Cabot Institute blog

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Friday, 25 August 2017

Reframing ecological thinking; Felix Guattari, subjectivity and film

This short article introduces the ecological thought of Felix Guattari. I suggest that Guattari’s holistic delineation of three interconnected ecologies is a productive place to begin in thinking about contemporary ecological issues. Following on from this, and away from traditional environmental discourse and politics, I argue that aesthetic encounters with film hold the potential for a re-invigoration of ecological thought. I explore this briefly in relation to ‘Melancholia’ by Lars Von Trier.

The 21st Century is increasingly defined by ecological crisis. With global biodiversity losses, the rapid melting of ice-caps and glaciers, rising ocean temperatures and desertification (all complemented by humanity’s continued, unshakeable appetite for fossil fuels), the contemporary environmental moment is an urgent dilemma.

In response, academia has converged on a neologism – ‘the Anthropocene’ – as a suitable expression of contemporary ecological crisis. This is not just a geological transition; it is also an existential one. As leading geologist Jan Zalasiewicz suggests: “The significance of the Anthropocene is that is sets a different trajectory for the Earth system, of which we of course are part”[1].

The destination of this “trajectory”, with humanity in the driving seat, is currently an indeterminate futurity. Such uncertainty (which unfortunately encourages, at best, a passivity, and worse, active climate change denial), should not detract from the new reality that the Anthropocene delineates, a reality that is making itself felt in collective consciousness. Anthropocenic anxiety is spreading across all domains, not least the cultural sphere.
Screenshot from Melancholia (Von Trier 2011)
Experimental cinema, for instance, reflects and explores the particularities of the contemporary moment, almost a bellwether medium for the Anthropocene. The event of apocalypse is a prominent theme (The Day after Tomorrow (2004), Melancholia (2011)), as is what the future holds post-apocalypse (Children of Men (2006), Snowpiercer (2013), Avatar (2009), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)). Other films engage ecological issues without the end-game of apocalypse (The Tree of Life (2011), Okja (2017), Uncertain (2017), Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives (2010)).

Importantly, many of these films challenge narratives of human exceptionalism, breaking-down nature-culture, subject-object binaries in the process. They problematise our dominant ways of seeing and being in the world, exposing us to a more entangled human-nonhuman milieu.

My dissertation looks to use film as the springboard for an exploration of Felix Guattari’s ecological thought. Guattari is more widely known for his collaborations with Gilles Deleuze, notably Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus. Towards the end of his career, however, Guattari wrote two ecological texts (The Three Ecologies and Chaosmosis), reflecting a holistic concern for global environmental issues alongside molecular issues of subjectivity. In The Three Ecologies, Guattari presents a tangled ecological vision, emphasising that ecology must be rethought of in terms of three interconnected networks (mental ecology, social ecology and environmental ecology). This is Guattari’s central ecological intervention, placing environmental problems (climate change, global warming etc.) on the same plane as subjective issues and social relations. As JD Dewsbury suggests:

“Thinking with Guattari requires that we affirm and reinvigorate our experimental care for mental and social ecologies, as much as we assume a care for the state of the physical ecology of our natural environment.”[2]

Whilst climatic interventions remain important, they must be one single strand of a larger restructuring process that simultaneously includes interventions into the domain of mental ecology, a domain that, counter-intuitively perhaps, is the central focus for Guattari’s ecosophy. It might seem like a waste of time, in light of pressing environmental issues, to suddenly care so much about human subjectivity. However, as Guattari argued, it is unlikely, given our current ways of thinking and feeling about the world, that widespread economic, political or social restructuring is going to: a) be sufficient enough, or b) happen at all. Indeed, this sentiment resonates all the more strongly considering the recent failure of the Paris climate agreement.

The underlying reality, one that Guattari himself was acutely aware of, is that ecological action will remain impotent whilst it continues to be located within the far-reaching logics of capitalism and consumerism. The seeds of change, away from capitalist logics, must be planted at the molecular scale for there to be hope of molar transformation. Ecosophy has molecular transformation as its central problematic.

