Category Archives: News

Liquidscape Workshop text: (Luci Gorell Barnes & Iain Biggs)

Today Luci and I ran a workshop for art.earth’s liquidscapes conference at Dartington. A number of participants asked us to make the text we stared with available, so here it is. 

 

 

The artist Joyce Lyon suggests that thinking about place is a way to explore many kinds of knowing: one’s own direct experience and its limitations, what can be intuited, what is possible to learn at a distance and what can’t, finally, be understood.Rivers and streams, of course, are particular kinds of place.

Herman Hesse writes in Siddharthathat: “the river taught him how to listen – how to listen with a quiet heart and a waiting soul …”. He’s right, listening to flowing water can remind us to listen to the world. Listen, perhaps, to a poet, a political geographer and a Greek philosopher – who tell us that: “where we live in the world is never one place. …”, that “… space” is “a simultaneity of stories-so-far”, and that “everything changes and nothing stands still”. What these three say can be unsettling, of course. It’s easier to lose oneself in the hypnotic flow, the running, restless energy of water that chimes with our assumptions about needing to ‘keep busy’, ‘move on’, ‘go somewhere’, all the assumptions that drive our increasingly frantic lives.

I feel ‘at home’ in upland landscapes with their young, energetic rivers, their fast-flowing streams, burns, and tarns. At home in that typeof landscape rather than a particular region like Dartmoor, central west Wales, Cumbria, or the Scottish Highlands. Why I feel ‘at home’ there, despite living in Bristol for most of the year, may have to do with that type of landscape being an important part of my childhood. Like playing in streams. There’s something special about playing in flowing water, something that perhaps relates to Herman Hesse’s sense that:

“The river is everywhere at once, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the rapids, in the sea …”

But over time I’ve learned that these landscapes are also home to another kind of liquid-scape. Uplands are full of bogs, mires or mosses. I spend time each year in County Durham and the bogs, mires and mosses closest to my heart are on the English / Scottish Borders.  A 2006 report – “A Borders Wetland Vison” – compiled for the Scottish Borders Counciltells me there are eleven distinct types of wetland in the region, but such neat definitions trouble me. Firstly, because one of the most important qualities of wetlands is their ‘wildness’ in the poet Don McKay’s sense. That is, their ability: “to elude the mind’s appropriations”; to subvert our neat categories and definitions. Secondly, in practice it’s often the ambiguities of human activity in the landscape that makes a nonsense of our own neat categories.

Anyway, as I’ve got older, streams have become less important to me, bogs and mires more so. I can come up with all sorts of reasons for this. My children are grown up so I’m less inclined to play in streams. I’m more aware of environmental reasons for valuing mosses and bogs – their role in water retention, flood control, carbon capture and maintaining biodiversity. They are home to rare plants – Bearberry, Dwarf birch, Bilberry and Cowberry, Sundews and Sphagnum mosses – and, on the borders, support rare local invertebrates – the large heath butterfly, the bog bush cricket, and the mire pill beetle, not to mention a whole host of more common insects. Unlike streams, mires and mosses don’t chatter and sparkle, they tend to be quiet, even near-silent, out-of-the-way places. The older I get, the more I feel at home in such places. Recently I’ve been trying to work out why.

I think it’s connected to their being sedentary places, to the specific reveries they encourage. Reveries fed by quiet, slow, downward-oriented processes that, in blanket bog, result in the patient accumulation of layer upon layer of peat that’s central to carbon capture. This slow layering is a flow of a kind, but one that takes place in slow motion, gradually preserving a unique and irreplaceable archive of plant and animal remains. It archives time as a deposit, allowing us to trace the changing historical patterns of vegetation, climate, and land use. Walking in bogs, mires and mosses also invites patient attention to small-scale, undramatic, shifts of scale and emphasis, prompts us to notice what might otherwise be overlooked. For the most part these are worlds of small, gradual, unspectacular happenings and low-key changes that echo the regular, often overlooked, sedimentations of our daily life; the mundane, taken-for-granted silt in which more dramatic events are embedded like bog oak in peat.

This sedimentation process prompts me to take a different view of my own aging process. It encourages me to think about the slow, imperceptible processes by which we do or don’t participate in how social memory and values are laid down and compressed to become cultural norms. Processes which, in turn, invite me to consider my attitudes to death and dissolution, to preservation and metamorphosis. Pondering the slow worlds of bogs, mires and mosses might also help us question some of the presuppositions and preoccupations that underpin our increasing toxic culture of possessive individualism.

