Kate Foster

Spirited discussions pt. 4 (by Ben Twist, Director of Creative Carbon Scotland)

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Dave Young, Carbon Catcher, and Sam Clark, artist and contributor to Spirited discussion 4, in the Meadows. Photo CO2 Edenburgh.

Dave Young, Carbon Catcher, and Sam Clark, artist and contributor to Spirited discussion 4, in the Meadows. Photo CO2 Edenburgh.

The last of our Spirited Discussions asking, ‘Can Art Change the Climate? was entitled:

Going Beyond the Material: Environment and Invisible Forces in the Literary, Performing and Visual Arts.

This, in some ways, reminded me of Wallace Heim’s reference in Spirited Discussion part 2 to Alan Badiou’s idea that the four critical kinds of event which change people are love, science, art and politics.

In the performing arts particularly there is arguably no ‘thing’ that is the work of art: there is the event that is found in the ether between the player and the audience; there is the growth of digital publishing which has emphasised that the same is true of the written work.  With the written word the format is sometimes less important than the content and the work of art is an event taking place in the reader’s head, brought about by the words in whatever form they are reproduced (consider audiobooks). This aesthetic view could of course be equally true of visual artworks; the event takes place when we view the work, but in an empty gallery or an unoccupied installation all that exists is some colour on a surface or a collection of items.

Lucy Miu, Business Manager of the Bedlam Theatre and driving force behind this year and next’s Dramatic Impacts, is also an Environmental Sciences student, effectively straddling the line between the arts and the sciences. She argued that for people to be informed by information they need to be engaged with it. This is backed up by plenty of behaviour change research which shows that plain information has almost no effect on the recipient’s behaviour.  Kate Foster concurred: her experience with biology students saw them overwhelmed by the sheer level of information they were being asked to take in. Her artistic practice allowed them to make sense of it, focus their new knowledge and understand it, rather than just know it. Lucy felt that the arts, which engage us emotionally, can help, and that perhaps they also help where the original experience is not available to all, (murdering the King of Scotland, experiencing the bombing of Guernica), and the artist can bring that experience to a wider audience.

For me, what is particularly important here is that an artist may, perhaps must if they are to be described as an artist rather than a mere reporter, have special insight into the experience that they transmit to the audience along with the basic information: information + insight is what gets the event lodged in the audience’s understanding. Information + insight creates the sort of event we are interested in.

Lucy also made the point that all performing arts events are group activities.  At the very least there is an audience as well as a performer, whilst engaging with visual arts is, or can be, a more solitary business. In her view this made the performing arts more engaging but Tim Collins argued that different forms do different things. (The similarities and differences between the visual and performing arts were questions that arose regularly and usefully during CO2 Edenburgh: Spirit in the Air.) The question of whether feeling is enough arose again, just as it had been raised by Chris Speed in Discussion 1, and it clearly isn’t enough: pornography, a well-made horror film or Love Story make us feel, but that doesn’t seem to be enough to change people or their behaviour as Badiou seems to be getting at.

Here Sam Clark made her first intervention noting that, to the writer Rebecca Solnit, the difference for the writer between discarding an article and having it published is minimal, but history starts when events happen. The event may happen almost accidentally, or is at least subject to chance, and is not solely in the artist’s gift. How does this square with Wallace Heim’s view that the artists’ practices create the conditions where [Badiou’s] change can happen (remember love, science, art and politics)? The answer is surely that art is a fairly slippery thing with fuzzy boundaries. Questions of intention, insight, engagement and emotion swirl around this subject, which is perhaps what makes the question of whether art can change the climate so difficult to disentangle, let alone answer.

Sam Clark chose to address the title Going Beyond the Material more directly in her short and very beautiful talk, speaking about scientists working on matter. Only 4.7% of reality is material, according to a physicist she knows; 75% is dark matter whose existence is only deduced from its interaction with matter and gravity. Even less concrete is dark energy, only imagined because the universe is expanding and accelerating, not shrinking or slowing down. These scientists are working on a relationship between the visible and the invisible, or in artistic terms the knowable and the ineffable (strikingly similar in my mind to Andrew Patrizio’s conjunction of the mercantile and the religious in fifteenth century Florence – see Discussion 3). The scientists at the Large Hadron Collider at Cern use non-detection as a means of detection; 95% of the universe is only knowable through the instrument of the mind. Here we surely get into the realm of philosophy and for me insight comes to the fore again. What we want from artists – why societies from the year dot have supported, encouraged and valued them – is access to the knowledge of the things that are unknowable just through experience, knowledge that requires use of the instrument of the mind. Sam made the same point – insight and experience of things we don’t understand or things we hate, creating a space of wonder, are the things we want from artists. And as Harry Giles made clear in the first of the Spirited Discussions, actually artists and scientists do many of the same things. But maybe Sam’s last suggestion is what artists do but scientists try to avoid: making the familiar strange.