How, then, to change people’s subjectivities? How to encourage greater care and responsibility for all planetary life? How to problematise existing human relations, and then transform them for the better? These are big questions, with no obvious answer. However, Guattari placed great importance in what he called ‘incorporeal species’ (music, the arts, cinema), and their ability to reframe sensual perception, forcing people into encounters with alterity and nonhuman forces, perhaps engendering new modes of being in the world.
Screenshot from The Tree of Life (Malick 2011)
My dissertation looks to explore the aesthetic encounter of film. In watching films, as Guattari suggests, we “suspend the usual modes of communication for a while”.[3] This suspension, rather than being reductive, actually opens us up to processes of transformation. Film, in this way, is an encounter with forces and flows – some of them impacting before conscious recognition – a unique audio-visual assemblage that is more than just a representation of real life. In fact, films have an autonomous potential to do something in the world. I hope to explore this productivity in relation to ecosophy. What does an ecosophic aesthetics, within film, look like?

Whilst multiple films come to mind, Lars Von Trier’s critically-acclaimed Melancholia is a good place to start. The title derives from the film’s pervasion by two encircling melancholias: 1. the melancholic mental-state of central protagonist, Justine, whose struggles with depression ebb and flow throughout, and 2. the impending doom of the approaching blue planet Melancholia, whose apocalyptic collision with Earth occurs in a prologue before we shift back in time to before the event.

Melancholia is by no means a normal ecological film; certainly, it does not follow conventional ecological film narratives. Whilst apocalypse in other films is either a future to be prevented, or a new reality that needs to be overcome, apocalypse in Melancholia is neither. There are no miraculous attempts to save humanity through science or invention. Neither is there a future after the planetary collision. The end is an end to all life, with the whole Earth dissolving into the vastness of Melancholia.

By bookending the film with apocalypse, Von Trier ensures a melancholic atmosphere throughout.  This might seem like a pessimistic experience. If we analyse Melancholia in terms of its narrative, looking for conventional meanings and understandings, then certainly you might come to that conclusion. However, I believe the film can be framed in ecologically productive terms. The brilliance of Melancholia is that it strips away conventional ecological narratives throughout, particularly narratives that suggest that humanity is in any way separate from ‘nature.’

As political theorist William Connolly writes:

“Melancholia tracks beauty and ugliness, intentions and frustrations, glowing surfaces and opaque depths, regular rituals and uncanny events, entanglements and denials.”[4]

Themes of depression, capitalism, passivity and (anti)modernity weave in and out. Alongside these themes are Von Trier’s experimental filmic techniques – including an incredibly striking opening montage of 16 slow-motion tableaux vivant with Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan and Isolde in the background (a piece of music that repeats over and over in the film). Evocative visual tableaux are repeated throughout. However, in contrast, much of the rest of the film follows Von Trier’s Dogme 95 conventions: a fast-moving, continually re-focusing, handheld camera catapulting us into the midst of strained social relations. The effect, I suggest, is a scrambling of perception, with the contrasting styles leaving the audience in a continual state of disorientation. It is this disorientation that becomes a point of bifurcation, a glimmer of potential for subjective transformation.
Screenshot from Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives (Apichatpong 2010)
In our scenes, the film dramatises our often-ignored entanglements with nonhuman beings, our infinite connections and attachments to the world. Encountering the film, I argue, re-immerses us into the uncertainties and vulnerabilities of life in a way that other films fail to do. Maintaining a melancholic aesthetic throughout, this atmosphere soaks into the pores of the audience, forcing a confrontation with the potentially-infinite nothingness of apocalypse. Moreover, we begin to question contemporary subjective positions. If apocalypse is actually going to happen, then what is the most appropriate, or ethical, subjective response?

Space limits answering this question, and further discussion. However, I hope to use my dissertation as a more thorough exposition of these important themes and questions.


