Category Archives: Reflections on Process

Pitfall in Mildura

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The first outcome of the project was Pitfall (An Opportunistic Cultural Survey) – premiered as a solo exhibition at Mildura Arts Centre, Victoria.

A pitfall is an unapparent source of trouble or danger; a hidden hazard: Today we all face, or will soon be facing ecological pitfalls of many kinds.

Pitfall, Mildura, 2013

‘Pitfall’ is a continually-evolving artwork built from multiple screens, a tabletop landscape mapped with projections, fibre optics, 3D spatial sound and infrared night imagery. It builds upon ideas, recordings and cross-disciplinary processes developed during my 2012-13 ANAT Synapse Art-Science residency, with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC), Australia’s largest private-sector conservation organisation. See the Reintroduction project pages.

SHOWINGS:
1: Pitfall, Mildura Art Centre, 199 Cureton Ave, Mildura, Victoria, Australia, 5th Sept-27th Oct, 2013. Opening 5th September at 7pm. {Coinciding with Mildura Palimpsest Site Specific Arts Biennial, Victoria}. CatalogueFront Page Headline!

Pitfall, Mildura, 2013

RATIONALE: During that process I was invited to join and work with a team of field ecologists on a broad scale ecological survey of Kalamurina Sanctuary – a vast AWC property located in the Simpson/Tirari Deserts of central Australia. During that month we conducted ‘pitfall surveying’ – a technique utilising a network of guiding fences and pitfall tubes sunk into the ground, designed for catching both day and night mammals, reptiles and invertebrates.

As we worked together, we also undertook further ‘opportunistic surveys’ of nearby birds, plants, animals and related phenomena. So why not then also undertake ‘opportunistic cultural surveys’? Why not ask the ecologists to also record ‘data’ about the cultural changes they perceived would be necessary to avert/avoid the ecological pitfalls looming ahead? The results of these ‘opportunistic cultural surveys’ were returned in paper, image and sample to me, and the ‘numbers’ were then ‘run’ through custom artistic processes.

This led to the envisaging of a computational model that now drives the entire art work – driven by moving ‘creatures’ – each of whom embody qualities of a particular ecologist’s responses around ‘pitfall avoidance’. These ‘creatures’ are suggested by animated imagery, infrared light and 3D sound, that ‘circulates’, and sometimes ‘collides’ with a representation of a pitfall trap line.

Pitfall, Mildura, 2013

Which of these ‘mammals’ in line for a fall will have the timely mix of ‘boldness’, ‘focus’ and ‘size’ to avoid the pitfalls ahead?

FURTHER BACKGROUND: The AWC have instigated radical approaches to conservation in order to stem the rapid decline of Australian small mammals across our landscapes, with species-focused recovery programs and the use of large-scale feral proof fencing techniques. An extensive use of scientific trapping, tagging, measuring and counting processes allows the AWC to demonstrate net gains. One frequently used technique involves the use of pitfall tube traps to catch small mammals and other invertebrates.

During a ‘ground truthing’ residency in Kalamurina sanctuary (North of Lake Eyre in SA) I began to reflect upon the cultural and ecological ideas of a ‘pitfall’ – as an unapparent source of trouble or danger; a hidden hazard. Indeed our very presence out there searching for rare and endangered species suggested we had both fallen into some form of trap, and yet believed/conceived some viable ways out. I was profoundly torn between concern, hope and fear for truly exquisite species in crisis, the astonishing almost gone .. and I, we, had barely even heard of them.

This love, loss and lack inspired me to devise and conduct a playful opportunistic ‘survey’ of my own for the tightly-knit scientific team, working together for a short time at that location. As the surveys were undertaken and returned to me I then ‘ran the numbers’ through my own custom artistic processes – in order to conceive ‘Pitfall’ – an artwork which references the rich diversity of ideas contributed by this highly focused group of scientists on some very big, and very little, picture topics. Pitfall is both heartfelt and wide ranging – and yet it presents a very simple, potent message straight from the conservation ‘coal face’ for species past, present and future (including our own).

