Transcript: The role of arts on landscape science - (Ewan Allinson) – Landscapes Podcast April 2021
*The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and comprehension
If you look at any major environmental problem today, I believe part of its origin story can be attributed to the consequence of some expert-led decision-making process. Undoubtedly, these experts assessed the available evidence and made recommendations to policy makers, claiming that adherence to their remedies and recipes would lead to progress for all. Yet,
As historian Jo Guldi has said “We are living in the wreckage of expertise’s past”
The problems with expertise, in the way it is socially constructed, in what is considered acceptable forms of data in scientific discourse, and how expertise is unevenly distributed, is a core concern of sociologists of the environment, political scientists and science and technology scholars.
Research in this vein shows scientists, not as some being with higher powers of knowledge, but simply human actors, embedded in larger structures that influence their actions, motivated by mundane forces like competition, pride, and adherence to personal values, as much as a they might be motivated by a quest for objective truth of some kind.
Despite the well established problems with expert-led decision making leading to perverse outcomes for society and the environment, the faith in the expert is still a powerful rationale and frequently used as a tool for persuasion or, in some cases to achieve submission.
That being said, there is a strong movement to break down the power imbalance between experts and non-experts. Ideas like citizen science and participatory action research have risen to normality and are frequently employed, and sometimes even mandated, in large government funded research programs. This suggests that there is at least an awareness that the scientific process will be improved by including a broader set of actors, methodologies and importantly, different forms of knowing.
In this episode I asked Ewan Allinson, who is an independent artist based in Edinburgh, to help explain the potential role for the arts in improving the democratic character of landscape decision making. And while we do talk about how art and artists can shape what landscapes are and ought to be, as well as Ewan’s role as an artist participating in some unique landscape collaborations, that are worth understanding,
we kept circling back to this problem of expertise.
And what I started to take away from the conversation surprised me. While I believe that the scientific community has much work to do in coming to grips with its own internal obsession with playing the role of the expert.
Our conversation made me think that maybe the role of the arts is the secret ingredient in fulfilling this ideal of an egalitarian science and society relationship where a diverse set of knowledge and knowers are truly valued and allowed a venue to convene.
Here's Ewan Allinson.
Adam Calo: [00:02:55] Ewan, you are an independent artist and it seems to me that a lot of your work has been right up at the intersection between artistic endeavors, but also in issues of landscape science. Engaging in questions of environmental sustainability, environmental degradation, how to make equitable decisions about land use in places.
So, I thought it'd be really interesting to have you to try and unpack the relationship between art and landscape decision-making and in particular, what can art bring to these questions that the social sciences and the biophysical sciences cannot?
Ewan Allinson: [00:03:34] As a disclaimer at the outset, Adam, I have to say that the things that I'm going to say about art, some theorists may agree with, some artists may agree with, some will disagree with some may disagree with strongly. So, the big caveat is that the things that I'm saying art can do or can be I very much emphasize “the can.” So, it's about potentiality rather than these things being an inherent property.
There's something about the position of being an artist of being a freelance artist—agency is sometimes a word that is used—and I think this is beautifully encapsulated in a quote that I often pull out when trying to describe that positionality. It's in a letter written from Leopold the First of Belgium to the young Queen Victoria, where he writes to her:
"the dealings with artists require great prudence. They are acquainted with all classes of society and for that very reason dangerous."
So, there's something quite profound in that. And I, myself as an artist, take what is, I suppose, consciously an ambivalent position. I am an agitator around issues of landscape people, nature and justice. I kind of relish being the awkward customer in the room really. And also having had a background in science, I have a huge amount of respect for the way in which science can, reveal, properties of nature.
Adam Calo: [00:05:24] You started off on an academic track, but then made a decision to switch over to the arts. Do you feel like you are succeeding more in your original interest in engaging with environmental problems through the arts? Why I approach it through this dimension?
If you really care about the environment Why not become a politician or work for a big conservation nonprofit?
Ewan Allinson: [00:05:44] I think particularly when you come from a working-class background, as I do, where your options may be circumscribed as a consequence of your position in the social hierarchy, as an artist you kind of escape that hierarchical positioning and find yourself with a pass to move through hierarchies with relative freedom.
That amongst many other things I think were influential in making that critical decision to cut a drift from institutions and systems and become a free agent that pursues the same set of interests that I would've pursued, as an academic or as you say, a politician. Again, a politician has to, unless they're independent, a politician has to sing from a hymn sheet.
Adam Calo: [00:06:46] I see you as somewhat reluctant academic, but that kind of raises an interesting question for me, because, it is recognizing that within this environmental domain, the natural sciences, biophysical sciences, and the social sciences do enjoy a modicum of power to influence these landscapes.
So, there must be some need to engage with some of that language in order to try and create some different kinds of outcomes that you might want, especially from that free agent perspective.
Ewan Allinson: [00:07:19] It's interesting. In my leadership roles, as vice chair of a landscape partnership, for example, my interest is to always first understand where a particular stakeholder is coming from. So within that context of working with ecosystem services, I certainly recognize that this language of ecosystem services has enormous currency and is being deployed from a position of good intentions.
