“The animals continue on”: A Conversation Between Scott Rogers and Tom White
ECOCRITICISM NOW: The essays, reviews, and poetry collected in this thread trace responses to the interlinked terms nature, ecology, and ecocriticism, all of which have come to occupy increasingly important roles in a number of everyday and academic discourses over the last few decades. The “now” of its title is therefore not only a mark of the interest of certain contributions in the development of ecocritical theory (ecocriticism at this moment in time), but also an injunction, a call for more. This thread is co-edited by Tom White.
SCOTT ROGERS lives in Glasgow and received an MFA from the Glasgow School of Art. He also attended the Staedelschule in Frankfurt on exchange. His work has been shown in solo exhibitions at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery (CA), YYZ (CA), The Glasgow Sculpture Studios (UK), Artspace (NZ, in collaboration with Sarah Rose), ONO Gallery (NO) and PM Galerie (DE). His upcoming exhibition Endling will be presented at Collective in Edinburgh from September 2015.
The following exchange with Scott took place by email over the course of many, many weeks. I think both of us enjoyed the process, allowing our responses some time to develop before hitting the reply button. And in many ways, a slow exchange seemed suited to the subject matter of Scott’s piece No Date, and the discussion that developed around it. No Date was part of Time After Time, an exhibition held at the Market Gallery, Glasgow in August of 2014. Extracts from No Date are embedded below. A brief description of the work can be found here.
Scott’s work has been exhibited at galleries in Berlin, Auckland, and Liverpool, as well as featuring in the 2014 Glasgow International Festival. He has an upcoming exhibition at Collective Gallery in Edinburgh in September 2015.
Tom White, August 2015
Tom White: The Market Gallery website describes No Date as a “nature documentary”; can you say a bit about how the project came about and whether that description is the way you initially thought about it?
Scott Rogers: I always considered the work to be a nature documentary, but one that did not adhere to many of the conceits of that genre (particularly regarding the professional / technical aspects of production, and narrativizing the lives or activities of non-human animals). I wanted to produce a humble DIY version of a nature film that took the non-human inhabitants of Glasgow as its subject. I suppose the work started to manifest from this funny idea of thinking Glasgow as an environment, or a landscape, or an ecosystem. If you’ve lived here I think there’s a considerable amount of cheekiness in that sentiment. Nonetheless, I’ve been amazed at the way organic life creeps and crawls through this city. The plants and the mosses grow up in the cracks and on the rooftops; they are metabolizing, eroding, and reconstituting this built environment. It’s a very fecund location, and I think this is an alternative way to understand Glasgow as other than just a post-industrial city. This is a place where creatures carve out niches of survival, like they do in a rainforest or a coral reef or in Yellowstone. There are constant examples of cunning, adaptation, death, and decay happening here all the time.
The description of the film itself is an interesting thing, because I’ve been thinking a lot about ways to avoid the schematic coding of contemporary art. It seems impossible to leave this nomination end game (“Whatever you say is art becomes art” or “whatever you frame as art becomes art”), but I think I’d prefer to think of this video as a way of exiting a conversation about those ideas, and maybe going somewhere else. Being a nature documentary allows that. I think this work offers something of interest outside of a gallery as well as inside one.
TW: The film also makes me think about scale: you mostly seem interested in what we might think of as medium-sized non-humans, but when we speak of “non-human inhabitants”, I can’t help but think also of all those microscopic creatures that carve out niches of survival in the built environment that is the human body (as examined, for example, in Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter). The idea that nature carries on without our direct observation isn’t just “out there”, but is also uncomfortably intimate as well.
That kind of leads me on to another point, which is the idea of the absence of humans central to No Date as somehow apocalyptical. As you suggest in your comments on the narrative element of nature documentaries, it can be disconcerting, in some ways, to think about or see nature just carrying on. In that sense, how much did you think of No Date in terms of its relationship to things like Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us?
SR: Yes, it’s true No Date focuses primarily on creatures that are visible within the realm of human sight. I did try to include variations of scale (from gastropods and insects up to deer), but everything remains on the level of human visibility (or at least visibility to the camera). Perhaps this can be put down to the use of a single point-and-shoot camera for the production of the video. There are technical limitations necessarily. At the same time, I suppose the video has images of bacteria and microscopic organisms throughout, it’s just that they are very hard to see!
