Seizing Life (I)

Capture, captors and the art of

being captivated...

PangolinBurning_CreditsPaulHilton
抓緊生命:擷取的藝術
Dr. David JACLIN
Visiting Scholar on Extreme Environments Expedition and
Assistant Professor at University of Ottawa, School of
Sociological and Anthropological Studies

渥太華大學社會及人類學研究學院副教授、
極地考察之旅訪問學人

To capture: To take something into your possession, especially by force.

 

Also: to represent or describe something very accurately, using words or images.

 

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the action of capturing something or someone is twofold.

 

It can be a taking (implying force, sometimes violence), as when colonial powers took Solomon islanders into slavery, as when contemporary logging and mining companies covet natural resources yet to be extracted, as when fishermen grab turtle shells or shark fins from the ocean.

 

But to capture also refers to a sense of sharing. It implies a rendering, sometimes even a giving, and revolves around the ability to relocate one’s reality – or energy, flesh, or creativity – to a different space. Capture acts like a transducer of some sort, as when empires reroute their colonies’ resources to underprop their own civilizations’ expansion, as when a growing wealthy Asian population is given the possibility of buying sought after exotic woods or new smart phones, as when conservation initiatives (such as in the Arnavon islands, where our team stayed) establish a marine reserve to allow ocean life to recover from overharvesting and local communities to strengthen.

 

If these two dimensions, taking and sharing, are indissociable, they are nonetheless distinguishable and prove central to address both climate change and the submerging of some Pacific islands, as well as to reflect on tomorrow’s pedagogical innovations and the immersion of students into a real ‘learning by doing’ approach.

 

For an anthropologist such as myself, working on environmental issues and concerned with the capture of animals around the world, the very idea of either taking or sharing life remains critical. Taking part in the Coral Triangle Expedition reminds me that, if poaching is about capturing an animal’s flesh and its potential for capital (to take them into one’s possession, especially by force), digital recording is also about capturing, this time an animal’s light for instance, and its potential for art (to represent one’s situation accurately, using images, sounds and affects). Do we not talk of cameras’ captors? Did we not find the capture of turtles for tagging captivating? Tuning into the Anthropocene without simply designing a 3.0 version of the old cabinets of curiosities is no easy task…

 

On assignment to bring back something from the remote islands they had the privilege of visiting, students from the Extreme Environments Program had to deal with capturing all along. They did not capture with spears, gun or nets, and they certainly not kill. Nonetheless, they did capture with lens, processors, SD cards, hard drives, pencils, and their hearts. They took innumerable images, recorded multiple events and engraved many pixelized memories. In this exhibit, they share their journey with their urban congeners, rechanneling what was shared with them by the people, places, and spirits encountered in these antipodes.

 

In between taking from and giving back to resides a significant difference. A difference that makes a difference, as G. Bateson defined information. Such relational qualities have the potential to either bring together or take apart – to be the glue or the split between interacting worlds. It is a great responsibility to pay attention to such qualities and to be able to differentiate between verbs such as to perceive, to attract, to harness, to catch, to lure, to receive, to share, between the act of affecting and the action of being affected.

 

To capture or not capture is not the question. The question is how to capture... And

this is perhaps one of the most critical questions of our time. In fact, our current capacity to take and affect is unheard of in the history of humanity. Our capture systems extend from the bottom of oceans to the limits of the stratosphere, and we extract minerals, plants, animals, images and values from almost everything.

 

The corollary question is, then, what do we give back? Collecting, especially a huge amount of data, has now become an institutionalised practice, one that is actually expected from media art students. But sharing, on the other hand (for instance, sharing an experience based on an art installation powered by collected data) proves to be both a collective political action and a personal ethical gesture. At stake is the estrangement of another world and the essence of an art-with-nature creativity.

 

In this respect, the Extreme Environments Program is not only one of the most interesting pedagogical experiments of contemporary academia. It is also a rare opportunity for international students to engage differently with global ecological and economical changes. It is a concrete ‘hands on’ experience about what it means to actually share – a world, a future, an experience or a work of art.

