About carolyn black

I'm an artist and also commission contemporary art in unusual locations. As a producer, I fundraise, curate, project manage and deliver projects. I'm also a writer.

Covid19, the rural idyll & climate change

Take a look at this video clip:

Is this your rural idyll?

In the light of the shutdowns occurring across the world, we are undoubtedly struggling to do everyday things that we take for granted. Travel, work, leisure, exercise, culture – all disrupted. How are you coping? Is it very different from your usual everyday life, or is it not dissimilar, but a bit more extreme? Do you miss the noise, the pollution, the packed trains, the spontaneous flights to sunnier climes? The casual shopping therapy to bide your time spending your hard-earned cash?

The video shows a world where nature is simulated, but you can’t touch it. The good old days, when you could walk into a shop and be greeted at the counter, not two metres away from it. The game is as surreal as our present reality

Until Covid19 the headlines were all about XR, climate change and Brexit. Conversations about those subjects have gone as quiet as our skies and our roads. They are still an issue, but we have taken our eye off the ball, big time. Now the only balls we hear about are rich footballers bemoaning loss of income, or Wimbledon players not being able to play tennis. Really – is that what the majority of people are worrying about? I doubt it. They are more likely concerned about friends, family and incomes. While the media carry stories about unimaginably well-payed sports people, at home people are worrying about the NHS, the service providers, the people who are important to our survival. And we thank them wholeheartedly.

This planet rolls on, for now. It is the biggest ball we rely on for our survival, yet we are still not keeping our eye on it. When I watched the promotion for the Walden Pond video game (above) it made me question the rural idyll – the quietness, the tranquillity, the sense of solitude. Not aloneness, which can feel very sad, but solitude, an act of choice, of preference. Those of us who create things often relish thinking time, making time. A house by a peaceful lake would be our dream, as it was Thoreau’s. But for many, this is a nightmare. I was intrigued by the mostly accurate depiction of natural objects in the video, and how they move – the water, the sky, the creatures. And mildly amused by the awkwardness of the little boat, very badly located on the bank. Solid objects are difficult to simulate in soft surfaces, just as  hard thoughts are challenging when your brain is muddied by fearful thoughts.

Back to Thoreau, my sister told me he didn’t live in isolation, as she discovered it whilst researching for her book Technobiophilia:

“By his own admission, he [Thoreau] was hardly isolated. He regularly walked into Concord to dine, read the papers, visit the post office and have his laundry washed and mended.” Sue Thomas Technobiophilia, page 160)

walden drawing for technobiophilia

image (c)carolyn black in Technobiophilia

It is a bit like that now, with the pandemic. Those of us who live in rural areas feel like we are enjoying a period of solitude, the rural idyll, but we are still connecting with the wider world. Thoreau didn’t have the internet, he just had newspapers, aren’t we lucky!

So what interests me is how so many groups are setting up online forums of support and activity for local groups. Possibly the biggest loss to those who live in villages is not having a chat in the waiting room at the doctors, or in the local pub. Now they go online to their village Facebook page, or join a What’s App Group. Which is great. But there is a risk that unless those conversations are held wider,  localism to such a miniscule level may make us forget the bigger picture.

The media talk about the ‘British’ suffering with the pandemic, yet it is world-wide and others suffer far more than we do. And while it spreads ever wider and wider, individual’s daily lives are shrinking. So many people are switching off the news because they simply can’t bear it. Brexit was like that too.

Social and physical distancing is an imperative, a necessity. And online socialising is a great replacement to fill the gaps. But let’s not let interactions come down to the lowest denominator. Localism is important, but the planet matters more.

Back to the awkwardly placed boat on the side of the pond. It reminded me of me. Of the other day when I walked by the Severn and wanted to lie down on my back and watch the clouds. There was no-one in sight, so I did. I don’t usually lie down outside in public places, as I am a little ungainly when I do so. But that didn’t matter. And when I settled with my spine firmly grounded on the earth and watched the huge white clouds zooming across a bright blue sky, I thought to myself “if it has to be zoom, can it be this type of zoom please?”.

While the media bemoan economic crashes, find yourself a safe space, a private place, make the most of it, because it won’t last forever. Take the opportunity to lie on your back and wonder, wouldn’t it be great if it was always as quiet as this? And how can we move to make that our rural idyll?

