Archive for the ‘Content of Nothing’ Category

The Content of Nothing :: Part 2 :: Purposeful non-doing

August 6, 2014
Samantha Clark: ‘A Year of Breathing’ Project for Natural Balance: Equilibrio Natural, Girona, Spain, May 2009

Samantha Clark: ‘A Year of Breathing’
Project for Natural Balance: Equilibrio Natural, Girona, Spain, May 2009

Samantha Clark: In 2009 was asked to make a proposal for an eco-art exhibition called Equilibrio Natural: Natural Balance that was taking place in Girona, Spain, which was to be a series of installations around the city developed by artists from all over the world. When I looked at the criteria, I noticed that I had to assure the organisers I would use local materials. And yet the curators and all the artists were going to be flying in from all over Europe and North America just for the exhibition. I felt there was a conflict at the heart of this, and so my proposal pointed out that I wasn’t a local material, and also quite a heavy lump to transport. So I proposed to stay at home, and to donate the CO2 emissions of my return flight to the people of Girona, for the purposes of guilt-free exhalation. I worked out that it would be about the equivalent of one-year’s worth of exhalation (according to some online carbon offsetting calculators it could be as much as 6 years, depending on how many trees they want to sell you). So I worked remotely with locally-based helpers, yoga teachers and Buddhist centres to run a series of meditations on the breath and mindful exhalation, in a space that used to be a mediaeval cloister. It was really interesting to discover that participants felt it offered them a way to physically encounter with the body something invisible that is usually discussed in very abstract, vast terms of ‘parts per million’, which makes it seem like something far away. They said that meditating on the breath like this, brought them to understand in a direct, felt way that ‘the atmosphere’, which is usually seen as something ‘up there’ is also the very air that passes through our bodies. We are in direct relation with it..

Samantha Clark: S.T.I.L.L. : A project for Gentle Actions: Art Ecology Actions Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo, Norway Oct/Nov 2010

Samantha Clark: S.T.I.L.L. : A project for Gentle Actions: Art Ecology Actions
Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo, Norway
Oct/Nov 2010

Following this I was asked to propose another project for an exhibition in 2010 called Gentle Actions: Art Ecology Action in Oslo. I was still troubled what seems like a cognitive dissonance where we artists, like anyone else, can have a blind spot regarding the ecological footprint of our travel because we want to have an international profile. There’s such a pressure on us to do this as artists and as academics. I don’t want to condemn it outright, and I know I am complicit, but I do feel the need to recognise this as a conflict, and to draw it out into the open rather than just accept it as a necessary evil or just ignore it. If the means and the stated ends are in direct conflict, then the integrity of the work is compromised. I had been teamed up, by the curators, with a Swiss artist who lives in the States, but I felt rather conflicted about her project to fly to Norway to make a piece of work, called S.P.I.L.L. about the Gulf oil spill. I wasn’t sure how to respond to or work with her proposal, which seemed to involve using a lot of fossil fuels to make a statement about our dependence on fossil fuels.

F David Peat in the book (which gave this exhibition its title) Gentle Actions (2008) proposes that acting less, hesitating more, and perhaps refraining from acting at all, might at times be an appropriate response to the crisis of climate change. After all, it’s our incessant rushing about that sucks up so much fossil fuel, and that taking time and space to reflect is important too. It occurred to me that just as a physical ‘nothing’ keeps turning out to be replete with meaning and unfathomably complex, an active ‘doing nothing’ might be, in this case, the most appropriate choice of action. So my response to S.P.I.L.L. was a contribution I called S.T.I.L.L. I chose to participate remotely, staying at home in Scotland to practice the gentle art of keeping still. I wrote, recorded and uploaded a series of reflection on stillness, pausing, air, and the breath as a direct, felt interaction with the invisible environment. The air, that we barely register and can’t see, yet depend on utterly, is a completely astonishing ongoing product of the biosphere.

PDF of Thin Air excerpt

Judy Spark: I love the way that that this sits at the ‘in between’ of the scientific and the poetic – which tend to get forced apart. We have scientific evidence of these processes but we can also have directly observed experience of many of them if enough attention is paid. I mentioned before that this method of drawing on the scientific is a perfectly permissible phenomenological starting point, something that can get forgotten as we are so used to viewing things in dualistic terms. I’m particularly interested here in the premise that you undertook a process of ‘non-doing’, apart from the recorded speech, in order to get something to happen and that the Year of Breathing piece rested on this premise too. It’s purposeful non-doing!

Judy Spark: “The Straight Rods” from Discovering Dowsing Ardo House, Aberdeenshire, (NEOS 2010)

Judy Spark: “The Straight Rods” from Discovering Dowsing
Ardo House, Aberdeenshire, (NEOS 2010)

JS: This work came about in 2010 at Ardo House in Aberdeenshire as part of North East Open Studios (NEOS). I was still working with the notion of tuning here, being tuned in or employing ones natural sensitivities in some way, a process so evident in the work you have been talking about above. Dowsing is said to depend upon the sensitivity of the dowser to movement in the rods as they pick up subtle changes in ground energy as a result of the presence of water.

