Drawing a Transductive Ecosophy in Process: Technological Arts, Residual Matter, Associated Milieus
by Gisèle Trudel
published June 2015
A study of per capita garbage production conducted by the Conference Board of Canada, a not-for-profit think-tank, states: “[i]n 2009 (the data year on which the study was based), Canada produced 777 kg of garbage per citizen. Across all 17 countries studied, the average was only 578 kg produced.” (CBC)
Various crises in recent decades point to the complex relationship between humans, technology, and government policy: witness climate change, over-exploitation of raw materials, and loss of biodiversity. With regard to waste, people think mostly about management. Despite the three-Rs approach (Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle) and other measures like compost programs, waste continues to accumulate. I wanted to work with waste in terms of process philosophy and collaborative technological art as political action. Here, research-creation becomes a transdisciplinary aesthetic act, emerging from an ecology of practices that combines humans, non-humans, and waste. My work has been to combat my own feelings of helplessness about how matter is used and thrown away by attentively addressing these issues. In other words, the aim is an increased sense of empowerment coming out of the various operations and situations and also with the public, through an extensive engagement with residual matter in creative processes. During six years of research on waste, I studied, from an artistic viewpoint, operations at three waste management systems: the municipal wastewater treatment plant in Montreal, Quebec; biologist John Todd’s pioneering Eco-Machines in Sharon, Vermont, and Montreal’s technical waste landfill located in Lachenaie, Quebec. Ælab, my artist research unit co-founded with electronic-electroacoustic composer and sound engineer Stéphane Claude, created a tetralogy of artworks from 2008 to 2014, including a major media installation on atmospheric pollution. We tried to develop these creative activities and questions in the domain of the sensible, with technicities, refuse, and political agency contributing to other ways of being together. Taking the words of its own title as a diagram (Deleuze and Guattari Mille Plateaux), this note lays the foundation for various media artwork processes with regard to their philosophical underpinnings.
The French word dessin comes from disegno, which during the Renaissance consisted of three orders: the project, the discourse of the emerging art system, and the fragment (Ciaravino 2004). The first order refers to the concept of the project, meaning a preliminary building plan, in which each element should be placed in a harmonious fashion. This preliminary drawing would describe the position of humanity and its domination over nature, made effective by sight and representation of space (mimesis). The second order of disegno was the development of a set of treatises on the disciplinary system of the arts that are still active today: drawing, painting, sculpture, and architecture. With da Vinci most notably, drawing also showed what could not be seen otherwise, a third order that Ciaravino calls the fragment (184). For example, see the subtle interplay of light and shadow da Vinci so ably explored in his studies of the indefinite and shifting contours between figure and background. Ciaravino observes, “[i]t may happen that the disegno, released from a line making a contour of an enclosure, can make possible the production of a line—the line of a line, the line of disegno—out of different material, neither pictorial nor graphic” (174). In my title, the gerund form of the verb “to draw” implies a continuous action.
If philosophy is the love of wisdom, the immediate meaning of the word ecosophy might be the eikos of knowledge, skill, and wisdom. Words formed from the same Greek root, economy or ecology, are more familiar, but they point to the conceptual power of eikos. In his last two books, Les trois écologies (1989) and Chaosmose (1992), Félix Guattari elaborated on the scope and complex interrelations of three ecologies: mental, social, and environmental. In response to Norwegian philosopher and biologist Arne Naess, who coined the term in his book Ecology, Community and Lifestyle (1989), Guattari’s repetition of the word ecology three times brings about a critical difference, because the word ecology is too often reserved for a single situation: the relationship between humans and nature. Ecosophy therefore relies on the perpetual exchange between three ecologies named above. Guattari refers to it as providing the basis for an ethics, which cannot be achieved without profound changes occurring in the psyche. In ecosophy, the individual is not isolated from the changes and crises in which s/he also takes part. Affirming the triple interlacing of these questions, Guattari rejects binary conceptions that oppose subjectivity and objectivity, and he also rejects the hierarchical vision of subjectivity as something always already given (Chaosmose 19). The key question for Guattari is that of heterogenesis, the creation of the other through division, aiming at differentiation and autonomy by way of the cut. The concept of ecosophy as a theory of the relations of subjectivity to a particular situation, as well as to life itself, proves fruitful and relevant to support political change (Bouaniche 147). With ecosophy, Guattari offers a resingularization of heterogenesis, a dissensual togetherness that increases individual empowerment.
