ecoartscotland

The Content of Nothing :: Part 4 :: On Attending

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Featured Image: “A Sort of Visual Rhythm: Symphoricarphos” from Back to the Things Themselves GFVA 2012

Samantha Clark: I was really interested in how you see the role of drawing within your practice. It seems to me that the process of drawing, particularly such obviously meticulous and detailed drawing that has evidently taken some time, is a kind of attention, a meditative or contemplative process. And I think so much of creative work, whether visual or writing, is fundamentally about this paying attention, and then through putting the work out, drawing other peoples’ attention, a kind of ‘pointing out’, saying ‘have you ever noticed this?’ To ‘attend’ means to wait, to be present with, to serve, to listen, to wait, to take care of someone/something. Its Latin root ‘ad-tendere’ means’ to stretch into’, to stretch one’s mind towards something.

I wanted to quote from the Canadian poet Tim Lilburn’s essay How to be here? because he puts something very eloquently that I couldn’t say any better. Lilburn was trained as a Jesuit, now teaches philosophy in a catholic college, and his work is imbued with a very scholarly understanding of the tradition of ‘negative theology’ and the mystical, contemplative tradition of Christianity that has been somewhat lost. He writes really beautifully about the practice of contemplation, and that desire to be ‘one with nature’ that is bandied around so much in environmental thinking, especially some of the less careful interpretations of deep ecology. It’s something I am always uneasy with. We can never be ‘at one with nature’ in any straightforward, cosy way. Nature doesn’t give a s**t.

PDF extract, Lilburn on watching some deer come into his yard

Lilburn is eloquent on this being-in-the-world and yet there being a separation, a gap, an otherness. Merleau-Ponty is also helpful on this when he talks about the ‘flesh’, that there is a kind of blind spot, a gap in our experience of the world just at the point where we are folded into it – a ‘chiasm’. He goes back again and again to the experience of the toucher touched, when you touch one hand with the other – you can experience ‘touching’ or ‘being touched’ but not exactly simultaneously. I think he was wary of the ‘merging’ that can be implied when we start to see self and world as ‘the same’. In his work on the flesh he describes an ‘embrace’, not a merging. The fleshy solidity of things in the world is not an obstacle but a means of communication. There is differentiation, a gap. But this is not the same as dualism. (Merleau-Ponty, 1968: 130-155) Sartre was big on this too: ‘Nothingness haunts being’. He argued that when we become ‘self’ conscious, there is a slight displacement of the ego that allows us to become reflexive, and so there is a gap, a nothingness, right at the heart of the self. (Sartre, 1937/2000) He was predictably bleak and gloomy about it, describing it as a ‘worm’ at the heart of being, but I think of it in a similar way to the ‘gap’ between two eyelines in stereo vision (or sound) that punches a third dimension into experience, or like to space in a bell that allows it to resonate.

Judy Spark:  I had never heard of Lilburn until you introduced me to him but I am really struck firstly by how beautifully he puts this feeling of wanting to ‘know’ the world, but not really being able to; he sees his ‘separation’ from it as part of the experience; a “desire whose satisfaction is its frustration and continuance” and his thinking does seem comparable to Merleau-Ponty’s on the concept ‘flesh’. These notions speak to me especially in light of what I was alluding to earlier about the impossibility of bridging this separation through description or the sort of attention that is part of drawing, and I’m not saying that bridging the separation ought to be the aim. What we seem to be saying is that this gap itself is very important, and indeed may itself prove to be fertile ground in ways that we (humans) do not yet fully appreciate or understand.

This practice of drawing is indeed a method of paying attention, it is contemplative and the idea of ‘stretching ones mind towards something’ is exactly how it feels. However, these drawings don’t come about through any romantic method of sitting in a field meditating over something and its rendering. As much as this activity may exist as a personal counter to an overload of daily information transmission, through which little of value may actually be received, their making employs the tools of this culture: the digital camera, the print shop, the photocopier. The subjects of the drawings are ones that have ‘spoken’ to me, usually accumulatively, over a period of time on walks made regularly as I go about daily activities (getting to work for instance) on routes that are often a mix of the urban and the rural, the peripheries of the cities I inhabit. I would no more sit down in these environments (or any other outdoor locations) and start drawing than fly in the air. I am too much a product of the 21st Century for that, I’m too afraid I’d attract unwanted attention (human or animal), I’m too soft – get too hot or too cold easily, get hungry, need to pee, or suffer from some other discomfort. As long as I keep moving, I’m fine. But the things still ‘speak’ and I try to build sense from these broken transmissions. Back in my climate controlled studio, I grid up the enlarged photograph of the ‘thing’ that I’m working from. I refer to the notes on it made after each encounter. I think my way back through this encounter as it is transferred to paper, appears as marks in graphite and ends up as not of one world (mine) or another (the one the thing itself inhabits) but something in between. In this process of working in the gap between the two, I find the space to ‘stretch my mind toward’ the thing encountered, the world it inhabits, and this ‘exchange’ is picked up again, the next time I’m on that particular path.

