Emma Bush and Mary Loveday Edwards
for The Home and The World Conference at Dartington June 2012.
Place is learning us
This paper examines and explains the motivation behind our performance walks. Our method involves a repeated research walk in which we look for the memories inscribed into place, and consider that whilst we are learning place, place is also learning us. The practice is concerned with mapping processes of exchange that occur between ourselves and others, including non-human others.
We are committed to acts of observation as a method for coming closer to place and developing attentiveness to our internal and external environment. The walks are deliberately low key and non-spectacular – concentrating the audience’s attention on what is already there; what is hidden or behind things.
A guided performance walk may draw our attention to vastly different times and places, to articulate a passage beyond everyday spatial and temporal flows. The walks allude to the serendipity of things, the interconnectedness of histories, species, times and places.
Keywords: more-than-human others; place
The Goat Herder
Why are ‘more than human’ others central to our work?
Good Afternoon. We are Emma Bush and Mary Loveday Edwards and we work together as Patience and Ella making performances walks, writing and workshops. We are very pleased to be here with you today in this studio at Dartington for The Home and the World Festival. The title of our paper is, ‘Place is learning us, ’ so we will be asking questions about how we as artists approach place and try to collaborate with it.
A few years ago now I began work on a project called Village Walk in the place where I live -Harbertonford. Initial research involved a research walk which was repeated many times alone, with collaborators and with 3 senior citizens who were residents of the village. The walk ended at the top of a hill in a shed where we sat and quietly sketched out thoughts on what we had seen, heard and imagined along the way. In my notes I wrote;
“Where is the future and the past indicated in this place? A process of continual repetition and return can be seen as writing into or a kind of relief making in place. On the first day I walk the hedgerows do not know me. How long does it take to carve a memory into a place? If we consider all actions to be held, to be lightly or subtly encoded into the universe then we can also acknowledge another kind of writing; that of brief passing through, leaving traces, and anticipations along our path. Does place learn or remember our steps? Perhaps it depends on how porous and open we are as we pass through that place. Not only are we learning, breathing in the place but the place too is learning us”.
Of course trying to explore these ideas is not a simple thing and we do not have any answers. However brushing up against this set of thoughts feels productive for us and encourages deeper enquiry into place. When we talk about place of course that involves a myriad of lifeforms and forces, animal, vegetable, mineral, human, rock, stone, light phenomena, weather and objects.
When asked the question; ‘Why do you make films? Wim Wenders quotes Cezanne saying: “Things are disappearing. If you want to see anything, you have to hurry.’[i]
I like the sense of urgency in here, the feeling that something has to be done; to change or to happen. This helps me to connect with the idea of our practice as a political stance, a resistance to the death-trap of the financial grindstone. Because our practice constitutes – a place where paying attention, marking the unremarkable, looking and attuning our hearing are things that matter enough to make time for. Cleansing the doors of perception to see things as they are or perhaps to ‘rescue the existence of things’. [ii]
Because there is a very real risk of being severed from the living, breathing, pulsing existence of things; of dragonflies, tornadoes, magpies, waves, amoebas, fossils, of ferns, of rain, of steam by the continually mounting pressure of trying to survive in a human centred and systemized world. In the tight grip of ‘too much to do,’ we lose receptivity, our chance to be open to life including other species and phenomena a kind of bodily engagement with place to borrow from Merleau Ponty: a communing with the flesh of the world. Of course all of this sounds very idealised and I understand that contact with nature does not consist only of some kind of soul cleansing and magical experience.
There is a photo recently taken on my wedding day. It shows myself, the bride, looking forwards to a willow arch decorated with flowers. Beyond the arch, unseen in the photo is the groom approaching, for the moment where we will meet, hold hands, touch foreheads, kiss and be joined. I like the air of expectancy – walking to meet our future, our past, the chain of events and meetings that make up a lifetime.
In 1992 architect Rafael Moneo, gave a paper titled “The Murmur of The Site” at the Anywhere conference in New York. In his paper Moneo talks about the site as the first material in construction, not just the ground upon which to build. He says; ‘the site is always expectant, awaiting the arrival of an event that will allow it to play an active role.’[iii]
And to borrow from the words of singer songwriter R. Kelly:[iv]
I am a mountain,
I am a tall tree, oh,
I am a swift wind sweeping the country.
I am a river down in the valley, oh,
I am a vision and I can see clearly.
You asked me to examine a question for this talk. The question was, “What do we understand about immanence?” This is an important question for us I think, and cuts to the heart of why we make the kind of work we make.
Both of us come from Theatre backgrounds, trained in the art of placing things in a space in order that they be noticed. In training we learn how to control a space. The work we’ve been making together is in many ways the antithesis of this training. It is not about ourselves as The Subject but ourselves as subject to the same conditions as any other Beings (we will come back to Beings) in the space or place when we are there.
Peter Eisenmann (the architect) says[v], things either have memory or they have immanence. They have memory – they are waiting for us to return because they remember us from another time, or they remember what humans do in the place; OR they have immanence – the idea of humanness is waiting to happen, just as the idea of woodness or deerness or grassness is in us, waiting to occur. This is really not the same thing as seeing everything from a human-centred point of view or that everything is waiting for us because we are the masters. There is often a sense that we have that because we have intellect, we are the ones who impose our learning (of a place) upon the receptive, or at least stonily, vegetatively, acquiescent, landscape.
