Orford Ness artist residency. First of a series of blogs revisiting findings and reflections from the Sensitive Chaos project, 2019.
Prompted by some recent requests and discussions, I have assembled imagery and notes from parts of the Sensitive Chaos installation trail. Unlike the project's video-sonic works (NebulousNess and Blue Danube Redux) and the photographic series (Lethality & Vulnerability), the elements featured here have not been documented elsewhere. More broadly, I was asked by a cultural heritage researcher to reflect on the artist residency and the ways in which I interacted with the specifics of the site (a former military testing area), the controversial strategies of heritage management (by the National Trust and others) and the legacy of a long pattern of artist involvements with this unique place. Some of these general reflections are included here.
The image above was taken at one of the observation windows on the top floor of an all-timber, eight-sided building called the 'Black Beacon'.
This curious structure has a strong visual presence in the landscape - possibly even more so today, in the aftermath of the demolition, in 2020, of the Orford Ness lighthouse (visible in the background of the photograph). My main interest centered on the panopticon-like quality of the observation hatches. From these, visitors can survey most of the shingle spit - a gradually (but noticeably) shifting landform, with a unique desert-like ambience and ecosystem. At this location, I was keen to intertwine the 'near field' and the distant; the immediate views/features with related global and historical commentary; and, above all, the human and the non-human (culture and nature). I inserted a set of translucent plates - with text and imagery - which could (if discovered by visitors) be held up to the light, to read. Most of the subjects were 'non-native' or 'invasive' species, or resonant on some way of conflict and imperialism.
My involvement here emerged via my role as Senior Creative Fellow with a 4-year academic research project – Heritage Futures. One of the lead academics, Caitlin DeSilvey, had an existing interest in Orford Ness, and this led me to develop an artist residency at the site. My first visit was in late 2015, and my involvement continued until early 2020. Over the 4 years, this amounted to about 15 visits, probably adding up to over 30 days (and nights) in total. For the bulk of the project, the primary funder was Arts Council England – being part of my larger ‘Limbo Landscapes Lab’ project, which also included a second, parallel extended artist-residency in the clay mining lands of Cornwall.
My creative research ‘journey’ was undertaken in dialogue with the Heritage Futures academic team. With two academics (including DeSilvey) based at University of Exeter, together we comprised the ‘Transformation’ team within the wider project. In concert, our interests and aims revolved around processes and practices of change and change-management, in relation to ‘heritage structures’ and ‘heritage landscapes’ (landscapes with natural and/or cultural significance). In addition, I have an ongoing creative (or ‘eco-creative’) interest in the topic of ‘flow’. This is often connected to water situations, deep-time perspectives, cyclical processes etc. and encompasses both the conceptual and physical/real. I chose the title ‘Sensitive Chaos’ for the creative project on Orford Ness, this being the title of an influential book (by Theodor Schwenk) which imaginatively explores patterns and dynamics of flow within diverse natural systems.
Initially, in relation to the Ness, I encountered many of the narratives around ‘letting go’, ’decay’ and ‘loss’. My perspective was (and is) that accepting these changes is about finding ways to find coherence, and to slipstream, with change itself. Plant-life, water flows, weather patterns, climate changes have cycles and spirals; and all have turbulent, unmanageable ways of their own. The complex, and emergent, interactions of forces and ‘agents’ can lead along unpredictable routes. The impact (even on Orford Ness) of the ‘Covid-19 crisis’ is a case in point (the site has remained closed to the public since the 2019 season).
As a ‘shifting’ coastline, this location holds a lot of interest for me. Much of my creative (and prior scientific/environmental) work has engaged with coasts and other dynamic water environments. The overall shape (morphology) of the Ness is continually changing, and observable within timeframes of months, rather than over decades/centuries as is the norm with most coasts. Initially, therefore, I had intended to creatively investigate such ‘temporal transformations’ using map- and geography/archive-based approaches. Over time, this theme receded somewhat, or morphed into other directions, as is the nature of creative research.
The quality, ambience or character of the Ness is special and affective. This definitely drew me in, as it does with many visitors (and indeed volunteers and staff). The impressive contrast between the (tidal) marshlands and the desert-like shingle zone operates on the senses as well as being metaphorically or symbolically interesting. A sense of an experience of ‘wilderness escape’ from everyday social spaces, farmed landscapes etc. is further enhanced by the crossing over to the Ness by means of a short boat trip. This quality of being an island (though in reality not one) is a key aspect as well.
