Site_Seal_Gesture POST4: Practice

The body and the material environment are the indices of our collective practice. This manifests as a form of fieldwork that foregrounds exploration and intuitive response, inversion and field recording. We make unplanned trips to forts and bunkers on the South East coast, and our experiences of these encounters reemerge through intervention and artefact, either spontaneously or at a later date, as new connections form. Similarly we made trips to Banan in South West China, making two replicas of Han period rock cut burial sites in the sandstone mountains there. Intertextuality and transnational narratives emerge, making links between longue durée and lived experience. Here we also made unexpected links between defensive architectures and trade routes, re-imagining war architectures as citadels for the transmission of knowledge and ideas rather structures of defence and aggression.

Inversion has formed a strong basis for this, not as a binary principle, but as a pair of distinctions that are entwined through a process that brings one to the other. This works on a multitude of levels and scales, the interconnections between two cultures, both in time and place, Lia’s seal carving practice which turns matter into sign, Rupert’s model making and casting practice, the forts and bunkers themselves as material boundaries between inside and outside, the correspondences of letters and diagrams that bounce back and forth between us over the internet. These are just a few examples amongst many others.


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abbots cliff

Field recordings demonstrate our interest in the archive and heritage, what the notion of the archive means and what it is ultimately an archive of. For us, the archive is not a process of fixing, but rather a fluid that is moving, a series of interconnected creative acts, artefacts and ideas. Aside from diagrams, notes and conversation, we make use of two kinds of recording methods of the sites we visit, photographs and sound recordings. These can be seen on one hand as straightforward documentary records of our sites. On the other hand, and more importantly for our collaboration though we take these as source material for a more imaginative or speculative process, where the record becomes the raw material for new ideas. We treat heritage as a process of ongoing recycling, transformation and reinterpretation rather than of fixing knowledge of the past. We see this as a process that is available to all.


We use photography in two ways, as still images that stand alone and as long series of photographs that record the passage of time. Still images are used as simple indices of site, a means of presenting a site in a traditional format. However, we don’t think of these visual artefacts as representations but as a traces within the actions, movements and gestures from which they emerged. For us they are indices of experience and the material content of the landscape, from which signs and motifs emerge and which then go on to live a life of their own. For example, the sound mirror we encountered in Abbot’s Cliff had the trigram sign for the sky – three parallel lines – graffitied upon it, a sign that already had significance for our collaboration through a shared interest in the I-Ching, Jung’s idea of synchronicity and Lia’s seal carving practice. The photograph was manipulated and presented as a textured monochrome image, mimicking a seal print. For us this distances the photograph from its function as a visual representation of site and brings it in to a relation of correspondences between our practices, our material palette and our use of signs/symbols.

Sound Mirror, Abbot's Cliff, Kent

Sound Mirror, Abbot’s Cliff, Kent

Similarly, this photograph at Hythe sound mirror is for us an index of materials and actions that feed into a practice. Here we collected yarrow stalks from around the mirror and bundled them to make a fire. Before lighting the fire we were playing with the spotlight on a mobile phone and found that we could project our bodies and sticks onto the mirror. The photograph is in one sense a record of this, a long exposure that captures the light and shadow and makes the mirror into a celestial object set in a clear starry night. Equally the sticks again bring us back to the yarrow sticks used with the I Ching, and divination as a wilfully random process that is given significance as a foil to precariousness and uncertainty (the Hythe sound mirror has been 3D scanned by English Heritage and the MOD, fenced off and abandoned to entropy). This shadow casting and bundling of sticks has become the basis for work we will do in Hoo and also threw up ideas of astronomical connections between Europe and China, the Jesuit missionaries who brought astronomical knowledge to China in the 16th and 17th centuries, building a complex and ornate observatory in Beijing.

Sound Mirror, Hythe, Kent

Sound Mirror, Hythe, Kent

The second way we use photography, as a time-lapse record of gesture and action, was employed during our fieldwork in Banan. The camera was set up to take photographs at intervals of three, ten or twenty seconds, giving us a documentary record of the process of carving and the gradual emergence of the tomb. This can then be used as a record of the process of carving a Han tomb, using traditional tools and techniques, which can be interrogated in order to understand why existing tombs are the way they are, why particular tool marks and traces appear and whether they have significance or are incidental marks. In another sense, they were for us ways of thinking about time, movement and tool use, not in the sense of Muybridge’s photographic series, but rather as actions that we ourselves can then copy or replicate in the production of later work. For example, we recently presented this work at the EAA conference in Glasgow and were invited by the University of the Highlands and Islands to conduct a similar experiment in Orkney, on Bronze age and WWII sites that are soon to disappear into the sea due to coastal erosion. We may respond to this invitation during the coming month as part of our contribution to PA2015.

Stone carving, Banan, South West China

Stone carving, Banan, South West China


Finally, we made use of sound recordings in Banan and in sound mirrors and forts in the UK. Some of these field recordings we used musically, looping and processing the sound of running up metal stair for example.

Continuous recordings were made during the process of stone carving, and these were later turned into spectrographs – visual representations of time, frequency and amplitude. This was a technique Rupert used to record urban environments in 2010, as a means to look at the city in terms of the expenditure of energy, the physical movements and events that create disturbance in the air. This visual representation of sound brings can be thought of as a diagram of visual signatures – events, rhythms and repetitions – that make up the milieu of the urban environment and develop its sense of place. These images can be interrogated at different scales, from seconds to days, each scale revealing a different set of actions, events and rhythms. The sound recordings in the image below show the stone carving process in Banan, the hard vertical lines are chisel strikes. There is much more information encoded within these images, the small ticks are insects chirping, birdsong can be seen and the interruption of work for conversation and discussion of progress. At longer scales, individual chisel strikes becomes solid block, with gaps where work was halted. The hum of insects becomes a fuzzy band that undulates over time. Using sound in this way is again, a documentary record of a site. It also became for us a tool for thinking about duration, of the relation of lived experience to the persistence of stone. Only lived experience is visible in these images, the formal dimension of space disappears and the stone tomb becomes invisible. This then becomes another way in which we think about the relation between permanence and impermanence, the lived moment and the material trace.


Spectrographs – frequency against time across different timescales

To wrap up for today, what we hope to have done in this post is cast a light on a few of the methods we use and how they think through ideas of heritage and archive, bringing the body and into direct relationship with the landscape and its material fabric through a creative approach to fieldwork.


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