‘Artist James Aldridge shares insights from Iain Biggs’ and Mary Modeen’s book Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place and resonances with his own projects exploring the value of outsiders’ viewpoints and voices not often heard in discussions on the Earth Crisis’
‘In this time of ecological collapse and climate breakdown, it is tempting to charge about ‘taking action’, but there are many kinds of action that are needed. Perhaps counterintuitively, when individuals and organisations around us are declaring an emergency, we need opportunities to slow down and to notice the reality of the situation we are living in, taking time to learn from human and non-human others with whom we share our locality. For me, that is what my arts practice, and Queer River specifically, is for.’
I’ve just been in Glasgow for a few days, at the invitation of The University of Glasgow, and as part of The Dear Green Bothy. You can read more about The Dear Green Bothy in this previous post.
Whilst in Glasgow I met, walked, talked and made with collaborators suggested by the University. This was my first experience of the Clyde and Kelvin, and these are my first impressions of those rivers. I’m continuing to process my experiences and develop further artwork as a result. These walks, plus the writing and artwork that emerges from them, form Part 1 of the Queer River Wet Land project.
‘My definition of ecological entails an aspiration for a way of being in/with the universe that dissolves nature/culture and human/nonhuman binaries, but which acknowledges differences, antagonisms and contradictions, rather than seeking resolution or transcendence..’
Together, we followed a route Minty had devised in advance, with a container of chalk from my home valley in Witshire, and a simple pad that I’d made of black and white paper, to record our conversations and what we noticed.
We met at The Snow Bridge, a pedestrain bridge over the River Kelvin at the edge of Kelvingrove Park, in heavy rain. Although we did get a bit wet, it was a perfect opportunity to observe the path of water through the city. The project was named Queer River, Wet Land as we wanted to focus on the interrelationship between land and water, river and substrate. I was keen that we continue to queer the idea of what a river is, to blur the boundaries between river and city, moving away from the blue line on the map with clearly drawn edges.
The river, of course, doesn’t just stop at its banks, the flow of water and the wider water cycle connects the river with the streets, buildings, animals, sky and so on, and after recent walks exploring how my own local rivers the Avon and Kennet, sit on/flow within a bed of chalk, I was keen to explore further the behaviour of a river whose path has been altered through urbanisation and industry.
Minty’s own work for The Dear Green Bothy makes use of rocks and silt to explore this relationship of river to city. In her project Erratic Drift with Nick Millar, Minty works, ‘in collaboration with the rocks, stones, and silt of Glasgow’, as well as human collaborators. Alluvial Drift, one of three actions that take place as part of the project, uses a performance score to invite the performer to ‘Borrow some silt (mud) from the River Clyde. Dry the silt until it is a fine powder. Walk along the geological drift line marking the extent of the river’s alluvial plain, which lies underneath parts of the city centre. Sprinkle silt along the line as you walk…’
The River Kelvin as it runs through Kelvingrove Park to the bridge where we met, has a leafy, ‘natural’ look at first glance, although as I waited for Minty and watched it flow beneath me I soon started to notice the takeaway cups and other litter flowing along with the water, and the non-native plants crowding its banks (this is someting I’ll return to, whilst reflecting on what I learned from my time with Botanist Mark Spencer). From talking with Minty I also started to understand the impact of sewage on both the Kelvin and the Clyde, which the Kelvin flows into further down.
‘To stop sewage backing up into homes, the storm water and waste that would ordinarily go toScottish Water treatment centres is released into seas or rivers through the 3,697 Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) dotted across the country…. But Scottish Water is only required to monitor less than 3% of these CSOs for pollution, so the true scale of how much water waste is discharged is unknown.Simon Parsons, a director with Scottish Water, said CSOs “remain a vital relief mechanism tosafely relieve the pressure on the sewer network” Citing the impact of climate change on the intensity of rainfall in Scotland, he continued: “We have to stop that surface water getting into our systems.”‘
At the confluence of the Kelvin and the Clyde, we made use of one of the few places where you can reach the water, and stood at the water’s edge, looking across to Govan. I took some chalk from my bag and started to experiment with making chalk marks at the water’s edge. As we made our marks we noticed how quickly they became submerged, a sign of the incoming tide, chalk from one river marking the ebb and flow of another.