So, while I have some profound epistemological and metaphysical issues around the language and concepts, I'm still keen to grant it as a system of thinking as a system of knowing, but as you say, from a position of slight skepticism. I do think that resonates amongst the scientists that they may be guilty sometimes of getting carried away with the success of the whole ecosystem services framework.
And the success of that is blinding them to nuances that can't be captured within that framework.
Adam Calo: [00:08:33] I always get frustrated with academic papers because they always talk in an authoritative tone. That's what they're supposed to be, expressing a little piece of knowledge that the authors have discovered through some method, but the positionality of the authors really plays a huge role, you know?
So, if you would write the same paper, but invite a couple of different authors in to participate and engage with the same arguments, you're going to come with a different conclusion.
Ewan Allinson: [00:08:56] And I think that's what I have found very refreshing actually, is—and I'm sure others in different circumstances have found … artists finding themselves in a setting that's dominated by scientists may face frustrations, but I've actually found it very rewarding to have my concerns around the totalizing instincts of the ecosystem services framework really taken on board by the scientists who I'm working with on, on this particular paper.
Adam Calo: [00:09:32] So, you've seen evidence of success of being that artist as agitator in these types of groups to broaden out the thinking, especially in the environmental sciences. I'm wondering, is this part of a larger trend? Where there's actual funding calls that mandate or encourage bringing together artists or art exhibitions, or even art concepts into a research collaboration?
Where, where does this come from? And in your experience, how do these collaborations go?
Ewan Allinson: [00:10:07] It's very interesting, isn't it? Part of the impetus for taking arts research or the type of research that an artist might do seriously, actually, goes back to the research framework. This idea that the arts departments had to justify themselves almost as research departments in order to contribute to the REF scoring of individual institutions.
Adam Calo: [00:10:35] And what's the REF?
Ewan Allinson: [00:10:36] What is that, research excellence framework, Isn't it? It's an evaluation process for how well a university is doing from a research point of view. This requirement of universities to justify their research existence has interestingly put the idea of arts research into the picture. That impetus is almost come from a very top-down requirement that has focused minds on the idea of art as research rather than merely as practice, which is what traditionally people would have associated art schools with.
Adam Calo: [00:11:15] Perhaps a strategic reframe. I really wanted to ask you about this though, because in that quote, where you talked about an artist being external and dangerous and of many minds, the art practice is external. It's not viewed with the purpose of forming new knowledge. Is arts research really about collaborating or creating new methods to solve important tricky problems or should art be really be that external thing? When I think of art that moves me or moves powerful decision makers, it's always an external act, that kind of raising awareness, rather than being integrated into the halls of decision makers.
Ewan Allinson: [00:11:58] I think that's a balancing act that that artists themselves are wrestling with. Part of what they want to do is just make, or work with material. I certainly find that when I'm doing site-specific public art sculpture, for example, my first step is to delve into … do intense research on that place from the geology to the fauna to the archeology, to the mythology, to the local history, to individual narratives of lived experience and so on.
That kind of sponge like inhalation, through research of the genius loci, the spirit of place is what feeds the creativity that produces a work that is resonant in that particular place. Research is part and parcel of an artist's practice. The question becomes well, how does practice feed back into research that might contribute, for example, to an interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary project?
One of the frustrations, I think that artists have in interdisciplinary settings is that, their contribution is not well understood and that people think, "Oh, well, the artist is here to illustrate visually or sonically some of the findings that we as scientists, social scientists, natural scientists come up with,” and there's nothing wrong with that. That's something that can be productive and great.
But, what I'm talking to is the fact that artists with their kind of synthetic approach to research and their interest in all these dimensions, the biology, the geology, the history—like magpies—their interest and approach from that position can contribute something very significant to the whole framing of the research that individual scientists are doing. And so rather than it just being an illustrative function, I think what the artist can do is reframe, the parameters of interdisciplinary research.
Adam Calo: [00:14:28] I must imagine that for run-of-the-mill biophysical scientist, who might be on a project that has an arts aspect to it, they're just imagining some exhibits on the side. Art as community engagement and, that's a relief because usually the scientists have to tack on that element and onto their research proposal. Now we can just let the artists take care of that. Cause that's what they do, right?
Ewan Allinson: [00:14:52] Well, that's right. That side of it is often very difficult, isn't it, for scientists. They don't go into ecology or biology to become a community engagement specialists. And are, as you say, very often relieved to have someone who can help fulfill that remit.
And there's nothing wrong with that, but, the message is that really, if you're bringing an artist into that interdisciplinary framework, they can contribute a great deal more than the community engagement side of it and the illustrating for public consumption.
Adam Calo: [00:15:32] Do you think you could illustrate that a little bit more? Let's think about a case that's relevant to landscape decision making, maybe about agricultural practices, because that's what I know most about, at least in terms of my background. You have social science, and you have environmental science studying this, trying to identify optimal land use. What can art offer in this case that those existing methodologies cannot?
Ewan Allinson: [00:15:58] Obviously science is tending to trade in hard facts, data. And there are things that get lost in that. A project that I undertook in the North Pennines, it was called Hefted to Hill, subtitle, digging deep into the knowledge and values of hill-farmers. As a dry stone waller, most of my clients are farmers. I often like to get chatting with them and get them onto subject matters that they might not ordinarily go into kind of philosophical almost.
