Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Samantha Clark on Brett Bloom’s Petro-Subjectivity

October 9, 2015

Samantha Clark, artist and currently Phd student of creative writing, attended Camp Breakdown Break Down this summer at SSW and has responded to Brett Bloom’s book ‘Petro-Subjectivity: De-Industrializing Our Sense of Self’ in the following text.  Drawing on variously Ursula Le Guin, mysticism and Deep Ecology, Henry David Thoreau and Murray Bookchin, Clark’s riff on the complexity of our essential 21st century petro-subjectivity meditates on the difficulties of ‘extracting’ ourselves.


Brett Bloom is an artist, activist, writer and publisher who works mainly in collaborative groups, and has recently returned to the US after several years based in Denmark. This summer, Bloom organized a series of workshops, events and training sessions in London and at the Scottish Sculpture Workshop in rural Aberdeenshire. These were part of an extended project ‘Breakdown Break Down’ that seeks to mobilize others to collectively consider a series of open questions around our relationship to fossil fuels: how our all-pervasive use of fossil fuels affects the way we see ourselves and experience the world around us, how deeply petroleum penetrates our bodies, minds and ways of being in the world, how we might begin to de-industralise our individual and collective sense of self, and how we might begin to think about the future in terms other than those that oil has forced upon us.

In his essay-length publication brought out to coincide with these events, ‘Petro-Subjectivity: De-industrializing Our Sense of Self’ (2015), Bloom sets out his terms of reference for these questions, motivated by ‘a growing frustration with the ways in which humans respond – or mainly do not respond – to climate breakdown’ (Bloom, 2015: 16).  His use of the term ‘climate breakdown’ as opposed to the more neutral ‘climate change’ is deliberate and pointed. Bloom defines ‘petro-subjectivity’ as the sense of self that arises in the industrialized world, and asks how we might begin to unravel it. He challenges us to come up with any aspect of our life that is not shaped by oil. ‘Oil’, he points out, is ‘in your food, your housing, your health care, your sex, your thoughts, literally everything’ (18). Emphasizing the pervasiveness and power of oil in every aspect of life in the industrialized world, he goes on: ‘The conditions oil (fossil fuel) creates, through massive accretions of habit and influence from great to small, repeatedly over the course of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, generations, in all of us gives immense force to our collective subjectivity’(18). ‘Oil produces our daily lives, our daily selves, our daily communities and everything else in a primary way’ (19). Shaping us from birth to death, ‘it becomes more natural, more normal to us than the things we really need – that is a healthy, functioning global ecosystem – that we destroy to get it’ (20). This begs the question of exactly whose ecosystems get destroyed by whom and for whose direct or indirect benefit. Those of us who campaign against fracking in the UK may well be happily filling our car’s fuel tanks with oil from the Niger delta laced with ethanol biofuel derived from eucalyptus plantations in the Amazon basin. Oil is sticky, stains all it touches, and is hard to wash off our own hands. Fracking, at least, brings the destructiveness and violence of fossil fuel extraction right home onto (some of) our own doorsteps, and shows us all too starkly the power inequalities at work. It’s an ugly lesson that we in the UK are only just starting to learn.

Renewable electricity generation does not escape Bloom’s taxonomy of oil dependency either, as it remains dependent on oil-based infrastructure, resource extraction and the exploitation of people and land. Whether powered by wind, tide or water, every turbine needs a magnet to generate electricity. These ‘rare earth’ magnets are mined and refined at great environmental cost, mainly in poor, rural China. The minerals themselves are not in fact ‘rare’, but relatively common in the earth’s crust. What is ‘rare’ is the lax environmental and employment legislation that permits such hugely toxic and destructive processes to take place in lands far removed from the countries that are pushing to develop renewable technologies. Bloom argues that turbines and solar panels are just as extractive as fossil fuels. They continue to shift the burden of pollution away from the point of energy use, and, by making us feel like we are doing something, merely compound the problem.

Petro-subjectivity, Bloom writes, is so fundamental to our way of being in the world, so omnipresent, so totalizing that we scarcely recognize it. Bloom is keenly alert to the hidden violence that oil-based society is based on: ‘How to convey the oily sheen everything has, my comfort, my sense of well-being is so deeply dependent on oil that it gives me a tremendous amount of anxiety’ (35). It is as intimate as his own clothes that ‘cloak me in oil and exploitative labour relationships’ (35). Bloom highlights the uselessness of individualistic responses to climate breakdown: ‘You may think you are an individual with the attributes of freedom, free will and a host of other nice conceptions, but this is incorrect and fantasies that distract from closer attention to how your very understanding of everything is prefigured for you. You are an individual, but your life depends on taking the resources of another landscape and using those things in the one where you live…there seems no way not to exist in it without an enormous effort to take it apart’ (46-47). As Derrick Jensen has also argued, placing the responsibility for dealing with climate change onto individual consumer choices distracts our attention from the real culprits – the power elites, global corporations, the military-industrial complex (Jensen, 2006). Kept busy rinsing out yoghurt pots and feeling mildly sanctimonious about our cloth shopping bags, we are encouraged to forget we are not just individualized consumers choosing how to spend our money, we are also citizens capable of collective action that might wield real power. ‘The changes’ argues Bloom, ‘cannot come from individuals and consumers, but must be collectively realized’ (70).

The mismatch between the urgency and scale of the challenge climate breakdown presents and the urgency and scale of the actions we are encouraged to take to meet it reveals something about the peculiar psychology of our collective response to climate change. A pervasive sense of powerlessness and dependency on the very systems that threaten us results in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, entangling us in a psychological attachment to the status quo even as it threatens us. Bloom has developed a powerful visual map of oil relationships, (Bloom, 2015: 26-27 and below) and teases these out further in his essay. But, as he himself notes with frustration, more information just doesn’t seem to help.

Sometimes the clear light of facts travels in too straight a line, and to help us think our way around corners and into dark spaces, we need another approach. Wearing the mask of fiction uncomfortable truths can be spoken that we would otherwise not hear. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic short story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’ (2013: 1-7), the gilded city of Omelas offers its citizens a smooth, untroubled life, filled with every comfort, pleasure, joy and gratification. But upon reaching adolescence each citizen learns a terrible fact, a sudden loss of innocence; that all of their prosperity, peace and happiness depends upon the suffering of one miserably neglected child imprisoned in a windowless cell. In Le Guin’s fable, if this child is set free, or even shown the smallest kindness, the city will crumble and all of its people suffer terribly. And so the citizens, when they learn of this child, and even go briefly to see it, are perhaps troubled for a time, feeling angry and helpless. But eventually ‘their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it. Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendour of their lives. Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free’ (Le Guin, 2012: 6-7). But, every now and then, a citizen of Omelas will be shown the child-prisoner, or will recall its presence and fall silent for a few days, and they will then walk quietly, alone, away from Omelas, out into the unknown. No-one knows where they go. They do not come back.

When I first read this story it stayed with me a long time, a slow drip feed, wheedling at my conscience. It felt like Le Guin had seen right inside me into a place I didn’t really want to look. The story seemed to tell a deep and uncomfortable truth in the masked and sidelong way that great stories do. I wondered, as I read it, ‘what I would do?’ Later, I realised that I am myself, of course, a cossetted citizen of sleek and pleasurable Omelas, and that the locked-away child is all the distant places, people and other living things that bear the cost of my affluent lifestyle; my smartphone, my central heating, my clothes, my car. The question became not ‘what would I do?’ but ‘what do I do?’ I know the answer, and it is not a comfortable one. I mostly go on with my comfortable life, my path smoothed by oil, all the while carrying in me a terrible knowledge; I am dependent on a system that has violence and exploitation at its very heart. Signing online petitions does not change this, though it makes me feel better. I do not walk away from my Omelas. I tell myself it is because I am not free, and find some consolation in the refinement and sensitivity that my troubled conscience reveals about me. What Bloom’s thoughts on petro-subjectivity reveal, like Le Guin’s parable, is that the work that needs to be done is at a very deep level indeed.

