This post develops a conversation with Jethro Brice, who is preparing for field work along the crane migration route in the Hula Valley of Israel/Palestine. My current foci include peat bogs, bog-mosses, and questions of scale.
Plunged into a new setting, what do you look at? how do you start drawing? what might a ‘more-than-human’ focus entail? what would make the work interesting to others (humans)? Here are some starting thoughts.
With bog-moss in mind, what more might I see? I have learned to isolate single sphagnum strands, as if for identification and pull them gently from a clump without breaking them. But they exist collectively, as part of a plant community, as part of a bog … What might sculptural attention yield?
Herbert George (2014) offers a sculptural approach, suggesting viewers can consider an object in terms of Material and Place and its characteristics include Surface, Edge, Texture, Colour, and Scale. Its physicality includes Mass, and Centre of Gravity, and it addresses the space around it through by Volume and Space. A sculptural object might challenge its own solidity through Movement and Light. Viewers (and sculptors) bring Memory to their consideration.
With this guide, I might start to survey found objects – both expected and disturbing components of ecological ‘habitat’. Drawings may become interventions in place, and investigation might lead to an animation of objects, perhaps including photographic documentation. Self-questioning (about why I am doing this) will fade as I become obsessed with a subject and become urgent again when a deadline approaches. Something might grip me – that I cannot explain and cannot assess. I might discard it. On what basis can I decide what to keep working on?
Timothy Clark’s argument ‘Derangements of Scale‘ (a contribution to Telemorphis: Theory in an Era of Climate Change) helps excuse an indecision in how to work. The setting of a peatbog might make it relatively easy to accord ‘the nonhuman a disconcerting agency of its own’ (p5). To look at bog-moss as a carbon landscape, I have already experienced the sensation that ‘Climate change disrupts the scale at which one must think, skews categories of internal and external and resists inherited closed economies of accounting or explanation (p7)’. Clark concludes:
‘It is far easier for critics to stay inside the professionally familiar circle of cultural representation, ideas, and prejudices than to engage with the long-term relations of physical cause and effect, or the environmental costs of an infrastructure, questions that involve non-human agency and which engage modes of expertise that may lies outside the humanities as currently constituted.’
Clark believes that the mainstream literary criticism make up ‘forms of ideological containment that now need to change.’
Audra Mitchell models a way of approaching such deranged scales through academic work on International Relations. Writing about extinction, she says ‘This is not the Schumpeterian ‘creative destruction’ that fuels and smoothens the processes of global capitalism. Rather, it consists in the punctuation and rupture of histories and lifeways through the intrusion of non-being, or the eruption of ‘the void’ into the realm of human-dominated worlding.’
Michelle Bastian works with creative imagination in combination with scholarship in a forthcoming chapter on leatherback turtles, ‘Encountering leatherbacks in multispecies knots of time’ (Rose et al, references below).
So – without knowing yet how it can shape drawing in the field, academic work by Timothy Clark, Audra Mitchell and Michelle Bastian inspires me. Mitchell Thomashow’s version of cosmopolitan bioregionalism also appeals:
‘Developing the observational skills to patiently observe bioregional history, the conceptual skills to juxtapose scales, the imaginative faculties to play with multiple landscapes, and the compassion to empathize with local and global neighbours – these qualities are the foundation of a bioregional sensibility…’
‘… Restore natural history to collective memory so that it is no longer endangered knowledge… Understand that different scales may yield contrasting observations… Avoid the illusion of contrived stability…’
What an excellent principle for field drawing!
Avoid the illusion of contrived stability …
• Timothy Clark (2011) Literature and the Environment. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Timothy Clark’s article Derangements of Scale is available on: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/o/ohp/10539563.0001.001/1:8/–telemorphosis-theory-in-the-era-of-climate-change-vol-1?rgn=div1;view=fulltext
• Herbert George, The Elements of Sculpture, , Phaidon, 2014
• Deborah Rose, Thom van Dooren and Matthew Chrulew (eds.) Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death and Generations. Columbia University Press: New York. (including Michelle Bastian)
• M. Thomashow, ‘Cosmopolitan Bioregionalism’, Bioregionalism, ed. M. V. McGinnis (London: Routledge, 1999), pp. 121-32 (pp. 130-31)
This post arose from Working the Tweed project – part of Year of Natural Scotland 2013
Leah Gibbs (LG), Human Geographer at the University of Wollongong, Australia, in conversation with Working the Tweed artists, Kate Foster (KF) and Claire Pençak (CP).
