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Amelia Hine is a human geographies researcher and emerging artist originally from Brisbane and now living and working in Oldenburg, Germany. Amelia's immersive exhibition Whoever’s is the soil was held at Stable Art Space in Meanjin (Brisbane) from 2–3 October 2021. It featured what could be described as a three-part speculative documentary, A Millennia of Seepage, produced in collaboration with the experimental musician cyberBanshee (Hannah Reardon-Smith). The exhibition examines the more-than-human infrastructures of underground spaces, questioning the assumed ownership of soil underpinning Western extractivism.

Dialogue between Amelia Hine and Therese Davis and Taylor Mitchell - editors of enduring environments.

Taylor Mitchell (TM): Your exhibition examines assumed ownership of soil, rethinking the underground and the Western relationship with it as either an extractable resource or as void of social and material value. Could you please talk us through the importance of offering an alternative depiction of underground environments?

Amelia Hine (AH): I’m coming at the project from a human geography perspective because that’s the academic discipline that I’m working within. And I'm using moving image works as a method of communicating some of the things I’m thinking about. So I guess that’s informing my approach in terms of the way that I come at the ideas of the underground and soil. And so I suppose I’m starting by thinking about the Anthropocene, what kind of relationship we have with the Earth at the moment in terms of influencing its geomorphology and its changes, and also taking on board some of the critiques of the Anthropocene, in terms of its human-centrism, and starting to think about other ways of thinking about that—so like Plantationocene, Capitalocene in you know, Donna Haraway-esque stuff. Within that context, my research practice is focused on mining and extractive industries. So I’m interested in the way that people think about the ground. Initially, I started with the landscape, the way that we think about landscape, the way that our perceptions of landscape influence the way that we can conceive of the future and the future change within the land, and our rights and capacity to change those landscapes. And then now I’ve started to think more deeply about soils underground and the role that they play. What I found interesting was their capacity to enact change in their own right, and to influence the way that we operate. The project is searching for ideas of agency within the soil and trying to highlight those.

TM: So many more-than-human engagements in literature and film draw on more typically emotive representations of ‘the environment’, like trees or large fauna. Your work examines relations that, through a Western lens might not be as easily relatable.

AH: Yeah, yeah, for sure. I guess this is something I want to look into deeper, but my understanding is that, often, the way humans understand the underground is through really specific emerging technologies. This is quite reductionist in terms of what they’re looking for—they’re searching out value. I’m really interested in thinking through other ways we can visualise the soil that communicates its complexity. This is hard because we don’t know what it looks like, you can never see what it looks like. I can only draw on existing reference images. I can get images of caves, like holes in the ground, but that’s an absence of earth, whereas I’m trying to find the earth itself. It's complex, and a fascinating challenge.

TM: Your series of films featured in the exhibition, A Millennia of Seepage presents a collage where extractivist processes are mixed visually and sonically with non-human nature, such as the axolotl and the excavation site. The project also presents a contrast of temporality and scale while still feeling deeply sensory. Can you talk us through your aesthetic approach?

AH: One of the fun things about the aesthetic medium I’m using is its capacity to play with scale and speed. It's a slow pan situation where I’m creating a lot of detail, too much detail for your eyes to understand everything as it’s happening even though it’s moving really slowly. I think it gives you a little bit of leeway to make things less realistic than they might be, to emphasise things that people should be looking at. And then that, in turn, by playing up the scale to do that, it makes it easier for you to direct the eye of the viewer towards specific things. If you are also including human elements in these non-human elements, it creates a sort of dialogue of which one’s bigger, and therefore, maybe which one’s more important, or which one should we think about first? Or should we be thinking about these objects in relation to each other?

A lot of the things that we see in the underground, like the stygofauna, are minuscule and really only occur in one place. These very small habitats that are very hard to see, should we be discounting their importance? What is it about scale? And what is it about the lack of visibility that makes something not important? And how can switch that around and re-highlight or change people’s perspectives on what should be important? There’s this fascinating case someone sent me recently, which is a Western Australian mine site that has just been approved earlier this year. My understanding is that it’s going to wipe out a lot of underground fauna that were seen as not important because, effectively, they can’t be seen, so people can’t really conceive of how they’re contributing to the world. And I think that it’s very problematic to just assume that a species doesn’t have any importance, or even an individual doesn’t have any importance. Shouldn’t it be respected in the same way that we might respect megafauna like birds? And even [this approach to megafauna] is problematic in its own right, in the way that we’re not taking into account the species properly in our planning processes. I have a lot of feelings about it.

