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Change and repair: Trixxy walking, place-stories and recovery in a time of virus, by Helen Billinghurst & Phil Smith

Over the last two years we have been investigating an inexorable web of entanglement between story and place that has emerged during creative research projects. In the following essay we will recount how our experiences working on two such projects during the time of Covid have informed our understanding of the nature of this entanglement and reflect on their significance for re-wilding projects. 

We will recount how we gathered material from a series of lockdown walks around the Tamar River system that connects Devon and Cornwall to create a handbook, Skulk & Guiser’s End Game, and five micro-films for a subsequent commission, End Game, during the first lockdown. This is then followed by a discussion of the challenges involved in placing a story of human/unhuman relationships within the community of a ‘forgotten corner’ of Plymouth for the Being Human Festival 2020, at a time when embodied contact with humans was increasingly difficult to negotiate due to relaxing and re-tightening of Covid restrictions during Autumn, 2020.

At the moment we are still in the middle of the first project; the primary two phases of which consisted of a time of wandering and gathering information, and then writing this material up into the handbook: Skulk & Guiser's End Game (2020), a short and slightly 'unhinged' assemblage of games, paintings, stories and journeys intended 'for a time of virus'. We are just completing the third phase having distributed the handbook (with a list of questions to answer) to fifty volunteers for testing out and we have collected almost all the responses. The four and fifth phases are to come: our analysis of the responses and then writing up of our findings in a case study.

At the ‘Performing Wild Geographies’ weekend in Knepp back in 2017, we responded to a landscape in the process of rewilding by various agents; from aristocrats to pigs and seed-shitting flocks of birds. This year, in lockdown, we have been wandering a landscape, that was briefly being re-wilded by a virus, and in much longer-term processes of turbation, ruin and redundancy; its landscape worked over by oysters, worms, and other agents. The Tamar River system – that includes the rivers Tavy, Tamar, Lynher and Hamoaze – connects South Devon to South Cornwall. The Hamoaze is a ten minute walk away from both our homes in Plymouth.

 

Shortly before the first lockdown, under dark February skies we drove narrow, winding lanes to the North of the city and parked by a woodland. On foot we followed a path through trees, alongside a small river that snaked through and around the isolated muddy flats of Blaxton Quay, where it joined with the Tavy. Despite Blaxton’s now desolate inaccessibility, we noted rotting remnants of a once-busy trading quayside. Lines of wooden posts poking from the mud indicated what was once a jetty, the dark chambers of a large Lime Kiln are covered in brambles and ivy: elements of a pattern of abandoned, once connected centres of exchange, that we repeatedly explored along the water-fronts during lockdown walks.

While the former tin mining industry of Cornwall is well known, along the Tamar, on both banks and under the river bed itself, there was extensive mining for lead, copper, arsenic and silver. Add this to the extensive quarrying for limestone and the movement of granite from quarries on the two abutting moors, Bodmin in Cornwall and Dartmoor in Devon. We have been surprised, even shocked, by just how intensive was this industry; every little creek along the rivers Tamar and Lyhner has the remains of a quayside and stories of arrival and departure; just inland, strange and rather grand stone buildings that have now been redeployed for agricultural use (barns or cattle sheds) have the look of counting houses and customs offices.

The large properties and estates of the area, as well as ornate family tombs in the churches, are testimony to where, and with whom, much of the profits from these enterprises ended up. There is an intense weave of hollow lanes, sunken into the terrain and often passing unnoticed between fields and estates. These days they are washed by the rains; unrepaired, many have lost any paving long ago and are down to a treacherously slippery limestone or slate bedrock when wet or frosty; yet they are mostly still open and uninterrupted, the odd one or two grown over or ending mysteriously at some private wall. But for the most part the sunken local paths remain, maybe much older than even the first mining, for they connect communities and waterway in a logic that is not entirely determined by mineral extraction.

The paths are not simply historical; they serve to lead the curious to frost pockets, old wells, and deep riverbed pools. They manifest a geographical logic that makes sense of many of the local folkloric stories; such as the monk Dando who is caught hunting on the Sabbath by an antlered devil on horseback and sent racing down George’s Lane pursued by his own hounds until driven into the Dandy Pool beneath the Lynher. Modern river charts are testimony to the physical accuracy of the tale; while in its different tellings ‘Dandy’ and ‘Dando’ are applied sometimes to the monk and sometimes to the mounted demon.

