Paula Kramer’s single word response to the “nature” of Cove Park resonated strongly with geographical, topological, political and climatic affordances that I for one, in such good and stimulating company, enjoyed there enormously.
Yes because the land fell away from Cove with a steepness that left little between the perched accommodation Pods and Containers and the flat expanse of Loch Long, which sometimes in turn through the shifting light seemed tilted at an angle up towards us and next sloping away and downwards as if being sucked under the opposite shore and its rising mountains.
Yes because the sky was one moment tumbling with clouds and sheets of light and holes through both and more, and next as still as a landscape of carefully painted brush strokes, and then slowly pulsing as one’s eye was caught by the wake of a bobbing boat then the flashing flight of a bird or a fell-side suddenly lit upright by a break in the cloud from below.
Yes because just over the ridge behind was the perfect spot for harbouring safely the mega-death potential of projectiles which once armed could unleash a billion or more instants of suffering beyond all measure and just round the gently curving headland to the North was the armoury of plutonium tips that could upend the world itself if all launched off together.
Yes because when the rain fell heavily the tracks, paths, culverts, channels, gullies, combes and ravines gushed with suckling strings and gurgling ropes and tumbling chains and spewed out thrashing boulders of irresistible waterways as the tilted land became a soft sponge of moraine squelching underfoot and slipping away across the downhill granite in a gathering rush to be engulfed in Loch Forevermore.
In retrospect the diversity of the network members’ presentations for me was a singular rich response to Cove Park’s fabulous environmental energies and wayward signifying dynamics, even in the fact that there was no group presenting but all was done by individuals finding their own ways into engaging its powers, whether Sally Mackey’s touchingly cool remediation of the wasteful path light gradually coming into its own at dusk, or Phil Smith’s carnival verbal storyboard of a wildly travelling performance party driven haywire by little white figures from an architect’s model of a centre, or Alison Parfitt’s deepening personal meditation on the dimensions of death and hope that even as she stuck her paper submarine to the window glass could have been lurking under the sheen of the loch’s surface, or Tim Nunn’s backdoor outdoor audio concert of out-of-place sounds as if birds and crickets and dripping waters were escaping from the kitchen into windy wet air being the actual source of the blown-about and amplified plip plop resonance all around us, or Helen Nicholson’s anxiously driven effortful find a grip on or escape from the rampant big wild in the widow beyond her via computer screen and mobile phone and left-behind boxes of cereals that she gobbled down so substituting passion for the landscape of excess outside, or Dee Heddon’s to and fro ritual splashing along the flooded path of a living Pod huddling her trusty owl but scared that all and everything could so easily fall apart and best to gather and present some tiny fragments of things around and under threat to raise our hopes which she did she did, or Paula Kramer’s upside-down embrace of the deep green massive low-lying horizontal tree bough with back legs feet ankles toes and an ever-so-slow slow moving refraction of its ageless pulse as if life could be and for sure became drawn from it to sustain a deep joy for just being what it was going to be forever, or Steve Bottom’s widow-framed arts-as-landscape Ship Container reading as white-box gallery critique thankfully left behind for rain-swept bridge over over-gushing streams which like a delicate downhill heron he picked his way below us across becoming witty survivalist despite bullshit art-worlds and pathetic DiY garden nature-facsimiles, or David Harradine also riffing on Container-gallery ironies of in-yer-face separation framing of big outdoors scenes but trumping that back on itself appearing kitted out in sparse undies on the horizon’s lip gesticulating and speaking we can’t hear what till he struggles through freezing pond to our side where the pane filters speech ‘I need you to feel what I …’.
This panorama of presentations did not directly reflect the rackety beauty of the rapid climate shifts that made the Cove Park scenery seem wilder than it was, having been raked by human history over and over in so many ways. None of them took up a position of sustained and deliberate – quasi-scientific? – distancing of that immediate environment, though each and every one shifted and sifted it through various presentational perspectives, from miniaturisation to abstraction, from contemplation to immersion, from commentary to storytelling of various kinds and mix-and-matches in between … but all directly embodied and embedded it in various ways. This made sure that all together they refracted the environment, as they were taking it in (embodying it) and turning it over and around (angling it) and measuring it by varied degrees (embedding its qualities).
