TITLE: Crafting a future of knowledge
Introduction to the framing of the text
Reflecting on the term, The Futures of wisdom, you cannot escape the inherently experiential and embodied notion of both Future and Wisdom. Our artist practice was established in 2008 to investigate collective ideas of the future and notions of wisdom, through the medium of socially engaged art practice. Socially engaged arts practice refers to artworks that are made in the public realm and our practice in particular extends this to mean, made with the communities within which the outcomes are situated. Through our practice based research over the last 10 years we have investigated the idea that a collective future of knowledge, could emerge by bringing diverse groups together within the making of an artwork. Within these generative spaces of part choreographed, part improvised collective process, with diverse groups we have witnessed the emergence of embedded wisdom - a wisdom that exists outside of the dominant structures and institutional thinking - a wisdom that connects people to the primordial root of themselves - a wisdom of simultaneous future and a past. A process we call Handheld knowledge.
To craft a new future of knowledge is to find ways to work across cultures and disciplines. To honour this collective nature of knowledge production, this paper consists of a collection of conversations and curated writings that explore the emergence of new types of wisdom produced within our practice. The writings,intentionally in different styles investigate how these emergent types of wisdom respond to the global concerns of futures in the times of uncertainty, offering a solution to shaping the collective future.The text appears in three parts, as a collection of conversations:
A reflective text written by FourthLand exploring the idea of embodied wisdom and what it means to craft the unknown. The writing references the artist methods of working with uncertainty across disciplines and cultures in order to excavate new modalities of potential futures. The writing explores the notion that the futures of wisdom are contained within the hands of the present. The artists introduce their thematics of Handheld Knowledge making references to a series of cross-disciplinary performances and workshops between 2008 – 2018. The section also includes 35mm analogue photographs taken by the artists.
A collection of curated fragments written by academics and writers in response to FourthLand’s methods. The extracts include texts written in response to participating within FourthLand’s workshops and performances.These texts act as discursive contextualizing frameworks.
Conversation 1: Dr Ben Cranfield Senior Tutor, Curatorial Theory and History, Curating Contemporary Art Royal College of Art.Ben’s fragment is a piece exploring contemporary art and the archive.
Conversation 2: Tanya Harrod Independent design historian who writes widely on craft, art and design. She is co-editor of the Journal of Modern Craft. Tanya’s fragment is a piece of writing for a co-curated symposium with FourthLand in 2018 exploring craft and myth as the generative magic in future cultural production.
Conversation 3: Skye Sherwin Writer and art critic. Skye’s fragment includes a piece written in response to FourthLand’s recent project BREADROCK, working with a group of Syrian refugee families in Cornwall.
Closing reflection written by Fourthland.
Handheld knowledge - deep time, crafting slow time space 2008-2019
As I carefully stroke the deep green mosses
its dryness and moisture simultaneously blend within the palms of my hands
In its seemingly contradictory essence I gently sink into the time of its growth
And there a little deeper, a communion begin to form between
my lifeline and that of my ancestors.
Handheld knowledge is a term we developed in response to various processes within our practice over the last 10 years. The basis for this expression is to reveal the tangibility of ethereal information being passed through the ‘palms of our hands’. Both in the sense of this information being passed down through generations and also the information that is created and transmitted through touch and through the senses. In this day and age, where we are becoming more and more displaced from this primal mode of ‘knowing’, our practice aims to carve out new terrains of gathering between people, enabling a space to share their inner knowings.
Handheld knowledge is about creating nearness and intimacy in the exploration of vast and large-scale topics such as climate change, regeneration and cultural agency. It is this nearness that enables our inner knowings to come forth, without being ‘qualified’ or ‘professionals’ of a particular field. It is the eligibility to speak from the experience of being human. It is about revealing a vision that is becoming more and more challenging to see. It is about weaving a new web of wisdom between the hands of people.
When referring to primal modes of sustainability within communities, we are most often reminded about ‘the hunter’ as the main provider. The women, who would spend a lot of time gathering wild roots, herbs, berries and plants, which would contribute to the main nutrition for the family, have seemingly been forgotten. Within this intimate knowledge of the land, of the hidden medicinal paths of the forest, in the whispers of the trees and in the song of the cornflowers, grows our most ancient wisdom and communion with nature. A communion with our own nature.
Handheld knowledge is an exploration of the deep feminine principle, of the importance of this ancient process of ‘gathering’. Utilising our ‘sense-organ’ (a term developed by artist Joseph Beuys) for survival, for caring, for healing and for growth. And it is just this gathering, which enables space to open up between people, for people to learn from one another. Through the hands, sharing a wisdom so old yet so contemporary - a wisdom capable of creating networks between people and land, and between cultures. Handheld knowledge unpicks what it means to deeply listen, growing a ‘slow-time-space’ that is more in alignment with our inner rhythms.
