Yearly Archives: 2018

Guest Blog: But There is No Land Near the End

This post comes from Creative Carbon Scotland

A critical reflection by Maria Rose Sledmere on A+E’s debut publication and launch event, But There is No Land Near the End.

Describing a time period in which the actions of humankind enter geologic history, the Anthropocene is not just a scientific framework, but rather, as Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin argue, ‘a social imaginary’, whose speculative parameters encompass many discourses, including those of ethics, aesthetics and affects. What is missing in much climate change discourse is a discussion of the emotional consequences of its effects and threats, played out at levels both individual and interspecies, everyday and planetary. Coming to terms with eco-anxiety, chronic stress, grief and environmental despair necessitates the fostering of cross-disciplinary knowledge exchange, certainly, but also a creative re-visioning of our world as it is, was and might be in future. As the term ‘nature’ shifts from something ‘outside’ to a deep sense of ourselves as thoroughly enmeshed in ecological feedback loops, it becomes increasingly important to register the metaphysical wilderness of humankind itself: to negotiate individual vulnerability and responsibility within the destructive consequences of our actions as a species. To realise, furthermore, the mutually productive capacities of art and science at thinking through the complexities of environmental phenomena whose scales vastly transcend our daily lives.

Founded by students and graduates of the Glasgow School of Art, A+E Collective was formed in 2017 as a response to a shared sense of unease in the face of impending ecological disaster. Thoughts of a fraught tomorrow, a polluted world or a world underwater, can be isolating, and the purpose of A+E is to offer a forum in which people can tease out the entanglements of climate crisis, as they see, feel or fear it. Working from a shared commitment to art as a tool for communication and force for change, A+E’s aim is to question neoliberal, anthropocentric rationale and to produce alternative forms of action within the spheres of art, academia and public discourse–to look beyond existing representations of climate change in the media and forge a more productive, playful and probing account of everyday life and cultural experience within the Anthropocene. With designers Finn Arschavir and Ane Lopez and curator Jessica Piette at the helm, A+E members now also include GSA graduates Lucy Watkins (BA Communication Design), students Inès Gradot, Marie Leguedoise (MDes Communication Design) and University of Glasgow graduate Maria Sledmere (MLitt Modernities). Inspired by the collaborative, plural practices of artists and philosophers like Olafur Eliasson, Agnes Denes, Donna Haraway, Michael Marder and dark ecologist Timothy Morton, A+E is strongly committed to developing cross-disciplinary and institutional support networks for work towards ecological art practice. This builds upon our team’s previous experience with sustainable art practice, environmental writing and arranging funded events around, for example, landmark ecological films and texts.

The Collective’s first publication, But There is No Land Near the End, comprises a selection of visual art, photography, literature and commentary assembled from responses to an open call for submissions in 2017. With support from Creative Scotland, A+E launched the publication at The Art School in March 2018. The event’s aim was not simply to present a selection of works from the publication, but rather to foster a durational experience in which audience members could ‘re-tune’ their perspectives on landscape, recycling, materiality, consumerism, the weather, the lives of different species and other themes pertaining to climate change. The evening was thus presented as a continuous rolling through different aesthetic forms, intending to allow ecological themes to reflect and refract naturally, as it were, between the pieces–in turn revealing how different forms of creative practice can collaboratively help recalibrate our sense of Anthropocene reality. Steering away from didactic or fear-mongering presentation, the event was designed as a positive trigger for encouraging discussion between creative practitioners around the topics raised by each piece. A+E aims to provide a social, discursive and collaborative nexus for environmentally-inclined minds, as well as showcasing works which translate the abstractions of much ecological theory into accessible and stimulating visual, sonic and literary forms.

Since its very title begins with a contrasting conjunction, But There is No Land Near the End invites a sense of rupture within established thought. Its overriding theme is ‘disconnection’, and the publication’s layout depicts the gradual swallowing of land by water, as white space is consumed by sprawling spreads of text and photography. Printed on recycled tabloid newspaper, the production and circulation aspires to locality and sustainability, while resonating with the globalised prospect of newsprint as mass media object. Equally, we sought contributors based in Glasgow but mostly also overseas. By using a traditional discourse of information dissemination, we hope to broadcast alternative, experimental and collective perspectives on a narrative that surpasses everyday comprehension. Straying from the hyper-gloss or saturated colour of other printing methods, newsprint embeds its subjects with a sense of lost presence; if news is the medium of immediacy, then A+E’s use of it channels the ecological unease of the present-tense: striving for speculative, sustainable aesthetics in a way that also seems always-already archival, a record of environmental experience for posterity to-come. This echoes the practice of several artists within the publication: from Bärbel Praun’s Impermanent Sculptures (of Indestructible Objects) to Bastian Birk Thuessen’s Physical evidence of abstract events , there’s a continual emphasis on rendering the ephemeral promise of objects within more substantial climatic dramas.

The title of the event and publication is sampled from Richard Carter’s groundbreaking series of drone poems, Waveform (2017), which investigate the intra-active potentialities of digital sensing, inscription and material semiotics within the Anthropocene. A similar aspiration towards multimedial platforms was evident at the publication’s launch, where cinematic pieces transitioned into poetic performance, and the fractal unfoldings of live cello playing gave way to ambient audio-visual scenery.