‘I’ve attached some images of the chalk lines that James and I made (tracing the rapidly incoming tideline) on our Thursday walk as they appeared underwater when we visited the slipway on Friday. I found tracing the line between water and land very satisfying, while pondering how weird it was to draw hard lines between water and land (as the city centre architecture of the Clyde does).’
As we walked on along the Clyde and past the Riverside Museum, we noticed ship mooring bollards and flood defense walls, Minty described an earlier work of hers (Bridging Part 1 and Bridging Part2 2010 – 2014), which involved attaching ropes across the Clyde. When the ropes were pulled tight after sinking to the bottom of the river, they re-emerged covered in various ‘sanitary products’, which had gethered unseen on the river bed.
The sewage mixes with heavy metals and other chemical contaminants from the Clyde’s industrial past. New buildings pop up on its banks and the occassional gull or cormorant passes by, but there is relatively little life. Boats are a rare enough occurrance to cause people to stop and watch, and the number of low bridges that have been built over time, now present a barrier to larger ships. The river feels uncared for and neglected, still and grey, at least along stretch where we walked.
In contrast to the Kelvin at Kelvingrove Park, this stretch of the much wider Clyde has high, straight banks, free of vegetation apart from the occassional Buddleia clinging onto the walls. The river was narrowed and deepened in the past in order to build and transport bigger ships. Today only one shipbuilder remains, building ships for the military, but the city’s shipbuilding history still looms large.
Minty described how the new buildings that are springing up along the Clyde’s banks feel disconnected the river itself. Available space on the riverbank is made use of with an eye on ‘regeneration’ and economic development, but with little or no connection to the living river. When other cities are prioritising the clean up of rivers, increasing access to riverfronts for leisure and tourism, and reintroducing native planting, it seems a missed opportunty, and without such a focus on the health of the river, the Clyde feels strangely dead.
The canalised form that the Clyde takes now, is at odds with what rivers will need from us in the future, as we try to find ways to coexist with dynamic river systems, and increasingly fluctuating water levels. This conflict between the form that the river takes now, and the need to think differently in the future, was brought home even more as we walked on past the riverside contruction site at The Scottish Event Campus (SEC) where preparations are underway for COP26.
On our journey along to our finishing point, where the Molendinar Burn (a largely hidden river that flows under the streets of the city) meets the Clyde, at the site of Glasgow Green, we also discussed Queer River from a performance perspective. Minty’s work began in set design. which informed her journey into performance:
‘I sometimes describe my research in theatre and performance as an attempt to put the stuff that is not human centre stage. I might perhaps trace this to my training and background in scenography… A focus on the other-than-human in theatre/performance informs my interlinking research interests: more-than-human performance, site-based and critical spatial practice and expanded scenography.’
With my own previous experience laying in museum and gallery education, art/ecology and outdoor learning, I’ve had less reason to explore the relationship of performance to my practice. I had thought that performance implied a pre-planned agenda, But in recent projects, where I have focused on embodied experience, walking, talking and dialogue, I’ve started to consider what might happen if I were to change the way I describe these areas of my practice, and consider them as performance pieces.
‘Advocates of performance, in its expanded sense, argue that it might lead us towards an understanding of our place in a more-than-human universe that troubles habitual and, arguably inescapable, anthropocentricism. It does so in several ways. First, performance offers a challenge to representationalism. As Karen Barad puts it, ‘the move towards performative alternatives to representationalism shifts the focus from questions of correspondence between descriptions and reality […] to matters of practices/doings/actions. Second, performance is not exclusively human. It is a more-than-human practice in which both human and nonhuman actors engage alongside and are intermingled with each other…’
This first walk of the Queer River Wet land project was a way to get to know Glasgow through its rivers, and the rivers through walking and talking with Minty. Our second walk with artist/researcher Rachel Clive, archaeologist/Heritage Engagement Officer Ingrid Shearer and Professor in Environmental Innovation Cecilia Tortajada gathered together a wider range of perspectives, which I’ll be starting to explore in my next post.