Blog by Theo Parker
Reposted from 'Bristol Society and Space' Blog of the University of Bristol's MSc in Human Geography


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/29/declare-anthropocene-epoch-experts-urge-geological-congress-human-impact-earth

[2] Dewsbury, JD. (2015). “Guattari’s resingularisation of existence: pooling uncertainties,” Dialogues in Human Geography,Vol. 5(2), pp. 155-161.

[3] Guattari, F. (2009). Chaosophy: Texts and Interviews 1972-1977. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).


[4] William Connolly (2014). Melancholia and Us. Ozone.

Your Waste of Time: Art-Based Geographical Practices and the Environment

This blog post thinks through the themes of aesthetic interventions, sensing time and engendering response-ability using artistic responses to climate change. Here, these themes are drawn from one piece of art, Your Waste of Time, by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. This performative showcasing of glacial ice establishes interactions and relations between human bodies and icy materialities- but what is at stake here and what potentialities could be created through artistic practices? These are questions that have arisen through my current dissertation, where I hope to explore artistic responses to environmental degradation through the materialities of ice and plastic.

For the piece Your Waste of Time, Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson transported several large blocks of ice from Vatnajökull, the largest and oldest glacier in Iceland, to the Berlin gallery Neugerriemschneider (Eliasson, 2006). This glacier is almost incomprehensibly ancient, with some parts dating from around 1200 AD, but human-driven global warming has begun thawing Vatnajökull, dislodging chunks of ice from the main body of the glacier. This has left behind a scattering of sculpture-like nuggets of ice across the landscape, pieces that untouched, would soon melt away. Eliasson’s project transported these pieces to Germany, to be displayed in an art gallery.

Here the wayfaring blocks of ice were kept in a refrigerated space as immersive sculptures that audience members were encouraged to touch. This was an attempt by Eliasson to bring the visceral reality of human-driven climate change to the attention of the audience through a sensory engagement with ice. In Eliasson’s words, ‘we take away time from the glacier by touching it’ (Eliasson, 2006). Within this molecular moment of sensation between the human and icy touch, the exchange of human warmth is enough to begin to decay the ice. Your Waste of Time then becomes an experiment to curate a sense of environmental care through molecular icy interactions.

Your Waste of Time, Olafur Eliasson, photo by Jens Ziehe
Recently, such environmental artistic interventions have been located temporally with the term ‘anthropocene’[1]. Anthropocene has come into use to refer to human-driven environmental change and degradation. Although the ‘Anthro-pocene’ privileges and homogenises the human (a white, western human) within environmental discourses, the term has become a buzzword for the current era of global pollution and warming. As an imaginary, the Anthropocene cuts through different temporalities; finite human lives, longer lived materialities (such as ice) and geological timescales.

Artistic responses to environmental issues engage with this increasingly unpredictable world, through a sensory engagement with temporality, with other materialities and bodies. It can even be said that ‘attuning ourselves, through poetry, art, and description, to pay attention to other times…these are crucial practices; in fact, they are matters of survival.’ (Davis and Turpin, 2015). Although influential feminist scholar Donna Haraway (2015) proposes other terms such as Capitalocene to denote the specifically capitalist causes of environmental degradation, the Anthropocene also remains an arguably productive term. Art positioned as relating to different temporal imaginaries is thus a speculative, experimental project to think differently, to world differently. Although the term Anthropocene remains contestable, it’s very instability lends itself to artistic conceptual engagements that function through such fragile and indeterminate encounters.
 
 Image: Your Waste of Time, Olafur Eliasson, photo by Jens Ziehe
Positioned in the white, empty space of the art gallery, the fragility of the ice is magnified. This fragility comes to light through the invocation to touch the surface of the icy sculpture. In the words of Eliasson; ‘When we touch these blocks of ice with our hands, we are not just struck by the chill; we are struck by the world itself. We take time from the glacier by touching it’. As Erin Manning (2006), notes in her work on the intersections between art practice and philosophy, sensation opens up the body to thinking and doing differently through its relation to other bodies and things. Touch, in this light, is located neither with the human or the inhuman, but invented through the encounter.