In yogic philosophy, the hand is an extension of the heart. The heart meridian runs between the heart and the tip of the little finger, or the mercury finger, our way of communicating with the world. If we think about how humans have always used their hands in domestic labour, in service and in crafts, it is interesting to think of how the use of our hands is really reflecting the use of our heart. The heart is said to be the seat of our soul.
The heart chakra as the fourth of the seven most spoken about chakras marks the bridge between the personal and the transpersonal, a meeting point between the ground and the sky. It is the space where ‘me’ become ‘we’. And in this removal of the ego, we can act from a space of our higher selves and a space of intuition, which we believe is essential in transforming outmoded means of ‘the institution’ in order to imagine and create our future communities.
How handheld knowledge has been used within our practice
Within our practice, often between people who do not speak each other’s language whether it is because of cultural or academic distance, we begin our dialogues with what we call ‘handling sessions’. We will now describe how this concept has been practically utilised within various works.
Cabot institute – Resilience Lab
In 2015, in relation to Bristol being awarded green capital, we were commissioned to do a project called ‘Resilience Lab’, in which we would explore ideas around ‘resilience’ with climate change researchers at Cabot Institute and Bristol University.
Here is an excerpt from our initial handling session:
Our hands are gripping firmly on to the scrunched up fabric clenched between our fingers. Carrying between us a collection of bundles filled with content carefully placed and wrapped, just hours before, inside linen, cotton and hessian cloths, tied with household string and carried with us from our home in London to the Georgian gates of Bristol University.
We sit down at a heavy circular mahogany table. As the researchers arrive into the room with their stacks of papers and folders, we sense an atmosphere of confusion and anxiety building up as they catch a glimpse of these strange, yet somehow familiar little bundles placed around their meeting table. As they join us at the table, their gazes slowly transforms to become more childlike. We begin by kindly asking everyone to put away their papers and before any formal introduction, we invite them to act on their impatient curiosity, to open the bundle in front of them.
The rounded table has now transformed into a new territory of ash, wax, crushed up bones, eggshells, cotton, wheat and animal fibres. The invitation now is for the researchers to begin handling the material and through the handling, share ideas that come. Before we know it, one material has shifted from one side of the table to the other - others are being smelled, bent, crushed, and moulded between the hands of the researchers. Researchers who have for many years existed in the same academic shell, but in separate departments and never before spoken to one another, now find themselves in communication as if they have always been.
What was scheduled to take place as a 1 hour meeting, is slowly turning into a 3 hour wild and playful exploration. Not one time do we mention the word ‘resilience’ and yet what is happening in and around the table is exactly this, an embodied investigation of resilience.
As we come to a close, everyone helps to wrap the little bundles back up. The researchers thank us for offering them such an unexpected and immersive session before leaving the room in surprising satisfaction of both new knowledge and new colleagues.
The Storm - a utopian forecast for London
Another project which directly utilised ideas of ‘handheld knowledge’ was our multi-media performance work ‘The Storm’, most recently activated as part of the Utopia Programme at Somerset House in 2016.
The Storm gathers, urban geographers, architects, artists and social housing residents to explore the many layers of regeneration.
The performance consisted of a start-point of several ‘roles’ being handed out at random to each of the participants. As the storm was initiated, participants opened their instructions, soon unfolding to become a landscape of sounds, repetitive processes, sporadic announcements, readings from Walt Whitman alongside scripts from council meetings about local regeneration processes – all tuned with the constant turning of a weather vane and chaotic ‘weather-patterns’ of flashing imagery from regeneration projects around London, projected onto a cloud made from the metro newspaper and stocking material. At intervals, we would offer participants a little piece of paper saying ‘OBSERVE’ enabling a step-back from their roles, and a wider view of the situation.
As the Storm continued for about 40 min, the storm entered into rhythms of calm and crescendos, and towards the end, roles started to merge between participants, giving themselves permission to adapt other people’ roles as well as inventing new ones.
As the storm came to an end, everyone was left feeling surprised and exhilarated at how something which started as such a seemingly unknown process, where no one knew what they were supposed to do, had led in to a process of intuitive action. The work finally concluded in a long sharing and discussion about the embodied process of regeneration. Through this, realising how the many regeneration processes of the city are affecting us on a deeper level than what we ever have time or opportunity to grasp. And from this, offering up a new opportunity to participate within in the urban landscapes we inhabit, and a new way of communing and join forces across fields of practice.
Everything happens on the street
Everything happens on the street was a commission to explore the demographics of Hoxton in relation to the refurbishment of PEER in 2015.
