Last week we travelled north towards the Brecon Beacons to visit the Neath Valley Waterfalls and then to Aberavon beach at Port Talbot as part of my field project this term called ‘Things Behind the Sun’. The aim was to document our experience of the journey and environments through drawings in a psychogeographic way, responding to how we move through the landscape and the things that interest us, rather than trying to recreate any landscape in a traditional, realist manner. I chose the project because having lived all my life in Wales and spending many happy holidays down in Pembrokeshire throughout my life, the Welsh landscape and coast especially are meaningful to me and evoke many memories. I’m interested in how my experience of places can be brought into my work, the sculptor-ceramicist Gordon Baldwin being a huge inspiration.
Rather than working in sketchbooks we used drawing machines made ourselves using folded cardboard, string, a till roll, tape and cable-ties. The roll of paper can be folded over and over so you can generate lots of drawings quickly. Frequent rain showers meant lots of the drawings became blurry as the ink ran, and this effect in itself becomes a record of the experience.
At Aberavon I found myself drawn to the interruptions where sand ripples made marks in the otherwise flat beach. When we think of waves in the sea, we imagine the surf coming towards the beach, but what does an entire wave actually look like? Like a sound-wave, it’s just a disturbance in a medium, a transport of energy. Perhaps the most famous depiction of a wave is Hokusai’s ‘Great wave off Kanagawa’, but this is just what a stereotypical wave appears like from our human perspective. Thinking of the Blue Planet episodes I’ve been watching, to a fish who has never left the sea, the experience of a wave would be very different. So who’s to say these forms in the sand below are not just as valid and truthful depictions of what waves look like as Hokusai’s famous woodblock print?
In our second Constellation lecture we began the morning with an introduction to structural and materialist film i.e. films which celebrate the materiality of the process of filmmaking and are anti Hollywood, standing against mainstream narrative ideology. These films are difficult to watch because of their disjointed nature and emphasise creating mood over a clear storyline and dialogue. They explore the possibilities of physical film in many ways such as changes in speed, looping, layering and reversal of images and use of negative and change of tonal colour. These films require us to be active in decoding and interpreting them, not just passive watchers. They remind me of a book of photos I have by Dutch artist Paul Bogaers called ‘Upset Down’. The picture book has no clear storyline, beginning, middle or end and can be read turned upside down and back to front. It explores the juxtaposition of photos in unexpected sequences with the graininess of the material film visible and celebrated. Out of focus, underexposed and overexposed shots only add to the overall aesthetic.
Outer Space by Peter Tscherkassky is more contemporary example of this film genre. The narrative is unclear, more like a dream sequence full of unexpected, jarring scenes building up tension and fear. In the faster, more abstract sections, the film sprocket holes are clearly visible, emphasising that this is a film about film more than anything else. These non-linear narratives are of interest to me because one of my favourite film directors Quentin Tarantino uses this technique in many of his movies.
An early example of this kind of filmmaking is Malcolm le Grice’s Berlin Horse (1970), a mesmerising experimental film with music composed by Brian Eno (check out Music for an airport). Just as the looping of the horse in motion becomes layered and more complex over time, so does the music, the two tracks played at different speeds becoming more and more out of sync echoes of one another. It also alludes back to the history of cinema and Eadweard Muybridge’s zoetrope with the horse theme.
My favourite example we were shown is John Smith’s Girl Chewing on Gum from 1976. We start by believing a director is controlling the actors and camera, but as the ‘voice of God’ becomes more and more unbelievable (controlling the pigeons) we realise this is just a street scene which has been narrated over afterwards. With humour, it subverts the illusion Hollywood creates that the director isn’t present, creating the illusion that the world moves for the camera. It raises questions about in what ways the camera and film are extensions of someone’s body.
Our final field lab was an introduction to using the dark room and making our very own pin hole cameras. I made a pin hole camera from a shoe-box once which worked well but this time I wanted to try something new, closer to my chosen subject area. I found a few thrown unfired clay cylinders in my studio space, stuck pin-holes in their sides then cut circles of clay from a slab and squeezed them on top. Strips of gaffer tape were placed over the holes to stop unwanted light going in. The cylinders were loaded with strips of photographic paper in the dark room then I set out with one of my group members, Alaw, to try one out.
