Absent voices…

sugar warehouse, Greenock dock

Several times a week we drive past some old buildings on what is left of the old docks in Greenock, known as the sugar sheds. These cavernous places are remnants of the once mighty Greenock sugar industry, in which huge quantities of the stuff was brought down the Clyde from the colonies in the West Indies to be converted into all the stuff that we are now addicted to.

The buildings are stunning- like vast Cathedrals, with light filtering down from high windows. It has massive cast iron doors and columns that shout out with Victorian pride.

More recently I have been looking forward to a project called Absent Voices, which has gathered together artists poets and musicians to this end;

Absent Voices is an artist-led project centred on the Scottish town of Greenock, telling the creative story of Greenock’s sugar industry. Using the category A listed Sugar Sheds on James Watt Dock as a catalyst, eight artists are working within the community and reaching out to the wider world. Absent Voices is principally funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
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The artists in Absent Voices are:Alec Galloway, Greenock born glass artist & musician; Alastair Cook, an established Edinburgh-based artist; Anne McKay, a Gourock based painter and folklore archivist; Rod Miller, a Greenock artist and photographer; Yvonne Lyon, a musician & songwriter of international renown; Kevin McDermott, singer songwriter of Kevin McDermott Orchestra; Ryan King, glass artist and musician and Alan Carlisle, glass artist and recording engineer.
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The Sugar Sheds is category A-listed building which sits at James Watt Dock in Greenock: this vast red-brick and cast-iron former sugar warehouse with its distinctive zig-zag exterior sits in the shadow of Greenock’s Titan Crane and opposite Greenock Morton FC’s Cappielow Stadium. It has not been used for sugar-making since the 1960s. Its doors were shut on sugar completely in the mid 1990s. Prince Charles is a known supporter of retaining the former sugar warehouse and even visited the building in 2002 to add his voice to a campaign to save it from demolition. Despite several attempt to demolish it and a fire in 2006, it has now been made wind and watertight and part of it is currently used as storage space. The building was used as a venue during the 2011 Tall Ships Race, which opened many eyes to its potential as a space which could be used for public events.
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Old gate, sugar warehouse, Greenock dock
I scoued the Absent Voices website, and there is hardly a mention of the despicable origins of the sugar cane that was being processed in Greenock. The voices that seemed well and truly absent were those whose lives were lived in service of the plantations where the sugar was grown.
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The notable exception I am proud to say, appeared to be our friend Yvonne Lyon, who has included slave songs in her exploration of songs of work. (However, it later turned out that the website might not fully represent the actual content of the exhibition- see below!)
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I am particularly sensitive to this because of the debate around this rock on the shore a few hundred meters from my front door. It is a legacy of a time when our relationship with colonial exploitation and oppression made it possible, if not essential to regard the ‘others’ as less than human.
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In case you think I am making a bit of a mountain out of a molehill, check out the Scottish government’s own description of the Triangular trade, from their own website. Here are a few bits that are relevant to Greenock;
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…from the 1750s onwards ships did leave from Port Glasgow and Greenock for the triangular trade, often transporting enslaved Africans to Virginia as well as the Caribbean.
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After the American War of Independence the slave trade was consolidated into the ports of London and Liverpool, and Scottish investors and merchants invested through those routes. A steady direct trade was maintained with the Americas with the importing of slave-produced goods throughout the period and beyond.
.There are dominant architectural reminders of Scotland’s importance in the trading of sugar produced by enslaved labour, such as giant sugar warehouses in Greenock. Leading up to 1813 – 1814 one of the largest sugar companies in the world operated from Greenock. These warehouses signify the major role of Scottish plantation owners.
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By the early 19th century they owned a third of the plantations in Jamaica (which was the largest producer of sugar).The British Islands of the Caribbean and the colonies of the Americas were owned and run by British settlers and administrators. It was common for merchants in Britain to establish their own plantations or create relationships with agreed suppliers for plantation goods. Therefore it was British people who bought, sold, and oversaw the enslaved.
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Networks or communities were often established that resulted from ties back home. Alexander Horsburgh, the surgeon with responsibility for business affairs on the Hannover, noted in his journal in 1720, that there was an established Scottish network in Barbados, Antigua and St Kitts. The Hannover sailed from Port Glasgow and Horsburgh was instructed by its Scottish owners which Scottish plantation owners to contact with his cargo of enslaved Africans. These included Colonel William McDowall of Wigtonshire, a plantation owner on St Kitts.

