Ecoart Case Studies – Theory into Practice

In the second of three collaborative posts reviewing Ecoart in Action, artists Claire AthertonBeckie Leach, Genevieve Rudd and Nicky Saunter find plenty to discuss in a sample of the book’s rich collection of international ecoart case studies, complementing its earlier activities.


2,000 words: estimated reading time = 8 minutes + optional 18-minute video


The book Ecoart in Action: Activities, Case Studies, and Provocations for Classrooms and Communities has contributions from 67 members of the Ecoart Network, a group of more than 200 internationally established practitioners. This is the second part of a three-part review from four members of the ClimateCultures network, conducted as a set of conversations and short personal texts.

In their first post — Ecoart Activities – Working With Place & People — participatory arts practitioner Claire Atherton, teacher and storyteller Beckie Leach, environmental community arts projects leader Genevieve Rudd and entrepreneurial thinker and practical activist Nicky Saunter looked at some of the book’s 25 suggested activities and shared their experiences trying some of them. They’ve since met again on Zoom to share their thoughts on Section 2 of the book, which offers a wide range of 26 case studies from around the world.

As with the ecoart activities they discussed last time, part of the value of this conversational approach has been the different affinities and interests that our four reviewers bring to the exercise and the different access points they find in the case studies. The book’s intended audience is, of course, very diverse in terms of practices, backgrounds and areas of focus, and different readers will want to apply their learning from the case studies in different ways.

Free range conversation

While one of our artists read all the case studies to explore the range of theories and approaches, others flicked through, picking one or two case studies that most resonated with them. An early part of the conversation picked up on what is naturally a more theory-based quality to case studies compared with suggestions for practical activities, and how the book navigates the pros and cons of this. What Genevieve had identified as the ‘dip-in-and-outable’ approach of the activities in Section 1 is clearly an advantage here too.

Showing 'My Lonely Tree', a photograph featured in one of the ecoart case studies ('Sick-amour').
‘My Lonely Tree’, featured in the Ecoart in Action case study ‘Sick-amour’. Photograph: Joel Tauber © 2006

Claire: “What I like about it is that it goes into a lot more detail and you’ve got some of the theory and some of the pedagogy behind it, in terms of why they’d done what they’ve done. And I liked the more academic approach [but] I wouldn’t read through all the case studies from the start, because they are long and weighty.”

Genevieve: “I was really glad that, like the first section, it wants you to read on; it’s been designed to be really accessible. It’s littered with these diagrams and graphics. For me, that kept my attention because big blocks of text, I just find that too much. I really value that there’s the same approach as with the participatory, ‘how to’, part — the same style of presenting it is in this more theoretical side. It feels more digestible to me.”

Nicky: “Some of them are quite text heavy but they are broken up very clearly… Being the ‘action’ person, sometimes I went straight to the outcome section and looked at that and thought ‘That looks interesting’ and went back and read it. And sometimes it was useful to read it in that order so I knew what they were getting at.”

Beckie: “I think I’m slightly torn between how theoretical they were, that theory side — and feel that reading all the case studies together would get very repetitive in a way, whereas dipping into one or two was really nice — but also, as case studies of things that happened with people in them, I didn’t quite feel like I got enough of the people and their stories and how they found it. Which maybe is coming from a different angle.”

That last point was important to Claire too, who as a community artist feels that knowing what the people involved got from the project would help her decide what and how to take from the case study: “At the end of the day, the reason that I do what I do is for the people that I’m doing it for.” And Genevieve took this further, reflecting on how some of the themes in the case studies address climate justice or violence in different contexts, which can be “a really personal, direct experience, and something more of that could have been amplified. That ‘humanness’ of it.”

As you will see in the video extract from their free-ranging conversation, as well as taking ideas from several of the book’s case studies and their personal impact, our four reviewers took these and the book itself as opportunities to touch on important questions: what is included in ‘ecoart’ and who decides, what remains accessible and for how long after a project has ended, what is the legacy, and how might this field of practice become more visible with funding for cross-disciplinary work? In some ways, this book is an embodiment of the value of these questions and current responses to them.

Showing a group reflection in a pond, Lancashire, 2016 - featured in the 'Faculty of Social Arts Practice': one of the ecoart case studies.
Kerry Morrison and Chrissie Tiller, Reflection in Pond: FoSAP Cohort Launching their Paper Boats, First Residential, Coldwell Activity Centre, Lancashire, 2016. As featured in the ‘Faculty of Social Arts Practice’ case study. Photo: William Titley.

Ecoart case studies: creative activism

Each reviewer also offered a short text to say more about the case studies they picked out.

Nicky

As I seemed to be drawn to case studies that focus either on broad community-wide projects or single engaging actions, I decided to choose one of each to comment on here.

Sick-Amour is the name given to Joel Tauber’s case study on a tree in a “sea of asphalt” in front of the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California. Over a period of time, Joel lobbied on behalf of this tree’s health, drawing attention to its beauty and the possibility that it could be propagated. Using film, community participative sculpture, and a local programme to take care of over two hundred of its “babies”. There is a reality and poignancy to this case study, as the original tree was chopped down some time later — a sad and shocking end to such a compassionate and inclusive piece of work. But the babies survive to make new trees for other places in the future.

Artist Residencies for Environmental Change is at the other end of the spectrum — a series of activities by a variety of artists along the thirteen kilometres of Plum Tree Creek in Taiwan, polluted by rapid industrialisation, high-density population and intensive agriculture. Together they engaged over 80,000 people over more than a decade. Five different local artist teams used participatory programmes to create a huge range of activities together with educational institutions, NGOs, professionals and local residents. The main idea was to re-engage people in this fairly new town with their environment through this single river, which had been artificially straightened and was struggling ecologically. Partnerships with international artists brought different perspectives and activities, ranging from puppetry to walking maps, story-led conversations to local business engagement.

