Category Archives: Provocations

Evoking a polyverse: the problem of academic writing.


A great deal of academic writing is inaccessible in two senses. Firstly, it is written in a specialist language that is exclusive in the sense of being difficult for the average lay reader to follow. This is to some degree inevitable, and actually applies equally to exchanges between the gentlemen in the image above and his co-enthusiasts. (That’s to say it’s hard to follow unless you’re a Dutch pumping station enthusiast). But at least the enthusiasm that animates such conversations, together with external points of reference and relevance, mean they can be accessed by anyone who really wants to learn more. That’s simply not the case with academic writing. Most of this is published in specialist journals which cannot be accessed from outside the library systems of academic institutions – unless, of course,  you are prepared to pay very large sums of money to do so. (This notwithstanding that it is public money in various forms that pays for the production of this writing).

It’s in this context that my thoughts below appear.

Three recent events have prompted me to think yet again about what, for me, is another central problem of academic writing/publishing. (A email exchange with Elen-Maarja Trell, one of the organisers of a recent resilience workshop at Groningen University, questions from Antony Lyons following a talk on deep mapping given at UWE, Bristol, on Monday 15th October, and down-loading the  Intellect Journals house style pdf – all 16 pages of it). The problem is that, at least for the most part, such writing/publishing requires the writer to adopt a highly artificial and exclusive ‘voice’ that is usually shorn of all the enthusiasm and wider reference that allows us to find ways into the conversations of enthusiasts. A voice heavily constrained by the increasingly repressive realpolitik of exclusive disciplinary and managerial protocols and the instrumentalism inherent in the management policies that drive current knowledge production.

I downloaded Intellect’s style guide because I have almost finished an article, the result of a Visiting Fellowship at NUI, Galway, that relates to my subsequent talks – particularly at Groningen – and so needs to go out into the world. Fine, but if I submit it to a journal I must:

  • ‘Tidy it up’ so that editors are happy with in terms of house style and ‘academic probity’. (I’ve been both an editor for Wild Conversations Press and for an academic  journal, so I entirely understand the numerous ‘technical’ issues involved in producing text for a book or journal, but that doesn’t diminish my concern with the whole system);
  • Wait for up to two years before my article appears, by which time it’s relevance to the work of the people who might find it most useful will almost certainly be severely reduced;
  • Finally, and most significantly, either I (or if not the reviewers’ requirements  and editorial interventions) will have largely smoothed away all the traces of other, non-academic, ‘voices’ that were present in the presentation and related conversations from which the article derives. As a result, the published article would reinforce our sense of academia as a ‘world-unto-itself’, a world structured around disciplinary ‘single-mindedness’, rather than reminding us that we work in a  polyvocal polyverse.

Its this last point that vexes me at present, since I’ve been doing all I can to draw attention to our need to move on from a thinking based on disciplinary ‘worlds-unto-themselves’. To suggest that we need to refuse the rhetoric of ‘inter-disciplinarity’ that all too often masks the intellectual Neo-colonialism of ‘serious’ (scientific) disciplines that are predicated on what Peter Marris (in his wonderful book Loss and Change, 1986) identifies as an “aggressive conservatism” (p. 130). Disciplines for which the arts and humanities are all too often little more than a source of subaltern labour to be exploited at will. Any outward-facing creative research in a democratic country that’s worth the name needs to be multi-contituency research; to be predicated on working towards seeing the world more as a mycelial polyverse, and less as the hierarchical mono-verse co-produced by the dominant elite and our current epistemology.

So, I’ll no longer try and find a journal to publish my article – Acting elsewhere and otherwise? Imaginative action between the institutional worlds of art, education, and politics. Instead as soon as it is completed I will simply add it to this web site and let it find its own way out into the world by word of mouth. At least in doing so I will give it the dignity of standing or falling on its own merits.



