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DAMNED is a poetic homage to beavers and their home-building capacities, explored through the materiality of photography and its various technological manifestations. Artist, data synthesizer, photographer, and museum conservation photographer L. M. Ramsey's tendency toward, and proficiency with, photographic technologies is here transformed into a poem. Eschewing words, the artist uses the medium of photography to ask: What can we glean from the North American Beaver (Castor canadensis) and the restorative ways in which they build their homes? What does technology offer us in terms of trying to visualize and honour nature? 

Photography is a medium with a history mired in the aims of imperialism, resource extraction, and the military-industrial complex. Since the invention of the photographic image, humans, animals, plants, and the earth itself have been constantly surveilled, examined, and catalogued by the camera's lens in the service of expanding colonial and capitalist enterprises. In the introduction to his book 24/7, Jonathan Crary outlines the ways in which the United States’ military uses advanced technologies to study the white crowned sparrow, a species of bird that stays awake for one week straight during its seasonal southern migration. The aim of this research is to discover a way to emulate this behaviour in humans—soldiers in particular—so that they can function (produce, consume, and, ultimately, kill) around the clock.(New York: Verso Books, 2014), 103. Similarly, in numerous other examples, photographic technology has been and continues to be used as a powerful colonial tool, helping to destroy the planet and Indigenous and animal communities through the extraction and perversion of specifically parsed and reapplied information. Ramsey writes: 

Ultimate safety with one another is something that cannot exist as long as humankind continues depleting resources from non-humans and each other. If we do not learn from our earth, and cannot find the courage to connect with its natural cycles, we are damned to live in a future of solitude, void of safety, and void of home.

Playing just inside the exhibition’s entrance is SURVEILLANCE (2024), a projected, black-and-white, night-vision video showing Algonquin Park beavers swimming and building dams. Ramsey assembled this footage to illuminate that the beavers’ existence is one of living collectively with the earth. In the works presented throughout the exhibition, the artist employs photographic technologies in a manner that elides violent gestures, acknowledging that beavers, like the planet and all human and non-human beings, are sentient, and that when humans try to control nature, depletion, destruction, and crisis occurs, as evidenced by a particular comparison with Ramsey’s pivotal example—Beaver dams are incredible technological structures, more efficient in trapping and slowly funneling water than the massive human-made concrete constructions.Dietland Müller-Schwarze and Lixing Sun, The Beaver: Natural History of a Wetlands Engineer, (Ithaca: Comstock Publishing Associates, 2003). Human attempts at channeling and damming water rapidly deplete natural resources and ultimately eliminate them, in many cases turning wetlands into arid, infertile land, and causing severe harm to the human and animal ecosystems immediately surrounding them, and beyond. Beaver dams are enchanting not only because they provide the animals with a home, but they are also an elaborate food storage system, and further, the dam’s resulting pond keeps its denizens safe by protecting them from predators. Beavers are a keystone species due to the specific changes wrought by their dam constructions, which cause local plant and animal life to thrive. Essentially, the beaver’s existence is predicated on a collaborative and collective ethos of building: to create a safe personal living space that concurrently benefits the entire surrounding community. In other words, helping yourself and your family in a way that also helps your neighbours means that all will flourish. Throughout the exhibition Ramsey employs photography with reverence for beavers and the ways in which they create safe spaces and help the environment prosper. 

In the work NON-STOP (2024), CRT monitors set in front of hazy blue lights visualize tree branches that reveal the presence of beavers through their distinctive bite marks. Branches once used by the beaver for nourishment and as housing materials glow and rotate on the screens for the viewer’s study, their three-dimensionality reproduced via the technological prowess of digital photogrammetry. By presenting these reproductions within aging CRT monitors, the artist brings us, to use her words: "into the heart of the machine." Here, Ramsey's tendency toward, and immense proficiency with, imaging technology is made clear through her ability and desire to foreground the monitors' own materiality. Compounding this series of informational translations, the off-cut branches themselves, scavenged by Ramsey, are placed nearby in the gallery. By including these original objects, she asks: To what extent can photographic technology actually reproduce nature? What implications does the rise of technology have on non-human identities, and how are they recollected and redefined through a data-driven world?“DAMNED,” L. M. Ramsey, https://lauramargaretramsey.com/DAMNEDEST. The artist invites contemplation upon the nature of perception itself, reminding us that while photography can emulate the wonders of nature—the exactitude of the branches on the screens is impressive—it ultimately fails. 

With SAFELIGHT (2024), Ramsey pivots from her technological proficiency in the digital realm to her deft brilliance in the analogue darkroom. As the work's title suggests, and as is evidenced throughout the exhibition, the artist seeks to contrast concepts of safety as exemplified by beavers with those relevant to photography. Here, echoing the soft glow of the CRT monitors is the bright cyan of chromogenic photographic paper that has solely been exposed to a darkroom safelight. Nuanced inspection of the prints reveals a subtle image that is the ebb and flow of cyan resulting from the red-spectrum wavelengths of the safelight, and the materiality and chemical content of the paper itself. These, and the adjacent photograms, allude to water, the most important element of beaver habitats. The artist describes the work as such: 

Exposed only to the red darkroom safe-light, these sensitive prints still change, their dye couplers shifting and fading into a soft blue reminiscent of a tranquil river. Here, the natural process of photography becomes a metaphor for the passage of time, a soft reminder of the ephemeral and fragile state of safety and connectivity in an ever-changing world.

The warm red emittance of a safelight installed in the gallery interrupts this blue photographic river, and echoes the artist’s red text work—DAMNED—that opens the exhibition. Ramsey collapses the literal descriptor of a beaver family's refuge into the atmosphere created by this essential darkroom tool, repositioning the word for viewers to unpack. Is the red light a silent alarm in response to how damnable it is that humans continue to plunder the earth? Or is the word in reverence to the extraordinary ways that beavers live? Or to the fact that photography is magic?

damned

1 of 2 adjective
damneder; damnedest or damndest

1: DAMNABLE
this damned smog

2: COMPLETE, UTTER —often used as an intensive
a damned shame

3: EXTRAORDINARY —used in the superlative
the damnedest contraption you ever saw

2 of 2 adverb
: EXTREMELY, VERY
a damned good job“damned,” Merriam Webster Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/damned.

Ramsey grew up hearing the word “damned” used in a manner that encompasses almost all of its meanings. As her Vovó always used to proclaim with love, “I did my damnedest"—a saying so deeply associated with the artist’s matriarch that it was engraved on her tombstone. Secretly, Ramsey imbues the exhibition with her grandmother's energy, and in doing so, abstractly points to the importance of safe spaces created by our matriarchs, human and non-, beavers themselves embodying a matriarchal society. As stated in the foreword to Silvia Federici’s book Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons, and that broadly sums up the feminist scholar's ethos throughout: “there is no commons without communality, and there is no community without women.”(New York: PM Press / Kairos, 2018), [xvi]. Both Federici’s and Ramsey’s works highlight meaningful alternatives to the capitalist-colonialist project of extraction, foregrounding communality, mutual care, and balance over unending neoliberal pillaging and individualism. The poetics of Ramsey’s pseudo-scientific investigations open softly into alternate possible futures for humanity, driven by quiet, contemplative observation and slow learning from our more-than-human family. As Ramsey notes, “DAMNED serves not as a condemnation, but as a call to arms—a testament to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of inevitable failure, urging us to reevaluate our trajectory before it's too late.”

Curated by Heather Canlas Rigg

Presented by CONTACT

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