Thus, the final part of Bloom’s essay explores the practice of ‘Deep Listening’, a contemplative method developed originally by composer Pauline Oliveros. Deep Listening cultivates a heightened awareness of our sonic environment, both external and internal, listening not just with the ears, but with the whole body. ‘The main problem’ Bloom suggests, ‘is how we relate to the world and the ways we see the world are not tuned to receive the damage, let alone the tremendous loss as we continue thinking the world through oil relationships’ (17). A practice of re-sensitisation is necessary. Bloom argues that our sensory world in urban spaces is limited, with ‘no unscripted, wild behaviour, encounters or other experiences allowed’ (70). ‘Paying attention to, and creating the conditions for our full range of perceptual capacities gives us a tremendous leap into what it will mean to expunge petro-subjectivity from our selves and our landscapes’ (71).

Bloom’s argument here is not an especially new one. It falls within a tradition of environmental thought that recognizes the environmental crisis derives from how we think of our self, and the relationship this self has to the natural world. Deep ecologists like Arne Naess, Joanna Macy and Bill Devall have long argued that a more ecologically sustainable way of being needs to be rooted in an expanded ‘ecological Self’, while eco-phenomenologists from David Abram to Ted Toadvine have also tried to tackle the question of how the human self is situated and enfolded within the natural environment as an embodied, experiencing being. Bloom’s project is therefore part of a growing trend in environmental thought that seeks to ground environmental action in a commitment to contemplative practice, a discipline of attention to the natural world, even as we are witnessing its degradation. It is not just a way of thinking about things, but a shift to our way of perceiving that must be consciously and painstakingly cultivated.
This shift can be brought about through a set of contemplative practices most commonly associated with spiritual traditions, but which are not exclusive to them. Purposeful, transformative contemplative practice that aims to breaks down the sense of self is most commonly associated with Buddhist meditation, but it is also proposed by the early Christian mystics. In ‘The Blue Sapphire of the Mind’, Douglas E. Christie suggests that this contemplative sensibility is no longer confined to spiritual traditions but is ‘emerging with increasing frequency in contemporary ecological literature which boasts a striking similarity to an attitude in many traditions of spiritual discourse’ (Christie, 2013: 62). Bloom’s project of deep listening is an example of how this sensibility is also emerging within contemporary art practice.

Christie draws upon the ancient Christian contemplative tradition to propose a ‘contemplative ecology’ in which a practice of cultivating careful attention to the natural world offers a way of recalibrating our senses to a renewed sensitivity to the world and our humble place within it. In particular he draws upon the apophatic theological tradition of the via negativa which asserts that the Divine is essentially and unknowably beyond human concepts or attributes. In this tradition of ‘negative theology’, early Christian mystics such as the unknown author of ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ (Wolters, 1961) focused on achieving direct experience of the divine reality beyond the realm of ordinary human language and perception through contemplative practice. Christie suggests that practicing this ‘contemplative ecology’ can lead to a more mindful way of living that arises from a transformed awareness of our relationship with the natural world, a ‘direct intuitive awareness of its endless power and mystery: and the need for this to become enfolded within an ongoing practice’ (Christie, 2013: 59). It is an awareness that ‘what we know or experience will always be exceeded by the immensity beyond and within,’ and that we also possess both longing and capacity for cultivating a more all-encompassing awareness of the wild world (Christie, 2013:69). The response to this transformed awareness is one of humility. The inadequacy of our knowledge is a gap that cannot and should not be bridged. ‘Instead, this lack of certainty about who or what we behold begins to seem fruitful, important, necessary. We are invited to relinquish our assumption of knowledge’ says Christie, (2013: 62), and in so doing, to develop our capacity to manage our own fear and uncertainty without lapsing into defensiveness, aggression, dogmatic fundamentalisms or the urge to control.

The perceptual exercise that Bloom describes in detail involved deep listening, with a group of other participants, in an immersive natural environment of rain, wind and sea, to the entire Baltic Sea (Bloom, 2015: 75).

In his essay, Bloom does not, I think, spell out quite clearly enough how a contemplative practice of deep listening in nature connects with a commitment to activism and real change, not just at the individual level, but also collectively. Just how do we come back from the oceanic experience of immersion in nature, and become effective change agents in the societies we actually live in. It is here that I suggest Bloom’s profound distrust of cities, which he sees as ‘machines for stripping us of our desire to live, feel and be free’ (71) is an impediment to making this link clearly. Most human beings now live in cities, and in a context of climate breakdown, any redefined post-petro-subjectivity will have to be able to be a self that can be anywhere, not just in the solitude of wide, wild spaces immersed in the sound of the ocean, but also in difficult, perhaps crowded, urban places, in difficult relationships with sometimes difficult people, able to empathically connect with other human beings and to work with them. Cities are where our ancestors first learned to tolerate ‘strangers’, to live harmoniously with and among those who are not blood kin, who may have different beliefs, and to build a sense of commonality based not on tribal blood group or myths of common ancestry, but on mutual benefit and co-operation: in other words, to become citizens. The polis is, after all, the birthplace of the political.

Connecting the activity of the solitary, contemplative listener with that of social and political activism is not a new idea by any means, and there are examples we might draw upon to help us make the link. We might, for example, look to Henry David Thoreau. In ‘Thoreau’s Nature’ (2000) Jane Bennett argues that Thoreau’s project at Walden, and in his other writings and journals, speaks to the fears of our own time; that social life in techno-industrial societies is too regulated and exerts powerful pressures to uniformity, that privacy is under threat, the world overpopulated and the state intrusive and controlling, that the alternative space of nature has become polluted, threatened, even toxic, that our consumerist way of life breeds violence and injustice, and that the economic imperative has become overwhelmingly rapacious. These fears generate a reactive demand for certainties, fundamentalisms and patriotisms (Bennett, 2000: xxii). Thoreau’s aim in secluding himself at Walden pond, Bennett argues, was not escapist nature-worship but a project of ‘building an individualised self capable of social criticism’ (2000: 34). Bennett sees Thoreau’s project as an attempt to give the wild its due, ‘to respect that which resists or exceeds conventional cultural impositions of form, to preserve the element of heterogeneity present in any entity, to imagine institutions and identities that do less violence to heterogeneity, and to engage in exercises that help to actualise that imagination. The project, in short, is to develop ways to cope artfully, reflectively, and carefully in the world understood as neither divine creation nor docile matter’ (Bennett, 2000: xxiii). According to Bennett, Thoreau ‘was less concerned to articulate the conditions under which disobedience would be legitimate than he was to explore those conditions under which one could render oneself capable of disobedience. Civil disobedience was rare because nonconformity was rare. Both were scarce because the process of forging oneself into a deliberate creature was arduous and precarious, requiring continuous effort’ (Bennett, 2000: 13).

In his account of his sojourn at Walden, Thoreau describes specific practices of mindful, ‘deliberate’ living, which help him to achieve his aims. For Thoreau, slowing down, listening, and seeking periods of solitude in nature is a tactical move designed to create a space whereby he might extract himself from the normalising forces of the busy social sphere, and achieve the independence of mind necessary to challenge the status quo. When we are immersed in busy community life, ‘we are inclined’, unfortunately, ‘to leave the chief stress on the likeness and not on difference’ (Thoreau, 1980: 264)⁠ and to blindly accept received wisdom. In solitude and silent reflection Thoreau finds an ‘intelligence above language’ (Thoreau, 1980: 273).

Like the windswept Baltic seashore where Bloom carried out his deep listening experiments, the world of Thoreau at Walden Pond bears little resemblance to the urban world most human beings at this time inhabit. Projects like these require a level of physical security, material comfort, and educational attainment that are the product of a highly favourable set of circumstances. What relevance do practices like these have to the vast predicament that is climate breakdown, and the challenge Bloom presents us with, of ‘de-industrialising’ our sense of self? Thoreau’s project was to ‘front’ the Wild, and to place himself at a physical and psychological distance from the ‘They-world’ of social, political and economic life, so that he might live more consciously. His aim was not so much to escape from the world of the town and political life as to be better able to dissent from it upon returning. His example suggests some methods that we might use to break the cycle of ‘self-othering’ that occurs when we acclimatise ourselves to living in the industrialised world and yet feel a lingering unease that something is wrong, that we have become alienated from some important part of ourselves and of the wild world. Thoreau’s tools of stillness, silence, inwardness and attentiveness to the living world may be most easily cultivated in a place of seclusion in nature, but they can be practiced anywhere. Once we deliberately cultivate this awareness, it can, as Christie proposes, ‘be achieved anywhere and by anyone committed to the work of listening’ (Christie, 2013: 121). ‘It is in this sense’ argues Christie, ‘that one can see that the primary value to us of Thoreau’s contemplative witness to be found less in his particular form of life…than in the quality of awareness he assiduously cultivated over his entire lifetime’ and this quality of awareness is adaptable to our very different world. How do we develop this capacity, this sensitivity? Regular practice. ‘Thoreau recognised that cultivating the capacity to hear the music of the world must become part of a sustained practice, that one must learn to orient oneself and become sensitive to the myriad ways the world is always expressing itself” (Christie, 2013:214).

