Embodied Sensing or Divination by Camera

I am sitting in one of those padded sofas in an elegant auditorium in downtown Helsinki wondering about the state of the world. It is the opening of the Geomancers – a loose collection of nine video works that thematically share concerns about the accelerating change in our environment. The screening is organized by IHME Helsinki as part of its 15th anniversary. Next door we have Helsinki’s glamorous Kämp Hotel, Louis Vuitton shop and the consumer paradise of Aleksanterinkatu – a thriving commercial street. And, just a while ago, I had transitioned between bars, hotels, and boutiques, to the basement of the screening, to another terrifying world captured in terabytes. Soon I am enveloped in darkness as the screening begins. I try to listen and see in the dark. 

Environmental change has made itself abundantly present, the screening suggests. The earth and its damaged constituents as mediated by the camera, are inherently rich with commentaries, obscure meanings, and mythologies, from both present and the past. Scenes of submerged coastlines, extracted indigenous territories, synthetic cornfields form one half of the narrative. The other, of humanity’s ability to exist and make sense of the changes thrust upon it. Spurred by a wish to capture in visual frames, these scenes strive to represent struggles that perhaps cannot be sensed and damages that cannot be undone. 

Curators Anna Lovecchio and Magdalena Magiera have brought together this uneven visual feast of calamities in the Global South (undoubtedly a situation brought on by the Global North). Patched together under the banner of ‘geomancy’ or ‘foresight by earth’ – the collection almost argues that what’s left for the Global South to do now is to merely “divine” the damages, make sense of the pieces by going back to the bodies, superstitions, fatalisms and storytelling long abandoned in favor of western-style consumerism and globalization. Despite the strong heritage of so-called ‘geomancy’ and environmental crises, India, Bangladesh and South Asia are surprisingly absent from this collection. While the curators’ source “divination” as of North African origin, I don’t see any film on the screening list representing that history. I tell you, the PVC flute works just fine, and bullets are making a comeback over rice. These days, we are all geomancers with our smartphones and cameras. There is no turning back.

What follows is my non-linear re-telling, since the screening defied thematic sense in its present sequence, as it was presented in the dark hall of the Maxim theatre. I was peeved that the collection seemed incomplete, but also reasoned it was not possible to represent all and everything pertaining to the topic. There is only that much time one can ponder about the sixth mass extinction in a fancy cinema before we need to address our daily lives. As a result, I could not make it to the end. It felt strange to share my viewing space with others, and I was resigned to watch again in peace in my own home. The pandemic had taken its toll – nonhumans were making their presence felt.

The Past is the Present?

It’s high tide, once again. The island of Panangatan devoid of color lies frozen in its misery. It takes a few minutes to comprehend the narrative, that of the submergence of the coastlines depicted in the monochromatic video. A long slow silent shot takes in the damage. Martha Atienza’s video work Panangatan (2019) reminds me of a funerary experience – a slow procession through the streets of Kolkata carrying my grandmother to the burning ghat, mixed with parts of a childhood dream, that long since makes me wonder if it were a dream at all. The continuous take unravels the body of the island as it lies in its shoddy state, perhaps more accentuated by the lack of color. One can only perambulate, drift with the silent camera, and witness the slow damage.

Panangatan (2019) by Martha Atienza

When the island fades away, I am woken up by the ghostly voices in Earth, land, sky and sea as palimpsest (2021) by Zarina Muhammad and Zachary Chan. A multi-sensory three-part approach to understanding the world through paths through the terrain and the nonhuman -the video feels like an experiment – of testing the boundaries of communication – of transspecies associations. Whisper your secrets to the trees, the voice suggests, as told to by their grandmother. Walk on paths between trees to remember. If trees can keep our pasts, could we also recover them through our senses? Do ecosystems work as an archive of our dreams and despairs? Is the bios around us waiting to be tapped, to discover new understandings of nature?

