Terraforming the anthropocene
by Elyse Goldfinch courtesy of Kings Artist Run Emerging Writers Program
Written in response to various discussions leading up to the exhibition Fabricated Country July 6-28 2018, Kings Artist Run, Melbourne.
‘My roots go down to the depths of the world, through earth dry with brick, and damp earth, through veins of lead and silver. I am all fibre. All tremors shake me, and the weight of the earth is pressed to my ribs.’
Virginia Woolf, The Waves, 1931
Piers Greville’s work is a proposition towards a new way of thinking about nature and our human relationship to the landscape. He does this by mapping the natural and technological topographies and fault-lines that occur in a particular site—looking back across history to reimagine it under the vision of the Anthropocene—our new geological era. The Anthropocene, a theoretical epoch, designates the current period of ubiquitous human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems as having altered them to such a degree that they have taken on another form. This is particularly reflected in the current state of climate change. The mediated view of the landscape through the lens of the Anthropocene operates within the material language of Greville’s painting, rendered two and three dimensional. Searching for a new visual language beyond its colonial heritage this exhibition, Fabricated Country,lifts and breaks open a small fragment of the Australian landscape to reimagine its past, present and future.
The point of departure for Fabricated Country is an area on the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales near the Victorian border, an ecological system that is particularly unique to Australia. Rising over 2000 meters above sea level, the highest summit in the country, this site’s ecosystem combines an alpine climate of glacial lakes with native grasses and swamps. Rising temperatures have led to natural habitats vanishing, so much so that this area is now home to some of Australia’s most endangered wildlife. Heralding above the tree line this place serves as a microcosm of our shifting landscape, an area isolated from anything else around it. Climate change inexorably alters all ecologies but when it significantly affects the environment at its highest peak there’s nowhere else to go. Greville describes this process like watching an island slowly going under water or a raft drowning in the ocean. The mountains and this site are sinking under the monumental forces of human intervention.
The repetition of mapping and re-mapping this site in detail becomes a form of geographic data collection to survey the changing patterns in the landscape. Headwaters was painted from a screenshot taken with Google Street View, a technology regularly used to navigate territories across the world. This painting also references a study by nineteenth-century artist and explorer Eugene von Guérard who detailed a dramatic expedition up this mountain range in which
he and his team almost died. This imposing landscape viewed behind a screen makes visible the cultural contingency of our contemporary experience of nature. Western landscape painting traditionally depicted ‘nature’ as something so grand and overwhelming, rendering its topography sublime and unknowable. Here, we see the imaging of the landscape as a gesture acknowledging this history whilst simultaneously revealing the incongruity between our attempts to capture and reproduce the natural world. Whether through painting or Instagram filters—nature ultimately needs to be physically experienced for some semblance of it to be known.
The topographical sculptured canvas, Raft, is held aloft by several ‘Baugespann’, which are scaffold-like structures that outline proposed building developments. Commonly seen in Switzerland these poles and rods form ghostly apparitions of an alternative skyline so citizens can imagine a future city, from residential renovations to new high-rises. There is a sense of urgency and precariousness in the way this small section of earth is carried. Along the poles, the segmented high-vis red characterises the visual language of danger, acting like caution tape to warn the attention of passers-by that this area may be hazardous. We see that this place is in a state of transformation poised on the brink of a potential emergency.
The Anthropocene re-inscribes humanity by placing us back to the centre but Greville’s work imagines nature as something mutable, something readily manipulated by human creativity. The work also reflects a distinctly science fictional landscape in the post-human scene depicted here, like it is a model for terraforming the earth when it lays waste. The humbling ruins scaffold an artificial future landscape that seems to predict an end of nature, a scene completely devoid of life; within this dystopian imaginary, we unearth new ways of looking forward. As rising temperatures produce new emergencies we only witness fragments of what is to come. It’s no longer science fiction to imagine a world where we all become refugees without any possibility of refuge. To imagine a world that dismantles the powers of capitalism to rip apart the nation-state and produce new sovereign territories. A world where the slippages between our real and digital interfaces become so indistinguishable that we can live inside the liminal prism of white noise. To imagine a world in which we are obliterated by nature in order to become nature once again. It will be in this renewal that the anxiety of being in our bodies will lift as we inhale the first breaths of the new epoch. When the ‘weight of the earth’ presses to our ribs we won’t feel pain or fear but relief. To imagine a world where our roots will reach out euphorically and embed themselves, bringing us spectacularly back to the earth.
The following is an abstract of the Masters of Fine Art thesis researched and submitted at Victorian College of the Arts in 2018. Supervisor Prof. Jon Cattapan.
Full thesis PDF available on request.
Faced with fundamental redrawing of human relationships to the global and local environment, a shift in ways of viewing landscape has precipitated. Broad awareness of biodiversity collapse, urbanization, global warming and the advent of genetic engineering and advances in biological technology has inverted many notions and definitions about the word nature. This, underlined by a revisited pre-colonial historical narrative, particularly across Australia, sustains landscape and nature as urgent topics that need to be dealt with and re-viewed.
This practice-led research project investigates the intersections of ecological and cultural environments and how this interrelation can be expounded through the act of painting. The investigation is based largely within a local context of Australian visual art and regional terrains, employing a methodology located at the intersection of postcolonial and post-digital frameworks. Within these frameworks the project interrogates and re-interprets actual and combined landscapes. The project elucidates a contemporary re-imagining of landscape enacted through painting.
