Nature in the Dark

In 2012 I initiated an art/science collaboration between the Victorian National Parks Association (VNPA), the Centre for Creative Arts and Unlikely – Journal for Creative Arts. Since then we produced two series of artists videos and a number of public events and exhibitions including a stint in Baltimore and a conference on animal perception in Bendigo. And it keeps going … 🙂

This is an editorial that I wrote for Unlikely – where you can find the complete project archive. Please check it out.

Nature in the Dark – Communities of Sense and Ecological Imagination

Jan Hendrik Brüggemeier

Nature in the Dark evolved from an over-the-garden-fence conversation between neighbours in Preston, Victoria, with Matt Ruchel, the CEO of Victorian National Parks Association (VNPA), on one side and me on the other. Matt introduced me to VNPA’s citizens-science project Caught on Camera (Nature Watch) that used cameras to study the long-term impact of wild fires on fauna in Victorian national parks. The cameras were motion-triggered and most active at night set off by nocturnal animals. The results were predominantly black-and-white photographs. These night-vision shots showed no sign of any intention and preference in regard to the object of choice or the framing of the photographs, which clearly distinguished them from the staged work of a human photographer. The absence of a person behind the lens of the camera (in combination with some attractive bait) also allowed for more revealing behaviour on the part of the animals, allowing them to come as close as possible to the camera or even to run it over completely. To the curators, the raw and random nature of these photographs lacking direct human intention, felt aesthetically liberating. The combination of the ‘natural’ behaviour of the animals and the aesthetic of night-vision photography provided absolutely fascinating material for an art project.

NITD 1: source material from Unlikely Journal on Vimeo.

Project Formula

In the curatorial statement for the first iteration of Nature in the Dark artists videos, Maria Miranda and I described our experience viewing the source material like this:

Looking at the photos there is something incredibly intimate and unguarded about them. It’s as if wildlife social-realism meets the monochromatic aesthetic of night vision surveillance and we are becoming voyeurs of another intelligence at work — which we would not have encountered otherwise. (Brüggemeier and Miranda 2012)

From there the formula for the project arose. We provided artists with the same photographs and video footage that would usually be used by scientists, and each artist re-worked and interpreted the original footage in their own way. The next level was to present these works in a context that also allowed conservationists from the VNPA and environmental scientists to voice their concerns based on the scientific findings that this material helped to uncover. So far the project has generated two editions of artists videos, a number of exhibitions and video interventions in public space, interdisciplinary panel discussions, a symposium involving an eclectic mix of artists, conservationists and scientists, and an US-American spin-off in collaboration with curator Marnie Benney and artist Tim Nohe in Baltimore.

The Art of Nature in the Dark

Engaging artistically with the provided survey material evokes the question: for whom is the art of Nature in the Dark for? Is it art for animals – conceptually interesting because of its problematisation of the definition of art as a subset of aesthetic experience. However, we are animals, and therefore art is always for animals, but could it be for nonhuman animals? Or are these video works “merely” cultural artefacts? Are we, as artists, in times of mass species extinction and uncertainties of climate change making a collective attempt at exhausting the symbolism of loss – loss of the past, loss of species, loss of an ecological viable future? On one hand, it is for the eye of the beholder to interpret each of the presented works here according to their preferred conceptual and emotional reference system. On the other, I find that each artist with her or his unique approach to engage with the working material offers exercises in ‘universal consideration’ on their own terms. Tim Nohe’s video montage At the Wall of the Anthropocene in which our ecological neighbours re-appear along the walls and fences of human dwellings and properties. Or Jenny Fraser’s video Bunurong in which Fraser chose to work to only work with the photographic material from national parks that have kept their original indigenous names. Siri Hayes’s Foxtrot animates a foxtrot danced by foxes amongst other co-dancer in Victorian forests – a feral extravaganza. Olaf Meyer traces in his video Rhythm in the bay the emotional expressiveness of fish. Or Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski, who used the provided photographs to create a playful animation of the ecological process of epicormic shoots. As well as the scholarly contributions to Nature in the Dark celebrate curious enquiry into the visual perception of bees by Adrian Dyer or Alex Harley’s work on the sense of empathy in the scientific work of Charles Darwin.

Nature in the Dark finds its virtual home at Unlikely. Beginning with the notion that although there are still different disciplinary frameworks, the common denominator is a shared concern for the environment we live in and our ecological “neighbours” with whom we share it. The line from Loren Eiseley’s poem Magic has served as an intitial leitmotif for the work as it eloquently captures the spirit: “I love forms beyond my own and regret the borders between us” (Eiseley 1972). As the project continued on it’s journey it became obvious – at least from the organisers’ view – that the big elephant in the room of these merry transdisciplinary encounters, has been the articulation of an environmental ethics related to the project. Here Nature in the Dark as the project title refers to – put in the words of philosopher Georgina Butterfield –