But, as the video asserts, the land and islands have been already subjugated, carved, and terraformed, their nonhuman life crushed under bulldozers to make way for buildings, roads, and infrastructure. New thresholds are drawn, and the communication lines have been severed, at least in places of heavy urbanization such as Singapore, New York, or Helsinki for that matter. In these places, the invisible network of trees have been isolated and siloed into manicured, potash-fueled islands of cosmetic beauty.[1] Spiritual landscapes seem like islands disconnected from what we call reality. When we talk to the tree, are we talking to the fertilizer – the chemicals of a multi-national corporation? When we walk in the cemetery, are we being touched by the nonhuman? Much of what I pondered upon does not come through the film. The topic of land reclamation is left untouched. Instead, the film reverts to spirits un-encountered and human-created thresholds. 

Earth, land, sky, and sea as palimpsest (2021) by Zarina Muhammad and Zachary Chan

Soon, I witness the stories from the past, of goddesses and spirits, of mountain clams, and ginseng waiting to be picked. Folk tales and oral histories from South Korea offer alternative ecological meanings and practices, suggests the next work by the Rice Brewing Sisters Club, consisting of  Hyemin Son, Aletheia Hyun-Jin Shin and Soyoon Ryu. The seven-part video Mountain Storytellers, Storytelling Mountains: A Tale Theatre (2020) shows tales enacted by the local community in collaboration with the collective. The video is a compilation no doubt, forming a theme around the nearby mountain, its souls, its beings, and nonhumans forming a loose ecosystem. The performances enacted on site are exquisite and flow together even though disparate. What do these folk stories have to tell us about environmental change? The work leaves me wondering what intangible traditions we have lost until the present day. What insights transmitted through millennia of climate change have lessons for us?

Are our ears no longer tuned to the ground? I looked up from my phone checking the time, and a birdman appears on the screen, who mimics the calls of wild birds to bring them out into view so tourists can capture them in the digital. A hunter seeks the prey using nicknames. Can Sound be Currency? (2021) by Liu Chuang explores the sounds of the landscape through specific characters, in Sichuan province in China, within which the indigenous communities exist and live by. Here, mythologies and folklores are abound of the agencies of the mountain and the forests. Sound plays a key role in the community’s daily lives. Ancient practices of hunters and bird callers now work for tourism, channeling practices into the present. When the bird sounds recede, a Buddhist monk shows off his PVC flute. Earlier they used to be made of eagle’s wings, slender and easy to carry. Yet, the sound is the same.

Can Sound be Currency? (2021) Liu Chang

To Measure or to Sense?

Sensing the landscape and its constituents has been an ancient and embodied practice in most cultures around the world. Reading the signs present in nature have directed folks to decisions and actions. Without foresight of the oncoming climate, the constellations and the seasons, agriculture would have been difficult if not impossible. These practices encompass a wider body of ancient knowledge that we are steadily losing in a quantified world. Man-made paths stop us from true communication with the ground beneath, but we have long since lost the skills of walking bare feet. PVC soles and synthetic rubber mediate, or rather suppress the messages of the toxins and bacteria on the ground. We have separated ourselves from the Earth by our tools of sensing and mapping.

Today we are forced to make sense of things by digital instruments, as evidenced in Ursula Biemann’s Acoustic Ocean (2018) in this collection. In a radical departure from Southeast Asia, I am transported to the Lofoten islands in Norway where Sami singer and activist Sofia Jannok tries to make sense of submarine life, the changing climate, and the effect on indigenous Sami peoples. The video feels like an anomaly in the screening, and I am puzzled. Since, the curators assert, their collection offer an opportunity to expand our ways of looking at the world outside the lens of scientific rationalism. But as you and I know – the use of instrumentation and computation is pure mathematical logics, far beyond indigenous or folk methods of sensing the earth. Will a technological turn allow indigenous folks to better sense and care for their environment?

Acoustic Ocean (2018) by Ursula Biemann

Regardless, the work is fascinating – especially its description of the sonic landscape under the sea. One is reminded of a world of organisms that exist out of sight communicating via sound, who have turned their bodies into mechanisms to receive and transmit sonic waves through water. In the depths, the body of these creatures are the only instrument, and water is the only programming material. [2] But as the film unintentionally shows, not for long will these organisms dwell undisturbed in their blue world without infrastructure. Soon, our instruments will mark them, and track their every move.

