Looking Back, Looking Forward

With our second network meeting, in Glasgow & Cove Park, coming up very shortly (Feb 11th-13th),  I thought I’d take a moment to prepare by looking back over the flipchart-scrawled notes from our Fountains Abbey weekend last October. There are other forms of documentation from that event of course — including digital audio recordings of several of our discussions, which I can circulate to anyone who’s interested to review them — but the flipchart pages seem to have been afforded some kind of spurious authority as a summary of our deliberations so it may be useful to collate some points from them (though, looking back, they are horribly fragmentary, and capture only a sniff of what was discussed).

There’s a summary sheet here with a number of broad headings, which were arrived at as a kind of digest of other discussions. I’ve tried to make sense of the annotations through fleshing them out with a little more commentary. In their transferable abstraction, these headings may (or may not) also prove useful as a kind of template / guide to apply when thinking about Cove Park as a performative site:

1. TEMPORAL LAYERS. What does the site reveal (whether visibly or through narrative commentary on what is visible/invisible) about its own history of human intervention in the environment? What narrative continuities and/or discontinuities (i.e. past moments of rupture, crisis) are legible? Or indeed, in what ways has the site been ‘airbrushed’ to conceal or disguise the fractures of history; to introduce nostalgic or romantic views of the past?

At Fountains Abbey, of course, these temporal-historical issues are very much apparent to anyone paying attention: but how might they apply at Cove Park, set in a more ‘rugged’, ‘unspoiled’ location, and surrounded by a nature reserve in which the ‘wild’ has ostensibly been preserved/contained? And what of the present uses of Loch Long? (e.g. nuclear submarine base)

2. ACCESS AND INTERPRETATION. What routes through the site are suggested or invited by its existing layout and presentation? What kinds of response are invited by signage and available information? Who has access to the site, and at what price? What kinds of ‘privilege’ does such access suggest (and how does this relate to the histories of privilege associated with a site such as Fountains/Studley) ?

And what might all this say, in ecological terms, about the way the site is ‘normally’ conceived –e.g. in connection with or self-contained isolation from its surroundings?; e.g. as a ‘live’ location/stage for natural processes (migration, erosion, biodiversity etc.)?; or as an ’empty space’ referencing either the people currently being asked to make ourselves present in it, and/or the absent humans who have occupied this (museum) location in the past?; etc.

3. SCALE AND SUBJECTIVITY: How do (or how have) people orientate(d) themselves in relation to the physical landscape of the site? How does the scale of the human figure relate to the macro- and/or micro- dimensions of the location? For example, at Fountains Abbey/Studley Royal, the individual is very much immersed within (subject to?) a shifting landscape that cannot be comprehended from a single perspective (except perhaps via the affected omniscience of the overhead map). Indeed, the ‘pictureseque’ landscaping of the Water Gardens would have aimed to evoke an awestruck sense of the Sublime in man’s confrontation with landscape and nature… And yet the site has also been made subservient to human control via the monumentality of additions to the landscape varying from the Cistercian Abbey itself to the sculpted figures and ‘eye-catchers’ of the 18th. C. garden designers (i.e. the landscape as extension, reflection and expression of human subjectivity and/or divine dominion [which arguably amounts to the same thing]).

Again, how will these reflections relate to the ostensibly ‘wilder’, but equally mythologised landscape of Scotland’s lochs and mountains, as visible at Cove Park?

4. CURRENT ENVIRONMENTAL THREATS / STRESSES: In what ways does the site make apparent the factors threatening (or at least changing) it ecologically? And how are these threats being ‘managed’ on a daily basis? At Fountains, the estate has to be micro-managed to preserve its historic fabric, but ironically it is the history of the site’s management that creates some of the stress factors (e.g. over-planting of trees on the hillsides resulting in exhausted soils; e.g. re-routing of River Skell by monks adding to the Abbey’s vulnerability to flooding when the banks burst and the water resumes its ‘natural’ course). On the macro-scale, can (human-driven) “climate change” also be seen to be threatening the site? Again, at Fountains, persistently low average rainfall over the last decade has left soils dry and the river level low — and thus especially vulnerable to occasional torrential “weather events”  such as the 2007 floods.

5. DISSENSUS / AMBIVALENCE /RUINS. One of the key factors marking our discussions at the Fountains event was a degree of underlying disagreement — which perhaps needs to be discussed head-on in future meetings — about how best to address the ‘issues’ arising…  The ruins of the abbey, and its ghosts of Christian apocalypticism, made some wary of the contemporary tendency toward ‘apocalyptic’ judgements about the state of the environment: aren’t we rather too attracted towards ‘doomsday’ scenarios? (cf. Hollywood eco-blockbusters etc.)  Aren’t we better to express a sense of ecological relationships through circumspection, indirection, an embrace of complexity (or ‘mental biodiversity’?) ? There again, might such approaches not amount to an evasion or obfuscation of pressing questions?