Queer River, Wet Land will take place in Glasgow on 9th and 10th of September, and will see me walking and making with Minty Donald, Artist and Professor of Contemporary Performance Practice at the School of Culture and Creative Arts.
Minty has a wealth of experience in working with rivers in her own practice, in particular through Guddling About ‘exploring humans’ interrelations with rivers and other watercourses‘ www.guddlingabout.com and Erratic Drift ‘a project by Minty Donald and Nick Millar, in collaboration with the rocks, stones, and silt of Glasgow‘ www.erraticdrift.org.
On the second day Minty and I will be joined by three more collaborators:
Rachel Clive – Theatre practitioner, writer, facilitator/teacher and researcher. Rachel’s art/science research interests include hydrofeminist practices and flood-risk management.
Cecilia Tortajada – Professor in Practice – Environmental Innovation at the School of Interdisciplinary Studies, Glasgow University. Working at present on complexity of water, environment and natural resources policy and management.
I’ll share documentation and reflections from the two days of walks here on the Queer River blog, and artwork that develops from them. Minty and I also plan to create a performance score as a result of the walks (new to my work but an integral part of Minty’s practice), which will support others (nationally and internationally) to collaborate with us remotely in Part 2 of the project. An online event will then follow in October/November in order to share the project and the work of our collaborators more widely (date/details tbc).
There’s so much about this project that I’m excited about, and so much that I know will grow from it, not least an exploration of the relationship between my walking/ecological practice and contemporary performance, and new working relationships with people carrying out such relevant and important work.
I’m thankful to Mark, Minty and the other collaborators for agreeing to join me and share their knowledge and experience, in a Queer River exploration of Glasgow’s waterways.
More to follow soon…
(The featured image for this post is titled River Clyde from Glasgow to Clydebank: Map of the river Clyde from Glasgow to Clydebank, and was created by the Clyde Navigation Trust in 1960)
On Friday I joined other artists exhibiting in the Queer Constellations exhibition, at The Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) in Reading, to see our work, meet each other for the first time ‘in the flesh’, and take part in workshops/discussions relating to the subject matter of the exhibition, namely queerness and rurality.
As part of the day I ran a workshop sharing my Walking Pages process and inviting the artists, exhibition coordinator Joe Jukes and Queer Rural Connections originator Timothy Alsopp, to layer their experiences of the MERL’s garden, onto printed photographs. The intention was to give people a chance to explore how we can document queer experiences of place, and consider how these might differ from mainstream representations.
“Why do I have to watch Brokeback Mountain or God’s Own Country to see a slither of queerness in nature?” he asks, regarding the overarching portrayals of queer people in gritty cityscapes. “It’s obviously not the case, and I wanted to spotlight the people, the pioneers and explorers, making the countryside work for them.”
You can watch Ned’s film here:
There’s a lot for me to process from the day, but there’s a few key things that stand out for me that I’m thankful for and left focusing on. Firstly our diversity – we are all different, our work is all different and we each have the capacity to evolve and change within that. It’s definitely not one size fits all, despite all that we share. We don’t all run away to the bright lights of the big city, and even if we do, many of us return to settle in rural areas. Whilst rural spaces can give us the freedom to be ourselves, they can also mean that we have to ‘come out’ again and again.
What I took away from my workshop was the focus on multi-sensory experience, as people included scent and texture in their pieces, reponding to experiences of lavender, the wind or the shape of the chicken run. I was interested in how 2D images were folded, cut, rolled, and queered. Semi transparent layers were placed over the top of the ‘official’ photographs of the Museum grounds, holding text that related to experiences of childhood gardens. Others had holes punched through them, or were drawn on to explore the unseen reality beneath the surface.
