Category Archives: ‘Translation’

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

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

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

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

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

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



Bird Brained? Notes on work in progress.

I sometimes worry about my being ‘bird-brained’. By which I mean unfocused in my reading of both texts and other people’s art work. Unfocused in the sense that ‘my’ thinking moves me across different fields and areas of interest somewhat in the same way a small bird might flit from seed source to seed source or, like a swallow, hunt insects on the wing by darting here and there. What reassures me somewhat is that, like these birds, this apparently erratic activity is driven by a desire to feed.

So while it’s true that my attention seems, at least on the surface, to flit randomly from one field or idea to another, this way and that, there is I believe some sort of pattern being played out in this process.

These thoughts are prompted by the fact that I have been immersed in an extended bout of reading, one that has recently taken me, for reasons I can only half-identify, from Claude Lecouteux’s Witches, Werwolves and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages to Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think which, although I’ve only just finished it, I’ve now started to re-read in tandem with Kaja Silverman’s extraordinary Flesh of My Flesh (which I picked up on because Kohn quotes it). I suspect that what each of these texts does, each in its own very different way, is encourage me to ask fundamental questions about our presuppositions as to what constitutes ‘an individual’. So, somewhere behind this birdbrained flitting, there is I think a half-formulated desire to open myself out more fully to the multi-natural, multi-cultural polyverse I’ve been trying to engage with intellectually.

This sense of ‘opening out’ has already had a practical impact, sending me back to making object/images.

The fragment below, made up of map elements, is based on two aspects of my childhood that involve my father: a recurrent nightmare on one hand and his identification with the west of Scotland and, more specifically, with Skye, on the other. Half-way through working on the original piece from which this fragment is taken,  I remembered the Marshall Islands stick charts that I used to include in talks on deep mapping because they so immediately represent a mapping ‘read’ through the hand as much as through the eye (or so I like to imagine).

In the context of my first ‘mapping’ this remembrance became linked to Kohn’s discussion of the value the people of Avila place on multi-perspectivalism (which I found resonated with my own concern with the polyverse) and, retrospectively, with Silverman’s discussion of translation, something I’ve been pondering in an art context for a while as part and parcel of conversation as an art. Anyway, the result of this process of intuition, reflection, and digestion appears below. That the occasion that this double mapping responds to is, primarily, my childhood nightmare of a recurrent meeting with an enormous wolf (see The Prelude to Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rig: a borderline episode pp. 16-17) seems to me ultimately less important than the desire to bring together two distinct ways of accounting for an event in a specific place, a double mapping.

When I came across the original image of the whispering girl now reworked and adapted and included on the left hand side of this piece, it immediately resonated very powerfully with me. I now sense that it acts as a vivid analogy for the figure of the Fylgja discussed in Lecouteux’s book; that she resonates with my response to Silverman’s discussion of Rilke’s dead sister as an Eurydice figure, and that all this ‘unspeakable’ convergence of different resonances appears to have been taken up through the making process in the wing-like form of the piece above.

The danger of writing about this is that it could appear that what I am making is dependent on, or seeks to illustrate, what I’ve been reading. That’s not how I see it. What animated my reading Lecouteux in the first place was a gut feeling that, while there is for me great value in Guattari’s notion of ecosophy, what is neglected in my relationship to it – and I suspect this is not just a personal issue – is attention to it’s relationship to making in terms of the ecology of the personal, psychic, dimension. That’s to say, we may be unable to think the social and the environment differently until we can think our multiple selves differently. This thought is, it seems to me, implicit in Kohn’s call (after Ghassan Hage) for “an ‘alter-politics’ – a politics that grows not from opposition to or critique of our current systems” (the basis of so much ‘alternative’ activity in the arts and academia), but rather “one that grows from attention to another way of being, one … that involves other kinds of living beings” (p.14). And, if both Silverman and Kohn (supported by James Hillman) are correct, ‘living beings’ here also includes the dead, understood in the context of Richard Kearney’s conception of testimonial imagination.

Intellectually speaking, I am rather out of my depth here, simply feeling my way intuitively on the basis of the liveliness of an inner response to texts containing ideas I only half understand, and even that half imperfectly. So the making I find myself doing is an attempt to both ‘ground’ and ‘map’ the movement of an powerful intuition, using my own experience, in dream or otherwise, as a route into the living space these books are opening up for me. Another form of ‘deep mapping’, maybe?

 Between creative praxis and place governance: four examples

What follows here is the text of a presentation given at the Landscape Values: Place and Praxis conference held at NUI, Galway (29th June – 2nd July). This differs slightly from the text published by the Centre for Landscape Studies in their excellent pre-conference publication in that I felt it was necessary to respond to the situation resulting from the referendum vote that Britain should leave the EU. I will put a detailed account of my experience of the conference up here in due course. 

In her novel The Telling Ursula LeGuin has a character say of her people’s self- destructive adoption of a particular idea that it was a protest: “an assertion of our God-given right to be self-righteous, irrational fools in our own particularly bloody way and not in anybody else’s”. That just about sums up what Britain is going through – the protest essentially the consequence of a massive failure of empathetic imagination on the part of the political and economic elites.

Such failure of empathetic imagination is not of course restricted to the UK. Consequently our landscapes will continue to be subject to bitter conflicts that raise difficult questions about democratic participation in planning and governance processes. New forms of compound or hybrid creative praxis are already helping to catalyse public debate and engagement regarding these processes, but they remain under-utilized. I suspect that those who frame governance debates, along with many special interest groups, often have little or no idea of what these new forms of praxis involve or how they might help them. That needs to change.

Evoking empathetic imagination is as central to democratic politics as accurate information, particularly in relation to the politics of place. Without it different constituencies quickly find excuses to stop listening to each other. Then democratic processes are likely to be perverted or undermined, perpetuating a legacy of popular resentment. Empathetic and informed engagement with issues of place requires imaginative and empathetic translation and mediation between the professional expertize that authorizes governance and the concerns of vernacular life-worlds grounded in rural place.

I’m going to touch on “creative translation” projects by Kathy Fitzgerald, Simon Read, Christine Baeumler and Ffion Jones. Each project is contingent on, and embedded in, a particular landscape and mediates between values grounded in place and a specific set of governance concerns. Although the people animating these projects are arts trained, each employs a whole constellation of different skills. For example, in addition to her training as a performance artist, Ffion Jones’ practice is equally constituted by her skills as a Welsh language speaker, an upland sheep farmer, a scholar, a young mother, and so on. However, at present the value of such constellated practices is largely unrecognized because of the dominant belief in a monolithic identity that says, for example, that someone is either an artist or a farmer.  The Norfolk farmer Richard Wright says of his local Farmers and Wildlife Advisers that they have ‘a very hands-on approach’ and ‘local knowledge of farming as well as conservation’, showing farmers the two can work hand in hand’. But for this hands-on model of cooperation to be extend to actively involve the public more generally, it needs an active cultural dimension and the involvement of artists as people trained to see unlikely connections and possibilities across different sets of concerns and interests.

In Ireland severe winter flooding during 2009-10 and 2015-16 has highlighted the need to plant trees as a step towards flood prevention. Because this would involve issues of land ownership, it will require careful mediation. Cathy Fitzgerald’s Hollywood Project could offer a valuable point of departure for just such mediation. Begun in 2008, this project involves the transformation of an ecologically toxic and aesthetically unattractive Sitka Spruce plantation planted about thirty years earlier. At its heart is her forty-year commitment to facilitating exchanges between the original plantation and local people, silvicultural specialists, wildlife, timber users, artists, and environmental enthusiasts. With the wood as her focus, Fitzgerald’s eco-aesthetic concerns have catalysed complex negotiations between traditional forestry economics and the desire of local people in County Carlow to re-establish broadleaf native trees. This in turn is generating debates about the relationship between the policies of the Irish Council for Forest Research and Development and the ecological, creative, political, and educational concerns of a variety of both local and national constituencies.

Cathy Fitzgerald aims to advance knowledge in aesthetic and eco-critical terms as these relate to forest research, policy and eco-jurisprudence. This reflects the fact that she has degrees in both biology and art. Between 2004-2007 she also worked alongside Irish Green Party Cllr. Mary White, later Junior Minister of State, helping to establish the largest Green Party group in rural Ireland. She now serves on the committee of the forestry group ProSilva Ireland. In short, she is both creatively and politically involved in matters of environmental governance.

The Hollywood project is also a response to the fact that Ireland has the lowest proportion of deciduous trees in Europe after Iceland and Malta, and to the problems thrown up by an extensive forestry policy that, however, has been assembled piecemeal. As the intersection of complex networks of shared practical expertise and environmental knowledge, the project has the potential to rearticulate the relationship between watersheds, tree cover, and pluvial flooding. While Inter-Departmental Committees can initiate new national flood policy, without locally grounded creative individuals and networks engaged in transforming local attitudes to trees and forestry, the resistance to such policy is likely to be substantial. (For a better sense of Cathy’s practice see her recent post and video).

Simon Read works from a barge on the River Deben as an artist, University lecturer, environmental designer, community mediator, and ecological activist. Since 1997 his involvement with the River Debden has led to his working with the Chartered Institute for Water and Environmental Management and ARUP, with geographers through the Royal Geographic Society, and with similar organizations in Ireland and the USA. He has contributed to major workshops on flood planning and, since 2009, has served as an Executive Member of Deben Estuary Partnership in collaboration with the Environment Agency. He’s involved in mediation work with Natural England, the Marine Management Organisation, statutory Government agencies, his Local Planning Authority, and a host of local interest groups. He’s also an Associate of the Art and Environment Network of the Chartered Institute for Water and Environmental Management. Like Cathy Fitzgerald, his work involves a range of skills, knowledge and activity, that go far beyond the stereotypical view of what an artist does.

This type of large imaginative mapping – a response to governance issues relating to the fluid and shifting environments of rivers and coastlines – is now central to Simon’s work They visualize changes between land and water over time by synthesizing large amounts of predictive information from different sources. Simon retrieves, cross-references, and synthesizes this information so as to equip himself and others to engage in complex environmental planning debates about fluvial, estuarine and coastal management in governance contexts. Interacting with both governance and local concerns, it also contributes directly to current eco-social debate around the core issues of communication in relation to the implication of policy.

In addition to his visualizations of the changing local environment, Simon Read is currently worked on the Falkenham Saltmarsh Project. This aspect of his work involves making objects that address the conditions of, and potential for, marsh stabilization within the context of coastal erosion. Working with a range of agencies, including labour from a local prison, he has planned and built barriers that prevent erosion of the saltmarsh by managing tidal flow and encouraging the controlled deposition of silt. Both practical and sculptural, these are soft engineered from timber, brushwood, straw bales, and coir – a natural fibre extracted from the husk of coconuts – and will degrade back into the marsh over time.

Read has responded to the challenges of managing environmental change by acknowledging the need for, and publically working towards, more nuanced and complex solutions necessary to understanding and addressing the socio-cultural implications and dimensions of socio-environmental change. While grounded in the traditional skills of an artist, his work relates directly to a societal re-framing of our understanding of land, ownership, professional and aesthetic responsibility, and belonging.

Christine Baeumler enables a civic environmentalism predicated on ecosophical understanding and animated by a geopoetics attuned to the multiple meanings and contexts of our lived experience of landscape. Working between the production of public environmental art, teaching at the University of Minnesota, curation, and community activism, her expanded creative praxis facilitates both awareness of environmental issues and appropriate responses to them. Drawing on both art and natural science, she contests the reductive treatment of ecosystems and the loss of human experience of specific environments and the species that inhabit them. Like Simon Read she makes eco-social contexts visible so as to inspire creative solutions to environmental dilemmas by imagining alternatives to current approaches. Her ‘slow’ place- and community- based praxis considers historical, cultural, environmental, metaphorical and aesthetic dimensions of place to address pressing eco-political issues constantly in flux. She currently focuses on collective ecological restoration of urban and edgeland spaces, paying particular attention to increasing biodiversity, providing habitat for pollinators, and improving both the water quality and aesthetic dimension of sites.

