Archive for the ‘Land Use’ Category

The Same Hillside

May 25, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With thanks to Tim Collins for his comments and suggestions.

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

Holly Keasey and Anna Macleod: An Atomic Journey

March 26, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

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


References

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


Anna Macleod

Edinburgh Scotland, lives and works in Ireland

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

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

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

www.annamacleod.com

 

Holly Keasey: Policy, Possession and Place

March 15, 2017

One needs to reflect upon US history and its troubling legacy of “placemaking” manifested in acts of displacement, removal, and containment. This history is long and horrible…how is Creative Placemaking different or complicit with these actions?

‘Placemaking and the Politics of Belonging and Dis-belonging’, (Bedoya 2013)

As of writing this blog, I have a further two weeks until I complete my residency and return to Dundee. Over the past two years I have spent more time away from, than in Dundee, to the point that I arrived at SFAI increasingly aware that Dundee doesn’t feel like home, and for that matter there isn’t anywhere that feels like home. This unsettled feeling has somewhat preoccupied my residency, trying to overcome it by getting to know Santa Fe on foot and New Mexico through a broad scope of historic and current socio-economic and environmental research – creating a temporary, or maybe an internalised and necessary illusion, of being in-place for myself.

Trying to understand this somewhat unintentional bodily-working-through of my own psychological processes often acts as a stimuli to my practice which in turn gives body to my hypothesis for performative practice as a form of public art that can hold active criticality. In the instance of trying to locate a sense of being in-place in Santa Fe, due to my lack belonging elsewhere, I have come to realise that there is a swinging movement between the original intention for my residency – researching the misuse of law, with a particular focus on the laws that regulate water rights in New Mexico, and the potential space that can be create through the misunderstanding of a non-specialist – and the implications and hence role of public arts policy.

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Screenshot of EventBrite ‘How Students and the Arts Fuel a Vibrant Downtown’

A key underpinning to my research so far is the understanding that Water Rights[1] are inherently linked to Property Rights[2]. Both of which imply the legal possession of use of a resource. And it is this mind-set of possession-of-use that is central to the current situation in New Mexico.

An inescapable example of this possession-of-use mind-set can be traced through the on-going treatment of Native American communities. Many settlers considered the Native way of life and collective use of land to be communistic and barbaric, with settler ideals stemming from the view that individual ownership of private property was an essential part of civilization. In an attempt to force these ideals upon Native populations, Congress passed the General Allotment Act in 1887, which authorized the president to survey Indian tribal land and divide the area into allotments for individual Indians and families. Members of the selected tribe or reservation were either given permission to select pieces of land—usually around forty to one hundred and sixty acres in size – for themselves and their children, or the tracts were assigned by the agency superintendent. If the amount of reservation land exceeded the amount needed for allotment, or if the allotment was not used in the westernised sense, the federal government could negotiate to purchase the land from the tribes and sell it to non-Indian settlers. As a result, sixty million acres were either ceded outright or sold to the government for non-Indian homesteaders and corporations as ‘surplus lands’. (See the History of Allotment on the Indian Land Tenure Foundation page for further detail.)

What can be drawn from this act is a significant relationship between the ideals of individualism, private property and a prioritising of use values.

Land Status Map for McKinley County, New Mexico

For the Navajo Nation, the General Allotment Act resulted in their eastern border in Western New Mexico resembling a checkerboard. However, in spite of these attempts to colonise many Native tribes, including those of Navajo Nation, did not adopt the enforced ideals towards the environment as resources to be put to use. I was fortunate to meet with community members of Red Water Pond Road of Coyote Canyon Chapter, Navajo Nation this week, whose relationship to the land and waters is still predominantly held within their ancestral sense of belonging and being part of the land. So much so that they have continued to live at Red Water Pond Road despite its contamination in 1979, when United Nuclear Corporation’s Church Rock uranium mill tailings disposal pond breached its dam, releasing over a thousand tons of solid radioactive mill waste and ninety-three million gallons of acidic, radioactive tailings solution, which then flowed through Red Water Pond Road’s surrounding landscape. After minor clean-up with shovels, United Nuclear Corporation’s uranium mill continued to operate until 1982, after which the site was abandoned by the corporation leaving behind the infrastructure, by-products and contaminated landscape that were no longer of use to them. Whilst, the Red Water Pond Road residents, many of whom worked the uranium mines, continue to reside here despite the lack of employment and income they had become accustomed to or the ability to return to previous vocations such as shepherding due to the extent of radioactive contamination. It is now a place where net wire fencing, typically used for dividing farm land, acts as a visual divide between residents and their neighbouring pilings.