These two examples — and there are many more in the book — give a flavour of the range and scale of the work described. Whatever your own practice and working environment, there is something here you might replicate or gain inspiration from.

Beckie

The range of case studies in EcoArt in Action is exciting — there is such a variety of projects. For the purposes of this exercise, I have focussed on one (but it was very hard to choose). I was drawn to Kerry Morrison and Chrissie Tiller’s The Faculty of Social Arts Practice. This case study draws important links between socially engaged arts practice and Ecoart practice, looking at how both are collaborative and interdisciplinary. This is a boundary that my arts practice regularly walks and I found nuggets of gold in the suggested activities as an artist, and in their pedagogical approach as a teacher, particularly around the exploration of individual and collective identity and embodiment.

The case studies are short and I would have loved to see more depth — either from an artistic or pedagogical viewpoint (or both) — and heard more on the contents of the activities and experiences of participants. I can see beautiful ideas emerging about trust and risk, vulnerability and not knowing.

After reading this case study I am left wondering how I can find ways to let go of control in my practice — how can I collaborate more? Can I collaborate beyond the boundaries of species and discipline?

Genevieve

When we moved on to exploring the Case Studies section of the EcoArt in Action book, there was one image that stopped me in my tracks whilst flicking through the pages. Basia Irland’s Ice Receding/Books Reseeding is a fascinating case study of climate art. The image of a young child sitting on the bank of a river, ‘reading’ a book that — in the place where the words and images might be — sprouts lines of living seeds. The child sits with their legs crossed on the floor and their hands open, as if the stories of the living plants might be absorbed into their body from their still presence. I loved this example of climate art, which deftly balances expressing the melting and rising of sea levels with the quenching and reseeding of land.

Showing Basia Irland's 'Cleo Reading TOME II by the Banks of the Río Grande, New Mexico' (2007), one of the ecoart case studies featured in 'Ecoart in Action'.
Basia Irland’s ‘Cleo Reading TOME II by the Banks of the Río Grande, New Mexico’. Photograph: Claire Cote © 2007

This book carved from ice has, as Irland describes, been recreated around the world. In the way of water, my own imagination swells from the idea that each book melts and another book freezes from the same matter, flowing through the world’s water courses. For me, this case study is a beautiful example of an environmentally ‘light touch’ creative project, which is ephemeral in nature, whilst connecting with people and seamlessly communicating its rich complex message — I’m inspired!

It’s not enough to simply make art about the environment; as this book demonstrates, when you consider the lifespan and impact of the work beyond its installation or engagement, that’s ecoart in action.

Claire

I was drawn to Mo Dawley’s Wondering the Artist Book (an ecoinspiracy), as I am currently designing and producing a professional development and wellness support programme for Freelance Artists and this caught my attention. As it states in the overview, “the artist book [is] a consciousness-raising art form that conspires to question weary paradigms by inspiring wonder through multisensory connectivity”.

I was most interested in the different examples that are quoted throughout the case study and enjoyed looking up all the examples (although it must be noted that not all the links were active, which led to an interesting discussion about digital legacies and what happens when websites are no longer active or you leave a place of work and are removed from the website).

I totally resonate with Mo Dawley’s comment “At its essence, the artist book experience helps us to discover that our willingness to be open and engaged is ‘activism'” and I look forward to using the concept of Artist Books within my programme and await, excitedly, the outcome.

 


Find out more

Ecoart in Action: Activities, Case Studies, and Provocations for Classrooms and Communities, edited by Amara Geffen, Ann Rosenthal, Chris Fremantle, and Aviva Rahmani (2022) is published by New Village Press (outside the USA, published here). It is compiled from 67 members of the Ecoart Network, a group of more than 200 internationally established practitioners. The book is also available as an ebook, which may be an easier format to navigate between the various themes for some users. The Ecoart website includes discussion on the book and its ideas, with recordings from various events with various contributors and other Ecoart members.

This has been a review of the book’s second section, which offers 26 different ecoart case studies. For their discussion on Section 1 — with 25 activities for artists to experiment with — see Ecoart Activities – Working With Place & People.

In Ecoart in Action – Provocations to Creative Engagement they share their responses to Section 3, which offers 11 provocations.

Following up on the mentions of the Artist’s Book case studies, you can find interesting examples in an online collection from the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC.

In their final post for this collaborative review, Beckie, Claire, Genevieve and Nicky will share their responses to Section 3, which offers 11 ecoart provocations.

Claire Atherton

Claire Atherton

An artist inspired by nature and using paint, clay, fabric and natural materials to explore how we intuitively respond to nature and the environment around us.

Beckie Leach

Beckie Leach

An artist, teacher and storyteller creating experiences for participation with the natural environment, and training as a facilitator in deep listening and the work that reconnects.

Genevieve Rudd

Genevieve Rudd

An artist exploring time and seasons using Cyanotype and Anthotype photographic techniques and leading heritage and environmental community arts projects through drawing, textiles and found materials

Nicky Saunter

Nicky Saunter

An entrepreneurial thinker, practical activist and campaigner, and creative artist who is driven by what we can do rather than what we cannot change.

Ecoart Activities – Working With Place & People

Artists Claire Atherton, Beckie Leach, Genevieve Rudd and Nicky Saunter have joined up to review Ecoart in Action: Activities, Case Studies and Provocations for Classrooms and Communities. This first of three collaborative posts samples the guide’s ecoart activities.