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Lady Nugent, the wife of the one time Governor of Jamaica, also noted the high presence of the Scotsmen on the islands. That Scottish presence started in the early years of the colonies and continued. Mrs Alison Blyth noted on her visit to Jamaica in 1826 that:

“…the Lord indeed knoweth. I always thought that wherever I went I would be proud of my country but here I feel almost ashamed to say I am a native of Scotland, when I see how her sons have degenerated”.

In telling the story of the Sugar Sheds, I am genuinely staggered to hear that this dark history of the sugar trade was not in any way engaged with in a meaningful way. Sure, the Sheds were built well after the slave trade officially ended, but they were built using wealth and prosperity that still cost the lives of hundreds of thousands, and represent the rich corner of a triangle of misery. The people cutting the sugar may no longer have been slaves, but the lives of the freed workers of the Caribbean were if anything made worse by the abolition of slavery.

During my lunch break today however, I took a walk to the McLean Museum to actually visit the Absent Voices exhibition. I looked at the paintings, listened to the songs and watched some of video footage. It was really lovely, and a large part of the content clearly confronted the relationship of the sugar trade to slavery. It was art at its best- asking uncomfortable questions and making us confront issues that lie buried.

Why is this central part of the exhibition missing from the publicity and the website? Was it ‘mission creep’ from what was intended only to focus on a local Greenock landmark? Certainly there are not Caribean or African artists involved in the project.

I was particularly moved by Anne McKay’s paintings, some of which feature the spirits of the slaves in the hills looking down over Greenock…

If you get a chance, go along and take a look.

Light from top window, sugar warehouse, Greenock dock

Aoradh meditation trail, Pucks Glen…

 

Aoradh meditation walk, start

We are just back after deconstructing the installations and stations in the lovely Puck Glen, which formed Aoradh’s contribution to Cowalfest. It felt like a real shame to take them down, as even today the Glen was full of people who were visibly affected by what they were encountering.

This is the second time we have used Pucks Glen in this way, and I have ideas about other things I would love to use this magical place for- watch this space to see if they ever come in to being.

As ever, if anyone wants to know more about what we did, or wants a copy of some of the resources feel free to get in touch.This time our contributions went something like this;

A water wheel spinning from a bridge in the darkest part of the Glen, asking people to think about the fact that it was energised by silver streams that had come from above.

Ribbons of all sorts of colours anchored to the top of a waterfull then fanning out over a pool. The path goes under the ribbons, in a way to make people part of the waterfall- with some suggestions to think about Streams of Living Water.

A way side shrine, with candles and a wooden carved cross.

‘Leaping’ silver fish on flexible stainless steel rods, anchored to the bottom of the stream, moving as the water rushes past. An image of freedom- where the spirit of the Lord is…

Large dry leaves (from Benmore Gardens) and pens at the top of the Glen, with an invitation to write on the leaves and drop them into the water- letting go, repentance etc.

Prayer flags, asking people to raise their own ensign- things that they want to be animated by the wind of the Spirit.

A wooden frame to look out over open country through.

A Loom, with an invitation to write names of special people who make up their community- the gifts of the Spirit being so much to do with getting on with each other.

Poetry on large PVC banners in and amongst the trees from another previous Aoradh event on a theme of ‘A time to…’

Speaking/listening tube- a long plastic drainpipe up into the tree canopy with a horn on one end and a speaking cup on the other- with an invitation to listen and speak prayers.

