Thursday, 28 January 2010

The Woodcutter and the Trees

The wrong time
The wrong place
The wrong generation

This post follows on from a post I recently wrote about the plans to build a civic square over the top of Union Terrace Gardens in Aberdeen and the "I Heart UTG" campaign to stop it.

Last summer I returned home one day to find some workmen uprooting the trees outside my studio window. I live in a tenement building and my groundfloor neighbour decided to emulate his friends, who live in neighbouring buildings, by having his front garden paved over. The trees, which were the only trees on the entire street, were partially obscuring the light from his windows, and the garden was beginning to be difficult for him to manage in his old age. I was very disappointed that such well established trees were being destroyed for no good reason, but not being the owner of the land, I didn't feel able to make any real objection and certainly not in time to make any difference.

Yesterday I attended a consultation meeting about the plans for the City Square Project in Aberdeen. Sir Ian Wood and two of his high-power cronies were there to present their vision for the scheme. The presentations trotted out all the usual buzzwords, smiling faces and sunny 3-D visuals to support their case, complete with images of multi-million dollar squares in Melbourne, Chicago, Houston etc. They also made all the predictable emotionally laden rhetorical points about drunks in the city centre and Union Terrace Gardens being what they strategically termed a "chasm" supposedly designed to face the north of the city, and they even had the gall to suggest that they intended to "raise" the iconic gardens to street level (raze them to the ground more-like and then replace them with an undernourished and under-supported simulacrum).

When asked about how their plans for the square would deal with the problem of drunks in the city centre, Wood raised his hands (or should I say rinsed his hands) to indicate that the project made no promises to solve the problem - nonetheless, I think everyone in the audience picked up on the cynicism with which he was happy to use the spectre of "drunks" to punt his hollow plans.

Another of the many sad facts about his intractable position on the whole issue is that he's clearly under the misguided delusion that the only public resistance is due to the competing project for Peacock Visual Arts’ new Art Centre. This is certainly a major point of contention but meanwhile there's a majestic gem of a park nestled in the heart of the city silently awaiting its fate. Yes, this is also emotive language, but then trees, as mature and unyielding as they seem, easily buckle under chain saws and JCBs without uttering a single word in protest.

During the consultation meeting, the question was raised about the possibility of only building over the carriageway and railtrack's which adjoin Union Terrace Gardens leaving the gardens themselves unaffected. It was immediately obvious from the expressions on the three faces of Wood etc that they wouldn't even countenance such an idea. Once again we heard the mantra of the "chasm" and Wood stating that such a solution would be "just plain ugly". Considering his clear lack of vision so far, one wonders how he could know this so categorically? Genuine Vision has the sense to recognise that with imagination, ingenuity and common purpose, solutions can be found for all kinds of problems. It’s now patently clear that Wood's only conception of a solution to any problem is either to wash his hands of it or to cover it over. That’s a vision Aberdeen could do without no matter how many millions are attached to it.

In these times, in this place and for this generation - and no doubt for future generations also - the outmoded idea that you can transform a city by wiping part of it clean away and replacing it with paving slabs (no matter how expensive or artistic) runs distinctly counter to prevailing ideas about the need to retain and champion green space. You only need to watch a pulp movie like Avatar to see that the tide is turning, particularly for young people. Wood's idea is simply old-fashioned but let me present you with an alternative vision which may illustrate exactly how this is so.

With the £40 million Wood is offering (under certain conditions of course) Aberdeen could buy and plant 200,000 trees in and around the city. That’s two hundred thousand trees, which is no wood but a veritable forest – a forest which would transform Aberdeen from a grey granite city into a verdant arboreal treasure, the envy of every city in the world and a green flame in the torch of ecological progress. If Wood truly wishes to leave Aberdeen a cherished and enduring legacy in the heart of the city then this is just one vision which he could easily sell overnight and by it his name would literally live not just in the hearts, but in the minds and streets of Aberdonians for generations: “The Wood Project”. After all, it would seem fitting that the project were created from trees: the very things that formed the oil upon which Wood’s and Aberdeen’s prosperity has been built in recent times. In fact, there would be no need for time consuming consultations or expensive promotional materials because such a project would be welcomed by the people of Aberdeen. Some ideas, some times, some places and some generations are simply right. Others are distinctly not.

