Sensing, Questioning, Reflecting – Meaning-making in/through Multimodal Ecologies

Guest post by Kirsten Jüdt

It is my pleasure to welcome guest author Kirsten Jüdt. Kirsten is a doctoral researcher in the interdisciplinary project “Disrupt!Research. Dynamic Collaboration under the Conditions of Disruption” at TU Dresden, where she investigates “Contact Scenes” between humans and non-humans, scientists and non-scientists, knowledge-seekers and their ‘objects’ (together with Svenja Engelmann-Kewitz, Jakob Hammerschmidt and me).

I first came across Hanna Tuulikki’s Air falbh leis na h-eòin | Away with the Birds by accident in 2017. In the final phase of my M.A.-studies, I was doing research for my thesis on intermediality and ecological communication. Having a background in comparative literature, my interest always went beyond what we generally perceive as a (literary) text. I was interested in the synergy of different media (film, photography, literary text) to negotiate human-nature-relationships, an interest that reaches beyond an examination of nature and literary text because to me, ecological thinking means to see the arts as and in the environment of social, cultural and political spheres.

Watching Tuulikki’s performance (view the full piece here) for the first time was equally alienating and intriguing: You hear a complex web of non-lexical sounds mimicking bird calls woven together with rhythmic cyclical phrases like hion-dail-a-la-horo-hi-ho-uuuuuuu (movement 2), or pil-il-iu (movement 3) invoking the waves of the sea on the shoreline and the different seabirds in their habitats. Being immersed in this soundscape, I felt like being taken out of my conscious and into the present moment, experiencing my senses as such. These strange voices seemed to carry their own and my humanness to a space ‘in between’ sea and land, immersed in the elements. I felt like I was part of what happened in Tuulikki’s performance, being connected to birds, humans and landscape and couldn’t help but be amazed at the human voice taking on more-than-human qualities asking Can I sing bird or water or landscape?

But while the soundscape took me out of my analytical mindset – a welcome diversion from my usual approach to research objects – it was the editing of the video that caught my eye. You see the Isle of Canna (the original site of the performance), its mountains and water lines, rocks, the sea, flying birds, the audience arriving by ferry and the performers in their oyster-catcher costumes on the shoreline. Dissolving black and white footage of the landscape alternates with the coloured footage of the performers, digital reproductions of a film tear and an overexposure at the end – a bird flying into the sun. These disruptions distanced me from what I was experiencing and brought my attention to the distinction between what was shown (the content) and how it was presented (the form), I became aware I was also immersed in a piece of art.

I knew I was watching a performance, that the voice played a crucial role, that the costumes of the performers suggested a metamorphosis from human to bird, but looking at each of the components alone did not provide an access to what ‘it’ was that I was trying to interact with and extract meaning from. I only had gotten hints at the fact that something was communicated beyond words – by imitation, vocalization and gesture; by integrating body, environment and different media. At first, I thought this was only of interest for performance and theatre studies and too far-fetched for an ecocritical thesis that dealt with literary texts and photo-text relations. I had no idea how to include it in my M.A.-thesis (so I didn’t) but I also couldn’t stop thinking about it. Tuulikki disrupted my expectations in a way that left me questioning how ecologies and media interact, how art produces ecologies and disrupts them at the same time and, not least, what the “nature” of these disruption is. 

How to get from Ecocriticism to multimodal ecologies? 

So, why not pursue this in a PhD-thesis? While Tuulikki’s interest in ecologies and the more-than-human finds expression in alternative approaches to making kin at the intersection of visual arts, contemporary music and contemporary performance, I wondered if there was a connection to genuine fields of literary studies. In fact, Tuulikki draws on Scottish-Gaelic folk tales, songs and poetry that imitate birdsong and depict a close relationship to the landscape. Yet, approaching Tuulikki’s work through an examination of intertextual relations, i.e. ways of constructing meaning through other (preceding) texts still wouldn’t do the whole project justice – yes, literature was one part of it, but I also found that Tuulikki’s performance itself was part of a larger collection of material. 