Everywhere – Pivots and Peripheries? (2nd part)

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Part Two: ‘Everywhere, pivots and peripheries’ – considering Tim Ingold’s The North Is Everywhere

In an earlier draft of the paper that forms the first part of this essay I tried to suggest that multi-constituency collaboration rarely happens because, as professional people we’re embarrassed by the self as polyverse. This is an extension of our professional discomfort with what Bakhtin calls “matters having to do with ourselves”. The majority of professional people prefer, when asked to identify themselves, to do so in terms of some autonomous cultural domain or professional discipline as an exclusive ‘world-unto-itself’.

I tried to illustrate this point by using the example of the multidimensionality of my anticipated response on coming back to the windswept northern island of Lindisfarne. I have visited it a number of times in the past, but always on family holidays. My point, obvious enough as soon as we consider it, would have been that my responses on this visit, despite my reasons for returning being ‘professional’, would not be limited by professional frames of reference – that other memories, sensations, etc. would have been peripherally present. But this example turned out to be too ponderous and long-winded and I abandoned it.

What remains from that earlier draft is a sense of the richly paradoxical, polyvocal, particular, personal, senses of the North I’d wanted to evoke – senses in which both the sensation and an cultural understanding of the north wind – derived from the extraordinary psychosocial palimpsest that is the old Supernatural ballad of Tam Lin – are always, somehow, implicit. In that ballad the north wind is the almost imperceptible hinge on which the entire narrative finally turns. This moment is described as follows:

As it fell out upon a day,

A-hunting I did ride;

There came a wind out of the north

And woe it did betide.

And drowsy, drowsy as I was,

The sleep upon me fell;

The Queen of Fairies she was there,

And took me to herself.

I have for many years had a sense of over-identification with the ‘world-unto-itself’ of hyper-professionalism, and the institutionalised forms of power we believe this to grant us, as a seductive and dangerous form of enchantment. In no small part because in my own life I’ve been constantly called to remember the price that Tam Lin would have paid for his being enchanted had Janet not woken him from it and lovingly returned him to the human lifeworld – with all the joys, trials, and tribulations that make up the lives of ordinary (lay) mortals. What I want to do here is follow the intuitive meanings that this moment in the ballad carries for me into a discussion of the issue of the North and North-ness raised during the conference.

Tim Ingold’s opening plenary – The North is everywhere – offered an imaginal, psychosocial reading of the four cardinal points as historical orientations. My notes record – and I cannot begin to do justice to the detail of his exposition – that the West is equated with modernity, with the dualistic view ‘nature versus culture’, and with ‘history of’. The East he identifies with ‘history about’ (the other), a looking-glass history of rising and falling empires. The South is identified in turn with ‘once colonized, oppressed peoples’, with non-histories or ‘people without histories, with ‘histories against’. By contrast, the North is seen as the location of ‘history from’, of ‘inhabitation’ growing from the land and with ‘lives woven into the land’, as inclusive of all beings – human and otherwise – and as ‘anti-isms’ (his examples being example Shamanism and Animism). It is to be taken as the site of circulations of vital force and revitalization, of environment as the world we inhabit grounded in a zone of interpretation where objects are illusory, merely a reification of an unfinished continuum made up of the dynamic flow of materials. In this view of the North history as a preoccupation with the ‘first time’, the novel, does not take precedence over time as repetition. But above all this north is all pervasive, indigenous, the ‘everywhere’ of inhabitation and inhabitants.

The exposition of this position was accompanied by drawings and delivered in a persuasive rhetoric that managed simultaneously to evoke the authority of philosophers and a ‘common sense’ flowing from the phenomenology of the everyday. But, as someone alerted by A. David Napier to the distinction between monotheism and polytheism as modes of thinking, and also long attuned to the ‘polytheistic’, archetypal post-Jungian thinking of James Hillman, all this troubled me.

