Spring 2021, with open but aching arms

Three figures in PPE masks are arrayed in the foreground of a landfill hill with protruding monitoring pipes. One figure gestures and seems to be speaking. Industrial infrastructure can be viewed beyond the hill.
Sarah Kanouse and Nicholas Brown led a tour of Deer Island for Caroline Jones’s MIT Architecture course Landscape Experience, April 17, 2021.

The fourteen months since the first COVID-19 lockdowns have made clear over and over again just how entangled environmental damage, capitalism, and white supremacy actually are – as well as how unevenly their burdens are experienced. Even as I receive my second vaccine shot this week, I look with grief and outrage at the attacks on civilians in Palestine and the conditions facing the people of India, Brazil, Uruguay and other countries whose ability to fight the virus is constrained by the vaccine nationalism of wealthy countries. So it’s with open but aching arms that I embrace the promise of spring in my hemisphere and with it the release of new writing and creative work.

On Saturday, May 15, the geolocated public audio walk Sound on Mystic launches and with it my latest collaboration with Elizabeth Solomon. Native Space: Headwaters and Homelands is a five and a half minute piece for the area of the cistern that drains water from lower Mystic Lake into a now-defunct water distribution system. Elizabeth takes us back to an earlier view of Mystic Lake, before its engineering and development, to the time of a powerful female leader of the Massachusett people known today only as the Saunkswa of Missitekw. The piece is built from an interview with Elizabeth and field recordings collected inside the cistern and along the Mystic River.

I’m thrilled to announce that the short film (and earlier collaboration with Elizabeth Solomon and Nicholas Brown) Ecologies of Acknowledgment will screen in the 2021 Roxbury International Film Festival in a program entitled “Homage to our Lands.” Despite recent progress with vaccinations – especially in Boston, the film festival is online for the again this year. The program will be available for streaming for 48 hours, from  10am on Juneteenth (the 19th) to 10am on June 21st. Since I made the film viewable online for free on Indigenous People’s Day 2019, it has been circulating in unpredictable ways that sometimes surface via Instagram or Twitter and a number of gratifying unsolicited emails. It is still viewable in person at the Tufts University Art Gallery through the end of the spring semester.

This winter and spring has seen the publication of two new academic essays co-authored with Nicholas Brown. Our just-published “Perspectives and Controversies” essay for The Anthropocene Review entitled “An Anti-Racist and Anti-Colonial Anthropocene for Compromised Times.” Written during the racial justice uprising of last summer, we argue that the post-definitional project of the Anthropocene must be humbly anti-racist and anti-colonial and committed to transformative action. Over the winter, our essay “Common Tensions” was published in a special issue of the Swedish art journal Passepartout on “New Infrastructures – Performative Infrastructures in the Performance Field.”

I’m also honored to have an essay in the new Routledge Companion to Contemporary Art, Visual Culture, and Climate Change, edited by T.J. Demos, Emily Eliza Scott, and Subhankar Banerjee. “Staying with the Troubling, Performing in the Impasse” takes a skeptical look at white/settler climate grief and looks towards AIDS activists ability to politicize grief to consider how such an affect might be mobilized toward justice in both art and organizing. It is an incredible privilege to have my written work appear alongside that of many of my all-time intellectual, artistic and political heroes, and a huge thank you to the editors to shepherding the many year process through to completion.

The Netherlands-based arts research organization Sonic Acts has launched the new magazine Ecoes about art in the age of pollution. A few months ago, I sat down (virtually) with Kyveli Mavrokordopoulou for a conversation about the National Toxic Land/Labor Conservation Service and other projects about the nuclear legacies of the Cold War. An edited version of the interview appears in the magazine’s inaugural issue, just out this month.

