Hinterland: A Creative Ecology

hinterland_logoHinterlands are often portrayed as portmanteau places, their boundaries formed out of their chance proximity to more distinct locations. The residual place of the hinterland is an index for the changing state of modern urban ecologies, the complex territory at the borders of major rivers or ports, in geographic mixtures of common land, flood plains, public parks and footpaths, allotments, hedgerows, brown field industrial sites, small commercial holdings, depots, pylons and electricity sub stations; a diverse urban network of everyday life that comprises ‘the ground floor of the city’ (1). As one unfolding artwork, Hinterland composes a new type of creative environment from the mixture of the portmanteau place, relayed in new perspectives and sensations, which find expression in the urban ecology of the River Trent and its tributaries. The curator becomes navigator of the ‘longue durée’, the flow of events that make up the natural, social and economic histories of the river and its neighbourhood. On this dynamic cultural canvas the juxtaposed places of the hinterland are connected to an emerging network of artists and artworks, which in turn merge into the landscape, as the creative ecology of Hinterland.

This staking out of aesthetic territory has an early precedent in the literary ecology of Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne 1789. White documented a local natural history in fine detail, highlighting the complex relationships between wildlife and natural habitats, his narrative infused with the aesthetic conventions of the Picturesque tradition. White’s natural history was significant for its tendency to endow species with a vitality and independence that was in no way anthropomorphic; nature has a life of its own. Culture, from this perspective, is not distinct from Nature but is part of a material continuum in which natures and cultures are composed and assembled in the process of Life. Most remarkable are White’s descriptions of bird communities, the subtle differences in rhythm and cadence of birdsong: a mating call, a warding off, a marking out of territory. He compares the snap of a swallow’s beak to the ‘closing of a watch case’ (2), and details the complex task of procuring the right twigs for nest building, the transition from building to dwelling, and the wider composition of bird-nest-tree-coppice-village. At the ground floor of Selborne, we are introduced to the open source ecology of a thousand tiny networks, an expressive Nature in formation.

The literary ecology of Selborne conveys an ideal nature framed in the Picturesque, a pastoral scene of the English countryside, relatively untouched by the onset of the Industrial Revolution. After two intervening centuries of intensive economic and technological development, a new sensibility toward the environment has re-emerged in the geopolitical movements of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Hinterland’s wider social and political context takes shape in a network of local ecology and global information, in which a new type of art movement is made possible; neither a modern avant-garde nor a post-modern play on representation, but a cultural milieu that shares a common ground with the pre-modern idea of techne. (3) The word originates in Ancient Greece and translates as art, skill or craft, borne out of a shared sense of ‘know how’ and expressed in poetic renditions of a world-view. The aesthetic perspective of Ancient Greece finds a contemporary form in Felix Guattari’s The Three Ecologies 1989, which explores the intersection of the environmental, social and mental ecologies of modern life. Artists are credited with a power of invention that can affect a change in social perspective, especially in a radically altered nature where territorial boundaries between the artificial and natural are in a state of flux. The Picturesque staging of nature in Selborne is testament to the generative power of what, in the broadest sense, is an ecological imagination; there was never an Eden only Eden Projects.

In this ‘second nature’ of the urban environment, Hinterland Projects realizes its techne as stagecraft, similar to that of medieval theatre where plays were situated in streets, squares and all manner of improvised locations. As ‘a place for seeing’ (4), Hinterland’s public gallery provides new insights into the complex geography at southern edge of the city, and in the process opens up a new creative terrain. Like the Stagemaker Bowerbird who marks out a makeshift neighbourhood by plucking leaves and lying them silvery side up on the ground, the curator employs the subtle art of foregrounding, allowing different places to emerge from the same vicinity in perspectives of both imagination and geography; ‘the best cartographies of the psyche…are those of Goethe, Proust, Joyce, Artaud and Beckett’. (5). It is no co-incidence that The Three Ecologies refers to authors and playwrights who assemble semiotic territories as stages under construction, like so many hinterlands in the social interstices of modernity. Hinterland’s artworks are the interplay of characters, or more precisely figures, which find expression at improvised stages along the River Trent. A semiotic flow of events follows the shifting landscape of the hinterland and its vicinity, each artwork a counterpoint to its neighbour in a whole ecology of signs.  It is as though Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1886) had come alive as a moving social canvas; signs not represented but encountered by passers by, who themselves get into the picture ‘at the ground floor of the city’, and become part of Hinterland’s domain.

