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Here is an extract from my next novel. This is the bit where Anna, the scientist, takes Martin, the artist’s agent, to the bridge at Kangerlussuaq and talks about art. This bit happens in Greenland in the late 1980s.

 

Reaching the doorway, Martin reached forward to push the door open for the girl, but found he was pushing on a door that opened to a pull. Anna laughed, took the same handle and pulled the door open. “You really need to learn a few words of Danish”, she said. “Look, it says ‘pull’.”

“No, it says ‘traek’ – what is that? Is that Greenlandic?”

“No, it’s Danish for ‘pull’. It’s a very useful little word. You should learn some of those”

As they went through the door Martin’s attention was caught by a large painting that filled the wall of the little entrance lobby in which they stood between the outer doors into the parking area and the inner doors that led into the transit hall. Anna was at the inner door, ahead of him, and saying “See? traek!” She opened the inner door for them both to go into the transit hall, where similar paintings were hung high on the walls all around. The style seemed familiar, and for just a moment Martin wondered…

“These aren’t your father’s, are they?”

Anna, surprised, looked up at the paintings. “No, no.” She laughed and turned to face the boy “Are you serious? They are nothing like his. They’ve always been here. I don’t know whose they are – perhaps they were commissioned by the architect – I have no idea. But it is a good job you didn’t say that to my Dad. The other AGA people at least seemed to know their art, and he respected that in them, if nothing else.”

“I know my art. I just thought…” He stood back from the wall and squinted up to get a clearer view of the painting closest to them. It was a soft impressionistic landscape of hills and a river with a bridge. “Is that not the sort of thing your Dad would paint?”

The girl screwed up her nose “He always says he doesn’t paint things, he paints the ideas of things. That one looks to me like just a thing. It reminds me of the thing, not of the way I think about the thing. So, no.”

Martin looked at the painting a little longer. “It reminds me of a bridge. It looks perfectly like the idea of a bridge to me.”

Anna sighed, perhaps a little impatient with somebody who turned out not to know as much about art, and about her father’s art, as she had imagined he did. Suddenly he was just a boy in London shoes standing in an unfamiliar place showing that he did not know… that he did not know her.

She said: “Have you ever been to that particular bridge?”

He said. “I have no idea – where is it?”

“If that were one of my father’s paintings you would know right away if you had been to that bridge because the painting would make you feel just the way you did when you were there. Look at it – how do you feel about that bridge?”

Martin was struggling. He raised his shoulders and squinted his eyes… and then gave up. “I have no idea – it’s just a bridge. I don’t think I recognise it.”

The girl was frustrated. “Remember now exactly how you feel about that bridge in the picture.” She paused, and the boy looked again at the picture high above him. He was starting to regret having mentioned it, and beginning to get a bit bored of the soft landscape with its little bridge.

“Now come with me. But remember that picture and remember that feeling.” Anna turned briskly and walked back the way they had come in. leaving the boy to hurry behind her to catch her up as she stood at the inner doorway out of the transit hall. She stared pointedly at the boy and down at the door handle. “Skub. Push. Now you know two Danish words.”

Martin reached down to the handle with the word skub engraved onto it, and he pushed. “There, said Anna, “you learn by seeing and doing” and she reached for the handle of the outer door herself, but the boy reached past her and they put their hands on it together.

“Skub” said the boy and pushed. The girl took her hand quite quickly off the handle and walked ahead through the doorway. She led the boy back through the little parking area, which was blocked completely by a truck marked with the TEC logo, and turned to the right along the road past the back of the airport building. They walked together along the road past the junction where the track up the valley split off to the left, and followed the tarmac around a long bend to the right that curved past the end of the runway.