It became clear to me that farmers sit on a repository of land knowledge that does not really lend itself to being captured through scientific methods.It's knowledge that's transmitted through narrative. It's stories. It's in the voice, it's a relationship.
And so this project set out as an arts project to simply capture the testimony of seven Hill-farmers in the North Pennines and there were two photographers involved as well,
whose brief was to capture these same farmers at work in the landscape setting as work, which in a sense, shapes the landscape. Britain's landscapes are managed landscapes, and most of the people who are managing these landscapes are farmers whose values are reflected in the landscapes that policy is being made for.
And yet policy makers are not really interested in those values. Policymakers are focused on the actions of the farmer and either containing those actions or promoting those actions in a certain way. And they fail to recognize that one of the assets that are part of the suite of benefits that landscapes provide society with. One of those assets is the farmers own set of values and their knowledge of the land, their intimate knowledge of the land, their intimate relation with the land their covenant, with the land.
And these are the things the science misses. And as a result of that, one of the things that was tracked in the course of this project was speaking to farmers who, who do take up some of the grants available in return for delivering certain environmental benefits through prescriptions that are created by DEFRA.
And the main problem is that these prescriptions are not developed in conversation with the farmer. They are developed at the outset, taken to the farmer as part of a deal, basically. And because these prescriptions fail to engage with a detailed knowledge of a landscape that the farmer they fail very often.
They're wrong headed. They take a generalized view of how nature is meant to behave according to the science, or according to the modeling, the policymakers draw from the science, which when it's truth checked, as it were, at ground level, It falls flat because landscapes are always granular particular, specific or unusual misbehaving, according to the models.
Adam Calo: [00:19:48] Well, it seems like the standard science approach to that is to say, well, of course there's uncertainty, but that's why you need to fund me to continue to develop more precise tools. Are you saying that there is always going to be a disconnect between the advanced abilities of ecological science with the knowledge of someone who lives in that space, in that quadrant that the modeler is trying to predict?
Ewan Allinson: [00:20:15] I think we're in a position where it looks like a disconnect. And in a way that's what I'm working hard to try and undo that sense of it being a disconnect. In fact, if we could find systems that allow the scientific modeling to sit alongside that local knowledge, that granular knowledge that comes through a daily toiling in an environment in a place, then you're going to improve your decision making enormously.
So I know with ELMS and the way that ELMS is being framed by DEFRA—
Adam Calo: [00:21:01] This is the newly designed Environmental Land Management Scheme replacing the Common Agricultural Policy because of Brexit.
Ewan Allinson: [00:21:09] That's right. If we're going to look for upsides from Brexit, then perhaps this is one upside where we can take a very different approach to the way in which land management and governments contribution to land management can take place. And so they're taking what they're referring to as a systems approach which includes whole farms. So rather than piecemeal, well, a field here and a field there in a farm gets to benefit from some kind of environmental grant or something. The whole farm is being considered as part of the priority. So it's this systems approach that seems to be the heart of the way ELMS is being developed. My great anxiety is that the way that that systems approach is being thought about is in technocratic terms, that just will not really allow for the expertise and knowledge of the farmer. What I think is, if a systems approach is what's being taken then that systems approach needs to have a model of complexity that admits that there are ways of knowing some of that complexity that come from direct working of the land.
Adam Calo: [00:22:44] So you wrote about some of these issues in a short piece on Medium, where you kind of describe the knowledge of hill-farmers. And in particular, you described a relevant exchange between something that the hill-farmer knows and something that the countryside stewardship officer knows, who is the government agent in charge of land management. Can you just describe that exchange and what it reveals?
Ewan Allinson: [00:23:08] There's one farmer, this is down in Teasdale and he farms in a beautiful Valley called Baldersdale. That leads up to the Pennine escarpment looking down to Eden Valley and he had a countryside stewardship officer come to visit his farm one day and start an assessment and a black grouse cock flew up in front of them both.
The farmer said, “Oh look, there's a a black grouse.” And the countryside stewardship officer refused to accept that this could be a black grouse because the landscape of Baldersdale doesn't fit the habitat criteria that the stewardship officer had in their rubric. And so it just didn't fit.
And so therefore it couldn't have existed as a black grouse. And that was the absurdity of that situation. And it was very interesting because when I first produced the article and tweeted it out, there was a great response on Twitter of people recalling very similar experiences of nature not behaving according to the book and therefore being written out almost of a farm's biodiversity report because it didn't accord with the textbook version of what should be there.
Black grouse are meant to be close to wooded areas basically. And in Baldersdale there's hardly any trees at all. And look, I'm putting science in the frame. Very often, this is a problem, not so much of the science, but how the science percolates into the delivery of policy on the ground they are two quite different things aren't they really?
Adam Calo: [00:24:55] Yeah, I think they are different, but science always percolates out into society, you know? I don't think there is a distinction, right? I mean, especially today, there's so much of this call to trust, follow, or even listen to the science. The example you described is an example where the science actually creates the blindness and the intuition, the general sense, the daily understanding is, what is more useful to act upon.
Ewan Allinson: [00:25:25] That's interesting, isn't it? This is the thing about disciplines and why the arts are perhaps, and artists are perhaps another type of researcher outside of disciplines. The disciplines necessarily have sets of blinkers. And I suppose in a way, isn't this what ecology as a science was to some extent, a pushback on that need to remember that things are connected. That you do damage to your understanding of nature when you, when you zoom in and fail to see the context in which something is existing, being, or struggling and so on.
