Attending to Muse & Nature in Lockdown

Artist Hanien Conradie shares the impulse and process behind a Covid19-lockdown collaboration that brings together image and text; and how, in a period of human silence, her muse and the natural world seemed to work in similar ways.


2,170 words: estimated reading time = 8.5 minutes + gallery


What does it take for distracted creatives to surrender to the cries of their muse’s desires? For some it is simple, they hear, they listen and they translate through making. But some of us academically trained artists scold the muse for her infantile ideas, her need to play and her seemingly inconsistent barrage of desires. And then there are some of us who ignore her voice year after year…

In my practice I work in locally found natural pigments and burnt plant material as part of an expression of climate change and my concern with loss as we head toward a Sixth Mass Extinction. The global ecological anguish and my personal heartache inform the colour palette of my work: earthy ochres and monochromatic black paintings. Black, as a colour of grieving in the West, is also a colour that represents infinite creative potential and has become more and more prominent in my films, my ritual work and my paintings.

Human silence & other voices

As the severe restrictions of the Covid19 lockdown isolated South Africans in their homes, I considered what artworks I could make from a small desk in my bedroom. For quite a few years I have been an active environmental voice, calling for a change in the way we relate to the natural world. Suddenly, because of the virus, the Earth gained respite from our feverish pursuit of money; our disregard for the effect we have on the rest of the natural world. At the same time, everyone became quiet and introspective and the sounds of the natural world became more apparent than before; and people noticed. It seemed to me that the Covid19 lockdown provided the perfect opportunity for humanity to reconsider the way we live. For the moment it felt like my quest for change was interceded by an outer manifestation that was so severe that it forced us to adjust our habits naturally.

Seeking the muse: Showing image 25 from Hanien Conradie's 40 DAYS series
40 DAYS – image 15
Artist: Hanien Conradie © 2020

Within the human silence of the lockdown, the voice of my muse became more insistent than before. I realized that the workings of my muse and the natural world were similar somehow and that less noise and distraction increased the intensity of my creative compulsions. The very uncertain and unprecedented circumstances swept away my normal, considered academic approach to my practice. I felt like breaking free from all my self-imposed limitations, obligations and preconceptions about what my art should be. I imagined that this is how artists might feel during times of war: the focus shifts from making work for others to making work because this is what I do to keep myself sane. I thus found myself surrendering to whatever my muse wanted to make.

I had recently been gifted a set of Winsor & Newton Artists’ Watercolours with 24 colours in a beautiful transportable black box. The new paint had my muse salivating and my hunger to make small brightly coloured paintings seemed vast and insatiable. Before the lockdown, I had planned to make on-site landscape portraits with them. This idea was in keeping with my practice of visiting and relating to living natural landscapes, but traveling outside of my home was prohibited during lockdown.

In addition to the delicious paints, my partner inherited an equally delectable collection of National Geographic magazines from his father. Whenever I saw their bright yellow spines I remembered the remarkable pictures hidden inside and my childlike delight as I pored over the magnificent mysteries of our existence through their pages. Since my muse was completely uninterested in working with the only ‘living’ places I had access to — the interior of my home or my small garden — I decided to page through the magazines. I started to mark any images that thrilled me without pondering their meaning too much. I have used this technique in the past to access my subconscious feelings. It turned out that many of the images I paused on featured lone human figures in extreme natural surroundings; environments where the human body cannot survive naturally.

Surrendering to the muse: postcards from lockdown

My burning desire remained to make miniature paintings in my brand new luminous watercolours. I happened to have a few books of Fabriano Postcard watercolour paper available. There was something about the postcard format that appealed to me: the hint of possible travel and its capacity to carry messages beyond my forced incarceration. In the past, I have always used the actual place or my own photographs as references to paint from. Making use of magazine images was a departure from my usual way and alarmed me somewhat. Sailing this close to mere illustration had my academic fine-artist-self protesting: ‘I have a reputation to think of’ and ‘the Gallery will expect more consistency from you’… I ignored this voice and continued to surrender to what delighted and motivated my muse.

Thus, I commenced a ‘vigil’ dedicated to creating in isolation and produced one painting a day over many weeks. The human silence in the first three weeks of lockdown was heavenly: no traffic, no airplanes, and a communal energy of quiet withdrawal in the air. The comforting solitude punctuated by the occasional ringtone or electronic alert mingled with birdsong, a frog choir and the roaring river close by. This symphony of sound was the perfect context for delicate and detailed painting. I felt happy and at peace as my muse took me on an imaginative journey to some of the most extraordinary and far-off places on Earth.

Showing image 18 from Hanien Conradie's series 40DAYS
40DAYS – image 18
Artist: Hanien Conradie © 2020

These places, in relation to the inner places I discovered during this practice, made me consider what best-selling author and former monk, Thomas Moore, says in his book A Religion of One’s Own. Moore suggests that as human beings we know a considerable amount about our external world and that, in comparison, we know very little (maybe too little) about our internal worlds. The images from the National Geographic magazines were mostly about discovering and exploring our external world — not only the Earth and space but also the microcosm. In hindsight, I came to understand that the images I selected were not random at all. They resonated with and expressed the internal states I experienced during lockdown. I became conscious of the inherent wisdom of my muse and subconscious mind.

I have since come to an understanding that periods of isolation are essential for humans in order to cultivate inner stillness. It is important to make time to listen deeply to one’s inner reality and to know its terrain well. In my experience this practice also sensitizes us to be more receptive to the ‘voice’ of the natural world.

