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. It is compiled from 67 members of the Ecoart Network, a group of more than 200 internationally established practitioners.

This has been a review of the book’s first section, which offers 25 different ecoart activities. In their next post for this collaborative review, Beckie, Claire, Genevieve and Nicky will share their responses to Section 2, which offers 26 case studies.

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.
Read More

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.
Read More

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
Read More

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.
Read More

Open Deep Mapping: Conversations-in-process, Places-in-time

Independent artist and researcher Iain Biggs introduces a special new essay for our Longer section, reflecting on his practice of open deep mapping as an inclusive, creative approach to working with and in place, and moving beyond ‘Business-as-Usual’.


1,500 words: estimated reading time = 6 minutes


Longer is the place for works that don’t fit within the normal ‘short reads’ format of our blog. Longer is for essays, fiction or other forms that haven’t appeared online elsewhere and explore in more detail the creative responses to our ecological and climate crisis. With each new Longer piece, the author introduces it here with an original post, where they can reflect on the motivation or inspiration behind the work or the process of creating it.

***

Mark Goldthorpe and I have been having an exchange about open deep mapping and, as a result, he kindly suggested I write an introduction to this inclusive creative approach to place for ClimateCultures.The result is a longish essay called Open Deep Mappings today: a personal introduction — which is published today in the Longer feature of the site. Since that in turn needs an introduction on this blog, and because people understandably expect to know something about the relationship between what we do and what we say (perhaps the creative equivalent to being asked to “put our money where our mouths are”), I’ll start from an old blog post called Two dimensional aspects of deep mapping that shows just that and work my way forward into the essay.

As I say in that blog:

I’m interested in ‘polyvocal’ drawing that helps me explore ideas – often about landscape or landscape related issues – through combining different media and/or categories of sign. It’s an informed ‘playing around’ that aims to keep different elements ‘talking’ to each other, rather than to arrive at an aesthetic solution. However, aesthetic qualities remain indicative of imaginative ‘fitness for purpose’, like the goodwill that sustains a conversation between people who hold very different views on a single topic. 

Open Deep Mapping - showing A Hidden War by artist Iain Biggs
Fig. 1: A Hidden War (with and for Anna Biggs)
Art Iain Biggs © 2009

For health reasons, I’ve had to give up the extended fieldwork that was central to the open deep mapping I did between 1999 and 2013. That period of work produced a whole range of material, some of which appears in that old blog post, but also included everything from A Hidden War (with and for Anna Biggs) — a double mapping of Mynydd Epynt made as a result of a field trip organised by Mike Pearson [Fig. 1] — to 8 Lost Songs, an artist’s book and CD made in collaboration with the musician Garry Peters [Fig. 2]. However, my interest in open deep mapping as a process, and its influence on what is now primarily a studio-based, rather than walking-based, practice continues to this day.

Open Deep Mapping - showing 8 Lost Songs by Iain Biggs
Fig. 2: 8 Lost Songs, CD and Book cover
Photograph: Iain Biggs

The first thing to say about open deep mapping is that, although as a process it may result in the production of non-fiction books, art works, performances, artist’s books, even unorthodox maps, it’s best understood as generating conversations-in-process about a place-in-time. (Hence the section in the essay that’s entitled Why ‘deep mappings’, not ‘deep maps’?)

Open Deep Mapping – an inclusive orientation

Open Deep Mapping - showing Edge 2, Fluctuations bu Iain Biggs
Fig. 3: Edge 2 – Fluctuations (for Josh Biggs)
Art: Iain Biggs © 2009

Something of how my attempts to capture that ‘conversational’ element in recent two-dimensional visual form can be seen in the shift between two images – Edge 2: fluctuations for Josh Biggs [Fig. 3] (one of the set of three images made as a result of groundwork on the Isle of Mull and included in the Two dimensional aspects of deep mapping blog post) and Notitia 7: Tamshiel Rig [Fig. 4]. As one of a series of hybrid collage/painted construction pieces made since 2016, this attempts to convert my experience of deep mapping into a lyrical ‘micro-mapping’, one that evokes a condensed sense of the richness, the polyvocality, central to an expanded experience of place-in-time. Judith Tucker writes of this series of works that they provide:

the kind of levelling out, or lack of hierarchy of visual experience, that also occurs when walking. As when walking, it is up to us to consider what we are presented with. What is of the relative significance of a discarded wrapper, a stony outcrop, a rare plant, a dank smell, the sound of birdsong, of traffic or silence?

She then adds:

What is key in terms of environmental thinking is that Biggs is neither privileging the human view, nor is he writing himself out of the place… This kind of composite work with its constellation of viewpoints, montage, collage and bricolage does not allow any fixed reading of the landscape that is referenced. It is at times as if we are mapping from the inside of the land out.    

Open Deep Mapping - showing Notitia 7 by Iain Biggs
Fig, 4: Notitia 7 Tamshiel Rig
Art: Iain Biggs © 2018

As I hope this suggests, ‘place’ in the context of open deep mapping is best understood in Edward S. Casey’s sense, as: “an essay in experimental living within a changing culture”, and this notwithstanding “its frequently settled appearance”. But also as a space in Doreen Massey’s sense; that is as “a simultaneity of stories-so-far”. As the example of The Tahualtapa Project (concluded before the term deep mapping was first used) makes clear, open deep mapping is as much an inclusive orientation to the world as anything else.

