Becoming Earthly at the Barn
“what we have been, or now are, we shall not be tomorrow” ― Ovid, Metamorphoses
Becoming Earthly is an online learning space for artists and organisations interested in developing practices that generate new ways of living on Earth, being aware of the critical zone of atmosphere and soil, (the ‘skin’ of the Earth) upon which all life is dependent.
Becoming Earthly begins with the environmental crisis. As artists and cultural organisations alongside scientists and active citizens, we are not necessarily prepared to meet the challenges to our imaginations of how to live on Earth. For many of us, the biodiversity and climate crisis feel like an intrusion not only into everyday life but also to the assumptions we might have made about practicing the arts. We need to relearn how to live on a unique planet whose capability to sustain organic life is threatened by human activities and behaviours.
COVID-19 acted as a trigger to developing Becoming Earthly. At the Barn, we experienced how artists, particularly those in performance, had lost their intimate relationship with their audiences. The arts have been called upon to support others in opening up new possibilities and yet many artists and arts organisations felt ill equipped to understand what appropriate change might look like.
Becoming Earthly initially took the form of a programme of six seminars delivered fortnightly for two hours over three months via zoom. We framed the seminars in response to a challenge posed by Bruno Latour, a philosopher and anthropologist in the field of science who had called upon the arts to develop the emotional resources to cope with the terrifying news reaching us daily of environmental devastation. To this end, we brought together different forms of expertise including anthropology, philosophy, arts practice and research to support a conversation, an open-ended exploration of the implications of what came to be known as ‘Latour’s challenge’.
Participation in Becoming Earthly was limited and selected. We asked applicants to frame a question that they would bring to the process of ‘becoming earthly’. This question was pivotal in enabling us to make an initial blind selection based on how applicants were thinking about the issues, how curious they were in contributing to the challenge that Latour had posed. They were free to be critical of his framing of the challenge. After this initial blind selection based on their question, we matched individuals with their CVs and past experiences. We were not trying to recruit eco-artists. We were more concerned to create an open space for sharing experience; fears as well as doubts, successes as well as failures, within a space of critical debate. Out of 150 applicants, we had the capacity for 11 practices, 20 artists in total including a few duos. Participating artists needed to commit to the whole process.
We reached out beyond the performing arts, because we know that it is when different art forms encounter each other that we can best connect and challenge each other to create something new.
The introductory seminar outlined the aims and objectives of the programme and participants introduced themselves to each other.
Four thematic seminars addressed the following pairings:
Gravity and Movement – Paolo Maccagno
Lament and Improvisation - John Newling
Doubt and Pleasure - Professor Johan Siebers
Shame and Care - Dr Wallace Heim
The final session invited participants to discuss their experiences and learning from Becoming Earthly.
A little more on the pairings: Becoming Earthly started with gravity and somatic movement. The themes of doubt, lament and shame were not purely conceptual but emotional. They forced us to face the melancholia of a dying world, the ‘terrifying news’ of Latour’s challenge. In pairing with improvisation, pleasure and care respectively, we also came to reach beyond fear, the fear that we will go on living while the environment is progressively degraded around us, the fear that the air we breathe will become toxic leading inexorably to our extinction. This is a conclusion we are reluctant to reach but examples of our destruction of nature and pollution of our environment are all around us. By embracing this messier, murkier, experimental and experiential consideration of ecology, we could encourage ourselves as artists and cultural leaders to push beyond the staid clichés of ‘the landscape echoing our mourning for humankind.’ We could also begin to free ourselves from the subordinate position of grieving for the environment and the planet purely on the basis of being deeply attached to it. We could imagine ourselves as active participants in the life-web, a tiny but important part of an interrelated and interdependent system. Lament, doubt and shame became entangled with improvisation, pleasure and care.
What resulted from the first programme of Becoming Earthly?
⁃ Practical funding to support new work
We invited artists to submit proposals if they were interested to work with us further.
⁃ A network becomes an experience of mutual support
Participants have continued the discussion and developed opportunities to test out emergent work, e.g. Huw Wahl, creator of The Republics 2019, is developing an expanded notion of what ecological filmmaking might look like through his new film on sailing.
Becoming Earthly enabled the conditions for KlangHaus arts collective (including art-rock mavericks The Neutrinos and artist Sal Pittman) to develop thinking and questions which led to the COVID-19 safe, sound and senses show Darkroom. This work explores climate chaos for an audience of one in complete darkness and was supported by Tyndall Centre for Climate Research. Darkroom was presented in the COP26 context in Glasgow 2021.
⁃ New projects at the Barn
Some of these are still in the process of development and therefore, with limited details that are publicly available.
