Eric & Aaron
For our last blog posting of this fantastic 18-week Bridge Residency in sci/art, we thought that rather than write separate blog posts that we’d write a single post as a dialogue about our experience and where we hope to go from here. We talk about five topics.
What did we expect from the residency?
AME: I don’t have a copy of my application to the residency, but I probably typed in something like this into the description box: I would like to work with a creative artist to learn more about how to integrate photography and sculpture with ecological theory to effectively envision, illustrate, enact, and communicate the expected and unexpected consequences of manipulating the world around us as we create novel ecosystems. And in my first blog post, I wrote that I see it [the residency] as a great opportunity to work with Eric (and perhaps others in this cohort) to explore new ideas, pick up on some simmering ideas in new contexts, and walk a different path from my ‘normal’ work as a scientist and academic administrator.
ERZ: When I applied, I hoped I could extend the interdisciplinarily-informed work I was already making into new areas, and that happened almost immediately in our collaboration. I also expected to be paired with someone else who was equally interested in collaboration, and I am pleased that I got that and more, specifically - a partner who is already quite experienced in working with other practitioners inside and outside his field.
AME: It’s easy to lose track of expectations, but on reflection, I feel there’s been a good match between what I expected from the Bridge and what I learned and accomplished over the last four months.
ERZ: I also think, looking back, that when I applied, I was interested in seeing how another person works in a different discipline. Many of the things I do (photography, woodworking, teaching) function as some balance of observation and physical understanding, then repetition with reflection. I have found that I learn quite a bit more from others when I am unfamiliar with what they do, and I have certainly learned quite a bit in this short time working with Aaron.
What have we learned?
AME: I learned a lot about photography, especially its history and digital post-processing techniques. Talking with Eric about how to make better panoramas, from paying attention to leveling of the camera for each shot to tips and tricks in Photoshop has led me to think much more clearly about a photographic form I’ve used before not only for photographing scenery but also for collecting visual data about forest dynamics through time. Eric and I were constantly looking out for interesting things to read, and one of the most influential for me was Hagi Kenaan’s new book, Photography and its Shadow. It brings together themes from the history and cultural siting of photography, aesthetics, and existentialist, phenomenologist, and perspectivist philosophies. One reading of it is clearly not enough!
I also thought a lot about how ecologists (and other scientists) use photographs primarily for documentation. Even though scientists have many photo contests that emphasize aesthetics, post-processing is frowned upon if not outright forbidden. Although such proscriptions certainly make sense when photographs are themselves data objects, the disavowal of creative post-processing places science-based photography firmly outside of the realm of photography-as-art. I’ve come to think that’s not a useful stance for sci/art collaborations that use photography as a medium.
ERZ: I learned quite a bit about research forests, Hemlock trees, and the surveillance of these research forests and our world’s ecosystems. I thought about the “truthfulness” of images in the context of science even more than I previously had, which was quite helpful, as it informed the teaching of my History of Photography course in the Fall semester, during the start of our collaboration.
One of the many recurring topics in our conversations around photography and ecology is the contradiction Aaron pointed out between the permanence of a photograph (at least to us as mortal human observers) and the persistence of change in natural systems. This tension informed the images I have made and posted to this blog, and continues to generate thought and experimentation with images of forests.
I’ve also learned more about the collaborative process. As an artist, collaborations are not typical, and there are not many understood structures or methods for such things. I have worked in collaborative ways before, but not in a way where the collaboration started from a pairing up that was out of my hands.
How did the residency change our practice?
ERZ: I think in the aspects that I could conceivably measure in my practice, what has changed might be better examined as a shift in perspective, or a reinforcement of previously held values that needed deeper exploration. For example, I’ve gained a better understanding of the complexity of ecological systems, and the issues involved in their representation. As a result, I’ve been thinking less about the “now” of my practice, and more about the long-term, or perhaps even the full term of it; something that better echoes lessons learned from observing ecological dynamics instead of just other artists working in studios.
AME: Several years ago David Buckley Borden and I wrote about how our sci/art collaboration affected my scientific research and practice. We wrote then - and still would assert that - major breakthroughs or innovations from art-science collaborations are more likely to be the exception than the rule. But we also wrote that sci/art collaborations provide new insights and skills and open up new avenues for creativity. Working with Eric has certainly given me many new insights and helped me develop new skills, and has both of us thinking about what projects we can pursue together. In my own scientific work, thinking more about photography of science is making me much more aware of how much my colleagues and I depend on photo-documentation without considering how our assumptions about it affect the science that we do. As with new insights afforded by my previous sci/art projects, the effects of this residency and associated projects will take time to become manifest.
What have we accomplished?
AME: Most importantly, I’ve found a new friend and collaborator. I successfully created panoramas in Photoshop and managed to restore to working order on a Windows 10 computer Canon’s 20-year-old (and no longer supported) PhotoStitch software to rescue me from Photoshop’s inability to automatically create a panorama from nearly 100 images.
ERZ: I also think the most important accomplishment of this residency has been the new friendship and the great collaboration. For myself, I made images that are not yet visually successful, but are becoming more conceptually successful. I think this way of working is important - to work from an idea that may not be possible, and try to make it work while engaging an expert in the study of the thing being photographed, in this case forests.
Together: We wrote nine blog posts (mostly on time) and have accumulated piles of digital images to sift through. We came up with concepts, sketches, and applications for workshops, exhibitions, and installations, of which some have been submitted (one accepted, one declined) and others are still pending.
What’s next on our horizon?
Together: We have a lot to look forward to that will enable us to continue our collaborative work. One of our workshop/exhibition proposals has been accepted for presentation in June at the 2021 CICA New Media Art Conference in South Korea. We hope that travel is possible by then, but if not, we will be able to participate in the conference virtually. We also have submitted a similar proposal for a workshop at the November 2021 Borrowed Time summit in England and an abstract for a paper on using photography to envision an ecological and non-anthropocentric aesthetic for the June 2021 IIAA 14th International Conference in Finland.