The Absent Dingies of Fitzwilliam and the too few of Frickley
Colliery's still pristine Spoil Heap
Penetrating deeper into West Yorkshire we come upon the former Kinsley Drift mine at Fitzwilliam, a little station between Doncaster and Wakefield on the main London to Leeds line. It was the scene of one of the most notorious incidents during the miners' strike of 1984/85 when the Metropolitan police rode into town manacling grannies to lampposts. This was followed by a splendid four day uprising as the whole community rose up. When the pit closed in late 1980s it was turned into a country park, as was the site of Rothwell colliery, a few miles further north on the Leeds boundary.
It was run initially by the Fitzwilliam Country Park Group in Pontefract, their stated aim being to 'transform the former colliery site into a country park developed and managed by the local community'. In comparison to the vast sums spent on the post millennium brutal spoil heap makeovers, it is pitiful to see the group proudly announce that it had received a £5,325. 37 pence award, quantified, note well, down to the very last penny and not half a million pounds. This paltry sum was used to fund the following:
1) 'the creation of pond dipping platforms to allow safe access to the waters edge'
2) 'the improving of existing wild life habitat through the planting of a range of native wildflower species as part of the site'
3) 'the practise of training to help volunteers better look after and participate in future environmental projects and activities in the park'
After the former drift mine's bits and pieces had been removed and a coal chute dismantled, the original topography, apart from the addition of a few ballast paths, was left as it was. The old shale base still grins through the sparse soil, which has been seeded with clover, cranesbill and birds foot trefoil most of which had probably taken root there prior to the pit's closure. The only real eyesore is a pointless aesthetic one, a re-creation of a neolithic circle made from carved tree trunks echoing a similar structure in the nearby Rothwell Country Park that inanely mimics the fascinating neolithic cup and ring carvings to be found at Ilkley and Baildon Moor a little to the west of the former colliery site. Pandering to a hugely harmful corporate fashion for sculpture in public places, this runaway convention that continually pushes back the limits of the gargantuan, merely spoils the view and is now very regrettably part of formulaic conservationist orthodoxy which can't leave well alone. Although we objected to this faking it at the time, little did we realise far worse was to come. However, despite the sensitive seeding, and perfect though the terrain is, there are no Dingy Skippers at Fitzwilliam. Every year since 2003 we scour the place but so far none have arrived, which only goes to show what a painfully slow coloniser the butterfly is and why its piecemeal destruction is so irreversible and tragic.
We wondered also if the Dingy Skipper had made it to the ground around the former Ferrymoor Riddings Colliery, a former huge, concrete and Stalinoid-looking structure similar to the one at Gascoyne Wood, which stood midway between Frickley Colliery and Fitzwilliam and also just to the side of the main railway line. The area has now been 'ecologically' landscaped (i.e. swept clean of nature), and a modern executive estate now occupies part of the site but we recall there was formerly enough bare ground here, and possibly trefoil, to have supported a small colony of Dingy Skippers.
(The following is a read-out behind particular camcorder clips) But then we move onto the former Frickley Colliery. All that is now left to mark its end is this awesome spoil heap that could pass as a geological feature. Though generally regarded as an eyesore, it rears above South Elmsall, also on the main line, like an industrial Ilkley Moor. However older locals still feel passionately about the pit and the spoil heap and a still living symbol of a way of life that has been destroyed. One of the largest pits in the country, Frickley used to employ 2000 people before closing in 1993, and almost 10 years previously, 400 police were employed to escort two miners back to work during the legendary miners' strike.
Yet the pit is more than just alive in some unwanted peoples' imagination, for the spoil heap had begun to regenerate itself and find a new life. On these magnificent shale slopes, birch, oaks and other trees had started to take root and if left would have eventually conquered this primordial industrial wilderness of 300 million year old rock.The tree cover is still sparse but interspersed among it are occasional very small Dingy Skipper colonies. It was on May 22nd 2004 that we first found a tiny colony numbering around 15 in an area half a mile from Frickley Hall and right next to the railway line running from Sheffield to Moorthorpe. Of course we had hoped to find many more in the immediate vicinity but in this we were disappointed. Before us there stretched a vast blanket of trefoil practically as far as the eye could see. However it was treeless and devoid of wind breaks, though on a hot day the butterflies may well be tempted to roam far from their sheltered corner in which there was a sizeable copse of maturing sycamore and birch trees. It was at once obvious to us that this colony would rapidly expand if suitable tree cover was provided.