“Kangerlussuaq is only here because of the runway” said Anna. Originally, when it was an American Air Base, all the buildings were over on the far side of the runway. Then for years there were essentially two separate airports using the same runway, the Americans over there and the civilian Danish and Greenlandic airport over here. Now everything comes through the Danish side and the old American base has been converted to things like extra accommodation and science facilities. The road goes past all of that and down to the river.” She stopped suddenly and turned to the boy who was half a pace behind her – “where there is a bridge!” She turned again and walked on.

“Ah, you’re taking me to learn about bridges.”

“No” she half turned her head to call back to him “I am taking you to learn about art. Keep up. If you can’t talk about art my father will never agree to anything.”

“You’re helping me?”

“Of course I’m helping you. We both want the same thing. Not the contract, I don’t care about that – although…” she pretended to look thoughtful “I suppose it would be a shame if you lost your job. But no, I don’t care about the contract but it would be nice if my father would move on, and painting again might help him with that.”

The road here passed over a narrow bridge beneath which the river from the ice hurried out towards the fjord. Anna leant against the railing, looking down at the water rushing underneath. Between the bridge and the opening of the broad waters of the fjord was a long stretch of tidal mud and sandflats, and before that, running right up to, and underneath the bridge, an area of curiously smoothed and sculpted rock, covering hundreds of square meters, through which the river cut a sharp gorge.

“It doesn’t look much on a day like this,” she said, “all neatly contained in its channel, with the sun shining, and the bridge here for us to look down from. Look around – see the flat grey rock stretching down to the sea. Look at the shape of that hill across the valley. Look, see the design of this bridge… do you recognise it?”

“Yes, yes,” the boy held up his hands as though in submission, thinking he had seen the girl’s point. “It’s the bridge from the painting at the airport. OK. I get it.”

“No, you don’t get it.” She shook her head and walked ahead of him to the far side of the bridge. At the end of the railings she turned off the road and scrambled down the embankment to the smooth rocky surface beside the gorge. The river was rushing, forced through the narrow gap like water bursting out of a tap. Up close the water seemed heavy with grey dirt, and surprisingly fast. And surprisingly loud. The sound echoed up off the walls of the gorge and back down from the bridge that was above them as Martin squatted down beside her.

“It looks different up close” he shouted above the roar, “I’ll give you that”.

“All this water,” she said, “comes off the ice sheet. Melted from ice that has been there for hundreds of thousands of years. Hundreds of thousands – can you imagine? The Romans were in Britain two thousand years ago, the Egyptian pyramids were built four or five thousand years ago. This water was ice, in that glacier just there, for hundreds of thousands of years. It fell as snow and then waited all that time, slowly moving out towards the edge, and then – this year, a particular snowflake, a particular ice crystal finally melted, flowed into the river and within hours, after thousands of years as ice, in just an hour after waking up and coming alive it is flowing through here and then,” she pointed at a spot on the surface of the rushing flow under the bridge and quickly swung her arm round with the flow and out towards the fjord “and then whoosh, it is through here and out in to the sea. And that little bit of the sea here that the river flows into, that goes out into the Davis Strait, which connects to the Labrador Sea, which is connected to the Atlantic Ocean, which is connected to the Southern Ocean, and the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. It is all one big world ocean that this snowflake evaporated out of when we were still Neanderthals living in caves and now” (she spread out the words one by one for emphasis) “after, all, those, years in the ice it is flowing, finally, back into the sea. It’s an amazing, amazing journey.”

“And this river” she carried on, “if you look at the map you will see it carries all the water draining of a huge area of this section of the ice sheet. Even when climate is steady the ice is constantly melting at the edges and being replaced by new snow in the middle, but with climate warming more and more of it is melting. There is a huge amount of water coming through here. Even now, at low flow near to the end of the season – how much water do you think is coming through here as you watch?”

The boy had no idea even how to measure or count water flow “In what? Tonnes, Gallons?”

However you like, whatever makes sense to you when you imagine it.”

