Archive for the ‘Project Reviews’ Category

Piloting Strategies: Arts and Land Use

March 18, 2016

Kate Foster and Claire Pençak have written this article to highlight the ways that they as artists (visual and dance/choreographic), have been engaged with land use and in particular the development of Land Use Strategy for Scotland through the Borders Region Pilot.  The article specifically responds to a previous piece on ecoartscotland which asks “What can the arts contribute to a Land Use Strategy for Scotland?”

Some of the really central challenges for artists working with land use issues are highlighted by Kate Foster and Claire Pençak including the discipline and practice specific languages used by environmental scientists and land managers as well as the dominance of Geographical Information Systems technologies.  Kate Foster and Claire Pençak’s projects demonstrate some of the best approaches that can be learnt from the past 60 years of ecoart and the longer history of art.


Previous posts on this topic have pointed out that government policy has made an ecosystems service approach central. This opens up questions of what to place value on, and if, and when, it is helpful to monetise an ecosystem service. Too often human interests only are considered, leading to ongoing over-exploitation of ‘natural capital’. There has also been concern that intangible cultural elements cannot be recognised by an approach dominated by Geographical Information Systems, and mapping only what exists on the ground.

This article provides an outline of how we (choreographer Claire Pençak and environmental artist Kate Foster, who both live in the Scottish Borders), have worked in parallel to the regional Land Use Strategy pilot that was conducted in Borders Region.

Creative practices can contribute ways of relating to place, and offer alternative meanings and insights that escape conventional appraisal. Artists can act as connectors between disparate approaches, and re-enchant what is overlooked. The work we describe below is marked by a commitment to improvisation and responding to context. Our consistent theme is finding ways for rural-based arts practice to engage with contemporary concerns, regional and international.

Some background to the Land Use Strategy

In way of background information, the government Land Use Strategy initiative stems from the 2009 Climate Change Act (Scotland). The Scottish Borders along with Aberdeenshire was selected to develop a Pilot Regional Strategy, which would ultimately inform the revision of the national Land Use Strategy, to be published later this year. In our region, the process was led by Scottish Borders Council in partnership with Tweed Forum who co-ordinated the stakeholder engagement programme. Tweed Forum is a membership organisation whose collective purpose is to enhance and restore the rich natural, built, and cultural heritage of the River Tweed and its tributaries.

The Land Use Strategy regional framework in the Scottish Borders was developed through mapping and a series of public consultations to seek the views of communities. This came to our attention as it coincided with Working the Tweed, a Creative Scotland Year of Natural Scotland 2013 project which was an artist led partnership project between Tabula Rasa Collaborations, Tweed Forum and Southern Uplands Partnership.

From our vantage point, it was obvious that the LUS pilot strategy was beckoning to artists to contribute to it, but it was a question of how?

The following sections describe different art projects that were considerations of aspects of land use, emerging during the period between the Climate Change Act (Scotland, 2009) and the conclusion of the draft consultation for the Land Use Strategy 2016-2021, in January 2016. We were aware of the pilot regional strategy taking place in our area, and engaged with it by attending public meetings and filling in questionnaires. This activity fed into our work; we were inspired by the ambition of sustainable land use and searched for a way that we could contribute to the debate in a way that was meaningful for us – both as artists and as local residents.


A catchment map as a talking point

Seeking to engage with the Land Use Strategy, we found the vocabulary and frames of reference were clearly suitable for conversing with land managers and land owners who were knowledgeable and skilled at the interface with government and agriculture. We could sense that the kind of language used could be impenetrable, and wouldn’t empower the broader community to connect with the ideas, which is what Tweed Forum were keen to do. Having been to a few of the public consultations, we found it tricky to know how to engage with what seemed a very prescribed, compartmentalised and ‘male’ approach.

The Land Use Strategy pilot project used catchments to identify localities – an idea we had also used as a motif map for Working the Tweed (a project that is described in more detail below). Because a catchment map was not cheaply available in the public domain, we made a hand-drawn version. We found it an evocative image to engage with people. Looking at this catchment drawing moves you from the predominant perception of the Scottish Borders as a series of discrete small towns, towards seeing it as a region connected by the dense network of tributaries to the Tweed. This was an effective means for us to generate conversation and elicit local knowledge and viewpoints, for example by taking stalls in annual agricultural shows.

2. rivermapS

River Ways © Working the Tweed 2013


A Riverside Meeting concerning Resources and Land Use

Working the Tweed was an artist-led Year of Natural Scotland 2013 project that was planned prior to the Land Use Strategy pilot project. It was a nine-month programme that focussed on the diverse ways that people were working with the Tweed waters. It included a series of six riverside meeting with different themes. These meetings brought together professional creative practitioners living and working in the Tweed Catchment with scientists and environmentalists, to stimulate discussion, exchange and creative responses. They took place at different locations in the Tweed Catchment, and each meeting explored a different theme related to the Tweed Catchment Management Plan.

