“Dark Ecology and the Authoritative Imaginary in Ecocritical Art” (2017)
3 digital collages & research paper

Art is thought from the future. Thought we cannot explicitly think at present. Thought we may not think or speak at all. If we want thought different from the present, then thought must veer toward art.

Timothy Morton[1]

I. Introduction

            Given a contemporary political milieu that has accelerated the deconstruction of any agreed-upon conception of “nature”, or “environment” with its failure to exact the radical responses necessary to combat global warming and its effects, what are the responsibilities of the ecocritical artist? The emergent school of thought dubbed Dark Ecology, in many ways brought into the public sphere with the help of writer and professor Timothy Morton, may offer an answer. Morton is a critic of environmentalism as we know it, deploying ideas of object-oriented ontology and pop culture alike to disrupt dualist notions of Nature-Culture, instead promoting an “ecology without nature” that does away with the separation of anthropocentric narratives and preconceived ideas of an untouched wilderness demanding protection. Instead, Morton calls for an acknowledgement of the “mesh” that connects all things and an acceptance of the entanglement of the byproducts of capitalist, industrial processes and their environments.

            The ecocritical artist has the ability to visualize, comment on, and reproduce this mesh. With their representational tactics minimally hampered by requirements imposed by government agencies or corporate stakeholders, the ecocritical artist finds themself free to trace flows of materials, materialize rates of change, document the qualities of the anthroposcene around them, and rapidly expand and contract their scope of inquiry from split-second micro-chemical processes to vast geologic time-scales. Technologies made available in recent years to artists have extended and recalibrated human capacities to sense the environment around us and our relationships to it, in addition to expanding the forums by which we can distribute and circulate these findings. Ellsworth and Kruse in their introduction to Making The Geologic Now: Responses to Material Conditions of Contemporary Life, note that there is an emerging cultural sensibility that sees the earth not as static or passive, but as an active assemblage of moving processes. Their book chronicles artists, architects, designers, and other experimental aestheticians that are beginning to “ponder the consequences of global flows and exchanges of information, human beings, manufactured products and earth materials for how humans sense and make meaning of time and space” (16).

            In this paper, I will investigate the representational tactics deployed by two contemporary filmmakers. I will begin with an analysis of Hito Steyerl and her film “Liquidity Inc.” (2014), and then move on to Ursula Biemann and her films “Egyptian Chemistry” (2012) and “Deep Weather” (2013). I will conclude the paper with commentary on three pieces of digitally collaged visual art I generated to supplement this paper, a series titled “Framed Repositories”. By investigating these art pieces through the lens of Dark Ecology and Morton’s conception of an interconnected “mesh”, I will reveal how the appropriation of authoritative aesthetics is a useful tool in critiquing and deconstructing truths in regard to the public’s understanding of damage done to their environment. Steyerl and Biemann’s films use unorthodox methodologies of image-making to comment on the unique and distorted epistemology of the present, deploying aesthetics typically reserved for “trustworthy” or “neutral” media sources, to acknowledge processes of environmental damage that these sources often ignore or conceal. The films exemplify the idea that art’s capacities transcend commentary, instead actively constructing and intervening in the same politics that more popular, neutral, or authoritative sources operate within. Reading art changes reality, observation is causation.

II. Hito Steyerl’s “Liquidity Inc.” (2014)

            Berlin-based, Japanese filmmaker Hito Steyerl’s “Liquidity Inc.” investigates the liquid nature of finance, using the case study of boxer Jacob Wood to propel a hallucinatory assemblage of video vignettes that deploys a dark satire conflating capitalism with water imagery. “Wood: [in reference to the volatility of market crash] It’s kind of fluid, like fighting.” Internet buzzwords like “torrent” and “stream” flash across the stream, juxtaposed with news footage of Superstorm Sandy and a Bruce Lee soundbyte repeating the mantra “empty your mind, be shapeless, like water.” By making the observation that qualities of water saturate quotidian finance aesthetics, Steyerl taps into an idea communicated by Buddhist master Dogen in his The Mountains and Water Sutra, that the universe is contained in a grain of sand, or a blade of grass. Steyerl masterfully appropriates this Buddhist idea of interlocking scales in her mashing of the vastness of the worldwide web and images into single droplets of water. There is a string of anxiety running through the 30 minute film, a fear of the frozen and a privileging of the liquid and the constantly flowing.