Uranium tailing at Red Water Pond Road Community

There is a comparison that can be drawn here between the legal possession-to-use and its accompanying mind-set, that fosters a lack of long-term responsibility to that which is made use of whether it be a landscape or grouping of people, and the Navajo ancestral sense of belonging and being part of this landscape which manifests as a commitment towards a continuing to live here. For me, these comparative relations to the same area of land stir up a question – can a westernised (and patriarchal) ideal, and consequently entitlement, towards possession-to-use ever result in a mode of living that is ecologically sensitive?

It is in this question that I currently tread water, continuing to seek understanding through this arid landscape. I know there is a link to be formed between a critique of and beyond property and water rights as legal possessions-to-use (and the mind-set that supersedes this); a reflection on my own performative researching practice towards establishing a temporary sense of place in Santa Fe; and a role for public arts policy.

An initial reaction to this may be to look towards Creative Placemaking, a term co-opted by planning development that makes use of artistic methods and/or forms to drive an agenda for change, growth and transformation (or put succinctly, gentrification). Such developments frame their intentions as revitalisation in the interest of identified communities. By revitalisation they mean attaining the forms in which 21st Century ideals of successful civilisation are attributed. Similarities can be drawn between this and the intentions behind the General Allotment Act to ‘organise’ (for which one can read colonise) Native Communities. In addition, acts of Creative Placemaking are typically achieved via the use and extraction of an area’s resources in such a way that the original community’s ability to continue to reside is often reduced. For Red Water Pond Road community it is due to radioactive contamination. For communities subjected to Creative Placemaking it is due to real estate speculation. In many ways, this form of Creative Placemaking is an expansion of the entitlement towards possession to use – who makes the most successful use these identified areas? The current residents, or the affluent residents who replace them?

It is for the above reasons that as an artist I believe there is a need to be insistent that the aesthetics of criticality is at the core of Public Arts Policy.


[1] The right to make use of the water from a stream, lake, or irrigation canal.
[2] Property rights are socially-enforced constructs for determining how a resource or economic good is used.


Bedoya, Roberto. 2013. ‘Placemaking and the Politics of Belonging and Dis-belonging’ Grantmakers In The Arts Reader, Vol 24, No 1 (Winter 2013) http://www.giarts.org/article/placemaking-and-politics-belonging-and-dis-belonging

Holly Keasey: Is a river without water, still a river?

March 7, 2017

Holly Keasey’s fourth post to ecoartscotland, as part of her participation in the Santa Fe Art Institute’s Water Rights residency, focuses on different ways of experiencing and thinking about the Santa Fe River (such as it is).


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A friend this week set me a challenge to write a detailed, more phenomenological, observation of a small patch of land or waterway. I had planned to go to Otowi Bridge twenty-five miles North, an important crossing point of the Rio Grande. It is a site where the measurement is taken that decides the allocation of waters from the Rio Grande to the settlements downstream in New Mexico, to the Elephant Butte Reservoirs and across the borders into Mexico and Texas. However, the hours and/or energy required to make that trip by bike during daylight hours hasn’t yet materialised.

Instead, a group of us walked a nearby section of the Santa Fe River – not walking along the banks as is normal, but instead walking the path of the river where water should, but does not flow. My gut response to this walk was that the Santa Fe River, at this point of its course, does not completely exist, at least in physical form. The beach-like riverbed missing the saturation of water; the crumpling banks reinforced by dumped rusting Mustangs; and the deposits of rocks still too large to slip into my pockets, tell tales of the river and its occasional re-appearance during times of heavy rain and snow melt, but them by themselves cannot be the river.

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I could describe to you further the phenomenon of this dehydrated river channel – a soily skin that flakes similar to ours when lacking moisture. Its overwhelming stillness, a tiredness teetering on the edge of death. The glimmers of hopes that come from underfoot as the surface of the bed hardens with saturation and walking becomes easier. Or I could delve into the questions such experiences makes me ponder about when is a river still a river – are the bed and banks enough to constitute being a river on their own? Or is the water, and the ecosystem it brings life to, essential to our understanding of a river? Is the river actually still complete given the potential of a continuation of even the smallest movement of water underfoot? Or is there a spirit to the river, an existential presence of its own?

