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 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....
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
Some people have been asking me about the making of a recent film, Is It Beautiful? (13:34) . The film is built around a road trip, actually lots of different road trips rolled into one. The childhood trip, the wayward adolescent trip, the lover's escape, the older person's Sunday drive. I filmed the road trip sections to look like a nostalgic memory-laden affective tripped-out journey through the hills and moors, rising up, winding and descending with the road itself. The A68 south of Jedburgh where I live does all this on a series of tight bends as it climbs up to the Carter Bar, the Border between Scotland and England.
I filmed it using 'the best camera in the whole world', a Fuji X-T3, and different lenses depending on the shot, a 35mm prime, a 90mm prime and a 55-200mm zoom. I tied different coloured gels over the lenses with an elastic hair band from my daughter's make-up box to simulate the Super-8 look that we've come to expect from 60s or 70s road trips, at least in my imagination. Then the shot of the Polaroid to complete the set. Why that decade or era? Well there was a time, maybe a moment, maybe a few years, when it seemed as if people meant what they said, that thing about peace and love and changing the world for the better, before it all turned to dust (like the time before that), a loop replayed with every new generation but with a greater sense of purpose if you lived through the particularly intense experience. So we all sat back in the car and flew away, listening to whatever soundtrack fitted the day.
There's actually more to the film than the road trip. It also dips into the themes of disappointment, the instability of signs, symbols and icons, conflicting ideas over land use, the problematic notion of borders and nationalism. The flags of Scotland and England, the beacon at the Border, formerly lit to warn of advancing armies, the Easter cross on the mound, the red flags warning trespassers of live firing at the missile range, the sickly yellows and greens clouding a land turned to sheep desert or military training ground. Then the references to three events in my life which dispelled much of my naivety about the world - the theft of some of the best music of a generation to embellish war footage, witnessing the pollution of a quiet valley, a march of bigotry and hatred which cynically hijacked the worlds' largest arts festival.
The music I played myself, a simple folky/country-rock chord progression on an overdriven electric guitar played through a valve amplifier (actually Pancho and Lefty by Townes van Zandt, something of a road movie in itself) and the sounds of a set of hand-made steel tube marimbas. I take no credit for the silences.
It all 'came to me' as one concept, probably bubbling away for years. Anyway it's out now and I hope you enjoy the film. Thanks for reading.
Is it Beautiful on Vimeo
Perhaps not so banal, though, if one turns from tourist maps to a map of operational and projected military installations in southern France. It will readily be seen that this vast area, which has been earmarked, except for certain well-defined areas, for tourism, for national parks - that is, for economic and social decline - is also destined for heavy use by a military which finds such peripheral regions ideal for its diverse purposes. These spaces are produced.
Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space
Lord Glenamara My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that if a choice is to be made, those of us who live in that area would much rather see an extension of military training in Otterburn rather than in the north Pennines area which is much more important than the remote area of Otterburn from the point of view of tourism?
Viscount Cranborne My Lords, I draw the noble Lord's attention to the declaration of commitment to the national parks made by the Ministry of Defence. I am sure the noble Lord is familiar with that document. As regards the second part of his question, it is the Government's policy to release land in national parks which becomes surplus to defence requirements. We shall give advance notice of any impending disposal of redundant land to national park authorities.
Lord Williams of Elvel …. It is perfectly possible that the noble Viscount might say that we should bomb the Brecon Beacons and shell Snowdonia where Ministry of Defence lands are within a national park.
Snippets from HL (House of Lords) Deb 08 December 1992 vol 541 cc85-8.