Monday, 3 November 2008

returning : a sense of completion

Travelling through Neroche now, I clearly see the end of my project. I've lost the desire to follow up new threads - I like the thought of things being left suspended (and the paid artists days have expired - way over my budget now).

But there is definitely one thing to follow up - the woman that Meg and I talked with over the gate about her animals. I shot a bit of video on my camera that day that I've wanted to put either on this blog, or on the website, and I want to ask her permission. Our conversation that day was very striking to both me and Megan, and I couldn't ask her on the spot whether I could use the video I'd spontaneously captured - that would have felt too 'breaking into' the presentness of the moment, too artist-needy. (Here is the post where I wrote about our encounter - scroll down to the geese).

I have driven back past her house at least once, and paused - how to re-approach someone that you've engaged with spontaneously? - how would I react if I was her? - what is this desire to 'share' what she has said?

So Meg and I have arranged to meet in Culmstock, and go back to her house; I like this collaborative task.
We wander gingerly round the boundary - the geese are out and protective. There's a garden gate, some windows open ajar, but no-one responding. Then a young woman arrives who's looking for 'Kathy' herself (we didn't even know her name), so we wait for her to make contact. She goes fearlessly through the goose gate.

Kathy appears, invites us in with no hesitation, remembering us from our conversation back in September. We sit in the conservatory with Pipsqueak the woof, the geese looking in through the window, beside cages for injured wild birds and talk about animal connection. It's good to come back to this conversation, to hear more about Kathy's life, her decision to devote her life to animals. Of course, use the video Kathy says. I promise to send her a copy along with the photographs that I've taken - these exchanges are important to me, and perhaps the most lasting aspect of any arts project like this.

"To come into conversation can be a disturbing thing, exposing, altering and aesthetic. How the conversation is made can conduct the speakers in a unknown direction, towards friendship, argument, silence, the emergence of something new."
Wallace Heim, from the chapter 'Slow Activism' in "Nature Performed: Environment, Culture and Performance

We leave with an open invitation to return, and right now I want to make a three part art documentary about women working with animals in Neroche, and Kathy would certainly be the focus of one of the parts.

public art making in the rural : some thoughts

Back to the Neroche Scheme office in Hemyock, and the delivery of my website design on disc to Kate, and a check in meeting with Sally, Gavin and James

We talk about the nature of the artistic engagement, public art, connectivity,
quality, when something 'works'. These are the conversations I crave to have - people who are not artists, yet are commissioning art projects, and there is too little time given to these crucial conversations where we all talk transparently about art-making in public contexts, or as Meg put it later in an email - the notion of "art as enquiry rather than the repetition of established knowledge or technique". What happens when we make an 'obscure' piece of work - is it ok that it is alienating, that people humour it? does that exacerbate the uneasy relationship between conservative rural communities and contemporary art? how do we know if and when people connect? - when and how does it matter?

If the 'general public'
looking for information on birdwatching events on the Blackdowns, come upon my website via the Neroche Scheme, and instead of finding a pleasant picture of a warbler, come across a strange link which opens a video of mens pants hanging in a wood, what happens? can we ever know what people think, how they respond? - and indeed over what time period that process might be. I recall performance events that I saw in my 20s, that only ten years later did I realise what they were doing.

And in relation to the work I've designed and made, I'm sure it will be seen as quite conservative, even quaint, from the point of view of radical contemporary art, and yet adventurous and obscure from a traditional rural
perspective, and for people who don't have the latest version of Flash, very frustrating.

I don't know the answers, but I like asking the questions, tracing the landscape and editing the videos.

Just before the meeting, I picked up a copy of the Blackdown Hills newspaper and the front story was about a 'phantom' (!) artist working in a bus shelter up at Culmhead - intriguing, yes. A link to the story in the infamous Western Daily Press here, and a link here to the same story on John Thorne's blog.

It looked like an interesting and playful intervention to me - an anonymous artist making 'A Changing Room' out of the bus shelter, lining it with silver foil and putting in a clothes rack, and calling it
“But I’m a million different people from one day to the next...”. John writes "The Deane council staff quickly cleared the bus shelter but could find no trace of who had put the clothing there"; playfulness has never been easy to encounter outside the play area.

