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RESEARCH ARCHIVE - State Library Residency

February 2022

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These texts are a reflective archive of experimental research during a residency at the State Library of Queensland's Fabrication Lab. Natural materials, imagery and specimens were treated to digital technology and machine manipulation, opening a dialogue around the current disconnect between industrious humanity and the natural world.

The residency was a prize for best New Media work in the Queensland Regional Art Awards, for the work To the Citizens of Paradise

The artist would like to thank Flying Arts Alliance and The State Library of Queensland, particularly the Fab Lab technicians for their support of this project. Thanks is also due to The Johnson Brisbane for providing a comfortable retreat to study and reflect.

Day I - Arriving

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Image by Bianca Tainsh. Contemporary view of Lake Weyba created from 55 satellite images.

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State Library of Queensland. Photograph by Bianca Tainsh.

Two worlds. Two realities.

It’s strange working on a project that is anchored in expanding perceptions of nature and the non-human sphere, from a space of synthetic surfaces, the atmosphere buzzing with all the automated activities of human life in the city. Even the desk that I sit at now, is laminated with plastic, wood-look-a-like veneer. I am in my room at The Johnson Brisbane, enjoying the luxury of aircon on a particularly muggy morning in Brisbane. It is a contrast to my rammed-earth lake shack on Eumarella, my family’s nature refuge on Lake Weyba, Gubbi Gubbi Country. 

But this juxtaposition also lends the perfect platform for reflecting on the human disconnect from the natural world. And I don’t just mean wild plants and undomesticated creatures. The natural world also consists of all the processes and laws that happen on and beyond the world we inhabit. And there are the things happening that we can’t perceive. Our intuition tells us that there are things beyond our perception in the landscape, but maybe (as a western-Anglo society) we have been so shaped by the cleansing of our primal ways through religion and technology, that our senses have become numb. But numb to what? 

Science is gradually revealing all kinds of extra-sensory biological capabilities in non-human organisms. All humans once intuitively navigated the landscape, the sea and the seasons without all the contraptions that we rely upon now. In fact, many of the indigenous peoples of the world still have these capabilities…and they still perceive sentience in all elements of their world.

This is the core of my project – sentience in the landscape – with a focus on a particular landscape. Lake Weyba is my home, but I also feel a deeper affinity with Weyba as the site where I feel timelessly intertwined to the Earth and the cosmos, or Country - that I am part of her, and she is a part of me. I feel propelled to protect her as I would myself or my family, and an aspiration of this project is to entangle others in this state of being. To follow the allure of the wild, non-human plain of experience, and reawaken a primal urge to exist as a respectful custodian, an equal participant on this incredible planet. 

Animism, Tatoos & Laser Cutters

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Since my return to living and working in a natural landscape, where I am literally surrounded by native life, my senses and intuition have been gradually ‘tuning in’ to my surroundings. I perceive more all the time, and with this extra-attentive perception I have become aware of the sentience that is all around me. Creature encounters reveal individual personalities, and many of the trees I walk past everyday have a unique presence about them. I feel that I am surrounded by beings, and I am just one of those beings, slowly becoming less out of place through awareness.

Anthropomorphism! Some are quick to accuse when the word personality and creature are used in the same sentence, but I'm not projecting human stereotypes. I acknowledge that I am encountering non-human intelligences.  Through my recent interdisciplinary research, I have come to consider that my acknowledgement of personality in non-human organisms, objects and places (the Weyba landscape), is actually more aligned with Animism, which is mostly attributed to indigenous cultures “...in which they perceive any and every phenomenon is potentially animate; everything moves. All things are felt to have their own pulse, their own inner spontaneity or dynamism. All things have agency, the capacity to act...” (1)

Also aligned with Animism is my belief that everything is connected - the one is vital to the whole. For me this extends to even the smallest things, and I find Ernst Haeckel’s detailed drawings of protists express this beautifully. When looking for an image to express an interconnected world, it was one of his drawings that inspired the design of the insignia tattooed on my arm.
 

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Talis Insignia, 2018 by Bianca Tainsh, Photograph by Bianca Tainsh 

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Protist drawing by Ernst Haeckel, 1800’s.

The irony is that I’ve never actually looked through a microscope to see one of these vital, single-celled organisms, or any of the world that is invisible to the human eye. It’s something that I have always wanted to do, and it turns out that the Fab Lab has a couple of high-powered microscopes in their collection of wonderful machines and instruments (the Fab Lab and their resources are accessible to the public by the way). 


But today, it’s my induction to the laser cutter, which is rather exciting. A recurrent facet of my practice is fabrication. When presenting a dialogue around the synthetic, highly fabricated world of the contemporary human, the inclusion of works created from precision rendering, digital processes, commercial colour, and lifeless surfaces in an art space is abrasive, but also alluring. We have been programmed to value these things in our everyday life. Whereas many people expect art to be warm, and textured with the makers hand, or at least imbued with wonder and emotion. And so, a space opens for the spectator where they encounter the consideration that shiny surfaces may just be an illusion to hide other processes.