In the project Working the Tweed, we set out to work with different kinds of specialist knowledge. This yields various ways to think about the Tweed Catchment, and make different artistic connections and new kinds of maps. We are thinking through what we, as artists, might offer in engaging with projects that deal with sustainable land-use and the realities of environmental change. We are delighted to be able to converse with Leah Gibbs, a human geographer at the University of Wollongong, whose work concerns the cultures and politics of water. Leah has considerable experience of multi-disciplinary work focussing on land management. She explains her concept of ‘passing-through places’. This overlaps with Kate Foster’s ideas of documenting ‘so-far stories’, and Claire Pençak’s thinking on improvisation as a way to investigate relationship to place through movement.
KF: Leah, you have written about ‘passing-through places’, which is an intriguing idea and keeps coming to mind as we plan the Working the Tweed project. Can you explain why you find the concept of ‘passing through’ helpful, and how you came to adopt the term?
LG: The idea of a ‘passing-through place’ emerged from a project I’ve been involved with over the last few years called ‘SiteWorks’. SiteWorks is an ongoing series of collaborative projects, which was initiated by arts organisation Bundanon Trust, and is based on the Shoalhaven River, just south of where I live in Wollongong (south eastern Australia). It involves a really interesting, shifting group of people: arts practitioners, scientists, other scholars, local people, including folk involved in Landcare groups, and other local organisations. The project asks participants to respond to the Bundanon sites on the river. I was thrilled to be invited to be part of it in 2010.
As a Human Geographer, I’m really interested in people and place, so when I first visited Bundanon I was keen to learn about people’s relationships with the site, and also how an arts-science collaboration might help us to understand place. I quickly learned that Bundanon is important to a lot of people. But it’s a place that people tend to pass through: visitors to the site, school groups, artists in residence, Bundanon employees, all pass through this place. We learn, and make connections, but we don’t dwell here. The previous owners of Bundanon were the late Australian artist Arthur Boyd and his family. Bundanon shaped a large body of Boyd’s work, and the place is strongly associated with him. But he and his family lived here for a relatively short time. Learning from the archive, it seems earlier settler families also passed through this place.
There has been some recent work done on the Indigenous heritage and history of the Bundanon properties, and this work finds that the main population centre prior to European colonisation was downstream, near the estuary. But the site was still important: people passed through here, often travelling on the river, to get to food and hunting sites, and to ceremony sites.
So what I’m trying to get at with the idea of a ‘passing-through place’ is that some places may not be permanently dwelt in, but are extremely significant, vital places none-the-less. Permanent dwelling, fixity, longevity, are not the only ways of forming meaningful relationships with places.
In addition, in Australia – as in other parts of the world – the idea of ‘belonging’ is highly political. It feeds into thinking about ‘native’ and ‘introduced’, ‘invasive’ or ‘feral’ species of plants and animals, and it goes on to inform management and decision-making about these things. Ideas about belonging also influence thinking and action towards people, particularly in the context of indigenous relations, ethnicity and migration. But belonging is highly complex in a settler-dominated society. Concepts of belonging that are based on fixed notions of permanence or longevity in a place can lead to some very troublesome, racist attitudes and even policy.
So I like the concept of a ‘passing-through place’ for a couple of reasons. First because it highlights the significance of places that may not be permanently dwelt in, but are vital none-the-less; and second, because it unsettles fixed notions of belonging. And it strikes me that challenging fixed ideas of belonging is incredibly important in the context of contemporary environmental change. It’s in this context that we need to learn how to better live with other humans and a more-than-human world under changing conditions.
I’ve written more extensively about the idea of a ‘passing-through place’ and my experiences as a SiteWorks participant in a recent article published in the journal ‘Cultural Geographies’.
KF: What you have said shows how ‘unsettling’ a fixed idea can be a constructive step to take. I am wary when I hear ‘The Story of X, Y, Z’ – all in capitals. Intellectually we might know that many different stories can be told but they do still jostle for position. We seem to shy away from complexity. Happy-endings can appeal – but for whom, where, and in what timescale?
