Biodiversity as Art

A unique video archive celebrates the biodiversity of Tamborine Mountain. Peter Kuttner talks about how he has brought his artistic impulses to bear on the beauty of nature.

It was my extreme good fortune to come straight from London to Tamborine Mountain in late February 1987. I was bowled over by the natural abundance and exuberance of the place – by the brilliant colours of the birds, the size and profuse growth of the vegetation, the exotic presence of bougainvillea and hibiscus and, above all, by my first walk in the jungle, which is what rainforest used to be called.

Then, after many years of environmental activism on land use issues, in 1998 I bought a Canon XL 1 digital video camera and started creating a video archive devoted to the mountain’s species rich biodiversity. I just did not want to run the risk of it succumbing without fitting trace, to the threat posed by development and population increase in Australia’s fastest growing and second most biodiverse region.

My preoccupation with biodiversity is informed by art, not by science. My archive is an artwork. It could not be otherwise because I am an artist whose career dates back to what was known in pre postmodern terms as the avant garde art scene of 1960s and 70s London. Although I belonged to a group of young artists who espoused impermanent art in the form of multi-media events, performance art and street theatre as the antidote to the commodification of art exemplified by the gallery system, I studied painting at art school. And it is with a visual artist’s eye that I approach my filming. I haven’t encountered anything in art as ‘avant garde’ as Tamborine Mountain’s biodiversity.

There was no biodiversity video archive template to guide me. It took me nearly three years to identify all the elements of the production, the last of which was specially commissioned aerial footage – an invaluable resource. Fortunately, at the outset, I did one thing right: keeping a film diary that I colour-coded according to the subject, or subjects, of each day’s filming.

And I did another right thing before I began filming the interviews. I obtained and modified a standard release form which, once signed, allowed me to use the interviewee’s voice and image. In as much as this is an archive about the biodiversity of Tamborine Mountain, it is equally an archive about outstanding biodiversity. There are more frog species on the mountain than there are in the whole of Canada and the mountain’s published plant list amounts to well over 80% of that of New Zealand. A by no means exhaustive survey, published in 2001, increased plant numbers from under 800 to more than 900. And the number has grown since.

I defined biodiversity for the archive as the total number of life forms in a given place at a given time, visible to the naked eye. I did this to acknowledge the fact that the mountain was home to 6,500 people (now over 7,000) with their gardens, crops and livestock. Being an artist allows me to include virtually any and every growing and moving thing I come across, whereas, were I an ecologist, I might well be inhibited from filming a non-native species or a weed. The biodiversity, in addition to being the product of geography (the mountain’s topography, soils and climate), is also the product of history (intrusive human encroachment on the land, or white settlement). It proclaims what a kind and generous place the mountain is in allowing so much more (not all of it benign) to flourish on it, than the already abundant native species.

Given the nature of my project, it may seem surprising that only towards the end of the lengthy editing process some six or more years into the production, did it fully dawn on me that, in making the archive, I was actually presenting biodiversity as a subject on digital video, at least as far as encompassing the range of species is concerned. This realisation prompted another, namely that there is a glaring gap in the distinguished record of the blue chip natural history documentary because nobody seems to have made a documentary about the subject of biodiversity itself.  The genre deals only with aspects of biodiversity.

Biodiversity is a widely used word in the media and in conversation, but it is not as widely understood in spite of being coined over twenty years ago. I believe that a documentary series devoted to biodiversity is needed to bridge the gap between our use of the word and our understanding of its meaning. For such a project I would define biodiversity as the totality of species and their relationships.

Biodiversity is a wonderful subject for a visual artist. To begin with, it is about life itself in its infinitely varied appearance. Also, it has a capacity to constantly surprise and it manifests on an immense spread of scale. As an artist I love colour in all its permutations, having used it in paint, light projection, fireworks, food and now video. My artwork is as complete a visual record of the subject as I am able to achieve. Within that constraint, I at all times seek to frame my shots as beautifully as I can.

My work is a record of small events which are always absorbing and frequently exhilarating. As I look out for the overlooked, I experience a recurring delight in filming the kinds of plants and animals which are the essential content of my footage. I film species simply because they are there, because they and I are alive on earth together. This opens up a strange world full of often-unheralded beauty and fascination.

Apart from trees and vines, much of what I film is small or tiny. Which is where the 20x optical zoom on my current camera, to which I admit to being addicted, comes in. Moths, fungi, orchids and lichen are among the smallest things I film. Time and again, it is only on playback that I see even tinier life forms than the one I have filmed on full zoom. The zoom also enables me to film venomous snakes in safety or get close to otherwise skittish creatures like pademelons.

I also love the effect of zooming in and pulling back to a wide shot, creating a succession of pictures within pictures. Many of the fauna species I film keep perfectly still, which is ideal for revealing as much detail as possible of their shape, colouring and features; a spider in its web, a moth on a wall, a bug on a leaf, a sleeping snake. So I delight in the subtlest of movement, such as twitching antennae, or a breeze ruffling a wing or rocking the plant on which a bug is resting.

It was only after befriending someone who owned a spotlight, that I was able to act on my realisation that biodiversity is a 24-hour a day, 7 days a week proposition and that I needed to compile a dossier of night footage. This gave my project added purpose and reward, something I would previously not have thought possible. Australia is known for its particularly active fauna nightlife.

Now, more than 3½ years, 53 night shoots and nearly 10½ hours of footage later, I am working on my three latest, hour long DVDs, all devoted to the rainforest at night. Not only does the spotlight illuminate fauna that would be invisible in daylight, it does so in wonderfully dramatic ways. Normally, I would never attempt to film a mosquito, but when I saw one poised on a palm leaf, its legs etched with the utmost precision, its body appearing to float and its wings looking almost opaque against the dark of the night, I seized the opportunity to add this species to my collection.

When filming leaf curling spiders, I love the way the leaf shines bright, held horizontally above the ground by a seemingly invisible force and completely surrounded by the black of night, with the spider brilliantly illuminated on board. You could never get quite such isolated and spectacular focus on a subject in daylight. Visually and aesthetically it is a whole different world, one I have been privileged to enter, explore and film. And that is true of all my forays in Tamborine Mountain’s biodiversity.

I began my project because I feared for the future of the mountain’s biodiversity. My fear has now given way to a feeling that biodiversity is something to celebrate (which I am doing through my art), that fearing for its health is no reason not to celebrate the earth’s sublime and unfathomable biodiversity because we are more likely to serve it better by delighting in it.

Peter Kuttner is an artist who has lived on Tamborine Mountain since 1987 when he migrated from England. His published archive on 15 DVDs with a running time of 21½ hours, is in the collection of Australia’s National Film & Sound Archive. The website has been captured for Australia’s national web archive and is a Content Partner of the prestigious Encyclopaedia of Life, based at the Smithsonian, whose remit is to have a web page for every species known to science, 1.8 million and counting.