The almost invisible downward flow of water sinking into bogscan offer us an equivalent, in experiential, environmental terms, to what in Medieval Christian culture called the Art of Dying, one example of the socially-sanctioned contemplation of death that occurs in most traditional cultures. There’s nothing morbid about this. We live in a culture that projects the inevitability of change out onto technology. This distracts us from the need to face our own bodily changes, our physical death, dissolution and eventual metamorphosis back into the fundamental elements of air, earth, and water. Mosses and mires seem to me ideal places to contemplate these things as part of the slow and necessary continuum of life.

There’s even something oddly reassuring about these places of continual and necessary vegetative death and decay. A process that captures and holds toxins, that helps ensure that there is adequate clean air and water for the continuance of life, human and otherwise. They are suggestive in terms of human social ecologies, evoking our involvement in the slow, often messy, processes of day-to-day social sedimentation and metamorphosis. Processes that involve our bodily being and our shared ideas, memories, and feelings and, in time, lay down their own rich equivalent of peat. That is, lay down the psychic resources, the social sediment, that provides intellectual fuel, psychic warmth through narrative continuity, and emotional nourishment for other possible futures.

I think we need to review the value we give to the slow downward flow that characterises the marginal, watery, ‘betwixt and between-ness’ of bogs, mires and mosses. Traditionally these places carried negative social associations, like John Bunyon’s Slough of Despond in Pilgrim’s Progress. The central character in the old Borders ballad Long Lankin“lives in the moss” – that is, he’s a social outsider, living in awet, dirty, unstable, messy, overlooked, and marginal place. But what if we see Long Lankin’s moss as everything overlooked by a book like Robert MacFarlane’s Mountains of the Mind– with its emphasis on mountains as: ‘a world entirely apart, an upper realm’. Attending to the slow and inexorable downward flow of water at the heart of bogs, mosses and mires, invites a sense of coming-together, confluence, down-to-earth connectedness. This is the counterweight to MacFarlane’s exalted notion of the climber as special, apart, as ascending to a higher realm. Mires and mosses speak to inclusivityrather than exclusivity. They ground us in an acceptance of common mutability, metamorphosis, flowing together; resist the desire to ascend the mountain as an act of transcendent separateness. They take us to the ancient Taoist realm of the Po-soul, the soul that, at death, takes its energy back down into the earth.

In her book Stirring the Mud: On Swamps, Bogs and Human Imagination, Barbara Hurd writes:

To love a swamp … is to love what is muted and marginal, what exists in the shadows, that shoulders its way out of the mud and scurries along the damp edges of what is most commonly praised. And sometimes its invisibility is a blessing. Swamps and bogs are places of transition and wild growth, breeding grounds, experimental labs where organisms and ideas have the luxury of being out of the spotlight …”

These muted margins are not places outside the flow of human history. In The Bogs of Ireland: an introduction to the natural, cultural and industrial heritage of Irish peatlands, John Feehan and Grace O’Donovan write:

The bogs are never still. They evolve and change, and their development has always been intimately influenced by human action. Bogs are a stage in the development of landscape, a response to topography, changing climate and other natural influences. The human community is also art of the bog, and the direction it has taken at different periods of history and prehistory has been to a considerable extent determined by cultural influences.”

 

Maybe we need bogs and swamps not just because of the vital role they play in terms of the cycles of water retention, purification, carbon capture and biodiversity on which the well-being of all living beings ultimately depends, but also for psychic well-being. As a significant counter to our mind’s tendency to locate itself heroically in a pure ‘elsewhere’, in ‘a world entirely apart, an upper realm’. Whether that’s up a mountain or in the elevated realm of religious dogma or academic High Theory. A tendency that, in turn, can all-too-easily feed the fundamentalisms and the other exclusive tendencies that so plague our times.

I’m suggesting that bogs, mires and mosses are a physical palimpsest of slow change, with each layer both grounded on and modified by the one beneath it. If we could map the way that these places change over time we’d have to start with a geological map that represented them at the end of the last ice age. Then, using tracing paper, we’d have to draw over that to represent what had changed over, say, each thousand-year period. By the time we’d drawn twelve overlays, the original map might be virtually invisible but, like the genetic make-up we inherit from our parents, it would still to some extend determine aspects of our last overlay.

