Author Archive

Sarah Gittins reviews ‘Marlene Creates: Places, Paths, and Pauses’

May 10, 2018

places

Introduction

The monograph Marlene Creates: Places, Paths, and Pauses was published last year to coincide with a touring retrospective of the work of Marlene Creates, co-curated by Susan Gibson Garvey and Andrea Kunard. The exhibition was organised by the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in partnership with Dalhousie Art Gallery, it launched in September 2017 and is touring to different locations across Canada until 2020.

This beautifully produced monograph is my first introduction to the work of the Canadian environmental artist Marlene Creates (pronounced “Kreets”). Reading the book acquainted me with the breadth of Creates’ ‘discreet’ practice (p.15) through many crisply reproduced photographs, showing details and exhibition installations of her work. The photographs are accompanied by Creates’ own commentary, giving succinct insights into some of the motivations and processes behind her different bodies of work. Because photography has been the main medium for Creates to document and share her work with others, it translates well onto the printed page.

Overview

Creates’ work is clustered into chronologically ordered bodies of work as follows:

  1. Landworks, 1979-1985, Works based on my responses as a visitor to places;
  2. Works with Memory Maps, 1986-1991, Works based on the relationship of people I met to their own places;
  3. Signs of Our Time, 1992-2003, Works with signage about public notices, official boundaries and prohibitions;
  4. Transition, Transitional works in the midst of a decade working with public signs;
  5. Works from Blast Hole Pond Road (ongoing since 2002), a multi year “slow” engagement with the six-acre patch of boreal forest where I live.(examples of many of the works discussed can be viewed on Marlene Creates’ website) You can see the exhibition at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery thanks to a video made by Jon Pedersen, a filmmaker in Fredericton.

Certain bodies of work come across particularly well within the context of the book. These include Sleeping Places, Newfoundland, 1982, where her haunting series of photographs show the squashed vegetation left by the sleeping imprint of Creates’ own body; and the works where Creates’ hand is pressed against the surface of standing stones and trees in A Hand to Standing Stones, Scotland, 1983 and Larch, Spruce, Fir, Birch, Hand, Blast Hole Pond Road, Newfoundland, 2007. The format of the book is large enough to see the detail of crushed foliage in the Sleeping Places series and the texture of stone, lichen, bark and skin in the Hand to Standing Stones and Larch, Spruce, Fir, Birch, Hand series. These bodies of work communicate a strong sense of the equality of relationship with nature that Creates’ work seeks to explore – the framing of the photographs shows the equal pressing of lichen-encrusted stone/bark to hand as hand to stone/bark.

This comprehensive overview of Creates’ work is interlaced with critical essays, each exploring a different aspect of the artists’ practice. The essays are written by the curators/editors, the poet Don McKay, the art historian Joan M. Schwartz, and the author Robert Macfarlane. I completed the book feeling as though I had enjoyed slowly wandering around the rooms of the Creates’ retrospective, engaging in different conversations after each room, each showing me the work through a different lens and offering rich insights into Creates’ thoughtful practice.

The first of these essays, Written in the Land, Present in the Place, is by Susan Gibson Garvey. In this essay Gibson Garvey maps the main themes of Creates’ work from the earliest gestures in the landscape to her most recent immersive work in the six acres of boreal forest that surround her home. It is a very readable, well-paced essay, offering insightful commentary around many of the developing themes that run through Creates’ practice. I have explored this essay in greater detail than the others as it is here that we first become acquainted with many of the ideas returned to in subsequent essays.

Gibson Garvey starts by contrasting Creates’ ‘ecologically sensitive art practice,’ with the work of ‘more immediately spectacular,’ environmental photographers such as Edward Burtynsky (p.15). She argues that it is the ‘acute awareness,’ ‘formal restraint,’ and ‘understated wit,’ of Creates’ practice that give the work its strength (p.15). As an example of Creates’ ‘discreet’ art practice Gibson Garvey describes one of Creates’ early interventions, Stone Ground Drawing: Wave Patterns, Lake Nipissing, 1986, where Creates arranged pebbles so that they mirrored the patterns in the waves approaching the shore. The work lasted until the next high tide when the pebbles were scattered. Gibson Garvey quotes Creates’ statement that the intention of this work was to draw attention to the waves themselves: ‘“What I would like people to notice the most when they look at my sculpture is, in fact, not the sculpture but the waves.”’ (p.16)

The essay makes a convincing argument for Creates’ work to be seen in relation to feminist earth/body practices of artists such as Ana Mendieta. In her Paper Stones and Water series Creates lays a roll of absorbent paper in different environments, where it is subject to change through encountering the elements – blown by the wind or splattered by raindrops. Gibson Garvey argues that ‘simplicity, economy, seriality, and […] sufficiency,’ are key to Creates’ practice, and frames the fragile Paper Stones and Water series as an ‘act of resistance, on behalf both of the environment and of women’ (p.16). Creates herself states that she was working ‘in deliberate opposition to large-scale earthworks – high impact interventions made in the land with excavators and bulldozers in the 1960’s and 70’s’ (p.13).

