I’m honored to have a new lyric essay in Cirque. Read it here: https://issuu.com/burwellm/docs/06_02_2021_cirque_22_interior_final_revision_r5_i/52
These poems are published in Fugue:
read them at petrichor
Read it at GAZE
. . . Who forgot symbiosis
Who forgot predator/prey
Who manufactured predator
Who codified prey
Who forgot how to love the thing
before killing it
Who forgot death’s fecundity
Who forgot the osmotic anthem of love
Who forgot the smell of soil breathing
Who forgot dawn
Who forged dawn unconvincingly,
sallow electric rot
Who convinced dawn of nothing
Who found dawn recalcitrant,
habitual, full of scars and leaking light
Who knew nothing about survival . . .
This is an artist talk delivered on January 22, 2019 as part of the exhibition of the New Earth series of paintings.
I will start by acknowledging that we are gathered today on the ancestral, unceded territory of the Clackamas, Chinook, Kalapuya, Atfalati, and other Indigenous peoples.
This essential acknowledgement is actually directly relevant to the paintings that I will talk about tonight, because these paintings are seeking a fuller or more nuanced understanding of who we are, where we are, and how we are living.
These paintings, all of which are called “New Earth,” are an attempt to show how climate change is reshaping our planet and our embodied experience of it. These paintings are an attempt to show a process — a process that we are all currently, in this very moment — now, here — a part of. These paintings are an impossibility — they are an attempt to visually depict what cannot ultimately be fully seen, because the temporal and spatial scale at which these processes are occurring is beyond the scope of human perception.
There are ways, of course, to, at least partially, visualize climate change. We’ve all seen these ways, and we usually see them and then stop seeing them very quickly, because they are overwhelming and scary and cold. All of these visualizations are also, to varying degrees, reductive. And all are informed by a scientific gaze, a gaze that is not the least bit objective but often poses as such. Modern and post-modern philosophy is intimately engaged with the complexity of the image — think of Guy Debord’s mid-century “spectacle,” or Foucault’s societal panopticon, or Martin Jay’s “scopic regime,” or so many other recent versions of this basic awareness that images are far from simple depictions. Images are polysemic, meaning that they are read differently by different people, depending on our identities, cultural knowledge, and opinions. Images are never static. In the words of James Elkins, “All seeing is heated. It must always involve force and desire and intent.” Despite all of this, scientific images are still often uncritically received as if they are simple representations of the known world.
In addition to the complex subjectivity of these types of images, these scientific visualizations are accessible and intelligible in their fullness only for scientists. This creates an unequal power dynamic between those who are scientifically educated and those who are not.
To be clear, I think these types of scientific images are of immense cultural value. I have a huge amount of gratitude and respect for these images. I am not arguing in any way for the irrelevancy of scientific imagery. Rather, I am questioning the cultural prioritization of scientific imagery of climate change. We are told that this imagery is more authoritative and more useful than overtly subjective visualizations of climate change and I’m not sure that this is true.
The scholar Ellen Dissanayake has argued that art was central to the emergence, adaptation and survival of the human species, that aesthetic ability is innate in every human being, and that art is a need as fundamental to our species as food, warmth or shelter. In other words, art is perhaps a central reason why our species is here and is also perhaps a critical part of what might keep us alive.
I think that climate change is the defining issue of this cultural moment. In the words of Naomi Klein, “Climate change isn’t more important than [other pressing social issues] but it does have a different relationship to time. When the politics of climate change go wrong — and they are very, very wrong right now — we don’t get to try again in four years. Because in four years the earth will have been radically changed… and our chances of averting an irreversible catastrophe will have shrunk.”
This full-on urgent relationship to time means that the way that climate change is understood — which in our supremely visual culture mostly means the way that it is seen — is of critical importance. Artistic explorations of this cultural moment — of climate change — are part of what I believe we most need in order to even begin to grapple with the wholesale re-imagination of culture and politics that climate change necessitates.
