Monthly Archives: November 2016

Being in Place, The Highs and Lows of Sited Practices


PLaCE International 5th Annual Postgraduate Conference in Art & Humanities, University of Dundee

I’d like to thank all those who helped organise and all those who attended this event and the accompanying exhibition. The following people gave presentations.

Gini Lee On Gardening and Travelling: revealing untold ecologies for a practiced place. // Andrew Roberts The Uncaninness of Place and Space in John Burnside’s Poetry. Essays and Memoirs. // Jerry Walton Antonin Artaud -the intimate relationships between site, historical context and institutionalisation. // Jan Johnson How Low Can You Go? Surface and the Underside. // Pauline O’Connell Drawing the Water-a contested public art project. // Arthur Watson From the Highland Peaks to the Slough of Despond in 2 Songs and 2 Fragments // Hayden Lorimer Writing the Future of Place // Susan Trangmar The ‘highs and lows’ of responding as an artist to the theme of landscape and memory connected to the film work ‘UNFOUND.’ // Laura Donkers Slow residency in a taskscape: the haunting process of critical reflection and creative experimentation whilst living in the same place as the people and things I study. // Jelena Stankovic The lost and recovered Identity of Banja Luka. // Joanna Foster A troubadour’s journey- place sited through creative action. //  John Dummett Between where we weren’t and where we won’t be.’ A parti of the city // Simone Kenyon Walking out of the body and into the Mountain’: dancing, mountaineering and embodied ways of knowing. // Nuala Ni Fhlathin Ideas of accumulation and loss in language and landscape in the minority language province of Friesland // Ciara Healy and Adam Stead Already the World: A Post Humanist Dialogue // Cathy Fitzgerald Entering the Symbiocene: A transversal Ecosophy-Action Research Framework to Reverse ‘Silent Spring.

I give the following brief Introductory talk on the first day of this two day event.

“I was asked to speak about the ‘highs’ of sited practice in relation to Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. That’s tricky for me because I distrust the Apollonian association of mountains with solitary ‘highs’, elevated states, spiritual insights, or what Geraldine Finn calls “high altitude thinking’. So, I’m going to cheat just a little, while still drawing on Nan Shepherd’s book.

Shepherd writes:

Early in the season the water may be so cold that one has no sensation except of cold; the whole being retracts itself, uses all its resources to endure this icy delight. But in heat the freshness of the water slides over the skin like shadow. The whole skin has this delightful sensitivity; it feels the sun, it feels the wind running inside one’s garment, it feels water closing on it as one slips under – the catch in the breath, like a wave held back, the glow that releases one’s entire cosmos, running to the ends of the body as the spent wave runs out upon the sand. This plunge into the cold water of a mountain pool seems for a brief moment to disintegrate the very self; it is not to be borne: one is lost: stricken: annihilated. Then life pours back.

This passage might remind us that sited practice is grounded in bodily being and doing; is animated as much by an ‘expanded’ or ‘elemental’ erotics of materiality and sensation as by any high concept or ideal. Instead of focusing on a ‘high’, with its association with climbing up, I want to follow Shepherd’s images of plunging in, and of disintegration and return.

Starting sited work can produce a “sense of retraction”. I need to “endure” the “icy delight” of being assaulted by a flood of new and unfamiliar impressions, sensations, thoughts and practical demands. As the project ‘heats up’, that unfamiliarity becomes a source of heightened sensitivity. And that, in turn, can “release one’s entire cosmos” – that is, momentarily shake me free of tired associations, meanings and understandings. Immersion in a new place can be wave-like, carry me away, knock me sideways. Then plunging in temporarily disintegrates my familiar working persona, temporarily “others” me. I may welcome this or, alternatively, feel threatened: “lost: stricken: annihilated”. Either way, practical demands quickly return, requiring my attention. But once I’ve experienced that sensation of dis-integration that comes with plunging into a new place, a particular ‘space-between’ appears.

