Kevin Hamilton

Kevin Hamilton is a Professor in the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he also serves as Associate Dean for Research in the College of Fine and Applied Arts. His current book project Lookout America: the Secret Hollywood Film Studio at the Heart of the Cold War State investigates the role of film in America's nuclear weapons program. This essay appeared in a slightly different form in 2015 in Seen, the journal of organization Christians in the Visual Arts.

Object Lessons: Landscape after the “Material Turn”

This essay originally appeared in SEEN Journal (XV.1) – Landscape, a publication by Christians in the Visual Arts.

In the film Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s beautiful new homage to the humble habits required of art, we see the protagonist, a poet and bus driver, at work throughout his days. His work is concerned with looking at things—a glass of beer, a watch, a box of matches—and being influenced by them. The film will be a revelation to some, and a beautiful portrait of a foundational truth to others—the truth that especially in art, objects exist in the world not to be acted upon, but to act on us. Artists of all kinds often count things—whether born of human hands, machine processes, or of the planet’s volcanic, biological heart—as oriented to at least the possibility, if not the preordained destiny, of incarnate life. They live their days bearing in mind a continuum between the painter’s pocket full of objects rescued from trash and trail, her head full of verse about sensate matter, her holy books underlined at mentions of talking animals and singing stones, her studio expectant for the rush of divine wind and silence. Artists also count themselves somewhat out-of-step with modernity in this regard, expecting enchantment where they imagine others to have accepted disenchantment.

If as an artist or art patron, you recognize yourself in this picture, it may then come as a surprise to find that the conference halls, edited volumes, and curatorial mandates of art academe today are awash with concern for the agency—the sentience, the will, the intentions, even the memory—of inanimate things. Under such banners as “thing theory,” “speculative realism,” “object-oriented ontology,” or “the non-human turn,” the arts and humanities are rife with new speculation about the lives of things in the world. If you want to make a case for not only the worth, but the distinctive identity and emotional, political power of individual paintings, kittens, copper veins, microbes, pencils, or postage stamps, you’ll have a robust array of critical platforms at your disposal. This “material turn” eschews universalities, instrumentalism, and reductionism—no object, thing, or creature should be identified solely for a quality it embodies, an end it serves, or a concept it illustrates. Things have their own lives. A spoon “knows” the sugar it scoops. The copper knows its way back to the earth, through mining, extraction, formation into circuits, melting in the hands of children doing cheap (and toxic) e-waste labor, disposal.

One of the richest examples of this approach in my recent memory was the central component of dOCUMENTA (13), the 2012 installment of Kassel, Germany’s massive art festival. In the exhibit referred to by the curators as The Brain, a large but not innumerable amount of objects lay on display across the walls, floor, and display cases of a close, semi-circular room. We see traditional, if relatively recent, fired pottery in distinctive symmetrical shapes and rich glazes. There are also two bricks bearing old adhesive marks where, we are told, antennae were once attached to render the clay forms as (contraband) portable radios under a communist Czech government.

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s The Brain, Photo: Fabian Fröhlich.

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s The Brain, Photo: Fabian Fröhlich.

On the floor we see a pair of large rocks, nearly identical in color, shape, and size. The wall placard describes one as from a quarry, the other from a river—an extremely unlikely set of twins? On another wall, a grid of digital reprints of Lee Miller photos, probably from one or two rolls shot on the same day in 1945, when the photographer-journalist accompanied U.S. forces in to liberate Munich. Miller poses taking a bath in the bathtub of Hitler’s Munich apartment; the small carved female nude statuette behind her in the photograph is behind us in a display case, as is the more famous statue which Miller herself mimics in the image. Nearby, we see an image of human remains in an oven from Dachau, likely shot on the same day as Miller’s performance in Hitler’s apartment. Down the way, we see displayed the issue of LIFE magazine where Miller’s bathtub scene was eventually published.

Elsewhere in this same room, we see a case of vases and bottles from the collection of the late Italian painter Giorgio Morandi. Their forms recall the ceramic vessels nearby, and then literally recur in some Morandi paintings elsewhere in the room. We also see a grouping of metronomes from Man Ray’s collection, each bearing a photograph of an eye fastened to the top of the pendulum. This is Lee Miller’s eye, we learn. Their relationship apparently did not end well, and thus her appearance in this sculpture, entitled How to destroy something you love. As the original work, according to the surrealist’s instructions, involved smashing the metronome-assemblage with a hammer, what we actually see in the case is a collection of different un-smashed versions of the piece, each created for different exhibitions, and each with a different version of Miller’s eye.

Indestructible Object Man Ray, 1923

Indestructible Object, Man Ray, 1923

In this exhibit, each object arrives with some import, while new meanings emerge through dialogues between the objects. Like wayfinding signs, each object points to others within the room, and even to spaces outside, yet also sits firmly within some sequence of other objects. The viewer sees connections between objects she might not have imagined before, and every object sits at the intersection of multiple trajectories of meaning, but the possible valences and stories of each object are also not infinite. Their particular shapes, forms, and histories form the conditions of their possible dialogue with other objects.

If a quest for seeing the world from something other than human-centered perspectives lies at the heart of this material turn, landscape as subject becomes a particularly poignant place for such explorations—if in some unexpected ways. Where others would have us see modernity as having successfully achieved a disembodied, atom-less ideal, the task of the landscape artist or designer—in light of the material turn—is to reveal the matter such narratives hide. Many of the most fluid or even abusive habitations of land today hide the human hand in the interest of exploitation that appears as natural as geology. Much as in the whole notion of the anthropocene, a newly popular term for describing our present geologic era as one where humanity is the most significant geologic force, art that sets out to critique anthropocentricism often spends a lot of time putting humans back in the spotlight, revealing their work to be as material as any other.

