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Doing Art and Doing Cultural Geography: the fieldwork/field walking project (2004) paper

The text of an article published in Australian Geographer. For original aesthetics and graphic layout see Chapter_A_5_2008. An online version (without the proposed layout) is available here http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0004918042000249458


Accompanying examples of initial visual experimentation from the fieldwork/field walking PhD project the paper outlines some of the challenges being an artist and using systems of understanding from science, the new ethnography and cultural geography as a framework for making contemporary art. The PhD project is a in its preliminary stages and is designed to explore the area of walking and fieldwork in art, and as art. Some of the challenges are the ambiguous role of the artist as scientist, ethnographer and researcher, the role of reflexivity in art practice; and the pitfalls of ‘academic art’. While cultural geographers have used artworks as texts to explain places, this project endeavours to work with issues of place, landscapes, power, identity and representation in the art, to feed back into this dialogue. The bulk of the project will take place in the Kimberley region of Western Australia where the concepts of wilderness and wildness are most relevant. The research question of fieldwork/field walking is, within the discourse between Art and Science what is the connection between fieldwork and walking in the field?


walking; fieldwork; the field; contemporary art; artist as ethnographer; site specific art; Kimberley region; art and science; reflexivity; wilderness; wildness; nature; interdisciplinary; poetics

fieldwork/field walking is a PhD project designed to explore the area of walking and fieldwork in art, and as art. The aim is to respond to the question: within the discourse between Art and Science what is the connection between fieldwork and walking in the field? It is currently in its preliminary stages. The endpoint of the project will be a series of thematically connected visual artworks that will be exhibited in contemporary (urban) gallery spaces. One set of work will start with observation and documentation of scientists undertaking fieldwork in the Pilbara and Kimberley regions of Western Australia. A larger component of the research process is visiting a field location a number of times, over different seasons, over the length of the PhD. The location chosen is in the Kimberley on a pastoral lease run by a private conservation organisation. The third set of work will be developed as a collaborative project with scientists, most likely in the area of remote sensing, with the end product again being seen in an art context. The art techniques that will be used include video, photography, sound recording and drawing; and the artworks made will be installations using video and sound, digital prints and sculptural objects.

The project is aimed at exploring the boundary between art and science and the current evolution of the definitions of nature. The intention is to create a significant body of work that contributes to new ways of seeing landscapes. The illustrations here are some initial notes and thoughts.

One of the challenges that has become clear in the research process is the ambiguity of roles in the project. In the main part of fieldwork/field walking — researching the Kimberley field location — the intention is to understand the environment using the techniques of the natural sciences. In other words, geology, plants and animals will be identified and their distributions will be mapped and analysed. The project will use techniques from ecology such as rangeland monitoring points where the ecosystem will be measured with time-lapse photography over a number of seasons. In this case the role of the artist is blurred with the role of a natural scientist. It is possible to take on this particular role without compromise because of previous training and experiences. In this case the science work is necessary because such ecological and material understandings form the basis of art making in my work in a way that is similar to artists such as John Wolseley (see Grishin, 1998).

flood snag

Current negotiations also include working as an ornithological field assistant. In this case I have to sharpen my skills as a birdwatcher to a level where I am useful in my role. As part of these scientific roles the data must be accurate, as in some cases, it will be used in real science. Again, is it necessary to take on such a role? In the field assistant case the artist will take on the characteristics of a participant observer, and thus, to a greater or lesser degree, act as an ethnographer. For this I have no experience and no credibility. Fortunately the observations made will lead directly back into artworks. What is desired is the experience of an ethnographer of people and places to be as challenging/wild/fun as possible. The freer techniques of the so-called new ethnography (eg. Goodall, 2000; Wolcott, 1995) will be used. Reflexivity and narrative are the keys to this process. The way that ethnographers have repositioned the subject in the field and re-examined representation of the experience of fieldwork, have allowed me to re-imagine the concept of the field and fieldwork.

The way that the field is conceived in this project is also heavily influenced by the new cultural geography: in fieldwork/field walking, the field is a space that is coded, regulated, and defined as objective by science. It comes into existence as a ‘site’ when the performance of fieldwork takes place: this project positions not only the field as one of its subjects, but also fieldwork. While cultural geographers have used artworks as texts to explain places, this project endeavours to work with issues of place, landscapes, power, identity and representation in the art, to feed back into this dialogue. It is not claimed that using such a conceptual framework is unique in the Arts, because the cultural turn of the late twentieth century has profoundly affected art schools also. It is felt that the artist is treading on dangerous ground if this role is interpreted as being a cultural geographer: if the artworks are the essential core, then no more than a partial depth of understanding of another discipline can be claimed.

