LANDSCAPE SPRAWL – AN ARTISTIC RESPONSE TO LIVING IN THE ANTHROPOCENE
PhD Dissertation (2014) / Foreword

 

 “…geologist told us that we are now in the Anthropocene… that what human beings did to what used to be called nature is so tremendous that we have entered a new geological time.”[i]

(Krasny,[ii] 2/2013)

 

In the 2013 documentary Expedition to the End of the World,[iii] a three-masted schooner full of artists, scientists and ambitions compared to which, both Noah or Columbus leave much to be desired, leaves for the end of the world – the rapidly melting ice masses of North-East Greenland – on an epic journey where the brave sailors get acquainted with imaginary tent sites, polar bear nightmares and whole new species. But the meeting with the new, unknown regions of our world opens up a number of issues of basic, existential character for the crew.[iv] Geologist Minik Rosing,[v] who leads the expedition, explains:

“Instead of having a research project which has a clearly defined research purpose or dissemination purpose, or some other goal or, it’s a project that begins with the opportunity and sees what comes out of it.”[vi]

(Rosing, 2013)

In the documentary, we follow how the different crewmembers find their way into their respective research areas and artistic practices, meanwhile floating through the endless landscape. Time is slow; occasional forces of nature momentarily stop it completely. There is a boom box playing Metallica out in the landscape, small colour sketches of mountains and conversations about the essence of life, differences between art and science and how it once was connected.

The documentary gave me words for the underlying question in this PhD: the approach being explorative, seeking to reach people (laymen, researchers) regarding the role of landscape in present ecological crises, rather than whether it is visual art, landscape architecture or something else. It is an expedition into the urban area anchored in a certain way of thinking and acting, my artistic practice.

Before entering the urban area in which this research is carried out, it seems relevant to take a detour to visit an underlying question that has kept returning throughout this research: the role of spending time in a certain context and exchange between different disciplines.

The documentary reminded me of a journey I took over ten years ago to Greenland, having applied for a residency in South-West Greenland. I argued in my application that there was something for me to find there, a “certain tone” in the landscape that somehow would be a beneficial experience in relation to my artistic practice. I went there in March 2002 with the purpose of following what was to come instead of having defined a certain thing that was to happen.

After a few weeks there, I found a piece of cryolite[vii] in a tourist shop. The stone was white as snow and porous in a way that made it possible to shape using a rasp. The process of a traditional sculptor’s work started, and during the next months, the artwork Sculptures Resembling Snowballs (2002) was made. During these months I worked within the landscape. In the daytime it was possible to sit outside and sculpt/carve the stones so they became perfect – perfect in the sense that they could lie in the snow without being visually recognized as anything other than snowballs – and tactile, so if one were to pick them up, they would fit perfectly into one’s hand. Yet there would be this moment when one would experience something totally different than expected, and maybe actually consider both the concept of sculpture and the concept of snowballs in slightly different or even in new ways.

This process of making snowballs in this white landscape was also a perfect setting due to both experiencing and considering whether there actually was a “certain tone” in the landscape and what this was all about. The openness towards exposing what I was doing and bringing the atelier into the landscape opened a new layer of the landscape as well: people.

This resulted in these conversations and reflections, often about the motive chosen: Why carve snowballs? Why not carve figures, something people would be able to recognize? Yet the same people who asked these questions in conversation acknowledged that the sculptures actually looked precisely like something recognizable: snowballs. It also led to conversations about not really experiencing one’s everyday landscape.

What this being present in the landscape revealed was, besides the beauty, tending the idea of the sublime, a narrowness that in some sense seemed claustrophobic. This was not a perspective presented by others; rather, it was revealed through spending a lot of time in the landscape, experiencing cities as islands in this landscape. The experience of narrowness never took anything away from the experiences of sublime beauty; rather, it revealed how layers of places often are discovered when one spends time in them.

In 2011 an opportunity to explore how the dispersed city can be combined with better environmental sustainability and the role that landscape can play in this regard became a possibility.[viii]

Anchored in a practice of using works of art to create reflection and poetic moments,[ix] with the PhD I sought from the beginning to transform specific urban sites and discuss what knowledge there is to gain in this approach in relation to landscape and its role in the urban area. I do so through a critical practice based on a specific conceptual art way of thinking and acting in response to the problematic of today’s urban area, where, embedded in the transformation of a certain site, both the hands-on scale and the urbanism scale can be found.[x]

It is rarely questioned that we from the urbanism scale are able to contribute knowledge about the hands-on scale. This research position is really about the opposite: how the hands-on scale can contribute knowledge to the urbanism scale, perhaps even affect it. It is about tagging the city with other kinds of spaces that intervene in the existing urban structure and, through even small displacements, alter new ideas that displace existing paradigms and promote new ways of imagining possible futures.

