Nature in the Dark: nightlife like you’ve never seen it

Posted on November 21, 2012

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Wildlife social-realism meets the aesthetic of night vision surveillance: an image from the work of La Trobe’s Angie Black

Science meets art in a La Trobe University ‘candid camera’ collaboration that is providing visitors to Melbourne’s Federation Square  with a rare giant-screen view of another world. 

Between now and Christmas they will be able to watch intimate and unguarded moments showing how native animals have gone about their nightly lives since Victoria’s disastrous Black Saturday bushfires nearly four years ago. The art project then moves on to other parts of Victoria.

The project  has involved the Victorian National Parks Association, La Trobe’s new Centre for Creative Arts and University zoologists researching the effects of bushfire on wildlife.

It’s an area in which, surprisingly, there has been little study, given Australia is one of the most fire-prone nations in the world. The art project uses images from this latest scientific research.

Titled Nature in the Dark, the project was initiated by La Trobe PhD scholar, Jan Brüggemeier, and co-curated by him and colleague Dr Maria Miranda for the University’s Centre for Creative Arts. It is being screened from 23 November to 22 December. (Click here for  screening times.)

Two of the ten artists involved are also from La Trobe’s Melbourne and Bendigo campuses. They are, respectively, lecturer in media, screen and sound, Angie Black, and lecturer in visual art and design, Stephen Turpie.

Voyeurs of another intelligence

Dr Neumark launches the event: art and science meet at a point of common concerns

Director of the Centre for Creative Arts, Dr Norie Neumark, said the artists are  presenting ‘their creative adaptations, remixes and interventions of the scientific footage of native bush animals’ activities at night’.

‘It’s a very exciting and important project for the Centre,’ she said, ‘bringing together art and science in a way where each maintains their own trajectory as they meet at a point of common concerns.

‘The videos, which are being projected on the big screen at Fed Square this month, will then wend their way around Victoria.’

Nature in the Dark is billed as ‘wildlife social-realism meets the monochromatic aesthetic of night vision surveillance’, with the audience becoming ‘voyeurs of another intelligence at work which we would not have encountered otherwise’.

The project was launched with a special preview screening supported by the City of Melbourne at the North Melbourne Town Hall.

Keynote address by environmental philosopher

Night time research in the Mallee: Professor Clarke, right, with La Trobe’s Dr Sarah Avitabile and Dr Luke Kelly, formerly at Deakin, now at Melbourne University.

The launch featured a keynote address by La Trobe environmental philosopher Professor Freya Mathews, and a panel discussion moderated by ABC Radio National’s Brent Clough.

The panel included La Trobe zoologist Professor Mike Clarke, Matt Ruchel from the Victorian National Parks Association and Angharad Wynne-Jones from the environmental arts and cultural organisation, Tipping Point Australia.

Many of the images used by the artists originated from night-time scientific surveys in Wombat State Forest and Bunyip State Park by the Victorian National Parks Association, assisted by members of the La Trobe University Naturalist Society who helped scientists set up the cameras and collect data.

The images generated by these cameras are being used to survey wildlife in several major studies of the impact of fire on fauna led by Professor Clarke and his colleague, Professor Andrew Bennett, from Deakin University.

With his long-standing research interest in conservation biology and threatened species, Professor Clarke appeared as an expert witness in fire ecology at the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission.

Transcending academic disciplines

Mr Brüggemeier: starting point for more collaborations between art and science

Project organiser Mr Brüggemeier says ‘Nature in the Dark’ highlights a strong passion for, and engagement with nature across the whole of La Trobe University which transcends academic disciplines.

While some people may regard the antics of the animals on screen as ‘Big Brother in the Bush’, Mr Brüggemeier sees the event as a starting point for more collaborations between art, science, educators, environmentalists and the wider community.

‘The Centre for Creative Arts regards this kind of trans-disciplinary research as a crucial intellectual tool for the 21st Century,’ he says. ‘For example, I can see possibilities for future collaborations involving marine parks and fungi.

‘For both of these, a large amount of visual data and photographs have been gathered, mainly for scientific reasons, but which offer similar stimulating artistic material.’

Mr Brüggemeier holds a Master in Media Arts and Design from the Bauhaus University Weimar, Germany. His main artistic interests are in sound art and communication spaces in the city.

 Limited power of science to change hearts and minds

Professor Mathews, left, Professor Clarke, right, with ABC Radio’s Brent Clough, centre, flanked by by Mr Ruchel and Ms Wynne-Jones.

In her keynote address at the launch of Nature in the Dark philosopher Professor Mathews said ‘most of us couldn’t identify the species in our nearest bit of bushland, let alone explain the complex relations amongst them that enable that bushland to flourish.’

‘Such a lack of even the most basic knowledge of botany, zoology and ecology is regarded as normal in our society.  That’s a weird kind of normal. What sort of knowledge could be more fundamental than knowledge of the way the world of living things around us fits together?’

Science, she said, explained things in functional terms.

‘But to care about other species, we need to relate to them. It is largely through “story”  –  the province of literature and the arts – that we can hope to socialise people into developing rapport with our fellow species.  Nature in the Dark, she said, contributed to this.  ‘It brings, right into the heart of our city,  glimpses of the normally invisible private life of wild beings.’

Professor Mathews said we have reached a ‘tragic moment’ in the history of the biosphere.

She cited, among other things, the legal slaughter of wildlife such as millions of wallabies and kangaroos, the shooting of listed species, ‘gargantuan’ mines poised to decimate nature in the Western Kimberley, the Victorian government’s shedding of hundreds of biodiversity jobs – and fire management that ‘rides roughshod’ over the needs of wildlife and ecosystems.

‘But cultures can change. Overseas, the idea of “compassionate conservation” is beginning to gain currency, countenancing only non-lethal methods of wildlife management.

‘The missing piece in the puzzle is empathy,’ Professor Mathews concluded.  ‘Only artists, writers, poets, animateurs and other adepts of the imagination can supply this link.’

 You can’t hold ‘biodiversity’ in your hands

Privilege of studying wildlife for 30 years: Professor Clarke Clarke frees a bell miner from a mist net

Head of Zoology, Professor Clarke, said he has had the ‘privilege of studying wildlife’ for more than 30 years in Australia and overseas and is used to identifying animals ‘captured’ by cameras.

‘So I was intrigued to see how those same images can be used by artists to convey additional truths and perspectives. While I am a scientists, I firmly believe that there are complementary ways of seeing and knowing.

‘Given the state of our world and the challenges we face, we need the inspiration of artists, writers, poets and scientists to stimulate people to act for change. None of these professions can do it alone.’

He said scientists struggled to engage people in issues like climate change and the fate of the Murray Darling Basin.  ‘Presentation of cold hard scientific evidence, no matter how objectively gathered, has limited power to change hearts and minds.’

Professor Clarke said people today were less engaged with the natural world than their parents or grandparents. ‘We naively cocoon ourselves in temperature-controlled homes, oblivious to the seasons or long-term changes. And scientists don’t help matters here by using dreadful terms like “biodiversity”.

‘I’ve never met “a biodiversity” – but I have held a bilby in my hands, I have played with a baby gorilla, I have marvelled at the exquisite beauty of a blue wren in my hand.  So if art installations in Federation Square, or elsewhere, lead viewers to step into the dark to ponder, engage, and  understand, then that will be a good thing.

‘We must use every medium and means at our disposal to reconnect people to the story; not instead of scientific evidence, but alongside it, offering different perspectives on the same story.’

Read the full text of Professor Mathews’ talk here

THE VIDEO PROJECT  will be posted on the   Centre for Creative Arts web page later this year when public screenings have concluded.