Andy Field, co-director of Forest Fringe, explores the tiny mountain village of Dro, using its forests to think about how we can reimagine society from the ground up. This is part of a series of dispatches from Urban Heat – a new project exploring the future of theatre’s engagement with urban space and communities.
First published online at exeuntmagazine.com on 6 September, 2016.
We are walking through the mountains. The sun is hot yellow and the sky is radiantly, unrelentingly blue. There are probably too many of us on this narrow path.
We are here for Urban Heat, a project that is explicitly about cities and how we live in them and yet Dro, the place we find ourselves, is a small village lost in the Italian mountains. An unlikely place for an international arts festival and even unlikelier base for an exploration of urban life. Yet that distance is why we are here. It is intended to provide an alternative perspective. A space outside of the noise and freneticism from which to consider anew the relationship that we have to the city. This walking is in part an attempt at escape, a retreat from the urban realities that we have temporarily left behind.
And yet as we trudge noisily through the countryside it is apparent that we are totally failing to leave the city behind us. Our voices are loud and our thoughts are hectic. Our pace is unthinkingly quick and efficient. We move through the landscape not with it, focussed only our destination, as if hurrying for a meeting or attempting to make an earlier train.This is city time. Industrial time. The time of schedules and deadlines. Of alarm clocks and working weeks. We will reflect later on the anxiety that such a time induces in us. One of our local artist guides tells us that the stress of her workload in the first year of university gave her a stomach ulcer, yet now such a volume of work is for her the norm. Her body has been physically reshaped to accommodate the labour demands made upon her by the system within which she works. She has been re-rhythmed, wound up to the speed that capitalism demands.
Like so many other facets of the landscape we inhabit, time has been ravaged and exploited. Made frantic and machine-like. Distorted into a shape that suits our human desires, squeezed into a perpetual present that commodifies the past and diminishes the future. It is only in this condition that the insatiable, unsustainable borrowing of capitalism, both financial and ecological, is at all bearable. Seize the day, we are told, and we have seized it. Suffocated the future out of it.
On our walk we pick our way around the concrete skeleton of an old hydroelectric power station. The festival hub itself is housed inside other less ruined remains of the same power station, built to look like a castle so as to sit less awkwardly within the beautiful valley surrounding it. We are told that these power stations were hugely important to the young nation of Italy. Hundreds of them were built in these mountains in order to provide electricity for the whole of the country, in the process making this particular part of the new nation enormously wealthy and powerful.
Castles and power stations and power stations that look like castles. We are caught in the ruins of more than one system of power. An industrial chain of relationships connecting the rerouting of rivers to the birth of a nation. A sequence of exploitations that have led us to the brink of multiple crises; political, economic, environmental. Even in this seemingly idyllic landscape, we are stepping through the decaying remains of a dying ideology we are still trying to find an alternative to.
We walk deeper into the trees. Mottled sun breaks through the leaves. We spread out, partially by design and partially by accident. The conversation thins. The space between us begins to allow the landscape to break through. We bleed into the world around us.
This kind of engagement with landscape is an engagement with deeper notions of time than those we are conventionally accustomed to. Our guides tell us about the way in which local people in the valley would carefully tend the fruit trees and vines, not for their own benefit but for the benefit of their children and grandchildren. Care devoted to a future beyond your own lifetime. Things are grown that the grower will never see bear fruit. I’m reminded of Katie Paterson’s Future Library Project; the thousand trees growing in a forest outside Oslo to make an anthology of books in a hundred years’ time, books that are being written now but won’t be published until that point, long after the authors themselves have died.
Perhaps this retreat from human time, in walking and in art, can enable a reordering of our world such that we no longer prioritise people and their concerns above all else. A posthumanism, that attempts to go beyond fuzzy We Are The World platitudes and actually properly explore what it means to consider ourselves as part of the natural world and to forge new, more sustainable modes of co-existence with it. To think how a forest thinks.
And considering how tied to the exploitation of the nonhuman world our present political ideologies are, perhaps the most effective way we have of unpicking them is by reordering our relationship to that nonhuman world in this way. A remaking of society and its politics quite literally from the ground up. From the grass roots. Sous les paves, la plage. After all, natural world is perhaps the most aggressive disregarder of national borders we currently have.
The walk ends at a lake and we throw ourselves into it. Ice cold mountain water. We are a long way from London, the location of the next city lab, and yet I hope we will carry this journey into the wild with us as we return to a more conventionally urban space. As a reminder of the natural world’s value as both an artistic collaborator and political ally in the unpicking of the worst excesses of our current system.