Survey of Artworks

This overview considers only a selection of artworks produced in the first two years of Hinterland Projects, which are chosen for their proximity to a sense of urban ecology. In Autumn 2006 the Hinterland launch commissioned a group of artists to make a series of temporary site-specific works, events and performances for various locations along a particular channel of the River Trent. The artworks acted as counterpoints to each other, the river, and its public traffic, joining in with the rhythm and flow of everyday life. As an ongoing event, Michael Pinchbeck’s Long and Winding Road: A Car History joins Hinterland like a refrain, on route toward its final resting place in the River Mersey in 2008. A moving memorial, the artwork extends an emotional journey into the public domain, (the word emotion is derived from the latin emovere, meaning ‘to move outwards’), eventually finding repose at the river’s edge. A natural counterpoint to The Long and Winding Road is Freeze, an ice sculpture of an arrow, which carves out a temporary flag for movement, a pause in daily activity to offset the continual flow of the river and its traffic. In the consumer culture of over stimulation the arrow forms a still point of reflection, as respite from the turbulence of modern life. In a similar vein, Samson Kambalu’s attempt to bottle the River Trent at source is a subtle critique of the capitalist’s desire to exploit the natural environment for profit. Kambalu’s intelligent commodity arises at the juncture between economy and ecology, a timely reminder that wealth derived from nature has a limited shelf life, even within the discourse of sustainability.

Hinterland Boat Launch: The official public launch of Hinterland took place shortly after the first stage of site-specific works. The artworks were recorded and re-presented as a series of short films aboard the Hinterland boat as ‘temporary exhibition space’. There is an art historical affinity with Claude Monet’s studio boatwhich the artist used to manoeuvre across shifting perspectives on the riverbank, from the vantage point of the Seine. The Hinterland boat also provides new lines of sight for encountering artworks in terms of their situation in both time and space. As moving images, the aforementioned artworks find a new location and audience on the boat, but are transported back to their original domain at various stages along the river. The shifting frames of reference give rise to an ecology of perception, offering multiple vantage points, from inside the boat through the artworks as ‘windows’ on the hinterland, and from outside, as a floating gallery for viewing where the artworks were first conceived. Culture becomes the feedback of Nature, as the creative ground of Hinterland emerges from the hinterland as ‘a place for seeing’. The effect is amplified through the projection of Helena Jonsdottir’s Birgir onto the British Waterways building. Birgir opens up a window to an entirely different landscape of glacial lakes and volcanic rocks that stand in stark contrast to the local ecology of the River Trent. A wilderness is inserted like a document into the landscape to evoke the sensation of being there, as we are transported by imagination to a place restored to experience through signs.

Rob Sweere’s Styx, part of Hinterland’s second phase in 2007, navigates a similar course between perspective and sensation. Informed by the mythological River Styx, Sweere’s improvised boat carries two passengers laying horizontal on platforms. Reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci’s machines, the observer becomes a component in the contraption, buoyed by the immediate sensation of the undulating river. The effect is also to create an interface between the horizontal plane of the sky and that of the river, reviving the Renaissance principle of aemulatio in which natural forms mirror each other, like the similitude between daisies in a field and stars in the sky. At the interface between art and invention, Styx develops a mode of transport in the poetic design and composition of experience, its myth technology both narrative and navigation of the currents between an archaic and contemporary sense of being.

Further up the river at Colwick was Hinterland HQ, a breeze block unit, rented as a temporary gallery in an enclave of industrial facilities. The site featured new photography commissions by Mark Excell and Sian Stammers, curated by Victor Simao. Excell’s Visual Drift acts as a two dimensional counterpoint to Sweere’s interplay between the two great planes of sky and water, drawing the river away from its natural environment and framing it as a perceptual field, which gains in intensity the more abstract it becomes. This force of abstraction is the very principle that drives the industrial process, whereby things are reduced to standardised forms and generated in large quantities. The industrial process is in this sense a natural one, it draws upon the forces of nature in order to ‘draw away’ (6) from the physical limitations of human labour. A factory is a network of these productive forces, multiplied by factors of x, in and through its ecology of machines. The affinity between Excell’s abstractions and the surrounding industrial architecture is not a chance effect, both are generated by the same abstract process, which in essence is vital but never completely natural nor artificial.