The final research outcomes are composed of a written dissertation and installation of drawings, painting and spatial work. The work comprising the installation is a direct manifestation of the practice-led research. It is expanded upon in the exegesis section of the dissertation. This set of creative works form part of the argument attending to the central question of my thesis. Combining post-digital and established modes of production, this work seeks to open up a layered space, a visual methodology for re-viewing landscape.
A response to
Piers Greville’s Sublime Artifice
by N.A.J. Taylor. The following response to the show was written by N.A.J Taylor and published in his Crikey Blog: “This Blog Harms”
‘Not even the moral conversion of the technicians could make a difference. At best, they would cease to be good technicians. In the end, technique has only one principle: efficient ordering’.
— Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, 1964
The study of political events and their human impact increasingly employs the full range of aesthetic arts – including photographs, music, paintings, film, literature, architecture, and poetry – as source material. Aesthetic politics acknowledges that any artistic expression of the world as it appears to be is subjective. There is, therefore, an inevitable gap between the ‘reality’ of what an artist seeks to present, and the ‘representation’ he or she achieves in their art. It is how this gap between reality and representation is treated that gives aesthetic sources the potential to enhance our capacity to comprehend and deal with the world’s many conflicts and dilemmas – by providing a reflective understanding of how the world is “internalised in our minds and our habits, as well as our collective political consciousness” (Bleiker, p.8). Thus the greatest contribution might come not as we would expect from politically committed or activist art, but from less conscious representations.
Nowhere is the need for an intellectual synthesis between the aesthetic arts and political science more necessary than in the study of violent and non-violent harm in world politics. For instance, ongoing peaceful protests in Melbourne and on Wall Street, as well as the violent displays of the London riots earlier in the year, are all manifestations of a broader frustration towards the rampant combination of flows – of people, goods, services, capital, technologies, ideas, news, images, and data – that are having unintended, uncontrollable, and in may cases, irreversible effects on human and non-human species, as well as the natural environment. Long-term responses to such events require not just a forensic examination of ‘what happened’, but also a deeper understanding of how these frustrations were individually and collectively internalised in human society. Simply put, the problems of the modern world are too complex for us not to employ the full register of human intelligence to make sense and deal with them.
Of all the flows, technology is perhaps the most ubiquitous, and anything but its continued prominence unthinkable. For Jacques Ellul, technology is especially tyrannical since it has embedded within it “social and psychological consequences independent of our desires” (Ellul, p.18). Whereas in ancient times technology was tempered by the rules of tradition, today even incremental technological advances are afforded a perverse reverence traditionally reserved for the sacred. Those in ancient Egypt and Hyksos, for example, had long known about the wheel but did not employ it in labour because the zodiac, which it resembled, was forbidden from being put to material use. Today we see less of this type of transformational ingenuity due to a myopic obsession with hyper-efficiency and order, which is less concerned with solving basic needs and problems than it is about manufacturing new ones. In this way, technology demands instantaneous responses governed only by ‘reflex’, leaving neither the time nor freedom necessary for any meaningful inner ‘reflection’ of the consequences.
Over the past few decades, humanity has increasingly come to see the treacherous consequences of technology on the natural environment. Writing in 1989, the environmental activist Bill McKibben pithily remarked that, “What was once considered nature is now merely an artificial approximation, changed forever”. McKibben’s observation is most brutally evident in sites of industrial production such as the ancient copper mine located near Huelva in southernmost Spain, which the indigenes named ‘red river’ because of its disastrous environmental effects. Originally operated by the Spanish government, the mine had supplied the Phoenicians, ancient Greeks, Carthaginians, and the Roman Empire. Its copper had paid for Carthage’s numerous wars on Rome and had been held by both Scipio and Hannibal. However believing they could extract yet more from the earth, in 1873 a group of opportunistic foreign investors, equipped with modern techniques and machines that favoured mining aboveground, acquired it from the Spanish government.
What exists there today is a 58-mile-long river flowing through one of the world’s largest deposits of pyrite, or fool’s gold. Because of the mine, the river has a pH reading similar to that of automobile battery acid and contains virtually no oxygen in its lower depths. In the late 1980s, temporary flooding dissolved a power substation, a mandibular crusher, and several hundred yards of transport belts. More recently, the LA Times reported that NASA astrobiologists are using the conditions of the river to replicate the conditions of Mars. “If you remove the green,” one of them remarked, “it looks like Mars.” The thinking goes that if something could live in such an acidic river, then there is likely to be life on Mars too. Whether humans relocate to Mars or stay on earth, the grand irony is that future peoples will have to adapt to equally ‘natural’ environments.
I view Piers Greville’s Sublime Artifice as a meditation on both of the above concepts: Ellul’s dire warnings of the treachery of technology, and McKibben’s observation that human activity alters and harms the nonhuman world through time. Elsewhere, I call this ‘biospheric harm’. However, in many key respects, Greville’s worldview violently differs from that of McKibben and Ellul. Indeed, whereas Ellul saw only disaster in revering technology, Greville draws attention to sites where there is aesthetic delight to be found in its presence. And whereas McKibben explored the possibility of appropriate human responses to protect our once ‘natural’ habitat, Greville appears taken by the sublime in technology’s destruction of, and synthesis with, nature. Greville’s Sublime Artifice therefore eschews any attempt at a mimetic representation of reality characteristic of the landscape, instead choosing to fictionalise his observations of Iceland based on memory and fantasy. This may be troubling for those seeking moral, ethical or spiritual guidance. However in my view, Greville does hint at our future by leaving absent the actor most responsible for nature’s battle with technology: people. For in Greville’s world, we have become silent witnesses to the destruction of nature, and insignificant to its synthesis with the technology of our creation.