30 Nov 2020

Conversations In Chaos

Third blog post in a series which revisits the Sensitive Chaos project conducted at the coastal site of Orford Ness (Suffolk, UK). Excerpts from 'conversation walks' with some of the main participants are copied here. These are transcribed from audio recordings which were originally presented on cassette tape as part of an exhibition and installation trail in Summer 2019.

Duncan K.: So now we come to our Zybolian ruined civilisation. What on earth were these forms? They resonate with things like burial mounds. As if they were just built as monuments. And that is what they look like you know, big longbarrows,
but without any burial purpose, because they're empty, they're enigmatic. In fact they become sacred spaces in a way; it's an empty space which you infill. It has very Tarkovskian film and cinematographic characteristics in there, particularly when the light gets on the pool and reflects it on the back wall. And the little islands of cork that are all vegetated are moving around. Very very odd, but very beautiful. By allowing it to sit and do what it's doing and then find the new form of life that the site has, it's found new life. But yes, their primary purpose, that's gone. Plus, in their new form, they've been reclaimed and reused, re-incorporated. The breaking down, that part of that re-assimilation and the change, is actually what has made them have life again. 

These are literally brutalist structures, but only in virtue of their engineering, and actually by that pure honesty, they have greater a beauty than many a brutalistic structure. Because they just do, sit, in this purely geometric form defined by the physics of what they were supposed to do. And what you actually see is the huge strength which reveals underneath the potential energy that was involved. And there's something vital about that, and also terrifying. The basic geology and the mineral and structural nature and systems here, are so powerfully what they are, they are just going to keep doing it. Orford Ness is rapidly becoming a kind of Tintern Abbey for the post-industrial sublime. You wouldn't let Tintern Abbey fall down, you know. At some stage we decided that actually it's a beautiful thing as it is, it has a presence as a ruin. Being a ruin is important, but we're going to keep it where it's still in it's dramatic legible way that we have it, and that's what we do with ruins, we tend to keep them at the state of ruination that they are, because if they don't look like that they are going to lose something of the impact in the landscape. The fact there are two, the fact that the road goes off, that they're at the end of this sequence of kind of, lesser 'temples', and then you come to these - what are they? And that's very important. And if you were an archaeologist from now, digging something up that was in the middle of the jungle two thousand years from now, as this might be, who had lost all the records of our civilisation, you'd be going 'oh these strange people building these great structures. What could they possibly have done? They must be ceremonial'. Because anything you don't understand, must be ceremonial. 


Ginny B.: Heraclitus. So he lived in an area which can't have avoided being influenced by Eastern philosophy. Of course it would have been an exchange, a flow of ideas. But Heraclitus obviously is famous for his thoughts on rivers as symbols -  as both something that remain the same and that change over time, so there's the dialectic. We can step into the flow, but does the river remain the same or is it different each time? And if you couple it up now with the thoughts and the science coming out from a lot of ecological studies, and biological studies, these things are attached across time and space.

I think with deep ecology you do get some nesting of process within process within process within process... We are less defined as individuals. Biological entities are less defined, because the science has now revealed that most living beings, life forms, are symbiotic. Humans and our microbiome, make us not quite as individual and much more porous than we ever thought we were. Couple that up with the eco-centric view, the idea that those individuals might be expendable for the whole, if the good of the whole is the main ethic and the main frame of values, there's a problem with that too, in that it becomes more of an anthropocentric intervention. We might consider that an ecology is better or worse off with or without species, and intervene. So I've been trying to, over the last few years, look at how we can value both. Going back to the river, when we step into the river is it the same or has it changed?

So I've come to the conclusion that it's the processes, it's the interconnectedness, where we can focus our values, and proliferate and contribute. And therefore, there's the bigger question, there's a bigger earth crisis underway at the moment, which is irreversible in many ways. I have explored these processes as forms of love.


Grant L.: We've got the Chinese Wall. The original Chinese Wall withstood the sea until 1953, when it was broken down. And that's why the new Chinese Wall was built. But as far as I'm aware, there's nowhere else that has a German prisoner-of- war camp sitting right beside a Chinese labour-camp. So that was of interest. And also the fact that they were sitting out in the most inhospitable part of the site in the middle of marshes. There was anecdotal evidence of children being interviewed much later in life obviously, remembering that there were Chinese people on bicycles going around the village and buying chickens and asking the kids to find grasshoppers. And it's the usual appalling treatment by, you know - ‘Empire’. Promising them lots of things, getting them over, doing their job, bailing us out of a difficult situation, and then reneging on it. One of the people significantly affected was Mao. He was actually loosely involved, if not in the Corps himself. And the Chinese Communist Party was founded, they say, largely as a result of what happened. And so the world may have been a very different place if that promise had been kept.

