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.
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
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.
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.
Sarah Kanouse, My Electric Genealogy, performance, work-in-progress anticipated 2020.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Sarah Kanouse, “Grassland,” experimental nonfiction film, HD video, 19 minutes 15 second, 2019.
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.
Structured as a collaborative, creative research group, Art & Ecology explores artistic responses to environmental sustainability and related social issues. In the first half of the semester, the course examines select themes in environmental discourse, paying particular attention to how artists have engaged them. In the second half of the semester, students develop collaborative or individual projects that may take the form of social/relational art practice, video, installation, performance, writing, sound, 2- or 3D forms, and/or electronic media. In-class activities are supplemented with field trips, screenings, and guest presentations, and special effort is made to connect students to university and community resources. Emphasis is placed on critical approaches rooted in the humanities, but students are welcome from all disciplines. Students from disciplines outside the arts are encouraged to contact the instructor prior to the first day of class.
Note: This course first offered as Intermedia Topics before being overhauled to incorporate service-learning/community-based practice. It then became a regular course offering in Intermedia and part of the sustainability certificate program.
Organizing over a dozen people to participate in the (community) building process, Teed, Barr and Steinkraus built a memorial beaver lodge to commemorate the Studio Arts’ beaver family that disappeared in the Fall of 2012, when Hodge Commercial Management decided to drain the neighboring pond.
Global Warming Blanket, a sensor-activated heated quilt, positions participants as agents of temperature change. The rising temperature of the blanket corresponds to the data on global temperature increases, with 10 minutes of increasing blanket heat correlating to 100 years of global warming. The quilt-top is a graph of these global temperature increases from 1910-2010, showing an increase of roughly 1.5˚F over this time span. Scientists link the rise in global temperatures with increased frequency and intensity of hurricanes and typhoons.
Our seating/listening project’s goals were to make Studio Arts more habitable as well as connect others to the environment through sound. We arranged stumps along the front of Studio Arts and used mud to stencil text on the ground in front of the stumps. The text directed viewers/participants to listen to/for specific things that could be broadly applied (silence, atmosphere, pace, change, etc.).
This wall installation questions to what extent ideas of being temporary or being permanent differ from one another, ecologically speaking. Temporary conditions have unforeseeable long-term effects; what we believe to be permanent in our human lifespan is but a blip on the scale of geological time. From a certain vantage point the two concepts might prove indistinguishable from one another.
This short documentary explores the spiritual energy and essence of Effigy Mounds National Park in Northeastern Iowa. The land is origin point for many tribal groups in the Midwest.
Scaled paper mache potatoes representing the number of steps in the supply chain of 4 different potato-based meals. Fast Food French Fries (61x34inches), Mircrowaveable Organic Meal (34x17inches), Industrially grown whole potato (42x26inches), and a locally grown organic whole potato (real potato used, approximately 4×2.5 inches). All materials were recycled and/or locally sourced.
Select Student Comments
“This class was incredibly engaging and challenged students to interact with contemporary critical theory in an inspiring way. The process of collaboration in group projects was really educational and important to effectively putting into practice the theory we were reading.” (Fall 2013)
“Every time I take a course with Sarah Kanouse, I am challenged and pushed out of my creative and intellectual comfort zone, resulting in creative work that exceeds my own expectations.” (Fall 2013)
“I felt like this was an excellent course. Coming from a background with no art experience, I felt welcomed. There were times I was in a little over my head, but these were not overly common. The readings were appropriate. You were extremely helpful outside of class.” (Fall 2011)
“Professor Kanouse is extremely energetic and thoughtful about the course material and is one of the gems of the entire department. She encourages the development of a critical perspective towards culture in general while stressing the unique cultural position artists are in as producers, interpreters, and conveyers of heightened experience that search to imagine the world as a better place.” (Spring 2010)
