Lost and Found
by Abigail Reynolds, a participant
I have been at workshops before. I like the dislocation it imposes. You arrive to be yourself, your artist-self. This self is the most stripped back, not muddled up with other roles you might play – as parent or partner. So, there you are, nakedly yourself with a crowd of people who don’t know who you are – and you have this space in which to have a look at who you seem to be in the glare of all these new eyes.
It’s like being lost. Events take on a heightened or at least charged set of significances as you try to read them to place yourself. And this isn’t just reflexive; it is formative. You emerge back into the more familiar world with this kernel of having been lost and having found your bearings, subtly changed by carrying around within yourself the fossil of the week spent in this intense light.
Writing this I am thinking about losing and finding, and how it’s like a thread through weeks like this one.
Day 1 | Saturday 12 March
The sun is suddenly shining, spring-like and inviting even though it’s early March. We started the morning doing show and tell presentations on our work, but we break off and just walk out from Kestle Barton. It’s like limbering up. To sit across a table from a stranger is never as easy as walking beside them. Walking and talking is much less of a confrontation. In knots that shift and reform in the flow of our walking we start to find out who is here beyond the flash of images we have shared.
Kestle Barton is almost surrounded by water. The Helford River (really a tidal estuary, not a river) lies to the north, with tributary creeks, Frenchman’s and Helford, to the west and east. But we walk southwards, through the woods, towards Manaccan, with its ancient church marked by a fig tree that grows mysteriously out of its wall, and eventually find ourselves walking beside another creek, which joins the sea near the church of St Anthony. The rhythm of walking together is an open form that still contains us, and of course we are all immediately in this place.
I don’t often watch film, and hardly ever have the pleasure of watching real film. Most people here watch a lot of film, digital or not. In the afternoon, Ben Rivers starts to show the collection of 16mm films he has selected from the Lux collection, played on a 16mm projector. Before viewing, each film must be properly threaded through the projector and attached to the take-up spool. After we’ve watched it must be packed away into its tin. Over the minutes that this takes there is quiet speech in the darkened room and a play of light in the projector corner – a curving series of beams made by hands deflecting the light from the projector.
Among the selection is a Margaret Tait film. I’ve seen ‘Portrait of Ga’ before, but fleetingly and only online. I retained a pale impression of a woman in the heather, and a road, and understood that the colour and texture of her clothes meant that she was the same as the hill she stood on.
Here in this first floor room with the projector buzzing and the light seeping and sopping back through the curtain onto the garden, the blacks are soft deep, the colours vivid in a 1950s way, like the best book-plate reproductions, and I realise quite quickly that this a portrait of Tait’s mother, because there could not otherwise be such a sparkling and youthful lightness in the subject. Ga is old, but the camera sees straight through her age to something in her very playful and glimmering. Something a daughter is allowed to see. I recognise it. After my mother died I kept only one photograph. It’s of a mirrored ceiling in the entrance to a shop. In the entrance are my mother, my sister and myself with a friend. My sister has taken the photograph, which is unusual, as we hardly took photographs and especially not she. In the photograph, I and the friend are looking at objects, but my mother has noticed my sister’s upward gesture with the camera, and has looked up into the mirror and into the lens held over my sister’s eyes. There’s a secret, delighted look between them.
I watch as Ga unwraps a boiled sweet. It’s sticky, having absorbed the wet Scottish air and deliquesced. Ga unwraps it not at all like a child. She can peel off the thin cellophane film with the tips of her nails, quickly, as an expert, finding its folds and uncrinkling the angles. She makes sure that none of that unctuous sweet dabs onto her skin, she flips the flat sugary mass out of its sheath like a turtle upended and pops it smartly into her mouth. The bright sunlight cuts her hands off from her body and outlines the hair on her chin as she scoops the sweet off the wrapper with her teeth.
We watch it and afterwards I don’t want to talk much, because I want to protect what I saw.
Day 2 | Sunday 13 March
On our second day we walk Helston’s edge lands with the poet Paul Farley. Paul and his fellow poet Michael Symmons Roberts published a book of essays, ‘Edgelands’, whose title Ben Rivers borrowed for his exhibition at Camden Arts Centre in 2015.
