Ruth Little on collaborating with scientists and artists to effect climate change

I want to talk a little bit differently from some of the other speakers in the last couple of days about ways of knowing. According to the Cape Farewell Project that Pat mentioned, the future is the place where we’re all going to spend the rest of our lives, according to Charles Kettering, who invented the electric starter motor and freon refrigerant. So I’m not sure whether to thank him or abuse him for that. But we tend to agree with him.

We invest our money in it. We project our hopes and our fears onto it. We anticipate its arrival or we set out recklessly in search of it. But still the future remains frustratingly elusive. And it always will. Like next week’s weather, situated – according to the Aymara speakers of the high Andes – behind us in our perpetual blind spot, while the past stretches ahead for all to see. In that sense, we’re walking backwards into the future. And we’re carrying with us all of those objects and ideas that shore up our belief in the continuity of our past, present and unrealised selves.

Our future is really just the redistribution of that baggage in the closed material system of the earth. We can’t make the baggage go away, not at the molecular level. But we can make better and more informed and thoughtful choices about what to carry forward, what to recycle, what to share, shed, or hand on to future generations. Daniel Kahneman has argued that we’ve got two selves. We’ve got the remembering self, which compulsively constructs narratives about our past and projects these as our hopes and fears into the future. And we’ve got our sense-saturated experiencing selves, our embodied selves, which live always and only in the present. But their way of knowing, that way of knowing, is constantly eclipsed by our ways of remembering. We favour one self over the other, and we do it at our peril. It’s that present tense, that embodied present sense of self and relationship that will unfold into our futures, whatever they become. And it’s in our interests, and in the interests of everything that we transact with to seize it. For the spectrum of possibilities contained in that present to be as wide as possible, multivocal, contradictory, provisional, flexible, humble, curious, and generous.

Like good gardeners, we need to lay down a store of essentials. And out of that store, we might learn to choose better and more enduring tools, and more adaptable and resonant images and objects to carry forward with us into leaner times. So the question that we’re asking in the Sea Change Project for Cape Farewall is can a more complete awareness of now, a more vivid remembering of it, make us capable of a better future than the one that we suspect is approaching us from behind? I think so. And I want to live so. And I want to build and join networks that act so. This is the now of full context, of aesthetic rather than anaesthetic awareness. Of embodied and direct experience of place, time, and conditions, using the most advanced digital technology on earth. These. The French for now is maintenant, from maintenir, to hold the hand. In English, maintain. Cape Farewell’s Sea Change Project, which I’ve been involved in for the last three years, considers the present as a practise of maintenance, of holding now.

Building resilience in and connection to place as a store for the future. The project has grown out of eight years of Arctic sailing journeys involving scientists, artists, and articulate contexts in which climate change has a local habitation and many names. We work with scientists because their ways of learning and their methods of data collection are precise, searching, and because they reveal the unseen and the unimagined. And so they extend the languages and the iconographies and the understanding of the complexity in which we now live. We work with artists because art and craft produce highly integrated and emotional experiences of meaning. Things we can grasp now and carry forward in concentrated symbolic form, like freeze dried rations. Art’s a powerful lens through which to focus attention. And art, hand in hand with science, helps us to feel at home in a world of process, change, and becoming. So Sea Change consists of artists’ residencies at sea and on land, exploring the relationships between people, places, and resources in Scotland’s Island communities. Sea Change sees the future as the releasing of present knowledge in appropriate and invigorating contexts.

And we work with islands because islands are vital in poorest places where change is immediately visible, raising live questions about our needs, our wants, and the limits of our planet. They’re places with long histories of improvisation and adaptation. Islands offer the immediacy of learning through place, extending the self and our sense of responsibility into other spheres, particularly our oceans and our atmosphere. An island inhabits, which means that it is present within the wind and the sea, and reminds us that we’re present within those realms too, and that they and we, are constantly in flux. Islands are excellent metaphors. Islands are us. On our sailing journeys over three years across the Western and Northern Isles, we’ve included around 60 artists and scientists. Oceanographers, biologists, archaeologists, social scientists. And through the projects that have emerged from them, we’ve seen the role of the artist as communicator, witness, and participant expand and make possible new connections and social relations.

These relations are rooted in the ethics, in the aesthetics, and the economics of energy extraction and resource use. In the relationship between our needs and the earth’s finite resources. And as a result of these, we’ve seen the art object itself become an aspect of a more vital kind of materialism. A site of conversation and participation and adaptation. We’re seeing the creation of very concentrated forms of island knowing, if you like. The expression of questions and values and actions that are, or will be, highly relevant to us all. Deirdre Nelson, a Glasgow based embroiderer, created a project called Birdyarns which began as a knitting and conversation workshop around the dramatically shifting migration patterns of the sea birds on Mull and other islands. A project around memory, sustenance, change, and absence. Birdyarns became a flock of 100 Arctic terns made of local Mull wool and recycled plastic by knitters in five countries.

