View Jan Hendrik Brüggemeier's Biography

Jan Hendrik Brüggemeier is an artist, academic and media producer based in Melbourne.

View Danielle Wyatt's Biography

Danielle Wyatt is a cultural researcher in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne.

View Tom Bristow's Biography

Tom Bristow is an environmental humanities editor, researcher and writer based in Australia and the UK.

The Archival Imaginary: Economic Botany to Ecological Arts Practices1

Tom Bristow, Jan Brueggemeier and Danielle Wyatt

This journal issue grew out of the exhibition project 'Art and Herbarium - creative ecological investigations 01' at LAB14 in Melbourne, which took place in collaboration with Red Room Poetry (Sydney).


The potency of exploring the interconnections between the arts and sciences lies in the possibility of reformulating problems and questions traditionally articulated by a single scientific discipline.2 Situating ourselves within this arts-science nexus, this issue of Unlikely began with a quest for a new kind of environmental literacy, one drawn from the recognition that scientific objectivity and human-centred knowledge are equally insufficient for responding to the environmental crisis unfolding before us.

This issue responds to the need for environmental literacy that can account for our collective implication in the story of anthropogenic climate change and species loss; it invites us to consider the ways we might deal with these intractable problems. We asked artists to consider the ways scientific disciplines and resources are connected to discourses of colonialism, nationalism, patriarchy, and the settler colonial project, and all their exploitative impacts. We also wanted to consider how questions of environmental literacy are intertwined with regimes of feeling. So this issue responds to the role of affect and the aesthetic in shaping how and what we know. It investigates how an expanded environmental literacy might constitute a 'pedagogy of feeling'3 through which feelings of loss and grief, empathy, hope and joy, not only surface and recede, but contribute to more enduring ways of knowing the natural world. Some emotions can be paralysing, but they are also productive. In Donna Haraway's terms, knowledge in the fray of crisis must be situated and invested. 'Staying with the trouble' means being alive to the terms of our co-existence with other species. This more-than-human awareness is about the embodied condition of inhabiting 'an ethics of living and dying together on a damaged earth'4.

Our call to contributors found an anchor for these concerns in archives of natural history. While these institutions aim to improve ecological futures through producing scientific knowledge, they are also acutely aware that their remit needs to extend beyond resourcing a limited community of scientific scholars and researchers if they are to stay relevant and sustainable. The digitisation and global networking of collections has been one important avenue for these institutions to expand access to their collections. More than this, they have actively attempted to engage and communicate with broader publics, using art exhibitions, public lectures and symposia to attract new interest from far beyond the disciplinary boundaries of science.

The response to our call attests to this burgeoning interest in natural archives. We were overwhelmed by the variety and quality of the material that came back to us. This included proposals from historians, biographers, creative writers, ecological theorists, sound artists, poets, community and environmental activists, photographers and video artists. Only a fraction of these could be curated as full contributions into this issue. But the diversity and volume of response suggests a thriving, voracious intellectual and creative engagement with the arts/ science nexus in Australasia and beyond. Artists and researchers alike are attuned to the way natural collections have always been invested with human passions and artistry. Equally, they are interested in how these collections have been implicated in the rationalist projects and histories of exploitation that have led to disasters of the current environmental moment. As 'nature' comes under threat from global challenges like species extinction, habitat loss and the impacts of anthropogenic climate-change, natural collections become laden with distinctly contemporary affects, from climate grief to anthropocene anxiety. This affective site of cross-disciplinary approaches then, is fertile ground from which new environmental literacies might evolve.

The wealth of intellectual and creative activity around natural archives demands that we think seriously and critically about the implications of the knowledge practices they generate. How might these new knowledges remediate our relationship to the natural world? Since the eighteenth century in Western societies, it has been scientific practices on the one hand, and cultural representations on the other, that have taught us how to relate to 'nature'. Processes of cultivation, domestication, collection, classification, breeding, selection, and genetic modification formed the basis of the economic exploitation of nature, synthesized in the discipline of economic botany. On the cultural axis, landscape painting and the genre of the picturesque structured an iconographic relation to the natural world5. Predicated upon visuality and distance, nature was framed, through the logic of social stratification and consumption, and mediated in proprietorial terms as private property, resource or national territory.

