Disciplinary Agnosticism and Engaging with Ecologies of Place

Artist and researcher Iain Biggs discusses Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place, his new co-authored book about the possibilities of creative work, ensemble practices and disciplinary agnosticism in seeking alternative and inclusive ways of belonging to this world.


2,250 words: estimated reading time = 9 minutes 


In December 2020, and after a great many years of work, Mary Modeen’s and my book Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place: Geopoetics, Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies finally appeared. This post aims to give some idea of what sort of book this is, along with some idea of how, and why, it has the content it does.

Calling for disciplinary agnosticism
Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place, by Mary Modeen & Iain Biggs

As we make clear from the start, and despite the sixty-eight colour images of works we referred to, it’s not really an ‘art book’, at least in the usual sense. Instead, it’s a book about the possibilities of ‘ensemble practices’, creative work viewed as drawing on concerns found in art, education, issues of place and what Felix Guattari calls ecosophy. Nor is it a book of theory, although it deals with a wide range of ideas from many different disciplines. Our central aim is to encourage readers, whatever their background, to understand their particular skills and knowledge in larger, intra-related contexts so as to contribute to the ‘joined-up’ thinking and action necessary to face the global changes now taking place. We’re not interested in providing an argument based on a set of specialist practices or a particular form of disciplinary or interdisciplinary thinking. Instead, like Donna Haraway, we want to encourage readers to find practical, creative ways to ‘stay with the trouble’ in all its many dimensions.        

Towards ‘placed-ness’

So, a brief outline of the book’s contents. Chapter One outlines the basis of our position and, in particular, considers the importance of three geo-poetic thinkers to our concerns — Gary Snyder, Kenneth White, and Robert Frodeman. This also allows us to distinguish their approaches from our own. Chapter Two goes back to fundamentals by considering how we take in the world through our senses. It takes the reader on an imagined walk so as to explore the relationship between embodiment and place, the visible and the invisible, the phenomenological and the numinous. Chapter Three then sets out what we mean by slow residency and explains why we don’t offer a single definition of deep mapping. It then outlines a possible pre-history of deep mapping and gives examples of current practice.

Disciplinary agnosticism
‘Queen Bee and Mobile Hive performance’, Buzz Lab interns, Plains Art Museum, Fargo, North Dakota, 2017.
Photo: Christine Baeumler

Chapter Four is based on a long interview about her work with Christine Baeumler, an artist, environmental educator, community activist, and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Art at the University of Minnesota. Her collaborative work with both her local community and Dakota people living in Minneapolis St Paul resulted in a number of land reclamation projects, including transforming an abandoned railway marshalling-yard into what is now the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary. Her recent Buzz Lab project with young people employed as paid interns created a pollinator garden and developed strategies to highlight the socio-environmental value of bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. Chapter Five investigates the values inherent in perception, and especially as this is central to the ways in which place is perceived. In it, the processes by which the threads of cultural value relating to a particular site generate understanding are unpicked.

Chapter Six looks at questions around collaboration. It includes a look at the gap between the idea of ‘interdisciplinary research’ and the way interdisciplinary collaborations tend to work out in practice. Here we’re concerned with the ways the presuppositions of the knowledge industry distort collaboration to maintain the status quo. As an alternative, we discuss what we call ‘creative communities of practice’. Importantly, it includes a shortened version of the South African artist, environmental researcher, and writer Hanien Conradie’s text The Voice of Water: Re-sounding a Silenced River, which provides a compelling example of collaboration with the more-than-human.

Chapter Seven consists of eleven examples of practices that offer inclusive and open creative approaches to a range of current concerns. Approaches that, for example, embrace the complexities of living in a world that has become inexorably multicultural, while also respecting and valuing the local, the specific, and the idiosyncratic. Chapter Eight is based on exchanges with the Australian designer, landscape researcher, curator, and educator Gini Lee. Her Stony Rises deep mapping work is representative of an inclusive, relational approach to issues of place and environment that has informed her numerous collaborations, enabling her to explore possibilities across a wide variety of conventionally disparate roles.

