Posts Tagged ‘Samantha Clark’

Samantha Clark on Brett Bloom’s Petro-Subjectivity

October 9, 2015

Samantha Clark, artist and currently Phd student of creative writing, attended Camp Breakdown Break Down this summer at SSW and has responded to Brett Bloom’s book ‘Petro-Subjectivity: De-Industrializing Our Sense of Self’ in the following text.  Drawing on variously Ursula Le Guin, mysticism and Deep Ecology, Henry David Thoreau and Murray Bookchin, Clark’s riff on the complexity of our essential 21st century petro-subjectivity meditates on the difficulties of ‘extracting’ ourselves.


Brett Bloom is an artist, activist, writer and publisher who works mainly in collaborative groups, and has recently returned to the US after several years based in Denmark. This summer, Bloom organized a series of workshops, events and training sessions in London and at the Scottish Sculpture Workshop in rural Aberdeenshire. These were part of an extended project ‘Breakdown Break Down’ that seeks to mobilize others to collectively consider a series of open questions around our relationship to fossil fuels: how our all-pervasive use of fossil fuels affects the way we see ourselves and experience the world around us, how deeply petroleum penetrates our bodies, minds and ways of being in the world, how we might begin to de-industralise our individual and collective sense of self, and how we might begin to think about the future in terms other than those that oil has forced upon us.

In his essay-length publication brought out to coincide with these events, ‘Petro-Subjectivity: De-industrializing Our Sense of Self’ (2015), Bloom sets out his terms of reference for these questions, motivated by ‘a growing frustration with the ways in which humans respond – or mainly do not respond – to climate breakdown’ (Bloom, 2015: 16).  His use of the term ‘climate breakdown’ as opposed to the more neutral ‘climate change’ is deliberate and pointed. Bloom defines ‘petro-subjectivity’ as the sense of self that arises in the industrialized world, and asks how we might begin to unravel it. He challenges us to come up with any aspect of our life that is not shaped by oil. ‘Oil’, he points out, is ‘in your food, your housing, your health care, your sex, your thoughts, literally everything’ (18). Emphasizing the pervasiveness and power of oil in every aspect of life in the industrialized world, he goes on: ‘The conditions oil (fossil fuel) creates, through massive accretions of habit and influence from great to small, repeatedly over the course of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, generations, in all of us gives immense force to our collective subjectivity’(18). ‘Oil produces our daily lives, our daily selves, our daily communities and everything else in a primary way’ (19). Shaping us from birth to death, ‘it becomes more natural, more normal to us than the things we really need – that is a healthy, functioning global ecosystem – that we destroy to get it’ (20). This begs the question of exactly whose ecosystems get destroyed by whom and for whose direct or indirect benefit. Those of us who campaign against fracking in the UK may well be happily filling our car’s fuel tanks with oil from the Niger delta laced with ethanol biofuel derived from eucalyptus plantations in the Amazon basin. Oil is sticky, stains all it touches, and is hard to wash off our own hands. Fracking, at least, brings the destructiveness and violence of fossil fuel extraction right home onto (some of) our own doorsteps, and shows us all too starkly the power inequalities at work. It’s an ugly lesson that we in the UK are only just starting to learn.

Renewable electricity generation does not escape Bloom’s taxonomy of oil dependency either, as it remains dependent on oil-based infrastructure, resource extraction and the exploitation of people and land. Whether powered by wind, tide or water, every turbine needs a magnet to generate electricity. These ‘rare earth’ magnets are mined and refined at great environmental cost, mainly in poor, rural China. The minerals themselves are not in fact ‘rare’, but relatively common in the earth’s crust. What is ‘rare’ is the lax environmental and employment legislation that permits such hugely toxic and destructive processes to take place in lands far removed from the countries that are pushing to develop renewable technologies. Bloom argues that turbines and solar panels are just as extractive as fossil fuels. They continue to shift the burden of pollution away from the point of energy use, and, by making us feel like we are doing something, merely compound the problem.

Petro-subjectivity, Bloom writes, is so fundamental to our way of being in the world, so omnipresent, so totalizing that we scarcely recognize it. Bloom is keenly alert to the hidden violence that oil-based society is based on: ‘How to convey the oily sheen everything has, my comfort, my sense of well-being is so deeply dependent on oil that it gives me a tremendous amount of anxiety’ (35). It is as intimate as his own clothes that ‘cloak me in oil and exploitative labour relationships’ (35). Bloom highlights the uselessness of individualistic responses to climate breakdown: ‘You may think you are an individual with the attributes of freedom, free will and a host of other nice conceptions, but this is incorrect and fantasies that distract from closer attention to how your very understanding of everything is prefigured for you. You are an individual, but your life depends on taking the resources of another landscape and using those things in the one where you live…there seems no way not to exist in it without an enormous effort to take it apart’ (46-47). As Derrick Jensen has also argued, placing the responsibility for dealing with climate change onto individual consumer choices distracts our attention from the real culprits – the power elites, global corporations, the military-industrial complex (Jensen, 2006). Kept busy rinsing out yoghurt pots and feeling mildly sanctimonious about our cloth shopping bags, we are encouraged to forget we are not just individualized consumers choosing how to spend our money, we are also citizens capable of collective action that might wield real power. ‘The changes’ argues Bloom, ‘cannot come from individuals and consumers, but must be collectively realized’ (70).

