This body of research has been devised in Coolorta, a small ‘alternative’ community in the West of Ireland, a 'slow’ community that seems to characterise the antithesis of a globalised society. The individuals living there place an emphasis on sustainability and a strong connection to nature. Within this exposition, landscape and portraiture are explored through experiential and embodied practice. As a person who grew up in Coolorta and spent eight years living at the site but who no longer lives there now, I find myself neither insider nor outsider. I am both unable to fix my belonging, or to fully detach myself. Finding myself in a state of metaphorical exile (neither here nor there), I struggle to define distances and boundaries and possible definitions of the ‘place’ and the ‘Other’. The three attempts to represent place through sound, moving image, audio and photography involve the practices of movement, walking, swimming and ‘being’ in this place. The theoretical and philosophical considerations of their own failure to fix a definite view, are outlined in the sections below.
The distinction between the objective and phenomenal body is central to understanding the phenomenological treatment of embodiment. Embodiment is not a concept that pertains to the body grasped as a physiological entity. Rather it pertains to the phenomenal body and to the role it plays in our object-directed experiences. (Audi 1999, p.258)
The word “experiential” in this context can be defined as a literal connection to the experiencing body. In each of my methodological approaches, I have used the body in its corporeality and materiality to explore Coolorta and to record the experience of that process. Embodied experience has been the common thread, which defines this practice with particular attention to phenomenological theories. I have attempted through this practice to pay significant attention to the moving, breathing, living body, both of myself and of the other subjects in the research and it is this attention to the body as material, which I refer to when I talk about “experiential” processes, methodologies and practices. Experiential research is grounded within phenomenological discourses, and my practice has been informed by the philosophical writings of Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who both define the concept of experience and consciousness. Phenomenology is the study of phenomena: how and why we experience things and what it is that leads us to understand “experience”. Merleau-Ponty poses the study of experience perceived from the position of the first person and focuses on the interrelated nature of the experiencing body with the environment. “Inside and outside are inseparable. The world is wholly inside and I am wholly outside myself” (Merleau-Ponty 2002, p.407).
The sensory aspects of seeing, hearing and touching and perceiving through non-linear experience such as filming and recording sound and movement is explored through my artistic practice. The experiential relationship to the particular west of Ireland landscape of Coolorta is underpinned, through art practice, as a means of extending beyond the verbal towards an embodied experience. This has taken place through the following methodologies which emphasise phenomenological perception of space.
My exploration of the term ‘place’ in my art practice refers specifically to an area of land in the west of Ireland housing a settlement of an unfixed number of people. The boundaries of this place, Coolorta, are fluid; they are not officially fixed, as it occupies a rural portion of space in the National Park. In Space and Place: The perspective of experience(1977) Yi-Fu Tuan writes about how individuals relate to and experience space and place and how they form attachments and associations to notions of ‘home’ and national identity. Tuan analyses the tension between the longing for the security of home, and the desire and wish for freedom, liberation and open space. This existential state of dualistic anxiety can be applied to a consideration of Coolorta, a location where people desire and form an attachment to place, security and comfort (in the construction of dwellings and attachment to the land), but all of the dwelling structures and settlements are made from temporary materials. Coolorta is a place, which contains, simultaneously, a commitment to place yet transience and freedom; its people live outside of conventional ideals and its boundaries and distances remain tenuous and difficult to define. Yi Fu Tuan (1977, p.54) suggests:
Spaciousness is closely associated with the sense of being free. Freedom implies space; it means having the power and enough room to act, being free has several levels of meaning. Fundamental is the ability to transcend the present condition, and this transcendence is most simply manifest as the elementary power to move.
