Translating Ambiance Through Queer Ecologies: A Speculative Cartographic Imaginary
by AMIAS HANLEY
- View Amias Hanley's Biography
Amias Hanley is an artist and researcher based in Melbourne.
Translating Ambiance Through Queer Ecologies: A Speculative Cartographic Imaginary
by AMIAS HANLEY
The 2019 exhibition Translating Ambiance, curated by Jordan Lacey and presented at Yarra Sculpture Gallery, Melbourne, explores translation “as a method for discovering new places of encounter, which references both ‘natural’ and ‘urban’ environments” (Lacey). In the spirit of this exploration, this paper attempts to extend spaces for thinking about and imagining the translation of ambiance through five interrelated themes.
First, as a further pluralising of the exhibition themes this paper considers the role and experience of the body in authoring ambiance(s). Second, this paper aims to align and open to the ways that translating ambiance, from an eco-queer perspective, may contribute to the exhibition’s considerations of dualistic oppositions, such as urban and nature.1 Third, to demonstrate how a shifting frame of ecological awareness may be enacted, through the practice of translating ambiance, an excerpt from my practice-based research project, Sonic Entanglements: Bodies of the Valley (2018) is presented. Fourth, is an imaginative endeavour into the possibilities for translating ambiance to function as a re-worlding for multispecies inclusion, to consider the artist’s role in revealing new possible worlds (Voegelin; Lacey) and speculative kinship practices. Lastly, this paper attempts a worlding of its own through the speculative cartographic imaginary of bodily timbre.
Throughout this paper queerness functions as an approach to reading the concepts of ambiance, embodiment, and translation as they are presented and explored by the exhibition. Queer ecology is practiced in the paper to apprehend the nonbinary qualities of ambiances—here I rely on the thoughts of two queer theorists, Gayatri Gopinath and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.
This paper evokes Gopinath’s use of the term queer, which “references not only non-normative sexual practices, desires, affiliations and gender embodiments, but also the alternative ways of seeing (and sensing) space, scale, and temporality…” (20)—Gopinath’s articulation is central to understanding the potential attunements and roles of queer bodies in matters of translating ambiance. Secondly, this paper draws on Sedgwick’s assertion that we may arrive at queerness “when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically” (8). Sedgwick’s affirmation is significant in recognising the synergy between queerness and ambiance as a manifestation of nonbinary behaviours.
Though my understandings of queerness are continually changing, through considerations of my own body and my creative practice, I refer to queerness in this instance through the above expressions of the term. Whilst these are the descriptions used here (for the stated reasons), I acknowledge and celebrate that, though queer can be used as an umbrella term for diverse sexualities and nonnormative gender expressions, the understandings and lived experiences of queer bodies are by no means universal.
Whilst grounded in examples from the aforementioned exhibition and my own creative practice, this paper also invites the reader to engage their imagination, to consider possibilities of translating ambiance as re-worlding that affords a shifting frame of ecological awareness and “leads to a shared, embodied, enacted and situated sensory experience” (Thibaud).
Whose Body is the Translating Body?
As outlined in Jordan Lacey’s curatorial essay, “translated ambiance considers the body and its situatedness, as a site of perceptual difference entwined within an immediate spatial encounter” (Lacey). Considering the translation of ambiance in this sense, gives rise to the question of whose body is the translating body? And where is this body situated? These questions are an important consideration not only for human encounters with ambiance but for multispecies understandings, which I will return to in a later section. First, I would like to expand on the ways that translating ambiance may consider the body and the role of technology in relation to perceptual difference(s) and location.
To begin with, a human body’s access to power, technology and the environment inevitably influences the ways that an ambiance is necessarily measured, reshaped and (re)distributed. For this reason, it is valuable to consider the ways that bodies may make meaning from an ambiance through their connections to land and waters, and the distinct discursive heritages through which a body is formed (Butler). The translation of an ambiance is likely tangled up with the socio-political geographies and biographies of the translating body. The ways in which these entanglements may empower the translating body is sought out in the following section of this paper—through questioning how queer bodies might attune to ambiances and challenge normative expressions of nature.
To explore a nuanced sense of the translating body as a site of perceptual difference it is useful to turn toward the framework of decolonising queer studies (Holmes; Hunt; Pereira; Pierce). As Joseph Pierce explains, “when we think about queerness it’s seen as a universal theory that can be applied everywhere [however] often what that does is maintain a framework based on coloniality and white supremacy” (Small). This position is echoed by Zoe Todd who identifies that “the complex and paradoxical experiences of diverse people as humans-in-the world, including the ongoing damage of colonial and imperialist agendas, can be lost when the narrative is collapsed into a universalizing species paradigm” (244). There are consistencies between Todd’s assertion and Lacey’s curatorial claim that “to translate an ambiance is not to try and recreate the feelings or experiences of one place into another place. It is the application of creative techniques that expand the perceptual range of the world, through the production of new phenomena”. Linking these assertions, for me, suggests that the reductive and repetitious rendering of a singular universal perspective2 may be unravelled through expanding an awareness of the pluripotent possibilities of being—that is, opening to the radical alterity and contradictory ways that bodies, which may be different to my own, meet and animate with phenomena.
