Critical field notes
on becoming porous
Fieldwalk with Lance Laoyan. Inner Ear(th), Het HEM on Friday 7 October 2022. Photo by Pieter Kers.by Melissa Eleonora On a Saturday afternoon, I find myself stranded in the middle of the constructed sense of nature that is Vijfhoekpark, surrounded by about twenty other people, under a big willow tree. (As Katía and I will find out shortly, even though we’re next to a solid highway infrastructure, it’s almost impossible to walk back to Het HEM if you don’t already know your way around. Waiting for the third round of the shuttle bus it's like I’m ten again and I’m the last to be picked up after the school trip by their parents because they lost track of time.) We have arrived on the final part of our walk and I’m wanting to hear the highlanders mooing, but all I hear is their faint shuffling through the grass. I’m trying to understand the lines being recited by our poet guide, but the wind gets in the way. Wondering if I should feel frustrated or disappointed, I realise this is precisely the point of our exercise – we are simply in the midst of it all. Lance Laoyan’s soundwalk is one of the many practices of sensing we are invited to across the Sonic Acts Biennial. At the exhibition one sun after another we are asked to become attuned to singing and murmuring bees through Felix Blume’s special designed sound recording; grasp the tangibility of CO2 (usually invisible) by tasting Leanne Wijnsma’s fizzy drinks; step barefoot into the mossy and muddy secluded landscape created by Seline Buttner; tune in to alternative temporalities through breathwork with MELT. ‘Our natural and cultural worlds are us. And, as social creatures, so are other people.’(1) Or, as curator Mirna Belina declares at the opening of the Leaving Traces symposium: ‘our bodies are the environment; there is no such thing as we’. (But we are still stuck within the confines of our language.) If the very basic definition of life is ‘probably simply that which is semiotic’ and semiotic practices extend way beyond the human even to the level of the cell(2), this year’s Sonic Acts Biennial is a continuous practice in learning to read and listen to what is always already there. At Het HEM, we get to hear the music of the wind through John Grzinich’s aeolian harp installation Powerless Flight. As an act of responsivity, these instruments (because they cannot be tuned) are designed specifically for each site. For this, the artist has to get to know its unique local microclimate – since the wind is influenced by temperature, trees, surrounding architecture, and general weather patterns. About sound, he says it is ‘not an isolated medium, but rather something that facilitates the broader elements of our experience of living in the world. We always function in relation to something (...) There is no such thing as an isolated form of human existence.’(3) The harps materialise this ecological relationality usually going unnoticed. Air, usually unthinkable(4), becomes tangible; suddenly we can dance to the weather. ‘We put on our wellies; they are tools that allow us to walk on uncertain ground.’(5) Weather is not only a geological and material condition, but also a social one – it is the total climate, the naturecultures we shape(d) and are shaped by, all the way down, as critical race scholar Christina Sharpe teaches us. The historical past materially lives on in our oceans (and our soil, and our atmosphere, and our bodies).(6) Incentivised by Sharpe, feminist cultural theorists Astrida Neimanis and Rachel Loewen Walker take its gerund to extend weather’s definition from the temporary state of the atmosphere to a conceptualisation of humans situatedness in an environment as one of ontological relationality, introducing ‘weathering’ as ‘a logic, a way of being/becoming, or a mode of affecting and differentiating’ to relate to the more-than-human weathery world. As such, we become weather bodies – we are not defined, independent units acting against a backdrop of climate, but intra-implicated in a whole of bodies, places, and weather, always tuned into multiple temporalities.(7) We might ask: ‘how old is the wind?’(8) or: ‘Plants and humans breathe together. When did we forget this?’(9) Having grown up in the southern part of the country, my body is still not used to the harsh wind coursing through me here, as I’m standing on the path next to the water, or crossing the bridge named after the former leader of the Dutch labour party. Cheeks still rosy and warm anyway from cycling all the way here with a lingering cold, I know I am not a child of the sea. Het HEM was built on an outer dike area, headland heightened from the river IJ until usable for economic ends. While it’s warm for the season, there is no sun today, making the atmosphere on the terrain of the former bullet factory feel even more ominous. Plants and trees are already shrinking and shedding everywhere. Under shelter of the bridge or the park trees the breaths I catch, shared temporarily with this group of people and the weeds and the birds, feel thick and humid. ‘Like all other bodies of water, human bodies are replenished by rain; the winds that whip around us also fill our lungs and feed our blood; the sun's warmth allows us, like sea algae and sunflowers, to flourish.'(10) Our bodies are not sovereign. Instead, we are transcorporeal(11) – porous, permeable, always (and necessarily) imbricated in the environment sustaining and moving through us. We might ask, with architect and researcher Nerea Calvillo: ‘How do we breathe each other?’(12) Artist Mary Maggic knows this. They talk about how our bodies are modulated, both by the synthetic molecules all over everywhere as a byproduct of capitalist production and the pervasive toxicity of gendered frames. A permanently polluted world we did not consent to live in.(13) For Maggic, ultimately it is about allowing intimacy to spill over in the non-human/extra-human. To go from world-ending to world-making; from hyper-object to hyper-specificity – ‘a home a garden or a shrine a shelter’ – to create a pleasurable breakage of the past, finding a sense of belonging in this.