The domestic and the global: Emma Nicolson on how the arts will be at the heart of Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh

Emma Nicolson, Head of Creative Programmes, Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh (photo courtesy of RGBE)

Emma Nicolson, Head of Creative Programmes, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), kindly agreed to be interviewed for ecoartscotland. The interview happened by email during July 2020 and is focused by the reinvention of Inverleith House as ‘Climate House’, moving beyond the 20th century idea of the gallery as ‘white cube’ and reconnecting with the context of the Botanic Gardens. This new approach is happening alongside a collaboration with the Serpentine Galleries in London, developed as a result of match-making by Outset Partners.

Chris Fremantle (CF): Can you tell us a bit about what Inverleith House will be like once it is ‘Climate House’?

Emma Nicolson (EN): We are confronting a pivotal moment in the role of the arts within Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE). Climate House reimagines Inverleith House as a gallery for the 21st century, igniting a new arts strategy across the Garden, and establishing RBGE as a visionary institution within Climate Crisis.

This marks the beginning of a three-year vision for Climate House which will act as a pilot project to be reviewed after that time. It’s underpinned by ‘By Leaves We Survive’, a new arts strategy for Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. We are focusing on the ‘21st century explorer’, inspiring discoveries between artists, scientists, horticulturists, scholars, activists, entrepreneurs, policymakers and visitors and local communities.

Ellie Harrison, Early Warning Signs, 2011, installed outside Inverleith House 2020

The Climate Crisis (and the pandemic) isn’t the first crisis for RBGE. RBGE was established in 1670 during an era of famine, plague and witch trials, by two physicians Robert Sibbald and Andrew Balfour. Their vision was to create a garden that would supply the apothecaries and physicians of Edinburgh with medicinal plants to help improve the wellbeing of the people of Edinburgh.

Now, four centuries later, our vision is to transform Inverleith House into Climate House  – an institute for ecology at the edge, reconnecting our gallery both to its roots as a centre for medical innovation and its future as a hub that will  promote the synergy between art and science as we face one of the most significant challenges of the 21 century.

Climate House will be an intimate place for contemporary art that is embedded within the natural world. The physical manifestation of Climate House is not set in stone, conceptually it will be a place to explore the future of our planet through art. 

CF: What will we experience?

EN: My vision for Climate House is that it will be a place you want to dwell in, as soon as you step into the building you get a sense of a warm welcome, a sense of home for art.

Inverleith House, Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh

For those not familiar with Inverleith House, it has a rich history of displaying modern and contemporary art. Originally built as a house for Sir James Rocheid, a prominent agriculturalist of the 19th Century.  The house and a portion of his land was sold to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in 1877. The house then became the home to the Regis Keeper of the gardens. In 1960, the house was turned into the inaugural home of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and in 1986 it became the official art gallery of the Botanic Garden developing a renowned exhibition programme of contemporary and botanical art.

Despite Inverleith House’s deep historic relationship to the gardens it has become untethered from the organisation’s wider activities in recent years. Isolated in part by the 20th Century approach to displaying contemporary art. We want to move on from the ‘white cube’ of yesteryear, taking a different tack that reconnects the house to its surroundings, but also to transform the house into a gallery fit for the pressures and urgent challenges of the 21st century. The most pressing of which is the Climate Crisis. Inverleith House’s proximity to the world of plants; the richness of scholarship, inquiry and praxis associated with RGBE means we have resources at our disposal to begin to think about the role of a gallery in the age of Climate Crisis. Art and culture have a valuable and important part to play in linking objects, images, processes, people, locations, histories and discourse in a physical space to open up dialogues and imaginaries that we see as critical to connecting audiences to this crisis.

Our plan is to work with artists like Christine BorlandCooking Sections, and Keg de Souza to transform Inverleith House into a Climate House and create a new vision. Inverleith House is a house in a botanic garden; a garden made for explorers of the past. We want to transform Inverleith House into a home. A home for the 21st century explorer. This explorer listens to the voices less heard, refuses to conform to the boundary between culture and nature, and is willing to imagine ways of living for the future.

A key area of focus for our work will be around listening to voices less heard.  These might include indigenous peoples and women in science. RGBE’s Collection grew with the British Empire and our work still operates in many geographies across the globe in doing vital work in the areas of conservation. There is also historical amnesia about women’s role in the study of plants. I want to unearth these stories and put them front and centre of our programme. However, I recognise that often the stories that just lurk below the surface tend to be that of privileged women from the upper classes. Although these stories are valid and worth sharing we also acknowledge that we need to dig deeper to unearth the stories of working-class and indigenous women who have contributed to the knowledge of our natural world.

CF: Will we visit Climate House to see different artists’ work or will we mostly interact with Climate House as an environment centre?

EN: We will explore the overlapping boundaries between visual arts, architecture and geopolitics. I want to think about how we present sound, live art, dance, performance and music, fashion, and the creative industries as well as internationally important visual art. And beyond this how do we work with resources, the buildings, knowledge, expertise, networks for the greater benefit of Edinburgh, Scotland and beyond.

Climate House is being built on the core principles of Sustainability, Collaboration, Intimacy and Attentiveness. Through these values we want to play with the scales of domesticity, creating intimate connections to the globally threatening phenomena of Climate Crisis. I was very inspired by the work of Maria Puig de la Bellacsa’s and her book ‘Matters of Care, Speculative Ethics in More than Human Worlds’. To do this, we will connect the wealth of expertise in RGBE’s activity and its collections: the Living collection; the Herbarium (some 3 million specimens); and the Archive (the historical collection) to artists and audiences. Our aim is to lead a society-wide journey towards a worthwhile future where surprising discoveries can happen and meaningful impact is achieved.

Sustainability: The mission of RBGE is to “explore, conserve and explain the world of plants for a better future”. In executing this mission, we must acknowledge the Climate Crisis and think of ways that the gallery can respond through our programming and operational endeavours.  These considerations may be formed through advocating the value in artistic practice in imagining “a better future”. This sees us leading in best practice in how we work with artists, by valuing their contributions and paying them appropriately and responsibly. It includes how we think about materials and waste in the conceiving and mounting of exhibitions and projects. Sustainability also means thinking robustly about our relationships beyond the gallery and the garden and how we connect to conversations and activities society-wide. As director of ATLAS we were a member of Creative Carbon Scotland’s Green Arts Initiative and considered climate impact of everything we did this is something I hope to implement at RBGE through Climate House. There is a lot of valid discussion right now about the need for hyperlocalism or to find ways of reducing our carbon footprint and to be inventive with our programming.

Collaboration: Working with others is vital to how we operate. The house is situated amongst a rich and vital community of scholarship and scientific research. It is our aim to connect scholars, scientists, activists, entrepreneurs and artists together to explore, interpret and discuss our natural world. For example, we have already initiated several internal gathering and sharings with artists and RBGE specialists in science and horticulture. This has included Christine Borland who is looking at the story of flax in Scotland and Cooking Sections who are engaged with Scotland’s forest landscape transformation and food production.

Intimacy: Using the home as our inspiration we want to explore intimate stories. To think about the domestic setting and how this model can be applied to an art gallery. Through an informal approach, informed by closeness. We want to create spaces of retreat and relaxation, warmth and comfort. But also spaces to discuss how we imagine living together in times of Climate Crisis. To challenge the idea of the idyllic home and instead welcoming the unruly edges in to create a space to hold many voices that is not alienating and open to all.

Conversations: Changing courses by Keg de Souza at AGNSW. Artist Keg de Souza hosts a series of conversations and food events as part of her work Changing courses for the exhibition The National 2017: new Australian art (image courtesy of the artist and RBGE).

Attentiveness: This value demands rigour, a way of working that pays close attention to something. We are attentive to our context – the deep and rich history of the gardens and its contemporary activities. We are attentive to our artists making sure that we deploy support structures that enable the artist to develop their practices in new and challenging ways. We are attentive to our audiences, creating situations and experiences that resonate, inspire and inform our audiences of the world around them.

CF: What are you bringing from your work at ATLAS to ‘Climate House’?

EN: There is a lot of my work with ATLAS I see as relevant to this role, although very different, but a key aspect would be the importance of understanding your context and building connections to create engagement, this is always at the core of what I do! I also really believe in artists as agents for change – they help us re-imagine the future, see things differently and move minds. They help provide an emotional connection to some of the difficult topics and concepts that our scientists are exploring.  I think it is important to form long term relationships with artists that allows work to evolve over time. I hope to bring some of the artists whose practice I believe has the capacity delve deeply into the work of RBGE inspiring, challenging, engaging and igniting our audiences.