Chapter Nine draws on extensive conversations between Mary Modeen and  Alexander and Susan Maris, who live and work at Kinlock Rannoch in the Scottish Highlands. We see their work as enacting the vital materialism proposed by Jane Bennett, Karen Barad, and others; an inclusive approach that makes possible what Donna Haraway calls ‘tentacular thinking’. Chapter Ten, ‘Fieldwork Reconsidered, is a plea for more holistic and grounded approaches to creative learning in its fullest sense. For a shift away from what Geraldine Finn calls “high altitude thinking” towards direct experience and awareness of our placed-ness. Towards a better understanding of knowledge as embodied, enacted, and always subject to the contingencies of human and more-than-human worlds. And towards a more open awareness that attends to multiple voices in different registers and differently placed. A fieldwork, then, that’s enacted in and through our active awareness of the porosity of the human and more-than-human, of place and time, of self and community.

Disciplinary agnosticism

Now for the ‘how’ and ‘why’. The Czech poet and immunologist Miroslav Holub pointed out in 1990 that we have an unrealistic view of the work of both scientists and artists. Work that, in both cases, is actually located within a small, subtle, largely confined — if at times pervasive — domain with regard to society as a whole. Furthermore, both scientists and artists are, for much of their times, actually engaged in a whole variety of other, more mundane and everyday roles and activities. Against the assumption that the artistic or scientific mentality is a singular, exceptional and all-consuming role, Holub suggests an alternative view. Rather than the current overemphasis on the different practices and methodologies of scientists and artists, he focuses on their need to acknowledge that these differences are insignificant compared to their common obligations. ‘Obligation’ Mary and I paraphase as the need to obtain, and act on the basis of, an informed understanding of the distinct but intra-related ecologies of selfhood, the social, and the environmental. Recognising that common obligation is a key element of the inclusivity of ensemble practices.

However, developing an ensemble practice requires an agnostic attitude towards the realpolitik that underwrites the authority that disciplines and professions claim in relation to the production and circulation of knowledge. An agnosticism that allows us to separate the ‘use value’ of specialist knowledge from the intellectual and social power of categorisation and exclusion derived from it. Disciplinary agnosticism is basically a strategy to by-pass what sociologists of knowledge see as the way in which dominant forms of knowledge production are able to insist that all other knowledge claims be judged according to the dominant set of criteria. In extreme cases, this means that nothing recognisable as knowledge can be produced outside of the socially dominant form. Put briefly, disciplinary agnosticism insists on what Isabelle Stengers and other thinkers call a “decolonization of thought”. So how did we arrive at this position?

A carrier bag theory of ensemble praxis

Disciplinary agnosticism - Listening at the Borders
Iain Biggs Hidden War (with and for Anna Biggs) from Iain Biggs ‘”Listening at the Borders” introduction, acknowledgements (and an intervention) in Iain Biggs, ed. Debatable Lands Vol. 2. These Debatable Lands (Bristol, Wild Conversations Press, 2009).
Photo Iain Biggs

The archaeologist and anthropologist Barbara Bender’s work, like that of her friend the political geographer Doreen Massey, show that:

“landscapes refuse to be disciplined. They make a mockery of the oppositions that we create between time [History] and space [Geography], or between nature [Science] and culture [Social Anthropology]”
(quoted in Doreen Massey 2006: ’Landscape as a Provocation: Reactions on Moving Mountains’. Journal of Material Culture. 11(33), p. 33).

This understanding is complemented by the polymath Cliff McLucas, a key figure in the development of deep mapping, who writes in There are ten things I can say about these deep maps that deep maps should: “bring together the amateur and the professional, the artist and the scientist, the official and the unofficial, the national and the local”. In her chapter ‘The Politics of Spirituality. The Spirituality of Politics’ in Why Althusser Killed His Wife: Essays on Discourse and Violence, 1996, the feminist philosopher Geraldine Finn identifies the tension between that shared obligation and a form of reason preoccupied with categorisation. She states that:

“…the contingent and changing concrete world always exceeds the ideal categories of thought within which we attempt to express and contain it. And the same is true of people. We are always both more and less than the categories that name and divide us.”