Bloom describes his group’s experience of deep listening to the Baltic as hearing the sea ‘talking to us’. One of the participants describes a vivid sense of being exposed to immense forces, a feeling of unprotectedness that seemed to key to an understanding of the reality of climate breakdown, a situation in which ‘we are no longer sheltered’ (87). But the message from the Baltic can’t stay there on the sea shore. It needs to come back into the urban. It is not anthropocentric to acknowledge that any redefined post-petro-subjective self must recognise that we exist within a web of interdependencies of which other human beings form a significant part. In a recently published collection of late essays, ‘The Next Revolution’ (2015), Murray Bookchin outlines a case for direct democracy in the form of a libertarian, municipal ‘Communitarianism’. In Bookchin’s model an active and engaged citizenry becomes an effective agent of change. As a political thinker who moved away from the anarchism of his earlier work, here he plots a careful route between individualistic libertarianism on the political right and an equally individualistic, radical anarcho-primitivism on the left. Seeking a political structure that might provide long-haul stamina to energies currently poured into short term phenomena like the Occupy movement, Bookchin puts forward the case for the city’s progressive potential, not as the power-capital of a centralist state, but the city as municipality, town or ‘commune’. Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells also recognises the progressive potential of urban space. He notes a common pattern among current social and political movements in that they comfortably straddle both cyberspace and urban space (2013). Born online, these embryonic social and protest movements empower and raise awareness at grassroots level, moving rhizomatically in cyberspace to then erupt periodically into urban spaces, where they create real social networks in physical places. The hybrid social space that Castells identifies here breaks down stark binaries between ‘place’ on the one hand and cyberspace on the other. In these developments we see an erosion of dualistic binaries such as nature good/internet bad, ‘place’ good/cyberspace bad, forest good/city bad.

Cities are a recent phenomenon in human evolutionary terms but they present in great abundance one aspect of our environment that we have long co-evolved with; other human beings. As contemplative traditions have long known, retreating to solitude in nature enables the cultivation and refinement of awareness and presence, but the real challenge is to bring this cultivated skill of deep listening to environments that usually encourage a sense of alienation, even fear. Can we stay open and ‘unsheltered’ even when we’d rather not? Or do we retreat into anger, aversion, fear, or numb indifference? This is the real test. To realise the progressive potential that Bookchin sees in the city, the work of cultivating non-exploitative and non-extractive relationships towards other human beings, as well as towards animals and places, is work of the most important kind, if we are to move from individualised responses to collective action on climate breakdown, and harness the insights of contemplation to the work of social change.




Maughan, Tim (April 2nd 2015) ‘The Dystopian Lake Filled by the World’s Tech Lust’ BBC Future. Available online: [Accessed 28/8/15]


Thoreau, Henry David (1995) Walden; or, Life in the Woods, New York: Dover Publications


Bennett, Jane (2000) Thoreau’s Nature, Politics, Ethics and the Wild. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press

Bookchin, Murray (2015) Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy, London: Verso

Castells, Manuel (25 Mar 2013) ‘How modern political movements straddle urban space and cyberspace’ Available online: [Accessed 7 Sep 2015)

Christie, Douglas E. (2013) The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Jensen, Derrick (2006) Endgame: The Problem of Civilization, New York: Seven Stories Press

Le Guin, Ursula K. (2012) The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin Vol 2 Outer Space, Inner Lands Easthampton Mass. : Small Beer Press

Maughan, Tim (April 2nd 2015) ‘The Dystopian Lake Filled by the World’s Tech Lust’ BBC Future. Available online: [Accessed 28/8/15]

Thoreau, Henry David (1980) The Writings of Henry David Thoreau: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Carol, F. Hove and Textual Centre Staff: William H Howarth and Elizabeth Witherell (eds) Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press

Thoreau, Henry David (1995) Walden; or, Life in the Woods, New York: Dover Publications

Wolters, Clifton [Trans] (1961) The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works, Middlesex: Penguin Classics

Wallace Heim: ‘Art & Ecology Now’ review

July 8, 2015

ecoartscotland has just published a pair of blogs by Dr. Wallace Heim reviewing two important publications on art-science collaborations focused on the environment.  Wallace very kindly also looked at Thames and Hudson’s new book Art & Ecology Now.  Below is her response.


There’s a confusion in form in Andrew Brown’s Art & Ecology Now, one that reflects on the book’s perspective on its subject matter. It is a printed book. It needs methods of navigation through the pages that provide the reader, without the benefit of internet links, to move around its layers. In other words, a sufficient table of contents. Art & Ecology Now is a compilation of the works of dozens of artists, but the artists are not listed in the table of contents. There is an alphabetised list with some websites and an index at the end, but you can’t click a link in a book. Knowing whose work Brown thought worth representing requires a hit and miss ruffling through pages. This may seem a small point, but the communicative effect is of obfuscation.

So, with respect to the artists whose work is included, here they are under their section headings:


Benoit Aquin; Yao Lu; Nadav Kander; Daniel Beltrá; Bright Ugochukwu Eke; HeHe; Ravi Agarwal; Edgar Martins; Marjolijn Dijkman; Katie Holten; Suky Best; Andrej Zdravič; Erika Blumenfeld; Rúri; Haubitz+Zoche; Tea Mäkipää; David Maisel; Susannah Sayler & Edward Morris; Rigo 23; Mitch Epstein; Joel Sternfeld


Chris Drury; David Buckland; Katie Paterson; Susan Derges; Buster Simpson; Klaus Weber; Tim Knowles; Luke Jerram; Rivane Neuenschwander; Wilhelm Scheruebl; Henrik Håkansson; Sabrina Raaf; Chiara Lecca; Liu Bolin; Berndnaut Smilde


Heather Ackroyd & Dan Harvey; Brian Collier; Alexandra Regan Toland; Alison Turnbull; Mark Fairnington; Brandon Ballengée; Janine Randerson; Lise Autogena & Joshua Portway; Layla Curtis; Baily, Corby & Mackenzie; United Visual Artists; Lucy & Jorge Orta; Maria Thereza Alves


Naoya Hatakeyama; Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla; Andrea Polli; Chris Jordan; Alejandro Durán; Heather & Ivan Morison; Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo; Svetlana Ostapovici; Eva Jospin; Simon Draper; Lara Almárcegui; Matt Costello


Futurefarmers; N55; Simparch; Simon Starling; Nils Norman; Natalie Jeremijenko; Nicole Dextras; Paula Hayes; Vaughn Bell; Tattfoo Tan; Neighbourhood Satellites; Preemptive Media; Superflex


Basia Irland; The Canary Project; Eve Mosher; Mary Ellen Carroll; Amy Balkin; Dirk Fleischmann; Free Soil; Lauren Berkowitz; Artist as Family; Fritz Haeg; Gustav Metzger; Tue Greenfort.

And here are the ecological artists named in the introductory text:

Mel Chin; Agnes Denes; Olafur Eliasson; Andy Goldsworthy; Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison; Michael Heizer; Nancy Holt; Lynn Hull; Patricia Johanson; Richard Long; Walter De Maria; Kathryn Miller; Dennis Oppenheim; Giuseppe Penone; Robert Smithson; Alan Sonfist; James TurrellMierle Laderman Ukeles; Garcia Uriburu; herman de vries.

This list represents the better part of the book, each artist providing a starting point for a reader. Should a reader also be unfamiliar with art history and ecological thought, though, the introductory text provides a bare, formulaic account of both. There is no movement of ideas in the book. There is the mention of, for example, how works may be challenging conventional ideas of beauty, or the dilemmas posed by photography in situations of conflict and suffering, but these are presented anecdotally. The accounts of ecological thought are generalised around activism, representation, values and participation, and are given sparse treatment. The text that accompanies many of the artists’ pages reads as though poorly edited versions of text or publicity material that may have been supplied by artists. Critical commentary is, most often, absent.

