ART AND SOCIAL CONTEXTS AT DARTINGTON COLLEGE OF
ARTS 1978 – 85 – LECTURE TOURS OF AUSTRALIA AND USA
Part of an unpublished memoir
Eight years was a long time to be doing what I was doing in Glenrothes. As I have said my work was becoming more conceptual and it was getting more difficult to carry it out. Maybe I had run out of energy but I was also aware that it would be good for the town to get another artist to take on the role I was playing. Also by this time I was living in Edinburgh having moved there in 1975 and the daily commute was beginning to be a chore. No longer staying in the town as part of the community undermined my commitment. I had tried for the GEAR job in Glasgow which, it seemed to me at the time, would have been a ‘dream’ move.
My thoughts turned to art education. Only one of the post-graduate students I had employed, Hugh Graham, fitted seamlessly into any kind of contextual practice. The others, given the art education they had received, all found it difficult in one way or another to align their practices and attitudes to the situation in which they found themselves working. I wondered if it would be possible to set up a course that would address this problem and I also began to look at college teaching jobs in the press. I seem to have been very fortunate in life – when I’ve looked for work I wanted to do I’ve actually found it. In this case it would be in a place I had never heard of – Dartington in Devon.
Dartington was like a dream – a rural idyll deep in the Devon countryside that couldn’t have been further from a new town in the Fife coalfield. The Dartington Hall Trust had been set up in the 1920’s by Leonard Elmhirst and Dorothy Whitney as a utopian retreat centred on the ruined medieval Great Hall of Dartington in South Devon. The Hall had been built by the Duke of Exeter, half brother of Richard 11, in 1390. Leonard had worked in agriculture in India and had met, and been influenced by, Rabindranath Tagore . Dorothy had been Mrs Straight wife of a US diplomat in China. Both were interested in rural reconstruction and they met at Cornell University – he as a research student and she as a board member of the university. Her husband Michael Straight had died and since Cornel had been his alma mater she had become a donor to the university. Dorothy was one of the richest, if not THE richest, woman in the United States. She was also a radical, socially concerned and working for a better society for all. Leonard and Dorothy fell in love and decided to look for a place in Britain where they could put their social ideas into practice. The bankrupt lands and farms of the ancient Champernowne family near Totnes suited their needs.
I knew nothing of all of this when in 1978 I came across an advert for the ‘Head of Art and Design in Social Contexts’ at Dartington College of Arts. I applied and was invited to the interviews. I had had no experience of teaching in higher education and realised I would be out of my depth. Thankfully I was not offered the post and neither were any of the other candidates. However the interview panel members were impressed enough to ask if I would accept a post as a senior lecturer and a say in the appointment of a new head. After meetings with ‘headhunted’ candidates which the Principal, Peter Cox and I conducted in London and elsewhere, offers and withdrawals and the like, it seemed like no one wanted the post. In fact, after advertising again and the interviews had taken place, the candidate offered the post turned it down. It was then offered one of the other candidates, Chris Crickmay, who turned out to be the the best possible appoint ment. Thus began a long, professional, personal, and mutually supportive friendship. Chris had been trained as an architect but had moved into art practice and theory working for the Open University. He and Simon Nicolson, son of Ben, had written and taught the ‘Art and Environment’ unit for the OU. The course we joined had been written and set up by the departing head Paul Oliver – writer on jazz, the blues and indigenous architectures. It was the forerunner of all ‘contextual art’ courses in the UK. Dartington Hall Trust was part of the reason for such a course. Its very existence included bringing the arts to the widest possible audience and involving it in the making of art too. The College of Arts sat at the centre of the estate housed in new and old buildings clustered around the Great Hall. The college was unique in that it included departments of music, dance, theatre as well as visual art.
