The Data Says it All

It all began in Shanghai one Saturday morning in 2009, when I stood for sixty minutes on the corner of Shilong Road, counting vehicles without exhaust pipes. These were bikes of all kinds and the occasional electric scooter. There were 2000 in that hour. I was keeping a record of this moment, to make an environmental comparison with the west, a comparison that would be very different today, now that the car has stepped up to take up its rightful place in an even more developed Chinese economy. 

I had a bike, myself, to get around the square mile where I lived and worked in the south of the city. It was called Shuangzulong, which ironically translates as ‘bipedal’, because one of the pedals fell off the first time I used it. Anyway, this was data collected and when the Knowle West Media Centre advertised a project called Whose Data? a year later, I talked about this Shanghai experience in my application. And I remembered it when the work began. This time the counting happened in shops, the convenience stores of Knowle West. I stood close to the till, trying to be invisible, noting down the categories of what people bought, rather than the brands: soft drink, energy drink, booze, fags, tobacco, lottery, white bread, eggs, crisps, biscuits, milk, newspaper, Paypoint, sweets, pie, onion. I wasn’t aiming to be judgmental about their purchases, but when I read from these lists at a public event a few weeks later, a local councillor described this as significant research into cultural deprivation. Hmm.

I also looked at biodiversity, the range of other species living here, and I had Steve, the Media Centre’s then caretaker, as a special databank. I came to realise that his local knowledge of wildlife was embedded in him. I borrowed a sound recorder and met Steve just before dawn. He took me to the Wills Site, the Bommie, the Black Path, and the Horse Field. The birds were enough and he knew it. The dawn choruses were fantastical symphonies of competing soundscapes, natural and man-made. We stood in silence listening acutely to what was being recorded, trying not to cough or sneeze. In between recordings, Steve spoke guiltily about his boyhood experiences as a poacher, and with authority that this was a green corridor for birds and other creatures. From their perspective Knowle West is a rich source of food, cover and safety. Up here, the pattern of open land, housing and the many patches of green space are only interrupted by the major highway that is, Hartcliffe Way. 

Still thinking about data I came back a year later with another idea, this time related to binary code. I would visit every street in Knowle West and photograph all the house numbers that contained a one or a zero or both. These were, obviously, numbers 1, 10, 11, 100, 101, 110 and 111. It took quite a while. The photos were then displayed side-by-side in the gallery, and all the residents of the featured houses were invited to a special event to find their number on the wall, with one lucky winner going away with a Morrison’s voucher for £50. It was a binary bonanza, a celebration of numerology, and a record of house number manufacturing over a 90-year period, and another unique view of this unique neighbourhood.

Then came the Artist Hotel project, joining in the research for the idea of imagining an artist hotel for Knowle West. Some of my research focused on hotels in London and the South East that branded themselves as ‘artistic’, including the Artist Residence Hotel in Brighton and the St Martins Lane Hotel in London. I tend to see hotel lobbies and foyers as semi-public spaces that can be occupied, and that’s what I did. I asked the price of a room. I wandered around to get the ambience, sometimes behaving on the edge of performance, to see how far I could go before being stopped. When it came to the presentation of my findings I’d not long been back from a visit to Ethiopia, where corrugated metal sheets are a base building material for many homes and shops, so I decided to include hammering on a piece of locally sourced corrugated steel as an antidote to the glamorous hotel culture that I’d been experiencing. Artists don’t need a swanky hotel. Nor does Knowle West.

The landscape of the place on the hill in Bristol BS4 is always with me. I’ve spent long enough to get under its surface and be inside its weather. I’ve walked those streets, all of them, seen the sun rise and set, explored the wilderness at the back of Greenfield School with the kids, been humbled by Steve’s instinctive knowledge, looked up and looked down, listened and watched… BS4 was even with me in the Alice Springs desert and the Montreal rain when I was working on my new ecological project called The Naming in 2018. As a part of this I came back to Bristol last year to explore the huge tidal range of the River Avon and the Bristol Channel, the second highest in the world, and the potential pollution in the Malago River, using a lo-fi method involving unbleached tampons and UV light. The results were not conclusive, but veered on the side of not polluted, which was great news. 

