THE ACT OF TAKING A PHOTOGRAPH IS AN ACT OF LOVE

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.

The resulting film is called As Above, So Below and was selected for the Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize Show. Composer Andrew Heath provided the soundtrack.

Jump to 4th October 2020.

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.

Letting Go, Refusal and the third space during Lockdown – a time when you have nothing to do and everything to do

Letting Go, Refusal and the third space

Lockdown – a time when you have nothing to do and everything to do – both at once.

Do you feel hypersensitive at the moment? Does your brain seem to be like a colander today, yet memories of significant things in your past float up constantly? Do they then create links with today’s thoughts in strange, unexpected ways – tethering the present with the past? Mine certainly do.

My instinct (or is that intuition?) is to listen to those collisions and collusions that my mind, and my heart, are offering me. Some people say we must respect our ‘innate’ intuition, others believe intuition is the outcome of cumulative knowledge (I’m inclined to believe both). I feel we are offered a new understanding of past and present if we can reconsider them through different lenses, at different times. If we allow them to have a dialogue, to intertwine, they may inform new ways of thinking about this strange period we live in. And we might learn more about ourselves.

I’m half-way through reading a book recommended to me by other artists, spotted on Instagram:  “How to Do Nothing – Resisting the Attention Economy” by Jenny Odell. One of the people who has read it told me “it will change your life”. It already has, yet I’m only halfway through. Which says something about my inability to do nothing. I spend way too much of my life on social media, for work and for pleasure. I love sharing photos, videos and seeing other peoples, especially during self-isolation. And, double irony here, I would not have heard about the book if I didn’t.

So, I am sorry Jenny, but your book is so loaded with things I knew nothing of before, I have to stop reading periodically and go and follow my curiosity – seeking out links and downloads to follow up with. If I don’t do it whilst live-reading, I may forget (see comment above). This is not an issue in terms of practice, it is a research process, but nor is it the outcome I anticipated when picking up the book.

The writing is delicious – the combinations of narratives on offer flow freely – the nuggets of examples from philosophy and contemporary art thrill me. A literary and creative feast. So much so that when I came to make my breakfast, I randomly added rosemary and garlic to my mushrooms and parsley to my scrambled egg.

  • Parsley: useful knowledge, feast, joy, victory
  • Rosemary: remembrance, love, loyalty, fidelity
  • Garlic: protection, strength, healing

I chose rosemary knowingly, as I had already considered its meaning when my brother died. I was also aware that garlic is for protection, strength and healing. But I didn’t know that parsley means ‘useful knowledge’, so that alone is somewhat spooky. Those things will now be intuitive to me.

Covid 19 is time to eat parsley, clearly. The remembrance issue relates not only to a family death, but also to that of an artist, Clare Thornton, who I worked with some years ago when I was a writer in residence for Redefining Print, at Double Elephant Print Studio.  A Facebook post about the anniversary of her death sent me off to dig deep into my archives where I found a recorded conversation with her about her work, in which I comment that I knew her partner from my time in 2002, when I did PVA LabCulture. I have shared that with him. Clare introduced me to the Triadic Ballet, which I have loved ever since. One of the people that set up the residency was Simon Ripley, who told me that the book (see above) will change my life.

During LabCulture I shared some films of inanimate objects being released into action then slowing down to a halt – the series was called “Letting Go”.  It was also the year that my marriage was slipping away.

Last week I made some slo-mo films with my iPhone – I pulled back a swing that flew above the River Severn (my muse and inspiration for all I do), and let it go. Only today have I spotted the link with the LabCulture films.

Collisions and collusions – past and present.

My film of the swing is also about letting go. Here, now, in this unpredictable, unknown place we are in, we must let go of many things. If we don’t it is too painful. Our daily routines have changed, forever, but not through intention. There is little choice.

In Odell’s book she writes eloquently about refusal. She refers to Diogenes and his explorations and actions relating to refusal. She describes his actions as creating ‘a third space’ – a magical exit to another frame of reference.

“For someone who cannot otherwise live with the terms of her society, the third space can provide an important if unexpected harbour (pages 68/69)”.

Might it be that our creative selves can provide us with our third space, when we urgently need a magical exit to our present frame of reference?

Wearing a quickly-made paper mask influenced by the *Triadic Ballet, and photos by Inge Morath & Saul Steinberg, (which came to me from a friend sharing on Facebook), for a zoom meeting, allowed me to prevent others from scrutinising my facial expressions. A refusal.

Sitting on a swing by the river allows my dreams to flow with the tide. Editing film takes me into another zone, as if doing meditation.

Making a silly video of my relationship with the screen, influenced by my watching the eyes of Villanelle in the TV series Killing Eve, lifts my mood.

I don’t think I really want To Do Nothing – I doubt it is even possible.

Just as John Cage proved you can’t record silence. Like Bartleby the Scrivener, if you ask me to do nothing I shall probably respond with “I would prefer not to”.

Surely this image from Triadic Ballet is calling out for a re-enactment during social distancing?

Screenshot 2020-05-03 at 10.56.46

 

*Note reference Triadic Ballet – made in 1922 by Oskar Schlemmer, it is a great early example of performance art/dance choreographed for filming for the screen. The activity is played out within that frame, just as Wood & Harrison do in their work. I propose that the screen of ZOOM and other online video conferencing facilities provides a ‘third space’ we can explore through creative practices.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Severn Bore on Christmas Day, Rudolph, Santa and Brexit too!

