Performing Distancing

Social distancing was introduced to the UK around March 17, 2020

On March 18, 2020 I did a walking art performance to explore the then new idea and practice of ‘social distancing’.

On reflection, a year on, it is interesting that this simple act gave me insight that evening into the way that ‘social distancing’ would very quickly become normalised in society, as did the sensation of coming to avoid or mistrust the proximity of other people.

It just reinforces for me how performance and art as research may be able pre-empt experience and give insight into experiences to come, but do so through feelings, not through empirical data.

Be careful what you think you see.

This reminds me of Cassandra, who was able to see the future, but was cursed by nobody believing what she said. She was cursed by Apollo for lying when she said she would get jiggy with him. She was cursed for lying, so the curse made her words became an untruth.

Maybe the moral is then is to not lie to yourself about what you may see, but beware that to say what you see may help nobody. And if you do speak, maybe only speak to people who see the world the way you do. Therein is the dilemma of holding your own counsel or speaking only to become stuck in a bubble. Trump and Brexit and QAnon all rolled into one.

Or maybe the moral is simply that words are not accurate representations of feelings, and interpreting feelings is an art not a science.

Below is my account of that performance written somewhere around the end of March 2020.

Performing Distancing March 18, 2020

(Written end of March 2020.)

On the basis that art and performance can be used as research, to explore and express personal experience, I wondered what would happen if I walked through Carlisle town centre maintaining 2m social distancing, but do it as performance, choreographed like a dance or with applied dramaturgical principles, and record it with GPS.

A simple algorithm was devised to work like choreographic directions.

Walk in a straight line until I was within 2m of another person, then turn away until the distance exceeded 2m, then resume the straight line.

Where I met an obstacle turn through 90+ degrees and continue in a straight line.

Limit the walk to the central shopping area.

Walk for 1 hour.

I imagined this visualised as a faux maths formula, because moving an idea between forms, like turning word into image, can sometimes reveal a new aspect to the idea.

Faux math formula

Where P is the path of the walk, as an iteration or repeat of p, which is each leg as a straight line a-b until this is changed by meeting a person (the m is an aboriginal sign for a person, basically, the bottom mark left in the sand where a person was sitting) in which case the path p changes (the triangle) by n degrees.

The basic principle of art as research is to make art, in this case performance, and pay attention to what happens when you do.

On the 18th March I did a social distancing walk for an hour in Carlisle city centre, and payed attention to my thoughts and feelings and other peoples response. I tracked it with GPS tracker.

This is the raw GPS visualisation of that walk.

This shows the path I followed as the green line. The dots are simply GPS way points.
This is a satellite view. The image is old and some things were absent in March.

I worked with a GPS track editor and removed as many intermediary waypoints as possible to leave only turns in response to social distancing or turns in response to an obstacle, like a shop front.

I got this, edited down as three images joined together.

Simplified social distancing walk.

What the walk/performance did as research, was give me insight into social distancing, then a very new phenomenon.

Over the hours walk, I started to become anxious when I got close to people. As a person approached me and I anticipated the need to distance, I felt a rise in my level of anxiety. I felt isolated and distanced. I felt sad.

I was also nervous about wandering around in circles for an hour on CCTV. In the end nobody even batted an eyelid. I was utterly uninterrupted and fully ignored.T his added to a sense of aloneness.

Part of the creative process is the period of incubation, in which the creator moves away from the art making and does some other thing. On returning to the theme or the artform, after incubation, new insights emerge. The form created is seen in a new light. I noted this sadness and anxiety at the time, but on writing this, months later, another aspect of my experience of performance/art as research came into play.

I reflect now that this experience gave me insight into how social distancing would feel. Now, months later people are not rushing back to contact, many people appear reluctant to go back to the shops and the pubs and the office. This week, mid-June, the MP is now imploring people to go back to the office and the shops and the pubs. The anxiety prevails.

Also there is growing anger in the UK and clear riotous anger in the USA in some quarters of society. Today I found the following meme.

My experience of children in care is that many are angry and this is just a product of sadness and anxiety. Whilst different, both are connected to loss. Anxiety may be an anticipation of discomfort and danger, but also the anticipation of the loss of safety, the familiar, and the predictable. Our stress response is fight, flight or freeze. We have been unable to flee in lockdown, which leaves fight and freeze, anger and sadness.

On March 18, the day of my social distancing walk, the experience of social distancing was new. This art based research could not be seen as producing a clear empirical evidence based outcome, but I did experience feelings in myself which could have anticipated feelings shared by other people once the lockdown deepened in its impact. I anticipated sadness and could, in retrospect, have anticipated anger.

This work is highly influenced by the arts therapies and dramatherapy and by experiential learning. In the arts therapies, whilst art is made, the role of the artform as an end product, for sale, or for viewing by an audience, is not significant. What is significant is the experience of art making on the part of the art maker. As such it is a form of experiential learning in which direct experience of art forms the basis of learning or research in which the art making is both the mode of research and the outcome of the research. It is part research, part performance, part personal therapy, part play, part experiential learning but is never fully any of these things.

Undertaken with the intention to make this as art, invites the creative process, and as such it is unique, not in any grand way, but in a way that invokes creativity as a simple and easily available act accessible to anybody. The act that makes it art in intentionality and this intentionality can be learned.

My hope is to use this website and my own art making to show ways to learn this. We cannot all be artists but we can all make art. What this experiment revealed was simple and oddly mundane, but also complex and profound. I want to show how art making can help you explore and express your experience of the world.