Parking at Sainsbury’s, we take a path between the supermarket and the ring road, flanked by a tall hedge. The hedge has caught an impressive array of plastic rubbish to its full height. From this opening display we walk on a perilous road (the sort that cars move along fast, their drivers not expecting a pedestrian) down to the dump, where we are denied access because we are foot passengers, not vehicles. We file back out and arrange ourselves on a grassy bank facing the gates, like a good-sized choir facing a conductor.
Paul reads to us from the road, where he is in imminent danger of being mown down, while we survey the dump.
Then we continue, discovering the tidy new Tresprison industrial estate, a quiet country lane cut off by Helston’s new bypass, and soggy pathways overgrown and disused. At Crasken we run across a grassy field and scramble over a Cornish hedge into an eco-camp containing a rangy Alsatian that draws a garrulous man out of a caravan. Paul reads again, summoning the ageless subject of the den, a place of fantasy and escape. When he reads, the group stands silently in odd arrangements on the land, the wind ruffling hair and coats, the weak warmth of the sun hitting angles of our bodies.
We pool in the courtyard of a once grand house that’s somehow connected to the encampment. Assorted children eye us as we eat our sandwiches. I become embroiled in a conversation about the many writers who make a career of walking. What’s the status of a writer when the reader is interested not by the persona writing, but by the subject. The writers must try to thin themselves, to become like the lens of a camera, which directs the gaze of the reader toward the land.
We move on to an abandoned railway line and viaduct above Lowertown. This feels like trespassing, which is one of my favourite feelings. We scramble up onto the old tracks, and I am glad that it’s March, and that the brambles and nettles have not yet come into full being. From the viaduct we gaze down onto the lively little river that runs, unregarded, down the valley.
We are thinking about these edges because they are not already written and imaged. They are not in the books containing views of Cornwall; they are unclaimed. I am reminded of the edge lands of art schools, which only really work when there’s plenty of disused or junked up space that can be co-opted. These unallocated edges are open for unobserved action or intervention and can be used to play out impulses and follies that may become something, or may not.
We park finally by the Helston sewage-works, which is on the path to the Penrose Estate. I associate the word Penrose with the extreme romanticism of du Maurier. The sewage works are a good counter to that.
We walk and walk the low marshy ground among the trees and along the eastern shore of the Loe, a ria cut off from the sea by a wide bar of sand. Through banks of tall reeds we glimpse the dark lake, solemn and still. I am not tempted to swim. It feels as though something might clutch you from beneath the dark heavy water. The ground rises through Degibna wood where the dry hollow sound of earth beats under our feet and brings us high above the lake. Occasionally we look at the OS map and in this long walk we string out into clumps of threes, twos and fours.
Now we are weary. Just as it seems we are reaching the sea we turn away from it to skirt Carminowe creek. The light is fading as we stagger across the shingle of Loe Bar, our feet sinking in the sand and catching on the small sage grey sea thistles that grow on the bar. The first of the group to reach the seashore sit down to rest on the shingle bank, close to the strand, between the salt and the sweet water, with the dark lake at our backs. The group gradually coagulates and we wait. It grows cold. The sun drops into the sea and the light turns pale, then deepens into twilight, We realise we are less in number than we were.
The three men from the group who somehow lost themselves at Carminowe Creek are discovered in the dark, standing on the road that skirts the airbase at Culdrose. Scooping them up we rattle home for dinner.
Day 3 | Monday 14 March
Today we shall be learning about film at CAST in Helston, once the Passmore Edwards School of Science and Art, now an art space with studios. We gather in the café, warming ourselves at the wood burning stove and drinking coffee.
Three 16mm cameras are laid out and Ben talks us through the camera workings. This is all entirely new to me and to many of the gathered artists, who work with photography or the moving image, but not actual material film. The cameras are curious fingertip instruments, heavy and sleek, with perfectly swiveling turrets for the lenses. As the lever is wound to prepare to film, the mechanism inside the body quietly purrs. As the film rattles through the gate the camera ticks off the feet of the film in firm clicks. It’s beautiful, as any precision mechanism is beautiful, but there is much to learn in order to use it.
We learn how to thread spools of film. It must be coaxed through the gate, after engaging the loop formers, then the film end must be trimmed to an angle so that it can be fitted into the slot on the second spool and be wound. We learn how to wind the spring of the camera, how to read a light meter, and then we go off to film in small groups. Some of us already use 16mm film, so Jacqui, Mark and Marcy lead the smaller groups. With Jacqui and Allister I go into the former school hall, an enormous space with a wood block floor, and we fool about with the camera. There’s a tennis ball in this room and we use it to sound out the angles of the space. As Allister films, I incompetently hurl the tennis ball the length of the huge hall. It bounces weakly, and rolls to a standstill. Immediately it’s obvious that there is a problem. We are editing in-camera so there’s no going back for bad throws. Allister offers to throw the tennis ball, revealing that he was once a professional basket ball player. He throws the ball so hard and so accurately into the upper corner of the room that the wooden cornice is dislodged and crashes to the floor.
Later we walk up to Helston Community College, where a large crowd has gathered to hear Ben Rivers talk about his films. It’s the first of two occasions when the workshop opens out to a wider audience. Of Ben’s films I best remember ‘What Means Something’, a portrait of the painter Rose Wylie. It’s very relaxed, very revealing.
After the lecture the crowd in the school hall disperses, but a large contingent returns to CAST for supper. It requires three of the capacious rooms at the east end of the building to fit us all in. I remark to myself that the workshop participants have quite naturally sprinkled themselves through the other diners, which seems to denote an openness born of a confidence in what we are about, and a willingness to share. We are a noisy and cheerful crowd squashed in around the long trestle tables and suddenly I feel as though I’m at a sort of street party.
Day 4 | Tuesday 15 March
The business of hand developing the black and white films we made at CAST gets underway. It involves chemicals, much water and a long while reeling the film from one spool to another, back and forth in a closed Bakelite box, so that the emulsion will all be coated in developer. In the same box, equipped with two tiny handles to crank the spools around, the film must be flushed with running water, to remove the developer. It’s one of those activities that would not appear to require any concentration, but somehow does. If I try to do more than listen to small talk as I wind, it goes wrong and jams.
After lunch we make for Goonhilly Earth station. This is a working satellite communications station on Goonhilly Downs, built in 1962. It’s easy to see even from Penzance when the sun shines on its enormous white dishes. It’s at the centre of the Lizard, in the middle of a vast expanse of long grass and furze. This is a secure area. We all must be checked at the entry gate and given a named badge. We will have access to areas that are generally closed off.
We pace enormous empty rooms, paved with blue carpet tiles and divided by racks for digital systems.
It is like an RAF base – tarmac punctuated by long low buildings. The huge satellite dishes dwarf the sheds. We ascend the outer stair of Ariel 1, or Arthur. This is the largest dish and shines white against the deep blue of the sky. Inside it are circular rooms crammed with lockers, desks, and monitors. I see much that I cannot begin to comprehend, but in a stack of papers on a desk I see a printout of the path that the satellite Arthur is tracking daily across the sky. It’s a shallow figure of 8.
The day is unusually hot. The group decides to make an excursion to Kynance Cove, but I retire to Kestle to sleep. I never get enough sleep. I am woken at dusk by Phil, who tells me that everyone has become lost in the bogs around the disused Predannack airfield, with no phone signal. I struggle awake and we drive to Mullion and discover the weary group with muddy boots in the dark on Ghost Road.
On this night the projector is brought downstairs by the lit fire. Two films are playing after dinner. It’s very late and for the last few days the exceptionally fine weather has tempted us to do much in the way of being lost. We flop on the sofas, the floor, and in the dining chairs around the table, and the lights are turned off. We watch ‘Things’ by Ben Rivers. It’s a curious film; a busy squirrel is filmed through the glass patio door of Ben’s house, trying to steal something – what though? This cuts to a digitized rendering of his house – every object and texture rendered exactly. It’s almost uncomfortable to move from the analogue accidental world of the squirrel into the glassy unreality of CGI.
