Failure to Perform

This illustrated paper was presented by Steve Bottoms at the September 2011 conference of TaPRA (Theatre and Performance Research Association) at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. An earlier version was presented at the PSi conference (Performance Studies International) in Utrecht, Netherlands, in June 2011. 

If I say to you the word “cybernetics,” the likelihood is that the first images popping into your mind of high-tech machinery. Cybernetics is, after all, the root word for now-familiar terms such as cyborg, cyberspace, and — if you’re a fan of the BBC TV drama Doctor Who – cybermen. In all these cases, the “cyber” is taken to designate the machinic, in awkwardly juxtaposed relationship with the organic or human. Yet cybernetics, originally coined as a term by American mathematician Norbert Weiner, comes from the Greek word kubernetes, or “steersman” – the person operating the ship’s rudder. It refers, as James Lovelock reminds us in his landmark 1979 text Gaia, to “that branch of study which is concerned with self-regulating systems of communication and control” – whether in machines or living organisms. So if I stumble while walking, mentally register that I have stumbled, and then adjust my stride so that I do not fall over, that is a cybernetic process – a self-correction involving an internal system of communication and control.

Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, modified on various occasions in the last three decades, basically posits that the earth as a whole has – over thousands of millions of years – evolved a carefully calibrated cybernetic control system. A former NASA scientist, Lovelock first began to develop this idea while studying the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere – “so curious and incompatible a mixture [of gases],” he surmised, “that it could not possibly have arisen or persisted by chance. Almost everything about it seemed to violate the rules of equilibrium chemistry, yet amidst apparent disorder relatively constant and favourable conditions for life were somehow maintained” (62). In Gaia and its various sequels, Lovelock begins to outline various of the natural processes which he sees as contributing to this self-regulating control system – but his problem in validating his hypothesis scientifically was, and still is, that the earth is just too big and complex a system – if indeed it is a system – for such holistic understanding to be achieved. The nature of scientific specialisation, moreover, is that understanding becomes subdivided into ever more discrete boxes of expertise. As Lovelock put it, conventional science “cannot see the wood for the trees” – but equally the problem for his holistic, Gaian approach was that “it cannot see the trees in the wood” (118).

Today, of course, that double bind has taken on potentially deadly proportions: there is extensive evidence to suggest that human impacts on the earth’s atmosphere, through our ever-increasing emissions of so-called “greenhouse gases,” are in the process of radically destabilising the delicate balance of the earth’s life-support system. The steersman, we worry, has been thrown overboard. Lovelock writes passionately, if not always coherently about the threat of catastrophic climate change in his 2006 book The Revenge of Gaia, but his accusatory attitude towards what he calls “the lumpen middle management of science” has made his radical stance unpopular with mainstream scientists. He still cannot provide irrefutable evidence that Earth functions as a cybernetic system, or for his future projections that this system’s destabilisation will prove for catastrophic. Indeed, some have argued that the whole notion of applying systems theory to the natural world is an erroneous application of machinic metaphors to that which is inherently unstable and chaotic.

october 2010 035Those of us who are not scientists can struggle to cope with the complexity of these arguments. Yet it’s plain even from the brief discussion above that imagery and metaphor — the stock-in-trade of the arts — are fundamental to our attempts to think about ecology. As a theatre-maker with an interest in site-specific performance, I’m interested in reading places — and the ways in which they perform — as a means to bring environmental issues into focus in a way that can be grasped visually, texturally, and experientially. In this talk, I want to look in some detail at the Studley Royal estate in North Yorkshire, an eighteenth century landscape garden which incorporates the ruins of a 12th Century Cistercian monastery, Fountains Abbey. This World Heritage Site sits in a peculiar, ambiguous position between our familiar, binarised conceptions of “natural environment” and “built environment”. Although green and wooded on all sides, the estate demonstrates very clearly a history of human environmental intervention. The Abbey was located here, in a natural river valley with its own microclimate, partly to take advantage of the shelter it afforded from wilder elements beyond. Yet the monks also re-engineered this found environment from the very start of their residency. The Abbey fills almost the whole width of the valley because the River Skell, which naturally ran down its centre, was re-routed to run around the abbey’s buildings, collecting its sewage along the way.

italia 2010 316A little further downstream, and several hundred years later, in the early 18th Century, the owner of the adjacent Studley Royal estate, John Aislabie, took it upon himself to build a geometric water garden in the French style, with the river being fed along Dutch-style canals. Aislabie was Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer until 1720, when he was disgraced and removed from public office for his role in the South Sea Bubble financial scam. Retreating to his Yorkshire estate, he ploughed his energies into literally flattening the Skell valley for scenic effect.

june-july 2010 036The statue of Neptune in the middle of the central Moon Pond epitomises the performative statement here: this humanoid god has subdued the raging elements, and now wields his trident over an entirely placid, subdued body of water.