Continuing on around the base of this sublime industrial mountain, we eventually found another miniscule colony. To photograph a lone specimen we had to climb over the fence that skirted the concreted industrial roadway still used by utility vehicles, dumper trucks and so forth. The two colonies were maybe a mile apart, which may provide an indication as to how long the butterfly has been at Frickley, seeing it is so averse to travelling. But it was by no means an exhaustive search and time was pressing and there could easily be other small colonies hidden away in some fold or gully sheltered from the wind.
We speculated on how the butterfly might have got here and its curious absence generally from West Yorks, despite the existence of large areas of trefoil and bare earth that suits the butterfly. Sightings of the butterfly in West Yorks over the last decade have been few and far between - singletons at Kippax, a couple at Weldale and Castleford etc. Though it takes some believing, it is not found on the hectares of trefoil that cover large parts of the approaches to the RSPB reserve at Fairburn Ings and a prime example of how abandoned mine workings, in fact going back to Roman times, can, with minimal effort, be converted into a successful wildlife reserve. And why isn't the butterfly at Upton or along the trefoil rich railway verges between Featherstone and Streethouses? The same can be said about the unofficial 'nature reserve' around the Skelton Grange Power Station at Stourton in Leeds or the close by, and far more formal country park, at Rothwell. Is it only a matter of time? In which case it will be instructive to record how quickly the Dingy Skipper spreads if it does finally succeed in colonizing these suitable areas, or what appear to be suitable areas. Once there it also would provide valuable information on rates of colonization that cannot be had in the south of England where the butterfly's range is drastically contracting.
We took a distant view of this strange, compelling landscape from across the Sheffield to Moorthorpe railway line that separates the centuries' old spoil heap from the vast rolling hills and plains where Frickley's recent pit shaft stood. This Mayan-like feature artlessly evolved out of the practise of tipping buckets of spoil from a mechanical conveyor that ran back to the pit head. Many pits had them and most unusual features they were too and as children we watched fascinated as the contents of the buckets that glided silently over our heads were tipped far out into the sea off the Co. Durham coastline, to there form miniature reefs. Note how the sunlight and shade play on the contours of this earth work that easily puts to shame the self conscious, pretentious efforts of money grubbing land artists who may well find employment on the forthcoming Frickley makeover, scheduled for the spring of 2007. At Kiveton a similar feature had been destroyed by the brutally insensitive makeover.
(Place clips here) In this speeded-up version of mating Common Blue butterflies on Frickley spoil heap observe the play of light, rather like on the Mayan feature!
Rounding a bluff we came face to face with yet another anodyne housing estate with the obligatory banqueting suite decked out in flags, sealing, we even then suspected in the spring of 2004, the fate of Frickley's Pennine-like spoil heap. Eye candy for prospective home owners this new Barratts estate is sold as a total consumer dream to be pitted against the supposed nightmare dereliction and eyesore of the former Frickley spoil heap.
Twenty years ago South Elmsall railway station had been covered in graffiti, some of it still quite imaginative. A clock face, its hands long gone, had been flo-penned with arrows indicating several different times of the day. And on the platform South Elmsall had been crossed out and re-named New York.
Only a short while way back, the road leading from the station through the Westfield lane precinct to Frickley Colliery would locally be referred to as 'The Bronx' as the once vibrant friendly mining community gave way to Class A drug dealing, burglary and mugging, following the pit closure programme of the early 1990s.
