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Listening, with others, in the Burren

In January this year I had an invitation from Michaele Cutaya, Katherine Waugh and Connor McGrady to participate in a two-day symposium PROPOSITION: AN ART OF ETHICS. This was to take place at the Burren College of Arts, supported by Clare County Council and the College, from Friday 11- Saturday 12 March 2016. They proposed to bring together around 10 artists, theorists and curators from Ireland and abroad to engage with the notion of Ethics and Art and to keep the form of the symposium as well as individual contribution quite open and responsive.

Michaele wrote to me that what had “prompted this event was on the one hand the feeling that ‘business as usual’ in art and art events organization is rightly challenged, and on the other a growing wariness with the way ethics is imported into the arts with its apparatus of prescriptive norms and judgments. In this context we thought that the immanent ethics of Spinoza might be an interesting proposition to explore: that is an ethics arising through practice and not preceding it. Or as Deleuze put it more eloquently: “Spinoza’s ethics has nothing to do with a morality; he conceives it as an ethology, that is, as a composition of fast and slow speeds, of capacities for affecting and being affected on this plane of immanence. That is why Spinoza calls out to us in the way he does: you do not know beforehand what good or bad you are capable of; you do not know before-hand what a body or a mind can do, in a given encounter, a given arrangement, a given combination.” (Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy p. 125)

“This not a philosophy symposium but one aimed at art practices, and an invitation to think through some of the difficulties encountered when one is dealing with both ethical and aesthetic considerations”.

Despite the fact that I have only a fairly hazy notion of Spinoza’s ethics (and indeed of most philosophical debate more generally,(not to mention a perverse tendency to regard Deleuze as that bloke who was Felix Guattari’s sidekick for a while), I happily accepted.

When I arrived in the Burren on Thursday evening this week I discovered that the three organisers had assembled a fascinating collection of participants. These included Maria Kerin (with whom I had corresponded in the past but not met), Suzanne Walsh, Aislinn O’Donnell, Vivienne Dick, Glenn Loughran, Seamus McGuinness, Ciaran Smyth (whose partner Ailbhe Murphy I have met previously in both Dublin and Galway) , Susan Stenger, Connor McGrady, Glen Loughran, and David Burrows. This lively mixing of people and concerns ensured that we had viewpoints evoked from a spectrum of interests across philosophy and theory, music, performance, film, curation, socially-engaged visual art, education, poetry and other forms of writing. The attendants at the event appear to have been either staff and students from the college or a range of interested individuals from the west of Ireland more generally who had travelled the distance to join us.

Having freed us from the constraints of the academic conference and invited us to adopt whatever form of presentation or provocation seems to us appropriate, the organizers generously fed and housed us. They then set us in motion to find our way through our allotted task with the minimum of overt guidance.

A long and sympathetic conversation with the musician, singer, performer and artist Suzanne Walsh, along with a number of others on the Thursday evening, started to open up some interesting shared concerns and possibilities. After I had introduced Suzanne to the lyrics and music of the Borders ballad Tam Lin – neither of us could quite reconstruct the trajectory of the conversation in retrospect – she generously offered to sing some verses as an introduction to my presentation on listening on the Saturday. This despite the fact that it would mean her having to get to grips with an entirely new tune and set of lyrics in a period of little more than what already looked like being a very busy twenty-four hours.

On the Saturday morning, when Suzanne had ‘opened’ for me in this way by singing her chosen verses beautifully, accompanied by a drone from her accordion,  I read the following text:


There’s a form of listening that enables us to translate across categories, disciplines, hierarchies, boundaries and modes of being. It also allows me to use the art of conversation to navigate the volatile space between various practices – art, activism, teaching, maintaining communities of interest, researching, writing, and so on.

A long monologue about listening and conversation would be self-defeating. Instead I’ll try to evoke, using four related sequences, some difficult conversations with texts and people I respect, hoping that these will seed new conversations.


Paul O’Neill suggests there’s a fundamental relationship between art and a certain type of conversation. A conversation that waits for what’s unforeseen, enabling ideas to converse with time itself unrestricted by any fixed or predetermined end. A second curator – Monica Szewczyk – pinpoints the value of this:

“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”.

That risk – or hope – of mutual redefinition might be linked to socially engaged art but it also raises questions about the identity ‘artist’.

The practice of conversation as an art relates closely to Gemma Corradi Fiumara’s work on listening as an attempt to recover: “the neglected and perhaps deeper roots of what we call thinking”. Necessary work because we have internalised a mentality that: ‘knows how to speak but not to listen’ that, in turn, feeds a culture of ‘competing monologues’, of possessive individualism.

