There is growing recognition in the social sciences that place and its qualities should be thought of as ‘an actor in cultural work’ (Luckman). However, getting mainstream academic thought, urban renewal consultants or cultural planners to take the qualities of place seriously has proven more difficult. This article outlines an emerging view within landscape theory that rather than seeing landscape as some inert or fixed object, sees it as a dynamic process or mode of ‘dwelling’ (Tim Ingold). Drawing on the case of the Blue Mountains region in NSW, the second part of the article attempts to flesh out what the nonrepresentational sensibility might mean for rethinking creativity, economy and place; and why such a perspective might be all the more important, in the case of landscapes where there is a history of relying on tourism and the ‘visual gaze’.
Keywords: creativity and place – landscape theory – the Blue Mountains – ‘nonrepresentational’ practices
It is one of the ironies of contemporary social and cultural life that, despite globalisation, the spread of market logics and the advent of so-called ‘digital disruption’, rather than seeing the erasure of ‘place’ we are now witnessing a renewed emphasis on ‘place qualities’ and place as a source of cultural and economic ‘value’. Thus, architectural scholar Avi Friedman, in his recent book Nature of Place, suggests places have the capacity to generate ‘authentic atmosphere[s]’ and are able to ‘draw’ people into ‘some kind of relationship’ with them. Furthermore, places tend to be ‘engaging’ and ‘turn [the] passive visitor into an active participant in a life scene’ (Friedman 2012: 9). Not only can a ‘walk, or a climb, to a site with a breathtaking view … work wonders on the body’; in keeping with views that nature and sociality are inextricably linked (Macnaghten and Urry 1998), Friedman (2012: 9–10) proposes the special qualities of some places can also ‘put us in a mood to help foster new relationships or strengthen old ones’.
Channeling the qualities and types of value associated with place has become a serious occupation. We see this in that place-making is no longer simply the sole preserve of designers, urbanists and architects; and concepts such as place-based leadership, place-management and place-marketing are now routinely taught in business schools. A university in the United Kingdom boasts an Institute of Place Management that hosts a biennial conference and is also home to the Journal of Place Management and Development. If McDonaldisation was an important, if negative, buzzword for social scientists, policymakers and activists concerned about the homogenisation of gastronomy, lifestyles and spaces of consumption at the tail end of Fordism, then the closer we get to our own horizon, the more discussions of space, culture and economy become about what is (or can be promoted as being) distinctive about and to place.
Landscape and other place-qualities are increasingly thought of as part of a city’s or region’s non-economic assets or, to invoke an over-used formulation, a given location’s ‘value-proposition’. Cultural geographer Allen Scott (2010: 1568) writes that remote and ‘rural areas all over the world are now seeking to promote local economic development on the basis of their natural or cultural heritage’. Landscape has become part of global tourist and other cultural economy products (e.g., films, television programs, books, etc) where the ‘value to the consumer resides in the recreational, aesthetic and semiotic pleasures [landscapes] induce’; and the imaginaries underpinning ‘peripheral regions’ are ‘articulated within the overall system of contemporary capitalism’ (Scott 2010: 1569). The latter, Scott refers to as ‘cognitive-cultural capitalism’, a system ‘where the world of work comes to depend more and more on the capacities of the labor force for independent decision-making, interpersonal interaction and the deployment of specialised forms of cultural sensibility’ (Scott 2010: 1569).
Needless to say, to speak of capitalism having entered a more ‘cultural’ phase during recent decades is not without its problems. The same could be said of the currently popular term, ‘cultural economy’. As Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift (2004: xiv–xv) tell us, ‘culture’ and ‘economy’ are inherently unstable and contested terms, so much so that the best way to approach cultural economic life is to ‘attempt to identify the varied impulses and articulations through which value is formed, added, and circulated’. They describe the contingent result of such processes ‘a cultural economic ensemble’ (Amin and Thrift 2004: xv). Cultural economic ensembles are difficult to map, let alone coordinate, as they involve the exercise of multiple agencies. Thus Dario Gaggio (2011: 112) proposes, with respect to Italy’s Tuscany’s region: successful icons cannot be planned or promoted out of thin air; they need to be lived and imagined ‘from below’. His advice to policymakers and social scientists interested in the value of place is to learn from the complex dynamics governing the relative importance of, for example, ‘reinvention’ and ‘preservation’ when it comes to landscape matters. Gaggio thus suggests that trying to understand ‘what authentic Tuscany should look and feel like to locals and tourists alike’ is no easy task; it requires ‘understand[ing] the construction of authenticity as a heterogeneous process embedded in dynamic (or emergent) social relations’. His message is that something as seemingly fixed and immobile as landscape is the ‘product’ of process, one involving ‘flexible local identities, negotiated in interaction with … tourists’ diverse gazes’ (Gaggio 2011: 113).
