St Abb's National Reserve

St Abb's National Reserve
View from my office

Wednesday 19 October 2011

When one sets out to make a piece of work one has intention; this is merely the starting point after which anything can happen. I read this (with great relief) the other week and shall attribute the observation to the relevant artist when my memory serves me once more. These intentions can come about in different ways- the continued practice and production based on already-established themes, on gut feelings and first point being that often one's expectations are overturned in the process of dealing with practicalities, by discoveries made through deepening one's knowledge or encountering the totally unexpected.
I have been on St Abb's National Nature Reserve now many times. Each time I visit there are people. A great many visitors are there, I believe, for that magical connection with nature that brings a feeling of solitude (not loneliness). When one imagines privacy it is usually associated with a man-made, enclosed space, a locked door. Despite the footfall, St Abb's still has the ability to enclose a human in its extraordinary space. It is not, I feel, a matter of the location being hidden or secret, but that it is enormous in its capacity to hold experience: it is old beyond comprehension and continues its monumental processes, its formations and migration, its erosion and growths; Archaeology, Geology, Biology- subjects of enormous breadth are required to deal with the conception and continual thriving of St Abb's- and all this despite, or aside from the mostly, inconsequential human element with imposes itself upon the place.
I happened upon a family at Pettico Wick not long ago- more on that in another post- the small bay is only visible from high above and from the sea and feels remote enough to make the arrival of another human feel like an intrusion. My cheery 'Good morning' was enough to send the party packing; by the time I had made my little investigations around the rocks and back I was alone.
I had entertained a piece of work communicating the thoughts and feelings of visitors and workers.
How does one go about interacting with visitors who are clearly there to avoid this kind of contact? The reason they are there seems obvious, if outwardly anti-social (as society deems people who are more inclined to solitude)and so in the act of further engaging the public with the reserve am I at odds with one of the primary aspects which is special to St Abb's- that it is possible to at least have the sensation of being alone and the opportunity for a kind of communion?
There are, though, many visitors to and through the reserve every year and many who are happy to stop and chat, I am not trying to give an impression of habitual hermitage at St Abb's. I am interested in how people engage in the place and how much they (we) are aware of this level of engagement. 'It's a nice place', is a good,all round summing-up of what is communicated to me. People watch the birds,walk their dogs, walk with family- so is there value in communicating these ideas? This residency is not about attracting wholesale, rafts of visitors to a natural theme park. I'm not around to sell the place. It's about appreciation, I think, about wonder and about that magical engagement with nature which I feel is at one level enriching but on a deeper level fundamentally important. I'm not there to tell people how to interact with nature or to make judgements on their experiences, either.
I thought, also, that I would be making work across the reserve in a way that is sympathetic to the ideology of the Trust, to take nothing away and leave nothing there. This work, however, is not the final piece, as so to speak. I find the landscape is my sketchbook, so far, and that I use the act of moving fallen branches, of twisting foliage and assembling natural materials as a contemplative process which allows me to contemplate assembled information, to experience the place for myself and to intervene in the landscape, with my own creative ideas (without permanently altering) so being part of a process of call and response with the environment. I happily continue to make work on the Reserve but don't think that it, alone, does the job of encouraging a deeper appreciation of the uniqueness of St Abb's and its importance in the wider world. Like the initial idea I had about collecting the thoughts and feelings of the humans who migrate across the surface of this piece of land, the action is not a medium that will gain any unknown knowledge or insights; It signals proof that I have spent time there,it makes me-as-artist visible and perhaps signals an awareness of the Reserve to the wider world but for the moment it creates a reason to be there which will hopefully lead to a more satisfying outcome.

