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Creativity in the Northeast; how northern is it?

by Caroline Gausden
Image: Image courtesy of Francesco Sani at SonADA, Oct 2014

I recently spoke at an event organized as part of the SonADA experimental music festival in 17 Belmont Street, Aberdeen. The event asked for a number of different perspectives on the question: Creativity in the Northeast, how northern is it? How northern should it be?

My thoughts, formed in response to this question, have fed into collaboration with SCAN on three events to provide a platform for conversations around independent curating in the northeast, relationships with power, institutions, artists and audience. In trying to answer I had to first think around the question of northerness, what is it? I came at this question as someone relatively new to the context keenly listening for the stories of place that could inform my answer.

I write on social practice, which is sometimes referred to as relational art practice and for my PhD I have been looking at this work through the lens of the feminist manifesto. I am interested in political collectivities, in the politics of relating to each other. I tried to approach the question in a relational way and to acknowledge that terms like northern are always relational definitions, formed by personal positioning. I did a lot of speaking to people and careful listening to conversations that specifically looked at this question of finding a narrative for this place. I also tried to engage in an embodied way with creativity in the northeast, which involved a lot of traveling from venue to venue that could not be done on foot within the city boundaries. As I was travelling on buses and through landscapes I was able to engage with the politics of food in the north, with foodbanks and performances with artists and cheese artisans and even with ale in brewery soundscapes.

Lavender Project, Woodend Barn, Banchory
Lavender Project, Woodend Barn, Banchory

In travelling I also thought about the politics of memory, of the memories that I brought with me. The sort of personal history that Danish/Greenlandic artist Pia Arke might describe as the little history, carried around, hidden from view that inevitably colours what is on view. I have looked at a number of feminist art practices that reveal a careful juxtaposition of memory and place as important elements of creative praxis. In the other direction I am aware of all the things hidden from my view as an outsider here in a place that some described as falling off the map.

In all this traveling around I thought about other people traveling and heard they were in other people’s thoughts as well, as a second layer of narrative to add to the stories of Northeast. There is an idea bound up with northerness of landscapes that are perceived to be inhospitable but have surprising elements to them beneath the surface, a kind of rich archeology as well as a quality of light and soil. With that idea of an inhospitable landscape that speaks to basic questions of food and warmth there is an important question of hospitality. I would argue that the ethics of hospitality should be considered beside stories of immigration as part of a project to imagine northern creativity.

What was striking for me was the mix of incoming perspectives able to speak of perceptions of north from different geographies (perhaps reflecting Norwegian author Steffan Søren’s assertion that oil cities are immigration cities) and rooted understandings of place that came from a lifelong creative engagement with the area. There were creative and curatorial practices engaged with the archeological histories of Aberdeenshire and those that looked across oceans to exchanges with other geographies.

Given these two perspectives the SCAN objective to pair innovative local practice with similar international examples seemed fitting. To produce events that could be meeting spaces and contribute to an exchange between different positions occupying the same space, acknowledging not only the politics of that place but also the politics of place making – to ask why we are trying to define this place and think about how seeing it through the lens of creativity could be useful?

Image from Cannibal fork installation courtesy of Alana Jelinek
Image from Cannibal fork installation courtesy of Alana Jelinek

In a book written around Derrida’s work ‘on hospitality’ Anne Dufortmantelle speaks about a property of being in darkness and in an uncertain place, of getting to know a territory and of asking not what but where? To her the question of where is at the heart of Derrida’s ethics of hospitality. As well as my embodied experiences and conversations I was also recommended an interesting online blog about arts in the northeast called ‘dancing in the dark’. Dancing in the dark is a bit how I felt coming here – having to kind of feel my way through a northernness that doesn’t immediately reveal itself or shout about its innovation, from a position outside. What I am trying to reach towards is a social definition of creativity that is negotiated between different positions and remains open to uncertainty, comfortable exploring definitions of place through asking where? Even in the knowledge that answers are always evolving and often produce more questions. Maybe this quote from ‘of hospitality’ could be recontextualised to help image the north through a type of knowledge that

‘gives place to the place leaving the keys to the other to unlock the words of their enclosure.’ (Dufourmantelle 2000 p14)

The events for SCAN will open up a conversation with innovative practice in the area, acknowledging the particular geography of the northeast as something layered, with multiple narratives that are not always in plain view. Opening with insight into the oft hidden working practices of Aberdeenshire based artist David Blyth the series will look at the ethics of meeting with others from a number of artistic and curatorial perspectives. Through the lens of hospitality discussions will try to rethink precarious positions, the ethics of care in the curatorial and questions of public and private spaces as they relate to the infrastructures of the city and surrounding landscape.

Conversation between David Blyth, Petra Tjiske Kalshoven and Alana Jelinek
Saturday 13 December 2014
2 till 4.30pm
Aberdeen Art Gallery, Gallery Six
Click here for more info.

Image From Strange Attractor exhibition courtesy of David Blyth
Image From Strange Attractor exhibition courtesy of David Blyth

David Blyth

Derrida’s definition of hospitality is strongly linked to an idea of uncertainty and vulnerability that comes with being in the position of a guest who cannot know in advance what situation they are entering. This sense of an unknowable, other territory comes across in David Blyth’s approach to his subjects. They could be called sculptural objects but somehow it wouldn’t be accurate as they have some kind of life of their own. In conversation with Blyth he asserts the importance of respecting difference, the unknowable elements he encounters in the landscape, an ethics of engagement with the other that references Emmanuel Levinas philosophy, in thinking on the violence of irradiating difference. Yet the works also have an uncertainty to them that is reflected in the artist talk Blyth gives in introduction to the exhibition where things are presented as unfinished, reaching out for conversations that will help with the evolution of his practice. And in parallel the works appear balanced precariously, half undone, sometimes in a humerous way and infinitely approachable. It is this quality of vulnerability and openness that reminded me of Derrida’s sentiment that possibly ‘it is only one who has endured the experience of being deprived a home could offer hospitality’ (Derrida/Dufourmantelle 2000 p56).

Through taxidermy, and in the way that the works also unpick its processes showing hidden elements, other genealogies for it as a practice are suggested that could meet difference with care and respect. His current exhibition in at the Georgina Scott Sutherland learning centre, RGU, rethinks the rightful ‘home’ of this peculiar craft skill, presenting tools, models, specimens and artifacts used by the artist as a means of redrawing animal presence into his everyday life. An embodied yearning to reconnect with nature, Blyth’s sustained examination of the craft skills of taxidermy seeks to breath new life into the taxidermy specimen by imagining new ways of understanding their ‘being’ in the world.

In relation to these ideas Blyth will speak to social anthropologist Petra Tjitske Kalshoven exploring her research into different genealogies of knowledge and London based artist Alana Jelinek who has just completed a residency in Cambridge Museum of Archeology and Anthropology which produced the site specific intervention and stand alone art work ‘The Forks Tale’. All three speakers will present on their work entering into conversation with each other around the intersections of their practices before opening the discussion up to incorporate feelings and observations from the room.

More information can be found on the current exhibition and all three speakers at the following sites:

Reference: Derrida J, Dufourmantelle A. Of hospitality: Anne Dufourmantelle invites Jacques Derrida to respond Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press; 2000.