Living installation

Exhibition Text
The sentinel and the species 

Kobie emailed again on the fifth of April. “Hi D,” she began, “I see that image is sooo not colour corrected. Whoops.” I hadn’t noticed anything wrong with the photo, filename Screenshot 2018-03-30 13.04.34.png, but then again it wasn’t me who made it. If the imprint on your retinas is as bright as the pixels on your screen, it’s hard to resist the desire for calibration.

Nearly a decade ago, Kobie and I began a demanding technical regimen at an Australian undergraduate photography program. Looking back, what seems most remarkable about our time there was the total conceptual overlap of analog and digital imaging. Endless seminars were dedicated to interrogating the supposed difference between them, but in practice we learned that these were just two different recipes to bake the same cake.

In one room, an older white man who had learned the digital world taught us about histograms and tone curves and monitor calibration. We made notations on digital prints (on pure cotton rag paper without optical brighteners) under daylight-white viewing booths. The blinds on the windows to the street outside were drawn.

In another room, two older white men steeped in the medium of film pressed us through an excruciating series of weekly exercises. We used rail cameras and shot on daylight-balanced large-format transparency film, with filters to compensate for tungsten lights, which we often covered with coloured gels. The blinds on the windows to the street outside were drawn.

I still think about that time, and how the rigid myopia of a purely technical approach to representation encouraged me to look outwards (and inwards). By the time we reached the 
advanced stage of Photoshop classes—whose hardest lesson was how to mask hair around a model’s face—I was plotting an escape. As it turns out, so was Kobie.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that a suppression of creativity and thinking, in favor of technics and profit, would encourage at least a few of us to spill out of that pot. But for those of us who did, we carried with us an unexpected bonus. If you’re diligent, the great gift of photography is not a deep appreciation of gestalt, or the figure-ground relationship. It’s not the ability to make a wedding, that most predictable and boring of occasions, look exceptional. It’s that once you’ve learned to see light, it’s impossible to un-see it. And once you’ve learned to see light, you see colour like you never could before.

Kobie’s recent work, like many artists whose practices have mutated out of photography, exhibits an unmistakeable desire to give three-dimensional form to the pictorial. But it also demonstrates an important dual examination: of light and colour as fundamental components of representative systems, and as forces that have often worked to her own benefit.

It can be difficult to look at the work of white artists from settler colonial states. Since our existence is predicated on displacement, every further occupation of space acts to extend the colonial logic. To have any hope of making positive, reparative, contributions to the worlds in which we work, we have to acknowledge how we got here. If we are to build a worthy ethics, it must begin with self-reflexivity, and it must be embedded in our work.

For Kobie, navigating these waters means sailing close to the wind. She invariably asks her audience to match her level of self-examination. If you’re reading this at Bergen  Kjøtt, you’ll see the exhibition provides a temporary home to canaries whose true color is white, but whose ‘neutral’ color is a shade of yellow achieved through dietary additives. This practice, in the parlance of avian breeding, is known as ‘colour feeding.’

“Is It Okay to Use White Emoji?,” asked The Atlantic magazine in a May 2016 article that attempted to resolve why—compared to people of colour—white people are far more likely to use the cartoonish yellow-skin emojis than they are those with skin tones that closely resemble their own. One of the many privileges of whiteness, it seems, is a continual self-denying occupation of the ‘default’ mode of representation.

It’s clear that Kobie prefers to show us a kind of anguished wink-and-nod rather than outright self-flagellation. We know that she knows, but there is no easy way out. In an unpublished text, filename KNel_PROJECT.pages, she writes, “I want to question how artists, including myself…tak[e] part in various economic, social and representational exploitation systems…the imbalance between photographer and the object is a good example.”

On a return to South Africa earlier this year, Kobie visited a traditional diviner known in Nguni, Sotho-Tswana, and Tsonga societies as a sangoma. In an inversion typical of her research, Kobie’s sangoma was white. She asked for advice on her research, and received it. But she was also given a diagnosis that could be radically scaled up. “You have an ancestral blockage in your line,” the sangoma told her.

Before the metaphor became a threadbare pair of socks, Kurt Vonnegut claimed in 1969 that “artists are useful to society because they are so sensitive. … They keel over like canaries in poison coal mines long before more robust  types realize that there is any danger whatsoever.” I’m skeptical of this reckoning: if Kobie is right about the inherent imbalances of representation, then it’s more accurate to say we’re the miners.

When we video-chatted recently in preparation for this text, Kobie showed me the aviary she had built to house the birds while she installed the exhibition. Looking later at an image I made at the time, filename Screen Shot 2018-04-16 at 12.20.58.tiff, I was struck by how much the structure resembled a series of studs waiting to be drywalled—on the inside or the outside, or perhaps both. Since then I’ve been haunted by the perverse image of a white cube occupied entirely by these animals.

