The following is an excerpt from the thesis manuscript:

Epilogue: An open-ended ending

In an era swollen with digital dazzlements and techno-utopian fantasies, all who ally themselves with the wild, more-than-human earth are called to become adepts of outrageous creativity and embodied eloquence, masters of lucid improvisation.

 -David Abram, Alliance for Wild Ethics

When I began this research in mid-2017, I was eager and excited about the prospect of doing work that lived at the sweet spot of art and sustainability. It seemed like a timely and straightforward union of two ideas that both reflected my life’s passion and some long overdue scholarly care. That I—a wide-eyed, 20s-something grad student— was handed the opportunity to give this area of research some neededattention seemed like a cerebral gift from the gods (or a cool thesis supervisor and open-minded funding panel). 

Most Master’s students admit a naive unpreparedness for the revolutions their projects undergo. It is a popularly discussed topic in graduate seminars and research methods classes. For me, no doubt, this became very true: the thesis grew like a very hungry Venus fly trap. My bedroom office began to feel like the little shop of horrors. I fed the beast: ideas, and then bigger ideas; theories, and then other theories from which those theories drew. The thesis became its own voracious, creaturely thing, bending around the barriers of time and space, climbing towards the sun: the light at the end of a two-and-a-half-year tunnel, towards the distant but fateful “day of defence”.

This is all a very common experience; professors will tell their students. 

I suppose what I was least prepared for would be the personal turns I’d eventually take as a result of the work.There is so much to be said for the slow internal changes that come about in one’s personal research. What I mean by this is: as a qualitative researcher, you simply can’t listen intently to hours and hours of artists talking about their deepest environmental concerns, fears, questions and inspirations—listening back on hours-long conversations at 0.5 speed with noise-cancelling headphones— and not feel pretty deeply changed yourself by the end of it all. Self-transformation is one of the“realest” results I think that comes from the pursuit of knowledge— even in rigorous academic research— and if there is one thing this Master’s project has made absolutely clear for me, it’s this reality. And for me, a very changed reality.

While my research focuses mainly on the work of contemporary visual artists, ironically the greatest skill I thinkI brought to the drawing table was not my ability to draw grand conclusions or map out the country’s current eco-arts scene, but my attempts to, first and foremost, listen, and secondly, to perform improvisation. My role here was to have the willingness to pin back my ears and tune in to the ways in which the creative cultural workers of the world arein a dynamic interplay of both working with what we’ve got while imagining and crafting new possibilities.

Anna Tsing thinks about research asan open-ended assemblage: where different ideas, discourses, and historical practices can encounter, tangle with and interrupt each other. Tsing also uses avery “sound” musical analogy: polyphony,in which two or more independent rhythms and lines come together in intricateand always changing ways. These multiple melodies reveal surprising moments of harmony, patterns, and co-ordination, while at other times they revealdiscordance and sonic chaos. In an interview on “writing and rhythm”, Tsing (2015) further describes this. She says:

"I hear rhythms in the world, and music helps meunderstand them. When I began working on multispecies anthropology, I found agreat source of insight in polyphonic music, that is, music in which multiplemelodies intertwine. Each melody carries its own rhythm, and the whole iscreated in listening across the engagements and interruptions of the variedmelodies. This helped me understand how humans are actors, but not the onlyactors, in making social landscapes. Many ways of life come together inlandscapes. Their relationship is something like the separate voices ofpolyphonic music. Polyphonic rhythms, then, may be useful in listening to howall kinds of social landscapes, whether in cities, forests, or globalinstitutions, come to emerge."

As a drummer and percussionist, the analogy of polyrhythms and polytempos has been especially resonant with me. In performing improvised music with various ensembles, we attune and attend to the overlay of patterns and rhythmic cycles, finding moments of beautiful togetherness while remaining open to inevitable disharmony and dissonance of the piece—appreciating it without losing ourselves to it. 

In the nineties, educational researchers Penny Oldfather and Jane West (1994) wrote an article in which they playfully examined the metaphor of jazz to describe qualitative inquiry. They described several parallels between performing jazz music and performing qualitative research. As a form of creative music, jazz is constantly adaptive, shaped by the participants themselves. Improvisations are interdependent, andthe quality of the composition depends on each musician actively listening,responding to, and attending to the ensemble. With its roots in the spiritualemancipation of black communities, jazz is an art form which seeks to exist ascultural expression, liberation, and dialogue, as opposed to producing a packaged piece ofart. Like this form, qualitative research can be a transformative expression, through drawing in the cacophony of varied lived experiences andworld-views. Furthermore, those who have been traditionally "the researched" under a colonial, racist, capitalist and patriarchal system of study, not only become the researchers themselves; but performers, makers, improvising poetics, composing new modes of thinking-being-relating.