The book may be intended for a ‘new’ and ‘now’ audience, or as informed entertainment. If it does entice some readers to learn more, people from a general arts or public readership, it has fulfilled a purpose. But new readers and artists are vital to the continual generation of art and ecology. They are too important to be presented with poor research. An unintended consequence of the book is the challenge it sets for those, including myself, writing about art and ecology but only within academia or the confines of the field, to write outside those boundaries in whatever form is necessary.

Art & Ecology Now by Andrew Brown. Published by Thames and Hudson. ISBN: 978-0-500-23916-2

Dr. Wallace Heim writes and researches on performance and ecology, and she does this in many places. Her academic slant is philosophical, but she works across disciplines to analyse the experience of performance, of art and of social practice arts, to consider how these events shape ecological and social understanding.

She recently published Landing Stages. Selections from the Ashden Directory 2000 – 2014, an ebook marking the archiving of the Ashden Directory and Ashdenizen, websites focused on ecology, climate and culture which she co-edited. Landing Stages can be downloaded from

Her current writing is on conflict; on sense and extinction; and on how a place can learn.

She has published in Performance Research and in Readings in Performance and Ecology. She is on the Advisory Board of the upcoming publication series Performing Landscapes. She co-edited Nature Performed, and co-curated the conference/event BETWEEN NATURE. She taught on the ‘Art & Ecology’ MA at Dartington College of Arts. She has also worked as a set designer.

Wallace Heim: documenting art science collaborations focused on environments Pt.2

June 24, 2015

The second of Wallace Heim’s reviews of recent publications on art-science collaborations focuses on Field_Notes from the Finnish Bioart Society.

Going someplace unfamiliar for an adventure, and doing this with a group of strangers, is an ancient exercise to stimulate human learning and imagination. This suspension of the everyday for the inspiration of the new is the backbone of several art and science residency projects.

For the bi-annual Field_Notes events, the unfamiliar place is the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station, a science institution for monitoring ecological and climatic processes in Lapland / northern Finland. The territory is one of lichens, reindeer, fjords, tourists, seasonal workers, lemmings, crowberry juice outlets, chainsaw art, gift shops, mountain birch, Arctic scrub, the Olkiluoto nuclear plant, northern lights, granite, the Talvivaara mine, Arctic charr, stone age habitations, trailer parks and swarms of government and civilian drones.


For the first of these, ‘Field_Notes_Cultivating Ground’, in 2011, the group included foragers, hackers and techno-, data- and bio-manipulating artists who spent a week together doing and reflecting on field work and experimentation in ‘bioart’. Around 30 people divided into five working groups: Arctic Waters, looking at freshwater ecosystems; Biological Milieu, investigating the biological matrices of cell structure and tissue growth; Body Nature, looking at communication and the human body as sensor; Environmental Computing, exploring how computational data from the field can contribute to sensory and political engagement; and Second Order, a group studying, as if anthropologists, the workings of the other groups.

[Field Notes] From Landscape to Laboratory is the publication that followed, and has three sections, inter-leaving those groups. The first, Rooting the Practice, provides philosophical and artistic overviews of ‘art&science’; Section 2: Probing the Terrain is accounts from artists of their research; and the third, Impressions from the Field, are four lively personal responses, glimpses into the counter-currents of the week, the passing moments of the adventure that the reader has missed.

The book offers facets of inquiry into the practice of bioart. A Venn diagram of art in the carbon realm (as opposed to the silicon realm) has bioart as the larger category, as art that is alive or that has living components, including ecological and land arts, within which the sub-category of biotech art sits: art that involves biotechnology, genetic and non-genetic manipulations of organisms, tissue culture interventions.

The creation of knowledge through field work and technology are over-arching themes. The opening essay by Tarja Knuuttila and Hanna Johansson sets the ground with reference to an early essay by Bruno Latour, ‘The Pédofil of Boa Vista: A Photo-Philosophical Montage’ in association with the artwork ‘Homage to Werner Homberg’ by Lauri Anttila. Latour used the idea of inscription to explain the chain of representations between the object in the field and the scientific paper. An inscription is a sign, symbol, picture, diagram, co-ordinate grid; an inscription device is any instrument that can transform material substances into signs or numbers. The chain of inscriptions from sample to sign mould the object into something more susceptible to being known by science. The end diagram is more abstract; elements have been lost in its coding. But it is also more concrete; it is detached from its context, but it can travel and circulate.

The contemporary artist Lauri Anttila retraced the treks by the Finnish landscape painter Werner Homberg (1830-1860) to see how one could experience those landscapes today, including how they are known through scientific documentation and measurement. Homberg painted from fragments of sketches, objects, plant drawings to assemble a landscape that appeared coherent. Anttila displays fragments from the field, objects and photo documentation and reworks them into depictions of the ‘reality’ of Homberg’s paintings, and into a construction of changing representations of the land that is itself constantly changing.

This drawing together of art, philosophy and experience with questions of representation, scientific process and technological developments runs throughout most essays. Questions concerning fieldwork – artistic and scientific – of location, data and cultural meaning are argued from theory, experience and by association with artworks. This gives the reader some traction in understanding how this residency worked, what practices were experimented with and what ideas discussed. The collection is of diverse fragments, but is several steps along an inscription chain from a simple reporting back of what happened.

Each chapter could be the subject of a review in itself, triggering questions over the artist’s practices, the politics and ethics of the work undertaken, its ecological import. What follows are selected summaries.

In the introductory chapters, Laura Beloff sets out the centrality of ‘experience’, as presented by the philosopher John Dewey, and the ‘practical aesthetics’ of Jill Bennett as central to artistic and scientific processes. Maria Huhmarniemi outlines conflicts in conservation plans in Finland between the building of a hydro-electric plant and the habitat of the nocturnal Capricorniae butterfly, and speculates whether art can be used as a means of argumentation in such situations. Paz Tornero provides a summary of art-science collaborations as being matters concerning beauty and truth, quoting Siân Ede, Kant, Arthur Danto, David Bohm. These chapters are useful in providing an artistic and theoretical basis, but it is the following chapters by participants that provide the substance of the book.

Oron Catts, whose practice involves the use of tissue technologies as media for artistic expression, went to Kilpisjärvi to further his research into the roles of inanimate cellular substrates, structures or matrices in biological processes. The matrix and the milieu of cellular development may be as important in cell differentiation and development as DNA. Anticipating an arid, barren environment, Catts was looking for biological material to be used in the technique of decellularisation, a process by which cells are removed from tissue, leaving only the extracellular, inanimate matrix, onto which Catts can apply new cellular material.

In a candid essay, he finds that the diversity and abundant biological life of the Arctic location overwhelmed him, diverted his attention. In that distracted state, he found the site of a crashed WW2 German Junkers 88, and in the charred remains, a piece of Perspex from the cockpit. He weaves a story around the history of that plastic as an inert material that living tissue can accommodate, taking in the work of surgeon and eugenicist Alexis Carel, the aviator Charles Lindbergh, experimentation with rabbits’ corneas and contact lenses, and the birth of biomaterial sciences attributed to the British eye surgeon Sir Harold Ridley. Catts questions whether he has become so separated from the soil that he can relate only to a small piece of plastic – before he returns to his project to grow amphibian cells over an array of substrates as an exploration of the materiality of life at that scale, in that context.

An unintentional armature for microbial life was Niki Passath’s robot, a seeming four-legged device with a head and neck made of jointed, white strips of material (see book cover). The robot as tourist accompanied Passath on field walks and experiments, enjoying the mosses and lichens. On their return to Austria, Passath noticed vegetal growth on the robot, and set up conditions to support it. His question, as the growth proceeds, is when will it overcome the robotic material, when will the symbiont become only living matter. What Passath misses is that the mosses and lichens have become feral.

