Ice Culture : Interview with Willona Sloan.

Willona Sloan, curator & managing editor for Black Coffee & Vinyl Presents: Ice Culture. Interview with Gudrun Filipska.

Adriene Hughes  'Untitled'.

Adriene Hughes 'Untitled'.

Firstly, I really enjoyed the ICE CULTURE project and the publication. Have you always had an interest in the polar regions? What instigated the project?

Thank you so much! I have not always had an interest in the polar regions, and my interest in the topic came about only a few years ago. I live in Washington, DC, which does have snow and cold winters, but every year I become extremely upset by cold weather. It wasn’t until I did an artist residency in the Canadian Rockies at the Banff Centre for the Arts that I became remotely interested in the topic. I went in 2013, and then did a second residency there in 2014. That second time, I decided to take a day trip to the Athabasca Glacier, which is part of the Columbia Icefield in the Canadian Rockies.

That trip blew my mind, because I had never been interested in glaciers before and I became mildly obsessed with them afterwards. I visited Iceland, and did some traveling around, and again I visited a glacier. After that, I was officially hooked on the idea of doing some sort of art project related to climate change, and specifically how it affects glaciers.

For the past couple of years, I had been sort of trying to figure out how to make the project work as an idea, but when I landed on the theme of “culture,” it started to make sense for me and I got really excited. The project wasn’t about climate change science, but rather people and culture. People are connected to places, and their cultures are informed by these places.

It started as a question: What would happen to the people and places connected to ice if the ice were to melt?

I really wanted to expand the discussion of climate change as a data-driven conversation or a political conversation. It’s also a personal narrative. I felt that offering narratives that are both informative and creative could be a good way to engage people in these serious environmental issues that affect all of us, regardless of where we live.

Ultimately, I plan to tackle three additional themes with the project, Black Coffee & Vinyl Presents. The next one will be the theme of “city.”


How did you select the artists, writers and musicians for the project? Was the selection process difficult?

I published an open call for submissions last winter (2018). I ran submissions through an online platform and I sent the call to all the people I had met through artist residencies, and I sent it to various artist residencies and asked them to pass it along, as well. I posted the call on social media and then started writing to arts and cultural organizations, scientific associations and any related groups I could find online. I sent the call to art schools in the Arctic region as well.

I wanted to represent as many countries as possible, and also ensure diverse voices were included. That meant that I had to cast the net as wide as possible to spread the word.

I didn’t think I would get many submissions so I made a list of artists and musicians I would like to interview or ask for their work. For example, I went back to Iceland for the third time in March 2018, and I took a city walking tour with Ívar Pétur Kjartansson. It was a great way to see the city, and the focus was on art, culture and food. I asked him to consider doing the DJ mix for the project. He’s a DJ, drummer and glacier guide, so it was perfect. So, I did things like that.

In the end, I wanted to include work from only 20 artists. I ended up getting submissions from about 425 artists, and they were able to submit up to three works that I would consider individually.

My selection criteria was artistic quality first. I wanted it to be an art project first and foremost. The selection process was difficult because I had to make some really tough choices. Because I wanted to pay the artists a small honorarium, and because we did a print magazine as well, I really had to hold myself to the set number of works. I think doing so made the project stronger, but I had to exclude some work that I really loved.

There are obviously balances to be struck between environmental implications of travel and the idea that artists and researchers should 'bear witness' to climate change first hand. Do you have any thoughts on these dualities?

Yes, that’s a really good point. Some places affected by climate change are fragile or are in danger of being overwhelmed by tourists, but there are safe and ethical ways that artists and researchers can visit places being affected by climate change in order bear witness.

For example, I am really happy that I was able to speak with the artist residencies in Arctic Circle and Antarctica because for people who want to make those journeys, those are two safe ways to do so and the work that is produced will further aid research and education efforts.

I think artists and researchers have to go to the ends of the earth and bring back the stories and the images and make people aware of things they may never see with their own eyes – it is important. Art changes people’s perceptions, and it’s a great tool for persuasion.

I also think that we as publishers, curators, journalists, and activists, should prioritize the voices of locals who live and experience these places and see how they are changing year after year. I think that is equally important because the perspective of an outsider is going to be different than that of the local.

The theme of 'testament' seems to come through strongly in the work chosen for the project – artists travelling on often dangerous journeys - as in Keith Lyons 'Riddles and Answers in the Ice'. From a writer's perspective, how important do you think the devices of narrative and storytelling from those experiencing the Polar regions are in raising issues around climate change and ice melt for the public?

I am prejudiced because I am a writer, but I believe narrative storytelling and creative writing are the most effective ways to communicate the realities of the climate crisis. So many people do not understand the science and even when it’s explained we don’t get it. But, when you read Vivian Faith Prescott’s testament about how the landscape around her is changing, that gets my attention. Her poems express a deep fear about how these changes will alter a way of life, a culture, and the place she calls home.

That type of personal perspective is so powerful. It’s more powerful than slogans, and for me, personal stories are more impactful than scientific studies.

I wanted to include scientific information in a personal way. With Keith Lyons’ essay, I was really pleased to have that work because not only does he break down the science, he also offers a sense of levity and humor. What an amazing experience to be able to travel to Antarctica. Until I had read his essay, I had not thought of the continent as such a mysterious and special place.


How valuable to you think collaborations between artists/writers and scientists are in relation to the public’s understanding of climate change – Im thinking of programmes such as Antarctic Artist and Writers Program or the Arctic Circle Residency?

I think these types of collaborations can be really beneficial, and I am starting to read about them more often. For several of the artists who submitted work, they had done these types of collaborations or expeditions on scientific missions and that type of thing.

It is going to take addressing these issues from multiple perspectives – both the scientific and the artistic – in order to really move people towards action. For both of the residency programs you mentioned, part of their missions is to have the participants bring their experiences back to the rest of the world and to translate the science into something personal, creative and inspiring.

I am completely immersed in Ívar Pétur Kjartansson's Music for a Glacier , Pop culture is not often inserted into these dialogues around Ice/climate change but it seems possible to be a really powerful tool....?

Thank you! Music for a Glacier is so wonderful. As I mentioned, I met Ívar in Reykjavik, but he is also a guide at an attraction that is an ice cave at Langjökull, which is the second largest glacier in Iceland. As such, he created his mix around the feeling and atmosphere of being alone at Langjökull.

I took that ice cave tour (with a different tour guide), and I felt both terrified and mystified the whole time. The landscape is desolate and unforgiving, but I had also the strangest sense of calm there. It was also super scary and eerie. I remember thinking how vast the glacier was, and also how dangerous.

Ívar explains the songs that he chose for the mix in his notes, and in particular, I love the experimental and electronic songs because they fit so well with the landscape. It’s weirdly electric up there.

From a curatorial standpoint, I was thinking of this work as a fun piece for the project that was purely on the “culture” side. It has been the thing that has drawn the most visitors to the website. I think for people who love glaciers and nature, they must get something special out of it. For people who just love music, it’s a really solid mix! It’s meditative and beautiful. Pop culture isn’t often part of these climate change projects, but I think that’s a missed opportunity.


Parts of Antarctica are as mysterious to us as outer space – there are great swathes of land where no one has ever set foot before (no researchers, artists or scientists anyway) as I write this there is a team of scientists from Manchester University riding over un -charted terrain with a giant magnet looking for ancient meteors ... is there some thing about this mystery and 'otherworldliness' that appeals to artists do you think? I wonder if also the fantasy artists may have when visiting may also hold dangers, the overlooking of the everyday experiences of those who live there for example?

If so, do you think it may also be difficult to reconcile the impressions visiting artists give of polar regions with the experiences of indigenous artists living there? I am thinking of the experience of a place which may be generational – as in the poetry of Vivian Faith Prescott – in contrast to the perspectives of visiting artists and researchers?