“OK, well…” the boy looked down into the water and tried to imagine it as a weight, because, more than he had ever noticed in a river before, perhaps because it was so opaque and flowing so fast, this water seemed to have real weight, real momentum as it flowed past. “I don’t know – a tonne every second” He thought he was wildly overestimating what was, after all, a fairly narrow river.

“Today, a quiet day, this is about one hundred tonnes a second, if you want to think in tonnes” Anna replied. Martin’s eyes widened in disbelief.

“We measure water flow in cubic meters per second, ‘cumecs’ for short. A cubic meter of water weighs about one tonne, depending on its sediment content, so we’ll just say a cumec is a tonne. This water is flowing at about two or three meters per second, it goes fast through the gorge, and the gorge when it’s this full has a cross sectional area of about thirty square meters.” She saw Martin looking unsure. “I mean it’s about ten meters wide and where it is up to today it is about three meters deep, so that’s ninety cubic meters, or tonnes for you, of water flowing past this point every single second. She counted them out loud for him as they passed: ninety, ninety, ninety, ninety. But this is the river being quiet. In one of the big floods they calculated the discharge, the volume of water flowing – you won’t believe this – was fifteen hundred cumecs – fifteen hundred tonnes of water per second. Per second. The water than was nearly six meters deep here, way over our heads, and going even faster. At peak flow in one of the big floods as much as a hundred million tonnes of water comes under this bridge in a day.”

“I’ve actually seen one of those floods, and even I, when I stand here on a day like today, even I can’t really imagine, or really remember what that was like. It’s almost too big to hold in your head afterwards. And look at these rocks.” She stood up and walked a little way down stream away from the bridge, and onto the smooth, polished rock between the bridge and the fjord. It was a landscape unlike anything the boy had seen before, It was bare rock, and he could see the same patterns of crystals and the odd striped structure that he had noticed in all the rocks around the airport and when he was out at the glacier, but here the rocks were not textured like rock but like glass, or like metal that had melted and flowed and then set into curious waved patterns and then been highly polished and burnished as if to make some kind of huge organic sculpture.

“Some people say that this pattern is caused by the big floods carrying so much sand and silt that they sculpt the rocks into this shape. Other people say that even a flood like that would not be so powerful to do this without just breaking the rocks apart, and they say that this happened underneath the glacier, when ice hundreds of meters thick covered this whole area. Under the ice, at high pressure, these floods were still happening, but pressed against the rock under the huge pressure of the glacier above, they made these shapes. Look.” She knelt down and ran her hand around a curious looping groove in the rock. She reached up and took the boy’s hand, and as he knelt beside her she guided his hand into the curve of the rock so that his fingers could feel how it curved up out of sight into a tight but complex pattern inside the curls and swoops of the carved groove. Imagine, under the ice, all those years ago, in the dark, under all that pressure, the force of what must have done this.” She let go of his hand and stood up “And now here it all is, this evidence – if you are a scientist like me – all this evidence in the landscape of what happened. You, you look at this and you see curiously shaped rocks. Me, I look at the rocks and I see that huge ancient subglacial flood.”

“Well, not any more, now I look at them and I see…” He hesitated. What he saw was the girl, talking with such emotion about a world that she appreciated in a way that he had never thought of. He did not finish his sentence, and the girl carried on.

“If Dad painted this, his painting would not just be a painting of the bridge, it would be a painting of everything we just talked about, all that imagination, all your feelings, and where the water came from, and that enormous length of time, and the water being so old. But none of it would be there on the surface. It would be showing through, shining through… bleeding through from underneath.”

The boy looked out to the west out across the rocks to the fjord. Far, far in the distance, perhaps 50 miles away through the clear arctic air, mountains at the coast were brightly capped in snow. The girl turned to face the other way, looking up past the bridge, towards Sandflugtsdalen and the ice.

“After my mother was killed and I came out here with my Dad, I used to walk around these rocks thinking it was the last chance, the last place we might find anything of hers that had been washed downstream. Anything she had lost as she fell. I don’t know what I was looking for – not specifically the notebook. Just anything. But this water… The last time she was alive was in this water.”