The contributions gathered here complicate and reanimate this binary thinking. Many deal creatively and critically with the archive as an institution. But many also work from what we are calling 'the living archive' -- and by doing so, reframe our idea of what a natural archive is. These two groupings, the archive and the living archive, give us a basis for reshaping and enriching our relationship with natural systems. Put another way, through these expanded archival practices, we might be conscripted into an 'archival imagination', a way of seeing, knowing and feeling the natural world that takes us beyond the terms of exploitation, ownership and consumption. More than this, an archival imagination -- now expressed in familiar terms as 'arts science dialogue' -- is about more than interdisciplinarity. It is about bringing natural and human histories together, and with this, natural and human destinies.

1. The Archive: the Herbarium

Like other collecting institutions, herbaria are nodes in a knowledge network through which truths about the world are formed, circulated and legitimated. Herbaria house systematically arranged preserved plant specimens and scientific data for professional taxonomists, botanists and amateurs. Botanic gardens are sites of cultivation and the display of collected plants (native and non-native). Seed banks store the genetic memory of our plants, trees and crops, safeguarding species from extinction and holding a record of past habitats and their flora. The herbarium, then, is a functional scientific institution devoted to building a picture of biodiversity that complements the work of seed banks and botanic gardens. The rise of the European herbarium correlates with the rise of colonial expansion and as such is implicated in imperialist projects and the exploitation of resources.

Contributions in this section draw upon both contemporary herbaria, and the historical idea of the herbarium, while showing us that this scientific institution has other forms of value beyond the scientific: herbaria contain colonial histories and biographical narratives; they generate aesthetic sensibilities, and generate affective and emotional experiences.

Anna Artaker's art project 'The Birth of Photography from the Spirit of the Herbarium' presents the botanical origins of photography in a new context. Seasonal nature printing for educational purposes involved dried and pressed plants that were inked and printed for artistic and scientific 'imprints' in sixteenth-century Europe. 'After Talbot', a series of nature prints on vat paper, promotes the understated identification of species of this long tradition. Artaker's examination of fern, nettle, primrose, aralia, daisy, borage, geranium is set in contrast with amateur botanist William Henry Fox Talbot's experimental photography of the 1830s and 1840s. Talbot's glass plates pressed plants onto sensitised paper, then exposed them to sunlight to 'fix' an image of the plant as arranged silhouettes. Artaker's engagement with historical practices opens up a curious material and affective realm. Most alluringly, her work combines a moment in the history of photography with the cyclical time of nature; the resultant imprint forming a dialogical 'constellation' of the past (or record) and the view of this in the present. Each print is like a vibrating historical object existing in an elasticised timescape. This timescape, or hyper-resonance of the image, can be accounted for by the historical dimensions establishing a conversation between two forms of impression: the literal (imprint) oscillating with greater amplitude when it combines with the metaphorical (feeling).

In 'Connecting collections and collecting connections: The reconstructing the life of Mrs Edith Coleman' the zoologist and science writer, Danielle Clode, takes us through the fascinating plant collections of pollination expert, Edith Coleman, which are 'scattered across Australian herbaria'. Clode reminds us that Coleman--whose career began as late at 47-years old--was once compared with Charles Darwin, and was the first woman to receive the Australian Natural History Medallion. Coleman's research material has been broken down into an array of discrete units contributing to the distributed national intelligence of Australian botany. As such it lacks identity, and Coleman lacks a position in history. Clode's diligent research for a biography provides historians with a fresh view on one woman's highly impactful contribution to scientific research, drawing out lines of inquiry in New South Wales, South Australia, the Australian National Herbarium, the Tasmanian Herbarium and the Virtual Herbarium. At the heart of this essay are Clode's photographs. These provide evidence for the invisible arc of Coleman's story: cylinders wrapped in paper in the Adelaide Herbarium, orchid samples in the herbarium of Australian Orchids lead us intimately towards Coleman's disciplined, tactile and dextrous detailing of the jewels of our flowering plants and their terrestrial culture.

