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CAPTION: Chris Welsby, Seven Days (1974), 20 min. Courtesy of the artist.
Chris Welsby is one of the luminaries of British experimental film. Since the early 1970s, his work has combined an engagement with landscape, cybernetic systems and the material and procedural concerns of artists associated with the London Filmmakers’ Co-op. He has concentrated on the observable phenomena of natural elements – wind, rain, tides and the rotation of the earth. In order to reveal their inherent properties, he has devised temporal filmic structures, at the same time presenting the apparatus of film as analogous to and inextricably bound to the systems he observes in nature. In the 1990s, Welsby began working with digital media and created a series of interactive installations most recently Trees In Winter (2006), Tree Studies (2006), Heaven’s Breath (2009) and Taking Time (2013). Welsby has lived in Canada for the last 24 years, initially in Vancouver and more recently on an island off the coast of British Columbia.
Chris Welsby: I started with a model for making a film that was based partly on Structural film-making practices and partly on my experiences with sailing. In a sailboat, you can’t get from A to B by turning on an engine like you do in a car and just steer where you want to go. On the water, it may take an hour to get there; it may take you a week but either way, if you want to arrive at all, you have to use the technology of a sailboat and work with weather wind and tide. So, I thought I would see if I could get film technology to do something similar to what sailboat technology does. This all began when I was sitting on a friend’s boat and looking at the Hazler self-steering wind vane (this mechanical device keeps the boat parallel to the wind). At anchor it pans freely back and forth as the wind changes and as the boat rotates about its mooring, according to the ebb and flow of the tide. One blustery day in 1970, I strapped a super 8 camera onto the wind vane, turned it on and let wind and tide make my film for me. That was the first film I made and a 16mm version, shot on Hampstead Heath in London soon followed (Wind Vane, 1972).[i] I made a whole series of wind-powered films at this time and I also began looking for other procedural models that would harness natural forces other than wind power. Seven Days (1974) uses time lapse to record the passing of seven consecutive days. By mounting the camera on an equatorial tripod stand (used by astronomers to track the stars), the camera could pan at the same speed as the rotation of the earth.[ii] In conjunction with this predictable
motion, I used cloud cover to edit the image from ground to sky as the tripod rotated from east to west.[iii] In Wales where the film was shot, cloud cover is far from predictable and so the shape of the film was formed by a combination of mechanical and natural forces. The weather systems tracking across the Atlantic are not very predictable, so I could have no idea how the film would be ‘edited’ until each frame of the film was shot. In this way I combined the technical parameters of film-making with the continuously changing weather to make a film that is not so much about the landscape as a part of the landscape.
In terms of the new interdisciplinary sciences that followed from Chaos Theory, the film might be regarded as an emergent property generated by the interaction between the technology of film-making and the parallel, structural complexities of the weather. Like many of us in the 1970s, I was reading Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972). He discussed systems theory in relation to nature. His ideas about the relationship between Nature and Technology were a big influence on me and, as it transpired on the Cybernetic group who hung out around University College London and influenced the thinking about art-making in the Experimental Studio at the Slade, where I was a student.[iv]
Catherine Elwes: I was thinking about randomness, about the aleatory elements in your work, particularly in Seven Days, which was, at one level, about the unpredictability of the elements, but curiously, when I watched the film, I felt the opposite. If the sun has gone in, then it is going to come out, if it is out then it is going to disappear again. If anything, the film seemed to emphasize the rhythmical, predictable patterns in nature. You knew that the opposite of what you were looking at was eventually going to come to pass.
CW: Interesting response! Perhaps it may be possible to know where an event will occur but at the same time not know when it will occur. Chaos Theory argues that when we don’t understand a set of complex systems like the weather or the economy we say that its behaviour is random. Everybody was talking about aleatoric systems in the 1970s and we all knew about John Cage, who was of course, a major influence, certainly on me. But because I was at the Slade School of Art in London, and taught with people who were using computers, terms like chance and randomness were often subjects of heated debate. The way to make something random we learned, is to have two large numbers, one slightly larger than the other and divide them into each other. The point where the figure becomes recurring is the random number. It was the way computers generated a random number at the time and I believe that it is still done that way.
