Sánchez-León and Douglas: There is a work in the interpretation of the Work* – A Report

October 21, 2016 by

An interdisciplinary “bing”** seminar and public discussion in four parts.

Nuria Sánchez-León and Professor Anne Douglas have very kindly provided ecoartscotland with a detailed report on the recent seminar, “There is a work in the interpretation of the Work”, organised in conjunction with the exhibition “Context is Half the Work: A partial history of the Artist Placement Group” at Summerhall Arts Centre in Edinburgh.  The seminar particularly focused on the contemporary relevance of John Latham‘s Placement in the Scottish Office and his work reimagining the bings of West Lothian.  The seminar was organised by Tim Collins, Reiko Goto and Ross Maclean, respectively two artists and a landscape architect.


John Latham facing the Niddrie Woman. Photo Murdo Macdonald

On Saturday 1st October, Summerhall, Edinburgh, between 60-70 people met in the former Royal School of Veterinary Studies, now a creative hub for the arts with studio and workshop spaces. It is curious that a building previously used by scientists was now revived through the arts.  The seminar set out to revisit another example of an artist re-imagining something apparently redundant. The Cairn Lecture Theatre was almost full with students, artists, curators, researchers from different disciplines as well as philosophers, engineers, historians, social and natural scientists. Although only 10-15 people acknowledged ever having visited the bings, the focus of the event, in person, all of them were concerned with what early 20th Century spoil heaps could mean to 21st century understandings of art and environment. In fact an underpinning question of the entire event was this, ‘why is John Latham and Artist Placement Group (APG)’s  conceptual art under-recognized in Scotland?’ How would the valuing of this kind of work prompt a very different set of institutional policies and practices? The audience interaction, questions and activities revealed the resonance of such questions across the five or so hours of the event.

The symposium addressed the West Lothian bings as a context for exploring ecology from three interdisciplinary perspectives: art & aesthetics, landscape & ecology and heritage & community. The objective was to question if John Latham´s approach to the bings as a “process sculpture”, a “cumulative unconscious act”, provided a precedent for a different aesthetic/ethical relationship to post-industrial land. As part of this exploration was a possible paradox: while the Greendyke Bing has been recognized as a scheduled national monument since 1995, other bings are currently being mined as a source of aggregate. A clear objective of the seminar was to propose interdisciplinary ways of evaluating the bings, in part to prevent their removal altogether.


Tim Collins opened the discussion asking about the aesthetic and social values that define these spaces.  Collins briefly reviewed their history in parallel with the history of art in public spaces from Alan Sonfist, Robert Morris and Land Art to Charles Jencks’ recent work at Crawick by Sanquhar in Dumfries.  He laid out a list of competing meanings of the bings such as ecological niche, public space, landform akin to earth art, and a veritable mountain of industrial waste.

The first panel included Prof Craig Richardson, Prof Emily Brady and artists David Harding and Barbara Steveni.

Craig Richardson offered an historical overview pivoting on the APG actions taken by John Latham during the period of three months he spent at the Scottish Office in 1975-76. Latham had opened up questions such as – Was removing them the only solution? -and in response he proposed a re-conceptualization of the bings. He viewed them as monuments to Scotland´s bygone industrial era. He suggested that we needed to accept the bings for what they were, or might become in a post-industrial culture. Re-naming them as ‘sculpture’ would be a way of redeeming the shame associated with this massive volume of inert material resulting from an industrial process. As a sculptor Latham could understand the bings as a process of movement of materials on a significant scale. As an artist he could read the aerial view of the bings figuratively: he renamed the cluster of Greendykes Bings as The Niddrie Woman, a dismembered figure reminiscent of pre-historic art.

Emily Brady, as a philosopher, presented an aesthetic overview based in David Hume´s ideas of the Sublime and Aldo Leopold´s holistic ethics regarding land, where humans are citizens in the land and part of a biological community that includes soils, water, animals and plants. She pointed out that, in the environmental discussion, thinking in the next generation is crucial to developing an intergenerational aesthetic in dialogue with environmental aesthetics. Environmental aesthetics, in her construction, goes beyond the visual and picturesque into the temporal. Cases like Fair Park Lagoon by Patricia Johansson and Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson could in her view, inform the bings in a new set of relations between art, land and ecology. Art is currently reconceptualising land and ecology just as John Latham reconceptualised the bings as a sculptural process layering time. The challenge now is how to imagine this place for future generations of humans and other beings in a complex way, a mixing of ecology and recreation, of an industrial past connecting a quite different present and future, in which people are embedded in place and part of its co-production.

Tim Collins raised the question of whether the bings were stuck in time? He asked whether the institutions of the museum and gallery in Scotland were open to accepting these as forms of art.

For Barbara Steveni this placement was one of the most exemplary from APG even though ironically, neither  the bings nor John Latham´s other proposals (the addition of pathways around The Five Sisters and additional sculptures on the high points of The Niddrie Woman) were recognized, let alone realised.

To value the bings Latham had proposed some sculptures on several summits to make the link between ‘just a bing’ or something with more meaning.

David Harding disagreed with this potentially tourist sense of sculpture. He also recognized that many were still reticent to accept this kind of public art even in the archives and collections of UK museums. Both agreed than just being in this symposium 40 years later discussing this work was already a major achievement.

For the second panel the scientist Barbra Harvie presented rigorous arguments based in an exhaustive study of the bings from the perspective of the science of ecology, stressing biodiversity and the scientific importance of the site. She revealed through her study how after 100 years of evolution, vegetation is now present in every habitat of the bings. The bings now support 350 different species in which we can find succession, colonization, transitory and rare species of flora, local rare insects and local rare birds. She pointed out the scientific interest of the bings in terms of the study of processes of ecosystem reconstruction in derelict land without human assistance.


