Between creative praxis and place governance: four examples

What follows here is the text of a presentation given at the Landscape Values: Place and Praxis conference held at NUI, Galway (29th June – 2nd July). This differs slightly from the text published by the Centre for Landscape Studies in their excellent pre-conference publication in that I felt it was necessary to respond to the situation resulting from the referendum vote that Britain should leave the EU. I will put a detailed account of my experience of the conference up here in due course. 

In her novel The Telling Ursula LeGuin has a character say of her people’s self- destructive adoption of a particular idea that it was a protest: “an assertion of our God-given right to be self-righteous, irrational fools in our own particularly bloody way and not in anybody else’s”. That just about sums up what Britain is going through – the protest essentially the consequence of a massive failure of empathetic imagination on the part of the political and economic elites.

Such failure of empathetic imagination is not of course restricted to the UK. Consequently our landscapes will continue to be subject to bitter conflicts that raise difficult questions about democratic participation in planning and governance processes. New forms of compound or hybrid creative praxis are already helping to catalyse public debate and engagement regarding these processes, but they remain under-utilized. I suspect that those who frame governance debates, along with many special interest groups, often have little or no idea of what these new forms of praxis involve or how they might help them. That needs to change.

Evoking empathetic imagination is as central to democratic politics as accurate information, particularly in relation to the politics of place. Without it different constituencies quickly find excuses to stop listening to each other. Then democratic processes are likely to be perverted or undermined, perpetuating a legacy of popular resentment. Empathetic and informed engagement with issues of place requires imaginative and empathetic translation and mediation between the professional expertize that authorizes governance and the concerns of vernacular life-worlds grounded in rural place.

I’m going to touch on “creative translation” projects by Kathy Fitzgerald, Simon Read, Christine Baeumler and Ffion Jones. Each project is contingent on, and embedded in, a particular landscape and mediates between values grounded in place and a specific set of governance concerns. Although the people animating these projects are arts trained, each employs a whole constellation of different skills. For example, in addition to her training as a performance artist, Ffion Jones’ practice is equally constituted by her skills as a Welsh language speaker, an upland sheep farmer, a scholar, a young mother, and so on. However, at present the value of such constellated practices is largely unrecognized because of the dominant belief in a monolithic identity that says, for example, that someone is either an artist or a farmer.  The Norfolk farmer Richard Wright says of his local Farmers and Wildlife Advisers that they have ‘a very hands-on approach’ and ‘local knowledge of farming as well as conservation’, showing farmers the two can work hand in hand’. But for this hands-on model of cooperation to be extend to actively involve the public more generally, it needs an active cultural dimension and the involvement of artists as people trained to see unlikely connections and possibilities across different sets of concerns and interests.

In Ireland severe winter flooding during 2009-10 and 2015-16 has highlighted the need to plant trees as a step towards flood prevention. Because this would involve issues of land ownership, it will require careful mediation. Cathy Fitzgerald’s Hollywood Project could offer a valuable point of departure for just such mediation. Begun in 2008, this project involves the transformation of an ecologically toxic and aesthetically unattractive Sitka Spruce plantation planted about thirty years earlier. At its heart is her forty-year commitment to facilitating exchanges between the original plantation and local people, silvicultural specialists, wildlife, timber users, artists, and environmental enthusiasts. With the wood as her focus, Fitzgerald’s eco-aesthetic concerns have catalysed complex negotiations between traditional forestry economics and the desire of local people in County Carlow to re-establish broadleaf native trees. This in turn is generating debates about the relationship between the policies of the Irish Council for Forest Research and Development and the ecological, creative, political, and educational concerns of a variety of both local and national constituencies.

Cathy Fitzgerald aims to advance knowledge in aesthetic and eco-critical terms as these relate to forest research, policy and eco-jurisprudence. This reflects the fact that she has degrees in both biology and art. Between 2004-2007 she also worked alongside Irish Green Party Cllr. Mary White, later Junior Minister of State, helping to establish the largest Green Party group in rural Ireland. She now serves on the committee of the forestry group ProSilva Ireland. In short, she is both creatively and politically involved in matters of environmental governance.

