Monthly Archives: November 2019

Red Line Art Works

I recently met Chris Greenwood, the founder and curator of Red Line Art Works which, as he says, ‘has a global audience for art works about the big global issues, the state of our world and the lack of global justice’. It’s open to ‘all art forms, worldwide’, and seems to me the kind of inclusive cultural forum we should all be supporting at a time when the culture of possessive individualism does all it can to separate artists so as to focus on their exclusivity.

As an expression of solidarity with Chris and his initiative, I’ve sent him an essay and an image for the site.

Green politics on Channel Four and the toxic fantasy of English Nationalism

The environmental debate organised by the British TV station Channel Four last night will serve as a concrete marker for something that has been apparent for some time. That the English Nationalism of politicians like Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage is a toxic fantasy that depends on climate crisis denial, despite that fact that the reality of the situation is that we have already reached a dangerous tipping point. The no-show of Johnson and Farage at the debate was inevitable, since publicly acknowledging the crisis would mean thinking about other, closely related, issues like climate justice. And that’s not going to sit well with leading Conservative politicians like Rees-Mogg – a billionaire, climate change denier, staunch believer in his own exceptionalism, and one of the principle architects of this round of English Nationalism. By failing to attend the debate with leaders of the Labour, Liberal Democrat, Plaid Cymru and Scottish Nationalist parties, Johnson and Farage confirmed that the politics they represent is based on exactly the kind of unreal fantasy that Bruno Latour has so accurately identified in his argument for a new Terrestrial politics.  

However, what compounds last night’s insult (and indeed threat) to the British nation, and particularly to its young people, is that the Conservative party is now treating its leader’s refusal to attend the debate as an occasion to threaten Channel Four’s independence as a broadcast institution. Echoes, once again, of the bullying used by toxic Nationalists like Trump, who the English nationalists so slavishly admire. These are people who claim to be deeply concerned about ‘regaining British sovereignty’. Yet what became only too clear during the debate is that, ironically, it is the Scottish and Welsh Nationalist parties in British politics who best understand the practicalities of the need for a new Green politics. (To be fair, as with Labour and the Liberal Democrats, often building on ideas the Green party has assiduously promoted). Little wonder that the representatives of Scotland and Wales at the debate want to put as much distance between the people they represent and a group of politicians whose real constituency is the City of London’s financial district and those whose interests it represents.        

While it was a real milestone that the debate took place at all, all the signs are that we are heading into increasingly difficult and dangerous times. But then anyone with an ounce of understanding of the climate crisis already knows that.

Keeping the door open

In a long article titled ‘George and his dragons’ in The Guardian (May 17th, 2001), Maya Jaggi ponders the mixed response given by the English-speaking world to the writing of George Steiner. She notes that his sternest critics dismissed his writing as ‘pretentious intellectual bombast’ presented in a ‘writhingly Latinate’ style. But she also reminds us that, for example, the Irish novelist and critic John Banville referred to Steiner as having ‘flung open’ a door on our European heritage, insisting that we should not be intimidated ‘by insularity or hidebound by small minds, but to look beyond the border.’

Banville’s comment seems extraordinarily pertinent just now. 

I apologise if the topic of this post appears somewhat cryptic, but the circumstances that gave rise to it make this necessary, for reasons which will, I’m sure, be apparent to the reader.

I was recently reminded of George Steiner’s assertion that: ‘… a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning’ (in Language and Silence: Essays 1958-1966. 1967, London: Faber. p. 15). This came to mind – it is part of his argument that it is a grave error to assume that attending to the products of ‘high culture’ necessarily humanises an individual – while attending a meeting in which two very different assumptions about art emerged.

The prompt was a discussion about the Mexican singer-songwriter, political activist, and painter León Chávez Teixeiro, who now lives in Bath. A view was expressed, based on the video ‘Iba volando, documental sobre León Chávez Teixeiro’ that it was ‘pretentious’ and, in consequence, that Teixeiro’s work as a painter was not worthy of serious consideration. What prompted my remembrance of Steiner was my knowledge of the claims made for her own work by the artist making that judgement. It would obviously be inappropriate to go into further detail here. All I can say is that it was, for me, a chilling moment; one in which the assumptions of a person given cultural authority demonstrated how her possession of ‘high’ cultural capital led to a direct and contemptuous dismissal of alternative values. The values of people who are now having to actively resist being intimidated by the insularity and hidebound assumptions of closed minds in positions of power. Minds that seem unable to look beyond their own artistic genre, art form, nationality, political persuasion, and so on, or to hold any conception of a greater good beyond their own self-interest. 