Unlike whales, we humans can no longer sustain without numbers and infrastructure. The material world is necessary for us to survive and communicate, and in Bieman’s instance – read the thoughts of humpback whales. I wonder if numbers and measurement, rationality and logics are responsible for the disappearance of the natural world, our intangible heritage and the increasing exploitation of resources. My thoughts on logics and oppression are immediately answered by The Teaching of the Hands (2020) by Carolina Caycedo and David de Rozas. The film dramatizes the acts of measurement and colonialism in the Americas. Ancient indigenous lands are surveyed and mapped to a grid, the task within which traditional and sacred landscapes merely become coordinates of a map. The cartographic exercise cares little for the other dimensions, its sole objective is extraction. And so the ancient river disappears under the orthogonal grid, its memories erased from the collective consciousness.

Ecological interventions were central to colonialism, European settlement in the Americas, slavery, sugarcane plantations around the world. As Amitav Ghosh says, “the explicit aim was to turn territories that were perceived to be wastelands into terrain that fitted a European conception of productive land.” [3] The notion was that the land was wild, and vacant, because it was neither tilled, nor divided into property. At the same time, other bodies were considered savage, wild and vacant. So it was by planting and creating plantations that the settlers claimed the land. It all started with the land being measured, gridded, numbered, and assigned values – calculation. And then followed the measurement of bodies, muscular energy, protein, and carbohydrates – another level of calculation. Cosmological memories of ancestors and gods are left by the wayside since they present no reference to the grid and offer no value to contemporary extractivism.

“Environmentalism does not usually address colonialism and often reproduces it.” [4] What use we have of folk tales and mythical beings when digital logics and ubiquitous connectivity, (literally, the extensions of colonial surveying techniques) drive humanity today? What use we have of practices of geomancy apart from relishing them as cultural histories and curiosities? Is it not that prospecting (the contemporary cousin of divination) for minerals and fossil fuels, wherein predictions of resources under the ground have led us to our current condition?

The Teaching of the Hands (2020) by Carolina Caycedo and David de Rozas

Entanglements or Enclosure? 

As I continue watching the films in the safety of my home, I am reminded of the entanglements between the human and energetic landscapes in Exterminator Seed (2017) by Pedro Neves Marques. It is a beautiful film. On the one hand is the off-shore oil rig, with its oil spills, and on the other hand are the crops grown from genetically modified seeds – feedstocks from which bio-fuels are produced. The characters struggle between the artificial and the so-called natural world, that is if synthetic crop fields are considered natural landscapes. For all purposes, perhaps there is no queering of borders as the authors assert, since I believe there are no borders left, there remain no other thresholds. The oil rig and the cornfield are instantiations of the same extractivism, the same artificiality. While “the human (in the cornfield) and inhuman (oil rig) are so often mapped as binaries onto organic and inorganic matter…” [5], the truth is “the nonhuman geos has always been entangled with the bios.” [6] We don’t have to struggle to envision a near-future, we are already there.

Just as monoculture cropping is today threatening the Amazon region, high-yield Miracle rice IR-8 changed the future of Southeast Asia. Introduced in the early 1960s, it helped assert the dominance of the United States and changed the geopolitical landscape of the region. Chu Hao Pei presents a history of rice cultivation in South-East Asia in the archival documentary Inventing Miracle – The Rice to Power (2021). From Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam, IR-8 became a critical component of the countries’ self-sufficiency in feeding and then exporting rice. I am reminded also about India’s green revolution fueled by pesticides, DDT in particular, that changed the food supply of South Asia and the geopolitical balance, also bringing with it contamination and damage. However, the green revolution in Southeast Asia was short-lived. Vietnam was the first to abandon the program. Later, peatlands in Indonesia were converted to farmlands, fires broke out and the ecosystem imbalanced. The ‘miracle’ had turned into a nightmare. As they say, rice is as important as bullets.

