Tag Archives: environment
by Joshua Mason
Editor’s note: This essay is based on Mason’s presentation at DePaul University last October. Part II will be published next month.
This is Lake Superior. This is the beginning. It is where I am absorbed. What I see is the edge. You can learn a lot by observing the space where water and land meet. It is a dynamic landscape, ceaselessly changing. What is solid and what is fluvial merge as motions always giving and taking, pushing and pulling. As an artist I work on the edge where interpretation meets a chasm.
Forms as landslides and pigment rundowns create a geomorphic image better than any painting. Or should I say that this is the source of painting? This is painting when the painter no longer illustrates nature. This is painting when the painter steps out of their role as a prodder of form, or as the modernists called it ‘the artist as engineer.’ If I leave artworks to themselves, enticing the emergence of their own material formations, then the results are not a representation of nature but instead what nature does.
Landscapes in art are representations of what we imagine nature to be – we see ourselves in the mirror. Nature is reified or made into a giant heap ‘over there’ and colonized by our gaze. It seems that we had to classify nature, to explode it into its various parts in order to exploit it and render it into a resource. What the land appears to be and what it is, is confused. Landscape is a theatrical staging of nature: it constructs an apparatus of foreground and background, dividing what is to be there for a subject and what is to recede into the background. It presumes nature ‘made once over,’ but nature has only ever been a simulacrum—an invention of representation.
I am fascinated by a landscape ‘landing’ itself as a direct engagement with the materials and processes of paint, soil, and fluvial transitions. It is a kind of abstraction but it does not bracket-out the world in order to construct an ideal image: the land is what it does. The art object exists as a real object. It has qualities independent from representation, from beliefs, linguistic practices, conceptual schemes—whatever and however we think. It is a beauty that exists in the impossibilities of thought.
When I am absorbed into the land I realize that art is an object resonant with the catastrophic. As an artist I pass through the catastrophic in an attempt to emerge from it. Painting emerges out of uncertainty. Its object does what it wants to do and suggests what it wants to suggest. Painting is plastic, as in plasticity or the malleable or the flexible: it is a push and pull and tension in and out between emanation and erasure. There is no picture ahead of time – the results are not taken to be isomorphic with the origin. I am interested in a kind of painting that is immanent, always on the verge of morphing into something else. Stability is an illusion: each mark, each impact is a way-station moving on towards something else. In this way one may give value to what arises, outside of origins, as what arises retains value in and of itself.
Affirming an excitation of matter as a quality beyond interpretation, engaging with materials like paint and soil, fluvial processes and geomorphic impressions where every mark or gesture slides along an equality of probabilities, as a painter I negotiate an edge between my constructs (imagistic, historical, symbolic) and the collapse of coordinates into the intensity of the object. The magic of art is when the thing’s space collides into my space and I disappear.
At every moment in the formation of a painting there is a miniature catastrophe.
On occasion symbols appear. The horizontal line is an example: it is an index for a catastrophic layer. I am a catastrophist. That is an affirmation of existence. The black horizontal line will make its appearance outside the two-dimensional surface of painting and into the world, inscribing its mark upon the land in various installation works. It is a mark like the K/T boundary which as an event is completely unknown to us, but which as a trace is utterly catastrophic and relatable to our own age—the Sixth Extinction.
The point is not to create an enduring object but instead to shift through materials to find an object that is already a ruin. It is to anticipate its ruination. I’ve created a series of works I call Anthrogeodes. These objects take shape violently, like so many earth processes. They appear like geologic objects but are composed entirely of industrially-made materials. That is to say, they ape the appearance of the geologic or mimic it. The geologic is a heap of ruins. Industry is also a giant ruin and it leaves traces. The works are made of recycled foam, polyurethane, oil, acrylic, polystyrene, plastics, concrete, etc. – all found objects that are recycled into a work of art, and which would’ve otherwise ended up in the trash heap. Who knows how long they will last? They haunt a future without me.
If ‘all objects are breathing’ then art is a certain kind of breath – a special kind of tune. I am interested in the intersection between mark-making and landscape where the demarcations in the question – What is ‘human’ and what is ‘nature’ in this image? – begin to blur.
All images by the author.
See more of Joshua Mason’s work at Fieldwork Studios.