The particular qualities of Baeumler’s practice appear in her role in the realisation of Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary Project.  Since 1994 she has worked, as local resident and artist, on community-led ecological restoration initiatives on the East Side of Saint Paul, Minnesota. These projects have been realised through collaborations with local residents, ecologists, hydrologists, engineers, University of Minnesota art students, the Como Park Conservatory Youth program and the East Side Youth Conservation Corps of the Community Design Centre. As a member of the Friends of Swede Hollow Park and a founding member of the Lower Phalen Creek Steering Committee, Baeumler worked with community activists and City officials to transform a twenty-seven acre heavily polluted rail-yard beside the Mississippi into the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, now a city park. An important dimension of the critical translation central to this project is her membership of Healing Place, founded by Dakota artist and activist Mona Smith, which aims to heal connections between people and places formally sacred to the Dakota Nation, of which the park is a significant example.

Chris Baeumler has also served as Artist-in-Residence in the Minnesota Capitol Region and the Ramsey Metro Washington Watershed Districts, working with these governance units on large-scale water infrastructure projects intended to raise the visibility of water infrastructure and quality issues through educational and aesthetic interventions. Her interest in water systems then led her to form the team, including an engineer and ecologist, who created Reconstituting the Landscape: A Tamarack Rooftop Restoration. This micro bog ecosystem is located above the entryway to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. This calls attention to the fragile tamarack bog ecosystem under threat in Minnesota, replicating it in miniature as green rooftop infrastructure, and led to her making Bogs, A Love Story, a documentary film about six different bog experts.

Baeumler has recently animated both educational and regional governance debates through Pollinators at the Plains project, based on a sustainable redesign of the Plains Art Museum’s outdoor campus in Fargo, North Dakota. This included a youth internship program and work with artist and horticulturist Seitu Jones. The educational focus her links directly to Baeumler’s work at the University of Minnesota teaching courses that engage students in creatively working with systems of water, food, transportation and civic engagement between art, ecology, climatology and social studies. As with both Cathy Fitzgerald and Simon Read – and in the tradition of Joseph Beuys – the educational dimension of her work needs to be seen as inseparable from her expanded creative praxis as a whole.

I want to end by paraphrasing a conversation between Ffion Jones, a representative of Natural Resources Wales, the academic and activist Dr Alex Plows, and others involved in a major Hydro-citizenship project. This took place in Taly Bont memorial hall in February this year and I’m grateful to Alex, who translated this exchange from the Welsh.

Ffion is making a film on local farmers’ relationship to water that addresses their concern about changes that challenge their sense of being primarily food producers from an environmental perspective. To do this she has to mediate between past and present attitudes to water management, dipping, run off, and so on. In the past the Environmental Agency prosecuted local farmers over dipping practices, which had produced both change and a culture of resentment. The official assumption in the discussion was that this was partly because the agency hadn’t done a very good job of educating farmers, so that “stewardship of the countryside” had become negatively associated with enforcing compliance through bureaucratic means, which simply generated resentment and resistance. This was contrasted with practices elsewhere, which had focused on respecting/appreciating farmers’ own “local knowledge”.  This approach was seem as best supported by indirect mediation. This would mean that, rather than an Agency approaching farmers with a view to introducing their environmental agenda – which will then be coloured by a history of resistance – someone like Ffion who shares their values, doesn’t trigger the same reaction. The group then turned to discussing the role of the arts in ‘bridging and translating’, essentially along the lines I’ve outlined here.

What is distinct about the praxis of individuals like Ffion is that it speaks from within a rural life-world – informed by her being a farmer’s daughter, farmer and farmer’s wife but also by critical engagement as an academic and performer. By mediating between the multiple, often antagonistic, dimensions of that life-world, such work presents important insights. It constitutes an important and necessary alternative to top-down official governance perspectives – “we must educate farmers” – and to largely urban-based environmental lobbyists – by providing another informed voice.


For this to happen professionals working with governance and related agencies need to recognise that such praxes can both extend their own understanding and inform a more democratic and productive approach to the governance of place.  While individuals involved in the hands-on running of bodies like the UK’s National Parks are increasingly recognizing the value of such creative translation, they often lack support from those who write policy and control budgets. But today no professional body or governance agency can safely assume that it has the ethical authority, or even the practical ability, to catalyze the informed ‘civic environmentalism’ necessary to address the increasingly complex landscape issues we face.


If citizens are to commit themselves to bettering their environment, sometimes against their own short-term economic interests, new and empathetic forms of understanding need to emerge. This can only happen if the discursive arguments of governance professionals are translated into terms more sympathetic to broader and more empathetic public dialogues. The types of praxis I’ve identified have the power to facilitate a thoughtful and deeply felt mediation between governance professionals and the places and communities that ground rural life-worlds.


Thank you.

“Edge and Shore: Acts of Doing (surveying the edges of place and practice)” – notes towards a partial translation.

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(Image: Max McClure)


What I’ve written below is a partial, gappy, highly subjective ‘translation/transcription-after-the-event’ of an action into a text. Perhaps ironically, it responds to what I take to be, at least in part, two artists’ calculated move away from the cerebral analytics that make up many reflexive texts. The partiality and gappiness are inevitable. I can’t pay close attention to a complex unfolding sequence of actions involving two people over two hours plus and, simultaneously, write sensible notes. Since the action itself was a lens through which a sense of the everyday is re-visioned, and because its ‘audience’ occupied and moved within the same space, each person there very obviously had her or his unique, moment-to-moment sense of it’s numerous consecutive interactions within a layered physical and (larger, and highly porous), aural space, together with the multitude of metaphorical resonances those interactions activate.

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(Image: Max McClure)

For example, I doubt whether anybody else witnessed one brief, particular and significant conjunction of bodily stances I caught a glimpse of. I just happened to be where I could catch sight of Laila Diallo unfolded from a particular posture at the very moment when a be-suited man, deep in conversation on his mobile, crossed behind her going down the short section of passageway that’s visible from the gallery. A man who was clearly absent from that space in all but the most literal sense, entirely absorbed and so wholly oblivious to Laila out on the edge of his peripheral vision.

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(Image: Max McClure)

That momentary juxtaposition, between an attentive and carefully articulated bodily unfolding and a ‘being elsewhere’, an important aspect of Edge and Shore appeared in sharp relief. It illuminated the actants’ inclusiveness, their attention and openness to contingency, happenstance, and the influx of the past – for example to the effects of the previous day’s experiences, which they could not help but bring to the work. It is this apparently artless openness that, I think, helps give their work its particular qualities. Its articulating of a ‘something’ as yet unnamed, a brave opening out beyond the dominant aesthetics of exclusion into another, more generous, sociability. Here the craft and riskiness of attentive improvisation wanders its way along a fine and delicately judged path between two possibilities.

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(Image Helen Carnac)

It could very easily have been a working through that, freighted with multiple mundane actions that evoke the muddle, mess and repetition of daily life, would simply leave us psychically swamped, mired in metaphorical overload and the cacophony of our own emotional feedback. Equally, it could easily have gone the other way. It could have been a merely artful formal play with the numerous properties of space, movement, and materials; a seductive but ultimately cerebrally-oriented flirting with the dangers of raw evocation and metaphor that stylishly skirted over all the deeply sedimented layers of unsettling meaning and affect latent below its artful surface. (Artful ‘dry humping’ masquerading as passionate polymorphous entanglement).

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(Image Helen Carnac)

Edge and Shore: Acts of Doing

I was invited by Helen Carnac to take part in an evening conversation with Laila Diallo and herself at the Arnolfini on the evening of July 8th. So I arranged to join them that morning for the first iteration of their Edge and Shore: Acts of Doing. As I understand it, their understand their collaboration as located somewhere off to one side of performance and installation; as setting out to do pretty much what it’s title implies: survey the edges of place and practice through those ‘acts of doing’ familiar to them as an artist/maker and dance artist. (Hence my use of Alastair McLennan and Joseph Beuys’ term ‘action’ and my reference to Helen and Laila as ‘actants’ here).

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(Image Helen Carnac)

When I arrived at the Arnolfini I walked through to the ground floor gallery, now set out with various materials, many carried over from Laila and Helen’s previous Edge and Shore residency at the Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh. (These included long lengths of thick, well-used looking and drawn on rolls of paper stood on end or hung, two video projections, boxes of materials of various sorts, and a large cluster of assorted overlapping photographs fixed to one wall). My arrival is noted and Laila appeared almost at once, a thin, animated figure who greets me warmly. Helen soon follows – she has been hunting for a lost box in which they have collected the sheets of A4 paper with the words they’ve used – and we talk about the qualities of the space, the assembled objects, and the floor with its rich staining of traces from previous exhibitions. They both seem to relish the possibilities offered by these traces as another, unfamiliar, set of material memories.

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(Image: Max McClure)

As soon as I arrived I was drawn into the intimate tenor of the space by the projected images of hands involved in a game (some cross between Jenga and Paper, Scissors, Stone) My expectations are of play in its widest sense.

Helen and Laila quietly start to prepare the space and I settle myself on one of the low benches provided. As they begin to speak together and then move about the space I catch myself drifting into the particular analytical state of mind of my ‘inner external examiner’. I make a conscious attempt to avoid being caught by this.    

Words start to appear on the blank sheets of paper the actants have distributed around the room.






There is at once a sense that the physical space, its current inhabitants, and its aural permeability, are all being audited, both openly and in more coded terms.





… and so on.

Their interactions during this audit are apparently casual but, at a given point, take on a greater sense of focus as the sheets with their hand-written words are collected up and thoughts quietly exchanged between the actants. The words are then read out loud by the two of them in turn and an editing process takes place, with Laila dropping selected sheets onto the floor.

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(Image: Max McClure)

There is a shift – a clear concentration – of the action. The wooden table near the wall is cleared, becomes a theatre for hands, and an assortment of wooden blocks, many of them with blue painted ends, appear (the ‘Jenga blocks’ from the video). Helen and Laila begin a process of exchange based on offering each other vertical and horizontal permutations of clusters of these blocks, with Helen’s tending to emphasise the vertical and Laila’s the horizontal. In this subtle articulation of difference between the two women words have been replaced by permutations that enact a conversational exchange. They are pushed back and forth across the surface of the table, with the proximity of the different groupings to the edge nearest each becoming increasingly resonant. (Questions like ‘whose exchange will be pushed over the edge’ are begged, and I am caught up in every nuance of exchange, bound more intimately into the relationship between these two woman).

This unfolding and sometimes noisy process of exchange crackles with the energy of a real working relationship, its moment-by-moment pulls and pushes, and distinctive characterisations appear, articulated through each gesture, facial expression, and shift of bodily stance. After a while Laila changes the dynamic, using the blocks to map the space in which her hand rests. Helen responds by building her hand space into Laila’s. There is a palpable sense that a dynamically tensioned but empathetic relationship has been established, only to be let go off shortly after.

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(Image: Max McClure)

This intense, bodily, wordless dialogue now concluded, Laila moves some of the blocks to the floor. Helen, by contrast, starts another ‘build’ on the table until she, too, transfers her wooden blocks onto the floor. As if now sure of the ground of their interactions, the two actants allow their activities to bifurcate. Helen works with the blocks – as I later discover offcuts from her partner’s work as a cabinet maker- down on the floor. She is enclosing the trace of words that formed part of a previous exhibition, including the word ‘consciousness’, while Laila begins to mark out the larger space of the room itself. Her slightly erratic progress draws attention to its being full of stuff, to her use of her body for a form of ‘mapping’, to a sense of provisionality that is amplified by the fragility of her hold on the cluster of blocks in her hands.