Towards the end of my residency, I was given a draft text of the National Trust's 'spirit of place' statement for the site. I found that some of the wording resonated strongly with my intuition-led explorations. In this context, I viewed my resulting artworks (and 'artwords') as providing a set of new portals, or windows, into the site's 'spirit of place' - with an overlay thought that 'place' is both 'here' and 'elsewhere', and replete with contradictions.
The Spirit of Orford Ness
A remote, exposed and wild place rare now in England, appearing waste yet full of life. A place of rare habitats, precious vegetated shingle and hidden natural beauty, always changing, even in apparent stillness. It is a landscape and seascape that slips away to the endless line of the horizon. Lost in the vast scale you can feel liberated but at the same time oppressed or challenged. There is a changing subtlety of light, shadows and reflection which shift and change the features within the landscape.
A place of secrets, physically inaccessible and once deliberately concealed: a former Official Secret now decaying physically, metaphorically and morally, imperceptibly revealing its myths, stories and meaning. Where once experimentation, creation and destruction combined to perfect the physics of warfare, wildlife now thrives. Where human destruction was planned and tested, nature reminds us of the limits of human ability. Decaying transitory artifacts, flimsy buildings and brutally engineered structures play counterpoint to the equally significant natural elements. The tension between these suffuses the landscape, attenuation almost palpable above the daily soundscape played out by the wildlife, wind and water. [Spirit of Place draft, National Trust]
Orford Ness is probably best known for its military/Cold War associations – especially the impressive remains of bomb-testing bunkers and other intriguing structures. For me, I was more interested in the aesthetic and symbolic qualities, rather than the detailed military history and archaeology. The resonances with the Russian film, Stalker have been alluded to by others, and (as a Tarkovsky fan) this seems inescapable, especially in the interior of the Lab 1 building, with its water-filled and green vegetated floor. Overall, the slow (and not so slow) disintegration and transformation is fascinating, especially when observed at different scales – from the landscape- down to the micro-scale.
The Heritage Futures research interests (concurrently with two other sites; in Cornwall and Portugal) included exploration of ‘rewilding’, as part of site/landscape management strategies. The largely hands-off or non-intervention approach on Orford Ness leads to a form of adventitious or emergent ‘wilding’. This is happening in relation to the building structures as well as the wider landscape. A particularly interesting facet is the emergence of the shingle spit as a refuge for many species e.g. deer species, hares and even the common pheasant (hunted on the mainland, but relatively safe here). In this way, the Ness today is an unplanned laboratory. My interests probably morphed from the spatial, map-based and scientific/ecological towards the close-up, intimate appreciation of change, as well as towards the human relationships to, and the atmospheres of, the Ness. This was assisted by staff and volunteers, and importantly by the many opportunities to spend nights (and twilight times) on the Ness. The latter times were, I feel, the most productive times for me, in terms of recording impressions which in turn formed the basis of my exhibition ‘film-poem’ pieces.
A sense of ‘ongoingness’, ranging across natural and cultural systems and processes, pervades the ‘findings’ and assemblages derived from intimate engagement with the place, I hoped to convey a multi-facetted and deeper appreciation of these qualities. I also feel it’s important in artist-residency situations to illuminate aspects (or spirit) of place from a perspective of extended intuition-led engagement. This is especially so in locations where there is restricted access for the public, and the artist-resident is therefore in a privileged position. This relates also to my framing of my practice in terms such as ‘deep-mapping’, geopoetics and ‘slow-art’ - all of which have, for me, connotations of extended temporal (‘longue durée’) unfoldings and involvements.
Despite the physical ‘heaviness’ of some of the site’s monumental concrete structures, and their historical resonances, the overall human imprint here is relatively light-touch, and will, in time, crumble and dissolve away. Ongoingness and morphogenesis are some of the words I’ve used to describe these processes of shaping, over different scales of time and space. In essence, there is no loss, no decay, nor detritus, nor remnant, nor ruin; everything is in process and is a process. In some way, I was seeking to weave in these modes of thinking, and, to present a different temporal lens - a more geological lens.
