By George Vasey
“He who had practised so successfully the art of forgetting, now sought to revive in himself the art of remembering.”
The Green Child, Herbert Read, 1935
Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s ballad A House is Not a Home, 1964, narrates the story of an empty house, vacated soon after a couple’s break-up. The song’s restrained melodic melodrama: “a chair is just a chair, even if no one is sitting there. And a house is not a home. When there’s no one there to hold you tight,” encapsulates a sense of blissful domesticity gone array. The song, first sung by Diane Warwick and latterly a hit for Luthar Vandross, is one of Bacharach and David’s finest.
The question of what makes a home is one I’ve often grappled with. I grew up in a military family, moving between 15 houses by the time I was 20. From an early age I understood home to be an idea as much as a location; a smell, a voice, a sound. Home is a memory and a shared history. The architecture of home is scalable and malleable; something that can be worn and carried around. It inhabits you as much as you inhabit it.
Surveying Bransdale (2021-23), is a project by Holly Willats forming part of a wider programme of activity for Art Licks in its relatively new home on the North York Moors. Surveying Bransdale, convenes artists from Yorkshire and further afield to reflect on what it means to work from and with the home in the context of the rural. Central to the project is a series of artist residencies and interventions undertaken at Willats’ home – Cow Syke farm in Bransdale, North Yorkshire. The property, which is owned by the National Trust, has a long history dating back to the 18th century and was a working farm for many centuries before that. Willats, with her partner David and their son, are the current custodians.
Soon after moving to Bransdale from London, Willats started to delve into local archives, tracing genealogies in the surrounding area and learning about her home’s history. Her research directed her to rent books from the early 19th century containing handwritten lists of Bransdale tenants next to records of rent collected (or not). These historic artefacts are curiously cold documents, reducing people’s lives to numerical data. The house names and inhabitants are evocations of homes that once were. We know that many of these were tenant farmers, renting the land from the Feversham family. The texture of the people’s lives are lost in these historic documents; their interior lives erased from the records.
From the mid-19th century Cow Syke (sometimes referred to as Cow Sike) started to appear in the census. Willats’ research has led to scraps but the complex experiences of generations of families who made this location their home remain largely a mystery. A census captures the basics but the inner lives of these residents remains intangible.
When we think about archives, we may think about civic accounts, locked away in airless buildings in cardboard boxes. The use of archives dates back to Ancient Greece, denoting governmental public records. Political structures tend to go hand in hand with data collection. Surveying and surveillance share a similar etymology. We can see surveys and archives as part of the same project: for those in control to classify and make legible to those in power. While our national collections are rich with stories of aristocracy and monarchy, the lives of working people typically live on in oral and folk traditions. Grass-roots archives, libraries and oral history projects expanded throughout the 20th and 21st century in an attempt to redefine how and who is made visible. For instance, projects such as Mass Observation, established in 1937, tasked untrained volunteers to chronicle daily British life in an attempt to counter the historical erasure of working class lives.
Where gaps remain, myth and speculation emerge; a space where artists tend to do their most interesting work. Artists are adept at a type of expansive archeology surfacing anecdotal and social, minor and intangible histories. As part of the project, Willats invited Holly Graham, Anna Hughes & Adam Shield, Jade de Montserrat, Emily Hesse and AHH Collective (Charlotte Salt, Sally Taylor, Sue Mann, Lyn Wait, Janet White) to the farm to make a work in response to the area. The resulting commissions encompass painting, video, audio and performance; exploring oral and material cultures focused on local personal and public histories. The works are characterised by open-ended experimentation and at the time of writing many of the projects remain ongoing. Willats has enabled the artists to follow curiosities and hunches, with projects often initiating new leads.
During their residency at Cow Syke, Anna Hughes and Adam Shield made collaborative field recordings edited into ambient sound works (listen here) inspired by visits to nearby Byland Abbey and St Gregory’s Minster Kirkdale. Hughes and Shield became invested in the differing temporalities of the Moors including the deep geological time and perennial rhythms of the seasonal landscape. The reverberating sound of water merges with flute and percussion accompanied by snippets of the artists’ elliptical reflections. The music shifts between sonic harmony and dissonance. At times meditative then ecstatic, the audio works recall the music of Gazelle Twin, Burial and Mark Fell. This form of acid pastoralism feels hallucinatory and haunted. The rural – layered with history and mythology – becoming a site of estranged foreboding.
