Illuminating the nonhuman through audio-visual storytelling; a political actor invoking hope and resilience in yet another lockdown. An experimental process of creativity, reflection, and critique.

by Hannah Williams

Throughout this second lockdown I was tasked with telling my story. An opportunity to reflect on my own experience and, through audio-visual storytelling, relay my experience to my friends and peers. Throughout this process we, a Human Geography master’s cohort, intended to critically reflect on our peculiar and personal stories, the role of methods in creating and telling these stories and, adopting Katz’s (2001) counter-topographical method, the political processes present during lockdown. This process of pre-production, filming, editing, sharing and reflecting has been an insightful and creative experiment to research the COVID-19 pandemic.

This blog post acts as the final stage to this experimental research project, a chance to reflect, critique and analyse the individual stages of this process. In doing so, I hope to move between scales, from the intimate and personal subject, to the collective, and to the political (Pratt, 2009). This processual reflection and critique will be carried out in three parts. Firstly, a critical discussion of audio-visual methods as a posthuman methodology and their potential to contribute to researching the pandemic. Secondly, a reflection of the methods used to tell my ‘topography’ (Katz, 2001) and the political role of storytelling in bridging experience and expression (Cameron, 2012). Before finally, connecting my story with those of my peers through
Katz’s (2001) counter-topographical approach. Additionally, imbedding stills of my own and other’s stories aims to interweave the analytical and critical with the reflective, demonstrating both filming as a material and embodied process and the event of sharing and watching our films as affective (Ernwein, 2020).

These three phases highlight the potential for audio-visual storytelling to illuminate the presence of the nonhuman and consequently the nonhuman’s role as a political actor during the pandemic (Lorimer, 2010). Through both topographical and counter-topographical analysis, connecting to wider social, cultural and political meaning, the transformative potential of the nonhuman to invoke hope and resilience across disparate experiences is evident.

Creating my story
Choosing to use audio-visual methods to express my experience of lockdown was a new and slightly daunting endeavour, with no prior experience or knowledge beyond ‘point-and-shoot’ I was conscious not to bite off more than I could chew. Therefore, I decided to create my small story using nothing other than an iPhone. Thus, adopting a non-representational and posthuman approach that regards filming as an embodied material process. This process illuminated me to audio-visual method’s potential to make visible the nonhuman and highlight the multiple affective actors involved in my everyday practices during lockdown.

Audio-visual methods, within a posthuman paradigm, have the potential to engage with nonhuman difference and demonstrate qualities of non-representational practice: “vitality, performativity, corporeality, sensuality and mobility” (Lorimer, 2010; Vannini, 2015: 318). A posthuman methodology decentres the researcher which makes room for “alternative subjectivities” (Cameron, 2012: 575) and aims to capture “novel aspects of contemporary social and cultural life” (Williams et al., 2019: 637). It is a methodology that is both experimental and creative in its becoming, that awakens new ways of producing geographical knowledge but also stimulates our geographical imaginations to the material (Gerlach and Jellis, 2015). Being sensitive to the transversal requires a reconsideration of practice, theory, empiricism and
specifically new ways of creating and recording research encounters (Williams et al., 2019). With technology offering new ways of seeing the world (Rose, 2016), audio-visual method’s sensitivity offers potential for this “sensuous observation and reflection” (ibid: 322), acting as a micropolitical tool for engaging with the nonhuman.

“An ethnographic gaze aided by the new technologies of photographic reproduction could portray and indeed create ‘specimens’ with precision” (Crang, 2010: 5)

