Plymouth University / Transart Institute
Engaging with the atmospheres: Moving-image entanglements at the Sierra Negra astronomical observatories.
To develop a ‘new materialism’ (Dolphijn & Tuin 2016) inspired moving-image practice, through the engagement with human and non-human entanglements at the Sierra Negra astronomical observatories in Mexico.
How to develop an artists’ moving image practice that responds to human and non-human material ecologies through the entanglement with the Sierra Negra observatories?
Background to Research
My work as an artist has dealt with technology and its relation to science, communication and other social and political aspects of human life. I have explored these topics from the view of communication theory, mathematics and computer sciences.
But as a result of my recent visits to astronomical observatories in remote locations, I became interested in the influence of other entities that manifest agency and affection too, like the atmosphere, wind, clouds, weather, light coming form outer space, altitude, flora, fauna and many other forces that affect us because we are entangled with the material world. We humans –and non-humans– are affected by these phenomena and organize around them. Let’s not forget that we measure time according to planetary movements. For example, we celebrate our birthdays by counting the number of times the earth has spun around the sun since the day we were born.
It is from the need to incorporate other material entities to my artwork, that I will develop a practice-led research consistent with an interconnected world through material interactions or intra-actions (Barad 2007). Departing from ‘New materialism’ thinking (Dolphijn & Tuin 2016), I will follow the flow of human and non-human agency around astronomical observatories, especially around those built at the top of the Sierra Negra in Puebla Mexico at an altitude of more than 4000 meters. “New materialism is fascinated by affect, force, and movement as it travels in all directions.” (Dolphijn & Tuin 2016)
‘New materialism’ is the name that has been used to encapsulate the thinking of several authors and researchers who believe in a comprehensive, interconnected, multidisciplinary and non-dualistic approach to the physical world. They invite us to interact with the material world through metaphysics of engagement and performativity. Among them are Karen Barad, Manuel De Landa, Rosi Braidotti, Donna Haraway and others1.
I’m particularly interested in the concepts of entanglement and intra-action, which are defining ways to engage with the world considering the material qualities of the participating entities at the moment of the interaction. Intra-actions as Barad defines them, do not entail “interaction between separate entities; rather, determinate entities emerge from intra-action” (Barad 2007). It is different to a usual interaction, which relies, she continues, in the “prior existence of separately determinate entities.” The entities and forces resulting from the intra-actions are manifested as a ‘dance of agency’, which is “a performative, transformative and productive back and forth between human and non-human agency.” (Pickering 2011)
According to Pickering, if the dance of agency balances into equilibrium, an island of stability emerges. Astronomers struggle to find those fragile and temporary conditions where the tension of forces is sustained enough time for them to capture a tiny amount of energy that has traveled for millions of years to reach the observatories.
By ‘looking’ far away into the universe we are also ‘gazing’ into the past. “Telescopes are machines of time travel as of space-spanning” (Peters 2003) Light travels across space and time to reach us, and the consequences of this inevitable material fact is described by Peters as an ‘elongated now’. As Barad suggests: time is not universally given, it is “articulated and re-synchronized through various material practices” (Dolphijn & Tuin 2016). This is interesting considering that the moving image practice is –like astronomy– inherently a time and light based practice.
The relationship between materialism and filmmaking it is certainly not new and has been tackled from different perspectives, among them is Rosalind Krauss’s expanded field theory, which pointed filmmaking towards the critical awareness of other material entities like the screen, viewer, projector, space, etc. (Trodd 2011). However, the phenomenological approach of the expanded field departs from a clear defined relationship between subject and object (Butler 2010). A ‘new materialism’ inspired art practice should renounce to such hierarchal order. T. J. Demos inspired in Michel Serres, invites us to “inaugurate a new political ecology based on a post-colonial equality between human and non-human life” (Demos 2015).
In parallel to artists experimenting with the expanded field, filmmakers developed the framework for the structural and Structural/materialism filmmaking, which was an attempt to escape the illusionism of cinema. These efforts, lead by Peter Gidal and Malcolm Le Grice, brought film’s structure and materiality to the foreground: Celluloid, light trapped inside the camera, cutting, looping and gluing, etc. (Gidal 1978)
In a similar direction, there has been a growing attention to filmmaking rooted in ‘new materialism’ thinking, specially by practitioners and scholars that focus their attention in the material (or carnal) qualities of the film, like in the work of Bill Morrison and Peter Delpeut (Barrett & Bolt 2013). While I acknowledge the importance of these works, I’m more interested in developing a practice that emerges from the interconnectedness and agency of material forces that emerge through my moving image practice and not only through the matter that comprises film or video.