 The site of painting as a factory of elements organized by the artist’s mind, producing abstract arrangements: describing a certain quality of materialization of the artist’s mediation, the “engineering” gaze may be a modernist approach to painting like a piece of technology or manufacturing. It is an approach to matter where the relation to nature evokes a counter-image mobilized to reduce the nuances of nature to strictly quantitative harmonies. (See Werner Hartmann’s Painting in the Twentieth Century.) As a painter aware of the nuances of painting’s history, I recognize that it is not a shallow aestheticism, since in the background is an idealistic reconstitution of the human and the environment into the totality of a rational order – utopian and hygienic. (See Harold Rosenberg’s essay Piet Mondrian).
 Landscape conjoins to the Anthropocene. Altering the earth through industrial agriculture and fishing, mining, large-scale mineralization of the surface, chemical changes in the atmosphere and oceans, the domestication of animals, rapid population increases, and of course global climate-change, are accelerated consequences of a metaphysics played out in the re-presentations of nature.
 Isn’t it that off of the basis of presuming nature to be ‘over there’ that is can be made once over by vision machines? The gaze is a survey device: Eye/Painter/Man. First seeing territory before economy could colonize it, the Eye accelerates over the land turning it into a landscape; that is, not only turning ecology into a representational image, but thereupon a potential space of progress. Creating a simulacrum of nature, nature presented for us, the disembodied Eye that simulates nature stages its abstract power and will to accumulation, marking off ‘natural’ referents. It finds hold in a surveying metaphysics turned into a transcendent organizing agent – no longer a god, but Man: capital, the subject, the social, linguistic or economic realm with all of the natural referents, use-values and such.
 Land is a verb. It is in flux. Emerging processes are formed at the site of painting, gaining an immediacy outside the realm of what could be placed on the surface by the painter.
 I realize the catastrophic aspects of creativity where catastrophe embodies itself in every mark, instant impact, rundown, transition, erasure or collision of material embodiments.
 The K/T Boundary is a geological signature that marks the mass extinction that destroyed the majority of Mesozoic species. It refers to the point between the Cretaceous (K) and Tertiary (T) periods, dating around 65.5 million years ago.
Photo by Ravi Agarwal: http://www.raviagarwal.com/index.php
Agarwal will be speaking at DePaul on Monday, April 24th. See details in sidebars.
Jeff Vandermeer is sometimes credited with creating a new genre of ecological fiction with his Southern Reach trilogy, and the startling “Area X” which functions as the scene, action, and main character of the novels. VanderMeer doesn’t like the moniker “cli-fi,” however, and his academic readers, at the very least, can appreciate why “climate change” doesn’t account for his work. Certainly ecological change is one of the main topics of the trilogy: Area X is generally interpreted as a territory in which ecological degradation is mysteriously reversed, with terrifying consequences for humanity. But VanderMeer’s vision is broader than climate change, and this breadth of vision might begin to account for the brilliant “weirdness” of his novels.
In a published conversation with critical theorist and philosopher Timothy Morton, published in Paradoxa (volume 28), VanderMeer commented that contemporary realistic fiction which somehow manages or contains climate change within given, classical forms isn’t very realistic. Mere climate fiction, conversely, may focus on the environment while forgetting the complexities of context writ large. The ecological context is most obvious in VanderMeer’s work, but sustained critical attention to environmental issues may have distracted readers from socio-cultural themes, as well as the vulnerable bodies and fragile psyches of his characters.
VanderMeer’s work began to be associated with Tim Morton, Hyperobjects, and the Anthropocene, with the publication of the Southern Reach trilogy, in 2014, and more recently with Morton’s new book, Dark Ecology. Morton is also known as a proponent of Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO), a popular philosophical mode of inquiry associated with Speculative Realism. OOO is also very interested in the uncanny and the weird. Graham Harman’s Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy meticulously illustrates the relationship between object-oriented ontology and the weird, for example, and VanderMeer could easily substitute for Lovecraft in that work, and probably should. But this association with Speculative Realism may be limited and limiting.
Though I believe it to be theoretically broad-minded, agile, and pragmatic, Speculative Realism has come to be associated, in the public sphere, with merely philosophy speculation. And though the relationship between VanderMeer and the Anthropocene, within the context of Morton’s work, has been and will, no doubt, continue to be very productive, critical commentary focusing on ecological issues, as we currently understand them, in VanderMeer’s corpus, may have the same limitations as literature which tries to contain climate change within classical literary forms. Of course the Southern Reach is about the environment, but also, more accurately, about relationships among the environment, institutions, bodies, and minds.