CF: And can you tell us a bit more about Keg de Souza’s role and how they will be contributing to the development?

EN: We are delighted to be working with interdisciplinary artist Keg de Souza as part of Climate House. De Souza has previously had major exhibitions in Melbourne, New York, Vancouver and London, and is known for her socially engaged art practice, using mediums such as inflatable and temporary architecture, food, video, text, illustration, mapping, and open dialogue projects to explore the politics of space. Her work often brings communities from around the world together through active citizenship and situation specific projects, with an emphasis on cultures, inclusivity, displacement, shared knowledge, and questioning established methods of learning. The understanding that de Souza, as a woman of colour, and her potential collaborators will bring to Climate House around identity and Indigenous Knowledge will be particularly impactful for all communities involved. When looking for ways of living for the future, we may find answers long embedded within Indigenous culture and histories, and Australia, where de Souza is based, is more advanced in this respect. De Souza has previously worked with the Australian Indigenous writer Bruce Pasco on displacement of Indigenous food cultures in Australia. Pascoe’s ‘Dark Emu’, for instance, reassess the ‘hunter-gatherer’ label given to pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians, evidencing that Aboriginal people right across the continent were using domesticated plants, sowing, harvesting, irrigating and storing. De Souza points to contemporary work being carried out to share knowledge, ideas and experience we hope that her insights will ignite new research and debate.

CF: It is being called ‘Climate House’ and it’s located in one of the main biodiversity organisations in the world – when you talk about ‘Climate House’ what will it encompass? What does ‘Climate’ encompass for you?

EN: Whilst RBGE is home to crucial research related to climate change adaptation and biodiversity, we have not been able to engage with this work in great enough depth within our arts programme thus far, nor share it creatively with our audiences. Likewise, we have not had the opportunity to hear what our audiences have to say about the climate emergency. Time is running out, the current Covid-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus for many the need to revaluate our relationship to the environment and to respond to the Climate Emergency and Biodiversity Crisis. With this increased awareness people are seeking answers. The latest United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report predicts that we have less than 10 years to significantly reduce carbon emissions if we are to avoid the worse consequences of climate change.

Because of the Garden’s relationship to plant science and showcasing the value of the natural world, it is inherently well placed to lead the way in addressing climate change in all the work we do and this includes helping our staff, volunteers and audiences to take similar steps at home however small. We already have sustainable practices across the Garden that includes; water saving, rain garden, recycling, composting, sustainable food sourcing and avoiding food waste. We want to share our knowledge with audiences that will encourage them to take their own steps towards sustainability and climate action.  So I am thinking of ‘Climate’ in the most general of ways, interconnected with everything we do.

CF: How is the partnership with the Serpentine Gallery going to work? Some people have suggested that it will be like V&A Dundee – an outstation model?

EN: To receive the Outset Contemporary Art Fund’s Transformative Grant, in partnership with the Serpentine, presents a momentous opportunity to focus on the desperate nature of our planet’s plight.

This year will be one of transition. Exploring new ways of working with different kinds of partners including the Serpentine, ensuring that the changes I want to make have time and space to take root so that we grow the new Climate House on solid ground. We were recently successful in being awarded an Art Fund Networking grant which will help us form the General Ecology Network a key part of our collaboration with the Serpentine. We have no concept of being an outstation. The two organisations operate as separate entities but will work together in partnership. Currently I am working with Lucia Pietroiusti, the Serpentine’s Curator of General Ecology, and we are sharing knowledge, ideas and artists and hope to come together with our programming where appropriate for example we recently cocurated a Serpentine Podcast featuring artists from Back To Earth and Climate House. Over the coming weeks we will begin to define ways in which this collaboration can unfold, and we have already identified several avenues that we will be exploring. The programme will be geared very much towards developing artistic and curatorial practice.

Through the General Ecology Network we intend to access those at the very forefront of ecological concerns and in turn share this with peers and artists who can provide citizens of all generations and backgrounds with opportunities to discover, explore and engage with this vital field of knowledge. We envisage this happening through a range of public programmes, events, podcasts, meetings, skills exchange and workshops. And – given the current pandemic situation and social distancing guidance – we are currently reviewing how these programmes will take place and identifying the best possible digital platforms and practitioners we might want to employ. Sitting with a garden in a park both our institutions have these incredible spaces as assets and we are talking about how we can take art outside, inviting audiences to engage with our programmes beyond the gallery walls. 

This immediate goal for the General Ecology Network will then allow content we create to be transformed into tools that can be shared more broadly both across the sector and with the public.  We will focus on creating access to new and specialist knowledge, opening up conversations, and sharing new perspectives on the on-going debate on climate emergency and biodiversity crisis.


ecoartscotland is a resource focused on art and ecology for artists, curators, critics, commissioners as well as scientists and policy makers. It includes ecoartscotland papers, a mix of discussions of works by artists and critical theoretical texts, and serves as a curatorial platform.

It has been established by Chris Fremantle, producer and research associate with On The Edge ResearchGray’s School of Art, The Robert Gordon University. Fremantle is a member of a number of international networks of artists, curators and others focused on art and ecology.

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One Planet, Many Names

“How inappropriate to call this planet Earth, when clearly it is Ocean.”

Arthur C. Clarke

In English, earth means ground, soil, and land, but it also means our world – Planet Earth. From Hebrew to Spanish, to Zulu, to Cree – this dual meaning is common in many, if not most, of the world’s 7,000 languages. In many cultures, it also takes on a more spiritual meaning. Think of the Norse goddess Jörð, the Hindu goddess Bhumi, or the Greek goddess Gaia and her Roman equivalent Terra – all humbly named for dirt. It’s perhaps not surprising when you consider that in the evolution of language, the word for land predates organized religion and planetary science. This planet might be 71% water, but we are a terrestrial species. The surface beneath our feet, which we may or may not worship, is earth.

Many languages, however, have separate words for earth and Earth. Often, the planet bears a maternal name, as in Nabgwana meaning mother of abundance in Kuna, or Nahasdzáánmeaning our mother in Navajo, and in many other cultures that feature Father Sky and Mother Earth deities.

Throughout the Muslim world, the planet’s name is a reflection of the theological belief that Earth is the land of the living, while heaven is the home of the divine. The Arabic name, Dunyā, translates to lower place, as opposed to heaven, the higher place. Meanwhile, earthas in ground or land is called ʾarḍ in Arabic. In Indonesia, the predominately Muslim Sundanese people call it Marcapada – the mortal place.

To an alien visitor, it might be surprising that we have so many names and understandings of our own planet, but that’s just the human way. Observing it from space, one might just call it as Carl Sagan did – the Pale Blue Dot. But for us humans here on Earth, it is the sacred ground, the holy mother, the land of life.

One Planet, Many Names (opaque text version) by Jordan Engel

Mapped here are some of the many names for our planet. 250 languages are represented in all.

The map itself is Pacific-Centered (150°E) and South-Up. It uses the Equal Earth projection, a beautiful equal-area projection developed in 2018.

As always, Decolonial Atlas maps can be reused under the Decolonial Media License 0.1. Feel free to print them yourself, and send us your photos of them out in the real world!

(Top photo: One Planet, Many Names (translucent text version) by Jordan Engel)

Originally posted on The Decolonial Atlas

ecoartscotland is a resource focused on art and ecology for artists, curators, critics, commissioners as well as scientists and policy makers. It includes ecoartscotland papers, a mix of discussions of works by artists and critical theoretical texts, and serves as a curatorial platform.

It has been established by Chris Fremantle, producer and research associate with On The Edge ResearchGray’s School of Art, The Robert Gordon University. Fremantle is a member of a number of international networks of artists, curators and others focused on art and ecology.

Go to EcoArtScotland

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The virus speaks pt 2

By Chrisfremantle

The virus is driving adaptation and the priorities are quickly becoming apparent. Three pieces published in the past 24 hours provide an insight into the issues.

On the one hand Nesta’s blog There will be no ‘back to normal’ which highlights aspects of normal which may be ‘gone’. One of the recurring themes is the tension between the emergence of positive community-led responses and the imposition of structural responses. It doesn’t tell us the answers, but it certainly highlights some of the big alternatives.

And on the other a letter to cultural leaders signed by over 200 professionals and academics expressing ‘grave concern’ and ‘imploring’ them to not lay off education teams, asking,

At a moment when museums and galleries claim an interest in their diversification, why do they de-fund the very people and communities made most vulnerable by the current crisis?

What we are learning is that adaptation clearly has phases, including:

  • the ‘immediate reaction’ (throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks)
  • the working out what the ‘new normal’ looks like – the shifted Overton Window of testing and surveillance, social distancing, new austerity, etc.
  • the massive uncertainty of potentially going in and out of ‘lockdown’ periodically.