This conditions our relationship to others, but also to ourselves. If we don’t listen to our own ‘several-ness’, our different personas, how can we recognise them as the internalization of community constituted by our multiple attachments, connections and relationships? So listening in Fiumara’s sense is both political and ethical. It challenges possessive individualism’s silencing of our communal constitution, our multiplicity, our porosity, our sharing the contingencies and connectivities that animate the ‘us’ that we are.


A David Napier writes that what is extraordinary is not how radical artists can be, but that their sense of their persona as ‘artist’ can be so conservative – a persona that, because of its assumptions about unique personal creativity, tends to exclude all other activities that define a person’s connectedness and ontological status. This presumption of monolithic singularity and uniqueness is used to model creativity by possessive individualism. This not only permeates our culture, politics, and social organisations, it informs the more fundamental complex of assumptions we make about personhood, nature and society.

Having examined the relationship between art and science, the Czech poet and immunologist Miroslav Holub argues that to focus on their differences is to distort social reality. Both modes of creativity receive only a tiny percentage of their practitioner’s time. The bulk of that time is actually spent on numerous other tasks, many of them mundane and unrelated to their specialisms yet, despite that, rarely wholly uncreative. Any conversation is necessarily enmeshed in, and partly determined by, all the synergies and tensions of our multiple tasks. This state of affairs is perfectly captured in Geraldine Finn’s observation that: “we are always both more and less than the categories that name and divide us”.

Pauline O’Connell once characterised her practice to me, in a memorably ironic tone of voice, as that of a ‘compound cur’. (We had been talking earlier about attitudes to working dogs in rural Ireland). That conversation gave me an image of the spectrum of artist’s ambition – from those who compete to be “best of breed” to those who –perhaps sometimes reluctantly – can celebrate the values of the “compound cur”. I share this image with you because it relates to Yuriko Saito’s challenge to ‘the aesthetics of exclusion’, to her argument that ‘everyday aesthetics’ informs and supports the emergent ethics of civic environmentalism.


For years I’ve work with doctoral students, usually artists interested in questions about links between memory, place and identity. I have two main tasks. To help them navigate the Byzantine world of academic research protocols, and to act as a critical and solicitous fellow traveller. Both tasks involve numerous conversations to translate between our different values, skills, concerns and framings. There seem to be similarities here with the work of socially engaged artists like Jay Koh and Petra Johnson, who use conversation, focused by listening, to act on particular intersections of social, political, and ethical space.

That said, I’m often uncomfortable with the discourse of socially engaged art. For example, Grant Kester begins Conversation Pieces by setting aside object makers as content providers, to focus instead on the performative, process-based approach of context providers. I find this unnecessarily reductive. The work I do sometimes generates objects that focus or conclude some aspect of an on-going, performative, process. Those objects may be exhibited, published or performed. But it remains the case that their production also renews or extends contexts for on-going conversational work.

I wonder if these discriminations within art discourse aren’t sometimes a way of avoiding more controversial issues like the hierarchical distinctions between art and other modes of creativity? Claire Bishop, for example, reluctantly accepts teaching as an artistic medium, although she worries about the resulting epistemological problems. But, faced with the possibility of art as a medium for teaching, she falls silent. That silence returns me to a very brief conversation I had with Joseph Beuys in 1972. It ended with him saying: “always remember, education is more important than art”.


As I understand them ‘art’, ‘education’, ‘ethics’, and ‘conversation’ share a common precondition – listening as active noticing. For Mary Watkins this is: “a careful, noticing attention that is sustained, patient, subtly attuned to images and metaphor”, and “able to track both hidden meanings and surface presentations”. It has a subversive dimension because it resists the mania for hyperactivity, including the frantic pursuit of cultural novelty, that possessive individualism needs to perpetuate itself. Instead it allows us to participate, slowly and observantly, in the specific particularities of our life-worlds as these happen to manifest themselves. It’s inclusive, open to the materiality of the world and to modes of non-human being. So the poet Kathleen Jamie, asked by a neighbour if she had prayed for her partner while he was dangerously ill in hospital, replied that she hadn’t. She writes, however, that she:

“… had noticed, more than noticed, the cobwebs, and the shoaling light, and the way the doctor listened, and the flecked tweed of her skirt, and the speckled bird and the sickle-cell man’s slim feet. Isn’t that a kind of prayer? The care and maintenance of the web of our noticing, the paying heed?”