But if so, all I can hear is it’s frustrated scream of desperation to stop sharing an enchantment with its starved physical form.

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During our walk, I came across a yellow-cake like rock. Having spent my previous day reading about the uranium industry and the history of the Manhattan Project, curiosity got the better of me as I examined the rock to see if it was uranium before remembering, ‘What if it is uranium!’ and quickly releasing its yellow mass back to the riverbed. This small act of entitlement followed by fear, reflects what currently resides and flows along this riverbed, in the place of physical water: a river that can be perceived through its giving location and specificity to the many direct and indirect actions, fuelled by fear and/or entitlement, that have led to its own dehydration and questionable status as a river.

Another way of thinking through this is via a brief consideration of site.

Many consider ‘site’ as a noun, as an identified area where something resides or is constructed. ‘Site’ as a noun can be both physical, such as the ‘site’ of the first atomic bomb explosion occurred at the Trinity Site in Southern New Mexico, and conceptual, as the Trinity Site marks the site of change in the global psyche, shadowed by a new fear. Yet, what is potentially more relevant to how the Santa Fe River can be perceived is the consideration of site as a verb, the action of giving location to something. In the context of complexity, of ‘everything connected to everything else’, it is useful to ‘give location’ to complexity, to understand the Santa Fe River as the location of small and large acts of entitlement and fear.

Such acts of entitlement and fear, which have resulted in the current state of the Santa Fe River, can be traced back to the introduction of US legislation regarding property rights and the liberty of the individual, shifting the uses of the land and perceived entitlements to water, damming upstream and leaving no water for the river to physically continue along its way. And then drawn forward through the development of the atomic bomb in the fear of communism, to previous and continued contamination of waters from mining and the consequent and on-going environmental genocide of many native communities.

These relational socio-economic situations constitute the collective phenomena that, for me at least, is the current river. The westernised entitlement to resources is so great that we have absorbed the river physically and perceptually, ignoring all rights held by the river to be a river.

The use of emotive notions, fear and entitlement in the case of Santa Fe, to conduct a scalar approach through personal, social and environmental issues is more typical to how I perceive and work with water. Through focusing on fear and entitlement I am able to perceive the Santa Fe River, not only through its lack of water, but as an act of giving location to complexity.

 

A Field of Wheat: whose art?

March 2, 2017

This piece was originally published as part of the A Field of Wheat project in September 2016 at the invitation of the artists. The images are all courtesy of the artists.


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20th August 2016 I got an email headlined “The Wheat has been Harvested”. It wasn’t a metaphor. A field of wheat in Branston Booths, Lincolnshire, the central focus of an art project of that name, has been harvested. That’s good news given that a number of us invested in this project, and again I don’t mean metaphorically.

Even if neither the wheat nor the investments are metaphorical, how is such a literal field of wheat in any way art?

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Artists have represented farming; agriculture has been a subject in art in various ways, probably since the beginning of agriculture. There are various points where it becomes something ‘new’, for example in Dutch renaissance painting or Courbet in the 19th Century but farming appears in ancient Egyptian art too. Agnes Denes’ 1982 artwork Wheatfield: A Confrontation grown on the Battery Park Landfill is an iconic piece of environmental public art. It contributed to the mainstream acceptance of issues-based, activist public art. Denes’ statement about the work framed it as challenging the value of land (in 1982 at the time of making the work the Battery Park Landfill was valued at $4.5 billion dollars). The wheat grown was included in a touring exhibition concerned with world hunger. Denes also cites the juxtaposition of growing (the field) with exchange (Wall Street). All of these are aspects of a ‘new’ interest in agriculture by artists in the past 50 years.

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But there is also an art of farming, and perhaps all farmers are to some extent exercising their art every day. This might sound facile, but the boundary that defines ‘art’ is one largely constructed by the art market and it’s key operators: curators, gallery owners and collectors. Artists have a particular relationship with art from this perspective because functionally others (not artists) define the value of art. This of course is true for farmers too – they are equally dependent on other professions and structures which define value.

This way of thinking about art and the arts is David Haley’s. He says,

The word “art‟ is derived from the ancient Sanskrit word, “rta‟. Rta retains its meaning in contemporary Hindi as a noun-adjective for the dynamic process by which the whole cosmos continues to be created, virtuously. It refers to the right way of evolution and we still talk about excellence, or the correct way of doing something as an “art‟ – the art of cooking, the art of football, the art of gardening, “The Art of Archery‟, “The Art of Making Cities‟, and even “The Art of War‟.

