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A Creative Document of Performing Wild Geographies, 2nd - 4th October 2017, Knepp Estate

Introduction

Performing Wild Geographies brought together artists and academics working in the fields of rewilding, human geography, paleoecology, conservation, performance studies, theatre, visual arts and journalism, in order to explore the potential for transdisciplinary collaboration in rewilding. The two day research event took place at a pioneering rewilding project: Knepp Estate in West Sussex. It involved presentations and workshops from leading academics in rewilding and leading scholars and artists in performance and ecology, guided walks and explorations of Knepp led by the resident ecologist Penny Green, group discussions, eating together and camping on site.

This piece of documentation is a creative response to my experience as a participant at Performing Wild Geographies. It is an exploratory, experimental, partial and subjective account of the event. The two sections - Words and Movements - are intended to contemplate the question: what creative sensibilities might contemporary performance practices offer to rewilding and wildlife conservation? This document is not a full or ‘pure’ account of what what was said, experienced and discussed, rather it is a kaleidoscope of tangled memories, movements and ideas. I hope this tangle can lean the reader productively into some of the possibilities of transdisciplinary collaboration between performance and rewilding: in particular, the potential for performance to enable meaningful and ethical public engagement with concepts of rewilding, wilderness and wildness.

Words

These are reformulated, reconstructed, (mis)remembered and (mis)interpreted words from the opening presentations, guided walks, snippets of overheard conversations, performance workshops and final group discussions.

What is wild in the Anthropocene? Who knows? Who decides? How do we know when we find wildness in the field? Who gets to speak for wildness? (Jamie Lorimer)

Who or what is doing the rewilding? (Danielle Schreve)

When and how much do we intervene, and when do we wait to see what happens? (Penny Green)

I found myself today wanting to go out into the site, to wander, to see what the site has to communicate. (Baz Kershaw)

Oh and then the land did it itself. (Charles Burrell)

I feel aware of my body and its part in the bigger body of land here. (Helen Billinghurst)

I am struck again by what was here - the alien, the breadth and scope of it. (Samuel Turvey)

The landscape is uncanny. (Phil Smith)

Not having rules. (Harriet Hawkins)

We didn’t have personal control when we were led with our eyes closed by a partner. (Danielle Shreve)

Surprise is more compelling than what was thought of. (Jamie Lorimer)

Performance can be a creative way of confounding human intentionality and rewilding has an ethos of letting go of control. (Sarah Hopfinger)

We do not have full control of these spaces - for example, animals escape. (Danielle Shreve)

Openness to unpredictability. (Filipa Soares)

It’s an attitude of being open and responsive to unpredictability, to working in the ‘betweens’ of control and uncontrollability, predicted and unpredictability? (Sarah Hopfinger)

Performance is often about putting ourselves in risk. (Laura Bissel)

Why am I throwing acorns into the water? (Jamie Lorimer)

The design of rewilding can happen by accident. (Penny Green)

The playfulness of this event. (Antony Lyons)

Danielle, I could have watched you move your arms up and down for a long time. (Karen Christopher)

It feels important not to make conclusions. (David Overend)

Land as ‘unreadable’. How did animals make this land? How do we make sense of it? Transdisciplinarity as a case of blurring the boundaries so much that there is an ‘un-knowledge’. Perhaps we need a manufacturing of un-knowledge and ignorance. (Baz Kershaw)

What are the ‘inters’ and ‘betweens’ of this project - the interfaces between the human and nonhuman, the different disciplines, the physical spaces, the people? (Laura Bissell)

Wildness as a type of process. (Jamie Lorimer)

How can we look at or see an ecological process? How do we know when we see it? (Danielle Shreve)

There is always already so much going on, so we might not need to do much to draw attention to what is already happening. (Karen Christopher)

We are in a unique site. Performance that addresses this site will be a particular kind of performance. What are the specific aesthetics at play here, what are the ethics here? (Baz Kershaw)

The many rhythms passing through the Knepp landscape at different moments - rhythms of harmony, tipping points, conflict. (Jamie Lorimer)

Knepp is not a mosaic of different sites but a kaleidoscope of tangling areas. (Charles Burrell)

There is an element of risk: the real or imagined potential for danger. We don’t know these beasts at all, we don’t know what they will do, and how they might respond to us. (David Overend)

What do we value in witnessing performance? Can we value a tree, an atmosphere, through performance? What can theatre do? (Laura Bissell)

There were different forms and modes of attention in the group performances. What (performance) methods enable different modes of attention? (Baz Kershaw)

What can performance offer conservation? What can conservation offer performance? (David Overend)

Movements

During Phil Smith’s workshop, we collaboratively created outdoor performances in response to the idea that wild animals are often thought to have been sited in places where they feasibly could not have been. Below is my response to one of those performances.