Thank you for this question. To answer the second part first, yes, I think that indigenous artists, researchers, activists and community members, are often overlooked in the climate change conversation. A visiting artist or researcher, or even tourist, may have the best intentions, but will not understand the full picture. It’s the people who have seen the earth around their homes erode, or have experienced catastrophic weather, or lost traditional ways of life, or lost jobs, or seen wildlife that they hunted for sustenance disappear – those are the people whose stories should carry the most weight.

Regarding Antarctica, it is one of the planet’s final frontiers, and I think that makes it ripe for storytelling, but you really, really need to be sure that you want to go down there to make art. Once they drop you off, you have to stay.

I knew a guy years ago, who used to go to Antarctica for a few months every year and he would be down there jamming and recording music. He talked about Antarctica with this far-off gleam in his eye. I thought that was the most insane thing I had ever heard, but it kind of makes sense. You can see things and experience things like nowhere else on the planet. And, you can see the curvature of the earth.

Liza Ryan  - ’Real Blue’.

Liza Ryan - ’Real Blue’.

Yes, Antarctica is an extremely perilous place and it’s a lonely place. So, that’s the downside. But artists like a challenge! It’s supposed to be absolutely magical.

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Thankyou to Willona Sloane, Black Coffee and Vinyl and the artists involved in the project for use of their images.

You can buy a copy of Iceculture here.




Skeiðarárhlaup Festival.

On the 14th April, a selection of Arts Territory Exchange Members took part in Skeiðarárhlaup - Micro performance festival on and around the Skeiðará Bridge near Skaftafell, Iceland. The festival marked the 45th birthday of the bridge and the opening of the ring road around Iceland. The festival began with a long distance run ending up on the bridge where various performances and film screenings took place. aTE members from around the world live-streamed walks and runs in solidarity with the festival, many over bridges and bodies of water near their homes. The participants who live streamed to the festival from instagram were Andrew Howe, Susi Gutierrez, Jennifer Brant, Michelle Kohler, Elizabeth Schoen, Georgina Reskala, Barbara Bryn Klare and Collectif Bonneau Knight.

Films were also screened under Skeidara bridge from Caroline Kelley, Carly Butler, Denise Holland, Peachey and Mosig, Michelle Kohler, James Davoll, Gudrun Filipska and Collectif Bonneau-Knight. Images show the festival and the nearby ‘transport monument’ of a bridge that was destroyed in 1996 by the glacier.

Image credits go to Jón Ágúst Guðjónsson for images of the festival (including the runners and the Hringleikur Circus team) Live stream stills - credits to the artists. And thankyou to Eva Bjarnadóttir for organising.

Rural artist residencies/ locality and the Arts Territory Exchange – Gudrun Filipska.

(First published in Null Set and Slag Magazine Special issue; Volume 4, Rurality. March 2019).

The tensions between urban and rural areas highlighted by the 2016 US election result and the rise of populism across Europe were the catalyst for the founding of the Arts Territory Exchange, a large-scale collaborative project between artists across the world working with ideas of remoteness and challenging the idea that culture 'happens' in urban areas. Artists are invited to work together exploring ideas of territory, locality and place, documents from their postal/digital exchanges become part of an interactive living archive and evolving resource.

The rural/urban tension – one of aTE’s main research interests - play out clearly in the culture of rural artists residencies, artists retreats and field trips, where artists (most often from urban centres) descend upon rural locations to have 'pastoral' experiences and glean subject matter.

In the essay 'Shifting Rurality, American Gothic, Iowa Nice, Biotech and political expectations in rural America'. William D Nichols says,

'While artists will often take up long term (or sometimes permanent) residence in the areas they wish to depict, they, still, for the most part meet the category of outsider, not simply as someone from elsewhere but as an individual who has come to partake in the environment; hence, they have come to take something away'. (1)

Nichols goes on to suggest that artists working with their own romantic ideas about landscape end up communicating '(mis)information' about rural places. Rural residencies often focus on the development of an artist's relationship with the landscape and environment, with local communities most often sidelined and sometimes becoming resentful of the artists descent into their locality. Of course we may argue that small rural communities will benefit from exposure to artists, writers and visitors from urban centres and the idea of the 'other' as threat is one which should be constantly challenged but the idea that they are 'taking something away' as posited by Nichols, moves artists' tourism uncomfortably towards a position reminiscent of the colonial and exploitative.

Artists are not wholly culpable for the lack of connection with local communities and the absence of people in their representation of these rural places and spaces, for one, most rural artist residencies focus on the environment and mans' exploitation of the land and in these cases the landscape often speaks for itself – but there rises a new problematic of artists treating the landscape (particularly the arctic and areas subject to rapid climate change) as research labs, leading to further tensions with local people. Artists have historically tended to avoid local communities for fear of causing offence or becoming involved in local politics when they are not welcome. In a recent article for Canadian Art Magazine – Lucy Lippard reflects upon an artists' trip to Inuvik, a rural new town in the Canadian Northwest Territories which took place in 1969 as postscript to the exhibition “Place and Process” at the Edmonton Art Gallery. Lippard reflects upon their 'parachuting in to soak up place' with some discomfort,

'A number of conceptual artworks were executed, none of which addressed the political and environmental implications of our brief intrusion, or the plight of the Indigenous inhabitants (Inuit, Dene and Métis), many of whom had been involuntarily relocated from the nearby town of Aklavik'. (2)

Socio-political and socio-economic issues are always so closely knit with that of climate change that works ignoring human communities can seem tokenistic, as Lippard re flects. Bearing this in mind, artists are too often riding a wave of gentrification which may eventually see local people pushed out of their homes. With cultural connection to urban centres comes a higher price of living and all the exploitation this entails, so it seems to make sense that artists are met with some suspicion by rural communities and perhaps an awareness of this may prevent artists becoming complicit with the colonial narratives they would surely want to critique.

Regarding climate ecocide – aTE champions a need to go beyond providing a visual testament of a climate change seen as inevitable but to engage with the damaging human endeavours which may be halted or at least called out as exploitative – the network of oil investment pipelines across the arctic – fracking in the midwest US– etc. It is these issues, often the narratives of big business, that may unite the visiting (often left leaning liberal) artist with local more conservative rural populations. Towards developing a more reflexive and relational experience. (3)

On pairing artists in creative correspondences, aTE encourages an initial image exchange – artists are asked to take a picture of a view from their home or studio window as a way of introducing themselves and their territory to each other. The ATE Views project attempts to offer an experience of place mediated by someone who already lives in the locality- ideas are then developed through long distance postal and digital exchanges based on the lived experiences of artists in their own particular rural or remote localities. This subjective and mediated view of place may go a small way in circumventing the 'parachuting in to soak up place' problematic mentioned by Lippard – not seeking to replace artists travel and research trips but to offer an alternative way to experience rural spaces.

Carly Butler's view from her trailer window (Tofino, BC, Canada) aTE Archive. (Image credit Carly Butler 2017).

Carly Butler's view from her trailer window (Tofino, BC, Canada) aTE Archive. (Image credit Carly Butler 2017).

REFS.


  1. Page 5 Shifting Rurality American Gothic, Iowa Nice,Biotech and Political Expectations in Rural America William D.Nichols from Landscapes: The Journal of the international Centre for Landscape and language. Vol 8, Issue 1.

  2. https://canadianart.ca/essays/lucy-lippard-then-and-now/

  3. These ideas have been explored by many artists and writers including Chris Kraus in Kelly Lake Store and other Stories and a current research project and planned symposium at the Whitechapel, London https://www.whitechapelgallery.org/learn/the-rural/

Culture Industry in the Death Cult of Global Capitalism - Jonathan Harris.

First delivered as a lecture for CHEAD (Council for Higher Education in Art & Design) Conference at Sheffield Hallam University. UK. 27 March 2019. Amended for publication here.

Death cult global Capital.jpg

………..
In a hitherto effectively lost essay by Raymond Williams reprinted recently in New Left Review – a piece first published obscurely in 1961, shortly after his highly publicized book The Long Revolution – Williams identified what he called a ‘human’ politics concerned with ways people try genuinely to understand and improve their world. This, he contrasted with what he called the politics of ‘parading robot […] polemic.’ Williams was talking about the Cold War and its rival ‘robot polemics’ of Soviet Communism versus Western Democracy, but the characterization works as well, for me, when we consider the contemporary ‘robot polemics’ of art and design’s pivotal role in leading our ‘creative industries’ and ‘cultural industries.’