I’ve very grateful to  Michaele, Katherine and Connor for organising this fascinating event. It not only allowed me to test out some thoughts in public, and to meet up with old friends like Pauline O’Connell, but also to make a whole host of new friends with whom I look forward to working in one way or another with in future.

Which leaves only the vexed question of the relationship between art and ethics. I’m not sure I have anything much to add here to what I said on Saturday morning, despite a fascinating three days of exchange, powerful impressions and debate. I was moved by the slow intensity of the movement piece performed by Maria Kerin and her movement partner, as I was by Seamus McGuinness’ work with the families of young suicides. I found plenty to interest and provoke me. including papers by both Glenn Loughran and Aislinn O’Donnell – each challenging and encouraging in their rather different ways. I was both intrigued and moved by the film by Vivienne Dick and by the musician Susan Stenger’s extraordinary musical journey, which has recently led her to  make Sound Strata of Coastal Northumberland which I can only call a sonic deep mapping of the Northumbrian coast. That said, I’m uncertain as to what it all adds up too.

This is absolutely not in any sense to suggest that we “didn’t get anywhere”. Only, perhaps, that the “where” in this case is best understood as a highly specific form of localised and particularly constellated relationally; one that, in addition to a willingness to listen, was (and maybe still is) contingent on degrees of openness, goodwill, modest aspirations in terms of what can reasonably be expected to be done, and the necessary attributes of human kindness and consideration that make living possible in a world without any hope of redemption but not, for that reason, without enchantment or certain forms of joy. Samuel Becket’s words will serve as a suitable coda here.

Fail, fail again, fail better.











Ireland in March and other concerns.

I will be travelling to Ireland in March to take place in the event below.

“Proposition: an Art of Ethics is a two day symposium which will take place at the Burren College of Art on Friday 11th and Saturday 12th March 2016. The event is supported by Clare County Council, NUI Galway and the Burren College of Art and is co-organised by Michaële Cutaya, Katherine Waugh and Conor McGrady (Dean of Academic Affairs Burren College of Art).

Participants include: Iain Biggs, David Burrows, Vivienne Dick, Maria Kerin, Glenn Loughran, Seamus McGuinness, Aislinn O’Donnell, Ciaran Smyth, Susan Stenger, Judith Stewart, Suzanne Walsh.

“Spinoza’s ethics has nothing to do with a morality; he conceives it as an ethology, that is, as a composition of fast and slow speeds, of capacities for affecting and being affected on this plane of immanence. That is why Spinoza calls out to us in the way he does: you do not know beforehand what good or bad you are capable of; you do not know beforehand what a body or a mind can do, in a given encounter, a given arrangement, a given combination.”
Gilles Deleuze Spinoza:Practical Philosophy

This symposium gathers together artists, theorists and curators for two days of research and experimentation. All contributors have been invited to engage through their practice with ideas relating to a conception of ethics which differs substantially from dominant notions of morality. The starting point of the symposium – its founding ‘proposition’ – is philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s reading of Spinoza, given Spinoza’s extensive influence on recent artistic practice and thought around the ‘ethical’ in art. For Deleuze, Spinoza’s ethics was a “a long affair of experimentation” which re-conceptualised the relationship between life, thought and practice, and this symposium will attempt to foster such an ethos of experimentation in its content and structure – proposing ethics as a methodology in contrast to the rigid principles of morality. The many nuanced and singular methodologies required in artistic practice will be addressed in a variety of presentational formats by the invited participants: from art and music, film and writing to conversation itself. A continuous dynamic of responsiveness and discussion will be facilitated between both participants and attendees. Spontaneous forays into the surrounding countryside will also be considered.

In ‘Towards an Aesthetics of Ethics’ (Whitechapel/MIT Documents of Contemporary Art, Ethics, 2015) , Walead Beshty’s notes:
“While moral criteria are always external to the circumstances to which they are applied, the ethical is immanent to the site of its deployment […]A turn to ethics is a turn to the affirmative question of art, not art as negation, allegory or critique, but the description of an art that operates directly upon the world it is situated in; it is a definition of art that is not at all premised on representation.”

Nietzsche asked “What is the mode of existence of the person who utters a given proposition?” and this symposium will take what is often seen as the “minor” tradition of ethical thought, an ethics of immanent practice, as its foundational proposition, allowing in turn a multiplicity of other propositions to take shape and develop over two days.

The symposium is free to all and food and refreshments will be served.
For further details on participants and updated information please see:

I’ve not added to this blog recently because I’ve been preparing for this event, reading material for doctoral candidates, and working on two book chapters due in the late Spring. I hope to post more regularly again when I’m more on top of these commitments.

