AESTH-ETHICS OF ECOLOGY & MOVING-IMAGE ART

Amsterdam / The Hague, May 2019

The question of what it means to think ecologically is one of increasing importance to artistic practice today. Such growing attention can be read as symptomatic of widespread debates in the public realm on the current ecological crisis and on the urgency of collective and individual intervention in all spheres of production. The Paris Agreement of 2016 and the UK Parliament’s recent declaration of a climate change emergency are two emblematic examples, as well as the wave of student protests around the world inspired by the young Greta Thunberg’s school strike in 2017. With the emergence of modern  environmentalism, our engagement with ecology has become progressively more and more tied to questions of representation, of aesthetics conflated with ethics (a phenomenon we might dub the aesth-ethics of ecology). In other words, how we imagine nature to look, to sound, to feel moulds to a great extent the array of obligations we assume we have towards it. From the perspective of art, this ‘ecological turn’ has brought about an equally strong interest in finding a new approach to the ‘old’ subject matter of nature – one which would (cor)respond to our contemporary condition, framed by new technologies, globalisation and neoliberal economy. Romantic views of ‘Nature,’ for instance, as an entity separate from us – a sublime aesthetic realm unspoiled by human industry – have become rather obsolete to many contemporary artists touching on the subject. However, this problematic notion still lingers over large swathes of the public discourse surrounding the environment, as well as its progressive collapse. The commodified ‘Safari’ landscape, an abstract ‘rainforest’ on our screensaver, the cheery panda in the WWF logo – all beautiful, pleasant or inspiring perhaps, yet also plastic, undemanding, and hopelessly removed from the firmament of lived experience. Such careless aesthetisation of the ‘natural’ world all too often transforms it into something easily quantifiable, easily digestible, easily marketable in which we have no place but that of an outside admirer. It seems, then, increasingly urgent for art to challenge the precarious assumption of nature as transcendental which still tends to underpin much of current ecological thinking, if it is to carry political weight. For in elevating nature to the domain of the ideal, even in the pursuit of preserving it (a worthy cause if there ever was one), we risk obscuring our own entanglement within its complex weave. In order to develop more inclusive ways of thinking and talking about nature, to grasp the interconnectedness necessary for any truly ecological project, there is a need to shed this rather distant aesthetics of unadulterated veneration for an art that seeks to remain radically open to depicting, thinking, reinventing our ‘natural’ environment in all its perplexing, infinitely strange breadth.
Being in nature is an often strange and disorienting experience, as anyone who has ever gone hiking, open-sea diving, or gotten lost in a forest (or even their own municipal park) can testify to. The philosopher Timothy Morton suggests indeed that the world in which we exist is one not truly delineated by clear lines, borders and categories. A vast and loose mesh, it stretches across and over nouns such as ‘man’ and ‘animal’, organic and inorganic, dead and alive.[1] Nature has no foreground or background; it is both distant and yet intimately, almost uncomfortably near to us (in a sense, it is us) – a quality that often makes it difficult for us to properly orient ourselves, or to structure our sense of being within its web. Yet, it is precisely in recognising its strange character, this bewildering ‘unnaturalness’ of nature, that we can more clearly appreciate the myriad threads that connect us to the outlandish beings that we share it with, and understand the impact our actions have on them. The works selected for the online exhibition Nature with a Small N all share a common ground in their desire to map out the complex, often conflicting web of relations given between us and the mesh, and to explore the innate strangeness that characterises our engagement with the environment – that is, to think the ecological thought through a radical openness to difference. They raise questions about the place of art, and the moving image in particular, within the mesh; they explore the extent to which of our sensory capacities may apprehend its elusive strands; they critique the dominant standpoint that we comfortably assume towards it; they wonder what lies beyond the edges of perception. In other words, they outline an open, visual and contemplative dialogue with strange strangers, with all the uncanniness and wonder that entails.
This curious notion of the ‘strange stranger’ brings us back to Morton’s ecological thought. Signifying the ambivalence and insubstantiality of relations within nature, the strange stranger – whether human, animal, or something else altogether –  is an entity intrinsically unknowable to us, and only becomes substantially more so the more intimately we learn to know them. To put it simply, ‘their strangeness itself is strange’.[2] Yet, in the presence of this impenetrable alterity, we may finds a means of breaking through the veneer of facile comfort and alikeness that surrounds the image of ‘Nature’ as an unattainable yet always-ready-at-hand arcadian ideal. In revealing the depths of difference that characterise being in the world, an encounter with a strange stranger makes our world both vaster and more ephemeral, extending the reach of our insight only to reveal the hopeless inadequacy of the self to contain all that it can touch and see. Here, however, in this failure to comprehend, to know, lies a path towards a more responsible and considerate course along which to configure relations between humans and environment. A meeting between strange strangers need not be traumatic; spiriting us away from the self-sameness contained in our assumptions of familiarity – and the fantasies of mastery and possession they smuggle in –, it can instead make us aware of the simple fact that outside the limits of our subjectivity lies an alterity that we cannot possess. Existence means co-existence with a radical, unassailable difference that is too often compelled into the position of an subject by the ‘aesthetics of sublime’ or ‘politics of pity’ that structure a number of current modes of seeing and thinking ecology and replicate the same old attitudes of superiority, of distancing, categorisation, and the desire to control.
Morton’s eco-philosophical project represents also an imposing attempt to take on the task of imagining how we might, through the medium of art, capture something of the blurry, astonishing and at times unsettling quality that characterises our sense of being in the mesh. Recognising the potential in art to allow us to experience the radical openness of thinking ecologically, he offers a fertile starting point for reflecting on the ways in which the moving image may help us frame the interconnectedness of ecological being through a more even-handed discourse based on the notions of inclusiveness and responsibility. How can art sustain the radical alterity, the disconcerting strangeness of ecology while also encouraging the empathy contained within – in short, how might the moving image induce us to imagine the possibilities of an ethical encounter with nature?

