At the start of our commission Storyweir (part of the art science project Exlab) the brief was to work with earth scientists (as well as local people) but when we heard cultural geographer Dr Ian Cook (Associate Professor of Geography in the College of Life & Environmental Sciences at University of Exeter) speak at the Exlab induction day/symposium we were instantly inspired by his highly collaborative approach to his research work; we wanted to try and collaborate and to bring Cultural Geography into the project. Ian’s project followthethings.com demonstrates his co-creative approach to social engagement and cross disciplinary working (with academics, students, filmmakers, artists, journalists and others). It felt like a natural link with our work and was very exciting to find at the Exlab event. I had read an essay Follow the Thing: Papaya way back in 2004 and I remember at the time thinking that I’d like to work with geographers who take this approach but I hadn’t realised until very recently that Ian was the author of that paper.
A windy walk to the end of Bridport Harbour with Ian and artist Gary Stewart who works with us at Proboscis resulted in a Ian offering to introduce us to some of his colleagues Geographies of Creativity and Knowledge Research Group, University of Exeter. Ian introduced us to three colleagues who each brought different strands of thinking to the project; Dr John Wylie (Associate Professor of Cultural Geography and Director of Postgraduate Research in the College of Life and Environmental Sciences) who has opened up our thinking on time and being in the landscape; as well as the ‘intertwining of self and the landscape’ coupled with how we move and walk in the landscape and visualise it through photographs and images; Dr Nicola Thomas (Senior Lecturer in Human Geography in the College of Life and Environmental Sciences) has brought her exploration of craft and communities and the traces of history and memory bound up in skills, crafts and the evidence of them; and Rose Ferraby (PHD Researcher in the Department of Geography) who has an undergraduate degree in Archaeology and Anthropology and an MFA in Illustration brought both an archaeologists eye to our reading of the land at Hive Beach and her ideas about how abstract ideas can be communicated visually.
An initial audio skype conversation left us very excited at the blend of academic discussion and rigour with a deeply creative and poetic approach. Following that we all spent a windy early January day outside on Hive, Burton and Cogden beach and a creative media ‘mash up’ day at PVA medialab (in Bridport) which saw us coming together with drawings, audio, video, data and other media. In all these we have found a shared interest in the social and cultural effects of the way the local community engages with its environment and the exploration of human and deep time. Looking at the sediments of Burton Cliffs and their fossil layer we discussed the evanescent nature of time and timelessness and the relationship between deep geological time and human time – particularly how he perspective of time is different depending on the prism through which history is viewed (fossils were once cited as evidence of the Deluge). In that sense history (perhaps also time) is not experienced as single linear narrative but constantly in flux.
Finding a lost welly trapped in the shingle mud brought up the notion of the Anthropocene (a unit of geological time that marks the moment when human activity is resulting in a visible impact on the ecosystems and geology).
Walking the beach and then above on the cliffs to the caravan site sparked conversations on the transience of nostalgia and memory, the way the beach (which is such an elemental place) triggers memories and affects our experience of time. The beach reconnects us to patterns and emotions that are long lasting and outside of the pattern of daily life.
This is not a large budget, long term research project so we feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Ian, Nicola, John and Rose it is a very exciting process and these interconnected conversations are influencing the questions we ask in public activities and the form, materials and content of the work. Through the dialogues we have focused an initial interest in the relationship between deep time and human time into how it is reflected in the ongoing dynamic processes and transitory human life at play on the geology of the coast. In that ephemeral space of flux between the land and sea the continual cycles of sun, tide and sea affect changes larger than we can imagine but also are felt by humans on a daily basis.
US TROOPS IN AN ENGLISH VILLAGE: EVERYDAY LIFE WITH THE AMERICANS IN BURTON BRADSTOCK, DORSET, ENGLAND, UK, 1944© IWM (D 20135) From the Imperial War Museum Collection
“ Mrs Annie Northover (in traditional bonnet) uses a wooden needle to braid nets on the doorstep of her cottage in Burton Bradstock, Dorset. According to the original caption, net braiding is “an old established local industry. Before the war they made billiard table pockets, sports nets. Today they make camouflage nets for the Services.”
When we recently met up with Human and Cultural Geographers at the Exeter University who we are collaborating with on Storyweir. Nicola Thomas brought along a list of people from the 1851 census who were working in the fibre industry in Burton Bradstock: cord winer, hackler, net maker, flax dresser, cordwinder, twine maker, twine spinner, flax dryer, flax spinner, flax packer, rope maker… Ghosts of an industry that had been prevalent in this area for hundreds of years, shaped by the geology and in turn shaping the architeure, society and future.
Burton Bradstock where we are working on Storyweir (a project about the connection between the human story and the geology of the area) has a long association with flax production and rope manufacture. It is very close to Bridport which had a key role in the flax and help industry for over 750 years from well before 1200 till later in the 1900’s. Though rope is not made the net making industry continues to this day. King John in the 1200s commissioned;
“to be made in Bridport, night and day, as many ropes for ships large and small and as many cables as you can, and twisted yarns for cordage for ballistae”
Later Henry Vlll ordered that all hemp grown within a five mile radius of Bridport be reserved for rope for the Royal Navy, Bridport eventually was granted a monopoly to produce rope in the 1500s. Later the area provided rope to the East India Company. The geology of the area provided the well drained soils and sheltered slopes with warm weather that suited the growing of hemp and flax. I’ve come across some films on the British Pathe wesbite of flax and Bridport net production in the 1940s and 50s.