Outside the City Limits

Along with approximately half the population of the planet, I have lived most of my life in cities. However, the forests and tidal estuaries of the south coast of England were my first home and the subject of my first paintings and drawings. I painted these subjects because that was where I lived, and because of a deeply experienced connection to the land and the sea.

When, in 1972, I became a full time art student at Chelsea School of Art in London, I was given to understand that landscape was not a suitable subject for art making and, temporarily swayed, I threw myself into the task of making large colour field abstract paintings, after the style of Frank Stella and later Mark Rothko. Thanks to a course on photography however, I soon found myself out in the landscape again, ostensibly searching for imagery to put into my “abstract” paintings.

Photography is all about time, as is the landscape, and in the artistic climate of the early seventies it was not difficult for me to make the necessary connections. I was fascinated by John Cage’s music and writings and rumors of the experimental video works of Nam June Paik began to take form in my imagination. Meanwhile, in the art history department the post-impressionists had been co-opted into some sort of Greenbergian justification for abstract expressionism. In my graduating thesis I argued that Greenberg had it all wrong and that Monet and Cezanne were primarily concerned with the problem of representing time. The painterly brush strokes, I argued, were merely the by-product of the process. In the painting studios this attack on the high priesthood of American painting was only slightly less reprehensible than painting figurative landscapes but my fate as a painter, was not completely decided until I tied the departments only regular 8 camera to a tree and let the wind make my first film.

Nearly twenty years and thirty films and installations later I immigrated to Canada in an attempt to “extend my ideas beyond the European concept of Landscape Art”, the burden of history which had inevitably been the context for my practice to date. I had visited Vancouver on a number of my film tours and it seemed to me that this was a place where landscape really would be a more urgent, politicized and day-to-day issue. It is perhaps symptomatic of my hopes that my first (and only) film screening since moving to Vancouver was a charity screening for the Western Wilderness Committee.

During the last two years I have been working on a series of installations that explore the possibility of using real-time weather data to edit picture and sound. Digital technology allows me to take the ideas I began to explore in the early interactive works such as Windmill or Seven Days, into a whole new area of possibilities. The early films are records of specific periods of time during which the filmmaking equipment and interactive devices such as the windmill or the equatorial stand interact with the wind and changing weather conditions. The ideas that informed these works were quite abstract and philosophical; explorations of the relationship between nature and technology and the comparatively simple mechanical devices of filmmaking were a perfect medium for this line of inquiry.

In the more recent works, using video and digital technology, the interaction with nature takes place in real-time, in the gallery; there is no record of the event but instead, each viewing moment is completely unique and irrevocably rooted in the here and now of the viewing experience.

I have recently moved from the city of Vancouver to a small island off the coast of British Columbia. Sparsely populated, it supports a few farms carved out of the coastal rain forest, and an underdeveloped tourist industry. It has a couple of grocery shops, three police officers, a volunteer fire service and no Starbucks. The island of Gabriola is, nonetheless, zoned, not as a geographical entity surrounded by water, but as a city. It appears that moving to the country requires more than a change of geographical location!

Administrative expedience perhaps, and yet this seems to be symptomatic of a long and ingrained habit of thought, which seeks to separate Nature from Culture and place human activity at the very centre of our cosmology. The city is vast but, like the inhabitants of a medieval city, it appears we still live in fear of the world outside the walls, in a state of denial, huddled around our hearths (televisions and computers) whilst the forces of an abused nature gather menacingly at the gates.

Echoing this scenario, pictorial conventions ranging from the renaissance fresco, to the feature film, present the landscape as little more than a backdrop to human activity. It appears that the dualist malaise runs deep within the human psyche and finds expression in all levels of language . Using experimental film, video and digital media, I have endeavored to reverse this pictorial order, placing the landscape in the foreground and re-position human activity, (including my own as film maker), back within the scene, not as a protagonist but as a participant in a process where technology, landscape and creativity are part of a larger more inclusive ecological system.

Published 2008: Damp Contemporary Vancouver Media Art. Edited and designed by Alex Mackenzie and Oliver Hockenhull