It is often said that artists in residence form a ‘community’, or that they engage with the ‘local community’ or ‘context’. What is meant by this is most often a community of different humans of coming together. This small community is also adjacent to the larger (human) local community, and the two seek ways to relate. However, these overlapping communities both partake in a ‘more-than-human sociality’ (Anna Tsing), commoning which implicates many ‘natural others’ or ‘earth beings’. Donna Haraway invites us to think that communities are always ‘leaky’, ‘we’ are enmeshed in ‘naturecultures’. Dwelling at the edges of urbanity, rurality and the wild brings possibilities of intense participation in these multiple worlds.
To participate in a community is to get to know and make oneself known to other beings.
It is an effort, even with humans that speak the same language. Even more so with earth beings. Forest animals learned to stay away from the trail. Trees, rocks, and lichen seem absorbed in silence. However, all entities have specific modes of expression, coming forwards or staying silent. Semiosis, sign-making and -interpreting, is a property of ‘life at large’, as Eduardo Kohn learns from the Runa people in the Upper Amazon. Trees converse with fungi and winds. Lichen chat with rocks. We ourselves are constantly engaged in some multispecies ‘shared conversations’ (Donna Haraway), and not only with dogs and cats. However, usually our attention is on semiotic expression among humans.
Being in peri-urban/rural places, we are called to explore the landscape. Walking as a daily practice is an opportunity to intensely feel a belonging to ‘natural convers(at)ions’ (Vicki Kirby), nature’s writing and reading itself. Being within landscape is not about Romantic enjoyment from a distance, it is an act of commoning/communing. This more-than-human socialising is a becoming ‘response-able’ (Karen Barad), responding to and ‘ac/counting’ for parts of the world we take a share in. I am interested in how we can embody and carry these ‘convers(at)ions’ with us across various communities, human and more-than-human, in order to keep them open and hospitable to each others.
When the human community gathers again, say, in the evening, around the table with food, fully engaged in ‘culture’ now, we can still practice naturalcultural commoning. In many residencies outside cities, one of the most charming and exciting moments of the day, when we tell each others about our daily experiences with the landscape: what we saw, whom/what we met, even what this earth being may have felt. A hare, a boulder, a bush, a cloud… Importantly, telling multispecies stories are not acts of inter-human communication, they are acts of participating in multiple worlds or communities.
In life as a general semiosis, aural space is a material territory shared by many. For this reason, in many places storytelling (with) the land is a central community practice. Koyukon, the Alaska Native Athabaskan people, recognise not only that nonhuman animals speak among themselves, but that “they can also hear and understand our own talking. We must be careful what we say about animals, especially when they are nearby” (David Abram) Storying is not about the world but it is an address, a summoning.
Modern languages might seem distant from the earth, but they bear echoes of different landscapes. It is to the talkers to keep re-tempering the words to the resonances beyond the page or the screen, to re/learn the calls, murmurings, cracks, chirps, of birds, forests, rivers, winds. Spoken language is a material force, a channeling of air that circulates breath among animals, plants, elements.
The world is an ongoing ‘shared conversation’, a storying of many elements and processes, a ‘storied matter’ (Iovino & Opperman). Human bodies are lines in these ‘natural convers(at)ions’. We should not fail to take part in this earthly storying, to breathe it in and sing with it, carefully, response-ably, lovingly. When we are storytelling indoors, let’s not forget to leave a window open… Stories are never ours alone…
This piece is inspired by my stay at Saari, as well as residencies at Mustarinda and Røst AIR. Thanks to all my hosts, human and earth other.
Written in the company of:
Anna Tsing (2015) The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins
David Abram (1996) The Spell of the Sensuous
David Abram (2014) The Commonwealth of Breath
Donna Haraway (2003) Companion Species Manifesto
Eduardo Kohn (2013) How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human
Karen Barad (2012) Nature’s Queer Performativity
Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann (2014) Material Ecocriticism
Vicki Kirby (2011) Quantum Anthropologies: Life at Large