Friday, September 1, 2017

Speculating about ''Cli-Fi''

Speculating about Cli-Fi

post by Michael R. Griffiths | July 2017

[NOTE TO READERS: Michael R. Griffiths' research lies at the intersection of concerns about the human and the nonhuman that begin with a version of Foucault’s question, “how are living beings made subjects of power?” His work particularly asks this question in (post)colonial contexts. He teaches in English at the University of Wollongong in Australia.]

For Theodor Adorno, the autonomy of the art work is the condition of possibility (and not the condition of refusal) of their political efficacy. As Adorno puts it:

Art keeps itself alive through its social force of resistance; unless it reifies itself, it becomes a commodity. Its contribution to society is not communication with it but rather something extremely mediated: It is resistance in which by virtue of inner-aesthetic development, social development is reproduced without being imitated.[1]

Where the setting of a text in the future would appear to distance speculative fiction from present political and ecological exigencies, I argue that this process of speculation proximates critiques of hegemony projecting its consequences. As Adorno suggests, then, mediation per se is a mode of rendering proximate. Similarly, Adorno once wrote that “[a]rtworks detach themselves from the empirical world, and bring forth another world, one opposed to the empirical world as if this other world too were an autonomous entity.”[2] This piece is drawn from a longer essay, which was assembled for Responses to Climate Change — a symposium led by [Australian Indigenous writer] Tony Birch.

As well as being an acclaimed writer of Australian fiction, Birch is a Senior Research Fellow at the Moondani Balluk Indigenous Unit at Victoria University (Melbourne).

Birch’s work is concerned with methodologies for research around climate change that are grounded in Indigenous-led practice.

His keynote presentation from Responses to Climate Change laid out several key points that form part of his own research itinerary around ideas of place and ecology in the humanities. Crucially, Birch sees in the humanities’ open and speculative approach a promise to inform climate science.

First of all, Birch advised conference participants to, when doing research on climate change, keep in mind how we talk about this issue and who we are talking to about it.

He gave the example of working with children in Irish and inner city London schools as well as on Country around Victoria.

Birch’s approach was not to lecture to his students on climate change but to bring home to them the significance of place. He had the children record their most “special” places through writing and photography, before asking them what it would mean to them if these places were lost. This connects to another key point raised by Birch in his keynote, which was to empower people outside academia and politics.

Too often climate change researchers in the sciences and humanities operate in an echo chamber, which sees them communicating with one another but not with the wider world. It is incumbent upon researchers and practitioners to not only communicate beyond the academy (or the world of representative politics) but to think about the specific positionality of those with whom we are communicating.

Birch also suggested that scholars rethink models of collaboration between environmentalists and Aboriginal people. This must depend on seeing Country as having Aboriginal knowledge embedded within it and not by seeing “nature” as “pristine.”

Finally, Birch underscored the role of the humanities in this process. For him one of the challenges and the advantages of the humanities is the speculative ethos of engagement in a learning process.

While anthropogenic climate change is a certainty, its physical and social effects are unpredictable and a similarly open-minded, speculative approach is needed to engage it.

I want to follow Birch’s ideas about speculation here to foreground the role of cli-fi  by Indigenous writers. I do so in order to emphasize my conviction that imaginative work (such as fiction) can open up crucial modes of questioning vis a vis climate change.

The crucial problem, I argue, arises in the tension between engagement and autonomy. Works of art and writing (like climate fictions) are autonomous, whereas understanding and taking action about climate change is (one would assume) a fundamentally engaged process.

In their future projections of dispossession, Indigenous climate fictions—with their simultaneous narration of the promises and pitfalls of resistance—dialectically intertwine to proffer a critique of settler interventions that are often named as progressive acts. By figuring an imagined future, these texts reveal the hypocrisies of dispossession present in the liberal policies of settler colonial governance extant today.