The exhibition scheme that emerged was a hybrid between a central core (4 rooms in an ex-military building) and a dispersed ‘trail’ of more subtle interventions (printed works and audio cassette-tapes). The contents of the four rooms were:
Room 1 – An exhibition of large-scale photographic images. This set of images (titled ‘Lethality and Vulnerability’) were all gathered at/from a single window I discovered on one of my dawn walks. On an early Spring morning walk, I passed by a small concrete bunker-like building and became fascinated by the reflections of the rising sun in the extremely thick toughened-glass windows, degraded by time, the elements and shrapnel impacts. Zooming-in revealed rich layers of textures and patterns – a microcosm echo of some of the maps and aerial photos of this landscape of salt-marsh and shingle. Not fixed in time, but evidencing ongoingness, flow and transformation. Some of the photo series (those titled ‘lethality’) record the external reflections; others (titled ‘vulnerability’) are taken inside the building, with transmitted light. On the horizon in at least one of the images there is the silhouette of the Orford Ness Lighthouse, which was removed in 2020, just before being undermined by the encroaching sea.
Room 2 - Screening of NebulousNess, a meditative 10min ‘long-take’ film, with a composition of audio recording from the site. Filmed on a drifting misty day, this is a geopoetic observatory of slow transformation, with overlapping rhythms of recovery, insubstantiality and ephemerality.
The sound files were collected:
- on the beach directly seaward of the lighthouse
- inside an AWRE pagodas
- in the water on the landward side of the shifting shingle spit
- in the 'Bomb Ballistics' building
- various other buildings and Cold War metal remains
Room 3 - Installation featuring printworks and film-poem, Blue Danube Redux.
‘Blue Danube’ was the code-name for the first in-service British atomic bomb, tested on Orford Ness. The site is littered with bomb craters, rusting mangled metal, razor wire, melted glass and signs warning of ‘unexploded ordnance’. But there is also a fascination with a unique landscape aesthetic that some describe as ‘post-apocalyptic’ and a place where some visitors feel a therapeutic quality of escape into a temporary refuge of ‘otherworldliness’.
The vegetation itself echoes this violent history, with the common occurrence of Rosebay Willowherb (aka ‘bomb-weed’ or ‘fire-weed’), a typical first coloniser of bomb-sites. Characterised by this particular sense of drama and atmosphere, Orford Ness plays a role as a ‘dark tourism’ destination. In my video-sonic geopoetic work, filmed on Orford Ness, there are juxtapositions - and co-existence - of beauty and death (e.g. cobwebs). The ambience is one of an Anthropocenic and post-human ‘dark ecology’ suggesting feral-ness and healing - within what Anna Tsing has described as the ‘overgrown verges of our blasted landscapes – the edges of capitalist discipline’
Room 4 - This hosted a vitrine, or ‘cabinet of curiosities’ (containing a dada-esque collection of found objects) with associated texts and one of four audio-cassette recordings. (The other three cassette-tape players were placed in buildings on ‘the shingle’, forming a trail). Some contents of the cabinet are pictured here:
The snakeskin in the case was given to me
when I visited the Côa Valley in Portugal,
which is linked to this creative project.
The Côa Valley is the location of a large
and ambitious ‘rewilding’ project.
The snakeskin is exhibited here to
represent the non-human dwellers
in these landscapes. The future of
the Ness is destined to feature
the re-establishment of a diverse
rich abundant ecology, including
reptiles and amphibians.
Can you imagine this landscape as
a haven for such creatures?
Will climate-change make this harder or easier?
(for us?; for them?)
My work usually involves many braided strands, some of which don’t emerge as prominently as others. I therefore have to accept that not all avenues of interest and exploration get communicated in the final works. Sometimes these are picked up at a later date, or within a project at a different site. I had hoped to research and communicate more about the historical Chinese presence, and other Chinese links and associations. Linked to this, I felt there was also potential to reflect on broader themes of geopolitics, imperialism, militarism etc. - not just the local details, but the sense of a clash of bigger (human) powers and suggestions of ‘end of empire days’ etc. I undertake artist residencies engaging with eco-social issues. Drawing on a hybrid background of environmental science and sculptural public-art, I now weave together archives, field-recordings and participant conversations to create installations based on ‘video-sonic poems’, exploring hidden layers of place and unheard voices. Music/choral/vocal elements are usually derived from collaborative working.
ALL THAT IS SOLID…
Everything washes away
Disappears in the mist (of time)
Vorticity, spirality, circularity
Water and vegetation act in concert
- both powered by the sun - shaping and
re-shaping this land, this place
Water is ephemerality, transience, spectral
In geological time, the continents ‘drift’;
the coastal edges pulse with the tides and ice-ages
In the face of universal, planetary processes.