A longing to belong, to be ‘from somewhere’ is related to our understanding of ‘place’; a sense of feeling ‘comfortable’ and at ease, emerge as important considerations within this study. Exploring attachment to place opens up questions of nostalgia and longing: a longing to be from somewhere and to identify with “somewhere”. ‘The literal definition of nostalgia is a painful journey to return home. Nostalgia comes from the Greek word nostros to return home and algia a painful condition.’ (Lyn Day 2009, p.5)
My attempts at the representation of place are marked by the inherent restlessness that comes from the position of the exile and artist and the problem of finding a way to settle and feel comfortable with the idea of ‘home’: of defining a place of belonging. How close can I get to represent this place, Coolorta, my “not-home” and does my intimate relationship to it allow me a particular access to it? Within this process I find myself at times an insider and at times an outsider.
Approaching the problem of representing Place: three artistic research methodologies
Autowalks is a walking practice, which is underpinned by an auto-ethnographic researching style; the methodology explores space and place and partakes in a mood of meta-discourse. Through Autowalks I have attempted to subvert an authoritative autobiographical voice by the collection of multiple experiences. This approach is a walking/oral practice in which I invite members of the community to explore the geographical space and speak about their personal experience of it. I asked twelve people, male and female at the age range of ten to sixty to explore the place. Autowalks took the forms of still photographs, video, audio, hand drawn maps and reflective writing. I am interested in the methodologies of auto ethnographers and auto biographers and devised the methodology to translate these theories to the visual material.
The research methodology has been primarily underpinned by the writings of Judith Butler in Giving an Account of Oneself (2010) and Catherine Russell Experimental Ethnography (1999) these texts both seek to question an authoritative account of the self. This approach seeks to gather non-narrative pieces of video as experimental research to reflect on the way individuals experience the site. For this process I asked the twelve individuals to walk with a portable camera unaccompanied and journey through the landscape, while reflecting on their experience of that journey, using a portable sound and video recorder. (This is a small camera the size of a mobile phone, which allows for a lot of flexibility while filming). Initially I walked through the site myself, reflecting on my own personal experience of the place. The technical flexibility of the camera chosen allowed for an embodied sensory experience of moving through the place, and the camera technology allowed for the recording of the sounds of breathing, shuffling and footsteps.
My aim was to find an embodied and experiential way of defining place, which moved beyond language and objective documentary practice. I devised the methodology to allow for introspective dialogue to be recorded. The rural nature of the site allows a certain amount of solitude. A person can easily walk through the space and talk to the camera without encountering another being. At the initial stages of the research, I asked the participants to walk through, and describe the place they feel most ‘comfortable’ or ‘uncomfortable’. I wanted to use the idea of ‘comfort’ and ‘discomfort’ in order to reflect on Coloorta in a non-idealised way and to avoid romantic or nostalgia readings of their “home” and this was a way of attempting to orientate the engagement with “place” to address the more difficult aspects of inhabiting this rural and non-conventional site.
The Autowalks represented a range of experiences from a varied group of individuals, some having lived in Coloorta for thirty years, while others were born there or migrated there in the last ten years. The research has a very personal and intimate emphasis because more than half the subjects are directly related to me. (My mother, father, stepfather, stepmother, brother and son were all participants in the process.)
The aim of this approach was to gather as many experiential, sensory, visual, and oral experiences of the place as possible in order to create a collection of introspective and intimate testimonies. It became apparent that each person relates to this place in an individual and separate way, but collecting the experiences produced a multiplicity of voices, allowing for an inter-subjective reflection on the way people experience this place.
Considerations and Reflections on Practice
Auto-ethnographic approaches seek to disrupt notions of an authentic authoritative voice. Catherine Russell suggests that auto-ethnography is a style of research, which entwines a personal reflexivity within cultural practice. This made it attractive as a methodology for my artistic enquiry. The conscious emplacement of ‘the self’ within the text and visual information is central. In Experimental Ethnography (1999) Catherine Russell charts the gradual fade between modernism and post modernism. Within a literary culture ethnography and autobiography have been linked to the traditions of realism. This text references the fragmentation and pluralism with artistic practice in the late twentieth century. Russell (1999, p.232) suggests:
Autobiography has become a powerful tool of cultural criticism, paralleling post-modern theories of textuality and knowledge, contemporary ethnic autobiographies partake of the mood of meta-discourse, of drawing attention to their linguistic and fictive nature, of using the narrator as an inscribed figure within the text whose manipulation calls attention to authority structures.
Judith Butler’s text Giving an Account of Oneself (2010) is key to the research practice in Autowalks. Butler questions the poststructuralist critique of the subject for the way in which it has offered a fragmented, incoherent theory of the self and questions how can we take ethical responsibility for another subject when the post-structural notion of self is fragmented? Butler (2010, p.27) states:
I am always recuperating, reconstructing, even as I produce myself differently in the very act of telling. My account of myself is always partial, haunted by that for which I have no definitive story. I cannot explain exactly why I have emerged in this way, and my efforts at a narrative reconstruction are always undergoing revision.
In the text Butler examines the intrinsically reciprocal nature of subject formation. That there is no ‘I’ without an “Other”, that as we come into being, we define ourselves as ‘I’ through our formative relationships. Subject formation is entwined with the act of recognition and does not take place alone but within a framework of language and complex social structures. This suggests that any attempt to give a coherent account of the self is problematic, fragmented and open to question. Butler also suggests that although auto-biographical experiences should be told and accounts should be given, ultimately there needs to be an open ended awareness of the fluctuating nature of the stories of the self /other that the self produces. Collating the Autowalks “stories” of the inhabitants of Coloorta I have found that they do produce a narrative, if a fragmented one – but the difficulty is that this can become too fixed in language and it leaves out as much as it captures about the experience of place. How and what is said and the way the pieces are edited become fraught with signification.
In Walking, Writing and Performance (2009), Roberta Mock writes about the notion of ‘the drift’, of random patterns of movement through the landscape. It is relevant here to note the random patterning and fluctuating physical encounters within this system of movement, which take place in Autowalks. Mock’s writing suggests that there are many different routes or pathways to be experienced within the same geographical space. It is possible to walk in straight lines, zigzag, random patterning or cut across diagonally. Her notion of drifting is to become aware through peripheral forms of sight and vision of the experiences that which might otherwise remain unnoticed. She charts these random patterns to physical changes within the experiencing body through writing about the process of walking and movement. The idea of “drift” can be applied to Autowalks in pattern and form; the emergence of a non-linear pattern of sensory gathering and movement. In this approach, in the approach of walking, the intellect follows the senses and intuition and in Autowalks the approach seeks to explore complexity of personal experience. Underpinning this practice are theoretical concepts of about the motion of the drift and the patterns that the ‘drifter’ takes: “the ‘drifter’ needs sensitivity both to motion of the landscape through which they move and to the pattern of their senses in motion.” (Mock 2009, p.95)
It became apparent through the process of Autowalks that there was a failure to capture an aspect of Coloorta which moved beyond the verbal. The romantic and almost exotic nature of the surroundings became unavoidable to me. Coloorta seemed to suggest its self as an ‘Arcadian’ garden one in which idealistic, slow; poetic lifestyles find the space to be lived out. That glimmering sense of something ‘Other,’ an aesthetic sensibility connected to an experience of the sublime. In devising Moving Stills, I engage my subjective photographic response to the sensory nature of place. I depict the individuals in a mythical light and reflect on my personal relationship to them, the non-verbal aspect of this methodology and slow filming reflect on Coloorta in a fictional way, exploring the beauty that seems unavoidable.
Two: Moving Stills
In a second approach that draws on the methodologies of photographic practice and filmmaking I have been working with a HD camera creating what I have titled ‘Moving Stills’. These are a series of videos that are extremely close, five-minute film pieces, which focus on the individual (and my own relationship to them as subject and artist) while sitting opposite each other in silence. I have slowed the footage down to drop into what emerges as a fictive space, because changing the speed of the film affects the perception and interpretation of the images. The decision to adopt the slowness of the long shooting methods is to draw minute attention to the physical movements in the body and to reflect on slowness as a metaphorical concept, reflecting on the slow pace of living in Coloorta.