One such encounter may be identified in the solemn desolation recorded in Bruno Muzzolini’s Dam (2011) which makes visible some of the hazy, uncanny strangeness that characterises our lived experience as parts of the mesh. A dead, static presence amidst the seasonal rhythms of the valley, the titular subject becomes through the recording lens of the video camera the site of an encounter between the viewer and variety of strange strangers. A trio of distant, anonymous figures sitting on a rock, their purpose unknown. A deer-like creature loping through the slopes of valley, whose exact shape and species we cannot quite discern. The monumental and silent protagonist of this two-channel video, even the dam itself seems familiar and alien at the same time. Situated in a valley near Bergamo, the Gleno Dam was the site of a tragedy in 1923, when it collapsed killing several hundred inhabitants of the valley. Now, on the split-screen, it appears suspended between the tragic past that its ruins bear and its designated future as the site of a belvedere in construction. As such Dam might perhaps be taken for yet another ode to the sublime beauty of the Natural landscape, revering its enduring power to resist and to engulf all materialisations of management and control that man tries to impose over the environment. However, the slow pace of the juxtaposed scenes, with little or no movement within, emphasize the overall feel of marvel and restless ennui in front of the circular transformation of what is, in the end, a blend of both the natural and the human – in the mesh the concrete architecture, construction equipment, mountain brooks and snow-covered valleys are all equally distant and indifferent to the failures of civilisation and to our need to make sense of, or more precisely, to assign sense to our surroundings.

In a similar vein, Joey Holder’s Ophiux (2016) applies a different temporal logic to the one based on speed and immediacy that we are used to in today’s economic and technological frame, to bring to our attention the unquantifiable strangeness of other beings. The sequence of micro and macro landscapes conflate the eerie forms of microbiology and marine life (that strangest of all lives) with a scientific machinery that seeks to map nature within the strict bounds of knowledge. Against a backdrop of such quintessential otherworldliness, the claims to power articulated in the subtitles, various maps, diagrams and animated graphs soon give way to a bewildering, ambivalent whirl of increasingly insubstantial space. One could claim that the video medium belongs to that very dispositif of knowledge and power – especially when it comes to its application to scientific research. The long tradition of its use in observing and recording bacteria, cells and other forms of microbiological life (referenced as well in Ophiux) is nothing more or less than a manipulation of nature and its natural temporality to fit into our life production, to make it into an artefact. Yet, in this process it is the machine’s eye that gains the same bewildering quality, revealing the moving image – a product of its failed totalising view – as a strange stranger, exactly like the creatures it records. Through continuous overlapping of operational images made by machines and scientific equipment, fragmented data and landscapes, 3D models and close-ups of octopuses, crabs, and amoebas, the complex dialectic between the natural and the artificial is transformed into an true Mortonian mesh.