Martin looked up saw that she was crying. She turned quickly away from him and walked across the rocks back towards the bridge. He caught up with her and she wiped tears from her eyes. “None of that is in the painting in the airport, not for me,” she said. “I can’t recognise this bridge in that painting. If my Dad had painted it, his painting would make me feel the way that I feel about this place, which I can’t even describe. When there are things that mean so much that you can’t even describe them, that’s what poetry is for. That’s what my Dad used to paint for. I asked him, not long ago, if he would paint this bridge, this river. He said it was too big. Some things are too big to paint. I think that is his problem. That’s why he stopped painting. Everything inside him became so big that he could no longer fit it onto canvas, and now I think it has all become so big that he can’t even look at it.”

With tears still in her eyes she turned again, but slowly this time, and they walked together back across the bridge towards Kangerlussuaq. They walked side by side in silence.

 

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Memory, plagiarism and the truth

Here’s a funny story. Many years ago, way back in the mists of time, I started a painting. Here’s a picture of it.

IMG_0320 (2) - Copy

I never finished it, and it got shoved away in a pile of junk under a bed in the spare room. It was forgotten. It stayed forgotten for a long time, and then I stumbled across it and was seriously impressed with what a great idea I’d had to invent such a painting. The idea that if we poke our head through the curtain of the sky we will see the clockwork that drives the environmental system: the clockwork of climate change. Look at that clever graph of the long-term climate-change signal! How clever I was.

I got the painting out, dusted it off, and I think I even tweeted a picture of it to show the world my genius. Then I put it back under the bed and forgot it again.

Time passed, and then this week I saw a Twitter tweet in which @JDProuty had posted up a picture  alongside one of his haiku.

Screenshot 2014-12-06 13.45.24

This picture looked familiar and suddenly I remembered mine again. For a moment I thought – my picture! Somebody must have stolen it from when I put it on Twitter! Then I looked closer and saw that this picture was much, much better than mine. Of course. How unfair, they stole my idea and did it better – the injustice. Then I thought: this is unlikely. I asked @JDProuty where the picture came from, and he kindly sent me some information and a link, demonstrating that this was an old picture, of which there were many versions floating around on the internet, and which had a long and interesting history. Certainly it was not mine. It’s even up there in Wikipedia!

Screenshot 2014-12-06 14.10.15

What must have happened, of course, is that long ago I must have seen the original picture and decided to make one of my own. I then forgot the original. I then forgot my own. I then discovered my own. I then  failed to recall the original. Whoops.

Another reminder that where memory, imagination, belief – in fact more or less anything – is concerned, you can’t really ever be quite sure of what comes from where, or of what you have ever really done, or that anything is really new, or that any idea is in fact your own.

Did somebody once say “there is nothing new under the sun”? No, I’m sure that’s one of mine!

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Three exhibitions of things not quite

I have been working on ideas for some exhibitions focusing around the idea of collecting things that are not quite present. The first exhibition started life under the title “Spaces” and was intended to be a collection of scenes captured at the moment when the important subject had just moved away. Rooms photographed just after the person in whom the photographer was interested had left. Branches just after the bird that a photographer had been stalking has flown out of frame. Moments just after the important moment, which are then redefined to become important themselves. These are the moments immediately after most people have looked away. These are the points where the period of noticing has just ended, and a different period is just beginning. With practice, we can extend our period of noticing and learn to capture these moments. Otherwise they may as well never have existed. We can learn to be not only in the moment, but in the moment after. We can learn to keep noticing.

As that idea evolved it became clear that what I was trying to capture were not just spaces, but moments, and so the working title for that first exhibition became “The moment after”. It was important that these were not images simply of things left behind. I did not want the detritus after the flood, or the circle on the grass after the circus. I was not looking for after-effects, or signs, or evidence. I was looking specifically for absence, rather than for any indication of former presence. Without an accompanying caption or story it would not be apparent what had just been missed, but once the absence was known, the moment after would acquire some significance.