Reiko Goto on Empathy. Photo: Holly Knox-Yeoman

Harvie’s way of valuing the site from a classical scientific perspective was complimented and expanded by the perspective offered by Reiko Goto, artist and researcher who explored a ‘more than human’ perspective in relation to ecology. Starting from past projects such as Nine Mile Run (1996) developed with her partner Tim Collins in Pittsburgh, US, Goto realised that dialogue and the scientific study of biodiversity was not enough to understand nature. Her approach to ecology through the concept of empathy alongside scientific information, created a wider and more universal understanding of our relations with nature. In this construction nature is not something external as an object of study based on information, but a way of knowing through emotions and imagination, as part of ourselves. That wider vision motivates the artist to take action in an everyday context. She exemplified this by circulating vivid, very beautiful samples of the flora that she had collected at the bings, giving us an immediate sense of their extraordinary diversity.


Reiko Goto’s examples of different plants from the Bings. Photo Holly Knox Yeoman

Ross Maclean in response to the presentations, raised the question: What happens if we don’t do anything (i.e. intervene in nature)?

This triggered two important observations by the respondents, Simon Burton and Wallace Heim, specialists in ecology and philosophy respectively. Burton noted the irony that the bings, effectively man–made waste, now have evolved naturally to be islands of high biodiversity within an otherwise impoverished countryside of intensive industrial farming. He illustrated this by pointing out that within the UK the richest biodiversity was 100 species in a 10 km site compared with 350 species in total within the site of the bings. He made a further point that when human beings intervene in the landscape such as through farming practices, they tend to produce low biodiversity landscapes.

Wallace Heim drew out of this discussion a further point. Before re-conceptualising the landscape, we need to re-conceptualise our understandings of waste. The waste of the bings happens not to be toxic and radioactive. It does not leach. It is waste that we can deal with in this way just as Goto and Collins’ work in Pittsburgh was a site that had the potential to regenerate itself. By implication Heim was suggesting that not all waste sites are amenable to this kind of intervention.

It would have been useful in the discussion to have developed Heim’s important point particularly in the light of the current retrospective of Mierle Laderman Ukeles at the Queens Museum, New York http://www.queensmuseum.org/2016/04/mierle-laderman-ukeles-maintenance-art. Ukeles’ practice is formed around a manifesto she wrote claiming that maintenance was art which in turn led to her 30 year position as artist in residence with the New York City Sanitation Department.  The opportunity to do so perhaps lies through this ecoartscotlandblog.

For the last panel about Heritage and Community Tim Collins revisited Ross Maclean’s question about leaving nature alone by provocatively equating the bings with a sick member of one’s family who is suffering. He asked, “Would we just let them suffer?”

For artist Peter McCaughey the solution lay in dialogue with the community who inhabit the area of bings. He juxtaposed human contact, listening, subjectivity to the accelerated processes he had witnessed as artist in residence in a new housing development in Winchburgh. The development company CALA was planning to build 3500 new homes in the area, effectively doubling the population. As resident artist McCaughey followed the processes of APG. As the incidental person, he was able to work across different interests, of developers as well as the community council effectively connecting these groups. Winchburgh would become a commuting rather than mining community. McCaughey’s work resulted in a feasibility study. In the final outcome and in an accelerated design process, newly appointed developers selected Dallas, Pierce and Quintero within a rapacious building process that did not, in McCaughey’s view, integrate the bings in the design. Without wishing to be critical of the outcome, these public artists as architects have ignored the bings instead of adopting a rhizomatic point of view involving all the stakeholders in a conversation and dialogue.

Prof Pauline Phemister concurred that dialogue is an important part of the answer. In recognizing the competing interests of ethics, art, biodiversity and people it was important to look at the problem from the perspective of what is shared, rather than what divides. She drew on the philosopher Leibnitz, his observation that the perception of beauty is key to a work of art. Beauty, ethical ways, pleasure are positive feelings which provoke love and care at the source. These are shared by the non-art world but perhaps what art, like maths, does is draw immense variety and diversity into a simplicity of form and order. Particular situations demand particular solutions as in the case of the bings, where accelerated construction appears to be counter to biodiversity, but where the energies of both forces shape the identity of individuals and their collective histories. Knowledge is essential to this process. The bings should not be ignored as they are part of a process through which we learn to live with love, just as attending to the individual plants that now grow there is to see beauty, to see the ecodependence between human and biodiverse species.

Finally David Edwards, a social scientist at Forestry Research working on environmental policy, suggested he would add economic interest and recreation values to the dimensions discussed in the seminar (art and aesthetics, ecology, heritage and community). Each represents a number of narratives that either impose meaning or build on context. The question that emerges therefore is – Who has the power? How can we mediate between the different groups to sustain the complexity of meaning embedded in the bings? He offered a very interesting triple approach to the problem. From the economist approach the range of options goes from reclamation to business as usual. In this sense an economist would undertake a cost analysis that concludes that building a golf course on the site adds to human well being as well as national wealth through raising house prices. A social scientist would map the stakeholders and their interrelations, bringing to the table a Habermassian deliberative process of reasoned debate. The Arts and Humanities are hardly mentioned in environmental debates. Whereas Economics and the Social Sciences would bring the problem to a close by seeking a solution, the Arts and Humanities would open the situation up to framing problems that we did not know we had, changing meanings in the process. Pauline Phemister developed this point by suggesting that the Arts and Humanities also brings into play the non-human and empathy. Their role was not that of neutral facilitator but one of putting into play different critical positions.

