The Same Hillside

May 25, 2017 by

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It was a seemingly unlikely pair forming the panel after the Crypic Nights premier of The Same Hillside at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Glasgow. The one who looked like a farmer (checked shirt and flat cap) was the documentary film-maker John Wallace, the other (long hair and beard a t-shirt with a ‘pirate’ skull and crossbones) was soil scientist and a co-author of International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports Professor Pete Smith.* This art science collaboration has been going on for some years now and The Same Hillside is the third piece of work to result from this ongoing partnership. It’s interesting because there are several other on-going relationships between artists and natural and social scientists in Scotland at the moment, many focused upon land use, social impact and critical environmental change.

The Same Hillside is an immersive installation with projections on three screens as well as the floor, and a sound installation in the foyer. If I tell you it is an exploration of the landscape through the lens of Ecosystems Services (this is an extension of ideas about nature as capital, something with social and economic value) you might think it belongs on the Open University YouTube channel rather than in an arts centre. You couldn’t be more wrong.

John Wallace described his interest as a documentary film-maker in finding structures or lenses external to himself to use in constructing his work. These ‘constraints’ are devices John Wallace uses to clarify his current inquiry and focus upon what interests him. It forces him to follow other lines and explore subjects he might not otherwise take up on his own. Hearing Pete Smith talking about Ecosystem Services Assessment (a method of assessing the services that aspects of an ecosystem provides to human society) and the aspects of land-use that this reveals, John Wallace saw potential for a way to explore and make strange again a landscape with which he was deeply familiar. This was a chance to see with fresh eyes.

It isn’t common knowledge, but three major Scottish rivers flow from one hillside in the South of Scotland to opposite sides of the country: the Annan into the Solway Firth, the Clyde through Glasgow into the Firth of Clyde, and the Tweed into the North Sea. With this in mind, Pete Smith and John Wallace defined a 20 mile radius ‘study area,’ that worked from the common ground at the top of these three watersheds. The questions they wanted to explore revolve around the ways that these networks of land and water delight and serve human communities.

Wallace set out to explore different aspects of these ecosystems in relation to the ‘services’ provided to human society. Ecosystems provide natural products and raw materials such as food, wood and water, when intact and healthy they regulate flooding process, turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, they support us by recycling nutrients and enabling pollination. The Cryptic Nights information sheet notes,

“The area is home to five drinking water reservoirs, over 300MW of installed wind capacity, the West Coast Main Line, 400kV power transmission lines, the M74 motorway, thousands of acres of commercial forestry, hill farms, salmon redds, blanket bogs, and rare and delicate subalpine habitats.”

Ecosystems also provide aesthetic, biodiversity and spiritual services, a set of cultural interrelationships that have proven more difficult on to which to put economic value.

As a documentary film-maker John Wallace sought out the human stories which reveal deep and complicated relationships, a lifetime of meaning. Whether that’s the train driver talking about the impact of one 40-car supermarket haul and how many trucks that takes off the road, or the modern Saw Mill that uses the waste material to generate energy. John Wallace’s style is not interrogative or even prodding. So it is interesting when climate change keeps coming up in different narratives. It’s clearly an essential part of the reality for a wide range of people living, working and managing transport in the Scottish landscape.

Whilst ‘place’ as a vital facet of identity has been a signal thread in Scottish art-making for at least a generation, it usually focuses on a recognisable place. The Same Hillside focuses on a part of the country that supports a lot of other ‘places’, the towns and cities downstream. It embeds a bioregional or watershed-based approach: Dumfries, Glasgow, Berwick and all the other settlements on the Annan, Clyde and Tweed are all dependent on the health and viability of this upland territory.

John Wallace’s interviews with people living and working in this place focus upon the production and transmission of energy; the transportation routes; the scale of commercial forestry and the range of resulting products, the value of the peatland in sequestering carbon, as well as a means of provisioning game for hunting sport. The last scenes follow a group exploring the Spring at Hartfell as a specific example of the cultural and spiritual dimension of the landscape.

Underlying John Wallace’s sensitive handling of people and landscapes are the sorts of data sets that Pete Smith works with. Where the films on the screens take our conscious attention with stories, the data projected on the floor is telling another story, of car and truck movements on the M74, of rainfall, of the monitoring of land-use.

What is apparent watching The Same Hillside is that some bad decisions have been made in this landscape in the past – planting commercial forestry on the best farmland and draining the peat for grazing are two striking examples. After hearing about healthy watersheds with forest cover it was curious to look at images in the closing minutes. The last shot features long views from the hilltop down through the valley where there is hardly a tree to be seen. Here, water is sacred and aesthetics is provided by nature. Nature necessitates a healthy highland and stream corridor with plants and trees to regulate flow and temperature allowing for best conditions for all living things. Is the spirit in place, without its animating forces?

