Wyness | Ristevski
1. Trappist 1d (16:59)
2. Teegarden c (12:23)
3. Proxima Centauri b (15:46)
James Wyness (guitars)
Boban Ristevski (electronics)
From the 16-19 September the artists of the Scottish Borders-based Moving Image makers Collective (MIMC) lived in and engaged with the forests around Ruberslaw, between the small villages of Bedrule and Denholm. We had screenings at the old glasshouse down below and installations along the forest paths and in the depths of the woods. I won't go into the details of all the works because a comprehensive publication is in progress but I thought to write a few words about my own contribution. I've already written about my short film The Sigh here so here are two texts I prepared as part of our initial project documentation. The installation ran for two hours on the Friday and Saturday evenings, just as darkness fell. I made a short film of my installation on the rainy Saturday night. Here's the link (password: owl). Flies were attracted to the light of my projection and began copulating on the back wall. Then the spiders arrived for their evening meal..
The Form of the Work
The site of the installation was The Owl House, a small rustic wooden pavilion in the forest, open at the front with a two-seater bench inside. Lit candles were placed inside eight cut glass demijohns to light the path and front of the Owl House as well as marking the boundaries of the installation space. Mirrors behind the bowls reflected the forest. On the first of the two nights colour excerpts from the film 'The Sigh' were back-projected on to small metre-square opal perspex panel placed by the foot of a tree. On the second night this moving image component was projected on to the inside wall of The Owl House. The space was sonified (gently) using two hand-made 20-string bowed psalteries activated by electronic bows (ebows) placed inside the pavilion. Four portable radios on static reception were set in the surrounding forest.
The work before you is anthropological in nature. It’s a study in what makes us human, even in its uncertain attempt at bridging the gap between forests and humans. Forests which predate our species by millennia, the womb from which we issued, its riches which nurtured us on our way to inhabiting the plains.
What have I brought to the forest in my role as conversationalist? Representations of our civilisation, its artefacts and technologies. Sounding, even musical devices. Projected imagery. Light. These set the tone of the conversation.
You are invited to enter the space and begin your own conversation, be it a silent thoughtful moment, a vote of thanks, a votive offering, an apology, a confession.
I've been reunited with my good friend Allal Yamine, percussionist, performer, researcher and artist. We share many interests, both musically and more generally artistically but what's drawn me in this time is his profound knowledge of the musics of the Sahel. I won't reduce the richness and complexity of the Sahel's musical patchwork to something almost meaningless like 'desert blues' for example but I can say that I've reduced my research to two fields of investigation - the how and the why/where/when. How you play the music and the social contexts around it. I'm fortunate to be able to spend many hours with Allal playing and absorbing. Guitar and percussion. There's talk of a trip to the Sahel to meet and play with some of these fascinating musicians.
Because he wanted to tidy up his studio Allal offered me this Yamaha organ, which I now have in my own studio.
It's a Yamaha Electone A55N built in 1981. There are 37 keys, 13 pedals and and as you can see lots of sliders and switches to fiddle about with. These each make substantial differences to the sound and the sounds are wonderful, especially in the low midrange to bass registers. It's what we might call a complex drone generating machine, like a modular analogue synth but with a different kind of versatility. It's a bit 'wheezy' which I particularly like, especially when you load up the 12 inch speaker to the full 30 watts. The beat or drum sounds and the arpeggiator functions are not what you'd expect from say a digital keyboard - they're so idiosyncratic that they'll be excellent for film music.
Here's another picture showing the footpedals.
In case you're curious here's my guitar and amplifier. I keep promising to do some kind of 'tour of my studio' and I will once I dig everything out and think of the best way to film or photograph all the stuff I've collected.
This is 'the best guitar in the world'. For the cognoscenti it's a Yamaha RS 820CR which I bought second hand in perfect condition. I've played hundreds of guitars and this comes out as good as or better than the best I've played. Apologies to fanboys or girls of more expensive brands. I've noticed that guitarist of a certain large capitalist nation have some kind of distrust of Yamaha and Japanese guitars in general, mainly because the Japanese manage to make guitars as good as or better than Gibson for far less money. The body is perfectly styled with the simplest arrangement of hardware. The humbuckers are Yamaha's own and there are three distinct tones with the pickup selector. It's like riding a racing bike - in fact the styling is drawn from Yamaha's own bike range. Gibson don't make racing bikes in case you don't know, or grand pianos or even fiddles.