These sentiments open the practice of translating ambiance as a kind of re-worlding,3 however, in these “world-making performances” (Haraway 13) risks reside.4 Similarly, to the universalising of queerness, contemporary Western approaches to (re)interpreting environments may risk consolidating differing environmental understandings, potentially reducing the diverse experiences of an environment to a Eurocentric vantage point. Hence in animating ambiances to uncover new possible worlds, it must be taken into account whose bodies inhabit—and are heard within—the worlds we make and what ideas are used to think these worlds with (Haraway). While, translation may have the potential to reduce the diversity of ambient experiences to a singular position, conversely, it can create spaces where “new forms of relationality and affiliation can be apprehended” (Gopinath 16). This paper considers that practicing decolonisation and acknowledging the body as “a site of perceptual difference” (Lacey) entails addressing the ways that colonial cartographies are maintained through contemporary translations of geo-sonic events. As Haraway identifies, “like all offspring of colonizing and imperial histories, I-we-have to relearn how to conjugate worlds with partial connections and not universals and particulars” (13).
Ambiance and Situated Bodies
The next point to explore is illuminated in Jean Paul Thibaud’s contribution to the exhibition catalogue, ‘Ambiance: An Atmospheric Sensitivity of the World’. For the artist there exists a practical challenge and “a basic theoretical problem [which] concerns the role of the subject and human subjectivity in relation to ambiance” (Thibaud). A part of this paradox is that on one hand translating ambiance has the potential to generate the sensation of ecological intimacy, and on the other it can imply a hierarchical division between humans and non-humans—consequently, assuming human superiority (correlated with archetypical masculinity) within the ambient scene. I use the term scene, to refer to a kind of ambient site or an atmospheric sequence wherein actors and forces (material things) intra-act, influence and modulate each other.
Attuning to ambiance requires embodied intention and it is this act of embodiment combined with technology that mobilises the affective possibilities of sonic ambiances. However, it is not only human (and non-human) bodies that contribute to translating ambiance—technology is a principal actor too. Though technologies facilitate translation, “apparatuses are themselves phenomena” they are participants, which produce “dynamic (re)configurings of the world” (Barad 134). So, whilst bodies and technologies are systems and frameworks through which the experience of an ambiance can be measured and represented, they are also elements that comprise a part of the ambiance itself. 5
As Thibaud explains, “we should not be mistaken: an ambiance is not what one perceives, it is not an object of perception”. Which is to say, that ambiance is not separate to the sensing body or the technologies that are used to examine and (re)produce experiences of ambiance. Instead, an ambiance can be imagined as an interlacing of permeable points between bodies, technologies and environments, “which opens up the perceptibility of the world, which enables perception” (Thibaud). Viewed in this way, it can be understood that the translation of an ambiance is an embodied understanding of an ambiance encountered. This encounter may be both activated and shaped by the body, which engages with “certain features that are of significance to it, that counterpoint, in some sense, with its own organs” (Grosz 40). Hence, the translation of an ambiance is as complex as the organs and perceptions of the body (and the technology) that evaluates, records and (re)produces it.
While perhaps there are no comprehensive, invariant solutions to the anthropocentrism that complicates the human body’s relation to an ambiance, the practice of translating ambiance affords a speculative approach, which equips the artist to explore this challenge—to situate the human body as one of many contributors that make up an ambient scene. An example of this exploration is exhibited, I hope, by my own work, Sonic Entanglements: Bodies of the Valley (2018). In the Translating Ambiance exhibition, it is compellingly also demonstrated by Lisa Hall and Salomé Voegelin’s installation, And it Tastes Like Hair (2019), which “insists on our being together and of each other in a co-dependent interbeing, rather than allowing for the separation of being nature or being human”. Through several recordings of tactile gestures that “matter together”, the installation expresses how the very notion of translating ambiance inspires a rupturing of dualist perceptions, 6 a turn toward embodied ecological enquires and the “building [of] a different imaginary” (Hall and Voegelin 10). Hall and Voegelin’s notion of generating a ‘different imaginary’ is not only central to the excitement of translating ambiance, but necessary to the articulation of translating ambiance as a re-worlding practice.