A series of handmade dowsing rods were installed in the naturally enclosed space beneath a mature Beech tree in the grounds of the house. Visitors were invited to test some of the rods as they walked around and then asked to note the results on an evolving ‘drawing’, installed in the laundry room, the basis of which was a hand drawn map of the grounds. As I was developing the work, I had a conversation with one of the residents of the house, who had lived there since the 1980s. She told me that when they first moved in, the house had required to be hooked up to the mains water supply and a ‘handy man’ had arrived from the local council to locate the path of an old water pipe network known to be already present somewhere at that location. To accomplish this task, he came equipped with a pair of willow dowsing rods, with which he successfully pinpointed the spot for the new pipes to be sunk. The important thing about this piece of work was the involvement of visitors in terms of thinking about their own potential to pick up on subtle energy changes. It is widely held, in the dowsing literature, that one is able to dowse only if one first believes one can!

You have remarked that this work was like a sort of application of Goethe’s ‘delicate empiricism’; I like this parallel. We may scoff at the notion of practices such as dowsing but discoveries and links that have previously been discounted or thought unbelievable may yet bear fruit and indeed, as your reading above shows, even a subtle shift in the way that we attend to things can transform our experience of them. The drawing together of the scientific with phenomenological (or poetic, or ‘lyrical’) accounts of things, towards a fuller experience of the world, need not make for the poor fit it may at first seem. The Mind and Life Institute for instance exists to bring together Buddhist practices and Western science towards a better understanding of the human mind. Perhaps everything in our world requires this trusting openness and unity of approach. It’s as if we need to shift from the position of taking things apart in order to understand their individual components to one that appreciates the complexity, movement and interlinking of all the bits – like the ecological view. This matters because we are not just observers – as we are open to the world around us it in turn gives us who we are.


F. David Peat (2008) Gentle Actions: Bringing Creative Change to a Turbulent World, Pari Publishing

The Mind and Life Institute –

The Content of Nothing :: Part 1 :: The Ether

July 30, 2014
Judy Spark: “Aerial Coil” (B/W print Courtesy of BT Archives) and “Of Origins Unknown; the Galena Radio” from Tuning to the Ether, Cupar Festival of Visual Art, 2009

Judy Spark: “Aerial Coil” (B/W print Courtesy of BT Archives) and “Of Origins Unknown; the Galena Radio”
from Tuning to the Ether, Cupar Festival of Visual Art, 2009

Judy Spark: This work, consisting of a series of archive prints and a set of hand-made radios constructed from odds and ends such as copper wire, pencil leads and safety pins, was made for Cupar Visual Arts Festival in 2009. I had come across some references to a little known aspect of the town, which was that it played a part in the development of transatlantic telephony in the late 1920s. As a result of this work I later, in 2011, undertook a short residency in Cupar, the focus of which was to explore this matter in more depth. It transpires that the town and the area around it, sits in a sort of natural dip in the land that is said to be especially disposed towards the reception of LW radio signals. I was particularly interested in a letter that I came across in the BT Archive in London, written by a Mr Jacks of Cupar in 1928 to a Mr J. D. Taylor of the Institute of Electrical Engineers in receipt of a cheque he had been issued in exchange for allowing the positioning of telephone lines across his land. He states:

“I know nothing of wireless initiatives, but judging from the results we have from continental stations, I think our quiet, damp, elevated hollow must have special facilities for reception.”

And there is some scientific grounding for this theory.

I have a long-standing interest in what may be present around us, but unseen, unperceived, or at least not fully. Radio communications, and their relation to natural phenomena are for me therefore, highly intriguing. I have recently made an exploration of this relationship through writing, in a paper entitled The Environing Air. The paper explores the intertwining of the natural and the technological through the case study of a particular communications installation in Assynt in the far north west of Scotland. A phenomenological description – phenomenology being the science of direct experience – of the installation is made in service of this aim but also by drawing on elements of physics, that are perhaps less easy to experience directly. This combined approach is considered as a legitimate phenomenological ‘method’, one very well articulated by the philosopher Anthony Steinbock.

Link to PDF, extract from The Environing Air

Photos taken by SC circa 1981 featuring the artist’s father assembling a home-made 2m antenna above Loch Torridon

Samantha Clark: Photos taken by SC circa 1981 featuring the artist’s father assembling a home-made 2m antenna above Loch Torridon

Samantha Clark: It’s fascinating to discover the links between our practices, because the notion of ‘The Subtle Ether’ has been an interest in my own work for a long time; an ongoing preoccupation with gaps, absences, distance, longing, nothing, the hidden or invisible, and the notion of ‘between-ness’, the ether as something postulated to fill the gaps between everything, explaining how light travels. What is between things? What is ‘no-thing’? Ask that question and another follows: What is a ‘thing?.’ And that’s when everything starts to get very intriguing. The work is really a way to look at these questions from all angles, creatively, visually, philosophically, lyrically. I was drawn towards the explorations of these questions that emerge in continental philosophy, especially in the tradition of phenomenology, and the insights that approach gives into role of absence in perception. There seem to be parallels between phenomenology and aspects of Buddhist philosophy, in which ‘things’ are understood as not having ‘own-being’, that is not existing from their ‘own side’, but presenting themselves as confluences, more or less momentary, of millions upon millions of causes and conditions, including the observer. So the object becomes less of a static ‘thing’ and more like a standing wave, what is termed by Husserl a ‘pole of identity’ within this flow of percepts. This way of seeing brings everything alive; things and the stuff between things all start to get involved. It strikes me as an intrinsically ecological way of seeing.

