With: Jade Montserrat’s Peat / Sarah Jane Cervenak

Webb-Ellis and Jade Montserrat, PEAT, 2015, digital film still

“Pray for a life without plot, a day without narrative…To be without this story of captivity, to dis-remember it, or to have this story forget me, would be heavenly.”—Dionne Brand1

“the idea is to accentuate the elemental through communion.”—Jade Montserrat2

How might performance “accentuate the elemental through communion,” and, beyond that, indicate a relationality of “inappropriable” expenditure? A “way of walking lightly on the earth,” as Fred Moten might say.3

Black British performance artist Jade Montserrat evokes these general questions from the vantage of Peat, a 2015 short film indexing the artwork’s name and locale.4 As a small cluster of scenes documenting her walking through, touching, standing with, and jumping on a peat bog, the so-called “forgotten fossil fuel,” Montserrat’s Peat asks whether being-forgotten might offer something to Black-earthly performance. Something not often remembered but already there, something unextractive, what’s been “in place in the first place.”5 What holds all earthly life together.

Powerfully, Peat, in its textural, visual, and sonic specificities, along with Montserrat’s particular kinesthethic and performative choices with respect to its traversal, evokes some nonextractive buoyancy, some inappropriable elemental communion. Parahuman occasionings of mixed up flesh/plant/water/atmospheric matter.6 Collaborations that draw on their prior but forgotten alreadyness in sustaining vitalities of otherwise besieged flesh and earth.

The film begins with a beautiful close-up of a peat bog. According to the International Peat Society, peat is “a heterogeneous mixture of more or less decomposed plant (humus) material that has accumulated in a water-saturated environment and in the absence of oxygen.”7 It is in many ways a unique plant-water-elemental arrangement: “The five basic elements of peat are C[arbon], H[ydrogen], O[xygen], N[itrogen] and S[ulfur]. The elemental properties of peat are generally between that of wood and coal. The elemental proportion of lowly decomposed peat approximates to that of wood, while highly decomposed peat resembles that of the lignite.”8 Moreover, peat is chemically and elementally powerful enough to do everything from healing flesh to supporting plant growth to preventing erosion.9 It is also, when not damaged by extraction, known as a carbon store, which helps to remove man-made carbon emissions from fossil fuel consumption.10 Lastly, as a National Geographic report claims, as “oil, coal, and natural gas are exported around the world, few outside northern Europe are aware of this energy source.”11

Peat’s putative nonpreferentiality for energy-based extraction, along with its healing and restorative capacities, suggest some possible reasons why Montserrat chose the bog for her aerobic movement and sensorial figurings. I’ll elaborate on this point following a greater explication of the performance piece itself.

Just under six minutes, Peat begins with a full screen glance of peat, the wispy movement of brown and green grasses. Coming into aerial view slightly off center, a portion of a narrow, windy path appears along with the moving feet of its (the path’s) traverser, the artist; soon, the camera moves downward to the path to meet them.

The film then shifts focus from earth to artist, with the camera tracking Montserrat walking and sloshing across the wet peat and high grasses. The sounds of crunching and splashing attend the movement of her muddy feet descending into and out of water.12 After a set of takes of Montserrat’s feet walking stealthily as she physically negotiates the wet and thick terrain, we soon see them (her feet) stop at and stand atop a grey-black, presumptively drier rock. At this point, the camera zooms in on her now elevated feet rotating clockwise. Following this full circular rotation, a similar series of cuts appear. Brush/peat/bog under water; the camera following the walker’s stockinged legs and muddy feet as they, in real time and slow motion, traverse the terrain; alternating feet and waist-high views of the brush/ peat/ bog under water. The frame filling alternately with quiet and the crunch and wetness of the walked-through bog. So too are there shots of the vertical growing brush interspersed throughout and at one moment, a close-up of a puddle canopied by some green and white horizontal stitching of grass. Toward the end of the short film, Montserrat—once more filmed using tracking shots, this time at shoulder level—jumps repeatedly into the bog’s water. This is interspersed with more images of her walking through the greener parts of the brush, as close-ups of brown water glistening on her feet and hands come into focus. After another, rather extended, jumping segment, this time more akin to a furtive running/splashing in place, the film’s final image is an aerial view of Montserrat soundlessly, and in slowed down motion, jumping in the center of a bog.

The conclusion is soundless, as the artist’s slow-motion jumping in an open field disappears into the end credits. To be sure, this soundlessness, along with some slow-motion takes of Montserrat walking and pausing, twins with the sloshing and crackling throughout. I wonder then: why end with this soundless, slowed down image? What does the quiet and slowed down itself elucidate about the fullness of a sensorial/elemental relation not available to someone else’s potentially extractive memory? I begin my analysis at the end precisely because what it sets into motion (and reminds one of the ongoing presence of) is what Macarena Gómez-Barris might call a non/extractive view, a belief in the invisible, unlocatable, uncapturable relationality engendered by Montserrat’s performative and kinesthetic engagement with peat itself.