Josh Wodak's 'If a Seed Falls in a Forest: Sounding out Seedbanks to Sonify Changing Climates.' considers the iconic Wollomi Pine in the context of the seed bank. To bring more life to seeds, and to render seeds within an environmental humanities context, Wodak places the seeds 'in space, and sound in time'. Mapping the geological dimension to the species' movement through continental drift, and a recent journey of Wollomi seeds out into space before ending in the Mount Anan Seed Bank, this photo-essay references Wodak's online 2-channel version of his sound art project. With exacting scientific detail ranging across multiple disciplines to deftly handled archival records of Charles Darwin, Wodak brings to mind a wild and complex evolutionary story alongside the machinations of human intervention. The payoff: to convince us to think more sincerely about the ways we might represent climate change; to sonically experience the fragility of species and their vulnerability to climate, even as we grasp the incredible cosmic arc of their journey.

Emma Lansdowne's 'Curatorial Subjectivity: The Universal Aesthetics of Herbaria' takes the Royal Botanical Gardens Herbarium in Hamilton, Ontario, as the setting for Lansdowne's self-reflective essay on archival research backlight by the celebration of 150 years of Canadian confederation. Taking the case of Countess of Dalhousie, Christian Broun's herbarium, Lansdowne examines the gaps in the knowledge offered by this sanitised collection: the bioregional qualities of the plants' habitats, particularities of plants, indigenous values and stories of plants. With a view to remind us that specimens require 'ecological, cultural and political contexts', Lansdowne interrogates the herbarium as an aesthetic practice, positioning the herbarium as nothing less than 'an artefactual representation of the extractive colonial process of decontextualisation and alienation'. It is in this context that natural history is charged with supporting the colonial project of indigenous erasure with which our seed banks and herbaria are historically implicated.

In Emma Robertson's 'Transitions: Biophilia, Beauty and Herbaria' mindfulness of drawing and our relationship to place are brought into conversation with the need for empathy. 'Transitions' takes in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh and The Fisher Library, University of Sydney, while outlining a decade of Roberton's own mixed media botanical drawings. These works require prolonged engagement for they highlight a broad spectrum of emotional connections and disconnections to the environment -- from the viability of seeds frozen for over a thousand years, to extinct seaweed from Sydney Harbour. Here, images of endangered plants are cut into free floating circles and pressed in glass (The Archaeology of Absence), or attached to glass doors of vitrines (Requiem, 2017). Through this meticulous practice, Robertson communicates an uncanny eloquence in preserved life; pressed and frozen, yet strangely speaking through time.

Ornithology and indigenous anthropology meet to highlight complex and fascinating relations between knowledges of living beings and research specimens in Laura Eliasieh's essay 'Rendering Life, Refiguring Diversity from the Highlands of New Guinea'. The radical curatorial approach of The Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco can be discerned by their installation of D. centrale -- a flower only slightly larger than a human thumbnail: a wild plant that 'has not adapted to an anthropocentric world, requiring instead that [visitors] adjust their tropical expectations.' Eliasieh's essay whizzes through Foucauldian concerns for the legacy of empiricism and the crises of modernity (via Latour, and Deleuze and Guattari, and Gregory Bateson), to outline the politics and poetics of the conservatory's emphases on growth, diversity, and contact.

2. The Living Archive

In this section, contributors draw from sites around the world to expand our understanding of what an archive might be. These living archives are from Argentina, Australia, Great Britain, Canada, Italy and New Guinea alongside others. From these distant locations, we view the herbarium, scientific seed collection, and botanical practices in a fresh light. These contributions demonstrate knowledge practices beyond the divided nature of Enlightenment systems -- split into natural and human history -- and beyond the parameters of Western science. Here, arts practices and science practices produce knowledge entangled with folk traditions, community arts practice, activism, pedagogy, and radical gardening. These knowledges are relational, informed by feeling and affect as well as being embedded in processual forms of identity, and in a shared community.

In 'Seed Cabinet' Katerie Gladdys, Melissa DeSa and Anna Prizzia, take the broad notion of democracy conveyed by Vandana Shiva to the curatorial and collection politics of seed cabinets. The Seed Cabinet invites viewers into the familiar yet almost extinct world of archival card catalogues, alongside glass sides and preserved specimens; however, it animates these curiosities with interactive technologies that articulate some of the journeys and encounters between plants and communities. The seed as 'an agent of exchange and expression of community, culture and place' carries with it global concerns around food security and food sovereignty. As such, Seed Cabinet invites the audience to resituate their local relationship with plants

