Some images of the last of the various Storyweir installations from this summer and autumn made with Gary Stewart and Stefan Kueppers, these works are at Arts Centre 13 October till 23 November 2012.
We are showing a new 2 screen audio and video work and a series of 22 works on paper tracing the research ideas. Inspired by the notion that history looks different depending on your perspective, the video clips are randomly selected from a bank of video shot at Hive Beach along with maps, scans of the seabed, drawings and old films. It features footage of several people whose activities bring them into contact with different cycles of life of the area including a fossil hunter, an archaeologist, a kayaker, a member of Coastwatch and Bridport Wild Swimmers. Data about Wave height, wave period and wave direction data gathered over the summer at West Bay is being used to control and modulate an ambient soundtrack that accompanies the voices of many people who live, work and play on the coast.
With under 2 weeks to go till the opening of Exlab I’m rushing to finish some parts of our commission and am working on outputting an image of the seafloor of the area by Hive Beach to then lasercut. Ive finally managed to get some workable images from the 2008 Bathymetric surveys (a kind of sonar scanning) of the geology of the seabed available on the Channel Coastal Observatory website and this image shows the Burton Beach area. Its an area swimmers have described as being difficult to swim through – the waves are unpredictable and you get stuck in it. I’m reliably informed by many people who live and work here that his part of the coast is pretty dangerous because the shingle slopes very steeply into the sea causing powerfull undertow under the waves.
At the start of our commission Storyweir (part of the art science project Exlab) the brief was to work with earth scientists (as well as local people) but when we heard cultural geographer Dr Ian Cook (Associate Professor of Geography in the College of Life & Environmental Sciences at University of Exeter) speak at the Exlab induction day/symposium we were instantly inspired by his highly collaborative approach to his research work; we wanted to try and collaborate and to bring Cultural Geography into the project. Ian’s project followthethings.com demonstrates his co-creative approach to social engagement and cross disciplinary working (with academics, students, filmmakers, artists, journalists and others). It felt like a natural link with our work and was very exciting to find at the Exlab event. I had read an essay Follow the Thing: Papaya way back in 2004 and I remember at the time thinking that I’d like to work with geographers who take this approach but I hadn’t realised until very recently that Ian was the author of that paper.
A windy walk to the end of Bridport Harbour with Ian and artist Gary Stewart who works with us at Proboscis resulted in a Ian offering to introduce us to some of his colleagues Geographies of Creativity and Knowledge Research Group, University of Exeter. Ian introduced us to three colleagues who each brought different strands of thinking to the project; Dr John Wylie (Associate Professor of Cultural Geography and Director of Postgraduate Research in the College of Life and Environmental Sciences) who has opened up our thinking on time and being in the landscape; as well as the ‘intertwining of self and the landscape’ coupled with how we move and walk in the landscape and visualise it through photographs and images; Dr Nicola Thomas (Senior Lecturer in Human Geography in the College of Life and Environmental Sciences) has brought her exploration of craft and communities and the traces of history and memory bound up in skills, crafts and the evidence of them; and Rose Ferraby (PHD Researcher in the Department of Geography) who has an undergraduate degree in Archaeology and Anthropology and an MFA in Illustration brought both an archaeologists eye to our reading of the land at Hive Beach and her ideas about how abstract ideas can be communicated visually.
An initial audio skype conversation left us very excited at the blend of academic discussion and rigour with a deeply creative and poetic approach. Following that we all spent a windy early January day outside on Hive, Burton and Cogden beach and a creative media ‘mash up’ day at PVA medialab (in Bridport) which saw us coming together with drawings, audio, video, data and other media. In all these we have found a shared interest in the social and cultural effects of the way the local community engages with its environment and the exploration of human and deep time. Looking at the sediments of Burton Cliffs and their fossil layer we discussed the evanescent nature of time and timelessness and the relationship between deep geological time and human time – particularly how he perspective of time is different depending on the prism through which history is viewed (fossils were once cited as evidence of the Deluge). In that sense history (perhaps also time) is not experienced as single linear narrative but constantly in flux.
