Seán Vicary reflects upon memory and landscape in the making of his film ‘Chain Home West’.
“…The movie never changes. It can’t change. But every time you see it, it seems different, because you’re different.” – James Cole in Twelve Monkeys
Man-out-of-time Cole & Kathryn hide out in a cinema watching Hitchcock’s Vertigo, as Cole’s childhood memory of seeing the film surfaces he begins to sense the paradox surrounding him, “It’s just like what’s happening to us…”
Memories within memories.
On screen Kim Novak counts rings in a cross section of Sequoia marking her birth and death, James Stewart asks “Have you been here before?”
Films within films.
In Le Jardin des Plantes, the traveller & the woman stand before a similar slice of Sequoia, he gestures to a point beyond the tree and says “This is where I come from.”
References within references.
It’s difficult to write about your work while locked down in a pandemic, the writing just can’t escape the context in which it’s being written.
Revisiting Chain Home West I felt a little like James Cole in that cinema, finding myself considering how my own work changes.
Watching the film becomes a kind of time travel.
But then, so is the process of making it.
23rd November 2019
I am being filmed; interviewed after a gallery opening where I’m exhibiting Chain Home West as a looping video installation.
“Can you tell us what the work is about in a couple of sentences?”
“It’s an eerie, ecological, science–fiction film set in a derelict early warning radar station in Pembrokeshire. It’s part of an ongoing body of work exploring contemporary manifestations of Genii Loci and how they might question our human-centric viewpoint”
Is it though…
Is it just about that?
I always feel it’s a little disingenuous to talk about my work as if it’s only about one thing.
When creating, you bring your whole world view with you to the piece, the sum of all your experiences and thoughts. So there are often many layers to begin with, then other ideas can be triggered, themes develop and meanings change. Slowly an expanding web of context emerges around the work, continuing to grow until the connections become dizzying. This goes hand in hand with the timescale of development and creation; stop-motion animation is a very long process, giving plenty of space for things to reveal themselves over time.
Chain Home West began life in 2016 and I kept returning to it until the middle of 2019. During those 3.5 years the piece was shaped by an investigative, exploratory process involving active place-based research, that was often reflexive and sometimes even ritualistic or performative. This process of making is so deeply entangled with the themes of the work that it’s hard to separate them.
When I try and tease out some of the strands,
it’s like coaxing filaments of lichen with tweezers under the animation stand,
they only sometimes move in the intended direction.
I discover that I can use the end of the piece of broken slate to carve lines into the asbestos of the roof. In the intense sunlight the shimmer-white scores appear to hover above the red corrugated tiles.
I’m so euphoric at getting up here that what comes after seems irrelevant.
The moss-not-moss is crunchy under my fingertips.
If I press my cheek tight to the surface and look sideways, I can see blue-green trumpets with the ground far beneath.
The Clangers’ fantastic planet.
I slip my slate knife along the gully, working it beneath the trumpet roots.
Lifting against the tip of the slate, I prise free a clod of trumpets and green threads.
Hours later, when they finally get me down, my hand is still clenched tight around the tuft.
My Dad was an artist, from the late 1960s onwards he specialised in printmaking, working mostly with lithography and linocuts. He died back in 2006 but I only finished clearing his studio last year, it has been a bit like unpacking the Tardis.
Seeing 40 years of prints laid out in front of me I was struck by how often the landscapes featured some kind of artificially constructed towers: Pylons, Observatories, lighthouses, radar dishes.
I have memories of our childhood holidays interspersed with visits to similar locations, playing in streams alongside mine workings or other remnants of derelict industry.
Returning to these images now, they seem both familiar and unsettling.
It’s like an alien landscape in miniature, I’ve always loved lichen.
Wonderful seductive intricate shapes.
Lichens are fascinating, they’re a composite organism, where a fungus and a bacteria or algae live together in a symbiotic relationship, one providing the structure and the other providing food. They are very susceptible to changes in atmospheric chemistry and work as sensitive indicators of pollution and environmental change. They might even be considered the equivalent of an ‘early warning system’ for climate breakdown.
7th September 2018
I am standing over a skip holding a crusted, broken Phillips transistor radio in my hands.
During the 1970s I was always borrowing this, my mother’s, VHF radio.
Turning the dial into those spaces below the BBC stations, down into the short wave, where strange repeated sequences, distorted voices and sounds dwelt among the static. Mesmerised by these otherworldly transmissions and their incomprehensible poetry my head filled with questions.
Where did they come from? What was being said, and to who?
I remember tiptoeing downstairs and covertly lifting the radio from its kitchen shelf, trying not to wake my parents (who by then were fed up with repeatedly discovering flat batteries).
I take a picture on my phone. Then, leaning carefully over the indifferent yellow edge, gently place the radio on top of the broken glass and plywood lining the bottom.
My Dad was a socialist, his diatribe during the evening news was a regular fixture of growing up. Although not an active communist I certainly got the feeling he had once been.
In 1975 we went on our first ever trip abroad, a family holiday to the USSR.