The structural approach of Chris Welsby’s landscape films responds to complex systems and structures that carry information, like the wind, water, the movement of the sun and the passing of time (Welsby 2015). His approach is inspiring and worth using as departure point to accomplish a more comprehensive integration of the material entities participating in a given place: Instead of producing films that carry the complexity of a given phenomenon, I aim at doing films by engaging with the world, which is complex.
“How does a new materialist film practice look like?” Asks Elke Marhöfer in her PHD dissertation Ecologies of practices and Thinking (Marhöfer 2015). She tackles the question through her film practice by establishing affinities and bonds with more-than-human material forces and by constructing a metaphysical conceptual framework around Gilles Deleuze and Isabelle Stengers ideas.
“A new materialist film practice, how I understand it, is entangled and immersed in the movement of disparate materials in various ways” (Marhöfer 2015)
Marhöfers’s film practice aims to a decolonization effort that pays equal attention to animals, plants, vegetables, spirits, things and matter. Her ideas and practice will be useful as departure points to pursue my ‘new materialistic’ moving image practice, but as Isabelle Stengers reminds us, ‘Ecology of practices’ (part of Marhöfer’s dissertation title) is a non-neutral tool for thinking, which means that “no theory gives you the power to disentangle something from its particular surroundings” (Stengers 2013). This means that my own ‘new materialism’ practice will emerge through the intra-action with determinate forces and entities at the sites of my explorations.
Research Methods & Strategies
I will develop a moving image methodology derived from tools that allow me to engage actively with the flow of material entities and forces around astronomical observatories. It will be through my own practice derived from the ‘entanglement with’ the sites and by ‘intra-acting’ with the ecologies around them, as I will test and illustrate these methods.
The challenge is to understand what methods can be suggested by new materialism for the development of my moving image practice: In the background section of this proposal I introduced the concept of intra-action as a tool for entanglement, a method that when put to use, it might force the reconfiguration of the filmmaking practice: Camera movement, time, framing, exposure, editing and other cinematographic tools will be determined at the sites from within the moving image phenomenon: they will arise from the ontological intra-action with the mountain, the astronomers, the telescopes, the surroundings, the camera and me.
I could, for example, record clouds until they stop being clouds in relation to me (disappear), or until they become thick and dense in connection to the camera and the viewer’s sight at the exhibition space. This singular interconnectedness of matter can’t be controlled before hand.
I will stay away from classificatory methods that follow territorial lines with fixed boundaries, in order to explore cartographic ones instead: “New materialism de-territorializes the ways in which cultural theory has been classified, and this process we call cartographical” (Dolphijn & Tuin 2016). I will avoid pre-determined paradigms and the reductionism of a moving image perspective rooted in a single epistemic discipline. However, I will not disregard the history of cinematographic language and grammar, instead I will recognize its movement, fluidity and change determined by the affection within the entanglements.
I will depart, somehow in opposition, from what Rosalind Krauss calls the medium specificity of the film, to expand into an ecological moving image practice. I will argue that the ‘specificity of the medium’ is not a pre-conceived supporting structure or apparatus like Krauss’ argues (Krauss 1999). Every situation, every projection, every exhibition, is different, it is unique and individual.
It is also important to dislocate cinema’s traditional order established by the relationship between subject/object/camera to explore a moving image practice where boundaries are less clear. And it will be equally valuable to remove the tags that unnecessarily divide culture/nature, organic/inorganic, animate/inanimate, etc.
Astronomy is pursuing the great endeavor to explore the cosmos and discover new worlds with the aid of powerful observatories in remote locations. And while this is something that interests me, these astronomical sites in remote locations provide us with a great opportunity to engage with our own physical world.
Simultaneously to the development of entanglement and intra-action as methods of research, I will explore earthly practices (Latour 2016a) like geography, topography, meteorology and geology, to find ways to re-discover the world through my practice. In a conference called “Why Gaia is not the globe?” Bruno Latour invites us to think how do we imagine ourselves in the world? How do we inhabit the globe? (Latour 2016b)
He proposes us to imagine ourselves inside the atmosphere, in opposition of a globe imagined from outside the planet and from a nowhere position. This earthly perspective presents us with the opportunity to re-discover the world by engaging with it.
I will situate myself inside the phenomena around astronomical observatories to engage with the sites by developing an earthly moving image practice. This onto-epistemological approach, in conjunction with the methods suggested by intra-action and entanglement, will provide me with a new materialistic methodology through the moving image around the observatories.
