Monthly Archives: September 2015

Up in the air

It’s been one of those weeks. As if fate wanted to throw a different light on all the usual, necessary stuff that has to goes on regardless, I heard that my uncle – my mother’s half-brother – died in his sleep after a brief period in hospital. So the family will be gathering for his funeral next week (some of whom I will not have seen since the last family funeral).

During the week I also discovered that I have won something called “the Derek Balmer PPRWA Painting Prize” at this year’s RWA Annual Open Exhibition for my piece Washington & Vicinity (Arlington betrayed), a work in part inspired by talking with my friend Mona Smith about the history and mis-treatment of the Dakota people. (See the earlier post Two works for the Annual Exhibition at the RWA). Apparently the prize is awarded “for excellence in painting”, something I was under the impression I no longer really ‘did’, at least in the traditional sense!

Then today – although in fact, since I’m writing this in the early hours of the morning, actually yesterday – I helped my elder son, who has been semi-camping here in our new house, and his partner move into their own new home. It’s great for them and that move is a serious milestone in any parent’s life. And then my younger son, who has been very ill for a while, has come to get some rest and a bit of help with his work. Meanwhile my wife and daughter are still up north, and sadly must stay there, until this house is in a state where they can come back to a functioning home with proper heating, etc. However the building work proceeds a pace and hopefully, despite the endless and inevitable minor problems that that process throws up, I hope it will continue to do so. And finally, I thought (wrongly) that I had recovered from a nasty cold and discovered today that I haven’t. Just another week in the polyverse.

Meanwhile, of course, everyone else continues to pursue their own priorities and, where those involve me, to hope that I will put their’s at the top of my Urgent List. And no doubt I’ll try to do what I can.


An ‘unbelievable’ instance and a trip to Avebury


First, the ‘unbelievable’ instance.

I was driving to Avebury today to meet some friends and colleagues (see above) with a shared interest in place and more besides. Early in my journey I had to negotiate heavy traffic getting out of Bristol, which included a certain amount of interplay with a very large, shiny and generally expensive-looking Land Rover.

When it passed me for the second time I noticed its numberplate: “POO2U”.

My first thought was that, dyslexic as I am, I must have misread it. But no, a little careful manoeuvring allowed me to check that this was, indeed, the numberplate. When I got home this evening I checked the price of such cars. They cost in excess of £60,000. My first reaction this morning was to try and make some kind of joke of what I’d just seen – “it must be a senior Tory minister returning to London from a trip to the regions in a car with number plates especially commissioned for the occasion”. But it’s really not funny when a person who can spend that kind of money (or have it spent for them) on a car even entertains the idea of signalling “POO2U” to the driver and passengers of every car they pass. Infantile is only the start of it.

I’ve been wondering for a long time if there’s an image that could encapsulate the culture of possessive individualism. This morning I may have seen one. What’s more it may well have sharpened my sense of the importance of a conversation around empathy that took place at lunchtime, during which I was alerted to the writing of Edith Stein. I knew nothing of this extraordinary woman before today, and what follows is a hasty paraphrase from the Internet.

Edith Stein, (1891–1942), was born into an observant German Jewish family, became a philosopher, a Roman Catholic and then a Discalced Carmelite nun. An atheist by the time she was in her teens, she become a nursing assistant and worked in a hospital before completing her doctorate in 1916 from Gottingen University and obtained an assistantship at Freiburg University. Baptised a Catholic in 1922, she went on to teach at a Catholic school of education. Forced to quit her teaching job by Nazis legislation, she was admitted to the Discalced Carmelite monastery in Cologne and entered the Order in 1934. In 1938 she was sent to a Carmelite monastery in the Netherlands for safety but was arrested by the Nazis on 2 August 1942 and sent to Auschwitz, where she was gassed on 9 August 1942. She was canonized by Pope John Paul 11 in 1998. Two of her works came up today – On the Problem of Empathy and Essays on Woman and I realise from our conversation that at the very least I need to read the first.

Avebury, which I’ve not visited for a while, belongs to another world entirely from the one inhabited by the emotionally retarded owner of the very expensive Range Rover.

Most impressive of all, for me, are not really the stones themselves – although some are vast and extraordinarily weathered and all of them part of a magnificent if elusive whole – but the ditches.



These are somehow more extraordinary for being ‘just ditches’, but ditches on such a scale as to make your mind boggle when you remember they where made, quite literally, by hand and, equally impressive, have persisting over such a length of time. You get some sense of this if you watch more adventurous people than myself physically engage with them as did these three women.


All in all, a day of good exercise, good company and compelling conversation.