Demetrio Giacomelli’s Diorama (2017), on the other hand, sets out to contest the very familiarity of our everyday surroundings in its exploration of the encounter between humans and animals in sites belonging to human dominion. With its name evoking the dream of a panoptic view of nature, the documentary’s striking night-time shots that transform ‘ordinary’ animals dwelling in the woods, lakes and bushes of Lombardy into outlandish, dream-like creatures. Juxtaposed with urban and industrial landscapes, this animal presence seems to defy the very intelligibility of various scenes of human activity that embody and define the given spaces. Fragmenting the smooth flow of images, Diorama tears a rupture in the promised illusion of optic mastery as the asymmetrical, uncentred frames and the stylistic impurities generated by a multitude of image types and qualities chafe against the gaze and pull our attention towards the inadequacy of visual taxonomies. What at first appears a peripheral vision of the human habitat, in one hour and a half, converts our perception into an awareness of the unclear status of the reality that we reside in and think to possess – making us pose the question of who exactly is invading whose natural environment. Such insight is emphasized in another set of surreal sequences where documentary style footage of road infrastructure is superimposed with the inkblots of the Rorschach test, interweaving its amorphic shapes with the tiny bodies of frogs attempting to overcome this human ‘obstacle.’ Similarly, several human protagonists whose stories shape the film’s narrative are transformed through infrared video technology into ghostly visions and smudges of life heat while engaged in observing or assisting the natural world. Giacomelli notes: ‘Through observing activities which draw the protagonists … into the animal kingdom, it reveals an intimate dimension, something that is not immediately apparent but which has always been part of mankind and which only through alterity can restore its true essence, perhaps.’[3]

