Towards an Erotics of Place

Filmmaker James-Murray-White shares his experience of some of the world’s desert places, and what the book Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape offers as a way into explorations of these places, of our sense of connectedness and self.


1,750 words: estimated reading time 7 minutes


“There is no separation between our bodies and the body of the earth.”
— Terry Tempest Williams, Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape

My partner Lucy is a child of the desert — indeed, we met in the Negev eleven years ago on a tour of Nabatean ruins (but that’s another story), and she’s recently returned from a top-up desert visit. Lucy has put me on to an extraordinary collection of writings and drawings: Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape, by Terry Tempest Williams and artist Mary Frank. A noted American nature writer, Williams — invoking the sensual lure and drama of the Colorado Plateau — dares to explore “what it might mean to make love to the land”. I’ve not been to the Colorado Desert, but reading this book took me back to the Joshua Tree, the Gobi, the Negev, and my waking dreams of the Sahara…

Desert Quartet - the cover of the book by Terry Tempest Williams and Mary Frank
Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape, by Terry Tempest Williams and Mary Frank

Desert Quartet is a short, beautifully illustrated hardback book, and probably quite rare: the sort of gem we stumble upon in a second-hand bookstore. Through it, we are taken on a wild journey of erotics — a quartet of them, in fact, connecting with earth, water, fire, and air. Terry Tempest Williams writes in a spare and intense word-by-word engagement with these elements, the place, space, and sensory feeling, and with herself: identifying, touching, and loving landscape and all within it.

It’s a book to read with a lover, or to take alone on a desert hike. If you are in the UK, Dungeness in Kent is our nearest thing to a desert — although not classified as such by the Met Office. It’s certainly a wonderfully wild place, and worth visiting to see the cottage and garden created by visionary artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman. If you’ve not been, do go. This book would be a useful companion: a wild guide to rewilding your soul and yourself.

Dungeness, southern England’s ‘shingle desert’
Photograph © James Murray-White sky-larking.co.uk

Desert Quartet — desert life

Rewilding is an opening up: allowing growth, listening and looking deeply — getting to the depths of the soil and loam. As Williams writes, “The wind becomes a wail, a proper lament for all that is hidden. Inhale. Exhale. This is the dreamtime of the desert, the beginning of poetry.” Rewilding is us as humans seeking genuine and open authenticity — and then connecting that with the outer wild!

Desert life is raw, tough, not for the fool-hardy. I identify with the bunch of British travellers and writers who have gone out and lived in, crossed, or tasted in some way the deserts of our world. T.E. Lawrence, famously, ‘became’ a desert dweller, deeply identifying with desert life and its peoples, and then was ultimately caught up in the military wargaming of the First World War (and came back to try to instil the desert culture within himself as a mystic hermit in the New Forest). Wilfred Thesiger crossed the ‘Empty Quarter’. And, most recently, Rory Stewart openly identifies with both these figures and this has shaped his ends politically. Deserts do have an extraordinary impact upon the human psyche, however we taste them, and it is not to be taken lightly. So Desert Quartet is in many ways a primer to know how to take both our psyche and our physicality into such a harsh environment.

Negev desert
Photograph © Lucy Michaels

My desert time has taken me to the Gobi in Mongolia, the Negev in Israel, and the Mohave in California, and still I crave more. The Gobi opened my eyes to the truly vast — the endless savanna and the liminal changes across a space: from the snowy high tops of the Altai mountain range, to the coarse sand and temperate climes of the middle regions. The Negev seems harsher: it is a six-month no-go region if you can’t stand relentless heat. In both these deserts I was drawn in by the peoples — by the nomads of Mongolia and by the Bedouin of the Negev, also nomadic but now politically forced to settle by political structures and states. It is crucial not to get sucked into romantic notions of indigeneity amongst surviving nomadic peoples: yes, their lineage is long and deep, and there is great wisdom, but there is the harsh reality of everyday life. Such groups can survive and sometimes thrive, but it is against the ever-creeping modernity of capitalism and catastrophic environmental damage: mining and river pollution in Mongolia, and military exclusions, creeping cities, and extremist land laws in Israel are examples that come instantly to my mind.

Mongolia
Photograph © James Murray-White sky-larking.co.uk

No ancient, passed-on knowledge equipped nomadic peoples in our current age to deal with the insipid hostility of modernity: theirs is a hard-edged living in present-day reality, wondering how their children will cope with feet in both camps. Most Bedouin and Mongol nomads I’ve met would laugh at the notion of us sensation-seeking Westerners going out to desert spaces to connect with land, to connect with the ‘erotics of nature’, and ultimately with ourselves. For desert-dwellers, this world is already within. Just as many nomads are forced — by the capitalist economy, by bitter harsh weather and changing climatic conditions, or by political threats or force — to move to the cities, imagine if the situation were reversed and we had to flee our urban territories…  Like the wandering Mormons off to the brave new lands, we might find our call to desert lands before those external forces might prevail upon us.