How about we steer some of our strategic thinking back to planetary issues? Use online interactions to do something useful. We are getting used to our narrower lives now, our new normal, and no doubt enjoying the resultant quietness of it all. This *is* the rural idyll we have been going on holiday to find. We are living it. Go for a walk from your house, see how far you can go without meeting a soul. Listen. Look at the springtime rising out of the soil, blooming on the hawthorn bushes, the blackthorn. Wild garlic to eat, ferns unfurling. The sky above, only occasionally. chalked with the vapour trail from a transatlantic plane. Good trains keeping our industries going, farmers still working the land, tending their livestock.

Let’s get through this together and plan for what is ahead. I’d like to hear from others about this, as I am sure I am not alone. If we are going to talk online, on phones, over garden fences, let’s talk about the long-term future of the world. Doing so may also distract our thoughts from immediate concerns, like getting more toilet paper.

Our communities are getting stronger together now, it is no longer the rhetoric of ‘big society’ – people are actively working together to find solutions, and that is brilliant.

Let’s hold onto that thought and keep our eye on the ball, collectively.

 

 

Find your crying place – unstable horizons

Find Your Crying Place

Screenshot unstable horizons stillDo you have a happy place, a crying place, or both?

It is common to refer to ‘being in a happy place’ as a metaphor for feeling good, we are rarely referring to a location when we refer to our happy place.

A crying place is different. It is somewhere we visit, to lie low, like a wild animal. To calm anxiety, to release tears. More often than not, it is a specific location. It may be indoors or outside, in a cupboard under the stairs or at the top of a mountain. Whether the space is vast or enclosed, it must hold us. Because we are unable to hold ourselves and we brim over. It must allow us to have solitude.

A crying place is somewhere, where one can release emotion, often in private and feel safe, unobserved. It is a very important place.

Whilst we are confined to our homes due to the Covid19 pandemic feeling alone can be challenging. Some people may find being at home with family a wonderful opportunity to bond, others might be struggling badly for many reasons. Social media is flooding with videos of happy families singing together, communities getting together on conference platforms and reading poetry, doing yoga, discussing gardening. But not all families are so happy, and whereas previously they could walk out and escape, now they can’t so easily do that. Sometimes getting out is a necessity for vulnerable people.

As an antithesis to the parental mantra of ‘get outside to play and get off that screen’ we are now going to our computers in droves. They are our life line. After many years of social media being slammed and considered the devil because ‘people don’t get out any more’, it is now our only social centre, bar the telephone and letter-writing. No shops, libraries, gyms or community centres.

The saving grace is that we can go out for exercise once a day. So we need to make that outing enjoyable. And I do!

I decided to find a new crying place to visit. In my book, ‘Severnside – An Artist’s View of The Severn’, I mention a previous crying place, from which I looked out over the Severn.

Shepperdine was my bolthole, I went there when the currents of my emotions were dragging me down. I would walk along with my dogs and sing a favourite song from choir – “All will be well, all will be well”. The Severn lifts my spirits, always has, always will.

Initially, I had described it as my crying place, then dropped that term in favour of bolthole. The earlier drafts described how I would go there when I felt upset, take the dogs and lie on the slope of the flood-bank and sob. I remember how it felt, to get out of my home and release my feelings into the open air, unobserved by others. I smile now as I write this as I notice the word flood-bank is a very apt one. On reflection, by later editing out the lying on the grass sobbing part, even in my autobiographical book, I was unable to present myself as vulnerable. Instead, I described myself as a positive, optimistic, happy-clappy woman singing songs as I walked.

How hard it is to be honest with oneself about these things. Writing this is my self-imposed penance. Self-isolation is inclined to evoke contemplation of life and the universe.

When I finally left the east bank of the river to live on the west bank, I had to relocate myself in the local landscape too. Where I live now is very close the banks of the Severn, so I set off up into the hills behind the village to walk and explore and get the long view. On the way up to Pleasant Stile, across the meadows, there was a tree-stump at the top of the last field. It was high, about one and a half metres, and I used to climb up onto it and gaze at the horseshoe bend of the river below me and look over to the Cotswolds. It became my Forest of Dean crying place. I would sit and draw, breathe, cry and wonder at the world, then return home feeling lighter, relieved of my burdens. Looking the other way, I occasionally drew the view of May Hill in the distance.

What needs mentioning here, is that both of these places inspired me. When there, I took photos, did drawings, recorded sounds, collected flotsam and jetsam, read books. Not surprising that my professional work as a producer involves commissioning art for unusual locations and I wrote a book about the Severn.

