Friday, 20 August 2010

Tracey Warr AIR 2010

 Notes on Beginning a Residency in Outlandia, Glen Nevis

[D]amp seeps into my clothes after a while of sitting. The completely waterproof swim-hike bag would be useful here to keep your papers and dry clothes dry. I want to design a writer’s toolbelt to walk with – customised clinches for pens, pencils, pencil sharpener, small notepad, spare ink cartridges, map, reading glasses, camera. Outlandia makes me think of other dramatic writers’ shacks like Dylan Thomas’ shed at Laugharne overlooking the stupendous blues and birds of the estuary. I like the discipline of coming up here each day. When I walk across the room the structure sways with me and the metal window-hook hanging on the wall knocks against the wood shadowing my footsteps, so that momentarily I think I am not alone. The wooden space is empty except for a log to sit on, a makeshift table and the astonishing view out the window across to Meall-an-t and the tourists’ path up to the Ben Nevis summit. Outlandia is a concentration space, a no distraction space, a get on with it space.

Outlandia is off-grid. Even when there is the urge to be ascetic and minimal, to abstain from the stuff of consumer culture, how we need things. At Outlandia we are already needing a key, a chair, a table, a ladder to clean the pine cones from the skylight, a kettle powered by battery, sun, wind or water. But, writes Elaine Scarry (whose book I have carried up here with me), ‘the general phenomenon of invention could not possibly originate in the perception of need, for the vast and unanticipatable benefits of the object bear no resemblance to anything conjured up by the narrow word “need”’. In Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe ‘his reconstruction of civilization, is from a very early moment characterized by surfeit. [He] wilfully “makes” merely to make.’ Imagination, Scarry argues, has generosity and largesse. Luxury attempts to announce a distance from fear, death and failure. ‘Imagination has an inherent tendency toward excess, amplitude and abundance, it is a shameless exponent of surfeit’, because it is motivated by the deprivations of physical and psychological vulnerability and eventually mortality.

According to Scarry ‘the made object is a projection of the human body’. Bandages and clothes mimick the protective work of skin; glasses, telescopes, microscopes, cameras, mime the lens of the eye; sheaths and shelters mime the womb; the pump imitates the heart; the electrical nervous system of the body is mimicked by the computer. Mechanomorphic objects all around us mime our teeth, our skeleton, hinge joints and ear. The printing press, written history, photographs, libraries, films, Xerox machines, materialise the elusive embodied capacity of memory. When John Fitch first imagined the steam engine he was limping.

‘The created object,’ Scarry goes on, ‘itself takes two different forms, the imagined object and the materialized object: that is, “making” entails the two conceptually distinct stages of “making-up” and “making real”’. The imagination first ‘makes a fictional object’ and then ‘makes a fictional object into a non-fictional object’. Outlandia is a made-real object – a shelter and an imagination generator. But it also continues as a fiction – generating imagination in longing, in absence from it, at the bottom of the hill, in the city.

Outlandia is the new echo of the ruined, rimed, Victorian weather observatory on the summit of Ben Nevis. The speed of weather coming up the Glen and moving fast across the face of Meall-an-t. Wispy white clouds love the mountain, flow into its gullies. They are like slow smoke on the hill. Now they swirl grey, clothing the mountain, draping it, shrouding it. Rain comes down hard. Suddenly the black clouds lift like a striptease, like a theatre-curtain, revealing a green mountainside streaked with white boulders, a veiny network of burns, brown heather, sun-lit circles. The colour of everything is subtly altered after its rain-washing, the green refreshed, the white more vivid. Now the cloud is horizontal, skirting the tops, scudding.

Looking through treetops, across and below to moss and fern. Immersed in a green world. Earth’s colour swatch. Emerald, lime, grass green, bottle green, lizard green, grasshopper green, jade, verdant, greenwood, viridescent, malachite, beryl, jungle green, Lincoln green, pea green, sea green, sage, celadon, viridian, bice, chlorophyll, leaf green, olive, chartreuse, jealous green, salad-days, greenhorn, apple green, green fingers, greengrocer, Green Man. Green is the colour that the human eye is most acutely tuned to because of our heritage as hunter-gatherers, woodlanders.

Scarry writes of ‘the tyranny of green things’. She says that the natural world is immune, inanimate, inhuman, indifferent, dispassionate, and that we build cities shutting out the green world to soothe our distress at the reminder of mortality visible in greenness – the process of organic growth and decay which we are also, irretrievably, implicated in. She writes that the objects we make are compassion-bearing. ‘Objects exist to remake human beings to be warm, healthy, rested, acutely conscious, large-minded’. Yes the rotting brown mush of old mushrooms, the fallen trees, the age of the rocks and the landscape compared to me, are a memento mori, but being here is also Joy. Some things you don’t want to write about or photograph, just look, just be. A month-long residency in Outlandia as a journal of continuous thought. Could you think and write your way past Romanticism and if so where would you get to? 

Tracey Warr