Inspired by the current construction site we found ourselves in, we decided to install ourselves on the street outside the gallery. We emptied a large load of straw from our local farm in the gallery window, and little by little we brought it out on woven trays, carefully shifting them between us. One by one, we began rolling the straw into tiny bundles, one by one, and tying them with string, whilst continuously humming. Sharing both scissors and string through a passing gesture, the rolling of the bundles entered a slow and repetitive rhythm, gradually growing a stack between us. As we sat there people from all cultures and lands started approaching us, offering a hand, a cup of tea or encouraging comments. “Keep up the good work” they said. “What are you making?” they asked. And before answering, they told us “I know what you are making”. Over a period of 2 months, people sat down with us there on the street rolling the bundles as they shared their stories from many different homelands from Eritrea to Poland, each familiarising the act with their different cultures.
After the summer, thousands of bundles were stitched together to form the piece which we refer to as ‘new land’.
The hands of the craftsman are not all that different from the hands of the politician, the teacher, the doctor or the artist. The ancient essence of the craftsman is contained within every one of these hands. By crafting our spaces and our communities with care and time, we enter into a deep space of trust. We enter into a space of constant learning, where our crafting can always become more refined and expansive. The more we are open to this humble space of learning, the more diverse the outcome, and most importantly it is the process itself that needs honouring.
Handheld knowledge is something held, yet unseen. It is the familiar in the unfamiliar. Our term ‘Handheld knowledge’ is an attempt and desire to introduce a more embodied vocabulary, without having to defend its factual eligibility.
As the researchers at Cabot Institute over time revealed to us; that it is all really a ‘game of intuition’ – it is by entering this ‘space of uncertainty’ with trust in your own entry that one is really part of the experience of the knowledge that is evolved. It is when it has to be confined into a rigid format acceptable to ‘society’, that the essence of what has been explored is lost. And there, society remains in the unknown of the immersive processes that have really taken place.
If we take a moment to think of all the things we ‘hold’ during our lifetimes, the likelihood of discovering a whole sea of apprenticeships and tactile memories is certain. This tasting with our hands, ‘the household/holding of the house’ and ‘the domestic’ as we have known it for thousands of years are in danger of becoming ‘extinct’ as practices of sacred wisdom. Today, when we find ourselves within spaces of uncertainty on so many levels, it is precisely these common (original meaning "belonging to all, owned or used jointly, general, of a public nature or character,") practices that hold us in a place of certainty.
“I entered your other world, or rather the world that feels hidden. I spent a deeply satisfying time wrapping myself with the spirit you weave. I loved the mysterious and yet oddly familiar objects. To me your exhibition feels like a museum of objects from a strange yet familiar culture that we should not lose our connection with.”
– Exhibition visitor
“A place of ancient, deep-bones knowledge and groundedness that is also actively engaged with what is happening right now”. - Philippa Bayley Workshop participant, Cabot Institute
Text: ‘The Queer materiality of the Archive:‘back to where we have not quite been’
Words: Talk by Dr Ben Cranfield given at ‘Matter and Meaning: Materiality and the Visual Arts Archive’, University of Brighton, September 2016
There are few relationships more fickle than the one between contemporary art and the archive. Contemporary art, its practice, discourse and institutions seems to be at once in love with the archive’s often mentioned ‘richness’ whilst antagonistic towards its categorical imperatives. Although it may have become commonplace to talk of the archive within contemporary art, the discourse seems to be rather one-sided – many art practices use the archive, critique it and deconstruct it, but what do such practices give back to the archive?
I want to suggest that it is the possibility of another type of matter and, with it, another way of mattering that is brought into focus by the double lens of art and archive. To explore this I will think through the work of artist ‘collective’, Fourthland, whose work, I will argue, brings a particular materialisation to the concept of the archive. Despite the explicit material presence of Fourthland’s work, I wish to argue that such practice helps think through the archive as a site of ephemeral and emergent potential.
Last year I put a call out to artists to work on a project with me titled ‘The Fugitive Fragment’. The title made reference to Hal Foster’s now canonical article ‘An Archival Impulse’ in which he describes contemporary art practices exhibiting such an impulse as being ‘fragmentary rather than fungible’. This tendency to understand the archive as prison house and, at the same time, the archival item or fragment as possessing an almost criminally subversive quality, once released from its binding fonds, is what characterises, for Foster, the works he bracketed in 2004 as ‘archival’. The archival impulse, as it attempts to avoid capture both by tradition and the market, is unbounded and yet specific, not determined by pre-existing institutional agendas/structures, but, also, not released onto the open market to be endlessly re-collaged into new post-modern consumables.
Of the responses I received to my call, one interested me in particular – it was from the artist ‘collective’ Fourthland. What intrigued me was that, unlike other artists who had responded, their work seemed not be engaged with archival research, the use of documents, found material from the internet or the formal analogue signifiers of archives (files, papers, black and white photographs), nor was the work about collecting per se. From what I could understand from their website, their work seemed to be largely performance-based, perhaps what might be termed socially-engaged, in that they worked with groups and communities in and out of the gallery in workshops and through co-created performances. What was the archival impulse within their practice and where was the archival fragment – fugitive or otherwise?