As Gómez-Barris argues

“Extractive zones contain within them the submerged perspectives that challenge obliteration. I describe these transitional and intangible spaces as geographies that cannot be fully contained by the ethnocentrism of speciesism, scientific objectification, or by extractive technocracies that advance oil fields, construct pipelines, divert and diminish rivers, or cave-in mountains through mining. Seeing and listening to these worlds present nonpath dependent alternatives to capitalist and extractive valuation.”13

Concerning Gómez-Barris’s correlating a non-extractive view with a non-path-orientation to earth, there is, indeed, an anxiety around a pathiness that animates the film. On the one hand, the jumping, walking sounds of wetness and brush are repeated throughout the short film, suggesting an insistent presentness, the sights and sounds of one person’s physical ambulation and enmeshment in a particularly textured and, as seen in the opening, pathed environment. There’s also something about the sound and its conveyance of a hurriedness that suggests a deliberateness on the one hand and a fugitivity on the other. A trying to get somewhere fast. Put differently, the auditory expressivity of wet grasses, some uncultivated green, in conjunction with a black woman’s visually pursued form indicates a kind of spatiotemporal, ecological resemblance to an anti-black plantational fetish coterminous with the pursuit and unmaking of (presumptively uncultivated) earth and flesh.14 The enactment of whiteness as property’s path, is nothing if not the bulldozing of prior paths, prior yearnings to get and be somewhere.

As Montserrat herself and curator Daniella Rose King observe, Montserrat’s particular experience of that land, those bogs, is animated by the specters and experiences of anti-blackness long haunting the British idyll:

Montserrat (performance notes): “The performances were acts of remembrance generated by the landscape and inherently, passively by personal histories. Heathcliff [is a black character in Charlotte Bronte’s classic of British Romanticism, the rurally (bog) set novel Wuthering Heights] representative of the dispossessed, and I are aliens dropped into this ancient landscape. Appearances suggest we were not meant to be here. Alienation is magnified by a landscape scarred by borders testimony to territorial ownership. The body can become heavy, sluggish, de-stablised, this is reinforced by isolation. The territory is bleak, remote, unforgiving, unhearing, without union or unity with other bodies.”15

Daniella Rose King and Jade Montserrat: “Montserrat’s childhood involved living off-grid with generated electricity (electricity switched completely off when not in use) and no terrestrial television reception, traversing peat bogs, and daily travel through the longest fjord in Britain, just to reach home. She was shot at by a deerstalker—an event laden with complex specificities of class dynamics, divisions, and privileges nestled in the British countryside; the lays of that land—and for her it is very difficult to stress that this lived experience is real. It is a reality that has always been met with an incredulity and disbelief.”16

Powerfully, these histories resound in the audiovisual, ecological textures of the film, the repeated scenes of running/walking quickly and the camera’s use of drone and uncomfortably close tracking shots.

Still, there are an equal number of scenes of an insistently other relationality with earth, a non-hurriedness. Scenes where the artist rocks her heels into muck, ambles in slow motion, stands still, rests as the path disappears and her muddy wet hands dry in the sun. Something about these other scenes suggests, as does the cinematography in these moments, a withness rather than a path-oriented “for-ness” that the tracking shot conveys, perhaps some private journeying movements into what Toni Morrison calls “what’s in place in the first place.”17

In his writing about plants and what he calls “the metaphysics of mixture,” philosopher Emanuele Coccia argues that plants through their photosynthetic capacities elucidate the life-giving, earth-saving (or earth-breaking) force of togethernesses, a kind-of anoriginal and invisible withness, forged before violent separations pathed all life into a slow death march.18

He writes:

“Plants, then, allow us to understand that immersion is not a simple spatial determination: to be immersed is not reducible to finding oneself in something that surrounds and penetrates us. Immersion, as we have seen, is first of all an action of mutual copenetration between subject and environment, body and space, life and medium. It is impossible to distinguish them physically and spatially: for there to be immersion, subject and environment have to actively penetrate each other; otherwise one would speak simply of juxtaposition or contiguity between two bodies touching at their extremities.

and later

“It is already by existing that plants modify the world globally without even moving, without beginning to act. “To be” means, for them, to make world [faire monde]; reciprocally, to construct (our) world, to make world is only a synonym of “to be.” […] If any living being is a being in the world, every environment is a being within beings. The world and the living are nothing but a halo, an echo of the relation that binds them together. We will never be able to be materially separated from the matter of the world: every living being constructs itself starting from the same matter that makes up the mountains and the clouds. Immersion is a material coincidence, which starts under our skin.”19

Through ritualistic exercises in immersion, ranging from submerging her feet into mud to jumping into those same puddles, Montserrat elucidates a being-with peat, a being with its life-giving energies that momentarily suspends the telos of extraction. The bogs are wet, covered in water . . . water seems to be, in fact, the place where artist and plant meet. That water is what keeps that carbon-storing, earth-preserving life force going. Its absence is often the sign of its (carbon’s) decline, of its damagedness either by global warming itself or by the arbiters of extraction looking to speed up the process.

