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Notes From A Journey, 2019, Daniel & Clara

Daniel & Clara on the creative process, detours, landscape films and the impact of place on their work.

Mersea Island, April 2020

We have been trying to write an essay about our feature film Notes From A Journey since completing it. Over the course of a year, we have attempted to articulate something about the experience of making the film, our visit to Avebury and the lasting impact it has had on our life and our work. But every time we sit down to write we find ourselves pouring more words onto the page, weaving an ever increasing web of thoughts and ideas but getting no closer to the heart of things. So now, a few days before publication and after all these months, resulting in several drafts, piles of notes and many labyrinthine conversations, we have made the decision to cast it aside. The essay has been abandoned and we will make no further attempts to put into words that which can only exist as sounds and images. The most curious thing about the whole writing process is that it mirrors, to some degree, the making of the film. Obviously we never abandoned the film, but we got lost many times along the way and on completion realised that the act of getting lost, taking detours, feeling frustrated and confused is somehow integral to the creative process.

We like to walk, in fact it is a key part of the process of bringing our work to life, we walk and we talk and the two energies stir up ideas. The movement of the feet creates a motion in the mind, as we move along our regular routes it stimulates the flow of ideas back and forth between us. We are currently living on Mersea Island on the Essex coast, the pandemic has all but cleared the streets of cars and at certain times of the day the beach is completely empty. After several weeks of this restructured world we have now worked out when the quietest times are and schedule our walks for these moments. Mersea Island is well populated so it’s quite remarkable to be able to go out for an hour or so without seeing a single person or hearing a single car.

Our daily walk currently takes us straight down an avenue past neatly gardened houses, across a small playing field which is loosely framed down one side by beautiful oaks. This opens out onto the beach where we stomp along the sand and stones past rows of beach huts to an area of trees and a wild entanglement of undergrowth which we call Dragon’s Nest. We then follow an overgrown footpath, which sometimes floods, past the low sinister growls of a small sewage works, away from the beach to a gravel lane lined with trees, which in summer form a tunnel between the fields. This weaves back to the main road that circles back home.

There and back the conversations dance around the various projects we currently have on the go – sometimes walking past a certain point reminds us of the previous day’s discussion so we pick it up from where we had left off, or we litter the trail with new thoughts that may return on other walks over the days to come. The topic of recent weeks has quite often been about Notes From A Journey, trying to remember where we were personally and creatively when it came into being but, as is no doubt clear, these conversations haven’t helped much in the completion of an essay about it, they only added more and more layers of thoughts to an ever increasing confusion.

From the abandoned essay:

In March 2017 we set out on a two-week journey across the UK to screen our work at various universities and art venues around the country. We were at this time living in a small seaside town in Portugal, we’d moved there in 2013 and made our home in a creaky dilapidated beach house where we could live cheaply, grow our own food and dedicate ourselves to making art. For a while this was an amazing place to be, simple but giving us everything we needed to create our work without distraction, but in 2017 something had started to shift. Previous to this moment our work had solely rested on the material coming from the imagination, we were to a certain degree self-sufficient creators and could pretty much adapt our vision to wherever we were, but during this time we were beginning to form ideas that were more site specific. The creative spirit was calling us towards making work located out in the landscape, specifically the British countryside. So when we took this tour (which started in Essex then to Cambridgeshire, up to Scotland, back down to Staffordshire and ending at the stone circle of Avebury in Wiltshire) it was an opportunity to begin exploring how we could approach landscape as a subject for our work and what this meant to us.

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Notes From A Journey, 2019, Daniel & Clara

Films As Landscapes

Our first attempts at what can be considered landscape films (that is films that take rural places as the primary subject rather than being secondary or background to some other theme or narrative) had happened much earlier but we didn’t realise it at the time.

In 2012 we spent a summer living in the old town at Hastings. This was early on in our collaboration, we’d made one feature film together which had laid the foundations for all that followed, but we were still forming the processes and dynamics of our practice. We loved living in Hastings, much of our time was spent walking in the country park between Hastings and Fairlight. We’d head out most mornings with a collection of old video cameras in our bags and explore this beautiful green space as if it was our very own plein air studio. The wood covered hills, the steep cliffs and rocky beaches captivated us and wove seamlessly into our imaginations. We spent hours exploring the caves and winding pathways, climbing trees and clambering across the boulders piled up on the beach. We often filmed without intention or direction, improvising performances for camera or capturing images of the place.

The Pre-Raphaelites were frequently on our minds as the house where we were staying sat next to St Clements church where Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal were married, their home on the High Street nearby now commemorated with a blue plaque. William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Edward Lear had also spent time here, Hunt’s Our English Coasts being painted up on the clifftops of Fairlight.

