Zoe Childerley was Artist in Residence for VARC (Visual Arts in Rural Communities) during 2016. For six months from April to September Zoe lived and based her practice at Highgreen in remote rural Northumberland not many miles south of the border with Scotland.
During her residency Zoe has walked the length of the Anglo-Scottish border meeting people who live on both sides of the line and learning about their relationship with place, past and present. Walking through this often wild and remote land it is hard to imagine the days of the Reivers who fought over it. However this border is again a focus for debate over sovereignty whilst international borders have become significant barriers for huge numbers of refugees in their perilous journeys across Europe raising issues of nationalism and identity.
During the walking period Zoe talked and photographed, recorded conversations, gathered Northumbrian words and place names, researched historical events and noted topical news headlines relating to borders, nationalism and movement of people internationally.
A collection of images, some with text, were displayed at Zoe’s end of residency exhibition along with a hand-drawn 5 M long annotated map of her journey.
Zoe kept a blog during her residency. You can read it here. https://zoechilderley.wordpress.com/
Dr Mike Collier has written an essay to accompany the publication of ‘The Debatable Lands’ artist’s book by Zoe Childerley.
You can read his essay below:
Zoe Childerley: Debatable Lands
Photographer Zoe Childerley was artist in residence at VARC in north Northumberland for six months from April to August 2016. She initially applied to do the residency in 2014 at a time when arguments around the Scottish referendum were live and in the headlines. Childerley was particularly interested in exploring the political and human ramifications of the issues raised by the referendum and the fallout from the decision taken by Scotland – and to examine how this decision affected the people of the Borders.
There are many ways an artist could have engaged with this debatable land – but Childerley chose to walk through it … especially to walk along the border between England and Scotland. She said she wanted to ‘experience what I saw as one of the wildest parts of the country and to see first hand how people either side of this generally invisible political divide felt about their sense of place and belonging’. She wished to physically and viscerally experience this unique landscape.
Archaeologist Christopher Tilley says that before you look at, and categorise, any artefacts uncovered in a landscape you first should walk the surface of the land … get a feel for it … experience first hand what the people who made these objects felt – how they emotionally lived in and on the land, before working out the meaning of any archaeological finds. Childerley herself explained that she wanted ‘an embodied experience of what seemed to me at first a wild and desolate landscape; to step in peat bogs, scale electric fences; to feel the wind, the cold, the wet and the bleakness; to soak in the big skies and the fresh air as well as to embrace the warmth of the welcome afforded her by the close knit communities of the Border.’ She felt it was important to take her time … ‘and the experience of walking made me slow down. I wasn’t ‘marching’.
Childerley walked approximately one hundred miles through some of the quietest, darkest and least populated parts of the country from the Solway Firth in the West to the East Coast just north of Berwick. It took her thirteen days to journey along and through this much disputed and romanticised Border. She averaged ten miles a day (her longest walk was fourteen miles and her shortest eight miles). She saw the process of walking as political … ‘I live in the city’ she said ‘and the idea people have there of this Borderland is very different to the way people along the Border itself feel about their landscape’. It is especially interesting to see how perceptions of this land have changed radically over the last ten years. Writing in 2006, Eric Robson, in his book ‘Borderline’ said ‘it seems to me that we’re going to be walking along what in many ways is an imaginary line.’ What a difference ten years makes. This same ‘imaginary’ border was brought into very sharp focus during the passionate, and at times divisive referendum debates of 2014. And so for Childerley, walking it, talking to the people who lived along it, also became, in 2016, a political rather than a recreational exploration, particularly as during the course of her journey, the result of the EU Brexit poll was announced and talk around another referendum for Scottish Independence was discussed in the media.
There is a history of walking as political exploration or statement. Rebecca Solnit who has written extensively about the culture/s of walking, says that her interest in walking came about through her activity, in the 1980s, as an antinuclear activist involved in the Spring demonstrations at a Nevada test site; and in the UK, such civil disobedience has manifested itself variously and importantly across the twentieth century, including the Jarrow March in 1936 and the mass trespass of Kinder Scout in 1932. This ultimately led to the ‘Right to Roam’ legislation in England, although as Childerley pointed out, there were still legal barriers to her walking the Border in England whereas on the Scottish side she had really did have the right to roam.
In this spirit of political and social enquiry, Childerley talked to the local inhabitants as she walked the Border. What did they have to say? ‘I don’t feel very English; I’m a borderer’ … ‘our allegiance ebbs and flows’ … ‘it’s an emotional frontier, an imaginary line’ … ‘we must stick together on this tiny island’ … ‘long memories, the Borderers’. Childerley has captured these quotes on the detailed map she has painstakingly drawn of the route she followed; a route that took her along largely untracked land; beside rivers, through small communities, over fields and into Kielder Forest where she would hear the bark of deer and feel a quiet, soft dampness in what she describes as ‘magical spaces where dappled sunlight breaks through the darkness’.
Childerley was also fascinated by the local names for the places that seem to define the history and identity of this debatable land. Windy Gyle; Murder Cleugh; Hanging Stone; The Tongue; The Schil; Windy Knowe; Headless Sike; Deadwater Station; Swindle Hope; Thieve’s Sike; King’s Cleugh; Conumdrum
“For us to live and die properly,” says John Berger, “things have to be named properly. Let us reclaim our words.” The poet Jake Campbell explains that as he walks he finds that ‘new names and words, rolled on the tongue, tested out in whispers, cross-referred to maps and articles … new words which find shape and form … become real’. Campbell has a habit of juxtaposing current affairs with the social and political history of the places he walked through, collapsing meta narrative and the distinctiveness of place. Similarly, Childerley collected the headlines from newspapers on each of the days she walked the Border, teasing out issues which had both local and international significance; for instance:
1 June: Mediterranean death toll reached 1000 this week. 2 June: National Borders exist to pen poor people into reservations of poverty. 7 June: You’re a threat to our borders. 9 June: Bid to replace Border Saltires with Berwickshire and Union Jack flags. 11 June: Russia could expand border to Poland and Germany.
All of this rich well of information (the names, places, portraits of people, comments made by those living along the Border; it’s rivers, hills, villages, communities, forests, mosses, fields, flora, fauna, geology and geography) is captured on the map and photographs in the book produced by Childerley – ‘The Debatable Lands’. It is a detailed cartographic rendering, lovingly drawn by an artist who has immersed herself within the culture, the politics, the landscape and the communities of the Border.
Mike Collier: Artist and Reader in Fine Art; the University of Sunderland 2016 and Principal Investigator for WALK (Walking, Art, Landskip, and Knowledge); a Research Centre at the University of Sunderland that explores the way we creatively engage with the world as we walk through it.