ecopornography, slow violence and the deep art of place

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9 July 2012


“Nature photographs have become something of a problem”

Image remixed from Creative Commons image by Hermes

Joy Williams, quoted by Bart Welling in Ecoporn: on the limits of visualising the nonhuman, 2009.

slow violence

and the deep, slow art of place By Cathy Fitzgerald

“The representational challenges are acute, requiring creative ways of drawing public attention to catastrophic acts that are low in spectacle but high in long term effects…In an age of degraded attention spans it becomes doubly difficult yet increasingly urgent that we focus on the toll exacted, over time, by the slow violence of ecological degradation…” Rob Nixon, Rachel Carson Professor, 2011, p.10-13. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor


In my work in proposing and characterising the ecocidal, anthropocentric (human-centered) gaze in cinema, I have long been interested as a cultural practitioner myself, in how visual representations of the natural world may in fact obscure and most worryingly, perpetuate the violence inflicted upon it. In recent ecocritical analysis of visual imagery and academic texts I have come across ideas like “ecopornography” and the “slow violence” of environmental destruction. These new ideas would appear to be important and bring much-needed attention to the politics inherent in the

representations we create about the physical and living communities that surround us. In particular I am interested that how in our heavily mediated lives where we have so much access to nature imagery, that ecological destruction has in fact vastly accelerated in recent decades, where many planetary boundaries, the ‘safe operating limits’ for life on earth are now being clearly exceeded. In thinking about how cultural works may be working in this regard, I went back to a key text in Visual Culture, John Berger‘s acclaimed 1972 book Ways of



Seeing. Added to this I also remembered that considerable work has been undertaken in ecofeminism since the 1970s that has shown the strong parallels in how women and nature are similarly exploited and how such ideas are reflected in, and perpetuated by, cultural works. In Ways of Seeing, Berger

displays of land ownership are growing themes evident in English painters work’s. He describes how in Gainsborough’s painting of Mr and Mrs Andrews (1750), the wealthy and powerful husband and wife, have themselves depicted proudly in front of the large estate they own. Such images painted over the realities of most of the inhabitants on these same estates – local peoples caught hunting for food were sentenced for deportation.

Depictions of land increasingly reflect the status and power of their owners and this type of imagery develops further in later centuries with the rise and power of the dominant Western industrial societies as they colonised new lands. This is particularly apparent in the celebrated 19th century landscape paintings Mr and Mrs Andrews, Gainsborough, 1750. Image: Wikipedia commons of the new American continent. American art historian Professor Albert Biome in his 1991 successfully unpacks the politics and power book The Magisterial Gaze convincingly inherent in visual culture that supports shows that early to mid-19th century dominant ideologies of violence and American landscape paintings are not solely exploitation. In European art to present day works about a sublime and transcendent photography, Berger drew attention to the fact ‘virgin’ nature, but clearly articulated and that women were often portrayed in cultural helped perpetuate exploitation of the new works as “the surveyed”, as property; that continent. there is a clear power relationship in how women are represented and how men treat (exploit) women (this perspective was later developed further in feminist theory as the “male gaze”). Berger writes that such works are significantly about possession. Berger concentrates on images of women and nonEuropean peoples depicted in paintings and in contemporary photographic media and only briefly examines nature images but he does mention that the first landscapes that appeared in the Netherlands in the 17th century. These he suggests show “nature-as-a The Magisterial Gaze book by Albert Biome whole” and he comments that most of these early painted land-water-sky-scapes Such cultural works, though accurate in generally did not convey ideas of land depicting the beauty of these new lands, ownership and possession. Yet by the mid-18th century he notes that possession and presented a sanitised view of the colonisers westward march — as what is missing from such paintings are the indigenous peoples, ‘Depictions of land increasingly reflect much of the wildlife and the violence of their the status and power of their owners eradication and extermination. Also common and this type of imagery develops to such works are the elevated god-like further in later centuries with the rise perspective created for the viewer. and power of the dominant Western industrial societies as they colonised In compelling visual terms such works new lands. This is particularly replicate and reinforces the God-given apparent in the celebrated 19th “manifest destiny” of the invading Europeans century landscape paintings of the with their Christian inspired ideological new American continent’ Prof. Albert narrative of human “progress”, to multiply in, Biome civilize and “develop, this “empty” new land