TEAM: Keith Armstrong (Artistic director), Luke Lickfold (Composition and Control Systems) and Rob Henderson (Design). Special thanks to Matt Hayward, Shauna Chadlowe, Atticus Fleming, Joe Stephens and the numerous AWC staffers who have generously contributed. Special thanks at Kalamurina go to Joss, Trish, Flic, Leah, Keith B, Rachel, Amy, Tony, Mark and Tess.

KEY PARTNERS:
Australian Network For Art and Technology Synapse Art Science Residency Program , Australian Wildlife Conservancy, QUT Creative Industries, QUT Interaction and Visual Design, MAAP Media Bank, Embodiedmedia and others tbc.

The Pitfall Exhibition

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PITFALL

Pitfall is a new media installation created in light, media, object, text and multi channel sound. It builds upon ideas and cross disciplinary processes developed during a recent ANAT Synapse Art Science residency in collaboration with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy.

The AWC have instigated radical approaches to conservation in order to stem the rapid decline of Australian small mammals across our landscapes, with species-focused recovery programs and the use of large-scale feral proof fencing techniques. An extensive use of scientific trapping, tagging, measuring and counting processes allows the AWC to demonstrate net gains. One frequently used technique involves the use of pitfall tube traps to catch small mammals and other invertebrates.

During a ‘ground truthing’ residency in Kalamurina sanctuary (North of Lake Eyre in SA) I began to reflect upon the cultural and ecological ideas of a ‘pitfall’ – as an unapparent source of trouble or danger; a hidden hazard. Indeed our very presence out there searching for rare and endangered species suggested we had both fallen into some form of trap, and yet believed/conceived some viable ways out. I was profoundly torn between concern, hope and fear for truly exquisite species in crisis, the astonishing almost gone .. and I, we, had barely even heard of them.

This love, loss and lack inspired me to devise and conduct a playful ‘survey’ of my own for the tightly-knit scientific team, working together for a short time at that location. I devised ‘Pitfalls, An Opportunistic Cultural Survey’. As the surveys were undertaken and returned to me I then ‘ran the numbers’ through my own custom artistic processes – in order to conceive Pitfall, an artwork which references the rich diversity of ideas contributed by this highly focused group of scientists on some very big, and very little, picture topics. Pitfall is both heartfelt and wide ranging – and yet it presents a very simple, potent message straight from the conservation ‘coal face’ for species past, present and future (including our own).

Residency 4 – Scotia NSW

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Filed under Reflections on Process, Residency 4: Scotia NSW

As the weather heats up to 40 + in the day – I find the pleasure of re-immersion into the AWC sanctuary residency process that I have been now working on over the past year – now into the last third of the 16 weeks allotted I am at Scotia Wildlife Sanctuary in NSW – headquarters of the organisation in this region and long known for its exceptional successes in the fencing of feral proof very large scale areas.

Bridle Nailtailed Wallabies - no where else on this continent will you see this many

Dropping in here, two and half hours as is it is from Mildura (Which in itself seems a long way from my home town of Brisbane) its a 2.5 hour drive through the red dirt to the sanctuary gates. As with other residencies I will spend my time both with the scientists in the field (the primary modality of operation here and this time pitfall surveying again) and also continue to develop the ideas and aspirations of the residency in this rich and warmly welcoming environment.

Knob tailed gecko (Nephurus Levis) with the eyes to prove it, a morning catch

Many will know that the ANAT Synapse program aims to cement long term sustainable partnerships, and as such is less focused on specific outcomes in the here and now – being rather focused upon building trust, process and languages. Its that level of understanding through immersion and some hard, dirty, long work on the ground that brings your senses into line with the concepts and aspirations of these dedicated ecological travelers – thoroughly shifting my position from one of simply knowing through learning to acting .. a quite different register.