The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman points to the profoundly negative social consequences of over-emphasis on the categorical; it’s encouraging and enabling ‘othering’ by promoting an ethically neutral ‘objective detachment’. One that erodes what Hannah Arendt calls the animal pity by which all normal persons are affected in the presence of physical suffering and, in addition, has estranged us from all other-than-human life.

Lastly, Bruno Latour supports the link between disciplinary agnosticism and the ability of ensemble practices to help renegotiate the relationship between local and global when he writes:

“What counts is not knowing whether you are for or against globalisation, for or against the local; all that counts is understanding whether you are managing to register, to maintain, to cherish, a maximum number of alternative ways of belonging to the world”.
(Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime 2018 pp. 15-16).

Both disciplinary agnosticism and ensemble practices assume a particular sense of self that’s constituted in and through relationships, attachments, and connections. Our understanding here draws on the psychoanalytic thinking of Gemma Corradi Fiumara and Felix Guattari, the post-Jungians James Hillman and Mary Watkins, the artist-turned-anthropologist A. David Napier, and the sociologists of religion Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead. I don’t have the space to enlarge on this here but, if you want the detail, it’s set out in a chapter on ‘Ensemble Practices’ in the recently published Routledge Companion to Art in the Public Realm.

So, finally, who is this book written for? When we were writing, I had in mind the  various very different individuals I’d helped navigate creative Masters and Doctoral projects. Individuals who, while they share a desire to understand and transform some aspect of the material world, have surprisingly little else in common. Drawing on Ursula K Le Guin’s recently republished essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, I’d like to hope that we’ve assembled the beginnings of a ‘carrier bag theory of ensemble praxis’, one that will be able to hasten the end of the deeply problematic story that, to borrow from Le Guin again, might be called ‘The Ascent of Man as Hero’. I hope that, instead, we can encourage readers to engage with another, less toxic and more inclusive, story. The one about how we can each best learn to register, maintain, and cherish as many alternative and inclusive ways of belonging to this Terrestrial world as possible.


Find out more

Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place: Geopoetics, Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies, by Mary Modeen & Iain Biggs is published by Routledge (2021). 

Iain’s coauthor, Mary Modeen, is Professor of Contemporary Art Practice at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design. She is an artist/academic whose research links creative practice with interdisciplinary academic studies in the humanities, particularly philosophy, literature, feminist and indigenous studies. Her work usually combines creative art practice and writing.

Five Notes on Thinking Through ‘Ensemble Practices’, Iain’s previous post for ClimateCultures, introduces ideas of ensemble creative practices to describe how the work of Christine Baeumler incorporates a multiplicity of roles and skills, illustrating “an individual’s mycelial entanglement in multiple, interconnected tasks, connectivities and interdependences, all of which will, to a greater or lesser extent, involve creativity understood inclusively.” Iain’s chapter on ‘Ensemble Practices’ appears in the Routledge Companion to Art in the Public Realm, edited by Cameron Cartiere & Leon Tan (Routledge, 2021).

Iain mentions the work of fellow ClimateCultures member Hanien Conradie, a fine artist concerned with place and belonging, informed by the cosmology of African animism within the complex human and other-than-human networks that encompass a landscape. Her ClimateCultures post Writing on Water shares a collaborative film of her ritual encounter with the River Dart in Devon and her work with places where nothing seemingly remains of their ancient knowledge — including The Voice of Water: Re-sounding a Silenced River, which Iain refers to.

Iain also mentions Ursula Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. Fellow ClimateCultures member Philip Webb Gregg also discusses this essay — where “Le Guin explores the idea of the bag being the oldest human tool. In doing so, she is able to show how the stories we’ve been told our entire lives have deceived and misled us.” — in A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #12, his contribution to our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

You can explore ideas and examples of geopoetics through the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics and its journal Stravaig — where ClimateCultures member James Murray-White is one of the editors.

Iain Biggs
Iain Biggs
An independent artist, teacher and researcher interested in place seen through the lens of Felix Guattari's ecosophy, working extensively on ‘deep mapping’, other projects and publications.
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Five Notes on Thinking Through ‘Ensemble Practices’

Artist and researcher Iain Biggs shares thoughts on the place of artists, and of creative ensemble practices, in a culture of possessive individualism that must urgently address its chronic failure of imagination in the face of eco-social crisis.