This argument is given weight when Gibson Garvey emphasises the importance, for Creates, of seeing the particular in the landscape rather than ‘scoping a scene’: ‘The hand must touch, the voice must utter, the body must be present. We are in the land, inseparable from that which provides the nourishment and raw materials on which we depend. There is no “out there” there, because out there is still us.’ (p.20)

Gibson Garvey cites Rebecca Solnit’s discussion of Creates’ work to describe the important shift in Creates’ practice – her growing understanding of the layers of nature and culture that exist in every landscape, summed up by Solnit’s sentence, ‘“Most landscapes are also territories.”’ (p.16) This shift is clearly seen in the works exploring the relationship of relocated, elderly Labradorians to their remembered homelands in The Distance Between Two Points is Measured in Memories, Laborador, 1988. Once again Gibson Garvey is here highlighting the quiet politics of Creates’ work – ‘contradicting political assertions about the “emptiness” of Labrador.’ (p.19)

There is a very succinct summary of Creates’ description of the different phases of her practice within this essay. Creates describes her landworks as works made ‘“in the first person,”’ the shift to working with other peoples memories of place results in work made ‘“in the second person.”’ Creates’ questioning of cultural assumptions about places in the signs projects is described as work ‘“in the third person”’. Following this summary Gibson Garvey argues that Creates’ most recent work, made in her six-acre, boreal forest home, returns to ‘“first person”’ and also creates the position of ‘no person’ in the work where her trail camera takes photographs when triggered by the movement of animals (p.18). Gibson Garvey argues that Creates, in her boreal forest home, is ‘intent on addressing nature as one subjectivity to another,’ and relates this intention to the thought of Martin Buber. In particular she is interested in Buber’s “I-Thou” concept in relation to Creates’ work, stating that ‘it could be argued that Creates has been saying “Thou” to nature for some considerable time.’ (p.19) This argument is taken one stage further in what Gibson Garvey describes as Creates’ ‘reversal of the gaze,’ in Water Flowing to the Sea Captured at the Speed of Light, Blast Hole Pond River, Newfoundland, 2002-2003, where a camera placed underwater takes photos of the artist, simulating the eye of the river (p.20).

Finally Gibson Garvey points to the part language plays in Creates’ The Boreal Poetry Garden. At the start of this project Creates wrote short poems and photographed them in the places that had inspired their writing. Now the poems are only spoken to small audiences in situ. Gibson Garvey states that this may result in a ‘privileged’ audience. However, this is balanced by the ethics of Creates’ practice, bound to ‘specificity’ and not ‘populism’. The question of privilege in relation to the boreal forest work is explored later in this review.

The Gibson Garvey essay is followed by the images of Landworks. These include the Paper, Stones and Water series, Sleeping Places, Newfoundland 1982 and A Hand to Standing Stones, Scotland 1983. Don McKay’s poem Sleeping Places is included within this section along with his short reflection on Creates’ work – Some Thoughts on Sleeping Places. The poem mirrors the understated aesthetic of Creates’ work in its short lines and simplicity. It maps some of the associations that the poet experienced through his encounter with the work from the delicate to the sinister. The poem acts as an invitation to experience Creates’ work for oneself – to let the mind travel with the imagery in different directions and not just look to where the essays signpost the reader.

The poem starts and ends with the question ‘what is nothing doing’ [sic] which McKay intends as an ‘ungettable riddle’ or Zen koan. He writes about his interest in koans and Taoist poetry in his reflection on Sleeping Places, saying of the old Taoist poets:

Their “bows” to the wilderness involved a slightness and subtlety of gesture that would be good preparation for experiencing works like Sleeping Places, Newfoundland, 1982. (p.49)

McKay states that Creates’ work holds a strong connection to Taoist thought, particularly in relation to what he describes as ‘an engaged “spiritual ecology”’. He describes the important difference between this ‘true ecology’ and the ‘conventional humanism of Romanticism, which tends to focus on the human emotional response to nature rather than to bow toward nature itself.’ He concludes:

We need more such bows if a true ecology is to become widespread. I think of Tu Fu’s line “I inhabit my absence,” which could well serve as a subtitle for Creates’ Sleeping Places. (p.49)

Don McKay’s poem and reflection balances well with the more analytical essays in the book.

Within the second section of Creates’ work: Works with Memory Maps, 1986-1991, is an essay titled Marlene Creates, Visual Geographer by Joan M. Schwartz. In this essay Schwartz frames Creates’ practice within the field of geography, stating that Creates ‘traffics in the geographical imagination, laying bare the processes by which people come to know the world and their place in it.’ (p.71) Schwartz highlights the ways in which Creates questions how we read the landscape and relates this to the ‘terrain of historical and cultural geographers.’ (p.71)

So what is the ‘geographical imagination’ that Marlene Creates ‘traffics’? Schwartz describes how Creates questions idealised notions of a life on the land by showing how particular people relate to places within The Distance Between Two Points is Measured in Memories – mapping a ‘“cultural” experience of place.’ Schwartz quotes Creates’ notion of place: ‘“The land is not an abstract physical location but a place, charged with personal significance, shaping the images we have of ourselves.”’ (p.72) She states that ‘it is in this foregrounding of place in the formation of identity that Creates excels as a visual geographer.’ (p.72)

Schwartz describes how Creates makes the layered meaning of places visible in her signs projects. For example, Creates juxtaposes a sign describing the coastline as ‘Natural and Scenic’ with a statement describing a previous industrial use of the land that played a significant role in forming the present day ‘view’. This exposing of environmental histories is what Creates describes as the ‘“intersection of geography with memory.”’ (p.74) Schwartz argues that by ‘exposing the tension between public and personal expressions of place, they [the signs] prompt private contemplation of one’s situation in space and time.’ (p.76)

In this essay Schwartz introduces a more geographically nuanced framework to explore many of the points already raised in the book. It seems a helpful insight to frame Creates’ practice within the geographical imagination, as it highlights the tactics that Creates used and uses to interrogate our relationship to the land and to place. The revisiting of themes addressed by the first two essays does make for repetition, however. But the essay, in its own right, creates an interesting framework for reflecting on Creates’ practice.

Robert Macfarlane’s essay, Hollow Places and Wordcaves, is placed within the third section of works: Signs of Our Time, 1992–2003. The essay starts with an entry from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s journal describing his encounter with ‘“A hollow place in the rock like a coffin.”’ Macfarlane says that this description sprang to mind when he first encountered Sleeping Places, Newfoundland, 1982. As with McKay, but using different imagery, Macfarlane describes his layered response to this work and states that ‘This wish to allow landscape its layeredness seems to me the defining quality of Creates’s art.’ (p.101) He then goes on to make similar points to Gibson Garvey and Schwartz about Creates’ refusal of romanticism and her interest in nature-culture relations. (Again, the repetition is noticeable.)