The art critic Hal Foster (1996), whilst praising reflexivity, was critical of the ‘artist as ethnographer’ model. Some level of identification with the Other prevents the Other from becoming the site of criminality (as in neo-liberalism). Over identification – or idealization – of the Other puts the Other into the position of forever being the victim, and simply re-centres the artist-subject. Flexible border zones are needed and not Euclidean spaces; relational modes of difference must be continually brought into existence – not binary structures of otherness.

Foster is critical of the artist as ethnographic migrant moving from site to site and issue to issue. He notes that artists need both a horizontal and vertical dimension to their practice: traversing the discursive breadth of a range of issues should not eclipse a historical depth of understanding of the discipline (of Art). ‘To coordinate both axes of several such discourses is an enormous burden’ (Foster, 1996, p. 202). Foster (1996) again points to the dangers of the artist working as ethnographer inside institutional structures (such as museums). The artist functions to redeem such spaces by reorganising collections in such a way that invisible Others are brought to the attention of viewers, but without significantly changing the power wielded by the institution. The institution in effect buys self-criticality as the nomadic artist travels the world doing these residencies (Kwon, 2000). A type of narcissistic indulgency by the artist (from over self-reflexivity) or the institution (from being obsessively inward-looking) can result in a hermetic art if the appropriate strategies are not enacted.

In the sub-projects that have been proposed, the artist will be directly engaging in half spaces: I am half of ‘them’. In the first approach the artist observes people being objective; in the Kimberley fieldwork the artist both pretends to be them (objective), and when doing ‘real’ art, be radically not them (subjective). The final work will foreground collaboration with the objective technologies of remote sensing. There will be an active recreation of this ambiguity as a significant tension in the work. To be able to cross the interdisciplinary space is still a critical act. There must be some advantage to engaging with the natural environment that (as Other) does not speak verbally to us. The shifting boundaries of the field and fieldwork as a place of cultural translation (as opposed to the laboratory) support and reinforce this approach.

One of the major practical issues of the fieldwork/field walking project is how to creatively transform the experience of elsewhere (the field) into artworks. Robert Smithson (Smithson, 1996) articulated this problem in his Non-Sites in the late 1960s. Miwon Kwon (2000) has traced the chronology of site specific art from this point to the present and highlights the dissipation of the physical site into one which is functionally-driven or issues-driven (following the dematerialisation of the art object). Today’s art site is intertextual. In other words, the primary location of the site-oriented artwork is not the physical site. The site has shifted to the discourse. In the example of the work of Mark Dion, it is the discourse concerning ‘cultural representation of nature… [or the] global environmental crisis’ (Kwon, 2000, p. 45).

Moreover, fluid identities are a good thing if everybody has the same access to, and privileges for, living these multiple identities in multiple places. Indeed Kwon argues that the persistence of actual places in everyday life may not necessarily represent a theoretically naive point of view. Kwon recommends a kind of ‘relational specificity’ to overcome the sequence of passive encounters with generic spaces in our lives. Such a specificity recognises the connections and adjacencies of what goes on next to where you are, rather than one thing after another. The fieldwork/field walking project sets out to make art that explores this area between the ephemeral or transient experience and the site-specific or in-depth experience.

The field is one of the few areas in Science where walking and individual observation are still primary technologies. ‘A central premise of fieldwork has been that understanding is founded in personal experience’ (Kuklick & Kohler, 1996, p. 13). In the visual arts, walking in non-urban areas was an important part of expanding the definition of the art object and redefining the genre of landscape art in the 1970’s. Recent walking projects I have done are based in the city for which the framing of walking in critical theory (flâneur, dérive, etc) has provided a rich vein to mine. Much of this theorising has been centred around the urban and much less has been written, for example, about non-urban walkers (such as Hamish Fulton or Richard Long) from a cultural geographical point of view. Is this because of post modernism’s focus on the city (in geography’s case perhaps reflecting an opposition to the Berkeley School tradition)? In 1994 Demeritt (p. 167) wrote that cultural geographers are setting ‘aside the hiking boots preferred by Sauer for the patent leather shoes more appropriate to fieldwork in the cafes and art museums now of empirical interest.’

