2021 Steps From Home – Walking the Land

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Friday 1st January 2021- First Friday Walk

The prompt text from the ‘Walking the Land‘ team:

A few paragraphs of text from Thomas A Clark’s ‘In Praise of Walking’:

‘A rock outcrop, a hedge, a fallen tree, anything that turns us out
of our way, is an excellent thing on a walk.
Wrong turnings, doubling back, pauses and digressions, all contribute
to the dislocation of a persistent self-interest.
Everything we meet is equally important or unimportant.
The line of a walk is articulate in itself, a kind of statement.
We can walk between two places, and in so doing establish a link
between them, bring them into a warmth of contact, like
introducing two friends.
Pools, walls, solitary trees, are natural halting places.
That something exists outside ourselves and our preoccupations,
so near, so readily available, is our greatest blessing.’

I have a history of going on walks with numerous cameras and bits of equipment. I bought a 360 degree camera about 2 years ago and the first artwork I made with it was 12 Circular Walks. I used it again last summer when creating As Above So Below. The invitation to consider doubling back and digressions on the first day of 2021 was too tempting – especially if I was allowed do exercise my persistent self-interest relating to my love of the Severn.

I devised a system as I planned to use Map My Walk for the first time in years and I have a wrist tracker too. It was the 1st day of the 1st month of 2021. I decided I would wander (or should I say mud-wade along?) along until I hit 2021 steps. At that point I would stop and do some circular walking. On the way I began to wonder whether the action would be sufficient to draw a spiral on the Mapping App – so I walked in circles around some benches and a bin as I wandered, to test it out.

The first stop was at the end of a VERY muddy river-path. I stopped along the way, allowed myself to be distracted by the mud. Thought about The Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen, made a bit of video, did a voice recording about Rosen and sploshed on through.

When I arrived at my point at 2021 steps, I set up my video camera to point at the river, and placed the 360 one the ground. I walked around it. I then rotated the video camera to point towards my 360 and filmed myself walking around it with that too. The action of creating works about the seen and the unseen is embedded in my brain. I like to record the bits I can’t see while I am busy working on the seen! By that I mean filming the river while I walked behind the camera on the tripod. Then filming myself using the 360. Then the mobile camera.

I continued on the higher path towards Broadoak and did a bit of circular 360 there too. Little videos, photos. Then turned my back to the Severn and crossed the A48 towards the Silver Fox Café. I couldn’t go back the way I came, it would not be a circular walk if I did. And I remembered this song.

Round like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning on an ever spinning reel
Like a snowball down a mountain, or a carnival balloon
Like a carousel that’s turning running rings around the moon

My return trip involved sheep dodging and crossing a small stream. I stopped and played again with my 360 camera on the little bridge. Walking homewards, I mosied behind the building site where some 90 new homes are being built, some with river views. I felt sad that I couldn’t afford to buy one – I dream of seeing the river every day when I awake, without having to leap out of bed and hang out of the window, as I currently do.

I took a few photos of the landscape through the security fencing – snapped some islands of cultivated foliage left behind and mountains of red soil. A landscape within a landscape.

I made a film called “2021 Steps From Home” which you can view on Vimeo – it is just over 2 minutes long – please have a look, it is the outcome of the above thinking. Using split screens, it reveals the process behind my work and the range of outcomes from a simple action – that of walking in circles.

The film below is on the route towards the sheep fields. I had forgotten that Map My Walk talks to you unexpectedly! (keep the volume fairly low or it will make you jump, like I did!)

Everyone, everywhere, every-time – on the ownership of creative work, land and river

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During lockdown I, like many others, have been doing more thinking than usual. I’ve read new books, experimented with different cooking, making art, trying out new apps and podcasts, basically allowing myself to explore things I was not looking at before. That includes ways to distract myself from feeling anxious.

