Monthly Archives: May 2019

Terrestrial Matters

This is a slightly modified version of the text of a presentation given at the Culture Climates: Fostering Art for Sustainability – Time for a new Cultural Policy? workshop held at the Moore Institute, NUI Galway, and organised by Dr Nessa Cronin, on May 14th, 2019.   

I’m very grateful to Nessa for the invitation to speak today, not least because it’s given me the chance to catch up with some old friends in Ireland, however briefly. 

I’ll start with the obvious. Our current problemsare not simply environmental. They’re social and, perhaps particularly, psychological – that’swhy Amitav Ghosh refers to our global crisis asThe Great Derangement. Until a few years back, I earned a living teaching, so I tend to see situations in terms of what we need to unlearn, learn or re-learn. I think that one of the most important things we can do now is unlearnthe dominant culture’s assumptions about creativity and self. That’s to say, we have toreturn to a fundamental ecological principle – that we’re not autonomousas individuals. We don’t own ourselves or anything we produce because we exist and can act onlythroughconnections, attachments and relationships.

In its own particular cultural terms, that’s what this retablo tells us. I’ll give you a moment to read the dedication. 

Retablo commissioned by Obdulia Lopez and dedicated to the Virgin of Jaquila. Artist: Flor Palomares. The dedication reads:

“I’m thanking, with all my heart, the Virgin of Jaquila, for keeping our family tradition of weaving. My mother and grand-mother were weavers and they taught me since I was a little girl. Now my serapes, huipils and rebozos are most valued among foreign tourists who buy them.”
Obduilia Lopez , Chiapas, Mexico.

If we want a just and sustainable world, we have to acknowledge that each of us is always enmeshed in, and dependent on, larger exchanges over time and across space. Exchanges involving the work, substance and knowledge of numerous other beings, human and non-human. That’s not always  easy to acknowledge in a culture of possessive individualism.

One way of unpicking the assumptions of possessive individualism is by thinking in terms of‘mutual accompaniment’, a phrase used by the social psychologist Mary Watkins.Mutual accompaniment is a continuous, shared process of respectful, practical, learning that helps reorient our thinking precisely by focusing onconnections, attachments and relationships. I’m going to try to give you a sense of what this might mean in practice using work I’m involved with.

LuciGorell Barnes co-ordinates Companion Plantingas part of her work at a Nursery School and Children’s Centre in Bristol, where she’s been artist-in-residence for fifteen years. Based on a council allotment plot, the project involves gardening and environmental awareness as a medium to explore parents’ engagement with their children’s learning. In the process, it brings people together to share skills, make friends, and celebrate diversity. Many of those involved are refugees or migrants, mainly from Africa and Asia. My contribution to all this is simply as a sounding-board, a ‘critical friend’ that Luci can discuss the project with in the wider context of non-standard education, environmental concerns, parenting, and creative forms of narrative and research.  

Luci earns her living as an educator, researcher, and artist-in-residence, while simultaneously working as a partner, mother, grandmother, writer, illustrator, and studio artist. We met by chance while helping to run a workshop for people involved in water policy and governance, part of a UK-wide research project exploring hydrocitizenship.On her web site, Luci introduces herself as an artist concerned with:‘… developing flexible and responsive processes that enable us to think imaginatively with ourselves and each other’. I see that concern as central tomutual accompaniment. 

Water Storiesconsists of stories told by 19 women from 16 countries across 5 continents and is produced by two groups from local families. Sitting with them in a small nursery classroom as they told their water stories was an extraordinarily powerful experience. It gave me a tangible sense of the multiplicity of human relationships with water and confirmed that, if we’re going to develop concepts like hydrocitizenship, we need to start by sharing water stories.   

The process of mutual accompaniment is focused by exchanges that constantly test the people involved. It’s educational in the root sense of a ‘drawing out’ of our possibilities. I need to read widely for the work I do supervising and examining doctoral projects, and this inevitably informs the work I share with people like Luci. I’m going to reflect this aspect of my contribution here by referencing two books in particular – Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regimeand Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable

I understandLuci to work in the political space that Latour calls the ‘radically Terrestrial’. Knowing that she lives in the Anthropocene, she works with others towards cohabiting a world that has re-imagined the relationship between the ‘global’ as created by modernisation, and commitment to a particular place on the other. She also enacts Latour’s insight that: ‘what counts is understanding whether you are managing to register, to maintain, to cherish, a maximum number of alternative ways of belonging to the world.’ Her work with migrants and refugees reflects her choice to distance herself from any sense of the Local as being exclusive, as differentiating itself by closing itself off. Instead, she identifies with the Terrestrial througha specific place experienced as inclusive, as opening itself up. Finally, she acts on Ghosh’s point that we need to renew our forms of collective imagining; to contest an economics and culture based on, and designed to increase, isolation. She does that by listening to untold stories and facilitating the creation of new, shared, ones.  