Finally the Dark Mountain project, who have been arguing for 10 years that the form of our civilisation is the shape of the problem, announce their latest publication, developed before the pandemic, and arriving in the middle of it.

Their opening line is,

What is there left to say?

(Top photo: ‘Violet Storm’ by Kate Williamson)

ecoartscotland is a resource focused on art and ecology for artists, curators, critics, commissioners as well as scientists and policy makers. It includes ecoartscotland papers, a mix of discussions of works by artists and critical theoretical texts, and serves as a curatorial platform.

It has been established by Chris Fremantle, producer and research associate with On The Edge ResearchGray’s School of Art, The Robert Gordon University. Fremantle is a member of a number of international networks of artists, curators and others focused on art and ecology.

Go to EcoArtScotland

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#ArtOpps Sustainability First Art Prize

The corona pandemic is currently affecting every area of peoples’ lives across the globe. As we emerge from the crisis, how do we ensure a sustainable recovery – which balances economic, social and environmental wellbeing? Sustainability First is launching an Art Prize to invite original, radical ideas and visions in response to the question ‘How do we build from the current corona crisis towards a more sustainable future?’

The Sustainability First Art Prize is open to all living British and international artists based in the UK, established and emerging, over the age of 18 years. Images of up to 3 works can be submitted online only per person. The works must be original, created in any media – including but not limited to painting, drawing, mixed media, sculpture, video and installation.

More information here

ecoartscotland is a resource focused on art and ecology for artists, curators, critics, commissioners as well as scientists and policy makers. It includes ecoartscotland papers, a mix of discussions of works by artists and critical theoretical texts, and serves as a curatorial platform.

It has been established by Chris Fremantle, producer and research associate with On The Edge ResearchGray’s School of Art, The Robert Gordon University. Fremantle is a member of a number of international networks of artists, curators and others focused on art and ecology.

Go to EcoArtScotland

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Coleman and Hodges:  MOON – WATER – DUST,  Residency at the Bamboo Curtain Studio

By Chrisfremantle

Jo Hodges and Robbie Coleman, artists with a social practice based in rural Dumfries and Galloway, tell us about the residency they undertook at the Bamboo Curtain Studio, Taiwan in September and October 2019. Using food as well as walking as means of exploring, they provide an insight into the political and environmental context. They discuss climate change activism; Moon Cakes; dust; the potential for umbrellas to take on different form as well as meaning; and walking the Southern Upland Way through Taipei. They conclude with some questions regarding international residencies in a time of climate crisis (this was written before the pandemic which is raising another set of questions).

There are several sections to this blog including:

An introduction providing context particularly in relation to Taiwan’s post-war development and its environment;

Residency Work Notes:

  1. Celebration, making and marking time
  2. Water: falling, carrying and letting go
  3. New forms: Tumbleweed
  4. Museum of the FutureNow
  5. The Walking of Here to There – A Walk by Robbie Coleman

Final Notes – programme and reflections


We arrived in Taiwan on 2nd September 2019 in time for the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋節) and also in time for the typhoon season; high humidity, torrential rain, 35 degrees and blisteringly hot sun. All set against a continuous background of conversation about politics, democracy, independence, the protests in Hong Kong, China, environmental action and inaction.

BCS PlanWe had been selected for the ‘Creative Talents’ Residency, 2 months at Bamboo Curtain Studio, New Taipei City, Taiwan. Bamboo Curtain Studio (BCS) is an independent arts organisation that has been operating for 25 years. BCS seeks to bring together innovative ecological and social arts practice from around the world, providing a nurturing environment and a platform for open discussion and the development of new ideas, projects and partnerships. BCS practices and promotes sustainability through working with communities to bring awareness about environment, climate change and sustainable living. The studios are situated in an old farm complex of 2,645 sqm with five artists-in-residency rooms and studios; learning space, multi functional performance/exhibition spaces; ceramics & sculpture studio; community kitchen, outdoor stage and garden. BCS is situated near to Zhuwei, a suburb of Taipei, along the bicycle path of the Tamsui riverbank which is about 30 minutes commute from Taipei centre.

We had very little knowledge of Taiwan before being selected, so here’s some brief background for context.

Taiwan is a small island about the size of Wales and its geographical location in the South China Sea has given it an important strategic position. Over the centuries it’s been colonized by China, The Netherlands, Spain and Japan. It is currently (and historically) a contested landscape. Whether or not Taiwan is an independent “country” is a grey area. Taiwan is part of its own definition of China; ‘The Republic of China’, with Taipei as its capital and not part of China under the definition of the ‘Peoples Republic of China’ in Beijing. Taiwan has been governed separately from mainland China since 1949 when the ROC government relocated to the island after military defeat by the communists, and locally governed since martial law was lifted in 1987. The government now operating in Taiwan is a self-sustaining, fully functional, democratically-elected government unrelated to Beijing with its own economy and currency. Taiwan has a free-market economy and high-performing industries, highly developed infrastructure and open internet. The majority of the world has official diplomatic relations with Beijing with Taiwan being recognised by only 14 out of 193 United Nations member States. In practice though most countries do retain some economic and cultural ties however Taiwan is severely limited in its diplomatic capacity as well as its ability to participate in international organisations (such as the World Health organization) and events due to the ongoing conflict with the PRC.

In the wider context of Taiwanese international relations and financial support by the Ministry of Culture for international exchanges and residencies, our residency at BCS may be seen as falling into the realms of cultural diplomacy, a type of soft power that includes the “exchange of ideas, information, art, language and other aspects of culture in order to foster mutual understanding”. In essence ‘cultural diplomacy’ is a tool to create influence with the aim for encouraging foreign nations to develop an understanding of Taiwan’s ideals and institutions in an effort to build broad support for economic and political goals.

Prior to lifting martial law in 1987, Taiwan experienced rapid change through three decades of fast industrialization (petrochemical plastics) and population growth with little concern for environmental impacts. There was massive pollution of soil, water and atmosphere and reduction of Taiwan’s natural forest cover. We were interested in understanding the consequences of and responses to rapid change in systems (cultural, technical, economic) and in communities. What is current thinking about the structures and systems that need to be developed in response to climate emergency and other social and environmental issues? How are artists engaging with rapid change and how might we understand the world differently when viewed from an Asian perspective?

We met with Brian Hioe, editor of New Bloom Magazine to talk about contemporary politics in Taiwan. He was involved in The Sunflower Movement which involved the storming and occupation of the Taiwanese legislature in March 2014. The movement was largely youth-led and a vehicle for a set of issues regarding questions about Taiwanese identity, the relation of Taiwan and China, and also Taiwan’s geopolitical and socioeconomic position in the world. It resulted in a change of government and also an explosion of creativity in the arts and cultural production. The Sunflower Movement marked the political empowerment of a generation, where politics began to be something that young people felt like they could participate in. There was a large amount of cooperation between the groups involved and many members of the movement have now entered formal politics or work for NGO’s. We also talked to Brian about the ‘Umbrella Movement’ in Hong Kong which Taiwan is watching closely, the role of social media in Taiwan and much more.  See for info on the Sunflower Movement.

The new democratic processes have facilitated the development of a broad range of civil movements and NGO’s active in environmental and social justice. Taiwan for example has become the first Asian country to legalise same sex marriage in May ’19. Since the pollution of the 70’s, there has been a huge rise in environmental consciousness and Taiwan’s environmental organizations have fought to halt industrial pollution and affect environmental policies. People are directly participating in public protests against polluting industries and more recently a new generation of green activists and artists have been moving out from the cities, working with rural villagers to make environmental concerns “trans-local”. The resulting cooperation has been successful in stopping many controversial industrial developments . In Taipei we found many cultural and art actions, events, festivals and artists working with reference to environment/ecology/eco-centric practices and issues, however alongside this, a massive preoccupation with issues of national identity.

As we talked to people these two conflicts in contemporary Taiwan became clear, the question of national identity and the conflict between growth and environmental quality. Every day we felt the positive impacts of the recent rise of democratic processes and civic consciousness. But despite the Taiwanese passion for recycling and conservation, we also witnessed evidence of throwaway consumerist culture such as the mainstay of one use takeaway cups and food boxes (huge culture of street food), and 24 hour arcades of ‘clawgrab’ machines – a craze in Taiwan where individuals rent a machine to earn a few extra dollars and fill it with cheap toys and gadgets. Everywhere there’s ugly evidence of previous unregulated industrialization and the piecemeal ongoing attempts to rectify some of the damage. The tension between ecological awareness and growth is palpable. As the economy has changed, many young people have the expectations of the standard of living of their parents but are earning less. We often found ourselves returning to this topic with our daily conversations with Margaret Shui, founder of BCS, who was interested in finding ways of encouraging young people to challenge notions of growth-based prosperity and to find other ways of living based on creativity and community with less material wealth.

