I'm a visual artist and writer in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada.
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Thinking about fog. Starting with my code that fades out the foreground based on the depth data, I modified the script so that there’s some randomness to the transparency. I want the edges of the object to shift in and out, as if in a fogbank. But the effect needs work, and I didn’t get any good images today.
I spend a lot of time remembering. I scribble lists of what to try next, I keep track of my hours, I write blog posts about what I’m working on. My code is strewn with comments and reminders. I save drafts and sketches, I backup my work. The computer is a machine for remembering.
It’s easy to forget how useful forgetting can be. If I’m stuck on something, especially when writing code, most of the time I just need to get away from it for a while. In the movie True Stories, David Byrne’s character says something that’s stuck with me for years:
I really enjoy forgetting. When I first come to a place, I notice all the little details. I notice the way the sky looks. The color of white paper. The way people walk. Doorknobs. Everything. Then I get used to the place and I don’t notice those things anymore. So only by forgetting can I see the place again as it really is.
Forgetting, not only as a creative strategy, but as a pleasure. A way to recapture the joy of experiencing something for the first time. This came up again in a book I just finished, Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire:
Memory is the enemy of wonder, which abides nowhere else but in the present. This is why, unless you are a child, wonder depends on forgetting – on a process, that is, of subtraction.
When I want to wonder, I read anything by Italo Calvino. His final, unfinished book, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, is a series of lectures about various qualities he valued in literature. He starts with “lightness”:
My working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. […] Above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language. […] Maybe I was only then becoming aware of the weight, the inertia, the opacity of the world – qualities that stick to writing from the start, unless one finds some way of evading them.
To erase the opacity of the world, what an admirable idea! I want my little fogbank script to attempt this. By erasing information from the video stream, by subtracting opacity, I can introduce a kind of lightness. An opportunity to see something as if for the first time.
Feet are good tools for forgetting. When I need a new perspective, I walk up Signal Hill, often along the North Head trail. I was up there once last summer, soon after I first moved here, and there was an incredibly dense fogbank hovering just off the edge of the cliff. I sat down and watched it for a bit. A kind of brilliant backlit haze, and peering into it felt almost as if my eyes were closed, but white instead of dark. After a while, I realized I could see something shifting around in the haze. It took me a minute to figure out what I was looking at, and I’m still not entirely sure if it was my contact lenses, or the inside of my eyes. But my vision was full of subtle little squiggles and inconsistencies, and if I moved my head they would swish from side to side. Entoptic phenomena.
The idea of seeing things with new eyes is present right in the title of Lawrence Weschler’s Seeing Is Forgetting The Name of The Thing One Sees. Near the end of the book Robert Irwin rants a bit about getting away from screens, something else I should try not to forget:
The point is to get people to peel those visors off their faces, to remove the goggles, to abandon the screens. Those screens whose very purpose is to screen the actual world out. Who cares about virtuality when there’s all this reality – this incredible, inexhaustible, insatiable, astonishing reality – present all around!
I’ve never been an artist in residence before. What is a residency? The act of dwelling in a place. The title of my project proposal is A House By The Water, and I love that the word residency implies an address, an occupancy, a home. Dwelling is such a beautiful word. But what does it mean to dwell? One definition is to think moodily or anxiously about something. Well! I could be quite good at this.
I’m still moving into my new “residence.” I carried a second batch of supplies to the studio today: a camera tripod, a lamp, a digital projector, a webcam. So many wires and glass surfaces. I have a list of things to try. But mostly I’m drawn to the books and the kettle. I want to dwell.
What am I here to think about? How the way people inhabit this island has changed and continues to change. I could start by considering this spot I currently inhabit, a small room in a larger Rooms. The Rooms is a daunting architectural structure, dominating the cityscape from almost any angle. Soaring into the skyline of historic St. John’s, The Rooms combines twenty-first century technology with a striking visual reference to our past. Its unique design mirrors the “fishing rooms” where families came together to process their catch.