As the idea of “The moment after” moved forward I found myself struggling to capture the notion that these were moments other than, but close to, the important moment. There was always the trap, the danger, of capturing the moment itself, or some shadow of it, rather than the blankness of the moment after. The moments I wanted were obviously not “the President making a speech”; they were not even “the room where the President had made the speech”. Also I didn’t want simply to capture a relic such as “the podium at which the President had stood”. What I wanted was specifically a moment when the president was not there; the speech was no longer being made; nobody was paying attention. These were moments that had escaped and may almost as well never have occurred. They were moments that did not matter other than in that they were adjacent to moments which had. And that idea of adjacency drew my back to my geographical roots, setting me on the path to a new idea: the idea of locations adjacent to, but absolutely other than, important or well-known locations. Here would be an image not of the room where a famous event had occurred, but a room in a building across the street. A room in the unremarkable apartment upstairs from the famous apartment where the event had occurred. These were peripheral locations. Locations to which everybody had their backs turned at the important moment. These locations were simply nearby, which gave me the title for the exhibition: “Nearby”.

“The moment after” and “Nearby” drew attention to moments and places that were close to, but other than, the moments and places that everybody noticed. In trying to identify items for inclusion in those collections I found myself discounting and discarding objects that were neither moments nor locations but nevertheless fell into that same category of “nearly but not quite the thing to which everybody would pay attention”. Hence the origin of my third exhibition: an exhibition of objects that were nearly, but not quite. I would include, for example, a sheet of parchment from the workshop of Leonardo Da Vinci. But it would be a blank sheet that he had never used. Had he done so, it could have been as famous as any work of art, and perhaps the sheet that was above it in the pile in the studio is now behind bullet-proof glass in the Louvre. But this sheet is one on which Da Vinci never drew. And here is a roll of unexposed film found amongst the effects of a famous photographer: had he lived longer, this would have been the roll he used next. Here is a type writer that Hemingway did not use, but would have done if things had been different that year. Here is the car that James Dean did not drive. Here is a piece of fabric from one of the flags that they did not raise that day on Iwo Jima. The title of this third exhibition: “Almost”.

Nowadays, everyone is a curator. I shall curate these moments, places and objects that are not quite. But they may be hard to find. They may be difficult to notice.

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The American writer Austin Kleon, who wrote “Newspaper Blackout”, has also written a book called “Steal Like an Artist”, so I am hoping that he won’t mind that I have stolen his idea to help teach my Geography students. The picture here from Kleon’s website http://www.austinkleon.com illustrates what he does.

"Creativity is Subtraction" from austinkleon.com

As Kleon puts it: “Grab a newspaper. Grab a marker. Find an article. Cross out words, leaving behind the ones you like. Pretty soon you’ll have a poem.”

So how do I use this teaching Geography? The point I’m trying to make with the students is that Science is a way of exploring and understanding the world, but that there are other ways of exploring and understanding the world, and that sometimes those different approaches can help each other out. For example, as a Geographer you might often want to look closely at the world around you to see details that will help you to describe, understand and represent the way the world works. Science is one way of doing that. But I learned from my friend and colleague the artist Miriam Burke that a good way of forcing yourself to look carefully at something is to try to make art about it. Trying to make a picture or a model or a poem of something really makes you look closely at it. Art is a great way of exploring. That’s why, for me, art and Geography go nicely side by side.