Macfarlane identifies the ‘sensing body’ as key to the making of Creates’ work. He links this use of the body as an instrument of knowledge to a lineage of ‘philosopher artists’ including Marcel Mauss, John Muir, Richard Jefferies, and Jacquetta Hawks and identifies a particularly strong link between Creates and Nan Shepherd. Macfarlane states that in her book, The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd describes how ‘she explored the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland through her “flesh” and “bones” as well as through her eyes.’ (p.102) He goes on to explore parallels between the two women – sharing ‘a fascination with place names and the language of place […] they share an interest in the seeming paradox of a “humanised wild”.’ Macfarlane also describes a parallel between Shepherd’s and Creates’ attention to the particular in the landscapes that they attend to, and importantly their shared attention to the social history of place. Macfarlane points out both the ethnographic importance of this interest and that it acts as ‘an active politics of what might be called resistance through specificity,’ particularly in Creates’ questioning of notions of the empty wilderness of Labrador through memory mapping in The Distance Between Two Points is Measured in Memories. (p.103)

This last point leads Macfarlane to link the work of Creates to others engaged in paying attention to the relationships that people have with specific places in order to resist ‘generalisation and exploitation.’ These include Hugh Brody’s Masterful Maps and Dreams (1986), Iain Sinclair’s Ghost Milk, and the artist’s booklet A-mach an Gleann (A Known Wilderness), made by Jon MacLeod and Anne Campbell in response to the Outer Hebridean islanders fight with AMEC. (p.103)*

(At this point the reader may pause to reflect: set within the context of ‘generalisation and exploitation’, Creates’ later boreal forest work raises questions that go unaddressed by Macfarlane and the other essayists. It could be argued, for example, that the later work maintains a quiet resistance through particular acts of attention. But this has a different quality to working in a context that is overtly exploited. To put it all too crudely – a person standing in a deep state of mindfulness within occupied or disputed territories has a very different resonance to a person standing in an equally mindful state in their own garden.)

Macfarlane pays particular attention to Creates’ interest in the relationship between language and landscape, which he describes as the ‘illocutionary power of place-language: its ability to reform as well as to deform our relations with place.’ (p.105) Macfarlane maps this relationship of language and place in Creates’ practice, from The Distance Between Two Points, through the signs projects and ‘rising to a peak of intensity in her recent book Brickle Nish and Knobbly: A Newfoundland Treasury of Terms for Ice and Snow, Blast Hole Pond River, Winter 2012-2013.’ (p.104) All Creates’ language projects highlight how the specificity of language can ‘refine our acts of perception,’ and resist the homogenisation of dominant western culture. Here it is through seeing the differences in phenomena of ice and snow rather than ‘a cold white blur’ (p.105).

In addition to other pertinent analogies, Macfarlane ends his essay by quoting a poem by Paul Celan which includes the translated term ‘“wordcaves”’. The wordcaves are places where language that has been emptied out can be made useful again. (p.106) With a beautiful symmetry Macfarlane relates this image back to the opening image of Coleridge’s ‘“hollow place”’, a space offering both shelter and hazard, as Creates’ Sleeping Places appear both comfortable and exposed, weaving both the essay and Creates’ practice into a satisfying sense of wholeness.

The final essay is the longest in the book and more academic in tone. In Here and Away: The Photography of Marlene Creates, Andrea Kunard discusses Creates’ use of photography as a medium and the place of her work within photographic discourse.

The essay opens by questioning the notion of photography as a medium that ‘stills time.’ (p.139) Kunard outlines an alternative reading of photography as process – ‘it engages individuals in actions, providing a performative space for its realisation.’ (p.139) She argues that the work of Creates fits far more easily into this process-performative category. Kunard uses Creates’ Paper, Stones and Water 1979-1985 to illustrate this point, describing how these photographs contain all the surrounding activity of journey, thought and preparation that went into their making as well as the gesture caught in ‘the performative space the photograph provides.’ The photographs also contain a sense of the time beyond their taking, the viewer sees a fragile material (paper) or stones on a shore that will soon be destroyed or rearranged by the elements. Another example is the knowledge that the squashed grasses in the Sleeping Places series will have already started to recover even in the instant of the camera shutter’s click. As Kunard writes, ‘Creates’ projects reveal how photographs are performative acts or gestures that proclaim something real for the present, and retain it for the future.’ (p.141)

In her discussion of The Distance Between Two Points is Measured in Memories, Labrador 1988, Kunard highlights the importance of text in contextualising the photographs, and the role of the accompanying objects – turf, sand etc. – in bringing the work into the present for the viewer, ‘nudging spectators into an appreciation of the object and present-ness of all the assemblages’ constituent elements.’ (p.142) She relates this to the power of a lock of hair tucked alongside a photograph in a nineteenth-century locket. The ability of photographs to strengthen family bonds is also discussed in relation to the family photograph album and Creates’ Places of Presence: Newfoundland kin and ancestral land, Newfoundland, 1989-1991 (p.142)

Kunard argues that Creates combines the ability of the photograph to still time and reveal process in her Hand photographs. Later she also makes mention of what could be considered a more significant quality of these photographs – their ability to show in fine detail the qualities and textures of stone, lichen, bark and skin. Interestingly it is in this essay that we first become aware that the boreal forest in which Creates’ current work unfolds belongs to her, as Kunard discloses:

‘in the series Larch, Spruce, Fir, Birch, Hand, Blast Hole Pond Road, Newfoundland 2007 (ongoing), her hand, now much older, appears pressed against a tree trunk on the artist’s property.’ (p.143)