The session came to a close with a short discussion about empathy, a subject that Reiko Goto Collins had touched upon in her introduction. Sympathy is when you simply feel for another; empathy is when you place yourself in their shoes, which takes more than just emotion. Lucy suggested that maybe if art can change the climate, it is because it can help connect the brain and the heart. If we have done that, just a bit, with CO2 Edenburgh: Spirit in the Air, it will have been well worth it.

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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Working the Tweed – opportunities

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Kate Foster asked me to post the following:

With Working the Tweed, we have spaces left on an interesting Riverside Meeting Friday 30th August.  It is on the site of a river restoration project, re-meandering a the Eddleston Water as part of a Natural Flood Management scheme. The presenters are very knowledgeable and linked to national research on natural flood management and sustainable land use strategy.

This link gives full details: http://workingthetweed.co.uk/riverside-meetings/

Interested folk should respond to Claire Pençak on info@workingthetweed.co.uk

For background on the project Kate suggests reading http://workingthetweed.co.uk/2013/08/22/on-passing-through-places-so-far-stories-and-movement-improvisation/

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 Borders – a complex listening environment

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James Wyness (sound artist) in conversation with Kate Foster (environmental artist).

As a sound artist, James Wyness works on listening environments, in the Borders Region (where he is based) and elsewhere. He compared notes with Kate Foster about settling into work in the Borders, valuing what the area offers our respective practices. Here James elaborates on ideas from a thought-provoking exchange.

KF: You said that a sound artist has to be aware of how space, places, are made. What would an example be, of how such connections develop, through listening?

JW: Yes, my interest here specifically is in how spaces are produced, following the research of Henri Lefebvre. Lefebvre pointed me towards the fact that the production of space, by people, carries with it intention and deliberation. Produced spaces, many of them complex if we care to investigate, are often taken for granted as simply ‘there’ since time began, when in fact they have undergone all manner of politically directed transformations.

For example, an important part of my artistic practice involves listening to the region in which I live, the sparsely populated (one might even say underdeveloped) Scottish and English Border regions, including the Northumberland National Park. If we listen with a very generalised ear – or, easier still for most of us handicapped by the predominant visual drift in contemporary popular culture, if we look at the region on one of those noise maps which gives a colour coding according to ambient noise levels, what do we see for large swathes of our region? Nothing, or very little. It’s a very quiet region with little background noise from traffic arteries or urban centres. Relatively speaking, for a very crowded island few people live here. Large tracts of land are turned over to ‘wilderness’ with a little sheep farming.

Image and comment by KF: it’s not really wilderness though, is it?

JW: Certainly not in the sense of untouched or left in peace for the sake of it, despite the peace and quiet you might find there. So if large areas of this region are indeed so quiet and underdeveloped, why should that be? I don’t believe for a second that any of this happens by chance, especially in Britain whose governments have led the world in matters of controlling, administering and exploiting land or territory, who had at one time almost full political and military control of enormous tracts of land in the ‘Orient’, from the Middle East to India. Perhaps more than any government or established political system, successive British governments and their administrative machineries with their structures, doctrines and processes would use their home turf for whatever use suited them. So I have to ask why would a ‘wilderness’ be permitted to exist in an overcrowded island?

My theory, and this is only scientific inasmuch as I would love to have it disproved, is that the military/defence interest at Otterburn has determined to a large extent the geographical make-up of this large region. I say this first of all because Henri Lefebvre noticed a similar situation in his native France. I came to my conclusions following his conceptual framework and arguments. This is not a conspiracy theory except of course in the sense that the machinations of successive British governments, in matters of defence, now national security (this is an interesting shift of focus), are in fact usually conspiring towards some undemocratic end.

If I might elaborate, we have a historically troublesome border which always required a strong garrison, in particular on the English side. Over time the mentality of the garrison has become embedded in geo-political thinking. I’m sure that research would show that efforts will have been made to keep the region free of development to allow the free play of large scale military manoeuvres, including low flying. Having trained at Otterburn in my time as an RAF officer I’m aware that the use of tanks, aircraft and heavy artillery requires particular kinds of space. I believe that the creation of the National Park will have suited very well the prolongation of the Otterburn agenda whereas allowing substantial development would in time lead to calls for constraints placed on military activity.

So our noise free region is actually punctuated by bouts of extremely violent military activity on both sides of the border: low flying fighter jets, artillery exercises, helicopter exercises. It constantly baffles me that nobody seems to be able to effect collective action against ‘friendly’ fighter jets flying at lower than 500 feet over primary schools without warning. Having had a privileged inside view I could go on, but the Official Secrets Act prevents me from doing so.