The analogy isn’t simply formal. Williams, in 1961, in The Long Revolution had made the optimistic case (even then), from a non-Marxist perspective, that Britain was moving, because of the deeply transformative forces of ‘cultural democracy,’ towards a substantive democratic socialism. This argument E.P. Thompson, the socialist historian, took apart in his otherwise generally supportive review of the book in New Left Review. Williams had left out class conflict and struggle, Thompson said, in his picture of British social history – not mentioning, for instance, the Peterloo Massacre in his account of critical socio-political developments in England in the 1840s.

Rather than responding to Thompson directly in the same journal, however, Williams decided to publish instead his short essay called ‘The Future of Marxism’ elsewhere, and with no mention of Thompson’s critique. Its detail, and its context, you might say, can no longer be relevant to us. It is, however. In this essay Williams talked explicitly about Soviet, eastern European dissident and western Marxism – which, tactically, he had chosen not to do in The Long Revolution, a decision that had helped that book earn a much wider, positive and less partisan response than it would otherwise have received at that critical moment in the Cold War.

The idea of the ‘British national interest’ (a phrase bandied around ad infinitum during the period since the 2016 Brexit Referendum), if linked to explicit ideological or party positions, would be seen for what it was and always is: a partisan, partial gambit aiming to become hegemonic. The claim says: ‘here is my view, our view, of what the ‘British national interest’ is; your livelihood and happiness depends on your acknowledgement that what we say is right. ‘Acknowledgement’, ‘concession’, ‘agreement’ – all political processes that socially usually involve persuasion and the coercive threat: ‘and if you don’t…’Support us. Become us.

My point here is observational only. Take your pick of whose views you’d rather see inserted: Con, Lab, ‘the Independent Group,’ E.R.G., I.M.F., E.U., World Bank, B.B.C, BCU, C.H.E.A.D. The ‘robot polemic’ has been at work in many fields since 1961 but the fundamental difference since the 1990s has been that the contrast between Soviet or western socialist variants and western capitalist-democratic variants has ended. The only game being played now is global contemporary capitalism articulated, as David Harvey, Wolfgang Streeck, and Susan Watkins have argued, to different state formations and to different aggregates of states. (The titular, robot polemic called ‘Neoliberalism,’ as various commentators have pointed out, is false on both counts: the dominating forces and interests at work in contemporary global capitalism are neither ‘new,’ nor ‘liberal.’)

I see a local ‘robot polemic’ at work in the way the Council for Higher Education in Art & Design and academics in British universities try their best to defend what ‘we’ think of, and represent, as ‘our interests’, within ‘the British national interest.’ There’s a slab of it to do with our conference today: ‘[…] a pivotal point for art and design. The strategic positioning of the cultural and creative sector critically developing knowledge and fostering challenging enquiries […] fundamental to Britain’s economic recovery post-austerity, post-Brexit and pro-fourth industrial revolution […] Creative industries […] cultural value […] Place […] re-profiling […] trading offer.’ (from CHEAD Conference blurb).

I don’t personally stand outside of this activity, by the way. As a Head of a School of Art, I am a prime perpetrator of this kind of thing. Having recently written a TEF (Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework) pilot subject submission for ‘Creative Arts and Design’ I would qualify now as one of its arch-exponents. It’s in my job description. At the same time, along with many of you, I read and concur with Stefan Collini in the London Review of Books who lacerates British government higher education policy, TEF especially, on a regular, and, you might say, also robotic basis.

In fact, having had to immerse myself in TEF literature, I get the strong impression that, if there is robot polemic, there is also robot dispute and robot nay-saying, which has become a broad feature of polarized and polarizing political debate since 2016 in this country and has equally, if in different ways, contaminated, for instance, US politics. But it certainly didn’t start with the Brexit Referendum or with Trump’s election (these events both have to have been effects as much as they have become, in themselves, causes.)

Williams’s distinction between ‘human politics’ and ‘robot politics’ perhaps made more sense in the Manichean era of high Cold War. There is a kernel of sense, even perhaps of common sense, now, in our polemic of ‘creative and cultural industries’ that another necessary ‘tactical’ game is being played. After all, our wager says: this is the language they understand (in fact it’s the only language they understand) and through it, if we manage to sound convincing, we get more jobs, more resources, more students.

I am doubtful, however, about the Council for Higher Education in Art & Design's hopeful ‘post-austerity’ claim. Through this language maybe, now, we will simply get to keep the jobs we’ve got, get to keep the resources we’ve got, get to keep the students we’ve got. This line of reasoning or hope without expectation, however, may follow a law of remorselessly diminishing returns – which contemporary global capitalism, now, offers most people in the world: read Thomas Piketty, Naomi Klein or Mike Davis.

So, through this tactical language maybe we simply get not to lose too many jobs, not to lose too many resources, not to lose too many students. With the impending government fees review, this latter issue neatly illustrates the dismal ‘negative dialectic’ we’ve gotten ourselves into, you might say, through adopting hegemonic language as our own and trying to wield it (although we might argue: we had no choice, ‘there was no alternative’): we both, that is, want more students, because we believe that is a sign of and a move towards more ‘democracy,’ but we simply cannot take any more students because there are not enough teachers and not enough resources to deal with them (in fact, there will be less teachers and less resources).

The Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework’s social aims are, ‘on paper’, laudable – utopian, even, given the real world. This sense of their ‘utopian’ whiff, however, tells us how bad things have really got since the 1960s: how far the ‘centre’ of what used to be called social democracy (never mind the ‘left’, or socialist interest in education) has moved to the right and/or been obliterated. Tariq Ali has called it the ‘extreme centre.’ (When Jeremy Corbyn can apparently sound like a Bolshevik, rather than someone to the right of Neil Kinnock in 1977.)

Collini’s exquisite critiques are accurate, but then I think: Oxbridge colleges, and now probably only Oxbridge colleges, are mostly immune to the consequences of a collapse in state subvention for what we are trying to do in higher education, for ‘cultural democracy,’ through art and design, in support of our ‘creative and cultural industries.’ But then, again, there are those hegemonizing ‘we’s and ‘our’s. Are there actually agreed interests in ‘art and design’?

Is the ostensible agreement actually merely a negative one (like over Brexit)? We know, that is, what ‘we’ are against – cuts, less staff, less students, less teaching of art and design in schools, less social mobility, less international mobility, etc. – but there is no real institutional discussion, because no institutional discussion is now practically politically possible, about what ‘we’ might actually want or be for, once we stop thinking of ourselves as academics in university or college jobs, or as members of the Council for Higher Education in Art & Design, rather than as fully autonomous humans. Our robotic existence, inside education institutions, limits us to what CHEAD astutely calls (and I like the turn of phrase, as it sounds intrinsically self-parodic): ‘delivery agents for the commodified derivatives of a cultural landscape.’ That’s my day job, in a nutshell. But, then again, no – not every day, but quite often something interesting happens in the art school with the students and I think: Wow! You know, we really could transform the world!

The elimination of open political and partisan debate inside universities, at all levels and in all places, has characterized their intellectual decline since the 1990s, since ill-named neoliberalism really got cracking, globally. It may be the case, before then, that in Britain, parts of left academia in universities also behaved robotically, and that this was a legacy of the 1960s and the Cold War. But this was also a time, believe it or not, when people genuinely believed, as I did, that democratic socialism was possible in this country and that art and design (in my case, art history) had a practical and significant role in getting ‘us’ there. That was ‘the British national interest’

It was with ever more melancholic gasps of irony that we saw, onward from the later 1980s, the progressive appropriation and capture of terms such as ‘creativity’ and ‘culture’ by the hegemonizing forces of global capitalism, articulated by conservative, then new labour and then ‘lib-con’ governments. Perhaps we can look forward, now, to our recently emerged ‘Independent Group’ MPs appropriating that older ‘Independent Group’ – those sexy, creative ’60s art and design proto-‘cultural industries’ – as a vehicle in their big, but not at all new, political sell.