I’m aware that there is again something of the cynic present here in this account of observing the ‘natural’, in a way that still ‘confounds’ it with the technological, in the methods employed in bringing about the work, and in the overlaying of the sound-work that relates to it. Sometimes during the process of these drawings, I think about an experiment I came across in a book called The Secret Life of Plants, the aim of which was to clear a field of pests using electromagnetic resonance to treat, not the field itself, but a photograph of it! It was claimed that the molecular make up of the photographic emulsion would resonate at the same frequencies as the objects in the photograph. If this is just slightly unbelievable (it maybe doesn’t work with digital!), it nevertheless does make me think about what exactly is taken, made, stilled or distilled in the making of a photograph. There is some sort of exchange, and energy has to be part of this, between the seer and the seen. Both are slightly changed by the encounter, folded into one another but still distinct, to turn to Merleau Ponty again. Drawing these things, even through these clunky methods, is a way to begin to get to this.

References:

Lilburn, T (1999) Living in the World as if it Were Home: Essays, Ontario: Cormorant Books

Merleau-Ponty, (1968) The Visible and the Invisible, Evanston: Northwestern University Press

Sartre, Jean-Paul (1937/2000) ‘The Transcendence of the Ego’ in Priest, S. (2000) Jean-Paul Sartre: Basic Writings, Routledge

Tompkins, P. and Bird, C. (1974) The Secret Life of Plants, London: Allen Lane (Penguin)

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.

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Check out Strange Weather

This post comes to you from EcoArtScotland

The Strange Weather exhibition and project, curated by CoClimate (and a very important looking man from Met Eireann) is on at the Science Gallery in Dublin at the moment.  CoClimate have flipped our obsession with the weather and how it affects us to play with the idea of how we affect the weather…  If you’re interested to see what sort of work is included, and how the audience is reacting, check out this video:

 

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.

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The Content of Nothing :: Part 3 :: On Gaps

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Samantha Clark: ‘Instruments for Observing the Universe  *3 : Gravity Boots’ Allenheads Contemporary Arts, Northumberland August 2013

Samantha Clark: ‘Instruments for Observing the Universe *3 : Gravity Boots’ Allenheads Contemporary Arts, Northumberland August 2013

Samantha Clark: According to astronomers we can only actually perceive about 4.7% of the universe. This is the ‘shiny stuff,’ the atoms and particles that we can actually see, the ‘things’ bit. The rest of it, the ‘nothing’ bit, is made up of ‘dark matter’, which is about 27%, and ‘dark energy’ which makes up about 68%. These percentages are not absolutes, not slices of a finite pie, but expressions of relationship, a ratio between the visible and the invisible. They speak eloquently of the relationship between the material and the ineffable. According to modern physics, the material world is only this 4.7%, a tiny fraction, our only point of contact, the tip of an iceberg, a keyhole to peep through. Behind it lies a vast hinterland of strange, dimly seen, uncanny something-nothingness, which is only seen through the effects it has on see-able matter; through its gravitational effects, in the case of dark matter, and in the accelerating expansion of the universe, possibly caused by dark energy. I took part in a short residency this August at Allenheads Contemporary Arts in Northumberland, and together with a group of a dozen or so other artists we explored this notion of the 95% of the universe which we can’t perceive, and had fascinating conversations with an astroparticle physicist who had also been invited. Particle physicists use non-detection as a means of detection – they look for the gap, the hole, the nothing, and voilà! An invisible particle! It turns out that mass, the very solidity and weight of the material world, is not a property of matter itself but a result of the interaction between matter and Higgs particles. We swim through the Higgs field like fish through the sea (and it through us) and its pull we experience as gravity, a phenomenon that remains a great scientific mystery. For the purposes of this one-week residency I quickly made a series of ‘sketches’ in response to the ideas we explored together – ‘Instruments for Exploring the Universe’ – including these ‘gravity boots’ and accompanying piece of text::

‘Walking up a hill is a good time to remember that gravity is a mystery to science, though knowing this doesn’t help the climb much. How strange it is that this firm press of my two feet upon the ground should be felt so keenly by the body, yet seen so dimly by the mind. They say that cold dark matter, the unseen stuff that makes up most of the universe, trawls through us all the time. Like all of the visible world I am fat with the unseen fullness of empty space. Dark matter, slow, lead-heavy, its dull pull clumps galaxies together like dust seeding rainclouds. Puffing uphill I am clogged with it. I feel my own weight as it leans into me. Yet this whole shining world would drift away without its dark ballast.’

Judy Spark: Gravity, a fundamental element of our own make up, yet we generally talk of it as something separate from us that ‘happens’ when we drop something. I really like the way that what you’ve said here emphasises the relationship we have with this ‘ineffable substance’. This notion of ‘relationship’ is so vital to a fuller appreciation of the things and processes, both natural and technological, that are present or taking place around us. I note that alongside the boots was another Instrument for Observing the Universe in the form of an old valve radio tuned to what’s between stations……

“Listening in the Gap” from Back to the Things Themselves; Judy Spark, The Briggait, Glasgow Festival of Visual Art 2012 (with Lesley Punton)

“Listening in the Gap” from Back to the Things Themselves; Judy Spark, The Briggait, Glasgow Festival of Visual Art 2012 (with Lesley Punton)

This printed and bound text, was exhibited in a two person show Back to the Things Themselves with Lesley Punton in the Briggait in Glasgow as part of Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art 2012. The work consisted of a series of written descriptions detailing what could be heard during a concentrated period of listening in the gaps between broadcasts over the FM spectrum of a Robert’s R25 analogue radio (88 – 108 FM) on the 25th May 2011 between 4.20 and 6.15pm.

