Championing Environmental Advocacy Through Art: An Interview with Phil Barton
In the realm of Eco Art, Phil Barton stands as a dedicated practitioner, weaving a profound commitment to the natural and built environment into his creative endeavors. With a lifelong dedication to fostering collaboration across diverse communities and organizations, Phil Barton employs a hands-on approach to environmental issues, urging practical actions to address the pressing challenges faced by our planet.
This interview delves into Barton's unique approach, examining the intersection of art, science, and activism, and the pivotal role it plays in raising awareness and inspiring positive change.
Can you elaborate on your artistic journey and how it led you to become an eco-artist with a focus on environmental and ecological issues?
Ever since, as a seventeen-year-old, I did a summer placement in Ceredigion’s planning department in West Wales and witnessed the challenges and pressures on the natural world caused by agriculture, development and transport, I have been passionately committed to protecting nature. As a result, I read Biology and Geography at university followed by an MSc in Landscape Ecology, Design & Maintenance at Wye College in Kent. There I experienced regenerative work with nature and communities, reading widely in the environmental field. In 1975 I read “Only One Earth” and realised that the assault on our planet was global in nature, carbon-based and was storing up catastrophic changes to the climate likely to become manifest during the first half of the twenty-first century if nothing was done to stop it. And now here we are…
Accordingly, I spent over three decades, from 1980 to 2015 working to raise public awareness and to improve local environments, working to create more liveable and sustainable towns and cities, initially in Manchester, then the North West of England and, latterly, nationally. I led many successful projects, including extensive education work with young people and building environmental partnerships with businesses, government, universities, NGOs, community organisations and schools. I was involved in many regeneration projects, working to unleash the power of people and organisations working together to improve local areas and make them places where people were happy to live, work and play and the natural world was respected. The experience I gained during this time is very influential in my artistic practice as I seek to build collaborative partnerships around my eco practice and involve all sections of the community. I also learnt of the importance of giving community members a sense of agency, that they can improve their environment and a sense of hope that they can make a difference. A readable account of some of this experience can be found in this open access article, Barton et al (2021).
My work was, of course, undertaken within the dominant Western consumer capitalism paradigm initiated by Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher which took hold from the 1980s and continues to hold sway today. This ultimately resulted in the casual dismantling of the local state, environmental protections and community support after 2010 by the Coalition Government – for me the last straw.
I decided to change tack completely in 2015 and to see whether another aspect of my creativity might have more success. Prior to this, my photography, printing, furniture making and craftwork with my children had been therapeutic, satisfying – and personal. In 2016 I began a Foundation Year at Manchester School of Art followed two years later by a masters in Art & Science at Central Saint Martins. My journey to EcoArtist had begun.
The early Land Artists left the gallery and made art in and from nature, either imposing their will on the natural world – examples include Claus Oldenberg’s Placid Civil Monument (1967), Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) and Michael Heizer’s Double Negative (1969) – or focusing on the intrinsic beauty of nature whilst deliberately ignoring the human threat to it – British artists Richard Long, Andy Goldsworthy, Chris Drury for example. There were key exceptions, often women, including Ana Mendieta Tree of Life (1976), Agnes Deans Wheatfield (1982) and Hans Haacke Rhine River Purification Plant (1972), who worked in nature whilst making political points about humanity’s dysfunctional relationship to it.
An artist, two scientists and a visionary have been particular influences on my practice. Joseph Beuys developed his concept of social sculpture and performed two works in protest at proposed destruction of important local habitats (Bog Action and Overcome Party Dictatorship Now, both 1971), mobilising local communities in taking political action against developers. But his work 7,000 Oaks: City Afforestation Not City Administration was particularly influential on my thinking. Beuys conceptualised the work, raised the money for it, recruited volunteers and tackled the Kassel city administrators. Launched at Documenta 7 in 1982, it was completed five years later, although Beuys did not live to see it. 7,000 Oaks continues to grow and be revitalised today, tended by a trust and a small army of volunteers.
At the time I was taking on the Parks Department of Manchester City Council and trying to convince them to rewild (as we now call it) and bring nature back into the city. I designed and organised the planting and management of a number of woodlands within Manchester City and it is with great pleasure that I go back and walk amongst the trees, now fast growing to maturity, some forty years later.