When I met with Fourthland for the first time, they placed in front of me a bundle of rough hessian cloth tied with course twine. As we talked, they invited me to open the bundle. The bundle contained two objects – a wooden stick, with long strip of crinkled waxed paper loosely rolled around it and a conical ring, like a bracelet, covered in wax and displaying signs of having been well-handled. As they explained more about their practices of story-sharing, collective production and their interest in the re-appropriation of words, we instinctively handled the objects. However, these hadn’t been made for our encounter. Indeed, as they explained, the bracelet had been made from old free newspapers collected on the tube, then pulped and reformed – this had become a ‘mouth’ used by workshop participants like a conch to facilitate discussion - whilst the blank waxed scroll had been used to facilitate thinking and sharing, to mark time as it was unrolled and re-rolled during conversation.
Our next exchange took the form of my participation within a listening workshop, as a part of their project at PEER Gallery ‘Everything Happens in the Street.’ Here, again, I encountered objects that seemed to have been fashioned for other purposes at other times. The display appeared to me like a museum of lost process. This time I gathered with a small group and collectively carried bundles that lay on the gallery floor into a side room and proceeded to untie them, releasing more items that suggested practices, methods and making, but did not give up fully their histories or uses.
Having handled the objects we then experienced their materiality in a different way – lying with our eyes closed, we were asked to listen, as all around us materials rustled, distorted voices came to us through horns and footsteps merged with sounds familiar and yet not quite placeable. We were asked to remain with our eyes closed until we heard the ring of a bell, at which point we could open our eyes and in our own time gather in a circle. Once we were in a circle we were invited to share our thoughts about what had just happened. Slowly at first, but then with a steady flow, conversation emerged – reflections, from intimate memories of childhood to thoughts about the political possibilities for spaces of collective experiencing. Throughout the conversation, members of the group reached for the objects that now lay strewn around us, sometimes explicitly addressing them (a nest, for example, came to symbolize the thoughts of home one woman had had during the listening exercise), whilst others seemed to use the objects to measure their thoughts and speech. After two hours we parted ways taking with us this strange slice of time.
Following the workshop, I wrote some loose reflections on my experience and sent them to Fourthland. When I next met with Fourthland they handed me an envelope tied with twine. It contained a CD and, playing it, I was surrounded by the sound of many voices in chorus. As I tuned in to the words being sung, I realized that they were my words, they were the words that I had sent to Fourthland. But these were not quite the words that I had written, some were repeated, others were missing. As they came back to me they felt different – now imbued with another sense of meaning and another material quality - a sonorous layering that was not my own.
The choral piece had been created by Fourthland giving my text to a group of singers who then used my words within a wider performance. Now, phrases that I had thought of in a particular context, as passing words recording a passing experience, came back to me with a renewed substance and significance. One of these phrases, taking on a life of its own, resonated through the song: ‘back to where we have not quite been’. Yes, these were my words, but now they belonged to a collective space, with another resonance. It was not quite that these words had been appropriated, rather they had been reinvested with meaning through different moments of materialisation. What was revealed to me, as I heard these words given back to me, was that they had never really been mine anyway. They had only been my materialisation of a shared and co-created experience in the first place. But neither did they quite belong to Fourthland, after all, the objects that sounded in that space to which I responded, had been created through so many exchanges and interchanges, and the sounds themselves had required listeners to hear and respond – to re-materialise individual experiences of the sounds into a collective speech-act.
One could understand these fragments – whether objects used in performances, or words passed-on – as fugitive. They certainly seem to trouble any attempt to fix a relationship between event and trace – history and archive. But I think this is where the similarity between Fourthland’s work and the practices that Foster identifies ends. Whereas the works of the ‘archival impulse’ seem to parody and festishise in equal measure the quasi-historical process of recovering lost narratives, memorializing the passing of time, or resurrecting utopian projects, the fragments that Fourthland bring to fruition require an entirely different understanding of temporality. This reordering of time I believe can be understood through a consideration of the ‘archival’ within their practice.
Like many artists and organisations, Fourthland’s website has an archive section – a series of current projects, now-consigned to the artists’ history.