Maybe the 'phantom' followed the 'changing room' piece by putting lots of rubbish bags inside the shelter, and placing the title 'rubbish : art : rubbish'. Perhaps an invitation for us to reflect on the whole range of opinions provoked about playful or controversial art being rubbish! - I don't know.

It seems that anything made outside a picture frame in a rural setting at the moment, far too easily and jovially, gets termed a 'Banksy',
referring to his anonymity rather than his work I'm presuming. This immediate referencing overlooks his artwork which is painfully insightful in relation to rural politics - for example the graffitied landscape oil-paintings: Constable-style country views overlaid with CCTV cameras (here, and click through to the following 2 images via 'next'). They ask us to look again at rural scenery in relation to our culture.

We need those conversations about art as enquiry, and while the
inquisitive or provocative end of art-making can be uncertain of itself, even clumsy, it's important not to turn it so immediately into the 'just weird', but instead to sit within the questions it's attempting to ask.

autumn : light

Friday, 17 October 2008

transience site : design and decisions

Since my last post about the website design where I'd come up to a wall between the idea in my head and the reality of what is possible on a small budget and a reasonable load up time, the 'what are you going to do then' has been going around my head.

And Stephen, my photoshop friend and very practical collaborator, has spent at least two evenings trying to explain pixel ratios to me.

There are two paradoxes in my mind:
- firstly, that I'm trying to locate on my 'map' things that are passing through the landscape - ughhh?
- secondly, that I decided to make a website because of the flexibility, its ability to be changed and re-made at any time, but of course, with a Flash file, once it's up, it's there and I can't alter it. So while this blog is endlessly being returned to for editing and tweaking, the Transience website will be pretty much untouchable.

It's always interesting how in any process, especially an artistic one, you have to let go of the grip of desired form somehow - is that the right word? - and let the conversation between materials and practicality take place, which often tends to lead to what the best thing is to do anyway.

Obvious decisions had to be recognised:
- use a smaller scale map as source for marking from
- simplify content and materials
- only use materials that attract me, and none that I think I 'should' use
- write neatly
- sort out, once and for all, the right pixel ratio (this seems to do Kate's head in as much as mine) and go with that.

So I made the map in a day, having thought about it for at least ten. I visited many possible additions to the map but in the end just added a date, and the prevailing wind direction. I was thinking of all sorts of extras, such as links out to migratory routes, but I fear it is
already far too cluttered and in a few months time I will be wanting to alter it all.

The last thing to fall into place are the titles, or rollovers which are the links to the media files. Stephen helped me with these decisions, all the photoshop and the scanning, by uploading a kind of 'what do you want it to kind of look like?' at our biggerhouse site - there's a link here. I was worrying about what the aesthetic of dymo tape says, but through Stephen's 'just do it' kind of reasoning, I realised these labels were crossing a very productive border between the hand made and the printed.

I've learnt a lot about layers.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

horse stories : orchard portman

A meeting with Tom Mayberry, from the Somerset County Records Office, famous for his knowledge of the Portman family. Tom has written a book, "Orchard and the Portmans" about this very significant family, whose Manor house was at the edge of the Neroche land near Taunton.

I wasn't so interested in the general history of the family - my focus was on two things:
firstly - how had Orchard Portman Manor, such a distinguished and architecturally defining house, come to have been so completely erased from the landscape - nothing remains of it - a tremendous 'passing through'. And secondly - how horses had fundamentally participated in the history, culture and geography of the family.

I am continually struck in Neroche - in fact all across England - by how defining the horse has been as a companion, worker, traveller, helper, competitor, vehicle and accomplice. Perhaps because of my own pony -club-pony-obsessive background, I ally horse culture with land and farming, with countryside and rural communities far more than with hunting and class structures, but of course, I acknowledge my personal history is influential here, and horse breeding, hunting and racing are all defined by wealth and land ownership.

(In a recent conversation with my friend Dan discussing hunting as a right wing class-driven activity, I questioned why it was that hunting had been banned, when to my mind all sorts of much more complicated and painful human-animal relations (shipping of live animals, vivisection for example) seemed to be equally important. He said he understood it as Labour's pay back for Thatcher taking apart the miners and the unions. And suddenly it all made sense...)

