ASA11: Vital powers and politics: human interactions with living things

University of Wales Trinity Saint David, 13/09/2011 – 16/09/2011

(P07)

'Natura artis magistra': nature is the teacher of artful skill

Location Arts Hall
Date and Start Time 16 Sep, 2011 at 09:00

Convenors

Petra Tjitske Kalshoven (University of Manchester)  email
Griet Scheldeman (University of Aberdeen)  email
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Short Abstract

Inspired by the name of the Amsterdam zoo Artis (short for 'natura artis magistra', nature is the teacher of artful skill), this panel explores the ways in which living other-than-human things have been, and still are, embraced as powerful models in skilful human practices of art, craft and science.

Long Abstract

'Artis' is a famous zoo in Amsterdam, established in 1838, a place where, according to its website, 'nature meets culture'. Its name is short for 'natura artis magistra', Latin for 'nature is the teacher of artful skill', reflecting a nineteenth-century conception of nature as a model of perfect engineering, aesthetically pleasing and morally uplifting—-an idea that has acquired a new lease of life in contemporary environmental discourse. For this panel, we invite papers that take inspiration from the Artis motto to explore the ways in which living other-than-human things have been, and still are, embraced as models for artful and skilful engagement by humans. Mindful of indigenous traditions that accommodate a wide range of natural phenomena in the category of 'living things', we are interested in ethnographic approaches to practices of art, craft, and science that take their cue from animals, plants, light, or sedimentation. Practices may range from direct material borrowings from nature (revived through taxidermy or rearranged in landscape art) to sensory emulation (as in perfume manufacturing). They may include manicured miniature versions of nature (as in landscape gardening), explorations of natural phenomena on canvas or in carvings (as in Haida split representation), but also core sampling for scientific and environmental purposes. Within these parameters, a central question that we would like to address, triggered by the caged animals in the Artis zoo, is that of the power invested in the 'natural' model: what pull does nature continue to exert in human practices of creativity?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Replicating life: taxidermy and the natural body's artifice

Author: Petra Tjitske Kalshoven (University of Manchester) email
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Short Abstract

Drawing on fieldwork and hands-on experience among taxidermists in the UK and the Netherlands, I will discuss a skilled practice concerned with exploring the boundaries between life and death and between human and non-human animals, predicated on an ambivalent desire to replicate the living body.

Long Abstract

Practitioners of taxidermy, the art of arranging skin, claim that their goal in mounting an animal is to make it look natural. Taxidermists are in the business of replicating nature. In order to regain a natural appearance, the dead animal undergoes a process of dismantling at the hands of the expert taxidermist, who removes its flaccid body and replaces it with a form or manikin sculpted from foam or crafted in wood wool. Reference materials are said to be vital during the process of rearranging the skin: these include measurements of the animal's body, photographs of the relevant species, and clues on posture and behaviour from field observation. Moreover, to complement such information, taxidermists take their own body as point of reference, mimicking the magpie's or the squirrel's posture both to get their anatomical bearings and to imagine how the skin would sit if it were animated by a breathing, fleshed-out torso such as their own. Replicating nature, then, entails modelling after life, both non-human and human animal life.

Drawing on fieldwork and hands-on experience among taxidermists in the UK and the Netherlands, I will discuss a skilled practice concerned with exploring the boundaries between life and death and between human and non-human animals, predicated on an ambivalent desire to replicate nature; for in a bid to complicate 'nature', we will consider the nature of the 'natural' model when Artis zoo animals, after a life in captivity, become subject to taxidermy.

Becoming animal in the Chinese martial arts

Author: Douglas Farrer (University of Guam) email
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Short Abstract

Based upon performance ethnography in Hong Kong and London “Becoming Animal in the Chinese Martial Arts” advances beyond the limits of animal or natural metaphor, movement, and myth read as symbolic, rehearsed, or mimicked potentialities, to explore the way embodied understandings of nature unleash hidden skills within the bodies of the practitioners.

