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

Introduction
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.

Conclusion
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.

References
Cameron, E. (2012) ‘New Geographies of Story and Storytelling’, Progress in Human Geography, 36(5), 573-592.

Costa, G. (2020) Film: Another experience of lockdown, University of Bristol, School of
Geographical Sciences, unpublished film, Bristol

Crang, M. (2010) ‘Visual methods and methodologies’ in D. DeLyser, S. Herbert, S. Aitken,M. Crang and L. McDowell (eds), The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Geography. London: SAGE, 208-224.

Crawford, C. (2020) Film: Another experience of lockdown, University of Bristol, School of Geographical Sciences, unpublished film, Bristol

Davies, J. (2020) Film: Another experience of lockdown, University of Bristol, School of
Geographical Sciences, unpublished film, Bristol

Ernwein, M. (2020) Filmic geographies: audio-visual, embodied-material, Social & Cultural Geography, DOI: 10.1080/14649365.2020.1821390.

Gerlach, J. and Jellis, T. (2015) ‘Guattari: Impractical philosophy’, Dialogues in Human Geography, 5(2), 131–148. doi: 10.1177/2043820615587787.

Gibson-Graham, J. K. (2008) Diverse economies: Performative practices for ‘other worlds’. Progress in Human Geography, 32, 613–632.

Gregory, D. (2003) ‘Emperors of the gaze: photographic practices and productions of space in Egypt, 1839–1914’, in Ryan J., and Schwartz J. (eds) Picturing place: photography and the geographical imagination. London: I.B. Tauris. pp. 195–225.

Grivell, R. (2020) Film: Another experience of lockdown, University of Bristol, School of
Geographical Sciences, unpublished film, Bristol

Haraway, D. (1991) An ironic dream of a common language for women in the integrated circuit. Philosophy of Technology. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Haraway, D. (2010) “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1985). Cultural Theory: An Anthology, 454.

Hermelin, E. (2020) Podcast: Another experience of lockdown, University of Bristol, School of Geographical Sciences, unpublished film, Bristol

Katz, C. (2001) On the grounds of globalisation: A topography for feminist political engagement. Signs, 26(4), 1213–1234.

Katz, C. (2002) Vagabond capitalism and the necessity of social reproduction, Antipode, 33(4), 709-728.

Katz, C. (2004) Growing up Global: Economic Restructuring and Children’s Everyday Lives, University of Minnesota Press.

Lorimer, H. (2003) Telling small stories: Spaces of knowledge and the practice of geography. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 28, 197–217.

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

Lury, C. and Wakeford, N. (eds.) (2012) Inventive Methods: the Happening of the Social. London: Routledge.

Pick, A. and Narraway, G. (eds.) (2013) Screening Nature: Cinema beyond the Human. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Pratt, G. (2009) Circulating sadness: Witnessing Filipina mothers’ stories of family separation. Gender, Place and Culture, 16, 3–22.

Richardson-Ngwenya, P. (2014) ‘Performing a more-than-human material imagination during fieldwork: muddy boots, diarizing and putting vitalism on video’, Cultural Geographies, 21, 293-299.

Rose, M. (2006) Gathering ‘dreams of presence’: A project for the cultural landscape. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 24, 537–554.

Rose, G. (2016) Visual Methodologies: an introduction to researching with visual materials (4th Ed), London: Sage.

Suhr, C., Willerslev, R., Empson, R., Holbraad, M., Irving, A., Kreinath, J., Nichols, B., Suhr, C. and Willerslev, R. (2012) Can film show the invisible? The work of montage in ethnographic filmmaking. Current Anthropology, 53(3), 282-301.

Vannini, P. (2015) ‘Non-representational ethnography: new ways of animating lifeworlds’, Cultural Geographies 22(2), 317-327.

Webster, C. (2020) Film: Another experience of lockdown, University of Bristol, School of Geographical Sciences, unpublished film, Bristol

Williams, N. Patchett, M. Lapworth, A. Roberts, T. & Keating, T. (2019) ‘Practising posthumanism in geographical research’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 44(4), 637-643.

