I have been a bit busy lately with writing my thesis. A couple of weeks ago I a gave a paper at the Festival of Ideas at Melbourne University. You can watch the session on their site. And belong is my transcript. I will upload some of Walking through clear fells soon.
To get to the Styx Valley you take the Lyell highway out of Hobart that goes along the longer reaches of the Derwent River.
When the far edges of Hobart disappear you spend some time going through farming country and woodland patches till you turn into the Gordon River Rd. This road will eventually take you Lake Pedder and the South West, but way before the Lake, before you even get to the Styx valley, you will drive through the picturesque cluster of cherry orchards and hop fields that make up Bushy Park.
Continuing along the Gordon River Road after you past Westerway there is a small family owned saw mill on your right. On your left is the Styx Road, the main logging road that winds up the Styx valley.
As with many logging roads, at the beginning there is a locked gate.
This is the start of the narration that accompanies the video installation Walking through clear fells that I made in 2009 and 10.
The work is a video installation in two parts. One is the single channel being screened behind me.
I made the work with the Tasmanian cinematographer Joe Shemesh; it’s filmed using a red camera, which is a very high-resolution digital camera.
In this channel the camera tracks across the Styx and Florentine Valleys following first the Styx rd, and then the Gordon River.
As the helicopter is able to negotiate the hilly terrain it reveals coups hidden from the view of the highway by hills and rises. It reveals how narrow and small the uncleared areas of forest are. And In particular it reveals the network of roads: undeclared logging tracks, public roads closed to traffic because of logging trucks, and the highway which funnels tourists and locals through the disputed areas to the alpine National Parks. These roads, logging coups and destroyed forest reveal not only the level of destruction but also the construction of ‘wilderness’ and/or ‘high value conservation area’ as remote and untouched by human habitation.
The second part is a synchronised double channel of two people (myself and Joe Shemesh) walking through a series of clear fells in the Styx and Florentine. The camera again points directly down and captures our feet and the ground immediately around us.
At first it is not clear what kind of landscape this is, however with accumulative viewing an endless horror emerges. One clear fell is muddy and churned up by the machinery; a second is after fire bombing, and is black like forest fire except for the hard sharp lines of fallen timbers and giant stumps; and the third is a recently cut coup, littered with many “waste” rainforest trees.
As the camera is strapped directly to our chests the footage contains the motion and sway as our bodies struggle with the uneven ground. There is no horizon and this claustrophobic view creates nausea and disorientation within the viewer.
The two parts are exhibited at right angles to each other.
Walking through clear fells was motivated by a desire to describe the landscapes of the tall forests of Tasmania and their current destruction. While there are many photographs of clear fell logging used in activist campaigns, I felt these representations did not capture the visceral feeling of loss and destruction. Neither do they adequately capture the scale of individual logging coups and the way these coup effectively form a honeycomb pattern of deforestation across vast valleys.
Rather than using a perspectival view creating sweeping vistas over destroyed forests, that I believed would evoke a feeling of catastrophic sublime, I instead employed a directly pointing down camera which I hoped would turn the viewers eye into a scanner like machine, so that the view seem dispassionate objective. And that it would disrupt the picturesque tradition that connotes ownership and control. Yet because of the disorientation of both the aerial and walking footage the work evokes a very physical and emotional response in the body and mind of the viewer. (It was interesting when filming how wearing the very large and heavy camera created a feeling of turning oneself into a machine).
The two parts Walking through clear together form a macro and micro view of the Styx and Florentine Valleys.
Returning to the narrative
Its funny looking at this landscape from the air even though I know this space there still a way in which what I know doesn’t quiet connect with what I am seeing from above.
There was a lot of logging activity happening when we filmed this in early 2010. The weather had been so bad for twelve months that the summer logging season was quiet intense.
Although you wouldn’t necessarily know that looking at this footage.
The helicopter, and pilot we hired, belong to the same company that Forestry uses to drop incendiaries onto clear fells to start fires in the Autumn months. Forestry burn them to stop the rainforest species regenerating there by facilitating the growth of a more profitable mono culture of eucalypts that will harvest for paper in 20 years.
The pilot did not want to fly over clear fells that contained working machinery, despite the company and Forestry, agreeing to a requested route, and so in 20 minutes of footage you only glimpse two cranes at the edge of the frame.
Instead of documenting the valley busy with people this landscape looks at once both occupied and strangely empty.
