When worlds collide: Window farms, carbon trading, Kim Scott, The Merry Wives of Windsor and more at the UNSW FASS postgrad interdisciplinary conference

Earlier this month the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) at UNSW had its first ever interdisciplinary postgraduate conference, Dis/Connections. It was so fascinating, so thought provoking, to hear papers from across the regular academic boundaries collide that I’m inspired to write about it here. But I hadn’t planned to, so this will be a brief overview, with highlights (relating to my particular interests and obsessions).

1. The session I was part of – ‘Environment’ – was fascinating for me because it brought together papers on art, economics, social justice and literature, all related to the environment. And given ‘the environment’ is one of the biggest issues of the 21st century, a multi-disciplinary approach to the problems it presents is essential.

Susie Pratt’s paper – ‘Toxic Experiments: Art and public participation in environmental health’ – explored how artists work to highlight ‘the socio-material entanglement of pollutants and bodies’. I loved the work she talked about, notably Britta Riley’s Windowfarms project (below), and Natalie Jeremijenko‘s Environmental Health Clinic and her other ecological interventions such as the amazing robotic pollution-sniffing eco dogs.

The Windowfarms are designed to grow food in the smallest of urban spaces, like Riley’s Brooklyn loft in New York City. Her project is urban agriculture – aka hydroponic window farms – as environmental activism. She uses recycled water bottles and various pumps and other hardware to make gardens that hang in vertical columns in windows, grow edible plants – and look beautiful.

‘Clinic farmacy’ on 10th Ave, NYC, a distributed urban farm aimed at encouraging urban food production, 2011

The Environmental Health Clinic at New York University is a clinic and a lab modelledon other university health clinics – except that it turns the idea of health on its side (as its logo turns the traditional red cross ‘+’ of health provision on its side to make it an ‘X’). It ‘approaches the idea of health from an understanding of its dependence on external local environments, rather than on the internal biology and genetic dispositions of an individual.’ GENIUS. One of its many projects is the ‘clinic farmacy’ pictured below.

Close-up of the clinic farmacy

Beck Pearse’s paper was called ‘Reading Karl Polanyi in a Time of Climate Change’ and focused on the challenges posed by carbon trading, of creating a carbon market and a new commodity called ‘carbon’. Which Bec teased out in terms of Karl Polanyi‘s metaphor of ‘double movement‘. Her paper dealt with the attempts of economics to theorise the struggles over marketisation in a time of climate crisis, or the need to incorporate ecological goods (such as forests) and bads (such as carbon pollution) into the market. It also included a discussion of the impossibly complex details of introducing and running carbon markets, focusing on Australia’s introduction of carbon trading and the failing carbon market in Europe.

Abbie White gave a work-in-progress paper about the early stages of her work on ‘Climate Change Adaptation and Social Justice’, which will focus on the effects of climate change on a mountain community in Nepal and sounds like extremely important work.

My own paper was on ecology and economics in Kim Scott‘s Benang: From the heart. The session was chaired by Matthew Kearnes, Co-convenor of Environmental Humanities at UNSW.

One of the questions at the end of our session was about how we, students in such different disciplines (art, economics, justice, literature), could learn from each other in real, productive ways, other than merely enjoying each other’s papers. It was a good question and prompted much discussion, especially about the fact that something as big as climate change, environmental crisis, requires us to change not just our practices, but also our minds.

2. Another fascinating panel for me included papers on philosophy, literature, and opera and Shakespeare. I was especially taken by the Shakespeare-opera paper, because of my obsession with both. But I also really enjoyed Yuzhou Yang’s paper on light, darkness and twilight in Zhuangzi epistemology ‘Contextual Dimension of [Chinese character] (Illumination) as an Epistemological Concept in the Zhuangzi’; and Helen Rystrand’s paper ‘Katherine Mansfield’s Poetic Prose in Context’, on the connection between poetry and prose – in particular, between the modernist short story and radical poetic forms such as the prose poem and free verse.

Salieri in Amadeus

I loved John Severn’s ‘Operatic Adaptation and/as Shakespeare Criticism’ for many reason, but here are some: it focused on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, a play I don’t know well, so I was astonished to hear that it’s the only one of Shakespeare’s plays which has been continually performed since its first appearance around 1600 and one of his most popular plays before the 20th century. Its story of feisty women has been overtaken in popularity in modern times by Much Ado About Nothing, one of my favourite Shakespeare comedies, also about a feisty woman but one who’s eventually tamed into marriage. John discussed two adaptations of The Merry Wives to opera which retain the play’s focus on the wives (rather than on Falstaff, their suitor), and on its ‘unusual aspects – particularly its portrayal of female agency, family relationships and the natural world’. The operas are Salieri’s Falstaff (1799) and Nicolai‘s Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor (1849). Having first heard of Salieri through the Hollywood film Amadeus, where he appears to Mozart’s genius as his older rival and nemesis, a man consumed by jealousy, it was fascinating to hear how beautiful Salieri’s music actually is (eg ‘La stessa, la stessissima‘) and what a talented composer he was. (Hollywood eh.) As it was fascinating to be talked through some of the details of an opera score and told the significance of a high C sung by a daughter (rather than by her mother, the senior figure in the trio), as a mark of her new adulthood.

3. Other papers I loved include Hannah Brundson’s paper on film and literature ‘Dis/Connections: The local and the global in the novels of Thomas Hardy and their adaptations’, Joe Cummins music-literature fusion ‘Australian Outsiders: Connecting the convict to the terror suspect in the music of the Drones and Gareth Liddiard’ and Lynne Broad’s discussion of Chris Marker, essays and photographs ‘Chris Marker’s Inter-Media Essays: The photobook connection’.

4. The conference ended with a session called ‘Fielding Interdisciplinarity’, a fiery roundtable discussion with FASS ‘luminaries’ Dr Paul Dawson (literature), Dr Kath Albury(media), Dr Jo Faulkner (philosophy) and Associate Professor Laura Shepherd (international relations), hosted by Dr Chris Danta. It was an energetic critique from the front line about working between and across disciplines and their regular boundaries in academia, which I plan to write more about soon.

‘Raftmobile office’, part of the Environmental Health Clinic

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