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Hi, all. Welcome to Atmospheric Evidence, a recorded discussion as part of Monash Art, Design, and Architecture and Monash University Museum of Art's Form x Content series. My name is Tim Riley Walsh, and I'm joined here today by artist-researcher, Susan Schuppli, and anti-disciplinary artist, Joel Sherwood-Spring. A pleasure to have you both joining us. I'll leave Susan and Joel to personally introduce themselves in just a moment. I will begin by acknowledging the Country on which I live and from where I speak to you today, that of Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation.
And I pay my respects to their Elders past and present and I would like to extend this respect to all First Nations peoples and I recognise sovereignty was never ceded. It is my pleasure to host this discussion today as the 2022 curator-in-residence within Monash Art, Design, and Architecture at Monash University here in Naarm/Melbourne. And in addition to my work at Monash, I am also currently the curator at Gertrude, also in Melbourne. My research interests are focused on how visual culture comprehends and articulates the threat of climate crisis and the central implication of settler colonialism within it.
For access reasons, I will briefly provide a visual description of myself before asking Susan and Joel to do the same. I am a white cis man with slightly long, red, blonde hair, and I'm in my mid-30s. I'm wearing glasses and I'm wearing a bright red knit. I'll now hand over to Susan and then to Joel to provide visual descriptions and a brief, more personal introduction to who they are and where they're based. Susan.
Great, thank you so much, Tim, for the opportunity to join you and Joel in a conversation. For me, it's obviously the morning. I'm based here in London in the UK. I am an artist-researcher. I'm also the director of the Center for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths University of London and an affiliated researcher with Forensic Architecture, which I was involved with in the early days with Eyal Weizman back in 2011 when we started the agency. My work often engages with sites of conflict and tries to raise questions around the role of material evidence in relationship to claims, both claims for justice but also political claims.
A brief visual description of myself would be I'm a relatively tall woman with short hair. I'm wearing bright neon-orange glasses right now and I have a backdrop of a 3D glacier actually, which is my backdrop image for Zoom. That will make a little bit more sense as this discussion unfolds. Also, I'm both Swiss and Canadian. So, my work really has taken me into cryospheric environments most recently. That is to say the frozen geographies of our planet.
Tim Riley Walsh:
Fantastic. Thanks, Susan. Joel, could I hand over to you?
Of course. Thank you, Tim. Thank you so much, Susan. I'm streaming to you from the unceded lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation who have practised their sovereignty and law on this land, commonly known as Sydney since the first sunrise. I want to acknowledge their endless and continuous care for Country. This is the place that I was born and I still call home. And in doing so, I want to pay my respect to the Gadigal people, their ancestors and their struggles through frontier wars, and their Elders present and future. It is upon their lands that I undertake for my work as a designer and a researcher. And these are stolen lands for which treaty, nor sovereign agreement, has ever been negotiated.
My name is Joel Sherwood-Spring. I am a Wiradjuri anti-disciplinary artist. I generally work pretty collaboratively on projects that I would say maybe sit outside the established notions of contemporary art and architecture, attempting to think about and transcend through discourse and pedagogy and artwork and design, and in the past, a more formal architectural practice. Currently and continually focusing and examining the contested narratives of Australia's urban culture and Indigenous history in the face of ongoing colonisation.
I am a white-skinned man in his late 20s. I'm wearing a pair of silver-rimmed glasses and headphones. I'm wearing a navy-blue parka. And behind me, my background image, similarly to what Susan said, may make more sense in the future, in the later half of this chat, but who actually knows. But it's a collage of a set of scans of smoke clouds that I've been taking as a part of an ongoing project of documentation of some of the work I've been making, which yeah, I'll probably go into a little more in this discussion.
Tim Riley Walsh:
Awesome. Thanks, Joel. Thank you, Susan. To provide some framing for today's discussion, I thought that I would just begin shortly just for five minutes to talk a little bit about One Vast Library, which is the project that Susan and Joel's work has shown within. And once I've done that, I'll pass back to Susan and then to Joel to talk individually about their work and their research and its intersections with this idea of 'atmospheric evidence.' And then we'll open it up to a bit of a wider discussion at the end, which will go for about 15 or 20 minutes. This semester of Form x Content, it's probably worth mentioning, is structured around the theme of 'on care.'
Today's talk will consider care to an extent via maybe a deeper attunement to the atmosphere and also a sense of justice towards the planet and maybe ask whether art could assist in this process. We'll think about art as a form of evidence perhaps and the possibility of it bringing about, as I said, some justice for the planet. One Vast Library is a series of three exhibitions. One's taken place so far. The second will be opening very shortly, as well as accompanying events and publications, and this was presented across 2022 at MADA Gallery. The project's title is drawn really from the writings of the 19th century English mathematician and early innovator of machine computing. His name was Charles Babbage and he described the atmosphere as a shared repository of human experience.
