Joint Interview with Harriet and Rob Fraser
Through their poetry and photography Harriet Fraser and Rob Fraser explore individual and collective feelings about place. Their collaborative practice, called somewhere-nowhere, is based in Cumbria and focuses on their local landscape. Its guiding principles include journeying, reflecting, and responding, with an emphasis on connection. Many of their projects feature installation art, works that combine text, image, and often canvas or cloth situated in the landscape. While visiting Principia College, Rob and Harriet gave a talk titled, “Making Sense of Here: Artful Approaches and Multiple Perspectives.” This talk was in reference to their current collaboration, Sense of Here, in which they focus on experiencing and documenting the landscape. This project is located in England’s largest national park, The Lake District. Through a combination of installation art, mapping, and qualitative data gathering, Harriet and Rob explore important questions about relating to nature and place.
Prior to joining the staff, Mistake House Magazine requires students to go through a literary editing course. In October 2020, the Literary Editing class and Mistake House Magazine’s Editor in Chief, Samantha Frank, interviewed Harriet and Rob Fraser while they were visiting Principia College as Annenberg Scholars. After their return to Cumbria, the Mistake House Magazine staff reconnected with Rob and Harriet to ask some additional questions. The interview below includes the Frasers, Mistake House Magazine staff, and the Literary Editing class from Fall 2019.
Mistake House Magazine: Thank you, Rob and Harriet, for speaking with us about your recent collaborative work. Harriet, your project, Wandering Words: Sheep Poetry, took over three months from the initial steps of gathering the sheep, to removing the poem clouts, to writing the final piece. You write that the poem which arose out of this project had “its own flow, vitality. Its expression on cloth, on sheep, was integral to its identity, and its ultimate end in a pile smelling of lanolin, shit and rain, is part of that.” In another project, entitled CANVAS, you used the earth as a canvas—a canvas that changes and develops, but does so over long periods of time. How do you go about balancing the processes of the natural world, which can take days or even years, and your own creative process? In other words, how does time factor into your work?
Harriet Fraser: Time is part of the work. For me, a poem on a page is not the ultimate goal, or maybe I should say, that’s not the most satisfying thing. By factoring elements of landscape into the expression and experience of a poem, the poem is allowed to change, and it remains alive. When I’m writing a poem that will become part of a bigger landscape context, I am conscious that all the other elements will continue to change as time passes. Usually that inclines me to pare the poem down to its essentials and keep it brief; the words are just one ingredient of the whole. The other way that time factors into my work is that, when placing words in the landscape, it takes time to traverse the spaces in between them—maybe minutes, or maybe days. Time exists in the spaces between words. There’s a Japanese word “Ma” that means “the space in between” and this is a critical part of poetry. Ma exists on the page, and I’m always mindful of it, but it becomes more powerful out in the landscape.
MH: Rob, in your bio on your website, you write that a great photograph requires a focus on an “interesting object in the land, great composition, and wonderful light.” Here at Mistake House, we are interested in art that arises out of a variety of influences and environments. How do you find compositions in a variety of circumstances? How does your focus change depending on the environment in which you are shooting?
Rob Fraser: I have informally taught photography for fifteen years through schools, colleges, and adult classes, and perhaps the main point that I always try to get across is the quote that you have pulled out. The “perfect” image is a serendipitous meeting between those three cornerstones: you, the photographer, and the choice of whatever subject matter interests you; then you work out how to frame it best, how to make it stand out; then, you wait for the magic ingredient, light, to do its thing. No matter what the subject matter or the place those three tenants still hold fast.
I see the world through a series of imaginary frames and cannot help myself from applying them as I go about my life. This is even more evident when I visit new places, the sense of the strange and different lifts my photographic awareness levels.
MH: Over the course of 2019, in Sense of Here, you are considering twelve issues of place, one each month. Can you speak to a major insight you have had with these questions over the past nine months since you began this project in January?
RF: I think since we started the project, we’ve been discovering how complex the Lake District is. We’ve got these twelve different topics, as you’ve outlined. The biggest thing we’ve understood, once more, is the fact that they’re not all in isolation. You cannot treat any of these topics or subjects in isolation. For instance, you can’t look at just soil without considering how the water plays a part in the soil, or the way the trees or the biodiversity use that soil. None of the topics that we’re looking at can be looked at in singularity. Although we concentrate on the Lake District National Park, we’re just using that area as an area we can consider because we know that place is our home while understanding that similar issues are happening all over the world. You know, the topic of soil is global, of course, and same with trees and the same with water. So, they each play a role in one another’s connectivity.