A first step in making the ideas behind the Land Use Strategy more accessible was to use the final Riverside Meeting to focus on two policy strategies being developed in parallel in the Scottish Borders: for culture as well as land use.  The final Riverside Meeting – Mapping the Future Scottish Borders – took place at The Lees fishing shiel on the Tweed at Coldstream and explored the themes of Water Resources and Land Use. Derek Robeson, Senior Project Officer at Tweed Forum, introduced the Land Use Strategy in relation to the Tweed Rivers through the frames of Environment, Culture and Economy. It was an opportunity to look at the maps that had been created through the lens of the Land Use Strategy (e.g. Biodiversity Networks and Resilience, Sporting and Recreation, Agricultural Crops) and to consider land use in the field through a riverside walk. The meeting placed the Land Use Strategy alongside the parallel development of a Cultural Strategy for the Scottish Borders which was introduced by Mary Morrison, Director of the Creative Arts Business Network. This brought a focus on cultural landscapes to the session. The final contributor David Welsh introduced an historical perspective, with his detailed knowledge of how the line of the Border has shifted around each field and burn in its path. In the year of the Independence Referendum this had an added potency. The session as a whole provided a challenge to how artists can work with complex histories and geographies, and engage with uncertain futures. It is fully reported on this link.

At this Riverside Meeting, the point was made that the lifetime of deciduous trees defied the short time frames for which policy is made, typically a five-year period. The mature trees along the River Tweed are evidence of much older strategies of land management.

Salmon scale – a link to different places and timescales

The catchment map acted as a motif for the Working the Tweed project, and provided an overview of our region. This was complemented by looking at something close-up, a scale from the skin of a Salmon (which is smaller than a finger nail).  Looking at magnified scales from migratory fish offered us another lens to perceive different rhythms of time and place that might influence daily life and work in our region.

Like a tree ring, a Trout or Salmon embodies a pattern of its growth into its scales. The Tweed Foundation collects scales from anglers, and accumulates data that helps interpret seasonal changes in the fishing catch. With a microscope an expert eye might see – for example – that a Salmon lived for two winters in the river, with a further winter at sea before returning to the Tweed to spawn.

These scales inspire a step backwards, to consider the larger picture. These fish deserve the name ‘Atlantic Salmon’ because they belong to a species who use ocean currents to drift to cold subarctic waters. Rich feeding to the west of Greenland allows them to mature before returning to their home river in mating mood.

There is room for speculation about future patterns that will be read in Salmon scales. Within ten years perhaps, the North Pole will become a navigable ocean, allowing seasonal passage to the Pacific. What impact will warming oceans have on their migration patterns and the patterns of their scales?

Thus a drawing of a Salmon scale became a second project motif, conveying connectedness to oceans, and hence the world. This led to the reflection that the Land Use pilot strategy was only considering land use within the administrative remit area. From such a narrow frame, events in wider geographical scales become ‘irrelevant’. Conversely, impacts on areas beyond the boundaries as a result of local land use can remain unconsidered.

This is a paradox for legislation stemming from a Climate Change Act, dealing with an international problem that is hard to fix in time or place, and where the actions of people in one place are acknowledged to have distant effects. To quote from an article by the academic Timothy Clark:

Climate change disrupts the scale at which one must think, skews categories of internal and external and resists inherited closed economies of accounting or explanation.  (2012, page 7)

Artists can contribute reminders of the unruliness of more-than-human timescales, explore the possible meanings and experience of climate change, and question the deranged scales in common currency.

We would argue that Salmon are integral to the identity of the Tweed Catchment, and its welfare cannot be seen as separate to the wellbeing of humans.

3 scalecardFront

Scaling the Tweed © Kate Foster, 2013









Approaching Choreography: A Proposal for Engagement

Following Working the Tweed, Claire Pençak began a research project funded through a Creative Scotland Artist Bursary by considering what a choreographic approach to thinking about Land Use might yield.

Approaching Choreography was an attempt to articulate an environmentally sensitive approach to dance-making and choreography through the frames of Placing and Perspective; Pathways Through; Meetings and Points of Contact and Working with Materials and Sites. It reflects on our positioning and shifts the emphasis from taking centre ‘stage’ towards margins and sidelines. This alternative framework emerged out of a series of riverside improvisations and conversations with dancers Merav Israel and Tim Rubidge, environmental artist Kate Foster and writer/researcher Dr. Wallace Heim. These took place on the Ettrick and Yarrow Waters in the Scottish Borders, and the East and West Allen Rivers in Northumberland.

Claire writes:

Choreography is concerned with space and I started by exchanging the idea of ‘space’ for that of ‘habitat’, and thought of the dancer as both creating and revealing habitat. Through this lens, habitat could be understood as ‘action spaces’ and land use became something that could be considered as performative, emerging and improvisational.

From this I developed a score as a way to proceed, a way to assist imaginative engagement, a way into playful encounters with land.

Further information is available here.

The score offers sixty examples of ways that habitat could be interpreted and worked by the diversity of species that use it – birds, fish, insects, mammals, plants and trees. It is easily understood, does not rely on land management knowledge and acknowledges multi-species. It suggests potential zones of action – on the ground, under the ground and over ground; on the water, underwater and in the air. The score can be cut up, shared, read out and passed on. Further information is available here.