Joking aside, I think you touch on a very relevant point, and that is that the lives of these creatures carry on with or without the presence of humans. As you say, this can be both intimate and “out there”, and I would venture to say that there is little consequential in the suggestion of an inside or outside at all. Everything is a potential habitat. These ideas are important to the video, and perhaps the most difficult effects to measure in how the work is received. I hope that there is a sense of the video being similar to those moments of encounter, when you spend time with an animal, and see the mechanisms of their bodies and behaviour reflected in your own actions. That as a human you are not so different to them biologically, but widely separated in other aspects. The biggest difference perhaps being the human ability to recognize the use, manipulation, and eventual digestion of your body by creatures other than yourself. Isla Leaver-Yap’s text on the work of Dena Yago & Laurie Spiegel gets at some other important differences as well: (download here)
Chronologically, the making of the video began as a nature documentary, and through the process of its production took on an apocalyptic quality. I started filming it on December 21, 2012, but that was entirely coincidental. It was only on reviewing the footage mid-process that I discovered a lack of human presence in what I had shot (other than the rhythms of my own body as I held the camera). This presence of my person became rather odd, as the video then took on an aspect of a possible ‘lone survivor’ narrative. This is an element of the video that I discussed extensively with friends and am still uncertain of. For instance, the clips I’ve made available online for this interview have used image stabilization to change the camera’s movement, and make the POV handheld qualities of the footage more mechanical and anonymous.
More conceptually speaking, the apocalyptic element of No Date is something rather mundane I think. It’s not anti-human, but is dealing with human disappearance in a deadpan, matter-of-fact way. I mean there is a reality that all humans will eventually be extinct, that our creations and our bodies will be fossilized and eroded back into the earth before this planet is consumed by the sun. It’s inevitable so far as we know. And it’s not dramatic, it’s scientific fact. So that kind of information has been with me for a long time and backgrounds what I’m interested in with No Date. Ray Brassier is someone who’s come to terms with the intellectual consequences of these facts quite directly, but my dad (who is a geologist) also talks about this as well and probably first brought thinking like this to my attention.
From what I know of Alan Weisman’s book, the crucial difference in No Date is that there is no evidence of an apocalyptic event that is derived from human actions in the video. There is little evidence of anything out of the ordinary actually. There are only a few traces of odd human activities in the work, and those are quite unusual and unexpected, but not necessarily suggestive of a human-made catastrophe. It is as if all the people have just disappeared, but things are going on as usual otherwise. This quality in the work opens up a lot of ways to speculate on what has or has not happened (perhaps nothing happened at all), and what the camera is being controlled by in the video. It’s something I thought about when watching Stalker for instance. All the while the animals continue on.
TW: Watching the videos again, it makes complete sense that your dad is a geologist! I wonder if you could say any more about this idea of “thinking big” (as Tim Morton puts it) in terms of time. Scientists, philosophers, and artists (broadly defined) are clearly all interested in such questions, where do you see potential overlaps or collaborations between such groups, if at all?
To return to the description of the piece as a “nature documentary”, how did your ideas on the soundtrack develop? Can you say a little about the way the soundtrack worked when the piece was installed as well?
SR: Yeah, for me geology, as well as a lot of other activities associated with the outdoors are very influential on my approach and thinking. For instance, a new exhibition I’m doing focuses on the influence of heuristics and cognitive science on risk assessment for backcountry skiing.
I’m only familiar in passing with Tim Morton’s work, so I can’t comment on it in any detail. I think that our ability to measure and understand the age of the universe is one of the most revolutionary discoveries in recorded human history. The fact that we can categorically prove that the world has been in existence far longer than humans have existed, and will exist far longer than any life on this planet, produces a profound challenge to thought and human action. For me Quentin Meillassoux’s text After Finitude establishes some of the most intriguing arguments around this situation, as he makes a very convincing case for the existence of an objective world, and the radical contingency at its core.
In terms of collaborations, I think there is tremendous potential to work between and around different disciplines in productive ways. I feel like these are much more expansive than simply between the arts and the sciences though. What about finance, or espionage, or industrial farming? The important thing for collaborations is to assume humility in relation to others’ expertise. In many ways I agree with Meillassoux and Terry Atkinson that the most radical things happening today are not being done by artists, but by programmers, physicists, chemists, mathematicians etc. It’s good to keep this in mind.
But the less we worry about how we (or our works) are identified, and the more time we spend trying to foster and fearlessly expand its potentials the better. I’m against the idea that we are simply articulating a field of pre-existing possibilities. Similarly, I don’t see any reason to fetishize novelty for its own sake. ‘Collaborating’ isn’t good in and of itself, I think it has to come from a position of genuine care and excitement about other people’s expertise. That might take years to foster, and may only result in conversations or friendship…not outcomes.