HF: Yes, and at this time when there is an environmental crisis and a climate crisis, we are considering issues like soil and water, but we are also considering issues like human culture and social cohesion and the lifestyles that keep communities strong, particularly in rural areas. So, while it is important to consider biodiversity, we are here as humans and we have to consider our part in the picture as well.
MH: Your project Sense of Here involves a lot of movement. For people who are unfamiliar with the project, you’ve envisioned a circle of land in the Lake District as a clock face and split it into twelve 30°sections, each resembling an hour on a clock. You have set that up as an interactive map where hikers and wanderers can record events that have occurred within those sections. One of the things that fascinates us is that documentation is a static thing, it exists in one moment, but it happens on a clock face. It is as if you are archiving these frozen moments that remain still on a huge clock, which by implication, moves forward and forward. How do ideas of movement and stasis play into your work? When do we need to move and when do we need to be still?
HF: Great question. In our work, movement and stillness are both absolutely crucial. We do a lot of walking and we do a lot of pausing, and through that stillness you can often notice things that you don’t notice if you move, move too quickly; but, also, moving through the landscape allows us to appreciate it in its different moods. There’s an analogy there between understanding and raising awareness—our own awareness of place through stillness, but when it comes to action and making actions, that requires movement. There’s a metaphor there between hope and action. What would you say, Rob?
RF: I think we deliberately place ourselves into what we call remote, or certainly wild, parts of the landscape. We actually have to move from where the vehicle is parked and walk along a trail to a quiet part of the Lake District. It’s not totally quiet. It’s busy. It’s visited by 19 million people a year, so it’s quite a busy national park. 42,000 people live there but 19 million people visit it. So that just shows you how big the space is. There are still quiet places you can get to—you know, depending on what time of the day or what time of the year you go there. There is quietness. By physically putting yourself in the landscape, by putting on your big rucksack and taking your gear into a space, you’ve bought the time, you’ve bought the space to be able to be still in that place and just take on board everything that is happening all around you. And I think a lot of our work is through that duality: the movement to get into a space and the time it takes to consider everything that is going on around there. And what’s happening around you includes the light changing, as well. That’s a big part of it. You are there at a time when you see the sun come up and the sun go down, and that’s quite a crucial part. You see the space at all times of the day. I think we find a bit of a luxury in some sense, the fact that we are able to do that; but, we also find it imperative in our work to be able to give ourselves the time and the space to do that. A big reflection of our work is the fact that we do get out there and we are not just thinking about a space, we are not just thinking about a place, we are actually physically getting ourselves into an area to, to be able to soak it up.
HF: And it’s often not easy because we often have to carry quite heavy bags, or we choose to go out in bad weather.
RF: That’s true.
HF: You might call it good weather, but we go out in precipitation, snow, rain, very strong winds. We choose to really feel that physically so that our learning is not just intellectual learning, it’s learning through the body as well.
MH: There’s this sort of structure with Sense of Here: the dozen—including the twelve poems, the twelve months, twelve hours, twelve hikes, twelve camps. And all of it is framed by twelve issues and I’m sure this sense of the immensity of place and the problem of ownership come up in the issues. You outline them on your website: issues such as natural and cultural heritage, community and biodiversity, among other things. Can you talk a bit about how you came to these issues? Deciding on them for your project, are you seeing them as concerns, aspects that you want to celebrate in the landscape, or both? And, how do they inform the interactions that you have with people you encounter?
HF: We’ve chosen twelve issues and it took us about a year to develop this project. The twelve issues are perhaps better called “twelve elements of place.” We talked a lot and drilled down to the common elements of this place that we call home, the Lake District National Park, but that are also applicable more widely. They are really what we perceive to be the fundamental factors that come into play in most rural landscapes and, I think, in a lot of urban landscapes, as well. But we are much more familiar with working with rural landscapes.
We’ve worked together for nearly ten years now on a number of projects and we’ve spent time focusing specifically on one thing. Well, not one thing. For instance, we spent three years working alongside upland hill farmers; and, then we spent two years really looking very closely at trees and the ecological systems around them. All that’s led us to appreciate the complexity and all the other elements that have to come into play and can’t be ignored. For a time, we did think that climate change would be one of the issues, but actually that’s always present, so it didn’t need to be separated. And, my understanding about that is changing so rapidly anyway. I think we went with the fundamentals.