My 2012 film Steadfast is an exploration of Bedouin life in the Negev, looking at the pressures these tribal peoples face, and how their interaction with the ‘new world’ cuts many ways. 

A desert calling

Deserts are, in essence, the deepest place of our calling. If we are not of that place, the desert, we may — if we are lucky in our human lifetime — feel called there and experience the otherness of the place. Many have gone to deserts to meditate, to be humbled, and even to die. Terry Tempest Williams went there to feel into her most erotic landscape. I’ve been called to deserts to walk and look, and chiefly to meet nomads and desert dwellers. This is an amalgamation of the ecological parts of the entire spirit of a desert.

At Extinction Rebellion Rewilding (gathering on Facebook as the ‘rewilding’ wing of Extinction Rebellion), we have recommended an exercise explored in Mick Collin’s book The Visionary Spirit, of identifying yourself with a tree as a form of life-review and engagement with presence: imagining ‘your’ tree, feeling your roots, trunk and branches — anchored, flexible and spreading out — and noticing your sense of flourishing, connection and resilience. In a similar way, I recommend using Desert Quartet as a total mind/body guide to engagement with place. It maybe offers an opportunity to reflect upon place/self, the wild edges between these, and (if you choose, within a Buddhist dialectic) no self; and an example of how we might want to reflect and record that through words, art, and more.

Desert Quartet - showing a page from the book by Terry Tempest Williams and Mary Frank
‘Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape’, by Terry Tempest Williams and artist Mary Frank

I’m just starting on another Terry Tempest Williams book, Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, which switches into the politics of land use and land rights in American deserts: after the sensual, deep inner wild, out now into the boxing ring of human ecological scenarios and ego and squalling…

“I strike a match and light the shreds of kindling I have cut with my knife. I fan the incense toward me. The smoke rises, curls, coils around my face. It feels good to be in the desert again. Home — where I can pause, remain silent. There is nothing to explain.” — Terry Tempest Williams, Desert Quartet — an Erotic Landscape.


Find out more

Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape, by Terry Tempest Williams and Mary Frank, was published by Pantheon Books, New York (1995). You can read an extract here, and in a piece for High Country News on 3rd June 1991, Williams says “Let us get out and love the land. Let us be intimate. The most radical act we can commit is to live well. There is no defence against an open heart and a supple body in dialogue with wildness. Internal strength is an absorption of the external landscape. We are informed by beauty, raw and sensual. Through an Erotics of Place our sensitivity becomes our sensibility.” (Yellowstone: the Erotics of Place, High Country News, 3rd June 1991, page 16).

You can explore Dungeness, situated next to Romney Marsh in Kent and one of the largest expanses of shingle in Europe, at Unusual Places. And there is more to discover at Romney Marsh – the Fifth Continent. It has been said that Dungeness is like Marmite, you either love it or hate it. The landscape certainly divides people – a broad, echoing flatness with the nuclear power stations on one side, the shingle dipping into the sea on the other and railway carriages turned into quaint and strange looking dwellings. The stark wild beauty and distinctive character of this shingle desert engenders feelings of awe, wonder and curiosity.”

The Visionary Spirit: Awakening to the Imaginal Realm in the Transformocene Age by Mick Collins is published by Permanent Publications, UK (2018). You can read an interview with Mick about the book: Awakening to the Transformocene Age. Mick talks about his previous book, The Unselfish Spirit, in this 2014 podcast and you can watch his recent talk at the Into The Wild Festival, Summer 2019, introduced by James.

Extinction Rebellion Rewilding is the Facebook group exploring how rewilding can also be seen as not only the regeneration of natural biodiversity but also as the respect and rediscovery of indigeny and balanced relationship within the diverse ecosystems of the earth. “All acts of rewilding are Rebellion.”

You can watch James’ film Steadfast, and more of his films, on Vimeo. And don’t forget to check out Finding Blake, the website for James’ most recent film project, reimagining William Blake for the 21st Century. In one of his previous ClimateCultures posts, “Summon the bravery!” Encounters at Small Earth, James describes taking part in the Small Earth conference in 2018, where psychotherapists, ecologists, economists, philosophical and spiritual thinkers gathered to address hope for future living within the ecosphere.

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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The Last Snows

The Sphinx - photography: by Nick HuntWriter Nick Hunt travelled to Scotland’s Cairngorms in search of a once permanent presence that’s becoming another marker of a new transience: enduring snows that serve as scraps of deep of time, now endangered on our warming island.


710 words: estimated reading time 3 minutes 


Garbh Coire Mòr in the Cairngorms is home to two of Scotland’s longest-lying snow patches: Sphinx and Pinnacles (named after nearby climbing routes). They normally endure year-round in this remote, high corrie. But things are not normal any more. In recent years they have melted before the end of the summer, bellwethers of a wider change.

In the last week of September I went to find what was left of them.

