Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Uncertain Shores I

Sally Evans, Archaeological Scientist - Jethro Brice, Artist-Geographer
Severn Beach and Aust Cliffs, 1 August 2015

The outgoing tide leaves a compelling glimmer of soft mud drawn out between the rocky beach and the receding waters. We traverse its surface cautiously, muscles alive to its shifting textures, holding our centres of gravity low, becoming attentive to its impulses and irregularities. As it moves beneath our feet, nuances become available - here mud moves wetly, alarmingly, across the smooth, compact firmness of older deposits; here mud offers traction where it clings to grassy stems. The apparent unity of the foreshore is constituted through multiple differentiations. These are not unitary components - the overall effect is not reducible to its constituent parts. Rather it is a felt effect of multiple processes of becoming, processes to which we, too, become attentive through the corporeal act of making ourselves vulnerable, open and present.    

The shifting of mud’s ways of becoming in accordance with changing climate and sea levels makes present to us the corporeal inheritance of the past and its future potentialities. We explore the possibility that this is not just a cognitive process (that by reading the record of past events we can extrapolate patterns to inform predictions of future events) but a corporeal one, in that matter itself makes and marks the possibility of, for example, changes in human apprehensions and actions.

Our method today is an exchange of skills. We play at sampling procedures - collecting mud from the upper and lower shore, and  testing for soil type and consistency. It is a messy process - mud has a tendency to get where it hasn’t been invited, and to take you places you hadn’t anticipated. We go through the motions - gestures that self-consciously evoke and suspend the analogy of disciplinary routines. Systematic rigour dissipates rapidly in awkward conditions; tension alleviated by laughter, and by the sensory pleasure of mud’s rich smoothness. Mud’s affective presence, and not its effective classification, becomes the matter at hand.    

There is something inherently provisional, messy, tangential about the shared process. The idea is to collide and unsettle our respective practices, to see how each might be enriched or supported by the other. The chosen approach is to provoke a bit of a mess. Artist and scientist play each at becoming the other. Play in its exploratory, problematic, generative capacity; an immanent critique. Processes become confused, outcomes uncertain. In the play there is a willing suspension, a space of manoeuvre. Neither the art nor the science is executed quite right - what is enacted instead is a space of possibility, the idea of thinking and doing science, or art, differently. It is not all comfortable - the difference can be unsettling. Deterritorialisation of familiar regimes comes with a risk: “If you don’t order it then you can’t see the patterns, so you can’t discuss it.” “Things are so much slower when you leave them in a mess.” [1]

In the difference, however, we find commonalities, too - commonalities that speak to the limitations of familiar disciplinary lines of approach. Matter speaks to the archaeological scientist through reduction and isolation of its properties. But what it speaks of is its ecologies, its relational pasts: “percentage of sand to silt to clay tells you what the environment was like.” Categorical modes of thought elicit knowledge at an ever finer resolution. And yet in the process of getting close, boundaries dissolve. Distinctions become arbitrary, and leave out something important in the process: “even for a stone spatial definitions don’t really work, because it will always be becoming something else - through its relationships.”

Corporeal thinking-doing induces an attention to processes of continual differentiation and becoming, to the dissolution of categorical boundaries, and suggests a mode of working with uncertainty as a habitable space of practice. “What you were saying about boundaries disappearing when you get up close - and about gradual change - that’s really resonant with climate change.” As a mode of practice, it resonates with the ungraspable and indeterminate science of changing climates, and speaks to the difficulties of making present the sense of change to others. It also offers respite to the dysphoria and isolation of the scientist working to understand uncertain and deeply distressing futures within rigidly bounded knowledge regimes. This isolation is at odds with the notion that knowledge requires amenable environments to persist and grow. Both scientist as individual and ideas as material affect are diminished by operating within a constricted affective milieu. Play - the space of encounter, of intensity and of uncertain outcomes - is customarily written out of the picture: “to get to actually play with the mud… I never get to do that …”

Ideas take shape within an affective ecology - to cut them off is to change what kinds of knowledge are possible. Play offers a method to bring the mess of affect back into the process of knowledge generation - producing also those ‘joyful affects’ through which our collective capacity to be alive - to affect and be affected - is intensified and enhanced.

[1] All citations from field notes, worded collaboratively by Jethro Brice and Sally Evans, 1 August 2015. This text in its entirety is reproduced from: Brice, J. (2015) Uncertain Shores: Towards and Ecological Mode of Practice [Masters Dissertation, unpublished], University of Bristol.

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