But what happens at a touch? Ice, as sensory aesthetic experience, brings closer together the relations already held between ice and human bodies. Quantum physicist turned feminist philosopher Karen Barad (2012) brings together feminist traditions that unsettle ways of thinking materiality and quantum physics. A sense of touch, for Barad, can be unsettled a molecular exposition of the minute interactions between electrons. This is a murky and confusing world of quantum physics for most social scientists, but Barad productively draws out the indeterminacy at the very building blocks of sensation. Quantum theory holds infinites as integral. This argues for a radical openness of potentialities at the very building-blocks of mattering – all matter is unstable at its foundations. Could it be argued that there is at stake, the unsettling of stable ways of thinking and an opening up of openness already at the heart of mattering?

At the moment of touch between a hand and the blocks of ice, this becomes clear- the warmth of the body causes the ice to change state and start to melt. For Eliasson, ‘We take away time from the glacier by touching it. Suddenly I make the glacier understood to me, its temporality. It is linked to the time the water took to become ice, a glacier. By touching it, I embody my knowledge by establishing physical contact. And suddenly we understand that we do actually have the capacity to understand the abstract with our senses. Touching time is touching abstraction.’ What does it mean to touch time? Touch, as unsettling and in-touch with infinite possibilities could signal a potential for thinking differently. The term anthropocene signals (if problematically) this need to think differently about temporality. The geologic lifespan of the ice is not permanent, but made fragile under a human touch. Temporality, then is not a stable concept either, but one that aesthetic interventions can trouble and disrupt assumptions that time related solely to a stable ticking of the clock.

This touching-time, for Eliasson, has a political undertone. Time is a crucial and sensitive issue in climate change debates. The critical question is, how to engender response-ability and action to do something to halt the tide of environmental degradation and global temperature rise. Haraway (2015) has written about an art project by the Institute of Figuring (2005-ongoing) to crochet coral reefs, involving thousands of people working to cultivate and care for these crochet-corals, gathering each person’s work into an exhibition, curating the corals to establish a reef. Like Your Waste of Time, The Crochet Coral Reef Project has time at its centre. Crocheting, like the establishment of a coral reef, takes time, and has the potential to establish caring relations through the touch of human-material and time. Could art such as this create publics that could do differently concerning climate change?
 
Image: Crochet Coral Reef Project, Institute of Figuring
Care in this context relates to everything that both humans and nonhuman things to continue to repair their world to live as well as possible. These caring relations knit the world together and create complex links between things and humans in the world. Feminist scholar Puig de la Bellacasa (2011) proposes an ethics of care. This care is not a moralism. It is not a case of you should care about environmental degradation! Rather, it is a speculation to see what could happen if we relate to the things and environments around us through more caring relations.

Your Waste of Time, framed through touch, time and care touches upon possible pasts, presents and futures that are framed as undecided. As the ice hovers indeterminately in-between solid and liquid, so does the potential for doing differently. Geologic timescales interact with a momentary present. Could this moment of touch between ice and human engender more caring relations that span other times and other places? Your Waste of Time, then, may not be a waste of time, but rather put us in-touch with time.

Blog by Rosie McLellan
Reposted from 'Bristol Society and Space' Blog of the University of Bristol's MSc in Human Geography

