Some (Brexit) versions of pastoral

Blue skies, sheets of stratus clouds, rolling hills chequered with drystone walls and dotted with sheep: this is the archetypal image of the British countryside.

Landscape view of Narrowdale, near Alstonefield


Narrowdale near Alstonefield, Staffordshire

Pastoral landscapes such as this one – Narrowdale in the Peak District on a Sunday morning in late April – still occupy a distinct space beyond their own material boundaries in dominant cultural imaginaries and representations of this island. This aesthetic space sustains and is sustained by practices of pastoral production and consumption, and almost unconscious ideas about land and labour, nature and society.

The pastoral also has a specific history in the British context. From the fifteenth century onwards, as feudalism shifted towards capitalism, land previously lived and worked on by peasants was gradually appropriated and replaced with sheep pastures in the process known as enclosure. Although mostly associated with the eighteenth century when enclosure became more legally formalised, this process produced often devastating effects for communities over the long period of its unfolding. Problems with enclosure and the pastoral can be seen as early as 1516, when in his tract Utopia the Renaissance humanist Thomas More uses sheep as a metonym for the new landowning class and their exclusions. He writes that sheep ‘that were wont to be so meek and tame, and so small eaters, be become so great devourers and so wild, that they eat up, and swallow down the very men themselves. They consume, destroy, and devour whole fields, houses, and cities’.1 Later, in Volume I of Capital (1867), Karl Marx uses enclosure as a key example of what he calls ‘primitive accumulation’, in which means of production are seized from labourers and privatised.2 These processes were reproduced beyond Britain through colonial expansion; as John Kinsella writes in an Australian context, pastoral works ‘to recreate European, specifically English, rural power-structures, the reconfiguring of ‘home’ in an alien landscape’.3

Nevertheless, the pastoral remains embedded in our popular and artistic culture, and is continually being revised and revitalised. In 1935, William Empson published Some Versions of Pastoral, outlining both a critique of the pastoral’s embedded social hierarchies and erasures and its diversity in British literature and culture.4 In another very important account, The Country and the City (1973), Raymond Williams writes that the pastoral is ‘a particular kind of reaction to the fact of change’ that found pronounced expression in Britain as a mode of response to the rapid transformations of the industrial revolution but also the longer-term social processes hinted at above. Williams argues that pastoral has a nostalgic feel, in which labour is subsumed and made invisible within the ‘natural order’.5 Characterised in this way, the pastoral feels very apt as a way to think about the rhetorics and aesthetics of a recent change in Britain – namely, Brexit – and the feelings and actions that have contributed to it. So I thought I’d offer some (pre- and post-) Brexit versions of pastoral for twenty-first century Britain:

1) Monbiot vs sheep

A sheep and two lambs in a field.

Back in 2013, George Monbiot wrote about the economic and ecological problems caused by British sheep farming. Despite being integral to the British pastoral, sheep have been shown to cause severe soil erosion and cycles of flood and drought in upland pastures. In addition, Monbiot argues that British sheep farming is unproductive, propped up by significant subsidies under the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) while the food supply continues to rely on imported meat. Interestingly, Monbiot explicitly links the problems he identifies with the pastoral:

I blame Theocritus. His development in the third century BC of the pastoral tradition — the literary convention that associates shepherding with virtue and purity — helps to inspire our wilful blindness towards its destructive impacts. His theme was embraced by Virgil and the New Testament, in which Christ is portrayed both as the Good Shepherd and as Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, ‘who takes away the sin of the world’. The Elizabethans revived the tradition, and the beautiful nonsense Marlowe, Spenser and others published about the uncorrupted pastoral life resonates with us still. Their eclogues and idylls, bucolics and mimes persist today on Sunday-night television, through which we wistfully immerse ourselves in the lives of hunky shepherds and adorable lambs, sheepdog trials and market days.

As someone who has been lucky enough to study English literature, I would resist Monbiot’s pigeonholing of a whole body of complex, sophisticated writing as ‘beautiful nonsense’. Nevertheless, the link between literary and cultural representations and ongoing relationships with land and industry is highly suggestive. And more on ‘Sunday-night television’ later.

In a more recent article from 2017, Monbiot considers the impact of Brexit on British farming. He identifies three key issues that make farming ‘uniquely vulnerable’ post-Brexit: the complexity of negotiating tariff deals without forcing farmers out of business; the dependency of the industry on migrant workers; and its reliance on EU subsidies to keep going. Monbiot suggests that the only real way forward for the post-Brexit pastoral is a kind of anti-pastoral, in which agricultural labour is recognised and supported by public money but ‘accompanied by rules strong enough to ensure that farmers can no longer pollute our rivers, strip the soil from the land, wipe out pollinators and other wildlife, and destroy the features of the countryside with impunity.’  This version of pastoral is undoubtedly the most strident and polemical of any I’ll consider here, but it’s certainly not the only approach.

2) God's Own Country (2017), directed by Francis Lee
A scene from the film God's Own Country: two men standing by a dry stone wall on a Yorkshire farm

Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu in God’s Own Country (2017), directed by Francis Lee.

Like Monbiot’s journalism, this film challenges Romantic notions of the pastoral, calling attention to the bleakness, bitterness, and isolation of farming. With notable similarities to Brokeback Mountain (2006), the film traces an emerging relationship between young Yorkshire farmer Johnny (Josh O’Connor) and Romanian migrant labourer Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), and in doing so calls into question ideas of masculinity and sexuality often embedded in rural identities and imaginaries. Unsentimental yet tender, God’s Own Country intersperses tough physical and emotional labour with the intimacy between and across humans, animals, and land. Rather than a traditional, idealised pastoral representation of these relationships, Lee unapologetically foregrounds their raw material and fluid interactions; opening with Johnny throwing up in the toilet after a heavy night at the local pub, the film is punctuated by blood, placenta, saliva, semen, faeces, mud.

Not only this, but Johnny and Gheorghe’s relationship unfolds against a backdrop of family and social tensions and the everyday practices and problems of small-scale farming. These tensions become particularly pronounced in the wake of Brexit; without the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and subsidy scheme, small British farms could be significantly affected, while an end to freedom movement for migrant workers like Gheorghe is likely to produce a labour shortage. In this context, God’s Own Country offers a critical pastoral, sensitive to issues that Monbiot brings to the forefront, but never entirely abandoning a pastoral imaginary. In amongst the mud, the racist slurs, and the hardship, are rare moments of warmth, connection, and nurture.

3) Zeta Landscape (2005-present), Carol Watts

Zeta Landscape is an ongoing sequence of poems written from and about a particular sheep hill-farm in Wales. Different parts of the poem have been published in a number of journals and anthologies, and the first five poems can be read online in the How2 special issue on ecopoetics.6 Throughout the series, Watts experiments with conventions of pastoral poetry by introducing numbers – both mathematical and economic – to the landscape, its producers and inhabitants. We can see this in the poem ‘7’:

do these add up   are they outside subsidy     or
logged     in magnitudes of adjustment     the value
of a warm animal     less     than the cost of quantifying
its warmth     or inspecting animation     each sixteen
days     the collisions     of neighbouring hillsides     result
today     in corpses by the river     seven blown     fleeces

In this excerpt, Watts refers to the ‘subsidy’ that Monbiot identifies as a key issue in post-Brexit British agriculture. By foregrounding numbers and economies in the poem, Watts works to ‘subject the seeming pastoral ease of Romantic identification…to hidden kinds of accumulation’ – in particular the accumulation of capital and its close interlinking with social injustice and environmental degradation.7 Where Thomas More used sheep metonymically to critique emerging capitalist landowners, Watts explores and resists the ways that in capitalism ‘the value / of a warm animal’ can become reduced to ‘the cost of quantifying / its warmth’. Not only this, but this poem also calls attention to much longer histories of human intervention of the seemingly ‘natural order’ of the pastoral; ‘sixteen days’ refers to the average length of a sheep’s oestrous cycle, yet the hillsides in Britain in April might lead us to believe that the annual springtime rhythms of lambing are ‘natural’ rather than domesticated and regulated.