Baz wrote the above more-or-less high-speed stream-of-consciousness style – or at least fast-writing style – to see what that might reveal (if anything!) of patterns or networks or lights flickering in the dark like stars, and of any shared refractive angles on Cove Park’s actual movement of environment change enduring from our visit’s brief duration. But particularly for what one might make of this notion of shared refractions though Steve’s keywords on a thematic carry-over from Fountains Abbey, of SCALE AND SUBJECTIVITY, and his more immediate perception of an emphasis on TEMPORAL LAYERING for Cove Park. Might such a reflective retro-refraction give access to what might become from “reflecting on environmental change through site-based performance” that cannot be arrived at in any other way?
4.00AM 24 March 2011
All the presentations had performers and spectators, but relationally very differently positioned by each of them. All renovated their placing on/in the “site”, “landscape”, “environment” – of course it was no one thing – by responding with creativity to its fabulously diverse affordances.
Steve turned bridge into grandstand for a traverse of dangerous territory accomplished delicately well. Dee transformed a path that was a shallow pond into a pensive figuring of past and future survivals. Alison switched a glass window into murky loch to expose the flimsiness of its deadly cargo of looming threats. Paula massaged a low-lying tree into becoming a mossy alcove of knowing tentative tenderness. Sally transformed a wasteful daylight lamp into a beacon for saving the oncoming dusk. Phil took a model in a glass cage to wittingly scatter it across the slopes as seed for coming enjoys. Helen ransacked a room of leftovers and pulsing digital channels to reveal auguries of munchy hope. Tim turned a backdoor into a sounding board for elsewhere echoes of past lives still to come. David transfixed a picture-frame into a screen that filtered through whispers of un-ignorable needs. Baz turned a bombsite into a runway for…
Nothing was destroyed for good, one guesses. Deep respect was offered to temporally, temporarily borrowed niches. Even through their darkest angles, and however cautiously or recklessly, the performed events seemed to refract hard-won, un-pathological hopes.
These site-based “reflections” on the climate changes that had shaped Cove Park through past performances carefully introduced multiple SUBJECTIVITIES into a wondrous range of environmental SCALES, from microscopic miniature (moss strand on a tree-trunk) to magnifying gargantuan (nuclear warheads round the headland). Perhaps exposing new angles on potential niches for future sustainable lives, human and otherwise. Hence TEMPORAL LAYERING was integral to them all, not just in the archaeological sense of unearthing what’s past or in the geological sense of laying down materials to come but also in the (forgive the testy triplet neologism) “performalogical” sense of time travelling to-and-fro in evolved and evolving temporality. Was this a shuttling kind of refraction across and between climate change histories that cannot be achieved in any other way except by means of performances designed as such?
In the angle of critical engagement
Then – just as much embodied and embedded in Cove Park as the presenters described and discussed above – there was Wallace Heim and Tony Jackson and JD Dewsbury coming from yet other perspectives of reflection and refraction on climate change and site-based performance. Wallace asks: ‘Can sites learn?’; Tony asks: “How might children learn from sites?”; JD asks: “…how this space rewires thought and thinking [and] impacts on people’s practices?”.
A few further brief re-refracted reflections will have to serve as one‘s groats-worth attempt at reflexivity in regarding these profound queries.
Wallace’s question, as the young people my children would say, is a wicked one. It needs first to be dodged for emergent answers to have any hope of survival. So; are you sitting comfortably?
Learning by (human) definition depends on repetition or recycling; that is to say, on some form of memory, i.e. on “perceptible” responses to what has manifestly happened in the past. Water seems to have shown signs of this quality at both Fountains Abbey and Cove Park. When the Abbey river flooded (if one’s memory serves the story right) it tried to return to the course it ran before the monks – or their minions – dug its current route. And it seemed the Abbey’s minders were at least a little surprised by that. Nothing quite so striking a difference (but perhaps because one’s perspective of perception was somehow unprepared to serve it right) appeared on the loch-side slopes when the rain poured down heavily for three or more hours, as the water generally seemed to follow its former courses. But on the recently (re-?) surfaced paths leading down to the bridge it cut steep sided runnels that soon dried out but could possibly eventually become new streams if left unattended. Perhaps this was water “taking account ” of the “site’s” affordances; the “site” responding with – what? – “flexibility” to its flows? From these perspectives, the feedback between water and earth regarding old and new courses may be said to produce a quality possibly akin to memory, so it might start to become plausible to say that: “sites learn”. Somewhat dampish philosophical images, of course, but for one this reflection primarily relates to Wallace’s “differences that makes a difference” and Gregory Bateson’s impressively dry discussions of “deutero-learning” and his guiding idea of an “ecology of mind”, an idea of Earth as a becoming-refractive – “thoughtful”? – thing.