Structuralist filmmakers such as James Benning in 11 x 4 and 13 Lakes (2004), Conceptual photographer and filmmaker Sharon Lockhart in Lunch Break (2009) and Pineflat (2005) and artist Gillian Wearing in 60 Minute Silence (1996) and For Drunk (1999), have influenced these non-narrative, experimental and long shooting film methods. Moving Stills are ‘slow’ and ‘close’ representations of people and place, asking how close we can get to our subjects as researchers? Within this piece, the idea of creating an authentic document as would be adopted using a documentary eye have slipped into the realm of senses and the experiential. In Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (2004) Vivian Sobchack discusses the fundamental differences in the still and moving image. Photography freezes a moment in time capturing a trace, but she suggests it fails to communicate physical movement which is so important to the living body.’ Sobchak (2004, p.145) notes:
The photograph freezes and preserves the homogeneous and irreversible momentum of this temporal stream into the abstracted, atomized, and essentialised time of a moment. But at a cost a moment cannot be inhabited. It cannot entertain in the abstraction of its visible space, its single and static Point of view, the presence of a lived and living body.
As Mireille Rosello asked in her keynote address at the 2012 international workshop ‘Extremely Close and Incredibly Slow,’ at the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis: “What does it mean to slow down?" She suggests that slowness may be linked to exoticism and nostalgia, which tend not to be an accepted part of the world of high-speed industry and technology. What would any of us feel if we were really faced with the reality of slowing down? There is also a banality and even boredom that comes with slowness. I am interested in this banality, this quietness, what happens when we just stop and sit with the camera, watch, listen and attempt to feel through the senses and the body?
The question of ‘distance’ arises continuously; my own personal distance from the location geographically, my emotional distance from the subjects and the question at what distance to locate myself as a filmmaker / photographer, as well as the ambiguous distance between this site and the ‘real’ world. The artist Olivia Joret (2012) wrote in a letter of response addressed to me after viewing Moving Stills:
I am interested in the distance, and at the same time closeness, of course; this idea of the landscape being like a canvas (or tissue, fabric, skin) where stories (like a face) are projected, in retrospect. That idea. Something "strangely familiar" about the faces; about Ireland too, like a place I remember from somewhere else... From "before"; before what I don't know exactly.
Considerations on Moving Stills
Embodiment has been a focal point within all the methodological approaches that have been devised for this research. Phenomenological research pays strong attention to individual accounts and physical and sensory responses to people’s experiences of places, situations and encounters; in this sense all the approaches have been phenomenological. This existential approach sees the entity as always in a state of change, always becoming and never fixed.
Questions in this approach have arisen to do with issues of aesthetic beauty: an experience of the sublime; poetic connotations of mythical Arcadian gardens where humans live close to nature and fertile pastoral visions manifest. Initially the research attempted to sidestep this way of representing Coloorta in order to avoid producing a reading steeped in nostalgia and romanticism. However, in every film and photograph, map, drawing, piece of text that arose, the poetic human connection to nature was evident. In this approach the emphasis was not to deny the romantic associations with the sublime and the seduction of nature, but, conversely, to explore those associations and allow them to develop.