Today, before I got out of bed, I dipped into a meditation app to find something new to start the day. I found ‘Connecting To The Soul Within’ by Saqib Rizvi. I gave it a go and the introduction resonated with me greatly, not in relation to my soul, but about ownership of ideas and places, due to my thoughts on going to sleep last night following reading a book. More about that later. What I took away from this, the thing that lodged in my mind, was the introduction. Rizvi described the stages of transgression that are needed to connect with one’s soul:

  1. Being someone/somewhere/sometime
  2. Being no-one/nowhere/no-time
  3. Being everyone/everywhere/every-time

My mind momentarily wandered off on a tangent, thinking about the journey from the individual to the universal in landscape ownership terms. I did manage to bring it back in line and listen to the rest of the session. Am afraid I failed to locate my soul and must try harder next time. But I did feed my brain. I went downstairs with that fluttering around in my head.

Once armed with a cup of tea, I popped onto Facebook for further distraction. I read some interesting conversations, after which I downloaded the National Trust Research document,  ‘Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust’ to read later.

Can land rightfully belong to anyone? I’m also reading ‘The Story of Trespass’ by Nick Hayes. The National Trust is stuck between two banks/walls/places, but surely their role is to tell the true story of history, not the white-washed, economy-engineered version? Land has always been contested and actions of enclosure, trespass, racism and trade have shaped and framed the landscape, creating territories, borders and countries. All in the name of power.

I spotted another dialogue on FB between creative practitioners, which revolved around finding soothing things to do/read/listen to, during lockdown. In that conversation, someone recommended a podcast I haven’t heard of before – ‘Aphids Listens’– which hosts discussions between Lara Thoms and artists. As someone who is interested in art in public spaces, I went straight to episode 7, with Amy Spiers. The podcast begins with a statement:

Aphids acknowledges the wurundjeri and boon wurrung peoples on whose lands we live and work. Sovereignty was never ceded and we pay our respect to past, present, and future aboriginal elders and community, and to their long and rich history of artmaking on this country.

Obviously, there’s a connection between the NT document, Nick Hayes’ book, and this podcast. The first specific artwork that was discussed was ‘Dancing In Peckham’ by Gillian Wearing – an old favourite of mine. I wrote about it many years ago, when I was awarded a Creative Writing Bursary from Arts Council England, around the time that the work was new, in the 1990’s. Wearing dances wildly in a shopping centre, no headphones, just dancing to a song in her head in a public place, with abandon. When they spoke of Wearing’s work, they referred to her  “losing it, losing oneself, losing inhibition”. And how some may have thought this was a little worrying, a bit weird.

Wearing danced in public, that was a transgression, a private act seen by strangers.

And here we all are, during a pandemic, trying not to lose it, but making every effort to lose ourselves. Dancing in our kitchens, rolling around on the living room floor for zoom yoga, or doing life drawing from the sofa while watching TV.

As the saying goes – everything is connected.

So on to how this connects with my current studio practice and thinking about land ownership, or even possession, and/or losing it. Many people know I commission art for public places, so understanding differences between space and place is embedded in my thinking, as is land ownership.

When it comes to my own art practice, I have mostly made work relating to landscape, though sometimes that landscape was of the body, as in my MA video work. I have recently returned to lens-based practice, and the power of the gaze has arisen again, especially when working in 360 degrees.

What unites all my recent work is the River Severn. The title of my book “Severnside – An Artist’s View Of The Severn” sums it up really. It has been about my particular take on the Severn, the book is autobiographical in many ways. Not any-river, or any-person, but me, writing about it. But in recent works, that has started to shift.

I am reconsidering my relationship with the river as a place, its history and the other living things that inhabit it. That includes other artists working with it, of which there are, and always have been, many. In terms of possession, maybe I have become possessed by the Severn, rather than me thinking I possess it. Maybe I am losing my ‘self’?

The Severn belongs to no-one, no-where, no-time.

In my recent works, I have sought to relinquish my gaze, to consider others’ relationships with this river. That is why these new works are called ‘the seen and the unseen’ series. It first happened in April, when I made ‘When You Call I Shall Come’. This was made possible because the bore surfers stood down, no-one else was competing for ownership, or rights-of-use, of the river, only me, and it. And I knew, as soon as I began to edit it, that this moment was as special for the river as it was for me. I filmed as an observer, then, during editing, the river became the storyteller. It wasn’t about my relationship with it, but the opposite. The river is the narrator.

