Archive for the ‘Artists’ Category

The Same Hillside

May 25, 2017

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It was a seemingly unlikely pair forming the panel after the Crypic Nights premier of The Same Hillside at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Glasgow. The one who looked like a farmer (checked shirt and flat cap) was the documentary film-maker John Wallace, the other (long hair and beard a t-shirt with a ‘pirate’ skull and crossbones) was soil scientist and a co-author of International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports Professor Pete Smith.* This art science collaboration has been going on for some years now and The Same Hillside is the third piece of work to result from this ongoing partnership. It’s interesting because there are several other on-going relationships between artists and natural and social scientists in Scotland at the moment, many focused upon land use, social impact and critical environmental change.

The Same Hillside is an immersive installation with projections on three screens as well as the floor, and a sound installation in the foyer. If I tell you it is an exploration of the landscape through the lens of Ecosystems Services (this is an extension of ideas about nature as capital, something with social and economic value) you might think it belongs on the Open University YouTube channel rather than in an arts centre. You couldn’t be more wrong.

John Wallace described his interest as a documentary film-maker in finding structures or lenses external to himself to use in constructing his work. These ‘constraints’ are devices John Wallace uses to clarify his current inquiry and focus upon what interests him. It forces him to follow other lines and explore subjects he might not otherwise take up on his own. Hearing Pete Smith talking about Ecosystem Services Assessment (a method of assessing the services that aspects of an ecosystem provides to human society) and the aspects of land-use that this reveals, John Wallace saw potential for a way to explore and make strange again a landscape with which he was deeply familiar. This was a chance to see with fresh eyes.

It isn’t common knowledge, but three major Scottish rivers flow from one hillside in the South of Scotland to opposite sides of the country: the Annan into the Solway Firth, the Clyde through Glasgow into the Firth of Clyde, and the Tweed into the North Sea. With this in mind, Pete Smith and John Wallace defined a 20 mile radius ‘study area,’ that worked from the common ground at the top of these three watersheds. The questions they wanted to explore revolve around the ways that these networks of land and water delight and serve human communities.

Wallace set out to explore different aspects of these ecosystems in relation to the ‘services’ provided to human society. Ecosystems provide natural products and raw materials such as food, wood and water, when intact and healthy they regulate flooding process, turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, they support us by recycling nutrients and enabling pollination. The Cryptic Nights information sheet notes,

“The area is home to five drinking water reservoirs, over 300MW of installed wind capacity, the West Coast Main Line, 400kV power transmission lines, the M74 motorway, thousands of acres of commercial forestry, hill farms, salmon redds, blanket bogs, and rare and delicate subalpine habitats.”

Ecosystems also provide aesthetic, biodiversity and spiritual services, a set of cultural interrelationships that have proven more difficult on to which to put economic value.

As a documentary film-maker John Wallace sought out the human stories which reveal deep and complicated relationships, a lifetime of meaning. Whether that’s the train driver talking about the impact of one 40-car supermarket haul and how many trucks that takes off the road, or the modern Saw Mill that uses the waste material to generate energy. John Wallace’s style is not interrogative or even prodding. So it is interesting when climate change keeps coming up in different narratives. It’s clearly an essential part of the reality for a wide range of people living, working and managing transport in the Scottish landscape.

Whilst ‘place’ as a vital facet of identity has been a signal thread in Scottish art-making for at least a generation, it usually focuses on a recognisable place. The Same Hillside focuses on a part of the country that supports a lot of other ‘places’, the towns and cities downstream. It embeds a bioregional or watershed-based approach: Dumfries, Glasgow, Berwick and all the other settlements on the Annan, Clyde and Tweed are all dependent on the health and viability of this upland territory.

John Wallace’s interviews with people living and working in this place focus upon the production and transmission of energy; the transportation routes; the scale of commercial forestry and the range of resulting products, the value of the peatland in sequestering carbon, as well as a means of provisioning game for hunting sport. The last scenes follow a group exploring the Spring at Hartfell as a specific example of the cultural and spiritual dimension of the landscape.