Paths, rivers, tunnels and webs of local story form a complex latticework of exchange that can still be traced when walking the old routes repeatedly as we did. Sometimes reconfigured as ‘miracles’ or cautionary tales, the stories – with their smugglers, saints, sacred springs, holy wells, worms, charms, chapels, devilish dando-dogs, transforming staffs, and corrupt lords (a glass of sherry at their side) convinced of their own immortality – speak of something older than the theological or the medieval. Even those tales that cite historical events or figures often include elements that suggest an interweaving of ‘earthly’ (materials, trade, transport) and ‘unearthly’. So, a clearly historical figure like Sir Francis Drake often features locally as more of a magician than a privateer and slaver, while tales of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century smuggling include unreal elements like walking skeletons who carry lamps and white horses leading streams from moor to city.

This ‘magic realism’ fits aptly with some of the contemporary landscape. It was on the beach beside Wearde Quay that we made one of five one-minute films as a Lockdown micro-commission for The Box (the latest manifestation of the city’s museum and art gallery)in Plymouth: https://www.theboxplymouth.com/state-of-emergency-micro-commissions... . Sitting on Wearde Quay, on the Cornish side of the meeting of Tamar and Lynher, we gaze across Looking Glass Waters to the Dockyard, where hulks of nuclear submarines (their reactors still in place) are left to rot. Also visible from there is Bull Point, where the Navy game-play various disasters (tsunami, chemical plant explosion and so on) to rehearse their emergency response. Meanwhile from Plymouth, the weird wailing of sirens sound out across the apocalyptic waters every Monday morning at 11.30am, announcing the ever-present imagined nuclear accident.

Perhaps then it is not so surprising, given the weirdness of this place and the oddness of the time of Covid, that our short pamphlet Dr Skulk & Dr Guiser’s End Game, is slippery and strange; an oddness interwoven with startling and direct material conditions and contexts, which has reappeared in our most recent practice-as-research in this time of virus: the equally watery Coxside Smoke Signal.

During the summer, as the first lockdown was relaxing, we participated in a series of Zoom conversations (facilitated by arts organisation Take A Part and by the University of Plymouth) between local residents and artists to explore shifts in the ways we make art in the community in response to challenges posed by Covid. We learnt of a general agreement amongst the four Coxside residents who participated that online activity was a poor replacement for live events and workshops. There was enthusiasm for exploring ways of facilitating hands-on, material engagement even if embodied contact was not possible: local publications (zines and newsletters), use of local residents’ windows and noticeboards as exhibition/display space, and deploying community amenities (when not locked down) such as local shops and cafés as drop off/pick up points and supplying creative activity packs to locked down residents were all discussed as potential ways forward.

Discussing good models for socially-engaged art-practice, one theme that emerged from these research conversations was the importance of dreams, the dreamlives of residents, but also the virtues of helping to articulate the hopes and dreams of local residents for the future, particularly at a time when, for many, expectations and ambitions had been postponed indefinitely.

Informed by the findings emerging from these discussions, in September 2020, Crab & Bee began to work with the waterside community of Coxside, Plymouth, towards a project for the Being Human Festival 2020 in November. Due to the perpetual loosening and re-tightening of lockdown restrictions over the following period, planning for this event continued to shift and adapt. From plans for an outside participatory procession and ritual burning, the project morphed to a series of workshops with limited participant numbers, and finally to the delivery of materials and instructions in activity-packs for Coxside families, with 'drop-off' points for completed artworks in local cafés and shops.

This project was informed by an understanding that had been growing as we wandered around during our permitted lockdown ‘exercise’ (deploying some trixxy, while responsible, interpretation of the rules); we had become increasingly aware of how the landscapes and the stories told about them and associated with them, were in a very close relationship with each other. The landscapes told and retold their stories. The evolving and eroding and disrupted terrain was all the time changing the reading of the texts sited there, while the texts were simultaneously and continuously eroded by and transformed by their associations with the places. The terrain was never just a backdrop or setting, but places with personality that were characters in and authors of the tales told about them.

