“The old concept used to be: first we make the political revolution and then the cultural revolution. Now we have to think about how the cultural revolution can empower people differently.”
“The fantasy of a revolution is that it will make everything different—and regime-changing revolutions generally make a difference, sometimes a significantly positive one—but the making of differences in everyday practices is a more protracted and incremental and ultimately more revolutionary process.”
I’m tired. It’s dark. It’s late on a Saturday night. It’s late November.
It’s late. Tonight, I heard from someone, the naturalist, Cliff Jones, who has seen the melting of the permafrost at first hand.
I’m sitting up on a borrowed bed in a cottage in Old Road. My seamless aluminium MacBook pro is on my lap, I know about aluminium. I learned about the energy-intensity of bauxite mining, and its colonial histories, from the work of the artist, Simon Starling, more than a decade ago. This lovely super light modern material has a dirty past. Starling understands the world as a contradictory flow of energies and histories and ideas and materials. So he drove to Les Baux in France to pick up some rocks and he taught himself to smelt aluminium in a lab in Dundee.
Artists tell stories of sorts and they learn by doing.
I’m checking my email and drafting some notes. A few weeks ago, I learned from a film by the artist, Yuri Pattison, about the coal-fired power stations that drive the data centres that in turn drive the cloud. Tung Hui Hu’s recent book A Prehistory of the Cloud tells me that even back in 2008 cloud computing was responsible for 2% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. He writes: “The long term consequences of the cloud are a world away from the seductive ‘now’ of its real time systems.”
I know I must learn to think beyond the now.
In Huntly, I meet the storyteller, Ben Macfadyen. He is in the Aberdeenshire town on a residency with Deveron Arts, which has been supported by ArtCOP Scotland. Last year the artist, Caroline Wendling, planted The White Wood near the town for her project Oaks and Amity. The wood will spring from 1000 oak tree saplings. 60 of them were grown from acorns collected from Kassel in Germany where the artists Joseph Beuys planted his work 7000 Oaks across the city beginning in 1982.
Beuys placed each oak beside an upended basalt rock. Before they were placed in the ground, the basalt rocks were piled high in public, a visible scar on the city’s public face and a visible measure of how far the project was progressing. Beneath the Scottish soil, Wendling planted rocks gathered from the battlefields of the Western Front. One day, the oak roots will push them up to the surface.
A forest is nothing to look at when it is first planted. It will be 300 years before The White Wood is mature and 1000 years from now when it dwindles and dies. Ben’s job in Huntly is to devise and tell a story that will keep the dream of the White Wood alive while it is slowly, and invisibly, growing.
Ben has organised a public meeting in the town on the theme of Patrick Geddes’s famous aphorism “Think global, act local.” He introduces the meeting with an extract from the Epic of Gilgamesh. The epic, like the bible, includes the story of a flood.
Ben tells me: “Stories are a powerful tool to shape our way forwards.” Ben is cycling to Paris among thousands of activists gathering for the COP21 talks on climate change. “Just before I set off from the White Wood, carrying an oak sapling all the way to Paris, I heard the news about the Paris attacks,” he recalls. “Suddenly, my whole journey shifted and I hoisted a big white flag on my bike. What started as a journey about climate change instead became something else. On my way instead of talking about fear, or retaliation we talked about peace.”
In the morning, we talk: Ben is 25 and has inherited a world that I, at 48, have helped create or perhaps, a world that I haven’t helped changed enough. He has been a climate change activist since he was 14. Lately he has worked in Glasgow schools helping children learn about nature through drama and storytelling. Ben has suffered from chronic fatigue and has experienced serious illness: he learned to care about the planet alongside learning to care for himself. He understands intimately that our resources are not unlimited. What is the relationship between his work and the question of climate? “I’m trying to think about living that relationship,” he tells me, “and how we can create work that reflects the way we want to be.”
He tells me about an encounter one morning as he cycled through rural Perthshire. He came across three strangers, a woman and her two children. The woman had a falcon on her arm. “It was a hunting animal and an animal of war,” he recalls. “But we talked about peace. It was a very beautiful moment, she was so careful and so conscious in her conversation.”
On the 23rd of January, Ben will be telling the first White Wood Story where the trees are planted in Huntly. More information here.
In Edinburgh, at Gayfield Creative Spaces, December is almost upon us. The gallery has an extensive programme for ArtCOP Scotland. It’s dark and wet again. But we are cheered by a performance by two young people form Firefly Arts in Livingston. At Gayfield, there is an exhibition Re: See It 3 by the artist-led organisation, Edinburgh Palette. There are lovely things on show: upcycled clothes made from recrafted tweed by Rose Hall, and Derring-Do medals: little medals of ribbon and vintage materials. Above me origami butterflies fly. They are crafted from obsolete banknotes.
