A Pebble for a Feather

Attenborough Nature Reserve is a former gravel quarry that has been restored to provide a range of habitats for wetland birds and other wildlife. In essence an exchange has taken place: A pebble for a feather.
As part of Attenborough’s Heritage Weekend I have made an artwork which uses this exchange as a starting point to ask how nature is valued and how our ideas of value might affect our relationship to the natural world.
Attenborough is a flagship site for Cemex, an aggregate company which has several quarries in Nottinghamshire. When the land was taken over for the quarry in the 1920’s it was open meadow with a few residential properties. In 1966, the site was opened as Attenborough Nature Reserve and restoration work has continued in liaison with the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust, who have managed the site ever since. In 2005 a visitor centre was opened with a cafe, shop and educational space for school groups and holiday clubs. The land on which the reserve sits is still owned by Cemex, whose gravel processing plant is operational at the north end of the site and so barges of gravel still travel through the reserve. There are several value systems at play here.
As a nature reserve the site has value in the protection it provides for wildlife, it holds SSSI status (Site of Special Scientific Interest) for its rare species and combination of habitats. For the species that reside here it offers all they need in food, shelter and companionship. The reserve also provides an educational resource, allowing people to get close to and experience wildlife that they might not otherwise get the chance to see. Visitors, be they dog walkers, commuters or birdwatchers, each have their own sense of ownership of the site and find value in their uses of it. Studies have also found that time spend in nature can help with stress, depression and various other health issues. The restorative value of time spent with nature is another important aspect to the reserve; given its proximity to the city it provides green space access to lots of communities and through their outreach programmes, the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust is encouraging even more communities to use the site.
Attenborough also functions within a more commercial economy as well. The cafe and shop bring money to the reserve as well as bringing in visitors who may not have otherwise come. As a charity, the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust must generate enough money to cover the costs of managing the site; this is achieved through fundraising which includes donations and sponsorship from individuals and companies alike. A network of volunteers also helps with events and site management, contributing their time and labour in exchange for whatever value they find in this process.
Though Cemex has finished extracting the gravel from the site, they continue to benefit from the success of the reserve as it serves as a model for their restoration and sustainability policies. This helps to provide a positive face to a process that is often controversial. It may even help to open up new sites for extraction as Attenborough serves as an enticing example of what might be left when the extraction is over. As they still own the land and continue to process on site, the reserve is still firmly a part of Cemex’s economic structure.
In order to approach the complex questions of value at the reserve, I have devised a simple participatory artwork; gold pebbles which have been left around the reserve for people to find can be exchanged for a small gift, a badge featuring a gold feather which asks the question: how do you value nature?
The pebbles are already part of a value exchange: processed, packaged and sold, they have been assigned value (£7.92 for a coverage of 0.4m²), they have then been sprayed gold to signify their difference from other pebbles that might be found on the reserve. These gold pebbles then become a currency, a token that can be exchanged for something else. There are a limited number of gold pebbles, resulting in a scarcity of this resource which potentially increases their value.
When found, the holder of the pebble may choose to keep it or exchange it. They will not know what the alternative is until they come to make the exchange, at which point they must make a value judgement; which is more valuable to them, the gold pebble or the feather badge? Regardless of their decision they will also receive a postcard which poses further questions concerning notions of value in nature and industry.
The aim of this work is to open up conversations around what nature means to us and what roles it plays in our economy. These conversations are important when considering whether the ecological cost of industry is worth the resources obtained, or whether this can be effectively mitigated through offsetting or restoration work. These conversations are also relevant to a national discourse regarding issues such as fracking and the construction of the HS2 railway line. By recognising different systems of value and being aware of these issues the public have the potential to influence industry and policy which often seem to operate solely in monetary terms.
As Cemex begins to wind down activity at Attenborough, the question of what will happen to the land and how this might be passed on to the Wildlife Trust remains. The future of the site may well rest in the value it holds for its visitors; whether that value is found in the recreational activities the site provides or in the conservation of rare species, it is the people who use and love the reserve who can ultimately affect its prospects.


Coffee and Con(ser)v(ers)ation at Attenborough

Happy 10th Birthday Attenborough Nature Centre!

As part of the birthday week I held the first Coffee and Con(ser)v(ers)ation event with staff and volunteers considering the relationships between industry and nature. Topics of discussion included public perception of industry and sites such as Attenborough, the complex PR and monetary relationships between conservation charities and the companies which sponsor them and the different ways in which nature can be valued.

Later this week I will be exploring the reserve as the Unreliable Naturalist and hopefully engaging in some interesting converstions on a more one to one basis.

Boar Hunt

I stood in the dark as still and quiet as I could, holding my breath, scanning the trees and straining to hear something other than the steady pattering of rain on the fallen leaves. There it was again, the soft grunting, snuffling sound of a wild boar.