The notion that the ‘spaces’ between broadcasts themselves hold ‘content’ is of great interest to me. It seems to say a lot about the presence of what appears, on the surface of things, to be absent, and I’m drawn to the parallels between this and the experience of what is between thoughts, i.e., nothing, the Buddhist conception of ‘pure consciousness’? Again it seems to pertain to the idea of a ‘gap’, a stillness, that quells the chatter about what and how things are, leaving a space for things to be more fully disclosed in different ways. Phenomenology has it that consciousness is always consciousness of something.

It may be something cynical in the quality of my observation but it seems that in our culture, we generally find that we must name what occurs in a gap, rather than simply experiencing the quality of this space itself. An extract from the text pictured above reads,

“102 – 104

Soft hiss, like rain in trees, but at a distance. The spinning high-pitched sound
is there but less keen. The odd crackle, like dust on a record, can be heard.
These sounds play around the edges of deliberately broadcast ones.”

A parallel work Instructions for Creating a Gap, shown in the adjacent room, consisted of a pile of A4 folded sheets of printed instructions. Visitors were encouraged to take a copy away with them that they might try ‘listening in gaps’ themselves at home. Over the course of the exhibition, around 1000 of these texts left the gallery; however I have no information as to whether the exercise was undertaken by anyone who holds a copy.

“The Things Themselves” and “Morning Broadcast” from Back to the Things Themselves GFVA 2012

“The Things Themselves” and “Morning Broadcast” from Back to the Things Themselves GFVA 2012

Still with the notion of radio and ‘gaps’, both these pieces of work used mini FM radio transmitters to transmit sound through radios. In Morning Broadcast, the cynic takes those ‘universe observing tools’ and plugs gaps through which it might be listened to with her own sounds……in this case, birdsong.

(The sound of birdsong in the room in which this discussion was taking place became apparent at the appearance of this slide.)

This ‘confounding’ of the ‘natural’ with the technological is designed to address the ways in which we attend to things. Because of the acoustics of the Briggait it sometimes seemed to gallery visitors as if the sound were coming from outside the building. The Things Themselves consisted of two radios broadcasting a series of softly spoken descriptions, in both male and female voices. The descriptions articulate the natural forms that are the subject of the drawings A Sort of Visual Rhythm (Symphoricarpos) also situated in gallery 1 and Orrery (Galium aparine) in gallery 2. The soundtracks coming from the two radios were slightly out of sync with one another, so that two different voices could be heard at any one time. I think that my interest in this latter radio work, lay in the fact that neither in the reported descriptions, nor in the drawings of the things themselves, could even an approximation of the content of the original experience, that of encountering the forms in the landscape, be made. The real ‘listening’ could only really have taken place within that original experience.

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.
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EAFS 2015 – Environmental Art Festival Scotland

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The team behind the Environmental Art Festival Scotland (EAFS) have a call out for proposals for 2015 which they asked us to circulate.

The EAFS team is beginning the process of developing work for the 2015 festival. To do this we want to work collaboratively with creative people and communities of interest. EAFS 2015 will connect South West Scotland to national and international locations therefore we are particularly seeking proposals that involve some form of journey to the festival.

The Commissioned Artworks
The commissioned artworks might comprise a journey, an event, an installation, an art happening. They might involve structure, visual art, design, architecture, sound or performance or a combination of these disciplines. We are interested in work that involves making across different disciplines and technologies and ideas of sharing and potentially leaving something behind. The artwork should culminate in Dumfries and Galloway as part of EAFS 2015 (28 – 30 August).

Festival Themes
• Inventiveness, foolishness and generosity as a way of understanding the world;
• Food, clothes, shelter and environmental sustainability;
• Hospitality, hosting and community;
• Journeys, migrations, secular pilgrimage and transformation.

Full details and online submission form can be found here:
http://www.environmentalartfestivalscotland.com/eafs-2015/

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.
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Sustaining Rural Scotland opportunity

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£20k Innovation Event – ‘Sustaining Rural Scotland’ Chiasma
21 – 23 October 2014, New Lanark

With the acceleration of climate change and increased pressure on our planet’s natural resources, raising awareness and innovating around environmental sustainability has never been more urgent. More consumers now than ever before have direct experience of climate change and the pressures on the natural environment. They are calling for better protection against flooding, wise use and re-use of natural or local assets and food security.

To help address these issues, we see innovative technologies, services, models and incentives emerging e.g. in lifecycle management and the circular economy or in open data for energy, agriculture and transport. There are also innovation opportunities for supporting consumer values by removing barriers (such as conflicting attitudes and responsibilities, lack of time, trust or space) for pro environmental action.

Chiasma will provide an opportunity for rural businesses, entrepreneurs and retailers to converge with designers, technologists and academics to identify and create potential solutions to support climate action for rural Scotland.