Beyond Binaries: Translating Ambiance and the Practices of Queer Ecology
Thinking the practices of queer ecology and translating ambiance through each other enables an exciting new approach to reveal and transform the dichotomies that concern both practices. Each practice separately aims to question how binaries can be destabilised by focusing on the role of embodied experiences in relation to the environment. I contend that the key to opening nonbinary spaces and problematising dualities is through an approach to translating ambiance that produces a shifting frame of ecological awareness. My practice-based project, Sonic Entanglements: Bodies of the Valley (2018), seeks to enact this premise and is offered as an example through which to explore its possibilities; but, before its presentation, it is necessary to further explore the correlation between queer ecology and translating ambiance.
Queer ecology provides a particularly valuable framework for translating ambiance, just as translating ambiance provides a valuable vantage point from which to consider queer ecologies. 7 The practice of translating ambiance has potential to grow the scholarship of queer ecology, to consider queer atmospheric attunements (Stewart),8 and to open ways in which “to imagine alternative logics of gender and sexuality, time and space” (Gopinath 21). Equally, by virtue of the nonbinary materialisms present in ambiances, an eco-queer approach may illuminate the fluidity of an ambiance, potentiality offering “a state of productive suspension” (Gopinath 16), a material elasticity, with which to traverse (real and imagined) spatiotemporal scales.9
As a research practice, queer ecology endeavours to “reimagine evolutionary processes, ecological interactions, and environmental politics in light of queer theory” (Sandilands). Similarly, the practice of translating ambiance considers the possibilities of knotting and unfolding the natural and the urban to perform, reveal and remake possible worlds. Challenging the aesthetic conceptualisations of nature and its inherent dualities (human-non-human/man-woman/masculine-feminine/urban-nature), is significant to queer ecology in that it offers a framework for contemplating how the “spatial practices that order bodies and landscapes” (Gopinath 7) are disrupted and (re)organised through queer perspectives.10 Furthermore, it is fundamental to understanding how these actions produce modes of ecological thinking that are both situated and unfixed.
The prefix ambi- is a descendent from the Latin ambo meaning “on both sides”, as pointed out in Morton’s articulation of ‘An Ambient Poetics’ (34). I offer this evocation because it provides a key to the possible ways that queer ecology might align and coalesce with the practices of translating ambiance. Indeed, it is valuable and significant to draw out and embrace the fluidity of the term because it references the space of dwelling between, or on both sides, of two distinct dichotomies (such as urban-nature) which opens to eco-queer readings of ambiances. I have chosen to emphasise the ‘both’ and the ‘between’ here because it signals toward the ways that environments defy dichotomies and express continuums in the same way that bodies do—it demonstrates an undoing of codified dualistic conceptions, which leads to a space beyond binaries.
Binary oppositions are mutually exclusive categories, consequently “continuity between terms is a logical impossibility for distinctions phrased as contradictories” (Jay 44). Revealing the tactile space of being between or on both sides causes an interruption to this opposition—collapsing its binary construction. Of course, this is not an erasure of binaries, the power of this collapse “is not in dividing but in binding” (Le Guin). Inhabiting a space between binaries demonstrates that whilst complex entanglements can be reduced to two mutually exclusive oppositions, “they are not representative of the empirical world” where “almost everything is in a process of transition” (Jay 42). It is the very existence of a between, or of presence on both sides, which reveals how these dichotomous distinctions can be undone and move beyond a binary state. It is this resistance to singular descriptors that renders ambiance a complicator of boundaries and binaries, thereby making it ideal for (re)thinking spatial imaginaries and temporal scales from an eco-queer perspective.
It is for these reasons that queer ecology can offer exciting contributions with which to explore an approach to translating ambiance and the performativity of the proposed boundaries between environments. A specific site for this action, where binaries may collide and coalesce is a shifting frame of ecological awareness—an approach to “the journey-form, made of lines drawn both in space and time, materialising trajectories rather than destinations” (Bourriaud).
Sonic Entanglements: Bodies of the Valley
Audio: Sonic Entanglements: Bodies of the Valley, 2018, stereo (duration 16 minutes, 56 seconds)
Sonic Entanglements: Bodies of the Valley (2018) uses the framework of queer ecologies and an iterative audio recording/playback methodology to problematise the inside-outside distinction between self and environment. The research practice is inspired by Alvin Lucier’s I am Sitting in a Room (1981), though my research was conducted outdoors in the Brunswick Valley, also known as Moonee Moonee or Moonee Ponds Creek, Victoria, Australia.11 The Brunswick Valley is an environment that symbolises the space between urban-nature distinctions, it is an environment that is “on both sides” (Morton), and in this way it destabilises romanticised representations of urban and nature, opening to new entanglements. This location is not a true valley by any means, rather it is a catchment that extends through the northern suburbs of Narrm/Melbourne to the Birrarung/Yarra River, the main river running through Narrm/Melbourne.12 It is an environment that embodies both the performative relations that are symbolically linked to urbanised spaces and metonymically prescribed to the concept of nature.13
Fig 1. Moonee Moonee/Moonee Ponds Creek; Southern section, north facing. Image by Devika Bilimoria. 2020
Through the centre of the valley runs a concrete storm water channel, traced by graffiti, plastic debris, River Red Gum and Kangaroo Grasses. The shoulder of the valley is contoured by the Moonee Ponds Creek Trail, a cycling path which parallels the noise wall of the Tullamarine Freeway. I chose to produce the work in this location because I view this environment as a corridor connecting diverse interactions between humans and non-humans in an intricate ecology. The Brunswick Valley departs from both the romanticised concept of nature, and the idealisation of urban spaces and in its in-betweenness, in its embodiment of “both sides” (Morton) it explicitly collapses the urban-nature distinction.