In the ‘seen and unseen’ series, I’m playing with ideas about locating myself, losing my inhibitions, finding my place in the world through vision and sound. In film no.3 I speak of what is in front of the camera (not me), whilst showing the viewer what is behind. I talk about myself as an actor in the scene, in the 3rd person. I am seeking to separate myself from owning the gaze by employing a form of audio-describing. I narrate the action as if it were a play. Most of my work these days is a meta-narrative, a story about itself.

Then there is the thinking about ownership of land, in terms of creative interpretations. Locating the self, whilst not claiming ownership of land. I want to relinquish my one-to-one relationship with the Severn, to reflect that the land itself has a form of agency, has cycles, behaviours. It’s not easy, it feels slightly like a divorce. I know it is good for both of us, but it is hard to let go.

I have collaborated with two other artists in recent years, on works about the banks of the river. Suze Adams and I took photos of each other across the river for our Walking The Land project. More recently,  Carol Laidler and I worked together on a Liquidscapes project and presented it as a performance lecture at a Dartington conference. Both were about me – here, the others – over there. We called out to each other across the void, by doing so we connected both sides.

Maybe the next project needs to involve meeting others in the middle, or swapping sides, putting our feet in each other’s shoes? Dichotomies are destined to divide people further. Hayes suggests that words create walls, I think he is right.

Covid19 transgresses all of those things. It is affecting everyone, everywhere in every time zone.

VIEW: When You Call I Shall Come

Strange times, do you find it hard to keep your eye on the horizon? Gazing at a river may help.

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There is a lot of evidence that blue therapy is a powerful thing during tumultuous times. I’m no sailor, but thinking about the USA at the moment, the waves look choppy indeed. In parallel, here on this small island, the comparative still of lockdown has washed over us. It is a time for much reflection but hard to move to the next step, future planning.

As always, I am immersing myself in making art. It is my way of finding a level. Most of the footage I’m using has been gathered in recent weeks. We have been in the pandemic so long now I remember very little about the optimism of pre-pandemic. The projects planned were almost tangible, only to be knocked out of the picture completely. Those that don’t involve audiences (for now) can keep moving forward.

When I was doing large drawings of the river I left large areas of white in them. Those voids were to leave space for the viewer to dream in. Strange that now, only a few months later, a different void has been presented to everyone – a time:space gap. It leaves many of us lost and at sea. I hope my films offer gentle spaces that provide a constant sense of support to you, as much as they do to me.

Here are three newish films:

Between https://vimeo.com/475429289
Wave, song, swan https://vimeo.com/475099054
The seen and the unseenhttps://vimeo.com/475821629

The seen and the unseen – no.1 distraction

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As most readers know by now, my work often involves addressing you – the viewer or reader. I have a history of making films that do that, often very layered and complex in the background thinking, they present themselves gently as an enquiry, a reflection, a self-examination. They are, one might say, a little existential. This is not an accident.

When I film and immerse myself in what I view through the lens, I have to connect in that moment, at that place. I can’t believe this is a one-way process. All filming is preceded by planning, writing, and careful consideration of what the final film *might* relate to. It is also prey to my mood, the river’s behaviour and what else is going on in the world.

The river is unpredictable, but possesses specific traits that I have learned to notice. I am also self-aware enough to know that there are certain aspects I habitually zone in on, as my gaze flits from surface to shoreline, highly active waves to subtle revelations of line, or floating objects.

The action of filming is directed by prior thinking.

The next phase occurs in my studio, on my computer. I need to reconnect with what I was searching for when I filmed, understand what the river saying to me, and consider my role as the editor. It is at this point I begin to connect past with present and future. Filmed in the past, edited in the now, presented in the future.

And the now of 2020 is an unusual now. Unprecedented, as we keep being told. The first films I made during the pandemic were about being alone with the river. And the actions related to that experience – of writing, drawing, photographing, filming and editing. Essentially, it was about me, in this place, in this time. As Above So Below not only depicted me sitting under a tree drawing, it also had a voice overlaid which responded to the editing process – switch, description etc.