It is important however to explore methods to record, register and share the research during and after the entanglements. “How to act at distance on unfamiliar events, places and people?” Bruno Latour asks us in Science in Action before immediately providing an answer: “by somehow bringing home these events, places and people.” (Latour 1987)
How do I bring my moving image practice to the exhibition space, the museum, the classroom, the dissertation or the symposia? How do I share them with others? Dorion Sagan and Eric Schneider pose as a similar question: how to bring the ecosystem into the laboratory? (Schneider & Sagan 2006).
Latour defines inscriptions devices (or instruments) as “any set-up, no matter what its size, nature and cost, that provides a visual display of any sort in a scientific text” (Latour 1987). Telescopes, computers, cameras and projectors are all inscription devices that produce information that accounts with the physical world. I will use the video camera to make inscriptions at the sites of my explorations, and in consequence, I will render these events, places and people mobile (in Latour terms). Graham Burnett reminds us that inscriptions are “painstakingly crafted through the explorer’s active engagement with the land” (Burnett 2000)
Finally, I will establish a continuous flow between the writing and the practice (Gray & Malins 2004). The writing will provide an account of the material entities intra-acting while the filmmaking practice will aim to show the movement between them. Borrowing Manuel de Landa’s words, the writing can account for the virtual/potential (possibilities of change), while the film practice will show the ‘actualization’ of those possibilities (DeLanda 2015). A tool that actualizes thinking: This onto-epistemological feedback is desirable, just in the same way as a solid communication between theoretical and experimental physics is fundamental.
Statement of ethical research
I will not design and perform any experiments with human or animals oriented to the production of knowledge from an interpretation of this interaction: I will not perform focus groups, surveys, examinations, etc. I will record both people and animals interacting with their usual surroundings but they won’t be directed: As an example, I will record astronomers and engineers at work and animals and plants in their environment without altering them. I acknowledge that my presence at the site will have an affect on them, but it won’t be towards a deliberate attempt to prove a hypothesis. I will make some questions aimed only to a better understanding of the actions being developed.
As people will appear in videos that will be exhibited as part of my research, I will give proper credit and I will make sure they sign the corresponding consent forms according to the guidelines of the Research Ethics Committee and to the local and international laws.
Barad, K.M., 2007. Meeting the universe halfway : quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning, Duke University Press.
Barrett, E. & Bolt, B. eds., 2013. Carnal knowledge: towards a “new materialism” through the arts, Croydon, UK: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd.
Burnett, G., 2000. Masters of All They Surveyed: Exploration, geography, and British El Dorado, The University of Chicago Press.
Butler, A., 2010. A deictic turn: Space and location in contemporary gallery film and video installation. Screen, 51(4), pp.305–323.
DeLanda, M., 2015. The New Materiality. Architectural Design, 85(5), pp.16–21.
Demos, T.J., 2015. Rights of Nature: The Art and Politics of Earth Jurisprudence. Rights of Nature: Art and Ecology in the Americas, 1, pp.1–15.
Dolphijn, R. & Tuin, I. van der, 2016. New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies, Open Humanities Press.
Gidal, P., 1978. Structural Film Anthology, British Film Institute.
Gray, C. & Malins, J., 2004. Visualizing research: a guide to the research process in art and design,
Krauss, R., 1999. Voyage On The North Sea, Thames & Hndson Inc.
Latour, B., 2016a. Is Geo-logy the new umbrella for all the sciences ? Hints for a neo-Humboldtian university. In Cornell University.
Latour, B., 1987. Science in action : how to follow scientists and engineers through society, Harvard University Press.
Latour, B., 2016b. Why Gaia is not the Globe - and why our future depends on not confusing the two. In Aarhus: Aarhus Universitet.
Marhöfer, E., 2015. Ecologies of Practices and Thinking. University of Gothenburg.
Peters, J.D., 2003. Space Time and Communication Theory. Canadian Journal of Communication, 28, pp.397–411.
Pickering, A., 2011. Ontological Politics : Realism and Agency in Science, Technology and Art. Insights, 4(9), pp.2–11.
Schneider, E.D. & Sagan, D., 2006. Into the cool : energy flow, thermodynamics, and life, University of Chicago Press.
Stengers, I., 2013. Introductory Notes on an Ecology of Practices. Cultural Studies Review, 11(1), p.183.
Trodd, T. ed., 2011. Screen/Space: The projected image in contemporary art, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Welsby, C., 2015. Luxonline. Available at: http://www.luxonline.org.uk/articles/a_systems_view(1).html [Accessed November 26, 2016].
1 It is important to note that while not all of these scholars use the tag ‘new materialism’ to describe their thinking, they share many of its views (Dolphijn & Tuin 2016)