4) All Aboard! The Country Bus, BBC4, 29 August 2016
A bus travelling along a road through fields in Yorkshire

All Aboard! The Country Bus through the Yorkshire Dales. Image: BBC

The BBC’s slow-TV hit – two hours of real-time bus journey through the Yorkshire Dales – attracted almost a million viewers back in the summer of 2016, just over two months after the Brexit referendum on 23 June. This is perhaps exactly the kind of ‘Sunday-night television’ that Monbiot critiques as a means of perpetuating ideas of nature and nation that reemerged in some of the rhetoric surrounding Brexit. Nevertheless, All Aboard! is an intriguing twenty-first century pastoral, in terms of its form as well as its content.

With little dialogue or action, All Aboard! offers up the pastoral as a form of temporal and spatial retreat in the context of accelerating cultural and material consumption. The pastoral has functioned in this way since landscape tourism became popularised in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, recorded in a large number of works from Daniel Defoe’s A Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-27) to Dorothy Wordsworth’s Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland (1803) and extensive journal writings. Despite this long legacy, All Aboard! is a cultural product with a distinctly twenty-first century remit. Primarily conceived of as an experiment in television rather than an invitation to go out into the hills, it reconstructs the pastoral as a mode of viewing in which the object being viewed (such as the landscape) becomes almost secondary to the process of sitting and absorbing at a far slower pace than is conventional. This growing genre of television does its own pastoral work, however, in presenting itself as a new kind of ‘natural order’ amongst the artificial, disjunctive, and hyper-accelerative aspects of contemporary culture.

5) Alstonefield (2003), Peter Riley
A landscape view of hills near Alstonefield. There is a limestone outcrop on the left and wishes and gorse in bloom on the hills to the right.

Limestone outcrops and gorse above the River Dove, near Alstonefield.

I started in the fields just north of Alstonefield in the Peak District, so that’s where I’ll finish too. Peter Riley’s book-length poem is filled with pub lunches at The George, ghosts and gods, industrial and agricultural histories. At the beginning of the eighty-page fifth section – a long philosophical meditation on an equally long night ramble around the surrounding hills and dales – Riley spends a rainy Sunday morning at a car boot sale:

…Dampening, I turn down
a plastic shepherdess at 30p and go back
to the car. And sit there waiting in the rain
for something better than pastoral, some-
thing less fairground and more circus,
something to take the truth of the west-
ern world out of its pocket and purchase
life everlasting or a well meant Friday hug.

From what begins as a seemingly mundane moment, Riley shifts to consider ‘the truth of the west/-ern world’, a ‘truth’ that reiterates in colonial manifestations and justifications of pastoral. He parochialises this ‘truth’, locating it in a ‘pocket’ with connotations of capital as well as limitation and enclosure, and exchanges it for either the grandiose ‘life everlasting’ or the humble, common ‘well meant Friday hug’. However, neither outcome materialises; just after Riley finds himself ‘waiting in the rain / for something better than pastoral’, he writes ‘No use waiting. Turn the key, go. Go where?’ (24). The references to the car are important here; in his notes, Riley writes that ‘it is impossible anywhere in the Peak District, even in the middle of the night, to get away from the sound of the internal combustion engine for any length of time’ (103).

Interestingly, in Staffordshire Moorlands – the parliamentary constituency Alstonefield is in – 64.7% of voters voted to leave the EU, in comparison to 51.9% nationally, a fairly common outcome in safe Tory seats in largely rural areas and communities. This is not to  equate the pastoral with Brexit, or either with political conservatism (my own feelings about voting Remain are complex, and the EU certainly leaves a lot to be desired). Rather, it’s merely one highly contemporary example of the way that the pastoral has developed as cultural construction and lived practice across the stratified landscapes that come together to constitute some versions of Britain in 2018. Might there be something ‘better than pastoral’ that we could strive towards in the coming months and years? As I ponder, like Riley, ‘let me wander still in the open / fields of failure’ (25).

1. Thomas More, Utopia, translated by Ralph Robinson, 1551. See:
2. Karl Marx, Capital Volume One, translated by Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin, 1976 [1867], pp. 878-79.
3. John Kinsella, Disclosed Poetics: Beyond Landscape and Lyricism. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007, p. 3.
4. William Empson Some Versions of Pastoral. London: Chatto & Windus, 1935.
5. Raymond Williams, The Country and the City. London: Chatto & Windus, 1973, pp. 32-35.
6. See: Carol Watts, Zeta Landscape. The Ground Aslant, edited by Harriet Tarlo. Exeter: Shearsman, 2011, pp. 111-19; Zeta Landscape. Poetry Wales, 45.3 (2009/2010), pp. 25-29.
7. Carol Watts, ‘Zeta Landscape: Poetry, Place, Pastoral’, in Placing Poetry, edited by Ian Davidson and Zoë Skoulding. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2013, pp. 281-304 (p. 285).
8. Peter Riley, ‘Alstonefield: a poem. Manchester: Carcanet, 2003, p. 24.

Black pine, black site: cells of the garden

Just above the gardens at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 101 evergreen trees in wooden planters are arranged in rows. Hidden amongst these trees – White Pine, Black Pine, Scots Pine, Green Yew, Green Holly, Variegated Holly, and Western Red Cedar – are nine steel cages or cells, each one square metre in size. This is Alfredo Jaar’s The Garden of Good and Evil (2017), now in its final week as part of the main exhibition at YSP.

Alfredo Jaar's The Garden of Good and

Alfredo Jaar – The Garden of Good and Evil (2017)

The steel cells in the piece refer to the secret CIA prisons known as ‘black sites‘, in which suspected terrorists are detained and interrogated, often using ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques which include forms of torture. Although the US denied black sites’ existence for a number of years, it has now been suggested that there are over 100 such sites around the world, with the majority in Iraq and Afghanistan. But how do such sites – and the politics surrounding them – register aesthetically in the context of Yorkshire Sculpture Park, whose conception combines eighteenth-century landscape architecture with the Land Art movement of the twentieth century?