APPLY TO ATTEND NOW: http://designinaction.com/chiasmas/rural-economies-chiasma-2014

Closing Date for Applications: 5pm, Mon 1st Sep 2014

Chris Fremantle is involved in this programme (though not this event) as Co-Investigator and Senior Research Fellow at Gray’s School of Art/IDEAS, Robert Gordon University.

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.
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The Content of Nothing :: Part 2 :: Purposeful non-doing

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Samantha Clark: ‘A Year of Breathing’ Project for Natural Balance: Equilibrio Natural, Girona, Spain, May 2009

Samantha Clark: ‘A Year of Breathing’
Project for Natural Balance: Equilibrio Natural, Girona, Spain, May 2009

Samantha Clark: In 2009 was asked to make a proposal for an eco-art exhibition called Equilibrio Natural: Natural Balance that was taking place in Girona, Spain, which was to be a series of installations around the city developed by artists from all over the world. When I looked at the criteria, I noticed that I had to assure the organisers I would use local materials. And yet the curators and all the artists were going to be flying in from all over Europe and North America just for the exhibition. I felt there was a conflict at the heart of this, and so my proposal pointed out that I wasn’t a local material, and also quite a heavy lump to transport. So I proposed to stay at home, and to donate the CO2 emissions of my return flight to the people of Girona, for the purposes of guilt-free exhalation. I worked out that it would be about the equivalent of one-year’s worth of exhalation (according to some online carbon offsetting calculators it could be as much as 6 years, depending on how many trees they want to sell you). So I worked remotely with locally-based helpers, yoga teachers and Buddhist centres to run a series of meditations on the breath and mindful exhalation, in a space that used to be a mediaeval cloister. It was really interesting to discover that participants felt it offered them a way to physically encounter with the body something invisible that is usually discussed in very abstract, vast terms of ‘parts per million’, which makes it seem like something far away. They said that meditating on the breath like this, brought them to understand in a direct, felt way that ‘the atmosphere’, which is usually seen as something ‘up there’ is also the very air that passes through our bodies. We are in direct relation with it.

Samantha Clark: S.T.I.L.L. : A project for Gentle Actions: Art Ecology Actions Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo, Norway Oct/Nov 2010

Samantha Clark: S.T.I.L.L. : A project for Gentle Actions: Art Ecology Actions
Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo, Norway
Oct/Nov 2010

Following this I was asked to propose another project for an exhibition in 2010 called Gentle Actions: Art Ecology Action in Oslo. I was still troubled what seems like a cognitive dissonance where we artists, like anyone else, can have a blind spot regarding the ecological footprint of our travel because we want to have an international profile. There’s such a pressure on us to do this as artists and as academics. I don’t want to condemn it outright, and I know I am complicit, but I do feel the need to recognise this as a conflict, and to draw it out into the open rather than just accept it as a necessary evil or just ignore it. If the means and the stated ends are in direct conflict, then the integrity of the work is compromised. I had been teamed up, by the curators, with a Swiss artist who lives in the States, but I felt rather conflicted about her project to fly to Norway to make a piece of work, called S.P.I.L.L. about the Gulf oil spill. I wasn’t sure how to respond to or work with her proposal, which seemed to involve using a lot of fossil fuels to make a statement about our dependence on fossil fuels.

F David Peat in the book (which gave this exhibition its title) Gentle Actions (2008) proposes that acting less, hesitating more, and perhaps refraining from acting at all, might at times be an appropriate response to the crisis of climate change. After all, it’s our incessant rushing about that sucks up so much fossil fuel, and that taking time and space to reflect is important too. It occurred to me that just as a physical ‘nothing’ keeps turning out to be replete with meaning and unfathomably complex, an active ‘doing nothing’ might be, in this case, the most appropriate choice of action. So my response to S.P.I.L.L. was a contribution I called S.T.I.L.L. I chose to participate remotely, staying at home in Scotland to practice the gentle art of keeping still. I wrote, recorded and uploaded a series of reflection on stillness, pausing, air, and the breath as a direct, felt interaction with the invisible environment. The air, that we barely register and can’t see, yet depend on utterly, is a completely astonishing ongoing product of the biosphere.

PDF of Thin Air excerpt

Judy Spark: I love the way that that this sits at the ‘in between’ of the scientific and the poetic – which tend to get forced apart. We have scientific evidence of these processes but we can also have directly observed experience of many of them if enough attention is paid. I mentioned before that this method of drawing on the scientific is a perfectly permissible phenomenological starting point, something that can get forgotten as we are so used to viewing things in dualistic terms. I’m particularly interested here in the premise that you undertook a process of ‘non-doing’, apart from the recorded speech, in order to get something to happen and that the Year of Breathing piece rested on this premise too. It’s purposeful non-doing!
Judy Spark: “The Straight Rods” from Discovering Dowsing Ardo House, Aberdeenshire, (NEOS 2010)

Judy Spark: “The Straight Rods” from Discovering Dowsing
Ardo House, Aberdeenshire, (NEOS 2010)

JS: This work came about in 2010 at Ardo House in Aberdeenshire as part of North East Open Studios (NEOS). I was still working with the notion of tuning here, being tuned in or employing ones natural sensitivities in some way, a process so evident in the work you have been talking about above. Dowsing is said to depend upon the sensitivity of the dowser to movement in the rods as they pick up subtle changes in ground energy as a result of the presence of water.