Professor Tony Bradshaw revolutionised our approach to restoring derelict land in the UK in the 70s and 80s by seeding pollution-resistant seeds directly onto polluted and disturbed land in Merseyside and beyond, inspiring a whole generation in low-cost, nature-led regeneration. Professor John Handley picked up this idea and used it on a grand scale through the public/ private/ voluntary sector NGOs inspired and set up by visionary civil servant John Davidson. I was blessed, early in my career, to work alongside them all in the Groundwork movement which used nature conservation and restoration to engage and inspire communities and businesses in areas of economic and environmental degradation. Such was the power of this movement that it survives until today, continuing to inspire and support communities. Groundwork as a movement, stands for people taking action in their local place, and this is a strong element of my current artistic practice.
There have been many artists raising environmental questions going back to the 70s and 80’s as important early adopters and more recently creatives like Eve Mosher, Ronni Horn, Jenny Kinder, Alfredo Jaar, Pekka Niittyvirta & Timo Aho and Basia Irland. Much creativity has also been applied to protest from Greenpeace to Extinction Rebellion.
When I decided to take up artistic practice in 2015/16, it was in frustration at the failure over decades of NG0s, Governments and businesses to put our destruction of nature, habitats and our natural life support systems front and centre of their priorities and, more importantly, their actions. I could really find very little eco-art in mainstream galleries and what was there was mostly activist art in the community. In the few short years since, all that has changed. There has been a welcome and belated recognition that environmental wellbeing and social justice are two sides of the same coin. The consequences of environmental breakdown have become visible, frequent and widely experienced throughout the world – floods, fires and droughts are becoming the new normal.
But still, the urgency to act is missing in action as we have recently seen with Rishi Sunak’s scaling back on good long-term decisions - from the Rosebank oil & gas fields to domestic boilers, electric cars, HS2 and clean air. Artists have a responsibility to understand the science, to speak truth to power, to inspire and educate and to be at the vanguard of progressive action – inspiring, campaigning, charming, giving hope, working with nature and bringing people with them.
I have developed my own model for my artistic practice, starting from Joseph Beuys’ reportedly saying that: “only the artist can transform a sick society into a healthy one”:
Your recent project, The Waters Are Coming, used art to convey the realities of sea-level rise. What inspired this project, and what impact do you hope it will have on its audience?
The science is unequivocal. Sea levels are rising in response to global warming expanding the ocean mass and melting of land-based ice. I read campaigning journalist Jeff Goodell’s 2018 book “The Water Will Come” in which scientist after scientist around the world believed the official forecasts to be woefully under stated and that a 2m rise in sea level by 2100 was a real possibility. The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change upped its estimates for the maximum rise we will see this century from 22cm in 2001 to 44cm in 2007, 82cm in 2013 and 110 cm in 2019. Today, all bets are off as Greenland and Antarctic terrestrial ice melts rapidly as temperatures not seen for thousands of years are becoming the norm.
Preparing for my master’s degree show, I proposed putting a 200cm column of water into the gallery and inviting the audience to hand pump water, making their own contribution to sea level rise, as we all do to a greater or lesser extent, to this disastrous phenomenon. From my previous environmental regeneration work, I knew that people often cannot understand the environment that they cannot see and touch. I felt that people talk about and share figures of sea level rise, but without it having great meaning. By physically putting 2m of sea level rise in front of them in the gallery, it might make them register, reflect, and, perhaps, take action. And, keen to reach a wider audience, I proposed programming the array of over 1,000 jets in the fountains outside Central Saint Martins in Granary Square, Kings Cross. Covid lockdown ensured that this was not to be, but earlier this year I was given the opportunity to make and show both works there. 2m ‘tides’ swept through low-lying cities and island states from east to west around the Globe – from Fiji to Dhaka, Jakarta, Maputo, London and on to Santiago.
The installation provoked rich conversations, with many visitors seeking out the cities they called home or had visited and keen to learn more. It was an opportunity to connect what happens here to what is happening around the world, connecting the science and its consequences from place to place to place. I hope that the experience raised awareness as a minimum and that at least some will have gone on to act. Whatever we now do now; The Waters Are Coming…
What can you tell us about the Remember Nature Manifesto?
Gustav Metzger (1926 – 2017), a revolutionary, auto destructive artist, has also been a major influence in my career. His last major work was to issue a Call to Artists for Action to Remember Nature on 4th November 2015. Here is an extract. Every two years since his death, I have convened a Day of Action to Remember Nature on 4th November - in Salford, London and Cornwall and this year at The Whitaker Gallery in Rossendale, Lancashire.
Metzger arrived in the UK on the Kindertransport having witnessed the Nazi Nuremberg rallies in his childhood. A lifelong opponent of authoritarianism, capitalism and the atom bomb, his awareness of the destruction of nature was articulated in a 1996 ‘manifesto’ called “Damaged Nature, Auto-Destructive Art” which built on a series of three auto destructive manifestos proclaimed by him between 1959 and 1963.