Finding a lost welly trapped in the shingle mud brought up the notion of the Anthropocene (a unit of geological time that marks the moment when human activity is resulting in a visible impact on the ecosystems and geology).
Walking the beach and then above on the cliffs to the caravan site sparked conversations on the transience of nostalgia and memory, the way the beach (which is such an elemental place) triggers memories and affects our experience of time. The beach reconnects us to patterns and emotions that are long lasting and outside of the pattern of daily life.
This is not a large budget, long term research project so we feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Ian, Nicola, John and Rose it is a very exciting process and these interconnected conversations are influencing the questions we ask in public activities and the form, materials and content of the work. Through the dialogues we have focused an initial interest in the relationship between deep time and human time into how it is reflected in the ongoing dynamic processes and transitory human life at play on the geology of the coast. In that ephemeral space of flux between the land and sea the continual cycles of sun, tide and sea affect changes larger than we can imagine but also are felt by humans on a daily basis.
You can’t spent much time in West Dorset and not get drawn into the true stories and tall tales of smuggling and how it affected people. (I’d like to know of any smuggling songs if anyone knows any.)
Its a well known saying near Chesil Beach that on a dark moonless night a smuggler could tell where he landed a boat between Portland and West Bay by the size of the shingle; which starts pea sized at West Bay and ends Boulder sized near Portland. I had read some accounts and stories, (returning again to the Burton Bradstock website among others), and was struck looking at lists of people prosecuted for smuggling by the breadth of ages and types people that were involved, from teenagers to widows. It could be a dangerous, violent activity with harsh punishments to those caught smuggling who were sometimes very young; several months in jail, hard labour, deportation and sometimes death. Having never read the classic novel Moonfleet by J. Meade Falkner (published in 1898), this seemed a good time since it is set somewhere along Chesil Bank near where our work will be sited. The bank is a huge shingle barrier beach that stretches from West Bay up to Portland (on it there are still remnants of anti tank defence from WWII). It drops steeply into the sea and the pebbles are so smooth that the combination of strong undertow and slippery pebbles can make it impossible for a person to get out of the sea. Locals tell me you can hear the thunder of waves upon shingle for miles inland.
Moonfleet, set in the 1750s is a thrilling yarn but also captures the relationship of people to the land, nature and sea and the way the geology of the area (the steep banked beaches, the grassy clifftops, the sliding shingle, the high sandstone cliffs and deep quarries) has such a strong influence on the way people live. You can read it on Project Guttenberg if you can’t find a copy.
For with that wind blowing strong from south, if you cannot double the Snout, you must most surely come ashore; and many a good ship failing to round that point has beat up and down the bay all day, but come to beach in the evening. And once on the beach, the sea has little mercy, for the water is deep right in, and the waves curl over full on the pebbles with a weight no timbers can withstand. Then if poor fellows try to save themselves, there is a deadly under-tow or rush back of the water, which sucks them off their legs, and carries them again under the thundering waves. It is that back-suck of the pebbles that you may hear for miles inland, even at Dorchester, on still nights long after the winds that caused it have sunk, and which makes people turn in their beds, and thank God they are not fighting with the sea on Moonfleet beach.