The audience justifiably pointed out that the community of the bings were missing at this event and at the debate. David Harding suggested that the politicians were also missing. Barbara Steveni reaffirmed the importance of working on the inside of power and understanding how it works in relation to past, present and future. She said, “This conference has been about how to bring all the rhizomatic structures of stakeholders together with love. I feel very optimistic about just being here discussing this…”

In conclusion the bings could be evaluated from multiple perspectives including ecological values such as biodiversity or as a site of scientific interest, or from the perspective of economic benefits through recreational values and potential tourism. However all these perspectives are quite anthropocentric, responding to the schemes of ecosystem services. Through this seminar Tim Collins, Reiko Goto and Ross Maclean wanted to address the anthropocene, exploring the implications of an environment that is now predominantly shaped by human intervention and self interest. In this light, they sought to move beyond utilitarian ways of valuing the bings, viewing this site as an opportunity to create an important mental and imaginative shift. As Barbara Steveni explained, John Latham established the first steps to another way of understanding the bings as a collective sculpture resulting from industry. In opening up this possibility, Latham enabled us to confront an instance of the anthropocene – a landscape that is man made, visual proof so to speak of radical intervention and disturbance. In the 100 years since the height of the Shale Oil industry the bings have lost their original utilitarian value and it is only now that we face the dilemma of whether or not to remove the evidence of our scarring. This is paradoxical in the sense that we are trying to save something artificial and more specifically, a product of a polluting industrial process. What has allowed us to make this mental imaginative shift, in addition to Latham’s intervention, is Nature’s capacity to heal the site over time.

The symposium was an historic occasion that brought together key individuals in a debate that reflected critically and from multiple perspectives, the implications of a human-centred era. It brought to the foreground the need for a different quality of relationship between human/non-human and the need for different temporality – not accelerated time but time paced, sufficient to put in place necessary processes of healing. It brought to the fore the complexity of diverse, potentially conflicting views that may not be solved simply but through processes such as these, processes of civic participation.
* Ref: Craig Richardson´s “John Latham: Incidental Person” (2007, pp 27.31)

** Bings are the Scottish word for industrial spoil heaps. The West Lothian bings are in some cases hill scaled and all form significant landscape features.


Nuria Sánchez-León has a dual background in Art and Ecology. Her interest has evolved from the practice and study of the pictorical landscape to eco-art, interventions in the landscape and artistic activism towards sustainability. Her work is focused on the crisis in ecology and how artists contribute to environmental awareness and foster social transformation: addressing transition to sustainability.

Sánchez’s research involves ethical questions about the role of the artist in the community, the design of socially engaged projects, collaboration with communities, the limits of authorship, the role of empathy and the influence and real effects/impact of public art?

Currently, she has been awarded a research fellowship with the On the Edge Research, Robert Gordon University. Her objectives in the UK are to search for and analyse examples of how art (especially socially engaged art projects developed by communities) can lead to social transformation in the context of transition to sustainability.

Since 2014, Sánchez has been a research fellow at the Art and Environment Research Center (CIAE), Polytechnic University of Valencia (UPV), Spain. She is part of the government funded Research & Development Project team: Environmental Humanities. Strategies for ecological empathy and transition to sustainable societies (15-2018). which emphasizes the role of visual arts and literature as important vectors of change at an ethical level to achieve the ideal of a sustainable society. She is also the Coordinator of the postgraduate Diploma of Specialization in Sustainability, environmental ethics and environmental education at the UPV.




Anne Douglas is a research professor, co-founder with Chris Fremantle of On the Edge Research, a doctoral and postdoctoral programme investigating the  place of the arts in public life, predominantly through practice-led research approaches. An important research strand is art and ecology. Douglas has recently co-authored with Chris Fremantle two publications on the work of the Harrisons: 2016 ‘What poetry does best: the Harrisons’ poetics of being and acting in the world’ in The Time of the Force Majeure Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison. New York:Prestel pp 455-460 and 2016 ‘Inconsistency and Contradiction: Lessons in Improvisation in the work of Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison’. In Elemental: an Arts and Ecology Reader. Manchester: The Gaia Project, 2016, pp 153-181.

Douglas is  the Principal Investigator on the AHRC funded Cultural leadership and the place of the artist (2015-16) in partnership with Creative Scotland, Clore Leadership Foundation and ENCATC, the EU network of cultural management and policy with Chris Fremantle (Co-Investigator) and Dr Jonathan Price (Senior Research Fellow). She is  a research associate with Knowing from Inside , an advanced research project funded by the EU led by the renowned anthropologist, Professor Tim Ingold.

Video of Tim Ingold’s lecture “The Sustainability of Everything”

October 12, 2016 by

The Centre for Human Ecology has just posted a video of Tim Ingold’s lecture.

Ingold’s Sustainability of Everything

September 25, 2016 by

Sustainability is an overused word.  It is much diminished by its occurrence in too many documents purporting to suggest that transport, local government or how anything is sustainable following the end of grant funding.  But we know that sustainability matters and thinking out of the current construction doesn’t happen nearly enough.

Tim Ingold’s lecture at the Centre for Human Ecology (Pearce Institute, Govan) on Saturday 10 September was entitled ‘The Sustainability of Everything’.  This provocative phrase came from an invitation to talk at a previous event about sustainability in relation to art and science, citizenship and democracy, love and friendship.

Ingold used ‘everything’ including qualities and processes as a way to open up a trenchant criticism of not merely the usage of sustainability but more widely the turn in science to data and the atomisation of everything.

Tim Ingold is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen.  He is known for his distinctive, arts and humanities inflected approach to anthropology.  He is currently leading ‘Knowing from the Inside’, a major European Research Council funded project involving anthropologists, archaeologists, architects and artists.

For Ingold the question of sustainability is not “How can we carry on doing what we are doing but with a bit less waste and impact?” but rather “What kind of world has a place for us and future generations?” “What does carrying on mean?” and more practically speaking “How do we make it happen?”