But looking at all of these things begins to confuse me. It is something to do with the aesthetics of proliferation. I am reminded that there is a danger in the ever-increasing volume of stuff no matter its excellent provenance. Sometimes, the response of arts organisers to any kind of call to action, to crisis or opportunity, is to make more: to commission more activities or spread messages thin and fast rather than working deep and slow.
If we are to build a sustainable future for artists can we also re-imagine art commissioning that practises thoughtful restraint as well as production? Can we make pause purposeful? Can we support slow and significant and meaningful moments of creation and change as much as buzz and activity?
Perhaps I am just tired. I seem disproportionately interested in a commissioned project To Sleep Lightly by the designer, Dawn Ellams, who is reinventing the domestic mattress. I am horrified that the abandoned mattress is a global problem for which there is yet no recycling solution. Ellams is working with Zero Waste Scotland to imagine a future in which mattresses are re-designed to be part of the circular economy. I long for my bed. In Huntly, much of the talk amongst local climate change activists was about exhaustion. Action is tiring: we must learn to manage our personal resources as well as our global ones.
In the second week of December, it rains. And rains. And rains. On television a woman in Cumbria is crying as her home is inundated with flood water. On the radio, I hear a worker from the Red Cross who has set up an emergency shelter. In Dumfries, the railway line is flooded. I speak to someone whose train ride has become a three-hour diversion.
The Whitesands area on the banks of the Nith is flooded again, a problem that is so persistent that Dumfries and Galloway council is in the middle of a huge controversy about how to deal with it, recently opting for the design of a raised bund as a flood barrier for the town. I love the name Whitesands. It takes me a while in the town to understand that much of the area is actually a concrete car park.
Before the latest flood, curators from The Stove Network, a network of 250 artists in the area, had already chosen their subject for ArtCOP Scotland. Their exhibition called SUBMERGE brings together a number of artists whose work considers water, from the impact of increased rainfall predicted by scientists for the area, to the water quality of the local rivers.
The Stove sounds cosy and rural, but it is actually set in a shopfront in the High Street, which, like hundreds of high streets in small town Britain, has been eroded by supermarkets and out of town developments, the petrol economy and by internet shopping. The shop was empty for five years before The Stove Network moved in.
At the heart of SUBMERGE is a modest proposal entitled We Live with Water. The project takes the form of a document from the perspective of 2065, speculating that the town has long decided to embrace the river’s flooding capacity and has transformed its waterfront by allowing the river to be wider and its banks re-wilded.
“We are looking at the place getting wetter and wetter,” explains the artist Katie Anderson who has curated the show. “These once in a lifetime flooding events will happen more and more. This is a river-facing town, and the river is potentially one of our most beautiful places, the town has turned its back on the river and we are really excited about how we can engage with that.” The Stove Network has not taken a public stand on the flood barrier proposals instead it is promoting a wider conversation about what the river means for Dumfries.
The artist, Matt Baker, sends me a blog he has written about SUBMERGE. “Richard Arkless, MP visited his constituents in Dumfries on Monday 7th December 2016 to inspect the aftermath of the flooding from the previous weekend. He heard rumours of an alternative plan for the town and the river during his visit and collected a copy of We Live With Water to take back to Westminster as a potential way forward for our town.
I admit I have struggled a bit with my visits to the country. In Scotland’s cultural frameworks, I think the idea of the rural risks the country becoming a symbolic place rather than a real one: a place where art sometimes acts out a fantasy of a better, purer world. What I think I saw in Dumfries and Huntly was only too real. These are complicated communities locked into the same global problems, places that are often under duress or contradiction.
If culture is to confront climate change, nature must not just be a place of privileged retreat or a dreaming place for an elite culture. We must understand the pressure on our countryside in a more nuanced way. And we should remember that wherever we are, our future can be built here and now, not there and then. Globally in the cities we can and should make change. It is in the cities and The City where we must make a difference.
Part II is available here,.
With thanks to the artists, curators and organisations who met with me and hosted me throughout ArtCOP Scotland.
Moira is a journalist, art critic, editor, teacher and broadcaster. The single thing that brings her wide and sometimes rather chaotic freelance career together is visual art. For the last 15 years, she has written reviews, interviewed artists, talked about exhibitions on radio and TV and written essays for artists publications.
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