In 'The Lost Garden of Recherche Bay: First Contact Plantings in Tasmania -- Painting as Archival Countersign' Amanda Johnson combines environmental history, contact history, aesthetics, invasion ecologies, and indigenous practices, in dialogue with a unique critical arts practice. Setting out with an alluring response to the mythic, romanticised and failed pre-settlement gardens of French and English expeditions through an image of a dying tree 'gone to seed', botanical empire building is placed squarely in the firing line of Johnson's irony. The voice of colonisation, the aesthetics of botanical records, and the critical response to field work and heritage sites commingle in Johnson's acute reading and painting. Here, the archive materialises, phantasmagorically as a mythic garden 'at the bottom of the known world', a product of a colonial world-making which Johnson humorously and intelligently shows to be both hubristic and fantastical.

Part essay, part video, part photo-documentary 'Unearthing/ Re-earthing,' is the experimental work of the US and Argentinian Coastal Reading Group's Bibi Calderaro and Margaretha Haughwout. Practicing an expanded form of reading to include ecologies and landscapes, the group explores how and what to grieve at a time of 'staggering' species extinction. In this fraught moment, Calderaro and Haughwout provide readers with a simple and important definition of griefwork: to reduce the distancing of the past, and reconsider the disconnection of our species from others. This griefwork animates material practices. From handling sheep wool to collecting hawthorne, alder, dogwood, elder, mugwort, oak, ferns, magnoilia, nettle seed, pasture grass, pine needles and yarrow, the project arrives at practices of guerrilla gardening. Covering the archival work of a broad range of organic material, each with their own vulnerabilities,,we are made to question the archive's materialist temporality: a future archive of memory recalling a lost past, or an archive of present emotions animating us into new relationships.

Erica Boito's documentary essay, 'Spazi in Frutto: Pre-Text for Action' is about an interventionist orchard project (2011-16) in Belluno, Italy. 'Pre-text for Action' is not only a story about cultivated biodiversity; it is part of a global movement of community gardening that is serious 'about rediscover[ing] emotions and traditions about the challenge of being public and political in a non-urban space'. Spazi in Frutto conceived a network of 'Open Orchards', an 'experimental field' of accessible, free, public and shared orchards 'where communities inhabit a common ground'. What is unique about this project is the conceptualisation of community gardens as archives: long-standing trees will remind future generations of the agricultural resistance of the place; planting fruit on common land will mark out more than political gestures but will literally bear fruit that sustains communities over time.

Bonnie Cassidy's 'grounds' is a hypertextual, theoretically nuanced longform poem that offers a radical and alternative conceptualisation of earth--or ground--to that of 'landscape'. In traditions of pastoral and Romantic poetry, a focus on the visible features of landforms and their integrations with natural and man-made features emphasise the shaping and framing of nature. These established practices and their normalization (including peak landscapery of seventeenth-century Europe) belie the ambiguous and rhizomatic transcendence of territorial boundaries that the kingdom of fungi silently signifies for Cassidy. Rather than a human 'eye' invoking a phenomenological sense of the more-than-human world, the multiple worlds of Cassidy's poem take the reader through a discordant harmony of soil substrates, root tissues and the probability of colony establishment. Here, the lyrical mode is put to one side and a patiently unfolding text establishes itself through 'temporal and spatial explorations of geography, toponymy and memory'. This ground, is an unwieldy archive, not a bounded world but an uncontainable, networked one, in which matter, imagination, sensation, history and memory interknit.


  1. This project would not have been possible without the following: a Humanities Research Centre fellowship at Australian National University (2014) that led to the conference 'Affective Habitus'; The Copyright Agency Cultural Fund; the dedicated staff at the University of Melbourne Herbarium. 

  2. See Danielle Wyatt and Jan Hendrik Brueggemeier, 'Art and Herbarium: Creative Ecological Investigations', Melbourne: Unlikely/University of Melbourne, 2017. 5. 

  3. See Tom Bristow and Andrea Witcomb, 'Melancholy and the Continent of Fire: The Forest Gallery, Melbourne Museum' in A Cultural History of Climate Change, Eds. Tom Bristow and Thomas H. Ford. London: Routledge, 2016. 72-86. 72. 

  4. Donna Haraway (2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press. 

  5. Denis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels, eds (1988) The Iconography of Landscape: Essays on the Symbolic Representation, Design and Use of Past Environments. Cambridge University Press.