The soundtrack is an interesting thing. In the initial exhibition of the work the video was shown with an unsynchronized soundtrack played on a separate loop. This soundtrack was titled separately as Custom Ruins. The audio was a combination of two tracks: one was a recording made by the composer Alexander Nemtin, who had compiled the preparatory notes and sketches for the unfinished work Mysterium by Alexander Scriabin; the other was a recording of rain that was taken from a relaxation video on Youtube.
The Mysterium recording has an incredible and strange back-story. It was supposed to be Scriabin’s magnum opus; a total art work incorporating music, dance, lights, stage design, and costumes. It was intended to be performed over the course of seven days and seven nights at the foot of the Himalaya. At the conclusion of the work Scriabin believed that some form of blissful, ecstatic apocalypse would occur, raising all of humankind onto a higher level of consciousness. Unfortunately, Scriabin barely scratched the surface of the Mysterium before he cut himself shaving and subsequently died of a blood infection.
Nemtin, who was a scholar of Scriabin’s music, collected the materials for the Mysterium and then began the slow process of transcribing them. Nemtin was trying to formulate an idea of Scriabin’s intentions for the musical part of the composition. The recording that now exists is the outcome of Nemtin’s research and attention to Scriabin’s work, but it is also only an approximation. Preparation is an ad hoc Scriabin; a partial view into a profoundly idealistic work that could have no conceivable realization. This tension between the idealism of Scriabin’s original intentions and the idiosyncratic outcome of the work is what interested me in it. It’s pompous and grandiose; it reveals apocalypse as a fiction, a spectre that drives a delusional wheel of human labour. I added the rain to the soundtrack after going to see a performance of Vaughn Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica at the Glasgow City Halls. The Halls have a glass roof. During the performance there was the usual ubiquitous rainfall that Glasgow is known for. The effect was actually really beautiful. The BBC was broadcasting the concert live, so I began thinking about how this performance would sound to the listeners on the radio. The rain was a quiet, persistent interruption and nothing could change it. That effect felt apropos with the Scriabin / Nemtin composition.
For the video clips here I had to necessarily make a soundtrack that was fixed to the footage, so I randomly selected five-minute sections of the original soundtrack and attached them to randomly selected sections from the original video. The result isn’t exactly the same as it would be in the original installation, but it underscores the fact that there is no ‘correct’ syncrhonization between the sound and the images.
TW: I’m all for your approach to collaboration in terms of humility and an openness to fostering conversations and friendships rather than outcomes! The discourse of collaborative and multi-disciplinary work sometimes sounds unsettling similar to the various neoliberal discourses of “flexibility”, particularly in the increasingly corporatised academic world and its instrumentalisation of knowledge. In that context, your answer reminded me of Michel Foucault’s call for “friendship as a way of life” in a 1981 interview, as well as Eileen Joy and Anna Klosowska’s comments on that interview here: friendship as a field “that one cultivates with the hope that others will arrive and join you in that cultivating: the production of friendly spaces in which new friendships are always taking root even while others might be withering away, or breaking apart rather more violently”. It seems strange, in a sense, to go from talking about geologic timeframes to (human) friendships, but maybe the two are intimately connected!
SR: In a general way, friendship seems to me to be motivated by care and desire. Most people want and need the company of others, so they attract them, and then maintain that attraction through degrees of individuated care. Friends do the same in return. It’s not initiated from the outset as a system of exchange the way a market might be. I don’t see it primarily as bartering of services or products, but rather as a thing that generates economies through its perpetuation. I’m also sceptical of the idea of a network in this case. That seems like a model overlaid onto something far more complex than what it models, but claiming to be the essential form. I think that’s how networking became conflated with friendship, and has done real violence to what friendship is. Networking colonized friendship, but introduced outcomes to the relation. And that changed friends into objectives, and things to attain, or manipulate strategically. Not like that didn’t happen in the past, but I think recently it’s something that has become more widespread. I suppose I think of friendship at its basic level as a relation that forces you to come to terms with the existence of the world beyond your sensory apparatus: that there are other people and they have needs and desires like yours (or different than yours). And hopefully that discovery proves that the world does not serve as simply a device for fulfilling individual desires, but as a complex and immersive scene that requires sensitivity, constant adaptation, and ongoing efforts of empathetic co-existence. Friendship can help to dismantle ideas of autonomy and create more subtle forms of awareness.
I don’t know what this has to do with geological time either, but perhaps friendship is a way of revealing to ourselves that the world is whole, but not complete, and individual bodies are versions of a basic unifying, mutating materiality. Because friends show us that we are not alone to ourselves, and that we depend on so much just to stay alive. In the end we are made of the same things as the rocks, air, and ocean, and maybe our being who we are is only real because it is a mutually shared hallucination?