Williams, H. (2020) Film: Another experience of lockdown, University of Bristol, School of Geographical Sciences, unpublished film, Bristol

Whatmore, S. (2003) ‘Generating Materials’, in M. Pryke, G. Rose and S. Whatmore (eds.) Using Social Theory: Thinking Through Research. London, Sage, 89-104.

Yang, N. (2020) Film: Another experience of lockdown, University of Bristol, School of
Geographical Sciences, unpublished film, Bristol

‘(Counter)topographical’ Reflections with Grief

by CIW

Life is populated by landscapes including those of fear (Tuan, 1980), loss (Hockey et. al., 2001), and mourning. As of the 9th January 2021, 1,906,606 people have died from COVID-19 worldwide (WHO, 2021). These deaths intensify the mark of a dark smudged thumbprint violently pressed against our foreheads1. This is the reality to which we must admit defeat and continue to live. This is what mourning is, “admitting defeat” (Flynn, 2007: 111) by Death. The story of my topography is a reflection on the oceanscape of grief and the landscape of mourning. The methods I used to investigate these topographies were film, photography, and participatory interactions with non-human actors (trees). In the film, I particularly used the absence of sound (silence) to communicate, alongside imagery, the significance of Death and death I was reflecting on during the November lockdown. The countertopography of lockdown is one of crisis, both global and personal, political and existential. Countertopographies that illuminate the restrictive impacts of lockdowns on mourning practices have been effective in driving demand for increased bereavement support, while creative pursuits, like film, have widened and digitised mourning’s dimensions. Mourning is a landscape that colours the background of the contemporary world in a more palpable way because of the acute prevalence of Death and death at this time. This piece is dedicated to the ‘work of mourning’ – trauerarbeit (Freud in Min, 2002: 245) – and argues that it is an essential process to experience, in combination with an evisceration of SARS-CoV-2 cases and increase in vaccination capacities, for the pandemic to be resolved. Without trauerarbeit, in person or through digital methods, we will be ‘Generation Lost’, a spectra of peoples who continue to fear the great closure of life.

Figure 1.2

Topographies of grief and mourning

“Grief is the sequence of affective, cognitive, and physiological states that follows directly after an irretrievable loss; mourning, on the other hand, is a complex and lengthy process that begins with denial of the loss and, in its optimum course, proceeds toward the acceptance of both the external loss and the integration of multiple intrapsychic shifts” (Graves, 1975 in Graves, 1978: 875).

Grief is an ocean, vast but deeply personal. It “comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate daily life” (Didion, 2005/2006: 27 in Cornell, 2014: 302). Sometimes that watery grief spills out from your eyes. Other times it stays inside you, filling your lungs and eradicating your ability to vocalise. There is no one way to feel grief, but it is a feeling known and dreaded by all.

Mourning is a landscape whose shores we ebb closer to as the process of letting go, remembrance, acceptance, and surrender begins. We stumble across mourning until we reach new horizons for life’s encounters or new oceans for relapses into grief or new grief. And on the cycles goes ad infinitum. Mourning is work, active, kinetic. Grief can be perceived to be stasis, necessary to prepare for trauerarbeit. The journey is a cyclical movement of stasis and kinesis, which colour our map and shape our perceptions of the world.

The method of filmmaking as processual mourning

What is it one mourns? Death with a capital ‘D’ is the loss of physical life (Flynn, 2007: 108). Whereas deaths – lowercase – are the “many radical changes over which the individual” has no control (Flynn, 2007: 108). They “precede the Death that ends our becoming” (Flynn, 2007: 108). These can be things such as puberty, pregnancy, pandemics, or intellectual development. The small death is, therefore, transformation. These transformations occur whether the individual wants them to or not.

