In Search of an Ecological Sublime

A Conversation on Art + Environment between Anne Noble and Kate Palmer Albers

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The fourth in a series of conversations shared with the University of Arizona Institute of the Environment’s Proximities.

About Anne Noble and Kate Palmer Albers

Fulbright senior scholar Anne Noble will present a talk, In Search of an Ecological Sublime, at the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography on Friday, April 25, at 5:30 p.m. Learn more.

Anne NobleAnne Noble is Distinguished Professor of Fine Arts at Massey University, Wellington (University of New Zealand). She is one of New Zealand’s leading photographers, producing comprehensive series of work spanning landscape, documentary, and installation. Since 2001 she has been researching and photographing Antarctica, an extension of her interests in how photography shapes our understanding of the places we know and inhabit. She has made three visits to Antarctica–the most recent in 2008 as a National Science Foundation Polar Arts Fellow. In 2011 and 2014 Clouds, NZ published Ice Blink and The Last Road, the first two volumes of a trilogy devoted to her photographic investigations of Antarctica. In 2009 she received a New Zealand Arts Foundation Laureate award in recognition of her contribution to the visual arts in New Zealand. She is in the United States this year as a Fulbright Senior Scholar based at Colombia College Chicago as 2014 International Artist in Residence. While in the U.S. she is developing a new series of projects related to the decline of the honey bee.

Kate Palmer AlbersKate Palmer Albers is Assistant Professor of Art at the University of Arizona, where she teaches history and theory of photography, museum studies, and contemporary art. She organized the exhibition Locating Landscape: New Strategies, New Technologies, which looked at the intersection of photography, mapping, technology, and landscape. In 2010 she participated in the NEH Summer Institute Mapping and Art in the Americas at the Newberry Library in Chicago. Her book Uncertain Histories: Accumulation, Inaccessibility, and Doubt in Contemporary Photography is forthcoming from University of California Press. Albers’ current work focuses on the intersection of photography, geolocational technology, and landscape, and she is developing new research on photographic communication through social media.


In Search of an Ecological Sublime: A Conversation

Kate Palmer Albers: You’ve worked extensively in Antarctica, studying the U.S. presence there. This work addresses territory and claims on the land, but it also homes in on how visitors and tourists experience the landscape of Antarctica—how it is shaped for them, and then in turn shaped again by them, particularly photographically. Maybe we can begin to get at the issues involved in your work by asking, Is the Antarctic a landscape or a wilderness?

Anne Noble: One can answer this from a number of perspectives. Antarctica is known as the last great wilderness on Earth. So in one way it is perfectly true to describe Antarctica as wilderness because of its scale as a largely uninhabited ice continent. If we understand wilderness to mean untouched or unsullied, without the mark of human presence, Antarctica is certainly that. It is vast and offers an experience of space and horizon that defies our capacity to meaningfully wrap a frame around it. Because of its scale, it readily provokes a mythic encounter with oneself as small within the scheme of things, within an environment that is on the one hand extraordinarily beautiful and at the same time incomprehensible. We can’t, however, talk about wilderness and landscape without the knowledge that both are concepts freighted with cultural meanings, especially for the medium of photography. In the idea of wilderness, we encounter a kind of binary that renders nature as separate from the self. Embedded within it is a division between notions of wild and tamed, self and other, and between nature and culture. On the one hand wilderness is an idea or an ideal that we hold on to keep places safe from human exploitation (I include tourism in this), and on the other hand by doing so we adopt that set of binary oppositions as boundaries over which humans will always cross—to experience, to discover, to claim, and to know.

Antarctica (Sea World)
Antarctica: Sea World, San Diego, 2005.
Photo by Anne Noble.

In this way places continue to be explored and discovered as they always have been. Wilderness is eventually mapped and we don’t have to look too far back in geographical history to recall that it doesn’t take long before the map of a wilderness becomes identified and known as a territory, with all its attendant social, political, and cultural dimensions. W.J.T. Mitchell talks about landscape as a process in which imagination and representation cannot be separated from the political processes of claiming and marking out territory. In a post-colonial era, which we are supposedly in, he notes that the grand imperial project is still underway, and this is more visible in places like Antarctica, where the supposedly innocent activities of science, tourism, adventure, and exploration can sometimes have a disturbing political charge.

The geopolitics of Antarctica are fascinating. I wasn’t surprised to discover that the United States owns and operates a year-round research station at the South Pole and that India, China, and Russia—all the great economic powers, in fact—have year-round manned research stations in Antarctica. Although it is a place that is promoted for its international cooperation and the shared pursuit of science, there exists a strong geopolitical agenda in the establishment and ongoing presence of science bases in Antarctica.

