Annual lecture in Constructions of Knowledge: Photography and the Matter of Sensory Evidence: The Kansas Wind and Power Project

Centre for Visual Arts and Culture Public Lecture: Professor Lisa Cartwright ‘Constructions of Knowledge: Photography and the Matter of Sensory Evidence: The Kansas Wind and Power Project’, Tuesday 27 October 2015

A multi-year sensory ethnography by Professor Lisa Cartwright (University of California, San Diego), and photojournalist Steven Rubin (Pennsylvania State University), explored the transformation of the experience of everyday life and the agricultural landscape in the US state of Kansas, over a five-year period of technological changes and the emergence of new energy infrastructures.

Since 2009, Cartwright and Rubin have been documenting the interaction between community members and technology, in relation to the use of wind as a source of power to be “harvested” through a new energy infrastructure built on farmland that continues to be worked in conventional agricultural ways. Photography is therefore employed as a tool to document the negotiation of land crops and wind crops, and their respective technologies, allowing this study to explore the interrelationships between the energy industry and agriculture, but also reflecting on the power relationships between wind-rich and wind-poor towns, across farms and between farm owners and wind technicians, as they learn to adapt in a rapidly changing technological landscape.

The lecture was organised by the Centre for Visual Arts and Culture (CVAC) and the Institute of Advanced Study (IAS), as part of their ‘Visual Evidence Series’.

Interview with Professor Lisa Cartwright

Q: Could you please provide a brief summary of what your paper will explore today?

A: The paper is drawn from a sensory ethnography that I conducted with photographer Steven Rubin, who is a former photojournalist and has worked globally on various human rights traditional photography projects, and who near the middle of his journalism career begun training in fine arts to bring a conceptual fine art dimension to his practice. We’ve collaborated since 2009, studying the technological transformation of the agricultural landscape of the American part land, where green and kettle region is being transformed into what is now being called the wind belt. The content of this study is to look at that social transformation and to try to get a sense over time about the impact on lives in the region, including the lives of people who were brought in to build the wind installations. We also have a formal interest in addressing the potential of photography as a form of documentation, so it is also a reflexive project.

Q: What innovation does this project allow in it involving an art form as a tool for research?

A: It is interesting that you use the word ‘innovation’, as part of our interest is to counter the focus of moving onto new forms and using cutting-edge forms of documentation. We are trying to go back to forms that are thoroughly conventional like the photo-realist approach of the new topographers from the mid century to the 1970s, who were documenting industrial changes in industrial transformation and reclaiming those approaches is a counter to the kind of documentation that ranges from film and video intervention and raises political issues to the use of digital technologies as well as digital storytelling and digital imaging.

Q: What are the underpinning ethical considerations regarding the use of such media as a research tool?

A: There are a number of different ethical concerns that we have regarding technologies of documentation. We are trying not to put forward the idea that the people in the region will speak the ‘truth’, so we are not using video clips of people telling their stories, rather we are trying to explore our focus of people and work, and to interpret that focus through the landscape and the impact on the land itself, as it functions as a register of changed lives. Hence we are trying to use and lean heavily on the genre of landscape photography to tell the story of the transformation of lives and to find evidence in the landscape about human experience, rather than turning to things like lined faces and struggling bodies.

Lecture photo

Nelli Stavropoulou November 2015

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