Civilisation

Carrying the Fire

This post comes to you from EcoArtScotland

Douglas Strang asked ecoartscotland to highlight the Carrying the Fire weekend 20-22nd April 2012 at Wiston Lodge near Biggar in the Scottish Borders.

I seen he was carryin’ fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. ‘Bout the colour of the moon. And in the dream I knew he was goin’ on ahead and he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold.

from ‘No Country for Old Men’ by Cormac McCarthy

The Dark Mountain Project is a cultural movement for an age of global disruption. It is a growing network of writers, thinkers, artists, and craftspeople who have stopped believing in the stories our civilisation tells itself. We believe we are entering an age of material decline, ecological collapse and social and political uncertainty, and that our cultural responses should reflect this, rather than denying it. Carrying the Fire hopes to become the northern cousin of Uncivilisation, the main Dark Mountain Festival. Hosted by Wiston Lodge near Biggar in South Lanarkshire, it will be a smaller event, more intimate, but still with a strong programme of speakers, poets and performers. And still asking the question: where are the stories to guide us through this era of crisis and change?

The dominant stories – those that speak of growth, endless progress, more of everything – continue to be proclaimed throughout the land, but there’s a hollowness in the telling and a growing mistrust of the tale. At ‘Carrying the Fire’ we will hear from those with a different perspective:

Paul Kingsnorth, co-founder of Dark Mountain, will be there to discuss the Project – where it’s come from and where it’s going.

Margaret Elphinstone will read from and discuss ‘The Gathering Night’, which is set during the Mesolithic era. Her novel is a celebration of ‘wildness’ and of the ‘animism’ which once formed the basis of our relationship to the natural world.

Kenneth White’s ‘Geopoetics’ is correlated to the Dark Mountain idea of ‘uncivilised writing’. Norman Bissell, director of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, will discuss White’s ideas and use them in an exploration of ‘the Golden Land’ – the utopian vision which so haunts Orwell’s ’1984′.

Sharon Blackie of TwoRavens Press and the soon to be launched journal ‘Earthlines’, will discuss the art of storytelling and the ways that stories connect.

And there will be other talks and tellings, including from Luke Devlin, director of the Centre for Human Ecology, the artist Matthew Donnelly, and Gehan MacLeod of the GalGael Trust. There will be art workshops and ecopoetry sessions, storytelling for children (and adults), and opportunities to explore the land and the woods round Wiston Lodge – including Tinto Hill (2334 ft) beneath which Wiston nestles.

In the evenings there will be music from the likes of Mairi Campbell as well as more informal sessions. On Saturday night, we will set off into the woods for the latest instalment of Liminal – an otherworldly mix of art, poetry and physical theatre.

So, if you can’t wait till ‘Uncivilisation’ in August, or are based in the North and want to support a Dark Mountain event closer to home, join us for what promises to be an amazing weekend on the 20th – 22nd April. Come, celebrate spring amidst the hills of the Borders, gather by the fire in a clearing in the woods. There are stories to be told…

For more information and how to book tickets click here.

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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Environmentalism: towards civilisation, or “uncivilisation”?


The environment movement is failing because it has only a negative vision of the future. Discuss.

That’s the nub of the argument suggested by Josie Appleton of the Manifesto Club in her essaythat we published last week, and one echoed by Emma Ridgway’s recent article for theRETHINK exhibition catalogue. Environmentalism, the argument goes, is about limiting possibilities. It’s about what we shouldn’t do. Appleton believes that art has a visionary role in thinking beyond this drought of possiblity; humanity must instead accept its place as the species that transformed the earth – we must take on that leap of consciousness when we start to think of solutions and not start from the romantic baseline of earth as a wilderness, despoiled by man. We must move forwards, not back.

A radical idea. And the polar opposite to another radical idea proposed recently by poet/writer/activist Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine. For them and their Dark Mountain Project, human civilisation itself is the toxic factor that has plunged the earth into crisis. In the blink of an eye – the five thousand years or so  in which  humanity has accelerated towards modern civilisation – we have so stamped over the intricacies of nature that the wheel is now flying off the machine. We must prepare our exit from civilisation, for “uncivilisation”. In the visual arts, this has echoes in the recent work of Heather and Ivan Morison, whose How to prosper in the coming bad years discussion takes place in The Black Cloud (see above) next weekend in Bristol.