Jaar’s steel cells are symbolic, aestheticised. As has been shown by revelations of black sites around the world – from a government building basement in Bucharest, Romania to the Cobalt/Salt Pit site in Kabul, Afghanistan, which became the object of investigation after detainee Gul Rahman died there in 2002 – there is no singular aesthetic or appearance for these spaces. In Jaar’s conception, the cells’ form materialises the poem ‘One Square Metre of Prison‘ by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who himself spent time in prison:

My prison cell accepts no light except into myself. Peace be unto me. Peace be unto the sound barrier. I wrote ten poems to eulogize my freedom, here and there. I love the particles of sky that slip through the skylight—a meter of light where horses race.
(translated by Munir Akash and Caroline Forché)

Locating the cells in relation to artistic traditions and practices represented in the sculpture park, Jaar notes in his video introduction to the work that they ‘look like minimalist forms but…they are filled with content and this content is horrific.’ Jaar’s cells have visual similarities to other pieces in YSP, in particular the important American conceptualist Sol LeWitt’s 123454321 (1993).

Sol LeWitt's 123454321

Sol LeWitt – 123454321 (1993)

LeWitt’s minimalist sculpture is based on mathematical sequences and ratios, and calls attention to its own structure and materiality. Set outside in the Lower Park of YSP, it also  draws attention to changing environmental conditions, here shown in the light and shadow cast on and by its simple forms, and – as time passes – its own processes of decay. Back in 2016, I wrote about YSP as an aesthetic space for the monuments of the Land Art generation (and that’s also when this picture of LeWitt’s sculpture was taken). Although Jaar’s socially conscious art resists the kind of framing that minimalist land artists posed, The Garden of Good and Evil can still be thought about through this lens. The cells have aesthetic and material characteristics in addition to their ‘horrific’ content. On the day that I see them, it has rained and the orange-tinged steel is topped with a sheet of water. In the bright daylit cloud, the trees are reflected in the water, patterning the cell-tops, in some way camouflaging them further. Moving between trees and cells results in damp clothes and limbs from overhanging branches that refuse to stay within their one-metre boundaries.

What seems most interesting about The Garden of Good and Evil as a site-specific commission is what happens to the work after the main exhibition has ended, the political and ecological legacies it leaves behind. Jaar is acutely conscious of the dynamic between preservation and entropy, and between the planned and the organic, that a space such as Yorkshire Sculpture Park provides.

Plan of Alfredo Jaar's The Garden of Good and Evil, featuring 101 evergreen trees and 9 steel cages

Plan of The Garden of Good and Evil, featuring 101 evergreen trees and 9 steel cages. Image: Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

The Bretton estate was shaped by landscape architect Richard Woods in the eighteenth century, and the gardens developed in the 1820s by renowned garden and parkland designer Robert Marnock. The Garden of Good and Evil complements YSP’s picturesque beginnings; Jaar worked with experts to select tree species already present in the park so that the work can be repurposed and displayed on a more permanent basis. The exhibition guide explains: ‘After the exhibition closes, as a lasting legacy for future generations, the trees will be replanted and nurtured in the historic estate.’ One thing that isn’t clear is whether the steel cells will remain amongst the trees. If they do, The Garden of Good and Evil has the potential to become even more insidious, as it is stripped of its regimented layout to enable its ‘horrific content’ to be obscured and naturalised in the organic growth and development of evergreen woodland. Black pine, for example, is notable for its fast growth, its hardiness and resistance to adverse conditions, and its longevity. At the same time, the setting of YSP calls into question precisely what appears to be ‘natural’; its landscape has an aesthetics but also a poetics, shaped through human and non-human efforts.

Significantly, The Garden of Good and Evil‘s investigation into the naturalisation of detainment and torture can be extended to a wider public context, in which practices rather than just symbols are at stake. In March 2018, President Trump nominated Gina Haspel to be the new Head of the CIA. If appointed, Haspel would be the first female director of the organisation. However, in 2002 Haspel oversaw a black site in Thailand with a record of torture. In this sense, The Garden of Good and Evil has an ongoing strategic value. Hidden in plain sight with the possibility of appearing to be naturalised within the simultaneously aesthetic and ecological space of the sculpture park, it asks viewers not only to think through ideas and practices of freedom and confinement, but also the barely hidden violences in our own naturalised public structures and environments.

Sounding place: contemporary video art and translating the city

Two recent exhibitions in Nottingham focus on sound, listening, and translation. Sounds Like Her at Nottingham Art Exchange (14 October 2017 – 7 January 2018) considers gender in relation to sound art, bringing together seven women artists working with sound, while From Ear to Ear to Eye at Nottingham Contemporary (16 December 2017 – 4 March 2018) involves a wide range of artists and practitioners working with material from across the Arab world. Individually and together, these far-reaching exhibitions surprise and sometimes even provoke, raising questions that push at the intersections of culture, technology, and power. Given that these questions are far too many to be considered here, in this short piece I’ll focus on two particular works – Magda Stawarska-Beavan’s Who/Wer (2017) from Sounds Like Her and Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s ISMYRNE (2016) from From Ear to Ear to Eye – both of which use the video documentary as medium to think through ideas of place.


Image showing a split-screen video piece. The left-hand side is in black and white and shows a man walking through the streets. The right-hand side is in colour and shows the river in Vienna, with a few people sitting by it.

Magda Stawarska-Beavan – Who/Wer (2017)

Who/Wer is set in Vienna, and takes the form of a split screen video that documents different approaches to experiencing and working through place. A stranger to the city, Stawarska-Beavan spends time following the playwright Wolfgang Kindermann, who knows Vienna intimately.

The left-hand video shows a series of images in black and white. With a jumpy feel akin to a French New Wave film, these sequences of shots often feature Kindermann’s shadow or the back of his head as he moves around the city. All the while, Kindermann narrates his journey in German. However, instead of this narration being played over the top of the images, it directs them; the images appear only when there is sound. In this portrayal, Vienna is punctuated distinctly according to Kindermann’s own idioms and rhythms.

In The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), Michel de Certeau discusses moving through urban geographies on foot in relation to sound and speech, as a way of practising or even enunciating space slightly at odds with its embedded structures, systems, and grammars:

The act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language or to the statements uttered. At the most elementary level, it has a triple ‘enunciative’ function: it is a process of appropriation of the topographical system on the part of the pedestrian (just as the speaker appropriates and takes on the language); it is a spatial acting-out of the place (just as the speech act is an acoustic acting-out of language); and it implies relations among differentiated positions, that is, among pragmatic ‘contracts’ in the form of movements (just as verbal enunciation is an ‘allocation’, ‘posits another opposite’ the speaker and puts contracts between interlocutors into action).1

In Who/Wer, Kindermann practises or utters Vienna, using language and body for a kind of idiomatic and pragmatic passage. This side of the screen is overtly stylised, perspectival, a visual account of situated knowledge.

The right-hand screen shows a colour video of some of the locations Kindermann covers in his narration of Vienna: a river, a theatre, amongst others. In direct contrast to the left side’s jumpiness, its pace and momentum, the right side appears almost static; the camera is fixed on a particular building or landscape, interrupted only sporadically by passers-by, who enter and exit with little cause or consequence. Over the top of these scenes, Stawarska-Beavan provides an English voiceover in a calm, measured tone. In many ways, it resembles slow TV.