The key point is that everything in Ingold’s sense is not the collection of all the individual bits, but something different.  His problem with current science and current constructions of sustainability are their reliance on isolating something to analyse it.  Ingold comes at things looking for movement and entanglement rather than boundary.  To make this point he uses examples where either you don’t know where one thing ends and another starts, or examples of things in motion.  So he asks for instance whether the bird’s nest is part of the tree?  Or whether the wind that has made the tree grow bent over is part of the tree?  He asks if you can tell which part of the eddy in the stream is the ‘inside’ and which is the ‘outside’?

The importance of this approach is that it opens up new ways of experiencing and knowing which are more process oriented rather than object oriented.  Artists in particular respond enthusiastically to this way of knowing.

Ingold further developed this through Lucretius’ idea that everything is in motion and when things bump into each other they form knots – clouds are knots of water and temperature and wind.  Trees are complex knots.  Ingold evolves the idea of knots by pointing out that rope stays together through a combination of twist and friction.  He notes that harmony (eg polyphonic music) is exactly the same – a combination of elements that in themselves might initially appear to be in conflict but in relationship with each other are beautiful.  Again he’s nodding to artists ways of knowing.  In his terms everything is a “correspondence of parts” – not a totality but rather a carrying on.

Having set up this alternative way of understanding Ingold highlighted how current formulations of sustainability are underpinned by an assumption that the “entire earth is a standing reserve” and that we need to protect the earth in the way that a company protects its profits.  He drew attention to the underlying corporate or management language implicit in these descriptions of sustainability and how this is true of conservation organisations as much as corporations and governments. Furthermore of course Paulo Friere provided a deep critique of the ‘banking’ model of education which is closely aligned with this accounting version of sustainability.

Having established what he meant by ‘everything’, Ingold went on to construct an idea of ‘carrying on’.  To do this he referred to traditional ways of forestry in Japan where there is a dynamic relationship between the forester, the forest and the building of a house articulated in a 30 year cycle – trees take 30 years to grow and a house needs renewed every 30 years.  Trees are planted, foresters learn to build houses, trees are cut to build houses, trees are planted.  It is very different from the forms of plantation forestry and clear felling we experience across much of Scotland.

In conclusion Ingold came back to the themes of art and science, citizenship and democracy, peace and friendship.  He suggested that science has reneged on its commitment to understanding the world in ways that are useful for life, and that in his view environmental arts do this more effectively now.  He talked about the need for a politics of difference and the importance of embracing tension and agonism.

Reflecting on this talk there are a few key points that are worth teasing out of Ingold’s valuable line of argument.

Firstly, the construction of sustainability currently offered in ‘sustainable development’ and ‘ecosystems services’ is fundamentally human-centric and has lost any connection with the ‘existence value’ of the non-human as constructed by the likes of Arne Naess, Gregory Bateson and many others which were early inspirations of the environmental movement (and remain very influential on environmental arts). Ingold’s focus on entanglement and movement is a useful counter to ‘banking’ approaches. *

Secondly, we need to recognise that our current construction of sustainability is only one possible construction.  It is in terms of conventional ethics basically a form of Utilitarianism – the greatest good for the greatest number.  And in this respect it suffers from all the criticisms of Utilitarianism in being fundamentally subjective and in environmental terms challenging – if more than half the world’s population lives in cities then what is good for cities must be good for humans – that is a bizarre thought (although one often promoted by architects and urban planners)!  But the point is that Ingold is providing an underpinning articulation of ‘being’ that asks for a different ethics – one which accepts the conflicts but accords value to the connectedness of everything and its motion.  So he positively argued against the conservation of trees and in favour of the carrying on of planting and growing, felling and building as a cycle. Perhaps Ingold doesn’t go far enough – Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, eminent ecological artists, argue that we need to ‘put more back into ecological systems than we take out’ in our carrying on. By this they mean that our cycles need to be weighted to greater biodiversity and strengthening ecological cycles.

Finally Ingold’s construction, particularly of ‘knots’ is useful if we recognise that we humans are arch constructors of knots.  Everything we make is some sort of knot whether it’s food or paths or roads or houses or nuclear power stations or mustard gas or satellites.  And if we can imagine a knot then we will make it.  If its been imagined then someone is trying to make it, somewhere.  That’s an interesting problem.  It’s prompted discussions around what ‘responsible innovation’ might be. How can we create knots that make for healthier places for all living things.


* I’m indebted to Dave Pritchard for elucidating this evolution through the sequence of major environmental summits starting in Stockholm in 1972 and progressing in 10 yearly intervals through to Rio+20 in 2012.  He correlated this with the shift from an environmentalism of ‘existence value’ through to ‘ecosystems services’ and ‘sustainable development’.  Each Summit sought to achieve greater policy impact and as a result reframed in terms of acceptable (human-centric) policy.


There is a work… 1 October, Edinburgh

September 24, 2016 by



John Latham on the Niddrie Woman. Photo: Murdo Macdonald

“There is a work in the interpretation of the work”
from Craig Richardson’s ‘John Latham: Incidental Person’ (2007, pp27-31)

As part of the exhibition ‘Context is Half the Work. A Partial History of the Artist Placement Group’ at Summerhall Arts Centre in Edinburgh.

If you are interested in how artists can re-shape our perceptions of the world and why that matters in the current context of environmental crisis join us for an “historic” discussion.