Folklore and magic is also the focus of the local artist collective, AHH (Charlotte Salt, Sally Taylor, Sue Mann, Lyn Wait, Janet White) who were inspired by the art critic, philosopher and poet Herbert Read’s The Green Child, 1935. The book narrates the story of two young children who appear in a fictional village speaking an unknown language. The magical realist book is broadly perceived to be inspired by Read’s upbringing near Kirkbymoorside - the nearest town to Bransdale. During a studio visit, the collective recounted to me that Read wrote about his favourite walk along the Hodge Beck stream to Bransdale Mill. The anecdote summarises much of the spirit of Surveying Bransdale: generations of artists compelled by the dramatic allure of the local landscape. Inspired by the text, Willats organised a day-long open studio event with the artists at Cow Syke, presenting work in progress made at and about the site, engaging with the distinctive architectural character and emotional tenor of the location.
Similarly, Emily Hesse was deeply invested in North Yorkshire’s rich mythology and folklore. Hesse made frequent trips to Bransdale creating a series of works she later exhibited as part of her solo exhibition The Witches’ Institution (W.I.) at The Tetley, Leeds (2022). These works included painted doors from the barns, clay charms and fleece chairs that merge the artist’s interest in materialism, the local landscape as well as alternative and embodied forms of knowledge. Hesse also filmed her frequent trips to Bransdale during the commissioning process, becoming fascinated by the hamlet of Cockayne that sits at the head of Bransdale. The location was inhabited by Hesse’s distant relatives and the artist had plans to make a film eliding these histories with Brueghel’s The Land of Cockaigne, 1567. Hesse was unfortunately unable to complete the work before her untimely death in late 2022. While the work is unfinished, Hesse remains an archetypal artist for this project; her work and life deeply intertwined with the poetics and politics of the North Yorkshire landscape.
Holly Graham’s research led her into local archives at Ryedale Folk Museum, North Yorkshire County Record Office and various stately homes such as Duncombe Park, and Nunnington Hall. She interrogated North Yorkshire’s colonial links including the motif of the ‘blackamoor’ in Baroque European design and architecture as well as the land enclosure acts of the 18th and 19th century. Graham focuses on the ways in which British expansionism was made possible by the extraction of bodies and land. These colonial legacies litter the British landscape in overt as well as covert ways. Where exactly did the money come from to build these stately homes? Graham’s work addresses inconvenient truths. At the time of writing, she continues to work on this research, building towards an exhibition longer term.
The freighted relationship between land and body is continued in Jade de Montserrat’s work. De Montserrat has developed a performance in one of Cow Syke’s barns, encompassing the naked artist drawing onto the walls with charcoal until the walls are blackened. The artist performs alone in front of a camera, documented for later display. The use of charcoal, applied directly onto gallery walls, is a recurrent motif in de Montserrat’s work. As the black charcoal dust merges with the artist’s Black skin, the work becomes sedimented with multiple metaphors. Is the work a covering or a revelation? Is the act of drawing meditative or something to be endured? The artist claims the space, calling attention to her own labour as well as the material labour involved in the production of the charcoal. Blackness is formal and constructed; the work merging themes of race, labour and the land.
Collectively, Surveying Bransdale encapsulates Holly Willats’ protean curating. Establishing Art Licks in 2010, Willats spins many artistic plates as editor, fundraiser, writer, producer and curator: establishing festivals and walking tours, publishing, exhibiting and public commissioning. Her work is deeply collaborative in its holistic support for artists. Collectively, Art Licks can be defined as paracuratorial in its expansive emphasis on process and discursivity. While her projects are often publicly funded, Willats has resisted the urge to scale up and become overly professionalised. Her work is situated and is characterised by a generative and experimental intimacy. Crucially, in providing space, dialogue, time and money for artists to make new work (in her home), Willats fosters trust with her collaborators. She is the consummate host. With funders becoming increasingly prescriptive and instrumentalizing, this approach feels refreshing. In this sense Cow Syke is a home as a methodology, the home as a curatorial framework.
This project offers an expanded archive. A home imbibes the memories of generations of families and forms the most intimate of archives. Ultimately, Surveying Bransdale elides many differing archival strategies. It incorporates testimonies and fairy tales, history and hearsay. It surfaces inconvenient truths, narrates the minor and mythologizes the overlooked. The project offers a revival of collective remembering and poly-vocal storytelling. It is perhaps apt that many of the projects initiated in Surveying Bransdale have continued and continue to morph. Art, like life, resists the fixity and bureaucracy of archives; it’s not numbers on a ledger, it is the rich texture of peoples’ lives.
George Vasey is a curator and writer based in Saltburn-by-the-Sea, North Yorkshire and was the Art Licks Writer In Residence at Cow Syke in 2022, funded by Arts Council England.