Guardian article: project “impact”?

I was interviewed this week for this article in The Guardian which appeared on Wednesday.

The piece arose as a result of a first press release going out about the new “Towards Hydro-Citizenship” project which is to run from March this year for 36 months. Funded by the AHRC, this a large, inter-disciplinary project involving a consortium of co-investigators, under the ‘Connected Communities’ funding theme. (Further informational blurb follows after the next paragraph, for anyone interested..)

In a sense, the Hydro-Citizenship project can be seen to extend, on a larger and longer scale, the Multi-Story Water project (2012-13), which was in turn a follow-on from the network project that this blog-site was originally set up to support. So the ball keeps rolling … and interestingly, it was the question of (dis)connection between local and global environmental awareness – which was the question animating the network itself – that Guardian journalist Oliver Balch picked up on from our phone conversation, and quoted me about (or, I think more accurately, attributed a quote to me that was sort of the gist of something I said at more length…). What I was not expecting was the emphasis he places on corporate sustainability messaging… It turns out Oliver writes for the Business pages, and when he asked me about what message I’d have for businesses I was a bit stumped at first. It also seems to have thrown Sara Penrhyn Jones – one of my colleagues on the project – who left a comment below the article on the Guardian site somewhat distancing herself from its direction. I have some sympathy with her point about (to put it crudely) artists not whoring themselves out to corporate interests… But at the same time, I wonder if it’s not also important to explore and pursue dialogue with whoever wants to talk to us. One thing I’ve learned from Platform is that talking to the people that some of might easily dismiss as ‘the bad guys’ (bankers, oil corporations, etc.) is as important as shouting from outside the gates. And on a smaller scale, when I overcame my own initial hesitations and contacted the property developer who had bought the abandoned riverside mill site at Lower Holme in Shipley (during the Multi-Story Water project), he turned out to be a very likeable, reasonable man who was more than willing to meet the residents and listen to their concerns… You never know what can arise from being part of a conversation.


Towards Hydro-Citizenship: (from the press release…)

As the project’s title suggests, its focus is researching within, and working with, a range of communities to address intersecting social and environmental challenges through an application of arts and humanities approaches (including performance and film making, history and heritage, interactive mapping, etc.). The environmental focus is on interconnected water issues, which include such issues as flood risk, drought risk, supply and waste system security, access to water as an amenity and social (health) benefit, waterside planning issues, and water-based biodiversity/landscape assets. Given recent, extreme storm surge and flooding incidents in the UK, as well as other pressing water issues, this research is particularly timely.

The research will involve reviews of current work being undertaken elsewhere in a range of disciplines and international contexts and also 4 large scale case studies of community-water issues. These case studies will be in Bristol, Lee Valley (London), Borth and Tal-y-bont (Mid Wales), and Shipley (Bradford). Each case study will be conducted by a local team working with artists, community activists, and selected community partners ranging from small community groups to larger organisations charged with aspects of regeneration and community resilience. There will also be exchange and comparative research conducted between the case study sites.

The seeds of the project were sown at a three-day AHRC research development workshop, held in May 2012, on the theme of Communities, Cultures, Environments and Sustainability. The workshop aim was to stimulate the development of innovative proposals for transformative, cross-disciplinary, community-engaged research with the potential to make a significant contribution to the ways diverse communities respond to the challenges posed by environmental change, support the transition of communities towards more sustainable ways of living and cultivate the development of sustainable environments, places and spaces in which community life can flourish. The workshop sought to foster cross-disciplinary and collaborative approaches by bringing together researchers from a wide range of disciplines and other experts from policy and practice communities. A key theme was the potential to engage with diverse cultural communities in all stages of the research.

The Primary Investigator is Dr. Owain Jones, at the University of Gloucestershire’s Countryside and Communities Research Institute (CCRI).

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City of Rivers

Season’s greetings from performance footprint…

Following the recent mini-revival of activity on this blog, here’s a dubious little Christmas gift… a link to a recently finished film:

The footage here was actually shot back in July, during a mini-heatwave, which accounts for the sheen of perspiration on some of the people being interviewed. The occasion was the after-party for a “think tank” event in Sheffield on “River Stewardship”, hosted by the Environment Agency and Sheffield’s River Stewardship Company (a social enterprise which the EA had a significant hand in founding). As such, the film spins off from the Multi-Story Water project that is documented under the “Projects” tab on this site. It doesn’t, however, relate directly to either of the case study sites for the MSW project (Shipley, Bradford, and Eastville, Bristol). If there’s a “site-specific” angle here, it’s to do with Sheffield, and the location of the party by the city’s main railways station, and the invisibility (at least from here) of the rivers being discussed…

It’s taken a little longer than was ideal to finish editing the material, and it may yet get re-edited again… Jonathan Moxon, at the Environment Agency, has said he can imagine the film being useful to them in a number of contexts, but that it would need to be shorter than its current 14+ minutes. But for now, here’s the “director’s cut” – such as it is.

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Making Sense of Sustainability…?

This last weekend (December 6th and 7th), I was invited to another “environmental arts” symposium, this time in Cardiff… Where November’s event at Central School of Speech and Drama, in London, had crammed a huge (slightly exhausting) amount into one day (see November blog posts), the “Environmental Futures” dialogue/network event  was sort of the opposite… Spread over two days, there was actually very little formal symposi-fying, in terms of prepared papers etc. In fact, there were no ‘papers’ as such at all (!), which might be regarded as a mercy… The emphasis instead was on a more leisurely pace of debate, with roundtable-type sessions featuring invited participants: e.g. I was on one where the eight contributors all spoke for 3 or 4 minutes in response to a pre-circulated document (the lone female contributor in this session was the ubiquitous – and always worth listening to – Wallace Heim). Other sessions involving facilitated conversation among all the attendees around, well, round tables…

The idea was to facilitate cross-disciplinary dialogue between researchers and practitioners in both the arts and social sciences, and this was achieved up to a point. Still, personally I would have liked to hear from some of the social scientists who were present in a somewhat more structured, sustained way, in order to feel like I’d learned something from them. The problem with open discussion when you don’t share a clear sense of an agreed knowledge base can be that you end up engaging less in dialogue than in a series of intercut monologues (including my own, no doubt)… There was a slight sense of mutual incomprehension between people coming from very different contexts, as well as moments of unexpected understanding.

The highlights of the event were definitely the presentations by the various invited artists. David Harradine, artistic director of Fevered Sleep (and previously a participant in our performance footprint network event in Scotland back in 2011 – see February 2011 blog posts and the ‘David Harradine’ page under ‘Glascove’ in the ‘Documents’ section of this site), presented and talked about his short film It’s the Skin You’re Living In, which you can view here.

Polar-A4-2-low-res-jpeg1This rather wonderful little film, which playfully “brings home” the rather distanced, cliched climate change imagery of stranded polar bears, prompted much discussion. So too did the outdoor Tumbleweed performances by solo artist Claire Blundell Jones (with whom I collaborated on the original, live version of our Red Route corridor performance in Leeds back in 2008 — see under the “Projects” tab on this site). Claire had been invited to revive her signature Tumbleweed piece, last performed 3 years ago, by symposium co-organiser Simon Whitehead (a wonderful artist in his own right, of course), and she could be seen out and about in Cardiff twice on Friday, blowing her lonely tumbleweed along in a laconic presentation of futile, lonely, urban busy-ness — readable on all sorts of levels.


I was invited by symposium co-organiser Carl Lavery to provide an overnight response to David and Claire’s pieces. The result was the following text piece which I presented first thing on the Saturday morning (it also includes an oblique nod to Stefhan Caddick‘s lecture-demo about some of his site-specific environmental sculptures – I was particularly struck by his water-powered light sculpture inspired by the Sex Pistols’ “No Future” anthem from God Save the Queen). My delivery of the text was greeted very positively by those present (more so than I’d expected, to be honest), so here it is for the record…

It makes more sense, of course, if you’ve viewed David’s film… Or indeed if you’ve ever slept in a hotel like the one we stayed in on the Friday night…


Stark  (7.12.13)


And as so often in these places I’m lying here sleepless

Listening to the whirring and throbbing of the building’s innards

Artificial air flow

Artificial heat

Hermetically sealed exoskeleton

A shield against atmospheric unpredictability

An exquisitely tuned, insomniac’s torture machine

What was ever wrong with just opening a window?

“Unsustainable lives are disconnected, fragmented lives”

Says the briefing document

Perhaps we’re here in this 5 star hotel as an object lesson in such disconnection

A hotel whose lobby hits you with the humidity of  a swimming pool as you step out of the endlessly revolving glass bubble that seals it off from the outside

“Be Environmentally Friendly” says the sticker by the switch by the door of my room

But even turning off the lights turns out to be an ingenuity test that has defeated me

Unless I go around individually turning off the wall lamps

And even then there’s a light inside the wardrobe for which there is no discernible switch anywhere

Shafts of golden warmth spilling out beneath its doors,

Eerily lighting the floor

The only way to extinguish it is to remove the card key from the wall plug

Thus killing all electrics in the room

Preventing my smartphone recharging



3.49 am

And I’m thinking about that stark, white landscape in David’s film

Harsh, unwelcoming whiteness

But also about the warmth of that golden light that, elsewhere in the film,

Spills across the exposed chest of the bear-man-man-bear

Evoking for me the eternal late summer sunshine that seems forever to be lighting the way of William Morris’s protagonist in News from Nowhere

Late Victorian utopian vision of reconnecting man with nature

Nature figured permanently as welcoming, warming, climatically temperate

Gorgeously appealing sentimental tosh

Ruthlessly exposed by that







Sitting right there

Posing for the camera, centre stage

How did he get the bear to oblige?