I introduced a placement element to the course, based on the APG model, in which students themselves seek out a social setting, engage with it over a period of time – one, two or three terms – and get to know and understand it so well as to be able to make art out of the experience. Placement settings often have to be visited in the evenings or at weekends – the rhythms of the world are often different to those of academia – so that other course work was able to be pursued by students in parallel with their placements. What was meant by the word ‘placement’ was not ‘work experience’ nor was it the ‘artist-in-residence.’ Artists would move into a setting with a totally ‘open brief’ and make work out of the experience with no definition or certainty what that art could be. It was a radical new way of making art. Too radical for the art establishment who proceeded, along with the Gulbenkian Foundation and the various arts councils and regional arts associations, to set up a less challenging form of it in ‘artist-in-residence’ schemes. Too many residences resulted in the artists continuing to work as before, their practice unaffected by the context in which they were resident. An early example of how different an APG placement was could be found in the appointment of Robert Smithson as an ‘artist consultant’ to the development of the planned Dallas- Fort Worth airport in 1966. He commented, ‘the discussions do not operate on any presupposed notion of art.’ The Dartington placements offered students the opportunity, in a most direct way, to develop, what could be called, a ‘littoralist’ art practice – the littoral being that edge and shifting zone between sea and land – which refers metaphorically to art practice which is undertaken, predominantly, outside the institutionalised art world. The term ‘littoral art practice’ has been developed by Ian Hunter and Celia Larner. Their ‘Projects Environment’ has run a series of conferences and projects which have helped to evolve and define the concept. More recently all of this has been taken up by Grant Kester of the University of California, San Diego in his writing around what he describes as ‘discursive aesthetics.’ The placement experience offered a rich, unfocussed ambience for a more evocative exchange of ideas. John Latham and Barbara Steveni visited to further develop the notion of ‘placement’ and I adopted their maxim, ‘the context is half the work’ for the basis of the student placement – context and form rather than content and form. This sat well with the public art practices I introduced and taught.
It was never difficult to get major visitors to Dartington. The beauty and the history of the place was enough to induce people to come. The Dartington Hall Trust too was a major force in attracting eminent people to talk about their work. Too numerous to mention all of these but Gregory Bateson and Ronnie Laing spring to mind. I invited Jimmy Boyle to come and speak. It was a public event and it packed out the lecture theatre to overflowing. Lucy Lippard, staying in a cottage in the area on a year-long sojourn working on her book ‘Overlays’, twice came to give talks to the students both of which were brilliant and inspirational for the students and the staff. She subsequently included in the book an image of, and reference to, my ‘Henge’ sculpture in Glenrothes.
A member of staff of the Music Department, Peter Kennedy, in the 40’s and 50’s, had been responsible for building up a BBC archive of British and Irish folk music and song. The BBC invited him to make a documentary film of his work and one section was filmed in the student bar. For this he had invited the famous McPeake family from Belfast to Dartington to record them at a live ceilidh. Grandfather Francis McPeake had been born in Belfast in 1885. From a Derry family he had learned ‘Will Ye Go Lassie, Go’/ ‘Wild Mountain Time’ from his uncle. There is an 18th century poem by the Paisley poet Robert Tannahill ‘Will ye go lass go to the braes o’ Balquidder and a Methodist hymn ‘Sinner will you go to the highland of heaven.’ Kennedy said of the McPeake song that it is ‘perhaps the finest example we have in British (sic) folk song of how a song of great stature with an everlasting quality can be shaped through the process of oral tradition.’ Kennedy had brought the family to play in the Albert Hall in London in 1953 and the record of the song (I still have the original record) was made in 1963.
What a night it turned out to be. Neil Cameron was there and Ken Wolverton arrived that very evening (I had invited them to the department to work with my students). When the main audience had gone the bar manager, Scottish of course, abandoned his role and left the bar open for anyone who wished to help themselves. The McPeakes must have sung that very popular folk song four or five times.
In 1981 the Australia Council invited me to undertake a two month lecture tour of Australia in the Spring of ‘82. The invitation was to lecture mainly on the ‘Glenrothes experience’ as well as other topics like artist/architect/planner collaborations and community arts in the UK. I visited all the major cities, and much more besides, giving talks to planning department staffs and professional associations, councillors and aldermen, arts bodies and groups, artists, schools of art and architecture and the general public. The organisation and the publicity by the Australia Council for my trip was extremely thorough and audiences were high throughout the tour. I arrived in Darwin and then spent a week or so in each town; Alice Springs, (taking in a visit to Ayer’s Rock as was, Uluru as is now, a present from the Australia Council, coincidentally my birthday the day I climbed the rock) Brisbane, Sydney, (including suburban towns) Canberra, Melbourne, Launceston/Tasmania, Adelaide and Perth. I spent two weeks in Bowral, NSW (birthplace of the great cricketer Don Bradman), as the only non-Australian at a ‘training workshop’ for artists from all disciplines selected for their work in social settings and with community groups. It was without doubt the most expertly organised, staffed and themed workshop I have ever taken part in.