CE: I was around at the Slade at the time and I remember having long arguments with Chris Briscoe about his so-called randomized computer drawings. However many he and the computer produced, in the end he always made aesthetic choices about which ones to put on the wall. But I was thinking about Seven Days and your use of a fundamental pattern – the rotation of the earth, which is constant. The one image in the film that moves in what we would recognize as real time is the shadow of the camera. It moves smoothly while everything around it is articulating. The camera shadow is the constant. The lifespan is the constant; it represents certainty and the randomness is what you chose to do with that time between cradle and grave. Sometimes you are in shadow, sometimes in the light. That was the analogy that came to mind.
CW: As the earth rotates it heats on one side and cools on the other and that’s what creates the wind in the microphone and the clouds that are going by and the ocean currents and the jet stream – everything is generated from the cooling and heating of the earth’s surface as it rotates about its axis. The weather comes and goes and the wind blows here and there, but the rotation of the earth is, as you rightly say, a constant, and the climate which supports all organic life is generated out of that motion.
CE: It’s interesting how we are talking in parallel ways. Let’s see whether our lines of thought can converge. Simon Schama says that we enact, or re-enact myth unconsciously – it is part of us. We have internalized so many myths that we simply reproduce them. The choice of your title ‘Seven Days’ clearly connotes the seven days of the week, the seven ages of Man and the seven biblical days it took to create the world; the number is loaded with significance.
CW: Yes I think it is a bit of a mythic title but at the time it was just a descriptive working title. I don’t put much significance on it, but recently I have been thinking about Gregory Bateson’s idea that the creation myth is a binary sorting operation (day from night, land from sea, etc.), a precursor to René Descartes’s version of dualism, which is a complete anathema to me, so perhaps I was thinking in mythic terms after all! In terms of the filming itself, it took seven days from dawn till dusk every day and sometimes the conditions were pretty awful. Staying in one place for a long period of time is quite hard when the weather is good, but when it’s bad it’s a real slog.[v] We set up the camera every day before dawn. We had to align the equatorial stand with the rotation of the earth, using the pole star and correcting the declination to 52 degrees north. It took three or four days to set this up but it still wasn’t quite right when we started filming. You can see a bit of movement at the start of the film, the shadow and the sun are not quite in the centre of the frame and the tripod alignment had to be adjusted whilst the film was being shot. But sooner or later one gets to the point where things are as close to being right as you can humanly expect them to be, and as the weather deteriorated and we got more and more blasted on the heath (as it were) the structure started to fall apart. In other words, we just couldn’t have gone on for another day. So seven days it was and seven days it remains – mythic or otherwise.
There is another metaphor in this. A human or any animal form is a structure that exists for a short time. Second law of thermodynamics says that (almost) everything runs down towards negative entropy. When one finds the remains of a sheep that has fallen off a cliff on the moors, you know that it will gradually rot and the grass will begin to grow up through it. The structure that was the sheep is now rapidly approaching entropy. That’s what happens with the film. In that sense the film is also about life and death and can be thought of as mythological. So you are, of course, quite right: this is a point at which we can agree to not differ. However, I believe that I can accept this and yet maintain that I was more concerned with a collaboration between the structuring of a film and the structures I found in the landscape and in the weather.
CE: It is a brooding, dark film. The part that’s most alarming and threatening is when the shadow comes across diagonally. Half the screen goes dark and you have the feeling of a storm gathering somewhere.
CW: And darkness is coming. Where the shadow is on the earth, as it moves it represents the point between night and day and is called the terminus. Yes, it is quite threatening and brooding, but the Welsh hills around there really are like that. The rocks for Stonehenge came from about 1000 metres from where we were filming. Pembrokeshire gets a lot of weather; it’s dark and gloomy when it’s bad but when the sun comes out it sparkles like nowhere else. The area is full of strange myths and haunting and stone circles, lay lines, tales of druid sacrifices, ghosts of Spanish sailors wrecked on the rocky coast. I would hate to think that my film is no more than a series of structural procedures. My love of this particular landscape came first and it is not so surprising therefore that the film does indeed express something of my response to such a wonderful location.
CE: There is a view that the use of rigid structures, as in system films is an attempt to efface or erase the presence of the artist. There is no suggestion that the subjectivity of the artist is being expressed through the form of the film.
CW: Yes this is also true, and is very different from Stan Brackhage’s approach where the work is about seeing through the untutored eye of his subjectivity. I am much more interested in the camera as a machine. I think it is a waste to use the camera to try and reproduce the way we see the world. I think of the camera as an instrument to show us something we can’t see with our eyes, like the world speeded up in time lapse or the tracking shot of a stream,[vi] sticking a camera in a tree and letting it blow around and seeing what the tree might see if it had sight. That’s a bit whimsical. But I’m not really interested in authorship at least not in those films.