In the question time afterwards I asked Tim Ingold whether his clear championing of the North as a position was perhaps somewhat at odds with his articulation of the world as mesh, of mycelial ravellings and unravellings, with its implication of multiple dynamic forces and perspectives. His answer suggested that, while he felt the need to acknowledge the dynamics of each of the four cardinal locations, he preferred and was committed to the North. This can be taken at face value as a personal preference, to which he is obviously entirely entitled. However, from the perspective of lifeworld as polyverse integral to the first half of this essay, it can also be taken as indicative of a problematic contradiction in Tim Ingold’s thinking – namely, that it remains, in the last analysis, animated by the same commitment to mono-ideational positions that has given rise to the modernity from which he so clearly wishes to distance himself; the same radical, secular, mono-ideational thinking that the Enlightenment inherited directly from the monotheistic theologies of the Religions of the Book.

At first I suspected that my sense of this contradiction might be as much the result of a projection of my own preoccupations as it was a possible issue inherent in Ingold’s own position. However, listening to David Martin-Jones insightful articulation of an alternative position, in which a rhizomatic South emerged as the prime location of dynamism, suggested that there might be more to my sense of an inherent contradiction than simple personal prejudice. This sense that my concerns were shared was further reinforced by a paper from Chris Dorset, with its celebration of Paul Wheatley’s 1971 work, The Pivot of the Four Quarters. I heard this as an evocation of a Dionysian, catholic (in the secular sense) South, as the counterpoint to an Apollonian, even Calvinist, North. Owain Jones’ reminder of Latour’s association of modernity with purification (a prime cause of distinction within a hierarchy of positions), and his reluctance to partly qualify the anti-modernism he shares with Tim Ingold, seemed to chime with the way in which Lisa Taylor’s informants read David Hockney. They tend to do so as confirming their own affective responses, a process that also, inadvertently, allows them to bracket out the problematic cultural and political readings that his work can also open up. (I share many of the objections to modernity articulated by both Tim and Swain but, having twice had my life saved by surgery – and so am alive only because of its technical advances – I am always mindful of it’s benefits. Additionally, and on the basis of pre-modern mortality rates and educational opportunity, my guess is that only one in ten of us would have been present at the conference had pre-modern conditions pertained). But it was a paper by Leanne Philpot – Narratives of the Transatlantic Slave trade in North West England: Museums, heritage and dockland tourism, with its insistence on the validity of blending multiple, sometimes antagonistic narratives – each a trace of a particular historical lifeworld with continuing reverberations – that was most helpful to my thinking all this into a more coherent weave.

Owain Jones had reminded us of the importance of Felix Guattari’s Three Ecologies. Each of these, as I now understand it, must be understood as the site of an interplay, of a dynamic raveling and unraveling of psychic, social and environmental energies associated with, tensioned between, and departing from, that ecology’s own, particular, cardinal points. Tim Ingold’s monolithic – as I see it – privileging of a ‘good’ North over the other cardinal points (in particular a ‘bad’ West) is, in this context, ultimately unhelpful – although, as Owain Jones’ paper made all too clear, entirely understandable given the state of the world today. What I think Tim Ingold forgot is the simple fact that all such imaginal readings are dangerously reductive when they fail to take into account that, as an analytical psychoanalyst might put it, any too close an identification with one archetypal position becomes a form of blinding enchantment, one that in turn evokes opposite and negative forces. Any call to take up a Northern perspective that neglects to attend to this risks becoming a rhetorical enchantment and, in the process, an inadvertent evocation of the mono-ideation framing that has governed the West for far too long, resulting in all the problems identified by Owain Jones and others.

Janet can only return Tim Lin to the lay world against the power of the enchantment the Dame of the Fine Green Kirtle (the Queen of Elphame), puts in place when the north wind blows by hanging on to him, sticking with him through all his multiple changes of material, category, and implicit dynamic or direction. By being the still, present, pivot around which he can swing.

So I want to suggest that, while the imaginal North may indeed be everywhere, so are each of the other imaginal cardinal points. Each, like any imaginal image, is multiple, paradoxical, and irreducible to a single perspective. To identify a ‘good’ North over against a ‘bad’ West – as I take Tim Ingold to have done – is to reify the North, and to invite the return of all those ‘bad’, ‘repressed’, elements that are also integral to its power as an orienting image.