However, this is not the only ‘archive’ on Fourthland’s website. Titled ‘documents/physical archive’, this other archive contains images of a diversity of objects and materials. The description of the section says: “Our physical archive; a collection of sculptural props, objects, paintings, video, text, sound and photographs.” The breadth of this description is not in and of itself at odds with more traditional archives, but the preponderance of objects that are not text or image-based does seem to suggest a non-traditional understanding of archive. Indeed, the very diversity of materials may lead us to ask - what from their practice is not in the archive? Here the outcomes of an art process and the incidental markers of that process seem to blur and become indistinguishable. Reflecting on my own experience of seeing Fourthland’s ‘archive’ of items in action, these objects seem to be predominantly facilitators of a process, catalysts to performance and discussion. In this sense, it may be easiest to understand the use of the designation archive here as ‘things that have been used as part of our practice’ – a kind of storeroom of props. But whilst this may account for the material and tool-like nature of many of the items and certainly seems to describe the agency of the items within Fourthland’s workshops, it fails to comprehend these objects as documents. Nor does such a reading account for the productive ambiguity opened up by the slash between document/physical archive.
This ambiguity, represented by the slash that simultaneously divides and joins document and physical materialization, can be grasped by apprehending the difference between the project archive and the document/physical archive. Whilst the former renders the process of documentation invisible, as documentation and, therefore, promises to be a transparent record of what has been, in the document/physical archive the idea of document takes on a very different meaning. It is not that these are material objects and documents of a past process, but that they are objects because they are documents; because material can only embody its process of coming to fruition. And they are objects because they are documents; because anything that records a process is also a materialisation in the present..What Fourthland’s archive of props and prompts makes clear is that a document, like language itself, not only exists as a record of what has happened, but also as potential material for what is to come – it bears witness to the possibilities of the future. Just as the objects that Fourthland brought to me in a bundle came to document our conversation, whilst bringing with them material traces of past uses, and processes of making that constructed our conversation, so too, my words, given as a document of an experience, were re-sounded and re-materialized to document new events and thus realize a potential within their materiality that was only latent in their original function and meaning.
I would argue that the project archive (like all past project sections of websites) belongs squarely to what Raymond Williams would call the dominant culture – the culture of professionalization and publicity. Here the archive (the photograph of a performance, or a degree certificate proving a qualification), evidences what is valued – what has capital. The document only matters as witness and, thus, is denied a matter and mattering of its own.
If this is so, then to what culture-time does the document/physical archive belong? As I have suggested, this archive works in reverse – rendering the ephemerality of the event in terms of so many material fragments – the proliferation of what matters and times of mattering. The specific materiality of Fourthland’s ‘props’ appear to be not quite of this time, certainly not the dominant culture of the contemporary, enthralled to technological neologism. Perhaps we might describe these as belonging to what Williams called the residual. Indeed, Fourthland frequently employ processes that belong to a different material, social context to the contemporary-urban one that they inhabit – processes of weaving, skinning, tanning, all recall the residual cultural practices of past socio-economic systems. Crucially, for Williams, the residual is not that which has passed, but forms and processes that are with us in our present, but were developed from earlier material relations. However, the objects produced by Fourthland are not just the residue of outmoded processes, but are as much attempts to materialize yet-to-come relations that are grown within, from and in opposition to the dominant culture.
Fourthland’s objects may look like they belong to past-times, but their creation is necessitated by present circumstances and commissions that represent dominant agendas. For example, much of their work has occurred from commissions to work with residents of housing estates displaced by processes of ‘regeneration’. However, rather than attempting to smooth, realise or even critique the agendas that bring them to a particular site, Fourthland use the agendas themselves as sites of collective gathering and materialization – bringing specifically designed objects and actions together with participants to allow something to emerge which exceeds the limits of the dominant culture..
In this way I think Fourthland’s archive takes Williams suggestion of the coexistence of temporal-material formations towards an even more radical reconceiving of time: what Bruno Latour, calls a ‘poly-temporality’. Latour writes:
“Such a temporality does not oblige us to use the labels ‘archaic’ or ‘advanced’, since every cohort of contemporary elements may bring together elements from all times.”
Latour’s temporalities are not consecutive, but co-present as a complex network, as they exist within specific materialisations (such as, genes that are 3 million years old, within a body that is fifty years old, with habits that are three days old). Much like Latour’s view of the social – as something which does not pre-exist or exist apart from the world of things, but emerges from the particular activation of networks - Latour’s con-temporality has no centre or margins, only constellations and extensions.
Whilst all elements of our material reality may be rendered ephemeral, as shifting and mutable networks of materials and temporalities, the ephemeral, as a specific type of materiality, captured outside the main-frame of objective evaluation of what ‘matters’ impels different types of meaning-making that do promise a beyond to the limited horizon of an all-encompassing present. I believe this position is well-represented by queer theorist Jose Esteban Munoz when he writes “The ephemeral does not equal unmateriality. It is more nearly about another understanding of what matters. It matters to get lost in dance or to use dance to get lost: lost from the evidentiary logic of heterosexuality.”
Munoz is here talking about the dance gestures of queer club performer Kevin Aviance, but I would argue that what Munoz is identifying is the potentiality that comes with getting lost in the materiality of the ephemeral such is found in all archives, formal or otherwise. Munoz’s project was to weave promiscuously the traces of practices that belong to a imagined archive of queer becoming in order to recognize that a utopia of non-normative anti-categorical being is not only anticipatory or critical, but is also concrete and ‘then and there’ (rendered as gestures in the archive), as found in the ephemerality of the trace and residue..