On perhaps the third circuit – it’s easy to loose count when you’re taking notes – a woman watching (who has left Laila little space to pass), is drawn directly into the action. Squeezing past her, and seeing that one of her hands is upraised and open, Laila gives her some blocks to hold. In that instant, the whole tenor of the room changes. Those of us watching can no longer locate ourselves, however tacitly, on the outside, as passive spectators. The assumption of an invisible wall between the ‘performers’ and ourselves has been put in question. Now the entire space is an active palimpsest, is loosened and made more permeable in innumerable new ways.

Like the over-eager child at a party who is not picked to help the conjuror, I find myself unreasonably jealous of my co-spectator turned momentary actant. I want that moment of intimate shock, of immediate physical exchange.

My whole challenge now is to somehow keep in view the double process of mapping/enclosing of space and all this involves. Two counterpointed processes are emerging. Helen’s activity appears primarily oriented by her manipulation of materials, Laila’s by the use of her body as a means of marking out, ‘measuring’, the space – pacing, high-stepping, stretching out, jumping. After a while Laila collects up the blocks that she’s been using as part of her marking out and brings them back to Helen’s space in a moment of convergence.

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(Image: Max McClure)

My response to this is best described in an image. A circling child returns to her mother to take assurance from ‘touching base’, soliciting approval by bringing back some small gift. This image is reinforced by the steady practicality of Helen’s sorting of the returned wooden blocks. I am quickly caught up in the mesh of resonances between the two women, now both amplified and confused by my provisional categorising of them as ‘grounded mother’ and ‘restless daughter’. But the feeling attached to this categorisation also lends a tenderness to the unfolding actions.

Emerging from the distance of my own imaginal reverie, I am just in time to catch a pregnant pause while the two actants consult together, the hushed mutter of a large orchestra between symphonic movements. But that thought in turn quickly develops it’s own trajectory. Perhaps the whole work could be read as a musical score, perhaps by John Cage. I am again brought back into the moment by catching sight of Laila starting to move on the spot in such a way as to open up a truncated gestural space through the near-repetition of movements that appear invisibly circumscribed.

Meanwhile Helen has started to methodically straighten out and roll up a long length of bright orange tape. Her preparations complete she uses this to delineate a new space, but in a way that’s quite distinct from the previous foursquare use of wooden blocks as miniature ‘walls’. This new, taped space is somehow flamboyant, almost Baroque, with its ragged, scalloped edges. It now encircles Laila. Helen starts to loop the orange tape up and pin it in short, luxurious swags on the taught surface of the hanging sheet of paper. (This has been serving as a significant edge space for some minutes). Ruched curtains and Mary’s Lorna – both child and sophisticate – comes pirouetting into my thoughts, showing off some party dress for an end-of-term dance). Each of Helen’s pinnings produces a small, densely resonant sound, like a small parchment drumhead being sharply tapped once with a hard stick. And each sounding reverberates powerfully against the background of thick aural soup that, as I now realise, almost continually permeates the space.

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(Image: Max McClure)

Laila continues her singular movements, as if trying either to perfect them or else complete them despite what is, invisibly, circumscribing them. I worry that these movements are exhausting her, a concern reinforced by her lying flat and breathing heavily at intervals. It’s impossible to know whether this ‘worry’ on my part is in response to the intensity of my own, possibly inappropriate, emotional involvement – a by-product I suspect of my daughter Anna’s long, debilitating illness – or simply a legitimate response to Laila’s exertions. Perhaps it’s both.

At this point both my notes and my memory entirely fail me.

I find on reading them that I wrote: “she [Laila] inserts her body into the space Helen had enclosed earlier”. Yet according to my own narrative above Laila never left that space. Memory, shaky at the best of times, is no help here. I’m at a loss, simply unable to reconstruct what happened although, thinking back, I’m fairly sure Laila had been moving at some distance from Helen’s ribbon-space.

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(Image: Max McClure)

What’s clear from what I can call to mind is that, at some point, the two actants had moved much closer to each other. Helen worked at scrapping and tracing over a section of the floor, much as one might make a brass rubbing from a tomb in an old church. Laila’s actions at this point were gradually encroaching on the particular area of floor space where Helen was working. Again there’s a slight disturbance that I quickly rationalise through an image. A child tries to attract her mothers’ attention in a roundabout way and then feels excluded because her mother misses the cue. There’s both the desire for intimacy, for a transgressing of personal space, and at the same time the fear of doing it. No sooner has this passed through my mind than Laila moves away to occupy a zone Helen had worked in earlier.

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(Image: Max McClure)

As if pushed out to the extremities of the space, Laila has now located herself up against a wall near where I sit. Helen, unperturbed, continues to work with and mark the space she has occupied, hunkered down to tap or dot out her traces on paper using a block of wood. (This description is partly conjecture – and certainly inexact – since Helen’s half hidden behind a screen of hanging paper that prevents me from seeing many of her actions, although I hear them very clearly). Laila, now hunkered down by the wall, hesitantly starts to tap her thigh with the fingers of her left hand. She seems about to pick up Helen’s rhythm when it falters and dies away. Laila simply stands up and walks diagonally across the room to write a post-it note that she then sticks to the wall. From my bench I cannot read what she has written.

I am a little envious of how easily each actant seems to move between actions and, I assume, their accompanying mental and emotional states.

Laila has returned to her earlier series of truncated gestural movements but now oriented by a linear movement. Helen stops what she has been doing and moves to a bench by the wall. Again, there’s that sense of an orchestra pausing, of a silence immediately filled by the soupy background hum of noise that once again foregrounds itself.

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(Image: Max McClure)

Helen crosses the room and unfolds a cloth, before laying out a variety of materials – photographs, drawings, and short fragments of text – on the floor around it. I have a sudden memory of Gini’s Stony Rises deep map – it’s palimpsest of layers, drawings and transparencies, its votive stones and miniature video screens. Laila continues her movements. Am I projecting onto her a vague sense of being increasingly trapped and uncomfortable in her movements, over there up against the wall again? And if so, why? Suddenly she breaks off, picks up a roll of paper, and joins Helen. Again that easy moving between states, that simply letting go. Helen’s layout becomes more extensive, with various repetitions of small black and white photographic images.

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(Image: Max McClure)

At this point my attention got divided without my really noticing that this has occurred. While mentally I continued to observe and write notes, my emotional state (now left to its own devices), started to drop, no longer buoyed up and carried along by the flow of the action. In retrospect I think I simply got more and more bogged down in a muddle of conflicting emotional responses to what was unfolding. But I only became conscious of this when I wrote: “Suddenly Samuel Beckett comes to mind”.

Helen is now tearing words from a long sheet of paper and the two actants reconnect. The rolling out of a long line of paper then gives Laila a new direction for movement, but this somehow seems no less ‘pained’ than before, given its halting slowness. The photographer who unobtrusively stalks her across the floor suddenly conjures up the image of Laila as a wounded animal, one that is trying to drag itself to a place of safety away from the hunter who tracks it.

As if in response to my sinking mood, an angry man suddenly breaks into the space around which we’re gathered and demands in a loud voice to know if we the audience think this is ART? Thrown and irritated in equal measure, I challenge his assumptions and a short but clearly pointless exchange follows. He wants ART that offers us Truth, Beauty, History, (and for reasons that escape me, Archaeology) on a plate, but oddly the image he chooses to support this is the Arnolfini Wedding. I do NOT ask him, for reasons that should be self-evident, how or why an early celebration of a commercially motivated amalgamation of business interests in the form of a bourgeois marriage contract embodies these qualities. He leaves with his wife and child. His anger is, however, in marked contrast to their earlier responses. The mother simply expressed mild puzzlement as to the ‘rules of the game’ being played, while the child just wanted to join in by playing with the wooden blocks.

As my attention returns to the action there is a strong sense of words as stuff, matter to be manipulated, put to work, discarded.

Helen rolls up one of the long scrolls on which the gathered words have been written, while Laila circles one of the large sheets of paper on the floor. On the blackboard on the short wall next to the passage Helen writes:




Increasingly our language seems to me cripplingly inadequate, reductive, off the mark and, it must also be said, crassly abused. Why don’t we have a word for what James Hillman, following several older traditions, calls ‘the thought of the heart’, a word for heartfelt, embodied thinking? That’s the word I want to replace Helen’s THOUGHTS and TO THINK on the board. But surely part of all that I’ve just experienced tells me that we have to work with the potential of what we’ve got, at least as a starting point in the here and now?

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(Image: Max McClure)

Laila has stopped circling and returns to her previous ‘on the spot’ sequence of movements. Later she will follow one of the lines of paper, a slow, hands and knees movement that feels like a winding down. A hill walker working her way up scree, the last effort before home at the end of a long day’s ramble through the high hills.

Helen meanwhile pins torn words and letters to the back of a semi-transparent hanging screen that turns one corner of the room into a darker, store-like space. This action feels like a lining, or insulation of that area, but one that’s highly ambiguous in its relationship to the words that are repositioned, even destroyed, by her actions. There is a real sense of persistence in this action that, despite its sense of inwardness, seems profoundly protective. Is a shelter being prepared, a dwelling-place, but if so for whom and, of course, against what?

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(Images: Max McClure)

There is no real sense of a ‘drawing to an end’, more of a ‘circling back’. Laila has started to mark out a new space within the room using the smallest wooden blocks, some no bigger than a postage stamp. Again she is stretching and semi-falling as she does so. She then reverses the process, retracing her movements and gathering up her little wooden markers as she does so. All the time I am very conscious of her bodily exertions, of the fact that she’s been on the move for over two hours, as frenetic as Helen is calm. Laila repeats the action of marking out a space within the room, but in another, slightly more modest configuration, coming and going behind the hanging sheets as she does so.

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(Image: Max McClure)

Helen has now moved from pinning to balling up the pieces of paper with their letters and words. These are formed into tight, roughly fist-sized, objects. She lays a good number of them out in careful rows behind her sheltering screen as if preparing snowballs for a fight.

Later we will sit over our food and talk, roughing out what we might say about the work during the scheduled public conversation that evening. We speak together of forms of mapping, about memory, noticing, Tim Ingold on lines, about making, habits, and accumulation. Laila, based in Bristol, must leave soon to attend to her son and our discussion of the work is now casually interleaved with talk of child-care arrangements and his grandmother’s willingness to make cupcakes for a school event.

I am immensely grateful for this seamlessness in our speaking together, this easy camaraderie in the transition from one constellated event to another in our briefly mutual polyverse. And perhaps that is what I will most value in what I take away from my day’s exchange with Helen and Laila.

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(Image: Helen Carnac)

At one point, during our post-event discussions, a connection appeared to me between the underlying tenor of the morning’s action and certain old folk songs. Both it seems are in part concerned, beneath any literal ‘narrative’, with the virtues and possibilities of living with the mundane, the repetitious, the overlooked, and with inevitable failure in our lives (‘even unto death’), but also of doing so with canny attention, with a certain lightness of spirit or dark humour (depending on our temperament) and, of the utmost importance, in good company. 

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(Image: Helen Carnac)


Helen and I spoke on the phone for just short of an hour prior to the event I’ve tried to evoke here. We were happily teasing out elements of our mutual interests and following up various threads of thought as they appeared. This turned out to be an ideal preparation for what I would experience on July 8th. A good part of that initial exchange circled around issues of attention and, having referred to Kathleen Jamie’s observations, I sent Helen this.