So, Tom tells a fascinating history of the Portmans, and I tell him of an earlier walk I had done to look at the site of Orchard Portman. The absence was nothing but striking - was it typhoid in the water system that they couldn't banish that precipitated such erasure? a crumbling unkempt mansion destroyed by lack of investment? an over eager estate manager bent on stone recycling? No matter - it is extraordinary that simply nothing remains. He showed me a map, I take a photograph and compare it with google earth images.

I recalled my walk there, and the bizarre conjunction between the church and the back of the racecourse that i couldn't forget - the hundred or so metres between the ancientness of the church and the presentness of the racing stables are palpable. If you're interested in gaps, in tears in the fabric of time, this is a good one.

And I also recalled something I'd heard - that at one time, you could travel the whole way between Neroche and London on Portman land.

Then some connections made between my own research and Tom's oral Portman history through the horse:

- Taunton Racecourse overlaying the site of the Orchard Portman Estate
- the Portman Hunt at Blandford Forum: Brynaston in Dorset was the other 'family seat'
- the local myth-story of the ghost of Rachel Portman galloping on a white horse on the 'old road' by Bickenhall
- and The Jockey Club was, until recently, based in Portman Square in London.

The horse is written in, inscribed into the family, into the land all the way from Neroche to London.

A link here for a general history of the Portmans (scroll down to Orchard Portman). Here for the Portman Estate in London, and here for an outline of their heritage.
Here for Taunton Racecourse. Here for the Portman Hunt.
And here for 'who owns London' - scroll down to the Portman section.

I am sure there are further connections to be eked out ... the Portman estate having to give land to the Crown for death duties - even now much of Neroche is owned by the Crown ... the galloping hooves of the Monmouth Rebellion passing through from Ilminster to the Portman estate, the pony-club-horse-culture of Neroche ... my residing memory of the Blackdown Hills Pony Club as the most courageous, the fastest in the west, their ponies were the fleetest ...

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

passing through : a cabbage leaf

a day of conversation about animals ...

an hour with brian turley at staple park woods, talking about squirrels eating trees, deer marking territory, and forestry conservation projects.

then to the RSPCA Animal Centre at West Hatch to meet up with Anita -
we talked about their work in taking in, and re-homing animals. i want to make a short video about the pets passing through the centre for the website.

it's a truly extraordinary place of course, very sobering. the predicament of domestication looks you right in the eyes, and i was continually faced with questions about what humans want from animals. after our conversation, i filmed the rabbits, brilliant in their eating.

i used to have a rabbit as a kid: the hours spent watching Pickles eat to the end of the greens. it reminded me of the woman who i talked with on the last walk, who spoke about the sound of her sheep grazing calming her nerves. this material world, being material, consuming the live and processing it, burning it into another kind of live-ing; this circulation at the heart of my body and my world, the rabbits bodies and their world.

Anita said a nice thing: usually she is too busy with her work to stop and watch the rabbit eat a leaf from start to finish. we liked the moment of concentration, of just watching.

I sought out a dynamic quote to accompany the rabbits in their material burning, and found Annie Dillard quoting the French palientologist Teilhard de Chardin in her book For The Time Being - always a good reference for the notion of the material on fire:
“Plunge into matter” Teilhard said .... “By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us and molds us. We imagined it as distant and inaccessible, whereas we live steeped in its burning layers.” so, there you go rabbits.

"Is it a kind of dream,
Floating out on the tide,
Following the river of death downstream?
Oh, is it a dream?

Bright eyes....

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

the playstreet dig - portman connections

I passed by the Play street dig at Bickenhall organised by the Neroche Scheme. They had decided to do a two week dig to see if there was any evidence of a settlement that aerial photographs from the 70s had revealed. The site had been turning up medieval potsherds and tiles from ploughing.

I was particularly curious, as Diane and Brian Hood had talked me through the story of Rachel Portman and her white horse ghosting the road way. 'In 1602 Rachel Portman (daughter of Sir Henry Portman) obtained the property and made it her residence. The name Playstreet is probably Saxon in origin, meaning quite literally the street where people played.'