Most of the footage that we filmed in Hastings sat untouched for several years, none of it was thought of as being intended for a specific film project, it was more a process of gathering and exploring. By the time we began to digitize the VHS tapes five years later, Hastings was fading into a murky dream. Watching through footage from the past can have a strange effect, sometimes it’s like reliving memories, it triggers forgotten moments, and other times it can be like looking into another life, it appears more like someone else’s film. There was an element of both contained within those tapes.

As we watched, certain threads of interest came to the fore, ideas we were concerned with seemed to have germinated then. One approach found throughout was a sustained look at particular elements of the landscape. Wild flowers, the sea, rocks, trees and clouds were compulsively filmed without consideration of theory or rational intention – there was no ‘why’, only ‘we must’. These films were shot in a pure creative act, as a need to look, record and create an image in response to what we saw.

The footage that eventually resulted in EXT. WAVES came from such a spontaneous spur of the moment desire – on this occasion, to film the waves on the rocky beach below the cliffs where we usually wandered. We had bought a used VHS camera not long before and were enjoying testing how it reacted to different subjects. The day was especially beautiful, the sun was warm and created a soft haze over the waves as they crashed against the rocks. During filming we experienced one of those rare wonderful moments when we become so engrossed in the act of looking at the subject in front of us that we lose all sense of time and fall into a focused trance – the task at hand is all there is.

The footage that we shot that day retained a certain contemplative quality of that sustained look, added to by the beautiful rendering of the VHS tape. VHS is a highly expressionistic format, the image is unstable, in a constant flux, its surface made of a pulsating combination of colours which dance in a jittering embrace. This makes it unsuitable for creating detached scientific records or accurate documentations of place but perfect for contemplative and expressionistic video-paintings.

EXT. WAVES is a film that on first glance only gives you images of rocks repeatedly pounded and submerged by the crashing waves, but what we discovered when we put the images and sounds together is that it offers us an opportunity to surrender – surrender to watching, to listening. Your experience will vary depending on your mood, maybe you’ll be bored, maybe you’ll be hypnotised by the rhythm and undulation of the sea, maybe your mind will wander, who knows – but we would expect, and hope, that you become aware of what is happening in your body and in your mind while watching. We’ve described this film as a meditation on the eternal crashing of waves, an encounter between the solid and the fluid – it should also be a meditation of these things within ourselves too.

One evening we were sat reading in our room when our attention was taken by shouting in the street below, crowds of people were gathering, leaving their houses and heading towards the steep steps that lead up to the country park. We grabbed our camera and followed them, excited to hear that the beacon was going to be lit.

Hastings, like a number of Sussex towns and villages, takes its community rituals very seriously. The nearby Lewes is known for its extreme passion for Bonfire Night, Hastings itself has Jack in the Green, a spring festival which has dramatic and violent undertones. So we knew that the burning beacon, for whatever reason it was being lit, would stir in the Hastings folk a wild revelry laced with a sense of danger.

The torch was lit, fire was swung in all directions above the heads of the crowd, there were screams and cheers, and sparks drifted up into the night sky and floated out to sea. In the distance sheep bleated and new narratives started to form in our minds which wove together this fire ritual with memories of reading (and watching the 1967 film adaptation of) Far From The Madding Crowd – the burning barn, sheep plummeting over the edge of a cliff on a moonlit night –, and also Holman Hunt’s painting, depicting stray sheep gathered on cliffs just along the coast at Fairlight.

Editing these films in 2017 inspired us to create more, eventually resulting in the Exteriors series, a set of five films all shot on VHS about encounters with the landscape through the act of recording with a video camera. These are films without characters, where the narrative is moved from something you follow on screen to something that happens in the mind of the viewer. In this sense the films are not only about landscapes, they are like landscapes, an ‘other’ that exists beyond the human, which is encountered – and given meaning – by the human. Films as first person encounters, a film not about something but as a thing in itself.

We’ve been reaching towards this since the very first moments of our collaboration, it has taken time for us to fully arrive at and understand this intention and we are still grappling with it, but it seems to us now that we have always been striving towards this: to make art which relocates the meaning from something that is in the work to something that is in the viewer, meaning as experience. This is art without a message, art that does not tell you what to think or feel but which seeks to create space for the viewer to become conscious of what (and how) they truly think and feel.