A strange alchemy – working with/in place

Following on from that section I have included another, simply called Further examples, which includes links to eleven very different types of open deep mapping. That in turn is followed by a further section that explains my use of that term, called The ‘openness’ of open deep mappings. For those who want a better understanding of how open deep mapping sits in relation to other cultural concerns, I’ve included two sections, one on Contexts and consequences and the other called Open deep mappings as ‘partial’.

Throughout the Introduction I’ve tried to stress that open deep mapping is, as Judith Tucker notes of my Notitia works, based on the articulation of a constellation of viewpoints; that it does not allow any fixed or settled reading of place to take a once-and-for-all precedence over any other.  I’ve also tried to stress that open deep mapping is not a strictly bounded ‘genre’ but bleeds almost imperceptibly into other approaches and practices.

The example of this I end with is the Irish poet Eavan Boland’s book of photographs and poems called A Poet’s Dublin, which I see as a ‘close cousin’ to an open deep mapping. In that book Boland says, in conversation with the poet Paula Meehan, that at a certain point she realised that: “a city could be mapped, not just by cartography or history, but by instinct, memory, passion”. It’s something of that impetus, that same alchemical working out of wonder, listening, poetic insight, fine-tuned attention to what is, and a depth-soundings of deep memory, that inform both a work like A Poet’s Dublin and open deep mappings. And I believe that it is with that strange alchemy that we need to work in and with place, whatever we then choose to call the process involved, if we wish to help develop an understanding capable of moving us on from the mentality of ‘Business-as-Usual’ that now threatens not only our own psycho-social wellbeing but, in all probability, the ongoing survival of the entire biosphere.


Find out More 

Iain’s full essay, Open Deep Mappings today: a personal introduction, is the second piece in our new feature, Longer. 

Iain’s post on his own blog, Two dimensional aspects of deep mapping, appeared in May 2013 and includes many more of his artworks. 

The quote from Judith Tucker is taken from ‘Walking backwards: Art between places in twenty-first century Britain’ (Judith Tucker, 2020) in David Borthwick, Pippa Marland & Anna Stenning (eds) Walking, Landscape and Environment (Routledge, p. 137). 

Other quotes are from:

Edward S Casey (1993) Getting Back Into Place (Indiana University Press p. 31).

Doreen Massey (2005) For Space (SAGE Publications p. 11).

Eavan Boland 2014 (Paula Meehan & Jody Allen Randolph eds) A Poet’s Dublin (Carcanet Press p. 106).

‘Business-as-Usual’ is the term used by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone to denote a mentality predicated on such mainstream contemporary ‘progressive’ economic values as ‘getting ahead’, and a ’view of life’ in which “the problems of the world are seen as far away and irrelevant to the dramas of our personal lives”. See Macy and Johnstone (2012) Active Hope; How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy (New World Library p. 15). You can read an excerpt, How to face the mess we’re in without going crazy, at the NEL blog.

Mynydd Epynt, the subject of one of Iain’s deep mapping works included here, is a former community in the uplands of Powys, Wales, which the UK Ministry of Defence evicted in World War II and remains a military training zone. You can find out more at the Abandoned Communities site.

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.
Read More

Queer River and Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place

Artist James Aldridge shares insights from Iain Biggs’ book Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place and resonances with his own projects exploring the value of outsiders’ viewpoints and voices not often heard in discussions on the Earth Crisis.


3,000 words: estimated reading time = 12 minutes


When we both attended an online event in March featuring fellow ClimateCultures member Iain Biggs, editor Mark Goldthorpe invited me to write a post about the book Iain had co-authored — Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place: Geopoetics, Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies. My first thought was that I wasn’t the right person to write a review as I’m not an academic but an artist who uses their arts practice to carry out research into the role of art within place-based learning, largely (though not exclusively) outside of academia.

It was when Mark reassured me that he wasn’t looking for a traditional book review, that this piece of writing evolved, an exploration of how my practice as an artist working with human and non-human communities of life relates to and could be informed by the themes of the book.

Cover of Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place, by Mary Modeen and Iain Biggs

Interestingly, once I began I realised that, despite first appearances, Mary and Iain didn’t specifically intend their book to be read by academics:

“Although our professional experience is within the arts and academic research, we hope to encourage you, whatever your background, to understand your skills and knowledge through this book within larger intra-related ensembles of practices and endeavours.”

Much of my current work takes place as part of Queer River, a research project I set up in 2020, which explores the values of queer perspectives on rivers and other wetlands, to inform what they need from us in a future affected by climate breakdown. As such my research is exploring the value of an outsider’s viewpoint, of voices and experiences that aren’t often heard within discussions on the Earth Crisis.

Queer River gives me the freedom to set up opportunities that I don’t find available elsewhere, to consider how my experiences inform my understanding of ‘ecologies of place’ and how my arts practice (my creative engagement with these places) can offer ways of seeing and being with them that I don’t often see reflected within mainstream discourse.

Ecologies of place: showing Queer River - Boat and Body, an art work by James Aldridge
Queer River – Boat and Body. Museum of English Rural Life, Reading
Image: James Aldridge © 2021

So far I’ve been invited to work with staff and students from Ashridge College and Glasgow University, have exhibited with other rurally-based queer artists at Reading University’s Museum of English Rural Life, and presented in a range of arts and community settings.

In the introduction to the book Mary and Iain write: “…we would be the first to advocate that readers reflect carefully on the socio-political implications of this text on the basis of your own experience.”

For me this was a promising start, an acknowledgement by the authors that the writing included in the book, although they may be speaking from ‘a privileged position’, is an attempt to “…move thinking away from the sovereign self and its hyper-individualism so as to stress ‘mutual, dialogical, participatory and horizontal relations’”.

