Cape Farewell at the Pier

9 Nov 2012 in Orkney, Showcase, Visual Arts & Crafts

Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, Orkney, 8 November 2012

CAPE FAREWELL was created in 2001 to ‘ instigate a cultural response to climate change’.

IT’S NOW an international not-for-profit organisation based at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre in London. There’s also a North American foundation in Toronto. So it’s pretty big and important.

For artists, it may be a lifeline; it commissions work! But a particular kind of work – it exists to ‘bring artists, scientists and communicators together to work collaboratively and independently to consider the relationships between people, place and resources in the context of climate change.’

Gulls illuminated by fishing boats in Canna Harbour, courtesy Cape Farewell

Gulls illuminated by fishing boats in Canna Harbour, courtesy Cape Farewell

I’m quoting here from the Orcadian, pretty sure that this information is on Cape Farewell’s own website, and also to be sure I get the detail right, because the evening was – I’ll avoid hurricane metaphors – a whirlwind of information, slides tumbling after slides till they blurred into each other, voice after voice, often going very quickly.

There were six presentations – after the first four, and a sumptuous spread laid on by the Cape Farewell folk, we had a sort of intriguing offshoot about the Galapagos – Calouste Gulbenkian sponsored residencies there and the results can be seen in the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. Representative Adrian Vasquez just happened to be here in Orkney – so he and our own Kate Johnson, from Heriot Watt University’s International Centre for Island Technology, an expert on the social impact of industrial change on culture in islands, added their tuppenceworth.

Nobody asked any questions. Orcadians are quiet at the best of times, but I think they were just reeling from info overload. Clearly the conversation the organisation wants to have with the people here will happen in more domestic surroundings, in slower time.

‘Slow art’ is the key to the ongoing project Sea Change, specifically about Scottish islands. Creative people join scientists on board a boat, with no brief other than to observe, experience, think – and see what happens. The framework, of course, is clear – this is about climate change, about renewable technology, about, not to put too fine a point on it, how we can negotiate a whole new world.

The scientists are steaming away – as Kate Johnson put it, ‘it’s like being in Silicon Valley. There’s funding for research, they’re young, they’re learning things, about engineering, about physical and natural science…they’re excited, very excited.’ But, she said, ‘ what is not being examined is the social science effect of what is being proposed here – Orkney being the world centre for the development of wave and tidal energy. Industry – heavy industry – brings its own problems and conflicts with the local population.’

Cape Farewell puts creative makers in the mix, giving them space to react too – but gradually, involving people. ‘Art making’ said Associate Director Ruth Little, ‘ is a social practice, a conversation with places and people. Islands are profound metaphors; archipelagos link unique communities… journeying is a way of extending the edge, the line between people and culture, discovering new things, living with uncertaintly, recognising the past and bringing it flexibly into the present.’

John Cumming talked about the process as he had experienced it. He travelled through the Outer and Inner Hebrides in 2011, with fimmakers, oceanographers, sailors, writers – and some of the results of his experience were on show. His short talk was perhaps the most enlightening part of the evening, passionate, poetic, but also hitting some nails on heads.

‘It was an amazing journey… I didn’t want to make propaganda… I wanted to keep my integrity; so I thought about other people who had made sea journeys. There was no private space on sailing ships. You wanted your own things, tokens, tools, scrimshaw, things for self-maintenance – so I used the idea of Ditty Boxes, which sailors took with them full of such things. It was past present and future in a box. Boxmaker Cecil Tait created beautiful boxes for me to fill.

Ditty Box by John Cumming and Cecil Tait

Ditty Box by John Cumming and Cecil Tait

As a Shetlander I wanted to reflect on the warming of the seas. I knew as a boy that when the voices of the arctic terns stopped, summer was gone; so I approached Fionn MacArthur, and we’re working on a sound collage, giving a voice to the older fishermen, to save lost voices. It has been a profound experience, and it continues.’

The work itself is arresting – the boxes themselves work as a metaphor of course – what we keep safe, under a lid, what we save, what’s precious, for the box that’s life. The craftsmanship is lovely – magical names – ice birch, quilted maple, chestnut, gently gleaming and warm. Inside – soapstone and alabaster, grey and white, jostle sphagnum moss, netting tools, twig catapults, stone eggs, beeswax to caulk lines – all the goods tackle and gear of a vanishing world, re-imagined in sculptural form. There’s a home-stitched bag, whapped like a fishing rope, full of sand. It’s all tactile, evocative, melancholy and really beautiful. Like the best art, it leaves the viewer full of new thoughts. It’s poignant, because it’s mostly about loss – loss of simple industry, loss of our connection through work with the forces of nature.

Also fascinating, because it was a tale of commitment, vision, hard work, love, craftsmanship and of course, of substantial funding – from the days when Shetland had more money to spend – was Allistair Rendall’s tale of the restoration of the Swan herself, the boat at the centre of it all. That was an evening’s worth all on its own. Another grand metaphor too – a sturdy craft resurrected, remade, journeying full of hope and young folk.

Director David Buckland made it clear that the artist’s role, amongst other things, was to engage with the issue of climate change, and foreground it. Art is good for getting press coverage, which in turn raises awareness. I was going to say, raises political awareness, but politics wasn’t mentioned until the very last moment – when Kate Johnson remarked in conclusion that that was what it was all about really; ‘identifying conflicts and how to work through them.’ Indeed, the Galapagos section brought the problems of island culture versus industrial excitement and investment right up close and personal.

Think Galapagos and you think, I’m guessing, turtles, and other funny friendly animals who have never encountered people, except Darwin and David Attenborough, so trustingly lay their heads on humanity’s lap so it can do what it will with them. Not so, said Adrian Vasquez. He said: what about the people? Thanks to eco-tourism, Galapagos now has a population, to sustain the needs of the cruise liners and adventure tours…but it’s very hard to live in a tourist destination. (murmurs of recognition and agreement from the audience.) There’s tension between the locals and the scientists at the Darwin Institute there.

Kate Johnson’s statistics, and information about the collapse of the sea cucumber business also rang true for the audience. It was uncomfortably like a model for small island industry everywhere – the herring, for example. A timely slosh of cold water. Fast change is painful. There was far more to talk about here too, and no time to do it – yet. But islands have to get together and look at what happens to them when big meets tiny. We have to learn how to handle the next few years well, artists, community leaders, wave energy triallers, Chinese investors, fishermen, everybody. Together.

So – with what felt like an irresistible force meeting an immovable object, as the song says – somethin’s gotta give. Will it be the rampant new industry, or the shores and shallows of the old islands? Or – as Cape Farewell hope, will art and science move hand in hand, learning to embrace each other and island communities as we all struggle to accept what’s coming?

© Morag MacInnes, 2012