This year I was further along with The Naming and keen to share my discoveries with the people of Knowle West. I wanted to give them a direct experience of ecology in an event called Not Green…. So, in January I spend a couple of days looking around and planning. Walking down the slope opposite the Park Centre in Daventry Road and into the trees, I’m surprised to find a flowing stream. This reminds me of Mardalsfossen waterfall in Norway, a place I’d been to the previous summer, to see the site of the first ever eco-action that was led by the philosopher Arne Naess, in 1970. It’s one of Northern Europe’s most spectacular waterfalls. This stream here is tiny, but the sight and sound of running water are enough to make the connection.

There’s an elegant mature tree in the garden of the old vicarage next to St Barnabus Church. It’s some kind of maple Jim thinks. As a tree expert, he explains that this tree has had regular pollarding. I only know about pruning and coppicing. He tells me that pollarding is to encourage growth and to keep a regular shape. I think of the lines of plane trees in London that have their limbs cut to stumps every year. I wonder what you call this? Mutilation perhaps. 

In March, as the day approaches, the weather forecast is worrying. Expect heavy rain, hail and very strong winds. Although we’ve asked people to bring waterproof clothing, strong shoes and an umbrella, the wind will be almost gale force. This could be tricky. Time to rethink. I go back to the Park Centre, our meeting place, to look for ways to keep dry. There’s a neglected lobby tucked away, opposite the reception desk. It’s enclosed and quiet, and I’ll be able to play sounds and video here to the assembled group, at the start. Then I remember one of the main themes of my bigger project, about how the naming of other species can create a separation, as if identification is enough. ‘Oh look this is an oak tree, that’s a hedge sparrow, it’s in a hedge, can you hear the woodpecker, it’s pecking wood, that’s why it’s called a woodpecker, get it?’ So I decide to find another kind of name for some of the trees that live around the edge of the Park Centre complex. 

So, we’ll start inside and then go inside/outside to the courtyard, to visit a silver birch tree surrounded by bricks, and then we’ll come back inside to go outside, where we can find the derelict pond once funded by the Princes Trust, and notice the savagely pruned trees at the end of some adjoining back gardens, hacked down without any respect for their feelings or dignity. This is not pollarding. 

And now we go all the way outside. We move across Daventry Road to look at the well-shaped tree in the vicarage, and pass through the metal barrier and into the majesty of the Bommie. The rain has mainly kept off. But the wind is picking up. We carefully make our way down the steep grass slope with small sideways steps. Someone is wearing trainers and becomes mud-splattered in a flash as they slip. The rest of us arrive safely, to find the stream, still fast-flowing, and some trees of unknown species (aha!). I climb one of these as a gesture of connection, and to surprise the others. I suddenly feel that this is my land, where I belong. Down here it’s deep landscape, heavy with trees and the sound of running water, yet we’re only a few metres from a busy road. People chat and hang out, as if this is an achievement and a destination. I can see what they mean. Then the hail-rain arrives, lashed by the wind, and we climb back up the hill to the church, where Sam, the long-haired vicar with a nose ring, has thankfully already put the soup on the stove. Once we’re all inside he unlocks the door to the interior garden that no one knows about, except him… and me. 

There was a time in the late 1920s, when the farmers sold their land to the council and put the money in the bank. It was theirs to sell. That’s how they saw it. And once (it was) sold they soon forgot about it and were not interested in seeing the houses and schools being built over the hillside where their animals used to graze. Or that it was now called Knowle West. They went on a lavish holiday with some of the proceeds, and wondered if they should have held out for more cash per acre. 

With modern farming methods and the decline of hedgerows, those same fields would now be edge to edge, making it hard for wildlife and wildflowers to get a grip, not to mention the introduction of chemical fertilisers. So, up here, over these 90 years, the creation and the development of Knowle West BS4 has proved to be a huge bonus for Bristol’s biodiversity. It’s a thriving ecosytem and a green corridor that puts local farmland to shame. The data says it all.

Richard Layzell July 2020

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