I used a prompt from political ecology to work out how making ‘so-far stories’ can expand my human viewpoint. I borrowed this from the work of geographer Doreen Massey who asks us to think of landscape as an event, as a simultaneity of ‘stories-so-far’. This is a sketchbook extract, written when drawing a thistle being blown in the wind.
I know that geographical theory takes time and work to absorb, and believe that a rigorous and self-disciplined approach, learning from shared experience, is important. The idea of simultaneity (at different timescales) by-passes anthropocentrism. I set out artistically to attaining ‘ecocentrism’ but I am re-thinking this. I realise that learning about human environmental impact – and degradation – has also taught me more about what it is to be human. This is what I wrote in that article:
Unfinishable as they are, so-far stories may afford possibilities and juxtapositions that escape an aesthetic of despair. Of course the prompt might be anguish or anger, but fury and grief should not overwhelm quieter voices and tender ways of working, in order to acknowledge complexity.
KF: Claire, can you say more about how you use movement improvisation to explore place? Perhaps it’s best to be there with you to find out for ourselves! Does it help to document this kind of exploration? If so, how?
CP: There are several things here.
There is movement improvisation as a way of working that encourages an open, responsive and playful approach and doesn’t require that you follow a series of set steps. There is also the dancer whose body is a passing through place, a transformative place and place of flux. And there is the witness.
For me improvisation encourages thinking on your feet. It is about responding to and being in relationship to – a person or a place or an object or an idea – at a given time, season and place.
It is a process towards finding ways to traverse, to move around, over, under and through that might offer opportunities to be in a slightly different relationship to place. By not having to follow proscribed procedures and pathways it permits us to wander off the beaten track.
This way of working could suggest other ways to understand what place might or could be. It would certainly suggest that place is neither static nor singular but is in a state of becoming and is shaped by the interactions that take place there. If the dancer shifts – does the place not shift too?
For me this is a performative relationship.
Dancers are trained for years to literally place themselves and also to traverse, to pass through.
A dancer brings a different way of paying attention, an under_standing* that is corporeal, terrestrial and aerial. Flux is where they are most at home.
Improvisation isn’t really something to be captured through documentation – it can be experienced, recalled and discussed but doesn’t take well to being fixed as it is thinking in action. The body ‘thinking’ through action.
It can though stimulate images, dialogue, writing.
I like the idea of a companion or witness, as their presence brings a creative eye to the process.
Improvisation is not a spectator sport but collaboration. The witness is there to look closely. They bring their eyes and ears and their presence. They are viewing points and can chose to shift their point of view and their focus of attention and so contribute to the improvisation.
The documentation lies somewhere in the dialogue between the dancer and the witness.
This conversation has begun to show how human geography, visual art and dance can interweave. Having glimpsed the insights that geographers can offer, our next discussion will be about why ‘more-than-human’ might be a helpful term that expands on traditional ideas of Nature.
• Gibbs L In Press Arts-science collaboration, embodied research methods, and the politics of belonging: ‘SiteWorks’ and the Shoalhaven River, Australia. cultural geographies doi: 10.1177/1474474013487484 (published online 17 May 2013).
• Massey, D. 2006. ‘Landscapes as a Provocation: reflections on moving mountains. Journal of Material Culture, 11(1-2), pp. 33–48.
* When Claire Pençak speaks about under_standing, she gives it a certain emphasis. Translated into text, using the underscore intends to convey the idea that we stand from underneath – that standing is ‘feet up knowledge’.
Rights: Text © authors, Leah Gibbs, Claire Pençak, Kate Foster, unless otherwise stated. Images credited individually.
On Thursday 13th September, Friends of the Earth Scotland & Biofuelwatch organised a discussion on Bioenergy in the Scottish Parliament, outlining the weaknesses of the current approach adopted by trans-nationals such as Eon (who run the large-scale biomass near in Lockerbie). Alison Johnstone (Green Party) MSP sponsored the event.
Three speakers made it abundantly clear that subsidy of large-scale biomass and biofuels by the Scottish Government cannot be counted as a green solution, and should not be classed as ‘renewable’ energy. Building infrastructure and dependence on large-scale biomass and biofuels is damaging and not a way forward to meet Scotland’s target to reduce greenhouse gasses – with substantial impacts on environment and human rights impacts in UK and elsewhere. There will, however, be immediate financial profits to those companies who take advantage of governmental subsidy, using loopholes that it seems more than likely the Scottish Parliament’s new resolution will allow.
