Q&A February

A monthly Digest feature celebrating 20 years of ANAT Synapse, where we ask an ANAT Synapse alumnus about their place within the art + science + technology network.

Keith Armstrong @ AWC Scotia Sanctuary, NSW, 2012. Photo Courtesy of Australian Wildlife Conservancy.

Keith Armstrong

Keith Armstrong (b.1965) is an experimental artist profoundly motivated by issues of social and ecological justice. His engaged, participative practices provoke audiences to comprehend, envisage, and imagine collective pathways towards sustainable futures. His collaborative, experimental practices emphasise, site-specific electronic arts, networked interactive installations, art-science collaborations and socially and ecologically engaged practices.

Tell us about your ANAT Synapse residency and where the research led you?
My 2012 ANAT Synapse residency with the AWC (Australian Wildlife Conservancy) initiated what has since developed into a longstanding passion for Art-Eco-Science field collaborations and the artworks that they can foster. The AWC residency was organised around six key trips/expeditions (between a week to a month each) to some of their most remote sanctuaries – with the focus of the residency being reintroduction (of lost ecological species) and the methods and approaches of scientific surveying used to assess the health of each site. Whilst the residency was particularly process-based, it did later eventuate in a major media work for the Mildura Triennial in 2013.

Field Survey, The Re-introduction Project, ANAT Synapse residency. Photo Keith Armstrong, courtesy of AWC.

I was well aware at that time that Australia has the world’s worst mammal extinction record. Science-based conservation groups like the AWC offer leadership in private/public conservation practices and they have pioneered largescale translocation and reintroductions of rare animals back into areas they formerly occupied. The AWC’s mission is to effectively conserve Australian native animal species and the types of habitats in which they live. They own, manage, or influence more land for conservation than any other non-government conservation organisation in Australia, with sanctuaries and partnership sites located in iconic regions across Indigenous lands in the Kimberley, Central Australia, Cape York, Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre, Kangaroo Island, and the southwestern forests. AWC scientists undertake regular fauna surveys across all of the properties to keep an inventory of species to assess progress and encourage more support. Whilst AWC are not a First Nations led organisation, they conduct their on-ground conservation and management work in close collaboration with local traditional owners, sharing knowledges to co-develop ‘right-way science’

For each of the 6 expeditions I situated myself both as an artist/observer/practitioner and also as a volunteer field research assistant. This involved all sorts of animal locating, trapping and handling, data logging – often working through many a long night given the nocturnal nature of most of our continent’s unique mammals.  Carefully handling and engaging with amazing creatures I barely knew such as bilbies, woylies or boodies was quite an experience! This decision to ‘get my hands dirty’ (often quite dirty!) meant that the scientists immediately accepted me amongst their tightly knitted survey/science teams and slowly got to comprehend what I was ‘doing’ – and therefore how they might also engage with my research. Through subsequent conversation and on ground activities they soon began to offer me invaluable support and an unparalleled opportunity to learn how ecological scientists see and sense the world, and the contexts within which they make their decisions.

During and in between these surveys I also conducted a broad range of creative experiments at each site, normally in interaction with the evolving science processes – which led for example for me to conduct playful surveys of my own with the science teams as we worked. Many of these speculative materials from the Re-introduction Project formed the basis of an interactive installation called Pitfall presented after the residency had been completed as part of the 2013 Mildura Triennial (relatively close to the AWC HQ at Scotia Sanctuary in Western NSW). The work went on to inform the work Nightfall which was shown in the ISEA 2013, Synapse A Selection survey.

As an interdisciplinary artist, who and what are your biggest influences?
I’d say my biggest influences are the ecological scientists that I’ve been privileged to work with – for example amazing scientists who worked at the AWC such as Dr. Matt Hayward, Dr Leah Kemp, Felicity L’Hotellier, Cameron Radford and Joe Stephens.  It can’t be ignored that much science is, or has been, heavily complicit in the ecocidal unfolding of Capitalism; and even conservation scientists often struggle to find funding for work that is of net positive for the planet So the reason I’ve focussed my art-science collaborations with ecological scientists like those at the AWC (i.e. conservation/re-wilding/regeneration) is because I’ve found that our political and cultural intentions align well. And science practices alone can’t assure the future of any ecosystem. Many disciplines need to get involved in that struggle – which includes to shifting hearts and minds. To tackle these wicked problems, I strongly believe that we need to imagine and build responsive ‘shared communities of care’ built on trust and common purpose that span the arts, sciences and other disciplines – engaging diverse communities and cultures (especially First Nations).  As artists we also have the opportunity to focus our creative interventions in ways that may be too ‘difficult’, ‘charged’, or ‘sensitive’ for the scientists to take on themselves – and developing such works can therefore become important tactics for engaging cultural and political challenges at the intersection of life, science, and art.