Adam Calo: [00:26:09] So, I mean, one of the lessons to draw here is that an artist's intervention has the ability to reveal things that other disciplines that are traditionally used to understand, particularly in the natural sciences. But that there needs to be new mechanisms for integrating it. And you're a part of this, Valuing Nature Report, that summarized this goal of integrating art research into an ecosystem services framework and environmental decision-making.
And one of the key recommendations was quote,
"if the artist's interrogating perspective is to be harnessed, to compliment other research and decision-making models, it is essential that its contribution is equally acknowledged alongside disciplines, such as economics, ecology, and other natural and social sciences.”
Is it equally acknowledged, you know, does it enjoy equal power to these other existing modes of knowing?
Ewan Allinson: [00:27:06] No, I don't think it does. And that's what makes it exciting to be part of an attempt to assert its value. In a way, one of the things that very often drives artists is, is a quest for justice. And that's where the kind of agitation part comes in.
In a way, I think artists are always going to be thinking about disciplines in terms of power and power struggles. So, you know, the work I was doing with hill-farmers was very much an issue of power. I think, art and artists are engaging with issues of power within disciplinez, from a position of not having much power as things stand.
And that's quite an interesting position, which I think comes quite naturally to artists in any case, to have this unusual relationship to power where, as outsiders, they have a power, as outsiders, which in a way do they want to become insiders?
And of course, we're trying to assert the importance of artistic research within addressing environmental problems and wanting other disciplines to have a better understanding.
I think it's important that other disciplines start to learn to have great respect for the arts approaches to these problems because they're simply not going to solve the issues pertaining to the environment without artists being at the center of framing the narratives. Because it is about narratives. Data's all well and good. Producing data is all well and good and being guided by the science, fine.
But if you don't develop narratives that resonate and actually alert people, then ultimately, okay, the science on its own can influence policy, but it's more than influencing policy that needs to be done here, isn't it?
Adam Calo: [00:29:29] Well, in that same piece, you take a step further to say that science acts as a disciplining force and you write that “science is the stick to beat the farmer with” What do you mean by that?
Ewan Allinson: [00:29:40] It's almost as if it's deployed as a way to end the argument. That's how farmers experience it. It's almost a kind of cartoon type scenario that you come up against when you speak to farmers very often is of young science graduates coming on to their farm and telling them what they have to do with their land.
And you can kind of picture the farmer going purple in the face, hold holding back their indignation at being told in no uncertain terms, what it is they're going to have to do. And I think this why I engage, Adam, with, with philosophy.
Because I think there are some philosophical problems here that need to be addressed. There are different ways of knowing. Science is one of them and science delivers forms of knowledge that simply couldn't become to in any other way. But there are other forms of knowledge that good decisions need that are come to through other means.
Farmers themselves sit on huge repositories of knowledge that are not acquired through scientific method. They're acquired through other means. And yet within the systems that govern those forms of knowledge, they have no currency. It's the science that has all the currency.
And so that's a question of power really. That's a consequence of really the enlightenment and the relationship of knowledge to power that we've inherited from the enlightenment.
Adam Calo: [00:31:26] That cartoon you mentioned has such a strong class dimension to it as well, where you can be young and professionalized and work with the currency of models and ecology and economics, and therefore have more have the ability to tell someone who's older and working the land, what to do, right?
Ewan Allinson: [00:31:46] That's right. It's very much this degree-based deployment of authority. My own father, left school when he was 14 and worked down in the mines as a young man, and then he was keen Mountaineer, and he and my mother moved across to the Lake District.
And he got a job in the National Trust as a warden and then rose up to become the senior advisor for the National Trust on all their upland areas in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Now that couldn't happen today because he didn't have, he didn't have any degrees. He didn't have any A levels. He didn't have O levels.
You can't imagine that happening today. And I think that's a real hindrance actually to making the most of the intellectual capital exists that exists at a grassroots level. And somehow there needs to be an overcoming of this fixation upon degree-based learning and all the authority that comes with that. It is very much a class thing. And the problem is there there's an effect of that. Chris Dalglish,
in his 2016 report, Community Empowerment and Landscape, talks very cogently about this problem that creates a “participation deficit” as he refers it, to where essentially a professionalization of decision-making—he’s specifically speaking around landscape designation in this context, but where the authority lies with those positions of power in agencies or in NGOs, the authority lies with those who have degrees and people at the local level are disempowered by that.
Certainly with the farmers that I worked with in the North Pennines, there are very severe mental health consequences that come with being disempowered. In that way, the farmers themselves are made to feel that their own knowledge has no value in the system as it stands.
Their views may be sought for the odd consultation, but the language they speak and the views they have never makes it into the reports. It's always the language of the NGOs and the degree-based practitioners. So this leaves them with a real issues of self-worth actually, and there are real life consequences to failing to take proper respect or proper account of the kinds of understandings that farmers have. I think if farmers felt valued more, there would be enormous well-being consequences, positive consequences that would flow.