Steven Shaviro’s recently published review of VadnerMeer’s Borne draws attention to capitalism in the work and suggests connections to accelerationism. This attention to capitalism as an institution is faithful to the new novel, but also VanderMeer’s work as a whole. I quote at length form Shaviro’s review for reasons obvious to anyone familiar with his superb work:
The Company itself seems to have come from elsewhere; perhaps it is (as the novel suggests at one point) a mechanism of “the future exploiting the past, or the past exploiting the future,” or “another version of Earth” enriching itself at the expense of this one. (The issue is not resolved, but I find it suggestive: it’s a far better version of Nick Land’s fantasy of capital as an alien parasite from the future). (The idea of the future exploiting its own past — which is our present — is one that I find especially compelling; something like this is also the premise of Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers).
Shaviro’s concept of “the future exploiting the past or the past exploiting the future” is particularly apt, at this moment, as the American fossil fuel oligarchy guarantees its “right” to extract as much wealth as possible from long-buried resources, at the obvious expense of current and future generations. But the concept is also generally true, and no one can escape the hyperobject of capital.
While accelerationists are often criticized as dystopian, anarchic, and even malicious, the “outside” stance of some environmental ideologues subtly undermines their own convictions of interconnectedness. VanderMeer’s work, including his soon to be released Borne, describes a much more intimate and complicit relationship to capital. There’s no “outside” to the meta-ecology of nature and capital in Borne, and none in the “real” world. Most of us occupy a liminal space, vulnerable to the influence and seductions of capital, even as we may deny our responsibility, and this self-deception may, in fact, be structurally necessary.
The novel has been described as the genre of the Modern human subject, which appeared, with capitalism, on the cultural scene in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Twentieth-century literature often described human subjects in existential crises, for obvious reasons, as did the “weird” Kafka, for example, and postmodern/posthuman fiction is characterized by the dissolution of the human subject as we know it. Alison Sperling’s article in Paradoxa (28), which features the conversation between VanderMeer and Morton, draws attention to the porous body in the Southern Reach trilogy, and the body as a major theme in VanderMeer’s work.
Sperling reminds us that human bodies are neither inside nor outside of the space of ecological degradation. The weirdness and threat of Area X in the Southern Reach constitutes a direct biological threat to human beings, even though the strangeness is atmospheric. When the biologist is infected with an alien spore, the contamination significantly occurs without direct contact. The atmosphere is the medium. This moment illustrates that Anthropocene bodies are vulnerable because they are non-separate from their environment. Sperling also makes the extremely astute argument that environmental threats may be complex and unmanageable, because the environment too is sick from multiple causes, related to complex human intervention. Thus the “weird” conceit, throughout VanderMeer’s work, that bodies are invaded but also became part of other organisms and/or organic systems, may “realistically” reflect current ecological conditions.
But these incursions and transformations are not limited to bodies. VanderMeer’s charcters are not merely bodily hybrids, but also psychological hybrids. As each character is contaminated they change psychologically. The introduction to Paradoxa (28) reminds us of the origins of the uncanny in Freudian psychology, and the requisite condition of uncertainty. (Freud notes that fairytales are not uncanny, for example, because they have almost no connection to reality.) Uncertainty is only remarkable within a generally predictable, certain, context. And we find uncertainty on various levels of the Southern Reach trilogy, within various levels of “reality.” As Area X is a mysterious space within a realistic setting, the characters’ psychological “symptoms” manifest within functioning psyches and more or less conventional institutional cultures. Among the most memorable psychological moments in the Southern Reach trilogy are the initial contamination of the biologist which she seems to interfere with her perceptions; Control’s darkly humorous resistance to hypnosis by screaming obscenities at his superior over the phone; and the rapturous madness of Whitby. But most intriguing is the problem of origins. Does the madness of Area X originate with an alien invasion, institutional attempts to control the invasion, human frailty, or some combination of the above? Is it a form of original sin? Is it a weapon of the invasion, collateral damage, or something else entirely?
In “Character Degree Zero: Space and the Posthuman Subject,” the first chapter of Science Fiction Beyond Borders (2016), Elana Gomel argues that the posthuman characters of contemporary science fiction are affectively “flat” because their psyches are somehow extended into the environment, rather than contained within their bodies.[i] In lieu of the pathetic fallacy of traditional fiction, in which the natural environment metaphorically reflects the internal psychological states of the characters (but remains essentially separate), contemporary science fiction is often marked by “character eversion,” a novel state in which a character’s psyche escapes the body. Eversion is also an inversion of space and character. Rather than focusing on round characters in flat worlds, posthuman science fiction presents flat characters in round worlds (6).