The work I have just uploaded to Vimeo continues that theme, the nowness of the editing process. And you, the future viewer/reader are also present, because I am explaining my thinking to you. I’m not physically visible, but a bit of me lingers in there. Because it refers to my sitting in a chair, watching a screen, whilst also being distracted by the sounds outdoors. As if sitting at the screen is anathema to me. I just want to go out. And I do. I could take the perspective of the meditation instructions – allow the distraction to float in and disappear again. But I chose to embrace them, and bring them into the work. Because they are evidence of how one’s mind travels from one thing to another.

Like the conflicting tides which push in and out, my mind has tides too. Like the Severn, I’m doing my best to make these opposing streams be reciprocal, to draw from each other and feed each other too.

It’s a bit like creating a digital Open Studio event!

Watch the film here.

Swings and Films – exhibitions

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Recently I have spotted swings being hung from trees around the local area, the Forest of Dean. They have signs near them encouraging users to enjoy themselves, it appears to be a guerrilla-style action with no name. I love it.

Prior to their arrival, I too had developed a relationship with a swing next to the Severn, a few miles walk from home. As an artist and film-maker, I did more than swing on it. It became a place for a daily retreat from Covid19 – a bolthole. I wrote about it as being my new ‘crying place’, having witnessed the removal of my old one. That was a huge tree stump at the top of a hill which looked down over the bend in the Severn near Newnham. But that is no more.

The riverbank swing doesn’t provide big sky views and open vistas, it is very close to the water and offers a wonderful view of Garden Cliff and to see the sunset there at the end of a Covid-day is an indescribable delight to witness.

Over several weeks I visited and made films of the swing swinging, and from the swing swinging. With me, without me. I leant against the trunk of the oak tree it hung from and drew in its shade, often distracted by the dancing shadows of the branches above, and the bugs that came to check on the progress of the marks on my paper. I filmed the silhouettes of the leaves, then filmed myself drawing.

One day I went on a major mission to capture this unusual experience. Gathering all my ideas together, alongside a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree camera; a video recorder; an iPad with an animation app; a phone camera and three tripods; sketch pad and charcoals with a putty rubber and a heap of determination, I made a film.

Several days of editing, collaging and shaping ensued until I had a finished film. “As Above So Below” was the result.

It was the second significant film I’d made since the pandemic began – the other one “When You Call, I Will Come” documented the spring-tide Severn bore without any surfers.

I submitted them, somewhat nervously, to share them more widely. With galleries and venues closed I had to find a way to get them seen because they are so pandemic-influenced they are a record of this strange time.

I am still thrilled by the way people responded to them. Before “When You Call” was accepted for the EarthPhoto2020 exhibition, from over 3,000 applicants, it was viewed by  500+ YouTube viewers. EarthPhoto2020 is run by Royal Geographic Society and Forestry Commission and will tour to various venues.

This boosted my confidence, so I submitted “As Above, So Below” to Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize – a fantastic annual event that had over 4,000 applicants – and it was selected.

“When You Call” can be viewed online on the EarthPhoto2020 website and the exhibition for the drawing prize opens at Drawing Projects UK in Trowbridge, Wiltshire: 2 to 31 October 2020, then tours to Cooper Gallery at the University of Dundee, Trinity Buoy Wharf in London and The Gallery at Arts University Bournemouth.

Links:

Trinity Buoy Wharf Prize

EarthPhoto2020

Has Eastenders influenced my films? Or did the old masters/mistresses influence Eastenders?

This Christmas is a very weird one and Facebook dug up this blogpost from the archives from 4 years ago. I miss those rich soliloquy’s and one-to-one dialogues from those days. They should bring them back. Especially now we are so often alone – I think that’s why Alan Bennet’s Talking Heads series was so poignant this year too. How often do we find we are talking to ourselves, growling at radio announcements, raging about Tweets about Trump, or sighing in despair about our government? I know I do it more often than I’d like. But these days are a hotbed of it and art of today needs to reflect that.

Re-reading the blogpost today I see how important it is in terms of critical analysis. It plays very much on composition, on light and religiosity. And my recent films have been considering those things too. It is amazing how the camera, the setting, the content can draw you into something very deeply, during very few seconds.

Back to Eastenders, I must say this current series is getting worse by the minute – but it won’t top me seeing what happens at Christmas! It strikes me that the Producer is borrowing methods from the Nordic thrillers – with drone shots, complex plotlines, corruption. I’m not sure it works as well as the references to the old masters did, but things change, and so must we, as audiences. And creatives. 

