Archive for the ‘Methodologies’ Category

Culture Conversation – Culture and Climate Change

November 28, 2017

The Scottish Government is currently involved in ‘early engagement’ on a new Cultural Strategy for Scotland.

In early November, Creative Carbon Scotland hosted a discussion as part of the Scottish Government’s consultation on the development of a new Culture Strategy for Scotland.

Joined by arts and sustainability practitioners working across a range of contexts, we focused on the connections between culture and climate change and the role of the arts in wider society, particularly in relation to environmental sustainability.

We convened the meeting around three key questions, relating the Scottish Government’s Culture Conversations questions to the issue of climate change. We also provided an online survey for those who were unable to participate in the event, some of the points from which are also included here.

The discussion focused on three questions:

  • What do you perceive as the role of arts and culture in contributing to a more sustainable Scotland at individual, organisational and strategic levels?
  • What are key examples of good practice and opportunities for new collaborations across cultural and sustainable sectors?
  • What are the priority areas to further the role of culture in bringing about transformational change to a more sustainable Scotland?

To read the key points from the meeting visit the Creative Carbon Scotland website.

Review: Gut Gardening

March 24, 2017

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


References

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

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

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

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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?

 

Thinking through the Anthropocene

August 2, 2016

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Application deadline: 10am, Friday 19th August

Creative Carbon Scotland is delighted to announce the details of their annual Arts & Sustainability Artists’ Residency (30th September – 3rd October). This year they’re offering up to eight Scotland-based artists from any discipline with the paid opportunity to participate in a weekend of discussion and activities at Cove Park, exploring the relationship between their practices and environmental sustainability.

Co-facilitated by Jan Bebbington (Professor of Accounting and Sustainable Development, Director, St Andrews Sustainability Institute) and Lex ter Braak (Director, Van Eyck Institute, Maastricht, Netherlands), Creative Carbon Scotland’s third annual residency will use the spectrum of stories surrounding the Anthropocene as an entry point for discussing the relationship between cultural practices and environmental sustainability.

The residency will be hosted in partnership with Cove Park over a long weekend from 30th September – 3rd October. Selected artists will be paid a fee of £450 for their attendance and travel expenses from within Scotland, accommodation and catering will be covered.

Find out more and apply here: http://www.creativecarbonscotland.com/artist-residency-open-call-thinking-through-the-anthropocene/

This residency is funded by Creative Scotland and kindly supported by The Dr David Summers Charitable Trust and is run in partnership with Cove Park.

Outlook: Exploring Geddes in the 21st Century

July 21, 2016

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To coincide with Scotland’s Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design 2016, a two-day international conference (18-19 August, 2016) will celebrate the impact and legacy of Sir Patrick Geddes, polymath, botanist and founding father of town planning.

The conference will be opened by Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Fiona Hyslop MSP.

The conference will involve a series of interactive seminars and workshops, fusing together strands of academic and practice-based thinking from Scotland and all around the world.

The first day will hear from young people about their sense of place as well as a range of leading thinkers, artists, architects, educationalists and planners.
Day two will provide opportunities for creative, hands-on art and design workshops inspired by Geddes, involving students from Art, Space + Nature Masters Programme at ECA.

Further information and booking here.

Off-grid electrification

July 16, 2016
Image of mow demolished Port Dundas Power Station.Port Dundas Power Station served the Tram System in Glasgow.

Port Dundas Power Station served the Tram System in Glasgow

Working with Community Energy Scotland on the Land Art Generator Glasgow project has led to discussions about Local Energy Grids.
Reading Prof Paul Younger’s book on Energy highlighted the real challenges of putting renewables together with our existing national grid.

The limitations of the national grid have driven remote Scottish communities to develop proposals for local grids to enable them to make full use of the energy they can generate in their own environments. In this article local grids are being developed in Africa using solar, micro-payments and smart/mesh metering. Just as mobile phones have enabled much of Africa to bypass a ‘wired network’ problem so local grids bypass a ‘national grid’ problem.

What’s really interesting is the importance of a stable civil society, good governance, to support local autonomy and development (which is what this is whether it’s Scotland or Africa). Sustainability is after all totally scale dependent.

For LAGI Glasgow these apparently remote examples have real relevance for city centre regeneration.


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