thinking landscape

In September 2016 I convened the Thinking Landscape: Data, geography, arts, writing, patterns, collecting and interdisciplinarity seminar and workshop with Harriet Hawkins, a geographer from Royal Holloway, University of London. The reason for our exceptionally long title was to try to gather together a set of thoughts around landscape that did not immediately default to a default reading of landscape!

We wrote:

In an era where global environmental change and social injustices are framed as ‘wicked’ problems requiring interdisciplinary solutions, and in which ‘creative experiments’ are framed as offering potential solutions to the temporal and spatial challenges of apprehending the changing conditions of our landscapes, this symposium suggests it is necessary to ‘think’ the landscape again. Such expanded senses of experimentation redistribute the sites, spaces, practices and subjects of knowledge—whether that be through the tools of environmental science or cultural histories and heritage; they make space for hybrid research practices and collaborative efforts, as well as redistribute expertise making new spaces for seeing, hearing and accounting for others in the representations and imaginations of landscape that are produced.

I invited Mitchell Whitelaw (School of Art, ANU) and Harriet Hawkins (Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London) to work together with a group of artists, geographers, writers, museum curators, digital humanities’ scholars, postgraduate researchers, inter/cross/post disciplinary thinkers in order to tease out the possibilities for thinking landscape in the Anthropocene. Harriet and Mitchell each presented position papers and then Mitchell generously took us through a data materialities workshop in the afternoon.

Harriet used a process of fabulation to discuss the problem of scale when it becomes entangled in cultural effects. Her presentation was interwoven with a detailed analysis of Medium Earth by The Otolith Group. A stunning work that helped us to feel the ghosts of earthquakes in California. Harriet noted how the understandings of the ‘seismically sensitive’ pushed back against the geological truths of the data.

The Otolith Group Medium Earth 2013

Mitchell introduced the notion of data practice as a form of sensing, in which data become new kinds of speculative fossil. He connected this with archiving practices, as themselves the formation of non-human cultural relics. He then walked us through the techniques used in his drifter project that combines digital scientific and cultural heritage materials to create interactive visual and sonic representations of landscape. We followed the frogs across and around a river that never quite behaves the way we expect. He ended by evoking Donna Haraway’s imperative to pay attention to the “things that matter”.

After both presentations we moved into a data generative workshop where we attempted to map our understandings of this landscape (and in particular the site of Lake Illawarra).

We had an amazing group of people attend, and many new collaborations and research relationships were fostered. The seminar and workshop was developed under the auspices of the Material Ecologies Research network (MECO) in partnership with AUSCCER (the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research) and the Global Challenges programme. Louise Boscacci wrote beautifully about the day here.

Mitchell Whitelaw Drifter 2016

I wrote a short introduction to try to capture  how my own thoughts on landscape had changed as I make this shift into ecological thinking. My notes are copied below.

Thinking landscape: Introduction to landscape thought

Before we begin, I would like to acknowledge and pay respect to the traditional owners of the land on which we meet; the Wadi Wadi people of Dharawal Country. It is upon their ancestral lands that the University of Wollongong is built, and we are meeting here today at the foot of Mount Keira a site of women’s learning. As we share our own knowledge, learning and research practices within this workshop may we also pay respect to the knowledge embedded forever within the Aboriginal Custodianship of Country.

Landscapes are complex objects. They are sites of love and learning, and formed through a coming together of the seen, the heard, and the known. The art historian Simon Schama might disagree, but I think of landscape very simply as the place where we live: landscape names the meta-place that encompasses all our various framings of environment and ecology.

Schama would say that landscape is formed in memory, in poetry, and in the stories we tell ourselves about who we think we are. But I’m unsure about how we continue to do this. How do we think landscape in the Anthropocene? How do we imagine an entity that is transforming through our very gaze?

The questions that helped me frame the workshop today began from this point of wondering if perhaps thinking about data and information networks may help us understand these processes of transformation. If landscapes are spaces of knowledge and experimentation how might we understand the ways in which they are enfolded in human and animal behaviours?

If the current epoch is understood through the marking of the human as a geological force, how do we grasp these impacts? And at what kind of scale can these processes of layering begin to tell us something new about being here, now. Historian Dipesh Chakrabarty has argued that we need to “think human agency over multiple and incommensurable scales at once.” Can we do the same with landscape? How does data make thinking landscape scaleable in both memory and poetry?

In his new work ‘drifter’ Mitchell Whitelaw has suggested one approach to this multitude of questions. In his stunning work, Mitchell has bought together the image of the ecology with the telling of the eco-system. As he says the work “collides its fragments to spark fleeting insights and moments of clarity, beauty and mourning.” Later today Mitchell will introduce us to the work, and in the workshop will encourage us to extend the drift to the spaces around Lake Illawarra.

This workshop is happening today under the auspices of the Material Ecologies Research network (MECO) in partnership with AUSSCER (the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research) and the Global Challenges programme. We are really lucky at UOW to have these dynamic and interdisciplinary research strategies through which we can push at the boundaries of our own practices. When I was thinking about what kind of form a MECO workshop might take this year I was initially thinking about how the researchers in MECO have been investigating the nonhuman spaces unveiled by the Anthropocene, and the different understandings of material ecologies that have emerged within our various approaches to creative practice. I realised that one of the things that was happening was that researchers in texts, images, and performance were reaching out to other disciplines for their data: geography, citizen science, geology, biology were all helping us to articulate this new way of thinking. And then through an AUSCCER seminar I was introduced to Harriet’s work, and I realised that similar processes of extension were happening in Geography, as geographers turned to creative practices in order to process and know their data differently. It is in this stretchy space of uncertainty where our disciplines are moving and renegotiating their own boundaries and practices that I think we might be able to begin to think landscape today.