My visit began disastrously. I arrived in Darwin at 3-45 am, attended a meeting at 2-00 pm and gave my first lecture at 7-00 pm – a very tall order by any measure. There was a huge turnout but I have no recollection of how it went. A reception followed and then my host, Ken Conway and I drank till the ‘wee small hours’. I had to attend a meeting at 8-30 am. After it I was taken to see the site of a new town as if I was able to offer any worthwhile advice. At lunch the hangover and jet lag kicked in and I collapsed. I was taken back to Ken’s house and fell into a deep sleep made uncomfortable by the temperature in this semi-tropical part of Australia. I had to be wakened up in order to get ready to attend another reception for me. Dinner followed! The rest of my days in Darwin were very pleasant. I attended the Grand Northern Footie Final – a thorough introduction to OZ culture in the Northern Territories. Before coming out I had asked if it would be possible to visit Aboriginal communities but permission to do so was denied by the Northern Territories administration. It was therefore interesting to see several ‘star’ Aboriginal players playing for both teams in the final and also the large number in the crowd. In meeting and chatting to different people after my lecture I was invited to visit an Aboriginal housing development by the community architect who designed it with the assistance of the people living there. However Darwin presented all the evidence one needed to be aware of how life was lived by many Aboriginal people having to come to terms with adjustments to western society. While there were many well off Aboriginals to be seen around for the majority this was not the case. This continuing tragedy which I saw everywhere I visited was of course well known but to see it in reality was shocking.
Alice Springs was as romantic a joy as it could ever have been – a friendly, generous host, Jonah Jones, Director of the Araluen Arts Centre, trips to amazing landscapes, Simpson’s Gap, abundant and exotic wild life and the visit to Ayer’s Rock. At the end of my talk a beautiful young woman approached me to say that she was to ‘look after me for the next few days’. Barbara Cameron Smith did just that. She picked me up, drove to the airport and we boarded a small Fokker turbo prop plane. I’m not going to go into many more superlatives after this but the pilot was keen to show us the most stunning views of the Red Centre – the furrowed Macdonnell Ranges, the Olgas and the Rock itself which he flew around so that we could see it in all its magnificence. Barbara worked for the Parks department and this was a final visit to the Rock before moving to another part of Australia.. We were picked up by a Park Ranger (yet another with a Scottish or British connection) who stopped en route to the motel to catch a Devil Molloch to show me. A quick check-in and Barbara appeared in the briefest of shorts, bare feet and a borrowed beat up car from the Parks Dept. There had been thunderstorms in the area and at one point this visit to the Rock had been in jeopardy. The earth road up to the Rock was full of huge pools of water and Barbara drove into one at speed cutting out the engine. She was desperate to get on and get there and that only made matters worse. I cautioned that we let the engine dry out. We did so and I got the car going again only for it to cut out at another pool of water. Turned out that the accelerator was getting stuck, revving up the engine and hitting the water too fast. Climbing the Rock was very hard for me so at 45 years I was already struggling and an early sign of my first heart attack four years later. The first and steepest part had a chain without which I couldn’t have made it and on getting to the top of that section I threw myself into one of the cold pools of water that had formed as a result of the storms. What a relief that was. We met a couple coming down and a young American passed us at speed heading for the top. We three were alone on the top of Ayers Rock.
It is not possible to climb the Rock anymore. The Australian Government agreed to respect the Aboriginal belief in its sacredness and forbade any further incursions into and on it. It is now protected by the law and by Aboriginal people. As is well known it is now called Uluru.
From the top one could only see flat, limitless desert apart from the nearby distinctive lumpy Olgas – a group of huge mountain-size rocks. I say desert but again the rains had turned the desert into meadows of blooming wildflowers. So much of my visit to Australia features moments and experiences of uniqueness. This day my birthday the 30th March was a magical one. I learned later that Neil and Lyndsay Cameron, having got a hold of my itinerary, had set out to drive from Adelaide with the plan of surprising me by being on the Rock on this very day. They didn’t make it because the same thunderstorms had made the road unpassable in places. They did get to the Rock two days later!