(Christianity itself evolved these perspectives from the earliest Mesopotamian civilizations). Ideas from the Enlightenment too, with its emphasis on humanism and the negation of sentience in other living beings, the cornerstone ideas that are even more entrenched in our current scientific and technological age, helped to further separate humanity from recognising any ethical necessity in relating to these new environments and their living communities. Berger in a later text, About Looking, writes that ‘the 19th century, in western Europe and North America, saw the beginning of a process, today being completed by 20th century corporate capitalism, by which every tradition which has previously mediated between man and nature was broken. Before this rupture, animals constituted the first circle of what surrounded man. Perhaps that already suggests too great a distance. They were with man at the centre of his world (Berger, 1980, p. 3). In newer visual media of photography and cinema, these legacies of limiting ideologies and perspectives are dominant in many cultural works that represent the natural world. Now when humans have altered over 40 per cent of the Earth and exponential rates of degradation are accelerating, particularly in the decades since WWII, it appears that we are often consume or create artworks that do not match the earth’s present reality and its degradation. For example, one might argue this occurs even in the celebrated visual imagery of pristine, unpeopled wilderness scenes, as created by photographer Ansel Adams. While aesthetically arresting nature images in this style may seem a very necessary cultural tool of the environmental movement, providing a sense of the value of untainted wild lands, many similar images when critically examined show that they simultaneously mask and abstract the violence of eradication of peoples and species by keeping unpleasant eco-social realities “out of the frame”. Additionally, depictions of beautiful, yet empty, apparently untouched landscapes often reinforce misguided ideas of conservation management/national park schemes, that often very effectively divorce humans entirely from their supporting natural environments. If we examine the context of the lands in Adam’s photographs we find they were previously managed sustainably for millennia by natives people for instance. Additionally Berger reminds us when he cites Susan Sontag’s view ‘that a capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anaesthetise the injuries of class, race and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit the natural resources, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs


to bureaucrats. The camera’s twin capacities, to subjectivise reality and to objectify it, ideally serve these needs and strengthen them. Cameras define reality in the two ways essential to the workings of an advanced industrial society: as a spectacle (for masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers). The production of images also furnishes a ruling ideology (Berger, 1980, p.59). The philosopher John Gray of the London School of Economics agrees, industrial society has moved from economies of industrialised production to economies of mass visual culture that has as its aims to ‘entertain and distract populations’ (Gray, 2002, p. 160). Thinking about this increasing alienation from the natural world, ‘ecopornography’, is a concept that has been re-visited in recent ecocritical analysis of visual imagery and would appear to be both useful and bring much needed attention to the politics of contemporary nature representations. Welling who has written in detail about “Ecoporn” (2009), would argue that conventions of nature visual culture are often pornographic as they are seductive and distracting, and grossly mask our ecocidal behaviour to the material and more-thanhuman world. Welling argues that ecopornography is not simply, “just like porn but is pornographic for three reasons”; firstly it “traffics” in visual culture the same “land-as-woman tropes” that have done much “to authorize the genocidal oppression of native peoples and the colonization of their lands by European settlers and the eradication of nonhuman animals, plants etc”. Welling cites Mitman’s account of wildlife films of Africa in the 1960s that depicted an untouched paradise as paving the way for displacement of indigenous peoples for the sole benefit of wealthy overseas tourists (many images of exotic locations for tourism work on similar premises where the eco-social realities are kept well out of the frame). Secondly ecoporn places the viewer in the role of the “male surveyor”…and so “denies agency to nonhuman life forms”. Thirdly ecoporn in recent years has become more disturbing in its portrayal of explicit sexuality and violent death in TV “animal snuff documentaries” that are often branded as “educational” and acceptable for general audiences Many of us could agree with Weller that many images of nature (‘nature’ here defined simply if erroneously as anything that is non-human; that is part of the human’s environment) are pornographic: such works do seduce, objectify and commodify their subjects, they alternate in assisting in the denial and amnesia of ecocide and display our deepest fantasies of unsullied environments that point to our future exploitative desires. When I have mentioned the term ‘ecopornography’, the response is quick, perhaps as