So in the final analysis I’m not too comfortable with this way of thinking. My sense is that each cardinal point has its light and shadow and that our task is to attend at and from the pivot, the act of attending that allows us to orient ourselves by each of them as necessary and appropriate, but without identifying with any particular one. To acknowledge the unending ebb and flow of the lifeworld as polyverse in which each of us, uniquely attentive, is a pivot and, at one and the same time, utterly peripheral – just one small dynamic constellation among innumerable other constellations.

Everywhere, Pivots and Peripheries?



Part One. Reframing Northern Spaces: place, creative practice, and collaboration.

This piece of writing is in two parts. The first part is a slightly revised version of a paper I’ve just given at a workshop on Holy Island or Lindisfarne, just off the Northumbrian coast, for the Northern Peripheries Network which, entirely by chance (or not) can now also serve as background context for the second part. The day workshop for which this was written took place just prior to what turned out to be a wonderful two-day conference – Further North – organized by Ysanne Holt and Angela McClanahan. The second part -to follow – is a provisional set of thoughts in response to a paper by Tim Ingold, one that also draws on points made by a number of excellent papers given during the conference – in particular David Martin-Jones’ Where is Anywhere: Ideas of North, South, East and West and Chris Dorset’s re-situating the gallery farther south. Needless to say, my reflections are partial, a personal ‘mulling over’ of the impact of what I heard over two days on my own thinking.

So, what I myself said at the workshop was roughly as follows, some of which will already be familiar to readers of this blog.   


Part One: Reframing Northern Spaces: place, creative practice, and collaboration

I’m going to talk out of my experience of working in the north, but also, of course, elsewhere – I’ve been working on my Debatable Lands project on the Borders for fifteen years – so as to present a particular view of collaboration. Some of you may feel this view is rather extreme but, having just been listening to younger artists and geographers at three sessions on geo-aesthetics at the Royal Geographical Society Conference in London last week, I can at least confirm that it’s not an entirely idiosyncratic one. What I want to say could be related in some detail to various academic arguments. To Matthew Fuller’s wild generalization that: “art … has oozed out and “become feral in combination with other forms of life”; to Sarah Whatmore and Catharina Landstrum’s work around ‘knowledge controversies’, ‘competency groups’, and ‘pre-figured categories’; or to Yuriko Saito’s argument that we need to pay more attention to the aesthetics of the everyday and less to the aesthetics of the exceptional. But my focus is ultimately practical – to help change views of collaboration and its framings. So I’ll start there, then indicate three points of resistance to dominant cultural framings, and end by introducing examples of a specific type of collaborative project.

Ffion Jones farms with her partner in the hills of mid Wales. She’s bringing up a young daughter, studying for a doctorate at Aberystwyth University, and making extraordinary multi-media performances. Simon Read teaches at Middlesex University, produces sculptural interventions in salt marshes, and makes beautifully drawn maps predicting future costal change so as to influence debates about managing the Suffolk coast. What Ffion and Simon do is normally identified as ‘art’ and I have no particular quarrel with that. But I do wonder increasingly if this does justice to their relationship to place ortheir ability to work collaboratively between radically different lifeworlds. Personally I think of them as being as much multi-skilled cultural translators working across a lifeworld as polyverse – a world made up of multiple and sometimes antagonistic normative positions that are usually seen as largely separate and distinct.