Opening the event, screened on a loop, was Marc Johanson’s animated film, Life More Abundant ‘98 (2017). One recurrent theme of the evening was solastalgia : Glenn Albrecht’s term which evokes the homesick feeling of losing one’s home without leaving it; the sense of the land you knew as a child altering irrevocably around you. With collaged landscapes and glitchy shifts between scenes of memory, Johanson captures the plural ontologies of this feeling, played across sublime worlds that blur the real and virtual. Johanson’s piece transitioned into Sarah McWhinney’s performance: a kind of intersemiotic translation of scales, which combined slowly pulsating microbial imagery with ambient scratches and cello glissando. Following McWhinney’s performance was a screening of German-based Sissel Thastum’s film No you without Mountains, without Sun, without Sky (2017) . Just as McWhinney’s sound-art necessitated a slowing down of consciousness, Thastum’s piece provoked an immersive experience of the pared landscapes, foliage and waters it depicts. With the screen darkening and the room’s space enclosing, the next work was a spoken performance by myself, accompanied by a soundscape composed by Greece-born producer, Vasilis Al. Titled Litanies for Eco-Dissonance , the piece unravelled literary responses to an Anthropocenic bewildering of scales, species and feedback loops of cause and effect, disaster and longing.

Following Litanies , we screened an eclectic film by Finnish artists MSL & Jaakko Pallasvuo, titled  Bridge Over Troubled Water (2016) . Its narrative riffs on the idea of Simon & Garfunkel travelling through time to navigate emotional responses to climate change. Blending a pastiche of moods and styles, it evoked a familiar twenty-first century ontological condition: that of existential disconnection, of being split across multiple times, affects and strands of causality.

At once playfully ironic and movingly sincere, the film elicited the liveliest reaction from the audience and showed how humour might assist aesthetics in artistic negotiations of Anthropocene themes. Its sublime conclusion in the most northwestern point of Finland, with the protagonists struggling onwards through a snowy tundra, indicates a distinctly metamodern approach to grappling with life in the Anthropocene: a structure of feeling that strives towards utopian thought in spite of an awareness of hypocrisy and failure; a swinging between apathy and enthusiasm. The film’s ending was an apt way to draw close to an evening of works whose own affective structures represent nothing if not the entanglement of various emotions, epistemologies, desires, perspectives and ethical impulses–resulting, ultimately, in an atmosphere of both caution, hope and creative potential.

Interpersonal and cross-institutional support is built into A+E’s framework. In addition to the bulk of funds coming generously from Creative Scotland, we raised over £1000 from donations via Kickstarter; such a bottom-up approach to financial backing enables creative freedom but also initiates personal relationships with individual backers. Supported by a playful but arresting promotional video, A+E operated the Kickstarter as a kind of ‘clinic’ for eco-anxiety, in which backers receive varying levels of ‘treatment’ according to their donation amount. This ranges from a personalised A+E prescription to Skype therapy and unique responses to individual symptoms of anxiety.

Taking the metaphor of an eco-clinic to its more literal limits, such a method acknowledges that when we are harming the planet, we are also harming ourselves. Dealing with climate change, we believe, is most productive when the approach is positive, healing and mutually constructive; continual self-flagellation can only instate further denial and pain as a species. To move on, to prompt change and solution, to sort practical remedy amidst existential upheaval, we have to work through our emotions too. Maybe art is one of the best ways to do this. Maybe art, as Morton puts it, riffing on object-oriented ideas of aesthetic causality, is a ‘kind of magic’, that can tell us ‘something very deep about the structure of how things are’ and indeed might be in future. As Mari Keski-Korsu writes in her piece within the publication, ‘holding space with peat’, empathy for nonhuman entities–that ontological reach out of consciousness–‘requires a lot of imagination’. It’s A+E’s intention to tap into that aesthetic alchemy, to explore art’s ecological potential in a mode that is thoroughly affective, self-aware and speculative, ethically questioning and pleasure pursuing; seeking the potentials of many disciplines to weave threads of light through the murky complexities of the past, future and Anthropocene present. With But There is  No Land Near the End, we hope to capture the anxieties and material complications of now, but feel that a print publication resists the easy slide into extinction characteristic of much contemporary discourse. As both archive-to-come and presentation (in the sense of displaying information in its present moment), the publication is designed to stand the test of time: to invite a sense of dynamic longevity, in dialogue with the ongoing work of its contributors, as much as the changing cultural and physical landscapes around us. But There is No Land Near the End is available online and at selected bookstores, including Good Press, Aye Aye Books, Anti Liburudenda, Librería La Canibal.

Link to our Bigcartel: https://aecollective.bigcartel.com

Connect with A+E on Instagram: a.e.collective


References

Davis, Heather and Etienne Turpin, 2015. Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics,
Politics,. Environments and Epistemologies (London: Open Humanities Press).

Morton, Timothy, 2015. ‘Charisma and Causality’, ArtReview. Available at:
https://artreview.com/features/november_2015_feature_timothy_morton_charisma_causality/

Vermeulen, Timotheus and Robin van den Akker, 2010. ‘What is Metamodernism?’, Notes on
Metamodernism . Available at:
http://www.metamodernism.com/2010/07/15/what-is-metamodernism/

 


The post Guest Blog: But There is No Land Near the End appeared first on Creative Carbon Scotland.


 

Creative Carbon Scotland is a partnership of arts organisations working to put culture at the heart of a sustainable Scotland. We believe cultural and creative organisations have a significant influencing power to help shape a sustainable Scotland for the 21st century.