KF image and comment: I keep trying to snap low-fliers

JW: What I’m saying is that the space has been produced, as a result of an accumulation of conscious political and military decisions, affecting freedom of movement and particular kinds of development or uses of space, negating the possibility of differently produced spaces, of the adjoining social space, including the ‘wilderness’ of the Cheviots. This is done by proxy – planning in the Northumberland National Park is tight to say the least. In my reveries I often contextualise the region as a more northerly extension of Hadrian’s Wall.

And of course, going much further back, apart from a few pockets of broadleaf, very little is ‘natural’ wilderness anyway, in the sense of ‘untouched by human hands’. For example the pockets of the Old Jed Forest are as natural as you’ll get anywhere, but the moorland, the bare hills have all been doctored and tailored over millenia, visually and, if we care to listen, sonically.

Such is the complexity of an investigation into soundscape. As a researcher I have several other produced spaces under investigation at the moment. With these I like to keep in mind Lefebvre’s observation:-

There can be no question but that the social space is the locus of prohibition, for it is shot through with both prohibitions and their counterparts, prescriptions.

KF:  What are your thoughts about the relationships between sonic sensibility and ecological literacy?

JW: This seems at first glance to imply a flow between the aesthetic and the ethical, but perhaps in this case the two are tightly bound up together in the first place. Sonic sensibility, real sensibility as opposed to a superficial appreciation of this or that sound, would to my mind require a modicum of physical, mental and perhaps spiritual effort, some form of directed activity towards engaging with the world of sound, at all levels of experience, including the everyday. A bundle of values. This would affect one’s relationship to the immediate environment, urban or rural, how one lives from day to day, physical choices in one’s domestic and social environment and so on. I don’t mean to say that if you can live in a thundering metropolis you cannot be sonically sensitive – I know of one artist whose work in the field has been substantially enhanced and enriched by the urban experience. Nor am I taking a puritanical stance which denies pleasure in contemporary urban living. It’s simply that sonic sensibility requires a sustained effort.

True sonic sensibility would require informed choices in listening strategies vis-a-vis music consumption for example. I cannot reconcile the fact of spending hours of one’s daily life bolted to a mobile media device, cut off from the immediate sonic environment, listening to compressed audio, with a desire to nurture sonic sensibility.

Ecological literacy would be defined as at least some sort of awareness of one’s own stake in the game, as opposed to watching ‘documentaries’ in which David Attenborough becomes a parody of himself and where ecological awareness is given as a highly contrived representation dressed up as reality or truth. In addition I would take into account the choices one makes in one’s material surroundings and contingent actions, the awareness, nothing more, of the interconnectedness of all things, at least some sort of commitment to investigating who is doing well (economically or politically) from degradations and deteriorations in the amenity of those doing less well.

Sensibility and sensitivity to the sonic, or non-visual, often requires a deeper connection with the environment. The visual, especially in urban settings, is often given, forced, thrust in front of us, in the form of corporate marketing, architectural agendas based on maximum profit, as opposed to ethically or aesthetically driven. We fall under the spell of the visual so easily, where everything is appropriated and turned to profitable use. Listening to a soundscape, in my experience, allows a different and perhaps more interesting ecological unfolding than a visual appraisal of an urban bleakscape or a view of a pretty landscape. In fact the whole discourse around landscape and appreciation is fraught with difficulty.

In basic terms, sonic sensibility, of the individual or of the community, can raise awareness of ecological literacy. Finally, although much more research (and investment) is needed into the presentational forms of creative outcomes resulting from deep listening to the environment, the sonic artist working with environmental field recordings has an important role to play in raising the standard of ecological literacy.

KF: You admire how well Susan Fenimore Cooper and Aldo Leopold – American nature writers – listened. If you could magic them back, what sound art would you want them to hear?

JW: I’d give them all a quick primer in the use of modern recording technology and let them make their own art, a combination of sound and text. Just imagine! I’d let Susan loose on a few dawn choruses and some more discrete biophonies with incidental forest and wind sounds. With Aldo I’d focus on some of the long form natural soundscapes in true wilderness areas. Finally I’d watch Thoreau’s smile as he listened to the aquatic life of Walden Pond by means of a simple hydrophone.

(This article was developed by Kate Foster and ecoartscotland is very grateful for the opportunity to publish an original and fascinating contribution to our understanding of the politics and sonics Scottish landscape.)

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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Documentation of Kate Foster’s talk

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Kate Foster has posted documentation of her talk at Glasgow Sculpture Studios on the Changeable Places blog.  This includes notes and slides.  She addressed Field Work both in South America and South Africa as well as developing a clear argument around her ethical decision-making – why travel and when to invest in your locality.  Changeable Places talk at Glasgow Sculpture Studios.

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