Free jazz improvisation does not rely on the reading of sheet music, but rather relies on an adept sense ofunderstanding the deep structures of the music and giving oneself the freedom to both let go and apply those deep structures in improvisatory ways.The researcher in qualitative research, similarly, does not have a clear set of step-by-step “instructions” in conducting research. Inboth jazz music and qualitative research, there is often a basic score, i.e.a set of principles or a research design, while at the same time the score isan outline and must constantly adapt to and elaborate on the evolution of the inquiry. It is both structured and free.

Artist and jazz drummer Jerry Granelli proclaimed that an improvisation between two performers is not merely a dialogue between two players. He argues that in the dynamic interplay of the duo, another player emerges: a “third other” whom only exists in therelationship between each respective player’s creative agency. First andforemost, the players play to serve the composition. This simple but profound idea, to me, is sym-poiesis. It is making-together. It is polyphony; it is an open-ended assemblage. It is saying:we are greater than the sum of our parts. It is the reminder that, as PauloFreire put it, “we are genetic-cultural beings. We are not only nature, nor are we only culture, education, and thinking.”

I take from these musical metaphors, where as someone “conducting” research, I aim to be one who listens, respondsto, and attends to the polyphony of stories; the many intertwining melodies of my participants. In this thesis I attempted to hear, convey, and value the waysin which artists are sounding alarm bells about climate change, vocalizing change through poetics and their creative acts of making, while also remaininga part of a chorale that can revel in humanity’s beautifully entangled, dishevelled, imperfect and ongoing relationships with the more-thanhuman world.Like a sound engineer, as a researcher I “mix” the stories and aim to produce clarity through a balance of voices. My hope is that this research is a kind of lucid improvisation: an act of translation— or series of translations— where I listened to the stories artists tell about them-selves and their worlds, hearing their artwork as stanzas in an ongoing and overlapping round of call and response. I am not just a passive recipient of these stories. To take from Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, I move from mere “spectator” to “spect-actor”, in which I am observer but also active creator of meaning. Both performer and audience, researcher and respondent, are collaborating on the piece. Both performer and listener are ina process of transformation. Sym-poiesis.

My hope is that this thesis can be understood as a composition: one that is sometimes directional and other times dissonant; one that both contributes to and complicates current environmental research. As a thesis that looks at environmental studies through the lens of art and education theory, it not only lives at the juncture of nature and culture, but seeks to transform the ways in which we view this binary to begin with. To say the work is a static thing living at an intersection— an idyllic grove that somehow unites society and nature— now feels misleading. In fact, my work hopes to, in some sort of small, slight way, transform the ways in which the two are considered distinct to begin with. If there’s one thing that feelslike a very made-by-man artifice, it’s this obsession with the divide between nature and culture.  What does a world beyond this divide-and-conquer mentality look like? What does it feel like?What does it sound like? How can poiesis bring us to this understanding?

It is through poetics— and because of the artists I listened to in this research— that I can begin to imagine the possibility of a world that is more reciprocal, livable, sustainable and just. To hear the relationality of our stories; to listen to the reverberance of nature as culture, to understand that every creative act is an ember that stokes this knowing; to build a kind of empathy which can echo across our social landscapes; to embody the adaptive interplay of the human and more-than-human world; to feel the great swells and slow diminuendos; to notice the delightful and momentary arrangements and de-compositions of our own existence.

The last (but not final) thing I want to say in this sprawling epilogue is that there is no ending. There is no imagined “last hurrah” to this work, no grand finale existing on some hazy horizon. Perhaps the most important principle in improvisation is the need to make open situations for your collaborators: to offer creative space in which other players, too, can make creative choices in the piece. To ensure your fellow players have agency to contribute to the composition.

Art plays such an important role in throwing us, our habits, and our routines out of kilter— to provoke us to improvise, to open up new possibilities, to change our perception, to uproot our deep-seated cultural assumptions, and to offer the possibility for transplanting these worlds. Fundamentally, art is a learning experience which is open-ended. For this reason, I maintain that this ending is really anon-ending. This research remains open-ended: it hopes to make open situations for others, to create the possibility of continuing and contributing to the piece. After all, as jazz vocalist and composer Jay Clayon says: “we are always composing”. 

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