Author Archives: markbicton

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

Writing futures with anticipatory history

At the session on 20th January, I was delighted to introduce discussion on a paper in the ‘provocations’ section of Environmental Humanities journal – Mapping common ground (Bergthaller et al, 2014) – and the equally provocative introductory essay to the volume Anticipatory history (DeSilvey, Naylor & Sackett, 2011). A significant focus for me is the short entries in that book (some of which we circulated with the longer papers).

Anticipatory history and the complementary paper Making sense of transience (DeSilvey 2012) have informed my work in the context of coastal change and my writing. As a set of ideas, anticipatory history offers an experimental and exploratory approach to considering the future in place and how we relate to that in the present. An important aim is to question, even unsettle, the settled views we have of ‘the past’ and of the dominant versions of ‘the future’ that we desire or fear. We need to broaden our understanding of place and the processes which change it, rather than narrow our vision and prematurely define the scripts we want everyone to act from. As such, anticipatory history opens up space for multiple perspectives, taking the diversity of ‘place voices’ as our starting point – and the likely end point. It questions assumptions of permanence and certainty: the same but more so than the recent move beyond climate change scenarios that once presented simplistic ‘snap shot’ alternative futures requiring equal consideration but providing only modest practical help, to more probabilistic projections where we need to address our own ‘risk appetites’ for the futures we are prepared to make and to hand on. But where climate scenarios talk of probabilities, which most of us are ill-equipped to deal with, anticipatory history talks of plausabilities: what can we imagine, based on what we know of the present and the past? And, anyway, how much is ‘the’ past a product (or process) of imagination in the first place? We need to appeal to imagination as well as evidence in anticipating the range of plausible futures that climate and environmental change are carving out for us.

Some of the angles of imaginative attack that I see anticipatory history offering are:

  1. Space for alternative storylines. For example, the use of reverse chronology approaches to a site, as with Mullion Harbour in Cornwall (DeSilvey, 2012), and the building of new narratives through hearing different ‘place voices’ at past points and imagining the futures that peoples then might have projected forward, and which we might now: “looking back to look forward.”

  2. A fresh look at the language we use and the way we talk about change, place and our options. For example, the array of policy or expert jargon among the disciplines and professions often collide with each other and with public discussion. The everyday language we use to express and reinforce our sense of place, nature and culture is highly metaphorical; and our metaphors can carry different meanings and associations than those we imply. When we come together to share different perspectives on change, we may share an illusion of sharing the meanings of our words while in reality we are ‘talking past each other’. Maybe a room can be divided by a common language even without the open hostility we encounter when specialist jargons are heard as nonsensical words.

  3. Opportunities for naming new names for unfamiliar or novel responses to environmental change. For example, coining a phrase such as “Palliative Curation” for the sensitive handling of the passing of a landscape or cultural artefact is a provocation to open ourselves up to a different view – or to a new argument entirely.

Conversations about change will always be difficult – very often turning and building on notions of loss, blame, guilt. When talk involves both the people who feel directly impacted by change or by the responses to it, and the experts and officials charged with deciding and delivering those responses, then conflict is highly likely – as many agencies have discovered and seem likely to keep discovering. And as we experience more of the impacts of a changing climate, we can expect more conflicts over the future of the places we or our neighbours attach our highest values to. We need ways to keep the conversations open and, it seems to me, engage our imaginations as well as our abilities to take on board evidence and argument.

With all this in mind, I was please to have Mapping common ground as our other main pre-reading. Some of the common ground with anticipatory history, for me, lies in the insistence that environmental crisis is as much cultural and social as it is physical, and that an adventurous approach can help us reach beyond the professional, academic and expert-public boundaries. Part of that adventure is the need to question our own ‘givens’ and to address the difficult ‘chokepoints’ along the borders. It also requires the skill of working across the boundaries, accepting what each party has to offer – which in the case of the humanities includes the ability to grapple with ambiguity. In the shuttling backwards and forwards between the whole and the parts, the past and the future, culture and nature (both our environment and ourselves as shaper and shaped), the aim is to help us to forge insights rather than (just) to formulate new knowledge.

Fiction is one way of engaging imaginations and building insights through conversation. Many of the same elements – plotting alternative storylines, challenging the language, and bringing new words and ideas to the fore – enliven fiction. Possibly, they can also enrich what we hold to be ‘the facts’. I’m hoping that bringing people together for participatory creative writing (or drawing, photography, craft or performance) workshops can create good conversations about change as well as good fictions.