Landscape as the product of dynamic social relations and flexible-cum-negotiated identities — this is a regular refrain in recent landscape theory. As the editors of the recent Routledge Companion to Landscape Studies suggest, those interested in landscape are ‘dealing with something complicated … something which is mental as well as physical, subjective as well as objective’ (Thompson, Howard & Waterton 2013: 1). A few pages later they add that ‘academics, professionals and other interested parties’ have recently also felt compelled to engage in a ‘sea-change in the way landscapes are regarded’; one of these changes has involved a ‘shift … from the identification, valorization and protection of “special” landscapes towards an interest in the qualities of quotidian places, the ordinary, the everyday, even the degraded or stigmatized’ (Thompson, Howard and Waterton 2013: 4). While the latter may seem irrelevant when discussing spectacular or sublime landscapes, one has to remember that the Alps, the Lakes District and the Blue Mountains are also places where people live mundane or routine lives. Indeed, the visitor-resident duality is one of the many sociocultural constructs that structure the lived experiences of these places.
Give the prevalence of such dualities, one could plausibly make the argument the tensions present within the concept of landscape exist at some metatheoretical level. As such, John Wylie’s book, Landscape, claims Western culture has been prone to dualistic logics where landscape is either ‘the world we are living in, or a scene we are looking at, from afar’ (Wylie 2007: 1–2). We thus divide our landscape practices into categories such as observing, interpreting and seeing, on the one hand, and notions such as embodiment, inhabitation and dwelling, on the other. Wylie tells us that the aim of critical or theoretical analyses of landscapes should not necessarily be to ‘resolve this tension, or arrive at some definitive resolution regarding landscape’. His own view is that the ‘tensions which animate landscapes have proved enduringly creative and productive for cultural geographers and others interpreting and writing about landscape’ (Wylie 2007: 2). Presumably, the same could be said of creative practitioners or regional planners. They too might find facing such tensions, and ‘digesting’ their implications, to be of benefit. Indeed, it is one of the aims of the present meditation on the contrasting modalities of landscape-as-representation and landscape-as-nonrepresentation to contribute to ‘reflexive practice’ in the context of professional and other work going on in the space constituted by notions of creativity and place (for e.g., strategies that aim to mobilise the creative industries in specific places, or tourism or branding exercises that rely on creative practices to frame the identity and value of place).
In the first instance, I would like to clarify why the notion of landscape-as-representation seemed such an obvious, if ultimately constrained, way to think about place-related economic and other value-related strategies. As Martin Thomas proposes in Artificial Horizon, a text we will return to in the section on Blue Mountains landscapes, the assumption of fields such as cultural history and cultural studies has been that landscape is the ‘inspiration for an infinitude of inscriptions … a living text’ (Thomas 2004: 30). When translated into the work of professionals and practitioners, the cultural approach to landscape is often associated with the term ‘cultural landscape’: ‘This concept, now fundamental in many areas of heritage management, acknowledges that landscape is not the work of nature unaided; it is the work of myriad decisions; whether to build, plant, clear, make a track, leave it alone’ (Thomas 2004: 30). Within the realm of academic landscape studies, a prime example of the landscape-as-representation perspective is offered by the 1980s edited collection, Iconography of Landscape, in which the editors declare: ‘A landscape is a cultural imagery, a pictorial way of representing or symbolizing surroundings’ (Daniels & Cosgrove 1988: 1). In summary, the representational approach is interested in how the landscape has been imagined, remembered and desired, as well as in the kinds of phenomena the human sciences often call ‘paradigms’, ‘ideologies’ or ‘discursive’ regimes.
One version of the landscape as culture perspective has suggested that modernity, which has involved factors such as the technological mediation of time and space, as well as the experience of new modes of travel such as the railway (Schivelbusch 1977), has led to a fundamental chasm between landscape and place. In this view, as evidenced in the writings of Marxist literary theorist Raymond Williams, landscape essentially involves a ‘representation’ of the world, while place, by contrast, involves an emphasis on ‘lived experience’. In Country and the City, he writes, ‘the very idea of landscape implies separation and observation’ and deprives communities of the kind of experience of place characteristic of pre-industrial landscapes (Williams 1973: 126). In Border Country, an autobiographical novel about a university lecturer returning to the Welsh town of his childhood after several decades, Williams contrasts conceptualising the ‘valley as landscape’ — which involves seeing it ‘as the visitor sees it, as the guidebook sees it’ — with ‘the inhabitant’ who sees place as ‘where he works and has his friends’ (1960: 75). This reference to how the valley is seen by ‘visitors’ and by the ‘guidebook’ points to how, under conditions of modernity, landscape is something shaped by what John Urry (1990) has termed the ‘tourist gaze’; that is, it becomes something mediated by modern visual technologies, such as photography, which play an increasingly important role in selling places to consumers within commodity culture. But for Williams and other humanist critics of landscape-as-visuality, visual regimes cannot do justice to place and its qualities. For them, ‘places are very much things to be inside of’ (Cresswell 2015: 17). Thus, what Border Country’s central character, Matthew Price, seems to have lost, and needs to regain, ‘is the idea of the village [and valley] as a lived and felt place’ (Cresswell 2015: 17). Williams narrates the hero’s passage to an insider’s perception of place as follows: ‘It was no longer a landscape or a view, but a valley that people were using’ (1960: 75). But such a consciousness of place only comes after significant time back in the region, and Price has ceased to be absorbed by travel guidebooks. In short, what was needed was for him to overcome the distancing and objectifying properties of landscape and to relearn how to see space as place. Not for nothing does the humanist geographer, Edward Relph, compare the process of re-capturing the experience of insideness to arriving home: ‘To be inside a place is to feel the bonds of attachment and to sense that you are welcomed home’ (cited Wattchow 2013: 90).