2,900 words: estimated reading time = 11 minutes + optional: up to 26 mins video clips


ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe describes the context for this innovative review:

In Autumn 2021, researcher and producer Chris Fremantle and I discussed a review of Ecoart in Action. Chris had co-authored this practical volume with other members of the Ecoart Network to showcase a wide range of ecoart activities, case studies and provocations to use with classrooms and communities. My discussions with interested members suggested a ‘multi-voiced’ approach: a collaborative process, generating dialogue from different practitioners’ insights. This review approach is well suited to the nature of the book — and ClimateCultures is all about stimulating creative conversations. 

Our four artist-reviewers — participatory arts practitioner Claire Atherton; teacher and storyteller Beckie Leach; environmental community arts projects leader Genevieve Rudd; entrepreneurial thinker and practical activist Nicky Saunter — work in different contexts and practices around the UK, based variously in South East London, Wiltshire and Norfolk. They held an ‘orientation’ Zoom call to introduce themselves and discuss possible approaches, before coalescing around the idea of together taking the book’s three parts, producing a blog post for each section.

Ecoart in Action. Cover design: Kevin Stone

A collaborative review – orientation

Their initial conversation brought out the book’s value as an inspiration, a resource with stories of contributors’ different approaches to ecoart, and a rich reference book of examples, artists and theories; there are clearly many ways to approach it.

Claire: “It’s a book you can use to get inspiration from in terms of your own ecoart practice, but also to look at different people’s approaches. To me, it’s a reference book, one you would go to and say ‘I’ve got this project, I want to work with this group of people, what could I do?’”

Nicky: “I found it interesting with some of the theory. I tend to duck away from the theory, and sometimes it can be useful. It was interesting to see where some of those practices came from, even if you don’t really need that in order to ‘do it’. So it being a reference book is useful: there’s intellectual learning, and practical learning and experiential learning that could come out, and I liked that: you don’t have to take all of it but there’s quite a lot there to take.”

Genevieve: “One of things I liked is there’s the practical examples and the process, that’s really important to me: it’s not just an activity that’s plucked out of nowhere, it’s grounded in something, and as you go through there’s the sense of people’s biographies, people’s stories — that it’s rooted. As a resource, it’s ‘dip-in-and-out-able’, because it’s not linear. You can flick it open and find something. And it’s introducing me to practices and artists I wasn’t aware of. For me there was a real sense of discovery, and now there’s so many wormholes to go down and people and projects to look up.”

Beckie: “I think there’s something important about how intangible ecoart is, and it’s not something usually you can go and see in a gallery or there’s not big shows of it because it’s not something that you can show in that way. And that makes it very hard to be aware of what’s going on and to experience it. So there’s something really valuable in seeing all the international practices and how it might be interpreted differently in different cultures.”

Settling on the post-per-section approach, the four decided they’d each scan the different entries in each section, share which ones grabbed them most to work with and then come together for a Zoom to compare experiences and reflect on the book. They’d then send in texts and images, with my role being to bring these together with clips from the Zoom recordings for added depth.

Discussing what use ecoart is in the world, they homed in on the Venn diagram from the book’s introduction, and how — as Claire observed — “It gave it a space in which it exists.”

Ecoart activities: showing a Venn diagram with Ecaort as the intersection of Art, Science and Community. From the book, 'Ecoart in Action'.
Three interconnecting fields of Ecoart practice. Image developed by the editors of Ecoart in Action © 2018

Claire: “It’s difficult when you’re moving away from traditional art practice; where do I sit, who am I? Am I a scientist, am I community worker, am I an artist? Well actually I’m all three of those things, to a certain degree. So that’s how I’ve looked at this book — it can help me to explore those three different facets within myself and bring those together in terms of my practice. … Arguing for its (ecoart’s) value, this book can really help in positioning that.”

Nicky: “We have a system that so clearly splits people between being scientists and being artists. Most people tend one way or another but use both, and can be very strong in both areas, and other areas as well. So I liked that, and it feels inclusive and therefore very positive. Sometimes even the word ‘art’ can feel quite exclusive in itself, to people who feel it’s not their space.”

Our reviewer-artists came at Section 1 with different needs, reflecting some of the diverse uses the book is likely to be engaged in. While Beckie wanted activities to try with her own toddler as an example of a non-formal teaching environment, and Nicky selected ideas to use spontaneously with a couple of young people in her own garden, Genevieve was looking for something to use with a set group of people in a session she already had planned, and Claire wanted the book’s help in creating a workshop she’d been commissioned to deliver in the New Year.

The immersion in Section 1, on ecoart activities, came just before Christmas. As it happened, Beckie couldn’t join in just yet because of family circumstances, so the first of the Zoom sessions went ahead with just Claire, Genevieve and Nicky, with Beckie then able to send in her reflections for this first post.

Planning ecoart activities

Genevieve

I purchased the book when it launched in 2022 and I was excited to have lots of inspiring ecoart ideas to draw from. As a community artist, I work with groups in an iterative way – the previous activity informs the next through reflective practice – so it has been refreshing to have external input to spark ideas. I was invited by a local arts university to run a talk with a workshop element to students, as part of an annual week-long programme encouraging students to try something new, explore different creative practices, and experience new ways of thinking and doing. This was the ideal chance to draw upon this book’s wisdom!

When I was flicking through the book, I found it really useful to have a ‘key’ to each activity in Section 1. For example, I knew I was looking at something suitable for undergraduate or graduate students, for a two-hour session and with an estimated group size of 10. The Perceiving Embeddedness through Collage activity by Cameron Davis stood out for me, as it fitted this context. Whilst the activity began with a walk as a core element for inspiring the activity that followed (which would be my own ‘usual’ format in my participatory arts practice), this wasn’t possible in the format I was delivering. The brief was for a talk with a workshop element, so I instead brought along a range of objects that had been collected in journeys from participants at previous projects and through my own arts practice.