Like any city landmark, The Rooms accumulates nicknames. My favourite is The box the Basilica came in. From a distance, the building resembles the kind of house a child might draw: a square box with a trim triangular roof, one big door, one big window. All that’s missing is the chimney. I like how the facade over the entrance seems to play with this motif.
So I sit in this enormous house and think about enormous houses. When I imagine the way the visual landscape of the island is changing, they’re the first thing that comes to mind. We were hiking in Maddox Cove on the weekend, and there they were again: a cluster of huge new houses overlooking the water, looming incongruously over the smaller buildings below. Older homes in Newfoundland can be remarkably tiny, so low and humble it’s easy to imagine the island was once populated with hobbits. Then there are the modest saltboxes of St. John’s, and more suburban homes like the one I grew up in, a medium-sized split-level in Pasadena. There’s the new subdivision my parents live in now, full of houses slightly taller and wider than the older parts of town. And then there are the giants, which are mostly found wandering outside the city grid, jostling for position in a scuffle for the best view of the water.
They jut out, ostentate, occupy the horizon in a new way. They’re signs of prosperity and wealth, and as such, they’re easy to begrudge (or difficult, depending on which side of that equation you’re on). But perhaps that’s the laziest reaction. What interests me is how our collective landscape is changing. What does landscape mean, exactly? An expanse of scenery that can be seen in a single view, but also an extensive mental viewpoint. How do these structures reflect the new ways that we view and engage with the land? Surely these dwellings are worth dwelling on.
Let’s begin with a walk. I packed a bag full of books, blank notebooks and art supplies and walked to The Rooms, which isn’t far from home. One of the front desk people smiled and said to the other, Oh, this is our new artist in residence.
Mireille met me in the Elbow Room studio. The floor is a constellation of paint streaks and splotches, and Mireille knows who left each one. I’ll have to be sure to leave some lines on the floor as well. For now I swept up a little, dragged tables around, went through the cupboards. The previous artist’s sculptures are still here, so I have roommates for a few days: three tall columns of concrete, foam and silicone. The studio has a constant hiss from the ceiling ventilation that asks to be drowned out, so I put on some music, louder than I usually would. The room is isolated and soundproof, and it feels as if it is my responsibility to make noise.
When I dropped by last month to see the space, my first impression was that the view from the studio windows was boring. Today I see it differently. The wide vista is mostly taken up by an adjacent blocky office building, and otherwise looks out over a cross-section of parking lots. The scene is enlivened a bit by busy slivers of Harvey Road and the harbour. Today I notice new details: a walking trail follows the fence below, and a row of trees stretches up to the windows, the tip of each branch daubed in green. The monolithic office building has a wooden deck on the roof, and I can see a few people smoking up there. A few of the Rooms employees take breaks beside the loading dock just below, which seems pretty busy this morning, delivery trucks coming and going. The studio is shaded and when I photograph the view my camera reflects brightly in the window.
Let’s start by writing. I should write a proper introduction.
I will be the artist in residence at The Rooms in St. John’s, Newfoundland, for the next three months. My art practice usually involves walking, writing and making photographs, which I assemble into books or other interactive works. My plan this summer is to work on a digital projection exploring the changing landscape of Newfoundland, especially the impact of the oil industry. How do vagaries of global geography and economics affect the local cultural and architectural landscape? How does the history of a place change how we see it?
Those questions are from the project proposal I wrote in January, and I can feel things shifting already. My inquiries will begin with a few practical things I want to try. I’ve been working with Processing to make interactive digital projections, and I want to try using a Kinect to detect motion and depth. I’ve been writing lately about walking in St. John’s, especially the North Head Trail, and these walks will dovetail with my research here. I want to fill notebooks with fresh air and ink, I want to write code en plein air. I want to grow moss on a rock and greenscreen it into an island. I want to make computer-generated houses fall from the sky. I want to find old blueprints and draw on them with watercolour. I want to meet people, to dig through books and brains and turn my questions into new questions.
Auspicious beginnings: I needed electrical tape and I went for a walk yesterday and found a roll of electrical tape on the sidewalk. I was going to ask Mireille for one of the catalogues from a recent exhibition, and when I opened the studio cupboard, there was a copy on the shelf.
