27-04-2007 16;18;30 copy

The CUT/STACK/BURN project: A land based art collaboration involving agriculture, conservation, and local community.

As a visual artist I make art work about our activities in the landscape. As a subject matter Cornwall’s natural environment, geographical position and cultural history are a distinctive resource. I used these features as a starting point for developing my art practice over a year long environmental art residency with the Lizard National Trust. The residency was designed to initiate artists’ responses in a variety of media to a wide range of issues that affect the properties under the management of the NT. These included, for example issues such as small and large scale environmental pollution, visitor pressure, and climate change. Part of the focus of my art practice during this time centred on society’s relationship with natural resources and its’ collective use of energy. With this in mind I tailored my ideas to create a project that would lead to the collaborative making of a public artwork that was designed to develop a dialogue on climate change and the link with personal energy use. Of particular interest in this visual enquiry was a desire to use sustainable materials such as furze, which have been resourced from existing land management practices already occurring in the landscape. In part to avoid adding to the work load of those involved but also to steer clear of imposing new or alien strategies of intervention. I was keen that the evidence of my activities, whose concepts were influenced by traditional management of the landscape, was unobtrusive as possible at the NT properties and impermanent - that the collaboration between art, conservation, community and habitat would perhaps lead to a mutually beneficial relationship in some way.

CUT
The first work to emerge out of this residency has been the CUT/STACK/BURN project (C/S/B) which was motivated by the cultural history of lowland heaths, the working processes that occur there and climate change. In addition to this was an awareness of the significance of natural history in relation to place and how society’s endeavours have shaped the landscape into what it is today.

Further to this was an attempt to show how contemporary land based artists could engage with issues concerning a variety of natural environments in view of the legacy that, on a regional level at least, still appears to be encumbered by pictorial representation. My work attempts to go beneath what we see on the horizon and the sentimentality often prevalent in landscape art by engaging in a more meaningful evaluation based upon practical creative investigation.
CUT/STACK/BURN used a combination of approaches such as performance and installation art. These became a platform from which to develop a visual conversation about the absence of sustainable methods in the management of land and its resources. A performative re-enactment of a largely redundant
rural activity - furze cutting for fuel – was used to provide the building material for a public collaborative sculpture. The harvested furze was cut using hand tools as part of existing management plans for 4 heath land and rough ground sites on the Lizard and West Penwith. These areas were Coverack (cliff top), Morvah (farm common land), Gulval and St Just (small holdings) from December to February by people from rural communities and National Trust volunteers and staff. The furze was bound into faggots (bundles of furze) and stacked in a similar way to that of an ‘old time’ rick.
“We got a good feeling from taking part in a project that was raising awareness about peak oil.  Not in an ‘off-set your conscience’ sort of way - we really felt like we were achieving something particularly as it inspired our new approach in the management of our heath and its resources”. Lisa Guy, Lower Keigwin farm.

Throughout the preparation stages and harvesting of the furze the historical/archaeological nature of the process was played out. The coppicing of furze was once a wide spread and major source of energy in Cornwall. It was coppiced on rotation not just by farmers but by cutters and carters who operated from leased land supplying a variety of industries before the widespread use of coal. Experiencing at first hand an attempt to recreate the methodology of a now disused but sustainable resource encouraged much debate and brought home the reality and true cost of producing energy to those who participated. Part of this rediscovery also highlighted to some extent, the loss of communal activity in what was once a wide spread activity in rural areas. An unexpected but fun part of the project was watching school children playing during the re-enactment of the harvesting and construction. They did this through the invention of games – a weird mix of Celtic warrior and Robin Hood (furze sticks make great swords!). Hunting down wild ‘Animorph’ creature sticks, discovering old birds’ nests and good old ‘hide and seek’. Riding back to the farm on the trailer full of furze and climbing the rick itself was another (surprising and painful) game which was particularly interesting as some of the children who took part had never climbed a tree before as they practically don’t exist on the north coast of West Penwith. The children who helped make the sculpture seemed well informed about climate change already and although responsive to a point, if I am honest, the reaction of the children went something like ‘yeah, climate change is bad - now can we play?’ And quite right too…This all seemed to further underline how distant, metaphorically speaking; this society is from mutually beneficial interrelationships with the natural resources at our disposal.

When you experience the CSB process you realise just how far we have all moved away from sustainability. The fuel that took a few seasons to mature was valued and used sparingly, now fuel that has taken 400 million years to mature is burned with reckless abandon. For me the CSB metaphor captures this in a very powerful way”. Piers Guy, Lower Keigwin farm.     


