The drawings I posted up a few days back that use sandpaper and other abrasives to explore map making, walking and erosion all have counterparts that look at the opposite of erosion – accretion.
The Suffolk coast is influenced by a process called long shore drift (or littoral drift), a process which basically moves sediments at an angle along the coastline from one location to another. One of the reasons that Covehithe has been assigned a status of No Active Intervention (meaning no attempt will be made to preserve the coastline) is that the movement of sediment to the south is considered beneficial to the protection of more ‘important’ settlements to the south. Ever noticed all the groynes at Felixstowe? Well they are there to help protect the beach, and to prevent the loss of sediment. Now notice the lack of groynes at Covehithe.
Anyhow, this counterpart embossing work is my way of once again manipulating materials to mirror or represent natural processes.
Seeing as I am a good half an hour or so into transcribing the first focus group interview, I thought I might post up some of the initially interesting quotes, and then in a day or so post up my thoughts about them. I was going to post up my thoughts tonight, but it’s late, and I’m tired.
“Where I live, we’ve got a similar problem as the house that was bought, it’s on the river, and the water comes up now higher than the front door, so the house has had to be tanked so that it doesn’t flood every year. Now, that’s unfortunate but for, eleven months of the year, except for the three days that water comes up, it, it’s amazing. It’s the most idyllic place to live. But on those three days it’s the most inconvenient place to live, and it’s the most terrifying place to live. But, I wouldn’t give that up (pause) for, for anything, you know…”
“I often think about change in all sorts of different areas and change is really, really difficult with something um, we, um tend not to prefer to confront. But, um, I mean, I think that a lot of people have said today, is actually, it will change and perhaps it’s not within our power to do anything about it. We have to accept it and do things a bit differently which is also a bit scary.”
“The field is being eroded back and the soil is all full of, um, fossils, from the ice age, so, you can find, you know, shark’s teeth and all sorts of wonderful things, coming out. So it’s kind of, you know, sea’s going back, sea’s taking back, the sea’s taking back what it had before…”
“But, long term, I mean, we, we have a massive impact on the environment and there comes a time when, we, you can’t beat (pause) the elements and obviously it’s not going to be the people responsible for global warming that suffer the effects of losing their house but is, sort of (pause) collectively we are having a massive impact on (pause) what happens.”
“I’ve got some maps, Ordnance Survey maps, my other’s a great one for buying maps but there we go and, um, one of them is 19… you know, there’s a, quite a recent one then one back in the 60s. You can see the difference. Minimal, but it’s there.”
Well, waking early on Saturday morning my hopes for reasonable weather for the day’s research activities were dealt a blow. I knew before I opened my eyes that it was raining, as I could hear water spilling from a newly discovered overflowing blocked gutter outside the bedroom window. The rain continued while I walked my dog, and continued as I made my way up the A12. Shortly before I got to Wrentham the rain eased up but the weather remained gusty and the sky stayed leaden.
The weather didn’t help the nervous feeling I had as I waited for the person with the hall key to arrive but wasn’t completely to blame. The biggest source of my anxiety in the weeks leading up to the event, far greater than the worry of not having ever chaired a focus group before, or the fear of terrible weather disrupting the outdoor aspect of the day, was the thought that on the day my participants wouldn’t turn up. I am working to such tight deadlines that at this late stage recruiting new participants, booking a new venue, organising new research days really isn’t an option.
So it was just as well that by 10:30 all my participants were in the kitchen area of the hall getting to know each other and drinking tea and coffee!
The Focus Group Interview
I can’t go into too much detail of the focus group interview here for fear of biasing certain activities that are planned for next Saturday, but, listening to the discussion at the time, and later on listening to the recording at home, I realised that the participants had covered some interesting areas. Two of these which caught my ear were:
Nature/Culture distinctions and our human relationships with the nature and environment.
The coast as a site of conflict, both in terms of the inherent natural processes and in the terminology deployed to describe coastline management.
In a related but separate part of my studies I have been thinking a lot about the writings of Barbara Adam on Nature/Culture distinctions. The dominant discourse (certainly in the Western industrialised world) insists on a separation between humans and nature, underlined by the thought that we can overcome and triumph over all things natural. This worldview obscures and ignores the fact that as humans we are inextricably linked to, and depend upon, nature and environment for our survival. So for the participants to end up discussing whether erosion is a process that we learn to accept and live with, or whether it is something for us to overcome, was very timely.
