PANEL 1: EMPATHY AND PROXIMITY
More than One Way to Get Somewhere
Image Credit: CCW Graduate School
“There is a sense of reading the natural world with more attention, more curiosity, more digging down and I think that the idea of walking in the landscape gives you those opportunities, but you need to be alert.”
EDWINA FITZPATRICK (EF):
We are going to discuss Wilding the Edges, which was a Graduate School-funded project for students and staff in 2015. We will mention different outcomes and narratives that emerged from it, which is one of the beautiful things about doing these projects, the fact that you have no idea what sort of direction the conversation is going to take. Wilding the Edges was an interactive tour followed by a BarCamp focusing on how we engage with landscape cultures, specifically with the way the world is cultivated and how different types or qualities of landscape overlap.
About seventy or sixty people attended. It focused very much on the environment around Wimbledon with its strange alleyways, as I will describe. The idea for Wilding the Edges developed through an interest raised by students in pschogeography, along with the idea that ‘wilding’ is sown by natural agency.
GERAINT EVANS (GE):
I think there is also something about Wimbledon’s particular locality. I was thinking a bit about the way it is perceived as ‘leafy’ and I think of ourselves as these creative folk within this ‘leafy’ suburban environment.
We had tour guides, who were visiting artists, but we also wanted to keep within a spirit of ‘lostness’ and being lost. I am a firm believer in the principal of ‘not knowing’. By not knowing and being lost you can then open yourself up to new ideas and become more empathetic. Two of our guides were Nick Edwards and Paul Kingsnorth. Nick Edwards, who has worked with Cape Farewell (a project based at Chelsea College of Arts that instigates cultural responses to climate change) because he was interested in the concept of ‘urban expedition’ and about giving value to places that are normally not valued. Paul Kingsnorth was dubbed one of the ten most dangerous thinkers in the UK some years back, he co-created the Dark Mountain Project, a network of writers and artists who feel that contemporary culture must better engage with the scale of our ecological, economic and social crisis. He also wrote Real England: the Battle Against the Bland (2008), which demonstrates his interest in a situation between ‘space’ and ‘place’.
We were also very lucky as well that Lucy Orta and David Took were both Chairs of the university; Lucy as a Chair of Art and the Environment and David in Audio Culture and Improvisation. Not only did they come on the tour with us, but they also gave talks to our students; David’s was very revealing of his new research about sound in paintings, which was quite extraordinary.
We did a walk from Wimbledon College up to the common. We were introduced to this idea that Wimbledon Common is the largest plot of common land in London. But there were also these strange alleyways, a network of them that only local people really know about. Actually a few of the students knew these routes, despite having been in the area for only a couple of years. After taking our tours through these various routes we ended up, as you do at the end of the walk, in a pub.
But moving on to the idea of what emerged, this project was not about describing the place, but allowed for a much broader interpretation. We will spend a bit more time unraveling the concepts of ‘empathy’ and ‘proximity’ in relation to the walk, but I will start with the word ‘resistance’. Resistance is really key to Wilding the Edges. For example, we can think about the Ramblers Association and their ‘willful trespass’ to Kinder Scout in the Peak District in 1931, fighting for idea of the ‘right to roam’, the right to walk across common land. This was always something in the back of my mind during the project.
What is interesting about traversing through a particular environment is that there are obviously questions of ownership, property and power. We crossed areas of land that are perhaps slightly more contested and of course the Common itself presents all kinds of narratives and histories, such as the history of enclosure, particularly in the mid to late nineteenth century. In 1864, Earl Spencer, Lord of the Manor of Wimbledon proposed a change to the Common’s use to create a park, private garden whilst land would be sold for development. A parliamentary select committee and four years of litigation eventually led to an act of parliament that preserved the open and unspoilt nature of Wimbledon and Putney Commons. These ideas were constantly present in our walks, the concepts of ownership and the right to roam. For example, in the Dundonald Recreation Ground, opposite the college, we sighted these silver, galvanised hoardings at the far side of the park that looked like some sort of fascinating installation. There were also signs of building works that local residents had been resisting for three years to prevent the land being built upon. Of course, again, we think about access as even in the alleyways you get glimpses into gardens through the gaps in fences, which made us consider ideas of the ownership of land, of fencing off and preventing passage.
