September 22 to September 29
Memory Retrieval Systems
I made this poster nineteen years ago. This was before bleeps on your mobile phone reminded you of appointments or your to do list, before social media websites regurgitated past posts to remind you of your digital life. The poster brings together forms of memory that are vastly different in scale, purpose and context. The Venn diagram is not random, though I now can’t remember my precise reasoning for the layout. Some categories, such as ‘soft systems methodology’ and ‘data management’ seem like ugly words I was holding with tongs not to be contaminated or seduced by their bureaucratic and machinic logic. They seem fairly benign and almost everyday now; while memex is a forgotten historical curiosity, like quipu. Some words are still incredibly scary, or have become infinitely more so recently: forgeries and fakes, surveillance, and especially, virus.
Memories apparently are not lost from our brains, while we live, but can become hard or impossible to reach. Revisiting this poster, I sense my desire to enjoy, reflect on and admire the richness, variety and intricacy of the inventions people have made to help remember and perpetuate a culture. Some of the words are almost magical in their ability to conjure a better world: the architectural strength of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the benevolent social role of bards, and the poetry of songlines especially. I think I was being tugged in another direction too, perhaps more strongly, by the disembodied memory retrieval systems that gather information but don’t enhance or expand human possibility, but instead destroy people, and places. I am struck by how little allusion there is to the natural world, except for the Songlines, but perhaps that isn’t surprising as this was a work researched and made in an archive, underground, with no windows.
I made this poster for my exhibition, The Archives Project, and for the exhibition, Potential: Ongoing Archive at John Hansard Gallery, while I was Leverhulme artist in residence in the Archives of the London School of Economics, in 2001-2.
Design: Nicole Kapitza
September 15 to September 22
The turbulence of recent weeks throws me forward, and backwards – planning new projects and reflecting on past ones. So many postponed deadlines from the last six months are now landing with a thud this September. I am trying to keep on an even keel. Maritime metaphors are comforting and frequent, in English, perhaps paradoxically because they also suggest freedom and escape rather than stability. Here, sitting at my desk looking from this big island, I think about a little far away island in the North Sea, Fair Isle. You can walk the length of it in a morning, and it is indeed very fair. It is quite hard to leave and to arrive, because of the weather conditions. Sometimes the little islands of Britain however are better connected to the rest of the world than the so-called mainland.
Yesterday I was told by a friend who lives there, about how another island, Hong Kong, is greeting travelers. If you arrive at the airport, you are tested, and given a sandwich and a bottle of water and have to wait until the result is ready, about 14 hours. Then, if the test is negative, you are allowed to go home and self-isolate. However you must download a special app, and when you get home you must walk around the edge of your apartment recording it on the app. Once this is registered, you are not allowed to go beyond the perimeter of your home until your quarantine is over. Any breach of this will be noted.
I have started reading Helen Macdonald’s new collection of essays, Vesper Flights. She speaks of the need to recognise and appreciate the otherness of other animals. We need this more than ever, not just to respect otherness but to enjoy and wonder at the complexity of a world where so many different kinds of living things rub up against each other. She describes moments of extraordinary connection between different species, for instance when she met a boar for the first time, and another when a young boy communed and danced with her parrot. This reminded me of an encounter I filmed, almost by accident, on the island of Fair Isle, in late August, 2013. A rather overfed fulmar chick sits too close to the side of the road, unable to fly yet, because of its youth, and girth. A curious black lamb, maybe six months old, approaches to inspect it, and then comes to inspect me. I with my tripod and camera play a role, as does a passing car. The little comedy unfolds before and with the camera, and my memory of our meeting was immediately confused with the film, which until now was left unmade.
September 8 to September 15
September 1 to September 8
I woke up with a head of concrete, someone banging on it; and more concrete on my belly. It came on suddenly, and didn’t subside. I couldn’t eat. Robin called work to let them know he might not be able to come in. Work insisted he couldn’t come in for two weeks, and the whole family would have to self-isolate, if we didn’t take the test. I took my temperature, with the dodgy digital thermometer which insists we are a cold family – having temperatures of 35.5. Except for the day last year when the youngest held the thermometer against the towel rail. It reached 48 degrees. I gave him Calpol and sent him to school. But this time I had a temperature higher than normal for a little while.