I tend to speculate about concepts of landscape and what these ideas tell us about ourselves and the way we situate ourselves within the world. Landscape in the Western tradition first appeared in manuscript illustrations in the Middle Ages and here it was seen as a menacing terrain outside the cloistered walls of the monastery. In Renaissance painting landscape was represented as a backdrop to the human drama and it still is in movies and commercials for shampoo and BMWs. I wanted to reverse that perspective or at least try to re-position human activity within the landscape. I’m interested in the interaction of things we bring into the world, not as something separated from nature but as something that is part of nature. I don’t subscribe to the dualistic opposition of nature and technology, or nature and consciousness for that matter: I think of a more fluid model where nature, people and things coexist in a state of dynamic interaction. The question of telos is here a crucial one. In his famous critique The Question Concerning Technology (1950), Martin Heidegger proposed that the purpose of technology was to ‘enframe’ nature and use it as raw material irrespective of the damage to the environment.[vii] This enframing is sustained by the idea that we are separate from nature and it has been my project to suggest a more collaborative relationship. If this requires that I surrender some creative control, then so be it; the cost of control is greater than the loss of letting it go.
CE: In your Shoreline installations (1977–1979) in which a series of images of the sea viewed from the shore are projected side by side, the role of the viewer becomes critical in the creation of the work. The viewer’s trajectory, her passage through the space is a determining element.
CW: And the decision about duration rests with the viewer.
CE: There has been much discussion about the breakdown of the single, perspectival viewing position, which was first disrupted by the Cubists who offered multiple, simultaneous views of an object.
CW: Except that in Shoreline, the views aren’t different, they are all the same.
CE: That’s what makes the neat conceptual conceit. The viewer becomes the camera enacting a tracking shot as s/he moves along a fictional beach.
CW: Long before David Hockney thought of it, a number of people including Jan Dibbets were making overlapping photographs. He made a piece called Dutch Mountain (1971), which is witty, because, of course, there aren’t any mountains in Holland. He created the piece by simply setting the camera on a tripod, pointing it at the sea and then panning whilst making a series of exposures. Afterwards he fitted the photographs together. If you do that you get a mountain in the middle of your ocean because of the curvature of light as it passes through the lens. Starting where he left off, I thought that I would track (rather than pan) the camera along the beach in order to avoid the Dutch mountain distortion. Then I thought there’s no point. The waves breaking on the shore and the horizon behind don’t look any different here at this point than they do ten yards down the beach except that the weather will have changed and every wave is a little different. So, why not create the illusion of a continuous horizon by duplicating the same footage and projecting six identical film loops side by side. The lack of synchronization between six projectors produces a very artificial sense of weather changing as the fifteen foot loops go in and out of sync. The obvious disregard for illusionism is further re-enforced by the wall of 16 mm projectors placed on conspicuous white plinths, like an army firing squad, about to blast the faux panorama. The projectors grind relentlessly at each delicate loop of film whilst producing a wave-like (if rather noisy) soundtrack, a final, and somewhat redundant, reminder that things are indeed, not what they at first seemed to be.
In my work, the audience becomes a performer in an installation, as you said. When you walk through those beams of light, you get a ‘now you see me, now you don’t’ alternating effect because you cast a shadow on the screen until you get in a gap between the projectors. The only way to get into the space of the work is to break those beams. If you picture the thing in plain view you get triangular-shaped lights emanating from the projectors. Between those, if you stand in the gap, you become invisible.
CE: It becomes like a filmstrip. You can stand in the blank space between the frames.
CW: That’s right. When I showed Shoreline at the Hayward Gallery (1977), one young woman upset the uniformed attendants when she did a series of cartwheels straight through the beams of the projectors. This produced a wonderful chain of frozen images across the six screens. It was a great little performance piece and the result looked like an animated film. When I showed the second Shoreline installation at the Tate Gallery (1981), the one in which the waves wash horizontally across the screen, I had another run in with the gallery staff. A woman with a toddler on her shoulders had placed their hands on the wall and the ‘waves’ were running over their fingers. They were going along the wall in this way and the uniform people put a rope barrier up and wouldn’t let anyone touch the ‘art’. I thought this was amusing in a Pythonesque sort of way but I did ask Tate director Nick Serota if he would please get the barrier taken down. Even then I had to point to the projector and say ‘that’s the object, that’s all you need to protect. You don’t need to protect the image on the wall’. I guess the shock of putting film in an art gallery was too much for them. I gather things have changed a little since then but it has taken a long, long time for the moving image to enter the gallery.