Solway Walk – Map Art

Sul Waths Crossing the Iapetus Ocean

Following on from my exploration of the Solway I wondered if I could make an object that captured the way it was a real objective place, but was open to a number of subjective impressions.

For a while I have experimented with weaving Ordnance Survey maps, with the grid squares becoming the warp and the weft of the created object. In the past it has been two different maps, but for this I wanted to experiment with two maps of the same place, but shift them so the Solway became kind of extended and ambiguous. Like it is. So I made the object above.

It will never win a Turner Prize but my interest is not in creating ‘Fine Art’, but in using art-making to explore ideas and express experience. What I wanted to express was…

  • Blurring the boundary between England and Scotland.
  • Showing how the Waths crossed this boundary.
  • Make something that looked recognisable from a distance but changed before your eyes as you approached it.
  • Make you kind of wonder what it was, a picture, a map, some weaving or needlepoint.
  • Shifting your sense of time. The Iapetus Ocean was the water between the two tectonic plates that mashed together to make the Borders. The Solway is all that is left. I liked it as an archaeological object.
  • To also have bits of it that were from the time it was made. I liked it as a contemporaneous object as well.
  • To work with text and image and object and colour as things to stand in for something else.

Sometime I would like to return to making this as a more aesthetically sophisticated object. But as a starting point, it is a good place to start.

Solway Walk – A Last Word

Walking the World

On the Solway, so flat and otherworldly
I walked and remained fixed in space.
The sea, the sand,
the storm
approaching over Glasson Moss
moved past me
as I rotated the Earth with my feet.

Looking closely
and photographing,
I moved slowly.
But on my turn and return to Browhouses
walking faster,
the same thing occured.
The white windmills in the sun
sped towards me.
The earth turned under me
like a ball under a circus dog.

In the Renault it stopped.
Feet no longer on the floor.
The pedals, a, b, c
were depressed, and the car
sped past Metal Bridge and the services,
back to Brampton and my house.

In the house, out of my boots
in slippers
the crockery in the cupboard
rattled and chinked with each step.
I toyed with a short sprint.
The milk in the jug
like a storm…
in a milk jug.
Teacups were the same.
Tea sloshed over the rim.
Little waves on a bone china shore.

I filled the bath and on walking from the bog
a tsunami formed.
I walked the dog round the block,
and the planet rolled in a raggedy right turn
the size and shape of my neighbourhood,
back to where she started.
I sat still at last to watch the news.
Natural disasters around the world.
Unexplained tectonic movements
unforeseen by experts.

I went to bed.
I awoke.
And it had gone.

I moved.
The Earth did not.

I retuned to the Solway
to seek the spot where it happened,
and in it’s vastness the spot was lost.

But somebody some day
will find it.
And the earth will move again.

Chris Reed

Solway Walk – Moving On

My visit to the Solway was prompted by a need for a large space without physical barriers to explore what would happen if I walked a drawing of an model of experiential learning through the arts. In doing so my idea about my model changed.

The original model

Models are slippery things. Their appeal is that they appear to give a fixed image of a thing, but in practice whilst they serve as a very useful signpost about which way to go when you set off, the thing you find when you get there is never fixed. So the walk was undertaken as an experiment ‘to explore what would happen…’

  • learning model

What the model predicted was that a number of factors would contribute to the art making. In this case my thoughts were that source material would be Richard Long and the walking and land artists. My personal arts practice or art made included using a GPS and walking to make a mark on the landscape and experience of film making as a means of exploration, reflection and expression of experience. I drew on ongoing research and theory about the outdoors as a liminal space and art making as adventure, as a journey of uncertain outcome, and Shaun McNiff’s ideas about witnessing in the arts therapies1.

The model was correct in that my path would lead in to and out of the art making on the day and on to more art making, research, source materials and theory, and that the generic coloured blobs would be specific to the art making experience. My initial thinking after the event went to ideas about performance and the epistemic object and further trips to photograph and film, reporting this through blog posts.

At the centre of this, an act of art making and poiesis occurs. Something comes into existence that did not exist before and it is called art. It is art by convention, because all this could describe the making of a cup of tea. To this conundrum ’Why is this art?’ one asks the question asked by artist John Baldessari, “Why is this not art.” It is art because it was my intention to make art and my act was guided by research, reference to existent artform and artists, theories of art and my experience of art I made before.

But there was something incomplete about the central concentric circle structure. I was interested in the model showing how each experience of art making occured within a loop of experience, like in Kolb’s learning cycle.

  • kolb

But like the Kolb model is an ideal form which would be expressed differently depending on the setting, the strict concentric form may vary depending on the setting. My experience of art-making was, however, that in making art I stepped away from the day to day life experience and went to a different place. This could state is sometimes known as a ‘Flow’ state from work by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. You get in the zone of concentration and attention, of doing and the senses. But for art-making as experiential learning or personal research or art therapy, you enter a state that is similar to a meditative state, like flow with awareness. You are focussed on making art but also on what it is that you have made and what happens when you make it.

So in the model, as well as cycling through an iterative learning process, there was a linear path away from the world, into a creative state where something happens in partnership with your artform, then back to the world.

Reflecting on how the model changed

On return home from the Solway and recollecting the emergence of performance I went back to my Dramatherapy training. In a dramatherapy session you work with a basic three part structure. ‘It begins with a physical warm-up leading to the Main Event, the place where the real action is. It concludes with the ‘grounding’, returning people from the ‘Land of Imagination’ to their own everyday selves.2

During the walk recreating the drawing, the shift from walking to dancing, from recreating the drawing to improvising and performance emerged unbidden. One could say this idea came out of my imagination or my unconscious, or it was the product of a state of flow, or having danced in the past, I simply remembered something from my past related to what I was doing in the present.

