Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Concrete, concretion and installation poetry

Concretion and Damage: a Pre-manifesto (though written after)

John Kinsella

Below this article is a short ‘manifesto’ piece on creating ‘concrete’ texts in ‘natural’ environments or environments in which the ‘natural world’ intervenes, ‘intrudes’, or defines the conditions of viewing. This necessitates a lot of scare quotes because of the problem of mediating the ‘natural’ in the context of human seeing, perception and activity. All human activity is contingent on the ‘natural world’, regardless of how much it attempts to distance itself from the materials and variables of its construction. In the case of the images below, it might entail a spider or some other creature walking over a sheet of paper displaying a poem — the poem/sheet placed on the ground (or elsewhere) in the expectation that something will cross its path, literally. The patience is in waiting to capture the photograph.

The series of poem-texts on sheets of A4 was done near Walwalinj in York between 2005 and 2008. The poems were written and printed and no copy kept (digital or otherwise). They were then photographed ‘in situ’ and the paper recycled. These poems exist somewhere between installations and concretions. Over the last nine or so years I have been accumulating poems that exist as expressions in landscape — accepting landscape is a mediated term in itself, and relates to human presence and intervention with varying levels of impact. Whether printed-paper placed among rocks and scrub, or lines written in charcoal on a concrete path between York gums, or words scratched into a firebreak, none of the creations had more than a temporary presence in the environment outside being captured in photographs. The aim is always minimal impact on the ‘natural’. As we located ourselves mentally (as well as physically) at Jam Tree Gully, as we travelled away and returned, a real sense of concretion developed. The words written on the page, often while looking through a window, typed to shape on a manual typewriter, written in journals, seemed to be one part of a locution of place, an articulation of presence and the politics of this. The aim was to plant (literally trees, but also words) and repair, and to record.

Even ‘healing’ brings its costs, and all impacts generate change and loss. I started forming words on the obligatory firebreaks with sticks, scratching short poems in the gravel driveway with its steep gradient (see my earlier articles on the poetics of gradients). Sometimes I photographed these; mostly I didn’t. And in other places, in other countries, I did the same, recording the concretions in poems: describing activities but with no other record. Walking became a concretion for me, and I stepped the lines across roadways and pathways, through fields and paddocks and along fence-lines, up mountains (literally) and across bodies of water. All of these (from various locations around the world) feed into what is formulating as Jam Tree Gully 4 — a conceptualisation of concretion, a ‘demapping’ (see ‘demapping’ article) of presence that shows the costs of even the lightest impact, and contemplations of alternatives and consequences. They are works of ‘place’, displaced in their presentation.

I have always been interested in handwriting and drawing, and since the mid-90s have been writing ‘graphology’ poems. JTG4 is part of that project, and separate. In absence, as the grass is cut by a family member who helped build our house at Jam Tree Gully, I have been drawing word ‘maps’ of the cutting and tree-growth to ‘be there’. They are mental maps, conceptual maps in lieu of. The absentee reconstruction so when we return I can compare the imagined with the reality, and based on something I’ve done year after year, and bear the calluses on my hands to inform the cartography. But these are ‘de-maps’ because even absent-presence comes at a cost, and the polysituated self absorbs so much — a consciousness that giving back, sharing, and restoring even when away has to be built into the texts.

Which brings to mind someone else's recent project of connecting with place in Wales where a poem was painted onto rock faces in the Snowdonia National Park, intended to be temporary, to be washed away by the rains, but ended up being baked by a warmer than expected September and proving indelible. There are a number of issues here. One is the desire to mark place beyond the moment, which is problematical. But even more so is to miss the fact that climate change will necessarily alter conditions of interaction and presentation. So many of these things are ill-thought-out — a nice notion, but no depth in understanding of causality. So much ‘eco-art’, intended to be of a place and meld with it, merge with it, do no damage, leaves a permanent mark. I recall river installations made from ‘local materials’ that damaged microenvironments then floated down into the sea to join the suspended wastes that are changing the biosphere. The artist’s desire to leave a mark is understandable, but ephemerality has its worth in such contexts. Speaking words that won’t be heard, scratching words in sand that will blow over in a day... there are millennia of such acts. They are more durable than felled trees and carved rock (damaged or ‘used’ in the name of art and knowledge) in so many ways. They enter language and ritual, they inform our movements and day-to-day activities in ways we are rarely aware of.

But I am talking about a form of the concrete. A dissolvable, non-toxic concrete. That’s thinking about materials used and where they are from, what will happen to them afterwards, the ink used, the electricity used, the manufacturing implications — everything. In a global-capitalist world that is consuming itself, that glorifies the soldier in war but not the janitor who cleans up the body wastes of Ebola victims, we need to recognise the art of the moment, the poetry that is survival without damage. We don’t need to write out words in places revered for their natural beauty, but we can speak them there and even hold up a sheet of paper with those words, backdropped by the sublime or whatever you want to call it. The marks must be temporary because any more than that and the place will be changed irrevocably. And that it was altered in such ways in the past doesn’t mean we need to continue doing so. All borders are artifices. How we connect to a place is informed by so many variables. We don’t need to mark our connection by undoing the stone of it, itself.

The creation of a text in a natural environment, a concretion, brings into question how close you are/were to the event. I suggest that those performing an act of damage probably have it subliminally or overtly ‘written into’ their poetic language. And in their practice overall. These things are highlighted or hidden depending on how conveniently we can distance ourselves from the impacts we make, the damage we do. In poems of place we inevitably implant ‘locators’ — ‘co-ordinates’/spatial reference-points (tree, rock, mountains) that relate to the terrain of the place out of which the language comes. Without those topographical reference-points, sense of place is lost. Or is it? One could create simulacra in a poem on the page that seemingly have nothing to do with the place they refer to...?