The present landowners are Wakefield District Council and the former Frickley colliery is to be transformed into 'an attractive high quality landscape' when compared with the present unattractive low quality landscape that is so appealing to nature and us humans that still have some sensibility left. It is going to cost £9. 9 million the same amount as was spent on the Kiveton spoil heap makeover, the money coming from English Partnerships through its national coalfield programme. To what extent Yorkshire Forward (or Backward) will be involved is not clear though the task of reclaiming the derelict land and making it into a, 'creatively landscaped countryside park' is to be contracted to - who else? - but Renaissance South Yorkshire because of its growing expertise in ruining landscapes and destroying wild life. 84 hectares of brownfield land is to be regenerated - or rather, degenerated - to create - 80 hectares of public open space delivering up to 157 new homes and attract 20 million in investment". Amazing, isn't it, how its always £20 million that will be attracted for this has now become redevelopment by rote.
The words used to describe this phoenix set to rise from the ashes of the Frickley spoil heap are equally mechanical. Neil Mortimer, Head of Coalfields for English Partnerships, has gone on record as saying 'this project will bring previously developed and derelict land back into use as a valuable amenity asset for the benefit of the local community, support housing market renewal in Westfield Lane development area and deliver homes to an advanced environmental standard. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah."
The emphasis upon sport is new, for the Westfield Lane area currently contains playing fields, a football club and a cricket club. There are also, 'some underused allotments', which in terms of the built environment, are definitely amongst the most interesting, inventive structures in South Elmsall as allotments in former mining areas often are. They will have to go for that very reason, to be replaced by glistening new sports facilities no one needs, what's already there being quite good enough. However that is not the point because what's important about sport today - and the 2012 Olympics proves it - is that it hooks people on sport logos, designer wear, brands and other assorted images of modern day living, including high speed transit and vast urban redevelopment projects, all of which ultimately power the credit mechanism essential to the survival of capitalism.
There are other, almost imperceptible, shifts of emphasis. Councillor Phil Dobson of the Wakefield Metropolitan District Council parrots the 'creative landscaping option', this new inflection overlaying the secondary consideration of the bio-remediation of contaminated spoil essential to the selling of the Kiveton and Dinnington makeovers. He says 'the immediate environment in the area is very poor' which could be interpreted as an aesthetic judgement rather that one concerning health and safety, particularly when he adds 'enacting significant environmental enhancement' will improve 'the housing market renewal effort'. The language could be fresh out of a Labour party post modernist think tank with talk of 'added value' and concern for 'image' coming before 'health and housing renewal improvement'.
Looking down from the summit of Frickley spoil heap we noticed a lone, half-demolished house in the Westfield Lane area, the line of the missing staircase still visible on the exposed interior wall. We both immediately thought of Rachel Whiteread, her cast of the interior space of a house at 193, Grove Rd, in Bow in East London winning her the 1993 Turner Prize.
There was far more to this instantaneous recognition than mere random association based on a visual similarity.'Sculptor' Whiteread's 'House' had became a focus for debate about contemporary art in the UK drawing millions of ordinary people into an avant-gardist bamboozlement based on a betrayal of a revolutionary project that called for the abolition of capitalism and the suppression and realisation of art. No expense had to be spared in its killing off and only the growing wall of money could afford the fees the hit men and women of the contemporary avant-garde counter revolution were demanding. This process had already been set in motion by the likes of Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin though they were just too stupid to know that, their idiocies selling for increasingly huge sums of money. They were also very gallery orientated but Whiteread's House marked a deceptive transition to the world outside. House gained her an international reputation and from then on the commissions have never ceased to flow in, or the offers of exhibitions.
However House was a defining moment in the construction of New Labour and for politics in general. The Labour party dominated Bow Council and its old labour councillors were made to look culturally illiterate fools when they rejected an appeal to keep House in place. The council leader, Eric Flounder, had described House as 'utter rubbish' the concrete cast being demolished just as Rachel Whiteread was receiving the £20,000 Turner prize from Channel 4 TV. This laudable instance of municipal vandalism was unfortunately a defence of defunct traditional values and done in ignorance of the real revolution of modern art but, which Whiteread is equally guilty of in fact.