When lockdown was finally over, I walked down to the river and it was as if I saw an old and dear friend again after a long time of absence. This little ecosystem on my doorstep was so much more magnificent than ever before. And I delighted in noticing that so much had healed and grown since I had last visited: in the vegetation and birdlife but also within me. This enchanting encounter resulted in another postcard series of 21 portraits of the river, titled ‘My Sanctuary’ (2020), which I made for a South African friend living in the UK.

40 nights / 40 DAYS

Allowing my muse to direct my creative process opened up a more spacious attitude to the flow of life in general and, more concretely, helped me to manifest my desires; in this case 40 small bright coloured paintings. I am now able to ‘hear’ and act on subtle prompts from my creative spirit. One of these ‘nudges’ that came to me was a dissatisfaction with the blankness of the backs of the postcards; where greetings and messages should be. Without text the 40 postcards from lockdown did not seem complete.

I recalled fashion-predictor Li Edelkoort’s podcast about the future of fashion design after Covid19. It was a brilliant talk containing some strange capitalistic approaches to the crisis that I found intriguing. I sent this off to friends and one of them, John Higgins, responded with a voice poem.

Showing image 7 Hanien Conradie's series 40DAYS
40 DAYS – image 7
Artist: Hanien Conradie © 2020

As a writer and academic, John has long been interested in the question of montage — in film, visual media and in writing. As lockdown took hold, John says he found himself, “like many people in the first phase of Covid19 and the ensuing lockdown … overwhelmed by the tsunami of media coverage … [and] at the same time, reading it obsessively as some form of comfort or distraction.” As something of an active response to the increasingly eerie situation, he began to assemble a number of montage texts from the various books, podcasts, news bulletins and online media available within his lockdown environment.

From the talk by Edelkoort, John selected key sentences and put them together in a montage that revealed the underlying philosophical questions in a very humorous way. I sent him a picture of one of my postcard paintings in response. The combination of the text and the picture revealed a fascinating new meaning, which was a delight to both of us. And, unashamedly, I found my muse asking John to join the project.

Thus two parallel projects commenced, each serving as an antidote to calm our anxiety during uncertain times. John created 40 texts and I painted 40 images, independently from each other. Each project maintains a distinct identity when seen in isolation. In my process I selected images from National Geographic magazines, painted them, and — together as a montage — they revealed something about my inner world during this time. One could say that the 40 paintings are reliant on each other to create the meaning (or full picture) of my exploration. John in turn brought together, and set against each other, fragments of national and international news coverage and commentary with other varied readings from his day; also illuminating his questions and thoughts in relation to the pandemic. The 40 texts John crafted can be read separately but are more potent as one long text that leaves one with a sense of the strangeness of the lockdown experience.

Once we completed our separate projects we carefully paired the texts with the paintings. This process took some time, but eventually we settled on some intriguing combinations: some that were easy to understand, and others that created discomfort and ambiguity.

40nights-013 text © John Higgins / image © Hanien Conradie 2020
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Since the images were painted on blank postcards, we decided to incorporate the text as part of each piece. On the reverse of the cards (where address and message are normally written), I give thanks to my inspiration by referencing the National Geographic ‘address’ of the image: the article title, edition, page number and the photographer. In the ‘message’ section of the postcard I ‘performed’ John’s text by transcribing them by hand. The final artwork is thus double-sided and consists of 40 painted images each with its own message on the back.

Because of the double-sided nature of the final work, it was difficult to display the text and painting simultaneously. To solve this, John and I created a printed book titled 40 nights/40 DAYS: from the lockdown. Here we present the text and image together at a glance. This is when what we describe as a ‘third work’ emerges through the viewer, who makes associations and assumptions based on the information gathered from both sources. One could say that the viewer becomes the creator in this ‘third work’.

Our short film presented here, is another attempt to bring this third meaning to life.

40 nights/40 DAYS is a playful project about serious things. We hope it will both delight and provide some solace in these extraordinary times.


Find out more

You can see a different selection from Hanien’s postcard collaboration with John in her contribution to our Quarantine Connection series from April-June 2020. Hanien Conradie: 40 nights / 40 DAYS appeared on Day 36. All 40 images that Hanien used for the series are displayed at her website, and the original paintings are available from the Everard Read Gallery in Cape Town, South Africa. Contact ctgallery@everard.co.za for a portfolio.

Also available for purchase is the hardcover book, 40 nights/40 DAYS: from the lockdown. This can be ordered from Hanien at hanienconradie@gmail.com.

You can listen to the Business of Fashion podcast (27/3/20) featuring futurist Li Edelkoort, which triggered Hanien’s collaboration with John Higgins. The sources from which John took the textual fragments included media coverage from radio, television, and online sources such as Daily Maverick, The Guardian, the Washington Post and the New York Times; Li Edelkoort’s Business of Fashion podcast; and (dusted off and taken down from the bookshelves) Sir Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (T. Noble: London 1845); Plato’s Protagoras and Meno (Penguin: Harmondsworth 1956); John Ruskin’s Modern Painters Volume 1 (Dent: London 1935); John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice (George Allen: London 1906).

Hanien Conradie
Hanien Conradie
A fine artist concerned with place and belonging, informed by the cosmology of African animism within the complex human and other-than-human networks that encompass a landscape.
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A Year of Wonders Under a Circling Sky

Writer and filmmaker James Murray-White reviews Neil Ansell’s new book. The Circling Sky, an account of a year-long immersion in England’s New Forest, is both a guidebook to close observation and a reflective elegy to place and belonging.


