Azul – or Why Residencies are Important to me

Process is the bulk of my practice. Making is the point. When an object is finished, well that’s nice, but it’s not the reason I made it. I make things to answer questions I have about materials, about relationships between objects, chemicals and substrates. That’s the work. But process isn’t just doing A to make B for the end result of C. The process is the artwork and nothing helps an artwork on more than having the time and space to realise it. But it isn’t as simple as heaving a bins worth of clutter on to my desk and pulling the bits together. What I have been discovering is the diminishing returns of having a studio to go to, a darkroom beneath this studio, a darkroom I call the shots about to some extent and one I can use any time of the day or night, calendar permitting. I found myself wondering if that’s what it’s like to be rich? Is the mere fact you can have something some how, tedious? I don’t think so, but I’ve certainly not been firing on all cylinders recently. Then El von Brown invited me to a residency at Walton on the Naze in sunny coastal Essex.

The sea side, I thought. I could get a deckchair and sit on the sand (while the tide was out) and stop passers by, ask them what they are playing at and make portraits that I would later print on oyster shells or some other sea garbage. I didn’t do a moment of it once I got there because I knew what I had to do was soak a wedding dress in cyanotype, expose some photograms of shells and bladderwrack on it and walk into the sea grey and yellow and emerge with a pallet of startling blues. Plus, I’m also really really bored of printing things on oyster shells.

Also, I wanted to do something more performancey. Is that a word?

I’m not sure how long I’ve been thinking about wearing a chemistry covered frock and marching into the sea like a little mermaid who’s got sick of her human and wants her scales back; but it’s certainly been in the back of my head for a while. I love cyanotype, I love the way it just pops when you put it in the water to develop. I also like the way it can just swoosh off the paper in a yellow cloud if you don’t expose it long enough, though I don’t enjoy that experience. The thing is, the confluence of the residency and the frankly weird atmosphere permeating everything at the moment, doing something abstract for minimal cultural reasons seemed the most sensible course to be taking, except that whole minimal cultural reasons thing; that’s just not true, I just hadn’t got to the point where I could acknowledge it.

The residency was in July. El was hugely accommodating once I made my idea clearish. First we walked from Walton to Frinton to see if there were wedding dresses in the charity shops, there weren’t. So we went to Colchester. We drew a blank in the city centre shops though I did manage to bag a 5 quid gown that had probably been a bridesmaid frock at some time. We eventually found dresses at the East Anglia Children’s Hospices warehouse, but the prices were too high for a thing that might not even work, so I stuck to my initial purchase. We did a trial run and it worked (up to a point).

I started to scour ebay for a real wedding dress at a price I could afford and a week later I had a beautiful 56 year old hand made dress that had been worn for a maximum of 4 hours and then kept boxed until it having a box of dress didn’t make sense any more. Then it was a waiting game for a sunny day in summer, in England.

Six weeks later I drove to Walton with a large brazillian who owns an iPhone 12 and the coated dress. El met us and we made the film. The trial run in July made it clear that the beach was way too shallow to just walk into the sea and make a compelling film with the equipment we had. I think I walked about 300m before I got to my shoulders. As good as camera phone lenses are, that looks kinda shyte, and anyway, Béla Tarr I emphatically am not.

The process was simple, put the dress on the sand and cover it with bladderwrack and shells. Wait for the chemistry to expose, put on dress, walk into water, float about, walk out of water, buy and consume an icecream.

I had the process in my head, the materials, the when the where. What I didn’t have was the why, or at least not a why that I could put into words. It was the reviewing and editing that solidified the piece. The footage was shot in slow motion. I wanted the option to speed it up, but also the higher resolution that slo-mo made possible. Then I started to realise the unexpected consequences that took the finished piece in a series of directions, some of which I’m still exploring.

Sound: I expected the sound to be that kind of silly slowed down growl that film makers usually use when someone has to stop something sudden, stretching a no into a noooooooooooo. There were moments when Marcelo and I were talking where that sound was evident, what I hadn’t expected was that noise could be added to some of the wave sounds to give a kind of boom back in the mix. There was also the percussive sound of the shells being tipped off the dress, the drop in frequency caused by the slowdown was not absurd or out of context, it made sense.

Light: I should have known this, of course, but the glittering on the water was a good deal more important than I expected, especially in the close up shots later in the film. This became part of a feedback loop as the editing progressed and details began to make their own points.

