Edd Carr reflects on his process of animating images printed on soil.
Red hill sits hidden, atop a steep climb on the West Face of Easby Moor, North Yorkshire. If you look on a map of the North York Moors, it is unmarked – invisible to the stranger unless face-to-face with its bloodied earth.
The name Red Hill is a local moniker due to its iron-rich soil, colouring the mound a deep orange-red. Barely a hill and much more a mound, it is a remnant from the days of industry, when the area was mined for ironstone in a rush that transformed surrounding Teesside into ‘the iron and steel capital’.1
A notoriously dangerous and exploitative industry in the early 1900s, with short lifespans and slave wages the only gifts to its workers – Red Hill, with its soil that stains you to the touch, is a fitting reminder of the violence that modern culture is built upon. A violence now displaced to the Global South, but still very much alive in the abandoned ruins and prickly gorse that now populates the landscape.2
I grew up less than a kilometre from Red Hill, taken there often as a child to have picnics or walk the family dog. Back then, it was a playground – where my imagination would invent tales of a dragon that lived beneath its surface. But today, heaving up the slope, my boots stained red and my hands clutching at protruding roots – my relationship to Red Hill is mired in twenty-first century angst. An angst defined by the billowing threat of ecological crisis, and eventual extinction.
The mining industry long abandoned, the woodland encircling Red Hill is now populated with pheasant feeders, trespass warnings, and the other familiar signs of a playground for wealthy landowners. Despite its seemingly rugged appearance, the moorland is a man-made landscape designed specifically for grouse and pheasant shooting. Blankets of purple heather and the occasional cluster of trees are not the result of natural evolution – but aggressively maintained to farm game birds, shot in their thousands by tweed wearing businessmen role-playing country gent.3
This is a familiar story for almost all of our British uplands – where ritualised violence maintains the illusion of pastoral idyll, to be plastered across TV screens by the likes of Countryfile. Masked in the powerful image of the pastoralist ideal apart from the urbanisation below, of cows happily chewing on grass, farmers with a thumb of wheat jammed in their jaw, and peaceful green fields broken only by the sounds of a noble tractor steering its fateful course – the crippling realities of the North York Moors are concealed.
Beyond the shooting of pheasants – it is the unrepentant over-grazing of land, the genocidal pesticides advocated by the National Farmers’ Union, hedgerows clipped into submission, sheep-dip poisoning workers, yearly fox hunts and more. The pastoral ideal is a castle made of vicious sands. Walking up Red Hill today, it is more obvious than ever that the violence remains, instead fed by nonhuman bodies and beings – in total contradiction of our need for ecological reform.
This disquiet was the motivation behind my latest animated work, YORKSHIRE DIRT. To concentrate the mesh of violence that holds the landscape together into a moving image work is something I had sought to do for a long time, but found too difficult to depict when transferred to the clean presentation of a digital video. The broken wing found rotting in a bush; the skull of a fox that was torn to shreds; the poisoned carcass of bug or bee; the rusting barbed wire of another area fenced off for the wealthy – how to showcase the DIRT that is so hastily swept under the rug?
Layer upon layer of violence forming the North York Moors brought me back to Red Hill, and how it has quite literally fed into the earth, the stark red an obvious reminder. My moving image work is often defined by the integration of natural materials into the process of making. I have buried footage in soil, shocked it with electricity, and submerged it in seawater; printed animations on wood, leaves, feathers and more – and printed more than one film using only the sun.
I am influenced by the idea of a New Materialist art practice, which sees materials as collaborators in the realisation of works – instead of as a means to an end. Working this way, the materials are given purpose and agency beyond the artist. Of course, to create any artwork, we rely on a network of living and non-living beings – works cannot be imagined out of thin air. But typically this reality is ignored. New Materialist artworks seek to challenge the notion of the artist individual, and recognise the interspecies collaborations that make art possible.4
In the context of ecological crisis, this is hugely important in recognising the rights of other beings, and fostering an ethic that acknowledges existence beyond the human. And so, with the same violence perpetuating this crisis alive in the earth of Red Hill, I determined to print the entirety of YORKSHIRE DIRT on the soil.
Being the first animation printed entirely on soil, I was entering entirely unfounded territory – and so had to innovate a process from scratch. The first stage was sourcing the soil. And so, armed with a dessert spoon and empty plastic tub, I perched on the narrow edge of Red Hill and dug ferociously at the dirt. Slipping over, my knees and palms were stained red. I abandoned the spoon and tore at the soil with my hands, dropping wet fistfuls into the tub. Then a pang of regret, as I skimmed the collected soil for insects or worms, tossing them back into the red void.
I realised the best way for footage to be printed on the soil was for it to be spread across a flat surface. Mixing the soil with water, I created an emulsion that could be coated onto watercolour paper. To retain the natural texture of soil, I dried the coated paper in a specific way, creating the shudders and cracks on the final footage that mimic the effects of soil exhaustion.