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If this is the case then Peter Lundgren, the farmer collaborating with Anne-Marie Culhane and Ruth Levene on the project A Field of Wheat is practising his art in the way that they are practising theirs.

In this case both are stepping beyond the existing constructions of value as determined by the institutions that normally enable their practices (the art world and agri-business).

Culhane, Levene and Lundgren have connected us directly to food in a way that is different from any other experience. They offered us a chance to invest in a field of wheat. To be precise Middle Field on Lundgren’s 100 acre farm. In this case investing is probably a bit like investing was in the 18th century – you visit your investment (though not if you live too remotely) and you participate in decision-making – discussing the issues and voting with other investors on key decisions around fertilisers and the sale of the wheat. It is facilitated by digital technology but the decisions are not being made by algorithms on trading floors in London or Chicago, but rather by individuals at desks in home-offices.

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It’s genuinely fascinating to be an intermediary, an investor, part of the financial industry engaged in agriculture, but to do it at a level where you know exactly what you are investing in and with whom. There is risk. That’s been clear from the outset. Of course now the wheat is in, the risk is vastly reduced.

It’s not surprising that the group in a Collective Decision (preceded by a Collective Enquiry) has chosen to use the least fertiliser and to sell the wheat through the Openfield, the British farmers’ co-op (rather than through Frontier, a Carghill subsidiary), but the participants (investors) have also brought research and expertise to the process.

The discursive process constructed by the artists aimed to draw participants into a dialogue around the issues before any decision was made, hence the Collective Enquiry phase. The Collective Decision is straightforwardly democratic, but the aim has been to ensure that it is made with care, rather than in haste. Culhane speaks of “holding a level platform” in her blog http://fieldofwheat.co.uk/artists-pages/spaces-for-listening/ on the subject. Good deliberative practice and good socially engaged arts practice.

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However underpinning this is a deeper commitment from the artists to an understanding of the value of Collective Silence as an important aspect of a carefully judged and constructed process. A Field of Wheat has taken place on-line and through live events. Quaker approaches to silence as part of a careful life have been used to avoid the negative characteristics of on-line debate and discussion, particularly encouraged by dealing with communications on hand-held devices which contextually and practically encourage brevity. Asking people to spend time in silence before responding to issues has led to respectful and careful discussions.

Another approach to this issue of personal reflective connection comes from the Final Straw project. Final Straw is a film about Natural Farming (or biodiverse farming) as it is practiced in Korea and Japan. In a recent blog from the Final Straw project http://www.thenatureofcities.com/2016/08/21/farmers-chefs-and-lawyers-building-an-ecology-of-one/ , Patrick Lydon noted that farmers practising this form of agriculture will often seek a very close connection with the consumers of their produce. Lydon, and Suhee Kang (his collaborator) have, in parallel, been experimenting with ‘real time food’ where you order the food to eat in 10 weeks after it has been grown. They highlight a number of examples of food producers, farmers and chefs, forming long term relationships with their customers.

The idea of a ‘third space’ is particular to social art practices. A third space is different from commercial or formal public spaces. Those are characterised by either markets and extraction of value, or by bureaucratic structures and legal processes. Social art practices, as exemplified by A Field of Wheat, as well as other examples like Denes’ Wheatfield and Lydon and Kang’s Final Straw, can create different ways for people to engage with issues of common interest. These usually focus on issues of public good, but not so often through creating a ‘third space’ for an engagement with the economics of a ‘public’ issue such as food and farming.

A Field of Wheat took two years to develop. We are still in the process and will be until the wheat is sold. The art project will probably go on to produce a book and the farmer will continue the agricultural cycle. The wider implications of A Field of Wheat will take longer to manifest. I wonder how the Collective Dialogue would evolve? How would the economy evolve? What would it be like to be part of farming long term, all practising our arts together?

 

Holly Keasey and Fiona P McDonald: “Ambulatory Knowing”: Architecture, Access, and the Anthropocene

February 25, 2017

This post is jointly authored by Holly Keasey and Fiona P McDonald (Bio below), another resident on the Santa Fe Art Institute’s Water Rights Programme.


