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.
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.
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.
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.