Aids to navigating the interval of uncertainty

It was a pleasure to meet with PhD students recently to explore more of the issues I’ve been looking at during my residency; I’m grateful to them for taking time out of their research and writing to join me in the sometimes noisy space next to the Clore Ballroom in the Royal Festival Hall (coinciding with a throng of children on a break from a school outing on the South Bank).

Our discussion was productive in helping me revisit ideas from previous work and encounters and look to new opportunities. As some of you will recall, we looked at tentative ideas of an ‘anticipatory history’ approach to thinking about environmental change in a Landscape Surgery back in January. As I said in my blog post then, concepts such as anticipatory history are helpful to me because they offer an experimental tone and an exploratory approach. In particular, AH seems to suggest three angles of imaginative attack to the complex question of how people relate to the experience and prospects of environmental change as it touches us and our places:

  • possible tools, such as ‘reverse chronology’ that explores how change has been perceived in a place and how the future might have been imagined there in past times, help us examine plausible futures there now (a “looking back to look forward”);

  • a fresh look at the phrases and metaphors we use when we think about change, and how we often seem to talk past each other when using a common language;

  • opportunities for naming new or unfamiliar (and sometimes shocking) responses to environmental change as a means to provoke new perceptions of what could be possible, necessary or desirable.

I circulated six entries from the AH book ahead of our discussions at the Festival Hall: each – Monitoring, Art, Palliative Curation, Story-radar, Futurology, and Acclimatisation – with a different author but all created as part of an interdisciplinary research process into landscape and wildlife change. Together, the fifty or so entries in the Anticipatory History book offer a sort of glossary of possible interpretations of phrases that cropped up in their discussions. I selected these particular entries because they seemed to offer different ways in which we relate to change or the prospects of change. Very broadly, the different tactics that I see on offer here are: measuring and monitoring change; imagining and representing it; marking and mourning it; making, reinforcing and internalising narratives about it; predicting and warning (or else comforting ourselves) about it; and accommodating it in the ways we cope with living in the world.

Other responses are possible, of course – both to the experience or anticipation of change, and to these and the other texts in the book. I am therefore always keen to hear what others think of the entries – and of the gaps between them. My hastily scribbled notes from our conversation that day offer a highly fragmented account of my discussants’ comments and – along with the original entries and my own writings – contribute to an aggregating and intersecting text which will continue to spark ideas and ways to re-approach the originals.

As I was drafting this short post, an email arrived from a writer alerting me to a new exhibition he has helped curate at Brighton’s ONCA gallery. The exhibition theme – which is also the name of the community organisation he has been working with, Rewilding Sussex – brought to mind (of course) another of the entries in the AH book. Rewilding, after all, is also a response to change, and it touches the human inside as well as the more-than-human outside. In her Rewilding entry, Caitlin DeSilvey speaks of some areas within an ex-military site being “restored and adapted for reuse” while others, left to their own devices, were rewilding themselves, “tended by benign neglect”; however, she also points out a tension, as cultural authorship of sites that are deemed to be better off ‘going back to nature’ (and taking us back there with it) can also be a form of historical erasure, where “naturalisation risks negation.” It was DeSilvey who also penned the entry on Palliative Curation, drawing on the form of end-of-life care that can help people in the movement between life and death as a metaphor for how we could also attend to the transformation of natural landscape and heritage features. She cites the possible example of the lighthouse at Orford Ness in Suffolk and the “interval of uncertainty” it faces as the sea continues to erode the shingle it stands upon. Since that article was printed, the lighthouse has been switched off and the dangerous mercury in its lamp removed before it risked contamination of the advancing sea. An official review had already declared that the lighthouse was “no longer required as an aid to navigation” – but the concept of palliative curation and anticipatory history itself suggests that perhaps the new language which such intervals of uncertainty suggest – here, between first the light disappearing and then the lighthouse – offer their own aid to our navigation of change and our place within it.

My residency has now drawn to a close, and I am grateful to Harriet and all those who took part in the discussions at Royal Festival Hall, the Landscape Surgery and elsewhere and for the papers I was able to read and draw further ideas from.

Mark Bicton, Entrepreneur in Residence

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