The edges of the abyss : an overview

Chantelle Mitchell and Jaxon Waterhouse

Dig deep. Tunnel. Fortify.

There is interventionist action contained within these phrases. Move earth, extract, redistribute. But what might it mean to simply dig and then dwell? To curve the body within a valley, and align the self with an abyss? Is there a possibility of connection through living amidst? Should empty space be filled?

Over five weeks of spring 2020, we engaged in a series of excavative exercises; exploring the manifold manifestations of the abyss as a group. Alongside Amaara Raheem, Leonie Brialey, Bec Fairy, Selena de Carvalho, Mohamed Chamas, Clarissa Chevalier, Alex Dabi Zhevi, Lily Hsu, Phoebe Kelly, Rebecca Jensen, Josephine Mead, Georgia Nowak, Tina Stefanou and Molly Stephenson, we explored the abyss as site, concept and state of being. The true resonance of the scheduling of this curriculum during spring - traditionally a time of new life - only becomes clear now, when we reflect on what is it our group was searching for in our explorations. It was within the abyss that we looked for ways forward; modes of comprehending and moving with the other-than-human, as we seek to cultivate an ethics of care within our rapidly changing world.

In our first session, we asked the group to consider an oft-quoted statement from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil:

And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.

Over our time together, we stared into the abyss; we walked to its edge and peered intently into its depths. The abyss grew - multiplied, and took flight. We moved toward acknowledgement of the active-ness of absence and of emptiness; understanding it as a condition, and a sign of the times. Accordingly, we sought it around the globe, chasing it across the sites you see plotted on our collective map. Those in gold are sites we explored together.

Wading through the mud of the Dismal Swamp in lutruwita, we encountered the work of Paul Carter, Ross Gibson and Deborah Bird Rose, as we considered the colonial legacies and trauma of re-naming and reconfiguring space. Amidst this interrogation of mapping and placemaking, we seek to escape the grid of the surveyor’s lines, looking beyond these stratifications that contain, and in turn, the confines of our physical body. As explored by Daisy Hildyard, the notion of the second body emerges at the limits of the first, and corporeal physical form. This second body is you in relation to the world-at-large; an assemblage of slippage and becoming-with the world. As we encountered this week through the work of Carter, all of the categorisation and taxonomisation, the projects of ‘discovery’ and containment, obscured ways of being in the world - with it, it obscured the simple truth that we are not separate from the world.

In our second dive into the abyss we arrived at Xiaozhai Tiankeng, or the ‘Heavenly Pit’, located in Chongqing Municipality in southwest China, a UNESCO World Heritage site and Biodiversity Hotspot. Through this site, we traced pathways through the strata - from Gilles Deleuze to phenomenologies of depth. As we descended, we began to align spectral pathways which illuminated connections between absence, the eco-monument, and Anthropocentric impacts upon the Earth. It was here, we alighted, considering the notion of decreation as presented by Simone Weil.

For our third collective entry into the abyss, we descended into the extractive realm. Our focus was the Mir Diamond Mine in Siberia, considering the obscenity, wounding and the horrors of large scale resource extraction. Amidst the theoretical framings of our speculative entries, this week was informed by an earlier conversation, a provocation which had lain underfoot, dwelling for months. In this conversation, we considered to what extent super pits, those massive recesses carved into the earth, operate as wounding. In reflecting upon this, Jaxon presented that the super pit is a form of GBH. And if the Earth is a body, in that Latour/Lovelock sense, in what ways are we culpable for the harm we cause? If, as Robin Mackay tells us, humans are the first lifeform to contemporaneously communicate with geology, what is the communication but a shriek and a howl of pain? Our conversations this week did not seek out solutions, utopian strategies for healing, but instead, to feel amidst the strata, possibilities for listening and communing with.