Questions over methods for collecting data are strong preoccupations throughout the essays. Artist Andrew Gryf Paterson used the crowberries/cloudberries, a fruit indigenous to the area, as a ‘boundary object’, one that positions different viewpoints into a network of inter-relations. Through tracing the names and classifications of the fruit across different languages, foraging for the berries on the nearby fell, visiting a local family business processing berry juice, determining the berry’s nutritional value, and setting a meal of foraged food, including a crowberry parfait (recipe included in book), Paterson provided an experiential variation to the other artists working in the environmental computing group.

The influences of Beatriz da Costa and tactical media art, of DIY culture and citizen science is prevalent in several essays. For da Costa, who attended the residency, artists are activist intellectuals, placing themselves between the academic world and the public, countering the force of global capital to control the production of knowledge. Further, a DIY, hacker culture is one that can maintain ‘good practice’ in relation to technological power. Annti Tenetz, working in media- bio- and urban arts, argues that the artist must fearlessly adopt any technology as an instrument for expression, to act outside the protocols of science for field research in order to create new forms of information. These include recording images from drone civilian aircraft, and creating and editing image fields as representations of experience, not merely cartography.

Jennifer Gabrys, a sociologist, considers how the ongoing, continuous monitoring and the sensing technologies directed on the environment can re-define environmental citizenship. With access to monitoring data, and in the distributed networks of citizens generating data through a multitude of devices, citizens have access to information that may change their behaviours – such as knowing when a sewerage system can cope with a toilet flush. Indigenous peoples can monitor the effects of energy extraction. These new practices of citizenship, and multiple modes of ‘sensing’ gives rise to considerations of whether the more-than-human is not merely the object source of data, but, too, an expressive subject, a citizen. Her philosophical ground is A.N. Whitehead who finds the subject as being always in formation. Citizens are not defined according to rights, then, but according to relationships. A subject emerges through environmental practices that are constitutive of citizenship, and that includes the more-than-human.

A different take on data is given in ‘On Collecting Anecdata’ by artist Julie Freeman. ‘Anecdata’ is data that is not precisely measureable; has no reliable provenance; is not comparable; cannot be unproven by the traditional scientific method; but as information drawn from direct experience, can be valid empirical data. Unlike computational data, most of which contains errors that are ironed out with algorithms producing averages, there is no ‘average’ with information based on human interpretation, memory and reflection. Freeman asked each member of the Arctic Waters group to list the items they collected on their field trips, the biological data, the technological data and the emotional data. Using a data visualisation technique, she wrote the textual responses on coloured backgrounds and placed them on a page, then submitted them to five layers of degradation, removing information until what remained is a final abstraction of coloured shapes, indicative and interpretive of the process, but without the anecdata itself. Latour’s concrete abstraction.

Freeman’s larger questions are over how the technologies for documenting halt, interrupt or change the moment of experience. Technological documentation is instant; it’s logged; the researcher moves on. The exploration of a place through devices may prescribe what is experienced. But, for Freeman, experiencing the landscape of reindeer and waters, the technology led her to collect un-prescribed actions, serendipitous, extra-curricular data in a process critically reflexive of the expectations of the working groups.

The extra-curricular is delightfully represented by artist Rosanne van Klaveren and her lemming-related moments in ‘The Importance of Fieldwork for Border Crossing Frames of Mind. Probing for Fine Madness’. The intense, deep focus and separation from everyday life that happens in field work can render the artist/scientist eccentric. Van Klaveren was at Kilpisjärvi for a month prior to the other participants, working in isolation, becoming intensely connected with ‘the field’. The human socialisation needed when the others arrived was overwhelming. On a first walk, and wanting to be connected with both the human group and the ever-present lemmings, van Klaveren found herself leaping out over rocks to catch a lemming, in a moment outside normal rationality. On another hike, she found a dead lemming, and declining the human social milieu for an evening, took the animal home, to feel closer to it, to examine, to dissect, and possibly, to eat it.

For the reader, van Klaveren’s account peels back the formality of the other essays, acknowledging the social pressures that accompany these events and providing an animated, sensual feel to that field-place. More, she opens the door to the unexplained, the improvisatory, the moments of flow and ‘fine madness’ that inspire across arts and sciences. How does one connect with the living ‘field’; how closely should one engage with the subject of study; how does one get beyond the limits of what one thinks to be true; how does one experiment passionately.

A fellow writer in the rogue ‘Impressions’ section, Corrie van Sice, in ‘substrate n.’ ruminates on contact lenses; American air conditioners and the immune system; a meal of smoked fish, Manchego cheese and reindeer; and the smell of cardamom oil that lingers in his suitcase all the way home. With Beatriz da Costa, he talks about death, the electrical impulses of the heart, the matrix of human skin. And how much of what the artist and scientist are fabricating in the laboratory, as seeming alchemists of life at a cellular level, would not survive in the ‘chaos’ of organisms in the field.

In the book as a whole, it often seems as if what was a familiar language suddenly becomes unfamiliar, slightly shifted. This may be the effect of translations, but more likely, the more productive effect of ideas around ecological art and bioart being configured slightly differently to expectations.

In each chapter of the book, gripping ethical issues are raised and too often let drift, as with van Sice’s underlying acceptance of artists as bio-alchemists and its justification on the grounds of being ineffective. Other questions linger over the assumption that artists need not, maybe should not, follow the etiquette or protocols of institutional science, a position that can be critiqued when the processes undertaken could cause public and ecological harm. Too, most authors do not engage with the political questions over the means of production of the technology with which they are working, and how this may bind them into a neo-liberal economic structure. The philosophical references are drawn mostly from pragmatism and early environmental ethics. A more robust dialogue with a wider body of theory, including continental philosophies, would be fascinating. More contributions from scientists, with their views on research technologies, would balance the publication.

But that is not what the book sets out to do. Its ‘place’ in the ‘field’ is as a new kind of documentation, somewhere between the polished proceedings of a conference and a straight report back on what happened. The week was a time of experimentation, discussion, field visits, random exchanges, soaking in and taking away. The ephemerality and the liveliness of that is tacitly represented; the sense of a crafted, productive event comes through. The essays are reflexive, analytical and descriptive without the formality of an academic paper. There is a generosity to the collection, not merely a recording of data, that informs and entices.

[Field_Notes] From Landscape to Laboratory, edited by Laura Beloff, Erich Berger, Terike Haapoja and you can order it on line here.

ISBN 978-952-93-2313-5

The next project, Field_Notes-HYBRID MATTERs is underway, a two-year programme with a residency at the Kilpisjärvi Field Station in September 2015.

Essays not mentioned above:

‘Microbes and a Symbolic Journey’:

Antero Kare describes several exhibitions of his bioart with microbes and chemicals and relates his work to Kandinsky’s ethnographic studies of Finland and the ancient national epic Kalevala.

‘Learning from Locality. A Critical Consideration of the Uncontrolled’:

Melissa Anna Murphy sets out ideas on place/locality and the importance of attention, identity, ‘stewardship’ and the unexpected in experience of the local.

‘Science and Art: Harmony and Dissonance’:

Antero Järvinen is the director of the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station. He argues against climate modelling as inaccurate, and as feeding overly dramatic responses to future climate change, in favour of empirical field work as representational of veracity and an indication that climate change will incur the effects predicted. He gives two examples in which a change in habitat and species’ behaviour is not indicative of climate change, although his examples only range to the influence of immediate co-habiting species, and not environmental dependencies more widely.

‘Probing Sound: Capturing Natural Data’:

Artists Dave Lawrence and Melissa Grant recount their workshops showing how the collection, recording and listening to sound, and the sensing involved, including a sense of humour, contribute to field studies data.

‘n Degrees’:

Marta de Menezes and Luis Graca consider temperature; latitude and longitude; the angle of diatom; and academic degrees as variations on a term that was omnipresent in discussions.

Dr. Wallace Heim writes and researches on performance and ecology, and she does this in many places. Her academic slant is philosophical, but she works across disciplines to analyse the experience of performance, of art and of social practice arts, to consider how these events shape ecological and social understanding.

She recently published Landing Stages. Selections from the Ashden Directory 2000 – 2014, an ebook marking the archiving of the Ashden Directory and Ashdenizen, websites focused on ecology, climate and culture which she co-edited. Landing Stages can be downloaded from

Her current writing is on conflict; on sense and extinction; and on how a place can learn.