If I'd had any power to stop my neighbour destroying the trees which stood before my window last summer I'd certainly have raised more than my voice in protest. As it is, I now have a neat but entirely soulless expanse of cheap paving on my doorstep and a constant reminder and regret that I did too little to stop it.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Devil in the Detail

There are points in the production of artworks where decisions need to be made about what is intentional and what is accidental. Sometimes the accidental qualities of artworks can be interpreted as having a close relationship or contribution to the meaning or associations of the work. Such serendipitous circumstances are a very welcome addition, which enhance resolution and resonance and are often highly prized by artists for this very reason. But much more common and undesirable are the accidental details which detract from the overall effect or undermine the integrity of the work. This is why many artists are obsessively punctilious about every aspect of the work they produce. They recognise that it’s unwise to ignore even the minutest detail or nuance because these are the very stuff of articulate and refined expression. To take the view that certain elements of an artwork are irrelevant is to make a fatal mistake about the perceptions of one’s audience and to assume that there’s an automatic and commonly regarded hierarchy of relevance based upon what one intends rather than acknowledging that every detail contributes to the whole. Bad luck and good fortune are flip-sides of the same coin – so, if superfluous details are irrelevant then serendipity is also. This would be like narrowing our palette to a reduced spectrum where both the highs and lows are disregarded because our perceptions are either too coarse, too insensitive or most likely too ignorant to notice.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Reflecting on Learning

As a student, looking back at your time at art school, it can often be difficult to determine what exactly you've learned. There are many technical processes which one could point to as examples, but the cognitive lessons are much harder to grasp and describe. I was talking with a student last week who mentioned that when she looked over her work of the past year she felt that it was all inadequate or naive in some way. It occurred to me, at that moment, that she was describing an evaluative position in relation to previous decisions and actions taken, and that this was in many ways a key to understanding the learning that had taken place. Critical perspective only arises through the acquisition of new knowledge and understanding. If we unpack this new critical positioning it's possible to determine the constituent parts of what we call learning.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Sustainable Suffering

"The delight which a man has in hoping for and looking forward to some special satisfaction is a part of the real pleasure attaching to it enjoyed in advance. This is afterwards deducted; for the more we look forward to anything, the less satisfaction we find in it when it comes."
Reading Schopenhauer and thinking about his ideas on suffering has led me to consider the extent to which suffering is based on a drive to do as much as possible whilst "suffering" as little as possible. By this I mean that our "nature" is to exist and propagate ourselves as efficiently as is possible vis-à-vis suffering. Suffering is a limiting factor, without which, there would be no means of averting an unstoppable procreation and consumption.
"But misfortune has its uses... if the lives of men were relieved of all need, hardship and adversity; if everything they took in hand were successful, they would be so swollen with arrogance that, though they might not burst, they would present the spectacle of unbridled folly—nay, they would go mad...
If the world were a paradise of luxury and ease, a land flowing with milk and honey, where every Jack obtained his Jill at once and without any difficulty, men would either die of boredom or hang themselves; or there would be wars, massacres, and murders; so that in the end mankind would inflict more suffering on itself than it has now to accept at the hands of Nature."
"In his powers of reflection, memory and foresight, man possesses, as it were, a machine for condensing and storing up his pleasures and his sorrows."
This is why we can "choose" suicide because (notwithstanding the fear of death - whether instinctive or otherwise) we are able to reflect upon our current circumstances and make a considered decision about the relative merits of curtailing current (and presumably unbearable) suffering or enduring suffering offset by the promise of future pleasures. Animals, of course, don't have this choice and this is an important point because, considering the human capacity for immense suffering and the conscious contemplation of it, we need the most formidable disincentives to counteract the logical conclusion that life isn't worth living at all.

But what does this mean as regards the "alleviation of suffering"? If we alleviate suffering in one quarter are we not simply creating the conditions for suffering in another? For example, if we alleviate the suffering of an animal experiencing pain, do we not then encourage the potential for this animal to live longer, to consume more and to perpetuate itself and thereby create a increasing demand on limited resources? So whilst the negative effect might not be immediately encountered, it will nonetheless, be exacted at a later date and probably to a greater degree, if not on that particular animal, then another. This reminds me of the second law of thermodynamics, of which, as biological thermodynamicist Donald Haynie has said:
"Any theory claiming to describe how organisms originate and continue to exist by natural causes must be compatible with the first and second laws of thermodynamics."
This law states that the entropy (disorder) of a closed system will increase over time until an energy equilibrium is reached (ie: all the energy is used up OR until there is a equilibrium between energy available and energy consumed). But this shouldn't lead us to the conclusion that to alleviate suffering is a pointless task. Speculating about some future increase in suffering is simply that: speculation - any amount of which shouldn't give us licence to renounce our responsibility to make the present as devoid of suffering as possible, whilst propagating a minimum of future suffering. This is surely what "sustainability" is all about: creating a balance between the resources available to us and our consumption of them such that we can endure.
The strange but deeply affirming thing about Schopenhauer was that despite his devastatingly pessimistic views, he was able to rise above these miseries and indicate a way forward:
“In fact, the conviction that the world and man is something that had better not have been, is of a kind to fill us with indulgence towards one another… and it reminds us of that which is after all the most necessary thing in life—the tolerance, patience, regard, and love of neighbor, of which everyone stands in need, and which, therefore, every man owes to his fellow.”