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Why 2016's Environmental Crisis Needs More Than The “Escapist” Planet Earth II
Rory Gibb , December 15th, 2016 11:21

This year, two works drawing on BBC natural history footage presented sharply different explorations of the relationships among people and the non-human world, writes Rory Gibb

In January this year Bristol's Arnolfini hosted the UK premiere of artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah's three-screen film installation Vertigo Sea, a remarkably dense, moving work that explores parallel histories of the Atlantic slave trade, the whaling industry, and past and present waves of human migration. As with much of Akomfrah's other film work it's woven together from archive footage and images spanning decades, and as a result is richly allusive, gesturing towards the connections between its multiple narratives without being didactic; in conversation with Anthony Downey during the opening weekend in Bristol, he described his practice as "trying to engineer and set in motion dialogue between images".

Alongside several other new Akomfrah works that opened at London's Lisson Gallery at the start of this year, Vertigo Sea, first shown in 2015, was particularly timely in explicitly addressing the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. Opening with a excerpt from an interview with a Nigerian man who, after his boat capsized, had clung to the floats of a tuna net until he was rescued by fishermen, the film gradually unfurls into a tidal rush of words and imagery that situate this contemporary crisis within complex histories of at-sea violence and oppression — we see African slaves thrown overboard as a flock of gannets plummets into the sea, bullets and harpoons tearing into whale and polar bear flesh, images of young Argentinians who were 'disappeared' at sea and dying sharks tangled in fishing nets. A recurring motif of a ticking clock draws attention to temporality; the film's familiar images of whales, fish and seabirds were sourced from archive BBC Natural History Unit footage from series like Planet Earth and The Blue Planet, and presented alone would have a certain timeless quality. But here, strikingly, they're violently brought into dialogue with the emerging histories of western modernity, implicitly drawing out the links between the systematic oppression of colonised peoples and global ecological devastation.

Now, in neat mirror image, at the close of 2016 we've had a second series of Planet Earth, which visually ups the ante from the first series footage that's woven throughout Vertigo Sea. At the end of such a fraught year, there's something heartening in the fact that Planet Earth II — a programme that pays loving attention to the minutiae of wild animal lives — has been one of 2016's biggest cultural phenomena. The improvement in camera technology since the first series aired in 2006 is astonishing: we now see elusive creatures and their worlds rendered so sharply that they become almost surreal, their vivid colour-contrasts and crisp contours so distinct from the softer, blurred aspect of wild animals as seen through the naked eye or binoculars. Critically, however, the other key element of the programme that has sharply increased in the intervening decade is the urgency of the subject matter. The growing effects of phenomena such as climate change and habitat loss are pushing many of these creatures still closer to extinction, an issue around which narrator David Attenborough continues to be a tireless advocate. In the multiple narratives that converse in Vertigo Sea this urgency emerges as a key theme; its surging, allusive dialogue between histories of migration and exploitation implicates colonisalism and the global spread of extractive capitalism as shared drivers of human and environmental catastrophe. And yet in contrast, in a year that threatens to prove disastrous for efforts to halt runaway environmental change, isn't it curious that watching Planet Earth II often feels so much like escapism?

Certainly the need to tell its subjects' stories has rarely been greater, and for such a broad-ranging series it remains beautifully attentive to the intricate texture of many of its (often tiny) subjects' lives: beetles condensing drinking water from desert dune mist; wasps snaring frog tadpoles from their leaf nursery; penguin parents on Zavodovski Island foraging in shifts in the surging Southern Ocean. In the Islands episode an albatross waits patiently for his long-term partner to return after six months at sea, and when she finally arrives the pair greet with their own unique, elaborate dance. In highlighting the huge effort the couple undergo each year to raise a chick, the segment recalls Thom van Dooren's writing about the lives and deaths of albatrosses in an era of longline fishing and marine plastics pollution. "The thing we call a species is an incredible achievement," he marvels in his 2014 book Flight Ways. "We often do not appreciate — and perhaps cannot truly grasp — the immensity of this intergenerational work; the skill, commitment, co-operation and hard work, alongside serendipity, that are required in each generation to carry the species through." The book goes on to explore the stories of several other endangered birds, whose lives and fates are intimately coupled to human-induced processes of environmental change, including vultures poisoned by livestock pharmaceuticals in India, and a colony of penguins in Sydney Harbour whose nesting sites are gradually being hemmed in by coastal urbanisation.

VS from Tandis Jenhudson on Vimeo.

