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Environment

Imagining the narrative of place

The human activity of imagining… is more than a metaphor; it is a particular form of practice.  Imagining is not just the grasping or the conceptualization of that which is ‘out there’; it also implies an attempt to render an idea real by making it the model for future action.  In other words, imagining entails a model of as well as a model for reality.
(“The critique of culture and the plurality of nature” by Andreas Roepstorff & Nils Bubandt)

One possible description of the societal role of the artist would echo the sentence above – to provide models “of” and “for” ways of imagining, finding meaning within the world we live.  This capacity, of course, is resident in all, but is most often honed and proclaimed by artists, writers, philosophers, scientists, etc. – creators in all media.  There is then the potential through acts of imagining to render new ways of relationship with that which we call nature.

"Watt Diptych" Schillig, Germany - ©Hung/Sturgeon 2009

"Watt Diptych" Schillig, Germany - ©Hung/Sturgeon 2009

Our intent in “at low tide” is to provide a few additional connections for new patterns of affinity with the environment of the Wattenmer (Wadden Sea).  By simultaneously attempting new strategies of imaging while critiquing and exposing the inherent deficiencies of the technologies we employ, there is an effort to promote synergy between them.  Throwing these balls in the air at the same time facilitates active attention that tends to promote a multiplicity of understandings, models of observing – of the landscape of the Watt.  “at low tide” also seeks to investigate landscape in ways that  elude conclusion, promoting a spiral of reconsideration and questioning.

Sky, Schillig Watt - March 4, 2009 - 4:09 PM   Hung/Sturgeon - D.Bailey stitch

Sky, Schillig Watt - March 4, 2009 - ©Hung/Sturgeon - D. Bailey stitch

As a critical term ‘observation’ has distinct advantages compared with terms like realism or naturalism.  The latter only describe the after-effects of certain narrative or dramatic techniques, but when we think of observation we’re bound to consider the prior and practical matter of how cameras record what they see.
(Observation and Identity, by Roger Sandall; Sight and Sound, Autumn 1972)

360dan_excerpt

Schillig Watt - March 4, 2009 - ©Hung/Sturgeon - D. Bailey stitch

So, what could an envisioned narrative of the space of the Watt be?  This gigantic mud-flat landscape is in constant ebb and flow with the sweeping tidal transformation cycle that repeats twice each day from kilometers out a sea to mud-flat and back.  This rapid inundation with slithering priels (channels, small streams cut through mud-flat), is both a visually subtle and awesomely dynamic environment of haunting desolation, shimmering with silver beauty as well as a tourist destination or adventure land for wind-kites or intrepid wattwanderung (watt wandering).

shellfielddyptich3

"Shellfield Diptych", Schillig Watt - ©Hung/Sturgeon 2009

The Tyranny of Optics

Vision from the camera obscura to digital photography

There is a certain monocularity of vision in place through our instruments of vision, that places us (the human viewer) at the center of and separate from what is being observed – out there.  This monocularity reflects a long standing – tyranny of optics – heralded by the optical inventions following the camera obscura & the technologies of single point perspective and realized with the explosion of technological inventions of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The crucial aspect of the camera obscura is, that it produces a monocular perspective, and in doing so, it is differing from all other aesthetic and visual systems and perspectives, from Ancient classic to Medieval or Asian visual art.  [ ? ]

Cloudy Horizon - Schillig Watt, March 3, 2009 - ©Hung/Sturgeon 2009

Cloudy Horizon - Schillig Watt, March 3, 2009 - ©Hung/Sturgeon 2009

These instruments of vision (camera, video/film, etc.) provide unprecedented ocular realism and a reliable and familiar narrative framework for reading a subject.  While not diminishing these profound and obvious contributions, they also limit the way we envision, imagine, by lending to the construction of a rational narrative of hierarchy, reaffirming separation of subject and viewer, as we perceive a situation, place, nature and in this case the environment and landscape of the Wattenmeer (Wadden Sea).

(…) the camera is the culminating realization (…); the images it furnishes become, precisely, the currency of that vision, that space (…).  Insofar as it is grounded in the photograph, (…) will contribute to the circulation of this currency, will bring with it monocular perspective, the positioning of the spectator/subject in an identification with the camera as the point of a sure and centrally embracing view. [Stephan Neale, Narrative Space]

So, how to counter, or subvert this monocularity – from within the panopticon, using the same tool kit, camera, or video?  The computer is opening new possibilities for expanding these options, challenging the dominant methods of imaging.  The current array of Panorama software for stitching together multiple single point images into perspectives beyond human vision, offers some potential for this quest.  But, perhaps even more so, would be to subvert these panoramas by attempting to stitch together multiple images each taken from a unique perspective – as if one were to “scan” a space – section by section, such as the surface of the Watt.  This kind of view might offer a way of envisioning that alludes to or perhaps simulates to the way the brain “stitches”, or collages its collection of visual experience of space and subject.

