Writings and Proposals
Proposal for a multimedia, site-specific installation by Russell
Mills and Ian Walton
From the highest part of a large building* an inverted, leafless
tree, mirroring its root system and resembling the veins of
a heart, is suspended from the roof to hover over a floor
covered with crushed sea shells - mute reminders of past occupations
and communities lost to so-called technological progress.
Now that the marine-based industries are all but gone, adaptation
to market forces has sparked a necessary ingenuity; shells
rich in calcium are now broken and crushed and sold to fertiliser
manufacturers, destined to fuel the land - positive and cyclical
chaos theory? At set times throughout each day of the installation's
duration, a smoke pellet, discreetly located, will be lit**.
Pluming and rolling, smoke will slowly unfold in a nebulous
veil; occasionally enveloping the tree in a cloud - of un/knowing,
of intuition, of uncertainty, of mystery, until it naturally
and slowly disperses. The tree, and, when present, the cloud
of smoke, are both illuminated from above by a series of,
say, six pin-spots each with coloured gels, ambers, deep blues
and deep reds, throwing shafts of light through the boughs,
branches and the cloud. As with all computer or mechanically
driven elements in this installation, these will be programmed
so as to be "apparently" random, operating at variable
times over long time spans.
On three large projection screens hung at positions to be
determined, three films will be projected, each set at pre-set
but apparently random intervals, thereby continually looping
out of sequence. Necessarily graphic and almost static, each
film will show images alluding to perception, our interaction
with process and matter, and to the ecstasy of transformative
moments. One film will show in close up, a pair of eyes of
an old person, heavy-lidded and lined with history, opening
and closing in extreme slow motion. Again in extreme close
up and slow motion, the second film will show a pair of hands
etched with years of physical work, wet with a thin sheath
of clay, flexing and relaxing their fingers. The third film,
which is still being researched and discussed, will similarly
be in extreme slow motion, and will possibly show one of the
1) Breadcrumbs' transforming into sparks from grinding machinery
at Swan Hunter's Shipyard, Newcastle, which in their turn
become constellations of stars.
2) A wave of sea water evolving, building and finally crashing
against a shore or a cliff face, or the wave evolving to the
point of resolution before dissolving into a wall of fire
which in its turn becomes a wave.
3) The 'tapping out' procedure in the steel making process.
Elsewhere in the space, in subdued light, similarly suspended,
are twenty to twenty-five rusted shovel heads each roughly
tipped with gold leaf, their digging faces starred with constellations
of gold flecks, each revolving at 1 RPM. As they rotate they
touch, just, a floor of iron or steel plates, raised slightly
above the venue floor, paradoxically appearing to float. Making
continual but hesitant scrapings their movements will allude
to notions of endurance, persistence, spirit, the grit in
the oyster and the hand of the working man. This cluster of
activity will be dimly lit by eight to ten spotlights - possibly
using only white lights and amber, gold and straw gels, set
to a slow heartbeat-like pulse.
Lighting throughout will be predominantly in earth tones
of amber, gold, straw and earth reds with admixtures of deep
blues and whites. Having been pre-set on computer controlled
random dimmer units and employed in a necessarily theatrical
fashion, the lighting configuration will be designed so as
to isolate elements of the installation in almost imperceptible
shifts of luminosity and focus, thereby creating fleeting
moments of illumination.
A new sound work will also be created to be an integral part
of the installation. This will consist of a 10 CD piece comprising
of sounds recorded in specific environments of cultural significance
to the evolution of the people of the area and the place itself1.
Sounds already recorded include: - the industrial processes
of grinding, cutting and the machining of iron and steel from
Swan Hunter's vast shipyards, the never changing hum of an
electricity sub-station, the sounds of ice being made and
dispensed from the Ice House on the Fish Quays, the everyday
sounds of the Ferry and the River Tyne, the Lifeguard Station
and the gun emplacements at Tynemouth Priory, the Metro system
and the Orange Call Centre plus other complementary recordings
exemplifying the primacy of process. All sounds will be heavily
effected and radically transformed using various recording
studio techniques to become new sounds, suggestive of unknown,
previously unimagined future environments. Each sound will
be effected so as to produce varying stereo separations and
3D movements in the air, further emphasised by the wide and
varied spacing of the loudspeakers within the space. Each
CD will carry a distinct and unique palette of sounds and
silences, each programmed to play in a random shuffle mode,
thereby creating a continually shifting mix in real time with
no one permutation of sounds ever repeating itself. Complementary
to these prepared sounds, we also propose the additional use
of an externally located radio microphone, secured in a convenient
and safe place outside the venue, picking up real time sounds
of the everyday activities, the signal from which will be
relayed through a mixing desk which will be pre-set to specific
effects - i.e. time-stretching, reverb, echo, delay, sustain,
etc. This signal will then be sent to a pair of widely separated
speakers within the building to add to the already 'unique'
real time mix.