Underlying John Wallace’s sensitive handling of people and landscapes are the sorts of data sets that Pete Smith works with. Where the films on the screens take our conscious attention with stories, the data projected on the floor is telling another story, of car and truck movements on the M74, of rainfall, of the monitoring of land-use.

What is apparent watching The Same Hillside is that some bad decisions have been made in this landscape in the past – planting commercial forestry on the best farmland and draining the peat for grazing are two striking examples. After hearing about healthy watersheds with forest cover it was curious to look at images in the closing minutes. The last shot features long views from the hilltop down through the valley where there is hardly a tree to be seen. Here, water is sacred and aesthetics is provided by nature. Nature necessitates a healthy highland and stream corridor with plants and trees to regulate flow and temperature allowing for best conditions for all living things. Is the spirit in place, without its animating forces?

The Same Hillside (and the earlier works Cinema Sark and Sark-Tweed) don’t fit into existing categories of documentary film or installation art. They draw on languages of place and site-specificity, but also, albeit quietly, of everyday activism. They speak to the Anthropocene, that humans are affecting everything, without ever mentioning the term. The sawmill using its own waste product to generate energy is a form of attention to process, which goes beyond everything being focused by ‘the product’.

We need more productive partnerships between people like Professor Pete Smith and John Wallace – processes that extend beyond a project into a long term dialogue, interactions between those who work with data and inform policy, and those who work with sound, image, form and narrative. These connections with the artists and film-makers draw the sciences into the everyday of a critically positioned arts practice. Working across disciplines can challenge assumptions and lead to the emergence of new forms.

With thanks to Tim Collins for his comments and suggestions.

* The partnership between Wallace and Smith started during Do Not Resuscitate a series of events organised by Mike Bonaventura, then CEO of the Critchon Carbon Centre. Do Not Resuscitate brought together artists and scientists, drawing on the Scottish Government’s Strategic Research Programmes. The first piece of work resulting from this collaboration was Cinema Sark (2013), presented as part of the Environmental Art Festival Scotland, and focusing on the River Sark which is the boundary between Dumfries & Galloway and Cumbria, between Scotland and England. Wallace and Smith’s partnership isn’t the only significant outcome of Do Not Resuscitate – it contributed to the shape of the Environmental Art Festival Scotland and led to a residency programme Nil by Mouth.

The Harrison Studio at Woodend Barn

May 19, 2017

ecoartscotland is thrilled to be able to share the news that The Harrison Studio will be working in Scotland with Woodend Barn. Apologies for cross-posting.


Barn Harrisons image

Invitation

The Dee and Don catchment areas
Creating Resilience to Climate Change

The Barn, Sunday 11 June 2017
7-9pm. Refreshments from 6.30pm

We are delighted to invite you to an evening of discussion in the company of internationally acclaimed artist Newton Harrison of the Harrison Studio (USA), who, along with partner Helen Mayer Harrison, has championed art & ecology across the globe since the late 1960’s.

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The Barn has invited Newton Harrison to visit Aberdeenshire to open a conversation leading to action, involving local agencies and communities in exploring the impacts of climate change on our local environment, centering initially on the catchments of the Dee and Don rivers. Following the Harrisons’ methodology, we hope to create a space where all voices can be heard and practical strategies can be formulated and shared.

This partnership forms the core of the Barn’s Art & Ecology programme for 2017-19, and will engage with environmental agencies, farming, fishing, forestry, government, academia, local communities and, not least, the creative sector.

We very much hope that you would like to be involved in supporting this project from the outset, and are able to join us for this opening event with Newton Harrison at the Barn.

Lorraine Grant, Anne Douglas and Mark Hope

RSVP to mail@thebarnarts.co.uk tel 01330 826520

For further information on the Harrison Studio please visit
http://theharrisonstudio.net/

Banner image: Chris Fremantle. Photograph: Mel Shand

Minty Donald reviews A Caledonian Decoy

March 29, 2017

Tim Collins and Reiko Goto’s dense and thought-provoking exhibition brings together a number of recent works developed as part of what they describe in the accompanying catalogue as ‘A Critical Forest Art Practice’.* This body of works, made ‘with rather than in’ forests in Scotland is intended to ‘explore […] new relationships between humanity and nature’.

