Beyond human time scales: Vulpes Vulpes on geology, territory and exploring through non-linearity

, 22 May 2017
“For us they seem to ignite consideration of beyond-human time scales” explain Vulpes Vulpes when I ask them about their current interest in ancient standing stones. Via an email chat, we discuss their recent two month residency at Bath’s The Edge which ran from March 2 to May 6, where they spent time exploring the history of land usage and ownership around the area. Researching geology, folklore and migration among other subjects, the residency took the form of urban explorations, mappings and spending time with both the local community, culminating with exhibition Gang Days on May 6 and an accompanying performative walk in costume.
Stanton Drew research walk (2017) Courtesy Vulpes Vulpes + The Edge residency, Bath.
The London-based collective is Carla WrightAnna Chrystal Stephens, Hadiru Mahdi and Laurie Storey, with former members including Ben Garrod, Scott Massey, Adam Burton and Patrick Goddard. Living communally for over a decade, the group have also run a number of artist led spaces since 2009, hosting exhibitions, workshops and events. Interested in “social histories, the built environment, notions of community, education and social structures,” their work often takes a very hands-on and cross-disciplinary approach to learning.
Their socially engaged projects seek out and create gatherings, where diverse knowledge combinations can “cause shifts in perspective” and allow for a process of ‘undoing’ through doing. In a conversation about non-linearity, the group talks to us about their investment in continuous discussion, the politics of communal living and tools for resilience, as well as the complex relationship between geology, territory and ownership.
** Really into this ancient (and contemporary) stone vibe, the way they get activated through our engagement with them, yet we cannot directly communicate. Can u talk about your interest in (mis)communication and exploring relationships with the land in this way
Vulpes Vulpes: Maybe we could see them as evidence of attempts to communicate with the land, or as the residue of a time when humans had a closer relationship with their surroundings. Or as communication between different kinds of humans – encountering an ancient standing stone you are in receipt of a gesture made sometimes thousands of years ago, but is the meaning of the gesture and of the stone itself transcendent or is it somehow lost? For us they seem to ignite consideration of beyond-human time scales; when you touch a geological form which has not only been a part of that landscape for millions of years but has been the site of human contemplation for thousands. These are elements of geography elevated visually by a shift in position but maybe that feeling of disorientation and awe of time and matter can be brought about by any stone;  by the very nature of what it is. People attempt to communicate with past generations as well as to commune with the stones themselves.
Bushy Norwood research walk (2017) Courtesy Vulpes Vulpes + The Edge residency, Bath.
On our visit to Stanton Drew ancient stone circle we all had extremely different reactions and experiences ranging from cynicism to wonder (delighted, amused, respectful, fearful, confused, upset). This demonstrated for us the breadth of reactions which can be provoked by traces of prehistory. Boundary markers were honoured as peace keeping emblems and decorated with garlands, honey, wine and other offerings in an acknowledgement of tolerance (the stones preventing violent disputes). However, at times, sacrifices were performed on boundary stones and disregard for them could lead to conflict so they are also a reminder that where there is territory there is violence. They can function as a simple language but also be a source of miscommunication and misunderstanding when belief systems clash, reminding us that our current assumptions about land: use, ownership, and geology are often confused.
** I like your approach to non-hierarchical learning, and the way you form relationships across communities and generations, piecing together fragments of research from so many diverse sources. Research in general seems to be such a huge part of your work, and at the same time feels like a process of unlearning, of anti. What’s your relationship to knowledge, what are you trying to ‘find’? 

VV: We are very curious, our practice allows us to explore many different kinds of knowledge and perhaps process information in nonlinear ways. Although we may be a-jack-of-all-trades-and-master-of-none, that position of naivety is sometimes useful. We are interested in diversity of viewpoints and approaches, but also of objects and medium. We feel that we learn from everyone we encounter and we don’t know exactly what we provide in return but perhaps it is as much to do with undoing as doing.  

Gang Day performance walk (2017) Courtesy Vulpes Vulpes + The Edge, Bath.

