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.

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).

Recent Grassland Screenings and Awards

Still from Grassland with text "The plow will go forward"
Still from Grassland

Completed in early 2019, my experimental nonfiction short film “Grassland” has screened internationally in festival and microcinema spaces. It premiered in the Experiments in Cinema festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico before going on to the Twisted Oyster Film and Media Festival in Kefalia, Greece; Cineautopsia in Bogotá, Colombia; the Artists’ Forum Festival of the Moving Image in New York City; and, upcoming in 2020, the Black Maria Film Festival and Big Muddy Film Festival. The piece also picked up the Juror’s Citation at the Black Maria, Best Cinematography at the Artists’ Forum, and an honorable mention from the Los Angeles Experimental Forum. As an inter/extradisciplinary artist who only occasionally makes films, I’m deeply honored to have my work celebrated in these venues.

My Electric Genealogy

Woman in man's dress shirt and tie with elegant 1930s hat looks upward toward her raised finger before a projection of arcing electricity and a vintage photo of a woman in a similar hat
Composite performance still, “My Electric Genealogy,” 2020

For nearly forty years my grandfather designed, planned, and managed the spider-vein network of lines connecting Los Angeles to its distant sources of electric power.  From the 1930s until his retirement as general manager of the LA Department of Water and Power in 1972, my grandfather made a second family of the grid and its substations, converters, and interties, photographing these monuments of the modern everyday with one foot in the aesthetic and another in the techno-scientific sublime. When he died, he left behind images of transmission towers along with snapshots of birthdays and family Christmases, inspiring me to re-imagine the electric grid as populated by non-human ‘uncles’ and ‘cousins’ whose names I should know and whose legacies will pass to my child.

My Electric Genealogy is an original, 90-minute solo performance that proceeds from this imaginative re-reading of my family tree. It combines live storytelling with still and moving images, choreographed movement, and an original score to make intimate the crumbling, carbon-heavy infrastructures that imperil the planet and to probe the aesthetic, ethical, and practical responses they demand.  These systems include not just power plants and transmission lines, but also ‘infrastructures of feeling:’ closely held beliefs about nature, gender, race, and progress. Wearing a midcentury men’s suit, I alternately embody my grandfather, my grandmother, my teenaged-self, my professional-self, and my parent-self to seek intergenerational responsibility. What does it mean to raise another human being in a climate-ravaged world, and can that act of social reproduction become a project of social and political transformation?

Bookended by the 99 years that separate my grandfather’s birth and my daughter’s, the performance charts both the specific trajectory of Los Angeles’s development from the early twentieth century to the present.  While set in Los Angeles, the story addresses the broader cultural, political, and ecological imagination—from the modernist optimism that built the Hoover Dam to ideas about urban sustainability that lead the city to divest its share of the Navajo Generating Station in 2016.  Reframing the power grid as a dynamic entity that connects diverse and unequally vulnerable communities, I ask how an ethics of care and mutual obligation might animate the response to environmental crises of the past, present, and future.

Trailer

Excerpt

Credit

Sarah Kanouse, My Electric Genealogy, performance, work-in-progress anticipated 2020.

Sound by Jacob Ross and Beau Kenyon

Ecologies of Acknowledgment

Meadow grasses in the foreground in front of waste processing digester.
Still from “Ecologies of Acknowledgment,” 2019

Commissioned by the University Hall Gallery at UMass Boston for the exhibition Local Ecologies, this video and companion letterpress print focuses on the land use histories of Deer Island in the Boston Harbor. Going beyond mere ‘recognition’ of Native territory, the project asks instead what it means to accept the relationships and responsibilities that come with living on occupied land. In the 17th century, Deer Island was a forced Indian removal and incarceration site, where between 500 and 1,000 people suffered from dire conditions comparable to a concentration camp. It is now the site of the Boston’s wastewater treatment plant.

Pedestal with stack of letterpress prints

The framed land acknowledgment is presented alongside a stack of leaflet prints available for viewers to take away in the gallery venues at UMass Boston, which occupies Massachusett land. In traveling versions of the exhibition, an annotation of the original print poses questions that might guide viewers in acknowledging Indigenous claims to this territory.

The three women interviewed for this film are of Nipmuc, Massachusett, and Natick Nipmuc origin. In not identifying themselves by name, they seek to elevate the collective experience of their peoples, rather than their individual voices.

Exhibitions/Screenings

Boston, MA – Roxbury International Film Festival, June 17-26, 2021.

Medford, MA – Tufts University Art Gallery, “Artist Response,” September 8, 2020-May 15 2021.

Lowell, MA – UMass Lowell, University Gallery, “Local Ecologies,” January 21-March 6, 2020.

Dartmouth, MA – UMass Dartmouth, University Art Gallery, “Local Ecologies,” November 7, 2019-January 10, 2020.

Boston, MA – UMass Boston, University Hall Gallery, “Local Ecologies,” September 3-October 26, 2019.