Key to Collins and Goto’s approach, and at the core of the exhibition, is the concept of the ‘cultural decoy’, a term which they use to describe several of the works. As I understand this provocative and generative concept, a cultural decoy is an artefact that is intended to lure the audience/spectator into a relationship with the entanglement of nature and culture that comprises what is commonly referred to as ‘the environment’, and in the particular case of this exhibition, with the natural-cultural environments of Scotland’s forests. The word ‘decoy’, particularly employed in this context, is loaded and complex. It has clear associations with hunting, leading me to reflect on the implications of identifying art objects as decoys in this gallery-based, ecologically inflected exhibition. A decoy may be set by the hunter to trap prey, but also deployed by those pursued to distract or mislead the hunter.

A further frame which seems pertinent to Goto and Collins’ exhibition, though not one overtly referenced by the artists, is Robert Smithson’s notion of site/non-site. Smithson’s grappling with the productive paradoxes of exhibiting work with site-responsive origins in a gallery distant from the originary location has, for me, useful resonances. Goto and Collins appear to share Smithson’s approach, complexifying the relationship between the ‘cultural’ space of the gallery and the ‘natural’ forest environments from which their work emanates.

The exhibition includes six photographic and sculptural works that Collins and Goto consider to be cultural decoys and a video work titled Decoy, installed in the tight confines of the Intermedia Gallery at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow.

In Fiadh

The central and most imposing of the cultural decoys, Fiadh, is a group of cage-like structures constructed from metal fencing and wooden posts, which stand at approximately human head height. The cages, if viewed from above, spell out the word fiadh which, exhibition notes tell me, is ‘Scottish Gaelic for deer, but also references wildness’. One of the cages contains cowberry, bilberry, heather and bracken growths. The work is intended as a maquette for a much larger scale sculpture, which the artists intend to function as a deer fence, protecting recently harvested forest plantation from deer herds. The full-scale work would evolve over time, as the metal fencing is engulfed by maturing trees. It’s a work that invites me to contemplate the inextricable intertwining of nature and culture in Scotland’s forests (and wider ecology) and to consider multiple, opposing and overlapping, perspectives on land stewardship and re-wilding. For me, it functions effectively as a cultural decoy — a gallery-based proposition, luring the spectator into a conceptual engagement with the natural-cultural entanglements of Scotland’s forests. It doesn’t reference or evoke a specific forest location, but functions as a speculative work that points towards conditions common to Scotland’s woodlands and brought about through competing demands of deer preservation and timber cultivation.

Decoy, a split-screen projection showing video footage of movement advancing into and retreating from a dense, ancient forest environment (the forward movement in colour and the retreat in black and white) fills another gallery wall. The footage has the shaky appearance and point-of-view of hand-held camera work. I watch the video while standing among the fence structures of Fiadh. Other visitors stand in front of the wire mesh, in close proximity to the projection/gallery wall. I note my sense of enclosure and my fragmented view of the video, which to me mimics the physical and visual experience of being in a dense woodland. I contemplate the gallery as natural-cultural space, a forest-within-gallery, or gallery-within-forest. The camera movement and my position within the fencing structures evokes for me the somatic experience of moving through a forest environment. Decoy’s sound-track (a commentary reflecting on the Caledonian forests of Scotland and key terms used by the artists, followed by field recordings of rutting deer) and the more formal aspects of the editing (spilt screen projection in colour and monochrome), however, pull me back from this more affective, sensory interaction with the work. You can see Decoy here.

