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By: Michaela Nettell
Documenting a twelve-month Research Residency at Culpeper Community Garden
# 1 [22 July 2010]
Culpeper Community Garden nestles behind a Sainsbury's carpark off Liverpool Road in Islington. It has a secret, secluded aspect - once inside, amongst the tall trees and networks of raised beds, you feel a long way from the commotion of central London just a few metres beyond.
I was recently invited by Islington Exhibits and Cubitt Education to take up a Research Residency in the garden. It is an informal set up, I'm not obliged to make, do or present anything in particular, there is no suggested time frame, no necessary outcome.
I've decided though, that it will be a twelve-month project, that I will spend one year visiting Culpeper, observing the seasonal flows and fluxes, the shifts in colour, form, light and shadow, the people that come and go, the plants and wildlife that live there. And I'll see what happens. I'd like to develop a moving image work of some kind and I'd like to keep this blog to document my progress.
I've visited the garden four times so far, the first just to have a walk round and get a feel for its layout. The next few visits I brought a Sigma SLR loaded with Fugichrome Velvia slide film.
I'm endlessly fascinated and seduced by projections and I often use slides as a starting point in explorations of a place. I like to incorporate projection processes into my film and video-making and with this in mind I've been shooting series of images in the garden. Focusing on a section of path, a tree, a shrub I’ve been taking a sequence of perhaps six or eight frames, moving the camera very slightly each time. Not exactly pixilation and very rough and ready, but it'll be interesting to see how they come out, the rhythms they might create, whether they will work on a timeline as (crude) animations. I am interested in capturing little moments, glimpses.
I have been researching Marie Menken's work recently, particularly her 1957 film Glimpse of the Garden. I'm interested in ways she used magnifying glasses (in this and other projects) to reveal strange, ambiguous image-worlds within everyday objects around her. I'm also interested in what David Berridge calls her 'stop-start sensibility, an interest in momentum interfused with actual or potential interruption, lingering and delay’, her attention to light and shadow, to surface, to pattern...
There have always been a lot of people in the garden when I’ve visited, people of all ages and from all walks of life. I like to listen to the sounds of their voices, many of which I can’t understand – there is a strong Turkish community in that part of Islington. While the garden is a protective, relaxing place it is in fact quite noisy. The constant hum of traffic, roaring planes, shouts of children from a playground nearby almost drown out the closer, quieter sounds of insects and birds, rustling leaves, footsteps and voices. I'd like to capture these sounds. I wonder how they might affect the sequential photographs I've been taking. I imagine they might change the feeling completely.
# 2 [1 August 2010]
It’s always exciting to find a package of processed slide film in the letterbox, doubly so to unwrap it and hold each strip up to the light to see how it’s come out. I’ve got 4 reels back from the lab now, so around 90 frames to play with. Last week I went through the painstaking process of scanning each image into the computer (so I can import them into Final Cut Pro and create a movie sequence). A process that more than pays off, though, when you see them playing back on the timeline: always a bit of a surprise, and always a bit magical.
Even as digitized scans, the slides carry that richness and warmth that is so particular to film. It is worth the time, the expense and the few out-of-focus frames to get that quality of image. I also enjoy the delay, the anticipation between shooting and developing. It affords time to ponder and plan, to think ahead to the next phase.
90 frames aren’t many, so I’ve only managed a few tentative tests so far. But I’m quite excited by the results. The series create short, stuttering journeys - little glimpses. I can loop some of the sequences to extend their rhythms. Many are close-up details of plants and flowers so capture something of the seclusion and intimacy of the garden. The sequences are erratic, playful (“kind of snapshot-y” my boyfriend said). I don’t mind that, the garden is a light-hearted, playful place. The jumpiness is unusual for me though - although I like to draw some attention to the ‘animated’ nature of my work, I usually take care to use a tripod, to eliminate wobble and to allow for smooth transitions and delicate movements rather than quick, disjunctive cuts. I’m not quite sure how this will pan out…
On Thursday afternoon I made my first sound recordings. I was using a tiny microphone attached to my iPod so the recordings are faint and crackly, but I quite like that quality. They create a sense of space and suggest an environment, without spelling it out too clearly. Children’s voices drift in from a nearby playground; planes and cars are a steady drone in the background. Occasionally I captured a fly buzzing or footsteps passing by me - closer sounds that begin to define the space of the photographs, albeit ambiguously.