In his philosophy of individuation, of which transduction is a part, French philosopher of science Gilbert Simondon seeks to shed light on what Aristotelian hylomorphism obscures, giving precedence to the shaping of passive matter by focusing on its result, and not on its process. A definition of transduction (there are several) can be found in the introduction of L’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information:
We mean by transduction a physical, biological, mental, and social operation in which an activity is propagated little by little, basing this propagation upon a structuring of a field which operates here and there: each area serves as a constitutive principle to the next one, so that the modification extends itself along with this structuring operation (32).
In the regimes of individuation (physical, biological, mental, and social), transduction produces a connection between heterogeneous elements in a “milieu” under tension, oversaturated, what Simondon calls “metastability” (L’individuation, 26). Individuation is always different, in each specific case. It does not apply an already established principle. It exists (l’être est relation, being is relation) through the progressive in-formings that occur. The etymology of the word “information” shows its force, a process of taking-form (prise de forme). This concept is radically different from current notions associated with the word information, such as the news, or Claude Shannon's and Warren Weaver’s mathematical information theory on the entropic transmission of a signal from point A to point B (Shannon). Individuation arises in phases or phase shifts enabled by transduction. Manning explains that “Dephasings, seen from the point of view of transduction they call forth, are at once how force takes form and how the rift in a continuity of an ongoing process is felt [...]—a remarkable point that shifts how an occasion continues to become” (18). Transduction works between disparate elements making them communicate, marking a shift in their becoming. Tensions require partial resolutions to bring about change. To grasp this process, it is crucial to locate the thresholds of destabilization, and what type of interference results from which singularities, thus providing the constant configuration of elements in the metastable field under tension. In other words, it is a continuous structuring without structure coming from the operation of taking-form, i.e., in-formation. Transduction—a relation of relations that happens in the shared “middle” of an action, an “associated milieu”—is the key process of the continuous transformation of the human or technical individual where nothing is a given in advance. Transduction feeds becoming.
Creative actions renew the relation between art, garbage, technologies, and situations, according to the agencement of the following: working with my partner in Ælab, Stéphane Claude, our mode of inquiry links documentary and experimental practices. We studied various sites and venues, and implicated our practices in the effects of operations at the various waste treatment facilities. We created a new, specific type of presentation we have named “performative installation.” These various human and non-human actants contribute to a crosslinking of techniques under tension. The word actant was borrowed from the semiotics of A.J. Greimas by Bruno Latour and Michel Callon in their development of Actor-Network Theory (ANT) in the 1980s. Latour defines the actant succinctly as anything that modifies other actants through a series of actions (75). For example, the stylus tip touches the tablet, permitting the performance to happen, composing and mixing the video streams and text with the methods and sites of presentation. These actants generate a new and somewhat risky, somewhat paradoxical, aesthetic experience with waste. I can never know what exactly will occur during a live performance, and each performance entirely renews my art practice and my relations with the discarded. From the different ways of making art can emerge a tentativeness, and an attentiveness (think Stengers’s faire attention), a transdisciplinary act of resistance as empowerment. The transduction between art, technology, and waste has been enabled by the action of the stylus in each of the works I describe here, connecting them across time and space, building up the tetralogy as it slowly emerged.
The colon is an event-relation between theoretical concepts and operational aspects of artistic practice associated with waste.