In these paintings, I am aiming for a visualization that privileges the subjective, the embodied, and the emotional.
Most of the shapes in the paintings are abstract maps of newly exposed ground near glaciers. This is land that used to be permanently covered by a glacier that is now uncovered. Some shapes are areas of land that are being submerged by rising oceans. In both cases, these places are new. And this new earth is like a wound, or new, delicate skin that has formed over a wound and is now (ready or not) exposed to the world.
I began this series thinking that I was making paintings that might help explicate climate change through sensory experience, make it more real by making it visible, making it felt. But as I worked on these paintings, they taught me that they are more interested in confusion than clarity. They are more interested in unknowing than knowing.
The paintings started with visual information gained from scientific sources. To find these shapes, I relied heavily on NASA satellite images and data-based projections. But the visual information is overlaid in such a way as to create difficulty in apprehending any one section or shape. The information intentionally swims together into composite shapes, the colors overlapping to form new colors. This reflects the fundamental interconnectedness of all life, all locales, the way that a glacier calving in Greenland causes the ocean to rise tens of thousands of miles away in the Marshall Islands.
The melding of visual information also reflects the overwhelming confusion most of us feel in response to climate change. The glut of information available to us often results in feeling flooded and therefore less, rather than more, informed. We’ve been taught to structure information hierarchically, to parse history into nations, time periods. Climate change eradicates those helpful boundaries. There are no limits, no parameters, no political boundaries, no temporal boundaries…
In the words of Roy Scranton, climate change is hard to think about “not only because it’s complex and politically contentious,” but also because “it’s cognitively almost impossible to keep in mind the intricate relationships that tie together an oil well in Venezuela, Siberian permafrost, Saudi F-15s bombing a Yemeni wedding, subsidence along the Jersey Shore, albedo effect near Kangerlussuaq, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, the polar vortex, shampoo, California cattle, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, leukemia, plastic, paper, the Sixth Extinction, Zika, and the basic decisions we make every day. … It’s mind-bendingly difficult to connect the dots.”
Yes. And so is it mind-bendingly difficult to extricate one bit of these paintings from any other bit. They are one massive sensory swirl.
And they are, quite intentionally, a beautiful confusion. These paintings are visually welcoming. I made them that way so that we might be willing to feel the discomfort of confusion and grief a little longer, to allow the complexity and profundity of climate change and the unbearably difficult emotions that its complexity generates to linger. To feel it, at least for a moment. To let it in.
I’ll talk a little more now about my process. As I’ve already mentioned, these paintings start with satellite images and temporal projections. I printed out these images, drawing the areas that reveal newly exposed land. I would then project this drawing onto my painting and draw from the projection. The projection process began as a way to convert information and evolved into a way to incorporate chance.
As I layered new drawings over existing parts of the paintings, the drawings inevitably transformed the compositions in ways that I couldn’t and wouldn’t control. Again, the process of making these paintings was teaching me all about what I was feeling: the anxiety of information overload, the sadness and anxiety of my lack of control, and the complicated relief that a surrender to that lack of control can create.
I should also mention that these paintings are themed by region. This painting, for example, is constructed entirely of images of rapidly melting Arctic glaciers. So my research for each painting put me in touch with the specific topography of varied places all across the planet: from Antarctica to Peru to New Orleans to Montana to Mount Hood. This inevitably also led me to think more deeply about nationalism, xenophobia, migration, immigration, and bioregionalism. Because of their relationship to place, these paintings can also be understood as maps that don’t, or can’t, locate.
These paintings are made with simple, elemental materials: water and pigment. More specifically, rain water and natural mineral pigments. In the words of poet Brian Teare,
“I gather the rain / in both noun / & verb.”
Most of these paintings were made in the hot, dry summer months. The rain water that I had gathered in the winter and spring felt totally precious. I was acutely aware of every drop of water that I was using, of its source and its scarcity. In this way, I was psychically connected to all of the places in the world experiencing increasingly severe droughts as a result of climate change, as well as all the places that are being flooded with rain or ocean or river.
