Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Nowhereisland in Jennicliff Bay, Plymouth

A new outcrop of barren rock appeared off the coast of Plymouth last weekend, alien to the geology of the region. It was a floating island created by artist Alex Hartley and his collaborative team, which had been pulled around the headland from Torquay and moored just off the inlet of Jennicliff bay. Hartley’s sculpture is modelled on a small island off the coast of the Norwegian territory of Svalbard, inside the Artic Circle, which was revealed after many millennia by the retreat of the glacial ice which had enveloped it. Hartley had been the first to step onto this new, or very old basaltic splinter in 2004 when he travelled to the far north with the Cape Farewell organisation, a group set up to provide the means for artists, scientists and media folk to directly experience the effects of climate change in the polar regions and enable informed artistic and cultural responses. Other artists involved have included Laurie Anderson, Ian McEwan (whose novel Solar was a result of his trip), DJ Spooky, Jarvis Cocker, sound artist and sculptor Max Eastley, the poet Lemn Sissay, comedian Marcus Brigstocke, the singers Feist and Martha Wainwright, Ryuchi Sakamoto and the sculptors Rachel Whiteread and Antony Gormley. Hartley had wanted to name the island Nymark, or new land but in the end it was christened with the Nordic variant Nyskjaeret by the Norwegian Polar Institute.

In 2011, Hartley sailed back to Svalbard with a diverse group of companions including legal scholars, environmentalists, feminists, film makers, linguists and film makers. They recorded their impressions and experiences of their journeys and explorations, and brought back some loose material from Nyskjaeret, with the blessing of the Governor of Svalbard, to include in the island which would be newly formed back in England (the original having already begun to be eroded away by the surrounding artic seas to which it had been exposed). It’s moulded form would be scattered with the loose material gathered and shipped back to lend a sense of realism to its sculpted topography, and create a genuine sense that this was a floating fragment of Artic land being towed around the British coastline. Nowhereisland, as it was called, was moved in its nascent state into international waters just north of Svalbard, 80º14N, 10º30SE, on 20th September where it was declared a new nation. This summer, formed into a convincing facsimile of Nyskjaeret as Hartley had first come across it, it began its migration around the South West coast, arriving in Weymouth on 25th July in time for the beginning of the Olympic sailing events (it is part of the associated Cultural Olympiad programme of events). It was anchored in Jennicliff Bay on Thursday August 9th, where its arrival was celebrated with a pageant including music, storytelling, a football match between a team from the local Nowhere Inn and a Nowhereisland eleven (the pub team won), and kayak tours around the island.

The idea behind building a portable, migrating island replicating the one Hartley had found revealed by the retreating glacier was to create a new nation state from scratch in a collaborative fashion. The island is accompanied on its travels around the South West peninsula by an embassy, its modest mobile headquarters an old van, adapted and decorated for the purpose. The van was parked on the down above the bay, and its three approachable, friendly and readily informative ambassadors were on hand to explain the history of their country, its philosophy and aims, and to sign up new citizens wishing to become a part of nowhere. They each wore orange and grey checked shirts and olive khaki caps, evidently the adopted national costume. Over on the other side of the Plymouth Sound, a short ferry ride away from Mount Batten in the old Barbican area of the city, the Nowhereisland Citizens Advice Bureau was set up in the Plymouth Arts Centre. Here you could find information about the newly arrived land online, look at pictures of the Artic expedition and the journey thus far and consult a world map outlining the current global dispersal of citizens and listen to the Nowhereisland radio station, run by local people and at the time of our visit hosted by some enthusiastic children. In common with the Embassy, you could also sign up to become a citizen and offer your suggestion for a clause to be included in the collectively drawn up Nowhereisland constitution, voting for those you approved of (those so far selected were posted in a list on the wall) and giving the thumbs down for those you objected to. Ideas put forward ranged from the serious (declarations of principles of equality, pacifism, ecological awareness and action, and both religious tolerance and freedom from religious bigotry) to the playful, and perhaps more easily attainable, such as free ice cream for all on Fridays, the adoption of A-Ha’s Take On Me as the national anthem, and the compulsory wearing of hats. The issue of whether or not to allow dogs on the island seems to have been the one to spark the most heated debate, with one person driven to describe those failing to display sufficient adoration of our canine friends as ‘pig-humans’. If this collectively drawn up constitution draws some inspiration from Mark Thomas’ People’s Manifesto, the debt is acknowledged by including his book in the Embassy’s collection.