Credits

Sarah Kanouse and Nicholas Brown, Ecologies of Acknowledgment, 2019. HD Essay film, 9 minutes, 53 seconds; three-color letterpress print, 12” x 19,” edition of 10; black and white letterpress print, 12″ x 19,” edition of 250.

Sound Mix: Jacob Ross

Letterpress: David Medina, Huskiana Press at Northeastern University

Grassland

The collaged image of a monument to the Sand Creek Massacre is defaced with an oil-like substance and rises over a cutout from a Frederick Remington painting over a fracking pad in the background.
Still from Grassland (2019)

The experimental nonfiction film Grassland uses stop-motion animation, live action footage, text fragments, and expressive sound to excavate the stratigraphic layers of belief, ecology, practice, and geology that form a northeastern Colorado landscape. Carved out of decimated ranch lands during the Dust Bowl, the grassland is both a conservation zone and a working landscape. Cattle grazing, nuclear missiles, hydraulic fracturing, and wind power generation co-exist within a few miles of each other. Less explication than essay, the film locates the grassland in historic and geologic time, ranging over changing frameworks of law, ideology, and cosmology, variable and contradictory human practices, and the material and geological forces of the land itself. Meditative original footage of the grassland merges with collage animations created from diagrams, drawings, and found photography to portray the refuge’s subterranean activities, from well drilling to missile storage to soil sedimentation. The resulting nineteen-minute film is a poetic and unsettling portrait of a complex, evolving place.

Excerpt

Credits

Sarah Kanouse, “Grassland,” experimental nonfiction film, HD video, 19 minutes 15 second, 2019.

Sound design and mix by Jacob Ross

Screenings

Strikethrough indicates Coronavirus cancellations

Nightingale Cinema, Chicago, IL, May 21

Cellular Cinema, Minneapolis, May 17

NW Film Center, Portland, May 14

Emerald Earth Film Festival, Eugene, May 13

Echo Park Film Center, Los Angeles, April 11

Black Maria Film Festival 39th Annual Festival Tour, dates/locations TBA

Big Muddy Film Festival, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, February 2020

Artists’ Forum Festival of the Moving Image, New York, NY, October 18, 2019

Public Space One, Iowa City, September 30, 2019

Rhizome DC, Washington DC, October 12, 2019

Cineautopsia, Bogotá, Colombia, August 17, 2019.

Twisted Oyster Film and Media Festival, Kefalonia, Greece, May 9, 2019.

Experiments in Cinema, Albuquerque, April 18, 2019

Awards

Juror’s Citation, Black Maria Film Festival, Hoboken, NJ

Best Cinematography, Artists’ Forum Festival of the Moving Image, New York, NY

Honorable Mention, Experimental Forum, Los Angeles, CA.

The Monsanto Hearings

Detail of Monsanto Hearings poster

The Compass Collaborators have initiated a series of public hearings into the longstanding practices of the Monsanto Corporation. In each hearing, people are invited to testify, witness and listen; to offer sounds, images, material artifacts and arguments for inclusion. Our focus is on Monsanto’s role in transforming the ecologies, economies, and social relations of this region. The proceedings unfold in several stages, and as the deliberation process builds, it adds to the accumulating body of evidence about the impacts on human and non-human bodies, food, biological processes, weeds, neighborhoods, farmers, alternative forms of knowledge, and finally the environment from which all these entities emerge.Throughout this project, we invoke the form of a hearing but do so critically. Ideally, the trial is a method of producing a comprehensive public understanding of harms and determining responsibility for those harms. However, existing legal frameworks are inadequate for addressing the scope of Monsanto’s activities: the corporation is granted the rights of a legitimate “person,” while human noncitizens and nonhuman agents in our biosphere are not recognized. Our proposition is to consider all living things as potential witnesses and plaintiffs. We submit to public review impacts that are experienced materially and culturally, in the past, the present and extending into our shared future.

Drawing of a giant ear of corn testifying to a crowd

Hearings

Carbondale, IL (2012)

Iowa City, IA (2012)

St. Louis, MO (2013)

Greene County, OH (2014).


Project Archive

http://monsantohearings.net

Video Excerpts

Video below is excerpted from an hourlong documentation video produced in 2012 with footage coming out of the first two hearings.

Opening five minutes
Scott Koepke and Squirrel

Exhibitions/Screenings

 Cedar Rapids, IA – Legion Arts, “Maize y Más,” October 8, 2015-January 3, 2016

Urbana, IL – The Interdependent Film Festival,  – July 31, 2014.

Chicago, IL – School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sullivan Galleries, 2013

St. Louis, MO – CAMP, 2013

Carbondale, IL – Carbondale Public Library, 2013

Detroit, MI – Museum of Contemporary Art, 2012

Iowa City, IA – Iowa City Public Library, 2012

Kassel, Germany – Documenta 13, 2012

Credit

Compass, “The Monsanto Hearings”, performance events and documentation, 2012-2014