It’s been a big leap for me to start exploring my sexuality/gender identity so publicly in my work. Now that I am, it can feel a pretty solitary experience. I make the work, write or talk about it to an audience, or send it out into the world (either online or by post), unsure of the reception that its going to get. This exhibition and artists’ gathering has been the first opportunity I’ve had to exhibit and share my work within a specifcally queer context. I’ve been thankful for the opportunity to come together and share both our practices, and our thoughts and feelings about being queer in the countryside.
I’ve hung onto everyone’s pages from the workshop (not something I usually do), in a box I put together for the purpose, and will share them as a collection when I exhibit more Queer River work in the future. I hope to keep in touch with everyone from the exhibition, and to be able to come together to continue our conversations in the future, as I feel that I’m learning a lot.
The Queer Constellations exhibition continues at MERL in Reading until September:
‘Queer Constellations is an exhibition that poses the question as to whether there is queernessin rural life. It brings together artists from around the UK and Ireland, including Epha J Roe, James Aldridge, Emma Plover, Gemma Dagger,Eimear Walshe, Claye Bowler and Daniel Baker, to delight in the strangeness of rural life and to feel its enough-ness. We invite users to trespass the space, explore the margins, and to join us in queering the countryside...’
‘Queer Constellations is an exhibition that poses the question as to whether there is queernessin rural life. It brings together artists from around the UK and Ireland, including Epha J Roe, James Aldridge, Emma Plover, Gemma Dagger,Eimear Walshe, Claye Bowler and Daniel Baker, to delight in the strangeness of rural life and to feel its enough-ness. We invite users to trespass the space, explore the margins, and to join us in queering the countryside.
The exhibition also features a collection of MERL objects that represent the lives of historical gay men with rural occupations. Though found through criminal conviction records, we aim to show that these men were more than just a conviction…’
I’ve always had an interest in shapeshifting, in the ability to switch between bodily forms, or to exist as a human/animal hybrid. But I’d not really thought about it from a Queer perspective, so this post is very much a beginning.
Of course, we are animals, and the animal/human divide is a false one. In Queer River I’ve looked at where the river ends or begins, where the land and water meet, above and below the surface, and the urban and the rural. All divisions or boundaries that we are familiar with in word and idea, but which dissolve away through the embodied experiences of the more than human, watery world.
When I first Googled Mermen images (the main watery human/animal hybrid that I could think of) a lot of homoerotic imagery appeared. Muscular, wet, beardy mermen on t-shirts and other merchandise, catching the eye of the viewer and attracting the attention of the pink pound.
In reading about mermaids and sirens, I discovered that their role was often to seduce male sailors with their beauty and lead them to their death.
“Historically I think we have always cast mermaids’ freedom and sexual power as something dangerous [luring men away from home, dashing ships on rocks] and harmful to communities…Mermaids were an object lesson to young girls, teaching them that pursuing their appetites and desires is selfish and destructive. Nowadays there is such a movement to reclaim women’s sexual agency that it makes sense we are also reclaiming mermaids at the same time.”
‘…mythological creatures inhabiting the stretch of water between the northern Outer Hebrides and mainland Scotland, looking for sailors to drown and stricken boats to sink… The blue men swim with their torsos raised out of the sea, twisting and diving as porpoises do. They are able to speak, and when a group approaches a ship its chief may shout two lines of poetry to the master of the vessel and challenge him to complete the verse. If the skipper fails in that task then the blue men will attempt to capsize his ship.’
‘The legends said that mermen were shapeshifters, able to transform themselvesinto different shapes as quickly as sunlight reflecting in water. Contrary to more modern versions of the mermen scantily clad, legendary mermen often appeared in full dress attire playing the violin in rivers and waterfalls or materializing as an animal, especially as a river horse. Scandinavian names for the mermen like Naack and Nokk came from the old Norse nykr, which means “river horse.”’