Many of the idealistic statements of belief or declarations of faith in the constitution point to the strong utopian strand to this exercise state building. One inspiration behind the creation of a new, floating nation might be Aldous Huxley’s 1962 utopian novel Island, written when the utopia had become a largely redundant literary form due to the evident failures of attempts to realise utopian ideas in the real world. This explores, through the traditional visitor to utopia protagonist, a utopian island which quietly exists beyond the political and economic boundaries of the wider world, its values based on an eastern spirituality which also informs its small-scale, low-tech and self-sufficient industrial base. Its doom is written when oil is discovered in its territories, ensuring the close attentions of surrounding nations and multinational corporations. Island is not included in the Embassy’s selection of books, but William Morris’ 1890 post-industrial utopia News From Nowhere is. This dreams of a future Britain divided into small, self-organising communities, a pastoral paradise with no central government. The Houses of Parliament still stand, but have been adapted for a new purpose, as a series of sheds for the storage of fertilizing dung. The word utopia, as first used by Thomas More in his 1516 depiction of an ‘ideal’ city state, derives from the Greek ou and topos, or no place – nowhere. Ambiguity was built into the concept from the start, as a close linguistic cousin would be eu topos, or the good place. More seemed to be making it clear that the utopian plan could only ever exist as a thought experiment. Attempt to transpose the map onto territory in the real world and the founding ideals swiftly vanish into the aether. This ambiguity is built into Nowhereisland, a portable territory which appears and disappears again before anyone has a chance to claim it as their own, and whose citizens never actually set foot upon its rocky shores. It also has a built in limit to its physical existence, a year from its creation as an idea on the 20th September 2011 until its dismantling and dispersal in September 2012, when it will once more return to an ideal form in the minds of the many people who have seen it or followed its progress. As one of the ambassadors helpfully pointed out to me (I can be a bit slow on the uptake at times), the name Nowhereisland can be divided up in several ways, announcing now here is land, or nowhere is land, or perhaps both. To stretch such word play to its limits, and probably beyond, with a little added punctuation, Now, Here – island provides a banner to trumpet its temporary residence at various locations.

The embassy, which from a distance looked like a particularly cornucopian ice cream van with its brightly coloured lettering and propped up awning, carries with it a rich gallimaufry of objects united by the common themes of the Arctic, islands and utopias. These are housed cabinet of curiosity-style in glass fronted compartments, and can also be found in various scavenged filing draws, cupboards and storage cases. Uncovering these nooks and hidey-holes gives a sense of personal exploration and discovery, making the act of looking more actively participatory. The collection includes both artefacts brought back by the team from the Arctic, and widely varied objects which reflect the long-held fascination with the polar regions, with exploration of unknown territories, and with the idea of utopia and the possibility of starting afresh elsewhere – of finding a place beyond the entrenched political, cultural and historical patterns of force in which we are enmeshed. A number of books are gathered which include the word island in the title and which offer the prospect of adventure and escape, starting with the obvious, Treasure Island, and including Joseph Conrad’s An Outcast of the Islands, Enid Blyton’s The Island of Adventure, and, appropriately enough, Jules Verne’s The Floating Island. Verne emerges as a key figure in the creation of the modern myths of island escape and the small, isolated island state separate from the dominant historical currents. A handsome hardback of his The Mysterious Island is displayed elsewhere, as is a copy of the film adaptation (complete with giant crabs and prehistoric birds animated in Ray Harryhausen’s inimitable stop motion style), a plate depicting a scene from the novel in which the explorers’ balloon careens over the Arctic landscape, and some circular viewfinder slides showing stills from the 1974 Disney picture The Island At the Top of the World, which was certainly inspired by Verne, even if it didn’t directly draw on his work. The nowhere library features William Morris’ News from Nowhere as its key book, along with A Map of Nowhere by Gillian Cross, and a representative population including The Man from Nowhere by Joan Fleming, The Nowhere Boy by Sandra Glover, and Nowhere Girl by Angela Huth. The Italian artist, designer and writer Bruno Munari’s 1971 children’s book From Afar It Is An Island is also prominently displayed. Munari was a contemporary of the Futurists and the Surrealists, and was acquainted with members of both groups. His charming book takes a close look at the patterns contained in the rocks and pebbles he has found, creates figures and landscapes from them and incorporates the results into stories. The metal filing drawers contain a number of films and albums which draw further cultural connections with the nowhereisland themes. There’s The Mouse That Roared, the British comedy about a small, anachronistic state adrift in the harsh world of the twentieth century (but no Passport to Pimlico, perhaps the definitive British comedy of micro-statehood); Bob and Bing’s Road to Utopia; a Roxy Music single on Island Records, and Grace Jones’ Island Life LP; and, of course, Talking Heads’ single Road to Nowhere. Lost Horizon might have been there, with its depiction of the hidden land of Shangri-La, guardian of humanity’s noblest hopes and ideals, or I might just have dreamt it.