A Seminar in Four Parts:

I. Art and Aesthetics
II. Landscape and Ecology
III. Heritage & Community
followed by
IV. Group Discussion

detailed programme below

Book here


Art and Energy futures

September 5, 2016 by
Map showing where people are coming from across UK and Ireland- there is also a statement on environmental impact.

http://artenergysymposium.info/map/ – there is also a statement on environmental impact

Art, particularly sited work, can create a ‘third space’ for public discourse.  By ‘third space’ we mean a space other than the commercial or governmental spaces for people to engage with issues.  This is often characterised by being non-hierarchical, open and willing to embrace contradiction, uncertainty, etc.  Probably because it’s created by artists who have no ‘locus’ for instigating it, the power relations are different.  No-one is trying to sell you anything and there isn’t a policy agenda being fulfilled (and these days the people selling you stuff aren’t hidden behind the people claiming to represent you).

Examples include Tim Collins and Reiko Goto’s recent work imagining the future of the Caledonian Forest through the Blackwood of Rannoch (and previously their work on rivers in Pittsburgh) and Suzanne Lacy’s current project in Pendle with superslowway and immigrants and locals as well as her previous work including 10 years of work in Oakland, CA, or Jonathan Baxter and Sarah Gittins’ Dundee Urban OrchardJay Koh, who wrote Art-Led Participative Processes: Dialogue & Subjectivity within Performances in the Everyday, recently spoke in Glasgow.

The Land Art Generator, PLATFORM London’s 25 years of work on fossil fuels, the actions of Liberate Tate, Ellie Harrison’s RRAAF project intended to use renewables to finance activist art and many others have created this third space to address power and the social, cultural and environmental impacts of our insatiable need for energy.

The Feeding the Insatiable Art and Energy Symposium at Schumacher in November will bring together an outstanding line-up of artists and activists to reflect on the current state of work in this area.

Amongst the people presenting are Cathy Fitzgerald who is an artist and Irish Green Party’s spokesperson on Forestry; David Haley who has written extensively on art and uncertainty; Beth Carruthers, one of the key art and sustainability theorists working with deep ecology approaches; Hannah Imlach is a young artist from Scotland who’s recent projects directly engage with renewables; Laura Watts describes herself as a writer, poet, and ethnographer of futures – she is one of the authors of ebban an flowan along with Alec Finlay and Alistair Peebles; Ian Garrett is a key theorist and practitioner of sustainable design for theatre and behind the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts; and finally Loraine Leeson who is one of the foremost practitioners of socially engaged art in the UK and is currently working with a group of geezers on renewables on the River Lee in East London.  And these are only some of the people presenting.

Feeding the Insatiable promises to be a key moment for sharing practice, exploring theory and imagining policy.  As Chloe Uden of RegenSW’s Art and Energy programme said, “Energy Policy needs to become interesting”.  The arts are key to creating spaces for that to happen.

International summit and residential short course discuss renewables, aesthetics, and the philosophy of consumption

art.earth in association with Schumacher College and Dartington is offering two linked consecutive events this coming November: an international summit/conference Feeding the Insatiable: real and imagined narratives of art, energy and consumption for a troubled planet from November 9-11, and Regenerative Art: creating public art with self-sustaining power a residential short course from November 11-13, 2016.

Both events take place within the extraordinary setting of Dartington Hall in southwest England.

Feeding the Insatiable (feedingtheinsatiable.info) features thinkers and makers from across the world, with an opening keynote event from The Land Art Generator Initiative (Robert Ferry and Elizabeth Monoian) with ecoartist / producer Chris Fremantle from eco/art/scot/land. Futurist Laura Watts will present the second keynote on Day 2 of the summit. Other sessions focus on Ecologies, Shaping the World, Artist projects, Communicating, Energy Generation and Poetics.

The residential short course (regenerative-art.info) is led by Land Art Generator Initiative and offers an opportunity for a much more in-depth and hands-on exploration of the aesthetics of renewable energy and the implications for public policy and design. This practice-based short course provides participants with useful knowledge and experience for creatively integrating renewable energy systems into cherished cultural environments as a part of a larger strategic approach to carbon reduction. The workshop will focus on the Dartington estate and seek to identify opportunities to place new infrastructures in open areas while maintaining shared use with open spaces and other campus functions.

The Land Art Generator Initiative has become one of the world’s most followed sustainable design events and is inspiring people everywhere about the promise of a net-zero carbon future. LAGI is showing how innovation through interdisciplinary collaboration, culture, and the expanding role of technology in art can help to shape the aesthetic impact of renewable energy on our constructed and natural environments.
The goal of LAGI is to design and construct a series of large-scale site-specific public art installations that uniquely combine art with utility scale clean energy generation.

Both events are suitable for more than just experienced designers, architects or artists. If you have an interest in public spaces, public art policy and design, renewable energy and its aesthetics and impact on the visual landscape, or are a landowner or property owner interested in more visually appealing ways to work with renewable energy then this event is for you.

You can register for both events individually, or if you wish to register for both there are special discounted packages available. See feedingtheinsatiable.info/registration-prices/ For artists and other independent researchers, there is a limited number of concessionary registrations available.

These events are produced by art.earth (artdotearth.org) in partnership with Regen SW

More information at http://feedingtheinsatiable.info

Partial history of artists and bioremediation

September 2, 2016 by

The video posted by A Blade of Grass as well as the information on their website highlighting Jan Mun’s work with Greenpoint Bioremediation Project on Newtown Creek, a polluted industrial maritime waterway and Superfund site, is great. An artist doing useful ecologically-focused work, engaging the symbolism of mushrooms and fairy rings to address the significant pollution of Newtown Creek in New York. And this piece is not intended to diminish the importance of the project, the support of a major funder of social practice, or the involvement of artists in addressing polluted land.

But the way this work is presented misses out the history of the practice in this particular field. We end up with a sense of ‘innovation’ and novelty, “WOW, an artist working with mushrooms to clean up an industrial accident! How cool is that! Awesome.”

