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 Research

 

Siobhan Angus is an interdisciplinary scholar whose work bridges art history, the environmental humanities, settler colonial studies, and the history of capitalism and labor. Specializing in the history of photography, her current research explores the visual culture of resource extraction with a focus on materiality, perceptions of nature, and environmental justice. Her scholarship also engages with temporality and scale in the geological turn, toxicity in contemporary art, and the visual cultures of capitalism. Analyzing the complex relationship between art, science, and industry, she considers how raw materials are transformed into the material foundations for art and architecture, and how, paradoxically, art helps us make sense of these processes.

Her book, Camera Geologica (forthcoming, Duke University Press), advances an eco-critical reading of photography to consider the material links between resource extraction and photography. At the root of the book is a simple premise: that the mine is a necessary precondition for photography as a medium. At various points in photography’s history, different materials have been extracted from the earth to facilitate image-making. Camera Geologica focuses on six: bitumen, silver, platinum, iron, uranium, and rare earth minerals.  Tracing the transnational links between extractive regions, case studies include South Africa's platinum mines, South America’s silver deposits, uranium in Germany's Ore Mountains, and Pennsylvania’s steel industry, amongst other sites. This project places early photography by Nicéphore Niépce, Sir John Herschel, Wilhelm Röntgen, Carleton Watkins, William Rau, and Anna Atkins into dialogue with contemporary artists such as Warren Cariou, Tsema Igharas, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Simon Starling, and Will Wilson who are retrieving historical photographic methods to document and critique extraction.  A focus on mining enacts a reorientation of vision that directs our attention to deep time, situating cultural production in a longer historical trajectory that draws into view the connective tissue between materials, labor, geology, empire, colonization, and vision. Connecting photography to its material foundations in mining directly links questions of environmental justice to art. This research makes materials, and the consequences of their extraction, visible. Materials bring histories, both symbolic and concrete, into the everyday. Once set in the photograph, they create meaning and become a critical tool for helping us make sense of the world. As such, photographs are a powerful means to illuminate, and attempt to redress, ecological catastrophe in the present. 

Her award-winning dissertation analyzes the visual culture of resource extraction in Canada through a micro-history of a silver mining region in Canada, where silver was discovered the same year that Eastman Kodak Company released the Brownie camera. The explosion of amateur photography facilitated by the Brownie camera stimulated the demand for silver and EKC invested in the region. Following the decline of industry, the region became an important site of wilderness landscape painting, which erased the presence of Indigenous nations and hid the environmental costs of mining for both people and ecosystems. Placing landscape painting by David Milne, Yvonne Mckague Housser, and A.Y. Jackson into dialogue with archival photographs from the Geological Survey of Canada as well as corporate, community, and family archives, she explores the role of the visual archive in shaping cultural understandings of resource extraction. While climate change is a hyperobject that confounds understanding, the politics of exploiting and protecting the earth happen at local levels. Through a case study of a community that experienced environmental catastrophe driven by extractive capitalism, she traces some of the historical choices that have shaped our current moment while locating valuable lessons about resilience in the face of ecological breakdown. This research has been published in Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art, Radical History Review, and Capitalism and the Camera (Verso, 2021). Angus has also written about shan-shui ink and brush painting; the Argentine-Canadian artist Dana Prieto’s ceramics made with soil gathered from territories surrounding mining sites; as well as settler colonialism, perception, and energy transition in the Athabasca Tar Sands.

 

According to a recent United Nations report, resource extraction is a primary driver of global climate change, responsible for half of the world’s carbon emissions and more than 80% of biodiversity loss. Despite widespread narratives of dematerialization, rates of extraction are increasing by 3.2% a year. A structural analysis that considers who and what is being over-extracted from is necessary to address the urgent challenges of the present. To address the environmental and ethical challenges of our present, these are histories that we need to know and futures that we need to imagine.

 

Image Caption: Carleton Watkins, Malakoff Diggins, North Bloomfield, Nevada County, 1871. Albumen print. 39.3 x 54.8 cm (15 1/2 x 21 9/16 in.) National Gallery of Art, Patrons' Permanent Fund. 1995.36.128.