One of the gurus of New Labour, the Guardian journalist, Hugo Young described House as 'a modern masterpiece' probably taking his cue from the sculptor, Sir Anthony Caro who thought the same. To New Labour, a Knight of the Realm cannot possibly be wrong. When the fame of House went international it took in the likes of the Arabic TV station, Al Jazeera who closely followed the debate surrounding the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square, Rachel Whiteread producing an upside down fibre glass replica of the plinth to stand on top, which later sold for £300, 000. Osama Bin Laden may yet find a use for her 'talents'. The recent installations in the West Bank by artists like Banksy are edifying solely as a measure of the depth to which artists can sink, who also stepped, though just a little, outside the traditional gallery arena and like Whiteread, to grotesquely dishonour the good name of contestation and intervention, the better to line his pockets.
House was described as an 'intervention.' It was, though not a revolutionary one as the term once implied over thirty years ago. It attracted visitors in their thousands and led to a widespread debate in the national press. In the House of Commons a motion was tabled to stop its impending demolition. However the debate over House was irrelevant in its entirety, and, search as far and as wide as you may, not one relevant word was ever spoken or written on the subject.
We have drifted far from the moment we first espied the forlorn looking, partially wrecked house, in Westfield Lane at the foot of Frickley spoil heap. However there is a deep connection between it and the house that sparked Whiteread's intervention in the housing market. Like Greenwich Village in the post Second World War years, the East End of London had, a few years later from the mid 1960s onwards, attracted many artists who had temporarily occupied condemned properties like the one Rachel Whiteread, furnished with a £50, 000 grant from Artangel and Beck's Beer, was to convert into a pointless piece of sculpture.
Paradoxically they and others like them were the shock troops of gentrification and of the so-called urban renaissance now sweeping East London clean of the last remnants of industry and an industrial proletariat. In its place we now have an East End increasingly given over to finance and a boom in property prices, a Square Mile that has grown into many more square miles intent on now sweeping down the Thames Gateway and into the sea, trampling everything under foot as it goes, like the astonishingly varied and rare insect life.
In retrospect there is no more appropriate symbol of this process than House which anticipated an economy that functions on asset appreciation, especially housing, this particular housing artefact offering a cultural rebranding of the seedy vulgarities of an astronomically rising property market.
Frickley and the neighbouring South Elmsall are at least a couple of hundred miles north of the City of London, a place that has long been regarded as an off-shore island and now an Island State. However the same criteria apply and the difference between the two is one of degree not kind, London also experiencing a rapid deindustrialization in the last two decades of the 20th century, just as well over half the mortgages in the UK are lent within a five mile radius of Leeds.
Whiteread's House gave rise to an unbelievable amount of pretentious commentary that is good for a laugh though nothing else. 'Houses are loaded' is one such comment. Another goes 'nothing is more real than nothing' which refers to the fact that she casts not the objects themselves but the space in between. Whiteread could have been the author of the inane comment 'Housing is a form of vulnerability' but that unflattering honour goes to Anthony Gormley. For a really profound commentary on housing there is little to equal Ibsen's in 'The Master Builder' in which he comes to the conclusion people are no longer able to live in houses.
Neither this level of realism nor the unrestrained silliness of the former can as yet be heard coming from the mouths of council officials, though it has to happen seeing that local councils are increasingly covering themselves in the mantle of art as an inducement to developers. In January 2007, the Middlesbrough Institute of modern art - MIMA for short - was opened, the town's mayor, Ray Mallon, claiming 'it is not going to be profitable but what it can do is make the town profitable'. The possibility of Middlesbrough becoming a 'designer-label town' may not be as unlikely as it seems, for in the same month, the council signed a deal with Bio-Regional Quintain, a development firm, to spend £200 million on a housing, shops, offices, restaurant and leisure facilities project on disused docks close to where the Grayling butterfly has colonised a derelict siding.
This mixing of art and nature into a single commodity by councils, regional bodies and development firms chosen like a washing powder because of the thoroughness of their bio-action, is likely to be the combination chosen for the Frickley spoil heap. Instead of Rachel Whiteread a Jeremy Deller type, also a Turner Prize winner, will be judged more appropriate considering a week rarely goes by without some alarming headline predicting destruction and then idiotically demanding action now from world leaders rather than egg people on to take matters into their own hands.