Central to challenging our established conceptions about nature, the question of alterity also points us towards the ethical issues at stake in meeting the strange stranger, that is, all the things that make up life in the mesh. As the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has argued, for our existence to be truly meaningful in the ethical sense, it can only rest on a profound respect for the ‘experience of Being in its strangeness.’[4] This strangeness of existence is felt most acutely in the presence of that irreducible difference materialised in the shape of the Other (whom we might also name the strange stranger), and precisely at the moment it overflows our comprehension. An experience of such alterity, by definition, resist attempts to contain it within the familiarity of our sensory impressions, and demands instead that we recognise at its source a radically independent subject to whom we are beholden. This moment of confrontation that Levinas famously called a ‘face-a-face’ with alterity is also one of awakening to the irrefutable ethical responsibility rooted in the interconnectedness of being: to be with the other is be for the other, on shared footing.[5] Applied to the realm of ecology, this powerful philosophy calls on us to rethink the idea of the environment and its constituents as a playground for human power and exploitation. It invites us to substitute undertones of domination and control – so often concealed inside the production sprawling taxonomies of the natural world in both science and culture – for a discourse grounded in the values of equality, compassion, and commitment.
Contrary to the idea, often articulated in the Heideggerian tradition of ontology, of nature as mere ‘inexhaustible matter’ for things and beings affirmed through knowledge – that is, through our possession of them –, a Levinasian ecology would ask us to instead let both emerge though their own means and on their own terms.[6]
An echo of Levinas’s ethics might be sensed in Clemens Wilhelm’s The Tourist (2011). Displaying the artist himself in what appear to be acts of sexual intercourse with the Icelandic landscape, the four-minute performative video mixes the language of porn with the aesthetics of the National Geographic. The images infused with the sublime of a snow-covered mountain, of sheer cliffs, foamy waterfalls, erupting geysers, the cerulean sea and seagulls roaming the skies – clearly borrowing from the oversaturated pool of Romantic imagery which has been successively exploited and commercialized in the ever more flourishing and globalised industry of nature tourism – are contraposed with suggestive touching and the naked, face-to-face encounter with volcanic rocks, lichen and mosses, steamy vents and mud pots. The unspoiled, untouched, ‘genuine,’ or as the artist himself comments, ‘virgin-like’ idea of nature that every tourist dreams to encounter (and record) is problematized by the absurd simulation (or not?) of sex.[7] At the same time, it makes the performance look obscene and visually violent as the moving image itself assumes strong tactile qualities, which are further reinforced by the absence of sound The ‘lovemaking’ is emphatically rendered an alienating ‘coital’ act though the blurring of the male performer’s face in post-production, which impersonalises and ‘protects’ the artist identity, while revealing the digital identity of the moving-image medium. Together with the artifice of the image of ‘Nature,’ the filmic dispositive is exposed – just like the naked body on screen. In the nudity of the pornographic image, the white body of the male protagonist becomes a mediator for the viewer’s fantasies directed towards the site of the female body to be possessed through sex; a body which is not in need of blurring since is it is already anonymous, abstract, faceless. In his ecological spin on Levinas’ thought,  Morton notices: ‘Nature has turned out to be a plastic knockoff of the real thing … Wilderness areas are giant, abstract versions of the products hanging in mall windows.’[8]
However, when it comes to rejecting the dubious allure of such reified systems of ecological relations, it is hard to not notice the challenge in sustaining – through the moving image – an encounter with nature that is first and above all ethical. If the strangeness of nature indeed surpasses the meagre abilities of our senses, and therefore our cognitivity, how could it be effectively rendered through the medium of film or video which frames reality into an image, transforming it into a flow of information to be visually processed? Some answers may be intimated if we start to think of the moving image as not merely as an image, but as a quasi physical site through we may experience the radical openness of ecological thought, and come to grips with the limited reach of our perception, bound as it is to the visual sphere in a Western context. For the moving image to operate as a vantage point from which we may intimate something of the ethical relations that connect us to the strange stranger, it needs first to escape the logic of production inherent to visual technologies of power – and by this we mean to refer to the production of knowledge in particular. If we try to think of the moving image in spatial terms, that is as a rendering of the experience of space (and time) in sensuous form, it becomes fertile with the potential to open up to us a different relational logic, one that derives meaning from the limits it imposes on our ability to know. As Laura Marks argues, our perception is intensely embodied: as an act performed through the senses, it ‘means in itself’, outside whatever meaning may or may not reside in that which is perceived.[9] The moving-image artworks that form Nature with a Small N all frustrate in some way the sensory modalities that determine the manner of our engagement with the visual, bringing to the fore this embodied form of meaning by subverting the usual conditions of meaning making. Although documentary in style – using close ups, high definition video, low visibility technology and tele-objectives to record reality – , they offer little in the way of epistemological content, but instead move beyond the textual (or rather stop just an inch short of it) by way of shots whose ambivalent surface refuses to submit to the penetrative powers of the gaze. Filled with rich forms and textures, they catch our attention and pull us close, yet remain flat in the sense of permitting no satisfaction for the desire to know or apprehend what lies beyond the exterior – whether it is a panoramic view of a valley, or the facade of a ruin, or a submarine landscape, the interface of a 3D mapping software, rocky and grass strewn Icelandic terrain, or nocturnal visions of the Lombardian countryside. Intimate yet impervious in the visual detail they provide, they are unintelligible or perhaps more accurately simply unavailable to the senses. In a word, they are strange. This perplexing blurring of opacity with intimacy is felt most strongly through the moving image’s play with the limits of meaning-making and our sensory capabilities. The dog in Fani Zguro’s In a Blind of an Eye (2008) is, of course, blind itself, but the work likewise addresses a deeper blindness that radiates from the strange stranger and seeps into our vision. A strange and disconcerting figure, the hound’s cloudy eye resists our attempts at ‘identifying’ with it, of intruding upon the alterity of its being, while the lengthy and static shot presses us uncomfortably against the milky film, imposing strict limits on our point of view which permit no insight into the animal’s bodily condition nor the circumstances that surround it. Impenetrable and almost suffocating in its palpable nearness, the extreme close-up admits no cognisance, no comprehension beyond the vague feel of a space between, a gap in knowledge. The blindness of the subject finds a counterpart in the ‘deafness’ of the silent video, animated only by the occasional reactions of the dog’s eye to events outside the frame and to sounds inaudible to us. Uncontrolled, its movements introduce motion into the otherwise still image, transforming its duration into a loop from one startle to another and bringing us into a sort of synesthetic, experiential short-circuit: time, gaze, and meaning are all suspended between the ‘furry’ surface of the mute visual fragment and our imagining of what we cannot see, hear nor touch. Something similar follows from the apparent minimalism of visual experience in Ana Husman’s Almost Nothing (2016), filmed at the Croatian island of Korcula. Through the narrator’s monotone, extra-diegetic voice, we are induced to ‘hear’ and to ‘see’ the breeze that blows across shots of banal, desolated, quasi-domestic interiors, typical of seaside tourist apartments. The man’s account, a strange hybrid between meteorological prognosis and poetic description of the different winds native to the region, is juxtaposed with household objects and artefacts ornamented with natural motives. The shivering pines and cerulean sea glimpsed through PVC windows and flowery curtains become mere decorative elements of a two-dimensional collage, another product of our management of space fueled by the industrialised fantasy of touristic leisure. Yet, when the camera turns towards the island’s landscape, the eerie sound of wind seeps into the image as it exchanges the flatness of the modernist, rectangular-obsessed commodity interiors for a sea of green materiality, undulating and quivering within the static frame. Although we can locate the landscape, define the wind and even position the recording device through the titles accompanying each scene – a sort of continuity of the narrator’s voice – our understanding of the depicted nature is revealed to consist of but a series of wanting impressions, a chimera that quickly dissolves into the mesh when exposed. What is left for us to experience is a vibrating surface where the invisible forces of wind battle the inertia of grass, trees and bushes.