Kate Palmer Albers: There is a broader question about the role of photography in the tourist experience of place, but your work gets at how photography constructs the Antarctic experience, which in turn shapes the tourist experience. How is place in Antarctica rendered photographically differently than in other places? Is there something specific about the photographic representation of the Antarctic that is important to understand?

Anne Noble: These are all very, very interesting questions to me. Desire and longing for an experience of place that binds human beings to it is part of our nature. We are meaning-making machines. When I began thinking about photographing Antarctica it was important for me to consider all the ways that the creation of landscape is a process whereby ideas from one place are laid over another in order to make it recognizable, to humanize it and to and create the possibility of feeling that we know and understand it. Landscapes, especially in the case of Antarctica are thus artifacts that can provide evidence of the histories and operations of this as a process. It is we humans, who while on the one hand desire and long for an interior experience of being close to nature, on the other unwittingly create a record of such experiences through coded practice of photographic image making. I find this fascinating. Very few people have been to Antarctica and yet it exists in the global imaginary as a library of images that I like to refer to as the pre-existing Antarctic photographic imaginary. Turning the ice into landscape is thus a work of the mind that enables us largely to see only what we already know. Simon Schama is one of many to point this out—and he takes special care to warn that landscapes such as Antarctica, ones that we suppose to be most free of our culture, actually turn out to be a entirely a product of it.

Antarctica (Singapore)
Antarctica: Singapore, 2003.
Photo by Anne Noble.

I became very interested in the idea that photography might actually corrupt our capacity to look and to see, and to make sense of being in the world. My photographic book Ice Blink is an exploration of how photography is complicit in the process by which this happens.

I began Ice Blink by visiting Antarctic adventure and experience centers, where information about Antarctica is set against photographic backdrops and artificial experiential environments. I watched people interact in these places and wondered about the human longing for a spiritual connection to place—and how photography might actually be complicit in cheating us of that very possibility. Here the Antarctic landscape has become a product. It is a commodity that can be purchased and consumed.

I visited lots of these Antarctic experience centers and photographed, imagining I was actually in Antarctica making a photograph of the Antarctic landscape. When I went to Antarctica to photograph tourism in 2005, I took this imaginary archive with me and photographed the Antarctic adventure tour, referencing my own library of pre-existing Antarctic landscapes—thereby echoing the process by which such a tour both identifies and confirms for the tourist that which has already been prefigured photographically.

The Antarctic tourist, in taking with them a pre-configured set of photographic expectations, confirms each of them in the act of re-photographing Antarctica. Over a series of days the Antarctic tour lays out view after view of crumbling ice cliffs, glacial blue icebergs, and penguins frolicking in their black and white dinner suits, each one a stage for an Antarctic re-photographic event to take place. Experience is replaced by a product and Antarctica is presented as a landscape—prefigured, seen, identified, and then consumed through the act of photography. My sad observation is that the act of taking photographs has us imagine we are looking at and seeing the world. The Antarctic tour, despite its ecological pretensions, provides evidence of a contemporary photographic condition that reveals quite the opposite—that photography in fact renders us blind. In trying to make Antarctica a part of us, we are actually alienating ourselves further from it.

Penguin Nagoya, Japan
Penguin: Nagoya, Japan, 2003.
Photo by Anne Noble.

Kate Palmer Albers: You’ve often put yourself in positions where a component of the work is a collaboration with, or even dependence upon, the knowledge of and access provided by scientists. As you’ve negotiated this process of bringing art into the realm of science, what has struck you about the possibilities and/or limitations of collaborative work between the arts and sciences?

Anne Noble: Photography involves the imagination and representation of the world through imaging technologies of one sort or another—mechanical, optical, chemical, and electronic. Scientists also use a range of imaging technologies from electron scanning microscopes to CT scanners that capture the full range of visible and invisible light and the electromagnetic spectrum to create images and visualize data for analysis. I have always enjoyed the science of photography—and while photography draws on science for its processes, it is actually more mix of science and alchemy. I like the magic of photography and its capacity to align the surface appearances of the world with an interior experience of time, memory, and being that exists beyond the visible. It seems to me there that there are multiple potential points of crossover and exchange between artists and scientists who are concerned to expand our understanding of the world through observation and communication.

Often in my work I find myself alongside scientists and love the conversations that arise out of being in the same place engaged in an observational project, involving similar and yet very different modes of measurement and capture of data with strange points of overlap and connection.

In 2008, I was a grantee on the U.S. National Science Foundation Polar Arts Program.

Whiteout #34
Whiteout #34, 2008.
Photo by Anne Noble.

I was questioning how the dominant visual language of heroism and adventure, through which we frame Antarctica and our relationship to it, fails to serve our need to see and understand Antarctica in an era of risk to the ice from the effects of climate change. I proposed a need for images that might speak not of heroic landscapes and endeavors, but of the frailty of human perception and the fragility of the Antarctic continent itself.