TM: They have to validate ‘a use’ for something.

AH: Yeah, exactly. Something important to me is not just to highlight living things. But rather, to communicate that there might be some importance to the soil in place and thinking through the consequences of what it means to take soil out of place, change it around or transform it into other things without encroaching on Indigenous ontology because, obviously, that’s not my place. But I think it’s interesting, you know, to think about the ways these elements and minerals constitute us—we don’t recognise that in how we go about the world. These minerals have ended up in place over many millennia, and yet we are making these huge changes on massive scales, in terms of where soils are and what they’re doing, without really knowing the consequences.

TM: Could you talk us through Hannah Reardon-Smith’s soundscape and how you worked together?

AH: I created the visuals first, which was interesting as it was a music grant we secured to make the piece. Hannah is improvisational; they have a feminist, queer practice in improvisation and flute. They hooked it up to this electronic situation that I don’t entirely understand and improvised the soundscape as they watched it. It was sort of a reverse music video.

TM: I love that sonically it’s a kind of a collage as well, in its response to the collage elements of the film.

The term ‘Whoever’s is the soil’ is taken from a property law doctrine translating to ‘Whoever’s is the soil, it is theirs all the way to heaven and all the way to hell’. In the exhibition, your video work was accompanied by ceramic works that depict the subterranean environments around the Land Court of Queensland. Could you say a little bit about how the project engages with extractivism, underground environments and settler-colonial law?

AH: I have just completed a postdoc looking at the Adani Carmichael coal mine and the stakeholder environment around the 10-year approvals process. This was very centered on Queensland. I was at QUT working with a small team of two other people. And we did about 42 interviews with stakeholders, and they were really a broad spectrum—from activists to mining industry representatives and government regulators—and the overall perception was that it shouldn’t have been approved through the Land Court process, but that doesn’t have legal standing. The main problem with that process is that it doesn’t rely on experts to be judges; it has a court of people who are part of the law. So they’re not scientists. And so they don't necessarily understand all of the things that have been communicated to them by the expert scientists who are given the evidence in either direction. And so they have to do this process of guesswork and assumptions to make these judgments. And I think it’s really interesting from a geographical perspective, the way that this process is removed from the site itself and concentrated in an urban area. But then, at the same time, if you start to think about it, the Land Court itself is a physical material place that has been built. It exists. And just because it’s in an urban space doesn’t mean it’s not on land and in a relationship with soils beneath it. I was starting to think about what kind of urban interactions we have with soil, what ways we go underground, or what opportunities we have to think about our own location within space. The ceramic works were really important in attempting to shift this emphasis. I used two elevation designs—the Land Court, which is within the magistrate’s court in Brisbane, and also one of William Street, which is the political centre with the ministers—and shifted the elevation, putting it onto a marble tablet and creating an abstracted geological strata. I put the ground line too high so that it was out of place. Because normally, within an architectural plan, you would just have like a little bit of blacked-out to show that there’s some kind of material underneath but not too much of an emphasis on it. So these works were about playing around with the representation of the earth to better communicate our actual relationship with it.

TM: Thank you. In looking at more-than-human environments, your practice stretches across arts and research. You spoke a little bit about this before, but can you tell us more about how each practice informs the other?

AH: It’s an interesting one. I would like to have more of an emphasis on creative methods. My art practice is coming out of my writing practice and research practice as a method of communication. However, I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to the arts to be using it as a form of communication and public outreach because it reduces its capacity to have input into the research process. So I would like to think more about that, and I’m hoping my new project might be open to other more creative methodologies.

TM: Can you tell us about the new project?

AH: I’m beginning a postdoc on a discovery project at the University of Wollongong—it's quite broad and vague, which I like. It's looking at Port Kembla, thinking about how the landscapes have formed over time through the commodities going in and out of the port. It's broadly supposed to be both the industrial port landscape and the suburb of Port Campbell, but I'm not particularly interested in people, so I want to drop that part. It's stunning to think about some of the ways that material transformations happen by looking at particular commodities going in and out of Port Kembla. There is a steelworks there, as well as concrete manufacturing, grain storage, and a lot of cars being imported. And coal, heaps of coal, metallurgical coal, and green hydrogen. There are a lot of interesting things happening around green hydrogen. We're suddenly having these big political shifts to facilitate these billionaires' wishes to monopolise it.

