The Earth Crumbles film, and the words above, were created in response to a First Friday Walk as part of Walking The Land. Eva Rune and I first worked together when she gave me permission to use a kulning song for When You Call I Shall Come. Our working relationship has developed over the year and Eva also participates in the online Walking the Land Sessions. Our landscapes are merged by this film. The first image is the soundtrack map of the song she sings overdrawn by me – from a landscape photo of where Eva walked on the day I made the film. Synchronicity.
Every time I visit the Garden Cliff – a triassic land information – I explore it with different media. It is rock, obviously, as the cliff has been there for many million years, and when the rock-face drops pieces onto the ‘beach’ below they look like stone. But pick them up and you realise how fragile all of this is.
The rubbings I am making with graphite putty have allowed me to take home a record of the surfaces. Photos and films help me to understand it visually, as does drawing. Holding a rick in my hand and feeling it gives another point of reference. The ease of collapse in my fingers alarmed me. I am sensing the history through the material. So many things have changed since they first formed, yet other thing are seemingly untouched.
When I heard Eva’s song my immediate thought was that it’s melancholic tone was similar to the aesthetic of my film. And that she also sense her home landscape, which is re-presented through her voice.
It is important to me that my presence, and inevitable impact, on the place, was evident. My hands, my foot, my performative actions. I am present in the film not just as me, but as all people that mark the land, erode it, inscribe it. Correspondences by Tim Ingold is currently informing my work. I love the way he writes, opening up new ways of thinking and understanding the condition of our ecology. And the part that humans play in both the making and destruction of the planet.
A discussion hosted by The British Library – Irini Papadimitriou, joined by Invisible Flock, Cheryl Tipp and Sue Thomas.
IMPORTANT: the recording of the full conversation is only available for a few hours – so please watch it NOW by clicking on image or here.
As an artist and film-maker, interested in our relationship with nature, it raises many issues that trigger big thoughts and questions in my head. I am summarising just a few thoughts here, but really want you to watch this conversation so we can assimilate the thinking and discuss later. And the more demand the recording gets, the more likely they will keep it up online. So click away and come back later!
A few nuggets:
Is there such a thing as ‘real’ nature”?
Before coming to write I made a coffee. As I did so I watched a blackbird drinking water from a plant pot saucer in the garden. I looked up at the sky and the clouds moving past. The wind was rustling the trees, making a sussaration sound.
I would argue that there is real nature – would you?
Are our encounters with nature always mediated and interfered with?
Not in my experience, but they may be for others. And just as with looking at art, each person has a different experience of what they see/encounter, depending on prior knowledge. Example – I have made a film about the materiality of a cliff formed in the Triassic period. Until I researched into it, I did not comprehend the enormity of its time on this earth, its existence. And how shocking it was to me that by merely crumbling some mud-rock in my hand I was collapsing millions of years of time.
Sources of knowledge and experience
Academics are always advised to begin with source texts – as that means you are beginning at the the centre of the thinking. But as Sue points out, writing things down began not so long ago. And writing is, of course, mediated thinking – oral history is more ‘real’ than the written word. But when we read the book we are aware of it as a different thing, it is a book of words.
Similarly, when we watch TV we know that what is presented has gone through a long process of reduction. And what we see is an encounter that is the result of numerous mediations along the line.
Encounters with nature through TV/screens/films
Firstly, when we watch a screen, we are not watching real nature. We are the end users, the expanded audience.
1st audience – camera operator
2nd audience editor/director
3rd audience – programmer
4th audience – the viewer
When we watch tv/or a film, or read a book, are we being presented with real nature?
No, they are cultural products, they are not nature.
When we watch TV, or a play, read a book, we know it is a construct
Every stage of production changes what we see/read. The conversation around aestheticizationmade me question my own film.
