Archive | April, 2011

Shrewsbury Edgelands

21 Apr

In early 2008, I began a project to explore the perimeter of developed urban land around Shrewsbury on foot.  I was interested in the transition between urban and rural land.  This post provides some background to my project including a brief review of other literature and work on the subject.  Project aims, reflections and findings are discussed and documented in later posts.  How I develop art work from this raw investigative data will no doubt become clearer as I explore.

Everyone is familiar with urban land that has rural characteristics and vice versa, and visiting these places in the past has, for me, created a perception of somewhere that is ill controlled, unkempt and uncared for.  In spending time, walking and observing I quickly reencountered the atmosphere that is particular to this interfacial zone.  There is an uneasy calm, that is sometimes menacing, enhanced by the buzz of overhead high voltage power lines. 

As I walked, distant childhood memories of similar places resurfaced in my mind, and I felt the same feeling I had when playing out in woodland or other such places, on a nondescript, overcast Wednesday afternoon in the school holidays in Sheffield.  It is a strange, almost comforting, feeling in which there is a sense that you are alone in this place, dislocated from the “big bad world” which is all going on somewhere over the horizon or within the many suburban houses and buildings around about. 

My initial name for the project was “hinterland”, but this did not feel quite right since it implies that the land lies behind something ie the city, when it is the interface itself, the in between-ness that I am interested in.  It is a type of landscape all of itself.   That said, whilst urban landscape is readily identifiable by the signs of human built environment, the rural landscape is more difficult to identify, since much of the idyllic agricultural countryside that we imagine has become industrialised, and populated with crinkly farm sheds, plastic covered fields and a growing accumulation of debris and litter.  There are very few areas of true wilderness, and the land that we would consider to be natural environment has almost certainly been influenced by human development at some time by stripping of forest, or some form of prehistoric agriculture. 

Almost wherever one goes and looks closely at the ground, one soon sees small fragments of plastic, cigarette butts, drink can ring pulls and other such detritus.  There is little doubt that we are in a unique geological era, the anthropocene, although I expect the future evidence will be limited to a narrow stratum of agglomerated fossilised plastic and metal oxide staining from ancient beer cans.

Marion Shoard adopted the term “Edgelands” for the urban-rural interfacial areas in her excellent essay of that title, published in REMAKING THE LANDSCAPE,edited by Jennifer Jenkins (Profile Books, 2002). (http://www.marionshoard.co.uk/Documents/Articles/Environment/Edgelands-Remaking-the-Landscape.pdf).  Since then several other writers, artists, geographers, architects, environmental activists and similar interested individuals have focussed attention on these otherwise largely forgotten or overlooked areas.   I am increasingly of the mind that there is quite a groundswell of artists and observers who are very interested in the edgelands, and saying they are overlooked is a gross underestimation.

Most recently in 2011, poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts have published “Edgelands” a book of prose that describes different features of the Edgelands, and refers to some of the other artists and writers using these areas as inspiration.  In fact there are over 75 different references to other artists.  I was reassured to find that I was familiar with, and great admirer of, most of those listed such as Keith Arnatt, Simon Denison, George Shaw, Michael Landy, Richard Billingham, Jean Baudrillard, William Eggleston, John Davies, even Mark E Smith of The Fall gets a mention.

To this list, I could add the likes of Roy Arden (Canadian environmental photographer), landscape/social documentary photographers Jem Southam, Dave West, Jason Orton and Paul Graham, or painter Graham Stokes.  There aren’t so many painters though, so I’m interested in developing  into that area of landscape painting.

I was struck by how closely the authors had matched my own specific interests the edgelands in their references to such diverse issues as urban farming in Detroit, invasive weed species, dens/shelters, allotments, enclosure/barriers, “desire paths” and woodlands. 

However, I was slightly disappointed at the lack of depth in some of the aspects of the book, such as the sections on paths, woodlands or landfill.  Much of the writing is anecdotal, based on actual visits to numerous places, but with only cursory discussion and passing reference to other artists/writers without any real analysis or inquiry as to why things are as they are.  There is a general flippant and cynical tone to the writing, yet the writers do not necessarily take a negative view, or condemn or accuse anyone in particular for allowing the Edgelands to develop in the way they have.  I accept though that I am sure the authors never intended to draft a scientific treatise backed up with researched evidence.  It is probable too that what ever art I produce from my project will itself only present a narrow and personal view. 

I also disagreed to some extent with the approach taken in the book by focussing on different types of edgelands (eg canals, bridges, sewage, landfills).  In my view, these are elements of infrastructure that are by definition developed land, and could be categorised as urban or rural depending on location.  I would argue that the edgelands themselves, whilst possibly adjacent to, or somehow associated with, infrastructure, are more elusive and ill defined. I think of the scraps of wasteland or unwoodland near developed land – sometimes these places can be in the heart of a city.

I am interested in how the “wildness” can still exist and take hold in places, sometimes unexpected, quite close to our most developed areas.

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