Tag Archives: nature

What is the Lay of the Land? Part I of II

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.

Joshua Mason- Depaul Presentation(1)

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.’[1] 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.

Joshua Mason- Depaul Presentation(1)

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.[2] 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.[3]

Joshua Mason- Depaul Presentation(1)

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.[4] 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.

Joshua Mason_Materia Forma -North Shore - B

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.[5] 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.

Joshua Mason- Depaul Presentation(1)

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[6] 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.

[1] 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).

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] I realize the catastrophic aspects of creativity where catastrophe embodies itself in every mark, instant impact, rundown, transition, erasure or collision of material embodiments.

[6] 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.

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Jeff VanderMeer on Johannes Heldén’s Astroecology and Storytelling in the Anthropocene

by Jeff VanderMeer

Helden1

In the middle of the slow apocalypse of global warming, I find great value in experiments like Johannes Heldén’s Astroecology. We live in a time when approaches to interacting with the environment, including in storytelling terms, are rapidly changing. Some methods of telling stories and some kinds of stories are going extinct, too escapist or not granular enough to survive. Others have become less useful as delivery systems for meditation or mediation on this subject because too compromised or commodified by familiar tropes. Thinking seriously about our environment and how we live within it requires that we reassess the storytelling ecosystem—it’s a habitat in which experiments and mutations will flourish during the interregnum, cross-pollinate, and then perhaps themselves go extinct or be supplanted when global warming truly overtakes us.

One useful strategy for writing about the Anthropocene that I see reflected in Heldén’s project falls under the general category of “de-familiarization.” While this strategy has been used for some time to make readers see anew what has come to seem commonplace—Vladimir Nabokov in his novel Bend Sinister using the syntax of the travel brochure to describe a prison camp comes to mind—it seems much more urgent today, when there is so much we render invisible, even in our mundane daily existence.

In the context I find most interesting, de-familiarization manifests in part as a search for greater granularity and complexity in fictions (and nonfictions), and thus becomes part of that quixotic quest for a more detailed and useful “truth.” It can apply to just a portion of a narrative work, too. Is Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, for example, climate or ecological fiction? No, not in its entirety, but when the narrator fixates on the scenes of oil in the backdrop of news reports as he walks through the transitional space of the terminal, the oil not only leaks out over fellow travelers but in its descriptions attains a kind of agency or power—and an intentional fetishizing—that is, indeed, almost uncanny, and makes it impossible to view as inert or something in the backdrop, and conjures up Heldén’s words, “We thought we could control the night.”

In Astroecology, Heldén takes the familiar space of an ordinary forest with ordinary signs of human habitation and by a process of interiority through a nameless narrator (perhaps some version of the author/creator, but not necessarily) and juxtapositions of different natural, human, and exterior-to-human interfaces (pop culture and other, which become unhinged or detached from their linkage) . . . makes both a personal and universal statement. The personal comes from Heldén’s inspiration, as he told me, in a family home, a place of loss with a “garden being reclaimed by weeds and other plants” and eventually by the forest itself. In a way similar to how scientists delivered their theses via poetry in the 1800s, before the rise of specialization, but with the added personal element of the passing of Heldén’s father as subtext and hidden from view . . . and yet still felt, even without that knowledge.[i]

*

Helden2

There’s a modern context for considering trees, and plants in general, that, like many facts about the world, is not sufficiently conveyed by or acknowledged by fictional narratives and that also creeps through the backdrop of Astroecology. The New York Times recently discussed Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, based on experiences in German forests:

[As most biologists know] trees in the forest are social beings. They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the “Wood Wide Web”; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.

This is the mulch Heldén brings with his impressionistic text and his associations. He writes, “Ask: Gravity, radiation, making it visible.” That which exists behind the scenes, found in the basic expanding knowledge of the world, changes and contaminates texts like the Astroecology, makes it evolve each new month we engage with it.[ii] The cosmic streams through the space between the words because our words are never enough, even in an honest striving.