And I quote from Babbage when he says, "One vast library, on whose pages are forever written all that man has ever said." So, this idea of the air as an increasingly dense accumulation of human voice and breath, and of course, the fume of anthropogenic emission really frames this program. And obviously, within this notion, I would like to acknowledge the significant knowledge and law held within Sky and Country for First Nations peoples on this continent. Babbage was undoubtedly millennia late to the recognition of the Sky as a rich resource of learning about the processes of the world and its environments. And this is a space in which culturally specific knowledge is deeply embedded and must be importantly protected and cultivated.
One Vast Library aims to articulate really a changing relationship with the atmosphere and the context of climate crisis. The hope, at least for me, is that this demonstrates a fluctuating representation across late 20th and early 21st century Australian and international art. As we might hear today, this is what Susan describes in her recent book Material Witness as a form of proxy data, non-scientific materials that may act to reveal new understandings of complex events, such as global warming. So, this process really began with the first show, A Diachronic Wind, which was presented earlier this year.
And in this show, I was reading a little bit of the work of Andreas Malm and his book, Fossil Capital, where Malm described the messy mix up of time scales at the heart of anthropogenic emission, how violence against the planet can really be extended in this temporality, dispersed and lagged, and also stubbornly non-visual. And of course, when we think about these ideas, one should really reflect on the writings of Rob Nixon and his term 'slow violence.'
This discussion today and the second exhibition, Impermanent Shelter, that accompanies it, which Susan and Joel's work is within, is grounded in these contexts and also specifically starts to unravel one of the quieter threads in this program, which is how air and atmosphere is repeatedly implicated in the work of dematerialised practices in the mid-20th century. You have to think of artists like Robert Barry or Art & Language, Michael Asher, to name a few. This show though specifically really looks to one figure, Yves Klein, the French artist, a proto-conceptualist, and a figure that really preceded these later conceptual work.
In 1946, Klein, of course, symbolically signed the sky, a gesture that I feel speaks deeply of a really curious and telling hierarchy of man's ownership over such a vast and complex system. Klein's pursuit of the immaterial led him to work with architects Werner Ruhnau and Claude Parent on conceiving his air architecture from 1957 to the year of his death in 1962. And Klein's proposal suggested the creation of "a new Eden, where the solid materiality of architecture is done away with and is now immaterial. Ceilings made of pressurised air, walls of fire, and humanity's only pursuit as leisure."
I find it really curious that Klein's vision of utopic society, from its position in the mid-century, consisted of the very elements of air and fire that society is now beset by, an atmosphere really grown dangerously, agitated by carbon dioxide emissions, and an environment where devastating bush and forest fires are growing in frequency and scale. And of course, within so-called Australia, a place where the dominance of settler colonialism and its engrained structure of Torrens title, property demarcation, and occupation of unceded lands is far from immaterial. In fact, in many senses, violently physical.
The second show's title, Impermanent Shelter, intends to try and encapsulate these positions acknowledging perhaps to the now impermanence of the shelter that the planet has offered us to date brought about by human interference. Both Susan and Joel's work is exhibited within the show and will be touched on today in this discussion and really elucidate these points a little bit further, but of course, our conversation will diverge to look at other projects of theirs that are relevant as well. I'd now like to throw over to Susan, to introduce us to her work in more detail, and share with us some further reflections before I hand over to Joel. Susan.
Great. Thanks, Tim. Maybe I'll just begin by a reflection on I was just thinking about this project of air architecture by Klein. In some way, that is a provocation that captures a lot of what's at stake in the work that we do in the center, which is largely a center in which students focus on investigations of violations. Oftentimes, those are environmental violations, but also, of course human rights violations. But the one thing that we're always engaging with are these threshold conditions and whether that is the distinction between aquatic or terrestrial space, but also within the realm of conflict, we always look at the ways in which environmental factors are contributing or exacerbating factors to say something that might appear like a military conflict or an ethnic conflict.
For example, the war in Syria, the ways in which long term drought produced a lot of internal dispossession and displacement of people into urban spaces from more say rural communities. So, that's just to say that this more diffuse, and if you will, sometimes what we'd say are threshold conditions where we can't really demarcate clearly between the beginning of an event and an actual incident. I think that's somehow captured nicely by the provocation of Klein. We really need to be thinking when it comes to these kinds of environmental infractions, and particularly, it's impossible to be thinking in terms of discrete objects.
We're always talking about relational processes and that certainly would be the ways in which First Nations communities would also understand and experience relationships of land. So, I think the notion of something that is a much more of threshold condition that has a certain elasticity or permeability or expands and contracts is very important conceptually to the ways in which I've been thinking and the work that we do in the center more broadly. To answer your question very precisely, my work as an artist really begins within the context of public art, and that's when I was based in Vancouver, which I was for many years.
Now, I'm of course in the UK, but in working on public art projects, that was really where I encountered architecture, because at the time, I was working on projects that were really trying to contest the official narratives of the city and bring in particular women's experiences of the city and also histories of sexual violence, but also colonial violence, the ways in which the official narratives of the urban scripted very particular, highly mythologised histories for a city like Vancouver. My public artworks really tried to counter those official narratives and to speak much more to localised and situated experiences. And so, it was in doing that work that I really encountered... actually, I needed to find a set of critical tools with which to think.