Words: Talk by Tanya Harrod,given at symposium on myth and magic through craft, PEER,London
On the privatisation of public spaces: ‘heavy showers of signs, bouts of railings, dreary facades, extreme reign’ spelt r e i g n. A weather report from Fourthland whose work I’ve only lately come to know; their activities as artists cannot fail to move and enliven thought. They are magic makers – among other things. Perhaps that is why although what they do is very much of the now, their use of myth, of ritualised activity, story-telling and campaigns of slow laborious craft making, took me back, above all to the 10s, 20s and 30s of the last century, before art got any kind of organised state funding. This feeling of lost time recovered.
A Between the Acts world when pageants had a radical edge. Between the Acts was Virginia Woolf’s last book, appearing after her death in 1941, dominated by a pageant that ends remarkably. ‘You’ve no magic makers’ wrote Rolf Gardiner to Leonard Elmhirst after spending six months at Dartington in Devon in 1933. He was partly right – the Elmhirsts’ creation - Dartington between the wars - was a utopian community that nonetheless found a place for grubbing up hedges to create larger fields, for the factory farming of chickens, and for the artificial insemination of cattle – in short modern farming methods. There was also avant garde dance and studio ceramics and alternative schooling. It was a Utopia, therefore, which paradoxically turned to accountants to balance the books. Despite the great wealth of the Elmhirsts, it was decided that its projects should be made to pay. ‘You have got everything pat and yet there’s an unhappy numbness in the result, a vacuum, a hollowness’, wrote Rolf Gardiner who was an organic farmer and forester. These are fragments of Gardiner’s long letter to Leonard Elmhirst: ‘There is no magic quickened yet’ ‘of your collection of experts you needed to add an expert in social affection, an engineer of community – joy!’ ’Until you do so your community will be numerical and functional’ ’you’ve got no Ritual. Without some sort of ritual discipline – no community’. ‘banish the goblins of science and call in the fairies of magic’ ’There is only goodwill and goodwill is never enough’.
So I am thinking of Gardiner and his so-called Springhead Ring, or for that matter of organisations like Kibbo Kift or the interwar Distributist Movement or the Tolstoyan Whiteway Colony in Gloucestershire or the left wing composer Michael Tippett’s production of opera for unemployed miners in Cleveland in the 30s. Why those things in the context of today’s socially engaged art? It is because these historic figures on the left and the right in the 20s and 30s sought to give people agency, sought to involve marginalised groups, and to honour different kinds of knowledge. Modernity, urban life and its complex structures made that need seem great. Gardiner’s nature mysticism, his anti bureaucratic stance and his anti-academicism now seems partly remote and partly familiar – as a kind of anti-modernism that is also quintessentially modern.
I’ve long been thinking about some of issues that maybe relate to Fourthland’s activities because of a book I published in 2012 about the potter Michael Cardew, father of Cornelius Cardew, whose life touched on other ways of living again and again. Michael’s mysterious observation ‘Will it not be possible to say that all beautiful work is the work done by the work itself’ hangs in my mind. And over the past year I have been assembling a reader for the Whitechapel series Documents of Contemporary Art. My reader is about Craft – at least its title is ‘Craft’. I have taken that well-worn & often discredited word to mean ‘doing things in a different way’. The book begins with the words of the Arts & Crafts architect W R Lethaby. In 1922 he set out what he believed under 5 points –
1 Life is best thought of as service.
2 Service is first of all, and of greatest necessity, common productive work.
3 The best way to think of labour is as art… By welcoming it, and thinking of it as art, the slavery of labour may be turned into joy.
4 Art is best thought of as fine and sound ordinary Work. So understood, it is the widest, best and most necessary form of culture.
5 Culture should be thought of as not only book-learning, but as a tempered human spirit. A shepherd, ship-skipper or carpenter enjoys a different culture from the book-scholar, but it is nonetheless a true culture.
Lethaby’s ideas about honouring different cultures runs through this Whitechapel reader as it does through much 20th & 21st century alternative thought – to value cultures outside the academy and outside your immediate geography, the oral rather than the written, tacit rather than explicit knowledge as exemplified by the rich often wordless culture of the workshop.