In 2011 we worked with partners Festivals Edinburgh, the Federation of Scottish Threatre and Scottish Contemporary Art Network to support over thirty arts organisations to operate more sustainably.

We are now building on these achievements and working with over 70 cultural organisations across Scotland in various key areas including carbon management, behavioural change and advocacy for sustainable practice in the arts.

Our work with cultural organisations is the first step towards a wider change. Cultural organisations can influence public behaviour and attitudes about climate change through:

Changing their own behaviour;
Communicating with their audiences;
Engaging the public’s emotions, values and ideas.

Go to Creative Carbon Scotland

Graz, Austria: City of Culture… City of Climate Change Communication

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

Graz is the second-largest city in Austria and is located south of the Alps, near the border to Slovenia. Besides being a major tourist destination and the epicenter of academic activity in the region, the city has been struggling with environmental problems—first and foremost air pollution. At the same time, Graz has been a hub for ecologically minded thinkers and activists outside academia, as can be seen, for instance, in the highly visible vegetarian and vegan restaurant scene. Thus, it is not surprising that the local universities have been active in climate change research.

On a gray November morning at 7:30 a.m., a dozen actors, directors, and producers of the “Pennyless Players,” a theatre group composed of students in American and British Studies at the University of Graz in Austria, gathered to set up a classroom for a performance scheduled for 8:15 a.m. The unusual hour did not in the least deter this enthusiastic group of theatre practitioners from demonstrating their dedication to theatre as a means of addressing current global concerns. When I approached them with the idea of bringing Climate Change Theatre Action (CCTA) to our campus, they jumped at the chance to perform a set of CCTA 2017 plays during a session of my cultural studies seminar entitled “Traditions, Theories, Trailblazers: A History of American Studies.” In this class we discuss how theoretical approaches in the interdisciplinary field of American Studies have been evolving and changing over time. As this seminar is part of our cultural studies curriculum, we explore the reciprocal intersections between cultural self-expression and public ways of thinking and feeling about, for instance, climate change.

Changes in approaches and methods since the 1990s explain why issues related to climate change have become relevant to American Studies. Into the 1960s, scholars concerned with American literature and culture tended to focus on what they considered “consensus” on shared myths and symbols which facilitated an understanding of US national culture. Not surprisingly, the upheavals of the 1960s brought the status quo about the field’s trajectories and outlook into question. Unifying conceptualizations of culture and identity that privileged Euro-American, white, and predominately male mainstream perspectives and that disregarded any sort of minority discourse were recognized and critiqued as such. For  the past three decades, an ever-growing contingent of scholars has been debating what they call “transnational American Studies.” In short, researchers have been grappling with questions and methods that do not replicate but rather identify and question myopic perspectives on the United States as an exceptional nation of white Europeans whose exceptionality ostensibly justifies all manner of collateral damage of a divinely sanctioned mission.

Parallel to the increased attention paid to boundary-crossings and global outlooks, the original interdisciplinarity of American Studies has been expanded beyond the humanities. Drawing on ecocritical work done in literary studies and collaborating with fields such as ethics, philosophy, economics, behavioral psychology, and law, American Studies scholars have become active in exploring issues such as environmental justice, artistic representations (of nature, of humans and/in nature, etc.), and climate change. As an Americanist whose scholarly work focuses on literature and culture, I welcome the move towards transnational and transoceanic topics and I am enthusiastic about interrogating climate change theatre. The transnational study of this movement opens up multi-faceted opportunities for cross- and interdisciplinary research with a global perspective in mind.

In this spirit, I decided to dedicate one session of my seminar to a performance of selected CCTA plays. After providing words of welcome and a brief introduction to the impetus and broad geographical reach of CCTA, the Pennyless Players took over the session and established a sense of sharing the performance space with the audience of about twenty students. Several acting exercises got everyone moving, tuning into their bodily awareness and into their sense perceptions, and also lightening the mood by way of a few laughs. And then the show began.

Blind date going awry in “Single Use” by Marcia Johnson. Photo by Pennyless Players.

The Pennyless Players extended Marcia Johnson’s Single Use by taking time to set up the situation of a blind date in a coffee shop. They used a third actor to represent the server’s offstage voice of Johnson’s manuscript. Furthermore, they fleshed out the differences between the characters and added moments of awkward silence and miscommunication. In this play, the female character, Val, fearlessly defends her sense of responsibility for the planet’s well-being. She explains that the latter is of higher value than her personal pleasure and convenience. The male character, Mitchell, privileges his presumed prerogative of getting a girl alongside consumer goods without considering the larger consequences. The players created a dramatic scene in which satisfying one’s perceived individual pleasure occurs before the backdrop of unchecked anthropogenic climate change. The scene showed how the incommensurate relationship between the personal and planetary dimensions triggered the failure of a potential love relationship. This dialogue-focused scene thus set a tone of urgency by acknowledging the significance of individual conduct for the planet and the potential impact of diverging opinions on personal relationships.

