Re-Visioning # 1: A conversation with Simon Withers
This is the first of a roving and open-ended series of conversations in the context of the interruption of everything by COVID-19. For me, I was about to set out on a 220 mile walk on foot, collecting and sharing acts towards and visions of a positive future society. In the deep uncertainty of the present moment, I find myself, like many others, embarking on different trajectories of unlearning, destabilizing and re-visioning. These conversations are part of that process. They begin through some convergence of ideas or space. Transcribing them is not making art but a way of temporarily living inside the ideas they contain, an act of deep listening. Publishing them is not exhibiting them but widening the conversation.
Simon Withers set out on an art career in 1988. In November 2015, after 28 years, he ‘dramatically and destructively’ ceased making art and gave up his studio, selling, giving away and destroying his work. The intervening years have been ‘a time of intense unhappiness, anxiety and depression’. Having known Simon for some time, I recently began to notice him sharing some recent swan photography. Notwithstanding the photographs themselves, which are startling in their frankness, intimacy, luminosity and sheer volume, I was interested in the activity itself and its connections to art making, therapy and COVID-19, which Simon had alluded to in some of his posts. When he responded to my recent post — https://medium.com/@nezbitz/new-ways-1-the-future-is-6c3ddf5543aa — it seemed as good a place as any to start these conversations.
IN: Simon, this is the first of these conversations I’ve had, which feels like it starts in two places. Firstly, you responded to my recent post with a reflection about the Russian anarcho-communist, solider and botanist Piotr Kropotkin who, as far as I’m aware, coined the term ‘mutual aid’ back in about 1900, so I’m keen to hear more of your thoughts on him. Secondly, I’ve been following your evolving photographic relationship with swans on the river Trent during lockdown. So let’s start with those two things and see where it gets us.
SW: So I’m not that well read on Kropotkin, I should say that to begin with, but I started with The Conquest Of Bread, and began to think about this question of mutual co-operation in nature that he started to research on long geographical and scientific missions to Siberia and the Russian steppe, while he was a military officer. His theories were in opposition to Darwin’s, which we are all familiar with, and which have led to our sense of ourselves as part of this raw, aggressive, winner-takes-all vision of nature. Kropotkin seems to offer a different possibility, asking how we interpret nature as somehow going beyond serving our own needs. So, to draw a comparison between the past and the present, we’re currently following a false science, which the government have hoodwinked us into believing is for our own good, but which is probably hiding bigger nightmares in terms of the state gaining greater control. And yet still, we can see Kropotkin’s ideas popping up all over the place, to counter the state’s Darwinist tendencies.
IN: And so now we’re at this juncture, where the winners of lockdown are very much the mega-corporations of social media and home delivery, but where, in my most hopeful moments, the emergence of these very local, interpersonal and super-connected grassroots networks offers a window into a different future.
SW: That’s exactly what I mean, but, to be honest, it’s been quite a different story for me. In many ways, nothing has changed. I was in isolation for years before this, used to maintaining a basic level of self-preservation and self-care as a result of depression. But to answer your question, I think it’s interesting to go back to something I read a long time ago, relating to the formation of the NHS. So at the end of the Second World War, we had something like a million men, who knew how to fight, how to take up arms, and how to organise themselves. What kind of world did they come back to, these men who were probably quite angry? There’s one idea that the formation of the NHS was a kind of pacifier for the population, and I wonder if we might see something like that after lockdown, with a population that has been growing more and more resentful all the way since the beginning of the age of austerity back in 2009 with David Cameron. For myself, I’d like to imagine the introduction of a universal basic income, which again goes back to Kropotkin, and his idea of what he called the ‘right to wellbeing’ as having greater importance than the right to work.
IN: It strikes me only now, as you’re talking, that there is some connection between Kropotkin’s ideas and your own developing relationship with a group of swans, in the attempt to explore interspecies co-operation. The fascinating thing about the photographs is the angles that they’re taken from, where the camera angle is obviously from in and amongst them. Is that something that you’re aware of in your interactions with them?