1.An alleged social trend which involves an increasing personal concern with visual displays and/or a growing role for public
This is the Oxford Dictionary definition and I love the way it begins with the term ‘alleged’. That needs discussion! It also refers to it being a ‘social trend’ – as if it should be dismissed because of that. So out goes Attenborough?! It is the terms ‘visual displays’ and ‘growing role for public’ is key to me here.
I am an artist. So I ask myself, am I aestheticizing nature and, if so, is that a problem?
The films I create are definitely visual displays of nature that have been mediated, see above. And they appear to engage people in an emotional way. I don’t knowingly set out to do that, but the passion I feel for my primary encounter with places motivates me to make films. I want to convey my emotional state. I could do a painting, a sketch or write words down to describe what I see. Indeed, in some of my films, I audio-describe things that the viewer can’t see, because I screen a manipulated version of what the camera sees, but not what I, as1st audience, see. I took that notion from the action of audio describing what is on the stage in the theatre, a process devised for visually impaired people.
In the theatre the performers are ‘real’ – living people physically present on a stage. But they are presenting someone else’s creative output. This could get complicated, so get back to my question about aesthetics. Yes, I am a visual artist and the very process of seeing then interpreting is what I do. Is my intention specifically to move people and suggest a growing role for the public? I believe it is an outcome, a leaking of my emotions, transferred through various processes – visual and sound, that collectively move people. And that occurs because what I present triggers association for others. That often surprises me.
Is there such a thing? “a tendency or habit that has become characteristic or instinctive.” I feel 2nd nature is a simplistic term for a complex process of thinking and experiencing. I am even dubious about the concept of intuition. Surely all of these things are learned, impacted on by prior knowledge? They are also situational. Together they create an imperative. The imperative drives the public to action. Not the platform itself.
Sam Treadway is exhibiting a scent-based work. A Clearing” is the result of a re-imagining of the origin of the Bideford Black material – Tree Fern forests of the Carboniferous period – via the medium of smell. Subtle variations of this scent composition, based on accords of wood, green, earth and petrichor (produced in collaboration with Clare Rees, Library of Fragrance), and inspired by visits to Bristol Botanic Garden and Kew Gardens, London, are transmitted, via stainless steel drums brimming with Bideford Black, into the gallery space.”
I have sent out a newsletter to subscribers, having merged my audiences from Flow Contemporary Arts with CarolynBlackArt.
It really has been a weird, and exciting, year for me. Not despite Covid19, but possibly because of it. Below is my ‘annual report’ on activity, and some links to where you can see my work. If you enjoy reading this, do subscribe to receive future newsletters (very occasional – rarely more than 4 a year, unless i have great opportunities to share with you – or brilliant exhibitions to see!).
This is a year in review and will go some way to explain why I plan to merge Flow Contemporary Arts with my personal art practice. Times are a-changing.
In February last year I ordered 100 more copies of my book, Severnside: An Artist’s View of the Severn. I did so because the first 100 had gone and I wanted to put some in bookshops. Which pretty promptly closed.
An art project in the public realm I was involved with was eagerly awaiting decisions on grant applications, so we could deliver a brilliant event across the Forest in empty phone booths. You can see information about the research stage here. Now ground to a halt and put on the shelf until brighter days.
Other Producer work in the public realm has been slowed down, time has been stretched like a rubber band. But not snapped, which is fantastic. In my studio, my practice has developed more than I could have imagined. After finishing the large panoramic drawings for the book, I began to consider returning to earlier media – such as printmaking and film. Lockdown provided an opportunity to embrace that. I made my video “When You Call I Shall Come” (855 views on Youtube) during the spring tides 2020. Having had a longing to deliver a public art event at the river involving a Swedish kulning song, making the film sparked off the possibility of using such a song as the soundtrack. After all, with no surfers, few bankside viewers, this was my first, and likely only ever, opportunity to film the high Severn Bore without human presence – no surfers, no watchers, no hang-gliders. This was not only a time for the tide to turn, it was also a turning point for me. Swedish singer Eva Rune and others gave me permission to use their beautiful voices, providing a haunting soundtrack to a very special moment in time.
