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.