We also thought about the idea that there is a connection with walking as a political, slow act that links to histories beyond these shores. If you think about the Sierra club in California or the rise of walking clubs in Vienna such as The Nature Friends and The Magical Bird. The Nature Friend’s slogan was ‘Free Mountains!’
We were kind of hemmed in by chainmail-like fences and we were thinking about norms. David made the point that backlashes against the norm are always predictable, but that it is important to try to find ways of reacting that are unpredictable, which gave us the idea of ‘railing against the generic’. One of the things that emerged from the conversation was: is resistance a form of wildness?
We definitely talked about where wilderness might reside, if at all. Throughout the course of the day there was this ever-changing idea of where our imagining of the wilderness has come from: our thoughts wandered into the biblical idea of the wilderness, to the medieval idea of making a taboo landscape, to more of an understanding that embraced the Romantic movement. Even though we did touch upon the London riots and that situation as a type of wilderness, we turned these conversations round into being about other more local acts, which might include the urban wilderness of hinterland, or ideas about guerrilla gardening and foraging.
I think one of the key things that I took from the day was this principal about paying attention. Lucy, while walking to the BarCamp, noted hidden narratives that can only be understood experientially, which she called the ‘spirits of a place’. There was a lot of discussion about the distinction between ‘space’ and ‘place’, and the embodied relationship with the walk. Each group had a slightly different route to get from the same starting point to the same finishing point, so comparative experience really reinforced that there was not a generic way of doing things; there was more than one way of getting somewhere.
I do not think that we have mentioned David’s tour yet. He asked his group to walk the whole way entirely without speaking. It became very different, an experience of walking through aural landscapes. It brought up all sorts of thoughts, such as understanding the time of day through sounds, like the sound of children being picked up from school. It involved people finding a sensitivity to noise. I remember speaking to you a few years ago about living in a sort of failed modernist, utopian housing estate in Manchester (Hulme) and the first thing that I noticed when I visited this place for the first time was the silence, there were no roads that went through the estates at all.
The interesting thing about this idea of paying attention is not solely about embodiment, but going back to seeing clues within the environment, the kind of histories, the hidden narratives. It makes me think about the writer W.J.T. Mitchell who wrote Vernacular Landscape and Landscape and Power, people like Ann Birmingham who wrote History of the English Rustic Tradition in Landscape and Ideology. Another good example is the British documentary by Patrick Keiller called Robinson in Ruins, the way in which Keiller shows a succession of static views of the Oxfordshire English pastoral landscape, but places this with another contrasting, militarised landscape present there. He talks about this a lot because of the proximity there to places like Brize Norton and Greenham Common. There is a sense of reading the natural world with more attention, more curiosity, more digging down and I think that the idea of walking in the landscape, in a sense, gives you those opportunities, but you need to be alert.
Edwina fitzPatrick is a UK-based artist whose work explores the living environment, especially in regard to mutability and change, focusing in particular on what happens when ‘grey’ and ‘green’ environments intersect and how human interactions have, and are affecting the nature, culture and ecology of a place. Edwina is also Course Director for MFA Fine Art, Wimbledon College of Arts, UAL.
Geraint Evans is interested in the ways in which we perceive, encounter and experience the natural world and read it as landscape. Geraint’s solo exhibitions include Newport Museum and Art Gallery;
Wilkinson Gallery, London; Chapter, Cardiff and CASA, Salamanca, Spain. He has been a resident artist at the Banff Centre for the Arts, Canada and, in 2003 received a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Award and the Berwick Gymnasium Fellowship. He is the Course Leader for MA Painting at Wimbledon College of Arts, UAL.