Recently I’ve come to understand that the work I’ve done over the last twenty odd years falls along a fairly broad spectrum – with genuine collaboration at one end and basic co-operation at the other. I’d argue that what animates this spectrum can be related to the two meanings of collaboration: to work together, especially in a joint intellectual effort”, and “to cooperate treasonably, as with an enemy occupying one’s country”. Grant Kester refers to these two meanings at the start of The One and the Many and, conventionally, goes on to oppose them. But I think they’re actually linked at an underlying level. I think both involve challenging given roles and identities. Genuine collaboration requires that we are willing to recognize, question, and negotiate what are often uncomfortable differences between the parties involved. That process requires a type of translation across differences that changes us, or at least has the potential to do so. But radical change in a person can all too easily be taken by others as a form of betrayal – particularly by those people who can’t or – because of vested interests – won’t think beyond the polarized categories of ‘friend’/‘enemy’, ‘specialist’/‘layperson’, ‘artist’/‘public’.

So I find myself wondering whether or not the woman in Edward Capa’s ‘Collaborator woman who had a German soldier’s child, Chartres’was in fact a genuine collaborator, not just someone who simply co-operated with France’s enemies? Might it not be that her love for the child’s father led her to question the category ‘enemy’ to the point where her own self-identity was actually transformed? Whatever the case, I would argue that genuine collaboration – by putting in question the frames of reference on which our institutionalized professional identities into question – is transformative. This clearly makes genuine collaboration a risky and transformative act in any profession where conformity to a status quo predicated on disciplinary realpolitik is a tacit requirement for any ambitious person.

Of course it also means that what academic and cultural institutions call collaboration usually isn’t – it’s actually carefully regulated co-operation based on a pre-existing consensus. Necessarily so – institutionalised authority flows from maintaining or adapting existing framings and presuppositions, not from questioning them. (A point we need to remember when we identify with that authority). It may be that distinguishing collaboration from co-operation goes some way to explain institutional and Government obsession with ‘inter-disciplinarity’. While there are obviously plenty of exceptions to what I’m about to say, I think most academic research that claims to be what’s called ‘interdisciplinarity’ is in fact little more than a slight of hand. In reality the researchers involved simply share a loose co-operative framework that allows them to do precisely what they always do – work on the basis of existing, highly institutionalised, disciplinary presuppositions. Of course such projects may sometimes produce innovative outcomes, but the problem – at least as I see it – is that this leaves the underlying framings unquestioned, not to say unchallenged. Over fifteen years ago Doreen Massey quoted Barbara Bender’s observation that (I quote): “landscapes refuse to be disciplined. They make a mockery of the oppositions that we create between time [History] and space [Geography], or between nature [Science] and culture [Social Anthropology]”. However, while research funding and academic realpolitik remain dominated by disciplinary framings, we will continue to struggle to act on new understandings of place or genuinely collaborate.

So what about framings? I’ll restrict myself to my own area of concern, which is largely with rural lifeworlds. These are now increasingly subject to Government neglect of vital infrastructure, externally imposed environmental governance, and questions around energy and food security. This situation is normatively framed in various different ways. One is dismissive, locating the rural as non-place. It’s neatly summarized by Marx and Engels’ phrase: “the idiocy of rural life” and is implicit in much arts and cultural policy. A second is more complex, involving different mixes of Romanticism, regional tradition, New Age spirituality, and Edenic environmentalism. While each mix inflects the rural differently, they all idealize it over against the urban. The third framing can be characterized as ‘instrumental’. It treats the rural as ‘standing reserve’ – a resource to be exploited with no proper regard for its particular lifeworlds and ecologies. This framing is only too obvious when the Government appoints individuals embedded in the business world to head the Environment Agency and Natural England. But it also appears in a disturbing new guise in the rise of eco-scientism as a coercive top-down rhetoric in public debates about, for example, resilience.

These three normative framings regularly lock different social constituencies into mutual incomprehension, provoking protective withdrawal and making constructive exchange, let alone collaboration, very difficult. As a result different constituencies become locked into bitter, long-running conflicts – around GM crops and alternative energy in the UK, or small-scale family turf cutting in Ireland. Working across these deeply engrained normative framings requires creative, collaborative translation based on specialist knowledge, empathetic imagination, creativity, patience, and mediation skills. Simon Read and Ffion Jones are, in my view, involved both in just such creative translation. Their work facilitates multi-constituency collaboration between antagonistic constituencies and is helping develop a new, more inclusive, aesthetic.