 

Capturing and being captured in a remote island of the Pacific was actually a difference that made a difference. When we envision other ways of being in the world (some of which we cannot capture, either by force or via state-of-the-art digital apparatuses only modern societies can propel), a much deeper and more texturized sense of the intricate ecologies we all live in is revealed.

To capture: To take something into your possession, especially by force. Also: to represent or describe something very accurately, using words or images.

 

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the action of capturing something or someone is twofold.

 

It can be a taking (implying force, sometimes violence), as when colonial powers took Solomon islanders into slavery, as when contemporary logging and mining companies covet natural resources yet to be extracted, as when fishermen grab turtle shells or shark fins from the ocean.

 

But to capture also refers to a sense of sharing. It implies a rendering, sometimes even a giving, and revolves around the ability to relocate one’s reality – or energy, flesh, or creativity – to a different space. Capture acts like a transducer of some sort, as when empires reroute their colonies’ resources to underprop their own civilizations’ expansion, as when a growing wealthy Asian population is given the possibility of buying sought after exotic woods or new smart phones, as when conservation initiatives (such as in the Arnavon islands, where our team stayed) establish a marine reserve to allow ocean life to recover from overharvesting and local communities to strengthen.

 

If these two dimensions, taking and sharing, are indissociable, they are nonetheless distinguishable and prove central to address both climate change and the submerging of some Pacific islands, as well as to reflect on tomorrow’s pedagogical innovations and the immersion of students into a real ‘learning by doing’ approach.

 

For an anthropologist such as myself, working on environmental issues and concerned with the capture of animals around the world, the very idea of either taking or sharing life remains critical. Taking part in the Coral Triangle Expedition reminds me that, if poaching is about capturing an animal’s flesh and its potential for capital (to take them into one’s possession, especially by force), digital recording is also about capturing, this time an animal’s light for instance, and its potential for art (to represent one’s situation accurately, using images, sounds and affects). Do we not talk of cameras’ captors? Did we not find the capture of turtles for tagging captivating? Tuning into the Anthropocene without simply designing a 3.0 version of the old cabinets of curiosities is no easy task…

 

On assignment to bring back something from the remote islands they had the privilege of visiting, students from the Extreme Environments Program had to deal with capturing all along. They did not capture with spears, gun or nets, and they certainly not kill. Nonetheless, they did capture with lens, processors, SD cards, hard drives, pencils, and their hearts. They took innumerable images, recorded multiple events and engraved many pixelized memories. In this exhibit, they share their journey with their urban congeners, rechanneling what was shared with them by the people, places, and spirits encountered in these antipodes.

 

In between taking from and giving back to resides a significant difference. A difference that makes a difference, as G. Bateson defined information. Such relational qualities have the potential to either bring together or take apart – to be the glue or the split between interacting worlds. It is a great responsibility to pay attention to such qualities and to be able to differentiate between verbs such as to perceive, to attract, to harness, to catch, to lure, to receive, to share, between the act of affecting and the action of being affected.

 

To capture or not capture is not the question. The question is how to capture...

 

And this is perhaps one of the most critical questions of our time. In fact, our current capacity to take and affect is unheard of in the history of humanity. Our capture systems extend from the bottom of oceans to the limits of the stratosphere, and we extract minerals, plants, animals, images and values from almost everything.

 

The corollary question is, then, what do we give back? Collecting, especially a huge amount of data, has now become an institutionalised practice, one that is actually expected from media art students. But sharing, on the other hand (for instance, sharing an experience based on an art installation powered by collected data) proves to be both a collective political action and a personal ethical gesture. At stake is the estrangement of another world and the essence of an art-with-nature creativity.

 

In this respect, the Extreme Environments Program is not only one of the most interesting pedagogical experiments of contemporary academia. It is also a rare opportunity for international students to engage differently with global ecological and economical changes. It is a concrete ‘hands on’ experience about what it means to actually share – a world, a future, an experience or a work of art.

 

Capturing and being captured in a remote island of the Pacific was actually a difference that made a difference. When we envision other ways of being in the world (some of which we cannot capture, either by force or via state-of-the-art digital apparatuses only modern societies can propel), a much deeper and more texturized sense of the intricate ecologies we all live in is revealed.