Archive for the ‘Methodologies’ Category

Sir Peter Scott: the embodiment of art and conservation

July 11, 2018

As part of the #art4wetlands series the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) have very kindly provided us with the following images and story on their founder, artist and conservationist Sir Peter Scott. Sir Peter epitomises one of the many ways that the power of art can be brought to bear on the challenges of conservation. One of the WWT reserve managers mentioned that every time Sir Peter wanted to do work to improve a reserve he would simply, “create another painting to sell.”


scott feeding wildfowl

Image courtesy of Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT)

Sir Peter Scott (1909-1989) knew how to take action, and how to inspire others.  He was a visionary who understood that people and nature are part of the same intertwined ecosystem. He realised – ahead of his time – that our wealth, our health and our emotional wellbeing all depend on the natural world. He understood that showing people how amazing nature is, can ignite a passion to conserve it.

Scott was an accomplished artist, writer, world-class sportsman, Naval Commander and the son of one of the most famous explorers of the 20th Century.  Famously, his father’s last letter from Antarctica prophetically instructed his wife to “Make the boy interested in nature – it is so much better than sports.”  As fate would have it, he was brilliant at both.

Scott with snowgoose

Image courtesy of WWT

Added to this he was an extraordinary wildlife artist with a particular passion for wildfowl art.  He produced hundreds of original wildfowl artworks in his lifetime and his deep love of painting birds must surely have driven his passion for working to save wetlands and wildfowl around the world.

In 1945/6 he became determined to set up a Wildfowl Trust – but where?  At Slimbridge – he had a ‘eureka’ moment.  Here, on the banks of the River Severn in Gloucestershire he spotted two unbelievably rare Lesser White-Fronted Geese in a flock of White-Fronted Geese.  So, Slimbridge would become the home of the Severn Wildfowl Trust – later to become the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust.

More than that, he began to address wider, global conservation issues.  A co-founder and first chairman of the World Wildlife Fund (1961), his work on international conservation issues continued over the coming decades.  He was instrumental in setting up the Ramsar Convention in 1971.  This international agreement works to protect wetlands of international importance and now includes over 2,300 sites covering 2 million square kilometres. In 1982 he established an international moratorium on whaling and later worked to secure agreements for the protection of Antarctica from international exploitation.  In 1973 he became the first person to be knighted for services to conservation.

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Sir Peter Scott with Néné Geese. Image courtesy of WWT

Over the coming years he developed new conservation techniques and honed existing ideas; he saved the Hawaiian Goose (the Néné) from extinction; he established international protocols for conservation (i.e. the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species) still used today to categorise the conservation status of all known species; he brokered national and international agreements for the conservation of wildlife; he championed research into the damage done to our wild places and how to address this; he tracked the migratory patterns of wetland birds; he resolved to work across borders to protect their flyways and – insightful as ever – he recognised the power of bringing wildlife into people’s homes through the evolving medium of television and his ‘Look’ series on the BBC.

It is hard to identify anyone before him who had such an impact on raising conservation issues with the general public, and on bringing governments together to address global issues.

Kate Foster: Engaging with peatland restoration – Embedded Art practices within Landscape Partnerships

May 12, 2018

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As artists, we (Kerry Morrison and Kate Foster) have discovered a common purpose of embedding ecological artistic practice and research within peat landscape restoration projects. This post invites readers to ‘watch this space’ for how we are, and will be, involved in restoration work on blanket peatland and raised bogs that will be carried out by three Landscape Partnerships that have been recently funded by the Heritage Lottery Landscape Partnership Fund.

The significance of peatlands in terms of wildlife, climate action and hydrology is increasingly recognised by government policy which is leading to artists’ opportunities, such as with the Peatland Partnership in the Flow Country. For anyone interested in the cultural values of peatland, there is much artwork to draw inspiration from, such as Sexy Peat ; ongoing work by postgraduate students of Art Space and Nature at Edinburgh College of Art; the respective work of Laura Harrington or Lionel Playford, both based at the University of Northumbria; and Wind Resistance by singer-songwriter Karine Polwart.
Within this wider context, our respective artistic aims include profiling existing community culture, skills and knowledge – the living heritage. We will be developing artwork during the stage of ecological restoration, contributing further ways to how peatlands can be culturally valued. We see this as an opportunity to reflect on art practice with others (artists and non-artists) who have similar interests, over a three-year period.

The Pendle Hill Landscape Partnership programme

As director and lead environment artist at In-Situ, Kerry had been working with the Forest of Bowland during the development stages of their Landscape Partnership Heritage Lottery bid for Pendle Hill. This included developing and managing a pilot arts programme which informed the final, and successful, bid. Working closely with Cathy Hopley (Development Officer at Forest of Bowland AONB) to embed art into the landscape restoration strand of the Pendle Hill four-year programme, In-Situ have become one of the partners and will lead an art strand called The Gatherings which includes a two-year artist residency during which Kerry will work alongside the team restoring the upland peatlands of Pendle Hill Summit.