The Same Hillside (and the earlier works Cinema Sark and Sark-Tweed) don’t fit into existing categories of documentary film or installation art. They draw on languages of place and site-specificity, but also, albeit quietly, of everyday activism. They speak to the Anthropocene, that humans are affecting everything, without ever mentioning the term. The sawmill using its own waste product to generate energy is a form of attention to process, which goes beyond everything being focused by ‘the product’.

We need more productive partnerships between people like Professor Pete Smith and John Wallace – processes that extend beyond a project into a long term dialogue, interactions between those who work with data and inform policy, and those who work with sound, image, form and narrative. These connections with the artists and film-makers draw the sciences into the everyday of a critically positioned arts practice. Working across disciplines can challenge assumptions and lead to the emergence of new forms.

With thanks to Tim Collins for his comments and suggestions.

* The partnership between Wallace and Smith started during Do Not Resuscitate a series of events organised by Mike Bonaventura, then CEO of the Critchon Carbon Centre. Do Not Resuscitate brought together artists and scientists, drawing on the Scottish Government’s Strategic Research Programmes. The first piece of work resulting from this collaboration was Cinema Sark (2013), presented as part of the Environmental Art Festival Scotland, and focusing on the River Sark which is the boundary between Dumfries & Galloway and Cumbria, between Scotland and England. Wallace and Smith’s partnership isn’t the only significant outcome of Do Not Resuscitate – it contributed to the shape of the Environmental Art Festival Scotland and led to a residency programme Nil by Mouth.

Postponed: Harrison Studio event

May 23, 2017 by

ecoartscotland is sad to report that The Harrison Studio event at Woodend Barn has had to be postponed.

The Barn’s announcement is as follows, 

“The Dee and Don catchment areas Creating Resilience to Climate Change

The Barn team are extremely sorry to announce that due to the ill health of artist Newton Harrison, we are unable to proceed with our planned discussion event on Sunday 11th June. Newton expects to be able to travel to Scotland in late August or early September, and we look forward to re-arranging a date once the situation is clear.”

Read the full statement here including a document outlining the key issues that are being addressed by the project.

The Harrison Studio at Woodend Barn

May 19, 2017 by

ecoartscotland is thrilled to be able to share the news that The Harrison Studio will be working in Scotland with Woodend Barn. Apologies for cross-posting.


Barn Harrisons image

Invitation

The Dee and Don catchment areas
Creating Resilience to Climate Change

The Barn, Sunday 11 June 2017
7-9pm. Refreshments from 6.30pm

We are delighted to invite you to an evening of discussion in the company of internationally acclaimed artist Newton Harrison of the Harrison Studio (USA), who, along with partner Helen Mayer Harrison, has championed art & ecology across the globe since the late 1960’s.

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The Barn has invited Newton Harrison to visit Aberdeenshire to open a conversation leading to action, involving local agencies and communities in exploring the impacts of climate change on our local environment, centering initially on the catchments of the Dee and Don rivers. Following the Harrisons’ methodology, we hope to create a space where all voices can be heard and practical strategies can be formulated and shared.

This partnership forms the core of the Barn’s Art & Ecology programme for 2017-19, and will engage with environmental agencies, farming, fishing, forestry, government, academia, local communities and, not least, the creative sector.

We very much hope that you would like to be involved in supporting this project from the outset, and are able to join us for this opening event with Newton Harrison at the Barn.

Lorraine Grant, Anne Douglas and Mark Hope

RSVP to mail@thebarnarts.co.uk tel 01330 826520

For further information on the Harrison Studio please visit
http://theharrisonstudio.net/

Banner image: Chris Fremantle. Photograph: Mel Shand

Juliet Wilson reviews Apples and Other Languages by Camilla Nelson

May 13, 2017 by
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Camilla Nelson, The Same Apple (detail) 2014. Photo: Camilla Nelson

Camilla Nelson is a performance poet and a language artist who creates installations and events, with a particular interest in trees, especially apple trees.
Apples and Other Languages grew out of Nelson’s PhD research ‘Reading and Writing with a Tree: Practising Nature Writing as Enquiry’ (2009 – 2012).