1,680 words: estimated reading time = 7 minutes 


Neil Ansell is a writer of extraordinary sensitivity and insight, and as others have said of his work, it comes from a place of deep and sustained immersion — into the very essence of place. This new work, The Circling Sky: on Nature and Belonging in an Ancient Forest, demonstrates exactly that quality, offering a sensuous and at times challenging journey to get to know The New Forest in Hampshire, southern England.

Showing the cover of The Circling Sky: On Nature and Belonging in an Ancient Forest, by Neil Ansell
The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell

Ansell does know something of the Forest to start with, having grown up nearby. And the memories of his childhood forays into wilding — partly to escape the traumas and unknowing of this time — are made physical again by finding a stash of diaries; they act as a framework to refer to, and finally to grow out from, “the ghost of my childhood self”. The forest called to him “insistently”, and he determined to visit repeatedly over the course of a year; he writes in the preface reflecting back upon that year, just before we all were submerged into these pandemic times. And I’ve been reading The Circling Sky over the past weeks of this lockdown, so it’s been a great gift to visit through his eyes a place I know only a little, walking alongside such a guide during these days of homebound reflection.

“It has been a year of wonders, my forest year. I have had the opportunity to experience so much that I had never anticipated: great clouds of spiralling butterflies, a sea of orchids, flowers that I had never even known existed, sudden, unexpected sightings of creatures of great beauty. A nightjar watching over me as darkness fell, falcons on the wing, hawks and honey buzzards deep in the woods. I have listened to the cackle of the geese on the marshes, and the aching trill of the last curlews. I have heard the woodlark sing, for all its lost chords, and the comforting call of the raven, back at last. The year has been thick with scents, heather and furze and bog myrtle, peat and pine and the sour smell of a boot full of bog water. These things give life new meaning.”

Forest – place and belonging

This is the ideal book to help us navigate a way out from a lockdown deep nature observation to whatever this post-lockdown time may entail for us as a species. It is both a guidebook to close observation and a reflective elegy for space, place, and all the beings that inhabit and pass through — as we do.

He muses on clearings as spaces to reflect within: both the clearings in the forest and the experience of coming out of dense woodland into a wider space, and also internal clearings: finding some space inside ourselves, to think, rest, plan, get on top of things — to meditate, if you like.

Sometimes he walks with maps, and seeks out remnants of human history and habitation; as the ‘dominant’ species, we seek out our ancestry and can turn up astonishing neolithic knowledge, as well as exasperation and fear at the trajectory we are taking ourselves upon.

The recent history of ghettoising gypsies, who had made some of the forest their space for five hundred years, needs to be widely known, and I’m thankful and yet further saddened to read the evidence he shares of the forcible eviction of the Coopers in 1963 — the most recent manifestation of internal cultural colonialism happening on this small isle, following on from the Highland and Fenland clearances, the Irish Famine, the Enclosure Acts and more: ‘civilisation’ turning within itself in grotesque power.

Some of his visits are focused: to revisit some of his childhood camping spots, for example, or to go to certain areas in the hope of engagement with the wild belonging beings; or else they are sometimes simply “an aimless walk in the woods”. Both approaches provide him with an abundance of riches — the glare from a goshawk’s eye is one that springs out, and he finds the rare Dartford Warbler (the ‘fuzzacker’), in a gorse-bush, after many years of looking (“they look like little plums; plums on a stick”). Elsewhere, “great numbers of painted lady butterflies flutter from heather flower to heather flower. This must be a new generation, born here this summer.” And

“I can hear laughter echoing in the distance — not human laughter, but green woodpecker laughter. I look about, but can’t see it: I can’t pinpoint where the sound is coming from. Instead I see a pair of black and white spotted woodpeckers just overhead, rising and falling in flight like they do, crossing the heath from wood to wood.”

Dartford Warbler
Photograph: Dean Eades Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dartford_warbler.jpg

One eye, however, is on the human scale and how this dominates the land: 

“For the past century or so, the Crown lands have been managed by the Forestry Commission, so there is some commercial woodland here, though the understanding has been that these plantations are not allowed to account for more than a relatively small acreage of the forest. And as public awareness has grown with the understanding that all woods are not equal, and that large, evenly-spaced stands comprised of only fast-growing conifers may result in something close to an environmental wasteland, some have been replaced after felling by a mixed woodland more in keeping with the spirit of the place.”

Photograph showing beech trees in the New Forest
Beech trees in Mallard Wood, New Forest
Photograph: Jim Champion, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13444789

As a novice bird-knower, I’m absorbed in the book’s engagement with birds as individuals and as groups, and his thoughts on migration routes, seasonal movements, and how they engage and belong, within this specific forest eco-system. Stone-chats, or fuzz-jacks, are ones I’m going to seek out. Another thriving group of animals in the forest are the odonata: the dragonflies and damselflies, abundant thanks to the wide diversity of wetland habitats there.

A circling sky, an obligation to see

Ansell’s book is many things and will inspire readers in many ways. What stands out the most for me is that it is both a deep personal meditation on place and belonging — told by the many visits he makes, the more-than-human and the human that he encounters — and the way of describing place. 

“As a writer who loves nature, it would come very easily to me to just walk through the woods, take joy in the animals and plants that I come upon, and depict them as creatively as I can, along with the many small epiphanies that they bring me.

