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The Environment Embodied

No Walls’ Mia Finley met with Dr. Keith Armstrong to discuss his new media work and how it embodies a transdisciplinary approach to understanding our environmental, social and cultural ecologies. Armstrong’s creative work seeks to dissolve the boundaries between art, science and the environment.

Armstrong’s latest solo exhibition, Over Many Horizons, is currently on show at the UTS gallery in Sydney. This interactive and experiential work is a culmination of two decades of ecologically engaged practices. The interactive, experiential ‘whole of gallery’ exhibition investigates the mesh of environmental, social and cultural ecologies that form our worlds, asking how might we re-imagine our place and actions within those networks as ‘re-futuring’. What exactly does ecologically engaged practices mean?

During our discussion, Armstrong spent time describing a past project, Black Nectar, which clearly brought to light what ecologically engaged practices mean. This project – one of many in a successful and extensive new media career – struck a particular cord with me as it enhanced my understanding of Armstrong’s research purposes and processes.

In this work a string of lights gently pulses in the dark canopy. The installation belongs to a forest clearing in Bundanon, New South Wales. Sounds can be heard, subtly, playing between the trees, echoing throughout the forest. Armstrong is crouched down low, listening and waiting. He is watching the experience unfold for audiences as it enhances the already rich sights, senses and sounds of the night ecology all around him.

SITEWORKS Black Nectar-HD 720p from keith armstrong on Vimeo.

Enhancing the Environment through Art

The Black Nectar light and sound based installation created by Armstrong was in place to enhance the organic experience of the surroundings through technology. Armstrong is earnest when explaining this project.

“We were taking the experience of that place, which is incredibly rich after dark – sonically and spatially – and then augmenting it with technology, just in the most edge-of-perception way,” says Armstrong.

“You just move on the power of what already exists.”

Black Nectar was developed on the structural foundations of several decades of research and surveys by a team of specialised ecologists, observing the migration patterns of Grey Headed Flying Foxes. It’s an example of how boundaries between disciplines can be broken down as part of an immersive experience.

Armstrong is primarily a new media artist – although he suggests the term “transdisciplinary” is more appropriate for our current creative environment.

His artistic works feature facets of technology and science, and of course, his inherent passion for environmental issues; matters which come intrinsically to his creative practice.

Deep Ecology 2016, in Exhibition Over Many Horizons

Deep Ecology 2016, in Exhibition Over Many Horizons. Image: Dennis Beaubois.

The STEAMED Agenda

While interviewing Armstrong, he introduced me to the concept of the ‘STEAMED Agenda’; wherein the original components of ‘STEM’ – science, technology, engineering, and maths – now incorporate arts, entrepreneurship, and design, in an assembly that leads global innovation and prosperity.

The Australian government has recently ventured on an initiative to stimulate the economy by supporting innovation, with a focus on scientific and technological endeavours. However, Armstrong believes that art, entrepreneurship, and design, should not be dismissed under the agenda.

Continuously collaborating with professionals from other industry’s and disciplines, Armstrong is interested in pushing the boundaries. He hopes to discover the limits of any one discipline. He believes art practitioners add significant value in thinking about broader social and environmental issues.

“So, I’m thinking particularly in my case about environmental issues, and how they butt up against science,” says Armstrong.

Armstrong’s roots are in science, with his postgraduate thesis researching new methods in electronic engineering and information technology. In 1992 he embarked on an academic foray into arts and design. By 2003 Armstrong was completing his Ph.D thesis Towards an Ecosophical Praxis of New Media Space Design.

Shifting Dusts, 2016, in Exhibition Over Many Horizons

Shifting Dusts, 2016, in Exhibition Over Many Horizons. Image: David Lawrey

Ecosophy

Armstrong defines the unique intersection where art meets science in creative practice as ecosophy, a concept that loosely translates to “wisdom of the dwelling”.

The notion encourages people “to think in a broad sense about how we might live more wisely” – essentially concerned with the future and our own actions and accountability for it in the present.

This led to collaborative projects such as Black Nectar. The experiential project aspires to continue an “art science dialogue”, which originated with Armstrong’s earlier project Remnant Emergency ArtLab, a campaign that has always been very much at the heart of his environmental concerns.

The ideas behind both of these works tackle the human impact on ecological patterns and adaptations, and how significant they eventually become.

Armstrong translates his creative approach to such issues.

“We can only take so many facts; we don’t need any more information, or facts and figures,”, he says.

“What we need is a strategy to move forward – a way to rethink who we are as human beings, what our desires are, and where we want to travel to. So just maybe, creative practice can be one trigger within a whole group of other triggers that will make us rethink who we are as human beings.”

It is with this purpose that Armstrong strives to communicate these too-often overlooked environmental matters through interactive art practices.

The digital art performance Long Time, No See? encouraged participants to think collectively about the future through a customised smartphone app. This physical journey was throughout the local community was choreographed and recorded.

At the end of the project, the participants’ ideas and visions were presented through online artwork using media and sound. The final product engaged the audience to design pathways towards sustainability.

Are We The One? was a natural evolution of Long Time, No See?, with only two participants creating a microcosm of that same idea for each other. Similarly, the underlying concept was the question of “how much can I care for another person that I don’t know, and may not ever even meet?”.

“Science is very much part of contemporary times”, says Armstrong.

“It’s propelled society forward, and in an incredible way… but it’s also brought with it terrible unexpected consequences. So if we don’t deal with the unexpected consequences of how we generate power, or we don’t deal with the unexpected consequences of biotechnology… then we’re in trouble,” says Armstrong.

“So, I think, maybe that’s the reason we need to think about science creatively; because we need to increase the dimensions of the conversation around it.”

O Tswellang at Over Many Horizons. Image: David Lawrey.

O Tswellang at Over Many Horizons. Image: David Lawrey.

Armstrong’s current exhibition, Over Many Horizons, that is currently being shown at the UTS gallery, features five new creative works that encompass the sustained concerns of his profession over the past twenty years. He describes it as retrospective.

This exhibition encourages the audience to ask how we might re-imagine our place and actions in the world. To think about how we might act in ways that ‘give time back’, rather than ‘take time away’ from the future.

Armstrong has recently become the research leader for the ‘Social and Ecological Practices’ group as part of QUT’s new Tier 3 creative lab research centre.

You can find out more information about Armstrong’s upcoming shows and projects, as well as gain more insight into his previous work at his digital archive, Embodied Media.