There is no one way to mourn, but the goal of ‘acceptance’ is commonly considered the conclusion of mourning. For Flynn, “it is possible to admit defeat [to the inevitability of Death] without accepting it or feeling peaceful about it” (Flynn, 2007: 111). Being able to remember deceased loved ones through images, memorials, and story sharing “signals the relocation of the knowledge about a person from present-tense to past-tense” (Flynn, 2007: 112). However, this is something prevented by the pandemic, when families cannot memorialise their loved ones. The mind, may, in these cases become stuck in grief, unable to move around towards mourning. Processes such as creation and co-creation of audio-visual pieces can be a step towards trauerarbeit. They allow a documentation of feeling, a sharing of images, something to mark and memorialise the dead.

I did not realise I was using film as a mechanism through which to mourn until I revisited my creation. Film worked well to etch the contours of grief and mourning because “mourning is a creative force” (Carel, 2007: 85). The particular techniques of my film that this analysis focuses on are silence, the lack of diegetic and non-diegetic sounds, its interplay with darkness, the role of the more-than-human in facilitating the mourning process. My film is a particular kind of “thick description” (Geertz, 1973). Topographies “are simultaneously the detailed description of a particular landscape and the landscape itself” (Katz, 2004: xiii). As a research methodology, topography produces “‘thick descriptions’ of social relations, material social practices, and the construction of meaning…” (Katz, 2004: xiii). In my case, the topography is the description of the interactive oceanscape and landscape of grief and mourning, respectively through film. It is a singular experience within a countertopographical experiential web. With that in mind, let us walk into the silence and darkness together.

Silence, darkness, and the more-than-human

During editing, I found disturbance in the film’s original audio. I removed all audio with the intention of adding in a score alongside narration, but when it came time to edit in non-diegetic sounds I reconsidered. I wanted the viewer to feel as though they were not hearing me tell them about my thoughts, but as they read the subtitles in their inner voice, the thoughts were simultaneously inside them and me. These thoughts, shared across time and space, contained infinitely differential meanings depending whose ‘mind’ is turning them over. Thus, the lack of audio is not inherently analogous to silence.

“A genuine emptiness, a pure silence, are not feasible — either conceptually or in fact…the art-work exists in a world furnished with many other things, the artist who creates silence or emptiness must produce something dialectical: a full void, an enriching emptiness, a resonating or eloquent silence. Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech…and an element in a dialogue.” (Sontag, 1966; 2009: 11).

Though my voice is absent, I can still be heard. Images move us which we feel at the corporeal level. When images inspire emotions, affects, and thoughts we must continue “to the end of each emotion or thought. And after the end, what supervenes…is silence” (Sontag, 1996; 2009: 23). Through this immersion, watcher and creator die (transform) alongside each other. The synthetic removal of diegetic sound, creates acoustic space for thought-words, not spoken ones. Together, viewer, creator, deceased ancestor, and all the little deaths float together on silent waves, with only our thoughts to accompany us. We transform. Cultivating silence, stillness, is itself a task and, like mourning, is work.

The reason for addressing the auditory dimension first in this piece is that there exists an ocularcentrism in Western European life (Jay, 1993) which privileges the visual as “the noblest of the senses” (Jay, 1993: 31). Modern knowledges in Western culture “depend on a scopic regime that equates seeing with knowledge” (Rose, 2001: 7). To create images without using pictures to represent personal Deaths I encountered in 2020, I used a black screen with the word “(Good?)bye” (figure 2) which explores the interplay of darkness and silence.

Figure 2

The darkness of November yields the unknown but makes it simultaneously intimate, enveloping the body. Even though light can symbolise hope, it can also be exposing. When we feel grief, it feels as though the world darkens, the pandemic may be considered a ‘dark time’, but in Crawford’s (2020) Fear of a dark lockdown, darkness is inverted. Her topography notes how darkness can instead incite rest, creativity, and transformation. Darkness, therefore, is an opportunity for restoration and creation. Themes that colour the backdrop of this frame.