A new reel is wound by the light of a torch and the fire. I am sitting in a chair opposite glass doors that give onto the garden. Over the dark treetops ragged clouds scatter across the moon. Do I imagine the moon, or do I just see the moonlight on the grass and glimmering in the air as the soft slow voice of the German girl counts down through eons? We watch ‘Erth’ by John Latham for half an hour. I feel bored, then fascinated. The film is often entirely dark. Entirely silent. Occasionally the world flashes into view, seen from space. The time of the film envelops us – the cotton wool voice from 1970 breathes regularly with its yawn of static and background noise.
Watching it together like this I am part of a breathing mass under a sort of contract to watch. It’s like having my head held slightly too close to something, or waiting in a strange place. Suddenly the film stops being dark and flashes into the bleached-out pages of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Cattle, clocks, mechanical processes, eclipses, submarines, interiors, sceptres, stairs, robes, dancers, trees whirl past too fast to fully register. The lazy counting voice continues.
When the film loop clatters off the end of the roll many of us are asleep, but I am very wide-awake.
Day 5 | Wednesday 16 March
Two curators join the workshop. Kate Strain and Raluca Voinea are from Dublin and Bucharest respectively. Other curators are already here – Roberto Scalmana from Italy, Łukasz Mojsak from Poland and Laura Simpson from Hospitalfields in Scotland. We hear about their projects and the ways in which they respond to the contexts in which they work. Raluca talks about Romania, the brutal transformation of Bucharest under Ceausescu and the stresses of the post-Ceausescu years, and shows images of a small project space in a secluded garden, a place for discussion and interaction as well as solace and retreat.
That evening Ben Rivers introduces a screening at Falmouth School of Art of the film programme that he selected to accompany the exhibition ‘Edgelands’ at Camden Arts Centre. The programme includes ‘Swamp’, a film from 1971 by Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt. ‘Swamp’ is made in an edge land, but its subject is control. The couple who are making the film in the reeds have divided their tasks. When you are filming you can only see through the lens; you can’t check your feet or know what’s outside the frame. You’re stuck. Nancy is stuck with the camera. Robert directs her – where to walk, which way to face. It’s the 1970s – of course the woman is stuck, and guided by the man. The visual is her viewfinder. The soundtrack is his voice. The film ‘Jaunt’ was made by Andrew Kotting in 1995. It’s a fabulous dash across the landscape, ebullient, inclusive and slightly absurd. It reminds me of our workshop escapades.
Day 6 | Thursday 17 March
The developed films we took are hanging to dry on an impromptu washing line strung up by the screening room. Carefully these are wound and we play them. Each is just over three minutes long. We also watch films that the curators have brought to show. A long discussion is provoked by one of them, on the subject of class and belonging, the right to judge, from any given standpoint, a community you don’t belong to. The problems of ethnographic film. I am thinking how, after this short but eventful week, I feel very familiar with this accidental community of artists and film makers and curators. We have our faults and fallibilities, but we are watching, and, most of all, listening.
The workshop over, we disband, and return to our own lives, but possessed of another set of skills and connections to call on. The workshop is fundamental in my decision to take a 16mm Bolex along the Silk Road, only using that means to document the sites of the lost libraries that I journey to. On the workshop I learnt that 16mm film is intimate with damage, and with time. Its material qualities all point to the fragility of the present. That’s why I took it to the damaged, voided libraries whose paper holdings had been scorched, looted or buried. On that journey I became expert in the ways of the camera, which was the same that I had used in the workshop. I proficiently changed rolls while filming in deserts, reading the dark conditions of caves, and everything in between. The libraries became a way to know the Bolex, and the heavy body of the Bolex was my talisman, providing a thread, like Ariadne’s, to guide me through the maze.
Images: courtesy Abigail Reynolds, Richard Broomhall, Melanie Stidolph and Ben James
Abigail Reynolds lives in St Just, Cornwall, and has a studio at Porthmeor in St Ives. She was awarded the BMW Art Journey prize at Art Basel in 2016, visiting lost libraries along the Silk Road through 2016 and 2017.