‘Kathleen Jamie refers to attention as follows. When asked if she had prayed for her dangerously sick partner when he was in hospital, her response was that she hadn’t. She adds, 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?”’ (Jamie, 2005: 109)

Without that ‘paying heed’ there can be no empathy, no sense of an aesthetic of the everyday, and without imaginative empathy no politics of nurture worth the name, no concern for the Commons. For those of us who do not want to live under the authoritarian oligarchy that currently passes for democracy in the UK, an oligarchy with its roots in the world-view celebrated by Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Wedding, ‘paying heed’ is now a political obligation. I would have liked the courage and presence of mind to say that to the angry man. To have made clear to him that Art, Truth, Beauty, and History have now all-too-often been co-opted, empty power words. Words that are part of the armoury at the disposal of people whose every action flies in the face of ‘paying heed’, who are fully paid up members of a culture of possessive individualism that is psychically, socially and environmentally toxic.

These are, of course, my own personal preoccupations and interpretations and I have no wish to or intention of fostering them onto Helen and Laila. However, they do reflect something of what I take away from my time spent with them.    

(The images above are used here were taken by and are used here by kind permission of Max McClure and Helen Carnac)





Considerations of ‘The Map is Not the Territory’: an essay


(Two detail shots from a work-in-progress provisionally called: An animist’s re-mapping of Washington and the vicinity) 

“Looking up from dealing with the socks and you hear an oystercatcher – why should these things be separate”? Kathleen Jamie (from her public lecture: Poetry, the Land, and Nature)


This essay is in part prompted by a visit to an international touring exhibition, currently at the P21 Gallery in London, called: The Map is Not the Territory”: Parallel Paths – Palestinians, Native American, Irish and by reading the accompanying catalogue, edited by Jennifer Heath and published by Backsun Books & Arts for social and environmental justice in 2015. (My friend Nessa Cronin, who has contributed a chapter to this catalogue, alerted me to both it and the exhibition). But it is also concerned with the wider implications of the phrase ‘the map is not the territory’, particularly as these might apply to those of us who are engaged in cultural and educational work.

What follows is also prompted by a growing sense of discomfort at my own inability to address paintings within the scope of the writing I’m now doing, particularly those paintings I’ve long admired and been drawn to – works by Paula Rego, Ken Kiff, Andrzej Jackowski and Eileen Lawrence, for example. (This sense is partly because I referenced Paula Rego’s work in a talk for a conference on the Gothic in Limerick last year, which indicated that I’ve been neglecting a valuable resource). I want to find appropriate ways to think about paintings in the context of ecosophical praxis, but to date have largely been unable to do so. This now pushes me to try to find a more inclusive approach to writing. One that can respond openly and fluidly to what such work might show me about the continuous and particular exchanges and tensions within and between the fields of the psyche, the social, and the environment that constitute lifeworlds.

I think this requires developing a multi-stranded and openly narrative – as opposed to primarily analytic – style of writing. A narrative that is inclusive and stays open to the many interwoven strands of our lifeworld as polyverse, strands that are continually ravelling up and then and unravelling. I take this need to evoke a lifeworld as polyverse to be central now.

As James Hillman argued long ago, the ‘Monotheistic’ (or more simply ‘monolithic’) mentalité – the worldview that Enlightenment science inherited from the Religions of the Book – should not have survived the Holocaust. Yet it continues to dominate our culture. In one of the chapters in The Map is Not the Territory, Valerie Behiery draws attention to the cultural politics and economic power that makes it extraordinarily hard for an American curator to present a Palestinian cultural event in the USA. As she observes, any such attempt is faced – whether tacitly or directly – with accusations of being “anti-American and anti-Israeli propaganda and a glorification of terrorism and murder”. (p. 34) In a global mainstream culture still dominated by the presuppositions of ‘either-or’ thinking that is the most tenacious legacy of the monolithic mentalité, it is all too easy for a powerful coalition of Republican, Christian fundamentalist, and Jewish pro-Israel interests in the US to do this. This hides, along with much else, the fact that Zionist terrorism was central to the creation of the Israeli state. Lohamei Herut Israel (Lehi – otherwise called ‘the Stern gang’ after its founder, Avraham Stern), whose former leader Yitzhak Shamir became Israeli Prime Minister in 1983, openly operated on the basis of the assumption that: “Neither Jewish ethics nor Jewish tradition can disqualify terrorism as a means of combat”. (In He Khazit, an underground publication of Lehi, Issue 2, August 1943. No author is given, as was usual for this publication). So cultural threats enable a powerful political lobby to avoid addressing the question of why, if it was legitimate for Jews to use terrorism against the British in order to gain a homeland, Palestinians should not do the same. Particularly if they find themselves placed in a situation infinitely more oppressive than that faced by Lehi?

Yet in a ‘monoverse’ underwritten by the absolute dualism that ultimately flows from fundamentalist readings of the Religions of the Book, this question is not just irrelevant, it’s un-ask-able. In that monoverse, if you’re in America or Israel you are expected to be either for or against Israel. If you’re in a country where Isis or its equivalents are at large, you are expected to be either for or against a highly selective misreading of Islam. Two sides of the same coin, since in both instances there is nothing to consider beyond the playground question: “whose side are you on”? No room then, for the complexities of history, issues of common sense, a considerations of the millions now caught up in a murderous realpolitik, and certainly no room for compassion or fellow feeling. And this childish and ultimately murderous reductivism is, in the last analysis, the reality behind American support for Israel, behind Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians, and behind radical Islamic fundamentalism. The “them or us” question that cuts short all other, more nuanced, considerations.

So trying to think, write and otherwise act out of the reality of our living in a many-stranded polyverse is now, in my view, an absolute necessity. It gives us some purchase on the resources that allow us to resist the mentalité that continues to generate massive levels of socio-environmental destruction globally. In short, the old monolithic mappings we inherited are indeed not the territory. Indeed, their disinformation is now terminally toxic.

A day out

I went to London for three reasons: to see my brother, to visit the P21 exhibition, and to see Agnes Martin’s work on show at Tate Modern. I have had an ‘at-a-distance’ fascination with Martin’s work – I’d seen almost none other than in reproduction until my visit to London – that was first set in motion by Thomas McEvilley’s Gray Geese Descending: The Art of Agnes Martin. This was amplified by the Scottish artist Eileen Lawrence, who told me that two important influences on her work were encounters with the work of Joseph Beuys and Agnes Martin. Like Martin, Lawrence could so easily have said that she does not paint gray geese, but “the emotions we have when we feel gray geese descending” (quoted in McEvilley 1993, p. 71). (If I was asked to illustrate the chronic cultural provincialism of the Tate, it’s abject failure to properly represent British art in all its richness and complexity, I would point to its shamefully neglect of Lawrence’s extraordinary work, of which it owns a single example. Is it any wonder that so many Scots want their independence)?

Given the very different reasons behind my three excursions, I had no expectation that my day in London would develop any kind of coherence beyond doing what I’d set out to do, but this essay is an attempt to give some account of just such coherence. 

At the P21 gallery

I had agreed to meet my brother at the P21 Gallery at 11.30 but it was still closed when I arrived late – I’d neglected to discover that it does not open until 12.00 – and, just as I found it, he phoned to say he too was running late. I enquired from the office below the gallery when it would open. Very shortly, I was told, and at once invited to sit and wait there until it did. The young man whose work I’d interrupted was both courteous and inquiring, asking almost at once what I made of the Palestinian situation. I quickly sensed that in this place a hospitable courtesy, political awareness and cultural curiosity were seamlessly joined. This impression was confirmed when I was taken up into the gallery foyer. I was immediately thanked for coming to see the exhibition, with thanks followed by further enquires as to my reasons for doing so as my guide busied himself with the rituals of opening a gallery. After a little while, when alarms had been disarmed and doors unlocked, I got to see some of the work. (Some I did not. It was in a downstairs room and my brother, who needed to catch a train after meeting me, had gone to another address. I could only buy a copy of the catalogue and go to the British Library to meet him).

What I saw at P21 was interesting in a variety of ways. One image of many that stays with me is Najat El-Taji El-Khairy’s The Rock of Palestine in Basel. This depicts a small island of rock in the shape of Palestine, situated just off the bank of the Rhine in Basel. There is an almost hallucinogenic sadness in the conjunction of the title and image, something amplified further by the artist’s comment that: “My land follows me everywhere … Ironic, isn’t it? To discover this little rock, shaped like the map of Palestine right were the First Zionist Congress took place in 1897, the first step in the condemnation of our people to suffering, injustice and oppression”. (p. 58). This rich and nuanced interplay of image and text, and of carefully located personal experience – this insignificant rock was discovered on a stroll with the artist’s three-year-old grandson along Sankt Alban-Rheinweg Street – with imaginative reverie, historical knowledge and the political, is indicative of the way in which the exhibition avoids a crude polemic and offers instead ways of addressing, in a number of dimensions, what John Halaka acknowledges – alongside the multiple needs for restorative justice – is the necessity of recognizing that what has been inflicted means that Palestinians “can never recreate their shattered past or reset the hands of time”. (p. 72) An observation that, although in far less extreme circumstances and with less drastic effects, constitutes an aspect of our common reality. By inviting our cognizance of that fact, the exhibition points up grounds for human solidarity rarely acknowledged by work in this vein.

In one sense, however, the exhibition had done its work even before I set eyes on it. It had created a vivid occasion for openness, for exchange, and in doing so expanded my existing felt understanding of the dynamics of a complex, conversational relationship. That conversational relationship – in which I was already a minor participant through exchanges with one of the catalogue/book’s authors, Nessa Cronin – is now woven into, and so challenges me to remember and reconsider, my existing connections to the people whose lifeworlds find echoes in this exhibition. To the Palestinian artist Alexandra Handal (, to my friend Mona M. Smith, a Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota media artist, educator and the owner of Allies: media/art , and to a widening and heterogeneous group of friends and colleagues in Ireland – perhaps in particular Nessa Cronin, Deirdre O’Mahony, Cathy Fitzgerald, Pauline O’Connell, and some of (the staff at Limerick College of Art and Design. But also to the painter Samira Abbassy (born in Ahwaz, Iran, but now resident in New York) who, coincidentally, currently has a show of complementary work in London, entitled Love & Ammunition.

All of which is really only to say that cultural experience is never either wholly aesthetic or disinterested. It is always at some level bound up with lives, with friendships (and enmities), with all the textures and trajectories of lived experience. This is, I think, what I have been trying to find ways to reflect in my writing.

Much of the work on view in the exhibition consists, inevitably in the circumstances, of reproductions of work too large or costly to transport, an obvious and striking example of this necessity being the small print of Hani Zurob’s large painting Flying Lesson no. 04. Zurob’s approach in this and other works in the series is indicative of that presented in much of other work. It flows from a question asked by his young son Qoudsi as to why his father cannot travel with his family to Jerusalem. The painting, which shows the tiny figure of Qoudsi in his toy car contrasted with the almost surreal nature of the suspended apparatus by which one enters and exits aircraft, evokes space and distance in the context of the fragility of love rather than any overt sense of political message. And is all the more eloquent for doing so. Michele Horrigan, a photographic artist, evokes something similar in her images of abandoned houses in Leitrim, one of the poorest areas of rural Ireland. This is representative of a whole body of powerful Irish work, another example being Deirdre O’Mahony’s Abandoned Clare series, a collection of 54 photographs that also exists as a free magazine, Abridged 0 – 20: Abandoned Clare .

There is much more than could be said about the various works on show, but ultimately what I took from the exhibition was a powerful sense of a collective attempt to map the un-map-able (an attempt that, in line with George Steiner’s take on the translation of poetry, is both impossible and vital if we are to avoid living in “arrogant [and indeed murderous] parishes bordered by silence”). A form of collective deep mapping of the absences that haunt diaspora and the events that give rise to it, and of the savage indifference to the basic human need to place ourselves and have a sense of being ‘at home’ in the world, to say the least. (Although, as Deirdre O’Mahony has reminded me in the course of a long and fascinating conversation in Galway, for some our ‘at-home-ness’ may need to be other than literal).

