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Published by LOUISE BOSCACCI, 2019-11-14 23:13:37

Ways to Cross Country (2016)

Ways to Cross Country_2016-2019_Flipbook Online

Ways to
Cross Country

On ‘Thinking Landscape’



This is a critical reflection on a multidisciplinary seminar and workshop titled, ‘Thinking Landscape:
Data, geography, arts, writing, patterns, collecting and interdisciplinarity’, co-convened at the
University of Wollongong, Australia, 16th September 2016.
Seminar participants included: artists, geographers, writers, museum curators, digital humanities’
scholars, postgraduate researchers and interdisciplinary thinkers from the Material Ecologies
Research network (MECO) in partnership with AUSCCER (the Australian Centre for Cultural
Environmental Research) and the Global Challenges programme, University of Wollongong, Australia.

Online publication:
Boscacci, L 2016, ‘Ways to Cross Country: On “Thinking Landscape”’,
Material Ecologies Research Network/ MECO blog, 30 October 2016,

Ways to Cross Country: On ‘Thinking Landscape’ 1

Ways to Cross Country: On ‘Thinking Landscape’

In the Illawarra, Gula becomes Kurrilwa on the easterly journey from the Gundungurra
plateau and escarpment Country to the Dharawal coastal plain language of Wodi Wodi voices,
but Koala is the same animal, character, agent, and traditional story-maker. The one who
paddled a canoe to the entrance of Lake Illawarra where it was holed by Brolga, a dancing
companion. The canoe overturned to become Windang Island, the isle still there at the
entrance. In another traditional Illawarra story, Brolga dances on the Whale’s canoe until a
hole is made, and the canoe is pushed a short distance to shore to become Gun-man-gang,
the modern Windang Island.[1] This is the richness of emplaced Koori story-making: many
ways emerge across Country to tie people, place, animals, plants, waters, skies and events
into living biogeocultural maps unbound, earth-walked, sounded and internalised—a
fundamentally different approach to a western heritage of 2D cartographic representation
and 3D topographic modelling. Or is it? Can these ways and perspectives fruitfully meet?

The aim of the day-long event, Thinking Landscape was to bring together interdisciplinary
scholars and practitioners to explore and experiment with ‘landscape’ from within the
ancient-contemporary Illawarra where the modern university sits, with Lake Illawarra as a
focal place of data gathering, thinking and imagining in a hands-on workshop. Su Ballard
introduced the day’s gathering, wondering about landscape less as a memory-made and
carried, as art historian Simon Schama explored, and more as lived, contingent, and shared
everyday grounds. In her words:

Landscapes are complex objects. They are sites of love and learning, and formed
through some kind of coming together of the seen, the heard, and the known. The art
historian Simon Schama might disagree, but I think of landscape very simply as the
place where we live … Schama would say that landscape is formed in memory, in
poetry, and in the stories we tell ourselves about who we think we are. But I’m unsure
about how we continue to do this. How do we think landscape in the Anthropocene?
How do we imagine an entity that is transforming through our very gaze?’

GeoHumanities’ creative turn: fabulations, scales, and site ontologies

Harriet Hawkins followed with the lecture ‘Anthropocene Fabulations: Geohumanities and our
Geophysical Imagination of Global Environmental Change’. Part of her current research
project ‘Creating Earth Futures’, and proceeding from ‘the Anthropocene Problem’, Hawkins
proposed fabulation and geophysical imagination as a generative mode of response; one

Ways to Cross Country: On ‘Thinking Landscape’ 2

where geography and ‘the multiple’ of artistic/ creative practices meet and rethink,
materialise, sound, alternatively map, and reword global change challenges at scales beyond
a simple global-local dichotomy. Thus, ‘Geophysical Imaginations’ were unpacked in these
framings: Scale; Distances-Proximities; and Entanglements. Hawkins questioned the
usefulness of prevailing global-local scalar narratives, arguing that global-local is a limiting
binary and a maker of flat ‘ontologies’.