One thing that I particularly value about the way that Mary and Iain write is the sense that the reader is being invited in and welcomed. The introduction in particular is sprinkled with phrases that invite the reader to take the concepts explored within it and to make them their own.

So does this exploration then include me after all? Are we all in it together or am I still reading it from the position of an outsider, looking in, whether as a non-academic or queer person? I decided to try and leave that question to one side, rather than risk putting up barriers unnecessarily, accept the authors’ invitation, and continue reading.

Although the book contains several in-depth explorations of artists’ practices, in this piece of writing I’ve concentrated on how/whether it speaks to my own.

Disciplinary agnosticism, Geopoetics & queer perspectives

One key thing I wanted to explore is what the key phrases used in the subtitle actually mean, and whether/how the concepts they represent relate to my work; Geopoetics, Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies.

The authors write that they prefer “to identify our concerns with the field of geopoetics seen through the lens of mutual accompaniment rather than… replicate the presuppositions of possessive individualism”. They continue “The dominant social order (‘the master’s house’) that has been built on possessive individualism has become… so toxic, that it is destroying not only the fabric of human society but the ecologies upon which all things depend.” They go on to explain how the division and categorisation of knowledge and practices leads to a fragmentation “which has immense personal, social and environmental implications,” which “in turn makes it too easy for individuals to disregard the consequences of their actions.”

At this point I feel that we are acting from a very similar position. In Queer River, and my wider practice, I start from the viewpoint that we have become unable to experience ourselves as continuous with the rest of what we call ‘Nature’, or to recognise the harm that we are carrying out as a result, and that through walking, talking and making with (human and non-human) others, we can start to glimpse our true interconnected nature.

Mary and Iain describe their approach as ‘disciplinary agnosticism’ which allows them to work with and hear from a range of people, including those that they describe as having knowledge and experiences that “sit outside of disciplinary thinking”. In Queer River my own methodology is to walk, talk and make with others (archaeologists, botanists, writers etc) allowing our perspectives to interweave and find their own balance, in a similar way to disciplinary agnosticism’s “…multiple aspects of understanding that overlay and inter-combine”.

Ecologies of place: showing Vale of Pewsey walking pages, an art work by James Aldridge
Vale of Pewsey Walking Pages
Image: James Aldridge © 2021

Queer River gives me the freedom to follow the work wherever it wants to go, and to come to know a place with the river and its human/non-human inhabitants. Although I set up the project, the work isn’t ‘done’ by me alone, it arises through dialogue, and depends on an openness, a shared commitment to not knowing where we are heading.

Similarly, the authors quote Kenneth White in his description of Geopoetics as being “more than poetry concerned with the environment… Geopoetics is concerned fundamentally with a relationship to the earth and with the opening of a world… a place where all kinds of specific disciplines can converge. Once they are ready to leave over-restricted frameworks and enter into global (cosmological, cosmological, cosmopoetic) space.”

In exploring and sharing how the book informs my understanding of my Queer River research, it’s useful to look at some of my writing on Queer perspectives.

In A Queer Path to Wellbeing, a previous piece for ClimateCultures, I wrote:

“Not fitting in can be hard, being excluded when you want to belong. But when you realise that what you are excluded from are the very structures that are denying people the opportunity to experience the reality of the world of which they are a part, it can become a privileged position, a bird’s eye view of the divided terrain.”

If you’ve not grown up fitting in then you don’t necessarily accept or become constrained by some of the divisions and boundaries that Mary and Iain describe. For me, queer perspectives come with the potential for an ability to blur binaries and see beyond culturally constructed barriers. When you don’t fit the categories that a culture provides for you, you can be left with a kind of a superpower of seeing through the walls of categorisation.

As I wrote in A Queer Path to Wellbeing:

“My experience of exclusion from mainstream society was traumatic, and has left me hyper-aware of other’s actions, of the danger of being open about my sexuality in certain situations. Yet these experiences have also given me a chance to experience kinship with the more than human world, in ways that I might not otherwise have accessed, should I have slotted more easily into the role set out for me.”

I’m not able to go into a huge amount of depth on all aspects of Mary and Iain’s book, as it touches on a range of rich, creative practices, so I’m concentrating on what strikes me first and most deeply, the relationship between the disciplinary agnosticism that they describe the need for, and the opportunities that queer perspectives provide.

Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies

When thinking and reading about Deep Mapping, I started with the idea that this was the more natural fit for my practice. I’ve always been fascinated by maps and mapping. All my work is concerned with the way that art can facilitate coming to know a place and oneself through relationship, a reciprocity that arises out of reaching out to touch and being touched in return, of experiencing continuity with what is generally externalised as Nature.

Ecologies of place: showing Mapping Connections, an art work by James Aldridge
Mapping Connections – Drawing with Alder Cone Ink
Image: James Aldridge © 2021

As part of this work, I make drawings and rubbings, I write and collect, to document and process my experiences. The art objects are evidence of our interwoven nature, they map what is beyond my everyday awareness, what I don’t know consciously. But is this all deep mapping?

Last week I took Queer River to Glasgow at the invitation of Glasgow University as part of The Dear Green Bothy, “an open space where researchers, artists and communities can gather to respond creatively and critically to the challenges of the ecological crisis”. I spent time collaborating with local rivers, artists and others for the Queer River, Wet Land Project. In my walking, talking and making with others, I aim to set up a space for dialogue, between us (both rivers and people) and within ourselves. Our bodies, emotions and intellect come together, drawing from in-the-moment experiences and past encounters.

