How can visual language productively infiltrate environmental debates?

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There is little doubt that documentary image-making has been instrumental in shedding light on the environmental crisis. Yet, the potential of abstract and even utopian imagery can be equally radical

Science clarifies, metaphor mystifies; a simplification of the sacred tenet established during the French Enlightenment. The notion that scientific progress can only triumph when divorced from the grasp of emotion, and the seductive spell of art, intuition and metaphor. A perspective, which further gained momentum in the aftermath of England’s Scientific Revolution and soon absorbed the humanistic zeitgeist of Europe. 

Anthropocentric at its core, the championing of scientific knowledge — knowledge from the head, not the heart — wiped out the respectability of theology and other forms of expression or thought deemed non-rational. The consequences of this shift are echoed in the modern West’s relationship to science and the humanities today: humanities departments remain largely underfunded and expecting to make a living as an artist skirts the edge of delusion. However, with the advent of AI, techno-expressivity and digital art, the conceptual division between cognition and emotion seems increasingly obsolete. Fluid unison now replaces stark binaries, nudging us closer to Donna Haraway’s prophecies of a blissful human-cyborg fusion. And, today, with the planet set ablaze and global civil wars impending, political and ecological action are no longer exclusive of imaginative utopia; they ache for it.

There is little doubt that documentary image-making has been instrumental in awakening the collective unconscious to the atrocity of environmental disasters. Paul Nicklen’s jarring shots of an emaciated polar bear crawling across iceless land has perhaps done more to ignite public mass-indignation than equally alarming, but considerably more cryptic, the United Nations’ Climate Reports. Yet, the potential of creative, abstract, and even utopian imagery can be equally radical. What, then, may we ask, is the role played by the creative visual language and non-documentary mediums amid the urgency of the climate crisis?

Field Sip VII © Honey Long and Prue Stent.

“In contrast to the traditional ways some texts convey information (from scientific publications to listicles about endangered species), there’s a plurality and vibrant immediacy afforded by a visual language that allows many realities to coexist and communicate at once,” say artists Nicolas Baird and Lee Pivnik of Berlin’s Institute of Queer Ecology (IQECO), whose artworks are the empathic results of research, communicating complex issues through multidisciplinary media such as film, dance, sculpture, and photography. “Environmentalism, the climate crisis, interspecies relationships; these are complex, multilayered knots that deserve focus and care as we navigate them together,” they continue.

Founded in 2017, the IQECO exists as a decentralised, collaborative organism employing research-based visual art not to reconcile two previously opposed facets of the Western psyche — reason and emotion — but, instead, to celebrate their similarities: “curiosity, imagination, symbolism, surprise […] there are so many,” says Baird. By overthrowing the hierarchical categories upon which our failing societal groundwork is laid, a future of queered commons, or interspecies solidarity, suddenly becomes thinkable. For the IQECO, queering is not a narrow post-woke buzzword, but a praxis of resistance sustained by radical, horizontal empathy towards every living cellular, human or animal organism.

Still from Metamorphosis, episode 3, Emergence, 2020 © the Institute of Queer Ecology and DIS.

In their recent film, Metamorphosis, the IQECO represented this blurry, bright vision of a queer utopia through the specific form of a gynandromorphic swallowtail butterfly, an exceptionally beautiful insect that simultaneously exhibits male and female patterning (especially evident in this species because of sexual dimorphism). Through CGI rendering, this insect is reanimated to give shape, metaphorically, to the world we want to see emerge from a process of holistic transformation.  If ‘climate change porn’ in the vein of melting glaciers and a flaming Amazon forest succeeds in pandering to the pathos, only the energising power of metaphor can act as a catalyst for hope. 

In the IQECO’s multiform practice, metaphorical distillations of queer and anti-speciesist theory are brought to life by the immersive power of 3D art, conceptual photography and video narration where cellular reality and speculative fantasy become indistinguishable. Without being active agents themselves, these imaginative visual catalysts can move pieces around, transforming them along the way, argues Baird. “Of course, sometimes ingredients are missing, or the timing isn’t right, or there’s a missing link in the chain, so the more catalysts we make, the better chances we have of making something meaningful and getting somewhere new.” Extolling hope without pragmatism in times of unprecedented crisis is fighting a losing battle, but Pivnik and Baird acknowledge this. “There’s no easy way out of the climate crisis and all its interconnected issues,” they concede. “It requires a colossal, global, and immediate effort—but hard work is always a little easier when you have a dream and something bright on the horizon.” Facing head-on the spectre of an unknown future is, no doubt, more fruitful for the hopeful than the disenchanted.

Still from Metamorphosis, episode 1, Grub Economics, 2020 © the Institute of Queer Ecology and DIS.

Beyond hope, visual language can be fertile ground for both heightened compassion and self-reflection. Attempting to heal our ecosystem’s man-inflicted wounds becomes an easier feat when we begin to see ourselves mirrored in it, and Australian photography duo Honey Long and Prue Stent have devoted the past decade to dissolving the lines between the human and the natural. Initially, their images strike as visual iterations of the ecofeminist precepts drawing a parallel between systemic oppression of the female body, and destructive exploitation of the environment — the female body is often central, seamlessly blending into the raw, majestic natural scenery of the artists’ native land. Their relationship to their environment is fractured, by virtue of familiar landscapes and echoes of ‘home’ being corrupted by a history of settler colonialism — the conflict is present in their work, albeit subconsciously. In their own words, “images and metaphors can acknowledge the intangible, the unknown or the subconscious better than science can.” 

Visually, their aesthetic riffs on the phrase ‘fingery eyes’ coined by theorist Eva Hayward, drawing from Haraway’s 2008 work When Species Meet. “Seeing with feeling,” they explain. “Imaginative visual language can defy the objective gaze, which seeks to impose reductive classifications onto things, thus limiting our understanding of them.” Long and Stent’s work plays with the relationship between the female body and nature itself while simultaneously trying to activate something in the viewer; something beyond those associations. “What happens when it becomes unclear where the human ends and the natural begins, and they become one unified entity?” they ask. The answer is, most likely, “utopia.”

Earth tissue © Honey Long and Prue Stent.
Mineral Growth © Honey Long and Prue Stent.
Field Sip VII © Honey Long and Prue Stent.

If philosophy is to be understood as a knowingly self-defeating enterprise, insofar as it is an attempt of the mind to understand itself, scientific knowledge can prove to be equally insufficient insofar as it struggles to pin down its motor: consciousness. The engine behind all conjecture and discovery as well as all violence and disaster, remains a scientific mystery, eclipsing the rudimentary sketches of human self-understanding. Where political or environmental fights governed by our (sure enough, vital) prefrontal cortex, the cerebral section responsible for ‘rational’ decisions, falls short. Perhaps the extra-logical, the imaginative, and the emotive, while far from self-sufficient, can lend a helping hand.

Learn more about the Institute of Queer Ecology (IQECO) here and Honey Long and Prue Stent here.