Sited practice necessarily demands time and energy. Like walking in the mountains, it needs planning, attention and care. So my focus on plunging in here is simply a reminder that, in addition to all our various intellectual and practical skills, we need the space-between of the listener. Perhaps because, as Shepherd reminds us, “water” – and by implication all that flows – is always “speaking”. I’ve read Shepherd here from a Dionysian viewpoint to counter conventional Apollonian associations with the ‘highs’ of climbing mountains. And, following Ginette Paris, because Dionysus: “shatters the positivistic perspective, for which there is only one interpretation, one truth, one definite place for everything and everyone”. So this is simply a way of reminding myself not to let the desire for heroic, single-minded Apollonian ‘highs’ distract me from the otherness in place; it’s being strange, uncanny. That reminder is necessary because, to meet the many different demands that sited practice makes on me, I need an awareness of otherness, and of my own between-ness that allows me to meet that otherness.

Shepherd’s writing on water touches me in relation to practice, in relation to its flow, power and mystery. Water goes through highs and lows without end, neither being more important to its cycle than the other. It’s the whole cycle that reduces high mountains to pebbles and sand. Shepherd ends her book with a short chapter on Being – the “I am” that is her ultimate high – and finds this to be: “the final grace accorded from the mountain”. Well and good. But personally, it’s her plunging in, and with it the oscillation between “disintegrate of self” and “life pouring back” that for me speaks most directly of the heart of sited practice.

I also think that oscillation between “disintegrate of self” and “life pouring back” is central to something Donna Haraway proposes in Staying with the Trouble. That we need to make “kin in lines of inventive connection as a practice of learning to live and die well with each other in a thick present. Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places”. Maybe that’s one part of why we’re here together in Dundee?

Thank you”.


Dialogue in Place: Volume III / Shifting Perspectives


This publication, to coincide with the exhibition in Leeds, contains an essay I wrote about the work of Joyce Lyon and Andrea Thoma a while back, called The Conversational Weave (another place). (This can also be found on this web site in the section Texts, Talks, etc.).

Something Joyce wrote when she contacted me to tell me about the exhibition seems particularly pertinent at present, in that it demonstrates the value of a mutual, open engagement that’s not predicated on known positions. She writes:

“I need to tell you that in preparing and proofreading the book, I experienced a deeper intimacy with your essay that allowed me to see and appreciate it for and as itself, which I did not fully have before. I recognized that what I was then hoping for was a more fixed disciplinary appraisal! I see now that what you offered us, in all its “gappy”, thoughtful fluidity and movement towards home was so much richer and more significant. I am grateful to have been, with Andrea, catalysts in the development of your ideas”.

I would encourage anyone who is able to visit this exhibition.


Women in dark times

It seems to me that Hannah Arendt’s wonderful book Men in Dark Times needs a sequel for our times. I think she would have wanted to recognise the practical thoughtfulness of Michelle Obama, for example. Be that as it may, on the recommendation of a friend I have started reading Donna Haraway’s extraordinary Staying with the Trouble (from which I quote below). It is wonderful to find a book that, for example, understands the value of the work of an artist like Ursula Le Guin at a time when so much of what passes for art is simply an exercise in either exemplifying possessive individualism or the corrosive cynicism that shadows it. This is a book that speaks to many pressing concerns – its ‘string figure’ motif also strikes me as a powerful analogue for what I would characterise as ‘deep’ or ‘narrative’ mapping –  and is enormously encouraging to read at a moment when bigotry and demagogy, personified by men like Trump and Farage, appear to be the dominant forces in both the UK and the USA.

But, as we all know, appearances are deceptive.