The term ‘Cultural Industries’ represents the most dismal semantic and ideological hijacking, of course, because, through it, the almost identical term, ‘Culture Industry,’ was turned around 180 degrees from Theodor Adorno’s and the western Marxist Frankfurt School’s meaning and intent, which was to diagnose and predict, though it actually underestimated, where ‘we’d’ all be with global ‘consumer capitalism’ by 2020 – and partly thanks to ‘art and design.’

……….

My title for this piece, you may now see, wasn’t simply intended to be facetious. As you’ve probably gathered from what I’ve said so far, I can’t offer you, or myself, much to be optimistic about at the moment. (I’m not always like this.) Re-reading Williams’s The Long Revolution always makes me aware, again, of how far we have travelled and that – whatever we might agree or not agree are the real gains since 1960 (that’s my first question for our discussion session) – the losses and defeats in terms of hope and capacity for transformative national social change, if you see yourself as a democratic socialist, seem now, to me, to be definitive and terminal.

No doubt this view is coloured by my age, my generation, my experience. Perhaps this perspective partly underpins the Council for Higher Education in Art & Design's corporate ‘there is no alternative’ arguments about creative and cultural industries – along with the real commitment to the principle, which I share, that we are educating our people so that they can get and keep decently paid, meaningful and enriching jobs using their creative talents and ability.

If you don’t see yourself as a democratic socialist, presumably everything I’ve said so far you might well read and dismiss as itself prototypically ‘robot polemic,’ especially if you articulate your own views from what you think of as a coherent, practical, political and ideological position (the stubborn public stances, that is, of all the current mainstream British political parties, though with a big question mark – posed by critics from left and right – hanging over Corbyn’s Labour Party).

The root of that professionally optimistic group of stances, I would have thought, must include the continuing belief, for example: that global capitalism affords the possibility, if perhaps not the current actuality, of real, continuous socio-economic gain for everyone (rather than a structural and increasing inequality); belief in a future where climate change isn’t going to be disastrous for the planet (rather than likely to make our societies un-livable in within 100 years); and belief that global ‘fourth industrial revolution’ techno-consumer culture industry may well flourish into a system allowing maximum personal freedom while at the same time powerfully and permanently regulating corporate avarice and its connivance in state repression. (To the latter, we might add that the Council for Higher Education in Art & Design ‘proudly’ wants our governments and businesses to see that art and design should be at the forefront of delivering this ‘deliverable.’)

……….

At the other end of his career, in 1983 Williams published his last book, called Towards 2000 (subtitled ‘The future and what we can do to change it’), the year I finished my undergraduate degree. Its epigram was from Thomas Hardy: ‘Who holds that if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst’ – though, admittedly, Hardy wasn’t much of an optimist either! If still stuck in the Cold War – for those here who remember Ronald Reagan, cruise missiles brought to England, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the US hostages held in Tehran – Williams was also, in this book, much more interested in corporate capitalist cultural production and the globalization processes just underway by the early 1980s.

I recommend his chapter called ‘Culture and Technology’. The Council for Higher Education in Art & Design and all of us might reflect, having read or re-read it, on how to engage institutionally in the politics, not of professional advocacy for ‘creative and cultural industries’, but of corporate versus social need, rescuing meanings, values and ambitions from their present ideological capture. How we might do that is my second question for discussion. (It goes without saying by now, I hope, that this is an explicit political position of belief in democratic socialism, however dire the present situation is: there is no meaningful, or non-robotic, ‘we’ or ‘our’ here outside of explicitly political, not simply ‘professional,’ discourse). Williams noted:

There are very few absolute contrasts left between a ‘minority culture’ and ‘mass communications.’ This situation has to be traced, eventually, to the deep roots of ‘minority culture’ itself […] The privileged institutions of minority culture, bearers of so much serious and important work, have for many years been fighting a losing battle against the powerful pressures of a capitalist-sponsored culture. This is the most evident source of cultural pessimism. But its deeper source is a conviction that there is nothing but the past to be won. This is because, for other reasons, there is a determined refusal of any genuinely alternative social and cultural order. This is so in theory, in the determined objections to new forms of democracy or socialism. But it is even more so in practice, in the effective interlock – now so clearly visible – between the social conditions of the privileged institutions and the existing social order as a whole. (134-5)

Well, the really powerful ‘privileged institutions’ are different now – though some of the old ones survive, though in a very different pecking order. But we are now further away from participatory socio-political democracy and something we might agree to call ‘cultural democracy’ than ever. If May’s Brexit deal is finally scuppered by the ‘troubles’ of the ‘Irish backstop’ then this underlines that, within the overriding ‘British national interest’ insisted on by the warring Conservatives, the deep imperial, colonial and postcolonial ‘interest’ – reactionary, nationalist, chauvinistic in its true colours – has remained (to use a good Marxist term) ‘overdetermingly’ active and disabling.

The Council for Higher Education in Art & Design, in order to cease to behave robotically, to cease to simply burnish its robot polemics, has to grasp and articulate that state of affairs.

Jonathan Harris has a PhD in American art and politics in the 1930s (CNAA 1986) and has taught at several British universities including Keele, Liverpool, Southampton and Birmingham City University, where he is currently Head of Birmingham School of Art. Specialising in modernist and contemporary art, Harris has published 21 books and over 150 book and journal essays. Harris’s most recent studies are Globalization and Contemporary Art (ed., Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), The Utopians Globalists: Artists of Worldwide Revolution, 1919-2009 (author, Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) and The Global Contemporary Art World (author, Wiley-Blackwell, 2017). Forthcoming are Contemporary Art and Visual Culture in Global Asia (ed., with Menene Gras and Bashir Makhoul, Bloomsbury 2019) and Terrorism and the Arts (ed, Rutledge 2019). 

Arminée Chahbazian and Jacqueline M Byrne. Dorset - California.

Arminée Chahbazian in California and Jacqueline M Byrne in Dorset UK have been collaborating by post since late 2017.

Jacqueline lives on an organic wildflower and grasses farm on the Dorset Jurassic coast. Her practice is focussed on 'traces and memories'. Primarily but not exclusively she works outside, and broadly terms herself as a 'site and subject responsive' artist. Her work is housed in various collections.

Arminée has been based in Northern California in the Napa Valley for over twenty years and has exhibited widely in shows including the Napa Valley Museum and Sonoma Valley Museum. Her work ranges from sculpture to paper based works and paintings. She is interested in human responses to nature and environmental shifts.

A selection of the works Jacqueline and Arminée have created together include; 'Walkbox' (a concept developed by Jacqueline) where items found while walking were collected, displayed and exchanged.

Jaqueline’s ‘Walk box’ in Arminee's Garden. Image credit Arminée Chahbazian.

Jaqueline’s ‘Walk box’ in Arminee's Garden. Image credit Arminée Chahbazian.

'Footprint' a work about walking in ash around their respective locations; Arminée walked barefoot in the ash of the devastating California wildfire of October 2017, sending her footprint printed on paper to Jacqueline, who in turn sent a footprint made in ash fertiliser created through the traditional crop control processes on her farm. The resulting work was exhibited at the Earth Action Initiative Climate Conference and Art Show in UC Berkeley California in April 2018.

And 'Luck Reflected' a work created from a simple exchange of stones with holes through them – often called hag stones, witch stones, holey stones, and by Jacqueline, 'Lucky stones'. The stones were thought to have magical properties according to British and Welsh folklore. Each artist photographed their stone in a mirror.

‘Luck Reflected’ photographed in Dorset UK by Jacqueline M Byrne.

‘Luck Reflected’ photographed in Dorset UK by Jacqueline M Byrne.

Most recently the artists have concentrated on developing ideas stemming from the materials surrounding them – water, flora, fauna and minerals. Works include paintings made from snail trails, plant pigment and fossil imprints. Jacqueline says:

‘Living on the Jurassic coast, over the years we have found fossils along the coast while out walking after rock falls...I attempted to capture the shape of these natural mineral sculpture by placing squares of untreated canvas on the ammonites, covering the cloth with earth and leaving them to weather outside for approximately one month.'