This frame plays smoothly when viewing, but in editing was spliced into four to represent the four familial (extended and immediate) Deaths that occurred during 2020 for me. The reason no distinction was made between the four is because memories blur into one as Death has permeated every moment of the cycles of lockdown. This intra-cyclical shot compresses the Deaths and their temporalities into visual and orthographic representation to mirror that there were no spoken goodbyes.

[…]

Perhaps, there is no need for speaking. Western cultures suffer from the social compulsion to speak for the sake of speaking (Connerton, 2011). Indeed I question (“?”) the adjective “good” in goodbye – the main word we are supposed to say – because bidding adieu to loved ones never feels good. And yet, the Death of another family member resurrected a stream of connection with my cousin that had broken down a decade ago. Even in the elimination of the earthly body, an individual may die twice. Once, with their Death and again, with the Death producing a death (transformation), bringing people together again. There is no ‘bad’ or ‘good’ to the ‘bye’ – just an intimacy that touches us in different ways.

The most intimate Death, my grandmother’s, happened in May. However, upon the Death of my grandmother, I had not died (transformed) though a mark in time – a distinction between life with and without her physical presence – had been made. My death came a year earlier, when I returned home early from my travels to care for my grandparents. I became ‘woman’ through this role reversal of care-receiver (child) to care-giver (adult). This was in amongst and upon the background score of the pandemic. It throbs, the new soundtrack to these years of life, with grief and mourning providing healthy and painful melodies.

Indeed, when looking across to other topographies in the countertopography of lockdown, deaths are represented almost entirely with sound, through voice and melody. Inglis’ (2020) piece focuses on duality of walls and screens as incarceration and shield (figure 3). It greatly juxtaposes my own topography, with words articulated through song. His melancholic expression of the small deaths (the transformation of walls and screens) is achieved through the melodies and French, Spanish, and Basque vocals which provide him with escape, his own lamentation of the death of freedom.

Figure 3. Inglis (2020). The duality of transformation (death).

Upon rewatching and re-exploring my own topography, I realised how I embraced letting go through non-verbal conversations with the more-than-human. I was experiencing a trans-species mourning. In a small grove a tree leaned over, split open all the way from base to crown (figure 4). The empirical landscape has its own audio-visual markers of Death and decay.

Figure 4.

I sat listening to its creaks and groans as it told me its story without words. A cracked body, invaded by a fungal pathogen, soon to return to humus. This type of injury is grave for a tree. Though it may appear alive for many more decades, it is dying.

I remember wanting to restore its health, but the damage is so severe. I had to accept that it would die, but visual methods have allowed me to immortalise this tree in pixels. The shared experience of Death across species boundaries brought acceptance and a sense of surrender to the inevitable. We sat silently talking for a long time.

This trans-species interaction features in other topographies. Thomas’ (2020) audio work describes listening to a fig tree as he tracks its journey into being: “climbing up the wall from past to future” (2:09). These ancient guides teach us what it is to be and to die. This realisation was ‘magical’ (Millner, 2013) to me in that “‘magic’ is what happens when we allow the more-than-human world to invite us into participation on its own terms” (Millner, 2013: 39). I noticed the tree because the tree noticed me.

Interacting with the more-than-human has brought me to the realisation that there is no forward. Only around and across the oceanscape of grief and the landscape of mourning, while this journey edges us closer to some semblance of acceptance or surrender.

Limitations of topographies and countertopographies

Topographies have a situated nature which, like situated knowledge, “assumes knowledge at a single point, the knowing subject, and the particularity of that subject’s vision is both its strength and its downfall” (Katz, 2001: 1230). My rendering of grief and mourning is a particular experience, but it is limited if unconnected with another topography. Connection is also essential in mourning; it is made easier by the “understanding and accompaniment of another” (Cornell, 2014: 308) and so other topographies that represent the different deaths and Deaths encountered during the COVID-19 November lockdown depict – in audio or visual senses – the commonality of acute D/death. Countertopographies that dialectically speak to one another can be healing for creators in addition to the catharsis individual topographies may provide.