Bibliography
Barad, K. (2012) ‘On touching – The inhuman that therefore I am’, Differences, 23(3): 206-223
Davis, H. and Turpin, E., eds. (2015), ‘Art in the Anthropocene’, London: Open Humanities Press
De la Bellacasa, M. (2011), ‘Matters of care in technoscience: Assembling neglected things’, Social Studies of Science, 41(1): 85-106
Eliasson, O. (2006), ‘Your Waste of Time’, Berlin: Neugerriemschneider [http://olafureliasson.net/archive/artwork/WEK100564/your-waste-of-time]
Haraway, D. and Kenney, M. (2015), ‘Anthropocene, Capitolocene, Chthulhocene’, in: Davis, H. and Turpin, E., eds. (2015), ‘Art in the Anthropocene’, London: Open Humanities Press
Institute of Figuring, (2005-Ongoing), ‘Crochet Coral Reef Project’, New York: MAD Museum of Modern Arts [http://madmuseum.org/exhibition/crochet-coral-reef-toxic-seas]
Manning, E. (2006), ‘Politics of Touch: Sense, Movement, Sovereignty’, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

[1] See more regarding the Anthropocene at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/29/declare-anthropocene-epoch-experts-urge-geological-congress-human-impact-earth


Monday, 7 August 2017

Science and Sunflowers

Sunflowerfest is an annual three-day festival of music and art held just outside Lisburn, Northern Ireland, priding itself on its family friendly atmosphere and sprawling spectrum of creative activities. Unlike the monster festivals that are held in other parts of the UK, in Northern Ireland our festivals are small (think a few thousand people, not a few hundred-thousand) with a strong focus on local talent. The perfect place for some experimental, creative science outreach…

In 2016, I contacted the organisers and floated the idea of a science outreach stall based upon my research and others in BRIDGE and the Cabot Institute. The idea, called Living Earth, was new, reasonably grand and completely untested. The response was a very enthusiastic “yes please!”

So, last year a squad of five outreachers (Alan Kennedy, Emily White and Michael Cooper of the Cabot Institute, plus Dewi Owen and Zuleika Gregory our puppeteers) arrived in blustery Northern Ireland and over the course of the festival recreated the entire history of Earth. 4.5 billion years in 3 days. With the help of punters at the festival, we built a 1.5 m diameter model of the Earth out of willow, foliage, recycled and craft materials. As the Earth was built, we recreated many of the major processes and events that shape it today, from the placement of the continents, the expansion of biomes and climate zones, the formation of the cryosphere and the destruction of the Anthropocene.


As well as this geological ‘Big Art Attack’, crafts and a puppet show entitled This Soup Tastes Funny! about the evolution of life were put on in the festival’s dedicated Kids Zone. Our puppets, Doug and Barry, had to travel back in time to the primordial soup and race through evolution in order to relive the first day of the festival. Five time periods, four puppet costume changes, asteroid impacts, crowd participation and even a song left the young audience both entertained, but also possibly very confused… That’s a lot of science to take on-board in 15 minutes!

We (and our marquee) got battered by wind, rain and the exhausting amount of activities we were juggling, including our recreational ‘time off’. However, we certainly offered something unique at the festival and left a positive impression with the organisers:

“Just to say THANK YOU to you and the crew for all the great things you did at Sunflowerfest. So appreciate everything you do and did. We would always welcome you back to do whatever you would like!” – Vanessa, Sunflowerfest Organiser

Now, I have quite an active imagination, so that last sentence was a dangerously open invitation… With 2017’s festival theme being ‘a parallel universe’, I thought something immersive on the theme of deep time would fit right in. The new plan was to build a time machine! Or in other words transform the inside of a marquee into a jungle, to show what Ireland would have been like during the hot Eocene period ~50 million years ago. As I wrote down a proposal for the festival application, this seemed like it would be reasonably straightforward compared to 2016. In hindsight, I misjudged that.

Logistically, constructing a jungle was only possible because my mum had recently had some trees in the garden felled and she also had several hedges needing cut back. A supply of logs and some waxy leafed laurel and bay that would hold their colour after cutting for the duration of the festival made a good, but somewhat bulky start. These were attached to the marquee ceiling and a heavy metal tripod to give us a central ‘tree’ and performance space to demonstrate some tectonic themed experiments. Ferns and other leafy plants were then dug up and temporarily housed in buckets to fill out the back of the tent and childhood toys added around the stall for the jungle fauna. Finally, a small speaker playing jungle sound effects was hidden up in the canopy to complete the experience.


