Moving: Rethinking Knowledge Production in the Anthropocene

This video embedded above is a trailer for Moving, an audiovisual presentation intended to be presented as a multichannel installation. Here, composite imagery and multi-tracked sound simulate the presence in exhibition of several video and audio sources.

Academics are a leading source of knowledge about ecosystems and about societies. They are also highly unified advocates for societal change to confront ecological crisis. However, academics rarely turn to their own practices with the same transformational demands. Why shouldn’t biologists, sociologists, or, to take up my own case, art historians fundamentally alter how they work to do better with respect to what their own inquiries tell them about humanity and the planet?

In January 2020, I traveled to Ecuador and Peru, visiting the Galapagos Islands and the Andes, including several Inca sites, as well as the cities of Quito, Guayaquil, Lima, and Cusco. I seized this travel as an opportunity to experiment with my practice as an art historian, bringing a camera and notebook along to document my experiences, shooting several hours of video, and writing a lot. On returning, I began editing and processing the video and incorporating the writing into a script that I then read aloud and recorded to accompany my images. The result is an experimental documentary video installation, a reflection, titled Moving, on the role that movement plays in the histories of the places I visited, connecting topics including evolution, architecture, colonialism, politics, tourism, and more.

I did all of this not to produce a finished work (let alone a masterpiece) but to sketch a format: the audiovisual presentation, in which images and sound (including spoken language) appear to audiences both as knowledge and as an occasion to produce more knowledge by interpreting them. I was doing something similar while traveling, as I have no expertise in South American history. As a result, I was epistemologically a tourist as much as I was literally one too. That was deliberate. I wanted a vacation less from work itself than from my usual working methods to operate in a new medium with new forms, exploring unfamiliar subject matter, identities, and contexts to participate in making knowledge differently, using methods of inquiry with which I am familiar in an unfamiliar way, questioning the ends of labor and leisure as world-picturing and world-making activities, putting travel, essential to art history, on trial.

Opening this new medium to present the thinking I do to others is part of a broader shift in my work as I have become increasingly concerned with the environment, ecology, and the Anthropocene. In this work, I have been examining how people rely on their inherent and unavoidable capacity to be artful when interacting with the rest of nature. In other words, we are each artist or artisan — homo artifex — as we give form to our surroundings, and art historians (academic or lay) can say substantive things about the artistry involved in all of this if they allow themselves to do so. Doing that has meant, on the one hand, turning away from the fine arts as the overly restrictive preoccupation of art history and, on the other hand, taking the artistry of my own activity into greater consideration.

The latter pursuit has driven me to rethink the formats that art historians tend to employ when doing their work: books, essays, journals, lectures, talks, conferences, seminars, etc., etc. I think of an audiovisual presentation as a reconceptualization of these oral and written modes, which usually feature visual accompaniment. Like a slide lecture, it mixes my words with pictures in order to present an argument. Like a book or essay, it is an enduring record of my thinking. Like a talk, it takes place over time. However, it is also unlike these formats in a variety of ways that enable it to reach audiences who might not be interested in attending a scholar’s lecture, reading an academic’s prose, or otherwise engaging with the standard venues for disseminating intellectual work. What I have made cannot be to everyone’s taste — nothing could be — but it will connect with people who otherwise would not encounter what I do, so it has the potential to reconfigure avenues of thought.

Transforming the publicness of intellectual work is, I think, a crucial response to the Anthropocene. Among the overriding themes of our times is skepticism about science and journalism. Conspiracy theories preponderate where critical thinking ought to be found, and powerful interests leverage this to nefarious ends. Bruno Latour’s much-cited diagnosis of this situation in his essay “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?: From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern” describes this state of affairs well and, I think, correctly proposes concern as a needed rudder amidst epistemological errancy. There are many ways to be concerned. I favor reconceiving what “science” and “journalism” are — that is, I hope that producers of knowledge might begin to make and share the knowledge they produce with one another and with others in different ways. In particular, the times call for a public more accustomed to the rigor and sophistication of intellectual work, perhaps even as participants in it. The point is less to convince the deluded of their errors than to assemble those concerned about them, though all the better if the former happens.