The “Imagined Places” exhibition at the RWA, Bristol


I’ve been working on Severn Waterscape (for Owain Jones)  a mixed media diptych (see above ). This piece has been made specifically for an exhibition at the RWA Bristol called Imagined Landscapes. The exhibition will open next week (on Friday February 5th) and then runs until June 12th.

Early on in the planning of this exhibition Gemma Brace, the RWA’s curator, kindly asked me if I would suggest some people whose work might be relevant, so in addition to her showing my own piece, I feel I’ve had some degree of input into the exhibition as a whole. Of the various artists whose work I suggested she might look at, I’m particularly pleased that she’s chosen to include works by Eileen Lawrence and Will Mclean, two outstanding senior Scottish artists who in my view are not given their proper due south of the Border, and the work of two very interesting younger Bristol-based artists – Seila Fernandez Arconada and Jethro Brice – who often work collaboratively.

Gemma writes that Imagined Landscapes “explores an alternative understanding of place in contemporary art and the role of the artist as spatial narrator, cartographer and geographer”, an approach which links closely to my own concerns with deep and narrative mappings. Originally based around the idea of asking artists to respond to the notion of ‘Wessex’ – as much Thomas Hardy’s imagined literary place as any kind of physical or historical entity– I think that the resulting multi-disciplinary group exhibition will reflect, to a greater or lesser extent, on the intersection of literal and imaginal spaces, sites where physical location, memory and the imaginal or even mythic constellate landscape as place. As Gemma also notes the exhibition is, perhaps inevitably, haunted by environmental concerns. I write ‘perhaps inevitably’ because I hold to Edward S. Casey’s understanding of place, one in which he differentiates between a position, taken as “a fixed posit of an established culture”, and our experiencing of place which, notwithstanding its normally settled appearance, he characterizes as “an essay in experimental living within a changing culture”.(Getting Back into Place: Towards a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World 1993 p. 31) Such a definition of place in our present time cannot but have some powerful sense of environmental concern inextricably woven into it.

The artists involved include: Jethro Brice, Stephen Felmingham, Seila Fernandez Arconada, Paul Fieldsend-Danks, Paul Gough RWA, Lydia Halcrow, Tim Harrisson RWA, Rae Hicks, Eileen Lawrence RSA, Will Mclean, Gill Rocca, Melanie Rose, Jem Southam, Veronica Vickery and myself.


I’ve just read an article by Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian (09/12/15) about Assemble winning the Turner Prize. Their winning is (I hope obviously?) a very real cause for celebration. But it is also a reflection of just how slow the official ‘art world’ has been to recognise the sea change taking place on its wilder shores.

As Higgins points out, to some people giving the prize to a collective of young architects is going to look like “a monumental category error, like giving the Man Booker to, say, an oral poet”. And it’s that ‘category error’ by the Art Establishment, surely, that is the most fundamental cause for celebration. Art as we have reinvented it, ‘art with a capital A’, will be with us for just as long as there are elites who can use it as a sign of their ‘wealth’ – whether in terms of economic or cultural capital – and social exclusivity (or ‘taste’ if you prefer the polite term). What has been happening for many years now, however, is a slow withering away at the edges of the categorical exclusivity, in relation to the arts as to all other disciplines, that separates our skills and knowledges into separate and exclusive silos. In academia this is glossed as the ‘inter-disciplinarity turn’ (an unfortunate term that tacitly continues to perpetuate the myth of the superiority of disciplinary knowledge).

In actuality, however, what is taking place, albeit often below the radar on which cultural pundits depend, is the acknowledgement that we live in a polyverse in which it makes no sense to ghettoise any set of skills or form of knowledge on the basis of traditional professional hierarchies. (This is, I think, the most important insight behind Felix Guattari’s notion of ‘ecosophy’, despite his tendency to lionise aesthetics and the ‘artist’ over against science).

When Maria Lisogorskaya and Louis Schulz, two of the ‘eighteen or so’ members of Assemble, tell Higgins that they are indifferent to whether they are categorised as artists or not, that their focus is on “doing good projects”, which in turn is sometimes “about doing really good plumbing”, they give us a very clear indication of where the resurgence of an aesthetics of the everyday may be taking us.

Some years back my old friend Simon Read – who teaches art students at Middlesex University, makes extraordinary and beautiful predictive coastal maps, other kinds of large drawings, sculptural environmental interventions in the salt marshes on and around the River Deben, and is also practically engaged in the debates around environmental governance of the region in which he lives – told me a story. He was at the opening of a major exhibition in London when a friend introduced him as an artist to a well-known art critic. The critic asked Simon what he did. When Simon told him the critic’s response was: “how worthy”, with which comment he turned and walked away.