RF: The clock face seemed like a great device to set down a project, especially when you actually start to look at the Lake District National Park, which is this circular national park. And, we took a tree that we worked with in a previous project, a sycamore tree right in the middle of the Lake District near Grasmere, a central point, which seemed a nice tie-back to the original project that we’d worked on with the trees, and we used it to then break up the land into this twelve hourly clock face, these thirty degree sectors. That then became the driving motivation between deciding on the twelve subjects because we had the twelve sectors and got to work with that. It could have been thirteen subjects we were looking at, but we’ve only got the space for twelve.
In a way, it became self-selecting in that sense and it evolved from a few meetings and a few pieces of paper on the wall to actually drill down to what was important. A few things came, and a few things went, but ultimately, I think we are happy with the twelve issues that we’ve got there, or the twelve elements, as Harriet calls them.
As we’ve said before, they overlap so much, and there are so many different elements that come into play on all of them. They’re not single-issue strands, they can’t be. You’ve got to look at all of them in the mix, and that’s what we are hoping for in the end when we sort of sum them all up, when we try to bring it together, in the exhibition and in the book we are creating: that we’ll have some sense that although the elements are individual, they are also tied together. And that’s a metaphor for everything that’s going on at the moment. These things do overlap. There are no hard borders at the edges. The borders are porous and everything just flows from one to the other to the other. I think once we understand that at a much bigger level, then I think people can start to get their heads around the real problems that are happening. And that’s the way forward.
MH: Helping people understand the natural ecosystem and human culture of their home place seems like a central part to this project of yours. In addition, the “here” you are working with, Cumbria, is also your current home. From the work and traveling that you’ve done since the beginning of Sense of Here have you found that having a ‘sense of here’ is also about finding a sense of home wherever you go? Can you speak to how these concepts, both “home” and “here,” relate to your practice?
RF: It is crucial to us, and there is a bigger question about home and here: How big is here? When you consider here, how big is that place? A lot of people would say that their “here” is just confined to perhaps their home and their backyard and that might be both their “here” and “home” at the same time. We are trying to expand our thoughts of here and home to a much larger area. We consider the Lake District National Park as a home which we know fairly well, but this project is taking us to new areas that we have not been to before, which is great because we see it from other perspectives. But we both call the Lake District home. We live just on the fringes of it. It’s still a place that is very dear to us and very familiar to us and by immersing ourselves in it over a period of time and getting to know it even better, we feel more connected to that place. We’re hoping that connection will be felt by others in whatever small way we can make that happen through our work. We are hoping that other people might see it and consider it as a home for themselves as well and as part of their “here.”
HF: In reference to what Rob said—about “how big is here?”—I think what we are trying to do with the work, for ourselves and also for other people, is to encourage close looking at the place you frequent, the place that’s really familiar to you—that’s perhaps a small geographical space—and get to know that place better. Whatever that place is, whatever size that place is, it is connected to another place, and that is connected to another place. And ultimately, we all only have one home, which is our earth. To think about the entire earth is a really difficult thing to wrap your head around and it can become abstracted quite quickly, which is why we also like to throw focus to what’s at your feet, what’s right in front of you.
RF: The overlapping of “heres” and “homes” comes into play because your circle of here might overlap very easily with somebody else’s circle of here. All the actions that that you choose to make and that take place in your here have implications for other peoples’ heres as well. These locales are not just these very neat blocks that butt up to each other. The thing that you do in your space, in your place, has an implication on something very close by. The more that we understand what is taking place on the planet, the more that we understand that it is not just what you do “here,” in one locale. It has an effect next door. It has much wider implications, much further afield, and that can be good and it can be bad. Social media is good at putting out great ideas that can then spread around the world. It’s great for that, but also the pollutions we cause and all the bad things that are happening now have implications somewhere else on the planet.
HF: With that world home, instead of just considering it to be a human home, we like to think of the other species whose home we are sharing, as well. And that is part of this overlapping sense of here.
MH: A lot of people equate home with the house that they live in or with a sense of where they grew up. There is a heavy sense of ownership associated with that. You know, the idea that “I am a homeowner because I own a home and I have an authority over it and the things that go on it,” etc. We are curious about how the sense of home shifts when this definition moves from a place such as a house someone bought and owns as legal property, to a natural space that has none of those aspects of ownership and authority. How does the difference between these two ways of thinking about home impact us as we try to take care of the planet?