CE: Are you concerned about the paradox of using technology to make an image of nature where technology has been implicated in its destruction? Mary Lucier and Bill Viola have said that they used the technology of video to record what is being lost in the environment. Chris Meigh-Andrews advocates a reconciliation between technology and nature; he identifies technology as having its own nature, being part of the nature. He talks about the flow of electrons being analogous to the flow of thought.
CW: It is a fairly philosophical point and a scientific one too. If you dig into emergence theory, it’s all there. I don’t see human activity as in any way essentially destructive; it’s just very misguided. We are a problem but we are nature, we are part of nature, not something that’s separate that goes around destroying nature. We are nature and we are destroying ourselves.
CE: It seems to suggest that nature has within it the seeds of its own destruction.
CW: Nature is not at risk, only us humans and we may take a lot of the biological life on this planet with us when we go. Two or three miles up from the earth you can’t see an evidence of human habitation at all. I’m not interested in making apocalyptic predictions, but there are many who think we are in for a massive cull. I have recently been chastised by a granting committee of the Canada Council for ‘getting on the Environmental Band Wagon’, and whilst it is true that my work does get shown at environmental summits and conferences I have never for a moment suggested that we power our modern cities with windmills! As James Lovelock has so eloquently stated, we would be better employed building mass housing for the inevitable migration north as temperatures lay waste the food producing regions of the planet. My hope is that any survivors will benefit from our current and past mistakes. I don’t think technology as such is to blame, but I rather think that if we ever get the chance for a second try we could find a better use for it.
But this is all far too grand for me. What I have tried to do is take the very simple technology of a film camera and use it as a stand in for the idea of technology as a whole. I use very limited means to suggest a number of conceptual models for how technology and nature might work together. As I have said, I began with a sailboat and tried to invent a different way of using technology in each quite distinct location. The idea and the technology grow together as I become familiar with the forces at play in each new location.
In a film like Streamline, for example, I could have moved in with a vehicle with tracks and with all the gear for a conventional tracking shot. It would have been a huge operation and I might have had to destroy half the landscape to do it. I always try to film in such way as to leave, to use the current jargon, a small footprint. All that I left by the stream were two metal pins that were driven into the rock to hold the tracking machine in place. I went back a few years ago and couldn’t find them.
In the time-lapse Park Film (1972), the recording was a by-product of a structure that was integrated into that situation. There were people passing through the park, more people when it was sunny, fewer when the weather was bad, more at rush hour, fewer in between. At all times, the flow of people through the park was affected by the weather as well as the clock-driven rhythms of the city that surrounds the park on all sides. As the people passed along the busy pathway that connects one part of the city to another, they triggered an individual film frame. Thus, the frequency of exposed film frames depended on the flow of people passing through the park. The nicer the weather, the more frames I took and the slower the film seems to run. On rainy days, only a few people passed by and those days are over in a blur of light and colour. The film wasn’t really about a park; it was a film that was part of the park as much as a film can be.
CE: I think it is also about a park. It is rare to see people in your work but the people in Park Film are like stick people, like animated Lowrys or cartoon characters. They’re mechanized, but we know they are people, and they are charming and funny; they make you smile. There’s something foolish about them too.
CW: People are always transforming nature into something else but I don’t think that should be one’s first instinct. We should listen to nature before transforming it. We are always cutting it up, chopping it up and editing it and changing it into a housing estate or a nuclear power station.
CE: You chop it up! You fragment time.
CW: I was doing a show in Brisbane and after screening Windmill (1973), a Canadian artist in the audience asked, ‘why didn’t you edit it, why did we have to sit through all that […] there are some really good bits in it’. He added, ‘Why don’t you compose with it? That’s what we do as artists’. I preferred the film to have its own pattern and rhythm not one imposed by me, and the ‘good’ bits are as much a part of it as what this artist thought of as the ‘boring’ bits. So why chop it up?
CE: But you’ve composed it before you start, you chose the location.