Inventing Miracle – The Rice to Power (2021) by Chu Hao Pei

In 2019, a long-lasting drought-affected parts of Southeast Asia. Poor precipitation and a weak monsoon. Rivers in the Mekong Basin and beyond had recorded extreme lows. Rice crops were annihilated, which were the main source of income and sustenance for millions. On top of that, the Pandemic forced additional socio-economic pressure on vulnerable households already affected by the drought. The environment had changed. 

Far away to the south, Asian Openbill Storks, birds foreign to Singapore appeared. Robert Zhao tracks the arrival and departure of the birds in his short And a Great Sign Appeared (2021), and wonders what the visitation meant. Was it a sign of a prolonged and permanent environmental change? Storks fly long distances in response to the weather and in search of food. Their usual range is in South Asia and parts of mainland Southeast Asia, far north of Singapore. In any case, it appears the tourists stayed over the weekend in a park closed for renovation and likely left as soon as the local people arrived. I wonder just like Robert if the birds managed to find a place to stay.

As the screening comes to an end, I am reminded me of the various enclosures that have led to our current condition. As media philosopher Sean Cubitt argues, at first, it was the enclosure of the indigenous land. [7] Then came the enclosure by technology, as “the concentrated form of the skills, knowledge and creativity of the past” and the third enclosure became the enclosure of knowledge, “where labor, physical or cognitive turned into commodity.” [8] Successively deprived of land, skill and knowledge in the enclosures of modernity, the human stands now at the brink of a fourth enclosure, that of the body. These enclosures parallel the terraforming of the earth, and the pervasive mediation of its constituents. These enclosures plunge the earth beyond our ability to foresight without mediation by technology – and this collection – the video camera. 

Random patterns intrigue me. But my foresight is limited by the constantly-mediated techno-Nordic world I live in. The pandemic has taken its toll. Memories of a lost climate and terabytes are all I have left within forgotten hard drives. To divine now the damages, to make sense of the pieces can I even anymore return to the indigenous bodies, superstitions, fatalisms and storytelling? The words of the Buddhist monk ring in my head – “the PVC flute works just fine”. And, since bullets are making a comeback over rice, no wonder nonhumans are no longer mute as they once were.

Samir Bhowmik is a Helsinki-based multi-disciplinary artist, architect, and scholar. He is currently an Academy of Finland Research Fellow (2022-27) at the Academy of Fine Arts (Uniarts Helsinki) where he teaches and explores extractivism & ecology through film, installation, and performance. Samir received a Doctor of Arts (2016) from Aalto University, Finland, and a Master of Architecture (2003) from the University of Maryland, United States. His collaborative artistic works and writings have appeared in the Helsinki Biennial (2021), Leonardo (MIT Press), and the Venice Architecture Biennale (2021).

Bhowmik’s photo by Emma Suominen

1. Samir Bhowmik, “From Nature to Infrastructure: Vallisaari Island in the Helsinki Archipelago.” Environment & Society Portal, Arcadia (Summer 2020), no. 28. https://doi.org/10.5282/rcc/9062.

2. John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (University of Chicago Press, 2016), 53-114.

3. Amitav Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis (University of Chicago Press, 2021), 63.

4. Max Liboiron, Pollution is Colonialism (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2021), 11.

5. Kathryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 2018.

6. Sebastián Ureta, and Patricio Flores. Worlds of Gray and Green: Mineral Extraction as Ecological Practice (University of California Press) 2022, 1-23.

7. Sean Cubitt, Finite Media: Environmental Implications of Digital Technologies (Duke University Press, 2017), 63-150.

8. Ibid., 63-150. 

Note: The author was provided with all screening materials including private links to the various films and related texts by IHME. Please note these films are not publicly available online in their full form.

This article was commissioned by IHME Helsinki for the Moving People and Images Journal (MPI Journal)and the Finnish translation of the article is available on the IHME Helsinki website.