An interview with Jennifer Deger
Our guest this week is Jennifer Deger, Associate Professor in the College of Arts, Society & Education at James Cook University, Cairns. Jennifer works at the intersection of art and anthropology. She writes on photography, aesthetics, film, contemporary Aboriginal societies, digital culture, art and ethnographic film, and experimental museology. Originally trained as a radio and television producer, Jennifer has worked on collaborative and experimental media projects with Yolngu from Northeast Arnhem Land for more than twenty years. Out of these projects, she has written widely on Indigenous aesthetics, film, art and photography, including in her book Shimmering Screens: Making Media in an Aboriginal Community (University of Minnesota Press, 2006). As a founding member of Miyarrka Media, a collective based in the community of Gapuwiyak, Northern Territory, Jennifer's practice-led research claims creativity as a critical mode of social engagement and analysis. In collaboration with her Yolngu colleagues from Miyarrka Media, she has co-directed several award-winning films and co-curated experimental installations and exhibitions in Europe, the US and Australia. Miyarrka Media’s co-authored and co-designed book Phone & Spear: a Yuta Anthropology (Goldsmiths Press 2019) was awarded the Gregory Bateson Book Prize in 2020. Together with Anna Tsing, Alder Keleman-Saxena, and Feifei Zho, Jennifer is also co-curator of Feral Atlas, an interactive, web-based experiment in environmental storytelling that combines art, science, and humanities perspectives to reveal the non-designed effects of human infrastructure projects. In 2019 Jennifer co-curated exhibitions of Feral Atlas at the Istanbul Biennial and Sharjah Architecture Triennial with visual anthropologist, Victoria Baskin Coffey.
Hello, Jennifer, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. Could you tell us how you came to be interested in the intersections of art and anthropology, and how these themes relate in your more recent work on more-than-human worlds in the Anthropocene?
Thanks for inviting me Sophie! I’m a huge fan of the space you are curating here.
Your question goes to the heart of everything I care about these days. I’ve been making co-creative media projects with Yolngu in northern Australia for a long time. This way of working has provided wonderful grounding not only in the appreciation of more-than-human-worlds, but in considering what it takes to creatively participate in them—and, indeed, in what it might take to enliven them. Our recent book, Phone & Spear: a Yuta Anthropology, for instance, is a formal experiment with making a book that hums, the play of form and content designed in tune with a Yolngu poetics of resonance and attraction that links quite directly to bees, honey, and hives.
So while I began my anthropological career very much with a political orientation to working with an ethos of “black hands only on cameras”, over time my Yolngu friends encouraged me to get involved creatively. Over the years they’ve helped me to appreciate that an artful combining of sounds, images, and stories offers a chance to co-create an anthropology that functions as a kind of participatory poeisis, a more-than-textual form of social analysis that hums along with the worlds it is committed to exploring, evoking, and bringing into relationship. That’s the aim anyhow!
This critical commitment to situated play and experimentation—albeit always carefully considered with, and authorized by, my collaborators who are brilliant at finding new means by which to reinforce social values and ways of seeing of a distinctly different register to that of mainstream Australia—has totally changed my appreciation of what anthropology can be. And what forms it can take. These insights are the foundations for the yuta, or new, anthropology that we performatively argue for our book.
Yuta anthropology is totally in step with recent scholarship on more-than-human and, indeed, non-secular Anthropocene. Miyarrka Media’s new project is called Rangingur: a Yolngu digital art of renewal. It’s about beach-based belongings, care, and distress, motivated by singing sands in Arnhem Land choking in plastic. We’re aiming to make a website that will do ritual work for coastal futures.
Feral Atlas, is another, very different recent collaboration—an online transdisciplinary experiment in telling terrible environmental stories—that also works to give new form to our discipline’s commitments to knowing otherwise. I’ve been so lucky to work with a fantastic team alongside the incredible Anna Tsing. Our hope in Feral Atlas is that the use of artful methods, which includes holding space for art and poetry alongside science and social science, has enabled us to undertake a more-than-human account of the Anthropocene that adds up to something more than a big pile of bad news.
You currently head the Creative Ecologies research theme at The Cairns Institute. Could you explain what you understand by “creative ecologies” and whether or how inter-disciplinarity figures in the kind of research that you and your colleagues are undertaking towards this theme?
Good question. The term is intended as an open-ended enticement to transdisciplinary collaboration, especially in a university renowned for its research strengths in environmental science. When I came to James Cook University I had big ambitions in that direction. It seemed to me that this would be the perfect place to encourage a flourishing of collaboration across the usual disciplinary silos, energized by a shared concern with our current environmental crisis. What I’ve learned that it’s not so easy to find shared ground epistemologically. Many scientists are looking for people to communicate their research to a wider public. But it’s much harder to find collaborators who see value in creative practice as a generative aspect of a shared analytic endeavour — and as a way of giving form to new kinds of public scholarship.