The Gatherings programme integrates arts practice and research into a number of the Pendle Hill Landscape Partnership themes, including: Pendle Hill Summit, Archaeology, High Nature Value, Traditional Boundaries, Woodlands, and What’s a Hill Worth?

The Gatherings strand has been designed/curated as a coherent programme consisting of temporary interventions, events, residencies, films and public gatherings. The art projects, beginning in 2018, will evolve in partnership and collaboration, developing and responding to the project strands as they progress over the 4-year delivery period. The role of the artist will be multitudinous: to shed light on the landscape restoration programme, to outreach and engage communities including audiences that have been identified as the most infrequent visitors to the Pendle landscape, and to contribute to new knowledge. The creative processes, outputs and new knowledge gained will be shared in year 4 (2022) at a 3-day conference.

The image below is of a group of young people from Brierfield Action in the Community, celebrating, having achieved the steep climb to Pendle Hill Summit. Their day out was part of a series of workshops to test the Pendle Hill Engagement Kit, developed by In-Situ in partnership with The Forest of Bowland and artist Amy Pennington.

The Galloway Glens Landscape Partnership programme

“The Galloway Glens Landscape Partnership aims to connect people living and working in the area with its heritage and landscape in a drive to secure a prosperous future for the communities around the Water of Ken and River Dee, right from their source to the sea.”

source: http://www.gallowayglens.org/about/

Further details of the scope of the proposed programme can be seen here. Peatland Connections is one component, led by Dr. Emily Taylor of the Crichton Carbon Centre and to be jointly funded by the Scottish Government programme, Peatland Action. Peatland Connections aims to:

… highlight the significance of Galloway peatlands and, using a demonstrator site beside the Southern Upland Way, trial a new framework to be used to revert areas of forestry back to peatlands, highlighting the resulting water quality, biodiversity and carbon balance benefits. These capital works will be supported by a suite of public engagement/artistic activities highlighting the importance and relevance of peatlands. Source: http://www.gallowayglens.org/projects

Kate’s art practice is concerned with different kinds of land use, focussing on wetlands. Various projects prepared the way for making links to Peatland Connections. For example, in 2016 she co-ordinated an event themed Wetlands, Flow, and Questions of Scale, at the Stove in Dumfries.  The range of inspiring and thought provoking presentations revealed the depth of existing interest and also the possibilities for further connections.

The image above shows a group with a demonstration peatcore at a workshop on Kirkconnel Flow, led by Dr. Lauren Parry of the University of Glasgow.

Kate proposed Peat Culture as an element of the Peatland Connections in consultation with Emily Taylor. As lead artist, Kate intends to profile the biocultural heritage of Galloway Glens Peatlands by creating an anthology; by developing original artwork as artist-in-residence to the restoration; and by jointly creating material for an exhibition.
Recognising synergies in their practice and collaborative approach with landscape Partnerships, Kerry and Kate began to discuss the potential of connecting Galloway Glens and the Pendle Hill Partnerships to widen the scope, reach and impact of ecological art and peat restoration. Both Landscape Partnerships embraced the idea of connecting and partnering, and to also work with the Carbon Landscape Project (another Heritage Lottery Fund Landscape Partnership with a peatland focus), which is in the early stages of delivery.

The Carbon Landscape Project

The Carbon Landscape Project is a Landscape Partnership based around Salford and Warrington, and draws on the area’s importance in the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. A short informative video Taking a Round View of the Carbon Landscape can be seen here.

The Carbon Landscape Project is changing the way in which we approach landscapes and communities in Wigan, Salford and Warrington. Twenty-two interlinked projects will provide a forward-thinking and effective programme that will have lasting benefits for local communities and wildlife.

Source: http://www.lancswt.org.uk/carbon-landscape-project

The scheme is in its first year of their 5-year delivery phase, with work getting underway.

Peat Meets

People involved in developing peatland projects of the Galloway Glens Landscape Partnership, the Pendle Hill Landscape Partnership, and the Carbon Landscape Project travelled to a Great Peat Meet in New Galloway last November, in order to exchange information about their programmes. The proposed peatland restoration projects will offer varied ways of engaging communities. Once the projects are all underway, further exchange visits are planned.