Reviewing the flipchart sheets and my own notes from Fountains, it’s this unresolved sense of ambivalence that seems to loom largest — not least in relation to the site itself, which seems to have attracted appreciation/awe and suspicion/unease from us in almost equal measure. Perhaps we’ll find ourselves needing to confront such ambivalence more frankly at Cove Park. Or perhaps that site will retrospectively cast the whole Fountains discussion into a different kind of perspective…

With ambivalence very much in mind, I’m adding below some further flipchart-derived notes about Fountains, in various states of coherence (but perhaps with some value as memory-joggers). These are interspersed with some distinctly ambivalent photographs of vapour trails seen from the Abbey’s grounds at sunset, Saturday 16th October 2010.

After Barnett Newman

After Barnett Newman...


Layering of time made visible; site maps onto history of western ideas; human relations with environment … Religion / power / class / labour / leisure

The Abbey: Religious / technological / hospitality complex. Surrounded by philosophical/cosmological landscape…

Power ambiguities / genderings?

– Wild/rugged site (masculine?) vs. domestication of abbey (feminine?)

– Conversely: all-male abbey community dominating surrounding landscape and economy; sheepherding industry etc.; centre of wealth; architecture as expression of power; Abbey as the master brain in the landscape? (Who plays God?);

– and yet monks charged with reception of strangers/visitors (cf. reception of Christ amongst us?) … service and hospitality

Monks – theologically – masters or custodians of nature?

Aristocratic owners of estate… sculptors of landscape; very much the masters (see class structures; estate ownership; land enclosures); landscaping as expression of power and – initially – imposition of order/control

–  yet “picturesque” landscaping tradition rooted in (romantic construction of) human awe before nature / the sublime….

National Trust, currently – as owners or custodians of site? (see recent mission statements)

NT visitors / members – afforded sense of privilege (culture?) through their visits…? What of class profile of visitors (or indeed ethnic profile, gender profile…) ?

NT volunteers – new “lay brotherhood”?

Spectacle of (picture perfect) ruin:

Melancholia / nostalgia / romanticism / apocalypticism

Abbey as spectacle of ruin / traces of monastic dissolution / Doomsday

Crumbling monumentality (yet the missing parts emphasise the monumentality of the remains?): “Bits that fall off”; “trees that fall down”

“Ann Boleyn’s Seat” – vantage point for spectacle of dissolution… (linguistic joke on decapitation?)

Yet ecological dissolution visible in choked waterways; sliding topsoil and exposed tree roots; etc. … perfect picture rendered imperfect by forces beyond human custodians’ control (yet forces ultimately related to human climatic impact?)

Environmentalism as 21st C. apocalypticism? (mania / melancholy)

Assorted Vapours


As with the “sweep of history”, the different physical elements of the site “flow” into each other; yet are also marked by points of crisis / breakage (cf. the remains of the precinct wall, dividing “Abbey” turf and “Studley” turf)

Migration through spaces –   the same elements and yet changing/different:

River corridor; flow of water table

People flowing in and out (once monks and visitors; now tourists)

Shifting soil / grass qualities / wildlife

Performative confusion of signposted routes through the site: “chaos” of layout / “incoherent” series of spaces? Strange signage; privileged access or denial of access to certain areas (go “off path”?); “access for wheelchair users”

Over-managed? “Packaged place.” Too neat / too clean ? “empty” of rough edges…  (sentimentalised? Dishonest?)  Stark contrast to the wild place of swamps and thorns described by original monkish settlers (but do we risk romanticising that too?)

Some areas left deliberately untended: weeds/flowers growing on ruins; wildflowers in pavement cracks… (part of the “picturesque”?)

Sculptures / anthropomorphic bodies placed in the landscape – embodiment — eye-catchers (“I”-catchers?)

Ambivalent responses: Attraction to the site’s beauty and theatricality, simultaneous with suspicion towards its micromanagement; eco implications.

Entirely artificial site, and yet a natural site (the topography, the river, the trees and soils….)

Nature and “Us” in dissensus

Micromanaging natural processes? – toad access ramps (cf. human/car access?)

Roots / routes

Theatrical ironies: Temple of Fame (stone “played by” wood); Faux hermitage (once with resident hermit / actor)

Questions of Scale:

Domestic and epic; Monumental/vertical and fluid/horizontal

Controlling perspectives (Ann Boleyn’s Seat?); “excessive vistas”…

… and yet also too big and diverse an estate to get a visual grasp on the whole; human body immersed in landscape, moves through it (no god-like omniscience except through mapping diagrams…) (moving through the Serpentine Tunnel; plunging into sculpted darkness / rectum)


A defamiliarising or “alienating” landscape? Unnatural nature. Brechtian perspectives. Potential for demystification / de-“naturalisation” of “the environment”.

Site as document of historical moments? – “moments when people were making decisions”… choices made in site’s evolution

Stimulate relations of responsibility through highlighting such perspectives?  Reconnecting people with awareness of “human impact” on nature/landscape.

Temporality of landscape – remembering and forgetting?

“Forgetting the Abbey?”  Counter-balance dominant interpretation narratives (focused on anthropocentric history of human habitation) with attention to environmental features… historical ecological debt?   (There again, Abbey has arguably been little more than a giant “garden folly”, since 18th C.)