I recently also had the privilege of screening and speaking with Emily Eliza Scott about my 2012 film Around Crab Orchard in the University of Oregon’s Emerald Earth Film Festival, speaking with Jules Rochielle’s Tufts University class Public as Form, and leading a socially distanced tour of the grounds outside the perimeter of the MWRA Deer Island Wastewater Treatment Plant with Nicholas Brown for Caroline Jones’s MIT Architecture course, Landscape Experience (see picture above). The tour was a welcome return to a place we’ve spent a lot of time at and thinking about over the years, from helping with the Deer Island Memorial Paddle to researching and filming Ecologies of Acknowledgment, and the tour gave us an excuse to put together a one-page zine of questions to guide our visit which you can download here. For printing and folding directions, you can see this tutorial.

Native Space: Headwaters and Homelands

Closeup of vintage map showing Upper and Lower Mystic Ponds
Closeup of Upper and Lower Mystic Ponds from an 1878 map of the Boston water works, courtesy Levanthal Map Library, Boston Public Library

This five and a half-minute audio piece was produced in collaboration with Elizabeth Solomon, an enrolled member of council of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag, and commissioned for the summer 2021 outdoor audio public art installation Sound on Mystic for the cities of Medford and Arlington and the Mystic River Watershed Association.

Medford, along with most of greater Boston, sits within the lands of the Massachusett people and, despite development, it continues to be Native space. Elizabeth Solomon returns to the headwaters of the Mystic River to decolonize the view from the shores of Mystic Lake. 

Solomon speaks about the Saunkskwa of Missitekw, the 17th century Massachusett leader who helped guide her people through the political shockwaves, environmental disruption, and epidemic plagues that accompanied colonization. The Massachusett people maintain their relationship to this place into the present day.

Exhibition

Arlington and Medford, MA – Sound on Mystic, a platform developed by Ian Coss, Dwayne A. Johnson, and Gary Roberts, May 15-August 31, 2021.

Credits

Sarah Kanouse with Elizabeth Solomon, “Native Space: Headwaters and Homelands,” stereo audio, 5 minutes 57 seconds, 2021.

Cello by Kristien Creamer, mixing by Ian Coss.

An Anti-Racist and Anti-Colonial Anthropocene for Compromised Times

A large group gathers under a shade tent for a discussion.The tent has a banner reading "Indigenous"
Discussion with Clint Carroll and Beth Rose Middleton Manning during “Over the Levee, Under the Plow,” an experimental seminar organized for Mississippi: An Anthropocene River, September 2019.

The anticipated formal adoption of the Anthropocene by the International Union of Geological Sciences offers an opportunity to develop forms of praxis informed by anti-racist and anti-colonial critiques of the Anthropocene and its mid-twentieth century start date. Moving beyond the impasse of the Anthropocene debates requires a broad suite of methods and voices. This short essay places Michael Egan’s concept of “survival science” in dialog with unexpected interlocutors historian Ibram X. Kendi and philosopher Alexis Shotwell to argue for explicitly anti-racist and anti-colonial praxis grounded in an ethic of humility. Reflections on a seminar organized by the authors for the recent research platform Mississippi: An Anthropocene River ground the theoretical work of Kendi and Shotwell in a concrete, if experimental attempt to work with the Anthropocene concept in anti-racist and anti-colonial ways, responsive to the specific entanglements of place.

Credit

Nicholas A Brown and Sarah E Kanouse, “Perspectives and controversies: An anti-racist and anti-colonial Anthropocene for compromised times,” Anthropocene Review (2021), https://doi.org/10.1177/20530196211000080.

Staying with the Troubling, Performing in the Impasse

A book is placed on the grass
Cover of The Routledge Companion to Contemporary Art, Visual Culture and Climate Change, edited by T.J. Demos, Emily Eliza Scott, and Subhankar Banerjee

More than forty years have elapsed since the term “global warming” first entered the scientific lexicon, and the scale and severity of predicted climate disruption has only grown. An ever-expanding body of creative work has sought to give form to the shift in Euro-American consciousness needed to apprehend the environment not as a background to human activity but rather a ‘web of life’ in which humans—and the profoundly unequal social formations instigated by (some) humans—both weave and are woven. The representational and narrative challenges posed by relationships of such complexity, scale, and duration are by well known. If there is any remaining utility in Timothy Morton’s much-cited term “hyperobject,” it may be found not in attempts to depict the object itself, but rather in tracing its contours, its folds, its roots: the overdetermined ways that it came to be, the places where we can feel it breathe. It may be, in other words, less a portrait than a performance.

