Final Developments of ‘FATAL / FERTILE’ and its installation in the degree show

After the disappointing outcome of my initial experiment ‘CONSERVATION’ (a compilation video of found footage from multiple sources that documented the global practice of wildlife conservation, narrated by audio descriptions sampled from BBC wildlife documentaries and a digitally manipulated version of a score from a Disney nature documentary) I decided to focus my attention onto footage from BBC’s ‘The Hunt – Episode 7: Living with predators (Conservation)’ only.

In the first experiment I concentrated on footage of a Harpy Eagle chick being removed from its nest, with an artificial voice recounting the opening title card from an episode of Disney’s ‘True-life adventure’ series. This title card assures viewers that the scenes they are about to witness are in fact authentic, and that this authenticity is due to the development of new photographic techniques. I found this short text to be reflective of the ways in which we readily trust visual information, as well as reflective on the ways in which we seek authenticity in nature as a form of entertainment. This text is from an episode that was made and aired in the 1950’s, so by layering it over footage of a very recent nature documentary I was able to illustrate how far photographic technologies have developed since then, as well as create an uncomfortable viewing experience that reflects man’s relationship to animals.

The second experiment fixated on footage of a tranquillised polar bear, with an artificial voice reciting a science forum post that details the ingredients of tranquilliser darts used on carnivores. Both these experiments are very literal representations of the core ideas I am currently working with. ‘AUTHENTIC INTIMATE MOMENTS’ deals with the way in which we look at animals through the TV set, believing in authentic representations of wild life whilst simultaneously destroying and neglecting it (to watch TV you must neglect other things, like being outside and must be complicit in the TV sets use of energy). ‘TRANQUIL POLAR BEAR’ on the other hand deals with the contradictions of wildlife conservation, where at the same time as it is critical it is also harmful. Wild life conservation stands as a testament to the complicated relationship between humans and global ecology. Throughout all of our technological developments we have not only neglected our local ecology but have destroyed many parts of it. Conservation is our attempt to put right what we have done wrong, and the consequences of that is brutal and uncomfortable.

These were useful tests in terms of establishing my interests and aims of the work, but I still felt that the use of imagery made these experiments too literal. To counteract this, and to incorporate my belief that these visual depictions distort our understandings of animals, I went through a process of re-recording the footage of the tranquillised polar bear. To do this I filmed the footage being played on a large CRT monitor on a digital camera. I then played this footage from the digital camera on the TV screen and recorded it again. I repeated this process until the footage had been completely obscured. I then ordered these clips in reverse chronological order, so that the original footage is slowly revealed from the unrecognisable mess of pixels. Processes such as this are integral to my work as they demonstrate the incapabilities of technology to capture completely truthful images.

I then added a digitally manipulated version of a dramatic score sampled from one of Disney’s ‘true-life adventure’ documentaries. I altered this sound to fit with each re recording, so that it starts off at 15% speed, and quickens with every new re recording. This created an eerie yet tranquil introduction to the piece, which allows the context of the work to be slowly revealed to the viewer. Yet again, this process was inspired by Alvin Lucier’s ‘I am sitting in a room’, but instead of allowing the audience to see how material develops through re recordings I have reversed this chronology in order to ask the audience for their patience in letting the original material be revealed to them.

On reflection of this test I have been very pleased by its outcome, not only does it utilise my critique of sound, wild life conservation and nature documentaries, it also reflects my interest in the physical limitations of technology. I feel that this work is almost resolved, but I would like to see it displayed on the monitor it was filmed on, for it to be a fully realised work.

Despite the success of ‘TRANQUILISE’ I still felt that any moving image work inside the greenhouse would distract from the architecture of the greenhouse itself, and would therefore be using the greenhouse as a frame for the video work. Having a screen with moving images within the work I also felt would contradict my critique of our cultural focus on the sense of sight, and therefore I decided that the work shown in the greenhouse setting should be purely auditory.

I therefore went back to working with audio descriptions for the blind taken from BBC wild life documentaries. I chose to use only documentaries that were narrated by David Attenborough, as I feel that he is a particularly poignant symbol of the British publics relationship to global ecology. This focus on David Attenborough’s narration of nature documentaries was the focus of Rowena Harris’ recent work ‘After Attenborough’. In this online work Harris compares footage of the same species of plant from a 1995 documentary to a 2012 documentary. Not only does this demonstrate the technological developments of the camera equipment in that time (thus commenting on the impossibility of completely objective documentary making), but it also touches upon how rapidly our scientific understanding of plant and animal life is expanding.

The lasting implications of these increasingly intimate scientific understandings of global ecology is something that greatly concerns me. In his 2009 text ‘Why look at animals?’ John Berger reflects on the distance created between humans and other animals due to scientific observations; “Animals are always observed. The fact that they can observe us has lost all significance. They are the objects of our ever-extending knowledge. What we know about them is an index of our power, and thus an index of what separates us from them. The more we know, the further away they are.” This is why I have felt it so critical to work with the audio descriptions sampled from BBC nature documentaries, as I feel that they demonstrate our emotionally distanced understandings of these animals, depicted in the monotonous voices and scripted content.

In this first experiment I used a similar technique to the way in which I made ‘ALERT TONES’. I took audio samples from the BBC documentaries of animal calls merging with the programmes cinematic score and then digitally manipulated them to create slow and harrowing ambient tracks. Each sample was relatively short, lasting only a couple of seconds, and so I repeated each sound in order to create an obviously constructed soundscape. I then overlaid this composition with a selection of audio descriptions ordered at random, which have also been slowed down to 60% speed in order to emphasise the ridiculousness of the monotonous voice.

This initial experiment went down well with tutors and peers but I still felt that there was room for development and improvement. To do this I collected more audio descriptions for the blind from BBC nature documentaries and audio samples of animal calls mixing with the programmes score. I then selected the audio descriptions on the basis that they described natural phenomena in unnerving ways, often giving the animals human qualities.

To more precisely select animal calls mixing with the programmes score I took the episode ‘Jungles’ from the recent series ‘Planet Earth II’ and cut out all of David Attenborough’s narration. This leaves only the score and the field recordings of animals, which was useful for me to find the perfect sound samples but also stands as a testament to my critique of how the score manipulates our perception of these animals and in many ways drowns them out.

I then constructed a much more complex soundscape of the animals that continuously develops and changes throughout the piece. I assembled this around a forced narrative that I strung together with the audio descriptions. Creating this fabricated narrative I felt was important to really complete the work as it reflects the way in which this programmes are edited and I also believed it would give the audience something to follow as opposed to randomly selected audio descriptions. I wanted the soundscape to provoke mixed feelings in the viewer in order to demonstrate the manipulative capabilities of sound and therefore the work is at times humorous, soothing and harrowing.

The development of this work was heavily influenced by the artist Patrick Brill, under his pseudonym Bob and Roberta Smith, ‘s yet to be released work ‘Make your own damn LP’. In this 23 minute long track the artist layers a calm electronic voice reciting banal instructions and descriptions over continuously changing music that develops from Rock music to Jazz music, electronic to ambient throughout. These two compositions will be played on two separate turntables, ensuring that the work will never be heard in the same way. The utilisation of the artificial voice alongside emotionally charged music, I feel, comments on our current loss of culture due to standardisation.

My ideas around the greenhouse as a stage for the work have been continuously developing throughout this process. I started off thinking about the greenhouse as a dark empty space that an audience would walk into unknowingly, guided only by a soundscape. I then wanted the greenhouse to be a set in which you would discover multiple different components that made one whole work, such as different videos playing on screens and multiple speakers. This then led me to think about the green house as a characterisation of a middle aged, middle class British male, but seeing as I have had limited experience with set design I did not feel that these ideas were viable and I also believe that they were far removed from the original intentions of the work and actually contradicted some of the critiques I was trying to make. I then began incorporating red carpet into a green house full of houseplants with a TV set at the focus of the assemblage, in order to talk directly about the cinematic depictions of nature through wildlife documentaries. Once I had decided that I no longer needed a moving image element in the work I was left with only a green house full of plants.

As this erratic development of ideas shows, before the degree show set up and the erection of the green house, I had been struggling to visualise how the greenhouse was going to function beyond simply housing my sound piece. In the meantime I had collected discarded green house items such as broken pots, old wheelbarrows and plants, but I still did not feel that putting them in the greenhouse with the sound piece would create a truly engaging and critical work. On reflection I knew that this was utilising the architecture in a very obvious way and what I really wanted to do was to subvert the space of the green house instead of constructing even more artifice.

Once the greenhouse was erected I was able to consider the space more precisely. I had purposefully chosen a greenhouse made with polycarbonate sheets rather than glass in order to obscure the viewer’s perspective both outside and inside the greenhouse. Once I had tested and installed the soundbar into the space I was keen to leave it as minimal as possible, in order to allow the sound work to dominate the space. Despite this I also felt that it was crucial to have other elements in the space that would encourage viewers to stay, so I installed upholstery foam as flooring inside the greenhouse to make it more comfortable for viewers to sit and listen. I also found the aesthetic qualities of this material interesting, as it is both recycled and domestic. In conversations with peers and tutors the subject of the greenhouse as an object of light kept on recurring and thus I decided to surround the green house with multiple LED lights on stands. This addition creates an intense artificial light within the greenhouse that not only references the artificiality of growth within greenhouses but also plays on the aesthetics of film sets, reminding viewers of artificial constructs. One final addition to the greenhouse was small, metallic animal stickers purchased from a children’s toy shop. I felt that these stickers directly reflected the prolific cultural consumption of idyllic representations of nature, that contradict the current reality of mass extinctions. I wanted these stickers to be small and subtle interventions in the space that would only be noticeable once you had spent a prolonged period of time with the work. The hope is that one will be glanced at accidentally and then more will be searched for and discovered whilst the sound piece develops.

Throughout this set up process I have been consistently referring to the aesthetic presentations of work that I came across in the Sonic Acts exhibition ‘The noise of being’, Amsterdam 2017. All the works in this show dealt with the relationship between the body and developing technologies. The aesthetic presentation of these ideas was often very clinical, in particular Joey Holder’s installation ‘Ophiux’. But other works such as Pinar Yoldas’ ‘The Kitty AI, Artificial Intelligence for Governance’ utilised humour and comfort, whilst still reflecting on apocalyptic themes. This show has been critical to the development of my recent practice as it has allowed me to see that there is already a group of artists that are dealing with similar topic to me, but in a much more refined and ambitious manner.

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Joey Holder – ‘Ophiux’ installation in Sonic Acts ‘The Noise of Being’ exhibition

In reflection, I feel that the development of this work has been generally successful. My biggest struggle throughout the development of this project has been narrowing down its focus. I started this project with ideas about wildlife conservation, the cultural effects of cinema, the Internet and scientific understandings of animals, the proliferation of portable music devices and the representation of global ecology in nature documentaries. Although all of these topics are intimately linked I feel that it has been a struggle to fully address any of them coherently, and instead all of these critiques and ideas exist in the work. This overwhelming theoretical context to my practice has often stunted development and made it difficult to make deliberate decisions, which I fear may have resulted in a work that could be seen as confusing. In hindsight, I would have narrowed down the focus of the work as early as possible to avoid confusion and prioritise the ideas that I believe to be the most important.

Within this project I have been able to develop techniques of digital audio manipulation that I started working with in previous works such as ‘ALERT TONES’. Focusing purely on audio has allowed me to reflect more significantly on the manipulative qualities of sound and it’s sensory importance in our navigation of the world. This has also allowed me to utilise the influence of works by musicians such as Brian Eno, William Basinski and John Cage to create a sound scape that allows an audience to reflect on time and space.

I believe that the audio is the strongest element to this work as it depicts the ridiculousness and artificiality of our relationship to global ecology concisely. After listening for only a little while the composition of repetitive animal calls can be immediately recognised as a construct, and thus this soundscape lies on the illusory line between fact and fiction. I wanted the soundscape to provoke mixed feelings in the viewer in order to demonstrate the manipulative capabilities of sound and I feel that this has been achieved as the work is at times humorous, soothing and harrowing.

Speaking practically, I would have liked the green house to be bigger in scale and to have more control of lighting in the works installation (I think it would work best in a lowly lit room). This was something that was not possible due to expenses, risk assessments and time, but if I were able to realise this project again on a larger scale I think that this work has the potential to be much larger in its ambition. I also regret not having more experience with sculptural assemblage before the construction of this work as I often struggled to consider what was best for the work contextually and practically and was not able to make critical decisions until the last minute.

Ultimately I believe that this has been a successful work which incorporates and reflects many of the ideas around the causes and effects of the Anthropocene. In particular, the work provides a space which encourages an audience to reflect on artificiality and our perspective of non-human animals.