Thirteen Figurings: Reflections on Termites, From Below

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Vol: 5, Issue: 1, Page: 23-47

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Phillips, Perdita
Termites; social insects; superorganism; archive; environmental art; art and science; insensible; strange kinship; groundswell; indifference; environmental procrastination; Art and Design; Arts and Humanities; Australian Studies; Creative Writing; Digital Humanities; Education; Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies; Film and Media Studies; Fine Arts; Philosophy; Social and Behavioral Sciences; Theatre and Performance Studies
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This image essay is a creative reflection back upon The Encyclopaedia Isoptera: An encyclopaedia of the arts, sciences, literature and general information about termites, which was mostly written by the artist between 1997 and 1998, and forward to what termite art might undo today. Without access to living termites and, predating multispecies ethnographies, the Encyclopaedia Isoptera was an investigation into the limits of knowledge around termites. Looking back, it can be seen that certain strategies in the Encyclopaedia, such as looking at superseded or alternative knowledge, was a way of interrogating the boundaries of the sensible/insensible, and parallels more recent explorations of entangled boundaries between humans and others. Looking forward, I propose that response to, and responsibility for, unloved others can occur via respect for difference and indifference to form what Neimanis refers to as strange kinships (Neimanis 117). Entangling ourselves with the alternative (destructive, cryptic, potentially immortal, coprophagous) acts of termites can open up environmental art to different emotional registers and facilitate critical hope. ‘Living with’ termites may go some way to addressing the tendency towards adopting apocalyptic thinking in environmental art and the ‘environmental procrastination’ currently seen in climate change debates.