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.
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.
staring into white space waiting i see a circle in the sky start to emerge then fade away i’m watching slow breathing the whiteness blocking my ability to think the tide coming in and going out things float across my vision my eye keeps returning to the white and the yellow oh so slightly yellow circle that i keep thinking i can see but then can’t birds call in the dawn getting louder with hope for a new day then dip into silence muttering at its absence the future in a whiteout is clouded the past a smudge on a surface drawing on water the sun doesn’t rise the river flows both ways waiting just waiting for something to change
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.
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:
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.
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.
In 2005 the artist Phil Collins spoke at a conference at Bristol Zoo, run by Claire Doherty of Situations. He said that historically some believed a camera could take the steal of a person, but he, personally, felt the act of taking a photograph is an act of love.
That comment is core to this enquiry about my practice.
Reel back in time to October 1997 when I began my MA in Fine Art at Cardiff UWIC. My mother died on 1st September that year. The first works I did were using photography and slide-dissolve images of my naked body, photographed from behind, with shed snake skins pressed between glass projector-slides that transferred their amazing charcoal-like patterns onto my body. I cast my head in red jelly and filmed it, slowly melting then reverse played, it in a loop. Forming and dissolving. I cast it in plaster too. Fixed and solid.
It was one year after Dolly The Sheep had been cloned. I now understand that I was exploring my identity, as a clone of my mother. The possibility of becoming another. No longer a daughter, but a matriarch. One particular work was inscribed by hand with the phrase “I shed my skin, I regenerate”.
Reflecting now, maybe, because I had a difficult relationship with my mother, I needed to do this, to value myself. Deaths of people close to us can have very profound affects that are not always obvious at the time. My mother would have been horrified, she always wished I would paint pictures of puppies and kittens, things people could understand and buy. Just as she said my sister would be better off writing bodice-busters instead of science fiction.
I have always disliked being photographed, and it shows in photos of me. No surprise then, that the images were mostly of my back. It was a refusal to be seen by my own gaze. My final MA work was about close examination of the body, in particular looking into the flesh body, the corporeal, compared to the virtual, digital body. It was the early days of the internet and a whole new world opened up to me. That world was text-based, so the physical body was not required to be visible, it was an anonymous space.
In 2002 I spend two months in Java, Indonesia, on a UNESCO funded residence at Selasar Sunaryo Gallery near Bandung. While there I confronted myself and my past, my father having been posted there in 1949. I made objects and films about identity, the fragility of both the digital and place.
When I returned home to the UK I did another one-week residency in Birmingham, as part of LabCulture run by PVA Labs. There I presented a number of video works called ‘Letting Go’. I made each film by animating an object – a coin, a cup rocking on a hook, a rotary washing line – then filming it until it stopped. All domestic objects. Sadly, my marriage was failing by then – each tiny film reflected that, moment by moment, frame by frame, slowing down then finally drawing to a halt. Another film was made with opaque mist from a steam room focussing in and out of net curtains. I was nowhere to be seen in any of these works. I guess I temporarily left my body and was deeply inside my head and my heart. A point of change.
By 2005 my practice was subsumed by the need to earn a living, so I did more and more producing and curating and my practice gradually slipped away.
In 2006, I moved to the Forest of Dean. A big change after twenty-five years of living near the east bank of the Severn. I relocated, not only to a new home, but to a new landscape, on the west bank of the river. I walked regularly locating myself into a new place, taking photos of trees leaning to stay upright, rooted on the side of the hills, adapting to counter the sloping ground below them. I was aware at the time that that was how I felt too and empathised with their stoic behaviour.
I worked as a producer and curator for the following ten years, not exhibiting work, not making much either. At one point, I explored the possibility of creating films by embedding cameras in the gorilla compound at Bristol Zoo, to film the visitors from the gorilla’s perspective. We didn’t get it off the ground, but the very thought of that is pertinent as I write this piece.
In 2017, in November, my brother died after a long slow illness. I had a cancer scare myself and, like the films of things in the letting go series, I ground to a halt.
In January 2018 I began to draw again, spurred on by the fact that my brother had often chastised me for no longer making art. I took my series of panoramic photos of the Severn, shot on my phone therefore not good enough for quality prints – and I modified them and drew them as large, one-metre wide panoramic works. I took more photos, creating pairs of opposite sides of the Severn, gathering memories, facts and fictions as I travelled from bank to bank. The book evolved in parallel to the drawings.