Reinaart Vanhoe, artist and author of Also-Space, From Hot to Something Else : How Indonesian Art Initiatives Have Reinvented Networking was also resident at BCS. We had many discussions with him around his work in Indonesia exploring how creative networks have developed outside the western model of art practice, where cultural institutions and funding don’t exist in the same way. Ruangrupa, an arts collective in Jakarta, Indonesia integrate with, explore and reflect the society they are embedded within in informal, almost conversational ways. This lack of rigidity and obvious hierarchy, allows for an open, socially inviting way of working with a surrounding community that might be useful for European organisations to explore. Reinaart is following how they deal with the increasing success (in western artworld terms) of some of their members and the impact that this might have on their core values.

Margaret Shui is passionate about centering the climate emergency and Jo joined her on the ‘Fridays for Future’ Climate Action on 27th September. Jo participated in the ‘Last Supper’ installation outside the Legislature building in Taipei; a table laden with locally sourced food, around which experts and activists sat (including Jo) Each made a presentation about the link between climate change and food production and the gathering was joined by the local minister for the environment and other politicians who spoke to their commitment to make change. Jo spoke about the Climate Change Bill passed by the Scottish Parliament on 25th Sept and gave her thoughts on the need to reconsider the growth imperative.  Jo noted that there were comparatively fe­­w people at the action compared to many capital cities around the world and that many of those attending were expats. She spoke to the representative of who said that education was valued so highly in Taiwan, that most parents would not allow their children out for school and many students, while supporting the action felt the same. Jo talked to the main environmental NGO, Citizens of Earth about the seeming lack of support for action on Climate Emergency. They said that while there are some smaller NGO’s that focus specifically on climate issues, much of their work is about mitigation and adaptation not under the name of ‘climate change’. For example advocating for land conservation (wetlands & farm lands), coast and coral reef conservation, forest restoration. They also promote industrial transformation and energy transition to fight air pollution and to reduce use of fossil fuels. Work by other environmental NGOs in Taiwan, such as lowering the use of coal power and promoting renewable energy and reducing plastic waste are all considered as part of climate action.

Most Taiwanese people that we met were very keen to hear about our perceptions of Taiwan and alongside our conversations and discussions around politics and environmental action, ran our daily experiences and observations, giving us a different kind of insight… these include the politeness and kindness of everyone; the quietness of crowds; the thousands of scooters and resulting petrol pollution; recycling trucks playing music as they traverse the streets and people gathering and gossiping on street corners with their rubbish bags waiting for them to arrive; the micro economies of street food; typhoons; people of all ages exercising on the paths by the river; night time cycle rides on the free city bikes; elaborate temples used as social centres; the burning of ‘money’ for the Gods in roadside fireplaces: Karaoke everywhere (a major social activity); Lullabies played to herald the arrival of the MRT trains; ants; mosquitos; humidity. Some things seemed familiar, but so much was very different.

Residency Work Notes:
1. Celebration, making and marking timeCH Creek Cakes

Photo courtesy of the artists

A key part of the contemporary Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations are outdoor barbecues and karaoke in the parks as well as offerings of Moon Cakes between friends and family. Traditional Moon Cakes are filled with red bean paste, sometimes with a salted egg in the centre, to represent the moon and have an imprint on the top of the Chinese characters for “longevity” or “harmony”. In talking about holiday traditions, we discovered that very few people now make Moon Cakes, they buy them from bakeries instead. We were interested in this change and as a way of exploring both traditional and contemporary culture, our first action in Taiwan was to track down the ingredients (not easy) and to learn how to hand make the cakes. To signal the start of our time in Taiwan, we designed a pattern for the top of our cakes relating to the moon’s impact on seed growth.

We followed this successful Mid Autumn Festival baking session by running a Moon Cake making workshop for fellow artists (Five other international artists were resident at the Bamboo Curtain Studios from Netherlands, Thailand, Japan, USA) and studio staff. It was a place for discussion around food, time, tradition and consumerist culture. People don’t feel they have time to make the traditional cakes and so these skills are being lost. We used the engagement with handmade processes to consider issues around contemporary Taiwanese work, family and leisure pressures. Is there value in making more time to make? The Cakes made at the workshop were taken as an offering to participants on the Plum Tree Community Hike on 29th September 2019.

2. Water: falling, carrying and letting go

CH River Sunset

As a creative practice we arrive in a new place with no fixed plan but with an interest in exploring the environmental and social relationships that we find and in fostering hospitality, conversation and exchange through our practice and processes.

We were amazed at how much rain falls around typhoon time and its impact on the city streets, rivers and creeks. The nearby Plum Tree Creek swells massively in size as the rain washes through the city streets and pours into it. As the full moon rises so does the tide in East China Sea and so the Tamsui River rises to the city. We watched as the dusty city water flowed under our local bridge into the Tamsui River and thousands of large fish swam up the creek to amass in huge shoals with their mouths open – consuming the overflow from the city.

Plum Tree Creek 1
Plum Tree Creek 2

Our thoughts turned to the creek that runs close to Bamboo Curtain Studios, and which has been the site of Artist Wu Mali’s project A Cultural Action at the Plum Tree Creek in the past. Thinking about the action of torrential rain on dust became a growing interest. Dust is a collection of minute particles; human and more than human. Skin cells, soil, rock, paper, organic material, concrete, hair…it is a binding layer between all materials and parts of life, we are breathing it in all the time as it is thrown up into the city air by wind and the movement of thousands of people, scooters and cars. The detritus is washed from the streets into the creek by the pounding rain and so we followed the dust to where it settles as silt; where the Plum Tree Creek joins the main Tamsui River. We collected silt from the estuary at night when the moons gravitational pull was at its greatest. We investigated it, exploring its mark-making potential at different dilutions on a daily basis over a lunar month, watching it fade as the moon wanes.

We collected more. On each visit to the shoreline we watched with fascination the shoals of huge black fish arriving with the tide to the edge of the city. This city is a dusty place, every celebration, argument, wedding or funeral makes marks and leaves evidence in the dust.  All the sad moments and hopeful dreams of the city were being filtered through the mouths of these black fish.

CH River mud bucket
CH Mud working
CH mud sieving
CH Mud pattern

In the cooler evenings on the roof at the back of the studios we started processing the silt through a series of improvised filters (blankets, beach towels and pillow cases) until we were left with a liquid made of city dust and the erosion of rock and organic matter blown from the farms beyond the city – an emulsion of city, human, animal and more than human traces. As the water gradually evaporated from our material, we were left with a fine clay. So fine that it picked up our fingerprints when we touched it. An idea formed of using the material as a casting medium and of creating a travelling laboratory or studio to take on hikes further up the Creek past the city towards its source in the mountains.  We decided to use the dust/human trace/clay to take impressions of the plant life that we encountered on the creek banks as we went.

People work on small plots of land next to the creek and it was easy to strike up halting but friendly conversations about what we and they were doing. After a few days we started giving the cast tiles of botanical specimens as gifts to the people whom we encountered and people returned the next day with fruit or sweets for us. The work had become a mobile site of conversation and exchange. We talked about people’s relationship to the creek – it used to be a social space, people would gather by the river to chat, wash clothes and collect water for the home and vegetable garden. Now the area has become home to thousands of people who cannot afford to live in other parts of the city, high density housing blocks have been built over the creek, they turn on their taps for water at home, and have forgotten or have never known that they have a river flowing through and under them. We discussed how to change attitudes to the creek, how to stop the pig farm nearby polluting it, how to re-engage people with the watercourse and its ecology.  In this we are building on steady work by the Bamboo Curtain Studios and hope we have added something of value to the discourse. We enjoyed our days out along the creek, becoming a small social centre of friendly and curious folk.

CH mud engagement
CH Mud Printing
CH Mud cast

Our process seemed to create a cyclical way of working, all the materials and liquids we are used in some sort of circular movement, being transformed on the journey in different ways – from the hills, to the creek to the sea and back again, subtly transformed, added to or subtracted from. Sometimes an element was removed such as salt, sometimes a meaning added, such as a simple image of a leaf. We felt in collaboration with the place and the people around us; part of a circular flow of materials carrying ideas and gestures.

