When you’re thinking about making art it’s easy to find resonances for your projects everywhere. Now I am reading a new book Archipelago by Monique Roffey. I chose it only because I recently enjoyed another of her books The White Woman on The Green Bicycle. It has only just occurred to me that the title may have unconsciously appealed to me because I am staying in a country with lots of islands (although I am not near the coast).

The Archipelago referenced are however in the Caribean and Pacific. The novel starts in Trinidad and a father and his daughter journey to Los Roques and the Galapagos Islands.

Roffey wrote the book as a response real events, to actual floods and to climate change. She writes:

“When my brother had his home knocked down in a flood four years ago, in 2008, climate change became very real for me, and very close. The planet is melting. We all know this. But when the effects of climate change touched my family in a catastrophic way, I knew I should pick up my pen and write.”

CityWater-copyI hadn’t thought so much about how my Canadian footage might be read in terms of actual floods. I was thinking of the water as being metaphorical only, but perhaps shouldn’t forget real disasters and their impact.

Archipelago is also a book about escape, mental and physical. The travellers do not escape flooding because they find the same physical problems (earthquakes, flooding, broader climate change) in the other places that they visit. They do seem to be finding some escape from their feeling of trauma and inner turmoil which I guess may ultimately lead them to go home at the end of the novel. The wife/mother of the family is not on the journey with them because she has dealt with flooding and the loss of their son in another way, by retreating into herself, by ‘going to sleep,’ becoming mentally ill.

The International Language Service

Map2In Hämeenkyrö near where I am staying there is a second hand store and in the second hand store I found a brilliant book called the ‘International Language Service.’ It is published by a hotel in Mariehamn and is probably from the 80s although I can’t see a publishing date and am just guessing from the design. It’s a handy (although huge, not pocket sized) guide to all the phrases you might need whilst on holiday and they are included in Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, German, Italian, Spanish, French and English. What amused me about the books is the illustrations, but also how every few pages you get the same map of Mariehamn. When I first flicked through the book I didn’t realise that it was a map of the town and I thought it was a map of the hotel itself. I imagined this massive complex that you would never have to leave, including shopping, restaurants and leisure facilities all in one place. The repeated map is like a reminder of the total complex in which you are staying, housing all nationalities who can now happily communicate.

I would like to try and make a video including the book, making a narrative by using a series of the phrases combined with pictures from the book. I am not sure I have the equipment to do it here (I am imagining zooming in and panning around the pages) but could plan it out and do a rough version to finish it later. I am sure it is something to do with being at a residency in another country with people from several nationalities that has piqued my interest in this language guide.
A little bit of research tells me that Mariehamn is an autonomous territory under Finnish sovereignty. But I am thinking about imagining the hotel is called Mariehamn and is the massive complex I initially thought.

Experiment & authority

Yesterday I visited Tampere which is about 40mins drive from where I am staying. Trips out from the residency site always involve me taking my camera and phone for taking video footage (this is the video equipment I have at the moment). I am just playing and not looking for anything in particular. Here I became a little bit obsessed with a line of orange floats spanning the river.

I also captured quite a nice moment where two friends walked into the shot and one of them posed for a photograph for the other, who was now off camera. PosingI don’t think I will use it for anything as it’s not particularly good footage, but it reminded me of watching John Smith’s Girl Chewing Gum. Then coincidentally today I came across a reference to that same video on the blog for no.w.here’s Open School. I didn’t know that in 2012 Smith made another related video, Soft Work. The no.w.here blog post is interesting, talking about the different power dynamic’s in Smith’s voice in the two different films. In Girl Chewing Gum he is authoritative, his voice apparently instructs the person on screen as to what they should do. I would like to see the more recent work in which he is apparently more doubtful and worrying about making the footage into a coherent work. I am interested in what the tone of voice is within artworks, this has also made me think a bit about the relation of narration to image and how direct or indirect it can be in different video works.

Just as an aside, I also wonder whether the difference in tone/approach has something to do with Smith’s age and experience? Perhaps wanting to present himself with more certainty as a young artist/filmmaker and becoming more comfortable with presenting doubt when you are older or more established. This might be a totally misplaced suggestion but is an interesting idea in theory.

History of a landscape

Whist in Finland I decided to read Simon Armitage’s Walking Home in which he walks and then writes about the Pennine Way. I thought it would be interesting to read something about a landscape and a journey that is quite local to where I live (Yorkshire) whilst I am staying in a totally different place. Although I didn’t think about it at the time of choosing the book, I guess this relates to what I am hoping to explore in making the short video about imaginary journeys/places too.

Reading the book has made me realise how little I know about the landscape in the UK and about how to read its history and geography. The term ‘landscape’ perhaps conveys the idea of the environment as a kind of panorama to be taken in, rather than something that is lived in and experienced and that has a social and geological history to it too. Maybe I need to think a bit more about what I want to do with my images of landscape and why. Or, probably, I just need to start doing something and see what happens!

Also this week I watched a film about another UK journey. Robinson in Ruins by Patrick Keiller. The film is made up of a series of fixed-frame shots of different landscapes, urban and rural, around Oxfordshire (incidentally the area where I grew up although it’s another landscape I don’t know much about).

Formally this use of still-ish images and first person narration is a method I have used to make a a video before and has kind of been my default approach to starting to think about making video again. But it somehow doesn’t seem right to take long, lovely looking landscape shots of the area around where I am staying in Finland and to structure these into a video. After all what would I say about them? What would the story be? This feeling is, I think, to do with it being a landscape that I know nothing about but also that I have have no personal investment with. The video where I did use this method was of a bus stop very near to where I lived and I am currently thinking about making a couple of others centred on my own home and the views from it.

One thing that didn’t register when I bought a copy of Robinson in Ruins last year after seeing Keiller’s commission at Tate Britain, is that it was made as part of a wider research project on The future of landscape and the moving image. To quote the project website: since 2007 the project “has explored received ideas about mobility, belonging and displacement, and their relationship with landscape and images of landscape, in a context of economic and environmental crisis.” So I am sure there is more of interest for me to look at there.

Imaginary journeys

Promenade copy
At the moment I am in Finland doing a residency at a place called Arteles. One of the things I would like to do whilst I am here is to make a video using landscape footage, some taken a while ago when I was in Canada and some more new footage to be filmed here.

I have had the Canada footage for a little while and not been sure what to do with it…in fact I am still not sure! I have been experimenting with overlaying images and using filters so the footage becomes more abstracted and am thinking about using it to represent internal, imagined or dream landscapes in some way. Perhaps I will have some kind of story recounted or narrated alongside the footage, telling of someone who dreams of travel but doesn’t. I am thinking about representing a sort of tension between the desire to go out and explore the world and to stay at home and enjoy what is local and familiar. The footage thus far shows running water and forms of transport, movement and stillness in the images are quite important I think, although really I am just playing with trying to find a visual language and hopefully not getting too enamoured with and bogged down in whizzy effects.

Train2 copyThis resonates a little bit with a film I watched the other day “My Diner with Andre.” Two friends meet and converse over dinner (the majority of the film is in fact a long conversation). One of them has been travelling and seeking spiritual enlightenment whilst the other stays at home in New York worrying about day to day life. They talk about how these different strategies are both, in some sense, responses to a contemporary individualist society. This is a theme I am interested in and also I am interested in how the film is a conversation. It starts as the internal monologue of one of the characters and then the rest of the film is them talking.
RWaterSequence copy
Probably my default mode with the video footage I have would be to stick an audio narrative on it, a monologue or conversation to direct a particular reading of the footage. This may be what I end up doing but perhaps I should also try to think about what images alone could do for once. Or using words in a more poetic and less literal way.

