Standing Reserve: Performance and eco-criticism

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 Standing reserve

 

Definition

(Standing reserve) is a term widely used in forestry to denote (enframe), the growing phenomena of trees.

‘Timber’ is the language of a human usefulness which will soon befell them. Trees move from ‘they’, as in: ‘the trees’; through a process of enframed transformation into the ’it’ of stuff – of resource. This might also be said to be true of ‘live-stock’ in the case of cows or sheep or chickens, (or any sentient creature whose value is determined by human desire). And also extends to people, as in a person as a potential unit of production (especially since Henry Ford’s time and motion studies in 1913), which is epitomised by the ‘human resources’ or (expressed in capitals to denote its high ideological status) ‘HR’ departments found within organisations.

A Tree in this useful language is moved from a singular apprehension, a thing in itself, in which the trees’ features can be seen and in a limited measure understood, to stuff. This transition is produced by language. Our needs as a species are serviced by language, which in turn reconfirm our understanding. Language becomes the measure of control, where a reformation in the things’ status hints at an axiology in which our desire[1] and attitudes toward the consequences are justified.

It maybe commonly held that the axe or sawmill inaugurates this transfiguration. However, it is the scarcely noticed action of a prescriptive clause through the medium of language, that a tree is transformed to timber.

Examination

I had initially intended to produce a video response to what Martin Heidegger termed ‘Gestell’ or enframement, by which is meant the enframement of the earth, by the world: the technologic-socio-economic-cultural world, the world of people.  Heidegger saw the essence of modern technology as the conversion of the whole universe of beings into an undifferentiated ‘standing reserve’ (Bestand) of energy available for any use to which humans choose to put it.

An examination is, perhaps, the wrong word- but as with other work made more recently, and work that is still in formation, there is an aspect, or I have an interest in at least, of environmentally concerned philosophy, by which I mean thoughts on wide ranging aspects of human-environmental interaction, for example the arguments of public versus private space, in which  the freedoms of the individual are pit against a hegemony of power exercised by business/private capital and  the so-called green-edge movement which seeks the advancement of perceived interests of nature over humanity. These can be characterised as either utilitarian or eco-fascist depending upon which side of the argument one begins with. This reading and contrasting approach is increasingly informing a part of the beginning of my creative processes. I find my practice becoming eco-critical through the actions I take to make manifest a position on space and what it means to me.

Eco-critical not ecological

“Consciousness does not begin to exist until it sets limits to an object”[2] it is within these limits that philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty proposes one finds the environment and field of perception that contains relational subjects – as to apprehend an object scientifically of poetically, is firstly a spatial exercise. The term ‘environment’ is problematic as Dana Bryant comments “using the term ‘environment’ introduces a high degree of relativity and ambiguity into ecological research”. This is simply because research requires an object of which to apply scrutiny and as the environment is also the background or whatever else surrounds an object one would need to construct the object through what it is not. For the phenomenological object to exist, relief is needed, although here the relief is also the object. This ambiguous environment or relief is elusive as a focus for ecologists but as Ponty points out “consciousness is no less intimately linked with objects which it is unheeding as with those which interest it”

A positionality reveal however, would be a fairer description of the strategy through which ‘Standing Reserve’ was originally conceived: to illuminate the perception of all external matter as resource. A rather grand and perhaps cynical aim I now realise! This was, however, the inception point and began as the heart of the piece.

The work itself

In the produced work (Standing reserve. 2007), I am filmed standing on the stump of a felled tree in a forest. The ‘clearing’ within which I stand during the performance, formed part of a managed (hence enframed) area, within the Wyre forest in North Worcestershire, close to the border with Shropshire. I wore a red overall and industrial ear muffs. The film was originally approximately 15 minutes long, but I have extended it in the editing process, and it has been shown at two or three different lengths, depending upon the context of the exhibition.

For the first five minutes, or so, of filming I experienced the muffled, but still slightly audible sound of my surroundings – wind in the trees, birds and the distant sound of road noise. A little later on (after about 5minutes), I began to notice the sound of my breathing and later still, (after about ten minutes) an awareness of my heart beating became unusually pronounced. The perception I had of my surroundings was, in fact, dramatically altered by wearing the earmuffs. So much so that I became, over the period of fifteen minutes, to be acutely aware of my own physical processes, which are to that extent not usually perceptible.

The work the participant was given was to watch me standing on the tree-stump in the forest, swaying slightly, with the recorded forest sounds playing on a surround sound audio system, which had been placed around the room. A pair of headphones was provided, on which my heart-beat and breathing were playing on a recording so that the viewer could enter the experience with me.

The participant, (who is also a listener) engages in struggling to hear the sound of the external environment, the woodland, which the participant’s cognition identifies with the visual image (playing on the monitor), as the context of the experience. It’s difficult to anticipate exactly how the participants subjective personal response to this will be with a high degree of accuracy, however when wearing the headphones, focus is directed to the unusually audible breathing and heart-beating. The participant’s perception wanders, or rather, gazes expanding and contracting according to the different stimulus (I found this another unexpected effect of the piece) and one that is a more phenomenological ‘by-which-we-experience’ intersection of auditory/sensory emplacement, rather than an aesthetic one, in which ones focus would apprehend the effects themselves and not where the effects were actually located. To summarise, the exercise sets out to expose how we experience rather than what we experience.

Questions

Questions arose from this experience: how is my ‘sense of place’ modified when my senses are altered in this way, and further; would it be possible to form any kind of locational identity, (in the terms of the vocabulary of this work:  a woodsman, a midlander, or British) if my sense experience were disrupted or placed in complete or partial isolation, as in a sensory deprived environment? And does this limited palate of experience interfere with the ability to form identity through the association with place? These questions divert somewhat from the original aims I had for the piece, but have emerged from a reflection on how the experience of the performance expanded its possible outcomes.


[1] It is outside the scope of this section to examine the differences between need and desire , this is a subject that I will expand on in a later section

[2]  Merleau-Ponty. Maurice. The Phenomenology of Perception. P28

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