In this workshop, our focus will be on the ‘muted and marginal’ within ourselves.We will begin by drawing a map on which we will locate significant places from our own childhoods. Our maps will value what is subtle and slight, because the experiences we have are often not stories as such, but more like little floating particles, memory fragments of people, events and places, lodged in our memories like photographic slides. We will pay particular attention to our relationship with water in these landscapes, be they streams, ponds, bogs, oceans or puddles, and we will use water imagery to focus on the ‘slow flow’ of sedimentationin our lives, and how and what ‘deposits’ we have laid down over time.

We will add layers to our maps to represent what we see as particularly significant moments for us. As we work, early layers may start to be obscured by subsequent ones – sink to the bottom of our memory pool if you like – and we focus on willexploring what needs to be brought forward and what can be allowed to recede. Using sheets of tracing paper, we will draw, write, erase, rewrite, cut holes, tear and add images, making adjustments to create a cartographic account of the flow that we are in relation to place.

 

We will consider our personal experiences of place, how we have written our individual landscapes and how they have written us. We will seek to deepen our understanding who we were in those places, how we have named both them and ourselves within them. We will take time to share these thoughts with one another to see where we diverge and overlap, and to prompt deeper reflections about how our identity has been formed in the land and liquidscapes we dwell in.

Make the connections.

Chris Packham is not popular with those who enjoy the privilege of owning the land that allows them to indulge in ‘hunting, shooting, and fishing’. Not popular because he has drawn attention to the fact that, for example, they all-too-often ignore, or encourage their employees to ignore, the laws that protect the raptors they regard as vermin. He will probably be less popular still now he has warned that the UK is increasingly becoming “a green and unpleasant land” that’s heading towards “an ecological apocalypse”. Quite rightly, he is worried by the fact that designated nature reserves are becoming a distraction that blinds people to the necessary business of addressing the catastrophic depletion of wildlife in the countryside, with all that follows on from this.

I am sure there are people who, while perhaps upset by these issues, see them as secondary to the fact that, yesterday, the Guardian newspaper drew attention on its front page to the National Audit Office’s damning report on the Tory Government’s Universal Credit System, a costly and deeply inhuman measure that has already caused a great deal of very real and entirely unnecessary human suffering. (Significantly, it’s trail-run has been conducted in some of the poorest areas of the country). This system is, let’s be clear, one of the Government’s flagship mechanisms for ‘weaponizing’ State bureaucracy in the pursuit of ‘austerity’, effectively a war on the poor, chronically sick, and the poorly-off elderly. Like so much of ‘austerity’ thinking, is simply a smokescreen for refusing to address the obscene gap between the super-rich and the poor in our society by legislating for social justice and raising taxation.

Today, although admittedly not on the front page, the same newspaper draws attention to Sir Christopher Robert Chope, the MP for Christchurch in Dorset, who has recently blocked the passage of a private member’s bill that would have made ‘upskirting’ a specific offence. (Despite the fact that he apparently was unsure what ‘upskirting’ actually involved). On the same day, he and another member of the Government forced a delay to the final debate on a bill designed to improve oversight of the use of force in mental health units, which suggest he regards both women and those with mental health issues as equally unworthy of legislative protection.

Chope is, among other things,  a private landlord, so it is no doubt natural in his eyes that he should have contributed to the democratic process by filibustered a bill intended to make revenge evictions by landlords an offence. Additionally he has furthered the course of democracy by calling for the abolition of the minimum wage, blocking a bill to protect poor countries from “vulture funds”, helping host a meeting of climate-science sceptics at Westminster, voting against same-sex marriage, objecting to the second reading of the Alan Turing (Statutory Pardon) Bill, lobbying for the reintroduction of capital punishment and conscription, promoting the privatizing the BBC, calling for the banning the burka in public, and voting against the Equal Pay (Transparency) Bill. He is, it goes without saying, a keen supporter of Brexit.

His other claim to fame came during the parliamentary expenses scandal, when it was revealed that he had claimed £136,992 in parliamentary expenses in 2007/08, included one for £881 to repair a sofa. This neatly demonstrated the same commitment to furthering the common good as his eleventh-hour long objection to the Hillsborough debate taking place because he believed a debate about MPs’ pensions was more important.