But is the image of the blue marble planet really a clichéd, over-familiar and totalising one, as
suggested? Many of us ground-dwelling practitioners remain enthralled by the patterns and
tracks of atmospheric water vapour visible as white cloud streams flowing from the equator
to the poles; the flux and energies of the generative bio-chemo-geosphere revealed in
spiralling cyclones and hurricanes; the extent of the Earth’s oceanic claim; the never-static
and never-tiring wondering that a new satellite camera panorama uploaded to a virtual web
affords a tiny human watcher earthbound on the uppermost layer of revolving crust.

For Hawkins, sliding to the second perspective of thinking Distances-Proximities is to think in
scales of distal (furtherest away from a centre) and proximal (nearest): this is intended as a
body–focussed scale, a relational closeness and distance. ‘Entanglement’ thinking, proposed
as a third approach, might encompass English literature scholar Timothy Morton’s work at
the intersection of object-oriented thought and ecologicalism, particularly his notion of

Arriving at the embodied scale of ‘Medium Earth’, Hawkins invoked the collaborative art
project, The California Project (2015) by the Otolith Group. The work is a site-roaming
rendering of vision and sound across each day, from sunrise to sunset, as an experimental
approach to geophysical imagining in practice. Here, in the lived uncertainty of immersion in
the active earthquake zone explored by the artists, Hawkins finds and speaks a language of
‘listening and looking at the earth’, ‘echoing forms’ (visual and sonic), ‘sensing stories’, ‘far
more than words’, and ‘overlapping bodies’, or ‘geobodies’. It is worth noting, here, that
‘geobodies’ is a term already in established, particular use in the ‘planetary aesthetics’
framework of the video essayist and visual theorist Ursula Biemann, one of the World of
Matter collective of visual artists and writers.[2] ‘Seismic sensitives’—local people attuned to
seismic tremors, however minor and fleeting—are intriguing interlocuters in this project:
‘seismic sensitives’ are less interested in instrumental measurings of amplitude and duration,
and more in the transfer of seismic energies to the body. So, for Hawkins, the question ‘what
hope is there that art can do much at the ‘scale’ of the geological Anthropocene?’ might be
best explored at the scale of human bodies sensing, perceiving, apprehending and making
new compositions from and within ‘sites’ of engagement, such as the Californian seismic belt.

Hawkins concluded that geophysical fabulation practices at embodied medium earth scales
can converse with the practices of the geological and environmental sciences that employ

Ways to Cross Country: On ‘Thinking Landscape’ 3

global-local studies and approaches to knowledge-making in the Anthropocene. From the
former, what results, as Hawkins theorises, are new ‘site ontologies’—visual and sonic
narratives of hybrid geobodies.

Digital Humanities ‘in dialogue with land’

Mitchell Whitelaw took us to data, and data as ‘critical, cultural and creative material’. The
day’s topic was to be centred around Drifter, a new work investigating the representation of
landscape through its digital traces in cultural and scientific archives. Whitelaw has
described Drifter as ‘a multilayered portrait’ of a river system, ‘made out of data’:

Drifter is a digital portrait of the Murrumbidgee river system, drawing on data from
cultural collections, scientific observations, historic images and geospatial sources.
It was created for exhibition at Wagga Wagga Art Gallery in conjunction with
the Land Dialogues conference. Drifter is part of a research project on combining
digital scientific and cultural heritage materials to create rich representations of
landscape. It builds on the speculative, generative approaches to digital
heritage (Whitelaw 2016:[3],[4]

By way of introduction, a preface of his earlier work included Weather Bracelet (2009), a 3d
print in nylon as a materialisation of 365 days of Canberra weather: this is a wearable data
form. Likewise, the 3d resin print series Measuring Cup (2010) used 160 years of monthly
temperature data from the Met Office in the UK to design a tangible cup with a radius that
increases in accordance with temperature rises.

