Professor Malcolm Miles on ruralrecreation’s polemics, failure and interruption…
“…polemical intervention, aiming more to provoke argument than to advocate solutions. This is one example of what I mean by an interruption (a term I use because intervention appears to be overused, describing almost any artwork which uses space outside a gallery or museum, and some within those sites, regardless of political or social content). Of course, that criticism implies a lack of identification, too, of the conditions or situations in which an intervention is made, so I need to identify the ground in which the interruptions discussed below are made. Broadly, their terrain is the corporate and cultural appropriation of the land, natural resources and habitats by capital in a period of de-regulation and of a disregard of the state’s role in safeguarding the commonwealth and common well-being. But, as the next case shows, this is a layered terrain in which different interests claim and counterclaim public benefit.
On 4 October 2007, a project by artist Alex Murdin was banned by the National Trust because they saw it as anti-tourist. The project, Inclusive Path, consists of three boards, each showing life size photographic images: one is of a standing male, the second a disabled male and the third of two children. All are wearing outdoor clothing, set against a rocky backdrop typical of the scenery of the area. Holes were cut to enable people to pose for photographs by inserting their own faces, as they can in similar cut-outs at seaside resorts. and 249 people participated by posing behind the boards. The intention was to site them on the village green at Grasmere in the English Lake District, but it transpired that the site was not a public space but owned by the National Trust. Murdin always intended to show the work first in Keswick, but the National Trust’s refusal to allow a project which it saw as threatening its economic (rather than conservation) remit was used to generate media interest as part of the work. The image of a news page was added to the portfolio of the work on its website.
Murdin describes the project as challenging the ecological gaze. Critical of the notion (which he says is found in deep ecology) of an original state of nature to which one day it may be possible to return, as of the notion of a world without humans which such a concept implies, he cites Slavoj Zizek that the planet is now so modified by human intervention that its cessation — if nature could merely be left alone — would be cataclysmic. He quotes Zizek on the idea that television nature programmes reinforce the picture of a world without humans:
“The fantastic narrative always involves the impossible gaze by means of which the subject is already present at the scene of its own absence. When the subject directly identifies its own gaze with the object a [a Lacanian term for what is desired in the Other or in the love object], the paradoxical implication of this identification is that the object a disappears from the field of vision. This brings us to the core of a Lacanian notion of utopia: a vision of desire functioning without an object a and its twists and loops. It is utopian not only to think that one can reach full, unencumbered incestuous enjoyment; for it is no less utopian to think that one can renounce enjoyment without the renunciation generating its own surplus — enjoyment.”
I will leave aside Zizek’s drawing on Lacan, and the surpluses of his writing, but it is enough here to say that pictures of natural scenes in which the human photographer seems not to be there — as if the camera is an immaterial conduit of vision — conjure a world as if prehuman or primordial, and this ur-nature is possibly part of the attraction of rugged landscapes which show no obvious traces of human manipulation. Yet the Lake District is the object of human manipulation in geographical, legal and cultural terms. The gaze which attempts to erase the observer from the act of observation is impossible not only philosophically but in practical terms, too, because the contingencies which determine that the act of observation takes place include access to the site as well as the cultural and historical legacies imported by observers.
Murdin sees a representation of the supposed absence of human presence in nature in Herman de Vries’s Sanctuarium projects (1993—2003), where a circular brick wall or wrought iron railing separates a small enclosure of parkland to be left to natural growth, while the land outside it is managed in the usual way. Through a viewing aperture, the enclosed space seems like a keyhole view of unmanaged nature. Yet Murdin visited the Sanctuarium in Munster Germany, in 2007 to find the wall covered in graffiti, and the enclosure containing a thicket of brambles into which litter had been thrown. I mention de Vries in Chapter 1, but this would be more like the abandoned landscape described by Richard Jeffries in After London (Chapter 4) were it not for the litter. Murdin writes that local people may find this case of wild nature less attractive than the luxuriant landscape images they see in the media. That may or may not be so, but I find the case interesting (although I have not seen it) in its contrast of a notion of wild nature as a state of primal innocence to an encounter with ordinary life in a society in which all nature is managed according to prevailing concepts of landscape, and in some cases taken paradoxically as a sign both of civilisation and of a supposed eternity in which humans have no presence.
The conservation of areas such as the Lake District brings this to a head when the presence of tourists and ramblers damages the scenery which they have come to see in what they hope will be a pristine condition. But, again, matters are not simple. Walking in national parks and areas of land owned by bodies such as the National Trust was not always possible as landowners protected such sites against intruders (other than their own shooting parties). Murdin’s proposed One Mile Wild (2009) draws on the historical example of mass trespass at Kinder Scout, Derbyshire, in 1932 when the British Workers’ Sports Federation organised a walk over privately owned moorland. Through public campaigns and legal changes, access to such places is now open, producing an emerging rambling culture. Today, with public access, the moors are suffering erosion. Murdin reads the impossible gaze here, too, as restoration of the site requires exclusionary zones, to create a ‘permanent state of managed naturalness’. In response, he proposed a one- square-mile zone of exclusion, and a legal framework by which to manage its unmanaged status as an ‘act of subtraction’. The proposal was refused. Perhaps proposals which the artist knows are unlikely to be accepted by commissioning and funding bodies in an art-and-environment world contingent on public investment and corporate sponsorship still have a polemical value, even if their publication or exhibition reaches a mainly radical-art public (which is still a constituency, both linked to and overlapping with others).
A polemic of limits?
Matthew Cornford and David Cross (Cornford & Cross) have to date proposed 11 projects for public and gallery sites which stretch the brief or the commissioning body’s ideas for the scheme to a point at which they are rejected. Other proposals have been realised — and are cited below — but rejected proposals have been exhibited, not as failures, but as elements in a dialectic of art’s relation to the politics and economics which govern what cultural work is permitted to be presented to an audience and what is not. In one way, this is an aspect of a contemporary cultural condition in which non-gallery projects, installations and work which does not include any conventional art medium (like painting) are commonplace. In another way, the exhibition of refused ideas follows from artists’ efforts in the 1890s to take over the responsibility for their futures by rejecting exhibition juries and withdrawing from established organizations, and more recently by artists’ use of redundant industrial buildings to provide studios, not as attics in which to be romantically misunderstood, but as sites of creative interaction, community and, in open studio events, direct public access without the mediation of the dealer or museum curator…”
Eco-aesthetics: Art Literature and Architecture in a Period of Climate Change. Professor Malcolm Miles (2014), Bloomsbury. (p. 143-7)
See also The impossible gaze of the ecological subject Alex Murdin, (2012)