*

There is another kind of defamiliarization that speaks to ecology, which is to view war not just as a human conflict with terrible consequences, but as a history of the inexplicable enacted upon natural ecologies. To cite just one possible hypothetical example, which could occur across either experimental or traditional narratives, I was struck by the juxtaposition between descriptions of the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes and other readings of the naturalist Alexander Humboldt exploring European forests more than a century earlier, in Andrea Wulf’s Humboldt biography The Invention of Nature.

Forest warfare during World War II included targeting the tops of trees with mortar and missile fire to make them explode and kill soldiers below. While machine-gun nests would riddle trees with bullets as a side effect of pitched battles between infantry units. In short, these battles were also violence perpetrated against trees, with profoundly traumatic effects.

What Heldén dramatizes through image could be thought of as peace-time war ecology. It is peaceful enough to us, but it is a violence against the flora. There can be no reconciling the meaning of that, and no one can, once noticing this fact, see just the peace in the author’s words. Damage lives there, too, and wounding. As he puts it, “A familiar scene slowly changing.”

*

 At the far end of the scale and depth of Heldén’s ruminations lie other artifacts, outside of the confines of his project. Aase Berg’s poetry with its vigorously bleak yet oddly hopeful vision of a contaminated Earth on which, despite everything, life still exists and takes on strange new forms seems to exist at an end-point beyond the end of Astroecology, and yet contained within it with lines such as “Soot from burnt out stars falling slowly to the ground.”

There has never been a better time to be brave and pushing outward in our storytelling. Not because we wish for ecological collapse to create new stories for us, but because we hope for reconciliation. We hope that the limits of our imaginations are not what we fear they are, and that we can reach beyond those limits to find a kind of balance. We hope for ways in which the human experience can merge with the “natural,” so that nature and culture become one with the least harm to either, and so that we understand and share the ghosts of both.

An endeavor like Astroecology is more aligned with what I’ve been reading in eco-philosophy than straight-forward fiction, perhaps more attuned to the subtlety required to meet the challenge of reflecting, refracting, and projecting–internalizing—the necessary sedimentary layers and help us put aside the fallacy that what we cannot see does not exist. Heldén’s interdisciplinary approach allows us to join him in that quest.

Helden3
[i] Editor’s note: Though the notion of science poetry seems absurd today, Erasmus Darwin’s poetry was exceedingly popular in its day, and set the table for science poetry in the 19th century.  See here, some remarkable technology poems from various eras.
[ii] Editor’s note: See the Astroecology project and digital work here.

Image Sources:
1: Umea universitet.
2 & 3: #astroekologi medias.

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Filed under Art, Humanities and Ecology, Jeff VanderMeer, poetry, Poets and Poems

Coexistence.

lemanshots - Fine Pictures and Digital Art

Lemanshots_Rhino

Designed and created by Josephine R. Unglaub.

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Open Land Art & Fact Team: Interactive Installation at DePaul

DF.Mock_Up

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.

olaft4

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).
laft3,jpg

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

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CAN’T WAGE WAR WITHOUT AN ENEMY

by Murray Reiss

murray

You say Global Warming’s such an obvious catastrophe

Portending planet-wide chaotic instability

A greater threat to national security

Than invasion occupation or tyranny

The world we co-evolved with simply blown away

 

So where’s our sense of over-riding urgency

Why haven’t we declared a nation-wide emergency

Why haven’t we declared World War III

 

Where’s our Manhattan Project for carbon sequestration

And alternative energy innovation

Where’s our mass conscription

Total mobilization

Where’s our holy crusade to save civilization

 

Well …

 

To wage war we’d need an enemy

Of implacable hostility

And ruthless ingenuity

The mastermind behind the globalized conspiracy

To seize control of our whole fossil-fueled economy

And turn its engines of growth & prosperity

Into mass destruction weaponry

To raise the heat however many degrees

It takes

To trash our poor planet’s liveability

 

‘Cause without the spectre of this sinister foe

We got no one to fight

We got nowhere to go

We’ve had our War on Terror

Had our War on Drugs

Now we need his carbon-bombing

Troops of thugs

Out there raising the level of our seas

Spreading drought famine pestilence & tropical disease

Inciting heat waves wildfires

Hurricanes and floods

Or else … What??

