In my summary post about the network’s Fountains Abbey weekend (See “Looking Back, Looking Forward”), I proposed that ambivalence and dissensus were perhaps the most insistent elements to emerge from our discussions. Looking back with the experience of our second meeting, in Scotland, fresh in the memory, I feel strongly that the ambivalence had a great deal to do with the location: a world heritage site both awe-inspiring and problematic in its presentation; a landscape text that invited (demanded) multiple, conflicting readings and responses. The Glasgow/Cove Park weekend produced something different — something I’d tentatively describe as attentiveness, both to our surroundings and each other. Some of us perhaps worried at times (or was it just me?) that we weren’t addressing the “environmental change” thematic at the network’s heart with sufficient directness. Yet on reflection, it was this quality of attention that seemed crucial in moving us from discussing “issues” in the abstract, and towards an awareness of environment that was grounded in the experiential. I’ll try to unpack what I mean by that as I go along…
For the symposium event on environmental performance and education at Glasgow University on Friday afternoon (Feb 11th), Dee Heddon and Sally Mackey had assembled a fascinatingly eclectic range of speakers — but in differing ways this notion of attentiveness connected each of the talks. This train of thought emerged, particularly, from Chris Philo’s presentation, which began with the provocative question, “how can we retrieve the life worlds of children?” Geographers, he argued, have too often tended to treat children as mini-adults, or even mini-academics, and have attempted to research children’s experiences of space and place (both actual and imaginary) through the conventional tools of interview, questionnaire, focus groups. But what if these methods simply distort their own findings, by imposing inappropriate frames on children’s responses? Can one, instead, seek to cultivate an attentiveness to children’s characteristic mode of inattention? Young children are often easily distracted, focusing on things in fits and bursts, prone to slipping into private reverie – and these qualities are evident in their game-playing, picture-painting and story-writing. Can resources such as these be used as research tools?
David Harradine’s presentation about the work of his company, Fevered Sleep, bore little direct connection to Chris Philo’s talk, but this notion of attentiveness to the indirect or seemingly peripheral was just as apparent — whether in his discussion of Fevered Sleep’s An Infinite Line: Brighton (a piece responding to the intangible qualities of environmental light in Brighton – which prompted a gallery-based performance involving a live horse!), or in his account of working with children to develop The Forest, a movement-based piece for 5- to 8-year-olds. Most of the children that the company took on a day-trip to an actual forest, as part of their research, had never even been to one before: instead, they associated forests with myths and fairy stories rather than personal experience: “Where’s grandma’s cottage?” My mind flicked back to a Natural England report I read about recently, which noted that only 10% of today’s children play in woodlands, heaths or countryside, compared to 40% of adults when we were younger. (For further info on this issue see www.childrenandnature.org/research) There’s a basic, experiential disconnect here that surely needs to be addressed if discussion of the natural environment, and our location within it, as part of it (rather than distanced consumers of it), is to have any real meaning for children – and indeed adults.
These thoughts were reinforced in the talk by Alan Reid, editor of the journal Environmental Education Research, who emphasised the futility of abstracted, scare-mongering approaches to climate change education. Subjecting children to “an hour of pedagogic terrorism before going into Double French” is unlikely to achieve anything worthwhile or lasting for the child, Reid proposed – so instead of the monologue / lecture approach in discussing these issues, strategies are needed for encouraging active, experiential learning and dialogic exchange. What’s the point of talking to children about the environment or the natural world if they have no meaningful reference points for what’s being talked about? (Does our penchant for apocalypse narratives stem from the fact that we do have pop-cultural reference points for those?) Learning begins with experience, so perhaps – Reid noted – what we need is “slow pedagogy” rather than “quick fix.”
Following the afternoon symposium (there were two other speakers – Angus Farquhar and Wallace Heim – of whom more later), network members enjoyed an informal meal while viewing and discussing a selection of short videos. The screening of an edited version of the recent feature documentary The Age of Stupid seemed to sum up the problems Reid had outlined. Here was a patchwork of “real life” stories intended to galvanise viewers into taking action on climate change — and indeed, Tim Nunn informed us, the film has been successfully used as a tool among campaign groups to re-energise supporters and activists. And yet the framing of the film, from the point of view of the late Pete Postlethwait, who plays a survivor of the global-warming apocalypse – sifting through his archive of footage from the early 21st century, when “something could still have been done” – seems simply to reinforce the very problems it purports to be concerned with. Postlethwait is a passive viewer, sitting in an implausible tower in the clouds, cut off from the world below and engaging with it by gloomily flicking (with the weary finger of one raised on i-Touch technology) through video files. As Phil Smith remarked, a safe tower and a good telly might seem to some like a decent trade-off for global warming. Where are the viewers of this film sited but in a non-place of abstracted viewing, with the outside world rendered in distanced miniature? (Paul Virilio has things to say about this.)
In the discussion after the screenings, Alison Parfitt memorably proposed that “climate change is too hard. Let’s talk about something else.” A seasoned environmental campaigner, Alison was not – of course – proposing avoidance of the issues. But as she later put it in her performed presentation to the group on the Sunday morning at Cove Park, we may need to think less about “environmental change” and more about changing ourselves: about being in, being with, being part of our environment in order to reassess our cultural priorities.