Garbh Coire Mòr - Photographby Nick Hunt
Garbh Coire Mòr
Photograph: Nick Hunt © 2019

An Arctic outpost

After catching the sleeper train to Aviemore and walking for around ten miles up the rugged post-glacial valley of the Lairig Ghru, I arrived at the foot of Braeriach in the early afternoon. Cloud hung low over the mountain but in the hollow of Garbh Coire Mòr it lifted for a minute or two, just enough time to give me a glimpse of two pale eyes.

A tundra landscape - photograph by Nick Hunt
A tundra landscape
Photograph: Nick Hunt © 2019

As I approached, leaving the path to walk over a boggy weave of blaeberry, moss and reindeer lichen – the tundra landscape that turns the Cairngorms into an exclave of the Arctic – the shapes of the snow patches became more apparent. It was difficult to guess their size. The final climb was a scramble up wet, sliding scree.

Sphinx - photography: by Nick Hunt
Sphinx
Photography: Nick Hunt © 2019

First I went to Sphinx, the smaller, slightly higher patch. Up close its snow wasn’t smooth, or even particularly white, but blushed pink with the run-off of the mountain’s reddish soil and stained black with darker grime, hairy with pine needles. Its surface was pitted and eroded from ablating and refreezing. It hardly looked like snow at all but a lump of spoiled meat.

Pinnacles - photograph by Nick Hunt
Pinnacles
Photograph: Nick Hunt © 2019

Pinnacles was bigger, perhaps eighteen metres long and a metre tall, though underneath it had lifted off the rock and appeared to be almost floating. I’d brought my ice axe with the idea of attempting a traverse, but I didn’t think it would hold my weight. Besides, it seemed disrespectful.

I laid the axe on top for scale and simply sat for an hour or two in the snow’s company. I put my bottle underneath to catch its dripping water. I felt reluctant to leave its side, as if I was keeping company with a stranger, terminally ill. I didn’t want to leave it alone. But at last I had to.

'Critically endangered' - photograph by Nick Hunt
‘Critically endangered’
Photograph: Nick Hunt © 2019

Endangered snows

When Sphinx first disappeared in 1933, the Scottish Mountaineering Club declared the event to be so unusual that it was ‘unlikely to happen again’. But it did: in 1953, 1959, 1996, 2003, 2006, 2017 and 2018.

In the words of Iain Cameron, a dedicated ‘snow patcher’ who studies these icy anomalies, Sphinx was ‘critically endangered’ in the week I went to find it. For a while it looked like 2019 would be the first time in recorded history that it had disappeared for three years in a row. But it has been lucky. Early October snow prolonged its lifespan slightly, and a recent heavier snowfall has buried it in white again. Against all odds, it looks safe for this winter. But, in the new normal of runaway global heating, no one knows what the coming years will bring.

Scraps of Deep Time - photograph by Nick Hun
Scraps of Deep Time
Photograph: Nick Hunt © 2019

It is easy to understand the appeal of these unlikely snows. They are not only scraps of winter but scraps of history, of deep time. Obvious symbols of endurance, of bloodyminded obstinacy, they are also thermometers that self-destruct as our island warms. When their last crystals have dripped away, the national thaw will be complete and Britain will be entirely free of snow in summer. Bare.

At last it started getting dim, so I turned back down the mountain. The smudged eyes watched me go as the heavy cloud drew in again. When I looked back from further down the slope they were gone.


Find out more

With thanks to Iain Cameron, who co-authored Cool Britannia with Adam Watson (Paragon Publishing, 2010) and who photographs, measures and writes about snows on Britain’s hills. Find him on Twitter at @theiaincameron.

Nick Hunt
Nick Hunt
A fiction and non-fiction writer and editor for the Dark Mountain network of writers, artists and thinkers who've stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself.
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Writing on Water

A still from the film 'Dart' showing artist Hanien Conradie Photograph by Margaret LeJeuneArtist Hanien Conradie discusses a collaborative film of her ritual encounter with Devon’s River Dart and her work with places where nothing seemingly remains of their ancient knowledge. Work that seeks more reciprocal relationships with the natural world.


2,450 words: estimated reading time 10 minutes + 3 minutes video


Introduction

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe: I met Hanien Conradie when she gave a presentation at art.earth’s Liquidscapes symposium at Dartington Hall in Devon, in June 2018. Hanien’s talk, The Voice of Water: Re-sounding a Silenced River, recounted the unique relationship she had built with the clay of the Hartebees River in Worcester, South Africa: “the same clay my mother played with as a child.” Her talk also featured a premiere of a film made with fellow artist, Margaret LeJeune, showing Hanien’s performance in the Dart, the local river at Dartington, during both artists’ residencies there just before Liquidscapes.

This post, which begins with that film, Dart, is based on an email conversation we had in September 2019, after Hanien had been able to share the film following its premiere in South Africa.

Dart – a film by Hanien Conradie and Margaret LeJeune from Hanien Conradie on Vimeo.

