Monthly Archives: June 2014

Identity, contemporary art and ecology


I gave a version of the presentation below yesterday at the 12th Waddenacademie symposium on Terscheliing in The Netherlands. Video recordings of all the talks and other information from this event can be found at:

It’s in two parts. The first thinks about relating identity, art and ecology to each other. The second presents the work of five people who, in different ways, I think enact this relationship. My underlying concern is with our urgent need to cross-reference skills learned through art with those acquired in and between other lifeworlds. This should make it possible to better translate between different existing social framings and, in consequence, to think beyond them, both essential tasks in our current eco-social situation.

Identity, contemporary art and ecology

In The Power of the Ooze, Simon Read suggests that our eco-social problems require (I quote) “a particular kind of strategy that our culture has yet to develop and promote”. I think the people I’m going to speak about – including Simon himself – embody the beginning of just such a strategy. What follows draws on their work and on Felix Guattari’s notion of ecosophy – the view that we live in three distinct, yet profoundly interdependent, ecological fields– the environment, society, and the constellation of persona we call a self. The task I’ve set myself is to identify something of the strategy Simon calls for.

The relationship between identity, art, and ecology can be understood as occupying a ‘place’ that is evoked through image and language. Whereas in Britain the language around coastal management is largely combative and military, I understand that in Holland the dyke system is classified according to “Watchers”, “Sleepers” and “Dreamers”. In this way different metaphors place their users differently in relation to the sea. As the geographer Tim Cresswell reminds us our uses of the word ‘place’ links social hierarchies, status and ownership with spatial locations and arrangements. To say that someone can be ‘put in her place’ or is supposed to ‘know his place’ shows the close connection between location and normative social positioning. The rural lifeworlds and taskscapes that particularly interest me – which are often the focus of conflict around environmental governance and legislation – are normatively positioned in a number of ways. Here are three.

The first is dismissive, typified by Marx and Engels’ phrase: “the idiocy of rural life”. This still informs much Leftist political analysis and a recent book – Austerity Ireland: the Failure of Irish Capitalism – can advocate taking Ireland’s natural resources into public ownership without bothering to make any reference to the agricultural community. The second positioning is usually conservative. Here elements of Romanticism, notions of national or regional identity, local traditions, New Age spirituality, or Edenic environmentalism – whether taken individually or in combination – are used to idealize the rural, often over against the urban. The third position is instrumental, echoing the dominant characterization of politics and policymaking as narrowly functionalist. It locates the rural as what Heidegger calls ‘standing reserve’ – whether seen in terms of food production, tourism and leisure, renewable energy sources, or as a space in which “to make room for rivers” and so avoid urban flooding.

These normative placings derive from sedimented presuppositions – old, reductive, powerfully divisive half-truths that are easily exploited by a popularist politics based on crude binaries. Theycan easily compound the neglect of the rural by policymakers and, as such, can provoke reactions and counter-reactions that lock social groups into what Paul Ricoeur calls: “incommunicability through a protective withdrawal” – a significant factor in many socio-environmental conflicts. Addressing thiswithdrawalrequires a combination of knowledge, empathetic imagination, and practical and mediation skills – most particularly those of listening and imagining. It also requires that we think differently using different metaphors and terms.

One of the things I try to do as a hybrid teacher/artist/researcher is to attempt to excavate the presuppositions of the lifeworlds I know well – two in particular. The first is that of professional specialists – people who earn a living re-organising, legislating for, and administering, the intellectual, cultural, or practical elements of other peoples’ lifeworlds. The authority and status of these professionals derives from ownership of a specific mindscape that tends to be institutionally grounded – for example in the art or academic worlds – rather than in a particular geographical region. Professional people who identify with this lifeworld tend to have internalized urban presuppositions and to either ignore the rural or view it as ‘standing-reserve’.

The second lifeworld is that of people whose livelihood and lifeworld is heavily dependent on embodied knowledge and skills. Their most valued forms of knowing are place-specific and performatively enacted. For the most part they derive their identity from their co-production of particular material taskscapes. Those who identify themselves with this rural lifeworld tend to position themselves according to one or another of the range of idealizing presuppositions I identified earlier.

Many environmental conflicts arise from failure to understand that these two generic lifeworlds presuppose radically distinct ways of being-in-the-world. An example may be useful here. A farm wife in rural north Cornwall tells a story about a local politician’s visit and the kinds of things he says. She ends her story by shrugging and saying: “But when he went, he left the farm gate open”. For her that single action speaks far louder than his words.

