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Photo Meredith Davenport

Rachel Bacon reports back on her AER Residency at BANFF in Alberta, Canada

Published date
14 Nov 2017
Postgraduate Community
By  Rachel Bacon  –  MA Drawing Alumni,
Wimbledon College of Arts

Photo Meredith Davenport

The Art for the Environment International Artist Residency Programme (AER) was launched in 2015 by member of the UAL Research Centre for Sustainable Fashion (CSF) and UAL Chair of Art and the Environment Professor Lucy Orta and coordinated by CSF Associate Curator Camilla Palestra.

Rachel Bacon  –  MA Drawing Alumni, Wimbledon College of Arts was selected for this years’ AER 2017 Residency at the BANFF Centre in Alberta, Canada, here is her report back.

AER 2017 Residency Report – BANFF Centre

Two things stand out for me looking back at the six weeks I spent in  BANFF Centre in Alberta, Canada.  The mountains in stillness, and the mountains in motion. They seem to exist in two worlds. On the one hand they are impressively old. Hundreds of millions of years old, made up of four major layers of sediments deposited on the sea floor then pushed up through the massive movements of plate tectonics. The layers of sediments and ancient organisms are visible to the eye, in places looking like frozen waves. On the other hand, taking a hike through  the forest or along the edge of a glacier, it becomes immediately evident that they are also falling apart in front of your eyes; chunks of rock splitting, shattering and tumbling down the steep slopes, tiny pebbles, grains of sand and huge boulders being eroded, split and shed. They are in constant movement. This sense of extreme violence unfolding in extreme slow-motion collapses a sense of time and space together, bridging the ancient and the immediate, the concrete and the inconceivable, binding them together in one moment and place.

Basement – gneiss, 2-3 billion years Old, photo credit – Ben Gadd

On what was for me undoubtedly the most memorable day of the residency, a daylong hike along the Iceline trail in Yoho National Park, this dizzying sense of collapsing space and time revealed itself while I was sitting on top of a glacier. We had hiked up a very steep trail, and were enjoying a break, waiting while another artist made a contact print on the surface of the glacier’s ice. At the edge of the glacier, scattered stones cover the hillside. In this shifting scree, each one is unique; nuances of gray, green, purple, blue, black and white; triangular, square, block-like, flat or pressed together from different types of rock. From where I was sitting, I could see the stones strewn close by, after which the slope dropped off to a steep ledge. In my
field of vision, the stone field far away segued into the one near by. And further on in the distance, I could also see the mountain range, with its enormous layered sediments accentuated by the snow, resembling the hand-sized shards at my feet. Very large stones at a huge distance looked exactly like small ones close by. It was wonderful to have four other artists as walking companions; we didn’t know each other very well, having just recently met at the residency, but our mood and temperament that day matched as perfectly as the casual and contingent design of the scattered pebbles.

This strong impression, the physical experience and nearness of the ancient and shifting rock faces, triggered an understanding of landscape as a living body. Maybe it helped that my studio looked out over the mountains through a wall of windows, so I could absorb the changing light and weather. Drawn with graphite on crumpled and damaged paper, the drawings map a topography of damage onto a receptive surface, that bears the scars and marks of its own history. Through the drawing, the damage becomes visible. With the drawings I hope to invite the viewer to experience a sense of fragility and in so doing bear witness to their direct connection with the material vulnerability of the natural world.

Drawings by Rachel Bacon at the AER BANFF Residency 2017

This reflects as well the urgency I feel regarding one of the underlying motivations of the AER residency, in asking what role artists can play in a time of ecological crisis. At a lecture given by the geologist Ben Gadd, who has written what many call the definitive guidebook on the Canadian Rockies, and who has remarkable knowledge of the area, the Anthropocene will comprise a very, very interesting, and very, very thin layer for any future geologists to discover. As a scientist, his understanding is clear that the conditions of our era and the rate at which we are burning fossil fuels will lead to ecological catastrophe. Gadd referred jokingly to biology as “that layer of green scum” on the surface of the Earth; but even for geologists it seems  hard to fathom the speed of the impact the human race is having on the Earth, relative to the immensity of time it took to build up the layers of sediments and animal and plant bodies that comprise the Earth’s crust. Afterwards I wondered, and didn’t think to ask the question until the next day as often happens, whether his perspective as a geologist, continuously aware of the vastness of time, affords him any kind of philosophical or spiritual solace in the face of overwhelming loss.