Sarena Parmar’s allegorical short play The Rubik’s Cube Solution jolted the audience by its harsh apocalyptic vision of a damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t predicament. The complex situation of the global economy and the climate, which is encapsulated in a scene in which citizens under duress confront a seemingly unsolvable Rubik’s Cube, pits a ruthless and generically named Controller against three equally nameless Citizens. One of the Citizens encourages the Quiet Citizen and the Anxious Citizen not to accept being bullied into compliance by deliberately withheld information and official doctrine. Subsequently, the trio begins to brainstorm ideas for solutions despite the Controller’s complaints. The Controller’s intimidating manner and dejection on the citizens’ faces ultimately yield to a sense of hope through joint action. By implication, contributions to solving climate change-related issues require a bottom-up approach whenever official policy focuses on spreading fear and misinformation.

The Pennyless Players effectively embellished Amahl Khouri’s Oh How We Loved Our Tuna!—a bitingly sarcastic monologue spoken in the majestic first-person plural (“we”)—by adding sonic and visual elements. This elegy addresses tuna which “We loved…to death” because “we couldn’t get enough of you.” As the puns unmistakably convey, culinary appreciation of the bluefin has led to commercially driven overfishing and extermination. With staccato beats, swelling and diminishing volume, and intermittent silence, the drummer underscored the lyrical eulogy spoken alternately by the two actors. Also, one of the speaking actors accompanied the recitation by drawing a specimen of tuna on the board. The performers thus engaged the audience members’ senses in multiple ways. The increasingly threatening-sounding drum beats clashed with the cutesy elements of the childlike drawing. This combination of sensory appeals beautifully heightened the verbal sarcasm. As in Antonin Artaud’s theatre of cruelty, any laughter came with a bitter taste of despair, as the tense atmosphere in the classroom confirmed.

“Oh How We Loved Our Tuna!” by Amahl Khouri. Photo by Pennyless Players.

Vinicius Jatobá’s You Should Know Better is a dialogue between a wife and a husband in their 70s who have been married for ages. This short play contrasted nicely with the opening performance in the sense that it encapsulates a thwarted attempt at individual change within a habit-driven marriage. Realizing that climate change poses an immediate local threat, the husband wants to make his wife aware of impending disaster caused by human misdeeds. The wife, in (non-)response, suggests that they have popcorn. She eventually acknowledges that their habits are destructive but assumes that they cannot be changed. His mounting sense of dread and her resignation to numb disengagement both result in paralysis in the face of impending disaster.

The fabulous performance concluded with Ian Rowland’s Bottoms Up, another monologue, this time presented as a solo performance. A tipsy speaker wielding a bottle and guzzling from a glass hilariously discusses the impact of climate change on champagne production. Finishing on a note of hedonism triumphing over engaging with the realities of climate change neatly closed the circle of CCTA plays presented that morning. As the Pennyless Players distributed beverages before the monologue, audience members were also physically involved in consuming products that they should contemplate in light of climate change.

The subsequent discussion centered on how performers and audience members assessed the roles and possibilities of theatre to communicate climate change-related issues and to follow an activist agenda. The Pennyless Players shared their familiarity with the vivid theatre scene in Graz, particularly regarding performance venues and theatre groups that focus on socio-political issues. I was impressed by how both performers and seminar participants related their academic work in literary and cultural studies to their responses to the performance. We discussed the benefits of studying theatrical representations of climate change from the perspectives of transnational American Studies—particularly because this approach encourages us to study long-term processes as well as the border-crossing and potentially global impact of political, economic, and cultural forms of oppression. The Pennyless Players had chosen their favorites from a selection of eight plays I had provided. Luckily, even this small sample and their selection of works by Marcia Johnson (Canada/Jamaica), Sarena Parmar (Canada), Amahl Khouri (Germany/Jordan), Vinicius Jatobá (Brazil), and Ian Rowland (UK) partially reflects the many nations and continents represented in CCTA 2017. The theatre group has expressed their interest in working with more of the CCTA plays, and I hope that they will decide also to feature a climate change-related play for one of their evening-length projects at some point.

In 2015, the University of Graz launched a large-scale doctoral program focused on climate change that has attracted an interdisciplinary group of researchers. In conjunction with several colleagues interested in ecocritical approaches to literature, drama, and film, I am currently working towards increasing the visibility of literary and cultural studies within our larger institutional context and towards strengthening interdisciplinary collaboration in the realm of climate change studies.

One indicator of such interdisciplinary broadening is the 2nd World Symposium on Climate Change Communication, held in Graz in early February 2018. The program featured speakers from all over the world—researchers from the natural sciences, the social sciences, law, economics, and the humanities; representatives of state-run programs and agencies; and members of organizations that foster climate change awareness and networking. My talk on the CCTA plays of 2015 and 2017 was not as ‘exotic’ as I had expected. I take it as a sign of hope that a sprinkling of speakers addressed the arts’ contributions to representing and thus communicating climate change. Who knows—Graz may evolve more and more into a city of climate change communication.

(Top image: The Rubik’s Cube Solution by Sarena Parmar. Photo by Pennyless Players.)

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on March 21, 2018.

______________________________

Nassim W. Balestrini is professor of American Studies and Intermediality, and Director of the Centre for Intermediality Studies in Graz (CIMIG), Austria. Her publications and research interests include American literature and culture (predominantly of the nineteenth through the twenty-first centuries) as well as adaptation and intermedial relations (as in her monograph From Fiction to Libretto: Irving, Hawthorne, and James as Opera, 2005, and in the edited volume Adaptation and American Studies, 2011). Currently, she is working on hip-hop artists’ life writing across media, American theatre history, contemporary American drama and opera, and the poet laureate traditions in the United States and in Canada.


