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.

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

The Role of Art in a Pandemic

Social Distance (Illustration)

[With this post we begin a series in which we will offer some responses to the pandemic now unfolding across the globe, disrupting everyone’s lives. As we do on this blog we will speak from our own disciplinary positions, in the hope that people from other fields might find their own attempts to understand this crisis enriched.]

Pandemics, like climate change, are strange combinations of human activity and other natural processes. We make pandemics through all that we do — moving, touching, caring, talking, and so forth — because Continue reading

Niche Destruction: The (civic) republican niche (Part 2)

[Part 1 of this post appears here.]

Detail, Lorenzetti Allegory of Good and Bad Government

A desolate, uncultivated countryside; a burning village; ruined houses; marauding soldiers—these are the first things visitors to the council chambers in 14th century Siena would have seen of Continue reading

Nature’s Arts: Of People and Bogs

Baronstown West Man, found in County Kildare

Baronstown West Man, found in County Kildare

This past June, I gave a talk at the Art in the Anthropocene conference at Trinity College Dublin and used the always-happy occasion of being in Ireland to visit a few places there that I had not previously visited. Among them were Continue reading

The (civic) republican niche (Part 1)

Lorenzetti, Allegory of Good Government

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, “Allegory of Good and Bad Government” (1338-39), Palazzo Pubblico, Siena

Let me emphasize something from the start: I mean “small r” republican—this post (and another to follow) will have nothing to do with the “capital r” American political party. I’ll consider some ideas associated with Continue reading

Material of Our Time

I actually prefer plastic as a material because it is a material for our times. It represents the now. Ironically it is also ‘archival’, meaning in terms of its longevity it lasts over 100 years. This means that for art, it is a great material.

Claudia Hart (artist/sculptor), “Resolution, Reification,
and Resistance,”  3d Additivist Cookbook.

Not so long ago I had a conversation with a respected curator and gallery director about my research on Continue reading

The Plastic Arts in the Anthropocene

Joseph Beuys, “7000 Oaks” adapted under CC A-SA 3.0 from Wikimedia Commons

This coming June, I will give a talk at the “Art in the Anthropocene” conference at Trinity College, Dublin about the sculptural theory of the German artist Joseph Beuys. I will discuss the theory’s implications for the politics and ethics of human action in the Anthropocene, implications imbricated with accusations that Beuys, a pilot in the Luftwaffe during World War II, harbored fascist tendencies in his working methods, which often involve the marshaling of large numbers of people in projects that Beuys grouped under the rubric “social sculpture.” Key for this talk, and for this post, will be a remark Beuys made in 1975 about plastic, so I wanted to use the occasion of this post to further some of my thinking about Beuys, particularly where it most intersects with our present focus on plastic.

Continue reading

Seeing Artful Traces in the Geologic Record

This is the first in a series of posts on Perceiving the Anthropocene.

After escaping Polyphemus’s cave, Odysseus, ignoring protests from his men, shouts back in anger at the giant:

Cyclops! If any mortal asks you how
your eye was mutilated and made blind,
say that Odysseus, the city-sacker,
Laertes’ son, who lives in Ithaca,
Destroyed your sight.

— Homer, The Odyssey, IX.502-506, Emily Wilson, trans.

Odysseus’s announcement functions like a signature Continue reading