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.

3 thoughts on “Moving: Rethinking Knowledge Production in the Anthropocene

  1. Thanks for this very creative post, Robert. I’m really impressed with your “trailer,” and I look forward to the full immersive experience. I’m eager to take in the trace of your experience on your trip, and to encounter your thoughts about it.

    And I agree completely that the urgency of our situation now calls for some sort of change to intellectual business as usual. Doing the same things in the same ways indeed seems like it doesn’t meet the emotional demands of our moment (though sometimes I wonder whether anything could …).

    But I do feel that there is something to be said for the older, more conventional mode of presentation, the written text—specifically by way of contrast to the audiovisual form you are developing with Moving. For me this has to do with temporality. With the audio visual form—and with performance in general—the presenter is “in control” of the temporality, so the audience member must keep up with what is being presented, or lose the thread. When reading a text, of course, the “audience member” is in control of the temporality, and can take in the ideas at a pace that allows for full attention.

    The temporal feature is related to the idea of interactivity. Certainly Q&A after a talk is a form of interactivity even in the context of a “performance” (i.e. where the temporality is controlled by the speaker). But I think the kind of interaction the blog format facilitates, based on the uncontrolled temporality of writing, is particularly valuable. Obviously comments can be massively unhelpful. But in the best case, freed from the temporal pressure of an event during which they must be presented, they can be tremendously productive.

    It is absolutely the case that the kind of co-production of knowledge in interpersonal interactions—as in Q&A and comment threads—is a way of democratizing knowledge production, if I am correct in using that term to interpret one of your goals. But I guess I want to put in a word for the old-school activity of reading a text and writing notes in the margin (or in a notebook). I hold onto the idea that that is a really important opportunity for, to borrow your words, audiences to generate their own knowledge. For in that form the author’s control over the flow of the audience members’ thoughts is at a minimum, and (it seems to me) the prospect for the audience member to counteract intellectual inertia is greatest.

  2. hey Robert,

    just to share in, as I am

    a) interested very much in the move of academic thinking and exposition to multimodal formats and what I sometimes call ‘clandestine forms of publication’ (see e.g.; beyond the timeline (Video Vortex conference as browsable online-‘book’))

    b) I am currently also writing a practice-based PhD under the title ‚Heterocene Vision. Mapping, Photography and Lifescapes in the Anthropocene‘, which is interested in the question of how the anthropocene can be rendered visible, based on different systematic discourses (including academic reflections of the Anthropocene) and on the interweaving of (documentary / street) photography and mapping in the form of an online ‘AnAtlas’.

    with that background I wanted to

    a) give 120% support to your idea and thrive. maybe adding that in my perception the very discourse of producing knowledge in movement (travel, roaming, dwelling) is more and more discussed and acknowledged as a knowledge producing mode in its own, up to academia (see e.g. Patrick Keller´s ‘View from the train’, or – more theoretical – Nicholas Bourriaud’s ‘Radicant’

    b) drop a list of projects and links (from the fingertips only; so not really a fully edited list) which take up that multimodal mapping of the Anthropocene and its inhabitations that you are also after. maybe there is something for you, or others interested in ‘inhabiting the Anthropocene’ (which could, of course, be all of us :-D):

    at some point I want to put an overview of all those aesthesiological / multimodal mappings of the Anthropocene (which, as reflective and heterogenuous complex, I call Heterocene) online. so, please excuse the jotted nature of this (non-)list.
    I thought it might be a helpful insertion / yawn given the current impulse represented here by you, Robert.

    at the occassion: thx a lot for ‘Inhabiting the Anthropocene’! I think with the conceptual lever of inhabitation you are on a very fruitful track…! so thx for you all providing this to the critical and interested public!

    best from Berlin!
    oliver (lerone schultz)

    // – for interest in my trajectories see:

  3. Two exceptional comments!

    Thanks, Zev, for your thoughtful reply. Rest assured that I have no plans to quit writing. My logomania will not allow it! This detour into video and creative work is supplemental or complimentary to more conventional writing. I think what I’m committed to at base here is more consideration of medium and format in the academy. Why is a given research trajectory best deposited in an article? Might it be better suited to another mode of presentation? In response to your point about temporality, agreed that the written word often enables a freer engagement in the ways you suggest (going back, rereading, making notes in the margins, putting the book down to look something up and then returning, etc.). But part of what video (and, by extension, video installation) makes possible is the juxtaposition of images, audio, texts, music, etc. The “performance,” as you helpfully call it, of these elements enables wholly other modes of reception that, I think, leave plenty of room for readerly freedom. What gets lost temporally perhaps reappears spatially, as the audience chooses where to pay attention or how to relate one part of the whole to another, etc. So, in short, yes to all. (And video, because of its capacity for easy archiving, sharing, re-watching, playback manipulation, etc., can function like both a written text and a performance, though admittedly not always so easily when installed.)

    And thanks, Oliver, for this generous list of links. Some are familiar and some aren’t, so I’ll enjoy sifting and sorting and connecting as I make my way through them. Please keep me appraised of your work as it develops. It seems that we’re on parallel tracks. And thanks especially for the phrase “clandestine forms of publication” — that’s an especially helpful way to think about navigating the process of sharing ideas, finding audiences, etc.

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