On the morning of Christmas Eve, she wandered down to the bank of the Severn to watch the bore as it formed on the bend between Awre and Arlingham. A fire was burning in the centre of the river, nearby a row of surfers stood to attention, clasping their boards, like herons waiting for their supper.

She had seen this sight many times before, but today was special, as she had the bank to herself. Most people only turn out to see four-star waves, the timetable for Christmas Eve was a humble two-star. As she so often did, she filmed the event on her mobile phone and posted it onto YouTube.

When the wave arrived there were eight or nine surfers riding it, by the time it had passed all but one had fallen off, whooping and yelping as they did so. One man left standing, silhouetted against a soft dawn sky as this busy day began.

Maybe it was one-star after all.

Christmas Eve is family time, with visitors, friends and lovers. By bedtime she went off to sleep quite quickly, but later was woken by a strange dream. One of those dreams that plays on one’s fears, when current affairs and children’s stories become peppered with time and space, creating strange collisions and collusions. In her dream, there were drones flying in the sky, trying to attack Santa and the reindeer. The reindeer fled and a woman tried to call them back, singing kulning songs. But they didn’t respond to her yearning call and Santa fell from the sky with a bump. He tried to get a back-up team of helpers, but because of Brexit, none could get their visa’s in time. Many had passport problems too, because travelling around had been pretty easy prior to the UK splitting from the EU. It was chaos and no-one seemed to be able to help.

She woke with a start, feeling very disturbed. She looked at her clock, it was 3.a.m. Children all over the country would wake up soon and find nothing. She turned to Twitter to see if there were any reports about drones. There’d been a few sightings, of both drones and Santa, but it’s hard to believe social media. Yet only days ago Gatwick Airport had been grounded and lots of travel disrupted because they thought drones were there. Which means even if the drone part about Santa’s story was only a dream, it doesn’t mean it wouldn’t cause chaos. Fake news can gain as much attention as real news these days.

Comforted by the fact that it was unlikely to be true, she rolled over and went back to sleep.

Christmas morning! She raced down the stairs, put the kettle on, grabbed boots, scarf, coat and gloves, made tea and rushed out the door. Another two-star bore predicted but she needed to be reassured that the world had not gone badly wrong. She was early, and she stood in the wonderful silence of the dawn, a still, dull day. The ducks flew over her head, reminding her of the drone. She recalled that when she edited her video yesterday, she saw there was a drone in the footage, one she had not spotted in her viewfinder while filming. She shuddered as she recalled her dream of drones and Brexit.

With no-one to watch her, she decided to try kulning. She had often thought of doing this to call the bore in, but that seemed a bit silly. But here, now, she could try and call the reindeer in. She found a firm area of mud, one the surfers used to climb in and out of the riverbed, and waded and squelched to centre-river. There she stood, facing south. She took a deep breath and called…..ah ho kee, keee-oh-hoo-hoo, ah ho hee hoo, hee-oooooo-he-hoo….

Nothing happened. The riverbed remained dry in the centre, the waters flowed gently in both directions. Her heart sank, as did her feet, no reindeer, no bore.  She was covered in mud.

As she climbed out onto the bank she felt very sad. Maybe she got the time wrong? She checked her watch and yes, she had! It wasn’t due for another half hour! Typical! She decided to nip home and refresh her cup of tea and change her boots, as they were very sticky with river silt.

By the time she returned there were flames again on the sand spit and about five or six surfers. One was dressed as Santa, which always made her smile. As she set up her camera, she spotted lots of debris trapped around the timber frame of the old ferry crossing. Old pallets bobbed about, bumping into each other. Could they be the very same pallets from the sleigh that carried the presents? It was a brown grey day with very little colour, so the splash of red bobbing in the water caught her eye as she zoomed in. A big red plastic bucket, the kind that would hold reindeer food! She was back in her dream and anxiously looked up into the sky. No drones today. Phew.

She heard the bore approaching and wondered, with a wry smile, whether it had heard her singing. She turned her video on and tracked the wave as it passed, dropping off surfers as it did so – no good rides today. As she filmed, she captured the pallets and the buckets, hoping to seem them washed away. Large branches rushed past on the ride, not unlike antlers. She shuddered again. She decided that when she got home to edit, she would examine the footage for drones.

She attached all the cables and went to export the footage. Oh no! She had one still picture, that was all. She had not worn her glasses and had pressed the wrong button. She had no evidence to her story, no Santa, no bucket or pallets.

So she wrote this story instead, to record just how much life can get in the way of imagination, but can also add to it too. Did she really sing in the river?  Was there really a red bucket belonging to Rudolph in the river? Were those actually broken bits of Santa’s sleigh?

Who knows, but what we can be reassured of, is children everywhere today will enjoy their presents and hopefully, if the nightmare was not true, then Brexit won’t happen either. Ever.

Happy New Year!

(with homage to “T’was the night before Christmas” By Clement Clarke Moore)

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exploring 360 filming with Theta 6, all about the river

I’m trying to get my head around this wonderful camera and what it can do. This is my first footage, made this morning in the snow. I did a lot of stills, which are wonderful, but this is the only video I did. Would love feedback – it’s raw, unedited footage, and clunky….but rather beautiful.

thank you too Google Street View for the loan of the camera.

WINTER WALK BY THE SEVERN VIDEO

view a 360degree version of one of these here

and here are some stills, (c) carolyn black