Cultivating Perspectives on Landscape

This guest article is by Chloe Bray, whose research interrogates the concept of liminal landscape in fifth-century BC Greek tragedy, focussing on mountains, the sea, and meadows, as common tragic settings. While these literary spaces have often been identified as wild and isolated in opposition to the ancient Greek city and its values, Chloe’s approach takes the integration and connectivity of space in historical reality into account. Using a range of approaches from literary criticism to landscape phenomenology, her thesis explores landscapes as diverse and variable mappings of collective cultural associations, complicating the broad, metaphorical implications of “liminality”.

Landscape is an emergent field of study in the arts and humanities, which is necessarily interdisciplinary. As a PhD student beginning a thesis on marginal landscapes in ancient Greek tragedy, I soon found that I was expected to be familiar with theory from geography, anthropology, cognitive studies, and literary criticism. I spent huge chunks of my first year reading about these areas, but was constantly concerned that I might not be engaging with the most recent or important work. What I really needed, I realised, was an overview of approaches to landscape studies from experts in a variety of disciplines, aimed at a PhD student in the arts. This realisation turned into a plan, and with the help of my co-organisers, Anahit Behrooz, an English PhD student at Edinburgh, and Laura Donkers, an art PhD at Dundee, I put a proposal to SGSAH for an interdisciplinary workshop. We were awarded £2,500 from the Cohort Development Fund in May 2017.

Senate Room, St Marys College St Andrews.JPG

The conference was held in the Senate Room, St Mary’s College, St Andrews

The workshop took place in St Andrews on the 16th and 17th of November 2017, and I’m delighted (and relieved!) to report that it was everything I hoped it would be. Our programme involved six 1.5 hour workshops presented by invited expert speakers and twelve postgraduate student presentations in Pecha Kucha format. The workshop presenters played a huge role in the success of the event; in our invitations we explained our training goals, but left the planning of the workshop entirely up to the presenter, and the results were a variety of interactive, highly enjoyable, and informative sessions. Rebecca Sweetman, professor of ancient history and archaeology at the University of St Andrews, began the first day with a workshop on landscape archaeology titled “Movement and Memory Making through Landscape”. We got to handle Roman archaeological artefacts, and engaged in highly amusing attempts to guess the uses of various artefacts. After lunch, Professor Tim Ingold, Chair of Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen, revisited his work on “taskscapes” and addressed the ways that this term has been misappropriated by various disciplines. This led into group discussion on the meaning of “landscape”, and the inseparability of social and natural environments. Dr Katharine Earnshaw, lecturer in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Exeter, delivered the third workshop, titled “Cognitive Humanities, Literature, and Landscape”. Katharine challenged us to consider how landscape in literature can be perceived visually and conceptually, and through a discussion of some set texts we looked at how a cognitive approach can address the experience of the reader in perceiving textual landscapes.

St Marys Quad.JPG

St Mary’s Quad, St Andrews

The next morning began with a workshop from Professor Hayden Lorimer, Chair of Cultural Geography at the University of Glasgow. Hayden us sent outside to follow our noses, and consider the relationship between the sense of smell and other senses, memories, and places. We shared our findings when we returned, and discussed the spatial associations of everything from the pleasant scents of the St Mary’s Quad gardens outside the conference venue and nearby coffee shops to the disturbing chemical smells of the zoology museum in the adjacent building. Dr Frances Fowle, Reader in the History of Art at the Edinburgh College of Art and Senior Curator at the Scottish National Gallery, delivered the first afternoon workshop. Frances addressed the role of memory and the “place-myth” in landscape painting, and we discussed our interpretations of various examples of symbolist landscapes. As we contributed our own ideas from the perspectives of our various disciplines, the ability of symbolist art to evoke ideas beyond reality became particularly clear. Our final workshop was delivered by Dr Jane Suzanne Carroll, Ussher Assistant Professor in Children’s Literature at Trinity College Dublin. Through drawing exercises, we looked at the commonality of imagined landscapes, such as the “pleasant place”. We considered landscape from a child’s perspective, where the bounds of space might be smaller but proportions are larger and more mysterious.

Interspersed between these workshops were the postgraduate papers. To ensure a concise delivery appropriate to a multi-disciplinary audience, these were delivered in Pecha Kucha format, where the talk is timed to 20 slides shown for 20 seconds each. These provided a fascinating variety of insights into landscape research from disciplines such as English and Scottish literature, art, history, classics, and archaeology. Topics ranged from the unsettling landscapes of dark sky parks, to the connectivity of Scottish and Irish coastlines as a seascape, to the maps of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, to the strategic placement of temples in early Rome. Being able to present our own research and hear from our peers resulted in productive interdisciplinary dialogues, which allowed us to consider our own work from a range of new perspectives. We were also able to make links throughout the event between the approaches presented in the workshops and the research presented by the postgraduate delegates.

As well as the workshops and presentations, we played a card game developed by Laura Donkers as part of her PhD research. Laura’s reflections are as follows:

“The Monument Card Game was played during the afternoon by all the delegates and some of the workshop leaders. The cards were set out on the tables and people quickly started to form their own groups of 4 to 6 players, with one person from each reading out the games rules. Almost immediately an air of jovial eagerness developed in the room, as participants got to grips with the game, followed by cheers and roars as some started to win their rounds.

Monuments Game, Laura Donkers.jpg

The  Monument Game (Picture: Laura Donkers)

The Monument Game is a deep map that investigates the bio-cultural heredity of the Outer Hebrides through the riddle of how a Monkey Puzzle tree came to be planted on a small island in Loch an Eilean, Askernish, South Uist during the time of the Clearances, and explores the long-term effects that still resonate in the land today. Comprising a pack of 54-playing cards that contain the text and images, which present maps, tables, and botanical photographs of the plant species on the island. These different perspectives present a reflection on the need to cultivate understanding of landscape and place.

‘The little island garden with its collection of distorted and varied specimens reveals two perspectives of thought: on the one hand it’s a reminder of colonial dominance and the havoc that created; and on the other hand, it’s about the bountiful and forgiving lessons that nature teaches about adaptation, assimilation, diversity and symbiosis. Both ultimately present in the here and now.’

The game allows participants to interact with the text and images, as well as each other, convivially sharing the experience of reading, listening, and watching, in an atmosphere charged with anticipation. The players at the Cultivating Perspectives on Landscape workshop embraced the challenge and seemed to enjoy the opportunity to engage in the task. It appears by all accounts to have gone down well, as a change in pace and welcome chance to interact.

I’d like to pass on my thanks to my co-organisers and SGSAH for the opportunity to play the game at this exceptionally good interdisciplinary training workshop and conference.”

The highly interactive nature of the workshop meant that everyone involved had the chance to contribute their own ideas to the discussions and exercises, and we are confident that the networks made between researchers will work towards the formation of a research community of landscape researchers in Scotland. I would like to thank my co-organisers for their help in putting the workshop together and staying on top of everything during to incredibly packed days, and members of the School of Classics at St Andrews, particularly Jason König and Rebecca Sweetman, for their guidance in the planning and funding application. Inestimable thanks are also owed to Sam Dixon, the Classics secretary at St Andrews, for dealing with much of the financial and logistical planning which goes into an event such as this. Last but not least, we would like to thank SGSAH for providing the funding which allowed us to put on the workshop, and for providing the opportunity for postgraduates to take an active role in their own training.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Joanna via email at joanna.rodgers@uhi.ac.uk, or connect with the blog on Twitter

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