4 app chor

River Ways © Working the Tweed 2013

This thinking was made into a small illustrated A6 booklet (Approaching Choreography: A Proposal for Engagement) as part of a collaborative project, Speculative Ground which was conducted with Jen Clarke and Rachel Harkness of Aberdeen University.

Stone Lives 

Stone Lives was commissioned by Aberdeen University as a contribution to the Speculative Ground project which also included an exhibition curated by Jennifer Clark and Rachel Harkness at the Anthropological Association Decennial Conference in Edinburgh, in June 2014.

Stone Lives developed from an investigation of riverbank ecology at the meeting point of the Ettrick and Yarrow, at Philliphaugh near Selkirk. Our arrival at the riverbank in an afternoon in late May coincided with a hatch of Stone Flies – aquatic insects emerging from the water to find a stone to air themselves, and shed their final larval form. The river was low and we could walk on the smoothed rock, ancient mudstones shaped and sifted by ice and water.

This is an extract from Kate’s writing on this piece:

This set me on a trail, I collected husks for some days after – keen to find them before river levels rose. I searched online too, learning that of all the insects that live in water, Stone Flies need the cleanest water. They are ecological indicators of healthy streams, flattened and adapted to be able to cling to stones in rapid currents.  Apart from Trout who devour them, they are best known to fishermen, river ecologists and entomologists.  As one source remarks: “they are rather endearing little creatures once you get to know them”.

The fossil record of Stone Flies stretches far back to the Permian, but their adult life is brief.  A juxtaposition of Stone and Fly offers simultaneity at different timescales – a ‘so-far story’ (an idea that is further discussed in an article with Dr. Leah Gibbs and Claire Pençak  available here).

Stone Lives became an artwork inviting anthropologists at an international conference to share a sense of stone, and life supported.

6. StoneLivesF

Documentation of Improvisation and Stone Fly Adult Emergence © Tabula Rasa 2014

Further documentation of Stone Lives is available here.

A bioregional sensibility

We have, so far, offered examples of how visual art, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary events, field work, and improvisational dance practices might offer further ways of thinking about land use. In combination, these directed us towards an ambition of bioregional sensibility, that has been articulated by Mitchell Thomashow:

‘Developing the observational skills to patiently observe bioregional history, the conceptual skills to juxtapose scales, the imaginative faculties to play with multiple landscapes, and the compassion to empathize with local and global neighbours – these qualities are the foundation of a bioregional sensibility…’

M. Thomashow, ‘Cosmopolitan Bioregionalism’, Bioregionalism, ed. M. V. McGinnis (London: Routledge, 1999), pp. 121-32 (pp. 130-31)


Borders Sheepscapes

An earlier project by Kate Foster, Borders Sheepscapes, was an exploration of sheep farming as a major land use in the Scottish Borders. This project is highlighted because it contributed a dimension to our thinking about Land Use Strategies, which are human-centred. The artist’s process of drawing in the field articulated some of the human resources of knowledge, skill and design underlying workaday pastoral scenery – as well as the part that sheep play in producing landscape. This project intended to shift humans from centre stage in landscape appreciation and reached towards a multispecies way of understanding how humans exist in the world.

A later addition to this body of work explored the widespread use of palm oil in livestock fodder through the example of an automated milk supply for orphaned lambs.


5. lactekblog11

Lac-tek, the electronic mummy © Kate Foster 2012

This work explored both the welcome benefit ‘Lac-tek’ brought to the farmers and possibly the orphaned lambs, and also the presence of palm and coconut oil in the sheeps-milk substitute (and many other animal feeds). Palm oil is an example of a highly controversial commodity, because increasing demand for this product has led to expansion of plantation monoculture in tropical countries, undermining climate change mitigation and creating further environmental injustice.

Carbon Landscapes

The Climate Change Act (Scotland) was a starting point for the Land Use Strategy. Atmospheric pollution by greenhouse gases is a complicated science, but there are straightforward ways that the movement of carbon can be inferred. These are not widely understood. Kate is piloting collaborative work that explores what artists can add to the environmental science of Carbon Landscapes.

The project Flux Chamber created a guide to carbon riverscapes with Dr. David Borthwick and Professor Susan Waldron of Glasgow University.


Image from Flux Chamber series © Kate Foster 2015

You need to have thought about what Carbon Landscapes consist of before you can start to see where carbon exchange between different reservoirs (terrestrial, marine, atmospheric) is taking place. If people are to protect naturally stored carbon, we need to develop sensibility to see how carbon is gained, lost and recycled.

For Peatland Actions, Kate worked with Nadiah Rosli on another pilot project exploring carbon landscapes, that brought together different experiences of the use and exploitation of peatlands in Scotland and South East Asia. The name of the work was derived from a government programme of  peatland restoration, and this piece was shown at the exhibition Submerge, as part of the ArtCOP 2015 programme at the Stove Network, Dumfries.

