Scaping the land lecture

Part 1 Perceptions of Landscape

I do not distinguish between inner and outer landscapes, between the environment as the physical world out there (the “hard” stuff) and the mental image of the environment within each and every individual (the “soft” stuff). It is the tension, the transition, the exchange, and the resonance between these two that energies and define our reality.

Bill Viola – ‘Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House’

Like Viola, I have found the definitions of these boundaries between the inner and outer landscape very transparent at times.  My focus on landscape in these specific projects all were and are to do with developing structures and forms which would bridge the gap between perceptions of the everyday and the lurking magic below, being awake and dreaming, wanting to height the received ‘natural beauty’ that already exists.

I grew up in London, raised to see landscape defined by concrete, buildings as my horizon. When I began to explore the countryside in my 30’s by walking and cycling mostly, I was surprised by my feelings of wonder and joy at the experience of being surrounded by such a selection of changing colour, texture and smell within the landscape. At times it became almost overwhelming in its intensity, this sense of being part of the natural, not separate and isolated from it as I had always felt in the city was new to me. John Dewey speaks of this sensibility in his book Art and Experience:

Direct experience comes from nature and man interacting with each other.

Clearly when Dewey was writing this in the 1920’s he was responding to a very different set of political, social and cultural values concerning the nature of human interaction with the environment and I acknowledge this, he goes on to say:  

The moments when the creature (the human) is both most alive and most composed and concentrated are those of fullest intercourse with the environment, in which sensuous material and relations are most completely merged.

Most countryside now is a mixture of developed and agricultural land. There is often a sense of a collision in the architecture and the landscape between the past work ethic and the present one of leisure. This collision sets up some interesting questions about how to respond to the historical and contemporary landscape as artists. Are we just interested in mirroring and reproducing what we see and experience, or could we comment on it in some way as well, thus becoming actively involved in its possible development?

In ‘Landscape Politics and Perspectives’ – Barbara Bender invited a series of archaeologists, geographers and anthropologists to write a selection of essays, with each writer looking at the fact that landscape has to be contextualized to fully understand it. Her introduction sets the stage by stating that landscapes are polysemic, (many strands/routes) and not so much artifact as in process of construction and reconstruction. She goes on to say:

The landscape is never inert, people engage with it, rework it; appropriate and contest it. It is part of the way in which identities are created and disputed, whether as an individual, group, or nation state. Operating therefore at the juncture of history and politics, social relations and cultural perceptions, landscape has to be a concept of high tension.

I like this concept of high tension very much, as it creates an immediate sense of urgency, insisting that one must act and react to the landscape one is engaged with, not just observe and comment on it.

She is also reflecting Foucault and other postmodern theorists such as Derrida in her understanding that nothing is fixed or stationery, that there is continual flux, slippage, in even the most seemingly rigid constructs.

Julian Thomas, in his essay in Barbara Bender’s anthology takes us through a short historical development of the construction of the idea of viewing the landscape, describing how from the beginning the idea of disengagement was an essential element in the comprehending of it.

He starts by giving the example of the development of linear perspective in the 1400’s where artists first discovered how to represent the three dimensional world in two dimensions. He observes that this perspective of art represented a form of visual control, locating the viewer outside of the picture and thus outside of the relationships being depicted by the artist. He writes that by the 15th century, in northern Italy, the idea of the landscape as being something that could be framed, taking on the passive role of the object, to be represented and manipulated by the disengaged gaze of the viewer was very close to the new politics of the time, which allowed land to be looked on as a commodity to be brought and sold at will.

By the 17th century the owning and commissioning of the landscape painting was the height of fashion for the rich, the act of capturing and holding forever your particular bit of real estate.

Of course this was supported aesthetically by the generally accepted Kantian precept of separateness in viewing art, to stand outside of the experience, and to look. This would then have the effect of hopefully creating a potentially sublime experience for the viewer, allowing them to transcend the physical, (the body) through the disinterested gaze (the intellect).