Duncan K.: Talking about the Chinese Wall, and a conversation with Rob McFarlane which was about the Chinese keeping crickets in their jars to listen to, and remind them of home. And that was an image that came to me from The Last Emperor. That cricket he keeps, and then at the end he's back on the throne and he's got his cricket, or the jar of it, and it takes him back. And it was that image I think that got me talking to him about collecting the crickets, maybe it was that, because that must be a Chinese thing, I guess, if that's why it's in the film. And it makes sense, if you're lonely, 'cause I think there probably is a great homesickness. It's come from reading that, the report of them asking for crickets. They were keeping them to listen to. They were telling the truth. It was to remind them of, I don't know whether it's home or serenity or that the sound of the cicada is soothing. And they were living just behind the wall there.

Ginny B.: Fluminism is the interconnected processes that proliferate diversity and abundance of life. On Lynn – Margulis - an incredible scientist, who studied what she would now describe as symbiogenesis, as her contribution to the field of evolutionary biology, her hypothesis that life itself evolved by an absolute symbiosis between different cellular lifeforms, to the point where one cell might consume the other and the DNA then is retained as that cell then divides. To this day you can look at cells and see features of bacteria for instance that remain integral to biology now. So I think Lynn's views on symbiosis should make us rethink evolution. You can also look at philosophical connotations that come out from that idea. It's almost like a resistance to individualism, politically. The individual versus community I mean, you know, you can't really divide them. And that's where I'd say with fluminism, you can look at the processes that bring communities together.


Duncan K.: Poetry is disrupting the standard normal way of using language, in a way that would normally say that you would use language to communicate with clarity. Poetry refuses to do that, it disrupts that, it starts using words and terms in ways that leave space, for comprehension. Because it's trying to communicate that which can't be contained within the language at the moment. So, Eliot has that wonderful phrase that 'the job of the poet is to purify the language of the tribe'. You're constantly moving it, changing it. That's what the poet is doing. It's a really interesting phrase 'cause it's sometimes the opposite of purifying in the grammitician sense. Here's a dictionary, here are the rules, this is how it works, it never changes. Which of course now, thankfully, linguists have told us is a load of rubbish. Language is defined by its meaning and it's always on the shift. A lot of what we use is jargon, it's not natural language. We have to define it in order to clarify what it is we're communicating. And that fits into that whole reductive system, but it's very effective and efficient. I'm not saying you get rid of that, but it isn't the first place we come from. It's a very specific tool. Where we started with language wasn't with the way we use language now. At first we sang. We didn't have words. The first communication, the first thing - where you have cave paintings - is people singing and dancing. And they're not singing with specific symbolic signifiers; they're singing with emotional signifiers, because that's what animals do. Animals communicate because they're singing out there. They're doing things, and other animals respond. And that's what we do. And I think that creative process is the first thing we did.

Somewhere along the way we started being able to form words that could be used distinctly. Consonants came along, but you could modulate the tones, and manipulate them in such a way that you could start separating the sounds you make in the same way that cave paintings were separated, and you could start pointing out something and start ostensibly defining, and once you could do that you could then link those together and then grammar develops and... At heart what we do, all the time, is we sing and dance, but we've stopped noticing all the sound and all the wind movement and that's rain and the smell of the rain, and what do I need to do now and, all of those things that people pick up again when they get out of the reductive environment which is the city. So the city is the environment that is manufactured to work better for our physical needs. But it isn't the environment we evolved in. And we lose so much. And then you get back to what's intuition? Well actually the world is communicating to us all the time in ways that are not grammatically linguistic, but they have their grammar and we know what it is, because we must have done, like all the other creatures out there. We've just forgotten how to hear it. But if someone comes along and says 'Well that's not very useful for being able to make a better cup of tea' it's like well of course it's not! But, a better cup of tea depends on how it tastes, and that's more likely akin to that intuitive kind of world.