I make a list of things to find on future walks: moss, blueprints, a blender, a USB hub, a lazy susan.
Finishing up Barbershop Quartet, a new mini-book for a zine exchange at Eastern Edge Gallery in St. John’s. Four short stories about conversations that happened while getting haircuts in Montreal, Arcata and St. John’s. I printed 30 of these.
I finished my Field Notes project! The final book contains thirty-six pages of photos and poems. I’ve printed a small edition of 18, and it’s also available through Blurb. This project was graciously supported by a Professional Project Grant from the Newfoundland & Labrador Arts Council. As part of my grant I wrote a final report for the NLAC, and thought I’d post it here.
Field Notes is a series of poems and photographs about writing outdoors, and explores symmetries between human relationships and our attachments to landscape and place.
The work consists of fifteen photographs, each paired with a poem. Each photograph is of a brief phrase composed outdoors with found materials, such as spruce needles or reeds. These photographed passages are reminiscent of fragments from letters, suggesting distance and longing. They allude to relationships (a distant friend, a long-lost lover, a cherished place), and share an anonymity with messages left on highwayside stones, declarations of love carved in treebark, or postcards found in a curiosity shop.
I made the photographs first, mostly in fields, forests, beaches and backyards near Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Labrador. Each involved finding a place to work outdoors (preferably where I would not be interrupted), spending some time in the location, identifying a material to work with, assembling the text, and finally photographing it. Some materials were easier to work with than others; the spruce needles were particularly finicky, especially if it was at all windy.
When I would go out to work on the project I’d bring a list of possible passages to write, but I found that the best images ended up being the ones where I thought up a new text on the spot, in response to the location. I made about twenty-five of these works in total between fall 2013 and summer 2014, and chose the best fifteen for the final series. I printed eight of these as a series of postcards.
Fifteen poems comprise the other half of Field Notes. As I worked on the photographs I kept a small notebook, noting details about my working process or the environment around me (the softness of rotting wood, a crow overhead, finding a toad). In the summer and fall of 2014, I polished each page of notes into a poem. Some required much more reworking than others, and in general I found this the most difficult part of this project. Most of my notes started as descriptive passages about working with natural materials, but the poetry expanded to describe the wider range of reactions and emotions that welled up during the making of the work, from disappointment and bitterness to a sense of wonder and renewal.
Generally, the poems are intended to give context and description to the photographs. While the photos can work on their own, the poems only really make sense when displayed alongside the photographs. A book seemed like a natural medium for this work.
After completing the photos and poems, I began to put them together into a book. I am a graphic designer, so I was able to do this myself using various software. I made a final photograph for the cover, and wrote end notes and a “thank you” page. Once everything was ready, I ordered a test print of the book. It arrived after a few weeks and I made a few small changes, then ordered a small edition of books. The printing is done through Blurb.com, a high-quality print-on-demand service. The books are hardcover, 36 pages, full colour, and I’m really pleased with how they turned out.
Like any creative project, Field Notes evolved as I worked on it. I had originally planned to make all the photographs in the fall of 2013, but the snow settled in sooner than expected, and the snow-covered landscape didn’t lend itself well to the kind of images I wanted to make. So the work ended up taking much longer than I’d anticipated, but I think it is all the better for it. The photographs benefit from being spread out over the course of a year, and are littered with little indications of season, such as orange autumn needles or new spring shoots. The poems, too, have a much richer sense of observing changes in a landscape over time.
I found myself much more nervous than I’d expected about working anywhere where I might be asked what I was doing. As a result, I sought out places where I could work without being disturbed, which were sometimes the backyards of close friends. So the landscapes I worked with ended up being less “wild” than I had imagined. Some of the poems explore this tension between domesticity and wilderness, the rhythm of the human world versus the vagaries of wind and weather. Made soon after I returned from a year living in California, the work is also a little bit about rediscovering a sense of home.