I catch a drive in from Mildura with project collaborator – senior scientist for the SW region Matt Hayward. Matt himself answers to the organisations’ chief scientist Sarah Legge who is based in the Kimberley and he is, in collaboration, responsible for setting the direction, goals and on ground programs for the sanctuaries I have been focusing on here in the SW- including Yookamurra, Scotia, Kalamurina and Buckaringa. Conversation ranges broadly across the many issues on the table and its an excellent opportunity to further my understanding of the focus and thrust of operations .. I report back on the objectives I had set for the residency – many of which are achieved and others of which are in process. Sat in the dining room at Scotia (with scientists, volunteers and students moving about in the afternoon’s slowly waning heat) we are able to track together through some of the software programs and processes that Matt deploys – all of which contributes to the ARC GIS database that tracks every measurable angle and aspect of this uniquely science led process.

Independently Stunning

We thumb through the metrics documents, look at probabilities and issues of measurement, and examine the successes (eg feral animal exclusion from the fenced enclosures and bridle nail-tail wallaby breeding) and a range of other objectives on the table to be met. It becomes clearer to me that the data itself records a critical story – warts and all, of what it takes to make headway in a time of extinction crises. It fascinates me as an artist how much remains unsaid in these graphs. We speak about different ways of knowing  – and how the numbers might drive an emotive, maybe even sensorial response in the trained scientist group, that would be hard to translate for the layperson  – and I wonder for someone who’d never visited these places and been surrounded by these astounding creatures and learnt these ways – how that might translate into the actions (diverse as they are) that need collectively be taken.

Art Science work has a central thread these days of promoting the place of arts’ capacity in influencing science and vice versa. There is a sense that considering an artist’ role as simply representing the ‘data’ in a more publically palatable form misses an integrative opportunity. Whilst there is no doubt in my mind that all and every strategy needs to be brought to bear upon the scenario (representations being one) – this question of placement and purpose of what we are aiming for continually backgrounds the conversation Mat and I develop. I run through my perceptions of how things appear to work and the philosophical directions – and Matt corrects, adds or augments this as a kind of positioning paper emerges. I revel in the fact that a vision here is way further than the 5 or 10 years most other organisations can muster – this place necessarily speaks to a century or two ahead .. we track over the different practical and thought strategies different people (here and of course more generally) pursue – the need of donor retention is paramount for a private organisation and those needs are of an arguably different time scale than those of the ‘ground truthing’ science team – but they come together in the always complex ground where philosophies of (a form of necessary) rationalism and conservation find dialogue. Its a trusim that different narratives appeal to different parties – but the solid intention is the line of sight here ( better kind of Australia),  languages aside, is the critical factor at days end.

And on that count we are in lockstep – artist and scientist with similar ultimate motivation. By implication then the AWCs radical direct action project is being developed  in the assumption that a profound cultural shift (leading to behaviour change in terms of land management and valuation of biological assets) will emerge in the future. This seems fertile and suggests similarly radical cultural approaches are necessary. Ecological survival depends upon cultural change underpinned by a shift in the Australian collective imaginary.  This suggests an area of cultural research  relevant to the humanities/creative industries. Arguably this is where a futrure targeted research project in new forms of cultural practice have the potential to contribute – working in the intersections between science-based action, data and public perception.This approach feasibly promises a level of understanding that, with the appropriate rigour and candour  has the capacity to shift thinking all round. We are excited and expand ideas together.

Pitfall bucket, Scotia Sanctuary, NSW

I suggest that Ecological data ‘read’ alone by the layperson, without  direct experience, typically makes much less impact on the  SENSES, and can often fail to convey the MULTI-LAYERED COMPLEXITY of ecologies under reparation. Put simply, everyone is different!  HOWEVER the data clearly does tell a very extraordinary part of the ‘story’, and thus, used in concert with other media and sensory experiences may possess enhanced power for encouraging shifts towards public action. (Initially in terms of encouraging public support but I think also more broadly that it offers a modality of thinking that translates into the much broader cultural dilemmas that would ultimately stymie  very long term visions of an ecologically sounder Australia if left unchecked).  The goal must be therefore be to enhance both cultural and biological diversity in ways that acknowledge and negotiate human psychology as well. I feel there is a place we can work together.