 Five examples

I’ll now introduce projects by five people who work across and between the two very different, often antagonistic, lifeworlds I’ve just indicated. They work with skills learned as artists, but also draw on quite other skills learned in different lifeworlds. Rather than identify themselves with a single lifeworld – the mono-verse behind the phrase “I’m an artist” – they work in and across a plurality of lifeworlds – in a poly-verse. This equips them with the range of conceptual, empathetic, and practical skills to translate and act so as to follow ecosophically productive lines of possibility. I don’t have time to say very much about each project, but I’ve given web site references if you want further information.

Cathy Fitzgerald – – trained and worked as a biologist but now works as a forester, artist filmmaker, blogger, green political activist, and writer. She’s also studying for a doctorate. She lives in a small wood owned by her and her husband in County Carlow in Ireland and her larger concerns radiate out from her long-term commitment to this one place. Ireland has the lowest proportion of deciduous trees in Europe after Iceland and Malta. While ithas extensive but piecemeal forestry policy, addressing everything from water quality and archaeology through to biodiversity and the conservation of the freshwater pearl mussel, it shows little understanding of complex underlying issues like the relationship between appropriate tree cover and pluvial flood management. The immediate context for Cathy’s transforming a Sitka spruce plantation into a sustainably managed mixed species wood is the tension between this piecemeal official policy and grass roots public interest in planting sustainable forest that includes broadleaf native tree species.

However, while the wood is her focus and will be regularly assessed by the Irish Council for Forest Research and Development, Cathy is also engaged in a mesh of projects that set out to built links between silvicultural specialists, local communities, timber users, artists, and environmental enthusiasts to further eco-cultural, scientific, economic and green policy concerns locality, across Ireland, and internationally.

The orientation of Cathy’s activity is simultaneously ecological, creative, political, and educational. It’s cross-referenced through extensive personal interaction and strategic use of social media – both of which are aimed at multiple constituencies. Her intention in cross-fertilizing forestry with creative film work, writing, and political action is to encourage exchange between diverse constituencies so as to provoke ecosophical thinking. So her public self-education as a forester creatively sets out to mesh together innovative forestry practice, new conceptions of the nature/culture relationship, and fundamental issues of community and environment – thus offering new ideas and models to a variety of lay and specialist constituencies.

Antony Lyons works with a wide variety of processes, often focused by fieldwork and experimental remixing of, and translations across, archives, recordings, scientific data and contemporary narratives.His professional background is in environmental and geo-sciences, sculpture, and landscape design, and he’s increasingly using film to address the complex and multiple strands of tidal, estuary, and other watery environments. Many of his projects build on participatory and collaborative approaches to explore place and foster reconnection to natural processes and cycles. They tend to focus on deep-time geological perspectives, material associations (combinations, symbolism, etc.) and intangible cultures.

Antony’s Lovely Weather project – – took a multi-constituency approach from the outset, actively involving scientific specialists, a local postman and a dedicated folk meteorologist, along with teachers and pupils at a local school. The project generated a dialogue between scientific weather measurements (rainfall, humidity, temperature, pressure, wind speed, wind direction), local weather lore, and personal weather-related material from Antony and members of a small volunteer observation team.

Local peat bogs and their role as carbon sinks became a focus in this project and the inclusion of a peat stack and related artworks in the final exhibition raised questions about the complexity of climate and its changes on a practical level. As with Cathy Fitzgerald’s work this project – sponsored by the Leonardo Observatory for Arts, Sciences, and Technologies and Donegal County Council – brought the concerns of a number of different regional, national and international constituencies into contact.

In the essay I quoted earlier, Simon Read writes about being excited by the potential to develop a new symbolic relationship where cultural understanding of change can feed back into the planning and management loop. A relationship that recognises that social concerns can become a driver in the development of new approaches to scientific processes. His enthusiasm and interest in symbolic relationships is also present in Kathy Fitzgerald and Antony Lyons’ work and is central to the next project I want to touch on.

The Hill of the Ravens, a sacred site in the cosmology of the Cahuilla people, wascalled Cerrito Solo or “Little Lonely Hill”by the Spanish, and is now called Mount Slover. It consists of very pure limestone and was once the tallest hill in the San Bernardino Valley. By 2009, when industrial activity ended, it was less than half its original height due to marble quarrying and cement production.Lewis DeSoto, descended from the Cahuilla people on his father’s side, is an active member of that community who works as an artist, a Professor at the San Francisco State University, and draws on both Buddhism and phenomenology in his work. He oftenengages with the spaces between ancient place-based Cahuilla stories and contemporary cartographies, encouraging viewers to reflect on the distinctive and complex relationships between place, land and culture.

