Environmental Change and Site Based Performance seminar


This was the second in a programme of three workshops. The first was held at Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire. The third will be held in London. Each workshop involves a core group working together and a public event (this was the public event for this workshop and the core group were going on to Cove Park for the weekend). More information can be found on http://performancefootprint.co.uk/

There was a focus on learning, communication and children for this event.

The first speaker was Angus Farquhar, Creative Director of NVA. He highlighted the meaning behind the name of the organisation (NVA stands for Nationale Vitae Activa which translates as ‘the right to influence public affairs’.

He described four of NVA’s projects – The Path, The Storr: Unfolding Landscape, Half Life and White Bike Plan (links below with each project discussion).

He framed his talk in terms of questions that each of these ‘site based performances’ focused or raised. In response to the introduction he noted that NVA had changed its ‘subtitle’ from ‘an environmental art organisation’ to ‘a public art organisation’ because their work was completed by the public – the audience. He described it as “still ego-led, but very collaborative.” He said “How you make the work is as important as why you make the work.” The trajectory he described from The Path to White Bikes was of reducing impact on each occasion. He framed the work in terms of ‘More symbolic import than something that changes society directly.’ And he saw the works as having the potential to be “ideas adapted and used in other ways.” He commented that whilst in the future change may be enforced by Governments, we were “still at liberty to make choices.” He sought in these works “the act of inspiration, or allowing people to find their decision point, their inspiration” from for example what he described as ‘intentional walking.’

So his key questions were:

For The Path,  “How do you get there?” and this drove choices about cars or networks of buses, cost born by the organisation or by the audience. He talked about the contradictions between what you want people to understand vs. what you have to do to create the event. He talked about creating a state of awe outwith any experience in a lifetime.

For The Storr: Unfolding Landscape “How do people in the North of Skye see themselves?” How the site if reflected to the outside world vs how they had to secure more planning waivers/permissions than the superquarry. He talked about the reality that the protection of the landscape requires positive interaction.

He commented that NVA was no longer making work to please people, but to raise issues. He commented that the response to Storr varied hugely from the neo-spiritual to anger (from people who, having just been given the right to roam, had it taken away by the practical requirements of site management during the period of the installation/performance.

Talking about Half-Life he commented that it was a completely different context, an industrial conifer plantation, a highly degraded landscape, where the structure of the work was made using the industrial process that shape the landscape. (Link to my thoughts on going to Half-Life.)

He commented that these works are like icebergs – both in terms of what the audience sees vs what it takes to put the work on, but also in terms of the longer term impact on people vs the contact with the work.

Talking about White Bike Plan he commented that it arose out of increased understanding of energy use, and that ideas can outlive actions. NVA re-enacted the Provos, Witte Fietsenplan (White Bike Plan) originally from the late 60s.

Farquhar went on to say “that the roots of anything interesting are born of radical activist anarchist action.”

He went on to reiterate that these works are “symbolic acts,” that the White Bike Plan generated social media activity with people taking bikes and making their own works, spinning off. He reiterated the idea of the “incomplete work” which is completed by the public/audience responding to and carrying on. He commented that, whilst a lot of funders understand community to be geographical, NVA understand community to also mean community of interest.

When asked about the status of documentation, he commented that documentation of these works is like painting with landscape creating images that exist separate in time. In his view the immersive experience is more important.

From an artist’s talk we moved to Chris Philo, a geographer talking about Children’s Geography.

Philo started with an example of a child’s writing when asked by a teacher to do a ‘news’ piece, a not uncommon exercise for a Monday morning. This often takes the form of a banal description of everyday experiences, but as the news unfolds so the imaginative realm takes over, often populated by incompetent baddies. Philo asked the question “Do you interpret through the eyes of the urban planner, the sociologist, the environmental psychologist, or rather through magical realism?”

He mentioned the academic journal Children’s Geographies which has been produced since 2003.

He went on to talk about the fundamental challenges of interpreting children’s thinking, of the importance of the non-representational critique and the work of Gaston Bachelard including the Poetics of Reverie. His concern was with paying attention to not paying attention. He clearly articulated the ethical challenges of working with children.

David Harradine,  Creative Director of Fevered Sleep talked about a number of projects.

He talked about “intense attentiveness” and “attentiveness being about learning.” The first project he discussed came out of an AHRC Fellowship focused on photography, light and landscape. This resulted in a commission for the Brighton Festival. He structured his research by spending 2 to 3 days per month in Brighton with a notebook and a camera. He asked himself the same questions on each visit. This resulted in some 60,000 words of notes as well as film and photographs. The result was a performance/installation entitled An Infinite Line: Brighton He raised a question about the extent to which an artwork fixes an audience in a particular position.

The second work he discussed was The Weather Factory , a site specific installation commissioned by the National Theatre of Wales.  The best image of the day came from that work:

The current project, And the Rain Falls Down http://www.feveredsleep.co.uk/current-projects/and-the-rain-falls-down/ he discussed is aimed at engaging three and four year-olds in issues around environmental change taking water as a central experiential theme.

Alan Reid‘s  contribution to the Workshop focused on environmental education, communication and pedagogy. He offered a clear critique of the fundamental assumption behind much environmental education: “we have the knowledge and the problem is getting people to accept it.” He went on to talk about the use of fear and threat in much communication about environmental change. He drew on Augusto Boal and the Theatre of the Oppressed, where one of the key constructions of oppression is that it is the exclusion of dialogue. He then went on to critique some of the constructions of communications exemplified by Effective Practice in the Digital Age, published by JISC in 2009.

He highlighted a number of key figures within the discourse:

David Greenwood, Chet Bowers and Phil Payne and outlined the idea of critical pedagogy of place and the arguments for slow pedagogy (analogous to the slow food movement). He linked this to the idea of a ‘critical ecological ontology’ which raised some questions.

The final speaker was Wallace Heim, approaching the subject from a philosophical perspective and aiming to raise questions which the core group could take to their site work.

Her first provocation was “Does nature drop off when we talk about art and ecology?”

She asked: “Who has agency?” and talked about the philosophical moves towards a wider understanding of agency across the animal, vegetable and mineral. She talked about the dance of agency (in searching for a relevant link I also came across the phrase ‘the mangle of practice‘)

She asked “Is reality relational?”

And she asked “Who learns?” ie are we the only ones learning?

And she asked “How does one understand change?”

Heim argued that these were questions that should be taken to a site.

This was an excellent seminar, one of the best I’ve been to.  The balance between practitioners, geographers, educationalists and philosophers was first class.  The subjects read across each other and enlightened each other effectively.  Hope I can go to the one in London.

3 thoughts on “Environmental Change and Site Based Performance seminar

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  1. Like Chris, I really enjoyed the day, and coming at it as a maker it was fascinating to have Angus’ and David’s perspectives on their work. I asked David how he felt about the final artwork being static yet what he was looking at every day, was moving; did he feel a sense of frustration, disappointment or what? We agreed that it would be great to do another period of research and this time perhaps the response would reflect the movement of the sea itself. It reminded me of Susan Collins’ from the Slade and her work on time and movement. http://www.susan-collins.net/ capturing the temporal seems a contradiction in terms. All in all, a really great day and thanks to Dee Heddon for organising in Glasgow.

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