 

Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

Review: ‘Marlene Creates: Places, Paths, and Pauses’

This post comes to you from EcoArtScotland

Introduction

The monograph Marlene Creates: Places, Paths, and Pauses was published last year to coincide with a touring retrospective of the work of Marlene Creates, co-curated by Susan Gibson Garvey and Andrea Kunard. The exhibition was organised by the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in partnership with Dalhousie Art Gallery, it launched in September 2017 and is touring to different locations across Canada until 2020.

This beautifully produced monograph is my first introduction to the work of the Canadian environmental artist Marlene Creates (pronounced “Kreets”). Reading the book acquainted me with the breadth of Creates’ ‘discreet’ practice (p.15) through many crisply reproduced photographs, showing details and exhibition installations of her work. The photographs are accompanied by Creates’ own commentary, giving succinct insights into some of the motivations and processes behind her different bodies of work. Because photography has been the main medium for Creates to document and share her work with others, it translates well onto the printed page.

Overview

Creates’ work is clustered into chronologically ordered bodies of work as follows:

  1. Landworks, 1979-1985, Works based on my responses as a visitor to places;
  2. Works with Memory Maps, 1986-1991, Works based on the relationship of people I met to their own places;
  3. Signs of Our Time, 1992-2003, Works with signage about public notices, official boundaries and prohibitions;
  4. Transition, Transitional works in the midst of a decade working with public signs;
  5. Works from Blast Hole Pond Road (ongoing since 2002), a multi year “slow” engagement with the six-acre patch of boreal forest where I live.(examples of many of the works discussed can be viewed on Marlene Creates’ website) You can see the exhibition at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery thanks to a video made by Jon Pedersen, a filmmaker in Fredericton.

Certain bodies of work come across particularly well within the context of the book. These include Sleeping Places, Newfoundland, 1982, where her haunting series of photographs show the squashed vegetation left by the sleeping imprint of Creates’ own body; and the works where Creates’ hand is pressed against the surface of standing stones and trees in A Hand to Standing Stones, Scotland, 1983 and Larch, Spruce, Fir, Birch, Hand, Blast Hole Pond Road, Newfoundland, 2007. The format of the book is large enough to see the detail of crushed foliage in the Sleeping Places series and the texture of stone, lichen, bark and skin in the Hand to Standing Stones and Larch, Spruce, Fir, Birch, Hand series. These bodies of work communicate a strong sense of the equality of relationship with nature that Creates’ work seeks to explore – the framing of the photographs shows the equal pressing of lichen-encrusted stone/bark to hand as hand to stone/bark.

This comprehensive overview of Creates’ work is interlaced with critical essays, each exploring a different aspect of the artists’ practice. The essays are written by the curators/editors, the poet Don McKay, the art historian Joan M. Schwartz, and the author Robert Macfarlane. I completed the book feeling as though I had enjoyed slowly wandering around the rooms of the Creates’ retrospective, engaging in different conversations after each room, each showing me the work through a different lens and offering rich insights into Creates’ thoughtful practice.

The first of these essays, Written in the Land, Present in the Place, is by Susan Gibson Garvey. In this essay Gibson Garvey maps the main themes of Creates’ work from the earliest gestures in the landscape to her most recent immersive work in the six acres of boreal forest that surround her home. It is a very readable, well-paced essay, offering insightful commentary around many of the developing themes that run through Creates’ practice. I have explored this essay in greater detail than the others as it is here that we first become acquainted with many of the ideas returned to in subsequent essays.

Gibson Garvey starts by contrasting Creates’ ‘ecologically sensitive art practice,’ with the work of ‘more immediately spectacular,’ environmental photographers such as Edward Burtynsky (p.15). She argues that it is the ‘acute awareness,’ ‘formal restraint,’ and ‘understated wit,’ of Creates’ practice that give the work its strength (p.15). As an example of Creates’ ‘discreet’ art practice Gibson Garvey describes one of Creates’ early interventions, Stone Ground Drawing: Wave Patterns, Lake Nipissing, 1986, where Creates arranged pebbles so that they mirrored the patterns in the waves approaching the shore. The work lasted until the next high tide when the pebbles were scattered. Gibson Garvey quotes Creates’ statement that the intention of this work was to draw attention to the waves themselves: ‘“What I would like people to notice the most when they look at my sculpture is, in fact, not the sculpture but the waves.”’ (p.16)

The essay makes a convincing argument for Creates’ work to be seen in relation to feminist earth/body practices of artists such as Ana Mendieta. In her Paper Stones and Water series Creates lays a roll of absorbent paper in different environments, where it is subject to change through encountering the elements – blown by the wind or splattered by raindrops. Gibson Garvey argues that ‘simplicity, economy, seriality, and […] sufficiency,’ are key to Creates’ practice, and frames the fragile Paper Stones and Water series as an ‘act of resistance, on behalf both of the environment and of women’ (p.16). Creates herself states that she was working ‘in deliberate opposition to large-scale earthworks – high impact interventions made in the land with excavators and bulldozers in the 1960’s and 70’s’ (p.13).