This of course is an approach in contrast with nearly all of the images we encounter in the world today. Most images created now, whether shared online, seen in advertising, on TV or in contemporary art galleries, are about transmitting information. They indicate a position on something, they have a message or commentary, they strongly indicate how the viewer should think or feel. We wholeheartedly reject this approach, especially now that it has infiltrated art. We seek to create images whose meaning is not fixed, instead their meaningfulness unfolds when encountered by each viewer. When this is successful, each viewer will have an experience that is totally unique to them, it will be a meeting between their personal condition and the work, the images will activate the imagination and give each and every person a space to consider what it is they really think and feel, and in turn stimulate new thoughts and feelings.

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Notes From A Journey, 2019, Daniel & Clara

Landscapes Of The Mind

In the summer of 2017 we were invited by filmmaker Rouzbeh Rashidi to spend two weeks collaborating with him on a film project which was to be filmed at various locations around the south coast of Ireland. The production was Phantom Islands, a feature film in which two tormented lovers (performed by us) are cast adrift in mysterious landscapes rendered in a beautiful dreamlike way. The film is presented as being a mutation of documentary and fiction, and, like much of our own work, disregards the conventional separation between them.

For us all films are simultaneously documents of their own making and fictions constructed through the artifices of cinema. Neither documentary or fiction is any more true or fake than the other, they are both built of styles and forms which have been developed to signify certain readings of the images in relation to reality. Personally we would also go as far to say that ‘reality’ and imagination exist in a similar relationship. For us the imagination, which is often discredited as being untrue, is a reality in itself, no more or less valid than the external agreed upon reality that we all participate in. These ideas were on our minds at the time of our visit to Ireland.

During those two weeks we carried with us a sound recorder and a Super 8 camera loaded with a single reel of film, and in between working on the feature we would capture material for our own short film, which became INT. LANDSCAPES. Originally this material was going to be a part of Notes From A Journey, we had envisioned a film within a film that would play half-way through but it soon became clear that this wouldn’t be the case and that what we had made was a stand-alone piece.

On about the third day of filming while staying in a large clifftop house, we all took a walk up into the hills as a thick fog rolled in from the sea. We are used to dramatic mist, living in the north of Portugal one becomes well acquainted with the transformative impact of the mist which enshrouds the coast once a day, but this Irish fog was different, somehow it felt thicker and more foreboding. As we climbed the hill we became aware of the changes in sound, our vision was limited to a few feet in front of us but we could hear so much. We captured a few frames of Super 8 and then realised that we were alone, we had wandered apart from our friends. We decided to walk on and surrender to the sense of unknowing, to indulge ourselves in the sensations of being lost. And then, almost as quickly as it came, the fog receded and the view became clear, our friends were just ahead of us in the next field, the sheep above us amongst mud and rocks, and the house where we were staying was again within sight. We felt as if we had been momentarily transported to another world, we realised the power of this weather phenomenon and the impact that it has had on Irish myths. INT. LANDSCAPES formed itself out of this experience, the limiting of optical vision and how this heightened the senses and activated imagination.

External reality seeped into and merged with inner reality, the weather and scenery triggering imagined associations, activating new narratives, images and ideas. In our work we trust our own experiences and we understand that experience is a dialogue between our own condition and the outer world. In INT. LANDSCAPES we moved closer to expressing this dual vision, a vision that has one eye open looking out and the other eye closed looking in. The experience of being on a journey, only stopping in each location for a few days and catching glimpses, informed the structure of the film. We used prolonged sections of black screen with the location sound recordings playing so that the viewer sees in their mind’s eye the landscapes we visited, but of course they won’t see what we see, each viewer will experience a different picture growing from the meeting between them and our film, they will see their landscape.

In our moving image work, one of the most important parts of the process is finding the narrative form. Most films use the restorative three-act structure, even many experimental and artist’s films use a variation of this, often unknowingly – this structure is so deeply embedded in our experience of moving images that it has become almost invisible. We are interested in exploring other possibilities of narrative, throughout the course of our work we have been experimenting with ways of finding new narrative forms, which we believe exist in endless possibilities. One way we have been approaching this is seeking non-literary forms to transcribe into moving image. We have used structures found in dreams, alchemical imagery, tarot, and more recently we turned to formations of the landscape, this is something we attempted in Notes From A Journey.