While other kids got to go to sunny Majorca we filed past Lenin’s mummified corpse in the shadow of the Kremlin.
Upon our return Dad stopped watching the BBC news and instead at the same time each night he would tune his HMV stereo system to Radio Moscow to catch up on world events.
This booming accented voice could be heard throughout the whole house.
Sometimes the signal would suffer from interference, the transmission plagued by a loud buzzing. He’d mutter something about signal jamming.
I mostly accepted this all as normal, but when school friends came round to stay I started to feel awkward as this time of night approached …
“Is your Dad a commie?”
14th September 2016
After a long time searching archives and drawing circles on period maps, I’ve decided the only realistic location within cycling distance of the Preselis would have been RAF Hayscastle. Built during 1940 as part of the West coast ‘Chain Home’ early warning radar system, its job was to detect hostile forces entering Britain by the ‘back door’.
Later, during the onset of the cold war RAF Hayscastle Cross was re-purposed as part of the ROTOR early warning system in case of attack from Soviet long-range bombers.
Today a speculative trip over the hills to the location has yielded far more than I could have hoped. Though the radar masts had long gone the remnants of the buildings were still there.
The RAF base closed in 1960 and the land sold back to local farmers. The site was split between two different farms, some of the original buildings have been repurposed for agricultural use, with the remainder falling derelict.
After being robustly rebuffed by the first farmer it was a great relief to meet Mike whose farm covers the second half of the site, his family having farmed there for generations.
I managed to get a good few hours in, just losing the light at around 6pm.
When I got back I emailed Mike to say thanks and arrange another visit.
“Friday is fine. Meet you by milking parlour. We can have quick chat.
Your website is very interesting.”
My Dad was a soldier, but he never talked much about the war.
His brother (the Uncle I never met but whose name I carry) had been killed in an air raid.
My childhood questions were often deflected and I instinctively learned it was a no-go area.
So we never had detailed conversations and it wasn’t until after he died that I pieced together what I knew:
He’d been in London during the Blitz on general anti-aircraft and firefighting duties, once or twice he’d described to us what it was like to be bombed.
Then he’d been sent off to train as a radar operator.
At some point he found himself posted to Wales and in charge of a mobile radar unit based in Pembrokeshire.
I didn’t know where this was, but I vividly recalled one story he told:
He’d borrowed the base pushbike one Sunday and cycled up into the Preseli hills.
Dressed in uniform and looking thirsty, he was spotted by a local and invited to an illicit lock-in at the local pub (Pembrokeshire was a dry county on a Sunday until the 1970s).
These wartime experiences of Pembrokeshire must have left a strong impression, as in 1964 my Father took my Mother on honeymoon to Haverfordwest.
She once recounted to me how they had driven around peering over hedges and traipsed through fields of cows trying to locate the remnants of some, once crucial, military installation. Trying to appear enthusiastic while Dad got excited about some overgrown slabs of concrete.
16th September 2016
The transmitter block.
I am standing alone in a large field in front of a single story rectangular red brick building.
Mike has just told me how it had once been completely buried underground (to protect from bombing) and it was only recently that he’d dug away the earthen mound covering the structure.
What look like tall industrial chimneys are actually the remains of the ventilation shafts, just the very top of them would have stood above ground.
In the corner of the field there’s an unexcavated Round Barrow.
I’m thinking about the juxtaposition of the two structures and all the different time scales at play in the landscape.
Other-worldly forces unleashed through disturbing the ground.
Quatermass and the Pit
Dr Who and the Daemons
The light’s gone now.
Early in the process I’d begun reading philosopher Timothy Morton’s writings around Dark Ecology. That awareness of an ever expanding lasso of context is something Morton suggests is the first step towards an ecological awakening. He likens the experience to being part of an ongoing dark narrative, akin to film noir where the narrator starts investigating from an outside, detached viewpoint. Then slowly they discover that they are implicated in the plot, realising that they are both detective and criminal.
At some point post-war my father experienced an environmental awakening which was reflected in his subsequent work as an artist and printmaker, right up to his final stipulation for a green burial.
I imagined him in this early warning station, looking and listening.
What if something else had been trying to communicate, mimicking those signals. Something(s) existing in symbiosis, like the lichen, transmitting between the wartime static. A parallel early warning system sending an alert that we as a species were out of kilter with the world. Maybe in this thin place, grieving for his brother, those signals were received on some level, prompting his ecological awakening.
But what remains here now?
The latest figures from the the Zoological Society of London’s Living Planet Index show a 60% decline in vertebrate species populations between 1970 and 2010.
In other words, the number of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish across the globe is, on average, 40% of what it was in 1970.
That’s all in my lifetime.
Landscape is the lens through which I see the world, and the landscape of my lifetime is defined by loss. It’s an intrinsically eerie landscape shaped by that absence.
As humans continue to encroach on non-human habitats we’re likely to see the spread of more zoonotic diseases similar to Covid-19. This early warning station is derelict, the messages playing to empty rooms and abandoned corridors. But there’s another message playing out right now on a much bigger scale, if we can only tune in to its wavelength.
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