A place of peace and healing

Your film has three phases, for me: the reading of Eugene Marais’s poem Diep Rivier in the original Afrikaans; the rereading of it in English; and the silence in between. For an English-only viewer, the unknowability of the original reading is powerful, and forces me to hear the striking beauty of the sound of the words alone, in your voice. What for you is the value of the silence between the two languages?

The performance in the river began as I wrote the Afrikaans version of the poem onto the river’s surface. It was a way to introduce my ancestry and me to the river. What happened in that moment was that I became very emotional.

Firstly, I had just come from a severe drought in Cape Town where we had a daily ration of 50 litres of water. Being in such an expanse of water after the scarcity was an overwhelming relief.

Secondly, I had a painful ancestral history with England. The British Empire and Afrikaners fought each other between 1899 and 1902 during the Anglo-Boer War. The Boers fought a guerrilla war and the men gathered their supplies from Afrikaner homesteads and farms. As part of what was referred to as the ‘Scorched Earth’ policy, the British army burnt down Afrikaner farms, killed their livestock and put the surviving women and children in concentration camps. About 30,000 Afrikaners died of exposure, starvation and disease in these camps. Most of the dead were children. As a child born about 70 years later, I heard many of the elderly people speaking in bitter ways about the British. The rift between English and Afrikaner South Africans could still be felt as children from both cultures harassed each other with hate speech during my years of schooling.

I studied in English, had made many English friends and my life partner is British. I believed that this history was not really a part of my personal pain anymore. However when I entered this English river and spoke this very old Afrikaans poem (written about 10 years after the war), I was surprised to find myself sobbing. In the water of this dark river pain older than my life years surfaced and came to a place of peace; the river and I let all the hatred flow to the ocean and I allowed love to be born again.

I did not plan the silence between the two languages consciously, but in hindsight I believe it communicates a transformation that happened within me and hopefully is still rippling out into the world I live in. The silence together with the rippling effect that I, a mere speck, have on the environment, speaks volumes about the power of one individual to heal communal pain.

Joyful dance with the river

The film itself, of course, is continuous and, superficially, seems unchanged across the three different phases. But the drone pulls out further overhead, and then comes back in, and your movements on the water — the drawing on its surface — change also. Our view of you — in close up in the water and then in long shot with the water and then closing in again — is always literally an overview, from a different plane (place) to your own experience in and with the water. That’s only possible through collaboration with another artist. Was that viewpoint, that collaboration, always intended for your work here? Or did it emerge from a process of working with the river beforehand? 

You are quite right to point out that the experience of the viewer and my experience in the river is substantially different. That is why this film is a full collaboration between the American artist, Margaret LeJeune, and myself. She managed to capture the poetry of the moment in a meaningful way; which is an artwork and skill in itself.

After I performed the ritual of writing the poem in the water I felt light and elated, and in a powerful but prayerful mode. I started beating and creating circles on the surface of the water. I lost my sense of self in this joyful dance with the river. Thus I failed to notice Margaret, who was quietly observing me from the river’s bank. As I emerged from the river she requested to film me with her drone. So, the next day we came back to the river and I re-enacted my ritual.

A still from the film, 'Dart', shwoing artist Hanien Conradie Photograph by Margaret LeJeune
A still from the film ‘Dart’
Photograph: Margaret LeJeune © 2018

The beauty of our collaboration was there was very little planning, discussion or editing to this documentation. We had a subtle attunement to each other that enabled the transmission of the feeling of the ritual to the viewer. Margaret and I previously discussed our overwhelming nostalgia toward the European natural world. We both come from places that were colonised by our European ancestors. I sensed that we both struggle with feelings of displacement, colonial guilt and a search for belonging. It was Margaret who saw something that I as the performer couldn’t see: the far-reaching ripples I was creating. It was through her poetic perspective that the documentation of the performance obtained its power.

A loss of place

You originally showed the film at the Liquidscapes symposium very soon after making it, and your talk there focused on an experience revisiting a river and farm with your mother, taking her back to her childhood home. Your experiences of that river up to then were through her memories, which ‘became mythological stories’, but her return to the farm and the river with you proved to be depressing. It seems to have been an experience of erasure — of the life of the land and of the river, and even of the water’s sound that had been so strong in your mother’s experience and memory. Maybe even of memory itself, as something pure. It seems that the land’s natural state — and then its later much-altered state, of your mother’s experience — was ephemeral, whereas in your film it is your signature on the river, your drawing in it, which is ephemeral, although deep.

My talk at Liquidscapes told the story of the damaged South African river from the perspective of a person of a hybridised European culture (Afrikaans culture). I weave a tale out of observations in the current natural world and past memories in an attempt to show the inextricable connection between nature and culture; how nature reflects culture and how a dislocated culture can create a loss of place.

The nationalist Afrikaner culture of my mother’s childhood had the reputation that it represented people of the soil; ‘boere’ (farmers) who loved nature as pastoralists. On closer inspection however, I realised that these memories of my mother’s were created within a context where the European culture and its crops were imposed onto the indigenous environment. This lack of understanding of the functioning of indigenous natural ecosystems has resulted in tremendous ecological damage and loss of indigenous fauna, flora, cultural knowledge systems and the loss of the river that once roared through the land. Like the sound of the river, my mother’s childhood culture has disappeared.

