9 May 2012

Presence, resonances and shadows

Presence, residence and resonance
(aka  Anguilla meets Aguirre...)

"Nothing is really typical of my efforts . . . I'm simply casting about for better ways to crystallise and capture certain strong impressions (involving the elements of time, the unknown, cause and effect, fear, scenic and architectural beauty, and other seemingly ill-assorted things) which persist in clamouring for expression." Lovecraft, 1935

“Only the free-wheeling artist-explorer, non-academic, scientist-philosopher, mechanic, economist-poet who has never waited for patron-starting and accrediting of his co-ordinate capabilities holds the prime initiative today.” 
Richard Buckminster Fuller

The Confluence Project (Antony Lyons and Jon Pigott)
What is emerging for our 'end-of-year-of-residency' installation-works is a set of intriguing 'bio-physical instruments',  (or possibly better - if more awkwardly - described as an 'immersive bio-physical instrumental environment'! ). In a multi-sensory way, this will aim to communicate aspects of the local landscape's ecological dynamics - invisible dynamics -  together with physical - aquatic - processes. Importantly too, there is also an engagement with the materials - the visual and sonic properties of our chosen sculptural elements - to create an immersive, wondrous exhibition environment.
On this topic of materials:
"In the north of Devon, at Instow, in the mouth of the estuary of the Taw and Torridge Rivers, they use for harbour ground-fishing a four-pound lead of the shape of half an orange, having a projection on the top through which a hole is bored to receive the line. This shape is chosen because the flattened base sucks into the oozy bottom, and anchors the line (so to speak) in the very strong tide which runs in that locality. A stout three or four inch revolving chopstick is placed between two knots close above the lead to receive the snood, similar to that of the Mackerel-line " 1884

Also in a material sense, and harking back to a previous residency of mine in Donegal (Ireland), there is a strand of this which is about encounters with 'eco-symbolic' materials in (and of) the landscape. Despite their mycelial inter-connections, specific materials can be abstracted from their landscape setting, and consequently become carriers of many resonances, including cultural. In the case of 'Confluence', resonance is also present via documentary photo and film records.

For example, we will use fishing-line, reels and weights in the artworks - signifying human impact, economic dependencies, recreation/tourism etc. Likewise the incorporation of soil/silt, possibly in the form of a silt-spectrum (or collection) from estuary-mouth to the headwaters upriver, can then represent the part of the biosphere which makes up the regolith (life+plants+agriculture etc. - see footnote), and also species decline through silt deposition. The focus on particular 'indicator' species (especially bats, salmon, mussels and eels) is more directly eco-symbolic, and these can in one sense be viewed as material objects. From a very different perspective, focusing on these creatures can also offer a glimpse into an animistic world-view. In all of this, there is a shining of new light on the apparently 'ordinary', and the 'invisible dynamics'.

The theorist Jane Bennett writes of "a vitality intrinsic to materiality….to detach materiality from the figures of passive, mechanistic or divinely infused substance". She calls this 'vibrant matter', suggesting that what is needed is "anticipatory readiness" and "a cultivated, patient, sensory attentiveness"

In the course of my Donegal project, peat became the most important 'eco-symbolic' material. The cultural significance of this material extends even to its smell, or aroma. For me, and for earlier artistic encounters with those bogs, e.g. that of Joseph Beuys, Sean Lynch and others, this material began to accumulate transformative resonances. Beuys used butter too, in his 'social sculptures', titled Irish Energies. This then is about the role of specific materials in activating questions and propositions.

A 'bio-physical' focus is - for me - one of three main facets, or trajectories, of a 'deep-mapping' place-investigation - the second being archival explorations; and thirdly, what may be termed 'open, geopoetic fieldwork'. It isn't always possible to distinguish which of these three happens to be operating. In part, each is contained within, and dissolves into, the other. I am drawn to the term 'bio-physical' for its ability to express a 'living systems' focus, as well as the geological and geophysical perspective. For me it represents the science-based encounter with the biosphere, the regolith* and the bed-rock underneath.

Here in the North Devon Biosphere Reserve, the interaction of geo-materials and species is especially brought into focus in the impact of river-sediment on salmon and freshwater mussels. I have discussed this in previous journal entries. For us, another species now begins to enter the arena - the eel (Anguilla anguilla). Recent estimates suggest that as much as 95% of the UK’s eel population has gone – a result of pollution, predation (legal and otherwise) and, some think, climate change.

"Eels are the only European fish to leave the coast to spawn in the sea – the opposite to salmon, which travel upstream to spawn in freshwater. European eels migrate to their spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea, off the coast of North America. Migration is greatest on dark, moonless nights, and usually starts in flood water following heavy rain….The oldest recorded European eel was 88 years old."

"Eel recruitment in England & Wales has declined catastrophically and now stands at just one per cent of peak historic levels..."