I spent the second day, still whoozy, hunting down symptoms and apps and calling the National Health Service numbers 111 and 119, listening to the new bot Olivia mouthing a questionnaire and trying to reassure with her strangely animated facial muscles. It felt obscene listening to a bot ask questions about intimate body parts, not reacting at all. She speaks in a placeless, ageless middle class senior nurse – a sister or matron – accent designed to convey authority, with understanding. But her awkward facial muscles suggested a certain unease or lack of confidence. She wore a necklace for some reason – I thought nurses weren’t meant to wear jewellery as it could hurt someone or catch on an apron, or the thread could break and the beads spill all over the floor of the ward and someone might trip and fall and pull the cord on a life support machine… But Olivia wore a necklace. I was eventually advised to contact my doctor’s surgery immediately, and was put through by Olivia, or the app’s receptionist. I was impressed when Olivia got me through to without a wait. She obviously has some clout. The receptionist wearily informed me that there were no appointments to be had. She sounded astonished that I would think there might be. I’d need to ring at 8am the next day to make an emergency appointment, which wouldn’t be an appointment but rather I’d leave my number and a doctor would call back, and talk to me about my symptoms and then possibly invite me to a real place, but not the surgery, if I needed to be seen. I knew it would be a long wait in a phone queue – there are often up to twenty people ahead even if you ring on the dot of 8.
I tried another tack. I downloaded the Coronavirus symptom checker app. I didn’t think I had the virus as my symptoms were different. However Robin needed to go to work, and we all want the boys to be able to go to school, so my fleeting high temperature was the symptom I held on to, and let it guide me through the app questions, filling in the online form to try to order a home Covid test. It crashed five times, at the very end of the process, by which time I could barely remember my own name. I was sick after all. So I rang a number and spoke to a real person. I know he was real because he slipped off script easily, and told me that he was doing the same as I was and that there weren’t enough tests because demand had sky-rocketed last week, so they were releasing test slots every hour so as not to use them all up at the beginning of the day (thereby keeping sick people on the app and phone all day wondering what was up, or whether they were mad, or just hopeless). He told me to keep trying. I went to bed and fell asleep. Two hours later I woke up and tried the app, and booked a test for me and Robin at the nearest test centre in Billingsgate fish market in Canary Wharf.
I made a film here twenty years ago, Billingsgate, when most of the buildings weren’t built yet, drawing on Marx and Engels’ analysis of the nature of the commodity and the exploitation of labour in capitalism. The Market and the market. Fish are a slippery commodity of course – they spoil quickly.
Canary Wharf – that looming glass citadel and symbol of global corporate capitalism – and the fishy stink of Billingsgate seem the perfect setting for a drive-by Coronavirus testing centre.
August 18 to August 31
August 4 to August 11
Red Campion, Clover and Angelica
I waded through the nettles at the cliff-edge,
Elbows forward, hands held up above the Thistle spears
On a mission to gather as many flowers as I can hold this windy morning
To lay upon my father’s fresh new grave tomorrow.
Blood red Dock leaves spread beneath their scabby flowers,
Fluffy Meadowsweet sweetly envelops as I sniff and sneeze,
Pale-pink Ragged Robin flutters in a ditch,
Knapweed thistle goblets push through the taller stalks;
Yellows and purples don’t mix,
Just spot the swathes of grass-green, dust-grey, ochre.
Tufted Vetch – bouncing arabesques of dark blue,
Red Campion – bright carmine flags,
Waving crowns of Red Clover,
Each bud covered with a bee or bug
Clinging to sweetness against the wind.
A Little-Blue pauses, slowly flapping,
While other butterflies blow about in gusts.
Little yolk-yellow bubbles of Bird’s Foot Trefoil huddle at my feet;
Around the crumbled edge,
The cliff-crack softened by the grass, Clover, Buttercup and Vetch,
My eye wanders, caught by unfamiliar flowers, like weird wild Angelica, with its
Prehistoric bulbous sepals and cauliflower heads.
My careful clumping boot suddenly drops down a deeper furrow,
A wrinkle formed in land released, rebounding,
Now the last glacier’s melted;
The island still keeling, tipping skyward;
And the sea, warmed, rising, crashing against the sandstone slab.
Purple-red Self-Heal, pale-domed Harebell and floating Fairy flax,
Lamp-yellow daisy-heads of Goldenrod,
And softer yellow powder-puffs of Lady’s bedstraw mingle at my feet.
Across the ditch, up onto the headland, the grass falls away,
And Scottish Heather famously spreads its purple weave
Patched with bright pink beads of Bell Heather,
Heath Spotted-Orchid juts its tiny candelabra of speckled petals
Just above the sea of heather, grand and solitary.