Deller, it will be remembered, won the 2004 Turner Prize with a video of millions of bats leaving a cave in Mexico that challenged the orthodoxies of natural history filmmaking: for minutes on end the camera angle never varied nor the focus altered. He also restaged for television, the epic Battle of Orgreave that took place during the miners' strike without ever letting us know who's side he was really on, his standpoint remaining that of a chronicler. He is now at work on a bathouse for the Barnes Wetland Centre on the Thames embankment.
And thereby hangs a tale. Delving into the origins of the Barnes Wetlands Centre it soon came to light it was largely the creation of one of the UK's biggest property developers, the Berkeley Group plc. working in partnership with Thames Water and the Wildlife and Wetlands Trust. The Berkeley Group has chosen for its logo an heraldic shield giving the impression it is as old as England's monarchy though the group was in fact established in 1976. It initially focussed on the construction of single houses and executive developments. These nauseating examples of home counties, stockbroker tudor were a sort of architectural finger wagging directed at an insurgent, still largely, industrial working class. As the company grew it was broken up into several divisions which were 'granted a high degree of autonomy to ensure the entrepreneurial spirit was not lost' reflecting the growing neoliberalism that was beginning to take possession of UK plc. Come the 1990s, the Berkeley Group woke up to the fact fortunes could be made from developing brownfield sites setting up what it called a 'high quality landbank' meaning it was in the business of purchasing prime location, derelict brownfield sites. These included the Woolwich Royal Arsenal, Imperial Wharf in Battersea and the Chelsea Bridge Wharf. In 1850 the latter was a railway freight terminus, the Berkeley Group purchasing the derelict site in 1999.
What happens next is like reading from a script prepared by Yorkshire Forward/ Renaissance South Yorkshire or any other of the supposedly nature conscious, bio-remediation firms involved in the makeovers of the pit spoil heaps several years later. First of all the Berkeley group claims 'an extensive ground investigation was carried out and unsurprisingly the site was heavily contaminated and extensive remediation works were undertaken'. Where have we heard this before? And where have we heard the following: 'The site benefits from a carefully designed mix of public landscaped areas comprising water features, and landscape planting carefully selected to promote biodiversity and local wildlife.The landscape has been designed to encourage bird habitation in accordance with a bird nesting and foraging strategy agreed with the local authority. The extensive landscape water features uses clean water through natural oxygenation. Walings have been installed along the river wall to encourage habituation by invertebrates at low tide.' Lets spare ourselves any further torture as we longingly look back to the days when Chelsea Bridge Wharf was a rail terminus and close to the site of Turner's 'Rail, Steam and Speed' where a hare is to be seen pelting in front of the approaching train.
Of all the UK's conservation centres the Barnes Wetland Centre is by far the coolest: meaning it is the most open to an art world that is taking up the cause of nature minus an anti capitalist perspective and is therefore little different from what property developers are doing in terms of concealing the truth. In 2006, the Wetlands Centre was host to a Pestival which barely concealed its artistic pretensions behind the declared aim of raising invertebrate awareness. Supported by 'Buglife', the insect conservation group, this 'first international arts pestival' was also a means of capitalising insects 'through appreciation of insects in art and the art of being an insect' a from of valorization that is different from the trade in dead stock of yesteryear and which today confers value on the artist who, for example, state insects are art and by so doing raise their own net worth as another brand-me-plc. The important thing however is to stick with the art of being an artist for without it the cash flow and job opportunities will instantly dry up.
Unable to push things through to a logical conclusion and turn his back on art, this is the syndrome Jeremy Deller is caught up in. On the strength of his bat film that clinched the Turner Prize for him in 2004, Deller has been invited to participate in a project supported by the Bat Conservation Trust, the Arts Council, The Royal Society of Arts, the Mayor of London and the Wildfowl Trust to select a final design for a bat house that will be built in the Barnes Wetland Centre. Recalling his original film he said 'in Texas some bat lovers have excavated caves and built towers on their land to encourage bat settlement. I'm interested in initiating a project suitable for bats. In this structure the bats are our clients and we hope to accommodate different species that have different housing needs the raising of a family, hibernation etc'.