Today Afrikaner culture is in a process of mutation to an unknown end. The question I sit with is how do I enable restoration and healing to these damaged places? How do I find another way to relate to the natural world that is reciprocal; that understands human beings as an aspect of this living community of beings? 

My ritual in the River Dart was an attempt to find an answer for this new way of relating. The writer of the poem, Eugene Marais, had a very unique way of relating to the natural world. As a fellow Afrikaner, I call on his wisdom through reciting his words.

So yes, there is something ephemeral in my experiences with both of these rivers. And perhaps that is invoked by the nature of rivers as signifiers of the passing of time. Even though my ‘drawings’ on the surface of the river are ephemeral, their impact reverberates through my life as I actively work on transforming my personal culture to meet the natural world in a very different way to my ancestors. There is thus something that is infinitely rippling out from these ephemeral experiences that I hope will lead to transformation.

Natural world - a still from the film 'Dart' showing artist Hanien Conradie Photograph by Margaret LeJeune
A still from the film ‘Dart’
Photograph: Margaret LeJeune © 2018

The response of the natural world

You wrote in your blog post retelling your encounter with the Breede River, “My challenge was to find ways to connect to a place where the main factor was loss.” There you did this by meeting with local people and experts who could help you see what the natural and indigenous state of the river might have been, before European settlement. Working later on the Dart, was there also a feeling of a landscape of loss? I wonder how that place seemed to you as a new visitor and as you immersed yourself in it and in the work?

In my work with places where loss and damage is so severe that nothing seems to remain that holds the ancient knowledge of the place, I try work with the elements that are present such as the earth of the dry river or in this case the water of the river. When I encountered the River Dart, I was initially completely seduced by the expanse of water because it was lacking in the place I came from. As I got to know it better and read its history I realised that it is suffering its own losses and damage. If we as humans can start seeing bodies of water as entities with their own life and rights, I think these problems can be solved.

Similarly to my experience with the clay of the dry river, I found through relating to the River Dart, a great generosity coming from the natural world. I would have thought that like humans, the natural world would shut itself down and stop communicating with those who harm it. It has however been my experience that by earnestly and as honestly as possible communicating with natural entities such as rivers, I have gained much insight, humility and healing.

In your account of working with the Breede and its clay, you found it did not behave as you expected. Was this also true in the Dart? 

I remember when I first entered the River Dart I sat quietly in the water looking out over the landscape and I listened attentively to ‘hear’ the river speak. After being still for a substantial time, the sceptic in me said ‘this river is not going to relate to you, you are wasting your time.’ Discouraged, I turned my gaze down to my body that was half-submerged in the water. I noticed that the silt of the river had settled like dust on my skin, tracing every hair and the curve of my body; I noticed that the little minnows were nibbling the skin of my feet. I was reminded again, that we are inextricably part of nature; that the separatist way we think about the natural world is what causes our incapacity to ‘hear’.

In terms of my performance, the idea was to capture the white foam lines made through ‘drawing’ with sticks on the surface of the dark black water. It was only because we had the overhead perspective of the drone that we could see the immense impact of my ‘drawings’ as they rippled out into a sphere far greater than the speck that was my body. Again, I was surprised with the far more complex outcome of my simple initial intention. Similarly to the experience with the river clay, I offered some of my energy and the natural world responded with a depth of wisdom I couldn’t have fathomed on my own.

Natural world - a still from the film 'Dart' Photograph by Margaret LeJeune
Natural world – a still from the film ‘Dart’
Photograph: Margaret LeJeune © 2018

Find out more

Dart, the film Hanien and Margaret LeJeune created in the River Dart, was first shown at art.earth’s Liquidscapes symposium in June 2018, following their residencies with the River Dart for The Ephemeral River, a Global Nomadic Art Project sponsored by the Centre for Contemporary Art and The Natural World (CCANW) and Science Walden / UNIST. The film was then shown as part of Raaswater (‘Raging Waters’), Hanien’s exhibition at Circa Gallery in Cape Town, South Africa, in May 2019.

You can read a precis of Hanien’s paper to the Liquidscapes symposium at her blog post The Voice of Water: Re-sounding a Silenced River. Here, she describes her work in the clay of the Breede River Valley following her visit to ‘Raaswater’ there with her mother, and the inspiration she takes from the writing of deep ecologist and ecophilosopher Arne Naess on ideas of place.

You can also explore the work of American artist Margaret LeJeune, including Evidence of the Dart, a selection of images Margaret created during her own residency at The Ephemeral River. “Our goal was to create work inspired by notions of ephemerality and the landscape of the River Dart.”

Eugène Nielen Marais (1871-36) was an innovative Afrikaans writer who had studied medicine and law and later investigated nature in the Waterberg area of wilderness north of Pretoria and wrote in his native Afrikaans about the animals he observed. You can explore some of his poetry in Afrikaans (and some translations into English) at Poem Hunter.