These qualities are equally applicable to Christine Baeumler’s work. For example, the recent Defiant Gardensproject for the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, North Dakota. This involved Christine, her collaborators, and their Buzz Lab interns, turning an art museum car park into a pollinator garden. A transformation with social, political and economic consequences. Christine and I have been mutually accompanying each other, both conversationally and practically, since 2007. A process that made it possible for me to write an essay on her practice for a recent book on the Defiant Gardensproject. 

An earlier example of Christine’s work isthis tamarack wetland restoration project, made for the main entrance roof at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. It calls attention to fragile and unique tamarack ecosystems in the Minnesota region by reimaging a fragment of wetland as green roof infrastructure. She wanted to show staff, students and local residents that it’s possible to “reconstitute” an endangered rural ecosystem in an urban setting by using water where it falls. Like Luci, Christine’swork requires her having a ‘mycelial’ or ‘ensemble’ approach to her work. This enables herto register, maintain, and cherish the maximum number of alternative ways of belonging to the world ascitizen, neighbour, artist, university teacher, student of ecology, researcher, curator, mentor, and activist. And like Luci, Christine understands that issues of climate change, social justice and self-understanding have to be addressed together. 

Breaking from her ecological interventions, in 2014 Christine made a set of Tarot cards based on works in the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis. She then began giving face-to-face ‘readings’ as an eco-oracle at events ranging from local fairs to academic conferences. Like Latour and Ghosh, she had seen the need to draw attention to what is repressed by Scientism. Ghosh refers to Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Thinkto remind us that most people, across different times and cultures, have understood that communication exceeds both language and the human. To take on the role of eco-oracle is both to playfully question the limits of humanistic rationality and to suggest the possibility of radically other modes of communication. In this Christine’s eco-oracle personaenacts important points made by Isabelle Stengers, both in her writing on animismand in Capitalist Sorcery, Breaking the Spell

By playing the role of an eco-oracle, Christine also questions our culture’s presuppositions about authority.A university professor performing as a fortune-teller begs questions about what kinds of knowledge we assume to be authoritative, and why. It’s also an indirect reminder that we’re eachalwaysbothmore and less than the categories of identity used to name and divide us. Working with that understanding isn’t always comfortable, as I learned collaborating on The Crow Road, a performance made with Erin Kavanagh. However, as both Latour andStengers suggest, stepping away from our professional categorical helps us to register, maintain, and cherish a greater variety of ways of belonging to the world.

Simon Read teaches art students at Middlesex University in London and we’ve been exchanging observations since we were undergraduates.In 1980 he left his developing London art career to live on a barge on the Suffolk Coast. He joined the River Deben Association, a local environmental group, and immersed himself in debates about the cultural implications of unstable coastal and estuarine systems. Unable to find large-scale maps that related the river to its defences, the surrounding landscape and to the floodplain, he decided to make his own. He retrieved the necessary information from admiralty charts, Ordinance Survey maps, scientific literature, Environment Agency Flood Plain maps and aerial surveys. All of which he then synthesised, cross-referenced, and checked for accuracy on the ground. This mapping work equipped him to make informed contributions to debates between multiple official agencies and the local community about the management of the River Deben estuary. 

Simon’s predictive maps– they visualise the future of the riverscape over periods of between five and fifty years – enable him to make an informed practical contribution to discussions about environmental management. They’ve also served as a basis for creating tidal attenuation barriers that help sustain both the Sutton and Falkenham tidal saltmarshes. These structures were made following discussions with the local community and built, in the first case, with help from volunteers from a local open prison. They’re materialextensions of insights gained through visualisation as an artist on one hand, and involvement in public debates regarding the Deben and its environs on the other.

Simon would stress that there’s no single answer to the question: ‘what’s the outcome of these projects’? Tothe farmer who owns the saltmarsh and to the Deben Estuary Partnership, it’s environmental restoration. To those interested in art, it may be aesthetic or a questioning of categories like ‘Land’ or ‘Environmental’ art. To environmental managers it’s the use of bio-degradable materials to create structures that help build up the sediment on which healthy saltmarshes depend. To those involved in public engagement and environmental governance, it’s the processes that enmesh cultural engagement with environmental questions about ownership, land, responsibility, and belonging. As I say, for Simon each view is equally valid. 

Simon’s and my sense of mutual accompaniment circles around two core concerns. The complexities of place andcommitment to an education through art that challenges the culture industry’s assumptions about what art can do. Simon’s come to accept that his contribution to any environmental debate or action as an artist is no more important than any other when trying to find equitable solutions to problems. It took him a while and he still sometimes asks himself whether he’s in danger of losing his identity as an artist altogether. However, I see him as having developed an open creative approach to complex, multi-dimensional environmental partnerships that frees him from the limits of both his own individual ego and any one signature approach or methodology. 