Image created from buried canvas and Ammonite fossil. Jacqueline Byrne.

Image created from buried canvas and Ammonite fossil. Jacqueline Byrne.

Arminée made images from canvas laden with iron rich clay, pond mud, gravel and shale from her property and canvas wrapped around a rock and burried in a soil bank that drained into her pond.

Arminée Chahbazian, ‘Mineral’ experiment. California.

Arminée Chahbazian, ‘Mineral’ experiment. California.

Arminée and Jacqueline continue to make work together as part of our Residency by Correspondence programme and are planning on creating a book documenting the work they have made together.

The S Project: A digital walk from Cambridgeshire, Uk to Ucluelet, Canada.

Carly Butler in Ucluelet Canada and Gudrun Filipska in East Anglia UK have been collaborating since 2016, mapping the space between them though postal correspondence and a series of digital performance works. As artists working with ideas of journeying and navigation they are interested in the thresholds and borderlines around their domestic spaces formed by parenthood and domestic responsibility, bringing these into dialogue with concepts of distance and proximity. They have developed a largescale digital and 'material' work entitled the ‘S’ Project which involves a combination of real and digital walking and various mapping techniques including celestial and circle route navigation.

Material from the ‘S’ Project Archive showing at the  Queens Museum , New York as part of   S.T.E.P  . 2018.

Material from the ‘S’ Project Archive showing at the Queens Museum, New York as part of S.T.E.P. 2018.

Tracked by pedometers, steps, taken around the artists’ respective domestic locations are translated to a digital map where their 'avatars' walk carefully designed routes between UK and Canada. The title of the project references the first transatlantic wireless signal sent from Cornwall to Newfoundland in 1901. The message was simply the morse code signal for the letter ‘S’.

The duo have mapped trajectories to find a variety of half way points between their respective homes using combinations of celestial, nautical and gnomonic mapping techniques, embracing alternative cartographical practices and Google maps alternatives. These maps and charts form part of the 'S' Archive along with a catalogue of objects, artefacts and letters sent between them.

The 'S' project explores the radical potential present in the circular/fugal and domestic walk (set against male, colonial adventuring narratives), feeding into dialogue about feminist walking and journeying practices. The project also critiques the idea of the 'globe trotting artist’ as marker of success, and challenges the attendant requirements of money and mobility, reaching out to another part of the world and sending a'signal'to another artist with an isolated practice.

The ‘S’ Project Archive has been exhibited at Queens Museum, New York. 148 Mayall Road London, Flux Factory New York and is currently showing at The CUBE London as part of ‘Cognitive Sensations’.

Read more in Living Maps Review , see the S Project digital map here and follow @sprojectarchive on instagram.

Carly and Gudrun are currently developing a ‘Virtual Residency’ programme for the Arts Territory Exchange which they will be trialing as part of Cley Contemporary 2019. More to follow soon.

Julia Groves - Art and Ethnobotany.

Arts Territory Exchange participant Julia Groves is a multidisciplinary artist with a recent focus on drawing exploring ethnobotanical themes. Her practice is informed by many years working as a horticulturist and by the historical and contemporary traditions of botanical art and illustration and their re-configurations within contemporary drawing practice.

She used Goethian observation techniques to study plant structure, geometry, colour and pattern. Groves engages with specimens in her local landscape and regularly accesses National plant collections such as Bedgebury Pinetum Florilegium

Ghost Pine Spirit   - Julia Groves. Drawing.

Ghost Pine Spirit - Julia Groves. Drawing.

Her work raises awareness of the preserving of rare plant species and the transient territories across which specimens are gathered from distant parts of the world on seed gathering trips and expeditions. The themes of territory and habitat heavily inform her work and she has an active interest in ethnobotanical investigation and connections whether spiritual, symbolic or cultural, between plants and their place within regional indigenous cultures. Behind the traditional practice of ethnobotany resides the long and complicated history of the Colonial research expedition and the wide network of travel cast by intrepid specimen collectors which led to the formation of the major Botanical gardens such as Kew. Groves work is also often informed by personal itinerancy as she traverses her local topography on foot; reflecting on the plants she finds and their migrant or indigenous territories and the possible journeys of the seeds on their wind blown trajectories.

Groves is in the process of making her own migration from Kent to Suffolk and is using her transition from one territory to another as a catalyst for a new body of work as part of the Arts Territory Exchange.

ICEVIEW MAGAZINE - On Solitude and Artmaking: A Conversation with Gudrun Filipska of The Arts Territory Exchange

(First published by http://www.theiceview.com/2018/2018/7/27/)

Do you think that experiencing isolation and solitude is conducive to creativity and artmaking, or does it hinder these processes?  

I think it depends largely on how you are able to contextualise it for your self--for some people it is a huge boost to artistic practice and feeds creativity, while for others it can be completely paralysing. Obviously, there are also different ways of being isolated, some of these are not due to geographic remoteness but can develop in the busiest and most frenetic of places.

The Arts Territory exchange has a number of participants who are artist parents living in the middle of cities with small children, or those who are restricted to the home for reasons of illness and disability. Just trying to negotiate the complex social and capital systems of the 'art world' can also be a very isolating experience for artists unable to take usual routes towards 'success'.

Also, the two words isolation and solitude suggest romantic associations which I am very uncomfortable with. Shutting away society and its empiricism was a privileged choice for the Romantics--the idea that being isolated could bring you closer to some kind of true or authentic self—these are tropes that were employed in the gothic novel and early travel writing. The associated 'pioneering' journeying it involved was almost exclusivity a male practice - there are huge legacies to this in the art world - the desire to travel to the furthest reaches of the earth, constant participation in artist residencies and Biennales all over the world and the development of a ‘global’ profile have been seen as hallmarks of success for a long time and the travel that is involved often precludes those who are unable to leave home for economic reasons or reasons often dictated by their gender (played out in the physicality of pregnancy and child rearing)…read more

Gudrun Filipska -'Terill Walk' Film Stills and notes.

Gudrun Filipska -'Terill Walk' Film Stills and notes.

Report from the ATE Residency in Sustainable Practice 2018. 'Connected by a Thread'

(See full article on the CSPA Website).

The first aTE Residency in Sustainable Practice took place on Art Aia's Eco farm in Friulia, Italy in September 2018 and ran in conjunction with the Pordenone Litterary festival. The CSPA advised on the project and Meghan Moe Beiticks was on the selection panel alongside Veronica Sekules, art critic and curator at GroundWork Gallery, UK. Kelly Leonard in Australia and Beatrice Lopez in Norway had been corresponding digitally and by post for a year before they were selected by the panel and had developed an intriguing body of weaving and text based works forging a dialogue between their respective locations.

Work made by Beatrice and Kelly during their ATE correspondence. Photo credit Kelly Leonard.

Work made by Beatrice and Kelly during their ATE correspondence. Photo credit Kelly Leonard.

The idea behind the residency was for participants of the aTE to be able to meet face to face and spend a week intensively developing the work they had already begun, with specific focus on ideas of sustainability in its material and conceptual forms. The artists were provided with a series of contextual writings on ecology and arts practice and were encouraged to engage with some of the CSPA's back editions.

Art Aia's Eco farm in Fruilia provided an interesting backdrop through which to engage with ideas of sustainability extending beyond the materiality of the art world, the artists were able to visit vineyards and factories and discuss the crossovers of culture and sustainable agriculture with their host Giovanni Morassutti. Giovanni says his Art Aia residency space has its interests in 'Creating the kind of connections between people that lead to collective civic action, political expression, community dialogue, shared cultural experiences'.