Liquidscapes, a book of essays, poetry and images reflecting the Liquidscapes international symposium at Dartington Hall in June 2018 is published by art.earth, edited by Richard Povall. The book includes Hanien’s talk, The Voice of Water: Re-sounding a Silenced River.

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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Five Notes on Thinking Through ‘Ensemble Practices’

Artist and researcher Iain Biggs shares thoughts on the place of artists, and of creative ensemble practices, in a culture of possessive individualism that must urgently address its chronic failure of imagination in the face of eco-social crisis.


1,480 words: estimated reading time 6 minutes 


“Art is a parasite that feeds upon the corpus of culture. Its insularity is just a conceit….”
– Simon Read

One — driven to be part of the problem

The Great Below: A Journey Into Loss is Maddy Paxman’s account of facing the consequences of the death of her husband, the poet Michael Donaghy, from a brain haemorrhage at the age of fifty. She has worked as a counsellor in women’s health, a music teacher, musician and painter and currently teaches the Alexander Technique. She writes:

“Although I don’t think of myself as an artist, in that I am not ‘driven’, painting is a form of expression that seems necessary to me and I miss it when it’s not part of my life.”

This sentence, which comes towards the end of her account of her relationship with the husband she loved deeply, a man very clearly ‘driven’ to the exclusion of much that did not immediately concern his poetry, gives me pause for thought. In part because I recognise all-too-clearly the need to paint that she speaks of. In part because I think that, indirectly, her observation relates to the performance artist Andrea Fraser’s claim that artists are not part of the solution to our current socio-environmental crisis, as many assume, but part of the problem.

That sounds like a betrayal of both my own work and that of many people I deeply admire, at least until I think about the art world’s financial reality, its ‘big hitters’ — Jeff Koons, John Currin, Damian Hurst, Odd Nurdrum et al. What is the nature of the work such artists produce if not an expression of the culture of possessive individualism, the global economics the culture feeds and is fed by, and the deepening epistemological crisis in which current presuppositions about creativity are embedded? And that’s clear even before we link these things to an environmental situation that, in all probability, is now nearing its terrible endgame.

Two — the Great Derangement

As it happens, Andrea Fraser is simply restating in variation concerns raised by the artist-turned-anthropologist A. David Napier, the liberation psychologist Mary Watkins, the writer, poet and art critic Thomas McEvilley and, most recently, the writer and academic Amitav Ghosh. Despite a lifetime spent making and teaching art, I find myself sharing their various concerns. So I want to raise two possibilities.

Firstly that, if we have a stake in the arts, we should now very seriously consider in what ways the arts, in the culture of possessive individualism, have and are enacting just the chronic failure of imagination that Ghosh calls the ‘Great Derangement’. Not as some kind of quasi-masochistic guilt-trip in the best Protestant tradition, but as a necessary step to re-orienting our notions of creativity.

Cover to 'The Great Derangement' by Jill Shimabukuro
Cover to ‘The Great Derangement’
Artist: Jill Shimabukuro

Secondly, that we might ask ourselves whether the tendency to psychic monomania that Maddy Paxman describes as ‘driven-ness’ can be addressed by radically rethinking the nature of creative activity from a more inclusive perspective. Might it not be both more productive and more accurate to consider the attention and skills associated with arts practices, not as an end in themselves that justifies the artist as a ‘driven’ individual, but as catalysts or models for larger ensembles of heterogeneous skills, concerns and activities? Ensembles that would retain the psychic (if not necessarily the economic) benefits of a creative practice, but at some distance from the assumptions, expectations, and protocols central to the hyper-professionalised art world to which Andrea Frazer refers. Considering increasingly heterogeneous creative practices as compound ensembles might be a useful step towards reversing the situation in which art serves to perpetuate the culture of possessive individualism, and with it the Global North’s Great Derangement.

Three — ensemble practices

In the past I’ve used the term ‘mycelial’ to describe how the work of Christine Baeumler incorporates the roles and skills of citizen, neighbour, artist, university teacher, student of ecology, researcher, curator, mentor and, more recently, fortune-teller and student of shamanism. Maybe ‘ensemble practice’ is a better term, more able to consolidate the more inclusive understanding I’m reaching for. To stress 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. If nothing else, the concept of ‘ensemble practices’ posits the parallel notion that individuals are themselves compound, multi-relational ensembles, supporting by extension a view of the artist that does not presuppose an exclusive hyper-individualism.

ensemble practices - Akin: art by Lucy Gorell Barnes
Akin: compost, strawberries, Letraset, pencil, watercolour and gesso on paper
Artist: Luci Gorell Barnes © 2019 www.lucigorellbarnes.co.uk

Four — between self and other

I think we now need to face the fact that the symbolic function of the artist in the culture of possessive individualism is to epitomise the notion of individual exceptionalism; to reinforce the presupposition that creativity is ‘owned’ by exceptional and self-contained individuals in ways that reinforce currently orthodox notions of personhood, nature and society. We are in reality, of course, constituted quite differently, in and through our connections, attachments and relationships. Consequently, I’m intrigued by the distinction Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead make in proposing a spectrum of identity positions between a ‘life-as’ at one extreme and ‘being-as-becoming’ at the other.