This message needs emphasising: Scotland can only produce a fraction of wood products needed for large-scale biomass developments. Large-scale biomass negatively distorts land-use in UK and elsewhere, and internationally will deprive communities of forest resources for the long-term future.
Almuth Ernsting, Biofuelwatch Co-Director, made it clear that adequate regulatory systems that guarantee sustainability and social justice are NOT in place, and thus are unable to guarantee that the biomass used meets sustainability criteria. Effectively the current regulatory systems that ‘promise’ sustainability amount to the wood industry’s self-regulation and she gave numerous examples of how certification processes for biomass products shipped in from abroad, certified as ‘sustainable, had allowed landgrabbing, human rights abuses and major environmental damage . Biofuelwatch produce very thoroughly researched information – and will shortly be commenting on measures put through the Scottish Parliament, see http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/
Mark Haldane, Community Campaigner, Grangemouth Community Council, gave a local perspective on Biomass as renewable energy – living in the centre of Grangemouth, the prospect of a 110 metre chimney a mere 200 metres from his house galvanised community council action. Even at this height, the pollution impact would not be solved. Mark Haldane noted the lack of support available to community councils to take on well-funded transnationals (who hire the best lawyers), and made a plea for the Scottish Government to level the playing field. Mark Haldane negotiated a Public Enquiry on plans for large-scale biomass plant in Grangemouth, and the final report is awaited.
Scale is a key concept. Local production and consumption of forest products on a small scale has much to offer. This is something that Scotland can take forward. But feeding the proposed biomass power stations means consuming wood imported from elsewhere – including North America, Europe, Asia. This is a heavy industry, oil-based, and depending on exploitation of soil, destroying forest structure and having a huge, often hidden, impact on local communities. The UK already exceeds its own forest footprint just in terms of paper use, while Scotland currently uses at least FIVE TIMES as much forest products as Scotland could possibly produce (it already has to import 4/5ths of the forest products it uses). Any development of industrial scale biomass energy will only add to that imbalance.
Time is a second issue. If you use wood for construction, the carbon is locked up. If it is burnt, it is released immediately, substantially adding to our carbon footprint in the short term, not reducing it. Trees take at least a generation to grow, and current industry plans are to replace bio-diverse old forests with biodiversity-poor mono-cultures that have far less capacity for locking up carbon
Maggie Haggith, poet/activist gave an excellent presentation: ‘What and who will be squashed underfoot if we increase our forest footprint on the rest of the world?’ Maggie showed the power of reasoning both through knowledge and emotion, creating stories and examples making the issues accessible. Her poem Forest contained many memorable lines, including:
a bud – becomes a soul, a whole, breathing planet.
Maggie Haggith scrutinised the language used – replanting? Replacing an ancient tree in old growth woodland with three tiny monocultured saplings? Industry-favoured alien species are quick-growing, but can have unintended consequences; for example, replacing native forests with thirsty eucalyptus in Indonesia has had extremely damaging impacts on local peatlands by drying them out, thereby increasing CO2 emissions. Unproductive wasteland? These can be weasel words for land-grabbing, and may involve evicting local people from ancestral lands. Forest products as low-carbon? About as good as an aeroplane!
This event equipped me to question both language and policy regarding the commodification of ‘forests’ – ‘forests’ are becoming a system of industrial scale wood production for short-term profit in distant places with little real regard to overall carbon emissions, sustainability or human rights
Over the summer of 2012, I a concentrating my blog activity on this site – working with others to develop a network for creative environments in the Scottish Borders. Keep an eye out for its message board, discussion, and for notices of meetings.
Nora Bateson, daughter of Gregory Bateson, is touring with a film she herself made, about her father’s ideas. As she said in her introduction, his ideas are shown through the lens of a father-daughter relationship, it is her own viewpoint. She uses tapes made by Bateson near his death, and the film combines footage from different epsiodes in his life to illustrate some themes, continuity in his academic career as he moved between social anthropology, systems theory, psychology. You learn that, throughout, he sought patterns that connected things and had the ability to turn things to new angles, indicating relationships between things that would escape a more partial view. Apart from this capacity of recontextualisation, he also sought the ‘difference that made a difference’ – asking what makes something distinct.