DeSoto’s Tahualtapa – uses the fate of the Hill of the Ravens to explore the mountain’s transformation from sacred place to standing-reserve, tracking shifting cultural and environmental relationships to the earth in the process. This major project directly influenced the thinking of the writer, curator and social activist Rebecca Solnit; specifically her critique of the morbidity and nostalgia inherent in the myth of Genesis and the Fall – two characteristics that still haunt much environmental thinking. Solnit’s reflections on DeSoto’s work help us understand how the archaeologist Tim Ingold can usefully relate traditional animist cosmologies to recent philosophical thinking – proposing in the process a view of world creation as continuous improvisation, without initial perfection or a subsequent fall.

Simon Read lives on a barge on the River Deben. He works as an artist, teaches at Middlesex University, and serves as an environmental designer, community mediator, and ecological activist – He’s been involved in projects on the River Debden since 1997. These images are of the Sutton Saltmarsh tidal attenuation barrier at Woodbridge, which he designed with Hawes Associates Engineers and then built with volunteers from a local Prison for the River Debden Association, a regional community organization.

Simon’s numerous large map drawings are always a response to issues relating to management strategies for fluid and shifting environments. They both delineate specific and recognizable landscapes and are active meditations on changing environmental conditions between land and water. Simon retrieves, cross-references, and synthesizes material from many different official sources so as to equip himself to join the complex environmental planning debates around the management of environments like the Debden and its salt marsh.

Recently Simon worked on the Falkenham Saltmarsh project – an examination of the conditions and potential for marsh stabilization. This eventually led to him planning and executing the building of barriers to prevent erosion of the saltmarsh by managing tidal flow and encouraging the controlled deposition of silt. These practical yet sculptural barriers are “soft engineered” from timber, brushwood, straw bales, and coir – a natural fiber extracted from the husk of coconuts. They are specifically designed to degrade back into the marsh over time. Simon responds to the challenges of environmental change by publically acknowledging our need to find the nuanced and complex solutions necessary to understanding the cultural implications and dimensions of change as these relate to a societal re-framing of our understanding of land, ownership, responsibility and belonging.

Deirdre O’Mahonyworks as an artist, art school lecturer, environmental activist and community enabler who set up the X-PO project in a former post office – Rural post-offices used to be important community contact points and the Kilnaboy post office was run by a man called Mattie Rynne, a short-wave radio enthusiast and self-taught linguist, until it was permanently closed in 2002. The Mattie Rynne Archive was an installation of photographs, texts, material objects, cassette tapes, newspaper cuttings, flyers and paraphernalia left in the building when Rynne died in 2000. O’Mahony created a temporary installation that selectively re-presented Mattie’s belongings and a wall drawing from soot taken from the kitchen stove. Mattie rarely left the area around Kilnaboy but what the collection revealed was an extraordinarily rich private life, one fueled by reading, listening and continuous intellectual enquiry.

Mattie’s short-wave radio gave him access to BBC world-service language programmes, which he recorded on the cassette tapes he used to teach himself five languages. His books, journals, copybooks and correspondence courses range in subject from Advanced English and ballroom dancing to electronics, self-improvement, and spiritual healing – testament to his intellectual curiosity and desire to understand the world beyond rural Killnaboy. The re-presentation of these traces of that rich personal life gives the lie to the usual reductive presuppositions about the rural.

In conventional disciplinary terms Christine Baeumler, like the five individuals I’ve referred to, is usually identified as an artist. In reality she works across a complex polyverse. To students at the University of Minnesota she’s an inspiring and dedicated teacher. To her employer she’s an effective administrator with an exemplary public engagement record. Her colleagues see her as working between ecology and art and ranging across media from painting and film to complex collaborative installations like the piece on the left here. Her neighbours know her as having worked for 18 years on community projects restoring local natural and cultural landscapes. Local Dakota community activists know her as a long term practical ally. To me she’s a supportive and thoughtful friend. I could go on but I hope I’ve made my point.

I’ll end with two practical points. Firstly, our eco-social issues can only be adequately addressed by those able and willing to move between multiple lifeworlds without over-identifying with any one – including creative translators who are able to engage with multiple constituencies in developing ecosophical practices. Secondly, “incommunicability through protective withdrawal” is actually built into the realpolitik of academic disciplinarity, and so into the educational and operational presuppositions of the disciplined professions. To overcome this we need new, multi-constituency approaches rather than an interdisciplinarity that is all too often experienced – at least in the arts – as a form of intellectual neo-colonialism.

A multi-constituency approach would place greater emphasis on embodied forms of practical and place-specific knowledge and skill; on collective willingness to engage with the realpolitik of collective work – for example issues of trust and political truth-telling – through a more egalitarian approach to the planning, funding, and management of projects via “combative collaboration”. I’m aware this is a lot to ask but, if we want to build on the changing relationship between identity, art, and ecology, that’s what’s needed.

My thanks to everyone who made this trip to the Netherlands possible, particularly Owain Jones (short hair, left) and Bettina van Hoven (red case, centre), both of whom have their backs to the camera)!