In extension, this thinking with data objects, landscape, and the digital humanities in the
Anthropocene coalesced in a theme of Landscapes, Hyperobjects, Matters of Concern by
which Whitelaw teased out and communicated the conceptual undergirding of Drifter.

Thus, Drifter was built by way of a gathering, harvesting, and reflective response to these
intersecting ideas and conceptual tactics:

1. ‘Landscape as Hyperobject?’: this was a riff on Morton’s ‘zero personal landscape’ in
which a hyperobject is always beyond tangible and conceptual grasp—and (individual)
human agency. Consider styrofoam as hyperobject, or radioactivity as hyperobject.

2. ‘Matters of Concern’—a conceptual model—referencing Bruno Latour’s ‘matters of
concern and matters of fact’, and ‘bringing bits together as a tactic’ (a formal and
cultural technique), ‘knots’, and Donna Haraway’s ‘ethic of care’.

3. ‘Representing Matters of Concern’. Responding to Latour’s challenge for thoughtful
practice in the Anthropocene, the questions asked and responded to in

Ways to Cross Country: On ‘Thinking Landscape’ 4

building Drifter were: ‘Where are the visualisation tools’ of matters of concern’ beyond
‘deconstruction’? How to ‘draw things together’?

Mitchell described how Drifter evolved to be this ‘random machine that plays the data’
harvested from diverse sources related to the Murrumbidgee River, with the aim to put into
conversation human and nonhuman voices. His website describes the components
of Map, Sifter, and Compositor and the vast array of sources that he used in more detail
(see But a lecture is where insights behind the technical
processes are also shared. For example, a particular desire was to braid human activities and
scales of connection and use—irrigated agriculture, personal stories of river experiences, local
witness—with the voices of frogs, also local ‘witnesses’ of riverine living. As well as drawing
on the amphibian acoustic archive of herpetologist Murray Littlejohn, he searched for
historical accounts of ‘nonhumans in the news’ (rare) alongside those of people and the river
in local papers. He spoke about his use of ‘donated’ wetland field photography by the
landscape ecologist, Dr Skye Wesson, of the Institute for Land, Water and Society at Charles
Sturt University. It is telling that these landscape photographs by scientists were revealed to
Whitelaw as ‘photographs of intimacy and care’—landscape portraiture, no less. It is a
reminder that the embedded landscape work of ecological scientists is often equally a field of
intimacy, close witness, aesthetic pleasures, and renderings into other forms alongside
species lists and management plans. The former—also fieldworks—most often remain
invisible affective-creative makings to practitioners in the arts and humanities who express
surprise at such ‘passions’ and productions.

In Whitelaw’s account there was a language of ‘harvest’, ‘access’, ‘do things to it [the data]’
for ‘playful, performative, speculative’ purposes—and it is here that Whitelaw’s creative
‘authoring’ is also embedded. Nevertheless, there is in the troves of all sources, an undeniable
collective authoring by all data makers—from the newspaper reportage, to the citizen
scientist images of river bios, to oral lore about the presence of a river bunyip. A lingering
question remains: how to acknowledge authorship of the vast crop of online uploaders if we
acknowledge that their harvested data has personal mattering already? In addressing the
seemingly bigger ‘matters of concern’ by a designer-artist-thinker, is this in any way a new
territorialisation of private-public data for artistic or scholarly aims and gains? Are there
ethical questions that need to be opened out here about the digital Commons, such as those
that have been posed in relation to the landed Commons over centuries, and again now in
the Anthropocene, in the face of state resumption of public forests for private coal mines or
coal seam gas extraction?[5] How to co-author or sympatrically author the multitude in the
bigger digital landscape portrait? Even if, as Whitelaw points out, design decisions are made
at each stage of the process, affording ‘authorial intervention’ throughout?

