Red Earth's CHALK: Exploring Heritage and Myth through ritual performance of place

Red Earth's most recent performance piece, 2011's CHALK, explored the deep past of the Sussex Down's, connecting craft to ritual, performance to the land, and close at hand pre-histories with those of the planet.

Red Earth
All photos: Red Earth
For Arizona native Rand Harman participating in CHALK, was particularly meaningful, as he found himself walking the old ways of the Southdowns

Ascending the old road up from Pyecombe to my destination Chantry Farm, I stopped to gauge my surroundings.  You know how when you are walking through old landscape you get a creeping sense to check over your shoulder?  Attuned to ancient resonances, goose flesh usually signifies my treading where many, many have gone before.  This old chalk road deeply cut into the hillside; perhaps four feet deep in places, just giving me that feeling.  When I reached my destination, I discovered from the owner of the farm, Karl Richard, that the road had been build by a Roman garrison that sat atop Wolstonbury Hill, which rose to its high rounded top just to our west.   Already, before even stepping off on the first few paces of Red Earth’s performance of CHALK, I had stirred up echoes and touched the deep roots of ancestors who had worked this land.

Red Earth is an international environmental arts collective, based in Brighton, but producing site-specific installations and ritualistic performances that respond to the landscape and cross cultural boundaries to enrich our connection to the land.   Co-directors Caitlin Easterby and Simon Pascoe conceive, direct and produce all the Red Earth projects, experimenting with and exploring connections between nature, art, science and heritage resulting in a participative, ritualistic performance of, not just against, each landscape.  Over the past 21 years, Red Earth has produced works all over Britain, in Java, Japan, Mongolia and around continental Europe.  

Red EarthThe South Downs of southeastern England is a range of rolling chalk hills, covered in verdant green grasses and small copses of ash and hazel covering approximately 260 sq. miles.  Over millennia the sharp escarpment has weathered into the smooth undulations so beloved of the downlands now, but viewed from the north, the line of the escarpment still dominates the horizon, with some hills, like Wolstonbury Hill, rising 700 feet above sea level.  Evidence of flint mining and tool forming suggests that the area has been populated since Paleolithic times.  Bronze Age denuding the hills of forestry for farming and the subsequent millennia of sheep grazing have evolved the downland into its current beloved pastoral landscape.

In 2011, Red Earth led a six-month project to celebrate the South Downs Way, a 160 kilometer long multi-use trail following the ancient by-ways and drover paths through this landscape.  The resulting piece, called CHALK, focused on two historic sites along the South Downs Way, Wolstonbury Hill, the site of a Neolithic hilltop fort and settlement, probable ritual henge site, and later a Roman garrison, and Harting Down, a medieval deer park and area suspected of ancient hunter-gatherer activity.  For Red Earth, the entire process of creating the work constitutes their performance of the landscape, from the initial coppicing of ash and hazel for the construction of installation pieces, through all the discovery walks, and Red Eartheducational sessions co-laboring with archeologists, ecologists, geologists, natural navigators, botanists, and craft persons, to the final celebratory performances.  The majestic final performance/ritual of CHALK, on Wolstonbury Hill tapped thousands of years of heritage and myth resonating within the landscape by involving the audience participants in a ritual performance of the landscape-walking the lines and paths around and up to the summit of this Neolithic ritual and fort site.  Martin Ellis, recording a feature piece for BBC Radio 4 on Red Earth, asked: “Can art unlock for us a relationship with the past, that is just as important as the facts?”  While scant little archaeological evidence remains of these most ancient workings of the land, Red Earth’s experimentations in these landscapes evoke for archaeologist's ideas of possible pre-historic human activity.  For the audience participants, CHALK provided moments of sacred communion with a beloved place, reconnecting the people to their land in lasting memories.