'Rachel Portman (1554-1631) was buried in Bickenhall churchyard, which has since been demolished. It is said that her ghost riding a white horse roams the area from the old churchyard at Bickenhall, through Park Farm to Playstreet.' (Neroche Scheme website).

We arrived a little after the 'tour' of the dig had begun, so we joined in - as we arrived I sensed a tense atmosphere and realised we were in a group of very obsessive people; posturing, competition, distraction, a man with a child on his back talking so loudly into his mobile phone I couldn't hear the guide, men undermining the woman archaelogist - a really weird atmosphere, lots of agendas. There might have been some very interesting observations going on, but the tension negated anything useful happening. This bit of film demonstrates it accurately enough....

it was weird - i couldn't work out what was going on - the project seemed to have dragged the strongest agendas to the surface. I wanted to watch and listen closely to everyone, to watch the difficulty - but it was so tense that the 'tour' dispersed through the field, and I turned away to film a poignant piece of hazard tape in the corn stubble, and thought about the horse ghost.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

walk 4 : hemyock, up and down the valley

for a while, i've wanted to walk the 'bowl' around Hemyock. Sally (artist co-ordinator) and Megan (placement artist) set out from Hemyock with me on a circular route. i'd provisionally mapped a walk traveling through or passing by four commons: Clements, Black Down, Hillmoor and Owleycombe, partly to continue the thread from mine and Megan's last trip to Staple Common, and also to witness the variations in the sense of the land as the Commons appear out of the field systems.
as we set out from Hemyock, this old milkstand, travelling further and further towards invisibility.

m & s free range eggs

up in the forest, yellow staghorn fungus matching megan's pen,

out onto Blackdown Common which you can see from the M5, a high flat moor with bracken, roaming ponies and these beautiful wide green lanes - does something mow them? i wanted to lie down and sleep within the sound of the galloping horses hooves - that peat moor resonance would be something to hear travel past.

so much of the time, nature seemed to appear as something framed, composed - the orange staghorn in the spikey moss as a miniaturised surreal forest, the vivid grass in the black peat water as a zen garden. all kind of overwhelming in their sense of completeness - 'gardens in a tea-tray' Megan said.
and, all down to our perception too - how our minds and senses frame this landscape, how my viewfinder makes a square.

here, some kind of penis, or tentacle or delicate new fungus in the 'tea tray'. apologies for out-of-focus, it's magnified hugely, as i only noticed it while looking at the photo zoomed up. but there it was, right at the centre of the frame, discreet yet all powerful.

"I don't know what it is about fecundity that so appalls. I suppose it is the teeming evidence that birth and growth, which we value, are ubiquitous and blind, that life itself is so astonishingly cheap, that nature is as careless as it is bountiful, and that with extravagance goes a crushing waste that will one day include our own cheap lives.... Every glistening egg is a memento mori." Annie Dillard - "Pilgrim at Tinkers Creek"

descending over Culmstock Beacon, we tracked along the plimsoll line, springs emerging all along the side of the hill - so much water - and settle on a hillside with a strong atmosphere. we can't quite make out why it's so perfect a place to stop; the perspective, the quality of grass, the degree of slope, the sudden change from where we had come from - who can tell.

i photographed the back of our heads.

on down past Pitt farm, i was running 'common' around my head, thinking about what we have 'in common', common (shared?) language and land, and the notion of commonality.

a passing conversation with a farmer running his own archaeological dig on some of his land: it had potential to be an interesting conversation, but especially as three women, we tended to suffer his 'common' male banter: he referred to our overheard conversation at a distance as "the sound of mad cows" and
his parting shot was "like moses said, keep taking the tablets". it's the kind of exchange that makes me want to headbutt a gatepost, and never do anything with rural england ever again.
still, the historical knowledge he had built up of his farm was extraordinary, and it's all in his head right now. he should write it all over the wall of one room in his house. that way it would be out in the world. people could come and read his house.

down to Culmstock, through amazing farmyards. some more exchange as we crossed a new bridge over the River Culm - two men just finishing the build, and unable to accept our genuine remarks on their work, bantered us off with directions to the nearest pub.