This argument is given weight when Gibson Garvey emphasises the importance, for Creates, of seeing the particular in the landscape rather than ‘scoping a scene’: ‘The hand must touch, the voice must utter, the body must be present. We are in the land, inseparable from that which provides the nourishment and raw materials on which we depend. There is no “out there” there, because out there is still us.’ (p.20)

Gibson Garvey cites Rebecca Solnit’s discussion of Creates’ work to describe the important shift in Creates’ practice – her growing understanding of the layers of nature and culture that exist in every landscape, summed up by Solnit’s sentence, ‘“Most landscapes are also territories.”’ (p.16) This shift is clearly seen in the works exploring the relationship of relocated, elderly Labradorians to their remembered homelands in The Distance Between Two Points is Measured in Memories, Laborador, 1988. Once again Gibson Garvey is here highlighting the quiet politics of Creates’ work – ‘contradicting political assertions about the “emptiness” of Labrador.’ (p.19)

There is a very succinct summary of Creates’ description of the different phases of her practice within this essay. Creates describes her landworks as works made ‘“in the first person,”’ the shift to working with other peoples memories of place results in work made ‘“in the second person.”’ Creates’ questioning of cultural assumptions about places in the signs projects is described as work ‘“in the third person”’. Following this summary Gibson Garvey argues that Creates’ most recent work, made in her six-acre, boreal forest home, returns to ‘“first person”’ and also creates the position of ‘no person’ in the work where her trail camera takes photographs when triggered by the movement of animals (p.18). Gibson Garvey argues that Creates, in her boreal forest home, is ‘intent on addressing nature as one subjectivity to another,’ and relates this intention to the thought of Martin Buber. In particular she is interested in Buber’s “I-Thou” concept in relation to Creates’ work, stating that ‘it could be argued that Creates has been saying “Thou” to nature for some considerable time.’ (p.19) This argument is taken one stage further in what Gibson Garvey describes as Creates’ ‘reversal of the gaze,’ in Water Flowing to the Sea Captured at the Speed of Light, Blast Hole Pond River, Newfoundland, 2002-2003, where a camera placed underwater takes photos of the artist, simulating the eye of the river (p.20).

Finally Gibson Garvey points to the part language plays in Creates’ The Boreal Poetry Garden. At the start of this project Creates wrote short poems and photographed them in the places that had inspired their writing. Now the poems are only spoken to small audiences in situ. Gibson Garvey states that this may result in a ‘privileged’ audience. However, this is balanced by the ethics of Creates’ practice, bound to ‘specificity’ and not ‘populism’. The question of privilege in relation to the boreal forest work is explored later in this review.

The Gibson Garvey essay is followed by the images of Landworks. These include the Paper, Stones and Water series, Sleeping Places, Newfoundland 1982 and A Hand to Standing Stones, Scotland 1983. Don McKay’s poem Sleeping Places is included within this section along with his short reflection on Creates’ work – Some Thoughts on Sleeping Places. The poem mirrors the understated aesthetic of Creates’ work in its short lines and simplicity. It maps some of the associations that the poet experienced through his encounter with the work from the delicate to the sinister. The poem acts as an invitation to experience Creates’ work for oneself – to let the mind travel with the imagery in different directions and not just look to where the essays signpost the reader.

The poem starts and ends with the question ‘what is nothing doing’ [sic] which McKay intends as an ‘ungettable riddle’ or Zen koan. He writes about his interest in koans and Taoist poetry in his reflection on Sleeping Places, saying of the old Taoist poets:

Their “bows” to the wilderness involved a slightness and subtlety of gesture that would be good preparation for experiencing works like Sleeping Places, Newfoundland, 1982. (p.49)

McKay states that Creates’ work holds a strong connection to Taoist thought, particularly in relation to what he describes as ‘an engaged “spiritual ecology”’. He describes the important difference between this ‘true ecology’ and the ‘conventional humanism of Romanticism, which tends to focus on the human emotional response to nature rather than to bow toward nature itself.’ He concludes:

We need more such bows if a true ecology is to become widespread. I think of Tu Fu’s line “I inhabit my absence,” which could well serve as a subtitle for Creates’ Sleeping Places. (p.49)

Don McKay’s poem and reflection balances well with the more analytical essays in the book.

Within the second section of Creates’ work: Works with Memory Maps, 1986-1991, is an essay titled Marlene Creates, Visual Geographer by Joan M. Schwartz. In this essay Schwartz frames Creates’ practice within the field of geography, stating that Creates ‘traffics in the geographical imagination, laying bare the processes by which people come to know the world and their place in it.’ (p.71) Schwartz highlights the ways in which Creates questions how we read the landscape and relates this to the ‘terrain of historical and cultural geographers.’ (p.71)

So what is the ‘geographical imagination’ that Marlene Creates ‘traffics’? Schwartz describes how Creates questions idealised notions of a life on the land by showing how particular people relate to places within The Distance Between Two Points is Measured in Memories – mapping a ‘“cultural” experience of place.’ Schwartz quotes Creates’ notion of place: ‘“The land is not an abstract physical location but a place, charged with personal significance, shaping the images we have of ourselves.”’ (p.72) She states that ‘it is in this foregrounding of place in the formation of identity that Creates excels as a visual geographer.’ (p.72)

Schwartz describes how Creates makes the layered meaning of places visible in her signs projects. For example, Creates juxtaposes a sign describing the coastline as ‘Natural and Scenic’ with a statement describing a previous industrial use of the land that played a significant role in forming the present day ‘view’. This exposing of environmental histories is what Creates describes as the ‘“intersection of geography with memory.”’ (p.74) Schwartz argues that by ‘exposing the tension between public and personal expressions of place, they [the signs] prompt private contemplation of one’s situation in space and time.’ (p.76)

In this essay Schwartz introduces a more geographically nuanced framework to explore many of the points already raised in the book. It seems a helpful insight to frame Creates’ practice within the geographical imagination, as it highlights the tactics that Creates used and uses to interrogate our relationship to the land and to place. The revisiting of themes addressed by the first two essays does make for repetition, however. But the essay, in its own right, creates an interesting framework for reflecting on Creates’ practice.