Other provocations are evident in Mitchell Whitelaw’s musing about ‘Data—The
Troublesome Trace’. He observes that even though there can never be unequivocal

Ways to Cross Country: On ‘Thinking Landscape’ 5

verification in hindsight when tracing the ‘truthfulness’ of historical newspaper reports, this
data is still indexical, intimate, and can affect us: it ‘touches and stays’. Ultimately, these
‘representational fragments’ of data operate together to compose a new synthesis. In doing
so, the mode is generative; it affords digital landscaping of the river course through the
‘unforeseeable collisions’ generated by the combinatorial and compositional elements of the
restless Drifte rportrait maker. And, if landscape is always mediated, valued by what we select
to communicate, the data-fed riparian landscapings of Drifter are curiously both random,
‘unintentional’, authored, and deeply reflective of the maker and his motivations, aesthetic
judgements and affective energies of push and pull—that internal oaring that the
Murrumbidgee River clearly exerts on Whitelaw as a designer-scholar drifter denizen.

Afternoon Workshop: Lake Illawarra

In her morning introduction to Mitchell’s talk, Su Ballard quoted his lyrical description that
articulates the generative nature of Drifter: [It] ‘collides its fragments to spark fleeting insights
and moments of clarity, beauty and mourning’.[6] Working in small groups, and replete with
the morning’s talks and ideas, the afternoon workshop extended the drift to the spaces
around the more local watered lens of Lake Illawarra. Mitchell’s stages of ‘Analysing’; ‘Linking
and Mashing Up’; and ‘Performing/ Staging’ were way markers through this.

We began to gather data—digital, at a remove from the physical site of the lake twelve
kilometres to the south of us—but as Mitchell said ‘data attaches itself people’, and individual
practices and interest guided the types of material ‘harvested’ or traced. The group research
embraced Koori long histories of occupation and place-making; the British colonising sea and
land incursions into the Illawarra and the lake locale; multicultural material artefacts, poems,
paintings, lakeside tryst locations and courtship tales; modern land transformations; shark
and whale stories from newspaper reports; the Port Kembla coal port, steel works, emissions
stacks and heavy metals; the Tallawarra power station (once coal, now coal seam gas fired);
and the shifting health of the lake waters. Although only intended as an introductory insight
into the processes of Drifter, we started to recompose the indexical, the troublesome, the
affective, the partial, into alt-forms of poems, maps, imaginings, potential. The Lake, itself,
well beyond direct sensory apprehension, quickly got sticky: the next pull surely would be to
ground-truth particular sites, geobodies and fleeting collisions met in the virtual trawl—but
in place, and in the round.

Black Coal, White Clay

The historian Michael Organ has written that whilst the word ‘Illawarra’ is ‘obviously
Aboriginal in origin, its precise meaning is unclear. One interpretation is that it is derived from
or is an English misspelling of the word ‘Eloura’, meaning anything from ‘a pleasant place’ to

Ways to Cross Country: On ‘Thinking Landscape’ 6

the area about Lake Illawarra, or the lake itself. [7] An early European account refers to
Illawarra as meaning ‘white clay hills, or mountains’—compounded of ‘Ilia,’ white clay, and
‘Warra,’ a big hill, or mountain”.[8] The geographical name, Lake Illawarra (previously
Illawarra Lake) is recorded to be an adaptation of the Indigenous word ‘Elouera’, ‘Eloura’ or
‘Allowrie’, variously translated as pleasant place near the sea, or, high place near the sea, or,
white clay mountain. ‘Wurra’ or ‘Warra’ probably means mountain and ‘Illa’ may be white
clay.[9] White clay and black coal. Horizontal bands of white clay interlayered with the black
coal lodes of the Illawarra Coal Measures are starkly visible on the exposed coastal headland
at Austinmer today.[10] The Illawarra Coal Measures are dated to the late Permian, 253–263
million years ago (mya)—the coal marks the Great Permian Extinction/ the Permian-Triassic
Extinction event/ the Great Dying/ the End Permian Extinction event that occurred around
252 mya.[11] The contemporary micro-macro Anthropocene is inextricably enmeshed with
coal, with the antiquated cultural practice of combusting these reservoirs of ancient carbon-
based lifeforms petrified after planetary-scale mass extinction events. In the Illawarra, these
black coal lodes point to the Third Mass Extinction on Earth, and, curiously also now to the
Sixth, the present epochal event conceded by biologists to be well underway in this
century.[12] This deep time irony—another unsettling—reveals itself to all who look at and
think about local Illawarra lands in passages of bio-geo earth time, as well as frames of space.