RF: There’s a great saying in England and possibly you’ve got a similar saying in the United States: “An Englishman’s home is his castle.” In other words, you’ve bought that property and it’s almost like your castle is your house, so it becomes your responsibility but also your sense of pride, as well. Once the mortgage is gone, of course, and once you own the bricks and mortar and the land around you that’s fenced off and demarcated, that property becomes very personal to you. You feel that how you choose to use that space is up to you. I think we do need to move forward into this idea of a bigger space that includes some sort of concern over a much wider range than your own backyard. You can care about that backyard, of course you can, but the whole idea of these circles moving outward is essential.
Land ownership has caused the biggest problem of all. Who owns what space of land? In the UK, pretty much every square inch of land is owned by somebody but that does not mean, in the UK at least, that you haven’t got rights as a person to use it, to graze animals, or to walk across it, or to take fish from a landscape. People still have rights, which is great, that’s been inalienable for the last 800 years. But of course, just because somebody owns a big patch of land, if there’s footpaths across it, if there’s woodlands you can walk in, that still gives a space for other people to go and take from it what they will in terms of spiritual nourishment or a sense of wellbeing. But with that ownership comes a responsibility of care and perhaps concern over a place. I don’t know how you get over that idea of moving away from your own fenced-off yard into looking at the bigger, wider world and caring for that more than your own piece of earth, but I think that is the big challenge, in a way.
HF: We’ve recently been in Utah and we’ve been through a lot of public lands where people have access to national parks; but, there are some people who used to live there who don’t live there anymore because the land is now national parkland. Where we come from, in Cumbria, our national parks are meant to be forever for everyone as if everybody has ownership of it, but within those national parks there are lots of different landowners. And then you have common land and common’s rights where the people who don’t own the land look after it, but they feel a really strong sense of ownership. You can have ownership in a legal sense and ownership in an emotional sense; and, I think that’s what’s getting much stronger globally with people caring about the planet as home and feeling, ‘What is ownership? Who has the legal rights?’ but, also, ‘Where does the responsibility lie?’ and ‘Where does the emotional attachment lie?’ These are enormous and complex questions.
MH: The canvas poetry in Sense of Here isn’t the only form of installation across the landscape. Each month you walk to a chosen campsite and pitch your tent. Taking part in temporary overnight installations. You say you leave the landscape physically unchanged, but it is forever altered within your minds. How has your perception of the landscape been changing as you become a part of the installation each month?
HF: Each month we pitch our tent on a precise angle from the Underhelm Sycamore, which is at the central point, so each month we’re on a different 30° interval. We have to go out there and use our compasses and make sure we’re as close to the line as possible. We’ll be doing our tenth camp when we get back in October. In that camp spot every month, we’re always in relation to the tree at the center. But we’re also in relation to every previous campsite and to the canvas points in terms of how we navigate ourselves within the land. Then again, it’s the spaces in between, the walks that we’ve done to get to the campsites, and the walks that we’ve done in each sector. For me it, this process has provided a greater sense of connectivity between different parts of the landscape, rather than seeing them in isolation.
I think there’s some truth to the idea that art is open to interpretation. A reaction to art is always going to be subjective. Art can be a very powerful part of active protest or statement. Very recently we created an artwork, one you probably won’t know about because it took place only two weeks ago, which was a protest artwork. We sometimes wonder about that term, “activist.” I think direct action is a really powerful way of getting your voice heard. Art is another way. There is never just one way of getting your message across.
RF: Activism. We have struggled with labels in the past. I’ve known myself as a photographer for thirty-odd years because that’s what I’ve done. I’ve just pointed a camera at something and pressed a button. Easy. Photography. Harriet probably feels the same way with being a writer. You know: pick up a pen or a pencil, write, you’re a writer. But since we’ve got together over the last sort of seven or eight years with the projects that we’ve gone through, we’ve now morphed into being more comfortable calling ourselves “artists,” then “land artists,” and now “environmental artists,” and, and recently we’ve been toying with the idea of “activist artists.” That’s where our work is starting to drift quite happily.
Where that blurry line comes between art and activism, I don’t know and I don’t really care. If we can use our art as a force for provoking debate and provoking thought and provoking conversation about where we are, where we’re going, and some of the issues that are at hand at the moment—then great, bring it on. I think that’s where we want our work to be going more and more. But with that, of course, you’ve got to expect the naysayers, the people that’ll be against you. And we have to be prepared for that. As long as we can stand by those things that we have tried to do over the last few years with our work and will try to do, then I think we’ll be fine. We’ll just, as we say in England,“play the straight bat.” People throw things at you, you just bat it back because you’ve worked out what you’re doing. In future pieces there will be an element of activism either overtly or covertly. I think that’s where we’re going.