“But it no longer feels that purely observational writing is enough. The time has gone when I could even write a private nature diary, just for myself, and turn a blind eye to the wider implications of what I see. To delight in an encounter with a rare and beautiful bird, while wilfully ignoring why it is rare, why it is threatened, is itself a deeply political choice, and one which no longer feels supportable. And really, nothing is more political than the way we engage with the world around us. We have an obligation to see the world for what it is, the bad as well as the good, and we have to blinker ourselves to keep on pretending that it is not broken.”

Within a broader polemic on our human relationship with the living breathing more-than-human that completely surrounds us, and how we’ve got to this place of separation and duality, he identifies (him)self as both observer and that-being-observed, and caught within the inherently broken state of being that has created this divide. It is a state that is absolutely wrapped up in the system of resource use and destructiveness. Neil Ansell’s powerful and urgent writing and observation in The Circling Sky is part of the great process of leading humanity back to a merged connection with Earth.


Find out more

James Murray-White‘s pre-lockdown work was completing Finding Blake (2020), a feature documentary exploring the contemporary relevance of artist, poet and mystic, William Blake — with further explorations on the Finding Blake website. His lockdown ‘project’ has been co-ordinating Save the Oaks, a campaign to rescue oak saplings that were scheduled for destruction in a potential ecocide of the UK Government’s making. A future post-lockdown work project will explore regenerative agriculture in the UK, in documentary form.

James is also co-founder of Extinction Rebellion Rewilding and took part in a recent discussion on Rewilding Humanity as part of Ubiquity University’s Humanity Rising series. As the host, artist Stardust Magick, says: “Rewilding is a golden key to how we can reverse things such as climate change, species extinction and pollution. Since we are part of nature, we can also rewild ourselves: inducing states of being extremely present, inspired, expressed, confident and playful.” In this session, James joined author Jay Griffiths, rewilding coach Rachel Corby, poet Huw Wyn and wild food expert and teacher Sunny Savage for personal discussions of why we would want to create, support and encourage rewilding efforts and how we can rewild ourselves. You can watch the recording of their discussions, introduced by Ubiquity University President, Jim Garrison (with the rewilding conversation starting at just over 2 minutes into the recording).

Neil Ansell has been an award-winning television journalist with the BBC and a newspaper journalist. His previous books include Deep Country, Deer Island and The Last Wilderness. The Circling Sky: on Nature and Belonging in an Ancient Forest is published by Tinder Press (2021). You can see a short video from Little Toller Books of Neil discussing his earlier book, Deer Island, and leading a wild life.

The New Forest — ‘new’ when it was created in 1079 as William the Conqueror’s ‘new hunting forest’ — has been a continuously managed landscape for a millennium. It was designated a national park in 2005. It is one of the largest remaining tracts of unenclosed pasture land, heathland and forest in Southern England.

James Murray-White
James Murray-White
A writer and filmmaker linking art forms to dialogue around climate issues, whose practice stretches back to theatre-making.
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A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #13

Interdisciplinary artist Andrew Howe shares three objects that chart material flows in time. Slipware pottery, an acorn and a bitumen spill offer fragmentary stories entwined with present experience and imaginings of past and future in the same moment.


1,310 words: estimated reading time = 5 minutes


The challenge: the Anthropocene — the suggested Age of Human that our species has initiated — has a complex past, present and future, and there are many versions. What three objects evoke the unfolding of human-caused environmental and climate change for you? View other contributions at A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

***

The recording of history is a collective narrative of personal memories and subjective interpretations of objective data. And memories are the internal stories we create from fragments which become entwined with present experience and our imaginings of the future, always in the same moment. As I thought about identifying objects from the past, present and future, I could only see them as materials on a journey flowing through time. This flow need not be considered as a linear process but as a cycle, perhaps a little like the river cycle, in that all time can co-exist simultaneously but in different locations.

Based on my recent experiences out walking, objects that represent the Anthropocene in the present time, perhaps more than any other, are the proliferating numbers of discarded face masks and discarded dog shit bags (DDSBs) lying on pavements, spilling out from litter bins or festooned from trees and bushes. But I wished no connection with these objects, whereas each of the three objects I selected have specific resonances for me with the past, present and future.

Washed downstream

My first object is a fragment of brown slipware pottery, one of a handful I gathered last year while mud-larking on a pebble bank at the edge of the River Severn, downstream of Shrewsbury town centre.

Slipware pottery fragment from the River Severn
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020

An informed acquaintance suggested to me that the brown and amber pieces were most likely 17th or 18th Century combed slipware. I was intrigued by its unknowable journey from formation of the clay, very likely a result of glaciation, and extraction for making into a pot. It was then used in someone’s house in Shrewsbury, maybe even one of the Tudor timbered mansions that still stand in the town centre. At some point it was lost and broken and found its way into the river. Over the years, it has been washed downstream, gradually rounding off the edges until I picked it up. How will my intervention change its course of flow?

Ruptured nature in peatbog and bitumen

I encountered the second object whilst researching a project at the Fenn’s, Whixall & Bettisfield Mosses National Nature Reserve, the UK’s third-largest raised peatbog. Within the wetland nature reserve, there was a car breaker’s yard that operated for many years until the site was taken over by the Shropshire Wildlife Trust. The stark juxtaposition of the scrapyard against the remote wetland landscape had fascinated me for some time.

Artefacts 6×6
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020
Tyre mountain
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020
Artefact 26
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020

Shortly after many of the crushed cars had been removed from the site, I made a visit to observe the mountains of remaining tyres and thousands of mangled fragments of plastic and metal car parts. I collected these like archaeological finds. Then entering a thicket between the scrapyard and peatbog, I saw a large bitumen tanker part-suspended in amongst the trees, as if it had been driven in at speed and simply left.