From the abandoned essay:

The narrative form of Notes From A Journey is shaped around that of Silbury Hill, the neolithic mound which sits just beyond Avebury stone circle and appears in the film. We had this structuring device in mind early on in the edit but it took some time for us to discover what this meant for how the film is constructed. The form of a film is the container of the experience, it is the ultimate framing device which defines how all the pieces fit together and it carries within it a meaning and an ideology. Most film narratives move forward in a straight line but we envisioned ours as two overlapping spirals around a hill, one goes up and the other goes down – on the way up you overlap and pass through the one going down, and the same thing happens the other way – so multiple moments of time exist alongside each other, and linear time is disrupted. The hill shape also gives us the narrative highpoint or climax right at the centre of the film, rather than putting it at the end where it is most commonly found. This narrative strategy imbues the shape of the landscape into the skeleton of the film, creating a formal approach where the embodied experience of the landscape is invoked. But as we came to realise, it is also repeating an echo from long ago as Silbury Hill itself is human-made, its shape is a formal abstraction, a neolithic narrative projected onto the land which to this day affects our experience of it as a landscape.

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Notes From A Journey, 2019, Daniel & Clara

Daily Work

By the time we were editing Notes From A Journey we had moved from our seaside house to an apartment in Gaia near Porto. This was a great relief for us, even though living by the sea had been wonderful, the house itself was falling apart around us and became uninhabitable after the ceiling came crashing down one evening. On moving into the apartment our working habits changed, as they do with every place we live. Due to having more space and more comfort (a working oven, no mice infestations and no damp!) our ability to focus and work increased, before we got around to the final edit of Notes From A Journey we created an ambitious series of films called the Studio Diaries.

Ever since we started working together we wanted to be able to work with moving images with the same speed, immediacy and directness that a painter paints or a writer writes, the Studio Diaries were the project that finally fulfilled this ambition. Over the course of seven months we created 100 short diary films, each of them conceived, shot, edited and released online within a single day. We like to describe the Studio Diaries as “creative thought in action”, the diaries take our daily life and the workings of our creative process as their material but rather than simply documenting they are in themselves experiments and investigations into the language of moving images, each film exploring how meaning is constructed through the relationship between sound and image.

We worked very fast, shooting throughout the day with a DV camera while also recording sound separately, taking no longer than 2 hours to edit them together. We didn’t give ourselves time to overthink but let ourselves be guided by instinct and intuition, following after things that grabbed us. Sometimes we had specific ideas to try out, sometimes we simply turned on the camera and started playing with it until something interesting would happen, and something always would. It was a very satisfying and liberating process, discipline and daily work made creativity feel limitless.

During this time we were very much thinking about the relationship between painting and moving image and the Studio Diaries reflect this. Looking back over the films we can see ourselves continuously approaching the key genres of painting, such as portraits, still lives and landscapes, to see how they could be dealt with in moving image. We’ve always found it very productive to consider what the differences are between painting and moving image and what lessons could be transposed from one to the other – what painting can do that moving image can’t and vice-versa, and also the space where they meet.

From the abandoned essay:

Painting, unlike filmmaking, begins with a blank canvas and through the making of marks moves from abstraction into a representation of some kind of visual reality. Moving image works in the opposite direction, the camera starts with an image of reality captured, already a representation, and in order to give it a sense of meaning one must transform or manipulate it (through choices of mise-en-scène, editing and the technical decisions etc) to construct an experience or expression. For a painter, each mark carries the imprint of their lived experience, of their attention and understanding of their craft and their subject. Our desire when working with moving image is to understand its limitations and unique possibilities as an image-making tool and to strive towards making work that equals the artistic expression possible in painting. In our formalistic experiments with the camera and moving image tools, much of what we are seeking to do is transform the image from a lens-based representation of reality into an embodied and psychological expression, a representation that reveals something of the inner experience of reality.

Upon finishing the 100 films we compiled a short selection of Studio Diaries that could be considered landscape films, where the land, sea and sky become central subjects.

Our interest in colour is apparent in these works. We rarely accept the factory settings of the camera, it is necessary for us to use the available tools to “paint” and transform the image, to take the image to a place where it ceases to be a recording, when it transcends the document and becomes a reality in itself. Colour is frequently one of the key components we experiment with to achieve this goal. In the Studio Diaries we often used coloured acetates in front of the lens to distort the image and flood it with colour, this no doubt impacted on the editing decisions we made on Notes From A Journey, particularly a key technique used throughout the film.

From the abandoned essay:

During the making of Notes From A Journey, it was the act of repeatedly looking at the footage during the editing that unlocked its potential. When we first tried what we call the colour fields – shots of landscapes barely visible through a digitally created flat field of bright red, blue, white or black – watching back a full sequence in the darkness of our studio was a shock to the retina. We became aware of our eye muscles contracting and expanding at a rate beyond the usual, at first it was physically hard to watch, particularly with the red but also with the cuts between shots of black to bright white. Colour became a very palpable physical sensation, through which the recordings of the landscapes slowly seeped. We kept the shots quite long giving the eyes time to adjust from colour to colour, so the images of the landscapes emerged slowly, evoking the way photographs are revealed when they are plunged in the chemical bath. But in this case the image is revealed solely by the action of the eyes as the recordings remain constant, it appears to fade-in but the eye is doing all the work. We kept the landscapes very faint, veiled by the colour field – the image never fully constitutes in front of the eyes and, as we strive to see, we become aware of the many physical mechanisms involved in perception.

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Notes From A Journey, 2019, Daniel & Clara

To Look And Look Again

Even though we had attempted to edit Notes From A Journey on first returning from the UK after the tour in 2017, the bulk of the edit took place between December 2018 and March 2019, this is when the film finally took shape. It was also during this time we made the decision to move back to the UK and a couple of weeks after the edit was complete we had moved. The relationship between our art and our lives cannot be unpicked, they are not separate activities, what happens in one is mirrored in the other, so it is without a doubt that we know that on one level Notes From A Journey is about finding a place where we can feel at home.

Last summer, after settling back into life here, we returned to Avebury, we felt we needed to look again at the place which had now become so significant to us. When you make a film about a place it changes it, the act of creating images of something is an act of transforming it. When approaching a place with the intensity of focus necessary for making a work of art this transformation can be incredibly powerful and one is unable to go back to seeing it as one did before. Avebury has been through this process for us, it not longer exists simply as a place out there, the very act of creating images of it has imbued it with significance, it now belongs to us, is a part of us and has become a container of our projections. In this sense, making a work of art is always about creating new realities – firstly for ourselves and then later for the viewer. When as a viewer you engage with the work, you bring yourself to it, you encounter it as we encountered the landscape, you project yourself into the work and it ceases to be ours and becomes a part of you.

The day before setting off to Avebury from Mersea Island we had the sudden compulsion to take an analogue stills camera with us – the only issue was that we didn’t own one and there are no camera shops on the island, but with a strange confidence we walked down to the island’s two charity shops expecting to find one. The first had nothing, but to our delight the second had a Polaroid Land Camera 1000 plus two packets of expired but unopened film.

On arriving in Avebury we wandered the perimeter of the circle, looking at each stone carefully. Each one is different, like a person, each has a unique character, mood and expression. We feel we are beginning to get to know some of them. We scribbled notes in our field-book, shot footage with our DV camera and selected a stone to photograph. The sheet ejected from the camera with a whirring clunk and was quickly buried in a pocket to enact its chemical magic. We repeated this action several times.

Returning to Avebury a second time was like returning to our childhood home, it all felt very familiar but there also seemed to be a veil obscuring it. We went there with the intention of seeing it better, to look harder and strengthen the connection we felt to the place. Our first visit two years previously had been fleeting and this time we hoped to engage more but it was not as easy as we had hoped, at every step we encountered confusions, the stones loomed over us, we became disoriented and we found it hard to focus. A girl stood by the side of the road screaming at us, we later found her collapsed in a field, we got pulled into a series of unintended actions which even now feel as if they can’t have been real.

Later when back at the tent we laid all the polaroids out on the grass and looked over them – each one tinted blue green with speckled black spots and white ghosts floating about the sarsens. We looked through the notes we had scribbled down throughout the day and added more thoughts and observations. Later when reading back through our notes, past, present, inner and outer experiences were indistinguishable – all that material had merged into a new reality. It is clear to us that we must return to Avebury again.

Mersea Island, April 2020

We are writing this now in April 2020, the world is in a period of great upheaval and transformation unlike anything else we have experienced in our lifetime, not one of us on the planet is unaffected by the impact of the pandemic.

We have all had to make changes in our lives, many far more dramatic than we have. We are incredibly lucky to be on an island where we have space to walk out in the open, it is a great privilege to live in such a beautiful place and this situation has reminded us of that. It has also reminded us of the great importance of creative detours, of how things not going to plan is not a bad thing, as long as one stays receptive and open then it is possible to make great creative discoveries. The impact on our work is already being sensed by us as we set out daily with our cameras – looking, listening, recording and letting the imagination lead the way.

From the abandoned essay:

Creativity does not move in straight lines, it does not drive towards a goal, it is an ongoing process of overlapping journeys that veers off on detours, moves through dark as much as light and to which the artist is servant rather than master. The artist is inherently a character who seeks control but a necessary tool in our kits is the act of surrender, when we let the process lead the way amazing discoveries and revelations become available to us.

Notes From A Journey is available to watch on VOD.

More about Daniel & Clara.

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MIA Issue 2 May 2020