growing awareness of the extent of biosphere degradation is increasingly visible now and so at odds with many of the nature images that surround us. Writer, radical ecophilospher, Derrick Jensen has written at length in many books on our industrial society’s ‘culture of make believe’ that denies and silences ecocide. In his writing about pornography he reminds us that pornography abstracts and denies ‘not only relationality but memory and imagination’ (Jensen, 2006, p.211). He describes, that ‘through training and habit, objectification insinuates itself into what might have otherwise been relationships, and into those encounters that we call relationships… having inured ourselves to the routine objectification of those around us, having long lost touch with the particular (any particular), when we encounter another, be it tree, woman, black man, or anything else under the sun, we too easily lose sight of that other, too easily lose hold on the slender slip of possibility of actual encounter instead little save our preconceptions, our projections already formed in a culture based on domination’ (Jensen, 2006, p. 223). Such thoughts equally apply to the workings of ecopornography and the ecocide it hides, how it obscures the relationality towards other species and many indigenous cultures, how it ultimately perpetuates our industrial culture’s great ecological forgetting. I like Jensen’s reminder too, that to ‘objectify another is to only partially exist’, to me this means that we lose something of our humanity when we ignore relations with earth’s fellow inhabitants.


works) also cut and disorient our perceptions while affecting almost total passivity in its audiences. He noted too that subtle long-time changes of the natural world are not well suited to such media, that ecosocial-political realities are often left out of the frame of TV and nature documentaries. These ideas are much expanded upon in Rob Nixon’s new book on Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011). Drawing on the work of Rachel Carson, Edward Said and Ramachandra Guha, Nixon argues that we need to account for a different type of violence, the ‘slow violence’ of man-made ecocide and that we also ‘need to engage the Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of representational, narrative, and the Poor by Rob Nixon, 2011 strategic challenges posed by the relative invisibility of slow However there are also strong violence’. ‘Slow violence, Nixon contrasting views about not using identifies as temporal and spatial and attaching the word forms of ecological violence, often ‘pornography’ to cultural works. In disproportionately affecting the detailed work reviewing global, invisible poor and their perspectives from leading war and environments and it is ultimately natural disaster photojournalists, ‘under-represented in strategic photographer and media theorist, planning as well as in human David Campbell notes real memory’. He reveals that slow difficulties when work is too quickly violence is not a singular and easily labelled as ‘disaster spectacular event that our mass porn’ or ‘war porn’. He strongly media of today relishes to retain its argues that the term and concept of over-saturated audiences, but ‘pornography’ shuts down attritional, often exponential, legitimate and important in-depth proliferating long-term conflicts and discourse of larger socio-political ongoing ecological degradation issues that photographers are trying (Nixon, p. 2-3). Nixon also points to raise. It seems to be a very out the enormous challenge too in complex area and worthy of more our ‘turbo-speed’ mediated lives consideration. However, in some where ‘partial attention’ is the norm, ways as there is so little attention in where partial attention, generally mainstream media and educational just on our own species activities, institutions in regards to cultural has almost completely eclipsed the works of the natural world and earth and the necessity of having ecocide, there maybe some merit in healthy ecosystems. An important the considered use of the term and detailed book combining ecopornography in this instance. perspectives outside of western discourse, Nixon gives much In thinking about cinematic account detailing slow violence and material, media and public relations then concentrates on examples of analyst Jerry Mander was an early writer-activists who are attempting critic several decades ago about how to engage in new cultural works to TV flattens and narrows our respond to these concerns. perception of the physical world. He Interestingly, and he doesn’t expand argues that qualities of TV (this on this, he does note the primacy of could apply to all audiovisual



the visual perception in environmental discourse and asks ‘how do we both make slow violence visible yet also challenge the privileging of the visible? (p. 14-15).