TW: You talked a little bit earlier about avoiding what you called the ‘schematic coding of contemporary art’. I wonder if you could say a little more about that in the context of the sorts of things we’ve been discussing since then?
SR: In regard to this claim, I think it’s important that contemporary art be understood as a phenomenon that is primarily a product of human bodies and behaviours and their intersection with resources, economics, history, power etc. I think it’s quite fair to disagree with a lot of the discourse around contemporary art that suggests that it is diverse, poly-vocal, heterotopic, indefinable, experimental, subversive, and politically radical. These ways of describing contemporary art as some sort of nebulous, resistant entity are pretty frustrating and I think primarily serve to determine what is and isn’t possible as art rather than proving its merit or necessity. Suhail Malik uses the term “generic indeterminacy” in talking about contemporary art. I think that’s very apt.
This sort of positivity toward indefinite definition serves hegemonizing processes very well, and brazenly re-asserts a lot of the received ideas and fallacies about art’s value to thought, culture etc. I feel like familiar, well-tested strategies are more or less the norm within contemporary art as a system, and even its emphasis on novelty does itself work as a kind of norm. It’s a norm that operates cynically and colonially in its approach to other disciplines and ideas. A quick look at the incorrect referencing of Speculative Realism in many recent exhibitions is a good example of that. It’s not necessary to point out any individuals to critique here, as really we’re all implicated to some degree, but I’m looking forward to Malik’s book about “exiting” contemporary art which should be released by Urbanomic pretty soon. His thinking on the matter has been very interesting to me of late, and is far more articulate than I can be.
TW: To close, I guess I’d like to return to No Date specifically: I like the idea that as a work it collates your own footage, a fragment of Scriabin’s Mysterium (via Nemtin’s piece), and the sound of rain that references, but doesn’t directly reproduce, a particular event. Is there something ecological, in a formal sense rather than just in terms of content, about an artwork that is both an instantiation of, and also open to, acts of recombination. Do you, or could you, think of No Date as finished? Or do you see it as a piece that will continue to develop?
SR: If you don’t mind I’ll answer the second half of this set of questions first. I think No Date is a very open work. I set boundaries around its production early on (restricting the shooting period to one year, the type of camera, the POV / handheld approach), but since its original presentation I’ve had to consider multiple possibilities for how it can be experienced. These multiple possibilities exist because of the initial way I presented the work, with the soundtrack and the video unsynchronized. I made a challenge for myself, in that the work could not be easily translated from one situation to another. So in that sense, I see the work as iterative. Not infinite in its combinations, but certainly numerically vast. It’s an approach that I think owes a lot to Stan Douglas, although it is not nearly so precise in its execution as his works are. The idea that it remains unauthoritative is compelling to me. I think I will try to change it every time it is shown. A possibility is to involve other people and other processes into the system. I could also still go back and change the lengths of the clips, remove, or add new parts, show it on different formats etc. There could be new material added, or it could be integrated into a larger work. When it was shown initially in the exhibition Negative Miracle I felt that it was both part of a larger total work (the exhibition as a whole) and an element that was removed from, and also removed the gallery visitor from, the other parts of the show.
A friend recently told me a story about the works of the late Jack Smith. Smith used to actively change his films throughout their existence, going so far as to cut and splice 16mm as it was being played through the projector! So, his films were regularly being edited, manipulated, undermined, damaged, and degraded intentionally. When he died there was a necessity that his films be preserved, and so ‘authoritative’ copies had to be produced. The funny thing is that each copy of his works may not be authoritative in the sense that we customarily know. There is a speculation that each extant copy of the films may have been used to produce prints for collections. So when Smith died there may have been twenty unique versions of Normal Love for instance, and each of these unique versions may have been used to make prints, with the different (but the same) prints sent to various galleries, collectors, and archives. The implication being that there is still no authoritative versions of his work, even after his death. The truth of all that is unknown obviously, but it’s great to imagine it.
Regarding the ecological metaphor and the formal construction of the video, I have not considered the work specifically as an “ecology”. I don’t feel very comfortable with this idea. My sense is that ecology is the kind of word that can be reduced or extended to cover so much territory that it risks being too vague. What isn’t an ecology? I think the work is probably more like a mechanism or a machine. For my purposes the machine metaphor stands up better, as it doesn’t imply vitalism as strongly, nor turn the work into an exercise of metaphysics. Instead, what is generated by the machine is a narrative or narrative cluster. I hope people watching the work get the sense that that narrative is something made by humans rather than the creatures on screen; that the creatures are part of, and separate from this thing, but that their lives are not reducible to it.