We begin to tease out some more concrete research questions – for example – one possibility is .. What are the inherent potentials within the current conservation DATA, in concert with the broader reflections of the science team to tell a rich, multi-sensory story about mammal conservation – with the tangible potential to encourage directive action – when re-purposed through creative practice.

The sun is setting, the temperatures hover in the low 30s and red dirt caked scientists and and managers come and go about their daily business of ground truthing ..

For me – its three days of trapping (reptiles, invertebrates and small mammals) where I join the team as an equal, albeit with less latin name skill-sets, and then to finish the week, we look forward to a visit from Mildura Gallery director Heather Lee – to allow her to cite operations here – and speak about an exhibition I will stage at her gallery to close the residency in late 2013. Positive ..

a-feral-cat-ate-my-bilbies (Global Mail Article)

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A Feral Cat Ate My Bilbies – A Radical Approach as We Daily Loose Australian Wildlife to Feral Cats and Foxes

AWC on google earth

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google tour of AWC sanctuaries

Opportunistic Cultural Survey Results

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Filed under Reflections on Process, Residency 3: Kalamurina SA, Uncategorized

As per the prior posts – After a bit of thinking how I could best stimulate some creative thinking around biodiversity and conservation that would suit the scientific team, I alighted on asking everyone to engage in an opportunistic ‘cultural survey’ using a format I designed as we workd through our scientific surveys in the desert sites each day .. playfully paralleling the\at survey work we were all doing together – it was really great that I ultimately got a series of ‘results’ and ‘evidence’ from everyone over the next few days as ppl thought it through and filled in ideas in the down times – and many of the responses were amazing and considered – in some cases several pages of thinking, and people provided drawings, photos, ideas, quotes, songs, samples (e.g. simple but clear ideas such a vial of sand (in an empty DNA container) , an ’empty’ bird survey etc).

Rare and endangered Woma Python

One lunchtime we then got back together to discuss and share our ideas – and I gave a bit of reflective analysis of what I saw coming out of the team’s ideas (as you would imagine there was a lot of synergistic thinking around the problems – but naturally we are all searching for new and better ways to deal with the cultural issues of ‘raising awareness’ generally – that we all recognised underpins long time strategies – a simple expression that when analysed becomes a minefield of human psychology, habits and perceptions – as we all well know :

Rare and endangered Mulgara - a carnivorous marsupial - an amazing catch!

For me, and I think the team judging by their responses: the AWCs programs and vision represents the ability to imagine (or is it re-imagine) a different set of human – biological relations over the long time – but we all agreed that over that long time we need to bring human culture with us somehow – so that what the AWC and others are doing right now, today, becomes a recognised essential part of what we do as a society. (a kind of ‘common sense if you will). Several people said they enjoyed the chance to think more about the deeper ‘whys’ of heir work too – which was really great. This is the kind of art-science synergy Ive been searching for – and now sits as a beginning of a series of more detailed dialogues which I will now conduct with each of the respondents – a place where I can ask the scientists to be creatives within their own contexts – and then draw them out beyond – to make the synthesis across board rather than simply my interpretation or their statement.

Desert skies - bore hole camp - under moonlight

And then I spoke about how I hoped to use the materials – or inspirations arising from them in future works in MIldura, Sydney and Melbourne and hopefully beyond. I also explained I was doing a conference presentation in Beijing next month about my experiences so far : alongside showing the earlier work ‘Finitude(Mallee:Time)) – in Chinese mega-show style the exhibition (And related academic conference) event has about 200 artists and scientists taking part – its called “Information, Ecology, Wisdom” : The 3rd Art and Science International Exhibition and Symposium, Beijing, China at the National Museum of Science and Technology. Nov1-30th 2012 .

Woma Python coming your way!

