Sunday, 29 January 2012

Exploring Common Ground

One of the things that interests me when I'm exploring a place is exploring as a group.  (See examples in some of our Wellbeing Walks here.)

Different people are drawn to different things and it's always interesting to discover the knowledge that people have about wildlife, hedgerows, aeroplanes, history, civil engineering, foraging etc.  All these things can become part of the conversation inspired by whatever you come across on your explorative walk.

Corby Community Arts exhibition poster, 2006
I'm also fascinated by walking with children.  First of all children see things from a different height to adults, so they often spot things low down or on the floor that we don't!  Also, they seem to pay attention to detail (perhaps it's because they still have good eyesight!), they often spot the ladybird or a teeny weeny glittering shard of stone that I would NEVER have noticed on my own!  I've been involved in quite a few projects now putting cameras into the hands of children to record how they see the world.

Thinking about people and places, I went to the Decolonizing Architecture seminar at Nottingham Contemporary yesterday.  Amongst other things, they were talking about the notions of public, private and common space.  This got me thinking again about some of my early Corby projects in Corby town centre a few years ago.  (See the Thinkspace website for the project archive.)

Working as an artist "in the public realm" brings you right into the politics of space.  If you want to make anything happen in a space that is accessible to the public you open a can of worms in terms of who owns that space, who makes the decisions about what happens there, who controls it, are you able to criticise it etc.  Just finding out who controls a space can be difficult - for example, the Highways Agency might be responsible for the roads and paths, but the Borough Council might be responsible for the green strips along the edge of them.  With any patch of land you have to work out which bit is Council, Highways or private... and sometimes you have to negotiate with all three of them to make anything happen!  What we often take for granted as "public" space is always overseen by somebody and is never as public as we like to think.

Permission to Play Debate Day by Thinkspace, 2006. Photo by Kate Dyer.
As a result of the first Thinkspace project in Corby town centre, I set up a debate day called Permission to Play to talk about people using public space, and invited planners, architects, councillors and local people to the event to talk about the regeneration of Corby.

Which brings me to the notion of common ground.  This is something, I think, that we have largely lost in the UK, and more specifically in England (you can still free camp in some parts of Scotland, for example).  Common ground is not controlled by the public (the state) or the private (enterprise or personal property). In fact, it is uncontrolled.  Therefore anybody can use it, which includes nature, for as I have written before nature always moves in wherever humans move out!

Having a space which is uncontrolled is something we all seek and also fear.  We want somewhere where we can be ourselves without restriction, or to reconnect with nature where it has reclaimed ground.  One of my favourite writers Robert Macfarlane writes about our deep desire to seek out the wilderness (read The Wild Places - it's brilliant!).  And yet if there is lack of control there is also anarchy, and that is something fearful.

If you're interested in the idea of common ground you should really go and see the Decolonizing Architecture exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary.  A very interesting show that raises all sorts of questions about the way we claim and occupy space and ways in which it can be reclaimed - or, in some instances, just given back to nature.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Wollaston to Alwalton: reaching conclusions

I have been working on ideas for the BB project since last April, and this week things came to a conclusion.

Work in progress - photo by Kate Dyer

My ideas for the project have meandered a little like the river itself, turning this way and that but always moving forwards, sometimes fast, sometimes slow.  There is always a time with a project when initial ideas are numerous and can become cluttered in your mind, but then you reach a breakthrough where everything becomes clear, some things are rejected and others stand out as important.

At the beginning of a project, when I am looking around, exploring and gathering thoughts and ideas, I become very private about them.  I'm sifting and sorting through things and find it confusing if other people's ideas interfere.  However, at some point I instinctively feel that now is the time to ask the opinion of others and this is often when a conclusion is reached.

But you need to find the right people to talk to!  I've been lucky with this project.  Both photographer Kate Dyer, who is collaborating with me on the visual response to this project, and Ros Stoddart, Director of the BB project, proved to both be the right people at this time.  I already had a good feeling  about what would work, and ran it by Kate and Ros, who understood me completely and, with a few tweaks and a stroke of genius by Kate, we have come to a conclusion about the exact form that the end result will be!

My commission for this project was to create a map inspired by BB's Summer on the Nene.  However, we decided to call the result "a visual response" rather than a map, because it aims to communicate a lot more than a geography.