Moving is part of an attempt to move my own labor in that general direction. Presented atop this post is a trailer for the project, and illustrating the text that follows are some stills drawn from it. Bear in mind that the actual work is a multichannel installation with several screens of video playing back simultaneously while additional audio channels run both in and out of synchronization with the videos. Moving offers an immersive experience, in other words, one through which audiences themselves move. By contrast, this trailer is a single video channel and a single audio channel. What I show here is, then, a sample of content that will, when the current pandemic subsides, be exhibited, and I have used composite imagery as well as multi-tracked audio to convey on a single screen or from a single speaker something like the impression of being surrounded by multiple sources of imagery and sound.

Ideally, Moving would occupy a “black box” exhibition space with its channels of audio and video looping at different speeds and rates to supply fresh juxtapositions of content. Some of the videos that I have slowed down are very long: one lasts about fifty hours and another about thirty. The sped-up videos are much quicker and shorter: they repeat every fifteen minutes or so. The spoken portion of the project is roughly equivalent to a feature-film-length, about ninety minutes, but it is broken up into short segments such that it has no discernible beginning, middle, or end. As these elements loop continuously, audiences always enter during playback, and, because the loops do not sync up with one another, at any given moment, each person experiences a unique configuration of images, sounds, and language that will never repeat exactly that way again. The trailer, then, simulates a one-minute dip into a larger work designed endlessly to stimulate thought about the compossibility of changing entities and states of affairs, ways, that is, to imagine and reimagine the world moving.

I am not trained as a filmmaker, so Moving is deliberately modest from an aesthetic standpoint, making strategic use of something like what Hito Steyerl calls “the poor image” and defines as “a visual idea in its very becoming.” This approach to imaging can prompt knowledge production as much as it presents knowledge because ideas remain unrealized in the images themselves, requiring the activities of others to activate their potential. In other words, I want to put the audience in an art-historical situation, one in which it analyzes images, comprehends text, compares and contrasts, asks questions, thinks critically, and, perhaps above all, shows concern or cares — that is, does what I do when I do art history. The other half of rethinking my own practice is rethinking what counts as art-historical thinking or who counts as an art historian once the activity gets recognized in this collectivized manner.

Audiences generating their own knowledge — both knowing-that and knowing-how — is one key to rethinking the role of knowledge amid the pervasive hesitance to embrace science and journalism characteristic of the Anthropocene. The rhetorical community that emerges from this sort of work can short-circuit how we artful agents are transforming our surroundings by opening new possibilities for collective action. However, institutional resources are not allocated sufficiently to support this kind of work and thereby enable widespread transformations in practice. Inertia prevails, and so long as people are still not allocating resources properly to live well together with the rest of life on this planet, knowledge producers of all kinds may be grouped with other bad faith actors because they too promote delusional conspiracies — about their own capacity to change.


Robert Bailey is associate professor of art history at the University of Oklahoma.

Solve Climate By 2030

image for blog

In honor of Earth Day 2021, we are posting the video of a webinar Lynn Soreghan and I organized at OU two weeks ago as part of an international initiative led by Center for Environmental Policy at Bard College. At over 100 universities around the US and across the world local experts presented steps individuals can take to address the climate crisis.

Our own Oklahoma Climate Dialog was moderated by Lynn, and featured four speakers talking about what each of us can do to make a difference when it comes to climate.

  • Edith Wilson, a Tulsa-based consultant on renewable energy and climate mitigation, spoke about the energy transition generally, but then focused on the carbon implications of our dietary choices.
  • Dirk Spiers, owner of Spiers New Technology, a leader in recycling batteries for electric vehicles, spoke about the benefits of electric vehicles–for climate and other aspects of life.
  • Sharina Perry, founder of Utopia Plastix, and inventor of the plant-based plastic it manufactures and distributes, spoke about being an intentional consumer.
  • Lindsey Pever, an attorney specializing in renewable energy clients, spoke about how to be an effective participant in the political process.

