In the archives with Lucas

The excursions with Lucas are turning out to be fun. Lucas is good company especially because he is uncommonly polite – his suggestion that I might be “hallucinating” when anyone else would have said “bullshitting” is an illustration of his politeness which hasn’t however prevented him from suggesting that I’m selling out by dealing with the art world again, a question I will deal with later in the unlikely event that anyone else gives a rats.

photo by Sacha Fernandez under Creative Commons Licence

But faced with ponderous bureaucratic might of  the AGNSW I must confess I didn’t expect to find anything much on our trip. I thought the archives might have, say, a list of proposals and then a later list without the Yeomans show. But it turned out there are several mentions, two of which are fairly detailed. That is  probably because of one of the first things you notice reading through the minutes, the fact that the Trustees in the mid 1970s were incredibly intrusive and overbearing to a degree that these days would  earn them a fail in any Institute of Management corporate governance course.

It is now taken as standard practice that boards are there to give an organisation direction, to inform policy and also to help generate necessary linkages to the wider world, particularly in the case of art institutions for fund raising. They aren’t there to dictate which exhibitions will be programmed, how the exhibitions will be managed or to vet every phone call a curator makes yet back in the 1970s that seems to be what they were doing. No wonder that a number of key staff took off to the NGA and NGV in the mid 70s including all the people involved in my proposed exhibition – Daniel Thomas, Francis McCarthy (now Frances Lindsay) and Rob Lindsay.

But as Lucas points out, it wasn’t simply my exhibition, it was presented as PA Yeomans’ exhibition with myself and Frances as the organisers. This was of course always the point, he had produced everything that was to be in the exhibition, it was just that by putting it in the AGNSW we were raising issues about cultural innovation and cultural change – that if you defined artists as the producers of cultural change then in fact they weren’t necessarily, or even commonly, going to be found in the art world. We were arguing that it was the role of art museums to cast a wider net both in terms of how they defined art and culture and who they exhibited.

It was also interesting that the backing for the exhibition went to the top. The minutes mention specifically that the director and deputy director argued strongly for the exhibition, as if they had insisted that it be noted.  The incredible thing about that is that in preceding years I had waged a very public campaign against the director, Peter Laverty, an artist and former head of East Sydney Tech, accusing him of being a timid and unimaginative bureaucrat who was not up to the job. I had such an effect that I was summoned by George Freudenstein, the Minister for Cultural Activities, to a lengthy meeting in his office to explain exactly what my complaints were. Laverty has certainly been overshadowed in public memory by his successor, the flamboyant Edmund “Fast Eddie” Capon, but it seems I owe him and his deputy director Gil Docking an apology in this case. If you ever see this Peter accept my genuine thanks even if it is thirty six years late.

The other interesting thing in the minutes, well actually there were a lot of interesting things if you understood the implications of what you were reading, was another exhibition proposal that didn’t get up. It was by Terry Smith and Ian Burn, to set up a room at AGNSW with a telex (them were the days, high tech communication at the cutting edge) direct to them in New York where they would discuss regionalism on line with all comers. I hope I misunderstood this, since they were both my friends, but sadly there seemed to be not the faintest hint of irony involved. If you read this Terry, please explain?

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A mystery letter for “Mr Melliss”

Milliss Archives - Yeomans Project

An amusing story has it that Ian Milliss met his now-wife, Wendy, because she was a keen art historian rummaging through the archives at Sydney University’s Power Institute. Wendy was researching the legacy of conceptual art in Australia, and found a few traces of this rather elusive character, who seemed to have disappeared from the art scene in the mid 1970s. Wendy somehow found some contact details for Ian, and went to visit him, digging through his piles of paperwork for a more detailed version of his role in (and out of) the Australian art world.

Besides the very narratable fact that all this librarianship led to romance, one of the things that tickles Ian the most is that a whole lot of his dishevelled paperwork ended up in carefully coded white cardboard folders, like the one pictured above.

I’m working my way through this, the “IM 1975/Yeomans” folder (aka Pr198.436-444) right now. As to what that complex code could mean, I have no idea, but it does seem to lend some authority to the scraps of paper, carefully wrapped in glassine, inside. (Ian has referred to some of these scraps in a previous post).

For the moment, I just want to draw attention to this one letter addressed to “Mr Melliss”, from Jeff Moss, the Managing Director of Random Writers. It is unclear as to what kind of arrangement Mr Moss might have had with Mr Melliss.

Milliss Archives - Yeomans Project

Our only clue: “I will be very interested to discuss the Yeomans project with you but will not be in Sydney from Thursday, September 18 to Sunday, October 12, inclusive. My wife and I are taking a trip to Malaysia”.

Who was this Jeff Moss? (The use of the word “inclusive” in the letter suggests he must have had a secretary to help him “put pen to paper” with his typewriter.)

Anyway, the answer surely is not hard to find. Up in Wallewerang, on t’other side of the Blue Mountains, sits Mr Melliss himself. I’m hoping my posting of the letter here will prompt him to reveal all.

If, that is, he can recall! (If not, perhaps Wendy can jog his memory).

– – –
[ps – you can read Wendy Carlson’s essay about Ian, entitled the invisible artist, here.]

Posted in Art, Yeomans | 4 Responses

Seeing Landscape

Images from The City Forest by Percy Yeomans

A lot of Yeomans’ criticisms of city design are based around the idea that we’ve lost our ability to “see” the landscape. (I’m still exploring ideas from his book The City Forest, 1971…)

His argument is that a farmer living on an acreage for some time (if s/he is that way inclined) can get to know it intimately: the topography of the land, the different minerals, soil-types, and micro-climates which prevail within the property boundaries. This knowledge of the land (the ability to see it properly) comes from a lot of time spent living and working on it.

In cities, by contrast, the density of buildings often distracts from our capacity to read the rise and fall of the land. We are tempted to see vast areas of space as largely undifferentiated, even thought they do still consist of ridges and valleys which determine water flows. The much smaller parcelling up of land boundaries contributes to this problem – it’s that much harder to see “the bigger picture”.

Images from The City Forest by Percy Yeomans

Besides which, no individual (or team) is ever given the jurisdiction over the design of the bigger picture:

The professions have produced many masterpieces of design within the environment, but for the landscapes of town and country, which should have been planned to last indefinitely, there is no logical basis of design. The best of cities appear to be Topsy planned – they just grew and grew out of a series of accidents into the malignancies they are now.

(Note Yeoman’s use of the words “planned to last indefinitely”. These days, the term “sustainable” would surely be used to signify the same thing.)

Much of Yeomans’ teachings, then, are an attempt to get us to “read” landscape topography, as this will aid in our development of more intelligent urban/rural designs.

I have to say I agree with him about the difficulty in reading urban land. When Ian and I visited the Nevallan property, I could see (or least I imagined I could see) the contours of the land. (This perception was, of course, assisted by the inscribed lines in the landscape formed by strips of trees, and the judicious placement of dams.)

But in the city, it’s much harder to see this topography. Take downtown Sydney, for instance. The only reason I know that there are ridges and valleys in Sydney is because, when I ride my bike through town, I feel gravitational resistance. But apart from that, my perception of the city horizon is muddled by tall buildings, and water flows are sequestered underground through drainage. The natural undulations of the land have been experienced by urban designers as an inconvenience to be tolerated or flattened, rather than as a potential asset.

I reckon it’s reasonable to suggest that Yeomans’ work here — attempting to educate the public (and professionals) in techniques of perception — is a good example of what we’re trying to call “art”.

He uses his skill and experience to push us to see the world with fresh eyes; his work grants us an improved intimacy with our immediate environment; it expands our horizons of understanding. It’s a kind of landscape-literacy.

Posted in Art, Farming, Yeomans | 2 Responses

Making Dirt

Yeomans plowYeomans’ Plows… Gotta love that slogan! A catalogue of options, in case you wanna buy one, is here. With any luck, we’ll be exhibiting one in the exhibition at ACCA in October!

Continuing my harvest from Yeomans’ book The City Forest… I’m trying to get down some key ideas before their freshness runs away from me…

The book has a good chapter on Soil.

It’s a clear explication of why Yeomans’ ploughing technique works to build up the soil. Here’s how it works (pages 61-2):

-Poor soil is chisel ploughed to 3 inches deep. Into this gap are sown a mixture of clovers and grasses.
-Some superphosphate is used to artificially stimulate the growth of the grasses and clovers initially, and then never used again.
-The pasture that results is in turn chisel ploughed in the autumn of the next 3 years. In these successive years, the plough is allowed to penetrate further, reaching 6-7 inches by the final year.
-This allows a lot of air into the soil, and also allows more rainfall to penetrate.
-The grass is eaten by cattle, just before it gets to the flowering stage. It suffers a severe shock. The deeper roots die and “become in various ways the food for the whole universe of life of the soil”. In other words, there is an increase in organic matter in the soil; the soil becomes a more open structure, which in turn allows the roots of the grasses to penetrate more deeply. And so the soil-making process continues.

What is chisel-ploughing? Simply, “the modern equivalent of the ancient stick-plow.”

stick plow

However, it’s a bit different from the old-skool stick plow. How? Our guru writes:

The particular attributes of the chisel plow are that it does not turn the soil under and secondly, it is a tough go-anywhere affair. It has two-inch wide chisel-like tynes attached to heavier spring-loaded steel shanks mounted on a steel frame.

Occasionally, Yeomans inserts tantalising political statements like this into his educational text:

This is the Keyline soil making technique which authority has rejected for two decades. They have said, soil cannot be made in that way, it can only be improved by the constant use of chemicals.

What I would like to know is this: What happened so that “authorities” (who exactly) rejected Yeomans’ research? What was going on behind the scenes? Is this another instance of the Australian story of inventors’ ideas being quashed in their own country?

Posted in Farming, Yeomans | 1 Response

The Permanence of things

Continuing my exploration of the little green book

Yeomans’ proposition (to grow forests as intrinsic elements in urban design) is followed by a long middle section which is essentially pedagogical.

I’ve not read Yeomans’ other books yet, but I am presuming that a lot of his teaching material in The City Forest is synthesised from his previously published research.

He delves into the ways that natural landscapes are formed by water flows, and how these “landscape-shapes” (ridges, valleys etc), in turn, influence water flows. It’s his basic curriculum for cracking the code of the planet’s operations. I’m trying to immerse myself in it, but I think it won’t make much sense until I get to experience it in practice, on a bit of land.

There are some enlightening concepts in this pedagogical section of the book. I found his so-called “Scale of Permanence” to be a fascinating way to begin thinking about landscape design.

Here’s his scale:

  1. Climate
  2. Land shape
  3. Water
  4. Roads
  5. Trees
  6. Buildings
  7. Subdivision
  8. Soil

Essentially, this list represents a “descending order of permanence” of these 8 factors. In other words, the elements at the top of the list are more permanent (relative to human timescales) than those towards the bottom.

He writes:

The first two factors, climate and land shape, are the more or less unalterable background of the landscape. Water, with its lines and its patterns of flow, is the first factor of the landscape design of Nature which we change. (p. 40)

That notion – how to go about judiciously changing water’s patterns of flow, seems to form the basis of much of Yeomans’ work.

The descending scale of permanence could come in handy when thinking about how any landscape comes into being. It’s a humble way of seeing humans in relation to the universal forces which make the surface of the planet how it is.

Of course, we now realise that Climate is not exactly as “permanent” as Yeomans’ scale might have it. But his schema is still correct in the sense that the climate of any particular local piece of landscape is not really something that we humans have the ability to intentionally influence. (Well OK, I could be wrong).

Not that this humility stops Yeomans’ from thinking in terms of large transformations. Even attempting to improve the lowliest item on his list – soil – can have big effects.

I wonder how much (if any) of this curriculum has been integrated into professional disciplines like landscape architecture and engineering? “Permanence” is not a concept which you hear about much – we’ve gotten used to the idea of 50 years as a long lifespan for any element of the human-built environment…

Posted in History, Town Planning, Yeomans | Leave a comment

More from The City Forest

My last post didn’t really scratch the surface of Yeomans’ book The City Forest: The Keyline plan for the Human Environment Revolution. Instead I got caught up thinking about art.

So I figured I’d return to this book a bit, and register some of my first impressions of it. Here they are:

1. The book seems very fresh.

I’m not sure if I’m alone in this, but I have a misguided tendency to imagine that widespread awareness of impending environmental catastrophe is a relatively recent phenomenon.

So it always comes as a surprise to read somebody’s warnings from long ago – warnings which indicate that sufficient information was circulating, even as early as 1971, to start ecological alarm bells ringing. Yeomans himself was worried that it was already too late.

As far as his ideas being (depressingly) fresh, listen to this:

The chemical sciences which have been debauched by business to make billions from polluting the Planet will continue to out-shout the healthy but financially crippled biological and social sciences. Business will fight strenuously and as ruthlessly as ever against changes which threaten their influence and their profits, while at the same time, they will advertise with the power of their money, that they will save the world.

Which seems to be exactly what’s going on, right now.

2. The logic of the book seems to run a bit like this:
(pardon the huge simplifications…)

There is a massive problem with the world.
That problem is pollution (both local and global).
The cause of this problem is humanity’s inability to design landscape properly, coupled with the large scale industrialisation of agriculture.

A major cause of pollution is mismanagement of water flows in landscape (both rain water, and human effluent). One proposed solution for this is Yeomans’ “City Forest” scheme – designed to process the nutrients of human waste, and slow the flows of rainwater.

Yeomans is proposing that forests be deliberately designed and grown in very close proximity to – or indeed, as an intrinsic part of – cities.

This is a radical extension of his techniques for working on farmland. Yeomans is proposing urban design solutions.

I’d be curious to know whether these ideas were picked up by anyone. Town planners, city designers, urban revolutionaries? Does anyone carry this little green book in their breast pocket and refer to it when laying out new urban conglomerations?

Posted in Town Planning, Yeomans | 1 Response

The Family Farm

The City Forest - by Yeomans

I reckon Ian’s broad definition of art is a useful provocation:

1. Art is action which changes the culture.
2. This action can be undertaken by anyone.

When operating with a definition like this, it’s perhaps worth reiterating point 2: cultural change is not the sole domain of special professionals from the current narrowly-defined “artworld”.

However, the interesting and tricky thing about this kind of definition is that the folks who are most effective in producing cultural change are often not particularly worried, one way or the other, about being defined as artists. Either it’s not very important to them to show up in the artworld, or the stuff they do doesn’t look like the kinds of things the artworld normally accepts. And in this way, the myth that art is the domain of special professionals operating within the “artworld” continues.*

For the purposes of this here Yeomans Project, we’re operating on the presumption (and gathering evidence for the notion) that Percy Yeomans was this sort of artist, vigorously working to change (agri)culture through actions and words.
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Posted in Farming, Permaculture, Yeomans | 3 Responses

In the archives with Ian Milliss

In the Archives with Ian Milliss

Last Friday we descended into the bowels of the Art Gallery of NSW.

Our mission? To dig up documents in an attempt to discover:

a). if Ian really did propose an exhibition about Yeomans at AGNSW in the mid 1970s (ie, we’d like to know that he’s not hallucinating about all this history);
b). that the AGNSW did actually consider the show, and subsequently refused to exhibit it;
c). what possible reasons they might have given for not going ahead with the show.

To bring readers who are not familiar with our story so far up to speed:
…according to Ian, early in 1975 he was negotiating with various luminaries at the art gallery (including Daniel Thomas) with the idea of putting on an exhibition about the work of Percy Alfred Yeomans, the great Aussie agricultural inventor. As Ian tells it, the show was all the go and then was nixed by the trustees of the gallery, never to see the light of day. So it was this thread of events that we were hunting for…

At the gallery, Ian explained what we wanted to the nice lady behind the desk. She disappeared, and returned shortly after with this gorgeous dusty tome:

In the Archives with Ian Milliss

It’s the minutes book for meetings of the board of trustees, Jan-Dec 1975.*

Man it’s a gorgeous thing. I’d love to be able to display it, as an object, at the exhibition we’ll be having later on this year. The pages are thick and crinkled. After each meeting, pages of minutes are typed up, photcopied and glued in. So the book has a really fat feel about it, and the pages crackle as you turn ’em.

Anyway, here’s what we found, huddled around the minutebook in the study cubicle: Ian’s original project proposal!

So, he wasn’t hallucinating. I have transcribed the minute from the book here (liberally correcting the many spelling mistakes of the obviously overworked typist):

Proposal No. 1
P.A. Yeomans – “Keyline”
Exhibition proposed by Ian Milliss. Gallery Organizer, Frances McCarthy.
From Duchamp onwards artists have increasingly questioned the concept of art as a “precious object”, and have concerned themselves with breaking down the barriers between art, life and nature.
From the late sixties one of the main movements has been ‘ecology’ art, so called because it is concerned with the landscape and environment. It is art removed from the context of museums, that recognizes that almost anyone can be an artist in the way of his work, in the area of his interests, in the manner that he views the world.

P.A. Yeomans is regarded as an “artist” who has contributed more to Australia than any “recognised” artist. Yeomans might never have attached the title “artist” to himself, yet much farming activity – tree-planting, dam building – does have a consciously aesthetic motivation, and farmers are always willing, perhaps shyly, to admit it. Yeoman’s philosophy of land development and his achievements in the agricultural field make him a man of national and international significance.

Yeomans’ Keyline system of irrigation is “land sculpture” on a large scale, though practical in its end result, it is art that makes the work of American artists such as Smithson and Serra pale in comparison.

The exhibition will comprise: –

(a) Photographs, maps, diagrams, explanatory notes.
(b) Videotapes.
(c) Implements and equipment.
(Publication “The Challenge of Landscape” by P.A. Yeomans tabled).

…and here’s an image from the book itself:

In the Archives with Ian Milliss - Ians Project Proposal in 1975

Interesting things to note from this proposal:

1). Ian’s use of language (straightforward, manifesto-like) hasn’t changed much at all over the last 35 years.
2). Nor has Ian’s key idea changed much, that he’s always banging on about: that anyone can be an artist; it’s all about how you approach what you do in life, and what kind of contribution you make to society. Not only practically, but also aesthetically.
3). And this is possibly the biggest discovery for me: – the artist under whose name this exhibition was put forward was not “Ian Milliss”, but P.A. Yeomans. Ian (alongside Frances McCarthy) was mooted, rather humbly, as the exhibition’s “organiser” (more evidence of this is on this page of the minutes).

As for what the trustees made of all this… well, it’s a pretty brief dismissal, I’m sad to say. All they could say was this:

RESOLVED by majority that P.A. Yeomans "Keyline" be not accepted as project number (1) for 1976.

In the Archives with Ian Milliss - RESOLVED not to accept Yeomans project

Note – the resolution to not accept the project was “by majority”, not “unanimously”. Who disagreed? And what did they say?

I’ll leave Ian to speculate on this (and some of the other juicy tidbits we gleaned from the minute books…)

– – –

*According to the intermaweb, a trustee is “an individual person or member of a board given control or powers of administration of property in trust with a legal obligation to administer it solely for the purposes specified”.

The AGNSW lists its current trustees here.

Posted in Art, History, Yeomans | 2 Responses

Heritage versus subdivision

We were hoping to go back to Nevellan this week to interview Bob Peel but he rang to say he didn’t want to talk because he didn’t run the property according to Yeomans’ original principles and so he didn’t really have anything to say. It was disappointing because we wanted to discuss in more detail the reasons he didn’t follow Yeomans’ principles given the design of the property – he had said earlier that it was too labour intensive. But his reticence is understandable because the property is a bit under siege in many ways, completely surrounded by the big block version of suburbia and his brother’s property Yobarnie, the other original Yeomans’ property, has just been the subject of a controversial development application for an aged care facility as Lucas wrote.

Development applications raise another of the almost infinite number of issues that now surround Yeomans and in this case it is the issue of development versus heritage. Given my earlier interest in Yeomans I was shocked in 2009 when I first heard about the plans for redeveloping Yobarnie, it seemed impossible that it would not be listed on the local council’s Local Environment Plan (LEP) list of heritage properties. Heritage items are characterised as either local, state or national significance with a clearly defined range of criteria for each ranking and it is arguable that Yobarnie/Nevallan is of national significance, not just local significance, and would easily make it into the top ten historical agricultural properties in Australia.

Also on my list would be:

Experiment Farm Cottage

Experiment Farm Cottage Photo by angusf, on Flickr

Experiment Farm at Harris Park, now irretrievably buried in suburbia, where in 1789 James Ruse was the first successful European farmer,

Belgenny Farm

Belgenny Farm Photo by trent shepherd, on Flickr

John and Elizabeth Macarthur’s Belgenny Farm at  Camden Park where they bred their flock of merino sheep laying the foundations of the Australian wool industry,

FBS Falkiner’s Haddon Rig, an iconic late 19th century merino stud at Warren

and William Farrer’s Lambrigg,

now being encroached on by Canberra suburbia, where Farrer’s wheat breeding experiments produced the first rust free wheat.

These properties are among the most important European heritage sites in the country but farm landscapes notoriously are less well protected or even understood as important heritage sites.

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Posted in Farming, History, Politics, Town Planning | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Responses

Truly it can be said, that when the worm turns, it’s a good turn for the farmer…

Yeomans Film from 1955 - film stills

Here’s a film from 1955 on Yeomans’ work in developing the Keyline farming system. It was made in 1955, and uploaded a year or so ago thanks to Darren Doherty, who runs workshops in contemporary keyline farm design:

One of my favourite lines from the film is this:

He’s ready with cold logic and forceful argument to present plans to the benefit of Australia

… which tells us something of the respect with which Yeomans was sometimes held (ie, he was not a hippy).

Even though the film was made 55 years ago, it’s a pretty good explanation of how keyline works, and why it’s a good idea.

A few stills I extracted from the film:

This is the same turn off the highway into the drive leading to Nevallan where I took this photo (note, as Ian says, the slight spelling change, as well as the “modernised” sign)…
Yeomans Film from 1955 - film stills

This looks to be more or less the same vantage point where I took a shot of the modern Nevellan farm a few weeks ago:
Yeomans Film from 1955 - film stills

And I just really enjoyed this part of the film, where the two fellows mark out the keyline by eye, using a long transparent hose and a bunch of stakes (it’s about five and a half minutes into the film):
Yeomans Film from 1955 - film stills
Makes you think, “hey, I could do that!”…

Posted in Farming, Yeomans | Leave a comment
  • This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.

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