Oh, I see, not bear but man

Man in suit

Thin, soft, white suit

Woefully inadequate protection against the inclement environment

Feeble exoskeleton

Modularised in sections

Held away from the body by foam padding and straps

The words ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ scrawled on opposing arm sections

I’m put in mind

of a kind of satire

on Iron Man

Marvel Super Hero

Golden, modularised, metallic exoskeleton

It’s this skin we’re living in

In our dreams

Safe, invulnerable

Internally regulated

Jet boots

Hand blasters

Man as master

Macho malarkey

Robert Downey Junior





Split screen

A mountain, cleft in two by vertical dividing line

Two images,

Two locations

side by side


Monkey Business

Stark – white – golden

Split screen Andy Warhol superstar

Super hero

Bear in underwear

Part stripped

Wholly exposed

No Future

No Future

No Future

For You


Zero Degree Dance

A phrase I heard the other day for the first time

Zero Degree Dance

Befittingly literal description for this bear-man-man-bear

Though in the book it referred to a trend in art gallery installation

In the illustrating photograph

In Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall

A group of semi-naked dancers are huddled together

Dribbling on the floor

While a man in riot police gear sits on horseback marshalling the crowd

In the picture

Just beyond the dancers

An unexplained pool of liquid covers a large expanse of the shiny grey floor

An unexplained pool of liquid which I can only assume

Is horse piss

The revenge of nature on art.


In my mind

The man-bear-bear-man

Is walking across the descending side of a curved pedestrian bridge

Straddling a motorway



Concrete curvature

Beneath the soft, white feet of the laughable bear suit

The bare feet of the dancer

Bare feet on cracked tarmac

Bare feet on gravel

Exquisitely simple, human vulnerability

To this world we built for ourselves

As somewhere else

Somewhen else

A young woman in metallic ear defenders

Battles to propel an invasive tumbleweed

With a petrol driven leaf blower

Across an indifferent urban landscape



Sisyphean task





HSS-rented gas-guzzling hand blaster

Its minor unsustainabilities standing in for all those other major unsustainabilities

That we tolerate, enjoy, condone

Every day

In our various metal exoskeletons

Cars, trains, ear defenders, 5 star hotels





Out of the fridge

On the turn


4.32 am

Still sleepless


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Art and Oil in a Cool Climate (pt.3)

In this third part of my retrospective reflections on recent work by London artist-activists concerned with the machinations of Big Oil, I want to consider Platform’s Oil City – a site-specific performance that tours small groups of participatinging audience members around parts of the City of London. Oil City was first staged in June this year as part of Artsadmin’s 2 Degrees festival of climate-change-related arts. These rather belated reflections are sparked in part by my having seen a very different piece of participatory theatre just last weekend, when I was in London for the symposium discussed in part 1 of this epic, 3-part blog entry…

The Drowned Man_DC.inddPunchdrunk’s The Drowned Man – a co-production with the National Theatre – is a massive, interactive spectacle taking place over four floors (though I think I only discovered three of them) of a disused building adjacent to Paddington Station. The place has been made over as a labyrinth of Hollywood-movie-themed spaces (producer’s offices, Western saloon, American high street, etc.), and there is an enormous cast of performers that you follow all over the building. It’s almost totally random motion – you make individual choices about where to go and what to see, who to tail, where to veer off… It’s a voyeur’s paradise, because every member of the audience is masked, so nobody can ‘see’ you, but you can get right in close to the action. Physically and viscerally it’s thrilling (some amazing close-up dance sequences, etc.), but plot-wise it’s pretty non-existent because you see the scenes – which are repeated in a looped sequence – in no particular order. And many of the scenes you don’t see at all. (At the curtain call, many of the performers taking their bows were completely new faces to me!) All of which means, in short, that it’s great fun but utterly without coherent narrative, content or any particular meaning beyond the thrill of the chase. One’s mind is not taxed in the least. 

OK I’ll come back to this… But back to Oil City, which does engage the mind as well as the body. It was also a piece of particular personal interest to me for two reasons: (1) the piece’s origins can be traced directly back to a walk along a similar route that was first devised by Platform’s James Marriott and Mel Evans for the London meeting of our performance footprint network back in May 2011 (for a full, illustrated account of which, click here). In the image below, for example, my tour group is pictured moving along the same corridor between Liverpool Street Station and London’s RBS offices that was also a key stage in the earlier walk… 

june13 020(The woman on the phone ahead of us is one of the performers – but the blend with the environment is such that everyone else who just happens to be there also becomes part of the mise en scene…)

(2) The second personal connection here is Mel herself, who very much ran with the idea of developing the earlier tour as a theatre piece. Mel was, back in the day, a student of mine at Glasgow University, and to direct the piece she also recruited a fellow former-student, freelance director Sam Rowe (the pair of them featured in a number of fondly-remembered shows I myself directed in Glasgow – e.g. they doubled as the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, in 2003). Leaving nostalgia aside, though, I want to focus here on the particulars of Oil City as a theatre piece… Because unlike the works focused on in the previous sections of this blog sequence (an audio tour and a conceptual art piece), Oil City draws quite openly on theatre conventions – and indeed on some of the conventions of participatory theatre established in recent years by companies such as Punchdrunk.  Where the 2011 tour had James and Mel playing narrators who were essentially versions of themselves (as in storytelling or performance art), Oil City used three professional actors to multi-role in several different character parts each — as journalists, campaigners, oil industry employees, political fixers, etc.

june13 018Here’s one of the actors (sorry – I can’t find any record of their names) leading us out of Liverpool Street Station towards an escalator up to that RBS corridor. At this moment she was, if I recall correctly, playing a whistleblower who was trying to provide us with evidence of corporate malpractice …

This is a game of intrigue, with the audience cast as players…  This engaging, entertaining format is used to introduce participants to some of the complex issues around the controversial attempts of oil corporations to drill in the Canadian tar sands (given the increasingly scarce resources elsewhere). This dangerous and environmentally destructive process also violates longstanding treaties over the territorial rights of First Nations peoples…. Hence, the actor pictured above later plays a First Nations activist who has come to London to bring the fight to the beating heart of the oil giants BP and Shell. (Incidentally, the choice of tar sands as topic marked another significant shift from the original 2011 tour, which was premised around the first anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.)

This doubling and trebling of roles by the actors no doubt arose in large part from budgetary limitations on the number of actors that could be hired… Unlike the resource-rich Punchdrunk, Platform’s is clearly a shoestring operation. And on the one hand, the multi-roling created a certain degree of confusion as to who exactly was playing what part when. But it also struck me that the the company made a playful virtue of necessity, by actively playing up these confusions as a way of highlighting the performance’s self-conscious theatricality. For example, during our initial car journey from the piece’s starting point at Toynbee Studios (HQ for the 2 Degrees festival) towards Liverpool Street, our audience group of four was informed by the driver – also the one male actor in the show – that we needed to keep an eye out for a certain untrustworthy oil executive… The actor was at this point playing a campaigning journalist who was enlisting our help in getting his ‘scoop’ – but the identifying photo that he showed us of this shady executive was a photograph of himself… The moment drew knowing smiles from his audience, and introduced a sense that the details of what was coming would — like all the best mystery plots — be somewhat blurry and confusing.

When I saw the same expositional device used in the Punchdrunk show (as we were escorted into the depths of the 4-storey building in a lift, the lift attendant showed us headshots of various stars and starlets we had to look out for), it occurred to me to wonder if Mel and Sam had drawn on Punchdrunk as an influence for Oil City… We are, after all, constantly being told by the press that Punchdrunk are influential… But where Punchdrunk used the photos simply as a signposting device, there was much more of a sense of knowing wit in the doubling-up used by Platform. And the overt, self-conscious theatricality thereby introduced also contrasted intriguingly with the concrete reality of the everyday London spaces we were moving through… (as opposed to the entirely fantastical, faked up sets used by Punchdrunk). Oil City pulled and pushed at the participant’s sense of what was “real” and what was “fictional”, in a way that the entirely hermetic Drowned Man never could.

This push-pull effect was also weirdly appropriate in relation to the issues being addressed by the “story”. My strongest memories of Oil City – as I finally write these reflections several months late – are of a kind of febrile confusion… a confusion that seemed to complement quite aptly the clearly very murky realities of Big Oil’s dealings with governments, lawyers, and community advocates. While I remember little of the fine detail recounted to us by the (fictive) characters, I did gain a clear and present sense that conversations being held, decisions being made, right here in the (real) City of London, were having very serious impacts in faraway Canadian territories…

june13 017Here is that same male actor I mentioned, playing the executive he had warned us about, at a cafe in the station complex… In this particular scene, the rules of the theatrical ‘game’ have suddenly changed: instead of being addressed and implicated as participants within the events themselves (“I need your help with this…”), we were suddenly treated as invisible flies on the wall – or rather invisible bums on the other seats around this table – as an off-the-record conversation occurred between these two execs.