My artworks are produced under the name of Ælab, the artistic research unit I co-founded in 1996 with Stéphane Claude. We invite artists, writers, philosophers, and scientists to work with us. A creative project is a modulation in the encounter between documentary and experimental genres, between technique and content, involving media and art in special situations linking technology to nature and to humans. Technique is not a set of resources for humans; it is an actant, modifying the course of events. In 2006, we started our exploration of waste with innovative performative installations. We wanted to open our practice to different and controversial processes of nature. The first project called light, sweet, cold, dark, crude (LSCDC) (2008-ongoing) is about wastewater treatments and multiple versions were presented in Montreal and internationally: at Flevoland, Montreal, 2008; Festival transmediale, Berlin, Germany, 2009; Festival Temps d’images, Montreal, 2009; Thinking with Water Conference, Montreal, 2010; EcoSapiens residency, New Plymouth, New Zealand, 2011. And the latest version was presented in La Biennale de Montréal (BNLMTL 2014) last October at the Fountain House—conceived by German architects raumlabor from Berlin in collaboration with Goethe-Institut Montreal and built on a vacant lot downtown (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Ælab. LSCDC. Oct. 2014. Audiovisual performance.
At the same time, I reconnected with digital drawing, allowing me to reactivate lines of flight (Deleuze and Guattari, Mille Plateaux) and points and lines of inscription (Rancière, Le partage du sensible) that could provoke change, where aesthetic empowerment is political action. I also developed, with the help of programmer Jim Bell, a computer interface for live composition and video editing with the stylus, the graphics tablet, lighting, and electronic sensors. The tetralogy on waste matter was taking form in parallel with LSCDC.
Figure 2: Ælab. L’espace du milieu. Feb.-Mar. 2011. Permutational installation and evening architectural projection.
Three major artworks have since been developed: L’espace du milieu (2011), an in situ media installation and night projection on atmospheric pollution presented at the Darling Foundry in Montreal (Figure 2), Forces et milieux (2011), a performative installation on the operations of the technical waste landfill at Lachenaie, Quebec, presented at the Coeur des sciences pavillon at the Université du Québec à Montréal (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Ælab. Forces et milieux. Oct. 2011. Performative installation.
And finally, Milieux associés (May 2014), the latest performative installation and night projection in response to Lachenaie’s waste landfill, was presented at Phi Centre as part of the second International Digital Arts Biennial in Montreal (see Figure 4).
Figure 4: Ælab. Milieux associés. May 2014. Permutational and performative installation, with evening architectural projection.
The undefined drawn line works with trash, leftovers. The stylus produces a technicity in my artistic practice, engaging disegno of the third order (the fragment), garbage, and the computer. The line cuts or combines layers of experience and visual composition, making manifest the fragmentation. The autonomy of the line is connected only to the moment of its execution. There is no paper or other media to record the traces. I'm never sure what will happen with the stylus during a performance. It contributes to the taking-form of light and shadow as diagrammatic (processual) force. The stylus and graphics tablet are the physical interface for the inflections of a line that mixes visual and ephemeral fragmentations, a line that reflects on discarded things, a midway of waste. The video composition is produced by the action of the stylus, which allows me also to draw lines and spirals in an open space where the viewer is free to think what s/he wants, according to his/her heterogeneity. The stylus is also the exclusive operator of technicities, allowing me to make agencements at the moment of performance. As Simondon states, this change in the philosophical view of the technical object announces its action as a being (a relation) of culture (Du mode 16). In these artworks, the technical object, while providing a resolution as to its own becoming, enters into an indeterminate relation with the third order of disegno. The stylus forms me (in-forms me) in a reciprocal relation where each can be extended or modulated, and thus we jointly participate in a crossing of actions. The technical object is active. It generates its own network and participates in exchanges as they unfold. Not solitary or apart, its operation is always the center of a relation: a median. As Manning explains, “[t]echnicity is the dephasing of technique—it is the experience of technique reaching the more-than of its initial application. Technicity is craft—it is how the field of techniques touches its potential. From technique to technicity we have a transduction. Technicity is a shift of level that activates a shift in process. This is how techniques evolve” (33). Disegno’s third order is part of a process that goes beyond the geometrical and perspectival system of representation to engage with other forms, other contours, and other thresholds. This is not the traditional window of perspective that generates distance between elements on a flat plane. A range of exchanges occurs on both sides, between line, stylus, lack of depth, lack of representation, and contact between heterogeneous situations, including humans. In my research, the action of the stylus leaves no trace; it is diagrammatic (Deleuze, Foucault 92; Deleuze and Guattari, Mille Plateaux 176), drawing the unstable shadows and light of discarded material. Waste can enter into a mode of indeterminacy with the stylus thanks to the pulsating force of the fragment. The stylus is involved in a connection between garbage and technologies at the moment of performance, generating a new technicity, giving a sensible force to technological research-creation. The digital gesture of the stylus transduces a phase shift for art and waste, splitting and fragmenting each of them once more.