CW: Yes, you are right of course, Windmill is totally composed. I built the mirror and fitted it into the windmill that I placed in front of the lens. I chose the weather conditions for filming. I couldn’t have shot it on any old day. I had to wait until it was a day of blustery weather, a bit like today. So, it’s highly composed, but his point was that when the film came out of the camera I didn’t do anything else with it. My response to that is that it’s perfect as it is. You don’t need to mess with it.
These days, digital technology allows me to take live data provided by the weather and use it to re-combine, edit and mix pre-recorded sound and image files in real time, in the gallery. Tree Studies (2006), the piece I staged in the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea, had real-time weather feeds from four continents, Asia, Australia, North America and Europe. When the wind changed direction on the roof of the Slade or the University of Technology in Sydney, the data was streamed through the Internet and immediately affected the sound and image in the gallery, re-configuring the material in unexpected combinations.
CE: How did the viewer know what was affecting the image?
CW: There was a console in the gallery, which showed the wind speed and direction at each location. It didn’t matter whether the viewer looked at the console or not, the experience was of a wind-powered dance in which the participants were a tree and a camera. As the wind shifted, the viewpoint of the tree shifted as well. As the wind increased and decreased, the moving image accelerated and decelerated. It takes some time for a viewer to work out that they are looking at the same three five-minute clips of flickering movie film. Every time they see part of the same clip, it is running at a different speed, and the sound is quite different. We also had LEDs lights on the floor that turned the whole room into a sort of wind compass. The LEDs lit up as the wind changed direction. The system as a whole operated like a crude circulatory organ breathing in and out as the planet rotated about its axis. The installation, like the weather was never the same twice but generated new and unexpected combinations of image and sound for the duration of the exhibition.
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CAPTION: Chris Welsby, Wind Vane (1972), 8 min. 16mm on two screens. Courtesy of the artist.
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CE: I have reservations about the push-button, finger-activated mode of installation art. The idea that interactivity is achieved by hitting a trigger to make some pre-determined electronic phenomenon occur. There is still a tendency for moving image festivals to lean towards fairground spectacle. I think it is difficult to make this kind of work seem like anything other than a conjuring trick.
CW: I quite agree. This was my first attempt at using interactive technology, but I was using it as a metaphor, suggesting that one does have agency in nature, we have some control, but we don’t really know what it is. If you take your time and slow down and think about it, and think about what’s happening and watch, then maybe you’ll gain some deeper insights. But the instant gratification of waving your hand at a piece of art or pressing a button based on that spurious notion that everybody’s an artist is nonsense.
CE: Your film Windmill (1973/1974) is about background and foreground, as well as the space behind the camera. The mirrored blades of the windmill reflect the camera and the park behind it, while the park itself is glimpsed through the spinning blades. As a result, there is no foreground or background, you dissolve both positions; they become one. It reminds me of what the anthropologist Eric Hirsch said, that foreground represents daily life, daily struggle on the earth and the background is about potentiality – where your aspirations reside. [viii]
CW: And where your fears live too, hiding there.
CE: And where your subconscious lies. In his book, The Anthropology of Landscape, Perspectives on Place and Space (1995), Hirsch talks about ‘the infinite meanings of emptiness’. He was referring to places sacred to non-European cultures as well as western ones. Memorials in our culture are empty places. The space is filled with memories and grief, the grief of those left behind, projected into the space by the mourners who visit the lieux de mémoire. In order to become receptacles for memories and emotion, it is important that these spaces remain empty, which brings us back to Hirsch’s notion of potentiality in the background, your films make me think about how we tend to project into, narrativize the ‘empty’ spaces you show us.
CW: On the island where we live off Vancouver, there’s a little clearing in the forest, behind the church – the church always had a nose for the older sacred places. There you will find pictograms that are four or 5000 years old, carved into rocks by the coastal Salish people. The pictograms in this beautiful little meadow are surrounded by a few gnarled old oaks and the forest itself. The place really has a charged energy about it. Do we feel this charge because we are imagining the presence of these people 5000 years ago? Is it because we know, in our minds, intellectually, the facts of that history, or is there something else about this place? Are we sensing the same thing the Salish sensed that made them want to leave their precious boats unprotected and walk so far inland? I feel something like this happening at my locations. Seven Days couldn’t have been made anywhere else – it was just the right place in the landscape. I have places I always return to; that’s where I make films. I never have an idea and then stick it somewhere. I always make that connection first and then the idea follows. It may be to do with this feeling of emptiness, this potentiality. I don’t know what it’s about, but I know it when I feel it.