So there are two things here. One is a linear journey into a place with some degree of separation from the everyday world, into ‘flow’ or ‘Land of Imagination’, followed by a return. This is a linear journey in an iterative looping cycle of learning. The other is the experience of being in ‘flow’ or the ‘Land of Imagination’. This is an experience of art making as somewhat separated from ones day to day life.

Something like this three-stage process occurs in many settings. In story and in film and theatre there is a thing called the ‘Three Act Structure.’ On one hand, this is as simple as a beginning a middle and an end or it is sometimes understood as set-up, confrontation and resolution. Many interpretations exist and there are examples to be found of its use in say cinema, but it is not without some contention. Like one article says ‘The true three-act structure isn’t a formula, it keeps your beginning separate from your middle and your middle separate from your end. That’s it.’

But the ‘beginning, middle and end’ could be seen as a universal or archetypal structure. For example at Outward Bound, in experiential learning, you worked with a ‘training, main and final expedition’. Your training expedition was where you taught skills, the main expedition was where you had the conflict as you got the people to move from being a group to being a team. Final was the unaccompanied independent journey.

In care, we worked with a conflict model and resolution tool called ‘ABC Charts’ meaning A – antecedent, B – behaviour, and C – consequences. Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey has a specific expression and detail but is also a three-stage form, the call to adventure, the test and the return.

But the simple, warm up, main event and grounding of dramatherapy mentioned above can be also seen in a form described by Victor Turner and Arnold van Gennep as Rites of Passage.

  • Turners Initiation Model

From Schechner3

The above diagram is from Victor Turner a British anthropologist who theorised the above from studies of non-western settings at the top, and western settings at the bottom. This is a three stage journey of return that is linear and cyclical and has a central liminal or liminoid space somewhat separated from everyday life called The Land of Imagination in the dramatherapy model.

Art as liminal space

My proposal is that art making and experiential learning could be understood as having some some elements of the above structure in their practice. I don’t think it is coincidental that after a while on the Solway Walk, I spontaneously rediscovered that I could do the walk as performance. This could be seen as me, albeit briefly, entering a mild ludic state.

There is a lot to this seemingly simple experience of walking in circles on a beach like an idiot. Not least the idiocy. I was being playful throughout. I was in the land of the Trickster or the Court Jester, at once playful and challenging, the one who can perform recombination and inversion.

This is also adventure. The journey between departure and arrival. The journey of uncertain outcome with misadventure available. The three part expedition cycle of Outward Bound. On a slave ship, the middle passage. The refugee in the hands of the trafficker. It is not a thing of the past.

To me there is also something in this of being in the Solway, a liminal space if ever I saw one, between two countries, high and low water, land and sea. To me this is also a state of walking. In walking you are between places, outdoors, in a state of flow, and returned to a mode of existence that predates all of the modern world.

So after a few weeks of reflection my research led me a realisation. The experience was ‘like’ a lot of things, from experiential learning, theatre, anthropology, adventure sports, performance art, and conflict resolution, to Outward Bound and Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

This could also be applied to many arts based contexts and the model has ART FORM as a liminal or liminoid experience at it’s heart, the same as dramatherapy. But the artform that fits this experience best if what is known as Walking Art.

My exploration of my Solway walk has reached a convenient place to move on and in my next set of posts I want to look at Walking Art with a particular focus on it’s scope for promoting health and wellbeing.

  1. Mindfulness and the Arts Therapies – Theory and Practice – Laury Rappaport ed.  ↩︎
  2. Discovering the Self through Drama and Movement – The Sesame Approach. Jenny Pearson ed.  ↩︎
  3. Performance Studies – An Introduction. By Richard Schechner. Routledge.  ↩︎

Solway Walk – Human Ecology

Solway as a Means of Transport

To describe the Solway, it is useful to start at the lighthouse on the Mull of Galloway, because from this point, 100 km ENE to the outlets of the Esk and Eden, and 70 km ESE to Bees Head is one interconnected system of sea, sand, rock and river called the larger Solway Basin as shown in the header image above.

But this opened up to a world beyond. From the lighthouse on the Mull of Galloway on a clear day, to the north you look towards the highlands and islands of Scotland, to the west you can see Northern Ireland, to the south the Isle of Man is clearly visible, and if you travelled due west you would arrive in Penrith, passing over Skiddaw on the way. Liverpool is south east. Dublin south west, Due south is Falmouth.

All this connected by sea passages going back millenia. Recent history would have seen highlanders removed in the clearances in the 18th century who would travel through this area from Annan waterfront to America around the same time that travellers and thinkers from France forged links and then divisions between the French and The Scottish Enlightenment. The Vikings came south into this maritime passageway, and the Romans came north. A legend with a grain of truth asserts that the Geodelic Celts came through this water from Scythia via Spain and the Fir Bolg from Greece.

Closer to home, the bit where the Esk and The Eden meet, between England and Scotland there are stories of ancient pathways of their own which give rise to it’s name. In ‘Crossing the Solway’ the writer Blindedbydazzle writes ‘Sol is common to Anglo-Saxon and Norse tongues. It means mud. The Anglo-Saxon woeth or Norse vad (or vath) … is ford. The Sulewad or Sulwath is as it was then, a way of mud.’

So before a bridge was built at the aptly named Metal Bridge, the Solway was a muddy passage way for travellers going between Scotland and England. The Wath’s across the Solway shown below are from Solway Shore-walker, another site worth a visit. The full story of the Waths is available here and a story of an actual crossing by the author is to be found here.