The mismatch between the urgency and scale of the challenge climate breakdown presents and the urgency and scale of the actions we are encouraged to take to meet it reveals something about the peculiar psychology of our collective response to climate change. A pervasive sense of powerlessness and dependency on the very systems that threaten us results in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, entangling us in a psychological attachment to the status quo even as it threatens us. Bloom has developed a powerful visual map of oil relationships, (Bloom, 2015: 26-27 and below) and teases these out further in his essay. But, as he himself notes with frustration, more information just doesn’t seem to help.

Sometimes the clear light of facts travels in too straight a line, and to help us think our way around corners and into dark spaces, we need another approach. Wearing the mask of fiction uncomfortable truths can be spoken that we would otherwise not hear. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic short story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’ (2013: 1-7), the gilded city of Omelas offers its citizens a smooth, untroubled life, filled with every comfort, pleasure, joy and gratification. But upon reaching adolescence each citizen learns a terrible fact, a sudden loss of innocence; that all of their prosperity, peace and happiness depends upon the suffering of one miserably neglected child imprisoned in a windowless cell. In Le Guin’s fable, if this child is set free, or even shown the smallest kindness, the city will crumble and all of its people suffer terribly. And so the citizens, when they learn of this child, and even go briefly to see it, are perhaps troubled for a time, feeling angry and helpless. But eventually ‘their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it. Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendour of their lives. Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free’ (Le Guin, 2012: 6-7). But, every now and then, a citizen of Omelas will be shown the child-prisoner, or will recall its presence and fall silent for a few days, and they will then walk quietly, alone, away from Omelas, out into the unknown. No-one knows where they go. They do not come back.

When I first read this story it stayed with me a long time, a slow drip feed, wheedling at my conscience. It felt like Le Guin had seen right inside me into a place I didn’t really want to look. The story seemed to tell a deep and uncomfortable truth in the masked and sidelong way that great stories do. I wondered, as I read it, ‘what I would do?’ Later, I realised that I am myself, of course, a cossetted citizen of sleek and pleasurable Omelas, and that the locked-away child is all the distant places, people and other living things that bear the cost of my affluent lifestyle; my smartphone, my central heating, my clothes, my car. The question became not ‘what would I do?’ but ‘what do I do?’ I know the answer, and it is not a comfortable one. I mostly go on with my comfortable life, my path smoothed by oil, all the while carrying in me a terrible knowledge; I am dependent on a system that has violence and exploitation at its very heart. Signing online petitions does not change this, though it makes me feel better. I do not walk away from my Omelas. I tell myself it is because I am not free, and find some consolation in the refinement and sensitivity that my troubled conscience reveals about me. What Bloom’s thoughts on petro-subjectivity reveal, like Le Guin’s parable, is that the work that needs to be done is at a very deep level indeed.

Thus, the final part of Bloom’s essay explores the practice of ‘Deep Listening’, a contemplative method developed originally by composer Pauline Oliveros. Deep Listening cultivates a heightened awareness of our sonic environment, both external and internal, listening not just with the ears, but with the whole body. ‘The main problem’ Bloom suggests, ‘is how we relate to the world and the ways we see the world are not tuned to receive the damage, let alone the tremendous loss as we continue thinking the world through oil relationships’ (17). A practice of re-sensitisation is necessary. Bloom argues that our sensory world in urban spaces is limited, with ‘no unscripted, wild behaviour, encounters or other experiences allowed’ (70). ‘Paying attention to, and creating the conditions for our full range of perceptual capacities gives us a tremendous leap into what it will mean to expunge petro-subjectivity from our selves and our landscapes’ (71).

Bloom’s argument here is not an especially new one. It falls within a tradition of environmental thought that recognizes the environmental crisis derives from how we think of our self, and the relationship this self has to the natural world. Deep ecologists like Arne Naess, Joanna Macy and Bill Devall have long argued that a more ecologically sustainable way of being needs to be rooted in an expanded ‘ecological Self’, while eco-phenomenologists from David Abram to Ted Toadvine have also tried to tackle the question of how the human self is situated and enfolded within the natural environment as an embodied, experiencing being. Bloom’s project is therefore part of a growing trend in environmental thought that seeks to ground environmental action in a commitment to contemplative practice, a discipline of attention to the natural world, even as we are witnessing its degradation. It is not just a way of thinking about things, but a shift to our way of perceiving that must be consciously and painstakingly cultivated.
This shift can be brought about through a set of contemplative practices most commonly associated with spiritual traditions, but which are not exclusive to them. Purposeful, transformative contemplative practice that aims to breaks down the sense of self is most commonly associated with Buddhist meditation, but it is also proposed by the early Christian mystics. In ‘The Blue Sapphire of the Mind’, Douglas E. Christie suggests that this contemplative sensibility is no longer confined to spiritual traditions but is ‘emerging with increasing frequency in contemporary ecological literature which boasts a striking similarity to an attitude in many traditions of spiritual discourse’ (Christie, 2013: 62). Bloom’s project of deep listening is an example of how this sensibility is also emerging within contemporary art practice.