‘Life-as’ requires massive investment in a monolithic psychosocial identity, one that must oppose or deny all values, connections, and relationships that do not reinforce its coherence. It lacks, that is, the basic capacity for empathetic imagination that enables us to negotiate the constant movement between self and other, to properly engage in and with the multiplicity of psychic, social and environmental realities in which we find ourselves. At the other end of their spectrum is a sense of selfhood as coexistent with the psychosocial and environmental multiverse — fluid, relationally contingent, mutable, open-ended.

The psychosocial and political stakes here are simple. To face our eco-social crisis, we must now find ways to attend to, sustain, and cherish as many ways of belonging in the multiverse as possible if we are to adapt to an unprecedented need to change. This cannot be done by investing in any ‘life-as’, including ‘life-as an Artist’.

ensemble practices - I am done with apple picking now: art by Luci Gorell Barnes
I am done with apple picking now: knife marks, apple juice, watercolour, pencil and gesso on paper
Artist: Luci Gorell Barnes © 2019 www.lucigorellbarnes.co.uk

Five — placing the artist

Do we now need to differentiate ‘life-as an Artist’ from an involvement in making art that’s ultimately predicated on the understanding that the self cannot be reduced to a categorical identity? Isn’t this what’s implicit in Edward S. Casey’s distinction between a ‘position’ as a fixed postulate within a given culture and a sense of ‘place’ that, notwithstanding its nominally settled appearance, is experienced through living experimentally within a constantly shifting culture? If so, then isn’t what ‘places’ those who acknowledge the ensemble nature of practices itself predicated on negotiating multiple psychic, social and environmental connections, attachments, and relationships? On an open engagement with the productive tensions between experience and category, reality and representation, life and language?


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Iain’s notes on ensemble practices relate to a book chapter he has recently submitted for the ecology section of an anthology, The Routledge Companion to Art in the Public Realm, which should be published later this year. “These are, as the title suggests, simply notes and lack the references, etc. which will appear in the final chapter when it sees the light of day.”

When working on these notes, Iain had in mind the work of two visual artists. Simon Read — who he quotes at the beginning — is an artist who fosters projects on a collaborative basis and who has immersed himself in environmental debates where collaboration on an interdisciplinary level is vital. Luci Gorell Barnes — who has herself recently joined ClimateCultures — is a visual artist whose participatory practice and responsive processes aim to help people think imaginatively with themselves and others. Iain and Luci have worked together on various projects, including a ‘deep mapping‘ workshop that I took part in at art.earth’s Liquidscapes symposium in 2018. When I approached Luci, she generously agreed for me to use her images as an accompaniment to Iain’s text.

You can read more of Iain’s reflections on Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement (2016, published by University of Chicago Press) on his blog.  In the book, Ghosh asks “Are we deranged?”, seeking to explain our imaginative failure to grasp — at the level of literature, history, and politics — the scale and violence of climate change.

Fellow ClimateCultures Member Cathy Fitzgerald uses the term ‘eco-social art’ for her own works, which she also describes as ensemble practices: “often involving art and non-art activities and many ways of knowing from art, ecophilosophy, science and traditional and local knowledge and practical experiential knowledge.”

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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With Far-heard Whisper, O’er the Sea

Artist Rebecca Chesney describes her explorations creating With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea for exhibition in Newlyn this year — taking inspiration from the town’s tidal observatory and its unique role in revealing the UK’s rising sea levels.


1,250 words: estimated reading time 5 minutes 


At the end of 2018 I was invited to make new work for inclusion in an exhibition at Newlyn Art Gallery in Cornwall. As my work looks at our relationship with the landscape and is usually connected to specific places, I organised a trip to Newlyn in January this year to help me understand the place better, and to explore its location, learn its history and meet people working and living in the town.

Tidal observatory

One of the first things to pique my interest was hearing that Newlyn has a tidal observatory. A plain little building standing next to the lighthouse on the south pier, it looks more like a fishing shed than how I imagine a tidal observatory might look. Not usually open to the public, it was the director of the gallery, James Green, who organised permission for us to visit and gain access to the building. It felt really special to go inside this modest old outhouse with an enormous significance.

Newlyn Tidal Observatory, next to the lighthouse
Newlyn Tidal Observatory, next to the lighthouse
Photograph: Rebecca Chesney © 2019

The observatory was built in 1915, along with two other observatories (at Dunbar and Felixstowe) to establish a national height system to provide vertical reference levels related to a measure of mean sea level. In 1921 the Ordnance Survey decided that there should be only one national datum and selected Newlyn as the most suitable of the three. Hourly recordings of sea level were used to determine an average that could be related to the head of a brass bolt set in the floor of the Newlyn observatory and this brass bolt is the benchmark from which all heights in mainland Great Britain are measured.

