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Fieldwork

Researcher A sat by the river that morning a hundred metres north of Researcher B’s experiments. A expected her own experiments would fail. Pale and tousle-haired, with sturdy boots, A aimed to listen for anything she could hear, whether from near or far away, small and subtle sounds like those made by tiny insects or distant airplanes. She would try to record a digital impression of these faint noises with a sensitive microphone, despite knowing that the recording of such impressions would be almost inevitably impossible.

‘I think it’s a way of positioning myself in a place,’ she said. ‘It’s a way of settling myself, but also looking and listening beyond myself. Exploring what those relationships might be.’

She used the word ‘settling’.

‘That’s an interesting tension,’ she acknowledged, ‘because my intention with settling is to pay attention to the place, but when I think of settlers I think of people coming in and not doing that, trying to impose.’

A sat low to the earth, listening, exuding her usual air of calm. Nearby fell a rain of leaves.

Pound Bend. Photo: David Carlin

Nine researchers went on the field trip that day to Pound Bend, outside Melbourne. Five white women and four white men, they were artists, writers, designers, filmmakers and theorists of media. They took four cars, one kayak, which they didn’t use, and much equipment for recording sounds, images and videos. Also lunch in paper bags and eskies, water obviously, treats to share. Hats and sunscreen, bathing costumes, notepads, phones, computers. Someone sensible might have brought a first aid kit for the snakes.

There’s only one road down the hill through the manna gums to the riverbank at Pound Bend. The weather was almost hot enough for a Total Fire Ban; under those conditions Pound Bend could be a death trap.  They parked down by the river, between the toilet block and the wooden picnic tables, keeping an eye out for the hot wind in the trees as they unpacked their gear.

Researcher B, a photographer, described herself as a ‘ground person’. ‘I much prefer to sit on the ground and see what’s there rather than go to the top of a mountain and look at a grand view,’ she said.

To the ground beside the river that morning she had brought a selection of unexposed photographic paper of differing chemical sensitivities, plus ideas about the type of landscape photography a ground person might make. She wanted to work against certain photographic grains, among them the idea of ‘landscape as depiction’. Landscape photographs of the American West, where B came from, have been framed in stories of manifest destiny. Here in Australia it was the white settlers’ stories of the pastoral, as they attempted to domesticate the place from its uncanny strangeness. None of that spoke to B.

‘Scenery has been the way we have pictured the natural world,’ said B. ‘It’s like Nature with a capital N, this thing over there, distanced, magical, whatever we claim it to be.’

Instead of using a camera, B placed sheets of silver gelatin paper near the ground, pressing them against the slender green leaves of low grasses. The moisture from the leaves acted with the silver gelatin to form an image on the surface of the paper showing patterns where the leaves had blocked the sunlight that had already been partially blocked by some trees. The images resembled curving daggers or the long teeth of a walrus. B knew from experience and theory something of what to expect, but the point, she said, was that the way the photographic materials responded to the elements of the landscape was out of her control.  She could only introduce the paper to the leaves and the sun and invite them to make something together.

‘It is a factor of the particular temperature right now, the moisture in those grasses, what kind of paper I grabbed,’ said B. ‘It is the accidental forms and palette that are most interesting. You have a feeling about what it might look like but really you don’t know.’

She bent to place another sheet of gelatin paper in a different clump of leaves. ‘You have to press it together,’ she said, ‘it needs the contact and the moisture.’

Pound Bend. Photo: David Carlin

This was the first field trip the researchers had organised together. Everything was, to some extent, tentative and provisional. They had started out a few months earlier as a reading group. In one of the many plain white rooms in their university building, accompanied by frugal snacks and a bottle of wine kindly assembled by the Researcher who will be known in this report as F—the unofficial prime mover of the group—they discussed books of ecophilosophy such as Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, Rosa Braidotti’s The Posthuman and Timothy Morton’s The Ecological Thought. They experienced the elegant invitation to ‘atmospheric attunement’ of the anthropologist Kathleen Stewart and witnessed the entreaty for ‘slow writing’ of Deborah Bird Rose. They considered the beautiful lyric essay experiments of Nicole Walker’s Microcosms. They talked about unsettling the hierarchies of human and nonhuman, and how this was urgent now, with the pressures of capitalist growth striking the bio-physical limits of the planet. But what else can you do with reading? What else can you do with difficult ideas? What else can you make, they wondered?