When John’s son William inherited the estate in 1742, he responded to the newer, “picturesque” fashions in landscape gardening by adding the less geometrically-forced Half Moon Pond at the head of his father’s water garden. He also bought up the adjacent Fountains Abbey estate – so that the abbey could function as a romantic ruin in the landscape – or, as someone memorably put it, as “the biggest garden gnome in history.” The intervening stretch of river was further straightened at this point, and William Aislabie also bought up the hillside overlooking Half Moon Pond, so as to create the famous “Surprise View” of the Abbey from the head of the valley.

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What you see on this estate, in short, is aestheticized landscape;  nature re-engineered as theatre. As Tom Stoppard puts it in his 1993 play Arcadia – which, incidentally, features the Studley Royal water gardens on the cover of its Faber edition – “English landscape was invented by gardeners imitating foreign painters evoking classical authors. The whole thing was brought home in the luggage from the grand tour” (36).

02f5b220dca0824d94f69010.LSuch gardens operated to display their owners’ taste and sophistication, and to provide carefully controlled pleasures for their visitors. Today, of course, those pleasures still operate for contemporary visitors – around 350,000 come through the gates every year. The problem for the heritage industry, however, and in this case for the estate’s custodians, the National Trust, lies in the assumed need to maintain such sites in a constant state, a museum-standard equilibrium.

Looking at a site like this throws the scientific argument about nature – is it systemic or inherently chaotic? – into a kind of ironic relief. The responsibility of its custodians is to treat it systemically, as a pleasure-machine that needs to run smoothly for the enjoyment of the visitors that enter, exit and lubricate it on a daily basis. And yet herein lies a problem. The estate’s designation as a World Heritage Site, which is crucial to its visitor frequency and thus its economic survival, states that it features an “18th Century Georgian landscape.”  But you cannot freeze a living landscape in time. Trees grow, plants die, waterways clog up…

italia 2010 295Regardless of the extent of our historical intervention in the shaping of this scenery, natural cycles of life and death still continue. Despite the arrogance implicit in that statue of Neptune, nature is not subdued by human culture – rather, culture exists within nature, and depends on it. Any attempt to counter-act the natural processes of change and entropy, and thus maintain a steady state in the pleasure machine, requires enormous amounts of energy, labour and ingenuity. The Fountains Abbey estate can be conceived of as a cybernetic system, but its regulator – its steersman – is the National Trust.

To personalise this a bit, I could propose that the steersman is in fact one man — the Trust’s Head of Landscape for the site, Michael Ridsdale. If it grows or flows, he’s the man in charge of its organisational performance. The Abbey ruins themselves are maintained, under Deed of Guardianship, by English Heritage – but as Ridsdale points out, they are maintained as ruins: the World Heritage Site designation specifies that this is an “18th Century garden including the ruins of Fountains Abbey.” Under that definition, the terms would still be met if the ruins eroded to the point where they are merely a pile of sandstone on the floor.

june-july 2010 016So in theory little needs to be done here in terms of maintenance besides leaving the ruins be – they’ve stood here for almost a thousand years, after all. Even so, Ridsdale estimates that it has taken 40 or 50 years of careful curation to get the Abbey close to what he calls a “consolidated fixed state.” The water gardens, by contrast, which are supposed to look not like ruins, but like the “real thing” — if the World Heritage designation is to be honoured — are nowhere close to looking as Ridsdale believes history demands. Left comparatively neglected for a century and a half after William Aislabie’s death in 1781, the estate lost much of its sculpted definition. As Ridsdale argues:

“In the evolutionary scale this estate’s gone backwards, because it’s man-made, and that man-made state has never really been consolidated. I mean, wild sites will get to climax and then collapse, and climax and collapse, that’s the natural process. And a garden will do that. It will revert back to nature, be that the river, the trees or the lawns. They will revert.”