Also all the way through the Glen were small bits of poetry- what we called ‘messages’.

At some point over the weekend someone vandalised the installations- always a surprise given it’s location. Much of the poetry was ripped off or had disappeared altogether, as had the carved wooden cross. I can only assume that someone had a problem with the Christian starting point of what we were offering. This was balanced however by so many people who seemed to have found it so lovely, and had engaged with it using the materials provided. It really was a lovely thing to be part of…

Here are a few photos;

Yorkshire sculpture park…

william does sculpture

We pulled off the M1 to spend some time at the wonderful Yorkshire Sculpture Park on our way back up north recently. If you get the chance to go- take it. Even if you do not ‘get’ big blocks of stone/bronze with cheese holes. There will be plenty more that will intrigue you…

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I am addicted to words as my primary means of creative expression. Sure, I like to shape things from wood, but these efforts are not ‘art’. If anything they are therapy, with the wood shaping me as much as the other way round. The  language of sculpture is one that intrigues me, but mostly excludes me. All the more reason to take some time in the midst of the sculpture park. We did not have enough time really- you need days, and we only had a couple of hours. We will return!

ai wei wei iron tree

The Chinese dissident artist (are all artists not dissidents?) Ai Weiwei was given a space in and around the old estate chapel. His pieces included a room full of chairs and a giant tree cast in iron and loosely bolted together. They told a powerful story, even to a philistine like me, of a culture whose emphasis on the collective to the exclusion of individualism might have become a terrible heresy. The great famines and purges in which hundreds of millions of Chinese people have died or been imprisoned hangs over the art like a cloud.

Some photos;

The Dark Mountain Project…

dark mountian

I came across this project a while ago, and got very excited by it.

A lot of my writing on this blog has been an attempt engaged criticism with our economic/political/cultural malaise. I suppose I am seeking to make sense of where we are up to, and looking for what is changing, for good or ill. This means that some of the discussion in this blog has delved into the shady world of economics and that I find it impossible to avoid political statements.

But I am not an economist, or a politician. I approach these things as a writer, a poet, a person interested in theology. You will understand my interest then when I read about the Dark Mountain Project. This is how they describe themselves;

The Dark Mountain Project is a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself. We see that the world is entering an age of ecological collapse, material contraction and social and political unravelling, and we want our cultural responses to reflect this reality rather than denying it.

The Project grew out of a feeling that contemporary art and literature were failing to respond honestly or adequately to the scale of our entwined ecological, economic and social crises. We believe that writing and art have a crucial role to play in coming to terms with this reality, and in questioning its foundations.

The first thing that the project did was to publish a manifesto, funded by a crowd funding appeal, which sets out what they are about. If this is of interest it is well worth reading the whole thing, but here are a couple of extracts that made me shout YES!

The myth of progress is to us what the myth of god-given warrior prowess was to the Romans, or the myth of eternal salvation was to the conquistadors: without it, our efforts cannot be sustained. Onto the root stock of Western Christianity, the Enlightenment at its most optimistic grafted a vision of an Earthly paradise, towards which human effort guided by calculative reason could take us. Following this guidance, each generation will live a better life than the life of those that went before it. History becomes an escalator, and the only way is up. On the top floor is human perfection. It is important that this should remain just out of reach in order to sustain the sensation of motion.

Recent history, however, has given this mechanism something of a battering. The past century too often threatened a descent into hell, rather than the promised heaven on Earth. Even within the prosperous and liberal societies of the West progress has, in many ways, failed to deliver the goods. Today’s generation are demonstrably less content, and consequently less optimistic, than those that went before. They work longer hours, with less security, and less chance of leaving behind the social back- ground into which they were born. They fear crime, social breakdown, overdevelopment, environmental collapse. They do not believe that the future will be better than the past. Individually, they are less constrained by class and convention than their parents or grandparents, but more constrained by law, surveillance, state proscription and personal debt. Their physical health is better, their mental health more fragile. Nobody knows what is coming. Nobody wants to look…