What is the biggest challenge of being an artist?
The challenge of making art over the long term (apart from the uncertainties of such a precarious career path) is sustaining the belief and passion in the work we do. To go the long haul, I think it really helps to believe that our work can actively contribute in some way, (albeit modestly) to creating better futures for both human and non-humans. Becoming paralysed by fear and negativity isn’t a long-term option (although some grieving is necessary). This invites me, as an artist, to take on a position of ‘active optimism’ (i.e. an optimism that is based around well-considered, impactful ‘action’). To survive we need to envisage better futures – and develop related creative approaches that will move us towards that vision (in whatever way that makes sense). Taking that stance (most of the time) gives me the inspiration and energy needed to keep going! Yes, the problems we face can seem intense and often overwhelming, but I endeavour to remember that massive changes have already been made and are afoot everywhere as we speak. (See the Future Crunch project in this regard). In a similar vein Data Scientist Hannah Ritchie reminds us that we can and should hold opposite beliefs when we work – i.e. that the world is in deep trouble, and yet that the world is getting better, and that the world can be much better still. (As she says in her work – every degree (of global warming) is worth fighting against!).

Artists are pretty good at ambiguity after all. So maybe our challenge is also to go beyond only making work ‘about’ pressing issues (arguably a less active position) and instead increasingly adopt approaches like the Serpentine Gallery’s General Ecology project whose multiple commissions were setup as both artworks and ‘campaigns’.. .an arguably more active stance. ‘Active hope’, I believe, propels us to get better at an ‘active’ way of practicing – and the changes that we envisage can then even become a part of the artwork (as in socially and (by extension) ecologically engaged practices).  This is probably the biggest challenge I feel today – and something that I’ve definitely been working on in recent projects!

Untitled [grass study 003], Donna Davis, 2022, digital media. Image courtesy of the artist.

What kind of mentor-mentee relationships have you experienced throughout your years of practice? Is there any particular mentor or mentee that stood out for you?
I’ve always known that there are such ‘angel investors’ out there – whom you happen to meet – and who change anything for you. I personally haven’t experienced any one person like that.

To be honest in the earlier years, working in what we used to call electronic arts it was a bit of an outsider position anyway, and so a lot of self-learning and direction went on. Historically I’ve attended ANAT Summer schools, like reSkin :: COMPUTER COUTURE LAB in 2007 and the web-based masterclass Perth in 2009, that were led by amazing mentors – and other national multi week workshop events like Time Place Space (that ANAT grants helped me to get to) – events with amazing facilitators where I made lifelong friends who remain significant peers. But, instead of singling anyone out, I’d actually like to shout out to all of the innumerable people (and critically the innumerable nonhumans) who have been directly or indirectly generous and open, or have assisted the projects/teams that I’ve led over the last several decades: for their sincere believing in the need for those projects as much as I did. Those rich relationships almost always emerged from engaging with problems in the world – and then finding, listening to, and then working with those who together were interested and able to engage in temporary, or longer term, communities of care. A massive shout out to all those angels.

What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve been leading a big collaborative, interdisciplinary project called Carbon_Dating since 2019 that has sought to shift public relationships with, and build care and support for, Australian native grasses.  The project is both a campaign and a socially and ecologically engaged artwork – that has also led participants to each build tiny grasslands as an example of the future changes we wish to inspire. Believe it or not grasses and grasslands are under serious threat in Australia, with introduced species vastly outcompeting them. So we worked with five communities, and diverse artists from First Nations and settler communities – who then set out to actually grow native grasses and see what they could learn from their experiences. Our aim was to develop local ‘campaigns’ that would encourage the growth of collective communities of care (for native grasses and grasslands). To do this we drew upon techniques of media art, visual art, performance, and relational art, and concluded with a First Nations led Yarning Circle to share our outcomes – which then led to commissions for all of the many artists involved. We’ve now been funded for the next 2 years to tour an exhibition of the outcomes to 7 galleries around Qld – and hopefully later to other states. I am also starting up a new project called Forest Art Intelligence (FAI) which takes this idea of on ground action and art to a new level  – which I will announce soon ☺