I was now made aware of Barbara’s anxiousness. The sun was beginning to go down and another ritual had to be observed. We got down to the car as fast as I could make it and drove like mad to a spot to the north of the Rock. A crowd of people had gathered for the event – sunset on the Rock. My slide images show it well. The colour of Uluru goes from a deep red to a cold grey blue and all the shades in between as the sun slowly descends below the horizon. Forgive me I must just once more say – it was stunning and one of the most magical experiences of my life.
Pity about the food though. I had already had some awful meals already but this continued throughout much of my visit. Here at the run down motels near to the Rock the food was the worst of all. Ostensibly Andrea and Deborah had justified my visit to the Rock by scheduling a meeting for me with the planners of a new tourist town, Yulara, situated north of the Rock. It was near enough for visitors to this wonder of the natural world but invisible from the top of the Rock being located in a slight depression in the desert. However they were not too interested in talking much and neither was I. The place was already well-developed and there was nothing useful I could offer. Thus it was that Andrea regarded it as a present to me from the Australia Council. The motel and campsite area was the place where the infamous ‘dingo baby death’ had taken place two years before. All of that has now been swept away.
Another gift from Andrea was a couple of hours stopover at Mount Isa en route to Brisbane. It is a mining company town and the lady who met me was determined to take me to the mine whereas I wanted to see the town centre. I had already noticed that every town had a substantial war memorial and I determined to photograph as many as I could. I managed to do both the mine and the war memorial. The former was very impressive producing copper, lead, zinc and silver it was the biggest mining operation in Australia and at the time the company that owned the mines was the country’s largest company. I realised why I had been given this opportunity.
I’m not intending here to give a blow-by-blow account of every place I visited and lectured in. I still have my diaries and notes and the report I wrote for the Australia Council after I returned to Dartington. I may yet do it but not here. However stand-out moments I hope will give a flavour of the rest after this lengthy introduction.
I’ve always regarded my lecture at the Queensland Department of Architecture as one of the most well-received and one of the high points of my tour. One never knows how it happens. The evening did not begin well. Not unusually there were technical problems, no carousel the audience was already gathering and people were being introduced to me all the time. Some of my slides were out of order as they had been used for a television interview earlier in the day. However I did have a strategy that worked very well. For my lecture tour in the USA I had brought with me an LP, ‘Chieftains 4’ and had great fun when being asked what equipment I wanted for my lecture and replying, a record player. A RECORD PLAYER!? would be the response at which I would say, and a slide projector. I took to playing this record before every lecture. So during this delay I managed to put on the Chieftains record to assuage the now full to overflowing lecture theatre (some people were turned away). While all this was going on one of the lecturers came over to me and literally gave me a telling off for playing Irish music and not Scottish music. I was utterly shocked and stunned by this attack and responded by saying that it was Celtic music and the Scots are Celts. This person had been born and brought up in Fife and he, and no doubt his family, had carried, and obviously nurtured, this prejudice to Australia. My talk generated so many interesting questions and responses and the applause was so loud and long that I was riding a cloud at the end of it.
Andrea met me at Sydney Airport and took me back to her place where I would stay for the two weeks I was to be in Sydney. The house was perched above the landing stage at Cremorne right on Sydney Harbour. Branches of a lemon tree in full fruit thrust their way into my bedroom. A friend was dispatched to the fish market and came back with king prawns, oysters, lobster, crab all of which was washed down with bottles of champagne accompanied with toast and caviar. What a welcome to Sydney! Hectic days followed of radio and television interviews, lectures, lunchtime seminars to the city planners. The Easter weekend was spent at Cassilis a hundred mile drive into the countryside to a retreat owned by a Sydney gallery owner. A ramshackle hut formed the living quarters while a rammed mud house was being built to which all visitors we expected to contribute their sweat and toil. Showering was done in the woods with the help of a tiny wood burning stove – amazing. What should have been a wonderful few days was spoiled by the fact that I had a massive lecture coming up. I regret now accepting the invitation to speak at the ANZAAS – Australia/New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science – conference. I worked too long and too hard on it. I spent the days at Cassilis worrying and working away at the talk. Further one of the other guests one evening somehow seemed to accuse me of bringing bramble bushes and rabbits to Australia. The former is a huge problem as the bush grows wild covering thousands of square miles of impenetrable land. The rabbits we know about.