…We imagined ourselves isolated from the source of our existence. The fallout from this imaginative error is all around us: a quarter of the world’s mammals are threatened with imminent extinction; an acre and a half of rainforest is felled every second; 75% of the world’s fish stocks are on the verge of collapse; humanity consumes 25% more of the world’s natural ‘products’ than the Earth can replace — a figure predicted to rise to 80% by mid-century. Even through the deadening lens of statistics, we can glimpse the violence to which our myths have driven us…

…We do not believe that everything will be fine. We are not even sure, based on current definitions of progress and improvement, that we want it to be. Of all humanity’s delusions of difference, of its separation from and superiority to the living world which surrounds it, one distinction holds up better than most: we may well be the first species capable of effectively eliminating life on Earth. This is a hypothesis we seem intent on putting to the test. We are already responsible for denuding the world of much of its richness, magnificence, beauty, colour and magic, and we show no sign of slowing down. For a very long time, we imagined that ‘nature’ was something that happened elsewhere. The damage we did to it might be regrettable, but needed to be weighed against the benefits here and now…

…Creativity remains the most uncontrollable of human forces: without it, the project of civilisation is inconceivable, yet no part of life remains so untamed and undomesticated. Words and images can change minds, hearts, even the course of history. Their makers shape the stories people carry through their lives, unearth old ones and breathe them back to life, add new twists, point to unexpected endings. It is time to pick up the threads and make the stories new, as they must always be made new, starting from where we are…

We believe that artists — which is to us the most welcoming of words, taking under its wing writers of all kinds, painters, musicians, sculptors, poets, designers, creators, makers of things, dreamers of dreams — have a responsibility to begin the process of decoupling. We believe that, in the age of ecocide, the last taboo must be broken — and that only artists can do it.

Ecocide demands a response. That response is too important to be left to politicians, economists, conceptual thinkers, number crunchers; too all-pervasive to be left to activists or campaigners. Artists are needed. So far, though, the artistic response has been muted. In between traditional nature poetry and agitprop, what is there? Where are the poems that have adjusted their scope to the scale of this challenge? Where are the novels that probe beyond the country house or the city centre? What new form of writing has emerged to challenge civilisation itself? What gallery mounts an exhibition equal to this challenge? Which musician has discovered the secret chord?…

This response we call Uncivilised art, and we are interested in one branch of it in particular: Uncivilised writing. Uncivilised writing is writing which attempts to stand outside the human bubble and see us as we are: highly evolved apes with an array of talents and abilities which we are unleashing without sufficient thought, control, compassion or intelligence. Apes who have constructed a sophisticated myth of their own importance with which to sustain their civilising project. Apes whose project has been to tame, to control, to subdue or to destroy — to civilise the forests, the deserts, the wild lands and the seas, to impose bonds on the minds of their own in order that they might feel nothing when they exploit or destroy their fellow creatures.

Against the civilising project, which has become the progenitor of ecocide, Uncivilised writing offers not a non-human perspective—we remain human and, even now, are not quite ashamed — but a perspective which sees us as one strand of a web rather than as the first palanquin in a glorious procession. It offers an unblinking look at the forces among which we find ourselves….

So, uncivilised as it might be, let us rise to the challenge! They are having a meeting at Whiston Lodge in Scotland next year- I may even try to get along…

I noticed that one of my favourite musicians is involved in the Dark Mountain Project- the wonderful marmite on toast songwriter Chris Wood. I feel an uncivilised song coming on…

Winter, how to survive the darkness…

Winter sky from our house

Winter is now firmly with us. This morning Dunoon was sheathed in ice, and I sit here just after 5PM and it it totally dark outside.

I confess to dreading the dark long winters- longing for spring again. Like many of us, my mood always takes into itself some of the dark over the fallow season. Some of us have real issues with this- it makes us ill. If this is you, I hope that this year is easier than most.