STACK

At the beginning of March the faggots (bundles of furze) were transported to the sub tropical Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens where the installation was to be built. The ricks were re-assembled there and later worked by over 130 volunteers and myself into a large circular steel rod support structure that referenced the form of an industrial fuel storage container. [approx’ dimensions: 2m deep 2.5m high at its tallest point and 15m across]Our collective estrangement from the need and means to create our own energy and the first hand knowledge of how difficult, mundane and time consuming that can be, would seem to have gone some way in shaping our current frivolous relationship with energy. The flicking of switches, the pressing of buttons - the luxury of ‘power on demand’ leads, I feel, to a disconnection from the resources that sustain us. This unsustainable relationship finally and symbolically influenced the last management act of the project.


BURN
On completion, at the beginning of the British summer time on 25th March 2007, the work which had taken 3 months to prepare and build was destroyed in a flippant gesture using fire - a traditional technique of heath land management - in little over 15 minutes at a public event.

“I thought the artist was mad but CSB has made me view the landscape in a different way… I think he must still be a bit tapped actually come to think of it”. Piers Guy, Lower Keigwin farm.



…even art has a footprint too…

Right from the start of C/S/B the audience and participants were aware that the installation was being built to be destroyed. This was highlighted by the local press who carried a variety of articles leading up to the burn event. It led to some animated debates about whether it was time for artists also to face up to their own environmental responsibility in the production of their work (was it right for artists to cause pollution to raise awareness of pollution? And wasn’t C/S/B a contradiction if it didn’t do just that?). However as one artist, who originally argued against this part of the work came to realise, the burning of the furze released only the carbon it had absorbed in its growth cycle. The destruction of the work by burning (witnessed by 150 people) was predictably, a contentious part of the project but this helped draw out the examination of other issues in relation to the impact of carbon footprints. I had used the destruction of the work quite literally as a visual smoke screen to deepen a debate about our own actions and to question the basic presumptions we might have about the fossil fuel dependent technology we use to maintain our lifestyles. By treating a conceptually valuable natural resource in this way, which had been laboriously and meticulously constructed, helped to develop discussions about the consequences of a ‘throw away’ culture. The discussions that developed out of this with the audience and participants throughout the project covered areas about personal energy consumption, natural resources and our own contribution to climate change. One of many comments overheard at the burn event - ‘It‘s a shame to see it destroyed” / “yeah, but maybe that’s the point?’ summed up the general reaction of the crowd that witnessed the event.


What size is yours?


‘Sustainable sculpture in an age of climate change’

I used this subheading for the project (as more of a question than a proclamation) to underline the inescapable fact that much of what we do causes some kind of impact on the atmosphere and I used this to develop conversations arising from the contradiction of not being able to be 100% sustainable in a project about sustainability.


A mother of 2 children who worked on the project had this to say:

“Even drawing public attention to or raising public awareness of climate change seems to involve producing carbon. The only zero carbon footprint option is to do nothing. Isn’t it ironic that an effort to make a thought provoking comment about climate change involved driving miles everyday, transporting gorse by tractor and trailer and, that to see the final stage, people have had to come by car?”
The furze was cut by hand without using machinery. The furze gathered up and tied by hand using a natural twine. Traditionally the furze was transported off the heath by horses covered in thick leather blankets and loaded onto carts. To enable C/S/B to happen I had to rely on diesel to get myself and others on site and for transporting materials. When considering this you start to fully understand how much effort is required to avoid activity that requires fossil fuel. This was not lost on the audience of the project or its participants. Comments arose such as ‘What a shame, couldn’t we have done it purely without relying on fossil fuel?” and “Lets look for an alternative for next time!”. When people started to think about these elements it gave me the evidence that the project had begun to work in some way. Slowly but surely that type of thinking became a seed in your imagination. Perhaps it may never germinate or take a long time to set but it did see some sun light. This helped stress the importance of trying to overcome the difficulties of working without a reliance on fossil fuel and the realities of being carbon neutral.


Doing it yourself – a positive model
“We had started to wonder how we might manage our areas of heath land; a bit of pony grazing, furze for the wood burner. This project reconnected me to our abandoned areas and re-established the value of our heath as part of our farm” Lisa Guy.
If you have ever gone to the trouble to labour over your energy source you will know how hard this can be. It was satisfying to see that many people who became aware of or took part in the project entered into varied and often animated dialogue surrounding climate change and its causes and in some cases reconsidered their relationship with energy. For example, on the farm site at Morvah, they have now begun to cut the furze this winter for the first time. In a fresh approach to the management of the heath on their farm and, combined with their efforts to reduced their carbon footprint they are now using the by product of this system to supply their wood burner. Society’s integration with sustainability needs to be culturally relevant to succeed I feel. Theoretically, if the value of managing a resource sustainably (bio fuel in this case) can be fully understood and the benefits (bio-diversity/low carbon emissions/financial incentives etc) that arise from this interaction are graspable, then this goes some way to ensure a more viable future. Though sadly this is not always the case and perhaps unrealistic but at least provides a positive model to work from.