Taking my iPhone with me in the everyday was both an intentional and experimental practice, allowing the camera’s own agency to help govern and bring to life material and empirical data. Enabling the participant to research themselves, as I did, transforms visual methods into both a decolonial and feminist form of research (Crang, 2010), overcoming the principal critique of visual methods as representational. Representative and constructive filming reproduces positivist knowledge and dictates who and what can be seen (Gregory, 2003; Crang, 2010). This is a colonial act that further separates individuals and creates concern over produced and reproduced power relations (Haraway, 1991). However, this was overcome by viewing my iPhone as an extension of my own subjectivity and material form (Haraway, 2010 (1985)). Filming became an instinctive affective activity, a lens through which to see the world and capture my everyday material social practices, where my urges to film and record were valuable data in themselves; “deciding where to point the camera at any particular moment was part of the process of learning in the field, becoming a tool for thinking, seeing and representing materialities”(Richardson-Ngwenga, 2014: 295). This understands the body of the researcher to comprise of the individual and the filming technology, regarding the camera itself to have agency (Lury and Wakeford, 2012). Be it coming close to a squirrel (Fig. 1a) or feeling the wind on my face cycling over the bridge (Fig, 1b), or listening to the birds sing along my road (Fig. 1c), these moments were recorded impulsively rather than intentionally and thus are more reflexive and embodied in practice; a reaction to my more-than-human encounters (Williams, 2020). This posthumanist understanding, that deciding what to be filmed is an affect of material assemblages and beyond
our full control, renders audio-visual methods as an experiment that brings to the fore “cocreation experiences” (Richardson-Ngwenga, 2014: 296). Through making visual what sparks attention, “evocative ways of communicating more than human materialities” are enabled (Richardson-Ngwenga, 2014: 296).

Figure 1: Stills from my iPhone footage (Williams, 2020)

Telling my story
Reflecting on the footage I’d captured during my week of filming, it was clear how my life had transformed during the pandemic: increased monotony, far less socialising and a lot more outdoors. Using audio-visual storytelling to relay my personal topography, an “accurate and detailed delineation and description of any locality”, the value of the nonhuman in my everyday experience became evident (Katz, 2001: 1214). Using only iMovie, this revelation was made even more apparent by using a montage technique. This process has illuminated the role of audiovisual storytelling in disrupting hegemonic narratives and has made visible the transformative
potential of the nonhuman to invoke resilience and hope in everyday practices of lockdown.

With no former film or production experience, I decided my story was to be experimental and creative, acting as an additional means of discovery. Storytelling, as posthumanist knowledge production, regards a story as a “heterogenous assemblage of memories, practices, and materials within which one can identify particular narratives” (Lorimer, 2003: 577), or more simply the “relationship between personal experience and expression” (Cameron, 2012: 575). This offers interpretation and insight into the social, cultural and political, understanding storytelling as
performing a political ontology (Gibson-Graham, 2008; Lorimer, 2003).

My main goal in writing my story was not to transform or recompose meaning, but to translate how I felt, what I experienced, and the processes involved (Cameron, 2012; Rose, 2006; Whatmore, 2003). Filtering through my weeks’ material, I was hesitant to manipulate, edit or remove footage, eager to remain non-representational and avoid reproducing knowledges. However, given the constraints of my institution’s ethical requirements, all footage containing human participants (audio and visual) had to be removed, greatly reducing my data. Whilst frustrating, this intentional removal of the human increased awareness of the presence and role of the nonhuman.

To ‘tell’ my story, I used a montage process, “a cinematic rearrangement of lived time and space” (Suhr et al., 2012: 287). Using a montage as a sensory mode of writing, combining raw unedited footage in chronological order maintained a balance between the visual and visuality (Rose, 2016). This makes visible what is previously invisible, “moving away from humanised cinema” and highlighting alternative realities (Suhr et al., 2012: 284; Williams et al., 2019). Using this method thus mobilised the nonhuman and engaged with vital materialities, making us more
attuned to these encounters; “imagines nonhuman materialities as animated by dynamic and lively capacities to affect change and to participate in political life” (Richardson-Ngwenya, 2014: 294).