For a project that involves a lot of solitary work, this also ended up being a more social endeavor than I’d imagined. During the making of the photos there were many opportunities to connect with friends and fellow artists: walking with a friend up the pipeline trail in Margaret Bowater Park to scout out locations, catching a ride around the bay, or borrowing the backyards of colleagues in Corner Brook. I also posted work on Facebook as I progressed, and a few people made suggestions which ended up being incorporated into the final work.
My working process for this project was inspired partly by the work of Andy Goldsworthy. When I teach, I often show students the documentary Andy Goldsworthy: Rivers and Tides, so I’ve seen it many times. I am also interested in the work of Marlene Creates, who often bridges photography and language in her interpretations of the Newfoundland landscape. The work of Nina Katchadourian, who photographs small interventions in natural scenes (such as repairing a spider’s web with thread), was also in the back of my mind. As I worked on Field Notes I came across the work of a few new artists whose work resonated, including Song Dong (who writes ephemeral messages with water) and India K (who photographs cut-paper texts hanging in various landscapes).
As part of my research for Field Notes, I wrote an article about Paul-Émile Miot’s remarkable 1857 photograph of Album Rock in Ship Cove (on the Northern Peninsula). Miot’s photograph shows the word Album painted in large white letters on a prominent rock which, over 150 years later, is still known as Album Rock. He intended to use the image as the title page of an album of Newfoundland photos.
As I worked on my Field Notes photographs on the edges of my home in western Newfoundland, the images also found a home on the web. I posted photographs on Tumblr as I made them, along with a few animations I’d made from some of the photos, and received lots of interest and encouragement. I had first started using Tumblr for a previous project (a book of photos and handwritten notes called Small Landmarks), so I already had a small audience when I began posting work from this project. Tumblr has a strange and capricious community, and its users freely share and remix images with enthusiasm and earnestness. One of my images (i don’t know how to say this) has been “liked” and reblogged more than 70000 times. It continues to bounce around the web, and has undoubtedly been seen by many more people. Another image was posted on the Tumblr page of Hyperallergic. I don’t know that this implies an engagement with the work beyond tapping on an image on a phone screen, but it’s still encouraging. I also received a few touching messages from complete strangers, which was wonderfully heartening.
When photographing do you see what i mean, I also made a short video of the sun passing through the letters as if reading the words. This video was screened at Eastern Edge Gallery as part of Wade In, a travelling series of art videos.
As I worked on the poetry part of the project, I printed postcards of eight different photographs from Field Notes. I really enjoyed sending these postcards to friends, and mailed about thirty of them with handwritten messages. The phrases I spelled out in the photographs are meant to feel like fragments from letters (with any luck; write back soon; these things happen), so in a way postcards are the perfect medium for the photos. I like the idea of postcards spreading handwriting in the world. In a world of screens and printed pages, handwritten postcards feel simultaneously archaic and intensely personal.
I have had artwork from a previous project accepted for publication in issue 20 of Riddle Fence (which should be published in November or December), and they’ve agreed to insert a postcard from Field Notes in each copy of the issue as well. I also have postcards for sale at Monastiraki, a gallery / art shop in Montreal.
This project has been challenging in many ways. It felt good to make art out of my “comfort zone,” which is very much digital media. Working with very tiny materials and tweezers on breezy days taught me a lot about patience. It was also very useful for me to tackle a serious series of poems, as writing is becoming a larger part of my creative practice. I learned a lot about my personal limitations, and got better at balancing the need to plan ahead with the desire to work spontaneously. I also realized that I love postcards as an art medium – they’re an inexpensive and personal way to give my photos and writing to others. This project also helped me improve several practical skills, such as working with found materials, book design, and using Tumblr effectively to promote work.
One conclusion from this project is that I’d like to work outdoors more often, expending less of my creative energy in front of a screen. Printing postcards has allowed me to share my work in a new way that I find intriguing, and will continue to explore. I also moved to St. John’s over the summer, and I find it easier here to focus on both making art and writing, and to connect with a larger art community.
Making Field Notes has been an experience that’s given me many moments of quiet solitude, mindfulness, and taught me a lot about frustration and patience. I’m very grateful to the NLAC for the generous grant that made this possible.
Content © 2018 Matthew Hollett. RSS