Researcher C, a tall, bespectacled man whose shoulders were always set as if coming in to land, was a film theorist. As is normal for a film theorist, he spent a lot of his time thinking about what other film theorists think about film.

Researcher C had a theory about what he was doing that day. He was trying to encode time. He was interested in the difference between encoding time and feeling time, and how this was connected to the concept of time in film theory. Time in a lot of film theory is dependent on the idea of movement: if there is no movement in a film you don’t feel time passing. C had decided to film two series of shots: one in which there was as much movement in the frame as possible, although the camera didn’t move – these were scenes of a waterfall, or of leaves moving, or of ants, for instance – and the other in which there was as little movement in the frame as possible.

He admitted that the place he found himself in was arbitrary. ‘It becomes a focaliser—’ is how he spoke of it, ‘—in terms of something to film, but beyond that…’ He trailed off.

He said that usually a lot of his stuff happened in postproduction.

He asked his questioner: ‘Is part of this thing trying to put people on the spot?’

Then he went on: ‘see, this feels wrong to me, being out here, because I don’t really have a plan. And I’ve never really done that before, just gone out…with no plan. The open-endedness is a little bit weird.’

He was standing on the path with his camera equipment, in between one location and another.

‘Normally it’s like: I’m going to get a close-up of the waterfall; or, a tracking shot of the river. I’ll have a list. A shotlist. So this is partly terrifying and partly really, really exciting because I can just go and film what catches my eye.’

He paused.

‘I got a pretty good shot of a kookaburra that I was happy about,’ he said. ‘He was very chilled, let me get right up close to him.’ He smiled.

Nearby, Researcher D was coming at things from another angle. D was interested in imagining other bodies for herself, so as to imagine nonhuman ways of being. She had designed fins for her body, for instance, so that she could think about what it would be like to become more like a fish. She tended to laugh a lot, as if she knew it all sounded a little crazy. But as an interpretation designer for zoos and museums she thought in concrete terms about these speculations. Early that morning at Pound Bend she could be seen happily sitting on the ground in her khaki shorts and floppy hat, by coincidence exactly in the place the photographer (B) would soon make her photographs with the silver gelatin paper, leaves and sun.

‘I picked this spot,’ said D, ‘because it’s full of traces of things that have left impressions in the grasses that lead to the water. See how the grasses are all flattened and there are little, like, tunnels everywhere?’ She pointed softly. ‘So I imagine, if I was land dwelling, I might be slithering through here towards the water. I’m low-down and I can’t see the water. But I know it’s there.’

‘It seems silly,’ she admitted. ‘But I’m trying to hang on to that playfulness. It could be partly a reaction to the fact-telling we are asked to do in zoos and museums. I think we could do a lot more with imagining. Because a lot of early scientists – well, any scientists – have that kind of openness, even though they work in a structured way. They have theories, or they will just go and explore something really, really deeply. Not that I want to learn about things in a scientific way. But I think it is that wide-eyed fascination and imagination that get you somewhere. Otherwise, it’s sort of reductive. It’s like: I know this and that or this and that about that animal or that place and usually it’s very individualist. So: it will be ‘the’ gorilla. There will be one specimen that represents all gorillas. And even with that, it’s hard to make a personal connection.’

D sat on the grass by the path, making notes in her notebook. She might have been making sketches too.

‘I like going to a place that I feel drawn to, some affinity for, and then I try and imagine myself adapting to that place rather than doing something else to that place. Rather than designing something, it’s more about designing me. And also, putting myself into – like before, down there, I was thinking of being the river.’ She laughed at herself.  ‘Being it or being in it rather than looking at it. I feel like everything here is about the river.’ She paused. ‘I wonder if everyone feels like that?  But it’s like the trees, everything, is looking at the river, wanting to be near it. And yet the river isn’t even a thing, in a way, all those bits of water just keep going…’

She clarified her allegiances: ‘Usually I’m more a sea person than a river person. Partly I’m fascinated with the sea because it is really hard to see into and it’s hard to know because we can’t hang out in there for too long or we die. It’s so frickin big. And dangerous. And unknowable! I think in a way it’s a kind of metaphor for the whole lot. The whole lot is unknowable. We just think we have more of a handle on the land.’