            “What is the history of the wind, how did this gust arrive here, who am I to be blown by it?” The video waxes menacingly poetic with quotes like these underneath,flashing Tumblr GIFs of Hokusai’s iconic “Great Wave”, transitioning to a world map annotated with dozens of red arrows pointing to territories with labels like “Stateless People”, “Conquered Insurgent State”, “Contested Islands”, seemingly indiscriminately. The mood of the film is almost as if an algorithm or bot is working in a feedback loop, accelerating to the point where geopolitics, capital, masculine signaling through boxing, Buddhist wisdom, and CGI technology have become an amalgam of chaos and liquid charged by a vaguely political critique. Steyerl senses through her media mix that we operate in a society that fetishizes liquid motion. The self-reflexive elements of the film that acknowledge its own fetishization of liquid motion are also the most humorous, as screen captures of Stereyl’s Facebook conversations with her cohorts document the depletion of her CGI budget as she resorts to free software tutorials and exploitation of “that kid from Moscow” to finish the video on time for her (presumably curatorial) clients.

            “Liquidity Inc.” is a film directly in line with Timothy Morton’s vision for art’s capacities to realize ideas of Dark Ecology, in its successful explosion, displacement and reconfiguration of elements both human and “natural”. The film is decidedly non-anthropocentric, and performs as a disturbing yet satirical visualization of Morton’s “mesh”. Its obsession with humanity’s obsession with “liquid assets”, “trade winds” and “the cloud” aligns with Morton’s idea that the form of dark ecology mirrors that of noir film. “The noir narrator begins investigating a supposedly external situation, from a supposedly neutral point of view, only to discover that she or he is implicated in it”[2]. This self-implication manifests itself in the film at 20:11 as dozens of digital wireframe bodies fall and plunge into a literal liquid mesh, suicidal imagery almost silly in its non-realism, uncanny in its poetry. “If future coexistence includes nonhumans and Dark Ecology is showing why this must be the case – it might be best to see history as a nested series of catastrophes that are still playing out rather than as a sequence of events based on a conception of time as a succession of atomic instants”[3]. Suicide in “Liquidity Inc.” is aestheticized in a way that follows this train of thought: death of the human is not an isolated emotional event, but an atemporal montage of bodies plunging and blending into the mesh one after another.

III. Ursula Biemann’s “Egyptian Chemistry” (2012), “Deep Weather” (2013)

            Ursula Biemann is a Swiss artist who identifies as a “video essayist”, and acknowledges that her chosen medium “doesn’t aim primarily at documenting realities but at organizing complexities.”[4]This is precisely what she achieves in her films “Egyptian Chemistry” (2012) and “Deep Weather” (2013). “Egyptian Chemistry” organizes the complexities of Nile Valley ecologies and their linkage to the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, while “Deep Weather” juxtaposes images of tar sand extraction in Canada to rising sea levels in Bangladesh. In both of these cases, Biemann uses the format of video to connote authority: these phenomena are related. In both films there is an attention to the temporalities that resource extraction confronts us with. In “Egyptian Chemistry” this occurs at the micro-scale, as Biemann deploys the anthropological technique of field sampling (precisely filling vials with water at different points in the Nile), to pose the question of how scientific knowledge is generated, gesturing to the connection between the simple act of the scientist, and the monumental acts of the Egyptian government in the complex political networks of water control in Egypt via dam projects and land reclamation ventures[5]. Resource extraction in “Deep Weather” is visualized in a more explicitly menacing way as scaled-out helicopter footage chronicles the machinic processes of tar sand extraction, intercut with footage of Bangladeshi communities making protective mud embankments by hand as a response to rising sea levels resulting from these extractive processes.

