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Artists' geographies of the landscape archive: Trace, loss and the impulse to preserve in the Anthropocene Age

The artist Carl Andre said that England is a large earthwork, so my starting point for this project is the concept of the landscape as an archive, because in the Anthropocene Age, our planet bears a permanent geological trace of human activity – whether this is the affects of climate change, the ice cores bored from Antarctica, or the many landfill sites across the world. They all operate as ‘archives’ of our activities. 


This approach also acknowledges that the landscape-archive – as Andre notes – has been modified by humans for millennia, and shaped in much the same way as an artist may form a sculpture. Our landscapes contain simultaneous traces of our past and present interventions: and thus form part of our cultural history. Similarly, an art archive preserves our histories and activities to reflect aspects of our culture. It is also a repository of our activities’ outcomes – of our achievements or detritus, depending on your viewpoint. Both landscapes and art archives reveal our traces. However, once something is perceived to be at risk, the fear of loss and the impulse to preserve emerges. Many art archives came into existence when someone looked out of the window to see their organisation’s history about to fill a skip.


The research project explores approaches to both sited artwork in the landscape and archiving it, with specific reference to the artwork sited in Grizedale Forest since 1977, and how it might resist this preservation impulse; because the temporary sculptures have often disappeared back into the landscape leaving seemingly little or no trace in terms of documents/photographs. Grizedale is a managed forest so is an excellent example of a landscape-archive which has been shaped and formed by human intervention.


The final strand of my investigation returns to the landscape in the Anthropocene Age and one of its outcomes, the effects of climate change. As forests are both carbon sinks and carbon stores – and as such could ameliorate, and preserve us from some of climate changes’ effects – this may be particularly relevant to Grizedale. I explore how 20th and 21st century artists – at Grizedale and beyond, have operated as the landscape-archive’s cultural ambassadors; either through raising awareness about climate change and/or threats to biodiversity, or by creating living botanical archives as artwork. That is to say that the artwork is literally a living archive which preserves either a specific biodiversity or landscape. Thus these artists become hybridic practitioners working as artists-archivists-collectors-mappers. Their approaches raise wonderfully complex questions about visualisation, closed and open systems, scale, monuments, geographies, tropes and the ethics of preservation.


The research involved five art experiments, which involved four key themes explored through the written thesis. The latter are: A Lost Tour Guide: Getting Lost in Terra Incognita: Missing Persons: and  Loss and Trace.


Here is an introductory video to the research project.

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