The boar in the Forest of Dean are somewhat controversial. Released by a farmer who was not supossed to be keeping them, or so I am told by a forestry commission ranger, the boar quickly settled into the forest and in the past 10 years since their release they have flourished in their natural habitat, and with no natural predators it is thought that their numbers have risen from a handful of escaped or dumped individuals to between 600-1000 animals. The wild boar are currently culled at around 100 animals per year in an effort to control their numbers, an effort which many locals feel is ineffective.

As I walked around the forest evidence of boar activity was abundant. The drizzly conditions meant plenty of mud where foot prints remained long after the boars departure. Trails in the wet leaves and barely noticeable gaps in the undergrowth showed me where the boar travelled, their nocturnal highways where I had heard them moving the previous night. But by far the most obvious signs of them were the large patches of rooted up turf found on verges and pathways. It is this rooting behaviour which causes so much controversy for the local people.

As the boars search for worms, roots and tubers they disturb large areas of ground, this can be very beneficial for the plants of the forest, turning the soil and allowing the dispersal of seeds. However it can also be very destructive to plants such as bluebells which have become iconic to British woodlands and with increasing numbers the boar are also venturing into gardens and villages and where their routing behaviour is causing damage to managed areas of lawn and flower beds.

Arguments surrounding the boar are highly emotive. Supporters objecting to calls for further culling argue that a proper study of numbers is needed to ascertain current population size as well as sustainable population size rather than resorting to blind culls. They also call for fencing and gating of areas to keep boar out of places they are not wanted. Those who object to their presence argue that as the boar were introduced accidentally and without public consultation they are pests and should be dealt with as such. There is also often reference to attacks on dogs by boar and worry over the safety of walkers who encounter these strong animals. However these attacks are rare, and most likely to occur when the boar are nursing piglets. Like any animal they will attack when they feel threatened and to a boar there is no difference between your pet dog and a wolf looking for a quick meal. A recent poll conducted by a local paper tried to gather public opinion in the Forest of Dean as to whether or not the boar should be culled. The resounding “no” outcome was contested by some as the poll had been shared on social media sites and so included votes from people all over the UK and beyond, the suggestion was that only those living with wild boar in their backyard should have a say about their fate.

Though I can understand this assertion, my influence in this poll for example could be deemed invalid as I myself do not have to put up with the consequences such as replanting my garden every few days, I cannot help but feel it is not as simple as that. The question over the wild boar in the Forest of Dean is part of a wider context, one that concerns the attitudes towards wildlife in the whole of the UK. We happily hold the view that Africa must conserve it lions and elephants and that India must not hunt endangered tigers despite not being the ones who must live with these animals in their backyard, and yet when it comes to our own wildlife even the humble badger comes under fire for ‘threatening our livestock’. We consider ourselves a nation of animal lovers but it would seem that this is only the case as long as the animals are either domestic or keep to areas we deem suitable for them.

In order to reconnect to our environment and the creatures we share it with we need to understand them, we need to overcome the challenges and conflicts in ways which are of benefit to the animals and not just ourselves, this is why the boar in the Forest of Dean are just as important to me in Dundee as those in whose gardens they stray. Their fate is tied up with the fates of all other reintroductions and attitudes towards them could influence attitudes to other species too.

However we need to find balance, too many boars has just as big an impact on the environment as none at all, and as we have removed their natural predators (wolf, lynx, bears) we have to do the job… for now. Perhaps one day we will be able to live with wolves in our backyards as well.

During my stay in the Forest of Dean, despite several forays into the drizzly forest the wild boar remained elusive… until driving along a forest lined road I saw a lone boar trotting through the trees. This fleeting glimpse seemed only fitting, a teaser to leave me wanting more. One day I shall return to the forest and resume my hunt for wild boar.



The Zoomancer

The Zoomancer

Xero, Kline & Coma, London 11th-26th Jan 2014

A time of change is upon us
The path to the future is shrouded in mist
Through the mist walk creatures five
Tonight we shall call upon them to guide us toward possible futures which may benefit us all.

The White Stag


A creature of the glen, the guide between the spirit world and this one.
A prey animal, hunted by beast and man alike.
This card hints at destruction, complacency and chaos,
But also majesty, purity and strength.
A beloved icon of the countryside, this creature represents the present.

The Wolf


A creature of the mountains.
A predator, likened to the devil.
This card hints at risk, danger and fear,
But also order, cooperation and compromise.
A misunderstood storybook villain, this creature represents the past.

