I am a field ecologist by training, and in that capacity I research ecosystem engineering (how species affect their environments), plant-animal interactions, rewilding and conservation. My art practice also asks how landscapes are formed, and through what processes we come to know and (re-)construct the world.
FIELDWORK Q&A – April 2020
What interests you about fieldwork in artistic and/or geographic practice?
For me, the process of observation is very important. In my practice, observation of the natural world (including the social world) is the basis of any kind of understanding, both general and particular, both theoretical and applied, art and science. I am interested in how particular places, particular comings-together of plants, animals, rocks, weather, etc., tell particular stories—histories, soap operas, poems. I am also very interested in how field methods like we use in ecology research are very similar to performance art, rituals or games. Outside the constraints of science methods, I think it is interesting to play with what kinds of understandings can be generated in the field by different games, rituals or performances. For me all of these things are a big game of translation or commensuration, through which I construct my own “field”, the place or world that I want to live in. For me, fieldsites aren’t things that are given, but also things that we construct through our engagements with them.
How is fieldwork part of your research and/or work?
As I describe above, fieldwork is the basis of much of my art practice (and science practice). My work has drawn on particular sites, usually where I am also doing ecological or conservation research, in Chile, in Italy, and in a few other places during my travels. I have also found in general that in group projects and collaborations, having a fieldsite to engage with and discover is an excellent way to formulate and crystalize a joint project. The decontexualization of working together in the field is also a great way to concentrate the curiosity, and to bond with other people.
How would you describe your fieldwork activity?
When I am at a fieldsite, everything even remotely related to the site becomes fascinating to me, which only increases the longer I am there. I want to look at and feel everything. I want to talk to everyone and find out everything about the history of every aspect of the site. The phase of working out a specific practice, some kind of method or game for the site, is about selecting among the different patterns and meanings that I construct during this exploratory phase. Of course I go back and forth between these.
Instructions: (1) Optional: Obtain a baby and a candle. (2) At Malpaís de Güímar (Tenerife, Spain), set your camera on a 10 second timer (3) Within 10 seconds, find a resistant position (4) Hold this position as long as possible (5) Repeat as often as necessary, but not more.
This work was developed in the context of my participation as an instructor in the fieldtrip of Oxford University’s Biodiversity, Conservation and Management MSc to Tenerife. It draws on a local legend about the volcanic site where the performance took place, called the Badlands of Güímar, the difficult conservation situation, and the biology of seeds washed on the hostile rocks, which somehow manage to establish themselves under the right conditions. I published a description of the work along with some student art projects also made on-site (see A’Bear et al. 2017 Leonardo).
Cleambering Alhué, 2018
A 3:47 minute mp4 film made with my mobile phone. In 2018, I developed the Cleambering Manifesto along with British artist Laura Harrington. Cleambering, or “clambering” plus “meandering,” is a “deep-time parkour” that co-interprets rocks and the water and other forces that formed them and their vegetation, through moving along them. In Chile, there are many rocks scattered everywhere, indicating past weather events and earthquakes leading to rock erosion. In the current drought, the possibility of rocks being moved by water seems remote and hard to imagine, although rain and floods were common here in the past. I cleambered on hillslopes near my scientific research site in Alhué.
Tissue of interpretation, 2018
The warp is things we don’t understand. The weft is things that are ambiguous.
This work consists of two coloured pencil drawings on paper, that have been cut into strips and woven together. The images of “things we don’t understand” and “things that are ambiguous” are redrawn from photos and field notes from a project in the so-called “slid sites” in Brunkulslejer, Denmark, in which I collaborated with my anthropologist colleague Mathilde Højrup to construct a natural history of these anthropogenic transformed sites. The slid sites are rather strange, being areas where vibrations from large tree-harvesting equipment caused super-saturated sandy soil to buckle into 3-m high linear undulations. The resulting low marshy areas and high peaks have been recolonized by various plants and animals. I was interested in our process of interpreting things we saw in the environment: what was completely mysterious to us, what could we only partially interpret, what eluded a single explanation and might indicate more than one thing?
“Ombra di pressione/ Pressure shadow”, 2018-2019
Monotype made on a glass plate by drawing with a birch twig in the ink. Monotype is the simplest printing technique. It has no material negative. It cannot be repeatedly printed.
Continuity of lichens.
Beech Fagus sylvatica bent by a landslide.
Birch Betula pendula, a pioneer species of the Piemonte.
Quartz given time to form inside pressure shadow in schist rock outcrop.
“Time is the flow to which entropy condemns us.”
The first set of monotypes shows four biological and geomorphological elements for the interpretation of different temporalities in the Piemonte, Italy, in red, blue, yellow and black. These images are then repeatedly superimposed in a series of further black monotypes to think about the formation of the landscape as a superposition of different processes with different temporalities. I then repeated this last image with serigraphy and lithography, referring simply to my visual and muscle memory to reproduce it. For the lithography I imagined that I was looking through the rock itself into the surrounding landscape.
This 3 dimensional piece is a hybrid between a classical science-fair poster like the kind I made in elementary school, and a decorated altarpiece. The images are photographs I took of plantlife taking over an abandoned lot that I discovered while visiting a colleague in Massachusetts. Some are arranged into grids pasted over colored paper; some are arranged in a decorative geometrical pattern. Others seem to form a series of pictograms, and finally a last set makes reference to the visual structure of two famous religious paintings. The work plays with the nexus of observation, data, art, and meaning.
Illustrations, “Buscando al sapo de Bullock en Nahuelbuta, Chile: una historia natural”, 2018
These coloured pencil illustrations were made for an article I wrote for the Chilean environmental magazine Endemico, describing a National Geographic- funded expedition that I participated in, to find a rare species of frog in patches of forest spared from forestry. In the illustrations, I tried to capture the impressions, memories, or narratives that were difficult for me to adequately represent within the standard aesthetic of nature photography.
Nature of evidence, 2019
In this silkscreen print, I play with the idea of repeating patterns in ecology that indicate processes, and repeating patterns across space (as a kind of wallpaper) and time (via the silkscreen printing). The image represents themes from my research on shrub ecology with my anthropologist colleague Colin Hoag in Lesotho.
One image from each project.