Decent from City Time by Sian Stammers is formed at the border between nature and artifice, where the camera becomes a dream factory for weaving the imagination into the warp and weft of the material world. The photographs are like the layers of perception that form our sense of ‘being there’, the hinterland a tracery for the imagination, weaving a path between real and fictional places. The images reflect the alchemic nature of the hinterland along the suburban tract of the river, the subtle interplay of a place not fully formed, interspersed with changing rhythms, slow and shifting time, a low winter sun, clouds disappearing on the horizon. It is as though we are at the threshold of Gilbert’s White’s literary ecology, blurring the edges of recognition, insofar as the hinterland resists the definitive frame of description. In this sense, Stammer’s Super8 film speeds up the effect of the photograph, ‘drawing away’ the hinterland into an abstract figure of heightened sensibility. What emerges is the poetic state of the Hinterland, the ‘spool’ of experience in a thousand tiny flicker’s of perspective that make up the essence of a place.

Hinterland’s ‘poetic state’ is in the first place an imaginative field of possibility, which finds an initial territory at the boundary of urban life. Gilbert White’s literary ecology is transformed from the picturesque view of a village habitat into a creative inflection of a city’s urban ecology. As a creative discourse however, Hinterland is not tied to a geographical domain, its unique mode of cultural enrichment finds traction in a literary subsoil, a shifting ground for dispersing art in semiotic networks of perceptual, social and environmental ecologies. The artworks gain in vitality the more they become enmeshed in Hinterland’s culture, a much wider composition of events, workshops, projects and exhibitions, including the River’s of Meaning workshop at the University of Nottingham, which considers Hinterland as part of a wider cultural ecology in the AHRC research project Water, Culture, Society. In a more informal setting, Unwetter’s Discursive Picnic returns to the banks of the River Trent, and relocates Hinterland’s creative ecology in a grass roots discussion about the future of the artist’s role in urban regeneration. Finally, Via Vaudeville’s residency in Wilford Village produced their Folly artwork from 2006 to 2008. Folly is a totem for the network that arises between idea, artwork and location, and how, in the relay of competing discourses, all three experience the unexpected turn of events. In its ‘poetic state’ Folly was a prospective artwork, built first in the imagination, it was deconstructed in the public domain, but in the process opened up a new space for thinking about the cultural conventions which inform the ‘community based’ public art commission.

Hinterland Legacy

Hinterland makes its own unique space in the public realm that could be interpreted as an open source manifesto. The creative agenda emerges through a whole ecology of form, which at the ground floor of the city is generated from a palette of artist-led practices. The combined practices of Hinterland resemble the cultural architecture that has emerged across European cities during last decade. The common ground is the development of Hinterland’s inclusive social ecology, similar to that of G.L.A.S. (Glasgow Letters on Architecture and Space), a workers co-operative of architects, designers, teachers and activists. G.L.A.S had a manifesto, which emphasised a more open and communal approach to urban design, a practical critique of the built environment viewed as an ongoing micro-politics of creative intervention. The history of building was seen as inseparable from the ‘history of communes, avant-gardes and practical experiments in liberated labour and space; in brief a history of praxis’. (7) In France the AAA (Atelier D’Architecture Autogérée) or Studio of Self-Managed Architecture, has challenged the top down decision making process of ‘urban regeneration’, by encouraging residents in the La Chapelle area of northern Paris to re-appropriate derelict and under-used spaces. The project began in the praxis of ‘political gardening’, which developed the idea of tending public space into a social platform for urban criticism, ‘an architecture simultaneously political and poetic, as it aims above all to create relationships between worlds’. (8)