Nicky

I started reading the book with an open mind, wondering which of my various groups might be up for participating in an activity. In the back of my mind, my criteria were: less than a day in timescale; something I could do in my local neighbourhood; low cost as I would not be using it in paid work.

Part 1 of the book is easy to read, with the consistency of layout meaning it is easy to find what each activity entails, how long it might take and what sort of audience it is suitable for. I quickly picked out a few activities that appealed to me and suited the criteria:

      • Award Ribbons for Places: making and giving awards to favourite places in a particular outside area, and sharing your reasons for your award. (This is the one I chose.)
      • Story Circles: people in a group each telling a story on a theme, adding to the overall richness and different points of view. (A bit too verbal and performative for my participants.)
      • Rethinking Fashion: exploring the footprint of fashion and making sustainable alternatives. (Too much time for my participants, but I would love to do this with our local XR group perhaps.)
      • Botanical Art Banners: studying local plants and painting findings onto banners for display. (I love this and think it’s a great way to appeal to different groups who might be interested in detail and science too.)
      • Lines of the Hand: using the lines on the palms of our hands as a starting point for patterns in the wider natural world. (This looks great.)

Claire

After initially being drawn to the activities Awards Ribbons for Places and Perceiving Embeddedness Through Collage, time commitments meant I wasn’t able to deliver either activity before our scheduled chat, so I used the book as a reference tool to provide inspiration for a forthcoming workshop I have been commissioned to deliver in January. Looking through the list of activities was simple and straightforward and I have chosen Story Circles as I feel this has the most relevance to my audience. I will report back on the delivery of this activity in future blog posts.

Showing 'Lines of the Hand', one of the ecoart activities in Ecoart in Action. Photograph by Claire Atherton
An example of ‘Lines of the Hand’, one of ecoart activities in the book that Nicky had considered using and both Genevieve and Claire had previous experience with: using the lines on the palms of our hands as a starting point for patterns in the wider natural world. Photograph: Claire Atherton, from a workshop led by Genevieve Rudd.

I spent a lot of time looking through all the activities to see the audiences, number of participants, duration etc in order to find one that fit the parameters of my commission. It would be helpful to have a grid at the beginning of the book that gives an easy way to drill down, based on audience type, ability (able-bodied / sitting activities), duration etc so that you can see instantly the activities, case studies and provocations that are relevant to your specific brief.

Beckie

I found this section of the book quite intimidating – it is dense and packed full of interesting ideas, but lacking pictures. Actually the premise of a lot of the activities was quite simple and accessible once I got into the text. I was drawn to Creating Rituals, Aborescence: a Score, and Cultivating an Ecocreative Mindset. I wonder if there is a way to format the activities so they are a little easier to read through quickly and adapt for different audiences?

It was challenging to adapt the activities to a non-formal teaching environment — but I think my particular context was also challenging as I wanted to find things I could do with my toddler and all of the activities in the book were designed for older participants and many required a much longer time frame. 

Working with ecoart activities on the ground

Genevieve

To find flow with my adaptation to the Perceiving Embeddedness through Collage activity plan, I framed the exercise around stories: how we’re each guided by different stories, values and experiences, and how this feeds into community arts practice. In my introductory talk, I shared examples of the elements that inform my work (I talked about these as my ‘deep roots’), and shared a couple of case studies of community arts projects that have evolved from these ideas (these are the ‘emerging shoots’). I was inspired by Davis’s ideas in the activity introduction on “embeddedness within this dynamic living whole we call life”, and reinterpreted this with my own drawing and thought process about these relationships.

Showing ecoart activities in context and metaphorically as deep roots and emerging shoots. Image by Genevieve Rudd.
Deep roots & Emerging shoots. Image: Genevieve Rudd © 2022
Ecoart activities: showing a drawing created during the workshop, inspired by the objects used. Image: Genevieve Rudd © 2022
A drawing created during the workshop, inspired by the objects used. Image: Genevieve Rudd © 2022

What I found particularly interesting about working from Davis’s idea was voicing someone else’s ideas and considering my own connection with them. It was useful for me to experience, as a facilitator. The provocations that particularly stood out to me were: “do you feel, in any way, that your object chose you?” and “entertain the notion that your object has presence”.

The group were really responsive to the activity and, whilst collage materials were made available to the group, they all chose to work in drawing throughout. To warm-up, I also added in some extra short exercises, some simple drawing methods that celebrated the qualities of the objects. The group generated some really thoughtful and evocative ideas in response to the objects they chose, including childhood memories, noticing the details and enjoying the texture, and reflecting on how their ideas could find a place in the world. I will certainly be using this activity as a starting point in different contexts, and can also see how it could be adapted for different ages and settings.

Nicky

Within our given timeframe, I happened to have two teenagers staying with me who did not know each other, one of whom is very shy and not strong at communication. I wanted something with a very low entry point, involving minimal art skills and some physical outside activity. The length of time was given as one day, which gives time to delve into the historical and social background of a place, but I found the activity could easily be shortened if focused on a more basic “what do you love here” question. We took about two hours and used my garden, which is large and has wild and woody areas as well as more open traditional lawn spaces, many trees, bushes and sheds. I hoped there would be enough interest for them.

After explaining to the two girls what we would be doing, we walked around the garden, looking for places we particularly liked, making a few comments, touching trees and plants, getting a feel for the place. Having each chosen two places we particularly liked, we went inside to create our own ‘awards’. I also participated, so I wouldn’t be hovering over them too much. I had some basic card, ribbons and string for hanging and paints/pens for decoration or writing that would all be biodegradable and so could be left outside to disappear naturally. I made a sample label-type award to help and one girl copied this, while the other made her own shapes and hangers. They seemed to crack on immediately with an easy understanding of what they were doing, despite one of the girls often finding art activities very difficult as she is unable to think of what to do. The prescriptive nature of this was helpful here.