I wrote the Remember Nature Manifesto in 2017 and first proclaimed it on 4th November in Salford and have done so at each subsequent Day of Action to Remember Nature. It reads as follows:
REMEMBER NATURE MANIFESTO
Nature no longer exists separate from humankind – humans have altered every part of Nature throughout the Earth.
Humankind cannot exist without Nature.
In this post-industrial, post-truth global society we have forgotten this. We have embarked on our own auto-destructive process. When the disintegrative process is complete, humankind will have been removed from the planet and scrapped. Nature will re-assert herself and set about countering the human driven sixth great extinction and, over millennia, the Anthropocene age will be superseded in the geological record by new eras.
Humankind can choose instead to adopt an auto-creative, ecological approach to Nature. One where we work alongside the other than human world; where we value all life on this planet and not just our own; where our reason, technologies and behaviours align with Nature and do not seek to dominate.
The artist must lead the way. Auto-creative art is the art of change, movement, growth – the art of Nature. Our ‘Pale Blue Dot’ – a speck of dust in the vastness of the cosmos – becomes the focus of our art, our society, our economy, our science. We create with Nature. We do not ignore, dominate, extinguish Nature.
Auto-creative art honours and respects Nature. It challenges dominant political, religious, economic, media and academic paradigms which ignore, override or devalue Nature.
Auto-creative ecological art Remembers Nature.”
One of your projects, called The Oxford Road Murders, protests the destruction of trees in Manchester. Could you discuss the role of urban trees in our natural life support systems and the significance of this project?
Between 2015 and 2017 some 120+ mature trees were cut down along Manchester’s Oxford Road Corridor. The majority were killed to make way for the University of Manchester’s £1bn campus redevelopment, although some were also lost to short-sighted design on the excellent new cycleway and to private development by Bruntwood. To add insult to injury, almost all the replacement trees planted are not saplings which will grow into great and mighty forest trees like those cut down to line our pavements and shelter us in the summer heat. Rather, the trees planted have been bred to be fastigiate trees, which means that they will never attain the size and beauty of the trees they replace, never making a substantial contribution to the appearance and environment of the Corridor or, most importantly in terms of climate change, never taking up the carbon dioxide that those they have replaced were taking from the atmosphere.
Devastated at the uncaring and totally human centred lack of wise decision making leading to the casual loss of some fine signature trees together with many others collectively making an important contribution to the streetscape and liveability, and determined to do what I could to prevent it from happening again, I was inspired to complete a number of works protesting their loss and illustrating the value of urban trees. I called the project “The Oxford Road Murders”.
The context of this art work was that it was a prestigious Russell Group University which was centrally involved in the destruction of the trees. I wrote several letters of protest to senior management but although getting a written response did not manage in any way to change the policy of the institution. My art work was a response rooted in place. And little has changed several years later; this week I wrote to oppose the university cutting down mature trees on another part of their estate alongside Oxford Road.
My show at the end of my Foundation Year at Manchester School of Art was focused on the value of urban trees and featured an installation [Re]Cycling Tree shown in All Saints Park on Oxford Road for six weeks. Hung around a tree, it represented the process of photosynthesis and the importance of this as a natural life support system.
Shortly afterwards, between 6th November 2017 and 5th November 2018, I sent a total of 19 postcards to 96 individuals - decision makers, arts and nature organisations, local community activists and residents. I had recently seen “100 Boots” (1970 - 73) by Eleanor Antim in a London Gallery and was inspired. Each card illustrated one or more of the murders along the corridor carrying a picture of one or more trees being cut down on one side, whilst the other carried the location and month of the murder and a weblink to evidence of the value of urban trees environmentally, for health, learning & culture, and economically.
In April/May 2019, an exhibition at the Manchester Museum presented this work, raising awareness of the enormity of the destruction and the inadequacy of the attempted remediation. I also led a number of guided walks, visiting the site of many of the murders, raising concerns about the inadequacy of the process and giving people an opportunity to mourn their loss. These were well attended by local people who were saddened and dismayed by the loss of trees. It needs to be remembered that once a tree is cut down, which takes an afternoon, it is no longer there and its existence over many decades and even centuries, is forgotten. The Oxford Road Murders stands for those trees.
