Anne-Marie Culhane: “Art is about magic, and it’s about change”.
By rob hopkins 13th April 2015
One of the names that recurs throughout Lucy Neal’s Playing for Time is that of Anne-Marie Culhane. Anne-Marie is an artist living in Cornwall but just in the process of moving to Devon. Rather than trying myself to describe her and what she does, I’ll leave that to her:
“I make things happen generally. I call myself an artist. But I’m generally exploring the world through my practice, which is very broad and involves a lot of time working with other people, most of the time responding to particular places that I’m working in. Also part of that practice or the process of that practice is creating my own interpretations of place.
I use drawing and I use writing and I use poetry, but that’s often a way to get towards the piece of work which is involving other people, and to get a deeper understanding of the place I’m working in so I can then create something which is very responsive to what I find there.
What is art for you?
Art to me is about changing the way that I, or other people, experience or see the world or their place in the world. It’s about magic, it’s about transformation, it’s about a moment of recognition or wonder. It’s about change. That’s either within me or about a collective sense of change or exploration.
In that, there’s a lot of questioning. There are a lot of questions for me in art not accepting accepted views on how we might perceive each other, how we might perceive places, how we might look at the world, and it’s a constant ongoing journey into finding different ways of seeing and doing and knowing and being.
I was really interested about how, in your work, you take something that Transition groups would be doing anyway and add an art layer over the top. One example is your Fruit Roots project in Exeter. A lot of Transition groups might say “let’s go and talk to Exeter University about planting loads of fruit trees”. They might then get the green light and organise a load of people and have a work day and plant loads of fruit trees, but your work adds another layer over the top of that, a richness and a depth and a whole different discipline to that. I wonder if you could just talk about that: what do you bring to something like Fruit Roots and what does it add to that activity?
I’ll talk about the project at Loughborough because that’s a lot more developed. I’ve just started working at Exeter University and I’ve been working at Loughborough University for four years. It’s a long-term project, so that’s a big thing for me, having a longer-term engagement with places, because I’m really interested in seasons and cycles.
I work a lot with food. I think food is really political, really inclusive, and really fundamental, and it’s an interesting and engaging way of drawing people back into contact with the land. A lot of my work asks “what is that relationship to the land?” And of course that can be viewed in one dimension, so you can say – it’s about getting food, or – it’s about finding resources that I can use.
But actually, if we look at the roots of most culture, contemporary culture, it comes from agriculture, it’s in the word. It comes from how we relate to the land and how we’ve been given abundance or bounty back from the land, if we relate to the land in a way that doesn’t exploit it or diminish it.
There’s a celebratory element to that, a thanksgiving, a deepening of knowledge which I want to draw into all the work that I do around food. It’s not just about fulfilling a need. It’s about how that relates to us in terms of our relationship with the whole ecosystem or Gaia or whatever you want to call the bigger planet that we live on, and then reflecting on that.
You can go and plant a tree and walk off, and you’ve planted a tree. Or you can go and plant a tree and think about what that means in terms of what you might have learnt about how the tree is structured and how the tree works with the other elements, and you might draw metaphors from that. You might also look at the tree as something that connects you to the past and to your ancestors, and also that connects you into the future so you can bring your imagination into the planting of the tree.
It’s also changing the landscape to allow the possibility for biodiversity to develop, so it’s saying from this one act – it’s a bit like John Muir’s principle of everything’s attached to everything else and it’s a really fantastic way, if you work with nature or with food or with trees or with planting and then you can experience the cycles of that, it’s just a fantastic way of drawing people into the richness of what it is to be alive and part of the bigger seasons and bigger cycles and bigger patterns.
To me, that’s where historically a lot of our culture has come from, our songs and our stories and there’s perhaps been a bit of a break with that since people have been coming away from the land and have been less attached to that connection. Our connection to the land now is predominantly one-removed, a leisure thing. We look at it and say isn’t that beautiful, but actually any active relationship with dealing with plants or trees or landscapes and being in them just allows a lot more possibility.
Presumably having that layer in adds a lot more edge and potential for engaging much more widely and in a much more diverse way with the local community.
At Loughborough I backed things together, so I had a series of back-to-back led by an artist. There’s a route now that is a kilometre long, which has about 160 fruit trees on it. The idea is that that becomes etched into the cultural life of the campus. It’s a route because it makes it easier for people to get it into their heads. The route becomes a locus for walks and talks and performances and seasonal events, and they can be about biodiversity, experiencing nature at different times of day, having feasts or musical performances, and quite a lot of those events I curate or I programme, so they bring different audiences together. That’s a really big thing for me. I really enjoy bringing different groups of people together.
If there’s an event and somebody who’s comfortable about going to events that connect them to nature, so they come on a walk to do with bats. But then I’ll back something onto that which is a more creative, exploratory event and they come and they feel comfortable within the environment and the people that are there, then they come on and do something else that they might not have done before and learn something about themselves and maybe about being with other people that they wouldn’t have learnt before. So there’s a kid of overview and a design. I’ve done permaculture design, and that’s been a massive influence on how I conceive a project.
What can you tell us about some of the other work in portfolio?
At the moment I am working on a project in Lincolnshire which is Arts Council Research funded with another artist called Ruth Levene, and that’s looking at huge-scale arable farming. I’m really interested in wheat and I’ve made a series of masks from wheat. There’s a long story behind all that.
It comes out of a contemporisation and an exploration of rituals around harvest, and celebrating the seed and the continuation of the seed and of cycles, which is what a lot of corn dollies and things made out of straw were represented. But I explored it as a medium and started making these masks that can be worn for events or activism or in different situations.
They’re made for performance. Then, like corn dollies, they’re used once for the performance, so they have a life as an object, I perform in them and then they’re put back in the ground. So they’re destroyed, they’re not kept as objects that have an actual value.