HF: Art is, in my understanding, something that provokes questions, keeps questions going, keeps debate going. It’s really important that that continues and that questions are asked on the basis of what’s been learned. In terms of activism, it’s important that we have an increased element of activism in what we do. But sometimes to be an activist is to be seen as somebody who’s holding onto a single issue and perhaps fighting for that without considering broader concepts. We do not want to just consider one issue. We’re committed to broader conversations and open dialogue that don’t discount things like community and culture and biodiversity and clean water. It’s a very challenging place to be in.
MH: Rob, Harriet, when you begin a project like Land Keepers, your first collaborative project, or The Long View, or Sense of Here, what sorts of criteria do you use when deciding how to reach out to and partner with professionals and specialists?
HF: It’s really important to us that we align with the philosophy and actions of any individuals or organizations with whom we partner—and they with us. It needs to feel good, so that we know that as a project develops and as we are public-facing, we will all be on the same page, with no contradictions or conflict of interests. We gain a huge amount from project partners as they share so much knowledge with us, as well as helping a project stay financially viable. In terms of people we reach out to, to further our learning, for interviewing, or for featuring in photographic story-telling, we always seem to follow word of mouth, or a chain through people we know. There are seldom many degrees of separation. Occasionally, we make a “cold call” and approach someone directly: this is usually in a different geographical area, and the contact begins a new chain of connections and opens up new possibilities. A recent example of this was when we travelled to Utah. There, we knew we wanted to learn about Pando, the ancient and massive aspen forest. We sent an email to the chief forester in Fishlake National Forest a year before our visit, and planned things out. If we’d visited that incredible place without being there with him, learning from him and chatting among the trees, we’d have missed an opportunity.
MH: Harriet, your recent poem “Storm at 414 M,” describes an intense moment in nature, in which the narrator is overwhelmed by the immensity and power of nature. How might capturing these moments in nature in both your writing, Harriet, and your photography, Rob, moments which are not always comfortable, peaceful, beautiful, or even safe, be important to your work in environmental advocacy? How have these moments informed your personal relationship with nature?
HF: There were two questions there: one about advocacy for the environment and one our relationship to nature. In that context, I wrote a poem about a storm while we were camping at the top of a small mountain, as part of a bigger range of hills. It was a very violent storm and it lasted for three or four hours in the middle of the night. We were safe and we were fine. Experiencing that very raw side of the elements, I find incredibly thrilling. I seem to prefer to encounter the natural world when it’s not controlled. And if there’s something you can’t control, it’s a storm like that—a storm that’s throwing rain like gravel at the tent and the whole sky is alight with lightning. And, I think that for me strengthens a sense of humility. I don’t believe in the saying that man has dominion over all living beings or over nature. And I think the more we try to manicure it, the more we’re destructive. To be in the face of that, of something that I can’t control, I find incredibly reassuring because I’m just a small part of something that’s so much bigger.
RF: We actively seek to go out in bad weather. You can’t choose to do something in a calendar year without knowing that January, February, December, and November are going to be iffy months in terms of weather. But even in past projects we have deliberately gone out when we’ve known that it was going to be well below freezing, really windy, raining, snowing, or wet, or some combination of these conditions—just to be out there.
We’ve got very good gear and that’s important. The last thing you want to do is put yourself in a place where you are putting yourself in danger. Even so, you’re still very close to being uncomfortable, or you are uncomfortable. That’s an important part, as Harriet says, to feel humble in that space, to know that we’re not in control all the time. You can control certain aspects of it, but to actually feel the physical force of being in the landscape when it’s at its most raw is really important. We like to try and use that rawness in our work. Otherwise, if you just show blue skies and puffy clouds and light winds all the time then people get a sense that’s what the place is. Personally for me, the Lake District is not that. The Lake District is better clothed when it’s in dark gray clouds or the clouds are lids on top of the mountains or there’s a bitter wind blowing. That’s when you get the sense that you’ve actually achieved something by being out there. Then you can come off the hill and have a beer in the pub at the end of the afternoon, evening, and you know, that’s a job done. I think it would be a fraud if you didn’t show it in all its range of colors, in all its range of energies. I think we deliberately actually get out there to be there. To feel what’s really uncomfortable. And I like taking pictures when there’s a dark sky.
HF: I have a bit of a problem of over-romanticizing the beauty of place. You know, your typical calendar shots, your postcard shots. They always have to look really comfortable and beautiful in a very traditional sense of the word. But my experience of place is that that’s only one part of it. And I think, if, as artists, we’re trying to talk about the environment, if we only choose to talk about the pretty bits, we’re doing it a disservice.