This applies to one of the tenets of polysituatedness (see earlier article) and its larger set, international regionalism. The influx of many other geographical and topographic knowledges doesn’t undermine the fact that any place will have long-associated presence/experience and (spiritual) connectedness that has generated a specific language of that place, that loses something (or something is changed) in its being translocated or invested with new presence. The globalisation of economies (that is, imposing a mode of trade and finance centred on major economic power clusters but consuming and smothering smaller and less robust communities in the process) is vanguard military-capitalist self-empowerment, which is about ensuring that all the conduits feed the wealth of the few. Constructing a shop that sells mobile phones in place of a stand of trees, one might very well lessen communication rather than extend or ‘create’ it. It’s not about egalitarianism or caring, but about wealth-accumulation and control. To go into an impoverished space and create texts in the physical materials of that place (human-made or ‘natural’), without a personal connectedness with that place, is clearly exploitative on many levels; but it might be generative if, say, it brings awareness of issues that leads to self-empowerment. That would be a thread of polysituatedness that is conscious and self-critiquing. Does the end justify the means? That depends...

Poems implanted into the natural world are always about intrusion. They alter the co-ordinates of the ‘poetry’/poetics that pre-exist their intrusion. And there’s always a poetry (‘constructed’ and utilised in various forms and manifestations by people, animals, birds, plants...). To leave your mark is to occlude other marks, equally and maybe more necessary (codes to survival and understanding). If we start from that knowledge, then we can lessen the negative impact and increase the generative (awareness, different ways of seeing, respect). Also, we need to stop thinking of ‘poetry’, or rather the gestural substance of poetry, as a purely human activity. What we might call a ‘found’ poem or ‘artwork’ in nature (from a flower through to a burnt stump in the shape of something we think we recognise), is also nature in-itself.

Listening to a rare bird recently, I was conscious of taking its song for my purposes. It is its song. It’s not an installation. It’s not my poem (though I will make it mine, then altruistically share with other humans), but it might well be the bird’s poem. It’s not a concretion. But it might be something akin, something similar. It’s not all utility, I am sure. When placing a poem in the natural world, we could think of it as collaboration... with nature? But what is the ‘other’ getting out of it, rather than yourself and your audience (people)?

Literal concrete... was already there -- added charcoal
Literal concrete again... charcoal washed off after a week
Paper was recycled afterwards
Stick-writing on firebreak at JTG
Weighted down in high wind
Christmas spider came along of its own accord, after I placed the poem between 2 trees!
Another Graphology in a different form
One of many gravel concretions that change shape over days

Demapping — Jam Tree Gully 4 Concretions Manifesto 1

Jam Tree Gully 4 is a visual accretion of concrete poetry/visual poetry material, sound files and other materials from the last decade of creating artworks 'in situ' — that is, at the place of conception and awareness. In essence, Jam Tree Gully 4 can only come into being in a public space — I see this 'book' as a curated art space rather than the conventional printed page (though a catalogue would work well to accompany the installed materials).

The map poems are part of a 'concrete' line of work that I have been investigating for many years. They include poems written and printed (and then deleted from the electronic 'record' - these large-font printed poems only exist in this form), poems photographed 'in terrain'/in-situ (including rocks, clay, even ants 'randomly' walking across them) at my mother's place below Walwalinj (Mount Bakewell) in York, Western Australia; literal maps of Australia with text inserted, and poems created from text that 'map' a place - i.e. the words working as figurative and representative acts - standing for, and spatially in relation to, the place itself. I have also included images of texts scraped into the dirt and word poems ('graphology') made from sticks laid out on a firebreak at our place (Jam Tree Gully in the Western Australian wheatbelt). I have worked on concretions in the southwest of the Republic of Ireland which will become an extension of the Jam Tree Gully scenario — an ironic 'annexe' to the place of 'home'.

I am particularly interested in materiality of 'presentation' — the 'etho'/'ethical'-politics of deploying waste materials; of using, say, charcoal taken from a bushfire that went through the zone years before, of writing on concrete scribbled out on rough ground as a track when the rains (eventually!) come, the yellow sand brought in from elsewhere to break up soil for a vegetable garden or laying a driveway. Equally important is a respect for the intactness of rocks and eucalypts, the passing insects and animals — these are 'caught' in photographs and in textual imaging, but left unhindered in their place of origin.

This all fits into a politics of what I term 'demapping' colonised spaces and looking to different ways of configuring space outside of survey (indigenous Australians have numerous traditional and post-traditional methods — verbal and visual). When I say 'etho-political' I am playing on ethical, ethos, ecological and so on. In creating 'spatial poems' in which I 'map' our place at Jam Tree Gully, I enact ‘return’ as well as retrieval: this is stolen land which cannot be ‘owned’, and by acknowledging that the colonising language is overlay, I also acknowledge other languages exist/pre-exist as well, and are indeed primary. I do not use strings of indigenous words in order not to appropriate. The act of concretion is a recognition of the totemic, of the indigenous, and of the fact that I cannot lay claim to the material, spiritual, or conceptual co-ordinates of this space. But I can witness, observe, and ‘present’ (not ‘represent’).

So the 'mapping' poems become a process (even 'methodology') of/for breaking away from the constraints of mapping for control, occupation, dispossession and other power-ploys. The map defies its own purpose, its own subservience to 'usage'.

Jam Tree Gully 4 is curated space. A curator 'spatialises' it within the conceptual (and real) gallery. In essence, it is an exhibition of the creation of ‘the book’ in curatorial space.