It’s important to understand that bioremediation is a major area of scientific, technological and also engineering work which uses organisms to remove or neutralise pollution in a particular location. Phytoremediation specifically uses plants both transgenic (genetically modified to accumulate pollution more effectively) and natural to absorb pollutants. Mycoremediation specifically uses fungi. These are described as technologies.

There is also a history in ecological art for these practices. A number of artists interested in working with scientists and engineers have been involved in the development of this ‘field’, although now bioremediation (and its specialisms) are largely undertaken by engineers and governed by Environmental Protection regulation.

A few key artists whose work might form a lineage for this are Mel Chin, who working with Rufus Chaney, a senior research scientist at the US Department of Agriculture, and funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, developed the first field trial of phytoremediation at the Pig’s Eye Landfill in Minnesota in an artwork entitled Revival Field (1990 ongoing). For background on this project and Chin’s articulation of the art, see the Ecovention exhibition catalogue which is fully reproduced on Greenmuseum.org

Other artists who have developed work in this field include Georg Dietzler and Frances Whitehead. Georg Dietzler’s work (1999 involved using Oyster Mushrooms to remediate PCBs and was framed as research, with research questions, and conducted as an experiment (Concept).

Frances Whitehead’s Slow Clean-up (2008-2012) focused on multiple sites of abandoned gas stations across Chicago.  This work is firmly based on her concern with the embedded artist, relies as all these projects do on collaboration with scientists, engineers and environmental managers.  Her documentation of the project, available on the website, highlights her assessment of her own innovation focused on thinking about the meaning of time in relation to site and what short and long timescales for this sort of work enable and exclude.

Clearly early examples of this are innovative by any account, but its worth offering some criteria for innovation against which to examine other projects. Tim Collins suggests that innovation is usually in at least one of the following categories: formal, social or technical. Obviously Mel Chin and Rufus Cheney’s field experiment starting in 1991 was technically innovative – no-one had tested the potential for specific plants (or any plants infact) to remediate pollution. Their experiment both tested specific plants, but also tested the principle which up until that point had been a hypothesis. Revival Field is in itself socially innovative in presenting a scientific experiment as an artwork. Curiously in terms of formal innovation, Chin has described the work in terms of the most basic sculptural process of reduction. He argued that the work is like carving but in this case using biochemistry as the chisel, though eventually this process of reduction, carving away the pollution from the soil, will become obvious in the form of new growth on the site (see here for Mel Chin’s own description).

To be able to ascertain the innovation in Jan Mun’s work on the Greenpoint Bioremediation Project we need a better and more detailed description of the work, whether through a deep description of the concept allowing us to understand the artist’s intention to do something innovative, or retrospectively by a description of the project’s emergent innovative elements (pacem Elizabeth Hallam and Tim Ingold who argue that we can only see innovation retrospectively and in the moment only improvise).

This is a brief and partial indication of the history of artists involvement in bioremediation. It’s also worth reading Tim Collins’ comments here – he references other people not mentioned above.

Why Land Art Generator in Scotland?

August 31, 2016 by

Video from the Test Unit Pecha Kucha at the Whisky Bond, Glasgow, July 2016, which provides a context for LAGI Glasgow.  Thanks to TAKTAL for the opportunity.

Tim Ingold: ‘The Sustainability of Everything’

August 22, 2016 by


There was an interesting piece in the NY Times recently entitled Against Sustainability questioning the meaningfulness of ‘sustainability’ and offering a critique of the nostalgia-based version,

Talk about “sustaining” nature, or “preserving” it, only exacerbates this mourning and indulges our melancholia. Like the bereaved who must learn to speak of the dead in the past tense, if we are to move forward in our habitation of the planet, to face the future and not the past, to say “yes” to the anthropocene, we should change our language.

We will get a very different ‘take’ on this issue from Tim Ingold, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen, activist for better universities, and author of numerous books including Line: A Brief History (2007), Being Alive (2011), Making (2013) and The Life of Lines (2015).  Ingold’s anthropology is more humanities than social science and he is frequently cited by artists.  His current European Research Council funded project Knowing from the Inside involves a number of artists.

Ingold will ask,

“What kind of world has a place for us and for everything else, both now and for future generations? What does it mean for such a world to carry on? How can we make it happen?”

Saturday 10th September, 11am
Fairfield Hall, The Pearce Institute, 840-860 Govan Rd, Glasgow G51 3UU

This public talk is free to attend, although we ask for donations towards the room rent and future CHE/GFU events. Please book your ticket here as places are limited: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2591625

Please spread the word by sharing the attached poster (The_Sustainability_of_Everything) among your relevant networks, or on social media. Thanks!

Event facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/events/1104818026253422/

Opportunity: Nature and Culture to Revitalize an Island

August 20, 2016 by


International Creative Workshop in Megijima, Japan
2016 October 2-9 (long session) / October 8-9 (short session)
hosted by SocieCity and Final Straw
with Patrick M. Lydon, Suhee Kang, and Kaori Tsuji

Ecological activism, creative practice, and community building come together on the Island of Megijima, Japan this October, and we want you to be a part of it.

The team at SocieCity & Final Straw are assembling an international cast of creative thinkers and doers to join us in a small Japanese village, where we will discover and highlight the social and ecological treasures of this island together. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to explore in depth, the nature and culture of a small island together with other creative minds from around the world, and to help build an ecological future for this community.


Our program begins with participants enjoying an in-depth look at the island, it’s nature, and its people. We have arranged special tours of the island’s ecological and cultural history, and participants will interact directly with locals to hear their stories of the island, it’s natural resources, its farms, and its folklore.

The second half of the program focuses on synthesizing our experiences – the ecology, stories, and personal reactions – into creative prototypes for small products that can be made using local materials. The prototypes are mean both as talismans (souvenirs) for visitors, and celebrations of the island’s unique nature and culture.