So I took a copy of the first page of one of the basic course textbooks (“Geography – a Very Short Introduction” by J.A.Matthews and D.T.Herbert, 2008) and I started crossing out words. I asked the students to do the same. Now I’m sure there’s a whole psycho-pedagogic discourse on the traumatic consequences of making students cross out swathes of their text book. We’ll save that for a different blog. The point I want to record here is about how asking students to cross out most of the words in a page from the textbook makes them look much more closely at the original source than if we just asked them to read it. And if we insist that their Blackout Poem reflects the underlying meaning or core concept of the page they are editing (but that it must do more than simply abbreviate the content of the page), the activity seems to engage a whole new level of critical attention to the source (helping students to learn and think about the material) and at the same time switches on a creative or interpretive intellect that fixes the academic content of the original document into the mental context of the student’s own “work” on the piece. In other words, by USING the original document to create something new of their own, they get much more out of it.

This illustrates something I constantly tell students: that the best way to learn something is to use it for some purpose, especially if that involves communicating it to somebody. If you are struggling to understand glacier dynamics, set a date where you have to teach glacier dynamics to somebody who knows nothing about it.  It also illustrates nicely how doing something that appears to be non-academic can be a big help with your academic work. The value of play. If I can get my students to PLAY with their scientific source material… well, they’ll end up just like me!

I only came up with (sorry, stole) this idea a couple of days ago, but already I see huge scope ranging from fun little tutorial activities to major coursework projects. You could even do it just for Art. Oh, yeah, Austin Kleon already thought of that.  When I tweeted my first attempt at a Geography Blackout yesterday it quickly became far and away my most retweeted tweet ever, so this seems to have struck a chord with others, too.  And that’s why I thought I’d say just a little bit more about it here. For the record, here is that first attempt. My “Geography Blackout” redaction of the opening page of Matthews and Herbert (2008). I suspect there may be more to follow.

Gosh, I hope nobody steals this idea.

Peter Knight's "Exploration"

Peter Knight's "Exploration", inspired by Austin Kleon's "Newspaper Blackout" and by page 1 of "Geography - A Very Short Introduction" (Matthews and Herbert, 2008).

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I met somebody new this week, and when I first met him I was under the impression that he was a sculptor. I noticed his hands, and I thought yes, those are a sculptor’s hands. It turns out that he wasn’t a sculptor at all. So now my map of the world has these hands just hanging there uncategorized. I think Carlo may actually have been a former aircraft engineer. So does that mean that those were “former aircraft engineer’s hands”? I don’t have a place for those. I don’t have a file or a drawer labelled “former aircraft engineers’ hands”. I don’t know what to expect of such hands so I don’t know whether Carlo’s fit the role. Were those echt aircraft engineer’s hands? And what, anyway, do I really know even of sculptors’ hands? Who was I to say “ah, yes, those are just so, exactly as they would be”? We rush to judgements on the basis of so little knowledge. In the short period of a day or so when I thought that Carlo’s hands were those of a sculptor, I looked carefully at my own hands and wondered, of what type of person would these appear to be the hands? What should I tell somebody that I was, in order for that person to say “ah, yes, those are exactly the hands of such a one”? And I really couldn’t say. Of me, and these particular hands which I know well, I cannot rush to judgement. Somewhere, somewhere between me and Carlo, perhaps there is a middle ground where I would be able to say something useful. A middle ground of just the right amount of knowledge. I thought that REM sang “I know too much”, but they didn’t, it was “Oh no, I’ve said too much”, so that doesn’t help here. T.S.Eliot wrote: “Bin gar keine Russin, stamm aus’ Litauen, echt deutsch” (I am not Russian, but Lithuanian, real German), which helps a little more.

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I have been working with an artist. She describes her work as being the care and maintenance of the web of our noticing. The paying heed of things overlooked. Exploring contemporary notions of where “wilderness” might now reside when the last bit of the world has been mapped, she has put together, amongst other things, a carefully curated collection of lost buttons, found on the street, the location and date of the discovery of each one carefully recorded. We are looking at the small moments that make up landscapes. Trying to help people to notice. To see more. For me, as a teacher, that is the coal face of my work.

Link: Miriam Burke’s website

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