In 2019, I co-curated exhibitions at the Istanbul Biennial and the Sharjah Architecture
Triennial with Victoria Baskin Coffey, the visual editor of Feral Atlas. There we used
select materials from Feral Atlas to create what I thought of at the time as a kind of
transdisciplinary song of the Anthropocene. What worked in these shows, I think, was
bringing science, social science, and Indigenous and non-Indigenous art into a generative
relationship through a careful kind of juxtaposition, a curatorial approach that gathered
up other people’s existing work to tell a new kind of collective story across the exhibition
space. To this end, we designed with a rhythmic attention to relationships made possible
through image, sound, and story. The contributions from various members of the Feral
Atlas Collective were arranged in such a way that each field report stood on its own terms
in its own space, but when encountered one after another, they revealed unexpected
connections—and so cumulatively gave form to our underlying analytic argument about
the ways that certain human infrastructure projects shape the Anthropocene. This should all
make more sense when you read the answer to the next question.
You are a co-curator of Feral Atlas, an online/interactive platform for scientific research into and research dissemination about feral entities and feral dynamics in the Anthropocene. What, in your view, makes the notion of ferality good to think with in an Anthropocenic context, and what have you learned about more-than-human worlds in the process of curating Feral Atlas?
Starting with a notion of ferality led us to appreciate the intertwining of human and non-human histories in unexpected ways and places. I should stress that we do not take ferality itself as necessarily bad. Our emphasis is rather on the ways in which imperial and industrial human infrastructural processes carelessly encourage new kinds of proliferations, with often devastating effects. In fact, I would say it was the feral entities that were good to think with, rather than ferality as an abstractable concept. From marine plastics, radioactive blueberries, carbon dioxide, coronavirus, jellyfish polyps, underwater noise, and cane toads … each new entity we identified announced the scale and site of investigation and the historical and infrastructural configurations that allowed us to see patterns and so to playfully create categories with which we link different fieldworks across the site. (I say playful because we wanted our categories to be suggestive rather than prescriptive, to enact a kind of propositional improvisation, rather than imposing a definitive set of analytic terms.)
Each different feral entity brought specific kinds of material processes into view, allowing us to produce a distinctive mapping of Anthropocene processes; an atlas of maps and field reports that refuse the mastering logics and assumptions of the kinds of imperial and industrial landscape modification projects that we critique. In this way, we made an atlas that shows, over and over, the Anthropocene taking form in multiple scales and temporalities; an atlas that wilfully pushes past the an atlas that wilfully pushes past the territorializing agenda of modernist cartography. The feral entities serve then as the analytic agents of the atlas. In the design of the site, it’s the feral entities that lead users across the atlas, teaching us to recognize the infrastructurally mediated flows and blockages through which the Anthropocene takes form, reducing the liveability of our shared more-than-human worlds.
Finally, Jennifer, what advice would you give to scholars interested in studying more-than-human worlds?
My work with Yolngu has taught me to value the kinds of understandings and connections that become available through slow sensing. I’ve had to teach myself not to be too hard on myself for not understanding the first, or second, or third time… I’m a super slow learner—the pennies seem to take their time to drop!—so I am especially grateful for the iterative accretions of understanding and opportunity that spending my entire career in one place with extremely patient and generous people has enabled. It’s a bit out of fashion, this emphasis on long term fieldwork. It’s certainly hard to maintain as our lives roll on and other demands take over or, as you know only too well Sophie, when political commitments eventually make it impossible to return to our original field sites and the friends we left behind. But in my own case, where I have been incredibly fortunate to return for several decades now, I can’t emphasize enough the rewards of a commitment to long-term fieldwork and relationships. Because it is exactly this ‘old fashioned’ commitment that has transformed my sense of what anthropology can and should be, even as I venture into collaborations far beyond Arnhem Land - and, of course, as new and devastating threats to the multi-species Anthropocene worlds that I share with my Yolngu colleagues come ever-closer into view, demanding new thinking and action of us all.
"Over the years [my Yolngu friends have] helped me to appreciate that an artful combining of sounds, images, and stories offers a chance to co-create an anthropology that functions as a kind of participatory poeisis, a more-than-textual form of social analysis that hums along with the worlds it is committed to exploring, evoking, and bringing into relationship."
"In the design of [Feral Atlas], it’s the feral entities that lead users across the atlas, teaching us to recognise the infrastructurally mediated flows and blockages through which the Anthropocene takes form, reducing the liveability of our shared more-than-human worlds."