I hope that Assemble’s success will mean that, even if it’s for all the wrong reasons, the cultural influence represented by that critic will now be a little less dismissive of those for whom the skills of an artist are wholly compatible with getting productively engaged with the messy and complex  everyday realities of our crumbling psycho-social environment.

Invisible Landscapes

On Friday last week I found myself at the Invisible Landscapes: Exploring Embedded Approaches to Place-Based Contemporary Art Practice seminar. This was organised by Simon Lee Dicker for OSR/Projects , who are based in West Coker in Somerset.

I had originally intended to skip this interesting looking event, simply because there is so much to do at home but, as it turned out, it provided the only opportunity for a meeting with three friends with overlapping interests – the artist and geographer Jethro Brice; Owain Jones, Professor of Environmental Humanities at Bath Spa University; and John Fanshawe, an ornithologist and artist who is currently working with the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI) . An added bonus was the chance to catch up with Jethro’s news during the drive down. Jethro is currently doing AHRC-funded doctoral research in the Geography Department at Bristol University into ‘crane cultures’ – the birds, not the machines – by drawing multi-species wetland narratives from the field and archives. (The purpose of the four of us meeting was to talk about whether we can initiate some productive interactions with CCI, and it seems we may have the basis for doing so. However, it’s far too early to write about that here).

After a brief introduction by Simon, we listened to two very different talks. Sally Watkins – co-artistic director and curator for b-side – talked very informatively about b-side’s work, particularly on Portland, which included drawing out the various different ways in which that organization understands notions of ‘site-responsiveness’ and ‘embeddedness’ in practice.  The second talk of the morning was by Owain.

I have trouble knowing how best to write about this talk. (I’d heard a version of it before at a conference in Newcastle and raised some of the issues that concerned me with Owain then). Put briefly, this is because I think his take on our current situation is warped by a number of factors. The most significant is his stressing – referencing Felix Guattari – the aesthetic in opposition to science. While that position obviously went down well with an audience almost entirely made up of people from the arts, it seems to me to be a wrong-headed unless its heavily qualified, and may in any case – following Bruno Latour – be an outdated, binary position of the kind we badly need to avoid. I won’t go further into the reasoning behind this view here but I’ve discussed the question of scientism and aestheticism in contemporary culture at length in a chapter called ‘Beyond Aestheticism and Scientism: Notes towards An “Ecosophical” Praxis’ in Art, Science and Cultural Understanding, edited by Brett Wilson, Barbara Hawkins, and Stuart Sim and published in 2014. While Owain’s take on the chronically destructive nature of our current eco-social position is, at one level, as passionately argued as it is intellectually well-informed, it is in my view also saturated with – and in my view seriously distorted by – his own emotional discomfort with his inability, as an academic, to ‘know what to do’. (One antidote to which might be a careful reading of David Abram’s Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, published in 2010).

And this highlights a major ecosophical issue with regard to all articulations of our situation by those who earn their living providing “authoritative” accounts of that situation. Put simply, the personal ecology of the academic makes him or her singularly ill-suited to providing a helpful approach to our situation, simply because any such approach requires us to by-pass or overcome the fundamental presuppositions on which academic knowledge, and the whole material mesh and realpolitik in which it is embedded, rests. I found it sad and deeply ironic that, while Owain was rightly sceptical of all contemporary politics, he failed to acknowledge that the underlying psycho-social assumptions that underpin those politics also underpin the authority of academia. And no amount of aesthetic or imaginative work will change that situation until we acknowledge it for what it is.

Anyway, after an excellent lunch of bread and soup in a local pub we hear an informative talk from Sally Laburn, an artist and the co-director of The Drawing Shed, which is based in east London. This was followed by three parallel workshops run by Alexander Stevenson, Jethro and Tim Martin. I went to Jethro’s, in which we used mud to think about our relationship to non-human thinking, which involved me and my two peers in our group in an interesting and wide-ranging series of thoughts and reflections.

I enjoyed the day on a number of levels, and recognise just how important these types of gathering are to the regional arts community. However, one of the questions it left me with is around the issue of how we exchange with each other – starting with our terms of reference and vocabulary. If they also leave me somewhat saddened it is because I fear they may reinforce the very thing they appear to seek to overcome – the huddling together of individuals on the basis of a monolithic, disciplinary-based, world view – almost every speaker introduced him or her self by saying “I am an artist” – in a constellated world in which only the understanding that we now live in a polyverse will allow us to mitigate the extraordinary difficulties we increasingly face.