Fortunately for them, and for her audience, that was never Kobie’s plan. For these few weeks, the birds live in a space that is far from white, far from cubic, and far bigger than any aviary. This is, of course, the same space occupied by the artist’s work. If the socks can survive another wearing, Kobie’s choices might be read as a deliberate erasure of the line between the sentinel and the species for which it is routinely sacrificed. If there are any poison gases in the air, we’re all going down together.

— Dan Miller Chicago, April 2018

Apple Puma           
Solo exhibition. Bergen Kjøtt, Bergen 2018

A Canary in a Meat Packing Plant: Ecology After the End of the World by Scott Rettberg

Bergen Kjøtt is a curious exhibition venue north of the center of Bergen, Norway. From the 1960s until the early 2000s, the 2000-square-meter, four-floor building was a meat-packing plant. In recent years it has been converted in a cultural venue, including studios occupied by some 300 artists and musicians and a large exhibition space on the first floor—an open space large enough for livestock to be unloaded from trucks and prepared for slaughter. While this space has been thoroughly repurposed and is now a buzzing hive of artistic activity, it remains a clearly post-industrial site, with a different rawness and edge than typical white cube gallery spaces.

In April 2018 I visited Bergen Kjøtt to see the “Apple Puma” exhibition by South African artist, Kobie Nel.

Not knowing what to expect, I walked up the stairs to the
second-floor exhibition space. Thick plastic curtains hung
over the entry. After I pushed through them and entered the space, I jumped, startled, as something brushed by my head.
As I turned the corner, I heard the sounds of clouds rumbling
in the distance. I heard birdsongs and, as I looked up to the
high ceilings, saw that a number of canaries were perched
on ropes hanging overhead. Others were flying in the space,
nibbling at heaps of birdseed on the floor, strutting across
bales of hay, or hopping from dowel to dowel on a custommade
bright green wall. Initially fighting a kind of panic, perhaps borne of my memories of Hitchcock’s The Birds or a traumatic childhood encounter with a sharp-beaked parrot, I walked further into the space and saw that two armchairs were set amidst a kind of three-dimensional post-industrial tableau. The canaries were artificially bright, brilliantly yellow and flamingo pink-orange. Scattered on the floor were chunks of bricks that looked as if they had been gathered from a site of a recent demolition. A few wine glasses filled with water were perched precariously among the bricks, and
the odd dish was scattered here and there. A number of clear
plastic two-liter soft drink bottles filled with water and rose
blooms of different colors inside them were placed amidst
the scene. Some neon light sculptures in abstract patterns
that called to mind jellyfish or beetles were mounted on the

Several very high-resolution photographs hung on the walls of the exhibition: one was of a cactus into which the words “Apple Puma” had been carved, another was a Type- C print of a bright green serpent coiled up on a rope inside a wire mesh cage. The “Apple Puma” images were difficult for me to decode. They represented a process of human inscription on the living tissue of the cactus. Someone (probably the artist) had taken a knife to the cactus, and the cactus, thus scarred, would continue to grow bearing those words readable only by humans) for the rest of its lifespan. The
choice of words was also strange: “Apple” and “Puma” are
both words that denote non-human life forms, neither of
which have anything in common with cacti or the desert
landscape. They are also words that have been appropriated
and trademarked as corporate names, one for the world’s
most-valued computer company, the other for a pair of running
shoes The image presented a complex kind of signification.

On the one hand, the plant, this hardy, spiny life form in the desert, had been appropriated, carved into, literally branded with symbols that represented ideas of nature that had also been appropriated by corporate brands. On the other hand, the plant would continue to grow in its environment in spite of the carving. Modified and changed, it would adapt to the scars and continue to develop around them.

The pattern of the wire mesh in the photo of the serpent
was similar to the pattern of the scales on the snake’s skin.
The title of the photo “Marpat” suggests the connection between
the two patterns. Marpat is short for “Marine patterning”—
a multi-scale camouflage pattern formed of rectangular
pixels of color that is also known as “digital camou.” The
pattern match between the wire mesh and the snake’s skin
in the image were indeed so close that at first, I thought the
image must have been modified. Because the resolution was
so high and the colors of the print so bright, the image took
on an almost three-dimensional character. As I looked at the
image, it was impossible for me to distinguish what was
“real” and what was the product of a digital process. The
ambiguity in the image highlighted one of the themes of the
exhibition as a whole: is there ultimately any difference between
a serpent in the garden and our invention of a serpent
in the garden? The serpent, like climate change, remains regardless of whether or not we created it.

I settled into one of the armchairs and tried to process
the scene of which I was now a part. Alone in this space
with perhaps two or three dozen birds, I felt that I was no
longer the observer. My sensation was not similar to that of
a man looking into a bird cage, nor was it that of walking
into one of the immersive rainforest exhibits you sometimes
find in zoos—this was not a meticulously detailed
rendering of a natural environment. This was not the canaries’
“natural” environment. And yet, as the canaries chirped and nibbled and hopped and flitted across the factory floor, offering the me the occasional sideways glance, it felt much more like I was the creature under bemused observation than the canaries were. It would be too much to say that I had stepped inside a bird cage, or that I had come to take the place of the bird, but the exhibition represented a clear disruption in “the order of things” and in our
presumptions of “nature.” The human was not at the center 
of things here, but an aspect of an ecology of an environment
after the human.

