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”.