Category Archives: Provocations

‘Drawing and Place’: a provocation

(This talk was given at a LAND2 symposium at Plymouth College of Art on 25.01.14. It gives a snap-shot of what I’m currently thinking, which is increasingly focused on the relationship between ‘neo-animism’ and the traces of a polytheistic world view in traditional vernacular cultural artefacts).

I want to indicate a possible notion of drawing in relation to Felix Guattari’s ‘ecosophy’ and Tim Ingold’s neo-animism, understood as “a way of being that is alive and open to a world in continuous birth”; one in which “beings do not propel themselves across a ready-made world but rather issue forth through a world-in-formation, along the lines of their relationships”.  I’ll begin by introducing three slides. I’ll then briefly discuss some ideas relating to drawing and place. I’ll then return to some images.

Four drawings from Transgression

Transgression 10

Transgression 19

Transgression 9

Transgression 7

These are four digitally processed drawings from twenty made for a film by Antony Lyons and myself. It’s called Transgression: rising waters. Each drawing started with digitally scanned ‘found’ material that was then overworked autographically. The process was cumulative, with each image re-scanned and reworked to get a particular density. In some respects this mimics the geological process of transgression – that is to the way in which rises in sea level deposit sequences of sedimentary marine strata over terrestrial strata. The film deals with transgression in the context of climate change and I drew on visits to the cliffs at Aust on the Severn estuary, geological evidence of a desert that was later inundated by rising seawater.

Terra Infirma: all grass is flesh (with and for Anna Biggs)

 Install shot

This is an installation made for an exhibition called Drawing Permanence and Place that toured in Wales, Holland and Germany. It maps my daughter’s life world and was made with her help. Because she’s suffered from chronic ME for over twenty years, her physical environment is restricted to two small but intensely known places. However this physical restriction is constantly challenged by her deep curiosity about all manner of concerns. A poetic drawing together of this constellation of interests provided the starting-point for the work.

 Improvised two-hour workshop with Ron Grimes at Holy Hiatus 2010



Go to:

This is a short extract from a video of an improvised workshop run by Ron Grimes, a professor of Ritual Studies. Ron asked us to enact a burial ritual with an absolute minimum of speech. For me this raised questions about what, if anything, distinguishes an improvised ritual that maps an emotional geography in time from, say, the later actions of Alan Kaprow.

 Sacha Kagan, drawing on both Merleau-Ponty and David Abram, insists that we need to reclaim: “the animistic and synesthetic character of human perception”. This view, which I share, challenges conventional notions of drawing. If perception is understood for an animist perspective, we need a more inclusive and dynamic understanding of what it might be, particularly in relation to place.

This understanding is implicit in Edward S Casey’s insistence that “a place, despite its frequently settled appearance is an essay in experimental living within a changing culture”. This is differently inflected by Doreen Massey’s notion of space as: “a simultaneity of stories-so-far”, in that we are then implicated, or indeed immersed, in place-making as a complex on-going process involving narrating both human and non-human processes.

The issue of strata or levels of activity in all this is indicated by Tim Ingold’s notion of land as meshscape; as a “polyrhythmic composition of processes whose pulse varies from the erratic flutter of leaves to the measured drift and clash of tectonic plates” …. “a tangle of interlaced trails, continually ravelling here and unravelling there”. This reinforces Massey’s emphasis on simultaneity and extends the dynamic complexity implicit in Casey’s statement.

This sense of dynamic, multi-dimensional patterning brings me to Felix Guattari’s notion of ecosophy – which articulates a relationship between the environment, society, and the particular constellations of persona that make up our selves. Ecosophy is poly-ideational in that it recognizes that these layers or levels need to be understood as both particular systemic entities in themselves and as interdependent elements within a larger polyverse. Ecosophy is a radical departure from the presuppositions of scientism, capitalist economics, analytic reductivism, and the monotheistic religions. That is it challenges the presumption that all change can be made accountable to a single ideation, whether it’s scientific mono-naturalism, the profit motive, hyper-rationality, or the Divine Will. It’s Guattari’s ecosophical animism that allows Matthew Fuller to discuss forms of creative praxis that are “no longer only art” in that their “methods are recapitulated” and now “ooze out and become feral in combination with other forms of life”.