The Lynx


A creature of the forest.
A secretive predator.
This card hints at change, uncertainty and adaption
But also attraction, charisma and balance.
A sharp eyed shadow , this creature looks to the future.
The Sheep


A creature of the field.
A prey animal with a fear of change.
This card hints at worry, repression and hesitation,
But also of innocence, safety and community.
A follower of the flock, this creature is a pawn in the great game.

The Two Headed Man


A creature of the city, though he hears the call of the mountain.
A predator grown from prey.
This card represents conflict, power and hate
But also reason, morality and compassion.
Trapped between the domestic and the wild, this creature dominates the other four.

This performance will take place on the opening night from 7-9pm.

Urban Animal Performances

Each Saturday throughout the summer I have performed a new work at Camperdown Wildlife Centre as part of my year long residency. More information about these performances can be found on the residency blog.

Here are some images from the performances so far:


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Whitfest is an annual art festival held at the Whitfield Community Centre. Each year a programme of workshops is offered for kids to take part in, the workshops range from ceramics to gardening, from dancing to film making.

This year I was asked to run Animal Art and Performance workshops. Over the week the kids made and decorated a habitat consiting of a pond and a tree then made costumes and performed as the animals from the habitat.

We had some wonderful animals, from foxes and butterflies to newts and dragonflies, even a hedgehog and an army of marching ants!

I asked the kids to suggest animals that they might find in the pond or the tree, then they either made a costume or a drawing to add to the collage. As the collection grew I asked them to think about what their animal might eat, or be eaten by and how they all connected to create a whole ecosystem.

We also thought about how the animals move and behave and the noises they make, then acted this out in the habitat.

Here are just some of the photos from the week:

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You must change your life.

While working on a flyer for some upcoming performances, Jonathan Baxter introduced me to these two poems by Rainer Maria Rilke

The Panther

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly–. An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.

Rainer Maria Rilke
Translation by Stephen Mitchell

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Rainer Maria Rilke
Translation by Stephen Mitchell

The story is that while Rilke was working for Rodin, the sculptor gave him assignments to go to the zoo and look and to go to the Louvre and write about something he saw. These poems resulted from his encounters.

Since I was introduced to these words they have circled in my mind like a panther pacing a cage; the resonance goes beyond my interest in the subject matter. What strikes me most is the power of these encounters, the caged animal and work of art, each experience has the power to change you, each insists that you must change. Perhaps I must.

performingNOW! at GENERATORprojects

The Hunt

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A hunting horn sounds. A mournful tone. The slow considered stalking of the prey, prey that lays already motionless, dead on the ground.

A gun

A bow

A knife

A cut

A mark

Anointing sweating brow. A raised heart beat. A rite of passage from the distant past. But now the urgency has gone, the necessity has faded with time.

This age old narrative, played out has become a myth, a fairytale. No longer fact, no longer vital, no longer real. Ornamental blood is spilled. Romancing an idea, a misty eyed perspective.

This is a strange hunter. One who announces its presence, one confident of its absolute power. One who delights in a dance, in a ritual, in a role, playing and toying; this is not about survival this is about dominance.

This performance was part of performingNOW! at GENERATORprojects May 4th 2013.

Consider a Bard

For Burns night 2013 artist Morgan Cahn and I performed at the Hospitalfield’s Burns Supper.

Hospitalfield House in Arbroath facilitates and hosts artists, writers and other creatives working within contemporary art and design, providing residencies, art courses and education programmes to promote the cultural ecology of Scotland. The Burns Supper, organised by artist Jacqueline Donachie, brought together artists from all over Scotland and people from Arbroath in celebration of Scotland’s favourite bard.

Our performances for the evening were inspired by our personal experience of Robert Burns. Morgan, having spent her life in Pittsburgh, had never encountered Burns, while I had come across him during high school english lessons spent dissecting poetry.

The performance was therefore entitled:

An English Woman, an American and a Scotsman: Consider a Bard.

I played the part of the English Woman, Morgan played the American and the part of the Scotsman was played by Burns, the Haggis and the audience at various points of the evening.

The English Woman – dressed in black as a mourner with a surgical mask and latex gloves, I engaged in a process of dissecting and reconfiguring Burns’ poems. Through repeatedly writing a chosen line, then overwriting it with another then another from each poem, I created condensed poems with new meanings.

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Following the process I ended up with two lines:

Lament the mourning Mailie’s dead

Wee, sleekit, broken schemes o’ mice an’ fear

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The American – Morgan spent the evening researching Burns through books, poems and conversation with the guests. She took notes and did drawings as she learnt and encountered the spectacle of the Burns Supper.

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She also tweeted about the evenings events and her findings @performingnow

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The Scotsman – played at various points by the Haggis, the speakers, the poems, the guests and Burns himself. This role was filled by whatever/whoever was the subject of our consideration at any given time over the evening.