Sept 22 & 23, 2010: Creative thinking about the environment, Orkney Forum

November 25th, 2010 by

CORE is a project based at the Edinburgh College of Arts and funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, aiming to build a network of artists, writers, anthropologists, and environmental scientists who can collaborate in order to think creatively about the environment “as a relational setting”; exploring “the relationship between environment, society, and the individual”.

In this regard, they have a close affinity with our own aims as a Network. Over the next couple of years, they intend to hold a number of events in order to generate these collaborations, including several workshops and exhibitions.

In September 2010, members of the Network visited Stromness, Orkney, with the goal of meeting and sharing ideas with residents, and interacting with local artists and planners, along with other invited scholars. I went along as a representative of our AHRC Climate Histories Network. See our forum featured in the local newspaper on October 7, 2010:

Orkney is a very interesting location for a gathering of this sort. Not only is it a place where there are acute concerns about the impact of rising sea levels – with fears that some of the islands could become uninhabitable – but it is also a location where many of the questions about our future energy uses are being debated, and new solutions are being sought. The close proximity of the islands to North Sea Oil extraction, as well as the capacity to generate electricity from wind, waves, and tides, means that Orkney is a location in which energy is a key economic and social issue.

Indeed, in 1980 there were plans to extract uranium from the land 2 miles from Stromness; a process that was fought off by the residents. The composer Peter Maxwell Davies, now Master of the Queen’s Music, wrote The Yellow Cake Revue in protest against what he and others saw as the terrible threat of uranium mining; the popular piano piece Farewell to Stromness comes from this protest.

The first day of the CORE gathering, was focused on working with Landscape Architecture students from all over Europe, who were taking part in a residential course on the Islands. CORE members organised “Scenario Games”, encouraging the students to think about possible future developments in the Orkney landscape. How, for example, would one think about planning in Orkney if energy production for the rest of the UK was to be prioritised? What kinds of future planning decisions might be made in the interests of preserving and representing the archaeology of the Orkney? How might the seascape develop in the near future?

These Scenario Games gave CORE members and students a chance to explore the decision-making processes associated with environmental change and to discuss ideas for new creative engagements with the landscape. For those of us who had just arrived in Stromness, it was an excellent opportunity to quickly familiarise ourselves with the place.

The second day of the gathering centred around a forum in the Pier Arts Centre, with invited speakers from art and anthropology, and then an open floor discussion. The forum entitled Measuring the Environment – Morphology/Mythology was open to all local residents, and attracted a wide variety of participants, although given the nature of the Network and the location, the majority of those who came along were local artists.

In addition to my own paper, exploring the management of nature and disconnection from the environment in the East Anglian Fenlands, the anthropological contribution to the event came from Jo Vergunst of the University of Aberdeen. Jo carried out his PhD research in Orkney, and his talk explored the history of landscape change on the islands. Focusing on a series of encounters with farmers, Jo explored the particular nature of land ownership there, and how the system of Udal Law, through which land is understood to be held in unwritten freehold, creates a particular way of thinking about personal identity through the landscape.

In addition to his research on Orkney, Jo has worked with Liz Ogilvie, the convenor of the CORE group, during field research in Greenland. Together with local communities in Greenland, they have documented the experience of landscape change, and in particular the effects of the melting of the Greenland ice sheet.

One of the contributions to the CORE Orkney forum came from one of their Greenland Collaborators; David Storch Leed, a student from the remote community of Rodebay, North West Greenland, currently studying in Denmark. Speaking to the forum over Skype, he told Inuit stories about the relationship between people and land, and explained the process of environmental change as he himself had experienced it in his lifetime.

Samantha Clark, from the University of the West of Scotland, gave a presentation on her recent project, A Year of Breathing. Samantha had been invited to take part in an Art and Ecology exhibition in Girona. As she explains on her website

Instead of flying from Scotland to Girona to install the work, I am donating the ‘carbon budget’ to the people of Girona for the purposes of breathing. It works out that my one way flight would produce about the same amount of CO2 emissions as a year of breathing for one person.

As a counterpoint to continual calls for action, Samantha invited us to consider intently the importance of what we choose not to do.

After tea, the forum opened out into a very broad and engaged discussion. Much of the talk surrounded how to bridge the space between the global flows (of environmental change, of new models of energy production and conservation), and the particularity of their local context in Orkney. How do we get from general talk about climate change, or about the need to generate renewable energy, and onto the practical issue of how this will impact the Orcadian community specifically? Again, as with the activities the day before, we were back to thinking about scenarios, potential futures for Orkney. But in any discussion of this type, it becomes clear how contentious such futures are.

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