Artistic research and the quest to communicate nature 

Comparing artistic researchers

Here I compare this research in relation to the works of two other artists. Eija Timonen’s exposition Icephery and the Icy score – concepts for a multisensory approach (Timonen 2019) is a study of a remote frozen lake in Eastern Finland. James Balrog’s Extreme Ice Survey (Balrog 2012a) and his film Chasing Ice (Balrog 2012b) are about the task to produce visual documentation of melting glaciers in the Arctic.

Aims and research themes

Our common aim is to explore and enhance awareness of what happens in wild places. Our research is site-specific: Timonen’s frozen lake, my mountain and tarn, and Balrog pays particularly attentionto the Icelandic Solheim glacier.

Balrog’s aim is to visually communicate the melting glaciers in order to provide evidence of the climate crises. Timonen explores how close multisensory readings provide the lake with new meanings and layers of understanding. I also focus on close multisensory readings, while my attention is towards the process of sensitisation and the impact of recording technology.

Artistic practice in research

Embodied practice is at the core of our research. We are engaged, passionate and insist on the intrinsic value of our sites. With physical effort, more or less at the edge of our safety, we work through seasons, return to our sites and continue our explorations. Our research becomes like a mission, a quest, and we become so emotionally attached that we are willing to spend years on our research.The sites we study transform us as persons and expands our sense of life.

Our research depends on recording technology. We use them as tools of engagement - we are there in order to record. We use them as tools of awareness – they help us notice change and nuances through time. We use them for documentation and storage of evidence, for memory and we use them for artistic articulation and communication.

Balrog makes documentary photography. He uses series of time-lap photography of melting glaciers as proof of change through time. He states that what is recorded is the only thing that matters."If I don’t have pictures, I don’t have anything. Then everything is a failure" (Balrog 2012b.) This makes sense in relation to his mission to provide evidence and communicate climate change.

Timonen makes art photography. She uses her art to elevate and communicate the lake’s magnificence and intrinsic value. The photographs are aesthetically beautiful, almost abstract; they evoke a sense of richness and subtle complexity. This way, the lake serves as a source of great art, and correspondingly, her art serves as homage to the lake.

I make visual and audio artworks and combination of them. Mostly, my recordings are spontaneous, intuitive responses to what happens in the mountain, from a particular perspective and mood.

I use them for several purposes. I use them to articulate sensory experience, as tools of discovery and as reports about experiments, interviews, moods and epiphanies at different stages of research. Moreover, I use them to instantiate theoretical points and to evoke in the readers what I write about in the texts. I guess that Timonen and Balrog also use their art in various ways in their research process, even though they don’t account for them all in their final exposition and film.

Theory in artistic practice

We frame our research differently because we are informed by different theoretical approaches and research communities.

Balrog is informed by nature science. His background is Geomorphology – the science of the evolution of landscape forms. He states "The story is in the ice. Somehow" (Balrog 2012b). Together with climate science, this guides what he sees, what he is looking for, how he uses his technology, how he interprets the geological changes, and it guides how he communicates his work. He is not out to develop or challenge theory, but to visualise what otherwise is abstract theory, only meaningful for small research communities. "The problem is perception", he states (Balrog 2012b). Science needs art to convey its knowledge to the public. This is his project.

Timonen is informed by anthropology and the humanities, which emphasise the interwoven relationships and merger between nature and culture. This guides her theoretical interpretation. She states: "Material and culture, non-human and human, are inextricably intertwined" (Timonen 2019). However, these sciences and their vocabulary consider nature from the human point of view, which does not fully resonate with a study of a non-human lake. Searching to conceptualise her findings and to set the lake at centre stage, she invents her own concepts of Icephery and Ice score. These concepts provide the lake with its own perspective, while also integrates and interweaves the cultural themes of the sciences.

In my case, I am informed by the social sciences and humanities, by wilderness studies and ecological philosophy. In this regard, I have experienced fruitful interchange between cross-disciplinary theory and practice.

Theories helped to value the significance of perception and to clarify intuition. They provided new perspectives and interpretations and reframed habits of thought. While reading, I searched for concepts and theoretical approaches that resonated with my experience and enabled connection between my practice and broader issues. I became interested in how perception develops and expands, the distinctions between theoretical perspectives and filters of understanding, and to unravel their basic assumptions and premises.

Moreover, practice may challenge theory. For example, having instantiated the use of recording technology as tools of awareness, I have challenged Næss’ position that advanced technology necessarily is a barrier to experience (Næss 1976, 114).

No matter, theory cannot exhaust practice. Practice is multi-layered and affords a range of theoretical and artistic possibilities. In combination, art and theory are catalysts for ideas that feed back into our art practice and into how we experience nature.

Ecological awareness

To be ecological aware is to be conscious of the connection between our sensory and affective experiences, what happens in our environment, and how we and our environment are part of the infinitude of nature.

Ecological awareness tends to be a personal experience. It mainly happens outdoors where we are directly exposed to the forces of nature and not immersed in society and technology. I experienced this by being exposed to the winds. Balrog tells about his epiphany of ecological awareness when he describes how photographing in nighttime made him realize his connection with the planet and the universe (Balrog 2012b).

However, you do not need to go to the heartland of Deep Ecology, or into a Finnish forest or to Greenland, for that matter. Rather, you need to pay attention to your senses and sensitise yourself to nuances and subtle changes of your local environment. Making photographs and sound recordings will help, and so do artistic articulation, reading literature and studying the works of other artists.


The impossible quest to communicate nature

Practice-led artistic research lets the research questions develop along the way. My initial mission and quest were to communicate the site of Deep Ecology. The more I walked, recorded and studied, the more I became aware that snow, ice, light, sound and temperature and my embodied experience of them cannot be contained on a screen. Recordings, artworks and scientific theories do not comprise nature. You can’t capture nature in a frame, or in a sound recording for that matter. This is what I articulate in this audio-documentary: 


Nor can nature be contained in words. The explorer Godfred Hansen writes about his experience on the North West Passage Expedition 1903–06, quoted from The Amundsen’ Photographs (Huntford 1987):  "… it seemed to me that out of the interminable wilderness were born great and beautiful and good thoughts, and that is what I wanted to write about. I wanted to write, so that those that read, as it were, have gained some impression of immensity, such as I have acquired in those places, where there are no roads, but where the God’s sun or the glittering stars show the way ahead. Now that the work is done, I see how little I have managed to convey, because those thoughts which seemed to pour over me at the time, were not thoughts to be expressed in words, but mostly moods." Godfred Hansen (Huntford 1987, 31).                        

The readings of Whitehead and Næss made me ponder about what it means that nature is infinite. So I gave up the quest to communicate the site and enjoyed the dialogue of the processes of embodied experience, technology, artistic articulation and theoretical reflection. This is the theme of this exposition.