We were not new to Coxside, Plymouth’s ‘forgotten corner’. In 2019 we became aware that the well-known Plymouth story of Gogmagog – the mythical giant whose demise is sited on Plymouth Hoe in view across Cattewater from Coxside – has a late-medieval  prequel: the story of the arrival from Greece or Syria of Gogmagog’s mother Albina (and her 33 sisters), set adrift as patriarchal punishment for resisting arranged marriages. During a two week residency at Teats Hill in 2019 we had worked with this heterogenous origin story at the Teats Hill beach in Coxside. We told of how Albina and her sisters had washed up on the  slipway (the site of our residency), how they hunted and tended gardens there at Coxside, and coupled with genii loci to produce a race of giants; the first inhabitants of ‘Albion’, a non-Anglo-Saxon origin-story of ‘England’. With local children, we drew pictures of the baby Gogs and folded paper boats to remember the thirty three princesses. To celebrate Albina as Magog (mother of Gog), we painted the slipway with ‘milk’ made from local china clay, and handed out copies of a sixteenth century map of Coxside showing two prominent hills, ‘Teats’, that have subsequently been quarried away.

In the midst of the pandemic in 2020, we returned to this story of Albina, as a way to look forward and backwards simultaneously, to draw hope for the future from unexpected and multiplicitous origins, from perilous and unchosen journeys, from transgressive relations with animal others, and with materials – milk, water, limestone, paper, white china clay – in a ‘healing’-burning ritual and storytelling in which we have sought to engage not just the people of Coxside and their dreams, but also the materials of their living place, in the actions.

At times we chose to operate in a playful, skulking manner, partly in response to the limitations of embodied human interaction in lockdown, but partly to flatten our presence into the site itself: leaving small, enigmatic constructs and ‘offerings’ of ash, china clay ‘milk’ and paper boats on the beach. We leafleted door to door with the story of Albina and Gogmagog, put posters in windows and post boxes in the shop and café. We distributed workpacks, on request, to individuals and via small community groups; with these the residents could write or draw their hopes and dreams, both for themselves and for Coxside, onto paper and then fold them into boats. The first of these written and drawn hopes and dreams were 'sent to the future on the winds' in a recorded but necessarily ‘secret’ burning ritual on the 21st November: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sglPepDdwa4 and then an account of the burning was distributed in leaflet form door to door. A second, hopefully more public, boat-burning is due in January during ‘Café Accoustica’, a regular outside event held by the local Barbican Theatre on the slipway at Teats Hill beach. 

The strangeness of the present circumstances has helped to throw into sharp focus for us certain fundamental questions about the nature of this research and the engagement of artists with communities in a research context (as at Coxside, in contrast to the working with individual volunteers invited for the ‘Endgame’ testing), which otherwise might have remained as assumptions. This has included ways that practice-as-researchers are expected to engage in quantitative and qualitative assessments of impact, and how those procedures may be looping back into disempowering assumptions about those we engage with, while at the same time privileging human actors over unhuman collaborators. All of which begs, at least for us, a radical rethinking of accepted practices of engagement and assessment in both research and community arts through a prism of unhuman agency.     

Our visit to Knepp in 2017 and our introduction to the rewilding project there has continued to play into our subsequent art making and research; adding an increased sensitivity to depredations upon the geology and the local extermination of species (red deer, wolves). At Coxside, we were quickly sensitised to the quarrying away of the ‘Teats’, to the decay of the concrete slipway (constructed by the US Army for the D-Day Landings) and the abject state of the little beach, ironically sandwiched between the National Aquarium and the University’s Marine Station, strewn with recent plastic trash, and tiny metal detritus from decades, if not centuries, of ship building, trade and fishing. By introducing the story of the 33 Syrian or Greek sisters, we have been experimenting with how the residents might respond to a story that puts their ‘forgotten corner’ at the heart of an origin-story for the whole country; a story that is diverse in its characters (crossing nationalities, species and human/magical boundaries), places human/unhuman relationships as central to the history of the area, and implicitly proposes that a remaking of the area may not best be done wholly rationally, planned generally, or its future defined anthropocentrically, but at least partly incrementally, cross-species, unhumanly and by fictioning.

While we are far from being ready to present anything close to findings or conclusions from either the ‘Endgame’ or the ‘Smoke Signal’ projects, what has emerged from them is a hypothesis: if we fail to tell the stories of places of rewilding, or fail to allow those stories to retell us, we will always be in danger of disenchanting and dislocating both the places and the process. If we allow that, we may risk subjecting rewilding to the same logics of anthropocentric efficiency and exploitation that have created the climate crisis in the first place. If those two propositions are correct, then, alongside scientific assessments of both the human and environmental advantages of rewilding, there is a crucial role for the connective, entangled place-story to play in making rewilding common, widespread and effective.

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