Is there any way in which this kind of relational analysis and theory could lead to a halfway plausible case for the “site” of Cove Park “learning” anything at all from our set of small performative responses? Another dodge to “save” time: a brief thought experiment. Consider that the World War Two concrete foundations for bomb/armaments stores at Cove Park are the positive to its waters’ negative; that is to say, energy relatively fixed rather than fluid in time. Still there were signs, if one “paid” attention, that their surfaces had been weathered a little by rain and wind and gritty dusts during several decades – maybe as much as half-a-century? – of frequent repetitions. Of course it’s ridiculous to compare that process to our performed presentations, which at most went through one-and-a-half or maximum three rounds perhaps! But in the speculative account above through a textual description of them being seen repeated just once, emerging half-automatically through an experimental/improvisational sequence of writing practices, potentially there seems to have been more repetitions of a different kind to the simply numerical; which – just possibly – together eventually could in principle create a difference that makes a larger difference (analogous, maybe, to the Fountain’s flood or Cove Parks converging streams gradually making a river!). For example: All of them made a material difference, however infinitesimal, to the “site” of a kind akin to the rain and the streams; a negative, a relatively very light-touch change to its TEMPORAL LAYERING. Then if one considerers their immaterially negative imprint, in comparison to the materially positive aspects of the “site”, to be in the network of SUBJECTIVITIES more or less shared between repeated different performances, perhaps their “impact” (to use the current jargon) in relation to the various SCALES of matters of concern (thanks Wallace) circulating at Cove Park could take on a different order of significance. However – yet more ridiculousness – that would entail treating human SUBJECTIVITY (and possibly by extension the sentience of all organisms, at least) as potentially having a durability, and sustainability, similar to the order – but decidedly not the qualities – of concrete. And how PRECIPITATE is that?
Set alongside this reflection, Wallace’s implication that the (precipitate?) learning in systems can be “toxic” is profound. Could this be the case even as such learning operates through “invention and improvisation”? Does this suggest the possibility of a toxic creativity that is beneficial? Did the presentations at Cove Park achieve something as paradoxical as that?
And what further implications might this have for the learning of young people that wonderfully preoccupies Tony, who echoes Paula’s “precipitous” by noting that “Perched as we were, everything seemed to point to the loch, even when it was out of view.”? An insight that could just as well be referring to the grand narrative of global warming and its unknown effects; another angle which, to make a little mental leap in these post-postmodern times, might partly explain the network’s emergent focus on the particular, personal, elemental-detailed responses to “site” as method for grappling with, among other matters of concern, the more extreme general frighteners of environmental change. Tony links well established approaches of educational theatre to “site-specific” projects and the innovative TIE programme “Whose land is it anyway?” His account of its focus on human cultures’ claims on nature notes a primarily discursive response (Brechtian debate, indeed), which made me wonder what cognate question would stimulate a complementary affective engagement at Cove Park: perhaps, what land is it anyway?
A peninsular with a history of intra- and inter-cultural colonisation, a rough 200 meter-high granite claw angled toward Glasgow by submarine-infested Loch Long, a steep-sided and precipitous place where flora and fauna cling like limpets on a submerged, but still-slippery, children’s slide. Add a geologist, a climatologist and an ecologist to the network’s environmentalist, archaeologist, engineer, geographers, historians, educators, artists, performance-as-researchers, etc., plus, say 150 young people and their tutors in campsite residence for three or four days and we’d be in business for a seriously funny affective/creative – i.e. inventive and improvisatory – investigation of how particular, personal, elemental encounters with the Cove’s slopes could be source for sustainable survival in the future. Expensive, yes; but possibly only around 0.00082% the price of a Trident class submarine. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/sep/23/gordon-brown-disarmament-push)
But in what sense could such a project become “toxic”?
