BIGGS, Dr Iain

Since the late 1990s much of Iain Biggs’ work flows from a dual involvement with ‘deep mappings’, in which fieldwork plays a central role, and with supervising arts-based interdisciplinary doctoral projects. This dual-stranded activity is grounded in an understanding of conversation as based on open, inclusive forms of attentive listening – whether to a person or place. Like conversations, he sees deep mappings as based in an openness that doesn’t presume any particular outcome but seeks to respond appropriately to whatever appears. The resulting ‘outcomes’ mix image-making, writing various forms of academic and fictive narrative, time-based work, and interactions with various social science practices. These mappings may take years and one, begun in 1999, is still ongoing.

Iain’s work takes ‘drawing’ to be an open verb. This can include a ‘drawing up or down’ of material into the peripheries of space or vision, a ‘drawing out’ of meanings or resonances otherwise too compressed to register, a ‘drawing together’ of apparently disparate elements into a particular constellation, a ‘drawing through’ as of a thread in weaving, and so on. Drawing in a more metaphorical sense, a compound act of attending/listening/sense-making, grounds Iain’s hybrid practice of fieldworker / teacher / artist / researcher.

Iain lives in Bristol and County Durham, is an RWA, a Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University, and an Honorary Research Fellow at Duncan of Jordanstone School of Art, University of Dundee. Notionally retired, he continues to act as a project mentor, supervise doctoral projects in Wales, Scotland and the Irish Republic, and collaborate in creative research.

Iain Biggs | Land² | University of the West of England

FIELDWORK Q&A – to follow

What interests you about fieldwork in artistic and/or geographic practice?

As a child I went hunting with my father, who used to take me in the early morning when he culled roe deer for the Forestry Commission. The skills I learned then, particularly a certain type of bodily attention, were an ideal stepping-stone to fieldwork more generally. I do two types of interrelated field work. One explores sites, as far as possible by walking them. The other explores all those fields of information that help us understand what is only hinted at, or plain invisible, when walking a site.

Because peripheral neuropathy now limits the amount of physical fieldwork I can do, I have developed a particular interest in the practice of notitia. This form of attentive listening-to-the-world facilitates an understanding of relationality between radically different phenomena. It’s illustrated by the poet Kathleen Jamie’s response to a question about the insufficiency of the term ‘Nature’ and its implicit division of life into contrary, antagonistic, categories. ‘Dealing with the family socks and you hear an oystercatcher – why should these things be separate?’

I take notitia to be common to what’s creative in art, education, research, ethics, and conversation. It enables art’s constant movement into and across other disciplines and our ability to think as both artists and socially active citizens simultaneously, while still acknowledging all the tensions involved. I am particularly drawn to Mary Watkins’ definition of notitia as ‘a careful attention that is sustained, patient, subtly attuned to images and metaphor’, one that is able ‘to track both hidden meanings and surface presentations’. This seems to me the ground from which genuine fieldwork springs. It also involves a ‘seeing through’ (in at least two senses) that is ‘never accomplished once and for all’ and has a critical socio-cultural dimension in resisting hyperactivity, including the frantic pursuit of conceptual and artistic novelty, by virtue of being ‘slow, observant, and participatory’.

In terms of fieldwork, notitia is best seen as a way of recovering the neglected and perhaps deeper (more bodily) roots of what we call thinking. This is vital in a cultural world that teaches us that authority flows from knowing how to speak but entirely neglects the need to listen. (An imbalance that prevents us questioning the ‘competing monologues’ of our academic and cultural institutions). The ecological significance of notitia is suggested by Kathleen Jamie’s reference to caring for and maintaining ‘the web of our noticing’, of our ‘paying heed’ to the life-world. However, this aspect of notitia is inseparable from one exemplified by Mary Watkins’ noticing the convergence between the educational work of Paulo Freire and James Hillman’s work of ‘psychic decolonization’. In short, fieldwork is, for me, an exercising of notitia as awareness of what Geraldine Finn refers to as: ‘the space between’ the categories of ‘experience and expression, reality and representation, existence and essence’. An exercise that reminds us that both we and the world are always both more and less than all the imposed categories that name and divide the relationalities that make up our polyverse.

How is fieldwork part of your research and/or work?

Fieldwork is part of my work in the sense indicated above. Whether I’m undertaking fieldwork with a small team to explore how older people relate to the rural environment of north Cornwall, which borrowed from ethnographic models of fieldwork, or pursuing my ongoing concern with the Borders country in the Debatable Lands project, which draws on archival, musicological and archeological material, the fieldwork is predicated on notitia.

How would you describe your fieldwork activity?

There’s no short answer to this question. In his editorial to the Humanities double issue on deep mapping, Les Roberts identifies what he sees as central to an account of work that Jane Bailey and I did in Cornwall. He writes as follows:

“In their ethnographically-informed case study based in rural North Cornwall, Jane Bailey and Iain Biggs describe a deep mapping process that consists of “observing, listening, walking, conversing, writing and exchanging … of selecting, reflecting, naming, and generating … [and] of digitizing, interweaving, offering and inviting” (p. 326). While this full set of verbs will not apply to all variations and permutations of deep mapping practice what they do usefully signpost is the way that very little of what deep mappers are doing is in fact oriented towards the production of maps so much as immersing themselves in the warp and weft of a lived and fundamentally intersubjective spatiality. It is from that performative platform—that space—that the creative coalescence of structures, forms, affects, energies, narratives, connections, memories, imaginaries, mythologies, voices, identities, temporalities, images, and textualities starts to provisionally take shape. Whether or not we wish to call what emerges from this process a “map” (or the process itself “mapping”) seems to me less important than the fact that it is taking place at all. In its most quotidian sense, then, deep mapping can be looked upon as an embodied and reflexive immersion in a life that is lived and performed spatially. A cartography of depth. A diving within.”

For ‘deep mapping’ here, then, one might substitute ‘fieldwork’?