Showing a bitumen tanker dumped in woods
Tanker in the wood
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020

When I returned a few months later, the tanker had been separated from its cab and moved, as part of the ongoing clean-up process, to a position on the concrete hardstanding in the main scrapyard, which was being cleared for restoration by covering with topsoil. In the warmer weather, the bitumen leaked from ruptures in the rusted steel carcass and spread out in mesmerising black pools, its ‘skin’ intricately marked and rippled.

Showing bitumen spill from a tanker
Tanker
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020
Showing a black pools of bitumen, its 'skin' intricately marked and rippled.
Bitumen
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020

Bitumen can be found naturally or produced via the fractional distillation of petroleum. This natural hydrocarbon seemed to be reaching out, as if trying to recombine with the peat below and complete a cycle interrupted by human processing. The sculptural tanker is a powerful artwork in itself, symbolic of the human exploitation of petroleum and car manufacture.

In my early discussions with the Shropshire Wildlife Trust, there was general agreement that we, as a society, should take responsibility and acknowledge the legacy of human impact on the environment, perhaps by leaving some of the dereliction in place. However, while bitumen is widely used as a construction material, it has some chronic toxicity, it is a potential carcinogen and the tanker was regarded as a hazardous waste. The metal structure was also regarded as unsafe, so the decision was regretfully made to retain the tanker on the concrete and cover it with soil as protection.

Acorn to oak, and uncertain futures

The final object is an acorn. This particular acorn came into my possession during a heritage project where I was trying to locate trees more than 200 years old in Telford; trees that could have been witness to the battle of Cinderloo, an industrial dispute in 1821. Around 3,000 miners marched in protest against savage wage cuts and they shut down ironworks before coming into conflict with the Shropshire Yeomanry, resulting in two fatalities and nine arrests, with one man hanged for felonious riot.

Acorn
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020

There are many woodlands in Telford, growing over the ruins of industries that date back to the start of the Industrial Revolution. Only a few of the trees are as old as 200 years though, so the acorn I collected from one old oak in Coalbrookdale provided me with the potential to create a special connection. By planting the acorn, it may grow and live on beyond a normal human lifetime to make a connection spanning between the origins of the Anthropocene and an uncertain future.

The centuries-old relationship between the English and oak woods is at the heart of national identity; once integral to peasant livelihoods, Royal hunting forests and naval shipbuilding. Oak has abundant uses as a strong and durable construction timber, as fuel, as animal fodder, for the tanning of leather and in production of ink, but its value is increasingly recognised for sequestering carbon and sustaining biodiverse flora and fauna in its branches and in its root systems. Humans will need to rebalance the values of oak between a commodity and as a living guardian, if we are to begin regaining some harmony with the more-than-human for our own survival.

Witness, Coalbrookdale Oak: oak gall ink on paper
Image: Andrew Howe © 2020

Find out more

You can explore Fenn’s, Whixall & Bettisfield Mosses National Nature Reserve, and the Marches Mosses of which it is a part, at The Meres and Mosses site. And you can find out more about Andrew’s own work with the Mosses and Marshes project at Of the Mosses. including an introduction to the site: Tracing Human history across the Moss.

Bitumen, a sticky, black, highly viscous liquid or semi-solid form of petroleum, is also known as asphalt, and is mainly used in road and other construction, although its natural form was historically used for waterproofing and as an adhesive as far back as 5,000 BCE. Runoff from roads can cause water pollution from bitumen and, as this article from MedicineNet explains, Hot asphalt causes a lot of air pollution. “As it heats up, asphalt releases chemical compounds that contribute to air pollution … Sunlight plays a key role in these asphalt emissions, with even moderate levels of sunshine tripling the release of air pollutants.”

You can learn more about the history of the Cinderloo Uprising in Dawley, Telford and the heritage project led by community group Cinderloo 1821

Andrew Howe

Andrew Howe

An interdisciplinary artist and project manager using walking and mapping to explore how people interact with places, drawing attention to human entanglements within a multi-species environment.
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Disciplinary Agnosticism and Engaging with Ecologies of Place

Artist and researcher Iain Biggs discusses Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place, his new co-authored book about the possibilities of creative work, ensemble practices and disciplinary agnosticism in seeking alternative and inclusive ways of belonging to this world.


2,250 words: estimated reading time = 9 minutes 


In December 2020, and after a great many years of work, Mary Modeen’s and my book Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place: Geopoetics, Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies finally appeared. This post aims to give some idea of what sort of book this is, along with some idea of how, and why, it has the content it does.

Calling for disciplinary agnosticism
Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place, by Mary Modeen & Iain Biggs

As we make clear from the start, and despite the sixty-eight colour images of works we referred to, it’s not really an ‘art book’, at least in the usual sense. Instead, it’s a book about the possibilities of ‘ensemble practices’, creative work viewed as drawing on concerns found in art, education, issues of place and what Felix Guattari calls ecosophy. Nor is it a book of theory, although it deals with a wide range of ideas from many different disciplines. Our central aim is to encourage readers, whatever their background, to understand their particular skills and knowledge in larger, intra-related contexts so as to contribute to the ‘joined-up’ thinking and action necessary to face the global changes now taking place. We’re not interested in providing an argument based on a set of specialist practices or a particular form of disciplinary or interdisciplinary thinking. Instead, like Donna Haraway, we want to encourage readers to find practical, creative ways to ‘stay with the trouble’ in all its many dimensions.        