Bergthaller, H, et al (2014) Mapping common ground: Ecocriticism, Environmental History and Environmental Humanities, Environmental Humanities, vol 5

DeSilvey, C., Naylor, S. & Sackett, C. (2011) Anticipatory history (Axminster, Uniform Books)

DeSilvey, C., (2012) Making sense of transience: an anticipatory history, Cultural Geograpies 19(1)

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Writing Climate Change

On Monday 26th June (6:45pm) Free Word (60 Farringdon Road) are hosting a free evening event to launch the pdf publication of “Weatherfronts – climate change and the stories we tell”: new works commissioned by TippingPoint with Free Word and Spread the Word. See https://freewordcentre.com/events/detail/writing-climate-change for details and to book.

For more information on TippingPoint, see http://www.tippingpoint.org.uk/

Introducing Mark Bicton – ‘Creative Entrepreneur in Residence’

When I came to the first Landscape Surgery of the year, it was energising to meet so many members of the group and hear brief accounts of such great, wide-ranging research. I’ll be with the group (very part-time!) until next Summer, as Creative Entrepreneur in Residence. Working with Harriet Hawkins, my residency will help to devise and test participatory creative writing as a way to engage local experiences and responses to environmental change.

Funded by a Creativeworks London grant, my aim for this time at Royal Holloway is to develop a series of writing workshops on a ‘water environment’ theme, engaging local people’s individual and collaborative creativity on the experiences or prospects of impacts such as flooding. But I also hope to learn about your research and interests: what you’re reading, what you’re writing, the connections you’re making between your work and the world. Geographical ideas have a strong pull on my imagination and help push my own writing. I’m not sure I’d have applied the word ‘entrepreneur’ about myself until I went freelance a couple of years ago, I’m certainly drawn to the word’s origins in early 19th century French – entreprendre: to undertake. According to the OED, it originally denoted the director of a musical institution. While that certainly isn’t me, a creative undertaking to bring together research and fiction and to impact people’s imaginations sums up part of what I’m trying to do in bridging my own experience with future possibilities.

After an interesting but overly optimistic foray into physics and astronomy, I’ve worked around environmental change for over twenty years. Starting with programmes to engage small businesses with resource efficiency and reduce our impacts on the environment, I moved into the challenges of adapting to the impacts of environmental change on us. I worked with regional climate change partnerships and national programmes to build adaptive capacities in the face of uncertain but unavoidable climate change. But I also became aware that I was missing out on some ‘critical mass’ in our ability to respond meaningfully to risks that seem far away, in the distant future, or abstract – in other words, that generally lack the bite of the ‘here and now’.

I’d already taken a career break to think about this gap when, by good fortune and a lack of planning on my part, I ended up on a short contract with Exeter University, where I entered into the world of cultural geography for the first time! Something must have worked its way under my skin, because a couple of years later I took their MA Climate Change, a multi-lensed perspective that helped me to locate some of that ‘missing mass’ in creativity and collaboration. I worked with a local novelist on short story workshops she was running to help people create and share their imagination of what the future could be; with researchers on local perceptions of coastal change and memories of river flooding; and with a load of residents and managers on the tension between lay and expert knowledge on change.

As a result of my time on the MA, I began to develop my own creative writing again: something I’d abandoned when I first went to university and embarked on what I thought would be a straight science career. I’m now half way through an MFA Creative Writing at Kingston University, which I’m using to develop my approach to writing about change. One strand of my work is building a collection of fragmentary fictions to explore ideas in Anticipatory History, a research publication that has had a strong influence on me since my time at Exeter. And I’m interested in the ideas of Jane Bennett and others on the liveliness of matter, of Susan Leigh Starr and others on the possibilities for boundary objects that help enable divergent voices to collaborate on critical issues, and of Mike Hulme and others on why we disagree about climate change. I’m actively involved in the work of TippingPoint, a charity working to promote cultural responses to climate change; this Summer, I organised two events with them, bringing together writers and other artists with experts in policy, science and social science.

So I’m excited about this residency with Royal Holloway, which will enrich my own work, develop useful creative practices that we can take forward and, I hope, contribute something to the work of the group.