Nonorganic Life

“Nonorganic Life: Encounters between frequency, virtuality and the sublime in Antarctica,” for
Far Field: Digital Culture, Climate Change, and the Poles edited by Andrea Polli and Jane Marsching, Intellect Books: Bristol, UK. publication September 2011.
Intellect Books Autumn catalogue


Phil Dadson, Aerial Farm (2003). Video still, 12mins DVD video/sound. The circular frame and wires appear as a slowly shifting and illusory graphic outline, much like an animated drawing against a snowdrift, ice-grey background. The sound of wind-generated Aeolian tones through the wires is produced by a 50 k wind. See http://www.sonicsfromscratch.co.nz/

I’m awaiting the proofs back for my chapter in Far Field, looking forward to also seeing the other essays as they contain some really strong thought surrounding digital media and the poles.

My essay grapples with tensions between critical ecological thought and what I see as an ongoing twenty-first century adherence to notions of the sublime. I do this by introducing the model of nonorganic life drawn firstly from the scientific discoveries in Don Juan Pond and secondly from Manuel DeLanda’s hurricane. I talk specifically about works by New Zealand artists Joyce Campbell, Ronnie van Hout and Phil Dadson alongside works by Andrea Polli, DJ Spooky and Pierre Huyghe.

Of course as soon as the proofs come I’ll want to change many words but here is a sneak preview:

“It may have been about our year 750 that the astonishing Hui-Te-Rangiora, in his canoe Te Iwi-o-Atea, sailed from Rarotonga on a voyage of wonders in that direction (South): he saw the bare white rocks that towered into the sky from out of the monstrous seas, the long tresses of the woman that dwelt therefin, which waved about under the waters and on their surface, the frozen sea covered with pia or arrowroot, the deceitful animal that dived to great depths – ‘a foggy, misty dark place not shone on by the sun’. Icebergs, the fifty foot long leaves of bull-kelp, the walrus or sea-elephant, the snowy ice fields of a clime very different from Hui-Te-Rangiora’s own warm islands – all these he had seen.” (Beaglehole, 1939 cited in McFarlane, 2008, p.2).

Antarctica is a heightened location where ideas of scale and experiences of the world and our place in it come together with contemporary understandings of ecology. Hui-Te-Rangiora’s extraordinary journey is a significant foundational narrative of the indigenous histories of the Pacific and Antarctica (Te Ariki-tara-are, 1919; Best, 1915; Buck, 1954; Smith, 1904; McFarlane, 2008), and takes its place alongside heroic stories of European exploration that themselves oscillate between fictional truths and scientific myth. Even for those of us who live close by it is a combination of these histories that frames how the far, far south is constructed and understood. To discuss Antarctica we grasp at what French theorist Felix Guattari (2005, p.68) describes as an “environment in the process of being reinvented.” It is a continent formed from information and matter that together reconstitute European understandings of nature. Although it is potentially out-dated, and most definitely a human-centric way of knowing, a close study of Antarctica needs to include a discussion of the European model of the sublime and how this philosophical idea continues to determine how many of us relate to the environment around us. In the eighteenth century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (cited in Elliot, 2010, p.39) traced through levels of the sublime until he reached “part (v) full feeling of sublime: overpowering turbulent nature. (Pleasure from beholding very violent destructive objects).” Schopenhauer’s concept of the sublime grew out a sense of cultural implausibility, a question raised repeatedly by his fellow Romanticists in England: if humans are so cultured, so knowledgeable then how can they not understand the essence of the very earth they stand on? How does it remain beyond comprehension?

Joyce Campbell, “Ice Ghoul Antarctica” 2006 5″x7″ Daguerreotype. From the “Last Light” Series. See http://www.joycecampbell.com/

“The hurricane represents a form of non-organic life. It lasts long enough for us to give it a name. … We give [hurricanes] names because they are creatures which inhabit the atmosphere. However, these are creatures that create themselves. They don’t have genes, they don’t have anything that tells them what to do. They are completely spontaneous creatures.”
This description of the hurricane is central to DeLanda’s arguments about nonorganic life. Antarctica like the hurricane is provisional; nonorganic life formed through frequency and virtuality. In our imaginings it has a life force. It is a place known through material productions that oscillate between the fictional and the scientific. For example, the discovery of the Don Juan Pond lead scientists towards life formed and mobilized by brine-derived nitrates (a kind of molecular self-organization by non-carbon sources). Mapping, measuring and documenting these non-carbon-based life forms living in an oxygen free environment lead scientists towards the possibility of life on Mars (University of Georgia, 2010). Questions appeared: if it is autonomous, can reproduce and evolve, it must be life, mustn’t it? There was no other description available to science except that of nonorganic life. Amidst complex computational models, nonorganic matter is not static; it forever changes and tying it to either nature or culture is impossible. It needs its own language. There are clear parallels between this scientific description of nonorganic life and DeLanda’s cultural framing of the hurricane. Antarctica becomes an object of study that we approach as we might approach an organism that can be sliced, imaged, recorded and folded. This double approach at once scientific/analytic and cultural/aesthetic is found in art’s recent engagements with Antarctica.