"In recent years, an increasing number of studies have focused on the use of eels to monitor harmful substances. It is known for many years that, due to specific physiological and ecological features, eels bioaccumulate many substances in their muscle tissue. Specific characteristics of the species (size, long life span, fat content, feeding and habitat ecology, distribution, euryhyalinity, one reproductive cycle) are considered as favourable for the choice of the eel as a chemical sentinel species. The European eel is distributed over a wide geographical area, extending from North Africa in the south to Northern Scandinavia in the north, and from the Azores in the west to the Eastern Mediterranean region in the south-east...Eel contaminant profiles seem to be a fingerprint of the contamination pressure of a specific site."

"Recent recruitment of the glass eel stage of the European eel (Anguilla anguilla) has fallen on average to 5% of the peak levels of the late 1970s and early 1980s (measured Europe-wide), and ICES continues to advise that the stock is outside safe biological limits and that current fisheries are not sustainable. As a consequence, the European Commission has agreed an Eel Recovery Plan (ERP), the aim of which is to return the European eel stock to sustainable levels of adult abundance and glass eel recruitment."

Coming back then to sound and light (which sit at the the core of our project) and in particular 'the shadows' or 'shadow-landscapes', here are some words from a forthcoming academic paper by Jon Pigott:
"What is missing in this digital world is the material noise of the sound carrier, the crackle of the record, the hiss of the tape, the shutter noise of the film projector. These are factors that Henriques describes as the memory and sensation of the body, factors which Caleb Kelly refers to as the ‘shadow of the media’ after media artist Paul DeMarinis, who speaks of them in phonographic terms as sounds that would not exist if a recording had not been made. Another thing missing from this disembodied sensibility to sound, argues Henriques, is the ambiguity of the message as it nestles in the noise of its medium. He claims that we enjoy being able to extract meaning from noise, a picture from daubs of paint that appear meaningless upon close inspection. We find a pleasure in being able to participate in completing the story for ourselves, and appreciate the intimate connectedness of medium and message. This, Henriques refers to, as the ‘either and both’ of the sonic experience of medium and message, signal and noise, particle and pattern,…" unpublished paper

The 'shadow' theme links to early photography and film making, with the emphasis on capturing - 'permanently' -  light and shade. I will be delving further into relevant local documentary records, especially at the Beaford Archive. Also, perusal of the Pathe film archives often turns up some exciting clips, and this time is no exception.

There are other cinematic resonances at play too. For me, during a recent kayaking River Torridge 'float' there was the strong presence of Tarkovsky's puzzling 'Stalker' and perhaps even more strongly of Herzog's slow, drifting masterpiece 'Aguirre'. (which I saw at a young age, and which left a deep, lasting impression)

"Our moods, our thoughts, our emotions, our feelings can bring about change here. (…) But in fact, at any moment it is exactly as we devise it, in our consciousness … everything that happens here depends on us, not on the Zone." Stalker

Our own drifting river-trip (on the Torridge), full of birdsong and access to underwater sounds, also embraced connections with other traditions on this planet - Songline/Dreamtime; sound-mapping as a derive. This trip was a sound-track…and a slow-track. There is a sonic signature of this place/space/watershed. We meandered with the river, making slow progress (as the crow flies). Does this make us aquatic 'Meanderthals'? - a term used by Matthew Tiessen (in "Urban Meanderthals and the City of "Desire Lines"):**

"While humans as we know them came to prominence following the demise of the Neanderthals over 20000 years ago, Meanderthals are a species that has emerged in the post-human era. A sort of human-variant, the Meanderthal could also be described as a Cyborg Spin-Off, exhibiting not only the machinic prosthetic appendages (e.g. cell-phone, Blackberry) required of cyborg flesh, but also the sort of behaviour -- i.e. confusion, aimlessness, disorientation, self-absorption...The Meanderthal, then, is both product of and impediment to the technophilic and urbanized world we inhabit....[Meanderthals] follow, or are guided by, desire lines, which, as my definition suggests, are trajectories that deviate from the predetermined grid. Desire lines overlay smooth space, as Deleuze would say, on top of striated space...

The desire lines created by the Meanderthal and her ilk are deviations -- derives, as Debord would say. However, we must not infer from their name that they are always manifestations of the will, of the agent, or of merely human desire. Or at least, it seems important to remember -- with philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty -- that the paths creatures like Meanderthals trace are just as much a result of the geographies and spaces that offer these paths of desire up to us as they are the products of the will of some sort of Cartesian self. That is, the urban Meanderthal and the urban environment exist together within a chiasmatic relationship in which each draws on the other to produce a product -- a desire path -- that exposes and explores the potential existence of paths not yet taken."

Paths not yet taken...

*Footnote 1: Regolith - "On Earth, the presence of regolith is one of the important factors for most life, since few plants can grow on or within solid rock and animals would be unable to burrow or build shelter without loose material." 

**Footnote 2: An adjunct term appears in James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, though in those cases it describes a meandering narrative rather than a meandering human. Joyce's words are: "meandertale" and "Meanderthalltale."