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Language, Landscape, Sublime at Schumacher College, Totnes, Devon

Schumacher College, Devon, 29 & 30 June 2016

I was attracted to the idea of attending the Language, Landscape and the Sublime symposium as it was hosted by the Schumacher college which I had observed from afar as a place where interesting ecological and pioneering, holistic well-being art related courses were taking place. It also looked to me that the two day event was for poetic, romantic, ecologically minded people like myself rather than those with a more specific practical and/or scientific agenda. It seemed to be an ideal opportunity to meet like-minded people and to network with academics and artists with a similar ethos and interests to my own. I was lucky enough to receive a Fife Project Grant to allow me to make the journey to Totnes in Devon and to attend the symposium.

I enjoyed going alone to the symposium as having spent a large part of the past nine years raising two small children my identity as an artist was in need of some dusting off and some headspace. I also enjoyed coming from a different arts culture and having a chance to experience the conversations that were happening outwith a Scottish context regarding the phenomenology of land and its portrayal in the arts.

The symposium had attracted university academics from cross disciplines such as geography, philosophy, theatre, literature and visual art and also artists from different regions across the country.

We gathered into a small lecture theatre that used to be a part of Dartington College (before it relocated to Falmouth) to listen to the plenary talk by symposium convener Dr Richard Povall and the newly appointed estate CEO Rhodri Samuels. They discussed the background of the symposium and its aims and then a bit about the history of Dartington Estate, the legacy of its founders Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst, its current use of land, summer school, cinema, arts, farming, forestry, education, and social change.

Schumacher College; photo Jan van Boeckel

Schumacher College; photo Jan van Boeckel

Mr Samuels talked about reimagining future narratives for Dartington Estate and its underpinning ethos of well-being, education and social change. He extended to the audience that they would welcome ideas and suggestions for the estate and in bringing about deep changes in self and society.

The keynote speaker was Professor John Wylie from the Dept. of Cultural Geography at the University of Exeter. His presentation was ‘The Distant’. It was a philosophical enquiry into the nature of landscape, into spacialities, immersions and connections. It explored what is visible versus invisible, global versus local, recognised versus excluded. It concluded with the thought that a landscape cannot be a homeland, that it is a sort of fantasy because we are not embedded in it but looking out at it…. an ‘elsewhere’.

The presentations that followed the keynote were rescheduled due to many of the speakers (3 at least) being too unwell to attend. The plan was that the symposium would split into two streams and I was suddenly thrown off course as most of the unwell speakers had been on my ‘to do’ list for the symposium. I had to quickly rethink my schedule. As a result I found myself a couple of times sneaking out of one presentation to try and catch the end of another. I caught the end of Laura Bissell’s presentation about her collaborative sound art project ‘The Sea’ but luckily I was able to talk to Laura (from Glasgow Conservatoire) later on in the Symposium and therefore catch up on her process of collaboration and the project of making a theatre based sound work.

I attended six other presentations that day. All explored a romantic sublime of landscape (references to Jane Austen, Sebold, Casper David Friedrich and contemporaries Kathleen Jamie, Shaun McNiff, James Hillman, Meinrad Craighead).

In between the scheduled presentations there were a group of informal ten minute pecha kucha slots by artists. These were interesting insights into individual practices of artists dealing with landscape themes. I particularly liked a performative reading about signs found on a landscape walk; the concluding impression being that the landscape was actually really not for them, that their presence was permitted only if they obeyed the rules, and that it was also a threatening place as the signs often warned of many kinds of imminent danger.

The final talk I attended that day was about Capability Lancelot Brown by Dr Laura Mayer. She started the talk with the assertion that unless ‘you had your head under a pillow’ you would be aware that 2016 was the three hundredth anniversary of this important historical figure. In Scotland we must all have our heads under a pillow because I hadn’t heard anyone mention this fact all year. This is a quintessentially English Culture of the ‘landscaped country garden’ that just isn’t celebrated in Scotland.  This final talk set me on a path of reflection and consideration of the differences between attending a symposium of this sort in England and one in Scotland; more thoughts on this later.

As a welcome break and spot of fresh air I decided to go on a walk to the Schumacher College with a group who branched out from the symposium talks; this was a mile and a half walk through the estate and thus it took in much of the nature of the estate and its various initiatives such as the community gardens and other food growing schemes. These excursions often prove to be fruitful for having conversations about things that are pertinent to the current world of art and politics in and in the past few days the United Kingdom had experienced the vote on Brexit and a leadership (or lack of) that didn’t seem to have a plan. The European referendum campaign and its outcome had left the people I chatted to on the walk feeling bereft at the result, and, with the subsequent resignations, feeling somewhat betrayed by the political elites. This whole scenario was reflected in so many ways in the experience many in Scotland had experienced a few years earlier during the Independence Referendum and I was able to explain so many of the parallels of the two campaigns and the ensuing feelings of anger. It was at this point in the symposium that I realised the conversations we were having about land had turned from the romantic and ecological to the political.