Gina Miller now needs police protection for herself and her family from the death threats that have flooded in as a result of her having spoken up for the rule of law. But, on the strength of her interview in the Guardian today, she remains exactly the type of exemplary citizen and businesswoman we need to make kin with in what Haraway wants us to see as the Chthulucene age. I am enormously fortunate to know some women in the USA who, as Elizabeth Warren has urged, will I know do everything they can in their own places to recuperate and amplify what is response-able and generous in American culture. They may, to quote my Dakota friend Mona Smith, still be trembling from the result of the election. However they know, as she writes, that now: “we have to hold tight to our visions for the earth and it’s critters. One step in front of the other. One hand held out at a time. Our need to be kind to each other is so clear. I am seeking things that bring me hope”. She sites the fact that the American Civil Liberties Union  is “declaring war” on Trump and points to the fact that Standing Rock water protectors are standing firm and gathering support. And, like Haraway, she recognises that one of our biggest challenges is not to succumb to the worst case pictures that keep creeping into our heads.

Like many people I am troubled, indeed tired to the bone, from struggling against the specific injustices and misery created by a system dominated by the commonplace thoughtlessness which, as Haraway reminds us by drawing on Hannah Arendt, engenders the banality of evil. The same evil Arendt saw personified in Adolf Eichmann. In a man who: “could not be a wayfarer, could not entangle, could not track the lines of living and dying, could not cultivate response-ability.” All because he already knew who he was and what he needed to do, and so didn’t need to think in Arendt’s sense of that word. As Haraway reminds us, thinking, thought, is not “disciplinary knowledge or science rooted in evidence, or the sorting of truth and belief or fact and opinion or good and bad”. It’s important to remember this, less we imagine that the thoughtless are somehow unintelligent. No, they are simply people who are too busy with: “assessing information, determining friends and enemies, and doing busy jobs” to attend carefully to the ebb and flow of the world as it is. They are too busy ‘being’ a particular role: a scientist, activist, artist, academic, business person, or whatever, to have time to become, to be ‘entangled’ into newness, as Haraway might put it.

Anyway I can’t help thinking that, if Hannah Arendt were alive today, she might well write a sequel to her earlier book, one entitled Woman in Dark Times.

Thank you, Gina Miller

Britain, the USA, and perhaps Europe as a whole, seem increasingly to be falling under the sway of cynical demagogues who practice a polarising and self-serving politics based on fear and loathing, ably assisted by the majority in the media. (Typically, in the UK the Daily Mail has just branded three high court judges ‘enemies of the people’ for upholding the rule of law). In this context, we owe a profound debt of gratitude to Gina Miller. The long-established world view predicated on the elite narratives of high capitalism and the culture of possessive individualism is turning increasingly toxic in both its psycho-social and environmental dimensions. As a result, those happy to cynically exploit fear come to the fore, intimidating or denigrating anyone who disagrees with them. (This has long been a popular managerial tactic in big institutions, as it is in totalitarian states). It takes very real courage to stand against this in a country where demagogues and their media allies appear hell-bent on re-creating the kind of atmosphere that allowed fascism to come into power in Germany and Italy in the 1930s.

Unlike those whose Brexit politics are based on mixing gross lies and vague half-truths, she has had the courage to do what they claimed to be doing. She has insisted on publically arguing for the sovereignty of the British Parliament as the cornerstone of our particular brand of democracy. That private individuals have had to do what Parliament should itself have done speaks volumes about the shameful situation in which we now find ourselves.

I took part in a meeting yesterday that ended in a discussion in which a number of us openly challenged some of the presuppositions that underwrite the work of the academic status quo. I was particularly interested in one line of argument that appeared during that discussion. Namely, that the difficulties we were bringing to light were simply – or primarily – the result of clashes of personality. This seemed to me to parallel the argument that any questioning of, or opposition to, the desires of the Brexit camp is just people being ‘bad losers’, ‘whingers’ – is, in short, the product of personal defects at an individual level. What this allows those who argue in this way to side-step is the fact that, while of course our differences are always expressed at a personal level, they can never be reduced, monolithically, to manifestations of individual personality. We are social beings. To argue that how we manifest ourselves is simply an individual mater, and so by implication is not interwoven with and influenced by the cultural, structural and institutional norms that are written into our collective lives, is simply a way of avoiding the uncomfortable realities of our current situation.

It is time that, like Gina Miller, we find the courage to publically name and address those uncomfortable realities; to acknowledge them for what they are and look collectively for ways to address them.