And what of the soundtrack: against the din of wind and buzzing bugs,
The carrot-beaks of Oyster-catchers screak as I pass
Above the beach, maybe fieldfare in the hedges, a few ducks and gulls,
I don’t know all the names, just some my father told me.
I check the book dedicated, ‘with best wishes…and many thanks for encouragement
and support throughout…’
To my father and my mother.
July 28 to August 4
July 21 to July 29
Dialogue up the stairs
Please will you come downstairs now.
Please will you come now.
Just one thing.
What one thing?
It’s just One-thing. Give me just One More Thing.
OK five minutes.
That’s not enough. It’s just One Thing. It will take ten or fifteen minutes.
What thing is it?
Just one thing I’m doing.
A Thing you’re doing, OK. But what thing?
Just one thing. Come on.
OK ten minutes.
Ten or fifteen minutes. It’s just Onething.
I know: one thing and you’re doing it.
July 13 to July 21
July 7 to July 13
A Little Field Music
I can’t travel. Most people can’t right now. I have responsibilities at home; there is an ongoing global pandemic, severely mishandled in my country. Travel is restricted, and in any case no one wants to see a traveller. And I don’t have the money to pay for it now anyway. I had a plan to travel to Arkhangelsk in June, to show my film and meet others working and living in the Arctic. It was an exciting prospect. The best bit was going to be when I slipped away after the conference to go filming. I didn’t have fixed plans, because I was still looking for the money when the pandemic broke and the conference was cancelled. But I wouldn’t have planned it much anyway. That’s how I like to travel: to have a few fixed points, a few nights covered, and an excuse for the journey. I make plans as I go, following some hunch or persistent fascination, some alluring thought or story or memory of a person or tale that sets me wondering and wandering. The scale of the adventure fluctuates, from sweeping planetary almost geological considerations, to an obsession with spyholes. I would have met people at the conference – strangers, friends and colleagues, and their friends and colleagues – and we would have eaten lunch together, or dinner, and I would have listened to their stories, and made a plan. There is a local bus I could have taken and then a boat to the islands of Solovki. Or I might have gone in the other direction, heading north.
Recently I have called this way of working ‘fieldwork’. I recognize the colonial connotations, the historical roots of the term: for scientists, anthropologists, geographers and others. The field implies the separateness, the otherness of that which is being studied, or those being studied. But what I seek and what I experience is something else. It is the opportunity for me to be other, not to study the Other. It is time for me to escape the responsibilities I have and that I have created together with my family, for myself, at home. They are real responsibilities, and fair. The exact delineation and the society that produces them are not the issue here (though they are an issue); I am not complaining about them, but the pressure of competing responsibilities is something I feel, keenly. So, the field isn’t really a field but more like the setting aside of some time and money, for me to leave home. It takes some organising and a support network – at home. I don’t worry about defining my area of activity, or my research questions. I create a field for myself as I go along – an imaginary ‘field of vision’ that takes in stories, histories, noises, images and atmospheres in the places I visit. I am an expert in my own field, but it’s a shifting one, it overlaps with many other fields of vision, areas of understanding that I learn from others.
Fieldwork is still a useful idea for me, because if makes solid this need to be elsewhere. Fieldwork is recognised as a valid form of research practice. An alibi? Not quite, though sometimes it feels like it. That is just revealing my guilty feelings at leaving responsibilities behind. But somewhere inside me I know I have a responsibility to myself, to my work too, and for the time being this seems to be my best if not my only way of realising it.
I need to be in the field in order not to be myself, for while. I need the field in order not to be at home, not to be available to those I love, or fulfil my work and other commitments. I need to abandon expectations to make work, to forget them for a while. Can I bring the field closer to home? Maybe, by creating situations, setting in motion possibilities and seeking out new spaces that I’ve overlooked before, staying open to whatever happens, to all encounters. That is much harder to do from home. It also suggests that the ‘fields’ that I have been pursuing for the past eight years were somehow unnecessary (I could have just tried harder at home) and that my relation to them has been a personal odyssey not a worthy investigation or pursuit. But I have things to show for those eight years. I have stories to tell.
This gives me another idea for what I might do with the ‘field’, from home. It shall become a collective field made up of people I’ve met, and some I haven’t, who might share materials with each other – ideas, stories, knowledge of a place and moment. The idea is still hazy; ‘fieldwork’ for me is a malleable thing. I have had to think about it a lot as I ask, ‘How will I ever travel to the Arctic again?’ So I have been wondering, in the meantime, ‘could I make a film from afar?’
