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.