Long Abstract

Southern Preying Mantis is a Chinese martial art whose practitioners embody movements, skills, and abilities formerly derived from the monastic contemplation of insects, animals, mythological creatures, and plant life encompassed within a framework of Daoism, Buddhism, and Five Element theory—earth, wood, fire, water and metal. Under the glare of eagle eyes martial movements range through mouse, plum-blossom, and unicorn steps, dragon, horse, frog and crane stances, tiger, eagle, and bear claws, alongside leopard, phoenix and ginger fists. The favored weapon is a seven-foot staff twisted like a yellow cow's tongue. Practitioners should move like cats. Fluid arms slither and snake, or swing like an elephant's trunk, or wipe like the forelegs of a fly. Each animal and element possesses special attributes, such as heaviness, stickiness, agility, ferocity, tenacity, pinpoint accuracy, or rapidity. Death strikes lash out with lightning speed towards acupuncture points. Although considered spiritual, the Southern Mantis embodiment of nature is predominantly practical, revealing a complex, sophisticated, and intricate understanding of the human animal. Specifically, the style develops the "hidden powers:" sharp eyesight, strong bones, iron fingers, flexible sinews, and extraordinary strength, trained through sweat, blood and breath. Meditation heightens sensitivity to the enemy's movements, feelings and intentions. Such embodied martial knowledge is taught, harnessed, and developed through a series of increasingly complex partnered training procedures. The practitioner's understanding of the human body, mind, and spirit is reconfigured by the application of training methods, skills, and epistemologies derived from the embodied revelation of hidden natural potentials.

Fibrous values: an ethnographic study on fiber ontologies

Author: Annika Capelán (Lund University) email
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Short Abstract

How does fibre enact value? This study is an intervention into how knowledge domains are bounded and how knowledge flows, transfers, is figured and transforms. It is an ethnographic experimentation into, in the first place, the reconfiguration of 'knowledge economies' as 'fibrous value', and secondly, into how 'fibrous value' may be used to destabilize knowledge boundaries like 'artistic' or 'scientific' knowledge practice.

Long Abstract

How does fibre enact value? This study is an intervention into how knowledge domains are bounded and how knowledge flows, transfers, is figured and transforms. It is an ethnographic experimentation into, in the first place, the reconfiguration of 'knowledge economies' as 'fibrous value', and secondly, into how 'fibrous value' may be used to destabilize knowledge boundaries like 'artistic' or 'scientific' knowledge practice. This demands tracing the work of fiber and its 'value comparisons' through different situations. The study is based on extended fieldwork in Europe, Central and South America. Woollen fibre is followed as it moves, for instance, through the South American Pampas that nurture the sheep, inside the sample tube in the laboratory where the fibre's quality is determined, and in a private art collection where it appears as a knitted work of art. Field notes are used as 'snap-shot descriptions' for the building up of an anthropological understanding. The study is aimed as a contribution to a discussion on how organic fluid ('natural') materialities might be used as methodological devices to trace how value ontologies are brought into being, co-exist, are maintained or wither away. It further aims to ethnographically flatten any hierarchical order of such co-present ontologies referred to a scientific or artistic which in turn may host assumptions about natural-cultural relations.

Cold encounter: art meets science in Arctic landscape

Author: Griet Scheldeman (University of Aberdeen) email
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Short Abstract

A visual artist accompanies an athmospheric scientist on a fieldtrip to Svalbard, where both engage in field practices: sampling, observing, and note taking. In this paper I explore how the natural polar landscape inspires both.

Long Abstract

A visual artist accompanies an athmospheric scientist on a fieldtrip to Svalbard, where both engage in field practices: sampling, observing, and note taking. Back in the UK they continue their conversation as they get to work on the 'stuff' - ice samples, air particles, photographs, drawings, prints, and impressions - gathered in the polar field. The scientist engages with an Arctic environment that holds pollutants, a landmass covered in snow to be dug up, melted and filtered. The artist works in an Arctic of expansive vistas, colour hues, textures and stillness. Do scientist and artist craft a different Arctic, or do they engage with the same natural environment in a different way?

In this paper I explore how the natural polar landscape inspires both. Does it bring artist and scientist and their skilled practices together or does it divide them? While their conversations bring out differences in approach, a visit to the scientist's lab and the artist's studio flags up tangible similarities between the two. It is perhaps in this dialogue of work practices where art and science meet. Then what about the Svalbard valley where both spent two weeks observing? Is this a place of work, a subject, or the material they work with? Probably it is all three, comprising a tangible area of common ground.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.