The canaries in the room were not colored in the hues they
were born with. The “true color” of the canary is white, but
its color can be modified by dietary additives in a process
known as ‘colour feeding’—the colored birds fetch more at
the market than plain white ones [4]. Although this strange
space, this former slaughterhouse, had in some sense been
temporarily given over to the birds, the birds themselves had
been modified in a process of Anthropocene intervention.
The birds and I were coequal parts of an ecology, as Timothy
Morton has described, “after the end of the world.” [5]
Morton highlights the fact that the concept of “the world,”
in fact the whole practice of “worlding” poses problems for
the situation of the human within a planetary ecology. Following
Heideggerian phenomenology, Morton explains that
“different sentient life forms have different experiences of
their surroundings, and hence phenomenologically … different
worlds” [6]. When we speak of “the world” we inevitably
speak of “our world” because our process of understanding
the world is inevitably based our phenomenological
experience of it. As soon as we begin to imagine a world,
we therefore situate the human in its center. We could 
imagine that there are other worlds operating at any given
time: the worlds of the dog or the cat, the worlds of the canaries
or the serpent. It is. difficult to think in terms of both
my world and those other worlds simultaneously, as my
world is the only one that I have direct experiential access
to. According to Morton the “fundamental problem with
worlds: they do not exist” [6]. A world is always a construct,
and when the world that I construct is in conflict with your
world or the worlds of the serpent or canary, we have no
basis for shared understanding. Yet we must base any proactive
approach to the environment on the presupposition that a shared objective reality exists.

The discourse of nature has always been a discourse of
distancing. When we speak of “getting back to nature” or
“natural ingredients” or “nature preserves” we do so by positing
nature as something at some distance from the human,
or outside of ordinary human experience. Because this positions
nature as outside of “our world,” it also enables to
think of nature as something that can acted upon without
personal consequence. To think of nature is therefore always
also to think of nature as “natural resources.” Nature might
be the source of a pastoral idyll, but it is also a repository,
for example, of fossil fuels. Nature is alternatively posited
as an ideal (an Edenic state before the fall) or as a threat (that
which is in conflict with the human, e.g. Jack London trying
to build a fire in the snow). Nature is a construct in the sense
that we posit it as something a priori to and distant from the
human. The trouble with the concept of nature is that “Just
when it brings us into proximity with the nonhuman ‘other,’
nature reestablishes a comfortable distance between ‘us’ and
‘them’” [7]. In this sense nature is a dangerous concept, as
in distancing the human from a wider ecology of life forms
we also posit a state in which we are apart from nature or
can somehow exist without it. Morton argues that one consequence of the Anthropocene is that we no longer make
such assertions. We can no longer imagine a nature apart
from us. The environment that surrounds us is always already
impacted by our presence in it. There is no point in imagining the canaries in their natural environment when I am surrounded by brightly colored canaries in a meat packing plant. The room in which the exhibition took place was not the only part of it that was
post-industrial. All the lifeforms within it, human and bird,
were post-industrial as well. Morton argues for a form of “deep ecology” that would entail a shift from our view of “anthropocentrism to ecocentrism”[8].

There is nothing inherently anti-human about this
perspective, but it does entail a realization that the planet is
not a “world” uniquely shaped by human needs and human
perspectives, but a complex ecology shaped by many forces,
and we can further say by many different types of cognizers.

In Morton’s view, the understanding of the human as the
steward of nature is at the core of the catastrophe of anthropocentrism that has already occurred. The catastrophe calls
for a conception of the human that is not to be understood a
steward of that which it has already altered and damaged, but an element within it. Morton asserts that “what is called
human is more like a clump or assemblage of things that are 
not strictly humans—without human DNA for instance—
and things that are—things that do have human DNA. Humans
did it [climate change], not jellyfish and not computers.

But humans did it with the aid of beings that they treated
as prostheses: nonhumans such as engines, factories, cows,
and computers … The reduction of lifeforms to prosthesis
and the machination of agricultural logistics is hubristic, and
tragedy … is at least the initial mode of ecological awareness”

The artworks discussed here share in common the element
of reiterating this fundamental point: the type of ecological
awareness that will in short order be necessary to mitigate the effects of climate change will require an understanding
of the human as a cognitive assemblage that is enmeshed
in a broader cognitive assemblage which humans
impacts continuously and are continuously impacted by.
The fact that machine learning systems are playing and will
play an increasingly omnipresent role in shaping human culture
and society is only one of the more obvious ways in
which we are part of a distributed cognitive ecology. And
we must acknowledge our participation in this ecology as if
our lives depended upon it, because they do.