The Hollywood project is also a response to the fact that Ireland has the lowest proportion of deciduous trees in Europe after Iceland and Malta, and to the problems thrown up by an extensive forestry policy that, however, has been assembled piecemeal. As the intersection of complex networks of shared practical expertise and environmental knowledge, the project has the potential to rearticulate the relationship between watersheds, tree cover, and pluvial flooding. While Inter-Departmental Committees can initiate new national flood policy, without locally grounded creative individuals and networks engaged in transforming local attitudes to trees and forestry, the resistance to such policy is likely to be substantial. (For a better sense of Cathy’s practice see her recent post and video).

Simon Read works from a barge on the River Deben as an artist, University lecturer, environmental designer, community mediator, and ecological activist. Since 1997 his involvement with the River Debden has led to his working with the Chartered Institute for Water and Environmental Management and ARUP, with geographers through the Royal Geographic Society, and with similar organizations in Ireland and the USA. He has contributed to major workshops on flood planning and, since 2009, has served as an Executive Member of Deben Estuary Partnership in collaboration with the Environment Agency. He’s involved in mediation work with Natural England, the Marine Management Organisation, statutory Government agencies, his Local Planning Authority, and a host of local interest groups. He’s also an Associate of the Art and Environment Network of the Chartered Institute for Water and Environmental Management. Like Cathy Fitzgerald, his work involves a range of skills, knowledge and activity, that go far beyond the stereotypical view of what an artist does.

This type of large imaginative mapping – a response to governance issues relating to the fluid and shifting environments of rivers and coastlines – is now central to Simon’s work They visualize changes between land and water over time by synthesizing large amounts of predictive information from different sources. Simon retrieves, cross-references, and synthesizes this information so as to equip himself and others to engage in complex environmental planning debates about fluvial, estuarine and coastal management in governance contexts. Interacting with both governance and local concerns, it also contributes directly to current eco-social debate around the core issues of communication in relation to the implication of policy.

In addition to his visualizations of the changing local environment, Simon Read is currently worked on the Falkenham Saltmarsh Project. This aspect of his work involves making objects that address the conditions of, and potential for, marsh stabilization within the context of coastal erosion. Working with a range of agencies, including labour from a local prison, he has planned and built barriers that prevent erosion of the saltmarsh by managing tidal flow and encouraging the controlled deposition of silt. Both practical and sculptural, these are soft engineered from timber, brushwood, straw bales, and coir – a natural fibre extracted from the husk of coconuts – and will degrade back into the marsh over time.

Read has responded to the challenges of managing environmental change by acknowledging the need for, and publically working towards, more nuanced and complex solutions necessary to understanding and addressing the socio-cultural implications and dimensions of socio-environmental change. While grounded in the traditional skills of an artist, his work relates directly to a societal re-framing of our understanding of land, ownership, professional and aesthetic responsibility, and belonging.

Christine Baeumler enables a civic environmentalism predicated on ecosophical understanding and animated by a geopoetics attuned to the multiple meanings and contexts of our lived experience of landscape. Working between the production of public environmental art, teaching at the University of Minnesota, curation, and community activism, her expanded creative praxis facilitates both awareness of environmental issues and appropriate responses to them. Drawing on both art and natural science, she contests the reductive treatment of ecosystems and the loss of human experience of specific environments and the species that inhabit them. Like Simon Read she makes eco-social contexts visible so as to inspire creative solutions to environmental dilemmas by imagining alternatives to current approaches. Her ‘slow’ place- and community- based praxis considers historical, cultural, environmental, metaphorical and aesthetic dimensions of place to address pressing eco-political issues constantly in flux. She currently focuses on collective ecological restoration of urban and edgeland spaces, paying particular attention to increasing biodiversity, providing habitat for pollinators, and improving both the water quality and aesthetic dimension of sites.

The particular qualities of Baeumler’s practice appear in her role in the realisation of Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary Project.  Since 1994 she has worked, as local resident and artist, on community-led ecological restoration initiatives on the East Side of Saint Paul, Minnesota. These projects have been realised through collaborations with local residents, ecologists, hydrologists, engineers, University of Minnesota art students, the Como Park Conservatory Youth program and the East Side Youth Conservation Corps of the Community Design Centre. As a member of the Friends of Swede Hollow Park and a founding member of the Lower Phalen Creek Steering Committee, Baeumler worked with community activists and City officials to transform a twenty-seven acre heavily polluted rail-yard beside the Mississippi into the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, now a city park. An important dimension of the critical translation central to this project is her membership of Healing Place, founded by Dakota artist and activist Mona Smith, which aims to heal connections between people and places formally sacred to the Dakota Nation, of which the park is a significant example.