Stitching programs can construct images beyond the scope of vision.  Images obtained from the electronic microscope can construct accessible images from the micro level and expands our concept of landscape, implying different levels of realism and memory construction.

C. N. Hung's 'micro-panorama' - from watt sample - ©Hung/Sturgeon 2009

Christina N. Hung's 'micro-panorama' - from watt sample - ©Hung/Sturgeon 2009

Cartography

Representation, landscape & the multi-perspectival

All that seeks to define territory exactly is distorted by: scale, relativity, proximity, time, motion (misdirection), saturation and assumptions of continuity.  All that seeks to distinguish territory with an inherent inexplicability, fosters the non-linear, the montage, collage, and poetry.

Cartography (in Greek chartis = map and graphein = write) is the study and practice of making geographical maps.  Combining science, aesthetics, and technique, cartography builds on the premise that we can model reality in ways that communicate spatial information effectively.  [Wikipedia]

The history of cartography is fraught with the problems of representation and issues of scale.  The Cartesian grid overlays of land and sea are formal devices of ordering and objectifying nature for some social purpose – ownership or consumption, nationalism or tourism.

Scientific, artistic, and political fields converge in using technology not simply as a means of human productivity, but as a way of constructing knowledge.  —

Knowing, as research, calls whatever is to account with regard to the way in which and the extent to which it lets itself be put at the disposal of representation.  Research has disposal over anything that is when it can either calculate it in its future course in advance or verify a calculation about it as past.  Nature in being calculated in advance . . . becomes, as it were, ‘set in place.’  Nature . . . becomes the object of a representing that explains. [Ron Broglio, “Wordsworth and Technology Mapping British Earth and Sky, Georgia Tech.doc]

Ever since the invention of the wireless shattered the cohesion of time and space, we find ourselves in an every increasing quest for defining where we are and whom we are in relation to where we are not, and that which we are not.  The obsession with power and control demands increasing levels of believability in the accuracy, facticity of representation – cartographic or photographic.  Yet, as long as our attempts to do so are seen as “transparent representation of reality” [Broglio] they lead to further isolation from nature and engender a withering separation from awe.

Jorge Luis Borges wrote in 1960 a short story that described the ambition of a group of imaginary cartographers to represent an empire to perfection: ‘On Exactitude in Science’ (by Jorge Luis Borges).

. . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province.  In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.  The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters.  In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.


Thus, in its bid for full and complete representation, the map moved closer and closer to coinciding with the territory to be mapped.  Quite literally, the map promised (or threatened) complete coverage.  Borges leaves us with an image of the map slowly wearing away, stretched and torn and tattered over its lands, inhabited by Animals and Beggars.  Borges’s Map of Empire recalls an ideal of representation that, in retrospect, we associate with Cold War intelligence and academic disciplines centered on nations, areas, and regions…   [Barlow, Tani E., Hanawa, Yukiko, LaMarre, Thomas, 1959-Lowe, Donald M., Editors’ Introduction positions: east asia cultures critique – Volume 13, Number 1, Spring 2005, pp. 1-8]

Watt panorama - surface matrix - test row

Watt panorama - surface matrix - test row

Flawed Gestures:

Confronting environmental issues, global problems – asks first to somehow represent that environment effectively, to create identity with the space that environment and issues occupy – in a sense to map.  To this end seeking new modes and attitudes of visual expression of environment are essential to foster new perspectives for solutions to the unimaginable – that which has yet to be imaged.  Acknowledging the constructed bias of any such representational attempts through technology, we offer that even our – panoramic mapping failures – of the vast surface and totality of the active processes of the watt have value for highlighting these inherent problems of technological representation.  Or, perhaps in some poetic sense, these flawed gestures sketch meaningful cyphers that parenthesize an inability of capturing the whole.  At some depth, they may serve as reminders that allude to an inherent inexplicability of the environment – of landscape.

"Flying Carpet" watt panorama, surface matrix - test

"Flying Carpet" watt panorama, surface matrix - test

"Panorama Arcs" - surface matrix - test

"Panorama Arcs" - watt panorama - surface matrix - test

Schillig Watt & Wilhelmshaven

National Park Wattenmeer at Schillig, Germany

Schillig was the site in the Wattenmeer for all the sampling, photography and documentation for the “at low tide” project.  Shillig’s sandy shoreline at the edge of the National Park Wattenmeer (North Sea) proved to be both a visually stimulating spot for photography as well as provided safe access for research.