“As a representational art, film screens nonhuman nature as both revelation and concealment” (Pick and Narraway, 2013: 2)

Through embodied and intersubjective experience, stories produce knowledges, which in my instance illuminated the role of the nonhuman in a national crisis. The nonhuman as an actor has promoted hope and resilience; from the constant companion of my single paned Georgian window and house plants (Fig. 2a), to interacting with a swan (Fig. 2b), the more-than-human has played an expansive role in being a friend, a mediator, a social space, a gym and a place of refuge (Fig. 2c) over the last month (Williams, 2020). Whilst my singular story is just one lockdown account of billions, for Cameron (2012) this knowledge that I have created still has
political power, “it is precisely in small, local storytelling that political transformation becomes possible” (p.588). It is through these small and individuated stories that knowledges can be disrupted and imaginaries awoken and materialised. An audio-visual story, through being told and being embedded in wider culture can demonstrate social difference, through the “interweave with the social, structural or ideological”, with potential for “transforming dominant narratives” (ibid.: 574). In expressing my story, the transformative potential of the nonhuman, encouraging
and enabling my adapted practices, demonstrates the nonhuman to be a micropolitical actor that has been highly influential in my lockdown experience. This has the potential to produce knowledges that disrupt nature-culture divides and promote imaginaries that are vulnerable to the multiple affective forces that have been present during lockdown.

Connecting my story
Sharing, connecting and analysing my lockdown experience with my peers was an affective and emotive experience, enabling us to reflect on what for many has been an uncertain time of change and transformation but also growth, gratitude and appreciation for what remains. Incorporating Katz’s (2001) counter-topographical approach, we could identify the rhizomatic threads between our individual stories, connecting our disparate experiences to bring to the fore wider processes happening across scales. Adapting this methodology to the confines of just our master’s cohort, the politics of resilience and hope that was first observed in my own topography
became prominent in others. Whilst the micropolitical actors involved in these processes varied, the significance of the nonhuman as a transformative force remained prominent.

Katz’s counter-topographical approach, as a metaphor, was designed to analyse the broader socio-political and environmental processes emergent with globalisation and capitalism. It extends her principle of ‘topography’ as a material concept to be able to critically analyse across geographic scales, developing a “translocal politics” (Katz, 2002: 710).

“countertopographies involve precise analyses of particular processes that not only connect disparate places but also in doing so enable us to begin to infer connections in unexamined places in between” (Katz, 2002: 722)

By connecting distant sites or experiences analytically we are able to form a “spatialised understanding” of processes as “simultaneous and intertwined” (ibid.: 725). This provides a three-dimensional analysis whereby “contour lines” insight new political imaginaries (Katz, 2001: 1229). By constructing a counter-topography, individual topographies are placed into broader context “offering a means of understanding structure and processes” and to render visible “intersections with material social practices at other scales of analysis” (Katz, 2001: 1228). This
process of connecting and drawing lineages is often critiqued for being a positivist homogenising process which totalises knowledge production. However, such critiques misconstrue Katz’ intention, for her endeavour is to highlight degrees of commonality to promote learning, a “transnational politics”, and “insurgent change” (Katz, 2002: 719; Katz, 2001: 1232). By ensuring a highly detailed topography, a counter-topographical comparison “retains the distinctness of the characteristics of a particular place and builds on its analytic connections to other places along
contour lines” (ibid.:721).

Whilst on a much smaller scale, the process of sharing and connecting our individual
topographies, or stories, follows the principle of Katz counter-topographical method. Through sharing our individual films, we were able to glean more about the similarities and differences in our transformed material social practices in light of the disruptive pandemic. Combining methods of audio-visual storytelling and counter-topography, the political value of our new knowledge and geographical imagination became apparent.

“in other words, the way in which an image can ‘open up’ – an emotion, a memory, a new understanding, a new critique, even a new subjectification, a new politics- is a process that cannot be captured as a positivity for social science not least because it is not something that is in our control.” (Vikki Bell in Lury and Wakeford 2012: 161)

Connecting my story with my peers, I was able to envision the ‘contour lines’ between our lockdown experiences. Most evidently, the nonhuman as an agent of discovery, adaptability and comfort linked our individual practices. For many of us the second lockdown had been a period of discovery; Nianmei (Yang, 2020) trying new recipes (Fig. 3a), Ceara (Webster, 2020) searching for closure and new joys (Fig. 3b), Reuben (Grivell, 2020) using cycling to explore new parts of Bristol, and Emilia (Hermelin, 2020) allowing herself to pause and reflect.