All this reinforces Anselm Franke’s claim – made in his introduction to the special edition of e-flux journal on animism in 2012 – that: “a ghost is haunting modernism – the ghost of animism”. And a re-emergence of animism requires a reconsideration both of drawing as a practice and of its history since Kandinsky’s encounter with shamanism in 1889. Animism left it’s unacknowledged trace in work by Kandinsky, Picasso, Miro, Braque, O’Keefe and Beuys, and more recently by Judy Dater, Elizabeth Ogilvie, Ken Kiff, Eileen Lawrence, Andrzej Jackowski and Glen Onwin – to name only a few. So how might we reorient our sense of drawing to acknowledge what modernist art history has repressed? To answer my own question I‘ll return to my three earlier examples.

I can’t show you how these drawings function in Transgression because there’s no final edit. However, I can tell you that the camera treats them as ‘raw material’, dissolves them as discrete entities by making each permeable to the next. It moves between images and details of images so that we never see the drawings as self contained, boundaried objects, only as evocations of an estuary in which mud and water flow endlessly in various permutations, dissolves, and tidal rhythms past rocks formed in ancient deserts. In short, the film itself draws with this material so as to suggest some of the constituent forces of a watery coastal meshscape in Ingold’s sense – an evocation that is then intercut with and bled into other, different yet related, evocations. Which is simply to say that they take their place in a wider polyverse.

I see Terra Incognita as a ‘drawing’, although not in any conventional sense. The term ‘drawing’ becomes accurate, however, if to draw is taken as an inclusive verb that always awaits a further dynamic; as indicating a relational cutting across of discrete categories – as transversal, to use Guattari’s term. To engage in drawing as a verb from an animist perspective is to place oneself in a dynamic relationship: as in the ‘drawing up or down’ of material to the centre or the peripheries of space and the senses; or in the ‘drawing out’ of meanings or resonances otherwise too compressed or ephemeral to register; in the ‘drawing together’ of apparently disparate elements into a particular constellation; or as in a ‘drawing through’ or ‘drawing out’ of a thread of intuition, argument, analysis and so on.

Drawing in this expanded sense – as an act animating particular, multiple, forms of relationality – is the base-line activity of the dynamic compound entity that constellates my daughter’s life – which is unexpectedly rich despite the severe limitations imposed by her illness. Obviously in the context of relating to place and being placed, an expended sense of drawing gives us a better understanding of the complex reciprocities that, ecologically, socially, and psychically, animate and orient our lives. Reciprocities that, when properly recognized, require that we remain open to the dynamic meshes of ravelling and unravelling in which we are each particular locations and instances.

Finally, acknowledging the animist haunting of modernism restores the possibility of a more honest and open relationship between artful drawings – in, -out, -up, -down, -together, -apart, etc. – and ritual. Ron Grimes has demonstrated, through both critique and practice, that rites and rituals need not be normative, conservative, and mono-ideational. They can be understood instead as experimental essays in Casey’s sense. In Rite Out of Place: Ritual, Media and the Arts, and writing in the context of ecological crisis, he notes that: the urgent task is not in deciding which is deepest – spirituality or politics, religion or theatre – but instead learning how to nurture an attitude of interconnectedness that reconnects us to planetary life. And in the terms I’ve suggested here, this means attending to our being drawn into the matter of the world, placed by all the forces at play there; drawn out of ourselves into new meanings or as a resource in larger assemblages; drawn together into new constellations, despite and with our differences; or drawn into otherness as a result of following threads of intuition, argument, analysis, and so on. And all these events should, in turn, inform our expanded acts of drawing.

PS re ‘different voices in education’

Having posted some thoughts on the different voices coming out of universities yesterday and subsequently finally caught up with my newspaper reading, I now see a headline in The Guardian Financial section that reads: “Economics lecturers accused of clinging to pre-crash fallacies”. Of course to those of us who know how the academy works, this kind of comment will come as no surprise. My wife Natalie Boulton, a film-maker and patient advocate, is constantly having to point up the fact that supposedly up-to-date dictionaries and medical textbooks continue to perpetuate damaging nonsense that has been disproved years ago but which continues to serve certain powerful vested interest groups whose status and ability to win lucrative research grants depends on that act of perpetuation. It now appears that this situation is equally common in economics. All of which needs to be considered in a broader context. My friend Cathy Fitzgerald has just drawn my attention to an interesting and powerfully argued piece at: which includes the observation:

“The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality”.