            Timothy Morton calls global warming a “wicked problem”, in that it is diagnosable but impossible to present solutions for, for if it can be solved it can never be verified as something that would have destroyed Earth in the first place.[6]Perhaps it is at this juncture that an ecocritical artist like Biemann must insert her work, as a verifyingpractice. “Egyptian Chemistry” and “Deep Weather” do more than place the damagers and the damaged side-by-side to present visual forensic evidence identifying a unidirectional, causal relationship (though this is certainly a component of the argument). Biemann goes beyond the didactic documentation of reality, and takes on the project of constructing her own reality that provokes the viewer to ask: is what I am looking at fact? How have these images been assembled to connote truth? These ecocritical films shoulder Dark Ecology’s invitation to tear open preconceived notions of time and ecological processes, gesturing toward the complex networks lurking behind the images of ruined nature that must be interrogated and thrown out as the singular object of our fixation.

                       When we have been thinking in global dimensions over the last two decades, this is the time to go planetary… Geography as a theoretical platform for tackling global issues…turns out to be insufficient, or simply too flat…Not everything comes into being through human intention, we need to examine the ways in which human and non-human realities emerge together in a variety of formations.[7]

            The above quote from Biemann points to reformat an anthropocentric, geographic conception of reality to one that can begin to grapple with the complex networks alluded to in the films. Biemann has attempted to do this by deploying authoritative moving images which one can imagine Morton would approve of, but there is another thinker of Dark Ecology that might provide an alternative. Paul Kingsnorth, co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project, has written extensively on the agricultural tool of the scythe.[8] He calls the scythe an “appropriate technology” with a “relaxed focus”, that offers an opportunity for humans to return their attention to themselves through meditative and agriculturally ritualistic activity. At first blush, one might find Kingsnorth’s occupation with an archaic technology irreconcilable with Biemann’s charge to transcend geography to a planetary scale. However, Kingsnorth’s occupation with scything is as process-oriented as Biemann’s films are, albeit at differing time-scales. The expert wielding of a scythe converts the human into an efficient machine, alluding to processes of resource manipulation included in Biemann’s visualizations of Bangladeshi mud-packing or tar sand extraction. Perhaps there is something to be said about conceiving of the human as a machine, or the machine as human, that opens up possibilities to represent the mesh of ecological reality. The idea of a human repeating the same scything action over and over again may be a powerful image to employ in future ecocritical artworks that may take the form of performance, perhaps lasting days or weeks supplemented with imagery of much longer geologic time processes to illustrate the interconnected mesh of Dark Ecology.

IV. Sebastian Choe’s “Framed Repositories” (2017)

            “Framed Repositories” is a series of three works titled “Onkalo”, “WIPP”, and “Yucca”, photo-collaging architectural schematic drawings of the Onkalo Spent Nuclear Fuel Repository in Finland, the Waste Isolation Power Plant in New Mexico, and Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada, respectively. The works, more than pushing any particular political agenda, instead collide images of varying scales to allude to the processes surrounding the phenomena of nuclear waste repositories that are so often reassuringly presented to the public with the support of authoritative-looking schematics, without acknowledgements of the risks of such projects. I have retained the formal language of these schematic drawings with their diagrammatic arrows and labels, but have replaced almost all of the text with provocative questions and labels that signal to the larger networks and processes that nuclear energy is enmeshed within.

            Furthermore, I have composited these photo-collages into a glossy television frame, and suspended said frame in an almost corporately domestic setting. This move displaces the schematics from their typical atmosphere of scientific reports and press releases, satirically alluding to their potential as celebrated interior décor. I have done this in the spirit of Morton’s charge that nuclear waste should be monumentalized in town squares rather than hidden deep underground. Zizek in the film “Examined Life” calls for a similar monumentalization of waste, in his critique of popular ecology as a secularized version of the Christian notion of just punishment. Humans have disrupted harmonious, ordered, and meaningful nature with our industrialized processes, and are thus punished with the byproducts of pollution. Zizek is skeptical of this belief, calling for an even more accelerated alienation from what we consider untarnished nature, that we might embrace and learn to love a horrifying techno-artificial trash world. This is an attitude that I playfully acknowledge in my framing of these three schematic drawings, that the processes of nuclear waste storage might be brought into the light and into our living rooms.