For our quaternary lesson, we dove into the Gulf of Mexico, slipping beneath the spread of an oil slick. With the unfathomable depths reached by the Deepwater Horizon drill, and the now imaginable horrors of the disaster, spilling out into the gulf, our speculative imaginings of the abyss became spectral. In thinking of this oil slick, spreading out from the depths and across the surface, we arrived at what we, through the lens of our ongoing work Ecological Gyre Theory, have framed as the petro-Geist, an ooze of reanimated zombie carbon, haunting industry, ecology and being as it is brought back to life via extraction. This week, we considered the abjectness of this haunted matter, the sickening affect of the slicks, and the emotional resonances which emerge from confrontation with ecological horrors - solastalgia and grief. But, despite this petro-melancho(i)lic approach, at the very core of our apprehensions this week, was a recognition of this spectral force as agentic, willful matter.

In our fifth lesson, our abyss was formed by abandonment, the contaminated and degazetted site Wittenoom. In considering the harm caused by asbestos on land and body, we engaged with concepts of slow death and slow violence, temporalities extending beyond our hyper capitalist, frenetic pace. In this way, Wittenoom, Australia’s largest contaminated site, persists as both place, but as carried by bodies - as fibres of asbestos embedded within lungs. We thought through notions of waste, wasteland, and how to navigate what remains - in the case of Wittenoom, the persistent presence of asbestos necessitates the absence of people in the location. We considered the slow violence unleashed upon the Earth by human activity, the distention of temporalities this has caused, and how to live when all you love is being trashed.

Those markers in black are personal encounters with the abyss that the members of our group wished to share, in light of their particular significance. It is not necessarily the case that those locations are sites of extraction, extinction or of horror, but they resonate in some way. These sites presented the possibility of understanding, or through their nature, an acknowledgement of the depth of the connection that exists between the human and other-than-human worlds. While some of the reflections upon site are imbued with a certain sadness, reflective of the devastation that was been wrought upon the landscape, over the course of our studies together we discussed our the abyss, in its physical and metaphysical forms, can be apprehended in a constructive, or positive manner?

Part of living through the Anthropocene, and the Sixth Great Extinction, is learning to live with absence, the empty space where habitats, species - and increasingly, the future - once was. We perceive within this empty space the second half, or the counterpoint, to the narrative of human progress; that which didn’t proceed forward into time, so that humanity could.

It seems those empty spaces are a monument to humanity; the abysses created through the extractive industries, various mine shafts and pits, powered the world. Species lost through overfishing, hunting, or extinction fed societies and aided economic development. Earth has been moved, voids dug down so as to enable the laying of foundations for skyscrapers. Forests cleared, so as to enable the cultivation of crops and the grazing of animals. But it would be remiss of us to say that the abyss is purely a human construct. We recognise those abysses that form naturally through processes like erosion, seismic activity, and the use of the term to acknowledge the expansive depths of the ocean, for example. For a long time we have lived alongside absence - it is now, however, that the empty spaces are becoming too big to ignore.

Abyss Lessons emerged from our ongoing research project, Ecological Gyre Theory. For the past 18 months, we have been exploring the twinned notions of volume and depth as registers of being, and as frames to reorient one’s being within. Mobilising the wild oscillations of the gyre, or whirlpool, we have been working through New Materialist thinkings to imagine the metaphorical ocean floor as a new world. Using this notion of traversal through descent, we imagine that instead of continued forward progress, there is an opportunity to revisit and to reset through the rotations of the gyre; as things circulate, they do so in infinite assemblages, providing an endless number of opportunities to reconfigure the relationships that exist within these assemblages - with us, of course, as a major constituent within them.

The absences that we live amidst have, in part, been created to make room for us as a species to flourish. Confronting this truth, we see the emergence of an array of psychic ills; solastalgia, petromelancholia, ecological grief - the spiritual and mental health consequences of the damage being done to our second bodies. It becomes impossible to deny our complicity, but also the depth of the connection that exists between the human and the other-than-human. We think of the molecular level at which this interaction takes place; the world entering the body through respiration, to enter the bloodstream through the walls of cells and circulate within the body. This connection has been overlooked in recent human history; ignored or taken for granted.

As we are faced with our increasingly uncertain futures, we are confronted with the necessity of changing the existing relationships between human and other-than-human, altering our modes of living in order to move towards a harmonious and equal existence with those we share Earth with. In feeling out the empty space of the abyss over the course of our curriculum, we have tried to formulate a way of making space in a constructive manner. Taking cues from the philosophy of Simone Weil, we have been thinking through her notion of decreation as a way of absenting ourselves. This does not occur in a destructive or eliminative sense, but rather through an acknowledgement and openness to the world around us. It is by walking to the edge of the abyss, or climbing down into it, and quietening the human, that we can become aware of its resonant nature. And if we listen closely, we can hear the polyphony of voices from our other-than-human cohabitors echo back.