As I hauled myself up to the Nissan hut workshop from the Pods in the Saturday afternoon downpour to make my flimsy wooden cut out submarine I was amazed at how much the water everywhere seemed determined to slide the clinging-on plants, top soils, stony tracks and the rest down into the loch. And, in response, by their fabulous tenacity in trying to stay put. JD’s pointing out that the peninsula is a granite outcrop with a thin layer of other stuff on top reminded me that the Avon Gorge in Bristol reveals a similar structure, but its core material is Carboniferous limestone with Dolomitic conglomerates, often used as a concrete aggregate.
The Downs that border the Gorge were the imaginary “site” for the post-global-warming survivalist biome of Green Shade, a durational pre-construction performance installation created in the Wickham Theatre at Bristol University in 2004.
The event included a reiterated “Toxic Drizzle Dance”, a comical falling-down-dead ritual meant to cheer up the “survivors” – and their visitor-spectators – when the pressure to keep going got especially tough. Its environment was intended as a creative antidote to doomsday scenarios, using the toxin of calamity-for-humanity ecological determinism against its potential affects/effects.
That project’s methods overall would likely not be appropriate for a youth-oriented workshop at Cove Park, except perhaps in the attention they paid to the particular, personal and elemental qualities of an imaginary human-made biome based on the “real” ones in Cornwall and the Arizona Desert.
But it was, one hopes, creatively toxic – in the sense that an antidote is toxic – to the current general prospect of global warming as probably the worst and possibly the most insistent aspect of climate change: a newish grand narrative of our times that’s still in need of elemental deconstruction, perhaps?
In any event, to “reflect on environmental change though site-based performance” via toxic creativity in light of the Cove Park network experience implies one must probably return repeatedly to first principles (however defined) of some sort or another. Which for this current writer is what JD’s query brightly and hopefully pitched the network towards: “…how this space rewires thought and thinking [and] impacts on people’s practices?” And why? Because one crucial creative problem decidedly not solved by the event of Green Shade was how to plausibly include spoken human languages in its practised thought experiment. This was not just an effect closely related to Alison’s witty injunction: “…climate change is too hard. Let’s talk about something else.” It is also, perhaps, that discourse as language, a.k.a. reflective thought, treated as a first principle of human identity is a foundational aspect of both modernist and, in some of its forms, poststructuralist subjectivities. From this perspective, Steve’s reading of Bonta and Protevi on Deleuze and Guattari was – this one who is writing/written dares to think – both timely and salutary for the network’s next move. The two theorists who refused to be only two, possibly as a result of that “…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.” (Bonta/Protevi) So then, if creative toxicity is provisionally taken as a first principle emerging from the Fountains Abbey~Cove Park sequence, where might that take network members from there? From this further perspective, as a “global city” – culturally, politically, economically, environmentally and so forth – London could well provide the network, as current media fashion has it (pace Sabastian Junger), with its perfect storm.
Mindful of the several calls on the blog post-Cove Park to focus on the detail of an environment before (if ever?) trying to draw out more generalising observations in response to it I wondered how something of this might be put into practice through writing: about the “site” called Cove Park and its “performances”, about the overt performances that the weekend network group played out in it, whether through localized presentations, descriptions of imaginary located events, or ideas/concepts that reflect more general and/or abstract qualities of where those performances, presentations, descriptions and reflections took place and/or what they pointed towards. So the contribution above worked to use different styles of writing practice to explore various perspectives on what may have happened in that sequence to further the emergent focus of the network’s work, i.e.
- quickly drafted one sentence paragraphs of six lines then subjected to one minutes worth of editing
- quasi-stream-of-consciousness writing from memories of the presentations in an order evolved as they came to mind
- carefully crafted one sentence commentaries on what the presentations might signify relationally done at moderate speed but then largely un-amended
- more measured-pace ruminative writings on critical perspectives suggested by three network members who did not make scenario-based presentations, towards the end increasingly edited and rewritten up to two or three times for clarity
- and so on …
but always aiming to let the results of the initial section inform the next, and that the next and so on till the end. The methods and their order were not planned in advance, but emerged through the doing of the writing practices exercise as a whole. The aim was to work from the particulars of the “site” and the group’s responses to it, through increasing attempts toward generalisation: evolving from the “local” to the (potentially) “global”, perhaps. Of course I make no claims in any way to privilege what the result might signify; it’s just one of myriad possible, always fallible, versions of the events of the weekend. But I hope that as a semi-structured method of consciously using varied but linked writing practices to reflect on the creative practical and analytical theoretical practices at Cove Park it might be of passing interest in light of the earlier comments on that network event.