Despite the greater familiarity offered by the language and the colour medium, this side of the screen and its corresponding speaker are far less compelling than the left side.  Perhaps this is partly because Kindermann is a man, and his deeper voice is more audible, more commanding than Stawarska-Beavan’s. This possibility is explored further in Ain Bailey’s The Pitch Sisters (2012) – also featured in the exhibition – an immersive sound installation that questions the ‘preferred’ pitch of a woman’s voice. Although Who/Wer involves following Kindermann and responding to his knowledge and direction, Stawarska-Beavan remains the auteur; it is she who calls the shots and decides the modes of representation. In this sense, the piece carries resonances of Sophie Calle’s Suite Vénitienne (1979), in which the artist followed (some might say stalked) a man she had just met from Paris to Venice, recording his movements and actions through a variety of media. In Who/Wer, as in Suite Vénitienne, dynamics of power and knowledge shift back and forth across the piece’s visual and sonic iterations.

In aesthetic terms, perhaps this differential between competing left and right screens occurs because the juxtaposition between images and between image and empty space on the left side demand more attention, especially when matched up to the verbal narration. In addition, as someone who doesn’t understand much German, I can only respond to the rhythms of Kindermann’s speech rather than its content; my sense of his place is more sensory that linguistic or cognitive if the terms can be divided in this way.

Perhaps it’s also because the left screen offers a stronger narrative and a character to follow, instead of a series of brief, almost unconnected and seemingly mundane encounters confined to a single location. However, precisely because of this, the right side has the potential to interest because of its invitation to speculate about the state of space and place beyond and apart from its human narrators, its own passages of time and idioms. Engaging with the work becomes negotiating and translating between these Viennas and their distinctly rhythmic, mobile, and sonic components, none of which can be captured in a snapshot.




Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige – ISMYRNE (2016)

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s ISMYRNE (2016) re-sites questions of place, power, and knowledge in historical events and intergenerational trauma. This 50-minute film presents conversations between Hadjithomas and the poet and artist Etel Adnan, who share a family connection to the city of Izmir (formerly and historically known as Smyrna), which is now part of Turkey. Hadjithomas’ grandfather and Adnan’s mother had to leave the city – an urban settlement since at least the third millennium BC – after the Great Fire of Smyrna in 1922. In this catastrophic event that ended the Greco-Turkish war in the area, Turkish forces set fire to the city, killing tens of thousands of Greek and Armenian inhabitants. Hadjithomas’ and Adnan’s relatives survived the fire, but were affected by the loss of Smyrna for the rest of their lives. Although neither artist had visited the city herself, both grew up surrounded by memories and talk of Smyrna; ‘captivated despite repetition’, they experience its retold stories as both pain and joy.

In the film, Hadjithomas looks at maps of Smyrna both on her own and with Adnan, tracing its borders with her fingertips. The film documents her visiting Smyrna for the first time, following the descent of the aeroplane over a landscape unfamiliar to her, before her wanders and encounters in the city’s streets. In a mode akin to de Certeau’s account of walking and speech, Hadjithomas appropriates a place integral, yet alien, to her sense of identity. This enunciation seems far more multi-layered than what de Certeau is able to suggest the passage quoted above, however, owing to the complex intertwinement of present-day Izmir with historical and conceptual territory and intergenerational loss and belonging. For Hadjithomas and Adnan, the simultaneous compulsion and problem of uttering Smyrna seem to lie in an uncertainty about how exactly to speak it, like fumbling in a forgotten language. In the film, Hadjithomas and Adnan converse in French: neither of their first languages but one in which they find common ground to talk together.

Later, Hadjithomas pores over tales of Smyrna preserved in her grandfather’s handwriting. These intimate moments are contrasted with beautiful shots of the sea and sky, filmed by day and by night. Lights and water glitter. In the final frames of the film, Hadjithomas overlays a shot of the mountains close to Smyrna with one of Adnan’s paintings; there is a slow fade from Smyrna to the perhaps equally mythic mental landscapes presented in oil on canvas. Although Adnan has never visited, her work shows an uncanny resemblance. In these last moments, there are no words or language, but – just as in Who/Wer – the dialogic quality of place remains.

An image showing a painting of the sun over mountains.

Etel Adnan’s painting

In the two works I have considered here, video documentary rooted in particular locations becomes a sounding board for translations across generations and gender, media, memory, and imagination. They ask what is lost and what is gained when different visual, spatial, and sonic practices collide.

1. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, translated by Steven Randall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988 [1984]), pp. 97-98.

Living geologically: Barns Ness, 21/07

A landscape showing the shoreline at Barns Ness. There are red rocks in the foreground, the sea in the background, and stratus clouds overhead.

A day stolen between the raindrops on the weather app: Scottish summer in the (Holo/Anthropo/Capitalo/Chthulu/etcetera)cene.1

Barns Ness is a short length of coast close to Dunbar, on the south-east edge of Scotland. The lighthouse at the end of the promontory has the geographical co-ordinates 55° 59′ 14.2296” N 2° 26′ 42.9864” W. However, the rocky shoreline tells a slightly different story. Dating back over 320 million years to the Carboniferous period, the rocks at Barns Ness testify to a time when the Lothians were tropical, crossing the equator from southern to northern hemisphere as part of the Pangaea supercontinent. As seas rose as a result of planetary climate cycles, desert landscapes became shallow marine environments, and layers of sediment covered earlier volcanic forms. When sea levels dropped back, swamp-like forests grew, only to be drowned again. These processes of sedimentation, growth, and resubmersion can be traced in the layers of sandstone, limestone, and coal visible in the Ness.2 My friend and fellow wanderer Vivek Santayana has written about the unsettling processes of trying (and necessarily failing) to capture this deep time through photography.

Geologists can discern past environmental conditions largely because of fossil records, and here, Barns Ness is incredibly rich. The ‘macaroni-rock’ and its counterpart ‘spaghetti-rock’ memorialise certain types of coral – Siphonodendron pauciadiale and Siphonodendron junceum – which show that the area was at that time marine. These corals went extinct in the Permian-Triassic extinction event around 250 million years ago. This was the third and most severe of the earth’s major extinction events, and up to 70 per cent of land species and 96 per cent of marine species died out. Scientists have confirmed that we are currently undergoing the sixth great extinction; what is different this time is the likelihood that human activity is a major causal factor.3

The shoreline at Barns Ness, including some shallow pools filled with purple seawater and seaweed.

Interrupting the coral remnants are shallow pools about one metre in diameter, filled with dark purple seawater, smaller rocks, and seaweed. Incredibly rare, these hollows were once the grounds for Lepidodendron, also known as scale trees, and the clay at the bottom of the hollows is full of fossil roots. These ancient forests decayed to produce the carbon that gives their geological period its name. And in this respect, although separated by hundreds of millions of years, the Carboniferous landscapes of the Ness and recent human activity are intimately connected. This same carbon fuelled the processes of rapid industrialisation and their environmental effects that climate scientist Paul Crutzen thought demanded a new geological name: the Anthropocene.4 Drawing on a Carboniferous legacy, the human (anthropos) emerges as geological agent, even ‘brute force’, as historian Dipesh Chakrabarty puts it.5 Here, on the one hand, we have humanity as great power, with the collective capacity to bring about irreversible changes that will leave their own fossil record. On the other hand, we have the counterpoint: a proleptic vision of the extinguished human, left like coral in the rocks.

Rock strata, showing a coal seam at the centre of the image.

The problem with both of these imaginaries is their elision of the geo- and bio-politics that constitute the current period’s highly intensified and uneven energy regimes.