Sally leaves us and we cut along the road, and then up the drove.
on the corner, i hear 'Sweet Caroline' coming from behind a hedge. it sounds beautiful in the now soft afternoon warmth of the day. as i come to the garden gate, i realise that radio 2 is being played to a garage full of Indian Runner ducks.

three white geese appear from the front door.

and a beautiful and highly affecting conversation begins with a woman who tells us some of her life story in just a few minutes: about how keeping animals has healed her bad times, how they've helped her in her life. we talk about 'how good a goose is at being a goose'. she tells us about her sheep further up the road, how she sits in the field and listens to them eating; just the sound of them grazing calms her nerves, makes life ok.

as Megan and I move away, we are both unbelievably filled up with her story, a kind of
swoon. it is the most dynamic yet stillest moment of the walk, our whole trajectory has gone towards - and away from - this point, here at this corner, with 'sweet caroline', a woman, three geese and the warmth of the afternoon sun.

Owleycombe Common: that same atmospheric as the other commons, that quality of grass again, unturned earth - is that it? - spaced trees, full of rowan and their red berries that the blackbirds love.
a view back to where we had come from - Culmstock Beacon.

i'm up here still dreaming of that temporary community back in the valley, about what we held in common there.
then a long descent through horse fields, black cattle and white sheep grazing and a hazy beginning of rain, and back to Hemyock
, and a different kind of horizon.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

field & gate

a wasted morning going to the launch of an arts/museum fund called new expressions in Taunton. i found the event depressing on two accounts: the suggestion that the artists and museums 'speed dated' each other, and dried coffee in those thin packets with plastic cartons of milk (supremely bad signs). i wished i hadn't gone, and spent the time driving into Neroche trying to shake off the bad atmosphere that corporate wedding reception furniture generates. this soft horizon and september light helped.

on my way to the RSPCA Animal Centre in West Hatch, to see if i could meet up with any of the staff, introduce myself and the project, and arrange a couple of interviews. sometimes i phone ahead, but usually i prefer to call by - it's somehow easier to engage and to know if the person's up for the meeting. also, they get a sense of who i am and whether they want to be part of a conversation, or not.

i have really enjoyed these encounters on this project - often i'm daunted by approaching people but this time, it's been fine - perhaps a sense of 'nothing to lose' alongside a quiet confidence that my approach to this particular landscape in relation to things on the move, appeals to people (so many people love the swifts for example). i usually have mixed feelings about introducing myself as an artist, but again, i've done this every time. perhaps that comes from a clear kind of conviction that i feel right now, that it's the clearest way to frame what i do, and i like it as a way of living.

It's hard as an artist i find, to justify asking for an exchange with people who are clearly doing such practical, demanding and immediately necessary jobs, when compared to the more obscure and illusive role that the arts play in the world. but even so, i was interested to see how i could gather some material around the Animal Centre's role in taking in pets and domesticated animals, and re-homing them, and the Wildlife Centre's role in helping rehabilating wild animals that have been injured, for example they deal with cleaning oiled sea birds.

Anita showed me around the cats and the rabbits. there was a volunteer there, just doing cuddling i think, trying to befriend a frightened cat. well that's a thing, that's a good thing to do i thought.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

moth watch

into the car park at quarts moor at 8.30pm. mike and robin from the butterfly conservation are here for a moth watch - their first at this site - and the national trust warden for this area is here too.
and me - to see if there are any migrant moths pulled in by the lights,
(and to continue my fascination with how us humans choose to observe, record and understand 'nature').

extension cables, small generators, nets, 125w mercury vapour lights over containers full of egg boxes and perspex (the moths fall in, protected by the egg cartons), plastic collection pots. two moth lights set up - one in the woods and one on the edge of the car park.

we're alone yet entirely visible due to the power of the lights, overlooking the escarpment facing taunton, wellington and the m5, the light fades. the edges of the landscape dissolve, travelling and static lights mark routes and lines, pale clear sky, light leaking to the west, cold wind; moths prefer warm cloudy nights.