And that, to me, is what our weekend came primarily to be about — not in any hippy-dippy “back to nature” way, but in the sense of playfully and critically inhabiting our surroundings.
Looking back at the major discussion headings I identified in the “Looking Back, Looking Forward” posting about our Fountains Abbey meeting, the thread of SCALE AND SUBJECTIVITY became most significant at Cove Park. An artist’s retreat is, after all, a place “to be” (as opposed to “visit” in the tourist sense experienced at Fountains Abbey), and it was this question of contemplative subjectivity in relation to the landscape that was foregrounded by our discussions and in the concluding performance presentations. There is a sense in which the site seems constructed to privilege a kind of visual ownership of the expansive scenery outside: picture windows in the main house and in the various accommodation pods frame the loch and facing mountains for meditative consumption, but keep it at a comfortable distance, contained within a frame. There’s a connection here to the landscape painting tradition, by which aristocrats learned to view their domains aesthetically (and let’s not forget that there’s a certain privilege in being here at all – artists are invited to reside here for periods of time thanks to funding bursaries; we were here thanks to the generosity of the AHRC). But an attentiveness to the site itself, rather than the views it affords, forces a different kind of consciousness – of human vulnerability, and dependence on the physical surroundings – a kind of smallness, perhaps, rather than godlike overview.
I’ve written about this already in my “Precarious” posting of a couple of days ago, in which I described aspects of my own performance presentation. But close-up attentiveness was even more apparent in, for example, the extra-ordinary movement presentation offered by Paula Kramer – “Being / Not Being a Tree.” Having led us to a particular tree on site (one among many, so easy to overlook), her performance involved physically attuning herself to its particularities. First she lay face first on the ground beneath the trunk, as if breathing in rhythm with the soil; then she blended in with the trunk’s horizontality (actually lifting it fractionally, for a moment, on her back); then in handstand she reached up with exploring feet to echo the vertical branches extending from the trunk. All this accompanied by the sound of the rushing water plunging past in the stream standing between Paula and her observers. There was something both technically confident and strangely humble about this piece.
Much the same was true of David Harradine’s offering – in which he assembled us in his bedroom cube, looking out of the picture window at the view. David told us that he wanted us to feel what he had felt in this space the previous night, contemplating the darkness and silence – and so he left us with the instruction to observe absolute silence. Looking out of the picture window, we then saw David walking across the view – half-naked in vest, pants and walking boots (giggles were politely suppressed, to observe the silence instruction). David turned to walk towards us, and spoke to us – inaudible through the plate glass – before walking into the near-freezing pool up to waist-height. His sudden baptism flipped that comment about “feeling” on its head: instead of referring to self-contained contemplation, it was suddenly about “feeling” the body’s vulnerability to the raw elements (which included, that Sunday morning, a sharp wind and pissing drizzle).
A different kind of perceptual shift – a genuinely disorientating one – was provided by Tim Nunn’s experiments with projecting sounds recorded in other times/places out onto the open surroundings of the hillside. We’re accustomed to hearing incongruous sounds on headphones as we navigate cities on a daily basis, but to hear – for example – chirpy birdsong and a thick haze of chirping crickets (recorded last summer on Islay) blending in with the environmental sound that cold, rainy morning was quite unsettling in its “wrongness.” As simple and profound a statement as one could wish for about human intervention in, and distortion of, the ecological order of things.
The presentations by Sally Mackey and Helen Nicholson asked us to focus our attention on easily overlooked aspects of the human geography at Cove Park. Sally showed us a series of photographs, taken at hourly intervals on the Satur- day evening, of a single guide light on the way down to the accommodations, which had been left switched on, pointlessly, in the daylight. The contrast between the first image, in which it was barely apparent that the lamp was even lit, and the last, in which it blared illumination out onto the surroundings, spoke volumes.
Helen, too, drew our focus to everyday wastage. Her performance, involving mainly silent movement in and out of the domestic space of her accommodation pod, focused on the archeology of unfinished breakfast cereal boxes found in the main kitchen — left behind by previous visitors in the hope they’ll be eaten by new arrivals, though of course they never are. Selecting those boxes which were conclusively past their use-by dates, Helen performed a small ritual of abjection by forcing herself to eat a slopping bowlful of Shreddies and Cheerios. In a place like this, with people coming and going all the time, our acculturated relunctance to eat perfectly good food left behind by strangers results in a kind of domestic silt. A curious parallel, perhaps, with J.D. Dewsbury’s point about the land we were standing on being essentially the silt left behind by a melting glacier.