Where are all the people ?

Either speeding up the M6/A74 or driving more slowly round the minor roads, the Solway switches between being invisible, behind hedges and walls, or appearing spectacularly into view with an ever changing mixture of cloud, sun, water and land or vast areas which appear to be all of the above. However it is best experienced on foot. But as stated elsewhere, it is one of Europes biggest unindustrialised estuaries, and as such it is vast. The drive from Carlisle to the Lighthouse on the Mull of Galloway is over 2 and half hours, the same as to Manchester. There are an almost unending number of places to walk.

The terrain is varied with mountains and bays and sandbanks. The tides mean coastal walking varies by the hour. The flatness of the estuary also messes with your sense of distance. My partner and I walked on the estuary below Criffell and could see ‘something’ out over the sand as the tide ebbed. We went to see what it was and after a 20 minute walk, all we found was a plastic fish crate. But when we turned round we realised we were a mile from the beach. As we walked the sky moved under us reflected in the water in the sand ripples. It gives an impression of either indifference to human presence, or when the tides and weather change, a distinct sense of malevolence.

There are other wild and remote places in the borders that do this too. An article in the magazine ‘Live for the Outdoors’ puts the spot in England most remote form a tarmac road in Kielder Forest GR NY 58000 85879, under 30km NW of the Solway. The article is here. It is a land unused to people.

My wife and I went to the nearby Cristianbury Crags and found a large snakeskin and over half a dozen racing pigeon leg tags, presumed to be from the dinner table of the native Peregrines. It was an atmospheric place and after a while we both agreed it was time to go. In the car on the way home we confided with each other that we independently felt like the crags wanted us to go, at more or less the same time. This is weirdly reinforced in a 16m YouTube video of the crags below.

At the 15m mark, on departure from the place, the videographer describes what I think we felt. He says earlier that the mist seems to have followed them about and then says “The whole place is really mysterious with the clag coming through it, really eerie, like another world.” Just a few miles south there was another world, going from the head of the Solway up into the hills to the south of Christianbury.

The Debatable Land

The sparcity of population is a norm for this wild borderland. Between England and Scotland there was one a place called ‘The Debatable Lands’. Where it is popularly portrayed it is as the lawless breeding ground for the murderous Reivers. A 2020 BBC article here gives part of the story reinforcing this with the lurid reference to a decree ’ the mid-16th Century, some 300 years into the Debatable Lands’ story: (stating) “All Englishmen and Scottishmen are and shall be free to rob, burn, spoil, slay, murder and destroy, all and every such person and persons, their bodies, property, goods and livestock… without any redress to be made for same.” While this decree was made into law, it was more of a legal “out” for England and Scotland. Neither side wanted the responsibility of dealing with the Debatable Lands; and as they could not agree on who owned it or how it was divided, neither could be held responsible for it, either.’ See a map here.

The article points out this deadly decree is 300 years into the story. In ‘The Debatable Land’ by Graham Robb, he writes about how it was originally ‘…a defined area in which no permanent building had been allowed. Animals could be pastured there but only between sunrise and sunset, and the soil was not to be ploughed or ‘opened’ in any way…. ‘Batable’ comes from the obsolete verb ‘batten’. Batable land was rich, fertile land on which livestock could be pastured and fattened up (or ‘battened’). By the 1800s, the word had fallen out of use.”1 As a teen, in Derby in the 70’s you took your food to work in your Bait Box. I thought it was a carry over from the fisherman’s bait box, but they just have the same root. The box for fodder, for the fish or the fishermen.

Ecologically this is exactly how this land should be used. It is in equitable balance with the human population. The Solway is the same. The biggest town, Annan has a population of, say 10k people. Dumfries has maybe 150k, and is connected to the Solway by the Nith, but is not on the shore. Malthus’s idea of a territory having a carrying capacity is seen as superseded in some quarters or resurgent in others. The Solway and the Debatable Lands have a low population density. Neither ids wilderness, both have a history of human interaction. I you can at least see everywhere on earth through Google Earth, or at least 98%, then there is no real, unseen by human eye, wilderness left. We all live somewhere on the urban fringe.

But part of what makes the Solway and the Debatable lands interesting to me is that to a large extent, the native population is not human. In the borders their are hotspots. Hadrians Wall runs a few miles from my house and ends at Bowness-on-Solway, the site of a Sulewath, and in the summer it is (by Cumbrian standards) heaving. But at Walton Moss (another of my stomping grounds), in the 6 years I have been going there, apart from a single busy day of hound racing, I have seen no more than 5 people, all at a distance. So who, apart from the few humans, who does live there.

Native Ecology

Natural England has a number of descriptive documents of National Character Areas. It’s summary of the Solway is extensive, available here and describes it thus…

‘The Solway Basin is a low-lying area of gently undulating low hills that grade into the coastal plain and estuarine landscape of the Solway Firth. To the east and south and across the lowlands of the Dumfries coast to the north, the lowland landscape is framed by the uplands of the Lake District, the North Pennines and southern Scotland. The area has a long history as border country, originally divided by the Roman frontier of Hadrian’s Wall, which has World Heritage Site designation, and through succeeding centuries it has been a part of the disputed lands of the English–Scottish border. The area is dominated by pastoral agriculture in rectilinear fields bounded by hedges but with increasing arable farming on the low hills. The coastal zone is characterised by a more open, wind-swept, dynamic and tidal landscape of salt marshes, beaches, sand dunes and intertidal flats along the margins of the Solway Firth and the Irish Sea.’