How do different communities of people now connect to this site and its (fractured) history? Connectivity / disconnectivity

Potential of the ablative: working in the shadow of / in the vicinity of / in proximity to… approaching indirectly

Impossible performances / spectacles of the imagination: Neptune flown in by helicopter; Dancing grebes; Giant toads on rafts; Crossbow parties; “Rebuild the abbey!

Jet - Moon - Abbey

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2 Responses to Looking Back, Looking Forward

  1. Aaron says:

    Wow, Steve. Epic labours, many thanks for well-organised and actually succinct notes (given all that was said and exchanged)!

    So much material, and I agree the dissensus/ambivalence dimension should be more front and centre perhaps. Not to smear it out into compromise, but because it feels to me that that is where the work gets done best.

    There is an overarching imprint I get from reading and rereading the notes, to do with guilt and responsibility and perhaps even wrestling with the “stain” of culture and discourse. Two of your notes especially point this way for me:

    – “reflection and expression of human subjectivity and/or divine dominion [which arguably amounts to the same thing]

    – and under the ‘dissensus/ambivalence/ruins’ heading, the issue of an attraction to doomsday scenarios vs. trying to better “express a sense of ecological relationships through circumspection, indirection, an embrace of complexity (or ‘mental biodiversity’?)”

    To the first point, I suggest that we shouldn’t be afraid of framing human subjectivity as central. If I just break down the term “Anthropocentrism”, the problem I feel lies with redefining, re-worlding the “anthro”- what it is to be human- rather than attacking the “centricism” per se. I don’t think we should equate a possibly innate (uh oh…), or at least incredibly pervasive and necessary concern with selves in our narrations of the world, of our cosmology, with the need to dominate or possess.

    To the second point: “doomsday” creeps in rather than lands on our heads in a moment? Our attention to complexity still needs to be alive to the very real and material threat that centuries of homo extracticus is burdening us with. Today I read that after years of multi-national corporation and US gov’t lobbying, the UK will now permit imports of livestock feed containing GM crop material. The implications are enormous. There is now a rising chorus of gov’t advisers and corporate lobbyists claiming that industrial-scale GM farming is the only responsible way to ‘feed the world’, given rising populations (population growth is in fact levelling out), climate change (increased fossil fuel dependency in agriculture will of course drive climate change), and inadequate rural infrastructure in many parts of the Global South (infrastructure neglected at the demand of World Bank/IMF in favour of rapidly increasing cash crop exports for foreign exchange to service loans…).

    In this instance I would argue that civil society needs to keep up a pluralist complexity against the “There is no other option” unilinear corporatist narrative. The challenge in living a normatively positive (for people and the world) complexity is in somehow (how? Help me here…) having our “mental biodiversity” inseparable from the genetic-physical-organic (dare I say real) biodiversity. Without looking for green fascism, subsistence-based romanticism, originary narratives of wholeness. Inseparable in complex ways that aren’t based on demanding a homologous relationship between mind-nature, but are also equally predicated on the totality of the relationship? Elizabeth Grosz writes very interestingly about this in “Chaos, Territory, Art”.

    I guess I’m afraid that ‘indirection’ is but one way of embracing complexity, and that it might lead to potential shrink-wrappage…When I think of the semiosis of materials and organic-register life, everything may be utterly contingent and indeterminate, but processes themselves are never actually indirect. There is always an impact with effects. What Charles Sanders Pierce would call “the clashing together”. Accidents are fine and actually the norm, but are in fact the result of things meeting with direction. I want to be present for the accidents and attentive to the directions behind the meetings too.

    About the abbey: I was in the “forget the Abbey” camp! Or maybe I didn’t think I needed to ask too much of the abbey.

    I am sorry I won’t be at Cove Park (only Glasgow on Friday). No doubt the place will inspire very different reactions. It’s too bad we couldn’t spend some time in Glasgow off-campus. Living here and seeing the annihilated guts of industrial space, veined through with the greenest urban ‘scapes I’ve ever seen has been a constant provocation.

    Apologies if any of this seems rebuke-ish. Maybe I’ve teased out an element or two from the notes and made a straw man from them, sorry. Looking forward to seeing people again on Friday, even briefly.


    • Steve Bottoms says:

      Aaron – thanks so much for these provocative thoughts. And no need for any apology: I don’t feel you’re contradicting anything I wrote (though that would be fine), simply nuancing and developing it further. Although I agree that my choice of the word “indirection” was unfortunate (in fact I’m not sure why I wrote it, because I’m not even sure I know what it means!). What I was trying to articulate in that implied choice between didacticism and circumspection was precisely what you have said much better here — that it’s a false choice, because there needs to be a programmatic urgency about embracing complexity. And I wonder if this is precisely what site-based work has to offer: you can’t look sensitively at a site such as Fountains (or equally, I think, very many other sites) without reading in it layer upon layer of information pertinent to our current situation. The question then becomes how best to impart/interpret that reading (and its complexity) through performance or other interventions. To acknowledge the urgency of the questions, without permitting reduction to soundbites and shrinkwrappage. (And as for “guilt and responsibility,” there’s my Sunday School upbringing for you… )

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