We then went back outside, circling round to each of our own chosen favourite places, gave our awards and said a few words about why we had chosen this place. It was interesting to see we had all chosen different places and that we all chose trees and shrubs of some kind rather than the built environment. There was an instant connection to nature and an appreciation of its beauty not noticed before.

The girls seemed to find it fun and participated in taking photos and I found it quite moving to see their direct connection with other living organisms.

Using Awards Ribbons for Places in a wooded place. Photographs: Nicky Saunter © 2022 [click on images for full size]

I only touched on the possibilities of this activity, which could include so much more about a place and would work with bigger groups and over longer periods of time. Its flexibility is impressive.

Beckie

In the end we spent some time doing the Creating Rituals activity – making snow rock trolls and feeding the birds and squirrels. This was really fun and feeding the birds and squirrels together has continued as a regular activity – and I am thinking a lot about everyday rituals. 

Ecoart activities: Showing a photo of 'snow rock trolls' by Beckie Leach
Snow rock trolls. Photograph: Beckie Leach © 2022

In the following clips from their Zoom chat, Claire, Genevieve and Nicky share additional insights into how they worked with the ecoart activities in the book:

Clip 1 (6 minutes): Example activity – Awards Ribbons for Places.

Clip 2 (9.5 minutes): Example activity – Lines of the Hand; the book’s value as something you can come at as a starting point, a detailed, theory-led instruction, or a source of interesting thinking to spark your own ideas for activities.

Clip 3 (6.5 minutes): Example activity – Perceiving Embeddedness through Collage; the book as a rich source of references you can follow up.

Clip 4 (4.5 minutes): Using the book as inspiration for planning your work; issues navigating the book for different contexts; example activity – Story Circles.


Find out more

Ecoart in Action: Activities, Case Studies, and Provocations for Classrooms and Communities, edited by Amara Geffen, Ann Rosenthal, Chris Fremantle, and Aviva Rahmani (2022) is published by New Village Press (outside the USA, published here). It is compiled from 67 members of the Ecoart Network, a group of more than 200 internationally established practitioners. The book is also available as an ebook, which may be an easier format to navigate between the various themes for some users. The Ecoart website includes discussion on the book and its ideas, with recordings from various events with various contributors and other Ecoart members.

This has been a review of the book’s first section, which offers 25 different ecoart activities.

In Ecoart Case Studies – Theory into Practice, Beckie, Claire, Genevieve and Nicky share their responses to Section 2, which offers 26 ecoart case studies.

In Ecoart in Action – Provocations to Creative Engagement they share their responses to Section 3, which offers 11 provocations.

Assembling the Raven’s Nest is Chris Fremantle‘s review of fellow member Sarah Thomas‘s ecological memoir.

Claire Atherton

Claire Atherton

An artist inspired by nature and using paint, clay, fabric and natural materials to explore how we intuitively respond to nature and the environment around us.

Beckie Leach

Beckie Leach

An artist, teacher and storyteller creating experiences for participation with the natural environment, and training as a facilitator in deep listening and the work that reconnects.

Genevieve Rudd

Genevieve Rudd

An artist exploring time and seasons using Cyanotype and Anthotype photographic techniques and leading heritage and environmental community arts projects through drawing, textiles and found materials

Nicky Saunter

Nicky Saunter

An entrepreneurial thinker, practical activist and campaigner, and creative artist who is driven by what we can do rather than what we cannot change.

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.

‘What You Need Will Come to You’

Kaupapa Māori approachesEnvironmental artist Laura Donkers follows her initial post on eco-social art engagement with her experience as Visiting Doctoral Researcher, moving to Aotearoa New Zealand from July to November 2018 to expand her research by exploring Kaupapa Māori approaches.


1,600 words: estimated reading time 6.5 minutes 


In her previous post, Laura introduced the form of eco-social art engagement she’s developed in Uist in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, working with communities’ embodied knowledge to help develop climate literacy.

***

My research journey led me to undertake a period of research in Aotearoa New Zealand. It came about through a chance discussion with a New Zealand artist I had met while at a DRAWinternational artist residency in France. She introduced me to the research practice of Māori artist and scholar Dr Huhana Smith, who in the mid-2000s developed a PhD project at Kuku Beach, Palmerston North, working with her local tribe to reinstate the river, estuary and beach ecosystem according to traditional cultural principles. I was fascinated to read how the community had responded to the project, but also was intrigued to find out what the term Kaupapa Māori — literally ‘a Māori way’ —  actually meant. I knew that Māori were the indigenous people of New Zealand, but was not really familiar with their culture of interconnectedness. However, it became apparent from further research that their understanding of their embeddedness in the natural world was similar to something I had recognised in the Uist community, but due to my own incapacities had felt unable to express.

Perhaps a greater knowledge of Kaupapa Māori might give my research the underpinning framework that I felt it was missing? So I expanded my project methodology and combined artistic methods with a modified version of Participatory Action Research that drew from Kaupapa Māori Theory, an academic approach that retrieves space for Māori voices and perspectives, particularly where it affords new perspective into community-led collective thinking and action. My hope is that by including Kaupapa Māori Theory my research can help other communities understand how to address issues of universal concern, such as climate change adaptation, and help restore an understanding of sustainable living.

Kuku beach Photograph by Laura Donkers
Kuku beach
Photograph: Laura Donkers © 2018

Understanding Kaupapa Māori 

I wanted to learn first-hand how Kaupapa Maori is realised in a community. Through university contacts, I approached Elam School of Art to propose a period of research. I met with the Head of the School and learned that Kaupapa Māori praxis underpins teaching and support of their students within the contemporary art framework. Given that I was a trained artist, I felt this would provide a context to experience Kaukapa Māori in an accessible way, and hoped to learn from practitioners, lecturers, and students how mutual trust, respect, reciprocity and kinship manifest in the art school situation.