I spent some weeks out on the Polar Plateau photographing whiteouts, and observing subtle shifts of the light and vast white space at moments of complete spatial disorientation.

In conversation with cosmologists who were receiving emanations of the big bang at the South Pole Telescope, I was entranced by their search for an “image” of what they termed “the surface of last scattering”: the moment at which an opaque universe became transparent. The South Pole Telescope is a giant seeing machine—far different in scale and purpose than my own—but on some kind of parallel search for an image of what is currently indefinable. I have always felt that science and art have multiple points of overlap. And I am more interested than ever in my work being informed at some level by modes of scientific inquiry and scientific imaging to bring those experiences of interior and exterior space a little closer together.

Much of what I am doing at the moment in my own work is inspired by the richness of the questions that scientists ask. I am interested in finding points of intersection that might delight the imagination and expand the scope of an artwork to include scientific perspectives—play with them—both absurdly and reverentially. It seems to me that over the last 100 years, science has separated itself out as a domain of knowledge that is removed from aesthetic domains of knowing. Over half of Newton’s writings were about his alchemy—a quest that arose out of wonder at the possibility of magical or mysterious forces informing our understanding of the world. Rationalism in science has removed itself from combined sensory, spiritual, and intellectual speculation—especially related to the environment. I’d like to think that artists are able to shape new kinds of conversations, between art and science, certainly in regard to global environmental issues—and there is certainly a need for it.

Kate Palmer Albers: Your current work is on the decline of the honeybee. This is a complex and relatively recent problem that scientists have not resolved and don’t entirely understand, but the situation has profound implications for the food supply chain as the bees disappear and, with them, their critical role in pollination. What is your approach to addressing, through photography, an issue that is so systematically complex and with such expansive consequences?

In the Dead of the Night
In the Dead of the Night: Song Sting Swarm #3, 2012.
Photo by Anne Noble.

Anne Noble: My photographic projects generally arise out of questions related to things that are close to me. Landscape in New Zealand matters because we are so culturally defined as “a beautiful landscape.” Our current agricultural practices are impacting the quality of our waterways, and the reality is that we have a “landscape” under threat, in change, and in some respects it is a landscape in crisis. There is thus a lie to how we present ourselves to the world as a pure and beautiful landscape. It is the job of art and aesthetics to unravel this and offer the means for a different kind of attentiveness to the world around us.

I am a beekeeper: quite simply, I love to watch them and to find out through my own observations how the beehive functions. I was a participant in an art-science workshop called Sleep/Wake that brought artists and scientists together to consider the domain between sleeping and waking. A chronobiologist gave an account of his work with bees that fascinated me. He was putting whole hives of bees to sleep to find out the impact of anaesthetics on the human biological clock. He understood the biological connection between humans and bees at a cellular level, which I found marvelous. I photographed his 10,000 sleeping beesand then a hive of dead bees soon after. This inspired my interest in bees in art and the potential for a project that might develop stronger links between art and science and community in its development and its resolution.

Kate Palmer Albers: How are you thinking of using social media in this project?

Anne Noble: I am drawn to the notion of the citizen scientist: science projects that guide and utilize the observations of amateur scientists to build a database for interpretation. I am developing a project about the phenomenon of the swarm. People who observe this natural process of hive division are always astonished by the mass flight of bees, following their queen to establish a new hive. I am exploring the potential of social media sites to encourage and gather focused observations of such phenomena related to bees. Many web-based photographic projects focus on the internet as the site for sourcing and re-contextualizing photographic images. While this is interesting as a way to investigate the proliferation of photographic imagery in global visual culture, it is the potential of social media as a series of networking tools that interests me more. Like scientists who are creating and drawing on communities of observers, the web provides new opportunities for artists interested in a democratizing photographic aesthetics for focused observational projects. A photographic dictionary of swarms might be the outcome of such a project, one that is global in scope and is as much about the network of observers it brings together as it is about a photographic outcome.

Paradise Harbour
Paradise Harbour, Antarctica, 2005.
Photo by Anne Noble.

Kate Palmer Albers: You previously referred to the way Antarctica “defies our capacity to meaningfully wrap a frame around it.” I love the challenge you’ve taken on in addressing the limits of the photographic medium, while simultaneously recognizing the necessity—or even just usefulness—of tackling these questions photographically. In a way, your impulse to incorporate the photographs of citizen scientists worldwide continues to seek a way to meaningfully wrap a frame—or many frames—around the honeybee decline, another profoundly complex problem to visualize photographically.

Anne Noble: Photography is in a very exciting period of transition, with an array of conceptual and aesthetic challenges offered by the breadth of contemporary lens-based imaging technologies and contexts. Networking is a model for a more conversational aesthetic that photography is and always has been a part of.

Header photo, Wilhelmina Bay, Antarctica (2005), by Anne Noble. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.