Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski, And the earth sighed, video installation exhibited at Arts House Melbourne as part of Performing Climates, 2016. Image courtesy the artists

Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski: And the earth sighed

Land art is a form of practice that could be seen as slow art, embodying a long-term relationship and response to land and landscape. It embraces longevity and evolution over time and encourages contemplation and stillness. Artists Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski have made this the focus of their work with landscape and have embarked on an approach to life and art that defers to ecological thinking and the environment.

During the 1980s, Starrs and Cmielewski purchased a small piece of de-forested land in Yankalilla, south of Adelaide. Their project was to plant native trees, taking the land back to its original state and encouraging wildlife back onto the land. They spent twelve years, planting over 1,500 trees and slowly witnessed the return of birds and native fauna back to the land. It was also a small contribution to offsetting emissions through planting trees to sequester carbon, help reduce soil salinity and combat wind and water erosion.

This connection to land is continued through their artworks over the last ten years, predominantly focused on video and audio installations, capturing and manipulating images of the landscape to talk about human impact. Works such as Seeker (2007) comprised of three large projections and interactive touchscreen to explore migration, territorial boundaries, conflict commodities and human displacement, while Incompatible Elements (2010) configured the land as active, to imagine it being able to speak and comment.

As an artistic duo, Starrs brings to the partnership her background as a photographer and Cmielewski his skills as an accomplished animator. Their desire is to bring these elements together in a way that encourages a very personal and intimate relationship with the photographic image. They seek to capture imagery of the land and manipulate it so as to bring it to life as a living entity, organism or body.

And the earth sighed is the current iteration of their long term project of imaging and re-imagining landscape. Presented at Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, as part of the PSi22 Performance Climates conference in July 2016, this large-scale audio video installation invites the audience into intimate contact with projected landscapes.

The installation is arranged into two parts. For the first part, the audience are invited to ascend a staircase to a three-metre high platform where they look down on projections of arid land, ocean and Australian scrub. The landscapes are video and photographed aerial views, shot in high resolution from a drone. The audience then move down a second staircase into the installation space, where they can walk across the images, sit with them or lie flat and blend into the projected surface.

Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski, And the earth sighed, video installation, Arts House Melbourne. Image courtesy the artists
Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski, And the earth sighed, video installation, Arts House Melbourne. Image courtesy the artists

The artists are deeply concerned with our human impact on the environment and do not present these images lightly. They are born from long periods of research and residency with scientific agencies, where data has been gathered and lengthy discussions with experts on climate change have informed how the landscaped is filmed, manipulated and represented. Each landscape presented in the work has been chosen for its degree of threat, erosion or irreparable damage and the process of capturing the image is as significant as the final artwork. It is a three-year project which has taken the artists to locations around Australia including Lake Eyre, Lizard Island research station, Great Barrier Reef, Western New South Wales, Western Victoria and the Mallee District.

And the earth sighed is made up of two twelve-minute video projection loops and accompanying soundtrack by Alex Davies. Both video tracks are comprised of imagery, which has been shot by Starrs and Cmielewski with additional photography of the Great Barrier Reef supplied by the Australian Marine Conservation Society. The predominant theme is to explore the tipping points in these ecologies, the point of no return caused by flood, fire, drought and coral bleaching.

The experience is designed as a journey, to initially view the landscapes from a height, followed by a more close-up encounter. Central to creating this immersive experience, Starrs and Cmielewski continued experiments with aerial photography and imaging. They have an ongoing fascination with aerial landscapes, as seen from an aircraft or from a cliff‑top or eyrie as a “god’s eye” view. A long‑distance view that becomes abstract and reduced to shapes and patterns, is followed by a discovery of the detail as a progressively more intimate experience. This relationship with landscape is for the artists an exploration of the concept of “affect”, where the body and mind experiences something before it is more fully comprehended.

The sense of affect is created by manipulating the original footage of the land and seascapes in post-production. As a work about climate change, there is an urgency in the consideration of the rapid destruction of Australian landscapes and reefs and the viewer is confronted with a flood surge over a desert landscape, dead and dying coral or the burnt remains of a bushfire. The soundtrack heightens the sensation of landscape in distress; it is at times eerie and foreboding and at other times a low rumbling scream bubbling below the surface.

