The weekend of 20th to 23rd May the Falmouth Convention was held in various sites around Cornwall. It referred to itself as a “three-day conference in an unconventional form, with an emphasis on artists as participants and on exchange of views and experiences. Conceived as an international meeting of artists, curators and writers to explore the significance of time and place in relation to contemporary art and exhibition making, it has been planned to respond to the situation in Cornwall and other such dispersed, rural areas.”
I used to live in Falmouth and attended the art college there in the nineties. I have always felt that there is something special about Cornwall, that it is a space with massive potential for exciting “de-centred” art and culture. I wanted to see what kind of things are happening in Cornwall at the moment as well as learn more about the notion of time and place in the rural context.
Day 1 was a keynote lecture from Lucy Lippard who mostly spoke about art and artists in New Mexico (where she lives) and the importance of being from the place in which you make work. She spoke about the eternal difficulty of being a stranger, someone who has ‘moved in’, (in the context of the convention a DFL i.e. Down From London). This turned out to be a central theme. So few individuals at the convention were born in Cornwall, so it was good that this was problematised from the start.
On Friday there were six field trips. I elected to go with Urbanomic a Falmouth based arts organisation. The trip was called Hydroplutonic Kernow, I believe a reference to scientific/philosophical debates about the origins of the earth coming from either water or heat. The trip was around the Gwennap mining district described by Urbanomic as “a journey into an historical process that assembled the powers of geology, mechanics, hydraulics, mineralogy and metallurgy, salvation and combustion, steam and capital into a mighty, infernal machine that traumatised the Cornish Landscape and kick-started the industrial revolution”
There were six individuals representing Urbanomic, a geologist, an ecologist, an art historian (I gathered) as well as the other less conventional roles of rogue scientist, agrosophist and geophilosophers. We hopped from site to site on a small coach, driven by an extremely knowledgeable bus driver, and were treated to what I can only call a post-Marxist (perhaps just Marxist) reading of the landscape.
What an interesting trip. It was a glorious sunny May afternoon in what seemed to be beautiful rural locations, with only the occasional relic of a picturesquely ruined engine house dotting the landscape to remind us of the past. However the hosts described each landscape – with their various specialsims – evoking an area and an era populated with methodists and industrialists, riddled with underground tunnels, noisy, dirty and dangerous not to say explosive in the case of the ruined gunpowder works at Kennall Vale. Urbanomic conjured up this past in which animals, ships and trains would have filled what now appeared to be charming picnic areas or somewhere to walk your dog. We were made aware of the constantly changing technological, material and economic conditions and how these shaped the landscape. We were also shown signs of contamination and the subsequent reaction of the landscape. It seems mining waste has affected many areas. What appeared to be a fairly attractive space with flowering gorse bushes was in fact the grounds of an arsenic (mendick) plant, iron ore flowing through the river. This metal contamination still affects marine life in the Fal estuary today despite the complete dissolution of the mining industry.
Friday evening was completed with a supper on the roof of the Tate St Ives and a private viewing of Lily Van Stokker’s current show. Despite the show’s utter banality (intended) I would have loved to have taken one small print/painting home, which read: I like everything complete with childlike flower doodles and finished in pastel colours!
Saturday was the serious bit of the convention, and unfortunately I could not stay past lunchtime. The morning session involved presentations by Tom van Gestel, Tacita Dean and Hand Ulrich Obrist around commissioning for non-urban sites and situations. Given the context I was very surprised by Tacita Dean. I gathered that her experience of being commissioned for non-urban was generally poor if not agonising. She spoke disdainfully of occasions when some official would take her round the local museum and expect her to gather material and repeat some work that she had done before. It sounded like she found it all a rather patronising experience and one that stifled her creativity. I can sympathise to a small extent, however Dean spoke of showing her films in specific locations and how bad it was in general. She was always happier to take her film away – in this sense her work is not site specific at all, in fact it seemed that for Dean the site is often just an unpleasant backdrop for her personal, creative vision. My overriding thought was I’m not sure why she takes these commissions. Perhaps she should stick to the gallery if it’s such an awful experience.
Hans Ulrich Obrist talked about his Everstill project at the Lorca House Museum in Granada. I was pretty confused by his talk as well. According to Frieze Magazine Ulrich Obrist “has long been interested in the places lived in by interesting people” and I am still uncertain as to how he was addressing the concerns of the convention, the rural place. I am sure Everstill was an interesting show, however I find the commissioning of famous international artists such as Gilbert and George – who are resolutely urbane – a little strange in the context.
The presentations proved to be coming from an almost entirely different position to Urbanomic whose field trip was radical, insightful, relevant and spoke to the concerns of the conference. Perhaps the issue was exactly as Lippard had posited – the DFLs (or DFBs, Down From Berlin) don’t have anything to say about the rural context as they simply are not involved in it but impose themselves upon it.