Our Abyss Lessons took place convivially, within the digital sphere, but at the core of our investigations was physical place. We acknowledge that our considerations were conducted upon stolen, unceded lands and administered from Wurundjeri and Ngarluma lands. Amidst our place-based, ecological and deep-time oriented perspectives, we pay respect to the vast and long history of care, knowledge and custodianship of First Nations peoples as it continues into the present. In the words of Paul Carter, as we relayed them in our first lesson, this history may take the form of the ‘absent Other’ of our own, Eurocentric history; one of many that have been glossed over or erased. We suggest that by digging deeper, there is a possibility of uncovering what has been buried.


If you have any questions arising from the above, or you wish to know more about Abyss Lessons, the work we do, or would like to climb in with us, please don’t hesitate to reach out: [email protected]


Participants Bios

Josephine Mead is a visual artist and writer based in Naarm (Melbourne). She works through photography, sculpture, installation and writing to explore personal notions of support. Her recent work has positioned female family members as support-structures, considered the body as a site of discursive practice, explored notions of deep listening, and examined the temporal and sonic nature of writing and photography. She has shown work in solo and group exhibitions at a diverse range of venues in Australia and abroad, and her writing has been widely published. In 2018 she undertook the Arquetopia Foundation Residency (Puebla, Mexico), the Kings Emerging Writer’s Program, and the Macfarlane Fund Residency (Kyneton, Victoria). In 2019 she was awarded a Career Development Grant through the Australia Council for the Arts to undertake the Tasarim Bakkali TAB Residency (Istanbul, Turkey) and the Córtex Frontal Residency (Arraiolos, Portugal). In 2020 she commenced the ZK/U Residency at Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik (Berlin, Germany). She is a current studio artist at Collingwood Yards (supported by City of Yarra), is a founding member of the Image Collective, an Artistic Director for BLINDSIDE Gallery and an Advisor for Free Association. In 2020, with Christine McFetridge, she founded a collaborative publishing house called Co-.

Clarissa Maria Chevalier an art historian, interdisciplinary researcher, and writer. She received an MA in art history from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2020 and a BA in cinema arts and art history from Columbia College Chicago in 2018. Chevalier’s areas of interest include modern and contemporary art, queer theory, post-structuralism, and political ecology, with particular emphasis on environmental art created in reaction to climate change. Her current research examines the intersections of phenomenology, ecological art, and environmental ethics. She has presented original research at numerous conferences on the work of Agnes Denes, the historiography of earth art, and the future of institutional critique. Chevalier is also the co-founder and editor of Tesserae Press, an online art publication that promotes anachronistic, innovative interpretations across art history, theory, and criticism by emerging writers, artists, and historians.
Social: @tesserae.press

Molly Stephenson is a visual artist, writer and curator living and working on Wurundjeri country in Naarm (Melbourne, Australia). She is currently undertaking her Bachelor of Fine Arts (Honours) at Monash University. Through sculpture, installation and text, Stephenson interrogates human inflicted displacements of labor, performance and projection upon the botanical, object and marine world. She creates theatric, haptic installations in hopes of diffusing the existence between the certainty and permanence of an 'assumed' reality and fantasy.
She has exhibited with galleries such as SEVENTH Gallery, No Vacancy Gallery, and Buxton Contemporary, with upcoming shows being held at Neon Parlour and Alternating Current Art Space. She has been published with SEVENTH Gallery's Emerging Writer's Program as well as Heart of Heart's Press. She is also the founder and co-curator of the online exhibition,Quivering in Quarantine.
Molly has also been awarded an Art Grant from The City of Melbourne, the NGV's Women's Associate Award, an Individual Creative Grant from The City of Boroondara, as well as the John Vickery Scholarship with The Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) to further aid the development of her practise. ​