Nadiah Rosli used social media communications to convey how the toxic haze, that now frequently spreads from Indonesia to other countries in South East Asia, has come to feel normal to her family and friends in Malaysia. The haze from illegal fires makes blue sky  something to exclaim about.

7. subm14

River Ways © Working the Tweed 2013

Here is an extract from Kate’s description of this collaborative work:

Until recently Mosses have not been valued for their ‘ecosystem services’ but peatbogs are the most effective carbon sinks known. Conversely, peat releases greenhouse gases when it is exposed. Damaged Scottish peatlands are being restored using public money for climate mitigation – but at the same time, peat extraction is pursued privately, for example at Nutberry Moss. I see this, passing by on the A75 to Carlisle. For me (Kate), this grim landscape of carbon emission is a glimpse from the car window. Nadiah Rosli has had to breathe far more damaging airs – the thick toxic haze from fires raging in Indonesian carbon-rich peatlands. Nadiah has courageously communicated about the situation in which Indonesian rainforest is burnt to allow commodity production (including palm oil and paper pulp for western markets). Her approach insists on a focus on environmental justice, including the idea that land abuse should be understood as a crime whose victims include humans exposed to the consequences of atmospheric pollution, amongst many other species.


Nutberry Moss seen in passing, from a car © Kate Foster 2015


Summarising thoughts

These are ways in which we as artists have worked to open out political attention to land use, to include more-than-human and intangible cultural viewpoints. Short-term economic gain for humans is often the main consideration within our globalised economy. However artist-led projects can explore how different kinds of land use bring both benefits and loss to different parties, by adopting an ecocentric viewpoint and juxtaposing different timeframes and geographical scales. In common with other strands of contemporary art, this work seeks to shift humans from centre stage in landscape appreciation. The anthropocentric idea that extraction of commodities is endlessly possible is challenged by eco-artwork that refuses to work within the deranged scales that are endorsed elsewhere.

Academic work informs our practices in different ways, for example there is a trend in the study of international relations that takes ecology into account. Also, the environmental humanities are producing multispecies perspectives: as Deborah Bird Rose argues, if we fail to grasp the connectivities between human and nonhuman, we cannot have insight into the ramifications of anthropogenic extinction and miss ‘our entangled responsibilities and accountabilities.’

Artists can work with these pioneering and inspiring influences to produce multi-layered understandings of place, which can also be thought of as developing a bioregional sensibility. This feeds into a process of shifting aesthetic appreciation, and being able to recognise patterns of land use – as well as land abuse – within global processes. We would also wish to take the more complex step of helping develop the relationships to place and its inhabitants, humans and others, that a contemporary land ethic requires.


Kate Foster and Claire Pençak, February 2016

ecoartscotland would be interested in hearing from other artists who have undertaken regionally specific and durational work that addresses land use and strategy.  Please comment below.

Anne-Marie Culhane: Earthwalking

September 28, 2015

Editor’s Intro:

Anne-Marie Culhane creates events, performances and long term projects that invite people into an active and inquiring relationship with each other and the earth. She works as artist, activist and collaborator across a range of disciplines.

Culhane conceived of Earthwalking through an Exeter Enquires residency co-ordinated by Arts & Culture at the University of Exeter funded by Arts Council England. The residency enable Culhane to develop a working relationship with Tim Lenton, Professor of Climate Change and Earth System Science, Dr. Luke Mander and Tom Powell, researchers in Earth System Science at University of Exeter. Earthwalking was a two day ‘choreographed journey’ with overnight camping along 10 miles of coastline in Devon, from Beer to Sidmouth, that aimed to honour different ways of knowing and experiencing the world, offering different perspectives on land, sea and change. Earthwalking involved 33 participants from a range of backgrounds (scientists. artists, curators, administrators, auditors, researchers, playwright, writers, bird watchers) with ages up to the eldest at 75 years old. Twenty-one of these responded to a public invitation to take part.


Earthwalking aimed to bring something of the feeling of the wilder edge of our land – and a wider sense of community – into our conscious reflection on how we live and act in these times.

Earthwalking. Photo: Steve Brown

Earthwalking. Photo: Steve Brown

The idea of a walk was seeded in an early conversation in the residency. A common thread in all our life stories was that playing, exploring or walking in the landscape was a key motivation for inspiring us with the passion for the work that we do. Looking around the Earth System office, on the 7th floor of an overheated concrete building in the city, I realized how far removed we all were from the places that nourish and inspire us. I located our continuing discussions out on campus, on the coast, or in the little shed at the Exeter Community Garden, observing the subtle shifts in how we communicated in different contexts. In particular, walking outdoors changed the rhythm of conversation, other elements (weather, terrain, observations) together with silence and pauses become an integral part of the exchange. There was more ground for possibility.
My impulse was to continue these inspiring conversations and to share the questions emerging with others in an outdoor, journey setting. The Jurassic Coast is close to Exeter. It offers a frontline, where stories of change are played out almost in double-time on the crumbling and lively island edge. The land is constantly slipping and eroding and yet the exposed rocks here draw us backwards into the story of the planet, into deep time over many millions of years. I wanted to demonstrate that you don’t need to travel to the ends of the earth to bear witness to the changing climate. Tim’s work is deeply influenced by his relationship with James Lovelock and the Gaia Theory, which offers a story of the world as a self-regulating, evolving complex system. There have been many people, past and present, inhabiting this coastline (including James Lovelock) and it felt important that some of these people and their stories be part of Earthwalking.

