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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‘What You Need Will Come to You’

Kaupapa Māori approachesEnvironmental artist Laura Donkers follows her initial post on eco-social art engagement with her experience as Visiting Doctoral Researcher, moving to Aotearoa New Zealand from July to November 2018 to expand her research by exploring Kaupapa Māori approaches.


1,600 words: estimated reading time 6.5 minutes 


In her previous post, Laura introduced the form of eco-social art engagement she’s developed in Uist in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, working with communities’ embodied knowledge to help develop climate literacy.

***

My research journey led me to undertake a period of research in Aotearoa New Zealand. It came about through a chance discussion with a New Zealand artist I had met while at a DRAWinternational artist residency in France. She introduced me to the research practice of Māori artist and scholar Dr Huhana Smith, who in the mid-2000s developed a PhD project at Kuku Beach, Palmerston North, working with her local tribe to reinstate the river, estuary and beach ecosystem according to traditional cultural principles. I was fascinated to read how the community had responded to the project, but also was intrigued to find out what the term Kaupapa Māori — literally ‘a Māori way’ —  actually meant. I knew that Māori were the indigenous people of New Zealand, but was not really familiar with their culture of interconnectedness. However, it became apparent from further research that their understanding of their embeddedness in the natural world was similar to something I had recognised in the Uist community, but due to my own incapacities had felt unable to express.

Perhaps a greater knowledge of Kaupapa Māori might give my research the underpinning framework that I felt it was missing? So I expanded my project methodology and combined artistic methods with a modified version of Participatory Action Research that drew from Kaupapa Māori Theory, an academic approach that retrieves space for Māori voices and perspectives, particularly where it affords new perspective into community-led collective thinking and action. My hope is that by including Kaupapa Māori Theory my research can help other communities understand how to address issues of universal concern, such as climate change adaptation, and help restore an understanding of sustainable living.

Kuku beach Photograph by Laura Donkers
Kuku beach
Photograph: Laura Donkers © 2018

Understanding Kaupapa Māori 

I wanted to learn first-hand how Kaupapa Maori is realised in a community. Through university contacts, I approached Elam School of Art to propose a period of research. I met with the Head of the School and learned that Kaupapa Māori praxis underpins teaching and support of their students within the contemporary art framework. Given that I was a trained artist, I felt this would provide a context to experience Kaukapa Māori in an accessible way, and hoped to learn from practitioners, lecturers, and students how mutual trust, respect, reciprocity and kinship manifest in the art school situation.

Over the course of my five-month residency I came to appreciate that I was expecting much more than was possible from a relatively short period of research. Not least, my minimal understanding of the practice of Kaupapa Māori left me unable to articulate what I had hoped to find. And I had the feeling amongst the people that I spoke to that Kaukapa Māori was not really practised in the school in the way I had understood. However, the uncertainties that arose through my questioning slowly led to helpful suggestions of other outlets where I might find answers, and eventually I found my way to groups and individuals in the wider community who were able to share with me their experiences.

Meeting with weavers 

I found the process of searching for points of contact and connection to be difficult and disheartening at times. Initial meetings with academics and practitioners were straightforward to arrange, but they did not seem to go anywhere. I often found the experience more like an interrogation than a discussion and it was hard to pin down whether I was speaking to someone who was interested in my research or just checking my motives. Follow-up discussions never materialised and this left me without the necessary dialogue to explore the subject of Kaupapa Māori in practice. It seemed that the more questions I asked the less clarity I gained, and I wondered how I could achieve the outcome of the research I was seeking. I had arranged to meet a renowned master weaver who was a friend of my supervisor but also, by chance, of a neighbour in Uist. I looked forward to this meeting but had no idea where it would lead.

We met at Auckland’s Memorial Museum where a number of master weavers were gathered in the ‘Te Awe’ Project Room. ‘Te Awe’ is a vast stock take and digitisation exercise being carried out by Auckland Museum to examine 10,000 Māori Taonga — highly prized objects or natural resources. The women had been selected from across the country for their supreme expertise and worked together to agree on specific definitions for the different techniques present in the Korowai (ceremonial cloak) laid before them.