Fine, absolutely nothing at all wrong with this and we could all benefit from a closer study of nature's wants using that as a basis on which to start building society from scratch. Except Deller then has to make the bat house into a pointless 'work of art', a conception not all that different to Tecton's famous Penguin Pool in London zoo built during the interwar years featuring helical concrete slides the penguins' rejected but architects, scorning the penguins' philistine narrowness, could only marvel at. And what will distinguish the Texan bat towers from the Barnes bat house? Why art of course. And why is it art and the Texan bat towers not? Because a former Turner Prize winner says so. QED. Marcel Duchamp's inconclusive comment that 'everything an artist spits is art' always did need rounding-off. However there was to be no satisfying sequel, Duchamp not living long enough to see how his fragmentary credo would become indispensable to capitalism.
Deller obviously wants his bat house to become a source of architectural/urban renewal and to 'highlight the need for architects, builders, homeowners and course designers, to work together to produce wild life friendly building design and a provide a real solution'. New build is not just hostile to wild life but also to humans but to stress this really would be rocking the boat because it could mean raising the social question by bringing nature and the survival of humanity closer together. Deller also adds; 'The project builds on the Mayor of London's policies to raise awareness of urban biodiversity and to support the survival of London's ten bat species' This is opportunism of the worst sort and the unashamedly right wing Economist is far nearer the truth when it pointed out in its edition of June 3rd 2004: 'On planning Mr Livingstone has delighted London's businessmen. He has used his powers to allow through schemes for a rash of new skyscrapers which outrage conservationists but promise jobs, cash and the visual thrill that comes when new buildings slice the skyline'.
Deller also received an invite to Buckingham Palace and, worse still, honoured it. But there again the more meaningful Buglife was quick to respond to an invite from No 10 to discuss the fate of the Occidental site on Canvey Island in the Thames Gateway with Tony Blair and Hazel Blears and more than happy to be photographed with them. Using the photo as a proud header to the Buglife website, that superb anagram of Blair's name, Bliar, meant nothing to the group. Had Buglife really understood that the equivocation on Blair's name was an indicator of how deliberate lying had become a way of life, the group would not have stepped into this political trap in the first place and the more wide ranging, inventive but realistic way of thinking and acting that it reflected, far more likely to guarantee the conservation of species. Buglife was also unable to assess critically the Pestival staged at the London Wetlands Centre, seduced into an acceptance largely on account of the Pestival's educational aim to raise awareness of this neglected taxon still suffering from a bad press dating back millennia.
The miners' strike and the wholesale closure of the pits and the spoil heaps that were left behind were a watershed in more ways than one. From the mid 1980s conservation groups were to rapidly become more business oriented and ready to hop into bed with big business. This specious pragmatism led them to conclude as Flora and Fauna International did 'the corporate sector is arguably the single most influential group on earth with the power and resources to determine the future of our planet.' Some of the deals were very shady and constantly risked being exposed. The Forum for the Future set up by Jonathan Porritt and Sara Parkin took money from BP, ICI, Tesco and Blue Circle ludicrously claiming these companies have a 'demonstrable commitment to the pursuit of sustainable development'. The World Wide Fund for Nature struck deals with Chevron and BP for which it received £1 million. Chevron said having the WWF on board would act as a buffer against international environmental criticism.
Environmental protest is also very financially damaging to the companies at the receiving end of it. In haste they then recruit ecologists to repair their battered image. Tarmac established an environmental panel after the uproar over the company's contract to build the M3 motorway through Twyford Down in Hampshire. In fact in its annual green report of June 1998 it claimed companies which ignore the environment 'will see their client base wither away and their workforce become disillusioned'. The hot air had barely cooled when Tarmac was served an enforcement order after ripping up hedgerows and trees at the Manchester Airport development.