For me, the writing in art wasn't really doing that. And so, I turned to work that was emerging in spatial theory and architecture, in particular feminist thinking. So that, I would say, was really my first encounter with architecture. Of course, working in the public realm, I was often dealing with site plans, engineers. You're dealing with the infrastructure of the city. So, that convergence between say art and architecture happened at that moment in Vancouver, where I was a young artist developing these public art projects. You asked me to speak briefly to the Material Witness book. That comes much further along in my practice. It emerged out of my PhD.
That's really where I was developing the concept of the Material Witness, which is really trying to look at the ways in which matter registers events, but also provides insight into the event of evidence making. And so, the book will look at who and what is considered a legitimate subject able to confer, who or what can speak on behalf of their experiences. This really comes to the fore within the context of climate change, as far as I'm concerned, because up until very recently, in the Canadian context, environmental scientists largely completely ignored First Nations knowledge or Indigenous knowledge of long-term climate observations.
So, there's a very obvious example of the ways in which only certain subjects are endowed with a legitimacy to speak on behalf of their condition within particular kinds of forums, like the IPCC for example. So, the book really tracks materials and the contestations that emerge around materials and these various stakeholders that also gather around these contested materials. It largely focused on situations of international law. So, its framing might be considered critical legal studies. So, I look at a range of case studies, but the book grapples with more conventional notions of media and really begins with a piece of film that was shot during the time of Chernobyl, in which radioactive isotopes had radically transformed the celluloid film stock.
The filmmaker thought that his film was defective, but finally realised that what he had captured on film was the sound and visual imprint, if you will, of the disaster itself. So, that was an important moment for me where the event had registered within the filmic matter. So, we're no longer in the domain of representation. It was the domain of the actual, if you will, or the real. By the end of the book, I really start to expand considerably my notion of what constitutes a mediatic system and trying to propose this notion of earth evidence and really look at the ways in which the planet itself is a geometeorological entity completely encrusted with technologies of capture, recording, sensing, transmission, et cetera.
So, it was a slow burn or a long simmering, one might say, this project of Material Witness. It will stay with me, presumably, across the trajectory of future projects as well, because there's always this engagement with materials and I try really to understand them within highly localised situations. And that, of course, eventually brought me to the Atmospheric Feedback Loops, which was a commissioned 35 millimetre film, which subsequently has been shown much more as a digital version, but it is actually originally a 35 millimetre film. That was a commission from Sonic Acts, which is based in the Netherlands.
And I had been a participant on their Dark Ecology field trip, where we started in Kirkenes at the very tip of Norway and then entered into Russia, which at that time was also this passage where a lot of Syrian refugees were moving from Russia into Europe via this border post in Kirkenes, infamously at the time, there were these huge heaps of bicycles in the snow, because there was this strange legal condition that nobody could cross the border on foot. So, people had to ride these bicycles through the snowstorm. It was very bizarre both the visual encounter but also legal condition.
And it reminds us of the ways in which legal forums with all of their arcane protocols and rules of procedures really are significantly challenged when it comes to producing accountability, let alone any form of justice. Time and time again, we encountered the incapacity of legal mechanisms to really attend to wrongs and to produce any semblance of justice. But that field trip took us into Russia, to Murmansk, to Nikel, to these incredibly polluted geographies on that part of Russia. Deeply, deeply impoverished. Nikel as a town, the landscape is just black, the coal dust that is everywhere. The trip itself was called Dark Ecologies, because it was also at the time of the year was December where it was 24 hours of darkness.
So, the Atmospheric Feedback Loops emerged out of that encounter with Sonic Acts and Sonic Acts by its name suggests it is actually an acoustic. It has a long history of producing sound festivals, music and sound. And so, I thought that it would be interesting to try and work with climate scientists, but through the register of the acoustic. I was able to work with a group of scientists who are based at the Cabauw Experimental Site for Atmospheric Research. I'll play a little clip of that shortly, but just to say that they have a lot of acoustic instrumentation that they use to measure and monitor the atmosphere. I thought this is really where myself, as an artist very interested in acoustics, could've meet the climate scientist.
And we certainly shared the same language, because they would talk about clouds and atmospheric noise. They talked about the signal to noise ratio and the ways in which they had to extract the signal from the cloud. I realised, "Wow, we're working with similar kinds of technologies." They're working from the realm of infrasound and also the language that was being used was the same language that I would use but obviously for very different kinds of purposes. Just to wrap up, I've often seen my work in some way as trying to mediate different realms of knowledge production, different realms of expertise.
So, the abstractions of law would be a case in point that I really tried to mediate and write about in the Material Witness book, where the work that I've been doing in relationship to ecological issues oftentimes engages with technoscientific realms of expertise. And so, I've really tried to see my role as a mediator and also the materials with which I work also as mediators between different realms of abstraction. Of course, we'd have to include art in that as well. And so, that's the role that I've tried to play. I didn't know if you wanted me to talk about the Cold Casess. I could say a couple of words about that. I've worked on a very long term research project called Learning From Ice.