Over the course of my five-month residency I came to appreciate that I was expecting much more than was possible from a relatively short period of research. Not least, my minimal understanding of the practice of Kaupapa Māori left me unable to articulate what I had hoped to find. And I had the feeling amongst the people that I spoke to that Kaukapa Māori was not really practised in the school in the way I had understood. However, the uncertainties that arose through my questioning slowly led to helpful suggestions of other outlets where I might find answers, and eventually I found my way to groups and individuals in the wider community who were able to share with me their experiences.

Meeting with weavers 

I found the process of searching for points of contact and connection to be difficult and disheartening at times. Initial meetings with academics and practitioners were straightforward to arrange, but they did not seem to go anywhere. I often found the experience more like an interrogation than a discussion and it was hard to pin down whether I was speaking to someone who was interested in my research or just checking my motives. Follow-up discussions never materialised and this left me without the necessary dialogue to explore the subject of Kaupapa Māori in practice. It seemed that the more questions I asked the less clarity I gained, and I wondered how I could achieve the outcome of the research I was seeking. I had arranged to meet a renowned master weaver who was a friend of my supervisor but also, by chance, of a neighbour in Uist. I looked forward to this meeting but had no idea where it would lead.

We met at Auckland’s Memorial Museum where a number of master weavers were gathered in the ‘Te Awe’ Project Room. ‘Te Awe’ is a vast stock take and digitisation exercise being carried out by Auckland Museum to examine 10,000 Māori Taonga — highly prized objects or natural resources. The women had been selected from across the country for their supreme expertise and worked together to agree on specific definitions for the different techniques present in the Korowai (ceremonial cloak) laid before them.

Members from the Taumata Mareikura and Auckland Museum Staff view a few examples of taonga Māori textiles in the collection
Members from the Taumata Mareikura and Auckland Museum Staff view a few examples of taonga Māori textiles in the collection
Source: www.aucklandmuseum.com

They graciously came to greet me, and despite my ignorance, the gravitas of the occasion was palpable as I observed the reverent manner in which the Korowai were examined, and the quiet discussions amongst the weavers as they approached a consensus. And then it was time for tea, further discussion and an unexpected invitation to attend a marae (a communal and sacred meeting ground of Māori people) at the weekend, which I eagerly accepted.

This extraordinary encounter marked a turning point, and I went on to meet a myriad of people who welcomed me. Through quiet explanation and discussion, I slowly began to understand Kaukapa Māori in practice, and its comparability to practices I was all too familiar with from the years spent living in Uist. The gentle acknowledgement of each other’s rights through principles of mutual respect involving face to face encounter; looking, listening and then speaking; sharing and hosting; caution; and not trampling on the rights, personal prestige and character of each other. 

‘What you need will come to you’ 

However, it was a phrase conveyed to me by an artist-weaver that most sums up my research journey in Aotearoa New Zealand. She recounted her experience of having to learn to overcome frustration as she developed her weaving skills by eventually accepting the premise of her weaving teacher that ‘what you need will come to you’. A simple mantra that perhaps all researchers should hold to — that over time and with a little humility you will find what you are looking for.


From our contemporary perspective, it can be difficult to trust that you will find what you need. Will there be time to allow that process to happen? How will you know this is what you needed? Is this a valid methodology?

An extraordinary opportunity opened up for me just as I was preparing to leave. I followed up a chance introduction at Auckland Council’s climate change workshops and was invited to meet with some of the team at the Kaipatiki Project to discuss potential ways of working together in the future.

As part of my SGSAH AHRC Creative Economies scholarship, I could propose an artist-in-resident placement with a non-academic institution, and the Kaipatiki Project’s regenerative approach to working with community and environment seemed to offer an ideal location. SGSAH accepted my proposal for a three-month artist residency, which would further develop my understanding of Kaupapa Maori Theory, this time at community organisation level. 

So, for three months, I am exploring how my creative approach relates to and can contribute towards the organisation’s underpinning objective to help communities live more sustainably, and together we will develop ways to unleash the creativity of the community to identify opportunities to solve local environmental challenges.

I am just beginning this residency and am keeping a diary of my experiences. I’ll be happy to share these in future ClimateCultures posts!

I wish to thank my host Associate Professor Peter Shand, the tutors and students at Elam School of Art and other Professors at Auckland University who helped me on my way, as well as many other artists, weavers, practitioners, and members of community groups who listened, questioned and advised me during my all too brief sojourn in Aotearoa New Zealand. I would also like to take the opportunity to thank my funders Scottish Graduate School of Arts and Humanities for their Visiting Doctoral Researcher Award that made this visit possible. 


Find out more 

Laura’s previous post, introducing her artistic practice and research, is Eco-social Art — Engaging Climate Literacy

DRAWinternational caters for fine artists, applied artists, musicians or writers in pursuit of new and dynamic form, in preparation for exhibition, publication or postgraduate qualification. 

Dr Huhana Smith is a visual artist, curator and principal investigator in research who engages in major environmental, trans-disciplinary, kaupapa Māori and action-research projects. She is co-principal investigator for research that includes mātauranga Māori methods with sciences to actively address climate change concerns for coastal Māori lands in Horowhenua-Kāpiti. Huhana actively encourages the use of art and design’s visual systems combined in exhibitions, to expand how solutions might integrate complex issues and make solutions more accessible for local communities.

You can find out more about the principles and practice Kaupapa Māori research at the website of Katoa Ltd, a Māori – Indigenous research organisation.

‘Te Awe’ is a vast stock take and digitisation exercise being carried out by Auckland Museum 

Kaipatiki Project has, since 1998, been inspiring communities to live sustainably by restoring local bush reserves with community and developing environmental education programmes for all ages.

