As part of a daylong writing workshop led by Lori Waxman, participants were asked to write a short text, with a particular reader in mind, in response to the Sunday field trip developed by FIELDCLUB and led by geologist Dr. Robin Shail and folklorist Steve Paterson.
The tiny Norman church at Manaccan is locked into a close embrace with a fig tree. I stand in the autumn light and look up at the sinews of the fig tree knotting through the stones. It is halfway up the buttress supporting the tower, nowhere near the ground. I picture the Green Man carved into the wood of another church, the tree pushing out from his body through his mouth so that the only thing he can speak is tree. Then a memory leaks into my mind:
Maybe a decade ago, I was listening to the radio, driving in a particularly suburban, traffic choked, conformist district of London. A woman scientist was describing her job in the forensic investigation of genocide in Africa. She said the story of even that very recent genocide was already being denied, that she must unwaveringly point to the truth of history with her work.
She described a visit to an African church, the floor of which had been replaced by glass, to reveal the coffins beneath. She remarked that one coffin was unnaturally long. Her guide explained that it contained the corpse of a woman who had been raped by a gang of soldiers – raped with a tree. The tree had been pushed so far inside her body that it could not be separated, and so she was buried with the tree.
In the mossy churchyard at Manaccan the sound of the scientist’s voice is suddenly in my ears. The aged Sunday congregation is hastening to the sound of the church bells. I feel compelled to try and be rid, or at least to unravel this brutish fragment, the tree and the body. I walk inside the tree-church and see the fig tree, green and spindly, sprouting through the plaster high up at the triple junction where white walls meet wood ceiling. The Green Man stirs and hovers, and beside him Sheila na Gig holds open her obscene gaping vulva.
Dear absent person,
who was not on the walk,
who thinks that rocks and human beings don’t have anything to do with each other, no resemblance, no shared characteristics,
This is where it starts. Intersections.
A hard word, a lot of t’s and s’s, a lot of consonants.
Dear absent person,
who was not on the walk,
who thinks that rocks and human beings don’t have anything to do with each other, no resemblance, no shared characteristics,
That’s better. Overlap. Soft vowels, lapping, movement.
The slow rolling and pushing of masses.
Dust, granules, sand, mud, earth, gravel, pebbles, stones, boulders, rocks.
Layers and layers.
A layer is something that lies on top of another, itself. There is core and heart and mantel and skin. Layers are something that can be folded, kneaded, stretched, squeezed. So much movement, so much heat. In this.
Imagine being here now but imagine also
that here has not been here,
that here has been somewhere else as well.
You and me are not the only ones moving around.
Cornwall 18 October 2011
I write to you from a time standing still.
Once again art has brought me to a situation where histories are connected. As I walked through woods, small towns and on rocks by the sea, joined by a group of peers and navigated through the history and folklore of the place by locals with experience and knowledge of the area, I realized that I am no longer interested in or even able to simply enjoy nature for its aesthetic or its natural healing elements alone.
I looked out to the sea. Informed by stories of shipwrecks and unusual sea-creatures I looked for unusual sights, aware of my amplified sense of imagination (imagination as the strongest combination of all the senses) as part of the walk. I wondered if some of the many shipwrecks along this coast more than a century ago had been of ships sailing close to the shore of Iceland, perhaps with some of our forefathers aboard. The sad, dark announcements of death would have reached the worrying wives at the other end by another ship, approaching the shore along two possible roads of destiny.
Betho whye lowenack! (happiness to you – in Cornish language)
The impressions seem quite dispersed, but the feeling of artificiality is predominant. I can sense the hand of men in every inch of the land. Even the bushes that could be considered wild are hiding some stories behind their branches. The logic of geological processes reveals a particular narrative that is parallel to the folk stories. Maybe living in this kind of environment enforces a belief in transcendence, because the sublime is the predominant element of my reading of the landscape. But the struggle is constant and the idea that all of it is artificial is the only escape, even if the stories of industry and scientific explanations mix with the myths. If it is a lesson, it is a lesson on how a monument or a statue could actually be read and misread, not in accordance with its aesthetic value or formal aspects, but through the narration that forms a social fossil or a deposit around it. Introducing a temporal element leads also to speaking of things as disconnected from its creator. This notion is distributed in each and every participant in the process and social actor or force of nature. What saves me from patching incomprehension is an anecdote.
Purposeful magpies—a short introduction to the working methodology behind LOW PROFILE’s approach to ‘active borrowing’.
As artists, we (Low Profile) are purposeful magpies. We actively seek out and collect material from our lived experience and the world at large, to sample, steal and rework, as the fabric of our art practice. Love songs, scout mottos, the TV character MacGyver and a 1960’s survival publication all feature in our work.
