Text and images by Stephen Bennett, MA Art and Science, Central Saint Martins

Stone quadrat, Sierra Largo, Andalusia

The Art for the Environment International Artist Residency Programme (AER) was launched in 2015 by member of the UAL Research Centre for Sustainable Fashion and UAL Chair of Art and the Environment Professor Lucy Orta and coordinated by CSF Associate Curator Camilla Palestra.

Stephen Bennett from the MA Art and Science course at Central Saint Martins was selected for this years’ AER 2017 Residency at the Joya: arte + ecología in Provincia de Almería, Spain and reports back to the Postgraduate Community at UAL here:

The map and the terrain: Joya: arte + ecología

Joya: arte + ecología is located in Eastern Andalusia, in the rain shadow of the great Sierra Nevada. It is in the driest part of Spain, a place that John Vidal has described as one of the world’s global climate hotspots. The earth is silvery white clay, baked rock hard by the Mediterranean sun. The countryside is inhabited by Aleppo pines, almond groves and few people. The aroma is intoxicating, partly heated-up pine trees, mainly the hardy herbs which are essential for knitting together the soil: thyme, lavender, sage, rosemary.

This is the setting in which the Joya arts-led field research centre operates. There are hardships, certainly – water is trucked in, telecommunications are intermittent, wasps less so. And there are amazing amenities: the inspiring sights, smells and sounds; the time and space to reflect.

Stone quadrat, Los Atalayas, Andalusia

My work at Joya was first characterised by intensive preparatory research into artistic approaches which I thought may be fruitful in such a setting, specifically land and environment art, and mapping the Andalusian terrain. Upon arrival, however, my immediate desire was to climb the prominent mountains overlooking Collardo de los Gazquez, the valley in which Joya is located. The preparation and the impulse came together as I reflected on my practice and the situation on top of one of Sierra Largo’s summits. I constructed a square out of small stones found nearby, to frame and contour the limestone paving on the summit and photographed this piece.

Stone quadrat (above view), Sierra Largo, Andalusia

My actions were informed by the work of artists such as Walter De Maria and Jans Dibbets, who made rectilinear interventions in the physical landscape to frame and highlight the natural contours and vegetation of the earth. I’ve also been interested in the quadrat sampling technique, used by biology students to take random samples of the flora and fauna of the local vegetation. The stone square, pieced together on the top of a rocky summit, spoke to these influences.

For a while I have been thinking of find ways to combine my interests in cartography and the natural environment – to somehow connect the experience of the map with the experience of the terrain. My view is that this is increasingly important as data grows in its ubiquity, sophistication and presentation. On a daily basis we see maps of both familiar and strange lands, but do we perhaps lose sight of what it means to inhabit a pixel or abstract shape on a map?

The map of the nine quadrat locations in the hills around Joya (Cortijo los Gazquez)

The work of Richard Long is perhaps insightful here. His 100 Mile Walk (1971-72) records a walk he made following a perfect circle drawn on to a map of Dartmoor. Inspired by his practice, I drew a square onto my map of the region, starting with the Sierra Largo at the bottom right corner. My task for the next week came into focus: walk to the additional eight equal points of the square, and produce a quadrat sample at each location.

Drawing of the walks to the nine quadrats, based on the ‘map view’

There exists now, in nine different places in the hills of Andalusia, a small artwork consisting of a square on the ground made of found materials – stones, sticks, earth. Each artwork has the same dimensions of a meter squared. The square stays the same, but the flora and fauna inside it varies – the quadrat sample of the ploughed field differs considerably from the sample of the wooded hillside. The works are likely already crumbling, falling apart or disturbed by the wildlife.

The Nine Quadrats

Some quadrats may have been seen by people, especially those in prominent places like the mountain summit or the side of the road. Someone may have even stumbled across a couple of them. For those who find the quadrats – or those who use the map provided above – there is a secret geometry in these Andalusian hills. Amongst the ramshackle almond groves and tumbling ramblas (dry storm surge channels similar to Arabian wadis), right angles, diagonals, and perpendicular lines are at play, brought into this world by a map, a pencil and our imagination.