Baz Kershaw lies face down in a woodland, his head between two sticking-out-slanting branches. He seems oddly comfortable. His bodily position is bold yet at ease. Straight arms and legs with subtle bumps of torso and angled feet and hands are all held uniquely by the shape of the earth-stones-sticks-and-other-things-that-I-do-not-know-are-there. The movements of the trees around him, of myself and the others walking past him, are made more certain by his odd-at-ease-antler-human-face-down-stillness.

This image moves me, I am not sure why. It requests my attention. It does not ask for me to make meaning of it as an image of ‘an antler man’ but asks for a quality of attention. I am not Sarah watching another human being ‘a stag’: rather, I am part of a performance of attentiveness. This attentiveness is not merely mine nor the ‘antler man’s’ but seems to be an attentiveness that belongs to the ecology of here, of bodies-stillness-sticks-watchers-wood-wind-air-performers-and-more. However fleetingly, this more-than-human performance has opened up a mode of attention - of attending - that is somehow slow, soft, curious, surprising, vulnerable, alert, and, perhaps, wild.

During Karen Christopher’s performance workshop, we created collaborative pieces inspired by movements, sounds, images and ideas from our time so far at Knepp.

In one of the group performances Danielle Shreve walks, and at the same time she moves her arms. Her arms are a waving-curving-up-and-down-preciseness. There is an everyday-ness to this performance: she walks on concrete, she is wearing boots, her expression is unforced and open, her walk is certain and relaxed. Yet this is an unusual performance: her arms are moving up and down and there is something more-than this movement in this movement. Her swooshing curvature of bending arms is neat, satisfying, definite. It seems less that she does this movement and more that she takes part in it: as if the movement is moving her.

The evening before I had listened to Danielle’s presentation on her specialism - paleoecology. She spoke of ancient ecologies, of the noisy place that the United Kingdom would have been due to the intensity of its species. She explored how we might ‘see’ ecological processes and how do we know when we ‘see’ them. She talked about how species’ behaviour does not get neatly fossilised and she gleefully discussed how hippo remains were found at Trafalgar Square in the 1950s.

Danielle’s words and energies that I encountered during her presentation now merge into these walking-arm-wavering movements. Her way of moving seems to be full of a deep history: a paleoecological knowledge expressing and speaking itself through the simplicity of two arms going up and down. I do not think she could do these movements without the specifics of her embodied intellectual understanding of paleolithic animals and ecosystems. Earlier on in the workshop, Karen Christopher had said something along the lines of: we cannot fully know what we are doing, what the effect of something we do might have, what knowledge is carried in the movements of our bodies.

In another group performance, David Overend is sitting on a chair at a distance from us (the ‘audience’). He is out there towards the field where there are grasses-hedges-horizon-and-what-I-cannot-fully-see. His far away-ness feels important. David, sitting on his chair, faces us with a stare that arrests me closely, yet I cannot make out his expression or bodily position: he is not fully clear. I am drawn to this far-away-close-David-chair. He watches us watching him. After some time, he slowly brings his arms up towards his head, his hands carrying two long sticks that end up resting on his head and protruding out-upward into the sky, echoing a knowledge of long antlers. He does not change his continued looking at us, even as he is changed by this simple movement and collaboration with two sticks.

I overhear a conversation later and I learn that David was attempting, in this performance, to recreate the experience he had had of watching a half-hidden stag watching him. Later in that performance, David walks towards us, lessening the distance between us, coming into view more and more. Yet even as I see him more fully, I cannot help but feel that he is not fully see-able, and neither is the ‘stag’ that he was performing. I sense something worthwhile in this not-fully-knowable-not-fully-graspable way of experiencing things. There is an openness to partiality in this David-stag performance: I experience a sense that it is OK not to view things in full. David’s physical distance from us spoke to me of a significant partiality, a half-hidden and not-fully-see-able wildness. Perhaps animals, environments, people and ecosystems need to not be fully seen, grasped, understood, in order for them to be what they are, where what they are always contains something unknowable. This brings me to the thought that if we are part of environmental ecologies, as opposed to somehow separated or separable from them, then we cannot ever see them in full view, we can only ever participate in ecologies and ‘see’ and ‘do’ from the partiality of our entangled perspectives. What matters, then, is how we participate in environmental ecologies: what our ethics, aesthetics and practices are of participation. Experimental performance practice, with its methods of openness to the unpredicted and unknown, may be a particularly unique way in which to not only communicate but to phenomenologically experience rewilding processes.

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