The Stump and other objects
One of the reasons I chose this course was Assignment 6, “Produce a series of images that responds to the idea of ‘transitions’ within the landscape” (Assignment 6, original Landscape, Place and Environment course), but in the 2019 version, that assignment has been dropped. As this Assignment 5 calls for, “a body of work that explores a particular place, type of space or environmental theme relating to your understanding of the landscape genre … You’re free to choose the subject for this assignment, although you should be able to contextualise the project in relation to contemporary landscape practice as explored in this unit” (Alexander et al., 2019), the obvious solution is to choose the old Assignment 6.
An interest in and concern for plants has always informed my photography and my final assignment for the EyV module was The use and abuse of plants (Blackburn, 2019): that included three photographs of The Stump (fig. B1), a tree, victim of repeated arboricide attempts, that I pass every time I walk to the shops and usually photograph. I have been doing so since May 2019 and it forms the centrepiece of this assignment.
For each photography project of any length, I try to decide a subject, an approach and an intended presentation format. For this assignment the intention was to identify several nearby (fig. C1) intrinsically interesting locations that also included an aspect of plant treatment, to photograph these over the duration of the course to back up the longer term project of The Stump and to produce video slideshows of all the subjects.
Ideally, the presentation would be a scaled recreation of a 1950s electrical appliance shop window with several televisions on display and the slideshows substituted for whatever would have been on the screens: my memory of these pre-digital shops is of passers-by pausing to watch the televisions, especially for coverage of grand occasions and, more mundanely, those hoping for sports scores (there was no rolling news then, so news events would have to wait for the film stock to be processed and edited, then shown at 6 o’clock or 9 o’clock).
In reality, the shop will not be built, but I have created photo-facsimiles of this and modern equivalents (a John Lewis technology department and a charity shop furniture and electricals store) for submission (figs. D1-D3).
The other items photographed are:
a twig a few meters from The Stump, optimistically called The Bush;
a block of flats, not directly on the way to the High Street and therefore not often photographed. The remains of a tree are in the foreground, with no signs of life and there are few signs in the flats behind — the occasional glimpse of the tenants or owners, implicit evidence of moves when the window contents change, and once a squirrel;
Eltham Palace, the subject of Assignment 3, photographed through the fence, so that I can continue to photograph the location when the site is closed for the winter or when we let our membership lapse. There is a large, live tree in the foreground, the leaves of which obscure the Palace almost entirely in Summer;
the Stephen Lawrence memorial — a replacement paving slab close to the bus stop where he had been waiting. There are usually flowers or plants there in various states of decay, especially at Christmas and the anniversaries of his birth and death. The memorial is on my route to two hospitals and I try to break my journey whenever I am passing;
The Beehive, a pub in nearby New Eltham, a listed building with fine exterior decoration, once my local. There is a row of cherry trees on the opposite side of the road that blossom for a few days each year;
a community hospital, included because it has a vertical garden.
The soundtrack is adapted from John Cage’s 1987 Organ2 / ASLSP (as slow as possible). This is a slow-moving, atonal piece and performances can be adjusted to any duration (Macdonald, 2021). It’s sense of disjointed permanence echoes the nature of the subjects.
Each of the slideshows has three closing titles, all in the same format:
1. The Stump and other objects / Becoming subjects / [no. location]
2. Sound track / adapted from / John Cage, Organ2 / ASLSP, 1987
3. Nick Blackburn, 2022
1. 1950s TVs, original image by Ben van Meerendonk
2. John Lewis, Oxford Street, 2022
3. British Heart Foundation, Sidcup, 2022
© the artists, their agents or their estates
image sources: 1. dustyoldthing.com;
Regarding the title, the short version is Becoming Subjects. I jotted recently that “every lengthy project deserves a title and all good titles have some ambiguity”: the short form meets that requirement. The full title is The Stump and other objects / Becoming subjects and this reflects a concern stated when I first began the degree that I was not sure if what a camera is pointed at is a subject or an object. I resolved the matter to my own satisfaction at the end of Identity & Place, concluding that the item being photographed is technically an object and that the photographer’s attention transforms it into a subject.
The genesis of this project is explained in detail both in the introduction above and in the project blog, but in essence, I have a three year archive of photographs of a nearby tree stump and was looking forward to using it for Assignment 6 of this course. Finding that 6 had been dropped in a course rewrite, I adopted it for this self-directed assignment, noting that it met the criterion of “a body of work that explores a particular place, type of space or environmental theme” (Alexander et. al, 2019, p. 191). Other local objects (see fig. C1) were added to the project which fulfilled the old A6 requirement of “transitions within the landscape” and the unifying theme was plants. As noted in the introduction, I have photographed plant use and abuse for many years and this project also explores the passage and effects of time, another preoccupation of mine. The sound track reinforces the latter, an adaptation of John Cage’s ASLSP (as slow as possible), 1987 (currently being performed in a version intended to last for 639 years ending in 2640 at St. Burchardi Church, Halberstad, Germany (Macdonald, 2021)).