Robert Macfarlane’s essay, Hollow Places and Wordcaves, is placed within the third section of works: Signs of Our Time, 1992–2003. The essay starts with an entry from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s journal describing his encounter with ‘“A hollow place in the rock like a coffin.”’ Macfarlane says that this description sprang to mind when he first encountered Sleeping Places, Newfoundland, 1982. As with McKay, but using different imagery, Macfarlane describes his layered response to this work and states that ‘This wish to allow landscape its layeredness seems to me the defining quality of Creates’s art.’ (p.101) He then goes on to make similar points to Gibson Garvey and Schwartz about Creates’ refusal of romanticism and her interest in nature-culture relations. (Again, the repetition is noticeable.)

Macfarlane identifies the ‘sensing body’ as key to the making of Creates’ work. He links this use of the body as an instrument of knowledge to a lineage of ‘philosopher artists’ including Marcel Mauss, John Muir, Richard Jefferies, and Jacquetta Hawks and identifies a particularly strong link between Creates and Nan Shepherd. Macfarlane states that in her book, The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd describes how ‘she explored the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland through her “flesh” and “bones” as well as through her eyes.’ (p.102) He goes on to explore parallels between the two women – sharing ‘a fascination with place names and the language of place […] they share an interest in the seeming paradox of a “humanised wild”.’ Macfarlane also describes a parallel between Shepherd’s and Creates’ attention to the particular in the landscapes that they attend to, and importantly their shared attention to the social history of place. Macfarlane points out both the ethnographic importance of this interest and that it acts as ‘an active politics of what might be called resistance through specificity,’ particularly in Creates’ questioning of notions of the empty wilderness of Labrador through memory mapping in The Distance Between Two Points is Measured in Memories. (p.103)

This last point leads Macfarlane to link the work of Creates to others engaged in paying attention to the relationships that people have with specific places in order to resist ‘generalisation and exploitation.’ These include Hugh Brody’s Masterful Maps and Dreams (1986), Iain Sinclair’s Ghost Milk, and the artist’s booklet A-mach an Gleann (A Known Wilderness), made by Jon MacLeod and Anne Campbell in response to the Outer Hebridean islanders fight with AMEC. (p.103)*

(At this point the reader may pause to reflect: set within the context of ‘generalisation and exploitation’, Creates’ later boreal forest work raises questions that go unaddressed by Macfarlane and the other essayists. It could be argued, for example, that the later work maintains a quiet resistance through particular acts of attention. But this has a different quality to working in a context that is overtly exploited. To put it all too crudely – a person standing in a deep state of mindfulness within occupied or disputed territories has a very different resonance to a person standing in an equally mindful state in their own garden.)

Macfarlane pays particular attention to Creates’ interest in the relationship between language and landscape, which he describes as the ‘illocutionary power of place-language: its ability to reform as well as to deform our relations with place.’ (p.105) Macfarlane maps this relationship of language and place in Creates’ practice, from The Distance Between Two Points, through the signs projects and ‘rising to a peak of intensity in her recent book Brickle Nish and Knobbly: A Newfoundland Treasury of Terms for Ice and Snow, Blast Hole Pond River, Winter 2012-2013.’ (p.104) All Creates’ language projects highlight how the specificity of language can ‘refine our acts of perception,’ and resist the homogenisation of dominant western culture. Here it is through seeing the differences in phenomena of ice and snow rather than ‘a cold white blur’ (p.105).

In addition to other pertinent analogies, Macfarlane ends his essay by quoting a poem by Paul Celan which includes the translated term ‘“wordcaves”’. The wordcaves are places where language that has been emptied out can be made useful again. (p.106) With a beautiful symmetry Macfarlane relates this image back to the opening image of Coleridge’s ‘“hollow place”’, a space offering both shelter and hazard, as Creates’ Sleeping Places appear both comfortable and exposed, weaving both the essay and Creates’ practice into a satisfying sense of wholeness.

The final essay is the longest in the book and more academic in tone. In Here and Away: The Photography of Marlene Creates, Andrea Kunard discusses Creates’ use of photography as a medium and the place of her work within photographic discourse.