The image above was taken during a site visit to Clatteringshaws Visitor Centre Galloway, allowing informal discussion during a walk over deep peatland. Glens Development Officer, McNabb Laurie, said:

“We were proud to welcome these other Landscape Partnerships to Galloway and to hear how the condition and use of peatland sites varies across the UK. It is great that a number of schemes are coming together to highlight the importance of peat on factors such as water quality, biodiversity, flood management and also the global significance as a carbon store. We can contribute to a national approach to these issues.” Source: http://www.gallowayglens.org/2017/11/

As artists, we attended and have both been proactive in making proposals and connections between the Landscape Partnerships. The aim is to profile the many and varied ways that peatlands are already valued culturally, as well as contribute new creative work. Plans include a seminar series, to create a network with people involved in similar projects elsewhere and to encourage reflection on interpretation and creative practice.

This article has been prepared by artists Kate Foster and Kerry Morrison in consultation with colleagues in their respective Landscape Partnerships projects.

Contacts for further information:
Kerry Morrisonkerry@in-situ.org.uk
Kate Fosterart@meansealevel.net
Pendle Hill Landscape Partnership:
Cathy Hopley: cathy.hopley@lancashire.gov.uk
Galloway Glens Landscape Partnership:
McNabb Laurie: mcnabb.laurie@dumgal.gov.uk

Report on AALERT

February 22, 2018

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This is a quick and personal reflection on the Art and Artists in Landscape and Environmental Research Today workshop (AALERT) held at the National Gallery London 15 Feb jointly sponsored by the Landscape Research Group and the Valuing Nature Programme of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), and supported by the Landscape & Arts Network. This is not an overview of the content of the day, including excellent presentations by Prof Stephen Daniels, Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway or the many threads and contributions. The intention is to focus on the key points in relation to the stated aim – understanding the contribution artists and art make to landscape and environmental research. We understand a more detailed summary will be published by the organisers.

The day brought together artists with natural and social scientists, and humanities academics. The key question was and remains what contribution art and artists can make to landscape and environmental research. The day was organized around questions of agency, value and how to embed artists with other disciplines. The fundamental problem is that many people don’t understand artists’ research. That being said, everyone ‘knows’ that there is a contribution. Most people don’t agree with Lewis Wolpert when he said,

“Although science has had a strong influence on certain artists – in the efforts to imitate nature and thus to develop perspective or in the area of new technologies – art has contributed virtually nothing to science.” (Wolpert, 2002)

Tim Collins opened proceedings with a quote highlighting that artists want to be dealt with as researchers rather than as subjects of research

“In the first place, the scene of research, centred on academic and scientific communities, will encounter new actors who will have to be considered no longer as objects of study, but as inquiring subjects themselves: the artist and the artist-as-researcher…. This means that, fourthly, research cultures will potentially be enriched with new narratives, discourses and modes of knowledge including knowledge of making (techne) and knowledge of the value systems that inform making (phronesis).” (Coessens et al., 2009, pp91-92)

This point is important because art and artists are often spoken for and about not least by art historians but also by anthropologists and other social scientists. We might argue that these interlocutors use evidence in forms which are ‘inter-operable’ with other forms of research evidence. The manifestation of artists’ research is at its core about making room to re-experience the world as (slightly) different, to pick up on Clive Cazeaux’s articulation. This ‘seeing it differently’ – and here we mean seeing in the widest sense, as in ‘understanding the possibility that it isn’t as we assume’ – is maybe neither quantitative nor qualitative. The concepts we use to understand the world shape both how and what we perceive. And also form how we make the world. This critical insight is valuable.

To be clear there are at least two meanings of research when used by artists (and even artists in the room conflated these). Pretty much all contemporary artists do research in the process of making work. In particular artists doing work with other disciplines, in public places, etc and in particular in landscape and environment, do a lot of research across a whole range of dimensions – social, historical, geographical, geological, ecological, etc – as preparation for making work. Sometimes this involves discovering new or forgotten things and sometimes it is functionally ‘familiarisation’ and assemblage of knowledge about a place or issue. Some artists do research informed by the same criteria as other academics – making a contribution to knowledge characterised by ‘originality, significance and rigour’. Artists don’t have to be in academic positions in research active institutions to do this, and in fact there is a long history of artists shaping our understanding of the world and sharing methods and processes so that others can learn. One difference, in addition to going beyond the specific project needs, is that the latter has a public dimension to the process and product which enables others to learn from it. Another difference is the positioning of the work with a social historical discourse. This in turn is one of the validations of the originality, significance and rigour requirement (which has been standardised over 26 years of UK research assessment).

The lack of awareness of this and its manifestation in artist-led work receiving 4* ratings in the 2014 REF was a cause of some frustration during the day.

Fundamentally each discipline and practice has a different way of knowing the world which are all equally valid. The challenge is that the ‘wicked’ problems we are facing including climate disruption, biodiversity loss and a warming planet require us to work together across traditional boundaries in teams. And teams need to understand each other. A quick rehearsal of Basarab Nicolescu’s formulation is useful (Nicolescu, 1997). He starts from the point that disciplines are valuable in themselves. He then talks about multi-disciplinary in terms of co-ordination of different disciplines’ methods; interdisciplinary in terms of learning from each other and hybridising; and trans-disciplinary as working across different levels of reality particularly where they are incommensurable e.g. between the scientific and the spiritual or data and emotions. He suggests that artists are particularly good at this.