In previous posts the relationship between images and words and experience of place has been explored. But in terms of who lives on the Solway the Solway Coast Area Of Outstanding Natural Beauty website has some great publications with images of birds, sea-life, plants, human habitation and industrial history available by clicking here.

The Solway Firth Partnership has a YouTube Channel here and two videos below which show the range of habitats from cliffs to moorland to estuary.

And as for the people who live on the Solway, the Annan Haaf Netters know the place better than anyone. This great film from 2019 shows the Solway in it’s many moods and the fishermen catching salmon. What is to anybody else, is just a bit of sea and sand, is to the local people an intimately understood place with names and a personality.

  1. Excerpt From: Graham Robb. “The Debatable Land.”  ↩︎

Art and Rewilding at the Urban Fringe – Ben Wilson

Part of the work of Rewilding is that it is an idea about how place should be understood. A rewilded place is a place that helped along, then is left to make itself.

Given this we could understand rewilding at the urban fringe in art terms, as an artistically expressed idea in which native species make an urban place wilder through their own creative outlet, which is what wilderness, and art is, it creates itself.

You could say than, following this line, that Graffiti art was a way of rewilding urban spaces. An art form created by black and hispanic people in the cities and specifically the bits of cities that were, literally, wild places at the edge of the less wild respectable places, with Graffiti now ironically, partly gentrified as ‘Street Art’. Rewilding, takes place along a continuum, as does the urban fringe.

This is about Ben Wilson. Chewing Gum Man, who makes art from the detritus of human life. He starts his work with an ethos about who should control urban space, and about art as an act of making not selling. Truly an inspiration.

His work promotes a dialogue through art, about place and who controls it and what purpose art serves.

Solway Walk – Experiencing place through photography

In seeking to report here on my experience of the Solway as expressed through art, what has happened is that I have come to question my understanding of how I experienced the Solway.

In some ways this was a bit alarming. My main contention with Moving Space, is that art making provides an expression of experience that is closer to the direct embodied experience than verbal or written accounts. This remains true, but on reflection the following has emerged.

  • That whilst being in experience (as an embodied, sensed, cognitive, spiritual and durational phenomena) is encountered as a ‘normal’ seamless thing, retrospectively upon examination through words, images, and personal recollection, the shear magnitude of the simple experience of being on the Solway has dawned on me. It was also something far from normal.
  • Each artform I have worked with has given a particular account of, or path through the experience. All are valid but all are incomplete compared to the actual magnitude of the experience of being there.
  • The one bit of art making that came closest to being directly in the actual experience, was the moment I stopped walking an image of an idea and moved into performance and decided to (like KC & The Sunshine Band implore) do a little dance.
  • This is the one bit of artform that leaves no concrete artefact, like a painting, or a photographic image, of a poem. With performance there is no art object.
  • Of the artforms producing an object that I have worked with at time of writing, the film and the photography, the images of the experience that best get to how it felt, are the least figurative ones. The more abstract the image, the less it appears to depict the place, the more it shows how the experience felt.
  • But collectively, the more modes of artistic expression I explore, the more I get to an expression of the experience as a whole.
  • Whoever would have thought a one mile walk on a beach could contain so much experience.

Over this post I want to show what I made and pick some of this apart. But first I want to pick apart some art history which is pertinent to my reflections above.

History is written retrospectively and by it’s nature contains many narratives. Historiographically one narrative is that sometime around the end of the 19th C photography ruined painting. In the UK, most Victorian painters were portrait painters. People of sufficient income wanted paintings of themselves and their families that would show sufficient likeness that they could hang them on the wall and not have guests say ‘Who is that in your lovely painting?’ But along came the photograph, and apart from the time it took to expose a photographic plate, the photograph became a means of making an image of total likeness, that was available to everyone, including people who’s income was insufficient for a painting by an artist.

But a theory goes that now photography could simply and quickly make a totally accurate likeness, painting which was hitherto largely figurative became impressionistic. Photography showed the real thing, painting showed an expression of a thing. Painting became an impression of the experience of the painter. Painters went outside their studios and painted ‘En plein air’ in the outdoors. Freud explored the unconscious, artists explored surrealism, science discovered the quantum world, and suddenly we find that the observer of reality changes the reality they observe. The modern era had arrived.

So in recounting my Solway Walk and the art making that ensued I want to start by reviewing my photography on the Solway because this most easily illustrates some of the points I made above.

Long before I did the Solway Walk I climbed Criffel with my wife. Map here. The day we were there, the tide was out on the Solway and the clouds scudded literally just over our heads. We could see and touch the clouds around us and also see them reflected in the ebb tide thousands of feet below us. It was a mind expanding day. This impression of the Solway never left me.

To me these are very impressionistic images because at the moment we peaked Criffell, the whole place gave an impression of a place bewixt and between. The images are accurate depictions of the place. The images have an abstract quality with the sky and the cloud edge below us.

Other images of the Solway, whilst having some aesthetic merit and accurately and figuratively recording a photographic image of what I saw. They are rooted in my sense of sight, but don’t convey the otherworldly aspect of the Solway. They are conventional landscape images that show what I experienced with my eyes.

So working with images, post-processing them on my Mac with Lightroom, I find nice landscape images, because I saw nice landscape shots. But other images I took, which clearly caught my eye at the time, don’t have that nice figurative ‘landscape’ look. They show my experience, but don’t make classically photographic images.

My Amateur Photographer ‘Landscape’ eye judges them to be boring. But my judgement is that they covey my experience of the Solway as a place eternally between sky and sea, between tides, between land and water, but nobody will understand them.