In fieldwork/field walking the focus is being shifted to non-urban landscapes. As a contemporary artist there is a danger of being seen as irrelevant if the work is perceived as returning to themes of the bush so common in interpretations of Australia’s art history. Can wanting to do fieldwork in a remote area that frequently sells itself as wilderness be justified? The problems of wilderness and the privileged discourse of the sublime are well known. Does masquerading as a scientist or working as a field assistant in the field, legitimate the project? The fashions of contemporary art almost make one ask, is it wrong to use good landscapes to produce good art. Concurrently, is it wrong to use good geography (that is imaginative or rhetorically convincing) to produce good art?

What has been most fruitful has been a shift in my vision from wilderness to wildness. Paradoxically, wildness is the ability to act in a world where nature is contested (when we so often feel powerless) because it is both close to us by being inside us and where our rubbish goes; and also far away from us, because it is the bit of nature which is itself autonomous, and which, first and foremost acts for itself independently. If we want wilderness areas then as much as anything we should use them to help us identify otherness close by. The concept of wildness is part of the continuing dynamic tension between nature and culture as embodied in the FutureNatural (Robertson et al., 1996).

The non-urban still has the advantage of the otherness of nature being so close that you cannot ignore it: the autonomous-ness of things existing for their own reasons, and for continuing to exist without our intervention. Wildness brings us closer to wonder. ‘The striking power of the wild is that wonder in the face of it requires no act of will, but forces itself upon us – as an expression of the nonhuman world experienced through the lens of our cultural history – as proof ours is not the only presence in the universe’ (Cronon, 1995, p. 88). The challenge will be in bringing it all back home.

Walking is essential to fieldwork/field walking because it is a spatial practice and a bodily practice. It engages with more than just the eye. The field site will be re-corporealised by walking. Walking is pivotal to the project because on the one hand it is personal, physical, everyday, and immediate; and on the other hand, it is technologically simple, autonomous and at an increasing distance from the contemporary trajectory of high modernism. These characteristics see it being increasingly left out of the future modern as simulations and cyborgs become the norm. These tensions provide impetus to re-examine walking as an art practice: it connects the field to the urban, the body to spaces, and the wild to the everyday.

A final challenge in the project is not falling into the trap of producing an ‘academic art’, where theory overtakes the aesthetic experience of the work. More specifically it is the role of the ‘hard’ or the ‘textual’ versus the poetic in my artmaking that is troubling. It is something that I cannot fully articulate into words yet, but has to do with the relationship between feeling confined by the boundaries of science (knowledge that is truth) and words, and the freedoms of metaphor and poetics available in art. I will have a better understanding of this by the conclusion of the project.

In this short space I have tried to briefly discuss some of the issues in fieldwork/field walking that may be relevant to doing cultural geography. The aim as an artist is always to create interesting art from interesting situations. Perhaps there is an advantage to being able to pick and choose what is useful or inspiring from the physical and the theoretical landscape. The question to ask is, will what this project does help or interest cultural geography? To be able to answer this, lines of dialogue must be opened and discussion must begin.



Cronon, W. (1995). The trouble with wilderness. In Uncommon ground: Toward reinventing nature (pp. 69-90). New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Demeritt, D. (1994). The nature of metaphors in cultural geography and environmental history. Progress in Human Geography, 18, 163-185.
Foster, H. (1996). The artist as ethnographer. In The return of the real: art and theory at the end of the century (pp. 171-279). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Goodall, H. L., Jr. (2000). Writing the new ethnography. Oxford: Alta Mira Press.
Grishin, S. (1998). John Wolseley: Land marks. Sydney: Craftsman House.
Kuklick, H., & Kohler, R. E. (1996). Introduction. Osiris, 2 (11), 1-14.
Kwon, M. (2000). One place after another: notes on site specificity. In E. Suderburg (Ed.), Space site intervention: Situating installation art (pp. 38-63). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Robertson, G., Mash, M., Tickner, L., Bird, J., Curtis, B., & Putnam, T. (Eds.). (1996). FutureNatural. London: Routledge.
Smithson, R. (1996). Robert Smithson, the collected writings. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Wolcott, H. F. (1995). The art of fieldwork. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.

See also

Lingwood, J. (2002). Field Trips. Bernd and Hilla Becher Robert Smithson. In J. Lingwood (Ed.) (pp. 172). Porto: Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves.