Making 'Whitehawk Witness'
I’d never been to Whitehawk Hill before this spring, in spite of having lived in Brighton for some years in the early 2000s. Of the five sites across Brighton set to host a 'witness stand' at this May's Brighton festival, Whitehawk's great quiet amphitheatre of green resonated with me in a unique way and came to be the site for which I made a sound-piece. On first seeing the hill, I was struck by its size. There was something deep and surprising about how it loomed out of the housing estate, a powerful physical statement held in the land.
Witness Stand is the beautiful brainchild of Maddie Flynn and Tim Humphries, a collaborative artwork that invites audiences to gather at seating set into a landscape, to experience that place through their eyes and their ears and to know it differently that way.
In March, I visited Whitehawk Hill with Jenny and Ed, the other artists making work to share there in May. I thought about what it is that makes us feel the vibrations of a landscape’s past- or even whether we can feel those vibrations and what that really means. Could I feel anything as I walked across the undulations on Whitehawk Hill that tell of its Stone Age past? I wondered if the only way we feel something is if we develop a relationship with a place through stories. We connect words to things, we conjure and inherit memories, and over time develop a kind of literacy of a place. We build an inventory of precious things.
To say this is only about words however feels not enough. I recognise there are strong feelings attached to these things. Jenny mentioned how a garage had been built on the site of her grandparents’ former house on the estate, and I wondered about the passage of time and the attendant decay and evolution of things and places. I reflected on moral survival, how there can be great pain when our memories and precious things are threatened or destroyed. In these moments, time does not feel linear.
In the course of my research, I’d learnt about the campaign to save the Whitehawk nature reserve from various housing developments and had wondered about the idea of native things. Tracing the history of this micro-landscape through my research, I recognised the changes that have altered the course of life here, whether for human beings, or for other animals, for birds and plants- sometimes unknowing and whimsical interventions that have left an imprint for generations afterward. Local naturalist Dave Bangs mentions the example of the beech trees planted in the late 19th century on nearby Freshfield Road. “This beech line still exists,” he writes, “and they are now the oldest trees on the Hill”. For everyone living in this area during the era of these trees, there will be a significance and constancy to them that marks the land. Any change will inevitably contain a sense of loss.
Getting to know the stories of Whitehawk Hill, whether through the memories of present-day local residents, or the story of Stone Age ‘Whitehawk Woman’ buried here curled about her tiny newborn thousands of years ago, I’ve been helped to reflect on continuities and discontinuities. There was a time when the frozen tundra which prevailed here was replaced by great forests of natural woodland. There was a time in ancient history when people migrated through this place as gatherer-hunters before later generations settled to farm here. There was a time when Lime Trees were more numerous, before woods were selected for Oak which then came to predominate. There was a time when the ecosystem of the Chalk Grasslands which today’s campaigners strive to protect did not exist. Whilst change is as old as this hill, to misquote the saying, its recent accelerated nature is massively problematic. We depoliticise this acceleration at our peril as it expresses a violence to which human and non-human beings alike are subject.
Whilst all of us are in this way creatures trying to survive in the wild, Whitehawk’s council residents have had to fight harder to survive than most. I have not lived on the estate but know the stories locals tell. Of digging deep and making much of little. Of having a local authority control your destiny. Of strong neighbourhood friendships in spite of hardship and systemic disempowerment. Both social and environmental campaigns in Whitehawk- from keeping the Valley Social Club in local hands to protecting the nature reserve from development- share something: a sense of community and the common ground. Whitehawk Hill has been common ground for centuries and its people know it and will fight for it.
Though climate catastrophe requires us to de-centre our human selves and recognise an almost unfathomably immense and terrifying systemic crisis, I can see a thread that links these very great changes and losses to those at the most personal level- Jenny’s grandparents’ house being replaced by the garage, the retreat of one generation’s memories and customs into the past. Each strata holds an evolving inventory of precious things, from the endangered Dartford Warbler to a Whitehawk local’s memory of the sky being dark enough for star-gazing during their 1940s childhood. In making this sound-piece, I tried to express this equivalence and how it speaks to the mortality and regeneration of all things. I traced an arc from the abstract to the ordered, from the unfamiliar and elemental towards a kind of incantation at the end- an inventory of the precious things that I could perceive as being a part of this place and an affirmation of art-making in their celebration.