[T]his new understanding of being as geological effects the temporal and material imagination of the capacities of the human that move beyond a conceptualisation of social relations with fossil fuels into the contemplation of the social as composed through the geologic (and thus politically constituted by it in both political and radically apolitical ways).6

Yusoff calls attention to the ways that capitalising the geological has enabled the constitution of subjects, social formations, and geopolitical relations. Noting the large disparity in life expectancies between those with access to the kinds of energy sources and forms of consumption that fossil fuels provide, and those without, she writes that ‘the potential of a body to be what it is is conditioned by the fossil fuels that it can incorporate’. In this context, coming into contact with fossils across deep time is not wholly reducible to the ‘disconcerting de-politicization’ that Timothy Clark identifies with the Anthropocene.7

The task, then, becomes not only trying to imagine, understand, or represent deep time, but also finding ways to practise geologic life. Perhaps this can begin with the stories we tell, and the ways that we tell them. Clinging close to the shore at Barns Ness is a disused lime kiln, in which coal and lime were extracted and burned in the nineteenth century in order to produce quicklime for agriculture. This allowed for industrial and economic development in the area, inextricably linked to the rocks and minerals still visible on the shoreline.

However, these links and connections extend out far beyond the single modest brick structure and the humans who built and used it, if framed in a different way. The increased burning of fossil fuels (largely in the global North) contributed to economic growth and technological innovation, but also global warming; the increased use of lime as an agricultural fertiliser led to higher crop yields but also altered nutrient cycles and decreased biodiversity. Expanded globally and unevenly, these patterns and processes are just about perceptible in even the most ostensibly secluded locations.

Yet practising geologic life seems to require a returning and retuning to these places and their materials. As part of their ongoing project Limelight, artists Charles Danby and Rob Smith have held a series of presentations/performances/events, whose durations depend on the time it takes for a piece of lime to burn. When the lime is exhausted, the performance ends. The first of these events took place in a restored lime kiln in Llangattock, Wales, where the limelight lasted for thirty minutes and fifteen seconds. When I saw an iteration of the work in an underground lecture theatre in Edinburgh, the light didn’t last quite as long. Danby was cut off midway through a sentence about quicklime and the disposal of bodies, while Smith was left hovering, holding a laptop that under the limelight had projected images onto a sheet of metal he’d painted a few minutes earlier with the hydrated lime. For the time the performance lasts, another laptop uploads what is happening to a remote server.

In this work, geomorphic capacity is framed and re-framed through the bumpy, shaky processes of bodies caught up in a host of technologies and temporalities: the burning lime, the electricity running through the trailing wires that power the laptops, the practised gestures of painting, of pouring water from a plastic bottle onto the burning mineral. These intersecting human and nonhuman bodies and energies organise in ways that manifest historical and ongoing geologic lives and their various stratifications.

Standing at the sea’s edge at Barns Ness, I try to process all of these layers, attention caught momentarily by a discarded blue crisp packet weighted with shells, an abandoned yellow bucket whose own potential as an uncanny fossil made from fossils far outlasts the perceptive capacity of the human (I’ve written elsewhere about plastic and the Anthropocene).8 But the thing about geologic life, I think, is that it resists being caught in a moment, however much these moments might create a snag in some of our assumptions, our ways of looking and acting and interacting. Extinction – its prospect and its materiality – is in some ways invisible, but it is also a presence we make, and with which and from which we come to live.

1. The Anthropocene is a proposed (and contested) term for a geological epoch that marks human impact on the earth’s systems and processes. If adopted in geology, the Anthropocene would follow the Holocene. Critics from outside geology have offered alternative terms to call attention to different aspects of our current environmental/ecological situation. For example, Andreas Malm and Jason W. Moore have developed the idea of the Capitalocene, which acknowledges the accelerated processes of environmental change and degradation under capitalism. Meanwhile, Donna Haraway has drawn together science fiction and multiple species and temporalities for a characteristically intermeshed, tentacular account of a Chthulucene. For more detail about these sometimes-competing, sometimes-complementary terms, see Donna J. Haraway, ‘Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin’, Environmental Humanities, 6.1 (2015), 159-165. PDF at:
2. Euan Clarkson and Brian Upton, Edinburgh Rock: The Geology of Lothian (Edinburgh: Dunedin, 2006), pp. 86-87. See also the Edinburgh Geological Society’s leaflet about Barns Ness, available at:
3. The sixth extinction has been an area of concern in science for several years, and has been treated for a more popular audience by Elizabeth Kolbert in The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (London: Bloomsbury, 2014). However, the issue has become more prominent recently, after a new scientific paper took up a markedly urgent tone: Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, and Rodolfo Dirzo, ‘Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2017, The article’s strident rhetoric of ‘biological annihilation’ was picked up by several news media outlets – see, for example: Damian Carrington, ‘Earth’s sixth mass extinction event underway, scientists warn’, The Guardian, 10 July 2017,
4. Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, ‘The “Anthropocene”, Global Change Newsletter, 41. (2000), 17-18, It should be noted that the Carboniferous is the name of a geological period, whereas the Anthropocene is the proposed name for an epoch within the current period (the Quaternary).
5. Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘Brute Force’, Eurozine, 7 October 2010,
6. Kathryn Yusoff, ‘Geologic Life: Prehistory, Climate, Futures in the Anthropocene’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 31.5 (2013), 779–795 (p. 780).
7. Timothy Clark, Ecocriticism on the Edge: The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), p. 13.
8. Jan Zalasiewicz, et. al, ‘The geological cycle of plastics and their use as a stratigraphic indicator of the Anthropocene’, Anthropocene, 13 (2016), 4-17.

Elephants in the room


FOXP2 protein. Image: Emw, Wikimedia Commons

The corridor is dark, with only a thin strip of light marking the intersection of wall and ceiling. The day I visit, it is empty, and, as I walk along, sensors trigger and noise fills the space. 108 billion voices – the number that have existed on Earth since humans first developed 100,000 years ago – test out sounds, clear their throats, begin and begin again what we would call language. This is Marguerite Humeau’s FOXP2an exhibition first shown at Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and now at Nottingham Contemporary. FOXP2 is the name of the gene necessary for human speech and language. Humeau worked with Pierre Lanchantin from the Laboratory of Voice Synthesis at the University of Cambridge to develop the sound installation that opens the show.

Next door is a Biological Showroom, in which ten elephants made of various kinds of plastic are displayed on carpeted podiums. The lighting is bright; the walls are pink. In the large window that forms a skin between the interior of the gallery and the street outside, is Echo, a ‘matriarch engineered to die’. Placed at angles to this focal point are the other elephants, variously engineered to ‘cry out of sadness’, to ‘be self-destructive – getting drunk with ethanol that comes from a masala fruit’, and to ‘be happy’. These familiar, unfamiliar bodies with their familiar, unfamiliar gestures and emotions are to be glorified, but also to be scrutinised. Amidst saccharine light, Humeau plays out the development of human features and cultures in nonhuman species.

Ostensibly, this anthropomorphises the elephants – anthropomorphism meaning the attribution of human characteristics to nonhumans. Humeau imagines a life without or outside humanity, but one in which human assumptions remain present at every turn. At the same time, she continually blurs binary distinctions between the human and the nonhuman, the natural and the artificial. FOXP2 draws upon anthropomorphism as a tool precisely to question what exactly constitutes the anthropos (human). By doing so, it foregrounds other kinds of agency, ignored or forgotten. The elephants, as the saying goes, never forget.