Eva and I have been collaborating ever since – expect some new films in the near future.
I submitted it for the EarthPhoto2020 exhibition, and it was selected from over 2.6k applications worldwide. My film can only be seen in their online exhibition. I then went on to make other films and submit them to other opportunities. “Bev D “ is the most recent, which is causing quite a stir (forgive the pun – she is a dredger). Andrew Heath worked on this one too.
“As Above So Below”, with a soundtrack by composer Andrew Heath, was selected for Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize 2020. They managed to open in Marlborough and Dundee, and now at AUB in Bournemouth, but sadly the London show, and awards event, could not be held.
When You Call I Shall Come is also in the RWA Open 2020 – finally opening its doors this weekend – the 17th of April 2021. They also have two photogravure prints of mine for sale on their website – and on my own too. Thanks to an Arts Council England Grant for professional development I am relearning printmaking (I have a post-graduate diploma in printmaking but not done any for years.) You must book a slot – but it is worth it – to see a wide range of fantastic work.
It feels to me that the arts have had a really rough time of the Covid19 rules. As lockdown lifts priorities are for shopping and sport – I cannot comprehend why it is ok for people to hang out sweating and exhaling vigorously in a gym, or drinking and eating, but cannot sit quietly at 2metres plus away from others and enjoy drawing in a small group, with windows open.
Personally, I have found drawing a wonderful way to immerse myself in place and am actively involved with various online groups. Not all virtual some involve walking as well as talking! I am currently putting together a programme to share this passion by running Looking Classes (drawing workshops). Find out more here.
In a nutshell – where to see the work made during the past year:
EarthPhoto2020 online – it may be opened in venues, please check their website
Fingers crossed we can move forward embracing the learning we have done during the pandemic. Social and economic inequalities have been brought to the forefront, as has environmental awareness. Many have spent more time in nature and, for some, being unable to see loved one’s has been horrendous, but it has expanded my world via online interactions. Many have found solace in creative activities and their importance must be reflected in wider society.
I celebrate the gain of my return to practice, I hope others have been as lucky as me. Be well, stay safe.
Andy and I had pre-arranged to meet and walk on the outskirts of the city, on the east side of the Severn, to explore the hinterland there. We’d been discussing sensing on the phone and then issues relating to the bleed-edge, the liminal. I had been along the first part before, but not beyond. For Andy it was the opposite. We knew only where the beginning of the walk was, but nothing more. It was very busy around the Over end of the pathways, groups of people, dogs and herds of longhaired, long horned cows. It was a lovely sunny day, with a slight chill in the air. The Severn is notoriously windy and meandering, our walk followed a similar trajectory. The first part was mostly on a flood plain.
We both used phone maps, Andy more than me, because I actually quite enjoy getting lost, as often happens. And it is a treat to let go of the control sometimes, especially when someone else is taking that on for me. When I did make directional decision’s, they were invariably wrong. Which resulted in our being in the docks rather than the edge of the city. Oh well, we saw a wonderful dry dock with strange structural forms in the base, and a wonderful anchor fixed on a wall. The crackled mud was tempting for me – I had hoped to do some mud/rock rubbings – but it wasn’t to be.
We had a really nice chat with the people who own the lightship down in the Harbour, well Andy did most the talking, while I sneaked in some little films of the light playing on the underside of the boat.
We eventually began to move away from the city by walking past Sainsbury’s, around the new building sites, down to the new housing estate, where we stopped to have a drink and some chocolate. We turned and headed back to Sainsburys, where we planned to cross the Bristol Road and find pour way back to the river. We passed a swan on her nest and an odd, dead looking pig shaped thing lying in the undergrowth. Must be an old fern tree or something similar but I had to press it with my foot, just in case. Just in case of what I do not know. But it was necessary.