In all this I am also somewhat uncomfortably aware that, historically speaking, my people are implicated in what the dedication to the book refers to as the desecration, by “invasion, occupation and colonization”, of their “lands, cultures and ecologies”. I may have some direct experience of the powerlessness that haunts the situations to which the P21 exhibition artists refer. (The result of our many years of dealing with the authorities that seek to dictate just what can and cannot happen to my chronically sick daughter). But this cannot give me more that a distant glimpse of lifeworlds largely framed by such desecration.

 On the play of differences and similarities

My brief exchange about Ireland during the opening up of P21 reinforced something of the sense of commonality shared by the Irish, Palestinians and Native Americans that the exhibition addresses and the book elaborates. However, my academic habits are such that my thinking quickly turned to differences. I found myself noting that, whatever the strengths of those commonalities, there are significant differences between the situations of each. But this way of thinking is, I suspect, an evasion of something more important. Jennifer Heath begins the book by reminding us of this by using a quotation from Immanuel Wallerstein: “We can always pinpoint difference, it is the easiest of all scholarly tasks, since everything is always different in some ways from everything else across time and space. What is harder and takes priority is to discover similarities”. It is, after all, on similarities that we can best start to built a sense of common human solidarity and compassion for all beings, human and otherwise.

Wallerstein’s observation is, I think, a profoundly challenging one. Much of the contemporary academic and cultural enterprise is based on an education that provides students with analytic tools designed to highlight difference. This is another byproduct of the dominance of the monolithic mentalité. It seems to me that there is now an urgent need to modify those tools and to re-orient their use, perhaps taking as a guideline Paul Ricoeur’s notion of a philosophy of ‘critical solicitude’. Education too is, arguably, a mapping or re-mapping exercise of sorts and, as Nessa Cronin very rightly reminds us in her book chapter, the authority of any mapping exercise always needs to be put in question, even where such a mapping is bent on “revealing, authenticating, and legitimizing a previously silenced history” (p. 95). What is essential, however, is that due consideration or solicitude is given to the lived experience and historical context that informs such mappings. It is then possible for contestation to become a conversation rather than an argument based on a taking up of monolithic positions.

That four letter word – ‘love’

As my friend the artist and academic Mary Modeen has pointed out, to speak of ‘love’ in the context of academic work is to question a taboo. In a paper given at a PLaCE symposium in Bristol in 2011”, she said:

“To those of us who are academics … love is a four-letter word. It is immeasurable and therefore by its very nature outside academic territory. It cannot be calculated, predicted or even adequately defined except perhaps normatively, as enacted by individuals, new in its manifestation each and every time. Even though it is as old as humans themselves, probably predating that which we know as human, shared (we are certain) by many fellow creatures in the animal kingdom, and known as well as ‘the force that through the green fuse that drives the flower’, it is not academic properly speaking, not to be trusted, best avoided for other less risky terms. And yet…it is the best word I can think of to discuss the ways in which we interact with our environment.”

Topophilia (the love of place) tends to be regarded with considerable suspicion in academic and cultural circles. It is (often quite correctly) seen as a smiling mask that hides exclusionary nationalistic and other xenophobic sentiments. But as Mary Modeen and, more recently, George Mombiot remind us, it is a fundamental aspect of our relationship to the world. Loving relationships to place, however understood, are in some sense essential to our wellbeing and, in the context of the present eco-social situation, also very possibly to our future survival. It is senses of this that permeates the more interesting work in the P21 gallery and, as a result, makes it possible for me to write this essay.

In a text reproduced in the catalogue to the Tate Modern’s Agnes Martin exhibition, Martin ponders matters of beauty and happiness (pp. 158-9) However, I think that in her writing about beauty “as an awareness in the mind” she comes close to evoking what I would call ‘a loving attention to the world’. I can offer no hard and fast definition of what I mean by this phrase. Instead I invoke a statement by the poet and essayist Kathleen Jamie. When asked by a friend if she had prayed for her chronically sick partner when he was in hospital, she said she’d not. She adds, 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. ” (Kathleen Jamie Findings 2005, p. 109).

It’s a sense of this “care and maintenance of the web of our noticing”, of “paying heed”, that I detect behind Agnes Martin’s statements and, more directly, as present in some of her work. And it’s resistance to the socio-political denial of any normal or familial context for such care and maintenance, such paying heed, that I sense unites many of the artists in the P21 exhibition. A shorthand term for this cruelly denied quality is, of course, the exercise of love. In short, one of the experiences that has been and/or is denied to the Palestinians, the Native Americans and the Irish by the cruelties of their historical situation, is an important aspect of the fundamental human need to exercise that capacity to love in its fullest sense.  A specific form of love that primarily takes part in, and with the aid of, familiar or familial, places, with the ability to ‘be-at-home’ somewhere.

The relationship between this situation and some of Agnes Martin’s work is powerfully evoked by four works in the exhibition: two works from 1963 – Friendship and A Grey StoneWhite Stone from 1965, and Untitled 12 from 1984. What I experienced as uniting these (and what links them to the twelve paintings in The Islands series of 1979 that forms the centrepiece of the exhibition) is that loving, attentive and care-filled engagement with the ineffable hæcceity or inscape (to borrow the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins’ term) of a particular ‘homely’ landscape. Agnes Martin’s term for what is produced by this engagement is ‘joy’. Looking at these paintings I can recognise the joy that, for example, accompanies the revelation of the connection between transient beauty and our mortality that occurs when the drifting shadows of small clouds move over the land landscape on a sunny day (White Stone). Or when my eye is absorbed in the mottle and granulation of a stone (Untitled 12 and A Grey Stone). In these works there is a palpable sense of loving attention transmuted into a cooly distilled painterly image that I find intensely moving. But for me the key work, perhaps because of its affinities to works by Eileen Lawrence that it may or may not have influenced, is Friendship. Here a rich, warm red under-painting shows through the incised gold leaf. The result is an icon without explicit subject or inflection, an evocation of the immanent, sensual warmth of … what? Of warm desert earth, of sunlight, of joy? I don’t and cannot know. But I am as certain as I can be that the memory of what it is that this painting evokes, and what has been done to deny the Irish, Native Americans and Palestinians certain fundamental human needs associated with that, is what the work at P21 speaks of..

George Mombiot, whose article The Pope can see what many atheist greens will not (Guardian June 17th 2015  I read on the train on my way to London, quotes Michael McCarthy on the need for a certain closeness to nature, on our capacity to be “surprised by joy”. In terms Agnes Martin might have recognised, he quotes McCarthy’s reference to: “A happiness with an overtone of something more, which we might term an elevated or, indeed, a spiritual quality”. He goes on to put his finger on the question that I think the P21 exhibition tries to address. “If the acknowledgement of love becomes the means by which we inspire environmentalism” – or indeed any other form of eco-social responsibility – in others, how do we translate it into political change”?

I am wagering here that one why to answer to Mombiot’s question is to better understand what is necessary to acts of translation. As I’ve indicated elsewhere, I think this can be linked to forms of collective deep mapping to which Nessa Cronin refers towards the end of her chapter. These help us to maintain a fluid and open engagement with place, encouraging us to narrate and evoke it in all its temporal depth and ambiguity. Also to honour shifting connectivities and conversations between multiple voices, all against the background of an ethics that asks that we seek to live the good life, with and for others (including non-human others), in just institutions and environments.




Coping strategies and the art of social translation.


(photo – Gwenda van der Vaart)

The text below is from a presentation given as part of a recent workshop organised by researchers in the Faculty of Spatial Sciences at the the University of Groningen. This was called “Resilience: Just do it?!”. (See previous posts for details).

The practical examples are by individuals who, for the most part, have web sites that show the work referred to here. I would strongly advise readers who are interested to find these web sites and study that work. Many of them can be found on my ‘friends’ page.

Yesterday I was reminded that it may take a couple of years for academics from different disciplines to understand each other’s language. And here I am, trying to explain work out on the edge of current art practice that many people in my own discipline don’t really grasp to people in a radically different discipline. As George Steiner says of trying to translate one language into another, this is perhaps impossible. But as he also goes on to say, it must be attempted. Otherwise we are left in “arrogant parishes bordered by silence”.

Luci Gorell Barnes’ The Atlas of Human Kindness is a growing collection of maps made by individuals and groups in Bristol, including refugee groups and children with learning difficulties. It shows where and when they experienced kindness from people concerned about their rights, feelings, and welfare. It invites debate about how stories, memories and imaginings make and re-make place, and how fragmented personal landscapes can become less fragmented. It invites people to think about values and connections, and about what networks and community means. Like Luci I often use mapping to translate between lifeworlds – between those of artists and scientists, academic researchers and rural communities, and so between theory and the mess and unpredictability of everyday life. But this work has an ambiguous relationship to resilience.

Terms like ‘resilience’, ‘social capital’, ‘community identity’, ‘place attachment’, ‘community cohesion’ and ‘community participation’ are all-to-often concepts imposed “from outside” onto supposedly vulnerable communities, usually without much reference to their ideas or lived experience. We don’t discuss former Bullingdon Club members – who include the British Prime Minister, the Mayor of London, and Chancellor of the Exchequer – in these terms. Yet they represent the most resilient section of society. They’re experts in using networks, social participation, and a sense of belonging to enhance their resilience to the social consequences of increasing environmental disaster. They have what Elias Canetti calls a ‘survivor mentality’. Everything they do is ultimately aimed at protecting their lifestyle, which they assume to be their exclusive right. This mentality is increasingly pervasive, in no small part because of the media and advertising. Recently researchers at a prestigious US University, using MRI scans of students’ brain activity, have shown that many students, particularly the wealthiest, react to photographs of the homeless and drug addicts as if (I quote): “they had stumbled on a pile of trash”. I don’t know about the Netherlands, but in Britain this same mentality now drives official Government attitudes towards the long-term sick and very poor.

Traditionally religion has been central to what is now termed resilience – both the resilience of elites and of radical spiritual traditions concerned with social justice and compassion. At a time when religious dogma is increasingly co-opted by fundamentalism, creative ritual as a form of grassroots spiritual resilience is also growing. Largely invisible to the art world and academia, this offers a small but significant counterpoint to the dominant ideology of possessive individualism. This type of creative ritual is often focused by a need – particularly in rural contexts – to address the erosion of traditional social activities that helped sustain the resilience of rural communities but also bound them to psychosocial frameworks that, today, leave them increasingly marginalized and vulnerable.

Human beings have the ability to take risks with who they are. They can choose to risk entering unknown situations that might change them. In a very small way that’s what these people are doing by exchanging stories of joy and pain in their city with total strangers.I’m only here today because, at a certain point, I chose to risk changing a core characteristic of my identity – the idea of ‘being an artist’. The ability of the human psychic ecology to risk change differentiates it from natural systems. In ecological science, ‘resilience’ refers to an eco-system’s ability to fend off or manage threats that would undermine its core characteristics. We, however, can chose to change them. So rather than use the conservative term ‘resilience’, I prefer the active notion of ‘coping strategies’ – a phrase used by the landscape architects Maggie Roe and Ken Taylor.

What is the relationship between disaster and resilience?Between 1997 and 2013one thousand four hundred children were sexually abused in one English city alone. Today in Britain as a whole the most socially deprived areas are sixteen times poorer than the most affluent. These ongoing man-made disasters are made possible by the continuing resilience of a culture of possessive individualism. This does far more damage in the United Kingdom than flooding. But as Nigel Clark reminds us, other forms of resilience have always been an aspect of ‘traditional ecological knowledge’, which is as much about (I quote):‘coping with loss and suffering as it is about transmitting practical advice”. Perhaps, before we try to help others develop appropriate coping strategies – intra-psychically, socially, and environmentally – we should start by reflecting on our own?

