N o t e s A f t e r 6 Y e a r s o f W a n d e r i n g.
Bram Thomas Arnold.
nature /na-cher/ n (often with cap) the power that creates and regulates the world; all the natural phenomena created by this power, including plants, animals, landscape etc as distinct from people; the power of growth; the established order of things; the cosmos; the external world, esp as untouched by man [ … ] (Chambers Dictionary, 2006, p1004) (that last italicization is mine).
Language is tricky though isn’t it. Fluid, littered with wicked problems, ever changing. It is simultaneously that first barrier between the self and the world, the only bridge off our own small island of consciousness and out into that great swirling world of interconnections, synapses, matter, crows and trees, sky and rain. The trouble is, as soon as you label something, as you do with language, these 26 symbols, an invention co-created by generations, you inherently label it as something other, something over there, something not me, something else.
So this is Dartmoor, that is Dartmoor, it is also a ‘National Park’, the idea of wilderness borrowed from that great country a little further out west. Dart, the celtic word for Oak, Oakmore, where the secret sessiles cluster in the windswept valleys, where the power of mystery lingers and this invented border delineated on maps and by physical interventions in the landscape, these thresholds, offering the ability to footstep into history and myth. 6 years ago I moved to Dartington, a small village nestled in the crook of the River Dart, that flows off the moor and down into the tide line. Actions For & Against Nature emerged over the course of walking and re-walking a given line, a transect, drawn, walked and talked into being, from my front door in that village, up green lanes and horse cracked paths, past four pheasant cocks in the morning light and up, over the A38 and onto the scruff and scrap of the pathless moors. But only ever to that edge, that threshold, an 18 mile round trip there and back again. Reading Poetry to Rocks happened almost by mistake, happened for no one but the rocks, the lichen, the wind and the kestrel, head held steady against the wind. One Action every nine miles. Reading Poetry to Rocks, Throwing Rocks at Trees, Reading Particle Physics to a River, Giving names to Grass blades, and then later, Learning to Translate Lithuanian, Explaining Power to a Pipeline, and then later still Swearing an Oath at a Scottish Glen, A Lover Argues with an Ash Tree, Asking Questions of a Quayside…
Actions For And Against Nature, whilst initially conceived as a way of crossing this bridge, is really about pointing at all these labels we have created and screaming ‘THERE IS NO GAP BETWIXT US!’ It’s a part of me, and it’s a part of you, and it’s a part of that grass blade and it’s a part of that tree, a part of that building, and that town hall. The Actions are therefore for ecology, and against the term Nature, pointing and probing at its problems and the problems it has caused us. This term nature, older than that, but turned towards this thing, this wildness, outdoorness, this wilderness with the rise of the enlightenment and consecrated thus during the Romantic period, the evolution of leisure time and the need for places to go, to make all that smog worthwhile. “The Material world, or its collective objects or phenomena, the features and products of the earth itself, as contrasted with those of human civilization. 1622.”
The Actions have had their minor ventures into the world, a group show at the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World, is there a synthetic one somewhere, did I miss a meeting…, where I had to ease off on throwing rocks for that old delicacy of the 21st century, health and safety reasons. Throwing Pine Needles at Pine Trees in Haldon Forest, that false bliss, an exhibition in a room in which, once a year, the Forestry Commission butcher the Deer who spread like wildfire, unchecked in this new form of naturalism. Where the trees are felled, driven down to Plymouth and exported for processing, under whose canopy no ecosystem can grow but for one insect, one maggot, that consumes a single pine needle over a seven year intercourse…
‘I hate these pine trees, I hate ‘em’, dark forboding places, littered with scandi-noir and blair witch shadows I hate them,… And I do, and I don’t. They make comfortable, quiet, dry spots for wild camping, a nest of needles in dark nooks, they are most entertaining to cycle through on a mountain bike. And yet, from a distant hillside, with their deep straight lines, I can’t help but be reminded of troops aligned for battle, or of colonial cartographers, divvying up Africa with a ruler and a setsquare. The colonization of a form of nature that will have to be rescinded if we are to develop a comfortable new paradigm for the future.