It evolved into a three day event in Tobermory, combining storytelling, science, music, and slow food. And it went on to become a forest installation. It blew into Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens. It went to galleries and schools across Scotland, accompanied musician Jo Mango on tour, and one of the birds went to the high Arctic with WWF. Birdyarns is a celebration of digital technology, of the intimate connection of pattern, to hand, to wool, to world. The people who made the birds have dwelled with them and held them and tended to them. And through exhibitions, events, and social media, they’ve become part of the flock that includes older craft makers, ornithologists, naturalists, and children. And in many voices, speaks of the plight of migratory sea birds, which are losing their way in a changing world.

This is a form of knowledge based on recognition, a holistic perception producing meaning that is relational, embodied, and emotional. We care for things according to what we believe about them. Artworks may not change the world, but their processes are life crafts. Tools for the future which restore our relation to things into one another, and our sense of responsibility and belonging. Stephen Hurrell’s Sea Stories Project on the island of Barra charts a potential future in an age of uncertainty. Steve and the social scientist Ruth Brennan spoke over the course of a year to fisherman on Barra about the Scottish government’s designation of part of their local waters as a marine conservation area, a designation that they feel has been imposed without listening and without abiding with them, without awareness of the local needs, practises, and knowledge possessed by that community.

It’s not a case of disaffected people hindering progress. It’s that the fishermen have a different map to navigate by. Theirs is an oral map in Gaelic of the forms and features and fluxes of Barra’s inshore waters, which they know more intimately, and have a stronger and more continuous sense of responsibility for perhaps, than the policy makers in the Scottish government. The Gaelic scholar John McKinnis has described this as a form of emotional energy. And it’s exemplified in this film clip of Barra fisherman Calen McNeil naming his way in memory along the Barra coast, walking and speaking a song line of connection. It’s a kinesthetic way of knowing that has to be articulated to survive. So Steve and Ruth are transforming these conversations and journeys into a digital map, which allows users, particularly Barra users, to travel horizontally across that renamed land and seascape, but also vertically through layers of use and practise in the form of text and oral and image archives, and sound and story. Sea Stories turns the map into a network of associations and interdependencies.

It offers tools for cultural, scientific, and policy navigation. And Barra residents are now being trained in the use of the software so that they can take the project on, maintain it, and continue to add to it. So Sea Stories is designed to live and evolve, to draw from and feed into place. Tim Ingold has argued that people develop skills, knowledge, and identities in relation to the landscapes in which they find themselves. And I think more than that, as Nan Shepherd has put it, place and mind may interpenetrate until the nature of both is altered. If you’ve been to sea, you’ll know that a boat challenges the upright version of the self, insisting on unfamiliar and perpetual forms of movement, adjustment, and reorientation. At first, the body resists. But over time, the boat becomes an extension of the body – boat body – teaching it new skills.

Our experience of movement integrates us with our environment. And boats, like islands, teach us that the presence of place of limited resources and perpetual flux, of storms in many tea cups, subject to forces beyond our control, they teach us that the future’s an imperfectly imagined and incompletely predicted outcome of the interaction of many complex systems. It’s not a destination, it’s a process of navigation, improvisation, and maintenance. So art, in this context, is socially and scientifically engaged. It’s instrumental, yeah, in the sense of a musical instrument, which is capable of different forms of expression in different contexts. It’s full of memory, but it’s most vital, most alive when it’s played upon. It’s the art of place as process, meaningful not just in and for itself, but through its capacity to nourish and connect individuals to communities and their ecologies.

It’s guided by what I would call trans-ethic which is an ethic of transaction and exchange. It’s based on the premise that by attending more closely to the materials and the processes that we’re part of, we could foster what the philosopher Jane Bennett calls wiser interventions into those environments. And it’s an epic of transition that acknowledges the fact that we are all at sea, always. But suggests that we might move forward or backwards culturally, politically, and economically, with a more active sense of the dense network of relations in which we’re inextricably mixed. It’s an instrument or tool with which to develop more accurate and honest languages around our relationship with materials and their value.

And it’s a means of training our boat bodies, guided by our actions and choices about the scale of our interventions, by a more intensive and extensive knowledge of place and context. This way of knowing is expressed by the Orkney sculptor and sailor John Cumming. His Ditty Box Project is a meditation on the sailor’s art of journeying into the unknown as a kind of informed improvisation, carrying, in his words, only the tools of self maintenance and the bare essentials of a hoped for future. Maintenance, holding in the hand, the value and potential of materials, the practise of now. That’s how we might spend the rest of our lives. Thank you.