I was just talking about how I see my role as a mediator, but within that project, ice is really the mediator and working with scientists, with glaciologist, but also working with mountain communities in the work that we're doing in India. Ice being a very actually ordinary material. Most people have some experience of, and contact with, ice. I really like working with materials that are quotidian, even though I've done quite a bit of work around nuclear evidence, but that's another story. But in doing this work in this research project, Learning From Ice, out of which some artworks have emerged, lots of different workshops, but of course, field work. So, it's not all about generating art by any means.
One of the things that I felt I really wanted to do was actually produce a body of work that engaged directly with the politics of temperature. The politics of temperature, of course, is central to the climate crisis, but in working within the cryosphere context, that is to say within cold environments, one of the things I felt I needed to do was address very directly the ways in which cold is also artificially produced, an ambient condition that can be weaponised and utilised against bodies. The cases that I worked on were largely cases of cold being used as a tacit instrument of policing and abuse against racialised bodies, First Nations bodies within the case of Canada and Standing Rock, but also in the context of ice box detention at the US-Mexico border.
And I think this is quite important and links up with your project, Tim, because we're really talking about ambient conditions. So, temperature is an ambient condition. It is a spectrum condition. People experience temperature differently. No two people will have exactly the same experience of temperature, because your experience of temperature has a lot to do with your health, your body fat, the amount of body fat, the clothing that you have, your gender. All kinds of factors come into play. And so, the experience of temperature is always one of difference. To me, that differential experience is the space of violence, if you will. So, the guards and the detention centres in Mexico are wearing the right clothing.
The skiers in the Alps that are engaged in leisure activities are wearing the right clothing. They have the skills to deal with these cold mountain environments or the artificial cold of the detention centre along the US-Mexico border. So, we see the ways in which these differential experiences of an ambient condition can produce real harm. And I think that's also the challenge, of course. Ambient events, atmospheric events are often seen as beyond the purview and control of humans. That's the ways in which the legal response has been. That's the legal response to these conditions of cold.
When police and authorities are confronted with the consequences of freezing deaths in Canada, the answer would always be, "Well, we didn't realise it was going to get that cold. We have no control over the weather." The same at Standing Rock, we had no idea that the temperatures would dip below zero. We don't control the weather. So, how can we be responsible for the harm that ensues? And so, we really see the ways in which these ambient events and atmospheric events produce this very useful alibi in terms of regimes of accountability.
And so, my work with the Cold Cases was really to counter that condition and to look at a pattern of abuse that emerges over many, many decades and over many contexts, including the context in which I live now, where migrants are perishing and dying of hypothermia in the European context when trying to cross from Italy into France across the Alps or in between Turkey and Greece through these river deltas. So, that gives you a little bit of a context for the work that I've done and where I am at now with my research projects.
Tim Riley Walsh:
Thank you, Susan. Lots for us to unpack there, especially I think a discussion perhaps near the end about the useful alibi of humanity's sense of atmosphere as being beyond the purview of human control and its weaponisation, which I think is a very telling and poignant reflection. But before we discuss and open that up a bit more, I'd like to pass over to Joel to just introduce a little bit more about his practice. Joel.
Thank you, Tim. And again, thank you so much, Susan. There's so much resonance between a lot of the things you've mentioned and probably where I'm going to take this discussion as well. First, I'd wish to frame my practice in relationship to this and participating within a larger framework. I'm negotiating and learning how to employ art making and exhibition practices and publication and discourse. And the teaching that I do within what is largely recognised in international academic space as Black or Indigenous studies. And for me, it's in the efforts of exploring the potential of an Indigenous and situated sovereignty specific. So, maybe thinking about it through my own subjectivity as Wiradjuri person living in Gadigal Country.
What an Indigenous materialist reading of art and architecture creates, directed towards the efforts of repatriation, reparations, and land back. So, that's the way of framing what I do. Maybe not what I've done, so much as what I'm interested in pursuing, and currently engaged and commencing a PhD at the University of Technology here in Sydney, where I'm working with both architecture and legal scholars to look at how we talk about materials within the context of extraction in the Australian context, but more globally, how buildings themselves come into being.
A focal point of that project, which I think touches on a lot of the points you just made, Susan, is questioning these ambient conditions through which power is enacted, but also the histories of violence that have enabled what could be seen, maybe less so in the context of weather or climactic conditions as ambient, but the structural legal space with a particular attention at the moment being paid to what we call in Australia, heritage protection, as a banal set of rules that we use to maintain something as simple as... It's a lens to which you would look at a council submission for a renovation of a house, as well as the criteria through which you would look at the redevelopment of a city block or the maintenance of a heritage.
When I use the word heritage, we're talking about a very particular type of heritage when it comes to the built environment in the Australian context, which is rarely older than 200 years and thinking about that in relation. So, the necessary historical violence that bring those banal conditions, the ambient conditions through which architecture practices, but also the exhibiting continued violence that those ambient conditions have particularly on Indigenous bodies, particularly on the climate. So, that has brought me first into contact with particular focus on the Hyde Park Barracks. So, the Hyde Park Barracks was built in like 1816, 1819 area, pretty early in the contact narrative of Southeast Australia.