A series of handmade dowsing rods were installed in the naturally enclosed space beneath a mature Beech tree in the grounds of the house. Visitors were invited to test some of the rods as they walked around and then asked to note the results on an evolving ‘drawing’, installed in the laundry room, the basis of which was a hand drawn map of the grounds. As I was developing the work, I had a conversation with one of the residents of the house, who had lived there since the 1980s. She told me that when they first moved in, the house had required to be hooked up to the mains water supply and a ‘handy man’ had arrived from the local council to locate the path of an old water pipe network known to be already present somewhere at that location. To accomplish this task, he came equipped with a pair of willow dowsing rods, with which he successfully pinpointed the spot for the new pipes to be sunk. The important thing about this piece of work was the involvement of visitors in terms of thinking about their own potential to pick up on subtle energy changes. It is widely held, in the dowsing literature, that one is able to dowse only if one first believes one can!

You have remarked that this work was like a sort of application of Goethe’s ‘delicate empiricism’; I like this parallel. We may scoff at the notion of practices such as dowsing but discoveries and links that have previously been discounted or thought unbelievable may yet bear fruit and indeed, as your reading above shows, even a subtle shift in the way that we attend to things can transform our experience of them. The drawing together of the scientific with phenomenological (or poetic, or ‘lyrical’) accounts of things, towards a fuller experience of the world, need not make for the poor fit it may at first seem. The Mind and Life Institute for instance exists to bring together Buddhist practices and Western science towards a better understanding of the human mind. Perhaps everything in our world requires this trusting openness and unity of approach. It’s as if we need to shift from the position of taking things apart in order to understand their individual components to one that appreciates the complexity, movement and interlinking of all the bits – like the ecological view. This matters because we are not just observers – as we are open to the world around us it in turn gives us who we are.

References:

F. David Peat (2008) Gentle Actions: Bringing Creative Change to a Turbulent World, Pari Publishing

The Mind and Life Institute – http://www.mindandlife.org/

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

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The Content of Nothing :: Part 1 :: The Ether

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Judy Spark: “Aerial Coil” (B/W print Courtesy of BT Archives) and “Of Origins Unknown; the Galena Radio”
from Tuning to the Ether, Cupar Festival of Visual Art, 2009

 

Judy Spark: This work, consisting of a series of archive prints and a set of hand-made radios constructed from odds and ends such as copper wire, pencil leads and safety pins, was made for Cupar Visual Arts Festival in 2009. I had come across some references to a little known aspect of the town, which was that it played a part in the development of transatlantic telephony in the late 1920s. As a result of this work I later, in 2011, undertook a short residency in Cupar, the focus of which was to explore this matter in more depth. It transpires that the town and the area around it, sits in a sort of natural dip in the land that is said to be especially disposed towards the reception of LW radio signals. I was particularly interested in a letter that I came across in the BT Archive in London, written by a Mr Jacks of Cupar in 1928 to a Mr J. D. Taylor of the Institute of Electrical Engineers in receipt of a cheque he had been issued in exchange for allowing the positioning of telephone lines across his land. He states:

“I know nothing of wireless initiatives, but judging from the results we have from continental stations, I think our quiet, damp, elevated hollow must have special facilities for reception.”

And there is some scientific grounding for this theory.

I have a long-standing interest in what may be present around us, but unseen, unperceived, or at least not fully. Radio communications, and their relation to natural phenomena are for me therefore, highly intriguing. I have recently made an exploration of this relationship through writing, in a paper entitled The Environing Air. The paper explores the intertwining of the natural and the technological through the case study of a particular communications installation in Assynt in the far north west of Scotland. A phenomenological description – phenomenology being the science of direct experience – of the installation is made in service of this aim but also by drawing on elements of physics, that are perhaps less easy to experience directly. This combined approach is considered as a legitimate phenomenological ‘method’, one very well articulated by the philosopher Anthony Steinbock.

Link to PDF, extract from The Environing Air

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Samantha Clark: Photos taken by SC circa 1981 featuring the artist’s father assembling a home-made 2m antenna above Loch Torridon

 

Samantha Clark: It’s fascinating to discover the links between our practices, because the notion of ‘The Subtle Ether’ has been an interest in my own work for a long time; an ongoing preoccupation with gaps, absences, distance, longing, nothing, the hidden or invisible, and the notion of ‘between-ness’, the ether as something postulated to fill the gaps between everything, explaining how light travels. What is between things? What is ‘no-thing’? Ask that question and another follows: What is a ‘thing?.’ And that’s when everything starts to get very intriguing. The work is really a way to look at these questions from all angles, creatively, visually, philosophically, lyrically. I was drawn towards the explorations of these questions that emerge in continental philosophy, especially in the tradition of phenomenology, and the insights that approach gives into role of absence in perception. There seem to be parallels between phenomenology and aspects of Buddhist philosophy, in which ‘things’ are understood as not having ‘own-being’, that is not existing from their ‘own side’, but presenting themselves as confluences, more or less momentary, of millions upon millions of causes and conditions, including the observer. So the object becomes less of a static ‘thing’ and more like a standing wave, what is termed by Husserl a ‘pole of identity’ within this flow of percepts. This way of seeing brings everything alive; things and the stuff between things all start to get involved. It strikes me as an intrinsically ecological way of seeing.

