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Farewell to Wetlands
Genady Arkhipau in conversation with Rita Macedo

Film still from farewell recording for an observer of an unknown time and place, © Rita Macedo

 

Film still from farewell recording for an observer of an unknown time and place, © Rita Macedo

Asteroid terrarium infrastructure. Film still from farewell recording for an observer of an unknown time and place, ©Rita Macedo

 

Asteroid terrarium infrastructure. Film still from farewell recording for an observer of an unknown time and place, © Rita Macedo

Invasive landscape. Film still from farewell recording for an observer of an unknown time and place, ©Rita Macedo

Invasive landscape. Film still from farewell recording for an observer of an unknown time and place,
© Rita Macedo

© Rita Macedo

© Rita Macedo

On December 6th, 2023 the climate conference “Kunst im Klimanotstand” was held at the University of Art Braunschweig. One of the participants – artist and filmmaker Rita Macedo –presented her short film farewell recording for an observer of an unknown time and place. In the QA session after the screening with Martin Krenn and a conversation with Genady Arkhipau Macedo spoke about her film and the role contemporary art and different art media have in climate activism.

Described on the artist’s website as “part speculative history of the future, part world building rendering, an essayistic digression on capitalism, environment, technology and death”, the film addresses the rise of a new mental health condition similar to dissociative trauma response, that affects people “in a world on the verge of ecological collapse, in which first-hand experience is replaced by a mediated alternative to physical presence”.

The story is set in the future where the world is confronted with the severe consequences of climate change and the ensuing loss of natural environment and biodiversity is mitigated through realistic visual simulations. The narrator in the film is responsible for rendering and systemizing such virtual experiences, specifically – of the wetland environment. Scenery of seashore landscapes therefore occupies a central role in the work.

Coastal wetlands are a very important type of environment – one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems that according to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands “provide the water and productivity upon which countless species of plants and animals depend for survival. Wetlands are indispensable for the countless benefits or ‘ecosystem services’ that they provide humanity, ranging from freshwater supply, food and building materials, and biodiversity, to flood control, groundwater recharge, and climate change mitigation”[1]. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) reports an alarming loss of wetland area and quality decline in most regions of the world. In the past 300 years, we have experienced an 87% loss of this type of ecosystem, and a 54% loss since 1900[2].

In the QA session after the screening Macedo emphasized the importance of wetlands in maintaining animal diversity, preventing coastal erosion and capturing and storing CO2; and  consequences of the decline of wetland areas around the world due to human activity. In the film, the loss of land and natural environment leads to a rise of a health condition known as invasive landscape phenomenon, which could be seen “as a speculative kind of collective manifestation to this trauma of loss of unmediated relationship to the natural world”.

Macedo has a personal connection to the wetland environment. Her family lives in southern Portugal near Ria Formosa –

a protected coastal wetland and a Ramsar site – and she has always been fascinated by the liminality of such ecosystems. Macedo said: “It's not really water, it's not really sea, but it is also not land. So it's this in-between liminal space”.

 

Inspiration for the film came from various sources, one of them is the book “How to Make a Wetland” by Caterina Scaramelli.

In it, the author refers to wetlands as semantic sponges. Macedo finds this metaphor fitting “because of their many uses and the many meanings that are imprinted onto them. Wetlands not only retain carbon dioxide, they host a very diverse amount of fauna and flora. They are natural water quality improvers and help against coastal erosion. Also, there is human use: making new territory for agriculture, for animal grazing, for infrastructural projects like water diversion, etc. So they kind of assume the meaning they carry based on the usage they are given”.

Other sources of inspiration came from filmmaker and performance artist TJ Cuthand, Forensic Architecture and the film theoretician and cultural critic T.J. Demos, whose last book “Radical Futurisms” deals with similar issues shown in the work: “It frames the climate crisis in this intersectional way, which I think is important for the film. I actually read his book after I finished the film, but then I was mind-blown by some parallels that were there. And he really also,

I think, refers to this kind of the technological solutions to climate change as something that is presented as the solution, but does nothing in any way to disrupt or change the dominant economic system”, said Macedo. 

“Technofixes” are another prominent topic featured in the film. Macedo writes in the work description: “The past spills into the present and future in continuities that are built upon hegemonic structures and familiar dynamics of discourse co-opting unceasingly in effect within scenarios of late capitalism ideology. Within this context, any hopes previously placed in technology have long been shattered, as technofixes, such as terraformed asteroids, have revealed themselves to be materializations of complete colonization”.

A number of such scenarios are actually in development today. Intellectual Ventures Lab patented several geo-engineering ideas as means to curb global temperature rise. One of the methods proposed by the company is the stratospheric aerosol injection[3] – creating an artificial volcanic winter by releasing aerosols into the atmosphere to dim the incoming sunlight. Other proposed ways to manage solar radiation are marine cloud brightening[4] (artificial whitening of the clouds to increase their light reflectivity), cirrus cloud thinning[5] to reduce the absorption of heat coming from the sun and various space-based light-obstructing solutions like polymeric film structures, lenses, or nanotubes that in theory could help block 1.8-2 percent of sunlight reaching Earth[6].

Macedo thinks that although in the film the asteroid terrarium infrastructure is not a real solution and more of a resource extraction project disguised as one, in real life “technofix” proposals should not be completely discarded: “Geo-engineering or technical solutions definitely have a role to play ... but it’s problematic to just put the solution in these technical things”.