Simondon critiques the hylomorphic model inherited from Aristotle, a model that consistently and problematically supports the concept of passive matter awaiting a shape to be imposed upon it. This perception of matter is extended to so-called raw materials and their extraction, production, management, and disposal. The two Quebec Policies on Waste Management (1998-2008 and 2011-15) perpetuate the conception of matter solely as a resource—it is stratified daily in the landfill. The industrial sector (e.g. mines with highly polluting practices) is subject to its own policies. The budget of BFI, the private company that manages the technical waste landfill at Lachenaie, Quebec, grew over the past decade, from $1M to $1.4M. In 2003, their expansion plans were contested by local citizens at public hearings for the Metropolitan Plan for Waste Management, organized by the Office for Public Hearings on the Environment (Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement –BAPE). Furthermore, other models exist in Canada and internationally. For example, the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia has abandoned the landfill for extensive sorting at the source, while Denmark is incinerating waste and recycling as an energy source. Other historical initiatives are interesting, such as the Automated Vacuum Collection System, a pneumatic system integrated into architecture and urban design on Roosevelt Island, an island in the East River situated between Manhattan and Queens, New York, the subject of the exhibition Fast Trash.
The word milieu in French is rich in potential meaning to describe nature, and it differs from the word “environment,” which usually means that which surrounds or cocoons humans but is separate from them; environment is often the word used to name an economic resource to be exploited. To challenge this by way of the middle, from an active center, is the stylus and the human continuously co-composing with the various residues anew. Manning describes the “associated milieu” as “hyperrelational, every act calling forth a dephasing, a transduction, a welling of an environmentality that constitutively challenges the oneness of the self separated from the milieu of interaction” (9). Following Simondon, the milieu is a process of exchange, constantly renewed, where nothing is a given in and of itself. In this becoming of waste, art, and technologies, transduction deflects its ongoing linking of these disparaties “little by little” and “from here to there” (L'individuation 32), in joint interaction, pushing each one outside of preassigned limits. The artworks discussed here help me to propose another engagement through a milieu, through their respective titles, processes, and transductions. Creative modulations between art, technology, and waste propel them into an unforeseen and reticulating process, extending themselves, constantly changed by the unresolved tensions of their relation.
The tetralogy produced by Ælab is an attempt to co-construct a new being in the dynamic process of a transductive ecosophy, not in but of relation. Throughout the years of making these artworks, mental, environmental, and social ecologies have been entangled differentially, in varying intensities, each work of art creating feedback with all the others. Technological art, associated milieus, and waste have engaged in each occurrence, as they happened. Questioning the role of technological art from a philosophical perspective, in relation to what remains, is participating in new sensations for waste—as the diagrammatic in-formings of the stylus and the third order of disegno connect with trash.
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Gisèle Trudel is an artist. She co-founded the art research unit Ælab in 1996 with Stéphane Claude, an electronic and electroacoustic composer (aelab.com). Trudel is Professor at the École des arts visuels et médiatiques of the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and was the Co-Director of Hexagram from 2012 to 2015 (hexagram.ca). In 2008, she co-founded Grupmuv, the research-creation group for drawing and the moving image (grupmuv.ca).
(photo credit: Émilie Tournevache, 2013)