Towards ‘placed-ness’

So, a brief outline of the book’s contents. Chapter One outlines the basis of our position and, in particular, considers the importance of three geo-poetic thinkers to our concerns — Gary Snyder, Kenneth White, and Robert Frodeman. This also allows us to distinguish their approaches from our own. Chapter Two goes back to fundamentals by considering how we take in the world through our senses. It takes the reader on an imagined walk so as to explore the relationship between embodiment and place, the visible and the invisible, the phenomenological and the numinous. Chapter Three then sets out what we mean by slow residency and explains why we don’t offer a single definition of deep mapping. It then outlines a possible pre-history of deep mapping and gives examples of current practice.

Disciplinary agnosticism
‘Queen Bee and Mobile Hive performance’, Buzz Lab interns, Plains Art Museum, Fargo, North Dakota, 2017.
Photo: Christine Baeumler

Chapter Four is based on a long interview about her work with Christine Baeumler, an artist, environmental educator, community activist, and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Art at the University of Minnesota. Her collaborative work with both her local community and Dakota people living in Minneapolis St Paul resulted in a number of land reclamation projects, including transforming an abandoned railway marshalling-yard into what is now the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary. Her recent Buzz Lab project with young people employed as paid interns created a pollinator garden and developed strategies to highlight the socio-environmental value of bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. Chapter Five investigates the values inherent in perception, and especially as this is central to the ways in which place is perceived. In it, the processes by which the threads of cultural value relating to a particular site generate understanding are unpicked.

Chapter Six looks at questions around collaboration. It includes a look at the gap between the idea of ‘interdisciplinary research’ and the way interdisciplinary collaborations tend to work out in practice. Here we’re concerned with the ways the presuppositions of the knowledge industry distort collaboration to maintain the status quo. As an alternative, we discuss what we call ‘creative communities of practice’. Importantly, it includes a shortened version of the South African artist, environmental researcher, and writer Hanien Conradie’s text The Voice of Water: Re-sounding a Silenced River, which provides a compelling example of collaboration with the more-than-human.

Chapter Seven consists of eleven examples of practices that offer inclusive and open creative approaches to a range of current concerns. Approaches that, for example, embrace the complexities of living in a world that has become inexorably multicultural, while also respecting and valuing the local, the specific, and the idiosyncratic. Chapter Eight is based on exchanges with the Australian designer, landscape researcher, curator, and educator Gini Lee. Her Stony Rises deep mapping work is representative of an inclusive, relational approach to issues of place and environment that has informed her numerous collaborations, enabling her to explore possibilities across a wide variety of conventionally disparate roles.

Chapter Nine draws on extensive conversations between Mary Modeen and  Alexander and Susan Maris, who live and work at Kinlock Rannoch in the Scottish Highlands. We see their work as enacting the vital materialism proposed by Jane Bennett, Karen Barad, and others; an inclusive approach that makes possible what Donna Haraway calls ‘tentacular thinking’. Chapter Ten, ‘Fieldwork Reconsidered, is a plea for more holistic and grounded approaches to creative learning in its fullest sense. For a shift away from what Geraldine Finn calls “high altitude thinking” towards direct experience and awareness of our placed-ness. Towards a better understanding of knowledge as embodied, enacted, and always subject to the contingencies of human and more-than-human worlds. And towards a more open awareness that attends to multiple voices in different registers and differently placed. A fieldwork, then, that’s enacted in and through our active awareness of the porosity of the human and more-than-human, of place and time, of self and community.

Disciplinary agnosticism

Now for the ‘how’ and ‘why’. The Czech poet and immunologist Miroslav Holub pointed out in 1990 that we have an unrealistic view of the work of both scientists and artists. Work that, in both cases, is actually located within a small, subtle, largely confined — if at times pervasive — domain with regard to society as a whole. Furthermore, both scientists and artists are, for much of their times, actually engaged in a whole variety of other, more mundane and everyday roles and activities. Against the assumption that the artistic or scientific mentality is a singular, exceptional and all-consuming role, Holub suggests an alternative view. Rather than the current overemphasis on the different practices and methodologies of scientists and artists, he focuses on their need to acknowledge that these differences are insignificant compared to their common obligations. ‘Obligation’ Mary and I paraphase as the need to obtain, and act on the basis of, an informed understanding of the distinct but intra-related ecologies of selfhood, the social, and the environmental. Recognising that common obligation is a key element of the inclusivity of ensemble practices.

However, developing an ensemble practice requires an agnostic attitude towards the realpolitik that underwrites the authority that disciplines and professions claim in relation to the production and circulation of knowledge. An agnosticism that allows us to separate the ‘use value’ of specialist knowledge from the intellectual and social power of categorisation and exclusion derived from it. Disciplinary agnosticism is basically a strategy to by-pass what sociologists of knowledge see as the way in which dominant forms of knowledge production are able to insist that all other knowledge claims be judged according to the dominant set of criteria. In extreme cases, this means that nothing recognisable as knowledge can be produced outside of the socially dominant form. Put briefly, disciplinary agnosticism insists on what Isabelle Stengers and other thinkers call a “decolonization of thought”. So how did we arrive at this position?