Earthwalking. Photo: Steve Brown

Earthwalking. Photo: Steve Brown

13 July, 11.30am

I invited Tim Lenton to create the first intervention on our walk. He asked us to sit or lie on the grass overlooking the ocean while he read an Invocation to Gaia, written for the event, where he took on the persona of a centurian grandmother earth and wrote in the first person:

“Take your pulse – feel your heart beat. Imagine that each of your heartbeats took a whole year, not a fleeting second – then your lifespan would begin to approach mine.”

He told us that in her 30s:

“Lines began to appear on my skin, marking out the great plates that make up my surface, and slowly they began to move, at the rate your fingernails grow.”
“….. only three minutes ago, on this little island you started the industrial revolution”

Our bodies, the earth, this place.

13 July, 12.30pm

I invited people to walk in silence down a steep path through the Hooken Undercliff, a 10-acre area of land that, one night in March 1790, slipped away from the high chalk cliffs towards the sea. Fishermen reported coming out and finding their crab pots above sea level, as the scale of the slump caused a reef to push up out at sea. There is something unique about walking through this new land – a green oasis with its birdsong, weave of plants and trees, sheltered by chalk pinnacles.

Earthwalking. Photo: Steve Brown

Earthwalking. Photo: Steve Brown

The whole project enhanced my sense of smell, sound and vision (participant)

13 July, 2.00pm

Dr Ceri Lewis, a marine biologist met us at the shoreline and enthused about her love for the small soft and shelled creatures of the sea that she had gathered from the rock pools. She explained the plight of their calcium shells in an acidifying ocean, and her work to protect these marine invertebrates from marine pollution and climate change. We do simple experiments, blowing down straws into coloured seawater to see our breaths change the ph.

Earthwalking. Photo: Steve Brown

Earthwalking. Photo: Steve Brown

At moments throughout the day, we hear from Dr Luke Mander who shared spontaneous geological observations, as we walked West back through time.

13 July, 3.30pm

Chris Woodruff, an East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty land manager relayed stories of complexity, change and human conflict catalysed by the contradiction at the heart of his work – conserving the natural beauty of a place made remarkable by its dynamic nature.

I felt a strong sense that we were somehow touching base with some quite fundamental things. For my part, the event will serve as a real and important reference point (Academic collaborator)

13 July, 7pm

Goonlas, a Cornish sea song started our evening session. This is an adaptation from the ongoing Storm Songs project by Natalia Eernstman, initiated earlier in the year with people from Porthleven in Cornwall, creating new verses and sea songs with communities, to mark our changing relationship to the sea. For Earthwalking a new English verse was created using words from local accounts of the Branscombe storm of 2014. Branscombe is one of the places where tensions over whether to rebuild or retreat from the incoming sea are playing out. The song was followed by a space where the walkers themselves brought their varied and insightful reflections, questions, ideas, song, dance and poetry to share with the group around the fire.

Earthwalking. Photo: Steve Brown

Earthwalking. Photo: Steve Brown

14 July, 9am

I opened the morning walk by leading a Field Sensing session. This involves slowing down our movements in order to sense inner and outer landscapes more acutely. I chose to locate the Field Sensing at Berry Fort, the site of a Neolithic coastal settlement and Iron Age Fort.

A moment to connect to the landscape in a non-intellectual way … I found it very relaxing, spiritual and energizing (Participant)

Earthwalking. Photo: Steve Brown

Earthwalking. Photo: Steve Brown

14 July, 11.30am

At Weston Plats, Tom Powell, a food systems specialist selected extracts from aural histories of coastal cliff farmers collected by the Branscombe Project, to illustrate the growing cycles of the ‘plat’ farmers, who farmed these sheltered, marginal edgelands over centuries until the 1960s. He scaled this up, to share reflections on today’s global challenges of food, population and our massive harvesting of biomass. Huddled in a renovated stone byre, small groups of walkers listen to artist and local smallholder Laura Williams recounting a moving personal story of resilience and adaptation. Her land, in a valley close to the coast, had slipped in 2012, covering the area earmarked for their house and causing the release of shoals of farmed carp away from their land down the valley and into the sea.

Earthwalking. Photo: Steve Brown

Earthwalking. Photo: Steve Brown

This mingling of the past and present pointed towards the future and again opened up discussions about the sustainability of our eco systems. At no time during Earthwalking was anyone told what to think and yet thoughts and discussions naturally and organically flowed into these areas because of the style and structure of the project. In this way the project proved itself to be in line with its own ethics and was in and of itself a sustainable and organic art piece. (Participant)

14 July, 4.00pm

After a further two hours walking including an unrelenting final ascent and a spontaneous dip in the sea, our journey ended at the Old Dissenters Meeting Hall in Sidmouth with its inspiring history of activism (in particular Annie Leigh Brown a suffragist from the age of 17). We were greeted warmly by members of the Vision Group for Sidmouth, a collection of local sustainability campaigners eager to exchange ideas with the walkers and to share the successes and challenges of working in their community and drawing us back into the wider sense of community and action.

