RESPONSE-ABILITY IN AN AGENTIAL LANDSCAPE

This article was originally published on VERSO MMXVI, on April 23 2017.   

Australian landscape photography, especially the non-urban varietal, has its issues. As a genre, the field has been historically compromised by its origins, local socio-political context and lack of critique. The touristic imperative that birthed the industry established an aesthetic marked by its colonial heritage, and nearly 180 years after the first photograph was taken it remains the predominant visual decree [1]. The trouble with colonial aesthetics is they are binary in nature, not of nature [2].  A colonised landscape is a commodity and the contemporary fall-out is a proliferation of landscape porn that engenders fantasy at the expense of genuine engagement [3].  It’s not an exaggeration to regard its affect as neo-colonial, made worse by the fact it appears so culturally engrained we barely seem to notice it [4].  

Photo historian Geoffrey Batchen contests the possibility that Australian photography could be anything other than a colonised practice due to multi-geographical nature of our heritage and the global mechanics of the medium [5]. What Batchen neglects however, is the actuality of Place, and his proposition is a sombre and (perhaps) inadvertent reminder of a colonial and Cartesian worldview.  But, like Bruno LatourDonna HarawayKaren Barad and many others, I favour the assertion that materiality of Place is an equal player in the formation of creative works. To embrace this idea is to profoundly change the engagement, especially for a traditionally representational and literal medium like photography [6].

Accepting a more equalising view of materiality subverts the near obsessional focus on mechanics and what is seen through the viewfinder. More critically, it rejects the view of nature as an ‘other’, as something separate from humans. To accept nature’s non-otherness is to accept a universalised intra-active state of be-ing [7].  The observation draws attention to the fact there is no going beyond nature, nothing separate from it and nothing to separate from. Nature is the human, the non-human, the inanimate, and the invisible.

 Christopher Houghton, 2016,  The Reductive Conversationalist , 110cm x 90cm.

Christopher Houghton, 2016, The Reductive Conversationalist, 110cm x 90cm.

Applying this line of thinking to landscape photography necessitates a radical re-visioning of our engagement with country. It invites an equalising response-ability, through which multiple co-authors work collaboratively in a materially discursive and materially semiotic practice [8].  This is not to displace the human, but calls for a lack of hierarchy, one that acknowledges the human as an implicit and actual expression of nature as opposed to a singular anthropocentric authority. Nor does it do away with human authorship. In fact, I propose the opposite; that the contribution of the artist is an anchor through which we can mediate a conversation with extended materialities, and though practice, begin to understand the non-human semiotics of Place [9].

In negotiating the terrain within my own practice I defer to Donna Haraway’s perspective on optics and diffraction, that is, the act of observing and responding to patterns of difference (in my case, within a system of environment) [10]. It proposes a radical departure from the notion of capturing a photograph and creating representations of the literal. Rather, it enables a conscious participation in an intra-active relationship; the be-ing in, and be-ing of, nature.  

By way of example, for the last three years I have been cultivating a relationship with a specific stretch of coastline in the Fleurieu Peninsula.  The epistemological focus of the camera/subject/author relationship has been replaced by cognitising my awareness of entanglement, subverting conventions of the literal, and expressing response-ability beyond the photographic ‘moment’.  Photography has become an ontological act of process rather than a function of capturing moments or stealing pictures.  In practice, it means considerable time spent not making pictures, but rather listening, not listening, watching, not watching, walking, not walking, inviting exchange and through awareness, cultivating synchronous acts of presence through which I use a camera to record relationship.

 Christopher Houghton, 2016,  The Agential sea, at restand in motion , 110cm x 138cm

Christopher Houghton, 2016, The Agential sea, at restand in motion, 110cm x 138cm

Being about process, the exposed negative is only a fragment of the whole, or to put it another way, a small component within the system of material nature in which I am engaged. Once the negative is exposed and processed, it takes time to become familiar with it. Working with the negative and making the print are entirely different processes that require unique approaches to presence, to acknowledge their unique agency.  Working as I do, it sometimes takes months to render a print that confidently expresses the multidimensional aspects of materiality.  Whilst a  photograph taken in-situ might present a rock covered in crystalline salt, it also presents as something other than its literal counterpoint.  From an agential perspective, even though I am seeing a rock, I am not seeing a rock, but also the apparent presence of the night sky, the depth and prospective birth of a universe behind it, the patterning of distant stars, the swell of tides, currents of the air, as well as an abstracted representation of a fish or bird.  The experience of be-ing in Place, of be-ing embedded in the system and working cognitively to see how things relate, extends the processes of seeing. Embracing the exchange, I witness relationship experientially through a material exchange that has developed over time. The final photograph or artefact becomes a geophysiological hieroglyph of emergence [11].  