For these and other outstanding services, the present Government saw fit to have Chope appointed a Knight Bachelor in the 2018 New Year Honours list. The Establishment is, after all, nothing if not loyal to its own.

I stress this last point because it is all too easy to focus on the man himself, forgetting that he was an elected Tory MP from 1983 -1992 and again from 1997 to the present time. In short, repugnant as his mindset and actions may be to a great many of us, they are clearly approved of by the majority in a constituency that keeps electing him. One largely made up not of the Establishment itself, but those who aspire to its values, that lives in coastal retirement havens, prosperous suburbs, and a town now surrounded by dedicated sheltered housing. One with the highest proportion of over-60s of all UK constituencies.

In short, the news items I’ve referred to have far more in common than we might initially assume. They indicate the power of a Tory party supported by the wealthier part of an ageing population, that elevates socially conservative, reactionary, traditionalist, and right-wing figures like Chope and Jacob Rees-Mogg. A (large) faction of the party that is in thrall to those born into wealth and privilege and are ardent supporters and beneficiaries of the capitalist system at its most excessive and destructive. (Chope has worked as a consultant with Ernst and Young and supported “vulture funds” that exploit the people and natural resources of the poorest nations, while Rees-Mogg co-founded a hedge fund management business, leaving him and his wife with an estimated fortune of over £100 million, including a second home in London worth £5.625 million).

This group of influential Tory voters, many of whom will be members of the National Trust, English Heritage, and similar organisations that claim to protect the British landscape, appear to take heart from the fact that the men they admire, and so elect to represent them, live in a world entirely insulated from that inhabited by those people who are subject to the injustices of the Universal Credit System. (In 2017 Rees-Mogg boasted in an interview that he had never pretended “to be a modern man at all, ever”, including admitting that he had never changed a nappy because: “I don’t think nanny would approve because I’m sure she’d think I wouldn’t do it properly”).

These are the same men who are desperate to take the UK out of Europe at any cost in the name of ‘national sovereignty’. A desire that largely boils down to promoting an isolationism that will enable them to increase their own wealth and power and that of the social elite to which they belong. The same elite that is so critical of Chris Packham for drawing attention to the hypocrisy of their claims to be ‘guardians’ of all that is best about Britain, including its countryside and wildlife. The elite that supports and funds a Tory party that has put Michael Gove, a man who tried to have climate change removed from the geography curriculum as Education Secretary, in charge of the Ministry for the Environment.

We really do need to start making, and acting on, these connections if we want to avoid descending into a socio-ecological apocalypse far more wide-reaching than that indicated by Chris Packham.

Marega Palser – guest post

One thing leads to another…

For this sharing of words, I’d like to talk about living and working in Newport – the South Walien one as opposed to the one with the softer edges of Pembrokeshire.

The Newport I live in is often referred to as ‘a Shit’ole’ , ‘Rough as Fuck’ , and seen as a place you pass through on the train or coach on your way to other places. It lies on the banks of the River Usk, once busy with boats and ships, dating from when the Romans were ‘resident’ at Caerleon to the Industrial Age of coal and steel. 

Because of the huge tidal range of the Usk, it has the ability to totally transform the appearance of the city – from a watery reflective ( depending on weather ) state, to a thick mud bath ideal for wading birds. ( someone once described it like “looking down on a mini Atlas Mountains” ).

Years ago, if anyone had said to me –  one day  you’re gonna live in Newport, and what’s more, you’re gonna like it ! . . . I would not have believed them – No fecKin’ way !! I grew up very much with Cardiff and London in my blood, and as I just mentioned, Newport was a place you passed through.

My first encounters with the PorT – as it’s commonly referred to – was in the early “90’s, coming to rehearse with a band I was in at the time called The Terrorist Ballet Dancers from Hell. We would rock up at a house in York Place and spend hours in the Basement getting stoned and playing music. It was here I got to meet a handful of Newport’s creatives – fresh (ish) out of Art College who’s one of many creative outlets was putting on happenings known as UFO nights, usually at TJ’s  night club. The club would be decked out in a plethora of materials and dead foliage which would then be projected on, to create a pretty trippy backdrop for the soundtrack of the evening. 

It was through my adventures to the PorT and getting to know a wonderFuLL combination of people that would partly inform the next chapter of my life – meeting Paul Burwell who was one of the founder members of Bow Gamalan.  