More of our work using dust and silt from the river at

3. New forms: Tumbleweed

CH umbrella gallery
CH umbrella reconstruction

Our ideas progressed gently on a daily basis, almost as sites of conversation between ourselves.  One of these involved the unlikely collision between the typhoon and the political unrest in Hong Kong. Part of our interest was to try and understand the political and activist background to the independence movement in Taiwan and the fast growing environmental sensitivities that are developing, so we met with people that have been involved in those actions over the years to try and get a sense of current issues and how people feel about them.  We knew that the historical, political and cultural context is complex, but we tried to get a sense of it. People were happy to meet explain the current fragile politics and on these conversational journeys across the city we also collected broken umbrellas. Famously, Taiwan used to be the worlds leading manufacturer of umbrellas. They are used here for protection from both sun and rain by everyone and after the typhoon the streets are littered with broken ones. Umbrellas are extraordinary examples of elegant design. Folded they are discreet objects that can be used as walking sticks or for capturing errant children or animals, when they are put up they are beautiful examples of tensile design.  Broken ones seem to have an emotional, defeated quality that, for us, began to entwine with news footage of the demonstrations in Hong Kong, where umbrellas were/are being used as personal defense against the teargas, smoke bombs and water cannons of the state.  On our rooftop studio space we started experimenting with our broken umbrellas and soon realized that however damaged they were as individual objects, in cooperation with other broken umbrellas, they could form strong and resilient new forms and we joined the core geometries, joints and materials to make a spherical form.

4. Museum of the FutureNow

CH Museum Future Now poster

After running a Museums of FutureNow workshop (an ongoing project that generates speculative future scenarios)  at an arts festival in nearby Keelung City we began to think about this new form as part of the Museums of the Future Now and developed a series of future histories for our object.  These histories formed a type of commentary on our thinking and conversations about politics, environment and future. We also experimented with taking the umbrella form into Zhuewi and installing it in various locations as a way of starting a conversation with curious passers by.

5. The Walking of Here to There – A Walk by Robbie Coleman

Preparation for the walk began by overlaying a section of the Southern Upland Way onto a street map of the city of Taipei – I decided on the section of the route that is nearest to my home in Dumfries and Galloway. Traditional walking routes usually follow ancient walkways between destinations and largely follow the lines of least resistance (waterways, lower gradients, animal tracks, droving roads). Overlaying this flowing journey across an artificially constructed terrain like a modern city would mean a real-time restructuring of the original route, taking the walker into unexpected places and situations. The walk was conducted overnight to avoid the heat and traffic.

My initial thoughts re-imagined the cultural colonization by early European explorers, maybe experimenting with re-naming places that I pass through, and exploring the implications of this type of cultural appropriation in a country with its own very real issues of identity and territory. This seemed especially relevant when we were told that many of the street and place names in Taiwan are transplanted from China by the waves of immigration from the mainland.  Streets names that translate as ‘Shanghai Way’ don’t mean anything, as they are not the way to Shanghai and so on.

In reality, the walk turned out to be much more about terrain and the feel of it.  I started at midnight at one end of the Red Metro line.  This is in a very modern part of the city containing the 101 Building, until recently the highest building in the world. I continued walking through ancient night markets, peaceful suburbs and empty multilane highways.

CH Night walk 2
CH Night Walk

Taipei is an unusual city in terms of lighting, apart from the very central part, which resembles any other modern city – overlit and overbearing – most of the city is underlit.  I have become used to tall office blocks and blocks of flats being lit up at night in some way, either by leaving all the internal lights on at night in the case of office blocks or floodlit as part of an architectural plan or light spillage from another source, but Taipei feels quite dark. Street level is illuminated by all manners of different lighting – neon – riotous LED signage and street lighting, but this lighting does not reach up very high and so when you look above this vibrant layer, the buildings above it are dark.  This gives a sense that you are walking along canyons or amongst steep hills at night.  Sometimes the buildings are felt rather than seen, like walking beneath cliffs at night.  The buildings exist as volume/bulk rather than as surface. This made the journey into something unexpected and very beautiful. Although there was plenty of activity at periods during the night, the overall sense is one of calm. Taipei is a pretty flat city so there is not sense of altitudes or the difficulty of the climb that marks out any walking route in northern Britain

I particularly enjoyed watching the huge high-density housing blocks come to life in the early morning – isolated lit windows appearing in the sheer black walls of the blocks. The architecture changing from something bleak and monolithic to something built of tiny domestic details. Because of the lack of ambient light it was possible to look deep into these living spaces, the vast blocks revealing layers of intimacy. The duality of the walk also played out in unexpected ways – I had toyed with marking significant points from the Southern Upland Way onto my city map – to try and sew the two walks together in some way, but it proved to be unnecessary – taking a deliberate but nonsensical route across the city became a strange map reading exercise, the route bore no intuitive relationship to the terrain to be walked through so the map had to be continuously consulted – long curved corners and backtracking due to obstacles many thousands of miles away became a particular pleasure and as did the way the immediate real obstacles in the city forced the flowing Southern Upland Way into a ungainly series of angles and steps.

I also became an avid nighttime photographer, reveling in the limits of the camera in my phone.  The sometimes impressionistic results corresponding to how the terrain felt as well as how it looked.

The walk gave me time to consider what would happen if I remapped the ‘city adjusted map’ back onto the Southern Upland route, changing it into a stepped and clumsy pathway through the rolling landscape – which would lead to new obstacles to work around and remap, which in turn might lead to another remapping onto another city  – the ancient walkway becoming a palimpsest, constantly rewritten for new terrain, each iteration becoming part of a multiple memory of place through a single pathway. These circular thought patterns were helped along by my decision to chew Betel Nuts (local stimulant beloved of truck and taxi drivers in Taiwan) on my journey – this gave the whole walk a sense of uplift and well-being as well as an excess of saliva.

I arrived back at the studios at 6.00 in the morning with a fabulous sense of achievement, a phone-full of very blurred photographs and dyed red teeth.

Final Notes – programme and reflections

During our time on Taiwan we were involved in the following:

  • Presentation of our work at Taipei Annual, Taipei Expo. 7th Sept.
  • Attendance at seminar “In Art We Care: Eco-Sustainable Action”, Taipei Artist Village. 24th  Sept. Margaret Shui Founder of BCS and Wu Mali, artist (an overview of the eco-art actions carried out by BCS in the past), Marie le Sourd, Secretary General of On The Move Network and Zhou Ganoderma ; Eco Artist / Researcher. The workshop session covered; creating new relationships with water, ways of responding to ecological difficulties within the cultural environment and the challenges and value of international networks for ecological art and action.
  • Cultural / Environmental Action: Hiking the Plum Tree Creek and demonstration of our casting technique to community gathering. 29th Sept.
  • Attending ‘Fridays for Future’ Climate Action, Taipei. 27th Sept. Jo spoke about Scotland’s response to Climate Emergency.
  • Presentation of work at Keelung Ciao 5th October.
  • Running Museums of the FutureNow workshop at Keelung Ciao, 12th Oct.
  • Running ‘Presence’, an organizational reflection and development workshop for BCS staff, 17th Oct
  • Surviving Typhoon ‘Mitag’ 1st October!
  • Exhibition of work at Open Studio Days 25th/26th Oct.

Some questions regarding international residencies:

  • What do international residencies offer in a time of climate breakdown?
  • What are the colonial and corporate impacts of extraction and exploitation within the places we are working and how can we collectively question and act on the legacies of extraction and exploitation.
  • How can the arts support a shift to a post-fossil future?
  • Are there other modes of mobility and production within the arts?
  • How can we build holistic, eco-sensitive relationships and networks… (Reinaart Vanhoe’s work)
  • What methodologies can we use to re-establish or understand our relationships with our environs. Relationships to colonization?
  • What responsibility do we have as guest artists in terms of consumption / materials / ecological response – ability?
  • What is our position the background of ‘cultural diplomacy’ implicit in our invitation and the financial support enabling us to attend?
  • How can practice specific support be identified and provided when an artist is working in a different culture?

All photos are courtesy of the artists. More documentation of specific aspects can be found on their website.

ecoartscotland is a resource focused on art and ecology for artists, curators, critics, commissioners as well as scientists and policy makers. It includes ecoartscotland papers, a mix of discussions of works by artists and critical theoretical texts, and serves as a curatorial platform.

It has been established by Chris Fremantle, producer and research associate with On The Edge ResearchGray’s School of Art, The Robert Gordon University. Fremantle is a member of a number of international networks of artists, curators and others focused on art and ecology.