Members from the Taumata Mareikura and Auckland Museum Staff view a few examples of taonga Māori textiles in the collection
Members from the Taumata Mareikura and Auckland Museum Staff view a few examples of taonga Māori textiles in the collection
Source: www.aucklandmuseum.com

They graciously came to greet me, and despite my ignorance, the gravitas of the occasion was palpable as I observed the reverent manner in which the Korowai were examined, and the quiet discussions amongst the weavers as they approached a consensus. And then it was time for tea, further discussion and an unexpected invitation to attend a marae (a communal and sacred meeting ground of Māori people) at the weekend, which I eagerly accepted.

This extraordinary encounter marked a turning point, and I went on to meet a myriad of people who welcomed me. Through quiet explanation and discussion, I slowly began to understand Kaukapa Māori in practice, and its comparability to practices I was all too familiar with from the years spent living in Uist. The gentle acknowledgement of each other’s rights through principles of mutual respect involving face to face encounter; looking, listening and then speaking; sharing and hosting; caution; and not trampling on the rights, personal prestige and character of each other. 

‘What you need will come to you’ 

However, it was a phrase conveyed to me by an artist-weaver that most sums up my research journey in Aotearoa New Zealand. She recounted her experience of having to learn to overcome frustration as she developed her weaving skills by eventually accepting the premise of her weaving teacher that ‘what you need will come to you’. A simple mantra that perhaps all researchers should hold to — that over time and with a little humility you will find what you are looking for.


From our contemporary perspective, it can be difficult to trust that you will find what you need. Will there be time to allow that process to happen? How will you know this is what you needed? Is this a valid methodology?

An extraordinary opportunity opened up for me just as I was preparing to leave. I followed up a chance introduction at Auckland Council’s climate change workshops and was invited to meet with some of the team at the Kaipatiki Project to discuss potential ways of working together in the future.

As part of my SGSAH AHRC Creative Economies scholarship, I could propose an artist-in-resident placement with a non-academic institution, and the Kaipatiki Project’s regenerative approach to working with community and environment seemed to offer an ideal location. SGSAH accepted my proposal for a three-month artist residency, which would further develop my understanding of Kaupapa Maori Theory, this time at community organisation level. 

So, for three months, I am exploring how my creative approach relates to and can contribute towards the organisation’s underpinning objective to help communities live more sustainably, and together we will develop ways to unleash the creativity of the community to identify opportunities to solve local environmental challenges.

I am just beginning this residency and am keeping a diary of my experiences. I’ll be happy to share these in future ClimateCultures posts!

I wish to thank my host Associate Professor Peter Shand, the tutors and students at Elam School of Art and other Professors at Auckland University who helped me on my way, as well as many other artists, weavers, practitioners, and members of community groups who listened, questioned and advised me during my all too brief sojourn in Aotearoa New Zealand. I would also like to take the opportunity to thank my funders Scottish Graduate School of Arts and Humanities for their Visiting Doctoral Researcher Award that made this visit possible. 


Find out more 

Laura’s previous post, introducing her artistic practice and research, is Eco-social Art — Engaging Climate Literacy

DRAWinternational caters for fine artists, applied artists, musicians or writers in pursuit of new and dynamic form, in preparation for exhibition, publication or postgraduate qualification. 

Dr Huhana Smith is a visual artist, curator and principal investigator in research who engages in major environmental, trans-disciplinary, kaupapa Māori and action-research projects. She is co-principal investigator for research that includes mātauranga Māori methods with sciences to actively address climate change concerns for coastal Māori lands in Horowhenua-Kāpiti. Huhana actively encourages the use of art and design’s visual systems combined in exhibitions, to expand how solutions might integrate complex issues and make solutions more accessible for local communities.

You can find out more about the principles and practice Kaupapa Māori research at the website of Katoa Ltd, a Māori – Indigenous research organisation.

‘Te Awe’ is a vast stock take and digitisation exercise being carried out by Auckland Museum 

Kaipatiki Project has, since 1998, been inspiring communities to live sustainably by restoring local bush reserves with community and developing environmental education programmes for all ages.

Laura Donkers
Laura Donkers
An artist-researcher who develops interpretive and participatory positions within the community, contributes to eco-social actions, and creates interactive artworks to disseminate the community's embodied knowledge.
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