On each walk, there is a framework there to support us: a planned route along the river, a set of resources, a time to meet and to end, and an invitation to share a description of our work beforehand; but there is also a commitment to letting go of that planning when it serves the group, and a deliberate amount of space left for not knowing. Not knowing what we are going to say, what the weather will be like, what we will notice on the day, and how/whether we will choose to record what we notice.

Ecologies of place: showing collaborators on the Queer River, Wet Land project
Queer River Wet Land collaborators, Glasgow: Minty Donald, Cecilia Tortajada, Ingrid Shearer and Rachel Clive
Image: James Aldridge © 2021

Mary and Iain write that “in imagination and dreams, deep maps must always exceed our ability to realise them.” I take this to refer to the importance of being in a state of not knowing. The documentation produced on Queer River walks maps what happens as it happens, with a chance to reflect on and make sense of it retrospectively; otherwise we are limited to what we already know, and what we have been taught to see/experience.

They continue “..deep mapping projects may have little in common beyond a sense of their being an open-ended creative process deployed over an extended period.”

Recently in Queer River, I wonder whether the documentation is always necessary. Sometimes it is key to my understanding, sometimes it facilitates the dialogue, but occasionally it feels like I’m doing it to show that it is an art project, that there is something concrete to show for it, when actually the process of walking, talking and noticing is enough. In that case, where does the art exist? Without the documentation, the art object, what kind of art is it — a performance?

“Whether or not we wish to call what emerges from this process a ‘map’ (or the process itself ‘mapping’) seems to me less important than the fact that it is taking place at all… deep mapping can be looked upon as an embodied and reflexive immersion in a life that is lived and performed spatially.”
— Les Roberts, quoted in Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place.

After my time in Glasgow, and particularly my conversations with artist Minty Donald, Professor of Contemporary Performance Practice, I’m starting to understand that my practice has always prioritised process over product, and to wonder whether describing elements of it as performance could actually liberate it even further.

As for the concept of a Slow Residency, although Mary and Iain don’t expect the slowness to be taken literally, I see it connecting with my own exploration of the need to slow down and to notice, using art and embodied experience to listen to what the world needs us to hear, rather than parachuting in to project our own ideas of what a place is or needs onto it.

In this time of ecological collapse and climate breakdown, it is tempting to charge about ‘taking action’, but there are many kinds of action that are needed. Perhaps counterintuitively, when individuals and organisations around us are declaring an emergency, we need opportunities to slow down and to notice the reality of the situation we are living in, taking time to learn from human and non-human others with whom we share our locality. For me, that is what my arts practice, and Queer River specifically, is for.

Space beyond binaries in ecologies of place

I’m still working my way through Mary and Iain’s book. I’m enjoying reading a chunk and letting it settle, before dipping back in again. Iain has kindly donated a copy to the Climate Museum UK library (I’m an Associate Artist with CMUK), as he’s keen that the book reaches more people, via libraries and other organisations. So we will be able to use it as part of CMUK’s work, engaging with a range of cultural, educational and community-based organisations, sparking conversations around the Earth Crisis, art and interdisciplinarity.

As a consequence of my time in Glasgow with Minty and our fellow collaborators, we will be working on Queer River, Wet Land Part 2, putting together a performance score that people will be able to download and use to inform explorations of their own local rivers, before coming together to share reflections at an online event this Autumn, linked to COP26.

Queer River, Wet Land – Glasgow
Image: James Aldridge © 2021

As I take Queer River forward, I’ll carry questions with me as a legacy of reading the book and writing this piece, considering further the relevance of deep mapping, geopoetics and slow residencies. Returning to the question that I posed earlier — ‘So does this exploration then include me after all? Are we all in it together or am I still reading it from the position of an outsider, looking in, whether as a non-academic or queer person?’ — I find myself remembering that Queer Theory and quantum physics (which offers much in the way of inspiration around dialogue and multiplicity) offer me a space within which I can claim both positions; the right to exist both inside and outside of academia, outside and inside of the mainstream. A space within which my lived reality has room to grow, in a way that fits both my personal experience and the underlying ecological reality:

“The queer methodology attempts to combine methods that are often cast as being at odds with each other, and it refuses the academic compulsion toward disciplinary coherence.”
— Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity.

“What is essential here is the presence of the spirit of dialogue, which is in short, the ability to hold many points of view in suspension, along with a primary interest in the creation of common meaning.“
— David Bohm, On Dialogue.

Perhaps that’s not so far away from Iain and Mary’s disciplinary agnosticism after all.


Find out more

The online event with Iain Biggs that James attended in March 2021, Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place, was part of a series from the Intercultural Research Centre at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh.

Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place: Geopoetics, Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies by Mary Modeen and Iain Biggs is published by Routledge (2021); you can preview the introduction and several of the book’s chapters at their site. Iain has written about his motivations for co-authoring the book, with a brief outline of the chapters, in his ClimateCultures post, Disciplinary Agnosticism and Engaging with Ecologies of Place. You can also read recent posts on his own blog, such as After Disciplinarity? Mutual accompaniment, ensemble practices, and the climate emergency, where he shares the text of a talk he gave to Breaking Boundaries, a postgraduate student conference at Cardiff University. 

Queer River is the practice-led research project where James Aldridge collaborates with human and non-human others to explore the relationship between: diverse experiences of rivers and other wetland environments, including those of people from the LGBT+ community; Queer perspectives on Climate Justice; the impact of the climate and ecological crisis on river ecosystems and communities; and wetland regeneration and rewilding.

