I use an installation-based art practice to explore what female subjectivity is in the context of post-humanism and the ecological crisis. With this research, I aim to test whether it is possible to reconcile the dislocation between humans and nature, using geology as a visual metaphor to playfully extract and reconstitute organic matter as an artistic process. Can the destabilisation of earthly matter, using digital technology, generate new ways of thinking about how we synthesise with the natural environment in the context of capitalism and the resulting climate crisis? Using the language of extraction and reclamation in the place of the disused quarry, I seek to reveal ways of subverting harmful practices, in order to further understand female subjectivity in place.
Entangled Bodies, Pixellated Rocks
As part of this research I undertook a series of field visits to a small quarry situated on private land, developing an embodied connection with the site and its inhabitants over a two year period. Using photogrammetry as a technological method, a process developed on-site, works to deconstruct and reconstitute digital images of the disused quarry in to a 3D virtual model and, through experimentation, resulting artworks. The materiality of the rock and its inhabitants are digitally ‘mined’ and reconstituted using 3D modelling software, forming a process of metaphorical destabilisation in order to construct a liquid, skin-like form that can then be virtually traversed, permeated and manipulated as an artefact. Playful experimentation has been central to these in-practice methods, and have involved layering imagery with spoken word as part of an intuitive, exploratory editing process.
Using technology, the method seeks to mirror extractive methods as a way to deconstruct aspects of extractive capitalism. A fluidity of matter is reformed to generate new insights in relation to how, as agents of change, the subjects in this practice can be placed back in to the world as ethically synthesised, techno-organic participants. Building upon Donna Haraway’s posthuman techno-body, which “offers feminism an alternative to male-dominated systems… that are ‘centred upon traditions of capitalism… and… of the appropriation of nature as ‘resource’ for the production of culture” 1, I construct a context in which to reconnect human and non-human bodily matter in a way that repositions the once separate human subject as part of a rhizomatic network of symbiotic organisms. This is supported by ethically focused technological advancements and creative imagination. Creating a virtual representation that is, through its construction, topologically bound to the quarry site I frequent and occupy intimately, generates a paradox — a virtual form grounded in the actual through the embodied experience of place and imagination. 2
Primarily focusing on female subjectivities, and how to navigate the complexities and problems that this term opens, the metaphorical destabilisation of material is used to recategorise notions of subjectivity within a posthuman context, as part of a wider dialogue around identity politics in the context of an ecological crisis. As a feminist, I have used this research method to locate a position through the aggregate of material gathered and formulated in practice. Starting with the site and its cartographical representations, I initially sought to understand the quarry’s origins and how the land has been used over time, with an intention of reclaiming the violence of the landscape, using that action as a metaphor for digging through — de-structuring or dismantling — female suffrage and the exploitation of human and non-human bodies under the forces of extractive capitalism more broadly.
I researched historical and contemporary maps of the site, searching for clues regarding its history, noticing how the quarry occupies its surroundings as an absence. This becomes a process of re-mapping as a form of de-mapping, that is, un-ravelling cartographies and the inherent issues that come with it, in terms of their role in colonising and privatising the commons. This land once formed part of Hassop Hall Estate, and before that, Chatsworth Estate. The gritstone that was extracted from the site is categorised as Chatsworth Gritstone, although it is not considered high-quality and was likely to have been quarried to construct local infrastructure and farm buildings. The land now belongs to private owners, a wedge of land flanked by Chatsworth Estate and the Peak District National Park. The quarry is protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
My practice-based research was strengthened and grounded by repeated site visits, which took place throughout the Covid-19 pandemic when lockdowns eased and I was permitted to travel. I visited through different seasons, which transformed the surface of the quarry bottom from a waterlogged pool of engorged moss to a vibrant green springy mat of gametophytes that gently supported the weight of my body as I lay with them in the sun. I was sheltered by the quarry, and held by a lining of polytrichum commune moss that had over time reclaimed the disturbed ground. It was womb-like in form, and I found myself becoming materially bound to it with each visit. It is significant to mention that I first encountered the quarry when I was 8 months pregnant. The prenatal relation I had with my daughter — an identity-shifting liquid encounter with bodily enmeshment — initiated a new understanding of entangled becoming. Thus, a research project that initially sought to clarify the female subject position developed in to an investigation of a posthuman multiplicity of female subject position-relations, as explored through the narrative.