Bowral followed during which some people began to try to persuade me to settle in Australia. One artist wanted me to set up a partnership with him at an arts centre he is opening between Melbourne and Geelong. The other was more remarkable. Andrea had just been promoted and people wanted me to apply for her job as head of community arts. I was encouraged to do so by several other people later as well. On to Canberra – a great big new town. Here an ABC TV team took me up to a high hill overlooking the city and asked me what I would do with it. I felt like Jesus being taken to the top of the mountain. It was here that another old friend appeared Peter Stitt. He had also got to know of my itinerary and that I would be having lunch in the office of the head of the School of Architecture. In the middle of it Peter burst into the room, strode up to me and said, ‘When you’ve lived in Edinburgh you’re spoiled for the rest of the world!’ On to Melbourne and some respite as I stayed with my good friend Nora McGrath and met up with Neil and Lindsay. So many people I met on this trip had been to the UK and to Scotland some of whom had worked as architects in Livingston, Cumbernauld and visited Glenrothes. Others like Neil had decided to settle there. The lecturing and seminars and meetings were relentless. I had got a cal from the head of the art school in Launceston, Tasmania asking if I could go there and give a lecture. It wasn’t on the programme but I agreed. I flew over in the morning and flew back in the evening. As I’ve said the press coverage of my visit was massive and it threw up some very nice episodes. In Melbourne just as I arrived at the museum to give my talk I was informed that a man wanted to see me who knew me in Edinburgh. It turned out to be the landlord of a flat in Stockbridge where Frances and I rented a room just prior to setting off for Nigeria. In Perth a similar thing happened though this time it was even more remarkable as the person concerned, Sammy Brooksbanks, had been at St Mary’s in Leith with me and we had been in the Scouts together. I hadn’t seen him since the early 50s. I returned to Sydney to give the ANZAAS lecture. It wan’t good but not as bad as I had anticipated. Also managed to get to Peter’s installation/performance ‘Nurnburg’ at the Sydney Bienale. On then to Adelaide where I was looked after by Annie Newmarch who had visited me at Dartington. A couple of days there and finally to Perth. Two big lectures here and during th discussion after one of them a man says from the audience, ‘Everything that David Harding has said about Glenrothes is true. I should know, I used to live there!’ In both Adelaide and Perth people approached me to ask if I would do another talk/seminar/workshop etc etc but all of them I had to refuse. I was finished.
The programme of the tour was extremely full and by Adelaide and Perth I was beginning to feel the strain. Some days would consist of lectures in the morning, afternoon and evening and at each being lavished by Australian hospitality a feature of the visit I have never forgotten. The final score was:
13 lectures, 12 seminars, 6 receptions, 9 formal meetings, 5 TV programmes, 6 radio programmes, 11 newspaper interviews, 1 recording session and the two week workshop at Bowral.
It was Andrea Hull as Head of the Community Arts Board of the Australia Council ( she went on to become Principal of the Victorian College of the Arts), who extended the invitation to come to Australia and Deborah Mills who organised the details of the visit. Both of them are impressive and charismatic people. As an example of the thoroughness with which Andrea approached my visit she came to the UK that summer of ’81. We met in Edinburgh and I took her to Glenrothes and organised for her to see as much as possible. This included attending one of Neil Cameron’s large scale events at a castle in Fife and a performance at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe by the theatre group from Easterhouse.
Undeniably I saw Australia through ‘rose-coloured spectacles.’ I never really met that right- wing ‘okker’ Australia that is so much part of the character of the place. I was met and handed on each time to even more wonderfully sympathetic artists, art officers and art lovers who showed me immense generosity. I was impressed by the active, radical cultural activities of the unions and town councils. I subsequently read in some Australian publication a reference to the time before David Harding’s visit and the time after it. The notion of the Town Artist certainly interested a number of town councils resulting in the employment of artists though not, as far as I can gather, on quite the same basis as I had been employed in Glenrothes.