Quadrat, almond grove, Andalusia

Joya is a multidimensional creation, and there are a number of pathways that can be followed during a residency. For example, I was inspired by the approach to sustainability that runs throughout the site. Wind turbines and solar panels provide energy, whilst water is treated like the precious resource it is. Observing how Simon and Donna Beckmann operate this off-grid experience can provide insights into how we can all become more resource efficient. The studio space is stunning, with a widescreen view of the Sierra Largo. Fellow residents provide as much inspiration, whether they be painting, writing, filming, performing or cooking. There is an informal culture of presentation, critique and discussion and I received helpful advice on directions to shape my practice.

View of the Sierra Largo from Joya studio window

I wanted to share with the group some of the findings and observations I had been making of the area, so I ran an interactive data visualisation session with other residents. Together the group created a co-owned map of an important feature of the Andalusian landscape – population change. Using data obtained from the Spanish newspaper El Español, the group coded and then painted the local municipalities according to whether population was increasing (green) or decreasing (red), with a blue sea. Through the exercise we, as a collective, discovered important information relating to population depletion, the local geography and the subjective aesthetics introduced into everyday visualisations of the land. “Why is Lorca such a huge province?” asked one participant; “I can’t believe that the population of Partaloa has fallen by 26.99% in just three years!” said another. “Why is population decline coloured red – are you trying to tell us it is a bad thing?”.

Participatory data visualisation of population change in eastern Andalusia

Simon Beckmann emphasises that work does not need to be completed during a residency at Joya – in fact the residency represents the start or continuation of a journey. The latter is the case for me as Joya had already influenced my work before the residency started. As part of my planning, I had reached out to Dr Mark Mulligan who runs the Policy Support Systems operation at Kings College London. Policy Support Systems produce incredible maps on environmental and social issues for researchers and policy makers, and I used this resource to develop my understanding specifically of Andalusia and more generally of approaches to mapping the environment.

Composite map showing whether there is a relative threat, weakness, opportunity or strength caused by environmental and human factors in the towns of Vélez-Rubio, Vélez-Blanco and Maria, near Joya in Eastern Andalusia. Source: Policy Support Systems, Kings College London

The next stage for my practice is to combine some of the data obtainable from Policy Support Systems and other international data sets, such as www.climatewizard.org or the World Resources Institute, with the findings and observations I have taken from Joya. This includes the photographs taken of the towns and landscapes, and the memorable insights from Simon Beckmann himself. For Simon has studied and researched the landscape in enormous depth, has connections in local universities, museums, libraries and farmsteads, and has become an expert on the water conservation techniques introduced into Andalusia as far back as in the late Bronze Age by Phoenician settlers, looked after by Arabic settlers and preserved until deep into the twentieth century.

Photograph of Vélez-Rubio (top left) and Vélez-Blanco (top right) from Cerro Gordo peak

The work initiated in planning for the Joya residency will continue, but now bolstered by a rich collection of photographs, drawings, painted studies, memories and shared experiences. I believe that the two-week residency has advanced my practice as I move into my second year of my MA in Art and Science at Central St Martins. I would like to say a thank you to Lucy Orta and Camilla Palestra from UAL’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion for making my residency possible; and, of course, to Simon and Donna Beckmann (and the other resident artists) for creating such an amazing experience at Joya.

Study of climate data relating to Eastern Andalusia

Related Links:

The Art for the Environment International Residency Programme (AER):

In 2015, internationally acclaimed artist, Professor Lucy Orta UAL Chair of Art for the Environment – Centre for Sustainable Fashion, launched the Art for the Environment Residency Programme (AER), in partnership with residency programmes across Europe. Applicants can choose from a 2 to 4 week period at one of the hosting institutions, to explore concerns that define the twenty-first century – biodiversity, environmental sustainability, social economy, human rights – and through their artistic practice, envision a world of tomorrow.

Through personal research, studio production time, critiques and mentoring sessions with Lucy Orta and a selection of Europe’s most exciting cultural institutions, the residency programme provides a platform for creative individuals, working across various disciplines, to imagine and create work that can make an impact on how we interact with the environment and each other.

A distinguished selection panel assess the applicants for this unique opportunity to partake in the UAL Art for the Environment Residency Programme.

NOTE: Applications accepted from UAL graduates, postgraduates and recent alumni (within 12 months from graduation date).