The pigments that are used in these paintings are mostly ground rocks. The non-synthetic quality of these pigments relates to the subject matter of the paintings in obvious ways: climate change is a physical, planetary occurrence. It is our planet itself that is being changed.
The non-synthetic quality of the pigments also creates interesting and often unpredictable interactions. Sometimes the pigments would mix with other pigments in ways that created colors I totally did not anticipate. Sometimes pigments many layers deep would re-constitute and float to the surface, creating a sudden absence where density had been.
Some of the rocks used to make the pigments have naturally reflective or iridescent qualities. These rocks invite the light to play off of them in complex ways. This adds a layer of perceptual complexity to the paintings. People like shiny things. To revisit Dissanayake’s ideas — she has written about art as a process of “making special,” which partly means making art a physically pleasurable experience. She says: “Art, like the universal behaviors of play and ritual, relies on establishing a state in which things are extraordinary in emotionally or sensorially gratifying ways, and more real or less real than everyday reality.” Shiny, glittery light and vibrant, complex colors are forms of sensorial gratification. They are ways of making special, of provoking our senses in a way that is unique and interesting, that flirts playfully with the unreal or more-than-real.
So the saturated colors and the iridescence add to the intentional beauty of the work. They are sensual. They appeal to an embodied understanding of climate change, and of our bodies in the world as it is changing. I’ve witnessed many people look glancingly at one of these paintings and then … see the glitteriness, feel the colors, and move closer, drawn magnetically to the shiny thing.
To look, to feel, to let it in.
The many translucent layers are another important part of these paintings, lending perceptual and intellectual complexity to the work. As I spoke about earlier, the many layers merge and swim in ways that makes seeing any single piece of any of these paintings impossible. I am interested in making the immense complexity of perception more apparent to the perceiver. Intersubjectivity is my goal. I want the painting to flicker in and out of perceivability. I want the colors and the scale and the shininess to draw the viewer in, and then I want a thick exchange to begin, an exchange that generates questions which generate more questions and more questions…
These paintings ultimately led me to a place that is far more confusing and more complex than where I started. They led me to an immersive, sensory place in which I have little control, in which my role is mostly to receive and respond rather than to direct. I am so grateful to these paintings for leading me there.
I’m going to wrap up this talk with a series of totally confounding, enormous questions, because allowing for the unknowable and the unknown feels like the right way to pay homage to these paintings, which themselves are ultimately unknowable and ultimately about the unknown.
For several centuries, the dominant Western cultural understanding of the human self has been guided by Descartes and his construction of a mind that is distinct from a body. This disembodied mind is the marker of our very humanness. In the Cartesian worldview, we are human because of our rational, logical minds. Cartesian humans are ordered, objective, and boundaried.
In her introduction to an ecopoetics anthology focusing on climate change, Heidi Lynn Staples asserts that this understanding of humanity is at the root of climate change. It creates a “hegemony of dominion.” She extends Judith Butler’s paradigm of gender performativity to the idea of human performativity.
Just as we are constantly receiving cultural messages attempting to persuade us to performatively align our behavior with a false gender binary — so, too, are we constantly receiving cultural messages attempting to persuade us to performatively align our behavior with a false Cartesian understanding of the “human.”
Can we rethink the human “I” as performative? Or, what does it mean — now, here — on this deeply injured planet, with all its struggling and imperiled human and other-than-human inhabitants — to be human?
In 1855, when the spoils of slavery and industrialization were being most fully realized in this country, when Manifest Destiny continued to push disease, genocide, and ecocide to the western reaches of the continent, when the drumbeats of the Civil War were growing louder, when the question of personhood was being regularly discussed in the context of slavery, Walt Whitman wrote his famous ode to individualism, “Song of Myself.” The question on my mind in light of the radically changing world that we inhabit, is whether we can we now sing songs of the “nonself.” Can we make space for the maximum possibilities that such a song would allow?