This invisible audience premise is fundamental to Punchdrunk’s aesthetic, but again, they use it less interestingly…  In The Drowned Man, we all wear masks, we are clearly delineated from the non-masked performers, and we never cross the line from viewing to interacting… In effect, the masks operate just as would a proscenium arch or a film camera, separating us from those who are ‘acting’, even though we are mixed in among them. The categorical distinction between ‘stage’ and ‘auditorium’ is thus maintained and actively policed (as I discovered on a couple of occasions when stewards prevented me crossing parts of the performing spaces they did not want me to). By contrast, Oil City again creates a productive kind of blurring… Take a look at this shot below, for example, taken just before our man on the left – in the picture above – arrived for his meeting…

june13 016As we sat waiting for the scene to begin, all the other scenes at other tables formed part of our mise en scene, creating a strangely blurred sense that all those other people you can see were also actors, and that they too might be involved in shady dealings of some sort… And who knows, maybe some of them were! The show induced a weirdly unsettling, weirdly exciting kind of paranoia for participant spectators (and I know it wasn’t just me that felt this, because the people I was travelling with made the same point!).

june13 023And here we are, again in hot pursuit of the woman in black, like the Private Eyes that the show had cast us as. The spaces and landscape around us changes, but the pursuit keeps up… And where Punchdrunk had spent who knows how much (some of it public money) to facilitate our movement between artificial spaces, Platform simply used what was already available to them for free… The City becomes a strangely heightened, theatrical space (which it already is, of course, in many respects!), and everyone in it becomes part of the intrigue… Looking back now, I find myself wondering how much more extraordinary Oil City might have been if it had even a decent-sized fraction of The Drowned Man‘s budget to throw around — if they had a cast anywhere close to the same size so that you really never were sure who was an actor and who was just a bystander… Equally, what might happen if the audience numbers could be scaled up, to bring many more people into the conversation…?

june13 025Here is our First Nations activist, leading us into the looming maw of a public space underneath one of the financial buildings — where (in the shot below) she finally confronts yet another character played by our male actor with documents that he is suitably alarmed to realise have come into her possession…

june13 026He wheels round to confront us, the spectators, uttering a stream of convenient denials and excuses… It’s the kind of performance we’ve seen all too often from politicians and others who have been caught with their hands in the till, or their trousers round their ankles… Of course in this instance we know full well it’s just an actor, playing a part, who will shortly melt back into the London crowd as this largely invisible, ephemeral performance disappears into memory… But we also know that there is a reality to the artifice here – that things somewhat like the things that we’ve witnessed have happened, perhaps are happening right now, in the very spaces we’ve been moving through…

What I’m talking about here, I guess, is reality. The best theatre is utterly real precisely by virtue of its explicit artifice. Oil City achieved this, with very limited resources, in a way that The Drowned Man (with all its money, hype and glamour) signally failed to. If only we could arrange for a reallocation of funding… But then this is also the point of Oil City, in terms of its content: we need to ask questions about where the money is going, and why, and to whose benefit.

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Art and Oil in a Cool Climate (pt.2)

Further to my comments about Platform/Liberate Tate’s Tate a Tate audio guides in the post preceding this one, I want to attempt (belatedly) to unpack some thoughts about another of Liberate Tate’s 2012 interventions, The Gift. I was unable to experience this event first-hand, so my responses to it have been shaped by my access to its documentation — specifically to two videos posted online, the first by Linkup Films, the second on “Vice News” . (You can click on the links to view the films before reading the commentary that follows — or, since there’s some contextualising preamble first, you can wait until I get to The Gift itself, at which point the links will be embedded again.)


What interests me here is specifically the conjunction of (that which is called) activism and (that which is called) art in Liberate Tate’s practice. Their approach suggests a certain frustration and/or boredom with conventional protest methods (placards, marches, etc.), and a determination to combat the Tate with its own tools – those of contemporary art. The implication (which Tate a Tate made explicit) is that these activists are seeking to act as (or to spur on) the “awakening conscience” of Tate – but that in order to be persuasive they need to demonstrate an understanding of Tate’s own business which is equal (or ethically superior?) to that of the institution itself.

I have every sympathy for this laudable approach, but as a critic I’m also very interested in the fact that – and the ways in which – art and activism are different things. Activism is and must be predicated on the assumption that specific interventions can have a material, causal impact on political realities (“because we have manifested protest or dissent about a particular issue, you are compelled or constrained to act differently…”). Conversely, art might be defined as an activity that stands aside from the everyday causal chain – indeed is explicitly “framed” as separate from it (since it is the framing and naming that makes it definable as art). Though it might well prompt thought and reflection in the viewer/reader/spectator, we cannot predict precisely what kind of response an individual will have to an artwork, let alone what “real world action” the individual might be prompted to take – though this is not to say that such action will not occur. (I am making some pretty big generalisations here, obviously, but bear with me… For more detailed consideration of these propositions about art, see Jacques Ranciere’s essay “The Paradoxes of Political Art”, which I am drawing from here, albeit fast and loose…)

Now, art might usefully be in cahoots with activism, insofar that its role is often to affect or challenge our habituated perceptions of the world around us — to oblige us to look at things from an alternative angle or perspective. Alterered perception might very well be a necessary pre-requisite if an individual is to be prompted to take action on a particular issue (“I’d never thought of it like that before… hmm… this has consequences for me…”). But the paradox is that art itself does not and cannot prompt specific action — where activism precisely seeks to.

As I write this, I’m conscious that – considered in the abstract – these statements may seem to be creating a problem where there maybe wasn’t one to start with. But let me be more specific, and turn to some particulars of Liberate Tate’s art-activist practice as it has developed over the last few years. The group’s first action, License to Spill (June 2010) is the one that reads most readily as an activist gesture:


This action took place shortly after the catastrophe of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and occurred at the threshold of Tate Britain — just as, inside the building, a party was being held to mark the 20th anniversary of BP’s sponsorship of Tate Galleries. In this context, even without explanatory text, the image and the statement could hardly be clearer: pouring a messy, oil-like substance all over the place from cans labelled with the unmistakeable BP logo, Liberate Tate were “bringing the spill home” and confronting Tate with the implications of their too-cosy relationship with BP.

The action was tailored to attract press attention, which it certainly did, thanks to the boldness and clarity of the image. But I would argue that, precisely because it reads so clearly and unambiguously as “activist protest”, License to Spill might be tricky to classify as “art” in any richer, perception-affecting sense.  It says, in effect, “we are angry about this” (justifiably so!), and in that respect it is close kin to the protest placard.

But skip forward a couple of years, and Liberate Tate’s actions seem to tend increasingly toward the “artistic” end of the dichotomous spectrum I’ve been proposing. Indeed, quite unlike the mess on the steps of Tate Britain, the Tate a Tate audio tours (made in collaboration with Platform and Art Not Oil) are invisible to the general public. In order to experience them, one needs to make the quite conscious decision to seek out the relevant website, download the content, and take oneself to the Tate Galleries to experience the recordings in situ. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone other than those already in sympathy with the creators’ aims and concerns would go to all this trouble (unless, perhaps, they were assigned as reviewers, or sent by their teachers?). In effect, then, Tate a Tate was largely designed to preach to the choir, and as such has an extremely limited impact in terms of “activism” per se.

One should not, of course, underestimate the value of preaching to the converted: it happens in church every week, and its function is to build and consolidate a sense of shared identity and commitment. One should be careful, however, not to merely keep repeating the same messages that one’s congregation has heard before. For me, the audio-tour of Tate Modern felt too obvious and too familiar in its statements about oil sponsorship of the arts – and its various pronouncements bore only a rather tendentious relationship to the paintings it invited participants to look at. As such, it was (again, for me) far less affecting and memorable than the tour of Tate Britain, with its creative conceit of imagining the whole building as a “Panaudicon” (because the Panopticon of Millbank Penitentiary once stood on this site), and of looking through paintings to hear things that are removed in time and space from the immediate surroundings of the gallery, but are being (re)connected to it. As I explained in some detail in the previous blog post, my perceptions and perspectives were challenged and altered by this experience. This was art doing its work, in supportive relation to (an already assumed sympathy with) activism.

Which brings me to The Gift – an action I have huge admiration for, and which fascinates me in part because its relationship to the art/activism dichotomy is so awkwardly blurred. On the face of it, this has all the trappings of an activist intervention: a group of like-minded protesters descend on Tate Modern at a prearranged time and force their way into the Turbine Hall to “deliver” a “gift” that the gallery has decidedly not asked for. Unlike License to Spill‘s molasses, however, the delivery itself — a decommissioned wind turbine arm — bears no clear visual or symbolic connection to the issue being protested (i.e. oil sponsorship of the arts). Of course, the links are there as soon as one stops to think about it for oneself — i.e. an implied support for renewable energy sources over the continuing extraction of fossil fuels; an alternative kind of “gift” to the moneys solicited from BP. There is also a linguistic pun at work here (a wind turbine arm for the turbine hall of a former power station), and of course a referencing of a whole history of objets trouves that have been reframed as modern / contemporary art – from Duchamp’s urinal on down. The windmill arm, like the urinal, is an everyday object which is conventionally valued only for its uses, but which, when de- and re-contextualised within the frame of art, becomes manifestly useless. Instead, attention is invited to its particular form, colour, contours – as an unlikely sculptural object. Liberate Tate, playing the art game to the hilt, even presented the gallery with the legal papers required to submit an artwork to the national collections: the turbine blade, these papers proposed, should be newly defined as both an art object in its own right and as documentation of a performance action (i.e. the thing delivered stands in as evidence of its delivery). Tate was thus legally compelled to consider whether or not the item should be accepted for its collections. Eventually they declined it, although the smarter move would probably have been to accept it (the institution would thereby have  absorbed and accommodated protest against itself into its own narrative – but perhaps that would also have been to give too much recognition to the issue being protested?).

From an artistic point of view, I find all this fascinating – and it’s almost tailor-made for seminar discussion with students (I’ve used these videos in class on two or three occasions already). But the question of definition remains: is this indeed an activist gesture, if the thing being protested about remains obscure or unclear without supporting explanation? Had I been an innocent bystander at Tate Modern that day, unfamiliar with Liberate Tate’s objectives, I would have seen a group of (mostly white) young people forcing their way past a phalanx of security guards (many of them people of colour), in order to bring in and assemble a large white object in three component parts. I could probably be forgiven for not even realising that the large white object was a wind turbine blade, unless someone told me — and I could certainly be forgiven for not realising that this strange event had anything to do with oil.