I remembered later that Steiner’s thinking appears to have been profoundly influenced by his father, who held the view that teaching was the finest thing a person could do. (Steiner learned very early in life that ‘rabbi’ means teacher, not priest). As a former Chair of the National Association for Fine Art Education, I am only too well aware that many professional artists regard those who earn a living by teaching art as second-class citizens, just as they dismiss those who work across artistic disciplines like Teixeiro as somehow ‘impure’, of lesser value. But times have changed. The internationally successful artist Andrea Fraser has been stringently critical of her own profession’s stance towards our current socio-environmental situation, insisting: ‘Artists are not part of the solution … We are part of the problem’ (in Sarah Thornton 33 Artists in 3 Acts 2014, London, Granta p. 376).

It is surely time that all the assumptions I encountered in that dismissal of Teixeiro and his work were rigorously and publicly reexamined?    

A presentation: ‘Walking away? From deep mapping to mutual accompaniment’.

In memory: Hugo Ball, 1886-1927

[The following is a slightly modified version of the text of a presentation given at the ‘Walking’s New Movements Conference’ in Plymouth – November 1st to 3rd, 2019. This was organised by Helen Billinghurst (University of Plymouth), Claire Hind (York St John University) and Phil Smith (University of Plymouth), to whom sincere thanks are due for putting together such a convivial and informative event]. 

In 1917, Hugo Ball broke with Tristan Tzara and Francis Picabia over their ambition to turn Dada into an international art movement. Ball then ‘walked away’ – both from Zurich Dada and, as it turned out, from making art. Today, artists like Jeff Koons have infantilised Tzara and Picabia’s radical nihilism, pandering simultaneously to both the most toxic and the most trivial aspects of possessive individualism. 

My dedicating this presentation to Hugo Ball stems from his rejection of possessive individualism, a rejection based on his belief in the ultimate unity of all beings and the totality of all things. But equally from recognition of his acceptance of the need to accept the dissonances that follow from that conviction. Hans Richter reports that Ball ended his life: ‘among poor peasants, poorer than they, giving them help whenever he could’ and that, fourteen years after his death, they still spoke of him with love and admiration.

My involvement in what I’ll refer to as ‘open deep mapping’ – to distinguish it from forms of deep mapping used to serve disciplinary ends –  relates to Ball’s concerns in two ways. Firstly, because it offered me ways to work towards that sense of unity and totality, working with the dissonances and contradictions inherent in a particular place or region to do so. Secondly, because it required a walking away from art made in the image of possessive individualism in order – to  quote Les Roberts on deep mapping as bricolage – to find: “a ‘space in-between’ in which to squat in a provocatively ‘undisciplined’ manner, shrugging off the settled weight of an institutional or disciplinary habitus”. (Personally, I’d modify that slightly and say: “a space-between in which to pace in a provocatively ‘undisciplined’ manner”).

On the 15th of April, 1999, exactly a month after Loyalist paramilitaries murdered the solicitor Rosemary Nelson, I went walking in the streets of Belfast. Some of the city’s sectarian borders were still visible through curb stones painted red, white and blue, others were not, but the background of fear and anger were palpable. Four months after my walking in that city of literal, conceptual and psychic borders, I began a fourteen-year-long open deep mapping project that follows the meanders of one of the many tributaries that helped feed that fear and anger. A project oriented, first and foremost, by an unlikely resistance to a culture predicated on violence – a resistance enacted tacitly, through the preservation and performance of a handful of very old ballads, sometime referred to as ‘supernatural’ but, in fact, focused on the cunning and endurance of women. 

These photographs were taken when walking at Scot’s Dyke, which marks the English Scottish border just north-east of Carlisle, where it crosses the Debatable Land. This is the region that, historically, was the most ravaged by the consequences of wars between the English and Scottish crowns. These locked it into a cycle of violence from the late thirteenth into the early seventeen century. Walking here today, you only hear the wind, distant cattle or a tractor or, if you’re lucky, a buzzard’s cry. What’s obviously inaudible is the act of breaking of that cycle of violence – the State’s use of mass hangings, forced enrolment of large sections of the male population into mercenary regiments fighting in Europe, and the exile of entire extended families to County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland. 