(Another reader reflection: Creates never sets this later work within the context of property or ownership, perhaps because she does not consider the trees in the boreal forest to be hers. Or perhaps she intuits that this knowledge would be distracting for the viewer. Nevertheless, reading the word ‘property’ immediately shifted how I read the work – setting the hand in a possible gesture of claim or possession, jarring with my previous understanding of the work as communicating a sense of equal relationship. In balancing this tension it is important to note that the protection Creates’ ownership brings to the six acres of boreal forest has enabled her to develop a deeply intimate relationship with this place, as shown powerfully through the work Spots of Memory: what I remembered during one month away after six years on Blast Hole Pond Road, Newfoundland 2008 where a hand-drawn map is filled with the artist’s abbreviated descriptions of particular toponyms (descriptive names for places – discussed in Macpharlane’s essay). This may not have been possible for Creates in the more vulnerable position of a ‘visitor’ rather than ‘landowner’. Hence the question: has this intimacy of knowledge now become a privilege of ownership and thus protection?)

The Kunard essay ends with a discussion of Water Flowing to the Sea Captured at the Speed of Light, Blast Hole Pond River, Newfoundland 2002-2003 where Creates submerged a camera in the river to take photographs of the artist through the water. Kunard argues that this work ‘personalises place, fusing the artist with the land.’(p.145) She also points out that this work introduces into Creates’ practice a giving up of control over the outcome of the final image. This is further amplified in Creates’ work What Came to Light at Blast Hole Pond River, Newfoundland 2015 (ongoing) where the camera shutter is triggered by the movement of animals through a motion detector. These works highlight Creates’ use of the medium of photography as an evolving process rather than a static moment in time:

‘This use of photography as process is always a movement outwards; it is never static but engaging, never singular but informed by and informing other media, including language.’(p.146)

Indeed it is the randomness caught in the moment of the camera shutter in What Came to Light that highlight and emphasise the sense of a world full of motion and life beyond the pictures’ limits. The book ends with these expansive photographs and thus opens out into the world beyond its pages.

Conclusion

When seen as a whole the images, commentary and essays of Marlene Creates: Places, Paths, and Pauses create a richly woven tapestry that enable the reader to gain insight and understanding into Creates’ ‘discreet’ oeuvre; an oeuvre that I am pleased to have encountered and feel deserves greater recognition. (This is clearly the aim of the editors). However, as indicated by my ‘reader reflections’, the book as a whole is a touch too gentle. It clearly brings together reflections from those who hold the work of Creates in high regard. But it rarely poses critical questions that the work itself may be asking. This could have been amended by an interview with the artist, raising more probing questions about the work and its contexts. Equally, there is a little too much repetition in the points made and examples used in the essays, particularly in relation to Creates’ ideas around place and a cultural reading of the landscape. More in-depth discussion of Creates’ recent work might have created a greater balance and less repetition. The last word, however, is one of respect: Creates’ work makes its powerful presence felt through its understated quietness. I am left with a reverberating sense of the layered histories present in the land around us, and a desire to walk more slowly and connect with the particularity of place.


* AMEC placed an application to site the UK’s largest windfarm on what they repeatedly described as ‘waste’ space and ‘wilderness’.


Sarah Gittins is a visual artist based in Edinburgh. She works across a variety of media, with a particular focus on drawing and printmaking. Her work explores issues of environmental justice, with a current emphasis on issues of climate change, resource use and food sustainability.

www.sarahgittins.net

John Thorne: Psychology, Creative Practice and Climate Change

April 18, 2018

This blog comes to you from John Thorne. John is Sustainability Coordinator at Glasgow School of Art. Here he opens up issues which frame Saturday’s Climate Psychology Association Scotland 1st Annual Conference: From the personal to the social: Climate psychology and the sense of responsibility. Booking here.


We live in a time of great anxiety due to Climate Change, but our response is muted. Only a psychological approach can help us accept our possible futures and to take action, only creative practice can show us how.

Mother and child.jpg

“Mother and Child” by Frank Bruce https://www.facebook.com/FrankBruceSculptureTrail/

A few years ago an eminent group of psychoanalysts and psychologists realised that many more people were presenting to them with clear signs of Climate Change related anxiety. The group formed the Climate Psychology Alliance to highlight the psychological issues being faced by individuals within society, and sought to involve other professional disciplines. The CPA aims to use psychology to help people understand their emotions regarding climate change, how to respond to them better, and to form a basis for action to mitigate Climate Change.

The psychological effects on individuals within society (the “psycho-social” effect) caused by Climate Change go deep into our ancient, instinctive selves, but is a distant issue that doesn’t yet impact on our daily lives. Our instinctive reactions, built on 50,000 years of cave-person development doesn’t deal with distant threats well: we are programmed to notice and run away quickly from charging elephants, but are ill-equipped to react to a herd of elephants many miles away. Or to put it into a modern context, we react fast to issues around family, work and hobbies, or a flood on our doorstep, a burglar in our house, a punch to the nose, but slowly if at all to a creeping, existential threat to the climate.

The threat to humanity is existential. We face a societal collapse through changes to our climate. Our reaction to this psychological threat is a psychological process where we disbelieve, hide, transfer that feeling of threat, grab at possible tech fixes, are angry and confused, blame others, avoid responsibility, and respond by losing ourselves in the easy hedonism and busyness of our modern capitalist society.

If we allow ourselves to feel at all, we feel guilty; for every thing we buy, for every action we make. We know it has an environmental cost, but in a complex society there is no escape: the most organic carrot is wrapped in unseen fossil fuel plastic for delivery, delivered on a diesel truck, seeded and harvested by a diesel tractor whose tyres are made of fossil fuel plastic which all directly links to this existential threat….the links go on and on and it is overwhelming, which causes us to deny that it is happening now, happening to us.

The types of denial range from negation that it is happening at all, to disavowal, the dangerous state in which we know but deny at the same time, sometimes defined as “turning a blind eye”.

