Remote Exposure: Wild Interactions and Networked Performances
There is no doubt that our planet—the climate, wilderness, all that is “natural”—is changing. It is vitally important for us as artists to redefine our somatic and experiential connection to what we are transforming. In the community of artists using new technologies in particular, an electric storm—of hybrid, interactive, and performative art—is brewing.
I first encountered the work of Jane D. Marsching when I started curating a project called New Climates. This project brings together artwork responding to global climate change and networked culture using a constantly evolving video blog. Marsching is working at (and re-working) the boundary of nature and civilization, and the threshold of artistic practice and technological implementation. Her recent project, Arctic Listening Post, expands our conceptions of how we inhabit, see, and make art with and within nature.
The discipline of eco-philosophy has theorized that technologies of communication, art, and entertainment can act as prostheses to extend human experience and interaction into the non-human world. I would like to propose that Marsching’s work is not simply concerned with interpenetrating “the human” and “the natural,” nor is she only employing technology as a static representational filter through which we see “nature.” Instead, she is establishing a participatory relationship between artist, environment and viewer. She is demonstrating that the biosphere, human culture and technology are not always discordant—in fact, they have the potential to harmonize in ways that expand our awareness of nature and ourselves.
Marsching’s work redefines nature’s “remoteness” or “otherness” as productive rather than prohibitive. She uses technology to connect disparate viewers to places that popular imagination has seen as inaccessible, uninhabited, ahistorical, or even mystical. In the book The Machine in the Garden (1970), Leo Marx discusses the poetic art of integrating nature and technology. He writes, “If technology is the creation of man, who is a product of nature, then how can the machine in the landscape be thought to represent an irresolvable conflict?” Marsching is a poet of integration; she is an engineer in the figurative garden. In her projects, the “natural” is brought into the global information network with immediacy and urgency—it is as if they become part of the same “ecosystem.”
Robert Smithson once wrote, “Art can become a resource that mediates between the ecologist and the industrialist.” He created land art and earthworks that laid the groundwork for artists to respond to, and reconfigure, natural landscapes. New media projects go one step further, employing technology to reveal current environmental changes and those that are yet to come. In her explorations at the limits of nature, Marsching shows an interest in imagining a sustainable future—even while excavating geological, technological, and individual histories. Her projects suggest that art can—and indeed must—operate within the larger network of environmental politics, science and social action. Her work’s influence continues well beyond its institutional or Web-based presentations into the many pathways of our networked culture.
Indeed, Marsching skillfully engages the World Wide Web. In dialog with the “real” natural spaces made visible in her art, there exists the “wilderness” (as one could call it) of the Internet, blogosphere, and the planetary information environment. She navigates in this virtual terrain—a terrain as vast, rich and occasionally unfamiliar as its organic analogue. Her work mirrors and layers these natural and digital “wilds.” As viewers, we come to see both nature and emerging technologies as contingent and malleable.
Finally, I want to emphasize Marching’s investment in dialogical structures of information exchange. She sparks communication across scientific, artistic and broader communities—as well as between humans and the non-human world. In doing so, she highlights dialog as a powerful tool for instigating political, social, and ecological change. In turn, experiencing her work inspires similarly effective and stimulating conversation among her audience—a sharing of ideas, facilitated by technology and organically unfurling, that is truly and productively “wild.”
Perhaps the most effective description of Jane D. Marsching’s recent work would be a series of tags: ecological, interdisciplinary, hybrid, conversational, exploratory, historical, imaginative, virtual, activist, networked. Arctic Listening Post, her multifaceted project “all about the Arctic,” evidences a kind of “distant touring” of the truly remote and nearly inaccessible landscape of the far north. The Arctic and the North Pole are as much symbolic and cultural destinations as geographical ones, and, as Marsching says, “technology allows us to go there.” Her use of scientific data, Web-based technology, and cultural history not only portrays the Arctic, but also serves as a vehicle for imaginary and visual transportation. Marsching’s work brings together art and science, sensation and information. And in so doing, she creates an electronic interface between aesthetics and environmentalism.
As a rendering of scientific data and media reports on climate change in the Arctic, Rising North gestures towards our incapacity to truly absorb and process the magnitude of this information. Rather than recapitulating words or numbers, the video offers emotive fields of experience (both in the visual and auditory spectra) through which we might derive a new, if strikingly incomplete, understanding of “our farthest north.” Rising North, through its ambiguous color modulations and operatic voice that hovers at the limits of intelligibility, may propose that our comprehension of the Arctic is already necessarily partial—it is a region most of us will never encounter first-hand—even as it becomes a heated locus in the climate change discussion. By selecting opera to be the vehicle of conveyance, Marsching also suggests that the Arctic has become a stage upon which the media spectacle of “global warming” is being enacted; we will listen intently to the dramatic tale of its transformation, thawing and steady climb into the frightening upper registers.
This essay was modified from an introduction to the panel discussion “Technological Frontiers and the Limits of Nature” with Jane D. Marsching, Cary Peppermint, and Brooke Singer, Upgrade! Boston, April 2007.
1. Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. p. 242
2. Holt, Nancy, ed. The Writings of Robert Smithson. New York: New York University Press, 1979. p. 220.