This essay addresses performance as a mode for learning how to sense, move, sound, think, and feel a world de-familiarized by climate change. Using my own evening-length solo performance as an extended case study, I explore how the commitment to co-presence particular to live performance can function as a rehearsal for “staying with the trouble” of planetary entanglements. In particular, performance’s capacity to move between affective and analytic registers and to loosely layer and hold divergent sources of information is especially useful for the problem of narrating climate change in ways that the ‘trouble’ to continue to trouble, without being shunted into totalizing (and profoundly Western) invocations of apocalypse. Finally, I consider how performance can create spaces for the collective experiences of a critical ecological grief that may allow for movement through “The Great Dithering” and an abandonment of the illusions of (white) innocence that impeded living ethically and responsively within a threatened world.

Credit

Kanouse, Sarah, “Staying with the Troubling,” in Emily Eliza Scott, TJ Demos, and Subhankar Banerjee, eds., The Routledge Companion to Contemporary Art, Visual Culture, and Climate Change. New York: Routledge, 2021, pp. 153-163.

Common Tensions, an essay for New Infrastructures

A clearing in the woods contains a yurt, truck, campfire, and two additional tents in the foreground.
A portion of the encampment from the 2017 Kickapoo Conversation. Photo by Nicholas Brown.

Based in the hilly, unglaciated Driftless Area of the upper Midwest of the United States, Common/Place is a self-organized, off-the-grid platform for ecological resilience, cultural inquiry, and land-based pedagogy. The rustic setting offers a space to examine how such rural spaces have been both produced by and mobilized within the linked projects of capitalist extraction and settler colonial extermination and to connect and grow the nodes of resistance always present within such systems. Our primary project up to this point has been a series of experimental seminars assembling artists, writers, and cultural workers to learn from and with naturalists, historians, farmers, citizens of the Indigenous Ho-Chunk Nation, and the land itself. This grounded creative research and pedagogy generates a network of informal relationships that connect the urban and rural to break through the present moment of political retrenchment and set the stage for social and ecological cooperation in the face of the climate chaos to come. This practice-based, epistolary essay reflects on the first four years of Common/Place, highlighting constitutive tensions and continued negotiations around property, relationships, ecology, and time—individual, generational, and geological—that can quickly become sedimented in infrastructure and no longer open to question.

Credit

Sarah Kanouse and Nicholas Brown, “Common Tensions,” Passepartout 22, no. 40 (2020), 183-208.

Special issue: New Infrastructures—Performative Infrastructures in the Art Field

Work (and being) in-progress in the coronavirus year

Cutout of a medical illustration of human lungs against a warped rendering of a galactic formation. A drawn image of a bat is superimposed on the lungs.
Work in progress still from “Coronaura,” an animated video essay reckoning with white femininity, racism, and ecocide in a year of covid

How strange, contingent, and small one’s individual professional accomplishments feel in a world both upended and exposed by the coronavirus pandemic. I’ve refrained from posting here for more than a year, during which time I’d mourned, read, marched, listened, delivered food, worried, rejoiced, mourned, taught, and learned. Covid has only revealed new dimensions of what bell hooks famously called “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” which is always also ecocidal. Here are some of the modest ways my writing and artwork have sought to address this long emergency, one year into coronavirus.