I have not read his books: I can but comment on the film as a non-specialist. On one hand I was impressed, and became curious about details of his work. On the other, I was bothered not to learn about Batesons’s own context – how were others thinking at that time, and how did he relate to them? And how does his work now look, from the disciplines in which he worked? For example, the double-bind theory of schizophrenia, I believe, has not stood the test of time. Had the film been made by contemporary anthropologists say, it might well have been a different account – of the history of ideas and how they are reviewed by empirical work and critical attention.We were not given Bateson in dialogue, but rather a monologue. For example, at one point in the film, the response by a Jungian analyst with whom he was in conversation was cut.
The discussion with the panel and the audience, led by Nora Bateson herself, left the impression that Bateson is being revived as a guru. It would seem confusing to become a disciple however, as he was adept at averting and circumnavigating the ‘point’ that others might seek. There is a seduction in this, an appealing possibility. As someone who finds it hard to see and observe disciplinary constraints, I could be tempted to claim that my approach is a step towards ecological thinking, and to present this virtuously. But – to step back – what specifically, were we talking about? Nora Bateson insisted that the pursuit of knowledge has become terribly fractured, that the problem is that atomised knowledge is not reinserted into its context. The discussion took a turn to Buddhism and the idea of oneness. More prosaically, I am not convinced by a generalisation that scientific expertise is blinkered. Instead, I believe that – with climate science at least – there is a tendency to shoot the messenger.
This is not to say that I disagreed with Bateson (that would be hard) but I this film alone gives a partial and possibly misleading picture. A maverick, ahead of his time, maybe. But what does this add to contemporary discussion? and – even more importantly – what considered action might his ideas lead to?
Acknowledgements and thanks to Perdita Phillips for making these very helpful ideas available in an early form. For further info on Perdy’s work see www.perditaphillips.com
Perdita Phillips is an Australian environmental artist who grounds her practice with a thorough understanding of ecology as a science. Current written work in development includes reflection on ecosystem complexity and adaptive art practices: asking what makes good environmental art? and what kinds of possibilities are there for changing situations?
Perdy makes it clear we need to scrutinise preconceptions, and let go of the idea that nature is balanced. Rather nature is in flux, and natural processes have no single goal. Humans are a fundamental component of ecosystems, we are living animals after all. We should be wary of concepts of ‘wilderness’, that we have fallen from Eden, that Nature is benign. Instead, we should understand ourselves within complex adaptive systems – characterised by connectivity and interdependence, uncertainty and risk. Resilience rather than balance becomes a key principle – capacity to absorb disturbance, without transforming structure.
“ The capacity of an ecosystem to tolerate disturbance without collapsing into a qualitatively different state that is controlled by a different set of processes. A resilient ecosystem can withstand shocks and rebuild itself when necessary. Resilience in social systems has the added capacity of humans to anticipate and plan for the future.”http://www.resalliance.org/564.php
So, Perdy asks, what is a complexity / resilience aesthetic? Sacha Kagan is an academic making a contribution here.
“The systems sensibility will be like that of the musical ear which perceives the competitions, symbioses, interferences, overlaps of themes in one same symphonic stream, where the brutal mind will only recognise one single theme surrounded by noise.’ (Sacha Kagan, 2010, p17 quoting Edgar Morin)
Thinking of artwork, Perdy suggests the following possibilities:
• Works that explore ecological processes rather than focus on single objects
• Works that revisit place as belonging-in-flux
• Works that think at different scales of time and space
• Works that create complex adaptive systems
Artists may engage in a process of questioning, be conversationalists or catalysts, agents for interruptions or change. We might initiate thinking and working across boundaries, towards transdisciplinarity – doing things that sociologists, scientists and environmental managers might not initially understand or want. Artists can have the value of putting complexity/uncertainty into the mix.
* Kagan, S (2010) Cultures of sustainability and the aesthetics of the pattern that connects, Futures, 42 (10) 1094-1101.
* Haley D (2011) Art, Ecology and Reality: the potential for Transdisciplinarity. Paper presented at the V Mediterranean Congress of Aesthetics, 2011. Art Emotion and Value, Cartagena, Spain http://www.um.es/vmca/download/docs/david-haley.pdf