In the end I produced this image which to me most accurately conveys my experience of the Solway.

To me this conveys the idea of ‘The more abstract the image, the less it appears to depict the place, the more it shows how the experience felt.’ I put this image out and make judgement that in ‘landscape’ terms this is not an image easily understood by a person viewing it. It is not really a picture of a thing. It is an impressionistic triptych, and in some ways cubist, showing three views at the same time, like Hockney’s cubist inspired ‘Joiner‘ images. It has shifted away from a figurative ‘landscape’ image that shows what I saw, but it shows much better my experience of the Solway and a place that feels like it is always between things or many things at once.

So in terms of how art making can be used to explore and express personal experience of place, I come back to a recurring theme. There may be a tension between making art that is accessible in terms of being a figurative account, that looks to me and other people like a ‘landscape’ and more impressionistic or abstract images which mean something to me, that show my experience, but may be less explicable to other people.

Furthermore. If the performance of the dance came closest to being directly in the actual experience of being on the solway, but has the least to show, then using art to explore and express personal experience may need to have two threads. One is more personal and connected to process. Art is made that helps the individual process their own experience, but may be inexplicable to other people. The other thread is one in which art is made that is less impressionistic, but makes personal experience more explicable to other people.

All I have talked about here is my photography. This reinforces that both in terms of personal process and the production of art that is explicable to other people, working with a number of artforms may be useful. No single artform can covey experience in it’s fullest. It also reminds me of the idea of the ‘exposition’ in a previous post in which the author describes artform as embedded in a setting which includes some ‘..sharing of thinking processes and the revealing of methodology; and.. invites participation in order to enrich and expand understandings from the inquiry.’

The author goes on to say ‘One may even say that there is something inherently gentle to exposition considered as introduction, a relief, perhaps, from the obligation of being a ‘work of art’, in the serious sense of the word.’

In my next set of themed posts I want to explore what art is and use walking art as a vehicle to frame the discussion. My proposal is that we best understand how to work with at as enquiry if we work with ‘art not ART’. By this I mean getting away from an approach rooted in ‘Fine Art’ with galleries and sales and judgement on skills. Fine Art informs art as enquiry, but the work is done with art as a verb not a noun.

Relating to the intention to explore a model of art making as experiential learning then the art making is the central component but it is informed by all sorts of other experiences and modes of enquiry. Regards art making it is best understood as being playful, in the serious meaning of the word and the actions. And as such we learn from playing in many different ways.

Rewilding on the Urban Fringe – A Proposal

Image – Edge of old peat cutting Walton Moss, Cumbria, UK.

A Proposal for working with art-making outdoors as a mode of discovery and discourse to support the process and practice of rewilding.

(I attended this excellent event A Natural Capital Lab on an urban fringe: challenges and possibilities on Jan 21st and made this proposal to work with art. To date no response to the proposal, but on reflection, I should have asked if there were any rewilding in the urban fringe projects currently running, or asked if anybody wanted to start one.)

My interest in rewilding on the urban fringe is prompted partly by my childhood living on the urban fringe in Derby, by my work in outdoor education which included two urban outdoor programmes and by my personal arts practice. I trained as a Drama and Movement Therapist, and guided by the principles of the arts therapies, most of my art making involves exploring and expressing my personal experience of the outdoors. I work with the outdoors as art and art as research.

This posting on my blog is presented as an invitation to conversation and collaboration. Art making as a mode of inquiry has many and deep connections to rewilding, particularly on the urban fringe.

I think there is scope for art making outdoors to be of use to the principles and practice of rewilding in the following ways.

  1. Art making has an affinity with the rewilding process and has the scope to facilitate personal insight into rewilding, in practice, in situ practically and intellectually.
  2. Art making can be used as a kind of performative research to explore and express personal experience as an adjunct and complement to quantitative and qualitative research.
  3. Art making, when undertaken guided by the principles of the art therapies, can promote a sense of attachment to place which can be mutually beneficial to the health of both the persons and places involved.
  4. Given mutual agreement, art made through outdoors as art activities, can serve as a catalyst for discussion, illustration and promotion of said activities and the persons and places involved.

Like the idea and practice of ‘Art’ the idea and practice of ‘Rewilding’ can be contentious. Both have some aspects which are not contentious. A fine art oil painting of a landscape is undeniably art, as the scientific data which is used in ecological sciences is undeniably an accurate account of the plants and animals in a community. But strong disagreements exist as to whether certain things can be classed as art, in the same way that strong disagreements exist about both the scope and value of rewilding.

In Practice as Research – Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry. Edited by Estelle Barrett and Barbara Bolt, Professor Estelle Barrett, talking about art making as research in postgrad research says that art as research is subjective, situational, emergent and multidisciplinary. In the same book Professor Brad Haseman describes art based research as performative research.

My proposal is that guided by ideas and practices from arts education and the arts therapies, particularly when art is used as a form of enquiry or research, art as research acts as a useful mode of enquiry in situations that are subjective, situational, emergent and multidisciplinary. Core scientific data may still prevail in certain areas in which objectivity of material phenomena is required, but art making as enquiry is useful when we want to explore personal experience and subjective phenomena.

For example photography could be useful in work in which we are inviting people to explore and express where they think ‘wilderness’ begins and ends. This is even more so in the urban fringe. In a photo series called Northern Territories I explored the point where human managed space ended and wilder, less managed space started. In Local Internet, prompted by the work of James Bridle I explored the way that the idea of ‘The Cloud’ was still around us as a very concrete phenomena and totally crossed the boundary between online and offline spaces.

