Coping strategies and the art of social translation.


(photo – Gwenda van der Vaart)

The text below is from a presentation given as part of a recent workshop organised by researchers in the Faculty of Spatial Sciences at the the University of Groningen. This was called “Resilience: Just do it?!”. (See previous posts for details).

The practical examples are by individuals who, for the most part, have web sites that show the work referred to here. I would strongly advise readers who are interested to find these web sites and study that work. Many of them can be found on my ‘friends’ page.

Yesterday I was reminded that it may take a couple of years for academics from different disciplines to understand each other’s language. And here I am, trying to explain work out on the edge of current art practice that many people in my own discipline don’t really grasp to people in a radically different discipline. As George Steiner says of trying to translate one language into another, this is perhaps impossible. But as he also goes on to say, it must be attempted. Otherwise we are left in “arrogant parishes bordered by silence”.

Luci Gorell Barnes’ The Atlas of Human Kindness is a growing collection of maps made by individuals and groups in Bristol, including refugee groups and children with learning difficulties. It shows where and when they experienced kindness from people concerned about their rights, feelings, and welfare. It invites debate about how stories, memories and imaginings make and re-make place, and how fragmented personal landscapes can become less fragmented. It invites people to think about values and connections, and about what networks and community means. Like Luci I often use mapping to translate between lifeworlds – between those of artists and scientists, academic researchers and rural communities, and so between theory and the mess and unpredictability of everyday life. But this work has an ambiguous relationship to resilience.

Terms like ‘resilience’, ‘social capital’, ‘community identity’, ‘place attachment’, ‘community cohesion’ and ‘community participation’ are all-to-often concepts imposed “from outside” onto supposedly vulnerable communities, usually without much reference to their ideas or lived experience. We don’t discuss former Bullingdon Club members – who include the British Prime Minister, the Mayor of London, and Chancellor of the Exchequer – in these terms. Yet they represent the most resilient section of society. They’re experts in using networks, social participation, and a sense of belonging to enhance their resilience to the social consequences of increasing environmental disaster. They have what Elias Canetti calls a ‘survivor mentality’. Everything they do is ultimately aimed at protecting their lifestyle, which they assume to be their exclusive right. This mentality is increasingly pervasive, in no small part because of the media and advertising. Recently researchers at a prestigious US University, using MRI scans of students’ brain activity, have shown that many students, particularly the wealthiest, react to photographs of the homeless and drug addicts as if (I quote): “they had stumbled on a pile of trash”. I don’t know about the Netherlands, but in Britain this same mentality now drives official Government attitudes towards the long-term sick and very poor.

Traditionally religion has been central to what is now termed resilience – both the resilience of elites and of radical spiritual traditions concerned with social justice and compassion. At a time when religious dogma is increasingly co-opted by fundamentalism, creative ritual as a form of grassroots spiritual resilience is also growing. Largely invisible to the art world and academia, this offers a small but significant counterpoint to the dominant ideology of possessive individualism. This type of creative ritual is often focused by a need – particularly in rural contexts – to address the erosion of traditional social activities that helped sustain the resilience of rural communities but also bound them to psychosocial frameworks that, today, leave them increasingly marginalized and vulnerable.

Human beings have the ability to take risks with who they are. They can choose to risk entering unknown situations that might change them. In a very small way that’s what these people are doing by exchanging stories of joy and pain in their city with total strangers.I’m only here today because, at a certain point, I chose to risk changing a core characteristic of my identity – the idea of ‘being an artist’. The ability of the human psychic ecology to risk change differentiates it from natural systems. In ecological science, ‘resilience’ refers to an eco-system’s ability to fend off or manage threats that would undermine its core characteristics. We, however, can chose to change them. So rather than use the conservative term ‘resilience’, I prefer the active notion of ‘coping strategies’ – a phrase used by the landscape architects Maggie Roe and Ken Taylor.

What is the relationship between disaster and resilience?Between 1997 and 2013one thousand four hundred children were sexually abused in one English city alone. Today in Britain as a whole the most socially deprived areas are sixteen times poorer than the most affluent. These ongoing man-made disasters are made possible by the continuing resilience of a culture of possessive individualism. This does far more damage in the United Kingdom than flooding. But as Nigel Clark reminds us, other forms of resilience have always been an aspect of ‘traditional ecological knowledge’, which is as much about (I quote):‘coping with loss and suffering as it is about transmitting practical advice”. Perhaps, before we try to help others develop appropriate coping strategies – intra-psychically, socially, and environmentally – we should start by reflecting on our own?

After the recent flooding on the Somerset Levels, communities were promised a twenty-year plan based on the traditional strategy of dredging. This plan goes against the advice of flood experts and ignores a 40% Government cut in funding to the agency responsible. But in my view it’s actually the resilience of both local people and flood specialists that’s the biggest hindrance to developing an effective alternative policy.

