Terrestrial Matters

This is a slightly modified version of the text of a presentation given at the Culture Climates: Fostering Art for Sustainability – Time for a new Cultural Policy? workshop held at the Moore Institute, NUI Galway, and organised by Dr Nessa Cronin, on May 14th, 2019.   

I’m very grateful to Nessa for the invitation to speak today, not least because it’s given me the chance to catch up with some old friends in Ireland, however briefly. 

I’ll start with the obvious. Our current problemsare not simply environmental. They’re social and, perhaps particularly, psychological – that’swhy Amitav Ghosh refers to our global crisis asThe Great Derangement. Until a few years back, I earned a living teaching, so I tend to see situations in terms of what we need to unlearn, learn or re-learn. I think that one of the most important things we can do now is unlearnthe dominant culture’s assumptions about creativity and self. That’s to say, we have toreturn to a fundamental ecological principle – that we’re not autonomousas individuals. We don’t own ourselves or anything we produce because we exist and can act onlythroughconnections, attachments and relationships.

In its own particular cultural terms, that’s what this retablo tells us. I’ll give you a moment to read the dedication. 

Retablo commissioned by Obdulia Lopez and dedicated to the Virgin of Jaquila. Artist: Flor Palomares. The dedication reads:

“I’m thanking, with all my heart, the Virgin of Jaquila, for keeping our family tradition of weaving. My mother and grand-mother were weavers and they taught me since I was a little girl. Now my serapes, huipils and rebozos are most valued among foreign tourists who buy them.”
Obduilia Lopez , Chiapas, Mexico.

If we want a just and sustainable world, we have to acknowledge that each of us is always enmeshed in, and dependent on, larger exchanges over time and across space. Exchanges involving the work, substance and knowledge of numerous other beings, human and non-human. That’s not always  easy to acknowledge in a culture of possessive individualism.

One way of unpicking the assumptions of possessive individualism is by thinking in terms of‘mutual accompaniment’, a phrase used by the social psychologist Mary Watkins.Mutual accompaniment is a continuous, shared process of respectful, practical, learning that helps reorient our thinking precisely by focusing onconnections, attachments and relationships. I’m going to try to give you a sense of what this might mean in practice using work I’m involved with.

LuciGorell Barnes co-ordinates Companion Plantingas part of her work at a Nursery School and Children’s Centre in Bristol, where she’s been artist-in-residence for fifteen years. Based on a council allotment plot, the project involves gardening and environmental awareness as a medium to explore parents’ engagement with their children’s learning. In the process, it brings people together to share skills, make friends, and celebrate diversity. Many of those involved are refugees or migrants, mainly from Africa and Asia. My contribution to all this is simply as a sounding-board, a ‘critical friend’ that Luci can discuss the project with in the wider context of non-standard education, environmental concerns, parenting, and creative forms of narrative and research.  

Luci earns her living as an educator, researcher, and artist-in-residence, while simultaneously working as a partner, mother, grandmother, writer, illustrator, and studio artist. We met by chance while helping to run a workshop for people involved in water policy and governance, part of a UK-wide research project exploring hydrocitizenship.On her web site, Luci introduces herself as an artist concerned with:‘… developing flexible and responsive processes that enable us to think imaginatively with ourselves and each other’. I see that concern as central tomutual accompaniment. 

Water Storiesconsists of stories told by 19 women from 16 countries across 5 continents and is produced by two groups from local families. Sitting with them in a small nursery classroom as they told their water stories was an extraordinarily powerful experience. It gave me a tangible sense of the multiplicity of human relationships with water and confirmed that, if we’re going to develop concepts like hydrocitizenship, we need to start by sharing water stories.   

The process of mutual accompaniment is focused by exchanges that constantly test the people involved. It’s educational in the root sense of a ‘drawing out’ of our possibilities. I need to read widely for the work I do supervising and examining doctoral projects, and this inevitably informs the work I share with people like Luci. I’m going to reflect this aspect of my contribution here by referencing two books in particular – Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regimeand Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable

I understandLuci to work in the political space that Latour calls the ‘radically Terrestrial’. Knowing that she lives in the Anthropocene, she works with others towards cohabiting a world that has re-imagined the relationship between the ‘global’ as created by modernisation, and commitment to a particular place on the other. She also enacts Latour’s insight that: ‘what counts is understanding whether you are managing to register, to maintain, to cherish, a maximum number of alternative ways of belonging to the world.’ Her work with migrants and refugees reflects her choice to distance herself from any sense of the Local as being exclusive, as differentiating itself by closing itself off. Instead, she identifies with the Terrestrial througha specific place experienced as inclusive, as opening itself up. Finally, she acts on Ghosh’s point that we need to renew our forms of collective imagining; to contest an economics and culture based on, and designed to increase, isolation. She does that by listening to untold stories and facilitating the creation of new, shared, ones.  

These qualities are equally applicable to Christine Baeumler’s work. For example, the recent Defiant Gardensproject for the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, North Dakota. This involved Christine, her collaborators, and their Buzz Lab interns, turning an art museum car park into a pollinator garden. A transformation with social, political and economic consequences. Christine and I have been mutually accompanying each other, both conversationally and practically, since 2007. A process that made it possible for me to write an essay on her practice for a recent book on the Defiant Gardensproject. 

An earlier example of Christine’s work isthis tamarack wetland restoration project, made for the main entrance roof at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. It calls attention to fragile and unique tamarack ecosystems in the Minnesota region by reimaging a fragment of wetland as green roof infrastructure. She wanted to show staff, students and local residents that it’s possible to “reconstitute” an endangered rural ecosystem in an urban setting by using water where it falls. Like Luci, Christine’swork requires her having a ‘mycelial’ or ‘ensemble’ approach to her work. This enables herto register, maintain, and cherish the maximum number of alternative ways of belonging to the world ascitizen, neighbour, artist, university teacher, student of ecology, researcher, curator, mentor, and activist. And like Luci, Christine understands that issues of climate change, social justice and self-understanding have to be addressed together. 

Breaking from her ecological interventions, in 2014 Christine made a set of Tarot cards based on works in the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis. She then began giving face-to-face ‘readings’ as an eco-oracle at events ranging from local fairs to academic conferences. Like Latour and Ghosh, she had seen the need to draw attention to what is repressed by Scientism. Ghosh refers to Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Thinkto remind us that most people, across different times and cultures, have understood that communication exceeds both language and the human. To take on the role of eco-oracle is both to playfully question the limits of humanistic rationality and to suggest the possibility of radically other modes of communication. In this Christine’s eco-oracle personaenacts important points made by Isabelle Stengers, both in her writing on animismand in Capitalist Sorcery, Breaking the Spell

By playing the role of an eco-oracle, Christine also questions our culture’s presuppositions about authority.A university professor performing as a fortune-teller begs questions about what kinds of knowledge we assume to be authoritative, and why. It’s also an indirect reminder that we’re eachalwaysbothmore and less than the categories of identity used to name and divide us. Working with that understanding isn’t always comfortable, as I learned collaborating on The Crow Road, a performance made with Erin Kavanagh. However, as both Latour andStengers suggest, stepping away from our professional categorical helps us to register, maintain, and cherish a greater variety of ways of belonging to the world.

Simon Read teaches art students at Middlesex University in London and we’ve been exchanging observations since we were undergraduates.In 1980 he left his developing London art career to live on a barge on the Suffolk Coast. He joined the River Deben Association, a local environmental group, and immersed himself in debates about the cultural implications of unstable coastal and estuarine systems. Unable to find large-scale maps that related the river to its defences, the surrounding landscape and to the floodplain, he decided to make his own. He retrieved the necessary information from admiralty charts, Ordinance Survey maps, scientific literature, Environment Agency Flood Plain maps and aerial surveys. All of which he then synthesised, cross-referenced, and checked for accuracy on the ground. This mapping work equipped him to make informed contributions to debates between multiple official agencies and the local community about the management of the River Deben estuary. 

Simon’s predictive maps– they visualise the future of the riverscape over periods of between five and fifty years – enable him to make an informed practical contribution to discussions about environmental management. They’ve also served as a basis for creating tidal attenuation barriers that help sustain both the Sutton and Falkenham tidal saltmarshes. These structures were made following discussions with the local community and built, in the first case, with help from volunteers from a local open prison. They’re materialextensions of insights gained through visualisation as an artist on one hand, and involvement in public debates regarding the Deben and its environs on the other.

Simon would stress that there’s no single answer to the question: ‘what’s the outcome of these projects’? Tothe farmer who owns the saltmarsh and to the Deben Estuary Partnership, it’s environmental restoration. To those interested in art, it may be aesthetic or a questioning of categories like ‘Land’ or ‘Environmental’ art. To environmental managers it’s the use of bio-degradable materials to create structures that help build up the sediment on which healthy saltmarshes depend. To those involved in public engagement and environmental governance, it’s the processes that enmesh cultural engagement with environmental questions about ownership, land, responsibility, and belonging. As I say, for Simon each view is equally valid. 

Simon’s and my sense of mutual accompaniment circles around two core concerns. The complexities of place andcommitment to an education through art that challenges the culture industry’s assumptions about what art can do. Simon’s come to accept that his contribution to any environmental debate or action as an artist is no more important than any other when trying to find equitable solutions to problems. It took him a while and he still sometimes asks himself whether he’s in danger of losing his identity as an artist altogether. However, I see him as having developed an open creative approach to complex, multi-dimensional environmental partnerships that frees him from the limits of both his own individual ego and any one signature approach or methodology. 

I need to turn to my own situation at this point.In my final undergraduate year as an art student, I had a brief conversation with Joseph Beuys. It ended with him saying to me: ‘Always remember, education is more important than art’. I’d taken refuge in art as a dyslexic schoolboy and it had become the focus of my identity as an art student. So at the time I met Beuys I couldn’t accept what I thought he was saying to me. 

Thirty-five years later, I was supporting my family by working for a university and was involved in various deep mapping projects – in this case with my chronically-ill daughter. I’d arrived at my own interpretation of Beuys’ view, which is to embrace the necessity of working around the constraints imposed on us by categories like ‘art’ and ‘education’. That shift was in no small part due to mutual accompaniment with the last person whose work I want to talk about. 

Natalie Boulton and I were art students together and have been married for 45 years. Natalie is the main carer for our daughter, who suffers from chronic Myalgic Encephalomyelitis -ME for short- and works as a patient advocate and activist. About fifteen years ago, she started to look for ways to use her various skills and abilities to articulate the experience of ME sufferers and their careers. She first designed and edited a book of interviews and then produced the award-winning documentary film, Voices From The Shadows. These both articulate, in sometimes horrifying detail, the abuse of ME sufferers by members of the medical and psychiatric professions. Natalie is now working on an ME education project, funded by the Wellcome Trust, alongside a network of patients, researchers, carers, citizen-scientists and investigative journalists she’s helped bring together. They’re promoting proper research and contesting institutionalised neglect, abuse, and mis-representation of ME sufferers. Through that work, they’re also contributing to the increasingly vocal political opposition to the UK’s oppressive policy of ‘austerity’.  

Natalie’s work relates directly to our environmental concerns here because it exposes and challenges the mechanisms used by what Latour calls ‘obscurantist elites’. Elites that now use every means possible to obscure the fact that they’ve abandoned any sense of civic responsibility to preserve their wealth, authority and status, largely by fostering counter realities that deny the reality of our situation. The network Natalie’s involved in is, like many others, engaged in an unrelenting struggle for the social justice with which environmental sanity is inextricably bound up. Accompanying that work on a daily basis has taught methe necessity of working around the constraints imposed on us by social categories of occupation and identity.  

“… if, as an art, conversation is the creation of worlds, we could say that to choose to have a conversation with someone is to admit them into the field where worlds are constructed. And this ultimately runs the risk of redefining not only the ‘other’ but us as well”(italics mine)

Monica Szewczyk  ‘Art of Conversation, Part 1’ e-flux journal no 3 – February 2009

In this presentation, I’ve tried to indicate why what I would once have called ‘mywork’ is actually inseparable from the process of mutual accompaniment grounded in conversation in this sense. The connections, attachments, and relationshipsI’ve touched are only part of a larger picture, of course, which is dependent on the work of innumerable others, both living and dead. That is, in the shared work of trying tosustain the multiverse that, more fundamentally, sustains us. 

I want to end by picking up Mary Watkins’ suggestion there’s a downside to the increased professionalisation of social and environmental agencies and NGOs. That it sends an unintended signal to civil society, implying that caringis a specialist activity best undertaken by paid professionals. That in turn implies that ‘ordinary citizens’ no longer need to concern themselves with issues of care because professionals will do it for them and do it better. The same might be said about the culture industry. 

The work Natalie does reveals, in shocking detail, just how socially and psychically disastrous the professionalisation of care can be. It’s significant that the work I’ve referred to in this presentation involves lay citizens, refugees, scientists, children, migrants, young people, experts, the chronically sick, their carers, local communities, and even prisoners excluded from those communities. All of whom, for better or worse, are dependent on multiple ecologies consisting of shared connections, attachments, and relationships. Perhaps it’s only through acknowledging and developing our many mutual accompaniments across and beyond social categories that those shared connections, attachments, and relationships can be re-oriented towards the common good?

References 

Amitav Ghosh The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (University of Chicago Press, 2017)

Donna Haraway Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press 2016) 

Bruno Latour Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime 
(Polity Press, 2018)

James Leach ‘Creativity, Subjectivity and the Dynamic of Possessive Individualism’ inElizabeth Hallam & Tim Ingold (eds.), Creativity and Cultural Improvisation. (Berg, 2007)

Phillippe Pignarre & Isabelle Stengers trans. Andrew Goffey, Capitalist Sorcery: Breaking the Spell(Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).
 

Mary Watkins ‘From Hospitality to Mutual Accompaniment: Addressing Soul Loss in the Citizen-Neighbour’ in Tomaž Gruovnik, Eduardo Mendieta & Lenart Škof (eds.) Borders and Debordering: Topologies, Praxes, Hospitableness(Lexington Books, 2018).

Some initial thoughts on reading Amitav Ghosh’s ‘The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable’

One of the many challenges thrown up by reading Amitav Ghosh’s extraordinary book: The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (University of Chicago Press, 2016) is that it shows very clearly the quite extraordinary degree to which ‘we’ (those who inhabit the dominant culture of the Anglosphere) have been either misled or just plain lied to. It is true that much of what he writes brings forward into full view as fact material that have been present in my own peripheral vision as an ill-focused sense of unease, even dread. But his ability to link apparently disparate areas of knowledge makes the causes of that dread both graspable and crystal clear. 

The challenge closest to me, perhaps, is that Ghosh’s book requires me to reconsider everything I have done professionally; that is as someone who has spent a working lifetime engaged in education and the cultural field. While the principle thread Ghosh follows might be said to be the novel’s failure to address critically the imaginative world of an economic system not only predicated on isolation, but designed to produce further isolation, the implications of his argument for all the arts seem to me to need particularly urgent consideration just now, however unpalatable they will be to many people. While it is profoundly uncomfortable, at the age of sixty-nine, to be faced with the task of revising a great many of assumptions, many of them personal but considerably more in the field in which I work, there have been plenty of indicators that this would need to be done.    

In 2014 the performance artist Andrea Fraser claimed that artists are not part of the solution to our current crisis, as many in the cultural are beginning to assume, but contribute to it. Ghosh’s argument suggests that she is very likely right in the vast majority of cases. The art world has, in consequence, yet to acknowledge, let alone adequately respond to, Bruno Latour’s suggestion that we cannot start to address our current situation until ‘progressives’ begin to acknowledge the reality of those they previously viewed as ‘outsiders’, as outmoded, reactionary, traditionalist, or parochial. Yet to do so would be to undermine the whole modernist cultural project on which contemporary art is predicated. There was, of course, nothing particularly new about Andrea Fraser’s claim. It echoes, for example, issues that had been raised twenty years earlier by the artist-turned-anthropologist A. David Napier, the liberation psychologist Mary Watkins, and the writer, poet and art critic Thomas McEvilley. Issues that Ghosh now firmly locates within the culture, history and politics of The Great Derangement. 

Ghosh concludes by expressing the hope that the struggle we now face in addressing that Derangement will result in an ability to see the world more clearly and to transcend the isolation in which that derangement has trapped us. And, almost as an afterthought it sees to me, his final sentence expresses the hope that the resulting vision will be set out by a transformed and renewed art and literature. It’s a hope I can only share, but one tempered by the knowledge that there is an enormous amount of work – particularly our own psycho-social re-education – that will need to be done first.

Drying up / running out?

I have neglected this blog because I find it harder and harder to write anything sensible here.

This is almost entirely due to the state we in Britain find ourselves in. I think we are witnessing the final demolition of the British civic society built after the 1939-1945 war. That demolition project became explicit under Margaret Thatcher. It was then ramped up by a policy of ‘austerity’ largely designed to protect the interests of those for whom the only real world is that of finance. It is now coming to a head with the playing out of Brexit. When I hear some Tory politician dismiss the very real fears of families like ours with the phrase ‘project fear’ I have to accept, yet again, just how chronically warped our national psyche has become. The old class war has returned with a vengeance, with those with money and power using issues of religion (principally Islam), race, emigration and so-called ‘sovereignty’ vis-a-vis the EU, as the basis for stoking division and hatred as a way of distracting attention from the callousness and greed which their pursuit of their own self-interest is based.

Like many others, I continue to participate in finding alternatives to this situation and, in particular, am writing in support of those I know who are on the front line of the effort to create a more open, just, and sane society. But if I am honest it often seems hopeless. However, I try to continue to see as clearly as I can what is happening around me.

In this context, I have started to read Amitav Ghosh’s deeply insightful book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, which perfectly complements Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime. Both will, I hope, help me to contribute in a more informed way to the climate change workshop I’m due to attend at NUI Galway in May. In the meantime, I work from day to day, remaining incredibly grateful for family and friends whose sense of outrage at our present situation keeps them rowing against the tide.

Trackings: Don McCullin, ‘Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner’, and the twilight of landscape?

Yesterday I saw Don McCullin’s photographs at Tate Britain.

One of the many extraordinary images – Mercenary with Congolese Family, Paulus from 1965, with its uncanny synergy between the expressions of the soldier and the seated woman next to him – brought back the memory of an extraordinary conversation I had as a student. Sitting on a low wall outside the laundrette near my digs in Leeds I found that I was talking to a ‘resting’ mercenary. I remember very little of our conversation, other than him telling me he had done his National Service training but seen no active service and wondered if he had real soldiering in him. That doubt ultimately led him to signing up as a mercenary, an occupation he appeared to find addictive.

What I do remember is that, as we sat talking, a little girl ran out of the laundrette past us and then tripped and fell. Almost before she could cry out, the man I’d been talking with had picked he up and started comforting her. Smiling, he then returned her to her mother. The combined speed and gentleness of his reaction left me with a lasting sense of the extraordinary contradictions to be found in one human being.

By an odd coincidence, sometime last week I downloaded Lauren O’Connell’s version of Warren Zevon’s Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner, a song that always strikes me as a strange updating of the Borders reiver and revenant ballads that have fascinated me for years. It has the same blend of blunt and bloody realism, belief in the importance of loyalty between men and odd sense of the possibility of supernatural justice from beyond the grave. A re-casting then, of what is perhaps a very old and somehow quintessentially  masculine set of masculine preoccupations? Zevon co-wrote the song with David Lindell, who he met running a bar in Spain, having worked previously as a mercenary in Africa. (You can find Zevon’s original version of the song here  and Lauren O’Connell’s here). 

In the last room of the exhibition are the dark and brooding landscape photographs McCullin has been making for a while now. These could be seen as Romantic images, but also perhaps as representing the twilight of the whole idea of ‘natural’ landscape as we’ve understood it. I couldn’t help seeing them as a pre-figuration of a new sense of the Terrestrial, as Bruno Latour understands it in his book published last year Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime, published by Polity Press and translated by Catherine Porter.  

Brief Update: a major Ken Kiff Exhibition?

At a recently Exhibition Advisory Group meeting at the Royal West of England Academy, of which I’m a member, it was agreed that the RWA will now work towards a major exhibition of Ken Kiff’s work, hopefully to include examples of work by both the major artists who influenced him and of younger artists influenced by him. As things stand at present, this will be curated by the artist James Fisher and myself, working closely with Anna Kiff, who is responsible for her father’s estate. We are also very fortunate to have the support of John Talbot, who has a substantive collection of Ken Kiff’s work, particularly the Sequence.

Obviously it’s very early days as yet, and there is a long way to go before this project starts to take shape. However, having worked with Ken Kiff for several years on the book Ken Kiff’s Sequence (1999), as its editor and an author alongside Norbert Lynton and Martha Kapos, I’m delighted to be part of this project.

Ken Kiff remains an artist more respected by other painters and devoted members of the public than by the critical establishment that holds authority within the art world and ultimately determines reputation and financial value. The reasons for Ken Kiff’s ambivalent status are complex and in fact go to the heart not only of how we currently think about contemporary art and artists, but also touch on more fundamental issues about our presuppositions regarding in the world in which we live. Anyone familiar with the range of Kiff’s work overall will at once recognise that, in addition to being an extraordinary painter (particularly as a colourist) and print-maker, he had a an astonishingly inclusive vision. This ran from evocations of the everyday – Posting a Letter , the whimsical – From the sea to the shore , the profoundly moving – Talking with a psychoanalyst: night sky and Walking (the dead father), to extraordinary landscapes – Tree by the River and Yellow Hill and Deep River, confessional images – Anxiety, images that suggest folklore – Cottage in a field,  and the visionary – Orange sun. To my mind it is this inclusivity, along with the sense of connectivity between these diverse images, that is ultimately the most significant aspect of his work.

Still here!

I’ve not added to this blog for some time. There are a variety of reasons for this. One is the ongoing political situation around Brexit. While I feel very strongly that Britain should stay in Europe, I also recognise that many people feel passionately that we should leave. It’s not for me to second guess why they feel that way, or whether they are justified in doing so.

I am, however, deeply angered by the fact that pro-Brexit MPs continue to speak blandly about upholding the “will of the people” or “maintaining the credibility of the democratic process”, without in any way acknowledging any of the following:

1]. that the British establishment and press has used Europe as a scapegoat to mask its own failings – not least its complicity in the banking crash and the policy of highly immoral policy of ‘austerity’ used to protect the super-rich from the consequences of the systematic failure of a system of which they had been overwhelmingly the beneficiaries.

2]. That they fail to in any way to acknowledge the fact that the Pro-Brexit lobby benefitted form the systematic telling of outright lies by very senior politicians, or that that lobby ran a campaign aspects of which were clearly illegal.

3]. That it seems to me that the persistent use by pro-Brexit supporters of a phrase like “project fear” is simply short-hand for “I don’t care what your concerns may be, I’m not going to listen to them because they don’t coincide with my own”. This enrages me because I know that there are hundreds of thousands of sick and elderly people who are deeply and justifiably fearful that Brexit, and particularly a Brexit without any properly deal with the EU, will result in serious disruption to medical supplies on which they depend.

I could go on, but won’t.

I’ll return to this blog when I feel I can write more calmly.

Ken Kiff’s ‘The Sequence’ at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

In what now seems almost like another life, I worked with the painter Ken Kiff to produce a small book on his TheSequence, a series of almost two hundred paintings. Since his untimely death in 2001, Ken Kiff’s extraordinary body of paintings, prints, and drawings has yet to receive the attention it deserves. There are any number of possible reasons for this. Not the least of which is, in my view, that his vision was fundamentally and profoundly that of a visual poetand, as such, largely antipathetic to the historical, conceptual and theoretical preoccupations of those who earn their living producing the ‘official’ discourse around reputation in the art world.

The work on show in the exhibition demonstrates the full range and qualities of the Sequence works in all their beauty, strangeness, and occasional provocation. But it also includes the last of his large triptychs, the Untitled National Gallery triptych painted between 1991-c.1997. Back in 1997 my wife and I spent a wonderful afternoon with Ken Kiff at the Royal Academy, looking at the exhibition of Braque’s late Studiopaintings and his last triptych is, for me, a summation of a similar kind to that found in those works. (Although in certain respects it also distantly echoes, in a softer, perhaps more English way that we might relate to the work William Blake or Samuel Palmer, there is also something here of Beckman’s great triptychs with their complex psycho-dramas). So, while it’s clear from the exhibition and its catalogue that Ken Kiff’s work is very far from being forgotten, it has yet to receive anything like its proper due.

Fortunately the current exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre, beautifully curated by Emma Hill, has an excellent catalogue that, unusually, does justice both to the work itself and to the artist’s own thinking by liberally quoting from his letters. It also helpfully includes commentaries by a number of contemporary artists whose appreciation of his work adds to our understanding of its reception. The exhibition and catalogue will, I hope, be a first step towards bringing the work of this extraordinary artist to a wider (and, I trust, younger) audience.

Currently I feel in many respects too caught up in the circumstances surrounding my own relationship to the work in this exhibition to write about it coherently. (A number of Ken Kiff’s letters on display in the gallery and quoted in the catalogue were written to me during the course of our working together). This is in part be due to the fact that, having spent over fifteen years working on a variety of deep mapping projects that had, I thought, taken me away from the preoccupations that inform Ken Kiff’s paintings, I now find myself working in a studio again. While the relief paintings I have been making over that last two years are of an entirely different order to his work, his extraordinary achievements as an artist remain in the back of my mind.

There are, however, some thoughts arising from reading the catalogue in the light of my relationship with Ken Kiff’s work that seem worth sharing here. These relate to the notion of marginality and relevance, and are prompted by a remark quoted by the painter and critic Timothy Hyman that’s repeated in the catalogue. Hyman reports that the painter John Hoyland (1934-2011)claimed that: ‘… if you turn your back on all the understanding of what’s gone on in modern art, you’re going to end up doing some idiosyncratic little kind of painting that doesn’t belong to anything, like an escape … like Ken Kiff or somebody, painting your own nightmares’. Looking back at Ken Kiff’s work today, given the political and environmental causes of the present situation, Hoyland’s patronising and ill-informed put-down has acquired a bitter cultural irony. Today it is Hoyland’s late modernist gestural abstraction, and the macho assumption of ‘progressive’ historical relevance that accompanied it, that increasingly seems not to “belong to anything” culturally substantial; to be “an escape” into the dogmas of a self-mythologizing cultural elite largely blind to the deepening psychic, social and environmental nightmares induced by an increasingly toxic Modernity.

In the same article in which he quoted John Hoyland, Timothy Hyman went on to identify what he took to be Ken Kiff’s ambition for his work; namely to create: ‘conjunctions – of the Absolute with the humdrum, the Essential with the particular; but also Klee with Renoir, the most refined abstraction with the most warm, earthy depiction. How to show dimensions that might seem “other” – say of thought or of spirit or of Fantasy – as part and parcel of the Natural world’. It’s something of this quality in the work as a whole that gives the lie to Hoyland’s trite exercise in self-promotion, offering as it does a verbal approximation of the particular richness and enduring relevance of Ken Kiff’s work. However, today the aspect of that work that speaks more strongly than ever is touched on in a letter he wrote to me in 1988, which is quoted in the catalogue. Although he is referring to his work as a painter, I have come increasingly to hear his observations as relating equally to the work involved in our psychic, social and environmental realities. He writes:

The strangest thought, always, for me is how a work can be reached, and then left. For it to be reached, a process has to be undergone … which is both highly thought out, and ‘arbitrary’ to a point which feels kind of vertiginous. For the work to be left, a totally unintelligible new thing has to be sensed as complete, perhaps necessitating a determination to scrap all ideas of completeness. After all, all ideas of completeness will be useless anyway.

And, ironically perhaps, it was on re-reading this after a gap of twenty years that I finally recognised that my long preoccupation with deep mapping chimed precisely with this recognition. With the need to find a way of working that let go of ‘all ideas of completeness’ (in all its various senses and dimensions) so as to be open to whatever ‘totally unintelligible new thing’ that may emerge.     

Un-disciplining practices: some paradoxes and possibilities.

 

 This text is from a presentation given to students on the Arts and Humanities Masters programme at Duncan of Jordanstone School of Art and Design, University of Dundee on 20/11/2018.   

Since I’m going to offer you a provocation about un-disciplining art practices, I need to start by clarifying what I mean by this. My concern is with un-disciplining the framing of creative practices, freeing them from disciplinary authority so as to open up other, more relational conversations between creative practices and the world. I’ll begin with the general crisis in disciplinary thinking, move on to more specific disciplinary issues relating to creative practices, and then share some examples of undisciplined practices.

Why does the university system assume that, although I know nothing about you or your work, I will have something useful to say to you? That assumption rests on our being categorised by discipline – and on the belief that disciplinarity is the best basis for transmitting knowledge. But to say that Andrea Fraser and Jeff Koons share a discipline actually tells us nothing of real value. So, might there be another reason why we’re all here together in this room?

Jane Bennett, reflecting on Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of ‘becoming-animal’, observes that this childhood game: “suggests that children have a sense of themselves as emerging out of a field of protean forces and materials, only some of which are tapped into by a child’s current, human, form”. This sense of protean possibility – linked to empathetic imagination – usually fades as children internalizesocial norms. However Bennett’s claim might be extended to those adults who have a real desire to stay in touch with protean forces and materials, including those who feel a need to make art.

Increasingly, the assumptions that underwrite disciplinarity are being questioned. Isabelle Stengers is a Belgian professor of philosophy. She trained as a chemist and has won international acclaim for her work in the philosophy of science. Starhawk is an American writer, teacher, activist and leading exponent offeminist neopaganism and ecofeminism – or, as she might say, a witch. From the perspective of disciplinarity, these two women are separated by an unbridgeable divide. Yet in Capitalist Sorcery: Breaking the Spell, Stengers and her co-author present Starhawk as somebody reclaiming an art of participation that deals directly with pragmatic concerns about effects and consequences. That’s to say, they identify her as somebody able to tap into, and work with, Bennett’s sense of protean forces. Somebody involved in: ”the dangerous art of animating in order to be animated”; in transforming our capacity to affect and be affected. That capacity is, of course, what many people claim for art, so it’s no surprise that Stengers sees Starhawk as having what Felix Guattari would call an ‘ethico-aesthetic practice’.

The disciplinary system is in crisis because it can’t engage with the Earth as a complex adaptive whole – a nested system of ecologies, all dynamically interacting and continuously forming new structures and patterns of relationships that aren’t easily isolated or predicted. Un-disciplining art practices is a response to this failure. It involves rethinking the relationship between imaginative activity and the disciplinary discourse that positions art in terms of possessive individualism. A discourse that, to maintain its own exclusivity, needs to isolate art from the kinds of fluid, shared, more-than-human, energies sensed inthe game of ‘becoming-animal’.

So, maybe we’re not in this room just because of disciplinarity.

Stengers and Starhawk both want to counter the deadening effects that disciplinarity enacts through its overwhelming compulsion to separate, categorize and judge. They want us to remember that we are always both more and less than the categories that name and divide us.The disciplinary compulsion to separate, categorise and judge divides the world into ever-smaller fragments that are supposed to increase our knowledge. But, because we live in a multi-layered, dynamically interacting, and continuously forming multiverse, it actually does the opposite. What we now desperately need are relational understandings– ways of thinking that acknowledge that all phenomena are ultimately  inter-related and inter-dependent. However, for the moment the disciplinary mentality is still dominant. It judges all forms of knowledge and value claims according to its own hierarchical criteria. That’s why, when artists get doctorates, they’re made Doctors of Philosophy, not Doctors of Art. In the disciplinary system, philosophy is the ‘queen of the sciences’, while art isn’t considered capable of producing proper knowledge at all.

We can’t step just away from the disciplinary system, but we can be agnostic towards its claims, neither accepting or dismissing them. We can acknowledge the values of disciplinary education in relation to practical skills and insights, while questioning how these are framed and used by institutions. It’s unwise to reject disciplinarity outright. Firstly, because that tends to encourage political and religious fundamentalisms. Secondly, because the dualistic thinking that reduces everything to an either/or choice belongs to the same binary thinking that’s embedded in disciplinarity itself. So we need to work in another space. One which the feminist thinker Geraldine Finn describes as: “the space between experience and expression, reality and representation, existence and essence: the concrete, fertile, pre-thematic and anarchic space where we actually live”.

As students on an Arts and Humanities Masters programme, you’re no doubt already navigating that space-between. So, I’m now going to touch on some of its  paradoxes and possibilities.

 In Anthropology and/as Education, Tim Ingold argues that there’s more to education than teaching and learning, and more to anthropology than making studies of other people’s lives. Instead, he sees both activities as ways of leading a life of study with others; that is, of attending to the world so as to open up paths of growth and discovery. I read this to be a variation on Isabelle Stengers’: “dangerous art of animating in order to be animated”. (I’ll come back to the danger involved later). Ingold goes on to argue for an education that’s direct, practical, an observational engagement, rather than the top-down transmission of knowledge by disciplinary experts.

That’s fine in principle, but the core issue for artists is that disciplinary art discourse doesn’t just determine what is recognised as art.

 More fundamentally, it also assumes that imagination and creativity is exclusive to, and owned by, specialist groups or individuals – an assumption enshrined in copyright and patent law. This same assumption is part of the underpinning of the Western culture of possessive individualism – a culture and society that places the sovereign individual before the community. And its particular notions of personhood, nature and society have proved toxic. It’s vital, then, that we now acknowledge alternative understandings. For example, back in 1989 the psychologist Edward Sampson pointed out that: “there are no subjects who can be apart from the world; persons are constituted in and through their attachments, connections and relationships”. More recently, the physicist-philosopher Karen Barad has again reminded us that our existence is not an individual affair, since neither individuals nor ideas pre-exist their interactions. These understandings contradict the most fundamental presuppositions of both disciplinarity and possessive individualism.

So, if personhood, ideas and imagination emerge through our entangled intra-relatedness, we need to think in terms of how people, practices, ideas and materials interact as mutually co-constituting entities. I going to suggest the notion of “ensemble practices” as providing one way for artists to start thinking about this.

The term ensemble is usually applied to groups of musicians whose music-making depends on the relationship between individual skill and collective interaction. But each musician is themselves also an ensemble, a being who must attend to and coordinate what is remembered or read as sheet music, sensed, and physically played. That coordination requires attention– a combination of sympathetic curiosity, sensitivity, and openness. Attention is central to all creative work – whether we’re performing music, having a conversation, or making a banner – and we learn it through practical interactions in all sorts of ways and contexts, as Ingold suggests. The agnosticism towards disciplinary discourse I’m proposing allows us to maintain a necessary creative tension. Between this vital attention and the ways in which the results of art practices are conceptualised by specialist discourse.

This brings me to a fundamental paradox. It’s disciplinary art discourse that’s brought you to this MA. But in the process that same discourse has gradually reframed your imaginative and affective relationships with the world. Disciplinary education requires both that you learn skills and that you internalise values via a specialist discursive language. Through the process hinted at in this slide, a relational animation– in this example evoked by a sand-painting ritual – is subjected to rationalisation and re-conceptualised as ‘making art’. In this way our initial desire for emersion in protean forces and materials is formalised into a highly specific disciplinary practice that, in Western culture, is subject to the specialist analysis and judgement that isolate art as a specific, discrete discipline.

The process of art education is, then, double-edged. It allows us to develop and maintain a creative practice, but it’s also a process of indoctrination into disciplinary values. If we simply internalize those disciplinary values, rather than remaining agnostic towards them, we risk conforming to a reductive orthodoxy. We risk that orthodoxy starting to dictate both what we feel able to make and what we feel able to say about what we make. When that happens, our sense of ourselves as open beings – as always being both more and less than the categories that name and define us – is repressed or lost. We then subject ourselves to the requirements of the disciplinary category “art” rather than engage creatively with the multiple relationalities of our worlds. This process of enculturation eventually results in art that simply illustrates some current aspect of art discourse.

A report published in 2015 – Humanities for the Environment: A Manifesto for Research and Action– can help clarify what’s needed. The report makes it very clear that the understandings our society now needs involve employing multiple, even contradictory,perspectives, something that’s alien to the logic of disciplinary thinking. Additionally, it stresses that we need to move beyond models that assume that knowledge is produced exclusively within the academy. It argues that we must find alternative understandings that exceed disciplinarily thinking.

The academy’s reply to this type of criticism has been to promote the notion of trans- disciplinarity.

But the term “trans-disciplinarity” still assumes that the discipline is foundational. And at the level of institutionally-managed practices – of what actually happens on the ground – that’s exactly the problem. Trans-disciplinary projects still remain subject to the authority of a discipline-based system of funding, evaluation, governance and dissemination. So they are all-too-often a face-saving exercise for disciplinarity as the final arbiter of “real knowledge”. This prevents us from hearing what other forms of knowledge – in the case of the knowledge embodied in this dance, one that reaches back to before the last Ice Age – might say to us.

In a chapter called Rethinking the Conversation in Re-mapping Archaeology: Critical Perspectives, Alternative Mappings, Erin Kavanagh provides a helpful insight into the underlying problems of trans-disciplinarity. She sees it as a tricky exchange that’s usually heavily distorted by different discourses and the unequal status of the participants. As a poet, artist and mytho-archaeologist working on the margins of academia, she writes from experience . She knows, for example, that the potential of trans- disciplinary work is restricted by the fear most specialists experience when faced with an unfamiliar disciplinary discourse. A fear that comes from disciplines and professions treating their fields of expertise as exclusive domains – each with its own distinct culture, linguistic habits, and traditions – all to be jealouslydefended against outsiders. A fear that’s considerably reduced if we are agnostic to the territorial claims of all disciplines, including our own.

Erin points out that, if we want to be taken seriously by members of another discipline, we have to learn to speak their language well enough to understand how they think. For genuine conversations across disciplines to take place, both parties must not only become conceptually bi- or multi- lingual, they must be sympathetically curious about, and sensitive to, the other disciplines’ concerns. This is why genuine trans-disciplinary exchange is rare. But it’s also why genuine conversationscan un-discipline our practices.

The curator and art writer Monica Szewczyk argues that entering into a conversation, properly understood, makes the creation of worlds possible. When we take part in a genuine conversation we enter a space-between different worlds. But – and this is the crux of the matter – in doing that we also run a certain risk or, in Isabelle Stengers’ terms, face a certain danger. We risk our own subjective world being destabilised, perhaps even redefined, by fully engaging with someone else’s world.The danger is that we will be transformed. That’s to say, we risk becoming both more and less than whatever disciplinary category we identify with – for example, the category ‘artist’. However, as I’ve said, these transformative conversations are fairly rare.

What does what all this mean in practice? It means that it’s not possible to discuss Ffion Jones’ imaginative work productively as something distinct from, say, her living and working in a Welsh-language speaking hill farming community, as well as working as a performance artist, academic and researcher.Her work, like her life, is a complex conversation between different, sometimes antagonistic, worlds. To navigate those worlds requires sympathy, commitment, curiosity, and an underlying attention that’s oriented by trust rather than competition. And these conditions are rare in contemporary professional life – certainly in universities and the art world – where most professional exchanges are instrumental, strategic, or competitive.

People do, of course, learn to be conceptually bi- or multi- lingual, to make productive border crossings between disciplinary territories. But such crossings are demanding and generate a certain level of discomfort – of cognitive dissonance, paradox, and ambiguity. Most people prefer to embed themselves in a familiar disciplinary world, a profession, or a given identity. Some however choose, or come to accept, to become outliers, to work out on the edge of different disciplinary territories or professions and to regularly cross their borders. As a result, they develop undisciplined practices.

I’m now going to suggest why doing this is important.  

In Artificial Hells: participatory art and the politics of spectatorship, Claire Bishop writes about what she calls ‘pedagogic art projects’. In the process she reveals the tension between Joseph Beuys’ undisciplined practice and her own disciplinary critique. During the 1970s, Beuys’ work became increasingly conversational, a relational exchange with others art, education, politics and environmental activism. However, Bishop chooses to frame this work as a prompt to: “examine our assumptions about both fields of operation – art and education – and to ponder the productive overlaps and incompatibilities that might arise from their experimental conjunction, with the consequence of perpetually reinventing both”. This re-framing is highly reductive. It reduces Beuys’ work to providing the critic with an opportunity for analyse of the categories of ‘art’, and ‘education’ and their relationship. Bishop thus treats  Beuys’ work not as an open act of social engagement, but as simply another opportunity to exercise her own disciplinary skills. This disciplinary reductivism is indicative of a fundamental problem for creative practitioners.

Earlier this year Darby English, writing in the catalogue for the exhibition Outliers and American Vanguard Art, highlighted one of the basic presuppositionsof critical art discourse. He writes: “The often brutal character of modernist criticism is shown in its insistence on the primacy of external judges, which is another way to describe its tendency not to think of makers as the primary seers and knowers of their work. Vanguard criticism displaces the maker’s vision and knowledge in favour of its own rigorously cultivated awareness of how Art operates…”.

Such acts of displacement remain the stock-in-trade of critical art discourse.

Critical discourse frames the work of Eamon Colman through genre – as landscape painting – and through technique – as the product of a colourist who grinds his own pigments. Categorised as ‘landscape paintings’, these works are assumed to lack ‘engagement’, as current art criticism understands that term. However, Colman does not describe himself as a landscape painter but as someone whose work responds to “listening to other people’s stories and interpreting their dreams”.Hewalks. He thenreconstructs what he encounters from memory, before adding carefully-considered, evocative titles. He has also said that his work responses to the earth as: “a living being like you or I … an organism that breaths and communicates”. I suggest it would be more relevant and productive to explore his work in these terms than reduce it to normative categories like ‘landscape painting’ and ‘colourist’. But because current critical discourse presupposes that landscape painting is incapable of ‘engagement’, it neutralises Colman’s work in terms of larger cultural conversations. If you want to find thinking open to the contribution Colman’s art might make to such conversations, you need to turn to the writing of a sociologist, Ben Pitcher, rather than to disciplinary art discourse.

The disciplinary process of displacement  I’ve indicated makes it hard for artists to present their work as constituted in and through their own particular attachments, connections and relationships. As a result, they’re increasingly creating their own framing narratives.

Raaswater belongs to a narrative set in motion by the South African painter, researcher and performer Hanien Conradie.The work shares its name with a now-abandoned farm that, in the 1940s and 1950s, grew grapes for export. Her mother grew up there. The farm was named after the raging waters of the Hartebees River, which ran through the property. As a child, Hanien loved her mother’s stories about Raaswater which, growing up as a child of suburbia, sounded like an earthy paradise. As an adult she took her mother to visit the farm, which her grandparents had been forced to sell, and which Hanien herself had never seen. When they got there, the river was silent and all the indigenous vegetation had gone. European farming methods have so radically destabilized the water ecology that the river is now dry for much of the year.

Shocked by this situation, Hanien salvaged some of the clay that had featured in her mother’s stories of playing by the river as a child. She took it into her studio and created a simple ritual that allowed the river’s water to re-sound, to run wild again. From that she gradually evoked a new story about Raaswater. The river became a space made up of what the geographer Doreen Massey refers to as “a simultaneity-of-stories-so-far”. Hanien’s story is about land ownership, loss of indigenous habitat, and the importance of mourning at the intersection of personal history and environmental irresponsibility. That story, along with the paintings and other works it accompanies, is part of Hanien’s MFA project, Spore. It evidences the way her conversation with an ancestral place transformed her art practice into an ensemble practice. One in which a range of arts skills interact with material from botany, ecology, law, psychology and philosophy,generating a complex, open-ended, multi-dimensional relationship of materials and narrative that is more than the sum of its parts. A telling relationship that’s irreducible to any one category or discipline.

There’s an important convergence between Doreen Massey’s understanding of space as a simultaneity of ‘stories-so-far’”, and notions of a relational self as an ongoing conversation. Gulammohammed Sheikh evokes this convergence in his major project: Kaavad: Travelling Shrine: Home. Sheikh is from a Muslim family in Gujarat, a state subject to extreme anti-Muslim violence over many years. He has long been committed to staging visual conversations between different, sometimes contradictory, stories-so-far across both space and time. This draws in part on his childhood in pre-Partition India, when the belief systems of different religious groups interacted peacefully within a heterogeneous popular culture. Consequently, much of his work can be said to counter attempts by an increasingly virulent Hindu nationalism to suppress cultural exchange in contemporary India.

In Kaavad Sheikh provides a new, expanded context for the richness of the popular heterogeneous culture of his childhood. A kaavad is a portable, folding, wooden shrine used by nomadic storytellers to reveal images of different gods, goddesses, saints, local heroes, and patrons as their narrative unfolds. For Sheikh, however, it serves as a secular device, as: ‘a site for atonement for innocent victims of the senseless violence of our times… a motif of remembrance, of memory”. Through it he enfolds figures from radically different backgrounds and spiritual traditions – his mother, medieval Hindu and Sufi saints, an anonymous sweeper, the Chinese Buddhist scholar Shoriken, St. Francis, Gandhi, and the prophet Mohammed – all within a complex, multifaceted, conversational space.

Sheikh imagines conversations between stories-so-far as a non-believer, but one deeply concerned about the failure of liberal, humanist cultural education in a fractious post-secular world. The results are complex relocations of old narrative themes within a new, cosmopolitan, multiverse, with the work’s many enfolding panels evoking a ‘safe space’ for debate.

Sheikh spent many years helping to create, and then defend, a secular educational space for Indian art students. However, in 1992 he was expelled from his academic post due to political pressure. I see Sheikh as having an ensemble practice that draws on, and works out of, a variety of distinct skills and understandings –those associated withhis roles as painter, poet, secular participant in Muslim culture, educator, activist, editor and cultural observer. Activities that then feed into his polyvocal conversation about heterogeneity and tolerance.

In 2007 Deirdre O’Mahony initiated the X-PO project. Her aim was to convert  the decommissioned Kilnaboy post office in County Clareinto a centre for artistic and community activity in that small rural community in the west of Ireland. Local people embraced the project through its first exhibition: a tribute to the last postmaster, Mattie Rynne. This was followed by exhibitions, talks and presentations dealing with changes in the environment, in farm life, and in rural social circumstances – all mirroring events and concerns across the west of Ireland. Local interest groups later took ownership of X-PO through local history and mapping projects, using digital resources to create a community archive, and through using it as a meeting place. However, it continues to feed into O’Mahony’s SPUD project.

SPUD draws on education, activism, research, art practice and agronomy. It stages a conversation between elements of traditional local agricultural knowledge, self-sufficiency practices, and the relationships between agriculture and identity, by re-imagining Land Art as ‘Useful-Art’. It has involved collaborations withthe community of Kilnaboy,a South American research institute focused on developing disease resistant potatoes, and the Loy Association – a nationwide Irish group dedicated to preserving viable traditional farming practices. Originally concerned to present a more nuanced understand of the potato’s role in Irish culture, SPUD developed into a public conversation about sustainability, food security, and vernacular cultivation knowledge. Its potato lazy-beds – at the bottom of this slide – are here displayed outside the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

SPUD requires O’Mahony and her co-workers to identify, acknowledge, and work with the possibilities and limitations of different discourses and understandings. It employs multiple, sometimes contradictory, perspectives to find ways of working productively both with and across differences. Concluding her chapter in the recent book Rurality Re-imagined, O’Mahony identifies SPUD as a micro-political process, one: “necessary to remind us that the skills of both head and hand are needed if we are to actively respond to the challenges facing humanity today”.

Luci Gorell Barnes’ ensemble practice highlights other aspects of un-disciplined practice. Her Cartographers of Compassion: community mapping of human kindness might be taken as a typical example of socially-engaged art practice. But to take it in isolation is to miss the complexity and richness of her practice. This draws onskills, interests and an ethics located at the intersections of education, participatory and personal arts practice, academic research, and community engagement. It’s also particularly involved – often through narrative mapping – with the specifics of the place where she lives.

Central to her ensemble practice is a concern with learning and a commitment to people who find themselves on the margins; particularly young children with learning difficulties and migrant and refugee women. The overarching aim of her work is: “to develop flexible and responsive processes that allow us to think imaginatively with each other”She earns part of her living as a long-term artist-in-residence in a Nursery School and Children’s Centre; work that includes the Companion Planting project on an allotment linked to the school. However, her approach is not simply that of the conventional, discipline-based, local artist. Rather, she is an informed and plural subject playing many different creative roles in many different contexts.

 In The Power of the Ooze Simon Read – who lives on a barge on the River Deben – suggests that our eco-social problems require: “a particular kind of strategy that our culture has yet to develop and promote”. This requirescontinuous improvisation, without a desire for perfection or a fear of failure. Read works as an artist, teaches at Middlesex University, and serves as an environmental designer, community mediator, and ecological activist. He’s been involved in various projects on and around the River Deben since 1997.

His numerous large map drawings are always a response to issues relating to management strategies for fluid and shifting environments. They both delineate specific and recognisable possible future landscapes, and act as tools for active meditation in debates about changing environmental conditions. He retrieves, cross-references, and synthesizes material from many different official sources to equip himself to join the complex environmental planning debates around environmental management. However, his ability to imagine a synthesis of the material he collects is very much a product of his art training.

Read’s work on the Falkenham Saltmarsh project – an exploration of the conditions and potential for salt marsh stabilisation – led to him planning and creating barriers designed to prevent its erosion. These manage tidal flow and encourage the controlled deposition of silt. The practical yet sculptural barriers are “soft engineered” from timber, brushwood, straw bales, and coir – a natural fibre extracted from the husk of coconuts. They’re specifically designed to degrade back into the marsh over time. Simon’s response to the challenges of environmental change includes publicly acknowledging our need to find nuanced and complex solutions. Solutions that necessarily acknowledge the cultural implications and dimensions of change involved in re-framing our collective understanding of land, ownership, responsibility, ‘home’, and belonging.

Most of the people I’ve referenced would conventionally be categorized as artists and have no quarrel with this. But if you talk to them about what they do, you quickly recognise that their work can’t be usefully categorised through a disciplinary or trans-disciplinary discourse. Each individual is an informed and plural subject who productively adopts different roles in different contexts; subjects who understand that both they and their practices are constituted in and through their multiple attachments, connections and relationships.

There’s nothing particularly new in what I’ve been saying. In Australia, the Anthropocene Transitions Project is working to increase understanding both of the Earth as a single socio-ecological system and of the cultural drivers that threaten it. It’s co-ordinator, Kenneth McLeod, insists that we can only meet that threat if: “we climb out of our disciplinary and professional silos, take off our institutional blinkers, and start exploring genuinely transformative change; … ask ourselves how can we step into the “space between” disciplines and cultures where new thinking and ways of knowing and acting in the world are possible; where new ways of understanding and valuing the Earth can emerge”.

For those who experience creative involvements as something more than a disciplined category of work, meeting McLeod’s challenge requires a conscious un-disciplining –  perhaps the cultivation of an ensemble practice along the lines I’ve indicated.

Indicative bibliography

Karen Barad Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning.

Jane Bennett The Enchantment of Modern Life: attachments, crossings and ethics.

Claire Bishop Artificial Hells: participatory art and the politics of spectatorship.

Darby English ‘Modernism’s War on Terror’ in Lynne Cooke (ed.) Outliers and American Vanguard Art.

Geraldine Finn Why Althusser Killed His Wife: Essays on Discourse and Violence.

Tim Ingold Anthropology and/as Education.

Erin Kavanagh‘Rethinking the Conversation’ in Re-mapping Archaeology: Critical Perspectives, Alternative Mappings.

Humanities for the Environment: A Manifesto for Research and Action.

Kenneth McLeod, Learning to Think Like a Planet – http://www.ageoftransition.org/

Philippe Pignarre and Isabelle Stengers Capitalist Sorcery: Breaking the Spell.

Monica Szewczyk  ‘Art of Conversation, Part 1’ e-flux journal no 3.

How to respond to living in a post-truth ‘democracy’?

It’s hard, today, to know how to try and make any impact at all in an increasingly dysfunctional political system in which money and privilege are, more than ever, distorting the democratic process.

Although I’m a member of the Green Party, I live in an area with a good Labour MP who pays attention to what his constituents tell him (and is also environmentally-minded). Recently we’ve been doing our bit to help him, distributing leaflets about Brexit options, attending open meetings, etc. But it seems pathetically little and does nothing to ease the anxiety of what’s happening nationally and internationally. But easing that anxiety in one’s own life is not really the point, is it?

In terms of making any kind of positive social difference, the most useful things I can do at present are all small and domestic. That is, I can free up more of my wife’s time to get on with the major, Welcome Foundation funded project she’s currently working on. Be a better house-husband, basically. So as to keep up with what she’s doing I have just read both Brian Hughes’ book Psychology in Crisis and his recent blog article The Triumph of Eminence-Based Medicine, from which I quote here.

Both give irrefutable evidence of the corruption of science by professional groups who “try to face down objective criticism, look the other way when ineptitude is exposed, and doggedly stick to their guns in order to avoid threatening their own interests”. Something they are supported in by the universities that employ them and for whom they generate the research income needed to pay wages and overheads. All of which further adds to the sense that, as David Tuller and others have demonstrated through their examination of the mis-presentation of ‘scientific’ work so that it matches Government ideology, means that the whole interface between the academic and political worlds is becoming ever more deeply flawed by a toxic mixture of cronyism and self-interest. A situation in which the supposedly ‘liberal’ media is deeply complicit through, among other things, its reliance on organisations like the Science Media Centre, which purports to be independent but, as a past investigative article in the Guardian itself has shown in the past, is nothing of the sort. The result of this failure is, with regard to the current rearguard action to defend what is now agreed by all but those with a vested interest to be totally unacceptable psudo-science of the PACE trail, Hughes notes that:

“the producers of the Guardian science podcast decided that this week’s guest should be none other than a colleague of one of the authors of the withdrawn Cochrane review, and — for good measure — himself an author of the maligned PACE trial. Not just marking his own homework anymore, but now — in defiance of expert criticism — defending how well it had been marked.”

That a newspaper of the Guardian’s supposed standing allows itself to be hoodwinked into supporting: “the hegemony of the cognitive approach to ME/CFS”, which is clearly partisan, is deeply worrying. For readers such as myself, it undermines any residual trust in a paper that purports to take investigative journalism seriously. As Hughes points out, the PACE trail results are: “at variance with much of the scientific literature. The very fact that its status is disputed exposes as logically unwise any claim that there is only one side to the ME/CFS story”. [The current defence of the indefensible PACE trial is that patients are ‘bullying’ the professionals. An absurd and unsubstantiated claim that, none the less, led to the establishment bestowing a knighthood for Sir Simon Wessely]. Hughes continues by pointing out that the continuation of the PACE supports’ claims are the result of “professional politics, not scrupulous science”.

His verdict is that PACE represents the worst kind of abuse of science and is nothing more than: “a grand sanctimonious delusion shared by a professional clique who, for circumstantial reasons, find themselves dominant in British behavioural healthcare”. Yet the Government and its senior ‘scientific’ advisors are doing everything in their power to ensure that this “sanctimonious delusion” is maintained because it fits with their ideology, which includes the ‘outsourcing‘ of every possible aspect of healthcare to the private sector. Nor is PACE just a case of ‘one bad apple’, but rather it is illustrative of an entire socio-political and academic apparatus in disarray. When Hughes writes that: “The echo chamber in which reviewers review each other’s work, award each other’s grants, and line up as one other’s acolytes, suggests that little of this will change any time soon”, we can reliably read as a critique of the unholy larger alliance between academic research, ‘big science’ and Government ideology. He concludes his blog piece by writing: “Bad science is bad enough when it is just science. In the case of ME/CFS, where flawed research materially damages the lives of hundreds of thousands of blameless people, it is nothing short of a scandal, about which the establishment should feel acute embarrassment and, ideally, shame.”

Sadly, as we see everyday, embarrassment and shame are feelings that are wholly alien to the ‘big beasts’ of the political, academic and business worlds. If we wait for that to change, our situation can only get much worse, and quickly. We have to do whatever we can, however, mundane and on however small a scale, to address this situation.    

 

 

 

 

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3: Parts 44, 45, & 46.

A small pink geranium (listening to the dead)

 As I’m sure I’ve said, all this writing was originally meant to be a way of listening to the dead, to the ancestors of my life, and was vaguely conceived as a missive to both yourself and Sarah as representatives of my own and the next generation. But then I remembered that there are things it’s far better not to tell the young. After that you, and the ancestors themselves, became my addressees. Not ancestors in a literal sense, of course. What I’ve been trying to do, if I’ve understood our discussions correctly, is to interweave many of the voices that have ‘made up’ (in both senses of that phrase), ‘my’ narrative identity in a multiverse.

It’s almost a year since I wrote the little snippet below in my diary. Hard to believe now that I still hoped then that I might pass through all this illness and return to old habits, whereas now my entire previous life appears to have happened to someone else entirely.

“Mrs. Oliver very frail now, but her mind’s still good. The doctor told her yesterday she may have a few more winters in her yet. We sat quiet this evening, three generations together. I didn’t ask Sarah to sing. I’m still glad I taught her the ballads, even if she learned them largely to please me. Maybe she’ll value them in time. There’s two I’ve not taught her: ‘Lucy Wan’, (I’m still uneasy about Patsy and Michael), and ‘Bonny James Campbell’, (because of her mum and Peter). Time yet, maybe.”

Those thoughts seem rather maudlin and somewhat naïve now. But it’s hard to let go of my investment in the old songs because, in one sense, they’re more real than we are, sing us rather than the other way around. In that other world, only a year ago, Mrs. Oliver was still with us and Sarah going back to the farm for the odd weekend, not staying with herArvid in preference to coming to sing with me!

A pair of lapwings.

I think all this is coming to an end now.

We are, of course, all far more porous than we allow. I have written about different people I knew but each, in her or his way, is also a partial ancestor of the compound, loosely woven personage who writes this page. We’re all just shifting currents in the same sea, Po-souls who’ll sink back into the same earth.

The public Lizzy still goes confidently about the region, and all the other ones I’ve known or glimpsed over the years appear to have gone to ground, down into the dark. Those bright echoes of her mother’s youth and of the strangeness of Elizabeth Reed who, limping through life, did so much to set Lizzy on the path that led to Peter when she was still only a girl, somehow gone. (Or so it seems to me.) I hear Peter’s voice still. Not the poor drowned Peter who, if he’d lived, would now be indistinguishable from any number of other ruddy, thick-set and aging farmers, gathered in some corner of a cattle mart, each dressed in neat but faded tweeds, to debate the price of yearlings. Quite another Peter, both quick and dead who, as boy and young man, kept coming back for Lizzy, although whether to save her or himself I can’t know. Yes, I still occasionally hear him, like an undertone of uncertainty in the early morning song of a blackbird. I suppose there may be a corporeal James out there somewhere, his body now running to fat, maybe pontificating over the Financial Times at the nineteenth hole of some exclusive Home Counties golf course and so, finally, the perfect embodiment of his father, son and heir. But I keep another James alive so that, when the deals have been done and he’s back in the blank space of some airport executive lounge, for a moment he’s still the youth who sat silent with Lizzy and me one evening, watching stars fall and die. The boy who helped two young girls on the cusp of change connect with a clutch of strange old songs, gifted them in a discarded box, with a whole wide, vital and varied world of music-making. I will no longer distinguish the slurred, alcohol-roughened growl of the deeply troubled Mike we buried at Wooler from the young schoolyard hero who championed, and was loved by, his plump, confident little sister. I’ve let them both go to be themselves now, finally setting aside the purulent speculation I’d attached to Mike’s telling me that Patsy’s leopard freckles covered every inch of her body. As for Patsy, I can hear only the smiling girl child who, for a few brief years, sparkled within the protective aura of her brother’s reputation. I cannot, or cannot bring myself, to hear the burdened, haunted girl whose wellbeing caused Cat and Mike to take opposite sides in some struggle that will always remain unknown to me. Cat whose singing voice, like both her shallow breath sweetly brushing my neck as I fell asleep and her tragic death, I keep close to me now. All the shades who are both themselves and the lively ancestors of my present self, who whisper to me, along with my mother and father and the innumerable and glorious birds and beasts most clearly experienced in my childhood; the whole wide world of my kith and kin (and not only in dreams and memories.)

And, of course, there’s all the others too. The Kate with the wicked pirate’s laugh, bad fairy and mistress of dangerous secrets, whose other, adult voices are lost to me, drowned out by life in an antipodean world about which I know nothing. The mercurial Kate I loved, envied, and somewhat feared because she spurred me to override my fears and innate caution, somehow imbued me with the calculation necessary to challenge my own desperation, even if that led to my childish attempt to seduce Hamish. (I know now that childish self would have gone through with it if he’d wanted to, that sexually inquisitive girl/woman that Kate had birthed from her cocoon.) That momentarily brave girl/woman who knew in her heart that anything was better than to drift into being the distant, untouchable, disembodied, angelic, (and so sexless) muse of a secret poet and latent priest. Dear Hamish, so wounded and confused by his father’s frigid, angry dualisms, whose musings and troubled and tender silences, as much as his tentative explorations of my flesh, woke me to my own unruly desires. Bodily desires, yes, but also a sowing of other possibilities; of entry into a world of fully sensuous, deeply tactile, imaginings made flesh – the strange fruit, perhaps, of Tam Lin’self-queen’s ‘eyes of wood’. Kate and Hamish, earthy seductress and erstwhile saint, the twin yet incompatible anchors in the tug-of-war that forced me to reinvent myself through acts of imaginative making. And then Mario, unbidden friend and casual initiator of my European citizenship, the secret lover of no doubt beautiful boys I never knew; Mario star in a distant city who then fell and died alone.

Also, first among the living, my dear Sarah, the whole bright arc of her from helpless bairn, through flowering child, to the bright, brave young woman who, with warmth and care, is negotiating her way through the traps, rewards and tangles of a life of research and action. And my briefly beloved Andreas, golden one, the brightly burning gift of a kindly Fate, a wholly unexpected feast and refuge in my last real London days. Old now, with deep smile-lines around his eyes no doubt. But then, a softly furred, honey-coloured, spice-scented being, a mouth warm, wet and tasting of Nykteri; my post-coital purveyor of breakfasts of fresh figs, galaktoboureko, and sweet black coffee in the sanctuary of his tiny Highgate basement flat. Of late dinners: tirokafteri, tzatziki, or dakos, followed by kolokythoanthoi, spanakopita lamb, soutzoukia smyrneika, spanakorizo, or maybe tiropita; then grapes and melomakarona or maybe baklava to finish. Meals lovingly prepared and followed by the long slow walk up the twilight hill and back, before falling into the pleasures of the still unmade bed.

The Andreas who would leave me, exactly thirty-three days after we became lovers and just as he had told me he must. Left for the waiting penthouse in Houston and the marriage to Ariadna,to which his father had committed him at fourteen as the seal on the partnership of two families. Andreas who I allowed to become my first and only dealer and who, in less than ten years, turned Papadopoulos and Ioannou into the most respected gallery for makers and up-market crafts in Texas, perhaps the entire American South. The Andreas who is a loving husband and the doting paterfamilias of four girls and a boy; whose Christmas letters always overflow with their news and achievements, always radiate a simple pride, and never mention the vicissitudes of the business. And that other Andreas, the punctilious businessman who unfailingly pays me my annual artist’s retainer as agreed all those years ago, punctiliously calculating the proper percentage to be passed on to me for each sale. A man who has served my work so well I’ve never needed another dealer.

Iain, you may wonder why have I never bothered you with my maker’s life.

Initially, I think, because I had no wish to risk being labelled a ‘craftswoman’. Later, simply because it would have involved giving you a wholly predictable account of my craft – the making of two or three small wooden pieces a year in whatever spare time I had left over from my mending work; my small, highly intricate wall pieces like puzzles made for the delight of fitting together different woods chosen for their distinctive colour and grain. What could be less interesting that that production, or the business of shipping the outcome off for sale. Pleasurable and necessary respectively, of course, but still a set of entirely self-contained practices that had little to contribute to exchanges outside the small world of my art. My dear, I simply had better and more interesting things I wanted to explore with you.

And, of course, I have listened to you, all your various voices in our various exchanges. (We’ve written often enough of them and I’ll not bore you by going over that ground again.) So, here I am, waiting for the inevitable and, meanwhile, listening to these and all the other night-selves, ancestors, shades and kith who are good enough to visit or even stay with me.

I should have liked to be a braver soul, somebody about whom you could have said when she died, as the poet Robert Bly did of James Hillman, that: ‘Flora threw enormous parties for the spirits’. I know only too well that I’ve had neither the courage nor the necessary generosity, although I have on occasion made real efforts in that direction and tried at least to lend the spirits a sympathetic ear. For that, and for the many pleasures of our friendship, I hope you’ll remember me kindly, will continue to speak with me in your head and heart when my body’s gone.

Enough. There’s a small pink geranium in a pot on the shelf below my window here, second cousin maybe to the wild one you found surviving on the sea wall. I’m not supposed to have it but my kindly Nigerian nurse, Wanda-May, pretends not to notice it. She even surreptitiously waters it for me, since I can’t do that myself now. It has that squat, slightly hairy look that I find endearing about geraniums. Sometimes if the sun is out and a nurse comes in to close my curtains so I can sleep, he or she brushes against it. Then its distinctive smell drafts across to me here in bed. I can’t say I particularly like the smell, but I do like that sharing, a reminder that the geranium and I, like all living things, have a common need for light, air and water, and that something, in consequence, is always being exchanged between us all. I find that extraordinarily comforting just now!

Improvised drinking trough, Side Head.

I’m tired and can hear the nurses starting their evening rounds. Again, enough, enough.

With love, as always

Flora

 

Fly-tipped bath in Bristol suburban woodland.

 Postscript

 In analysis you work to turn the ghosts that haunt you into ancestors who accompany you.

Bruce Springsteen[1]

I see little purpose in writing anything more about Flora, other than including here a quotation from a book she recommended to me right at the end of her life, Octavio Paz’s Sor Juana. Flora was neither a poet nor a nun, but this passage seems to me to summarize something essential about her. Paz writes of Sor Juana that she was not ‘a simple person cut from whole cloth’, rather she was ‘a complex and dynamic being, in conflict with her world and herself.’ He adds:

The obstinacy with which she insisted on being herself, […] her fidelity to her inner voices, the secret and proud pertinacity that allowed her to bend without breaking, […] was (and is) an example of intelligence and will in the service of internal freedom.[2]

What follows here does not, then, directly concern Flora herself. It’s a very partial explanation of, and perhaps a summary of, the trajectory of a period of my work that began back in 1999, before the Debatable Landsproject, of which this is intended to be the final part. Work in which she played a vital part. In offering this account I am also coming clean about Flora’s claim to provide ‘heart work’ as a counter-point my ‘head work’. Less a post mortem as ‘conclusion’, then, than a setting out of certain concerns.

Those readers who do not feel the need for any such prosaic explanations may wish to stop reading at this point.

The main purpose of what became the Debatable Landsproject was to carry out a series of linked forays into unknown territory, forays that acknowledged, engaged with, and tried to interweave, the plural interests and energies of the porous, conflicted constellated self I found myself to be and its places in the world.

Those constituent concerns included those of a university lecturer trained as a visual artist who, while necessarily engaged in the professional activities of those two ‘worlds’, was also personally entangled in thinking that was marginal to the orthodoxies of both. Those entanglements included a long-standing preoccupation with the post-Jungian or Archetypal psychology associated with James Hillman; a powerful identification with the rural uplands of the North of England, the Scottish Borders and the Highlands and Islands; and a passionate curiosity about the power of certain forms of traditional and contemporary popular music. These concerns gradually generated resistant to what, following Crawford Brough Macpherson, might be termed‘the culture of possessive individualism’, a culture that artists and academics were increasingly expected to internalize if they wished to thrive. That resistance may have been partly due to temperament but, more centrally, it was a response to unusual and demanding family circumstances. The resulting dissonances generated the tensions that have framed the Debatable Landsproject.

By 2012 that project was losing direction because my energies had been diverted into generating a discourse around ‘deep mapping’ (hence Flora’s comment). Early versions of the present text appeared, in consequence, to belong to some quite other order of concern, and were written out of a period of considerable professional, family, and personal change. That period began with a diagnosis, in early 2013, of advanced bowel cancer. A major operation saved my life but had ongoing consequences; health issues arising from chemotherapy and the end of regular academic employment. As a family, we also needed to undertake the drawn-out process of finding, buying, and adapting a smaller house to our needs. All this impacted on, and gradually modified, my sense of place and the ‘deep mapping’ I’d been involved in since 1999. Only very slowly did I come to intuit that the amorphous text on which I was working, almost despite myself, might have some relationship to the Debatable Landsproject and, despite its apparently very different nature, provide its resolution.

This work is, then, a going through, a giving form to, a modification of (?), my senses of place as reconfiguring an ongoing project. One way to describe what I’ve attempted here would be to say that I have taken William Least-Heat Moon’s ‘PrairyErth (a deep map)’ as a starting-point but, rather than focus on an external, geographically defined, location, instead set out to map a composite internal set of place-based relationships. An indication as to why this work might provide an appropriate conclusion to the Debatable Landsproject, previously always closely aligned to the teaching I no longer regularly do, came on 23rdJanuary 2017. I received an email from a friend of a friend who, three years earlier, I’d helped in a small way with her doctoral work. This communication resolved the indecision and doubt that, for some months, had prevented me finishing this text.

My correspondent had read Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rig: a borderline episode, the first work in the series this book concludes, and wasusing it for a workshop on ‘landscapes of the imagination’ she was helping run. What had inspired her to do so was the chapter ‘Everyday magic: singing walking writing’. This, she told me, had enabled her to identify: “what is missing from my academic training”. Coincidentally, she had also become fascinated by stories of wolves in a region she was researching for a piece of creative writing she never seemed able to finish. She goes on: ‘Perhaps the wolves have become a symbol of my own imagination and its repression through academic training’!

Wolves, and human attitudes to them, play a central role in Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rig, which begins as follows:

“For much of my childhood I suffered a recurrent nightmare. It began as I took the route of a familiar daytime walk – a muddy, flint-studded path that leads away from the house into a wood. I follow it through the well-thinned hazels and out onto the edge of the farmland beyond. I am alone. Arriving at the fringes of more established woodland, thick with young saplings between vast, smooth-trucked beech trees, the path takes me along the edge of a rough strip of grass between the wood and a large, L-shaped field. In the distance, there is an orphanage where, on daytime walks, I sometimes hear children laughing and playing together. Now there is only silence”.

“Where the path turns a corner towards the lane I pass an old wooden shed that is gradually disappearing under nettles and briars. When I reach the point where the path crosses the narrow lane a vast black wolf confronts me. It stands at least as tall as myself. It always appears as if out of the air, materialising at the edge of the shadows just where the lane runs in under overhanging trees. I know instantly that my only hope is to lie down on the road with my eyes closed, hold my breath, keep absolutely still. I must play dead, as I have done in this dream hundreds of times before. On each occasion, I wait to see what will happen next. Usually, after what seems like an eternity of the wolf sniffing around me, I wake in absolute terror just as it starts to eat me alive.”

What I did not say then was that this same wolf sometimes behaved very differently. For example, it once spoke with me at length (I don’t remember what about), while a great city burned in the distance behind it. In short, its place in my childhood was more ambiguous than the passage above suggested.[1]In one sense, then, Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rigwas an extended ‘staying with’ just one aspect of that dream wolf by following its sense of uncanny violence via the history and geography of the former parish of Southdean just north of the English Scottish border. That process of ‘staying with’ the wolf,a process borrowed from James Hillman[2], provided the basis for an imaginative, image-based connectivity across time and space between a wide variety of topics; childhood sites, etymologies, histories around Borders place-names, the ethnography of an old song still sung today, scape-goating, land rights, otherness, and terrorism, for example. But it did not begin to exhaust my listening to the figures that appeared through that work.

The sense of returning to something still potent in my concern with the reanimated image of the wolf, revived by that email on January 23rd, 2017, became linked to observations made by Octavio Paz. These concern the implicit ‘authorisations and prohibitions’ that, in any society, institution, or professional world, become the tacit basis for an automatic and unthinking obedience predicated on self-censorship. An obedience further guaranteed by all those figures whose institutional authority is ultimately dependent on perpetuating those authorizations and prohibitions. Paz suggests that a creative work may tell us something that can only be understood if we realize that, as an ‘utterance’, it is ‘surrounded by silence: the silence of the things that cannot be said[3]precisely because its creator has internalized those prohibitions.

One of my primary concerns in Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rig was to find a way to interweave scholarship and fieldwork with the types of testimonial imagination (in Richard Kearney’s sense) I felt were prohibited. Both by an academic training predicated on Modernist notions of rational, self-sustaining, and consequently reductive, disciplinarity, and by the hyper-criticality of the Postmodern. I wanted, in addition, to draw attention to athing-that-could-not–be-acknowledged’, the wolf in imagination, while still working as a teacher/artist/researcher. This seemed to me to involve engaging with, and validating, the contemporary relevance of, traces of what I took to be a vital tradition of quasi-pagan vernacular animism alive and well within British culture; something articulated through our singing and listening to the ‘supernatural’ Borders ballads. Interwoven with all this there has been the issue of the repression of testimonial imagination by a culture obsessed with novelty.

The situation indicated above is not, of course, simply personal; rather it reflects a significant social phenomenon. The journalist Paul Mason, in a long article on the protest marches world-wide following the inauguration of President Trump, writes:

“So the challenge for the truly liberal section of the elite is – as in the 1930s – what to do. If you work for a bank, a law firm, an Ivy League university or a Silicon Valley giant, and your employer is systematically accommodating the new, post-factual reality, you are – even now, just weeks into the Trump era – living a double life.”[4]

While I largely agree with the substance of his article, I think the link between having to live a ‘double life’ and Trump’s arrival in the White House misrepresents a situation that has a much longer history.

It was clear before the turn of the twenty-first century that university employees were being required to live multiple and conflicted professional lives. As lecturers, we were expected to square educational values with the demands of an increasingly authoritarian management culture based on quite other values and imposed by diktat. The research activity that had animated our teaching and kept it current was no longer to be determined by our interests and expertise, but by instrumental institutional responses to a system of state audit predicated on economic control. To borrow from Hannah Arendt, our ability to actwas being reduced to a passive capacity for directed work. Not only that, but institutions were beginning to adopt quasi-totalitarian strategies; the endless reorganisation of departments and faculties, revisions and de-democratisation of committee structures, and so on, all of which increased the power of management.

I made ‘Between Carterhaugh and TamshielRig’ to articulate the convergence of a physical and psychic landscape. A convergence necessary to the multiple possibilities of creative work and able to sustain my engaging with, and teaching about, the constellation of memory, place and identity through testimonial imagination.It was then a response to an increasingly repressive and alienating educational context. The body of work around that book then mutated into the larger ‘Debatable Lands’project. By the time ‘Debatable Lands Vol 1’ was published in 2007, I was also heavily engaged in co-ordinating informal networks that created the space necessary for such imaginative work, collective or otherwise, to survive. The ‘Debatable Lands’project had, by then, taken on a more political inflection following the Border ballads, and the conflict of mentalities they helped illuminate, west across the water – first to the Ireland of the plantations and then to the USA. What I had understood, from reading Geraldine Finn, James Hillman, Felix Guattari and others, was that the psychic, the social, and the environmental must all be thought together, from a ‘place-between’ the contradictory life-worlds in which I was by then enmeshed. From the perspective of that place-between, Trump is simply a by-product of a crisis that has overwhelmed the academy, the dominant culture, and society at large. A crisis in no small part generated by the wholesale internalisation of possessive individualism. Trump is, after all, only a gross articulation of possessive individualism in its most extreme, monomaniacal, form.

By 2007 the Debatable Landsproject made it possible for me to articulate an ‘open’ deep mapping, one that attempted:

“[…]speaking from the space-betweenrepresentation and reality, language and life, category and experience: the space of the ethical encounter with others as the other and not more of the same – a space and an encounter that puts meinto question, which challenges and changes me, as well as the other (the otherness of the other) and the socius/the system that contains and sustains us.”[5]

The resulting preoccupation with academic discourse also began to cut me off from (Laura)/Flora/Faun as kith, as invisible friend. ‘She’ became the aspect of ‘placed-between’ I had increasingly neglected, its psychic dimensions personified, the constellation able to facilitate renewed conversations with multiple qualities and selves. Some sense of the ancestral roots of her persona can be evoked by listening to two thematically related songs: Alastair Roberts’ ‘I went hunting’from his Farewell Sorrow(2003) and The Handsome Family’s ‘Hunter Green’ from Last Days of Wonder (2006). Both reach back to the ancient folk supposition that there are men and women who are not constrained by their human form alone.[6]The supposition Hamish imaginatively realised in and through Laura.

Running through this work, then, is the tacit contention that we cannot properly engage with our current psycho-social-environmental situation until we learn to live with the cognitive dissonances attendant on acknowledging that we live, not by the reductive mentality implicit in the notion of a universe, but in the much greater complexity of a polyverse. In Roger Corless’ discussion of our many realities and selves, the voices of Helen Rhys-Jones, Cornelius Yang, Gregory Hinsdale and George-Michel de Saint-Hilaire allow him to conduct (in his own words), “an exercise in heteronomy, in allowing aspects of myself to emerge as semi-autonomous characters and act out a drama on the stage of my imagination”. He notes that these characters: “say what they wish” and that he exercises “no particular control over them”. While he identifies to a greater or less extent with them all, he does so most strongly with Professor George-Michel de Saint-Hilaire and “least of all with Helen”. He adds:

“Perhaps this is because I self-identify as an intellectual and am uncomfortable in the presence of persons who are strongly connected with their feelings. Never-the-less Helen exists, and she brings me back into my body when I get too professorial and lose my heart.”[7]

This returns me again to Flora and suggests that Hamish and Roger Corless may have had more in common than just a religious vocation. This postscript is, then, a brief exposition of Laura/Flora/Faun’s desire for a counterpoint to the scholarly plundering needed to create the other book works in the Debatable Lands series that, in turn, drew me into debates around deep mapping. This final piece is our‘heart work’, offered in the spiritof testimonial and empathetic imagination and as a small act of defiance in the face of their increasing repression.

At the edge of the old world (Orkney beach).

This book concludes with two images from the abandoned book on imaginary friends that Flora and I had just started to work on when she became terminally ill. I only have the photographs in which she arranged for Sarah Armitage to stand in for her younger self. She did not feel able to sit for a second series, which would have shown her wearing the same mask but as an adult.

 

[1]Quoted in John Lahr, ‘Greasers and Rah-Rah’, London Review of BooksVo. 39, No. 3 02.02. 2017 p. 29.

[2]Octavio Paz (1988) Sor Juana,Cambridge, Massachusetts, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press pp. 296-297.

[1]My relationship with this dream wolf would eventually find a resolution in an extraordinarily vivid waking dream that occurred entirely unexpectedly during a session with a therapist. On a beach flanked by low, crumbling cliffs, I watched two wolves play in the space between me and the sea. This brief vision appeared to take place in a space just beyond the room in which we were sitting and had an air of tranquillity and peace.

[2]See James Hillman (1979) The Dream and the Underworld. New York: Harper & Row

[3]Octavio Paz (1988) Sor JuanaCambride, Mass., The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press p. 5.

[4]The Guardian(G2) 24.01.17

[5]Ibid. p. 176.

[6]An example of a male variant on the theme of transformation in the two songs referred to would be Mr Fox’s version of ‘The Gay Goshawk’ from Join Us in Our Game 2004. Record label.

[7]All quotations are taken from: Roger Corless: ‘Many Selves, Many Realities: The Implications of Hetronymy and the Plurality of Worlds Theory for Multiple Religious Belonging’, originally given on October 6th, 2002 andreproduced at:  http://www.pcts.org/journal/corless2002a/many.selves.pdf