Always Outsiders: Map-less Social Practice Art in the Ancient Landscape of a Global Geopark (ABSTRACT)

Always Outsiders, Stephen Pritchard (2014)

This is the abstract for my forthcoming paper presentation at the Royal Geographical Society 2016 International Conference in London on 2nd September.  The session is explores "The Nexus of Art and Geography: practice as research", is part of the Participatory Geographies Research Group activities and is convened by Cara Courage (University of Brighton, UK) and Anita McKeown (Independent Researcher).

ABSTRACT

Smelt.  Clart.  Pitch.  Clay.  Pit.  Hit.  Bray.  Hob.  Hoy.  Words overheard on map-less meanders over still-chartered grouse moors.  Stories told and retold by blazing public house firesides.  Cautionary tales.  Rights to roam, to fish, hunt, mine, to farm: ancient rights, complex rights, difficult to shift hierarchies.  Flaming New Year Tar Barrels carried by the forty oldest men from the valley’s forty oldest families.  Pagan roots, some say.  Guisers.  Different tongues connected, yet disconnected.  Salmon running.  Peewits wheeling.  Dark skies.  New people.  Incomers.  White water outdoor activities.  Buddhist retreats.  Ramblers.  Artists.

This paper explores social practice art in the rural and post-industrial environment of the Allen Valleys in the North Pennines AONB nestled in South West Northumberland.  A place with a rich heritage and strong sense of community, of changing communities.  Estate management struggles with ecological and biological protection projects.  Farmers and artists alike look to tourism and social enterprise in attempts to diversify and survive.  People from the cities increasingly flock to experience this “new rural idyll” as day trippers and commuters.  Connections as old as the hills are being rediscovered, rethought, remade.  I will explore two temporal site-specific art as research projects: Lamb – a six-weeks artist’s residency in a battered caravan on the site of an ancient smelt mill that sought to bring local traditions into stark contrast with contemporary issues around family and community, gender and sexuality, to forge a new cautionary tale; and NorthernGame – a three-month project that explored the ancient sport of quoits: a game that brings together people from different hamlets to play together and talk together; a game that links different places and is both steeped in social, industrial, agricultural and environmental traditions and open to new possibilities.  The paper will briefly demonstrate how social art praxis, rooted in the interdisciplinary practical and theoretical frames of rural geography (rural studies, performing ruralities, marginal places and peripheries) and psychoanalysis (object relations theory, aesthetic experience, humanistic psychoanalysis), can offer new transdisciplinary potentialities; convergent boundaries.

The approach involved myself in collaboration with writer Lee Mattinson and poet and visual artist Stevie Ronnie searching and researching; documenting and deconstructing.  We used techniques such as rural dérive (a technique based upon Situationism and psychogeography), disorientation, site-specific de-familiarisation, and the performance of everyday life, to create auto-ethnographic accounts from fragments of information.  Familiar yet specifically unrecognisable performances and texts.  Temporal.  Everyday interventions that created potential spaces between playing and reality.  Aesthetic experiences in which the tensions between outmoded distinctions of industry and agriculture, and nature and human existence, were collaboratively challenged and remade anew.  Blurring lines on maps and in minds, we sought to present different ways of being in the place where we live; different ways of perceiving the passage of time.  Places real and imagined.  Nexus thinking.  Little signposts towards social and ecological resilience.  Tensions.  Transitions.  Seeing things differently.  Not knowing.  Never known.  A view is always worth it.