A carrier bag theory of ensemble praxis

Disciplinary agnosticism - Listening at the Borders
Iain Biggs Hidden War (with and for Anna Biggs) from Iain Biggs ‘”Listening at the Borders” introduction, acknowledgements (and an intervention) in Iain Biggs, ed. Debatable Lands Vol. 2. These Debatable Lands (Bristol, Wild Conversations Press, 2009).
Photo Iain Biggs

The archaeologist and anthropologist Barbara Bender’s work, like that of her friend the political geographer Doreen Massey, show that:

“landscapes refuse to be disciplined. They make a mockery of the oppositions that we create between time [History] and space [Geography], or between nature [Science] and culture [Social Anthropology]”
(quoted in Doreen Massey 2006: ’Landscape as a Provocation: Reactions on Moving Mountains’. Journal of Material Culture. 11(33), p. 33).

This understanding is complemented by the polymath Cliff McLucas, a key figure in the development of deep mapping, who writes in There are ten things I can say about these deep maps that deep maps should: “bring together the amateur and the professional, the artist and the scientist, the official and the unofficial, the national and the local”. In her chapter ‘The Politics of Spirituality. The Spirituality of Politics’ in Why Althusser Killed His Wife: Essays on Discourse and Violence, 1996, the feminist philosopher Geraldine Finn identifies the tension between that shared obligation and a form of reason preoccupied with categorisation. She states that:

“…the contingent and changing concrete world always exceeds the ideal categories of thought within which we attempt to express and contain it. And the same is true of people. We are always both more and less than the categories that name and divide us.”

The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman points to the profoundly negative social consequences of over-emphasis on the categorical; it’s encouraging and enabling ‘othering’ by promoting an ethically neutral ‘objective detachment’. One that erodes what Hannah Arendt calls the animal pity by which all normal persons are affected in the presence of physical suffering and, in addition, has estranged us from all other-than-human life.

Lastly, Bruno Latour supports the link between disciplinary agnosticism and the ability of ensemble practices to help renegotiate the relationship between local and global when he writes:

“What counts is not knowing whether you are for or against globalisation, for or against the local; all that counts is understanding whether you are managing to register, to maintain, to cherish, a maximum number of alternative ways of belonging to the world”.
(Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime 2018 pp. 15-16).

Both disciplinary agnosticism and ensemble practices assume a particular sense of self that’s constituted in and through relationships, attachments, and connections. Our understanding here draws on the psychoanalytic thinking of Gemma Corradi Fiumara and Felix Guattari, the post-Jungians James Hillman and Mary Watkins, the artist-turned-anthropologist A. David Napier, and the sociologists of religion Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead. I don’t have the space to enlarge on this here but, if you want the detail, it’s set out in a chapter on ‘Ensemble Practices’ in the recently published Routledge Companion to Art in the Public Realm.

So, finally, who is this book written for? When we were writing, I had in mind the  various very different individuals I’d helped navigate creative Masters and Doctoral projects. Individuals who, while they share a desire to understand and transform some aspect of the material world, have surprisingly little else in common. Drawing on Ursula K Le Guin’s recently republished essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, I’d like to hope that we’ve assembled the beginnings of a ‘carrier bag theory of ensemble praxis’, one that will be able to hasten the end of the deeply problematic story that, to borrow from Le Guin again, might be called ‘The Ascent of Man as Hero’. I hope that, instead, we can encourage readers to engage with another, less toxic and more inclusive, story. The one about how we can each best learn to register, maintain, and cherish as many alternative and inclusive ways of belonging to this Terrestrial world as possible.


Find out more

Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place: Geopoetics, Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies, by Mary Modeen & Iain Biggs is published by Routledge (2021). 

Iain’s coauthor, Mary Modeen, is Professor of Contemporary Art Practice at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design. She is an artist/academic whose research links creative practice with interdisciplinary academic studies in the humanities, particularly philosophy, literature, feminist and indigenous studies. Her work usually combines creative art practice and writing.

Five Notes on Thinking Through ‘Ensemble Practices’, Iain’s previous post for ClimateCultures, introduces ideas of ensemble creative practices to describe how the work of Christine Baeumler incorporates a multiplicity of roles and skills, illustrating “an individual’s mycelial entanglement in multiple, interconnected tasks, connectivities and interdependences, all of which will, to a greater or lesser extent, involve creativity understood inclusively.” Iain’s chapter on ‘Ensemble Practices’ appears in the Routledge Companion to Art in the Public Realm, edited by Cameron Cartiere & Leon Tan (Routledge, 2021).

Iain mentions the work of fellow ClimateCultures member Hanien Conradie, a fine artist concerned with place and belonging, informed by the cosmology of African animism within the complex human and other-than-human networks that encompass a landscape. Her ClimateCultures post Writing on Water shares a collaborative film of her ritual encounter with the River Dart in Devon and her work with places where nothing seemingly remains of their ancient knowledge — including The Voice of Water: Re-sounding a Silenced River, which Iain refers to.

Iain also mentions Ursula Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. Fellow ClimateCultures member Philip Webb Gregg also discusses this essay — where “Le Guin explores the idea of the bag being the oldest human tool. In doing so, she is able to show how the stories we’ve been told our entire lives have deceived and misled us.” — in A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #12, his contribution to our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

You can explore ideas and examples of geopoetics through the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics and its journal Stravaig — where ClimateCultures member James Murray-White is one of the editors.

Iain Biggs
Iain Biggs
An independent artist, teacher and researcher interested in place seen through the lens of Felix Guattari's ecosophy, working extensively on ‘deep mapping’, other projects and publications.
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Climate Conversations to Save the World

Environmental researcher Matt Law reviews an online performance about climate conversations: an interactive journey inviting us to consider how different connections and storytelling could have led to a different world today, and help save the world for tomorrow.