The artists already had shared interests in textiles, weaving, and installation as performative action in outdoor settings, performances which have political dimensions beyond the traditional uses of their chosen materials. Kelly installs woven works in the landscape around her home town of Mudgee, Australia - a location threatened by the open-cast coal mining. Her works are conceptual and ephemeral referencing 1970's activist stitchers such Kate Walker and more contemporary iterations such as 'Yarn bombing', subverting the very domestic history of women's tapestry weaving and stitching. They are guerrilla actions with serious messages about climate change and the destruction of habitats, stitched messages such a 'resist' and 'Regent Honey Eater' - yet the works are sensitive to the local environment – photographed and then removed. This respect for the environment and the responsibilities of the artists within it was shared with co-collaborator Beatrice Lopez with her own practice, placing temporary compositions within the Norwegian landscape.

Beatrice and Kelly had already developed a number of ideas during their 'digital' and postal collaborations and began to adapt them in relation to the Italian landscape and residency space. Kelly Leonard says 'Our year of working together in the virtual space meant we had a foundation to draw from when we met, we had a type of creative short hand already established'. Meeting in person the artists noted their physical differences in terms of, weight, body shape and age.

'Sketch for a performance for two people' Image Courtesy of the artists.

'Sketch for a performance for two people' Image Courtesy of the artists.

In the documentation of the performance works undertaken at the residency their height difference is particularly apparent, adding an interesting extra dimension to their performative works.

The artists made site responsive work in relation to a number of agricultural sites they visited, Beatrice says, ' Following a performance we did at the local biological vineyard, where we walked with a filtering fabric between us in front of a large deposit of processed soya that was used to create bio energy. The performance emphasised the necessity to filter and re-cycle. It was also symbolic for our shared bond and collaboration for a sustainable future. The fabric was then hung up in the gallery space along with residue of soya.'

Installation in Art Aia Project space. Image courtesy of the artists.

Installation in Art Aia Project space. Image courtesy of the artists.

Beatrice and Kelly share common interests in the politics of place and post-colonial narratives, both researching, and feeling affinity with, the indigenous cultures of their homelands, Kelly, as an Australian of European heritage, acknowledging the cultural authority of the Wiradjuri people as the traditional owners of the land in which she makes her work.

Throughout their time working together the artists have used the phrase 'Connected by a Thread' as a motto through which to explore environmental causality and potential for spiritual affinity. In researching the cultures of Huichol Indians of South America, Beatrice had previously begun to work with ideas of 'offerings' made to the elements of the earth as a way of re-dressing a balance tipped over by a culture's obsession with production at the expense of the environment.

The Motif of the 'offering' is one which also comes through strongly in their collaborative work and is felt on a number of levels beyond symbolic reparations to nature. Their works are offerings to an audience, documents of performative actions, and act as residual templates of the artists physical experiences with the natural elements they work with. Regarding their work 'Prayer Wheel', one can imagine the performative and repetitive actions which led to its creation; the collecting of local grasses, the tying of grass bundles, positioning grass and read heads in a circle, winding sticks with colourful yarn... each wrapped stick containing a written instruction for an immersive call to action; referencing the prayers contained in a traditional Buddhist Prayer Wheel and offering potential for audience engagement.

The ideas of repetitive and ritualistic practices are followed through in the other works made on the residency, In 'Interconnected Walk' the two artists walked over a three day period, in two large intersecting circles similar to a lemniscate symbol. (See a short Video documenting part of the performance Here). The work makes obvious reference to walking artists such as Richard Long and Hamish Fulton but, is conceived as a walking performance for two. Watching the artists courteously side step each other as they cross paths at certain intersections is touching, saying perhaps more about their growing relationship with each other than the land scape they are marking with their repetitive footsteps.

In 'Soft Touch', Soft white Icelandic wool brought to the residency by Beatrice, rests on top of local detritus, broken leaves, feathers and sticks. The piece evokes both a nest and alter - the clean pristine wool, an offering to temped hands, to touch and lift its threads.

Another work 'Water talks' was made by recording ambient sound of water near to their residency accommodation, a land of damp earth and agricultural irrigation ditches. Overlaying the sound of water, the two artists recite a poem by Norwegian Poet Lars Saabye Christensen, Kelly in English and Beatrice in Norwegian.

The sound piece 'Water Talks' housed in a metal frame structure interwoven with Puzzlegrass and Reed heads. Image Courtesy of the artists.

The sound piece 'Water Talks' housed in a metal frame structure interwoven with Puzzlegrass and Reed heads. Image Courtesy of the artists.

A further work 'South North', makes connections between the three countries, Norway, Australia and Italy; a silhouette of Kelly traced in pebbles is connected by a thread which runs across an antique map of Norway, out over the lintel of the window, into the Italian countryside...

As well as connection between the three locations, disjunctures were also keenly felt, departing Australia at a time of drought, Kelly was shocked by how verdant Northern Italy was, saying, 'I found the area of Italy to be too green, too rich, too comfortable...'. The impact of climate change is felt very differently in Europe, not as urgently perhaps, although a short train journey from Art Aia's residency space, sea levels rise around a sinking Venice.

About the artists.

Kelly Leonard

I first learnt to weave as a teenager from a German Master Weaver, Marcella Hempel, in Australia. My art practice has been re-activated since moving back to my home-town two years ago; moving from a traditional craft based medium to one that is highly conceptual, collaborative and moves across art-forms responding to the environment. My work is very much informed by environmental philosophy which provides a context for both making and showing the work.
I weave on a European floor-loom what I call props for the environment which are placed in site-specific locations around Mudgee, photographed and then removed. The locations are chosen because they are under stress from the impact of the open-cut coal mines operated by the big coal mining companies. The images are exhibited on-line and one of my goals is to develop some alternative broadcasting methods to reach a wider audience in the near future. The work I make is pretty much process driven and I derive a lot of satisfaction from thinking of the environment as a collaborator and audience. I make work in Wiradjuri Country whose sovereignty was never ceded, I walk on traditional land. I try to consider all aspects of a landscape by: how it smells, tastes, feels, sounds and the multiple narratives embedded into it. The landscape is never passive, always watching me make work. It is also a collaborator, helping me to shape the work.

Beatrice Lopez

Beatrice is an artist that works in different mediums such as painting, installation and sound. Gaining a BA from Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti in Milan as well as an exchange from the Pratt Institute in New York. She has had a solo exhibition entitled `Ritual Lines` at Art Licks festival and taken part in various group exhibitions through institutions such as White Space gallery, MAMU galleria and most recently at Galleri Vanntårnet. Through her abstract paintings in ink and soft pastel, fleeting textures appear reminiscent of inner visions and organic forms. Her multimedia works are placed in nature, using thread and organic material to create curious compositions. Her continuous interest in nature and topographies has led her to take part in the Arts Territory Exchange, an ongoing collaborative correspondence project based on nature, ecology and topographies. Exchanging ideas by post with the artist Kelly Leonard based in Australia. They met for a one week residency this fall made possible by CSPA and ATE. Beatrice participated at Performance Art Oslo event `Contemplating landscape through art` this year at Steilene in Norway. Beatrice was born in 1986 and is currently based in Oslo.

Holding the ATE residency in Sustainable Practice at Art Aia In Pordenone was an attempt to forge connections between artists, farmers, eco-entrepreneurs and members of the local rural community. A weaving together of conceptual and material iterations of 'sustainability', interests which ATE plans on developing in various forms and in different locations in future years. Thankyou to Beatrice Lopez and Kelly Leonard for their participation in this residency.

Daily Migrations

For their presentation of the Arts Territory Exchange archive, the collective Without Appeal installed and photographed work throughout an industrial space underneath one of the iconic train arches in Hackney, East London.

‘Images from the ATE Views project and documentation from particpant exchanges are juxtaposed with materials and machinery sourced from throughout the world and used in the production of coffee. As a site of transition, stock is constantly flowing in and out of the factory, present only briefly before being sent out again. At this transitional moment for many, a reflection on how fleeting these interactions can be feels fitting.’

- Without Appeal, Exhibition text.