The experience was transformational and gave me a totally altered sense of community, the landscape and the future of both. (Participant).

Productive, in that there seemed to be a lot of fruitful, intelligent and practical exchange. And enjoyable because cake and company couldn’t have been better! (Participant Vision Group for Sidmouth)

The final sentence from Tim’s forthcoming publication on Earth System Science states:

Earth system considerations call for some rethinking of economics and a wider social discussion about what kind of future we want, which will engage the arts and the humanities as well as the social sciences.

I’d like to acknowledge my gratitude to Jo Salter and Emily Williams (Kaleider) and to Fern Smith and Lucy Neal, who have advised on Earthwalking. This blog also includes extracts from an interview with Kaleider.

Anne-Marie Culhane:

Anne-Marie’s passion for bringing together different disciplines and perspectives on place started with a self-initiated residency on Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh in 2001-2002 funded by Scottish Natural Heritage, Historic Scotland and the Millenium Commission.

Further Projects include Abundance (co-created with Stephen Watts), winner of Observer Ethical Award Grassroots Category, 2010 and Fruit Routes/Eat Your Campus working with the School of the Arts & the Sustainability Unit at Loughborough University, winner Guardian University Awards Sustainable Project 2014. She has worked with National Trust, Tamar Valley AONB, Exmoor National Park, ArtsAdmin and exhibited at Bluecoat, Liverpool; National Media Museum (with Ruth Levene); Newlyn Gallery, Penzance; Castlefield Gallery, Manchester and Plymouth Art Centre and co-founded of Out of the Blue, Edinburgh. She is an associate artist with Encounters Arts and Kaleider and recently completed a commission for CCANW (Soil Cultures Residency).

This Autumn she is starting a year long participatory project A Field of Wheat with artist Ruth Levene and farmer Peter Lundgren which explores collective ownership, industrial what farming and local & global food systems. There is still time to be part of this, follow this link for more information.

Anne Douglas: What makes a house an artwork? On visiting The Avoca Project

July 22, 2014

Anne Douglas, during her Mcgeorge Fellowship at the University of Melbourne, Australia, visited with Lyndal Jones and The Avoca Project in Avoca, Victoria.  In this guest blog she highlights some of the ways in which Lyndal and her collaborators have been demonstrating an art of sustainability, through a house and a garden.

The Avoca Project draws together art, place and climate change in a unique configuration. Nine years ago, Lyndal Jones, one of Australia’s most renowned artists, funded the purchase of a derelict house in Avoca, a rural town in the State of Victoria, Australia. The Avoca Project became a ten year commitment (2005-2015) to environmental issues and something of a counterpoint to the form and practice of international art biennales. It would inspire future work as an engagement between art and the public in relation to climate change and challenge the idea of place as physically stable.

Watford House, site of The Avoca Project, Photo: Anne Douglas

Watford House, site of The Avoca Project, Photo: Anne Douglas

The house is an early example of a two storey timber framed prefabrication of Swedish design, found in Australia in the 19th century among the middle classes during the period of the gold rush (1851 –late 1860s). The kit was imported from Germany as numbered planks and costructed as accommodation for one of the hotels in the town.  This was a period that trebled the population of European and Chinese immigrants in the area. In 1852 the house was moved, in order to enlarge the hotel. It had been situated higher up the hill on the main street and was beautifully re-sited to overlook the Avoca river.

What makes a house an artwork?

There is a conceptual simplicity to this work that belies deep complexity. First and foremost there is a particular intelligence and sensitivity towards the building as a place to inhabit in 21st century, based on an awareness of the impacts of industrialisation on the social, cultural and environmental. Once a dwelling of grandeur, the house had suffered from the harshness of climate and decreasing wealth in the rural areas. In response to these issues, the project embodies an openness to questioning current modes of living and increasing awareness of actions that we can usefully take to create more sustainable living environments.

This is perhaps best explained in an example: the house was flooded in 2010. This event ironically took place three weeks after the production of a performance piece, Rehearsing Catastrophe: the Ark in Avoca (described below). Jones’ work in repairing the house had included making it ‘flood friendly’ in response to hearing it was on a ‘1 in 100 year’ floodplain (with use of rugs rather than carpets, solid wood rather than chipboard, few whitegoods…).  The waters may now enter in and exit out of the property, with only minimum damage.  This approach to living ‘with’ rather than ‘against’ nature is an ethos, a way of being, that underpins the most simple actions in everyday life in this place.