We were not, however, the only beings enjoying Avebury on a fine early autumn Sunday. Right from the moment I got out of my car I had a real sense that the rooks were being particularly active around Avebury today. I can only guess as to why, but found myself taking great pleasure in their flights, in small and large groups, and it their happy gregariousness generally. I think something of their mood rubbed of on me, and it was a real pleasure to have their constant company during the day.



Two works for the Annual Exhibition at the RWA



This year I’m sticking out my neck (in RWA terms) and submitting unframed work, basically reconfigured maps of Washington. It will be interesting to see what the response is, particularly given that I am due to work with the RWA and Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery in conjunction with an exhibition that has the archive and mapping as one of its starting points.


On Monday this week I caught up with Alyson Hallett who, although we don’t know each other well, I’ve now come to think of as a real friend. Alyson recently finished her term as the second Charles Causley poet-in-residence, and was also the first to actually live out her residency in Causley’s house – Cypress Well – on Ridgegrove Hill in Launceston. Appropriately, the hill then gave its name to the collection of poems she created during her residency. She was over in Bristol to visit Bristol university, where as Dr Hallett she works as a Royal Literary Fund  Advisory Fellow, a post which places her in the university to help students develop their writing. We first met through her presenting her Stone Library work at a PLaCE event and had been in touch about her most recent book, On Ridgegrove Hill, which is now published by Atlantic Press. The book is the fruit of Alyson’s Charles Causley residency and has been beautifully designed and illustrated by Phyllida Bluemel, a current student on the MA Illustration course at Falmouth University.

I’m ashamed to say I had never heard of the Cornish poet Charles Causley, let alone read any of his work, until I read Alyson’s own poems. On the strength of her obvious empathy for Causley and his world (and perhaps because I spent three years working on a project in north Cornwall), I then bought a second-hand copy of his collected poems. I then read it more or less straight though, as I might a really good novel. I can highly recommend both poets’ work to anyone who is interested in place and its being interwoven with our attention to language, notably in Causley’s case with the particularities of vernacular speech.

My pleasure in talking with Alyson is in part in her own delight in, and genuine relishing of lively, freewheeling conversation, which she described in an email as “a banquet of ideas and thoughts and pathways”. It is also because of her wide-ranging knowledge and understanding. This is exemplified by what she says on the video Encountering Iceland – reading from 6 Days in Iceland by Alyson Hallett and Chris Caseldine. This gives an indicative sense of her work on, and of the poems resulting from, a field trip to Iceland with the physical geographer Chris Caseldine and his students, part of her residency in the Geography Department at Exeter University. They read from the book that came out of their trip with the students  – 6 Days in Iceland – which combines poetry, geographical text and photographic images. It is typical that Alyson should have encountered Iceland as a poet but alongside a professional earth scientist and his students, and that she should have been fascinated by the ways in which these two rather different fields of study – at least when seen from a disciplinary perspective – can in actuality inform, enliven and enrich one another.

My conversation with Alyson reminds me what a privilege it is to have worked in a university – notwithstanding all the deepening problems of that archaic institution – because of the friendships and contacts that work creates. I have been having very interesting exchanges on line with two individuals  with an interest in deep mapping. One is Siri Linn Brandsoy, who is working on a Masters project around deep mapping a small island in the north of Norway. She is a students on the M.A program in Visual Anthropology in Manchester and will be showing work in an exhibition with her fellow students on October 15-17. If anyone reading this gets the chance, you should go and see what, form my contact with Siri and others, I think will be an interesting exhibition of work combining ethnography with art practices and filmmaking.

The second person I’ve been enjoying an exchange with is Erin Kavanagh, who is working with Archaeology, Cultural Anthropology and Historical Anthropology and much more besides at the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David, Lampeter. I think of Erin as a new (or maybe very old) kind of en-placed teller of multi-dimensional stories. She is currently working on a paper on deep mapping to be presented at the University of Vienna, along side much else, and writes: “Four papers in under four months, that’s do-able on top of a full time work load and organizing publications, right…?”, reminding me of aspects of academic life I am happy to do without.




New start?

Transgression 13

We moved into our new home just a week ago and, after what seems rather longer grappling with a sea of brown cardboard boxes, problems with drains, and all the other dubious joys of domesticity associated with moving house, I returned briefly to another of my lives today.

I have been in Exeter giving a joint presentation at the Royal Geographical Society annual conference with Antony Lyons as part of the session Geo-aesthetics in an Anthropogenic World. The convenors, Deborah Dixon (Glasgow) and Dominic Walker (Exeter), had kindly given us a double ‘slot’, which allowed us to show Antony’s most recent edit of Transgression (Rising Waters) immediately followed by a textual ‘duet’ in which we each read in turn a short response to fifteen of the words listed on the digital drawings I made for that project. (See one example above). Given that we had not had any time to rehearse this it went surprisingly well, largely because Antony had carefully structured the presentation so that the drawings gave us a clear ‘time slot’.