All the while I am shouting from my childhood fear of the dark encroaching pines and their imported, plantation-like presence. Their socio-political cause, the disaster of these pine trees on these hillsides. And yet I know full well, as Thomas Wolfe, author of the American dream, put it, ‘you can’t go home again’ (1939), that conservation is a flawed project, that it is really a conversation; for to which ‘natural state’ do you wish to return? In Madagascar, or in Malawi, or in one imagines, any community where both life and death are so much more fecund, there is no word for conservation, there is no green movement, only imported solutions for imported problems.
Nature. The word hangs before us, an immediate separate entity that we then entrench with an almost endless series of synonyms and linguistic pirouettes: countryside, wildness, wilderness, The Great Outdoors, we further elaborate and name all the things within it from rocks to books, trees to brooks. Nature, as discussed by Timothy Morton is a great metonymic phrase that we have forgotten we are part of and Morton ‘ … argues that the very idea of “nature” which so many hold dear will have to wither away in an “ecological” state of human society’ (2007, 1).
When you are physically there with it though, feet touching earth, pinned to mud by gravity, you are part of it, as Pollock once said in answer to a question: ‘ … I am nature’ I AM NATURE, I AM NATURE. (Seckler, 1964). The atoms on your fingertips mingle with the feather you’re holding, you are entwined and deeply involved, you are together, one, there is no barrier, no bridge. The case for ecology without nature is about trying to make us aware that the bridge off each of our islands was not built by us. It is neither a separate entity nor a separating force, it is more akin to a synaptic cleft that draws us out into the world, it is not there as a separate ‘thing’ at all. We are part of ecology, it is within us and around us, in our streets and homes, in the cities we’ve built and the industrial wastelands we’ve walked away from. That there is no Nature in that separated sense, but as with all societies it was a necessary myth, a driving force behind the scientific and industrial revolutions, without its construction we would never have all this, and we would never have learned to see how problematic our own successes can be.
Didier Maleuvre has built a theory of the history of Western Civilisation wherein the horizon is the driving life force of this notion of progress, this myth of progress. “In evolutionary terms, a cultural form such as a myth tends to endure when it tends to bolster the institutions and beliefs of its society. Stories of no social value whatsoever have the shelf life of anecdotes; those that promote communal permanence grow into myths.” Nature, the idea of a separate entity grew into a myth that drove us through the 20th century to ever higher and more intricate forms of existence, but the place we have arrived at once again is that horizon we left long ago, a place where all things are delicately interconnected and there is no you nor me, no them, there is only us. To follow from Jean Luc Nancy, Being is with, otherwise nothing exists. Or, to go back to Maleuvre again “The limits we perceive are the limits we set before ourselves, and those limits move in time, with us, the perceivers.” How easily we forget the horizon is made by the eye.
My work has burrowed my self into the web of arguments and propositions offered by quantum physics.3 That branch of science that leads us back, through the uroboros through the snakes tail and back, to the tangs of Eastern Mysticism, the tao of physics, “wherein it is possible to encounter statements where it is almost impossible to say whether they have been by physicists or Eastern mystics”. The lack of constancy of things, at the quantum level, where all matter changes its mind under the right sort of microscope, has left me with so little certainty that even as an argument is released into the world it is countered and contradicted by my next action, my next phrase, my next move. As I finished Swearing an Oath to a Scottish Glen, a text that promises almost Tibetan levels of tranquility and peaceful presence …
I hereby undertake not to remove from Glen Nevis, nor to mark, deface, nor bring injury to in any way, any tree, brook, stream, stone or animal: to harm neither sentient being nor physical presence residing therein or belonging to its custody. I undertake not to leave in my wake any foreign body, nor kindle hostile fire nor flame within, and not to smoke within the Glen. I promise to obey all the rules of the Glen, to adhere to pathways, and respect the property and prosperity of others therein, to plan ahead and leave no trace behind.
… I closed the book from which I read the oath and accidentally kill an insect, immediately blackening the oath I have only just finished uttering. Later on I throw rocks at trees, and later on still, a friend asks me, with concern in her voice, ‘Do you hit them? Do you harm them?’