So, I have come from a visual art practice into philosophy and ‘academic’ writing, and now am working on a PhD on Creative Writing, still unpacking this notion of ‘the Subtle Ether’, using this as a kind of metaphorical hook on which to hang a related set of ideas.

I had been preoccupied with these ideas for a long time but the personal relevance only really came home to me after my father died and I began to clear his things. He worked for 45 years as a telecoms engineer for the BBC, from wartime radio to the early days of television, retiring just at the point when digital technology was coming in. After he retired he carried on as an enthusiastic Radio HAM and maker of remote control models. I came across photographs (above) recently, which I think I took, on a family holiday to Torridon. We had hiked up the hill where my Dad assembled this yagi antenna to see what 2 metre radio signals might be propagating through that landscape. The two metre band is a portion of the VHF radio spectrum allocated for amateur use. Its signal is usually fairly local, a few miles or so, unless bounced onwards by a repeater station. But sometimes the signals can travel huge distances. Occasionally, signal bending caused by changes in the ionosphere caused by sunspots, metors or auroras can allow 2 metre signals to carry hundreds or even thousands of miles. With enough power behind it, a signal can be bounced from the face of the moon. A person transmitting through the earth’s atmosphere to the moon may hear the end of his own transmission returning, an echo crossing a wide canyon. To me, as a kid, this kind of expedition didn’t feel any more technological than the fishing trips we also used to go on – picking a likely spot, keeping an eye on weather, assembling the fishing rod or home-made antenna, waiting, watching, hopefully catching something that had been ‘swimming’ in ether/water. Of course, now we know that electromagnetic radiation from man-made sources is suspected of affecting bees, even some ‘electrosensitive’ humans. So it’s not completely innocent either. Mind you, neither is fishing.

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Judy Spark on Drumcarrow Hill, Cupar testing the reception of her handmade radios.

I find the ‘ether’ such an interesting nothing-thing because it really is ‘between-ness’ – it oscillates between natural and technological, between nothing and something, rational and irrational, science and poetry, distance and intimate connection, and it’s also something to do with human relationships, in the silence and (mis)communication within families. It’s a word that is a constant shapeshifter, reflecting our cultural preoccupations and scientific ideas right back at us. It gave birth to the science of electricity and magnetism, and yet also Spiritualism and Mesmerism. It gets debunked as one thing, ‘the luminiferous ether’, and keeps coming back as something else, dark energy perhaps, or the Higgs Field.
Judy Spark on Drumcarrow Hill, Cupar testing the reception of her handmade radios.

 

 

 

References:

Heidegger, M. Being and Time Trans. John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962) [1926]

Spark, J. “The Environing Air: A Meditation on Communications Installations in Natural Environments” in PhaenEx: Journal of Existential and Phenomenological Theory and Culture
Vol 8, No1 (2013) PP 185 – 207.

Steinbock, A.J. “Back to the Things Themselves: Introduction”. Human Studies 20 (The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997) pp.127–135.

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.
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What makes a house an artwork? Anne Douglas on visiting The Avoca Project

This post comes to you from EcoArtScotland

Anne Douglas, during her Mcgeorge Fellowship at the University of Melbourne, Australia, visited with Lyndal Jones and The Avoca Project in Avoca, Victoria.  In this guest blog she highlights some of the ways in which Lyndal and her collaborators have been demonstrating an art of sustainability, through a house and a garden.

The Avoca Project draws together art, place and climate change in a unique configuration. Nine years ago, Lyndal Jones, one of Australia’s most renowned artists, funded the purchase of a derelict house in Avoca, a rural town in the State of Victoria, Australia. The Avoca Project became a ten year commitment (2005-2015) to environmental issues and something of a counterpoint to the form and practice of international art biennales. It would inspire future work as an engagement between art and the public in relation to climate change and challenge the idea of place as physically stable.

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Watford House, site of The Avoca Project, Photo: Anne Douglas

The house is an early example of a two storey timber framed prefabrication of Swedish design, found in Australia in the 19th century among the middle classes during the period of the gold rush (1851 –late 1860s). The kit was imported from Germany as numbered planks and costructed as accommodation for one of the hotels in the town.  This was a period that trebled the population of European and Chinese immigrants in the area. In 1852 the house was moved, in order to enlarge the hotel. It had been situated higher up the hill on the main street and was beautifully re-sited to overlook the Avoca river.

What makes a house an artwork?

There is a conceptual simplicity to this work that belies deep complexity. First and foremost there is a particular intelligence and sensitivity towards the building as a place to inhabit in 21st century, based on an awareness of the impacts of industrialisation on the social, cultural and environmental. Once a dwelling of grandeur, the house had suffered from the harshness of climate and decreasing wealth in the rural areas. In response to these issues, the project embodies an openness to questioning current modes of living and increasing awareness of actions that we can usefully take to create more sustainable living environments.