Bridle and Darkness

I experience a similar withdrawal from the somatic and immersive dimensions of the five wall-based pieces, also described as cultural decoys. Lanolin, Can You See the Forest of Scotland? is a sheep’s fleece, manipulated to pick out a saltire in washed white wool against a greyer background of untreated fleece. The Ladder in the Wood is a photograph of a deerstalker’s ladder, once used to access a treetop platform from which the stalker could observe and shoot deer. The ladder is rotting and becoming indistinguishable from the fabric of the tree against which it stands, no longer fulfilling its human-determined function. Fearna/Co2 is a piece of Alder tree bark into which a carbon dioxide monitor, linked to a noise generator, has been inserted. As human spectators approach, the noise level increases in response to their Co2 exhalations. One of two linked pieces, Taod Gaoisdei, is a bit-less horse bridle, woven from twisted birch twigs and horse hair. Exhibition notes inform me that in Scottish folklore a birch bridle could be used to harness a kelpie, the mythical Scottish horse-sprite. A photograph of Goto’s other-than-human collaborator, native-breed horse An Dorchadas, wearing the bridle, accompanies the sculptural piece. These five works operate, for me, as cultural decoys at a conceptual level, pointing to complex entanglements of the natural and the cultivated, human and other-than-human. However, compacted into Intermedia’s small exhibition space, and with prominent explanatory text, my interaction with the wall works feels slightly skewed towards the ocular and intellectual. I feel constrained, for instance, from taking up the invitation to interact with the carbon monoxide monitor in Fearna/Co2, or from touching the fleece in Lanolin, Can You See the Forest of Scotland?

While I may have welcomed a little more space (both physical and interpretive) for open-ended, sensory and affective interactions with the works, A Caledonian Decoy is a rich and thoughtful exhibition that makes a sophisticated and valuable contribution to debates about the natural and the cultural, art and the environment. Goto and Collins’ decoys remain ambivalent — are they set by hunter or prey, poacher or gamekeeper? — suggesting the impossibility of untangling the competing and shared impulses and intentions that play out in the natural-cultural environments of Scotland’s forests.


* All quotations are from the exhibition catalogue or signage. You can download a pdf of the catalogue CollinsandGoto_CALEDONIANDECOY

All photographs and videos courtesy of the artists.


The Collins & Goto Studio’s The Centre for Nature in Cities presents: A Caledonian Decoy
Intermedia Gallery, Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow, 2-23 February 2017


Minty Donald is an artist and senior lecturer in contemporary performance practices at the University of Glasgow. She is interested in the idea of more-than-human performance, where performing is understood as not just a human activity. Minty works regularly with (human) collaborator Nick Millar. Recent work includes THEN/NOW, a public art project with/for the Forth and Clyde Canal and Guddling About, an ongoing project with rivers and other watercourses, which has been performed in Canada, Spain, Germany, Australia and the UK.

Holly Keasey and Anna Macleod: An Atomic Journey

March 26, 2017

“We tour the disparate surfaces of everyday life as a way of involving ourselves in them, as a way of reintegrating a fragmented world” – Alexander Wilson (1991)

As international residents at SFAI, Holly and fellow resident Anna Macleod, have conducted their ‘Atomic Journey’ together through New Mexico including trips to The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, the Red Water Pond Road Community Association (RWPRCA), the roundhouse for Uranium Workers Day and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. A journey which has drawn out questions around activation within the act of witnessing, and whether visiting artists are complicit in a contemporary act of exploitation – extracting what they need and then leaving.

Anna’s initial proposal to SFAI was to research community resilience in the face of climate change uncertainty as the next addition to her series of projects known as Water Conversations. These projects explore the complex interstices between landscape, technology, science, culture and geopolitics through the emotive global context of water. In recent years, these projects have included an investigation into the legacy of mining and wastewater in a variety of global contexts. The scarred and poisoned landscapes that Anna has journeyed through are often admired as places of pristine wilderness. Yet hidden deep within these landscapes are many unresolved negative emotions stirred by the socio-economic traumas these landscapes have endured. Typically, ‘Water Conversations’ accumulate into the production of portable sculptures that then act as focal points for community gatherings, where thoughts and emotions can be expressed in the safety of a shared collective action.

During the SFAI Water Right’s Round Table, Susan Gordon of the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment presented an oil and gas map which initiated an urgency to dig deeper into the history of uranium mining and nuclear exploration within New Mexico.