Art as research is very situational and personal but these ideas could be useful if used in other settings to help persons involved in rewilding produce images to prompt discussion about where they would draw a line between human and wild spaces.

In the arts therapies, in art making, and in art as inquiry the process is very important. One may have an intention for art making, but the final outcome, the art made is uncertain. This is similar to rewilding. In Urban Wilderness in Central Europe – Rewilding at the Urban Fringe, the authors Matthias Diemer, Martin Held, and Sabine Hofmeister say of rewilding ‘..for some ecosystems there are no clear conceptions of the composition or appearance of the future wilderness state.’1 Rewilding, like art, is a creative act. Working with art outdoors could be a way to help people understand that with rewilding, like adtr making, the outcome may not always be certain.

Just saying what art is, like saying what rewilding is is difficult because creative acts are, by their nature, difficult if not impossible to accurately predict. In pure scientific research, the capacity to predict an outcome and test it, is central. This is a source of vital information about some things that can be measured and predicted. Arts as research does not challenge this or contradict this. But with rewilding, predicting the path of secondary succession towards a state of preservation of a fixed final climax state is not always possible.

The artist John Cage talks about the creative act thus “When you start working, everybody is in your studio – the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas – all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you are lucky, even you leave.”2 In rewilding, in the end, even we leave in faith that the place can take care of making wilderness for itself. Rewilding may have a human hand at inception, the first brush strokes, but human hand leaves in the end. Nature is creative.

Frans Schepers and Paul Jepson say of working with rewilding as opposed to fixed conservation approaches ‘This conservation approach, which has been compared to restoring a painting that then needs curating, is at odds with the process-oriented ethos of rewilding and the uncertain ecological and conservation dynamics this entails… Rewilding is seen as a process rather than a state…3 ‘ The rewilding act is not that of restoring an old painting, it is the creation of a new painting.

We could see that as a mode of enquiry art making outdoors can help people look at what is wilderness and where it starts and ends, particularly in the urban fringe, it can help people experience rewilding as process and as an unpredictable creative act and provide access to understanding wildness through performative experiences, alongside quantitative and qualitative data.

  • rosebay willow herb

My experience of working with the outdoors as art and art as research has included both formal research and exploration of more personal experience. The use of art making as a form of enquiry is, I think, of most use as an adjunct to more formal quantitative and qualitative approaches. I think it invites a mode of working which, when guided by principles form the arts therapies and arts education can offer a degree of rigour of process. The arts generally have a long history of providing an outlet for expression and discourse.

All work is localised to the setting, the place in which the art making is taking place, and the artform and content subject to enquiry. Any work is, like the actual form the rewilding takes, open to a creative and thus unpredictable outcome. Nature, like art, can speak for itself. But two examples of how to work with the arts are presented which may illustrate the process in two specific settings. One is presented below, the other will follow and is part of a project I am doing in the Solway Firth.

On arrival at my current home, a neighbour told us about a flood which came down a ridge behind our houses and entered a friends kitchen. It seemed inconceivable at the time. There was no watercourse within a quarter of a mile of our houses. But during lockdown I went looking for evidence of the story. To my surprise I found a cloistered and culverted stream ran right where she said. It was invisible except for the occasional sound of water form under two large concrete slabs behind a garage and a vague path of dampness on a football pitch after heavy rain. On some maps a series of disconnected water features were shown, but on others they were entirely absent.

After a few days of rain, I went out with a camera to film the path of the water on the football pitch, when a dog walker called me over and we got talking. He confirmed the story. The flood happens 17 years ago and ruined his dads car when it entered the families garage. The then open stream was filled in by the council as a result of the flood. I found the path of the stream, mostly hidden but above the surface in three places in over it’s 2 kilometer course. I walked this with a GPS tracker to make a performance of it’s whole journey down to the River Irthing from a spring behind our houses. I discovered that this spring was on a feature that was was part of ‘Brampton Kame Belt’ ‘ the largest glaciofluvial complexes within the UK.’ I liked the idea of a mythical stream existing only when it rained and wrote a story about this like it was a Norse Myth. I become very attached to to this elusive, nameless stream, like it is the local secret only locals know about.

I know that the ridge the flood water came from was left by the bed of a river that flowed over the melting glaciers that disappeared 10k years ago. I know that on rainy days I can follow the wet path in the football pitch that marks the now filled in path of a stream, or find a spot under willow tree behind my house that produces the unseen but clearly audible sound of rushing water. I used story writing and performance to connect with the stream in a more personal imaginal way. I developed an empirical and personal connection.

This empirical and personal connection together acted to bring a feeling of attachment. In childcare, attachment is defined as ‘the maintenance of proximity’, and is an important source of security for care-giver and child. Because art making outdoors connects me to place with both empirical data and personal experience I feel now feel more attached to this stream and thus to the place I reside. So whilst with regards to rewilding, empirical, ecological data is vital, a personal attachment to place may be something that could be mutually beneficial to place and person. Understanding place through both empirical data and personal experience could be an interesting way to help people involved with rewilding form attachments to place.

Many rewilding schemes exist in the UK. Many will be supported by volunteers. Volunteering is a great way to connect with and form attachment to place. Participants involved in rewilding schemes will be familiar with many ecological, data driven modes of understanding. Having done a BSc in Human Ecology I can see this is vital. But as an arts therapist and art maker I can see that art making, or at least an approach to enquiry rooted in art making has had many benefits for me.

Any form of engagement with place and particularly physical or embodied engagement forms attachment. My experience is that this attachment has helped me through lockdown. My art based enquiry has maintained my mental health. But what the arts involvement has done has taught me to be is open in my approach to the place I live. Open in the way I understand what is going on.

