Each month one of our Directors chooses an art.earth member to become ‘Artist of the Month’. What follows is a conversation with that artist, together with some examples of his or her work.
This month’s selected artist is Jess Allen, selected by Minou Tsambika-Polleros
1) What are you currently working on?
Currently, I’m taking stock post-PhD; trying to navigate my own ‘ecology of practices’. There are three strands to what I do. I make rural, relational, ecological performance art. But I also teach aerial yoga and circus – which supports my art-making – and cautiously paddle in academic waters – which allows me to critically reflect on it. (I mention this because I think, as artists we so often have to support our art in different ways; through work that we’re encouraged not to talk about or to think is not part of our ‘art lives’ or selves, even though it’s inherently connected: it’s part of the ‘ecology’ of who we are.)
I’m just emerging from a very busy start-of-term September, where teaching becomes my primary creative focus, back into finding a balance between that and art-making. This winter I’ll continue developing ideas for a new walking work (working title Landline) that is about the social ecology of rural communities; including isolation and loneliness. It’s too new and delicate an idea to share at the moment, but like most of my work its basic form will be a long-distance walk as a vehicle for talking to strangers.
Meanwhile, this month I’m revisiting my favourite performance work – Drop in the Ocean– which I’m taking to SPILL festival of performance in Ipswich at the end of October, ready to perform 1-3 November. This will be its third outing: it was first performed in Hereford in October 2013, and then again in my hometown Aberystwyth in May 2015.
Dropis a performance score – a set of rules or instructions – for a long-distance walk in widening concentric circles around a focal point: the ripples around a drop (((.))) Carrying water with an antique yoke and buckets, I offer a wish to all the people made curious enough by this anachronistic tableau to stop and talk to me. The wish is a short guided ritual involving a tactile encounter with water. I invite them to take a stone from the water in one bucket and make their wish by placing it into the other. But before they do, as they hold the stone in their wet hand, I ask them six questions about memories, sensations and sounds of water. It’s a sort of peripatetic wishing well; combining long-distance walking art with, what is (most often) one-to-one performance.
The title of the work is a reference both to its aesthetic also to its underlying eco-activist pretensions. The work is asking how can something small or seemingly banal (like a touching water, making a wish) can possibly address something massive and momentous (like ecological crisis). Can small acts of performance have cumulative power? The ocean is, after all, only an infinity of drops.
Drop has developed with each iteration so I’m curious about how it will be received and influenced by the folk of Ipswich. One of the hardest aspects of my work is finding a balance between looking interesting enough (through what I wear or carry) for people to stop and engage with, but not so strange as to be alarming or weird!
At SPILL, I’ll be doing alunchtime talkon ‘walking and working in public space’ with festival director Robert Pacitti and site-specific artist Nabil Vega on 31 Oct, followed by the three-day performance of Dropfrom 1-3 Nov.
2) What would you say are the primary motivations for your work?
My motivations for making art have changed dramatically since 2013. That year I experienced a catastrophic loss of ‘faith’ in environmentalism which had been, as an exasperated ex-partner once spat, ‘like a religion’ for me since my early teens. In a single Damascene anti-moment, I became suddenly aware that, framed in terms of humans acting to ‘save the planet’, environmentalism was yet another of our hubristic delusions.I saw that environmentalism had become, as Paul Kingsnorth puts it with eloquent rage, ‘a victim of the cult of utility’; no longer derived from ‘an emotional reaction to the wild world’, but standing to ‘promote something called sustainability [:] sustaining human civilisation at the comfort level the world’s rich people – us – think is their right’; ‘an entirely human-centred piece of politicking, disguised as concern for the planet’ (2017, p. 68).
Now I would describe myself – again, borrowing from Kingsnorth – as a ‘recovering environmentalist’. While I personally remain convinced that an end iscoming for our species – which will be a good thing for the planet – I also consider that this creates a temporal space of unknown duration – a between-now-and-then – within which we might live more creatively, compassionately, convivially and ethically than we do now. I also consider this to be a fertile space for art that helps us perform any of these ‘better’ ways of living, that broadens our awareness and extends our ethical obligation towards the more-than-human world. As philosopher Timothy Morton puts it: ‘I’ll be glad if the effect of the climate disruption crisis is […] a long hard look at why we’re alive and what we want to do about it, together’ (2010).
Now I still consider that I make eco-activist art, just in a wholly reimagined way. I’m interested in activism in a very stripped-down sense as ‘activating’ care and concern for the well-being of others – including more-than-human others – through often tactile, sensory or somatic engagement with matter. This is a sort of more-than-political, affective activism of intimacy, sincerity and connection. It operates on a micro-level, one person at a time, through quality not quantity of engagement.
3) Any particular artists / others who have had a profound effect on you?
There are so many, it is hard to choose!