In Village Walk and City Walk our preparatory work was long and detailed. We made ourselves small and we made ourselves listen and watch and wait. We tried to examine the texture of the other resonances in the places with which we wanted to co-create work. We try to think like a mountain, as Aldo Leopold[vi] said, with the understanding that we take this idea as a provocation – to wonder or try to examine or imagine what, or how, a mountain thinks, rather than to speak for the mountain or to think we own the mountain’s voice.
Abram said, “Genuine art…is simply human creation that does not stifle the nonhuman element but, rather, allows whatever is Other in the materials to continue to live and to breathe. Genuine artistry, in this sense, does not impose a wholly external form upon some ostensibly ‘inert’ matter, but rather allows the form to emerge from the participation and reciprocity between the artist and his materials, whether these materials be stones, or pigments, or spoken words.”[vii](278) So that, as we point to the sky and speak of buzzards, a buzzard might appear. Or another bird that is not a buzzard, or a bat, or a butterfly, might appear, and the audience will notice and think about birds and bats and butterflies. Within that noticing a perceptual hardness will begin to slip away, so that the audience begins to be able to believe that all the cats and dogs of the village do get together and discuss dance venues; or that a seagull has landed, dead, in the street, as a selfless act of sacrifice while our walk traverses the same territory.
As Husserl said: “The field of appearances, while still a thoroughly subjective realm, was now seen to be inhabited by multiple subjectivities; the phenomenal field was no longer the isolate haunt of a solitary ego, but a collective landscape, constituted by other experiencing subjects as well as by oneself.”[viii] The Beings in the field. When we talk of immanence we open ourselves to the possibilities inherent in the multiple, the relational, the collective. To know immanence is to experience immanence: “to touch, see, feel, resonate with the enigmatic ground of being” (as Adrian Ivakhiv, the philosopher,says[ix]). We cannot know without participating.
Deleuze describes immanence in terms such as “becoming” and “possibility”, because Husserl’s field of appearances includes everything that has a being. For Deleuze, it’s not just everything that has a being, but everything that has the potential to be, that is there in the structure of becoming (whether it ends up becoming actual or not). It’s not just about recognising what we know/can see/can sense exists; it is just as much about trying to make space for those things that have been, or that might be, in our attention and in the work.
‘Yet it can happen suddenly, unexpectedly, and most frequently in the half-light of glimpses, that we catch sight of another visible order which intersects with ours and has nothing to do with it. Suddenly and disconcertingly we see between two frames. We come upon a part of the visible which wasn’t destined for us. Perhaps it was destined for night-birds, reindeer, ferrets, eels, whales…[x]
In what ways do object, landscape, and subject interchange as background and foreground in our work?
When discussing his film Le Quattro Volte director Michelangelo Frammartino states; ‘I wanted to include the landscape as character, as protagonist.’[xi] The film’s title translates ‘to the four times’, set in the hills of Calabria in Southern Italy we follow firstly an elderly goat herder, then a goat, then a tree and finally the charcoal. Frammartino creates ‘a game of changing levels,’ by elevating landscape, animal and object to the same level as the human character within the film. He discusses the effects produced by altering the anthropocentric order of things; ‘When the roles are subverted, there is a lack of stability and we react.’ We react by recognising the unheimlich, the unfamiliar and yet simultaneously the uncanny reveal of recognising parts of ourselves in the other. The film explores,’ the connection between humankind and the world and the things that are all around us.’ Or to use Merleau Ponty’s words: Each object as a “mirror of all others”.[xii]
In our Village Walk Pam talked of being agoraphobic, and her husband bringing her pictures of places he encouraged her to paint. She said of one painting she did that she ‘practically knew every brick in that building’, and she got her husband to take her to the place, to the point from which the photograph was taken, and she made it there and she was never agoraphobic again.
In City Walk we visited three sites of cultural interest: The City Museum, Plymouth College of Art, and Plymouth Arts Centre. We approached each building with an ode which was sung by Patience and Ella as a way of showing reverence for the buildings unique offerings to the city.
“Oh university, hello university
you are the keeper of people’s wisdom
you have got a lot to give ’em
Oh university, hello university.”
Ivakhiv says: “The traditional definition of anthropomorphism is something like “the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman things.” John Livingston used to argue that dogs canomorph, cats felinomorph, and so on; in other words, that every creature interprets the world in ways consistent with its perception of itself. This notion of -morphism is also the perception of human things in the same way — with the “as if” being an open process, that refers not to the known (which is past) but to the potential (which is future). So anthropomorphism refers to the process by which humans become, no matter what it is they end up becoming.[xiii]
How can an arts practice summon this morphism – a sea of change, of mutability, transparency? A morphing set of co-ordinates; one thing becoming another. In Beaumont Park Plymouth, the audience stand in a line hands outstretched offering food to imaginary wild horses. There is an expectancy, an anticipation that is palpable in the space; what are we beckoning? In Harbertonford village the audience stand in a line summoning the cats of the village to come forth. Here the world is re-membered as ‘something slippery, elusive, open’. (as David Williams writes, on Five Rooms)[xiv]. Here experimental particle physicist John March Russell speaks on the nature of things re-arranging themselves.
