Sensing Worlds, a conversation with Jennifer Gabrys

Born in 1988 in Switzerland, Aladin Borioli lives and work between Bevaix, Switzerland, and London. His work borrows methods from anthropology and philosophy and combines them with the practice of art and beekeeping.
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Jennifer Gabrys is Chair in Media, Culture and Environment in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. She leads the Planetary Praxis research group and is Principal Investigator on the ERC-funded project, Smart Forests: Transforming Environments into Social-Political Technologies.
More on Jennifer Gabrys

The following interview took place on the occasion of Apian, an ongoing research project by artist Aladin Borioli that was exhibited at The Photographers' Gallery Eranda Studio from March until June 2022. Apian explores the relationship humans have developed with bees. It consists of a rich variety of research methods and practices including text, photography, video and audio. Although the work is no longer on physical display you can explore Apian's progress and materials online.

Aladin Borioli and Professor Jennifer Gabrys discuss sensing technologies and the challenges of evidence-making in environmental research as well as different ways of perceiving worlds of sensation.

Aladin Borioli

Please could you briefly introduce yourself and tell us a little about your work as a researcher?

Jennifer Gabrys

Sure. My name is Jennifer Gabrys, and I'm a professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. I work primarily on the social study of science and technology focusing on digital media and the environment. I have recently set up a research group called Planetary Praxis, which includes several practice-based projects that concentrate on social, environmental and digital justice, and looks at how digital technologies are potentially changing how people engage with the environment. One of the main projects I'm working on at the moment is a project funded by the European Research Council (ERC) called Smart Forests. The project is looking at the digitalisation of forest environments, primarily to address environmental change. It also considers, quite pluralistically, the different communities that are involved with or affected by these digital technologies, as well as the more-than-human worlds that might be constituted and reconstituted by these technologies.

Aladin Borioli

It seems that today sensing technology is post-optical or post-lenticular and that photography has been outperformed by different sensing devices that are more powerful and more adequate to represent and monitor our environments; far beyond human vision. In this switch from imagery as a sort of outdated anthropocentric technology what role could photography still play in sensing the earth?

Jennifer Gabrys

I should mention, first, that I'm not an expert on photography by any stretch of the imagination. But I'm very influenced by the work of Susan Schuppli, a colleague of mine who has worked on the notion of witnessing, the material witness, and evidentiary techniques.

To go back to your question though, I undertook research in a forest in California where the recurring presence of webcams was really striking as they were quite pervasive. One of the most common technologies in this TESTBED are webcams, even though there are many other types of sensors, robots, soil sensors and sap flow sensors. The webcams in these cases are set up to capture data for 15 minutes every day making time-lapse data sets. They are put inside bird boxes or trained on particular organisms such as looking at moss on a boulder. They are observing and sensing other-than-human organisms and their various relationships to environments. However, it isn’t just the images but also how they join up with temperature data, humidity data, or information about when plants come out. In the case of the Californian forest the webcams are used to generate ecological insights about whether birds are changing their patterns due to climate change or whether creatures like moths undertake different habitats.

Τhe image, therefore, still plays a very particular role in synthesising and joining up the different sensor datasets to be able to better understand ecological worlds as they're changing in relation to climate change. In that sense, photography is not a human-centric technology, although the human is not out of the loop. Different kinds of relationships surface through other ways of operationalising images, which I think is very interesting because it's not the photographer’s framing of a scene - that is a representational scene- but rather the particular configuration of a bird box, a camera, a digital infrastructure, and multiple datasets that are coming together to compose the scene.

And then, there's also the different ways that sensing is mobilised, since many of the technologies that are used for environmental monitoring are also used for environmental extraction. The detection, monitoring and the effort to protect the ecosystems can also be easily flipped into extracting and turning into a resource that could facilitate further cycles of consumption. There's something about environmental monitoring that can sometimes be uncomfortably continuous with practices of extraction.

Τhe image, therefore, still plays a very particular role in synthesising and joining up the different sensor datasets to be able to better understand ecological worlds as they're changing in relation to climate change. In that sense, photography is not a human-centric technology, although the human is not out of the loop.
– Jennifer Gabrys
Aladin Borioli

That leads us to consider the ambiguity of witnessing technologies, which is something photography knows about only too well. Allan Sekula, in The Body and the Archive, rendered evidential photography forever suspect by unveiling its eugenist and racist roots. How can one handle this legacy when such technologies are used in a social or environmental context?