All prototypes produced by workshop participants will be voted on by the local villagers, with the winning design having a chance to be put into production locally in order to support the island.

Participants can choose to stay for only the intensive course (October 8th – 9th), or an extended internship (October 2nd – 9th) that will include becoming part of the larger community regeneration activities we are undertaking on the island. The extended internship, though not required, is especially recommended for international visitors.

To Apply, please send the following to patrick@finalstraw.org by Sept 1, 2016:

  • Your Name / Street Address / Email / Phone / and Website (if available)
  • Either five still images or five minutes of video showing previous work. Images must be JPEG format and around 500kb – 1mb in size each, attached to the email. Videos must be submitted as a links to YouTube, Vimeo, or another streaming service. If a video is longer than 5 minutes, please note that we can only watch the first 5 minutes.
  • An image list with location, title, and short description for each image or video
  • A short statement (less than 300 words) about your practice
  • A short statement (less than 300 words) about why you wish to join the workshop
    Please include all text in the body of the email, not as an attachment.

Conditions (Please Read Before Applying):

Accommodation – The rate for accommodation is $40 (2 days / 1 night) or $180USD (7 days / 6 nights). This covers the cost of private room hotel accommodation on the island.
Tuition – The workshop tuition is done using the “pay it forward” system. This means that there is no predetermined rate for tuition, and participants are welcome to pay what they can. However, Pay it Forward also means that your project coordinators are volunteering their time, they are not getting paid to produce and lead these workshops. Your tuition payment is the only way we can continue to conduct more workshops for future participants.

Travel and Meals – All participants must cover their own travel and expenses of getting to Japan and during their stay. Meals are not included in the tuition fee, though there are a few options for eating on the island, and group-cooked dinners will be arranged for those who wish to take part in them.

Applicants are expected to be proficient in speaking English. Japanese language experience is a bonus, but certainly not required.

Previous experience with community engaged arts, craft skills, or creative practice, although not explicitly required, is recommended and should be reflected in your work and statement.

Learn More About Our Work:
SocieCity / Creative actions for inspiring tomorrow – www.sociecity.org
Final Straw / Food, Earth, Happiness – www.finalstraw.org

Meghan Moe Beitiks reviews Soil Culture

August 18, 2016 by


SoilCulture: bringing the arts down to earth, from the Centre for Contemporary Art in the Natural World (CCANW) and Falmouth Art Gallery published in collaboration with Gaia Projects is the culmination of years of work—comprehensive documentation of a significant exhibition, nine curated artist residencies, and a Soil Culture Forum. It includes photographs and essays detailing the contributions of the artists involved, as well as personal reflections on the Forum, and descriptions of events held at Plymouth University, and at Create, Bristol City Council’s environmental centre, all coordinated to coincide with the United Nations International Year of Soils in 2015.


Floodplain soil developed in sand, North Wales.  Photo: Bruce Lascelles

After a brief introduction by the directors of the CCANW, we are, fittingly, introduced to soil – both in an “Homage” by Patrick Holden, and more in-depth, in “What is Soil?” by Dr. Bruce Lascelles. It’s really refreshing to pick up an art book about a given subject and begin reading about that subject from the point of view of a scientific researcher. We do not begin with say, soils’ depiction in art through the ages, or with some overly poetic meandering about the modern cultural meanings of soil (though Daro Montag gives a good overview of soil in culture in “Speaking of Soil,” detailing soils’ relationships to language). Instead, we begin with a very practical overview of what soil is, on a scientific level, after an extended essay from Holden about the importance of microbial communities, comparing the function of the soil to that of the human gut.

In beginning with these scientific facts and research on soil, the book reminds us that soil is a global entity, and something upon which we are interdependent. It acknowledges that within the UK there are several hundred varieties of soil, and opens up space for potentially complex dialogue. While there are a diverse number of approaches to making art with/and/about soil included in the book, they remain rooted in conceptual methodologies and approaches. A workshop described later in the book as replicating a Japanese technique for making soil-balls is one of the rare non-Western perspectives that the book holds. It makes sense, to a certain extent, that a UK-based exploration of soil would be culturally- and site-specific in nature, and the examination of work within the contemporary conceptual is in-depth. But the potential for an even more global, expansive dialogue is sometimes lost.


Stills from ‘Alma Silueta en Fuego (Silueto de Cenizas)’ 1975.  Super-8 colour silent film transferred to DVD. Photo: The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection

From its material, scientific beginning, the book goes on to detail a major traveling exhibition, Deep Roots, featuring the works of known artists like Mel Chin, Richard Long and Ana Mendieta, as well as potentially less internationally known names, such as Paolo Barrile. Within these works, we see soil positioned as a pigment, a currency, and as a site for research.

soil erg alle

Claire Pentecost, Soil Erg, installation in dOCUMENTA(13) in Germany 2012. Image courtesy of the artist.

It’s great to see Claire Pentecost’s work Soil Erg featured, a re-imagining of soil as a currency, complete with soil ingots and soil-paper currency notes (full disclosure: I was a student of Pentecost’s at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). Each artist is given a two-page spread in the book, with large images and text. The work is primarily contemporary conceptual: there’s no attempt to incorporate, say, more traditional clay sculpture, or other folks forms of making art with soil. But overall, the exhibition documentation gives a good overview of soil as engaged with by a series of contemporary, established artists.