Huw Wahl curated an ecologically focused film season (also titled Becoming Earthly) which explores bringing us closer to our roots in the earth. (You can read an interview with Huw about his project here)
Jo Hodges and Robbie Coleman have created a new set of presence cards focused on art and environmental awareness. Loosely based on tarot cards, they enable the participants to explore the ecological underpinning of an emergent project or practice. The cards are navigational aids to help us understand where we are, where we have been and where we might be going. They help to articulate the aims methods and values of a project or practice and are absolutely involved in the demanding nature of environmental awareness and how to create forms of action.
Jo Hodges and Robbie Coleman are also working on The Far Orchard a new project that develops over many years connecting people to living systems, food and communities. This project is asking us to imagine into the future and hold an idea in common that matures over years. It is a project that requires patience before ‘bearing fruit.’ We will update as this unfolds.
Simone Kenyon is developing a performative dry-stone wall for the Barn site, exploring the choreography of speed walling through participation, working closely with local biodiversity groups. This project is still in development but aims to help people to enjoy a deeper connection to the natural world as we emerge from lockdown.
Phos an duo of artists Luke Pell and Lucy Cash have created a new work Turning out, Tuning in that has engaged specifically within volunteers of the Barn, through a combination of in-person and remote presence. They have worked through depth of listening connecting listening with simple movement, deep observation and modes of sharing.
Phos - Luke Pell and Lucy Cash also curated Phosphorescence a weekend of creative encounters including dance, talks, films and sensory workshops. Phosphorescence is about coming together and shining a light on what matters to us all now.
Christina Peake is Bajan British artist. She has developed an installation, recreating Gettin’s House, a chattel house from Scotland that was built in Barbados, a place where indentured servants told stories. She has linked the stories of her own grandmother in Barbados with the local history of Bothy Ballads and the Doric poetry tradition of North East Scotland, working with the poet Shane Strachan. Both explore hidden histories and the marginalised voices that constitute a legacy of colonialism. You can find out more about this project and download the stories from Gettin’s House here.
Marie Antoinette, an artist duo from Portugual (António Guimarães and Mariana Dias Coutinh), are developing a rural arts organization called CLARA in Alentejo and were interested in Becoming Earthly and the Barn as an established rural arts organisation working with environmental wellbeing. Their involvement was driven by a practical need to understand the Barn as an organisation. Their project, Riffing the Archive, challenged the Barn in unexpected ways that have proved to be very significant in the Barn’s learning about itself and about the Becoming Earthly programme. The artists explored the Barn’s history and the meaning of this history to staff, volunteers and audiences. The duo worked from an official Barn email but without the normal identifiers such as logos, a move considered by many leaders of arts organisations to be unthinkable. The work of Marie Antoinette demanded a great deal of trust. The duo produced weekly releases every Sunday for three months and these were shared through the Barn’s database inviting our audience to participate.
The material in the emails came together through contributions from a number of individuals. The artists made small artworks, such as the Box of Affection, that stimulated participation. Generative work came out of this from participants including lyrics for an imaginary song, a Dadaist play, among many other creative outputs. A variety of unexpected responses brought alive the email database and the individuals behind the data. Marie Antoinette are now moving into the publication phase of the project.
Becoming Earthly helped us, the Barn, to focus more deeply than hitherto on environmental awareness. Progress in the arts is frequently measured by doing more, for more and more people. Becoming Earthly recentred us as an organisation to do less, with more meaning and quality of thought, deepening experience. It exposed the importance of drawing participants into the core of the making of the work within an uncompromising aesthetic. This has re-energised staff, Board, and the artists who lead the creative process.
Background on the Barn and relationship to art and environmental awareness
As an organisation, the Barn grew out of a series of interwoven ecologies; different groups using our spaces and environments in a range of overlapping ways, each altering and transforming as people and circumstances changed. In this way, the Barn can be understood as an ongoing experiment in art and environmental awareness. As such our organisation is in a unique position to share, collaborate, inform and connect thinking with artists during this moment of global change.
The Barn has a rich history of exploratory work in art and environmental awareness. Long, sustained relationships with renowned artists such as John Newling, Newton Harrison, Helen Smith and Maja Zeco, have helped us to develop and lead the conversation around possibilities for the arts in rural environments.
Our site supports a Wild Garden, a yet-to-be-developed Walled Garden and two fields of allotment gardens alongside a performance space, a gallery and a craft shop showcasing Scottish based makers. On the same site as the Barn is Buchanans’, an independent slow food café/bistro. The proximity and relationship between the two organisations offer many opportunities to collaborate and connect people to living systems, food and communities of sharing and generosity.
The steering group behind Becoming Earthly includes the Barn’s Senior Management Team: Simone Stewart (Head of Creative Programme), Victoria Layt, (General Manager) Cath du Preez (Head of Operations); Professor Emeritus Anne Douglas, artist researcher and Trustee of the Barn; Chris Fremantle, Research Fellow and Lecturer at Gray's School of Art, Director of ecoartscotland; Mark Hope, co-founder and Trustee of the Barn; Glen Benson, Honorary Curator of Artifacts at the Linnean Society and Senior Safety Adviser, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.