From the beginning, the PhD was defined in a way where the time spent at various sites, transforming them, in some cases maintaining them, being present for whatever discussions might occur, as well as reflecting upon the work as one part. The other part to find ways to enable the transformation of the certain sites to be experienced outside the transformed sites. The dissertation you are reading now contains diaries, films, photographs and a transcription of a seminar.

In this PhD the making of landscape is linked to finding answers and questions about the research area when working directly in the urban area, and about revealing hidden layers and connections by working directly at certain sites. It is also about sharing these answers and questions directly in the context in which they arise.

In the research, rather than striving for a position as someone coming with answers, I have deliberately chosen to put forward questions, even questions that I see no solution to. This perspective has in many ways defined the choices made in this research, the choices of how to unfold the experiences and observations related to the transformations of urban sites, as well as what tone to adopt in this writing. Rather than claiming objectivity by taking the position of an observer, I have deliberately chosen to take a position where the research builds on the subjective approach of an insider, a reflective one.

The metaphor of an expedition somehow captures how this research has been carried out. This is especially so regarding how this certain expedition, Expedition to the End of the World, was defined, as expressed by Minik Rosing. Landscape sprawl – an artistic response to living in the Anthropocene is an expedition into the urban area, more specifically Mid-Jutland, Denmark, where I presently live and work, but in essence, this context is similar to situations all over Europe. It is anchored in the transformation of certain sites, sites that were found during the expedition. It is also an expedition where the crew and the different discourses were found during the expedition. In these terms, the crew was expanded in ways where people (laymen) became part of the expedition.

The research is about being present and explorative. It is about specific questions and exchanges between different disciplines and spheres; it is about leaving spaces for uncertainties,[xi] about things having parallels without being spelled out. It is about what was done during the research and how this affected the research, about questions becoming a landscape and garden and changing the physical reality, about images and displacement. It is an artistic response to living in the Anthropocene.




[i] The quote is from the seminar Urban Agriculture: Edible Estates and the Mega Cities of Tomorrow (2013), organized as part of this PhD project. The Anthropocene is not a formally defined geological unit within the geological time scale. A proposal to formalise the Anthropocene is being developed by the Anthropocene Working Group for consideration by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, with a current target date of 2016. Available at (18 September 2014): http://quaternary.stratigraphy.org/workinggroups/anthropocene/

[ii] Elke Krasny (1965) is an Austrian curator, project-based artist and writer. Krasny is a senior lecturer at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Her work focuses on architecture as a cultural practice, urban transformation and socially engaged urban curating within a critical history of ideas. See Hands-on Urbanism (2012) p. 351.

[iii] Documentary: Expedition to the End of the World (2013). Haslund Film. Director: Daniel Dencik. Producer: Michael Haslund-Christensen. Available at (18 September 2014): http://expeditionthemovie.dk/gallery/film

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Minik Rosing (1957), Greenlandic geologist and professor of geology at the University of Copenhagen. Available at (7 October 2014): http://expeditionthemovie.dk/participants

[vi] Geologist Minik Rosing: Expedition to the End of the World, Dokumania DR2, 17 December 2013.

[vii] Cryolite is a mineral identified with a once-large deposit in western Greenland depleted by 1987. The name is derived from the Greek words cryò = chill, and lithòs = stone. The Greenlandic people have known cryolite for a very long time, and they used the heavy and soft mineral for weights in their fishing gear and mixed it in snuff tobacco. Exported cryolite was mainly used as a catalyst in the production of aluminium. Following the closure of the mine in Ivittuut, synthetic cryolite was used in aluminium production. Available at (28 September 2014): http://www.denstoredanske.dk/It,_teknik_og_naturvidenskab/Geologi_og_kartografi/Mineraler/kryolit

[viii] In my PhD application, I use the term the limitless city instead of the dispersed city because it enables me to set up a strategy of a countermovement instead of discussing landscape from a defensive position.

[ix] I use the term poetic moment to describe a certain moment where a person experiences that something familiar can be done differently, or something that was thought of as impossible suddenly is experienced as a possibility. Poetic is, rather than linked to an actual work, a “moment” that can be caused when experiencing a work.

[x]Hands-on scale and urbanism scale: Australian Professor Sue Anne Ware (year of birth added when found, otherwise left out) introduced the terms in connection to my work at the Graduate Research Conference (Ghent, 18–20 November 2011). Though it can be argued to be an odd (even wrong) constellation of words to use scale and hands-on and urbanism in this way, it is what I find covers the approach the most.

[xi] “muf” is an all-women art and architecture practice working in public space founded in 1994. In their book This Is What We Do – A Muf Manual (2001) p. 213, they write: “In English there is a phrase, ‘room for doubt,’ meaning that there are some questions that do not have a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ answer and that there is a space of doubt, or questioning. I think for us success can be measured in the confidence we have not to give a simple answer but to give space for that uncertainty.”

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