1,480 words: estimated reading time 6 minutes 


“Art is a parasite that feeds upon the corpus of culture. Its insularity is just a conceit….”
– Simon Read

One — driven to be part of the problem

The Great Below: A Journey Into Loss is Maddy Paxman’s account of facing the consequences of the death of her husband, the poet Michael Donaghy, from a brain haemorrhage at the age of fifty. She has worked as a counsellor in women’s health, a music teacher, musician and painter and currently teaches the Alexander Technique. She writes:

“Although I don’t think of myself as an artist, in that I am not ‘driven’, painting is a form of expression that seems necessary to me and I miss it when it’s not part of my life.”

This sentence, which comes towards the end of her account of her relationship with the husband she loved deeply, a man very clearly ‘driven’ to the exclusion of much that did not immediately concern his poetry, gives me pause for thought. In part because I recognise all-too-clearly the need to paint that she speaks of. In part because I think that, indirectly, her observation relates to the performance artist Andrea Fraser’s claim that artists are not part of the solution to our current socio-environmental crisis, as many assume, but part of the problem.

That sounds like a betrayal of both my own work and that of many people I deeply admire, at least until I think about the art world’s financial reality, its ‘big hitters’ — Jeff Koons, John Currin, Damian Hurst, Odd Nurdrum et al. What is the nature of the work such artists produce if not an expression of the culture of possessive individualism, the global economics the culture feeds and is fed by, and the deepening epistemological crisis in which current presuppositions about creativity are embedded? And that’s clear even before we link these things to an environmental situation that, in all probability, is now nearing its terrible endgame.

Two — the Great Derangement

As it happens, Andrea Fraser is simply restating in variation concerns raised by the artist-turned-anthropologist A. David Napier, the liberation psychologist Mary Watkins, the writer, poet and art critic Thomas McEvilley and, most recently, the writer and academic Amitav Ghosh. Despite a lifetime spent making and teaching art, I find myself sharing their various concerns. So I want to raise two possibilities.

Firstly that, if we have a stake in the arts, we should now very seriously consider in what ways the arts, in the culture of possessive individualism, have and are enacting just the chronic failure of imagination that Ghosh calls the ‘Great Derangement’. Not as some kind of quasi-masochistic guilt-trip in the best Protestant tradition, but as a necessary step to re-orienting our notions of creativity.

Cover to 'The Great Derangement' by Jill Shimabukuro
Cover to ‘The Great Derangement’
Artist: Jill Shimabukuro

Secondly, that we might ask ourselves whether the tendency to psychic monomania that Maddy Paxman describes as ‘driven-ness’ can be addressed by radically rethinking the nature of creative activity from a more inclusive perspective. Might it not be both more productive and more accurate to consider the attention and skills associated with arts practices, not as an end in themselves that justifies the artist as a ‘driven’ individual, but as catalysts or models for larger ensembles of heterogeneous skills, concerns and activities? Ensembles that would retain the psychic (if not necessarily the economic) benefits of a creative practice, but at some distance from the assumptions, expectations, and protocols central to the hyper-professionalised art world to which Andrea Frazer refers. Considering increasingly heterogeneous creative practices as compound ensembles might be a useful step towards reversing the situation in which art serves to perpetuate the culture of possessive individualism, and with it the Global North’s Great Derangement.

Three — ensemble practices

In the past I’ve used the term ‘mycelial’ to describe how the work of Christine Baeumler incorporates the roles and skills of citizen, neighbour, artist, university teacher, student of ecology, researcher, curator, mentor and, more recently, fortune-teller and student of shamanism. Maybe ‘ensemble practice’ is a better term, more able to consolidate the more inclusive understanding I’m reaching for. To stress an individual’s mycelial entanglement in multiple, interconnected tasks, connectivities and interdependences, all of which will, to a greater or lesser extent, involve creativity understood inclusively. If nothing else, the concept of ‘ensemble practices’ posits the parallel notion that individuals are themselves compound, multi-relational ensembles, supporting by extension a view of the artist that does not presuppose an exclusive hyper-individualism.