Paul Burwell was a true maverick – mouthy, stubborn, and a person who got truly excited by noise, and anarchic energy. There was no hierarchy involved in the Gamalan and the very experienced played alongside the less so… it felt like a right of passage, a place where you were allowed to try things out , a testing ground of finding who you might become…

When I started writing this sharing of words, I had no intention of writing about Paul Burwell ; in my minds eye I thought I would quickly skip to the Newport of the Now … but I guess this is a great example, and a way in to getting at the heArT of what I would like to write about – for it seems to be that when you are not looking for the direction in which you are going that you seem to find the direction,  

PART 2.

Empty Shops.

If it had not been for the Ryder Cup being held in Newport back in 2010  I wonder if the Empty Shops Project would have come in to being as quickly as it did. This sounds cynical I know, but…

Around this time I think it is safe to say that there were as many  dying and empty shops as there were shops ‘Open for business’ ( a term later coined by Newport City Council to remind Newport’s inhabitants that despite the outer appearance of the city looking semi-derelict , everything was … ‘Open for Business’ and indeed, ’Open for Pleasure’….

The time leading up to the Ryder Cup became active in the respect of making Newport more aesthetically pleasing to the eye and one of the solutions was to give the empty shop spaces over to artists ( local and beyond ).

The new residents not only gave the city a new breath of life and colour but most crucially became spaces where you could meet other artists and people both interested and curious about art. For many, it became a life line.

It was in one of these shops where I first worked in Newport ( along with my husband / partner, Gareth Clark ). As the performance duo Mr and Mrs Clark, we were asked to ‘activate’ a shop space to host a project called ASSEMBLY initiated by National Theatre Wales. The idea behind the Assembly projects was to gleen information from locals about themselves and where they lived and then to make an evening’s event in which stories and scenarios would be shared.

It was through this experience of very much making it up on the spot that we started to engage with the eclectic mix of people that live and pass through Newport city centre.

I remember the waves of trepidation and fear as ideas that had til that point resided in the head, were now going to be tried out – in the flesh. Our first day of StuFF involved offers of a 30 second portrait ( of which I did many ), a lunchtime installation which was housed in the shop window,  in which Mr Clark was wrapped in bubble wrap, and E. ( entrepreneur and expert in experimenting with narcotic mixes ) sat in a deckchair, and someone else might have been wearing a rubber cows head…. ( if it wasn’t on this occasion, it certainly happened at a later date ). This window of visual stimulation offered a different experience to the usual consumer experience and was the first step in what would be the beginning of many creative acts in the Port.

We got to meet the many artists and people who are creatively minded through putting on events like this, often using a cabaret format where all art forms and creative endeavours were given full license to bang up next to each other.

If the term Outsider Artist/s applies to those outside of the ‘art establishment’, then Newport is rich in Outsider Artists. – This may also explain why it is so difficult to pin down what exactly the ‘art scene’ in Newport is, because it is many things to many people ; it is an independent, many headed animal that seems to fly under the radar, seeking out the gaps and spaces created by others.

The Empty Shop project provided the foothold into further collaborative adventures  both in and out of empty shops, and it was through these experiences that I started to get a true understanding of how arts practise can start impacting on the everyday rhythm of a place. It’s when people start to stop you to ask what are you going to be doing tomorrow ? that you know you have caught their attention, and more importantly, their curiosity !

TOP TIPS for creating art in places that do not have a visible ArT space.

  • Think of everywhere as a play space.
  • Make it Accessible ! 
  • The word accessible is terribly over-used, and will usually be applied to target ‘minority groups’ for funding purposes. The use of the word in this case means :
  • Make work so it is visible
  • Let people stumble across it, get curious
  • Talk about it – answer questions and ask questions
  • If you are working inside, have the door open – even if it is cold outside
  • Look at what is there ( and not there ) and use it as a playground, a set, a canvass 
  • Involve people in the making and direction of what it is you are doing
  • Be the Bridge between the passing punter and the art work.
  • If you can’t gain access to empty shops, use the front of them to display work or make a pop up space – the worse thing that can happen is someone will ask you to take it down !

DEEP MAPS – WALKING the INNER DOG

If I had a dog, I would walk it regularly. I don’t have a dog, so I walk my inner dog instead.

