Monday, 25 July 2016

Vibrant Matter and other 'stuff'

Keywords: Actant / Vibrant Matter / Elan Vital / Shadow-time Apex Guilt

I have previously discussed my work though a bergsonian lens, the dualistic approach that our mind is routed in the past and body in the present. Full consciousness being an awareness and fusion of the two states. In work such as 'Corpse' The video of a forest talks of 'pure memory', image remembrance of a past event and external of the body. While the charcoal animation contained in the viewers silhouette becomes the bodies subconsious response to the same memory and is rooted in the present. Standing in front of the work the two states are seen concurrently, past and present are united.

Here I have explored the concept of consciousness only in the context of the individual. However as I look further at my work with an ecological perspective I have begun to question if the consciousness the work speaks of is the viewers own or something other. In Bergson's concept of 'Elan vital' he theories that all living things have a degree of consciousness.  

'From one point of view, we can say that some beings are literally more alive than others. This 'aliveness', that the French philosopher Henri Bergson called the 'elan vital,' has manifested itself more powerfully within them. We can see the whole evolutionary process which has taken life forward from amoebi to human beings as a process of 'vitalisation', by which living things become progressively more animated. As living beings become more 'vitalised' the intensity of their consciousness increases; so another parallel way of looking at evolution is to see it as a process by which living beings become more and more conscious.'
The Elan Vital and Self-Evolution -Steven Taylor - 
New Renaissance, Volume 8, Number 4, Issue 27. - 1999

Artist herman de vries (he writes without capitals to avoid hierarchy) explores the relationship between humanity and nature, seeing the production of art as an expression of consciousness which he too finds in all living things. 

'this line of thought still guiding me now. i have nothing to say: it is all here.
art is not the definable. every definition of it is a limitation. but for me it has to do with the formulation of consciousness or with the process of becoming conscious. 
this consciousness i see happening around me in nature and i show what i have seen happening, what i have seen being'.
Except from - The world we live in is a revelation - herman de vries - 1992 

Re-assessing such work as 'Chronos' and 'Corpse' the past and present we witness could be seen not as an analogy for our own experience, but as a vision of the natural worlds detached consciousness. 
The destruction and renewal no longer represent our own existential fears but speak of ecological processes. the deep-time of ecological processes are juxtaposed with our own fleeting time frame. Borrowing a phrase from the Bureau of lingistical reality we enter 'Shadow time', implying we become aware of existing within human and ecological timeframes concurrently. 

In her essay 'Vibrant Matter: A political Ecology of Things - 2010' Jane Bennett builds on Bergson's 'ardent belief in the spontaneity of life' the concept of the 'Vitality' of living things as well as Deleuze and Felix Guattari's 'Material vitalism'. Expanding the remit of vitality to all matter and formulating the term 'Vibrant matter'.

'This habit of parsing the world into dull matter (it, things) and vibrant life (us, beings) is a 'partition of the sensible', to use Jacques Renciere's phrase. The quarantines of matter and life encourages us to ignore the vitality of matter and the lively powers of material formations, such as the way omega-3 fatty acids can alter human moods or the way our trash is not 'away' in landfills but generating lively streams of chemicals and volatile winds of methane as we speak.'
Vibrant Matter: A political Ecology of Things - Jane Bennett - 2010

Looking at all of matter as 'vibrant matter' Bennett is asking us to question our relationship with the external world of 'stuff' be it ecological or man made. By viewing 'stuff' as active agent she is trying to prompt a reassessment of our understanding of environmental processes and affect political responses to these concerns.    
'How would political response to public problems change were we to take seriously the vitality of (nonhuman) bodies?By 'vitality' I mean the capacity of things - edibles, commodities, storms, metals - not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities or tendencies of their own. My aspiration is to articulate a vibrant materiality that runs alongside and inside humans to see how analyses of political events might change if we gave the force of things more due. How, for example, would patterns of consumption change if we faced not litter, rubbish, trash or 'the recycling', but an accumulating pile of lively and potentially dangerous matter?..... Why advocate the vitality of matter? Because my hunch is that the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption. It does so by preventing us from detecting (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling) a fuller range of the nonhuman powers circulating around and within human bodies..... I want to promote greener forms of human culture and more attentive encounters between people-materialities and thing-materialities.'
Vibrant Matter: A political Ecology of Things - Jane Bennett - 2010

Bennett is in no way suggesting that so called inert materials have consciousness as Bergson or 
herman de vries attribute consciousness to all organic matter but that they are 'Actants', active participants in the external world which should not be considered as passive. Actant is a term formulated by Bruno Latour to denote..

 'a source of action that can be either human or nonhuman; it is that which has efficacy, can do things, has sufficient coherence to make a difference, produce effects, alter the course of events. It is 'any entity that modifies another entity in a trial', something whose 'competence is deduced from (its) performance' rather than posited in advance of the action'  
Vibrant Matter: A political Ecology of Things - Jane Bennett - 2010

By seeing the nonhuman as active and not inert every object or substance becomes a process. When we throw away plastic packaging it is not the end of its story, it continues to be active in the environment. It develops a more explicit time bound legacy far beyond our own human time frame. The cumulative effect of our personal and collective guilt for actions affecting the ecology of the earth may weigh more heavily upon us, that we might reassess or relationship with 'stuff'  

Reflecting back on my own practice different forms of ecological guilt or 'Apex Guilt' can be projected onto the work. Burning transitions in both 'Process and Perception' and 'Chronos' signify very literal and abrupt ecological destruction. During 'Process and Perception' I can even be seen visibly burning a representation of nature, man-kind is directly tied to the crime of ecological violence. 

However there is another way in which the work speaks of ecological guilt, that is through the physical process of generating the work. In each take of 'Process and Perception' at least four 1.8m x 1.5m paper screens are burnt. In the works development I have re-filmed this process four times. Trees were most definably harmed in the making of this work! Filming requires using 3 digital projectors hooked up to 3 laptops and is shot with a digital camera. All this uses electrical energy, while the material 'stuff' of the equipment (vibrant matter) the plastics/ metals/ batteries are the very things that will linger and affect our environment for thousands of years to come. Filming becomes comparable to an executenor taking a photograph of his victim before the sentence is carried out. 

This raises the question wether it is valid to make work about ecological issues using processes and materials directly responsible for the situation one is lamenting?  

Recent reading list:
Nature and Culture - Peter Halley - 1983
Scapeland - Jean-Francis Lyotard - 1988
The Natural Fantastic - Roger Callous - 1971
The Three Ecologies - Felix Guattari - 1989
Creative Evolution - Henri Bergson - 1907
Vibrant Matter: A political Ecology of Things - Jane Bennett - 2010
Imagination and Matter - Gaston Bachelard - 1942

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