Red EarthIt was a glorious October day; sun with a few drifting puffy clouds.  Almost  300 spectator/participants gathered on the hillside at Chantry Farm.  Singers tuned up.  We milled, chattering with excitement.  A bell was rung and we gathered to hear Simon and Caitlin greet us and ask us to process in “mindful silence” as a group behind two flag bearers carrying huge green billowy flags.  They strongly cautioned us to refrain from experiencing the landscape through the eyes of our cameras, rather to experience it through our whole bodies, unframed by an artificial device.  We slowly started trekking up the steep side of the hill, through a working sheep pasture.  Turning around and walking backwards I could take in an amazing vista to the southwest, seeing the downs roll on into the distance and for about ten miles the rolling farmland and meandering motorways that indicated modern England’s still vital working of this land.  As I turned around, I left the present, for I caught in my peripheral vision a shepherd in billowy natural robes with his crook striding up the ridge to my left on an intersect course with our herd of spectators.  The shepherd, enacted by Jinen Butoh performer Atsushi Takenoushi, with tall grass to his waist, strongly and confidently moved along the horizon line like he was connected to the landscape.  From this point on various reed horns and medieval and primitive bagpipes accompanied our walk.  The exotic music reminded me of middle-eastern, or north-African tones and rhythms but it fit the moment and atmosphere created by the high downland and transported us into the world of the shepherd we were now following into his landscape.

Crossing the ridge top just before us, the shepherd contemplated a pen of sheep beside an ancient chalk roadway.  We stood in a long arc along the roadway, and along the Neolithic era cross-dyke that ran perpendicular, while the Shepherd sang to his flock and then released them to bound into the landscape.  The downland cross-dykes are remains of sunken ditches, believed to have been cut or worn into the landscape for human transportation or the droving of animals.  These ancient dykes may have been planted with hedges for further protection against the blustery winter winds that relentlessly blow across these hills.

Red EarthHere was where we began to notice the majesty of Wolstonbury Hill and the commanding place it has over the landscape.   To the southeast, the downland slopes off toward the coast, with small farm holdings are gradually being swallowed by the development of Brighton.  The hills of the South Downs continue their march off to the east until over the horizon they meet the English Channel in a series of stark while chalk cliffs at Beachy Head, near Eastbourne.

As the shepherd turns to move down the ridge, we turn and follow our leaders down the chalk road following the ridge out to the southeast.  I notice that the shepherd’s movement was no longer the confident strong strides I saw ascending the hill earlier.  He’s now stumbling, erratic.  The farther we walk, the more the magnitude of the landscape starts to reveal itself.  The entire east side of Wostonbury Hill slopes steeply away about 300 feet down into a deep protected bowl.  Red Earth had lined the ridgeline with a long series of tall white flags that descended from the top of Wolstonbury down to where we stood.  In the distance I watched the sheep, now loosed into the landscape moving across the slope of the hill in parallel lines tracing the topography; following, undoubtedly the paths left by generations of their four-legged ancestors. We stopped to take in the vista, while the Brighton Steiner School Community Choir serenaded us with a 17th century folk song, The Shepherd of the Downs.  This, I might note, was the most literal of the connections to the performance.  While Atsushi was not literally performing the story of the folk song, one could easily imagine this song being sung on this landscape by some shepherd tending his flocks. 

After the song we, the herd of participants, were called into the bowl by the trumpeting of echoing rams horns.  The ancient chalk road that led down the ridge turned and led us further down into the bottom of the bowl.  I lingered back, connected to the past, as I envisioned similar communities of peoples called by the horn to some ritual performance in the bowl, or into the henge atop the hill.  In the bowl in the distance I could see Red Earth’s greenwood sculptural installation called Fold, reminiscent of a medieval cattle enclosure, and I noticed smudgy fire braziers being lit in a ring surrounding it.  The road down was lined with choir members and other volunteers, clanging sheep bells and softly calling and geeing.  We temporarily became the herd, protected, guided, safe.

Red EarthIn the bowl, we encircled the enclosure installation and listened to a couple of pieces performed by the Brighton and Hove Russian choir.   Mongolian long singer Badma Samdandamba emerged from a small copse of trees, in full traditional Mongolian folk priestess costume and sang an ancient ballad, as we watched Atsushi dance around and into the enclosure. Badma offered a traditional blessing of splashed yak’s milk around the enclosure.  Atsushi’s dancing become more erratic to the beat of drumming.  Inside the enclosure, he seemed to wither and collapse, then wildly splash himself, covering himself in liquid chalk, and then disappear.  We joined with the percussionists clanging cymbals, creating energy to raise the shepherd back up.  As Atsushi seemed to reanimate, he lit a torch and loped, in slow spirals up the steep face of Wolstonbury Hill.  Badma led us, singing another traditional Mongolian song, up out of the bowl, blessing us each with scattered rice.  While we ascended the face of Wolstonbury, a series of deep bells, reminiscent of the temple bells I’d heard in Japan, rang out around the valley, their sounds echoing round and round, their sound accompanying our procession like a dirge. 

Didgeridoo’s played as we ascended up the Roman legion-built avenue leading straight to the remains of the summit hill fort.  Smoke from braziers lining the ancient road blurred our vision.  We emerged at the hill top into a brilliant red sunset, and once again lined ancient earthworks in a long arc while the percussionists struck large Asian gongs, calling forth the chalked shepherd, who danced his dance of ascendance to the summit, striking a final pose, silhouetted against a blood red sunset.

After the performance concluded, we descended down the ridge following a line of small braziers, now lighting the dark pathway - notably, no longer as a herd, but as a line of individuals; human supplicants now tracing the topography of the ridge as centuries of ancestors had, their backs lit by the ceremonial fires.

Red EarthAs mentioned, the South Downs landscape been continuously altered and evolved, and subsequently has supported its various population over millennia of working the land.  From the early hunting, gathering and scratch farming of the pre-historic, to the engineered agriculture, settlement and military developments of the Romans, Saxons, and later civilizations, the downlands that the people of southeastern England love, enjoy, and find solace within, are in fact the outward expression of multi-layered strata of heritage.   The ways and roads and paths we followed in CHALK, have been trod by millennia of human and animal feet.  The wide pastoral vistas have been husbanded first by deforestation, then by the maintenance of the variety of grasslands, and herding pastures.  The copses of ash and hazel have been perpetuated by careful, traditional methods of coppicing.   Tim Ingold in The Perception of the Environment explains that landscape is a task-scape, and a matrix of movement bound by the activities of its inhabitants (219).

A place owes its character to the experiences it affords to those who spend time there - to the sights sounds and indeed smells that constitute its specific ambiance.  And these, in turn, depend on the kinds of activities in which its inhabitants engage. (192)

John Wylie in his book Landscape, defines landscape as “a visual image of cultural meanings . . . both the product and token of particular cultures” (91). 

Subsequently, in creating this work, Red Earth, created a new community for their temporary incursion into the landscape.  A community of greenwood craftperson’s, skilled in the traditional methods of creating animal enclosures, guided the collection of raw materials starting with the annual coppicing of the ash and hazel growths, and ultimately helping build the installations.  However, inspiration for the installations first grew from the many walks and talks with archaeologists and natural navigators who related theories on how the land had been used through the centuries of recorded history, and how it might have been used by prehistoric peoples. 

Red EarthBut, as you could tell by my description of the performance, the piece was not created from narrative.   John Wylie notes that a landscape obviously has to be read by someone for these meanings to come alive, and questions,  “How will the landscape be read? Will we need to learn new languages and develop new techniques for reading and interpreting the landscape, if we wish to understand it more deeply?” (71).  The various components of CHALK came from all the artists and collaborators experiencing the landscape, separately and together, and inspired by all the stories and information related by all the authorities (archaeological, geological, ecological, etc.)  As Red Earth explored the millennia of how people worked the landscape, and physically experienced what remains of this work on the landscape - the chalk road, the animal ways, the cross-dykes, the earthen defence works, the natural solitude of the bowl and copses of trees, the sky - they prepared and guided all us spectator/participants into a communal performance ritual of the landscape and into our collective ancestral past. To answer John Wylie's question, at least with regards to CHALK, we - all the spectator/participants who attended these performances - we read the landscape, each one of us. We applied our languages and interpretations. We communed with the land and its heritage. We left changed by the sights, smells, sounds and vibrations we experienced.