Take for instance the Temple of Fame, a faux-Grecian folly made from wood to look like stone, and placed on the hillside by William Aislabie as an “eye-catcher” in the landscape.

kings college etc 023Once upon a time, it would have been easy for the eye to catch it, among a nursery stock of newly planted trees. But with those same trees having continued to grow for well over 200 years, the Temple of Fame is now humbled by its neighbours and largely hidden amongst its foliage. The visitor’s “eye” doesn’t so much catch it as search for it – often in vain. Ridsdale and his colleagues have chopped down certain trees to render it visible from certain angles, but replanting something of a suitable scale in their place is not so easy.

“We’ve got natural processes at play quicker than we can think . . .  So it’s fire-fighting. We’re still fire-fighting at the moment, we’ve still got to get to a state where we know what that end game is.”

There’s also a resource issue here: the National Trust, as a charitable organisation, can afford to employ only eight professional gardeners for this huge site – the result being that an army of part-time volunteers is needed just to keep new growth under control. Some of those volunteers are well into their seventies – elderly people tending an elderly landscape.

kings college etc 043Adding still further to the difficulties is the fact that John and William Aislabie – who were amateurs at landscape gardening – left some significant design problems to posterity:

“The canals they designed are the worst designed in the world. They might look beautiful to the eye but hydrologically they’re just a cock-up. . . . I do find it rather strange, actually, because the science of hydraulics was well understood in the 17th century . . . So the fact that we have these problems probably tells you a lot about the man rather than the time…. Tight-fisted git, really …. Yorkshireman.  There, I’ve said it.”

Are you a Lancastrian?

“I am, aye… You see, when you look at what they were doing at Castle Howard, all managed by reservoir – it had a tank, you know. So it’s all controlled. This idiot just used a river because it was cheap to do.”

June 07 floods 004Michael Ridsdale has worked at Fountains since 1984, but over the last ten years or so, he estimates, there have been marked changes in the Skell Valley’s microclimate – which are also creating further problems for him as a manager.

“I mean, I probably . . . I wouldn’t be wrong if I was saying ten years.”

In that period, the weather has been persistently warmer and dryer than in the past, leaving the ground drained of its customary moisture. This dry weather, though, has been punctuated by periods of unusually heavy rainfall – most notably in 2007 when extensive flooding wreaked havoc on the estate. On this occasion, the River Skell burst its banks and resumed its natural path down the middle of the valley, running straight through the abbey’s ruins.

June 07 floods 026

This is the same canal scene as the one pictured immediately above.

Ridsdale is cautious about ascribing these altered weather patterns to “climate change”, pointing out that gardeners’ diaries from the 18th and 19th centuries also document periods of unusually warm weather. Yet the impact of what he calls
this European tropical climate on his attempts to maintain the Fountains estate has been marked. For one thing, there has been increased erosion of the abbey ruins themselves.

“We get more fragmentation of fabric now, dropping off, literally dropping off the abbey. I think that’s to do with expansion and contraction of mortar, and stuff like this.”

So this would be to do with erratic temperature changes?

“Yes. You get this quick expansion and contraction, and it doesn’t take much in those variables to see the effects of that. . . The water’s been held in the laminate for quite a long time. And you get a quick expansion, bingo, and it drops off. There was a piece in the Chapel of Nine Altars we found the other day, that had dropped off.”

The persistently dry weather in recent years had also resulted in a shrinkage of the channel of the River Skell itself.  The low water level tends to result in the growth of fresh vegetation on the uncovered silt at the channel’s edges, and thus the further restriction of the channel.  Meanwhile the ponds in the water garden, deprived of fresh water flow, stagnate as they fill up with leaf mould and vegetation – all of which ends up requiring that extra time, money and energy be spent dredging them.

“You’re probably talking £750,000, just in the next three years, just on waterworks alone.”

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Moon Pond being dredged, June 2010


Still more problems are occurring for the estate’s tree population – most of them planted by the Aislabies in the eighteenth century. The persistently dry weather has left the already depleted soils on the valley hillsides with precious little residual moisture… so that when heavy rain comes, the dry top soil is simply washed away downhill, exposing roots.  Add to that the sudden fluctuations in climatic temperature, and you have a recipe for trouble. In our interview in the autumn of 2010, Ridsdale noted that –

“It has been a particularly dry year here, you know? Long cold winter, right up to Easter, it was very cold. And then a quick, sharp shock when we had that post-spring frost. It killed a lot of trees. . . Trees that are already under stress, because they’re going through senility, think right, time to give up the ghost, you know? I’ve got no water to sustain me. I’ll just pack up and go home. And you do see that… There’s a 300 year old beech just died this year. Bonk. Just gone completely, you know?”

june-july 2010 027Ridsdale believes that the tree crop might best be maintained by careful thinning out of the stock that was over-planted by the Aislabies:

“You could quite easily, everywhere throughout this site, you could lose 60 percent of the tree population, and you would still have a healthy canopy. Quite easily.”