Back to the now, this strange time when we are challenged by having both everything to do, and nothing to do, at the same time. One piece of exercise allowed outdoors a day, but where to go? The tree stump has been removed, to run a new track through the fields. Electric fences now zig-zag the hillside and the footpath is hard to follow. I miss it, but everything has its moment. Things change.

I decided I must relish my time outside, so I struck off for a walk in a direction I hadn’t been for many years, because last time I went the footpaths were untended and impossible to get through. I sought to try again, heartened by seeing someone from a distance walking there.

Suffice to say I have found a new crying place. At a time when everything else is moving fast and furious with unexpected twists and turns, I found the place to ground me, to escape to. Next to the Severn, my anchor. With open views and wildlife, washed up branches, quiet corners to lie down in, off the path.

My days of self-isolation are over. Yes, I am in my tiny house every day apart from the necessary outings for food. But now I have purpose – a new series of photographs and films so far, maybe some drawing when it gets warmer. There is a swing on a tree facing the river, with a railway behind it. The occasional passing trains fracture the soundscape, the roads are now very quiet. I swing. I film.

Sitting on the crooked wooden seat, I am in my happy place. Lying on the ground, looking up at the clouds, the tears scud down my face as I consider how special this world is, how good it is to be alive and to be able to lie there. Unseen, alone and coping (just).

The swing connects me with my creative inner child and lying on my back on the ground, my adult.

Right now, I need both, due to unstable horizons.

(also published onMedium)

associated video film:

 

 

PS I will have a new batch of copies of Severnside – An Artist’s View of The River for sale very soon. Get in touch if you want one – there will only be 100 copies available.

REACHING SATURATION POINT

Listening to the weather when I awake

It is unsettled and petulant

With a grey moody texture

Swishes of tyres, squelching of feet

The soundtrack of recent weeks

Puddles become pools become rivers

Heavy grey skies mirrored in a spectacular waterland

As far as the eye can see

Water defies boundaries, bursts banks, streams over bridges

Natures rule book sodden then swept away

Trees dance thrash then snap

Wrenched from the earth by turbulent storms

We have slipped, fallen, gone under

Into the depths of climate change

Yet still we build build build on flood plains

Our infrastructure crumbles

A saturated honeycomb of potholes 

A lonely island with fractures and fissures

In a state of collapse

We must listen to this saturated land

thinking about David Abram film – Becoming Animal

“It’s weird, you know, the way so many people accept the notion that stone is inanimate, that rock doesn’t move. I mean, really, this here cliff moves me every time that I see it.”
― David Abram, Becoming Animal

The issue of [a film] being a record of human existence is very powerful, our need to use tech to document human behaviour, as we do so when we document the world around us. The only painful thing, as an artist/filmmaker,  is it is pointless, because once humans become extinct, there will be no means for other species to access our existence through those technologies.” 

That last line is, I feel, key to the issue: “once humans become extinct, there will be no means for other species to access our existence through those technologies.”

What does this mean to me, to humanity, to the process of being an artist, a film-maker, a writer, a recorder. Have we become little more than  recorders of our own demise? 

Why do we document our lives?  With social media abounding many of us do that daily, others write, draw, make films, make objects. If ALL human beings cease to exist, will any of that matter?

Abram talks eloquently about the arrival of language and the word. How that major change in perception, that ability to verbalise, to describe, to record, overpowered our sensory bodies. To some degree, one might say that our bodies have become little more than sensors in the service of production of useless artefacts. 

And whilst we avidly document, photograph, capture what the natural world consists of, we have lost our ability to be part of nature, no longer on equal terms. We act as if it is there to serve us. But to what end?  And, should it be that humans disappear from the face of the planet, yet other species survive, what will our recording efforts mean to them?

nothing

As I write this, I recall an essay I wrote years ago, Virtual Lobotomy, which is on Medium and still resonates with this thinking. Essentially, my studio had been burgled and I reflected on whether digital content existed or not, and questioned what, exactly, had I lost?

“When I lost my digital files, the concept of memory returned to its original meaning. Much of the lost work remains only in my memory, as opposed to the computer’s memory, with no material evidence of its prior existence.”

Implications for my studio practice

I have made copious notes while watching the film. Oddly for me, they are handwritten in a paper book. Whilst for many that is their usual way of notetaking, it is not mine. Primarily because my handwriting is terrible. I once made a film about it, with subtitles and voiceover (in Georgian), which was part of the double bind of bad handwriting needing deciphering.

What fascinates me about Becoming Animal is that it has a meta-narrative. It is a film about documentary film-making. About how the film crew capture, edit, and represent what they want the viewer to see. A rich palimpsest  of construct upon construct.

The filming method raises awareness of the lens based visuals, the conceit of exploring the natural world through a lens, editing that, then sharing it as film footage. The collaged layers, the juxtaposition of human and animal, the visual parallels exposed. The film-makers process, their presence in the frames, their equipment unhidden from the viewer, as mostly happens in wildlife programmes on TV. The soundtrack also creates a nature/culture experience, the sounds of the animals urinating juxtaposed with a running river. One of the high points of human sensibility of the sublime is when choral human voices rise up and drown out the sounds of the wild. Or when the elk’s groans are drowned out by the noise of cars on the road.

There is a lot of static camera work, a la David Lodge, with creatures (this term is used by me to denote both animals and humans) ambling in and out of frame. But there is also a point where the cameraman talks to the viewer about how his gaze sometimes tracks a bird in the sky. Later on in the film, you hear him say “we must catch that” as he looks up – this time, a plane, not a bird, crosses the mountainous skyline. 

David Abram shares his thoughts to camera too. He is very camera conscious of the fact that we shall be passively observing him, more aware of the camera’s gaze than the wild animals are. We must not forget that those ‘wild’ animals are living within a gated community of a wildlife park, therefore more used to being objectified than Abram is.

I must not forget that when I visit the river, I become part of that place. Moved by it. Touched by it. It may sense my gaze. When I make drawings of it I use earth materials to depict it – charcoal, chalk. When I film it I honour it with light and capture not only the visual but the sound too. The birds wrap around me when I stay still. I become invisible to them.

I dislike being photographed and filmed, yet the artworks I make reveal me more than any lens will ever do.

Here are some experimental films I have been making, in response to this thinking

 

 

 

Both sides of the Severn – prints on show at Slimbridge Wildfowl & Wetland Trust

Ever since I did the drawings of opposite banks of the Severn I have wanted to do huge drawings on opposite sides of a corridor, positioning the viewer in the centre of the river.

So far, this is the nearest I have got to that. Today I hung framed prints of the original huge panoramic drawings (sorry, all sold) on opposite walls. Only a few pairings, but hopefully it works.

I think it works, but would love to hear from you if you see them. I have long been a fan of Slimbridge WWT. About 25 years ago I ran some printmaking courses there. It is a great place to take the family, the birds are of course wonderful! When we took our small children we always took towels and a change of clothes – inevitably they would get wet though intention or accident.

Hope you can get along, they do make rather charming presents for river lovers and dwellers.

capturing a river is one thing….

trying to capture the experience of viewing wildlife on the river is another….

I used to create video installations and have recently started to dabble with film again. Inspired by the wonderful William Kentridge, I decided to try working with animated drawing.

Of course, I returned to the river as my muse. This is my first attmept and I am quite pleased with it. Not perfect, much more to learn, but it does what I set out to do. My next challenge will be using the flash of blue the eye registers when a kingfisher does a fly-by. In truth, we don’t ‘see’ a kingfisher in flight, we notice the movement, the colours, the speed, the pattern of it’s travel and we name it.

The egret, indeed the river, was drawn totally from memory…I love it when the egrets visit. Usually, there are a pair of little egret here near Newnham. Last week I saw a pair of huge white herons fly over my head and I believe they were great egrets. Isn’t life exciting!

 

 

 

 

 

 

And staying with the idea of reflecting, a poem from Arvon course

We were given a task – to select a postcard with an image on and write from within the image. This was my card.

ELLSWORTH KELLY 1963 – WHITE OVER BLACK

I am the shadow underneath

Hosted on black, barely visible

Where white drapes over me, I gain attention

You will notice white more too

When I lurk below it

Even the black cannot deny me

When white reveals me

Without my subtlety

Their boldness would go unnoticed

They would be flat dull and lifeless

I am the space between

I give the illusion of space

I am their breathe

What I realise now is that Kelly has used straight edges, then a curved one on top. 

It is like a body in architecture. 

It is both a cut and a flap. 

It is both 2d and 3d

It has a frame which it overrides

In the same way howard hodgkin painted over his frames

It is about the human condition

The negatives of the camera x rays are similar

Windows for capturing landscape, or people

Fantasy of a new studio, notes made the day I decided to convert my spare room -> studio…….

I shared this at the time, and looking back it was a good start. I have spent hours in there since, bouncing around like that. One day drawing, next day cutting lino, next one making collages. The paper collages become digital, they are printed out and lino printed on top. The reverse occurs, I put a large sheet of black paper up to draw on, then decided to roll out white ink and create blocks of white to draw on.

Then decide to project film on them instead. So I buy some new kit, a video-cam and a projector. The action spreads into the bedroom, because it can be blacked out. The film is projected onto the black sheet, settling on the white patches. I refilm them together.

I am continuing…I think I am getting somewhere interesting….

Here is how it started:

20th July 2019

The fantasy studio:

I will go there every morning with my first cup of tea 

And sit

And think

And imagine

Gaze out the window

Dig into my inner thoughts

Be calm

Focussed

Concentrate

Eventually

I will send my attention to my hand

Quietly lift my pencil

Relish it’s wooden feel with my fingertips

Open my dedicated notebook

And begin to write

Or draw

Or simply mark the paper

With my philosophical thoughts

What will today bring?

How shall I pursue my practice

With daily dedication?

Commitment?

Analogue procedures

Banish technology

Return to the haptic

Be authentic

A real artist

The reality:

I gaze through the window

I grab my ipad and carefully film a one minute section of the activity in my garden

While I hold it steady

I enjoy watching the way the different trees move in the wind

The blackbird that settles below me on the rail

Out of video frame

Damn

Always seem to miss the action!

I self-discipline

Remind myself of analogue activity

I grab a notebook from the shelf

On its cover, it explains what it is

NOTEBOOK

Yes, this is what I must do

I find a pencil

I open this paper NOTEBOOK

And find in the central pages a photo of an empty desk

This seems very poignant to me

I too have an empty desk

And an empty head if truth be told

I carefully release it from the staples

And attach it to the wall

Just behind my empty desk

And take a photo

From my sitting position

I also take a photo of my NOTEBOOK

As evidence

I intend to write in it

On my empty desk

I print both photos out

And lay them on the desk

Very satisfying

I take a photo of them

I am already distracted from analogue

Too late to pretend

I take one more photo and add it to the others

It portrays my NOTEBOOK

Resting on my MacBook

I discard the NOTEBOOK

And enjoy the way I think

No rules

No boundaries

I write this piece and smile

This is me

My reality

My world

Let’s see where it takes me

This is my line:


I shall take it for a walk

Studio notes 30/07/19 selfie-reflection

Today something exciting happened. I was doing some exercises, lying on my back, both arms raised  above me. The morning light, the white ceiling behind, a light suntan, revealed how wrinkly my skin has become. I hadn’t noticed. Because my arms were held straight up, there was a noticeable skin sag happening around my hands too, revealing landscapes, like dried river beds, or cracks in the river silt of the Severn. I became mesmerised.

I took several shots of my hands and while I did I reflected on the video work I did for my MA. That was a series of films in an installation,  close-up images of body parts, morphing and squeezing, all viewed through a mirror tunnel, which created a virtual ball of slow moving ambiguous flesh-bodies. Other video clips of my face against a mirror were shown inside a mirror-topped plinth with a peepholes in the centre of the mirror. As the viewer leant over and looked in, they also saw their own face reflected on the surface while they viewed the video inside.

I reflected on the gaze – Martin Jay’s book has always hung in my mind and informed my understanding of how we view, and are viewed. My mind slipped into the traditions of self-portraits, the glum looks, the depth of the stare needed to portray oneself. I went on to consider selfies, the contemporary form of self-portraiture that is the opposite of the artist self-portrait. The selfie is not about self examination, but one of self-display, of performing to camera.

As someone who enjoys using lens-based media – camera, 360 or video, I am very self-aware of my aversion to being photographed myself. As I lay there on my back, wondering at what I could see, and what I could frame, with my mobile phone, I switched it to selfie mode and explored. I brought the lens in close to my face, to remove the portraiture and reveal the surface, the landscape, of my skin. I held it steady and closed my eyes before shooting. I made several, mostly of my face. I was intrigued how foetal they looked. Lying on my back, eyes closed, there was no tension, I was relaxed and playing. As I thought about it I smiled, and caught the smile growing on my face.

I think I have found my new muse. Not a riverscape, but one of my body, of shifts and change, of how we perceive ourselves through self-portraiture and lenses. 

Selfie-reflections