Prefigured Networks/Not a Metaphor: The Tree from Chaiten

When asked to contribute an item and text for the Cybernetics Library for a project called 'Field Re-Mediations' at the Queens Museum, I provided a photo (below) of a destroyed tree and a chunk of obsidian. 

This tree stump is located on the rim of an active volcano named Chaiten in Patagonia. It was not known to be a volcano by the contemporary residents until it erupted violently in 2008, prompting the largest evacuation in Chile's history. Upon closer examination, the Chaiten volcano has been nearly continuously active for the past 18,000 years. Resettlement of the town is still ongoing. My current archaeological fieldwork is at a prehistoric rock art cave under this volcano, which abuts a coastline that has witnessed massive sea level rise and tectonic uplift as well as frequent volcanic eruptions during the long span of human use of the landscape. Local residents hope to use the geological heritage represented by the volcano, contemporary ruins of houses destroyed by the 2008 eruption, and the rock art to create a sustainable economic base through tourism. The ruined houses, now conserved by a heritage foundation, are surrounded by new houses under construction. All are directly in the path of the past disaster as well as potential future ones.   

When I took this photo, I knew that I imagined it in black and white even while looking at the multichromatic environment; I was mentally referencing other photos as I chose my framing of the shot. I thought of Ansel Adams and his work with romanticized American landscapes. I thought of Frank Gohlke and his invocation of the sublime through photos of the destruction following the eruption of Mount St. Helens. I thought of Joseph Beuys and his admix of trees and volcanic materials in his work, 7000 Oaks.   

I asked Nick Mirzoeff, a leading figure in visual culture studies, to critique the photo and obsidian piece that I am contributing to accompany it. He responded,  

That’s a great photograph. It prefigures the failure of lived and mediated networks to sustain life in catastrophic conditions. Anthropogenic change appears without visible human agency and so it allows the recourse to the (‘Western’ aka colonial) comforts of the aesthetic. I’d use the obsidian as a black mirror to cut the photo to pieces, whether literally or metaphorically. But decolonization is not a metaphor.... 
— Nicholas Mirzoeff

Environmental disaster is also not a metaphor. We should probably cut this tree to pieces, though the volcano literally already did.  

 photograph taken March 31, 2018 by Karen Holmberg and submitted for curation at the Queens Museum with a piece of obsidian (volcanic glass) 

photograph taken March 31, 2018 by Karen Holmberg and submitted for curation at the Queens Museum with a piece of obsidian (volcanic glass)