The valve amplifier is a Fender Princeton Reverb II which I bought for £50.00 many years ago. It's been modified but I still have the schematic if I want to rewire it. The reverb has been and the midtone boost reassigned to the one spidery footpedal. I had it refurbished in Edinburgh with new valves fitted and it sounds perfect. This amp has a fine vintage. I read somewhere that Duane Allman used it as his studio amp, which is good enough for me. I find it difficult to know how to come to a judgement about the sound of amplifiers. Of course it sounds good and des its job but how do you balance brightness with treble or midrange with bass? Because I have a particular sound in mind using a chain of pedals I tweaked it for a clean setting and listened to the decay of a lower string until some kind of steady sine wave emerged. That's about as clean a sound as I could produce. Then in principle the pedals should sound the way they're supposed to.
Speaking of which:-
Apart from a clean sound for what I might call a kora-inflected guitar style, ultimately best played on a nylon or steel strung acoustic guitar, I'm actually chasing after something approaching the electric guitar sound that many in the Sahel favour (probably best known in the music of Ali Ibrahim "Ali Farka" Touré), not because I'm devoid of ideas as to what I want but because the qualities of that kind of sound bring out the best in the constantly shifting pentatonic improvisations driven by the intricate rhythms of North and West African musics.
Here's a quick summary of the pedals. An old tuner which makes too much noise so it'll have to go eventually. A compressor (placebo of the pedals), perhaps not so essential for a live rig but it does make a difference. Then a freeze pedal to sustain open-string tones as pedal points. Next a Boss PS-6 Harmonist which fattens up the sound using the 'detune' setting. After that a very powerful and versatile Eventide TimeFactor delay which works best if I tweak my own patches and try not to overdo the effect. Finally a simple but effective Electro-harmonic Holy Grail reverb pedal which does the job. There's also a Boss RC-30 looper pedal there (which I can actually work). I look forward to trying out some live layering.
Finally if you want to hear what's going on with some of these Sahel players listen to the incredible tehardent and percussion of Tallawit Timbouctou. Better still, buy their album.
I'm still at it. The still life photographic project. I spent so much time researching the theoretical discourse, the histories and contemporary practice that I'm invested in the form. And because I find it difficult I embrace the challenge. Although I'm not wholly attached to originality above all else it would be desirable to find some kind of niche in my practice. Recently I changed locations, from the back garage studio to a room in the house. The summer light was too high and harsh and also too extreme in dynamic range over the course of a day with the arc of the sun. So I moved to room where there's a large window, a good north light and more space to set things out. There's quite a lot of clutter involved in still life photography, at least the way I do it. As it happens this is the start of the season for excellent light back in my garage space. The frosted glass window is smaller but as the sun lowers lightly and is less intense there are some wonderful casts of light at certain times. When it's too dark is a good time for long exposures using the pinhole camera.
I started tethering properly with this tentative new series. This is where you hook up the computer to the laptop so you have a generous view of your composition. I have to say it helps to judge lines, margins, light and of course depth of field. The two images I'm showing were taken with a Sony A7r3 and a Voigtlander 50mm F2 APO-Lanthar lens which is by far and away the best lens I've ever used. This is a manual lens which has excellent fine-detailed focusing capabilities in combination with the Sony body. With these tools I've been working to define compositions either by a thin sliver of focus, the circle of confusion, or by defining an accurate hyperfocal distance (using a phone app and a tape measure) to try to get the whole show in focus.
This is called The Boat and the Lighthouse. Initially I had no intention of seeing these simple compositions as anything other than studies in form - shape, colour, light, distribution - but on my first attempt at juxtaposing various objects I began to see the overall composition as something else, a representation of a narrative, however tenuous or abstracted. The other thing is that the objects are taken partly from the domestic environment (in this case a handbell) and partly from the forest, these being the environments in which I work from day to day. I'm very pleased with the concept and ideas behind this this though the challenge from now on is to find enough domestic objects with sufficient 'resonance' to create some kind of secondary representation along with the woodland found materials. As you can see the point of focus is at the stern of the 'boat'. With these wide aperture images there's a huge difference in how an image can speak to you depending on whether the out-of-focus field is towards the front or the back of the frame. This particular choice the direction of travel with respect to the boat. I leave the viewer to judge. A minor point is that I'm pleased with the high key nature of this photograph. It wasn't intended or post-processed as such. I don't tend to do very much in post production because I want to get as close as possible to what I want in-camera. Not much point in having a good lens if you're not going to put it to best use.