Obviously, a hearty dose of imagination was required to convince yourself our locally sourced, temperate vegetation was an Eocene jungle, but luckily this year our stand was based entirely in the Kids Zone, where imagination is not in short supply. Ideally, I wanted to have a Superser heater in the back of the tent to raise the temperature to 35 °C, but doubted that would pass the risk assessment. We settled for having the ambient Northern Irish temperature, but luckily, we did have a few biblically heavy rain showers to give it a nice wet rainforest feel. It took three days of preparation, cutting, digging and replanting vegetation, and five hours of construction, but eventually we had the most eye-catching stand in the whole Kids Zone. It was pretty much the Eocene.

In our jungle, we had information about how Ireland has changed over the past billion years, a floating plate tectonics game and crafted fossils and jungle wildlife to decorate the stand, all of which kept us mostly run off our feet during our three-hour slots each day. Our flagship performance however, was a bicarbonate soda-vinegar erupting volcano, as ~50 million years ago Northern Ireland was at the centre of lots of volcanic activity, forming for example the Giant’s Causeway. Without a single trial run (we spent all of our preparation time building the jungle), our resident chemistry undergraduate, Oliver Feighan, carried out the experiment in front of an audience 40 strong. It was possibly the least explosive or inspiring volcano in the world. As the foam dribbled out the top of the bottle it was met with a slow and bemused round of applause. Those kids will definitely go on to be the environmental scientists of the future.

Creative outreach at big events may not always go quite to plan, it takes time and effort and you can sometimes bite off more than you can chew, but it’s a great way reframe the relevance of research in a totally different way, speak to a new audience (a very bohemian crowd, in the case of Sunflowerfest) and just do something fun. It’s not often families can experience palaeoclimate, tribal drumming circles and the Rubberbandits* all in one day. We ended up going on to run the globe building activity from 2016 at a further two events (you can see a highlight video of the almost finished piece here). Although kids and parents found 2017’s time machine a lot of fun and it looked surprisingly effective, unfortunately I don’t think I will have time or energy to ever recreate the Eocene again! However, while I may be leaving the Eocene in the past, I highly doubt this will be my last Sunflowerfest.

*Caution, likely explicit content

Blog post by Press Gang member Alan Kennedy.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Global Environmental Change mini-symposium

At the end of June, the Cabot Institute hosted the Global Environmental Change mini-symposium – a one hour whistle-stop tour showcasing the breadth of research within this theme of the Cabot Institute. Speakers represented different schools from the University that actively work on the spectrum of Global Environmental Change challenges, such as environmental law and policy, biodiversity conservation, biogeochemical cycles, environmental justice and environmental history.


Each speaker had time for a very short talk, with some choosing to focus on specific aspects of their work in depth and others instead covering the breadth of research carried out by colleagues in their school. The audience too came from a wide background, with everyone from undergraduate and masters students up to professors represented. Although with five speakers (plus some words from the theme leaders, Jo House and Matt Rigby) there was not much time for questions during the hour of talks, there was plenty of time for discussion over food and drinks afterwards.

Although it was billed as a miniature event, it set out to address grand, ambitious, global challenges. It was a short, punchy reminder of the huge range of research skills found within the Cabot Institute. We might not have solved the Earth’s challenges in an hour or two, but now that the dust has settled we certainly have a good idea of who to ask and how to start taking them on. I look forward to the mini-symposiums for the Cabot Institute’s other five research themes!

The speakers were:
Kath Baldock – Life Sciences
Alice Venn – Social Sciences and Law
Alix Dietzel – SPAIS
Kate Hendry – Earth Sciences
Daniel Haines – History

The event was hosted by:
Jo House – Geographical Sciences

Matt Rigby – Chemistry

Blog post by Press Gang member Alan Kennedy.