Screenshot “Away with the Birds” Hanna Tuulikki

Air falbh leis na h-eòin | Away with the Birds is a composition written for ten vocalists and comprises five movements exploring the mimesis of birds in Scottish-Gaelic songs, yet besides the original on-site performance on the Isle of Canna (Inner Hebrides, Scotland) and the 50-minute film I watched, the project also entails a website that functions as a digital interactive reinterpretation of the performance, a map of Canna drawn by Tuulikki herself, a podcast, interviews and other material documenting the collaborative artistic process. The website (fully accessible when I first visited – unfortunately, some of the material has disappeared since then) contains a multitude of content, for example a visualisation of the score in the form of  concrete poetry, drawings of seabirds, archival material of the folksongs, field-recordings of the birds that are imitated in the score, the song lyrics and poems used in the score and extensive audio-commentaries about each movement. Tuulikki here offers a rich experience of the artwork in a broader (cultural) context that goes beyond the parameters of performance and exhibition.

Thus, I discovered more layers of meaning, in fact, most of what I thought to be non-lexical words or mere sound was actually part of the Scottish song tradition, i.e. keening and waulking songs women sang at work, or had its roots in Scottish poetry. In this way, Away with the Birds invites its viewers and listeners to become navigators to explore the panorama of the shore and cliffs, i.e. the specific characteristics of the landscape the performance is located in, learn to hear the hubbub of the birds as a musical chorus and eventually unearth what Tuulikki calls ‘mnemonic topographies’, “the land encoded in the song, the lore embedded in the land”.

Sympoietic Assemblages

I quickly realised that I came into contact with a naturecultural placemaking which is part of a broader cultural context of border-crossings through artistic practices and forms of expression that I want to explore further. Academically speaking, I would describe Tuulikki’s project as what anthropologist Anna Tsing calls an “open-ended gathering” (2017, p. 22) of human and non-human ways of being that emerge in a “complex, dynamic, responsive, situated, historical” (Haraway 2016, p.58) communicative situation. I would call this sympoietic assemblages (see Tsing 2017; Haraway 2016) because this concept  a) “captures the heterogeneity of living and nonliving beings, as well as the interconnectivity of the various elements of the ecosystem, in both form and content” (Ergin 2017, p.87) and b) “encompasses experiments in community making, ranging from poetry and visual art, literary criticism, and performance to walking, foraging, farming, cooking, and being outside along each other, whether human or other than human, in space and place” (Hume and Osborne 2018, p.2). Thus, sympoietic assemblages open the conversation about various kinds of relations: Between the arts and the environment(s), arts and sciences, humans and other-than-humans, between methods/concepts/ways of thinking in and across the disciplines, between different modes of being that find their (artistic) expression in a variety of forms.

Gathering Research Questions

However, complex combinations of artforms, media, resources, and ways of questioning the human position in nature such as Tuulikki’s directly question my role not only as ‘silent’ recipient of her performance(s), but as a comparatist.

There is no single message to be extracted from a work of art, interpretation becomes an artform itself. And what could be more important to literary and cultural studies than the art of understanding and communication (hermeneutics)? And what could prove more productive to gathering further research questions than incomprehension itself? What then, are the consequences for ecocritical investigations of sympoietic assemblages? While artists like Tuulikki combine scientific and artistic approaches (artistic research), I believe it is also necessary for scholars to cross approaches/methodologies of the different disciplines and develop a more complex, that is to say, multimodal approach.