CE: It could be said that in yours and William Raban’s work the encounter with the elements has a heroic dimension. There is a sense in which you are pitting yourself against the fury of the elements. You talked about filming with Jenny Okun and you even said ‘she was tougher than me’. There’s a certain machismo to it, but perhaps more an echo of Casper David Friedrich confronting the infinite, the sublime grandeur of the landscape and somehow being ennobled by that encounter. I think Dave Curtis once used the word ‘endurance’ in relation to your work, suggesting that you and William were like endurance performance artists, proving yourselves in the way all young men are supposed to in tribal societies. You test your strength against the odds.
CW: Definitely not! [laughter] I think that’s lovely, but the idea has one foot stuck in nineteenth-century Romanticism and the other foot is stuck in the world we inherited from the Enlightenment.
CE: That’s the point isn’t it?
CW: Not really, no. I don’t think there’s anything romantic about being in a boat in a storm. It is just a situation that you may encounter. If you get out of it, it’s not because you are having a wonderful, spiritual experience, it’s because you know how to use a compass and the instruments, and you know how to work with nature. There’s nothing romantic about that. It is just something we’ve all got to learn to do.
You see, to me it’s far less of a challenge to be at sea than going to a cocktail party or going to talk to somebody at the Tate or having to go through a faculty meeting. I feel much more relaxed at sea even if it’s stormy. Once I got a boat, nobody could find me and I could just disappear, which I do a lot and always have. I must be one of the last kids on earth to have run away to sea! I nearly got thrown out of high school for it.
CE: For having adventures?
CW: Exactly. But I soon grew out of it. In fact, I have always tried to make films in non-exotic places. There are five films that were made in this busy London park (Hyde Park). Seven Days was made very close to the road. I never take a camera when I go hiking in the wilderness proper. There’s no point. You can find what you are looking for out of your living room window or in your back garden if you care to look.
CE: But you make it ‘other’, particularly with the technical processes that you use – time lapse, intermittency, reflection – with these you render the landscape uncanny.
CW: Ah, that word.
CE: In your films, nature appears to do things that are ‘unnatural’, that would not occur under normal perceptual conditions. As you said, you are showing us things that we don’t usually see, that are beyond human perception. We ask, why is the grass moving in this curious way? So you are perhaps precipitating a mis-reading of things. It’s hallucinogenic or […] I can’t find the right word.
CE: That sounds too dull. You’re much more of a magician. I think of you and William as film magicians.
CW: The landscape is a very real part of my life. I spend a lot of time in it; I live in it, although I lived in cities until quite recently. But the things I like to do aren’t associated with the urban environment. I made one film that’s got city images in it as well as those of nature, but I don’t want to do that kind of contrast montage thing. Montage is terribly overrated; it’s too easy. We show the city and then we show a bit of nature and it’s about the interaction of the city and nature and the city goes to eat nature and you conclude that it’s bad. I don’t want to do that. But, in a sense the built environment, the objects of human culture are always there and foregrounding the machines and the means of recording the image, obviates the necessity, in my view, for having a machine, or building or man-made objects in what I’m filming. People ask why I go into nature and never show any buildings; well, I have a building with me, that’s what I’m making the film with. I don’t need to put it in the picture.
I work with landscape because I just feel happier there. I don’t feel that it is to do with going out to conquer nature. I hate that idea. That’s what we’ve done, or think we’ve done in our imaginations as a culture. We haven’t conquered nature. We’ve hardly tickled the surface. We’ve no idea about nature really. As a surfer (or ex-surfer I should say) when you are riding a twenty-foot wall of water, thousands of tons of water, it’s no good thinking you can conquer it. It will break your back in seconds. You’ve got to work with it.
CE: It sounds very workmanlike, but to what extent is it to do with spiritual nourishment, and things that people of our generation seem to find hard to talk about?
CW: I find it hard to talk about the sublime. There was an embarrassing moment at the end of an interview I did at the BFI when John Wyver asked me if I thought my work was spiritual and I said, ‘er, not really, but it could be if you like, but I’m not really sure’. The real answer is yes, of course it is. But it is also a very workmanlike thing.
There’s the Buddhist story about the young man who goes to the Zen master and says ‘master I would like to study with you. How do I find the path to enlightenment?’ The master throws a bucket at him and tells him to fetch water. For Buddhists even if not for Christians, it seems that the path to enlightenment involves a workmanlike approach.