A deeply resilient cultural ‘framing’ locks us into the mindset of possessive individualism. We are taught that we should each have a separate, exclusive identity and that expressing this is the most important thing we can do. This exclusive notion of identity needs exclusive, mono-ideational explanatory systems to support it. We may choose a professional discipline, or eco-scientism, a regional tradition, the economic bottom line, or even fundamentalist religion. But in actuality our lifeworlds – like the causes of flooding – are complicated and multi-layered, a shifting, unstable weave of causes and effects; a poly-verse rather than a mono-verse. Mono-ideational explanatory systems are comforting because they support the idea of exclusive identities and reduce cognitive dissonance. They also blind us to the complexity, paradoxes and contradictions of life in a polyverse. A polyverse is the world envisaged by Felix Guattari’s ‘ecosophy’, a world where the “thinking together” of self, society and environment – taken as both discrete and linked dynamic fields – allows us to open to change and risk in relation to a future we can never accurately predict.

Eco-scientism treats Guattari’s three ecologies as identical rather than both related and distinct. Practices like ‘deep mapping’, on the other hand, try to evoke the ways in which those three ecologies are interwoven. Evans and Reid analyze the social consequences of the reductivism of eco-scientism in their Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously. But in a sense they miss the point. As I’ve said, our most fundamental problem is one of psychosocial framing. We have internalized what Barbara Ehrenrich calls the ‘smile or die’ culture of ‘positive thinking’ that helps sustain possessive individualism. Increasingly, our institutions require us to be positive and proactive at all times. So valid criticism becomes ‘personal negativity’, oftenpreventing us from attending to the ideas and experience of others who, through no fault of their own, are caught in negative and disabling circumstances.

So what should we do? We certainly need to understand the realpolitik behind mono-ideational explanatory systems – including exclusive, disciplinary thinking. But more fundamentally we need to ask on what authority we speak about others’ resilience– particularly, in my case, in rural taskscapes. Researchon Swiss farmers supports my own view that authority in such taskscapes flows from, and is largely validated by, degrees of embodied, collectively valued skill. This differentiates it from the authority of professional discourses. Unless we understand this difference we add to the kinds of distrust that Nick van der Voort and Frank Vanclay identify in relation to mitigation measures around gas extraction in Groningen.

The projects I’m going to introduce are based on experiencing the world as polyverse. They work with both professional and lay understandings, different types of authority, skills, perspectives, and affective narratives. Their approach is similar to Sarah Whatmore and Catharina Landstrum’s work around ‘knowledge controversies’, ‘competency groups’, and ‘pre-figured categories’. This includes ‘slowing down’ expert reasoning and so creating opportunities to generate new knowledge opportunities and gather new publics. This helps build mutual understanding and greater trust by translating across very different, sometimesantagonistic, lifeworlds.

People in rural taskscapes develop coping strategies out ofembodied, place-specific, collective practices learned ‘on the job’ – on a smallholding, a hill farm, in a kitchen, on a fishing boat, at a quarry, a guest house, a small-scale industrial unit, a village shop, a timber yard, and so on – places where discursive, disciplinary authority usually appears largely irrelevant.But rapid socio-environmental change means that there’s an increasing need for trust and exchange between those who inhabit rural taskscapes and those with professional knowledge. This needs both groups to start to re-fashion the framing narratives that underpin their identity and sense of authority. Otherwise, as socio-environmental and governance disputes increase, they will simply continue to retreat into what Paul Ricoeur calls: “incommunicability through protective withdrawal”.

Creative translators, people who can work across the similarities and differences between lifeworlds, can facilitate this process. They may be trained as ‘artists’, but the ability to translate across lifeworlds relates primarily to their conscious awareness of lifeworlds as polyverses rather than to the business of ‘making art’.

Ffion Jones’ doctoral project included performing in a sheep byre on her parents’ farm in a remote Mid Wales valley. Her project aims (I quote): “to use ‘insider’ knowledge (lay discourse) as a way of exploring and extrapolating experiences of place within a rural farming family that confirms, contradicts and combines with academic discourses about our farming lives. As a researcher/farmer, I bridge two lifeworlds; my work seeks to look at a farming family’s attachment and experiences of place from the inside-out”. Ffion’s work bridges lifeworlds usually assumed to be distinct ‘worlds-unto-themselves’. She acknowledges and works both with what’s valuable in her given regional lifeworld but also with external ideas and possibilities, creating conditions that facilitate the possibility of new strategies for coping emerging from inside the community into which she was born.

Ffion’s work flows from the skills and understanding of a performer, daughter of farming parents, scholar, musician, tenant farmer, mother of a young child, and so on. Through staging their interplay she opens up new ways to relate to place as a ‘simultaneity of stories-so-far’ in Doreen Massey’s sense. Her work doesn’t reinforce a given identity or set of skills, a given understanding of community, or a fixed notion of self. Instead it invites us to take up the unending task of negotiating and re-negotiating between positions that are usually assumed to be fixed or given. This, in turn, lays the groundwork for developing new collective coping strategies.

