An artist reports on COP15

Posted in Research, Sited work, Texts by chrisfremantle on January 12, 2010

Read Aviva Rahmani’s reflection on attending COP15 in Copenhagen.  She sees hope, not in transnational engineering of negotiations, but in all the NGOs and projects seeking to make a difference on the ground.  It strikes me that the increasing attention focused on the periphery, whether it’s Eigg or Tuvalu, might be indicating a very basic shift (see posts on Landworkers).  The sharpness of the challenges faced in remote edge locations is matched by the imagination and energy brought to bear on them.  What is interesting is the extent to which these examples, of crisis or initiative, become visible and in turn become benchmarks and potentially become models.

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Posted in CF Writing, Producing, Sited work by chrisfremantle on May 16, 2009

Twice this week I have been confronted by the importance of thinking about the rural as a thing in itself, rather than by what it is not.  The Scottish Government defines the rural in negative terms; it is that which is not urban.  But, and it has to be said, sometime around now according to the UN Population Fund humanity is crossing a threshold into (statistically speaking) more than 50% of us living in cities.

And it is precisely at this point that it is increasingly clear that we need to pay attention to the cost of our beliefs, and our belief that the rural is backward, dependent and boring compared to the smooth, fast and creative spaces of our cities is one we need to question.

On Thursday 14th May 2009 the Geddes Institute at the University of Dundee, as part of the Annual Conference of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland held a symposium entitled Landworkers. We were taken on a journey into a space where the indigenous and the vernacular and the rural and the remote were foremost. I have a slight reservation even using the word rural in the context of work around the Great Bear Lake in the North West Territories of Canada, or of Samiland stretching across Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Rural suggests the space of western agrarian cultures, not the space of travelling folk and nomads.

So I’d like to start by suggesting several things Scotland can learn from its own rural:

The international Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recently reported that Scotland’s rural schools provide the best education in the world.

As noted previously, the result of more than 20 years of community development through the process of land claim on Eigg (amongst other remote Scottish estates) has resulted in the Eigg Trust introducing a renewable energy system which makes the island an exemplar. Moreover the fact that this renewable energy system incorporates a means to limit any individual from taking too much is something to be celebrated. It means that social and environmental justice are manifest in the infrastructure.

Rural Scotland also has the potential to generate 25% of Europe’s wind energy, as well as a very significant proportion of wave and tidal energy. In the context of climate change it is imperative, not that we cover every square mile of the Scottish landscape with wind turbines, but that we develop a robust politics to maximise the production of renewable energy by pushing all the technologies to commercial viability, and by re-designing and re-engineering the grid to support this. The key words for such a policy need to be a mixed economy of means across both technologies and scales – just as rural life is characterised by mixed economies and complex interdependecies.

This moves from the overused word ‘sustainability’ to the more imaginatively rich concept of a ‘stability domain’ as articulated by the eminent ecological artists Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison. A ‘stability domain’ is a region, whether a watershed, or another geographical entity, which achieves ecological and economic stability. In human terms this means having the necessary interdependencies, structures and limitors embedding social and environmental justice, for life to thrive. It also means ceasing to be dependent on the extraction of, and consuming of, limited resources beyond the carrying capacity of the ecology.  We might also want to ask what a cultural stability domain might be?

If we want to challenge beliefs, then we might want to imagine the situation where our energy needs are met from the energies already in movement around the planet, rather than those embedded beneath our feet. I can understand why miners in St Helens in Lancashire are proud of their motto ‘Ex Terra Lucem’ and it’s a wonderfully resonant phrase, but we need a new motto.

These are all pragmatic and practical lessons we can learn from the rural, but we can also learn in a different way, and returning to the Landworkers symposium I want to highlight the cultural things we can learn from the rural.

Four, if not more, presentations focused on vernacular and indigenous projects:

Gavin Renwick working as cultural intermediary for the Dogrib in their land claim negotiations with the Canadian Government, andnow moving on to the process of designing and developing a new vernacular for housing in the new nation.

Juhani Pallasmaa creating a museum of nature and culture with and for the Sami.