Looking at the river - Jo Bell and Ros Stoddart back in the summer

Ideas that I have been mulling over include:  how to communicate the sense of place when you are travelling on the river?  How to show that sense of being in the moment, the slowness?  How to represent the navigational importance of the spires of the churches?  How to include the unique and quirky details that this particular stretch of the river has revealed?  And how to incorporate, in a properly integrated way, Kate's own photographic responses to the river?  I feel that the piece that I have decided upon will do all these things.

The visual response, called "Wollaston to Alwalton", will be unveiled at the Riverlands performance on 21 April at Aldwincle Church, Northamptonshire, as a limited edition of copies.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Paths of Desire and walking with freedom

Over Christmas I started to make a book about walking, why we walk and ways in which we walk.

I first became interested in walking as a practice for exploring the world in 2004 when I began a project I called Paths of Desire in Corby, Northamptonshire.  At the time I wrote:
When we walk we are not bound by the rules of the road... Paths of Desire is...about the freedom to make our own choices about where we want to go and where we want to be...
Paths of Desire leaflet
For me, walking has always had an element of subversiveness to it, an element of individual choice and not going along with the mainstream.  When you walk you can cross many terrains, change direction suddenly, jump over fences and walk on walls.  Walking, as oppose to using any form of vehicle, liberates you from the necessity of having to follow tracks laid down by others.  For me, walking, like exploring, can seem rebellious.  This is when I first started reading about psychogeography and the Situationists.

I also received a beautiful gift of a compass over Christmas.  This got me thinking again about travelling without maps and why I have such a resistance to using a Sat Nav.  A map and a Sat Nav give you pre-prescribed routes, they miss out the detail and get you there by a route that somebody else (planners) have deemed to be the "best" way. Your choice has been removed.

Yes, brilliant for getting about quickly and not getting lost... but what do you lose in not getting lost?

I have done a number of motorcycle tours across Europe, especially in the years before Sat Nav had been invented!  My longest trip was to go to Brno in the Czech Republic and back.  We had a map but it only covered western Germany and ran out before we reached Dresden.  Completely lost and not knowing the language, we decided, well, we knew we had to go east... so we did it the old fashioned way, we just navigated by where the sun was and kept travelling more or less east until, sure enough, we eventually found Brno.

Who knows the route we actually took, I couldn't tell you now, even with a map.  But if we hadn't just followed our instincts (and the sun!) we would have been travelling the well worn main roads laid down by others, and not stumbled across the small villages, beautiful churches in the hills, broken down buildings and beckoning street-ladies that we came across.  As a result, my impressions of the Czech Republic at that time were multi-layered and fascinating.

The compass has the poem The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost inscribed in the lid.  It ends with the lines:
"I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less travelled by
And that has made all the difference."
On Monday my collaborator Carole and I start our new series of explorative walks in Northamptonshire, and we shall be blogging about it here:

On Monday we will be walking by water
I found a great Radio 3 programme by travel writer Ian Marchant, a good introduction to psychogeography, listen to it here:  Walking with Attitude.

Later Paths of Desire projects are archived on my Thinkspace website.

If you are interested in motorcycle tours, my friend Duncan runs European tours, see his website

Come on a night walk!  Dream Walking event, Friday 10th February, Nottingham, see the Sidelong blog for details.

Monday, 2 January 2012

What's ahead this year for the natural world?

Happy New Year everybody!

Looking back on 2011 - my two most popular blog posts were both about the River Nene project!   Nature, walking and foraging will continue to be hot topics here.  And other things have recently popped up to do with the author "BB" (who inspired the River Nene project - see previous post).

Warm October sun on a footbridge over the River Nene
Michael McCarthy wrote about BB's influence on him in The Independent (thanks to Steff Lee for drawing my attention to it - Steff is creating an animation for the project)

People actively foraging are cropping up everywhere (the windfall apple chutney turned out really well, by the way), and I will be starting a new series of walks for 2012 in various places in Northamptonshire to include foraging, planting, guerilla gardening and so on with my collaborator Carole - follow the Undiscovered Networks blog for details.

So perhaps on our walks we will be able to keep an eye on what is happening in the natural world in 2012.  With the weather continuing to be mild, foraging has been good this year but how is the weather affecting other wildlife? 

I came across a worrying report of the weather's effects on insects such as the Purple Emperor butterfly, a key character in Steff's animation and an important species found around Fermyn Woods and the Northamptonshire area.  This amazing butterfly catches the imagination, it is spectacular and elusive with strange habits, there is even a website dedicated to trying to catch sight of it!

So on into 2012, there are some concerns about the way things will pan out, but on the whole I'm really looking forward to getting my teeth into the new things I have planned.  Which, of course, you can continue to read about here!