Earth-Specific Art: Phenomenology and the Digital Cinema of Peter Bo Rappmund
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Earth-Specific Art:
Phenomenology and the Digital Cinema of Peter Bo Rappmund

Is it possible to speak of the Earth as a site? If so, would some kinds of site-specific art be specific to the Earth, as Earth-specific? One may immediately object to such questions on the grounds that no art has been produced on any other known planet—even if art does in some instances exist beyond the Earth.1 Even without the benefit of possible empirical comparison, the speculative question of Earth-specific art gains urgency as an unthought legacy of site-specific aesthetics going back at least to Robert Smithson's iconic Spiral Jetty (1970). Requiring helicopters, film, and photography to view and experience, Spiral Jetty remains inseparable from the media technologies employed in its documentation and representation.2 More fundamentally, Spiral Jetty broaches the question of whether site specificity itself is a function of a work's relation to human cognition and perception. Addressed less to human individuals than to the weather, to deep time, and to the affordances of technological mediation beyond direct experience, Spiral Jetty tests the limits of aesthetic experience for the multiple ways it evokes a sense of the Earth as at least partially not for us. Today, this legacy of indifference to the human that underlies some forms of site-specific aesthetics looms even larger, especially at the intersection of media theory and eco-aesthetics. [End Page 579]

Today, while human action has never been more powerful or pervasive, it also has never seemed so impotent and irrelevant. For example, while current discourse about the Anthropocene affirms the power of human action, it also calls into question or even denies the possibility of our meaningfully intervening in global climate change.3 In digital media studies, the advent of "ubiquitous computing" instantiated by wireless networks, GPS, RFID, and environmental sensors has likewise occasioned serious reflection on the limits of human agency, especially now that computation and nonhuman cognition pervade the environment. The very phrase "in the cloud" reveals how much human cognition and labor have been outsourced to distributed and automated computational processes working beyond direct perception. For much of contemporary media theory, human agency vanishes against a too-big or overly comprehensive scale of analysis: the totality of networks, the "standardization of space," the "movement of computation out of the box and into the environment," the "geology of media," and even in terms of the cosmological backdrop of human experience.4 Likewise, scholars in comparative literary studies have variously turned their attention to the "deep time" of literature and "planetary reading," rubrics suggestive of a breathtaking and almost impossibly broad critical scale.5 Although distinct in their aims and objects, all three of these examples illustrate that a key challenge for the critic today is assessing the meaning of human experience measured against grosser forces and phenomena.

From land art to institutional critique and poetic discursive forms, site specificity in a similar fashion has long reckoned with the question not only of what a site is but also of how meaningfully to measure human life in relation to a site. Site specificity thus offers a productive framework through which to draw together and sound out resonances among disparate discourses in the humanities that share the common problem of reckoning with problems of scale and influence in relation to human-environmental affairs. I venture that inquiry into the possibility of Earth-specific art (or the site specificity of the Earth)—i.e., focusing on the Earth as a site—may productively counterbalance the notion of the finitude or limits of human experience with the notion of the artistic site as something elastic but also ultimately finite. Suggesting at once a too-broad background for measuring experience as well as an intuitively finite and precarious limit, the Earth represents a powerful frame for theorizing the seemingly paradoxical title of this special issue: "site specificity without borders." [End Page 580]

In focusing on two experimental digital documentaries by Peter Bo Rappmund, I argue that digital media play an important role in encountering the Earth itself as a site. Drawing on a late essay by Edmund Husserl, I argue...


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