Throughout the seminar and workshop, a handful of moist basaltic clay dug from an Illawarra
highland paddock, and which had travelled down the Macquarie Pass to the day’s outing on
the coastal plain, remained sealed in its plastic honey pot. But, it was there, and its rich ochre-
orange aromatic presence was a silent reminder of place idiosyncrasy and
interconnectedness, sustenance and surprise: that the word landscape might also hold and
ferment other situated wordings, worldings and knowledges: a scalp, a decal, clans, a clade,
a dance.

Last words

One month later, at another event in the same room in which we had gathered that day, the
educator and artist Jade Kennedy of Wollongong said this about his ancestral-contemporary
Dharawal country of the Illawarra: ‘I don’t own a … piece of this place, but it is still my Country
and I am responsible for it’.14

As another type of grounding on an ancient, multi-nation continent, Kennedy succinctly
remade landscape as belonged-by Country, neither monological, nor human-centred,
affording agency and creativity to a local multiplicity, to nonhuman-human beings and forces,
and especially those denizen artists-geographers-writers-dataformers-thinkers who wish to
continue the walking, thinking and feeling of ‘landscape’.13 His words are a generative
invitation and challenge.

Ways to Cross Country: On ‘Thinking Landscape’ 7


1 Wesson, S 2009, Murni Dhungang Jirrar – Living in the Illawarra, Office of Environment & Heritage
(OEH), State of New South Wales,
2 Ursula Biemann:
World of Matter:; Arns, I (ed.) 2015, World of Matter, Sternberg
Press, Berlin.
3 Whitelaw, M 2016:
4 The author encountered Mitchell’s Drifter project on the micromedia platform Twitter, another
fleeting digital space of gathering and communication, as part of the publicity for the Land Dialogues
(Interdisciplinary Research in Dialogue with Land) conference, Charles Sturt University (13–15 April
2016) with an accompanying exhibition at the Wagga Wagga Art Gallery.
5 Leard State Forest, New South Wales (coal); Pilliga State Forest, NSW (coal seam gas exploration)
6 Whitelaw, M 2016, Workshop Notes: Thinking Landscape, 16 September 2016, University of
Wollongong Australia.
7 Organ, MK & Speechley, C 1997, ‘Illawarra Aborigines’, in Hagan, JS and Wells, A (eds), A History of
Wollongong, University of Wollongong Press, Wollongong, pp7-22.
8 The Sydney Mail, 1906, THE BEAUTIFUL ILLAWARRA AND Shoalhaven BY F.J.B, Wed 21 November,
9 Geographical Names Board of New South Wales, 2016,
10 Geological sites of New South Wales, 2016, Illawarra Coal Measures,
11 Erwin, D 2006, Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago, Princeton
University Press, Princeton NJ.
12 Ceballos, G, Ehrlich, P, Barnosky, A, García, A, Pringle, R & Palmer, T 2015, ‘Accelerated modern
human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction’, Science Advances, vol.1, no.5,
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1400253
13 “Belonged-by” [place/ Country] is a figuration I proposed and articulated in: Boscacci, L 2016, “The
Trace of an Affective Object Encounter: A Picture Postcard, Its Provocations, and Processual
Becomings.” PhD thesis, University of Wollongong. /4725.
14 Jade Kennedy is a Yuin Knowledge Holder in the Illawarra. He lives and works with Jindaola, an
Aboriginal approach to embedding Indigenous knowledges & perspectives into the curricula of the
University of Wollongong.

Ways to Cross Country: On ‘Thinking Landscape’ 8

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