Posts Tagged ‘Valuing Nature Programme’

Adriana Ford #art4wetlands on WetlandLIFE at RamsarCOP13

February 2, 2019
Flamingoes on the Ras Al Khor wetlands with Dubai's skyline in the background. Photo: Adriana Ford

Flamingoes on the Ras Al Khor wetlands with Dubai’s skyline in the background. Photo: Adriana Ford

For World Wetlands Day, Adriana Ford reports on the WetlandLIFE project’s side event at the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in Dubai and how it was received. Highlighting the various contributions (on the Community Voice Method and by two of the artists Victoria Leslie and Kerry Morrison), Adriana goes on to report on the responses from the audience (who ‘got’ what the arts and cultural value focused approaches had to offer).


If you were to ask any wetland expert what is the conference to attend for connecting to global wetlands networks, it will most likely be the Ramsar Convention COP (Conference of Parties). It’s like the wetlands version of the UN Climate Change Conference which happens each year (typically making the news), as delegates from governments and other organisations from across the world gather to discuss and make decisions on the issues facing wetlands. The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands may not be quite as well-known, but it is the oldest of all the modern global intergovernmental environmental agreements, adopted in 1971 in the Iranian city of Ramsar (coming into force in 1975), with an impressive 170 Contracting Parties.

The Ramsar Convention states its mission as,

“the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world.”

It provides a framework for wetland management and protection at a global to local scale, including the designation of protected “Ramsar sites”. Every three years, the COP – the decision-making body made up of the governments that are the Contracting Parties to the Convention – meets in a different country, to assess progress and to make decisions about how to improve the processes and implementation of the Convention. The most recent COP (COP13) met in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, from 21st-29th October 2018.

It’s the first time I’ve been to a COP, but for a long while I’ve been curious about how they work and what’s involved. What I did know was that the Ramsar COP13 offered a unique and significant opportunity for WetlandLIFE to internationalise our impact and to make important new connections.  WetlandLIFE is a three year multi-institutional research project funded by the Valuing Nature Programme, exploring narratives and values around wetlands, particularly from a health and wellbeing perspective, and also the role of mosquitoes within this. Our research is focused in England, but our interdisciplinary approaches and findings have far broader applicability. So, I applied for a competitive place to host a “side event” at the conference. Held at lunchtimes and in the evenings of the COP, in between the plenary discussions, these side events provide an opportunity for organisations to present and discuss ideas and projects to the most relevant and global audience of wetland practitioners and experts that you could ask for.

We had been allocated a 75 minute slot on the penultimate day of COP13, for our session titled, ‘Sense of Place & Wellbeing in Wetlands: Using Film and the Arts to achieve SDG3’.  After arriving a few days early to navigate the COP and attend other side events (and of course, to promote our own!), I was joined by a small team, comprised of two of our WetlandLIFE artists, Victoria Leslie and Kerry Morrison; Chris Fremantle – a researcher, artist and cultural historian and advisor to WetlandLIFE; and Dave Pritchard – a freelance environmental consultant with extensive experience of the Ramsar Convention, who is also Coordinator of the Ramsar Culture Network.

Together, our aim was to exemplify and discuss ways that the arts, humanities and social sciences can be used either individually or alongside other disciplines to work towards Sustainable Development Goal 3 – Good Health and Wellbeing – for wetlands, particularly through sharing our experiences from WetlandLIFE.  I introduced our audience to Community Voice Method, a social sciences approach which uses filmed interviews as a way of bringing together different experiences and perspectives in an engaging way. When we screen our short films in the spring, they will act as a catalyst for further discourse and deliberation on wetland values and management. Our artists also introduced their work, from poetry and creative writing, to mosquito caravans and bird hides as creative hubs, as ways to both understand and create value and connectivity around wetlands and nature.

Our session was well attended, with representation from at least 12 countries in our audience, from the Middle East, Africa, The Americas, Europe and Asia, and we were fortunate to count two members of the Ramsar Secretariat amongst them. I think it would be fair to say we were prepared to justify our approaches of using the arts, imagining our audience to be potentially sceptical about its value for practical wetland management.  The response, however, was much to the contrary.