IMAGE ONE

The majority of uranium mined in New Mexico is found in the Grants mineral belt, the second largest uranium deposit in the United States. Looking at a map of New Mexico, layered with information on the extractive industries dotted throughout the territory, one can draw a triangle from the North Western uranium mining area of the Grants mineral belt at Gallup, to Los Alamos, and then south-west to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) at Carlsbad.*

As was mentioned in the previous post, Policy, Possession and Place, the reality of lives lived on land that was contaminated continuously for twenty year by uranium mine discharge before the 1979 Church Rock Uranium tailings pond spill, were shared with us through conversations with members of RWPRCA. Situated in amongst geological stacks, recognisable to a European as backdrop landscapes for the Hollywood Westerns, this landscape is entirely barren apart from the over-looked brown-ish hills constructed from contaminated scrape-off pointed out to us by the community, the dry-board constructed homes of this ‘forgotten’ community and the intentional plantings of non-regional salt bushes by the EPA.

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In stark contrast, 230 miles North of Red Water Pond Road is Los Alamos, a self proclaimed ‘Atomic City’ complete with promotional tee shirts, shot glasses and coffee cups. It is a prosperous well-mannered place. Originally constructed in secret to house the scientist of the National Laboratories, this small city continues to be primarily for current and retired laboratory workers and their families. The centre of the city, where the first nuclear bombs were designed and produced, is now one section of the three-part Manhattan Project National Park, where visitors can join the Park Ranger for a free tour of the central pond area and collect a stamp for their National Park Passport. Los Alamos boasts of an intelligent and healthy population, with the highest per capita of residents with PhDs and the 7th most affluent per capita city in the USA. The location of the city within the forty-three mile site is surrounded by mountains, ski slopes and a well serviced recreational culture. The hyper-reality of middle-class affluence at Los Alamos, a realised model of the American Dream ideals, is magnified by the automated countdown at pedestrian traffic crossing points. Ten seconds to safely cross a road. Ten seconds to experience the anxious anticipation of an explosion.

The unholy uranium trinity is completed at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. WIPP is located in the Delaware Basin of New Mexico. This 600m-deep salt basin was formed during the Permian Period approximately 250 million years ago. In 1957, the National Academy of Sciences recommended salt for radioactive waste disposal because at over 600m below the earth’s surface, salt would plastically deform, a motion called “salt creep” in the salt-mining industry, to close and seal any openings created by the mining, and in and around the waste. It is here that the mined uranium, and all radioactive waste produced in the US, returns to the ground having been through a series of processes, a journey, in which its original state has changed.**

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Similarly, our journey to these sites of nuclear relevance has, most likely, changed something within us. There is an activation through the act of witnessing that shifts something within the witness. Their witnessing also enacts a reintegration of occurrences that have otherwise become fragmented from each other – in this case the intentional disjointedness between the mining of uranium, weapons development, nuclear energy and radioactive disposal. However, as international artists-in-residence, this comparison to the nuclear fuel cycle and our journey draws out critical questions about the responsibility of the visiting artist to ensure we do not ‘mine’ communities to the point of exhaustion, especially whilst attending a thematic residency in which sixty artists with over-lapping areas of interest pass through a single institution and therefore small grouping of communities. How do we also ensure, as socially-engaged artists, that our methods of practice whilst working within short-time frames is beneficial to a community rather than detrimental?

Upon hearing about Anna’s artistic practice and through engagement with the RWPRCA community, a suggestion was made to produce a new banner with a water focus that could be used during the community’s Uranium Legacy, Remembrance and Action Day, a day of protest, awareness raising and memorial that takes place annually on the 16th July, the anniversary of The Church Rock Uranium Spill. Focusing on how to create a water banner that incorporated these three purposes, we hosted a co-design workshop at a community member’s home. Using mono-printing, we worked with the community to discuss their differing ideas about what such a banner should include. It was also a time to share methods for using visual attributes such as colour, language and symbolism to produce strong statements that reflect the Navajo relation to place.

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The final banner will be realised by Anna over the course of April before being gifted back to the community. It is hoped that this hand sewn banner will hold within it care, solidarity and gratitude that will continue beyond our stay in New Mexico. Whilst we will take away the experienced knowledge from our ’Atomic Journey’, having temporarily been active in the everyday fabric of this place through loosely stitching fragments together.