Here’s the original writing, December 2016:

Christmas – I recently blogged about it, how I find it empty. As a closet Eastenders fan , I enjoy watching the build up to Christmas on the square. Impending doom, love, hate, violence and crisis usually thrown into the mix, along with a good sing-song in the Old Vic and a wedding, funeral or death.

Last night, on 16th December, there were subtle clues for sleuths; relationship shifts and twists, but the best part was the scene of Dot, alone, having not gone to the Nativity play. Sometimes these are the absolutely best moments in Easties – when the characters sit down, shut their Cockney mouths, and show us their inner thoughts by the means of classical lighting and staging. This shot is one of those old mistress/masters moments and I love it.

Most of the square are in church for the nativity play, and while the children sing Away in a Manger, there’s a cut to a slow pan towards Dot’s front door, then this view of her. It lasts for 16 seconds, the sound track continues and the shot ends when the song does, and returns to the church.

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The out of focus corner of the wood panelling on the left, the subdued midnight blue of the cardigan, the deep dye red hair of the hag-like face in contemplation; the upright spine of Christianity; the candle, light of the world, and God; the still life of fruit, Christingle exotic orange, symbol of the world and worldliness; ribbons for gifts, empty chair of an absent friend; string bag hanging on door, empty, no longer used; shiny brass door knob, polished, with care; in the right foreground something brassy – a lamp maybe? Definitely not Ikea. In the shadows, whatever it is still gleams, slightly, as old things do. As does Dot. Excellent chiaroscuro.

It could be about loneliness at Christmas, or a fading flickering light of the square about to expire. There’s a sense of imminence, but we don’t know what yet is going to happen. It doesn’t bear thinking about really. Dot is the Walford  matriarch, we see that when after the service lots of friends and family, having noted her absence, stream into her house with jollity and love.

This one  episode was the frame for this image, this narrative, this moment.

It does what a good artwork does, it holds a thought, incorporates a huge bundle of signifiers. It is both minute in scale and monumental. And very beautiful.

Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize Dundee Opening & Panel Discussion

Last Friday I attended a zoom presentation:

Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize 2020
Opening Event & Panel Discussion
Voicing Drawing
Speakers: Kate Davis, Tania Kovats, Hardeep Pandhal, Anita Taylor 
Chaired by Prof Mike Collier

Friday 13 November, 2020, 6–7.30pm
Online

Below are some of the things I noted down from this inspiring dicussion:

Drawing is/can be

meditation

books

proposition rather than statement

voicing drawing

visual literacy

making drawings, not drawing drawings

drawing slows you down

The most memorable comment related to the fact that in current Covid-19 times touch = contamination. The action of drawing is a form of touching, substance to surface.

What does drawing mean to you?

‘between’ a new film on a day of conflicts and tensions

Today is an in-between day

In the USA the left and the right fight it out (literally it appears); in the UK we await our 2nd lockdown tomorrow; autumn sunshine – winter chill

Neither here nor there

The River Severn continues to flow

Soon what is in front of us, will be behind us

It’s just a matter of time

https://vimeo.com/475429289

weary and wary we masked

Waking (too) early this morning I reflected on the past few months. Remembered the hush of the initial lockdown and how wonderful it was in many ways. It gave us a taster of a world with less pollution, less traffic on roads and in the air. We heard the birdsong amplified in the mornings, the river rushing by.

This heightened attention enabled me to make films that now, it seems, touch people in a particular way. Something I am trying to understand. At the time of making, they were, in so many ways, my coping mechanism. Walking outside, close to the river, needing to escape the confines of my house, the endless news reporting statistics and warnings.

As I lay in bed earlier today I listened to the traffic passing by and wondered how long it might be before that stops again. In the winter I know when it has snowed overnight, because of the uncanny quietness of the acoustics landscape. During lockdown I have become raw, over-sensitised, sounds are louder, scents stronger, touch yearned for.

So I wrote down some words and made another film. I added the recording I made of the dawn chorus in April 2020 and look forward to hearing it in 2021 – with traffic flowing past.