‘Layers in the Landscape’: deep mapping and the enlivening of culture.

On November 3rd., I drove over to the Trinity Saint David campus of the University of Wales in Lampeter. I wanted to see the Layers in the Landscape exhibition there and to hear my friend the poet, artist and geo-mythologist Erin Kavanagh talk about the extended deep mapping project she has been orchestrating, working in conjunction with the geo-archaeologist Martin Bates and others, in and around Cardigan Bay. Erin’s project employs film, music, poetry, art, geology and archaeology, engaging publics by illuminating the interrelationship of past and present cultural, linguistic and ecological concerns. As such it seems to me to be very much a lively extension of important aspects of the tradition of deep mapping initiated in Wales by Michael Shanks, Mike Pearson and Cliff McLucas.

I don’t intent to say too much more about Layers in the Landscape here, since it’s currently available to see in the Old Building on the Lampeter campus and is well-documented in the project section of Erin’s own web site. Sufficient to say that, in it’s most recent manifestation, it has now included a collaboration with Three Legg’d Mare, a band who specialise in traditional songs of madness, love, death and adventure. This collaboration builds on the fact that, in July this year, the Layers in the Landscape project was extended via an exhibition at Borth Station Museum. This exhibition was focused by the poem King of the Sea Trees, which tells some of the story of a spirit of Cardigan Bay – Brenin Y Coed Mor – a creature born with the land itself and a witness to its long-term changes. The band’s Dafydd Eto has now become the voice of Brenin Y Coed Mor. To do this he took Erin’s poem and revisited the texts from which it catches echoes – something he’s well equipped to do as a Medievalist at the National Museum of Wales – and then applied a variety of different traditional melodies along with his own bilingual interpretations and lines of poetry. (The result can be heard here). All of which gives some insight into the richness and complexity of Erin’s approach to ‘open’ deep mapping.

Erin is involved in ‘open’ deep mappings. (That is, those that have not been co-opted to serve the ambitions of those sections of the academy hoping to benefit either from gaining some advantage in the archaic but no less bitter battle for disciplinary advantage in the fight for every fewer resources or for those available to newly fashionable, hybrid, ‘digital’ disciplines and fields – for example ‘the digital humanities’). This means, in practice, that her project is being developed piecemeal, as and when she can raise the funds necessary to carry it forward. I want to reflect on this by picking up on something she said on Friday evening.

I do not remember Erin’s exact words, only that she spoke eloquently about the ways in which deep mapping as a process, with its managed and serendipitous convergences of unlikely intellectual and material ‘stuff’, becomes an enlivening of culture. What struck me later, talking about the work with my wife Natalie, was that what the collaborations that bring such mappings into being achieve is just that, an enlivening of culture as a lived set of mutable, often contested  and always dynamic, mesh of values intimately connected to a sense of place in which both the ‘global’ and ‘local’ play a part. This is, of course, what ‘place-based art’ is often claimed to do but, as I have increasingly come to understand, in reality rarely achieves. Largely, I think, because the context in which professional artists now work they are required to engaging in a realpolitik predicated on an attitude of cultural exclusivity; one that usually precludes the necessary openness and inclusivity involved in a genuine enlivening of culture in the sense just given. (However, as the current Grayson Perry exhibition at the Arnolfini demonstrates, there are obviously important exceptions to this generalisation).

A consequence of this situation is that, increasingly, those involved in ‘open’ deep mapping, like visual artists whose work is genuinely ‘socially’ or ‘environmentally’ engaged, tend to find themselves caught between the pragmatic imperatives of making a living (however precarious), and the reductive demands of ‘playing the game’ – whether that of the academy or the professional art world. The institutionalisation of an acceptance of the values of total monetisation by both higher education and the ‘culture industries’ as ‘worlds’ inevitably works against any genuine enlivening of culture in its proper sense. Consequently it’s now more vital than ever that we each do all we can to promote and maintain those forms of creative activity that resist that monetisation and all that follows from it. Whether that’s through support networks or whatever other means we still have at our disposal.