Originally commissioned for our Climate issue, in this article cultural geographer Danny McNally engages with, and explores the work of two artists, Justin Carter and Onya McCausland, who work in processes with special attachments to materials and the earth.
Unwieldy waste materials: extraction, co-production, and earthly forces
This article offers a cultural geography exploration of two artworks discussed by Onya McCausland and Justin Carter during their collaborative talk Material, Agency and Meaning, organised by the Reading Landscape Research group at Glasgow School of Art in October 2021. This talk saw the artists weave discussion around themes of matter and materials, creative process, and experimentation, alongside a series of supporting images of their work and process. Explorative and dialogic in approach, the discussion and format helped highlight important thinking and processes behind both artist’s work and brought to light a series of shared concerns and methods. McCausland focused on her work creating Six Bells Red, a paint colour made from mine water waste ochres. This forms part of McCausland’s extensive project Turning Landscape CIC, which recycles ochre residues derived from the treatment of coal mine water into pigment for sustainable wall paint in the UK. Carter’s focus was his work from The Elephant in the Room (2021), featuring a display of prints and other objects at Rockingham Castle, Northampton. These prints were created using ink he made from Oak gall and rusted metal, materials he sourced from the castle and its grounds.
Rather than address these artworks through their defined end-forms (paint and ink prints), this article focuses on their approach to the waste materials that feature in the work, situating and contemplating them within their creative process. This cultural geography approach contemplates the artworks as intensities of encounter and relations that hold specific meanings and attachments to materials and the earth, and which transcend the form of art itself. This draws together an insight into the artworks beyond just the artist and aesthetic form, towards the multiple human and nonhuman relations that unfolded through the artworks’ journeys from extraction and experimentation of materials to the resulting end-forms. In taking this approach to the works I aim to make a specific observation, that both artists work alongside rather than on earthly materials, something which highlights the co-productive agency of waste materials in their creative process. To do so, an expanded aesthetics is proposed, a cultural geography of art which attends to the actual intensities of encounter and relations that emerge through and, importantly, beyond the artworks themselves.
The article does this by looking closely at the creative process of McCausland’s and Carter’s work, framed by ‘site-based’ thinking from cultural geography. This concept is particularly useful for an interest in an expanded concept of aesthetics as it resists the partitioning of the world into limited categories such as aesthetic form, and accounts for the force of a wider collection of emergent, contingent relations. As the scholars of this site-based thinking explain:
Against the deployment of forms or categories that operate by carving up the world into a delimited set of manageable object-types, we look to the unfolding state of affairs within which situations or sites are constituted as singularities – that is, as a collectivity of bodies or things, orders and events, and doings and sayings that hang together so as to lend distinct consistency to assemblages of dynamic relations. (Marston et al. 2007: p. 51)
Thus, rather than looking at the end-forms of Six Bells Red and Elephant in the Room, an approach which would highlight a narrower set of meanings, this article addresses them as geographical ‘sites’, and looks to the unfolding, contingent, and expanded ‘state of affairs’ the artworks emerged through. This situates the work of the artists within a broader collection of co-productive relations, in doing so highlighting different relational meanings and attachments to the earth. A site-based approach is to attend to or ‘test’ these broader relations and generates what I have elsewhere described as a “site-specific” account of art that is quite different to art theoretical accounts of site-specificity (McNally 2018). Practically speaking, this article does this by discussing the emergence of each artwork through McCausland’s and Carter’s collaborative talk, supplemented by further research and discussion with the artists. Finally, the article concludes arguing that McCausland’s and Carter’s work can be understood to demonstrate a co-productive relationship between the artists and earthly materials, one which holds a quiet politics.
Exploring materials and site
Both artists have a distinctively material-centred site-specificity in their work. McCausland’s paint is made from 100 percent waste from the Six Bells coal mine in the village of Blaenau Gwent, Wales, a site with a long history of industrial coal mining. The ochre, a natural clay earth pigment specific to the Six Bells site, is made from an iron residue called ferric oxyhydroxide, a waste material left over from coal mining in the region. McCausland’s production process involved burning this material at a specific temperature, subsequently producing a limited amount of the pigment. For McCausland, the burning of the ochre has a symbolic connection to the history of the Six Bells site, “[It] is a way of re-enacting some of the industrial residues that the landscape has been performing over centuries.” In this sense, the paint is site and process specific – connected to the environment and history of Six Bells, and a distinct making period. The emulsion paint is made in Six Bells by the TurningLandscape Community Interest Company as a limited edition of 100 one litre tins, half of which has been given to the public and organisations in the local area, who have been encouraged to participate in the artwork by using the paint on buildings, houses, doors, gates, and walls. This participation is extended through the availability of 1,000 tubes of the paint, each with individual serial numbers, the sale of which go back into the TurningLandscape CIC to fund an art education programme at Six Bells, and the production of more paint. At the site of waste iron oxide extraction McCausland has installed a plaque with a map of the site, signposting the paint’s source.