Christie draws upon the ancient Christian contemplative tradition to propose a ‘contemplative ecology’ in which a practice of cultivating careful attention to the natural world offers a way of recalibrating our senses to a renewed sensitivity to the world and our humble place within it. In particular he draws upon the apophatic theological tradition of the via negativa which asserts that the Divine is essentially and unknowably beyond human concepts or attributes. In this tradition of ‘negative theology’, early Christian mystics such as the unknown author of ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ (Wolters, 1961) focused on achieving direct experience of the divine reality beyond the realm of ordinary human language and perception through contemplative practice. Christie suggests that practicing this ‘contemplative ecology’ can lead to a more mindful way of living that arises from a transformed awareness of our relationship with the natural world, a ‘direct intuitive awareness of its endless power and mystery: and the need for this to become enfolded within an ongoing practice’ (Christie, 2013: 59). It is an awareness that ‘what we know or experience will always be exceeded by the immensity beyond and within,’ and that we also possess both longing and capacity for cultivating a more all-encompassing awareness of the wild world (Christie, 2013:69). The response to this transformed awareness is one of humility. The inadequacy of our knowledge is a gap that cannot and should not be bridged. ‘Instead, this lack of certainty about who or what we behold begins to seem fruitful, important, necessary. We are invited to relinquish our assumption of knowledge’ says Christie, (2013: 62), and in so doing, to develop our capacity to manage our own fear and uncertainty without lapsing into defensiveness, aggression, dogmatic fundamentalisms or the urge to control.

The perceptual exercise that Bloom describes in detail involved deep listening, with a group of other participants, in an immersive natural environment of rain, wind and sea, to the entire Baltic Sea (Bloom, 2015: 75).

In his essay, Bloom does not, I think, spell out quite clearly enough how a contemplative practice of deep listening in nature connects with a commitment to activism and real change, not just at the individual level, but also collectively. Just how do we come back from the oceanic experience of immersion in nature, and become effective change agents in the societies we actually live in. It is here that I suggest Bloom’s profound distrust of cities, which he sees as ‘machines for stripping us of our desire to live, feel and be free’ (71) is an impediment to making this link clearly. Most human beings now live in cities, and in a context of climate breakdown, any redefined post-petro-subjectivity will have to be able to be a self that can be anywhere, not just in the solitude of wide, wild spaces immersed in the sound of the ocean, but also in difficult, perhaps crowded, urban places, in difficult relationships with sometimes difficult people, able to empathically connect with other human beings and to work with them. Cities are where our ancestors first learned to tolerate ‘strangers’, to live harmoniously with and among those who are not blood kin, who may have different beliefs, and to build a sense of commonality based not on tribal blood group or myths of common ancestry, but on mutual benefit and co-operation: in other words, to become citizens. The polis is, after all, the birthplace of the political.

Connecting the activity of the solitary, contemplative listener with that of social and political activism is not a new idea by any means, and there are examples we might draw upon to help us make the link. We might, for example, look to Henry David Thoreau. In ‘Thoreau’s Nature’ (2000) Jane Bennett argues that Thoreau’s project at Walden, and in his other writings and journals, speaks to the fears of our own time; that social life in techno-industrial societies is too regulated and exerts powerful pressures to uniformity, that privacy is under threat, the world overpopulated and the state intrusive and controlling, that the alternative space of nature has become polluted, threatened, even toxic, that our consumerist way of life breeds violence and injustice, and that the economic imperative has become overwhelmingly rapacious. These fears generate a reactive demand for certainties, fundamentalisms and patriotisms (Bennett, 2000: xxii). Thoreau’s aim in secluding himself at Walden pond, Bennett argues, was not escapist nature-worship but a project of ‘building an individualised self capable of social criticism’ (2000: 34). Bennett sees Thoreau’s project as an attempt to give the wild its due, ‘to respect that which resists or exceeds conventional cultural impositions of form, to preserve the element of heterogeneity present in any entity, to imagine institutions and identities that do less violence to heterogeneity, and to engage in exercises that help to actualise that imagination. The project, in short, is to develop ways to cope artfully, reflectively, and carefully in the world understood as neither divine creation nor docile matter’ (Bennett, 2000: xxiii). According to Bennett, Thoreau ‘was less concerned to articulate the conditions under which disobedience would be legitimate than he was to explore those conditions under which one could render oneself capable of disobedience. Civil disobedience was rare because nonconformity was rare. Both were scarce because the process of forging oneself into a deliberate creature was arduous and precarious, requiring continuous effort’ (Bennett, 2000: 13).