There are a few ideas that I want to briefly raise in relation to this work today that concern artist’s position and voice, in artworks that are motivated by conservation concerns, rather than discussing this work in relation to national or regional narratives. I should say that this point that I have no familial connection with Tasmania and while I have visited often in the last 8 years I have never lived there. Also I am not a long distance walker and the only landscape I know intimately is the Styx Valley. I have in fact spent more time in clear fells than in forests, and I actually find the tall closed forests quiet frightening.
My work is like many mainlanders who are interested in the environmental campaigns in Tasmania as much as I am interested in the campaigns to save the Kimberly and Queenslands wild rivers from resource exploitation.
Conservation campaigns are often focused on making present the unseen complexity of the natural world. Evoking both the wonder of nature, the horror of it’s destruction and potential lost. The motivation of environmentalists to depict and give voice to the unknown, or the known unkowns, by revealing the complex entanglement of human values and exploitation of nature; is particularly evocative and attractive to artists. I contend that this is because, these are projects where the questions raised by representation and documentation are central, and these are questions asked in interesting and dynamic ways by artists and artworks. Further more environmental projects have an increasing sense of urgency, which creates for the artist a sense of, or actualises, being engaged with the world.
Detailed and expert knowledge is highly valued within environmental campaigns whereas a cliché about artists is that they work from a position of not knowing. Although I think this is perpetuated by artists as a way of avoiding having to put into words that which sits outside of language, i.e. the sensation and effect created by visual artworks.
Working as an artist in relation to conservation raises questions then about how to negotiate communicating important information while not being a didactic or taking up an authoritarian position. I ask myself in what ways can the artwork I might make give space for the viewer experience? (I don’t necessarily think I have answered that question in this or other artworks I have made.)
In looking for potential models to address this problem of a not-knowing-expert I have been looking at the writings and artworks associated with post-conceptual practice.
Post-conceptual practices are cross and multi-disciplinary that focus on the process of making before the production of artwork. They emphasise connectivity between artists, subjects, artwork and audiences and often seek to employ artwork in the service of educating audiences in relation to politics and sometimes the environment.
Lisa Graziose Corrin describes these artists as:
‘cultural producers’ – at times social gadfly, researcher, performer, writer, filmmaker, curator, collaborator and occasional fabricator of objects. When an object was chosen as the communication medium, these artists avoided high production values and exhibited ‘context’ - the site of display- as an intrinsic component of the work. Moreover, their productions relententlessly questioned how we approach and understand ‘truth’.
Often these are artwork that we might describe as practicing an institutional critique, uncovering biases in museum collections, or past out dating thinking in relation to the types of items collected or the information attached to these objects. Post-conceptual artist often mine archives for alternative narratives, or organise tours of ignored or politically potent sites, often asking non artists- i.e. holders of other expert knowledges or marginalised culture groups to speak on these tours. Often installations seem like a collection of documents- an artwork one might read, interspersed with things that might be artworks.
I find these attractive as potential ways to negotiate the not-knowing-expert although in relation to discussing remote and un pictured landscapes, I don’t see them as a practical solution.
Instead I think of Walking through clear fells as part document and part artwork. The aerial channel is a important document of a landscape being exploited, I am open to it’s potential in being used in other ways and contexts- although I’m not sure how useful it is…
In the context of this document being an artwork, the narrative, read by myself describing an alternative way of moving through the landscape, and the process of making the film is an important self reflective element that is being added to by other voices (Peter Hay) and this also invites the viewer to construct their own narrative sequence or memory of visiting that landscape. The walking feet is in a sense the clear artistic interpretation of landscape and belong to the tradition of artist walking the landscape such as Smithson, Long and Fulton.
This footage is taken at the end of summer and you can see guy lines threading one tall tree to the next. The guy lines create a network between the protesters tree sits and platforms at the top of the tall eucalyptus regnans. They are there so that if the police try to evicted one platform or cut it down they will pull off the other protestors. It’s a way of slowing down and delaying the police break up of the camp.
The camp was evicted the pervious autumn. It was before that coup had been logged..
This camp now blockades the logging road. In an effort to stop it from turning off to the right and going deeper into the Florentine valley.
The last section of this footage is where the helicopter has past the camp and into the World Hertiage Area. They then have turned around and are filming as they are flying back towards the camp. AS you cross the highway and there is some relief that there is no sign of logging activity the helicopter passing over health landscape, of tea-tree tickets and then forest. The film ends where you start to enter tall forest again; right at it’s edge, there is a road.