The videos themselves illustrate the issue with great clarity. In the first, the event is framed in a way that very much emphasises the aesthetic dimensions of the event and object. There is even a stirring musical score – apparently performed live on Millennium Bridge during the approach, as well as being used non-diegetically to overlay the video edit.  Here, no explanation for the event is offered until close to the end of the film, at which point a voice-over connects the action with the Damien Hirst exhibition that was then taking place in Tate Modern’s pay-per-view galleries. It is suggested (not unreasonably) that the values of art having become confused with the value of money. In this context, we are therefore invited to read the arrival of the wind turbine as being – quite literally and pointedly – art for art’s sake  (i.e. art should be valued in terms of its invention and ingenuity rather than by its price tag). No mention is made of oil at any point in the film: the issue simply does not feature.

In the second video, right from the first caption, a much clearer connection is made between the delivery of the blade and the stated activist objectives of Liberate Tate. The form of the video, placed on an internet “news” site, is that of a documentary: as such, it eschews the consciously aestheticized form of the first video in favour of appearing to offer a relatively unmediated window into the planning of, and motives behind, the performance. Indeed, we hear the event’s orchestrator, Tim (no last name is given, in keeping with the group’s general preference for anonymity),  explaining that The Gift has been conceived as a self-conscious alternative to “holding a placard up”: despite appreciating the value of such traditional activist methods, he feels unsatisfied and creatively unfulfilled by them. It’s worth noting, however, that the placard at least has the advantage of being explicit about what is being protested. The further one moves across this putative spectrum between that which is clearly activism and that which is clearly art, the more open to personal interpretation one’s gestures become.

I would argue that, as a performative gesture, The Gift remains radically ambiguous in its meaning and intentions unless it is clearly underlined by supplementary, explanatory text (as this second video does). There is of course a distinguished artistic pedigree for the art object or performance standing in crucial juxtaposition to a title or verbal statement (one thinks, for example, of conceptual art works such as Michael Craig-Martin’s An Oak Tree – which without its textual component is simply a glass of water). But if we’re proposing that the action needs to be read in relation to a statement, then we’re again underlining the status of this work in relation to a genealogy of conceptual/performance art. Is it also, categorically speaking, an activist gesture? Or might we might argue that The Gift borrows and performs the combative trappings of a protest action, but ultimately treats them artistically, in terms of mimetic quotation (just as it also quotes/invokes interventions in the history of art by Duchamp et al) ?

To put this another way… Might it not be the case that some readers/spectators (perhaps those more drawn to the first video than the second) might find the explanation about oil sponsorship entirely redundant to an appreciation of the gesture itself? Potentially, such a spectator might feel that the quality of intrigue that characterises the unadorned gesture has in some way been spoiled by the supplementary explanation of it (rather like a good joke being spoiled by a poor punchline.)

So what exactly makes this an activist gesture? License to Spill succeeded in those terms through the visceral and timely clarity of its statement about oil: its demand on Tate was crystal clear. Conversely, the Tate Britain end of Tate a Tate succeeded as an aesthetic, perceptual experience by importing reflections on the history of oil exploitation into the pristine cleanliness of the gallery. Yet whether in terms of art or activism, The Gift is not clearly “about” oil at all – unless one is told that it is. It is, more obviously, an artistic gesture that cleverly invokes a history of iconoclastic artistic gestures. So it is surely a moot point whether or not it succeeds in Tim’s stated aim of asking Tate to “have a little think” about its relationship with BP.  In purely causal terms, what Tate’s representatives actually had to think about was what it would mean to accept (and to provide storage for) a wind turbine blade, as part of their art holdings. And there is, I would venture, an important difference between the question of sustaining a sponsorship deal, and the question of dealing with an unsolicited gift. It’s even possible that the latter might distract attention from the former: in having to deal, unwillingly, with the awkward material object, Tate might actually be less inclined to deal thoughtfully with the more indirect, reflective questions (around alternative energy sources and alternative sponsorship strategies) that The Gift also purported to be asking.

I would underline here my own sense that The Gift was a rich and intriguing performance action. My reflections on the questions it throws up, however, have led me towards a sharper sense of the tricky questions that artist-activists such as Liberate Tate have to process. One needs to be very clear about what the particular objectives of any given gesture might be – whether political and/or aesthetic – because, again, activism and art are not the same thing, though they may well prove complementary. Without such clarity, one risks making category errors and, perhaps, assuming a certain causal efficacy where only open readership pertains. Jacques Ranciere makes a similar point in terms that seem particularly pertinent to The Gift (even if they may not ultimately apply):

“In ‘activist’ art nowadays a clear trend has emerged that relies on the reality of occupying an exhibition space as a way of proving the real effects of the social order.  [Such gestures characteristically draw] on the combined effects of the self-evidence of sculptural presence, action in the ‘real world’ and rhetorical demonstration. But it may well be that . . . the more [art] professes to be engaging in a form of social intervention, the more it anticipates and mimics its own effect. Art thus risks becoming a parody of its alleged efficacy.” (Jacques Ranciere, “The Paradoxes of Political Art”)







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Art and Oil in a Cool Climate (Pt. 1)

It’s oddly appropriate that, two weeks after posting a brief, “3 years on” blog piece remembering our Fountains Abbey network weekend, I found myself once again listening to John Fox, of Dead Good Guides, talking about his and Sue Gill’s collaborative life practice at their home on Morecambe Bay.  The occasion,  this last Friday 1st November 2013, was a one-day symposium at the Central School of Speech and Drama, New Perspectives on Ecological Performance Making, co-organised by PhD candidates Lisa Woynarski and Tanja Beer. They had succeeded admirably in bringing together a broad spectrum of people concerned with the connections between theatre/performance and environment/ecology, and the day was full of insights and provocations of various sorts. One of the nice things about it, on a personal level, was the sense of continuity it offered from our earlier network project — and indeed John remarked in his talk that he felt quite at home because pf the presence of so many of “the Fountains gang” – including our host at Central, Sally Mackey, and also Dee Heddon, Baz Kershaw, Wallace Heim and myself. At the same time, though, there seemed to me no cause for self-congratulation in terms of “establishing a new sub-discipline” or anything of that sort…

If anything, the number of different perspectives being presented demonstrated the lack of existing cohesion or agreement about what “ecological performance making” would even mean: for some, it’s about finding low-carbon solutions for traditional theatre practice (cue much discussion of LEDs as against tungsten bulbs), for some it’s about art as activism, for some its about using performance to cultivate a renewed attentiveness to the non-human environment, and so on… It’s a testament to Lisa and Tanja’s care and organisational skills that all these perspectives were brought together in one room for one day, so let’s hope the symposium prompts further productive discussion and collaboration.

At this moment in time, however, this gathering felt very marginal to the concerns of both theatre/performance studies at large, and indeed to the study of environment/ecology. In introducing the opening panel, as chair, Baz very generously described Wallace, Dee, Carl Lavery and myself as the “illumanati” of this emergent area of concern, but I felt strongly that the accolade was undeserved. Leaving aside the fact that it’s Baz himself, if anyone, who has earned it, there’s the more important point that we are not a secret society and we are certainly not the keepers of any special knowledge… Each one of us is simply scratching around the edges of something — Wallace from a primarily philosophical perspective, Dee as a walker and forest enthusiast, Carl as (it seems to me) a classical avant-gardist, and myself as someone with a vaguely Boy Scout-ish urge to do something useful by wandering up and down rivers.  And all of this pales into infinitesimal insignificance, though, when one considers the wider challenges that Baz also alluded to in his opening remarks.

This is, he observed, both a hot and a cool moment. A hot moment because the planet is still warming and the urgency to do something radical about the situation – on a concerted, global scale – is more pressing than ever. And a cool moment because — after a few years of felt concern, around and about the COP15 summit of 2009? — the whole topic of climate change has “cooled off” in the media and the public consciousness. There seems to be more of a determination than ever to bury heads in the sand, to deny the scientific consensus — as evidenced recently by the press coverage of the latest IPCC report (UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), which spilled much ink over the report’s mention of a recent, unexpected slow-down in the rate of warming, but which merrily obscured the fact that climate scientists are more convinced than ever of the underlying trend — i.e. that human activity is driving potentially catastrophic changes in the climate.

For those of us working in higher education, these issues are given particular piquancy by a new report from Platform that points out the degree of collusion between British universities and the fossil fuel multinationals whose objective is to keep drilling for oil in ever-more-dangerous and sensitive environments. The report, Knowledge and Power, tells me for example that my own employer, the University of Manchester, last year took £64 million from BP in order to finance a new research centre — one explicitly directed to “help [BP’s] search for oil in deeper and more challenging environments.” This unholy alliance of BP and UoM, says the PR blurb, “enables BP to access the University’s world-class executive education, high-quality research facilities and its undergraduate talent pool” (quoted p.16).  And yet at the same time, the University has the gall to be inviting staff to join “green impact teams” to ensure more sustainable energy use in its buildings… One suspects, in this context, that “green impact” translates merely as “cost saving”, given that the institution’s commitment to saving the planet is, to say the least, equivocal.

I am angry about this. Actually. Seriously fucking angry. And not least with myself for not bothering to research my employer’s dirty fingerprints before now. Question is, now what?