Embracing the agential, the photograph expresses a non-linguistic act of semiosis. From the perspective of co-authorship, photography as an ontological practice extends the consideration of mnemonics toward a commonality of memory beyond the human, without ejecting the human from the equation [12].  It’s not exclusion, but inclusion – a shared exchange within an intra-active, innately material universe.  

 Christopher Houghton, 2015,  Elder , 110cm x 90cm.

Christopher Houghton, 2015, Elder, 110cm x 90cm.

NOTES  [1] Judy Annear makes multiple references to photography’s relationship to identity and colonialism in The Photograph and Australia. I also draw on Helen’s Ennis’s observation of ‘a striking orientation toward realism’ (at the expense of abstraction) within Australian practice.  Judy Annear, The Photograph and Australia, (Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2015), pp. 9-13, 16-19, 174, 176. Helen Ennis, Land and Landscape Photography and Australia (London: Reaktion Press 2008), pp. 51-72.

[2] To suggest colonial aesthetics are binary is to acknowledge the anthropocentric world-view implicit in the act of conquer-ship.  By contrast, nature as a principle or system acknowledges a near infinitely complex intra-relationship.

[3] Rod Giblet observes the evolution of landscape photography in Australia as centrally wedded to pictorialism and nation-building, with contemporary practice trading on landscape porn and the sublime. Rod Giblett, Shooting the Sunburnt Country, the Land of Sweeping Plains, the Rugged Mountain Ranges: Australian Landscape and Wilderness Photography, Continuum (2007), 21:3, 335-346, DOI: 10.1080/10304310701460664

[4]The term post-colonial is problematic considering the contemporary relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. ‘Post’ suggests the past, something to be reflected upon and study, which is obviously not the case. The term neo-colonial is perhaps more relevant given that government policies in Australia presently continue to disempower indigenous Australians (lack of treaty, the NT intervention, deaths in custody etcetera, etcetera).

[5] Geoffrey Batchen ties the fate of photography to the processes of colonialism and capitalism. It’s an elegant proposition backed by a detailed history of mechanics, immigration and commercial imperatives.  The problem is that advocating for the focus of Australian photography to be critiqued as such continues to displace the materiality of the country itself.  Geoffrey Batchen, Antipodean Photography” an itinerant history, in Judy Annear, The Photograph and Australia, (Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2015) pp.260-265

[6] In 1977 Susan Sontag asserted, “The identification of the subject of a photograph always dominates our perception of it.” Whilst I accept the complexity of her argument, my aim through working photography as an ontology is to reject the reductivity of Sontag’s assertion and, in practice, expand the field of reference. Susan Sontag, On Photography, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), p 17.

[7] Karen Barad coins the term Agential Realism to articulate her theory of a mattering universe: one that is constantly configuring itself.  Nature as a fluid and intra-relating state of being. Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning, (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press 2007), pp.132-185.

[8] Anthropologist Eduardo Kohn takes it further articulating thought as a living object not exclusive to humans, that drives the evolution of and intra-action within ecosystems. Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human, (London: University of California Press, 2015), p. 1-6, 71-76.

[9] Kohn and fellow anthropologist Lars, Kjaer Holm defer to Charles Sander Peirce’s notion of material semiotics, arguing the varied perspective of ‘selves’ and the necessity to consider semiotics beyond the human. Ground, Self, Sign: The Semiotic Theories of Charles Sanders Peirce and Their Applications in Social Anthropology in Anaanta Kumar Giri and John Clammer (eds.), Philosophy and Anthropology: Border Crossing and Transformations. (London Anthem Press, 2013), pp. 252-253.

[10] Donna Haraway, The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others in Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, Paula A. Trechler, (eds.), Cultural Studies (New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 295-337.

[11] The notion of geophysiology acknowledges intelligence within the system of the planet. In keeping with Barad’s Agential Realist account of matter, Kohn’s observations of ecosystems and James Lovelock’s Gaia principal the effects are both, and at once, local and universal. James Lovelock, Gaia, (United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 30-58.

[12] Annear draw reference to photography as a substitute for experience and memento mori.  Taking on Pierce’s material semiotics, Kohns’ observations of ecosystems and barad’s Agential universe I propose it’s time to expand our frame of reference for not just mnemonics, but also response-ability and engagement. Annear (2015), pp. 9-13, 16-19.

Exhibition

Presented as part of the SALA Festival, The Chapel Hill Gallery in McLaren Vale is showcasing a series of works-in-progress from July 31 – September 18. ANATOMY OF SALT CREEK is a nod toward the Karen's Barad's theory of Agential Realism and her take on the mattering universe. Created as coauthored works of landscape these photographs are building toward a larger collection of work to be exhibited at the end of the year. 