Boetzkes The Ethics of Earth Art (2010). I was fortunate recently to observe recent developments in this still but growing field at the international The Home and the World summit in the UK held in June 2012 (I have previously surveyed the many online networks that make visible the activities in this area here). To me what is quietly striking about these small but growing number of artists working now, engaging with these almost inconceivably gloomy ecosocial realities, realities that still remain for the large part outside of mainstream art education and international art events, is an inherent desire to counter our ever consuming, culture-on-speed. There is a persistence by many of these arts practitioners to create longterm, deep engagements with specific places and their nonhuman and human communities. These are slow art practices, sensitive and personal, with differing mixes of the social, ecological and or political, providing layers of multifaceted cultural perspectives and responses.

responses to ecological concerns too – he writes, ‘a radial system has to be constructed around the photograph (read now as any cultural form), so that it may be seen in terms which are simultaneously personal, political, economic, dramatic, everyday and historic (Berger, 1980, p.67).

Yet even with clearer, broader looking, one must reflect too that it is impossible that any cultural works can reverse the momentum of the ecocidal juggernaut that industrial civilization has unleashed. Even though still not readily acknowledged in mainstream media, the disturbing number of exceeded global earth indices already overwhelm any piecemeal political or economic developments that may attempt to reverse the situation. However if we can find a quiet space at the edge of the shallow The Ethics of Earth Art by Amanda rapids of our saturated mediated Boetzkes, 2011 lives and go deeper, we may find lodged against the flow, small signs From my own questions and of creative perspectives and observation of how visual art practices that may serve us and our practices may respond to such ecological kin well. Slow art challenges, I see committed Many of the writers I have practices comprising of durational, engagement from practitioners on mentioned previously, from Berger, diverse and multifaceted forms that the edges of contemporary cultural to Jensen and Nixon (and there are run counter to our destructively practice, which has built on the growing numbers of others, see in limited narratives of unremitting early work of land artists. Early particular the work of Val growth and our species blind self Land Artists in the late 1960s took Plumwood and others in the field of interest. Perspectives and practices their practices and work outside of ecofeminism and environmental that can give sound, sights, textures, galleries, and engaged with their literary theory), talk of the ultimate perhaps even smells of the earth and physical environments across a necessity of urgently and deeply attend carefully to all the complex variety of visual, sculptural and engaging with our place, our landeco-social, political and historical textual media, concentrating on bases, if all living communities, are aspects of the human and nonprocess and projects rather than to thrive and survive. Berger on the human communities that place singular works, often over extended topic of visual culture and entails. Work that can seem new but time periods. While many Land photography in particular, has which draws on ancient wisdom that Artists, Robert Smithson for written some decades ago how always foregrounded respectful example has a significant legacy in photographic images have ‘died’, as relationality between all species this respect, have been described as they have long being ‘torn from needs: it is what must lie at the heart having their focus both on their contexts’ by the consumerism of our stories and actions towards challenging the primacy of art and speed of the mass media. Yet he sustainability. institutions to present and was hopeful that photography could acknowledge what constitutes art _____________________ regain an important societal and to investigate the unexplored function. While he was talking formal potentials of natural about the efficacy of photography in materials, recent theory suggests reflecting on war, his words could that such artists have long also being be applied to thinking about cultural displaying a developing ethics to the works that seek to incorporate Earth, as detailed in Amanda

Bibliography: Berger, John, 1972. Ways of Seeing. BBC and Penguin Books Ltd, London. Berger, John. 1980. About Looking. Vintage International. Random House Inc. New York. Biome, Albert. 1991. The Magisterial Gaze. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and London. Campbell, David. 2011. The problem with regarding the photography of suffering as ‘pornography’., accessed June 4, 2012. Gray, John 2002. Straw Dogs; thoughts on humans and other animals. Granta Books, London. Jensen, Derrick. 2002. Culture of Make Believe. Chelsea Green Publishing, Vermont. Mander, Jerry. Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (1978), William Morrow Paperbacks. Welling, Bart., H. 2009. Ecoporn in Ecosee – image, rhetoric, nature. eds. Dobrin and Morey. SUNY.


New Zealander, Cathy Fitzgerald Visual Culture PhD scholar, National College of Art & Design, Dublin, Ireland

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