In the spaces when D wasn’t speaking, the sound of the river flowing intermingled with the calling of some birds.

‘I can’t stay away from the water,’ said D. ‘I’ll do this bit on land here but then I’ll do the same thing in the water. I have to get in there.’

Later she was seen floating downstream and laughing.

The place the European settlers called Pound Bend, as if only because no less poetic name was available, lies in the unceded sovereign land of the Wurundjeri clan of the Kulin Nation. The old river here coils in a giant loop around a floodplain, making a watery ring that rubs up against a hard granite outcrop. On this floodplain, people have met to share stories and ceremonies, to trade and celebrate, for tens of thousands of years, but this is now difficult to imagine for settler kin, since they have little or no tradition of listening to such things. Wurundjeri elders have put in place a series of storyboards along the river path that educate visitors about what they otherwise might miss. Beneath one of these storyboards that day, a class of primary school children sat on the grassy earth with their teacher, learning, daydreaming or both.

For a short while after the British seized the land in 1835, the settler population, superior in weaponry, tolerated the Wurundjeri remaining on this floodplain by the river. The settlers couldn’t yet think of a more important use for the place. But with the discovery of gold in the district the traditional owners were soon forcibly evicted. In March 1852, it is reported in the archives, Wurundjeri leader Simon Wonga convened a great cultural gathering of the Kulin Nation at Pound Bend, two weeks of performances, games and ceremonies.

At the neck where the river almost touches itself, a tunnel was blasted through the hill in 1870 to allow the water to flow through and circumvent the loop.  The tunnel, 145 metres long, six metres wide and four metres deep, was the idea of some entrepreneurs who, forming the Evelyn Tunnel Mining Company, saw in this looping river fringed with red- and manna gums an opportunity to profit by mining alluvial gold. The dream proved short-lived even by colonial standards; the company went broke after less than two years. The tunnel survives as a local curiosity, a useless piercing in the earth from which it is not clear lessons have been drawn. On hot days like the one described here, local families sunbathed on the stony beach near where the water gushed out of the tunnel to rejoin the river. A young couple mucked around in the froth with a pink inflatable.

The researchers to whom are assigned the random designations E and F in this report, both men of a certain age, as it might be said, were preoccupied that day with the concept of recording.

Researcher E, like A, above, kept himself busy recording but also not recording sounds. He wanted to ‘layer the landscape’, as he called it, through recording as many different sounds as he could tell apart. A filmmaker by trade and inclination, he had turned away from images for this one day at least. He wanted to recreate the soundscape as one could hear it with the naked ear, but which a camera or recording device could never replicate. ‘You can’t do it,’ he said, ‘not without a lot of meddling.’ Researcher E was a very practical person so it was credible that he had in fact tried a lot of meddling.

So here was another researcher attempting to reach a goal he considered impossible. Like the others, it seemed, he hoped that through failing he might discover something. ‘It’s like hunting or birdwatching,’ he said. ‘You’ve got to spend a while walking around to find where it is at its richest, the sound.  Then it becomes quite meditative. To listen and record at the same time. You start noticing a whole lot more things. You have to be still, not breathe too loudly. I like the recording part best. For others, that’s the annoying thing, that I’m quite happy not to ever do anything with it afterwards. I do all this recording but then I never even watch it back or listen to it. So actually I think it’s a good exercise to pretend you are recording.’

Researcher E wore headphones and held a sensitive microphone in one hand. Indeed, it wasn’t obvious whether he was recording or pretending to record.

‘I’ll tell you what,’ he continued, ‘the directional mic picks up on things. I freaked out for a minute because I could hear something crashing through the bush. I could have sworn there was a giant monitor lizard coming, but it was just some small bird.’

Meanwhile, Researcher F looked like a nineteenth-century colonial explorer—without of course meaning to—insofar as he carried his camera over his shoulder from place to place, attached to a large, extended tripod. He could have folded it up but he chose not to. Also he wore a floppy hat and shorts.