During lockdown, on 1st August 2020, I carried out a one-hour performance on Zoom on the subject ‘Becoming Pear Tree’ simultaneously with 18 other artists from across the world – from Delhi to Finland, Slovenia to New York and Colombo to Cornwall. The mass performance was organised by Arts of the Self as part of the Be-Coming Tree project. My performance was both an elegy for over 120 mature trees felled for development and a celebration of the pear tree (Pyrus communis var.) which has stood in our garden for over thirty years since we moved in and was an old tree then. During the performance, Phil Barton became pear tree and pear tree became Phil Barton.
On 30th October 2020 I conducted a second live performance, ‘The Oxford Road Requiem’, again alongside other artists as part of the Be-Coming Tree Project. This film recorded a progress to the graves of many of the trees, placing wreaths reading ‘rest in peace’, sounding a gong and reading poetry.
Maw Macaws No Maw Saws involves public participation in protest art. What inspired you to engage the public in this way? In what way did you protest the election and policies of Brazil's President Balsenaro against indigenous peoples and nature in the Amazon Basin?
The idea for this work came to me late in 2018, shortly after Jaio Bolsenaro was elected President of Brazil on an anti-indigenous peoples, anti-rainforest and climate change denying ticket. I have visited the rainforests of the Amazon and Oronoco Rivers in Peru and Venezuela, meeting Yanomami indigenous people, witnessing the fecundity and complexity of rainforest systems and watching flocks of macaws in the canopy far above me.
Jointly with fellow artist Catherine Herbert, we developed this interactive work for performance at Tate Exchange and subsequently at St James’ Piccadilly and Manchester Metropolitan University.
We prepared a multiple image of macaws and cut them into pieces. Macaws are excellent indicators of the health of a rainforest. Each participant was given one of these pieces and invited to interpret it onto a bigger tile. Alongside this, we set up a pair of ballot boxes and invited participants to vote on the question: “Which is more important? The democratic process or the rights of minorities and nature?”. We also invited them to take an addressed postcard, to add their own message of protest and mail it to the Presidential Palace in Brasilia. Catherine and I paid for the postage and posted the cards. It was important to help participants feel a sense of agency. The tiles painted by our 70 co-artists on the day were then re-assembled on the day to re-create – in a much more interesting way! – our original image.
Can you provide more details about your ongoing project, Window on Lindow, and how it aims to engage the local community in environmental conservation efforts?
Lindow Moss near Manchester Airport is a much-degraded raised bog formed in a hollow left behind when the ice retreated c11,000 years ago. For much of the past 2,000 years it has been cut for peat and drained for agriculture and it is possible to see major historical events in the pollen counts in the peat column, including the Roman occupation of Britain, the black death and the hundred years war. Degradation of the bog rapidly accelerated in the 20th Century with the advent of mechanical peat-cutting and the deposition of waste onto large areas of the former extent of Lindow Moss. In 1984, two peat cutters found a human foot and the preserved remains of Lindow Man, now in the British Museum, were found, giving the Moss a national and international profile. 1st August next year will be the 40th anniversary of his discovery.
Peat cutting stopped on the residual bog some years ago and the catalyst for my project was the commencement of restoration in February 2022. A dead bog is a carbon source releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as the drying peat decays. But a restored, living bog is a carbon sink, removing CO2 from the atmosphere and sequestering it back into the bog. I see the start of restoration as a key fulcrum between centuries of human degradation and the beginning of a return to a healthy, living, natural system. Earlier this year I had a three-month exhibition of drawings and print inspired by, and telling the story of Lindow Moss at the nearby Wilmslow Guild.
A year ago, I put forward a proposal to Transition Wilmslow, a local NGO instrumental in getting the peat cutting stopped and helping to engineer a solution to allow restoration to commence, and The Wilmslow Guild, an independent adult education Centre, for a six-month season of Lindow related activities during the second half of 2024. Amongst the activities being planned are two guided footpath routes around Lindow, a lecture series on the geological, natural and cultural history of Lindow Moss, a day school at Manchester Museum, a film season of Bog related films, various workshops at The Guild where tutors are also using it as a theme for their classes, a historical photography exhibition, a family BogFest, and a dawn walk on 1st August. My direct contribution is an outdoor exhibition on the bog featuring my own work and those of a willow sculptor and a wood carver, together with an art project to make outdoor work for the exhibition with four primary schools (potentially 600+ children) and one with the local High School. I will also hold a second indoor show at the Wilmslow Guild.
17th May - Day 17
Today’s drawing uses another photograph sent by John. This one is a LIDAR image taken from the air and created by a laser which reflects off the ground and water to give a very accurate picture of the relative elevation of the surfaces. It ‘sees through’ trees and other vegetation to capture the ground surface image.