Of course, in the cultural sector, there have been very active campaigns running now for some time to get BP and Shell sponsorship out of the arts. The most prominent such activism in the last few years has been Liberate Tate‘s interventions (often in collaboration with Platform) at London’s Tate Galleries. But if I needed further evidence of the “cooling climate” for such protest, it was provided by a visit — the day after the Central symposium — to Tate Britain. My intention was to once again tour the gallery with my iPod listening to Tate a Tate, the site-specific audio work created by Platform, Liberate Tate and Art Not Oil…

tateatateThis work had quite an impact on me when I first experienced it in the spring of 2012, shortly after the tours were released online… The aesthetic dimensions of it intrigued me – a guerrilla audio guide providing alterative readings of the works in Tate Britain and Tate Modern, and linked by a musical protest song mash-up for listening to on the Tate Boat that links them. (In fact, I realised this year that I subconsciously lifted this walk-boat-walk structure for the Multi-Story Water performances we made in Shipley…) Admittedly I wasn’t that taken with the Tate Modern tour, which seemed to me to have little intrinsically to do with the building or its displays: instead, it simply directed you at certain pictures and then used various lateral connections to launch into diatribes which — though informative — lacked the conceptual or sensory allure of the best contemporary art, and thus somehow “fell short” of the site it had specified for itself. But the Tate Britain tour was, for me, far more compelling… more layered in its audio textures, more striking in its ideas.

Beginning in the front foyer of the building, and then guiding the listener to lock him or herself into a basement toilet cubicle, the tour begins with a history of the site itself — as what was once swampy, riverside marshland. Drained in the late 18th Century, it provided the site for Millbank Penitentiary — England’s first, large-scale modern prison, and still the only one to be built explicitly along the guidelines mapped out by Jeremy Bentham in his writings on the Panopticon (latterly beloved of Foucauldians the world over). Taking this fascinating titbit as its conceptual hinge, the soundwork then proposes that the listener is in the centre of a new “Panaudicon”. By locking down one’s spatial co-ordinates, one can extend one’s hearing range for thousands of miles in different directions from this central point. Guided to the Clore Gallery, housing the Tate’s unmatchable collection of Turner paintings, one is invited to sit down in front of this canvas…

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage - Italy exhibited 1832 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage – Italy exhibited 1832 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

… and to listen carefully as sounds come directly through it, magnified by the Panaudicon from their spatial source across the globe and, indeed, back in time. Thus, looking at the mysterious, single-tree landscape of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, we hear the haunting sounds of whales being hunted near to extinction for the oil their bodies contain. This brutal trade finally ended, we are informed, not because of any conservationist concern for the species, but simply because it became uneconomic. A new, more profitable source of oil had been identified… Turning through 90 degrees on the gallery bench, we are invited to look through this painting, towards a different point on the globe, the Caspian Sea…

Sir Brooke Boothby 1781 by Joseph Wright of Derby 1734-1797

Sir Brooke Boothby 1781 by Joseph Wright of Derby 1734-1797

Looking at — and listening through — this particularly smug-looking portrait of a wealthy 18th Century gentleman, reclining in a forested glade, we hear of the first, filthy, dangerous attempts to drill for fossil fuel oil. The juxtaposition of sound and image, at this moment on the tour in particular, haunted me for months after first experiencing it. But returning to Tate Britain this weekend, I discovered that the experience was unrecoverable. I had been expecting some changes to the “hang” in the gallery, and that the tour might therefore be tricky to negotiate some 18 months on from its inception. What I had not expected was to discover that the entire recording was redundant. Leaving aside the installation work going on in the central rotunda (which was masked off, making the various audio instructions to move through it difficult to negotiate…), there was the stark fact that every single painting referenced by the guide was not only absent from its anticipated spot… it was nowhere to be seen in the gallery at all. I hunted high and low for Childe Harold and Sir Brooke Boothby — all to no avail.


Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience (1853)

The audio guide concludes with a tour de force encounter with this painting, Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience. Here, the sound effects of a glorious, birdsong-filled garden outside the window (the window into which the painting’s viewer is ostensibly peering) brought the canvas’s colours to life with an eerie, supra-natural vividness when I first encountered it. Something phenomenological happened for me, that I can’t quite articulate, even as the voice-over adopted the classic tone of an art critic — offering a disquisition on the content of the image, while also inviting metaphorial reflection on the theme of conscience… Just as the woman, stunned by the natural beauty of the garden outside, arises from the lap of the leering gentleman — apparently resisting the temptation to sin — so art (proposes the recording) needs to be the conscience of society, not merely a whore to corporate interests. (OK, the gender politics here are a little fuzzy, but leaving that aside…)  As the narration concludes, the birdsong continues for a sustained period, so that you are left uncertain when to pull away from the painting (“is it over now?”), held by the stare of the protagonist and the light in the garden…

Again, though, none of this was repeatable this weekend. The painting was not in its designated spot — nor indeed anywhere to be seen. Now, of course, this might all be perfectly innocent. The Tate’s permanent collection is enormous, far too extensive to all be on dislay at any given moment, and they do have a policy to periodically alter what is hung and what is stored away. But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you, and there was something about the fact that the audio tour’s potential effects had been so systematically destroyed — every painting referenced being so mysteriously absent — that persuaded me that something quite deliberate had occurred here. Tate has been well aware of Liberate Tate’s activities, after all (they’ve been discussed at board meetings) … and it wouldn’t have been hard for the gallery’s curators to listen to the recording and take the necessary action to destroy any potential impact it had as an artwork. The audio tour’s ambition to be a “permanent installation” has proved sadly temporary. The gallery’s conscience, rather than being awakened, has been decisely smothered.

More than that, though… For those of us who see conspiracies everywhere, it’s difficult to avoid the fact that, directly adjacent to the room that once housed Childe Harold and Sir Brooke Boothby, there’s currently an exhibition of Constable paintings titled “Nature and Nostalgia”. An exhibition prominently sponsored — you guessed it — by BP (a corporation who can afford to be nostalgic about nature, since they clearly don’t care much about its present or future). On this half-term weekend, moreover, BP’s interest in time has been manifested thus…

lea0219familyfestivalwebbannerThe Time Loop allows families to tour the gallery as if on a Doctor-Who-ish time travel journey, making unexpected connections between different periods…. (just as the audio tour had…?). As a consequence, the BP name and logo are dotted all over the building, linking different exhibits. It is difficult to imagine Tate having been quite so unashamedly celebratory of its links with the oil giant last year, or the year before… Deepwater Horizon, it would seeem, has faded from the public memory like a bad smell, wafted away by artistic air freshener.

And meanwhile, in Tate Britain’s temporary exhibition galleries, the current major exhibition is this:

art_under_attack_web_banner_0I asked a docent what the exhibition was about. She told me that it was about the way that art has been vandalised over the centuries… but how sometimes the fact of the art having been vandalised makes it more memorable and more important.

There’s an irony here that I can’t quite put my finger on.


November 26th update to the above:

Unsurprisingly, Liberate Tate themselves have clearly had their eye on the developments within Tate Modern, re-BP’s sponsorship of the newly unveiled exhibits… They entered the gallery with characteristic brassiness very shortly after the re-opening, to perform Parts Per Million, a simple but rather brilliant intervention – which is also sobering and scary in its implications. See Youtube link below:


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3 years on…

It was 3 years ago today that the first meeting of our “performance footprint” network group took place at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal. As part of the proceedings, Sue Gill of Dead Good Guides (formerly of Welfare State International) plucked a collection of sloes from hedgerows around the World Heritage Site estate, and encouraged all present to use them to make our own small bottles of sloe gin… And I still have mine. Here it is, photographed today.

ireland and sloe gin 163

I recall that the process of making these bottles (wedging sloes into the small bottle necks, pouring in gin) was accompanied by music and much general merriment. I also remember feeling vaguely worried – as organiser of this event – that our funders, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, might not deem this an appropriately scholarly use of our time. This was an understandable anxiety, perhaps, but looking back it was also completely misplaced: much of the success of the network (if success it was, let’s not be too self-congratulatory) was built on a sense of camaraderie and openness that relied precisely on moments like this. There’s an ecology in this, of course – the connectivity of the social and physical alongside (and as vital stimulants to) the intellectual and artistic.

3 years on, that first meeting seems a long time ago. We met subsequently at Cove Park in Scotland, at Kings College in London, and some of us then also convened for an additional meeting in Bristol… The last paved the way for Multi-Story Water (officially “Before the Flood”), the year-long follow-on project in collaboration with members of another AHRC Researching Environmental Change network, which developed site-specific performance work in collaboration with community members in flood-threatened areas of Bristol and Bradford. That ran in 2012 (during which we also published an edition of Performance Research arising from the network proceedings), and in 2013 we got a bit of additional funding to do further Multi-Story follow-up activities, which we’re still in the process of reporting on.

And then just two days ago, October 15th 2013, I was in Swindon (lovely Swindon) as part of a team being interviewed by AHRC high command to see if we merit a large grant award to pursue a 3 year, interdisciplinary consortium project on “Hydro-Citizenship”… in many ways this follows on directly from Multi-Story Water, which follows on directly from the network. So yes, a lot got started this day 3 years ago. And it’s finally time to drink the gin, I think…

ireland and sloe gin 167

OK, so I was a bit apprehensive about this… thought I might poison myself with rotten fruit. But I am delighted to report that, just as Sue said it would, this concoction has certainly improved with age! … Some people drank theirs pretty much straight away, and it tasted like neat gin with a hint of fruit. Three years on, though, it’s rich and full and fruity and really rather gorgeous.