The retiral of the principal of Dartington College of Arts, Peter Cox, led to the appointment of one Curtis Rooseveldt grandson of, it seemed, Eleanor though his lineage always seemed a little shrouded in mystery since he had not been born a Rooseveldt. For family and other reasons I was beginning to feel that the days at Dartington were numbered. In 1984 I applied for study leave and spent a month in the USA lecturing and again photographing and documenting public art in all its various manifestations. I spent a large part of the time on the west coast staying with Tim Drescher in Berkeley and Shifra Goldman in Los Angeles. However a key part of my visit was going to Seattle, to visit the Cornish School of Art. In the early years of Dartington there had been strong links with Cornish as Dorothy and Leonard saw it as a model school that they aimed to emulate. John Cage had studied there and links to him and Black Mountain College led to visits by him and Merce Cunningham to Dartington in the fifties. I met Richard Andrews who was Art in Public Places Coordinator of the Seattle Art Commission. He showed me around some of the major works it had commissioned and gave me what I came to regard as a blueprint for public art policy and development, ‘A Planning Study for Seattle: Art in the Civic Context.’ I still regard what Seattle achieved in the development of public art as a model for other cities to follow.
I spent Thanksgiving with Tim and his family at their snowed-in log cabin at Lake Tahoe feeling I was in a 1940s Hollywood film starring Bing Crosby with horse-drawn sleighs and bells tinkling. Met up with Ray Patlan and saw loads of community murals in the Mission District of San Francisco including of course those in the famous Balmy Alley. I had begun to hear about the work of Michael Schnorr and the Border Arts Workshop in San Diego and so, when staying with Shifra in LA, I made the trip south to meet him and the others of the group. This was an important encounter for me and was to draw me back to San Diego several times. Although Michael was the only ‘white’ in the group which at the outset included Victor Ochoa, David Avalos and Guilermo Gomez Pena (who left the group and has spent the rest of his life attacking and attempting to undermine it) he was nevertheless the one with the total commitment and staying power to continue with it until his tragic death, by suicide, almost 30 years later. The BAW/TAF was founded to use all art forms to draw attention to the issues raised by the migration of Latin American people crossing the US border looking for work and the ways that the state and federal governments dealt with the problem.
Michael and Victor were completing a mural on large sections of nylon cloth which were then glued to the massive vertical columns that supported the great Coronado Bridge that crosses the bay linking the western peninsula area of San Diego. The land under the bridge had become a ‘cause celebre’ and the Chicano community had persuaded the city to retain it as a park rather than build industrial units on the land. That evening after some drinking Victor invited Michael and I to visit the studio he was building in Tijuana. En route to the border crossing Michael asked if I had my passport with me. I didn’t. Going back to my flat was out of the question. They said that while leaving the US was not a problem being allowed back in was quite another matter. It’s not unusual when drink has been taken that caution disappears. Let’s chance it I said. Michael restarted the car and we cruised into Mexico. Throughout the evening – visiting the studio, Victor’s mother and having a meal I had to be rehearsed in how to answer the questions that would be asked later by the US border guards. I was going to have to pretend to be a US citizen and to give my name, citizenship and home address (Imperial Beach) all in an American accent! We rolled up to the border around midnight. It was quiet and the US border guard’s torch flashed around the outside and then on to us in the car. Victor had to show his identification. Michael only had to give the routine answers. It was his car. And then me. Again the ‘gallusness’ born of drinking kicked in and I answered all the questions in what must have been a very rough American accent. I was in the back seat and the guard’s attention suddenly focussed on the area behind me. His torch had illuminated something in the back that aroused his interest and we were immediately hauled over to the search area. Michael still had drums of chemicals from his studio that he had used earlier to fix the mural to the column of the bridge. We all had to get out while the car and the contents were inspected. Michael was able, after some heavy questioning, to convince them that the chemicals were from the printmaking studio at his college in Chula Vista. All of this took some time to check out after which we were waved through. It was as is said, ‘a close run thing’ and when Michael ‘stepped on the gas’ the tensions we had all been experiencing fell away and we couldn’t stop laughing. Victor said I was a ‘wetback’ referring to those Mexicans who have made it safely across the Rio Grande. I had got into the USA with no passport or papers of any kind. This was the beginning of a long friendship with Michael.