Author Archive

Creative Sustainability

October 15, 2018

I don’t know how many people listened to the Moral Maze on Radio 4 on Wednesday evening (10th October)? In the week of the IPCC report saying we have 12 years before we go through the 1.5 degrees of global warming threshold, the programme brought together a debate on the moral implications.

The debate was framed in terms of the competing moral goods between future generations and developing countries, both of whom will disproportionately suffer the impacts of climate breakdown.

The first three witnesses broadly focused on economics and in particular the question ‘Is growth the problem or the solution?’ Can we grow and innovate our way out of the problem (Leo Barasi)? Or do we need to fly less, eat less meat and generally change our lifestyles to be more sustainable and less consuming (George Monbiot)? One of the issues underlying the discussion is the role of ‘progress’. Progress has generated global warming but it has also resulted in longer life spans, lower infant mortality, and more developed countries pay more attention to the environment.

The final speaker was Charlotte Du Caan from the Dark Mountain project to open up the cultural dimension. The panelists mostly agreed with the Dark Mountain manifesto, except the end of this sentence,

We do not believe that everything will be fine. We are not even sure, based on current definitions of progress and improvement, that we want it to be.

The panelist interpreted the Dark Mountain project as having a death wish, to be nihilist, rather than to be opening up a fundamental question of culture. Somehow the fundamental point got lost: ‘Do we want to continue with a culture that promotes individualism that results in endemic mental health problems?’ or ‘Do we want to live in a culture that promotes unlimited consumption of for example fashion, making fashion one of the most polluting and destructive industries?’ or ‘Do we want a culture that disconnects us from the rest of the living world?’

Actually the economic/progress argument is the wrong argument and the cultural argument was not fully grasped in the debate (although at least the cultural dimension was recognized as relevant).

So Creative Carbon Scotland has just launched its Library of Creative Sustainability. Creative Carbon Scotland is one of the organisations who are saying culture has a central role in addressing the environmental crisis in all its dimensions – climate breakdown, pollution, extinction…

The projects highlighted in the Library are all artists working with organisations long term on specific issues in specific contexts. To pick just one example, SLOW Clean UP involves artist Frances Whitehead, Chicago City Council and various University Science Departments working together on cleaning up petroleum pollution in the middle of communities in Chicago by creating gardens. Using plants which have specific capacities (hyperaccumulators) to suck up the pollution, the project cleaned up the test site, identified a significant number of new plants, as well as involving communities in their own environmental health. In the US whilst this approach is known and understood, unless the land has significant economic value, no-one bothers.

What is important is that this is not a binary debate on growth and progress, but rather cultural change towards a different set of values.

All the projects in the new Library demonstrate approaching challenges differently, creative innovations, and involving people in their own places produces new values that are more sustainable.

Have a look at the way artists are ’embedding’ themselves in organisations and contexts to work long term.

This project is supported by ecoartscotland and Gray’s School of Art, Robert Gordon University through an Interface Innovation Voucher.

Newton Harrison visits ASN Studio

September 23, 2018

Art, Space + Nature Blog

“The Deep Wealth of This Nation, Scotland” is an exhibition by the environmental art pioneers, the Harrisons currently on display at Edinburgh College of Art (ECA). The show is a collaboration between the Center for the Study of the Force Majeure (CFM) in California and the Barn in Aberdeenshire, along with the James Hutton Institute, Aberdeen. It is presented at ECA in association with Art, Space + Nature Masters Programme (ASN).

Following a public presentation and discussion to accompany the ECA exhibition on Thursday evening, we were honoured to have Newton Harrison visit the ASN studio on Friday. We were treated to a two-hour discussion and career overview from the internationally renowned artist and pioneer of the global ecological art movement. The collaborative team of Newton and his late wife Helen Mayer Harrison (often referred to simply as “the Harrisons”) has worked for almost forty years with biologists, ecologists, architects…

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Sir Peter Scott: the embodiment of art and conservation

July 11, 2018

As part of the #art4wetlands series the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) have very kindly provided us with the following images and story on their founder, artist and conservationist Sir Peter Scott. Sir Peter epitomises one of the many ways that the power of art can be brought to bear on the challenges of conservation. One of the WWT reserve managers mentioned that every time Sir Peter wanted to do work to improve a reserve he would simply, “create another painting to sell.”


scott feeding wildfowl

Image courtesy of Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT)

Sir Peter Scott (1909-1989) knew how to take action, and how to inspire others.  He was a visionary who understood that people and nature are part of the same intertwined ecosystem. He realised – ahead of his time – that our wealth, our health and our emotional wellbeing all depend on the natural world. He understood that showing people how amazing nature is, can ignite a passion to conserve it.

Scott was an accomplished artist, writer, world-class sportsman, Naval Commander and the son of one of the most famous explorers of the 20th Century.  Famously, his father’s last letter from Antarctica prophetically instructed his wife to “Make the boy interested in nature – it is so much better than sports.”  As fate would have it, he was brilliant at both.