I chose to use a recursive recording technique because I observed that the realisation of, I am Sitting in a Room (Lucier) produces three events which speak to queer ecology. First, it provides a decentering of the performer; second, it draws a listener’s aural attention to the environment; third, it creates an intimate awareness of interdependence. I am interested in how this technique disrupts the aural perception of spatial relationships, which leads to complicating the (perceived) separation of sounds and spaces, or lack thereof.
This work was presented in 2018 at the Black Box Theatre Melbourne, by way of a multi-channel audio installation. The project invites a listener to critically consider how an awareness of the permeability of boundaries between bodies can challenge us to rethink the anthropocentric concept of nature—to consider humans and technology, not merely in relation to the environment, but rather as part of the environment.
You began inside a body, different to the one you are in now.
I began as a body, different to the one I am now.
I am outside the body that I am now.
I am inside a body, the same one that you are in now.
The above text that features in Sonic Entanglements: Bodies of the Valley (2018), speaks to the ambiguity and permeability of the body. One explanation of the text’s ambiguity is as follows: the first sentence may seem to invoke being inside the maternal body, however, it could also reference being born at a certain point in sociocultural and geological time that is different to the present. The multiple senses in which the speech can be heard functions to signify the body as that which is never complete. Whether it be thought of as the permeation of ideologies upon the human body, or the human body marking other human bodies; animal bodies; bodies of space, bodies of substance, the premise is that bodies, and their boundaries, like the concepts of urban and nature, are perpetually reconfigured through one another. This monologue addresses this by presenting a concatenation of shifting relations which relate through difference.14
Sonic Entanglements: Bodies of the Valley works to produce embodied shifts that are intended to be enacted by the listener. These shifts seek to produce a significant intention of this research project, to encourage perceptual shifts that complicate the dichotomous distinction between self and environment for a listener—connecting them to an intimate awareness of multiple bodies and environments, thus generating a shifting frame of ecological awareness.
The Decentering Shift
This shift is premised on the perceptual transition that occurs as my voice is gradually decentred in the composition. This decentering of my recorded voice is enacted through a complication of the boundaries, between the speaking self, the listening self, the sonic presence of the environment and the applied technology.15 In other words, as each playback occurs, the original recording of my voice is shifted from the foreground. However, the words are never completely absorbed or erased—my recorded voice is never distinctly inside nor outside the (recorded) sound of the environment. Instead the recording(s) of my spoken words are redistributed and reconfigured through the proceeding recording. Here an entanglement of ambiances takes place and is translated anew through the interplay of multiple sonic contexts. This sonic entanglement represents the porousness of bodies and environments, which speaks to both the poetic behaviours of ambiances and the practices of queer ecology.
The Destablising Shift
This embodied shift marks the process that occurs in the shift from listening to spoken language, to listening to the destabilisation of the articulation of those words (as they are threaded through the recorded sound of the environment). This shift occurs as the fabric of the composition gains textural complexity, the frequencies from the feedback loops regenerate and different sounds emerge in the environment. Here a listener may begin to map the behaviour of the sounds according to their sonic properties (i.e. melody, harmony, timbre, rhythm, etc.) or some other interpretation of sound events that are relevant to the listener’s listening history. As the listener’s aural awareness is roving the sonic landscape that is unfolding before them, they may begin reaching out or leaning in to hear the next approaching cycle of words, anticipating their arrival; however, some aspects of the words become difficult to locate in the growing fog of frequencies. It is here that the listener embodies the shifts which are occurring within the work itself. That is to say that, in the shift from deciphering spoken words, to listening according to sonic properties (or an entirely different mode relevant to the listener), a shift is enacted—through transforming the audible space for the listener, the audible space is also transformed by the listener.
