Bleak Plateaus, 2022-ongoing

Bleak Plateaus is an ongoing artist-research project that engages with the peatlands of the Peak District and the wider Pennines region. Taking peat as a departure point—conceptualising it as a form of mediaBleak Plateaus draws on posthuman aesthetics, new materialisms, philosophies of elemental mediation and discourses of social justice, employing a mixed media approach, including photography, sound, moving image, oral histories, writing and peat itself, to respond to these peatlands as zones of productive ambiguity, where, for example, multispecies subsistence, joy and anguish at impending ecological devastation all intersect.

On, in, under, over, beyond, across and beneath the region’s squelchy reaches, a multitude of shifting assemblages of humans and non-humans can be found. Ancient settlements, commoners’ subsistence, mass trespass in the struggle for access, occult teachings and interplanetary parliaments, sphagnum mosses, sundews and bog lilies, labour, leisure, environmental devastation, carbon capture, ring ouzels and a unique mountain hare population are but some of the actors that energise these mental, social and environmental ecologies. Building on recent thinking in the posthumanities, concerning the inadequacy of current language to address the contemporary eco-cultural condition (e.g. Fuller & Goriunova, 2019; Hoelzl & Marie, 2021), and engaging with thinking around artistic research in terms of ‘performing process’ and notions of ‘thinking in action’ (e.g. Cocker, 2016; Cocker and Maier, 2019), the project seeks to develop experimental and expanded modes of representation and aesthetic activations suitable for exploring the lively multiplicities of these important sites, against the backdrop of climate damage and the urgent need for ethico-aesthetic repair.

The current phase of the project focuses on Kinder Scout, the most famous of the north Derbyshire moorland plateaus. It pays close attention to the polyphonic composition and varying scales of the multiple human-non-human entanglements that crisscross Kinder’s slopes and plateaus, seeking to develop artistic methods of responding to and synthesizing scientific and cultural reflection on this important site. It uses these methods to addresses and explore how theory, image-making, performance, sound and writing can be employed to negotiate the affective anguish associated with ecological crisis without falling into reductive traps and erasing or diminishing the joys and vivacities of such a place.

Intial phases of the research have been principally focused on walking the plateau, performative actions, and observing and gathering materials: photographs, sound recordings, observations, and embodied knowledge and experience. A series of scores for walks have been developed, which will be enacted in the coming weeks. Phytography* has also been used to engage with Kinder’s plant communities.

*Phytography is a method developed by artist and researcher, Karel Doing (see this dedicated blog). A form of lumen printing, the process involves bringing plant matter into contact with photographic emulsion, where internal plant chemistry (phenols), when combined with the same household chemistry used to generate alternative developers, produces an image following exposure to sunlight.  




Recent presentations and forthcoming work

June 2023: In Media Mire: Peatlands and Elemental Mediation, presentation at the international workshop, Shifty Muds: Land, Water and Life in a ‘Patchy Anthropoccene’, hosted by the New Europe College Centre for Advance Study.

The next phase of research will concern researching, testing and developing a process for working with the microbial inhabitants of peat to produce prints and moving-image work.

Alongside this, the project turns its focus to intersectional questions of access. It is well known that access to the countryside and nature more broadly can play a key role in people’s physical and mental health, with outdoor activity a key contributor to combatting the ill-effects of our increasingly sedentary lifestyles. However, significant barriers to these benefits persist—it is also well-documented that the countryside is codified as white, heteronormative, middle-class and able-bodied, a narrative that art history, for example, has played a significant role in (re)producing. Moreover, when questions of access are linked to peat erosion, which results in the increased and accelerated release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, important tensions appear.

The first in a series of publications, based loosely on the Sheffield Clarion Ramblers handbooks, produced between 1901 and 1964, will develop through collaboration with Maxwell Ayamba and Mark Hutchinson, environmental journalist and historian of Black Culture, respectively, and co-founders of the 100 Black Men Walk for Health Group (now the Walk4Health Group).