If by a civilisation we mean a certain dominant mentality and way of acting, which here I would see as the exclusive, narrow, disciplinary basis of our hyper-professionalised world predicated on possessive individualism, then this sounds to me about right. Professionals, whether they are economists, psychiatrists, senior university administrators, or whatever, will it seems always prefer to perpetuate the theories and explanations that maintain their own authority, no matter how powerfully the reality of events has demonstrated them to be entirely wrong. No wonder, as Michael Gibbons, Camille Limoges, Helga Nowotney, Simon Schwartzman, Peter Scott, and Martin Trow point out in their The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies (1994), that it frequently require a whole generation of professionals in a discipline area to die before anything genuinely new can appear jun that discipline’s thinking!



Different ‘voices’ in Higher Education


Despite my semi-retirement I retain a keen interest in what’s happening in Higher Education, not least because it’s supposed to be where the best brains of the future are being educated. (More on that in a moment). So I’m fascinated by the very different kinds of blogs that seek to reflect on the current state of HE. On the positive side there’s the blog written by Ferdinand von Prondzynski, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland, who was formally President of Dublin City University, Ireland, between July 2000 and July 2010. A lawyer by training, and with some voluntary and business interests, he is also known as a writer, public commentator and photographer. He almost always has something interesting to say and I always look forward to seeing what he’s added to

Part of the fascination of von Prondzynski’s Diary is that he is quite willing to speak his mind on controversial issues. This characteristic stricks me as being fairly unusual in Vice-Chancellors – who in my rather limited experience tend to favour the safely bland and platitudinous. A good example of von Prondzynski’s critical ruminators – and the one that first caught my attention – is on the chronic failure of the disciplinary mindset to meet the obligations of society. (His thoughts on this topic and on its wider social implications can be found at the post for 2010/10/14.

In this post he makes it clear that for some time he has thought that: “attachment to the traditional disciplines is making it harder for universities to adapt to changing circumstances”. Quoting Professor Elaine Ecklund of Rice University’s Institute for Urban Research, he suggests that it may now “be necessary to abandon disciplines in order to ‘think beyond old boundaries’”. This is the case because “the problems universities are asked to help solve all tend to lie between disciplines”. Yet universities – which are still overwelmingly organised on a disciplinary basis for administrative reasons and, more fundamentally, because it is the ground of the power of the status quo in academic realpolitik – have endlessly pontificated about embracing interdisciplinary methodologies while, in practice, doing very little or nothing to move on from the disciplinary stranglehold. Von Prondzynski is under no illusions as to the tenacity of the disciplinary system – suggesting that breaking it down “would be very difficult and could meet very significant resistance”; while indicating that change is necessary if universities are to “regain society’s trust and confidence”.

While I’m wholly in agreement with Von Prondzynski, I had wondered about how one might identify the practical impact of this archaic system on the body politic. A recent TV programme answered that question in no uncertain way. In this a Swedish statistician looked at the myths that surround issues like family size and literacy in the ‘developing’ world and demonstrated that, in England, the general population who left school after secondary education are better informed about these issues that those with a university education.

At the other end of the spectrum of HE commentators there’s The Secret Administrator, a (possibly dyslexic) individual who writes about the University of the West of England which is, of course, where I used to work. His/her blog is basically a one-institution version of Laurie Taylor’s regular pieces for the THE, drawing attention to what the writer sees as the vanities and other short-comings of the university’s senior management. While it would clearly be foolish of me to comment on the detail of this blog what I can say is that, as somebody who has visited a great many different universities in the last few years, its general tenor is pretty indicative of how the ‘foot soldiers’ who deliver HE on a daily basis feel about their managers. (And, I might add, how most of the nurses I met during my cancer treatment in Bristol felt about theirs).

It’s not difficult to understand why this is the case. Put very simply, we have an increasingly harassed – some would say bullied –  ‘shop floor’ workforce which is still, to a considerable degree, motivated by a sense of a people-oriented vocation. And this group is now managed by an (ultimately parasitic) administrative / managerial class that – with honourable exceptions – appears to have wholly internalised a culture of audit based on distrust. This class appears to be very largely motivated by a mixture of self-aggrandisement and an abject conformity to the demands of the dominant political ideology. What is blindingly clear is that this situation is not good for education or for health care. What is not clear is how, given the pervasiveness of the mindset that has produced it, we can change this.