Once the drawing series was complete and the book published, I paused for a while. I regathered and gained momentum in Producer work, which involves supporting other artists to create work for landscapes in response to places.
Late 2018 I got my hands on a 360 camera and began to make films again. Exploring the moving image felt good, as I had previously made video installations. But it also brought with it the issue of the gaze, and my being present in the imagery. By their nature, the dual-lenses capture everything, including the operator. Me. I hid behind cars and bushes, trying to find a way out of the frame. As I understood the capacity of the camera and its ability to capture its surrounds, I found the optimum distance I could perform to it without obvious facial recognition. The film 12 circular walks came out of that and, just as I did with the trees, the riverbanks, I collected a number of works together – this time not for a book, but for a film. As I walked in circles I held a stick, in homage to Caspar David Friedrich and his depiction of a gentleman purveying a sublime view of nature. My circular meanderings we very different to that.
There followed a period of my returning to the river with video and 360, getting closer to it psychologically, understanding it better. And it was a relief to take me out of the equation, not to do battle with removing myself from the scene. I combined drawing with video, with animation, I played and played, in the day by the river, in the night in my studio, with charcoal, projectors and tripods.
Come the 2020 Covid19 pandemic all these elements of my practice were ripe for picking. Having time to walk daily to the river, I began to find new ways to revisit it, both literally, by walking a new route, and metaphorically, as in finding visual ways to present not a view of the river, but my experience of it. To develop a 1:1 relationship with it, on equal terms. In April, when the bore surfers stood down out of respect for Sabrina and each other, I filmed the high spring tide for three days and used the footage to make When You Call, I Will Come. The words relayed a message from the voice of the tide itself. A kulning song, performed by Eva Rune and others, pulled the film together, enabling viewers to be drawn into the yearning, for the need to find comfort somewhere, somehow. In a matter of two weeks it had 500+ views which was overwhelming for me. It appears to have a power that goes above being a documentary of the Severn Bore.
When You Call, I Will Come and was selected for EarthPhoto2020, a Royal Geographical Society project in collaboration with Forestry Commission. It has also resulted in an experimental collaboration with the singer/composer Eva Rune, who lives in Sweden.
The next film I made was like taking my winter studio out into the light. I dragged 3 cameras and tripods; 1 iPad and a myriad of drawing materials, to my favourite place, next to a swing on the riverbank. I did many films of the swing, empty, released and allowed to move until it stopped. Letting go. I sat under the huge oak tree that supported the swing and I filmed myself drawing there. I was back in the frame again. Albeit at a distance.
Both of the above films were selected for exhibitions and I had a period of self-doubt, imposter syndrome, call it what you like. Not having shown work beyond the Forest of Dean for many years, it felt huge. I have just listened to Charlie Mackesy speaking for the Cheltenham Literature Festival. Online, of course. I saw his drawings on Instagram when he first began, and ordered his book prior to publication, which was autumn 2019. He spoke eloquently about his work, about being vulnerable, about recognising that his art is a way to process deep anxieties. I guess that is what has happened for me with my films, they touch people. I didn’t set out to make them do that, they reflect my own inner state, my personal way of coping with the pandemic.
I started writing this article yesterday, after planning it in my head. Today, hearing Mackesy talk, feels like synchronicity. I’m a pretty pragmatic person, few would think me romantic, but there is something about time and place that always matters. And sometimes amazing collisions and collusions begin.
I am now back in my body and planning new work. Uber-conscious that I have been reflecting on my own presence, and absence, in my work, I am now going to explore the presence of other living things in this landscape that we share. Try and see their perspective, like looking from the other riverbank. When I sat up in bed this morning I watched the dove that sits on a TV aerial outside my window, every morning, every day. And I thought “what does the bird think? Does it see me? What is going through its mind?”.
It is time to go beyond myself and walk in my collaborator’s shoes. My encounters in the world mean far more than I do, my work needs to reflect that. My daughter and I had a discussion about these things, her perspective informed by training to be a puppeteer and the role of the operator, along with her experience of making documentary films, about sustainable farming and food provenance. Ironically, I am now wishing we had taken a photo of us together that day, while we were talking. It was the launch of my film at the Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize Show.
My arts producer work is becoming increasingly concerned with climate change and environmental issues. The Severn is, of course, at risk, as is the wider natural world. Watch out for new work. It probably won’t be right first time, but I am trying.
Going full circle back to the start of this writing, if taking a photograph is an act of love, then that is what I need to do. I feel it is the only thing to do.
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.