That pleasure – not glimmering awareness of something incommensurably 'other' – is the sublime both for both Kant and Derrida. The experience and pleasure of the sublime do not stem from the promise of something nominal, outside a given frame, but rather from the perpetual, yet always provisional, activity of framing itself. (Shaw 2006, p.107)
The filming of Moving Stills was devised in response to Levinas’ text Totality and Infinity (1969) where he philosophizes about layers of experience in an encounter with the world. These experiential layers relate to an encounter with the surrounding environment and the reciprocal relationship between self and other. Through the philosophical frame of phenomenology he addresses the primacy of the face-to-face encounter and the precognitive stage of inter subjective relationship. Levinas describes the process of discovering that you are an “other” by the experience of being called an “other” and suggests that the “other’s” face communicates directly to the self, he argues that all language is formed in relation to the presence of the face in communication with another face: that this exchange is the foundation of all ethical engagement between humans. The face of the other being floods the notion the self has of the other, this face goes beyond the separation of shape and substance, as it discloses the notion of infinity to the divided self. Subjectivity experiences itself as separate from the other, by the recognition of the other, yet we understand ourselves to be involved in this reciprocal relationship. At the same time we realize through witnessing the face of the other that there is an exterior and interior self. In the filming of Moving Stills, the emphasis is to contemplate that reciprocal relationship through a close and slow study of the face. In this case the face of someone that I am personally connected to. I attempt to understand my relationship to this place through the other but still the face is impenetrable, unknowable and I find myself unable to fully know this place and person. The realization of the face of the Other to the self is essential to form any kind of division, Levinas (Levinas 1969, p.50) states:
For the presence before the face, my orientation toward the Other can lose the avidity of the gaze only by turning into generosity, incapable of approaching the other with empty hands. This relationship, established over things here after possibly common, that is, susceptible of being said, is the relationship of discourse [discours] The way in which the other presents himself, exceeding the idea of the other in me, we here name face [nous l’appelons, en effet, visage].
Within any one of the four-minute films of Moving Stills, the emotions of the subject change several times from contentment to passivity, melancholia and detachment. There is also a profound exchange between the subject of the Moving Stills to the “other” and the artist/viewer, which, as Levinas, suggests, forms the basis of compassionate and ethical human engagement. It is the human exchange from face-to-face which Levinas foregrounds as a cornerstone of humanity. At times the close cropping of the portrait also acts as a barrier which does not make for an easy romantic reading, in some cases, “reading” the face is impenetrable and keeps the viewer at an emotional distance. While the portrait is an attempt at understanding through the prism of subjective experience, there is a sense of never being able to fully define the other.
I attempted to create a Moving Still, as a self-portrait but found the representations of myself to be problematic. Who was I in this community, my ‘dis-belonging’ arose again and my discomfort with my distance to Coloorta. The image of myself appeared to me a façade, a projection of the outer self. Again I considered am I inside or outside, what was my position as an artist reflecting on place? Moving Stills reflect on stillness, on presence and of being connected to place. I could not represent my own portrait easily within the Moving Stills series but instead encounter my own displaced identity, which is the problem I reflect on further through Turlough Swim #1 and Nightwalks #1.
Three: Nightwalks #1 and Turlough Swim #1
The third approach to the representation of place focused on my own personal encounters with the space and place. I chose to foreground the experiential through swimming, the act of breathing, and walking through Coolorta at night, while carrying a portable film and sound recorder. I was hoping that these experiences would capture a form of interiority. A bodily engagement with place, always moving and endlessly fluctuating, engaging with my struggle to define place and boundaries. The practice does not involve dialogue but represents specific, sensory experiences. There are currently two pieces of film made in this series: Nightwalks #1 and Turlough Swim #1.
The “unfixability” of meaning and the impossibility of representation are at the heart of these two films. They use lens-based experimental methods of embodied and experiential practice. The encounter is a philosophical attempt at dissolving notions of self in response to the previous attempts as representing place in Autowalks and Moving Stills. The research moves away from any sense of a cohesive ‘story’ or document which speaks of place in an objective sense. My approach as the swimmer/night-walker attempts to reflect on the ‘unrepresentability’ of the place and concerns itself with the central restlessness which is at the heart of the research enquiry and the failure to fix definition.