moths don't tend to eat once emerged, only the caterpillars feed. once airborne, they reproduce, hibernate, die or migrate. we tend to associate them with darkness, even horror, looping them in with bats rather than butterflies,
and watch them flapping awkwardly against the lightbulbs or windows, and wrongly assume they all eat clothes.
there is a nightly genocide going on below us now on the m5 - thousands of moths
drawn by headlights broken up on metal and glass. would we let this degree of destruction happen visibly to butterflies? or birds? right now, our culture doesn't see moths in the same light.

at the time the moths are supposed to emerge into the night, so do the cars.
they pull in and park up right beside each other one at a time. dogging, i guess. it's quiet, discreet, very present, 5 or 6 cars, more arrive, some leave.
the national trust warden says "there are more cars here at night than there are during the day" and jokes about shifting the car park charging hours from 9pm to 9am. the daytime face of the national trust looks incongruous here.

four very loud men in a spoilered car pull in next to us, lager cans, drum and bass, two come over to ask what we are doing - the incongruity of it all, i can't look at them in the eye, so loud. we can hear their car go all the way to taunton after they leave. these worlds are hard to reconcile: mike scoops a yellow underwing off the grass as the clumsy lads touch the bulb he asked them not to. there are heaps of empty lager cans an arms throw from any car park.

here we all are : hunched figures staring at bright light bulbs, white sheets spread, arms folded against the cold august night, casting giant shadows over the mysterious cars lined up on the other side. a vanity light, interior light, hazards flash, moths crash land on the sheet, drawn to the light in the dark, signals, calls, messages, acts of attraction, sex, things of the night, human watching, moth watching. there's a strange symmetry to all this that i can hardly hold in language -
the ecology of the rural car park.

mike and robin tenaciously stick to the task of recording and naming the moths that flutter in - they collect them in the plastic specimen pots, and they all go into a plastic bag to travel to houses where they are specifically identified and released alive later on. sometimes they get 90 different species up in the blackdowns, tonight it's more like 9. it seems harsh to my mind to take them away from here, yet i understand what they're doing. like all conservation, recording of species and proving of territory and activity seems to be a vital act in our culture - i wonder when and if it will not be so. one moment they are glints of a magic kind of light emerging out of the night, like the brimstone, all yellow and veined delicacy - we could see them and watch them go, why not ? - but then they are put inside an incomprehensible environment, and transported away from all things of their world. what are we, us humans?

yet there is a strange beguiling beauty to this collecting: standing in the woods by the moth trap with robin, we
intensively study a migrant moth sat still on the bottom of the trap in our torchlight - a rush veneer. the name lodges in me like the title of a favorite song, a dreamy surface, a foreign place. i want to release a single with this title, or use it as a pseudonym. this moth, nomophila noctuella (nocturnal name-lover?), has certainly arrived from france, or spain even, definitely from across the channel robin assures me. i kind of can't believe it, something so small carried on the wind all that way to 'fall' here whole, complete. what kind of language can i use? what kind of language does the moth use? what can we call knowledge? the rush veneer, here in our torchlight, is a kind of miracle. and in the clumsy beautiful attention of us human beings, there is a bewildering compassion and elegant connection.

on the way home, moths flap around in the car - they must have come in on our clothes - i can feel one moving around in my hair. the next day, it's flying around at the car windows, bidding escape. i pull over, and wind down the passenger window. it's a small pale moth - i have no idea what particular name it has been given by humans, but it's miles from home, no matter i hope - it flits off over a house.

later, i sit at home with a very old 'moths of the months' book that megan gave me. the list of names are entrancing, and i speak them quietly to myself over and over

northern swift
black arches
scalloped oak
july high-flier
frosted orange
buff ermine
pale tussock
beautiful carpet
the quaker
spring usher
the feathered thorn
lime hawk
waved umber
silver y
hummingbird hawk
scorched carpet
scarlet tiger
the dot

a list, like walt whitman's list of trees used to speak to dying soldiers in hospital (and spoken by bryan saner in goat island's performance 'it's an earthquake in my heart') or the angel who speaks to the dying man in wim wender's 'wings of desire' of life-ful things to bring him back to the world: along with the many other lists, collections and taxonomies made by humans, this list
draws the moths into my imaginative life.

List. n. A border; a boundary (obs.); a destination (Shake.). A catalogue, roll or enumeration. Desire; inclination; choice; heeling over. (thank you, dw)