MH: Do you think it’s important to fully know a place in order to love it? Or do you think that love maybe, is what drives you to fully know it? Or does the fully knowing it lead to that love?
HF: I’m not sure you can ever fully know a place. Patrick Cavanaugh said it takes a lifetime to know a field. But to know it changes. Can you ever fully know another person, or even yourself? I think a place is much more complex than that. What you say about love, the more you get to know a place, unless it terrifies you or you are harmed, you might well grow to love it more. Part of our philosophy is that the more you notice a place, the more you slow down to open yourself to getting to know that place and yourself in relation to it, the more likely you are to feel some emotion that might be love. For connection and a feeling of care toward it, you need love.
MH: So it’s important to be open not just to love, but also maybe, being scared or fearful.
HF: Fear can play a part because it’s an important emotion.
RF: I should say, as long as it’s fear that’s within your tolerable zone. We don’t tend to get too bad weather in Cumbria. It’s not too horrific. It’s not off the scale. But even so, we can still get days with 80-90 mile-an-hour winds. Or it can be blizzarding out. Things like that. To put yourself in that position and be just about on the edge of your comfort zone, I think that’s fine.
MH: You two live in an area where greenspace is readily accessible. How might people who are living in more urban environments find a deeper connection with their home, or their “here,” without necessarily leaving that place and finding someplace else?
RF: That’s a good question. It’s difficult. Much of the world now is urbanized. I think we’re currently way beyond a fifty percent split between urban and rural, so I think this is a difficult question. That’s part of the problem: the fact that there is this rural drift, an urban migration because the jobs, the opportunities, the lifestyles are deemed to be better there. There are theories that as a society we are losing touch with the dirt, we’re not getting our hands dirty, we’re not feeling the elements because people are in cities, swaddled from the elements. But there are still ways of becoming attached to something that is natural. Grow a houseplant, put a box on your windowsill. Watch what happens with the insects that interact with that space. Walk to your local park. Most cities have a fairly good park system. I know it is a sanitized version of “wild” but, by the way, what is “wild” anyway? It’s still a way of seeing something that’s not a straight line.
A big thing about living in urban areas are these straight lines everywhere. Maybe think about taking a train out to the area, to the edges of your city. In most cities you have to go too far to get to a half decent space, but by going away from where you live, to a place that’s maybe green, you receive some form of succor in that kind of place. That’s brilliant. We all understand now, increasingly, the benefits of being in a green space and actually smelling the leaves and feeling the cooler air and the trees. This idea is well-documented now. It takes effort, but I think the rewards are there.
HF: I’m not too sure about America, but in English cities there are communal spaces for gardening, and there’s a developing movement for having gardens within towns. There are boxes in the middle of streets where people can grow vegetables and help themselves. We have allotments. We have parks. As Rob said, there’s an increased drive for people to grow even a bag of tomatoes on their back doorsteps and to begin to feel a connection to nature just through watching those plants grow—and they’re lucky, getting some fruit from them, some tomatoes. Within a city environment, to have those kinds of spaces and to work with community groups, is to stand up for both green spaces and community. There are towns near us losing trees because contracts to keep the streets clean can be much cheaper if there aren’t trees in the way. But then people will stand up and fight for the trees, and then you realize how strong the connection is with the trees, which is the nature on our doorstep. Those kind of grass roots activities in cities and in the greening of cities are really positive things.
MH: You’ve both said that curiosity is an important part of your work, individually and collaboratively. From your experience, how has technological innovation changed your curiosity, or maybe the curiosity you see in the world around you?
RF: Technological innovation?
MH: You touched on social media earlier, how it changes society and what humans are curious about in the world. How long we can sustain such curiosity and, especially, what can people do about that curiosity, instead of just having these ideas sit in our brains.
HF: The Japanese concept of “Ma”—”m”/“a”—and that word means “the space in between.” It’s used as the space in between two things—which might be in the garden or in thoughts or in the landscape. Social media and the trend of selfies and Instagram shots at a particular place are a strange way to encounter a place. As if you want it to be a certain way when you get there and then have your photograph taken and then you’ve simply been there and come back. Rob and I are very curious about the spaces in between and just noticing what is not always noticed. The unremarkable is actually the completely extraordinary. That continues to drive us, doesn’t it? Even if we have a goal of a location that we know might look great in a sunset, we invariably are much more interested in what we didn’t expect to see.