In the words of a friend, “We cannot in any single instance of thought, dream, perception, or action apprehend a fully realized self. We live alone, in mystery. We are walking fragments.”
I think that the fully realized, ordered, objective, and boundaried self is a capitalist myth, a patriarchal myth, a deeply dangerous, deeply violent myth that is central to and undergirds the slow violence of climate change.
The fragmentary, divided self is mysterious and therefore never self-contained. It needs the world.
The fragmentary, divided self is about connecting with others.
The fragmentary, divided self finds similar scattered fragments in the rest of the living world, and in this way is never alone, is always interdependent, just like the various parts of a painting are never alone, are always interdependent with the painting’s context, with the painter, with, most importantly, the viewer.
These paintings are made of fragments. We are made of fragments.
These paintings are fragments. We are fragments.
They and we are receptive.
They and we are permeable.
They and we are mutable.
They and we are always in the act of becoming.
Naomi Klein has written eloquently and hauntingly about how political trends of the last four decades have dangerously reoriented our understanding of who we are as humans, creating a poisonous view of human nature. She writes: “This, without a doubt, is neoliberalism’s single most damaging legacy: [it] has isolated us enough from one another that it became possible to convince us that we are not just incapable of self-preservation but that we are fundamentally not worth saving.”
A reimagination of the self is a political act.
Can we re-imagine the fragmentary self, the nonself, as permeable, mutable, and deeply receptive?
What would this mean for our daily lives?
What would this mean for the way that we communicate, eat, love, move, think, and make art?
The fragmentary self, the nonself, in all its permeability and interconnectedness, allows for a different kind of seeing.
This kind of seeing is a type of remediating love.
This kind of seeing is a type of constant question. And it is perhaps the most urgent, most necessary, most impactful question we can ask of ourselves — now, here — on our changing planet.
Published in Discursive Impulse. Read it here:
I woke up in my tent and stared at myself in my small plastic mirror. It’s a vain habit to bring that mirror with me when I go camping, since the bright light of the open-air morning discloses more than any bathroom mirror can. Beyond the slightly sadistic pleasure of really being able to see every new wrinkle and blemish, the unadulterated morning light often reveals a version of my face that I cannot access in my daily life. I tend to look softer, more aware, less guarded. I like to remind myself that this version of me still exists.
That morning, I peered at the creases in my forehead, the triple folds under my eyes, the fine lines around my mouth, the pores on my nose, the gray-blue of my eyes, surrounded by lashes still clumped from sleep. I looked tired, overwhelmed, a bit bleak. The version of myself I sought wasn’t showing up.
I had arrived at camp the night before, full to bursting with the heavy hollowness of grief. It had been a summer of accumulating emptiness, a vacuous magnet inside me drawing clumps of ache, growing emptier in their accretion. I was reverberating with loss. I usually gratefully dissolved into the forest but that morning, I felt impermeable.
I lay there, listening. It started once the golden sunlight reached the tops of the tallest firs — a buzz, rising from everywhere and nowhere, filling the air from the ground up, rendering it lighter, more electric, vibrating off the night’s dampness. Piccolo shrieks and bleeps of small birds high in the canopy, flitting from tree to tree. Dust rising, then settling, then rising again. Syncopated thuds of woodpeckers. Chirps of larger songbirds flying, then perching, then flying again. Raspy open-throated calls and high-pitched punctuation over the constant hum of insects, coating the forest floor like a sonic blanket. I was grateful for the passivity of listening. I didn’t need to do anything — the morning’s orchestra simply entered my head.
I put the mirror away.