And I think this is across the piece, really. More broadly my interest is in local expertise generally. By valuing the knowledge that people have at a local level, you do wonders for the confidence that exists at a local level and where you have confidence, you're going to start to have better decisions made at that local level because people feel empowered to contribute to those decisions.
Adam Calo: [00:35:28] There is a long tradition in the sciences of trying to contest visions of expertise. The subdiscipline of citizen science gets at this in a way, but still usually has a kind of top-down framing of the questions to be asked, but involves non-experts in data collection.
Then there's this slightly more radical field of participatory research, stemming from a Paulo Freire vision of knowledge production, which is truly bottom up and radical. Where do the arts fit into this? Because one, at least my conception is that the sciences need to shift the way that they do practices to engage in non-expert knowledge profoundly in order to address some of these harms and also reach these potential outcomes.
How does art help in bridge that gap? I think that's something that I haven't really thought about in too much depth before.
Ewan Allinson: [00:36:19] It values the overlooked. It values that which is not valued institutionally. It has an open mind around value that sees treasure where it might not be perceived through other lenses. Not only sees that treasure, but raises it up and declares it to be treasured. I wasn't necessarily that caught up in the Marcel Duchampian world view, that inspired Brit Art and some of the contemporary things in art, but that was at the heart of that. You take a urinal and you show it as a work of art. There's something intellectual in that where artists can, could come and treasure and value things that the prevailing systems of valuing fail to recognize.
And not only treasure it but fight for that to be treasured. So there's a campaigning element the arts around issues of justice that I think, I don't know whether that distinguishes it from other disciplines, but it's certainly an element that you come across very often where it sets its own mandate in that sense.
Adam Calo: [00:37:44] In that valuing nature report, I sense there to be a seeming contradiction in some of the goals, which was, one, to inject an artistic led valuing of nature within an ecosystem services framework to make one of the many ecosystem services or a set of them identified through artistic practice, to make the invisible visible, but within that framework.
But what you're talking about is art that has a standpoint to challenge the narrative and the original assumptions of such a framework. To tear it down, to reject the language of economics seeping its way totally into an environmental discourse.
Ewan Allinson: [00:38:25] Yeah, I think that's interesting. It's a one that I myself am negotiating constantly. I think arts research is quite good being home with its own contradictions, being relaxed about being ambivalent. So I think you can do those two things. You can rail against the idea that a particular landscape is delivering aesthetic services to society, which to me is an absurdity. This idea that the, the aesthetic experience of landscape is this service, is an absurdity to me. But at the same time, I'm happy to sit down with ecosystem services, people, and those, as you say, within cultural geography who are trying to engage with the ecosystem services framework. If this is a way of getting some of these aspects into the policy, then let's also run with that and see how we can, ensure this does enter the policy without being too absurd.
I think pragmatism is something that, essentially when you're a freelancer, you have to live by your wits. You don't have the luxury of being able to take a hard and fast position. You have to be flexible in your positioning.
I think arts research in general can be—part of it's power is being able be ambivalent about things and be a bit ambiguous and not be fixed in its contribution to knowledge, to be able to advocate and ridicule at the same time.
Being able to bring some of what we know to influence that which is actually happening, that is on the table and in the room. So yeah, I think pragmatism is at the heart of being a good idealist, really.
Adam Calo: [00:40:23] You might be of the conception that art has the ability to shift environmental decision-making in ways that the natural sciences can’t accomplish.
Could you give an example, maybe a historical or a famous example where an artist exhibition or piece or movement shapes some kind of environmental decision-making or change in a profound way?
Ewan Allinson: [00:40:46] There are examples over since the 1960s, when the arts took an environment turn individual arts interventions, such as Agnes Denes Wheat Field in Manhattan, where she on an abandoned landfill lot, just a couple of blocks from the old World Trade Center …
She brought in 200 truckloads of earth and planted a wheat field and harvested it and developed an exhibition on the back of that, around the relationship of space to nature and farming and food.
There's the work of Alan Sonfist, in New York as well, a piece called Time Landscape in which he kind of reclaimed a plot of land in downtown Manhattan.
And he reclaimed it to the original vegetation that would have existed before New York itself was established. There are these things that, that just, capture people's imagination, but I think historically, it's difficult to come up with a better example than the romantic era of artists, particularly, in the Lake District. The poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge and Southey and the paintings of John Glover and other picturesque artists.
In framing landscapes that had actually been overlooked in the national imagination—in framing these landscapes as places of the beautiful and sublime and capturing this beauty and sublimity in works of poetry and works of painting. They radically shifted the national imagination around these types of landscapes as places to go and experience for the sake of experience. So, Wordsworth writes his, as well as creating these amazing poems that we all love and know. And I should, I should say at this point that I grew up on the shores of Lake Ullswater on the other side of the Lake, from Wordsworth’s daffodils. One of his favorite views was from just above my house.
Of course, he translated this valuing of nature, this value is valuing that he and his comrades were generating. He translated this into his Guide to the Lakes and really drove this idea of these places as places to visit and to develop your own being through these experiences.
This led directly into the creation of national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty—the operative word there, even if that no longer guides decision-making in quite the way it did—the operative word there is beauty. This valuing of these landscapes from that artistic point of view, has given us the phenomenon of landscape tourism. It’s a direct consequence of that art movement.
