Forest Pitch: Moving the goal posts
Craig Coulthard relishes the theatrical potential of his latest artwork, Forest Pitch, and takes great pleasure dwelling on the details of a commission three years in the making. “They’ll be gathered in small groups in the fields around the forest and then taken into the woodlands by a guide,” he says as though he had rehearsed the scene a thousand times over in his head. “While they’re on their way through the forest Edinburgh Brass Band will be playing in the distance, so there’s this gradual build up of music and atmosphere as people make their way to the pitch where the first team will be warming up.”
There, the gathered audience will take part in what is one of the most ambitious public artworks in Scotland for some years. They will watch two full-length amateur football games between two teams of men and two teams of women on a football pitch specially built in a clearing in a forest in the Scottish Borders. And unlike your typical Scottish football match, Forest Pitch will be inclusive. It will also touch on some of the most fundamental social and political concerns we face today.
Commissioned as part of the Cultural Olympiad – a celebration of the modern Olympic and Paralympic Movements to coincide with the London 2012 Olympic Games – Forest Pitch came out of Coulthard’s ongoing interest in nationality and how sport often brings these concerns to the fore.
Coulthard was himself born abroad and spent most of his childhood in Germany where his father served in the British Armed Forces. And although he considers himself Scottish – he was technically born on British soil to Scottish parents – he is nonetheless alive to the arbitrary nature of nationality, the ambiguity of which is rarely reflected in the strict demarcation of nationality in sport.
The controversy around whether or not Team GB should have a football team in the London Olympic Games was one of the main considerations when developing Forest Pitch. An easily resolved debate, you might think, considering Britain is the host country and must surely be represented in every sport possible. However, it’s a matter that's not yet been fully resolved.
“There’s an ongoing debate about a Team GB football team,” Coulthard says, “and the Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh Football Associations don’t want any of their players to play in it. They’re worried that if they do then other countries will say, ‘You were Britain before that, so why don’t you just be Britain all of the time?’”
It seems that most other European countries have little truck with Great Britain’s national ambiguities when it comes to football. They would rather face fewer British teams per competition instead of wasting their time beating all four.
“So, I started to consider what it would mean to create a British football team that wasn’t made up of people that had this background of being part of one or other of the British countries,” he explains. “I decided to make it available to people who had become British citizens or had been given legal leave to remain in the UK. So, basically, none of the players taking part in Forest Pitch were born in Britain.”
They in fact come from an impressive variety of countries, including New Zealand, Canada, the US, Iraq, Afghanistan, Cameroon, Somalia and Iran, with some of them refugees, and others supporting families back home.
“We also have an Iraqi guy who used to play professional football,” adds Coulthard, excited by the acquaintance. “There’s a Turkish guy who used to play professionally as well, and we have a woman called Shannon who’s Canadian, and whose parents are Scottish. She played football in Canada and America and was asked if she wanted to come to Scotland and play a bit of football here. She ended up playing for Hibs and is now Scotland’s second goalkeeper. So, we have a Scottish international taking part, which is great.”
The matches will take place on 21 July in a forest near Selkirk in the Scottish Borders. Buses will take visitors from Selkirk to the edge of the commercially-planted spruce forest – a tree not native to Scotland – where they will make the rest of the journey through the wooded landscape on foot before reaching the open space where the matches will take place.
“I picked somewhere that wasn’t just entirely a block of spruce and was somewhere that might lull people into thinking it was a more natural site,” Coulthard explains. “Around its edges are planted other types of trees to make it look quite pretty. But, when you get further into it you’re met with these really dense plantings.”
It’s little surprise that an interest in nationality has led Coulthard to consider the importance of landscape. Often, when a country is on a campaign to bolster national pride it turns to romantic depictions of rugged, native landscapes – a technique used to lasting effect in Germany in the 19th century by artists such as Caspar David Friedrich. Typically dramatic, manipulated to the ideals of the artist and his nationalist inclinations, these landscapes show what makes us who we are, as though the native land was in some way a reflection of our DNA.
It was therefore vital that the landscape Coulthard picked for Forest Pitch was not representative of Scotland or Scottishness. “Some people might think of Scotland as this beautiful, rugged place and these trees and this forest as very romantic, but I quite like the idea that the trees are not specifically Scottish. I wanted to use some woodland that would challenge people’s preconceived notions of the romantic landscape.”
But Coulthard is not entirely detached from the romantic potential of the project and hopes that Forest Pitch will leave a lasting impression on the landscape. Once the games are over the site will be returned to its owner who will plant more commercial spruce in the space left by the pitch.
However, not before Coulthard has planted native trees in a line around the edge of the pitch and along the pitch markings, such as the centreline and the penalty area. And while the non-native spruce will be cut down and replenished, the native trees will remain, appearing from the thicket every 20 years when the spruce trees are cut down to be sold.
“I find this almost the most exciting thing about the project,” he says. “I want to go back and see how it has grown and see what it looks like once normal, economic plantation has resumed. I hope that this site will continue to grow into something interesting long after I’m gone.”