This complicates the relationship between the listening body and the recorded environment—as the recorded environment is not separate to the listener but is being composed by the listener, thus producing a shifting frame of ecological awareness. Through this embodied awareness, these shifts aim to engage a listener in a poetic listening exercise that is linked to the depths of ecological interdependence—ambiance.
Translating Ambiance as a Re-worlding for Multispecies Inclusion
Considering the essential role of the artist to “bring about ambient experiences” (Pink), enables the question—how might artists deploy the practice of translating ambiance as a re-worlding that brings about an affective multispecies attunement? And what would it do?
The possibilities of translating ambiance as an active re-worlding may materialise through two principal actions of translation: listening as an affective practice and movement. Simply put, each time an ambiance is translated it moves from one code or space to another; notably “what is translated will always differ from what was translated” (Lacey). The event of translation reconfigures time-based spatial encounters and as such a different world emerges. This can be observed in Catherine Clover’s installation, Guyup-Guyup: Scores for Eight Songbirds (2019), which “comprises eight text scores that are a site specific response to the songbirds local to the gallery environs”; the scores, performed by four human voices, contemplate “how the two groups of songbirds sonically and vocally affect each other” (Clover). Engaging with the work, for me, resulted in new understandings of the correlations and differences between these multispecies worlds.
Given its affective and relational makings, listening has an important place in generating intimacy toward an environment. As Brandon LaBelle suggests, “listening carries with it a sensual intensity”, and it is this sensorial and environmental evocation which “sets in motion not only the material world but also the flows of the imagination…”. Similarly, Salomé Voegelin illuminates that the exercise of engaging and “…listening to our everyday environment reaches hidden dimensions of the landscape, restaging habitual notions of truth, reality and necessity” (7). It is in this way that listening can be understood to be at the forefront of re-worlding, since “listening presents an embodied awareness of place that can evoke new imaginary relationships with the world” (Lacey). Because of this potential for listening to shape imaginations, the artist is aptly positioned to thoughtfully consider how the affective possibilities of ambiances might reveal the ambient worlds of others; imaginings which may lead toward multispecies understandings and propagate radical forms of environmental care.16
To envisage the outcomes and affective possibilities of translating ambiance as a re-worlding, I would like to turn to Sara Ahmed’s sentiment that “to be affected by something is to evaluate that thing. Evaluations are expressed in how bodies turn toward things” (31). If Ahmed’s expression is applied to the practice of translating ambiance it may describe an opportunity to evaluate the ambiance of others, which following Ahmed’s thread, is an opportunity to turn toward it, to embody it, to be affected.17 This turning towards, coupled with the reimagining of time and space generated by translating ambiance, could promote new forms of radical multispecies care.
In this way, the practice of translating ambiance may offer artists and participants opportunities to evaluate ambient encounters in ways that other non-human agencies might, “to make each other capable of something new in the world of multi-species relationships” (Haraway 19). Perhaps it is the practice of translating an ambiance that can open to varied sensorial spectra known to the ambient worlds of others.18
To imagine the ambient worlds of more-than-humans, I would like to offer a speculative consideration of the sonic sensibilities (Voegelin) of the black imported fire ant (Solenopsis richteri). Like many critters of the insect world, along with some species of fish and snakes, the black imported fire ant produces sound using stridulation—the process of rubbing one part of its body (the scraper) against another (a set of corrugated ridges)—to communicate with other ants. Initially myrmecologists claimed that the sonic worlds of ants were non-existent, since, they argued, ants “are unresponsive to airborne sound on a scale of a meter or more” (Hickling and Brown 1920). However, the ‘Analysis of Acoustic Communication by Ants’ (Hickling and Brown) effectively challenged this notion—thus bringing a scientific approach closer to a re-worlding understanding, in a way useful to explore further here, through the scientists’ own discourse.
In the near-field, rapid variations in the velocity of a sound occur before the wave propagates into the far-field. This means that in the nearfield, where movement changes rapidly, an ant can perceive a stridulation signal (Hickling and Brown). However, in the far-field, where movement changes gradually, ants cannot detect a signal. So, although ants are apparently indifferent to audition on a human scale of metres, they are responsive to sounds in their own ambient atmospheres (which, although tiny on a human scale, is large enough to include several other ants)—thus, suggesting ants have “an acoustical world of their own” (Hickling and Brown 1927). Even though such a scientific paradigm is problematic and not one I usually work with, I would propose that this example is valuable here in suggesting how throughout regions and across species ambiances may be understood differently and experienced discretely.
A great challenge underlying this example, or any other example which attempts to speculate on the ambient experiences of others, is that the sonic sensibilities of another species (or another human) can never truly be known. However, to imagine19 the ambient worlds of another species is to be engaged in this challenge; it is to invite “an alternative view—a possible and even impossible view—challenging and augmenting what we pragmatically refer to as the actual world…” (Voegelin 1). That is to say, that imagining the ambient worlds of others affords an opportunity to wonder about the atmospheric experiences of other species—this shift in perspective could reposition human awareness, allowing it to travel from the ‘actual’ world (that is, the world one inhabits) into a possible world (Voegelin).
