Invisible Landscapes

On Friday last week I found myself at the Invisible Landscapes: Exploring Embedded Approaches to Place-Based Contemporary Art Practice seminar. This was organised by Simon Lee Dicker for OSR/Projects , who are based in West Coker in Somerset.

I had originally intended to skip this interesting looking event, simply because there is so much to do at home but, as it turned out, it provided the only opportunity for a meeting with three friends with overlapping interests – the artist and geographer Jethro Brice; Owain Jones, Professor of Environmental Humanities at Bath Spa University; and John Fanshawe, an ornithologist and artist who is currently working with the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI) . An added bonus was the chance to catch up with Jethro’s news during the drive down. Jethro is currently doing AHRC-funded doctoral research in the Geography Department at Bristol University into ‘crane cultures’ – the birds, not the machines – by drawing multi-species wetland narratives from the field and archives. (The purpose of the four of us meeting was to talk about whether we can initiate some productive interactions with CCI, and it seems we may have the basis for doing so. However, it’s far too early to write about that here).

After a brief introduction by Simon, we listened to two very different talks. Sally Watkins – co-artistic director and curator for b-side – talked very informatively about b-side’s work, particularly on Portland, which included drawing out the various different ways in which that organization understands notions of ‘site-responsiveness’ and ‘embeddedness’ in practice.  The second talk of the morning was by Owain.

I have trouble knowing how best to write about this talk. (I’d heard a version of it before at a conference in Newcastle and raised some of the issues that concerned me with Owain then). Put briefly, this is because I think his take on our current situation is warped by a number of factors. The most significant is his stressing – referencing Felix Guattari – the aesthetic in opposition to science. While that position obviously went down well with an audience almost entirely made up of people from the arts, it seems to me to be a wrong-headed unless its heavily qualified, and may in any case – following Bruno Latour – be an outdated, binary position of the kind we badly need to avoid. I won’t go further into the reasoning behind this view here but I’ve discussed the question of scientism and aestheticism in contemporary culture at length in a chapter called ‘Beyond Aestheticism and Scientism: Notes towards An “Ecosophical” Praxis’ in Art, Science and Cultural Understanding, edited by Brett Wilson, Barbara Hawkins, and Stuart Sim and published in 2014. While Owain’s take on the chronically destructive nature of our current eco-social position is, at one level, as passionately argued as it is intellectually well-informed, it is in my view also saturated with – and in my view seriously distorted by – his own emotional discomfort with his inability, as an academic, to ‘know what to do’. (One antidote to which might be a careful reading of David Abram’s Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, published in 2010).

And this highlights a major ecosophical issue with regard to all articulations of our situation by those who earn their living providing “authoritative” accounts of that situation. Put simply, the personal ecology of the academic makes him or her singularly ill-suited to providing a helpful approach to our situation, simply because any such approach requires us to by-pass or overcome the fundamental presuppositions on which academic knowledge, and the whole material mesh and realpolitik in which it is embedded, rests. I found it sad and deeply ironic that, while Owain was rightly sceptical of all contemporary politics, he failed to acknowledge that the underlying psycho-social assumptions that underpin those politics also underpin the authority of academia. And no amount of aesthetic or imaginative work will change that situation until we acknowledge it for what it is.

Anyway, after an excellent lunch of bread and soup in a local pub we hear an informative talk from Sally Laburn, an artist and the co-director of The Drawing Shed, which is based in east London. This was followed by three parallel workshops run by Alexander Stevenson, Jethro and Tim Martin. I went to Jethro’s, in which we used mud to think about our relationship to non-human thinking, which involved me and my two peers in our group in an interesting and wide-ranging series of thoughts and reflections.

I enjoyed the day on a number of levels, and recognise just how important these types of gathering are to the regional arts community. However, one of the questions it left me with is around the issue of how we exchange with each other – starting with our terms of reference and vocabulary. If they also leave me somewhat saddened it is because I fear they may reinforce the very thing they appear to seek to overcome – the huddling together of individuals on the basis of a monolithic, disciplinary-based, world view – almost every speaker introduced him or her self by saying “I am an artist” – in a constellated world in which only the understanding that we now live in a polyverse will allow us to mitigate the extraordinary difficulties we increasingly face.