Such stories highlight how, in an increasingly anthropogenic world, human activities tend to messily intervene in other creatures' lives in myriad subtle and often unexpected ways. In contrast, what's striking about Planet Earth II is just how rarely these entanglements and interventions are acknowledged. We live in a patchwork world, with many species now living in fragmented mosaics of their former habitat ranges, or adapting to find new modes of living in human-transformed landscapes. Barring Attenborough's broad-brush mentions of environmental change, which occur once or twice per episode, most of the series’ fascinating stories of wild nature feel bizarrely atemporal, in stark contrast to the historical specificity of Vertigo Sea. The universalising emotional gestures of Hans Zimmer's score (a prime example of the sort of heavy-handed orchestral music that's increasingly the norm in BBC wildlife programmes) further compress a huge diversity of animal life worlds into an anthropomorphic and Western-centric affective spectrum. Nature becomes cinematic spectacle, its complexity held comfortably at a distance. Compare it to the weird fleshiness of the soundtrack to one of Attenborough's early series, the knotty Life on Earth, in which fascination with the life worlds of creatures vastly different from ourselves is expressed in music that's curious and questing, laced with a creeping sense of the uncanny. (Or, to pick a more recent example, I'd have loved to hear a soundtrack to this series as rich and nuanced as Simon Fisher Turner's score for the remastered Epic of Everest, which renders the deadly otherness of the high mountain world in gorgeous, crystalline electronics and subtle instrumentation.)

It's perhaps this characteristic that ultimately makes much of Planet Earth II feel like escapist TV viewing; we're dimly aware that murkier processes are occurring outside the frame, but they are rarely acknowledged or allowed to intervene. In its depictions of wilderness, you often find yourself wondering about what the camera's eye is carefully unseeing (to borrow a term from China Mieville). Some of these are particularly striking. A sequence featuring the critically endangered saiga antelope surprisingly fails to mention the 2015 mass die-off that saw up to half of the entire remaining population die from disease — despite the fact that the crew were filming them in Kazakhstan at the time. Others are subtler; the camera frequently pulls away before various cute and cuddly prey creatures meet their end, while the majority emphasis on wild landscapes relegates almost all evidence of humans to the filming diaries sections and the final cities episode, reinforcing a vision of nature as external to society. On one hand it's perhaps fair to ask whether this matters, when these beautifully told stories are a route to engage millions of viewers with wildlife. On the other, if 2016 has been an emphatic reminder of anything, it's that the way in which stories are framed counts for a great deal. And with so many of these creatures threatened by global change, telling them is fraught with ethical questions. It's hard then not to see the series' slender discussion of questions around conservation, climate change and coexistence as something of a missed opportunity — especially now, in the warmest year ever recorded and with Arctic sea ice extents reaching record lows.

This gap points towards the need for storytelling in popular culture that can encompass this complexity; that can explore the diverse political and emotional dimensions of living in a warming world in ways that do not reduce or sidestep the inherent difficulty of their subject matter. Beyond the archival footage link to Vertigo Sea, this is perhaps where an artistic project like John Akomfrah's can contribute to this line of thought. In the same conversation with Anthony Downey he explained the film's genesis as an idea to draw BBC Natural History Unit footage into broader dialogue: "[to get it] to migrate elsewhere, to talk to other sets of images". What his work and that of the BBC NHU on Planet Earth II share is a particular concern for the affective dimensions of storytelling. For example, both are interested in ideas of the sublime, of nature as an overwhelming aesthetic and emotional experience. In Planet Earth II this translates to communicating a sense of amazement and wonder at wildlife and the natural world, via spectacular landscapes and astonishingly close-up, high-def imagery. Yet this vision is a carefully constructed one. Akomfrah's work is similarly overpowering in sensory information, yet through archival bricolage this gaze is subtly critiqued: whose worldviews are prioritised and whose silenced? Who has historically been granted access to Nature in this way? What narratives are hidden from view?

While still deeply emotionally engaging, the result is work in which relationships among people, and between people and other forms of life, become ambiguous and uncanny, very familiar sensations that speak to life in a fast-changing world. The entanglements of human and non-human worlds in the Anthropocene/Capitalocene are characterised, suggests Timothy Morton, by unsettling intimacy — the dawning awareness that our lives are much more closely coupled than we'd like to think to creatures and processes we'd always considered to belong to an external Nature. How much richer might a programme like Planet Earth II be for further acknowledging these frictions? This question is tantalisingly addressed in the final episode's focus on urban ecosystems, a growing frontier of interactions between wildlife and people. Here leopards stalk the streets at night and snatch livestock, peregrines hurtle after pigeons through the concrete-and-glass gorges of New York City, and hatchling turtles are confused by street lamps and crushed by traffic. In one particularly wonderful (and sensitively soundtracked) sequence, a clan of wild hyaenas stalks the streets of Harar in Ethiopia, before arriving at people's houses to be hand-fed by their residents. Compared to the wilderness-focused episodes there's a beguiling tension and elusiveness to these sequences that situates them distinctly in the world we currently inhabit. It's intriguing to imagine a possible future Planet Earth III spending its time exploring these emerging landscapes of conflict and coexistence.

Vertigo Sea is at the Turner Contemporary, Margate, until the 8th January