These elephants are slightly different from the ones we see on Planet Earth II, though. Some of them are connected via plastic tubes to sources that bring about – or ‘engineer’ – their emotions. These sources include: a ‘glass artificial masala fruit’ filled with ethanol (another name for alcohol); an ‘artificial tear drop system and reservoir in glass’ containing three drops of elephant tears collected in Thailand as well as powdered depressant hormones dissolved in water; and the podium carpets, also pink. The carpets’  pigment comes from a dye made from the poisonous Datura plant – but this is not the only fluid soaked into the pile. Also present is a concoction that Humeau titles Body without Soul, or ‘liquid human’, made up of chemical elements ranging from oxygen (65%) and carbon (18%) all the way down to zinc (0.0027%) and minute traces of lead, arsenic, and bromine. By figuring the human as a composite of chemicals, each in a specific quantity, Humeau calls attention to the largely shared physical makeup of different species. On the one hand, she reminds us that the capabilities that enable survival, interaction, and even culture cannot be separated from their biological and chemical components. On the other, she suggests that they cannot be reduced to them. The elephants ensure that this questioning and reworking of agency is not confined to the human.

Humeau’s complex, critical anthropomorphism chimes with ideas from what has been broadly categorised as ‘new materialist’ philosophy. In Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010), Jane Bennett thinks through the agency of nonhuman entities ranging from a pile of debris to electricity. She argues that ‘[w]e need to cultivate a bit of anthropomorphism . . . to counter the narcissism’ of human language and thought.1 Her ‘vital materialism’ does not assume that animals, things, and elements ‘act’ in the same way that humans do, but rather acknowledges their potential for self-organisation and transformation beyond a deterministic or mechanistic structure. ‘In a vital materialism’, Bennett argues,

an anthropomorphic element in perception can uncover a whole world of resonances and resemblances—sounds and sights that echo and bounce far more than would be possible were the universe to have a hierarchical structure.2

Echo the elephant matriarch, ‘engineered to die’, will decay into her composite elements (although, given her plastic body, this may take a longer than a human or elephant lifetime). The other elephants’ grieving – shown repeatedly in the wild – commingles human projection and conceptual ‘engineering’ with a new attunement to the capacity of the nonhuman to respond. The elephants in FOXP2 watch, mourn, and sing, just as the chemicals within and outside of their bodies act upon and interact with each other.

Moving around Biological Showroom, I observe small changes in what initially appear to be static, silent exhibits. Water bubbles in the glass reservoirs; sounds emerge from the elephants, close to something I could understand, yet just beyond it. Noticing is not knowing. I have to walk back along the dark corridor to leave the gallery, and the sounds surround me again. In order to recognise these ‘sounds and sights that echo and bounce’ from Echo and her constituent parts and the magnesium making up 0.033% of the liquid human in the carpet to the waves emitted from the speakers concealed within the walls of the gallery, I have to rethink what I suppose to be my own boundaries and distinctions. As the subtitle to Bennett’s book suggests, such rethinking can be political, offering a challenge to the ways that individual and collective bodies are defined and organised in relation to each other.

Can the dark gallery space, largely cleared of its dirt and its animal populations, be political? In Jacques Rancière’s account of aesthetics, it can be, because of the kinds of ‘sensory apprehension’ the aesthetic makes possible – its potential for a ‘redistribution of the sensible’:

Art is not, in the first instance, political because of the messages and sentiments it conveys concerning the state of the world. Neither is it political because of the manner in which it might choose to represent society’s structures, or social groups, their conflicts or identities. It is political because of the very distance it takes with respect to these functions, because of the type of space and time that it institutes, and the manner in which it frames this time and peoples this space.3

When brought into contact with FOXP2, Rancière’s account stumbles upon its failure to consider the nonhuman elements and bodies ‘peopling’ a space. But through this lack, it enables the formation of a new ‘political ecology’, for and with these elements and bodies, in which we have to learn to look and listen differently. In her stunning treatment of human and nonhuman assemblages, capitalists and mushrooms (although, admittedly, not elephants), Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing writes that ‘[t]o listen politically is to detect the traces of not-yet-articulated common agendas’, an act that – in an ecological context – demands ‘many kinds of alertness’.4 Living amongst others (nonhuman as well as human) requires the recognition of a commons that is fleeting or shifting or complex. The chance mutation of a gene such as FOXP2 has been vitally enabling. But elements – or elephants – in the room remain unaddressed. Humeau offers one mode of approach.

1. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), p. xvi.
2. Ibid., p. 99.
3. Jacques Rancière, Aesthetics and its Discontents (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009), p. 23.
4. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), p. 254.

Plastic Art in the Anthropocene on Inciting Sparks


Earth Rise (1968). Image credit: NASA

28 November 2016 ¦ Kate Lewis Hood.

The Anthropocene is the name for a proposed geological epoch that marks the extent of human impact on the Earth’s systems and processes. This impact includes the sharp increase in CO2 levels in the atmosphere, but also other changes which are less widely discussed, such as the transformation of the nitrogen cycle, or the mass extinction of species. Although the Anthropocene Working Group only recommended that the term be adopted officially in August of this year, the Anthropocene has already been taken up as a cultural concept, with implications and possibilities for the arts as well as the sciences.

I wrote a short piece on the Anthropocene and the work of Scottish artist Karla Black for Inciting Sparks, an academic blogging platform run by Edinburgh’s postgraduate arts community – read the full article here.

Dérive & disability


Trent Building, autumn (Image: Oxymoron/

A Thursday morning, on the cusp of summer and autumn. Cool early, but rising quickly in heat and humidity. We set out.

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.1

I was breaking the first rule of dérive – I was at work. But I was supporting a person with disabilities, and we have been on many wanders together over the years I have known them. I began to think about the possibilities and challenges opened up by a discourse of dérive and disability.

Guy Debord (quoted above) was part of the Situationist International, a collective of thinkers and radicals in the mid-twentieth century who developed practices to engage critically and experimentally with urban geography. By exploring the emotions, psychic states, and behaviours produced by urban environments, they attempted to call attention to the codes underlying social and architectural organisations:

From a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.

Read in the context of disability, the ‘fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones’ are inflected by questions of access. The ‘attractions of the terrain’ and possible ‘encounters’ are influenced not only by personal preferences and desires, but also by the ways that a society conceptualises (and polices) its bodies.

According to the social model of disability developed in the late twentieth century, a distinction can be made between ‘impairment’ (the physical conditions affecting a person’s body) and ‘disability’ (the social attitudes and practices bearing upon impairment). Here, disability includes the ways that built environments limit access for people outside certain physical or mental parameters that have come to define a nondisabled ‘norm’. This approach allows a move away from viewing disability in solely medical terms. However, as Tom Shakespeare points out in his short but important analysis, the social model remains problematic. On the one hand, impairment, like disability, is socially and culturally constructed, affected by a range of factors including race, class, and gender. On the other hand, disability and impairment are not merely discursive, and have real, material effects for disabled people.2 This is what feminist disability scholar Susan Wendell calls ‘the rejected body’: ‘those aspects of bodily life (such as illness, disability, weakness, and dying), and bodily experience (including most forms of bodily suffering) that are feared, ignored, despised, and/or rejected in a society and its culture’.3 It is these aspects that both present a challenge to the dérive as experimental praxis and provide means of extending its social and political efficacy.