  • I made To All To Whom These Presents Shall Come, Greetings, a new short essay film and companion set of ten cards exploring property as an Anthropocenic phenomenon for the Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s exhibition The Current. The show opened on October 26 and closed after only one week due to a second wave of German coronavirus lockdowns
  • Ecologies of Acknowledgment, a 2019 project with Nicholas Brown, has been exhibited at the Tufts University Art Galleries at the Medford Campus since September 2020. In October, we did a series of talks on campus, including a panel with Nia Holley and Kristen Wyman (both Nipmuc) and Faries Gray and Elizabeth Solomon (both Massachusett) challenging institutions to go beyond mere acknowledgment and into right relation with the Indigenous peoples whose lands they occupy
  • In December, the journal Passapartout published “Common Tensions,” an epistolary essay written with Nicholas Brown reflecting on our efforts to “common” our relationship to his family’s land in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area

I’m currently working on another collaboration with Elizabeth Solomon and Nicholas Brown, a sound piece lifting up Massachusett Indigenous perspectives for the 2021 auditory public art installation, Sound on Mystic. Nick and I also have a forthcoming essay on anti-racism in the Anthropocene in Anthropocene Review. Image on this post is from a short video essay I’ve been working on, tentatively entitled Coronaura, that reckons with white femininity in a year of violence both fast and slow.

To All To Whom These Presents Shall Come, Greetings

Composite image showing forest inset in two overlapping rectangles inside a purple-tinted antique map
Sarah Kanouse, still from “To All to Whom These Presents Shall Come, Greetings,” 2020

Property subtends the Anthropocene. Modern European property theory rests on colonization and chattel slavery—inseparable institutions that bound far-flung continents, ecologies, and people in brutally unequal relations. Property-thought and an ideology of improvement suffuse Western subjectivity. The imagined political community of liberal democracies is still marked by a tradition limiting full citizenship to property-owning, self-possessive individuals. This same ideology can be traced across such disparate phenomena as HGTV reality shows, middle-class health and wellness fads, the “stand your ground” laws that cost Trayvon Martin his life, and opposition to regulations that might stave off climate catastrophe. In the Anthropocene, what Black Panther Huey P. Newton called “survival pending revolution” demands moving beyond the stranglehold of property-thought to embody more porous and accountable ways of relating to land, people, more-than-human beings, and ourselves.

A continuation of the artist’s book, Beyond Property, this short essay film and series of ten prompts offers the audience directions to think beyond a property paradigm in relating to the more-than-human world in a moment of rapid geo-eco-social transformation. A meditation on deeptime, the violence of property, and survival in the face of attempted genocide and ecological loss. The title is taken from the first land patents awarded under the Homestead Act that transformed Ho Chunk territory into settler property–begging the question of to whom these “presents” came vs. from whom they were taken. Audio excerpted from a conversation with Bill Quackenbush, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer of the Ho-Chunk Nation, and sound of the creatures of woods and meadow of my family’s 160-acre parcel of land in Wisconsin.

Created for the HKW’s exhibition “The Current” in conjunction with the Fall 2020 seminar “The Shape of a Practice.” Additional cards created as companions to the booklets Field Guides to the Anthropocene Drift produced in 2019 by Ryan Griffis, Heather Parrish and Corinne Teed.

Download printable prompt cards (84 mb, pdf)

Credit

Sarah Kanouse, From All to Whom These Presents Shall Come, Greetings, 2020. HD video, color/sound, 4 mins and a collection of ten prompts for embodied exploration of and resistance to property. Sound mixing by Jacob Ross, card design by Ryan Griffis.

Blackhawk Park is Indigenous Land (Beyond Acknowledgment)

A picnic shelter frames a view of a bench looking out on a river. Two tan and green cloth banners hang from the shelter reading "Meet you here" and "Upon our lands"
Banners from Dylan Miner’s project “The Land is Always” installed on the banks of the Mississippi River at the opening event programming for Anthropocene Drift, September 25, 2019. by Katie Netti/Meredith Dallas

The effects of the Anthropocene are not experienced evenly, and some are hit far harder than others. The seminar Over the Levee, Under the Plow took as its starting point one of these spaces: Blackhawk Park, a “wounded place” where the colonial ties of the Anthropocene become painfully palpable. While histories on settler colonization all too often treat it as a thing of the past, this essay, co-written with Ryan Griffis and Nicholas Brown, revises our opening statement from the seminar asking participants to consider their/our own implication in the settler colonial dimensions of the climate crisis.