The book is divided into three sections. The brief ‘Musical Introduction‘ is largely inspired by Bjork’s Biophilia and is made up of the collection’s most accessible poetry including the arresting, memorable and very musical ‘A Purse of Sky

give me a coin for the slot machine sky, I said
and she gave me the sun
and the polka dancing stars were sequins on night’s black dress

Apples, the second section of the book (written during the poet’s PhD research) and Other Languages (which, according to Nelson’s afterword to the book, ghosts the thinking of the PhD) are made up of more experimental poems that on the face of it can seem daunting, but which repay re-reading. Nelson has a great ear for thought provoking phrases such as, to give a couple of examples:

tinkle-spin-bio-warp yourself weird‘ from Miracle

what is the shape of this leaf-drenched feeling‘ from Reader Write a Response

This is the sort of original language that can genuinely make the reader see and think about things differently. I particularly like ‘a curlew threads its needle song throughout‘ from Laugharne – with its suggestion that curlew song holds the landscape together, something that is coming apart as this bird declines drastically across its range (the UK being one of it’s most important breeding sites).

The layout of the words on the page is always important in this collection, with conventional punctuation being replaced by strategically placed blank spaces that serve to emphasise the relationship between words and by implication the relationship between the poet and the world around her. This is particularly well used in Kynance, a very effective, almost concrete evocation of Kynance Cove in Cornwall, where the spacing of words on the page evokes the vertiginous feel of this spectacular beach. The phrase ‘we walk the sandy gums of giant’s teeth‘ is a very apt and accurate description of the immense free standing rocks on the beach.

In Writing Apple, written after observing how writing marked into an apple altered as the apple decayed, Nelson contemplates the wizened apple and considers her own ageing:

decay’s unrepresentable hard peaks of wrinkled skin … … will I soon become
like this … … my cheeks blush… … brown decay… … what horror

and then moves to a larger contemplation of her interconnectedness with nature (as represented by the apple):

you affecting me affecting you affecting me

This poem also fits neatly in with Nelson’s installation The Same Apple, in which sixteen apples from the same tree were stored to examine how differently they decayed. This piece, along with the artist’s other installations can be seen at www.singingapplepress.com/installation/.

The relationship between the poet and the natural world is threaded through the whole collection and extended into other relationships between the natural world and the human : that between trees and paper and books in Thinking Tree Shapes (‘imprint a page express a tree‘) and that between the patterns found in the growth of lichen and the patterns made by the writing pen in The Lichenous Page (‘these tile tapping keyed up fascinators mark the shape between you and I plant doubt‘). While in (Not Quite) Within Water, Nelson explores the similarities between pond dipping and searching the internet, which made me see both activities in a slightly different light:

and the value incurred in searching …… whilst sitting at its edge …… and finding
that which is hidden … … … or lost … … … …in the deep dark depths
illicit … … … … illegal … … … deep dark web … … and the fear of drowning

The relationships so carefully explored in this collection are vital to today’s world, a world in which fewer and fewer people feel part of nature. It becomes ever more essential that poetry explores and communicates these connections. However experimental poetry reaches only a small audience – relatively few people read poetry and many who do, are not drawn to experimental poetry or may not even be aware of the existence of such poetry. In addition I feel that the urgency of our current perilous ecological situation requires an urgency in the telling, which is to my reading, lacking in these poems, no matter their beauty, no matter how much they repay re-reading. Perhaps we need a discussion about what and who nature poetry is for in these times? Do we choose to talk to other eco-poets alone or do we choose to write something more accessible that might reach the general public and perhaps change their way of thinking? Not that I believe all poetry should be immediately understandable to anyone with a primary school education, nor do I like political rants that pretend to be poetry, but a good hook for the general reader with a passing interest in poetry would be no bad thing.


Juliet Wilson is an adult education tutor, writer. crafter and conservation volunteer based in Edinburgh. She blogs at http://craftygreenpoet.blogspot.com and tweets as @craftygreenpoet.


Apples and Other Languages is published by Knives Forks and Spoons Press and can be ordered from their website.

The Arts as Ally: Earth Day/Month/Year 2017

April 26, 2017 by

This comes from Julia Levine/artists and climate change blog.

Artists & Climate Change

We are almost four full months into 2017, and already there have been multiple large-scale international public demonstrations, starting most notably with the Women’s March in January. And we’re between two major international marches this week – the March for Science, and the People’s Climate March. In my installment this month, I highlight a particular creative effort for the March for Science, as well as a powerful new documentary from Standing Rock, amidst the unprecedented political situation in the United States.

There is power in the rallies and marches of these past months, in the convening of individuals around shared values. I relish in the humanness – the connections, creativity, compassion. I am also thrilled by the offers of alternatives: public forums to practice alternatives to the oppressive status quo that leaves out and strips the power of people that do not fit the “dominant” type. In these imagined alternatives, there…

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Reviewer needed: Apples & Other Languages by Camilla Nelson

April 8, 2017 by

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We have received a copy of Apples and Other Languages by Camilla Nelson  (published by KFS) and we’re looking for a reviewer.  Please contact Chris Fremantle with examples of your reviewing and a brief bio.  We’d appreciate expressions of interest by 17 April.


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