This is not a blank canvas

Madeleine Kate McGowan – Artist and speculative designer has written about Stedets Væsen / Being of place in The NXT: Being of Place

Throwing shade on this damp moss. The sun falls in patches here, rivers of flies and other tickly critters on us. Standing here, we hold place. Soil and roots. Cool, moist, damp, and dark under the surface; a mirrored world. The movements slower, as air comes to play, whispering all the changes, the tell-tales, and riddles, shaking branches, waves of wind. Old trunks, young leaves, buds to come. Thin, small, tall, and thick. Standing here, swaying, breathing, drinking, cracking. Water bubbles bursting within. Birds above and between, drop nuts, twigs and corn, sharing sensetraces from other places, stories of other trees.

Is that how the trees outside these windows would describe this place at this moment? A larger forest area north of Copenhagen, Denmark. Sitting on the cottage floor, the fire cracking behind me, watching tree branches create slow shadow-play and sunbeams falling onto surfaces, a freshly brewed coffee, stacks of chosen books, continuous bird song and Mica the puppy asleep by my side. This is a place I love and that I return to.

As an artist, I work with places in various ways, always conscious of the scenography and character a place holds. Even a black-box or a white-cube, the traditional sites of the art institutions, carry a story and an ideology. Even though they are assumed to be neutral. A place is never a blank canvas. A place is not static or merely one specific thing. Certain places make us feel uneasy, while others open wonder in us. Some places heal us, while others leave us sick. A ruin could be a sign of decay for one person, and for another, a place of maturing beauty. A botanic garden is a romantic stroll for one person, for someone else it is a trace of colonialism. According to geographer, Edward Relph, “physical appearance, activities, and meanings are the raw materials of the identity of places…”. Place identities are embedded in the “experience, eye, mind and intention of the beholder,” Relph continues. And we could add that the experience of place also depends on the species sensing it. A place is lived and becomes through layers of actions, histories, textures, perceptions, speculations, temperatures, colours, critters. Yet a place also holds inherent qualities, such as frequencies of stone, resonance from trees, temperatures from the ground. Research clarifies how patients heal faster in places with trees outside their windows and how walking through labyrinths relieves stress. Place makes time visible, just as geologist Marcia Bjornerud describes, “…rocks are not nouns but verbs – visible evidence of processes: a volcanic eruption, the accretion of a coral reef, the growth of a mountain belt.” Correspondingly, a place bears witness to time and wears its scars. A place was many things before we encountered it. A place will be something without us. It holds various qualities, dormant, perceived, and physical. A place can be told in so many ways, depending on who is listening.

Who is listening? 

As we are becoming more intimate with place, I would also like to share more about myself. 

I was born in a place I do not know, yet I have known many places. The first time we moved I was six weeks old. From Denmark to Benin. My mother is Irish, my father Danish. They met in Iraq. I remember forest fires and warm red soil. Cold wet cracked grey pavements and milk in glass bottles by the door. I remember a place of endless games with ducks and geese and chopped off chicken’s feet. I am a part of the geo-social elite, as I have the privilege of moving freely from place to place. And I have used this privilege in my activism, by crossing borders, transporting documented stories told by people who do not have the privilege of free mobility. I am a part of a larger community of artists, who explore the possibilities of participatory performance and documentary filmmaking. I am trying to live with an active hope, even though I have a specific skill to smell out the unraveling. I believe that we are living in a time after several apocalypses, and there are more to come. I try to stay soft in such a hard world of toxic climates. I am becoming aware of how I listen – to the world, to places, other humans, and to other species. I believe that some of the most important work right now is community-work. That it matters, and that the way I choose to direct my listening changes everything. I work with places and believe that we can change this world, one place at a time.

What does the future hold for places? 

In the EU, a huge emission-saving opportunity has been identified in the ongoing renovation and transformation work that is taking place on a continent with countless old buildings and neighborhoods. With the EU initiative, New European Bauhaus, a direct focus has been formulated on renovation projects, potentially lowering the CO2 equivalents connected to the work, by refining what is understood as circular and sustainable practices and by inviting artists into the green transition of the construction industry, through cross-disciplinary approaches under the tagline beautiful, sustainable, together. This is a way of deepening the understanding of what circular can be. 

As a part of the New European Bauhaus movement in Europe, I contribute with our project – Stedets Væsen [Being of Place]. Stedets Væsen is a method we encourage be implemented in the early stages of the development and renovation of city neighborhoods and buildings, weaving artistic, speculative, and regenerative strategies into the project, asking the question – what emerges when we take the time to listen to the place before developing it? Rooted in a place-bound sensitivity and active listening, we meet a place through the intersection of art, circularity, biodiversity, and storytelling. This process lets an artist, an architect, a biologist or urban ecologist, and a storyteller listen to the place from their specific skill sets, holding space for what was and could have been – before envisioning what is going to be. These are the vital first steps to refrain from the unsustainable act of overwriting a place with an entirely new set of materials and story. Every corner and crack holds a small world that can enrich the entire project in surprising ways, and once you sink into these hidden details and start to listen to them, you start bringing attention to the people who inhabit the place, its materials, stories and its multi-species communities. We engage and listen to all these layers of place – the covered shepherd paths and the materials that can be used again. The kestrel someone took care of in the chimney and the story that could strengthen the social identity of the area. The flowers that could grow here stimulating pleasure in bee-communities for generations to come. The beauty in iron structures of old industry marked by time and how such ruins could be beauty in progress for years to come. 

Through decades the challenges of the green transition have been clear to many, yet the appropriate measures have not been implemented. In a sector as carbon heavy as the construction industry, it is crucial that rapid change is done. So we are in a hurry, yet I believe we need to slow down in some respects. According to Norwegian scientist and climate-psychologist Per Espen Stoknes, we are not just in need of new stories about climate change, but we are in need of a new way of telling these stories. “What we do wrong is an addictive, repetitive narrative. We need to tell other stories with other imagery and emotions associated with them. To be truly radical today is to make hope possible, not despair convincing.” 

In the domain of climate change, many are looking towards designers for the next technological device to ‘save us’. Even though these efforts are justified, I am captivated by the possibility of using artistic tools to open speculative spaces. That we as artists can act as catalysts for public debate and reflection on the futures that support a new kind of inhabiting the world. 

What will this place be?

Looking at these old trees casting shadow onto the cottage, I can’t help but wonder how they experience this place. I can try to write it down through speculation, an imagining which is important, but which can never grasp it. In a time of massive changes, I can sense a new community finding its form, with respect for Deep Time, fostering generational solidarity and sensitivity, an active perception of humans as planetary Earth-Dwellers, igniting a multi-species awareness, while we go along, learning how to live and die, together, on a damaged planet.

The rhythm of this text holds the qualities of the place it was written. And if this place belongs to anyone, it would be these trees. As they frame and hold this place with such patience. Are they the true place-makers here?

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