Radical Landscapes takes its title from Harriet Tarlo’s seminal collection of British ecopoetries The Ground Aslant: An Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry (Shearsman, 2011) – a collection that came out in the penultimate year of my PhD devoted to Reading and Writing with a Tree: Practising “Nature Writing” as Enquiry, which was itself a radical, materially-engaged investigation into the poetics of human and other-than human authorship and the politics of the page. My aim in this three year research project, was to investigate how other-than human authorship (in the form of a single apple tree) could combine and influence human authorship to form a kind of co-writing. I had chosen a tree due to the habitual destruction and bleaching of wood into the blank, absent/present signifier of the page as a vehicle for human expression. I was interested in what this cultured invisibility of the page, this systematic violence to and non-seeing (literally over-writing) of the other-than human as a support for human expression said about our relationships as authors to our treatment of our environment in the production of texts. How could this dynamic be altered/questioned/readjusted?
The first thing to inspire a remodelling of my understanding of the page was the plethora of Graphis scripta, commonly known as handwriting lichen, that I began to see covered the most part of the tree’s bark. This lichen is so named because it forms a white thallus, or background, from which black fruits emerge whose wriggling lines suggest a similarity to script. This emergence of the black fruits out of the “page” of the white thallus offered a very interesting rewriting of the habitually perceived dynamic of textual construction. Here was not a model of impression – by hand or machine – of text onto page, but rather a growing of the lines out of the page itself. The page, as thallus here, was not a primed and passive background or bleached skin to be imprinted but an active agent, even author, in the production of this “text.” Who or what speaks?
This questioning continued in my work with the apples themselves. I became fascinated by the experience of watching apples bruise in response to being written upon. At first the writing (if marked into the flesh of a picked apple with a soft pencil) leaves an almost invisible imprint. Over time, this imprint becomes more and more visible as the bruised flesh darkens along the lines of writing. This offered a simple model of human writing as damage inflicted onto the flesh of the world but this dynamic was to change when I began experimenting with writing into apples on the tree. I resolved to write one word into every apple on the tree that I was working with and see what happened. What happened was a scarring – a healing over of the lines made by writing – in which the apple – the other-than human agent – meets and matches the human drive to inscribe and remains unharmed by it.
We are just one more organism making our marks with, by and from this world.
In fact, the more I spent time with this tree environment the more I became aware of the lines being inscribed through, with and by other entities all the time – the spider webs between branches, the marked residue of leaf miners tunnelling through the membrane of the leaves, the lines in the leaves themselves, the marks made by rabbits gnawing away the bark at the base of the tree, the bird poo, the wool produced by the needle point mouths of woolly aphids, my own hair dangling from the tree, the line in the grass I made by walking.
All of these different inscriptions were part of a massive co-emergence of this environment of which I was a part – my writing was just another element in a mass of busy co-authorship that was this tree. This continuity of mark- and line-making with the other-than human world was a reassuring blow to my sense of the superiority of human text making. We are just one more organism making our marks with, by and from this world. It is this dynamic that I have continued to explore in my work as a language artist, in my collaborations with other creatives, in Singing Apple Press and as poetry editor of The Goose – the special editions of sound and visual poetics in particular. This exhibition is an exploration of the various ways we signify with and through landscape – as line writers and mark makers – probing what these various practices reveal about the relationship between landscape and language. Who authors what and how?
The minute a text is understood to be tangible, it becomes a work of art. This focus on the material production and performance of writing positions my work at the overlap between three disciplines – literature, fine art and performance. It is at this juncture that I have been working ever since completing my PhD, gradually amassing a portfolio of other artists, writers and performers’ work that similarly inhabits this intersection. I am grateful to The Plough and the support of the Arts Council for inviting me to curate this show and to The Learned Pig for hosting a digital showcase for some of the exhibiting artists. Radical Landscapes is an opportunity to share works that have and continue to inform my thinking and practice. I hope this collection of work will inspire others to similarly rethink, expand and/or renew what and how language is produced and performed with, in and alongside the landscapes by and through which we emerge.
Radical Landscapes: Innovation in Landscape and Language Art is at The Plough Arts Centre, Great Torrington, Devon from 23rd March to 22nd April 2019.
Private View and Poetry Readings with Iris Colomb, Rhys Trimble & Camilla Nelson: Friday 22nd March 2019, 6pm
In support of the exhibition, The Learned Pig’s Spring 2019 editorial season is devoted to Radical Landscapes.