I have to acknowledge the work of movement artist Simon Whiteheadwho, from his home in rural West Wales, continues to be such a hugely important ‘landmark’ practitioner in the field of ecological performance. It was a chance encounter with him during my first year of dance training in Cardiff that set me on the trajectory of further movement training, ignited my interest in site-based performance, mapping and rural community as a rich – and wholly valid – site for performance-making.
I’m also indebted to Fern Smith, former director of Volcano Theatre, co-founder of Emergence, celebrant and experiential ritual artist. Her work is a beautiful hymn to the importance of ritual and ceremony as a way of honoring the more-than-human and our place within wider ecologies.
I was also a participant in Fern’s Creative Wales award residency at Small World Theatrein Cardigan. For seven consecutive evenings, Fern and a guest artist re-enacted in verbatim-theatre style one of the dialogues from art critic Suzi Gablik’s 1995 book Conversations Before The End of Time. Suzi was far ahead of her time in asking how/if art could or should address ecological issues. I feel genuinely aggrieved that she was not more widely recognized at the time – the kind of ideas she was expressing then have risen to the forefront of our thinking now but so much time has been wasted in between. I would strenuously recommend any artist working with/in ‘ecology’ to read Conversations and her earlier The Reenchantment of Art(1991).
Books I’ve referenced above:
Gablik, S. (1991) The Reenchantment of Art. London: Thames and Hudson.
Gablik, S. (1995) Conversations before the End of Time: Dialogues on Art, Life and Spiritual Renewal. London: Thames & Hudson
Kingsnorth, P. (2017) Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist. London: Faber and Faber.
Morton, T. (2010) The Ecological Thought. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
4) Some other performance works
Tilting at Windmills (2010)
Tilting at Windmills was a ~100-mile walk between the 10 wind farms of Mid-Wales, undertaken over 8 consecutive days in August 2010. Carrying a hand-held Zoom recorder, I had intended to make ambient sound recordings but instead became more drawn to recording the conversations I fell into with the strangers I encountered. The form of my walk was invariably a prompt or entryway into wide-ranging discussions of changing landscape and lifestyle in a changing climate. An edited soundscore of these recordings was used as the basis for a dance-documentary film made in collaboration with environmentalist film-maker Sara Penrhyn Jones. The film(12 mins) – intended for two-screen gallery installation – includes rough footage from the walk itself interspersed with Sara’s ‘professional’ footage, shot the following week at Mynydd Gorddu wind farm near Aberystwyth. tiltingatwindmills.org.uk
All in a Day’s Walk(2012-13)
A score for a month-long performance, in which I lived entirely within the distance I could walk away from home and back in a day, eating only the food that is grown, processed and obtainable entirely within this distance. I could travel only foot, accepting no lifts, using no public transport, walking for 6 days a week. I could accept no hospitality or food from hosts or visitors that did not meet these criteria. I could cook only on locally-sourced wood.
My walks were a means of fetching (rarely foraging) food, and meeting and talking to the people who make, process or sell it: farmers and growers, shopkeepers, walkers, woodsmen, butchers, bakers, artisan cider-makers. We talked about the weather and the walking, but, invariably, we also talked about food, hunger and the space in between. allinadayswalk.org.uk
from trans-[ prefix ]across; beyond; to the other side of: mission[ noun ] an important assignment; a strongly felt aim, ambition, or calling:transmission line[ noun ] a conductor designed to carry electrical signal over large distances.
A solo, linear, long-distance walking performance following the electricity transmission lines as they cross the county of Herefordshire border to border, west to east. The rules of the performance score dictated that I must speak to or otherwise acknowledge every person I encountered, forming an unbroken line of transmission. Carrying a rucksack of 50 low-energy lightbulbs, I gave one to each stranger who invited me into conversation and who offered me a message to pass on – to transmit – to the next person I met.
Tied to each lightbulb was an invitation to a social gathering – a ‘midsummer picnic and outdoor art event’ – that took place at the end of the walk on the summer solstice at Dragon Orchard, towards the eastern border of Herefordshire. The recipient was asked to bring the bulb with them to the orchard. Amongst the apple trees, a festoon string of 50 empty lightbulb holders awaited the return of each bulb to collaboratively light the gathering.
Water Treatment Walks (2016)
Water Treatment Walks (2016) was a five day walk that followed 60 miles of mains water pipeline in Mid-Wales between the Dŵr Cymru water treatment works at Bontgoch, and the sea at Ynyslas: the ‘last tap on the line’ at the visitor centre on the Dyfi national nature reserve. Wearing hi-vis work clothing, carrying a 2 metre length of blue water pipe, a bottle of tap water and two glasses, I spoke to almost every person I met, asking them: ‘if you had to make a promise to ‘treat’ water differently in future, what would it be?’. Their responses were written onto the pipe which accrued its promissory graffiti as I walked. At the end of the exchange we drank a toast together, with and to tap water. An experiment in how one might reconceptualise water as something worthy of being ‘treated’ thoughtfully, and thus an attempt to admit the agency of the more-than-human in everyday human routine. watertreatmentwalks.org.uk