Consider, for instance, Alexis Wright’s 2013 cli-fi novel of—amidst much else—climate change and Indigenous futurity, The Swan Book. In Wright’s novel, dust settles on a lake and even as “the old story that lived inside the ancestral people of the lake” survives the dust. With the arrival of climate refugees, the swans themselves invade, “polluting” this sacred site, transformed as it is, into a swamp (Wright 8, 10). Wright’s narrator asks:

Could an ancient hand be responsible for this? The parched paper country looking as though the continent’s weather systems had been rolled like an ancient scroll from its top and bottom ends, and ping, sprung shut over the Tropic of Capricorn. The weather then flipped sides, swapping southern weather with that of the north, and this unique event of unrolling the climate upside down, left the entire continent covered in dust.[3]
—Alexis Wright, The Swan Book.

To speculate on the autonomy of art work is to speculate on an Australia where in North and South are “flipped.” Surely Waanyi country in the North of the Gulf of Carpentaria can find an affinal thread destined for the south.


[1] Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota P., 1997, 226.
[2] Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory. 1.
[3] Alexis Wright, The Swan Book. Sydney: Giramondo, 2013, 17–8. Hereafter cited parenthetically in text.

MECO tweets at @MECO_UOW

MECO draws its membership from researchers, artists, performers and writers interested in Environmental Humanities and the Anthropocene. If you are a researcher at UOW and working in related fields and interested in being a member of MECO please drop us a line and tell us what you do.

Su Ballard is a curator and art historian, and research leader of the the MECO network. Her research examines the intersections of nature and the machine in contemporary art from Australia and New Zealand. She is currently writing about disasters, energy and extinction in art of the Anthropocene. She teaches in Contemporary Arts at the University of Wollongong
Tess Barber is a PhD student in Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong researching alternative approaches to environment and ecology in Science Fiction.
Graham Barwell has worked extensively on the relations between human cultures and large seabirds and is currently interested in technologically-enabled birds. He taught in Media and Communications at the University of Wollongong. Albatross was published in 2014
Vincent Bicego (PhD) is a multi-disciplined art historian and textile artist. His research has explored Indigenous art production in relation to constructs of landscape, and is increasingly focused on contemporary engagement with pre-contact traditions such as rock art. His own arts practice explores (dis)continuities between the digital and the analogue. ​
Louise Boscacci is an artist-researcher and biologist. She completed her PhD in Contemporary Arts (Visual Arts), University of Wollongong, in 2016. Recent research on ‘the encounter-exchange’ draws in affect scholarship, mammal extinction histories, making material objects, shadow places, and intersectional writing as part of cross-disciplinary practice and scholarship. She teaches in contemporary arts at UOW and the National Art School, Sydney, and in Environmental Humanities at UNSW.
Brogan Bunt has a background in media art. His current work involves aspects of writing, photography and lived action. He has produced the spatial-exploratory documentary Halfeti—Only Fish Shall Visit (2001), software projects such as Ice Time (2005), Um (2009) and Loom (2011), a book, Risking Code: the Dilemmas and Possibilities of Software Art (2008), and the blog-based work, A Line Made By Walking and Assembling Bits and Pieces of the Bodywork of Illegally Dumped Cars Found at the Edge of Roads and Tracks in the Illawarra Escarpment (2013).