This puzzling, palpable ‘flatness’ of the moving image – what Marks would term its haptic quality – opens us to the strangeness of ecological thought. While enfolding us in an intensely tactile act of perceiving, it synchronously isolates us from what is contained beyond the ‘skin’ of the film against which our senses brush.[10] It refuses to admit meaning beyond the impossibility of reaching across: there is no knowing the strange stranger through the deficient filter of our sensory impressions. Yet the experience of this absurd moment, which produces no knowledge but of the lack of knowledge, produces a dizzying feel that allows us elude the precise hierarchies of order and classification invoked by the act of looking, and to re-inscribe the moving image as space through which we may reflect on the unconditional alterity of ecological being. As the significance of the work of art surges forth from inside, coalescing in the touch between the historicity of the spectator and the limited reach of their senses, the moving image sheds what Levinas saw as the problematic, shadow quality of art. No longer a mere trick that traps temporal experience into a static loop somewhere between life and death, it invites us to reflect on the interconnectedness of memory, being and perception instead of contemplating only the distance in between.[11] The more we see, the less we know – yet the more we wonder at the threads that run through each of us, and across the dizzying breadth of the mesh. Here lies the rich paradox of aesth-ethics: as much as it is the stranger who is strange, so, in the end, are we. And that commits us to a mutual respect and responsibility. In the gap between sense and sensation, distance and proximity, stranger and strangeness, we find the openness to think, to talk, to feel differently – the openness of the ecological thought.

 

[1] Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (London: Harvard University Press), p. 28-29.
[2] Morton, The Ecological Thought, p. 41.
[3] Demetrio Giacomelli, Dossier Diorama (Milano: Aves Project/ Controra Film & Mountflour Films, 2016), p. 1.
[4] Emmanuel Levinas, Existence and Existents (London: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1988), p. 11.
[5] Emmanuel Levinas, God, Death, and Time, trans. Bettina Bergo (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), p. 20-21.
[6] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), p. 46.
[7] Clemens Wilhelm, from email correspondence with Iva Kontic (3 May 10:31), np.
[8] Morton, The Ecological Thought, p. X.
[9] Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (London: Duke University Press, 1999), p. 145.
[10] Jennifer M. Barker, The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience (London: University of California Press, 2009, p. 25.
[11] Emmanuel Levinas, ‘Reality and its Shadow’ in Seán Hand, ed., The Levinas Reader, (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1989) p. 138.

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