Featured Artists

Alana Hunt, Joas Sebastian Nebe, Lizzie Sampson, Abigail Doan, Jacqueline Byrne, Arminee Chahbazian, Didi Hock, Andrew Howe, Caroline Kelley, Ana Seixas, Danila Rumold, Katie Ione Craney, Joanna M Wright, Kim Goldsmith, Carly Butler, Antony Lyons, Zoe Galinsoga, Robert Nicol, Gudrun Filipska, Beatrice Lopez, Kelly Leonard

With out appeal ATE.jpg
Images from the exchange between Antony Lyons in Ireland and Zoe Galinsoga in Africa ‘Out of the Window’. Image credit – Without Appeal.

Images from the exchange between Antony Lyons in Ireland and Zoe Galinsoga in Africa ‘Out of the Window’. Image credit – Without Appeal.

Fictional Territories # 01

‘Fictional Territories # 01; Australia/Germany Soundscape, 12’00’ is the first part of the aTE collaboration between artists Kim V. Goldsmith & Didi Hock. The artists say:

‘Fictional Territories # 01 is the first outcome of our distance- collaboration as part of the international Arts Territory Exchange program. While exploring definitions of “territory”, and the important role imagination plays when communicating your territory to another, we started to mix sound sketches from our “home grounds” into a sonorous piece of fiction.

The result is a territory that can‘t be defined… there are no lines on a map, no coordinates, no visual cues. Territory isn‘t rendered static in pictures or words but rather kept open to the interpretation of the listeners. There are just vibrations, hints of what might be. Wavering between what we know, what we believe, and what we wish to see; different territories emerge in the active experience of listening. Those territories are as real as they are imagined, and there are as many of them as there are listeners to the soundscape.

Fictional Territories # 01. Installation shot. Image credit Kim Goldsmith.

Fictional Territories # 01. Installation shot. Image credit Kim Goldsmith.

The work has shown at Charles Sturt University, Dubbo Campus, Australia and as part of the aTE Archive Tour at Westminster Arts Library, London in 2018. Listen to the work here.

GUDRUN FILIPSKA from the ARTS TERRITORY EXCHANGE in conversation with VERONICA SEKULES of GROUNDWORK, the first gallery in the UK to be dedicated to ART and the ENVIRONMENT.

Groundwork is located near to the banks of the river Ouse in the slowly regenerating post- industrial docklands area of Kings Lynn, UK. When the gallery opened in 2016 the curator and owner Veronica Sekules asked artist Richard Long if he would make a piece for the gallery – he agreed and requested a sample of Ouse mud, he subsequently made The Great Ouse River Drawing which is on permanent display at the gallery.

The river Ouse, with a winding course of 143 miles, ambles its way from central England through the Fens, past Ely and onwards to Kings Lynn where it it fows into the mouth of the Wash. The name itself suggests the slow moving languor of a river laden heavy with mud and silt. In the Fens it is an essential and highly modifed channel which takes the burden of overfow water from the periodically fooded and highly prized agricultural land. The Fens are a place of silt, a land deforested, dessicated and compartmentalised and much Fen silt ends up deposited at the mouth of the Wash in Kings Lynn.

GF What does it mean to you to be close to the Ouse? It is such a powerful emblem to me of the drainage of the Fens and the subsequent ecological consequences, I can’t imagine a more perfect location for Groundwork and the work by Richard Long using the Ouse mud further embeds the gallery in its location…The emblem of the river seems to be a very important one in ‘environmental art’ I am thinking of Jem Southam’s River photographs and Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Riverbed’ among others…

VS The river location is absolutely critical to the gallery’s identity and ethos. It is exactly because of it, and the fact that it is in a flood plain, that a focus on the environment made complete sense, both in the context of the town and the need for it to be explicit about its perilous position in the light of climate change, and in terms of the art world at large. There are no other galleries with quite the same concentrate and consistent focus. Its location gives it its legitimacy and the reason for its urgency. Apart from this important foundation idea for the gallery, I have not yet pursued it specifcally as a theme (except with Richard Long), although I have been talking for some time to Simon Faithfull about exhibiting a series of images he has made while sailing the Great Ouse. I hope that will form the core of a theme to be pursued from 2019.

The specifc details of the history of the local river, or rivers, as you say are pertinent – not so much literally, but as a symbol of how environmental change is a part of bigger societal change and often controlled by factors which are not benefcial for it. The Great Ouse has had a chequered history and now is hardly used by boats. It fows out to the Wash and the opening out of the fenland landscape can be seen just beyond the town boundary. The conficting pull of the tides has always made it difcult to navigate, which the engineers who drained the fens in the 17th century tried to avoid, or remedy, by opening up alternate river channels. It has also always had a tendency to silt up badly, a fact noticed by Daniel Defoe in the early18th century. Its tributary, the Purfeet upon which the gallery building sits directly, was worse, as it was slower to drain and fow and was known as a stinking drain in the 19th century. Now it is culverted and maintained (sort of) by the Council as a reed-bed, seldom cut, in order to preserve its biodiversity. In summer, ducks live there, as well as moorhens, reed warblers and plenty of dragonfies.

Richard Long made his 2016 drawing with Great Ouse mud, as it needed to be tidal. For me it is a symbol of the endurance of nature, its structures surviving and adapting to change and it holds out hope, not least that an artist can be the one to remind us of its modest powers.

The Great Ouse River Drawing – By Richard Long, July 2016. Created specially for Groundwork. Image Veronica Sekules.

The Great Ouse River Drawing – By Richard Long, July 2016. Created specially for Groundwork. Image Veronica Sekules.

GF Your recent exhibition ‘Fire and Ice’ by Gina Glover and Jessica Rayner touched on so many issues, from energy use and climate change to post industrial futures and economies of human confict. I was particularly struck by the theme of ruin and degradation. Ideas of ruin, which have long been explored in environmental art are touched on here in a literal sense by the melting of ice and the destructiveness of fire but also in a more complicated way; in ‘Poisoned waters run deep’ Glover’s black and white series of photographs documenting fracking sites in the US – on first look the images echo Bernd and Hilla Becher’s industrial photographs (1966-1999) they have a similar formalist style and it almost takes a second look to realise the series is contemporary. The aesthetic of the photographs speak through a similar nostalgia to that evoked by the Becher’s images of post industrial monuments but their positioning as new emblems of industrial intervention mean they act both as markers for future ruin and degeneration as well as cleverly harking back to ‘ruin’ as nostalgic site of mourning…do you have any thoughts on these ideas?

VS Yes, this is very interesting indeed and the more one thinks about it and views the images, the more complex the issues become. I have had the privilege of talking quite a lot to the artists, and then seeing the images every day for several months, and engaging in numerous conversations, some of them with people who have been very thoughtful and knowledgeable about the issues they tackle. Gina Glover’s ‘Poisoned Water Runs Deep’ images were generally reckoned to be powerful, hard hitting. In fact they were printed in black and white, with heightened negative in the background, but there is one of the original colour prints reproduced in her book ‘The Metabolic Landscape’ which shows how extensively she manipulated the image subsequently to give it a doom-laden edge. So, in monochrome, it has become superfcially more like a Bernt and Hilla Becher than before, though, while I agree theirs suggest ideas of post industrial ruin and a nostalgia for a lost economy, I think that Gina’s images aim to portray the machinery as an active agent of destruction rather than ruin. There is something of the science fction about her tanks and ladders and rocket-like projections, and I fnd them a little frightening. On the other hand, equally manipulated digitally to enhance their soft colours and mists, her melting ice pictures are simply beautiful, one of them, someone said they could just stand in front of endlessly, as it took their breath away. That was their strange power – we ought to be disturbed because of the loss they represent, yet their beauty induces a sense of guilt.

Image from Gina Glover’s ‘Poisoned Water Runs Deep’ photographic series. Groundwork 2017.

Image from Gina Glover’s ‘Poisoned Water Runs Deep’ photographic series. Groundwork 2017.