So we tried a dérive. Getting out of the building (a large hospital) involved memorising a set of hand-written instructions, finding lifts, following signs and a trail of yellow dots on the floor. There are practical considerations and questions here: what effect would a physical disability have on this journey? Visual impairment? A learning disability? But key to Debord’s theory are the emotional states and impressions that a journey offers, as a series of ‘varied ambiences’ and ‘terrains’. Disability can defamiliarise these ambiences and terrains, calling attention to particular elements that present difficulty or enable heightened sensation. On our walk, the noise levels changed significantly from corridor to corridor, from pin-drop quiet to loud, multilayered bustle. The shift from laminate to carpeted flooring altered the sound and smoothness of the wheelchair. Disinfectant smells mingled with coffee; sunlight blended with halogen glow. At the edge of the building, we crossed an indoor footbridge, eerily quiet over the rush of traffic on the busy road below. On the other side, we used another lift, before going outside to negotiate pavements and kerbsides of various heights, widths, and surfaces.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, landscape architects Joseph and Alfred Lowe shaped the ground for Highfields Park in Nottingham. The park, later developed by Jesse Boot (of Boots fame), sits alongside extensive university parkland. Their shared border is marked by the Trent Building, an impressive classical Portland stone structure with a campanile designed by Morley Horder in the 1920s. According to a walking guide produced by the university, D.H. Lawrence compared the building to an ‘iced cake’. This description perhaps refers to the way the building sits upon layers of sandstone, in which there are small caves, blocked with gates. Through this sandstone came the Tottle brook, which was used to create the boating lake below. On the bright August-September morning, it glimmered, offering clear sightlines from the Trent Building through the Chinese guardian lion statues to the grand ornamental gate on the other side. I described what I could see to the person I support, and we listened for the sounds of moorhens and coots as they rustled in the smeuses (gaps in the base of a hedge made by small animals).

The path was well-defined, but quite steep in places, demanding different movements to prevent the wheelchair hurtling down the hill and into the lake. Where the ground was more level, we left the path and bumped across the exposed tree roots in the woodland, rustling through the first leaves of autumn. Listening to the sounds and feeling the vibrations brought a different kind of attunement, a different kind of being in a place. This could only arise from our being together, working with and against the existing terrain and our available equipment, knowledge, and feelings.


The politics of disability and landscape have been challenged not only by dérive (a kind of drift), but also by very pointed journeys. In August 2000, three wheelchair-users and two people on crutches, along with friends, family, and volunteers, embarked on a twelve-hour hike to reach the Galehead hut 3,800 feet up the White Mountains in New Hampshire. This was a response to the ridicule and hostility in the local media against the Appalachian Mountain Club’s decision to make the hut wheelchair-accessible. The hikers used a range of ropes, planks, poles, as well as sheer determination, to make it to their destination. In part, this is a narrative of independence, of overcoming physical and social obstacles to defy expectations (like the ‘Yes I Can’ of the 2016 Paralympics trailer). But it is also an example of togetherness, of a need to acknowledge mutual interdependence, of particular importance in what Lennard J. Davis has called the ‘dismodern era’:

The dismodern era ushers in the concept that difference is what all of us have in common. That identity is not fixed but malleable. That technology is not separate, but part of the body. That dependence, not individual independence, is the rule.4

Disability is a possibility for everyone, even though its reality may differ vastly depending on class, race, religion, gender, and sexuality. It is precisely these intersections that need to be explored in the dérive as theory and practice. By the time we crossed the strange footbridge again, it was awash with heat and light.

(Note: This post arises partly from several part-time jobs I have had in recent years, which have involved supporting children with disabilities in their homes, schools, and communities. It is also rooted in more academic study – I did several pieces of work during my undergraduate degree, including one of my final-year dissertations, on disability in literature. However, as a nondisabled writer, I am concerned about appropriating experiences that are not mine, so please call me out if you feel I have made mistakes in writing this piece.)

1. Guy Debord, ‘Theory of the Dérive’, in The Situationist International Anthology, trans. by Ken Knabb (Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006), p. 62.
2. Tom Shakespeare, ‘The Social Model of Disability’, in The Disability Studies Reader, ed. by Lennard J. Davis, 3rd edn (London: Routledge, 2010), pp. 270-71.
3. Susan Wendell, The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability (New York and London: Routledge, 1996), p. 85.
4. Lennard J. Davis, Bending Over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism, and Other Difficult Positions (New York: New York University Press, 2002), p. 26.

To a plankter


Light pours through the ground floor of Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain in Montparnasse. The glass and steel structure, designed by Jean Nouvel, refracts the sun-spotted foliage of Lothar Baumgarten’s woodland garden, turning inside to outside in shafts of green. Behind the glass façade, exhibits are laid out like a symphony orchestra; low walls of terracotta bricks make curves in the rectilinear space, enabling longer sightlines. On one side of one of these walls is Cai Guo-Qiang’s White Tone (2016), a print made with gunpowder, depicting animals circled around a waterhole. On the other side are slideshows of Manabu Miyazaki’s photographs, taken between 2005 and 2016. Shots from a secret camera installed on a footbridge play out alongside a jay bird in flight, while a third screen documents the decay of a deer’s body through the passing seasons. Whereas the eye seeks a panoramic view of Cai’s work, it snags in the juxtapositions of Miyazaki’s, challenged to reconcile contrasting narratives of life, time, and death. In this sense, Mauricio Rocha and Gabriela Carrillo’s interior architectures bring The Great Animal Orchestra to life but also to silence, troubling the position of an objective, omniscient spectator in this show of many tones and parts.

But it is downstairs where the show’s connections and contrasts can be most keenly felt. This is the site of Plankton, A Drifting World at the Origin of Life (2016), an installation produced as part of the Plankton Chronicles project. The installation is the result of extended collaborative work between artists and scientists: Christian Sardet of the Centre National de la Reserche Scientifique (CNRS), along with the Macronauts and Fondation Tara Expéditions, have produced hundreds of images and videos brought to life in the museum by artist Shiro Takatani and composer Ryuichi Nakamoto.

An underworld of strange, vibrant forms, the dark space hosts some of the Earth’s newest and oldest technologies existing in mutual dependence. Plankton are responsible for half of the oxygen in the atmosphere – some of them, such as cyanobacteria, have been on the planet for 3.5. billion years. Plankton maintain ecosystems. By capturing sunlight in their bodies and using it as energy, they developed photosynthesis. They are the neglected subjects of portraiture.


Oceana Armata Jellyfish (2012). Copyright: Christian Sardet and the Macronauts/Plankton Chronicles.

Out of the darkness come high definition digital images of plankton, dazzling in their colour and precision. They are accompanied by descriptions and Latin names reminiscent of a natural history book. But these images cannot be confined to the dull flat of a page surface; they demand to be looked at from a variety of angles, many of them inaccessible to most human viewers. In this sense, The Plankton Chronicles offers an encounter with incomprehensibility. Behind a thick felt curtain are nine screens, horizontal and slightly raised from the floor, each showing videos of plankton. Sometimes different screens show images in sync; at other times, the images are fragmented. These videos, in their range of combinations, are intensely hypnotic, yet disorientating. Seemingly recognisable forms mutate into blurs of sound and vision. Outlines escape.