“I’m enjoying the silence, enjoying the stillness, hearing other sounds of the city, it’s not just getting on the bus or being in a busy supermarket… I’m sitting with my own quiet… it’s a different landscape”- (Hermelin, 2020)

In addition, this disruption to our daily lives has tested and proven our master’s cohort to be adaptable. The showcase of our films demonstrated everything from using halls of residences as indoor gyms and turning cleaning into daily exercise (Fig. 4a), to using the supermarket as a way of seeing friends (Fig. 4b) and using social media as a platform to reach out to others and stay in contact (Fig. 4c) (Costa, 2020; Yang, 2020).

Whilst our films all valiantly depicted lockdown in a courageous and brave light, it was clear how each individual had resorted to individual comforts. Courtenay’s (Crawford, 2020) reflection on light as a way of making abandoned places still feel alive with human presence (Fig. 5a) demonstrated how these small forces of the nonhuman have created some stability and normality whilst all our other everyday practices have changed. This was echoed in Joel’s (Davies, 2020) experience, where through erratic transitions between shots, he interspersed moments of stillness and tranquillity created by the nonhuman throughout images of masks, instructions, rules, regulations and constraints (Fig. 5b, 5c); showing the potential for the nonhuman to provide refuge and companionship. It is this companionship that Ceara (Webster, 2020) speaks of in her reading of ‘Nature-Cure’, for when in assemblage with the nonhuman there can be strength in isolation, for we are never truly alone (Fig. 5d).

These individual stories/topographies, whilst different, inform the same subject. They’ve drawn contours between the transformed material social practices that have emerged in light of the second lockdown. Through discovery, adaptability and finding personal comforts we have all offered examples of how the nonhuman, a constant during lockdown, has been a political actor in invoking resilience and hope. We have all connected, rather emotively, on the different affective assemblages we’ve been a part of, and most importantly, have been so reliant upon.

“There is optimism in this break from hegemonic times… hope and optimism created in the interdistance of the pandemic” (Grivell, 2020)

“I am not as anxious as I thought I would be, I just try my best to stay happy and healthy but when your life and your things become unusual it is really a strange feeling. However, I hope and believe we can go back to normal again soon” (Yang, 2020)

The political value of our individual stories is extended by a counter-topographical approach, as across broader socio-political and environmental scales “just getting by in the face of the oppressive and increasingly mean-spirited circumstances” demonstrates resilience on the powerful level of the collective (Katz, 2004: 244). Transforming and reworking, overcomes “structural constraints” and offers the potential for hope as an antithesis of fear (ibid.: 251). Hope is a force that paves the way for new possibilities, a political affect that can transform practices. As illuminated through our audio-visual stories, the nonhuman has proven to play a
powerful transformative part in keeping us going and smiling during another very bizarre month of uncertainty, isolation and change.

This blog brings to a close a two-month process of self-reflection, creation, experimentation, and sharing, by offering a critical and analytical reflection of the three stages involved. It has been yet another opportunity for discovery, applying academic explanation to what in the field was instinctive.

Analysing my research experience through a posthuman philosophy, this final means of discovery has exposed the potential for audio-visual storytelling to make visible the nonhuman. Through embodied filming, use of visuals, and a montage compilation, I was struck by the significance of the nonhuman in my new transformed material practices. It was only by seeing my own experience in front of me on a screen did this knowledge become accessible.

Finally, analysing the counter-topographies of our shared experiences illuminated the political force of the nonhuman as an instigator of hope and resilience during lockdown. Sharing our experiences of discovery, adaption and comfort illuminated the role of the nonhuman as a constant companion. Throughout the turbulence of this ongoing pandemic, from closures, to isolation, to cancelled plans, the nonhuman has been a stable presence. Using individual audiovisual storytelling and collective counter-topographical analysis, the political role of the nonhuman has been exposed, broadening our geographical imagination and knowledge.

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