Collins cited John Roberts, offering an articulation of this particular quality and its complexities. Roberts argues that art has a complex relationship with society at once enmeshed and autonomous. In particular he argues that, “one of the still operative functions of the artist – exploited extensively at the moment, as it is – is his or her ability to work with, reflect on, move through various non-artistic disciplines and practices without fully investing in them.” (Roberts, 2016, p112). Roberts calls this ‘adisciplinarity’ and he says,

“[t]his is because it is not the job of art to defend or extend the truth claims of a particular discipline, but to reflect on the discipline’s epistemological claims and symbolic status within the totality of non-art/ art disciplines and their social relations. When art draws, for example, from a particular scientific discipline such as physics, this is not in order to defend the truths of a particular branch of physics, but, rather, to use such truths as a reflection on physics as such, or as a means to reflect on the truth claims of other disciplines and practices.” (Roberts, p114)

This clarifies another aspect of discussion which focused on agency and autonomy. For artists to do what they do in terms of Roberts’ description, in terms of ‘seeing and/or making it differently’ they need a degree of autonomy, yet at the same time to work with others. This distinctive position, often within a team, is challenging and needs to be valued by others (including other academics but also funders and policy-makers), supported and given space. It raises anxiety in a risk averse culture. But it is fundamental to the contribution that art and artists can make, even if it is an idea that many struggle to recognise or understand how to ‘operationalise’.

One aspect which relates to this is that as artists (and curators, producers, writers) we have become very good at learning the languages of other disciplines and practices, their forms of evidence and their policy frameworks. The converse of this is that we don’t seem to have been very effective at articulating our forms of knowledge to other researchers and practitioners (this problem is as true in the context of arts and health as it is in research-led work).

Another related complexity flushed out during the day was that the conditions of participation need to be attended to, and the Artist Placement Group was referenced, including John Latham’s conceptualisation of the ‘Incidental Person’ as well as his and Barbara Steveni’s operating principles of Open Brief leading to Feasibility Study, the need for a willing host, and the need for commensurate pay (Steveni, 2003). This methodology has been developed within the arts to structure conditions for work in non-arts contexts.

This rich and provocative event opened up real questions on the contribution, conceptual and practical, of artists to landscape and environmental research. It opened up issues which need deeper reflection and consideration because without question the ‘wicked problems’ are increasingly the focus of research and policy. Whilst the Valuing Nature Programme may be nearing the conclusion of this phase of work it is highly likely that the next cycle of research will be larger with more challenging issues to address and it would be good to see more artists as Principal Investigators, Co-Investigators and Research Fellows helping to shape these projects, not just communicate the findings.

As the noted anthropologist Tim Ingold said recently,

“But while mainstream science continues to think of art as a medium for the communication of its own findings, it is now art, rather than science, that is leading the way in promoting radical ecological awareness.” (Ingold, 2017)

Ingold is echoing Roberts’ construction of arts adisciplinary role, pointing to the ways in which artists are re-imagining, even re-creating, our relationships with ecologies whether that is in the form of greater awareness and sensitivity or activism (and a range of other possibilities). All of these practices draw on the truths of various ecological sciences but also ask whether those truths are sufficient to articulate the value of the ecologies they claim to explain. The activists also use art to engage with the symbolic status of both the art and non-art social constructions (e.g. the social license to operate provided to the fossil fuel industry through sponsorship of cultural institutions). But that’s another subject.


Coessens, K., Douglas, A. and Crispin, D. 2009. The Artistic Turn: A Manifesto. Leuven University Press.

Ingold, T. 2017. The Art of Paying Attention. Aalto University. http://artofresearch2017.aalto.fi/keynotes.html accessed 16 February 2018

Nicolescu, B. 1997. The transdisciplinary evolution of learning. In Proceedings of the International Congress on What University for Tomorrow? Towards a Transdisciplinary Evolution of the University, Locarno, 30 April-2 May.
http://www.learndev.org/dl/nicolescu_f.pdf

Roberts, J., 2016. Revolutionary Time and the Avant-Garde. Verso

Steveni, B. 2003. Repositioning Art in the Decision-Making Processes of Society. In Interrupt Symposia. https://web.archive.org/web/20090107002604/http://interrupt.org.uk/symposia/educator/repositioning-art/ accessed 19 February 2018

Wolpert, L. 2002. Which Side Are You On? The Observer. 10 March. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2002/mar/10/arts.highereducation accessed 16 February 2018

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?

 


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