27 May 2012

Shadows, Mussels and Rhizomes

Confluence : As the end-of-residency exhibition approaches, my mind is focused on drawing out the core strands of this project. There are many interwoven elements: environment, technology, community, landscape, creativity - but the root, the foundation, here is the fact that this is a 'Biosphere Reserve'. This is the primary reason the project is happening in this place, in this time, in this landscape. Stripping away all the mechanisms of the project plan, and even the shiny coating of the cutting-edge technology, what is at play is an exploration of connections and harmony (or rather of 'trajectories' towards - or away from - harmony), in the context of 'biosphere' and 'ecosystem* health'. An essential part of this is making sensible some hidden tensions in a landscape. And as 'landscape' is a human construct, this is about tensions and pressures arising from human impacts, human designs. It is also about opportunities, including those affecting the local economy - much of which is founded on landscape - and waterscape -  concerns (e.g. in the case of the bats, mussels and salmon populations that we have been encountering).

The 'biosphere' exists as a planet-wide entity. Despite the local designation of the 'Reserve', and its 'red-line' boundary on official maps, the North Devon Biosphere Reserve is of course intimately and inextricably embedded in the global biosphere - as is every place, every space on Earth. Revisiting the topic of 'ecosystem health'; from the start, we have framed our project (now titled 'Shadows and Undercurrents') as one built on the idea of 'bio-indicators' i.e. those living creatures (species) that have a special role in revealing - to scientific study - not only a status-of-health but, over time, a trajectory towards (or away from) 'harmony, and indeed such species are able to act as crucial early-warning messengers. ('science' is not the only way to access these nature-dynamics; many people are attuned to their local natural world in a very deep way, and folk-knowledge often reflects this).

This now touches again on the idea of eco-symbolic landscape materials and objects - a topic I have explored before. Such objects, rather than being 'bio-indicators' are signifiers or metaphors for processes, dynamics and tensions within a landscape. In the case of the Confluence Project, in this capacity, we have involved materials such as fishing-line and fishing reels (relating to undercurrents), and - somewhat further removed - a selection of local archival landscape photographs and early films (relating to the shadow theme). The technology and the data-manipulations are tools; the sensory-based (sound, light, kinetic) installations are tools; the video-works are tools. All contribute to creating a space of connection - via the emotions, the senses and via reason. It is a performance space, with many actors and items of stage scenery. It is a site, a non-site, and a web-site. The objective is to reveal new perspectives, opening doors to see relationships within the local landscape...to see into the shadows and sense some of the undercurrents. Also, by extension, it is to invite in a sense of the planetary biosphere.  It is about connections.

Important too, in a project like this, is the existence of 'legacy' and 'activation'. The worth of such an endeavour is - yes - to be found in the immediate outputs, but much more so in the possibilities for catalytic action. What this demands of the creative practitioner is a high level of integrative imagination, and anticipatory vision. The legacy is the the true output. This can/will range from activation of interest of those involved - young and old...and in-between, to the emplacement (akin to neuron development) of new connections between ideas, place, nature, control etc. It is 'design research' in its broadest sense.

The legacy of follow-on creative work is of course part of this. Involvement doesn't stop - can't stop, and just as the red-line of the Biosphere Reserve boundary cannot limit live and imagination, so too the time-line of a project cannot truly limit the imaginative expansion of future possibilities - once the doors of perception are opened. Something dynamic is set in train. In such innovative, trans-disciplinary projects, courage and trust are necessary - especially from the project commissioners. Open-ended creative projects need to be allowed the leeway to take their course, to take risks. This will never sit comfortably with everyone concerned. Institutional organisations and bureaucratic structures move on wheels of risk-aversion (and sometimes even fear). There are responsibilities on the creative side too. Band-wagon opportunism, and narrow-minded drum-banging polemic, by artists is undoubtedly frequently encountered. This is a quote from Tim Morton, who consistently seeks to push the boundaries of meaning in terms of materials, objects, environment and ecology.

“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 counter-intuitive, 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.”

Another quote from current reading - this time from Lucy Lippard:

"Artists confronted with a specific landscape are conventionally invited to impose their own visions upon it – an overlay of personal or conceptual preference. But what if the existing place demands to be considered for itself, not as a blank slate, but as an already evolved image with a history, that can be altered, even transformed, but never entirely erased? In this case, collaboration with those who are of the place, especially scientists who know it close-up, in excruciating detail, would make the whole enterprise far more complex and more layered. Collaboration is the social extension of collage. Some eco-artists, for all their concentration on the details of bioregions or eco systems, are sometimes less place-based so much as project-based.  Others find a place where they can do their thing, and sometimes their thing emerges from the place itself. I like to think in terms of ripple effects. The strongest activism around place really starts from a center, a very specific place, in what William Least Heat Moon calls a “deep map.” And then with really consciously lived experience, it moves out from there in ripples. A great way of learning where you are is to think in terms of those ripples and how they affect your center and where other rings intercede to affect you and the environment, and so forth."

This is from a lecture in Cornwall last year

Finally, to revisit another idea which was central to my WeatherProof project in Donegal - that of 'intimate science', as explored by Roger Malina, executive editor of the Leonardo Journal.  “Intimate Science and Hard Humanities” by Roger Malina,  Leonardo (vol 12, no 3, 2009). Describing the work of artists working with data, science and technology, he says they “help make science intimate, sensual, intutive”. This is very much at the heart of 'Confluence' and my current practice. The Leonardo network – involving scientists, artists, social scientists – has developed the concept of  “ open observatories [that] would allow small communities to develop locally generated knowledge and to evolve rapidly to confront climate change, end oil dependency and create sustainable development. Open observatories would include artists collecting data for cultural and artistic purposes, as well as community leaders and researchers seeking ways to mediate personally meaningfull access to scientific knowledge.”

*Despite the frequent use of the analogy, an ecosystem is not a 'web'; it is a complex knot-system of rhyzomic entanglements. This was effectively illustrated by Andy Bell (Biosphere Reserve manager) in a 'string-game' at Instow school. Our project follows some of the convoluted threads of connectivity, and - hopefully - illuminates as it does so.