Considerations on Night Walks #1 and Turlough Swim #1
Having circled, mapped and projected the landscape within my first two methodological approaches, I then turned my attention to my own subject position. I wanted to explore the embodiment inherent in the act of swimming and night walking, which I find to be philosophically complex. In Turlough swim 1 the body is suspended in water, boundless and, in this case, removed geographically from the physical heart of Coolarta, to a lake just outside the main site. The context is dark and fluid, provisional, ‘unfixed’ and ambiguous in its nature, being a lake far from sight of human habitation, it is by nature a primal secluded site and the very nature of water suspends me within that fluid context. I wanted to move away from my attempts to represent the landscape from a fixed perspective, as I tried to do within Autowalks and Moving Stills. The location for the case study is a lake or “turlough”, in Irish, which means, “winter lake”. “Turloughs” are temporary water bodies or ‘dry lakes’ that occur across central and western Ireland. Geographically the “turlough” is within half a kilometre of Coolorta town land. Carboniferous limestone is the dominant bedrock across these regions. If the water table drops the surface water drains underground leaving an empty depression where once there was a lake so even the constancy of its volume is indefinite. On the floor of the lake is fine clay like mud which clouds up when a swimmer agitates it and then later settles.
The fluctuating nature of the lake could be seen to reflect the state of the fluctuating nature of the exile. Edward Said suggests that ‘exile is life lead outside habitual order. It is nomadic, decentred, contrapuntal, but no sooner does one get accustomed to it then its unsettling force erupts anew’. (2000, p.173). In the fluid context of the swim, I am alone, embodied, it is womb-like but also there is an element of danger, of struggle. I swim within the lake with a portable camera attached to my head. I am deeply absorbed in the act of swimming and I am as closely connected with the environment as I can conceive. I swim in a continuous loop, finding no dry land and no fixed resolution, no root with which to settle or fix my identity on.
Significantly, the hand touching it’s self, represents the body’s capacity to occupy the position of both perceiving object and subject of perception, if not at once, then in a constant oscillation. The methodological approaches are based on an existential emphasis on body-mind responsively, which necessitates a subjective awareness in experience. A kind of knowledge, which is predominantly based in the realm of the body and its senses and an entwinement with the world. In that ‘our embodied subjectivity is never located purely in either our tangibility or in our touching, but the intertwining of these two aspects, or where the two lines of a chiasm intersect with one another’ (Reynolds 2004, p.117). Merleau-Ponty (2002, p.133) explains this process as such:
If I wish to feel the cloth of a coat that I am about to purchase, it will not suffice if I pound it with my fists or quickly whisk my hand over it. Rather it must be touched as it wishes to be touched and for this my body needs no instruction. Like the cloth, my hand is a part of the tangible world; between it and the rest of the tangible world there exists a 'relationship by principle'.
He explains this further when he articulates (2002, p.106):
My body, it was said, is recognized by its power to give me ‘double sensations’: when I touch my right hand with my left, my right hand as an object has the strange property of being able to feel too. We have just seen that two hands are never simultaneously in relationship of touched and touching to each other. When I press my hands together, it is not a matter of two sensations felt together a one perceives two objects placed side by side, but of an ambiguous set-up in which both hands can alternate the roles of ‘touching’ and being ‘touched’.
Within Nightwalks #1 and Turlough Swim #1 return to my body and subjective experience in an attempt to represent this place. I can no longer affix my sense of identity to this landscape and find myself in exile. Where are the boundaries or do they exist? They evade definition and the intensity of traversing the space becomes the key motion. The relationship of the body is interrelated to the place, but the territory is unfixed.
How do we “write” experience: some reflections on Transcribed Experiences
There is a difficulty for me in fixing experience through language. How do I find the language to write as artist? This is one of the reasons that I have adopted various sensory methodologies to reflect on the experience of place. In the transcription to the right - by Claire-Louise Bennett who is a creative writer - she reflects on the experiences of walking in the form of writing. This reflects on the pull between the experience of place and the mediation through language and adds another layer of interpretation.
It is necessary for me to continually re-examine my position as artist, as writer and researcher, to find a language with which to communicate. This language has separated me from any ‘pure’ form of experiencing the phenomena of the place. I am always articulating my experiences into forms of representation; writing, photography, drawing and filmmaking all separate me further from experience. In this sense I am ‘exiled’ to a place from which I cannot return, my experience of self is fragmented and constantly fluctuating and I cannot fix a definition.