She has published in Performance Research and in Readings in Performance and Ecology. She is on the Advisory Board of the upcoming publication series Performing Landscapes. She co-edited Nature Performed, and co-curated the conference/event BETWEEN NATURE. She taught on the ‘Art & Ecology’ MA at Dartington College of Arts. She has also worked as a set designer.

Wallace Heim: documenting art science collaborations focused on environments Pt.1

June 23, 2015

Wallace Heim, editor of the Ashden Directory and Ashdenizen Blog for 20 years, has reviewed two books, documenting art science collaborations focused on environments.  Imagining Natural Scotland is the publication associated with a programme for the Year of Natural Scotland.  Creative Scotland working with Scottish Natural Heritage and other partners put out a call for collaborations.  They were looking for new and existing partnerships to put forward projects that focused on the way we understand natural Scotland.  The publication highlights the fifteen projects.  In a second post tomorrow, Wallace will review Field_Notes, from Landscape to Laboratory.


Putting together an artist and someone with a specialism in another field or discipline, usually the sciences, has become so prevalent as a mode of research and art-making, it has become a genre, or a practice in itself – whether it takes place on a boat in the northern seas, in a castle, on a farm, in a village hall, along a city river, in a laboratory. The expectations for original insights and a melding of knowledge and praxis from these collaborations continue to be high, along with the more pragmatic acceptance that these associations are a way of generating work, securing funding and establishing credibility.

There’s a mysterious core to these collaborations, those possible moments of generosity and receipt that exceed the mere representation of knowledge in novel forms, or the exchange of information that each can take back to their own disciplinary territory. For the outsider, those moments are never known except as they are described in the documentation that follows, or are evidenced, most often, in the artist’s work. It’s like hearing about a party you missed.

Two compilations have been published recently documenting collaborations that relate to ecological arts practices: Imagining Natural Scotland (reviewed below), investigating the natural-cultural place of Scotland, and [Field Notes]. From Landscape to Laboratory (reviewed in the next post), a report from the Field_Notes – Cultivating Ground collaborative laboratory in 2011, hosted by the Finnish Society of Bioart.

How are these books to be read? How are despatches back from a collaboration to be read? Some offer philosophical perspectives from aesthetics or environmental ethics; others offer justifications according to funding criteria; others how the project has addressed ecological and artistic needs. All of these read as kinds of meta-narratives.

But it’s the descriptive reports of the empirical work that make these collections valuable reading, even if the accounts may be partial, or not even always reliable. Most often, the focus is on the artist’s practice, with how the collaboration affected their working processes, how it contributed to the knowledge that they can use as sources and materials. They are informative of the kinds of art-making being done, the subject matters explored, the combinations that are being made.

Often, the commentary by specialists/scientists will offer leads for further questions, lines of connection with their disciplines. Many remark on a moment of freedom from disciplinary restraint, or of a new perspective on their research processes. But there’s little evidence of how this translates into the accredited work of a peer-reviewed paper in a similar way, for example, to the artist’s practice or a completed piece of work. The weight is with the arts.

Although the views from the participants are self-reflexive, they often do not undertake a critical perspective on the collaboration itself. One wants to know more about the flowing exchanges and the rankling frictions between divergent working processes. One wants to know more about the risks and negotiations made at personal, political, aesthetic and ecological levels. And, the voice that is most often absent is that of the public or communities who are often co-collaborators through artists’ social and dialogic practices.

Even so, these kinds of collections, including the two reviewed here, provide markers of the practices that are defining evolving fields of work and a sampling of the questions that artists ask. These reports offer a multitude of diverse ways-in to ecological art practices for those new to it, and enough detail for those familiar with the fields to mark the shifts in practices that are happening.

Imagining Natural Scotland

Imagining Natural Scotland is a record of the fifteen collaborative projects with artists, scientists, social scientists and environmental historians supported by Creative Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and others as part of the Year of Natural Scotland in 2013. Creative Scotland’s brief to the projects was to explore the relationship between Scotland’s ‘natural’ world and its representation in arts and in popular culture, to explore the differences between the ‘real’ Scottish ‘nature’ and its cultural representations. Further, to ask how could the arts and popular culture influence society, public attitudes, policy and environmental management.

Each partner reflects on their project in relation to the brief. The projects are diverse with overlaps in their artistic methods and in their attention to the land, to river and marine environments, to woodlands and animals. Some directly involve public communities, others work with invited groups or publics. What emerges from the whole are the big themes of the human in the landscape, what is ‘nature’ and ‘natural’. Too, the book confirms a vitality specific to Scotland in how artists are grappling with the ‘place’ of the country, as natural-cultural, as natural-political. There’s a sense of artists and their partners working within the historical conflicts and legacies of land use and aesthetic representations, while newly creating what Scottish nature and culture are and will be.

Following are summaries of the projects, favouring the artistic practices.

Two different collaborations explore the relation of land use policies and management to the landscape and perceptions of place. In A New Environmental Impact Assessment for Natural Scotland – Environment, Imagination and Aesthetics, the artists Robbie Coleman and Jo Hodges, with sociologist Claire Haggett suggest that beauty, naturalness and the impact of change on a community are the missing – and necessary – tools for assessing the impact of large-scale developments. Their co-collaborators were a community in South West Scotland near both an existing and proposed wind farm. They undertook diverse processes, such as mapping journeys, views and memories; devising fictional scenarios; representing a community narrative through a fictional film called ‘Settlement’ complete with film posters featuring individual families; and making a collaborative soundscape broadcast on ‘Settlement Radio’. All were derived from ‘meet-ups’ with the community. A copy of the ‘outputs’ from the project were printed in the style of an EIA, and buried by the community as a time capsule to provide archaeological information for planners in 900 years.

In Future Forest: Caledonian Black Wood, Aware Access, environmental artists Tim Collins and Reiko Goto and social scientist David Edwards considered what it means to make art with a forest, rather than about or in a forest, specifically, the Black Wood of Rannoch in Highland Perthshire. Their ideas for a critical forest art practice involve experimenting with the empathetic exchanges between people and trees in urban and rural settings; and considering the processes of art as an interface with a forest in rural settings, and how these correspond with images, ideas and artefacts in an urban setting. At Black Wood, Collins and Goto found centuries of historical, cultural and institutional conflicts over the meaning, value and use of the forest. Through a dialogic, imaginative and place-centred workshop process with the many institutional partners, they were able to re-align an approach to access and awareness of the forest, to begin a re-framing of ecosystems services to include cultural value. As ‘time’ is an essential element in understanding a forest and a public conversation, for the urban / gallery settings, the artists assembled a body of time-based media work, including video installations.

The contested or conflictual aspects of a place are embedded in its social history; in the inequalities of economics, class and power; and in the variations in perceptions of value, amenity and even of nature itself. Conflict is a thread running through several projects, if not explicitly represented.

Interviews with people connected with the Firth of Clyde showed their differing perspectives, from fishing, scientific, philosophical, ecological, conservationist, underwater and spiritual experiences. Artist Stephen Hurrel and social ecologist Ruth Brennan, in Clyde Reflections, created an immersive film and audio-visual installation of the interviews. Hurrel devised a meditative, ambient structure to the film/installation. Brennan found that this poetic methodology allowed for the implicit ideas and overlaps in interview material to be conveyed, rather than the more informational or confrontational style of a documentary.

Mirror Lands critiqued the techniques of nature documentaries that construct an idealised version of nature. Based on the Moray Firth, filmmaker Emma Dove, composer Mark Lyken with ecologist Paul Thompson and colleagues at the Lighthouse Field Station, Cromarty, conducted interviews with people giving their accounts of experience with the local environment. The filming technique highlighted everyday interactions between humans and the environment, rather than the dramatic focus of a nature documentary. One intention of the research was to influence individual behaviours in ways that reduce conflicts like that between the oil and tourism industries and marine conservation.

Conflicts between human social and political interests and other species was the direction given by the conservation scientist Steve Redpath for the project Thinking Like a Mountain, with writer Esther Woolfson. Conflict is inherent in issues of sustainability, and represented in this project by human relations with predators. They researched how Scottish literature, law and culture viewed predator species like the wolf and its effects on the shared biotic community. Woolfson traced the etymology of Scots language words for ‘predator’, among her series of non-fiction essays.