Jennifer Gabrys

I would probably start by asking what are the infrastructures of evidence-making that photography is enrolled in, and mobilising? Perceiving photography as a way of making evidence immediately draws on the social conditions of making facts, the conditions that allow some voices, authors, or photographers, to be recognised as legitimate and able to potentially convert subjects into objects or into evidence. But when further interrogating this idea, it's possible to rethink these infrastructures of evidence as well as evidentiary practices as a way to work toward other kinds of social worlds.

I believe that all of these complex dynamics, being destructive or creative, are hardly going to go away. They should however continue being interrogated in terms of what kinds of evidence-making are underway, who is a witness and what is being witnessed. Susan Schuppli’s work is definitely important in this discussion because the environment actually comes in to influence photography as part of that material witnessing. We could also think about the many ways that people are documenting the pollution of their environment(s) or environmental injustices, and how this is a form of making evidence that potentially interrupts the more authoritative 19th century approaches, underlined by Sekula, to objectifying people that then carried into the 20th century until today.

Of course, these images and this form of image-making is never free from political and social effects. For instance, images will be used to monitor environments when looking for disturbance or change and will be enrolled and entangled with other kinds of data that might be about temperature or humidity or pollution levels, as I mentioned earlier. This is something that I also wrote about in Program Earth in relation to webcam footage and the Deepwater Horizon spill. While this was a webcam set up to monitor the spill and to look at how to repair the leak, it also became a site of public relations. When the camera footage was made public, it itself became a site of social encounter and debate. So I would argue that images don’t work in a singular register. They're being used for environmental monitoring, for corporate PR exercises, for social discussion and debates; which contributes to move beyond representation as the primary function of photography or image-making in general and instead prompt us to think about how images create different operations and how they are enrolled in these different operations in return.

Aladin Borioli

That makes me think that if imagery and vision is still central to environmental monitoring even though so much happens outside of human vision, what happens to that which is out of the frame, to the unsensed?

Jennifer Gabrys

I think this is a really interesting question and it's something that I am in a continuous conversation about with many people. In Program Earth, what I tried to do was to move beyond the idea that there is one total world of sensation. So rather than asking what is unsensed, what I tried to do is ask what is tuned into and how does that make worlds? Let’s take forests as a general example of that train of thought. Trees are seen and valued for their ability to store carbon. However, within Indigenous cosmologies trees and forests have different values and they are understood in different registers. In another way, an other-than-human perspective offers different registers of experience and sensation; for instance, entities like a bird or a fish might experience a forest in a particular way. Consequently, it's less about what is missed by one perspective but rather how sensation and experience constitute different ways of knowing, perceiving and being. I believe that the move forward is to look at how sensing brings worlds into being and makes particular social political engagements possible rather than perceive it as an abstract or trivial differentiation.

By not “sensing” forest spirits as in Indigenous cosmologies, for instance, carbon markets are putting particular worlds into motion that are about the ability of trees to perform primarily as sponges or sinks for consumerist polluting activities. That sets a particular world of sensation in motion, that says: “that's the value of trees”. Extending beyond the unsensed would therefore be to look at the consequences of what it means to be part of these sensory worlds. Ultimately, ways of sensing are also ways of being human. That's perhaps a long-winded way of saying that the unsensed for me is a provocation not to attend to the “real” – this absolute terrain of everything that could possibly be sensible -- but rather to look at how the unsensed is a kind of social, political, ontological, and cosmological distinction about worlds of experience as well as what is missing from these worlds of experience.

Aladin Borioli

Thanks a lot Jennifer!

Born in 1988 in Switzerland, Aladin Borioli lives and work between Bevaix, Switzerland, and London. His work borrows methods from anthropology and philosophy and combines them with the practice of art and beekeeping.
More on Aladin Borioli
Jennifer Gabrys is Chair in Media, Culture and Environment in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. She leads the Planetary Praxis research group and is Principal Investigator on the ERC-funded project, Smart Forests: Transforming Environments into Social-Political Technologies.
More on Jennifer Gabrys

Suggested Citation:

Borioli, A. & Gabrys, J. (2023) 'Sensing Worlds, a conversation with Jennifer Gabrys', The Photographers’ Gallery: Unthinking Photography. Available at: https://unthinking.photography/articles/a-coversation-with-jennifer-gabrys
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