Notes

* The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, is the world’s third deep geological repository licensed to permanently dispose of transuranic radioactive waste for 10,000 years that is left from the research and production of nuclear weapons and energy.

** It is assumed that at this depth the radioactive material is encased away from interference but with the drastic increase in fracking within New Mexico especially in the Carlsbad area, questions can be asked if these two processes really co-exist in the same landscape?


References

Wilson, Alexander. 1991. The Culture of Nature: North American Landscape from Disney to the Exxon Valdez. Ontario: Between The Lines Press.


Anna Macleod

Edinburgh Scotland, lives and works in Ireland

Anna Macleod is a visual artist based in Ireland. Her art work utilizes a variety of methods and processes to mediate complex ideas associated with contemporary, historical and cultural readings of place. She employs quasi-scientific methods, interdisciplinary collaboration, performance and socially engaged activism to critique contemporary landscapes and to build metaphoric spaces for re-imagining the future. Recent projects have focused on the socio-political and cultural issues surrounding water, looking at questions of access, management and ritual.

Anna Macleod has exhibited Nationally and Internationally. Recent residencies include: Food Water Life, themed residency with Jorge and Lucy Orta, Banff Art Centre, Alberta, Canada. 2015. Joya, Arte & Ecologia, Spain 2016. Leitrim Sculpture Centre, Co Leitrim, Ireland 2015 & Broken Hill Art Exchange, New South Wales, Australia, 2015. Recent solo exhibitions include: Water Conversations – A Survey of Works 2007 – 2015 at The Dock, Carrick on Shannon, Ireland. Staid na Talún – A State of Land, Leitrim Sculpture Centre, Co Leitrim, Ireland, Water Conversations – Broken Flow, Broken Hill Art Exchange, New South Wales, Australia.

Macleod is the recipient of the Firestation Artists’ Studios, Dublin, International Residency Award for ‘A Thousand Points of Light’ residency in Joshua Tree, California in March 2016. She was awarded an Individual Artists Bursary from Leitrim County Council Arts Office in 2015 / 2016 and Arts Council of Ireland Travel and Training Award towards the costs of residencies in Australia (2015) and USA (2016 & 2017) and the Jim Dinning and Evelyn Main Endowed Scholarship for Visual Arts for Banff Art Centre residency in 2015.

www.annamacleod.com

 

Leverhulme Trust terminates Artist in Residence Grants

March 25, 2017

Leverhulme AiR page

We recently discovered that the Leverhulme Trust has discontinued its Artist in Residence Grants Scheme.  This isn’t just sad, it’s frankly tragic.

In our view the Leverhulme Artist in Residence scheme is one of the few on-going and established schemes that supports artists to work with other researchers across the natural and social sciences as well as humanities.

The scheme has enabled a wide range of interesting, challenging and provocative work to emerge and is perhaps one of the foremost mechanisms in the UK for interdisciplinary collaboration involving artists. It is one of the few opportunities which really understood that artists collaborating with other research disciplines should start not from an assumption of illustration and public communication, but from first principles of mutual interest. It provided time for genuine dialogue and for unexpected results.

As one recipient commented, the scheme is also important because it paid artists directly and at a rate that was commensurate with the investment of time in research. The importance of this point cannot be underestimated. No other schemes that involve artists with academics actually provide sensible funding for the artists.

And note it’s probably a scheme that invested between £250,000 and £500,000 out of a total annual grantmaking of something like £110 million annually.

We are familiar with a number of artists who have benefited significantly from receiving Leverhulme Awards and I believe that these awards have also opened up research teams to new experiences and understanding coming from the arts.