Drawings by Rachel Bacon at the AER BANFF Residency 2017

In all of the drawings made during the residency, the idea of time is central. The first series was small in scale and made to fit in the overhead bin of the airplane. They expanded however to become large scale, creating a bodily experience which I hope has a more direct physical impact on the viewer. The surface of the paper is covered with graphite and drawn by hand; they are extremely time-consuming to make. Slowing down and spending time with something insignificant, (a crumpled piece of paper) is a way of trying to shift how we see and value things that are overlooked. Part of this involves an embrace of damage. In my own experience, it takes a lot of false starts to get to one valuable image, the collapses along the way seem unavoidable; the drawing is a process of painstaking self-excavation. Maybe it is unavoidable that the artist wrecks havoc in digging into themselves in order to come up with something of value, setting up an uncomfortable parallel with a geologist’s work, as they are instrumental in allowing the Earth’s crust to be exploited. Perhaps artistic excavation might be reframed as an alternative to the digging up of the landscape, a critical as opposed to a literal excavation.

Drawings by Rachel Bacon at the AER BANFF Residency 2017

On the trail of this metaphor, I started collecting examples of mining and resource extraction, especially those linked to carbon based materials, coal, diamonds, oil, gas and graphite, my material of choice. Carbonbased extraction industries are not hard to find, they are intertwined with almost everything we encounter.

From the safety of my warm bed, I read the biography of the intrepid and driven geologist Chuck Fipke, who discovered a diamond mine in the Northwest Territories. I went with the participants of the curatorial residency Geologic Time on a visit to the defunct Bankhead coal mine, near Banff. The coal from the mine had been used in the steam engines of the Canada Pacific Railway. Not much was left of the settlement that had flourished for twenty years and been dismantled; but the traces and scars in the landscape are still visible, as an animal “excavator” makes clear. And the tar sands of Northern Alberta cropped up in numerous discussions; in talking with the Canadian artists and curators, it became obvious that the sponsorship of the
oil and gas industries is key to a very large proportion, if not almost all, of the cultural activities in the province. On a wall behind an artwork in the form of an elk antler by the Canadian artist Brian Jungen, names of the Banff Centre sponsors are listed; it’s easy to see how dependent the arts are on these industries.

One of the most compelling lectures and studio visits during the residency was by Jesse Birch, a curator from the Nanaimo Art Gallery on Vancouver Island. His interest in extraction industries led to his plans for a trio of exhibitions dealing with coal, lumber and fisheries, all central to the economy and lives of those on the island. The first exhibition, Black Diamond Dust, took place in 2014 in the art museum and the historical museum, as well as in excursions and locations around the town, whose street names all reference coal mining in some way. In the exhibition and catalogue, a multiplicity of associations surrounding coal are explored; how colors from the chemical process of coal extraction (especially mauve) and from pollution
influenced artists and photographers; the social history, protest and unionization of the coal miners; musical connections with other coal mining communities around the world; pollution in China; Indigenous people’s history and connection to coal, which according to the story, ought not to be dug up as it would cause the whales to disappear from the bay.

Drawings by Rachel Bacon at the AER BANFF Residency 2017

Black Diamond Dust again made clear to me how deep the socio-economic roots of the environmental crisis are. How to create a change of direction through influencing the narrative? Sean Lynch, the inspiring Irish artist who was a visiting tutor as part of the Geologic Time residency, in the talk on his work made clear how playful and subversive some narrative tactics can be. The imagery in his films, installations and curatorial projects shifts unexpectedly between supermarkets, submarines, ecological activists, airports and Oxford, simultaneously connecting images and evincing spatial and temporal disruption and displacement. His work suggested to me the possibilities inherent in a non-hierarchical narrative structure that might move an
audience in new and unexpected directions.