My role in the Focus Group was to pose questions or suggest themes for discussion, by mostly I was able to sit back and observe interactions and dynamics. There were times when I would try to prompt participants, or ask them to expand on a point, or even to try to bring someone quieter into the conversation, but in general, I was willing to see where the conversation would go. The group seemed to click well, there were very few silences, and the silences that we did experience seemed to be due to the participants waiting for me to say something.
The focus group ran for around an hour an a half, after which we broke for lunch for 45 minutes before heading to the coast for the walking and drawing activity.
Participatory Field Research
While the interview was going on, the weather had quietly been improving. Until we had lunch. Then it got worse, and worse, until by 12:30 the rain was torrential.
I was considering our options. Could we walk in the rain and not draw? Could I ask participants to come an hour earlier on the 17th so we could walk then? I didn’t really know what to do. To change the plan was to fundamentally change the research. Not much time to make a decision.
And then a small patch of sky, a pale blue, appeared in the grey. And gradually got bigger. By 13:00 it was breezy but gloriously sunny. We were saved. I was saved.
Dodging the deeper puddles, participants gathered round, I handed out the sketchbooks and art packs much discussed in my last post, and we set off for the beach. I planned to hang back from the group, and let them make their own decisions as to the direction they went, when they stopped, how fast they walked, whether they stayed together or split up. My main tasks for the afternoon were to observe the way the participants decided to work, how they interacted with each other, how they engaged with the landscape and to make notes on my own thoughts regarding the progress of the field research.
Once again, I can’t go into specifics at this stage for fear of influencing later activities, but I made some interesting observations relating to the different approaches to mark making, and the different approaches to positioning themselves in relation to the landscape, and the reset of the group. After an hour and a half on the beach, heavy clouds began to blow in from the south-west so I explained to the participants that we might like to consider packing up and making our way back and out of the elements.
Driving away from Covehithe, I passed through yet more torrential rain. The only two sunny hours of the afternoon had coincided with our visit to the beach. Perhaps I should take that as some kind of positive sign for the future of the research.
So, as ever, things have been so busy over the last week or so that I have ended up neglecting the online side of this diary. Therefore, an update.
Amid the chaos of the last week I have been slowly assembling an art materials pack for each of my participants (the number of which has now grown to eight) to use on our coastline walk this coming Saturday.
Putting the packs together has been pretty difficult. I know what I like to use when I draw, but I have been discovering what I like and don’t like over several years. It is a different matter to pick out art materials for somebody else however.
Even though, as Ioana Literat points out, drawing as a type of image elicitation operates unaffected by the kind of knowledge hierarchy that conditions much photoelicitation, drawing can still be an intimidating activity to undertake. This is true enough when working alone, but is exacerbated in front of a group of people. This feeling of intimidation can come from lots of sources, but in putting these packs together I have been thinking about the kind of intimidation that can come from the type of materials we use.
There is a difference in using something like a sheet of St. Cuthberts Mill Somerset paper and a sheet of newsprint for example. Each has its uses, and there is a time for both, but for me, certain materials make me feel certain ways and this influences what I do with them. As wonderful as it is to work with them, I believe that high quality materials can invite hesitation or doubt. Say somebody knows that the single sheet of Arches Velin paper they are working on costs around eight or nine pounds per sheet. What I keep coming back to is this – how does this knowledge not influence how they draw? Are we not always encouraged to think, wrongly in my opinion, that if it is expensive then it is to be valued, and valued things are treated with a special kind of reverence. Maybe experience leads to becoming comfortable with this situation. If I ever can afford eight pounds for a sheet of paper I’ll let you know. But my point is, I need to find materials that allow my participants to explore freely, but do not inhibit or intimidate them. After all, this project isn’t about judging what is a good or a bad drawing, so to possibly create a situation where it is being questioned whether what is being drawn is good enough for the materials I have provided will work against everything I am trying to achieve.
Having said that, among my participants there are those who I would consider to be experienced artists, alongside those who do not have much experience of drawing. This is exactly how I wanted it, but it makes it a little difficult to meet the needs of everybody. Those that are familiar with the usual apparatus of drawing, may have certain expectations of their materials, so to provide them with equipment which they might consider to be ‘amateurish’ may also unduly influence what they produce.
So, when putting these packs together I felt that I needed to strike the right balance between familiar, non-threatening materials and materials that aren’t unpleasant or frustrating to use.