The essay opens by questioning the notion of photography as a medium that ‘stills time.’ (p.139) Kunard outlines an alternative reading of photography as process – ‘it engages individuals in actions, providing a performative space for its realisation.’ (p.139) She argues that the work of Creates fits far more easily into this process-performative category. Kunard uses Creates’ Paper, Stones and Water 1979-1985 to illustrate this point, describing how these photographs contain all the surrounding activity of journey, thought and preparation that went into their making as well as the gesture caught in ‘the performative space the photograph provides.’ The photographs also contain a sense of the time beyond their taking, the viewer sees a fragile material (paper) or stones on a shore that will soon be destroyed or rearranged by the elements. Another example is the knowledge that the squashed grasses in the Sleeping Places series will have already started to recover even in the instant of the camera shutter’s click. As Kunard writes, ‘Creates’ projects reveal how photographs are performative acts or gestures that proclaim something real for the present, and retain it for the future.’ (p.141)

In her discussion of The Distance Between Two Points is Measured in Memories, Labrador 1988, Kunard highlights the importance of text in contextualising the photographs, and the role of the accompanying objects – turf, sand etc. – in bringing the work into the present for the viewer, ‘nudging spectators into an appreciation of the object and present-ness of all the assemblages’ constituent elements.’ (p.142) She relates this to the power of a lock of hair tucked alongside a photograph in a nineteenth-century locket. The ability of photographs to strengthen family bonds is also discussed in relation to the family photograph album and Creates’ Places of Presence: Newfoundland kin and ancestral land, Newfoundland, 1989-1991 (p.142)

Kunard argues that Creates combines the ability of the photograph to still time and reveal process in her Hand photographs. Later she also makes mention of what could be considered a more significant quality of these photographs – their ability to show in fine detail the qualities and textures of stone, lichen, bark and skin. Interestingly it is in this essay that we first become aware that the boreal forest in which Creates’ current work unfolds belongs to her, as Kunard discloses:

‘in the series Larch, Spruce, Fir, Birch, Hand, Blast Hole Pond Road, Newfoundland 2007 (ongoing), her hand, now much older, appears pressed against a tree trunk on the artist’s property.’ (p.143)

(Another reader reflection: Creates never sets this later work within the context of property or ownership, perhaps because she does not consider the trees in the boreal forest to be hers. Or perhaps she intuits that this knowledge would be distracting for the viewer. Nevertheless, reading the word ‘property’ immediately shifted how I read the work – setting the hand in a possible gesture of claim or possession, jarring with my previous understanding of the work as communicating a sense of equal relationship. In balancing this tension it is important to note that the protection Creates’ ownership brings to the six acres of boreal forest has enabled her to develop a deeply intimate relationship with this place, as shown powerfully through the work Spots of Memory: what I remembered during one month away after six years on Blast Hole Pond Road, Newfoundland 2008 where a hand-drawn map is filled with the artist’s abbreviated descriptions of particular toponyms (descriptive names for places – discussed in Macpharlane’s essay). This may not have been possible for Creates in the more vulnerable position of a ‘visitor’ rather than ‘landowner’. Hence the question: has this intimacy of knowledge now become a privilege of ownership and thus protection?)

The Kunard essay ends with a discussion of Water Flowing to the Sea Captured at the Speed of Light, Blast Hole Pond River, Newfoundland 2002-2003 where Creates submerged a camera in the river to take photographs of the artist through the water. Kunard argues that this work ‘personalises place, fusing the artist with the land.’(p.145) She also points out that this work introduces into Creates’ practice a giving up of control over the outcome of the final image. This is further amplified in Creates’ work What Came to Light at Blast Hole Pond River, Newfoundland 2015 (ongoing) where the camera shutter is triggered by the movement of animals through a motion detector. These works highlight Creates’ use of the medium of photography as an evolving process rather than a static moment in time:

‘This use of photography as process is always a movement outwards; it is never static but engaging, never singular but informed by and informing other media, including language.’(p.146)

Indeed it is the randomness caught in the moment of the camera shutter in What Came to Light that highlight and emphasise the sense of a world full of motion and life beyond the pictures’ limits. The book ends with these expansive photographs and thus opens out into the world beyond its pages.

Conclusion

When seen as a whole the images, commentary and essays of Marlene Creates: Places, Paths, and Pauses create a richly woven tapestry that enable the reader to gain insight and understanding into Creates’ ‘discreet’ oeuvre; an oeuvre that I am pleased to have encountered and feel deserves greater recognition. (This is clearly the aim of the editors). However, as indicated by my ‘reader reflections’, the book as a whole is a touch too gentle. It clearly brings together reflections from those who hold the work of Creates in high regard. But it rarely poses critical questions that the work itself may be asking. This could have been amended by an interview with the artist, raising more probing questions about the work and its contexts. Equally, there is a little too much repetition in the points made and examples used in the essays, particularly in relation to Creates’ ideas around place and a cultural reading of the landscape. More in-depth discussion of Creates’ recent work might have created a greater balance and less repetition. The last word, however, is one of respect: Creates’ work makes its powerful presence felt through its understated quietness. I am left with a reverberating sense of the layered histories present in the land around us, and a desire to walk more slowly and connect with the particularity of place.

 


* AMEC placed an application to site the UK’s largest windfarm on what they repeatedly described as ‘waste’ space and ‘wilderness’.


Sarah Gittins is a visual artist based in Edinburgh. She works across a variety of media, with a particular focus on drawing and printmaking. Her work explores issues of environmental justice, with a current emphasis on issues of climate change, resource use and food sustainability.

www.sarahgittins.net


 

ecoartscotland is a resource focused on art and ecology for artists, curators, critics, commissioners as well as scientists and policy makers. It includes ecoartscotland papers, a mix of discussions of works by artists and critical theoretical texts, and serves as a curatorial platform.

It has been established by Chris Fremantle, producer and research associate with On The Edge ResearchGray’s School of Art, The Robert Gordon University. Fremantle is a member of a number of international networks of artists, curators and others focused on art and ecology.

Go to EcoArtScotland