The ‘science’ in many reports seems confined, but in Search Films, the collaboration opened up the scientific process itself, directly exploring how a science produces its knowledge in a way that melded with an artistic process. The project began as a walk in the woods, as biologist Mick Marquiss described to his son, artist Duncan Marquiss, how he found goshawk sites by responding to cues or idiosyncrasies in the landscape. The hawk is elusive; the subject of study is found by its hawk-signs. That scientific method, that way of walking and observing, is a formalised version of innate foraging behaviour that humans use to find scarce resources in complex environments – on land, but also by extension, while shopping, on the internet. Duncan mimicked this behaviour in the process of film-making, as he followed Mick, as a way of understanding the biologist’s methodology and search patterns. For the scientist, the film-making offered the opportunity to look again at the routines of field studies, the tacit knowledge involved, and at ways that this experiential knowledge could be articulated to others.

How to know a place, how to imagine nature features across most projects. In Imagining Wild Land – Coire Ruadh, artists Simon Fildes and Katrina McPherson, with performer Ruth Janssen, worked with Rob McMorran from the Centre for Mountain Studies. Looking at how landscape depends on movement, the artists used video and dance on the land to articulate the scientific data from CMS defining the borders and zones that mark out ‘the wild’.

Portraits of Scots Pines explored how the identity of a place is known through that iconic species. Artist Marcus Leotaud contrasted ideas of re-wilding with the dead zones of spruce plantation, and with what constitutes a ‘natural’ landscape in Scotland. Working with PhD candidate William Cornforth and Heritage Management Officer Simon Montgomery, the project viewed the individual tree rather than the forest, as iconic of habitat, landscape, time and history. Leotaud’s portraits of are not merely representational, but portray as well the threats to the species.

The animal as a way of imagining nature features in Barnacle Fish or Fowl, by artist Philippa Mitchell and ecologist Carl Mitchell. The visual representation of barnacle geese and how this has affected public perceptions and management decisions about its population was explored with students at Port Ellen Primary School, Islay, in the inner Hebrides.

Interrogating how visual representations of Scottish places invent those places, The Valentine Project: A Landscape with Trees, started with historical post cards from Glen Tilt, produced by James Valentine and Sons of Dundee between 1880 and 1935. Moving between the archive, artefacts and the site, the team of artist Victoria Bernie, landscape architect Lisa Mackenzie, historical geographer Fraser MacDonald and field ecologist John Derbyshire walked, drew, photographed, videoed and talked over how to do field work, how to represent constant change in a landscape, the human artifice that shapes it, the future realities of a landscape and the processes of decay, ruin and flux.

Another grouping of projects draws out that focus on change in the landscape, with water as the indicative representation of this.

In Montrose Bay, the Changing Coast, artist Jean Duncan, zoologist Tracey Dixon and hazard geoscientist Fraser Milne used arts-based public engagement with local groups and schoolchildren to observe the shifting sands of the beach, and to record how it is used and how it might be managed in the future.

Using sound recordings, visual art and photography, artist Tommy Pearson and environmental writer and musician Rob St. John used water flows to explore Edinburgh’s urban environment. In Water of Life – City of Edinburgh, they traced the subterranean flows of water in sewers, drains, pipes, rivers and reservoirs, revealing the confluences of clean and unclean, ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’, the organic and synthetic. Using analogue photography, and with the production of a vinyl record, they kept to a slow artistic methodology.

For Making Space for Water: A Poetry of Place, writer Leslie Harrison and environmental engineer Rebecca Wade walked the banks of the Denburn in Aberdeen and the Dighty Water in Dundee, exchanging methodologies for researching the impact of language on perceptions of urban river environments. The project showed how character, history and social function of the river, what it carries with it, is revealed in both ordinary language and poetry.

Storyteller Andy Hunter, community archaeologist Brian Wilkinson and public engagement practitioner Sophia Collins walked a river, holding storytelling events with communities and specialists along its length. In Tales of River Tweed, stories were told and stories were collected, marking the flow of history, narrative and river.

Finally, in Dreaming Scotland, writer Lowri Potts, sound designer Tam Treanor and photographer Karen Gordon, kept with the human, asking what ‘natural Scotland’ meant to a group of new arrivals to Glasgow, contrasting this with the views of more established residents. Urban parks, the cold, Loch Ness, the traditional skills of shipbuilding, the thinking space offered by the hills outside the city, the light, the softness of the air came through in the interviews. The installation featured recordings interspersing the newcomer and the established resident. Visually, a ‘flock of words’, was animated by an algorithmic, unfixed programme.

All these abbreviated summaries miss the detail of the texts, and they, in turn, miss the details of the processes. But as despatches, they mark a time when public funding saw the political, economic and cultural value of supporting collaborations across the aesthetic and ecological worlds.

Imagining Natural Scotland (2014), edited by David Griffith, published by Creative Scotland.

ISBN: 978 1 85119 207 6

The Imagining Natural Scotland project was a partnership between Creative Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage, and supported by the University of St. Andrews. Year of Natural Scotland 2013 was led by VisitScotland, Event Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage.

If you want to obtain a copy of this publication you are best to email at Creative Scotland with your postal address and he’ll arrange to send one to you.  There may be a charge.

Dr. Wallace Heim writes and researches on performance and ecology, and she does this in many places. Her academic slant is philosophical, but she works across disciplines to analyse the experience of performance, of art and of social practice arts, to consider how these events shape ecological and social understanding.

She recently published Landing Stages. Selections from the Ashden Directory 2000 – 2014, an ebook marking the archiving of the Ashden Directory and Ashdenizen, websites focused on ecology, climate and culture which she co-edited. Landing Stages can be downloaded from

Her current writing is on conflict; on sense and extinction; and on how a place can learn.

She has published in Performance Research and in Readings in Performance and Ecology. She is on the Advisory Board of the upcoming publication series Performing Landscapes. She co-edited Nature Performed, and co-curated the conference/event BETWEEN NATURE. She taught on the ‘Art & Ecology’ MA at Dartington College of Arts. She has also worked as a set designer.


David Borthwick: Review of Estuary, by Lydia Fulleylove, with artwork by Colin Riches

January 5, 2015

David Borthwick, who runs the University of Glasgow’s masters programme Environment, Culture and Communication at the university’s Dumfries Campus, reviews Lydia Fulleylove’s Estuary, a new book of poems published by the excellent Two Ravens.

Estuaries are, as in the title of one of Raymond Carver’s stories, ‘where water comes together with other water,’ fresh into salt, and as estuaries are characterised by tidal influx, where salt reaches back upriver.  They are transitional zones where local systems meet global ones, the activities of the land meet the open sea; indeed, they are also open to the tractive pull of moon and sun, linking them to celestial bodies too.  An estuary is defined by relational forces, then, and this also makes it a profoundly susceptible space.  One might say an estuary is produced through its myriad relations.

Estuaries are profoundly cosmopolitan areas, rich in the symbolism of transition, and this is perhaps why these environments have proven fertile grounds for poets in recent years.  The Severn estuary, in particular, has received considerable attention in both Alice Oswald’s book length A Sleepwalk on the Severn, and Philip Gross’ collection The Water Table (both 2009).  Oswald refers to ‘this beautiful / Uncountry of an Estuary’.[1]  Her ‘uncountry’ is ‘both a barren mudsite and a speeded up garden’.  It is between, untenable, and indefinable, irreducible to notions of rootedness, permanence or stability.  Phillip Gross describes an estuary in terms of its ‘indefinite grounds’, characterised by ‘constant inconstancy’; its ‘indefinable grounds’ and ‘irrefutable grounds’: ‘six hours and the grounds / are remembered.  Forgotten. Remembered’.[2]

Lydia Fulleylove’s Estuary, published by Lewis based Two Ravens Press, adds to but also enlarges this resurgent interest in estuaries.  Centred on the River Yar estuary in the west of the Isle of Wight, Fulleylove’s eclectic book demonstrates in its very form the power of relationality.  The book is part nature daybook—a diary of visits to the estuary, interactions with it over the course of a year—but also a poetry collection.  It also has elements of deeply personal memoir.  One of the book’s strengths is that Fulleylove cannot bracket off her personal relations (an aging father during illness), her job as a creative writing tutor at HMP Isle of Wight, nor indeed the politics which sees one of the estuary’s farms carefully dismantled during her period of residency in the area.  It is all of a part, each element a channel or rivulet in the book’s flow outwards.  This is only added to by Colin Riches’ contribution of artwork at the collection’s centre: pictorial representations of estuary features, animals (domestic and wild), and artefacts.  Many of these have been created using materials from the estuary as their medium: estuary mud, sheep dung, bramble juice.

