21 April 2014
I recently spent a weekend on the beautiful Isle of Mull, the second largest of the Inner Hebrides, as part of a residency which aimed to explore the question “What would it mean to be an artist working in a sustainable Scotland in fifty years’ time?”. Organized by Creative Carbon Scotland in partnership with Comar, the residency comprised eight artists who work in diverse disciplines (including textiles, the visual arts, theatre and music), who consider their practice in terms of environmental sustainability. Through a series of discussions and workshops, facilitated by producer Suzy Glass and composer Dave Fennessy, the group considered how the arts could help shape a sustainable future for Scotland.
This was a new departure for me. My motivation for composing usually comes from wanting to explore through music something from the outside (non-musical) world. However, I hadn’t previously considered how sustainability could be expressed through musical performance. The concert hall, despite its propensity for pastoral-themed works, feels to me very unattached to the natural world – an artificial and contrived environment. Only my most recent work, Elbow Room, comes close to the topic of sustainability: this new piece is about the mid-twentieth century plan to demolish Glasgow and replace it with a car-heavy concrete utopia (more on this piece in another blog post!).
After travelling from Edinburgh, through Glasgow, to Tobermory on the Friday afternoon, the discussions began in earnest first thing Saturday morning at Druimfin Theatre, a short walk through the woods from our hotel. We started the day with a series of introductions: each participant presented to the group a single object which represented their work. There was a wonderful, wide range of artistic practice amongst the group, all well-considered and of very high quality. After small group discussions about the role of art and artists in society (prompted by a series of quotations from high-profile artists), we undertook a listening/recording exercise whilst walking back to Tobermory.
For this exercise we were grouped in pairs and asked to either find and record sounds that represented Utopia, or sounds that represented Distopia. I was paired with Natalie McIlroy and we were asked to find sounds that represented Utopia. This forced us to question what our ideal future would consist of. The two of us had similar ideas: there would still be people in the future, they would have food and there would be water. There would also be art and fun. Like all pairs who were asked to record Utopian sounds, we also prized quiet, tranquillity and a sense of space. This contrasted with the numerous Distopian sounds of diesel engines and general noise. Generally the Utopian sounds hinted at a future where people lived in harmony with the natural world, the Distopian visions highlighted the most unsustainable practices of today’s everyday life.
On Sunday, having listened to the recordings made the previous day, we discussed the opportunities and problems of artists working in the field of sustainability. Several stories were told about the (unrealistic) expectations upon artists who explore these themes – many are expected, quite unfairly, to know the intricacies of recycling and energy conservation. Also, when working in a residency, there is often confusion over what form the final artwork will take, particularly when working amongst scientists. In the early evening we held a public forum at An Tobar: although attended by only a handful of locals, those who came shared their belief that the arts can (indeed, should) communicate environmental issues. This gave us a sense of validation for the weekend as a whole.
I’d like to thank Gemma and Ben at Creative Carbon Scotland for the opportunity to participate in this residency, and also thank Suzy and Dave for stimulating our conversations. Despite the serious subject matter, the weekend was great fun – we laughed a lot! – but I felt my lack of experience in the area of sustainability prevented me from making a significant contribution to proceedings. However, from a personal point of view this hardly matters as I found the weekend to be of great inspiration for two reasons: firstly, asking questions of ourselves in relation to sustainability is undeniably important if we are to build for ourselves, for our children, a comfortable future. I left Mull with a moral imperative to address these issues in my work (somehow!). There is a relationship between art and sustainability: ultimately we are all responsible for our future and this responsibility needs reflecting in artistic practice. However, this doesn’t mean that artists have to be experts in the everyday practicalities of recycling, energy conservation etc. Artistic practices that embody sustainability can also be subtle; it doesn’t have to be about ramming-home big messages with environmentalist slogans.
Secondly, I was fortunate to meet a wonderful group of artists, possibly the nicest, most interesting bunch I’ve had the pleasure to work with. Each combined artistic excellence with a desire for relevance that stretched beyond the traditional scope of their field. There was a common desire to create bold and useful work that engages with the wider world in a positive way. Hearing how these artists took their practice out of the studio, possibly to work within a community or to explore a new creative process, was of great interest to me and reinforced my growing frustration with the isolation of the concert-hall and introspection of the new music world.
Find out more about this brilliant group of people: Creative Carbon Scotland: Ben Twist on Twitter, Gemma Lawrence on Twitter. Facilitators: Suzy Glass, Dave Fennessy. Artists: Alex South (clarinettist), Angharad McLaren (textiles), Hannah Imlach (visual art), Jake Bee (visual art), Katrin Evans (theatre maker), Natalie McIlroy (visual art) and Rachel Duckhouse (printmaking, drawing).