Our abstract – which does more or less reflect what we delivered (!) reads as follows:

We take as our starting point the definition of ‘Transgression’, as a geological term describing an advance of the sea over land-areas: ‘a relative rise in sea level resulting in deposition of marine strata over terrestrial strata. The sequence of sedimentary strata formed by transgressions and regressions provides information about the changes in sea level during a particular geologic time’’

This moving-image work is based on a combination of fieldwork, archival research, creative conversations and inter-media collage. Drawing on our shared interest in place, environmental change, and water landscapes, we explore questions rooted in physical, social and cultural relationships between land and sea. In an era that many now term the ‘Anthropocene’, it can be argued that we face the prospect of human-influenced marine transgressions. Using strategies of poetic juxtaposition and conjecture, we focus special attention on coastal change/resilience/adaptation along the Severn Estuary coast, as well as wider afield. Our hybrid composition incorporates photographic and other visual content, accompanied by voice, song and soundscape. It weaves together original and archival material to create an imaginative bridging and transgressing of both disciplinary thinking and the culture of possessive individualism that underpins it. The method is influenced by Lyons’ work as a geoscientist and landscape-based artist; and by Biggs’ academic and artistic work embracing ‘deep-mapping’ as a creative paradigm. Our many antecedents include films such as Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil and the socio-ecological thinking of Deleuze and Guattari, coupled with Pearson and Shanks’ re-visioning of ‘deep mapping’ as a regionalist performative creative strategy. Transgression (Rising Waters) is closely linked to a Lyons’ longer-term Arts Council funded project ‘Inundation – Drowned Lands’ and to his artist residency project on the Severn Estuary, called ‘Sabrina Dreaming’.

Of particular interest to me about the session as a whole was that the collaborative presentation – by Rebecca Ellis (a social anthropologist with interests in science, technology and cultural geography) and the artist Sarah Casey – that preceded ours. Titled Porous topologies of (Im)perceptibility’s as creative process, the abstract for this reads as follows:

Two reflections from theoretical cosmology provide the inspiration for this paper. The first is an acknowledgement that light is but a one-dimensional signal of (non)human knowability of the properties of the universe. The second is the claim that properties as-of-yet unknowable are mathematically thinkable, albeit in the absence of observational verification. Current cosmological debates concerning the (non)existence of manifold topologies of the multiverse (e.g. Smolin 2015) provide a rich context in which to both stay with and trouble claims for (un)knowability as a resource for tentatively grasping the radically insensible (Yusoff 2013). Indeed the deep recesses of the (non)existent multiverse promise to usefully probe further the very meanings of (non)human perceptibility. This paper will practice a recent interdisciplinary experiment between an artist, anthropologist and cosmologist as they exchange theoretical and material resources with which they individually and collectively trouble the limits of (im)perceptibility posed by the example given. Theoretical reflection on the status of mathematics as (non)human signal, will tentatively steer between accounts of mathematical ontology (Badiou, Meillassoux) and feminist materialist consideration of mathematics as human-nonhuman semiotic exchange (e.g. Kirby). We reflect upon the problem of seeking ‘illumination’ of dark objects through the example of Art practice, where ‘knowing’ is deliberately postponed and a state of being ‘in the dark’ is essential to enriched understanding (Jones 2013).The paper will be framed by a wider-arching question concerning the possibilities of the utter (ir)relevance of such radically ‘dark spaces’ for anthropocenic thinking.  

There was something in all this that reminded me of the Hebrew mystical concept of Ein Sof, which in the study of the Kabbalah is understood as God prior to his self-manifestation in the production of any spiritual realm. In this line of thought, it is only by withdrawing into absence that the Divine can allow anything (else) to come into being. There was a sense of a queer interdependence/distance, of an ‘oscillation’, hinted at in the paper that was fascinating. Anyway, and probably rather to everyone’s surprise, there turned out to be a number of tantalising overlaps between this presentation and our own. These appeared in various ways, not least in Rebecca Ellis’ question to me about my use of the term ‘polyverse’ (against the more usual ‘multiverse’). Strangely, it seems Antony and I have been edging towards a possible convergence with thinking in mathematical speculation about multiverses, along with the debates for and against Object Oriented Ontology. Two particularly interesting lines of enquiry (for me) came out of this heady stuff. Firstly, a recommendation that I read Mary Jane Rubenstein’s The Many Worlds of the Multiverse. But secondly (for me) the positive provocation of Sarah Casey’s resonant and technically deeply thoughtful approach to her drawings.

So much food for thought before my re-imersion in the sea of brown cardboard boxes!