The current wisdom in fields such as geography and socio-spatial theory is that, despite the good intentions of humanists who want to reconnect ‘concrete’ place with ‘abstract’ space, distinctions between the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of places are difficult to sustain due to the complexities of social identity and the prevalence of social process (for e.g., globalisation) that weaken the boundaries between the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of places (Massey 1994). In any case, the reduction of landscape to the visual tends to ignore the fact that landscape also has its own materiality and sociocultural repertoires (i.e., landscape isn’t just a projection coming from a ‘subject’ — individual or collective). Nor is it, as Williams seems to imply, that only place directs our attention to ‘people’ and to ‘use’. Landscapes are also walked upon, cultivated and shaped in various ways. And, many landscapes — such as the soon to be discussed Blue Mountains — require the mediating agencies of socio-technical systems in order to function as landscapes (e.g., viewing platforms, footpaths and fences, railways and highways, places of shelter and places of hospitality).
The landscape-place duality also tends to replicate the culture-nature split that contemporary socio-spatial theory has been keen to leave behind. In Culture of Trees, Owain Jones and Paul Cloke speak for many when they call for an account capable of explaining how ‘the ecological and the cultural, the human and the nonhuman, the local and the global, the real and the imaginary … [are] bound together in particular formations in particular places’(2002: 9). In devising their approach, these authors draw ‘on the work of anthropologist Tim Ingold’ who sees both landscape and ‘place as a manifestation of ‘dwelling’, where all manner of elements — people, artefacts, animals, plants, topography, climate, culture, economy and history — are knotted together in a unique way to form an unfolding time-space of particular landscapes’ (Jones and Cloke 2002: 9). In terms of some of the landscape tensions outlined in this paper, Ingold’s (2000: 207) anthropology is also on the side of seeing landscape not as ‘a totality that you or anyone else can look at’, but rather as the ‘world in which we stand’, a ‘context’, which commands ‘attentive involvement.’
The notion that landscapes aren’t fixed in time or space is central to the nonrepresentational perspective in landscape studies. As Ingold notes: ‘What appear to us as the fixed forms of the landscape, passive and unchanging unless acted upon from outside, are themselves in motion, albeit on a scale immeasurably slower and more majestic than that on which our own activities are conducted’ (1993: 164). Massey (2006: 33) concurs, and suggests that alongside the ‘temporalities of a particular landscape’ we can also speak of the ‘temporalities of tectonics’, and see both ‘landscape and place as events’ – albeit not on the timescales we often find in politics, culture and society. She reflects on the irony that important landmarks within that most ‘quintessentially’ British of landscapes, the Lakes District, constitute ‘immigrant rocks’, which over millions of years ‘arrived ‘here’ from somewhere else’ (Massey 2006: 34). But for Ingold (1993: 158), the introduction of the temporal into what appears essentially spatial has another implication: it is designed to capture that landscape is also an ‘ensemble of tasks’, or what he terms a taskscape.
The landscape as taskscape refers to a situation ‘involving the presence of beings who are themselves agents, and who reciprocally ‘act back’ in the process of their own dwelling’ (Ingold 1993: 163). For Ingold, there is no compelling reason to assume that such landscape agency is uniquely human. He suggests the ‘rhythms of human activities resonate not only with those of other living things but also with a host of other rhythmic phenomena — the cycles of day and night and of the seasons, the winds, the tides… the cycles of light and dark… the cycles of vegetative growth and decay… the cycle of the seasons’ (Ingold 1993: 163). These landscape temporalities ‘resonate’ (others might say generate ‘affects’) that operate through the medium of embodied activities or what — following Martin Heidegger — Ingold terms the ‘dwelling practices’ of landscape. The landscape as a site of dwelling is ontologically relational and in a state of flux: ‘Through the exercises of descending and climbing, and their different muscular entailments, the contours of landscape are not so much measured as felt’ (Ingold 1993: 166). Even the observer planted at the top of a cliff looking down is afforded kinaesthetic sensation in Ingold’s conceptual universe: ‘even if you remain rooted to one spot … your eyes do not remain fixed … It is because, in scanning the terrain from nearby into the distance, your downward glance is followed by an upward one, that you perceive the valley’ (Ingold 1993: 166). Once again, this tends to undermine the landscape-place duality that was alluded to earlier. For Ingold’s anthropology of dwelling, the person experiencing landscape is never static, even when standing still (i.e., there is muscular and perceptual energy being expended); and the experience of environments is ecological and phenomenological rather than linear or mechanical. Additionally, in order to have a ‘skilled’ or practical engagement with the world, there needs to be what he terms, an ‘education of attention’ (Ingold 2000) — something that cannot be learnt from books or cartographic knowledge.