This thread of SCALE AND SUBJECTIVITY, then, connecting us from the vastness of mountains and loch to the seeming insignificance of way-lamps and breakfast cereals, was accompanied in pieces like Helen’s by a sense of the TEMPORAL LAYERS of the site. This was another of the key discussion threads identified at Fountains, though it was less prominent here at Cove because the history of human habitation on this dreich hillside is that much shorter and less pronounced — the retreat site has been in occupied use for only about a century, mainly as a military installation. (Julian Forrester, the site’s director, showed us a small cartoon of Hitler, etched on the inside of a corrugated iron Nissen Hut by American servicemen during WWII.) Connecting with the uncomfortably close presence of the Faslane and Coulport nuclear submarine bases, the site’s martial history was reflected on through autobiographical presentations by Baz Kershaw and Alison Parfitt. Alison spoke of protesting at Faslane in 2006, of being arrested and held – asked herself why she even put herself in these situations. A simple line drawing, blu-tacked to the meeting hall’s window, superimposed the image of a submarine on the loch’s waters outside – making the invisible visible.
Baz then took us just outside the meeting hall, to the platform site of what was apparently once a U.S. military armaments store. We watched his tragi-comic performance from the ‘wrong’ side of the fence that marks this space off, clutching onto its wires to prevent ourselves slipping down a wet, muddy incline into a ditch. Baz’s concern was with slipping and tipping points: he moved (ran!) about the site, performing labour by hastily erecting structures from scrap metal and wood, which would then inevitably collapse – sooner or later – by chance as well as design. The spoken narrative itself described the strangely arbitrary circumstances of Baz’s own life story: but for certain military command decisions made on his behalf when he was a teenager, Baz proposed, he might easily have ended up remaining for life in the navy, rather than working in factories and, ultimately, in universities. Perhaps he himself might have been one of the submarine pilots, down below in the loch. The piece closed with Baz’s tipping-over revelation (a tiny coup de theatre) of a small wooden submarine construction he had fashioned in the Cove Park workshop (a surviving Nissen hut, also formerly a weapons store). Personal histories of navy, industry, and performance suddenly cohered in a wry visual gesture. In making and taking command of his own little sub, and then ‘sinking’ it by letting go of its supporting structure, Baz seemed to enact a small act of repair – an insistence on our individual agency to effect change, even in the face of seemingly implacable forces of ‘fate’.
Dee Heddon’s piece, too, presented us with a strange, provocative and humorous reflection on the conjunction of temporality and subjectivity. Appropriating as her “central character” one of the plaster owls that sit, gnome-like, as way-markers near the accommodations, Dee voiced the perspective of a quietly observing owl — or perhaps generations of the same owl family — watching over the Cove Park site. The circularity of her recitation about stuff (materials, people) being here and not being here seemed to place the human presence on this site into a much longer temporal perspective. Once there was just the hillside. One day there may just be the hillside. The owls will keep watch. Deftly playing with scale, Dee created a ramshackle, miniaturised approximation of one the accommodation pods (blue sheeting base, wooden walls, grassy roof), as if to emphasise the smallness, fragility and passing-ness of this human habitation when viewed from, as it were, nature’s point of view.
Dee’s presentation connected back to (was perhaps inspired by?) Wallace Heim’s remarks in her closing presentation at the Friday symposium. In looking at a site, she had asked, can we ask whether the site itself is capable of learning? Can we ask what kind of agency nature has? Wallace’s reflections, inspired by A.N. Whitehead’s process philosophy, offered a crucial corrective to our acculturated tendency to see “the material landscape [as] mute and passive, a lack without force” (J. Wylie, Landscape, p.99). A weekend spent at Cove Park – with its constant and audible flow of water downhill, its shifting cloud patterns and changing visibility – served as a salutary reminder that the (non-human) environment is neither mute nor passive, and is constantly involved in its own ongoing processes of change. We are a part of this system, not simply its operators (there’s a terrible arrogance embedded in some of the language around “human-generated climate change”).
As if chiming in with Wallace’s points, I stumbled this week over these words in Bonta and Protevi’s book Deleuze and Geophilosophy: “the findings of complexity theory show that at critical thresholds some physical and biological systems can be said to ‘sense’ the differences in their environment that trigger self-organising processes. [. . . so yes, a site can learn. . .] Deleuze and Guattari do not deny that human subjects can initiate novel and creative action in the world. However, they refuse to mystify this creativity as something essentially human and therefore non-natural. For them, the creativity of consistencies is not only natural, but also extends far beyond the human realm.” (pp.4-5)
If we’re serious about examining “environmental change,” we need to bear in mind the complexity of that idea — we need to practice an art of being within the environment, of becoming attuned to its processes of change and our part within them. A “slow pedagogy” of “site-based performance.” That’s not to rule out, also, the importance of taking swift action at times: I suspect that our third meeting, in London (with a planned focus on activist performance such as PLATFORM’s), will remind us of that. But if we consider these three network meetings – in Deleuzian terms – as three related but distinct “plateaus,” each with its own plane of consistency, then the lessons of this weekend can be seen to stand as a vital counterpoint to those of the others.
Simone Weil once proposed that “culture is the formation of attention.” Presumably hers would not be a culture constructed in binary opposition to “nature.” (But what would nature be the formation of?)
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P.S. The one performance I haven’t discussed here is Phil Smith’s – a spoken summary (characteristically mind-bending) of an imagined walking performance, circulating around and around Cove Park. I’ll let his piece speak for itself through the text that he’s shortly going to post.