Scott with snowgoose

Image courtesy of WWT

Added to this he was an extraordinary wildlife artist with a particular passion for wildfowl art.  He produced hundreds of original wildfowl artworks in his lifetime and his deep love of painting birds must surely have driven his passion for working to save wetlands and wildfowl around the world.

In 1945/6 he became determined to set up a Wildfowl Trust – but where?  At Slimbridge – he had a ‘eureka’ moment.  Here, on the banks of the River Severn in Gloucestershire he spotted two unbelievably rare Lesser White-Fronted Geese in a flock of White-Fronted Geese.  So, Slimbridge would become the home of the Severn Wildfowl Trust – later to become the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust.

More than that, he began to address wider, global conservation issues.  A co-founder and first chairman of the World Wildlife Fund (1961), his work on international conservation issues continued over the coming decades.  He was instrumental in setting up the Ramsar Convention in 1971.  This international agreement works to protect wetlands of international importance and now includes over 2,300 sites covering 2 million square kilometres. In 1982 he established an international moratorium on whaling and later worked to secure agreements for the protection of Antarctica from international exploitation.  In 1973 he became the first person to be knighted for services to conservation.

scott with nenes - saved from extinction

Sir Peter Scott with Néné Geese. Image courtesy of WWT

Over the coming years he developed new conservation techniques and honed existing ideas; he saved the Hawaiian Goose (the Néné) from extinction; he established international protocols for conservation (i.e. the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species) still used today to categorise the conservation status of all known species; he brokered national and international agreements for the conservation of wildlife; he championed research into the damage done to our wild places and how to address this; he tracked the migratory patterns of wetland birds; he resolved to work across borders to protect their flyways and – insightful as ever – he recognised the power of bringing wildlife into people’s homes through the evolving medium of television and his ‘Look’ series on the BBC.

It is hard to identify anyone before him who had such an impact on raising conservation issues with the general public, and on bringing governments together to address global issues.

#art4wetlands

June 20, 2018

#art4wetlands

Welcome to a new series of posts here and on Twitter @ecoartscotland focused on art, artists and wetlands using the hashtag #art4wetlands. Feel free to join in by posting using this hashtag or contacting us with suggestions for blogs. We’ll be publishing weekly between now and the Ramsar Convention Conference of the Parties #RamsarCOP13 which takes place in October 2018 in Dubai, UAE.

Wetlands are amongst the most widely threatened habitats world-wide. Threats include unsustainable urban development e.g. being drained for housing development; pollution from urban settlements, industry and agriculture; invasive species, as well as overharvesting. According to analyses by Ramsar,

The global extent of wetlands is now estimated to have declined between 64-71% in the 20th century, and wetland losses and degradation continue worldwide.

But the biggest threat is a perception that to quote the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, wetlands are,

…misunderstood and undervalued by people, leading to a desire to replace them with more ‘useful’ and ‘productive’ options such as housing developments and agricultural land.

Wetlands are a fundamental part of the water cycle, with a key role in cleaning water as it moves from smaller bodies into larger ones (rivers, seas, oceans). Wetlands are critical to many migratory animals and hence their careful management is an internationally shared responsibility. Wetlands are also home to a multitude of amphibious species. Wetlands such as saltmarshes and mangroves stabilise littoral zones, reducing coastal erosion and storm damage to properties.

Artists have represented waterbirds since neolithic times, and the Ramsar Convention published Ramsar Cultural Heritage Information Pack 10 Wetlands – an inspiration in art, literature, music and folklore

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Betsy Damon, The Living Water Garden, Chengdu, 1998

More recently Peter Howard’s piece Wetland Landscapes in English Art highlighted how during the 18th and 19th Centuries artists in this country’s tradition marked changes in perceptions of wetlands. Pieces by contemporary artists Simon Read (Communities and Coastal Change) and Betsy Damon (The Sounds of Water) open up contemporary activist practices where artists are not just representing wetlands but also getting directly involved in conservation and wise use.

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Limmo Ecology Park visited during the HydroCitizenship Research, Photo: Simon Read

We have assembled a programme highlighting artists working in different ways on issues such as habitat restoration, pollution and biodiversity loss. We have examples from all six of the Ramsar Convention’s regions (Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America, and Oceania).

The Ramsar Convention’s Culture Network underpins this initiative which draws on the expertise of members of the Network’s Art Focus Group. The Ramsar Convention has a longstanding commitment to culture and the arts from its adoption in 1971 through a series of Resolutions to its partnership with the MAVA Foundation and others in the Ramsar Culture Network (2011-18). As part of World Wetlands Day every year the Ramsar Convention holds the Global Wetlands Youth Photo Competition.

Please share examples of artists (whether now or in the ancient past) contributing to wetlands conservation and wise use with the hashtag #art4wetlands. We are particularly interested in art that makes a difference and we look forward to learning about new examples over the next four months.

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


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