When travel restrictions were imposed, I began visiting the site virtually using Google Earth, circling around the site like a bird and filming and editing this virtual experience. I was captivated with this technological experience, which enabled one to sink through the map and seemingly through the surface of the Earth weightlessly, described by Hito Steyerl as a “condition of groundlessness”.3 This loss of boundaries creates a space in which virtual bodies collide and becomes enmeshed with the imagined skin of the earth. This virtually-led sensation-by-proxy enabled me to meaningfully entangle a cognitive extension of my human body with the digital materiality of nature — albeit the quarry as it was on the 28th September 2011, when the images were taken by a passing satellite. Rendered ten years prior to the existence of the current generation of moss covering the exposed rock, these ancestrally charged pixels suddenly enabled a form of time travel. Like the light of an already dead star piercing the night sky, this historical document of place became a material archive of what once-was, that has resulted in the what-is-now. This ability to time travel is explored beautifully in Isabel Waidner’s Sterling Karat Gold (2021), where her characters move through space and time using Google Street View.4
I began stretching and distorting images of the quarry, creating amorphous forms that floated in a void of digital space. This process was also trialed in earlier testing, so that distortions of my own body were superimposed in to desert landscapes as a way to disrupt cultural representations of women — specifically Hollywood cinema — who used the deserts as a context to construct negative and limiting tropes of womanhood. The resulting aesthetic qualities were exciting — animated and otherworldly quarried landscapes warped and morphed weightlessly. Yet the landscape became an object that was further detached from the material body, and became limiting as a form for thinking through the experience and process of place-making.
Using photogrammetry to digitally extract matter from the site became a key tool in developing material destabilisation as a method. With the support and guidance of V21, a company that, ordinarily, specialises in capturing art exhibitions and objects to produce 3D virtual tours, I explored ways of creating a 3D virtual model of the disused quarry. Creating visual slippages between digitised material beings using photogrammetry initiated a deep encounter with the quarried rock and the non-humans that have grown out of the absence, specifically the moss and rock that I have touched, laid upon, inhaled. The resulting virtual quarry is a digital imprint of my direct, sensually rendered experiences in place, so that my embodied encounters are embedded in the pixellated forms that shift, tumble, reorder and assemble on screen.
A high resolution DSLR camera was used to capture every angle of matter on site, so that 1000’s of images document every surface, undulation and texture in detail. Taking photos as a process of ‘mining data’ became symbolic, as parallels between the photographic process and the physical labour that created the hollow that the body now occupied became apparent. Rock faces were deconstructed through a series of photographic frames, the digital eye working symbiotically with the human body to generate a deconstruction of landscape. Like the tools used to break up the land to make walls, roads and farm buildings, this photographic method carved up the surface of the landscape in to pixels, so that the pixels became metaphorical stones that could be extracted and used to construct and reconstitute form.