Go to EcoArtScotland

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The virus speaks

By Chrisfremantle

In Tim Morton’s highly recommended ‘We’re doomed‘ on BBC R4 he speaks to George Monbiot about needing to accept circumstances, in Monbiot’s case that his cancer was part of him. It doesn’t mean that Monbiot doesn’t talk about the excellent care he received from the NHS or the reality that the cancer could have killed him, but that treating it as ‘other’ isn’t useful for living.

There are some new pieces of writing, coming from new materialist perspectives, which give Covid-19 a voice. This isn’t the voice of an enemy (we aren’t in the middle of the blitz), but rather of our equal, someone seeking to speak blunt truths to us. This might be a relationship which we don’t want to acknowledge (perhaps as Monbiot is talking about having a relationship with cancer), but the virus is revealing the societies we have constructed.

What the virus said‘ “I’ve come to shut down the machine whose emergency brake you couldn’t find.”

‘The Society of Friends of the Virus’ Vol 1 and Vol 2 as well as a supplement to Vol 2 published by the centre for parrhesia.

If you know of other pieces (written, visual, auditory, etc) that add to this understanding please add them as comments.

2pm 6th April: Also ‘Post Pandemic Provocation no 7: B.C. Before and A.C. After the Coronacene

14th April: ‘What the Virus Wants‘ published by The Contemporary Journal out of Nottingham Contemporary

(Top photo: from ‘What the Virus Said‘)

ecoartscotland is a resource focused on art and ecology for artists, curators, critics, commissioners as well as scientists and policy makers. It includes ecoartscotland papers, a mix of discussions of works by artists and critical theoretical texts, and serves as a curatorial platform.

It has been established by Chris Fremantle, producer and research associate with On The Edge ResearchGray’s School of Art, The Robert Gordon University. Fremantle is a member of a number of international networks of artists, curators and others focused on art and ecology.

Go to EcoArtScotland

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#arts4cop26 meet up

By Chrisfremantle

Date: 29 April, 18.00-20.00 GMT

Venue: Online – sign up below

How can the arts and artists work with environmental and civil society campaigners to address the multiple dimensions of the climate crisis, particularly in light of the covid-19 pandemic and COP26 postponement?

Stop Climate Chaos Scotland, the culture working group of the COP26 Civil Society CoalitionCreative Carbon Scotland, and ecoartscotland are continuing to support networking and planning for COP26 and will be holding a discussion by video conferencing on 29 April (18.00-20.00 GMT). The meeting is open to artists, arts organisations, campaigners, environmental NGOs, and anyone who has been developing plans for COP26.

Covid-19 is affecting all of our communities – whether in the arts or in wider society – as well as planning for COP26. Acknowledging the current situation, while also recognising all the pre-existing work to bring together a broad and diverse climate movement to prepare for COP26, we are shifting the focus of this planned event. We realise that many of our colleagues will be badly affected by the current situation and so will make this a space for sharing and connection, as well as a place to think about the collaboration and creativity that will be needed, as we emerge from Covid-19 to plan for and respond to COP26 in 2021.

The arts have a specific role in addressing meaning, value and subjectivity – “What does this mean to us as individuals and communities?” “What do we value and how can we imagine acting?” – that is especially relevant to the climate crisis and the current context with Covid-19. We want to make sure that we can all sustain this role across the months ahead by continuing to work together.

The aims of the meeting are to:

  • promote new partnerships between arts, activism, and climate crisis policy and practice
  • discuss tactics which are inclusive and engage people ‘where they are’
  • understanding how our methods will have to change in light of the coronavirus pandemic
  • provide updates on developing plans in light of the COP26 postponement as well as information and useful resources

We understand that the current situation is difficult and unpredictable for many, so this event will be informal in character and we will ensure to share as much of the content of the meeting as possible afterwards with anyone unable to attend at the time. This discussion will also provide a chance to keep in touch with other members of the community during isolation.

Sign up here. Instructions will follow nearer the time on joining the meeting.

Looking forward to catching up on the 29th.

(Top image courtesy of UNFCCC)

ecoartscotland is a resource focused on art and ecology for artists, curators, critics, commissioners as well as scientists and policy makers. It includes ecoartscotland papers, a mix of discussions of works by artists and critical theoretical texts, and serves as a curatorial platform.

It has been established by Chris Fremantle, producer and research associate with On The Edge ResearchGray’s School of Art, The Robert Gordon University. Fremantle is a member of a number of international networks of artists, curators and others focused on art and ecology.

Go to EcoArtScotland

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Review: ‘Dear Nature’ by John Newling

By Chrisfremantle

The formal beauty of John Newlings’s work belies his self-questioning and interrogation of our relationship with the more-than-human world.

Reviewed by Anne Douglas and Mark Hope, unfortunately Newling’s Dear Nature exhibition at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham is a victim of the current lockdown. This in-depth review is for the time being your guided tour. Anne and Mark are Board Members of The Barn, a multi-arts organisation in Aberdeenshire that focuses on the relationship between art and ecology. John Newling was artist in residence at The Barn (2015-17) and continues to actively engage with and support the development of the organisation.

In the corner of the gallery, the last work of John Newling’s exhibition is entitled ‘Reconciliation Steps’ (2019). It consists of a mirror and a rubber stamp on a small shelf. Looking into the mirror, a text reads “We have signed our names in your soil. So sorry”.  This work evokes John’s response to the reality of the Anthropocene.  As stated in the exhibition text, John is determined to understand “what it is to know that we have profoundly affected our environment… you can trace our evolution to a point where we have subdued nature, but to our own cost because we will make ourselves extinct.”  This is the sharp, critical end of a stunningly beautiful, formally aesthetic body of work, which moves between nature and culture, materiality and ideas, interwoven with different notions of time.

work entitled Reconciliation Steps (2019)
‘Reconciliation Steps’ (2019). Image courtesy of the authors.

What is it to know that we have profoundly affected our environment?

The Dear Nature exhibition is situated in three large rooms that open into each other on the second top floor of the Ikon Gallery. As the title implies the work addresses nature throughout, at times with a deep sense of awe, at others profound curiosity and at others of irony, “Can we ever truly be together (with nature)?” John asks (Newling 2018).

“It is learning that deepens our love.” (Newling 2018 ‘3rd February, 2018’)

In the first room ‘365 days and 50 million year old leaves’ (2019) consists of a row of carefully constructed stacks of sticks that are as identical in size and shape to the extent that the material allows. John picked up a stick every day for a year, cut each one to the same length and blackened each of them with charcoal, then painted each end white.

365 detail
‘365 days and 50 million year old leaves’ (2019), detail.
365, John Newling Dear Nature at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham UK, 2020 © Ikon Gallery (4) (Large) (1)
Installation view
Courtesy the artist and the Ikon Gallery.

In this way John joins the cycle of growth and decay in nature, interrupting it by transforming abandoned branches into ‘stick wands’, then into formal sculpture. The similarity yet difference between one stack and another exposes the singular, wilful character of each stick. We come to realise that they are each unique forms of energy that are particular to the time and place in which they have grown, then fallen. It is as if by interrupting the trajectory that nature has set from growth to decay, by collecting and transforming what nature has given, a new element is introduced. The three stacks feature other objects including soil balls, feather quills and an ink well that extend the play and tension between nature and culture. The reference to magic in this relationship is strongly present.

John’s artistic process involves a deep paradox. His way of making art is rigorous, painstaking, structured and controlled and yet the outcome also feels improvisatory, as if somewhere along the way chance and serendipity had played their part.

John Cage, the experimental composer and visual artist, once criticised improvisation: “Most people who improvise slip back into their likes and dislikes and their memory, and don’t arrive at any revelation that they’re aware of” (Fiesst, 2009). Cage wanted to free sound from personal taste, to let sounds be themselves. It is this quality of letting things ‘be themselves’ that John evokes again and again in this exhibition; the sense that the work we are looking at ‘happened’ or ‘occurred’ in ways that were unpredictable and unforeseeable, even to John himself. He attends to the work in progress, continually responding to its emergent life.

1. From my garden
‘From my garden’ (2018)
From my garden detail
Images courtesy of the artist.

In the second room of the three rooms we encounter ‘From my garden’ (2018), a large work in copper leaf and paint which creates a different record of John’s practice of collecting. This time it is a leaf from every tree within his garden. The leaves are formally organised in a grid and once again it is John’s particular approach to form building that frees the singular shapes of each species and reveals the immense variability across species. This play between determinacy and indeterminacy, between degrees of control and openness to serendipity and chance, is a distinct quality of both Newling and Cage’s work. It is a particular quality of freedom that is does not stand in opposition to constraint. Both artists evoke the way energy moves through material in nature, the blood through arteries, the wind through water, movement that is made possible by being contained, constrained but, free not just from personal taste, but also individual, human control.