These are two takes on what I've called Eve and the Serpent, based on the same narrative concept as the previous image, though here the reference is Biblical or even mythical. I think that in both cases the use of composition (obviously) and depth of field (less so) help to offer entirely different readings of the image. The first has Eve, another small handbell, somewhat sheltered by what might be read as a cave or a tree. She's perhaps unsure or afraid of the serpent . Here I would say that the serpent is the protagonist, approaching. The tree or cave is not entirely in sharp focus but it's defined enough to make it and Eve the combined subject. In the second image Eve has emerged from the shelter to confront the serpent. Both shelter and serpent are more or less equally out of focus which places Eve clearly at the centre of the narrative. Which works best? Let me know your thoughts. Maybe both would sit well on different pages in a photobook. Decisions, decisions. Finally I think that such readings become more evident or welcome because of the introduction of what we might call a human figure, albeit in in the form of a brass bell.
There'll be more on this as I work my way through other combinations and narrative ideas. Thanks for reading.
There are five or six forest walks that I do regularly. These are the primary sites of my landscape art. I carry out my inspections, have a quiet word with the trees as befits my position, track the wildlife, keep a keen eye on the state of the paths, formulating various punishments for horse riders, make notes of littering and so forth. The forests have become more interesting the more I walk them and ever more intriguing when I leave the path and head into the depths, which I do more frequently, to take pictures, to film, to think. They're all within less than an hour from my house but I'm not going to say precisely where in case I'm forced to go full redneck on hordes of idiots with camper vans who find out and decide to drive around like plague zombies, choking up the back roads or dumping their litter.
One such walk I call the fairy walk because children and their parents have decorated the trees along the lower half of the walk with small wooden house shapes. These have painted-on doors, windows and other features My daughter tells me that this is also done in and around parts of Galway in the west of Ireland. I can see how young children might imagine their hand-made houses to be a way for the fairies to get in and out of the tree. I used to imagine such things when I was very young.
But now I'm old(er) and before me lies the serious business of making something photographic out of this walk, a walk with its own baked-in narrative. Further on we find small bridges, swings, a gnarly tree, a hut with other wooden structures and enclosures for kids to play. Sadly the hut will have to go because people were making fires - never a good idea in a forest. I mentioned narrative and this is the key to such a project. It's not really about telling a linear illustrated story as such with its plot or dramatic action. In a photographic series the trick for me is to tell a different kind of story by means of the play of forms or colour or depth of field (which are forms themselves), along with the techniques of the photobook learned from accomplished artists. For example, what should follow this image? Should it be on the same page, double spread or overleaf? Then there's the question of getting the framing right, or mixing formats - landscape with square with nearly square because of the need to crop. You'll get the idea from some of the test shots I've gathered together into small groups. Did I ever say that I find photography difficult? Maybe it all falls into place with experience.
I love photobooks (did I mention I have a couple of zines for sale?). I also love visiting photographic galleries but the two experiences are entirely different. On the one hand a day out to the gallery, a social experience, a chance to be sniffy about curators, a coffee and a cake afterwards. On the other hand you get all the prints from an artist's project in one book, often with text (for better or worse) and layered on top of the art in the photography is the art of sequencing which in the best photographers can be as pleasurable as the images themselves. It's an aspiration. So at some point I'd like my Inspector series to find its way into print but there's still a way to go.
Patience or rather time is important in a project like this, whether it comes from virtuous patience or less virtuous procrastination. In my case it has meant that I've seen the walk from all angles and in all weathers and now I can risk saying that I know what I want.
Here's an excerpt from my photography log earlier this year.
..then I went on a very good walk to put into practice some of the ideas I picked up from bits of research, eg photobooks. I did the whole circuit which is a lot (100 photos). Got everything I wanted and more, though I could do more on the ‘empty subject’, for example a fence with background, then something busy in the vicinity, then back to details around the fence, as if the eye was roving (this type of photobook sequencing will be understood better if you watch Alex Soth on his YouTube photobook series)..
