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  • Duncan Whitley

An Arts and Ecology Lab for Greater Yorkshire

A review of the Full Circle Forum

We convene at the newly-opened Doncaster Danum Gallery, Library & Museum on 26th March for a forum to discuss the future of South Yorkshire’s post-industrial landscapes, in response to a newly commissioned artwork, Full Circle by Yu-Chen Wang and curated by Mike Stubbs. In addition to Wang’s commissioned film installation, the forum also serves to highlight two new initiatives in Doncaster: an artist residency entitled “Re-wilding the System” which will support four artists to work alongside environment scientists; and “Symbiosis”, a series of ten bursaries offered to artists, environmentalists, designers, ecologists and imaginative thinkers to work together in interdisciplinary workshops, around themes of biodiversity, sustainability and local ecologies. These lab-based residency programs will feed into the ArtBomb Festival in August.

Making our way beyond the two steam locomotives housed on the ground floor of the building, Wang’s film is installed in the art gallery at the top of the new building. It sits amongst the permanent collection which features 19th-century landscapes, portraits of majestic racehorses, portraits of gentleman and once-important local dignitaries, a painting of Doncaster’s bustling cattle market at the turn of the 20th century, and some more contemporary paintings depicting intimate domestic scenes of 20th-century industrial society.

Full Circle begins with a long, slow circular pan across a lowland fen. An alien, lilac sky reflects in the surface of a vast body of water whose surface seems impossibly still. The surface of the water is broken by a lone twisted branch which extends out from the water, a petrified arm emerging from the pool like that of an Arthurian Lady of the Lake. Synth tones rise and descend eerily, above the burbling and colliding textures of a subaqueous soundscape, suggesting another world beneath the eerily dead surface. A narrative voice-over declares, “This picturesque scene hides histories of enclosure, and violent insurrection… the relationship between ecology, topography and human geography is rather confused and precariously entangled. Over time we got what we wanted, and we lost what we had”. This collision of nature, technology and memory in Doncaster’s post-industrial landscape sets the scene for today’s forum.

Writer, historian and TV presenter Liz McIvor kicks off the forum with the first presentation, taking us to Clifton Country Park, site of the former Wet Earth Colliery. Now a nature reserve, the industrial history of the land is largely hidden today. McIvor illustrates with an image showing part of a network of 19th-century tunnels which run under the park, echoing the opening scene of Full Circle with the notion of a world that lies obscured beneath the surface. She doesn’t explicitly mention the eerie, but she talks about the ghosts inhabiting the post-industrial landscape, sometimes literally, as in the reported sighting of ghosts on the site of the Hexthorpe Railway Disaster of 1887 in which 25 people were killed.

Thus far we are thinking about how we deal with our industrial histories in the present, but of course it is also an historian’s work to understand how those histories were perceived by their contemporaries. McIvor presents us with examples of mid-nineteenth-century artworks to illustrate some of the attitudes held at the time towards, for example, the development of the railways. One slide shows John Martin’s “The Great Day of His Wrath", a painting which American artist Dan Graham recognised as “the first shell-shocked reaction to the anguish of the new industrial age”, suggesting also that this artwork was perhaps an early work of science-fiction. McIvor tells that, whilst touring Britain’s northern cities in the 1850’s, this work was attacked by workers who felt the painting represented an assault on their livelihoods, which for the first time were based on a wage economy. Management of the ecologies of industry and landscape has always been political.

Next Yu-Chen Wang gives some insight into her research process. Wang’s practice involves her working closely with local experts, in this case ecologists, conservationists and naturalists who study and work with the Hatfield Moors, several of whom feature in today’s presentations. Walking the terrain with her collaborators is important for Wang in order to navigate the multiple narratives of the landscape, and these interactions formulate themselves within Full Circle’s voiceover: “Let the terrain speak for itself, you and I walk the landscape. Landscape is something you look out from, not something to be looked at”. Wang’s work sits within a tradition of artists’ moving-image practice which synthesises ethnography with science-fiction, a strategy perhaps to be at ground level within the landscape, whilst simultaneously distanced from it through a process of estrangement. Within this tendency artists are often grappling with what lies hidden within the landscape, the layers of which include the ghosts of our colonial histories, in the work of Larissa Sansour, Jananne Al-Ani or Grace Ndritu, for example. Wang’s Full Circle allows colonial histories, collective memory and geological time to collide, whilst also infused by the auto-ethnographic voice (“you’re really intrigued to hear that I’m going to narrate the story myself this time”), seeking to understand the landscape as a web of connections beyond the surface.