It is intended that in its totality, Static will be interpreted
as an epiphany as well as an elegy, a transformative, enabling
celebration and a cautionary reflection, a work that respects
the past whilst anticipating a better future. The work is
not obliged to naturalism and objective realism but rather
seeks to explore a substratum of concealed thoughts and emotions
in a more tangential and allusive manner. To this end, all
materials, objects and their applications within the installation,
have been selected not only for their inherent aesthetic appeal
but also for their capacity to act as signifiers and carriers
of manifold possible symbolic meanings. Please see the accompanying
Two specially written poems by the poet Robin Robertson have
been commissioned and completed for inclusion in the catalogue
(see other attachments for transcripts of both poems). Recordings
of Robin Robinson reading the poems Interiors and Sea Fret
have also been made for possible integration into the installation
sound work itself and may also be included on the catalogue
CD. We have also discussed the possibility of again working
with the Liverpudlian poet Paul Farley, who is anxious to
collaborate in this installation by researching and writing
new poems specifically, possibly related to Liverpool and
the Northwest. Farley was Writer in Residence at the Wordsworth
Trust 2000 - 2002 during which time he collaborated with us
on the installation 'Republic of Thorns'. His debut collection,
The Boy From The Chemist Is Here To See You, won the Forward
Prize for Best First Collection in 1998; The Ice Age (2002)
won the Whitbread Prize for Poetry, and he currently teaches
in the Department of Creative Writing at Lancaster University.
*Ideally a building that has a history or correspondence
with the sea or with an industry that is or was reliant on
the sea. Its height and volume should be large enough to emphasise
the size of the tree in space.
** Our original idea proposed the use of a smoke generator
which would produce a thicker cloud of smoke, to be activated
a set times throughout the duration of the installation. If
the finances allowed for the hire of a smoke generator its
use would be far preferable to that of smoke pellets, especially
as the heavier solution used by a smoke generator would produce
a longer lasting and more ethereal atmospheric effect.
Glosses for Static
Static: - partly inspired by the poem of the same name by
Robin Robertson from his 1997 Picador collection "A Painted
Field". It also has other meanings, literal and metaphoric
which allude to the ideas that have informed the installation;
temporal stillness, inertia; bodies at rest or forces in equilibrium;
acting as a weight but not moving (static pressure), passivity;
electric charges at rest, not flowing as a current; atmospherics;
Tree: - mediator between earth & heaven; dynamic as opposed
to the static of stone; diversity in unity; feminine; the
unconscious; symbol of the bare processes of life, growing
and dying; family tree enduring generations, spanning time.
In the scale of evolution the tree is an intermediary between
inanimate matter, the earth, and the conscious mind. Roots:
- bare existence; plunged deep in the underworld where dead
and past are buried layer upon layer. Trees, like all plants,
are externally fractal. A tree echoes the arboreal structure
of the circulatory or the nervous system; it fills space with
continuity and is a magnificent system for the distribution
of materials like blood, electrical impulses, water or nutrients
- to sustain life.
Inverted Tree: - magic tree; Roots in the air represent the
principle while its branches symbolise its unfolding manifestation;
inverse action, that which is on high descending below and
that which is below ascending on high; reflection of the celestial
and the terrestrial worlds in each other; bringing knowledge
back to its roots. There is also another reference in Mantegna's
"La Madonna della Vittoria" in the Louvre, which
shows, above the head of the Virgin, what has been interpreted
as being a piece of inverted coral floating in space. This
may or may not be a piece of coral but it looks very much
like both the veins of a heart and a piece of inverted root
system. Either way it symbolises the fall of man for which
the redeemer atones.
Clouds: - intermediate phase between substantial reality
and ethereal reality, between space and action, matter and
time. Being enveloped in a cloud denotes being transformed
into pure energy; clouds can only be pierced by a flash of
intuition, symbolically, lightning. Cloud is like steam, a
stage in the process of melting and etherealizing solid substances.
Smoke: - as above plus - combination of fire and air; the
path of escape from time and space into the external and unconfined.