The interesting thing is, in this year of lockdown, this thirst for experience of those kinds of landscapes with that kind of experience, that was framed by those artists is still a kind of radical need for that people feel. The Lake district is I can tell you, is bracing itself as at the Highlands, is bracing itself for a huge surge of people going to those landscapes for those experiences.
Adam Calo: [00:44:42] I'm no art historian, when you talked about those landscape paintings and, poetry describing landscapes about identifying values of beauty, it gets back to this really important concept that value is something that's socially assigned. Because when I think of landscape paintings in the US it was, yes painting invoking this idea of beauty, but also invoking this value of emptiness.
And so that was also kind of involved in a dark legacy of imagining the beautiful places of the West as devoid of people, which in fact, there were people that were living there, indigenous peoples and in what ways does, does can the creation of value end up, always, it's always going to be someone's vision of value, right?
Ewan Allinson: [00:45:28] Yeah, definitely. Scotland celebrates the legacy of John Muir, but his own views about the American wildernesses were very regressive from that point of view weren’t they? He didn't have anything good to say about indigenous peoples.
Of course, these so-called wild and empty landscapes that were being portrayed were themselves actually the results of management for millennia. It's just that, that wasn't conveyed.
By the same token, there's a certain failure within the UK, to be properly respectful of the contribution that farmers and crofters make to the flourishing of nature and the landscape. They are beaten and typecast as these enemies of biodiversity, when nothing further could be from the truth.
A lot of the species that we value the curlews and the lapwings and so on. They choose farm landscapes. They're in a relationship with farming that is a positive relationship. To the extent that there has been damages come about as a result of farming, invariably, it's a result of farmers responding to the policy, particularly the post-war policy of intensification of agriculture, which has led to biodiversity losses. The farms themselves are not the culprits. They're simply enacting what they've historically been told to deliver.
Adam Calo: [00:47:07] I guess the demonstrates the power of … if artists' representations instill a consciousness of what a landscape is and ought to be, then making sure that that vision is representative is of crucial importance because the landscape decisions will certain follow those sense of values.
Ewan Allinson: [00:47:28] I think artists, are sometimes guilty of under underestimating their own power to shape the narrative and also, for that shaping and for that influence to serve interests that, are perhaps at odds with where the artists own instincts lay.
I'm thinking here about the role of artists within gentrification actually. This has become a phenomenon. And I know this first hand through putting on shows over the years as part of the Edinburgh festival. You have these very sophisticated gentrification processes. There'll be people who are interested in deploying the arts for these purposes. The arts always seem innocent, and this is part of their power and yet they can be part of a process that is not innocent at all.
Adam Calo: [00:48:26] I mean, to be honest, I feel like art is more criticized than science in terms of being involved in processes of delivering goods to the powerful. Science usually hides as something that's purely objective or a veneer of objectivity. Where arts are frequently criticized for being Oh, just for consumption for elites or, you know, irrelevant or, or to facilitate gentrification, as you said.
Ewan Allinson: [00:48:51] It's a dilemma that, that each individual artist wrestles with on their own terms, I suppose. I, as a sculptor, it tends to be wealthy people who can afford to buy my sculptures. That being the case, I cross subsidize, not that I earn much at all, but, I use those earnings to help support the work I do, or from a justice point of view in pushing for change.
So that's the way I reconciled myself to that.
Adam Calo: [00:49:24] I wanted to talk a little bit about the film that you just produced as part of the, AHRC research project, “Art is Not an Island.” Everyone should watch the film.
I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed seeing the Highlands and Islands in winter. I thought that was kind of a key element. It seemed like the key argument of the film, if there was one, at least that I always trained to see things for in terms of arguments, maybe that's the wrong way of looking at it, was that this problem from the eyes of government and many others about a “de-peopled” Northwest of Scotland. That artists had a key role in not only rep-peopling those places, but bringing back a dignified existence in a strong sense of place. How do you read my take on, on the film and, and can you try and make, maybe make that argument in your own words?
Ewan Allinson: [00:50:13] I was conscious in pitching for the film, this idea that within the re-peopling agenda policymakers were somewhat missing a facet of it, which was , the contribution of artists and makers to it, and how to understand that and how to be cognizant of that in developing policies for re-peopling to support the presence of artists within a community is itself. Very often a point of pride for communities that an artist should want to come and celebrate that place. And in turn this contributes to a sense of confidence and of self-valuing, both in terms of the community of the place, which can have very strong implications for decision-making , and this was part of the point of the film. It's not all about community buyouts, but it can contribute to the confidence that will lead to the community buy-outs.
So, this dynamic that is introduced, when an artist living in amongst people celebrate not only that places, landscape, but that people's culture and that people's heritage, that makes a substantial difference in terms of local empowerment within decision-making processes.
Art itself was, during the 20th century, somewhat responsible for making itself an “island” for making itself this discrete world of value and meaning and emancipation. And in a way we need to go back—and this is how a lot of artists are engaging in this idea of art—as simply being part of the everyday life of not being something for elites.
Of course, you look into Highland culture and of course, art has always been part and parcel of, particularly music, but poetry too, has always been part and parcel of daily life. So it's not an alien concept to have the arts as a key generator of values in terms of place.