1,180 words: estimated reading time = 4.5 minutes


Are there pivotal moments where, if only somebody had said something different, the progress of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock could have been slowed? What if you could be transported to one of those moments? What choices would you make? Would you know what to say? In a talk to TEDWomen in 2018, US-based Canadian climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe tells us that the most important action we can take on climate change is to talk about it, not by bludgeoning people with depressing facts, but by connecting the risk to your audience’s core values. Tassos Stevens and Michelle McMahon’s How We Save The World, commissioned from Coney by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), explores the ways our conversations about climate change can shape our futures, by putting decisions in the hands of the audience.

Meaningful interventions

We are time travellers, guided on an interactive 75-minute journey by our reassuring and informative pilots (Naomi Stafford and Richard Popple, who also represent all of the characters we meet on our journey and are a joy to watch) to choose from a selection of places and times where we could make meaningful interventions. At a house party in Clapton in 2009, can we plant the seed of an idea about consumerism and plastic waste in the mind of young Fergus, playing in the kitchen with his Hot Wheels; or reassure Lucy, drinking gin on the balcony, who has abandoned her vegan lifestyle, having become jaded with the complexities and enormity of the sustainability choices we face?

Before audience members are called on to talk to the characters we meet, a disembodied voice, the voice of NERC-supported research, tells us about some of the psychology that impacts our choices — the rewards of consumerism, our reluctance to speak up out of fear of being judged; or the physical science of climate change, such as the influence of atmospheric carbon dioxide on clear air turbulence, and importance of forests for diversity.

Showing an image from How We Save The World
How We Save The World
Photograph: Thomas Scott on Unsplash

How to save the world

Interventions having been successfully made by audience members at Clapton, we are presented with further choices of times and places to visit. Can we suggest a more successful term than ‘global warming’ at a focus group in Dallas in 1989 (the winning suggestion from our cohort was ‘Bonfire of the World’), or convince the daughter of a wealthy industrialist in early nineteenth-century Bingley of the dangerous path those profitable factories and fossil fuels are leading us down? The crunch choice comes in South Sumatra, in 2005, where we — now assuming the role of islanders of differing financial circumstances — are split into break-out rooms to discuss the choice between allowing PalmOilCo use of our forest, with an immediate monetary benefit, or to allow EuroNGO to protect the forest, giving us less of a financial reward, paid less immediately. Do we lift our families out of poverty now, or listen to the person from half a world away telling us what is best for the planet?

Matt Law’s screenshot from How We Save The World

Placing the audience in control of the decisions, making a game out of climate conversations, forces us to think with empathy and care about the interests of the characters we are talking to. What angle can we use to help them see that the consequences of climate change will be to their detriment too? And how confident are we that we can do that on the spot in front of an audience of strangers? Drawing from research in environmental psychology, How We Save The World distils the idea that storytelling and human connections are among the most powerful tools in climate action at its most immediate and intimate level: the way we talk to each other about the part we can play in climate action.


Find out more

Matt Law was one of five ClimateCultures members who took part in recent conversations with fellow member Julia Marques for her series Directing the Change, which Julia discussed in her recent ClimateCultures post, Conversations with Work That Connects. In his interview — which you can see in full as well as an excerpt in Julia’s post — Matt discusses how he is crossing disciplinary borders within Bath Spa University and has co-created a piece of theatre with the drama department there: The Last Hurrah (and the Long Haul) is a piece very much focussed on the community level of climate change and how incremental changes can unravel but also eventually strengthen a tightly-knit group.

You might also like to read a previous post by Julia, where she explores theatre as a space for thought about our options and what climate change means for us individually.

How We Save The World is a story game by interactive theatre-makers Coney. Written by Tassos Stevens and Michelle McMahon’s, it was created in collaboration with environmental scientists and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). It was first presented in 2018 at The Natural History Museum in London, and then re-imagined for our new global context as a live online performance, on Saturday 20th February 2021. “By looking at how we got to where we are today, together we’ll explore moments where small actions might create a ripple of change in the world – and learn how to take that forward in our own lives.”

You can read an interview with Michelle McMahon hereConey will be announcing new performances of How We Save The World in the next couple of weeks — do check their blog for news.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is an independent, nonprofit organization that gathers a diverse array of informed and influential voices tracking man-made threats and brings their innovative thinking to a global audience. The Bulletin focuses on three main areas: nuclear risk, climate change, and disruptive technologies. What connects these topics is a driving belief that because humans created them, we can control them. The Doomsday Clock is a design that warns the public about how close we are to destroying our world with dangerous technologies of our own making. It is a metaphor, a reminder of the perils we must address if we are to survive on the planet. When the Doomsday Clock was created in 1947, the greatest danger to humanity came from nuclear weapons, in particular from the prospect that the United States and the Soviet Union were headed for a nuclear arms race. The Bulletin considered possible catastrophic disruptions from climate change in its hand-setting deliberations for the first time in 2007.

Katherine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist and professor of political science at Texas Tech University, where she is director of the Climate Science Center. You can join the 3.8 million people who have watched her TEDWomen 2018 talk The most important thing you can do to fight climate change: talk about it — and then talk about it. 

Matt Law
Matt Law
An environmental change & sustainability researcher interested in environmental archaeology and public engagement, working on a theatre project to explore climate change's disruption of everyday lives.
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