Important to the quality of this work as art is the way Jones conceptualises her role as ‘custodian’ and ‘restorer,’ as opposed to ‘owner’. An owner would perhaps renovate by drawing the house into his/her taste and life style. As custodian, Jones mediates the past, present and future of dwelling, judging what is appropriate and inappropriate intervention. The house has been re-roofed, re-plastered, re-wired and re-glazed using found timber to render it fit to live in but more than that, a beautiful place to inhabit ethically. Much of the work is Jones’ own labour, assisted by volunteers, and undertaken at weekends and free personal time. Guests are invited to participate at their own pace but never onerously, contributing to an ongoing performance of sculpting a ruin back into existence.

Beneath this careful restoration of the traditional infrastructure lies a particular sensitivity to energy and water resulting in a quite different, parallel infrastructure from the historical fabric. Focused decisions have emerged out of a process of trial and error, a process of intense learning about which technologies to use and which to avoid, in developing a light ecological foot print.

Solar panels on the outbuilding, The Avoca Project, Photo Anne Douglas

Solar panels on the outbuilding, The Avoca Project, Photo Anne Douglas

This second infrastructure constructs a series of virtuous circles between availability and usage of natural resources. Within the garden under the lawn is constructed a water tank that can contain up to 90,000 litres of water. The tank consists of an underground trough lined with a geotextile, a rubber membrane, into which are inserted a series of plastic crates which provide a shape through which the water flows. The trough is filled with water. Local water is high in salt and requires to be desalinated so this storage of rainwater provides an important alternative. Heating is provided through a slow combustion stove using timber from the property and the underground water tank within a closed water system. Visitors are aware of water usage in part through the subtle visibility of the water gauge close to one of the main entrances to the house and also through encouragement to collect excess domestic water where possible to sustain the prolific plant life of the site, including a kitchen garden walled by rosemary bushes. In this way we are gently persuaded that ‘living well’ means ‘living ethically’ through intimate daily habits working with the available resources, mindfully. In the same way the photovoltaic cells on the roof of one of the outbuildings act simultaneously as a functional and as a visual and symbolic reminder of how energy is acquired and used.

Current developments

Poster, photo Anne Douglas

Poster, photo Anne Douglas

In April 2014, the community of Avoca will witness the planting of a Chinese Garden. The Chinese Garden at Avoca has been developed by three artists: Lindy Lee (a Sydney based Chinese-Australian artist currently developing a Chinese Garden in Sydney in parallel with Avoca) is lead artist; Mel Ogden (a landscape artist and expert in stone, who designed and laid out the gardens of The Avoca Project) is Designer and Project Manager; and Lyndal Jones as Artistic Director.  These artists are working in collaboration with a formally constituted Committee that represents the different interest groups that the project has catalysed.

The idea of building a Chinese Garden emerged through a number of discussions and gathered traction as a concept. The Chinese community had been very present in the period of the Gold Rush and the chosen site was close to the original Chinese graveyard.

The privately owned site, adjacent to the house and also on the flood plain of the river, has been negotiated across private/public interests with a long lease under the condition that the community undertakes long term maintenance of the garden as an artwork. The nature of the task is detailed as part of the contract.

It is important to note the artist-led nature of this development. Although funded through a national cultural tourism initiative, requiring significant organisational experience, this project has emerged from the arts community rather than business, offering confidence and a model for future community focused projects.

The insistence on the garden as an artwork instils very high production values led by experienced professionals. The site runs from east (high ground) to west (low ground) with the river running south to north and will deploy a number of aesthetic/ecological tactics that have been tested in The Avoca Project.

Chinese gardens are traditionally constructed around four elements including pavilions, water, rocks and plantings representing the seasons of the year. This garden will feature such elements interpreted through current material modalities and their potential for new meaning across the past, present and future, significantly acknowledging an inter-cultural dynamic. Underpinning the whole is a strong ecological thread. The site, in particular its water, is developed with the same technologies of an underground storage system that here cleans the town’s water using plants and the crate system used for The Avoca Project.  It is also based on sensitive plantings that can accept local soil conditions, such as River Red Gums, and developed through seasonal and aesthetic judgements.

Significant to the whole development is a series of events, effectively new rituals that mark each stage of development in relation to seasonal changes. The starting moment on site was in October 2013 – a procession to the site by children with lanterns they had made, where they met Lindy Lee.  Chinese New Year at the beginning of February was marked with a Chinese Dragon. Winter planting will follow the installation of the main infrastructure in late April and the official opening in October 2014.

This sense of ritual will continue into the way the site will be open for use for public events.  The Avoca Project is contributing a tea ceremony that intermingles the Chinese Tea Ceremony with the more implicit rituals of tea drinking within Australian culture as a means of coming to terms with any important or social moment. The aim is for the garden to be able to host tea ceremonies that draw on the visuality and materiality of one culture in order to throw light on another in a small town where a history that had become hidden – its Chinese history – might provide a means for the town to prosper in the future with the envisaged pilgrimages of Chinese tourists to the area.


The Avoca Project reverses and questions many of the tropes of how we expect to live.