In the last two weeks at Banff, I made a final large-scale drawing. I was having trouble installing it, as it kept falling over. Eventually, it slumped to the ground in front of its partner, almost as if a piece of the rock-face had peeled off, or shed its skin, too tired to hang on anymore. Then, during a fortuitous studio visit, a folded edge in one drawing linked up with the other, and the two came together as one piece, the rock face and the figure caught and connected while at the same time both falling and standing.

My experience during the residency has encouraged me to start thinking through a new visual strategy. In this I have been very inspired by the artists Meredith Davenport and Micha Bandini also on the residency, and together we are forming a group that will start to address our social and ecological concerns in a collaborative practice. Thanks to all the information, lectures, and discussions with other artists, I now have a rich reading list to pursue that includes writers on geology, contemporary analysis of visual culture and ecology, and is informed by revisiting Suzi Gablik’s seminal book Conversations Before the End of Time,
from 1995, that seems just as vital today as when it was written. And on one of the last evenings of my stay, I was very fortunate to have attended a gathering organized by the Truth and Reconciliation Speaker Series in Banff on reconciliation through negotiations. Troy Chalifoux, who gave the remarkable talk, made it plain that when negotiations are working, they are uncomfortable. The evening was very moving, and opened up a window for me into the complex and affecting experience of Indigenous peoples from whom there is so much more to learn.

In January 2018, I’ll be showing the drawings from Banff at an exhibition Unfolding Landscape in De Cacaofabriek in the Netherlands. I’ve invited four other artists to participate, whose work explores landscape as it relates to the idea of self-excavation as a parallel form of artistic landscape. Kristof Reulens will write the text for the exhibition; he is curator at the Emile Van Doren Museum in Genk, Belgium, where 19th century artists gathered to paint en-plein-air until the discovery of coal at the beginning of the 20th century altered the landscape forever. In future my research will be attuned to looking at resource extraction through the lens of the landscape as a living body. I would like to explore the possibility of reconceptualizing our view of nature through an artistic practice that admits to a more balanced relationship, not one of dominion but of healing, through a refutation of the idea that nature is separate from humans.


Related Links:

The Art for the Environment International Residency Programme (AER):

In 2015, internationally acclaimed artist, Professor Lucy Orta UAL Chair of Art for the Environment – Centre for Sustainable Fashion, launched the Art for the Environment Residency Programme (AER), in partnership with residency programmes across Europe. Applicants can choose from a 2 to 4 week period at one of the hosting institutions, to explore concerns that define the twenty-first century – biodiversity, environmental sustainability, social economy, human rights – and through their artistic practice, envision a world of tomorrow.

Through personal research, studio production time, critiques and mentoring sessions with Lucy Orta and a selection of Europe’s most exciting cultural institutions, the residency programme provides a platform for creative individuals, working across various disciplines, to imagine and create work that can make an impact on how we interact with the environment and each other.

A distinguished selection panel assess the applicants for this unique opportunity to partake in the UAL Art for the Environment Residency Programme.

NOTE: Applications accepted from UAL graduates, postgraduates and recent alumni (within 12 months from graduation date).


Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Canada

The 2017 UAL Art for the Environment International Artist Residency Programme offered a 4-week residency at the world renown Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Canada, to take part in the program Geologic Time, at the Banff International Curatorial Institute (BICI).

As the long timescales and system dynamics of the Earth come up against the abrupt history of human actions, what is at stake for cultural production? Art histories are full of biophysical processes – from the enabling effects of industrial fossil capitalism, to the legacies of landscape representation. Yet how might curatorial and artistic practice venture beyond the great gulf between society and nature that was forged by a nineteenth-century understanding of human activities?

Through a program of fieldwork, seminars and private study or studio practice the participant was given the opportunity to ponder geological formations and stratigraphy, minerals and resource extraction, in order to speculate about a more expansive, slower and longer-term view of art, exhibitions, and their institutions.