Ecologist Louise Hill and conservationist Michael Oliver, both of the Old Lindholme Moor Management Group, between them detail some of the challenges facing Lindholme Island, a peat mire located between Hatfield and Thorne moors. Both moors were decimated through a long history of peat extraction, but the parcel of land known as Old Lindholme Moor was privately owned and the owners didn’t allow peat cutting, as a result of which the peat is one of the deepest in the area. Water management is one of the key issues mentioned by both Hill and Oliver, and it’s critical to keep the peat in a saturated condition - not only to preserve

and foster the carbon-sequestering mire habitat, but also to reduce the risk of wildfires. Hill describes how in 2020 a wildfire spread across the southern edge of the moor, the carbon dioxide emissions of which were estimated to be roughly equivalent to the annual emissions of 30,000 people.

Oliver highlights that the objective is to protect the moors area, and its particular habit with extremely rare invertebrates (later during the panel discussion Oliver talks about how the nightjar which feeds off these invertebrates, was crucial to achieving designation under the EU Habitats Directive as a Special Protection Area, which ironically didn’t prevent the cutting of peat in the surrounding Hatfield and Thorne moors since permissions for rights to cut peat pre-dated European laws designed to protect such areas). It’s impossible to completely restore the moor, but the aim is to preserve it until such time as the fauna may have the opportunity to spread further afield. This critical endeavour, full of hope, reverberates through the Full Circle soundtrack: “you say it is almost impossible to return the moor to its original condition, but you try to do what you can, while you can”.

Simon Pickles, Director of the North and East Yorkshire Ecological Data Centre, begins his presentation with an image depicting the Saddleworth Moor ablaze at night. This photograph taken in 2021, echoes the slide of the John Martin painting shown earlier by Liz McIvor. Pickles recalls, “You could smell the peat… and standing there with the breeze coming towards me, you kept getting buffeted by the heat coming off the distant fire”. He recounts that whilst the newspapers spoke to the family whose fireworks accidentally sparked the fire, the mountain rescue team, and the National Trust who were out looking for livestock, he and his colleagues were studying maps and satellite images to try to understand what kinds of habitats had been lost, and what species associated with those habitats might be effected.

Pickles asks, how can he push the narrative towards data-driven stories that contribute to a better popular understanding of our local ecologies, and influence the people who make the political decisions which can impact on them? Pickles understands that for his work as an ecologist to be successful, he also needs to be an effective story-teller, and this leads him to speak passionately in support of collaborating with artists to tell these stories.

Following the presentations, we begin a roundtable discussion chaired by Mike Stubbs, Creative Director of ArtBomb. David Bramwell, one of the four resident artists selected for Artbomb’s Re-wilding the System, talks about how he grew up in Doncaster without much of a sense of connection with the Don - the river from which the town derives its name (and which itself gained its name from a mythical river goddess Danu), which was declared biologically dead until the 1990’s. Bramwell speaks about the importance of challenging the metaphors commonly used to depict nature and our relationships with it in terms of conflict (typically battles between species of plants or animals, or between humans and the environment), favouring a discourse which places emphasis on metaphors of symbiosis and collaboration. This seems to contrast with Mick Oliver’s experience of political “battles" during his period as Doncaster Borough Council’s Case Officer for Thorne and Hatfield moors, but perhaps this is the point: if we are to make meaningful advances in the ways our lives, economies and biological environments interact, we need to create narratives based around mutual benefit and collaboration rather than around conflict resolution.

Many of the contributions from the floor echo the importance of becoming better story-tellers. Richard Scott, Director of the National Wildflower Centre at the Eden Project, suggests that “these steely terms like ‘environment infrastructure’ don’t really work”, and that it is the human stories about our environment which really connect with us. Paulette Benjamin, who works at Gomde UK Buddhist Centre (current owners of the parcel of land known as Old Lindholme Moor) says, “It’s not like we want to get people to be tourists, we don’t need people to enjoy the countryside, we need to really connect with the depth of nature, and the vastness of what it represents”.

Visual artist Carolyn Thompson asks, “how do we make things happen on a grander scale, beyond the conversations in this room? How do we reach more people? How do we influence and have impact at a higher level?” Thompson suggests that artists are often operating as a kind of low-level annoyance in terms of provocation, but need to find ways of making sure their questions and ideas have an impact at a level of policy. Simon Pickles offers one solution, expressing that he is seriously drawn to the idea of a regional arts and ecology lab. Pickles admits that he is less interested in “artworks” but is interested in process and wants to work with artists, to see how they research, to engage with people who “think differently” and challenge the accepted norm of scientific thinking.

This ambition for a regional arts and ecologies lab - the first steps of which are now in motion with Artbomb’s “Re-wilding the System” artist residencies and the “Symbiosis” bursaries - can plug directly into Doncaster’s efforts to rebuild its identity as a forward-thinking centre for arts and culture, and a wider ambition to establish a Yorkshire Great Fen. It takes both guts and vision to attempt something new, and from what I see at this forum Doncaster has that in abundance. What we need now is for other sectors from small businesses to larger-scale industry, to the Borough Council and beyond, to get on board with this urgent thinking.

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