We were like lost kids, trying to cross at traffic lights along Bristol Rd, ones that I have driven through a million times. From the footpath, one felt acutely aware that this place is not designed for pedestrians. We headed off down one of the little side streets. I’d always been curious about this area, with little terrace houses a bit like mine, but right in the city centre. I’d wondered where they went to. The houses were homely, a little out of place. Very quickly the city sounds became quieter, until we could hear very little traffic noise. We left the city behind – when I looked over my shoulder I could just see the top of the cathedral.
The street shifted gear into an industrial area, a dirt track led to manufacturing units, rubbish everywhere, a scrapyard, stuff fly tipped and big steel gates with keep out signs. But no footpath signs going the way we needed them to go.
Andy disappeared around a building, came back and said maybe we can get through these huge concrete blocks with kind of V shaped spaces between them. Mostly very narrow, I managed to find one that I could squeeze through, if I took my backpack off, so we crossed through from one world to another.
I wish I had taken a photo at this point, because there was a little portable TV sitting on top of a block, facing out into the field. I wonder if homeless people go there and pretend that the walls are a virtual home, and watch films on the TV, ones they conjure up in their minds. Everything seemed so carefully placed. And sadly desolate.
Time began to slow down after climbing into the field. An open view with rabbits bobbing about, coming out of the hedge. And oh – so – quite – sssssh.
To prevent this writing from becoming a long ramble I am typing faster now. Partly because my fingers are cold – the weather is like winter as I write. So, more haste, less rambling. To cut a long story short, we wandered forwards – divining the river through our increasingly tired dry bones. My knees were beginning to hurt.
We walked a mile or so around the council tip, looking for signs of footpaths, indeed signs of anything. We didn’t see a soul. Once we were back on the bank of the Severn we could navigate more easily, we knew we were on our way back to civilisation, as we walked towards the cathedral again.
Indeed we walked back onto the Bristol Road up a different street, with different houses, and ended up just one turning down from where we entered the unknown, unmapped territory. We’d done a loop de loop. A few metres along the Bristol Road and we could get back down to the original route and returned to our cars by wandering under a series of bridges, me feeling every inch of the eight miles in my body.
I took this photo on our way home, and I think it sums up the walk rather well – a route with no boundaries imposed on it by us – an amble more than a ramble, a ramble more than a chat. Our verbal rambling flowed quite deep at some points, as we navigated our open route. It was the art of conversation, not of the studio. Words were released and dispersed like seeds, planting new thoughts and ideas. Some will take root, some won’t.
It was about making friends with the edge of Gloucester, the known and the unknown, and with each other. Familiarisation. Different views, different vistas. Bridging the banks of the Severn, the canal and the city. Fertile grounds, food for thought.
My latest film, Bev ‘D’ at Lydney Harbour, has been a slow burner, having done part of the filming before Christmas 2020 and the other in the new year of 2021. It catches a very particular moment in time, dictated by hight tides.
Like most of my films, it features the River Severn, but looks at one of the industrial activities that happen on her banks. I was drawn in by the elegance of this huge heavy dredging machine, the slow nature of her movement, accompanied by the clicks and clacks of her actions. Her name is Bev ‘D’ – I can’t help wondering who she was named after, and whether she is still alive. If Anyone can enlighten me on who Bev is, I’d love to speak to them.
The harbour hadn’t been dredged for over twenty years and the accumulation of silt had badly affected the lock gates, sometimes preventing them from opening at all.
Before work could begin, environmental surveys were conducted by the Environment Agency, to check for living creatures. Only the casts of a few lugworm were found.
Their working hours, and mine for filming, were dictated by tide times. Only a two-hour window is available twice a day, at dawn and dusk. During the winter of 2020/2021, the tides peaked late evening and early morning. The deep mud is agitated then released into the harbour area so that the tidal rush will wash it into the Severn when the tide turns.