Jessica Rayner’s work has quite a diferent emphasis I think, on renewal, innovation, resourcefulness. The fre integral to her work ‘Conversion’, never appears as destructive. The bale of biofuel at its centre, lives on through the work as the fire roars around it and is then absorbed back into it in an endless loop. So the fire is in effect the force which enables transformation from one medium into another, but we never see that happening, as the bale of straw-fuel never disappears. So, it is an illusion. The work doesn’t answer the question as to whether or not this is a good idea but it raises many questions, and it is an image, once again, that stuck in people’s minds very powerfully. Others of Jessica’s works tackled similar issues of apparent renewal. The ice block which I showed opposite ‘Conversion’ is called ‘Nothing is Destroyed’ and is chipped away to shards and then reappears as a block, endlessly repeating its life-death cycle. So it is not for me a cycle which is about mourning, but it expresses hope that we are not actually witnessing complete loss, but change, and that in order to understand the forces of change, we need to rethink our prejudices. That for me is a very strong message about climate change.

GF…I was also very interested in the varied locations of the works in the Fire and Ice show (Iceland, the US, Greenland…) and how important ideas of travel and journeying have been historically in work which considers the environment, whether as a narrative device as in Patrick Keiller’s ‘Robinson in Space’ or as a performative and explorative tool as in the work of many ‘land artists’ and contemporary ‘walking artists’ such as Francis Alys, Hamish Fulton and members of WAN (the Walking Arts Network). As an aside, Im also wondering how the economies of travel which are necessary to further research work in the humanities and sciences are both aided by narratives of globalisation and its ease of travel and at the same time troubled by air travels impact on climate change for example and how these tensions and contradictions can be managed…perhaps opening up new opportunities for engagement that can be both local and far reaching such as Chris Kraus’s propositions for radical localism(1)… I was wondering if you had any thoughts on the political implications of artists ‘travel’ and how these ideas may have changed post ‘Land art’?

VS The whole question of travel in the art world is fraught with contradictions. It was a problem for Cape Farewell, who were criticised for sending artists on expeditions to the Arctic, and that being in contrast with the idea of a low carbon economy necessary for mitigating some of the impacts of climate change. Yet, the role of the artist as ‘witness’ is a crucial and long-standing one. We need the authenticity and independence of vision that an artist can contribute, and not least, the willingness to be critical and both to take risks and portray them. For artists too of course, travel is an important professional development thing and means for inspiration. Gina and Jessica cemented their relationship as artists through their travels to Iceland. For Hilary Mayo, it enabled a complete change of direction, giving her work new force and imagery.

Land Art is also complex – depending on whether we are talking about the American or the British versions, which are deeply contradictory, the former being very much about dramatic reshaping of landscape and the latter about minimal and very personal intervention. Ditto, the whole notion of walking art, which can be equally about risk, about modernisim, history, location – depending on who you are talking about. I think that your Arts Territory Exchange, enabling virtual and locally based collaborations and initiatives, is one of the ways forward. There is a big localism movement developing, which I also have written about – and at best this can be about regeneration and understanding indigenous knowledge as well as valuing the minutiae of place.(2)

GF I was struck by a quote I read recently by Nancy Holt about her ‘Sun Tunnels’ (1977) in rural Utah, that the landscape ‘…could speak of walking on earth that has surely never been walked upon before, (evoking) a sense of being on this planet, rotating in space, in universal time'(3). I was considering how our concept of time in ‘environmental art’ may have changed over the past 50 years, the idea of a universal time or being suspended in space in this way seems an impossibility now – due largely to the fact that environmental issues are far more pressing and urgent – the feeling that we are existing on a kind of borrowed time now the climate change tipping point (4) has been passed and even if co2 ommisions were reduced completely, the damage already done is no longer reversible…I suppose I am wondering what these knowledges mean for contemporary arts practice and activism in general, especially in an age when the president of the United States denies climate change in favour of industry and economic development. So the idea of ‘universal’ time that Holt talks about has been perhaps been replaced by some kind of anxious and increasingly frenetic temporal landscape, and i’m interested in what this may mean for the making work and the need as talked about by artists such as Marina Abramovic to be inside of time and to suspend time somehow in order to carve out a space in which to make art…?

VS Regarding the notion about time, it depends very much on who you are looking at. For many artists now, the idea of deep time is more relevant than ever – look for example at the great interest being shown in geology and eg. Doggerland – the prehistoric environment beneath the North Sea, or at the impact of development of the Anthropocene. Mind you, both these ideas speak of landscape that has very much been trodden – and that is the really big diference from Nancy Holt’s era. And I think that the Climate change and the feelings of human responsibility for it have very much led to and accelerated interest in these ideas about traces from former civilisations and the impact on the present – and how we read the past. I think that Marina Abramovic’s concerns come from a different place – being very sensitive to the autonomy of art, and the idea of the artist as author deeply within a protected practice, with a right to dip in and out of time at will. She may or may not share concerns about climate change, but I don’t see that as being primary for her, as much as the idea of Vanitas – focussing on life and death and on the limits of human life and experience.

GF …also in terms of audience engagement and ideas around ‘looking’, slowness is equally as important as an urgency in consumption, how as as curator do you balance the delivery of a message or the raising of awareness around environmental issues with the importance of the suspended time necessary for spectator engaging with the work? And how important is the delivery of a message to your remit as a gallery?

VS I love the whole idea of ‘slow’ – as in slow food, slow art – and I think it can also be applied to slow looking. But there is also an urgency in terms of the environment. They are not necessarily contradictory ideas though. In order to understand the environment and the issues we face in our relationships with it, we need to focus on its minutiae. In both cases, being slow often involves careful looking and engaging in conversation. I very much regard the gallery as a place for both and try to engage people in conversation, though of course silent contemplation is important too. Roger Ackling used to tell a wonderful story about the best tutorial he ever held at Chelsea with two artists, was a completely silent communion in front of their work. He had told them only to talk when they were ready and they saw no need. Silence can be a bit of an elite thing though – like minimal art – very much for those who already understand things deeply.

As for the environment and how I relate to it via the gallery, it is a question of watching listening and being attentive to what artists are doing and using the work of theirs that I show as a springboard for campaigning about issues it raises. That happens through conversations, discussions, colloquia, conferences, workshops. These have to work across disciplines and I am a great advocate for that, as a means to engage people beyond the confnes of the contemporary art world. I see the gallery as a place that bridges between specialists and non-specialists, and people of diferent specialisms. It is, and ought to be a social space, welcoming of diferent points of view. My space is intentionally hybrid – using the methods of a public gallery with the practices of a commercial one, i.e. being a shop, as it matters to me ethically to engage in the economy. Being on the high street is as important as being on the river. I am bringing international and global artistic and environmental concerns there, and I hope, a greater interest in how art can engage with environmental politics as well as with people’s daily lives.

Groundwork’s next exhibition Trash Art opens on the 9th of March and Veronika Sekules new book ‘Cultures of the Countryside, Art | Museum | Heritage | Environment ‘ is available now published by Routledge.

1Chris Krauss, 2012, Kelly Lake Store & Other Stories, Portland, Companion Editions.
2Veronica Sekules, 2018, Cultures of the Countryside, Art | Museum | Heritage | Environment, London and New York, Routledge. 3 Lucy Lippard, 1983, ‘Overlay – Contemporary Art and the Art of Pre-history’. NewYork.Pantheon. Page 106.

4 A few years ago, 400 parts per million for carbon dioxide was widely cited as the tipping point for climate change. Whether it’s a tipping point or a milestone, we have decisively passed it and CO2 levels appear certain to continue rising. Forbes http://www.forbes.com/sites/uhenergy/2017/03/16/. Article written by Earl J. Ritchie.

http://www.platforma.org.uk/the-arts-territory-exchange/

On the genesis of the Arts Territory Exchange. (From the Platforma, Arts and Refugees network Website).

Founded by Gudrun Filipska in 2017, The Arts Territory Exchange is a correspondence program which pairs up artists across the world and opens up a space within which to generate new ideas around our personal territories and topographies, through a simple postal exchange. The Arts Territory Exchange was set up in response to a number of factors, the growing gulf between countryside and urban areas as illustrated by the UK 2016 referendum result and the US election and the difficulty for artists from disenfranchised backgrounds to access residencies and networks through which to develop their practice and further their careers. Read more.