Therese Davis (TD): Thanks, Amelia. In thinking through the role the moving image has played in remaking the Australian environment—the way that it makes it one way and then remakes it in another way— I’m interested in what you’re doing in A Millennia of Seepage, remaking the underground through the speculative process and the use of the moving image. I’m wondering if you think about what you are doing as speculative media practice in relation to some of those more traditional and conventional moving image practices. For example, the huge archive of mining documentaries, which are all around documenting the process of the mining going on underneath and the worker and the labour. And then also, how do you see your work in relation to the popular culture image as well? I’m thinking of Jules Verne’s Journey To the Centre of the Earth and the popular imaginary of soil and earth.

A collage of underground animals and materials by Amelia Hine.

AH: I guess I haven’t had the opportunity to really engage in mining documentaries. And I would love to, I suppose, because I’m coming at it from a more traditional research perspective, to start with, in terms of, you know, interviews with stakeholders and stuff, I just haven’t had a chance to do that.

TD: It all happens within a modernist framework that is very masculinist—we’ll go down and dig, we will just exploit and exploit, extract and extract. What I loved is the difference between those works—which are, as you described, about absence, it’s about creating great big holes and the genius of human beings to be able to do this work—meanwhile, your project is about filling, it’s complete; there are no holes.

AH: Yeah, that’s really interesting. I suppose one of the avenues that I did start looking at in terms of the visualisation was the way that mining and industrial processes are visualised around the technological sublime. And the way that it’s produced as this amazing or inspiring feat, that we are creating these giant holes and spaces. I haven’t explored this from a documentary and video perspective, but I have been looking at it in terms of Edward Burtynsky’s photography. During my PhD, I spent quite a bit of time looking at visuals of mining from that technological sublime perspective, and the problem for me was it wasn’t really doing anything. Edward Burtynsky, in particular, is really interesting. He does beautiful photography. And he goes and finds mines, or scrap heaps that are all one material and enormous, and he does this documentary photography of industrial landscapes and really obscure places. Many of them are semi-aerial, where he’s trying to show you its scale. He’ll often have recognisable people or machines in the image that we’re familiar with in order to place the scale. I think that work is really interesting in the way that it communicates scale, but I think it’s supposed to be intentionally neutral, and I don’t think that you can be neutral necessarily with that kind of work. I think it’s glorifying industrial processes and really engaging in that technological sublime. It’s not that I have a problem with that exactly, it’s just that I think there’s more complexity that you can seek out. It’s almost like it’s not doing anything apart from showing you that all these places exist, which I guess in itself is interesting. Because a lot of these things are displaced from an urban area, and you don’t necessarily understand what processes go into your everyday consumption. Yeah, sorry. That’s, that’s probably as close as I can get.

TD: So would you say that your work actually does tend toward complexity and entanglement?

AH: Yeah, absolutely. Yes. Particularly in A Millennia of Seepage, the vague aim was to, over the course of the ten minutes, increase the amount of human and anthropocentric things within the underground.  So it starts off a little less, and then you can see it’s supposed to show this transgression of interactions across humans and nonhumans in the underground. Thinking about that, in terms of longer timescales, you know, representative of the 20th century or a bit longer, and then thinking about how those, how we do or do not physically interact with things that are under the ground? If we’re passing through it in a tunnel are we actually engaging in it? Or are we just seeing blue lights and the absence of anything?

TD: And what about those caves, such as the Jenolan Caves? Is that the sublime as well, when it sort of just focuses on that particular kind of luminous stalactites and stalagmites? How are you positioning these underground structures as a visual practice, as opposed to more touristic imagery?

AH: I think it’s really interesting. I haven’t thought about caves very much, I think because they confuse me in terms of how you use them as representations, how you use images properly. But having said that, I use a lot of stalactites and stalagmites within the videos. I think they’re almost like a gesture towards what we’re familiar with regarding the underground to place the viewer and let them orient themselves and recognise where we’re supposed to be within the video. And I think, yeah, I haven’t really engaged with caves more generally. I’ve just recently been thinking about this because I’ve been reading some of the subterranean geographies literature, particularly concerning creative methods. Harriet Hawkins has been doing a lot of stuff around this. And one of the things that is really, that’s interesting is this interest in caves as the space that the human can occupy, a pre-made hole at a human scale for us to enter into the underground. There was this beautiful quote by Harriet Hawkins, essentially that caves are almost like this human-centric thing because everything else that’s not quite big enough for a human or not quite deep enough for a human has a different name. We haven’t given it the same name as a ‘cave’. So ‘cave’ therefore signifies that it’s human scale, which I thought was fascinating.