Walking through Newport, especially if you follow the river, it is not too difficult to spot its industrial past. Tracks and man made, mud worn docking areas still follow the river down stream, and walls still hold remnants of metal hooks and rings, evidence that the industrial age was very much part of the fabric and making of the then town – now City. 

It is a place where things, people and events nudge and bang up to each other. There is a feeling of defiance about the place and an air of independence. 

Today, the tide was on the out breath, revealing wave patterns, reed banks and seaweed patches – good fodder for waders. It goes without saying there was the token shopping trolley, a couple of bikes, off cuts of trees…

The breakfast bar ( slang for the riverside peeps who like an early morning tipple ) is in session … ( we are familiar faces to each other and wave a Hello )…

Stepping off the feeder road, the rhythmic banter of the car auctioneers voice weaves between passing lorries. 

At the Transporter Bridge I meet an Irish man on a bike. He has time on his hands ; reason for being in thePorT is due to football – the beautiful game. He’s been here to interview the manager or spokes person at Newport County, who recently beat Leeds Utd. He has an hour before the train back to London and we end up following the River back into town. It is through his questions about the place that I realise what a gateway and Junction Newport is – There are entrances and exits to many geogrphical possibilities here… 

Usk, Abergavenny, Brecon, the old canal routes, mountains…

Iggy Pop once said, ‘Always know where you Spiritual Exits are…’ , this has always resonated with me and might have an added explanation of my love of the Port… you are never too far from getting out of it…literally.  

It is an interesting time to be living in a place like Newport. For so long it has been in the shadow of cities like Cardiff and Bristol, unable to compete with its Big consumer heavyweight neighbours. When the shopping centre was still in its paper form, we did suggest to the council that it may be better to think about creating an alternative centre, one that would house a public square in which veg could be grown, surrounded by smaller, independent traders. Alas, they did not go for it. . .  Quel Surprise !

 

About Marega

Marega is a performance based artist living in Newport, South Wales. Originally trained at the London Contemporary Dance School , and later studying Fine Art at Howard gardens ( then UWIC ) in Cardiff, she has worked and played solidly in the grey area that lies in between disciplines since the mid-eighties.

She is one half of the performance duo Mr and Mrs ClarK.

www.mrandmrsclark.co.uk

 

Photo taken outside the old elysium gallery in Swansea.

 

 

Luci Gorell Barnes – guest post

I am passionate and curious about what the arts can bring to academic research, and I have worked for many years as an artist researcher mainly with women who are in the UK as refugees or seeking asylum. I love arts-led research processes but I find that striking a balance between hands-on practice and academic theory can be tricky. The truth is that although I am drawn to academia, I am cautious as well. My main concern is that – despite professing to be open to different forms of knowledge – some academics can disregard the embodied learning discovered through creative practice.

A second concern of mine is that the nuanced understandings we seek often require us to tolerate periods of time when we feel quite lost. It can be hard to hold your nerve in these wilderness phases, and trust that by following your nose you will find your way to the things you need to discover. Moreover, when this unknowing runs alongside a path in which the desire to know is very strong, subtleties can be overwhelmed and deep understandings lost.

My third concern (for now) is that insubstantial fragments of practice can be smothered when too much meaning is made from too slight an event. It is tempting to extrapolate from what seems to be a meaningful moment of practice, and in our enthusiasm we can reach conclusions that lack rigour. If you add to that all of our different agendas, the different knowledges we possess, and the many languages we speak, then our deductions can seem precarious at best.

In creative research practice, as in many other aspects of life, we need interpreters; hybrid practitioners who can translate across boundaries. We need to widen our gene pool and move away from the spindly, breathless features that are present when things become very specialized. We need robust, conversational ways of working; work that isn’t finished; work that is still in transit. Maybe, above all, we need to resist thinking that we know anything very much about anything.

Companion Planting allotment project, connecting people through creative practice and organic gardening.

About Luci

My professional life began in the world of physical theatre but I gradually migrated to the realm of visual arts. My work revolves around themes of childhood, place and belonging, and I work with people who find themselves on the margins, developing flexible and responsive processes that allow us to think imaginatively with ourselves and each other. Issues of access, inclusion and engagement are integral to my work, and I see my practice contributing to a community of disciplines that embraces family support, health services, academic research, and education.

