Jem Finer, still from ‘Score for a Hole in the Ground’. Courtesy of the artist.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the premise doesn’t seem to hold out that much promise. Stay Where You Are: as invitations go, it isn’t exactly an incitement; an appeal to the senses, or a call to arms. Instead it’s just the same old same old; another case of as you were. Stay There, Stay Back, Stay Put – these are the equivalents of Nothing to See Here, Nothing Going On Here, Nothing to Expect Here. Nothing, in short, to write home about – assuming you had ever left in the first place.
You might, however, console yourself by thinking that the premise doesn’t actually require that much effort. Stay Where You Are: as instructions go, it isn’t exactly a challenge; a stretch for the body, or a test of the will. Instead it’s just an easy fall-back to a default position: the familiar comfort of the status quo. Sit Tight, Sit Quiet, Sit Still – these are the equivalents of No Need to Stir, No Need to Stress, No Need for Bother. No need, in short, to do anything different. Keep Calm and Carry On.
Stay Where You Are. Go on. Try it. See if you can do it. It’s much more difficult than you think.
Stand in the place where you are. Now stay there, and remain there. It’s easier said than done.
Stop the world (because you want to get off).
Stop it. The World Won’t Listen.
Stop all the clocks.
Stop pretending. You know it’s not going to happen.
The world rushes by, with a mind of its own, with its own momentum. Time races ahead, leaving little more than a memory.
To properly Stay Where You Are (to be fully, unconditionally in the moment; serene and happy in the place you have chosen) demands an act of exertion not a state of inertia. You need to drop anchor if you are not to drift away on the tide.
When writer-cum-naturalist Henry David Thoreau planted his feet on a small patch of ground at the edge of the woods by Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts, in the spring of 1845, he did so to make a stand – which was, in essence, to stay where he was. The two years that he spent in his rudimentary, self-made hut in the rustic semi-wilderness of Walden – compressed in to a single four-leaved, four-season memento in the book of the same name – has become an enduring, emblematic record of the passing of time and the specificities of place; a literary landmark, and timeless classic of its type. It’s worth remembering, however, that this seminal celebration of the natural environment originated from Thoreau’s profound disenchantment with the prevailing zeitgeist. Although the pace of life in mid nineteenth century New England unfolded at a tempo that devotees of today’s Slow Movement can only wish for, Thoreau was quick to detect unsettling changes in the air, brought about by technological innovations (such as the telegraph and the railroad) but also, as he saw it, by the inexorable encroachment into everyday life of new economic imperatives promulgated by increasingly powerful corporations. His world and our world are very different. But some things have stayed the same… Barely 30 when he began writing ‘Walden’, Thoreau was not so much lamenting the passing of the old ways as hesitant about the future. That said, there is a sense that by committing to staying where he was, and remaining in the same place for two years, he might also be hoping to avoid the onset of ‘progress’ and, in so doing, hold back time.
Still from Ben Rivers, ‘Origin of Species’. Courtesy of the artist and Kate MacGarry.
Thoreau’s two-year sojourn at Walden – as backwoods nature poet, self-sufficiency evangelist, Romantic loafer, and avant la lettre ecologist – continues to speak to an urge within many of us to get away from it all and live a simpler existence, at one with our natural environment, and with more time to think, and breathe, and be. A spiritual precursor of the contemporary weekend retreat or extended sabbatical in the country, Thoreau’s self-imposed bout of splendid isolation also provides a template for another contemporary cultural phenomenon, the writers’/artists’ residency – a hideaway home-from-home, albeit often in faraway, remote locations, where guests can find creative inspiration in the peace and quiet of their surroundings, or from direct proximity to an unfamiliar landscape. Thoreau had the advantage of having his refuge more or less on his doorstep. For many of us, the perfect bolthole to escape to somehow gets further and further away. Indeed, the fact that it lies outside our familiar stamping grounds may be part of its appeal.
The four contributors to the Film and Video Umbrella project, ‘Stay Where You Are’, have all done their fair share of travelling in pursuit of their art. Film-maker Ben Rivers has gone to great lengths to get to parts of the planet that seem otherwise undisturbed by the outside world, in his quest to find places (and people) that are islands unto themselves. Essayist Jay Griffiths’ love of wilderness has also taken her to far-flung corners of the globe – a wanderlust that extends to a wider curiosity that runs through her writing about those facets of human existence that remain either wild-at-heart or under-explored. Musician/composer Jem Finer has exchanged a life on the road with The Pogues for the less-travelled path of an installation artist, though his creative horizon has stayed encouragingly unlimited, ranging from the minimalist setting of a hole in the ground to slowly unfolding temporal/sonic landscapes that might take a thousand years to complete. Lavinia Greenlaw is similarly itinerant and adventurous, her poetic impulse finding expression in forms that are not always poems per se, but admixed with other artistic approaches.