The intention of this approach toward a re-worlding is to activate a thinking and making that brings to bear the contingency of our ecologies and the interdependence of our ontologies through the sensation of ecological intimacy—which I will further explore through the speculative cartographic imaginary of bodily timbre, in the following section.
Bodily Timbre: A Speculative Cartographic Imaginary
The following is an experiment in thinking-with translating ambiance; bodily timbre imagines a vibratory mesh where ecological attunements “are palpable and sensory yet imaginary and uncontained, material yet abstract” (Stewart 445).
Let’s now imagine moving through an atmosphere pulsing and oscillating with the varied vibrations of timbral bodies. When I refer to bodies, I am referring to water, instruments, stars, objects, societies, apparatuses, cultures—any-body with the capacity to vibrate. In this scene, each of these bodies are emanating and absorbing complex vibrations, which are determined by movement, location, interaction and desire. Together the distinct timbres of these vibrating bodies inflect and transform each other, their “differences cutting through and re-splicing one another” (Barad, Quantum 245), thus producing a collective environmental presence: an ambiance.
Here, it is important to remember that timbre is an inherently environmental term as it describes the “place of articulation” (Green et al., 1438). The term is also used here to describe how bodies are differentiated, even if and when they are oscillating at the same frequency. Timbre is not only determined by the materiality of the sounding body, but it can also be attributed to gesture; the action that a produces a sound. In this way, timbre not only distinguishes one body from another, but it specifies the articulation and location of that body. As Grosz describes, “living beings are vibratory beings: vibration is their mode of differentiation, the way they enhance and enjoy the forces of the earth itself” (33). When a body vibrates it “causes the medium around it to vibrate” (Hollis), these waves then causes other bodies to vibrate—varied timbres intersect and multiply, across and within time and space.
Bodily timbre can be considered as the “coupling of milieu and rhythm” (Grosz 19) and in this way, it may be understood that the actions of one body, or a group of bodies, affect the ambiance of another.20 As these bodies dislocate and relocate, oscillating in-out of phase, complex tempos and evolving patterns are reorganised and produced. This speculative cartographic imaginary (which produces an ambiance) may resemble an “open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning” (Sedgwick 8). It is this notion of timbral-causality that provides a reimagining of spatial and temporal scales and perspectives, which expresses the heterogeneity of ambiance.
Importantly, this speculative cartographic imaginary enables queer ecology’s model of difference, wherein entities are differentiated not through a segregation of differences, but rather through the ways that difference co-establishes identities.21 Thus, bodily timbre can be thought of as the conditions for an ambiance; a source that yields local tonalities and regional rhythms. Through the speculative cartographic imaginary of bodily timbre, situated expressions of ambiance can be thought and translated—providing ways to consider and express the eco-political conditions tethered to bodies of specific regions.
Attuning to the bodily timbres that constitute a place or make up a region is an exercise that engages multispecies understandings and an ecological mode of awareness. This attunement provides ways to perceive the distinct qualities of human and more-than-human bodies, whilst concurrently fostering a sense of collectivity. So, one might ask, if a collective of bodily timbres establishes an ambiance, what then are the inter-spatial arrangements of multiple ambiances? What determines where one ambiance ends, and another begins?
Let’s first consider that the sonic ambiance of my house is different to that of my neighbour’s house. Although my house and my neighbour’s house both contribute to the sonic ambiance of the neighbourhood. The ambiance of our neighbourhood is different to that of the adjacent neighbourhoods, but together the ambiances of these neighbourhoods generate the ambiance of our suburb, and the combined ambiances of the suburbs constitute the ambiance of the city, ad infinitum. Of course, we can continue with this—difference multiplication—that is used to think bodily timbre, until we reach the ambiance of the biosphere. Or we can scale back down to the ambiance of the ant. It is in this way that thinking-with and translating ambiance performs a shifting frame of ecological awareness and acts as a means to “descale and rescale geographies through their awareness to both the personal and the regional” (Gopinath 17).
House, city, nation-state—these are spatial and social demarcations that purposely regulate human and more-than-human bodies. Perhaps even more significant to the translations of ambiances are delineations such as river mouth, wombat burrow and mountain peak. It is fair to say that ambiance is not specifically contained by state boundaries or borders, likewise the bird’s song does not end at the edge of its nest. My point here is that the spatiality of an ambient scene necessarily encompasses multiple ambient temporalities, which are nonlinear expressions of events and open-ended reconfigurations. The ambiance of each of these scenes is “inextricably bound up with different kinds of timescale: dinner party, family generation, evolution, climate…the time of wolves, the time of whales, the time of bacteria” (Morton, Dark 10). These ambiances are perpetually reshaped through one another, “there is no smooth temporal (or spatial) topology connecting beginning and end” (Barad, Quantum 244). Therefore, where one ambiance may seemingly end, and another begins is fuzzy and indeterminate.
