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To dream of sentience: artist/writer/environment collaborations

In the midst of cyclones, flooding, ongoing wet weather, and consequent sickness, writing about anything takes a poor showing. But it also means that the issues of climate change and environment loom large. After the 20th century’s use of art for pogroms—think heroic Russian statutes, Maoist promotions, or Hitler’s appropriations—it is not surprising that many in the art world retreated to the position of art for art’s sake. But now it seems to me that, despite the manufacturing of propaganda, we might place greater value on the environmental role for art: art for earth’s sake.
The artist might listen more carefully to the voice of the material, or use their creative skills to speak in nature’s tongues. Performances of place might use improvisations of music, dance, sculpture, craft, ceramic, and paint. There is a haptic knowledge held in the hand of the artist that dissolves the skin between human and the world around. The best of artists listen to their materials and the places they inhabit so as to create with more soul and poetry than seems possible within one individual. Artists have the greatest capacity to express our intimate connections with the world around us; they remain sensitive to the mythic and the indigenous, emotionally open to the new and to the other. Their best works tell stories with a slow crafting and a detailed knowing that become more than human.
The writer might retreat from the expert podium that declares this is art and this is what it’s about, and move to a more participative and collaborative process, not only with other artists but also with the non-human world we inhabit. Wordsmiths might become co-creators with artists. This has been the experience for me in sculpture and environmental art festivals, as often the making and discussion happen together, allowing for the melting pot of ideas to be mitigated by the material limits of the possible. It is an undervalued, if not unrecognised, form of participative evaluation that is at least as powerful as the later magazine article. There are also an increasing number of artist collaborations around the world that bring together artists including writers to respond to the immediacy of each other’s media and place. In the process, the reviewer might lose the hand of God, but find the joy of co-creation. And the development of the work benefits in a way that it never could after the fact.
Conventionally, a reviewer translates the ideas behind the art into words by working with the artist as well as their works. In our increasingly visually literate world, do we still need such translations? The final evaluation of the reviewer might instead become a participative cooperation of artist/writer. And perhaps together we might tell of our strong connections to, and our inhabitations within, the natural world. Perhaps we play music with animals, perhaps we dance in high winds, perhaps we paint the sentience of a landscape, sculpt the language of trees, craft birdsong, or resonate with the poetry of place. Out of such collaboration might be born new words for this positive connection to an active world, full of non-human actants, recognised too as co-creators.
Perhaps a new world—less useful but more inhabited—can be perceived from the ashes left by capitalist corporate culture. And in our clumsy human way, artists and writers together might begin to tell of the ertness of wood and of the gruntlement of stone (no longer inert or disgruntled).
Along with many other such places, this is what we are trying to do through the Cooroora Institute: to share the song of the earth through creative practice so as to live more lightly and joyously. We craft bespoke furniture from local hardwoods, weave from the weeds of the place, improvise sounds in collaboration with nature around the outdoor stage, use local clays in sawdust firings, and live as sustainably as possible, providing our own power, water, materials, and sometimes food. We listen to the earth and its other inhabitants, the plants and animals who share this land. But, we also want this connected lifestyle to offer another model for being in this sentient world, so, critically, I write. Of course it still happens if it’s not written about, but social valuing goes beyond the art-for-art’s-sake mentality. Words remain a highly valuable commodity in our society, to which we have added the vitality of images as our technologies change. Perhaps an additional focus on a creative and haptic connection to the outdoors is all we need to counterbalance our increasingly electrified and depressed worldview? Perhaps then we might respect the sentience of place because we have become part of its song. And writers will continue to be needed for as long as the music needs lyrics.

all photos provided by Tamsin Kerr


Tamsin Kerr
Dr Tamsin Kerr is an artist and writer living on the Sunshine Coast of Australia. She directs the Cooroora Institute with her partner and furniture maker Ross Annels, aiming to share the song of the earth through the creative practices of art, craft, music, dance, design, and writing.
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