Monday 26 September 2011


I began a short residency at St Abb's during the summer which began with a number of informal site visits. Some were with the Property Manager and gave me an invaluable insight into the the breadth of her responsibilities, the structures supporting the reserve, and the system that is St Abb's Head National Reserve. The Reserve does not actually operate in isolation, the community of St Abb's once relied on fishing and has a migrating population of visitors. The farms adjacent to St Abb's Head have grazing arrangements and each has an impact on the other. Thousands of walkers and pilgrims cross the cliff tops every year. The sea bird colonies, for which St Abb's Head is known, are a transient population whose natural habitat is the open sea. The birds come to nest and fledge their chicks. The cliffs, cathedral-like in their grandeur are an amphitheatre for the cacophonous tenure for only a few months before the Gulls and Guillemots leave, the Guillemot chicks enduring a traumatic (perhaps only for the viewer) rite of passage before joining their parents in the sea (I will describe this later.)
The Reserve is home to flora and fauna specific to its rough and uncultivated grasslands and coastal location. The site is not wilderness and left to its own devices would go back to woodland. It is carefully managed to preserve an environment which is both critical to certain species' survival and no longer common in the UK.
I am fascinated by the contrast between this concept of 'conservation' (which, needless to say, is vital) and the ongoing cycles of nature which create both vast and microscopic changes: Weather, tide- and here I mention briefly the geological identity of the place, the meeting point of two tectonic plates that forced the cliffs into existence and will, at some point, make The Head an island surrounded by sea, (as well as an island of carefully managed habitats for a rich variety of species.) This 'Island' is not only traversed by animal and insect migrations but by locals and visitors who enjoy the walks and by pilgrims who acknowledge the site of St Aebbe's Monastery on Kirk Hill and celebrate her exemplary Christian life. The Kirk is only one of many historic sites: Humans have enjoyed the location for thousands of years and the nature of some of the remains are still subject to conjecture.
I am aware that the aims and ideals of a place such as this can appear at odds with aims and functions of the surrounding communities; reserves must exist as designated areas which are outside our normal day-to-day experience (unless, of course, you live or/and work there.) This draws attention to the separation of human from nature and the loss of communion which can enable people the fully enjoyment of material comfort, culture, etc. while maintaining a relationship with the natural systems which sustain our existence.
I am not on a mission, I am interested. I am fascinated: The Reserve in isolation, as specific and as the facilitator for many processions and cycles.
I have tried to offer a short summary here and have omitted many thing, experiences, meeting with people, sights and sounds and hope to resolve this in the coming weeks.

Tuesday 5 July 2011

‘There is a profound connection between the nothingness from which we originate and the infinite in which we are engulfed.’
Prof. Jim Al Kalili

There is nothing here-
Everything is gone
Now there is space for-something
Anything can happen
Everything is happening
Nothing just- stops
Like the end of a ruler
Like a clock.
Where there is nothing
Something can happen
Everything is moving
There was something here-
Something has gone
Everything changes
Nothing remains
Nothing changes
In nothing, everything happens
Everything moves
Like the hands of a clock
Nothing never stops
Nothing is something
Nothing is everything
There is nothing here-

As I try to hold on tight to truth, to the past, to control the future, the momentary comfort I derive from a plausible certainty slips away. By embracing absence and taking things away, the emptiness remaining becomes an invitation for something else to happen, for something magical.
Everything is moving all of the time; the moment has already passed while we struggle with our labels and boxes, our charts, clocks and measuring sticks:
Stepping in and being a part of the process I am engaged and I am connected. I have disappeared, my surface has dissolved, I have expanded out of surety and stasis and can feel the edges of existence, draw across its surface till those edges disappear.

Everything is gone
There is nothing here

‘Space is fundamental in any exercise of power’

This is the statement I submitted for my final show.
It s the document I spent most time on, in the run up to assessment and then didn't include in the show; too telling, too much of a signpost that there was actually work in the space I had occupied.
But I liked the writing process and wanted to share it; it responds to Baudrillard's degrees of simulcra, to Nancy's constantly fluid discourse, to Marcus Boon and the little Foucault I have read.

