....Research Topics and Speculation about Art and Public Space by Scottish Citizen and artist Matt Baker

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Art, land reform and a culture of relevant regional productivity

I feel connected to Dumfries and Galloway in my work and through extended family and friends across the region where I live. I often question why this place should feel so special to me- so complete. I work all over Scotland and have many familiar routes, but there is a logic and sense to crossing the land of the South West: 
from the flatlands of Gretna

 ....to the pasture of Nithsdale and Dumfries 

....gradually finding Castle Douglas – the market at the edge of the granite and heather

....onto the lumpy wilds of Gatehouse and Cairnsmore
....before passing the quarries of Creetown 

...and the water of Newton Stewart

.....then pushing on into longer horizons at the start of the Southern Uplands past the Abbey lands of Glen Luce

....and finally the edge of the world at Stranraer and Portpatrick

….and yes (for any locals reading) I realise that this is just the A75 and that the best bits are off to the sides…but this is the spine of our country and passing along it I have a sense of feeling connected to the rhythm of the landscape unlike anywhere else I know.
So what is the binding thread, and is it of any relevance in thinking about the future?….my first answer would be the stones 
– there is a lovely quote from Neal Acherson (about Scotland generally) ‘…human experience in this difficult Northern place has been built so intimately into the geology and the post-glacial ecology of Scotland that a people and its stones form a single cultural landscape’ 
the ‘spine’ of the region that I spoke of before is paralleled by the literal spine of the Southern Uplands (that run just to the North of the A75). 

Southern Uplands (Dalveen Pass)
This band of hills that runs from Portpatrick in the West, right across to Berwickshire in the East of Scotland was formed 400 million years ago when the then separate land masses of England and Wales crashed into Scotland and the sea bed of the Iapetus Ocean between them was squashed like a concertina and pushed up into the light. The grey, hard and brittle local Whinstone (properly Greywacke) makes up the Southern Uplands and was formerly the seabed of the Iapetus Ocean.

greywacke used as building stone

I was born in the South West of England and I make a connection between the energy of that South West with the South West of Scotland….people often say ‘sleepy’ or even ‘hippy’ ….but it is not that, I sense a comfort with time….and I mean long slow time as opposed to short fast time – a sense that things take as long as they take and that there is no sense in forcing the issue because you will probably end up using twice the energy for the same result. This corresponding lack of pressure on land has led to the marks that the old people made in (and with) the stones still being very much in evidence ‘Cup and Rings’ ‘Circles’ and ‘Cairns’ are everywhere as are old roads, dykes and the stone infrastructure of subsistence living on the land. 

Cup and Ring markings - High Banks, near Kirkcudbright
Abandoned sheep pens - Newton Stewart

Much is spoken today of the breakdown of communal life and the modern phenomenons of ‘de-centred community’ etc – for sure, things have changed here too, but I think that there is always one eye on the past, and the rush for the future is not so final, so all-embracing…..we question the purpose of villages and towns in the modern age when they have been so fundamentally stripped of their former necessity by mechanization and modern communications….but, there is still that South Western eye on the past that suddenly becomes an important beacon by which to navigate into the future.

I am not talking about a flabby and pointless nostalgia, serious and important innovation has happened in the South West and continues to be a vital spark in our midst, rather I mean the confidence to recognize the value in both the future and the past….a quality of innovation that does not need to burn all its bridges in order to prove its worth.

This brings me full circle back to the stones and the land – the big challenge facing us is the future use, management and ‘ownership’ of the land. The culture of farming subsidy that began with the end of the Second World War (and the understandable desire to ensure that Britain was always capable of feeding itself) has led to the current situation whereby farmers are forced to decide the way they steward their land according to subsidies handed out by a central government. We are arriving at a moment in history when this centralized control will no longer be sustainable…things will fracture and break apart meaning that the land will once again come under more localized control through the logic of local market forces rather than beginning with large amounts of cash being entrusted to the few who claim ownership of the land. I feel that D+G is ready in its own unique way to take on the challenge of again confronting the genuine reality of ‘productivity with purpose’ as opposed to the crazy game that we have been asked to literally ‘buy’ into whereby if we all bought enough stuff all the time then we could rely on the clever folk in the City to make a big enough margin on the transfers of money that we’d always still have enough money to keep buying. 

And as for an art scene, a cultural scene whatever you choose to call it – we are one of the vital communication threads that binds the region together. We keep pointing at things that others might have forgotten to see for a while – wondering if an innovation is worth throwing something away for or nagging about something that should have been consigned to the attic for long term storage. We are passionate about the quality of the light moving across a hillside and keep telling people to stop and watch – we live and work here because when people value the old stones they also respect people who can put that worth into words, songs, pictures or form.

We live in a difficult and temporary historical moment when we are coming off money ‘cold turkey’ – for the next wee while the cry will keep going up that ‘there is no money for art’ …..but deep down art, culture, heritage, belonging is worth much, much more than money and I believe that creative people can give a lead in kicking ‘dependency culture’ and in doing so prove their worth in this region that still remembers what worth is.