Mel Chin, Revival Field, 1991-ongoing

One point of disappointment, especially given the books’ promising relationship to science, is the treatment given to the research connected to Mel Chin’s Revival Field. This work is so singularly important to environmental art it has become a kind of sacred cow. While it’s true that Revival Field has a significant impact on research in phytoremediation, Sue Spaid has noted previously that it was concerns about perceptions of the validity of the science that prompted subsequent re-plantings.* In SoilCulture, these re-mountings are referred to simply as other versions of the project. There’s a limited amount of space given to each artist in the book, but it’s a shame that more time wasn’t taken in this volume to unpack the relationship between the scientific research and this project over time, as this is a less-often discussed but important aspect of the legacy of the work. Moments like this represent opportunities lost for a more expansive, critical discourse, especially since this art/soil/science relationship proves to be consistently important to the documented programming. If this was something that was expanded on in the live events, it isn’t made clear in the publication.


Karen Guthrie, Residency 2014, Hauser & Wirth Somerset

The book moves on to focus on nine emerging artists who were given the opportunity to embed themselves in various context to explore soil with scientists, at farms, and in a botanical garden, in a section called Young Shoots. These explorations include a distilled soil work by Karen Guthrie, a “Brest Plough o’ metric” by Paul Chaney, and an attempt to manufacture soil by Something & Son. The works bridge the scientific and the artistic in engaging and effective ways, and speak to emerging interdisciplinary practices. In these projects, soil and its culture are regarded as inspirational material in-and-of-itself, a further remove from historical art cannons, informed by science, engineering, and ecological imperatives.


Detail of ‘Breast Plough’o’metric’. Photo: Martyn Windsor.

This bridges very well into Soil Culture: Dig it, a chapter based on an exhibition of the same name, in which the studio and the scientific laboratory are brought into the same space. Residency artist Lisa Hirmer (DodoLab) worked alongside Dr. Rob Parkinson, an Associate Professor in Soil Sciences and some colleagues from the School of Biological Sciences in Plymouth University, exploring peat and atmospheric carbon, among other collaborations, and the exhibition space displayed research tools and samples from scientific as well as creative explorations. A fitting exploration for the arc of the project.


It’s followed by Soil Culture at Create, an overview of live and educational programming at Bristol City Council’s environmental centre. A series of “Soil Saturdays” framed workshops, talks, culinary demonstrations, performances, and artistic interventions around the theme of soil, in temporary explorations. It serves well as documentation (each Saturday has a photo and a summary), but is probably best read by itself in a separate sitting, since at that point the reader has been steadily subsumed in the art/soil/science exploration, and it is a condensed format.

Thankfully, the next section is a series of short essays in response to the Soil Culture Forum, a three-day symposium converged by Research in Art, Nature & Environment (RANE) at Falmouth University. This section of the book is both satisfying and frustrating. Its personal tone and short form makes the reader feel a bit like they were in a room with a bunch of well-informed folks reminiscing, reflecting both on soil and on the event of the Forum. Valid questions are raised about culture’s relationship to soil: one of the most satisfying passages comes from Mat Osmond’s report on Richard Kerridge,

The heroic notion of the artwork as a driver of cultural change is both a distraction, and an unsupportable inflation, one that places a weight of expectation on creative practice that it can never live up to. We need to set aside the artwork as monumental icon of the paradigm shift we seek, and look instead to creative practice as a quiet turning of the soil: to the artwork, poem and story as micro-organism, as connective mycelium—the manure that feeds and renews the myriad invisible life of that soil.”

Of course, this comes after Holden’s assertion that the micro-organism is drastically important to the soil, so rather than reframe the arts as small, humble, or insignificant, this statement has the effect of positioning the arts as deeply embedded, important, in dialogue with its surroundings. I personally deeply appreciated this reframing.

Unfortunately, it is followed in other shorter essays by familiar tropes in sustainability culture, like the demand for a universal spiritual connection to the Earth, or a singular definition of love that includes the non-human (Stephen Harding’s assertion, for instance, that ‘the only way we can address these problems is through love’). These demands do much to flatten the attempts at diversity in the dialogue. It’s a common problem in the creation and discussion of environmental work that the overwhelming impetus to celebrate has the effect of universalizing, normalizing, and undermining safe spaces for questioning or critical discourse. It’s easy to make such beautiful statements—who can argue with love? But they unintentionally undermine a greater diversity of respectful relationships to soil.

SoilCulture is, ultimately, the documentation of a strong collection of artists exploring soil at a time when its importance and preciousness is politically and ecologically pressing. This puts some artworks in the position of celebrating or propagandizing. While these efforts may be needed, the conversation that SoilCulture frames also points to the importance of diversity and critical discourse in ecological/cultural work, largely because such elements are sometimes lacking in its own curation. Regardless, the projects put forth solid juxtapositions of scientific and artistic research with soil, including artist/scientist collaborations, and research processes reframed. It is a fascinating snapshot in time of artists engaging with a crucial issue.

* 2002. Ecovention: current art to transform ecologies, Cincinatti, Ohio: The Contemporary Art Center, p.7

Full disclosure: the author is colleagues with one of the residency artists, formerly worked for one of the Soil Culture Forum presenters, and was, as noted above, a student of Claire Pentecost, one of the professionally exhibited artists featured in the book.

All images provided by the publishers.

Meghan Moe Beitiks is an artist and writer working with associations and disassociations of culture/nature/structure.  She analyzes perceptions of ecology though the lenses of site, history, emotions, and her own body in order to produce work that analyzes relationships with the non-human. She was a Fulbright Student Fellow, a recipient of the Claire Rosen and Samuel Edes Foundation Prize for Emerging Artists, and a MacDowell Colony fellow. She has taught performance at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and exhibited her work at the I-Park Environmental Art Biennale, Grace Exhibition Space in Brooklyn, Defibrillator Performance Art Gallery in Chicago, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the House of Artists in Moscow, and other locations in California, Chicago, Australia and the UK. She received her BA in Theater Arts from the University of California, Santa Cruz and her MFA in Performance Art from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. www.meghanmoebeitiks.com

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