England within the context of this symposium seemed full of celebration for its landscapes. Many of the presentations extoled the idea of the romantic sublime and the legacy of the rich within landed society to enclose and idealise nature. Over the border we have a different story. Unforgiving mountain ranges, barren moors as spaces for blood sports and a ‘humiliating’ history of feudalism and clearances. Our current Scottish landscapes within culture are more politicised than celebrated and they are revered rather then romanticised.  But this has perhaps really only come to the forefront, for myself at least, in the past few years since the Independence referendum when complacency wasn’t something we could arguably afford any longer. Prior to 2014 our landscapes were, for most of us, places we could roam but not much more. In current day England they do not even have the right to roam, which made the lack of politics in the presentations even more questionable…through my lens at least.

On the evening of the Wednesday night I attended a late night canoe down the River Dart facilitated by Wildwise with storytelling and hot chocolate beforehand by the fireside.  This was another opportunity to chat to others from the symposium in a small informal group about the days presentations.

River Dart, Devon; photo Jan van Boeckel

River Dart, Devon; photo Jan van Boeckel

I asked why there was so little politics and questioned this restriction of access and the elevated status of ‘private property’ but it seemed that these conversations were not taking place at least not in Devon or in the ‘Home Counties’ as most people seemed surprised and unsure of the answer. It was of course also the case that the symposium of Landscape, Language, and Sublime was not framed around issues of politics but around ecology and a concept of the romantic landscape. I couldn’t help feeling however that in Scotland within our cultural discourses these themes had become inseparable. It led me to consider that next year, I could even take a bit of this Scottish land/ politics / ecology discourse and how I apply it within my own work, and/ or with reference to other works, and present it somehow even in a short pecha kucha type slot.

On day two of the symposium I chose to leave the Dartington Estate and head to Sharpham House to attend the talks and workshops there. This grand house is situated up a steep hill with panoramic views over the River Dart. The gardens have been attributed as perhaps being the work of renowned landscape architect Capability Brown and the whole house and gardens exude an ethos of well-being, compassion, peace and creativity. The food is also incredibly good here.

Lunch outside, Sharpham, Devon; photo Jan van Boeckel

Lunch outside, Sharpham, Devon; photo Jan van Boeckel

As we entered the hall way we all removed our shoes and padded up the carpeted spiral staircase to rooms called The Music Room and The Maurice Ash Room.  The smaller numbers and spaces meant the presentations became more personal and so there was more chance for discussion, albeit before time was up and we had to move on (housekeeping being more noticeably officious today). I liked that this became a more dynamic relationship than the previous days more passive audience/ speaker arrangement and we managed to even get a few questions in; always the best part for me of any presentation.  I listened to Jan Van Boeckel, (Netherlands), speaking of his work guiding new artists on outdoor ‘Wild Painting’ workshops through concepts such as ‘wrong footing’ in order to simultaneously ‘trick’ and connect people to the direct experience of nature and their own creativity. Then came the Coastal Reading Group from the USA. They explained their practice as embracing the concepts of grief, belonging and home. This was the most ‘ecological’ talk I saw at the symposium, (although I concede that I unfortunately missed Nessie Reids from Cape Farewells talk about Milk (cheaper than water?)), as they related their arts practice to an appreciation of all things lost through mans impact on the earth. The workshop I attended in the afternoon (The original one by Camilla Nelson ‘Making Language with the Trees’ having been cancelled at the last minute and all the others filled up) ‘Tickling the Touchstone’ by Alicia Gray, Kate Amphlett, Toby Morgan touched upon social exclusivity in the Romantic Landscapes of the North of England.  It turned out to be an interesting and often amusing delve into the industrial landscape and the divide between the rich and poor; how this was and is reflected in its past culture of landscape art both written and visual. I noted again that it appeared that the overseas presenters and the northern contingency had brought a different angle to the proceedings.

In conclusion the best thing about attending the symposium was stepping outside a known culture of art that I have wrapped myself in these past few years in Scotland and experiencing a wider gaze of art and culture and its relation to landscape. In thus doing it caused me to question my own place as an artist in all of this and my priorities for continuing a nature/ landscape art practice. The most insightful thing of course was the people I met and the conversations we had over breakfast, lunch, coffees, walks and dinner. I noticed a palpable division in those attending the conference with on one side the academics staying in the better accommodation with the financial/ logistical means to study the finer philosophical nuances of landscape, and the freelance artists whose presentations and conversations centred around more practical issues and/or funded projects. Conversations with the latter almost always, after a while, turned to methods of survival (especially it seemed since the 2008 financial crash) and to money worries but also to a commitment to a life of art through it all. A middle ground, if it existed, must have been sitting at a different table from me; a fact reflected, it has to be pointed out, by the symposiums ticket prices that offered artists and independents the two days for an affordable £60 while institutions were asked to pay the slightly heftier price of £165.

This time at the Schumacher symposium of Language, Landscape and the Sublime was an invigorating, interesting, thought provoking experience that will stay with me for a long time and undoubtedly feed into my life and practice in ways that I am not even aware of yet. I only hope now I can go back next year…with of course something more to add to the conversation. 

Alison Philp, Fife-based artist

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