It was commissioned by Governor Macquarie in its own interesting capacity. What I'm particularly interested in is the narratives and relationships to how very much the heritage buildings that still stand today within the New South Wales and the Southeast context makes them restructured, built from quarried sandstone from the surrounding areas by the labour of convicts and brought into being through limestone water or quicklime mortar. But there was no limestone in New South Wales for the first... There was an understanding that there would be or at least an assumption there would be easily accessible limestone from a colonial perspective to be quarried and to be manipulated.
There was none, and there was no deep resources that were able to be mined and taken for a good 30 to 40 years. But what was available was a vast network of middens or live scale shell structures that were built up over tens of thousands of years by the local Indigenous people of the Eora Nation, the Gadigal mob, but also Bidjigal, all up the Eastern Seaboard. There is a long history of the sustained building of this architectural scale urbanism of networks build-up of shell matter and shells are made up of calcium, right? The shells were burnt to harness the lime or the calcium oxide that was in them.
Those burnt remains, those midden piles that were burnt and thus the trees that had to be cut down to burn for that midden to get the lime, that's what created the lime mortar that built up these heritage buildings themselves. And so I'm interested at looking at necessary history of the violent, but in talking about these ambient conditions, I think what's quite interesting or what has become the impulse is this need to address these things in relationships to contemporary injustices. And so, the framework through which the Heritage Protection Act work for heritage buildings and I mean, I skipped this bit in what I just said, but a lot of our heritage buildings in New South Wales and particularly in Australian context are carceral, this was a penal colony.
So, the buildings that sustain, some of them still operate in this way. So, there are still heritage-listed prisons in New South Wales, prisons that house all sorts of populations. But as we understand statistically in this country, we overincarcerate Indigenous people. So, the violence that these structures play out against Indigenous bodies to the point in which there are ambient claims made by corrections and by the justice system, made against people or families, taking coroners or the justice system to court about deaths in custody, so when Indigenous people die while they're locked up.
The defence is being made in many examples I've been finding within the certain context and I won't go into any detail in any specific one, but often it is within the framework of systemic neglect that can create the conditions for deaths in custody within the justice system and within incarceration. There are many contexts by which Indigenous people, or people have hurt themselves within their cells, and this is graphic, because of an inadequate care taken to the potential hanging points or points within a cell that someone could manipulate to commit suicide or do something. And often the claim that is made by justice or by corrections when these claims are brought forward is that these buildings are heritage. So, they can't actually change that, right?
So here, a very clear, a very basic banal ambient condition of what it means to practice architecture is used as in how you explained the way that ambient temperature itself is also used at the way of culpability, is laid up as the reason for inaction. The Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody that was initiated in the 1980s explicitly lists as a recommendation the removal of hanging points in cells It is something that the legal system can point to but is also something within the heritage framework that the justice and policing can point to as something they cannot change, right?
And so, looking at the real balances in which these powers can be blamed is something that I think really resonated with what you just mentioned and maybe isn't particularly connected to this exhibition right now, but it is the ongoing thread in which I engage with this material research and material enquiries of my own practice and to speak more fully to maybe the research. I mean, on the back of that, the research around an existing work is what I am presenting at the Monash show. So, I was commissioned by the National Gallery of Australia, which is still open, the latest 4th Indigenous Art Triennial called Ceremony, which was curated by Hetti Perkins.
I have a set of works in that show, which was an outcome of a process by which I was working and connecting with communities who had experienced large-scale devastation after the 2019–2020 bushfires. In the beginning of 2020, I went down to a place called Rosedale, which is a coastal town situated on Yuin Country, south of Sydney, where about 50% of the housing stock was lost. This is the common condition between lots of communities across the eastern seaboard amongst those bushfires. I'm going to get to the other factors, but within my own context as working within an architecture faculty, we went down to talk to residents.
I saw it as an opportunity to investigate what we all understood would be the condition, which is that, these communities were built at a time where there were different regulations of fire safety. The ensuing regulations or the existing regulations was going to see the communities built back in a very different way. And what that was going to do was going to have a very detrimental effect on any ecological... It was going to destroy any chances of any ecological system coming back. Not that they're balanced, but that there would be something to return to.
And also, for me, with the opportunity to try and engage with existing local community members around how in this moment, they could maybe stake a claim in relationship to this land and what that might mean in the context of this devastation. And so, it became very quickly about how we talked about the relationships to that land, that property, be it private property that was lost by landowners, predominantly white people living in other places, these were holiday homes, and how that friction came up against the continued and denied claims of local and Indigenous councils and Indigenous groups in those areas, but also as an opportunity to highlight that these fires were 200 years, 250 years in the making.
It's systemic neglect that brings these conditions into being, private property and those sorts of relationships, but also an ongoing relationship to what would be understood as an unhealthy Country. Even growth conditions are what create these leaf litter that let these fires happen. And obviously, with the work of people like Bruce Pascoe and Bill Gammage, The Greatest Estate on Earth, and continual practice evident to this day from Indigenous communities across the continent, there was never a separation. There was always continual care.