On the back of that, I’m doing a residency on three different farms in Lincolnshire that farm the land in extremely different ways, just because I really want to grapple with my understanding of where our food comes from. Most of my work has concentrated on urban growing and small-scale community gardens and allotments and linking up those kinds of projects.
But I really wanted to go right to the other end of the spectrum, so I’ve gone right to massive scale industrial farming to really see and feel what it’s like to be in those places and to make some working response to that. But using wheat as the thread, so the three farms that we’re working with all grow wheat at different scales, and we’re just going to be making some work in response to that. This will include people being invited to come on the farms and get closer to the places where some of their food comes from, but that’s at a development stage.
I’m also doing a residency at the moment with Tim Lenton at Exeter University. He’s professor of climate change and it’s in the Earth Systems Faculty. We are exploring how to invite people to engage with the concepts around Earth Systems. Earth Systems science is informed by James Lovelock’s Gaia theory and through the residency we are looking at how people can explore those concepts in more experiential ways as well as bridging gaps between climate change theorists and activists and honouring different forms of knowledge.
This comes out of from what I’m picking up from him and from other research is real frustration in some of the scientific community about how the messages get communicated, and about how that message translates into action. It’s a really fantastic residency. Our work seems to back up to each other really well.
One of the things that’s been really interesting with Lucy Neal’s new book ‘Playing for Time’ is it seems to pull together all kinds of people working sometimes independently to each other or knowing of each other’s work puts them, not necessarily as part of a movement, but driven by that idea of art in service to the wider ecological crisis. I wonder if you had thoughts about why Lucy’s book matters, and what bringing all those things together does?
There’s a really lovely quote by someone you probably have heard of called Dougald Hine from the Dark Mountain Project, he’s a friend of mine. He said “if someone were to ask me what kind of cause is sufficient to live for in dark times, the best answer I could give would be to take responsibility. Not an impossible, meaningless responsibility for the world in general, but one that is specific and practical and maybe different for each of us”.
That, hopefully, is what Lucy’s book is saying. From the people that you’ve spoken to already, you’re probably getting a whole different range of responses to a kind of common desire to take responsibility and how we all do that. It’s incredibly important that people do that in a way that’s unique to them, rather than copying or following other people. When you do something, if you’re doing it genuinely from yourself, it’s going to be unique. There’s something in her book which will show an eclectic range of different ways to take responsibility.
So, for example, with the project that I was involved in called Abundance, we created a handbook for that which can be downloaded free on the internet. It took two years to write because we were really clear that we didn’t want it to be something that people copied. The tone in which it’s written and the style in which it’s written and the language is about saying “this is something that worked for us in a particular circumstance with a particular group of people”.
If you were going to do this project, it’s going to be completely different for you depending on what your interests are or what the landscape’s like, so take it where you want and do with it what you want, this is just our learning and it’s for you to take from that what helps you, but ultimately the project will be shaped by you. As a model, hopefully that set the tone for what I believe, which is that we can all take responsibility but be true to ourselves in what that means for us.
What do you think The Arts bring to Transition, and what does Transition bring to The Arts?
Any culture develops art in forms of celebration, in forms of reflecting what’s going on. You wouldn’t want to have a Transition Town that didn’t ever celebrate anything! To create something that works as a celebration needs to have some kind of genuine root, a connection to an event or season or something that’s happened. It needs to be considered, it needs to be something that has care and attention to detail, and for me that’s all part of an arts and creative practice.
There may be new songs or music that comes out of the process of how people are working together or the challenges of that, that’s going to generate creative responses, poetry. It’s an integral part of culture. I guess as an artist I can’t imagine living without any of that, it wouldn’t be worth living.
One of the things that defines Transition and community work is the fact that it’s about bringing people together in ways they might not have done before. I guess many people’s mental picture of an artist is somebody working on their own in a garret or in a field with an easel. It’s seen as a solitary practice, but that’s not the case for you, is it?
I do have, or I have had in the past when I could afford it, a space to work. My work takes place on many levels. As I said earlier, when a project’s developing, there’s a lot of time which is given over to thinking, reflecting, maybe drawing, writing, getting to know, listening. That process for me is creative and that process has to be in part solitary. Actually that’s not entirely true.
Part of that process is solitary, part will come from dialogue with people spending time in the place that I’m working. And then once there’s a sense of what the project might manifest as, there tends to be a very collaborative element which goes on which could involve a community, which might involve experts in particular fields of knowledge, it may involve people in communities, it might involve other artists, so quite often there’s a sense of an idea that is beyond the capacity of my skills and so I would ask another artist if they want to work with me on that project.
There’s not ever a real sense that I’m working on something in a solitary way or not like I’m putting something out there saying “this is my viewpoint on the world”. Generally there’s a thank you list as long as your arm at the end of every project that I do, because it’s a collective process and so it’s not about one person putting forward an opinion on something. That’s really important for me.
The places that I work in tell me stuff, feed me, call me in a certain way. It’s a collaboration with a particular place as well as the people that live there. Which is why it’s really important to know that I sometimes don’t transfer from one place to another and will be shaped by that particular place, which comes back to permaculture design. The idea that you spend a lot of time observing and listening in different ways. In permaculture it would be ideally a year at least, so you can really feel how the different rhythms of the place and the people that live there impact and change over time, as well as the elements.
Here is the podcast of the full version of our conversation:
Anne-Marie is just one of over 60 artists who have written sections for Lucy Neal’s forthcoming book ‘Playing for Time: making art as if the world mattered” (see cover, right). The book is now published. TransitionNetwork.org readers can get £5 off Playing for Time. Simply enter this discount code at oberonbooks.com – ONPFT2015. Valid until 31 Dec 2015.