And just as the film is filled with water’s insistent presence and unavailable sites/sounds/feels, it’s already more than that. Where artist and plant meet is in mixture, in being mixed up together, hands and feet splattered with mud, feet splashing in one of the bog’s many puddles. As Sasha Engelmann and Derek McCormack might say, such in/visible mixture indicates “how [e]lemental processes might become coconspirators in the generation of different forms and arrangements of life.”20

Something bounties forth in such co-conspiracy. Something that holds and preserves and protects a vitality long there . . . long before walks were pursued and earth was plowed and pathed. All the way back where life’s para-material coincidentality glimmered like an unextractable cosmos “under the skin” (Ibid). Returning to Coccia and Morrison together, perhaps what Montserrat created in Peat—and with its namesake matter—was a partially illustrated photosynthetic consciousness of their intrinsic co-immersiveness, the sharing of besieged earth and flesh’s “perfect memory… [its] forever trying to get back to where it [once] was.”21

Endnotes

  1. Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging (Vintage Canada, 2001, 42).
  2. Jade Montserrat. 2015. “Burial, the Brontes and Lost Children, a text and film performance at IBAR UCLan symposium Lost Children: The Black Atlantic and Northern Britain Friday 1st May 2015.” https://jademontserrat.com/2016/10/28/burial-the-brontes-and-lost-children-a-text-and-film-performance-at-ibar-uclan-symposium-lost-children-the-black-atlantic-and-northern-britain-friday-1st-may-2015/
  3. The notion of the “inappropriable” used in the previous sentence is inspired by Fred Moten’s use of it in the context of the “ecstatics of the aesthetics” with respect to sound, “insurrection,” and the photograph of Emmett Till. See In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (UMinn Press, 2003), 201. Moten’s quote from the footnoted sentence appears in an essay for the Serpentine Museum exhibition dedicated to the films of Arthur Jafa. See “Black Topographic Existence,” by Fred Moten from Serpentine Gallery’s press release for Arthur Jafa’s exhibition, “ A Series of Utterly Improbable Yet Extraordinary Renditions” (2017), Serpentine Galleries, UK
  4. Film made in collaboration with film-makers Webb-Ellis.  Viewable at the following link:  https://vimeo.com/155794300
  5. Toni Morrison quoted in Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (UMinn Press, 1997), 4.
  6. My use of “parahuman” here is inspired by Monique Allewaert’s use of the term when she describes how racist, colonialist figurings of Black people’s presumptive proximity to nature indexed a fear of the relations that endanger propertizing, taxonomizing logics of an owned world. Instructively, in Allewaert’s elaboration, the bog, and its relation to colonized people, historically figures as a site of “disruption.” I quote from Ariel’s Ecology: Plantations, Personhood, and Colonialism in the American Tropics (UMinn Press, 2013) at length:

    “Colonial[s] typically conceived of Africans as a not-definitively-categorizable form of life. Moreover colonial organizations of labor power, particularly the plantation form, required that slaves (often of African descent) become deeply familiar with the properties of nonhuman animal and plant life. This meant that Africans in the diaspora, whether slave or maroon (self-emancipated slaves), had especially deft imaginings of the forms of power and agency that developed at the interstices between human and nonhuman life. […] Consider that Caliban’s repudiation of Prospero echoes Ariel’s lyric disaggregation of the colonial body while vesting it with revolutionary potential: “All the infections that the sun sucks up / From bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall, and make him / By inchmeal a disease.”17 I join Caliban’s curse with Ariel’s lyric to suggest that Africans in the Atlantic diaspora gained power through their recognition and exploitation of human and parahuman beings’ relations with nonhuman forms. Existing colonial, anticolonial, and postcolonial analyses of the play have tended to divide Ariel from Caliban, but attending to the environmental fantasies that circulate in the play reveals that from the earliest moments of colonization Anglo-Europeans imagined a tenuous and revolutionary alliance between tropical elemental forces and subaltern persons. […]