Many of the passages that I chose for the Whitechapel reader honour tacit knowledge and show modern men and women turning to it, trying to retrieve it, or work with it or learn from it. There is John Berger writing about the folk manufacture of wooden birds that hang or perhaps used to hang, in houses all over peasant Europe; there is Rainer Maria Rilke noting that he learnt most simply by watching a ropemaker at work in Rome, and by watching a potter in a small village on the Nile, both outfacing what he learnt from Rodin or from studying the art of Cézanne. Another linked to the Italian design and architecture group Superstudio. In the 1970s one of its members, Alessandro Poli, conducted research into the life and work of a single Tuscan peasant Zeno Fiaschi.It was part of Poli’s search for ‘countermodels’ of knowledge, for alternative ways of living and planning, bypassing official rules, & official architecture. Zeno the peasant showed a way, completely self sufficient in his workshop with tools he had created, in his own reality, sustaining an ancient culture into modern times. His aesthetic was not based on consumer society but, Polli noted, employed other rules ‘difficult to decipher and identify’.
The craft way can be a way of resistance and a section of the reader was devoted to examples of political resistance – like using the slow work of spinning and weaving as protest against British textile imports in Mahatma Gandhi’s India.
Making as a way of by-passing the monetisation of knowledge floats up in the work of the American artist Theaster Gates. Talking about his projects that bring people – choirs, sanitary ware workers, museum docents - together in various ways Gates explains ‘While I love making, I don’t think my preoccupation is actually about making. I think my interest is in the way production can make deeper the relationships between people who don’t normally hang out’.
Artists can do that stuff as my reader tries to suggest. They don’t, however, always stay around and nurture their socially engaged projects. Sometimes they put art as a discrete object first, not least because the art market is ruthlessly driven by a money imperative that desires to consume objects. Nothing completely wrong with that. Artists have to survive. But this seems to me to be where Fourthland appears especially of interest. They do make objects but they also stay around. And they keep groups of people involved over long periods of time. Here some of the Fourthland strategies for bringing people together remind me of trickster folk tales, of the kind found all over Europe. One example is the famous tale of stone, or axe or nail soup which I am sure you all know. Returning pilgrims or soldiers or simply hungry travellers arrive in a village of hostile inhabitants. By boiling up stones or axes or nails with water in a big pot in the main street they attract the villagers’ attention and interest. We are making a delicious soup and you can share it if you put in a little something – a potato or some herbs or a piece of bacon. Credulous villagers you may say! But I think we all want to be credulous. We all want to be involved and we all want some of that stone soup.
Text: Crafting The Unknown
Words: Skye Sherwin, written for exhibition booklet, Fourthland and Fowler BREADROCK Kestle barton 2018
But what is this place that we now find ourselves in? All is strange, and yet, there is something about those signs and gestures that we almost know, hovering on the tip of the tongue. Amid the sculptures and in the gallery, are two textile works, one blue, one red. Hanging, raggedy and wild, they resemble apparitions. Hand-stitched and naturally dyed, entwined with loofah and kelp, they might be the ceremonial robes of coastal shamans or priestesses passed through the ages. Small wonder that their creators, describe them as “skins for dreaming”.
With these artists though, what we experience in the gallery is but a small part of their practice. Their exhibition Breadrock might be thought of as an echo or vibration, as they have put it, from a much longer process involving many voices and encounters. At Kestle Barton those they have worked with include the families of Syrian refugees housed on The Lizard, as well as Cornish locals, craftspeople and gallery visitors. Through a huge variety of workshops and performative actions, they have co-created stories and symbols that offer an alternative to the foundational myths that govern societies. As much attuned to individual experience as group customs, these new mythologies are alive to the needs of the present moment, with its challenges of cultural displacement and collision in a globalised world.
Before exploring this further, it’s worth noting how the seeds of Fourthland’s particular approach to community art practice, embedded in Jungian theory and anthropology, were laid: far away from Kestle Barton’s rural art outpost, when they began working with the residents of Wenlock Barn, a housing estate in London’s multicultural East End, 10 years ago. On show in Kestle Barton’s artist’s studio, it confirms a continuity of vision while hinting at how they have adapted their methods to a rural locale and the new people they have met. Through staged tableaux it offers up unique encounters with people embedded in a community and in touch with their background: be it a Bangladeshi woman dressed in her wedding finery burying a symbolic stand-in for her young son’s umbilical cord, or a hoola-hooping boy whose gym class skill comes across like an equally mesmerising mystic rite. As the artists have pointed out, these portraits could only have come from a shared understanding, built over the long term.
When they began work in Cornwall this Spring, they knew that they were facing a very different situation, starting with the shift from an urban to a rural context..The artists and the Syrian families were not only alien to one another, but the place they found themselves in. On both sides, the experience would likely prove awkward and raw, without even the everyday pleasantries of a common language to fall back on. How could the artists begin to create the space of open sharing their therapeutic exploration of self and culture needed, what they describe as “a space of holding”?