  • things from a different perspective

For rewilding, and particularly rewilding in the urban fringe, a mode of engagement with process, a mode of understanding rewilding in it’s contentious and unpredictable nature that is open could be advantageous.

A Proposal

Therefore I make a proposal for conversation and possible collaboration in exploring art making as a mode of enquiry, understanding and attachment to place, in support of rewilding in the urban fringe.

I live in North Cumbria and would love to work with people nearby in England or Scotland on an actual site, ideally in the urban fringe.

Beyond lockdown, I would also be interested in connecting with individuals who may be interested in working with the outdoors as art, to simply experiment and explore ideas and possibly form a means by which we could support each other in personal arts, health, educational, ecological or environmental practice.

Art making makes art. Be it visual art, music making, poetry, performance art, pottery, sculpture, whatever. Sharing and showing art made is valuable as a way of inviting discussion, illustration and promotion of place, process, project and person. Showing and sharing art made is the art as research equivalent of the scientific peer review. I evokes discourse. But personal witnessing of art making is central to the arts therapies. We cannot all be artists but we can all make art. For some people showing what they made is a terrifying proposal. But in some way personal witnessing is like wilderness. To be true wilderness, it may be that it is unseen by any eyes but the eyes of the people, plants and animals that live there. In the arts therapies, art made is seen by nobody but the therapist and the person or persons in therapy. What is shared is shared with consent.

If anyone is interested in a sharing a journey of exploration and discovery, a journey of uncertain outcome, like adventure, like rewilding, like art, please visit my blog at and get in touch.

  1. Urban Wilderness in Central EuropeRewilding at the Urban Fringeby Matthias Diemer, Martin Held, and Sabine Hofmeister.  ↩︎
  2. john cage / score without parts  ↩︎
  3. Rewilding in the European Context  ↩︎

Solway Walk – The Experience

The Experience of Walking an Image of an Idea about Art as Experiential Learning

Dubmill Point in Allonby Bay was empty and big. From the road to the low water line was about a kilometre. I chose a spot to walk in the centre of the image above, a low bank of hard sand.

Dubmill Point on the South Solway

My intention was to walk the image below; my sketch of an idea about art making as experiential learning. I wanted to recreate this as a walk on the beach. I would use gps to track the shape I made, and record the walk on camera, and see what happened when I moved an idea from one artform to another, from an image to embodiment. I would walk with intention, attention and attitude. I would then write about my experience, reflect on theories and practices from the arts and learning, and see where this took me next. In my model below I would follow up this experience of art making into reflection, inquiry, reportage and further art making. I would not only walk my talk I would walk my thoughts.

art as experiential learning model

I set up my camera so as to get as much of the walk as possible without me becoming a dot in the distance. I set up my GPS and found my central point, meant to be the ‘Art Making’ part of the image of an idea. I set off walking in big loops.

Music : overdub1 by Chris Reed

As I walked it I kept seeking to return to the centre point. At first I found I lost sight of the central point. This would mean my GPS track would not reflect my drawing, so I put a marker there, a bit of seaweed and started again. I treated this as a rehearsal, an initial loop round my experiential learning model.

I set off again to recreate my drawing. I walked a line, one foot in front of the other, but by passing through the central point, I also walked in wonky looping circles. I got into a rhythm, I started to pay attention to how this might reflect art making as experiential learning. The central point became the place I returned to, but the loops took me to different places on the beach.

After a while I started to develop a kind of relationship with the central point. It occurred to me that instead of just walking the shape of the image of the idea, I could do a big slow looping dance with the centre as my static partner. I trained as a dancer and wondered why I had not thought of this before.

In the moment of being in moving as an artform, in the intelligence of that material, in witnessing my doing and the senses, it felt like this had significantly changed the experience. I found a freedom from mere representation, from figurative form, and improvised a new form. It became performance. Through this experience I learned a new thing about my art making practice.

All in all it was a quick and easy thing. It took me about 20 minutes to walk a mile. There is quite a strong tradition of walking as art and performance art in outdoor settings. These forms are interesting in that they are durational, the art making only happens when the person is walking or performing. The experience may well be documented through film, photography or other forms, but it is unlike a painting in which the artform exists after the making it. The artform is the experience. Performance based arts are very experiential and offer interesting opportunities for experiential outdoor learning. But Mark Rothko stated that the art, even a painting, is the experience.

This is something I want to explore further. If the art is the experience, and we work with the outdoors as art, the art we make outdoors can tell us not only tell us something about outdoor experience, it can be the outdoor experience. We make something that is outdoor experience. This interests me a great deal.

Doing strange things in the name of art, like walking around in circles on beach may seem meaningless, but often I find that the most important learning comes out of what seems to be the simplest most meaningless experiences, or experiences that seem to have many different meanings. Ambiguity is important.

Walter de Maria, made action-art and land-art, only available when experienced directly in the outdoors. He said…

“Meaningless work is potentially the most important art-action experience one can undertake today”

…but also

Any good work of art should have at least ten meanings.

Walter de Maria 1968

See video here

Read article here

But my intention was to use this to explore my model of art as experiential learning, and at the time what struck me was that by changing from walking the shape of an image of an idea, to performance, dancing, improvising the idea directly in the space, my model changed, and so did my idea about art as experiential learning.

The image that immediately came to mind was my life as a map with different experiences and interests, different places, other artforms made, with the artform I am currently working on as the one with the closest proximity to where I was at the time. In my next post I want to reflect and report on this aspect.