These things became apparent because I was editing using Premiere Pro. This is a programme I would usually describe as a monstrous network of zeros and ones that’s sole purpose appears to be to reduce me to a furious ball of thwarted ideas and stalled plans. But I had a very clear plan, I had a reason. Working out how to get the effects I needed required frequent typing how do I…? into google. I’ve got pretty adept at working out my question and getting the correct response as the top answer. Always scaffold your learning on something meaningful kids…

As the editing evolved, my thinking evolved. Just as the idea had developed during the residency during the weeks after and the actual filming. ~Early previews meant people started to suggest things the images reminded them of, most prevalent was Yemọja/Iemanjá/Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes. This is a deity who also travelled in the holds of slave ships from West Africa. She takes different forms according to the context she is viewed in, but all of these water goddesses stem directly from West African beliefs. I feel it is important to state here that my knowledge of this tradition or the history of the spread of this tradition is about three weeks of occasional searching. I cannot evaluate my particular sources, I lack the Yoruba, Portuguese and Spanish to make anything than the most cursory and surface of comments. That said, there are some compelling symmetries. But now I am considering questions about appropriation. Is there such a thing as unconscious appropriation? From there, however, I need to revisit my motivations behind the themes.

Blue. The dress goes blue because of the chemical changes undergone by ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide when exposed to light and water. An image search for Yemọja fills the screen with mainly women in various shades of blue. It’s difficult to make any kind of judgement about these results because despite having strict rules on my searches and caches, there is sufficient information about where I am and who I am available for the results to be a curated set of results that are more about what google thinks of me than what I’m trying to discover. Still my personal reasons for using blue are up for re-examination.

Transition: According to my limited research, Yemọja is primarily a river deity in West Africa, in the Americas, she is more associated with the seas and oceans. My interest is now in how she is associated with a space that has ever moving borders, rivers also rise and fall, flood and dry up. I wanted to investigate how I might depict the importance and, for want of a better word, solidity, of a place or state of change. Perhaps a personification, or attributing that zone to some kind of individual is the way to give solidity. I have no idea, but I like that idea.

7th September: Yemayá is celebrated on the 7th of September in Havana, there is a procession, people offer fruit and flowers to to the sea. It was also the day we filmed. I had no idea about this, and this being the UK, there was no plan to map the filming on to any date as I’d already watched a damp and uninspiring August flitter by and was getting pretty desperate about the chances of getting the piece filmed.

Control: A wedding dress is traditionally (for not that long really but hey ho..) white. White being a blank canvas kind of thing made it easy to use as a substrate for mark making. I like sea shells, I like bladder-wrack, I know both of those things work really well with cyanotype not least because of their own translucencies, so with thought and some good collecting, the range of densities that could be printed using sunlight and iron salts could make some really unexpected marks (that I expected). The patterns on the dress are emphatically my marks, the record is my record, but I used shells that have heavy symbolic weight, especially the scallop which is connected with the Camino Pilgrimage route.

All of this has come about because I was offered the chance to visit a place to make some work. My first thoughts became something else, which snowballed. it’s the freedom to make, to think, to be challenged, to adapt and develop. There is still more to come as I’m still developing a second piece.

When I was at secondary school we were given anthologies, or readers, that had a wide variety of readings in them. I remember one that took it’s title from the first line of An Ordinary Day by Norman MacCaig: I took my mind a walk. The reader is mainly western men writing within the western canon, but the choice is still pretty eclectic and as a result quite engaging. McCaig’s poem stuck with me; the simplicity of feeling free enough to be able to wander and to wonder. It’s been in my head ever since I started the edit.

An Ordinary Day. Norman MacCaig.

I took my mind a walk
Or my mind took me a walk–
Whichever was the truth of it.

The light glittered on the water
Or the water glittered in the light.
Cormorants stood on a tidal rock

With their wings spread out,
Stopping no traffic. Various ducks
Shilly-shallied here and there

On the shilly-shallying water.
An occasional gull yelped. Small flowers
Were doing their level best

To bring to their kerbs bees like
Ariel charabancs. Long weeds in the clear
Water did Eastern dances, unregarded

By shoals of darning needles. A cow
Started a moo but thought
Better of it–And my feet took me home

And my mind observed to me,
Or I to it, how ordinary
Extraordinary things are or

How extraordinary ordinary
Things are, like the nature of the mind
And the process of observing.