Why do we have senses? They're doing something, and they're very well adapted to it. There's something about where you come from and where your ideas come from, which is not the place that you think. That your ideas come after. Many of your thoughts are not rational because they are actually an expression of a feeling. They're not causing the feeling. But it's so obvious isn't it? Your nervous system doesn't stop at your spinal cord. Your nervous system, your nerves, run all the way through your body. They are utterly connected. So of course you think with your whole body. It's all about our understanding and observation, and living in. So observing the world is not living in the world. Observing the world is stopping. And our descriptive way tends to freeze things in time, and take a photograph. Because at no moment is anything actually in existence in a single state. It's all in a state of flux. It all exists in relation to something else. When someone is born, when someone dies, when we get married, we don't turn to scientists to help with that. We turn to poets. Priests and poets. 


Ginny B.: I think the majority of science is without imagination. Better science is with imagination. Largely, empirical science is looking back. And we have this tremendous human capacity to imagine what could be. I think as a species we're also puzzle-solvers. You know that can take us to bad places. We start solving puzzles that don't need to be solved, perhaps. I think that creativity has to be integral doesn't it? And that actually it is also exciting. And if you're going to encourage people to actively participate in change, then it has to be - for us as a species -  exciting and hopeful and all these sorts of things.


Duncan K.: There's something reassuring in that; in the dissipation of self. Because the self requires effort. Once you've got self, you immediately have existential angst. Also a deeper resonance beyond that, which is you see all these remnants of great effort, of enormous organisational effort and expenditure of resources and energy and the rest of it. The underlying landscape, the underlying nature of what's going on, just sort of sat there, looking at it, while it was all going on. Waiting. And when it stopped, it then carried on, doing what it was doing, and made use of what had been added, in the layering, the palimpsest that is Orford Ness. And the human crust that sits on top of it, it's a very thin human crust. But it adds to it, you know, the Ness kind of takes that on and uses it for a bit, gradually breaks it down as nature does, into the bits that it's always been.

You know Orford Ness is essentially composed of mud and shingle. But in the 20th Century other elements have been introduced that are very alien to it. But it's doing that gradual process that the underlying system, the underlying grammar of the ecology, does, which is to make use, which is to find a way, because that's what the organisms intrinsically are doing; the ones that can make use of it, and the weather and the rain and the general forces of nature that exist, will erode and break and allow the biological forces to do the thing that they do, which tends to be cleverer and more interesting. Manufacturing enzymes that are useful for increasing the rate of decay and then utilising the things that they want to do. So it's a way of the system getting cleverer. Instead of just relying on the basic mathematics, ecology is a way of utilising the more interesting potential in the mathematics to get to places quicker. To get the utilization and the increasing of the complexity.

That thing of understanding how many things go on between being an atom and being an amoeba, that there are so many levels of stuff interacting. There's a whole universe of stuff going on in that process of the chemical and the basic physical, the atomic level, and then we know from this research, behind that there are subatomic things that are happening all the time that support all of that, and all these things interacting at their different levels of complexity. So, these self-organising organisms; we are bounded at the boundary of our skin in terms of where our sensory apparatus ends because that's where the nerves end, but we don't necessarily end there because we breathe air in and we breathe air out and we're constantly absorbing other things. So although we can't sense them, that doesn't mean we aren't connected to other things. And are they part of our organism?

And then you reflect on things like trees, which I wouldn't say are conscious. Not in the way that we are. But, I look at trees when they fall over, and if a branch sits on the ground and it'll start to colonnade and it'll start to put down roots. And then you raise the question, is that one tree, or several trees? It's got the same genetics, but is it the same tree? And then you get trees that grow by suckering - Elms, the classic example genetically very vulnerable, and that's why Dutch Elm knocks them out, but they're not dead, because they sucker and they send up more. But you wouldn't say it's the same tree just 'cause it's suckered and has exactly the same genetics as most of the other elms in the hedge. So that question raises: so what is this?; where do we make this distinction? We make the distinction about where our sensory experience ends, so if you look at a system that has a reasonably closed set, and a planet is a system, an organic system, organised on the surface, that is entirely closed, working together, maybe it's not so stupid to talk about something that is Gaia. And I'm not saying it's conscious like we are, because even if it is doing something, we won't have a frigging clue.

Ginny B.: Fluminism is the interconnected processes that proliferate diversity and abundance of life. Not only is that a kind of new materialist view on existence, but it's also an ethic. If there's one thing I could leave as a legacy it would be the idea that processes in nature can be viewed as devotion, and love. And those processes, they run through us as we are existential beings. And nothing is separate. So long as we're here, we might as well acknowledge that and embrace it and be devoted in proliferating the flows. It's a view of existential life and process and earth systems, but it is also an ethic.