Up in the air

It’s been one of those weeks. As if fate wanted to throw a different light on all the usual, necessary stuff that has to goes on regardless, I heard that my uncle – my mother’s half-brother – died in his sleep after a brief period in hospital. So the family will be gathering for his funeral next week (some of whom I will not have seen since the last family funeral).

During the week I also discovered that I have won something called “the Derek Balmer PPRWA Painting Prize” at this year’s RWA Annual Open Exhibition for my piece Washington & Vicinity (Arlington betrayed), a work in part inspired by talking with my friend Mona Smith about the history and mis-treatment of the Dakota people. (See the earlier post Two works for the Annual Exhibition at the RWA). Apparently the prize is awarded “for excellence in painting”, something I was under the impression I no longer really ‘did’, at least in the traditional sense!

Then today – although in fact, since I’m writing this in the early hours of the morning, actually yesterday – I helped my elder son, who has been semi-camping here in our new house, and his partner move into their own new home. It’s great for them and that move is a serious milestone in any parent’s life. And then my younger son, who has been very ill for a while, has come to get some rest and a bit of help with his work. Meanwhile my wife and daughter are still up north, and sadly must stay there, until this house is in a state where they can come back to a functioning home with proper heating, etc. However the building work proceeds a pace and hopefully, despite the endless and inevitable minor problems that that process throws up, I hope it will continue to do so. And finally, I thought (wrongly) that I had recovered from a nasty cold and discovered today that I haven’t. Just another week in the polyverse.

Meanwhile, of course, everyone else continues to pursue their own priorities and, where those involve me, to hope that I will put their’s at the top of my Urgent List. And no doubt I’ll try to do what I can.


Two works for the Annual Exhibition at the RWA



This year I’m sticking out my neck (in RWA terms) and submitting unframed work, basically reconfigured maps of Washington. It will be interesting to see what the response is, particularly given that I am due to work with the RWA and Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery in conjunction with an exhibition that has the archive and mapping as one of its starting points.


On Monday this week I caught up with Alyson Hallett who, although we don’t know each other well, I’ve now come to think of as a real friend. Alyson recently finished her term as the second Charles Causley poet-in-residence, and was also the first to actually live out her residency in Causley’s house – Cypress Well – on Ridgegrove Hill in Launceston. Appropriately, the hill then gave its name to the collection of poems she created during her residency. She was over in Bristol to visit Bristol university, where as Dr Hallett she works as a Royal Literary Fund  Advisory Fellow, a post which places her in the university to help students develop their writing. We first met through her presenting her Stone Library work at a PLaCE event and had been in touch about her most recent book, On Ridgegrove Hill, which is now published by Atlantic Press. The book is the fruit of Alyson’s Charles Causley residency and has been beautifully designed and illustrated by Phyllida Bluemel, a current student on the MA Illustration course at Falmouth University.

I’m ashamed to say I had never heard of the Cornish poet Charles Causley, let alone read any of his work, until I read Alyson’s own poems. On the strength of her obvious empathy for Causley and his world (and perhaps because I spent three years working on a project in north Cornwall), I then bought a second-hand copy of his collected poems. I then read it more or less straight though, as I might a really good novel. I can highly recommend both poets’ work to anyone who is interested in place and its being interwoven with our attention to language, notably in Causley’s case with the particularities of vernacular speech.

My pleasure in talking with Alyson is in part in her own delight in, and genuine relishing of lively, freewheeling conversation, which she described in an email as “a banquet of ideas and thoughts and pathways”. It is also because of her wide-ranging knowledge and understanding. This is exemplified by what she says on the video Encountering Iceland – reading from 6 Days in Iceland by Alyson Hallett and Chris Caseldine. This gives an indicative sense of her work on, and of the poems resulting from, a field trip to Iceland with the physical geographer Chris Caseldine and his students, part of her residency in the Geography Department at Exeter University. They read from the book that came out of their trip with the students  – 6 Days in Iceland – which combines poetry, geographical text and photographic images. It is typical that Alyson should have encountered Iceland as a poet but alongside a professional earth scientist and his students, and that she should have been fascinated by the ways in which these two rather different fields of study – at least when seen from a disciplinary perspective – can in actuality inform, enliven and enrich one another.