Laura Donkers
Laura Donkers
An ecological artist and researcher connecting people with ecology through community projects and outdoor art workshops to inform more creative and sustainable ways to live.

Eco-social Art — Engaging Climate Literacy

Eco-social art - Berneray Community Polycrub, 2016Environmental artist Laura Donkers works with the embodied knowledge of communities, through a form of eco-social art engagement, to help develop climate literacy. Laura describes her approach and experience with local communities in Uist in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.


2,300 words: estimated reading time 9 minutes + 6 minutes video 


This is the first part of two, and in her next post Laura discusses her move to Aotearoa New Zealand to expand her research as part of her final year of a practice-led PhD at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design at Dundee University.

***

For the last thirty years, I have lived on the southern island chain in the Outer Hebrides, known as the Uists, where I work as a horticulturalist, artist and researcher. The population of fewer than 5,000 people is largely indigenous and is widely spread across several islands, with between four and fifteen people per square kilometre inhabiting small, close-knit townships of all occupations needed to sustain a community. The archipelago’s economic activities are reliant on the primary industries of tourism, crofting, fishing and weaving and dependent on the environment for continued livelihoods. 


I feel I belong to this place; I both know and am known by my community. Without this social embeddedness, I could not have undertaken the sort of research I do, which relies on mutual trust and understanding, as well as a familiarity with the way that individuals and societies work at a local level. It’s a community that is interconnected across several planes of knowledge. Connected to the land, sea, seasons and with strong intergenerational and societal bonds, people exhibit a broad skills base extending across several identities; and, with shared spiritual connections and an interest in heritage and genealogy, people continue to pass knowledge on through generations.

It is natural then that I am interested in how eco-social art can be used strategically to promote sustainability in small island communities. Through the process of research for my PhD, I have come to understand that this is done best by working with the community’s own embodied knowledge, and I want to be able to show the importance of this.

My practice-led thesis aims to show that a specific set of knowledges accumulated through lived experience can help to improve ecological and social regeneration. My research reveals the role and value of this community embodied knowledge as a method for reengagement. Together with an eco-arts approach, this can bring local people, community organisations and national partners together into an open learning environment to develop ways of adapting to climate change.

Embodied knowledge, eco-social art

So what is community embodied knowledge?

I have found it to exist where people know each other through familial and experiential ties, are attached to their place/environment/land and utilise intergenerational knowledge to understand their own existence. It is also a practical form of wisdom, or practical reasoning, that is about individual ability to make good choices, based on understanding what is the right thing to do in the circumstances.

So, embodied knowledge helps us get to the deeper kinds of change that are needed at this time of climatic upheaval. When faced with challenges, practical rural-based people do not have it in their nature to just sit back and wait for others to act, but instead use their lived experience and inherited bank of knowledge to make decisions about what to do. However, in this new climatic regime, changes at a local level can be subtle (while still ultimately catastrophic) as they creep into everyday experience and become the new norm. While rural people are well placed to adapt to change, they share wider society’s lack of experience in understanding what irrevocable changes they will need to adapt to. In my opinion, it’s here that valuable reengagement opportunities lie, where ordinary practical people, local organisations and national bodies should come together and share knowledge and practices that may achieve solutions for local survivability.


And socially engaged art practice?

This is anchored in community-led development and uses art to draw the community into talking about and acting on social, political or environmental issues. It involves people and communities in debate, collaboration or social interaction, and this is, at some level, where the art lies. It is led by artists who recognise that the community is the expert in their own lives, and works with them to cultivate that understanding more widely.

Reimagining place

So, place-making led by artists can revitalise communities: art and cultural activities involving local individuals and groups in collaborative activities with national organisations to develop meaningful public spaces where people can meet, celebrate and identify with each other. This kind of arts engagement can provide critical reflection and an alternative to the dominant social developmental discourse that can exclude the less vocal, less confident, less certain members of society, especially where historically these indigenous knowledges have been suppressed.

Many of the examples of this kind of ‘place-making’ are carried out by artists working in urban communities: Jeanne Van Heeswijk’s skills building projects develop the community’s capacity from ‘communication to construction’, to transform their roles into co-producers rather than merely consumers. However, I feel that the extensive productive capacities already present in rural communities require artists to take a different approach here.

A more rural approach begins with recognising the importance of the characteristics mentioned earlier regarding communities’ valuable interconnected knowledge and deep links to their places, and how they make use of their environments to sustain their livelihoods. So, finding a way to work that respects and upholds embodied knowledge is key to developing a good working relationship before even thinking of trying to shift mindsets for a changing climate. This is as much about showing the community the value of their own knowledge as it is about conveying how this form of knowledge can help other communities and wider society to re-think how to act locally elsewhere.

An example of my work is the Machair Art project. Machair is one of the rarest habitats in Europe: a fertile low lying grassy plain that only occurs on exposed western coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Machair Art was a collaboration between myself and artist Olwen Shone for the Conserving Scottish Machair LIFE+ project. It encompassed the year-long cycle of the machair in the form of four field trips to various crofting locations, exploring the themes of harvesting, seaweed, ploughing and wildlife. Students also attended drawing and photography sessions after school. 

As part of my work combining embodied knowledge with eco-social art practice, therefore, I develop practical and theoretical engagements that rekindle old tacit knowledge and skills to help communities reimagine their places as ‘climate change prepared’. My eco-social arts activities centre on developing climate literacy through social, intergenerational activities and range from drawing and photography days-out, to long term strategies that establish community food growing sites. Planned actions, shared vision, co-intelligence and co-management strategies help build a deeper understanding and potential for assimilation into everyday life, with actions informed and underpinned by the local embodied knowledge of crofters and contractors, as well as local specialists and advisors. 