However this co-optation of ecology by corporate business has been a growing problem for the entire conservationist movement for at least twenty years. It has now invaded the political sphere and national and local governments are now very adept at speaking the trickster language of green advertising which has its origins in eco/corporate deal making. Given the lamentable record of environmentalism, none of us should be surprised at the devastation unleashed on the former colliery spoil heaps in the name of nature.
Seeing time is so short before a holocaust of unimaginable proportions is unleashed on the world, one would expect brand name green organisations, 'radical' ecologist, George Monbiot uncritically lists in his book 'Heat' to be picking up recruits in droves. This is just not happening and though not haemorrhaging members like political parties are, there is a widespread feeling they are all tarred with the same brush and hypocritical to the core.
There are signs governments are more worried than reassured by this mass passivity that is too like a snake feigning death for comfort. Fearing an eventual uncontrollable explosion with no organisation there to deflect it into safe political channels, apprehensive political think tanks such as the Guardian's journalist Madeliene Bunting's Demos are looking to the example of installation art to eventually draw people back into the vacated political/ecological arena. For this reason the forthcoming makeover of Frickley spoil heaps promises to be that bit different from the previous ones and is already emphasizing, as we have seen, the 'creative' aspects of landscaping in preference to conservationist measures. In the summer of 2006 one such installation event took place on the former spoil heap of Cadeby Main colliery situated close by the eight year old, Earth Centre construction near Doncaster in South Yorkshire. 410 lights were installed on the grassed-over former slag heap to be viewed from the Wyre Lady passenger boat on the river Don. We e-mailed the installation artiste if 'grassed-over' meant there had been a spoil heap makeover similar to those taking place at Kiveton, Dinnington, Woolley and so forth but received no answer. Though the artist said she was 'not looking to be like Tracy Emin and make loads of money' she was obviously sufficiently part of a career structure to deem zeros like us not worth the bother of replying to.
Though still somewhat gelatinous in character a new career structure with new funding agencies is beginning to appear, reflecting the fact the so-called new space/time art is stepping outside the traditional gallery set up. Though it pretends not to be elitist using volunteer labour to stake out the lights on Cadeby Main or, like Gormley a couple of months later, to help in the construction of Waste Man in Margate, it is elitist to the core. Sticking to the label of art like glue because that is where the money is, it merely affects to deconstruct the barriers between those who produce art and those who observe it. Though constantly pushing in the anti-art direction this tendency can never go the whole hog because that means becoming a nobody. Opting to live a substitute life, the artists who make up this growing tendency will constantly strive to put an end to the eruption of a genuine 'communism of genius' or ' the poetry made by all'. And in its place all they will have, as a poor compensation, is the rule of money, which they make a show of being hostile to, and the poverty of their artistic roles.
What separates this latest development from the nonsense of yesteryear, the Emin's, the Hirst's and the rest of the Saatchi mausoleum is the fact that it is growing out of a still mute protest. The Cadeby installation was also a celebration of mining communities and an acknowledgement of the fact Thatcher and her heirs wanted to completely erase any memory of the mining community. Essentially a further prettifying of what appears to be a spoil heap makeover, the Cadeby installation was less ambiguous then Deller's reconstruction of the Battle of Orgreave in that it does take sides. However Deller's wary coquetry in relation to class struggle and ecology, (though never art it has to be said) is more attuned to the times and despite Deller keeping the two quite rigidly separate, is more likely to prove the winning formula. We asked the Cadeby installation artist if there were Dingy Skippers on the spoil heap. We also mentioned the fact that the building of the Earth Centre had destroyed a Marbled White colony, which we found a stupefying act of eco-vandalism given that the butterfly is still a rarity in the north. However unable to help a career on its way we were not even granted the courtesy of an acknowledgment let alone a reply.