The Newlyn Tidal Observatory Datum
The Newlyn Tidal Observatory Datum 
Photograph: Rebecca Chesney © 2019

Although old equipment remains in the observatory it is now fully automated, with data collected every second via Global Navigation Satellite System technology.

Following my visit I met with local historians Richard Cockram and Ron Hogg. My work and ideas have always benefited from discussion with others: those who share a common interest, or have a passion for a subject I am exploring too. Looking at the same theme from different angles can produce some exciting conversations. They told me more about the history of the building, its importance and how they helped to get the observatory declared a grade two-listed building by Historic England at the end of 2018.

It was only when they mentioned never gaining access to the Observatory themselves that I realised how special my visit was and how lucky I am to have been inside (they have since organised an open day at the Observatory and been inside, so I don’t feel too bad now).

Although the Observatory was built to establish a datum for height across the country, it is the sea level records that have become so valuable for the study of climate change.

Sea level recording at Newlyn Tidal Observatory
Sea level recording at Newlyn Tidal Observatory
Photograph: Rebecca Chesney © 2019

Drawing out a vast truth

Providing the longest and most accurate tidal information in the UK, the Observatory has continued to record sea level data for over 100 years. And with these records showing that mean sea level at Newlyn has been increasing, I decided to use this information to make new work for the exhibition. Rising sea level is an environmental, social, economic and political issue: it is about land loss and displacement and will impact us all. And although it is a complex, multi-layered issue I think it is important to keep reminding people that climate change is happening.

While looking into the subject I noticed that sea-level data is typically shown in a short graph, a spiky image rising over half a page (or computer screen). But I wondered if it would have a bigger impact if I lengthened how the information is displayed. I wanted visitors to the exhibition to see time in front of them and to understand that every millimetre makes a difference. Trying different methods and materials and stripping back any labelling I decided that a pencil line on graph paper was a subtle yet visually effective way to show the information. Comprised of 102 individual record cards, the finished drawing is 8.75m in length. Each of the specially made record cards represents a year and the pencil line across it shows the mean sea level recorded at Newlyn for that year. Viewed all together the line undulates and slowly rises across the gallery wall. Minimal in its execution, the drawing holds a vast truth: sea level is rising.

The title of the drawing, With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea, is a line taken from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Written in 1797, I think the theme of the poem is still relevant today.

'With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea'
‘With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea’
Installation at Newlyn Art Gallery 2019
Artist: Rebecca Chesney © 2019

In May 2019 I was invited to speak at an event in the gallery alongside Richard Cockram, the local historian I had met earlier in the year. Richard gave an illustrated talk revealing his interest in the Observatory, outlined the history and also spoke of how his research contributed to a book published by the Newlyn Archive in 2018, The Newlyn Tidal Observatory.

Ten Years - part of 'With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea' Artist: Rebecca Chesney
Ten Years – part of ‘With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea’
Artist: Rebecca Chesney © 2019

I followed by detailing how my trip in January inspired me to make the work and where I got the data for the drawing (individual station data is available online via the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level). I also related the drawing to my other works in the exhibition: Forewarning, a three-screen video and sound installation considering land erosion on South Walney Island off the coast of Cumbria (filmed in 2018); and Far, three large hand screen prints showing tree loss in the Sierra Nevada due to drought and the increase of extreme weather episodes (2017). All these works represent the themes I continue to explore and am keen to learn more about into the future.

Four Years - part of 'With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea'
Four Years – part of ‘With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea’
Artist: Rebecca Chesney © 2019

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Invisible Narratives at Newlyn Art Gallery also included the work of artists Lubaina Himid and Magda Stawarska-Beavan and ran from 23rd March until 15th June.

Ordnance Survey plaque at Newlyn Tidal ObservatoryYou can discover more about the Newlyn Tidal Observatory’s history at its designation page on the Historic England site and on the Penwith Local History Group site, and about its role in measuring sea level as part of the National Tide Gauge Network. Rebecca also mentioned the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level, which was established in 1933 for the collection, publication, analysis and interpretation of sea level data from the global network of tide gauges.

The Newlyn Tidal Observatory, compiled by Richard Cockram, Linda Holmes, Ron Hogg and Frank Iddiols (2018, edited by Pam Lomax) is published by the Newlyn Archive. ISBN 978-0-9567528-4-0

You can find Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in full at Poetry Foundation. ‘With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea’ is taken from Part III.

Rebecca’s work Far — showing tree loss in the Sierra Nevada due to drought and the increase of extreme weather episodes — was featured in her previous ClimateCultures post, Near / Far, in February 2018. And you can find out more about Rebecca’s other work that formed part of the Invisible Narratives exhibition, Forewarning, at her website.

Rebecca Chesney
Rebecca Chesney
A visual artist interested in the relationship between humans and nature, how we perceive, romanticise and translate the landscape and our influence on the environment.
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