Pauline O’Connell’s work questions normative assumptions about identity and land ownership in rural Ireland. Since 2012 she’s completed two projects based on a historical Tug O’ War competition. These are part of a larger project using vernacular history and trace memories to publically explore the changing conditions of community and social identity through the medium of a community-owned field. The geo-social position of this field enables her to engage local people in debates where community isn’t simply assumed to be something given, a norm and the guarantor of an established ‘position’. Instead it can appear as an ongoing experiment by individuals coming together – however temporarily – to cope with the shifting psychosocial and environmental dynamic of a place.

Simon Read,who lives with his partner on a barge on the River Deben, works as an artist, teacher, environmental designer, community mediator, and ecological activist. He’s been involved with local people and official bodies on saltmarsh restoration projects since 1997. His large map drawings relate to, and frequently inform, management strategies for fluid environments by delineating specific locations in terms of projections of their probable future condition. He retrieves, cross-references, and synthesizes large amounts of data from different official sources so as to equip himself to facilitate debate around environmental planning and management. Simon’s concern about the erosion of the Falkenham Saltmarsh led to him design and build barriers to manage tidal flow and encourage the controlled deposition of silt. This provides a material context in which environmental and other officials, the local community, and inmates at the local prison all play a part. Simon’s intervention responds to environmental change by creating a working local context that acknowledges and addresses the practical and cultural implications of changes in our understandings of land, ownership, responsibility and belonging. It does this in a rapidly eroding physical environment that tends to polarize farmers and those responsible for implementing environmental governance. To address this polarization he is currently exploring how farmers could be encouraged to support carbon-absorbing salt marsh – also a vital protection against coastal erosion – through a carbon credit system that compensates them and benefits the environment.

Cathy Fitzgeraldtrained as a biologist and now works as a forester, artist filmmaker, blogger, green political activist, and writer. She lives in a small wood in County Wicklow, Ireland, which is also the focus for all her activities. Cathy is facilitating the transformation of a Sitka spruce plantation into a sustainably managed mixed species wood. She works in the space between official policy – which neglects, for example, the roll of trees in flood management – and grass roots interest in broadleaf native trees. This interweaves the normally distinct lifeworlds of silvicultural specialists, local communities, timber users, artists, and environmental enthusiasts. Her aim is to realign eco-cultural, scientific, economic and green policy concerns locality, across Ireland, and even internationally. Her work is simultaneously ecological, creative, political, and educational, with her own public self-education as a forester providing the context for dialogue between innovative forestry practice, new conceptions of the nature/culture relationship, and a rethinking of community and environment.

Antony Lyons trained as an environmental and geo-scientist, sculptor, and landscape designer and engages with tidal, estuary, catchment, and other water environments.The Lovely Weather project in Donegal used a multi-constituency approach to challenge normal conceptions of inter-disciplinarity by involved scientific specialists, a local postman, and teachers, parents and pupils from the locality on an equal footing. This created non-hierarchical interactions between scientific weather measurements (rainfall, humidity, temperature, pressure, wind speed, wind direction), the local weather lore held by the village postman, and personal weather-related material from Antony and members of a small volunteer observation team. Local peat bogs and their role as carbon sinks were central here, raising questions about the complexity of climate and its changes in a local context. These questions now feed into debates about the Irish Government’s interpretation of European environmental legislation.

Deirdre O’Mahony was born in the rural west of Ireland, left to develop a career, and later returned to work there. She often works by recognizing and using the transformative potential of anomalies in conventional situations and narratives. The situations she then generates loosen up habitual narratives and positions, helping to change protective withdrawal into outgoing social action. The X-PO project is typical of this process. The anomaly here was the life of a man called Mattie Ryan – that’s his portrait on the right. I don’t have time to go into detail here but it’s all on the web site. The project inspired a local research group who then challenged an authoritative anthropological account of rural life in the West of Ireland in the 1930s, written by two Harvard scholars. This challenge highlights the unequal power relations embedded in traditional academic fieldwork, and so raises questions about the inequality of other, more immediate, power relations. X-PO also provides the basis for SPUD, a many-stranded, ongoing international collaboration brings together the traditional Irish agricultural knowledge of local farmers,and individuals and cultural institutions internationally. Its purpose is to value local knowledge, facilitate ability to cope with threats to food security, and raise levels of self-sufficiency.

In different ways and in different contexts, each of these projects works to facilitate new coping strategies by making space for the empathetic imagination necessary to shared ethical action – including political action. They do so by translating across lifeworlds normally assumed to be insular ’worlds-unto-themselves’, by listening out for then anomalies that might allow people to re-narrate those insular worlds in other, more open and empathetic ways. They invite exchange between global knowledge and local understanding, between professional practice and lay skills, between all the multiple elements of lifeworlds as polyverses. If they facilitate resilience, it is a shared social resilience that collectively chooses to face, rather than resist, radical change.