In the Queer River, Wet Land project, James is walking, talking and making with Glasgow-based artist Minty Donald, Professor of Contemporary Performance Practice at Glasgow University, and others to document their experiences of the River Clyde and Molendinar Burn. The project focuses on the interrelationship between the water and the land, in an exchange of practices that draws on work with their local rivers, and the substrates that they flow through/over. The collaboration is part of the Dear Green Bothy — a programme of free public events and activities marking Glasgow’s hosting of the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November 2021, and demonstrating the vital role played by the arts and humanities in understanding and addressing climate emergency.

James mentions his exploration of the need to slow down and to notice, and you can read more about his approach in Slowing Down, Going Deeper on his blog. James is an Associate Artist with Climate Museum UK which was founded by independent researcher and creative Bridget McKenzie.

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.

James Aldridge
James Aldridge
A visual artist working with people and places, whose individual and participatory practices generate practice-led research into the value of artful, embodied and place-based learning ...
Read More

Talking to the Crisis

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reflects on a follow-up conversation between interviewer Julia Marques, performer Daniel Bye, creative producer Tessa Gordziejko, artist Jennifer Leach and geographer Matt Law on experiences of darkness, attitudes to uncertainty and opportunities for creativity.


2,660 words: estimated reading time 11 minutes + audio


In January, Julia Marques spoke with five fellow ClimateCultures members to explore what art and environmentalism bring to each other, and how they combine the two in their work.

We published Julia’s full-length interviews with Daniel Bye, Andrea Carr, Tessa Gordziejko, Matt Law and Jennifer Leach alongside her own reflections on the exchanges here. Her post also featured short clips from each interview, touching on topics such as: how art can galvanize environmental action or thinking, or simply help us to face the mounting sense of crisis; how collaboration with others in artistic practices can be part of our making sense of climate and ecological crisis, and how an appreciation of the ‘everyday ecology’ of our lives and surroundings — which art can celebrate — serves to shift our consciousness beyond simply the facts and news stories. And, as the interviews also revealed, an artistic mindset rewards attention to those usually very generalized words ‘collaboration’, ‘sustainability’, ‘optimism’ and even ‘creativity’ itself in ways that inform particular approaches to the processes, materials and practices of bringing environmental awareness into the heart of everything we do; and celebrating the small acts and experiences of creativity every bit as valuable as making and marking the large, public works.

Together, those five recordings offer rich insights into the work of different artists and researchers that — although the interviews draw mostly on theatre for their examples and ideas — have value for creative practices in all fields and across many disciplines. And, as Julia said, discussions such as these are part of the much bigger conversation that we’re engaged in and need to expand and develop further. If you haven’t already done so, do take a look at her post and the interviews.

Deepening the dialogue

It was therefore a natural development of those first one-to-one conversations — one that Julia and I discussed early on — that we try and bring together as many of the participants as possible, to see if they could develop some of those individual ideas further. So I was delighted when Tessa, Jennifer, Dan and Matt were able to join Julia in a Zoom call one evening and see where the conversation might take them. We’ve presented this here as three shorter audio clips.

In the first session, Julia, Tessa, Jennifer, Dan and Matt catch up with each other’s work since the initial interviews six months ago, and how these projects and new activities continue to explore the themes they discussed. We find out about recent work, much of which has a shared focus or experience of land: land access and edgelands in song and film; art on the land and creating green woods for future generations; moving into a new personal landscape, listening and waiting to see what comes as work that has to be real and not just noise; engaging with the end of our way of living; working with new artists.

The second session then picks up on a couple of those themes, teasing out some convergences and divergences around ideas and language around darkness and light in our experiences of the world, and around useful distinctions between uncertainty and ambiguity.

Finally, there’s a short discussion around whether we can see the climate and ecological crisis as an opportunity for creativity.

As with all such dialogue — in these times especially — provocations and reflections such as these do not offer definitive responses or an end to the questioning and the circling back to previous ideas and exchanges. Instead, they are a process, feeding off and into all our explorations, sparking new connections and possibilities. In that spirit, we hope these will prompt further conversation, on these pages and beyond.

Conversation is creative

Although I was not part of any of the sessions, on listening to the recordings I certainly felt myself to be in conversation with the ideas and the examples flowing between the participants. One of the joys of sitting in the background of ClimateCultures is receiving the materials that members send in for our blog; whether I experience them initially as offers of ideas, or as first drafts for discussion or as complete pieces, there’s always a point early on where what’s coming to me as fresh perspectives from a creative mind spark off my own associations, questions and conversations — with myself and what I thought I knew beforehand, and with the contributor. Each post is a prompt for to me to think afresh on the issues we’re facing and the ways that I choose to perceive and to act on them. I hope that’s the way they’re received and responded to by others. Creativity is a conversation and conversation is creative, and both open up the world and our place within it.

Listening in on talk of the darkness, of the different ways of understanding what it is and what it offers and requires of us, I was struck by my sympathy both with Dan’s opening response to Julia’s prompt on how we respond to darkness and ending:

“It’s hard isn’t it? There is so much darkness, it’s hard to know which bit to try not to look at! Hard to know where to bring the light. And I think especially this past year, so much of it has been about getting through to the next day with the people nearest.”

and Jennifer’s plea, as “a great fan and protector of the darkness”, that we not always fall into its characterisation as supposedly negative:

“There’s something about that insistent light, that insistent need for the light that I think is part of the reason that we are really at this point of existential crisis. Because, the darkness … there’s great beauty in it, great restfulness in it, there’s a chance for restoration, there’s a chance for quietness, for peace. It’s the fundamental part of regeneration … Without the seeds going underground you wouldn’t get the harvest, and without death in life you wouldn’t have life.”

life in conversation: showing 'bud' by Jennifer Leach
Bud – mixed media on paper
Image: Jennifer Leach © 2021

Tessa reflected on the fact that Julia’s original interviews occurred in the middle of winter and now this conversation was unfolding as the longest day of the year approached, and on the different relationships with darkness that these two midpoints offer:

“I quite enjoy the winter darkness, and wintering as an idea …closing down a bit and being underground… Now we are nearly at the longest day of the year … and a different kind of darkness occurs then. It’s a very short darkness and quite a magical darkness, and it’s late coming … And there’s a different sense of the darkness we are facing as our human narrative, which is nonetheless there but — there can be something quite joyful about it.”