Glitch art by Rosa Menkman. Image: Wikipedia.

On the one hand, Plankton, A Drifting World at the Origin of Life seems to offer a guided, aestheticised glimpse into ‘nature’, only missing a Blue Planet-style voiceover. On the other hand, the shifting images appear to be at odds with a common conception of the ‘natural world’, instead resembling a kind of glitch art for a post-internet audience accustomed to looking at screens. In this case, advances in human technology reveal what was already there before the human.

More importantly, the images call into question exactly what constitutes the human, or, more commonly, ‘us’, as separate from the ‘environment’ and its myriad life forms. Drawing attention to these forms encourages thinking in more ecological and symbiotic terms, challenging viewers to explore the other worlds that are intimate parts of us. These other worlds are microscopic, instantaneous, gradual, geologic, synesthetic, making strange anthropocentric accounts of reason and sensation. This exhibition has placed emphasis on plankton, as the organisms upon which much of life on Earth is predicated, but other work currently being produced draws on different ecologies in a similar vein. Lichen Beacons (2015), an installation by musician Tom Hall, poet Drew Milne, and coder Barry Byford, for example, explores the mutual capacity of lichens and digital technology in the contemporary environment. In a recent article for the New Yorker, ‘The Secrets of the Wood Wide Web‘ (2016), Robert Macfarlane puts pressure on the division between creative and scientific language as he forays into fungi with plant scientist Merlin Sheldrake. This kind of work is demanding new vocabularies and new ways of understanding. But perhaps these explorations can be the beginnings of something more ethical, more attuned.

(For basic plankton info, see this video.)

In the Green Chapel

New Year in the time of King Arthur. A strange green man on horseback challenges the knights to a beheading game. When Arthur’s nephew Sir Gawain steps up and swings his axe, the Green Knight simply picks up his severed head and reminds Gawain of his side of the deal: he is to face a similar blow the following New Year. This blow will take place not at Camelot in the company of Arthur’s knights but at the Green Chapel, unknown and faraway.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight evokes a range of locations as Gawain takes up his quest in the ‘wyldrenesse’.1 Anglesey and the Wirral are named, but place becomes more ambiguous as the knight travels further away from his home. When he asks Wirral locals for information on the whereabouts of the Green Chapel, ‘al nykked him with nay’, shaking their heads. But later in the poem, a man from Hautdesert (a fairytale castle that appears on first sight to be ‘pared out of pauper’) shows Gawain the way, urging him all the while not to enter the Green Chapel.

Left alone beside a brimming river, Gawain finally finds what he has been looking for, although he can’t be sure at first:

Hit hade a hole on þe ende and on ayþer syde,
And ouergrowen with gresse in glodes aywhere,
And al watz holȝ inwith, nobot an olde caue,
Or a creuisse of an olde cragge, he couþe hit noȝt deme
with spell.

It had a hole at the end and on either side,
and was overgrown with grass in patches everywhere.
It was all hollow within – nothing but an old cave
or the crevice of an old crag – he couldn’t put it
into words.

(All translations are mine, and rough.)

The chapel foregrounds a representational difficulty for Gawain that is suggestive of the Gawain-poet’s own practices and challenges. The chapel is important as a site precisely because it lies just beyond definite knowledge and description. It is mythical, and yet it possesses a strange solidity. Investigating this solidity more closely, scholar Ralph Elliott has suggested a concrete (or, rather, gritstone) analogue for the chapel in his account of SGGK‘s landscape and geography:


This is Ludchurch or Lud’s Church, a natural cleft in the side of a rounded hill above the river Dane on the Staffordshire-Cheshire border, truly half cave, half crevice, as the poet says, overlooked by a group of oddly twisted knarrez…2

IMG_1493Lud’s Church is a deep chasm formed by a landslide in the woodland below the Roaches, a gritstone escarpment in the Peak District. According to legend and record, it was a hideout for Lollards in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and a hotspot for tourists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This morning, my dad and I (both avid Gawain readers) trekked through the heather and gritstone outcrops of the upper moorland before following a muddy track down into the eighteen metre chasm. Sun and wind, both intense on the moors, became fleeting in the cool damp between sandstone walls thick with ferns and moss.


‘Now iwysse,’ quoþ Wowayn, ‘wysty is here;
Þis oritore is vgly, with erbez ouergrowen;
Wel bisemez þe wyȝe wruxled in grene
Dele here his deuocioun on þe deuelez wise.’

‘Now really,’ said Gawain, ‘it is desolate here.
This oratory is ugly, with its overgrown plants –
it well suits the man dressed in green
to carry out his prayers to the devil here.’

The place is desolate, ‘wysty’. Gawain comes to it in the middle of winter, reiterating the bleak aesthetic that has pervaded the poem’s outside landscapes. Away from the rich splendour and extravagance of feasts at Camelot and Hautdesert,

Þe hasel and þe haȝþorne were harled al samen,
With roȝe raged mosse rayled aywhere,
With mony bryddez vnblyþe vpon bare twyges,
Þat pitosly þer piped for pyne of þe colde.

The hazel and the hawthorn were tangled all together,
with rough, frost-covered moss strewn everywhere.
Upon bare twigs, many discontented birds
sang piteously out of pain from the cold.

(Apologies for the fact that this very quick translation doesn’t even approach the utter brilliance of the original.)

In this context, it feels like a bit of a cheat to visit Lud’s Church in August, when shafts of sunlight glimmer down the rock face from birch trunk to earth. But, in The Natural History of Staffordshire (1685), Robert Plot describes:

the sides steeped and so hanging over that it sometimes preserves snow all the summer. Whereof they had signal proof at the town of Leek on the 17 July, their fair day at which time of the year a Wharnford man brought a sack of snow thence…3

Unfortunately, there was no snow today, and no Green Knight either. As a green chapel hidden in the wilderness, Lud’s Church is romanticised, poeticised. But, as we learn from Gawain, ‘HONY SOYT MAL QUI PENCE’ (shame on whoever would think badly of it). We can only try (and try, and try) to ‘deme [it] with spelle’.

1. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. by J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967).
2. Ralph Elliott, ‘Landscape and Geography’, in A Companion to the Gawain-Poet, ed. by Derek Brewer and Jonathan Gibson (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1997), 105-119 (p. 116).
3. Robert Plot, qtd. in Roy Millward and Adrian Robinson, The Peak District (London: Methuen, 1975), p. 35.

Reading Capital

I’m taking part in a reading group on Marx’s Capital with Professor John Hutnyk at Nottingham Contemporary. I’m blogging about the process from week to week on

Thoughts on Capital

‘A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism’. These words, read for the first time in my late teens, were my introduction to Marx, as they have been for countless other people since he and Engels circulated them in 1848. In our first session with Capital, someone drew attention to another spectre-filled work published within the same year as The Communist Manifesto: Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Marx admired the Brontës as part of a set of nineteenth century realist writers ‘whose graphic and eloquent pages have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together’.1 Such ‘political and social truths’ never come unaccompanied by ghosts, as must be acknowledged by any reader of Marx after the twentieth century.

But back, for a moment, to Emily Brontë. In Wuthering Heights

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