TD: Yeah. And we even have cavemen.

AH: Yeah. It’s been outside of my scope because it’s a natural phenomenon, and I’m so focused on these extractive processes of the ground that I haven’t explored caves very much.

TD: I guess I was responding to the idea that in such a visual practice, the stalactites and stalagmites are usually brought to the foreground, and they’re lit while the soil is in the near background. And what I’m loving about your work is that you see such an underground structure as part of a complexity. It’s not foregrounded, it’s not sublime, it’s not the kind of wonder of the eccentric—it’s got it all moving there. I think that’s a really interesting critical leap in terms of visual practice.

AH: Oh, that’s really interesting. I hadn’t noticed that about my work. But I suppose it makes sense because what I do is I collect hundreds of images, and I do a deep trace of each of them, then just layer them up. I don’t prioritise, generally, images over each other, I layer them into a kind of scene. It’s never occurred to me to prioritise the stalactites.

TD: Yeah, this is very different to tourist practices, where they take people through tours, and the lighting creates a very particular kind of visual experience.

AH: Well, it’s really similar to cathedrals, isn’t it? I think, in the way that it sets up the silence and the feeling that you get when you go through it. It’s like a very deliberate setup.

TD: And Marilu Melo Zurita has also written about the issue of getting around light and how you light what is not seen. And I’m just thinking about how your lighting practice is quite different from that other visual practice of spotlighting.

AH: It’s a tricky one because it’s so connected to the problem of visualising something that’s not lit. There’s this whole space, this impenetrableness. From a physics perspective, I have to use light because that’s the thing that’s capturing the images I’m using. And I can’t figure out a way to do this without having light.

TD: Is that where the speculative comes in?

AH: Oh, yeah, for sure. Because I don’t know what these spaces look like. I’m just making them up. And I’m drawing on… I am really interested in sci-fi visualisations, earlier ones from the 50s and 60s, especially the ones that show these ridiculous giant insects and, you know,  play with scale in order to try to make something monstrous. This is something I’ve thought about a bit, the way that science fiction grants this speculative space to us and lets you think about things that aren’t humans. And just ponder them, and play with them in a way that’s not encroaching on Indigenous ontologies—that’s something that I am constantly struggling with, how to not be in the wrong place with that—there’s also a space to play with futures. And within the movement of science fiction itself, there’s obviously the social movement and the feminist movement, and I think that’s also an interesting avenue to take forward in terms of its relationship with its more-than-human and speculative spaces. 

TD: Can we talk about what you said about not encroaching on Indigenous ontologies? It’s something that I think a lot of us who are non-Indigenous feel uncomfortable talking about, but maybe we need to unpack a bit more, and I’m trying to do that in my own work. How do we do this kind of work in a social and physical, and economic context of colonisation, respectfully, and how do we incorporate Indigenous frameworks? How do we bring that into our own practices, whether that be scholarship, research or art practice? Would you be willing to say a little bit about how you work through that?

AH: Yeah, it’s also about the limits of our own knowledge of what we know about Indigenous ways of knowing. And then, at what point do we think we might be in the wrong place, and how do you get back from that? Or, you know, where’s the line? It’s really hard. And I think having talked to Indigenous people about this kind of problem, the answer is always that you need to have relationships with Indigenous people so that they can tell you when you’re stepping over the line. And I just think the problem there is that I don't have those relationships. So I don't quite know where to get them and whether they’ll become like an extractive relationship anyway.

And I actually feel like it’s a systemic thing and that I don’t have the power at the moment to be in a place where I can set up partnerships, long-term partnerships, and develop that shared knowledge. Because I’m an early career researcher, and, you know, working on other people’s projects, but I think in the long term, what will have to be a part of our practice is this co-design and co-sharing of what we’re thinking in a way that is Indigenous lead.

I was looking at a creek for my PhD, and it was Adnyamathanha People’s Country. And at least within their worldview, the rocks are the spine of Mother Nature. And so, from that perspective, the rocks have agency and are integral to life. And then I am coming at it from my white perspective, saying, ‘How can we think about rocks as having agency?’. It feels close to theft, it’s really uncomfortable. And I really want to figure it out, it’s really important to me to work on.

Originally published in enduring environments, 2023

Further resources:
Amelia Hine, Stable Art Space [
Amelia Hine,
A Millennia of Seepage [link]