In his account of his sojourn at Walden, Thoreau describes specific practices of mindful, ‘deliberate’ living, which help him to achieve his aims. For Thoreau, slowing down, listening, and seeking periods of solitude in nature is a tactical move designed to create a space whereby he might extract himself from the normalising forces of the busy social sphere, and achieve the independence of mind necessary to challenge the status quo. When we are immersed in busy community life, ‘we are inclined’, unfortunately, ‘to leave the chief stress on the likeness and not on difference’ (Thoreau, 1980: 264)⁠ and to blindly accept received wisdom. In solitude and silent reflection Thoreau finds an ‘intelligence above language’ (Thoreau, 1980: 273).

Like the windswept Baltic seashore where Bloom carried out his deep listening experiments, the world of Thoreau at Walden Pond bears little resemblance to the urban world most human beings at this time inhabit. Projects like these require a level of physical security, material comfort, and educational attainment that are the product of a highly favourable set of circumstances. What relevance do practices like these have to the vast predicament that is climate breakdown, and the challenge Bloom presents us with, of ‘de-industrialising’ our sense of self? Thoreau’s project was to ‘front’ the Wild, and to place himself at a physical and psychological distance from the ‘They-world’ of social, political and economic life, so that he might live more consciously. His aim was not so much to escape from the world of the town and political life as to be better able to dissent from it upon returning. His example suggests some methods that we might use to break the cycle of ‘self-othering’ that occurs when we acclimatise ourselves to living in the industrialised world and yet feel a lingering unease that something is wrong, that we have become alienated from some important part of ourselves and of the wild world. Thoreau’s tools of stillness, silence, inwardness and attentiveness to the living world may be most easily cultivated in a place of seclusion in nature, but they can be practiced anywhere. Once we deliberately cultivate this awareness, it can, as Christie proposes, ‘be achieved anywhere and by anyone committed to the work of listening’ (Christie, 2013: 121). ‘It is in this sense’ argues Christie, ‘that one can see that the primary value to us of Thoreau’s contemplative witness to be found less in his particular form of life…than in the quality of awareness he assiduously cultivated over his entire lifetime’ and this quality of awareness is adaptable to our very different world. How do we develop this capacity, this sensitivity? Regular practice. ‘Thoreau recognised that cultivating the capacity to hear the music of the world must become part of a sustained practice, that one must learn to orient oneself and become sensitive to the myriad ways the world is always expressing itself” (Christie, 2013:214).

Bloom describes his group’s experience of deep listening to the Baltic as hearing the sea ‘talking to us’. One of the participants describes a vivid sense of being exposed to immense forces, a feeling of unprotectedness that seemed to key to an understanding of the reality of climate breakdown, a situation in which ‘we are no longer sheltered’ (87). But the message from the Baltic can’t stay there on the sea shore. It needs to come back into the urban. It is not anthropocentric to acknowledge that any redefined post-petro-subjective self must recognise that we exist within a web of interdependencies of which other human beings form a significant part. In a recently published collection of late essays, ‘The Next Revolution’ (2015), Murray Bookchin outlines a case for direct democracy in the form of a libertarian, municipal ‘Communitarianism’. In Bookchin’s model an active and engaged citizenry becomes an effective agent of change. As a political thinker who moved away from the anarchism of his earlier work, here he plots a careful route between individualistic libertarianism on the political right and an equally individualistic, radical anarcho-primitivism on the left. Seeking a political structure that might provide long-haul stamina to energies currently poured into short term phenomena like the Occupy movement, Bookchin puts forward the case for the city’s progressive potential, not as the power-capital of a centralist state, but the city as municipality, town or ‘commune’. Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells also recognises the progressive potential of urban space. He notes a common pattern among current social and political movements in that they comfortably straddle both cyberspace and urban space (2013). Born online, these embryonic social and protest movements empower and raise awareness at grassroots level, moving rhizomatically in cyberspace to then erupt periodically into urban spaces, where they create real social networks in physical places. The hybrid social space that Castells identifies here breaks down stark binaries between ‘place’ on the one hand and cyberspace on the other. In these developments we see an erosion of dualistic binaries such as nature good/internet bad, ‘place’ good/cyberspace bad, forest good/city bad.

Cities are a recent phenomenon in human evolutionary terms but they present in great abundance one aspect of our environment that we have long co-evolved with; other human beings. As contemplative traditions have long known, retreating to solitude in nature enables the cultivation and refinement of awareness and presence, but the real challenge is to bring this cultivated skill of deep listening to environments that usually encourage a sense of alienation, even fear. Can we stay open and ‘unsheltered’ even when we’d rather not? Or do we retreat into anger, aversion, fear, or numb indifference? This is the real test. To realise the progressive potential that Bookchin sees in the city, the work of cultivating non-exploitative and non-extractive relationships towards other human beings, as well as towards animals and places, is work of the most important kind, if we are to move from individualised responses to collective action on climate breakdown, and harness the insights of contemplation to the work of social change.