Presentation of the project to my tutor and for final assessment was always going to be an issue as it comprises three long (17, 18 and 12 minute) videos and six shorter ones. A lesson learned from my tutor on the previous course is that a presentation approach should always be considered as part of the project development and that it is permissible to envisage a solution beyond the scope of a 2-month assignment project. The student should then seek a compromise solution that is appropriate to the timescale and to the OCA’s technical submission limitations.
I envisaged a part-scale recreation of a 1950s television shop display, ideally with passers-by looking into the window and the assignment videos replacing whatever was on show at the time). For submission, I have substituted stills with this effect overlaid in a 1950s shop, John Lewis Oxford Street and the British Heart Foundation charity shop in Sidcup. If there had been a charity shop in Eltham (where all the subjects are located, see fig. C1), with a bank of televisions for sale then I would have tried to persuade (or sponsor) them to let me use the TVs for a few hours of simultaneous slide-shows, but there is no such shop. I will try to submit all the videos, but in case there are problems of size, I will also provide links to online copies.
I am not aware of any direct influences or parallels on the subject or approach of this project. Much of the Part 5 coursework deals with the use of photography in depicting and publicising ecological harm (Jordan, Epstein, Ouedraogo and, of course, Andy Hughes): I think it is important to illustrate how such harms are embedded in our daily lives and they will continue until far-reaching fundamental changes are made, both individually and as a society. I was particularly struck by Agnes Denes’ 1982 Wheatfield … project — I had not encountered it before and look forward to exploring it in more detail when I complete the Part 5 exercises.
On Learning Outcomes:
L01 visual and conceptual strategies – I have been running with the core subjects in this project for three years and will certainly continue to do so so long as I am living in Eltham †. The additional subjects integrate well with the theme and I think it likely that I will continue to photograph them all every month or so. Transmission of the project through slideshow videos is effective and the sound tracks enhance the effect. I regard the conceived display format as appropriate and look forward to comments.
L02 social, cultural and ethical considerations – the use and abuse of plants is a significant issue and this project, examining routine local examples, helps to illustrate the breadth of the problem. The Stephen Lawrence memorial is particularly poignant — his death in 1993, the subsequent police investigation (or lack of it) and the Macpherson enquiry constitute (or should have) this country’s George Floyd moment. It is appropriate that Lawrence’s life and death are remembered and commemorated, but flowers, the quaint and absurd traditional method of doing so, involves a global industry and distribution infrastructure devoted to unnatural plant growth and resulting in enormous energy usage. This was seen at its most remarkable on the death of Diana Windsor and is repeated daily at family funerals and roadside shrines. Although (subjectively ‡ ) less unpleasant than the associated greetings card racket, the cut flower industry is far more wasteful. (PetalRepublic, 2022; dontsendmeacard.com, 2022)
L03 exploring a range of ideas – I believe that I have presented an interesting, albeit localised, range of relevant and related subjects and that these have been delivered in a creative way. My suggestion for the final presentation format is unlikely to ever be realised, nevertheless, it is important to outline such details and a sensible compromise solution has been identified and implemented.
L04 research, managing time and resources – This is the largest and most complex assignment I have undertaken with the longest learning curve. My knowledge of three software packages — iMovie (for slideshows), Sibelius notation and GarageBand (for midi files) — has progressed from a state of complete ignorance to a status of enthusiastic beginner.
L05 autonomy, voice, and communication – interaction with fellow students continues in the monthly chat and some individual correspondences. There are some broader discussions coming up, organised by the Student Association, on distance learning.
I continue to volunteer at Courtaulds in an increasing range of roles.
Regarding voice, my view on the matter was described in previous reflections and has not changed: my understanding of the concept has deepened as the course has progressed.
† Direct intervention is also planned as there has been no recent sign of life at the stump. Starting next Spring, the site will be seed-bombed and the outcomes documented.
‡ The process of taking a flower, a thing of beauty, subjecting it to industrial farming, then killing it and shipping it urgently around the world so that someone else, in celebration, can watch it decay is absurd. The greetings card industry, based on a similar premise, is almost entirely pointless though less energy intensive. Apart from the provision of employment and the pursuit of profit, neither have utilitarian merit, although there is pleasure to be gained from the beauty of a flower.
LPE Assignment 5 References
Alexander, J, Conroy, A, Hughes, A, & Lundy, G (2019) Landscape, Place and Environment [LPE]. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.
Blackburn, N. (2019) The use and abuse of plants [online]. eyv.baphot.co.uk. Available from http://eyv.baphot.co.uk/?page_id=139 [Accessed 23 August 2022].
dontsendmeacard.com (2022) Infographic [online]. dontsendmeacard.com. Available from https://www.dontsendmeacard.com/docs/infographic.html [Accessed 27 August 2022].
Macdonald, K. (2021) A 639-year-long John Cage organ piece had a very rare chord change. And it was quite an event. [online]. classicfm.com. Available from https://www.classicfm.com/composers/cage/as-slow-as-possible-organ-chord-change/ [Accessed 26 August 2022].
Petal Republic (2022) Floristry and Floriculture Industry Statistics & Trends [online]. petalrepublic.com. Available from https://www.petalrepublic.com/floristry-and-floriculture-statistics/ [Accessed 27 August 2022].