Adam Calo: [00:52:43] One of the scenes in the film is an art and community center, Taigh-Chearsabhagh on North Uist. The sense was from the film that the investment in that infrastructure a number of years ago has led to this tangible flourishing of the artist community and a sense of place.
I guess let's say that more investment continues to be made in a similar fashion. Explain to me, like I'm a run-of-the -mill environmental scientist, how would that then improve kind of landscape decision-making of import to me, further down the line?
Ewan Allinson: [00:53:16] What it helps to do is, create a community of interest in these issues. The existence of that infrastructure can become a rallying point for engaging with communities around some of the issues that you as an environmental scientist might want to be aired. Without that center there, you would be, perhaps, at a loss as to where to start to begin on that process of community engagement.
Through its artistic vibrancy, is a port of call for engaging with communities on their own terms because they themselves are the ones that shaped the narrative around what it is that the center exists for. And I think that's the key to its success.
It was very much a bottom-up enterprise. I think that's what shows through in the film.
Adam Calo: [00:54:14] The flip side is, if I was actually tasked with doing some kind of environmental assessment and making recommendations about what should change or what kind of land use should be used—and there wasn't that sense of place, then I would be able to accomplish that job, accomplish that task, but miss out on that local knowledge or miss out on any kind of counter agenda that might come from local people in the absence of that public sense.
Ewan Allinson: [00:54:42] Yeah. And that would make your job easier because the recommendations that would come would flow from your methodologies and your framing. But from a pure value for money point of view, the auctions that would flow from those recommendations that had had been developed in isolation would not have the local purchase that they would need to really deliver to the particulars of that place and that community, which is again … I think the value for money argument is quite good.
One to latch onto actually. This is ultimately a value for money issue. If you're spending the money, then you want to make sure there is a real purchase of those actions and interventions that work at that local level.
And they're not going to work if you haven't actually got through to what the sense of place is and to what makes that place tick. In insisting that these horizons that artists are very at home with, and comfortable with these complexities that become a second nature to artists, these nuances, they are absolutely essential for making sure that the money spent actually delivers down the line.
Adam Calo: [00:56:12] I work in sustainable food systems research, and a lot of my work has been spending time with new and beginning farmers or second career farmers who are going out into these rural spaces that are dominated by conventional agriculture, but are doing things radically different. They're bringing, different types of agricultural practices.
They're tapping in different markets. They have a different vision about what food production is for and who it should be for. And one of the critiques that I always get, in this research or presenting about it is, well these are just people who are hobbyists. They made their money in tech and now they're—even if this is inaccurate—and then they come out to this countryside because they have mobility, they have agency do to do this.
I wonder, can you address that same kind of critique in terms of artists going into these spaces, especially in the Highlands and Islands, are they going to be truly transformative or are they just moving there because they can and they already have the mobility to do so?
Ewan Allinson: [00:57:12] For the most part, I think most of the artists that appeared in the film, I don't think they can be typecast in that way. Yes, they may have mobility, but very often they're not sitting on nest eggs. It is not that they're not people who've made money in one field and then are living the dream, as it were. It's interesting. Hill farmers and crofters, there's a lot in common with artists actually is that they tend to survive on an income below £20,000 and they do it because they have to do it.
A couple of years ago, I went to the Oxford Real Farming Conference where, there was a couple of slightly more hard-bitten, shall we say, farmers of my ken from Teasdale came down to it.
And it's an interesting kind of chasm opens up between your, shall we refer to them as hardcore farmers, whose parents and grandparents farmed and these, ingénue or new farmers who are doing it from a different point of view. And hopefully over time, the two can begin to see eye-to-eye.
The real threat to these communities is people coming in and buying second homes or buying properties and turning them into holiday homes. And again, you mentioned that filming in winter, that was very much the gist of it, doing it in winter was to show these places, not as idols, but as places that are actually quite bleak, quite elemental, quite trying, not necessarily romantic, but nonetheless sources of inspiration for artists and that's what's driving artists there.
And interestingly, what's also driving artists there is the desire for low impact lives. Not to, be living in a consumer society, but to be living in the community and contributing to that community. My sense is that anything that contributes to the longevity and resilience of crofting communities is welcomed.
So I think, I think there's a welcome in the Hills and the Islands for the most part.
Adam Calo: [00:59:38] Let's say that I'm convinced that an artistic engagement, in issues of landscape decision-making is absolutely crucial. How do you actually make this interdisciplinary transdisciplinary framework function? One of the things that I saw from one of the feedbacks of your Hefted on the Hill exhibit, which was presented in a number of local churches to where the project was done was there was a farmer visiting from Scotland
and they said that they thought the exhibit was really well done, that it, they saw the same issues where they were from. And they said,
“the exhibition is wonderful and admirable, but it feels marginalized. I mean, only seen by those who have already had an interest in these issues … preaching to the converted. This isn't a criticism. I have experienced the same thing.”
And my sense, and other feedback was that, where were they people in power to actually come in and watch these exhibits? How do you actually take the value of some of these artistic endeavors and engage them landscape science and make them into meaningful new knowledge production and emancipatory decision-making pathways?
Ewan Allinson: [01:00:44] Good question. Actually, this advocacy process does begin in those same areas where those hill-farmers are operating because within these same areas, you do have a lot of incomers who, okay, they pass tractors on the road and they see farmers in the shop, but they don't the first thing about what that work entails, what it's for.