RF: Curiosity drives our work in the sense that we’re always keen to find out more. You can find out more in two ways. You can actually go and physically experience that place to find out more, or you can ask people who know that place in order to find out more. That layering up of revelations inside yourself gets you to open up more to what’s actually around you, and I think that’s a cool way of doing it. You were talking about selfie culture and things like that before. When we went to Bryce Canyon National Park, we noticed a big sign on the window at the entrance gate: “There’ll be no bad weather refunds.” You go through to Bryce Canyon to see this stunning view of the way these rock formations have been hollowed out by the water over millions of years. But if you get there and there’s bad weather, you just have to deal with it. Maybe they put that sign up because people have said, “Can we have our money back? It was poor weather today!” But you know, that’s not how nature works.
HF: The good side is that the internet is just fantastic at sometimes throwing things up that we might not have otherwise known. Recently we were in Utah, we found out through the internet how to get to Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, which are out in the middle of the desert. It’s an incredible sculpture. If you don’t know about it, look it up. I wouldn’t have been able to do that without the internet, so technology has its benefits, as well.
MH: You’re also putting technology to use in your data collection, having people pinpoint on the map, for example, different parts of the Lake District or different parts of the world that they consider to be their “here.”
HF: Being able to see trends in that data and to pull out what we call “data of the heart,” the emotional sensations of connections to place.
MH: You’re talking about selfie culture and the stereotypically Instagram way of experiencing a place and what you’re doing with a Sense of Here and with the trends that you’re recording. It almost seems like you’re describing a kind of yin-yang of social media and technology. We hadn’t thought of Sense of Here as an explicitly social media project, but that it’s almost like you’re trying to create just a new social media platform that encourages a different way of engaging, an opposite way of engaging with the environment than most conventional social media platforms—like the difference between an extroverted platform instead of an insular one.
RH: We still use the internet for getting what we’re doing into the public sphere. We don’t ignore or hide that. I’m not very good at Instagram, I must admit. Facebook—I love because it allows me more space. We use Twitter a lot, not necessarily for posting, although we do post quite a bit, but more for finding out about stuff. But we think nothing’s done in isolation. There’s no good doing something smart or wonderful or fantastic unless other people get to hear about it. You can have your own moment yourself when you’re out in the wilderness, and I think that should be encouraged more, but if you’re going to find something, discover something, or come across an idea that is worth sharing, then share it. It has to be done. If what you see in what we do is almost counter to other ways of using social media, then we appreciate that perception. But it’s not about us, although we include pictures of ourselves at times. I include images of Harriet, for example, as scale to show how big the landscape is around us. Or I sometimes include the dog because the dog’s a certain size. They’re in the photograph to show scale and to actually personalize that landscape. Without that you’ve got this big open space which can be of indeterminate size, whereas if you’ve got a person or a tent or a tree in a space, it does hold a center of attention in a landscape. I think that’s an important aspect of what I try and get across. It’s achievable.
Relatedly, anybody who’s fairly able-bodied, and has a mind to, can actually get into these spaces we’re visiting. It’s not that hard, really, to get into the hills, or get fairly high, fairly quickly. It’s doable. People can actually achieve that if they want to. We’re hoping that more people do that—get out and find themselves out there.
HF: Or in their backyard, wherever that is.
RF: Or in their backyard.
MH: Do you think all those issues connect in a way? You talk about community but, in all of your work with the environment, trying to show how to protect and care for it, is there something that inherently involves connecting with your community or growing that sense of community? How does it all goes together?
RF: What we’ve done quite well over the last few years, or so we’ve been told, is the fact that we talk to hill farmers, shepherds, people whose animals graze the landscape, and at the same time we can talk to the extreme pro-conservationists. We get on really well with both camps and for some people who find that difficult to understand, you can have a really good conversation and come to understand a re-wilder or the farming community and get on with them really well. I don’t see an issue with that. It’s all about where you draw that balance, where you place the balance between keeping an active culture alive on a hillscape and also trying to improve biodiversity, water quality, carbon storage, tree cover. There can be a place where those twin evils that some people would see, can mix together. What our work is trying to do is to bridge that gap between those two generally polarized viewpoints. There is a space in the middle where both can come together, and both can be pretty happy, and the people on the planet can actually get on better together.
MH: If given the opportunity to revisit one of your past projects, which one would it be, and what would you do differently this time?
