lead editor of Gut Gardening and a Senior Research Fellow at the Rowett, acknowledges that research into the microbiome creates a new set of challenges to scientific method (isolation, refinement, replication). In short the basic tools of instrumentalism are not effective in explaining or predicting the functions of microbial ecology. New forms of research which can deal with complexity might involve technologies like the anaerobic machine, but also strands of maths which can assess the relative contributions of parts of systems that can’t effectively be separated. And beyond those, new ways of thinking about causation.

It is not that utility can’t be found. One of the contributions to Gut Gardening is the story of Lactobacillus rhamnosus. Following observations that l. rhamnosus proliferate in a healthy vagina, Gregor Reid’s team cultured the GR-1 strain of this, and found it was linked to defence against Urinary Tract Infections and other types of immunity. Preparation and trials in yoghurt and capsule forms and have been developed commercially (sidestepping the restrictions involved in creating conventional medical products) and as part of a development project producing probiotic yoghurt in Tanzania. The efficacy comes from accepting the rough pragmatic tools of correlation and amelioration, without the poesis of understanding the nature of the thing and the process.

However there is another form of usefulness in new knowledge. The art work in Gut Gardening acknowledges this in background chaotic patterns of tangled and unfamiliar overlapping shapes with occasional highlighted (and even dayglo) squiggles. The publication gently lays down the challenge to its contributors to imagine and speculate.
One of the interesting speculations of the Center for PostNatural History is that the human gut flora, like our pets, will ‘reflect human desires and anxieties which influence them’. It’s a good trope, although so far most of us have been interested in the influences pulling the other way – that our bodies, lifestyles and consciousness are subtly directed by the growth and byproducts of our microbial partners/symbionts, through biofeedback loops between the flora, hormones, organ development and appetites.

Post natural and post human are spirallingly anthropocene ways of thinking about the world. For those of us whose interest in cultures is not mainly probiotic this is the great re-envisaging potential of the microbiome.

FP03_3

Jamie Lorimer’s jovial piece (2016), Gut Buddies about the related interest in re-infestation of humans with hookworms demonstrates the continual crossover between enthusiasts, scientists and entrepreneurs (sometimes the same figure in different guises) opening up an area of interaction with biota (or domestication if you will). What was once vermin is now a product or a pet. We should know that this happens – this replicates our human history. Are there new possibilities for envisaging being raised by the way we have to understand the microbiome..? Moulders and shapers need to understand things as material – as something with predictable usefulness. But time and again with the microbiome, there are ways in which our methodologies fails us. We retreat to scratch our head. The ways we come to understand the microbiome will have to challenge scientific paradigms too.

In a way which is less dystopian than the control metaphors of the yellow science press we are indeed being subtly influenced by our microbes.


References

Lorimer, Jamie (2016) Gut Buddies – Multispecies Studies and the Microbiome, Environmental Humanities, 8.1

Yong, Ed ( 2016) I Contain Multitudes – The Microbes Within us and a Grander view of Life.  New York: Ecco Press.

Wentworth-Thompson, D’Arcy (1992) – On Growth and Form ( abridged ed). CUP.

FoodPhreaking_Series4


%d bloggers like this: