2 Feb 2012

Slowly Encountering Place

For the inaugural journal posting on this new platform, I am pasting in a draft version of an essay to be included in a forthcoming publication.

Slowly Encountering Place

The process of assembling this volume has brought into focus an awareness of an evolving ‘meta-project’ - emerging over the space of five years, via a sequence of extended landscape-based residency projects. For me, the journey began in earnest in 2008 in England's ‘West Country’ with Quantock Dreaming, followed by the Lovely Weather project in Donegal in 2010, a residency at the Grand Canyon in 2011, and returning to the West Country for the art+environment residency, ‘Confluence’ Project in the North Devon Biosphere Reserve. Early indications of a composite approach - encompassing sculpture, ecology, memory - can be seen within the strands of the 2006 urban trail installations in Bristol, called ‘Eleven Minutes’.

Whilst sifting through the vast amount of moving-image and sound recordings assembled during the Grand Canyon project, I found myself re-considering the themes and ideas underpinning this journey, especially in dialogue with the wider fields of Deep Mapping and Land-Art. The ongoing support of the PLaCE Research Centre has been important in this respect. Iain Biggs (Director of PLaCE) has long pursued the aim of trans-disciplinary creative land-based work. Possessing a hybrid environmental science and art background - I have sought to carve out a personal approach, grounded in fieldwork, ecological knowledge, dialogues with archival material, geopoetic imagination and the co-creation of future-visions - all within landscapes that contain tensions and polarised perspectives.
“Pasts and futures, even if they are no longer; even if they are not yet, still haunt the present, and are, in a supplemental relationship to it, always coming back.” John Wylie, 2007
With the Colorado River now featuring strongly in my delvings, I have found myself attracted to the idea (and the ideal?) of ‘unmapping’.
As 'unwrapping' is to 'wrapping, so 'unmapping' is to 'mapping’; not merely the undoing of something, but also characterised by the presence of revelation, celebration, surprise, disappointment, anticipation, gratitude. The history of mapping and exploration is largely about control, hegemony; the real and symbolic 'fixing' of borders/boundaries/materials in space, in time. In the case of the Colorado River/Grand Canyon, most of the mapping efforts of the past hundred years have served to underpin efforts to tame and harness nature and people. Faced with the impossibility of a true ‘unmapping’ - of erasure and deprogramming, there is still some room for alternative strategies. With the advent of smartphones, Google-Earth, Flickr, micro-sensors and GPS, there has been explosion of diverse mapping scenarios - emotional mapping, geo-located photography, geo-caching and many, many more. For the most part however, these are stand-alone, limited exercises, not truly engaging with multiple overlapping and inter-folding layers of time and the ecologies of place.

Deep Mapping, as a creative practice, has rhyzomic (or even mycelial) tendencies, casting back and forward, fossicking in time, integrating and synthesising many perspectives of place - a kaleidoscope and a myriorama. It is relational, poly-vocal, slow and languid. The approach is naturally unruly, welcomes serendipity, flights of fancy and discontinuity. Importantly too, there is resistance and friction, as well as support for the non-human realms. Tendrils and traces invade the Cartesian framework and disrupt the time-line, sprouting spontaneous poetic trajectories. It is not only a backward glance, but it is about paying attention in the ‘now’ - to processes, systems, patterns and the bioregion. The ‘figures in a landscape’ are not just cartographic measurements and databases. The figures in question can equally be strange and magical, can be the myths, spectral traces, dwellers, travellers (human and animal) and landforms of relationship, of slow encounter. De-focussing and looking awry are requisites, before the re-focussing. Zooming-out, zooming-in, repeatedly. Observations, conversations, time and experimentation are key; as are intuitions and thought-experiments. The expression of a place has to perch on the fine edge between past and future. It is ephemeral of course, but it is endless in its extensions into the many pasts and the (unconscious) pull towards the many possible futures. There are two forces at play: the gravity of the past (keeping us rooted); and the centrifugal force which is causing us to spin off in every direction. To date, Deep Mapping has been predominantly literary and performance-based. Attempting to introduce a strong ecological focus, I am drawn to derivative terms ‘Ecophilic Deep Mapping’ or ‘Geopoetic Deep Mapping’ - as creative re-workings with the biosphere always firmly in mind.

My predecessor (as artist in residence) at the Grand Canyon, Andrea Polli, pointed me towards the anti-technocratic field of ‘counter-mapping’ which shares much territory with my thinking. From a 2006 academic paper on the subject:

“We understand counter-mapping as any effort that fundamentally questions the assumptions or biases of cartographic conventions, that challenges predominant power effects of mapping, or that engages in mapping in ways that upset power relations. Stylistically, we write the term as (counter) mapping to invoke its double meaning: highlighting both the possibility of being counter, or against, mapping for conservation (given its inherent limitations described above), as well as exploring how mapping for conservation can be pursued in ways that counter-map in the more common usage of the term - using mapping to overcome predominant power hierarchies, interspecies injustices, and other power effects.” Power of Maps: (Counter) Mapping for Conservation, Leila M. Harris & Helen D. Hazen. ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 4 (1), 99-130

The concept has grown out of geography, GIS and ethnocartography to embrace neogeography and bioregional approaches, but it has the potential to be incorporated in creative, poetic, place-based investigation strategies; to be a tool in re-imagining a site - and delving into the shadows of a place. Every term comes with its own heavy baggage; to gain some freedom of movement, perhaps the only option is to derive one’s own terminology? ‘En/Counter Mapping’ is attractive in this respect. But to get away entirely from the overloaded word ‘mapping’, and to emphasise the potential for future visioning and imagining, I’ll introduce the word ‘conjecture’. My own take on this word aligns somewhat with the views of Bertrand de Jouvenal8 as presented in The Art of Conjecture and Human Futures: Needs, Societies, Technologies:
“It is vital that a large number of competing propositions be offered… We may ask where technological process is taking man in order to foresee his needs… we may also reverse the question and ask what needs, felt and gratified, will best contribute to man’s fulfilling himself.”

Conjectures, en/counter mappings, shadows, pathways, ecology are therefore common features in my work. These are all, in a way ‘dreamings’, and are about slowly encountering place. The pathways (of water, of the nomad etc) can dissolve the mapped grid, and reveal the importance of movement, communication, myth and ‘pilgrimage’ - in its widest sense. The combination of insider and outsider views is important, the latter bringing a fresh perspective to a setting. Intimacy and interference are inescapably twinned.

Much of the above also harks back to the seminal grass-roots 'parish map-making' as promoted by Common Ground since the 1980s in the UK and elsewhere. There is nothing new under the sun. Clearly, a formidable challenge lies ahead, in achieving a fusion of digital-data and virtual mappings with the real, field-encountered, material world. Mapping has always been, to some extent, symbolic, simplified abstraction. However, there was - in the pre-digital mapping age - still a sensuous connection via materials, tactility, hand-craft and physical mark-making. The pre-pixel world is a grounded world. As Lovely Weather co-curator, Annick Bureaud writes:
"With WeatherProof, Antony Lyons gives climate change a strong and powerful materiality at a human scale. In so doing, he provides the possibility of a phenomenological perception that allows for an emotional, aesthetic and cognitive experience to occur." 
In tune with these thoughts on re-materialisation, geopoetics and immersive fieldwork, I add another strand via a quote from Timothy Morton (‘Ecology without Nature’):
“We need to get out of the persuasion business and start getting into the magic business, or the catalysis business, or the magnetizing business, or whatever you want to call it. Using reason isn't wrong. But with an object this huge, this massively distributed, this counterintuitive, this transdimensional, it's not enough simply to use art as some kind of candy coating on top of facts. We can't just be in the PR business. Percy Shelley put it beautifully when he wrote “We [lack] the creative faculty to imagine that which we know.” That was back in 1820 and it's only gotten worse…We need art that does not make people think (we have quite enough environmental art that does that), but rather that walks them through an inner space that is hard to traverse."
With the intense media focus, and enormous research-funding, directed at climate science issues (temperature rise, sea-level rise, natural disasters, drought, desertification etc) and the ever-present, dull, nation-state protectionism, there is a real danger of a) missing the essential issue which is the protection of the ‘life-support’ system of the planet (the resilience of the biosphere ecosystem, and its bio-diversity); and b) the fact that this precious treasure is under huge threat on other fronts - toxic pollution, acidification, environmental degradation, resource abstraction, development, population expansion, unsustainable agriculture, depletion of soils/potable water, dam-building and general low-level (but cumulative) destruction from leisure/recreation, tourism, ignorance, hunting...and speed. There is clearly a breakdown of relationship, and the efforts described here represent a search for some elucidation, and a re-weaving.

Questions that are very much alive for me include:
How can there be a meaningful dialogue between (mapped) material site and an abstracted gallery/online installation or representation?
How can there be a dialogue between the physical and the digital/virtual? (or how can we avoid the cold lure of the screen - “la belle dame sans merci”, leaving us “alone and palely loitering”?)
Is it possible to produce works of poetic encounter and place-engagement which explore the shadows and undercurrents, but are more than journeys through nostalgia and loss?
Is it possible to find in all this a radical ecological engagement - and even the erasure of ‘the artist’ (with more than a nod here to Joseph Beuys and his ‘social sculpture’ ideas)?

These questions have also been very much to the fore in the Confluence Project.11 With this experience fresh in my mind, a final question can be posed (and partly answered):
Can the confluence of art and ecology meaningfully address deep planetary concerns?; and in so doing avoid dilettantism and magpie-like raiding; by being truly ambitious? This is the where the concept of ‘make/shift’ is perhaps useful - referring to the making/creating of something (works?), to prompt a genuine shift; something that isn’t just a heritage exercise, nor a neo-geographical study, nor an exercise in landscape studies, nor even a science+art fusion. The ambition is more than any or all of these.

For other part-answers to these questions, I turn to Aldo Leopold’s proclamation in his 1949 essay The Land Ethic:
 “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
and finally from Maja and Reuben Fowkes:
“ Art has potentially the most radical implications for ecology and the potential to offer an antidote to the ‘mental pollution’ that is arguably as important an ecological factor as the poisoning of the rivers or the consumption of carbon.” In Search of an Antidote in Contemporary Art, Verge No. 1, 2010