CHRIS FREMANTLE

Posted in CF Writing, Texts by chrisfremantle on June 23, 2006

I found the text below in a folder on my laptop – according to the properties it was modified 23 June 2006 so it must have been written right about then. I had been freelance since February of that year. I had been helping Helix Arts with an evaluation of the Climate Change: Culture Change project and must have just been in the development phase of Greenhouse Britain, probably having been to Shrewsbury and met the Harrisons. It’s a curious piece of history and I’m posting it pretty much as a curiousity.

It’s a very good question – why am I interested in Climate Change?

There are a number of answers – firstly I acknowledge that it will have a significant impact on my life, and the life of my family and friends, and it is having an effect on the lives of other people who I don’t know, and other living things on the planet.  But that requires me to reduce my ‘carbon footprint’ (in the jargon) – to travel less by plane and car, to reduce energy consumption in my house, etc.  It does not require me to make it part of my work as a cultural historian/curator/person involved with contemporary art.

I became interested in issues of art and the environment through a number of experiences and observations – I used to be Director of the Scottish Sculpture Workshop, and this is located in rural Aberdeenshire – it was a ‘modernist sculpture factory’ dislocated from its natural urban habitat to a rural one, by virtue of the inclinations of the founder director.  I heard Declan McGonagle, then Director of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), speak in Dundee about the challenges of transforming a building which was part of the British colonial history in Ireland into a space for modern art.  He highlighted and emphasised the importance of engaging with the cultural history and the surrounding communities.  IMMA places its relationship with its locality as a key thread of work.

I also began to look at the work of artists who worked within the environment across a range of strategies and tactics – I invited John Maine to work with us and a quarry company – this resulted in an 8 year project constructing a new landscape on the rim of an historical quarry in Aberdeenshire, and in passing involved 8 years of research and exploration of the prehistory and history of stone in the landscape of Aberdeenshire.

I commissioned Nina Pope to explore the interface between the rural and the digital with a group of young artists.

I commissioned Gavin Renwick to explore buildings in the rural environment of Aberdeenshire again with a small group of artists and architects.  This opened up a political dimension and resulted in a series of events looking at Devolution in Scotland from a (rural) cultural perspective.  The work with Renwick developed into another project looking at cultural continuity and human settlement in the context of the village and Aberdeenshire.

Another tack over this territory was the Making Places residency with Wendy Gunn – she brought in Craig Dykers of Snohetta and Tim Ingold, Chair of Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen.  Tim in particular spoke about movement in the landscape – knowing places and finding them.  We explored Aberdeenshire through a multi-disciplinary team including artists, architects, archaeologists, anthropologists, land-use researchers, and inhabitants.

I ran a programme of visiting speakers on public art – Penny Balkin Bach from Fairmount Park Art Association in Philadephia, Anna Pepperall from Gateshead in the North East of England, and Stefanie Bourne from the Sustrans organisation.  I commissioned or acted as the commissioning agent for quite a lot of public art – this did not take thinking forward, but it is always interesting to work with artists.  Where it was interesting was when there was an opportunity to for an artist to develop work of their own, or where a commissioner was willing to take risks and be very open.

Helen Denerley’s Craws at the Safeway in Inverurie simply addressed one of the characteristic aspects of the area, and David Annand’s Aberdeenshire Angus was the best possible thing that could be done on the basis of the ambition of the village of Alford.

But more interestingly, George Beasley and Helen Denerley’s collaboration over the Boundaries project brought the whole population of Glen Deskry into making a work of art, and the CairnGorm Mountain landscape initiative has resulted in a truly significant work by Arthur Watson in collaboration with many of his colleagues.  In this work he is addressing hte multiple cultural histories of the Cairngorms.  The first phase of work involves dangerous drawing – exploring the naming of rock climbs – the dotted lines that overlay the cliffs and crags of the mountain.

But as to climate change – all of the above is characterised by
1. rural and inhabited
2. artists with other disciplines
3. reflection and action

Now I have been involved in Practice led research for 6 or 7 years, initially as a partner and collaborator, now probably as a researcher, and in the future as a PhD candidate.  This has only been possible because of my colleague Anne Douglas and On The Edge, her research project into a new articulation of the value of the visual arts in marginal contexts.  Whilst On The Edge does not speak to climate change directly, it addresses the idea of ‘life as art’ and the reposition of art within the everyday.  It also is a hugely important space for thinking rigorously and creatively across such a wide range of issues in partnership, not just within the core team, but much more widely.

I’m not interested in climate change because its a new theme in the endless cycle of issue based work eddying through contemporary art.  I’m not interested because there might be funding.  I am interested because it is an evolution of the work – it asks not just how do we live here?  How do artists respond to this place?  How can we look again at where we are?

It goes beyond that to ‘we have to live differently.  How can we do that creatively?’  Climate change is therefore not the only driver.  There are also social drivers and ethical drivers and aesthetic drivers.

My dissertation for my MLitt in Cultural History was all about Utopia, its underpinning of the Humanist project and the embedded structures of power and social organisation – it was a critique.  I think perhaps I am still involved in the critique of the humanist project and the idea of utopia.

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