Conversation with the season: Showing a Solstice Firewalk, by Tess Gordziejko
Solstice Firewalk
Photograph: Tessa Gordziejko © 2021

To me, what lies between these personal responses to questions of what the darkness and endings mean, and what it means to live with them, is not so much a disagreement as a web of complementary insights into the complexity of human experience, and — as Matt picked up on from Jennifer’s point on life going underground — the shared cycles of nature that we’re part of and are part of us:

“There’s a really nice image of going from the biosphere, the world of the living, into the lithosphere, the world of the rock, and then back out — what springs out of that again. … If we are thinking about anxiety about an environmentally changed future, and we have this idea of participatory mourning or solastalgia, maybe focusing on these minutiae — well look at the regeneration that comes, the sense that nature finds a way.”

Tending our patch

While one reading of ‘darkness’ feeds into the sense of endings and of loss and of ‘end times’ — feelings that we’ve all experienced or witnessed with great force during these times of global pandemic as much as with the continuing slide into ecological catastrophes around the world — other readings can also bring an appreciation that we can sometimes choose to approach endings, even loss, in more positive ways. For one thing, there can be joy in the beauty that has been experienced and generated along the way, and that is still there or yet to be created. And there’s the opportunity to imagine, anticipate and therefore work to bring about the better ways of surviving the worst and thriving beyond that.

Sometimes the response to changes that can feel overwhelming is to focus on the nearby, the achievable — towards, as Dan puts it, a move where

“people have turned towards tending their own patch of grass … trying to make the practices in the areas over which they have control good practice … That feels to me like an understandable response to a perceived inability to be heard or to make a difference … and a good example to others who might have the wherewithal to do so.”

It’s a metaphor he returns to, suggesting that the arts, while often termed an ‘industry’ is not a monolith but “an ecology. It’s a lot of people’s separate patches of grass which happen to overlap and share root systems and share weather, and that actually tending your own patch well and in an exemplary fashion can be part of effecting systemic change.”

In convreation with the land: showing a still from the film These Hills Are Ours by Bevis Bowden
These Hills Are Ours, by Daniel Bye & Boff Whalley
Film by Bevis Bowden © 2020

The more such patches there are the better the ecology, as Tessa points out, and “art off grid” is part of the way forward. And Jennifer picks up this theme of personal patches of creativity and the possibilities of intimate connection as a place of feasibility, and embracing the home-made — meaning the creative work by the hearth rather than in the public arena — “without losing the sense of quality” may be needed now more than ever: “So, not to feel that what we are doing is a waste of time, not to feel that we need to lose it, but there are ways of making it very real in a very different way.”

This sense of nurturing a personal creativity and embracing that small-scale engagement is perhaps reflected at a larger scale in Tessa’s observation that the word humility has its roots in humus, the living soil, and that maybe seeking a more humble approach is a species-level response too. “We are going to be humbled anyway so maybe a conscious and deliberate humbling of ourselves in the way that we envisage the way we live and the way that we learn…”

The act of leaving that thought hanging in the air is perhaps in its own way a tentative bridge between the personal and the global dimensions, a recognition of the enormous scale of action and consciousness that’s being asked of all of us alongside the creative responses that any one of us might feel able to develop. As later discussion suggested, looking to all this for a creative ‘opportunity’ is perhaps off the mark. Climate change and ecological depletion are what we are immersed in, and while some might choose to continue to not hear the alarm bell — and it’s certainly not possible to listen to it at full volume all the time — the crisis is nevertheless “an insistence rather than an opportunity,” as Dan puts it.

“It’s present in everything I do,” Tessa admits, “whether it’s explicit or implicit. … It’s much more immersive for me. Although not everything I make is about the climate crisis, everything happens in that framework.”

Where the opportunity lies, Matt suggests, is for art

“to sculpt a vision of something to be hopeful about, and also to connect people with stories that when they read about them in the news they don’t relate to at all because it’s happening to people who live on the other side of the planet or who will live 50 years from now. And that’s a really important opportunity.”

in conversation with the past: showing Matthew Law coring for evidence of past environmental change
Matthew Law coring for evidence of past environmental change in Hertfordshire
Photograph: Alice Short

And that space of opportunity is also shaped by our grasp of ambiguity, which Dan identifies as “something being both the case and not the case at the same time” and as “the root of metaphor and faith in whatever, in anything.” As Tessa says, creativity works with ambiguity all the time, not seeking to pin everything down. For Matt, “within scientific process there is a world of uncertainty. A lot of my work is rooted in archaeology and there is so far you can take the evidence before you have to make an inferential leap…”

That sense of grasping both the ‘is’ and the ‘is not’ and not always striving to resolve that ambiguity is also a leap, an imaginative one. And it offers a creative resistance to the urgency that, although very real, can drown out the value of diversity in all we do in the face of existential crisis; a generosity towards diversity, even when it maybe looks like an unwelcome dilution of the singular effort, the struggle to get everyone on board with ‘the answer’. As Jennifer expresses it:

“All of these things are important, all of our ways are important, the fighting is really important, the resistance is really important, the refusal to lie down and just accept it — and the opposite is also true: the people who embrace it, accept it, who move through it in peace and centredness without resisting it, that’s also important. It’s going to be messy and there are no clear answers, there never are. There’s going to be tatters round the edges. That’s life and evolution and who are we to resist it, in a way?”