Recent reads

BookCoversA Million Little Pieces – James Fey

This had been on my reading list for a while. I must have seen or heard a review of it somewhere. My awareness of the book was post the Oprah fall out, whereby the book had been sold as a memoir and Oprah championed it; then inaccuracies or fictional elements came to light and Oprah felt duped. So perhaps it was discussion around this idea of a fictional memoir that intrigued me. Plus I liked the title and cover of this book and Fey’s next one Bright Shiny Morning. So, enough incentive to give it a go.

But the book was really boring and I found it a slog to get to the end. The characters were trite and one dimensional the language uninspiring. It is one of the many books that follows the structure that, according to my mum – an ex-primary school teacher – is typical of how children start to write stories…This happened and then this happened and then this happened. Except that in this book nothing really happens. A man goes into drug rehabilitation, he doesn’t want to do the 12 step programme and wants to kick his habit his own way. He succeeds for his time in the unit and the book ends with his release. Along the way he also has a love interest, a family who love him but that he resents and a gangster friend/mentor.

So why am I bothering to write about this book? Well, I am interested in how it resonates with a contemporary culture of self-help typified by something like Oprah. It is a kind of superficial redemptive narrative where we follow a central narrator and his struggle for survival. The end note tells us he got through things – “James has never relapsed” – whilst most of the other characters fell off the wagon or died (although by the end when they are name checked I can’t remember who most of them are). At a stretch I might concede that the deadpan nature of the writing and lack of emotional depth to the book is meant to be some kind of comment on contemporary culture. A purposeful blankness. But it doesn’t work because the narrative arc is so tied up with the idea of redemption, where not everybody makes it but we do. I did find it interesting how, as a reader, I still invested in the typical narrative even with such meagre prompts. I wanted James to meet up with his girlfriend, I wanted him to get through the drug programme, I wanted him to resist a drink, I wanted him to somehow magically get out of his pending jail sentence. Even whilst these things irritated me and on a more critical level I didn’t want them to happen, there was still a kind of pull for this satisfying/dissatisfying story. I guess that’s the power of archetypal narratives and first person narrators!

The Buddha in the Attic – Julie Otsuka

This was really interesting to read after my previous moan about James Fey’s first person narrator. The whole book is written as “we” and “us”. It tells the story of Japanese women who traveled to America in the early 1900s as brides, to marry Japanese men who had preceded them. The book follows the settlers through their arrival, consummating their relationships, finding work, having children up until the second world war when they are sent to prisoner of war camps.

There is a good summary and review here, also including some of the prose:

The beauty of the book is how it depicts so many lives, mostly involving struggle, but with both happy and sad moments and with many different shapes, textures and attitudes. It gives a sense of individual lives being part of a bigger picture and of how people do their best to make a life in particular social circumstances. I don’t think that I’ve ever red a book written in this voice before.

Oranges are not the only fruit – Jeanette Winterson

Last year Why be happy when you could be normal? went on my reading list. Then I thought, perhaps I should read Oranges are not the only fruit first….just because it was written first I suppose and it seems like the later book is a revisiting or a return to the same themes.

Oranges are not the only fruit is a good example of a book that is fictional and, somewhat autobiographical. Unlike Oprah, we don’t in fact care whether it is true to a particular life or not. I will however be interested to see what the relationship of her new more overtly autobiographical book is to the novel. Will recount some of the same stores? Will it be written in a similar style?

I have found an interesting online article about Oranges are not the only fruit, the novel and the TV series. It suggests that the TV series was a realist text where the book was not. I have only seen fragments of the TV series, when I was too young to be interested in it but this is intriguing be a bit in relation to James Fey’s book. Like several books I have read recently Fey’s novel almost seems to be written with this more filmic or TV type narrative structure in mind.

An extract from the article:

“In this paper we argue that realist strategies facilitated the success of the television version of a lesbian coming-of-age novel. Cultural production aiming to challenge the prejudices of “commonsense” has everything to gain from working with popular cultural forms. The mechanisms of closure characteristic of popular narrative can facilitate the effective communication of radical ideas.”

See here for the whole thing: http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC39folder/OrangesNotOnlyFruit.html