Twenty-first-century landscape photography is one of the easiest places to see this approach. Edward Burtynsky may be the most well-known of this ilk, but one might also look to Jessica Auer, Jennifer Ray, or Chad Ress to see white settlement anew. Christian Houge’s photographs of the Global Seedvault installation in arctic Norway similarly reveal the alien nature of humans in a landscape, while also inviting speculation about the relative timescales of seeds and concrete architecture.

Another whole conversation in art and design today takes on the old role of the explorer to discover the physical bases of our most immaterial experiences. Nicole Starosielski and Erik Loyer’s online interactive project Surfacing allows one to trace the undersea cables responsible for the globe’s data traffic, with special attention to where they leave water for land. Similarly, Ingrid Burrington’s Networks of New York: An Internet Infrastructure Field Guide offers an alternative tour of Manhattan with attention to the material bases of security and finance hidden in plain sight. In Phantom Terrains, Daniel Jones and Frank Swain offer new hearing aids that let you listen to the wireless data waveforms that envelop any walk through a city. Timo Arnall and John Gerrard track down and photograph the architecture of the internet and its data centers in their respective projects; Trevor Paglen, most famous lately for his film contributions to the Snowden documentary CitizenFour, does the same for security and intelligence operations. The Center for Land Use Interpretation, a decades-old collective working across North America, documents under-recognized infrastructure and catalogs it for review and reflection.

Still others focus on how objects “see” the land. Among these, James Bridle is probably most well-known for his popular website capturing what he called “The New Aesthetic.” There, Bridle collected scores of examples of images captured by Google Street View cameras, satellites, drones, and cell phones, with special attention to glitches and mistakes that revealed the limitations of these algorithmic lenses. Not long after, Geoff Manaugh, founder of BLDGBLOG, a wellspring of infrastructural aesthetics, curated the exhibition Landscape Futures for the Nevada Museum of Art. This exhibition and accompanying catalog is a compendium of new ways of seeing and sensing land, such as those of Shin Egashira and David Greene, who in 1998 enacted a series of handmade land-measurement tools on the island of Portland that left wind speed, land-slope, and other qualities as indelible marks on the island’s own rocks.

Mason White and Lola Sheppard, Lateral Office & Intranet Lab, The Active Layer & Next North, Landscape Futures exhibition, 2011, Reno, NV. Courtesy of the Nevada Museum of Art

Mason White and Lola Sheppard, Lateral Office & Intranet Lab, The Active Layer & Next North, Landscape Futures exhibition, 2011, Reno, NV. Courtesy of the Nevada Museum of Art

Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not mention the growing genre of works that seek to help us see landscapes from the perspectives of the living non-human. For well over a decade, Sam Easterson has been mounting cameras on creatures to generate a library of perspectival video.  The late Beatriz da Costa’s artwork included a network of augmented pigeons providing real-time data on city air quality. And Chris Woebken’s collaboration with Kenichi Okada, Animal Superpowers, provides real-time helmets and goggles to let one see like an ant, a giraffe, or a dog.

This scattering of works in no way represents an aesthetic movement in the old avant-garde sense, but they do reflect a variety of attempts to grasp our experience of land through a new appreciation of objects, things, and creatures that bring their own memories, wills, and paths apart from human intervention—for better and for worse. As such many of these projects do end up wrestling with the moral implications of objects whose influence and desire is as conflicted as our own. Indeed, one of the challenges of the material turn, and in particular the philosophical subset of the conversation around “object oriented ontology,” is how to grant more agency to the non-human while also accounting for strategically hidden struggles over conflicting values we typically associate with the human. Might a new attention to objects stand to mask or obscure the processes by which many creatures, human or not, lose their freedom through deliberate enslavement?

Here, the work of theologian Oliver O’Donovan lends some help.

Much of the material turn involves a critique of classification-based approaches to things, which attempt to reduce objects to their kind, in a way that makes them substitutable, and also exploitable without conscience. As a “kind of bird,” or even a “kind of meat,” the poultry industry chicken is unremarkable, and easily dispatched with, whereas the family chicken, raised in the yard, offers the opportunity of a distinct relationship based on its particularities of life with its human and animal families.

In Resurrection and Moral Order, O’Donovan describes a world in which some things exist as subordinate to other things, but in which no human or non-human takes its definition from such subordinations. Instead, all things take their definition from their relationship to a creator. If the dream of many a scholar of the material turn is a dashing of the old Enlightenment hierarchies of being to create a wholly flat world, O’Donovan still sees hierarchy, but one in service of realizing each object’s full being—and in the midst of conflict. He writes:

In morality it is more the rule than the exception that particulars belong to more than one unconnected kind, and are ordered in several different sets of likenesses at once. This is what gives good moral thinking it’s often acknowledged “open-textured” quality; we never know in advance what combinations of generic features may be displayed by any situation on which we will deliberate or reflect. It provides the stuff of cliff-hanging moral dilemmas: the attitude which looks like compassion from one point of view looks like disloyalty from another; the action which most expresses justice also suggests a contempt for human life.

No landscape is simply a “kind” of landscape, borrowing significance from abstract ideals, but brings its spiritual significance through conversation with those who inhabit it. This may be old hat to those who still look for and live with enchantment, but in light of modernity’s tendency to polemicize technology and morality, slowness and speed, and our clear failures to steward the planet within these frames, certainly some new approaches to knowledge, organization, and being are in order.