Sometimes we take a pseudo-specialist approach to performative actions, for example acting as scientists, gardeners, architects, historians, not with any lack of respect for experts (who we greatly admire) but as a playful methodology for learning and discussion. A tangent of this latest project was an interest in Julian Cope; post-punk and power-pop star turned antiquarian. He became a self-taught author of Neolithic culture, often coming at archeology from a perspective of rock culture and road trips, he talks about how The Ancients were very concerned with the drama of the landscape, his take on standing stones and neolithic sites as theatrical stadiums reflects his knowledge of musical performance and the behaviour of people when they congregate.

We are interested in difference and how cross-disciplinary knowledge combinations can cause shifts in perspective, research is important to us and sometimes it seems that the more time we have for it, the more time we crave.

** In relation to this multidirectional form of research, is there something unifying about your findings, or the opposite?

 VV: We often feel a unifying sense when a project comes together… but there is always a simultaneous feeling of expansion as often many points of interest have appeared and the resolved aspects of the work sit alongside the fragmented beginnings of other projects. For Gang Days it felt like the unifying aspect was an exploration of megalithic structures informed by personal experiences and general investigations. We eventually imposed on ourselves the task of making giant paper-mache rock forms which we had to transport from the site of construction to their destination. Visitors had the option to participate by making an offering or coming on a walk which was a take on real and supposed folklore of the area, mixed with a boundary marking ritual which acknowledged the historic and current land-use around the site in question. Our approach doesn’t feel sporadic but our projects often feel endless.

Vulpes Vulpes, ‘Gang Days’ (2017) Courtesy the artists + The Edge, Bath.

** In the press release about a workshop you hosted, you said “a big concern is helping to build confidence for the teenagers so they understand how they can access cultural spaces and realise that these spaces belong to them.”  It made me think of the price of the Bath Springs, and who owns this natural resource. Are boundaries something you seek to dismantle in your work?

VV: We can think of quite a few reasons why people may want to control or restrict the access to sacred places and natural resources – whether we think it positive or negative to do so –  and a number of ways in which this is done. Neither are necessarily static through time. When a building changes over centuries from temple to tourist attraction we see a shift in whose interests it is protected in. Sometimes we feel suspicious of those who profit from what we feel should be open to all. But on the other hand an entry fees might just go to staff and owners for the cost of upkeep and preservation. Or it may be a way to limit the amount of people who come to the door. Those who want to visit and use a site as was originally intended may want to block those who are just curious. Tensions arise when the different interests cross.

The reverence held by spaces and places is hardly static through time either. Archaeology shows us signs of vandalism and graffiti alongside worship throughout history. These thoughts were present as we explored and discovered various sites and were felt differently by each member of the group. Is it ok to touch the stones? What about climbing on them? Does how the sites respond to you depend on the faith and intention with which you approach it?

Bushy Norwood walk ‘Leg’ (2017) Courtesy Vulpes Vulpes + The Edge residency, Bath.
It was interesting to see how myths and stories reflected the times they were from. How we might re-imagine them now. Our work and performance didn’t hide that, it was more revival than period piece, continuing the conversation by mixing eras and references, deciding to play with our responses. That went some way to resolving or maybe yielding to that tension.
** We tend to align ourselves with land and history to understand ourselves more fully, or rather to connect ourselves to the past. Do you find this to be something instinctual or socially learned? Is it something we need, or need to shed?

VV: Perhaps every person, naturally, has different inclinations and interests and if raised in certain environments would learn and understand them through observation whilst growing, drawn to and repelled by certain things. Plenty of knowledge is passed down, the accumulation of generations, or centuries worth of observed and collective knowledge, or belief. But there’s always potential or sometimes a need for these beliefs to change. Just because there is an observed action and reaction does not mean we truly understand why. Even on earth, only 5% of the seabed is mapped, apparently we’ve identified only 14% of species. We know a lot less about the world than we feel, and beyond that, our sense of ‘self’ might balance a bit on the relative belief as to our size and impact in this thing.

So there’s most likely a bit of both in there, instinctive and learnt. But either way, that still doesn’t mean that anyone’s interest in land or history will be ‘whole’. We are part of an ecosystem, but maybe we can’t choose our place as readily as we want, or rather we are both blessed and afflicted with the ability to think and desire a different place. We search for it, so maybe some of the shedding is a battling with the feeling that we should be beyond needing to know our place exactly.