In developing site-specific artworks, my methods include exploratory recording walks, conversational encounters and extended observations/listening. Sometimes my meetings and discussions with individuals are pre-planned, but often are the result of chance or serendipity. My overall aim is usually to slowly tune-in, uncover and see through the fog (of the myriad of institutional and formal/official standpoints). In this respect, I do like to delve into and understand the policy and guidance aspects of a site, but not to get bogged down by them. I significantly developed the ‘conversation walk’ method while working at Orford Ness - especially through inviting a former ranger to visit and engage in long walks with me. Also, in terms of assembly of film pieces, I feel that the ‘long-take’ weather influenced (mist, cloud, storm) approach was first attempted on the Ness (with ‘NebulousNess’), and this was subsequently echoed at the two sites which were connected via Heritage Futures (i.e. Cornwall and Portugal).
DOGFISH and the IN-BETWEEN
A hybrid space and place
There is uncertainty, nebulousness, transition,
Limbo and liminal
What’s the difference?
In-between past and future
The future will not be like the past
The future is hybrid; a collision of sub-atomic
particles and Heisenberg uncertainties
The future is the shape of an amoeba
….or a dogfish
Or is this the present?
In a creative sense, I haven’t previously been involved very explicitly with military sites, ruins or sites of ‘ruination’, although these situations do attract me - possibly because of the palimpsests of cultural layers and the ‘taking back’ by natural processes. In a limited way, I explored such aspects of ‘disintegration’ and/or ‘transformation’ in the related Cornwall clay-mining area in 2018. Whilst not being a ‘structure’ as such, I became very interested in the very large waste-tip - the Sky Tip, whose retention (or loss) has become a point of contention in the locality. For me, there were (and are) resonances between the Sky Tip and the (now demolished) Orford Ness lighthouse. Both of them feature in the video pieces I made, involving disappearance in mist - both a real and metaphorical observation.
I feel that ruins or sites of ruination enter my work and interests especially through the dynamic between cultural and natural processes. Structures which are ‘in decay’ transmit a message of ephemerality; a message that no cultural edifice or power (including political power) lasts forever. Instead - like all of nature - all structures decay and ‘compost’ into something else. Sometimes the main agent is the weather or storms, or it may be water percolation, or the sea, or vegetation. On Orford Ness, all of these - and more - are in action. Thus the stories that are contained in a ‘ruin-ing’ structure are a mesh of the human and non-human. And the non-human (more than human) stories involve both the living world and the inorganic physical processes. These are the core threads of the Sensitive Chaos works. In practical terms, the policy of ‘non-intervention’ - and resulting gradual degradation of the AWRE buildings - had an impact on my field work and exhibition phases. Early in my project, it was still possible (under supervision) for me and various visitor groups (photographers etc) to visit the interiors of the Lab buildings. By 2019, these were deemed fully out of bounds, for structural reasons, based on risk assessments.
Eventually the AWRE buildings will become part of the shingle. However, this may take centuries.
Yes - these are iconic structures, and their visual and enigmatic presence is a big part of the attraction of Orford Ness. They are part of a tableau, in a way, akin I feel to the ceremonial landscapes like the Aztec of Mexico, or perhaps the Egyptian examples. Because of this the AWRE building are important. But their eventual disappearance is also important, and part of the narrative of place. The lighthouse likewise was an iconic (if not so unique) structure. It has now largely disappeared, yet still remains as part of the story of the place. The pagoda/temple-like quality of the ARWE building outline definitely does have a distinctive visual presence, and this is used in representations of the site. I do therefore feel that the enigmatic fascination with Orford Ness would be impacted by their disappearance.
For me, the fascination is a combination of the desert-like sparse windswept landscape, containing a nexus of strange structures. It is also the particular setting - sandwiched between a muddy, sleepy estuary and an expansive rough wave-washed shore. Solitude is possible here, which is a rarity in our busy lives. This potential for reflective meditation is probably enhanced by the presence of symbolic structures and landscape-journey aspects.
Art is sometimes able to see through, or past, or beyond the obvious factual accounts, rules and strategies. Arguably, the management of heritage sites is dominated by both top-down policies and local site management plans. The procedural nature of these can limit perspective or view.
The (studied and deeply engaged) creative perception and distillation process will lead to a broadening of insights. The intuition-led exploration of a site can reveal hidden depths - and often these will have resonances with visitors (as well as staff, volunteers etc). A site will usually have been poured over for factual historical ‘knowledge’ and this is relatively straightforward to assemble and present.
However not all visitors are motivated by the facts. Many who travel and cross to the Ness are on different quest, and the visit is part of their personal journey.
Creative insights can be welcomed in this regard.
The artistic ability to work with complexity can be useful for some; but confusing for others.
And some results from foraging on the shingle shore...