What unites the topographies of the November lockdown is that they all – through their varying techniques – showcase an element of the countertopography of crisis. However, perhaps a strong limitation of countertopography is that one may identify a common experience in different localities that manifests differently, but in the matter of a pandemic (as unique as it is) these topographies are just as isolated as their creators. The pieces do not intimately interact in and of themselves with another creative piece. Had, however, they had exposure to one another and then revised versions were produced to generate comparative countertopographies, the project could incorporate the uniqueness of an individual’s qualitative lockdown experience and the solidarity individuals find in sharing a commonality with one another. This is not the same as retroactively finding links between topographies.

Without the communication between topographies, there is a significant risk that the knowledge of the countertopography’s existence is only known by the researcher. The countertopographical method would only therefore be meaningful to someone who presupposes there is a countertopogaphy to analyse, which may score deeper the divisive lines between researcher and researched.

Political value of co-created countertopographies

Countertopography was invented to be subversive and the political aim of countertopography is to “link different places analytically and thereby enhance struggles in the name of common interests” (Katz, 2001: 1230). Countertopographies are meant to counter something, which, here, would be the November lockdown. So, if the countertopography is that of the lockdown one needs to ask what exactly about the lockdown is it countering? The lockdown rules? The homogenisation of the experiential dimension of lockdown? It is not clear and so the political value remains elusive. However, when topographies are located in a theme – such as grief and mourning – it becomes clear where a political value can be found.

In their paper, Aguiar et al., (2020) documented that family members could not visit other terminally ill family, corpses were not able to be dressed for burial but were kept, naked, in waterproof bags (Aguiar et al., 2020). Family members who could attend funerals could not demonstrate physical affection to their family who were in distress (Aguiar et al., 2020). Indeed, standing beside my aunt and sister at my grandmother’s funeral and not being able to hug them as they cried felt like a cruelty. We all stood in our grief, only able to hold ourselves. A result of this separation is that it is “more difficult for the bereaved to grasp the reality of the loss” and, because of this, “grief reactions may intensify” and adjustment to this new reality is more difficult (Aguiar et al., 2020: 543-544). Due to this though, new ways to grieve and mourn may be found (digitising mourning for instance). In healthcare, Aguiar et al., (2020) recommend that “written material for follow-up contacts, the availability of hospital and/or community-based grief support systems, mental health services as well as spiritual and religious care should be considered” (544). These novel supports are being created and demanded in response to the conditions under which people were having to mourn in the beginning of the pandemic. The countertopography of grief and mourning pushes for institutional change.

Commonly “the process of mourning is so often forestalled, medicated, or pathologized. It so often seems easier to hope for a quick recovery, to look away and avoid the anguish” (Cornell, 2014: 309). Being able to be beside the Dead compresses grief in reassuring and uncomfortable ways. It allows us to say goodbye and reminds us of our own eventuality. Being silent slows time (Sontag, 1966; 2009: 17); it “is a practice of emptying, of letting go…hollowing ourselves out so we can open to what is emerging” (Weller, 2015: 96).

Mourning ‘around-ward’

There is no end to this reflection. It is a phase in my trauerarbeit. What has arisen out of the exercise is a realisation that those pains of grief punctuate the experience of life. Pain shows us how people touch us, how they move us, how, despite all our best efforts to convince ourselves of our independence, we need people and we need nature too. The pain of grief is a temporal, affective marker that reminds us of the alive-ness, value, and contribution to the earthly life of those Dead creatures and people. It reminds our bodies, by being something we feel, to appreciate that pain as much as the joy. It is what it is to be alive. To laugh, to cry, to hurt, to feel.

Until we meet again, in the next life and as the dust of the Earth…

This creative process and visual methodology has allowed me to start to say

Goodbye

Goodbye

Goodbye

Goodbye

[…]

Notes

1The cycles of birth, death, and rebirth are recognised in many cultures and religions. This particular imagery refers here to the dictum: “…for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:9).

2 Figures which are shots from my topography are deliberately untitled. The reader is invited to read it in relation to their own affective response.

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