The allure of the Polar regions, and the notion of purity and an ice wilderness unspoiled by human presence with which they are associated, is found in the marketing of various products whose packaging is included here: a Fox’s Glacier Mint tin and a Dentyne Ice gum wrapper, both selling the idea of cool freshness through Arctic imagery. The Arctic as abstract metaphor for mental states or sensory feelings. Svalbard, Spitsbergen and Longyearbyen, the two major towns in the island group, produce the usual range of tourist gewgaws, too, some of which are displayed here: souvenir mugs, decorated plates, ‘I was here’ patches, postcards, guidebooks and, of course, snowstorms. There are also leaflets and badges which seek to warn against a touristic fantasy of a wonderland lit by auroral fairy lights through which visitors might dreamily wander in a magically inviolable state. Gory pictures of red pools of blood splashed across snow alert people to the dangers of polar bear attack, and make it clear that nature in the Polar regions is not a tamed, picturesque backdrop but a presence which must be reckoned with in a harsh and unforgiving environment. More old-fashioned collectible ephemera are found in the form of carefully mounted cigarette and PG Tips cards, each series displaying illustrated tales of derring do from Polar pioneers and, with flags of conquest having been planted in these far corners of the Earth, of the Russian and American pioneers of space exploration who have taken the need to find new elsewheres beyond the bounds of the planet. The voyagers from the Nowhereisland crew have brought back there own representative expeditionary objects, too: A plastic gallon container of glacial meltwater, a sturdy Wellington smeared with Arctic mud, a thick glove, a pickaxe and a selection of small mineral specimens. Souvenirs from closer to home have been added as well. The rubber duck sitting smugly on the shelf is presumably the same one photographed by the group of Plymouth swimmers who ‘invaded’ the island.

Some of the objects in the cabinet of curiosities are the products of redundant or old-fashioned technologies: the Atari Utopia game locked in its blue floppy disc; the array of slides neatly slotted into their storage box, the Polar locales they frame carefully indexed; and the circular cardboard carousel of slides designed to be inserted into the Viewfinder ‘binoculars’, one picture giving way to the next at the press of a plastic lever. An increasing number of people would add the books to this list, of course. This parade of obsolescence gives the impression of historical and cultural change, of the contingent nature of material things, their solidity belying an inherent impermanence, subject as they are to the increasing velocity of technological advance. The appeal of the ideas and stories carried by these redundant technologies persists, however. The ideal form is imbued with more power and endurance than any material manifestation. This is really at the heart of the Nowhereisland project, with the island, the physical manifestation of the many ideas involved, deliberately designed to be impermanent. At the end of its year of existence, it will be torn apart, and the various fragments sent to citizens as souvenirs. By the end of this year, 52 resident thinkers (one for each week) will have set forth their ideas, exploring the concepts underlying the creation of Nowhereisland or responding to it as a work of art. These include well-known figures such as Tim Smit (founder of the Eden Project), the late Vidal Sassoon, gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, Yoko Ono, the poet Ruth Padel, the author and artist Tim Etchells, celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and broadcaster John Tusa. Less well known contributors include: Zohra Moosa, a women’s rights advisor for Action Aid, Tim Cresswell and Doreen Massay, geography professors, Steve Trent of the Environmental Justice Foundation and Tamsin Omond of the Climate Rush environmental campaigning group, disability rights advocate Tom Shakespeare, and psychologist Sam Thompson. They all provide insightful comments, not always favouring the idea of a new nowhere (as witness Guardian columnist Giles Fraser’s piece).

This being a publicly funded piece of art, with money provided by the Arts Council as part of its grant for the Cultural Olympiad, there have been predictable fulminations from Tory MPs (Geoffrey Cox, MP for Torridge and West Devon), conservative pressure groups (the Tax Payers Alliance), generally disgruntled members of the public and, less predictably, the Guardian environment correspondent Leo Hickman. Most of these seem to have been triggered by a BBC News report, and were launched without the benefit of having actually visited the work in question. The island itself is a small part of the whole, with community involvement being at the heart of things. Plymouth schools have been involved all along, helping to run the Nowhereisland radio station and taking part in numerous associated events, and High View Primary School produced an excellent short animation as an accompaniment to the Jennicliff Bay visitation. Dissent is an essential part of the process of building a state, however, and the objections of these groups and individuals could almost be incorporated into the general constitutional to and fro which questions the principles of statehood and even the value of art itself. There are dissenting voices writing on the collective constitutional walls, both in the real world and online, after all – one proposing a ban on ‘arty farty people who think they’re better than everyone else’. In this context (and probably this context alone), they could be seen as the proud bearers of the Anti-Nowhere League badge displayed in the embassy collection. Claire Doherty, representing the Bristol based arts organisation Situations which produced the Nowhereisland project, sets forth the ideas behind it with great clarity in the 5th October entry in the logbook section of the website. There were many people from all backgrounds gathered around the embassy while I was there, all of whom seemed to be thoroughly enjoying looking around, signing up at the citizens’ desk, adding their own constitutional suggestions or commenting on those already displayed. This was the kind of art which both celebrated and encouraged the kind of collective spirit which has been so much in evidence over the Olympic fortnight, a spirit which is self-creating and sustaining, transcending the sophisticated manipulations of marketing, political and media controllers to achieve its own sense of autonomy. Carol Ann Duffy, the poet laureate, summed it up well in her Olympic poem Translating the British, published last weekend. As such, Nowhereisland and its embassy provided an effective, involving and enjoyable cultural corollary to the transitory utopian idealism of the Games, which in the end triumphed over its baser, materialist side.

The island set sail (or was towed away) from Jennicliff Bay on Sunday, moving on to Mevagissey in Cornwall. It’s now headed for Falmouth, where it will cast anchor on Thursday, and from there it will travel to Newquay (23rd-27th), Ilfracombe (1st-4th September), finally ending up in Bristol Harbour, where all will be brought to a conclusion over the weekend of 7-9th September.

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