There’s always a problem with something when I do photography (actually when I do anything involving decision-making and creativity) and here it’s primarily the depth of field. For these initial shots I used a Fuji X-T3, an excellent mirrorless camera which has a cropped sensor. The lenses are sharp with excellent rendering and they offer some fine distant blurring as you can see from some of the shots but now, having seen the work of some of the large format photographers and some who use very good lenses on a full frame digital cameras, I want to be able to get a sliver of the overall deep field in focus and to move this back and fore till the subject or subjects has the prominence required within a well structured photo. To this end I’ll re-photograph the entire walk, or most of it, using a recently acquired Sony A7riii with a Voigtlander 50mm F2 APO-Lanthar (manual) lens which is probably the most excellent photographic experience I’ve ever had. I wanted initially to replicate some of the shots using a Zenza Bronica ETRS which is a medium format film camera but might wait till late autumn or winter to make my own monochrome prints in the darkroom, possibly as gifts or for round the house. Of which more later.
Yes I know, everything's on the left. Some need reversing.
I've been back to the forest in all weathers - walking, sitting, thinking, filming and snapping. Now I have a 5' film for Conversations with a Forest. Out of this footage and research I have enough ideas for several years of interesting projects.
You can watch The Sigh here. If you like it please share it with friends.
Not being a 'proper' professional film-maker I lack knowledge about how to establish an effective workflow. Not that it matters too much. I begin with ideas and concepts along with various pieces of imagery in my mind and from my walks which then need to be realised as lens-based projects.
One thing I did was to mix colour imagery with monochrome, to differentiate elements of the narrative. I'm sure there's a rule somewhere about that sort of thing. The sound comes and goes as the project develops, as do the words, spoken or written on the screen. As with many art forms there comes a point when you see the living work, the organism, as complete unto itself. Rather than go into a long essay about ideas I thought to share some of the text I wanted to include in the film, along with some stills. I will say however that most of my conversations with a forest end up in confessions, apologies and remorse. We haven't really looked after our forests very well if the truth be told.
you have no need for words
and yet you are a talking book
you ask for nothing
you the cryptic host
and me the guest, the parasite
your toppled elders have the priest's ear
inviting apology, remorse, confession
with a sigh
I've been back and fore to the 'graveyard of the elders' many times in the last few weeks, filming, sound recording and taking pictures using digital, film and polaroid cameras. I now have about eighty percent of the footage. As you can see from the image above I've decided to return to the coloured gel technique I used in Is It Beautiful? described here. These shots will be juxtaposed with black and white shots and stills relating specifically to the formal properties of the stumps (or if you prefer, the listening elders) and to my arrival at and ritual communication with these fallen trees.
There are still some pieces of the puzzle that I haven't finished putting together yet, including the musical, sonic components which always require careful attention. I'm asking friends and colleagues for their ideas on what they might say to the forest and what the forest might say to them, were such a thing possible in language, with a view to using snippets of these 'conversations' as text within the film, much in the same manner as I did in Is It Beautiful? The final piece of the jigsaw is the idea that one of the most meaningful communicative acts between us and forests is in the domain of biochemistry, respiration, the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen. As we breathe out, the forest breathes in, as the forest exhales we inhale. The sighing forest. Just imagine what a sound artist might do with such a notion....
I continue with my photographic practice and research alongside the usual fretting over the live performance of electroacoustic music. I thought here that I'd tie together these two practices by referring to an excellent interview I read the other day. Tim Carpenter is a photographer, a writer, and a co-founder of the photography book publishing imprint TIS Books. In this era of fast and dirty results in photography, and to an extent experimental music, his work might not be to everyone's taste because it eschews single image impact, focusing instead on the series, which requires a slow appreciation, a deep understanding of form and a respect for the history of the medium, three approaches which, as I've said, are not much in evidence these days. But his work and ideas have much to say to someone (like me) still learning the craft of photography and also to someone like me who spends most of his life managing the emergence of form in musical composition.
The article can be read here.