So, I have come from a visual art practice into philosophy and ‘academic’ writing, and now am working on a PhD on Creative Writing, still unpacking this notion of ‘the Subtle Ether’, using this as a kind of metaphorical hook on which to hang a related set of ideas.

I had been preoccupied with these ideas for a long time but the personal relevance only really came home to me after my father died and I began to clear his things. He worked for 45 years as a telecoms engineer for the BBC, from wartime radio to the early days of television, retiring just at the point when digital technology was coming in. After he retired he carried on as an enthusiastic Radio HAM and maker of remote control models. I came across photographs (above) recently, which I think I took, on a family holiday to Torridon. We had hiked up the hill where my Dad assembled this yagi antenna to see what 2 metre radio signals might be propagating through that landscape. The two metre band is a portion of the VHF radio spectrum allocated for amateur use. Its signal is usually fairly local, a few miles or so, unless bounced onwards by a repeater station. But sometimes the signals can travel huge distances. Occasionally, signal bending caused by changes in the ionosphere caused by sunspots, metors or auroras can allow 2 metre signals to carry hundreds or even thousands of miles. With enough power behind it, a signal can be bounced from the face of the moon. A person transmitting through the earth’s atmosphere to the moon may hear the end of his own transmission returning, an echo crossing a wide canyon. To me, as a kid, this kind of expedition didn’t feel any more technological than the fishing trips we also used to go on – picking a likely spot, keeping an eye on weather, assembling the fishing rod or home-made antenna, waiting, watching, hopefully catching something that had been ‘swimming’ in ether/water. Of course, now we know that electromagnetic radiation from man-made sources is suspected of affecting bees, even some ‘electrosensitive’ humans. So it’s not completely innocent either. Mind you, neither is fishing.

I find the ‘ether’ such an interesting nothing-thing because it really is ‘between-ness’ – it oscillates between natural and technological, between nothing and something, rational and irrational, science and poetry, distance and intimate connection, and it’s also something to do with human relationships, in the silence and (mis)communication within families. It’s a word that is a constant shapeshifter, reflecting our cultural preoccupations and scientific ideas right back at us. It gave birth to the science of electricity and magnetism, and yet also Spiritualism and Mesmerism. It gets debunked as one thing, ‘the luminiferous ether’, and keeps coming back as something else, dark energy perhaps, or the Higgs Field.

Judy Spark on Drumcarrow Hill, Cupar testing the reception of her handmade radios.

Judy Spark on Drumcarrow Hill, Cupar testing the reception of her handmade radios.


Heidegger, M. Being and Time Trans. John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962) [1926]

Spark, J. “The Environing Air: A Meditation on Communications Installations in Natural Environments” in PhaenEx: Journal of Existential and Phenomenological Theory and Culture
Vol 8, No1 (2013) PP 185 – 207.

Steinbock, A.J. “Back to the Things Themselves: Introduction”. Human Studies 20 (The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997) pp.127–135.

The Content of Nothing :: Introduction

July 29, 2014

We are pleased to be able to say that over the next eight weeks we are going to publish a series of chapters jointly written by two of Scotland’s most interesting artists working with environmental and ecological issues.  In an interesting intersection both artists completed MA studies in environmental philosophy, on the MA Value and Environment (MAVE) at the University of Lancaster and the University of Central Lancashire respectively.

Samantha Clark and Judy Spark: two artists, both aware of the other’s practice and the possible parallels. One e-mailed the other, by way of lessening the gap.  It transpires that they both have an interest in nothing as well as things in common.

More tangibly perhaps, both artists have also made a commitment to writing; about ‘things’ and also ‘no things’ – those things in which the first clue to their existence may be their apparent absence.

Using these shared concerns as a sort of lens, the two then set out to make an analysis of the terrain between writing and the physical artwork. A small group of researchers and staff at Gray’s School of Art were invited, through a conversational presentation, to join them in exploring the between.

Samantha Clark is a practising artist and Reader in Art at The University of the West of Scotland. She has had written work published in Environmental Values and Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism. She is currently undertaking a PhD in Creative Writing at St Andrews University.

Judy Spark is a practicing artist and lecturer in Contemporary Art Practice at Gray’s School of Art. She has recently had work published in PhaenEx the electronic journal of the international Society for Existential and Phenomenological Theory and Culture (EPTC).

The first part will be published tomorrow (Wednesday 30 July 2014) and then weekly on Wednesday mornings.  We will produce a pdf of the whole sequence at the end and include this as part of the ecoartscotland occasional papers (ISSN 2043-8052).

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