In a way there was the first act of advocacy is at that local level to get local people to value what it is that the farmers are crofters are doing in their midst.
The answer to the second one was well, on the strength of the exhibition, I was invited into the Uplands Alliance which is a kind of confederacy of lobby groups who have a close relationship to DEFRA.
The purpose of that was really to open up a cultural front within that lobbying process, whereby some of these issues around values and overlooked knowledge and so on. I am able to keep that front and center of the discussion at that national level. In a way that's what doing an impactful exhibition that resonated very well locally can do.
And on the strength of that valuing thought, it kind of empowered me and the broader project Northern heartlands to become involved discussions around policy-making.
Adam Calo: [01:02:33] I want to challenge you, Ewan, you said that it allowed you to open up a cultural front. What might you think of it being more like cultural stamp in which, you know, the artist in residence is you, which is a safe space to put the artist, carefully at the side of decision makers so that they can point to you over there and then continue to do what they do?
Ewan Allinson: [01:02:53] Yes, but that's where I, as an awkward customer, I suppose,
I'm able to reject being co-opted in, in that way. Cause I wouldn't permit that to happen. I think the point you make is a highly pertinent one. And many NGOs over the last 10 years have become tarnished, haven't they? With seeming to have legitimized actions and policies, through being within that decision making process that are actually contrary to their supposedly to their values and so on. That's definitely a tight rope that one needs as an artist to be very conscious of. To never let up in being awkward and being dangerous and calling things out. Well, one will be judged in due course as well.
Adam Calo: [01:03:54] It sounds like the theory of change that you are suggesting is one in which the artist engagement provides an element of community sense of place, community values that are inaccessible to the social and biophysical sciences, but then the individuals involved in those projects can become at the table of power in terms of being able to represent interests and block certain ideas that may go run counter to those interests.
Is that kind of the theory of change that you're suggesting with some of these large projects that involve our transdisciplinary in terms of the arts with the other sciences?
Ewan Allinson: [01:04:34] I think what I'm saying and what, what “AALERT” is advocating is that, yes, that theory of change and living change, more profoundly, requires that artistic input. Living in an era of change, there's this element of improvisation, I think, which is a key attribute of artistic practice.
Artists have this expertise, for improvisation. It's part and parcel of that, particularly as freelancers, is part and parcel of your practice. And we're living in an era where society as a whole is going to need to learn to improvise and adapt. Artistic approaches to improvisation and adaptation and being able to be coherent and know where you're heading as things are changing around you is, an attribute, I think that art, the arts, having quantity and
can contribute therefore to—as societies themselves learn to adapt to profound environmental change. So those values within the arts, that maybe don't resonate with ideas of the status quo, which is all about fixed positions and hierarchies. Those are going to find a bigger place within society and systems.
Adam Calo: [01:06:09] Are there projects that are ongoing that really demonstrate the power or at least demonstrate promise to show the power of artists engagement in these areas of environmental uncertainty and change?
Ewan Allinson: [01:06:20] AALERT itself—
Adam Calo: [01:06:22] That's a project that's called Arts and Artists in Landscape and Environmental Research today? That's why it has AALERT as its title.
Ewan Allinson: [01:06:28] Yes. Its latest incarnation in terms of the landscape decision program includes the “4DM” as in for decision-making. I think it is a decisive contribution to opening eyes amongst disciplines who maybe didn't realize that they needed that artistic input.
Making them realize just how much artists can contribute to a productive framing of the work of natural scientists and social scientists in ways that can be liberating.
Turning their gaze on the environment and on environmental change, I think AALERT itself is, is contributing to a seismic shift in the narrative.
Last week, we had a superb scoping workshop, that heard from international artists doing amazing things across the globe with policy makers and decision makers, very often about, and this is, again, about how artists can reframe the narrative.
So David Haley was talking about his work in, I think it was in Taiwan, about graceful adaptations to sea level rises. It's thinking about the framing of the era of environmental change and environmental crisis that we're going into. How do we frame it in a way that is not just about it being a hard technical issue, but actually ultimately it being issue of the imagination, that will help generate the solutions and the adaptations that will be liberating for the sciences themselves? It's waking the disciplines up to just how much artists and the arts can contribute, to the framing in particular, the imaginative framing of the efforts that the science is going to put itself to.
Adam Calo: [01:08:38] I guess that's another thing that I'm hearing from you about the true theory of change here is getting scientists asked the right questions and to use the right methods in order to get at the complexity that the problems they're studying deserve.
Ewan Allinson: [01:08:51] Yeah, definitely. If we go back to ecosystem services, that's not necessarily the language of science, that's the language of neoclassical economics, which science has formed a Faustian pact with, I suppose, to build its currency. But I really think we need to be thinking about the language we use as well and services really isn't it.
Ultimately, as I say, I'm happy to work with people who are using that language and to even contribute to discussions that use that language, but that let it be known, I have huge issues with thinking about that as a service and we really need to be talking about relationships, that we have relationships with nature. Not that nature serves as in these various ways.
Adam Calo: [01:09:39] Thank you, Ewan this has been really illuminating and I think you represented the arts well.
Ewan Allinson: [01:09:43] Thank you. I do my best.