Denial is powerful. We can ignore 1,138 deaths in one clothing factory and still shop where the cheap clothes are sold; we buy DVD players whose makers have gone blind making them, wear gold and silver mined in slave-conditions, and use mobile phones containing minerals from conflict ridden areas whose miners don’t get paid a fraction of their real value to us. We are all guilty just by being, breathing, taking the car to Tescos, eating, travelling, taking a holiday or heating our homes.

This isn’t just present guilt, but it is the sins of our fathers too. We live in a society that has developed as a patriarchy, aided and abetted by a male-led series of religions that puts our soul and distinct categories of humans above everything and everyone else. This is useful. Once we devalue something or someone we can subjugate them to our use, and use and dispose of them at will. There is a reason we have words such as “savage” in our lexicon, why animals have no rights, and why we feel entitled to take what we need, including the contents of the sea, and fossil fuels that should remain locked forever in the Earth.
In the past 20 years we’ve lost 75% of all insects. In 40 years we have lost 40% of all global wildlife. In 50 years I have been alive our proliferation has added 4.1 billion extra people. We lose 13% of Arctic ice a decade, and parts of the Arctic are over 20°c warmer this year than usual. We are already psychologically in mourning for our future loss.

The planet is dying, and fast. Current projections by the IPCC do not include feedback loops which will accelerate change. We know Climate Change is happening, but are underestimating both the catastrophic extremes that are imminent, and the speed at which permanent damage will be done.

Feeling anxious? Feeling helplessly guilty yet? We’re stuck in a capitalist system from which there is seemingly no escape. But it’s been no accident or natural progression to this state of greed. It is not naturally evolved, it is designed, and actively and consciously managed to keep us consuming. Some of our best creative people work where the money is – marketing this impossible, threatening nightmare.

We’re told to “save the planet” to minimise our impact, a term that generalises the threat when the real losers here are humanity. We talk of save the rhino, save the whale, but the psychological elephant in the room is the loss of us, ourselves.

We are told that the choice is ours: we have the power to change the World by recycling, we are told to “do our bit”. Such minimised responses to existential threat are damaging. Recycling is largely useless, it confirms our entitlement to keep consuming, creates another industry to profit from, externalises the ownership and cost of packaging to the consumer and then the council who collects it at society’s cost. It does not slow consumption and stops people taking further action.

If we are to face up to our existential threat we have to realise that we are all guilty. You are guilty. I am guilty. Not just the ruling elite presently grabbing all the money they can, but the consuming middle classes protecting what they can hold on to. All of us live in a modern society that is developed, funded, shaped and supported by exploitative consumerism. We all live on the backs of others, unseen, un-thought and unreported.

Today’s response to the psychological threat of climate change is to not discuss it, or lose ourselves in the hedonism of online life. The considered, thinking response is hampered by years of specialising silos within the artistic and scientific discipline: it is perhaps 200 years since the last of the great polymaths died: artistic and scientific disciplines are no longer shared by individuals, and the disciplines themselves do not interact. History does not talk to psychologists, environmentalists not to businesspeople, artists not to engineers.

The scientific explanation of what is happening is often impenetrable. We need a translator, a group of people who can emotionally connect us to these complex global changes and challenges. We need the creative.

The Creative Response

If we’re all guilty, then how to change the system? The fact that we are in a system is one hope, for systems can be changed. We must focus not on consumer-led demand responses, but on systematic change to supply. Not on plastic free supermarket aisles by 2042 and electric cars by 2050, but by fundamental re-examination of how we got here, our historical debt, our current impacts and painting possible futures.

There is hope in change and humankind’s ability to adapt. If we’re to free ourselves from a fossil fuel resource economy then everything made of oil must be redesigned – thousands of things and millions of jobs transitioned or created, and society and the role of work transformed. Disruptive and innovative change is possible, but relies on a psychological approach to trigger that change.

This psychological response can be proportional: we are each one in 7.6 billionth of the problem, but those who can should do more. We must make the best use of whatever our professional or personal power is; we don’t all have to be raving tree-huggers, though I do recommend it for psychological relief. Take action where you are, or where you can position yourself to be to have maximum impact.

We should examine our feelings: Climate Change is not an environmental issue; it is an emotional, social and cultural one and overwhelmingly a psychological one. Creative practice has a powerful role to play. It has the ability to link us emotionally to visions, issues and action, not raising our anxiety levels but lowering them to useful levels, allowing us to take action. It can reconnect us to ourselves, to each other and to nature.
What we don’t connect with we don’t value: consider refugee deaths in the Med, or drying-up lakes in Africa, we have never met or seen such people or things, so have no connection and no value to their loss. The greater the numbers of people killed, or the amount of water lost, the less we can allow ourselves to care, or risk psychological damage. Creative work that connects us to the death of a refugee mother, the fisherman who is losing his livelihood, or the suffering of the animal without water, can cause us to connect, care and take action.

Creative images can shock us, from balls of carbon around skyscrapers to turtles mixed up with plastic fishing net, from the picture of the last rhino to apocalyptic films. The benefits of such images are arguable, and cause raised anxiety and negative reactions. Don’t we know all this already? We’re just not connected to it in any usefully psychological way.

David Attenborough’s programmes, much loved by millions, are a double-edged sword: we are asked to value our natural environment, but are given a vision of the Earth as full of animals and diversity, perhaps as we remember as children, when in fact we have lost so much. We subconsciously know this, and part of us mourns for a past without hope for a future.

These are powerful feelings that shape who we are and what we feel able to do. Creative practice, carefully shaped, is able to balance information and make connection with our levels of anxiety: if we’re too upfront about the issues nothing gets attempted.

The correct use of language is vital. We should talk about the existential threat to things we love and connect to – which aren’t polar bears and white tigers, or artic ice flows, or Lake Chad, but ourselves and our children. Only a creative and psychological approach can quickly connect us emotionally to issues and provide possibilities to change the system. Knowing we are in a designed system can lower levels of anxiety to useful levels, that the system can be changed for the better.