My conversation with Alyson reminds me what a privilege it is to have worked in a university – notwithstanding all the deepening problems of that archaic institution – because of the friendships and contacts that work creates. I have been having very interesting exchanges on line with two individuals  with an interest in deep mapping. One is Siri Linn Brandsoy, who is working on a Masters project around deep mapping a small island in the north of Norway. She is a students on the M.A program in Visual Anthropology in Manchester and will be showing work in an exhibition with her fellow students on October 15-17. If anyone reading this gets the chance, you should go and see what, form my contact with Siri and others, I think will be an interesting exhibition of work combining ethnography with art practices and filmmaking.

The second person I’ve been enjoying an exchange with is Erin Kavanagh, who is working with Archaeology, Cultural Anthropology and Historical Anthropology and much more besides at the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David, Lampeter. I think of Erin as a new (or maybe very old) kind of en-placed teller of multi-dimensional stories. She is currently working on a paper on deep mapping to be presented at the University of Vienna, along side much else, and writes: “Four papers in under four months, that’s do-able on top of a full time work load and organizing publications, right…?”, reminding me of aspects of academic life I am happy to do without.




New start?

Transgression 13

We moved into our new home just a week ago and, after what seems rather longer grappling with a sea of brown cardboard boxes, problems with drains, and all the other dubious joys of domesticity associated with moving house, I returned briefly to another of my lives today.

I have been in Exeter giving a joint presentation at the Royal Geographical Society annual conference with Antony Lyons as part of the session Geo-aesthetics in an Anthropogenic World. The convenors, Deborah Dixon (Glasgow) and Dominic Walker (Exeter), had kindly given us a double ‘slot’, which allowed us to show Antony’s most recent edit of Transgression (Rising Waters) immediately followed by a textual ‘duet’ in which we each read in turn a short response to fifteen of the words listed on the digital drawings I made for that project. (See one example above). Given that we had not had any time to rehearse this it went surprisingly well, largely because Antony had carefully structured the presentation so that the drawings gave us a clear ‘time slot’.

Our abstract – which does more or less reflect what we delivered (!) reads as follows:

We take as our starting point the definition of ‘Transgression’, as a geological term describing an advance of the sea over land-areas: ‘a relative rise in sea level resulting in deposition of marine strata over terrestrial strata. The sequence of sedimentary strata formed by transgressions and regressions provides information about the changes in sea level during a particular geologic time’’

This moving-image work is based on a combination of fieldwork, archival research, creative conversations and inter-media collage. Drawing on our shared interest in place, environmental change, and water landscapes, we explore questions rooted in physical, social and cultural relationships between land and sea. In an era that many now term the ‘Anthropocene’, it can be argued that we face the prospect of human-influenced marine transgressions. Using strategies of poetic juxtaposition and conjecture, we focus special attention on coastal change/resilience/adaptation along the Severn Estuary coast, as well as wider afield. Our hybrid composition incorporates photographic and other visual content, accompanied by voice, song and soundscape. It weaves together original and archival material to create an imaginative bridging and transgressing of both disciplinary thinking and the culture of possessive individualism that underpins it. The method is influenced by Lyons’ work as a geoscientist and landscape-based artist; and by Biggs’ academic and artistic work embracing ‘deep-mapping’ as a creative paradigm. Our many antecedents include films such as Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil and the socio-ecological thinking of Deleuze and Guattari, coupled with Pearson and Shanks’ re-visioning of ‘deep mapping’ as a regionalist performative creative strategy. Transgression (Rising Waters) is closely linked to a Lyons’ longer-term Arts Council funded project ‘Inundation – Drowned Lands’ and to his artist residency project on the Severn Estuary, called ‘Sabrina Dreaming’.

Of particular interest to me about the session as a whole was that the collaborative presentation – by Rebecca Ellis (a social anthropologist with interests in science, technology and cultural geography) and the artist Sarah Casey – that preceded ours. Titled Porous topologies of (Im)perceptibility’s as creative process, the abstract for this reads as follows:

Two reflections from theoretical cosmology provide the inspiration for this paper. The first is an acknowledgement that light is but a one-dimensional signal of (non)human knowability of the properties of the universe. The second is the claim that properties as-of-yet unknowable are mathematically thinkable, albeit in the absence of observational verification. Current cosmological debates concerning the (non)existence of manifold topologies of the multiverse (e.g. Smolin 2015) provide a rich context in which to both stay with and trouble claims for (un)knowability as a resource for tentatively grasping the radically insensible (Yusoff 2013). Indeed the deep recesses of the (non)existent multiverse promise to usefully probe further the very meanings of (non)human perceptibility. This paper will practice a recent interdisciplinary experiment between an artist, anthropologist and cosmologist as they exchange theoretical and material resources with which they individually and collectively trouble the limits of (im)perceptibility posed by the example given. Theoretical reflection on the status of mathematics as (non)human signal, will tentatively steer between accounts of mathematical ontology (Badiou, Meillassoux) and feminist materialist consideration of mathematics as human-nonhuman semiotic exchange (e.g. Kirby). We reflect upon the problem of seeking ‘illumination’ of dark objects through the example of Art practice, where ‘knowing’ is deliberately postponed and a state of being ‘in the dark’ is essential to enriched understanding (Jones 2013).The paper will be framed by a wider-arching question concerning the possibilities of the utter (ir)relevance of such radically ‘dark spaces’ for anthropocenic thinking.  