Through this project's experiments a similar dialogue will be explored by juxtaposing high precision machine rendering onto wild materials, and synthetic surfaces tempered with images with the random qualities of organic life.

Some laser cutter experiments...

1) Magic and the Machine: Notes on Technology and Animism in an Era of Ecological Wipe-Out, by David Abram. https://emergencemagazine.org/essay/magic-and-the-machine/

The Intimacy of Looking up Close
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Looking up into the branches of a Swamp Mahogany on Eumarella. Photograph by Bianca Tainsh.

When peering into the microcosm the illusionary walls of the human-centric world evaporate. In Western spheres we are all tied up in the complex human-generated systems that we think make us superior to the natural world, an attitude that was/is also endemic to colonising invaders. But when you look into a microscope you get a glimpse of another reality.

Andre, a Fab Lab technician, spent most of a day enthusiastically troubleshooting the issues associated with ageing software to resuscitate a microscope that had been in hibernation for a couple of years. This glorious device, fitted with a HD camera, was to become a new portal for my investigations and a pool for generating imagery for my residency experiments.

I was ridiculously excited about finally using a microscope, especially of this quality. The reality was that apart from a studying a few YouTube clips I didn’t really have a clear idea of how to use the instrument or what to expect. After some determined fluffing around, sustained by my urge to see a new world revealed, I finally stumbled across the right focus.

Wow. 

I had collected samples from my nature refuge home, and the sample I was most excited about is where I began my new endeavour. Each morning at home on Eumarella, I walk to the front gate and back, along a gravel track that meanders through subtropical forest, and then wallum scrub. Within each walk I observe the creatures, the trees, and the changing moods of the landscape in response to weather patterns. I have been doing this since I arrived three and half years ago. I look near, look far, and my senses have become more astute over time as I have mentally archived and cogitated on my observations and encounters.

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Subtropical forest and wallum scrub on Eumarella. Photographs by Bianca Tainsh.

Lately, I had noticed being ‘dripped’ on as I walked along the track, even on particularly dry mornings. It took a while to realise that these drips always came from Swamp Mahogany, commonly known as Apple Gums. These trees have gradually permeated my being. I'm drawn to them and feel something of a 'dialogue' with them. Unlikely?

Something that I have come to realise through past research on consumerism, from its inception in the early 20th Century to now, are the effects from consumeristic paradigms that have deliberately manipulated Western ideologies to shape the masses into compulsive consumers. Even now, when we are more aware of our impact on the planet, our programming towards the material has severed our true connections to nature, superseding feelings of guilt toward our destructive excess of consuming things.

I have been deliberately attempting to identify this shaping in my own thinking, and then working to deprogram that thinking. Part of this process is shedding layers of cynicism and letting yourself be more open to intuitive experiences. As a hybrid artist and philosopher whose practice is positioned in research and reflection, I try to test ideas from different angles – the investigative but articulate angle of science, the subjective angle of experience and encounter (including modes of popular culture), and a spiritual angle of exploring plains that transcend the everyday.

But back to the microscope. On Eumarella, I had found a pool of foam from a weeping Swamp Mahogany, dried in its perfect glittering form, on a leaf. In the Fab Lab I placed a slice of this foam on a glass slide to be observed under the microscope for my first viewing. 

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Swamp Mahogany tears and other specimens. Photograph by Bianca Tainsh.

Up close the material looked like waves of ink, fluid and poetic. I gently moved the specimen around to form alluring compositions and took high resolution shots, each becoming its own artwork. Then I happened across something with shape. Like a starfish, but with only four arms. Was I looking at my first protist?

Dry Swamp Mahogany tears under the microscope. Photographs by Bianca Tainsh.

My next experiment was to wet the dried Swamp Mahogany tears, with a hope to reinvigorate any organisms that it might be harbouring. Again, I put the slide under the microscope, beginning with the weakest lens. The foam had been visually transformed. Now my compositions looked like charcoal drawings and beautifully textured etchings, created from dirty plates. And there was my maybe protist, but different.

Rehydrated Swamp Mahogany tears under the microscope. Photograph by Bianca Tainsh.

I switched to a stronger lens...and there was my world of organisms.

There were chains and spheres, organisms of all shapes and sometimes shapes within shapes, all transparent but sophisticated and surprising. Some I could just see, and as I adjusted the lens the focus moved through this tiny smudge of wet foam, revealing more and more organisms and odd structures. I couldn’t help but think – if I look through sequentially stronger lenses, would I indefinitely discover smaller and smaller organisms?

 

Is this microverse in tandem with the universe that never ends, but stretches inwards rather than outwards from our perception. I can’t help but think that despite our self-elevation as a species, we are still fumbling in the dark, and probably getting further from any real truths as we lose our abilities to connect with the natural world. Despite our convictions of species elitism, the reality is that without all these wonderful, tiny forms I see under my lens, humans would not even exist.