(14) Arjuna Neuman knows this, too. Reworking the conflation between the body-natural and the body-politic, he writes about an invisible prime protagonist: bacteria. They are more responsible for the material make-up of our bodies than ourselves, for every human cell we have approximately ten bacteria cells, and they influence our appetite, desires, empathy, and mood. The body is not sovereign. Nor is, apparently, our subjectivity. What is more, these same bacteria live on after we die, and they are also the very ones that are responsible for the formation of rain clouds. Imagining our bodies like this, we become planetary – attuned to a world not subject to human time but to climate time.(15) When I tell this to my love he almost laughs at me, won’t let me finish talking before I present him with hard scientific evidence, but I want to believe this: that poetically, but most probably also materially, we are all clouds in the making. Geographer Angeliki Balayannis asks, ‘how do we account for the limits of what we can see?’ and starts to answer with ‘what we need is intimacy and proximity’.(16) On the drive back, the contrast with the walk is stark - after waiting outside for an hour and a half, we (the last of us) are suddenly enclosed by the exterior of the black van, windows blinded, our tired bodies engulfed by the heat of radiator and the loud bass blasting through the speakers and the speed of the moving car. Strapped in my seat, and then waiting for my friend in front of John’s harps, I think about writing about everything I did not hear on the sound walk. Pauline Oliveros (who argues that sound is the most primary sensing, and listening the basis of all culture) dreams of a bionic ear, nanotechnology allowing one to ‘listen to anything, anywhere any time’.(17) There must be so much we missed, not attuned (either by equipment or skill) to the frequencies of, for example: messages sent via the underground network of fungi between the trees, crayfish floating through the river, lichens reproducing on the rocks, a salamander drawing its last breath. I can’t access the tree map of Zaanstad, so I can’t write for sure about how I did or didn’t hear Canadian poplars, and that my dad always tells me they are the loudest kind, constantly rustling, even when all the other trees are silent because there is barely any wind. However, the municipal map of protected species tells me that some of the shuffling in the grass we heard may have been hedgehogs or house shrews taking residence in this park, or my favourite kind of mouse, the harvest mouse – small enough to sleep in the flowers.(18) We are the natural world, but not as one amorphous lump or flush of water, wind, and soil, or bacteria. Planetarity is not the same as generality, permeability and porousness do not equal sameness, ‘not all bodies weather the same’.(19) Time is not a path laid out before us, time is made by the encounter between rocks and the waves and wind, between the seed and the soil and the sun. The trunk of the tree is not only a sediment of the past with its rings but something implicated in the making of time; it is both time’s product and creation (just as we are). ‘Listen, the wall speaks Overgrown with green lively beings and roots that wrap themselves around this concrete bush.’ I take comfort in knowing that, in this temporary assemblage, we all resonated with each other. 1. Wendy Wheeler, The Whole Creature, (Lawrence & Wishart, 2006), p. 109. 2. Ibid., p, 110, 124. 3. Grzinich in his interview with Maud Seuntjes, ‘Aeolian Harps and Filtering Certain Modes of Perception’, Ecoes #3, (Sonic Acts, 2022), 129. 4. Tim Ingold argues this in The Life of Lines, (Routledge, 2015), p. 69. 5. pantea, ‘Sticky Minds’, Ecoes #3, (Sonic Acts, 2022), p. 185. 6. see Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, (Duke University Press, 2016). 7. see Astrida Neimanis and Rachel Loewen Walker, ‘“Weathering”: Climate Change and the “Thick Time” of Transcorporeality’, Hypatia, 29.3, (2014). 8. Arjuna Neuman is an artist, filmmaker and writer. This is from his essay ‘Bloodletting’, Hearings: The Online Journal of Contour Biennale, (13 April 2017), hearings.contour8.be/2017/04/13/bloodletting. 9. as asked by Prudence Gibson and Monica Gagliano when writing about carbon dioxide and oxygen exchange in ‘The Feminist Plant: Changing Relations with the Water Lily’, Ethics and the Environment, 22.2 (2017), p. 126. 10. Neimanis and Walker, ‘“Weathering”’, p. 564 11. on the concept of transcorporeality see Stacy Alaimo, ‘Trans-corporeal feminisms and the ethical space of nature’, Material feminisms, ed. Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman, (Indiana University Press, 2008). 12. while addressing pollution and architecture and how to think toxicity in this context during her talk ‘Sensing Polluted Airs’, Leaving Traces Symposium, Sonic Acts at Likeminds, 15 October 2022. 13. Mary Maggic, ‘All Washed Over By Hormones of Loving Grace’, Ecoes #3, (Sonic Acts, 2022), 41. 14. Mary Maggic, ‘Performing the Sublime Sea of Co-Mattering’, Leaving Traces Symposium, Sonic Acts at Likeminds, 15 October 2022. 15. Arjuna Neuman, ‘Bloodletting’, Hearings: The Online Journal of Contour Biennale, (13 April 2017), hearings.contour8.be/2017/04/13/bloodletting. 16. Angeliki Balayannis, ‘Public Experiments in Chemical Regulation’, Leaving Traces Symposium, Sonic Acts at Likeminds, 15 October 2022. 17. Pauline Oliveros is one of the writers Lance takes inspiration from. See Pauline Oliveros, ‘Quantum Listening: From Practice to Theory (To Practise Practice)’, Culture and Humanity in the New Millennium: The Future of Human Values, ed. Kwok Siu Tong and Chan Sin-wai, (Chinese University Press, 2002), p. 36. 18. geo.zaanstad.nl/zaanatlas/composer. 19. Astrida Neimanis and Jennifer Mae Hamilton, ‘Open Space Weathering’, Feminist Review, 118.1 (2018), p. 81.
Melissa Eleonora fosters a love for the mundane, the unnoticed detail, and the bunnies she lives with. She is an Amsterdam-based student of comparative literature and cultural analysis, janitor, editor, writer. Her interests revolve around city trees and the rest of the natural world, and the ways in which the material, personal and social are interwoven.