The essence of the nonrepresentational approach, then, is that we need to account for the ‘self-evidently more-than-human, more-then-textual, multisensual worlds’ (Lorimer 2005: 83). My contention here is that the representational-nonrepresentational distinction is not a purely theoretical one. The notion that the tension between the representational and the more-than-representational may be practical as well as theoretical first occurred to me during a visit to an exhibition at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre (BMCC). Entitled Botanica, the exhibition brochure invited visitors to ‘discover the world of Blue Mountains botanica and learn about the journey from those that explored, captured and created’ the plant life of the region.
The exhibition aimed both to cover ‘the early botanical explorers to the Blue Mountains’, and show how the ‘landscape and biodiversity of the Blue Mountains has been a drawcard for [contemporary] artists and creatives’ (Blue Mountains City Art Gallery 2018: 4). The section featuring the work of contemporary Blue Mountains and Sydney artists ‘who incorporate botanical elements in their practice’ (Blue Mountains 2018: 20), especially highlighted the landscape tension in question. Not surprisingly, given creative practices that ranged from digital photography projections to botanical illustration, and from textile design to sculpture and installations using found objects, what ‘incorporating’ Blue Mountains Botanica meant to individual artists varied greatly. To some it meant adopting a quasi-scientific gaze, and illustrating plant life in the ‘objective’ manner of botanical illustrations; to others it meant using foliage or parts of plants in the work to provide a sense of the texture and ‘feel’ of the landscape itself; to others again it was the symbolism and cultural representations associated with the plants that was central; and for others it was the implicit homologies between plant processes and the creative act itself. Further, the play of culture and nature, landscape and place, are both temporal and spatial in many of the works. In the case of floral visual artist and entrepreneur Edith Pass, who runs a successful high-end florist in Wentworth Falls, the installation Hollow Men highlights the complex biorhythms of Blue Mountains flora. She juxtaposes the temporalities of nature and culture by positioning cut commercial flowers, which have been modified to last longer (the Flannel Flower), within conifer cylinders hollowed out by natural decay and meant to evoke the recently rediscovered (but long thought extinct) Wollemi pine. In summary, the exhibition highlighted how nature and culture combine to make for a sense of place, and do so in complex ways that involve the entanglement of artistic and scientific, touristic and commercial modalities and practices. For anyone who encountered the artefacts and artworks in Botanica, it would be hard to walk away without the impression that botanical things are both part of nature and part of culture — that is, that ‘botanical stuff’ involves what some contemporary geographers have termed human-nature hybrids (Whatmore 2002).
But how does value come to be imputed to landscape? And how did this occur in the case of the Blue Mountains? In his award-winning book about how European-Australians have ‘imagined’ the Blue Mountains, Thomas claims the ‘mountains have a double presence: semiotic and topographical’ (2004: 14). In today’s mediated consumer culture, he adds, ‘the possibility exists’ that the Blue Mountains ‘can be felt, anywhere at any time, across the globe’ (Thomas 2004: 14). We are a long way here from Williams’ assertion, one also present within large swathes of humanist geography, that one has to be inside places in order to feel them. In any case, the presence of such a landscape in everything from feature films to souvenirs could be taken to imply that the ‘Blue Mountains epitomizes the [very] mediated character of landscape’ (Porter 2016: 1). However, the imposition of a representational value-regime on to the Blue Mountains was neither immediate nor inevitable. A book about the geology, poetics and cultural history of the sandstone country surrounding the Sydney basin notes the Blue Mountains were initially perceived by white settlers and explorers as barren wasteland due to its ‘texture of rugged and labyrinth sandstone landscapes’ (Jones 2013: 11). The shift from in European perceptions of the landscape from ‘wasteland’ to ‘wilderness’ coincided with the nineteenth-century ‘cult of the Sublime and the Beautiful’ (Burke 1988: 102). What had been seen as ‘too rugged’ and ‘inhospitable’ subsequently helped the Blue Mountains to become ‘revered as a vast panorama of awesome cliffs and chasmic valleys’ (Burke 1988: 102). Thus, began the ‘long history’ of the Blue Mountains ‘been promoted … based on sightseeing and other landscape qualities’ (Porter 2016: 20).