Art, a place where the imagination can roam to extremes, is an excellent laboratory for ideas.  The Dark Mountain Project finds its inspiration in literature, particularly in the poetry of Robinson Jeffers – the Californian who shared a romantic vision of wilderness with environmentalist Edward Abbey, referred to below. It was Jeffers who had first suggested the idea of  “inhumanism” that  inspired the Dark Mountain Project. Human civilisation was, Jeffers suggested, always too self-centred to understand the complexity and beauty of the world around it. The Dark Mountain Project also plant their flag in the literature of Joseph Conrad and his “heart of darkness”.

There have been some interesting responses to the Dark Mountain provocation. In the New StatesmanJohn Gray responded to the Dark Mountain provocation by demonstrating that literature has in fact been much more successful at showing the catastrophic results of “uncivilisation” than eulolgising it. There is nothing romantic about the crumbling of civil society. Gray too cites Joseph Conrad, to make the point that Conrad, like J G Ballard – shows the genuine  horror of what a society in disintegration actually looks like. Both Conrad and Ballard were witness to the atrocities that happen when the crust of civilization is removed.

(On a sidenote, Paul Kingsnorth and I have disagreed elsewhere about whether Cormac MacCarthy’s The Road is a novel primarily about climate change. Gray’s line of argument  reminds you that MacCarthy’s book, in which baby-eating survivors scavage the land,  displays the awful consequence of uncivilisation.)

But as both suggest, it’s time to rexamine the givens. Environmentalism hasn’t produced the major shift in culture that the global warming era requires. Something radical has to shift.  Appleton’s idea is that to save civilisation we need more civilisation, not less:

The anthropocene is here, and there is no way back. To wish that we could retreat is the mythical fantasy of wishing that we never ate the apple or stole the fire. It is a wish that we were children again, back in a former stage of history. We cannot reverse out of the anthropocene but only go forward.

I doubt John Gray would quite see eye to eye with Appleton’s thesis either. Gray’s book Straw Dogs was a vigorous assault on the idea of that idea of human centrality in nature. Appleton’s argument is unashamedly anthropocentric; in fact the very notion of the anthropocene, by definition, is a human-centred concept. Gray follows James Lovelock: such assumptions of human supremacy over nature are fundamentally arrogant and hubristic.  Myself, I find the technological postivism of Appleton’s approach hard to embrace. Above all, I don’t believe, as she does, that, ” The climate moves slowly; we have time.”

The Black Cloud by Heather and Ivan Morison (Bristol, 2009)photographed by ac (y su camarófono)

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Paul Kingsnorth’s new millenarian literary movement

Paul Kingsnorth, poet, environmentalist, journalist and author of Real England, attempts to kick off a ground-breaking new literary movement this month, The Dark Mountain Projectwith social-web frontiersman Dougald Hine. Its premise is a radical one;  if I represent it right, it’s that we are on the brink of catastrophe and it’s art’s reponsibility to face that, and to reflect it in its output. We have been telling the wrong stories. It is time to start telling the right ones:

We don’t believe that anyone – not politicians, not economists, not environmentalists, not writers – is really facing up to the scale of this. As a society, we are all still hooked on a vision of the future as an upgraded version of the present. Somehow, technology or political agreements or ethical shopping or mass protest are meant to save our civilisation from self-destruction. Well, we don’t buy it.

Kingsnorth and Hine have written a remarkable manifesto that’s well worth reading; it’s erudite, lyrical and, most of all,  apolcalyptic in an almost William Blake-ish kind of way, seeing civilisation treading on a “thin crust of lava” as the environmental catastrophe looms. Its eight principles of “Uncivilisation” include the following:

3. We believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilisation: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature’. These myths are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths.
4. We will reassert the role of story-telling as more than mere entertainment. It is through stories that we weave reality.

There is a growing debate here at the RSA Arts & Ecology Centre about the role of apocalyptic art in changing minds. We are fond of quoting Raymond Williams here, “that to be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing”. If you want people to change, you have to offer them a way to a future that inspires them, rather than terrifies them. Pessimism convinces nobody.

But what if that act of making hope possible only bluntens the urgency of the situation, dissipates the urge to action?

Kingsnorth and Hine are looking for people to rally to the flag.

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