I'm simply going to take extracts from the article which mirror very well (and articulate far more effectively than I could) my own notions around artistic practice, formal considerations and even beauty, yes that. Finally he talks of 'new rurality' which, although reductive, wraps up very nicely most of what I'd consider myself to be doing as photographer from day to day in and around the Scottish Borders.
As I’ll explain more, my primary goal is to use a camera not as a recorder of thought, but as the instrument of thought.
I do think photography is the medium of the walker.
When one seeks to illustrate ideas, there’s rarely (never? maybe) any friction from the real world; nothing is transformed and nothing refuses to be transformed.
So, no, I’m not simply taking photographs; I’m calibrating the inside against the outside. And every once in a while, through constant shooting, I come upon a way of calibrating – a form – that seems true to both self and not-self.
..form IS the underlying pulse. We are form-making creatures; it’s the way we manage the chaos outside and are able to live moment by moment. We abstract from both inside and outside to create something in the middle, which is meaning. We are in a constant state of poesis – “the activity in which a person brings something into being that did not exist before.” This constant meaning-making could also be called “thinking.” Form-making IS thinking, the epistemological act. It’s also the calibration I was speaking of before. The problem is that the gap is unbridgeable and our desire for formal coherence is unquenchable. The longing for completion will never be satisfied.
When a person makes a thing that expresses the process of form-making, we have an aesthetic object. My belief is that the primary objective of a work of art is to communicate the ineffable from one idiosyncratic self to another. That which is effable – politics, economics, science &etc – can be adequately communicated outside of art. Which is to say that subject matter can be adequately communicated outside of art. So for me, the aesthetic object is to be judged a success or failure based on its formal ability to evoke cogency. Coherence. Beauty even.
The successful poem or song or picture is a fleeting connection between self and world. And it helped me immensely to calm that external flux in at least one way, by looking at the same streets and buildings and fields throughout the days and seasons and over the course of years. I really noticed when small things changed: a tree cut down, a house painted. But I also was made to focus more on the internal flux: what made me different on one day versus the next, or the next year.
Here in the Borders I'm fortunate to have become acquainted with a community of experimental film makers, the Moving Image Makers Collective (MIMC). The Borders is a semi-rural region with a low population, small towns and no universities, art schools or other large cultural institutions. It's therefore quite an admirable achievement to have over a dozen committed moving image artists in the one place. This is largely down to the work of those involved in establishing the Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival, founded by Richard Ashrowan and now run by a team of curators and administrators working out of Hawick as Alchemy Film and Arts.
I'm involved with MIMC in a group project to produce work for a forest event in September 2021 and as part of this I want to create a short film, to be screened more or less conventionally though in a unique site, and some kind of installed work for the forest itself, which allows for a much wider remit. The other artists are: Richard Ashrowan, Dawn Berry, Kerry Jones, Jane Houston-Green, Jessie Growden, Sukjin Kim, Douglas McBride, Jason Moyes and Nicoletta Stephanz. In the past my involvement with the group and the festival has been in the sonic and musical domain, with a spell as a trustee on the Board of Alchemy so I'm very pleased to come in now to such an experienced and established group as an emerging film-maker.
I've spent many years wandering in the Borders forests (I am after all The Inspector of Forests). Field recording, taking photos, listening, unburdening, watching deer run past me as I fouter with my camera's memory card, running away from civilisation, listening to the spiders scream - all the usual stuff. Now I have a commitment to put together a film project and here, even though I've been working this project over and over I'm my mind for some time now, I want to share some thoughts and details of my research. One of the problems I always face in a new project, especially outside of my usual domain, is that I come up with too many ideas. So before I wander around the peripheries let's begin with my current preoccupation. Tree stumps. Upturned trees blown over by the high winds at the top of a rise not far from Jedburgh, towards the Cheviots. I've discovered a 'graveyard of the elders', a region of the forest where all the elders rest, having in their death throes turned over massive lumps of earth, home to birds, insects and plant life. These are both the ears of the forest and portals into the secrets of the forests. If I can only find the proper and correct ritual or offering I can unlock these secrets and perhaps confess some of my own. An offering of wind and air, a small fire of twigs and leaves. Or a votive offering, something of our technology, or a baptismal rite by the small pool that appears in the shadow of the fallen trees after the rains.
All images are straight out of the camera. Taken with a Fujifilm X-T3 and a Fujinon XF35mmF1.4 R