We’re gonna turn on a dime

And wage war on us???

 

Line up our cars and trucks shoot ’em all in the head?

Stomp our air con units till they’re gasping for breath?

 

Put our tractors out to pasture with all the bags

Of fertilizers made from natural gas?

And send our kids out foraging for roots and berries?

Hope they trudge back home with all the grubs they can carry?

Whoa — the future just started looking pretty scary.

 

Evacuate the suburbs  Stuff them like sardines

Into sky-high towers for increased efficiency?

Can’t do that without oceans of cement —

Oops — busted our carbon budget again.

 

Stop refining crude for all our life-enhancing plastics?

No SaranWrap? The future’s looking mighty drastic.

 

Stop drillling for oil? Blasting mountains for coal?

Kick our trillion-dollar pension fund investments down a hole?

 

Pull the plug on our power plants and factories —

And give up our jobs and a functioning economy?

So we can live in caves or up a tree?

Well, we wouldn’t do that to ourselves — would we?

 

No — We need to put a face to that enemy

So we can put an end to his villainy

Before we end up the innocent casualties

Of his plot to squeeze the last degree of heat

From the coal oil and gas right under our feet

 

‘Cause if we don’t conjure up some enemy

We’re gonna have to declare World War Me

 

See the author perform this Climate Action Performance Poem here.

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Jeff VanderMeer Interview: “The Strangling Fruit”

A chat with Jeff VanderMeer, author of the wonderfully scary Southern Reach trilogy, about ecology, horror, social responsibility, science-fiction, William Gibson, Margaret Atwood, climate change, and much more.

Jeff VanderMeer knows a lot about “weird” fiction—that sub-genre that lives between the surreal, the fantastic, the absurd, between horror and speculative fiction, between Franz Kafka and China Miéville, Angela Carter and Kelly Link, William Gibson and Jorge Luis Borges, H.P. Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson and Thomas Ligotti. With his wife Ann, Jeff edits the Weird Fiction Review, and the two have also curated two anthologies, The Weird and The New Weird. VanderMeer is also a novelist who, in the past two years, has achieved a tremendous success, which catapulted him to one of the most widely-known and interesting names in the world of fiction, globally.

His Southern Reach trilogy—comprised of the novels Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance—was published by FSG over an eight month period in 2014, to national and international acclaim. It was optioned by Paramount Pictures for a series of movies, the first of which will be directed by Alex Garland (Ex-Machina), and was translated and published in 35 countries. Specifically, the three novels could be considered speculative, fantastical eco-horror. They are set in and around Area X, a wild, mysterious, and dangerous patch of land, which lies in an unspecified part of the Southeastern United States, surrounded by a strange border within which there exists a new, unexplainable ecosystem, one where the laws of physics and biology seem to not apply. The first novel, Annihilation, tells the story of the biologist, one of the four women who are sent into Area X as part of the twelfth expedition. The expedition team is made of the biologist, an anthropologist, a psychologist, and a surveyor. All previous expeditions before this one ended very badly. One saw the members kill each other. Another group contracted massively aggressive tumors. Others committed suicide. And how about the Southern Reach, the government agency created to study and control Area X? What secrets does it hide?  [ . . . ]

Read more here.

See my March 2016 post on Southern Reach and Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year here.

Image source: http://io9.gizmodo.com/read-the-mesmerizing-first-chapter-of-jeff-vandermeers-1520682658

 

 

 

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Strange Fungus Seen in Chicago

fungus

Kay Read perplexed Liam Heneghan and frightened Christine Skolnik when she shared this photo at a Chicago Climate Festival meeting today.  Randall Honold remained uncharacteristically calm and philosophical.

The fungus was discovered and photographed by Kay’s husband, Edward Read, who manages the strip garden on Carmen Avenue and Marine Drive, in Lincoln Park (where this creature was found), as well as the nearby native plants garden.  Mr. Read is curious to know what kind of fungus we are dealing with, so please share and/or comment.

Note: The black object to the right is a baseball cap, for reference.

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