 “ Evolution draws us to the fact that at a primordial level only time and circumstance separate the life of a rock and the life of a human being. Embedded in the stone coastline where these photographs were made are the emergent impressions of human form, and this series is an observation of the symbiotic state of becoming that bind the animate and inanimate, the human and the unseen. The practice of finding them has become a process of slowing the act of photography and collaborating with the Australian landscape on its own terms.“  

Christopher Houghton

 

Communal Seeing

When I think about death two images come to mind - the static corpse of my late father in his funeral casket and Lucien Clergue’s photograph of a dead cat washed up on a beach. Both affirmed an absence of life and both were equally disturbing. At 16, I wasn’t prepared for the impact of seeing the husk of my father laid bare, yet it was a ritual I forced upon myself to confront a troubled past.

Two years later, in a beautiful collection published by the New York Graphic Society, I came across Lucien’s image of the deceased feline 'Grounded Cat'. His cat, mannequins and gypsies all added weight to the experience of Clergue’s collection. I bought the book and spent hours absorbing his work - portraits of Picasso, Cocteau, the contest between matador and bull, rocks, reeds and nudes. Although the subjects were diverse, viewed as a whole I began to see the death of my father in a new light.

Over time I saw the transcendence of it, that the fear of death was nothing more than the fear of transition and perhaps my perception of the pain associated with it. Lucien's image seemed to capture the moment before and after. For me it wasn't a moment frozen in time but an image  that captured two states of being. It was anguished and still, eternal and transient. The space between life and death became abruptly clear, as it had when I saw my father in his casket. At the time I was unable to reconcile it but here it was - the context of life framed by beauty, tragedy, sanctity and simplicity. Through the specificity of  Clergue's photograph my own experience became less personal and more universal.

On reflection I realise Clergies' photograph is as much about life as it is about death and I now see the memory of my father’s corpse in the same light. I half expect it was the eternal circle that Lucien was seeing all along. Or perhaps he was grappling with life or death in his own way. Who's to really know except Lucien himself, and to a degree it’s irrelevant. For me the experience strengthened the importance of photography, the communal act of seeing and the transformative power of the image.

Some of Lucien's photographs still hold magic when i look at them. They reveal an insistent curiosity and a compassion for the breadth of life. Like a good piece of writing, the grace is expressed through what is observed, composed and withheld. My own subjectivity, conscious and unconscious completes the exchange and with that I am left to dream what I will.

 

Bushwalkers

I have long been disturbed by the compulsion people have to carve their names into trees. It seems a contradiction to enter a forest in order to get a way from it all only to put a knife to its bark. It seems like a tussle between reverence and violence that speaks more about the inability to distinguish  between the two, and an anthropocentric perception of ownership.  I took this photograph eight years ago and it reflects my first attempts to subvert linear forms of representation.  I was more interested in my reaction to what i saw rather than creating a photograph, and my way of expressing what i felt at the time was to click the shutter (after about an hour of setting up the camera).  

If I'm honest, I didn't really know why I was taking it at the time - collecting evidence, chronicling my outrage, a protest of some sort.  It's taking years for me to see it for what it is - a photograph articulating a paradox of behaviour, a photograph of a tree that is only perceptible as such once people examine the cuts in the bark.  To do so one has to look closer and maybe that was always the point.

A Weston perspective

It's half way between birthdays for Edward Weston. He would be 129 years old today and his work, dedication and exploration continue to inspire. The combined quote below was written by Weston; the first half he penned in 1930 and the second was published in 1943.

"Each medium of expression imposes its own limitations on the artist — limitations inherent in the tools, materials, or processes he employs. In the older art forms these natural confines are so well established they are taken for granted. We select music or dancing, sculpture or writing because we feel that within the frame of that particular medium we can best express whatever it is we have to say. The photographer must work out his problem, restricted by the size of his camera, the focal length of his lens, the certain grade of dry plate or film, and the printing process he is using: within these limitations enough can be said, more than has been so far—for photography is young." 

The seamlessness of Weston's thoughts reflect the purity of his intention toward photography, and the wholeness of his work as an artist. Even with the avalanch of photographs that now bombard on a daily basis, I find inspiration in Weston's commentary about photography being young. Taking into account the context of traditional practice and the fact photography has been overrun by digital processes, I feel the practice of 'seeing' in the way that Weston often spoke about it still has much to offer. At the time of photography's modernist era Australia was so governed by its White Australia Policy, the absence of landscape works suggest it became to difficult to genuinely engage with our interior (literally and metaphorically). By and large photographers withdrew from the inland and focussed their attention on our coastal centres.

Now that we are more clearly looking at our past, perhaps there is space too to re-see the Australian landscape, not as something to be feared, tamed or sold as a tourist destination. Perhaps there is an opportunity to articulate a sense of harmony from an external and interior point of view, an occupation that drove the likes of Weston, (not to mention Adams, Stand and others). They sought more than to simply document. They were looking for the thing that couldn't be easily photographed. They wanted to capture presence.