            “Onkalo” features a deep section cut into the earth, with callouts of the KBS-3 cylinder, an advanced device which will contain the nuclear waste in the Finnish repository. Photographs of Eiko Otake, a Japanese performance artist whose work engages trauma and memory of the 2011 Fukushima Daichii nuclear disaster are superimposed onto the callouts, her body punctured by the KBS-3 cylinders. The aesthetic collision of Finland and Japan, the specialty device and the human body, work off of Dark Ecology’s principles to acknowledge the intertwined nature of anthropocentric narratives and the cold presentation of technologies built to store matter hundreds of generations into the future. In Jeff Orlowski’s film Chasing Ice, there is a moment when the documentary filmmaker notes that the Antarctic glaciers he has documented for years with an automated camera have melted, their presence retained only by the camera’s memory card. To what extent is the human body also a memory card? Can the despair of the individual who remembers the Fukushima Daichii disaster be as authoritative a document as an exploded axonometric diagram of a waste containment cylinder? These are the questions that I pose with “Onkalo”, and attempt to develop further in the two additional pieces.

            “WIPP” collages a schematic of the Waste Isolation Power Plant, the world’s third deepest geological repository for nuclear waste, with rayograms by Anais Tondeur of radioactive plant specimens from the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The rayograms move in the opposite direction from the inclusion of Eiko Otake in “Onkalo”, alluding to the nonhuman, non-anthropocentric dimension of nuclear energy. Additionally, a sketch of the “Spike Field” by Michael Brill completed for the Sandia National Laboratories project Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is included. The “Spike Field” is a design concept meant to signal to humans at least 10,000 years into the future that the site is dangerous, and meant to be avoided. In considering Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger, spent nuclear fuel in this context would qualify as “dirt”, profane matter that is outside our ordered notions of reality, contagion. The menacing spikes brutally signal danger, and I include them in the spirit of Morton’s quote that “ecological awareness forces us to think and feel at multiple scales, scales that disorient normative concepts such as ‘present’, ‘life’, ‘human’, ‘nature’, ‘thing’, ‘thought’, and ‘logic’. Dark Ecology shall argue that there are layers of attunement to ecological reality more accurate than what is habitual in the media, in the academy, and in society at large.”[9]The intrinsic concept of the Waste Isolation Power Plant and its requirement to project knowledge far into the future problematizes popular ideas of nuclear power in media, the academy, and society as a relatively quick fix solution for fossil fuel carbon emissions. The Spike Field is an aesthetic signifier of the specters of ecological awareness: what we do with nuclear waste stretches our limits of chronological thinking, and this stretching is perhaps best rendered through artwork that appropriates sketches like the Spike Field, which is hidden in the depths of the WIPP’s website archives.

            “Yucca” starts with a cross section of the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, collaging the schematic with an infrared photograph of nuclear waste transport, a map of nuclear waste shipping routes in the United States, a diagram from the Nuclear Energy Institute’s development initiative “Delivering the Nuclear Promise”, photographs evidencing radioactivity in Fukushima, a spent fuel pool, and the famous photograph of a shadow left by a body vaporized by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. This particular piece was informed by John D’Agata’s About a Mountain, a piece of creative non-fiction that reflects upon Yucca Mountain as a project that was never realized. “I do not think that Yucca Mountain is a solution or a problem. I think that what I believe is that the mountain is where we are, it’s what we now have come to – a place that we have studied more thoroughly at this point than any other parcel of land in the world – and yet still it remains unknown, revealing only the fragility of our capacity to know”.[10]D’Agata understands that nuclear repositories place a siege on popular conceptions of epistemology in the vast time-scales that are being dealt with, time-scales that ecocritical art can address quite successfully using the very authoritative imagery of these popular conceptions.