Maughan, Tim (April 2nd 2015) ‘The Dystopian Lake Filled by the World’s Tech Lust’ BBC Future. Available online: [Accessed 28/8/15]


Thoreau, Henry David (1995) Walden; or, Life in the Woods, New York: Dover Publications


Bennett, Jane (2000) Thoreau’s Nature, Politics, Ethics and the Wild. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press

Bookchin, Murray (2015) Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy, London: Verso

Castells, Manuel (25 Mar 2013) ‘How modern political movements straddle urban space and cyberspace’ Available online: [Accessed 7 Sep 2015)

Christie, Douglas E. (2013) The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Jensen, Derrick (2006) Endgame: The Problem of Civilization, New York: Seven Stories Press

Le Guin, Ursula K. (2012) The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin Vol 2 Outer Space, Inner Lands Easthampton Mass. : Small Beer Press

Maughan, Tim (April 2nd 2015) ‘The Dystopian Lake Filled by the World’s Tech Lust’ BBC Future. Available online: [Accessed 28/8/15]

Thoreau, Henry David (1980) The Writings of Henry David Thoreau: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Carol, F. Hove and Textual Centre Staff: William H Howarth and Elizabeth Witherell (eds) Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press

Thoreau, Henry David (1995) Walden; or, Life in the Woods, New York: Dover Publications

Wolters, Clifton [Trans] (1961) The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works, Middlesex: Penguin Classics

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

Content of Nothing :: Part 6 :: On Hope

September 3, 2014
JS: Untitled, digital print (500 x 309mm approximately) 2010

Judy Spark: Untitled, digital print (500 x 309mm approximately) 2010

[In the previous post, Samantha Clark had been talking about the ethical import of wonder in the work of Ronald Hepburn, Suzi Gablick and Jane Bennett.]

Judy Spark: I want to believe in this link between wonder and ‘ethical generosity’ and even love and that there may only be a ‘short step’ from here to ‘humility’ but I feel compelled to take up the cynic’s position again. I’m not convinced. It’s not that I think that this is not possible exactly, but rather that it will be a long road. The human capacity for wonder is one that is shared by the artist, philosopher and scientist alike, indeed all of us have this latent disposition whether or not it is ever developed. But if it was going to lead naturally to an ethical relationship to the wider world, then I think that it would have done so by now. Sometimes it has pre-empted great scientific discovery, but equally, it can lead us to dismantle and separate things in an effort to learn how they work. It does not necessarily, for instance, always lead to an appreciation of the interconnected dependency of things. I feel inspired by Hepburn and Gablick, though I’m not so familiar with Bennett, but I don’t think that they back up their claims with anything concrete, how could they? How exactly does one move from a position of wonder to one of love and ethical awareness? But if this progression is at the moment unclear, perhaps this is ok. I think that the reason I make art and write is in order to encourage this tuning to wonder and the hopes for its potential, that maybe at some point, the pathway between these things will become clearer.

Samantha Clark: Yes, I think you are right to be cynical. Wonder linked to ignorance is a dangerous combination. People flock to see the orcas performing at Seaworld, and experience genuine wonder at the power and beauty of these creatures and their willingness to engage with humans, but they are ignorant of the suffering that this captivity causes the very creatures they admire so much. People wonder at the bare landscape of the Highlands with no idea that they are looking at an ecological disaster area, a man-made wet desert. A little bit of ‘dismantling to see how it works’ doesn’t need to dispel wonder, but can actually create a more educated awareness. Wonder doesn’t depend on a state of naivety. Kant, in his Critique of Judgement, noticed a difference between astonishment (Verwunderung) which fades once the novelty wears off, and a steady, contemplative wonderment (Bewunderung) which does not depend on novelty, and may even grow deeper with familiarity and understanding. The contemplative wonderment he described maintains the questioning and questing aspect of wonder, and yet rests attentively in the wonderful object (Kant, 1997: 273).

