Samantha Clark: In 2009 was asked to make a proposal for an eco-art exhibition called Equilibrio Natural: Natural Balance that was taking place in Girona, Spain, which was to be a series of installations around the city developed by artists from all over the world. When I looked at the criteria, I noticed that I had to assure the organisers I would use local materials. And yet the curators and all the artists were going to be flying in from all over Europe and North America just for the exhibition. I felt there was a conflict at the heart of this, and so my proposal pointed out that I wasn’t a local material, and also quite a heavy lump to transport. So I proposed to stay at home, and to donate the CO2 emissions of my return flight to the people of Girona, for the purposes of guilt-free exhalation. I worked out that it would be about the equivalent of one-year’s worth of exhalation (according to some online carbon offsetting calculators it could be as much as 6 years, depending on how many trees they want to sell you). So I worked remotely with locally-based helpers, yoga teachers and Buddhist centres to run a series of meditations on the breath and mindful exhalation, in a space that used to be a mediaeval cloister. It was really interesting to discover that participants felt it offered them a way to physically encounter with the body something invisible that is usually discussed in very abstract, vast terms of ‘parts per million’, which makes it seem like something far away. They said that meditating on the breath like this, brought them to understand in a direct, felt way that ‘the atmosphere’, which is usually seen as something ‘up there’ is also the very air that passes through our bodies. We are in direct relation with it..
Following this I was asked to propose another project for an exhibition in 2010 called Gentle Actions: Art Ecology Action in Oslo. I was still troubled what seems like a cognitive dissonance where we artists, like anyone else, can have a blind spot regarding the ecological footprint of our travel because we want to have an international profile. There’s such a pressure on us to do this as artists and as academics. I don’t want to condemn it outright, and I know I am complicit, but I do feel the need to recognise this as a conflict, and to draw it out into the open rather than just accept it as a necessary evil or just ignore it. If the means and the stated ends are in direct conflict, then the integrity of the work is compromised. I had been teamed up, by the curators, with a Swiss artist who lives in the States, but I felt rather conflicted about her project to fly to Norway to make a piece of work, called S.P.I.L.L. about the Gulf oil spill. I wasn’t sure how to respond to or work with her proposal, which seemed to involve using a lot of fossil fuels to make a statement about our dependence on fossil fuels.
F David Peat in the book (which gave this exhibition its title) Gentle Actions (2008) proposes that acting less, hesitating more, and perhaps refraining from acting at all, might at times be an appropriate response to the crisis of climate change. After all, it’s our incessant rushing about that sucks up so much fossil fuel, and that taking time and space to reflect is important too. It occurred to me that just as a physical ‘nothing’ keeps turning out to be replete with meaning and unfathomably complex, an active ‘doing nothing’ might be, in this case, the most appropriate choice of action. So my response to S.P.I.L.L. was a contribution I called S.T.I.L.L. I chose to participate remotely, staying at home in Scotland to practice the gentle art of keeping still. I wrote, recorded and uploaded a series of reflection on stillness, pausing, air, and the breath as a direct, felt interaction with the invisible environment. The air, that we barely register and can’t see, yet depend on utterly, is a completely astonishing ongoing product of the biosphere.
Judy Spark: I love the way that that this sits at the ‘in between’ of the scientific and the poetic – which tend to get forced apart. We have scientific evidence of these processes but we can also have directly observed experience of many of them if enough attention is paid. I mentioned before that this method of drawing on the scientific is a perfectly permissible phenomenological starting point, something that can get forgotten as we are so used to viewing things in dualistic terms. I’m particularly interested here in the premise that you undertook a process of ‘non-doing’, apart from the recorded speech, in order to get something to happen and that the Year of Breathing piece rested on this premise too. It’s purposeful non-doing!
JS: This work came about in 2010 at Ardo House in Aberdeenshire as part of North East Open Studios (NEOS). I was still working with the notion of tuning here, being tuned in or employing ones natural sensitivities in some way, a process so evident in the work you have been talking about above. Dowsing is said to depend upon the sensitivity of the dowser to movement in the rods as they pick up subtle changes in ground energy as a result of the presence of water.
A series of handmade dowsing rods were installed in the naturally enclosed space beneath a mature Beech tree in the grounds of the house. Visitors were invited to test some of the rods as they walked around and then asked to note the results on an evolving ‘drawing’, installed in the laundry room, the basis of which was a hand drawn map of the grounds. As I was developing the work, I had a conversation with one of the residents of the house, who had lived there since the 1980s. She told me that when they first moved in, the house had required to be hooked up to the mains water supply and a ‘handy man’ had arrived from the local council to locate the path of an old water pipe network known to be already present somewhere at that location. To accomplish this task, he came equipped with a pair of willow dowsing rods, with which he successfully pinpointed the spot for the new pipes to be sunk. The important thing about this piece of work was the involvement of visitors in terms of thinking about their own potential to pick up on subtle energy changes. It is widely held, in the dowsing literature, that one is able to dowse only if one first believes one can!
You have remarked that this work was like a sort of application of Goethe’s ‘delicate empiricism’; I like this parallel. We may scoff at the notion of practices such as dowsing but discoveries and links that have previously been discounted or thought unbelievable may yet bear fruit and indeed, as your reading above shows, even a subtle shift in the way that we attend to things can transform our experience of them. The drawing together of the scientific with phenomenological (or poetic, or ‘lyrical’) accounts of things, towards a fuller experience of the world, need not make for the poor fit it may at first seem. The Mind and Life Institute for instance exists to bring together Buddhist practices and Western science towards a better understanding of the human mind. Perhaps everything in our world requires this trusting openness and unity of approach. It’s as if we need to shift from the position of taking things apart in order to understand their individual components to one that appreciates the complexity, movement and interlinking of all the bits – like the ecological view. This matters because we are not just observers – as we are open to the world around us it in turn gives us who we are.
F. David Peat (2008) Gentle Actions: Bringing Creative Change to a Turbulent World, Pari Publishing
The Mind and Life Institute – http://www.mindandlife.org/
Great to flag up the travel/international profile thing, Sam. Good to be more aware of this and to try to work out ways of contributing ‘remotely’. I really enjoyed reading this, thanks.