What I need, then, is a language and methodology that allows me to describe all of this at once or, at least, positions me somewhere neither “objective” nor completely immersed. As of now, I envision myself as entering an ecotone (a transition area of ecosystems) where ecology, multimodality, artistic research, aesthetic educational processes and disruption meet. My questions concern content and form of sympoietic assemblages as well as their naturecultural context(s). How and in which contexts do artists create sympoietic assemblages? In which ways are the traditional disciplinary approaches, when taken alone, inadequate to engage with sympoietic assemblages? What attitude, knowledge and methodology is required to ‘interact’ with any form of multimodal artefact? To what extent do sympoietic assemblages bear the potential of aesthetic educational processes? How do they show different ways of seeing? How can recipients approach and translate aesthetic experiences into meaningful communication?

This field of research questions, then, enables me to explore the ‘in-between’ of disciplines, multispecies entanglements and (artistic) work processes. However, it doesn’t lead to arbitrary method pluralism but rather allows ‘us’ to learn and become ‘fluent’ in different ways of being. In the long run, I believe that multimodal ecologies yield a process that weaves together direct experience, imagination, scientific and artistic ways of knowing (see Brodie, Goodrich and Swanson 2016, p. 14). And, in addition, multimodal ecologies aim at including participants of various social groups and bridge communication gaps between artists, scientists and the public. ‘Reading’ as well as producing – in the sense of seeing, questioning and reflecting on – any form of multimodal artefact, like Tuulikki’s Away with the Birds, becomes a richer experience when considered in a broader context. Approaching urgent questions of the Anthropocene, then, is a matter of collaborative meaning-making and extracting compelling narratives for guiding cultural behaviour (see Brodie, Goodrich and Swanson 2016, p.11).

Kirsten Jüdt is a doctoral researcher at TU Dresden where she works in the interdisciplinary project “Disrupt!Research. Dynamic Collaboration under the Condition of Disruption”. She studied Comparative Literature and English/American Studies at Ruhr-University Bochum (Germany) and English Literature & Drama Studies at Bath Spa University (England). She received her M.A. from Ruhr-University Bochum in 2020 with a thesis comparing intermediality and ecological communication in the works of Kathleen Jamie and Esther Kinsky. 

The research project “Disrupt!Research. Dynamic Collaboration under the Condition of Disruption” is part of the Excellence Measure “Disruption and Societal Change” at TU Dresden (TUDiSC) and is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the Freestate of Saxony under the Excellence Strategy of the Federal Government and the Länder.

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Ergin, Meliz. The Ecopoetics of Entanglement in Contemporary Turkish and American Literatures. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

Goodrich, Charles. “Entries into the Forest“. Forest Under Story. Creative Inquiry in an Old-growth Forest, edited by Nathaniel Brodie et.al., Ruth Kirk Book Fund, 2016, pp. 5–14.

Haraway, Donna. Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, 2016.

Hume, Angela, und Gillian Osborne (eds.). Ecopoetics: Essays in the Field. University of Iowa Press, 2018.

Lilley, Deborah. “Kathleen Jamie: Rethinking the Externality and Idealisation of Nature“. Green Letters, Bd. 17, Nr. 1, Februar 2013, S. 16–26. doi: 10.1080/14688417.2012.750841.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World. Princeton University Press, 2017.

Cite this article as: Kirsten Jüdt, "Sensing, Questioning, Reflecting – Meaning-making in/through Multimodal Ecologies," in Ecological Imaginaries, 23/02/2022, https://ecologies.hypotheses.org/215.

Trees, Stories, and Academia, or: What Literature has to do with Anything

In the very first session of the introduction to Comparative Literature at Ruhr-Uni Bochum, we were taught how to justify picking this subject to our parents. While I have told this anecdote a number of times as a funny twist on how my mother might have been the only person in the entire world who was actually relieved that her daughter decided to go for literature as her subject, I never quite lost the feeling of that first contact with what is now my profession. The feeling is an almost paranoid fear of being called out on doing what is actually a hobby (reading), a weird but all encompassing doubt about both the seriousness and relevance of my work. In short, it is the gut feeling that the “just” in “just fiction” might reflect more that a person’s attempt to discredit the capacity of literature to actually do stuff. 

