Tony Jackson – Reflections on Cove Park

[Posted on Tony’s behalf as he disappears off to Egypt to get revolutionised. SB]

At last, a few moments to jot down some rather rushed reflections on the Cove Park event. I won’t try to compete with the impressively articulate, often poetic, musings of previous bloggers, but simply want to pick up on a few things that struck me that haven’t yet had much airing. Apart from some of the talks on Friday in Glasgow, we didn’t really get round to talking much about learning and young people (in the plenary sessions at least). And nor was that the primary emphasis in the presentations we saw. I don’t have a problem with that – there was plenty else at the site and in the range of presentations that provided us with some remarkable and powerful intellectual and emotional stimuli; and indirectly many of those presentations were of course learning experiences in the widest sense. But I’m glad both Steve and Helen have brought ‘learning’ explicitly back into the frame in their recent blogs. At Cove, I kept finding my own thoughts turning to the challenge of trying to interpret the site a) with a potential audience of ‘young learners’ in mind, and b) in some way building on some of the information we were given about the history of the area by Richard on Saturday morning. Just to clear the decks quickly about what I mean by ‘learning’: I’m not confining myself to curriculum-driven learning, even less to the traditional positivist (or behaviourist) models of learning that prioritise the one-way transmission of a thing called ‘knowledge’. Interestingly, it has often been cultural organisations outside the formal education sector (museums, heritage sites, and perhaps theatres above all) that have been able to pioneer ways of putting the learner at the centre of the experience, engaging with and contributing to informal and lifelong learning and ensuring that learners (and visitors) are not just ‘targeted’ but considered participants in the process. They’ve drawn especially on constructivist and social learning theories (as discussed on Friday in Glasgow), emphasising the ways in which we all learn by making connections and building on pre-existing ‘knowledges’ – theories strongly influenced by Freire, Kolb, Dewey, Vygotsky, Gardner et al. If learners do indeed construct knowledge in an individual and personalised fashion, then the design of any kind of educational programme needs to keep in play all the cognitive, emotional and social dimensions, and to recognise that personal engagement is crucial. The use of drama as a means of engaging potential learners has not surprisingly therefore been embraced by many (but by no means all) ‘learning officers’ in museums, heritage sites, etc – it can be an invaluable tool in providing varied and stimulating ‘ways in’ to the subject matter being addressed.

So, where am I going with this? To take just one example from the Cove weekend, Sally’s fascinating experiment with autobiography, time-lapse photography and intertwined moments of ‘being there’ and ‘being elsewhere’ was clearly a rich experience not only for her but (in necessarily different ways) for the rest of us who stumbled across it and later shared the presentation. It was memorable, distinctive and gently provocative – and, in constructivist terms, as much a learning experience as any of the more formal offerings on Friday and Saturday morning. Maybe the extent of very personal, autobiographical themes in Sunday’s presentations was a useful reminder to us to widen the ways in which we think about learning – to value the particular and the personal as a way of reaching and grappling with the broader themes of environmental change – or, as Helen and Steve are suggesting, to pay attention to the detail before we can hope to move on to the general. How then might all that feed into the devising of programmes that use drama to promote thinking about environmental change in specific locations?

At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, Cove was such a different site from Fountains! Fountains was awesome in its towering, crumbling edifices and the sheer scale and audacity with which the architecture was imposed upon, and yet later became part of, the landscape. It was powerfully evocative of one particular notion of civilisation developed to a crescendo of form – and yet… subject to constant revision as the small but significant architectural alterations in the stonework reminded us and in constant flux as ‘nature’ (in the shape of the river) refused to be totally thrown off course, returning with a vengeance in the recent floods. Cove Park makes no grand pretensions to being a ‘heritage site’, other than offering us extraordinary vistas of the surrounding landscape from our perch half way up the hillside. The architecture is decidedly subservient to the landscape, everything about the buildings conveying (to me at least) a sense of impermanence and provisionality – even the might of 20th century concrete. (Fountains is not of course completely permanent, though its makers may well have hoped it would be…) The buildings aren’t trying to make an impressive mark on the landscape, they had to fit in and around the geology as best they could.

Perched as we were, everything seemed to point to the loch, even when it was out of view. The walk down to the shoreline was for me a compelling experience. Not only was there the gravitational pull and a curiosity to see close up what lay beneath us, but an added curiosity triggered by Richard’s presentation on Saturday morning – which I found both illuminating and usefully frustrating.

I was intrigued by the historical overview, and especially the incredible social shifts and swerves over the past few centuries as the Loch became exploited for such different purposes. But we saw the changes mostly through the lens of the history of the Dukes of Argyll. The obvious next step is to wonder what that history looked and felt like from the points of view of the ‘others’ – the farmers, the people who built the houses, hotels and the jetties, the navigators ancient and modern. So I was drawn to the shore line and to wondering about the ways the relationship between loch and land had changed over time. A number of potential projects spring to mind – all of which would require massive local research to flesh out the bones and to investigate local relevance and interest. (Which is why in the time available I copped out of doing a presentation on the Sunday.) One would be (unsurprisingly) some kind of participatory theatre-in-education event, on site at Cove and/or close to the shore. The purpose would be to use drama to explore the social impact of just one of those historical shifts – focusing in on, eg, the moment when tourists started to come for their days out from Glasgow; or indeed when the tourism began to die and jobs and life styles died with it. Of course such shifts are never concentrated into one neatly dramatizable moment and no doubt some ‘poetic licence’ might be necessary, justifiable if participants are provided with facts and resources to investigate the events further. Above all, the idea would be to find dramatic ways of engaging students with aspects of their own local history, offering alternative insights and viewpoints (and alternative voices) on that history, dipping in to the kinds of debates and anxieties and celebrations that must have taken place at times of great change, and provoking questions and reflections on the use(s) human beings have made of the land/loch at one specific point in time – and its potential relevance to the present. Just who were the people who worked for Argyll? What were their attitudes to him, to the land he owned and on which they toiled, and how did they cope with – or try to resist or indeed try to exploit – the changes thrust upon them? Depending on age group and much else, the level of role play might range from full-scale ‘immersion’ through to forum theatre.

Alternatively, one might devise a much more site-specific programme wholly based in the Cove Park territory, such as a much adapted version of a piece created some years ago for the National Trust in the Peak District, ‘Whose land is it anyway?’. In this interactive programme school students in small groups took on roles as investigative journalists invited to attend a meeting to decide the future of a piece of countryside being sold ostensibly for the benefit of the rural community; of course all was not quite as it seemed and as the day progressed and as the students encountered different stake-holders at different parts of the site, the complexity and clash of interests became increasingly apparent. Things culminate in a Caucasian Chalk Circle-like debate about who should own the land and a decision is taken – which may or may not coincide with the students’ own views. When originally devised, it successfully got kids thinking not merely about land ownership and how come who owned what, but more importantly about usage of the land, exploitation vs sustainability, and the possibility of thinking creatively about its future use: how best to respect what has been inherited, understand the rich diversity of its ecology and the changes it’s suffered/sustained, and plan for future change… How do you make claims for the best, most productive or most sustainable let alone fairest use of the land, and whose interests are being served at every juncture when decisions are made or avoided? One can easily imagine, I think, how this could be adapted to Cove Park, and how questions about past, present and future ownership have impacted, and will impact, upon the land in the future. One of the challenges would then be to couple the issue-driven and history-driven scenarios with that attention to detail discussed earlier – to those details of how life was/is/could be lived in particular circumstances which can offer rich, provocative connections with our own lives and at the same time pose the troubling questions. We still have much to learn from Brecht I think.

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