Wattenmeer shoreline - Schillig, Germany

Wattenmeer shoreline - Schillig, Germany

S.L.A.P. – Social Land Art Project – provided facilties for the “at low tide” artists in Wilhelmshaven, from which they could access the Schillig watt over a week’s period.  The Institut fuer Chemie und Biologie des Meeres (ICBM-Wilhelmshaven) – [Institute for Chemistry and Biology of the Ocean] – der Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg served as a research base for scientific and technical assistance.  ICBM is the primary research facility of the University of Oldenburg for research of the oceanic sciences and related fields.

Twilight - ICBM, Wilhelmshaven, Germany

Twilight - Wilhelmshaven, Germany

Sampling the Watt

The artists collected samples of watt (soil and water) from the Schillig Watt site, with sampling advice of Dr. Holger Freund, geologist at the ICBM (Wilhelmshaven) of University of Oldenburg – Germany.  Later the samples were digitally photographed at various levels of depth under an electronic microscope.  Then the numerous microscopic-images were collaged, “stitched together”, to form a large “micro-panorama” landscape of the Wattenmeer.

"at low tide" micro-panorama section (detail) C.N. Hung - ©Hung/Sturgeon 2009

(Detail:) "at low tide" micro-panorama section, C.N. Hung - ©Hung/Sturgeon 2009

Dr. Freund demonstrating core sampling technique

Dr. Freund demonstrating core sampling technique

(Detail:) "at low tide" micro-panorama section, C.N. Hung - ©Hung/Sturgeon 2009

(Detail:) "at low tide" micro-panorama section, C.N. Hung - ©Hung/Sturgeon 2009

Christina N. Hung sampling the watt for "micro-panorama" material

Christina N. Hung sampling the watt for "micro-panorama" material

Christina bringing in the samples

Christina bringing in the samples

Microscopic

What’s living in the Watt?

“at low tide” is interested in deriving a sense of landscape that goes beyond what the human eye normally associates with visualization.  We too often regard the concept of landscape, or scenery with the assumption of human scale as a given for our ideas of place.

Schillig close-up & Dr. Cypionka micro-image

Schillig close-up & Dr. Cypionka micro-image

As artists, we also are attempting to address the perception of nature as separate from culture, for it is this binary that allows for environmental degradation to take place. The perception of nature (in this case, the ecosystem of the Watt) as an external and “eternal constant” [1] allows humans to rationalize their use of the land without regard for the impact that use may have on the land itself and future generations of beings, both animal and human.  Certainly one of the easiest life forms to disregard as inhabitants, by virtue of their ocular invisibility in the landscape, is the microscopic.  In this project, our goal is to visualize the relationship between the Watt and the cultures (both human and particularly the microscopic) that live in and around it in such a way as to conflate the nature – culture binary, and reveal the symbiotic reality that lies beneath these relationships.

One way to address this perception is through the manipulation of scale. The Watt, an almost incomprehensibly large and unique ecosystem, may seem indestructible simply because of its large size. The “at low tide” project simultaneously images the micro-material of the Watt through magnification, and the vastness of the landscape through miniaturization, photography, and places them more or less on the same scale. This juxtaposition of scales constitutes a poetic remapping of the Watt designed to inspire a revaluation of nature – culture, land – human relationships.

"at low tide" micro-section (detail) C.N. Hung - ©Hung/Sturgeon 2009

"at low tide" micro-panorama section (detail) C.N. Hung - ©Hung/Sturgeon 2009

Dr. Cypionks's ICBM office

Dr. Cypionks's ICBM office

With the aid of scientists at the ICBM of University of Oldenburg, we collected samples of soil and water from various sites. As we collect these samples, we documented the process and the sites in the Wattenmeer at Schillig, Germany.  With guidance of Dr. Cypionka from the ICBM, we processed the soil and water samples and harvested various microorganisms present within them.  These selected organisms meet the criteria for “biosafety level 1,” [2] which are not known to cause disease in healthy humans.

  1. [Andreas Roepstorff, Nils Bubandt, Kalevi Kull. “Imaging Nature: Practices of Cosmology and Identity” (2003). Introduction: The critique of culture and the plurality of nature. (p. 10). Denmark: Aarhus University Press.]
  2. [Richmond, JY and RW McKinney, 1993: Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories. US Department of Health and Human Services, CDC/NIH, 3rd Edition. US Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.]

Dr. Heribert Cypionka, ICBM

"wattbewohner", © Heribert Cypionka

"wattbewohner", © Heribert Cypionka

Pictures of selected micro-organisms are spread over the image like memory cards and in connection (via blue lines) with their specific habitat. Their diversity and beauty becomes visible only at 300- to 1000-fold magnification. Some of the pictures are combined from series of exposures taken at different focus levels, thus increasing the depth of sharpness (by means of the freeware PICOLAY). One can see diatoms, the larva of a copepod, a foraminifer, Euglena and a nematode. On three pictures, bacteria as the most abundant organisms are detectable. More about tidal-flat communities can be found on the web under www.microbiological-garden.net [H. Cypionka]