How can we tell difficult stories differently?

17 October 2022
In response to our recent workshop on Environmental Storytelling in Diverse Media, SEI researchers Freya Grace MacDonald and Jennifer Degar reflect on shifting narratives of climate crisis, and the power of stories to transform our relationship with the environment.

By Freya Grace MacDonald, SEI Doctoral Fellow, Department of English, and Jennifer Deger, SEI Visiting Fellow

As catastrophic eruptions of environmental devastation become increasingly frequent and widespread, our narratives about the relationships between human and more-than-human-human worlds that we once took for granted are changing and being made strange.

What stories are worlds in crisis asking us to attend to? How might reaching beyond written, text-based conventions better enable us to respond to the urgent work of learning to tell stories anew? What creative strategies and shifts in perspective can help us to tell stories with, rather than about, more-than-human worlds?

The Environmental Storytelling in Diverse Media workshop brought together a multidisciplinary collective of SEI members, working across a variety of media and modes, to explore ways to tell difficult stories differently. Each presentation refracted a shared commitment to the critical and creative work of attuning to people, places, and entities facing varying states of acute and sustained crisis. Each took a novel approach, demonstrating how they had embraced a range of media in their respective research practices. Showcasing samples, the researchers variously led us to consider the empirical and aesthetic power of sound and image, the ethics of giving voice to non-human agents, and the ways that design and digital curation can help us break away from the linear and inherently limited narratives that have so directly contributed to our current crises.

Jennifer Deger opened the workshop with a presentation about Feral Atlas, which she co-curated with Anna Tsing, Alder Keleman Saxena, and Feifei Zhou and published as a peer-reviewed academic output with Stanford University Press. Feral Atlas tells how human infrastructural projects of empire and industry have given rise to a range of undesigned, or feral, effects over the past 500 years. It does so by orchestrating an analysis that draws on range of disciplinary genres, images, artworks, poems and sound works. As Deger described, the Feral Atlas team worked with the conviction that Anthropocene knowledge-practices require a renewed openness to forms, genres and voices in ways that critically extend our ways of knowing. The digital architecture of the site, she explained, allows new ways to compose an academic argument, staying close to the material ecological transformations under observation. As she explained, the ‘chose your own adventure’ structure of the atlas enables users to cumulatively encounter accounts of the Anthropocene coming into formation so avoiding the homogenising perspectives that a planetary-scale analysis can impose.

What creative strategies and shifts in perspective can help us to tell stories with, rather than about, more-than-human worlds?

Guiding the group through several field reports from the atlas, Deger offered Feral Atlas as one response to the challenge of how to combine a vibrant, yet potentially disjunctive, constellation of forms, genres and voices in ways that expand our knowledges of the world, while holding onto the value of place-based knowledges, situated difference, and disciplinary complexity.

Thom van Dooren and Zoë Sadokierski reflected on a work-in-process, co-authored and co-created with Myles Oakey, Timo Rissanen, Sam Widin and Ross Crates, that explores the life of the regent honeyeater, an endangered species from eastern Australia. As van Dooren and Sadokierski noted, this bird's movements are not well understood, and their numbers have declined drastically — they no longer exist at the density required to breed and maintain territory.

This presentation again captured the power and importance of multi-voiced, layered storytelling that in this case encompasses intricate illustrations and a series of “side flights” that include audio and textual accompaniments. The designs pictured are not simple illustrations to aid comprehension, they reflect an effort to engage design in ways that reinforce, complicate and animate the stories they are trying to tell. As van Dooren noted, part of the research for the project has been about “finding ways in which the biology of the bird speaks to the ethics of storytelling, and then weaving these into the design.” He described how this “creates a kind of nested set of commitments, strategies and possibilities that become mutually reinforcing and work on the reader/viewer, and the world, in powerful ways.”

Image by Zoë Sadokierski.

Novelist and non-fiction author, Ceridwen Dovey, began her presentation by confessing a powerful desire to work with images after many years of writing had taken her to what she described as the limits and ethics of language in storying with the more-than-human world. This had sparked a desire to collaborate and co-create. The short film, Musca (2022), made with visual anthropologist, Rowena Potts, playfully relocates conventionally Earth-bound questions about nature to the tiny constellation of Musca in the Southern Sky. Dovey pointed to the multidimensional narrative opportunities that film affords as it enables the work of making the unseen visible.

Earth Rise, Apollo 8, taken by astronaut Bill Anders in 1968 as the first crewed spacecraft circumnavigated the Moon via NASA.

Hollis Taylor and Diana Chester’s respective presentations on sound and storytelling oriented a distinct approach to thinking about where stories are located and how they are told. Taylor, a violinist, composer, zoömusicologist, and ornithologist reminded us that sound is not a “value add” to text but another way of making and feeling. Taylor’s work offers a celebration of Pied Butcherbird songs as a companion to her book, Is Birdsong Music? Encounters with an Australian Songbird.

Sounds studies scholar Diana Chester presented a project that captures non-human stories through sound recordings in remote locations. Her work explores sound as a vessel for storing non-human memory and illuminates the points at which mediums become vital, non-human collaborators in the development of the stories, becoming part of the composition.

Matthew Darmour-Paul's presentation captured how research can powerfully encompass and navigate the intersections of design practice and storytelling across human and more-than-human worlds. Darmour-Paul reflected on his project The Silicon Prairie, which brings stories together to inform design and to imagine more-than-human futures. Noting the mammoth energy footprint of time spent online — the information and communication technology ecosystem being on par with that of air travel — it presents a strategy of ‘data permaculture’ that visualises a post-agricultural landscape through the transformation of key farming typologies to low-tech data infrastructure.

A trained architect, Darmour-Paul raised the importance of drawing to his research and learning and emphasised that research modes and the mediums that we are familiar with retain the power to take us to unfamiliar places.

The development ‘bi-fi’ scratching posts that boost digital signals across the prairie while providing coolth and scratching opportunities for bison. The bison shed their coats by rubbing up against trees, sometimes removing a full layer of bark which kills the tree, enabling the prairie ecology to expand (grasses which otherwise wouldn't receive sunlight) via

The lasting impression of this workshop is likely that of an emergent and extremely vibrant creative community of scholars connecting through SEI. With the works, practices and critical commitments brought into dialogue, there was a cumulative sense of the power of these approaches of storytelling. This power is seen in diverse media to anchor and orchestrate a complex constellation of ideas and critical consequence in novel and compelling ways — deliberately not only reaching to new forms and media, but to new public and sites of scholarly engagement.

Freya Grace MacDonald is a Doctoral Fellow at SEI and a PhD candidate in the Department of English at The University of Syndey. Her interdisciplinary PhD research elucidates and explores the relationship between Environmental Imaginaries and contemporary Environmental Fiction in Australia in the wake of the 2019/2020 Black Summer Bushfires.

Jennifer Deger is Professor of Digital Humanities at Charles Darwin University and SEI Visiting Fellow 2021-22. Her work moves between images and words through the intertidal zones of art, anthropology, and environmental humanities. Jennifer has worked on co-creative media projects under Yolŋu leadership for several decades and writes on photography, digital aesthetics, indigenous media, and ethnographic film. She is co-editor of Feral Atlas: the More-than-Human Anthropocene (Stanford University Press, 2021) and co-curated two exhibitions of this project at the Istanbul Biennial and Sharjah Architecture Triennial in 2019.

Header image: Feral Atlas, artwork by Feifei Zhou.

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