            Yucca Mountain in popular media has been asked to be understood on the scale of the nation-state, as evidenced by the US map of the waste shipping routes included in the piece. Yucca Mountain is a final resting place, a place of pilgrimage for waste from plants all across the country. Dark Ecology however would demand that Yucca Mountain be understood as part of a mesh that transcends the nation-state, no more separate from the victims of Hiroshima in WWII than from its connection to the future probability of a catastrophe resulting from a truck accident following one of the very shipping routes on the shown map. As labeled in the piece, “Hyperobjects Defy Anthropocentric Comprehension”. Nuclear waste storage demands an ecological thought that considers indirect causality as well as direct causality. Two phenomena assist in illustrating this demand. There is a certain romanticization in popular media today of the Fast Breeder Reactor, a technology that can reuse spent nuclear fuel, but produces plutonium as a byproduct. A second phenomenon is the fact that 10% of US electricity is generated from dismantled Russian nuclear bombs. There is a tension between energy efficiency and the potential for plutonium to fall into the wrong hands. Nuclear technology therefore plays into two anxieties: resource deficiency, and the potential for nuclear war. Does our high energy demand accelerate the dangers of nuclear warfare? Will advanced mechanisms of nuclear waste storage protect us from these dangers? These are the most obvious questions of causality posed by spent nuclear fuel repositories, but Dark Ecology asks us to look beyond the immediate effects of this storage on our immediate safety, and perhaps more to the slow violence of a site like Yucca Mountain. Like the shadow left behind by a human body at Hiroshima, Dark Ecology calls for an investigation of the shadows left behind by proposals like Yucca Mountain that were never realized in the material world.

VI. Conclusion

            Ecocritical art is a natural complement to the intellectual work of Dark Ecology in its capability to render invisible processes visible and interrogate preconceived notions of authorship and authoritative truth by toying with images of ecological damage that audiences are used to seeing. Hito Steyerl and Ursula Biemann specifically use filmmaking to warp familiar imagery ranging from weather forecasts to helicopter footage to generate collaged realities that confront us with the interconnectedness of geopolitical processes at a variety of scales. In my series “Framed Repositories” I have attempted to learn from Steyerl and Biemann’s adaptations of authoritative imagery in order to tie together chronologies and territories linked to the long-term storage of nuclear waste. Dark Ecology, and specifically Timothy Morton’s conception of Dark Ecology certainly has its limits in terms of its preoccupation with the mesh of interconnected and coexisting entities behind the images and messages we receive on a daily basis about the ecological status of our environs. While artists like Steyerl and Biemann certainly do visualize this mesh and the long spatio-temporal scales associated, they also charge their works with a certain quality of condemnation of parties responsible for ecological damage. Their works appear to be part of an emerging expertise that blends both artistic montage and functional political critique, and it will be compelling to see to what degree thinkers like Morton support the more immediate political initiatives of such artists in the future.

[1] Morton, Dark Ecology, 1.

[2] Morton, The Ecological Thought, 16.

[3] Morton, Dark Ecology, 69.

[4] Biemann, “Stuff It: The Video Essay in the Digital Age”, 10.

[5] Biemann, “Egyptian Chemistry: From Postcolonial to Post-humanist Matters”, 5-6. “It has been clear to every president since Anwar Abdel Nasser that to be in power in Egypt you need to be in control of water… Hydraulic infrastructures are absolutely vital for the national food supply since there is virtually no rainfall in this country. These built environments-these hydro-engineering projects-are an expression of how governments conceive of ‘nature’ and place it at the service of society…Egyptian Chemistry brings the knowledge from multiple sources – from athmospheric physics to hydraulic modeling, peasant activism, agro-science, metaphysics and ecology – into a single forum, forming an epistemogram or a sort of epistemological cartography”

[6] Morton, Dark Ecology, 36.

[7] Biemann, “This Is Not A Pipeline: Thoughts on the Politico-Aesthetics of Oil”, 13.

[8] Kingsnorth, “Dark Ecology”, 1.

[9] Morton, Dark Ecology, 159.

[10] D’Agata, About a Mountain, 167.