There was something in all this that reminded me of the Hebrew mystical concept of Ein Sof, which in the study of the Kabbalah is understood as God prior to his self-manifestation in the production of any spiritual realm. In this line of thought, it is only by withdrawing into absence that the Divine can allow anything (else) to come into being. There was a sense of a queer interdependence/distance, of an ‘oscillation’, hinted at in the paper that was fascinating. Anyway, and probably rather to everyone’s surprise, there turned out to be a number of tantalising overlaps between this presentation and our own. These appeared in various ways, not least in Rebecca Ellis’ question to me about my use of the term ‘polyverse’ (against the more usual ‘multiverse’). Strangely, it seems Antony and I have been edging towards a possible convergence with thinking in mathematical speculation about multiverses, along with the debates for and against Object Oriented Ontology. Two particularly interesting lines of enquiry (for me) came out of this heady stuff. Firstly, a recommendation that I read Mary Jane Rubenstein’s The Many Worlds of the Multiverse. But secondly (for me) the positive provocation of Sarah Casey’s resonant and technically deeply thoughtful approach to her drawings.

So much food for thought before my re-imersion in the sea of brown cardboard boxes!

Changing places and the question of hope


On the 27th of August, and after more than twenty four years in the same house, we are moving out of our family home and across Bristol. A change of place that means that an old dog is going to have to learn some new tricks, although precisely which tricks remains very much a question.

Our moving is part of a bigger process of change. My older son and his girlfriend are getting a house together. (He has been living between our basement and her shared house in Cardiff for a good while now).  My wife, daughter and I are radically downsizing, something we’ve wanted to do for some time, by moving to a little detached 1930s house in a quiet cul-de-sac on the other side of the Downs. There we hope Anna will get the piece and quiet she so badly needs if her health is to improve. A combination of factors has made living where we are increasingly untenable and, despite being sad to move in some respects, I am very relieved that we have finally found an new place to live.

There are two reasons why I’ve added nothing very much to this blog for some time. The first will now be blindingly obvious to anyone who has moved house with a family. The whole business is pretty complex at the best of times, and in our case further complicated because of our having to store, get ride of, or give away, all those things like paintings that won’t fit into the new house. And, rather more fundamentally, because of my daughter’s chronic illness. The second is that I have been struggling with something I want to write about that’s concerned me for a good while. This is the question of hope and what role it plays in our creative life.

This is a question that’s been with me for as long as my daughter has been ill, although that’s not what I want to think about here.

I am currently reading a book by Adam S. Miller called Speculative Grace: Bruno Latour and Object-Oriented Theology. I’m not in the habit of reading books on theology but, thanks in part to my friend Ciara Healey and her work on Thin Places, I have wanted to reengage with thinking about the issue of attention and the spiritual in contemporary life. This concern is in part animated by the fact that I suspect we are too ‘hope oriented’, and in ways that actually stop us paying attention to the actualities of the world around us.

The current silliness about the ‘end of capitalism’ seems to me an example of this. Firstly, capitalism as an economic system is only part of a wider, multi-dimensional psycho-social ecology, that of possessive individualism, which continues to manifest itself in more and more crass forms all around us every day. Furthermore, and unlike capitalism as an economic system, possessive individualism has been deeply internalised by the majority of the world’s wealthier people and, in turn, animates fundamentalist politico-religious reactions from another significant percentage of the world’s population. The focus on capitalism and hope for its supposed ‘end’ is, I think, less relevant than many would like us to believe; just another example of preoccupation with a macro-politics in which we have little possibility of intervention that conveniently exempts us from paying attention to the micro-politics at play in our everyday lives where. of course, intervention is a constant possibility.

However, these thoughts are largely conjecture at present and I need more time to read and think before I can have anything very coherent to write on this topic. And that will have to wait until after we’ve moved and are at least nominally settled into our new place.