The Natural World – digital nature – critical conversations about nature/culture

A discussion hosted by The British Library – Irini Papadimitriou, joined by Invisible Flock, Cheryl Tipp and Sue Thomas.

IMPORTANT: the recording of the full conversation is only available for a few hours – so please watch it NOW by clicking on image or here.

As an artist and film-maker, interested in our relationship with nature, it raises many issues that trigger big thoughts and questions in my head. I am summarising just a few thoughts here, but really want you to watch this conversation so we can assimilate the thinking and discuss later. And the more demand the recording gets, the more likely they will keep it up online. So click away and come back later!

A few nuggets:

Is there such a thing as ‘real’ nature”?

Before coming to write I made a coffee. As I did so I watched a blackbird drinking water from a plant pot saucer in the garden. I looked up at the sky and the clouds moving past. The wind was rustling the trees, making a sussaration sound.

I would argue that there is real nature – would you?

Are our encounters with nature always mediated and interfered with?

Not in my experience, but they may be for others. And just as with looking at art, each person has a different experience of what they see/encounter, depending on prior knowledge. Example – I have made a film about the materiality of a cliff formed in the Triassic period. Until I researched into it, I did not comprehend the enormity of its time on this earth, its existence. And how shocking it was to me that by merely crumbling some mud-rock in my hand I was collapsing millions of years of time.

Sources of knowledge and experience

Academics are always advised to begin with source texts – as that means you are beginning at the the centre of the thinking. But as Sue points out, writing things down began not so long ago. And writing is, of course, mediated thinking – oral history is more ‘real’ than the written word. But when we read the book we are aware of it as a different thing, it is a book of words.

Similarly, when we watch TV we know that what is presented has gone through a long process of reduction. And what we see is an encounter that is the result of numerous mediations along the line.

Encounters with nature through TV/screens/films

Firstly, when we watch a screen, we are not watching real nature. We are the end users, the expanded audience.

  • 1st audience – camera operator
  • 2nd audience editor/director
  • 3rd audience – programmer
  • 4th audience – the viewer

When we watch tv/or a film, or read a book, are we being presented with real nature?

No, they are cultural products, they are not nature.

When we watch TV, or a play, read a book, we know it is a construct

Every stage of production changes what we see/read. The conversation around aestheticization made me question my own film.

1. An alleged social trend which involves an increasing personal concern with visual displays and/or a growing role for public

This is the Oxford Dictionary definition and I love the way it begins with the term ‘alleged’. That needs discussion! It also refers to it being a ‘social trend’ – as if it should be dismissed because of that. So out goes Attenborough?! It is the terms ‘visual displays’ and ‘growing role for public’ is key to me here.

I am an artist. So I ask myself, am I aestheticizing nature and, if so, is that a problem?

The films I create are definitely visual displays of nature that have been mediated, see above. And they appear to engage people in an emotional way. I don’t knowingly set out to do that, but the passion I feel for my primary encounter with places motivates me to make films. I want to convey my emotional state. I could do a painting, a sketch or write words down to describe what I see. Indeed, in some of my films, I audio-describe things that the viewer can’t see, because I screen a manipulated version of what the camera sees, but not what I, as1st audience, see. I took that notion from the action of audio describing what is on the stage in the theatre, a process devised for visually impaired people.

In the theatre the performers are ‘real’ – living people physically present on a stage. But they are presenting someone else’s creative output. This could get complicated, so get back to my question about aesthetics. Yes, I am a visual artist and the very process of seeing then interpreting is what I do. Is my intention specifically to move people and suggest a growing role for the public? I believe it is an outcome, a leaking of my emotions, transferred through various processes – visual and sound, that collectively move people. And that occurs because what I present triggers association for others. That often surprises me.

Second nature

Is there such a thing? “a tendency or habit that has become characteristic or instinctive.” I feel 2nd nature is a simplistic term for a complex process of thinking and experiencing. I am even dubious about the concept of intuition. Surely all of these things are learned, impacted on by prior knowledge? They are also situational. Together they create an imperative. The imperative drives the public to action. Not the platform itself.

Senses of smell

Writing about smell can evoke smells, so can memories.(prior knowledge). Language connects things, the naming of things. I have only worked with one artist who used scent in his work, and it was wonderful. Bideford Black pigment evolved from ancient fern forests and Sam Treadawy used that knowledge to create his work:


Sam Treadway is exhibiting a scent-based work. A Clearing” is the result of a re-imagining of the origin of the Bideford Black material – Tree Fern forests of the Carboniferous period – via the medium of smell. Subtle variations of this scent composition, based on accords of wood, green, earth and petrichor (produced in collaboration with Clare Rees, Library of Fragrance), and inspired by visits to Bristol Botanic Garden and Kew Gardens, London, are transmitted, via stainless steel drums brimming with Bideford Black, into the gallery space.”

images by Julian Smith

Published by carolyn black

I'm an artist and also commission contemporary art in unusual locations. As a producer, I fundraise, curate, project manage and deliver projects. I'm also a writer and film-maker.

2 thoughts on “The Natural World – digital nature – critical conversations about nature/culture

  1. I enjoyed your examination of the discussion! However, re your claim that ‘oral history is more ‘real’ than the written word’ — does that imply that ‘real’ = ‘true’? Because obviously there are numerous issues with oral history, not least misremembering and deliberate lying. There’s also a sentimentalism attached to the way we receive oral history, as there is with nature, in terms of the human desire to attribute positive and trustworthy qualities to it, simply because it makes us feel good to do that. Exactly like TV nature documentaries.

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  2. well what is ‘real’ or ‘true’ is the work of philosophers and is their reason for existence! What I meant is that before we wrote the word we spoke it. When we transcribe the spoken work we are mediating it. Think Plato/Socrates. Meaning is modified at every point of transcription/interpretation. As I said in my disclaimer, the conversation has holes in it – I wrote it in about 20 minutes! Regards sentimentalism, do you perceive it as a flaw? Isn’t sentimentalism attached to many things in the world? We all experience and perceive the world differently. It is our choice (informed by prior knowledge, what we think we know) as to how we relate to it. You may consider things sentimental that I find very meaningful. I don’t get why TV nature documentaries are so different to anything we see on screen. If you want real nature you go and encounter it in the world. If you want to watch someone else’s interpretation of it, you watch TV. I think the whole concept of the ‘real here is maybe the confusing thing. You can’t conflate real with true, can you?

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