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Theses nailed to the cottage door

[In a blatant act of e-vandalism, I have retroactively renamed Baz’s November posting ‘Earthrise Repair Shop’ and cut everything in that posting except for Phil Smith‘s reflections below. This is because the entirety of Baz’s post has now been moved to its rightful place as a ‘Project’ page on the main menu of this site… But I’ve left Phil’s thoughts here because — besides responding directly to Baz’s ERS meadow meander (and they still also sit in their correct place in his collage of response on the ERS page) — they also link directly on from his earlier blog posting “Footnotes on Apocalypse”… and relate also to our discussions with the Environment Agency (“Welcome to Eastville”). So I’ve left them here to preserve and emphasise that blog continuity…. Although Baz’s redactions of certain pieces of descriptive information – XXXXX – also remain intact. SB]

Theses nailed to the cottage door

1/ Pondering what a performance reflecting on environmental change might be, it became difficult not to abandon the [walking] task in order to reflect on environmental change, as if the latter were necessary for the former. This may be a trap.

2/ That reflections are less distinct in experimental science than in popular science publishing, let alone those narratives of environmental change that surface in both ‘serious’ and clownish or abject mass media.

2/ For dramaturgical rather than empirical reasons, it is hard to believe (feel entertained or intellectually satisfied by) the narrative of the Good Earth (sub-plot: wicked humans). Even the most heartfelt and well-researched accounts of “pollution” read too much like laws of ritual purity. A spiritual or ideal cleanliness is an organic death.

2a/ Is there a kind of doubleness in the theatre of “green”? – that the Earth is good but that we should fear its anger at what we do; that the Earth will wipe-us-out. So the Earth is called “good”, but described as though it is what is otherwise called “evil” – a terrain of voiceless, unreflexive danger?

3/ If human consciousness is part of Nature, and technology, its objects and intentions, are parts of Nature (so much so that the word “part” becomes suspicious – as if it might have the same relation to Nature as a partial object to an individuation), suspension bridges and the skeletal structures of large plant-eating dinosaurs are made to the same pattern, are responses to the same physical forces. “The mathematics are out there” (Roger Penrose).

4/ It is (memetically) tempting to believe that ideas and images prosper and propagate in ways not dissimilar to biological information.

5/ Any ‘reflection’ will take place on a contorted and contorting “surface”, or rather on a series of contorting reflective surfaces weaving in and around each other while moving also in relation to the motions of changes in/being the environment.

6/ Empirical science is telling us that it is between very probable and a cast iron certainty that human actions have triggered an ongoing and accelerating warming of the planet, and that we cannot be certain what the consequences will be, but that we would be foolish to assume that the changes will be comfortable (or even life-sustaining) for much organic life on Earth.

6/ But…

6/ Apocalypse is a socially attractive fiction: like utopia it implies a bounded space (rather than city wall or island shores, apocalypse is bounded by isolation and the eradication of complexity). It allows everyone to play – if the game is feral survival – to drop the usual rules, it brings the cancellation of all rents, debts, appointments. A vicious holiday. The illusion of starting from scratch (following Jesus, Thoreau and Breton – abandoning communality to take a walk.) Despite these qualities, the narrative of apocalypse has become an assumed part of popular reflecting on environmental change. It is the something that the “we” (when this fiction of an aggregation of individual consumers forms an audience, assembled in the absence of “good taste”) secretly or not so secretly want: not surprisingly, as the narrative is constructed for the “we” to want it (and has survived by appearing to be constructed for, even by, us). It is the contemporary sublime, this time written by the landscape gazing mutely back.

6/ In Global Catastrophes, the vulcanologist Bill McGuire’s most credible narratives for a Sixth Mass Extinction are all “natural”. Human behaviour, more than it “damages” a planet separate from itself, makes itself vulnerable to a recidivist planet that has repeatedly generated “catastrophes”. And what if the planet “wants” this? In the same way that an aggregated and rough audience “wants” apocalypse? Does the planetus (the planet including us) have a memetics?

6/ We are now a geological force.

6/ A child sneaked in at the back of a recent screening of The Cove and watched with care as the nets of the fishermen herded the dolphins towards the thickening shallows; she saw the delegates from landlocked and impoverished nations smiling, she saw Sea Worlds that reminded her of the refugee camps, she saw the educational murals, she saw the tins of chemical tuna in the coolers, and she remembered the old old story that they were always making up in the camps and playgrounds; about how the instructions for people and machines are not written by good people choosing good things, but how they come from a spectre that no one ever quite sees, who is everyone and who no one is like, who no one has chosen and who commands almost complete consent and who hurts everyone even though it owes everything to them, and that it is this very debt that determines everything everyone does, from the direction of the cars to the colour for stop and the colour for go, and that no one who walks on two feet and wears a hat, a belt or a kimono can escape it. Running from the cinema, the child out-stripped the angry charity worker, pausing at the traffic island, hauling on the fumes and the smell of street food. She ran her own movie, an anime, of the flow of the cars that was the flow of the XXXXX, and of the cruelty of the fishermen’s knives that was the strike of a fish’s jaws; and everything that her human character did was seized on by artists and transformed; highways into the trails of slugs, plans into deserts, blueprints into reflections on the surface of a pond, and wounds into new organs.

6/ That if we want to understand (not sentimentalise) an ecology we need the (strictly limited) paranoia that we can accrue by first assuming that we are in a food chain with it (it-is-out-to-get-us), wary of revenging “Gaia”, defensive against the anger of “Mother Earth”… look at the building/s around you, and now replay Marx’s parable of the architect and the bee – does it still make sense? Look at the buildings again. Now walk the story, the buildings, the architects and the bees into the XXXXXXXXXXXX. (The task of advocating flood defences, and the quality of that advocacy, might be more important and more significant than it seemed at the time.)

6/ “Never set foot in a fallout shelter”, Mutant advised in the 1960s, for “it is better to die standing with all the cultural heritage of humanity, the perpetual modification of which must remain our task.” “Nuclear weaponry’s main function is to deter not the enemy but the state’s own population. Contrary to the Ban the Bomb movement, this position sees not nuclear annihilation as the main threat, but the disarming of critique… One wonders how much the twenty-first century’s obsessions with things environmental might likewise play a demobilizing role.”  (McKenzie Wark, The Beach Beneath The Street) Over and above the author’s political opinions here, what if stories are inadequate (asks the storyteller)? What if the storytellers are inadequate (asks the stories)? What if the vocabulary has been grinding the words down to letters again (vdesc w2.%st sdv^7=sst b3s)?

The invitation

After Steve had kindly posted on the blog some notes of mine under the heading “Footnotes for Apocalypse”, I received an email from Baz, inviting me to visit him at his cottage. I can’t recall the exact wording, but he wanted me to see a meeting point of what passes for heaven and hell in the contemporary world that had opened up on his land. I hope I do not misrepresent him when I say that his reasons for inviting me were partly practical (to test the opening – I think 5 people had previously tried it out), partly his partial identification with something in the “despair” of the Footnotes, and partly a pastoral care for my own wellbeing. These partlies all took on the qualities of partial objects – voices without bodies, shapes without substance, maps without mass. All of which were to coalesce in the complex, but organic and topological opening, a kind of intestine, which I now have as a part of my body and out of my control. Baz said nothing more by way of explaining the heaven/hell site. We arranged a date and then brought it forward ten days: the “meadow” had abruptly come to a good moment for me to visit. I caught the train a day later. An hour having passed along the flat valley floor, and I was met by Baz at the station and was at the meadow shortly after that.

The meadow and the matrix

Baz’s cottage sits at the meeting point of two valleys, each with its own stream. The streams meet close to the road, a former drovers’ route from XXXXXXXXXXX  to XXXXXXXXXXX, and one runs alongside it. Adjacent to the cottage are areas of garden, a pond, a fenced area for chickens and a large meadow, divided in various ways, and a small strip of woodland in which a tiny quarry is shaded. The land is overlooked and protected on one side by a wall of large, mature conifers that are due for felling: a kind of threat, at present mitigated by a [neighbour’s] private inertia. An occasional vehicle passes by on the old drovers’ route.

The heaven/hell confluence is a figuring of XXXXXXXXX “mapped” onto (trodden into) the meadow. I walk this “maze” for a while guessing what it might be (first guess: fish) and then Baz lets me in on it.

I walk it some more, climb up a long ladder leaned against a tree growing from the edge of the tiny quarry to photograph the XXXXXXXXX chart from above. Although it is on a slope the outline cannot be seen clearly from anywhere on the rising ground. We go inside for a cup of coffee. Talk about what it is, this meadow chart, how it might be used. About apocalypse and its narratives and the role of cottages in them. A woodpecker feeds on the bird table. Then we come outside once more and I walk and run the XXXXXXX for, say, 12 or so circuits. I have very little idea how long it takes – 5 minutes? An hour? The gut stretches. Pushing things around in peristaltic waves.

XXXXXX and buzzard

I began by walking the XXXXXXXXXXX at an even, brisk pace. Very quickly I was able to look around and began to notice rather large features that I had previously ignored: I was amazed to notice that there were power-lines hung across the meadow on tall poles. Through trees I glimpsed a building on a far horizon… it rained, the sun shone, the butterflies (meadow brown and cabbage white) retreated and reappeared according to the light, I trampled the grass that had been trampled, I followed the lie of the stalks as Baz suggested; what had seemed enigmatic became a simple spectral XXXXXXXXX down which I floated.

Only when I attempted to follow the circling of a buzzard while walking very slowly did I become giddy and stumbled.

At one point, in response to the dip of the ground, my skeletal frame crunched, then realigned itself into a more “satz”-like state of preparedness.

I wondered why neither Baz nor I had mentioned to each other the XXXXXXX that stretched across the middle of the “map”, a kind of XXXXXXXX, necessitating a step or leap when moving from one XXXXXXXX to another. I think now of the initiations of young XXXXXXXXX and the impersonation of the XXXXXX.

At times the path began to disappear and the meadow became a woozy mass of appearance, through which muscle memory guided me precisely. Whether by pigment or scintillation, the tops of the grasses appeared misty.