Tina Stefanou is a Melbourne-based, Greek/Australian artist who lives and works on Wurundjeri country. She works across performance, movement, experimental voice, sculpture, moving image and sound. As a means to seek more inclusive ways and to frame tangled relationships, her creative research engages in multi-species performance. Stefanou investigates relationships between the voice of things, ideas, and situations. Influenced by her immediate environment her collaborators include sites, skills, communities, family members, non-singers, children, musicians, priests, powerlifters, and animals to explore the limits and imaginative potential of artistic practice in more-than-art environments.
In 2016, Stefanou performed an eleven-hour durational work, 11 Years, at Salt Museum in Istanbul. In 2017, she performed in Alexandra Pirici’s Parthenon Marbles at Kadist Gallery in Paris. In 2018, her work Ghost Potential was featured as part of the touring All We Can’t See Exhibition. In 2019, her work Pop Song was exhibited at Stacks Projects in Sydney and Horse Power at The Ian Potter Museum in Melbourne. In 2020, Stefanou was featured in Blindside Gallery’s DEBUT XVI annual exhibition, solo public projection at Chin Chin in Melbourne and Hatched annual exhibition at PICA in Perth. She presented her paper Grazing on the Grandmaocene at the Music Pours Over the Sense at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Graz, Austria, won an Australian Art Music Award for Excellence in Experimental Music with The Music Box Project, and is the 2020 Schenberg Arts Fellowship recipient.

Bec Fary is an audio producer and practice-based researcher listening, living and working with and on stolen Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung lands. They meditate on sleep, circadian rhythms and the subconscious through SleepTalker, which originated as an independent podcast in 2014 before joining community radio station Triple R in 2018. Bec has contributed to various sonic projects across podcast, broadcast and installation, including The Wait, The Messenger (Behind the Wire & The Wheeler Centre), Here Be Monsters (KCRW), All The Best (FBi Radio), A Mile In My Shoes (Arts Centre Melbourne & The Empathy Museum), FIELDWORK (Bus Projects) and Fauna (Zoos Victoria). They have facilitated workshops and spoken about audio production at RMIT, Victoria University, SIGNAL, SYN Media, Audiocraft and more. Bec’s new project Local Time is an ongoing exploration of environmental rhythms and embodied listenings, and was recently exhibited online at Avantwhatever.
Twitter: @becfary
Instagram: @midnightlisten

Georgia Nowak is an artist and architect whose practice examines and documents environments in flux. Working between the mediums of built-form, film, photography and sculpture the works attempt to navigate the complex issues of land use and the ever-changing relationship between ecology, society and place. She is currently living and working on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation in Naarm (Melbourne). Her latest essay film Aurum created in collaboration with artist Eugene Perepletchikov explores the human fascination with gold as a symbol of power. The work was awarded the inaugural Mercedes Benz Design Week award and has been acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). Her work has recently been exhibited at c3 gallery Melbourne, Galeria Bałucka, Łódż Poland and Melbourne Design Week 2020, with funding from the City of Melbourne, NGV and Centrum Dialogu Poland. She is currently a teaching associate within the Art, Design and Architecture department at Monash University.

Amaara Raheem is a Sri Lankan born Australian grown dance-artist based part-time in Naarm (Melbourne) and part-time in Djab Wurrung country, rural Victoria. Amaara makes her own work and collaborates with others. Significant solo performance projects include: 300 Micro Fictions (BLINDSIDE, 2020); ‘Crossings’ (ImpulsTanz, Vienna, 2020); ‘Breathing Together’ (Dancehouse & SEVENTH Gallery 2019); ‘What The Water Gave Me’ (Colomboscope, 2019). She was an inaugural resident of ‘23 Days at Sea’, sailing aboard a cargo ship from Vancouver to Shanghai, curated by Access Gallery (Vancouver, 2016); and part of the acclaimed ‘Writing In The Expanded Field’ art-writing program at ACCA. Amaara is the recipient of research residencies: Responsive Residency (Critical Path, 2021), and IN-RESONANCE, a year-long residency at Dancehouse (2018). Amaara has performed for a number of choreographers most notably, ‘Temporary Title, 2015’ by Xavier Le Roy (ongoing); ‘We Make Each Other Up’ by Rhiannon Newton (Dancehouse, 2017); ‘Infinity and Greyness’ by Ivey Wawn, (Liquid Architecture, 2018); and ‘Wake-Make’ with Mick Douglas (The Performance Arcade, NZ, 2017). She performed in the first digital artist residency at New Museum’s Department of Education and Public Engagement (NYC) with visual artist Caitlin Franzmann and Indigenous scholar and storyteller, Dr. C.F Black, as part of Ensayos: a collective of artists, scientists, activists, policymakers, and local community members, with a focus on the ecopolitics of archipelagos. Amaara sits on the Artistic Advisory Group for Bus Projects, and Chunky Move. She’s completing a practice-led PhD at School of Architecture & Urban Design RMIT University.
https://amaararaheem.net @amaararaheem

