Working with ecologists, geologists and data specialists on ‘Re-wilding the System’, an extensive art & ecology lab, I’ve been incredibly lucky to spend a three month residency responding to the ancient Humber Head Peatlands, on Hadfield moor (Doncaster, UK). It’s been a real dream to learn from such passionate environmental specialists and advocates for our natural world. I certainly didn’t realise what a unique carbon ecosystem existed on my back doorstep, and I hope that I can (in a small way) help encourage conversations & raise awareness about this rare and threatened habitat.
These peatlands, which are made up of 90% water, hold huge quantities of carbon but have been vastly exploited, leading to leaks and a major carbon source. Although global peatlands only occupy 3% of land area across the world, they contain around 25% of soil carbon - twice as much as the world’s forests.
I began the residency with a guided walk through Hatfield Moors with Mick Oliver, former mining surveyor, and passionate activist & guardian to the site, (through the Moors Conservation group). Mick shared the secrets of the landscape, from ancient pathways to knowledge of the site-specific flora, fauna and mycelium, taking particular note of the Pete-forming cotton grasses and sphagnum moss.
Following on from the walk, Simon Pickles, Ecologist from the North & East Yorkshire Ecological Data Centre, then led a lab explaining the methods of data capture regularly used across such sites. The breadth of mediums and specialism really fascinated me.
The way in which a place can be captured and imprinted really resonated with me. Information beyond something visual, which is acquired and held as a lasting imprint. Things that viscerally exist, but that we need the assistance of technology in order to acquire, often as ordered, but sometimes chaotic, datasets.
As a further extension to the residency, I was fortunate to take part in a field recording, and sonic data capture workshop, with Jez Riley-French. Jez's work spans decades. He manufactures his own microphones to capture sounds in the field, and has worked on projects such as the BBC David Attenborough Series. Although a single day was a very short amount of time for capturing sounds in the field, I learnt a great deal. Specifically, I was reminded how to listen. Even though my background and BSc is audio-recording-based, I still needed to be reminded how to 'listen'. Not just technically, but critically and creatively. I needed a reminder.
This gave me an exciting and inspirational starting point for my residency journey. The next stage was to make my own trips to the moor. I needed to get to know it, rain or shine. I walked many of the paths, absorbing the song of warblers and cuckoos.
It was interesting to note that I felt quite vulnerable as a lone female out on the moors. This was no reflection on the location itself, but something that I now realise has been with me from childhood. Growing up, the surrounding woods and fields were where you would head (on your bike) to play. They were also places that you would go to 'get up to no good'. They offered a mixed bag of freedom, but sometimes fear. I always knew as a kid, I needed to be careful, and never find myself alone. I have certainly, and begrudgingly, carried this with me into adulthood. It is an interesting dynamic to my relationship with the landscape.
During my time on the moor, I mapped and captured the site in as many different mediums as I could think. One of the most successful and interesting data captures, was sampling the biofeedback data (electrical conductivity) of sphagnum moss as it photosynthesises. Using a Plantwave device, these fluctuations in electricity could be translated into midi data. Once midi, I could then use the data to trigger any audio or visual stimulus. The 'conversations' of the peatland plants could be recorded....and this captured my imagination.
Themes which Interest Me:
- Strata. Layers of meaning depending on how you interrogate it.
- Layers of plant matter created the peatlands.
- It is a multi faceted landscape, which in its layers, embodies the complexity of our relationship with the natural world and how we affect it.
Our relationship to the landscape
- Re-narrating ideas about our past and future.
- I felt cautious and vulnerable as a lone woman walking the landscape.
- It is up to us to re-write our relationship to peatlands. To the landscape and what it holds.
- Peat forms at around 1meter per thousand years.
- How do humans comprehend deep time?
- Humans have had more impact on the planet, in a shorter time, than any other species.
- How do we ensure that we extend our care for the earth into deep time.
- In the same way that people can’t envisage deep time, we equally can’t envisage or perceive the level of change that is coming with climate change. Arrogant assumption that technology will find a way.
- It hard for us to have agency when there is no urgency for change within those decision making.
- Ecological emergency.
- The planets biodiversity and carbon balance has been radically disrupted by human activity alone.
- The current estimate is that there is 25 times more carbon in peat than in forests, UK wide.
As a result of the residency, I created three pieces of work in direct response to the experience:
1). ‘Offcut’ examines our relationship to the Peatland landscape, and re-narrates ideas about our past, present and future, with a delve beyond the Anthropocene into deep time. This premiered at Photonica Festival in Rome. Offcut is an immersive video installation, designed for a 180° video room.
2). ‘Conversation from the Peatlands’ is a mobile laser installation which draws data from the peat-forming plants and listens to their conversations in a dance of sound and volumetric light. The installation premiered at Artbomb Festival (Doncaster) and was powered by The Light Cycle.
3) Interrogating how everything in nature is integrally connected, 'Heliform' explores from tiny microscopic entities to the far reaches of our planet. These micro and macro explorations question the fingerprint of humanity on the Anthropocene, whilst celebrating the beauty of our interconnection to the natural world. Heliform is a projection mapped video installation commissioned by Leeds International Festival for performance at the Howard Assembly Rooms, in support of musician Jon Hopkins.
“Something that we have learnt recently is how a tiny microscopic entity can wreak complete havoc on a whole species. Through our experiences over the past couple of years, we realise that everything and each other is interconnected. This awareness is fundamental to our wider comprehension of how, as humans, our individualist actions are profoundly disturbing the whole of nature. It is up to us to act on this realisation, and find a pathway to hope and optimism for the future” - Rebecca Smith (Urban Projections).
With Thanks to:
‘Re-wilding the System’ arts & ecology residency
Simon Pickles from the North & East Yorkshire Ecological Data Centre
Rangjung Yeshe Gomde Buddhist Centre
Beadamoss - Sustainable Sphagnum Moss