By now I know that it is not just a feeling – it is the result of underfinanced humanities departments, expectations of “usefulness” and “applicability” that (being derived from engineering and, equally damaging for both cultures, from the natural sciences) have rarely anything to do with the work of a humanities scholar and almost never with the work of literary scholarship. It took me a while to get there, but the tip we were given in that introductory class followed those lines. While this is probably not the worst idea (even though I have doubts whether parents, who are not on board with you studying complit, will come around when the first thing you do is telling them about this French sociologist and cultural capital), I feel a growing sense of Bartleby-esque resistance to thinking of my work in these terms. So, if you came here to learn useful stuff about literature, I will disappoint you right away. This is not what I do. But what am I doing and why do I feel the need to do it despite constantly pointing out absurd conditions in academia and the need to tell people about it, who don’t even do what I do?

Looking for answers to these questions is part of the reason why I opened this blog. As with many things, there probably isn’t a straight response, but there might be more stories, and, as with many more things, for me, they have to do with trees. Not with roots, or branches, or leaves or all the single parts of a tree which lend themselves so well for (often all too heavy) metaphorization, but with the ways in which they require us to form words, stories and poetic texts in order to understand them. If I want answers to the question of why not only me but so many task themselves with writing about writing, talking about language and trying to find ways to put into text how texts become actors (many more meta-activities could be listed), then looking at trees, plants, symbioses and seemingly non-textual or -linguistic relationships might seem counterintuitive. But this is where – excuse the vegetal pun – the roots of the problem can be found.

A weed dinosaur, if you look (not too) closely, growing over human structures, not caring for what we think its species should be able to be

It would be all too easy to claim that it is literature’s job to make legible what otherwise remains incomprehensible. In novels, trees talk, in popular science, humans can read tree rings, in nature writing, humans follow tree roots everywhere – easy, isn’t it? Literary scholars, then, might be reproducing that job by making literature legible through analyzing, categorizing, historicizing. Too easy, indeed – what literary scholars do instead, or rather on top of that, is making things more complicated: Wohlleben tells you trees are friends and help each other? Here’s Johannes Wankhammer researching the different forms of Anthropomorphization and their pitfalls (Wankhammer). Ever heard of forest bathing? Here is Elisabeth Heyne showing you the different modes of perception (rain) forests induce (spoiler, not all are pleasant). And one more: You ask how trees become theme and motive in a text? Here am I telling you, they don’t, instead humans have to become tree-like to even see the giant plants. All of these texts and more are examples for how literary and cultural scholarship is much more than an explaining and archiving device. “We” don’t “just” communicate literature or other discipline’s results. Instead (or, again, on top of that) we find stories and keep telling them. We Reader poems and connect them to more poems, trees, (hi)stories. We excavate layers as much as we add new ones. The kind of knowledge this produces is actually very tree-like, because you can barely access it without becoming a little like it in the process. There is no writing about trees that isn’t making you a little bit arboreal while you’re reading. This might be special for the humanities and especially the Disziplinen dealing with literature. With us, you can see how we alienate ourselves from ourselves in order to melt into someone else and something else’s world (more on the barely hidden reference to hermeneutics and “Horizontverschmelzung” another time…).

In order to ‘see’ (read, hear, understand) the stories trees tell, you need to be able to connect them to other stories. This is what we do (I hereby claim): connect stories and provide a kind of guided tour through a jungle of texts and actors and things and more text, all the while leaving traces, changing the shrubs and producing more text. It sounds a little mysterious, doesn’t it? Well, it is and it is not. There is of course a way of learning how to do this, there are numerous ways of finding the benefit in studying literature…this is mine. Making things more complicated but also more exciting, making you understand less and being more adventurous with how you look around. Here’s to hoping you’ll join me…

Cite this article as: Solvejg Nitzke, "Trees, Stories, and Academia, or: What Literature has to do with Anything," in Ecological Imaginaries, 16/11/2020, https://ecologies.hypotheses.org/37.