  • Alec Finlay‘s current work Gathering developed with the Anthropology Department at the University of Aberdeen is in part funded by a Leverhulme Artist in Residence Award.
  • Hannah Imlach’s immently opening show From the Dark Ocean Comes Light at Summerhall in Edinburgh developed in collaboration with The Institute of Biological Chemistry, Biophysics & Bioengineering at Heriot-Watt University and the Changing Oceans Group at The University of Edinburgh.
  • The publication Gut Gardening just reviewed is the result of the Center for Genomic Gastronomy‘s Leverhulme Artist in Residence work with Dr Wendy Russell at the Rowett Institute for Nutrition and Health, University of Aberdeen.
  • Hanna Tuulikki has been working with Professor Simon Kirby, Chair of Language Evolution at the University of Edinburgh.
  • Rachel Duckhouse worked with Professor Maggie Cusack School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, University of Glasgow, which resulted in an exhibition Shell Meets Bone, opening imminently at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow.
  • Andrea Roe has been working with Dr Kenny Rutherford, Animal and Veterinary Sciences, Scotland’s Rural College.

And these are only recent examples in Scotland.

In response to a request for further explanation beyond the statement on the website, the following was received from the Trust,

The Trust Board periodically reviews all the Trust’s funding schemes and considers how best its funds might be used. This scheme had been running for a number of years, and last autumn, in view of the pressure of funds and low success rates for some other schemes, the Board took the decision to suspend the scheme and reallocate the funds. It is, of course possible, that the same or a similar scheme will be reinstated at some time in the future, but I’m afraid that there are no immediate plans to do so.

I realise that this decision is disappointing for you.

From this we can understand that a ‘land grab’ has been made, possibly on the basis of ‘greater impact’ and a vital support for artists and interdisciplinarity has been erased.

Should you feel strongly about this, you can also write to Mr N W A FitzGerald KBE FRSA, Chairman, The Leverhulme Trust, 1 Pemberton Row, London, EC4A 3BG.  Direct emails to the Chaiman via Assistant Director Jean Cater jcater@leverhulme.ac.uk .


This article was edited on 27/3/17.  The statement relating to the value of grants awarded as in relation to the overall value of grants was changed to reflect more accurately the varying number of grants made over a number of years.

Review: Gut Gardening

March 24, 2017

FP03_Cover

Ewan Davidson reviews Gut Gardening, Food Phreaking:issue 03 from the Center for Genomic Gastronomy, published Oct 2016.  You can order copies here.

Ewan Davidson is a blogger and self-identified psychogeographer (riverofthings.wordpress.com). His recent wanderings have taken back into familiar territories, those of ecology, natural metaphors and causality, he first visited as a student thirty years ago. He is also really fond of lichens and birdwatching.


It is only about a decade since the microbiome became a thing. Fuzzy boundaried notions collect all kinds of aspirational, utopian fluff, and the microbiome – a paradigmatic concept of the cyber-age – has the capacity to multiply these as quickly as (aerobic) bacteria grow on a Petri dish.

The role of microbiologists is to culture the useful part of these into something that might grow and become valued. The Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health in Aberdeen has been involved in this research effort and the artists/designers known as The Center for Genomic Gastronomy have been Leverhulme Artists in Residence involved in the dissemination of the stuff.

The most recent publication in their Food Phreaking series of pamphlets, Gut Gardening, reaches for a compromise between populist publicity, sober accounting and dis-illusion. Most writing about the microbiome oscillates between potential and entropy in this way. For example the story which most of us will have heard in some form concerns the microbial base for obesity. This is drawn from a research programme described at length in I Contain Multitudes (Yong 2016) where generations of lab mice have been grown in a sterile environment, gnotobiosis, and are used as receptacles of cultures of microbes from obese or normal humans. Fat gut microbes produced fat mice, which in turn produced the headlines about gut microflora creating obesity, which in turn received the ‘Overselling the Microbiome Award’, which has at least 38 former winners for extrapolations from interesting test results (others including cures for IBD, diabetes and mental illness, as well as jeremiads about the harm of antibiotics).

This particular replication keeps happening because the scientists had to move beyond the simple correlation of one thing with another, and see if there were links which might be predictable or causal. This has proved much more complicated – in the case of our mouse, food, genetics and the developmental stage all matter. The gut microbiome, when studied closely, stopped being one thing and became many.

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To improve the chance of establishing causality in the lab, anaerobic chamber cultures of the various bacterial species are grown in separate wells. They are mixed by a robot into different recipes, which are then transplanted into the gnotobiotic mice. The conclusions drawn from extensive trials are that 11 bacterial species are involved in some way in promoting obesity (in mice, and perhaps humans) and two other species seem to inhibit. But only if certain other factors apply, and only, so far, under controlled conditions.