Leonie Brialey is a cartoonist, potter and screen printer currently living and working on Wurundjeri Country. Her academic background is in philosophy, literature and theology, and she completed her PhD in creative writing in 2016 on autobiographical comics and sincerity, the result of which was a long form comic, Raw Feels. Her most recent work, Psychic Hotline, was published by Glom Press in 2018. Some themes that surface in her work: repetition, breath, embodiment, sexuality, spirituality and ghosts.. In 2021 she’ll be attending a residency at Watch This Space ARI in Mparntwe/ Alice Springs, where she will continue thinking into the abyss and also make a series of ceramic bongs for each verse in the bible that is chapter 4, verse 20.

Mohamed Chamas is an artist, game developer and poet based in Naarm (so-called melbourne) who channels the 'dijital djinni'; a rewired/rewiring agent for practice-based research. Chamas' work calls upon magick and mysticisms of the ancient past to create fusion and synergy with emerging technologies. This diffractively interfaces with religious studies, ludology and play, performance, language, and critical and contemporary theory. Chamas graduated from the Bachelor of Design (Games) at RMIT University in 2017 and Honours ( Media and Communications) in 2018. Chamas' Virtual Reality (VR) works exist as unsurveilled sites of healing for orientalized bodies; namely باب القرين (Baab Al Qareen) 2020 and سايبر تصوف (cyber tasawwuf) 2018- the latter received two nominations at Freeplay Independent Game Festival in 2019. Chamas’ work has exhibited at SEVENTH Gallery, Testing Grounds, Siteworks, Incinerator Gallery and Trocadero Arts Space and has been published in The Lifted Brow, Running Dog and the Writing & Concepts Lecture series. In 2020 Chamas was part of Experimenta x Hedie’s Mixed Realities Symposium, a public program for Heide’s major exhibition TERMINUS (Jess Johnson and Simon Ward). Chamas is a Co-founder of Connection Arts Space; a volunteer run organization that delivers workshops, community events and exhibitions for new and emerging artists of underrepresented backgrounds.

Phoebe Kelly is a visual artist and photographer living and working in Naarm (Melbourne). Employing photography, casting and processes of material transferral, her practice explores how memory and time can become embedded within physical sites and material forms. Through her work she attempts to understand the traces left by an experience and the potential to translate the intangible into the physical.

Selena de Carvalho is an activist posting as an artist. Her practice responds to notions of personal ecology and human interaction with the environment. Seeking materials and sites that have weathered various forms of frontline disturbance, she embodies the role of witness and interpreter. These environments and places are geographically disparate, connected via capitalist industrial threads, forms of convergent evolutions, migration paths or political narratives. This is her long term and current creative focus and operates as a framework for deeper inquiry, braiding numerous mediums including participatory installation, performance, workshops, sculpture, time based media, urban hacking, print media and writing.

Lily Hsu is a practicing Landscape Architect and Yoga Teacher currently based in Naarm (Melbourne) with her home-island being Taipei, Taiwan and Auckland, NZ. Her interest in art and design has led her to explore various process-led outcomes in the creative field of place and geography in the body of cities and places an environmental approach to City design. She is the business owner of Keep Things Simple (KTS), a creative research and landscape architecture Practice in Naarm and her academic teaching includes both RMIT and Melbourne University - she enjoys making ideas. http://www.kts-studio.com

Alex Dabi Zhevi (b. 1982, Australia) Alex Dabi Zhevi’s practice addresses the economies of public and private information within language, image-making and diaspora.