This methodology of ‘active borrowing’ has been honed over time alongside the development of a specific set of concerns that surround our practice and which centralise around an ongoing investigation into notions of preparedness.
As artists who are busy juggling various roles and jobs, opportunities to spend time in the pursuit of ‘active borrowing’ for the purpose of new idea generation can be limited. Hannah was recently fortunate enough to participate in The Cornwall Workshop, a six-day intensive residential workshop for artists, curators and critics. As part of the workshop, a geologist and a folklorist took the group on a guided walk, giving a fascinating insight into the Lizard peninsula. Hannah decided to make use of the walk as not only a learning experience, but also as a scavenger hunt for new artistic source material. The simple rules for this working methodology are to pay close attention and record the details that feel pertinent to your research.
The day provides a series of rich starting points for new ideas.
While walking, the group are told stories of shipwrecks and men lost at sea. Hannah thinks about the tragedy of the Titanic and this gives her the idea to do a project where Low Profile will collect the final dialogues, or last words spoken, between two characters in films where only one survives.
Participants pick blackberries as they walk and this reminds Hannah of the time when she spent the day collecting berries with her Nan along a coastal path, only to trip and send then cascading down a hill on the walk home. Hannah then remembers similar experiences and she thinks about collecting these stories together and making a book that might be called ‘small scale failures’.
The group are taken to the place when Titanium was discovered and told a story about how the planned celebration for the 200th anniversary of this significant find had to be re-scheduled when the tragic events of 9/11 unfolded on the day of the party. Later, the re-arranged event had to seek the approval from the bishop to go ahead when the news that the queen mother had died reached the village. This narrative makes Hannah think about writing a performance text that tracks a series of celebrations that have had to be re-scheduled due to situations of emergency.
Later on their journey, the workshop leader describes how during the war Ealing studios created a dummy version of Falmouth bay to lure the enemy into attacking the uninhabited folly. Hannah imagines what film sets might feel like to visit once they have been emptied of all action and life. She wonders if this somehow might be connected to Low Profile’s ongoing obsession with dry runs. She doesn’t know if this particular excitement will lead anywhere and comes up with no ideas on how to translate this into an artwork.
After a long day of ‘active borrowing’ it is now time for Low Profile to reflect together on the material sampled and to consider what leads to follow.
How to live without metal.
The geologist asked us to think about a world without metal and tapped the wire frame of his spectacles. No cars, telephones or computers. I had metal fillings and metal trouser buttons so imagined a scene of barelegged dental agony. I could stuff cheese where my fillings had been. I think cheese would neutralize any pain, and I’d just have to wear trousers with elasticated waistbands. The geologist could get laser eye surgery or I could carve him some new frames from wood.
He told us to crush the red powdery sand to see how fine it was. It puffed into miniature red clouds that hung around, then floated off. I looked at all the cameras without lens caps and felt sorry for them.
They didn’t see the danger, like living next to a power station.
None of this is ours at all
A walk, rich in sensory observations. A crash course in geological evolution and tales of snakes and dark matter in the tangled forest of Nemea; the paradoxical meeting of geology and folklore. At Manaccan Church, where the 16th century Prayer Book Rebellions took place and Titanium was first found, we discovered an invisibly rooted magic fig tree. Where its roots really were, no one knew. A more present myth we could really experience, I thought, as we looked inside and then out, and chuckled as the story was satisfactorily realized. From there to Nare Point and then a disused quarry where a machine (big, I imagined) used to crush rocks and lorries would cart them away, leaving tyre trails in the ground and depositing remnants of the site all over everywhere as it travelled wherever it may have been going. The quarry’s rock was a good soft rock for crushing, the kind that won’t disintegrate completely — unlike the dusty, yellowy, sandy soil type. Did we find that on the beach or in the land? I’m not sure now, but I took some good pictures of us clutching it in our hands, keeping the desperate-to-escape grains captive between our fingers as histories of science and mysticism morphed in our weary minds. It was at this point, where the sea and the land felt weirdly as one, that these physically stacked sites became more clearly not just representations of filters and layers of matter, but places and movement and transmission, fraught with mimicry and deception and on which the survival of place and people had relied over so many years before us. As we sat there touching, and very respectfully picking at this place, I wondered what impact we might have on this particular spot and whether anyone might mythicize about our presence at that exact place at that moment ever again.
In my hand
What is this thing in my hand? I first notice its hard, rough edges. The surface is broken and uneven. There are four faces, each roughly triangular. The material is dark, but as I look more closely I see small specks of colour — white, olive green, ochre and rust. It has to be touched. As I roll it across my fingers, its pyramidal form reveals itself. I have the entire surface available at once. Shards of a chrystalline substance animate its planes. This gives the object its character. The material changes and becomes new.
