ANNA SOUTER & BEATRICE SEARLE IN CONVERSATION.
Anna Souter, April 2019
London-based writer Anna Souter and Glasgow-based artist Beatrice Searle are collaborating on an exhibition and forum, Rewind/Rewild at OmVed Gardens in North London. The show explores the ecological implications of the rewilding movement and the broader possibilities for rewilding human lives. In this interview, they discuss what it means to be making art in an era of climate breakdown.
Anna Souter: Do you want to start by saying a bit about rewilding and why it’s important?
Beatrice Searle: I think rewilding is becoming more significant as people realise how imperative it could be for human survival. The human race has no future unless we get truly involved in ecological restoration. We’ve gone past the point where we can be passive: if you’re not taking action, you’re contributing to the elimination of our species.
New evidence suggests that rewilding, or what we could call the restoration and protection of ecosystems, could be the answer to many of the environmental problems we’re facing. We need to let the natural world resume its balance and be the life-giving force it’s supposed to be. I believe in the power of art to shock, move and mobilise, and to call people to action. The first challenge is to persuade people to care: you can frighten them into caring, or you can try to move them with the promise of how rich and rewarding a rewilded life could be.
Beatrice Searle, For the Journey and Return with The Orkney Boat, 2017
"rewilding, or what we could call the restoration and protection of ecosystems, could be the answer to many of the environmental problems we're facing"
The title we chose for the exhibition, Rewind/Rewild, is deliberately contentious. We can’t just rewind time. I think if we can bring people together to think in a new way and break down the boundaries that hinder progress, it can help us to recognise the fact that we’re both one race of people and one species in a vastly complex networked web.
AS: I agree, and I think we’ve realised that rewilding fundamentally means recognising the importance of those networks. We need to recognise that we are part of the natural world and mentally re-involve ourselves: our actions have consequences, but the natural world also has an effect on us in return. It is a two-way, reciprocal relationship.
I’ve been particularly inspired recently by Daisy Hildyard’s The Second Body, in which she suggests that humans are physically implicated in the lives of other beings, which means the lives of other beings are physically implicated in the bodily existence of humans too. It's not just on a theoretical level that your actions affect other people and other species - it’s on a very physical level.
In the past, science and art have attempted to build barriers for the sake of working out what makes us human. But maybe now it’s also interesting to know what makes us nonhuman, and discover what we share with other species and ecosystems in a more holistic sense.
I wonder if this can lead us on to talk about your most recent project, Foregathered wi’ the Beast, which you will show in Rewind/Rewild?
Beatrice Searle, Foregathered wi' the Beast, Act of stone carving and installation; Video in collaboration with actionreeve media, 2019
BS: The Scottish Highlands are often celebrated as one of the last great wildernesses: beautiful, rich and majestic. But in reality, although the landscape is beautiful, it’s also bare. A lot of it is dead and gone, and it’s not rich at all.
The stag standing proudly on a rock overlooking the highland landscape is not reflective of a healthy ecosystem or what the highlands could and should be.
I came across a stone, which stands in what is now a layby on the side of the A9. This stone marks the killing place of the last wolf in Sutherland, celebrating the hunter who killed it and referencing a book called ‘The Art of Deerstalking’, which contains a wildly fabricated, excessively violent, macho account of the event.
It didn’t add up. In ridding the landscape of its key predator, this act of slaughter was a tipping point which sent the highlands into a steady ecological decline. With no wolves, red deer numbers exploded, grazing everything to the ground, compacting soil, increasing flooding and reducing biodiversity.
I wanted to offer an alternative version of events. I made the new stone on site in the layby, in the presence of the original stone. The action of making it felt like a protest – I like to think of it as an act of guerrilla letter-cutting. It says:
IN MEMORY OF THE WOLVES
PART OF THESE LANDS
LOST TO GENERATIONS
WE AWAIT YOUR RETURN
I wanted to make a stone that marked the place for what it was – the start of the demise of the entire ecosystem of the highlands – but also to offer some hope for the future. The debate is turning to recognise the benefits of reintroducing wolves to highland landscapes.
"I wanted to make a stone that marked the place for what it was - the start of the demise of the entire ecosystem of the highlands"
Stone marker responded to by Beatrice Searle in Foregathered wi' the Beast
Alannah Eileen, Memory Garden, 2018
AS: There’s something powerful about making those words through the act of stone carving outdoors, which is such a physically demanding way of working, as well as being very involved in the landscape the work addresses.