A recent document put together by the organisation Common Cause seems to propose some means by which this transition from ‘wonder’ to ethical and environmental awareness might be made. Their focus is on addressing the values we hold in order to create a shift to a more socially and environmentally just society, suggesting that the arts’ ‘capacity to trigger reflection, generate empathy, create dialogue and foster new ideas and relationships offers a powerful and democratic way of expressing, sharing and shaping values.’ (Common Cause, 2013: 4). In the core paper of this document, the psychologist Tim Kasser suggests that our values can be described as either broadly extrinsic, such as financial success, image, popularity (which depend on rewards or other’s opinions and promote competitive and selfish behaviour), or intrinsic, such as self-acceptance, community, affiliation (which promote more empathic and co-operative ways of behaving). He argues that we all have all of these values in us, but that they increase in importance to us the more they are stimulated, and that, broadly speaking, consumer societies emphasise and so promote the development of extrinsic values. These are shown to make us more dependent on external sources of happiness, such as status, entertainment and consumerism. This has far reaching effects. ‘People who prioritise extrinsic values have been shown to care less about the environment and other species, whereas a focus on intrinsic values promotes more ecologically sustainable attitudes and behaviours’ (11). Kasser builds an argument that pursuit of the arts (either as active participant or viewer) is important as it may deepen public commitment to values that promote environmental and social concern. I think there is some truth to this, though with certain caveats. Engaging with art as a high-end luxury commodity and status symbol clearly stimulates extrinsic values. So we need to be circumspect about what kind of art, and what kind of engagement we are talking about. But it seems pretty clear that it is emotions, not factual arguments, that shape our decisions, and that art can have some role to play here.

Ellie Harrison hits the nail on the head in her contribution to the same publication – arguing that to emphasise ‘art’ and ‘culture’ per se gives them a falsely elevated status and is misleading. ‘What we all need regardless of our occupation, is not arts and culture per se, but simply time and space beyond the realms of the market, where we can each access knowledge, critically reflect and feel empowered to change our lives for the better’ (21). She’s right, but art can be one way of opening up some space and time. I think that wonder, when it crops up in the mundane, maybe hearing migrating geese honking as they go flying over the supermarket car park, momentarily opens up a space of this kind. Engaging with art or writing which invites us to share that experience with the writer or the artist ‘primes’ us to be receptive to it when it crops up in life. I think it helps us to open up a little crack in the midst of the day, a ‘space between,’ a momentary breather from the demands of making our way in a market economy devoted to heedless economic growth. Anything that makes us stop and remember to be grateful, even in a small way, makes a contribution. Gratitude is very subversive in a consumer culture that primes us to be in a constant state of wanting. Kasser again: ‘One set of studies showed that very brief and very subtle reminders of the extrinsic value of money lead people to behave less helpfully and generously moments later’ (9). And another study, ‘that focused particularly on people for whom material possessions and social status were quite important found that thinking for a few minutes about the intrinsic values of affiliation and being broadminded caused these individuals to express stronger care for the environment’ 10). So inviting others to share a moment of wonder or reflection or gratitude through the art we make is maybe part of this drip feed, just tickling those extrinsic values one more time.

You mentioned hope, and hopefulness is a real issue these days, its something I seem to come up against again and again – in the context of ‘eco-art’ especially. Reading Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Hope in the Dark’ helped me to think about this – that ‘results’ or ‘outcomes’ of creative work are nonlinear and unpredictable, so hanging on to some idea of what you’d like to happen as a result of your creative work is pointless. If you want direct results then direct action is a better bet. As artists we’re working at the level of metaphor, getting in ‘under the bonnet’ of thought as it were – shift the metaphors and you contribute towards shifting thought. But it’s not something didactic, or fact-based. It’s more like lending your own small weight to the other side of the scales, towards tipping things back, rebalancing, in a Taoist kind of way. And if Kasser is right, and even such a subtle cue can unconsciously affect someone’s values and behaviour, then perhaps that’s cause for hope.


Kant, I. (trans. Pluhar, W) (1997) Critique of Judgement, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing

Common Cause and Mission Models Money (2103),  The Art of Life: Understanding How Participation in Arts and Culture Can Affect Our Values  [Online:  Accessed 12-11- 2013]

Solnit, R (2005) Hope in the Dark: The Untold History of People Power, Edinburgh: Canongate

Content of Nothing :: Part 5 :: On Wonder

August 27, 2014
Olafur Eliasson: Your Natural Denudation Inverted Carnegie International 1999 Pittsburgh. Image reproduced from Olafur Eliasson, Phaidon Books (2002)

Olafur Eliasson: Your Natural Denudation Inverted Carnegie International 1999 Pittsburgh. Image reproduced from Olafur Eliasson, Phaidon Books (2002)

Judy Spark: Olafur Eliasson’s work seems built around this notion of a ‘gap’ as we catch ourselves in the shift between responding to what it seems we are faced with and our recognition of this response. Although I have only ever seen it in books, I love this piece; it resembles some sort of natural geyser – it reminds me of an exquisite Hokusai landscape but it’s constructed around the flue outlet of the Museum’s heating system. You’d said that the ‘spectacle’ of his work had sometimes made you uncomfortable, and indeed, I appreciate what you mean by this, but I’ve been persisting recently with trying to unearth a bit more about what he does. The work plays on our tendency to ‘name’ things as we momentarily encounter the thing we are viewing as ‘real’. For me, it’s as if this thing of the spectacle; the technological sublimity he creates, ends up coming back on itself to ‘the things themselves’; as we remember that what we are seeing is an artwork, a ‘construction’ and not a ‘real’ thing, we are made to reflect on why we were not at first moved by the original – had forgotten how to see it. His work does seem to effect a shift in perception of our natural surroundings. Perhaps his intentions may turn out to be a little less ‘worthy’ than that but we are being invited to make what we make of it (every title has ‘Your’ at the beginning) or at least encouraged to recognise that this is what we are doing. It almost hurts that we might, for instance, have lain basking in wonder in Tate Modern (beneath the Weather Project) when we have forgotten how to be fully aware of the full implications of the sun itself! Eliasson’s relationship to phenomenology is well evidenced, specifically in the work of writer Daniel Birnbaum. As I see it, Eliasson’s work creates a ‘gap’, a space for wonder. I think a lot about this potential of the artwork as a space for wonder.

