Alicia Frankovich’s Guide to the Galaxy

Connie Brown broaches the troubles of taxonomy.

Entering the darkened room in Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu ̄ where Alicia Frankovich’s Atlas of Anti-Taxonomies is displayed might feel like entering the electronics section of a JB Hi-Fi, its cordon of screens blinking with their screensavers of Attenborough-esque stock photography. If Frankovich’s image world bears any relation to conventional nature photography, though, it is in collusion with the preteen who ruthlessly chops up back issues of National Geographic to create their own mutant world.

Across eight double-sided lightboxes and three video monitors clustered in the centre of the space, Frankovich presents images she has gathered over the past four years. These images—photographed on her regular walks and taken off the internet—form a database of the biotic world as part of her practice-led PhD research at Melbourne’s Monash University. The images are grouped according to affinities of pattern, form, and colour between, say, various kinds of lichens and tree barks or, more unexpectedly, between things like the fleshy pink head of a mushroom and the cosmic phenomena NASA calls ‘space blobs’.

Occasionally, the panels include short texts whose function is to thorn or detour thinking from its reflexive pathways—enigmatic half-statements such as ‘they undergo a non-linear leap from one place to another’. Who are ‘they’ here? Possibly pollen grains hitchhiking on a monarch butterfly’s back leg. Or, given the satellite image of Earth that features in this assemblage, Frankovich could just making be a moon-landing pun. Or it might also be a prompt for viewers to weave through the huddle of the display, thinking and moving in something other than straight lines, like hitchhikers themselves, willing to deviate from the direct route.

Atlas is a tiered archipelago of screens to move around, offering no beginning, middle, or end, but infinite places to start and threads to follow. These threads are often extraterrestrial, fungal, or vegetal. You might track all the examples of ‘fruit’, say, passing from one mouldering orange to another, each shrinking away from its barcode sticker and becoming green dust; on to a quince, scalped by peckish birds; then to a pile of apple cores and another of chopped rhubarb, possibly remnants of the same dessert; then to more oranges, their peels picked compulsively into dried-out flakes beside an open laptop. ‘Noticing’ is all there is to do, though. Suddenly, the latitude you were navigating by has brought you to Atlas’s limit and to the greyscale grid beyond it. At which point it would be right to wonder exactly what has been gained from the imposition of this system, and what has been lost or missed. Closer relationships and richer stories that cut across categorical lines, maybe? Like those taking place between the orange, the plastic sticker, and the mould—signs of life consuming life and of plasticised zombie life that refuses to die. Which is what kind of thread—petrochemicalian?

Atlas of Anti-Taxonomies acts against what Frankovich describes as ‘the violence of identity’. Although ‘fruit’ is a seemingly benign identity, it’s an example of a taxonomic classification that rules out more knowledge than it inscribes, not least the possibility that there are qualities to the things or beings it names that may exceed or slip through our human systems.

Alicia Frankovich, Atlas of Anti-Taxonomies, 2019–22, dye-sublimation prints on PVC polyester on lightboxes, videos. Courtesy of Starkwhite, Auckland, and 1301SW, Melbourne

In the early 2000s, as a recent AUT sculpture graduate, Frankovich began to pick at ‘the violence of identity’. Later, performance offered her the medium of the body in which to centre this study, as the medium in which the violence is most concentrated—and in some bodies more than others. Working with performers of diverse sexual, racial, and economic backgrounds, Frankovich highlights the ways bodies are inscribed within late capitalism. Mostly, though, her choreographies look to the body’s tendency to undermine such inscriptions, to cut across those binaries, to metabolise and metamorphose in the exhibition spaces.

In contrast to her performance work, human bodies are largely absent from Atlas. Only one image depicts a human form, though its technologised ghost appears elsewhere in the form of a dental X-ray, the crowns on the back-most molars glowing white in the field of siren red. Frankovich calls Atlas ‘an account of what’s happening with or without the human’. This is akin to what political theorist Jane Bennett calls ‘thing-power or vibrant matter’—her term for the life force that pulses through all beings, objects, and phenomena. Acknowledging these pulses—because, or despite the fact that, so many of them lie beyond the limits of human perception—allows us ‘to experience the relationship between persons and other materialities more horizontally’.

Thinking ecologically requires this transversal, trans- species, interscalar consciousness; and accruals, like that of Atlas, have emerged as its aesthetic paradigm. On one hand, accruals imitate organic processes, like growth or sedimentation. On the other (and more disturbingly), they are manifestations of landfill—of stuff endlessly discarded and accumulated. Taking these two faces together, accrual functions both to archive and forecast the Anthropocene’s material violence upon the biology and geology of the planet. In any case, it pushes us toward a different subjectivity or ‘an undoing of the question of the whole earth and whole subject’, as one of Atlas’s texts puts it.

The taxonomy sorts what’s worthy of our attention from what’s not, while accrual leaves us with the gross as well as the good. What to do with that gross is a problem that ecological thinking repeatedly rams up against. The unsettling underside to Frankovich’s ‘account of what’s happening with or without the human’ is the possibility that there is a time to come when humans won’t be around to witness things, let alone shunt them into categories and museum vitrines.

This isn’t to conclude that the ‘anti-taxonomy’ permits us to nihilistically and uncaringly free fall towards extinction, clinging tight to ‘not knowing what to do’ as some kind of absolution. As is typical in her practice, Atlas of Anti-Taxonomies is held together by Frankovich’s faith in different ways of being. Some of these are newly emerging from the muck of environmental decline, but others represent a long history of thinking and being in a way that cares for the nonhuman world. In wall texts placed around the space, Frankovich acknowledges the Māori and Aboriginal peoples in whose sovereign lands she took her images. These might give pause to viewers otherwise ‘undergoing non-linear leaps’ through the image ecosystem—holding them in place with a human history that has unspooled alongside the lichens and the fungi and the waterways, largely without damaging them.

Like the taxonomist she antagonises, Frankovich believes in the infinitude of human knowledge. Where the taxonomy assumes a singular, omniscient view and hold over the planet, An Atlas of Anti-Taxonomies sees ways of knowing as one of the many things accruing, multiplying, metabolising, and outwitting systems and categories—always needling up to and past its own limits, out into the greyscale grid.

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