Another short film I made, Tha Mi a Bruadair — I Have a Dream, shows the possibilities of rural education. In this case, through the Crofter Course run at the local high school, Sgoil Lionacleit, Isle of Benbecula, we engaged young people in land stewardship in their communities.

This video project was part of the ‘I Have a Dream’ Global Art, Farming and Peace project for Vancouver Biennale 2014-16, and was shown as part of Raising Farmers’ Voices for ArtCOP21 in Paris — an initiative by artist Shweta Bhattad, ‘Faith in Paris’.

Climate literacy: knowing and not knowing

A community’s embodied knowledge develops through its approach to change. While changes come about in all societies — alterations in population, climate, prices, policies, availability of healthcare, schools provision, and so on — tiny communities feel these much more acutely than larger populations. In places like Uist, they have learned that adaptation is always possible. There is no choice but to find a way to overcome challenges, and this produces resilient, adaptable people who can transform and sustain their lives as they need to.

The mindset of communities in places like Uist involves a very different experience of living than in the urban context. Understanding this means appreciating that these communities exist between knowing and not knowing. I will attempt to explain this and how I think my eco-social art abilities can work with these forms of knowledge to include climate literacy.

Rural knowledge is based on communities’ own capabilities to make and produce something to live from. Knowing the materials they require and how to access them calls on acute observational understanding and an ability to wait for the right signs. Counter to this runs not knowing whether they will achieve their goal this year. They cannot know for certain whether the materials (e.g. seaweed) will be available or sufficient, whether the right conditions (e.g. gales that bring the seaweed inshore) or signals (e.g. rainfall or lack) will appear, and finally whether these will enable the task (e.g. harvest) to be completed in time. Of course, they will achieve something of their aims, but they strive always with the hope that this year will be a good one that they can celebrate: that they can have some reserves, can feel a little satisfaction. This ability to live within these two states of knowing and not knowing comes through intergenerational knowledge, developing skills to source and make materials, and engaging deep durational and seasonal knowledge as well as acute capabilities to observe and to wait.

My eco-social arts process draws attention to wider issues of concern brought on by climate change and encourages reflexive reassessment via new thinking and doing that draw on the community’s existing materials, methods and processes. Our relationship develops through a collaborative process that respects existing knowledges and hierarchies, but introduces an alternative mindset that references climate change knowledge. While this is not at odds with a society dependent on the environment for its livelihoods, the way it is introduced needs sensitive handling in order for it to be considered rather than rejected. I occupy a different space, from another perspective, and can draw links to relevant information that can translate into local understanding.

Making space for climate conversations 

I wish to activate and expand the potential of art as an agent of social intervention, community building, and cultural change. I have found the best way to do this is through an open-call process where participants self-nominate. What follows is built around close listening and dialogue and, importantly, showing this through projects that reference the participants’ experiences, concerns and ideas.

Essentially, what we create together is a space for the community to enter, influence and direct themselves. They start to have ‘climate conversations’ that make sense and lead on to transformative climate-aware actions that they take themselves. The artistic aspects help with visualisation and the creation of new spaces (e.g. Community Food Growing Hubs) to reconsider and reflect on recent local changes, whether increasing levels of social isolation, poor diet or mental health issues, as well as the potential climate change impacts of sea level rise, and increased food costs. The visualisations offer another view on the situation, enabling participants to see and hear themselves speaking and acting.

Eco-social art - Berneray Community Polycrub, 2016
Berneray Community Polycrub
Photo: Laura Donkers © 2016

The creation of these spaces fits in with the community’s inherent qualities of knowing and not knowing. It feels true and believable, and sets parameters that are achievable and, in the end, self-determining.

Looking beyond the west   

My work is about understanding mutuality through an artform that’s concerned with human interactions and social context acting in spaces of the everyday: negotiating the personal, social and political — in place. It’s about working with each other to gain new understandings of how to live in a changing world.

I contend that community embodied knowledge is a valuable resource that is not properly understood at present, and so cannot be truly valued. During my studies, I have come to appreciate something of the cultural disparities between the Western disregard for this knowledge and indigenous societies’ world views. These are based on interconnected environmental and spiritual values, and recognise human dependence on ecosystems and our influence on them through the use of land, water and air. As with the island community in Uist, this knowledge has come about through extended processes of observation and interpretation. But in non-western societies, the interconnected world view influences how they value their knowledge, affording a context for understanding from an embodied perspective that references the natural world, its materials, and conditions, in a natural state of co-existence. 

To explore this point, I have been undertaking comparative research in Aotearoa New Zealand to gain perspective on the role indigenous communities with long-standing interconnected relationships with their natural environment can play in highlighting the importance of practical local knowledge. Māori see themselves as integral parts of ecosystems, and know that their basic necessities such as materials, health, good social relations, security, and freedom of choice and action are provided directly and indirectly by ecosystems. Knowledge of this interdependency supports their ability to care for their land and their people.

This part of my research — which I will turn to in my next post — focuses on learning how regenerative practices can influence the governance of resources and help to develop flourishing communities. And I am also looking at what maybe limits how we can transfer such a model to other places and contexts. 


Find out more

You can watch Laura’s video from the Machair Art project and find out more on her website. The term ‘Eco-social Art’ was first coined by artist-researcher (and ClimateCultures Member) Cathy Fitzgerald as part of her PhD by practice The Ecological Turn: Living Well with forests to explain eco-social art practices

The Rotterdam-based artist Jeanne Van Heeswijk’s work engages with the setting up of ‘collaborative production’ between people involved in processes of urban development.

Laura Donkers
Laura Donkers
An ecological artist and researcher connecting people with ecology through community projects and outdoor art workshops to inform more creative and sustainable ways to live.