After the recent flooding on the Somerset Levels, communities were promised a twenty-year plan based on the traditional strategy of dredging. This plan goes against the advice of flood experts and ignores a 40% Government cut in funding to the agency responsible. But in my view it’s actually the resilience of both local people and flood specialists that’s the biggest hindrance to developing an effective alternative policy.

A deeply resilient cultural ‘framing’ locks us into the mindset of possessive individualism. We are taught that we should each have a separate, exclusive identity and that expressing this is the most important thing we can do. This exclusive notion of identity needs exclusive, mono-ideational explanatory systems to support it. We may choose a professional discipline, or eco-scientism, a regional tradition, the economic bottom line, or even fundamentalist religion. But in actuality our lifeworlds – like the causes of flooding – are complicated and multi-layered, a shifting, unstable weave of causes and effects; a poly-verse rather than a mono-verse. Mono-ideational explanatory systems are comforting because they support the idea of exclusive identities and reduce cognitive dissonance. They also blind us to the complexity, paradoxes and contradictions of life in a polyverse. A polyverse is the world envisaged by Felix Guattari’s ‘ecosophy’, a world where the “thinking together” of self, society and environment – taken as both discrete and linked dynamic fields – allows us to open to change and risk in relation to a future we can never accurately predict.

Eco-scientism treats Guattari’s three ecologies as identical rather than both related and distinct. Practices like ‘deep mapping’, on the other hand, try to evoke the ways in which those three ecologies are interwoven. Evans and Reid analyze the social consequences of the reductivism of eco-scientism in their Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously. But in a sense they miss the point. As I’ve said, our most fundamental problem is one of psychosocial framing. We have internalized what Barbara Ehrenrich calls the ‘smile or die’ culture of ‘positive thinking’ that helps sustain possessive individualism. Increasingly, our institutions require us to be positive and proactive at all times. So valid criticism becomes ‘personal negativity’, oftenpreventing us from attending to the ideas and experience of others who, through no fault of their own, are caught in negative and disabling circumstances.

So what should we do? We certainly need to understand the realpolitik behind mono-ideational explanatory systems – including exclusive, disciplinary thinking. But more fundamentally we need to ask on what authority we speak about others’ resilience– particularly, in my case, in rural taskscapes. Researchon Swiss farmers supports my own view that authority in such taskscapes flows from, and is largely validated by, degrees of embodied, collectively valued skill. This differentiates it from the authority of professional discourses. Unless we understand this difference we add to the kinds of distrust that Nick van der Voort and Frank Vanclay identify in relation to mitigation measures around gas extraction in Groningen.

The projects I’m going to introduce are based on experiencing the world as polyverse. They work with both professional and lay understandings, different types of authority, skills, perspectives, and affective narratives. Their approach is similar to Sarah Whatmore and Catharina Landstrum’s work around ‘knowledge controversies’, ‘competency groups’, and ‘pre-figured categories’. This includes ‘slowing down’ expert reasoning and so creating opportunities to generate new knowledge opportunities and gather new publics. This helps build mutual understanding and greater trust by translating across very different, sometimesantagonistic, lifeworlds.

People in rural taskscapes develop coping strategies out ofembodied, place-specific, collective practices learned ‘on the job’ – on a smallholding, a hill farm, in a kitchen, on a fishing boat, at a quarry, a guest house, a small-scale industrial unit, a village shop, a timber yard, and so on – places where discursive, disciplinary authority usually appears largely irrelevant.But rapid socio-environmental change means that there’s an increasing need for trust and exchange between those who inhabit rural taskscapes and those with professional knowledge. This needs both groups to start to re-fashion the framing narratives that underpin their identity and sense of authority. Otherwise, as socio-environmental and governance disputes increase, they will simply continue to retreat into what Paul Ricoeur calls: “incommunicability through protective withdrawal”.

Creative translators, people who can work across the similarities and differences between lifeworlds, can facilitate this process. They may be trained as ‘artists’, but the ability to translate across lifeworlds relates primarily to their conscious awareness of lifeworlds as polyverses rather than to the business of ‘making art’.

Ffion Jones’ doctoral project included performing in a sheep byre on her parents’ farm in a remote Mid Wales valley. Her project aims (I quote): “to use ‘insider’ knowledge (lay discourse) as a way of exploring and extrapolating experiences of place within a rural farming family that confirms, contradicts and combines with academic discourses about our farming lives. As a researcher/farmer, I bridge two lifeworlds; my work seeks to look at a farming family’s attachment and experiences of place from the inside-out”. Ffion’s work bridges lifeworlds usually assumed to be distinct ‘worlds-unto-themselves’. She acknowledges and works both with what’s valuable in her given regional lifeworld but also with external ideas and possibilities, creating conditions that facilitate the possibility of new strategies for coping emerging from inside the community into which she was born.

Ffion’s work flows from the skills and understanding of a performer, daughter of farming parents, scholar, musician, tenant farmer, mother of a young child, and so on. Through staging their interplay she opens up new ways to relate to place as a ‘simultaneity of stories-so-far’ in Doreen Massey’s sense. Her work doesn’t reinforce a given identity or set of skills, a given understanding of community, or a fixed notion of self. Instead it invites us to take up the unending task of negotiating and re-negotiating between positions that are usually assumed to be fixed or given. This, in turn, lays the groundwork for developing new collective coping strategies.

Pauline O’Connell’s work questions normative assumptions about identity and land ownership in rural Ireland. Since 2012 she’s completed two projects based on a historical Tug O’ War competition. These are part of a larger project using vernacular history and trace memories to publically explore the changing conditions of community and social identity through the medium of a community-owned field. The geo-social position of this field enables her to engage local people in debates where community isn’t simply assumed to be something given, a norm and the guarantor of an established ‘position’. Instead it can appear as an ongoing experiment by individuals coming together – however temporarily – to cope with the shifting psychosocial and environmental dynamic of a place.

Simon Read,who lives with his partner on a barge on the River Deben, works as an artist, teacher, environmental designer, community mediator, and ecological activist. He’s been involved with local people and official bodies on saltmarsh restoration projects since 1997. His large map drawings relate to, and frequently inform, management strategies for fluid environments by delineating specific locations in terms of projections of their probable future condition. He retrieves, cross-references, and synthesizes large amounts of data from different official sources so as to equip himself to facilitate debate around environmental planning and management. Simon’s concern about the erosion of the Falkenham Saltmarsh led to him design and build barriers to manage tidal flow and encourage the controlled deposition of silt. This provides a material context in which environmental and other officials, the local community, and inmates at the local prison all play a part. Simon’s intervention responds to environmental change by creating a working local context that acknowledges and addresses the practical and cultural implications of changes in our understandings of land, ownership, responsibility and belonging. It does this in a rapidly eroding physical environment that tends to polarize farmers and those responsible for implementing environmental governance. To address this polarization he is currently exploring how farmers could be encouraged to support carbon-absorbing salt marsh – also a vital protection against coastal erosion – through a carbon credit system that compensates them and benefits the environment.

Cathy Fitzgeraldtrained as a biologist and now works as a forester, artist filmmaker, blogger, green political activist, and writer. She lives in a small wood in County Wicklow, Ireland, which is also the focus for all her activities. Cathy is facilitating the transformation of a Sitka spruce plantation into a sustainably managed mixed species wood. She works in the space between official policy – which neglects, for example, the roll of trees in flood management – and grass roots interest in broadleaf native trees. This interweaves the normally distinct lifeworlds of silvicultural specialists, local communities, timber users, artists, and environmental enthusiasts. Her aim is to realign eco-cultural, scientific, economic and green policy concerns locality, across Ireland, and even internationally. Her work is simultaneously ecological, creative, political, and educational, with her own public self-education as a forester providing the context for dialogue between innovative forestry practice, new conceptions of the nature/culture relationship, and a rethinking of community and environment.

Antony Lyons trained as an environmental and geo-scientist, sculptor, and landscape designer and engages with tidal, estuary, catchment, and other water environments.The Lovely Weather project in Donegal used a multi-constituency approach to challenge normal conceptions of inter-disciplinarity by involved scientific specialists, a local postman, and teachers, parents and pupils from the locality on an equal footing. This created non-hierarchical interactions between scientific weather measurements (rainfall, humidity, temperature, pressure, wind speed, wind direction), the local weather lore held by the village postman, and personal weather-related material from Antony and members of a small volunteer observation team. Local peat bogs and their role as carbon sinks were central here, raising questions about the complexity of climate and its changes in a local context. These questions now feed into debates about the Irish Government’s interpretation of European environmental legislation.

Deirdre O’Mahony was born in the rural west of Ireland, left to develop a career, and later returned to work there. She often works by recognizing and using the transformative potential of anomalies in conventional situations and narratives. The situations she then generates loosen up habitual narratives and positions, helping to change protective withdrawal into outgoing social action. The X-PO project is typical of this process. The anomaly here was the life of a man called Mattie Ryan – that’s his portrait on the right. I don’t have time to go into detail here but it’s all on the web site. The project inspired a local research group who then challenged an authoritative anthropological account of rural life in the West of Ireland in the 1930s, written by two Harvard scholars. This challenge highlights the unequal power relations embedded in traditional academic fieldwork, and so raises questions about the inequality of other, more immediate, power relations. X-PO also provides the basis for SPUD, a many-stranded, ongoing international collaboration brings together the traditional Irish agricultural knowledge of local farmers,and individuals and cultural institutions internationally. Its purpose is to value local knowledge, facilitate ability to cope with threats to food security, and raise levels of self-sufficiency.

In different ways and in different contexts, each of these projects works to facilitate new coping strategies by making space for the empathetic imagination necessary to shared ethical action – including political action. They do so by translating across lifeworlds normally assumed to be insular ’worlds-unto-themselves’, by listening out for then anomalies that might allow people to re-narrate those insular worlds in other, more open and empathetic ways. They invite exchange between global knowledge and local understanding, between professional practice and lay skills, between all the multiple elements of lifeworlds as polyverses. If they facilitate resilience, it is a shared social resilience that collectively chooses to face, rather than resist, radical change.

Identity, contemporary art and ecology


I gave a version of the presentation below yesterday at the 12th Waddenacademie symposium on Terscheliing in The Netherlands. Video recordings of all the talks and other information from this event can be found at:

It’s in two parts. The first thinks about relating identity, art and ecology to each other. The second presents the work of five people who, in different ways, I think enact this relationship. My underlying concern is with our urgent need to cross-reference skills learned through art with those acquired in and between other lifeworlds. This should make it possible to better translate between different existing social framings and, in consequence, to think beyond them, both essential tasks in our current eco-social situation.

Identity, contemporary art and ecology

In The Power of the Ooze, Simon Read suggests that our eco-social problems require (I quote) “a particular kind of strategy that our culture has yet to develop and promote”. I think the people I’m going to speak about – including Simon himself – embody the beginning of just such a strategy. What follows draws on their work and on Felix Guattari’s notion of ecosophy – the view that we live in three distinct, yet profoundly interdependent, ecological fields– the environment, society, and the constellation of persona we call a self. The task I’ve set myself is to identify something of the strategy Simon calls for.

The relationship between identity, art, and ecology can be understood as occupying a ‘place’ that is evoked through image and language. Whereas in Britain the language around coastal management is largely combative and military, I understand that in Holland the dyke system is classified according to “Watchers”, “Sleepers” and “Dreamers”. In this way different metaphors place their users differently in relation to the sea. As the geographer Tim Cresswell reminds us our uses of the word ‘place’ links social hierarchies, status and ownership with spatial locations and arrangements. To say that someone can be ‘put in her place’ or is supposed to ‘know his place’ shows the close connection between location and normative social positioning. The rural lifeworlds and taskscapes that particularly interest me – which are often the focus of conflict around environmental governance and legislation – are normatively positioned in a number of ways. Here are three.