Humans respond to stories, and art & design can tell a positive future story, good enough to drown out the siren calls of consumerism, hedonism and comfort (for some) of our current global system. We need to talk, paint, sculpt, build and design to tell the story of a clean energy economy which works for all, one with naturally fertile soil and clean air, a World where people regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race or colour are equally valued, where flora and fauna are seen as part of a planetary system not as mere common commodities. A place that recognises that to save our children we must save the planetary system.

This creative vision isn’t something less, it is something more. It is not a cost but a benefit for all. We need to inspire environmentalists, many of whom are worn down from the destruction of the Earth’s systems and see little benefit in trying to change or to save our culture. We seek a new model of development, and creative people need to show us this possible future.

We might be the first society on Earth to successfully transit from one harmful system to another more caring one. History tells us that such transformations are rare if they have ever truly happened before. But does the complexity and knowledge of our society make us able to buck the trend and change before we collapse?

Art can open our eyes to the realisation that we might end, and that we might not see our children grow up. Imagining Modern Fossils we might leave behind for future archaeologists to dig up helps highlight our present follies. There is a role for extinction art, making us aware of what we have lost so we can better protect what we have left and encourage the reinstatement of habitat.

Humans have a natural desire to leave a mark, to have made a difference, to give our lives purpose, and creative practice can record and celebrate the good that is happening across the planet.

Much as our modern society has manufactured consent to our consumption-rich society, so too can we use creative psychological approaches to re-establish connections within ourselves, to each other and to nature. There is a positive story to be told of a new society. This society will have to be innovative and disruptive in its system design, allowing people, even corporations, to transit to new ways of thinking, and for current systems of production to transit to new methods of supply. The creative arts can help explain where we are, what we can each do, and how to get there.

Whatever your profession or practice you can further explore these themes with the Climate Psychology Alliance. The Scottish branch has a conference in Glasgow on Saturday 21 April at the Glasgow School of Art.

Facebook Event page here

Lecture: Patricia Watts ‘Some Kind Of Nature’ 4pm 23 April, Glasgow Sculpture Studios

April 16, 2018

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ecoartscotland is very pleased to be partnering with Glasgow Sculpture Studios and the Collins and Goto Studio to present the lecture Some Kind of Nature by international curator and founder of ecoartspace Patricia Watts.

Monday 23 April, 4pm, Glasgow Sculpture Studios (Board Room, 2nd Floor)
FREE (download pdf of poster: 2018TWattsECOARTSCOTLAND-GSS)

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Susan Leibovitz Steinman, Sweet Survival, Santa Rosa, California 2008-2012

This talk will focus on the development and history of the curatorial platform ecoartspace, highlighting specific exhibitions and programs, and projects presented to the public over the last twenty years. Founded by Patricia Watts in 1997, the nonprofit platform has operated without a permanent space supporting hundreds of artists addressing environmental issues in the USA. Watts will also discuss different approaches artists have taken through the years, and where she believes artists today can focus their energies with the greatest results.

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Matthew Mazzotta, Cloud House, 2016 Farmers Park, Springfield, Missouri

Watts has curated over thirty art and ecology exhibitions, given over fifty lectures, and written numerous essays. She is considered a pioneer of the art and ecology movement. Select exhibitions include FiberSHED (2015), Shifting Baselines (2013), MAKE:CRAFT (2010), and Hybrid Fields (2006). Watts has also curated a permanent outdoor public artwork, Cloud House (2015–16), at Farmers Park in Springfield, Missouri; and a temporary public artwork, Windsock Currents (2005), on Crissy Field in the Presidio, San Francisco, for UN World Environment Day.

Currently, she is developing an ongoing series of ACTION GUIDES of replicable art projects and is conducting video interviews with pioneering ecological artists for the ecoartspace video archive.

http://patriciawatts.blogspot.com
http://www.ecoartspace.org
http://ecoartspaceactionguides.blogspot.com
https://www.youtube.com/user/ecoartspace

Beverly Naidus: The ZAD Becomes Compost? LONG LIVE THE ZAD!

April 13, 2018

This post comes from Beverly Naidus, a friend and colleague. Her attention is focused on the ZAD (zone à défendre) after visiting in October. Recent events have made it urgent to relay her experience and why the destruction of this place in France matters. A month ago we drew attention to the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest’s issue #10 Climate Atlas. The point of the Atlas is to focus on where new forms of relations between humans and other living things are being developed. The editors of JOAAP #10 said, “In the face of climate change, we prioritize lifes’ capacity to organize its own variation.” The French State is attempting to stamp out a beautiful example of self-organisation.


April 10, 2018, Tacoma, WA, USA

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When something you have witnessed, loved and cared for is destroyed and uprooted, whether it is a forest, a species, a community or a culture, it can wreck the spirit. The trauma of these violent actions, informed by greed and ignorance, can ripple out widely, encouraging resistance, but it requires attention. In order for the suffering to become compost from which we can plant our visions again, it needs amplification. Writing in the wee hours, on the Pacific coast of North America, I am hoping that these words will be heard, knowing that our peaceful warrior friends in the northwest of France are facing violence today.

Yesterday evening I learned that the ZAD had been invaded by 2500 French police wielding tear gas and driving bulldozers. They destroyed hand-built homes, greenhouses and community spaces and have been pushing people off the land. Gardens that have been lovingly tended and harvested for many years have been trashed. There seems to be not enough bodies assembled to create the physical resistance required to stop the perpetrators. It feels like a lost cause. I am breathing through the shock of this and hoping that a phoenix will rise out of the ashes. Here’s today’s news and here’s another blog [and this Call for Intergalactic Solidarity Actions was published recently. Ed]

In October 2017 we were able to visit the ZAD, a wonderful and complex community in France that inspires revolutionary thoughts and actions. Most folks, including activist folks, on this side of the pond have never heard of the ZAD. We’ve been too busy with the ever-escalating messes in our own backyards to pay much attention to visionary projects elsewhere. But fortunately, I have known of the activist artist, John Jordan, one of the key residents and spoke-persons for the ZAD, for many years. He made a contribution to my book, Arts for Change: Teaching Outside the Frame (New Village Press, 2009) and has kept me informed about the ZAD via email and social media.