Meanwhile in the outside, more chaotic world (what the scientists I trained with used to call ‘the field’, with heavily inverted commas) the Human Microbiome Project, collecting submitted poo samples, has established that there is no such thing as a typical US volunteer gut community. Nicola Twilley, blogger and gastrophile, writes in Gut Gardening,

‘It now seems our gut microbiome is not a single organ,that can function well or badly. Instead it is a series of negotiations and trade offs, in which distinctions between good and bad have been increasingly difficult to extract from the white noise generated by up to a thousand different microbial spp, all interacting with each other in ways that we mostly don’t yet understand.’

The Scottish biologist D’Arcy Thomson’s 80 year old view that ‘we have come to the edge of a world of which we have no experience and where all our preconceptions must be recast’ (1992) still seems apt.

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Dr Wendy Russell, lead editor of Gut Gardening and a Senior Research Fellow at the Rowett, acknowledges that research into the microbiome creates a new set of challenges to scientific method (isolation, refinement, replication). In short the basic tools of instrumentalism are not effective in explaining or predicting the functions of microbial ecology. New forms of research which can deal with complexity might involve technologies like the anaerobic machine, but also strands of maths which can assess the relative contributions of parts of systems that can’t effectively be separated. And beyond those, new ways of thinking about causation.

It is not that utility can’t be found. One of the contributions to Gut Gardening is the story of Lactobacillus rhamnosus. Following observations that l. rhamnosus proliferate in a healthy vagina, Gregor Reid’s team cultured the GR-1 strain of this, and found it was linked to defence against Urinary Tract Infections and other types of immunity. Preparation and trials in yoghurt and capsule forms and have been developed commercially (sidestepping the restrictions involved in creating conventional medical products) and as part of a development project producing probiotic yoghurt in Tanzania. The efficacy comes from accepting the rough pragmatic tools of correlation and amelioration, without the poesis of understanding the nature of the thing and the process.

However there is another form of usefulness in new knowledge. The art work in Gut Gardening acknowledges this in background chaotic patterns of tangled and unfamiliar overlapping shapes with occasional highlighted (and even dayglo) squiggles. The publication gently lays down the challenge to its contributors to imagine and speculate.
One of the interesting speculations of the Center for PostNatural History is that the human gut flora, like our pets, will ‘reflect human desires and anxieties which influence them’. It’s a good trope, although so far most of us have been interested in the influences pulling the other way – that our bodies, lifestyles and consciousness are subtly directed by the growth and byproducts of our microbial partners/symbionts, through biofeedback loops between the flora, hormones, organ development and appetites.

Post natural and post human are spirallingly anthropocene ways of thinking about the world. For those of us whose interest in cultures is not mainly probiotic this is the great re-envisaging potential of the microbiome.

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Jamie Lorimer’s jovial piece (2016), Gut Buddies about the related interest in re-infestation of humans with hookworms demonstrates the continual crossover between enthusiasts, scientists and entrepreneurs (sometimes the same figure in different guises) opening up an area of interaction with biota (or domestication if you will). What was once vermin is now a product or a pet. We should know that this happens – this replicates our human history. Are there new possibilities for envisaging being raised by the way we have to understand the microbiome..? Moulders and shapers need to understand things as material – as something with predictable usefulness. But time and again with the microbiome, there are ways in which our methodologies fails us. We retreat to scratch our head. The ways we come to understand the microbiome will have to challenge scientific paradigms too.

In a way which is less dystopian than the control metaphors of the yellow science press we are indeed being subtly influenced by our microbes.


References

Lorimer, Jamie (2016) Gut Buddies – Multispecies Studies and the Microbiome, Environmental Humanities, 8.1

Yong, Ed ( 2016) I Contain Multitudes – The Microbes Within us and a Grander view of Life.  New York: Ecco Press.

Wentworth-Thompson, D’Arcy (1992) – On Growth and Form ( abridged ed). CUP.

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