'Design for the duvet cover of a farmer' (regrown 2019)
‘Design for the duvet cover of a farmer’ (regrown 2019), Courtesy the artist and the Ikon Gallery
Dear Nature (2018), Courtesy the artist and the Ikon Gallery
Dear Nature (2018), Courtesy the artist and the Ikon Gallery

In the third room ‘Design for a farmer’s duvet’ (regrown 2019) follows from an invitation to make work with a co-operative of flax farmers in Dieppe, Northern France. John created compost into which he planted flax seeds given to him by one of the farmers, Franck Sagaert. When the seedlings were a few inches high, John plucked each one out of the soil, wound each plant and root into a circle and pressed them, generating the motif for a ‘design’. The completed piece was created by gluing each pressed plant in rows onto a large sheet of flax woven in France. The structure evokes the linear form of a script. It is also repetitive in the time-honoured way that designs repeat but it is anything but ‘designed ‘ in any determinate sense. A seed becomes a seedling and then becomes material for new life as an artwork. The pattern is cyclical and rhythmic as well as linear and developmental, unfolding like a story that we are invited to explore, but not literally read.

“Love John” – a detail from a Dear Nature Letter printed in Nymans Language (2020)
“Love John” – a detail from a Dear Nature Letter printed in Nymans Language (2020)
Nymans language (2018)
Nymans language (2018)

Script appears as a leitmotif in this work. In ‘A Language from the garden (Nymans language)’ (2017), exhibited in the second room, John invents an alphabet drawn from different species of trees in the gardens of Nymans, West Sussex. The National Trust, who now own and run this historic property, commissioned the work. The leaf of each species forms a letter engraved in marble. Nymans Language is also a downloadable font that the public are invited to use. Where normally the shape of the letters of the alphabet are simply a means to an end rarely noticed, Nymans Language draws our fascination through the significance of each leaf shape and a sense of play and discovery that is fundamental to the way we, as human beings, decipher meaning. We become the child who is excited when he or she learns to read. We share the thrill of the code breaker who ‘cracks’ a secret.

Soil Books (detail) (2019)
Soil Books (detail) (2019). Image courtesy of the artist and the Ikon Gallery

‘Soil Books’ (2019) in the third room of the gallery are a series of nine sculptures in which the content of each ‘book’ is made with leaves picked up each day as John walks from his house into his garden. “It’s like a ritual, so that every leaf in those books – the language of the books – is from my garden”. Each ‘page’ is made of processed soil with leaves that are pressed, gilded and stained with watercolour and each book contains twenty pages of which only the middle two pages are displayed. We might never read the pages beneath the ones that are presented, but we come to know the labour that has led to their coming into being. This is a spiritual labour that evokes the monastic but in some strange reversal. The order of the books is crucial because it indicates the change of seasons. Instead of renouncing life to focus on the spiritual, this series of works reconnects us with mystery in everyday experiences. Cage shared a similar sense of mystery and used different tactics to reveal this: 4’33 “(1952) frames an interval of time in which we as audience are invited to encounter the sounds we make as human beings when we gather together. It appropriates the ritual of the concert and concert hall to open up to the life that exists beyond the frame just as John’s gathered leaves experienced through the frame of the book in Soil Books, make visible the unpredictability and sheer beauty of the life in one material encountering another. In the work of both artists we continually move between the human and nature, co-creatively.

This particular dynamic is deeply felt in the ‘Library of Ecological Conservations – Leaves and Me’ (2017-19) also in the third room. The work consists of 36 ‘letters’ composed over the course of three years in which the apparent artifice of gilding in silver, gold and copper from the ‘base ‘materials of leaves and paper made from compost manifests a present day alchemy. We sense the magic that is contained in this library displayed in three groups of 12 works. In each work the materials have undergone a transformation, creating a life of their own, one that John has nurtured into being through carefully judged constraints and a practice of care, firstly in each individual work and secondly in the placing of each work within its group of 12.These works breathe within their own space and yet combine to create an almost mystical whole. The vaulted upper floors of this particular area of the gallery can rarely have been so evocative of a medieval cathedral, inviting us to reach out for something beyond.

view of 3rd room (1)
View from the second into third room including Soil Books and Library of Ecological Conservations – Leaves and Me (2017-19). Courtesy of the artist and the Ikon Gallery

In the presence of such beautiful work focused on continuing nature’s processes, why do we have a final work that frames the need for reconciliation? The exhibition is entitled Dear Nature, a reference to an art work created in 2018 when John wrote a letter to nature every day for 81 days. Each letter begins with the recognition that human beings are degrading the conditions that enable us to live, a widening gap between ways of being that are incompatible and are indeed in need of reconciliation.

‘Dear Nature’, letter of 10th January, 2018.

Dear Nature

We have been lovers.
We made deities from your wonders
We worshipped you; laid our fears at your feet.
We thought that we needed you to need us.

But wasn’t that just some way of seeking control?

Maybe we find it hard to accept that you are the most powerful
and complex set of relationships that we can encounter; perhaps we got jealous of all your other affairs.

In our rush to evolve in our fights and flights, we have got lost among our own conceits; spinning such a terrible storm.

I am sorry.

What to do?


The downward spiral implied here from love to worship to control gets to the core of the question of what it is to know that we have profoundly affected our environment. Each work in the three rooms of the gallery addresses this question in distinctive ways. The exhibition also spills over into public space. In the square opposite the Ikon Gallery there is an office complex belonging to NATWEST bank. In front of the bank with its proud NATWEST sign, is a tree in which John has placed large but discrete metal lettering that follows the line of the trunk with the words “So Sorry….”.

words " sorry" installed in a tree outside a branch of the Nat West
‘Dear Nature’ (2019). Courtesy of the authors.

An apology is both the act of saying sorry for a wrong doing and the explanation and defence of a belief or system, especially one that is unpopular (Cambridge online dictionary). Dear Nature (2020) functions in the first way, saying sorry for the damage we have inflicted on nature and also in the second to expose problems of belief and practice that have led to our current predicament.

‘Dear Nature’, letter of January 15th, 2018

Our need for surplus focused attention on improving you, efficiencies melded in the pressures of a market. We wanted more and more from you; growing yields belied the damage we were doing.

We signed our name in your soils.

Perhaps we did not know of this but we do now. It is a cycle that shows us our deficiencies. It is us that need to improve. We can do better.

No more signing in your soil.


We have only described here a small sample of works in the exhibition. And no review can do justice to either the scope or the authority of this exhibition. It has been curated by an exceptional team at the Ikon Gallery under the directorship of Jonathan Watkins.

There are other exhibitions in the Ikon Gallery at the moment including, in the First Floor Galleries Judy Watson, an Australian artist of matrilineal Waanyi heritage, addresses Australia’s ‘secret war’ in relation to indigenous Aboriginal people and brutal forms of colonisation.

In the Tower Room of the second floor, Mariateresa Sartori (until 5th April, 2020) in which Chopin piano pieces are visualised as conversations between two people.

Yhonnie Scarce, who belongs to the Kokatha and Nukunu people in Australia, will open in the Tower Room on 9th March – 31st May 2020, exploring the political and aesthetic qualities of glass, in particular the crystallisation of desert sand as a result of the British nuclear tests in her homeland between 1956-63.

(Top photo: Installation view. Courtesy of the artist and the Ikon Gallery)


Feisst, S. 2009, “John Cage and Improvisation: an Unresolved Relationship,” in eds. Gabriel Solis and Bruno Nettl. Musical Improvisation: Art, Education and Society, Chicago: University of Illinois Press. pp. 38–51.

Newling, J., 2018. Dear Nature. Warwick and Nottingham: Warwick Arts Collection and Beam editions.

ecoartscotland is a resource focused on art and ecology for artists, curators, critics, commissioners as well as scientists and policy makers. It includes ecoartscotland papers, a mix of discussions of works by artists and critical theoretical texts, and serves as a curatorial platform.

It has been established by Chris Fremantle, producer and research associate with On The Edge ResearchGray’s School of Art, The Robert Gordon University. Fremantle is a member of a number of international networks of artists, curators and others focused on art and ecology.

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Newton Harrison: 3 recent videos including ‘Apologia Mediterranean’

By Chrisfremantle

Three recent video works by Newton Harrison – an apology to the Mediterranean Sea, a call to Scotland to become the first industrialised country to give back more than it takes out, and an installation to assist biodiversity to adapt in Northern California.

Meditation on the Mediterranean. Included in the Collateral events of the 58th Venice Biennale, as part of Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to DestroyMare Nostrum at the Complesso della Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Penitenti, Fondamenta di Cannaregio, 910, from 8 May – 24 November 2019.