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For those who are unaware of this remarkable place, it’s been a European symbol of contemporary resistance against development and fossil fuels. A coalition of movements including environmental activists, local farmers and unionists, anarchists, students and creative resistors of all sorts has prevented the building of an airport, and formed the largest autonomous zone in Europe, 4000 acres inhabited by 250 or so squatters who make up about 60 collectives. The land has been occupied since 2009 as part of a 50 year struggle against the development of the airport.

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This is not going to be an essay to describe the history and theories informing the ZAD. The reader can research that information online, but instead this brief piece will attempt to frame a vision before it slips the collective memory. ZAD is the acronym for zone à défendre (translated as “the Zone to Defend”).

We arrived at the train station at Notre-Dames des Landes on a sunny afternoon in late October 2017. John and his partner, Isa, met us and drove us to the beautiful bocage (a landscape that mixes woodlands and pasture) that makes up the ZAD. John explained that designing a landscape to feature “bocage” is one of the best ways to sequester CO2. Many traditional, small farmers have been working the land this way for centuries.

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John told us that our visit was well-timed, a party was already in progress at the Ambazada, a newly built barn-like space for meetings, dances, concerts and feast. We joined this celebration of the community that gave everyone an opportunity to share updates on different coalitions and actions. People of all ages were sitting around on benches, inside and outside this structure, many in deep conversations. Laughter often erupted, local wine was being shared and a pleasant haze of French cigarette smoke greeted us. John introduced us to people, some were local residents, and a few were visitors, like us, from all over the world. We were invited to grab plates and fill them generously with delicious home-made cuisine. I was struck by the plenty. Huge blocks of cheese and pâté were laid out along with bowls of salads and fruits. A crepe station and the lovely people working there supplied the crowd with warm, tasty regional fare (on the southern edge of Brittany. We made our way to one of the big tables to learn more about this unusual community.

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Over the past three decades, my partner, Bob Spivey, and I had been eager to learn about alternative communities, places where people were living out a vision of how to resist the dominant culture and its rape of the land and community. I had first been interested in collective living when I was a teenager and tasted a bit of it by living on a kibbutz. Unfortunately, the joys of sharing abundance, child care and work, were drowned out by the poison of the racism I witnessed there. Along with government policies that over the past five decades have become increasingly fascist. I was determined to look for other models, ones that were not so contaminated by an ideology of superiority and the propaganda of “safety through aggression.”

We visited co-housing communities on the west coast of the US, the remnants of back-to-the-land communes in New England, NY and Canada, as well as an eco-village in the north of Italy, and while they all had pieces of the puzzle that attracted us, certain vital qualities were missing. Our years of working with the Institute for Social Ecology had given us a vision of what a non-colonizing, permaculture design-informed, ecologically sound, equitable, diverse, revolutionary, liberated world might look like. We saw evidence of this vision at the ZAD.

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Every morning we would wake up to the sounds of John’s collective making breakfast in the house where we were hosted. The pantry was filled with boxes of fruit and vegetables. Fresh bread and eggs seemed to magically arrive. A chalk board displayed the tasks of the day and people took up their responsibilities with apparent ease.

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In the four days we were there we walked the land meeting members of the 60 collectives that have carved out space, built amazing structures and gardens while sharing childcare, bread, cheese, produce, tools, skills and libraries. We spent time in long conversations, climbed the beautifully built lighthouse for an exquisite sunset view, shared meals, sank into the literature provided at the welcome house, met grad students and journalists who are studying the ZAD, talked about the art and cultural democracy that was emerging from daily life, learned about ongoing conflicts between the specie-ists (those who are informed by deep ecology, who don’t believe that humans are special), the global justice activists and the traditional farmers, and discovered that this is the real work of making this vision come alive.

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John shared the history of battles on the land and how old coalitions between trade unions, farmers and activists were revitalized to create solidarity against the airport. We learned how art, play and humor kept the whole process joyful, even in the face of violence. It was inspiring, but we left knowing that romantic dreams were not enough to make this community sustainable. It required gritty, uncomfortable, daily work to keep people communicating productively with each other. Solidarity was not a given. Doing ongoing anti-oppression work and non-violent conflict resolution would be the continuing task of this visionary place.

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Now in this moment of extreme attacks from the State, it is important to remember that the seeds planted by ZAD can be broadcast widely, and we can be encouraged that it has survived and thrived in very difficult conditions. New communities of this kind will be forming all over the world as the dominant culture continues to crumble. We must take heart, be resilient when there are losses and persist in making our visions emerge. Share this story with others, find ways to organize and educate in your own communities. LONG LIVE THE ZAD!

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Flyer being handed out at French Embassies and Consulates


Beverly Naidus, interdisciplinary artist, author and facilitator of a socially engaged, studio arts curriculum, has been creating interactive installations and mixed media projects for several decades. Inspired by lived experience, topics in her art focus on environmental and social issues. After tasting success in the mainstream art world, she became deeply committed to art that emerges from communities struggling against oppression of all kinds. She is currently on the faculty of the University of Washington, Tacoma.

www.beverlynaidus.net

All photos courtesy of Beverly Naidus

Helen Mayer Harrison (1927-2018)

April 3, 2018

We met Helen Mayer Harrison (along with Newton Harrison) in 2006 at a conference in Shrewsbury thanks to David Haley. We had the privilege to spend the next three years working with them to realise Greenhouse Britain: Losing Ground, Gaining Wisdom, a project which prefigured their more recent work through the Center for the Study of the Force Majeure. It was through Greenhouse Britain that they first talked about the ‘form determinant’ which later became the ‘force majeure’.