Convergences: Debatable Lands Vol. 3 – the conclusion of a deep mapping

A new year begins and I want to acknowledge that I have grown rather tired of my academic voice, it’s preoccupations and arguments. I respect it’s right to the views it has set out here, have even admired it for doing so on occasion. But it’s time for a change.

That change will manifest itself in two ways. Firstly, because I propose to allow another, less academic and more ‘writerly’, voice space here. This is the voice that has formed and informed Convergences: Debatable Lands Vol 3. Secondly, because I hope – as I’ve already indicated – to be putting up guest posts by people whose work I admire. A response to a growing need to ‘listen’ more, to make more space for other voices.

Convergences: Debatable Lands Vol 3  is the concluding work of my Debatable Lands deep mapping project, which goes back to 1999. I began this last part in 2013, when I was recovering from bowel cancer, and it takes the form of a text and image biography of Flora Buchan.

I will be putting some sections up here, but the complete work is now available on request as a pdf .

If you would like a copy, please contact me  at: iain19biggs@gmail.com.

Convergences:

Debatable Lands Vol. 3

 Flora Buchan

compiled and edited by

Iain Biggs 

“Writing, when properly managed … is but a different name for conversation”.

Laurence Sterne[1]

 

 

[1] The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman Ware: Wordsworth Classics 1996, p. 75.

The ‘Great Stink’ and the Russell Group of universities

In her review of Rosemary Ashton’s One Hot Summer: Dickens, Disraeli and the Great Stink of 1858 (in the London Review of Books, 4th Jan. 2018), Rosemary Hill recalls the last day of June 1858. The day when the unbearable stench of the Thames, then little more than a gigantic open sewer, finally made it impossible for the British Government to carry out its business as usual. Although the problem of the Thames had been under review for at least a decade, vested interests and administrative inertia had ensured that nothing was done. Only when the politicians themselves could no longer stand to work in an atmosphere so fetid that they gagged, was the Thames Purification Bill introduced, a process that then only took fifteen days to complete. The legislation passed into law on August 2nd, 1858, a reminder of just how quickly those in power can act when they have a mind to.

Which brings me to the Russell Group of universities.

On its official web site The Russell Group claims that its membership of research-intensive universities are world-class institutions that share certain distinguishing characteristics. These include a commitment to: “maintaining the very best research”; something which enables them to have: “huge social, economic and cultural impacts locally, across the UK and around the globe.”

This claim interests me because the Group includes Bristol University which, as I’ve reported before, has been trying to prevent Dr. David Tuller from further exposing the fact that, far from: “maintaining the very best research”, Bristol and other member universities have benefitted financially from protecting ‘research’ that, as Tuller and others have shown, is both bad and socially irresponsible science. In a blog post of 23 Dec., Tuller notes that Bristol has recently tried to use its “close and valued collaborative relationship” with Berkeley, where he has a post, as leverage to get him disciplined. Berkeley, to its credit, has reviewed the matter and confirmed not only that Tuller has done nothing wrong, but that it is his right, as both a public health academic and a journalist, to pursue his current line of enquiry.

Like the MPs in the Houses of Parliament during the decade prior to the Great Stink of June 1858, the Russell Group will no doubt try to ignore the bad odour Tuller has exposed. However, Bristol’s attempt to co-opt Berkeley in its bullying of Tuller has backfired, since it has allowed him to further illuminate just how low a Russell Group institution will go to protect the pseudo-science from which it benefits financially. This, in turn, gives the lie to the Group’s claim to represent world-class institutions that share a common commitment to: “maintaining the very best research”. For those of us with noses to smell, this Great Stink gets worse with every institutional attempt to suppress the fact that there is something deeply rotten in the whole system of validation that has allowed this situation to arise.

One obvious lesson to be learned from the events of the Great Stink of 1858 is that it’s only when a stench becomes so overwhelming that even those in authority gag on it that anything gets done. So we need to do whatever we can to draw The Russell Group’s attention to the stench some of its members have created.

Postscript to ‘Reasons for proposing a hedge school’.

I woke up in the early hours of the morning with an only-too-familiar sick feeling in my stomach. This stemmed, I soon realised, from a fear that I have thought and written myself into a place where what I was writing would simply not be believed by the people, either artists or academics, with whom I have professional interaction.