However, he didn’t talk like a nineteenth-century colonial explorer: ‘I think like a camera,’ he said. ‘Movement and light. So rather than subjects it is about finding things that…shimmer. If I am a charged coupling device, a photonic measuring device in a camera, what are the things that excite me? Bright lights probably do. But also the little constant movements of those leaves. The amount of changing light values going on, it’s like super excited, all that data. I’m thinking: if I were a camera what would I pay attention to? Rather than a human saying: look at that flower, or look at what my kids are doing… What might I care about?’

Sometimes he would set his tripod up with two legs on the ground and one leg on a picnic table. Then he would stand on the picnic table and frame a scene to film. The image he—or the camera—settled on, was an exquisitely framed scene of the blowy canopies of a line of distant trees above the far bank of the river, in relief against the sky, a scene of abstract movement that was surprisingly affecting. It looked like something to care about, even for a human.

‘The rule I have set is that I have to film each shot for exactly eight minutes. It’s like Michael Snow’s Wavelength or Godard’s nude just standing there for nine minutes. There’s something about the duration – at some point you stop wondering: is something going to happen? No, it’s just trees and sky. I frame it but then I stand by the camera like a sentinel for eight minutes. I’ve got nothing to do. I have decided that. But I’m not thinking, what do I do next or film next – no, I just have to wait for the camera now.’

Researcher F is a formalist. He likes these formal rules that shift his relation to the objects around him, removing himself from the driver’s seat, as it were, to make space for the objects to relate to each other; the charged coupling device of the camera getting intimate with the shimmering leaves. In this way he is like Researcher B who also waits for interactions to occur, making art as explicit partnership with nonhumans.

F doesn’t like stories. He prefers to think like a camera. He likes to set a timer and to have to wait. If he helped make a beautiful moving picture—and he did, something sublime—he was modest about his own role, saying only that it was ‘partly by getting that tree on edge of frame, partly about that patch of sky top right. I’m interested in the manna gums as a sort of horizon. Trees and trunks and leaves and sky.’

‘Which I always do,’ he added.

Trees and trunks and leaves and sky. Surrounding F, as he waited for the timer to go off.

Here in the report, as it tilts around another bend, we might wonder at its looping shape, and whether it might have benefited from some tunneling or dredging. We might wonder what would have happened if a fire had started that day, all of a sudden, immediately to the north, and researchers, school children and sunbathers had been forced to flee for their lives in terror, in doing so experiencing an uncanny version of the cataclysmic fate that must have become familiar to the area’s earlier inhabitants as strangers burnt through everything that had forever connected things, human and nonhuman. We might wonder why the narrator feels it is important to hear the story of each researcher, who only visited for one day, when so many earlier stories of this place are lost. We might wonder, too, about the word research itself, and how to reclaim its original meaning as an ‘act of searching closely’, from a Latin root word circare which meant ‘to go about, traverse or wander through.’ Because, as research in the Western tradition has become less about traversing or wandering through, it has become more about control and power. With all this in mind we might notice how, even though Pound Bend was chosen almost at random as the locus for the experiments described here, the living, peopled place itself continues to insist on speaking back.

Researcher G, seventh of the nine, was looking up at a dead tree. There was something about the dead tree: its wiriness and the deep red colours of the burnt bark. Another filmmaker, G had a philosophical and poetic bent. She made films without stories because, like F, she wasn’t interested in stories, more so in ideas. She made films about ‘empty’ places that were haunted.

On this day she was thinking about description. She wanted to let certain experiences unfold, such as the encounter with the dead tree, make recordings with her camera, and then think about ‘what sorts of languages emerge in describing what’s there in the frame and also in describing what my experience of being here is.’ As a kind of foil for what might be more familiar languages of description, G had been collecting the descriptive languages of meteorology, biology and geology.

Then, too, G spoke passionately about the philosophical ideas of Gilles Deleuze and Manuel deLanda; in particular, the concept of intensive properties. ‘An intensive property,’ she explained, ‘is one that is not divisible. Like temperature, or speed. If you have a litre of water at 90° you can divide the volume into two halves but the temperature won’t be divided.  Each half a litre won’t be 45°!’  Sitting under the dead tree, she went on: ‘Differences in intensive properties drive processes, so I’m looking at what sort of differences in intensities drive what sort of processes. And what sort of processes are these I’m playing with today, such as describing, recording, framing?’