The first sequence was shot at dusk and was unanticipated or planned. I had gone to the harbour to film the sunset over the old Severn bridge. While I patiently filmed this scenic view, I kept looking over my shoulder at what has happening behind me in the dock. The dredger boat was sinking lower and lower as the water level dropped, before it slowly began to move out, towards the mouth of the harbour.
Having filmed the tide coming in as well as the sunset, I rushed straight down to the boat to film there as soon as the sun disappeared on the horizon. It was one of those moments that you meant to do one thing, but found a distraction even more amazing to witness. I was caught, hook line and sinker.
I went back a few days later and chatted to the guys doing the work and asked questions about the process. Other people topped up my knowledge and the Environment Agency kindly kept me informed of the date the dredger would return in 2021.
Weather was constantly against me, my sound recordings of conversations were wind-blown, the heavy rain stopped the guys from working, even the weight of the water coming off the land jammed the gates shut. The second sequence was shot before ,and during, dawn in January. Despite being wrapped up in many layers of clothes and waterproofs, the sleet, rain and wind chilled or soaked more or less every part of my body.
I used my iPhone to film, as it was more agile than camera and tripod, and standing still for half an hour wasn’t an option in such vile weather.
I edited the base footage into a rough version. The next step was to speak to composer Andrew Heath about the soundtrack. Andrew makes beautiful ambient music, what many may describe as ‘slow music’. He had provided the soundtrack for the “As Above So Below” film I made, which was selected for the Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize. We had several discussions on the phone, and I sent him my rough, windy-weather, source tracks as a starting point. What Andrew has done in response to the film is nothing short of magic. The heartbeat pulse that mirrors the boats slowness, the sweeps and waves of the music responding to every movement. Surprisingly soft and romantic, it doesn’t let us forget that there is an industrial clanking and power to the dredger. Bev ’D’ is a force to be reckoned with!
We both felt the dreamlike quality was perfect for a film shot at liminal times of day, where light shifted softly, without us noticing. The final footage reveals nuances that the eye didn’t see.
My biggest challenge was how to tell the story without damaging the flow of the film and music. I tried narration, then information texts at the end. But I think I made the right decision in the end – I removed it all and let the film and music tell the story, without weighing it down with textual clutter.
The more I edited the more aware I became of the next twenty years. The threat of climate change, or irresponsible building of a barrage, could have a devastating impact on the character of the River Severn. Hopefully people who view the film will think of those things, raise questions such as “what might it be like at Lydney Harbour in twenty-year’s time?”. This amazing environment is at risk of being damaged irreparably if it isn’t looked after and respected. The landscape could be flooded by rising tides caused by climate change, waterflow disrupted by a barrage.
I picked up my order for graphite putty from Jackson’s warehouse in Gloucester on Friday and waited until low tide, late afternoon, before trying it out. It was cold and windy at Garden Cliff at Westbury on Severn, where I did battle with sheets of A1 cartridge paper. The paper was pinned down, one sheet at a time, using heavy rocks and branches found on the ‘beach’. I say beach because it is a cliff comprising of Triassic rock formations, but isn’t a beach that one would paddle or swim from – the River Severn is far too dangerous for that.
The first rubbing drawings were very energetic. I bent down towards the paper on the ground, donned my surgical gloves and grabbed the ball of black putty. I sensed with my right hand, feeling the surface under the paper, then followed with the graphite in my left hand. I worked fast and furiously, partly because the wind was making me feel quite tense, but also because I was crouching in an uncomfortable position and it wasn’t great for my back. I felt my way into the forms with one hand, then pressed and stroked the pigment onto the paper with the other. When the graphite ball hit ridges it deposited copious amounts of shiny metallic pigment onto the ridges, and dropped small clumps of precious graphite loose onto the paper. It was a bit like learning Taiko drumming, making the hands perform opposing actions and behaviours, but somehow (sometimes), falling into a rhythm that works. The material itself feels like handling very buttery pastry.