Anne Collett is interested in the relationship between poetry and natural environment, whether in response to extreme weather events like hurricanes/tropical cyclones; disruptive geological events like volcanic eruption, earthquake and associated tsunami; or more generally as the means of connecting people and place, human with non-human. Her most recent research interest in the Bog brings together environmental science/eco-systems, archaeology, aesthetics, story and poetry. She teaches English literatures at the University of Wollongong.
Etienne Deleflie’s research focuses on the aesthetic dimension of (mediated/non-mediated) presence. Implicated in this is an interest in the materiality of presence and how we judge the real. He teaches in Media Arts at the University of Wollongong.
Nicky Evans’ research focus on the material book as experimental object. In teaching she is investigating how to bring artists and scientists to work on projects to improve the life of animals. She teaches in Media and Communications at the University of Wollongong.
Sarah Goffman is an artist and DCA student at the University of Wollongong. An upcoming exhibition at Wollongong Art Gallery in March 2017 will be her major research exhibition to conclude her doctoral project.
Agnieszka Golda is a visual artist. Her collaborations with other artists and researchers produce installation spaces that respond to the complex set of relations between power, feeling (the senses, affect and emotion) and trans-cultural narratives drawn from Slavic folkloric practices and Japanese popular culture of anime. She teaches in Contemporary Arts at the University of Wollongong.
Owen Godfrey is a PhD student in Media and Communications at the University of Wollongong examining Spatial diegetics and algorithm in digital games / 3D printing workshops.
Michael Griffiths research lies at the intersection of concerns about the human and the nonhuman that begin with a version of Foucault’s question, “how are living beings made subjects of power?” His work particularly asks this question in (post)colonial contexts. He teaches in English at the University of Wollongong.
Cameron Hindrum is a PhD student in Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong researching The Sand: a novel about cultural and ecological erosion in regional Tasmania.
Penny Harris is a bronze sculptor who casts found objects through which she explores the identity of objects, material mimicry through the motif of a petrification process named Pseudomorphism. Current research underpinning a project titled ‘Cargo’ explores copper smelting and the maritime trade in copper ingots through archaeological artefacts. She teaches in Contemporary Arts at the University of Wollongong.
Eva Hampel is currently researching the liminal space and new materialist thinking in art relating to the natural world.  She is an artist with a long career in environmental planning, currently completing a PhD at the University of Wollongong.
Travis Holland is a Lecturer in Communication and Digital Media at Charles Sturt University. Before joining CSU, he lectured and tutored at UOW in communication and media studies for several years, specialising in digital communication, where he also completed a PhD dissertation that applies Actor-Network Theory to media networks in three New South Wales local government areas. His research interests include fan studies, politics, digital media, and television.
Lucas Ihlein uses a socially engaged art methodology (including blogging, face-to-face interactions, printmaking, public events, and scholarly publication) to explore complex environmental management problems, with a particular focus on Australian agricultural practices.
Madeleine Kelly is a visual artist. Her creative work explores the materiality of images – in particular painting, as an earthen testimony figured from the ground that speaks of the primal frontiers of art, such as material transformation, as well as environmental contingencies. In this context, her work avoids dogmatism by depicting protean and rubric worlds. She teaches in Contemporary Arts at the University of Wollongong.
Jo Law is an artist and an academic. Currently, both of these practices focus on creating mapping tools and perceptual models using different materials and technologies to develop tacit understanding of the world. She teaches in Contemporary Arts and Media Arts at the University of Wollongong.
Liz Linden is an artist and a PhD student in Visual Arts at UOW.  Her research focuses on appropriated text in contemporary art practice, specifically as an aesthetic and informational element operating critically on globalisation.  She is also American (sigh), watching her Environmental Protection Agency be evicerated from afar.
Joshua Lobb is a writer and theorist of narrative prose. His creative research focuses on the representation of place and space. Recent work has explored interactions between humans and birds and the connections between drought and Australians’ sense of self. He teaches in Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong.
Catherine McKinnon is a novelist, playwright and academic. Recent creative writing and research has examined the cultural, social, and ecological changes that have taken place in the Illawarra since 1796. Her current research and writing investigates narratives around atomic energies, specifically the making and dropping of the atomic bomb in the Second World War. She teaches in Performance and Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong.
Teodor Mitew’s research focuses on the Internet of Things, sociable objects, and anticipatory spaces.  He is interested in the notion of enchantment as a translation device linking materiality and data. He teaches in Media and Communications at the University of Wollongong.
Christopher Moore is a researcher in the Digital Humanities, and his research interests include games studies, digital communication and media, intellectual property, affect, digital storytelling and his current focus on the visual analysis of online identity as persona and games studies. He teaches in Media and Communications at the University of Wollongong. @cl_moore
Pip Newling is a PhD student researching Re-Telling Belonging: exploring place, race and community through memoir
Colin Salter researches the social construction of the nonhuman animal as other, and how the positioning and attitudes towards other animals enables their use for specific human ends. In particular, he is interested in the spaces where, and how, such differential values are contested and challenged.
Douglas Simkin is a PhD student in Media and Communications at the University of Wollongong examining Raw data feeds, guerrilla networks, conflict journalism
Jo Stirling is a practicing designer. Her research focuses on collaborative creative practice, with a particular interest in design for social change and sustainability. Her current research project The Modern Midden: Visualising Waste through Information Design, explores how visualising information can be employed to address waste generation and product end life in Australia. She teaches in Design at the University of Wollongong.
Mat Wall-Smith’s research is concerned with the relation between affect and technics in our ecologies of thinking/feeling. He is both media theorist and experimentalist with an interest in emerging practices/ecologies/architectures of research-creation. He teaches in Media Arts at the University of Wollongong, is co-Director of Polygon Door a Creative Technology Lab and a managing editor of The Fibreculture Journal.
Travis Wall is a PhD student in Media and Communications researching Actor Network Theory and Design Thinking
Kim Williams is a visual artist whose recent research and work on climate and waterways in Australia is a means of talking about nature through art.  She gathers her thoughts en plein air and makes multimedia three-dimensional works and drawings.  Currently she is collaborating on participatory environmental projects.