“We suggest that the existing plans for greenhouse emissions control will be insufficient to keep temperature rise at 2° or less. In this context, the rising ocean becomes a form determinant. By “form determinant” we mean the ocean will determine much of the new form, that culture, industry and many other elements of civilization may need to take.” (Greenhouse Britain, 2007)

Throughout this time we heard Helen read from the end of their magnum opus, Lagoon Cycle, many times, in meetings and at events and performances. She read,

And the waters will rise slowly
at the boundary
at the edge
redrawing that boundary
continually
moment by moment
all over
altogether
all at once
It is a graceful drawing and redrawing
this response to the millennia of the making of fire

And in this new beginning
this continuously rebeginning
will you feed me when my lands can no longer produce
and will I house you when your lands are covered with water
so that together
we can withdraw
as the waters rise
(Lagoon Cycle, 1984)

Sometime she started slightly earlier in the text, with the list of rivers around the world, but she always read this last section and it always drew a deep, thoughtful silence.

Helen was the English Major with a Masters in Psychology who had worked in education extensively and to a senior level before becoming a full time artist and professor at the University of California San Diego. From this point she collaborated full time with Newton.

Living in New York in the early 1960s Helen had also been the first New York Co-ordinator of the Women’s Strike for Peace. As far as we remember she was also the one who had been reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a critical influence in Helen and Newton’s decision in the early 1970s ‘to do no work that did not in some way benefit the ecosystem.’

It is not useful to attempt to separate out who did what (or for that matter which one of them was the genius*). Rather it is useful to highlight that when we asked about their influences from literature, Helen mentioned Chaucer. You can see in particular works humorous comment on human frailty and weakness.

Helen had a lifelong interest in language, narration, storytelling, and the oral tradition. In San Diego the Harrisons were close friends with David and Eleanor Antin and with Jerome and Diane Rothenbeg. They were part of the ethno-poetic movement. Ethno-poetics as an aesthetic movement is concerned with the power and beauty of the spoken word. It is concerned to break out of the dominance in the Western tradition of the written word. Rothenberg pointed out,

“The suspicion came to be that certain forms of poetry, like certain forms of artmaking, permeated traditional societies ∓ that these largely religious forms not only resembled but had long since achieved what the new experimental poets & artists were then first setting out to do.” (Rothenberg, 1994)

Helen, in bringing a certain quality of literature into their practice, opened up the possibility that the “social ∓ spiritual as well aesthetic” (as Rothenberg puts it) can become intertwined. Whilst they recognised that boundary conditions were critical (just read their essay Public Culture and Sustainable Practices) they equally recognised that boundaries, “…seemed to exist only for a moment and thereafter fade back into a pattern of moments grouped within moments.” (Harrisons, 2001)

Helen introduced photography into their practice in addition to literature, but what is perhaps most remarkable about this partnership is that both photography and literature became part of a shared way of working and understanding the world.

In one of the articles which addresses their working together, they describe their process (speaking in the third person) as,

The work of the Harrisons has a great deal of writing in it. Their method is straightforward. Newton writes the initial text; Helen edits it, comments, and develops it, Newton comments, and Helen finishes it. Thus, they have evolved a very comfortable way of working where Newton has the first word and Helen has the last word. (Ingram Allen, 2008)

The two voices of the Lagoon Cycle, the Lagoon Maker and the Witness, are a very powerful evocation of the potential for two people to combine action and reflection in ways that lead to insight.

To touch and be touched by a life gives energy to the world. Helen gifted us with the energy to create, improvise and adapt to whatever life offers us, with humour, courage and with love. She achieved this through empathy, reaching out into the world and listening carefully without judging. Our first meeting created a quality of friendship and humanity that will be with us for the rest of our lives.

David Haley provides the final word,

I hear the warmth of her words
the passionate chill of her poetry
such fearless insight
such good fun
such a pleasure
such grace
(Helen, David Haley, 2018)

Anne Douglas and Chris Fremantle


* Apparently the MacArthur Foundation never gave them a Genius Award because the Foundation couldn’t decide which one was the genius.


References

Harrison, Helen Mayer and Harrison, Newton, 2001. From There to Here (San Diego: The Harrison Studio), unpaginated.

– 2007. Greenhouse Britain: Losing Ground, Gaining Wisdom (Santa Cruz: The Harrison Studio & Associates (Britain)) pdf

– 1985. Lagoon Cycle. Ithica, NY: Cornell University

– 2007 ‘Public Culture and Sustainable Practices: Peninsula Europe from an ecodiversity perspective, posing questions to Complexity Scientists’, Structure and Dynamics: eJournal of Anthropological and Related Sciences: Vol. 2: No. 3, Article 3. http://repositories.cdlib.org/imbs/socdyn/sdeas/vol2/iss3/art3

Ingram Allen, Jane. ‘A Marriage Made On Earth: Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison’, Public Art Review, issue 38, spring/summer 2008, volume 19, number 2

Rothenberg, Jerome, 1994 Ethnopoetics at the Millennium A Talk for the Modern Language Association, December 29. http://www.ubu.com/ethno/discourses/rothenberg_millennium.html accessed 26 March 2018.

 

5/9

March 21, 2018

“Five-nine” doesn’t have quite the cadence as “nine-eleven,” but when we look back on the early 21st century, I believe that May 9, 2013 — the day the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time in recorded history — may in the future be understood as a far more important date than September 11, 2001. It may even be that 5/9 will be seen as the long-anticipated tipping point at which human impacts caused irrevocable harm to our planet.

Read the rest of Aaron Ellison’s post here


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