A couple of times I saw Baz moving about near the gorse. (Later we would talk about ordeal, and setting other walkers the task of walking the XXXXXXXX through the gorse and the bramble.) Then I saw him at the top of the precarious ladder. Another hawk. “Do you mind if I document the documenter?”

We were going round in XXXXXX.

And now that I am away from the XXXXXXXXX and trying to write about them, there is a swirl of desperation. I sit and stop, but the stiller I get, the tighter the vortex becomes. It has a life of its own, this desperation – a ghost sheriff emerging from the history of small company towns, a fleet of possessed tanks rolling down the streets of wooden shacks, a matrix of barbed wire pulling the countryside tighter and tighter – its personifications are utterly unhelpful, truly and unusually without meaning or allusion: the more I sit here the more they pass uselessly by on those looping XXXXXXXXXX. An accursed share. Refreshing the memory; unfathomable, mute.

Two days before my walk in the maze, I had stood on the very point of Dawlish Warren, a long spit of sand dune, where the plastic containers and fish skeletons are bleached white by sun and salt. Talking with a sculptor about her trodden path made in a wood near Darmstadt, walked and scuffed into the shape of a wolf, at the cost of a pair of boots – – and it had been all about meanings in the rip and pull and counter-current, the forces of the river meeting the forces of the incoming tide, forming the kinds of uzumaki that transform communities in a few moments.

How complacent that seems now.

Provisional Findings

The maze pushes the focus outwards. It allows little introspection.

The maze slopes and constantly challenges the body to shift its centre of gravity in response. The maze is somatic.

The maze “empties” the mind – by shaking the brain it opens up coagulated gaps, rendering them vulnerable to an outside that rushes in to fill the tiny sucking vacuums.

The maze strips and rips the shape from the experience, hurls meanings to the beside, by the centripetal force of the whirl of the meadow-XXXXXXXX, by its performance-likeness, by its flat globalisation of a place with the footprint of a large cottage, its conceptualisation and its projection; these XXXXXXX, unlike the deadly (to human and dunes) ones at the Warren, refuse to be employed for anything, avoid signing up to convictions, are on no payroll, do no work and are not rebellious. They plough on without decision, enigmatic – as if behind a faceless face things are gathering towards a spasm that never comes. Relax. Don’t do it.

I am not very affected by this. Except for this prosthesis that I have now got attached to me. Thrashing about.

On the way to lunch at the nearest village pub we pass through an enormous market square and by a huge parish church: Baz’s cottage sits within a nexus of routes and staging posts that have been of great commercial, transportational and religious importance. Baz’s XXXXXXXXXX meadow-maze connects to the flows of this greater (if now creaky) machine, slipping its gears, uncomfortable, revving its frame in surges of energy that fail to grip onto the shafts, whirring as if it might throw something off, suddenly, unplanned.

“What’s the worst thing that can happen here?”

Baz describes rising sea levels that might bring the water close by, but not as far as the cottage.

Cottages (and farmhouses) are sites for apocalypse narratives: 28 Weeks Later, Night of The Living Dead, The Happening, Dead Snow, Weekend, War of the Worlds, Tripods … they are foolish retreats to the domestic and the (slightly) extended or reconstructed family. They quickly become places of siege and once this happens the narrative generally runs out of steam – most sustained apocalyptic narratives are those in which new kinds of communities are established (The Changes with its neo-village including processional Sikh metalworkers, The Stand with its proto-societies of good and evil, The Walking Dead with its shifting mobile community détourning prisons). The Road is an interesting exception – its journey and its text barely pause long enough for anywhere to matter.

The “apocalypse” Baz and I discuss is the possible warming of the planet – which the XXXXXXXXX will partly motor – the increasingly inhospitableness of parts of Africa and southern Europe and the mass migration north of people in search of a habitable climate.

The drovers’ route might become a route for crowds of people seeking the temperate.

What rituals, what welcoming ceremonies, what performances of introduction could be devised to greet them?

What part in that could a place “to the side of”, “beside” the route play?

Now, where does the task of advocacy for “flood defences” fit in to this – what if we welcome the new flows of water, people, many-spotted ladybirds, forests of Himalayan Balsam along the rivers, Rhododendron stretching across Dartmoor, the spectre of agricultural communism. Not defences, but routes, flows.

Margaret Killjoy’s article in Dodgem Logic advocates establishing a communal permaculture as a response to the prospect of environmental change, deploying a very specific, communal, performative reflection – interweaving the use of voids and derelict sites as guerrilla allotments with an informal social agreement – but what if we build into that the necessity for developing forms and sites of ritual for the welcome and sustenance of those fleeing the heat? They will not be aggressive nomads. But they will transform the social relations of production in the English countryside – cheap labour in an authoritarian, segregated countryside? A return to manual labour? Socialised and common ownership?  Pockets of anomaly?

Would the meadow-machine (as part of a larger complex of public and private property) be an effective ritual space for meetings of socially reparative, pre-apocalyptic groups, preparing their local permacultures within and in resistance to the narrative of catastrophe, to the side of, beside the route of migration, on a map of XXXXXXX?

We can begin the testing now – what happens if 39 people arrive to walk the meadow chart of XXXXXXXXXXXX? What would happen if they re-ran our Environment Agency task, but as an advocacy not of defences, but of integrated social, human, water, narrative, cultural and performance flows?

Posted in Earthrise Repair Shop | 4 Comments

Welcome to Eastville

Not particularly at risk: homes in Eastville

On Friday 16th September, seven members of the performance footprint network group (about half of us) reconvened in Bristol for a one-day workshop, using up a bit of the left-over grant funding… The idea was to follow the provocation that Michael Guthrie had given us on the last afternoon of our London meeting. As Community and Stakeholder Relations Manager for the Environment Agency, he had asked us to think about how the network’s deliberations on site and environment might be applied to making work targeted at particular communities at risk from flooding. The Bristol meeting (the EA are based there, nationally) was thus an opportunity to scope out a particular site, recommended to us by the EA, with a view to (possibly) applying for further funding to make something in that location or a site like it… The selection criteria were that the area/community be typical of those the EA often has difficulty in communicating flood-risk information to: urban areas, where the people are perhaps somewhat more disconnected from the ‘natural’ environment than those in more rural areas, and where there is little to no living memory of previous flooding in the area (flood histories often being the key drivers in present action towards future resilience measures).

Eastville was the area chosen for us by the EA – but we had little idea of what to expect when we got there. We knew that we were looking at the River Frome, and that the EA’s Flood Management Plan had identified quite a narrow stretch of land in Eastville as being at risk. So the afternoon before the official meeting, five of us – Phil, Wallace, Paula, Alison and myself – set off on a kind of blind reconnaisance mission, as ignorant tourists trying to assess the lie of the land (and the water). In my mind, I think, I was expecting to find some typical Bristol homes like the ones pictured above – except that these ones are some way uphill from the river (and their doors further uphill from the road). It turned out that what we were really looking at was this:

The River Frome, canalised with concrete and sheet piling, in near-stagnant slow-flow, directly underneath the monumental curve (and considerably faster flow) of the M32 motorway. Very little ‘natural’ about this particular environment, and hardly surprising if people living in the area feel a ‘disconnect’ from the river, given that it is fenced off like this:

This last image shows the heavily protected entrance to the Environment Agency’s sluice gates, just downstream of the motorway under-flow section. And it is for the run-up to the sluices that the river is so heavily canalised. It’s here that the Frome goes underground, entering the culverts that lead it into central Bristol and its intersection with the Floating Harbour section of the River Avon. It’s also here (we learned the next day) that a five-mile long interceptor tunnel begins… a huge metal pipe designed as an overflow outlet when the river is in flood, which takes excess water rushing straight off to the Avon Gorge and bypassing the city entirely. So the city itself is relatively safe from the risk of the Frome flooding, but the Eastville area – the run-up to the sluices – is not.

So who exactly is at risk? Well, most obviously, this stretch of homes backing onto the river directly in between the motorway under-flow and the sluices:

You’ll notice in this image how these homes have masked themselves off from this frankly not-very-attractive stretch of water with bushes and trees and the ends of their small gardens. You’ll also, no doubt, have noticed IKEA. The other side of the river is dominated by a retail park that includes the Swedish giant and a Tesco superstore, and then acres of car parking in the flood plain itself… and also a city of Bristol glass recycling depot. So to be fair, the planners seem to have fairly thoroughly removed at-risk housing from the area (in the interests of disposable retail sheds?), leaving this one truncated street to its own devices. On one side of them, the river, on the other, the motorway – with concrete pillars generously painted in pastel colours to make this concrete wasteland look like more of a social area… (which apparently it is, for the homeless…)

And then, just on the other side of the motorway, you reach some more in the way of joined-up housing… which, to judge from ‘Bangladesh House’ and the flood-plain mosque, is home (in particular) to a Bangladeshi community – whom I imagine have very particular cultural associations of their own with the idea of flood risk.

Here we’re seeing the mosque from underneath the motorway… Our reccy next took us to the right, along the road in the foreground of this picture. Here the signs of Bristol’s famous streetwise creativity became evident in patches of guerilla gardening…

… and in the (not terribly inspired) graffiti along “Frome Lane”, part of a footpath that tracks at ground level, as closely as it can, the underground journey of the Frome  once it has gone into its culvert:

I have to confess that as we headed back to our hotel that evening, following our Eastville derive, I felt inexplicably depressed. Maybe it just felt like a bit of a bad joke – having been sent by the EA to a rather grim patch of Bristol which they themselves had been instrumental in making grim. After all, one of the functions of the sluice gates is to collect and skim off rubbish from the river, before it goes underground:Yet given this open display of urban ugliness, its hardly surprising that the river section underneath the motorway also gets clogged up with trash – as if this is a general, neglected, dumping ground for whatever… an old mattress in this instance…

So yes, I was pretty depressed by the scene… And yet also curiously attracted to it – to the sweeping monumentality of the motorway architecture, for one thing (which more than one of us connected back to Fountains Abbey, and its own canalisation of the River Skell), and to the jumbled, disjointed nature of the housing and retail landscape. Like a set of historical contradictions waiting to be unravelled and explored.

