‘You have kicked from a dark den, leaped up the whinnying light, And dug your grave in my breast.’ Dylan Thomas ( from How Shall My Animal )
Spells and Bone is a Dylan Thomas centenary film commission for Laugharne Castle Poetry Film Festival, curated by Paul Evans and Longbarrow Press. The starting point for the film was to be a Thomas poem. I wanted to avoid the more familiar prophetic elegies, and could not settle on an alternative. The poem ‘How Shall My Animal’ was suggested to me by Professor John Goodby at Swansea University, a poet and Dylan scholar and editor. It immediately read as something witchy, shape-shifting and primeval: pagan in the sense of being disruptive of ritual norms. The title is a phrase taken from the poem that seemed to suggest a raw and unstable power. I felt that my film should be something quite abstract, and that it should struggle between chaotic and ordered forms: a struggle towards something that is never quite attained, and whose near-attainment is inevitably wounding or wounded – a problematically sacrificial and melancholy resolution. The moving footage was filmed through the windows of the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, down onto the weir that marks a corner point of the river Calder. I was thinking of cauldrons, boiling, alchemy. It was after I had begun working with this that John told me that he thought that the poem is partly based on, or at least one of its possible starting points was the Welsh legend of Gwion, Ceridwen and Taliesin. Ceridwen is an enchantress who possesses the cauldron of Poetic Inspiration. The sound is taken from two sources. The first is the ambient sounds of the gallery, recorded as I was filming at the Hepworth – voices, footsteps and echoes reversed, slowed down, stretched and played around with, layered until they suggested a sort of sentient ocean intoning a dangerous magic. The second is a piece of ‘Shape Note’ or Sacred Harp singing from the Southern Baptist tradition – treated and overlaid. The time between the invitation and the screening was very short, and the film was from the outset an intuitive undertaking, with no time for me to withdraw or refine my actions. I was inhabited by, rather than directing of the process of its making. The last two lines of the poem bring the piece to a close: a striving, a release and an ambivalent end. The full film is embedded below. I have also embedded two of the other commissions. Brian Lewis’ East Wind – wonderfully spare; and Jean & Brian McEwan’s Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines – a flickering, uneasy nostalgia.
Research is not the privilege of people who know – on the contrary, it is the domain of people who do not know. Every time we are turning our attention to something we don’t know we are doing research. Robert Filliou (1926 – 1987)
And the meaning of Earth completely changes: with the legal model, one is constantly reterritorializing around a point of view, on a domain, according to a set of constant relations, but with the ambulant model, the process of deterritorialization constitutes and extends the territory itself. Deleuze and Guattari – Nomadology (1986)
On the 11th and 12th of February I will be spending two days working with students on the MFA Art, Society and Publics at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design (University of Dundee). I will be be giving an orthodox presentation / lecture, facilitating a workshop around subversive mapping and ‘not knowing’, and leading a long (and hopefully challenging) walk within and around the city, with participants both walking with me, and connecting / participating remotely through text & image sharing, online mapping, and acting as ‘subversive satnavs’.
We will be working with ideas such as: – the ownership of knowledge and research: who determines what research is; as artists, how do we (and why should we) challenge and disrupt these orthodoxies? – Research as practice, research as being and doing. – How can we (and why should / would we challenge the boundaries of the ‘academy’ and the hegemonies of ‘expertise’? – What are the possibilities of collaborative and interdisciplinary research and practice between the orthodox and the unruly, the academic and the emotional, the empirical / validated and the wondering / intuitive? – The value of ‘not-knowing’ and its enrichment of ‘knowing’. – The physical and metaphorical exploration of site: walking / wandering / wondering as research and practice.
Below is a suggested reading list of texts / blogs / films that deliberately includes few specialist contemporary art texts, followed by my thoughts on a selection of these in terms of their relation to each other, and their relevance to aspects of our work. These notes are primarily for the students at DJCAD, but I hope they will be of interest to wider readers.
Dickens, Charles. Night Walks (1861). For full text click here. Bolland, Emma. Every Place A Palimpsest Part Two (2013). For full audio click here. Bolland, Emma. What Is A Book If It Will Not Be A Book (2013). For full text, illustrations and audio click here. Cousins, Mark. What Is This Film Called Love? (2012). For the official trailer click here. Fisher, E. and Fortnum, R. On Not Knowing: how artists think (2013) Lewis, Brian. The Meridian (2013). For full text click here. Lewis, Brian. Eastings (2013). For full text click here. Perec, Georges. Species of Spaces (1974). For full text click here. Solnit, Rebecca. A Field Guide To Getting Lost (2005) Solnit, Rebecca. Wanderlust (2000) Woolf, Virginia. Street Haunting (1930). For full text click here.
The essays by Dickens and Woolf, Night Walks and StreetHaunting,could both be described as a narration of and by the detached eye, and are perhaps precursors of what the Situationists would call the dérive(drift). Both Dickens and Woolf wander the city without a predetermined route (or ignoring a predetermined route), observing and noting events, particularities of place and people, and even their own sensory and emotional states from the position of spectator. A drift is not a means of getting from A to B, and therefore is an experience of the spatial. Cities are the ideal places for such endeavours. Their crowds offer the opportunity for lonely anonymity, and the contemporary (and near modern) city as both literally and metaphorically textual positions the wanderer as reader. In a city, one is never truly lost. Contrast these accounts with the two-part essay sequence The Meridian (presented at the Occursus 2013 Post-Traumatic Landscapes Symposium)and Eastings by Brian Lewis. The essays contextualise and narrate a particularly gruelling example of Lewis’ endurance walks, a continuous 65 mile 33 hour trek from Hull to Spurn Point and back again, walking almost continuously from 11 am in the morning on New Years Eve 2012 to 8 pm at night on New Years Day 2013. Unlike the drifts of Dickens and Woolf, this walk was linear, and planned. The physical effort, the weather, and the hours of darkness replaced detachment with immersion, a focussing (a retreat) into the body, the physical. The almost complete absence of the textual, of human presence and of light for much of the walk meant that getting lost was almost inevitable, and when towards the end of the walk the textual and the human reappeared an almost hallucinatory state of exhaustion made such signifiers unreadable.
Solnit’s Wanderlust is a wonderful (‘wanderfull’) book. It is also very long. A terrific (to my mind) chapter sequence that works as a discrete narrative is, in order: Citizens of the Streets, Walking After Midnight, and Aerobic Sisyphus and the Suburbanised Psyche. Each chapter deals with the politics of space in different ways: revolution and protest from the French revolution to Occupy; gender, and the positioning / oppression of the female body in the context of the urban outdoors; the dislocation of the human body from its environment and the commodification and commercialisation of exercise and fitness. Solnit famously stated that ‘the treadmill (of the modern gym) is a device for going nowhere in places where there is no longer anywhere to go’. The chapter following these, The Shape of A Walk, talks specifically about artists who have explicitly used walking as part of their practice, although the selection tends toward the ‘heroic’).
My two short papers Every Place A Palimpsest Part Two and What Is A Book If It Will Not Be A Book both deal, in different ways, with the narration of landscape, ‘knowing’ and the inevitability and fruitfulness of ‘not knowing’. Palimpsest looks at a particular site in terms of traumatic history and the civic project of erasure versus the creative effort of exploring meaning (and creating work). What Is A Book looks at the materiality of an artwork, and the spatial unruliness of creativity in the context of MilkyWayYouWillHearMeCall, a project with site, wandering, collaboration and not knowing at its core.
On Not Knowing: How Artists Think (2013) (ed. Fisher and Fortnum) contains many essays of note. On The Value Of Not Knowing: Wonder, Beginning Again And Letting Be by Dr Rachel Jones offers a philosophical and psychoanalytical argument for the necessity of ‘not knowing’ in relation to creativity and the aesthetic sublime.
The photograph above is of a visit to my studio in 2012 to discuss the work being made for MilkyWayYouWillHearMeCall, an ongoing collaborative project by myself, curator Judit Bodor and artist Tom Rodgers, which has at its core a relationship with site, walking, and not knowing. We were joined in the studio that day by artists Roddy Hunter and Penelope Whitworth. We look, we think, we talk. We know, and we do not know. We begin again.