The viewer is a witness to the scanning of a body of landscape, like a surgeon scanning flesh to find the right area of skin to make a cut or incision. But instead of blood or tears flowing out from the land, words emerge as if speaking or crying out in anger. From under the surface of the desert landscape the words AS THE DARK FLOOD RISES emerge formed from water. Taken from the D.H. Lawrence poem “The Ship of Death”, this is a powerful poetic phrase that speaks of the deluge to come. Written in 1930, the same year that Lawrence died, it is used by Starrs and Cmielewski as a portentous omen of a dying planet:

And everything is gone, the body is gone
completely under, gone, entirely gone.
The upper darkness is heavy as the lower,
between them the little ship
is gone
she is gone.

It is the end, it is oblivion.

From an Australian landscape, eroded and besieged by noxious weeds, the words THE DESERT OF THE REAL emerge as a quote from Jean Baudrillard spoken by Morpheus in the film The Matrix, as the devastated world is revealed to the protagonist Neo. It is a contemporary reference that speaks to how the human species is deluded, living in a fantasy world, which we believe is real and abundant but actually faces an unknown and uncertain future.

Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski, And the earth sighed, video installation, Arts House Melbourne. Image courtesy the artists

The use of footage taken from a drone is essential to Starrs and Cmielewski’s current project and is an extension of their long-term interest in how military technologies are adopted and adapted into the mainstream. In the words of the artists “… if we think a technology is scary then we want to play with it.” In works such as the short video a.k.a. (2001) they looked at surveillance and CCTV footage and in Trace (2002/2003) explored how governments collect digital data from citizens through means such as “passive recording of people’s presence using simple video surveillance through to forced extraction of biometric data by saliva or tissue sampling.”

For and the earth sighed the artists have worked with two types of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) to capture video and photographic records. The first is a quadcopter, a small helicopter-like video capture device that gathers aerial footage and is freely available to purchase without a licence. The second vehicle is an autonomous fixed-wing drone supplied through project partner C-Astral Systems, an aerospace enterprise and solution provider based in Ajdovscina, Slovenia. Founded by media artist Marko Peljhan, C-Astral extends Peljhan’s interest and research into surveillance, unmanned systems and the conversion of technology from the military to the civilian field.

As a project partner, C-Astral connected Starrs and Cmielewski with another company, Synergy Positioning Systems, based in Queensland and New Zealand) to provide both the UAV drone system and a pilot. The advantage of using the drone is that it can be programmed to fly for up to two hours taking multiple high-resolution images. The quadcopter is very versatile and easy to use, but can only carry a small camera or go-pro resulting in limited low-resolution imagery. In contrast, the drone is operated by a pilot who instructs the aircraft to take high-res image scans of the same area of landscape, creating a dense and layered image which the artists can control in the post-production phase.

With their interest in aerial photography, Starrs and Cmielewski bring home the everyday consumption and normalisation of the earth viewed from above. The Google project, to capture natural and built environments in 3D as maps and satellite imaging, makes the world continually available through technologies that have been developed and perfected by the military. Starrs and Cmielewski take these technologies and turn them back on us. Those tools that are now so familiar in opening up the world to us also cause us to be implicated in its destruction.

In the installation environment, the drone imagery is a rich and living surface, which provides a hypnotic spectre for the audience. The work is at the same time beautiful and dark, immersing the audience in familiar Australian landscapes. Yet we are not innocent bystanders; we are all witness to and implicated in the catastrophe of coral bleaching, soil erosion, shifting shorelines and prolonged floods and droughts. And the earth sighed imagines how the land and ocean itself might respond to this; it is perhaps a sigh of consternation, a sigh of sadness, or of knowledge about what is to come as the human species consumes the future.

Josephine Starrs with the C-astral drone. Photo: Leon Cmielewski


And the earth sighed by Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski premiered at Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, 6–10 July 2016.

Julianne Pierce is an independent writer and producer based in Adelaide and is a director of the creative arts company Art Engineers.