To date the most the most advanced expression of this seemingly anti-capitalist, pro art, ecological interweave has to be by John Jordan one of the founders of the Reclaim the Streets movement. But where there was once the art of contestation, like hiding road drills beneath flounced dresses to dig up motorways, there is now the non-existent contestation of art. Jordan has been involved in the creation of a climate change opera 'And While London Burns' which, explores the role of the City in climate change. Performed within the precincts of the Square Mile it has, not unsurprisingly, attracted the sympathetic attention of the news media, particularly TV channels. However in comparison to imaginative acts like dressing up as city gents during the Take Over The City demos of a few years back this eco Punch and Judy show is of no interest whatsoever. It wont change anything either and its only lasting influence will be on the growing fashion for art activism which appears to be subversive though it is anything but. Increasingly a tool of the advertising trade, it can even bring a city to a halt like when a publicity company Interface Inc recently employed two installation artists to creatively distribute circuit boards, which can also be used in bomb making, around Boston, USA, to advertise a cartoon feature. This calculated gamble was an enormous success and the fact the installation artists were placed under arrest only increased the aura of subversion surrounding this advertising coup.
Moreover John Jordan is fast becoming a name and the art world today trades more in names and reputation than product and what really counts is whether one makes an impression not being an impressionist. The hot centre of the art trade has moved from the galleries into the dealing rooms of finance houses and London is its new heart. Sooner or later some superlatively rich hedge fund manager, perhaps on the advice of an ultra urbane, stylish, personal fund manager will be encouraged to take a bet on Jordan. And then the sky rather than atmospheric climate change will be the limit.
Very influential arts organisation like the Royal Society of Arts has shown a huge interest in John Jordan. This organisation is now run by Matthew Taylor the former head of Blair's policy unit and son of Laurie Taylor the former Sociologist of Deviancy who built himself a tawdry university career on deliberately misrepresenting the true facts, particularly youth delinquency, behind the radical theorising that led up to the near revolution of May 1968 in France. The careers of this like-father-like-son duo is silent testimony to a critique of art that dares not speak its name but whose shadowy presence is there in everything they do.
The RSA, like Platform, an arts and environmentalist activist organisation, is also into promoting land art, the director of the latter, James Marriott, co-writing the eco-opera for the ladies and gents of the City of London. Did they but know there are huge former colliery spoil heaps up north they can spoil even further. This damning indictment of the spoil heap makeovers may even act as a stimulus for them to do just that.
Though initially pretending to be a rejection of the pecuniary gallery system when it first really took off in the late 1960s, land art was soon shown to be just money-grubbing megalomania on a pharonic scale even prepared to demolish fragile mountain habitats. However of late it has become more modest in its aims challenging, in one instance in the USA, the constraints of property law by attempting to create a piece of common land owned by the public in perpetuity. By claiming the land to be art it was possible to cite copyright law, particularly the now highly contentious sub-sections dealing with intellectual property rights. Had developers then gone on to treat it as a piece of real estate they could be violating artistic property rights. Now had this clever bit of legal jugglery used the sanctity of art as a weapon against the bourgeoisie then it would have been in the tradition of Bakunin who hung a Raphael from a barricade, finding it to be the most effective weapon of all against the military. Sadly this is not the case however, the right of the artist and not those of the common people being, in the last instance, sacrosanct in this example of art land grab.
Back in the UK inner city dereliction has come to be the focus of a growing attention by land artists. Their comments, including those of Banksy on the fast disappearing, rundown East End, do occasionally have merit like the following by a land artist; "Empty spaces are spaces of freedom.They are the only places not designed by architects but still filled with the idea of possibility". This is more than just an incidental criticism of architects but it is one that will never be fully developed. Remaining an artist will put a stop to that because adherence to the role is the most effective method of preventing all out war on other professions and thus the major obstacle to a critique of the totality.
The origin of land art in this country goes back to a little known avant-garde group, Icteric in Newcastle over forty years ago and which we helped instigate. But it was so much else beside and even before adopting a far more coherent revolutionary critique of contemporary capitalism and the stultifying division of labour and roles it gives rise to it, had pitted itself against every conceivable form of artistic expression, cringing at the very mention of the term art. Its memory and example was viciously suppressed precisely because it superceded its intitial searching contradictions.
However that is another story...
D & S Wise 2007