And do you ever make an argument for chopping stuff down?

“Oh yes, absolutely. But I mean, this “plant a tree in ‘83” never went away. It just jogs on.”

And now we’ve got to plant trees for CO2 and all that…

“God almighty. Well, that is the problem… I must get a phone call once a week, ‘I want to give you some money to plant trees.’ I can’t use any more trees. I want to get rid of them!”

The problem is, however, that even the “getting rid” has to be carefully managed. If nature were simply allowed to take its course on this artificially over-planted site, Ridsdale believes, catastrophic collapse could follow quite quickly:

“It would all implode. . . . It wouldn’t take much for… you get these wind tunnels coming through the site, [where a few trees have fallen], and they just get bigger and bigger and bigger. Exponential growth. You’d just get this devasatation, like a bomb has gone through it, you know?”

An environmental purist might just say, well so what? We should just let nature take its course – return to a wild state – even if that does mean devastation of the site’s historical infrastructure and character. Why are we trying to preserve this stuff anyway? Isn’t it just human arrogance again, that leads us to fetishise the remains of the past? Well, maybe it is. But I keep coming back to the words of that most attentive of British nature writers, Roger Deakin, who writes in his book Waterlog of some “shockingly dilapidated” Orient Express railway carriages lying abandoned halfway along a beach near Penzance. “These carriages had travelled Europe, all the way to Istanbul,” Deakin writes: “They were exciting and glamorous as well as lovely, and for a fortnight’s holiday you could call one home. Now all they stood for was the singular poverty of imagination that could let them rot and rust to extinction” (p.17).

If it’s a failure of imagination not to preserve a couple of railway carriages, how much greater a failure would it be to let go a site like this? There are things about human civilisation that are worth preserving.

But that leaves Michael Ridsdale and his colleagues caught in something of a double-bind – having to micromanage a site that cannot take care of itself, but can also never live up to its heritage billing. Constantly fire-fighting, constantly ploughing more resources into what may be a losing battle, as the machinic system runs down, chokes up, fails to perform…. In some respects, we can indeed see the Fountains Abbey site as a microcosmic metaphor for global problems – as our necessary maintenance of human life support structures simply accelerates the environmental storm.

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So then, what to do? Faced with these huge problems, my own response to the Fountains site is to start off by thinking small. I’m working towards a performance there, still very much work in progress, but one that I think might be based around one particular hole – a blind spot, if you like – in the fabric of the estate. The hermit’s grotto is one of the “picturesque” features inserted into the landscape, beside Half Moon Pond, in the 1730s. Unlike some other faux hermitages in some other 18th C. landscape gardens, this one was never lived in by a hired hermit. It’s too small, really – not much more than a rain shelter.

kings college etc 030Its main purpose seems to be to provide a point of squat contrast with the imported redwood tree that sits near its mouth. And for all the energy expended elsewhere on the estate, the grotto seems largely neglected: the smell of mould and damp inside is as pronounced as the moss growing up its walls. And on the floor – in this shot taken in May – you can still see last autumn’s dead brown leaves, punctuated by a couple of green ones from this year, apparently blown in by the wind.

kings college etc 032What will I do with this space? I’m still pondering the possibilities. What if, for instance, I were to insert myself as the first live hermit in the estate’s history – and live in this space as a durational performance for, well, maybe a week? Two weeks? Our network’s deliberations returned again and again to the need to resensitise ourselves to our of lived experience of particular environments – so maybe this would be one way to start. I would endeavour to entertain anyone who came to visit me – engaging them in conversation…. going for walks with them… pointing out features that the guidebooks will not…. perhaps enacting brief playlets composed of verbatim interview dialogue… And rather than adhering to the clockwork regularity of the estate’s guided tours,  and to the carefully prescribed network of paths, I would propose to be observe no timetable or map other than chance and whim. Break open the estate’s routines a little. Gently query the machine, while respecting – with gratitude – my hosts’ hospitality. Focus on our uncertain future, through the lens of the historical past.

Thanks for listening.

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