Dreaming of Field Trips

I can recall being despondent one day in my early years of High School. I was sick in bed and unable to go on a long anticipated field trip to the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden (Miami, Florida). The garden had a motorised train that transported you along red bitumen paths through rainforests and across bright expanses of green lawn. But I was for once genuinely sick and I would never have the opportunity to visit that garden again.

Why do I recount this memory? Perhaps to take another field trip – this time from the necessity of a more formal mode of writing. You see the problem is – as the story above makes clear – I originally associate field trips with pleasure, with freedom from the drudgery of ordinary work and experience.

Of course a ‘field trip’ is not the same thing as ‘fieldwork’. Our concern is properly with the latter. Leaving aside the scientific sense of the term, which I shall return to, ‘fieldwork’ can simply indicate the labour of working in fields – ploughing, planting, harvesting, etc. None of that is especially fun, or is perhaps only fun if it is not characterised by economic necessity. Clearly for many people a well-tilled field represents less a space of freedom than one of poverty and social confinement. If I speak of fields now, it is with the privilege of regarding them metaphorically as openings and as spaces apart.

Scientific fieldwork adopts this latter stance. It conceives dimensions of pleasure, adventure and escape (as well, of course, of reality and evidence). Field work is the stuff of memoirs, while ordinary laboratory research typically seems dull and prosaic.

Here I am afraid I must stray away from the bookish general topic into the field again. My father was a marine microbiologist. He has written extensively of his field work experiences in the Antarctic and in Northern Queensland. His writing starts when he leaves his office and lab. Indeed it is usually with some description of departure from the conditions of his ordinary scientific life that his various memoirs begin. The field appears as a heightened and memorable space. It takes shape in compelling narrative terms. It is conducive to moments of drama, humour and poetic observation. As a child and teenager, I can remember always envying my father’s opportunities for fieldwork. They seemed so much more fun than the kind of science that I studied at school. I quickly realised that I would never obtain the requisite mathematical and scientific skills and understanding to follow in my father’s footsteps, so I opted instead for another order of mediation and abstraction. I became a humanities and creative arts academic. My field work had to discover other and more cunning forms.

I should really explain about my own fieldwork trips up creeks, into the escarpment, to Antarctica, Paris and Turkey, but I will tell another story instead – this time about my mother. While my father pursued his scientific career, my mother brought my sister and I up and pursued a private passion for painting. She never exhibited, but painted all her life. Mainly studio based work, but when we moved up to Townsville in North Queensland in the early 1970s (just shortly before my parents divorced), she bought herself an old Viscount caravan and had a large viewing window installed on one side. This allowed her to travel around Townsville – down to the river, out to the Common – to paint the local landscape. Instead of painting in conventional plein-air style she painted the view from inside the caravan. This enabled her to stay out of the hot sun and to make herself a cup of tea whenever she liked.

Her field work did not seem an escape. Nor did it adapt any adventurous narrative form. It was simply a means of enabling her to work as an artist. Her focus was always on observation – and on the relationship between representation and abstraction. She did not even dress up the experience in conventional artistic terms. There was no fetishisation of standing directly on the ground or of seeing things directly. It was very important for her that she actually went out into the field, but she did not mind that she was looking out through glass from a shaded space. In a sense then, rather than leave the studio behind, she took it with her. I mention this example because I think that many artists do this, even when they feel they are doing precisely the opposite – when they feel they are encountering the world beyond any form of studio constraint. The studio has a way of following you into the field despite our best intentions.

In any case, what interests me about my mother’s practice was that it was unconcerned with any sense of opposition between studio and field. It represented a novel, practical alignment of the two and a deconstruction of their terms of necessary difference. This is what made it much more genuinely radical than it initially appeared.

These memories and experiences shape my conception of field work. Quite possibly, they may have left me confused about what fieldwork represents. At one level I am drawn to my father’s conventional romanticism, at another level I can’t resist ironising it. My mother’s practice appears pragmatic and deflating, but possibly also reveals another layer of romanticism (and realism) – one that avoids standard artistic myths so that, in very contemporary fashion, art and its other can intersect.

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