The interplay of light and dark, of ambiguity and understanding, of ambivalence and ideas of decline and regeneration, and of the small, patchwork acts and the large, singular ones — these make up part of the rich soil in which art, research and all creative work thrive and can inform our activism. There is this and much more in the conversations that Julia, Dan, Tessa, Matt and Jennifer have shared with us here. I hope you enjoy listening in and maybe exploring where their conversation sits with and talks with your own experiences, ideas and work. As Matt observes at one point, there’s an interesting thread through their conversation that’s not the one he thought they’d be talking about at all, and you might find your own threads there too and want to pick at the discussion in different ways…

It’s something we’d like to do more of. ClimateCultures — an initiative that, as Julia expresses it, “brings different worlds together” — welcomes your voice too. If you want to share your own reflections and responses to the conversations, do get leave a comment, and members can get in touch with their own post for the blog.


Find out more

Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe
An independent researcher, project and events manager, and writer on environmental and climate change issues - investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.
Read More

You can watch Julia’s earlier interviews with Dan, Tessa, Jennifer, Matt and Andrea in her post Conversations with Work That Connects.

In this new conversation, Tessa mentions that she’s been listening to the podcast The Great Humbling, where futurist Ed Gillespie and writer and co-founder of A School Called HOME Dougald Hine ask “How will they look in hindsight, these strange times we are living through? Is this a midlife crisis on humanity’s road to the Star Trek future – or the point at which that story of the future unravelled and we came to see how much it had left out?” In a series of conversations, they explore whether “our current crises are neither an obstacle to be overcome, nor the end of the world, but a necessary humbling?”

On a Writer’s Imaginarium

Writer and artistbook maker Sarah Hymas reflects on an on- and offline cross-genre shared space she has created to support creative writing, and why this imaginarium is as much for her as for the other writers who join.


1,900 words: estimated reading time  = 7.5 minutes


Why is it we separate poets from writers, and writers from artists? Don’t we all make, create, draw our experience and ideas from the world into new forms? Aren’t we all inspired by each other, whatever the form or genre? Other people’s processes and imaginings offer new insights and routes into all my creative projects, however subtle or slow in emerging.

I don’t know how many years ago I saw Terry Gilliam’s film The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus. I remember little about it bar the title and a sense of stepping into new wild worlds. Gilliam seems to be unrelenting in his creative vision, always pushing at the supposed bounds of reality. When I wanted a name to capture my ambition for a porous space of shared thinkingwritingdreaming, ‘imaginarium’ felt the perfect word. When I discovered that a toy shop chain and a special effects production company both used it for their names the idea was sealed.

The Imaginarium: an opening to possibility

When I ran the first series of A Writer’s Imaginarium I was actively thinking about how being very short-sighted, and not wearing glasses until I was six, affected my perceptual development, how I must have filled in so many gaps with guesswork. Not being able to see sharp edges meant my view of things was not contained. They weren’t contained. One of my reasons for writing, I think, is because I also felt I overspilled my physical self, and writing was and still is a placeholder for that excess. Imagination synthesizes all our senses. What we see we can also feel, hearing something we might visualise it.

Showing Sky photograph by Sarah Hymas
Photograph: Sarah Hymas © 2021

Vital as it is in connecting our relationships with the world, in the here and now, our imagination opens us all, short-sighted or not, to possibility, for rewiring how we perceive or think or want to perceive relationships between things, including ourselves. A Writer’s Imaginarium began as a way to feed my own practice. Sharing what I was reading, thinking and excited by helped me develop my own writing. It has become a similar container for discussing favourite writings and thinkings which become new terrains for new projects.

I write poetry, fiction, site-specific audio walks, creative nonfiction and ecocritical theory, and make artistbooks with and without text. These have all fed my interest in how form contains text and how subject shapes form. In its six-year life the Imaginarium itself has taken on many forms: online, in-person, six-month programmes, one-day sessions, a week-long on- and offline intensive, a solo guidebook, a month-long forum-based version planned for August, and who-knows-what shapes will rise in the future.

They all seek to create a space of imaginative exploration, a collective thinking, where projects can roam, without a map or too much of a plan. The basic premise for anyone interested in joining is that they have a writing project they want to sit with, play with, improvise on and unpack in some way. It can be in any genre; and either a really sketchy idea or super developed. The workshops ideally incorporate a good mix of genres for cross-pollinating the ways we shape the worlds we write.

This cross-pollination is perhaps more evident in the longer programmes, where a buddy system pairs up people to share process or work or ideas or whatever they decide, between the sessions. Buddies are changed on a monthly basis to encourage everyone to connect with everyone else. It’s intended as a nourishing system for book recommendations, making progress in tandem with someone, and talking all things writing related with an equally passionate other.

We’ve had novelists, poets, playwrights, memoirists, essayists, digital writers, live artists, genre-hybridists and who-knows-whattists pass through the various Imaginariums. There’s a real mix of how much people actually write on any programme. Some write x words a month. Others treat it as a tool-gathering opportunity to play with various drafts that they go on to develop after the programme. Still others treat it as a hothouse in which to complete an entire thing over its duration. And writing this post I think why limit the process to writers? A visual artist, musician or dancer might want to play with words within or around their own practice. It’d be fascinating to envelop other artforms into a programme.