I think that the processes we shared also gave some of the scientists and vollies (all of whom were very high calibre (eg an ex leader of the Antarctic program at Macquarie Island and with a wealth of knowledge) a chance to think laterally about the biodiversity crisis and ways in which we might all think of engaging public perception and culture. Whilst there was some hesitations initially about the different ways of phrasing questions in the creative research process, everyone got it really well!

Back in ADL now en route to Brisbane.. Twas a brilliant trip at AWC Kalamurina – long days – lots of holes dug! Great people – brilliant skies – and finally, after a billion long haired rats had filled our traps – the single Mulgara of the trip appeared in our trap 1 on the last morning of the last day! Keith B (K1), our nortmally reserved group team leader that day was beaming! – and then, to top it, another scientist caught an endangered Woma Python too which i understand is a rare find! – celebrations all round !

Bearded dragon risks clouds of black kites and wedgetails for an afternoon nao

Getting Into the Process

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With the AWC I describe my role as embedded – by which I mean – I am here as a working team member as well as artist – I now have an expanding range of animal, insect and lizard handling, trapping and general building skills and camera trapping skills – which like any other crew member Im expected to use. In essence there is a survey to do and everyone who comes out to this remote spot is crew – this being the third year I believe that they have spent trying to determine what moves through this extraordinarily large property (1.6 million acres) :

I join teams each day – leaving before dawn to go out and check the traps that have been set (to pick up the creatures of the night – premominantly this season the long haired rat and a range of insects and geckos. My roles have included emptying the pitfall traps (tubes in the ground at the end of long fence runs – into which the animals and insects and lizards fall to be picked up checked, recored and released). We also trap in funnel traps – which landed us a decent sized snake – and we also check for mammals in elliot and cage traps. We do the same in the evening to pick up creatures of the day – in this case predominantly lizards and insects – these have been in diverse country including dunes, claypans, gibber plains and riverine woodlands. We work in three day rotations – which include the setting up of the sites – requiring digging, building and so forth – all team work – often in the heat of the day (its moved between 20 degres and 38 with clear skies, dust storms and lightning strikes since arrival .. ) ts hard work at times – but most often a lot of time is spent in the 4WD trips to get places – as the country is rugged and the roads are in many places really more rough tracks.

What this all creates is a very close culture – a tight community of scientists and researchers and the station managers – all working together to ensure logistics and data get collected. Each night the database is filled with the information from the days sheets – there are things as diverse as lizard lengths, mammal foot sizes, bird surveys, vegetation surveys, numbers of insects (beetles/bugs/scutigera, millipedes … caught in the pitfalls). Dingoes patrol the night and the morning and camera traps also reveal feral cats and foxes as well as the rabbit. All have to be controlled.

And all along the way I get chance to talk to everyone and progressively learn more about the cultures of ecological science – how people think their way through problems, why they make the decisions they do, what and where their sense of the big picture is: where the pervasive culture of observance, measurement, counting, careful scanning the landscape, observation and process (setup, establish, packdown move on) fits into their own philosophical positions.

Some history of the residency

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I was looking through the emails – remembering how this came about – the development and the experiences ..

The residency had been first mooted in 2009 on a visit to Scotia Sanctuary – as an interested donor – Scotia manager Joe encouraged and advocated – and through working as a volunteer I was able to show my willingness to both research my project and engage deeply in the work and working life of the filed ecology teams with whom I chose to spend my 16 weeks. Strongly Supported by Shauna in central office and senior ecologist Matt Hayward who I had serednipitously been able to introduce to my work in Midura – the project unfurled .. In this letter to Shauna I unfurled the ideas – somewhat idealistically – but in essence the project remains tre to these first ideas..

Hi Shauna

It was good to speak to you the other day about the proposed project that I have spoken about with Joe at Scotia.  I look forward to the information you were collecting up for me and also results of converstaions that you were planning with some of the people in your organisation.

Ive been spending a bit of time looking through the supporters magazine to look again at some of the great work that you are doing – clearly there are so many important projects in train and of course the network of reserves is stunning – as an artist Im always drawn back to that idea of mobilising culture/hearts and minds alongside and in step with the mobilisation of science (again clearly your strength) is my realistic contribution.