It was this condition or this nostalgia for an unhealthy place that unfortunately the people who were in power to make decisions about these places, the property owners, the councils had was coming into direct conflict with historical and contemporary claims made by Indigenous people that there needed to be active engagement with this place and active care and burning as active cool burning and burning seasonally to ensure that there was a healthy balance, if you want to name it that, in this context. So, it quickly became investigation in how to talk about these relationships in a context in which, and maybe I can share screen... in a context in which there was only, I guess, what we would call a sense of absence.
This is the context of a month or two after the bushfires up and around Rosedale, across most of Yuin Country in that area, Mogo land council regions, so just south of Batemans Bay. How we could talk about memory and connection to these places and particular claims that needed to be made in wake of this cataclysmic event or this devastating moment and what was really a sense of loss and absence, right? Attenuating to this sense of loss and how we could talk constructively about the things that community members, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, felt to these places and quite quickly became... I mean, for me, the most clear and I think you speak quite well on this, Susan... we're inundated with the images, right?
The aesthetics of these events, almost to the point of being desensitised to them. What was the most impactful moment for me in relationship to this was looking and that deep sense of silence and the literal absence of sound when in these burnt environments. We started an investigation in field recording and looking at the conditions of burnt and similarly unburnt Country, I think 10 kilometres north from there, and making a comparative claim about the sum of that ecosystem sits within that sound, as much as within the visual aspect of what was like. Talking with community members around their sense of loss in relationship to the soundscape of the place that they were living in, which is something that bleeds through property boundaries, something that bleeds through claims and moves as ecosystems tend to do.
As birds and other creatures move through systems, move through property boundaries, there's a sense of shared access to the sound of a place. And so, it became an investigation into talking about that and thinking constructively about that material and more forensic approaches or looking at these graphical representations of the sound. These are spectrograms, which are graphical representation of frequency. It's an aesthetic forensic way of making a claim about these things that is also incredibly important when you're talking to groups of people. It's much harder to get them to listen to a thing, easier to make these claims when you have a visual representation.
Thinking about these relationships and doing field work to look at these and thinking about what processes could be enacted with communities to begin to make these steps towards caring for Country and what that might look like, which culminated in this project at the commission end with the NGA. So, after working with community members and locating with a few different communities on Yuin Country, talking to them about the very necessary steps that they would need to take to begin to care for Country and reintroduce traditional fire management was something that was quite antagonistic to the very understandable relationships that the property owners had to these places. Indigenous fire practitioners wanted to cut down trees.
They wanted to clear parts of lands that they could allow for regrowth, which was quite antagonistic to people who had existed in a place where they'd only ever known a place to be even growth and unhealthy. And so, how could we enact a process where my commissioning of a project could facilitate a necessary clearing of trees on Country to allow for a process of burning to take place, culminated in us using my materials budget to facilitate the removal of the limbs of these trees or trees themselves from these burnt Country and from potential clearing sites and then bringing them into the framework of this projects as a material and as something that would be rendered into the work themselves.
And then in this framework then, what could be learned in the process of burning? That's where the project comes to the fore. Here they are installed. The limbs of the trees that burn out of these masses to contemplate and to begin to talk about this sense of absence and material relief of these things. I think I'm going on a little bit too long, but the projects or the video themselves that will be in the installation at Monash is an ongoing documentation project of the making of these, as well as other field work that I had participated in down on Country through participating myself in learning about traditional burning, but also making of these sculptures in which it was using LiDAR scanners and other processes to try and capture the smoke of these burning moments.
Because I guess within that transfer or that shift from presence to absence that is felt or made clear in the visual representation is transfer. What happens in the fire, right? All of that information becomes something else and a massive amount of information in terms of smoke and clouds as this stuff has burnt away. These smoke clouds themselves created their own weather conditions, storm cells, and other things. The smoke cloud swept around the earth twice.
In one sense, attenuating to the absence of sound to understand that it is that system that is held within the sound of the place, this was the attempt to look at where that transfer went to, where did that system move into, as it was burnt and became a smoke cloud, and trying to capture that even at a smaller scale for myself to think through how we could open up a discussion around that and for the project that will be presented, a culmination of all of the findings through still images, as well as video work of mixed media, archival stuff, talking about some of the processes as well as my own documentation.
Tim Riley Walsh:
Thank you, Joel, so much for your response and contributions there and a lot to unpack. And I think certainly these demands for visual evidence as you put it is something that we can maybe use as a segue to talk a little bit more widely about the importance of material and visual images and forms of evidence to respond to climate crisis and planetary violence. So, I wondered, considering your respective works that you've presented in Impermanent Shelter, thinking of Susan's Atmospheric Feedback Loops and Joel, your video essay, looking at the outcomes of bushfires and use of LiDAR scans, I wondered if you could both talk a little bit more about what you feel art can offer to a process of opening up, of understanding a little bit more.
As Susan puts it in Material Witness, "the expressive potential of things" as a way to make contact with, and I quote again, "the complex realities that constitute our contemporary experiences." I wonder, by looking at historical examples in comparison to present ones, is there a way that we can interrogate violence towards the planet more deeply? How can art facilitate this?