The first is dismissive, typified by Marx and Engels’ phrase: “the idiocy of rural life”. This still informs much Leftist political analysis and a recent book – Austerity Ireland: the Failure of Irish Capitalism – can advocate taking Ireland’s natural resources into public ownership without bothering to make any reference to the agricultural community. The second positioning is usually conservative. Here elements of Romanticism, notions of national or regional identity, local traditions, New Age spirituality, or Edenic environmentalism – whether taken individually or in combination – are used to idealize the rural, often over against the urban. The third position is instrumental, echoing the dominant characterization of politics and policymaking as narrowly functionalist. It locates the rural as what Heidegger calls ‘standing reserve’ – whether seen in terms of food production, tourism and leisure, renewable energy sources, or as a space in which “to make room for rivers” and so avoid urban flooding.

These normative placings derive from sedimented presuppositions – old, reductive, powerfully divisive half-truths that are easily exploited by a popularist politics based on crude binaries. Theycan easily compound the neglect of the rural by policymakers and, as such, can provoke reactions and counter-reactions that lock social groups into what Paul Ricoeur calls: “incommunicability through a protective withdrawal” – a significant factor in many socio-environmental conflicts. Addressing thiswithdrawalrequires a combination of knowledge, empathetic imagination, and practical and mediation skills – most particularly those of listening and imagining. It also requires that we think differently using different metaphors and terms.

One of the things I try to do as a hybrid teacher/artist/researcher is to attempt to excavate the presuppositions of the lifeworlds I know well – two in particular. The first is that of professional specialists – people who earn a living re-organising, legislating for, and administering, the intellectual, cultural, or practical elements of other peoples’ lifeworlds. The authority and status of these professionals derives from ownership of a specific mindscape that tends to be institutionally grounded – for example in the art or academic worlds – rather than in a particular geographical region. Professional people who identify with this lifeworld tend to have internalized urban presuppositions and to either ignore the rural or view it as ‘standing-reserve’.

The second lifeworld is that of people whose livelihood and lifeworld is heavily dependent on embodied knowledge and skills. Their most valued forms of knowing are place-specific and performatively enacted. For the most part they derive their identity from their co-production of particular material taskscapes. Those who identify themselves with this rural lifeworld tend to position themselves according to one or another of the range of idealizing presuppositions I identified earlier.

Many environmental conflicts arise from failure to understand that these two generic lifeworlds presuppose radically distinct ways of being-in-the-world. An example may be useful here. A farm wife in rural north Cornwall tells a story about a local politician’s visit and the kinds of things he says. She ends her story by shrugging and saying: “But when he went, he left the farm gate open”. For her that single action speaks far louder than his words.

 Five examples

I’ll now introduce projects by five people who work across and between the two very different, often antagonistic, lifeworlds I’ve just indicated. They work with skills learned as artists, but also draw on quite other skills learned in different lifeworlds. Rather than identify themselves with a single lifeworld – the mono-verse behind the phrase “I’m an artist” – they work in and across a plurality of lifeworlds – in a poly-verse. This equips them with the range of conceptual, empathetic, and practical skills to translate and act so as to follow ecosophically productive lines of possibility. I don’t have time to say very much about each project, but I’ve given web site references if you want further information.

Cathy Fitzgerald – – trained and worked as a biologist but now works as a forester, artist filmmaker, blogger, green political activist, and writer. She’s also studying for a doctorate. She lives in a small wood owned by her and her husband in County Carlow in Ireland and her larger concerns radiate out from her long-term commitment to this one place. Ireland has the lowest proportion of deciduous trees in Europe after Iceland and Malta. While ithas extensive but piecemeal forestry policy, addressing everything from water quality and archaeology through to biodiversity and the conservation of the freshwater pearl mussel, it shows little understanding of complex underlying issues like the relationship between appropriate tree cover and pluvial flood management. The immediate context for Cathy’s transforming a Sitka spruce plantation into a sustainably managed mixed species wood is the tension between this piecemeal official policy and grass roots public interest in planting sustainable forest that includes broadleaf native tree species.

However, while the wood is her focus and will be regularly assessed by the Irish Council for Forest Research and Development, Cathy is also engaged in a mesh of projects that set out to built links between silvicultural specialists, local communities, timber users, artists, and environmental enthusiasts to further eco-cultural, scientific, economic and green policy concerns locality, across Ireland, and internationally.

The orientation of Cathy’s activity is simultaneously ecological, creative, political, and educational. It’s cross-referenced through extensive personal interaction and strategic use of social media – both of which are aimed at multiple constituencies. Her intention in cross-fertilizing forestry with creative film work, writing, and political action is to encourage exchange between diverse constituencies so as to provoke ecosophical thinking. So her public self-education as a forester creatively sets out to mesh together innovative forestry practice, new conceptions of the nature/culture relationship, and fundamental issues of community and environment – thus offering new ideas and models to a variety of lay and specialist constituencies.

Antony Lyons works with a wide variety of processes, often focused by fieldwork and experimental remixing of, and translations across, archives, recordings, scientific data and contemporary narratives.His professional background is in environmental and geo-sciences, sculpture, and landscape design, and he’s increasingly using film to address the complex and multiple strands of tidal, estuary, and other watery environments. Many of his projects build on participatory and collaborative approaches to explore place and foster reconnection to natural processes and cycles. They tend to focus on deep-time geological perspectives, material associations (combinations, symbolism, etc.) and intangible cultures.

Antony’s Lovely Weather project – – took a multi-constituency approach from the outset, actively involving scientific specialists, a local postman and a dedicated folk meteorologist, along with teachers and pupils at a local school. The project generated a dialogue between scientific weather measurements (rainfall, humidity, temperature, pressure, wind speed, wind direction), local weather lore, and personal weather-related material from Antony and members of a small volunteer observation team.

Local peat bogs and their role as carbon sinks became a focus in this project and the inclusion of a peat stack and related artworks in the final exhibition raised questions about the complexity of climate and its changes on a practical level. As with Cathy Fitzgerald’s work this project – sponsored by the Leonardo Observatory for Arts, Sciences, and Technologies and Donegal County Council – brought the concerns of a number of different regional, national and international constituencies into contact.

In the essay I quoted earlier, Simon Read writes about being excited by the potential to develop a new symbolic relationship where cultural understanding of change can feed back into the planning and management loop. A relationship that recognises that social concerns can become a driver in the development of new approaches to scientific processes. His enthusiasm and interest in symbolic relationships is also present in Kathy Fitzgerald and Antony Lyons’ work and is central to the next project I want to touch on.

The Hill of the Ravens, a sacred site in the cosmology of the Cahuilla people, wascalled Cerrito Solo or “Little Lonely Hill”by the Spanish, and is now called Mount Slover. It consists of very pure limestone and was once the tallest hill in the San Bernardino Valley. By 2009, when industrial activity ended, it was less than half its original height due to marble quarrying and cement production.Lewis DeSoto, descended from the Cahuilla people on his father’s side, is an active member of that community who works as an artist, a Professor at the San Francisco State University, and draws on both Buddhism and phenomenology in his work. He oftenengages with the spaces between ancient place-based Cahuilla stories and contemporary cartographies, encouraging viewers to reflect on the distinctive and complex relationships between place, land and culture.

DeSoto’s Tahualtapa – uses the fate of the Hill of the Ravens to explore the mountain’s transformation from sacred place to standing-reserve, tracking shifting cultural and environmental relationships to the earth in the process. This major project directly influenced the thinking of the writer, curator and social activist Rebecca Solnit; specifically her critique of the morbidity and nostalgia inherent in the myth of Genesis and the Fall – two characteristics that still haunt much environmental thinking. Solnit’s reflections on DeSoto’s work help us understand how the archaeologist Tim Ingold can usefully relate traditional animist cosmologies to recent philosophical thinking – proposing in the process a view of world creation as continuous improvisation, without initial perfection or a subsequent fall.

Simon Read lives on a barge on the River Deben. He works as an artist, teaches at Middlesex University, and serves as an environmental designer, community mediator, and ecological activist – He’s been involved in projects on the River Debden since 1997. These images are of the Sutton Saltmarsh tidal attenuation barrier at Woodbridge, which he designed with Hawes Associates Engineers and then built with volunteers from a local Prison for the River Debden Association, a regional community organization.

Simon’s numerous large map drawings are always a response to issues relating to management strategies for fluid and shifting environments. They both delineate specific and recognizable landscapes and are active meditations on changing environmental conditions between land and water. Simon retrieves, cross-references, and synthesizes material from many different official sources so as to equip himself to join the complex environmental planning debates around the management of environments like the Debden and its salt marsh.

Recently Simon worked on the Falkenham Saltmarsh project – an examination of the conditions and potential for marsh stabilization. This eventually led to him planning and executing the building of barriers to prevent erosion of the saltmarsh by managing tidal flow and encouraging the controlled deposition of silt. These practical yet sculptural barriers are “soft engineered” from timber, brushwood, straw bales, and coir – a natural fiber extracted from the husk of coconuts. They are specifically designed to degrade back into the marsh over time. Simon responds to the challenges of environmental change by publically acknowledging our need to find the nuanced and complex solutions necessary to understanding the cultural implications and dimensions of change as these relate to a societal re-framing of our understanding of land, ownership, responsibility and belonging.

Deirdre O’Mahonyworks as an artist, art school lecturer, environmental activist and community enabler who set up the X-PO project in a former post office – Rural post-offices used to be important community contact points and the Kilnaboy post office was run by a man called Mattie Rynne, a short-wave radio enthusiast and self-taught linguist, until it was permanently closed in 2002. The Mattie Rynne Archive was an installation of photographs, texts, material objects, cassette tapes, newspaper cuttings, flyers and paraphernalia left in the building when Rynne died in 2000. O’Mahony created a temporary installation that selectively re-presented Mattie’s belongings and a wall drawing from soot taken from the kitchen stove. Mattie rarely left the area around Kilnaboy but what the collection revealed was an extraordinarily rich private life, one fueled by reading, listening and continuous intellectual enquiry.

Mattie’s short-wave radio gave him access to BBC world-service language programmes, which he recorded on the cassette tapes he used to teach himself five languages. His books, journals, copybooks and correspondence courses range in subject from Advanced English and ballroom dancing to electronics, self-improvement, and spiritual healing – testament to his intellectual curiosity and desire to understand the world beyond rural Killnaboy. The re-presentation of these traces of that rich personal life gives the lie to the usual reductive presuppositions about the rural.

In conventional disciplinary terms Christine Baeumler, like the five individuals I’ve referred to, is usually identified as an artist. In reality she works across a complex polyverse. To students at the University of Minnesota she’s an inspiring and dedicated teacher. To her employer she’s an effective administrator with an exemplary public engagement record. Her colleagues see her as working between ecology and art and ranging across media from painting and film to complex collaborative installations like the piece on the left here. Her neighbours know her as having worked for 18 years on community projects restoring local natural and cultural landscapes. Local Dakota community activists know her as a long term practical ally. To me she’s a supportive and thoughtful friend. I could go on but I hope I’ve made my point.

I’ll end with two practical points. Firstly, our eco-social issues can only be adequately addressed by those able and willing to move between multiple lifeworlds without over-identifying with any one – including creative translators who are able to engage with multiple constituencies in developing ecosophical practices. Secondly, “incommunicability through protective withdrawal” is actually built into the realpolitik of academic disciplinarity, and so into the educational and operational presuppositions of the disciplined professions. To overcome this we need new, multi-constituency approaches rather than an interdisciplinarity that is all too often experienced – at least in the arts – as a form of intellectual neo-colonialism.