I think the x-factor that made all of us that much more enthusiastic about the site, though, the next morning, was Melvin Wood. Melvin is one of the EA’s technical specialists, invited by Michael Guthrie to speak to us because of his knowledge of the Eastville sluices and the hard engineering in that area For one thing, Melvin explained the interceptor system to us, and helped us understand just how necessary the river’s canalisation is, prior to going underground at the sluices (this was a point also corroborated by Jeff Neal, one of J.D. Dewsbury’s hydrologist colleagues at Bristol University’s Geographical Sciences department). More than that, though, Melvin has an infectious enthusiasm for the concrete engineering itself – explaining, for example, the structural reasons for the cross-struts supporting the sheet-piled riverbanks. He very much confirmed our paradoxical sense that there is a beauty, as well as ugliness, in this artificial landscape. Baz Kershaw later memorably summed the location up as “richly desperate.”

Melvin Wood explains the Eastville sluice gates

Another key element in our re-visit to the site on the Friday (when Baz and Helen Nicholson rejoined the five pre-visitors – along with Melvin, Michael, and their colleague Louise from the EA, and our other guests Jeff Neal, Alison Crowther from Streets Alive, and Lindsey McEwen from Gloucestershire University and the AHRC ‘Flood Histories’ network) was our accidental meeting with some older residents just upstream of Tesco’s. Here, the river is more recognisably a river – with swans a-swimming and even, we were informed (though did not see it), a local kingfisher. Here, a row of houses backs onto the river in a manner altogether more ‘at home’ with it:

Indeed, we learned from the couple we came across (and spoke with for quite some time), the homeowners on this stretch of the river are responsible as owners for their half of the river as it passes their homes. They were very proud of this fact, and had long memories of at-times difficult relationships with the Environment Agency and other bodies, over river management issues, flood-risk designation, and so forth. They also remembered the 1968 floods – the last time the Frome seriously over-reached its banks – when the waters apparently rose higher than the level of the raised car-parking space visible to the right of the picture above. There was, in short, none of the urban disconnect with the river which we had found only yards away on the other side of the Tesco roundabout. I think many of us became intrigued with the possibility of using performance methods to engage and connect up the fragmented elements of the residential community between here and the sluices. What kind of conversation might arise around people’s associations with all that forsaken concrete, for instance? (Despite the pastoral idyll of their back gardens, the upstream residents confessed that traffic and noise pollution in the area has risen exponentially over the last few decades.)

The rest of Friday’s meeting was spent back at Bristol Uni, as guests of the Cabot Institute (the geographers’ sustainability and resilience research arm – alas, having set this link up, J.D. was unable to join us on the day because of a family situation). We had further input presentations from hydrologist Guy Schumann (showing us satellite imaging of the Eastville area), from Alison Crowther (outlining the work Streets Alive and other grassroots organisations have doing in engaging communities with issues such as flood risk, responsible transport use, etc.), and from Lindsey McEwen (outlining her own research, through her AHRC network and other initiatives, into flood memory narratives in affected communities). Helen Nicholson also provided us with some compelling thoughts around developing performance work in community contexts. All of this made for a fascinating set of interventions, and sparked much debate around the issues arising and the Eastville site itself. (Much of the discussion was recorded, and I plan to put edited transcriptions on this site in due course.)

What we collectively came to at the end of the day was a sense that Eastville would be a compelling place to work and develop engaged, site-specific performance. It’s a location that, despite the relatively small number of homes at direct risk of flooding, does seem to epitomise the problems of spatial and community fragmentation, and disconnect from the ‘environment’, which are apparent in so many other urban locations. As such, it could indeed operate as a fascinating test case or case study in developing performance methodologies that seek to involve and inspire local residents towards a renewed sense of their immediate landscape, and indeed waterscape (‘a watery sense of place’, to borrow Lindsey McEwen’s phrase). It’s likely that such renewed connectivity would be a pre-requisite in any drive to encourage practical action around flood awareness. And beyond the EA’s core concern with flood, of course, there are wider ramifications in terms of future uncertainties about climate change and the potential increased likelihood of severe weather events. Can performance offer a way to engage with future uncertainty in a playful, constructive way? (we’re back here, of course, to the core concerns of the network itself)

There are of course a huge number of ‘buts’ involved in the thought of pursuing a project in Eastville… Not least of which is the fact that so few of us are based in or near Bristol. To develop something meaningful here would take time, commitment, ingenuity, research, great connections, and people on the ground. But the possibilities are there…

Dance for us, Paula.

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Revisiting London’s walks

Over the summer, I retraced my steps across the network’s London walks. I started at Paddington, where there was a spill of rainwater that was caught in oil buckets. I took photos, and it struck me that if this were an installation it might be in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.
I took the tube to Waterloo, and found the installation of beach huts on the South Bank. It was 4th August 2011, just before the riots. I went inside and listened to London’s beat. This moment of listening allowed the kind of attentiveness that Jean-Luc Nancy describes as ‘always on the edge of meaning’ (Nancy 2007: 7), a reflexivity that seeks relationality as my senses interweave, inviting ‘participation, sharing or contagion’ (Nancy 2007: 10). Out of habit I pushed my hair back from my face and watched a strand fall to the ground. I left it there, as I breathed the hut’s London. It felt surprising that I couldn’t smell the sea. With each breath, my body accumulates London’s toxicity, a mix of chemicals and metals I can neither see nor feel. I am part of its ecology, and it is part of mine. The materiality of London has agency and vitality, it adds to the ecosystem of my body – to the swarms of bacteria, microbiomes and parasites that make up what Jane Bennett calls the ‘array of bodies’ that are me (Bennett 2010: 122). I walked out of the hut, leaving the strand of hair, the dust of my skin and the exhaled carbon dioxide of my breath. I ingest the city, I was literally becoming London.

My walk in London was purposeful, although until I encountered the installation of beach huts, it was somewhat less playful than a Situationists’ derive. I was walking to learn how (or if) I remembered two performative walks I had undertaken as part of the AHRC network that had challenged me to reflect on environmental change through site-based performance. As the third in a trilogy of weekend events, London weekend was the accumulative effect of our time together and meant that network members had grown familiar with each other’s rhythms and patterns of thought, lending this weekend a particularly comfortable texture. Over the course of this weekend, we were led through the City of London and across the Thames to Tate Modern by Mel Evans and James Marriott, two membes of PLATFORM. Phil Smith, network member and a core member of Wrights and Sites, (mis)guided us around the area surrounding The Strand. As this blog has testifed, the two walks held contrasts of scale and rhythm: Mel and James took us to commercial sites associated with BP and in each setting they pieced together the narrative of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico with cool detachment, often refusing eye contact as they read the chilling details from a script. Phil, by contrast, engaged his audience intimately and conversationally, weaving together the history layered on the streets with more personal memories, artefacts and images. The PLATFORM walk maintained the detached anonymity of the City, and Mel and James’ refusal to domesticate its spaces amplified my sense of alienation to the spatial order of the architecture.

The images on the blog show the security Guards were largely impassive, scarcely registering our presence as we stared through windows that would easily encase most homes. The empty foyer of the University Superannuation Scheme building perhaps presented the most challenging moment in the walk, where we were reminded that we were implicated the environmental catastrophe of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill as we sat on sofas to hear how our pension plans depend on investment in BP. This global ecological crisis feels contagious, conceded in the toxic space of my own body, my embodied practices and written on my pay cheque. Theron Schmitt, writing about another PLATFORM walk, describes this feeling of complicity as ‘a profoundly doubled moment, overlapping representation and relation’ (Schmitt 2010: 292). My ecological consciousness was similarly raised by PLATFORM’s walk, and my reading of the cityscape in the refuge of the beach hut was haunted by its memory and, perhaps, tainted by my environmental double-standards.

But when the walk was over, I felt that I had left no trace, no mark or imprint on the City. I had ingested it, but this space of urban capitalism remained abstract, in Lefebvre’s terms, and it had resisted me (1991: 53).
Phil’s walk invited us to embody the city’s stories, to theatricalise its dead spaces and re-imagine the stories of the dead. When I retraced my steps three months later, I was not surprised that my body remembered the walk around the Strand. Standing in the garden in which Phil had told us Dickens had set the melodramatic demise of the fictional Lady Dedlock, I was haunted not only by the imaginary of ghosts of the ‘real’ dead people beneath my feet, but also the live people I missed from the first walk – and the comingling of both hauntings, to borrow Steve Pile’s words, allowed me to attend to the relational space we had produced by disrupting ‘notions of linear time and space’ (1996: 164).

When I returned, in the City I got lost. I could remember few details. Perhaps it was part of the political effectiveness of PLATFORM’s walk that I still felt shrunken by the vast scale of the buildings, and confused by their impassive indifference.  Or perhaps I have a poor memory for facts. I found the USS building eventually with the aid of a map, and I looked through the window at the sofas, catching my reflection. The glimpse was fleeting, and in a moment I knew I would disappear again without leaving an impression. Precipitously, as this was just before the London riots, I understood why demonstrators and rioters sometimes want to smash windows. It’s one way to produce space.

Posted in Kings College, Platform / Liberate Tate | 4 Comments