I won’t know if I have done just that until we are under way, but I have done my best to reach a decent compromise.
So, each pack contains:
An A3 sketchpad – I guess this could be described as ‘student quality’, the kind of pad that you would find in any art or stationery shop. It isn’t amazing quality but it looks decent enough to cope with a bit of heavy scribbling and rubbing out.
A disposable camera – It’s been a while since I have bought and used one of these (V Festival 1997 I think…) and it was a bit difficult finding somewhere that sold them cheap enough that buying eight and getting the photos developed wouldn’t cost more than a digital compact camera! I finally located them at Jessops and got eight, on a deal of buy two get one free, including processing for around £17.00 which I was pretty happy with. The camera is included as an optional extra for participants to use on the walk. It will be interesting to see how much this is relied upon to record observations.
A tin of sketching pencils – Nice, familiar pencils, but in a rage of different hardnesses.
A selection of colouring pencils – Just to add a further option to working in grey scale.
A black pen
A stick of willow charcoal
Two sticks of compressed charcoal – One black, one brown
A soft/medium charcoal pencil
A paper blending stump – Ideal for blending or blurring the charcoal.
A pencil sharpener
A Zip-Lock bag – to be used to collect any interesting items (so long as they are allowed to be removed from the beach).
I am sure there are many things I could have included but haven’t, but considering the issues I highlighted above I think I have provided a wide enough selection of items to use without the choice being overwhelming. The quality of the items is also something I am pretty pleased with. I think I have worked hard to source items that I can afford, of a quality which doesn’t exude either cheapness or expense. That might raise a few eyebrows but for this project, for the reasons given above, I am happy with ‘average’!
All that remains now is to hand the packs out on Saturday after the morning’s group interview, hope for reasonable weather, and head out into the elements to do some watching, walking and drawing. I have to say, after all this planning, I am looking forward to getting back on the beach, looking, learning, experiencing.
Some back story. Three years a go when I was preparing my research proposal to send to the University of Brighton, my research interests were in slightly different area. At the time, I was concerned with how we might possibly, through art, make environmental processes that operate on a different time scale to human time more personally meaningful, or at least more easily comprehended.
A promising route to a more meaningful experience of slow-moving or large-scale processes seemed to be through art works that physically embody the natural processes they seek to describe. Take for example the handmade book workOnce Around the Sun by Kristjan Gudmundsson. According to Frieze:
In the first volume each page is covered in dots, in total as many dots as there are seconds in a year: 31,556,926 dots in all. The pages of the second volume are densely covered with horizontal lines. Joined together, the lines would measure the distance the earth travels in one second, that is 29,771 metres, or about 18 miles.
This means that these two books, when considered together, are a handmade, visual representation of the distance the Earth travels in one year. What is achieved in these two volumes, is the translation of distances and timescales, so large as to be practically meaningless, through an object that is not only human-scale in size, but also efficiently and poetically expresses large periods of time in a way we can begin to appreciate.
However, over time my research interests evolved and it is only recently when exploring ways to reflect a process such as coastal erosion through drawing that I have been thinking again about art works embodying environmental processes.
Which brings us to the physical counterpart to the online component of this research diary. Arriving home from work today I was greeted by the roll of Fabriano 200gsm paper that I had ordered, from which a concertina sketchbook will be made. Taking its cue from Gudmundsson, the sketchbook will be 4.5 metres long, a distance equal to the amount of land lost to the sea per year in some areas of Covehithe. The concertina design is crucial, as it will make it possible to exhibit the book in one long piece, presenting the journey the research has taken in an object that makes visible and understandable the amount of land loss that is occurring in some areas.
To provide weight to my point that we sometimes have a hard time imagining time and space, I hadn’t really considered how long 4.5 metres actually is, only giving thought that the 10 metre roll of paper I had ordered provided me plenty of room for errors when making the book (traditionally I have always been a measure once, cut twice kind of person). Well, I can report, it isn’t easy to wrestle with a 1.5 metre x 10 metre roll of paper (especially working in a spare room as I am studio-less), and further more, folding a 4.5 metre long sheet of paper into individual pages is also a time-consuming task. It is now made however, and is sitting under several hardback books to try to flatten the pages. Future posts will explain in more detail the purpose of the physical book, as well as discussing other ways my work will come to explore certain aspects of erosion, such as degradation and protection.