One of the most insightful things about Thomas’ Artificial Horizon is that his account of the cultural history of the Blue Mountains demonstrates some of the ways in which the landscape in question subverts or exceeds simple landscape cultural constructs such as the ‘visual gaze’ or even what constitutes a ‘mountain range’. His is a self-reflexive and theoretically sophisticated representational analysis of landscape and culture. Thus, Thomas (2004: 32) claims that from the very beginning the Blue Mountains have been both ‘true and untrue to [their] name. Geologically, the escarpment is a series of sandstone plateaus’. The name ‘Blue Mountains emerged from the colonial vernacular, eventually becoming official’ (Thomas 2004: 32). Thomas further suggests that, ‘These valleys, gorges, are the opposite to mountains … Instead of gazing or climbing skyward, the path goes down’ (2004: 37). He writes evocatively of a landscape which becomes blue through the production of vapours released by eucalypt leaves, a ‘bueness, like the horizon itself, endlessly deferred the closer you get to it’ (Thomas 2004: 20). The reference to a blueness that beckons, but always seems to be beyond reach, suggests a landscape in which memory, desire and longing are inscribed in its very contours.
Yet Thomas’ Blue Mountains are still visual, and ultimately discursive (in the sense of say Foucault’s archaeology of knowledges). Such a treatise is about how the world is classified, and objectified. Not surprisingly there have been creative and other writerly approaches. Thus, a text like Ross Brownscombe’s Blue Rivers (1997) challenges the type of visual economy that has been imposed on the region. He suggests tourist and other authorities have ‘relentlessly promoted a narrow strip’ of land that follows the Great Western Highway, ‘convincing generations of people that once at the cliff edge at Govett’s Leap or Echo Point, they are looking from the Blue Mountains into some other place’ (Brownscombe 1997: 8). Brownscombe comments on the irony that seeing the Blue Mountains as an object of visual pleasure has tended to result in people ‘ignoring the obvious geological and geographical unity of a much wider area’ (1997: 8). In other words, the visual gaze also involves a kind of erasure of that which can’t be easily assimilated. As an opposing strategy, Brownscombe implores us instead to inhabit the landscape by ‘walking softly, quietly and attentively, preferably alone … stop[ping], often and for long periods … at nondescript places, preferably near water’ (1997: 12). The emphasis on water is not accidental; the substance has played a key role in sculpting the landforms of the Blue Mountains, and its flow could be said to highlight the temporal/ephemeral dimensions of landscape.
Shifting landscape sensibilities are also discernible in cinematic representations of the Blue Mountains especially when it comes to the region as a space that affords creativity. In this respect, a comparison of two artist bio-pic feature films set in the Blue Mountains is worthwhile. The first is Sirens (1992), about turn of the last-century bohemian painter and children’s author Norman Lindsay, who lived on a Faulconbridge estate that is now heritage-listed and serves as an art gallery/tourist attraction. The second is Acute Misfortune (2019) about the troubled relationship between the heroin-addicted and difficult-to-like, contemporary painter Adam Cullen and his biographer. Of the two films, only the former shows the creative practitioner as capable of spiritual and creative fusion with place.
Sirens achieves this by depicting the Blue Mountains as a type of Garden of Eden where lushness and fecundity (including female sexuality) flourish. By contrast, Acute Misfortune depicts a brooding, masculinist landscape of sandstone cliffs, endless eucalypts, and dirt roads through valleys or the plateau itself experienced at a great speed on a variety of motor vehicles (SUVs, a Holden FC and a trailbike). If Lindsay and his Edwardian coterie find connection and erotic liberation in landscape, for Cullen — as depicted in Tom Wright’s Acute Misfortune — the landscape is a Gothic setting that acts as a backdrop to the wanton firing of guns and the excessive consumption of alcohol. Also in Sirens, once the visitors to the Lindsay estate arrive by steam train to Faulconbridge, the city is left behind and all we see is nature and the odd historic building (although, to give the township a historically accurate ‘feel’, town scenes were shot in Sofala, New South Wales).
In Acute Misfortune, a cashed-up Cullen catches taxis between his Wentworth Falls house and various Western Sydney suburban settings to ‘get a hit’, to impose himself on family or to attend his own gallery ‘openings.’ While seemingly extravagant and misanthropic, in a strange way, the Cullen narrative maybe be said to be more ‘realistic’ in its depiction of how ‘the Mountains’ and ‘the City’ are experientially, materially, logistically, financially and even aesthetically connected (i.e., it is sometimes difficult to tell in Acute Misfortune whether the suburban brick veneer houses are in the Blue Mountains or in Sydney suburbia). But this is not how place-dwelling by creatives is customarily depicted. Blue Mountains creatives are meant to love nature, not shoot at it. During his time there, Cullen didn’t cultivate the idea that he was a ‘Blue Mountains painter’ and once claimed that ‘there are about three or four artists up here … who are really, really good’; the others, he said: ‘I think … it’s just that they make wallpaper’ (cited Desiatnik 2012: n.p.).
