In a year of bushfire and pandemic, there is growing awareness that we live among other creatures on an environmentally fragile planet. Medium Earth is an exhibition for the digital realm, presenting four vignettes of multispecies encounter by contemporary Australian artists: Karrabing Film Collective, Taloi Havini, Gabrielle Brady and mudmind.
Playful and searching, these new works invite us to consider the vital ecologies that bind species together. Step out of your social bubble and into more-than-human worlds.
A lake echoes the sky. Glassy waters play the flight ways of birds, cirrus clouds and squall. Apparitions flit. The scene beguiles.
These landscapes made from reflective pools and surfaces, why are they so compelling? Is it something to do with the way nature seems to be offering itself as an artistic medium, on display more for its own celebration than for human delectation?
Stone, soil, sea and sky, light and darkness. The earth is a physical and multisensory medium, a means of connection (like language or paint) that is laden with traditions of communication linking humans not only to other humans, but to all the other lively factors in our global system of vitality. Animal, vegetable, mineral. All entities relating to and acting upon each other. As eco-philosopher Donna Haraway notes, the stories we tell are ‘of the world, not in the world. Worlds are not containers, they’re patternings, risky co-makings, speculative fabulations’. Composed of their myriad connective factors, worlds are alive and ever-altering. Therefore, they can die too.
What kinds of worldly stories are needed now?
New South Wales began 2020 choked by bushfires, a joint catastrophe of life, home and habitat. Nearly three billion creatures were killed or displaced in one of the worst wildlife disasters in modern history. Then came the pandemic. The global crisis started with a spillover of pathogens, a breach of ‘proper’ human–animal communication. In the most alarming manner, zoonotic diseases like COVID-19, which occur in animals but can be transmitted to people, dispel the illusion that humans are separated from a natural world that is ‘out there’ and at our service.
For those who could, the response was to bunker down. Initially to avoid polluted air, and later to minimise contagion. Shut in and apart at the very moment when our interdependencies and shared vulnerability with the environment and other creatures profoundly assert themselves. 2020 is a time for reckoning with the in-common. In Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe’s words, all have the right to breathe. To breathe is an originary right to living on Earth, a right that ‘belongs to the universal community of earthly inhabitants, human and other’.
The project’s title, as well as its concern for the material traces, energies, images and sounds through which the earth communicates, pays homage to the acclaimed 2013 essay film ‘Medium Earth’ by The Otolith Group, an award-winning artist-led collective and organization founded by Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun in 2002. Guided through the Californian desert by a ‘medium’ whose body is sensitive to seismic occurrences, The Otolith Group read the fault lines of ecological vulnerability off ‘the shifting face of the earth.’
Conceived of and created during the pandemic, Medium Earth presents four vignettes of multispecies encounter. In these works, earthly media – parched desert, shimmering water, birdsong – are once more channelled through the moving image. From camels in the southern Gobi desert to a reanimated thylacine roaming the Art Gallery of NSW, artists invite us into more-than-human lifeways.
There is a long affinity between cinema and visions of a sentient planet. The names of proto-cinematic devices even invoked biology: the Bioskop, Biograph and Vitascope.
Set aside, for a moment, the recent talk of social bubbles (the friends we visit in lockdown and the echo chambers of social media). In 1934, Estonian zoologist Jakob von Uexküll invited readers to foray into non-human worlds. Describing a meadow humming with animal life, Uexküll tells us to blow a bubble around every creature. This represents what it senses and attends to, its unique perceptual universe, its Umwelt. Enter one of these bubbles and the familiar meadow transforms. A flower stem can be an adornment for a child, a pipe full of liquid for a bee, a pathway for an ant, or lunch for a cow. From every bubble, a new kaleidoscopic take on the world. Incommensurable but coinhabiting, distinctive but in-common.
How to pierce the bubble of another being? Uexküll’s imagination was inspired by cinema. Since the earliest time-lapse studies of acrobatic flies and plant bloom, biologists and filmmakers alike have been captivated by the camera’s capacity to decentre human perspectives. By condensing and accelerating time, warping space and flinging minute details into focus, film offers a peephole into foreign sensoria.
Like a guidebook for a traveller to a far-off land, cinematography and narration lead the viewer through a film’s terrain, pointing out sights of interest along the way.
The artists in Medium Earth are guides too. But they don’t foray into Uexküll’s flourishing meadow. They find their bearings in landscapes marked by ecological loss and climate change, scarred by resource extraction and the toxic divisions of colonisation. Rather than the khaki-clad guides of wildlife films (and reminiscent of dated colonial epics), these works celebrate rogue way-finders. They flit across the separations that the old guides tended to perpetuate – nature/culture, wilderness/civilisation, them/us – the rifts that have led us to the cascading crises of 2020. To chart new courses in our entangled world, these artists invoke creaturely apparitions, sci-fi hybrids and Indigenous ancestral knowledges which have recognised and sustained the interconnections between species since time immemorial.
The camel herders in acclaimed documentary filmmaker Gabrielle Brady’s (Island of the hungry ghosts 2018) new work are summoners. They lead us through a landscape haunted by its past. River Undain, a waterway that supported desert life for millennia is now bone-dry. Mongolian long song and death metal reverberate.
Taloi Havini (Hakö) replaces the Gallery’s own guides with Benji, a ghostly Tasmanian tiger resurrected from extinction. Inspired by a dream, Taloi reworks archival footage of the last-known surviving thylacine at Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart (nipaluna). Freed from captivity, Benji returns to stalk the colonial institutions whose collecting practices hastened its demise.
From the northwest coasts of the Top End of the Northern Territory, Karrabing Film Collective delivers a powerful manifesto. Three striking, multilayered works enact the multiple forms of connection-in-difference that characterise the family groups within the Collective. As the artists say: ‘In a normal film, there’s one or two stars. In a Karrabing film, it’s everyone, and the land and the ancestors.’
The guide in the speculative world created by artist collective mudmind is a digital avatar. They are both an alien to the earth (returned to save humans from themselves) and a vegetal–human hybrid composed of earthly media. Through reflective eyes which play footage of plants, the guide sees us and offers a mossy embrace: ‘Do you know that all life is interconnected, across species, environs, and even worlds?’
Ping! Even digital dispatches circuit through material networks. Apart from the title of this exhibition, and the 2013 video by The Otolith Group, ‘Medium Earth’ names the region of space where communication satellites orbit. Created in collaborations across closed borders, these films now arrive to your phone or computer as pings from Berlin via Mongolia (Gabrielle Brady), Sydney via Bougainville (Taloi Havini), Bamayak-Mabaluk and New York City (Karrabing Film Collective), and across the United Kingdom (mudmind, care of Ama Josephine Budge, April Lin 林森 and Sam Smith). These are works of resilience and rupture; of belonging to country and displacement; for an earth we hold in common with critters, varied and vulnerable.
Enter Medium Earth.
Please note: The original text of this essay has been amended to clarify that the title Medium Earth was initially formulated by Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar in 2013 for The Otolith Group video of the same name.
 Film quote taken from ‘The Otolith Group, Gallery at Redcat review; James Nisbet; ND: https://www.artforum.com/picks/the-otolith-group-41272