Lucky for us, the camera worked perfectly the first time. We took it outside on campus and pointed it at some undergrowth in a shaded area, exposing the paper for 4.5 minutes, which was an estimate based on our previous experience. The negative is great – it has lots of detail and a good tonal contrast.
For some more interesting subject matter we chose to visit Llandaff cathedral because of the wealth of medieval architecture and beautiful graveyard. We placed the pots around the midway ledges on the W D Conybeare monument, each facing different directions to get a panorama when joined together. The photos below are the results – each was exposed between 4 and 4.5 minutes, using the first photo experiment as a guide. Some of the pin holes were very tiny so only a small circle has been developed on the paper. Since the cameras were very temperamental we didn’t have much control over what exactly was captured – the focused shots on gravestones are very eerie.
Since we were using negative photographic paper, we converted the images to positive by laying them shiny side down on a fresh strip of photographic paper and used the enlarger to expose for a few seconds (between 7 and 9 worked best) before developing. These positives were cut up into squares and glued to a cardboard cube to create a kind of 360 degree panorama of the graveyard. Ingrid Murphy introduced us to a couple of apps for augmented reality called Aurasma and Augment. Our aim was to use Aurasma so that when you scanned the cube in the app it would play our recorded sound of birdsong and footsteps on the paving stones from the graveyard. Since we couldn’t upload just a sound file, we tried making videos using a number of apps but unfortunately none would work when uploaded to Aurasma. It would be great if there was some way of placing the sound inside the cube so it plays when you look at it – the inner space would become a kind of capsule for the time we spent in the graveyard.
We encountered a few difficulties along the way during this project – the gaffer tape wouldn’t stick very well to the dried clay which may be why some of the cameras didn’t work. We used six clay ones in total but only three of them produced consistent results, the others somehow let in light and overexposed the paper. Despite this I’ve enjoyed this field lab the most. I love the mysterious, cloudy quality of photos taken this way and developing them in the dark room is very similar to firing glazes in a kiln in that you’re never quite sure what the results will be like, only you get results much faster.
Our third field collaboration was an introduction to installations and film, focusing more on concepts and ideas than previous field labs that have focused on techniques. The task was to create a triptych: three associated artistic works intended to be appreciated together. We tried some idea generating exercises to begin thinking about how to approach the task, playing the surrealist drawing game ‘exquisite corpse’ and drawing a still life from memory. Sean Edwards introduced us to the work of a number of artists including Douglas Gordon’s ‘Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait’ that shows a football match from the unusual perspective of one single player. This distortion of perspective was probably an influence on our first artwork, a 20 second film and the middle part of our triptych.
My group was interested in the individual journeys we repeat each morning on our way into the building and to our studio spaces, so similarly to the schematic drawing exercise, we each filmed our individual paths from reception to our spaces and back down to where we met in the heartspace. Alex spliced the four journeys together and sped them up. The result is a very speedy, busy montage that feels almost overwhelmingly hyperactive and needs to be watched a number of times to follow all four windows. I’d say it contrasts starkly with the generally relaxed atmosphere of the art college. Although one of the cameras is facing backwards and another facing the ceiling I feel the video would have been more successful if the other two were filming from less predictable perspectives i.e. from the height of a child or just filming the feet. The idea was that we showed familiar journeys from a point of view that was unfamiliar and unexpected to try and elevate the ordinary.