Tuesday 10 May 2011

In the run-up to the final show I have been given unexpected time to reflect, aware that my fellow third-years have a much more rounded understanding of their practice and the context wherein their work operates. I am heartened though, after a chat with a tutor that even my perception of this incompleteness is a sign that my understanding has grown. Self-awareness and self-evaluation being part of the process. It's the bigger picture, of course, that counts. The final show is an artifice; a deadline set in order to assess work. The work continues to grow after the show. Life after University.
It is interesting to look at the parameters set, especially being aware that one can evaluate positively or negatively; see restrictions or challenges. We currently have a close-at-hand artistic community, valuable intellectual resources, practical help and opinion in return for a modulated structure that culminates in an assessment. It is like being given a particular size canvas to work on, or finding out what a material is capable of, then pushing, perhaps, to see how far things will go. It brings up issues in self-confidence and ability to work to a deadline, to see if one is still craving a word, or two of affirmation from a tutor, to see how much the grade really matters.
I am lucky to be part of a group of people who, are for the most part, focused, able, caring but not so confident. I marvel at the lack of ego, the self-effacing and those who only dare to give a quiet voice to ambition. The show will be good, very good.
June 16th 6-8pm Squires Building (and other locations) Northumbria University

Tuesday 15 March 2011

Working through the bigger picture by dealing with smaller ones: I have a show to think about; I need to choose 2 alternatives from a given list of studios which will be transformed to white wall gallery in less than a blink of an eye. I have decisions to make- what to leave in and what to take out of the visual statement which will represent, not necessarily my time at Northumbria, but an eloquent expression of my lines of enquiry.
Decisions, decisions...
Not my strong point, historically, but, according to a wise person I met today, decisions should be easy.
This is news and gladly met. resistance to this information should be listened to, then reconsidered...
Why not easy? What have I met that tells me this will cost me dear? (someone must have whispered it in my ear when I was young, surely?)
So while I figure the whole thing out, reading on Gordon Matta-Clark after seeing Barbican Exhib, to deal with outer space and Susan Hiller exhib deals with inner, a book about the 'Re-Enchantment of Art' and Marcus Boon's 'In Praise of copying' all to feed my brain, soul and spirit.
I cant' sit and think too much without blowing a fuse to cut and paste to make collage from images taken from various stages of painting
John Houston apparently had, on average, 6 projects in stages of process at one go, making progress at differing rates. Inspiring. I thought I was a scatterbrain with 4, but that makes me positively linear and mundane.
It's right what is taught, the answers are in the making, fundamentally, and the other stuff hold the fragment in time and space.
Which is all very nice but quite tiring...

Tuesday 22 February 2011

There's a world of playing to be had from collage. I am fascinated by the possibilities, by the spaces created- little theatres, I think, that are made from the constantly re-processed images of parts of a large painting that has since been destroyed. Each image informs the next. There is a train of thought, a meandering one and always questions: 'What happens if ..?'
Or listening, watching and waiting to see if anything is asked of me.
I draw at motifs and effects, come across sensation and the familiar in the same way memory works for me; by process and also spontaneously. The images reach a point of 'finished' and become part of an archive.
The memory is living; the archive static order.
Using this blog to work through a few processes,latest statement follows:

Imagined space fabricated time relationships context emerging and disappearing motifs changing ways of seeing living copy record art archived in a grid creation archive of space sensation non-objective questioning constantly re-copy moving process regeneration of images recorded re-copied pushed through media reassembled copy expansion extraction examination copy re-copy copy re-copy copy……

Sarah Riseborough 2011

Sunday 6 February 2011

If last semester was about doing, about rediscovering the space and mind to explore my artistic practice then this semester is about bringing to consciousness the processes involved.
If I have said previously that I like to share ideas and pass on information then today i am stating that it is a held belief of mine that human function is communication and perception and most of us live in a state of prescribed cognition. Communication is food, it is connection. it comes in many forms and there is a formal, institutionalised order to informations that ignors a spectrum of symbolic language that occurs in everyday life.
For example:
We learn at school.
Also communications have value. Knowledge can be power, we hold on to valuable information to retain control, to maintain ownership. Keeping ahead, ensuring security, protection. The most basic and understandable reasons mean an idea is kept devoid of life and unable to move on and be examined- why would we send our hard-won processes out into the world to be claimed by another? Why would we give for free what has cost us dear?
So, this semester I am asking questions; of my work, of my thinking and the context in which these questions are asked, and the thinking is-thinked...
So I hope it doesnt disappoint that there is no answer here, at the end of this post.