(For more information about the speakers, see the event website. The webinar was sponsored by OU’s Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy, and the Environmental Studies Program in OU’s College of Arts and Sciences.)

An aspiration for the Solve Climate By 2030 project is that educators will devote class time to discussing climate change–under the rubric #MakeClimateAClass. To help with this effort the organizers at Bard have assembled a rich set of educational resources, including discussion templates for classes in a wide range of subjects. Other videos from this year’s series are being added to the Solve Climate By 2030 YouTube channel (you can also view videos from 2020’s dialogs). If you teach, our or another video might help get a discussion going in your class–and you might find one from your own state or country.

Our dialog did a great job of bringing into focus the question of how individual action bears on collective problems like climate change. Lynn and I will be back next week with some thoughts on that issue.

The End of Incrementalism

Step by Step Watercolor SketchVincent Desplanche, Sketches for a ‘Sentier Randocroquis’ at https://flic.kr/p/bhNYLM, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

[We welcome Robert Lifset to the blog, to comment on the talk by Dr. Joe Nation posted here last week. This post completes our series on Environmental Justice and Environmental Health.]

This is a tale of two bills. Continue reading

The Human Harms and Many Meanings of “Rough on Rats”

[This post completes a set of three on pesticides, part of our current series on Environmental Justice and Environmental Health. The others, by Jennifer Ross, include an overview of insecticides, and a talk on the impacts of insecticides in south Texas.] Continue reading

Pesticides and People

DDT advertisement

[We welcome Jennifer A. Ross to the blog, to continue our series on Environmental Justice and Environmental Health. The video of her talk in the associated speaker series will available next week.]

People have a long and complicated relationship with pesticides. It starts with us defining what a pest is, and then seeking Continue reading

“Toxic Masculinuty: California’s Salton Sea and the Environmental Consequences of Manliness”

CITATION:
Traci Brynne Voyles. 2020.  Environmental History 26, no. 1, pp. 127–141.
ON-LINE AVAILABILITY:
ABSTRACT:
In 2018, two military aircraft flew over the Salton Sea, California’s largest inland body of water occupying the desert area of Imperial and Riverside Counties. Midair, the pilots decided to pull a prank: they used their planes to draw Continue reading

How do you solve a problem like the Salton Sea?

[We welcome Traci Brynne Voyles to the blog, to kick off a series this spring on Environmental Justice and Environmental Health. The video of her talk in the associated speaker series is available here.]

For the past decade and a half, I’ve been immersed in studying environmental disasters. I’ve focused on the ways they are shaped by various intersecting power structures: Continue reading

“The Dialogue between Voltaire and Rousseau on the Lisbon Earthquake: The Emergence of a Social Science View”

CITATION:
Russell R. Dynes. 2000. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, Vol. 18, No. 1, pp. 97-115.
ON-LINE AVAILABILITY:
Preliminary version, published by University of Delaware Disaster Research Center
ABSTRACT:
Disasters are usually identified as having occurred at a particular time and place, but they also occur at a particular time in human history and within a specific social and cultural context. Consequently, it is appropriate to call the Lisbon earthquake the first Continue reading

“A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None”

 
CITATION:
K. Yusoff, 2019, University of Minnesota Press.
 
ON-LINE AVAILABILITY:
Page to purchase e-pub.
 
ABSTRACT:
Kathryn Yusoff examines how the grammar of geology is foundational to establishing the extractive economies of subjective life and the earth under colonialism and slavery. She initiates a transdisciplinary conversation between black feminist theory, geography, and the earth sciences, addressing Continue reading

Our Pandemic and Siena’s Plague: Looking Outside Lorenzetti’s Fresco

Burying victims of the Black Death

Burying victims of the Black Death

The COVID-19 spring, and now summer, of 2020 has kept me thinking about something with which I have been preoccupied for about a year now: the fresco series by Ambrogio Lorenzetti known as the Allegory of Good and Bad Government, Continue reading