I also like that Foregathered wi’ the Beast directly speaks to rewilding as an active process, as well as drawing attention to the sociocultural context in which wolves were hunted and killed in Scotland. Perhaps we could talk a bit about how your work relates to something like Marcus Coates’ Apology to the Great Auk, which will also be featured in the exhibition.
BS: I think I have been influenced by the directness in that video; I think that’s what gave me the courage to address a history that is, in this case, literally set in stone. In his piece, Marcus goes about forming a committee on Fogo Island, Canada. Together, they draw up an apology to the great auk, which was once prolific there, but which is now extinct because of human actions. The apology is ratified by the mayor, and the statement is addressed to the sea, on behalf of everyone who potentially contributed to the bird’s decline. I think both my work and Marcus’ piece attempt to make the issue of ecocide everybody’s problem. Perhaps you could say a bit about why that’s important?
AS: I think the non-specific way in which the great auk apology is addressed goes back to what we were saying earlier: that in an age of climate breakdown, everyone is implicated in the potential extinction of species. What your piece further suggests is that, similarly, everyone can be implicated in the potential for rewilding and reintroducing species. Reintroducing wolves, for instance, would benefit everyone. The trophic-cascade effects that wolves have would increase the carbon draw-down factor of the landscape, for example, as well as the biodiversity of a huge area. And hopefully on a social level rewilding could point towards greater equality, especially as those highland landscapes have a strong cultural history of oppression, elitism and land ownership.
BS: The idea that we could all be owners of, and implicated in, the future of our landscapes is a very hopeful one. Perhaps we could talk about Hannah Imlach’s work as well here?
AS: I like the way that she thinks through the wider implications of each element in her sculptures, and how she takes reference from details of the landscapes that she's working in; it shows a significant degree of respect and involvement in that landscape.
BS: I think “involvement” is a useful word here. A lot of what she does results from in depth residencies and collaborations with bodies like the RSPB, and bodies responsible for the monitoring and restoration of areas like the peatlands of Caithness and Sutherland.
Hannah Imlach, Sphagnum Ombrometer I, blown glass, 2018
AS: What I liked about them particularly was that they are sensitive to the specificities of the landscape: they’re assembled onsite and are adjusted to fit the requirements of placing a sculpture in a bog, for example.
BS: And they respond to the landscape.
AS: Exactly, there’s a reciprocity there, as well bringing together different modes of knowing a landscape. Perhaps we can talk a bit about how we’ve found collaborating on this project as a writer and an artist. How have you found the experience?
BS: Well, when I started thinking about this project, I had just read Feral by George Monbiot and I knew you had read it too. Maybe you even recommended it to me? You had written an article about my Orkney Boat work as well, so I knew that we were on the same wavelength and could communicate. I think our different skills and ways of working have made for quite a holistic approach, even collaborating across a distance of 500 miles. Do you agree?
AS: Yes, and I’ve found that the separation between our disciplines is quite fluid. As well as organising the show, we’re both contributing creatively. Interestingly, both of our contributions involve words, but while you cut your words into a stone in a layby in the highlands in the rain, I sat with my laptop in the British Library, which is carefully climate controlled and has no windows. I think I like your way better! But I think perforating strict boundaries between disciplines becomes even more relevant in an age of climate breakdown.
BS: Yes, if we can work across those boundaries, we have a greater chance of removing the barriers between ourselves and the ecosystems that sustain us.
"the idea that we could all be owners of, and implicated in, the future of our landscapes is a very hopeful one"
Rodrigo Arteaga, Device to hold a tree (detail), Tree branch and galvanized steel wire, 2018
Hannah Imlach, Hazel Anemometer, tulipwood, brass and 3D printed components, 2018
Rewind/Rewild is at OmVed Gardens, 1-7 May 2019. Read more here. Featuring Rodrigo Arteaga, Marcus Coates, Alannah Eileen, Julia Crabtree & William Evans, Hannah Imlach, Fiona Macdonald : Feral Practice, Beatrice Searle, Anna Skladmann and Amy Stephens.
Rewilding Forum, OmVed Gardens, 4 May 2019. Tickets available here.
Beatrice Searle, For the Journey and Return with The Orkney Boat, 2017