Soil exhaustion is the ultimate degradation of the land. Battered and depleted by industrial farming techniques – such as monocultures, liberal pesticide use, and petrochemical fertilisers (all of which are a feature of North Yorkshire) – the land is turned totally useless. It is estimated the UK has around thirty to forty years before our soil is exhausted – creating an unsolvable food crisis if left unchecked.
By embodying this in each frame of YORKSHIRE DIRT – as the footage moves between acts of violence – I wanted to create a sense that rural culture encourages a mindset complicit in the ecological crisis, and eventual extinction of life on earth. The violence permeates into our subconscious, and our relationship to the wider world, all the way into the dirt – which will one day be unable to bear life as a consequence.5
This is what Gregory Bateson called an ‘ecology of mind’.6 In addressing the multiplying disasters of a mounting ecological crisis, Bateson argued that solving the problem went beyond plaster-sticking initiatives, such as renewables or recycling. Although these are important, what is more pressing is a revolution in the way we first think, not do. Humans in industrialised nations have to learn to think ecologically, and radically transform deeply-embedded beliefs that open the floodgates for rampant, destructive and irreversible exploitation of nonhuman nature. Essentially, it is first and foremost a crisis of thought, which then results in action. But unfortunately, the collective rural consciousness has been historically dominated by exploitation, and violence.
Our relationship with nonhuman nature will never be clean cut. The idea that we are either masters of the nonhuman world, or stewards, is one rooted in age-old binaries that are now irrelevant. Whilst a lot of conservation rhetoric is rooted in the idea of stewardship, and industrial rhetoric in the idea of mastery – both encourage the idea that nonhuman nature is fundamentally separate from human life; that we exist in binary opposition, as either carers or destroyers. But as modern science continues to reveal, we are inseparably intertwined.7
I was reminded of this, as the coating and drying process covered my studio in red streaks – dirtying my desk and clothes. Based in inner city Leeds – Red Hill seems distant, alive only in my mind. But the soil now choking my studio, I could not escape. Thumbing at the red dust that had collected on my printer, I felt a familiar guilt. Was I any better, displacing the soil to be used in this way? When you work in a New Materialist mindset, the soil is seen as alive and with purpose – which does not exclusively encourage feelings of collaboration, but also conflict.
Ecology is not straight, nor clean – it is dirty, and confusing. A hot mess. But this does not mean we cannot begin to work more mindfully – to pay attention to the materials we use, and their existence pre, during, and post artwork. Printing the footage onto the soil, the ink mingling with the soil, this was laid bare. Black ink, a man-made product, curdling with dirt taken from the distant Red Hill that was the result of millions of years of geological transformation. And between the cracks, some hope of change and reformation for the countryside’s future.
Digitising the footage, I coupled it with artist Lucy Johnson’s layered soundscape. Johnson blended archival sounds with her own instrumental composition, to ‘make the film linger between harsh reality and the dramatised perceptions of violent scenes’. Specifically, she sampled audio from smartphone footage of a fox hunting protest, and instructional videos demonstrating the different bugle calls on hunts – especially the kill call. This completes the film as an ode to this legacy of violence, earth, and confusion – ripping off the mask of peaceful pastoralism. A legacy of whirring combine harvesters, foxes torn to bloody pieces, gamekeepers beheading raptors, guns blasting birds from the sky, owls hunting at dusk and flags being unfurled – all atop the Yorkshire Dirt.
1 – Garratt, M. (2020, June 8). Monument Mine. Out And About … Retrieved January 5, 2022, from http://www.fhithich.uk/?p=23163
2 – Lottermoser, B. G., Glass, H. J., & Page, C. N. (2011). Sustainable natural remediation of abandoned tailings by metal-excluding heather (Calluna vulgaris) and gorse (Ulex europaeus), Carnon Valley, Cornwall, UK. Ecological Engineering, 37(8), 1249-1253.
3 – G. Simmons, I. (2019). Moorlands of England and Wales. Edinburgh University Press.
4 – Bolt, B. (2012). Carnal Knowledge. I.B. Tauris.
5 – van der Zee, B. (n.d.). UK Is 30-40 Years Away From ‘eradication Of Soil Fertility’, Warns Gove. The Guardian. Retrieved January 5, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/24/uk-30-40-years-away-eradication-soil-fertility-warns-michael-gove
6 – Goodbun, J. “Gregory Bateson’s Ecological Aesthetics—An Addendum to Urban Political Ecology.” Field: a free journal for architecture 4, no. 1 (2010): 35-46.
7 – Haila, Yrjö. “Beyond the nature-culture dualism.” Biology and philosophy 15, no. 2 (2000): 155-175.
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