These ideas were difficult to grasp quickly without having read the theories. Like many philosophical ideas it was easy for the layperson to dismiss them as absurd or pointless. But G was unapologetic: ‘You know, ideas excite me! I want to see how ideas from theory and philosophy can push how I practice. And how practice can really challenge or push back on philosophical ideas. An idea excites me,’ she said, ‘if it completely challenges, renews or transforms the way I see or engage with the world, while at the same time articulates exactly my experience of the world. That’s what great writing is to me as well. Someone articulating your experience but also making it feel completely new.’

Researcher H, last but one of the researchers, had noticed, while walking through the city streets each day from her home to the university, that she didn’t, in point of fact, ever notice anything—it was as if the space in between beginning and end had simply emptied out and she was ‘missing everything.’ At Pound Bend, she was standing close to a large eucalypt that had chunky black bark, filming the bark with her smart phone. ‘I film a video for one minute, watch it, list everything I notice within that video and then use that list to make a new set of videos.’

As it happened, on her first video that morning she had noticed: wispy cloud, a tree branch, blue sky, green (just green, the colour), wind gently rustling, leaves, shadows, pockets of light green, plane, chirping, leaf falling, diagonal line and ‘sharp’.

‘It’s continually expanding and it’s going to get very messy,’ she said cheerfully. ‘All the videos collected through this list would then each provide another list. But I like it because it makes you notice things. A lot of video practice is like: I have this preconceived idea about what this documentary is going to be about. Whereas this technique lends itself to the documentary being found through the environment and the filming technology itself because you’re kind of noticing that as well.’

Again, in conventional terms it was kind of crazy what she was doing, but it was also kind of not-crazy.  You could picture her back in the city on her daily walk from home to university, noticing now the in-between.

Finally, Researcher I. Like the others, I had fashioned a research protocol of sorts. His protocol was to find each of the other researchers and try to understand their protocol and why it mattered to them. I was interested in some kind of long view. I knew that a ‘posthumanist’ objection could be made to his protocol on the grounds that it privileged humans and their intentions, and I wondered why he had persisted with this choice. I wanted to record the delicate, uncertain attempts his fellow researchers were making to create artifacts that unsettled the nature of Nature; the spurious and loaded separation between human and nonhuman. I was very aware that the researchers and their ‘research’ could be made to look ridiculous, in a way that biologists or geologists collecting samples would not be. I wanted neither to glorify these artist-researchers nor to mock them but simply to report on their endeavours, trying to understand what they thought that they were up to.

One other thing of note happened that day to I. A magpie stopped him. The magpie stood firmly on a long low branch of a eucalypt tree. It was singing in the extravagant, ululating way of magpies, modulating up and down a musical scale of some kind, making a splendid racket. I had the bright idea of recording the magpie’s singing on his phone, and then, moreover, of playing it back to the magpie through the phone’s loudspeaker. How would the magpie react to hearing its own voice relayed? It listened. It thrust its nose out as if hearing a very interesting sound indeed, one that came from nowhere the magpie could quite identify. I felt that he was playing a game with the magpie, and perhaps offering a gift to the magpie, a gift facilitated by his access to human technologies of sound recording and replay, but he also felt that he was being cruel, deceiving the magpie by playing a trick on it. In the end, the magpie got sick of the game, or fed up with being tricked. It seemed after all to know quite well where the sound was coming from because as it flew off, it swooped down over him and his smart phone, letting him know it had its own powers and opinions.

Researchers A to I inclusive drove away in the late afternoon, headed back towards the city.

So now, we can be almost certain, the dead tree and the grass down by the river go about, while the river is traversing, like the wind that sends the leaves sometimes like rain. Researcher M, the magpie, wanders through.

Acknowledgments: this essay was made possible through the generosity and creativity of the posthumanities reading group of RMIT University’s non/fictionLab. It is dedicated to colleagues, Dan Binns, Hannah Brasier, Smiljana Glisovic, Sophie Langley, Rebecca Nadjowski, Toni Roberts and Paul Ritchard, and to the memory and ongoing gifts of Adrian Miles.