It is simultaneously a public and a private project, owned and shared. Individuals – artists from outside of Avoca and members of the Avoca community – are invited to engage in the project in different ways. The point is to be influenced by its histories, its current values and reasons for being and to be creatively challenged to make sense of this encounter as a responsive and responsible individual. Those who choose to participate are invited in to imagine, to reflect, to make new work, to talk and exchange experiences and thoughts. The undoubted courage, stamina and joy of such a commitment is frequently tested in an emotional and personal grappling with the distance between environmental sustainability and practices of land ownership, between expectations of art and issues of everyday life.

It is important to remember that the Avoca house was described as ‘beyond repair’ at the point of purchase. “Beyond repair’ acts as a metaphor for the way climate change is publicly imagined. By implication, it is ‘beyond hope’. This metaphor takes us to the core of the Avoca project as artwork. Framing acts of repair in relation to everyday life, the project becomes a means to grasp the ‘beyond hope’ and confront its implications. Jones describes this as ‘rehearsing catastrophe’. It is at once a metaphor and an artistic and performative strategy.

Rehearsing catastrophe is an imaginary that underpins a number of Jones’ works within a series led by Jones with other artists, Propositions for an Uncertain Future. Each piece leads participation through a strong conceptual frame that focuses the circumstances of potential disaster. The Ark of 2012, for example, focused the requirement to leave the land as a consequence of flooding, marshalling pairs of species (participants in masks) resonant of Noah’s Ark (see video here). Poignantly each participant was allowed one suitcase. The project powerfully evokes experiences of forced migration, of boat people, of evacuees from a war zone, of competing for resources and of being forced to encroach on other people’s land through sudden retreat from one’s own. The projects ‘name grief and loss’ (Lyndal Jones in conversation 12.3.2014).

If we think of The Avoca Project as an encounter in and through art, we might see that it is unforeseen in the way that art in normally produced. It is neither forced through the kind of shared thematic that frequently underpins public commissions nor is it easily categorised as emerging from a ‘social’, ‘situational’ or ‘relational’ genre of practice. The project is volunteered, not predetermined. It emerges out of a kind of exploratory questioning in which each new discovery accumulates knowledge. The necessity to classify falls away because of the clarity of the work as art in the form of a lasting encounter in which one insight and action builds upon another in the construction of a new world.

The Avoca Project garden, photo Anne Douglas

The Avoca Project garden, photo Anne Douglas

In the meantime Rehearsing Catastrophe: The Ark will be reimagined in Mons, Belgium in June 2015 as part of its fesitval as 2015 Cultural Capital of Europe.

Kate Foster: Steep Trail – an Ecolab in Fife

August 21, 2011

On the sunny 9th and drenching 10th of August, a group of artists, environmentalists, and community workers met in Fife as part of a series of event coordinated by Fife Contemporary Arts and Crafts, Polarcap, and Edinburgh Sculpture Studios. (For reports on earlier events, see the ecoartscotland blog  and the Greener Leith Blog)

The themes were land, walls, boundaries – plus John Muir and China. The first venue for a day of walk and talk was the Ecology Centre near Burntisland, with its impressive blend of social and ecological engagement. Ronnie Mackie and Julie Samuel explained how determination had made the place happen, by nurturing volunteer contributions and generating community input. Biodiversity is catered for too, with this wetland created from a former industrial dump. We found toads, well-tended poly-tunnels, allotments and more.

John Muir was the main topic of afternoon talks, being introduced by Liz Adamson of Polarcap and Jo Moulin in the afternoon of talks – Muir’s birthplace in Dunbar   is a visitor centre that contributes to sustainable living in East Lothian. The group mulled over the Muir quote: “I went out for a walk and stayed out till sundown, for going out I found I was really going in.” Wild development was an idea presented in another form in scenes of contemporary China presented by Peter Lindow.

On the wet 10th, we convened at Falkland Centre for Stewardship. The day was introduced by Ninian Stuart and Tess Darwin with a tour of woodland walks and farmland – following boundaries and learning (indoors) how the estate has become a place to learn to live more sustainably, threading traditions of stewardship with community involvement and ecological design. The Centre extends support to artwork such as Resounding – sound installation including work by Louise K Wilson – and also to a new conservation project – Lomond Living Landscapes. The latter was presented by David Munro, describing how the ‘commonty‘ of the hills (currently dissected by the Fife/Perth boundary) had been successively divided and enclosed, with ‘marches’ and ‘meiths’ [boundaries] surviving.

How can art/craft and biodiversity link? This was a themes developed by Reheema White, lecturer in Sustainable Development at St Andrews. Her presentation made no bones about the implications of species loss and unsustainable lifestyles, but allowed for a creative engagement. This allowed me to explain why I value ecoartscotland as a network, seeing ‘ecoart’ as linking different kinds of knowledge and moving ourselves outwith comfort zones.

A theme emerged: what would John Muir take into account if he were alive now? One response was that having taken Teddy Roosevelt to the Yosemite, he might take Alex Salmond to Menie Links in Aberdeenshire (the Trump development). A stimulating event of exchanges, with no particular outcome required but things brewing.

posted by Kate Foster

%d bloggers like this: