A reflection on the development of my ideas and work since September

Since my presentation of ‘POLITICALLY EMOTIONAL/EMOTIONALLY POLITICAL’ at the Flying Dutchman at the end of September my work has evolved greatly. Since finishing David Abram’s book ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’ I had to re consider the function of using written language in my work. This is because in this text Abram looks at the way in which the phonetic alphabet has developed from symbols within the landscape (the foot prints of animals, the sun and moon) into the symbols which I write with now that bare little resemblance to the natural world. Abram also speaks of the ways in which written language is problematic because when we are reading we are less aware of our surroundings. This concern stems from the fact that stories from that oral cultures that Abram has studied are so deeply tied to the land, the setting is an active participant in the story rather than a back drop on which human intervention plays out, that once it is written and distributed it looses all meaning, and the narrative can no longer adapt and evolve as it has been doing for its entire existence. Upon understanding this I felt it was important to abandon the presentation of written work and make work that was the total opposite, as it is the frustration of our disconnection from the natural landscape that I know is sitting at the core of my work and Abram describes the phonetic alphabet as one of the reasons for the breakdown of this relationship to be possible.

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POLITICALLY EMOTIONAL/EMOTIONALLY POLITICAL’ installation at The Flying Dutchman’

This is how I developed the soundtrack for ‘WE FEEL’, I took the words from ‘POLITICALLY EMOTIONAL/EMOTIONALLY POLITICAL’ and I read each letter out phonetically. I chose to speed this up a little before it came into the work in order to make sure that it sounded as un human as possible, this also changed the pitch so that the voice sounded like a child’s, which added a dimension of innocence and fragility to the work. The video aspect of this work was developed from a video that I came across a while ago, it is the first clip included in the final version, and now I feel that the lightening strike serves also as a kind of light bulb moment of realisation for the work. The other clips included were found by searching for specific things like ‘flock of birds’ etc. But what I was looking for in each video was not necessarily an ‘epic’ unfolding of nature but most importantly it was about how the human cameraman reacted to this phenomena. This was important to demonstrate my view that we have become so distanced from the natural world.

All of these natural phenomena that happen we previously had a spiritual connection to, through the experience of unusual phenomena we would feel that the earth is communicating with us. But, we can’t comprehend these things through quiet contemplation or even visceral, tangible experience anymore; instead we take out our smart phones (which are so incredibly unlike anything from the natural world one can easily forget that their components ever came from the ground at all) and record these phenomena, creating a barrier between the event and ourselves. I find this problematic because I think that this act of recording such things makes it impossible for us to be ‘in’ the event, we become only passive spectators. I think these recordings of natural spectacles also make us feel like we are able to control them in some ways too. Online I often see posts/videos/images that make a mockery out of nature, which for me demonstrates this disconnection to the highest degree. There are so many things that our ancestors had to learn about this earth for us to be where we are today, but because of the diminishing amount of time we spend in contact with the non man made world daily, we see unusual or incomprehensible natural occurrences as irrelevant, useless or even a source of comedy.

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Screen shot example

This all stems from man’s feeling of dominance over the natural world, and I believe that this comes from scientific knowledge. This is something that I have been discussing for a long time, as I believe that we rely so heavily on the way of scientifically looking at nature that we forget and reject to experience it emotionally. We trust science as a complete truth, exactly as religious faiths treat their scriptures as the absolute truth, but in my opinion science is only one means of looking at the world. For example, in September I went up into the rolling landscape of Farnham Park in the middle of the night because there was a very dramatic thunderstorm playing out without any rain. I stood vulnerably in the flat landscape until the adrenaline became too much and I had to retreat to the shelter of the trees. With every crack of thunder my heart leapt into my mouth and with every flash of lightning the landscape around me was exposed in such intricate detail. My senses were running wild, I felt so much fear and freedom simultaneously, there was no guarantee that I was safe, there was no height or medical restrictions to this experience, I was experiencing the forces of this wild and beautiful planet completely. Although before this experience I was scientifically aware of what causes a lightening storm, the molecules rubbing together, the combination between cool and warm air etc. none of that mattered when I was stood in that field with my senses ignited by the world. I couldn’t help thinking about what relationship our ancestors would have had with such an overwhelming event, because when we lived closely with the land and didn’t have our concrete homes to protect us, a storm like this would have been impossible to ignore as we can now. Of course I think it is incredible that we can find out such incredibly detailed information, but I believe that the analytical and calculable ways that we present these studies devalues all of the mystery and magic of these sensuous events.