CE: Yes but I still think that you have a very strong sense of the sublime in your work, whatever you say, and of wonderment. What the films are about for me is an image of you watching nature, paying attention to nature, drawing on its magic, its power. You have devised a way of approaching nature, which you no doubt think is more respectful or even objective where you set up some sort of filmic structure or procedure, but nonetheless you do turn to nature, and you watch it with care.
CW: Thank you, that means a lot to me. And yes I do watch nature very carefully and I am fascinated by technology and I try to communicate something of my excitement and interest in both in my art-making. I think scientists do the same sort of thing we do; they try to understand nature. They too look at it very closely and devise language and systems to communicate something new about what they find. EMC2 communicates something about nature. It’s a form of representation and it tells us how volatile and unstable our little world is.
Here’s the thing: we are constantly bombarded by the clamouring of the media and action-packed films. The one process that is practically illegal is reverie. Why is this? Reverie is, I think, a very important and very creative state. So, I really want to make films that open up a space for that reverie, for that slowing down. That was the reason behind the interactive Lost Lake (1996) piece.[ix] The slower you circulated in the space, the less the lake chopped and changed. Slow down, slow down. When most people see an experimental film, they say, ‘it’s so long and boring’. I always told my students when I started the experimental film course, you’re going to find this very difficult. First of all you’re going to find it shocking. It’s going to be much more shocking than violence or sex, because you are going to be bored, very bored. It’s fine if you fall asleep, I really don’t mind and if you can’t stand it anymore, just quietly leave the room and come back again when you feel like it or not at all, whichever you prefer – and get over it.
At the end of a few weeks, they would watch a Peter Gidal film and say, ‘wow, that was over quickly. I thought you said that was going to be the most challenging film of them all’. Their whole timescale changes. I propose that boredom is a signal that calls upon us to think for ourselves, to use our imaginations and be creative. No wonder it’s practically illegal.
I taught my daughter from a very early age that if you go tide pooling, you’re not going to see anything unless you sit down next to a pool and don’t move. You stay there quietly and you hardly breathe and you don’t even blink. After about ten or fifteen minutes, things start to happen. Anyone else could go past that tide pool and say, ‘very nice, a couple of sea urchins’ and ‘look at that fish’ and then they’re gone. But if you sit by a tide pool, it becomes action-packed, a starfish comes out, things move imperceptibly. You’ve got to slow down and listen and look. That’s what you do when you’re drawing.
I loved drawing, when I used to do it. I had the most wonderful training at the Central School of Art. It was so intense. That’s why I ended up teaching it. I loved not so much the drawing itself, but what it teaches you: to look and to see. They say that we are a predominantly visual culture and yet most people don’t really know how to see.
CE: I agree. I went to Tyree in the Hebrides not so long ago. Everyone else went lobster fishing, which didn’t interest me. So, I sat on a rock and started to draw, something I hadn’t done since I was a student at the Slade. I draw incredibly badly, I make seriously bad drawings, no better than sixth form standard. Then I noticed the sound of singing coming from somewhere and I realized it was me. I was just humming to myself. I was entirely happy. I didn’t even care that I was making a bad drawing.
CW: I like that image of you sitting on a rock drawing and singing with the pleasure of it. But you see, that’s not transcendental, that’s not the sublime. The sublime is based on the idea of a transcendental experience. I don’t think that nature’s there for us to get off on in that sense. On the other hand, one sort of does, because when you are in a situation where you are overpowered and overwhelmed, by the ocean, for example, it does take on this extraordinary mythic dimension. And you can’t fail to be impressed by the huge emptiness of it. What I tried to do with At Sea (2003) was to represent the sea in all its impossibility because it’s just too big.[x] You can’t say it looks like this or that, you might as well show a bucket of water, of salt water and say, that’s the sea. Do you remember in geography class, they used to teach us to fill in around the map of Africa and Australia with blue, and make little lines around all the continents? That was shorthand for the sea, and to me it indicated the sea was very big indeed, but I came to realize that the sea is much bigger than even itself, because it is at least as big as the imagination. And that is all before we even begin to fill all those extraordinary spaces with stories and ships and shipwrecks and monsters and sharks and most of all with things that we don’t know anything about yet.
CW: The term cybernetics comes from the Greek word kubernetes, meaning governor and steersman. It conjures up images of early sea voyagers in small wooden ships with oars and single sails, the most advanced technology of the ancient world. These sailors were dependent on their mastery of that technology and their ability to negotiate the hazards of uncharted oceans and unknown shorelines lying beyond the horizon of the known world. The image of piloting within a changeable and dynamic environment, then and now, is one of humans and their machines in an encounter with the vast and unpredictable world of nature.
My rather single-handed voyage began auspiciously one day in 1970 when, acting on impulse, I strapped an 8mm camera to the wind vane self-steering gear on a friend’s sailing boat and let the wind direct my film. Although I have worked since, across a range of media, I have always concentrated on one particular theme that I conceptualize as a two-sided question: How do we see ourselves in relation to the natural world, and how should we position ourselves and our technologies within it?
[i] In Wind Vane, the view of the camera is determined by the action of the wind on the sail, so that the wind ‘has a say’ in the outcome of the film.
[ii] The film was shot by a stream on the slopes of Mount Carningly in Wales. Welsby describes the process of filming: ‘One frame was taken every ten seconds throughout the hours of daylight […] In order to remain stationary in relation to the star field, the mounting is aligned with the Earth’s axis and rotates about its own axis at approximately once every 24 hours.’ http://www.luxonline.org.uk/artists/chris_welsby/seven_days.html. Accessed 12 February 2013.
[iii] Welsby explains: ‘Selection of image, (sky or earth; sun or shadow), was controlled by the extent of cloud coverage, i.e. whether the sun was in or out. If the sun was out, the camera was turned towards its own shadow; if it was in, the camera was turned towards the sun. A shotgun microphone was used to sample sound every two hours. These samples were later cut to correspond, both in space and time, with the image on the screen’. http://www.sfu.ca/~welsby/7Daynote.htm. Accessed 11 May 2013.
[iv] For a recent reappraisal of cybernetics and the work of Bateson, see Andrew Pickering, Andrew (2011), The Cybernetic Brain; Sketches of Another Future, University of Chicago Press.
[v] The film was shot with the help of the film-maker Jenny Okun.
[vi] This a reference to Streamline (1976) described by Welsby as ‘a continuous, “real time” tracking shot of a stream bed. The length of the track was ten yards. The camera was suspended in a motorized carriage running on steel cables three feet above the water surface. The camera pointed vertically downwards recording the contours of the stream bed and the flow of water along its course. The sound of the water was recorded synchronously from the moving carriage’. http://www.luxonline.org.uk/artists/chris_welsby/stream_line.html. Accessed 11 February 2013.
[vii] See Heidgger, Martin ( 1977), The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (trans. William Lovitt), New York: Harper & Row, pp. 3–36.
[viii] Eric Hirsch in conversation with the Figuring Landscapes exhibition committee, 2007-2008. http://www.studycollection.co.uk/figuringlandscapes/. Accessed 12 February 2013.
[ix] Lost Lake was a sixteen-monitor video wall installation. ‘The imagery comprises a single, oblique-angle shot of the surface of a small alpine lake. The water surface fills the frame. A constantly changing pattern of ripples plays across the water surface, which reflects an inverted image of trees on the opposite shore. A series of seven three-minute takes, recorded over a period of several hours, depicts the complex variations in the water surface as the breeze rises and falls. […] The sound was digitally recorded and mixed, and comprises the sound of water trickling over small pebbles and the distant and somewhat ominous sound of a jet aircraft passing high overhead.’ Chris Welsby online: http://www.sfu.ca/~welsby/LostLake.htm. Accessed 12 February 2013.
[x] ‘A number of video shots of the coast of British Columbia, (Canada) are projected side by side to form a single, continuous moving image. This image contains elements such as ships, buoys, floating driftwood, tree covered islets, sea birds, open ocean, and drifting fog banks. The dominant colour is grey; grey infused with a multitude of ocean blues and greens. The overall feel is sombre and mysterious; a study of winter light falling on the surface of water and cloud; an evocative portrait of the Pacific North West.’ Chris Welsby online: http://www.sfu.ca/~welsby/AtSeaNot.htm. Accessed 12 February 2013.
First published by Intellect Ltd. Elwes, C. and Welsby, C. (2013), ‘Interview Chris Welsby July 2007– June 2013. In conversation with Catherine Elwes’, MIRAJ, 2:2, pp. 308-24.