However, it isn’t necessary to adopt either a Gothic sensibility or a misanthropic outlook to be able to render a more materialistic, more phenomenological account of landscape. If Thomas’ Artificial Horizon is the outstanding example of the tools of cultural history and cultural theory applied to the Blue Mountains, then poet Mark Tredinnick’s Blue Plateau (2009) takes us into the nonrepresentational register by freely drawing on notions of dwelling and by crafting its methodology in the frame of landscape memoir. In the case of the latter, memoir refers to the interweaving of the ‘stories’ of local characters (Les, Jim and Henryk, and those ‘others’ who lives intersect with theirs), alongside ‘one or two’ stories that belong to the author, and some narratives that ‘aren’t stories at all’ (Tredinnick 2009: 15). Tredinnick suggests that what connects these various stories and non-stories is that ‘for a time’ the author lived ‘among them on a piece of ground where they all meet’; and his hope is that, in the re-telling ‘the broken pieces of a broken plateau’, the reader will be able ‘to hear the place as [the author] heard it’ (2009: 15). Here landscape and selfhood connect as process, as time and as mode of inhabiting place. Tredinnick also sees the Blue Mountains landscape as having its own distinct temporalities, temporalities that defy the tempos of contemporary culture, as well as the very notion of historical time:
You can’t begin to imagine how long the plateau has taken to get all this done, to make this emaciated sculpture of itself… for all its mass and plunge and drama, [the plateau] is an essay in slowness … Fifty million years the rivers spent carrying the country in; and fifty million years they’ve spent carrying it out again. Two hundred million years in between the plateau lay down and slept … set it alongside, say, the carving out of the Grand Canyon by the Colorado, work that got done in only ten million years. That kind of erosion is an essay in drama. (Tredinnick 2009: 4)
At first, the sculpting of mountain ranges, through the patient and erosive flow of water, seemed inconceivable to nineteenth-century minds. The blindness to geological time could be said to have mirrored the inability of European settlers to appreciate that Aboriginal groups such as the Darug and Gundungurra peoples had been actively involved in the shaping of landscape or ‘country’. Indeed, as authors such as Marcia Langton and Deborah Bird Rose have suggested, the tendency to see landscape as either ‘wilderness’ or as land without ‘custodians’ is not accidental; it is an expression of colonisation and terra nullius (Thomas 2004: 29). As such, the problem of the Blue Mountains landscape representing a timeless space that exists beyond human agency can also be problematic, if divorced from the social and political processes that led to those lands not ‘being peopled’. However, even if a product of European colonisation, the fusing of geological and ontological time in the shape of the Blue Mountains landscape, seems to have genuinely challenged the ‘scientific mind’ prevalent during the era. Thus, even a mind as supple as that of Darwin found it hard to grasp how, for example, the Blue Mountains could be the source of much of had formed the Sydney basin or how the entire sandstone country had been ‘progressively etched by rain and rivers’ (Jones 2013: 69). Yet ironically, the latter possibility fitted perfectly with the idea that the world had taken a very long time to assume its current shape — something that Darwin was to become famous for.
The linking of the Blue Mountains landscape with ontological time has given rise to the notion that ‘slowness’ or ‘timelessness’ are its essence. Yet herein lies a central paradox: if the Blue Mountains landscape suggests slowness, such a landscape also highlights ‘nothing lasts, no matter how still it lies’ (Tredinnick 2009: 5). One of the Blue Mountains’ most famous writers, Eleanor Dark, captured the complex nature of the landscape’s temporalities in the title of some of her novels: for example, Timeless Land and Storm of Time. In the latter, the author writes of the almost synesthetic qualities of the landscape: ‘The air had a clarity, a transparent emptiness through which sight leapt across miles of tangled hills and valleys to a far horizon … It was silence made visible, space and eternity made visible’ (cited Jones 2013: 138). Silent, that is, until, as a result of years of weakening due to water entering crevices, a small, or (as often happens) a large slab of sandstone suddenly, and very dramatically, prizes itself free from the rest of the escarpment.