Shells: - feminine; watery; universal matrix; birth; regeneration;
life; love; marriage; fertility (a vulva analogy); being broken
as they will be in the installation, and considering their
future use in fertiliser, shells here become regenerative
Spade / Shovel: - phallic; masculine; etc. Within the installation
they represent the historic interdependence and symbiotic
relationship between man and the land / the sea / the "real"
environment, rather than the current distanced connections
with the virtual world. More prosaically they also represent
honest labour and our disappearing agri-cultural legacy.
The North Light gone
in a smoke of sea-spray,
its stone still riding in
and out of sight; the frayed
pennons and bannerets
of the tide-crests
all that is visible now,
in the haar-light
and the shoaling rain.
The sea moves its white hands
along the breakwater, blindly
trying for a way in;
crash and recoil
at the base of the cliff,
slow and attritional
under the east salient,
scathing the stone revetment
with that interminable refrain,
that petitionary, leaden
litany of the sea.
the grey sweep, mewling
through a squall of sea-wired
stall and glide, sail-
planing in long curves,
letting their feet
drag each brake and turn
as they skim the sides
of Penbal Crag - the head
of the rampart on the rock.
Where broken and eroded stones
still reef the headland's brow,
the burial-ground's strewn markers
paraphrase - in simple miniature -
the fretted ruin
of the thousand-year-old priory:
these worn, sea-dimpled gravestones
honeycombed by salt.
son of the Duncan
murdered by Macbeth,
is buried here
on the southernmost edge
of his brief kingdom,
and Anna Kewney,
thirteen years and five months,
a grief in the hearts of her parents
which time alone can assuage,
but can never efface.
18th day of March, 1856.
The chantry's rose-window
sights east along the barrel
of the rusted 6-inch gun.
By the remains of the lighthouse
and the battery observation post,
the Benedictine well:
the cover of the well
the iris shutter,
the well-water its lens.
The unchanging view
from this camera obscura
never the same:
of the northern sky,
to a glossary of light.
A face of steel and concrete
on a head of stone,
the gun emplacements
stare out narrowly
at the open sea.
Underneath, under ground,
soft workers of the inner body
move in its dark cloister,
candled here and there
by lamps in glazed recesses
set in the passage wall.
Shell canisters gleam
bluntly in the claustral light,
stacked on wooden skidding racks,
un-armed as yet, unblessed.
At the copper door
of the shifting lobby
- the sacristy or tiring-house -
the rubric demands the ritual:
Wipe your boots and shoes
on Mat 'B'; remove
your outer garments
and hang them on Peg 'A'.
pass the barrier in your socks
and underclothes, put on
the magazine clothes 'C'
and magazine shoes 'D'
and go to your work.
In linen vestments and felt slippers
enters the cartridge store.
Behind them, on hooks,
their accoutrements and uniform,
boots lined up, bright
along the darkened floor.
The metal buttons glint; the polished
flint and spark.
Inside the shell-filling room, the solemn
and most tender rite of ordinance:
the raising of the shell to the shell-block;
the slotting-home of the cartridge;
elevation of the charged shell.
The platen is wiped clean of powder
And the process begins again.
A bell is rung in the sealed chamber:
the transfigured steel
is drawn above
and issued to the guns.
The wind off the sea
like a thrown knife;
a styptic cold
over the concrete half-moon batteries,
the barbican and sanctuary:
all the exposed relics
in this reliquary of light.
There is no raised stone
the rain cannot macerate;
no face left legible,
no legend uneffaced.
Rust, the penetrant,
turns iron maculate:
flaked to a filigree of red.
The sea performs its fretwork.
The edging wind eats everything.
Under the crucial rock,
alexanders and brassica
are all that remain
of the monks' garden:
into the saxifrage and sea-fern grass,
the thrift and red valerian.
The scrub peters out
as the land falls away, into cliff,
as it all falls away
into sea air.
The waves reducing
all this handiwork to a shell,
and all the shells to sand.
Hiding in the trees for hours
was how I used to disappear:
that leave of absence
in the high-leafed branches,
the speaking green's loud crush of light
as the canopy opened to a sea of sky.
Where I go now is a well-shaft: the tree
inverted, sunk; forbidden ground.
I climb down into its dark
and sit in the mulch of foliage,
the black stars capsized, my life
capsized; the wish to vanish, drowned.
The wind is dragging the river. Light fails.
I shout, but I am lost without a sound.