Poetry. And art. Or the poetry of art… A way of wrapping the bridge, between the self and the world out there where nature supposedly is, in wry jokes and opaque riddles, and beauty, binding us to it and the beyond in knots of words that drip with incongruous honey. It is a cycle of creating a problem and then trying to resolve it, catching a shadow in a glass only to let it go again. It is the Romantic in me who finally found time after Reading Poetry to Rocks, to climb a hill away and alone, in Glen Nevis, during a commission for Resonance FM and the Edinburgh International Art Festival, to serenade the sky with half remembered lyrics from my favourite obscure pop songs. ‘A bird you would have loved brought the sky down, but it was worthless to hear it without you around … ’ or ‘say what you will, but you should understand there are things in this world, that you can’t understand, not in a million years …’ All this could only happen after walking, clearing the mind, falling in a bog up to my thighs and dropping my digital recorder in a stream so that of this act, precisely nothing remains. The constant state of imbalance that walking embodies, between one step and the next, a comfortable metaphor for thinking and acting through a process.
Art is contradictory, intrinsically and purposefully problematic, it is a state of play in constant flux, a conversation between the past and the future of human society played out in the present. The only time we have is now, or now, or now, or now… how soon is… when could be more important than now. Now. Now. Now.
The Actions are Romantic, and yet the Actions are also conceptual. They are linguistically restrained in their titles: each Action (A) having to be followed by a form of content (C), an instruction that is directive (D) and a subject (S) upon which this sequence can be enacted. But after a walk, and a day and a night on a mountainside at the end of a week spent in the Glen being too busy to look at it, new Actions announced themselves and took place, just between me and nature in a series of moments that were filled with contradiction and futility and yet somehow found space for hope. I blew raspberries at the bog which claimed me thigh deep whilst in between shouting profanities at it (‘YOU CALL YOURSELF A BOG!! IA’VE SEEN BOGS THA’ COUL’ SWALLO’ A HOUSE! UPTA MA THIGHS, YOU’RE PATHETIC … ’), and I said hello to the high heather moors, whispering sweet nothings to them and their bees high on the flanks of An Gearanach in the so called Ring of Steall.
This melding, of Romantic disposition with Conceptual restriction, has been uncovered by Jorg Heiser in the work of Bas Jan Ader and a collection of other artists brought together in 2007 in an exhibition called Romantic Conceptualism. Heiser defines Romantic Conceptualism as holding an ‘interesting tension: using particularly few aesthetic interventions or conceptual instructions, it opens up a particularly large number of possibilities for thinking beyond this choice’ (2007 p149). The foundations of Actions For and Against Nature are bound up in this quote. The Actions that took place in Scotland are the start of a series that is as endless as the metonymic environment we continue to create around us and live in.
Towards an ecological form of subjectivity then, and a conclusion to this talk… Let’s momentarily take a step back to the process of classification – a process intrinsic to such things as academic conferences aimed at discussing certain parts of a given realm – that is bound up with Enlightenment processes of natural history and taxonomy. Evolution is an ongoing process: one cannot cut oneself out of history in order to catch a definite moment when something was certain, the procedures of taxonomical classification, as natural history has portrayed them, generally involve the death of the individual thing being classified. Our place in the scheme of things is less certain than this, for the scheme of things is always drawn up from a non-existent outside, an impossible objective position, for “no discourse is truly objective” as Morton points out, (Morton 2013: 4), primarily because discourse is a live, active thing. Under the terms of an ecological form of subjectivity, which my practice is stepping toward, we are all inside the picture frame, there is no outside from which to take an objective position.
I am an artist who started with walking, and kept going, I am not however, a Walking Artist, a phrase I find problematic, a step towards the classification of a dead thing, a form of limitation in the same way one could be prescribed a painter, from the outside, as though said painter never drew, nor wrote, nor slept, nor did anything else. This defining, or process of distilling, that the term Walking Artist sets out to achieve is something I find problematic because there is never a point at which a living individual can be gathered up and extracted from their surroundings and said to be categorically something particular. If they, as live beings, are in constant contact with their lived surroundings, which they most certainly are, then they too are in constant flux, along with the wind and the weather, the news and the gossip. Today I may go for a walk, tomorrow I may set pen to paper, the next day I will most likely do something completely other to this and so the taxonomic purpose of constraining oneself to being a walking artist falls down. I am simply an artist who started with walking and kept going, down the lane and into the field, or into performance, drawing and writing, or politics, philosophy and then perhaps down the pub.