    Moreover, Caliban’s attention to the power and disruption that might emerge from bogs, fens, flats, and other natural phenomena figured nonhuman bodies, organic or not, as vectors for subaltern resistance, thus challenging the colonial assumption that any body that was not definitively human was an exchangeable product.[…] The rise of capitalism is then often described as though it occasioned a fall from a prior cosmology in which qualitative distinctions were primary, leading to the emergence of a new cosmology characterized by quantitative distinctions that are imagined to be no differences at all because they make all that is solid and specific dissolve into air. Ariel’s lyric challenges this elevation of the qualitative over the quantitative. More precisely, Ariel’s lyric provides the ground for challenging capitalism within the realm of the quantitative by treating quantity as an expression of a physical, rhythmic, and fundamentally relational singularity that exceeds and also disrupts the money form’s claim that a quantity is a flatly numeric measure. In Ariel’s ecology, there is no medium of exchange like the money form that remains conceptually outside of the process of relation. Instead, everything including that which is conventionally understood as a medium — for instance, the sea — is bound up in processes of touching and proximity. Here, one entity touches upon and intensifies or exhausts or even decomposes another: this first entity’s relation to the second is that of touching, of constituting, of perhaps in turn being constituted by it, all of which precludes exchanging one for the other. What this suggests is that relation, far from being a synonym for exchange, names a process through which bodies and parts punctuate themselves against larger fields that they also decompose. Relation, then, describes an enmeshment that is not a merging and that forecloses the possibility of exchange” (7-8).

  7. From “What is Peat,” International Peat Society (website), http://www.peatsociety.org/peatlands-and-peat/what-peat
  8. Hu Jinming and Ma Xuehui. “Physical and Chemical Properties of Peat.” Vol. II – Physical and Chemical Properties of Peat. https://www.eolss.net/Sample-Chapters/C08/E3-04-06-03.pdf
  9. “Each spherical brown sporangium, or spore case, shrinks as it dries, creating internal pressure that casts off the lid (operculum) and shoots the spores as far as 10 cm from the plant. The metabolic processes of growing peat moss cause an increase in the acidity of the surrounding water, thus reducing bacterial action and preventing decay. Peat moss forms several types of bogs in northern areas. Compression and chemical breakdown of dead plants and other vegetable debris cause formation of the organic substance known as peat, which is harvested and dried for use as fuel. Dried peat moss has been used for surgical dressings, diapers, lamp wicks, bedding, and stable litter. It is commonly employed as a packing material by florists and shippers of live aquatic animals and as a seedbed cover and soil additive by gardeners, who value its ability to increase soil moisture, porosity, and acidity. Peat mosses are valuable in erosion control, and properly drained peat bogs provide useful agricultural land.” (https://www.britannica.com/plant/peat-moss)
  10. https://www.iucn.org/resources/issues-briefs/peatlands-and-climate-change
  11. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/media/peat-forgotten-fuel/
  12. Caitlin Webb-Ellis conducted the editing and arrangement of sound.
  13. Macarena Gómez-Barris. The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).
  14. I want to acknowledge the influence of Tiffany Lethabo King’s scholarship, particularly her essay “The Labor of (Re)Reading Plantation Landscapes Fungible(ly)” on my thinking here.  Antipode Vol. 00 No. 0 2016 ISSN 0066-4812, pp 1—18.
  15. See “Burials.”
  16. Jade Montserrat and Daniella Rose King.  “(some possibilities of) Rural Belongings.” https://www.womenandperformance.org/ampersand/28-3-rose-king-montserrat
  17. Erin Manning and Brian Massumi, Thought in the Act:  Passages in the Ecology of Experience. (Minneapolis: U Minnesota Press, 2014), 8.
  18. My use of “anoriginal” is informed by Fred Moten’s introduction of and use of the term with respect to black performances in his In the Break:  The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (U Minnesota Press, 2003).
  19. Emanuele Coccia. 2018.  The Life of Plants : A Metaphysics of Mixture.  Polity Press, 36.
  20. Sasha Engelmann & Derek McCormack, “Elemental Aesthetics: On Artistic Experiments with Solar Energy,” Annals of the American Association of Geographers 108, no. 1 (2018), 246.
  21. Toni Morrison. “The Site of Memory,” in Inventing the Truth:  The Art and Craft of Memoir, ed. William Zinsser (Boston, Houghton Millian, 1995).
Sarah Jane Cervenak
Sarah Jane Cervenak is Associate Professor of Women's and Gender Studies and African American and African Diaspora Studies at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Her current book project, tentatively titled Black Gathering: Arts of Ungiven Life queries the Black radical, feminist potential of gathering in post-1970s Black literary and visual arts. She is the author of Wandering: Philosophical Performances of Racial and Sexual Freedom (Duke University Press, September 2014). She is also co-editor, with J. Kameron Carter, of the Duke University Press book series, Black Outdoors: Innovations in the Poetics of Study.