This kind of work is certainly not without its problems. Creative translators learn many of their skills through a professional, disciplinary training. But the people they work with in rural contexts often suspect any authority based on the framings that underpin those skills. Rural selfhoods are largely dependent on another, place-specific, performative framing – one that has little time for discursive, categorical knowledge. Instead they derive identity and authority from their qualitative, embodied co-constitution in and with a specific taskscape. Addressing this difference – a primary source of conflict between professional and lay constituencies of all kinds – is a central part of Simon Read and Ffion Jones’ work to build bridges across the differences between university-trained professionals and rural workers.

As my quotation from Barbara Bender indicates, this work requires that we don’t over-identify with disciplinary positions. Instead we have to recognize, with Geraldine Finn, that we are always both more and less than the categories that name and divide us. In reality we each live in a polyverse where our various persona – professional, lay, amateur, or domestic – require collaboration on a daily basis. However, all professional work is now increasingly framed so as to reward those who internalize the values of the institutions that validate them as discrete ‘worlds-unto-themselves’. This situation prevents genuine collaboration, ensuring that the deep-seated framings that underwrite our current environmental and psychosocial difficulties go largely unchallenged.

So how do we address the tension between skills learned in a lifeworld as polyverse and those delivered by professional ‘worlds-unto-themselves’. I’ll suggest some possible answers in two stages. First, I’ll indicate three attitudes to place that help resist disciplinary professional framings. These aren’t concerned with place in terms of an aesthetic of the exceptional that speaks primarily to the eye, but with our constantly re-placed ourselves – physically, psychosocially, and ecologically – in ways that value an aesthetic of the everyday. I’ll then very briefly introduce some collaborative projects that I take to be genuinely transformative.

The first form of resistance I want to stress is ‘slowness’ in relation to place and collaboration. Christine Baeumler, working with an ecologist and an engineer, set up this tamarack wetland restoration project on the roof of the main entrance to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.It took years to raise funds, plan, and negotiate this demonstration that, even when transposed into an urban environment, such a fragile ecosystem could, given the right conditions, serve both as green roof infrastructure and an aesthetic micro-environment. As I understand it, Christine’s praxis has, over many years,gradually ‘gone feral’. To art students at the University of Minnesota she’s an inspiring and dedicated teacher. To her employer she’s an effective faculty member with an exemplary research and public engagement record. To local ethnic minority communities she’s a facilitator for environmental youth programmes. To her arts peers she’s a respected artist working across a multitude of media – including painting, installation, film and ecologically led landscape design. To local Dakota community activists she is a long-term practical ally in their fight for cultural recognition and proper representation. Finally, and centrally, to her neighbours Christine is somebody who has worked for eighteen years on community projects restoring the everyday environmental where she lives. It’s this slow engagement with the place in which she lives that’s catalyzed the transformation of her practice, both operationally and aesthetically. This relates directly to Whatmore and Landstrum’s discussion of the need (I quote): “to ‘slow down’ expert reasoning and so create opportunities to generate new knowledge opportunities and gather new publics”.

My second area of resistance concerns acknowledging the fragility of actually enacted community and sensing the interplay of presence & absence.Marlene Creates’ Sleeping Places, Newfoundland documents the impression left where she’s just slept – a transitory imprint from each of twenty-five nights’ brief habitation. The work plays up the relationship between bodily presence, transience, and absence. She later extended this to the fragile, temporal nature of human habitation.Places of Presence: Newfoundland kin and ancestral land, Newfoundland documents just that – familial sites where a sense of community relates as much to the dynamic of natural erasure as human inhabitation. Remembering that fragility helps us guard against institutional appeals to abstract categories like ‘the academic community’, ‘the research community’, or ‘the art community’ – appeals usually intended to evoke a spurious consensus in the interests of those with most to gain. This remembrance is vital because genuine collaboration is constructively combative – energized by differences – not the result of assumed or imposed consensus determined ‘from above’.