And yet connections and collections are useful things: it is the supposition that they are terminal that is problematic. Categories are an attempt to create walls and borderlines in situations where only yet to be noted connections exist, a thickening web of tracery and fine lines. Through my recent PhD and its pursuit of an autoethnographic transect I have found shadows of my self in unexpected places, places to which I would never have come were it not for the pursuit of this idea, this leads me to believe that one could find these connections anywhere, that each of our selves, seemingly so definite and certain, could be reconstructed out of material as yet unknown to us. Walking Home was an 800km walk from London to St. Gallen, Switzerland, developed within me a sense of humility in light of this discovery that the Actions also aim to embody, through their collective weight, for alone each Action would vanish traceless, it is their collective will I am looking to establish. The trans-disciplinary nature of my practice and research, as opposed to inter-disciplinary, emerges through the supposition that inter processes submit to disciplinary boundaries, whereas trans-disciplinary processes transcend those societal walls and borderlines.
I am often in my artwork, an act increasing in its intentionality. For there is always an ‘I’, active in any given thing. That self that I am working with though, has taken steps toward a more Guattarian interpretation of self that is interdependent with and constructed by the multiple scenarios of political, social and personal memory. This ecological form of subjectivity there is a constant form of revision and evolution ongoing under the banner of self: our mistake is to too often presume that our selves are constant. In The Three Ecologies Guattari argues, with some sense of the desperate nature of the task, the urgency of it, that “ecology must stop being associated with the image of a small nature-loving minority or with qualified specialists” (2005: 52): that the etymological root of eco must be redrawn in our contemporary world.
The self through Guattari’s definition is necessarily in a state of constant change and subject to the terms of ecology, for eco is the Greek word for home and home is a useful analogy for understanding the self under the terms of an ecological subjectivity. A home or a self is composed of things we need, things we really wanted once, cluttered with things we used to like, mingled with new bits and pieces, a bin in the corner, sunlight dripping through the dust cutting a new pattern upon the patina of our lives: that light, that dust and those things, subtly changing daily.
The Home toward which I spent a number of weeks travelling in the summer of 2009 was not made of bricks and mortar, piled on a Swiss hillside, but was instead the flesh and blood that carried my fathers ashes over a physical transect. The walking, the talking, the conversations, the reading and revisiting of my PhD have constructed an ecologic form of subjectivity that I am trying to wrestle from the shadows. A home and a self rattled by the wind, remade by the constantly changing climate and the memories in the loft, stacked upon its shelves, amidst the guests around the dining table and the conversation taking place, remade and reformed like the shoreline is reconstituted by the tide twice daily. In this process they have contributed a small step towards the ethico-aesthetic paradigm that Guattari strives towards through The Three Ecologies in which he concludes that individuals “must become both more united and increasingly different” (2005: 69).
If as Bourriaud states in The Radicant we have come to be “in a world that records as quickly as it produces”, the notion of the autoethnographic transect offers artists and others a position from which to construct ways of navigating a world bereft of terra incognita, a world where everything is mapped, recorded and accounted for, apart from ones own particular position within it (2009: 88 – 120). Thomas A Clark wrote in 1988: “There are walks on which we tread in the footsteps of others, walks on which we strike out entirely for ourselves. […] There are things we will never see, unless we walk to them” (Clark 2001: 16). It is in this contradictory state the work of this thesis sits, tackling the problem of what to do when, and whilst knowing I want to tell you something, conceding it is something that cannot be told. That the Actions are simultaneously both for and against Nature, is their strength, the way they contradict futile hope, find hope in futile contradictions and hopefully in the end, contradict the futility of it all.
The self can only really be defined by that which surrounds it: like the Magellan Cloud, that object in the sky of the southern hemisphere, that on a clear night can only be seen if you do not look directly at it. It is a deep space object whose darkness in the sky is too heavy for the eye to see, but look just beside it, and the eye can make out this form, darker than the darkness. The best way to talk about one’s self is to look just beside it, to see what it touches, to see where the edges shimmer and to thus arrive at some form of definition of the thing, catching it in each moment anew.