The rhythm in these ancient rocks was provided by the patterns formed nearly 3 million years ago. Clusters of round balls of deep red clay, like bubbles, fractured by deep straight lines where geological strata slipped and slid around. Soft and crumbly, as opposed to being hard and flinty, the stone formations are variously a pale to mid grey and a ferrous red, like an ochre. They are prone to fall apart in one’s hand, not unlike the ball of graphite putty. As I rubbed it was like seeing the Alps or the Rockies emerging from the clouds when gazing out of a plane window. The marks also remind me of the patterns seen in the mud of the Severn, from the river bed, when the tide has gone out and the sun has temporarily solidified the silt in the heat.
Anyway, I made three rubbings then retreated to my warm un-windy house and spread them out in my studio. I loved them. They were all different and the best, in my mind, was the one that was most crumpled and battered by the elements on the surface and the sharp stones trapped below the paper, jutting up into the fibrous surface, but not tearing it. That is where the peaks shone the brightest.
I had taken time selecting the areas to rub, seeking out level areas and stony part, as well as straight line fractures. I took photos of the sites and more of the different stages of rubbing. This stage of using new mediums has to be like a lab, everything noted, recorded, and considered. The weather, the dampness of the air, the wind levels, the moisture on the ground and the selected paper used. I had gone for A1 because I love drawing large and also doubted this squidgy mark-making substance wouldn’t perform at its best in a small sketchbook. I was right.
Back in the studio I left them to relax overnight and returned in the morning to study them in daylight. Then I began to rely on my memory of examining these rocks in recent weeks – looking carefully at meeting places and junctions, where smooth flat areas met crumbly steps, or bubbly round forms were fractured by gashes in the stone, like crevasses. I drew into and onto the framework that the rubbing provided and soon I was immersed in pulling this drawing out of the paper, into something that spoke of that place.
This is where I got to, and I think I’m going to be doing more in the future. (I already have but that’s another blogpost). My life is now doubly reliant on tides – the high tides that bring the Severn Bore and enable the dredger in my film ‘Bed “D’’ to operate, and the bore surfers to surf. And the low tides that reveal the most wonderful patterns formed so long ago, only for them to return to their role as riverbed when the ocean washes in.
A visual poem, the film has a dreamlike quality, shot at dusk and dawn, when the light shifted softly. A commissioned soundtrack by composer Andrew Heath captures the tone of the activity perfectly.
Lydney Harbour hasn’t been dredged for over twenty years. Bev D was filmed there before and after Christmas 2020, just before hide tides. My eye was drawn in by the elegance of this huge, heavy, dredging machine – the slow nature of her movement – accompanied by the clicks and clacks of her actions.
It is nearly a year since I filmed the footage of the Spring Bore at the start of the covid19 pandemic. There were no surfers, few other viewers. Just me and the Severn. It was very poignant, a privilege. Next week I shall film again, haunted by the memory of that unique moment in time. And look forward to seeing people surfing the wave again.
Since then the film has been selected for EarthPhoto2020 (Royal Geographic Society & Forestry Commission) from over 3k submissions. It was also selected for RWA Open 2020. Sadly, the pandemic has prevented it from being seen in gallery contexts.
I watch it again now and it is mournful and thoughtful. Ahead lay a year that would witness the NHS’s unerring ability to answer our calls when we needed them. Despite government cuts and chaotic advisories/rules. At the time of filming it was unimaginable that the pandemic would still be rife. We have come along way and time has disappeared.
The hope is that those beautiful dawn choruses we heard, unimpeded by traffic sounds, will be remembered when we discuss climate change and environments. And that our nurses and hospital staff receive a fair wage for their invaluable part of helping us through which, for many, will possibly have been the worst year of their life.
Meanwhile, have a watch and enjoy the voice of singer Eva Rune as she calls in the bore.