As for me, I can not describe my ennui as anywhere near as severe as Seasonal Affective Disorder– rather I just get a bit stuck in a dark trough, so this year I am trying to re-order the way I think about winter. I know it to be beautiful, inspiring, meditative. A few years ago I wrote this poem at the sight of snow on the hills over the loch from where I live;

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First snows

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The first snows of winter bring their blessing

To the hills across the loch

Yesterday dull and grey

Now blue-white crystal and pure

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Soon it will be gone

Rain will bring decay

Rending white all mottled brown

Until the snow, all rotten

Is released

Worming down into dark earth

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But for now, my eyes are drawn to high lands

Captured by reflected sun

Sparkling, showing no shadow

Driving out the dark things of the winter

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Dressing up light for the dancing

And leading me on

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Dressing up light for the dancing

Then gone

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CG 2005.

The strange fact, revealed today in Radio 4’s programme Digital Nation, darkness is good for you. The problem is that most of us rarely experience it- we surround ourselves with artificial light. We screw up our serotonin levels by staring at bright computer screens before we go to bed, we forget what the stars look like, or what it means to find a natural rhythm of day/night.

So, here is my suggestion- let us embrace darkness. Let us see it as a blanket wrapping us for rest, for friendship, for interior creativity.

Today I spent much of the day making things;

First this;

driftwood fish

Then, as the ultimate winter food stuff, a great big pan of pickle;

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This evening I am going to spend some time with friends.

So, may your winter be full of darkness, so that you might rest from harsh artificial light.

May your interior spaces be warm and full of friendship and creativity.

And may the stark beauty of the fallow wild places speak to your heart.

 

Reading culture through art…

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It is a statement of the obvious that art operates as a window onto culture. If some alien was trying to understand who we are, what motivates us, what we hold as important, they would only need to take a look at our creative output; our film/TV in particular. I love watching films made in other cultures- Chinese films for instance- all those heroic, stunningly shot epics of love, honour and discipline. They give me hope for mankind as China will surely hold the reigns of the coming Empire.

Our recent trip to the Tate Modern on the South Bank threw all this back into my mind. It was a riot of odd objects and ideas. The first challenge is always to find a way into the language that is being used- and this takes a lot of time for people who are unused to this kind of art.

Many pieces I walked past, bemused. Some seemed too heavy handed- empty canvasses with a slash down the middle, boxes of wood with a hole in each end and light inside. It was possible to ‘get’ what they were doing, but move on quickly. Often I failed to understand why THIS object was thought worthy of a national gallery (a pile of melted plastic, a ‘cage’ made out of what looked like turds threaded on wire) but I was more than happy to engage with them anyway.

Then there were all the Turners, Picassos, Hepworths and the like. These tended to be crowded about by a kind of repellant hushed awe. I found myself moving swiftly on, propelled by a combination of my own sense of inadequate knowledge and a discomfort with celebrity-art.

What stood out for me were pieces that used language/symbolism that I already understood- they used cultural references that were familiar to me, but seeing them in a large gallery changed them, opened them up a little.

There were these slices of timber for instance- beautiful already, then sliced and diced and patterned by industrial saws so that each one held a difference set of cuts. Somehow they held my imagination- I wanted to touch them. The combination of polished wood and industrial process was suddenly very meaningful;

sculpture, tate modern

Then there were little things like Bruce Nauman’s ‘Violence, violins, silence’;

violence, violins

Perhaps my favourite piece however was one called Active Poetry, by Polish conceptual artist Ewa Partum, back in the 1970’s.

eva partum, active poetry

This was a dark room, with projected old 8mm film and a tumble of letters. Partum took parts of famous literary texts, cut them up into letters and scattered them in natural settings. She used typefaces of the kind often used for propaganda. In doing so she asks little questions about literature, history, nature, creativity.

It is this kind of art that has become such a useful tool in making ‘alternative worship’ installations. Here is the film;