The Hinterland legacy makes a significant contribution to the vitality of urban architecture, in which the cultural ‘body politic’ goes hand in hand with the metabolism of the city. As part the final phase of commissions in autumn 2009, S. Mark Gubb’s Pura Vida, a Costa Rican phrase meaning the ‘good life’, provides a vernacular engagement with the practice of the urban planner. The Costa Ricans’ say that ‘if you have a church, a bar and a football pitch then you have a town’, a reminder that the blueprint of everyday life can evolve from the simplest combinations into a complex urban fabric. In consultation with representatives from thirty different communities in Nottingham, the artist will explore the building blocks of the city’s social ecology, the beliefs, cultures, histories and values, that are in a sense rendered in the physical construction of a place. Also part of the 2009 commissions, John Newling’s The Clearing Part I, explores the documentary history of the portmanteau places adjacent to the River Trent, bringing to light the changing social and historic morphologies of Nottingham’s hinterlands. The artist presents an emergent space for considering the relationship between urban entropy and regeneration, as the historical documents become the compost for growing beech trees in a hydroponics system at Bio City. The Clearing offers a new perspective on the shifting strata between thinking, building and dwelling, the place in formation, somewhere between the ecology of living and a geology of knowledge.

As a living architecture, Hinterland is part of the same historical transition toward a discourse of creative ethics, a practice that must address the time honoured philosophical question of How to Live? The ‘good life’ will flourish in the shared drive of the creative commons, a social resonance of culture made manifest in the stereophonic craft of ‘public works’. Hinterland’s work of art is not so much a finished object, as an ‘open source’ production, it is the watershed event taking place at the ‘active edge’ of the city, where the potential for change is greatest. In The Craftsman 2008, Richard Sennett compares the ‘active edge’ of the sculptor’s craft, a cutting edge where forms come to life, to the ‘live edge’ of the permeable cell wall or the ‘ecological border’ (9). The same biological principle of vital exchange at the threshold has informed a more critical approach to urban design; social investments are made along the boundary line where the most diverse communities intersect, as a pretext for the regeneration of urban hinterlands. The established social geometry of the ‘cultural quarter’ is being supplanted by the growth of more sustainable urban communities,  as we learn how to live with a new ecology of values.

Hinterland’s unique legacy is to transform the ‘active edge’ of the hinterland into a central place in the urban milieu, a creative civic platform that is able to restore the authentic public encounter to the social imagination. In this sense, something of the Renaissance spirit is evident in the way Hinterland positions the individual in a unique relationship to everyday experience, a reflective space in which new thought and action finds expression. The Reading Room, for example, makes a space in knowledge, ideas are territorialized and negotiated, and in turn a dwelling is established for contemplating the world. The place for making new perspectives was central to developments in the Renaissance, not only in painting, architecture and design, but also in the body politic, through an active engagement with the emerging cultural horizon of modernity. In the interplay between knowledge and perception, citizens of the Hinterland construct their own ecology of understanding, an architecture of experience as a work always in progress from book, to place, to workshop or exhibition and back again: ‘You can never dismantle all these modern mental structures. There are so many of them that they face you like an interminable vast city’. (10)


1. Nicolas-le Strat, Pascal (2007) Interstitial Multiplicity in Urban Act: A Handbook for Alternative Practice. France. Atelier d’ Architecture Autogérée

2. Mabey, Richard (2008) Radio interview, WCIN Public Radio. Richard Mabey on the Life of Gilbert White. http://www.wicn.org/search/node/mabey

3. Heidegger, Martin (1977) The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. New York. Harper & Row

4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theatre traces the etymology of the word theatre as ‘a place for seeing’.

5. Guattari, Felix (2000) The Three Ecologies. London. Athlone Press

6. The Online Etymology Dictionary derives the meaning of the word abstract from the latin abstractus, which means to be ‘drawn away’. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=abstract&searchmode=none

7. Practices Section in Urban Act: A Handbook for Alternative Practice. pp130-141.France. Atelier d’ Architecture Autogérée

8. Practices Section in Urban Act: A Handbook for Alternative Practice. pp141-153.France. Atelier d’ Architecture Autogérée

9. Sennett, Richard (2009ed.) The Craftsman. Chapter 8: Resistance and Ambiguity. London. Penguin

10. Bellow, Saul (1989) The Bellarosa Connection. London. Penguin

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