The affective flatness of Southern Reach characters could also be interpreted as a symptom of trauma or disassociation. Like ecology and culture, trauma may be our habitat. VanderMeer has speculated that the Gulf Oil Spill entered his psyche and became the tunnel/tower at the heart of Area X. This makes sense in the context of Gomel’s thesis. Though trauma may originate outside of the psyche and breach its barriers, it must also be externalized, because it’s categorically too big to be contained.
Returning to Gomel, the posthuman subject suggests, even demands, a posthuman politics. I quote at length from her concluding pages:
The fusion between place and character in SF can also be seen politically, as an expression of the emerging eco-consciousness. Character eversion generates subjects who give up the temporal coherence of the liberal-humanist self in favour of a more capacious and inclusive sense of belonging. They lose themselves but gain the world.
Certainly when cultural emphasis is shifted to context, the liberal human subject will be marginalized (and not a moment too soon). Gomel also makes clear that the anthropocentrism of traditional narrative discourse is no longer appropriate nor ethical:
This discourse is no longer adequate either narratively or politically. The “everted” characters, fading into the alien landscape, offer a revolutionary, if unsettling, view of the possibilities of interaction between humans and other living creatures: surely an important subject in the Anthropocene age.
The sum of these critical reflections points to a broader, forward-looking ecology in VanderMeer’s work, a whole far greater than the sum of nature, consumer-capitalism, body politics, and even posthuman notions of the psyche. This bigger, emergent “thing” is not quite organic, artificial, animal, or machine, but something novel and challenging, demanding novel, challenging responses . . . which brings be back to VanderMeer’s ideas on realism and form.
Realism to date has been unapologetically anthropocentric. What would a non-anthropocentric realism look like? Visionary, uncertain, dream-like? Hard-edged, crushing, hyperreal? As the boundaries between human beings and their environment begin to dissolve, epistemologically, realism may become impossible, or at least very quaint. A kind of nostalgic, historical mode . . . leaving us with pure experience.
[i] Gomel vacillates between flat as one dimensional and flat affect. In this piece I’m referring to the latter sense of the word.
Image source: http://screencrush.com/annihilation-set-photos-garland/
Mock up of the Open Land Art & Fact Team (O.L.A.F.T.) installation
The DePaul Institute for Nature & Culture is delighted to announce the upcoming installation of a new work of art on DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus. Conceived by Chicago photographer Doug Fogelson, Openlands Artist-in-Residence 2015-16, and executed by Fogelson and the Open Land Art & Fact Team in collaboration with Openlands.org, O.L.A.F.T. will be installed at DePaul University in April, as an interactive workstation. In an initial proposal, Fogelson described the project as a “conceptual art intervention.” At this stage, the audience is integral to the work:
This is meant to be an interactive experience where participants are invited to read, inspect, and comment on the items in the shelves. The table has instructions with stickers and comment cards that participants can affix to the back of photographs in the bin and leave with the objects. Artifacts in [sealed] bags are assorted natural objects such as leaves or twigs and assorted refuse such as plastic packaging, [that] have been found in forest or prairie preserves. There are also white sheet printed documents with demographic and ecological information on the locations (Initial Proposal).
The installation will be hosted by DePaul’s John T. Richardson Library in conjunction with Earth Day programming and the April 19th visit to the University of New York Times best selling author, Jeff VanderMeer (McGowan South, Room 108, 6:30-8:30 pm). University leaders are delighted by the obvious topical connections between Fogeslon’s work and Vandermeer’s, as well as the aesthetic resonance of O.L.A.F.T. and VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy.
Fogelson collaborated with a team of artists, over the course of a year, to photograph and creatively survey eight Openland sites. Faculty and students from all colleges, schools, and disciplines are invited to visit the installation, examine the maps, photographs, and artifacts, and add their responses to the project. By interacting with this installation/social experiment, faculty and students will contribute to “meaningful public conversation about the relationship between humans and the spaces we occupy,” in effect co-creating a regional research project and work of art (Open Land Art & Fact Team: O.L.A.F.T. Proposal).
The installation will be located against the west wall on the second floor of the Richardson Library, near room 201, and will be accessible to faculty and students throughout the Spring semester.
More images here.
Lead Artist: Doug Fogelson
Installation: Open Land Art & Fact Team (O.L.A.F.T.)
Dates: April 1st – June 1st 2017.
Location: John T. Richardson Library,
2350 North Kenmore Avenue, Chicago, IL 60614,
Second Floor, west wall, near Room 201