That is not to say that the ambiance of one nest is not distinct from another; rather in this sense ambiance can be thought of as the nuanced and multi-scalar expressions of our shifting environmental proximities. Though we can never truly know the experience of an ambiance for another body, similarly an ambiance “is never truly one’s own, nor does it sit within any fixed boundary or shape” (LaBelle). Instead it is the expanding and contracting of relations, perceptual differences, inputs, outputs and in-betweens, it is “the messiness of the experiential, the unfolding of bodies into worlds and the drama of contingency” (Ahmed 30).
In contemplating bodily timbre as a speculative cartographic imaginary, we can come to know how ambiances offer instances through which bodies can open themselves—and each other—to the sensorial and differential ways of being.
The practice of translating ambiance, in consideration with the specific bodily timbres that constitute an ambiance, are practices that draw awareness to multiple temporalities and generate a shifting frame of ecological awareness—facilitating perceptual shifts between here and there.
Through the framework of queer ecology, the practice of translating ambiance can emphasise the porousness of the boundaries inscribed upon environments and demonstrate how to suspend between, and thus move beyond binary oppositions. An eco-queer approach contributes to the grounding of the practice of translating ambiance in an understanding of bodies and environments as sites of continual transition.
In forming this contribution to the existing and ongoing research practices, presented both here in this issue of Unlikely and in the Translating Ambiance (2019) exhibition, I have sought to thoughtfully engage and contribute to new ways of conceiving ambiances, the concept of translation and dichotomous distinctions through the queer body’s connection to these continuums. I have attempted to expand on the exhibition themes in imaginative ways which offer a space to speculate on the potential for translating ambiance to function as a multispecies thinking tool, as an exercise in radical perspectivism and response-ability which promotes kinship and care. I have proposed bringing the practices of translating ambiance together with queer ecology, into a dialogue which questions how translating ambiance can assist in understanding the enmeshment of human existence with surrounding non-human ambiances, and what these (re)worldlings might offer.
My proposition, then, is that these sentiments support and progress the practices of translating ambiance to continue to unfold in an ongoing venture, to learn from and (re)imagine the dynamic potentiality that ambiances afford our world(s)—in attuning to the multiplicity of timescales and gestures known to volcanoes, oceans, and the sensitivity of an ant’s antennae.
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- In line with Translating Ambiance (2019), I emphasise urban and nature throughout this paper to draw attention to the symbolic and dichotomous codification of these terms. Additionally, in solidarity with the enquires ecofeminisms and queer ecologies, which aim at destabilising heteronormative articulations of nature that are predicated on the gender binary—I emphasise the term nature to reinforce its evaluation and deconstruction—to question the ways that the idealisation and aestheticization of the term are intertwined with heteropatriarchal expressions of gender, sexuality and reproduction. I agree with Christine Bauhardt in saying that ‘we cannot develop an emancipatory concept of our relationship to the environment and to nature without deconstructing the age-old intertwining of nature and femininity discourses and thematizing the analogy between the productiveness of both nature and the female body’ (363). Moreover, for these reasons stated, I agree with Timothy Morton’s proposition that ‘one of the ideas inhibiting genuinely ecological politics, ethics, philosophy and art is the idea of nature itself’ (14).↩︎
- Here I am referring to the perspective of the “Universal Man” who is “implicitly assumed to be masculine, white, urbanised, speaking a standard language, heterosexually inscribed in a reproductive unit and a full citizen of a recognised polity” (Braidotti 27).↩︎
- This paper derives the use of re-worlding and worlding from Donna Haraway and Kathleen Stewart’s articulations of these terms. Re-worlding draws on Haraway’s view that a “queer re-worlding depends on reorienting the human and its posts to the never-finished meal of companion species…” (Companion 26). The use of worlding here develops from Haraway’s SF manifestations of the term as “the patterning of possible worlds and possible times, material-semiotic worlds, gone, here, and yet to come” (31). For Haraway, the signifier SF — “science fiction, speculative fabulation, string figures, speculative feminism, science fact, so far” — expresses multiple forms, modes, adventures, critters, webs, and worlds which “are not containers; they are patternings, risky comakings…”, practices that are crucial for giving and receiving, living and dying, and staying with the trouble (14). Additionally, drawing on Stewart, this paper considers re-worlding as an active attunement and opening onto “how forces come to reside in experiences, conditions, things, dreams, land- scapes, imaginaries, and lived sensory moments” (445). Further, “how such things come into sense already composed and generative and pulling matter and mind into a making: a worlding” (119).↩︎
