Friday, 26 August 2011

Following walls

This week I had to present a proposal in Wolverhampton and talk about the beauty of maps.  We began talking about maps as lines to follow, and I have an idea about maps being on walls and linear, like a trail through a building.

They are building a new Leisure Centre and the architectural design is lovely, with curved green walls throughout.  I have started playing with ideas of curved walls and maps that curve around them...

or maps as ribbons...

... maps as three dimensional drawings, taking you on a physical journey as you walk alongside them.

Geographical maps are two dimensional drawings representing a three dimensional space.  What if a map works back in three dimensions, drawn across a space?

Like contours across the space?  Or as a map transposed onto somewhere else?

A walk in the Peak District.  Following walls.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Curating walks

I have been thinking about the nature of curating for some time. At Nottingham Contemporary the current exhibition, Jean Genet - The Courtesy of Objects, has been curated in an unusual and interesting way, almost creating a portrait of Jean Genet through a collection of other artists' works.

I have led workshops about curating before at the galleries. It's often the unseen creative process that people forget about. You tend to focus on the artworks and the artists in an exhibition and yet everything you see is also framed by the curatorial concept. The fact that you may not be consciously aware of this as an audience gives a curator a lot of power. It could even be considered manipulative!

Maps from the Wellbeing Walks finished this week and ready to go!
I've started thinking about all the walking and mapping projects that I have been doing for the last few years in terms of curating.

In a sense the mapping process is like the curation of the walk.  A particular walk can take on its own theme.  A map then identifies and draws together the theme or overarching idea about a place or a route and attempts to present this as a coherent truth.

Detail from Myth Maps, Snibston
I have used walks as a way of exploring a place and discovering something of its character, which is then made visible in a map. The process can be transformative and also enables the map maker to develop a quite intimate relationship with a particular place or landscape. 

Detail from Myth Maps, Snibston
I have been talking with LJ, a colleague at the Contemporary who has just finished her Art History degree and is interested in curating and mapping, about exploring some of these ideas further. We hope to propose an action research project some time in the future which will pull together a number of these interests.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The grammar of Nature - gift or product?

Richard Mabey explains an important idea about our changing relationship to trees in his book "Beechcombings":

The fundamental grammar of our relationships with trees changed.  Before, 'growing' had been an intransitive verb in the language of woods.  Trees grew, and we, in a kind of subordinate clause, took things from them.  In the forest-speak of the Enlightenment, 'growing' was a transitive verb.  We were the subject and trees the object.  We were the cause of their existence in particular places on the earth.
Mabey thinks that somewhere around the second half of the 17th century the way we refer to trees, the way we speak about trees and woodland, and therefore the way we think about trees, began to change.  And that has changed the way we behave towards trees and how we value them.

I feel this attitude can be applied to all Nature.  Nature changed from being a gift, such as in the act of foraging, where we can seek and find things that we can use and are of value to us, and we rejoice in the finding of these things.  Now Nature seems more like a product, like so many items on a market shelf.  Something we can produce ourselves and "perfect" (whatever that may mean!), something we can acquire.  From Capability Brown's creation of "natural" vistas in landscape design to today's contrived cottage gardens, we have embraced Nature in a strange way which both admires its random beauty and yet seeks to control it.

I love my garden and the careful trimming and pruning of this and that.  I love the joy that I get from a plant that rewards my efforts.  But this is a very different experience to being somewhere like on the River Nene.

In our River Nene project Three Jos in a Boat, we have very much had the sense that we are in another world.  A world of Nature.  A place that we are not of.  A place that has its own rules, rhythms and lives that continue regardless of and indifferent to our existence.  A place where we have little influence.

Man's relationship to Nature (in our Western culture, anyway) has become separated - it is in the grammar we use, the way we speak about things.  Man and Nature.  Two different, separate, opposite nouns.  In gardening and in agricultural practices we spend our time battling with Nature's way to make it work to our own rules.

This may be changing.  Attending a conference in Leeds a few years ago on Design Activism, I met people from the Permaculture Association.  Permaculture is about sustainability, a word we hear all the time these days.  But it is more than that.  It seems to me that the principles of Permaculture are about integration, about us becoming more integrated with Nature's laws once more and becoming a part of that system, instead of our continuing to try to be a dominant and controlling force.

Perhaps we need to change our use of language again.

(All the images in this post are a gift from the River Nene.)

Monday, 1 August 2011

River Foraging

I have been walking along parts of the River Nene, sometimes accompanied by photographer Kate Dyer, for our Three Jos in a Boat project celebrating "BB".

Alwalton was the furthest point that BB reached in his book "A Summer on the Nene".  The village is beautiful, very quiet, with a few unusual buildings.  Two footpaths to the river, one which takes you to a bend which seemed shallow enough to wade, the other taking you to Alwalton Lock.

The plaque reads "Henry Royce, co-founder of Rolls-Royce, born in Alwalton 1863

There are in fact two locks here.  Alwalton Lock is prominent on the landscape and there were many people around walking their dogs.

But following the path towards the other lock that can be seen in the distance, you enter into a cool woodland area and stumble across the most remarkable eerie green pool.  A small boat tucked away at the side. 

The way the light came through the trees and lit up the green algae was quite astonishing.

Follow the path the other way across the field and footbridge reveals further interest.  Wild flowers growing up to the side of the water, a splattering of bright colours.

One bank completely clothed in these bright yellow daisies

A conical building in the distance... at first I wondered if it was a kiln, but approaching it closer the windows suggested an old mill or store, perhaps?

At the other end of BB's route, Kate and I explored the area around Higham Ferrers and Ditchford.  On the map it was apparent that there were lakes scattered around the river in this area.  It appears that the lakes were formed by the abandoned gravel pits, where gravel was once quarried.  We wondered how this landscape would have been when BB came by here, would the quarrying still have been underway and would this have been a bustling industrial site?  Did BB write about this or was he only interested in the more picturesque?

Only occasional glimpses of the gravel pit lakes through the trees
BB did bemoan the fact that the countryside and natural things all around him were giving way to "progress".
"Look ye also, while it lasts." 
Perhaps he would have been heartened to know what we found:  as the industry has disappeared, nature has moved back in in the way that it does and is thriving!  The Higham Ferrers path is quite hard to find, but once on it there is a Nature Reserve and a haven of foraging potential!  We found (and sampled!) a great variety of berries coming into ripeness.  A little early perhaps?

Plums, sweet and juicy

Blackberries, abundant and delicious!

Sloes, just turning blue
We were heading for a bridge marked on the map but when we got there the bridge was unsafe to cross.  An elderberry bush had claimed it for its own and grew right up through the middle!

The bridge seen from the opposite side

Walking to the bridge from the other end, approaching from Ditchford, through a small holding with sheep and lovely chickens, past the sewage works, the area has none of the romantic elegance of some of the village areas that we have visited along the River.
Once you get back to the river, the roar of the traffic running right parallel to the river is deafening.  Driving on that stretch of road, you could easily be completely unaware that there is a river just a few yards away!  Lorries could be glimpsed trundling by behind the trees.

But still by the river nature carries on, millions of small creatures and plants living out their lives in parallel to ours, regardless of the road.