Samantha Clark: Yes, wonder as a momentary suspension of discursive thought, a pause or space we can enter. Wonder comes in for criticism, seen as a privilege of the leisured classes wandering awestruck around the mountains while local people are just busy getting on with their work, or as some kind of brainless, slack-jawed paralysis. It’s been used that way historically, by the Church for example, to suppress curious and possibly heretical questioning. But I’m interested in some of the ethical arguments for wonder and enchantment presented by the likes of Suzi Gablik and Jane Bennett, Ronald Hepburn too. What a poem, or an artwork, or a piece of music can convey, is that sense of suspension, sharing a moment of wonder that comes like an unexpected gift, a moment with a particular weight to it, that leaves us in a slightly different shape. Bennett argues that this enchantment brings a gratitude and generosity to our ethical relations, that isn’t about obligation or duty, but about love. Art works can open that space up for us. And I think that ideas can do that too. So I don’t draw a line between academic and creative work in that regard.

Bennett argues that ‘wonder is not a naive escape from politics but marks the vitality and agency of a world that sometimes bestows the gift of joy to humans, a gift that can be translated into ethical generosity’ (2001: 175). It’s not about going about in a constant dwam, but about those moments of wonder that punctuate the everyday. She equates wonder with love for the world, a love that engenders care. Like Hepburn, she thinks we should cultivate the capacity for wonder, and embrace those moments of enchantment which act as a ‘shot in the arm, a fleeting return to childlike excitement about life’ (5). Bennett suggests that the delight and joy of wonder spills its good humour over into our ethical life, to nourish an ethics based on love for the world rather than on duty and obligation, ‘rendering its judgments more generous and its claims less dogmatic’ (10). Hepburn sees an affinity between the non-exploitative, non-utilitarian attitude of wonder and ‘attitudes that seek to affirm and respect other-being’ (1984: 145). Wonder keeps our attention in and on things in the world, poignantly realising their potentiality and fragility. The attitude of wonder is one which, Hepburn thinks, readily gives rise to compassion. ‘From a wondering recognition of forms of value proper to other beings,’ he suggests, ‘and a refusal to see them simply in terms of one’s own utility-purposes, there is only a short step to humility.’ (1984: 146)

Grynsztejn, M.; Birnbaum, D.; Speaks, M. (2002) Olafur Eliasson, London: Phaidon Press Ltd

Gablick, S. (1993) The Re-enchantment of Art, London: Thames and Hudson

Bennett, J. (2001) The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings and Ethics, Princeton: Princeton University Press

Hepburn, R. (1984) Wonder and Other Essays: Eight Studies in Aesthetics and Neighboring Fields, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

The Content of Nothing :: Part 4 :: On Attending

August 20, 2014
“A Sort of Visual Rhythm: Symphoricarphos” from Back to the Things Themselves GFVA 2012

“A Sort of Visual Rhythm: Symphoricarphos” from Back to the Things Themselves GFVA 2012

Samantha Clark: I was really interested in how you see the role of drawing within your practice. It seems to me that the process of drawing, particularly such obviously meticulous and detailed drawing that has evidently taken some time, is a kind of attention, a meditative or contemplative process. And I think so much of creative work, whether visual or writing, is fundamentally about this paying attention, and then through putting the work out, drawing other peoples’ attention, a kind of ‘pointing out’, saying ‘have you ever noticed this?’ To ‘attend’ means to wait, to be present with, to serve, to listen, to wait, to take care of someone/something. Its Latin root ‘ad-tendere’ means’ to stretch into’, to stretch one’s mind towards something.

I wanted to quote from the Canadian poet Tim Lilburn’s essay How to be here? because he puts something very eloquently that I couldn’t say any better. Lilburn was trained as a Jesuit, now teaches philosophy in a catholic college, and his work is imbued with a very scholarly understanding of the tradition of ‘negative theology’ and the mystical, contemplative tradition of Christianity that has been somewhat lost. He writes really beautifully about the practice of contemplation, and that desire to be ‘one with nature’ that is bandied around so much in environmental thinking, especially some of the less careful interpretations of deep ecology. It’s something I am always uneasy with. We can never be ‘at one with nature’ in any straightforward, cosy way. Nature doesn’t give a s**t.