It is this removal of mystery that is perhaps my biggest concern with our faith in science. Because we feel that there is already a proven and exact answer for everything, we no longer question things in any other form. I guess what this is coming down to is the perspective that science is a new form of religion, which paralyses us to understand or think about the world emotionally, or in any other way. These ideas are all heavily rooted in Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous, near the end of the book Abram notes

‘A civilisation that relentlessly destroys the living land it inhabits is not well acquainted with truth, regardless of how many supposed facts it has amassed regarding the calculable properties of its world.’

This destruction of the world though our ill informed decisions is what really terrifies me about our relationship to nature. It is at this point where my work goes from personal observations and emotions to the global and political. I believe that this disembodiment from our place in nature has created a huge shift in our political values. Especially in recent global developments, like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, where we can see the effect of the screen on peoples inability to think rationally and emotionally about the planet as a whole. Here I believe it is important to think about the effect of memes on the American election, this is something that I aim to explore in my work before I am able to write about it. But what I can deduct from these events is that economics and comedy is at the centre to our beliefs and political passion, instead of our relationship to each other as natural evolutions of this earth.

I think it would actually be beneficial for me to start looking at the Gothic literature I have studied previously, because of its documentation of the shift in society from religion to science. From what I remember of reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, there is a lot of iconography of man turning into God with the birth of science, and the fear of the natural world presented again with the symbol of lightning. In Macbeth as well I remember the subversions of the natural order that effect fatal endings for the characters. This period of literature coincides with the scientific developments happening in England during and after the Industrial revolution, so I think it would be really beneficial for me to study these texts again in this context, to see how increased scientific knowledge and security effected societies relationship with the natural world. In my opinion the gothic is still explored in popular culture today, especially in films such as Ex-Machina (Alex Garland, 2015) and TV shows such as Black Mirror (Charlie Brooker, 2013-2016).

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Still from a film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’

I think it is important to note here that these ideas of human dominance over the natural world, and the way in which we have made ourselves ‘above’ nature with our tools and buildings etc. was considered in the presentation of ‘WE FEEL’. After seeing the Infinite Mix exhibition I was keen to attempt to create a similar space that would allow viewers to have this fully immersive experience. I then had this idea to install the screen so that the audience would have to look up, in order to change their relationship with viewing digital work. Because the work so closely mimics YouTube compilation videos I really felt that I needed the presentation of it to push it out of this binge watching material and raise it onto a more valuable level. The way in which the viewer has to lie underneath the screen, surrounded by the laughter, confusion and awe of the camera men and women from these samples of found footage and my hypnotic hum of phonetic language, also creates the impression that these natural phenomena are physically beyond us. Perhaps this is not so correct because I believe actually that they are apart and equal to us, but because of our current state of dominance over the entire natural landscape I think it is important to create experiences that remind an audience that we are inferior to these natural phenomena, but we have found ways to protect our inferiority through our social and physical architectures. In the critical feedback to this work I was told that this installation made it much more difficult to view the work and perhaps distracted from the content of the videos. So instead of focusing on creating installations I should let the videos do the work for me, but it was a beneficial experience to consider how the work was to be shown on such an ambitious level.

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‘WE FEEL’ Installation

I have maybe two or three more videos I am in the process of making that are similar in style and content. One is specifically of natural disasters, studying the way in which everything is filmed, even when we are in danger and how people go into these perilous situations just to acquire the footage for their YouTube channels. The second explores the relationship between humans and animals, looking at how animals interact with human built technologies and how the captivity of zoos turns animals into a spectacle for human consumption. Another video idea that I have been thinking about looks at children’s reality TV shows I watched whilst growing up such as Raven and Jungle Run, which show young children facing fictional dilemmas in fabricated surroundings. I think this is interesting to look at as it shows the diminishing amount of time we spend outside as kids (for me watching TV and for the children taking part in the TV shows themselves), and the way in which the natural world becomes only a backdrop or a set design for these false narratives to unfold. The education of children is also something that I think about a lot in the context of my work because I think it is hugely problematic how the school system of academic curriculum functions. I feel in many ways that this system of testing and grading is only a judgement of how suitable a child is for economically valuable industries, and does not actually challenge anything about a child’s emotional intelligence. This system often leaves many children feeling stupid and unable to contribute to society, causing them to grow up following a strict set of rules, get a job, get a mortgage, a home, marriage, children, pension that only aids the system that has repressed them. Education at primary level effects how we go on to view and experience the world, so this is something very fragile that I currently feel is problematic and poorly handled.

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Still from CITV show ‘Jungle Run’

I have also been finding ways to make my archive of screen shots exterior to my computer. This is an archive which I have naturally accumulated over the past year or so, where I screen shot anything I come across on the Internet that I find particularly weird or that demonstrates the beliefs I have about societies disembodiment from sensuous experience. An example of this is the screen shot included below. This is a still image from a compilation video I found of the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. This is the way in which the maker of the compilation video decided to transition between the clips, which reflects the accessible technology of basic editing software’s such as iMovie, but more importantly presents a disconnection, lack of empathy and understanding of the events taking place in the footage. I have been printing these small and strange images off and have worked with finding compositions in the physical world. I found a teletubbies table cloth which I have been working with as it reflects my interest in children’s TV and it depicts a ‘natural landscape’ that has been cartoon-ised and made idyllic. I also include images that I have taken with an iPod and some of the shopping lists from my ‘lost lists’ archive as examples of things I have found out in the world to contrast against these digital symbols. It has also been important for me to include image of political figures that usually hide behind some of the more humorous images as a symbol of how we are distracted from the problems we should be focused on, the pleasurable abilities of the Internet immobilise us from productive political activism that was rife in the 60’s. I am now going to experiment with these compositions on a smaller scale that mimic the size of screens that we commonly interact with. I also want to experiment with finding ways to put finished compositions on light boxes, so they become illuminated in the same way that mimics the screen, but they are handmade, static and physical. This will resemble the format of illuminated advertising spaces that we see at bus stops and other public spaces, as I feel that as the Internet continues to develop it is becoming less useful for it’s users and more useful as an advertising space. This technique is used by Cedric Christie in his Icons series that explores the relationship between artists and branding.

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Still from ‘Nepal Earthquake 2015’ compilation video

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Recent experiments with tangible digital collage ideas

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Installation of Cedric Christie’s ‘Icons’ series 

I am also doing experiments with Siri where I speak to it in ways that allow me to uncover the algorithms that create it. This was inspired by Steve Cottingham’s ‘Conversations with Eliza’ (2011) as I am interested to perform the same sort of experiment but with an algorithm that we use for daily, mundane tasks. Siri is also not capable of holding lines of conversation so I am aware that I will not be able to have a conversation quite as long, but I do not intend to ask Siri about myself or about art instead I intent to ask Siri about Siri. This idea also came to me after seeing Alicja Kwade’s use of Siri to read out genesis in her resent commission at the Whitechapel. In particular I am interested in asking Siri existential questions, as the way that Siri is programmed to deal with these questions is often comedic, which I find as problematic as the way in which the Internet deals with actual problems through meme’s. I am not sure exactly where this work is going but I hope that it will be used as the soundtrack for a future video or perhaps this could be a sound piece all on it’s own.

After all of the documentary work that I have found of particular interest recently, in particular the work and style of Lawrence Abu Hamdan and Rachel Rose, I have thought about making experimenting myself with this form. In particular I am interested in looking more at the Voyager Golden Records, and possibly using the images and sounds that are included on them to analyse the way in which we have chosen to present civilisation and create a self portrait of the earth. In the style of Rachel Rose’s ‘Everything and more’ I also want to include interviews with Ann Druyan whose brainwaves were included on the disc, as this demonstrates the enormous responsibility of representing our entire civilisation:

“I entered a laboratory at Bellevue Hospital in New York City and was hooked up to a computer that turned all the data from my brain and heart into sound. I had a one-hour mental itinerary of the information I wished to convey. I began by thinking about the history of Earth and the life it sustains. To the best of my abilities I tried to think something of the history of ideas and human social organization. I thought about the predicament that our civilization finds itself in and about the violence and poverty that make this planet a hell for so many of its inhabitants. Toward the end I permitted myself a personal statement of what it was like to fall in love.”

This is a huge subject to tackle and I don’t want to rush into the idea so I will continue to research this subject with the aim to make the documentary only when I feel that I have enough recourses to do so.

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15 of the 116 images included on the Voyager Golden records

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