In the summer of 2018 (again thanks to the support of the bursary) I was able to invite artists on fieldtrips to the New Forest to visit areas of interest and discuss possibilities, narratives and opportunities that it prompted. Artists who visited included Rachael Champion, Rebecca Birch, Rachel Pimm, Harry Meadows and Hannah Lees. Highlights of the fieldtrips included a boat trip along the New Forest coastline; Blackwater Arboretum and witnessing a charcoal burn in the admirably community-run Pondhead Inclosure. We have also had many other conversations with artists, curators and local groups and individuals that continue to be ongoing.
As a place I believe that the New Forest has the potential to be a potent metaphor and site for the exploration of a range of global contemporary concerns such as multiculturalism and tourism. Potential questions I identified include:
- How does a National Park relate to issues of nationalism and belongings as we move towards a post-Brexit era?
- What are the possibilities of socially engaged art practice involving transient tourism communities?
- Are there alternative ways of physically navigating the terrain of the New Forest?
- Can biodiversity in the forest reflect and advocate for social diversity?
- Are there possible alternatives aesthetics to the ‘traditional’ and ‘heritage’ norms?
Each artist responded to the place differently. Rachel Pimm observed:
“It is clear from even a brief time in the New Forest that different rules for co-habiting species apply here. Is it the roaming that sets this up? The cars giving way to cows and horses, the agricultural, tourism and domestic in parallel, or is it be linguistic – ‘the commons’? It is clearly to do with symbiosis, co-dependency and companion species – the ponies need the pigs, the forest needs burns, charcoal needs machinery, humans need work…
There is no single protagonist, and if there is, it is certainly non-human. During each solo, supporting roles continue as background – acorns drop, hazel re-grows, foals grow mature. Its a place to learn from rather than impose onto, evidenced by legal systems flexing to the higher needs of each species in a reversing of the great chain of being, the hegemonic one-rule-fits-all, and serves as a radical social metaphor, reframing ‘family’, ‘co-habiting’, ‘borders’ and other arbitrarily and capital-driven ideas, instead allowing the physical offerings of seasons and cycles to dictate the narrative of shared occupation of land at its most alive…”
Rachael Champion said:
“The New Forest is a place of particular interest for me as a site for activation because of its unique history and practice in land management through conservation and pastoralism…
… I am interested in responding to the management of hydrological systems in the New Forest. Human intervention is vital in maintaining the stability of these valued and rare ecosystems and role of water is paramount in executing these conservation efforts.
Hannah Lees reflected on the question ‘What are the possibilities of socially engaged art practice involving transient tourism communities?’:
This kind of connects with an ongoing interest in dwellings (Heidegger’s “being and dwelling” enters here) and also a sense of escapism – retreats, freedom, etc. and what these commissions are supposed to do (not that an artwork has to “do something” but ancient standing stones and cairns definitely provide a sense of “something”.
Rebecca Birch reflected on:
“… the contested frontier that is the sub-surface. Historically, commoners in the New Forest had rights to extract clay from the land for fertilising fields, for shaping vessels and for building; tiles, ovens, walls, clay provided, along with gathered underwood, the material to construct the necessities of daily life. The right to marl is considered to have lapsed, as it has not been exercised for several generations. At the same time, rights to extract from our sub-surface have been the subject of political overhaul, the infrastructure bill of 2014 makes licenses to extract minerals, oil and gas a matter for central government rather than local democracy, and recent changes to trespass law, enable oil and gas developers to access ground over 300m beneath an individual’s property. In effect, the subsurface is becoming an industrial frontier, and our individual connection to the ground that we walk and live upon is being eroded. The New Forest, as a location where people live in close connection to the land, as a historic site of marling, and, in more recent history, as a site of speculative subsurface activity, is a rich site to consider these ideas –connecting with my ongoing interest in women’s histories and subsurface geologies.”
Harry Meadows observed that:
“The New Forest is a valuable site for exploring a first-hand relationship with the culture of nature rather than a conceptualised one in the abstract. This national park is a living example of how humans have constructed a leisure destination of flora and fauna that promises an antidote to urban life. Here, management of the environment for the benefit of certain animals and plants is core to the social and ecological culture. The woodland volunteers give generously of their time and expertise and speak of a strong link between ecological management and heritage.
Heritage is tied closely to identity, and particularly a national identity. I am interested in how the branded heritage of Saxon hunting grounds, commoners rights and classic car shows, relate to the motivating factors that drive 13.5m visitors to the New Forest every year. Visiting this territory of trees, animals and heathland can be a cathartic performance of being a human on the earth, and as something separate from day-to-day existence. When considering collective ecological, technological and social futures, the way we imagine our relationship with the earth becomes crucial: is the forest separate from us as humans, or are we inextricably linked?”