The enthusiasm for our approaches was clear and came from all sides. Paraphrasing a few comments from the discussion,

“for many years Ramsar has tried to convince people to save wetlands based on wildlife; then they tried economic values. But this [arts and culture] works. Getting people to think about how they value wetlands is what’s needed,”

and, “Until we can translate cultural values into resolutions we are going to struggle, and this is at the core,”

and quite enthusiastically, “We need to multiply this project [WetlandLIFE] everywhere!”

What became apparent from the discussions was that far from cultural values (and approaches of tapping into those) being considered a luxury afforded only to university projects such as ours, they are recognised as having a crucial role to play in Ramsar, because despite the many successes, wetlands across the globe continue to be degraded and destroyed, and new approaches are required. The idea of tapping into the hearts of people – communities, and indeed decision-makers – through creative and visual approaches may be part of what’s needed to help protect these hugely important, but often overlooked, ecosystems.

The experiences we gained from hosting our session at the Ramsar COP has been reassuring and motivating. We are keen now to build upon this momentum, with plans to take forward the discussions this year with key organisations and networks including Defra and the Ramsar Culture Network. We will be thinking about how cultural values and approaches can be better embedded into the Convention, and from our perspective, how WetlandLIFE can contribute to this, with the hope that somehow we can make a difference on the international stage.

Flamingoes feeding on the Ras Al Khor wetlands in Dubai, UAE. Photo: Adriana Ford


Dr Adriana Ford is a Research Fellow in Environmental Social Sciences at the University of Greenwich, and Coordinator of the Greenwich Maritime Centre.

Please email a.ford@gre.ac.uk for more information, and download the presentation Presentation Ramsar COP13 WetlandLIFE

Adriana works on various aspects of the human dimensions of  environmental management and conservation, including human-nature relationships, cultural values, wellbeing, and sustainable development.  She is currently working on WetlandLIFE, an interdisciplinary Valuing Nature project exploring the values of wetlands from a health and wellbeing perspective. She has also worked on projects exploring linkages between small-scale fisheries and responsible tourism, and has a broad interest in marine and coastal environments through her role in the Greenwich Maritime Centre.

Prior to Greenwich, Adriana worked as a teaching and research fellow at University of York, where she was also awarded her PhD on invasive species management in Australia. Adriana has also worked in Tanzania for a sustainable forestry initiative, and has an MSc from Imperial College London, and a BA(Hons) from the University of Cambridge.

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

Call for Artists: WetlandLIFE

June 7, 2017
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Fenlake Meadows. Photo: Tim Acott

The WetlandLIFE Research Team are looking for artists whose work can contribute to our knowledge and appreciation of wetlands and mosquitoes. By this we mean artworks, in any medium, that seek to influence our awareness, understanding, attitudes, emotions, values or behaviour towards them, and the ecological and social interactions that have brought them into being. This might be done by communicating the findings of researchers about wetlands and mosquitoes to new audiences, challenging how we think about them, or changing how we feel about them – perhaps helping us connect with them in new ways.

This is an exciting opportunity for artists to work alongside local communities and a diverse team of environmental researchers to show how art can influence how we value nature and ecosystem services. The focus of work will be on the Somerset Levels, Humber Levels and Thames Estuary, although reference will also be made to a broad range of inland and marine wetlands across England to capture the diversity of these places.

We are offering three bursaries of £5,000 each (total of £15,000). Artists can apply for the total amount – and create work that relates to the project’s three case study sites or to wetlands in general – or for one bursary worth £5000 – perhaps focusing specifically on one of the sites. We welcome applications from consortiums of artists working together to address all three sites. The bursaries cover the artist(s) fees, accommodation and travel, and all costs associated with the production and display of the artworks.

Artworks by the successful artist/s will be included in a final touring exhibition, planned in early/mid 2019, which will visit each of the three case study sites.

The full brief is available on the WetlandLIFE website.

WetlandLIFE is one of the projects funded through the multi-Research Council Valuing Nature Programme.


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