Exploring the role of evaluation for AYiB
By ethnographer Julie Crawshaw, who we invited for a visit during our winter residence as a project evaluator. Photographs by Crawshaw – click or tap to view larger.
Developed by Melanie Ashby and Lisa Matthews, ‘A Year In Beadnell’ is a residency programme ‘sown through exchanges concerning the writings of Rachel Carson, and a shared love of the Northumberland coast’ (Ashby and Matthews, 2017). Rachel Carson’s (1907-1964) ecological literary project advanced the environmental movement we know, as ever more urgent today. Her work, as manifest in titles including Silent Spring, Under the Sea-wind and The Edge of the Sea, overcomes distinctions between subject and object, individual and community, human and nonhuman, and science and lay knowledge. In doing so, she contributes to our understanding of experience that ‘integrates sciences, aesthetics, and ethics with the everyday world’ (Browne, 2007, p. 79). During 2015 Melanie, a visual artist and designer, and Lisa, a poet, embarked on a pilot period which encompassed a series of two-week residences: in spring, in summer, autumn and winter. By exploring the way poetics, fine art and digital design can be developed together, ‘A Year In Beadnell’ aims to showcase, celebrate and ‘look in close detail’ at the environment and natural beauty of the Beadnell area, with the aim of continuing Rachel Carson’s ambition ‘to inspire a “sense of wonder” in the natural world around us’.
As an interdisciplinary researcher with a background in visual arts and supervision in anthropology and planning, Melanie and Lisa invited me to consider the role of evaluation in relation to their project. To do so, for one day during the winter residency, I visited them at their sometime house in Beadnell. The day I visit, might be categorised as ‘grey’. But what makes it like that? A founding principle of pragmatism is to understand the world as ‘in the making’. Taking from this philosophical heritage, contemporary theories of ‘the social’ encourage us to understand the natural environment as a co-constituting process. Or, in other words, rather than being a spectator of the world, we rather acknowledge that ‘developing knowledge of the world and acting in the world are all part of the same process of learning and discovering through experience’ (Healey 2009, p. 280). Informed by that visit, to explore the way ‘A Year In Beadnell’ ‘inspires a sense of wonder’ I depart from a pragmatist ecology, where science, ethics, the physical world, and art are intertwined (Browne 2007, p. 8). From here, this short text itself is formed as a crisscross, paced by exchanges from my limited time with Lisa and Melanie (as drawn from field notes, recordings and photographs) in tandem with what I come to know of the relational nature of the Beadnell landscape.
In order for me to find the holiday house she and Melanie are staying in, Lisa emails me directions which I print out and place on the passenger seat of the car. After a wake up coffee at home, I start off around 5.30am. Sitting down, I peek at the paper: from the A1 approx. 7 miles north of Alnwick, turn right at the sign for “Ellingham/Doxford/Preston Chathill”. The driving experience felt familiar, until I got to Beadnell. It was dark of course. So, when driving along the sea front I had a sense of the water, but I couldn’t see it. On arrival, I tell Lisa and Melanie the experience was ‘weird’. I think I mean eerie, or unusual.
Whatever the case, I get there at around 7.30, in good time for sunrise. Knock knock. ‘You are here!’ Lisa and Melanie welcome me in to the hallway. I hang up my coat, clock the kitchen to the right, head down to the living room that stretches over the back of the house, and take a seat on a comfy looking sofa with a view of a painting of the sea.
Over cups of tea (mine drank from the penguin mug), Melanie and Lisa explain they have a routine. Every day, for example, they document sunset with a photograph and sound recording.
What is the time of sunset today?
Is it bang on 8.30?
It’s 8.31 today.
This morning first light was 7.44 and sunrise, 8.31. The sunset is 3.36 and last light is 4.23. We have this very complex machinery. The sun and the seasons. There is a different type of time.
It is felt time.
Including the images and sounds collected at sunset, the residency is manifest to an online audience through daily log posts. Logs are posted by Melanie and Lisa and other artists who they invited to visit during their stays there.
For John Dewey, the human situation in nature (embraced by the term ‘experience’) is radically temporal, and art has the ‘peculiar talent’ of revealing this temporality (Alexander, 1987, p. 53). Dewey suggests art creates feelings and bonds of unity between [women] and [women] and nature by working with meanings embodied in definite media. Central to Dewey’s aesthetics is that art is not the ‘art product’ but rather, art takes place via the workings between ‘inner’ (human) and ‘outer’ physical materials. In reading Carson’s literary work, Browne suggests her writing ‘always attempts a pragmatist ecology that keys into the relationships between the creative imagination and the natural and cultural environments’ (2007, p. 80). Carson makes associations between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ materials. From here, it seems that Melanie and Lisa are on Carson’s path. As produced through being there and doing poetic and visual work, they key in to the way the environment works through feelings of and connection with Beadnell’s temporality.
You feel like you are a human being with other animals and you are part of that’.
You can just see Dunstanborough (Castle), but you can’t see its teeth.