In citing poets and novelists in relationship to landscape, have we re-entered the domain of representation, discourse and text? Have we stopped being nonrepresentationalists? Catherine Brace and Adeline Johns-Putra (2010: 41–42) suggest that if we see ‘the creative process as a dialectical push-and-pull’, it is possible to see the relationship between landscape and storytelling as one that highlights the ‘importance of process’. Process blurs the distinction between materiality and immateriality to the extent that creativity involves the transformation and transvaluation of elements not often juxtaposed or thought together. Thus, landscape and creativity do not simply involve acts of mirroring; rather they enact processes of conjoined trans-substantiation. Something like the transformation of the material into the psychic, and vice versa, occurs when Tredinnick’s Blue Plateau sees in the ‘emaciated’ or hollowed out landscape a perfect foil for its own processes. The author writes: ‘I am made of pieces and of the spaces between them … I am a landscape of loss. Most of me is the memory of where else, and who else, and with whom, I have been and no longer am’ (Tredinnick 2009: 5). The point is that, try as we may, we can’t recover that wholeness because, like the coherence of landscape, our own coherence is ‘much older than we are’ (Tredinnick 2009: 5). The upshot of this is that the ‘real book is the one you do not write, the one that orders the pieces that remain; and the real plateau is the work to which all the pieces almost amount’ (Tredinnick 2009: 5–6). In this sense, both places and texts are spatiotemporal processes or ‘events’. They both involve the comings and goings of various human and non-human elements in time and space.
In other words, one can both be a nonrepresentationalist, and see landscape and creativity as intimately connected. There is no need to resort to essentialist Romanticisms regarding the power of ‘beautiful’ or ‘sublime’ places to imagine that landscape and story are connected. However, since I have titled my essay, ‘Place-management for nonrepresentationalists’ rather than ‘Nonrepresentationalism for creative types’, is there something in nonrepresentational approaches to landscape for local councils wanting to stimulate the creative industries or enterprise bodies looking for a new angle on innovation activation?
Perhaps we need to first consider what entrepreneurial activity entails, and the kinds of alchemical processes both entrepreneurialism and creativity unleash. As a book entitled Magic, Culture and the New Economy proposes we should probably remember that entrepreneurialism is a magical or shamanistic act. Futurists and consultants have too much faith in the rationality of models. It is especially the case that:
Magic can assume a prominent position when … [a] quickening pace and an uncertainty about developments lead to a preoccupation with betting on the right alternatives and contestants. There is scope for expectation, dreaming and imagining … But how do you control the future? How can the nervous energy and anxieties about getting ahead or being left behind be harnessed, controlled or converted? Different magical techniques come in useful in such situations. (Löfgren and Willim 2005: 5)
Magic, then, is part of what might be required; and it is hard not to read a biography of entrepreneurs and come away with the impression that the author thinks their subject is some kind of magician. But if we recall Tredinnick’s hypothesis that the Blue plateau landscape is an ‘essay in slowness’, we might also want to reflect on the following question: what kind of entrepreneurship is compatible with slowness and slow approaches to creative processes? (on non-metropolitan creatives as agents of a ‘slow ethos’, see Luckman 2015.)
Early on in the research for this essay I came across a story in the local paper, The Blue Mountains Gazette, about a young couple, Harriet and DJ McCready, who had plans to set up a ‘craft brew pub’ in Katoomba. Given the hipster connotations of this kind of creative entrepreneurship, the fact that the Blue Mountains would acquire another craft brewery was not necessarily interesting. But what caught my eye was the following: ‘DJ McCready wants to give the true flavour of the Blue Mountains to some of his brews so he plans to collect yeast from canyon floors, from wild flora and from pristine wilderness areas’ (Curtin 2018: 6). McCready ‘reassured the Gazette that collecting yeast is not invasive’ and that his ‘wild or “sour” beers … will really allow the consumer to “taste” the Mountains’ (Curtin 2018: 6).
So how will a couple foraging for yeast on the canyon floor to make beer produce a beer that tastes like ‘the Mountains’? We will not know until the beer has been brewed, drunk, paired or not paired with other activities (such as socialising, eating, being the subject-object of beer tastings, is featured in tourism marketing campaigns, etc). In short, the production of beer that tastes distinctly wild in a Blue Mountains-way will require what Trubek (2008) describes as the mobilisation of the ‘taste of place’. And the McCreadys have chosen a fascinating socio-technical and performative ritual in order to mobilise the taste of place: namely, the act of foraging in Blue Mountains forests.
Foraging is currently going through something of a renaissance as a way to sourcing food and ingredients. What is interesting about the politics and ethos of foraging is that it tends to put the emphasis on re-valuing the under-valued or what is currently deemed unproductive: as in harvesting what are otherwise considered ‘weeds’ or, in the case of the forests of the Greater Blue Mountains Area, harvesting a bio-organic material such as yeast in a non-invasive way. As a group of Canadian ethnographers have highlighted, foraging establishes a synergistic relationship that emphasises the ‘interactive and networked aspects of the ways that relationships between people, place, and more-than-human nature are formed, legitimated, and mobilized in discursive and material ways’ (Poe, Le Compte, McLain and Hurley 2014: 905). In short, the ontological, ethical and political consequences of foraging is to highlight and make more explicit ‘relational ecologies of belonging’ (Poe et al 2014: 901). Interestingly, food and beverages play an important role in the local creative industries strategy that goes by the name MTNS MADE; and communal gardens, edible food trails (Tabone 2019), and interesting social enterprise initiatives such as cookbooks featuring recipes from prominent local chefs raising funds for local public schools, all seem to be part of the current ‘mix’ when it comes the creative ecologies of the Blue Mountains.