My third type of resistance is created by a community of active skill sharing – one that create a new, usually temporary, constellation of skills.Many of you will be familiar with Place of OriginKemnay, Aberdeenshire, Scotland (1996 – 2006). This was a many faceted ten-year ‘landscape as art’ project far too rich to detail here. I simply want to remind you that it involved many very different skills –negotiating, engineering, sculpting, landscape design, community discussion – that took as a focus the history of granite quarrying in the North East of Scotland and an understanding of place as inseparable from time and change. The project came about because Kemnay grew up as a result of its quarry but was fast becoming a commuter dormitory village for Aberdeen. In addition to creating of a temporary community of act, this project parallels, albeit in a very different register, both the need for slowness exemplified by Chris Baeumler’s work and the awareness of fragility, of the play of presence and absence, in that of Marlene Creates.

I now want to introduce some projects and approaches that are located on the cusp between art and art-based aesthetics, understood as the product of a monolithic ‘world-unto-itself’ and an unbounded creativity arising from the lifeworld as polyverses and engaged in opening up a sense of the everyday and unexceptional as potentially rich in aesthetic possibility.

Pauline O’Connell works to challenge normative attitudes to community and land ownership in rural Ireland. Building on her 2012 Drawing The Water commission, she’s been working on an open-ended project, two parts of which – Heave-Ho, An Invitation To Community and Heave-Ho, Pub Pulling League – are complete. This ongoing project raises and explores issues of community and social identity by drawing on history and trace memories – in this case relating to the 1970’s Kilkenny Tug O’ War team’s experience of getting to the All Ireland Final in 1971.Pauline’s use of a community-owned field – rare in Ireland – as a site in which to invite the performance of memory, has enabled her to intervene in the ecology of her local community. Community here is seen not as a given and permanent entity – as the guarantor of established ‘positions’ – but rather as an experimental exploration undertaken by individuals coming together – however temporarily – to re-place themselves so as to face the demands of a changing culture.

Simon Read lives on a barge on the River Deben and works as an artist, teacher, environmental designer, community activist, and ecological coastal expert. He’s been involved in saltmarsh projects since 1997 and his large map drawings relate to management strategies for fluid and shifting environments, delineating specific locations and actively meditating on change. He retrieves, cross-references, and synthesizes material from many different official sources so as to be properly equipped to contribute to complex planning and governance debates around costal environment issues. Recently Simon worked on a stabilization project for the Falkenham saltmarsh that led to him designing and building biodegradable sculptural barriers to prevent erosion by managing tidal flow and encourage the controlled deposition of silt. He has worked with official agencies, the regional community and inmates from the local prison to engage with the social dimensions of environmental issues through collaboration. This includes the planning and governance process, advocating and contributing nuanced practical solutions to problems on the ground, and addressing the cultural implications and dimensions of changing understandings of land, ownership, responsibility and belonging. His work also exemplifies a move to address the aesthetic issues Yuriko Saito raises in relation to ‘un-scenic’ saltmarsh and the need to address issues of cultural sustainability.

Cathy Fitzgeraldtrained as a biologist and now works as a forester, artist filmmaker, blogger, green political activist, writer and doctoral researcher. She lives in a small wood in County Wicklowin Ireland and her many concerns radiate out from her commitment to this one place. The immediate context for Cathy’s transforming of a Sitka spruce plantation into a sustainably managed mixed species wood is the tension between piecemeal official policy and grass roots public interest in sustainable forest and broadleaf native trees. While her commitment to this transformation is regularly assessed by the Irish Council for Forest Research and Development, Cathy is also building multiple face-to-face and virtual links between the Council, silvicultural specialists, local communities, timber users, artists, and environmental enthusiasts. Her intension is to further eco-cultural, scientific, aesthetic, economic, and green policy concerns – locality, across Ireland, and internationally. Cathy’s activities are variously ecological, creative, political, and educational in their addressing the everyday aesthetics of woodlands. They interweave personal interaction and strategic use of social media to generate professional and lay understandings shared with multiple constituencies and intended to encourage exchange between them. It is her public self-education as a forester that creatively meshes together innovative forestry practice, creative work, new conceptions of organic/mechanical relationship, and fundamental issues of community and environment.

