We had trespassed here upon the borders of an alien world, a world where we were intruders, a world where we were not wanted or invited to remain – where we ran grave risks perhaps!
– The Willows, Algernon Blackwood
This time last year we were putting together a programme of artist’s films to accompany the publication of MIA Journal issue 2, which was dedicated to contemporary moving image work about landscape and nature. These films were to have been taken on tour around the UK and we were in the process of booking venues when the first lockdown was announced and our plans were put on hold. It’s now only one year later but so much has changed, February 2020 feels like another life, and as we revisit this selection of films we can’t help but see them through the lens of all that’s happened since then.
We were originally framing these works in the context of the climate crisis, seeing them as visionary responses to the increasing consciousness of our destructive impact on the planet and the growing anxiety that as a species we may have set in motion the conditions of our own demise. As you will see, these films are not about environmental change in a direct way, they are not making statements or commenting on the situation; instead, they are deeply personal, poetic expressions of human beings living now under the conditions of climate crisis. The very fact that these artists are drawn to depicting nature, landscape and weather at this moment in time makes the topic present even when not directly stated. One may also sense something else bubbling beneath the surface of all these works – an anxious shift, as an awareness grows of the fragility of the human and the limitations of human-centric perspectives. Each film, especially when seen in succession, offers a glimpse at the possibility of a world without us at the centre.
During the last 12 months every single person on the planet has experienced the impact of coronavirus. It is a global experience which has disrupted the regular flow of human industry, communication, interaction and movement. Changes in our behaviour that would have seemed impossible for many to imagine prior to 2020 have become a part of our daily lives. The virus is the defining agent of this time, unknowingly directing our actions and forcing us to ask questions about how we live, communicate, relate to the world and each other.
From the very beginning the pandemic was presented to us by governments and media using a language reminiscent of science fiction, the virus as an invading alien which we had to work together to defeat. The message was clear – the virus was an evil enemy and we were the good side that was destined to win.
Personally, we have also been turning to sci-fi and horror stories in order to reflect upon the pandemic and our understanding of the virus, but we’ve found ourselves drawn to less dualistic narratives, particularly stories that go beyond the good versus evil dichotomy and invasion frameworks. We’ve found more relevance in fiction that shows us glimpses of non-human consciousness, or that, at the very least, reveals what happens when human beings push up against the limits of their own understanding and experience of reality. One such short story was The Willows by Algernon Blackwood, a tale about two travellers who take a canoe trip through Danube marshlands and encounter a shifting, water-logged landscape where the veil between the human and non-human briefly lifts.
In The Willows, Blackwood presents us with a landscape which is indifferent to humankind and our limited conception of how things should or shouldn’t be. The landscape and the elements are experienced by the two characters as a threat, the agency of a non-human entity confronting them with something beyond comprehension. The thing that cannot be understood causes terror, but it is not simply presented as evil, the terror comes from their inability to account for its very existence. The elements and nature in the story simply exist and, like the virus, are not necessarily against the human or seeking to cause us harm, but exist regardless of us and beyond our understanding. As the story unfolds we glimpse an awakening consciousness of a world where we are not at the centre. Attempting to navigate this experience, the characters move through a range of projections, still clinging to human-centric frameworks to make sense of the unknowable. They speak of the marsh as a sacred site haunted by old world gods, rationalising their experiences in any way they can before reaching a crisis point and confronting the revelation that maybe our existence is of no consequence beyond ourselves.
This story struck us as materialising from the same misty isle of the imagination as the films included here, as dealing with our relationship to the world at the limits of human perception. For this reason we have decided to use quotes from The Willows as a way of framing and linking these works, hopefully expanding on the few scattered thoughts offered above and opening the door to other yet unimagined flights of fancy.
This programme has now ended.
I stared, trying to force every atom of vision from my eyes… I searched everywhere for a proof of reality, when all the while I understood quite well that the standard of reality had changed. For the longer I looked the more certain I became that these figures were real and living, though perhaps not according to the standards that the camera and the biologist would insist upon.
A SENTIMENTAL PIECE IN HIGH ISO, 2017, Peter Treherne
I seemed to be gazing at the personified elemental forces of this haunted and primeval region. Our intrusion had stirred the powers of the place into activity. It was we who were the cause of the disturbance, and my brain filled to bursting with stories and legends of the spirits and deities of places that have been acknowledged and worshipped by men in all ages of the world’s history.
INT. LANDSCAPES, 2018, Daniel & Clara
It must be a subjective experience, I argued — none the less real for that, but still subjective. The moonlight and the branches combined to work out these pictures upon the mirror of my imagination, and for some reason I projected them outwards and made them appear objective.
ALL HER BEAUTIFUL GREEN REMAINS IN TEARS, 2018, Amy Cutler
The loneliness of the place had entered our very bones, and silence seemed natural, for after a bit the sound of our voices became a trifle unreal and forced; whispering would have been the fitting mode of communication, I felt, and the human voice, always rather absurd amid the roar of the elements, now carried with it something almost illegitimate. It was like talking out loud in church, or in some place where it was not lawful, perhaps not quite safe, to be overheard.
THE HABIT OF REMAINING, 2017, Katie McFadden
When common objects in this way become charged with the suggestion of horror, they stimulate the imagination far more than things of unusual appearance; and these bushes, crowding huddled about us, assumed for me in the darkness a bizarre grotesquerie of appearance that lent to them somehow the aspect of purposeful and living creatures. Their very ordinariness, I felt, masked what was malignant and hostile to us. The forces of the region drew nearer with the coming of night.
OUR SELVES UNKNOWN, 2014, Edwin Rostron
…here was a place unpolluted by men, kept clean by the winds from coarsening human influences, a place where spiritual agencies were within reach and aggressive. Never, before or since, have I been so attacked by indescribable suggestions of a “beyond region”, of another scheme of life, another revolution not parallel to the human. And in the end our minds would succumb under the weight of the awful spell, and we should be drawn across the frontier into their world.
FLOOD, 2016, Susu Laroche
Untrodden by man, almost unknown to man, it lay there beneath the moon, remote from human influence, on the frontier of another world, an alien world, a world tenanted by willows only and the souls of willows. And we, in our rashness, had dared to invade it, even to make use of it!
LOST GARDENS, 2017, Toby Tatum
Yet what I felt of dread was no ordinary ghostly fear. It was infinitely greater, stranger, and seemed to arise from some dim ancestral sense of terror more profoundly disturbing than anything I had known or dreamed of. We had “strayed”, … into some region or some set of conditions where the risks were great, yet unintelligible to us; where the frontiers of some unknown world lay close about us. It was a spot held by the dwellers in some outer space, a sort of peep-hole whence they could spy upon the earth, themselves unseen, a point where the veil between had worn a little thin. As the final result of too long a sojourn here, we should be carried over the border and deprived of what we called “our lives”, yet by mental, not physical, processes.
HUNTER, 2015, Scott Barley
Our insignificance perhaps may save us.
The World With And Without Us features moving image works by Peter Treherne, Daniel & Clara, Amy Cutler, Katie McFadden, Edwin Rostron, Susu Laroche, Toby Tatum, and Scott Barley. Many thanks to all the artists for sharing their work.
The Willows by Algernon Blackwood can be read here.