By ‘becoming knowledgeable’ I mean that knowledge is grown along the myriad of paths we take as we make our ways through the world in the course of everyday activities, rather than assembled from information obtained from numerous fixed locations. Thus it is by ‘walking along’ from place to place, and not by building up from local particulars that we come to know what we do.
‘Footprints through the weather-world: walking, breathing, knowing’ – Tim Ingold (2010)

Walking is generally assumed as a basic mode of transportation. However, walking (or any movement based on ability) through a place when undertaken as a collaborative tactic finds its way into becoming something else – a way of knowing and doing. Walking for Holly is a way to get lost and yet find what she did not know was already embodied knowledge through making connections between her feet, this place and that which she carries with her from other places. The practice of walking is something she shares with Fiona, who uses walking as a methodology central in her anthropological and collaborative work. By embracing anthropologist Tim Ingold’s logic of “ambulatory knowing”, Holly and Fiona set off on foot and offer a narrative of their shared visual observations from almost 20miles of walking, particularly considering how architecture may be tied to accessibility in New Mexico during the Anthropocene, our human-made geological epoch.

72 hours after arriving in Santa Fe, a group of Santa Fe Art Institute (SFAI) Residents headed to learn more about local fabrication facilities. While we left our residency on the campus compound by car to arrive in the industrial area where these facilities are located, we then left this industrial zone on foot. We set our destination to be the downtown plaza, a major tourist site. According to Google Maps, it was going to be a mere 4.2mile walk. The intent of our journey on foot was to get a better handle on what we perceived to be the urban sprawl of Santa Fe. In this instance in Santa Fe, we are both tourists and temporary residents/researchers in-place to carry out work that contributes to global conversations around water. To know the terrain, its waterways, and its urban nuances is critical to our work, knowledge we felt was best acquired through walking through place where we will be for several weeks and months.

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As we moved beyond the industrial area, a space that appears to be in the process of revitalization with a range of art centers tucked around each corner, we arrived at Agua Fria Street, a main traffic artery that draws commuters to and from the downtown plaza. Unaware at this point that we were undertaking an ethnography on foot, what has since resulted is the realization that we were not only becoming geographically oriented, but we were witnessing the socio-economic divides that the main transportation arteries create in Santa Fe, observations that now inform core research questions during our tenure in Santa Fe.

We crossed Agua Fria to consider a brief toilet break at Frenchy’s field. However, we pressed on without stopping. Unbeknown to us, had we abandoned the path set out by Google Maps and embraced Holly’s approach of wandering, our first impressions of the socio-economic divide of Santa Fe would have been very different. We might have followed the Santa Fe River trail (see our observations below on that walk, taken more recently) that moves pedestrians and cyclists through more affluent communities. Yet we continued on the path of Aguia Fria Street where we observed what appeared to be makeshift wooden and wire fences guarded by a variety of dogs from frantically barking Pit Bulls to a jack-in-a-box Pekingese who warned residents of our presence on the pavement. Our perception of the American ideal of independence and property ownership played out along this single 3 mile stretch, with individual properties reflecting a range of values from ornamentation to fortification, to clustered communities off the beaten path.

Holly pausing in her footsteps to look at cluster dwelling in Santa Fe, New Mexico

Holly pausing in her footsteps to look at cluster dwelling in Santa Fe, New Mexico

As we pressed closer to downtown in the space between the intersectional roads of St. Francis Drive and South Guadalupe Street an economic divide became apparent. The adobe vernacular we had seen in the previous three miles, often in disrepair, was now well-maintained and occupied by art galleries, restaurants, schools and homes with low-fences so that passersby could see the manicured yards with local vegetation accompanied by rock installations. It felt to us that the community along Agua Fria Street is undergoing a constant compression of gentrification from both ends. We wondered, when squeezed so far, where will this community go and what policies are driving property shifts in Santa Fe?
The following Saturday, to escape the campus compound once more and locate Santa Fe in the greater expanse that is New Mexico, we abandoned our feet and took the highway seventy miles North following the Rio Grande to Taos. The main area of Taos holds many similarities to Santa Fe, with adobe-style housing and dramatic shifts in socio-economic situations radiating outwards from the central tourist orientated plaza to the leisure mecca of Ski Valley. Yet beyond the town, and truly off the beaten path, is the ‘Greater World Earthship Community’ – a 633 acre subdivision containing nothing but earthship style homes. Here we ventured on foot to explore what we could of this biotecture community.

Holly taking steps in learning about biotecture in New Mexico.