This is perhaps best explained in an example: the house was flooded in 2010. This event ironically took place three weeks after the production of a performance piece, Rehearsing Catastrophe: the Ark in Avoca (described below). Jones’ work in repairing the house had included making it ‘flood friendly’ in response to hearing it was on a ’1 in 100 year’ floodplain (with use of rugs rather than carpets, solid wood rather than chipboard, few whitegoods…).  The waters may now enter in and exit out of the property, with only minimum damage.  This approach to living ‘with’ rather than ‘against’ nature is an ethos, a way of being, that underpins the most simple actions in everyday life in this place.

Important to the quality of this work as art is the way Jones conceptualises her role as ‘custodian’ and ‘restorer,’ as opposed to ‘owner’. An owner would perhaps renovate by drawing the house into his/her taste and life style. As custodian, Jones mediates the past, present and future of dwelling, judging what is appropriate and inappropriate intervention. The house has been re-roofed, re-plastered, re-wired and re-glazed using found timber to render it fit to live in but more than that, a beautiful place to inhabit ethically. Much of the work is Jones’ own labour, assisted by volunteers, and undertaken at weekends and free personal time. Guests are invited to participate at their own pace but never onerously, contributing to an ongoing performance of sculpting a ruin back into existence.

Solar panels on the outbuilding, The Avoca Project, Photo Anne Douglas

Solar panels on the outbuilding, The Avoca Project, Photo Anne Douglas

Beneath this careful restoration of the traditional infrastructure lies a particular sensitivity to energy and water resulting in a quite different, parallel infrastructure from the historical fabric. Focused decisions have emerged out of a process of trial and error, a process of intense learning about which technologies to use and which to avoid, in developing a light ecological foot print.

This second infrastructure constructs a series of virtuous circles between availability and usage of natural resources. Within the garden under the lawn is constructed a water tank that can contain up to 90,000 litres of water. The tank consists of an underground trough lined with a geotextile, a rubber membrane, into which are inserted a series of plastic crates which provide a shape through which the water flows. The trough is filled with water. Local water is high in salt and requires to be desalinated so this storage of rainwater provides an important alternative. Heating is provided through a slow combustion stove using timber from the property and the underground water tank within a closed water system. Visitors are aware of water usage in part through the subtle visibility of the water gauge close to one of the main entrances to the house and also through encouragement to collect excess domestic water where possible to sustain the prolific plant life of the site, including a kitchen garden walled by rosemary bushes. In this way we are gently persuaded that ‘living well’ means ‘living ethically’ through intimate daily habits working with the available resources, mindfully. In the same way the photovoltaic cells on the roof of one of the outbuildings act simultaneously as a functional and as a visual and symbolic reminder of how energy is acquired and used.

Poster, photo Anne Douglas

Poster, photo Anne Douglas

Current developments

In April 2014, the community of Avoca will witness the planting of a Chinese Garden. The Chinese Garden at Avoca has been developed by three artists: Lindy Lee (a Sydney based Chinese-Australian artist currently developing a Chinese Garden in Sydney in parallel with Avoca) is lead artist; Mel Ogden (a landscape artist and expert in stone, who designed and laid out the gardens of The Avoca Project) is Designer and Project Manager; and Lyndal Jones as Artistic Director.  These artists are working in collaboration with a formally constituted Committee that represents the different interest groups that the project has catalysed.

The idea of building a Chinese Garden emerged through a number of discussions and gathered traction as a concept. The Chinese community had been very present in the period of the Gold Rush and the chosen site was close to the original Chinese graveyard.

The privately owned site, adjacent to the house and also on the flood plain of the river, has been negotiated across private/public interests with a long lease under the condition that the community undertakes long term maintenance of the garden as an artwork. The nature of the task is detailed as part of the contract.

It is important to note the artist-led nature of this development. Although funded through a national cultural tourism initiative, requiring significant organisational experience, this project has emerged from the arts community rather than business, offering confidence and a model for future community focused projects.

The insistence on the garden as an artwork instils very high production values led by experienced professionals. The site runs from east (high ground) to west (low ground) with the river running south to north and will deploy a number of aesthetic/ecological tactics that have been tested in The Avoca Project.

Chinese gardens are traditionally constructed around four elements including pavilions, water, rocks and plantings representing the seasons of the year. This garden will feature such elements interpreted through current material modalities and their potential for new meaning across the past, present and future, significantly acknowledging an inter-cultural dynamic. Underpinning the whole is a strong ecological thread. The site, in particular its water, is developed with the same technologies of an underground storage system that here cleans the town’s water using plants and the crate system used for The Avoca Project.  It is also based on sensitive plantings that can accept local soil conditions, such as River Red Gums, and developed through seasonal and aesthetic judgements.

Significant to the whole development is a series of events, effectively new rituals that mark each stage of development in relation to seasonal changes. The starting moment on site was in October 2013 – a procession to the site by children with lanterns they had made, where they met Lindy Lee.  Chinese New Year at the beginning of February was marked with a Chinese Dragon. Winter planting will follow the installation of the main infrastructure in late April and the official opening in October 2014.

This sense of ritual will continue into the way the site will be open for use for public events.  The Avoca Project is contributing a tea ceremony that intermingles the Chinese Tea Ceremony with the more implicit rituals of tea drinking within Australian culture as a means of coming to terms with any important or social moment. The aim is for the garden to be able to host tea ceremonies that draw on the visuality and materiality of one culture in order to throw light on another in a small town where a history that had become hidden – its Chinese history – might provide a means for the town to prosper in the future with the envisaged pilgrimages of Chinese tourists to the area.