‘He dwells in swamps, lakes, rivers, and even in aquatic environments that routinely drain during the dry season, like waterholes and billabongs. Although he is typically considered to be an aquatic creature, he has been sighted lumbering over land as well.Originally (it) went by a different name in each indigenous tribe: the Wowee-wowee, the Yaa-loo, the Kianpraty, the Dongu, and more. When Europeans got their hands on these various monsters, they united them under the single most popular name: Bunyip.‘
Right now I’m exploring what happens in the meeting of homoerotic imagery of same sex attraction, and stories that blur the line between human and animal/elemental. It’s made me think of the categories in gay slang/subcultures, which draw on body shape/type, and link them with the names of animals. The bear, otter, or cub for example (the giraffe was a new one on me).
‘The term ‘bear’ was popularized by Richard Bulger, who, along with his then partner Chris Nelson (1960–2006), founded Bear Magazine in 1987. There is some contention surrounding whether Bulger originated the term and the subculture’s conventions. George Mazzei wrote an article for The Advocate in 1979 called “Who’s Who in the Zoo?”, that characterized gay men as seven types of animals, including bears.’
I guess there’s a danger that by using this kind of terminology we move from the queerness of freedom from categorisation, back into stereotypes. I prefer the freedom to be me that identifying as queer provides, rather than the need to fit in that gay culture sometimes seems to demand. But there’s also a positivity that comes with being able to feel a sense of belonging, to be a bear among other bears for example (I’m too tall to be a bear but don’t fancy being a Giraffe).
I’m more attracted by the hairy animality that being a bear or otter suggests, and the kinship with wild animals that implies, rather than the glitteriness of a cartoon influenced, rainbow coloured, mer-person. Similarly the attraction for me of animal/human hybrids is visceral, it’s about skin and sinew, seaweed and salt, becoming half-wild.
So my interest in this area isn’t about the grouping of people into ‘types’, but about the thinning of the cultural/perceptual barriers that have been set up (in contemporary Western culture at least) between people and (other) animals, so that we can start to slip between the two. As with everything Queer River, this strand of research aims to both explore and go beyond the lines that we draw between us, and I’ve started some collages to help me do that.
Ways of making that combine together disparate imagery and materials seem appropriate to exploring Queerness. Collage lets me bring elements together that ‘shouldn’t’ coexist. Multiple exposure photographs and layered video resist the viewer’s urge to define and categorise. Through them I can create a world where we become both this and that, human and animal.
Several conversations recently have directed me towards chalk as subject matter and material, from my recent walk with Ecologist Tim Sykes discussing chalkstreams, aquifers and neolithic monuments, back to the very first walk with Geo-Archaeologist Claire Mellett, and current plans for future collaborations exploring the use of natural pigments, silts and chalks.
Today I took a rolled up length of black card, some black paper, white crayons, white pencils and a white pen, out for a walk, from the bottom of the Pewsey Vale to the top of the Downs.
While I walked I noticed light and shadow, white flowers and objects, and thought about the chalk beneath my feet. I wanted to explore how to record a walk with light on dark.
At the top there was a small quarry which gave me access to the chalk itself, to play, make marks and coat my hands and feet.
Here’s a short video which shows the walking pages in full and gives a sense of the shape of the surrounding chalk downland, with the Pewsey Vale and the River Avon below.
‘I am especially interested in contributions to happiness, well-being, life satisfaction, sense of place, place identity and attachment… I aim to contribute to the public health, blue health and nature connectedness agenda… and inform better Governance of water resources… properly valuing the true benefits & costs of water…’
Avebury is very much a part of my local patch, but as I started this research focusing on the Avon, I hadn’t yet included it or the River Kennet within my Queer River walks. I also hadn’t throught of this stretch of the Kennet as being a winterbourne, despite the act that it disappears during the summer months.