Afterwards I sat with some of the Culpeper members and talked about seasonal changes in the garden. Already summer is dying away and the colours, textures are changing. It has been unusually dry so the grass is looking parched, many of the colourful flowers have passed and the whole place feels more subdued. They told me how in the winter months when the green canopies are gone, the surrounding buildings become much more visible – more present in the space. It will be interesting to observe this transformation, the dialogue or interchange between garden and city.
# 3 [7 August 2010]
I attended an evening course at the LUX recently, and saw range of artists’ films from their archive: Margaret Tate’s film poems, Stan Brackhage & Carolee Schneeman’s painterly films, Kurt Kren’s structural experiments, John Smith’s witty montages. The course inspired me to try working more freely with photographs and static shots, to think differently about combining still images with moving ones, and about ways of constructing rhythms, loops, stanzas. I particularly remember Kurt Kren’s film Trees in Autumn, images of tangled, bare branches shot as single frames and appearing on the projection screen in rapid-fire succession. The silhouettes are cracks or ruptures across the screen, the flashing lines seem aggressive, violent but then you catch sight of a little bird in one of the trees. It is rhythmic, systematic but it is also natural and bodily. The images are suggestive of veins, synapses; also of shattered glass and explosions.
I’ve been reading an interesting essay by Ellen Mara De Wachter that discusses Laura Buckley’s work in relation to Paul Virilio’s notion of ‘picnolepsy’. De Wachter describes flows and interruptions, staccatos and fragmentations in Buckley’s installations that ‘correspond to the conflicted nature of consciousness’. Virilio’s state of picnolepsy, induced to some extent by speed and technology, refers to the disorienting montage of our vision and hearing, the cut-up of sounds and images we are constantly receiving, negotiating. I think again of Marie Menken and her ‘stop-start sensibility’.
My first animation tests seem to describe something of this staccato montage, and suggest a kind of dialogue between industry and nature. The disjunctive cuts and snap-shot rhythms are very much mechanical, processed representations of the garden. The machine is also ever-present through the hum of cars and planes in the audio recordings.
On my to-do list for the next week is: shoot some more reels of slide film (possibly using a magnifying glass to look closer at plant details), order more stock, cut and mount a selection of frames from the first 4 reels and do some projection experiments. I’d like to try superimposing two or more slides from a series – to combine multiple views of the same scene in a different kind of montage…
# 4 [11 August 2010]
Today I went to the Stephen Friedman Gallery to see work by the four artists shortlisted for the Dazed & Confused Emerging Artists Award – one of whom is Laura Buckley.
Buckley is showing a new installation, KZN, in which a video loop is projected through a suspended and rotating hexagonal prism. As it spins, the prism reflects fragments of the video image around the room while at the same time casting a heavy geometric shadow over the main projection image. The video appears to be shot on a hand-held camera as the artist walks through domestic gardens and industrial landscapes. She explores patterns of light and shade in tree canopies and on tarmac pathways. Obscured glass windows abstract objects into hazy, honey-coloured shapes.
The picture is constantly being redefined, cut-up, repeated and eclipsed by the Perspex prism, which has quite a weighty presence in the gallery space. No attempt is made to hide the apparatus of Buckley’s experiment (the huge installation projector, the large wooden plinth, the chunky speaker), rather our attention seems deliberately drawn to it, to her process of investigation and play.
Snippets of children’s voices filter through the electronic sounds from the speaker; a child’s hand appears in the video to spin a metal object for the camera. Full of primary colours and dancing shapes, the work is like an exploded computer game, a digital mobile.
Secondary reflections and refractions bounce off the hanging prism and travel around the room. I’m reminded of Peter Campus’s closed circuit camera installations. But unlike Campus’s works, interaction with the apparatus is not invited. In fact it wasn’t easy to approach the prism at all, the light was blindingly bright. Better I found to sit down on the floor and look up, as if from a child’s perspective in fact, at the kaleidoscope above and around me.
(I remember the children’s voices that drifted into my audio recordings in the garden, and think about what effect they have on the imagery.)
I was excited to discover that the winning artist Peter Ainsworth’s mysterious, beautiful photographs were shot in his father’s garden in London. In his introduction to the project he describes the domestic garden as being a ‘controlled and contrived space, one that often has ambiguous states.’ He refers to Tate’s 2004 exhibition The Art of the Garden, which unfortunately I didn’t see. There is some archived text on their website though, which is interesting to read:
“With an increasingly concentrated urban population, many people have become more distanced from nature, and a private garden space is an ever more precious asset. The idea of the garden remains strong in the popular consciousness, but for many it is precisely this - an idea.
The garden’s metaphorical associations grow more ambiguous and more extreme. For many contemporary artists it is still a site for reverie and imaginative potential, but it also stands for a lost world, a place that is neglected, interfered with and under threat.
To some, the garden reveals in microcosm what has happened to nature as a whole; controlled, cultivated, and encroached. The contemporary garden is one of extremes, where much is imagined and idealized, and imperfections and contrivances are celebrated: still perhaps an ‘arcadia’, if an unlikely one.”
This evening I did some projection tests with a few mounted slides. As soon as I switched the projectors on, the difference between the film images and my digitized scans became hugely apparent – the colours have that lovely, warm tint that had been ‘corrected’ by the computer, the picture is speckled by dust and hairs caught on the lens, textures of the wall merge with and become part of the photograph. And that amazing moment when the projector is turned on or off, the image slowly emerging or dissolving away into nothing.
I tried overlaying two slides from adjacent projectors, exploring the resulting patterns and double exposures. By moving my hand across one or other of the lenses I control how much of the image shines through. This might be an interesting way to generate animation sequences...
# 5 [25 August 2010]
While on holiday in Portugal last week, my boyfriend and I found ourselves seeking shelter from the baking heat and bustling crowds in Porto’s Crystal Palace Gardens. The sense of relief was immediate as we passed through the gates into the cool shade of the trees, as we walked alongside calming fountains and carefully laid flowerbeds. I thought about this impulse to escape the noise, confusion and tarmac-heat of the city. And how ‘natural’ spaces are invariably introduced to city plans as if to provide a respite from work/life/society.
While I was away I listened to some recordings of Tate’s 2008 conference ‘The New Conceptualist Garden’, in which landscape designers such as Monika Gora and Eelco Hooftman spoke about their practice. They discussed some of the tensions and paradoxes inherent in the idea of the garden, relationships between the man-made and the natural, between the artificial and the real. Here are some of the notes I made:
*Gardens are for people
*No man-made space can be natural
*Gardens are enclosures containing a protected ‘otherness’
*Gardens have defined boundaries
*Gardens are framed spaces
I’ve also been re-reading some Walter Benjamin essays, including 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'. I love his words on close-ups and enlargements, and on what he describes as the optical unconscious:
“... just as enlargement is not really concerned with simply clarifying what we glimpse ‘anyway’ but rather brings out wholly new structural formations in matter, neither does the slow-motion technique simply bring out familiar movement motifs but reveals in them others that are quite unfamiliar ...
Palpably then, this is a different nature that addresses the camera than the one that speaks to the eye ...”
I think back to my slides - the 'framed space' of Culpeper being re-framed by the camera lens; close-up and time-lapse shots revealing a 'different nature' from an already 'unnatural' space.
I plan to shoot another roll on Friday, rain or no rain!
# 6 [8 September 2010]
I spent an evening with my slide projectors this week, combining frames from my June/July shoots to create double exposure effects. Turning one bulb on and then the another, I thought about the differences between single and overlaid compositions, the way the quiet portraits of the individual shots are transformed into kind of noisy, more complicated images when a new layer is added. Where two slides overlap and combine, new forms are suggested and new associations are formed. There is a sense of ambiguity and changefulness in the composite image, a hint of movement almost.
I love that film projections are not quite static, that they have a fragile, hovering quality: they can and might disappear at any moment. These double-images seem to heighten that sense of suspension, they are in-between two moments, an amalgam, a fiction. While I have tried to combine the two layers subtly, masking out sections of one or other frame so that the double-image is not overpowering, there is still a sense of disjunction and a knowledge that the scenes have been assembled, constructed.
Like Fischli & Weiss’s Projection 4 (P), 1997, where double-exposed slides of mushrooms and other plants are projected over each other to create huge and dissolving composite scenes. A little more psychedelic than my experiments, but nevertheless interesting to compare:
"The translucency of the slide images only adds to the confusing morass of curvilinear forms that never quite reach a comfortable zone of complete abstraction. Each plant form represented is never whole or autonomous; even if a viewer tries to freeze one for a moment, it quickly becomes something else."
(from Slide Show, Darsie Alexander, Baltimore Museum of Art, 2005, pp. 99-100)
I went to Culpeper on Saturday morning, a nice time to visit as there weren’t many people around. After all the rain the garden was looking lush and green. I took a couple of rolls of slide film, focussing on a carefully planted vegetable patch, whose rows of what I think are onions and kale are framed by strings of white paper markers.
I also shot about 30 feet of super 8 film. Inspired by the idea of the seasonal exchange between garden and city, one potentially giving way to the other as the environmental conditions change, I’ve started looking at the buildings that surround the garden walls. At the moment the foliage is dense, and the houses, windows, architectural details are just snippets glimpsed (or glimpsing) through the green. But as the winter draws on and the leaves fall, I imagine the city will become much more visible, more present in the space.
The camera, a Canon AZ 814, was given to me by my mum’s ex-boyfriend, who used it when he was an art student in the 80’s. I’ve only used it in two or three projects, and am still a bit tentative handling it. But it is such a pleasure to hear it ticking away, to watch the counter turn; the stock feels quite precious and I enjoy the nervous excitement of not knowing how and if it will have come out. The eyepiece and viewfinder seem very small compared to my SLR and my digital cameras, and I really have to squint hard to get the focus right. The lens transforms the colours and texture of the garden around me - the prism-screen shading the scene in a kind of grainy-grey, parts of the frame given a kind of reddish tint where, I guess, the lens has aged. As I peer down into the body of the camera, the scene already feels quite ‘other’ to the actual landscape in front of me, it is framed, extracted and transformed.
# 7 [19 September 2010]
I went to Nettie Horn this week to see Sinter Werner’s latest show, Along the Sight Lines. I’ve been following Werner’s practice for a while now; she makes site-specific installations, collages, large-format slides and photo prints that explore the unstable, illusory experience of perception. Standing in front of her pieces feels a bit like looking through one eye and then the other and seeing the scene in front of you jump. My favourite piece in this show was a photo-collage, Milos IV (2010): Two black and white photographs showing a gnarly island rock are layered one on top of the other and box-framed. Following the lines of the rock’s nooks and crannies, Werner has carefully cut small shapes from the top layer to reveal the second image underneath, which is slightly out of focus. It is a subtle intervention, but enough to recall something of a 3D experience – that of peering through the holes and cavities in an actual rock face to the mysterious (fuzzy) darkness within. It’s interesting that, while the differently focused layers do create a kind of illusion of depth, the collage calls more attention to the very flatness of the photographs, and the dimensionality/physicality that they lack.
Talking to Paul Carey-Kent, Werner says of her practice: “It points up how you can’t really trust anything you perceive … there is not one truth, everything is subjective and changing all the time. And the world is mediated through 2D media, which you come to rely on.”
In the same conversation, she references Foucault’s 1967 lecture ‘Different Spaces’ and his idea of ‘heterotopias’ - alternative spaces that bring together within one actual place, various relations of proximity (emplacements) that seem incompatible in themselves. Like theatre and cinema auditoria, and like gardens.
“ … the theatre brings onto the rectangle of the stage a whole succession of places that are unrelated to one another; in the same way, the cinema is a very curious rectangular hall at the back of which one sees a three-dimensional space projected onto a two-dimensional screen; but perhaps the oldest example of these heterotopias, in the form of contradictory emplacements, is the garden … The traditional garden of the Persians was a sacred space that is said to have joined together within its rectangle four parts representing four parts of the world, with a space even more sacred than the others which was like the umbilicus, the navel of the world at its center (this was the location of the basin and the fountain); and all the garden’s vegetation was supposed to be distributed within that space, within that figurative microcosm.”
I remember that Peter Ainsworth described his father’s garden as a stage for his photography.
It is interesting that some of my newest slides have come back looking rather like an animation set – the lines of white paper flags demarcating the vegetable patch resemble miniature strings of bunting, and set up a curious sense of scale against the shoots and leaves.
# 8 [5 October 2010]
"Gardens have always attracted me because they are great artificial projects. Decorations, gazebos, rose beds, hedges and greenhouses never change. Greenhouses especially are a sort of sacred place..." - Artist Flavio Favelli
These last couple of weeks have been all about glass. Bubbles and glass. I’ve had a show at UCL, London (www.pattern-completion.net) so haven't had so much time to spend on my Garden project. But I’m happy to be back in my workroom today, with plenty of reading, writing, scanning, thinking and projecting to do.
I went to the BFI on Wednesday to watch František Vláčil’s short film Glass Skies. I discovered Vláčil’s work only recently, but was struck by his poetic approach to filmmaking. This piece tells the story of a boy’s fascination with the sky. We see him playing in his grandfather’s greenhouse, a model bird he sends soaring over the glass roofs breaking one of the panes. The boy runs away from the garden, to discover an airplane parked in a nearby field. He climbs into the cockpit and imagines taking off. Throughout the film, characters and objects are viewed through panes of glass, as reflections in mirrors or distortions in shiny aircraft-parts. Obscured-glass panels of the greenhouse transform figures into abstract blocks of colour; raindrops falling onto clear glass panes blot out the scene beyond; pools of water in the garden create rippling images and reflections.
On one level a poetic reverie on flight and light, the film has ominous overtones - the story implies a plane crash involving the boy’s father. The microcosm of the greenhouse, presented as an unreal place of mirage and magic, echoes the dangers of the outside/real world beyond.
Again, I’m reminded of the idea of the garden as a microcosm; and of the relationship between gardens, childhood and play.
# 9 [13 October 2010]
After what felt like a long time away, I visited Culpeper the other day to take a new batch of 35mm slides. It certainly feels autumnal now: bright and blustery, the colours are changing to darker greens, reds, oranges. Berries were falling around me as I walked under the canopies (it was a particularly windy afternoon) and the paths were littered with leaves.
I tried to explore a new area of the garden this time - the southwest corner near the compost heap - but I was quite uncertain as to what to shoot. I've been photographing in a rather haphazard, random way so far – simply responding to what I’m seeing/finding, capturing 'little moments' in a stop-start kind of way, without thinking ahead to how sequences will come together on a timeline. I realised I needed to look back over the images and shots I've already collated, to consider the sequences and patterns that are starting to form. I went back to Final Cut Pro and exported a rough edit of just over a minute's worth of scanned photographs. I set it playing in a continuous loop on my desktop and wrote some notes:
*Walking around, changes announced by the soundtrack
*Black spaces can be useful - pauses
*Difference between slow and fast sequences is like the difference between walking and running?
*Would be nice to see/hear different weather conditions – rain
*Pathways and walking – navigating the space, exploring
*The dark (underexposed) section looks like twilight and gives a very different feeling
This sense of walking is something I'd like to investigate further. And the differences between stopping to look and being on the move.
# 10 [20 October 2010]
I cut short a rather overwhelming visit to Frieze last Thursday to collect some digitised Super 8 rushes from Sendean Cameras – one reel from the garden, one reel of test shots for another project in development Hagspiel & Comp.
I'd peeped at the filmstrip before handing it in for the Telecine – the coiling thread of mysterious, miniature images – and was waiting in anticipation for the video version. The guys at Sendean had warned me my camera was in need of a service, having never been calibrated to take alkaline rather than mercury batteries. And unfortunately much of the garden footage did come out rather murky and dull.
The more successful shots are those looking over the trees and bushes to the buildings surrounding the garden walls – the stronger lines of the architecture lend some structure and definition to the frame. I’ve been thinking to use these clips to make a new ‘bubble’ installation, one that might be a sequel to my 2009 piece Fedora, which also explored ideas of shifting cities.
The footage of course has that very specific 8mm quality, which I’m not entirely sure how to deal with. I love the grainy-ness and the imprecision of the wavering image. But I’m not aiming to create a wistful or nostalgic piece, or one that has anything to do with home movies or obsolete technologies. So why use the film stock? It’s certainly not the easiest or most economical choice. One reason might be to try and capture this sense of ‘otherness’ that is characteristic of the garden. The unreality, the artificiality, the imaginary nature of the space. The film footage has a far-away, nebulous quality so unlike the close-up-super-HD-clarity of the digital image world.
A construction vehicle driving past seems incongruous in this far-away space, gives a jolt – disrupts the apparent softness of the scene as a reminder of the actuality of the city.