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The Environment as Laboratory

2012 April 30
by kstine

Hi all,

Here’s an abstract/excerpt of a presentation I gave at SCMS this year in Boston. The paper was part of a panel on the figure of the laboratory in contemporary film and media studies, and it grew out of some intersecting questions about the problem of scale and thinking about cinema as an environmental technology.


“Cinematic Testing Grounds: The Environment as Laboratory and the Case of Ghost Bird (2009)”
Kyle Stine
University of Iowa

Ghost Bird (dir. Scott Crocker, 2009) centers on the alleged rediscovery in 2004 of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a species that was thought to be extinct for nearly 60 years. The so-called “Lord God Bird” or “Grail Bird” was the largest woodpecker in the United States and indeed a sort of Holy Grail of birding for those who maintained any hope that it still existed. In March 2004, Gene Sparling, an amateur naturalist, was kayaking in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Arkansas when he spotted what he described as a very large woodpecker with distinctive field marks different from those of the more common pileated woodpecker. Sparling’s sighting spurred renewed hope among ornithologists that the ivorybill might be documented. And documented photographically, since, as Heidegger reminds us, fleeting impressions can hardly satisfy the scientific mind for which everything will come into being if and only if it can be pictured. That which happens only once is for science as good as that which never happened at all.

The crucial moment came in April 2005 when David Luneau, a professor of Engineering Technology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, left his video camera recording while he was canoeing in search of the ivorybill. The few brief seconds of footage, blurry and pixilated and out of focus, were enough to convince some ornithologists that the bird really had been rediscovered. Enhancing and zooming in on the video, analysts measured everything from the field markings on the wings to wingbeat frequencies, even reenacting the original scene with different scale models of ivorybill and pileated woodpeckers. (The reenactments are especially interesting because they use the same camera and attempt to reproduce the same blurry and out of focus conditions as the original.)

Luneau Video at Cornell Lab of Ornithology

These few brief seconds of a bird launching into flight have been the subject of countless analyses and have already made for many rich papers on the social construction of scientific evidence and the evidentiary status of cinematic technologies. All this would be effective fodder for film analysis, and certainly the ornithologists have gone at this film with a rigor that puts even cinemetrics to shame. With no understatement, the film is to ornithologists what the Zapruder film was to the Warren Commission. What I would like to offer instead is the opposite of what all previous analyses have done. Rather than zoom in on the video, I would like to zoom out and to zoom out even beyond its social constructedness as a piece of scientific evidence. I would like to consider it as a mere fact, alongside many other media artifacts, but also as a piece of what Paul Valéry would call a “tremendous new fact,” which is this:  The scale of the drama of Ghost Bird is colossal, so great that it always threatens to slip from sight. It is the scale of determining not the existence of the ivory-billed woodpecker, which can be determined within the frame scale of a motion picture, but its inexistence, which is to say, the inexistence of anything at all, since inexistence is not something represented but something failing to be represented.

Inexistence, if we return to Heidegger, means not being in the picture. Collectively, the efforts of the researchers to document the ivorybill woodpecker take the form of proliferating representations of the habitat where it might be found. Rather than leaving ivorybill sightings to a chance encounter on a kayaking trip or an accidental video spotting, the researchers attempt to control for their evidence, to create what amount to laboratory conditions that might verify their results. They do this by setting up a massive surveillance operation using automated cameras and autonomous sound recording units. Significantly, these technologies record impassively, in a way blindly and deafly, without any regard for what they record. In recording automatically, they allow researchers to exploit what Bruno Latour cites as a fundamental strength of the laboratory: the researchers can now multiply their mistakes. These cameras and autonomous sound units produce piles of empty data, trial runs awaiting a single conclusive piece of information. The vast catalogues of images and sounds, to this point all revealing nothing about the existence of the ivorybill, stand as just so many research “mistakes,” or to play on the language of the film industry, just so many mis-takes—takes that must be shot again.

John W. Fitzpatrick, Director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology presents at the University of California Santa Barbara

In proliferating these mis-takes, the audio and visual recordings of the habitat tend toward representation in totality. They tend away from any contingent not-being-in-the-picture—which is to say, not in the evidence now, or: the ivorybill not in this picture—toward an absolute not-being-in-the-picture, or: not being in any picture. Their “exactitude in science,” to invoke the Borges tale of the cartographers and the empire, extends increasingly outward to determine once and for all that something is nowhere on the map of the territory.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. May 1, 2012

    What a great piece of work and interesting perspectives!, thanks for sharing

  2. smonani permalink
    May 2, 2012

    I agree with Cathy. This sounds like a wonderful subject and angle to bring into ecocinema studies. I also appreciate the trailer embed, which piqued my interest in Ghost Bird. Thanks for sharing.

  3. srust permalink*
    May 6, 2012


    The model you’re developing here has tremendous potential for exploring scientific change over time and for the role of ecomedia studies in theorize the role of sound and image in the representation of data and reality. As a Northwest native, I am particularly reminded of the countless documentaries exploring the search for Bigfoot. Evolution is also at play here because it occurs on a scale that makes it seemingly impossible for a scientist with a camera to record an actual instance of it. Very impressive work here.

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