On The Deep Wealth of this Nation, Scotland included in the Taipei Biennial 2018-19 and exhibited in Banchory, Braemar and Edinburgh. Created with the support of The Barn, Banchory and the SEFARI Gateway.

Future Garden for the Central Coast of California is a site-specific environmental art installation by UCSC emeritus arts research professors Newton Harrison and his late wife Helen Mayer Harrison–at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum and Botanic Garden.

Working in tandem with botanists at the Arboretum, the Harrisons have created trial gardens inside three refabricated geodesic domes, where native plant species are being exposed to the temperatures and water conditions that have been projected for the region in the near future.

For more on current work see The Center for the Study of the Force Majeure. For historical work see The Harrison Studio. For perspectives on the practice of the Harrisons see various Fremantle and Douglas papers.


ecoartscotland is a resource focused on art and ecology for artists, curators, critics, commissioners as well as scientists and policy makers. It includes ecoartscotland papers, a mix of discussions of works by artists and critical theoretical texts, and serves as a curatorial platform.

It has been established by Chris Fremantle, producer and research associate with On The Edge ResearchGray’s School of Art, The Robert Gordon University. Fremantle is a member of a number of international networks of artists, curators and others focused on art and ecology.

Go to EcoArtScotland

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Shelley Castle asks ‘IS THIS IT? Looking towards COP26’

Throughout our travels to Glasgow and beyond, Lucy Neal, myself and Anne-Marie Culhane witnessed rivers bursting their seams and reclaiming land, causing heartache for communities and farmers, expanding territory for beavers, and washing away crops.  Rising alongside the water is a mounting sense of urgency, and an accompanying feeling of confusion, about how (or even if) as creative practitioners to respond to the Climate Change talks in Glasgow in November.

Described by Lucy as a ‘Black Square’ (from Charlotte DuCann, Dark Mountain), the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change(UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP) creates a real and metaphorical space which vibrates with a sense of power and exclusivity wherever it lands.  Like its equivalent cosmic force, the black hole, COP also seems to draw everything towards itself, with ‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out) felt by many who are not invited, but for whom the consequences of a lack of progress will be beyond dire. Lucy and I attended COP24 in Poland as part of Walking Forest, gifting seeds from the last suffragette tree standing in the Suffragette Arboretum in Batheaston to delegates in an intimate ritual aimed at supporting the work being done across the world to fight for the rights of people, trees, rivers.

It was shocking to see how little space, literally and in terms of voice, those already suffering from the consequences of the crisis were given.  So as part of the cultural sector, how do we decide if, how and for whom we might respond to this year’s COP, which has potential to shift the trajectory of Earth’s future, but a track record of getting virtually no-where beyond words?

Is this a once-in-a-lifetime chance to engage (and possibly even make a small difference to its outcomes), or is it something that will be impervious to any energy we might throw at it?  Lucy began by outlining what ‘had to happen’ legally at COP26: countries must submit their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) for cutting emissions and demonstrate the Paris agreement is working well enough to deliver a safe climate.

In our open guided conversation kindly hosted by Glasgow Sculpture Studios and Chris Fremantle from ecoartscotland, we met a group of 20 artists, activists, interested individuals and organisations, to at least attempt to find a place to stand in relation to COP26.

We simplified the options of where we might position ourselves individually to:

IGNORE – it’s a f*****g waste of time,
ENGAGE – in parallel but in response to,
DISRUPT – cause interventions that shake up the black square,
BE AT THE TABLE – be inside, working with policy/actions/representatives

Lucy Neal held a group that wanted to explore the idea that to IGNORE COP was the preferred tactic.

Pondering what ‘IGNORE’ might meant, the group considered how it might be possible to create civic spaces like the ‘Commonwealth Games’ where people could mediate the event on the streets; create soft edges with generosity and kindness, person to person.  The conversation focused on creating a space that confronts apathy whilst exploring the narrative of de-growth and other ways of living.

Talk turned to how to create a ‘performance of ignoring’ – an intervention called the ‘black onesie option’ that would see people at the far-flung corners of the Black Square softening it’s edges.

It was decided that ‘Ignoring could well be the new Paying Attention!’

Shelley held the ‘ENGAGE’ space where a group considered their feelings of dilemma around any impact creative actions may have on those living and working in Glasgow.  It was thought that many local people could see both COP itself and accompanying protests as a huge annoyance.

‘It boils down to if you think COP26 will achieve anything or not’ and ‘how much influence do we want/have, who would our actions be for?’ created rich ideas for actions – like a performance in which we could ‘all just walk away from COP’

There will be spaces for creative responses, potentially at Glasgow University and at Strathclyde Student Union which will we understand be the ‘Civil Society space’ organised by Stop Climate Chaos Scotland.

In these spaces some representatives from COP might see or experience creative responses and alternative stories, but the question was ‘could these go back into COP in any meaningful way?’  Was inhabiting a ‘parallel space’ enough or did it just give COP more power to ignore?

Anne-Marie held the ‘DISRUPT’ table with two others. There was a surprising lack of interest in creative disruption. Anne-Marie set up some provocations to start the conversation for example:  ‘COP is really important – the lives and deaths of thousands of people/creatures etc ride on this – why wouldn’t we disrupt it by blocking airports and transport links at the end if adequate agreement not reached?’ and ‘What would the suffragettes do?’

The group then discussed whether it could be possible to create ‘hospitable disruptions’ like the Walking Forest seed gifting at COP26 which allowed people to step out of the thrust of debating, writing, compromising, and into another space for remembering their own core values and a sense of humanity/compassion’

Chris Fremantle joined those wanting to ‘BE AT THE TABLE’ in COP.  The group talked about who would be ‘at the table’ particularly focusing on issues such as farming. Multiple different groups from corporate lobbyists through the Soil Association to Via Campesina will all be there. The arts might:

  • draw attention to patriarchy and colonialism through Glasgow’s own history;
  • Solidarity in the face of challenges;
  • amplify the voices of those who are not at the table;
  • support international solidarity.

The group also explored what moral support might be needed for those at the table and how culture connects land workers everywhere through story, song and dance.

By the end of the day most felt that a conversation had begun to offer a rich and deep perspective on why and for whom, before even considering the what and where.

There was strong sense that understanding the significance of the COP in relation to the bigger ‘moment’ is critical; that small performative interventions could influence values and offer new meaning.

It was humbling to feel the diversity and breadth of experience, knowledge, care and artforms in the room.  We hope to continue this dialogue soon – please keep an eye on the cop26-general or cop26-glasgowlocal lists on riseup,  ecoartscotland and the arts4cop26 group on Facebook for further information.


Shelley Castle is an activist, mother and civic artist, and an active member of Culture Declares Climate and Ecological Emergency. Working across a variety of mediums and with multiple collaborators, her practice is underpinned by a fascination of biodiversity in all its forms.

Anne-Marie Culhane creates events, performances and long term projects that invite people into an active and enquiring relationship with each other and the land working as artist, activist and collaborator across a range of disciplines.

Lucy Neal is a theatre-maker and educator interested in how celebratory events act as a catalyst for change. A Co-founding Director of the London International Festival of Theatre (1981-’05), her work looks at how the arts inspire new ways of living within the ecological limits of a finite planet. She is author of Playing for Time: Making Art as if the World Mattered.

Ruth Ben-Tovim was not able to attend but is the fourth artist in Walking Forest, a project funded by the Arts Council of England as part of the Season for Change, a UK wide programme showcasing cultural leadership on climate action.

Walking Forest seeds a mycelium network of relationships led by women in the UK and internationally to initiate three site-specific public residencies and a large-scale mass participation event, potentially in Scotland and contributing a voice at COP26: whether at the table, engaging, ignoring or creatively disrupting.

Walking Forest concludes in 2028, with the planting of an intentional forest for Earth activists.  All four artists are part of Culture Declares Climate and Ecological Emergency – a growing global movement of ‘declare’ initiatives including local authoritiesarchitectsmusicianslawyers and doctors.

For notes on the open meeting before Christmas co-hosted by ecoartscotland and Creative Carbon Scotland see here.

(Top image: Black Square courtesy of Shelley Castle)


ecoartscotland is a resource focused on art and ecology for artists, curators, critics, commissioners as well as scientists and policy makers. It includes ecoartscotland papers, a mix of discussions of works by artists and critical theoretical texts, and serves as a curatorial platform.

It has been established by Chris Fremantle, producer and research associate with On The Edge ResearchGray’s School of Art, The Robert Gordon University. Fremantle is a member of a number of international networks of artists, curators and others focused on art and ecology.

Go to EcoArtScotland

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