I need to turn to my own situation at this point.In my final undergraduate year as an art student, I had a brief conversation with Joseph Beuys. It ended with him saying to me: ‘Always remember, education is more important than art’. I’d taken refuge in art as a dyslexic schoolboy and it had become the focus of my identity as an art student. So at the time I met Beuys I couldn’t accept what I thought he was saying to me. 

Thirty-five years later, I was supporting my family by working for a university and was involved in various deep mapping projects – in this case with my chronically-ill daughter. I’d arrived at my own interpretation of Beuys’ view, which is to embrace the necessity of working around the constraints imposed on us by categories like ‘art’ and ‘education’. That shift was in no small part due to mutual accompaniment with the last person whose work I want to talk about. 

Natalie Boulton and I were art students together and have been married for 45 years. Natalie is the main carer for our daughter, who suffers from chronic Myalgic Encephalomyelitis -ME for short- and works as a patient advocate and activist. About fifteen years ago, she started to look for ways to use her various skills and abilities to articulate the experience of ME sufferers and their careers. She first designed and edited a book of interviews and then produced the award-winning documentary film, Voices From The Shadows. These both articulate, in sometimes horrifying detail, the abuse of ME sufferers by members of the medical and psychiatric professions. Natalie is now working on an ME education project, funded by the Wellcome Trust, alongside a network of patients, researchers, carers, citizen-scientists and investigative journalists she’s helped bring together. They’re promoting proper research and contesting institutionalised neglect, abuse, and mis-representation of ME sufferers. Through that work, they’re also contributing to the increasingly vocal political opposition to the UK’s oppressive policy of ‘austerity’.  

Natalie’s work relates directly to our environmental concerns here because it exposes and challenges the mechanisms used by what Latour calls ‘obscurantist elites’. Elites that now use every means possible to obscure the fact that they’ve abandoned any sense of civic responsibility to preserve their wealth, authority and status, largely by fostering counter realities that deny the reality of our situation. The network Natalie’s involved in is, like many others, engaged in an unrelenting struggle for the social justice with which environmental sanity is inextricably bound up. Accompanying that work on a daily basis has taught methe necessity of working around the constraints imposed on us by social categories of occupation and identity.  

“… if, as an art, conversation is the creation of worlds, we could say that to choose to have a conversation with someone is to admit them into the field where worlds are constructed. And this ultimately runs the risk of redefining not only the ‘other’ but us as well”(italics mine)

Monica Szewczyk  ‘Art of Conversation, Part 1’ e-flux journal no 3 – February 2009

In this presentation, I’ve tried to indicate why what I would once have called ‘mywork’ is actually inseparable from the process of mutual accompaniment grounded in conversation in this sense. The connections, attachments, and relationshipsI’ve touched are only part of a larger picture, of course, which is dependent on the work of innumerable others, both living and dead. That is, in the shared work of trying tosustain the multiverse that, more fundamentally, sustains us. 

I want to end by picking up Mary Watkins’ suggestion there’s a downside to the increased professionalisation of social and environmental agencies and NGOs. That it sends an unintended signal to civil society, implying that caringis a specialist activity best undertaken by paid professionals. That in turn implies that ‘ordinary citizens’ no longer need to concern themselves with issues of care because professionals will do it for them and do it better. The same might be said about the culture industry. 

The work Natalie does reveals, in shocking detail, just how socially and psychically disastrous the professionalisation of care can be. It’s significant that the work I’ve referred to in this presentation involves lay citizens, refugees, scientists, children, migrants, young people, experts, the chronically sick, their carers, local communities, and even prisoners excluded from those communities. All of whom, for better or worse, are dependent on multiple ecologies consisting of shared connections, attachments, and relationships. Perhaps it’s only through acknowledging and developing our many mutual accompaniments across and beyond social categories that those shared connections, attachments, and relationships can be re-oriented towards the common good?


Amitav Ghosh The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (University of Chicago Press, 2017)

Donna Haraway Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press 2016) 

Bruno Latour Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime 
(Polity Press, 2018)

James Leach ‘Creativity, Subjectivity and the Dynamic of Possessive Individualism’ inElizabeth Hallam & Tim Ingold (eds.), Creativity and Cultural Improvisation. (Berg, 2007)

Phillippe Pignarre & Isabelle Stengers trans. Andrew Goffey, Capitalist Sorcery: Breaking the Spell(Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

Mary Watkins ‘From Hospitality to Mutual Accompaniment: Addressing Soul Loss in the Citizen-Neighbour’ in Tomaž Gruovnik, Eduardo Mendieta & Lenart Škof (eds.) Borders and Debordering: Topologies, Praxes, Hospitableness(Lexington Books, 2018).