A multi-constituency approach would place greater emphasis on embodied forms of practical and place-specific knowledge and skill; on collective willingness to engage with the realpolitik of collective work – for example issues of trust and political truth-telling – through a more egalitarian approach to the planning, funding, and management of projects via “combative collaboration”. I’m aware this is a lot to ask but, if we want to build on the changing relationship between identity, art, and ecology, that’s what’s needed.

My thanks to everyone who made this trip to the Netherlands possible, particularly Owain Jones (short hair, left) and Bettina van Hoven (red case, centre), both of whom have their backs to the camera)!


Deirdre O’Mahony, X-PO, and SPUD

This post is to draw attention to the work of Deirdre O’Mahony, an artist, academic and occasional writer, who I recently finally met face-to-face in Galway. She has been nominated by EVA International Ireland’s Biennial of Contemporary Art, to take SPUD to attend the Anna Lindh Foundation (ALF) Network Activity “ART as an instrument and expression of social change’ in Taroudant, Morocco between the 9th –13th April 2014. SPUD is just one of her projects, growing out of what I see as perhaps her core recent activity, the establishment of X-PO (see

X-PO is located in Kilnaboy, a scattered parish of a few hundred households, a national school and a church. Deirdre re-opened the former post office there as X-PO – a public meeting point intended to: “give physical and metaphorical space for reflection and consideration about the future of rural life in a post-agricultural landscape. Such a ‘thinking space’ can also serve as a counterpoint to public perception and media representation of rural communities in the west of Ireland as either slow and lacking the intensity of urban life, or as an unspoiled haven and recreation site”.

SPUD is Deirdre’s way of helping to provide space to both investigate and aesthetically reflect on issues such as sustainability, food security, changing landscapes and rural/urban relationships. It is a transdisciplinary and, to me more significantly, multi-constituency collaborative project that works between artists and farmers, agencies and institutions in curating and making new art work and mediating between different rural and urban publics. As such it’s engaged in reframing and making visible the relevance of rural tacit cultivation knowledge to urban publics – vital because there’s a real chance that it will get lost in the new post-productivist landscapes emerging in regions like western Ireland.

SPUD has set out to reflect on the current paradigmatic shift whereby the rural is transformed – largely by those not grounded in local taskscapes – from being a site of food production to one of cultural production. As SPUD is demonstrating, this is best countered by re-thinking the relationship between politics, ecology, tourism and activism through an extended, durational, process of engagement.

To further this Deirdre O’Mahony has linked up with Chicago-based artist Frances Whitehead, who shares her interest in the role artists’ knowledge can play in devising pragmatic, approaches to working towards sustainable futures. Frances Whitehead has worked for a number of years with CIP, the International Potato Center a research-for-development organization based in Lima, Peru. She and Deirdre have begun to pool research, sharing ideas on potato cultivation and its contemporary relevance to food security, particularly in cities. SPUD has thus become a frame within which to examine artists’ ability to make visible the relevance of rural (village) culture to urban publics today.

Ómós Áite – Lifeworlds: Space, Place and Irish Culture International Conference.

This extraordinary and very illuminating event – which has effectively run over four days – finished with a Lifeworlds / Corp_Real roundtable discussion yesterday afternoon. (Corp_Real is a partner symposium to Lifeworlds, and is run in association with Galway Dance Days 2014, which is curated by Dr Ríonach Ní Néill, Galway Dancer in Residence, 2010 – 2014). It was somehow the perfect indicative event, moving across an unbelievably packed spectrum of topics and registers of concern in the space of little over an hour. One issue it raised very clearly was the increasing complexity and ambiguity of the already problematic relationships between the State, legislature, and industry, the cultural and pedagogic role of a third level educational institution like NUI, Galway, and the fluctuating networked meshes of citizen individuals who actively co-produce both culture and education. To map those complexities and ambiguities would require a book’s worth of thinking  in itself. Not least because the Ireland in which Justice Minister Alan Shatter could continue to resist the setting up of a new Garda oversight body at last week’s Cabinet meeting (even after the Garda Commissioner’s resignation and the emergence of the Garda-taping scandal), and where a Judge calls a politician revealing cronyism and corruption ‘a bitch’ for doing so, is clearly one struggling to deal with the full grubby panoply of contemporary civil evils – greed, an overweening and unjustifiable sense of entitlement among the elite, contempt for the process of law, and so much else besides. Not that this is any different, in essence, from the UK. One thing that was very clear, however, was that Ómós Áite (the Space/Place Research Network run by Nessa Cronin and Tim Collins) from within the Centre for Irish Studies, is symbolically very well-placed in a small, cramped suburban house right on the edge of the campus at NUI, Galway.

I’ve attended twenty-one papers or presentations, and talked with both a host of new acquaintances and with old friends. Among all these conversationalists have been Tom Ward, who is actively involved in the politics of cutting his own turf in Kilsallagh bog and more generally, Pauline O’Connell, Cathy Fitzgerald, Deirdre O’Mahony, Ailbhe Murphy, and many of Tim Collins and Nessa Cronin’s academic and creative colleagues associated with NGI, Galway. Also various members of the X-PO Mapping Group, Killinaboy, County Clare; Mná Fiontracha, Árainn, Contae na Gaillimhe; and Tom Varley of Slógadh Eachtaí/Aughty Gathering, Counties Clare and Galway, (not Mike O’Doherty as I first wrote, my apologies to them both) the last of whom spoke eloquently about their application of the ideas of Paulo Freire. And all this since after lunch on Thursday!

So I’m not even going to begin to try and summarize what I’ve learned to date. What is helpful to me, however, is that not only was my paper well-received on Saturday, but informal exchanges with Deirdre Ní Chonghaile – who has become my touchstone for the existence of a polyverse of lifeworlds here – and others suggests that the thinking it was starting to articulate “has legs”.

It’s already clear that what I proposed in relation to the multiple lifeworlds of Ffion Jones – I suggested a minimum of four: that of an upland tenent farmer, that of a rural working mother; that of a performance artist, and that of an academic scholar – has resonances here. (The hecklers who humorously suggested that this was just ‘being a woman’, had a point but may have missed mine). This is to say I am meeting many people here who, like Ffion, are clearly aware of living in a polyverse – a constellation of lifeworlds in which each is both relatively self-contained and over-lapping and mutually interdependent. Interestingly, just as I described her lifeworld as a farmer as ‘marginal’ in a number of senses so, in altogether different registers, those of many of my new acquaintances. Economically they too are juggling creative and academic work in the context of multiple allegiances and responsibilities, all in circumstances that are often based on short-term contracts or similar, require a hand-to-mouth lifestyle, and in the long term look barely viable.

However, as with Ffion and against these notions of ‘marginality’, here it’s necessary to place a rich Irish-language context that includes traditional music and dance that honours and validates valued lifeworlds and taskscapes. Again, as with Ffion, it’s necessary to ask to what extent these cultural traditions will enable people here to manage and sustain their particular polyverse in the face of increasing reduction of all possibilities to those of economic survival, but it certainly raises the important issue of language and rural cultural traditions as factors in lifeworld translation.


‘Translation’ and ‘Communities of Transverse Action’

This morning my wife Natalie Boulton and I performed a familiar Sunday morning ritual – we went down to the harbor in Bristol and had bacon and egg sandwiches at Brunel’s Buttery before walking together round the harbor. It’s a good way to have a change of scene, get some light, air, and exercise – it was freezing cold today – and, above all, to catch up with each other as we walk and talk without distraction.

Natalie is just back from the USA, where she was attending a conference at Stanford Medical School at which the short, thirty minute  version of her film Voices From The Shadows, which she made with our son Josh, was launched. (It’s intended to be part of an educational pack for training medical students). As she was telling me about the conversations she’d had and the contacts she’d made I remembered why I’d seen her work as so central to the position I tried to set out in my last talk for PLaCE before I retired.  It seems worthwhile revising some of what I said then as a way of auditing where that work finds itself almost a year later.

I said then that at the heart of my vision of PLaCE’s work had been the creation of a community of transverse action and made clear that ‘community’ here is not seen – to quote the artist Pauline O’Connell – as “a permanent entity; not … a noun, not a permanent construct describing a grouping, sharing, being in common, and so on. But, rather … a verb, a doing word, brought into action only on occasion, a deliberate act of union of ‘I’s’”. Among other things, then, I saw community here as an antidote to the dominant culture of possessive individualism. I took the term ‘transverse’ from Felix Guattari’s book The Three Ecologies. As I understand it this refers to a working or cutting across of existing social presuppositions, assumptions, and hierarchies and the disciplinary, professional, and other structures built upon and sustaining them. Which is exactly what Natalie – artist, housewife, mother, and career turned ME activist and filmmaker – has been doing in Stanford. That’s to say she was making unconventional and unexpected connections without suppressing differences – a practice we both associate with our enjoyment of collage as a creative approach. I think the ability to engage in this transverse activity is closely related to Geraldine Finn’s understanding that we are always “both more and less than the categories that name and divide us“. Lastly, action here is used in the sense proposed by the philosopher Hannah Arendt, as the vital act of keeping-open human horizons. For Arendt action manifests both: the capability to initiate – to begin something new, to undertake the unexpected and a commitment to plurality; that is to the presence and acknowledgment of others. These two qualities give action its social value and meaning. Action then is the enactment of the mycelial mesh of relationships between material environments, social relations, and the inter-subjectivities that animates the ecology of becoming. I am currently trying to think this through as a fourth ecology – particularly in terms of the work (verb) of art.

Now as then PLaCE International tries to serve as a portal into a community of transverse action that addresses both the overlapping institutional domains of culture and education and very specific social and ecological concerns. As a living entity this community flickers in and out of being, so it’s largely invisible to the hierarchies that dominate both academic and cultural life. That is both it’s strength and, in these difficult economic times, a possible but inevitable weakness. I’m no longer certain that the large networks I’ve been helping to co-ordinate are the best way to sustain a community of transverse action, but will keep an open mind on that until I’ve talked to people in Ireland and had a chance to think some of my current concerns through in more detail.

But to summarise: the particular community of transverse action that I have done all I can to help create and support is still drawn from multiple groups – of artist/researcher/teachers and their students; of ordinary, extraordinary, citizens who are able to live in a polyverse; and of activists addressing social abuse and injustice; and from various combinations of these. What matters above all is that communities of transverse action, like Mary McLeod, are ways of finding the skills and courage necessary to “sing across thresholds”. ( “She was first forbidden to sing her songs outdoors, and later they were forbidden indoors too. Consequently, Màiri was to be found singing while standing in doorways: in short, across thresholds”). Some of their work is equivalent to keening, some to praise singing, some to flyting – a sophisticated poetic form of insult traditionally used by bards. (It was probably her flytings that earned Mary her posthumous reputation for sexual impropriety and even witchcraft). As creative life changes in response to the normative pressure of institutions, we have to find new ways to work so as not to be trapped in the thickening carapace of ‘culture’. We have to allow ourselves to spend time ‘going feral’, inhabiting the liminal spaces-between that are, for that very reason, also the spaces of being-as-becoming. PLaCE’s work as an ‘academic’ research centre has in part been subversive, to unravel some of the presuppositions that dominate education in our increasingly exploited, fragmented, and embattled world. Unless people like myself do that work – people who have been privileged enough to have access to cultural skills and intellectual capital – those who most need the resources necessary to human wellbeing – material, educational, cultural and spiritual – will become less and less able to access those resources.

Using Guattari’s notion of three ecologies – of environment, society, and self – I am still thinking about a fourth ecology – a form of communicative, joined-up educational action that engages and ferments transformative mutations across and between the other three. As anyone who follows my thoughts on this web site will be aware, I’ve started to see this in terms of translation.