This method of metaphorical deconstruction became central to the research, in a way that existing virtual representations, such as Google Earth, could not provide. Each image formed a mirror reflecting the minutia of the site, a process that is reminiscent of Robert Smithson’s notes on mirror-travel, or what O’Sullivan recasts in Deleuzian terms as “travel into the virtual”.5 The data gleaned from every surface of the quarry was uploaded to a computer back in the V21 office and run through Agisoft Metashape software, which systematically re-assembled the data as an aggregated form that, in turn, mirrored the whole site. This process of deconstructing and reconstituting matter in virtual space reformed not only materials but also concepts. This is where my experiences in the quarry — real and imagined — become part of the fabric of the landscape, absorbed in to the mesh of pixels to reform an understanding of place and how I exist within it as a part of it. Like Robert Smithson’s nonsites, the resulting art objects functioned as abstract containers that reflected the site from which the material has been collected.6
Through an intuitive process of exploration back in the studio, I learned that I could turn this skin-like virtual reflection of landscape upside down, which meant that I could visualise being underneath the surface of the quarry looking up at the boundary layer. Flipping the landscape in this way enables one to see the surface from a different material perspective, and I spent time exploring the form as if part of the ancient gritstone, or in the position of the watery moss interface. From this point, I sought to create an experience in which the viewer was guided through the construction of aggregated matter, through the pixellated rocks and watery hues of vegetal matter towards a radical connection with the non-human. The controls used to navigate the model were clunky to operate, so with the support of V21, a more fluid way of documenting the movement through the skin of the quarry was developed using Blender. I combined these virtual manifestations with video footage I gathered at the site, as a way to insert natural textures, colours, and movement on top of and underneath the pixelated forms. Combining virtual aggregates with the ‘actual’ resulted in a complex slippage of pixels and watery matter that pooled across the surface of the screen.
George Schenk writes about the ‘conversation’ between moss and rock being like “an interface of immensity and minuteness, of past and present, softness and hardness, stillness and vibrancy”.7 Mosses have the power to transform monolithic stone back to their granular origins at the moment of their convergence, as sandy grains fragment and unravel the solidity of formations like fluid pixels shifting across a moving image. Moss lives at the boundary layer of the surface of this quarried rock, a surface created by man through a process of laborious extraction. In the virtual model developed, the boundary layer is visualised as a digital skin… each pixel a marker of where moss gently unravels the certainty of stone. This technology generates a virtual ‘intimacy with the contours and textures of the moss’ substrate’ — visualising the point of liquidity between material beings.
Through this process, I began to formulate a network of coalescent digital material that describes an embodied and materially embedded process of re-becoming part of something-bigger-than the individual body, as experienced in my pre/post natal body-state. Laura Green writes, “pregnancy is an example of where self and other overlap and become indistinct, and where inside and outside are no longer delineated; the self and the not-self coexist in the same bodily space”.8 Green describes an intertwining of self and other that, for me, is more of a deep entanglement of materiality, in which a symbiotic, cognitive knowing is developed inside the body that is specific to the experience of pregnancy and birthing.
I have developed the term sym-cognitive to describe this experience, which I, since giving birth, have also felt in place through the method, with the moss colony that has reclaimed the quarry. This reconnection to the land and its inhabitants is one of tacit coalescence, formed deep within our shared bodily tissue.
As Rosi Braidotti writes, “the posthuman subject asserts the material totality of and interconnection with all living things”.9 Human and non-human organic bodies are materially connected, despite diverse evolutionary pathways and bodily otherness. This sym-cognitive network is one of care and reciprocity, of symbiosis and shared materiality. It is, through the method, a process of “making contact with matter”.1
The resulting aggregated cluster of pixellated rock forms what Robert Smithson terms anonsite 11 — an abstract representation of place — in which fluid post-anthropocentric subjectivities can be explored through the virtual space of the artwork. The objects contain and abstract the open limits of the landscape in a way that actualises the virtualities of the sym-cognitive experience depicted, enabling a posthuman geographic narrative to emerge that reformulates an understanding of my entangled relationship to earthly matter as a birthing body who is liquid, transitory and connected through fleshy materiality.
This reclamation of the extractive process, in conjunction with my own embodied experience of this disturbed and privatised landscape, acts as a counterpoint to the systemic culture of exploitation. Through the method, natural resources and organic bodies are entangled in order to reveal subversive and reactionary positions of agency and kinship. Mining and quarrying terminology is used to describe the psychological impacts of capitalism, and the visual methods employed investigate a posthuman, symbiotic re-connection with the organic, utilising technology away from the dominating hold of extractive capitalism.
Text and Images © Victoria Lucas
Text adapted from Pixellated Rocks: Symbolic Reclamation as Method, presented digitally at the METHOD 2022 Conference at Sheffield Hallam University on the 22nd September 2022.