Rave Excavation (2014) Courtesy Vulpes Vulpes
** I’ve also been looking at your work Rave Excavation (2014) in relation to this residency, could you tell us what a Vulpes excavation entails/looks like?

VV: We meet at Keele motorway services on a drab Thursday afternoon in August, armed with spades, caution tape Jiffy bags and rubber gloves. We enter the sight by jumping a large metal gate. We are not sure what we will find. An initial combing of the forest floor uncovers, a pill pot, a drinks can and a sun bleached bag of crisps from 1995. We cordon off an area of investigation for further inspection. The ceremonial nature of the excavation is tongue-in-cheek but we are serious in our belief that forgotten places and uncharted cultural gatherings such as these are of significant importance. This activity and its documentation is a celebration of that.

Exploring further we find a small make-shift dwelling. Inside there are old burnt-out pots, clothing, a beer can impaled on a stick marks the territory, we conclude someone has been living there. We are instantly drawn to this structure, our practice has always been linked to our existence on the fringes of the city – who ever has lived here has committed to this a few steps further. It is strange to think there is a service station 200 ft away, the gentle hum of the motorway is reassuring.

** It’s interesting in London right now, with the extreme housing situation and prices, there’s a lot of unintentional community living going on just to survive. How did VV form, did you fall into collective living or plan it with intention? What’s the difference between roommates and communal living for you

Vulpes Vulpes, ‘Gang Days’ (2017) Courtesy the artists + The Edge, Bath.
VV: There are elements of practicality of course, keeping rents low, sharing collective burdens can be easier than renting on your own, all these are important factors, but underlying communal living as opposed to being just roommates is a deeper desire to live closely. Attempting to shift emphasis from individual to community, sharing, trying to live sustainably in a way that allows us time to breathe, create and engage with the world around us.

After squatting for a few years in our early days we moved to a big cheap warehouse. We learnt to look out for each other, we had to be organised and resilient. After law changes around occupying property, living in London now is even more challenging for young people. At the time all members of our household were involved in Vulpes Vulpes. We were living together, working together, eating together. This has become more refined over the years. There are now just four of us. But the foundation of our practice is embedded in those early years of precarious habitation together. Any house share includes communal aspects of course, but perhaps there is a degree of intent, exploration and commitment required with communal living for it to work in London today. For us it was and is still political, as well as necessary. 
Our communal journey has reached a juncture at this moment in time, for some of us circumstances have meant it is not possible to all live together right now (strange after so many years), but we have grown as a group in a way which can only be described as family. It is the logistics of life and exacerbated house prices that have complicated our desire live communally in the long term, but our stern belief in the value of community still remains.
Vulpes Vulpes ‘Gang Days’ (2017) Installation + performance view. Courtesy the artists + The Edge, Bath.
** Where are we now  and where are we heading in terms of community and the individual? Are there any contemporary forms of community that inspire(d) you
VV: The idea of ‘community’  has been under threat for most of our adult lives – community centres closing down, a housing crisis, privatisation of public services, parental fear, and many other things that attempt to sabotage communities. But we have followed and been inspired by a strong resistance to this – activist groups like Focus E15 and Keep it Complex have kept us positive.
In terms of where we are now as a collective – things have continuously changed and shifted over the 8 years we have been working as Vulpes Vulpes, we have grown and evolved in some interesting ways and have different ideas but luckily we have desires, principals and politics which have remained in many ways aligned. We have always aspired to be an open, flexible group – with no set rules, not tied down to any constitution, just with the deep understanding of wanting for a better world – and believing in the importance and effectiveness of small and slow change.
More recently it is clear that we are evolving as individuals more than ever, now that we don’t all live together. Each with our own practice (art, music, poetry, theatre etc) developing alongside  important life decisions. We have been able to fluidly accommodate and even benefit from the changes but not without continuous discussion, openness and letting go of the ego.**


VulpesVulpes recently completed their residency at Bath’s The Edge which ran March 2 to May 6, 2017.