Looking at the clear ridges and ditches left behind by the peat cutters in the surface of Lindow Moss, I was inspired to draw the ridges using a sand/peat mix gathered from the bog margin. Thus the ridges, caused by past peat cutting and rendered on a flat surface, once again become three dimensional. One day, as the water level is raised, they will project out of water and living moss as the bog recovers and the peat becomes re-wetted. Eventually, if all goes well, the ridge pattern will disappear as the Moss regenerates.
190 x 210mm Sand/peat mixture on LIDAR photographThis exhibition will bring together many aspects of my work as an Eco-Artist: it is rooted in place, it involves partnerships and it aims to give agency and hope to nature and to local people, organisations and fellow artists.
Above: One of the works with accompanying text shown at The Wilmslow Guild early in 2023
You have built your creative practice on a 35-year career as a social entrepreneur in local environmental regeneration, during which you established and built several not-for-profit organizations. What can you tell us about this avenue of your practice?
In 1979 I came to Manchester, where I still live today, to work in the Parks Department of the City Council. I was instrumental in leading much of the public consultation on behalf of my unit, established two new urban woodlands and brough another back from neglect and helped initiate the regeneration of East Manchester, which later became the Commonwealth Games campus and is now home to Manchester City. From there I moved to the Countryside Commission to help set up the public/private/voluntary Groundwork Trusts in the region. In 1984 I became Director of the Community Technical Aid Centre which offered planning, landscape, architectural and fundraising support to community organisations and in 1987 joined the Mersey Basin Campaign – a 25-year initiative to clean the 1,000 miles of rivers discharging to the sea at Liverpool the and using the clean-up to re-generate the land alongside – where I established the Mersy Basin Trust which, when I left in 1995, had 600 members drawn from community, recreational, heritage and nature NGOs and schools.
I next set up the National Centre for Business & Ecology for the Cooperative Bank and with the then four Manchester/ Salford Universities in order to provide environmental and sustainability advice to small businesses. In 1997 I re-joined Groundwork, initially regionally and then nationally which had grown to a federation of fifty environmental regeneration trusts. After a spell advising two Government Departments on environmental regeneration policy and financing, I returned to the north west and set up a training and development programme in community, economic, environmental and social regeneration working with professionals and local leaders to build skills and promote better joined up working across professions and organisations. My final position was as Chief Executive of Keep Britain Tidy where we provided leadership on management and education in the local environment – parks, streets, waste management, beaches and Eco-Schools. Having secured the future of the charity following the Coalition Government’s decision to remove all its funding, I drew breath, and decided to work on the same issues through an artistic practice which I hoped would give me the freedom of expression and manoeuvre to challenge more actively and to try to do what I could to overturn the dominant – and likely ultimately fatal – Consumer Capitalist paradigm.
What message or call to action would you like your audience to take away from your art and projects?
There are other influences on my artistic practice, including my family, responding to and encouraging the creativity of my daughters and now my grandchildren, helping them see the beauty of nature. With neighbour Elaine Bishop recording stories of residents, discovering and through our book Stories of A Manchester Street (2019) giving name to diversity and inclusion in our multi-cultural inner city street which was published through the History Press. Project managing the publication of a beautiful coming of age novel, which pays homage to the mountains and sea of Iveragh, in the south west of Ireland , and, since 2020, supporting my civil partner in her life work by designing, laying-out and crafting Jouneys to Hopeful Futures: a Handbook, published earlier this year and rooted in our communities, creativity, planet and cosmos.
Without nature humanity is nothing. Nature is complex, infinitely variable and resilient – and has, for millennia, nurtured and enabled humanity to thrive. My entire career has sought to support and value nature. But we have overstepped the limits and broken the connection.
The urgency of my work as an EcoArtist is to support and enable individuals, communities and organisations to radically and quickly change our civilisations and ways of organising our economies such that we recognise the importance of environmental as well as social and economic justice and value all the other than humans we share this precious planet with. If we do not, we are sentencing our children and their children to an enormously challenging and possibly overwhelming future.
We must follow the science. We must work together. We must be creative. We must Remember Nature!
My practice as an Eco Artist is rooted in a lifelong commitment to working with the natural and built environment by bringing together communities and organisations from all walks of life to take practical action. Often working in particular places and incorporating material from those places in my work, I use print, lens-based media, installation, scientific evidence and appropriate techniques to foreground the assault both on our natural life support systems – trees, climate, ecosystems – and on the other-than-human who share this precious planet with us.
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