Is a creative ecology based on food and drink so radically different from those tourist and other planning authorities have imposed on the Blue Mountains during the last one hundred and fifty years? Perhaps it might pay to consider that the cultural economies of the Blue Mountains landscape have never been as uni-dimensional as notions of the tourist gaze and visual scenery suggest. As Julia Horne (2005) explains, the healing and transformative powers of the landscape have always been highly valued. Thus, from the very beginning, the visual sat alongside the kinesthetic and, indeed, even the gastronomic:
From the late nineteenth century, the restorative qualities of the upper mountains climate were promoted generally and helped create a new image of tourist pursuits in the Blue Mountains, one that still favoured touring the area in search of ‘magnificent scenery’, ‘natural wonders’ and the like, but also included a search for physical wellbeing. Although there were still strenuous activities for tourists, such as long walks up steep paths … now there was also encouragement to rest, enjoying the peace and quiet … lungs could fill to capacity with pure air … Appetites, also, could expand. (Horne 2005: 138)
The above passage tends to suggest a complex relationship between visual and non-visual approaches to landscape has probably always existed. Even landscape-voyeurs need to eat, go for the occasional stroll and derive non-visual benefits from landscape such as that associated with ‘pure’ or reinvigorating air. Interestingly, a recent Destination NSW survey found that appetites do seem to ‘expand’ (as Horne puts it) when people visit the region. Today, the most popular activity undertaken by visitors to the Blue Mountains is ‘to eat out, dine at a restaurant or café’ (Fehon 2019: 25). The visitor economy is part of what Pine and Gilmore (1999) have termed the Experience Economy; so much so that food and drink rituals now rank higher than traditional reasons for visiting the Mountains, such as ‘bushwalking or rainforest walks’ or ‘visit[ing] national parks or state parks’ (Fehon 2019: 25). In this context, landscape continues to play a role. Sometimes the connection is metonymic — as in a popular Wentworth Falls bakery called Mountain High Pies. In other instances, people eat and drink, socialise and look at local art, with landscape-as-backdrop for enriching experiences. As the BMCC’s logo, emblazoned on its front door, says: ‘Just below the clouds is a place for artists and art lovers’.
What we need to consider, then, in any consideration of the Blue Mountains landscape, is not only that its sublime and picturesque qualities have the ability to inspire and to move; but also that landscape involves the drawing of symbolic and aesthetic markers. One of the more interesting aspects of the Blue Mountains-as-place is that the community drew a strong line in the sand when it decided that there would be no ‘Golden Arches’ further west than the village of Blaxland. Food, as much as sandstone and gum trees, is a defining feature of what makes the Blue Mountains different from the areas that surround it. Local schools such as Blackheath Primary School raise funds by producing community cookbooks featuring the recipes of local chefs and the photography and graphic design of local creatives (Blackheath Public School 2017). The socio-technics of mobility have also started to take on a greater prominence. The Blue Mountains Council now includes among its community strategies how people ‘move’ around the region and the degree to which the area’s citizens find the Blue Mountains ‘accessible’ (Blue Mountains City Council 2019: 29). Similarly, the ‘Wake Up With’ campaign run during 2018 by Destination NSW and the Regional Strategic Alliance (which represents the councils of the Blue Mountains, Hawkesbury and Penrith) was partly driven by the desire to undo the link between automobility and seeing the Blue Mountains as a day-trip proposition alone. Waking up in ‘the Mountains’ or its environs was designed to get one out of the car and engaging in ‘activities like kayaking, mountain biking, tree top adventures … and unique food picking, dining and cultural experiences’ (Blue Mountains Gazette 2018: 23). It would seem, then, that the possibilities opened up by seeing the Blue Mountains as more than a series of lookouts, to which one drives and from which one ‘gazes’ longingly at pristine wilderness, are starting to be felt and sometimes to be realised. While in regions such as the Blue Mountains, images of landscape are never too far from consciousness (e.g., in Katoomba even the walls surrounding the escalators from the Woolworths carpark to the supermarket feature images of the afternoon sun hitting sandstone cliffs, and the lushness of gullies featuring ferns and waterfalls), in the mundane practices of local tourism authorities, council, P&C groups, chefs, craft brewers, foragers, and the myriad creative workers who live in the region, there seems to be a growing recognition that representational practices and forms of value are not the only way, perhaps, not even the best way, to either perceive or appreciate landscape.
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