Sitting in the living room, Lisa says, ‘I don’t need the equipment so much now I sort of know the time’. Doing poetic-visual work is equipping Melanie and Lisa to know. From here I would say, by being in the workings of the environment doing their poetic-visual work produces some sort of sense of knowing. Of course, this is not to report that Melanie and Lisa are ‘knowers’ outside of the world to be known. But rather that a knowing experience takes place in the relational fabric of being in Beadnell, by being ‘in residence’, doing poetic-visual work.
After documenting sunrise we return to the house, eat porridge, then walk to the estuary and the beach. To document our journey, I timed a camera around my neck to take a picture every minute. We walk and talk. Melanie and Lisa talk of being at home in Beadnell, ‘We have two homes now’. From here, I pause to consider: What is home?
The anthropologist and poet Michael Jackson suggests, ‘Experientially, home [is] a matter of being-at-home-in-the-world’ (1995, p. 154). From this perspective, home is not a bounded entity but a mode of activity. As activity, perhaps we can understand this poetic-visual project as a way of being-at-home? Perhaps it is a way of making living room? Or in other words, making room for living?
Rather than images taken of a particular view or object, as random the pictures taken from round my neck more so account for our moving through the environment together. Through capturing the interplay between sky, sea, rucksacks, hair and crisps, these documentary images say a little bit about how we were there together.
Of course, these images are documentations of that day. But I would say they say something of the relational associations of being in Beadnell that fuels the work of Melanie and Lisa. As presented on the website, the work itself takes us to a much more intimate place. We are drawn within the layers.
The poet not only detects subtler analogies than other [women], and perceives the subtle link of identity where others see confusion and different, but the form of [her] expression, [her] language, images, etc., are controlled also by deeper unities… of feeling. The objects, the ideas, connected are perhaps remote from each other to the intellect, but feeling fuses them. Unity of feeling gives artistic unity, wholeness of effect, to the composition (Dewey, 2008, p. 96)
A human being with other animals
Shaped by sunlight, I spent one short day with Lisa and Melanie. From 7.30 to 15.30, I hung out with them, observing what they do, and discussed doing it along the way. Before I got in my car to make the drive to Newcastle. Tired, I declare, ‘I’m pleased I’ve come. I can see in a more 3d sort of way, I am looking, I am really here. Ordinarily it would be another grey day, but because I am here with you – doing this – I have come closer to knowing the workings of a ‘grey day’ taking place’.
As the ambition of ‘A Year in Beadnell’, being with Melanie and Lisa, and visiting the project website, has mediated my closer ‘look’ at the environment. When arriving at the house, I was struck by the painting on the living room wall. I mentioned it several times to Melanie and Lisa. But, why? It occurs to me now, it is because of the way, throughout the day, the picture runs. On arrival, I sat down and looked at the painting. Melanie and Lisa, of course, are not looking at the landscape but revealing, through poetic-visual work, the way landscape works. By being with them the frame expands beyond the picture to encompass living room.
From my brief engagement, I understand this project, as vital. Following a pragmatist pathway, the work of Carson is celebrated for breaking down dualisms. As artists, through this poetic-visual collaboration, Melanie and Lisa are developing an important contribution. To continue to forge poetic-visual ways of knowing and articulating the nature of the world in which we live. Without which, we have no room for manoeuvre.
By way of conclusion, I propose the role of evaluation is to explore the way the work opens ways for knowing relationships of which we are part. To explore the workings of the work, I propose, the evaluator should explore ways of working in tandem with the artists, as guided by questions including: What does this residency do? How does the work take place as part of the workings of the place?
Alexander, T. (1987). John Dewey’s Theory of Art, Experience, and Nature. State University of New York Press: Albany.
Ashby, M. and Matthews, L. (2016). Two Rivers and the Sea: A poetic-visual essay by Melanie Ashby and Lisa Matthews inspired by Rachel Carson and the Northumberland coast. Literal Fish: Newcastle Upon Tyne.
Browne, W. W. (2007). The World in Which We Occur. The University of Alabama Press: Tuscaloosa.
Jackson, M. (1995). At Home in the World. Duke University Press.
Julie Crawshaw is Lecturer in Art and Design History at Northumbria University. Her collaborative research builds bridges for integrating artistic knowledge as part of planning and development practice. As experimental ethnography, her work is informed by a background in visual arts and interdisciplinary PhD in Planning supervised and examined in anthropology (awarded Feb 2013). She was a scholar of the interdisciplinary Sustainable Consumption Institute Doctoral Training Centre University of Manchester (2008-2012) and Arts, Science and Business Fellow Academy Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart (2009-10). Currently, she is Co Investigator of ‘Stretched: Expanding Notions of Artistic Practice through Artist-led Cultures’ at Valand Academy, University of Gothenburg (Swedish Research Council). Previously, at Newcastle University, she led ethnographic-artistic fieldwork on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in support of governance planning (AHRC KE). Her work is published in the Anthropological Journal of European Studies, Landscape Research, the Journal of Rural Studies, the Journal of Arts and Communities and forthcoming chapters in Routledge and Ashgate volumes.