Reflections

The Avoca Project reverses and questions many of the tropes of how we expect to live.

It is simultaneously a public and a private project, owned and shared. Individuals – artists from outside of Avoca and members of the Avoca community – are invited to engage in the project in different ways. The point is to be influenced by its histories, its current values and reasons for being and to be creatively challenged to make sense of this encounter as a responsive and responsible individual. Those who choose to participate are invited in to imagine, to reflect, to make new work, to talk and exchange experiences and thoughts. The undoubted courage, stamina and joy of such a commitment is frequently tested in an emotional and personal grappling with the distance between environmental sustainability and practices of land ownership, between expectations of art and issues of everyday life.

It is important to remember that the Avoca house was described as ‘beyond repair’ at the point of purchase. “Beyond repair’ acts as a metaphor for the way climate change is publicly imagined. By implication, it is ‘beyond hope’. This metaphor takes us to the core of the Avoca project as artwork. Framing acts of repair in relation to everyday life, the project becomes a means to grasp the ‘beyond hope’ and confront its implications. Jones describes this as ‘rehearsing catastrophe’. It is at once a metaphor and an artistic and performative strategy.

Rehearsing catastrophe is an imaginary that underpins a number of Jones’ works within a series led by Jones with other artists, Propositions for an Uncertain Future. Each piece leads participation through a strong conceptual frame that focuses the circumstances of potential disaster. The Ark of 2012, for example, focused the requirement to leave the land as a consequence of flooding, marshalling pairs of species (participants in masks) resonant of Noah’s Ark (see video here). Poignantly each participant was allowed one suitcase. The project powerfully evokes experiences of forced migration, of boat people, of evacuees from a war zone, of competing for resources and of being forced to encroach on other people’s land through sudden retreat from one’s own. The projects ‘name grief and loss’ (Lyndal Jones in conversation 12.3.2014).

The Avoca Project garden, photo Anne Douglas

The Avoca Project garden, photo Anne Douglas

If we think of The Avoca Project as an encounter in and through art, we might see that it is unforeseen in the way that art in normally produced. It is neither forced through the kind of shared thematic that frequently underpins public commissions nor is it easily categorised as emerging from a ‘social’, ‘situational’ or ‘relational’ genre of practice. The project is volunteered, not predetermined. It emerges out of a kind of exploratory questioning in which each new discovery accumulates knowledge. The necessity to classify falls away because of the clarity of the work as art in the form of a lasting encounter in which one insight and action builds upon another in the construction of a new world.

In the meantime Rehearsing Catastrophe: The Ark will be reimagined in Mons, Belgium in June 2015 as part of its fesitval as 2015 Cultural Capital of Europe. 

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.
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ASCUS sponsor artists to attend Tipping Point

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ASCUS Open Call July 2014 (application deadline 8 August)
Open Call to attend TippingPoint Oxford, 21 & 22 September 2014

TippingPoint has provided ASCUS three places for Scottish artists to attend their next major event in Oxford. The allocation is to enable Scottish artists to attend and subsequently be considered for commissions up to £20,000.

Application Deadline: Friday 8 August 2014, 5 pm

Event Dates: Sunday & Monday September 21 & 22 2014

Where: Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford

faae0f3351355ba41b704c15246da9e4ASCUS has teamed up with TippingPoint and have been allocated three ASCUS places for Scottish artists to attend their next major event in Oxford. The focus this year will be energy, in the context of climate change. The artistic focus for this event will be stories and narrative, though the concept of stories is broad – performance in various forms, visual representations – there are many ways of telling a story. TippingPoint will also be supporting new commissions to a total of £20,000 each for the creation of new stories on the subject.  Full information about this opportunity can be found on the ASCUS and TippingPoint websites.

We believe this is a major opportunity for a wide variety of artists to bring new content and challenges into their work – and to spend an enormously stimulating couple of days.

To make an application to be present you simply need to write to us setting out two things: firstly a summary of your own work, in not more than 200 words, together with links to any relevant web-based material; secondly an outline of why you would like to attend, in not more than 100 words. An accompanying CV is also welcome, but not a requirement. Send this to general@ascus.org.uk by 5pm on Friday 8 August 2014. Successful applicants will be contacted by the end of August.

Visit the ASCUS website to learn more: http://www.ascus.org.uk/open-call-to-attend-tippingpoint-oxford/

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.

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The Rare Earth Catalog (and Research Group): Tools for Reckoning with the Anthropocene

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Originally posted on Discard Studies:

Posted on behalf of the Rare Earth Catalog group:

The Rare Earth Catalog will present a collection of images and short texts that illuminate the racism, classicism and eco-cidal requirements of industrial-scale life. This collection will explore the latent social and political opportunities that are emerging in the anthropocene, an era of human-induced climate change that is in the process of reconfiguring all life on earth. The catalog will pull together examples of resistance and devastation, as well as tools aimed at challenging and transforming the status quo. We aim to generate a lucid and fearless accounting of the entangled elements constituting our precarious lives on this planet.

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

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