For ‘Stay Where You Are’, we wanted the four writers/artists to take up residence… at home. Sensing that their full-on schedules (and our meagre budgets) would rule out Thoreau’s prolonged two-year time-out (or anything like it), we asked them consider ‘home’ not just as an actual setting or backdrop, but as a principle, a point on their personal compass, and to devote whatever time they could spare, in whatever place they found themselves, to focus on what was of immediate attention, with whatever was near at hand. The four participants responded in vivid, beguiling and unexpected ways, as they returned to and continuously evolved their projects over the course of a year; reflecting how even a fixed point never stays the same but is always subject to the vagaries of mood, and the flow of time. Seasonal scenes from a studio-portakabin by the water, reminders of personal encounters and upclose observations of the natural world, polemics about the economics of domestic arrangements and the demands of self-sufficiency, an inventory of personal possessions and how easy (and how difficult) it is to live without them: the four works that have resulted each have a singular voice, but also some deliberate or subliminal allusions to the abiding preoccupations of ‘Walden’.
We also hoped that the four participants would be inspired or provoked by the multiple meanings of the project title. For sufferers of a mild-to-chronic travel bug, the injunction to stop, be confined to quarters, and simply ‘stay where they are’, is refreshingly, maybe even therapeutically, counterintuitive. In a culture increasingly addicted to novelty, to technological innovation, to perpetual motion, and (as some might see it) to change for change’s sake, that counsel goes deeply against the grain. So much so, that, in an echo of Thoreau in ‘Walden’, enacting the choice to opt out completely might start to signal a genuine radical intent. In those circumstances, the decision to stay put, sit tight and ‘know your place’ might not simply correspond to a mute acceptance of the natural order of things, but, on the contrary, be a badge of resistance.
The word ‘resistance’ has evocative nuances of its own. One might apply it, as one might apply a brake to a wheel that’s always turning, as if back-pedalling, or changing down through the gears. Or, to switch from a mechanical metaphor to one more attuned to our digital, networked moment, ‘resistance’ might refer to the lessening of a charge; a positive earthing in an increasingly wired world. Or, to take that analogy one step further, it might imply a going-to-ground; a turning away, or turning one’s back on prevailing orthodoxies and trends. Unaffected by blandishments and impervious to temptation, ‘resistance’ here might denote a refusal to engage, as embodied in the figure of the drop-out or the refusenik.
Stay Where You Are: if the spirit is one of protest, it is a quiet, even quietist sort. There are times, though, where a stance of detachment or disengagement might be roused into a call to action. At the frontline, where public discord and popular reaction occasionally spill out onto the streets, the phrase can acquire extra volume and additional resonance. Stay Where You Are: the barked megaphone command of the powers-that-be (quelling, controlling, kettling) might just as easily be the motto on a placard at a sit-down demo: We Are Here, and Here is Where We Stay. We Shall Not Be Moved. No Pasarán.
The Occupy movement, of course, made a name for itself by setting up camp in commonly owned but increasingly contested spaces, and once there, digging in, for days and weeks, not just to hold their ground, but to make a stand for other long-held values that challenge, among other things, the profit-motive driving the capitalist system’s need for growth above all else. Hold on, a chorus of voices has started to repeat, if this constant cycle of consumption, acquisition and speculation is decimating jobs, depleting energy and despoiling the planet, and not making us that much happier in the process, why do we need it, or need so much of it? Echoing the example of the Club of Rome, whose influential treatise ‘The Limits of Growth’ forewarned how indefinite economic expansion would lead to inevitable exhaustion of natural resources, and who recommended re-setting the annual growth rate to zero to forestall it, many people have taken it upon themselves to live more within their means. In a protracted phase of austerity, when the most that many of us are told we can hope for is a standstill salary or a standstill budget, these belt-tightening measures are being insidiously forced upon us. It may be scant consolation, then, for the individuals going through it, that they are in the vanguard of a growing realisation that many more people will have to live and consume more frugally if our current mode of existence is to be remotely sustainable.
Just to maintain the fragile equilibrium we have reached with the planet requires something more than simply keeping things the way they are at present. If emission levels continue to rise as a result of widespread industrial development, causing the climate to warm as a consequence, sea levels will inevitably continue to rise with them. For those rising seas to stay where they are demands a drastic cut in our carbon footprint. If not, the chances of millions of residents of low-lying coastal areas staying where they are seem bleak indeed.
It may be this dawning awareness of the vulnerability of our situation, and the impact we are having on the wider ecology, that has prompted many people to eschew the long-haul flight to a far-off destination in favour of the ‘staycation’, even for the rustic charms of a Waldenesque ‘cabin in the woods’. When they get there, waking to the sound of songbirds in the morning, that newly heightened connection to our natural surroundings may also encourage a deeper appreciation of what we still have, all around us, and what we stand to lose. It may also bring a reminder of one of the immutable facts of an encounter with the natural world. If you hear the sound of birdsong within earshot, or the rustle of an animal close by, don’t expect it to be there if you suddenly chase after it. Sit still, sit tight, and stay where you are. If you do so, then the beauty and the wonder that is out there might just come to you.