Autumn and I recently completed a short residency at Hilltown House, County Westmeath, Ireland, during which we were asked to respond to a specific site on the estate. We chose the ‘castle keep’, a derelict structure with a roof canopy of sycamore, ivy, ash and hawthorn. Our residency was part of the Hilltown New Music Festival, and so we decided to cordon off the area from visitors, turning it into a temporary ‘nature reserve’. Our aim was to highlight how sites of human dereliction are quickly reclaimed by nature, and to draw attention to the value of this different kind of ‘habitation’. We especially wanted people to be aware of delicate, ground-dwelling flora; the kind of plants that are unconsciously trodden underfoot.
We did this by focussing on the act of naming as a way of giving attention to, and therefore acknowledging, nature. We compiled a list of identifiable plant species – 15 in all (there were surely many more), and turned them into labels which were attached to the cordon itself. Out of expediency, we used materials that were to hand: the cordon, for example, was made out of chicken wire and fishing line. It struck us as rather apt that materials used for containing or catching other animals were here repurposed to keep humans out.
We also created a new pamphlet that incorporated some Irish words for each plant species, and their English approximations, taken from John Cameron’s ‘Gaelic Names of Plants (Scottish and Irish, 1883)’. As with our previous research into Irish plant names (published in ‘Field Notes’) it was interesting to note both the functionality and inherent poetry of Gaelic words. We entitled the work ‘That Which Takes Hold’, a translation of an Irish word for Ivy, Faithleadgh.
Finally, we made several sound recordings inside the keep itself, as well as around the Hilltown estate, and edited them into a composite recording to be broadcast on a discrete set of speakers installed in the keep. The recording primarily consisted of bird calls; blackbird, buzzard, chiff-chaff, jackdaw, raven, robin, swallow, wood pigeon and wren.
On reflection, the work raised a number of difficult questions; chief among them – did it have the intended outcome? Is it reasonable to ask people who have come to attend a music and art festival to be attentive to nature? How can ‘art’ raise awareness without being perceived as sanctimonious or didactic? We had the opportunity to observe many people interacting with the work – most paused briefly at the threshold, before moving on. A small number stayed for quite some time, and we even had the chance to discuss the work with a few visitors, some of whom seemed genuinely moved by our intentions.
There is also the not inconsiderable issue of our own impact upon the site during its brief transformation. Whilst installing the work, for example, our footfall undoubtedly caused damage to the species we were trying to protect. Isn’t there a double-standard at work in excluding others from a site whilst also having a detrimental effect upon it ourselves? To our knowledge, none of the plants present in the keep were rare, but our aim was not to conserve the scarce – we simply wished to draw attention to the common and overlooked. In many cases plants such as nettle, dandelion and ragwort flourish in close proximity to human settlement – are considered ‘weeds’ for their ability to withstand our attempts to remove them, and for the way they colonise temporarily ‘neglected’ spaces. In fact, some plant species even thrive in disturbed ground, and respond with vigorous new growth to being cut or damaged.
In retrospect, the audio recording, too, must have had a detrimental effect upon the birdlife that ordinarily made use of the derelict structure. This sound loop, punctuated with repeated alarm calls, must have consistently upset the ‘natural’ rhythm of the site. Our intention was to evoke birdlife for the visitor, thereby reinforcing the notion of a derelict building as an inhabited space, but did we do little more than supplant the sounds that would have already been there? It seems to me that despite our good intentions, we temporarily re-took human possession of the structure, using it for our own purposes, rather than being truly attentive to the site and its inhabitants. In conclusion, we might ask – how can we draw attention to something without intruding, or upsetting the delicate balance that already exists?