Credit

Nicholas Brown, Ryan Griffis, and Sarah Kanouse. “Blackhawk Park Is Indigenous Land (Beyond Acknowledgment).” Anthropocene Curriculum, 2020.

Animate Landscapes

Composite of two animation images. On the left is a white man on horseback near a monument splattered with oil, on the right is a handdrawn mountain
Composite publicity image featuring stills from Annapurna Kumar and Sarah Kanouse

The escalating climate crisis is making visible what was always true: no neat boundary exists between human and more-than-human worlds. “Nature” is a social fiction turned material fact, used to justify everything from resource extraction to wilderness preservation to racial hierarchies. The land and organisms we shape become the contours of our world. They form the basis of all sustenance, imprint themselves in our psyches, undergird the built environment, and enliven cultural narratives. This 90-minute collection of experimental media explores the bio-geo-social lives of the land and its actors, both human and more-than, through a range of experimental approaches, including meditation, animation, documentation, collage, and performance.

Core Films

The Bear in the Valley, Deke Weaver, 2019, 38:00

Grassland, Sarah Kanouse, 2019, 19:20

Rotating Short Media Selections

Dear Climate, Hello Virus, 2012, 5:46

Kelly Gallagher, Ceallaigh at Kilmainham, 2013, 7:14

Tia-Simone Gardner, There’s Something in the Water, 2019, 6:12

Julia Hechtman, Double Blind, 2017, 2:35

Heidi Kumao, Swallowed Whole, 2014, 4:06

Annapurna Kumar, Mountain Castle Mountain Flower Plastic, 2017, 3:08

Anna Luisa Petrisko, In The Tree, 2017, 3:48

Vanessa Renwick, The Mighty Tacoma, 2011, 9:11

Corinne Teed, Feral Utopias, 2015, 7:00

Marina Zurkow, Hydrocarbons, 2011, 2:32

Screening History

Strikethrough indicates Coronavirus cancellation

Nightingale Cinema, Chicago, IL – May 21, 2020

Cellular Cinema, Minneapolis, MN -May 17, 2020 – guest curated by Corinne Teed

Northwest Film Center, Portland, OR – May 14, 2020

Echo Park Film Center, Los Angeles, CA – April 11, 2020

Rhizome DC, Washington, DC – October 12, 2019

Public Space One, Iowa City, IA – September 30, 2019

Anthropocene River Reflections

A crowd of people gather outdoors beneath oopen-sided tent
Gathering in Moraine: Terminal space at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, September 26, 2019.

After a year and a half of research, making, and organizing, Mississippi: An Anthropocene River wrapped up this November with the week-long “River Campus” in New Orleans. I was working with Ryan Griffis and Nicholas Brown on Field Station 2/Anthropocene Drift; our public program took place September 25-29. At the River Campus convocation in New Orleans, Nick, Ryan, and I offered some reflections on our program that included audio clips from some of our tours and described what we believe to be the political potentials opened up by really grappling with settler colonialism. These reflections have been combined with elements of the framing text we delivered at the opening of our seminar as Blackhark Park is Indigenous Land (Beyond Acknowledgment) over on our Medium page.

Additionally, I’ve contributed a few pieces of writing and media documenting some of the seminar events over on the Anthropocene Curriculum website: a reflection on Randy Poelma’s tour of Maa Wacacak, the Ho-Chunk land restoration at a former ammunition plant, and a video interview with Adrian Pochel of the Chi-Nations Youth Council, which spoke on the seminar’s concluding day in Saukenuk (Rock Island, IL).