SW: Absolutely, but as well as that, I’m looking for a mythological connection, as in how being with swans can connect me to ancient ancestors. The gods even, and I don’t mean specific gods or myths but more in the sense of there being pagan gods for absolutely everything. In that sense, it’s maybe less surprising that I talk to them. People who frequently walk past me when I’m with the swans say oh they must recognise you, and part of me says yes, but also I’m not convinced that there’s any recognition at all, other than for this form that we call a human being. They do work with other animals though. Last week, when I was feeding the swans, there were some Canada geese with their young resting on the concrete. A woman and her dog approached and I saw that the dog wasn’t under control. Now the goose was trying to protect her young so basically the dog got the mother goose in its mouth, and the woman did nothing, but the swan joined in and dragged the dog into the water. It then escorted the goose and goslings to the other side of the river and then turned around and went back to the other side. So in terms of Kropotkin’s theories, there it is, right there, and in terms of how we view that, as human beings, I think that we know what we need to do but it’s a question of whether we’re brave enough to do it. I do wonder if we can make these vast changes regarding how we understand the world, especially given our difficulties in understanding and relating to members of our own species.
IN: I wonder that about these times under the threat of COVID-19 — if somehow a greater universal precarity in survival terms might lead us somehow to a deeper solidarity within our own species. In terms of relating to other species, I’ve become aware only during lockdown of your photographic practice with the swans, and I read something you wrote during Mental Health Awareness Week a couple of weeks ago about the daily connection you make with the swans being a question of survival for you and I was extremely struck by that. Would you mind expanding on that?
SW: Last September, I was coming back from a counselling session and I had my camera with me. I’ve always carried bird seed with me and that afternoon I ended up photographing that one swan for about three hours, until the battery ran out. I had dramatically and destructively given up my art career a few years previously but as I walked home, I began to wonder about how this might become a form of art therapy for me. I started photographing them more and more until one day when I went and they weren’t there, I realised they were the only thing keeping me alive. My confidence was zero, as was my confidence in my ability to have any kind of control over my illness, so it was just something to connect with. I didn’t know what I was getting from it, but none of it was played out for performance or documentation — I hadn’t at that point considered what the connection to art and creativity was. I began walking further and further to find them, spending more and more time with them, and started doing things like covering myself in bird seed and lying down amongst them to take photographs. My counsellor had suggested I get out into nature, go for a walk or a run, and this was my version of that I suppose. Sometimes I overhear people calling me the swan man. Whatever has happened, it does seem concurrent with coming out of a period of somewhere between four and seven years of intense unhappiness, anxiety and depression.
IN: And so how have recent events affected all of this, and your thinking around it?
SW: I’ve had a lot of conversations with homeless people, because a lot of them congregate along the river. Some of them started telling me their stories, maybe they sensed a fellow vanquished soul, I don’t know. Then when lockdown was announced, they all disappeared, I assume because someone found accommodation for them. People are gathering again now and I’m hearing a lot more people talking about being in limbo, feeling dispossessed or like they’ve had everything stripped away, that kind of thing, whether they’re from here or they’ve come from different countries. Some people are very deeply troubled and all I can do is to listen. When you talk about hope or loss of hope, or about the Covid period as being an interruption to the ability to feel or conceive of hope, as you suggested in your piece, well if you had no hope before and you’ve got nothing to look forward to, well really this is unlikely to change anything, isn’t it? At those moments you can have all the empathy in the world but as you’re listening, you’ve always got the question hanging over of how the hell do we make the world a better place?
IN: So you appear as this fellow traveller to some people you come across on the river, who feel able to unburden themselves to you and in turn, you seem to have a similar relationship with the swans. I suppose my final question is to what extent you’re seeking a level of humanity through interacting with swans? Do you ask them to help you?
SW: I definitely anthropomorphize them. There were two that I ‘knew best’ that I fed throughout the winter, once one of them even abandoned its take-off flight and came over to see me. And then one day they just weren’t there. I love the idea that if I did see them again one day there would be a level of recognition. I don’t know whether nature is indifferent to man, but I have to walk away knowing that it carries on anyway, and there’s a sadness about that, that what I do ultimately amounts to nothing. Is that a reflection of my own mental health? I suspect it is, so I’ve got a lot of work to do.