What I am interested in was what happened next. Romanticism hit the scene, it was an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that originated in the second half of the 18th century in Europe and strengthened in reaction to the industrial revolution In part, it was a revolt against aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment and a reaction against the scientific rationalization of nature. It was embodied most strongly in the visual arts, music, and literature, but also had a major impact on education and natural history.

The movement validated strong emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as trepidation, horror and terror and  awe—especially that which is experienced in confronting the sublimity of untamed nature and its picturesque qualities, both new aesthetic categories.

Part 2   Collaborating with landscape – Scaping the Land

For the most part, we do not see first and then define, we define first and then see. In the great blooming buzzing confusion of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture.

Site matters – edited by Carol J Burns and Andrea Kahn

As an artist I have grown up through a period of time where the growth of forms such as land art, installation and site specific responses to landscape have manifested and opened up a debate which is not just based on the ocular and the conceptual understanding of what is being seen but also the sensual, perceptional and kinesthetic experiencing of it.

Some of the above text has come from the M.A thesis I wrote 10 years ago here at U.W.E when I was doing a masters in fine art in context. The work I want to share with you tonight is the work I am involved in now. It is very new and I am not at a point of any deep reflection on it, but it is exciting me and I would like to share a little of where it is going and my process.

I have lived in Somerset for nearly 25 years but have spent most of that time working elsewhere. I have managed to do a couple of public projects in the county but nothing process based, for 10 years. This summer I saw a film called Pina – about Pina Bausch the extraordinary visionary choreographer. Pina Bausch has been an inspiration ever since I met her by accident in my youth in Wuppertal when I was invited to see a rehearsal of her work.

Then I did not know who she was but I remember being so excited by the way she worked with her dancers and created material.

As part of the film her dancers, as homage to her, (she died suddenly just before the film was made) created a series of site-specific dances. This film re awoke a desire to devise and compose work outside in the landscape with moving bodies.

I contacted 3 different performers that I knew but had never worked with before and invited them to spend a day with me creating something in a place I had chosen.

I sent them a series of starting notes, the first was:

A small group of people move through the land

Their bodies disturb and interfere with where they are

Their movements become film  / photographs / installations

The land is their paper / score / scenario

The scape is interrupted and ruptured

The 2nd note said:

I wish to explore:

Obstacles  – creating tensions that mean it is hard to achieve the simplest of acts!

The landscape – what it is, how we perceive it, how we interact with it

Relationships – between people, their bodies and found objects

Sound – the sound track working with live, found and recorded

A series of films will be made of each intervention

Here are some images from that day.

[Show power point – images]

I came away from this day realizing that choreographing live and then filming it was very complex in a site. Even though I had spent a lot of time prior in the chosen place and had made compositional decisions before hand, dealing with the weather (it rained almost all day) and the performers needs and then a film crew meant that I found it difficult to also have an open ended collaborative relationship to the site. I wanted to find a site for my next work that could hold all these different elements and not be subverted by them.

In his essay ‘Of Other Spaces’ written in 1967, Foucault maps out his thoughts concerning our relationship to space. He looks at place first from a historical perspective, examining its intimate relations with time and space and how in the middle ages, a hierarchy of opposition was set up in terms of understanding place, but not space. He speaks of how Galileo in the 17th century, through his discovery that the earth revolved around the sun, shifted the shared acceptance of medieval space as ‘space of emplacement’ (the intersection of places) to an awareness of the possibility of infinitely open space. He believes this radical shift has now bled down into our contemporary understanding of our sense of space. That is we no longer live in homogeneous spaces, since extension has replaced emplacement, and we now inhabit what he calls heterogeneous space.

Foucault clarifies:

In other words, we do not live in a kind of void, inside of which we could place individuals and things, we live inside a set of relations that delineates sites which are irreducible to one another.

I have discovered through my own working processes that this is the basis of understanding and working with contextualization. That from the moment of first contact with a site I am setting up a momentum, a rhythm, that constantly feeds back on itself and thus the work. Nothing is without meaning; everything clarifies and stimulates something else within the matrix I have chosen to work within.

De Certeau observes that movement through space constructs what he terms ‘spatial stories’, forms of narrative understandings. I began to discover these ‘spatial stories’ not so much in terms of narrative understandings but more as Christopher Tilley describes 

Walking is the medium and outcome of a spatial practice, both constrained by place and landscape and constitutive of them.