Then two wonderful presentations flowing into each other by a process of playing ‘tag’ starting with Arthur Watson, handing on to Will Maclean, handing on to Fergus Purdie, handing back to Will Maclean handing on to Marion Leven.

Watson was talking about Cairn Gorm: Reading a Landscape in which he is collaborating with Maclean and Purdie, amongst others. Maclean then talked about the works Cuimhneachain nan Gaisgeach (Commemoration of our Land Heroes) on Lewis where he is collaborating on the fourth site with Leven.

These projects are more than just art in rural places. They speak to a very specific and different understanding: one the places priority on the vernacular and indigenous. T.S.Eliot and others were quoted on the relationship between tradition and innovation but Renwick provided some of the key phrases that structure thinking this through. The first, probably derived from reading MacDiarmid, in “Being modern in your own language.” The second is the dictum of the Dogrib elders which is to educate young people to understand both Western culture and their own traditional culture: “to be strong like two people”.

The cultural projects all demonstrate that it is absolutely critical in the context of rampant urbanisation to express the value (richness, complexity, duration, immediacy, experimentation and repetition) of the rural. And that the expressions of value and meaning we saw help us understand, if nothing else, that the rural is more than just a lower density of population.

The issue of the vernacular seemed quite opaque in the event.  What is vernacular?  Is it of the everyday?  In relation to architecture it can seem like an aspect of the aesthetic realm or a stylistic device.  But it struck me that the terrace I live on with 20 houses the same and two at the end which are larger (for the builder/developer and his family at a guess) also describes a vernacular – yes in the ‘character,’ but also in the economics.  There is a real danger that the vernacular is a lifestyle choice rather than an aspect of imagining our ‘stability domain’.  It seemed to me that the artists’ projects evidenced a clear operation within a complex idea of vernacular which comes back to Renwick’s ‘modern in our own language’ and ‘strong like two people.’

Scotland's Futures Forum – How to re-perceive our understanding of 'rural Scotland' in the 21st Century?

Posted in CF Writing, Texts by chrisfremantle on May 12, 2009

Willie Roe, Chair, Skills Development Scotland and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, focused this event on an idea of equivalence and interdependence. He drew on the example of Denmark where, in law, the urban and the rural have to be dealt with in equivalent ways. This means that within any planning cycle rolling out services the rural is dealt with in parallel with the urban. The case in point is broadband which has apparently been rolled out in urban Scotland but is still only just reaching the islands. He perhaps highlighted interdependence through the example of very functional ferry services in the Shetlands versus the rest of the western and northern isles ferry services. He observed that in Shetland these had been designed to be the most effective for the islanders by the islanders, whereas the rest seemed to have been designed from the urban centre outwards. He also highlighted the importance of renewable energy in rural Scotland.

It therefore felt a little like the invitation had been made to come to Edinburgh to consider what could be done for rural Scotland which was obviously ‘dependent’ but that by the end the question was quite different: and might end up something like: ‘What are the key priorities where the rural has a specific role to play?’ When we ask these questions we begin to see a different set of answers: certainly renewables, but also education (apparently the OECD recently found that education in rural Scotland is actually the best in the world), probably community development, and I am sure the list goes on. Our priorities would come out looking different: re-engineering our electricity grid from one which distributes from the centre to the periphery, to one which also enables the periphery to distribute to the centre, might be a metaphor for quite a lot of other re-engineering. We would move away from assuming that the ‘rural’ is ‘dependent.’

But, if I had a reservation about the event, it was the lack of the use of the word sustainability in relation to the proposed core concept of equivalence. Equivalence could be interpreted in very wasteful ways. Rather I’d like to imagine Scotland in 20 years time being equivalent to Eigg, certainly in relation to energy if not also land ownership. I say this because Eigg is now wholly renewable, but also because there is social and environmental justice built into the system. Eigg does not have an unlimited volume of electricity available, although it is free and not consumed in the process of use. Therefore they have implemented a 5kw limit for households and a 10kw limit for businesses in the form of a trip on the supply. This way noone can take more than their share. To me this is an important model for a sustainable future for the planet, not just one utopian island.

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