By James Batchelor
>Thoughts on Mapping
I remember how much I loved my childhood desk, which had a map of the world on its surface. It was communicative and expressive, yet at the same time mysterious and romantic. Presenting the world as flat, I was endlessly curious about its edges. A map in its minimal elegance tempts our imagination about what is left out, what it does not show.
I was particularly interested in the white mass at the bottom of the desk – a continent with no cities. Antarctica was a mysterious place that I wanted to discover. My first major work ISLAND was partly inspired by writings of early Antarctic explorers and the difficulties they encountered in mapping an environment that had so few visual markers. I was extremely fortunate that the then Director of the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies in Hobart, Professor Mike Coffin, decided to come and see ISLAND. After this encounter, we met to imagine ways that we could work together. He asked if I would like to work on a research expedition at sea and I was immediately fascinated by the potential. To have an opportunity to go to Antarctica and research it through my own body was a dream.
Nearly two years later in January 2016, I joined a team of 60 scientists, students, artists and ship’s crew on an expedition t o the sub-Antarctic Heard and McDonald Islands. Not Antarctica itself, but equally fascinating. Floating on the ocean’s surface in one of the most isolated places on Earth, science and art processes converged with surprising synergies. It was a particularly unique and inspiring space to study and research the body in movement. On a constantly moving platform, simply searching for stillness and stability was a task in itself. It was a relentless project, for two months at sea; it demanded extreme patience and flexibility to meet the myriad of challenges that exist in such harsh environments. The isolation, confinement and repetitiveness of our daily experience prompted a profoundly unique approach to space and time. From this unfamiliarity, I developed a particular sensitivity to the body.
In embarking on this expedition, my primary question was; could my body be a map? I wondered how it could be a record and what information it could hold in its physical intelligence.
In dealing with this task, I had to determine what I wanted to map. For many weeks we saw only endless ocean from horizon to horizon. I got to know the ocean intimately – its colours, patterns and movement. Occasionally I would peer through a porthole window to see beneath its surface. Despite its mesmerising visual beauty, I craved contact with it. So far my experience relied heavily on what I could see, what I needed was touch and sensation.
I would visit the Operations Room where the acoustic instruments were generating maps of the environment beneath the ship in real time. Taking note of the depth, I liked to see how long it would take me to run that distance on the treadmill, imagining myself running vertically downwards towards the ocean floor. Running on a treadmill on the ocean is an extremely profound experience, almost impossible to do without holding on. Carried by the movement of the ship, you are continuously running on many different planes. I discovered that although I was not physically in contact with the ocean, by simply being on the ship, I was experiencing its motion. I found that I had to learn again how my body would walk, run, sleep, eat, and breathe with its relentless presence.
Master sculptor Barbara Hepworth once said ‘I, the sculptor, am the landscape.’ Her relationship to the material world was one of communicating; transmitting form, intuition and intelligence from body to body. ‘I cannot write anything about landscape without writing about the human figure and the human spirit inhabiting the landscape – the balance of sensation and the evocation of man in his universe.’
While on the expedition, I discovered that the environment that I could most meaningfully engage with physically, was the one I was in contact with; the ship itself. Inspired by Hepworth, I began a process of understanding the ship by touch. I thought about my skin, the largest organ of the body, as the first contact point with the ship. Through the immediacy of touch, I could map the ship’s environment and measure it against my body as a ‘known’ quantity.
It was a process in experimental cartography: interrogating form, documentation and translation. Each day I would set up improvisations in different areas of the ship, moulding my body around its surfaces, measuring the distance between points in space. I would also film these improvisations; sometimes from my own perspective, other times from afar.
By the end of the expedition, I had touched nearly every surface on the ship and in my skin I held a physical record. The next task is to see how this record is transmitted. What does it communicate, how is it useful?
I am currently developing a series of works from large-scale theatre to intimate gallery performances that continue this research. Again like Hepworth, it is now a process of communication from body to body; both for the dancers I work with and the audiences I perform to. What I am finding now, is that although I can somewhat recreate movement and sensation from the ship environment, as my memory fades it is more interesting to study the method itself. The physical act of sensing, interpreting and recording. The process of mapping rather than the map.
> Thoughts on Measurement
Measuring is a way of processing what we sense, a tool to define our relationship to the universe in space and time.
On the expedition, there were many measuring processes in action. The scientists used highly sophisticated instruments to measure the ocean environment. The ship’s crew relied on measuring distances precisely to navigate our course.
I was of course busy measuring with movement. In movement, the body measures space and time very specifically. It is an internal process, based on our own sense of scale. Every step and every turn is a measuring process and remains in the history of the body.
Fellow voyage artist Annalise Rees, was using this same bodily sense of scale to translate what she saw to pencil and paper. The physical act of drawing was also a real time process of measuring taking place in her body.
But why measure? Measurements are crucial to knowledge; they are evidence, the basis from which we understand phenomena. There is no meaning in the measurements themselves. Knowledge is in the synthesis, links and connections between them. There is a process of filtering, selecting and discarding that inevitably needs to take place.
How do we know what we are looking for? This appeared to be one of the major differences between the arts and science teams; the scientists seemed to have a pretty good idea of what they were hoping to find whereas the artists had less expectation. The scientists sought to confirm, while the artists sought to challenge. Yet we could not have launched the expedition at all without a strong scientific hypothesis. Perhaps the artists had more of a luxury for openness.
For me of course, the interesting part is not the conclusions or answers that could potentially be formed, but the search itself. What does it mean to practice science? For me on this expedition, I felt for the first time I could participate in science. To critically sense and measure space through the body was already scientific, albeit in an unconventional way. We were at least all committed to a process of inquiry and ready to question the practices through which we do it.
This became an interesting discovery on the expedition, that in the simultaneous practice of science and art, all systems can be questioned. The known can again be unknown.
>Thoughts on the Unknown
What drives us as humans to explore the unknown from the deep ocean, to deep space? What is the physical encounter with the unknown? How do we recognise it? How do we capture it?
The expedition was for me an encounter with the unknown, immersing myself within an environment of complete unfamiliarity. This proved to be extremely inspiring.
A quote from one of my favourite philosophers Thomas Hulme reminds me that to be human is to accept that ultimately we must deal with uncertainty. ‘There is a difficulty in finding a comprehensive scheme of the cosmos, because there is none. – World is indescribable.’
Accepting this thought has guided me towards an emphasis on process rather than outcome, of practice rather than theory. Research for me is in the doing. With our limited capacity as humans to understand and describe the complexity of the universe, there is yet something beautiful in the attempt and ultimately our failure. Perhaps it is the search itself that is inherently human.
Barbara Hepworth, ‘Studio International 171′ – June 1966; as quoted in “Voicing our visions, – Writings by women artists”, ed. by Mara R. Witzling, Universe New York 1991, p. 280
Barbara Hepworth, “A Pictorial autobiography”, Praeger Publishers, New York, 1970, p. 280
Thomas Hulme. “Speculations Essays On Humanism and the Philosophy of Art’ ed by Herbert Read, London, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co LTD, 1936, p220