I’ve started here in the Debatable Land because this place gave a name to the Debatable Lands open deep mapping project I worked on for so long. By excavating and following traces of narrative that led me here, I came to touch an engrained anger and fear – but also alternatives to them – that were exported first to Ireland and, later, to the USA. Traces that draw attention to just one small thread in the UK’s contributions to what Amitav Ghosh calls ‘The Great Derangement’.

Open deep mapping – which may be what Les Roberts calls ‘deep mapping as bricolage’- is fundamentally peripatetic. It’s grounded by a walking body getting to know a place through all its senses. It’s also intellectually peripatetic, wandering freely across disciplinary and conceptual borders in order to ask unexpected and unorthodox questions in various spaces-in-between through acts of wilful intellectual trespass. I’d suggest it’s also psychically peripatetic – that its practitioners tend to take a certain rueful pride in resisting identification with any single genre, praxis, or professional category, moving on from or between these as needs must. (Which must be my excuse for delivering a presentation that no longer quite matches my original abstract).

Today, I think of open deep mapping as a walking-with the multitude of voices – both living and dead –  that animate a particular place or, more accurately, sets of relationship within and between places. A walking-with that’s alert to voices, in the spirit of Richard Kearney’s ‘testimonial imagination’, that have been forgotten, marginalized or repressed by dominant narratives. And as doing so in order to re-articulate their unanswered questions in the present moment. 

The book Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rig: a borderline episode came out of the Debatable Lands project and was published in 2004The symptoms of a borderline episode or personality disorder include: unstable relationships with others, confused feelings about identity, feelings of being abandoned, and difficulty controlling anger. By using that term in my title in 2004 I wanted to suggest that, for hundreds of years, the inhabitants of the Borders had enacted and suffered just those symptoms. I only realised some time later that those same symptoms had gradually come to characterise my own relationship to the academy that employed me and, as a result, had helped lead me to involve myself in open deep mapping.

The process of making the hybrid mapping piece Hidden War further emphasised my need to look for connections where they’re not expected – some would no doubt say that don’t exist. Like the Debatable Lands project, it listened to narratives shot through with fear, loss, anger, but also to their counter-narratives. Through the good offices of Mike Pearson and others, I’d been walking with a group of performers, artists and researchers in a military training area, which suggested the means to visualise the context in which my daughter Anna lives with a chronic illness that prevents her walking.  

These images are of details of Tahmineh Hooshyar Emami’s Alice’s Alternative Wonderland and use a similar sense of cognitive dissonance to articulate a child’s experiences on the European refugee trail through contrasting spatial and textual renderings of the world of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking-Glass’. Drawing on refugees’ first-hand narratives and press reports, and inspired by a reading of Carroll’s texts as political allegory, the work offers a critical analysis of the spatial politics of refuge. Carroll’s Alice, always at odds with the physical and social space of Wonderland, provides a starting point for analysing how our bodies are defined, shaped and influenced by space. Her fears and dispossession are used to highlight the experience of refugee children in a contemporary Western “Wonderland” characterised by the on-going disputes over child-refugees and their right of asylum in countries like Great Britain.

I want to suggest that open deep mapping provides an education in what Bruno Latour calls Terrestrial politics. It teaches us that a place, region or country is not exclusive, nor is it differentiated by closing itself off. It enacts Edward S. Casey’s claim that: “a place, despite its frequently settled appearance, is an essay in experimental living within a changing culture”. It demonstrates why Terrestrial co-habitation requires us to think the global through our embodied engagement with specific places. Places experienced as inclusive – as opening themselves up to multiple, diverse, sometimes contradictory, relationships, attachments and connections. And it contests the presuppositions of unidirectional professional specialisation by suggesting that, if we want to survive in the near future, we’ll need to register, maintain, and cherish a maximum number of alternative ways of belonging to the world. 