“At first, I felt somewhat frustrated by the structure of this class – mostly readings and presentations with less emphasis on making things until the last few weeks. However, in the end, it turned out to be really valuable because that restraint and delay of making forced me to put more effort than ever before into research, and changed my work dramatically in every class across the board.” (Spring 2010)
“Sarah is an extremely intelligent and passionate artist and teacher. It is clear that she has expertise in the field and is very knowledgeable in particular about Art and Ecology. The slide shows and readings were always pertinent to the course…I think it is commendable that Sarah challenges the students and incorporates such theoretical discourse and conversations about contemporary practice (i.e. what artists are doing now). Her course has made me more aware of the bigger picture of contemporary art practice and I feel more engaged with the pressing and urgent dialogues that artists are addressing – it has definitely changed my view (in a very positive way) of the role of the artist in our society.” (Spring 2009)
“This is easily my best class in grad school – I greatly appreciate the energy and rigor you’ve sewn into the course.” (Spring 2009)
Crab Orchard calls itself “a unique place to experience nature.” As the only wildlife refuge in the United States whose mission includes industry and agriculture alongside conservation and recreation, Crab Orchard claims a harmonious balance between uses and users that strike many as incompatible. This story of harmony is maintained through the production and enforcement of physical, visual, and political boundaries — boundaries that, once crossed, quickly dissolve. This essayistic documentary maps the filmmaker’s discovery of Crab Orchard’s complex and hybrid nature. When a request by a security guard to put away the camera leads to a surprise visit by the FBI, the filmmaker begins a journey to uncover the refuge’s history and understand its contradictory present. Crab Orchard’s status as a contaminated refuge emerges less as an exception and more an example of the power and perils of “nature” as we understand it today. From its use by historic Native Americans as a source of food, its continued role in an economically vulnerable region, and the use of its polluted lake as a water source, the film explores themes of invisibility, loss, and shared but profoundly unequal risk. Assembled from documents, found footage, and conversations with activists, writers, and local residents, the film meditates on the persistence of history, the creation of knowledge, the limits of representation, and the commonplace of environmental hazard. “Around Crab Orchard” ultimately argues for forms of storytelling, image-making, and activism that cross existing conceptual boundaries to respond to the full complexity of the social and ecological landscape.
Emerald Earth Film Festival, Eugene, 2020
UnionDocs, New York, 2014
University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 2014
Banff Centre, Alberta, 2014
Appalachian State University, 2014
Ohio University, 2014
Headroom Microcinema/University of Iowa, 2014
Furthermore Gallery, Washington, D.C., 2013
Cabaret Voltaire/ETH Zurich, Zurich, 2013
School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 2013
Interrobang Film Festival, 2013
Echo Park Film Center, Los Angeles, 2013
Southside Projections, Chicago, 2013
Athens International Film and Video Festival, 2013
University at Buffalo, 2013
35th Big Muddy Film Festival, 2013
Best Iowa-Produced Film, Interrobang Film Festival
John Michaels Award for social justice filmmaking, Big Muddy Film Festival
Juror’s Special Mention, Big Muddy Film Festival
Sarah Kanouse, “Around Crab Orchard”, HD video, 69 min, 2013. Contact me for private link to full-length video.
For nearly two hundred years, the figure of the naturalist—the enthusiastic observer of birds, soils, insects, plants, and animals—set the bar for dedicated, non-professional scholarship of the non-human world. With his sketchbook, butterfly net, binoculars, and field guides, the naturalist went “into the field” to learn nature’s secrets through patient observation. But recent scholarship in the sciences and humanities has revealed that “the field” cannot be considered apart from the human world that shapes and imagines it. Taking its cue from the study of social nature, “A Post-Naturalist Field Kit” is an art project that updates the figure of the naturalist for the exploration of post-natural urban landscapes. The project includes artifacts for exploring environmental issues in the city—from specimen jars to do-it-yourself air quality monitors and lead contamination tests— along with activity cards that refuse to draw lines between social, economic, and environmental issues. Drawing on Fluxus game kits and recent environmental art, “A Post-Naturalist Field Kit” offers tools for the embodied exploration of urban social ecologies. This article describes and contextualizes the project in light of relevant areas of creative practice and geographical thought.
Kanouse, Sarah, “A Post-Naturalist Field Kit: tools for the embodied exploration of social ecologies,” in Sébastien Cacquard, William Cartwright, and Laurene Vaughan, eds. Mapping Environmental Issues in the City (Heidelberg: Springer, 2011), 160-177.