In his poem epic Lewesdon Hill William Crowe also describes the Dorset landscape of 1788 in great detail and in particular the lighting of a beacon on Burton Cliff for smugglers;
(…)From hostile shores returning, glad I look
On native scenes again; and fisrt salute
Thee, Burton, and thy lofty cliff, where oft
The nightly blaze is kindled ; further seen
Than erst was that love-tended cresset, hung
Beside the Hellespont: yet not like that
Inviting to the hospitable arms
Of Beauty’ and Youth, but lighted up, the sign
Of danger, and of ambush’d foes to warn
The stealth-approaching Vesslel, homeward bound
From Havre or the Norman isles, with freight
Of wines and hotter drinks, the trash of France,
Forbidden merchandize. Such fraud to quell
Many a light skiff and well-appointed sloop
Lies hovering near the coast, or hid behind
Some curved promontory, in hope to seize
These contraband: vain hope! on that high shore
Station’d, th’ associates of their lawless trade
Keep watch, and to their fellows off at sea
Give the known signal; they with fearful haste
Observant, put about the ship, and plunge
Into concealing darkness.(…)
I read on Real West Dorset about local filmaker Frank Trevett who in the 1930s created a film about sumggling using family friends and actors. Dope Under Thorncombe – which you can watch here on Close Encounters:
Finally…the poem that opens Moonfleet;
Says the Cap’n to the Crew,
We have slipped the Revenue,
I can see the cliffs of Dover on the lee:
Tip the signal to the Swan,
And anchor broadside on,
And out with the kegs of Eau-de-Vie,
Says the Cap’n:
Out with the kegs of Eau-de-Vie.
Says the Lander to his men,
Get your grummets on the pin,
There’s a blue light burning out at sea.
The windward anchors creep,
And the Gauger’s fast asleep,
And the kegs are bobbing one, two, three,
Says the Lander:
The kegs are bobbing one, two, three.
But the bold Preventive man
Primes the powder in his pan
And cries to the Posse, Follow me.
We will take this smuggling gang,
And those that fight shall hang
Dingle dangle from the execution tree,
Says the Gauger:
Dingle dangle with the weary moon to see.
Ive been doing a bit of searching around for sea shanties and fishermen’s songs that might be local to Lyme Bay and Bridport and I came across “the Wreck of the Napoli” by Bob Garrett and Bill Pring which reflects on the ship that ran aground in Lyme Bay in 2007. Apart from the controversy that followed over what happened to the cargo which washed up in Devon, a great many oil covered birds were washed up on Hive Beach at Burton Bradstock.
This searching for local music has also taken me, via my reading and rummaging around in Real West Dorset, to their article about the British Library folk song map to the Library’s online sound archive of traditional music, language, accents, and soundscapes called Sounds. It features a series of maps and archival collections. There seems to be a lot of material from West Dorset in the Traditional Music in England Collection and I’ve really enjoyed listening to the local accents and dialects of the time. I particularly liked George Hirst, cowman and ex-serviceman of Burton Bradstock talking in 1944 about Louis Brown of Burton Bradstock who used to sing ‘A Nutting We Will Go’ and ‘The Cobblers Song’, ‘Sweet Nightingale’ on the accordion, and finally this song, Barbara Allen recorded in the 1950s and sung by Charlie Wills.
I’d like to hear more about local music and shanties especially any that come directly from Burton Bradstock area.
We recently had a chance to meet everybody in the Exploratory Laboratory 2 project on the Jurassic Coast when we all got together at the main briefing event down in Bridport. We caught up with our partners, Julie Penfold of pva MediaLab, Polly Gifford of Bridport Arts Centre, Graham Waffen of Hive Beach Cafe and Caroline of the National Trust, and got to meet our science collaborators, fellow artists and hosting organisations.
The Exlab commissioned artists got together with the Exlab earth scientists, human geographers, production teams and hosts to have a round-robin set of presentations which all got us clued up about themes, the teams and how they were linking with individual commissions. It was exciting to make new connections outside and across our disciplines and see very different points of view and approaches in our various practices.
On the second day of our trip we kicked off our local research for our own Storyweir exploring the relationship between people and the geology.
We got a better grasp the lay of the physical geology and land around the Hive Beach cafe area at Burton Bradstock, explored stretches of the landscape and the beach between Burton Bradstock and Bridport and started with a ‘deep dive’ into the local archives discovering many nuggets of local history and relations to this site that is rich in both the geological history of the mid Jurassic (with rich deposits of fossils in parts of the cliffs) and the social history, myths, folklore, industry (rope and net making), farming and mackerel fishing.