As John Berger has written, “animals are always the observed.” In the wild, we spy on them from blinds, equipped with eye-extending tools to better witness their every twitch and blink. Biologists have developed ethograms, inventories of known behaviors, for most animal species. Hunters hide in treetops or litter the ground with merciless traps, a sort of hand extension, a form of remote warfare from before this era of drones. And then there is the zoo, a nod to human power and our ability, our right to observe animals, to make of them a spectacle in a micromanaged, farcical approximation of their habitat. Even more abstractly, our culture is obsessed with seeing animals on screens. This is our most domesticating gaze. It doesn’t just transport animals from the wild to the city, like a zoo, but from the wild to our homes, our pockets. They become an abstracted mobile possession.
Observing is never neutral. The male gaze objectifies and flattens the observed female, ensuring that she is a “bearer of meaning, not [a] maker of meaning,” in the words of Laura Mulvey. As Susan Sontag has written, the observer of a photograph exerts a kingly power over the photographed. Being looked at can be a violation or a privilege, or both at once.
But how does looking shift when it is interspecies? What does it mean to be looked at, peered at from above, by the chorus of songbirds announcing your arrival as you walk on any path in any forest? City birds are also acutely attuned to human presence; the humble pigeon perceives a wider range of the visible spectrum of light than any other species. What do the crows in the huge elms outside my house see when they peer into my windows early in the morning? What do the squirrels see as they leap and scurry in the parks? What does it mean to be looked at by the animal other? What do they know?
Aristotle proclaimed that “with regard to intelligence, [animals possess] something akin to sagacity.” Berger agrees, understanding animals in the human imagination as “messengers and promises.” From the roots of Western culture until today, animals have been understood as the earth’s sages, sacred messengers, promises. It is understood that the animals can see us clearly, in a pure and unimpeded form. We are recognized as one small, scared, dangerous, struggling part of a vastly larger whole.
What does it mean, then, to witness an animal witnessing you? The experience is transformative, a temporary suspension from the complex and superficial narrative of life. You are nameless and suddenly aware. Alison Hawthorn Deming writes, “Do you remember a time when you saw an animal and it made you startle into wonder? That moment of consciousness is where art and science and religion were born, that moment of snapping awake.” Your small cage of identity dissolves and there you are, alive in the living world.
It happened like this: my husband and I were sitting at the edge of a large meadow with our backs to a thick forest of fir and spruce. We weren’t talking. He was reading and I was silently contemplating loss, feeling hopeless, held in abeyance. Then I felt myself being looked at from behind. I turned, instinctively, as animals do, in the direction of the gaze, and made eye contact with the cougar. He was close, at eye level, at a distance about the length of my body. It was a long, slow-motion moment of recognition, in which my brain scrambled to keep pace with my eyes. A kaleidoscope of honey-colored pieces fell slowly into place, arranging themselves around a word, a centripetal force: cat.
I want to ask, who did he see? But I know that he didn’t see a “who.” There was no identity there, no invisible, abstract framework. There was just my body, my scent, the quality of my presence, and then my gaze, the whites of my eyes pooling as perception slowly gave way to recognition.
I didn’t see the cougar at first because I didn’t expect to see him. Vision is selective. Neuroscientists are beginning to understand the brain as a vehicle of world-making rather world-perceiving. We misread the world in subliminal, active, and creative ways. We see what we expect to see, which means that we mostly see the world as a hall of mirrors, reflecting our expectations back to ourselves.
A large predatory cat watching me from behind, so close I could reach over and brush his long white whiskers — this was not what I was expecting to see. It was only when the shape of his ears connected in my brain to the ears of my house cat that I understood what I was seeing. Until then, I was as stymied by the honey-colored vision before me as a newborn. It was what the world might look like to a child before she learns the tidy and domesticating symbolism of language: shapes, colors, sensations. Sweetness and pain. No expectations, no predictions. No past or future, no names.
In that wild and pendulous moment of eye contact with the cougar, he and I were one consciousness. He looked me in the eyes. He said: live.
I made about 50 copies of this illustrated book of poetry at end of my residency at Caldera in 2013 and gave them away for free to visitors at the open house.
If you’d like a copy, let me know.