Heath fest
Re-establishing the importance of traditional management and uses of heaths which are usually supposed to be ‘degraded’ landscapes, not ‘natural’ ones , and which local communities have had ‘to make the best of’ is an issue the HEATH project (a funder of C/S/B) is actively promoting through such events as the Heath fest. An exhibition of new work (HAPPIDROME2, FILM/PHOTO/ARTEFACT) artefacts, films and photographic documents about the CUTSTACK/BURN project became part of this festival on Goonhilly downs in October in a disused radar bunker. By promoting the benefits of extensive grazing, reconnecting sites and encouraging involvement with heath or rough ground to farmers and local communities it is hoped that they will become a culturally valuable resource much more than a nice place for a walk. The example of furze cutting for fuel that C/S/B highlighted is intended to stand as a metaphor for what is possible if you apply sustainable thinking to the processes that govern our lives. We don’t value that which is of little or no use. And if, as in the case of heaths, it can become ‘useful’ again then it stands a chance of surviving as a distinct environment.

“CSB has helped us reconnect this farm with its wider environment and help set it in its historical context whilst providing an appreciation of contemporary possibilities for the heath. Farming and land management is often hard, time consuming work where the focus is often narrow. The CUT/STACK/BURN project widens the field of vision and has the potential to open up a whole range of different approaches and values to the land.” Piers Guy.


Collaboration

The project on the whole provided a variety of opportunities for hands-on interactive activities to develop by using unconventional materials, environments and contexts. 0ver 400 people contributed to the project and its construction with 150 turning up for the burn event itself. The project set out to involve those who already had some relationship with the areas used to gather the furze but also those who were new to them. Farmers, conservation volunteers and employees, school children, artists and numerous passers by participated at various stages. This became a very successful way to examine environmental and sociological issues that are not commonly discussed in landscape art. A notable exception here that bears some similarity with C/S/B is Agnes Denes ‘Wheatfield - A Confrontation’ (1982). For this Denes planted two-acres of wheat in a derelict plot in the middle of Manhattan, New York. The artwork produced a 1,000 lbs of wheat and commented on "human values and misplaced priorities". The crop from ‘Wheatfield’ grown on land prime building land next to the World Trade Centre later toured 26 countries as part of The ‘International Art Show for the End of World Hunger’. The fields later had luxury apartments built on them. This was also a project that relied upon collaboration with local communities. In other respects C/S/B became an opportunity for the conservation organisations and farmers involved to engage in a very different approach in addressing areas of concern through a creative partnership. I don’t expect or desire that nature conservation organisations become a green funding version of the Arts Council but hope rather that both disciplines can, through examples like the CUT/STACK/BURN project, recognise the potential of working together when on common ground.

Justin Whitehouse, Area Warden for the Lizard National Trust:

"The National Trust, like many other conservation organisations, spends huge amounts of time and resources each winter cutting and burning scrub from the cliffs and heath land.  Furze is invariably viewed as a 'problem plant', to be controlled and tamed.    In time, with our reliance on readily accessible fossil fuels, the role of gorse as a source of fuel and fodder has been lost.  Working with Bruce on these projects provided a fresh insight into our relationship with the environment and stimulated great debate amongst our own staff and volunteers, but also amongst visitors and the public.  The gorse became a useful resource, not only for Bruce's artistic talents, but also as a means of interpreting our cultural past and as a metaphor for our own unsustainable behaviour. Environmental art is often viewed as 'art for art's sake'. The CUT/STACK/BURN project proved to be educational, political and inspiring as well as being a remarkable visual spectacle."


I have used sustainability as the thread to deliver the work visually, practically and through debate in an engaging way without having (or wishing) to ram it down people’s throats. The project practically illustrated in a hands-on way how hard the transition from our dependency on fossil fuels will be, or rather is. To re-enact is an instructive way of finding out about a process - it demonstrated through an art based context the physical cost of procuring one’s own energy. We don’t really have much to do with harnessing the energy we use – we just spend it. Tangible models of sustainability like coppice fuel cycles are good models with which to direct understanding
toward the solving of problems. Art can inform but does not change people. At its simplest level CUT/STACK/BURN provided a positive working model against which we can compare alternatives.

Bruce Davies, October 2007

The CUT/STACK/BURN project has been funded and supported by:

Arts Council England

The HEATH project
The National Trust,
Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens
Natural England

A film of the event, video clips, the photographic archive and further information about the project can be found via these links:

http://www.cut-stack-burn.blogspot.com

http://www.happidrome.org.uk/HPD2/index.php

http://www.artcornwall.org/exhibition%20bruce%20davies.htm

http://youtube.com/cutstackburn