A shared holding space

The Imaginarium: a shared holding space. Showing cave photograph by Sarah Hymas
Photograph: Sarah Hymas © 2021

Now more than ever it seems writers, publishing gatekeepers and all artforms appreciate that traditional notions of form or genre don’t necessarily serve the stories we need to write, read and share. We’re living in haphazard, uncertain and confusing times. As creative practitioners we essentially respond to that. A Writer’s Imaginarium is a holding space for unsafe and messy thinking, the sharing of ideas, processing how or what we write. So the discussion element of an Imaginarium is primary, which might rise from a reading or writing prompt. There’s never any pressure to read out. I don’t enjoy reading out the scrappy stuff freshly written in a workshop, and wouldn’t impose that upon anyone. I just want to chew around ideas, scribble some of them out, use other methodologies to my usual to find fresh ways into and through the terrain. Making up writing provocations is a joy — it allows me to unpack my own processes, map routes through passages I undertake spontaneously, and try new things out, before I suggest them to others. We need writers to experiment with new ways of perceiving the world, reworlding it through new and familiar forms, to keep our imaginations active, searching new pathways and bridges in the challenging times ahead.

The writing provocations in and out of the sessions are for people to try, taste and maybe return to or reject. Not everything works for everyone. One person described the six-month programme as being like “a curiosity shop … Full of hidden depths and surprises.” Some of those surprises might be more unpleasant than others. We can learn some interesting things through what makes us uncomfortable. Equally, we might not want to learn those things at that time. What’s for sure is that all prompts come from my love of visual arts, music, philosophy, the natural world, architecture, and on and on. An Imaginarium is not about producing a whole bunch of new work to present to others — although it can be if that’s what you and your buddy decide to do. It’s certainly about working out how you can best support a particular writing project. Who do you need to be reading, listening to or looking at? Where do you need to go for stimulation and nourishment? What habits will enable this particular project at this time?

Making the connections visible 

I offer a tutorial to everyone during or after the programme, so there is an opportunity for close discussion of writing. Of course I see feedback as important — as much for me as for the other. To read someone’s work closely enough to discuss it deeply is a connective and thought-provoking experience. It’s a sharing of creative preoccupations and a chance to unpack my current thinking that the writing in question prompts. How else do we come to read work if not through our own lived experiences and references?

I’ve been running writing workshops across my community for almost thirty years, for specific or more general groups of people, on loose themes or within particular projects, and I value how they make visible the connections we have with others (writers, humans, and all earthlings). The Imaginariums build on these sessions, and my work as a creative coach, to create new supportive networks for fictive, real, projected or speculative worldings.

Showing water photograph by Sarah Hymas
Photograph: Sarah Hymas © 2021

Each Imaginarium rises from the belief we’re writing for a future reader (ourselves or another), and aims to bring together the company of others who want to catch those sparks. Imaginarium formats have been shaped by specific project methodologies and also go on to inspire new ones. Whichever way round they work, they keep my imagination plugged into an evolving and ever-growing circuitry that feeds my practice, encouraging a spreading of theoretical, linguistical and creative impulses that shape my ambition and enjoyment of my writing. I hope that works similarly for others.


Find out more

You can explore the Spirit of the Imaginarium and its current and future versions at Sarah’s website.

Writer Ursula Le Guin — whose The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction considers fiction as a container and has featured in previous ClimateCultures posts on ‘disciplinary agnosticism‘ and objects of the Anthropocene — said that “I think the imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses. It beats the opposable thumb. I can imagine living without my thumbs, but not without my imagination … The imagination is an essential tool of the mind, a fundamental way of thinking, an indispensable means of becoming and remaining human.” And in Ursula K. Le Guin on Redeeming the Imagination from the Commodification of Creativity and How Storytelling Teaches Us to Assemble Ourselves at her Brainpickings blog Maria Popova, says that “Le Guin observes that like any tool, the imagination requires that we first learn how to use it — or, rather, that we unlearn how to squander it. Storytelling, she argues, is the sandbox in which we learn to use the imagination.” And Popova adds that Le Guin said that this “self-invention … is not a solitary act — it takes place at the communal campfire where our essential stories of being are co-created and told.”

In Episode 5 of his Creativity podcast, writer John Fanning also picks up on the same essay as does Popova, and how Le Guin distinguishes between imagination and ‘mere’ creativity. He takes us back to the Romantics to suggest that imagination shapes our reality; indeed, for William Blake, imagination was reality, as he explained at age 20 to a patron who was dissatisfied with the ‘over imaginative’ illustrations Blake had created for his book: “I feel that a man may be happy in this world. And I know that this world is a world of imagination and vision. I see every thing I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike. To the eyes of a miser a guinea is far more beautiful than the Sun, and a bag worn with the use of money has more beautiful proportions than a vine filled with grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees.” As Fanning suggests, “Even the word itself, from the latin word, ‘imaginari’, asks us to question ourselves, because it means ‘to picture oneself’, to image oneself, to imagine oneself, which is perhaps a real understanding of creation, to investigate and picture from yourself, create from your images, your memories, your imagination, a visionary Blakean place where visions create mental concepts that are not actually tangible to the senses, but are there, present, nevertheless. Perhaps the best way to express all our creative world is the Imagination, just as the Romantics trusted…”

Sarah Hymas

Sarah Hymas

A poet, performer and artistbook maker focusing on the sea, its ecosystems and its interdependence with people, and the impacts of climate change and pollution.
Read More