However, the term “deep mapping” is now being co-opted to mean providing a digital “access mechanism” to “spatial narratives” so as to allow students “to begin a categorical inquiry”. (I’m quoting the Co-Director of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia). Contrast that view with open deep mapping seen as a multidirectional activity. One involving: ‘observing, listening, walking, conversing, writing, exchanging, selecting, reflecting, naming, generating, digitizing, interweaving, offering and inviting’. I’m quoting Roberts again, who in turn is quoting Jane Bailey’s and my account of our open deep mapping work in North Cornwall. Fortunately, this second, more inclusive, view is still active. 

In 2017 Marega Pelser contacted me, asking if we could talk about walking and open deep mapping. Marega trained as a dancer, works with movement and drawing, and is half of the performance duo Mr & Mrs Clark. We spent a day walking and talking in her home town of Newport. In time that led to me supporting her project Framing the Transient NoW (An exercise in deep mapping) in Swansea. (There’s a video of her talking about the project I’d suggest you watch). Marega’s thinking seems to me first and foremost bodily, so it was important that we walked around and about the centre of Swansea together. She finds that walking enables her, draws her attention to the micro and to things easily overlooked. It’s a way of paying attention, of observing and meeting the people that pass through a place, the objects that bang up next to each other, and the spaces in-between places. In time her walking in Swansea generated drawings and assemblages that illuminate the city centre socially, historically, and geographically – a city centre she rightly describes as “somehow absent”. 

Marega’s particular take on deep mapping was to focus her attention on experiences she shared with a whole range of local people – from traders and allotment holders to the homeless, the partially-sighted and the elderly. All of whom she actively accompanied into the chaotic mixture of urban decay and development enacted in Swansea city centre. That act of accompaniment became mutual because it informed her about and illuminated the multi-faceted mixture of the new, the trivial, the old and the traumatic – with its undercurrent of uncertainty and disquiet – that constitutes that somehow absent centre of that city. 

A scribbled notation on one of her maps drew my attention to an incident with a bollard. Marega had accompanied some blind, partially-sighted and wheel-chair using local people on a group walk through the city centre, using hazard tape to mark problematic obstructions. A city official challenged them as they marked a bollard. Marega explained why but was told that hazard tape was (I quote): “interfering with the structural integrity of the bollard”. So the absent city centre appears here in the disconnect between the experience of functionally impaired citizens and official concern for the structural integrity of a bollard. (However, as Marega indicated in response to a question after the presentation, it must be said that those she accompanied on the walk found it empowering).   

Accompanying Marega in her work helped further shift my concern with open deep mapping towards giving more emphasis to ensemble practices and mutual accompaniment. Practices that require ways of being that require practitioners to actively distance themselves from the hyper-professionalised, unidirectional mentality rewarded by both the art world and the academy. These days, my primary concern is with ensemble practices animated by a commitment to ‘mutual accompaniment’. (A term I’ve picked up from reading the liberation psychologist Mary Watkins’ book, Mutual Accompaniment and the Creation of the Commons).

In Swansea, Marega walked-alongside – or mutually accompanied – those who enacted the lived reality of a hollowed-out city centre. People who enabled her to ground her project in a genuine sense of horizontality, interdependence, and potential mutuality. The residency considered as a whole – within which I see the final exhibition as served principally as an enabling devise that gave a focus to what was very clearly a multidirectional project – points us away from the unidirectional, hyper-disciplined approaches on which academic and profession art activity are increasingly dependent, and so from the culture of possessive individualism that underpin them and which, in turn, they reinforce. 

So, is my title intended to advocate that we now ‘walk away from’ deep mapping? I’m not sure. ‘Yes’ if deep mapping is reduced to a digital access mechanism for academic inquiry into categories. ‘No’, if it is understood as contributing to the growth of ensemble practices predicated on mutual accompaniment. In my view we now desperately need Hugo Ball’s commitment to the unity and totality of all things. But, increasingly, adopting that commitment means trying to find ways to live with the – let’s face it, sometimes-overwhelming dissonances and difficulties – that flow from any such commitment. 

Speaking personally, open deep mapping has led me to see the desire to mutually accompany others in Mary Watkins’ sense as helping make that commitment possible. Despite the fact that it requires that I live with my own and others fear and anger – that I “stay with the trouble”, to borrow Donna Haraway’s phrase. Speaking personally, I see no other way of working towards the Deep Adaptation that Jem Bendell believes is now vital to our collective survival as a functioning society.