Everyone, everywhere, every-time – on the ownership of creative work, land and river

During lockdown I, like many others, have been doing more thinking than usual. I’ve read new books, experimented with different cooking, making art, trying out new apps and podcasts, basically allowing myself to explore things I was not looking at before. That includes ways to distract myself from feeling anxious.

Today, before I got out of bed, I dipped into a meditation app to find something new to start the day. I found ‘Connecting To The Soul Within’ by Saqib Rizvi. I gave it a go and the introduction resonated with me greatly, not in relation to my soul, but about ownership of ideas and places, due to my thoughts on going to sleep last night following reading a book. More about that later. What I took away from this, the thing that lodged in my mind, was the introduction. Rizvi described the stages of transgression that are needed to connect with one’s soul:

  1. Being someone/somewhere/sometime
  2. Being no-one/nowhere/no-time
  3. Being everyone/everywhere/every-time

My mind momentarily wandered off on a tangent, thinking about the journey from the individual to the universal in landscape ownership terms. I did manage to bring it back in line and listen to the rest of the session. Am afraid I failed to locate my soul and must try harder next time. But I did feed my brain. I went downstairs with that fluttering around in my head.

Once armed with a cup of tea, I popped onto Facebook for further distraction. I read some interesting conversations, after which I downloaded the National Trust Research document,  ‘Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust’ to read later.

Can land rightfully belong to anyone? I’m also reading ‘The Story of Trespass’ by Nick Hayes. The National Trust is stuck between two banks/walls/places, but surely their role is to tell the true story of history, not the white-washed, economy-engineered version? Land has always been contested and actions of enclosure, trespass, racism and trade have shaped and framed the landscape, creating territories, borders and countries. All in the name of power.

I spotted another dialogue on FB between creative practitioners, which revolved around finding soothing things to do/read/listen to, during lockdown. In that conversation, someone recommended a podcast I haven’t heard of before – ‘Aphids Listens’– which hosts discussions between Lara Thoms and artists. As someone who is interested in art in public spaces, I went straight to episode 7, with Amy Spiers. The podcast begins with a statement:

Aphids acknowledges the wurundjeri and boon wurrung peoples on whose lands we live and work. Sovereignty was never ceded and we pay our respect to past, present, and future aboriginal elders and community, and to their long and rich history of artmaking on this country.

Obviously, there’s a connection between the NT document, Nick Hayes’ book, and this podcast. The first specific artwork that was discussed was ‘Dancing In Peckham’ by Gillian Wearing – an old favourite of mine. I wrote about it many years ago, when I was awarded a Creative Writing Bursary from Arts Council England, around the time that the work was new, in the 1990’s. Wearing dances wildly in a shopping centre, no headphones, just dancing to a song in her head in a public place, with abandon. When they spoke of Wearing’s work, they referred to her  “losing it, losing oneself, losing inhibition”. And how some may have thought this was a little worrying, a bit weird.

Wearing danced in public, that was a transgression, a private act seen by strangers.

And here we all are, during a pandemic, trying not to lose it, but making every effort to lose ourselves. Dancing in our kitchens, rolling around on the living room floor for zoom yoga, or doing life drawing from the sofa while watching TV.

As the saying goes – everything is connected.

So on to how this connects with my current studio practice and thinking about land ownership, or even possession, and/or losing it. Many people know I commission art for public places, so understanding differences between space and place is embedded in my thinking, as is land ownership.

When it comes to my own art practice, I have mostly made work relating to landscape, though sometimes that landscape was of the body, as in my MA video work. I have recently returned to lens-based practice, and the power of the gaze has arisen again, especially when working in 360 degrees.

What unites all my recent work is the River Severn. The title of my book “Severnside – An Artist’s View Of The Severn” sums it up really. It has been about my particular take on the Severn, the book is autobiographical in many ways. Not any-river, or any-person, but me, writing about it. But in recent works, that has started to shift.

I am reconsidering my relationship with the river as a place, its history and the other living things that inhabit it. That includes other artists working with it, of which there are, and always have been, many. In terms of possession, maybe I have become possessed by the Severn, rather than me thinking I possess it. Maybe I am losing my ‘self’?

The Severn belongs to no-one, no-where, no-time.

In my recent works, I have sought to relinquish my gaze, to consider others’ relationships with this river. That is why these new works are called ‘the seen and the unseen’ series. It first happened in April, when I made ‘When You Call I Shall Come’. This was made possible because the bore surfers stood down, no-one else was competing for ownership, or rights-of-use, of the river, only me, and it. And I knew, as soon as I began to edit it, that this moment was as special for the river as it was for me. I filmed as an observer, then, during editing, the river became the storyteller. It wasn’t about my relationship with it, but the opposite. The river is the narrator.

In the ‘seen and unseen’ series, I’m playing with ideas about locating myself, losing my inhibitions, finding my place in the world through vision and sound. In film no.3 I speak of what is in front of the camera (not me), whilst showing the viewer what is behind. I talk about myself as an actor in the scene, in the 3rd person. I am seeking to separate myself from owning the gaze by employing a form of audio-describing. I narrate the action as if it were a play. Most of my work these days is a meta-narrative, a story about itself.

Then there is the thinking about ownership of land, in terms of creative interpretations. Locating the self, whilst not claiming ownership of land. I want to relinquish my one-to-one relationship with the Severn, to reflect that the land itself has a form of agency, has cycles, behaviours. It’s not easy, it feels slightly like a divorce. I know it is good for both of us, but it is hard to let go.

I have collaborated with two other artists in recent years, on works about the banks of the river. Suze Adams and I took photos of each other across the river for our Walking The Land project. More recently,  Carol Laidler and I worked together on a Liquidscapes project and presented it as a performance lecture at a Dartington conference. Both were about me – here, the others – over there. We called out to each other across the void, by doing so we connected both sides.

Maybe the next project needs to involve meeting others in the middle, or swapping sides, putting our feet in each other’s shoes? Dichotomies are destined to divide people further. Hayes suggests that words create walls, I think he is right.

Covid19 transgresses all of those things. It is affecting everyone, everywhere in every time zone.

VIEW: When You Call I Shall Come

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