Colin Riches, 'moon and stream'

Colin Riches, ‘moon and stream’, silt, oil and acrylic

Fulleylove and Riches employ sensory information as a key part of their work here.  In one poem, the artist is observed at work:

Dung, mud, ink. The artist makes

the cow in the winter barn,

legs tucked under like a cat,

tail pressed close. Black eye watchful,

nostrils, ears flared. Long after

she is gone, these marks will call up her absence,

draw her presence out of dark.

This attempt to capture presence is vital, poetic and visual work going hand in hand as a means of representing the estuary faithfully, even as the environment shifts around one with the tide:

cracked mud mud-gasps

river dark glass

look down clouds sky

look up clouds sky

here is river

see sea-river

The stutters and repetitions here enact not only the process of trying to write the estuary, but its own particular and fluid behaviour.  Everything described must relate to the estuary, the estuary itself formed by these relations, and with all being fluid this negotiation even reaches into the language that Fulleylove uses.  The process of rounding up sheep is rendered in riverine terms.  Sheepdogs are:

Swift, slick

they whip round the sheep,

close to the ground. The flock

runs like a river into the pen

any stray rivulet

channelled back in.

It’s done almost before it’s seen.

Colin Riches, 'Reed and River', reed, earth, ink and gouache

Colin Riches, ‘Reed and River’, reed, earth, ink and gouache

What separates Fulleylove’s book from some of the celebrated ‘New Nature Writing’ is that it continually brings the reader back to community, away from the writer’s solitary observations and into the eddies and turbulence of issues affecting wider concerns.  Local writers’ and artists’ groups are taken out into the estuary to experiment.  Farmers’ views are recorded verbatim and inserted into poems.  Most powerfully, the estuary is brought indoors in order to engage prisoners with an external environment they cannot access.  Among the artefacts offered to prisoners are leaves: ‘what the men most want to do with the leaves is to smell them.  A leaf is passed round nose to nose.’  Sensory apprehension again.  The prisoners’ reflections in their own writing are recorded here too.

Colin Riches, 'Last Year's Leaves', mixed media

Colin Riches, ‘Last Year’s Leaves’, mixed media

There is a powerful social justice imperative within the book, from the treatment of the poet’s father in institutional care, to the politics of landscape which places farmland in ownership that cares not for local experience and traditions— and of course to the welfare of those in prison.

Estuary tacitly suggests that all of Fulleylove’s concerns are intimately connected.  Indeed, connection is a recurring motif.  A Schoolgroup is taken to see the last of the farm’s animals as it is transformed from an Aberdeen Angus carcass to food.  The visit is meant to reconnect the children with the food chain because, as Fulleylove notes, ‘we can’t be disconnected from this earth’.

And yet because we are ‘wrapped in layers of distance’ from the nonhuman world, and perhaps from each other, we ignore the interconnections which inform and shape us all.  From the flora and fauna of the estuary, to the farms upon it, and even the prison, relations exist which conjoin to form a relational space.  In short, the estuary, this place, exists only as the total interactivity of these factors.  There is no ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, but a reciprocal set of interactions in which we are all enmeshed.  In Fulleylove’s thoughtful book, the estuary becomes a powerful symbol for relations and responsibilities.

Indeed, in her prologue Fulleylove says that all of the book’s segments exist as ‘as sign of having been there, evoking the relationship with place at that moment’.  The work is, she says, ‘a dialogue’; it is all about ‘the act of paying attention’: using the senses, different materials, extending empathy to the lives of others, both human and non-human.

In a relatively slight book of under a hundred pages, Fulleylove manages to weave together all of the elements of the local environment on the Yar estuary.  Her vision is clear, her work concise and potent.  She is capable of reflecting back and forth in landscape, and in time, in a way that makes the book more than a diary of a specific place, but an exploration of a place’s multiplicity through the seasons, in which every detail is made to resonate, and flow outwards from itself:

I pick one barley stalk from this dry sea

to stick on the white field of my page.

Winter, I’ll look back at slant, hard-packed grain,

like Brent geese streaming in close line.

Colin Riches, 'Estuary Artefact', stone, wool, and wheat stalk

Colin Riches, ‘Estuary Artefact’, stone, wool, and wheat stalk

[1] Alice Oswald, A Sleepwalk on the Severn (London: Faber, 2009), p. 3.

[2] Philip Gross, ‘The Water Table (Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe, 2009), pp 47-48.

David Borthwick: Review of Into the Forest

January 18, 2014

Mandy Haggith, ed., Into the Forest: An Anthology of Tree Poems (Glasgow: Saraband, 2013), pp. 280.


Into the Forest, cover image by Carry Ackroyd (by permission Saraband)

An early linkage between literature and ecology in the recent revival of nature writing, Kim Taplan’s book Tongues in Trees (1989) investigated the connection between humans and woodland, trying to tease out our obsession with but also phobia about these tremendous, living forms that surround and frequently dwarf us:

Because they are primeval, because they outlive us, because they are fixed, trees seem to emanate a sense of permanence.  And though rooted in earth, they seem to touch the sky.  For these reasons it is natural to feel we might learn wisdom from them, to haunt about them with the idea that if we could only read their silent riddle rightly we should learn some secret vital to our own lives.[1]

In Gossip from the Forest (2012), Sara Maitland used stories and essays precisely to ‘haunt about’ forests in search of connections, and secrets.

For the past few years poet, novelist and environmental campaigner Mandy Haggith has been gathering together poems which speak of the folklore, mythology, inspiration and ecology of forest habitats.  Her windfall has now been collected in an exciting (and beautifully-illustrated) new anthology Into the Forest.


Kate Cranney, Oak leaf, from Into the Forest (by permission Saraband)

Emerging from the A-B-Tree / A-B-Craobh project, a series of creative events celebrating woodland, the anthology follows the Gaelic tree alphabet (every letter of the Gaelic alphabet, Haggith informs us, has an associated tree or shrub).  The anthology is a documentary of native woodland species, then, as well as a collection of poetry.  Each section, from Birch to Bramble, Pine to Heather, Willow to Yew, begins with an introduction to the tree’s principal features in terms of its ecological properties, its mythological associations, and historical uses: ‘birch makes good firewood, is light and easy to whittle or turn on a lathe, and its sap has many medicinal purposes.’  We are told that ‘you can see the present, past and future on an alder branch: last year’s empty cones, this year’s cones and next year’s catkins, and to the Greeks, alder was sacred to the god time of, Kronos.’

Within each section, we find a dizzying array of poets historical and contemporary, from giants of the poetry canon such as Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath and Robert Frost to contemporary poets including John Glenday, Thomas A. Clark, and Haggith’s fellow Walking with Poets resident Jean Atkin.

There are very few weak poems here, and Haggith has carefully selected examples within each section which are capable of holding a dialogue with each other to further illuminate or question the tree species they feature.  Linda Saunders’ Birch tree in November is ‘the stripped tree, scraffiti of branches / against morning’s dull steel’, contrasting with G.F. Dutton’s young birches which ‘shriek green laughter up the hill / billow on billow.’  The trees go on transforming within, between, and across the collection.  The metamorphic, protean, liquid nature of trees is emphasised: rooted forms which are nevertheless rarely static: ‘The tree leans, he / is about to move, he / has achieved a rigid balance between / moving and not moving, earth and air’ (Robin Fulton MacPherson, ‘Variations on a Pine Tree).

The anthology is a careful and thoughtful one, which has grown out of interactions with woodland, with people, with poetry, and shows the way in which they are entwined, connected, in possession of a shared system of roots.

[1] Kim Taplan, Tongues in Trees: Studies in Literature and Ecology (Bideford, Devon: Green Books, 1989), p. 14.

David Borthwick teaches literature and the environment at the University of Glasgow’s School of Interdisciplinary Studies in Dumfries. His current research at the Solway Centre for Environment and Culture explores contemporary ecopoetry.

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