Antony Lyons trained as an environmental geo-scientist, sculptor, and landscape designer, and is concerned with tidal, estuary, watershed and other watery environments. His Lovely Weather project in Donegal took a multi-constituency approach involving scientific specialists, a local postman and dedicated folk meteorologist, and the teachers and pupils from a local school.It created dialogue between scientific weather measurements (rainfall, humidity, temperature, pressure, wind speed, wind direction), traditional 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 during the project and a peat stack and related artworks in the final exhibition raise questions about the complexity of climate and its changes in a local context. The project – sponsored by Leonardo and Donegal County Council – brought the concerns of a number of different regional, national and international constituencies into dialogue.

I’ll start to wind this up by pointing to same other, emergent, forms of translation. The boundary between site-specific performance and religious ritual has always been permeable. As the dogmas of the Religions of the Book are increasingly co-opted by fundamentalists, it’s perhaps inevitable that ritual as a form of collaborative spiritual resistance is taken up in the arts. Some people find that art practice constitutes a training of attention that aligns them with the dynamic psychophysical aspects of traditional rituals and want to reconfigure these in contemporary terms. This type of work is often focused by the need – particularly in rural contexts – to address the erosion of traditional cycles of ritual that, paradoxically, both helped constitute rural locations as communities but also bound them to social framings that then left them marginalized and neglected by the modern world.

Lucy Wright recently coordinated Making Traditions, an event at the People’s History Museum in Manchester. She works as an ethnomusicologist, with a folk group, as a maker and, having just gained a doctorate, as a Research Associate helping small companies with product design.Notionally ‘an exhibition’ to make the completion of her doctorate, this event was in reality a unique multimedia and multi-cultural event. It showcased costume and hats produced by Lucy in collaboration with makers from different ethnic communities, together with collections of contemporary folk objects. All these served as a backdrop for an event that brought together people engaged in different forms of vernacular performance from a wide cross-section of ages, backgrounds, and folk traditions. Lucy’s own work is focused by translation between several generic lifeworlds, exploring the vernacular North East from the inside out. As folk musician, apprentice maker, and professional ethno-musicologist she has explored the boundaries between professional and vernacular worlds so as to set up new modes of translation between them that also facilitate innovative aesthetic exchanges.

In various ways and particular places, I think each of the collaborative projects I’ve introduced challenges our given framings – not by abandoning Art and its aesthetic of the exceptional but by a way of working – but more by incorporating it into what we might call creative multi-tasking – an approach that also includes the development of a more inclusive and dynamic sense of the aesthetic of everyday place. All of which, I want to suggest, flows from engaging with the lifeworld as polyverse rather than orienting one self according to a single professional world-unto-itself.

I’m very well aware that an art historian like Clare Bishop might want simply to reincorporate these projects into the usual analytical, hyper-professionalised discourse of contemporary art history – through a set of comparative judgements about their aesthetic and relational originality. However, I don’t find that helpful and have instead tried to indicate another way we might understand them – as evidence of a shift from Art as a ‘world-unto-itself), whether badged as relational or otherwise, to a form of creative ecosophical translation. I think it’s more productive to see them as invitations in this respect, to recognise the value of collaborations that challenge normative frames and, in so doing, become transformative – allowing us to genuinely re-negotiate place in terms of multiple constituencies, framings, and possibilities. Of course those people whose work I’ve referenced have also been transformed by their collaborations. They are, viewed conventionally, somehow both more and less than artists in the usual sense and so can adopt more porous and eco-socially productive positions. Positions that, in turn, might serve as models to help re-frame debates about the places we refer to as the North.

‘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.