Yeah, maybe I'll quickly share screen. I wanted just to show this image to start with this. This is actually an ice core and what's extraordinary about ice cores is the fact that they provide a very high resolution data set of planetary processes. But more specifically, everything that goes into the atmosphere is captured in the Earth's ice sheets, because everything that goes into the atmosphere, particulate matter, pollutants, as Joel was talking, smoke, eventually, everything that goes in the atmosphere will be globally circulated. In talking to various people that model and work on this, it takes about a year in most cases for something that has been thrown into the atmosphere to end up in say the ice sheets of Antarctica or Greenland.
Here, we see a layer of ash actually in an ice core. I mean, here, we can see it as actually a visual proof. We see many little layers. So, it's amazing when you look at ice cores, you can do some preliminary analysis just based on actually the visual stratigraphy. An ice core is obviously an extruded piece of ice, a vertical column of ice that's taken out of the ice sheets notably, as I said, Antarctic and Greenland. Those are the contexts in which the depth of the ice allows scientists to go back 800,000 years into the ancient climactic past of the planet. But to answer your question, Tim, ice cores are considered data proxies.
Proxies in the world of climate science, in the world of earth science are entities that allow us to have some access and information about climactic histories, about conditions of precipitation, et cetera, long before the invention of instruments of measure. Of course, this is not a revolutionary idea, the idea that the material world and its affordances has been registering ongoing changes and that one can access the information that is held in materials. Joe was using the word forensics. So, yes. So, there's lots of, today, technical probes that we can use to do this analysis. He was also delving into the world of bioacoustics in the ways in which acoustic frequencies can register diminished ecologies.
I mean, in the case of bushfires, there's definitely a visual absence, but of course, the acoustic register can tell us about even in forests that have undergone selective logging, there's a considerable dropout of certain insect frequencies. Things that we might not see in the visual realm are made possible through the acoustic. I became really interested in the notion of data proxies when working on the Atmospheric Feedback Loops project. And I'd like to play a two-minute clip from that, which will really go towards answering your question, Tim, because as I said, I was interested in data proxies because it turns out that cultural materials are actually really important to helping build the global climate model.
So, if you don't have data from instrumentation, where do you turn to find out something about temperatures, something about atmospheric conditions? What would you look at? Well, you could look at things like shipping reports and Farmer's Almanacs, but in particular, you could also actually look at cultural materials. This was the case with the scientists working in the Netherlands because of the fact that the Netherlands at a certain point was a real hotbed of landscape painting. Hundreds and hundreds of paintings were done by painters who weren't moving very far geographically. Often, they were just developing paintings in their local rural villages.
So, you have this extraordinary bounty of Dutch landscape painting that was very focused on documenting cloud formations. And so, scientists in the Netherlands have been turning to these paintings to understand something about climactic conditions and using the visual records archived by paintings, using that data, translating that, and plugging that into the global climate model where it obviously has to be correlated against other kinds of other data sets. So, nothing is evidential in and of itself. It always needs to be correlated or ground truthed, another term that is used a lot. But let me play that two-minute clip, because I think that'll be in some way also self-evident. I'll just play that.
A story is repeated here at Cabauw. The artist, Joseph Beuys, once theorised that the unique atmospheric properties of light, which had inspired Dutch painters since the 17th century, had disappeared with the land reclamation projects of the 1950s. As post-war modernisation began its terraforming operations throughout coastal regions of the Netherlands, the air was said to have lost its refractive shimmer due to the diminished number of water molecules carried inland by prevailing winds.
We use a painting from the 17th century landscape painter Jacob van Ruisdael. In fact, this is what he painted, the Dutch skies. Well, without knowing it, he recorded all the complex things about atmospheric research that we're studying.
The scientists conducting research here are recording even more dramatic changes, as atmospheric feedback loops between land, sea, and air reveal long term amplification of climate change signals. Terrestrial, aquatic, and atmospheric mediums have been forcefully remixed, creating radical new forms of unnatural media.
Yeah. So, that's one way in which I think cultural materials, and they could be artworks, it could be works of literature, they can actually play a very useful role. So, I thought I might never have thought about these paintings, but now, in some way, there's ways in which a certain contemporary demand forces a re-looking at something. You look again and other things come to the fore. So, I found that always really interesting, looking again at historic materials with a different objective. And so, that's one very, I think, pragmatic way in which we can think about cultural materials or artworks as furnishing evidence that can be incredibly important. And I say this also, because oftentimes, there isn't always an image of an event. Where do you find evidence for events?
Sometimes you have to find those in very distributed kinds of ways. Joel, you were talking about these shells and the whole history of those structures and the history of extractivism in relationship to the colonial project. You can start to uncover that by tracking through the material properties of that building. That building is not just a carrier of a certain architectural history, but a history in relationship to land, to people, to processes of extractivism. And there's something about the ways in which looking again into materials, whether those are cultural materials or geological materials or, et cetera, really can help us to answer that question.
In what world does something like this exist and to unfold that world in which certain entities exist? How did this building come about? What was required for this building to actually emerge? And then you start to unfold that, and it takes you into a whole set of different realms of experience and histories, et cetera. So, to me, that's also the ways in which I've tried to think about the ways in which art can help. Sorry. Now, I've lost my train of thought, but in some way, I think the obvious answer to your question and I'll wrap up here and turn over to Joel, but it's just to say that artworks are fairly effective in exposing injustice. There's lots of fantastic examples of artworks actually providing representations or accounts or documentary materials in relationship to injustice.
