Cultureland is a residency program that aims to fundamentally rethink the relation between nature and culture. The program kicks off in Amsterdam, after which the artist (in this case, me) retires to the rural area of Starnmeer. Taking inspiration from both locations, the theme for this season is ‘The end of nature as we know it.’ For my residency project, I have adopted the name ‘Cull.’
To Cull or not to Cull
The practice of culling – reducing the population of a wild animal by selective slaughter – seemed to me to address the theme of the residency in very material terms, as well as opening out into more abstract reflections. It involves the literal ending of some lives to allow others to flourish. It raises questions about what kinds of nature we value and why, about the consequences and responsibilities of human action even in the wildest of places. Is killing always about control, or can it be a kind of care?
I’m learning about how these questions have taken hold here in the Netherlands, where I’ve lived for the past year. But my interest in the wild begins back home in Scotland. My dad works for an organization called the John Muir Trust, named after the famous Scottish-American writer and conservationist who founded the US National Parks. They work to protect wild land in Scotland, and they do a lot of deer culling in an effort to restore native woodland. There’s an enormous amount of deer in Scotland; they’re a big political and ecological issue. The conservationists are often in conflict with the hunting estates, who want plenty of deer on the hills so that they can shoot them for sport. They are animals inextricably tangled up with land, property and power.
I’ve been involved in an ongoing debate, with myself and others, about the meanings and politics of wildness. I was once very into the kind of critical theory that critiques the social construction of everything, including “nature” itself. Parts of Scotland look exceptionally wild and natural – especially compared to a densely-populated, man-made country like the Netherlands – but some people argue that the “wild” is always a projection of imaginary purity, an aesthetic category, a colonial trope that erases long human histories of altering the landscape.
No part of Scotland is untouched. But for people like my dad, going out into the mountains is a real, material experience of wildness, something fundamentally different and more natural than exploring overdeveloped places. And it needs to be protected or it will be exploited and destroyed. I see both sides of this debate, and I increasingly feel that calling everything a social construction isn’t enough. Not everything is all about humans, after all. But I also believe that you can never completely separate nature from culture, from human activity. It’s all bound up.
I’m interested in how people interact with the idea of nature, how it affects them, and how nature becomes part of political narratives; sometimes with nostalgic ideas about preserving the past and going back to better times, but also sometimes more radical ones about hope and transformation and doing things differently. In Scotland, for example, these debates are tangled up with desires for control and freedom, questions of democracy and sovereignty, identity and ownership.
Moving between the city and the country, as the Cultureland programe encourages you to do, shapes your thinking about the divergences and the connections between them. The sky in the Netherlands has about as many planes as birds, so I’m thinking always about these overlapping migrations, with their different trajectories and timescales.
The plan for my current project began as a collection of stories centred around a mass deer cull in Scotland, but like any wilderness worth the name, it has begun to unravel in unexpected directions. At present I am juggling a handful of half-written stories. As well as in-progress stories, this project has produced several homeless fragments of text that are currently loitering around my folders, unsure of what to do with themselves. You can read one of them below; it’s about nourishment and neglect and waste and the inadequacy of language.
At first there is a poetry to the repetition of crisis – ecological social political technological climactic – but everyone knows that words lose their meaning the more they are said; and after all, crisis is just a short string of repeating syllables. After a while there is little left to recommend it to the tongue; it tastes like the same stuff you’ve been eating from a tupperware for days that feel like weeks, that you will not throw away because you did the prep and cooked ahead and you can’t afford to waste the vegetables and fossil fuels that went into it. And so you continue to consume the same despairing flavours, each day a little more liquid. And so you continue to repeat the same words and sentences, squeezing thought into categories where it never quite fits, all bulges and punctured seals, a sliver of air always escaping, a contaminating fragment getting in. Maybe this is a kind of beauty: the container strained by the contained, a surface made textured instead of smooth and flat. Or maybe it is a kind of violence: the contained straining at the container, unburst, still resolutely defending its almost-airtight geometry.
Things inside other things are always a source of anxiety. That it might have been left too long, changing shape and smell unseen; that when it opens it will be unrecognisable like something living in a broken fridge. The contained staining the container, which will henceforth be unusable, and end in the endless heaps of things almost like it, identical and imperfect.
Cultureland invites you to come and see the end results of Shona’s project at her artist talk and presentation on Friday 9th November at Cultureland’s storefront, Admiraal de Ruyterweg 181.
Doors open at 19.00, start artist talk 19.30
More info at www.cultureland.nl
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Photo: Shona McCombes