Framing Wildlife: performative research methods in the art-geography nexus.

By G. Sainsbury

Exploring the embodied processes of filming wildlife in the ‘field’, alongside the use of post-production editing techniques, to question the orthodox framing of more-than-human relations in wildlife filmmaking. gwil photoAuthor’s videographic stills, 2016.

The ‘posthumanist’ and ‘affective’ turns in the social sciences have led to a questioning of representational (words and speech) research methods, alongside an ontological reorientation of how political agency is distributed[1], and how nonhumans are spoken for in everyday human practices such as nature conservation (see Whatmore, 2006; Haraway, 2008; Sharp, 2011; Lorimer, 2015). Hasana Sharp has argued for a politics that she names ‘renaturalization’, to “promote alternative conceptions of political activity that connect us more palpably to nonhuman nature”, to counter the anthropocentrism of Enlightenment thought on which scientific methods have been predicated (2011: 6). Likewise, other cultural geographers argue for experimental, performative, more-than-representational methodologies in geographic research, in order to “counter the scientism in which [geographic] research is staged” (Dewsbury, 2007: 332). This is how a student with a background in art and music practice(s) can find themselves on a Geography MSc, contributing towards, as Grant Kester identifies, “interrelated moments of discursive interaction” (1999: 189) that form unconventional research collaborations between geographers and artists.

In this posthumanist direction, towards a less hierarchical understanding of political agency, the geographer, Jamie Lorimer, has argued for a widening of the definition of wildlife to include “the microbial constituents that make up our gut flora and the feral plants and animals that inhabit urban ecologies” (2015: 7). Lorimer suggests that through expanding the definition of what constitutes wildlife to include the biology of the human body, there is the potential to get over Enlightenment and Romanticist perceptions of a singular, bounded nature, separate and subservient to humanity. The intention is that this research perspective can help to better acknowledge the problems facing conservation practices in the age of the Anthropocene, a geological term used to describe the extent of humanity’s effect on the earth, in which anthropogenic climate change and the effects of industrial processes are now readable in the geological strata (2015).

Alongside this, Lorimer has also argued that videographic representations of nonhumans in wildlife film affect human experiences of the world through sets of ‘affective logics’ onscreen, which, he describes, produce precognitive, affective reactions in human audiences through material sensations:

[A]ffective logics are a particular embodied disposition that establishes a habituated set of practices and feelings, often occurring in advance of reflexive thought, through which a person orients himself or herself within, and makes sense of, an encounter with human and nonhuman others. (2015: 122)

Lorimer argues that the differing affective logics of species hence lead to species being categorised in terms of both positive and negative visual ‘charisma’, which often dictates which species become championed by conservationists and the public, while those with less positive visual charisma are easily ignored in biodiversity/conservation practices (2015: 123). Hence, Lorimer argues that wildlife videographic practices have a capacity to frame our understanding of more-than-human relations by “mobilizing particular ‘affective logics’ towards political ends” (2015: 122). The study of wildlife film has received little academic attention outside of media studies, which has criticised the colonial overtones behind the founding zoological practices in early (yet still prevalent today) wildlife film that essentialise nonhuman behaviours through scientific knowledge(s) disseminated through narration, the ‘fakery’ of editing/ post production techniques, and the use of captive animals presented as wild animals (see Bouse, 2000; Chris, 2006).

Lorimer also identifies further orthodoxies in wildlife film associated with this need to essentialise non-human life processes:

[W]e are presented with an improbable feast of expansive and unpopulated locations inhabited by exotic animals, which are forever fighting, fucking, eating, migrating, and dying for impatient channel surfing audiences. Rooted in the linear temporal logic of the movement-image, these images seek closure in the presentations of gory excess and a romantic affirmation of a pure and thrusting nature. (2015: 132)

Hence, the direction of research I am interested in is located in more-than-representational, experimental methodologies, specifically the interdisciplinary niche of the art-geography nexus, to interrogate the embodied practices of wildlife filming in the field while still acknowledging these histories. The intention of my research is to draw on posthumanist concerns in the social sciences through the experience of producing my own experimental urban wildlife film about Bristol. This will involve enacting conversational interviews, and filming a wildlife film student, in the field, as they complete their final project for the UWE Wildlife Film MA course. The research will also incorporate filming captive wildlife at Bristol Zoo to play with the framing of what is considered wildlife and acknowledge the past colonial practices of wildlife film in order to reveal how the intentions, ethics, and embodied/affective practices of filming wildlife frame our understanding of this multispecies world.

My own arts background affords sympathy with philosopher Elizabeth Grosz’s reworking of art as an affective mode of enquiry into the materiality of spatial relations, which identifies art not as something to be evaluated by aesthetic meaning or semiotic analysis, but as an evolutionary, material excess:

Art is the process of making sensations live, of giving an autonomous life to expressive qualities and material forms and through them affecting and being affected by life in its other modalities. As song-birds are themselves captivated by a tune sung by their most skilful and melodious rivals, and fish are attracted to the most striking colours and movements of fish, even if these are not their own, so these qualities — melody, sonorous expression, color, visual expression — are transferable, the human borrows them from the treasury of earthly and animal excess. (2008: 103)

Grosz, drawing on Deleuze and Bergson, suggests that it “may be that what all the arts share is the aim of capturing the force of time, of opening up sensation to the force of the future, of making time able to be sensed not in order to control or understand duration […] for no art can freeze time or transform its forces except through the invention of new techniques, new forces and energies” (2008: 86-87). Grosz argues that art practice(s) allows the capacity to temporarily frame the chaos of the earth through processes that are engaged in, and reveal, new material relations (2008).

The intention of this project is to experiment with the affective logics and framing of nonhumans in videography, by experiencing the practices of wildlife film, in the field, and in post-production; to seek alternative ways to frame nonhumans. This performative methodology is undertaken alongside Lorimer’s call for expansion of the ontology of what constitutes wildlife, to include the human, by inserting the human aspects of the embodied, technologically mediated, processes of filming nonhumans back into the wildlife film genre. The intention is not to produce a fully finished film but to use the videographic process as an example though which the material relations of humans and nonhumans can be examined through a posthumanist lens in order to seek alternative framings of more-than-human relations that resist the orthodoxies of wildlife film that often seek to essentialise nonhuman behaviours.

[1] Re-evaluating the relationships between human bodies and their everyday entanglements with nonhuman bodies such as animals, plants, geologies, technologies etc. to re-orientate the current anthropocentric focus within the social sciences towards a less hierarchical understanding of what constitutes a political subject.

 

References:

Bouse, D. 2000. Wildlife Films. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press.

Chris, C. 2006. Watching Wildlife. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Dewsbury, JD (2007). Performative, Non-Representational, and Affect-Based Research: Seven Injunctions. The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Geography. London, Sage Publications.

Grosz, E. 2008. Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth. New York, Columbia University Press.

Haraway, D. 2008. When Species Meet. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Kester, G. 1999. Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. London, University of California Press.

Lorimer, J. 2010. Moving image methodologies for more-than-human geographies. Cultural geographies, 17(2), 237–258.

Lorimer, J. 2015. Wildlife in the Anthropocene: Conservation after Nature. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Sharp, H. 2011. Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization. London, University of Chicago Press.

Thrift, N. 2004. Performance and performativity: a geography of unknown lands.  Duncan, J.S., Johnson, N.C., Schein, R. (eds) A Companion to Cultural Geography. Oxford, Blackwell, 121-136.

Whatmore, S. 2006. Materialist returns: practicing cultural geography in and for a more-than-human world. Cultural Geographies,  13, 600-609.

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