Caitlin Easterby describes this aspect of the Red Earth experience as casual ritual.  Admitting to the myriad of contemporary semantic issues surrounding the use the word “ritual”, she relates how the performances are not the putting on of “a show”, they are one-off incursions into the landscape whereby adding elements of performance, whether Butoh dance, or musical or percussive sound, or smoke or fire, or flags, or static installations, that constitutes not a religious ritual but an artistic supposition of “how people might have moved in vast numbers across landscapes for some sort of celebration.”   Dr. Matt Pope, Senior Fellow in Palaeolithic Archaeology at University College London, the project’s archaeologist, remarked on the BBC Radio 4 interview: 

The project itself takes its inspiration from these past landscapes and from past ritual landscapes, so make no mistake, this isn’t an exercise in reconstructing the past… This is an attempt to do something actually in the present.  For me as an archaeologist it’s all been about possibility.  Possibilities about how sound operates in landscapes, how people move in landscapes, and to see this work of modern performance utilizing landscapes in ways that are evocative of, reminiscent of, engaged with the ancient ritual landscapes, has been really instructive.

Simon Pascoe explained to me, that when a Red Earth ritual performance, is being devised, the landscape informs the artists as to what to perform, as if by gathering and comparing all the collective experiences and inspirations, their “subconscious has actually created the narrative.”   However, the fact that the spectator/participant experiences these powerful images in and on the landscape during a Red Earth ritual sparks the natural human tendency to seek definition.  We naturally bring our individual life experiences, knowledge and belief systems to interpreting what we see and experience.  To some who saw the ritual performances at Harting Down and Wolstonbury Hill, the Butoh portrayal of death and re-emergence paralleled and possibly enacted Christian mythology, with Atsushi playing a Christ-like figure.   Other saw more pagan mythologies of sacrificial death and rebirth as a descent into the underworld, only to be recalled to transcend the material as a supernatural force communed with the landscape.    While no narrative was intended, narratives certainly emerged, and in doing so, our individual and personal interpretations made our participation personally sacred.  Simon Pascoe later related how his collaborations with artists of different nations connect cultures that all have had, and/or still have “a direct correlation between the idea of landscape and the spirit” a philosophical perspective which substantiates the Red Earth performance ideal that “landscape is still the matrix of our spiritual connection amongst each other.” 

We humans, by nature, are sentient beings.  Our senses interface with our perceived surroundings through how a place looks, sounds, feels, smells, and tastes.  We seek, through applying our current knowledge about the location before us, to deepen our understanding both of what we are experiencing, and, likewise, our understanding of our own place in the universe; in essence, to increase our enlightenment.   Mircea Eliade, in his book Symbolism, the Sacred and the Arts further explains:

Sacred space constitutes itself following a rupture of levels which make possible the communication with the trans-world, transcendent realities… it is in such a space that [humankind] is able to communicate with… the world of divine beings or ancestors… an opening towards the beyond, towards the transcendent. (Eliade 107-108)

I conclude with my journal entry from that evening after the participating in the final performance of CHALK: 

Performing the landscape like we did made me tune into those that came before us, not just here on the South Downs, but in similar landscapes around the world.  The Asian and Middle-eastern musical and ritual influences made me think of Mongolia, Australia, Russia; the hazel twig enclosure made me thing of the steppes of Africa.  I felt the power and majesty of the land that provides and shelters, and host’s the process of birth, death and rebirth.

We were all supplicants worshipping the land, and the working of the land, and the land’s support of us, all through the years, through all the strata of heritage. 

The walk was the connection to the landscape. We walked the lines that were laid down before us, for millennia.  Laid down by humans, travelling, working, defending.  Laid down by the animals.   Laid down by the passage of time.

We glorified the landscape, and our connection to the landscape by supporting and participating in Red Earth’s modern ritual.  We communed with the landscape and its heritage.  We performed the landscape.

Works Cited

CHALK.  By Red Earth.  Dirs. Simon Pascoe and Caitin Easterby.  Wolstonebury Hill,
West Sussex, UK.  8-9 October 2011.

Easterby, Caitlin.  Interview with Author.  14 October 2011.

Eliade, Mircea.  Symbolism, the Sacred, and the Arts.  New York: Crossroad Publishing
Co...1985.  Print.

Ingold, Tim. The Perception of the Environment:  Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and
Skill.  London:  Routledge, 2000. Print.

Pascoe, Simon.  Interview with Author. 9 October 2011.

“Red Earth.”  Narr. Martin Ellis.  Making History.  BBC Radio 4. Brighton, UK.  
4 October 2011.

Richard, Karl.  Interview with Author. 8 October 2011.

Wylie, John.  Landscape. London:  Routledge, 2007. Print.

Rand Harman teaches at University of Colorado Boulder, Boulder, CO USA