Next the films were rotated, and we created a second artwork (the first part of the triptych) based on another group’s film. The one we were given showed a pair of skyscapes: two videos of slowly moving clouds overlayed and accompanied by the recorded birdsong. This slow paced, contemplative video of the natural world was the complete antithesis to our first piece. We decided to make a simple, straightforward installation that made use of natural light. Firstly we went outside to gather branches, placed these on a photocopier and proceeded to print them onto acetate with varying degrees of opaqueness (density setting). In the fine art studio we then overlayed these into the rectangle on the window, framing the sky outside, then placed a few potted plants at the base, echoing the trees at the bottom of the screen when the camera quickly pans down at the end of the video. The simple style and natural light reflected the tranquillity of the video well I think. I’m not sure if it’s what you’d normally classify as an installation because it wasn’t very big. This artwork was my favourite to make because we worked with the physical rather than digital and I learnt a new photocopying technique. I would have liked to have had a hand in editing the films though because it’s something I’ve never done before.
Finally, the artworks rotated again and we made our third and final work inspired by a group’s still life exploring the concept of time. The original work was a circle of 6 apples, each bitten and then placed on a table at different times during the day so the bruising showed the deterioration of the apple over time: a kind of ‘apple clock’. After hearing about filmmaker Peggy Awesh and her documentary style, the plan was to have a bit of fun by reverse the idea of people causing the apple to deteriorate to the apple causing us to deteriorate. We were to film ourselves on a night out, drinking only drinks derived from apple of apple flavoured, then use snapchat to create a series of short videos at intervals in the night, showing the deteriorating effect of alcohol! Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make it to be part of the final video. Although it was a fun concept, I feel the idea of the deterioration over time is a bit lost because of the way the videos and images are not chronologically ordered. We probably should have organised to have a sober member of the group filming instead!
It’s nearly 9pm at a darkened industrial estate on the outskirts of Roath, Cardiff. Past Maccies, fluorescent lights gleam clinically off stainless steel and spotless white ceramic in the bathstore. Further along strings of green and white balloons bob in the chill evening breeze. Down a black driveway we find what we’re here for.
The bar at Spit and Sawdust, Cardiff’s indoor skate park that also doubles up as a trendy art space, is packed with dapper guys in modish glasses. There are lots of beards. Pushing through a curtain of red PVC, myself and some mates find ourselves entering the skate park itself. This large, open warehouse space with its ramps and rails, half pipes and boxes, has for a while become the setting for John Lawrence’s sound and light installation ‘The Solar Pessimist’. The surreal poster for the exhibition has been confronting me every lift journey at uni for the past week. On it a Tron-like landscape similar to the one Noel Fielding’s fantasy man inhabits is superimposed with upturned eyes, maybe a nod to Dali’s Chien Andalou.
‘Have you ever experienced loss?’ booms the recorded male voice. ‘You know …real loss. Real Data Loss. Nothing can prepare you…all those photos…all that footage’. I think of having my phone stolen my first week at university. The voice is loud but sometimes indistinct, muffled by the layered electronic sounds. I can feel the vibrations shooting up my legs from the plywood slide I’m sitting on. Overhead a circle of lights spin and pivot like pro skaters, cascading purple light in time to the disembodied soliloquy then building up gradually to a manic flashing display, an epileptic fit inducing an avalanche of sound. The voice crescendos in fury like an angry God pouring his wrath from the sky.
Ditching my San Miguel on the ground as i climb up a slope to get a different view, i feel like a cheeky teenager. Empty bottles litter the arena and cliques of fine art students huddle together at intervals like rival gangs. The darkness adds to the feeling of acting the rebellious teen, hanging out after dark. I like the freedom to play here – to climb and slide, lie down or balance across different structures like a child on a giant climbing frame. It’s fun but I also feel self conscious and exposed, watched as I am watching everyone else to see how they interact with this environment designed to be explored with skateboards, none of which can be found. By walking into this space I have immediately become part of the artwork.
Filming and photography are encouraged. At the far end of the room a man pushes a camera round and round on a circular dolly. My friend and I try to trick it, switching places every time it makes another rotation before we realise that like the lights above, this camera is also turned, one minute facing the colour dancing on the shiny, slippy floor, the next facing the parallel lines on the ceiling. As the sound and voice move to their climax we go to lie on a wooden box in the centre of the room directly beneath the circle of lights. As I stare up at them, the flashing burns patterns of circles into my retina so the room carries traces of moments before in electric blue smudges and I wonder like David Bowie ’bout sound and vision.