Holly taking steps in learning about biotecture in New Mexico

Sample structures of the Greater World Community of Earthships, New Mexico

Sample structures of the Greater World Community of Earthships, New Mexico

Investing $7 each to enter the Earthship Visitor Center to learn about structures, materials, etc., (too complex to go into here) our conversation drifted to the concept of “sustainability” in the anthropocene. We found ourselves mesmerized by the exclusivity of the community and what the front-end costs are for participating in this lifestyle. As one of three Earthship communities in New Mexico, and part of a larger network across the US that began in the 1970s, one can join this community and purchase a newly built structure for just over $1.5 million US Dollars (as we were told in the visitor center). Playing in here to what Van Jones terms the “eco-elite” (2007).

On our third excursion off the campus compound in the three weeks since arriving, we decided to explore the Santa Fe Rail Trail multi-use pedestrian system, the elusive path we did not know to take during our pause at Frenchy’s field on our first walking odyssey. In walking this trail for 8 miles, we, again, observed disparate socio-economic communities, this time divided by the parched bed of the Santa Fe River. Again, closer to the main roads where the Santa Fe Trail crosses over, communities similar to that along Aguia Fria Street are visible. Edge deeper along the trail network and communities framed by high fences appear as they conceal well-maintained adobe homes with renewable energy sources on their roofs and water catchment practices in their backyards.

Sample of Sustainable Energy on a private residence

Sample of Sustainable Energy on a private residence

What we discovered in the act of ambulatory knowing in Santa Fe is that development and accessibility to secure, sustainable lifestyles appears to be exclusive. The individuals and families to whom it appears inaccessible are those being compressed by brownfield and urban gentrification, or hugging major roadways. By prioritising economic growth, and then the environment (as a capitalised resource) over social equality, there is something in our current understandings of sustainability that grows mainly out-of-sight in the interstitial spaces of policy, urban planning, and environmental consciousness. Something that can become knowledge through curbside learning and walking. It is in this action of walking and visual observation where we find the questions we need to ask in our own work about policy, law, regulation, and planning as our work here develops with each passing day and the paths we find ourself walking down.

Photos by Fiona P. McDonald


Bibliography

Ingold, Tim. 2010. “Footprints through the weather-world: walking, breathing, knowing.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute: S121-S139.

Jones, Van. 2009. Beyond Eco-Apartheid. Available at: http://truth-out.org/archive/component/k2/item/70209:van-jones–beyond-ecoapartheid

Welch, Bryan. 2009. “Earthships: The Power of Unconventional Ideas.” Available at:

http://www.motherearthnews.com/green-homes/earthships-michael-reynolds-zb0z12fmzsto

Taos and the Greater World Earthship Community. Homepage: http://earthship.com/blogs/2015/03/taos-the-greater-world-community/


Bio for Fiona P. McDonald, PhD. (Anthropologist, Curator)

Fiona P. McDonald is the 2016-2019 Postdoctoral Researcher at Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) Arts and Humanities Institute. She is also a 2017 Water Rights Resident at the Santa Fe Art Institute. Fiona completed her PhD (2014) in the Department of Anthropology at University College London (UCL) in visual anthropology & material culture. Her dissertation is entitled Charting Material Memories: a visual and material ethnography of the transformations of woollen blankets in contemporary art, craft, and Indigenous regalia in Canada, Aotearoa/New Zealand, and the United States. This project was undertaken as both an historic and contemporary visual and material ethnography of the material nature and transformations of woollen (trade) blankets that were produced in the United Kingdom since the seventeenth century. Her work addresses both historical and contemporary uses of woollen blankets through a direct examination of the pluralistic histories that things and objects have when re-worked and recycled by contemporary artists and customary makers in North American and Aotearoa New Zealand. Fiona is currently translating this research into a book project.

Fiona is also the co-founder of Ethnographic Terminalia Collective (ETC) (est.2009), an international curatorial collective that curates exhibitions at the intersections of arts and anthropology. ETC have curated and organized exhibitions and workshops across North America (Philadelphia, New Orleans, San Francisco, Montreal, New York, Austin, Chicago, Denver, and Vancouver) where they aim to move academic research beyond the academy through public engagement.

Research interests are: Water, Energy studies, Indigenous material and visual culture, repatriation, oral histories, contemporary Indigenous art, curatorial theory, performance theory, and museum studies.

www.fiona-p-mcdonald.com


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