Chris Baeumler has also served as Artist-in-Residence in the Minnesota Capitol Region and the Ramsey Metro Washington Watershed Districts, working with these governance units on large-scale water infrastructure projects intended to raise the visibility of water infrastructure and quality issues through educational and aesthetic interventions. Her interest in water systems then led her to form the team, including an engineer and ecologist, who created Reconstituting the Landscape: A Tamarack Rooftop Restoration. This micro bog ecosystem is located above the entryway to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. This calls attention to the fragile tamarack bog ecosystem under threat in Minnesota, replicating it in miniature as green rooftop infrastructure, and led to her making Bogs, A Love Story, a documentary film about six different bog experts.

Baeumler has recently animated both educational and regional governance debates through Pollinators at the Plains project, based on a sustainable redesign of the Plains Art Museum’s outdoor campus in Fargo, North Dakota. This included a youth internship program and work with artist and horticulturist Seitu Jones. The educational focus her links directly to Baeumler’s work at the University of Minnesota teaching courses that engage students in creatively working with systems of water, food, transportation and civic engagement between art, ecology, climatology and social studies. As with both Cathy Fitzgerald and Simon Read – and in the tradition of Joseph Beuys – the educational dimension of her work needs to be seen as inseparable from her expanded creative praxis as a whole.

I want to end by paraphrasing a conversation between Ffion Jones, a representative of Natural Resources Wales, the academic and activist Dr Alex Plows, and others involved in a major Hydro-citizenship project. This took place in Taly Bont memorial hall in February this year and I’m grateful to Alex, who translated this exchange from the Welsh.

Ffion is making a film on local farmers’ relationship to water that addresses their concern about changes that challenge their sense of being primarily food producers from an environmental perspective. To do this she has to mediate between past and present attitudes to water management, dipping, run off, and so on. In the past the Environmental Agency prosecuted local farmers over dipping practices, which had produced both change and a culture of resentment. The official assumption in the discussion was that this was partly because the agency hadn’t done a very good job of educating farmers, so that “stewardship of the countryside” had become negatively associated with enforcing compliance through bureaucratic means, which simply generated resentment and resistance. This was contrasted with practices elsewhere, which had focused on respecting/appreciating farmers’ own “local knowledge”.  This approach was seem as best supported by indirect mediation. This would mean that, rather than an Agency approaching farmers with a view to introducing their environmental agenda – which will then be coloured by a history of resistance – someone like Ffion who shares their values, doesn’t trigger the same reaction. The group then turned to discussing the role of the arts in ‘bridging and translating’, essentially along the lines I’ve outlined here.

What is distinct about the praxis of individuals like Ffion is that it speaks from within a rural life-world – informed by her being a farmer’s daughter, farmer and farmer’s wife but also by critical engagement as an academic and performer. By mediating between the multiple, often antagonistic, dimensions of that life-world, such work presents important insights. It constitutes an important and necessary alternative to top-down official governance perspectives – “we must educate farmers” – and to largely urban-based environmental lobbyists – by providing another informed voice.


For this to happen professionals working with governance and related agencies need to recognise that such praxes can both extend their own understanding and inform a more democratic and productive approach to the governance of place.  While individuals involved in the hands-on running of bodies like the UK’s National Parks are increasingly recognizing the value of such creative translation, they often lack support from those who write policy and control budgets. But today no professional body or governance agency can safely assume that it has the ethical authority, or even the practical ability, to catalyze the informed ‘civic environmentalism’ necessary to address the increasingly complex landscape issues we face.


If citizens are to commit themselves to bettering their environment, sometimes against their own short-term economic interests, new and empathetic forms of understanding need to emerge. This can only happen if the discursive arguments of governance professionals are translated into terms more sympathetic to broader and more empathetic public dialogues. The types of praxis I’ve identified have the power to facilitate a thoughtful and deeply felt mediation between governance professionals and the places and communities that ground rural life-worlds.


Thank you.