What art can't perhaps do is produce the transformative politics. You can't really undo structural racism. If we're expecting art to do that through this, I guess, realm of representation, I think we can also work with our own cultural materials differently, not just in terms of providing evidence through representing wrongs and trying to right wrongs through some representational register, but also looking at the ways in which cultural materials are themselves part of really multiperspectival and entangled realities, I think, might be one way that it could operate. I'll hand over to you, Joel.
Thank you. That's so great. I'm going to maybe try to dovetail into what you just said by talking specifically about a particular landscape painting and its painter. So, I want to talk about Albert Namatjira, who was an Arrernte man, who was born in a place now called Hermannsburg, which is like a Lutheran Mission in the Central Desert. It looks over MacDonnell Ranges, that's Arrernte Country, which is Albert Namatjira's Country. He was trained as a landscape painter by some white guy called Rex Battarbee. There's that narrative ... there's a narrative that places him under the tutelage of a white English ex-military painter. That's not the one I'm particularly interested in.
What I understand or what I feel like I understand Albert Namatjira was doing, and his family continued to do to this day by continuing to paint their Country, was he was intersecting with a very particular type of technology that was coming into contact with where he was. It's actually a very skillful manipulation of that technology, both being painting but in the landscape format, but also the art market that he attempted to dilute representation, representation that was defined by a white gaze of his land. He's famous for a reason. They're amazing paintings and there is that contextual connection that is there, right? I think there's more people who can talk to and articulate the quality.
I'm not an art critic. I'm not an art historian. I'm not going to talk about what his paintings were doing visually, but I want to talk about a particular narrative in relationship to a painting that he did called Twin Ghosts, which is the painting of two ghost gum. That painting was used by the local council there in 2012 and members of his family to make a council native title claim against the council to preserve that part of land. So, his historical depiction, his depiction, the fact that the trees sustained in that place was used as evidence to take it into the more legal and official frame.
The very unfortunate and very unsurprising reality of that happening in the Australian context, especially in the context of the Northern Territory or what is now the Northern Territory, in the Arrernte Country, is that over the court hearing in which the decision was being made was adjourned, because it was over the Christmas, New Year's break. And in that time, the people, whoever, there's not been anyone who's ever been ousted by this, but unfortunately, those trees were burnt down. They were completely destroyed in arson, an attack. Thus, extinguishing the claim that anyone could make through that painting and therefore on that land.
I don't think I need to explain exactly how important a piece of artwork was in that context in the fact that the only way that you could refute and extinguish those claims, which we all understand to be the same since time immemorial, is through the destruction of what is depicted in them. I'm not the only person who's talked about this as well. Warwick Thornton made work in the Adelaide Biennial in 2014 about this. So, I've been writing about this narrative and these relationships between these things. Warwick actually took some of the charred embers and the charcoal from that tree and then took that to the Biennial and drew that landscape. It was quite a profound artwork as well in and of itself.
Yeah, I think in talking back to the question, how does art engage with these things? Yeah, it can be plainly put when we think about how these cultural artifacts or cultural objects that aren't exactly a photograph or something that could be rendered so clearly as evidence can become distributed and speak to these things. I would claim that Namatjira and his family have always understood this and that there was a very particular and very skillful engagement with an unequal system literally, because Albert Namatjira was not a citizen when he was painting these paintings, right? That's why he wasn't given his copyright claim. That's why his family had to fight for the last 50 years for the possession of his copyright claim, because he was not considered a citizen.
So, there's also this engagement with this unequal system, where a painting that you might do is worth more than your life and a willful engagement with an unequal system to preserve what is the imagery of your place and the place that you have connection with that might outlast you, right? That might outlast any claim that you can make. But if you can find a way to engage in a system that is finding ways to financialise and circulate these objects, then something might sustain in that context.
That's a narrative, I think, that is shared amongst many Indigenous cultural practitioners historically for hundreds of years, not just in the Australian context and just in Albert Namatjira's context, I think. The engagement with an institution at that level and their understanding that "Well, maybe it's not even worth calling it art from that perspective," right? It's much more and it can facilitate much more. I think that's what I'll say.
Tim Riley Walsh:
I think that's a nice point to maybe try to draw these threads together and conclude. And I think so often, we feel the frustration as practitioners and art historians within the art world of its often one dimensionality and its walled garden style structures. Does our message get out?
I think often it doesn't, but then when it does and when it's applied in different circumstances, in this example that Joel has just so kindly provided around Namatjira's work and native title, and of course, Susan in this discussion around Dutch landscape painting and its application for when data didn't exist or atmospheric fluctuation and changing qualities of light, there are these intersections between art and between science and art coming to bare on and hopefully provide some justice.
They are powerful examples, and I think really expand this topic. I just wanted to thank so much both Joel Sherwood-Spring and Susan Schuppli for their contributions today to Atmospheric Evidence. And thank you so much and look forward to the next Form x Content.
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