- Here, Haraway contributes to understanding that worlding and “telling stories together with historically situated critters is fraught with the risks and joys of composing a more livable cosmopolitics” (15).↩︎
- This assertion is supported by Haraway’s (Situated 583) critique of disembodied objectivity; “the “eyes” made available in modern technological sciences shatter any idea of passive vision; these prosthetic devices show us that all eyes, including our own organic ones, are active perceptual systems, building on translations and specific ways of seeing, that is, ways of life”.↩︎
- Here I am referring to the Cartesian theory that posits the mind as immaterial and superior to the material body, and its cohesion to the division between Man (as a thinking being) and nature (as a material and inferior body).↩︎
- Queer ecology can be understood as a derivative of queer theory and ecological criticism that has developed in the wider context of materialist feminisms and the critique of the natural sciences (Bauhardt).↩︎
- For Stewart, atmospheric attunements “…have rhythms, valences, moods, sensations, tempos, and lifespans. They can pull the senses into alert or incite distraction or denial” (445).↩︎
- While it is not the aim of this essay to demonstrate a diffractive approach, this relationship is clearly conducive to such practices of “diffractively reading insights through one another, building new insights, and attentively and carefully reading for differences that matter in their fine details, together with the recognition that there intrinsic to this analysis is an ethics that is not predicated on externality but rather entanglement”. (Dolphijn and Tuin 50)↩︎
- This challenge toward the aesthetic conceptualisations of nature is well established in queer histories and queer understandings of environmental aesthetics. As Susan Sontag’s 1964 commentary on queer aesthetics identified, “today’s camp taste effaces nature, or else contradicts it outright” (4).↩︎
- Sonic Entanglements: Bodies of the Valley (2018) was recorded shortly after sunrise in the southern section of the Brunswick Valley. The work was produced at a specific point in this location where a concrete channel is divided by a concrete wall, the top of the wall is met with a landing platform creating an alcove which extends into a wave-like concrete passage. The recording was produced at the entrance of the concrete passage, which not only afforded a highly resonant space to work with, but it also supports the intention of this research, which aims to problematise the distinction between inside and outside.↩︎
- Moonee Moonee, Narrm and Birrarung are the Woi wurrung names for Moonee Ponds, Melbourne and the Yarra River, respectively. The Wurundjeri people of the Woi wurrung language group are the Traditional Custodians of the lands and waters where this research was conducted. Permission to use Woi wurrung names in this paper was sought and granted by Wurundjeri Elders and The Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation.↩︎
- According to Morton, “Nature… stands at the end of a long list of a potentially infinite series of other terms that collapse into it… fish, grass, mountain air, chimpanzees, love, soda water, freedom of choice, heterosexuality, free markets… Nature” (14).↩︎
- The text plays with the representation of oppositional pairs, namely, inside-outside, same-different and words like I and you, whose referent shifts depending on who uses it. These shifts are performed through the cycling of the four sentences and propose the porousness of perspective.↩︎
- i.e. the recording device, speaker, microphones, laptop, and audio processing software.↩︎
- LaBelle emphasises, “these sonic qualities greatly enable artistic expressions aimed at the extremes of perception, giving way to a vocabulary of affect, transmission, interference as well as assurance, alien energy, enchantment and deep resonance… it not only leads us to hear such hidden or marginal forces, but also constructs a plane of presence fully marked by agents foreign to “my body” (Background 298).↩︎
- This is supported by Palmer and Hunter’s position that “worlding is informed by our turning of attention to a certain experience, place or encounter and our active engagement with the materiality and context in which events and interactions occur. For Palmer and Hunter, worlding is “an active, ontological process; it is not simply a result of our existence in or passive encounter with particular environments, circumstances events or places”.↩︎
- As Morton argues (Why Ambient 52) “… ambient images offer a sort of gate into another dimension, a dimension that turns out to be none other than the nowness that is far more radically “here” than any concept of “here”, such as nation, race, gender—and even the universalism as the neutral medium that holds these terms in place…”.↩︎
- Here I mean the many multidisciplinary and spiritual ways that imagining is possible, through listening, writing, thinking, making, performing, dreaming, et cetera.↩︎
- It is important to point out that whilst thinking of one timbral body can be expanded to thinking multiple bodies, these distinctions are porous, and “no species is ever One; to be a species is to be constitutively a crowd, in symbiogenetic naturecultures, with no stopping point” (Companion 23).↩︎
- The entanglements of existence are constituted through difference, “The differences matter—in ecologies, economies, species, lives” (Haraway 29).↩︎