|Starrs & Cmielewski, Incompatible Elements at Moving Image Centre, MIC Toi Rerehiko, Auckland|
The work’s fusion of text and topographical landscape presents a challenge to the separated or incompatible categories of ‘nature,’ ‘environment’ and ‘culture.’ Incompatible Elements was first exhibited at Performance Space in Sydney in 2010 followed by MIC Toi Rerehiko in Auckland in March 2011.
An ‘incompatible element’ is a term in geochemisty used to describe mineral properties in rare earth and in the oil industry. ‘The elements’ also refers to weather forces producing effects that are becoming more and more incompatible with human life. Starrs and Cmielewski tell stories on behalf of future “climate refugees” as part of their ongoing concern with migration stories. They used data maps in earlier work such as the interactive screen-based work Seeker (2008) to reveal the politics of forced migration due to conflict over resources such as diamonds, titanium and oil. Incompatible Elements also recognises the largely unquantified human migration resulting from climate change—of people often seen as incompatible with national immigration policies. As philosopher Bruno Latour urges, the artists recognise that ecological issues include the social, political and cultural as opposed to perpetuating the Modernist ‘human/nature’ divide.
The four video landscapes presented at MIC are composited satellite images of the flooded planes of the Ganges, the former dust bowl of Australia’s Murray-Darling basin, the dry banks of the Coorong in South Australia and the erosion of Mount Taranaki in New Zealand. Accompanying light boxes provide the micrographic complement to the remote satellite pictures as detailed photographs of the dry earth. The artists present the polar extremes of drought and deluge: the predicted and increasingly manifesting extremes of weather-induced disaster in regions of Australasia. By encouraging us to examine their finely stitched topographical images closely in the defamiliarised context, even the normally detached gaze of the Google-Earth browser is politicised.
In Incompatible Elements, the leisurely paced pan of the fly-over satellite map is incrementally modified by lines of text that grow out of features of the landscape itself. After a while, streams or fields become words that slowly creep into the frame, inviting comparison to the relentless anthropogenic expansion across the Earth. The sources of the animated words include the environmentalist poetry of Australian Judith Wright, her line “And the River was Dust” curls out of the Murray-Darling basin’s tributary streams while the lyric “days like these” from the John Lennon song “Nobody told me” emerges from the watery arteries of the Ganges. A phrase in the Ngarringjerri language, “A Living Body,” creeps out of the dusty banks of the Coorong and “Puwai Rangi-Papa,” the words of a Maori elder encircle Mount Taranaki.
Starrs and Cmielewski direct attention to Maori and Aboriginal people and the fate of migrants through their use of their language. The perspective of the satellite drifting through space is often described as an omniscient view of a detached observer, but this perspective is also a familiar way of charting territory in traditional aboriginal cultures. Theorist Lisa Parks notes that Aboriginal people have incorporated “satellite dreaming” into their symbolic narratives of cultural identity in artwork and in independent television programming. Both indigenous citizens and migrants occupy a border zone where they are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events. Maori are traditionally ‘people of the land’, often living in coastal regions, while migrants living in temporary structures are prone to weather-borne disaster.
For the MIC version of Incompatible Elements Starrs and Cmielewski added a video element to the suite of works called Puwai Rangi-Papa. This phrase was translated for the artists as “waters of the radiant sun and earth mother” by Taranaki kaumatua (elder) Dr Te Huirangi e Waikerepuru. Te Huirangi introduced this term to the artists on their SCANZ digital art residency that began at the Owae marae (meeting house) on the West coast of New Zealand in January 2011. Taranaki locals themselves suggested to the artists that they make a work around the erosion of the dramatic peak of Mount Taranaki. The ‘Fuji’ shaped mountain dominates the geography and weather system of New Zealand’s North Island. Rock fall and erosion have increased since violent storms have intensified on the west coast to the extent that local inhabitants are now threatened with the loss of their homes. Analysing aerial photographs of water and soil shifts on Taranaki and its waterways, scientists estimate that more than 14 million cubic metres of the mountain have collapsed since the late 1990s. Huge rock falls and debris have caused blockages in waterways, along with floods that send more boulders down the river, widening the banks. The soundtrack of Puwai Rangi-Papa includes the tumbling of stones that keeps residents who live on the edge of Taranaki awake at night. In Maori terms the ‘mauri’ (life-force) of the mountain is being eroded by the changing climate along with its iconic physical form.
The video images for Puwai Rangi-Papa are created from four Land Information New Zealand satellite images that are seamlessly brought together. The viewing position tracks around the uncannily perfect circle of the satellite map of the mountain and after several minutes the words “Puwai Rangi-Papa” emerge from the fields around Taranaki’s perimeter. According to the artists, this is nature and culture “collapsing into each other.” Using the ubiquitous format of Google Earth and GPS applications on iPhones and cars that has changed our relationship to maps in only a few years, Starrs and Cmielewski are trying to slow down the way we view this satellite imagery to give pause for reflection on the implications of a landscape transfigured by weather.
Many pakeha (white) artists in Aotearoa-New Zealand avoid the use of Maori concepts as the conceptual underpinnings of their work because of the sensitivity around the appropriateness for citizens who are not tangata whenua (people of the land). However when permission is granted by an elder of the region for a story to be told and te reo (Maori language) to be used, the artists are provided with a place from which to transmit important messages across cultures. If settler cultures can shift from conceiving landscape or weatherscape as inert matter ‘to-be-looked-at’ to living bodies encompassed in Maori terms such as ‘mauri’ then we come closer to ecological reconciliation. Puwai Rangi-Papa could signal an important shift in articulating a reconfigured political ecology where Western environmentalism and indigenous cosmologies might join in restoration and care of the land.
An artwork like Incompatible Elements is not propaganda or politics, yet the artists are unwilling to leave socio-political questions to designated experts. The cumulative effect of Incompatible Elements is not alarmist, rather human responsibility is implicated in the large-scale geo-physical changes to our world that the artists represent. The work encourages reflection on the impact of cumulative weather events that are difficult to conceptualise as statistical data or scientific warnings.
Incompatible Elements, MIC I Toi Rerehiko, Auckland, New Zealand, March 4-25
Australian media arts watchers will be interested to know that “MIC Toi Rerehiko promotes a dynamic and growing culture of interdisciplinary media-arts practice in Auckland and New Zealand, supporting an environment of innovation, in which fusion of art and technology is developed and nurtured. Based in the heart of Auckland, MIC Toi Rerehiko has a new art gallery on Karangahape Road, and a live performance/screening venue at Galatos. We exhibit a continuous program of international and New Zealand artists working across contemporary film, video, digital media, installation, music and live performance.” www.mic.org.nz. Eds.
Janine Randerson is a media artist and teacher at Unitec in Auckland, New Zealand. Her doctoral research at the University of Melbourne is on weather and climate in contemporary art.
RealTime issue #104 Aug-Sept 2011 pg. 39
© Janine Randerson; for permission to reproduce apply to firstname.lastname@example.org