One thing that becomes apparent watching the amorphous imagery, is its embrace of the unknown: we are never quite sure what we are looking at... Within the Cornish woods and shoreline, the new myths they have drawn from their time here, have evolved through chance encounters, intuition and thought association: a kind of foraging for signs. After an early meeting with Syrian families at a place called Lady of the Portal for instance, the artists were struck by the significance of the name, for the refugees embarking on a new life. They then fashioned a portal from felt, which they ritualistically washed in Frenchman’s Creek, the famed site near Kestle Barton. In a striking moment of serendipity, the seven swans who visited this twilight scene provided a potent symbol: within the iconography the artists were developing (or perhaps tuning in to), they became synonymous with seven Syrian women they had met that day and with shades of the shapeshifting swan women of Celtic folklore..this felt portal was then taken to each workshop, where its various uses included being worn as a cloak by the participants in a blessing and used as a cloth for food. An uncompromisingly odd object, the felt was nonetheless soon accepted as an essential element of the gatherings, which might also be thought of like a portal, a transitional space where those attending can potentially connect to the land they now found themselves within. It says much about the way stories, places and things can accrue significance, within a person’s life, a social group, or a special environment, be it a gallery, temple or, as was the case at Kestle Barton, a circular clearing beyond the wildflower garden.
This meeting place has been dubbed the Whaleswan, a hybrid creature with a huge whale’s heart, big enough, as the artists put it, to create “a space of welcoming and kindness between cultures”. It is currently marked out by traces of what has taken place there, including a skeletal open wooden structure recalling church windows or a ship’s rigging. All summer, a deep blue fabric dyed with natural indigo has waved in the breeze, bearing the Arabic phrase: I carry you in my eyes. For Syrians, it’s an everyday expression meaning thank you. To an outsider however the phrase is arresting in its rich acknowledgement of human presence, with eyes as a portal through which we might enter another’s psyche. It became a guiding mantra of the Breadrock project.
Alongside craft’s therapeutic dimension, it’s these ephemeral traces of culture, notably something that can survive the transient refugee experience, which the artists have particularly drawn out in their work. The song of a Cornish shaman has fed into the sounds one can hear in the gallery, while a folk dance spontaneously performed by Syrian men and boys on the Whaleswan, dictate its rhythms.
Many of the workshops meanwhile, have focused on traditional crafts and knowledge.. This is more than some nostalgic return to our roots, however. The experiences the artists fashion in this way are markedly different from 21st century daily lives, whether that be the seclusion brought about by screentime or the particular isolation experienced by refugees, who often find themselves purposefully housed apart from other families and friends, to avoid causing unrest in the established local community. How the communally hand-worked can create something meaningful is essential to the artists’ method.
To imagine our way inside the cultures we live alongside, to share a space of dreaming and craft new cohesive myths, in tune with the globalised reality, is one of our most urgent and challenging tasks. What’s striking about the work at Kestle Barton are the ways in which they have embraced the awkwardness of first encounters and not knowing. The odd, beguiling images, sounds and objects shared between people who so recently were strangers to each other and the land, underline how uncertainty in cultural encounters might be a boon: that fertile state of mind where things are as yet unsettled, uncomfortable perhaps, but full of potential.
What then is the future of wisdom - other then something that is carefully passed between us.
The conversations curated here - each allude to a different aspect of “knowledge making” and “knowledge holding”. Conversation 1, speaks of how repositioning the role of the archive can open up a space of new types of thought and instituting of histories.
Conversation 2 - centers on the importance of myth making and ritual and the necessity to embed this into the acts of everyday life in order to cultivate new types of cultures.
Conversation 3 explores the uncertainty of enchantment and what happens when we allow new myths to form directly from the experience of encounter.
Our proposition in way of a conclusion is that the future of wisdom is one that is crafted, spoken, assembled in parts and essentially one that is influenced by a range of active participants, each meeting on neutral ground, as image makers and agents of change. Brought together by something that began in the unknown. Crafting a new future of knowledge involves embedding care into the communities that we work with and alongside - and bringing that care -into the mechanisms by which we cultivate “deep listening” across disciplines. There is also something in the generation of a collective story, as the story has the potential to weave together threads of resonance and dissonance, and after all it is at these edges of encounter that we truly learn/know.
Fourthland was established by artists Isik Sayarer and Eva Knutsdotter in 2008, as a social practice with the aim to merge art and life to make new myths about land and people. Through a process-led research the practice revisits notions of the sacred, the poetics of space and object, and the mysticism of the subconscious, working with these themes to excavate old histories and future imaginaries with people and communities.
Fourthland facilitates a range of encounters that draw marginalised knowledge into the foreground to explore forgotten modes of social and environmental consciousness. These processes activate innate and authentic creativity - an approach that has the power to enchant and reposition forms of kinship, bringing unconventional groups together to create unexpected things.
Over the years creating relationships with national and international collaborators.. Fourthland also run a nomadic residency programme, YORUK, co-hosted with different alternative communities around the world and an ongoing workshop programme. www.fourthland.com