I have encountered such objects many times before. But they have not become known as this thing in my hand is now known to me.
Four Rocks (An incomplete itinerary of seeing-walking)
A walk is broken down into four pieces of rock. The walk is thus, revived through solid fragments or… crusts of time that are air and liquid all at once.
A geologist and a folklorist accompany a small group coming from varied distances. The lizard is a labyrinth.
Naval watch tower looking onto a flat sea. News from Nowhere.
The distance from here is the distance between two leaves.
We have reached the end of the public footpath.
Songs were sung in memory of those who sank. But, a little stowaway was forgotten.
An old Knocker warns of peril as he chews on the miner’s bread slice.
Three and a half million years of history missing between two sheets of earth
The shard of an ancient pot – still cold and wet – embedded into this shoreline.
A floating rafter that must remain perpetually suspended between sky and land
The scars upon these boulders speak of a disappeared ocean.
Some say, fossils are stories waiting to be told.
Are You Local?
A proposal for a hypothetical exhibition
‘Are You Local?’ proposes a multidisciplinary exhibition that discusses the concept of Cornish ethnicity and what it means today.
Cornwall is home to a large population that considers itself indigenous to the area. Being Cornish and having a place in the county’s rich heritage is an immense source of pride for many residents.
The Cornish descended from the Celts, genetically sharing more with the Welsh than the English. Yet it is not uncommon for first generation residents or long-term immigrants to consider themselves Cornish.
Countless Cornish people will no doubt be descended from the many European sailors that have settled in the area for centuries.
Cornish legacy owes much to its coastline yet there are chunks of rock native to France embedded in the Lizard shoreline. What does it mean to be Cornish when even the land itself isn’t truly so?
‘Are You Local?’ invites the debate that being Cornish is as much a modern social construct as it is about heritage. The exhibition invites artists, both Cornish and non-Cornish, to respond to either side of the argument whilst exploring what it means to be Cornish today.
I imagine a civil society, and how I might behave within it. But then I forget that I am within it, and I am behaving in it. I want to believe in it, I do believe in it. I am able to believe and be genuinely interested.
‘Please don’t mention the pagans in the churchyard.’
I hear the collective sigh of a thousand Goths. The bell ringers in the church suddenly appear, taking their positions. The doors of the bell tower are generously opened to allow the onlookers a better view. I imagine the villagers caught in this task, not unlike the slow-moving geology, ringing bells for thousands of years.
A ringing score?
I ceased hearing the bells and only heard the numbers.
A vortex in the woods, plates bigger than I can imagine shifting, but very slowly.
Are you sure? Has anyone seen the plates move? Maybe crashing and shattering when fault lines or deep-sea trenches lurch and cause destruction, but not here, surely, not recently.
400 million years ago? It all seems so calm. Not a cataclysm in sight.
The giants have left, the sea monsters have gone and the mantle has cooled. Ok. The sea seems a more urgent beast, a more tenacious combatant. I think I get the sea.
At first I am writing to myself. I need to work it out.
Then it might be to you.
Tasked I head straight for an open window where the sun is streaming in across the ledge. A good place to sit. The open window is significant. The sound of birds – crows I think, and something else twittering away in the background – mixes with the sound coming from lunch being prepared down below. The wind in the trees.
Walking the path to the woodland below, entered via a stone stile different in form from the ones at home – that was the first thing I noticed – the bars are less horizontal, the stone rails are stacked alongside each other like shutters. There is an energy here that aligns with a sense of foreboding (I’m not sure if that’s the best word); I have a knotted feeling brought on by lack of sleep complicit with the perennial fear that lurks not far away of perhaps not being equal to the task in hand – of dissipated energy, of closing down. The ancient tangled forest of Nemea infested by snakes engulfs us all around, its spells broken gently now by the sound of conversation to my left and my right, and later the gentle trickling of a stream. There is talk of time and geological process measured not in the hours of the day but in hundreds of million annum, of Mylor Slate formation: stones amongst the sediment thrown up from the ocean floor life times ago defy imagination. But time peels out its song with the relentless circling peel bells of Manaccan – the roll call of the dead, anticipating tales of shipwrecked sailors found frozen in the rigging in the watery graves of Mên-aver and the Manacles and the opening out through the woods at Nare Point to the sea.
It was a balmy day.
And I realize my job here for this moment is done. There is movement in the building. The sun has gone in, the breeze is up and the open window is rattling in the wind. This space is gently disrupted as the building comes alive, fidgeting with the sound of lapsed concentration, of chatter and the banging together of kitchen pots.
Still I have not written to you…