I made my first film and audio work Walking Back to Marden in response to neolithic monuments and their relationship with rivers, and included this area in the sites that I visited, alongside Marden Henge and Durrington Walls. I was also aware from my time working at Stonehenge on various projects in the past, of the role of chalk in the creation of henges and mounds, and of the flint that forms within the chalk in the creation of flint tools, but my knowledge of chalk streams until now has been fairly limited.
I knew that both the River Kennet and the Salisbury (or Hampshire) Avon are chalkstreams, that they are camparatively rare, and often threatened by over extraction of water, and pollution from agricultural run off. I had also begun discussions with artist Jac Campbell about the relationship between our river related practices, and a possible collaboration linked to our local chalk streams (Jac makes work about/with the River Lark in Suffolk) . But I hadn’t got much further than that.
As we walkied I made notes on paper and took photographs with my phone, which I later experimeted with printed over the pages of notes and drawings. As with all my walks, it’s hard to condense all that was discussed and explored into a single post, so alongside an increased awareness of what a chalkstream is, I’ve pulled out three key subjects that we discussed, which will inform and feed into future Queer River work.
Winterbournes – I learned from Tim that a winterbourne doesn’t have a be an entirely seasonal river, i.e. a perennial river like the river Kennet can have a stretch that is a winterbourne, like at Avebury, where the position of the spring head of the river changes with the seasons and weather. I also learned that certain species are adapted to living in/at the site of Winterbournes. I feel like I’ve gone from thinking about a winterbourne as a bit of a sad thing (as if it and all its inhabitants die or fail) to being a special kind of river that I need to know more about.
Aquifers – I guess I always had an image of some kind of underground pool of water when aquifers were mentioned. To be honest I’ve never really thought about them much before, but through talking with Tim now have a much clearer understanding of what they are and how they function, and they’ve really grabbed my imagination. Because chalk is permeable, in areas like mine, much of the water sits below the surface of the land, flowing within the chalk itself.
‘ I do think, when trying to help society become cognisant of aquifers, the messaging might think how to translate these hidden waterbodies into the equivelence of lakes like Loch Ness or Windermere that many people are familiar with – we have our very own Lake District in chalk-dry Wiltshire, its just that like an iceberg we only see it when it spills out to form springs and chalk streams.’
Rivers (more specifically chalk streams), and neolithic cultural practices (earthworks, rituals etc) – I’ve not got much more to say about this at the moment, apart from the fact that my walk with Tim really helped to connect this area of my practice, which I’d kind of put on hold, with my Queer River work, and that’s exciting.
The idea that a chalkstream is just the tip of the iceberg, a small part of a much larger water body is really exciting too. In the past I’ve written about the way that rivers are seen as linear, that maps with thin blue lines, and agricultural or engineering practices that restrict rivers by encroaching on them, reinforce our idea of a river as an isolated ribbon of water that runs along the surface of the land, but the idea that a river goes below the ground, as Tim said, literally adds another dimension.
So thank you to Tim for your time, knowledge, and enthusiasm. I can feel a whole new chalky, watery world opening up to me!
I’m also on the look out for funded opportunities to share my Queer River work with the LGBTQi+ community, through events and workshops that support others to have similarly creative, hands-on experiences of their own local wetlands. If you’re part of an organisation who would be interested in working together on that, or would like to help support in another way, please do get in touch.
At the same time that Queer River evolves to include different wetland habitats, my garden wildlife pond, dug in early April continues to evolve, with diving beetles, pond skaters and various fly larvae arriving. Yesterday I sat by the pond to start to draw some of the plant life, and saw my first damsel fly, a Small Red.
I’m fascinated by this new community of life that I’m helping to create, and the changing shapes, colours, movements, reflections and growth that I observe from day to day, the relationship between the above and below, land and water, man-made and wild.
Multiple exposure photographs allow me to layer different imagery together, to play with the relections, depth, transparency and interbeing that I notice within different wetland habitats, to (once again) blur boundaries and remove obstacles to a more fluid way of seeing the world.