Carter’s ink is made by heating Oak gall and rusted metal pieces in water on a domestic kitchen stove. The Oak galls were taken from the grounds of Rockingham Castle, and the rusted metal pieces were taken from the castle itself. The castle is situated two miles north of Corby, Northamptonshire, and was built in the 11th Century under instruction from William the Conqueror. Oak gall is a large, round apple-like ‘gall’, or growth, found on oak twigs. The tannic acid inside the galls is a crucial chemical for the ink making process. The galls appear when female oak apple gall wasps (Biorhiza pallida) lay their eggs in the oak leaf bud. Within the gall are several chambers housing larva which eat their way out. The heating of Oak gall with rust in water to make ink is a process that can be traced back to ancient Roman times and was popularised in the Middle Ages. Using this homemade, “DIY” ink Carter made prints by placing ink in the centre of paper and folding it over to create a mirrored shape. He explained he repeated this printmaking process hundreds of times to find the right shapes produced. There were no defined criteria for the correct shapes, however Carter described that on reflection the ones chosen for display ended up being one where he saw shapes of nature such as insects, animals, and plants. A selection of these prints was framed and displayed next to a transparent box with several Oak galls inside.
During the discussion both McCausland and Carter expressed an interest in materials that was both ontological – concerned with their agency and forcefulness, and an openness to being directed by this in their creative process; and representational – concerned with the meaning derived from where the materials were extracted, particularly the histories that entwined these places. For both artists, this interest in the active state of materials seemed to emerge from their internal composition and agency. As McCausland explained, “We’re both interested in the particularities of materials, their characteristics, anomalies, and unwieldy nature.” McCausland went on to describe how the unwieldiness of the waste iron oxide from the Six Bells site needed close attention and experimentation to create the paint and contain it in cans. Carter extended this shared intrigue, explaining he saw the materials he worked with – the Oak gall and rusted metal – as unstable, as volatile. To extract what he needed for his work – the ink – it required a period of experimentation with the amounts of each material, and the type of heat introduced to create the reaction between the gall and rust. This intrigue in the unwieldy characteristics of the waste materials echoes that of Jane Bennett’s thing-power materialism which understands the capacity of materials and other nonhuman things to exceed human agency, expectation, and meaning. As Bennett proclaims, there is a “a curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle” (2004: p. 351). Both McCausland and Carter seem keen to utilise this ‘curious ability’ of their materials, incorporating a lack of control regarding the outcomes of their experimentations.
To conclude, I wish to suggest that this tension between waste material agency and experimental process in Six Bells Red and Elephant in the Room demonstrates a co-productive relationship between the artists and “forces of the earth” (Grosz 2008: p. 2-3). Elizabeth Grosz asserts that “Art is the regulation and organization of its materials – paint, canvas, concrete, steel, marble, words, sounds, bodily movements, indeed any materials – according to self-imposed constraints, the creation of forms through which these materials come to generate and intensify sensation and thus directly impact living bodies” (2008: p. 4, original emphasis). McCausland and Carter extracted a specific set of waste materials – oak gall, rust, iron oxide, ochre – temporarily reorganising and framing their matter into intensified sensations for humans to encounter. But their openness to material agency during experimental processes highlights how this reorganisation and reframing can be co-productive – carried out in collaboration with, rather than on, materials extracted from the earth. In this sense, what McCausland and Carter share in their work is a quiet politics; a careful and collaborative way of encountering and relating to earthly, waste materials and forces, one of co-productive creativity rather than exploitative extraction.
Main Image: Onya McCausland, Cuthill 55˚50 59.82 N 3˚36 34.65W night painting No.1 56cm x 76cm photo credit Tom Jenkins
Thumbnail image: Justin Carter. ‘Signs of Life’ ongoing print series 2022
Grosz, E. (2008) Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth. NYC: Columbia University Press.
S. A. Marston, J. P. Jones III, and K. Woodward (2007) Flattening Ontologies of Globalization: The Nollywood Case, Globalizations, 4(1), p. 45-63.
McNally, D. (2018) Collaboration as acknowledged co-production: a site-based approach to Tribe, cultural geographies, 25(2), 339–359.