“Any action you ever take still exists in the world, according to our best understanding, it is still there, it is encoded, in very, very subtle correlations, among a vast number of atoms. Every word ever spoken, every action undertaken, by everybody, everybody who was ever alive, still in a sense all their actions still exist. Every single atom in here was there since the beginning of the universe and they have no internal clock, no awareness of time, so anything we ever talk about, old objects or new objects, it is just a rearrangement of things.”
In Village Walk we witnessed histories embedded and ordinarily hidden from pedestrian view – we went into gardens and houses finding inhabitants watching television, we watched Pam through her kitchen window dancing to music from her ghetto blaster. We deliberately cultivated layers of fictions and personal biographies so that through a practice of divergence what is half known may sometimes be arrived at.
In Village Walk we tried to work with Twilight and so were presented many times with the impossible task of locating twilight. You can only loosely map something in motion with the weather, the day, the light conditions that moment ‘entre le chein et le loup’- between dog and wolf is in motion and cannot be pinned down or tamed.
You ask me to answer a question. The question is – what do we know about place, emotion and memory, or in fact about place knowing us?
Initially I would like to answer – we know nothing about this.
But that is not all that helpful in this context, so I will try to explain a little more.
Archeoacoustics is the study of sound at ancient sites. Paul Devereux and Jon Wozencroft have studied the landscape of the Preseli hills in Wales trying to understand why bluestones were chosen from here and moved over 200 miles across land to form the inner ring of Stonehenge. They discovered that the bluestones are literally ringing rocks and it is proposed that they may have been selected for their sonic qualities. When struck with a hammer they ring like a bell and in effect sound out the spirits in the stones. Their research project Landscape and Perception hopes to encourage others to ‘open their ears, eyes and minds to their surroundings whether ancient or modern.’ Devereux says ‘We are less and less here and now,’ and, ‘our lives are becoming process rather than presence.’[xv]
Emma, you once told me that in your teenage years you picked up the belief that sound could be recorded literally in the material of place. The idea of sound from 100 years ago recorded in the stone walls of a house, the wooden frame of a door, or the brass knob of a door handle. Domestic sounds, conversations, sighs, moans, clanking pots, arguments, a dinner bell and so on. However, you had no reference points for these thoughts so they were nothing more than conjecture and reverie. Years later you asked your friend Dr Michael Basset, music and sound art producer at Bath University, about this, and he said: ‘It strikes me that any impact sound might make on materials such as wood or stone would be minimal and unlikely to leave a legible or interpretable legacy. It would be amazing if it were the case, but I have the strong sense that the chances are extremely remote’.[xvi]
But…but. There is a sense we have that place doesn’t just consist of spatial elements but also of process, of temporal energies, what we might call memories, that are embedded within the material of place. And so our work tries to encompass a reflection on passing through, noticing and dwelling in a place; a fusing of histories: real, imagined, borrowed and stolen, uncovering what is hidden, merging timescapes, and layering events. As Abrams[xvii] (1997: 207) says, we may say that we perceive the past all around us, in great trees grown from seeds that germinated long ago, in the eroded banks of a meandering stream, or the widening cracks in an old road. And, too, that we are peering into the future wherever we look – watching a storm cloud emerge from the horizon, or a spiderweb slowly taking shape before our eyes – since all that we perceive is already, in a sense, pregnant with the future.
Sometimes we manipulate actions or processes in the space, but always with the understanding that we are not waiting for a scene to be animated by us, but that we are walking into a scene that is already animated. Abrams[xviii] said, “Walking in a forest, we peer into its green and shadowed depths, listening to the silence of the leaves, tasting the cool and fragrant air. Yet…we may suddenly feel that the trees are looking at us – we feel ourselves exposed, watched, observed from all sides…we may well feel that we are a part of this forest, consanguineous with it, and that our experience of the forest is nothing other than the forest experiencing itself.” (1997: 68)
So when you ask what we know about place, emotion and memory, or in fact about place knowing us, I finally answer – we only know about this from the most limited point of view. I will act as if what I do makes a difference. Perceptual reciprocity, when consciously acknowledged, may profoundly influence one’s behaviour.
[vi] As cited in Abrams, ibid.
[vii] http://blog.uvm.edu/aivakhiv/2010/12/29/on-anthropomorphism-making-humans-pencils-souls/ (accessed 31 December 2012)
[viii] http://propellernews.blogspot.co.uk/?zx=44169d7c0488086c (accessed 31 December 2012)
[x] private correspondence
[xiii] Eisenman, Peter D. “The City as Memory and Immanence.” Zone 1 (Fall 1985): 40-1
[xiv] Leopold, Aldo (1949). A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There. Oxford University Press
[xv] Abram, David (1997) The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World London: Vintage Books
[xvi] cited in Abram, ibid, ix
[xviii] Berger, John, 2001. Why Look at Animals? Penguin, London, p10