Then, this morning, I picked up a copy of the Guardian with it’s front-page headline: ‘Students failed by rip-off fees, says watchdog’. This prompted by a statement from the Head of the National Audit Office that if, universities were subject to the same controls as banks, they’d be under investigation for mis-selling. (Although not, sadly, for the excessive salaries they are paying their Chief Executives). Within minutes of my reading this, my wife had sent me a link to the academic and investigative journalist David Tuller’s most recent post: Trial by Error: My One-sided correspondence with Professor Crawley. This brilliantly summarises an exchange that, among other things, highlights Bristol University’s attempts to stifle legitimate criticism of the (pseudo)-science on which one of its professors has built her reputation as a researcher. A situation that, as I’ve commented on in a recent post, is also an attempt to protect the University’s own income stream from research.

Of course the situation is more complicated than Tuller’s excellent posts can really cover. As he has shown in the past, Bristol is by no means alone in trying to stifle legitimate criticism of its researchers’ poor science. These attempts at bullying critics into silence, along with false claims about attempts to ‘intimidate’ researchers, now seem a common strategy among the elite Russell Group of universities, no doubt desperate to maintain both their income stream and their cosy relationship as providers of ‘official’ advise to Ministers, etc. At one level, however, this is undoubtedly the result of universities having been bullied into following Government agendas by the REF audit. This does not, of course, excuse  universities, in turn, adopted almost totalitarian tactics to ensure that staff come up with the necessary ‘quality research’. (The research necessary to ensure that the 16% rack-off for ‘overheads’ continues to flow into the university’s coffers).

I do think the situation, for all its complexities, supports my claim that universities are increasingly becoming unfit for purpose. A situation that makes alternative ways of sharing genuinely innovative forms of knowledge and understanding, almost by definition troubling to the status quo, necessary. This can only reinforce the case for starting to develop some kind of hedge school.

PPS. Anyone who feels that my take on the ‘art world’ is unreasonably jaundiced might want to read Nicholas Penny’s Top Brands Today (London Review of Books Vol. 39, no. 24 14th., December 2017 pp. 31-34). This is not, of course, a reflection on the many artists who are committed to working in the space-between described in my last post. It does, however, demonstrate, in uncomfortable detail, the (in my view) malign relationships between the commercial, academic and arts worlds.

 

Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017)

There are four books on one of my shelves written or co-authored by Zygmunt Bauman, an internationally significant sociologist who died at the age of ninety-one on January 9th. As his obituary in today’s Guardian makes very clear, Bauman was a man with a passionate concern to promote the ethics and values necessary to “a socially progressive Europe”. This was, no doubt, in part the fruit of his own experience as someone who, at different times, had been victimised by both the Nazis and the Communists. All these books continue to be valuable to me (if that was not the case, they wouldn’t have survived the rigorous culling of my books that’s necessary each time we move house). But it’s perhaps the Introduction to Intimations of Postmodernity (1992), and its first essay – ‘Legislators and Interpreters: Culture as the ideology of intellectuals” – that I’ve returned to most often. The other three texts Postmodern Ethics (1993), On Education, written with Riccardo Mazzeo (2012), and Moral Blindness: The Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity, written with Leonidas Donskis (2013), have all been valuable, but less central to forming my thinking.

There is a second, far less direct, reason why Zygmunt Bauman has been important to me. One of his three daughters, Lydia, is a landscape painter and, in 1997, the feminist art historian Griselda Pollock wrote: ‘The Poetic Image in the Field of the Uncanny’  about her work, the preface to an exhibition catalogue of Landscapes at the National Gallery of Contemporary Art, Warsaw, Poland. A version of this was later published in the catalogue to the first LAND2 exhibition and reproduced on the LAND2 web site. In addition to the valuable insights into aspects of landscape painting this essay offers, Pollock closes by citing a “revealing insight” from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, (1958/1964 p. 4):

The poetic image is not an echo of the past. On the contrary: through the brilliance of an image, the distant past resounds with echoes, reverberates, and it is hard to know at what depth these echoes will reverberate and die away.

The resonances of this essay’s conclusion stayed with me, and were later to encourage me to follow a line of thinking that would finally become clear only when I read the Irish philosopher Richard Kearney on ‘testimonial imagination’, which I now understand to be the central animating force for ‘open’ deep mapping. So, both directly and indirectly, I owe Zygmunt Bauman a profound debt of gratitude.

Dialogue in Place: Volume III / Shifting Perspectives

evite-shifting-perspectives2

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.