RF: In 2014 I undertook a project called i-porter. I worked as a porter on the Everest Base Camp trail for a commercial tourism company for a month and lugged loads as part of a team of six other porters, who were all Nepali. I made a short film about the ordeal and shot a series of large format images of porters I met along the journey. After being a mountain guide for ten years and employing porters on many of those trips, I was curious to find what the work was like. Plot spoiler: it was tough, very tough, in fact.
Although I was really proud of doing it and what I managed to document, in retrospect I wish that I had got more out of the project, shouted about it more and then used it as a springboard to do other such projects. Maybe I still could.
I have had an idea milling around the back of my mind for a few years: to work as a miner in the vast silver mountain in Potosi, Bolivia. Monochrome film was the biggest single user of silver at one time and half of all the world’s silver comes from that mountain. I wanted to trace the silver in the film that I use back to its source in that dark deep hole in Bolivia and paradoxically expose it to the light.
HF: Going to America last year had a huge impact on me. We were delighted to be asked to visit Principia as Annenberg Scholars. The experience has stayed with us in so many ways, and we have ideas nudging at us about what we could do if we were to return. Our visit also gave us the opportunity to visit Utah, a place I have wanted to go since around the age of 14 when I first read Anne Stevenson’s poem, which opens with the words: ‘Somewhere nowhere in Utah’. For me this poem was full of the sensation of wide open spaces, and a sky I could never experience here in the UK. Rob and I travelled for ten days around Utah and as a result we have built a small collection: a set of large-format color images twinned with poems written in the places captured on film. It embraces the variety of the place: mountains, land-art, forests, ranches, plains, crossroad towns. But we only just glided over the surface; there’s antiquity here as well as an unfolding present that really interests me. How is this place and the people who live here adapting to all the changes in 21st century life? Our small steps through the vast landscape, and the conversations we had with people there are seeds: something can grow from these. I would love to build on our short experience there and find a way to spend longer in Utah, a month or two maybe, with a particular project or question in mind.
MH: Are there songs or soundtracks to which you listen while out in nature, on walks, or doing work for your projects?
RF: We never listen to music, or anything, when we are outside. That would be too much of a distraction, and as hearing is one of our sensory guides in the outdoors it would feel like we were closing down with the interference of acoustic trash one of the gateways to understanding place.
At home it is a different story. I struggle to work in silence—paradoxically I find it deafening—whereas Harriet can work with no other sound. If we are working in the office together then usually we have a CD playing in the background.
Here’s a link to ten songs by some of our favorite artists that make the day go by a little easier. A musical gift from us:
The Staves – Make it Holy
Bruce Springsteen – Sundown
Dave Gerard and the Watchmen – Stables
Michael Kiwanuka:You ain’t the problem
Laura Marling:Goodbye England
Nick Drake:Northern Sky (played by my son-in-law as we got married)
Blue Nile:Headlights on the Parade
Anything by Kate Bush but this will have to do: The sensual world
Pink Floyd:Time (I was at this concert!)
In another life I may have become a music producer…
HF: Outside, I never listen to music or spoken podcasts—all I want to hear is the sound of whatever life there is around me. For writing poetry inside I have a few favorites: Keith Jarrett (favorite: Koln Concert); Luluc (Sculptor); Jeff Neve (One–particularly Track 7); Herbie Hancock (there’s a great cover of River here);like Rob, I like Ben Howard; Cassandra Wilson; Chet Baker; Beck. There’s another vast set of music that suits different moods and all the bits in between the poetry writing.
MH: It’s a tradition at Mistake House Magazine to ask: Do you ever play hooky? If you do, what is your favorite thing to do when you take off suddenly, as in a dérive?
HF: It’s funny, I’ve always worked for myself so ‘working’ time is pretty flexible: I’m only accountable to myself. There are deadlines, though, and even when I am up against a deadline I might “play hooky.” It’s usually being drawn outside by tempting weather—this could be gale-force winds (I love walking up high in the wind, or stomping through a woodland while the trees are roaring), a starry or full-moon night, or a bright sunny day when the only sensible thing to do is to go for a river swim. Somehow the work always gets done, and taking that time out is never a bad thing.
RF: If you were to ask my mum, she might have said a few years ago that my working life has been akin to playing hooky for the past thirty years (I think she now finally gets what I’m doing and is fully behind it). If I do step away from whatever work I’m doing, then going for a walk in the fells, into woodlands, or by the sea where I grew up would be my choices of getting away—though I would normally be carrying a camera, just in case I felt the need to capture something. However, I’m fortunate in that my work takes me outside often, even more so when we have a project in full swing, so I guess playing hooky is part of normal life.