Spatial and textual stories are embedded in one another.

I have known about body knowledge for some years from the perspective of working as a physical performer and training others in bodywork. The foundation and root to my bodywork training is the awareness of the kinesthetic sense. Ann Halprin developed this concept in her work with the Dancers’ Workshop in San Francisco in the 1960’s.  In her book ‘Movement Ritual’ she describes this sense thus:

The kinesthetic sense has end organs and nerve endings in our muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones and joints that make it possible for us to have an awareness of our movements. Nerve endings in the inner ear allows us to know our body placement in space and our body directions.

In my training I was taught to develop a particular type of physical sensing by visualizing my body through the use of very precise anatomical imagery.  I believe that training now allows me to be extra sensitive to the act of the whole of my body moving through and being effected by the space around me.

Tilley also focuses on the way our understanding of ‘sensing’ the world we inhabit is as an essential part of the perceptual process using Merleau –

Ponty‘s thoughts to clarify:

Perceptual consciousness is not just a matter of thought about the world, but stems from bodily presence and bodily orientation in relation to it, bodily awareness and further: far from my body being for me no more than a fragment of space, there would be no space at all for me if I had no body.

So I set about researching a site that could ‘hold’ not only the performers bodies but also would allow them to explore ‘spatial stories’ within the site.

I had walked in Butliegh woods many years ago and remembered a corridor of trees that were clearly planted to demarcate a gateway to a large house. When I returned to visit the site the trees had clearly undergone a series of shocks and changes through storm damage and tree management.

The area I wanted to work in and move through was huge but I wanted to see if we could interconnect with the site through the human body using composition and cheography.

We ended up having 4 days in the site in total.

The first was a whole day: where I worked just with the performers, no filming. I used this day to develop and cheograph the journey of the performers and actions that would happen along the way.

The next 3 half days were spent filming that, but being open to allowing things to change and rearrange a little responding to the camera’s perspective of the action and site. But we had not fully anticipated several things.

First was the fact that the weather would keep on changing violently every hour (but as you will see that became not only an advantage but also a major compositional tool). The second was the use of the land. Each day we met different people who walked, hunted and ran through the site. These encounters were fascinating and I think they found us equally interesting. In the end I did not chose to use these encounters in the film, or the natural soundtrack. Instead I worked on a journey through the site in real time, choosing to add a musical soundtrack, which would lift it out of the everyday.

Thirdly the concept of the frame was with me from the beginning. I chose to give the two performers in the film a book and a canvas and was very conscious of the romantic imagery I was creating. It was my nod to those particular romantic painters and poets that have influenced me such as Turner and Blake and Rilke to name a few.

I also wanted to be very conscious when composing images, of their effect in terms of the film frame. I worked on emphasizing the great depth and height of the site and of courses the perspective.

Finally I wanted to explore the particular juxtaposition between, moving bodies, objects, the land and sound.

I would just like to say a little about juxtaposition.

The one constant compositional element I have returned to again and again and continued to use in all my creative work as a dancer, performance maker and artist has been the act of juxtaposition.

I understand this term to be not just about ‘putting two or more things close together or side by side’, which is the standard dictionary definition, but it being also the act of choosing and placing specific things or ideas, (be they bodies in action, objects or sounds) that would normally have no logical relationship, but in juxtaposition creating a transformation of meaning for the observer. Not only has juxtaposition always been a compositional tool within my practice, but also an essential way for me to perceive and manipulate found or constructed material in relation to space and place.

I try to explore three levels of thought through juxtaposition:  the pragmatic (relating to the practical, on the ground experience) the poetic, (the elusive encounter) and, lastly, the perceptional (the varied ways of perceiving and experiencing the world).

Just before we see the film we made I would like to offer a final quote which was written about a project I was involved in from 1992 – 1996 where we where trying to define our performance style.

We were interested in a performance style, situated on the margin between ordinary human interaction and framed performance, which temporarily lifts the moment out of the everyday into the significant.

This is still what I am interested in.

[Show film]