Wednesday, 8 August 2012

On time and travel: anticipatory histories at Kilmahew Estate

Benjamin Morris writes: 

Kilmahew Estate, located in Cardross, west of Glasgow, has long been a source of fascination. Despite having been a settlement of some sort for hundreds of years, featuring both a medieval castle and a Victorian stately home, the contemporary lives of the site, first as a Catholic seminary, and then a drug rehabilitation centre, have by comparison been surprisingly brief. St Peter’s Seminary opened in 1966 and lasted two decades; the rehabilitation centre, only half that before closing its doors. Since then, the site has become one of the most popular ruins in Scotland: serving as impromptu musical stage, all-night rave site, unofficial film set, squat encampment, and destination for urban explorers from far and wide.

Explorers, of course, being a broad church. Recently I was privileged to join a group of artists and researchers on a visit to the site, sponsored by the Invisible College and the Royal Geographical Society. It’s important to take the right book on a journey, and fortuitously, tucked away in my bag was a new volume of short essays exploring the futures of historic landscapes: Anticipatory History, edited by Caitlin DeSilvey, Simon Naylor, and Colin Sackett. I couldn’t have brought along a better guidebook.

That said, Anticipatory History is not a guidebook in the traditional sense. Its structure hews more towards a glossary - community-sourced and collectively-written - of terms that are central to ecological thought. Concepts such as adaptation, equilibrium, memory and uncertainty are joined by processes such as erosion, managed realignment, palliative curation, and unfarming. As a conceptual guidebook, it prompted new and novel ways of thinking about this dynamic site, particularly its history of constant change. For this is their aim: 'History that calls attention to process rather than permanence may therefore help us to be more prepared for future change; to respond thoughtfully and proactively, rather than in a mode of retreat or regret.'

Indeed, it was difficult to cover the grounds of the site without feeling those tensions between pasts and futures, between the curated and the wild, play off one another anew. In the seminary building, for instance, the many different forms of engagement with the site were amply visible. Graffiti of more and less accomplished forms graced the walls; the altar had been broken and desecrated, and rubbish of all sorts lay strewn about, inviting impromptu archaeologies and conjectures as to who had left it there, and why. And, of course, what else would come in time. As the editors note, anticipatory history creates a means of approaching historic landscapes outside the bounds of grand narratives or authorised discourses. Rather, they suggest, it 'leaves room for expressing the 'small stories' and 'lay knowledges' that are layered in place, and then linking these to a hoped-for future.'

Over the past half-century, some of those futures have already taken place independent of the human presence. Entering the site via the western approach, younger stands of trees, no more than twenty years old, have sprung up at the exact moment the rehabilitation centre had shut its doors in the early 1990s, and now encroach against the older-growth stands. Anyone looking to rehabilitate the site would have to first map the species onset, then determine how best to bring the site back to a more pristine woodland, keeping in mind, as the editors of the volume claim, that such narratives of purity, often defy the larger narratives of dynamicity that complex landscapes harbor.

An excellent example of these tensions centres on a rhododendron tunnel, considered a key feature of the landscape, indeed, part of its ‘heritage’, despite this species having only been introduced to the UK at the end of the 18th century. Despite their ornamental appeal, their introduction has had unintended consequences. As the entry on the species in the volume observes, 'Rhododendrons have been able to out-compete many native plants in Britain, and because their leaves are inedible to many animals, their spread has proved difficult to control and they have become reclassified as pests.'

Entering the tunnel today, it is hard not to be impressed at the intricacy and scale of its design, as well as the atmospheric effect of the corridor. In full leaf, the tunnel feels as dark as an abandoned Tube station, or a holloway such as Robert Macfarlane has recently explored. Non-native species or not, one does feel changed by passing through this ‘natural’ architecture, recalling the theologies of transformation that would have been discussed at length around, and within, the grounds, and explaining why one man in the area, the site curator noted, has threatened to chain himself to the bushes should an order for ‘remediation’- clearance - come through.

Given these tensions, the futures for the site over the long-term remain unclear. Currently under consultation by NVA, Kilmahew looks set to become a multidisciplinary arts site encompassing arts research and practice in a variety of fields. The sound artist Michael Gallagher has recently produced a 45-minute audio documentary on the site, layering the voices of former inhabitants together, a compelling departure point for artists and future historians. With so many stories yet to yield from its past, this move would undoubtedly be a productive use of the space, particularly in terms of conservation, amid its ruination, the site still retains the serenity, grace, and seclusion that gave rise to so many of its lives, and any attempt to preserve that is worth the effort.

But thinking of its futures, other questions remain. Given its extensive grounds (133 acres, encompassing woodlands, fields and burns), its diverse constituencies (many of which are transitory and difficult to document or engage) and its architectural histories (a chapel, a castle and a stately home now demolished), the lives of Kilmahew collide and converge in ways that challenge both cohesive collection and swift, dispensable interpretation. The site precludes our understanding, no matter how many times we visit. As it should. For if anticipatory history teaches us anything, it's that we should move in the direction of, from away from, those limits. The land always has more to tell us. If only we would listen. 

A writer and researcher, Benjamin Morris is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh. 

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