The question that preoccupies me as both an artist and a passionate environmentalist is how to make the cultural leap from ‘knowing’ (the facts tell us there is a massive problem)  to ‘learning’ from that information (In general we dont act in a way that in anyway acknowledges the weight of the facts we are given).

 I think these are the challenges that cultural practitioners face and where we can co partner with scientists who have the data but may in some (I stress not all :) ) cases have less experience in creative ways to get the core concepts they are finding across to the general populace.

It may be that more data on its own is not enough – broadly we seem not to be getting through to them (ie the general populace) to a point where they either feel empowered to act or even, more profoundly, to emotionally and intellectually connect that which is being achieved at places like Scotia with their own sense of’ well being’.

So for me any future project would probably have a number of general aims

1: Raising awareness that the issues AWC face – and are tackling intelligently and methodically – are universal – what we lose now is both an ‘experience deficit’ for future generations  (something we need to make the the GP acknowledge and care about)  – and ultimately something that will profoundly affect our health and wellbeing (mental and biophysical factors we typically care about more than things that clearly seem abstract to some, esp in cities, – eg  mammal biodiversity). 

2: Theming some kind of experiential work around the extraordinary experience of being in a biodiverse location such as Scotia – its often not enough to sit down with someone and tell them the facts – they need to experience something for themselves (either directly as I have albeit briefly there, or more realistically through other artistic approaches) –  and use  that as the springboard.

3: Thinking about how such work can ‘live through time’ so that its impact can contribute  to the longterm efforts of the kind of work AWC excels at. 

This underlines the importance that with everything we do we must better think ‘in and through’ time – just as you factor time/future planning into your conservation management decisions at the AWC – so must we all too in our daily lives – so that we can conserve/give back to our collective futures – rather than continually taking away from them. The ecological connections between remote sanctuaries such as yours and the concerns of urban and regional Australians needs to be somehow made clear!

So ..

What that means initially is two fold – As Joe knows –  Id like to come out this year again to Scotia soon – Im already working on an existing interactive installation project called Finitude (Mallee:Time) (I typically work in new media forms)  themed as you might expect from the title by the mallee – and Id like to spend some time at Scotia collecting sound and image and idea for that (That work will be shown in Mildura in September)

At that stage Id both of course pay any costs and also Id like to volunteer some labour too (maybe the mammal survey in May) – and through working with the scientists and people on the ground talk through some possibilities – in short Id like to do some of my own research which I will of course self fund –  but also be useful to the ground crew there – the more I experience the more I can understand how I might contribute.  Anyone else I could speak to about this in the AWC would also be helpful.

Once a clearer idea emerges – I can at my end then apply both for art-science style funding from Federal arts bodies – or through my part time role as a senior research fellow at QUT Creative Industries I could also apply feasibly for an ARC Linkage – which we cultural pratitioners (Working as artist-researchers) are now eligible for.  In these cases – working in partnership with a respected organisation like your own would I think really attract the funders – they like to see arts money being applied into ‘real world’ situations.

Ok – well let me know if this makes sense .. I hope to hear from you shortly :)

Best

Keith

‘Lost World’

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As part of this  residency – I one day hope to get over to work with the scientists to some of the properties they hold in the Kimberlies – if you want to see something inspirational, stunning and also the heart wrenching story of Australia’s shattered mammal ecology – watch this TV program excerpt:
http://au.news.yahoo.com/sunday-night/video/watch/30123118

What can we do? Support the AWC and other such organisations .. but more importantly – integrate ecological thinking and action into the very fabric of every decision we make as a nation – nothing less is going to work. Think past the paucity of our politicians and the thin news media. Direct creative energy and thinking.

The AWC Artesian Range Proprerty, Kimberley, Australia http://www.australianwildlife.org/ (Image courtesy AWC)

AWC North Heads Video: Reflections on Arts-Science

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[iframe src=”http://player.vimeo.com/video/47432603″ width=”100%” height=”480″]