PDF extract, Lilburn on watching some deer come into his yard

Lilburn is eloquent on this being-in-the-world and yet there being a separation, a gap, an otherness. Merleau-Ponty is also helpful on this when he talks about the ‘flesh’, that there is a kind of blind spot, a gap in our experience of the world just at the point where we are folded into it – a ‘chiasm’. He goes back again and again to the experience of the toucher touched, when you touch one hand with the other – you can experience ‘touching’ or ‘being touched’ but not exactly simultaneously. I think he was wary of the ‘merging’ that can be implied when we start to see self and world as ‘the same’. In his work on the flesh he describes an ‘embrace’, not a merging. The fleshy solidity of things in the world is not an obstacle but a means of communication. There is differentiation, a gap. But this is not the same as dualism. (Merleau-Ponty, 1968: 130-155) Sartre was big on this too: ‘Nothingness haunts being’. He argued that when we become ‘self’ conscious, there is a slight displacement of the ego that allows us to become reflexive, and so there is a gap, a nothingness, right at the heart of the self. (Sartre, 1937/2000) He was predictably bleak and gloomy about it, describing it as a ‘worm’ at the heart of being, but I think of it in a similar way to the ‘gap’ between two eyelines in stereo vision (or sound) that punches a third dimension into experience, or like to space in a bell that allows it to resonate.

Judy Spark:  I had never heard of Lilburn until you introduced me to him but I am really struck firstly by how beautifully he puts this feeling of wanting to ‘know’ the world, but not really being able to; he sees his ‘separation’ from it as part of the experience; a “desire whose satisfaction is its frustration and continuance” and his thinking does seem comparable to Merleau-Ponty’s on the concept ‘flesh’. These notions speak to me especially in light of what I was alluding to earlier about the impossibility of bridging this separation through description or the sort of attention that is part of drawing, and I’m not saying that bridging the separation ought to be the aim. What we seem to be saying is that this gap itself is very important, and indeed may itself prove to be fertile ground in ways that we (humans) do not yet fully appreciate or understand.

This practice of drawing is indeed a method of paying attention, it is contemplative and the idea of ‘stretching ones mind towards something’ is exactly how it feels. However, these drawings don’t come about through any romantic method of sitting in a field meditating over something and its rendering. As much as this activity may exist as a personal counter to an overload of daily information transmission, through which little of value may actually be received, their making employs the tools of this culture: the digital camera, the print shop, the photocopier. The subjects of the drawings are ones that have ‘spoken’ to me, usually accumulatively, over a period of time on walks made regularly as I go about daily activities (getting to work for instance) on routes that are often a mix of the urban and the rural, the peripheries of the cities I inhabit. I would no more sit down in these environments (or any other outdoor locations) and start drawing than fly in the air. I am too much a product of the 21st Century for that, I’m too afraid I’d attract unwanted attention (human or animal), I’m too soft – get too hot or too cold easily, get hungry, need to pee, or suffer from some other discomfort. As long as I keep moving, I’m fine. But the things still ‘speak’ and I try to build sense from these broken transmissions. Back in my climate controlled studio, I grid up the enlarged photograph of the ‘thing’ that I’m working from. I refer to the notes on it made after each encounter. I think my way back through this encounter as it is transferred to paper, appears as marks in graphite and ends up as not of one world (mine) or another (the one the thing itself inhabits) but something in between. In this process of working in the gap between the two, I find the space to ‘stretch my mind toward’ the thing encountered, the world it inhabits, and this ‘exchange’ is picked up again, the next time I’m on that particular path.

I’m aware that there is again something of the cynic present here in this account of observing the ‘natural’, in a way that still ‘confounds’ it with the technological, in the methods employed in bringing about the work, and in the overlaying of the sound-work that relates to it. Sometimes during the process of these drawings, I think about an experiment I came across in a book called The Secret Life of Plants, the aim of which was to clear a field of pests using electromagnetic resonance to treat, not the field itself, but a photograph of it! It was claimed that the molecular make up of the photographic emulsion would resonate at the same frequencies as the objects in the photograph. If this is just slightly unbelievable (it maybe doesn’t work with digital!), it nevertheless does make me think about what exactly is taken, made, stilled or distilled in the making of a photograph. There is some sort of exchange, and energy has to be part of this, between the seer and the seen. Both are slightly changed by the encounter, folded into one another but still distinct, to turn to Merleau Ponty again. Drawing these things, even through these clunky methods, is a way to begin to get to this.


Lilburn, T (1999) Living in the World as if it Were Home: Essays, Ontario: Cormorant Books

Merleau-Ponty, (1968) The Visible and the Invisible, Evanston: Northwestern University Press

Sartre, Jean-Paul (1937/2000) ‘The Transcendence of the Ego’ in Priest, S. (2000) Jean-Paul Sartre: Basic Writings, Routledge

Tompkins, P. and Bird, C. (1974) The Secret Life of Plants, London: Allen Lane (Penguin)

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