Adjunct Members

Fernando do Campo is an Argentinian and Australian artist, writer and curator currently based between Melbourne and New York. He launched the HSSH (House Sparrow Society for Humans) in 2015. In 2014 Fernando became the inaugural General Sir John Monash Cultural fellow, completing an MFA at Parsons School of Design, New York in 2016. He is the 2017 guest curator for Devonport Regional Gallery, working with the Tasmanian International Arts festival, and is currently working towards exhibitions and projects for Praxis Gallery (New York), Ararat Regional Gallery (VIC) and the Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn. He is represented by Praxis Gallery, Buenos Aires & New York. 

Tracey Clement is an artist, arts writer and PhD candidate in Fine Art at the University of Sydney. Her current research responds to JG Ballard’s novel, The Drowned World, with a particular focus on imagery of the ruined city. She is known for creating artworks that meticulously utilise labour intensive techniques for their conceptual resonance. Clement has exhibited widely, both in Australia and overseas, and her writing is published regularly in numerous art and design magazines.

Dr Laura Fisher is currently a post-doctoral fellow at Sydney College of the Arts, Uni of Sydney. Her research interests span art in the public domain, urban cycling cultures and cross-cultural encounter. Laura’s current project ‘new visions of the rural’ is investigating socially engaged art projects that address the changing circumstances of rural communities around the world.

Bianca Hester is a multi-disciplinary artist whose research involves art in public space, exploring how social, material, ideological and historic forces intersect. Research interests include working critically within contested space, the politics of materiality and the ethics of collaborative engagement. Hester was the inaugural Post Doctoral research fellow in visual arts at the Sydney College of the Arts between 2013-2016 where she co-led the Space, Place and Country research cluster with Dr Saskia Beudel. She currently lectures at Sydney College of the Arts and The University of Wollongong.

Bridie Lonie is a PhD Candidate at the University of Otago, a Lecturer in Art History and Theory at the Dunedin School of Art, and an Emeritus Member, Otago Polytechnic, Dunedin. Her research looks at the interdisciplinary nature of understandings of climate change and consequences for the role of art.

Simon Pope’s ( b.1966, Exeter, UK) research and art practice is preoccupied with participatory art’s engagement with new materialism and concepts of the more-than-human, asking “who else takes part?” This question formed the basis of his practice-led doctoral study at the Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford (2012-15). Formerly a member of the Net.Art group I/O/D, he represented Wales at the Venice Biennale in 2003. Pope was a NESTA Fellowship awardee (2002-05), a Reader (tenured-Professor) in Fine Art at Cardiff School of Art (2005-10) and is currently an Associate Research Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London (2014-) and visiting faculty member and supervisor for Transart Institute’s MFA & PhD in New York City and Berlin. He lives in Toronto, Canada. More information at:

Julian Priest is an independent artist living and working in New Zealand and exhibiting internationally. He works with participatory and technological forms exploring themes including infrastructures, time, energy, security, space, environment and communications. Recently he has been making a series of works which explore gravity including a large interactive work for Art Space Auckland and an orbital artwork ‘The Weight of Information’. He was co-founder of early wireless free-network community in London and an advocate for the free-networking movement and has  wide experience in technology, arts and design. He is a member of the Aotearoa Digital Arts trust board and has lectured at the Banff Centre, Whanganui School of Design, A.U.T University and Massey University in Wellington.

Dr Linda Williams is Associate Professor of Art, Environment and Cultural Studies at RMIT University where she leads the AEGIS Research Network for arts and ecology. Her publications can be accessed at

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