ensemble practices - Akin: art by Lucy Gorell Barnes
Akin: compost, strawberries, Letraset, pencil, watercolour and gesso on paper
Artist: Luci Gorell Barnes © 2019 www.lucigorellbarnes.co.uk

Four — between self and other

I think we now need to face the fact that the symbolic function of the artist in the culture of possessive individualism is to epitomise the notion of individual exceptionalism; to reinforce the presupposition that creativity is ‘owned’ by exceptional and self-contained individuals in ways that reinforce currently orthodox notions of personhood, nature and society. We are in reality, of course, constituted quite differently, in and through our connections, attachments and relationships. Consequently, I’m intrigued by the distinction Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead make in proposing a spectrum of identity positions between a ‘life-as’ at one extreme and ‘being-as-becoming’ at the other.

‘Life-as’ requires massive investment in a monolithic psychosocial identity, one that must oppose or deny all values, connections, and relationships that do not reinforce its coherence. It lacks, that is, the basic capacity for empathetic imagination that enables us to negotiate the constant movement between self and other, to properly engage in and with the multiplicity of psychic, social and environmental realities in which we find ourselves. At the other end of their spectrum is a sense of selfhood as coexistent with the psychosocial and environmental multiverse — fluid, relationally contingent, mutable, open-ended.

The psychosocial and political stakes here are simple. To face our eco-social crisis, we must now find ways to attend to, sustain, and cherish as many ways of belonging in the multiverse as possible if we are to adapt to an unprecedented need to change. This cannot be done by investing in any ‘life-as’, including ‘life-as an Artist’.

ensemble practices - I am done with apple picking now: art by Luci Gorell Barnes
I am done with apple picking now: knife marks, apple juice, watercolour, pencil and gesso on paper
Artist: Luci Gorell Barnes © 2019 www.lucigorellbarnes.co.uk

Five — placing the artist

Do we now need to differentiate ‘life-as an Artist’ from an involvement in making art that’s ultimately predicated on the understanding that the self cannot be reduced to a categorical identity? Isn’t this what’s implicit in Edward S. Casey’s distinction between a ‘position’ as a fixed postulate within a given culture and a sense of ‘place’ that, notwithstanding its nominally settled appearance, is experienced through living experimentally within a constantly shifting culture? If so, then isn’t what ‘places’ those who acknowledge the ensemble nature of practices itself predicated on negotiating multiple psychic, social and environmental connections, attachments, and relationships? On an open engagement with the productive tensions between experience and category, reality and representation, life and language?


Find out more

Iain’s notes on ensemble practices relate to a book chapter he has recently submitted for the ecology section of an anthology, The Routledge Companion to Art in the Public Realm, which should be published later this year. “These are, as the title suggests, simply notes and lack the references, etc. which will appear in the final chapter when it sees the light of day.”

When working on these notes, Iain had in mind the work of two visual artists. Simon Read — who he quotes at the beginning — is an artist who fosters projects on a collaborative basis and who has immersed himself in environmental debates where collaboration on an interdisciplinary level is vital. Luci Gorell Barnes — who has herself recently joined ClimateCultures — is a visual artist whose participatory practice and responsive processes aim to help people think imaginatively with themselves and others. Iain and Luci have worked together on various projects, including a ‘deep mapping‘ workshop that I took part in at art.earth’s Liquidscapes symposium in 2018. When I approached Luci, she generously agreed for me to use her images as an accompaniment to Iain’s text.

You can read more of Iain’s reflections on Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement (2016, published by University of Chicago Press) on his blog.  In the book, Ghosh asks “Are we deranged?”, seeking to explain our imaginative failure to grasp — at the level of literature, history, and politics — the scale and violence of climate change.

Fellow ClimateCultures Member Cathy Fitzgerald uses the term ‘eco-social art’ for her own works, which she also describes as ensemble practices: “often involving art and non-art activities and many ways of knowing from art, ecophilosophy, science and traditional and local knowledge and practical experiential knowledge.”

Iain Biggs
Iain Biggs
An independent artist, teacher and researcher interested in place seen through the lens of Felix Guattari's ecosophy, working extensively on ‘deep mapping’, other projects and publications.
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