Macedo’s earlier film weeks of sand, months of ash, years of dust also touches issues of resource extraction and land reclamation. It is set in Macao – a former Portuguese colony – and compares the excessively mined sandy beaches to “instability of a presently self-erasing memory”. Land reclamation in particular is a serious threat to wetland ecosystems. According to the book “Marine Ecotoxicology” which analyzes the influence of human activity on sea environments – “marine habitats are permanently lost where land is reclaimed from the sea. It is estimated that nearly 51% of coastal wetlands in China have been lost due to land reclamation”[7].

Another theme related to climate change is the phenomenon of invasive landscapes. “So the idea behind the concept of the invasive landscape is exactly this discourse on invasive species, which is very deeply connected to climate change. We think of these things as existing within ecosystems, within landscapes, but in this case, the landscape itself becomes invasive”. Macedo said the phenomenon is a mystery and could be thought of as a way for a landscape to obtain agency, (instead of just serving as a passive backdrop to human activity), causing a collective illness – a “revenge of the landscape”.

The invasive landscape phenomenon is partially based on trauma-related dissociation and is also modeled after episodes of mass hysteria, like dancing plagues or laughter epidemic. “So what is common about this, let's say, mass hysteria phenomena is that they emerge in times of crisis, they emerge in times of desolation, of loss, of desperation. And so the invasive landscape is also a bit modeled after that. It's left ambiguous, but one interpretation could be that it's a consequence of the loss of unmediated relationship to nature”. 

The film won the Jury Award in the German Competition at the 39th Kurzfilm Festival Hamburg. The problem with time-based media going through a festival run, is that it could last up to two years, during which it generally is not accessible to a wider audience outside the festival-going circle. And in the case of films tackling global issues festival showings are often akin to preaching to the choir.

Macedo acknowledged there are pitfalls in the film festival system, limitations to time-based media in general, and that other art practices like activist art or research by Forensic Architecture may have more agency in enacting change. Regarding her preferred technique, she said: “It's also my medium. It is the one I feel more comfortable with. I like the fact that it's very discursive and that it has duration ... and that you can structure it similarly to how thought processes go”.

The contemporary art world is not exempt from structural problems and biases. Speaking of the issue Macedo pointed out that “contemporary art and art in general is not outside of the world. It is impossible to articulate and think about it without considering the complex interplay of historical, economic and social factors that make up the present. So, yes, there are many aspects that are elitist, classist, exclusive and that reproduce biases, be they in regard to class, gender, race, and so on. That being said, there are also many artists, cultural workers, curators, writers, spaces and institutions, producing, curating, writing and showing meaningful positions and concepts that bring into question the above mentioned categories and their hegemonic structural functions”. She cited as examples campaigns within the industry by Nan Goldin against museums accepting donations from Sackler Family and protests by Decolonize This Place group that led to the removal of New York's Whitney American Museum of Art trustee tied to chemical weapons trade.

Macedo believes it is important “not to give into a sense of cultural nihilism, even though I admit that this is something I often have a hard time with myself. But I find that coming across works that question, rethink and subvert the understanding of what it is to be in the world, works that propose radical re-imaginings of past, present, future can be a source of inspiration and allow for a less defeatist worldview”.

Rita Macedo is a filmmaker and video artist based in Berlin. Fascinated by the poetic affinity between moving images and fluxes of thought, Macedo’s works often operate within the realm of documentary and speculative fiction, with a focus on meaning, memory and history. Her films have been shown at numerous festivals[8]. Macedo studied film and video in Lisbon and experimental film at UDK Berlin. Since 2018 she has worked as a Film and Video instructor at the HBK Braunschweig’s Fine Art Institute.

Genady Arkhipau is a Fine Art and Art Mediation student at the Braunschweig University of Art.

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[1] Ramsar Convention webpage. https://www.ramsar.org/about/our-mission/importance-wetlands

[2] IPBES media release.

https://www.ipbes.net/news/media-release-worsening-worldwide-land-degradation-now-%E2%80%98critical%E2%80%99-undermining-well-being-32

[3] The Stratospheric Shield Whitepaper. http://web.archive.org/web/20140107002554/https://intellectualventureslab.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/Stratoshield-white-paper-300dpi.pdf

[4] David Keith Research Group. https://keith.seas.harvard.edu/marine-cloud-brightening

[5] Tully, Colin / Neubauer, David / Omanovic, Nadja / Lohmann, Ulrike, 2021

A climate engineering dead end? AGU Fall Meeting 2021, held in New Orleans, LA, 13-17 December 2021, id. GC31A-08.

https://ui.adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2021AGUFMGC31A..08T/abstract

[6] Newcomb, Tim, Jul 07, 2022. MIT Scientists Propose ‘Space Bubbles’ to Deflect Solar Radiation, Ease Climate Change. Popular Mechanics Exclusives. https://www.popularmechanics.com/space/a40486004/space-bubbles-climate-change/

[7]  Stauber, J.L. / Chariton, A / Apte, S, 2016. Global Change: Land Reclamation. In: Julián Blasco / Peter M. Chapman / Olivia Campana / Miriam Hampel. Marine Ecotoxicology: Current Knowledge and Future Issues. P. 273-313. Academic Press.  https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/earth-and-planetary-sciences/land-reclamation#:~:text=Marine%20habitats%20are%20permanently%20lost,sand%20dunes%20or%20freshwater%20bodies .

[8] Rita Macedo’s official website.
https://ritamacedo.org/farewell-recording/

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