This might be the beginning of a plan for a film about the Arctic from afar. The problem of course is that the Arctic is often depicted from afar – historically, even more so. That won’t put me off, however, this is going to be something else. It’s more about how voices far away can still reach me and I them. There might be stand-ins here for weather effects and wildlife. I can journey in my mind from Deptford’s docks. I will follow the river and look for ships and routes and horizons. And I’ll be in touch soon.
June 30 to July 7
June 23 to June 30
This night, the shortest night in the northern hemisphere, I can’t sleep. So I get up and creep downstairs to write, to stop the fleeting thoughts and leave some tracks, to pick up tomorrow.
My mind slows now to let me notice the space between the interruptions.
Perched in the night I watch the dust rise in the shaft of my reading light, disturbed by the turning of a page. I can blow the glittering specks but they return, free and light, caught in natural disorder. Like meteorites they are torn from some larger body and hurtle out into the unknown, suddenly caught by the atmosphere, in a gust of warm breath. They land somewhere and spread a soft feathery layer over everything. Left undisturbed, they’ll soon be caught up in skeins of new life.
Dust, droplets, particles, particulates are the invisible accompaniment to our days, threatening our encounters.
I live at the bottom of hills and almost every day I walk up one of them. Every day at some point, amid the interruptions, I push myself to step outside and head for the hills. I enjoy the steps it takes to reach the top. I seek a view: the distance across the horizon to a huddle of grey towers. Always the same towers, but different sizes depending on the hill I’ve chosen to climb that day. They are cold, grey, hard interruptions; unscaleable and unreal; an old idea of the new.
The trees and roofs of suburbia spread out, smaller and smaller till they blur into a haze that is returning now the cars are back and diesel thickens the air.
I need to walk up, out of the valley of my day without a view. The windows of my home face a hedge, and higher up, just the houses opposite which are rarely interesting. The poodle that sits in the window watching, a curtain twitcher, makes me smile, but otherwise the view is familiar and flat and I can’t bear to look. In any case I don’t have time to look out – I’m scattered inwards and indoors, from desk to kitchen to calling up the stairs then trudging or scampering up them, to reach my children. I am not reaching them. They are in their own worlds doing their own thing, caught in a blue light. They are good at ignoring the interruption of my voice. I don’t even hear my voice anymore, nor do I want to.
So a walk up one of the hills pulls me into the world. One foot in front of the other, I feel my thighs tighten, stretch my Achilles tendons, deliberately tighten muscles, use more strength than is needed just to feel my own strength, pent up, unused. Reaching the top of the hill means I’ve arrived somewhere. I can see further than my hedge and ‘what’s for dinner tonight?’ I can see far and wide, to the sticks of steel and the blue haze. I can’t see the future, but the space is something. The future is a dangerous thought. I try to hope the futures we might like to make, full of clean air, joy and peace. But the future blinds me to the impenetrable present which is hard enough to contemplate. The future is easier than the now, and thinking only of the future means it won’t happen as I imagine it. But the views: the air and space and distance replace the pressure of time, for a moment. I am suspended, in luckless flight, petering on an edge of now. I turn and catch a Frisbee, and turn again and see the trees.
The lime trees in bloom smell of Berlin beer gardens.
June 16 to June 23
‘My manager’s off on holiday, so I’ll have to wait till he comes back …The call said that’s not open. They’re massively off. I got the letter that says about furlough. It says what they’re going to pay me on the letter. It says my average over the year was 85 something, I can’t remember over the month. …The only thing I put in for was my pension. It’s about 20 quid (laughter). That’s still a big difference from £650 to 80 or 90 – that doesn’t even cover my rent.
I was going to just shave it all off, and go for a pudding hair cut, but it hasn’t had the approval yet.’ You overheard this in the park a week ago.
The polyphony is in your head as well as your home. How to capture this edgy, unclocked, sad glue time? The buzzing, restless insects and chattering, always anxious birds; the back garden sawing and crying; footsteps swerving past others on the street; edges of lives more bird-like than before up against each other: all make it clear that lives go on. But there is a waiting, you don’t know quite what for. Waiting for the world to be safe again? But it wasn’t safe before, for many or most. Waiting to go back to your day to day lives? There’s plenty of everyday now. You aren’t sleepwalking, or sleeptalking. Renew your friendships daily: it helps resist those who renew their enemyships daily.
The tearing apart of quarantine: people are crying inside, in the darkness of losing their loved ones, and twos and threes. A wrenching, like when a nursery teacher has to unpeel the fingers of a small child clinging to a parent who has to go to work. The child knows it’s a trick. But now it is the parents who are left behind in hospital, or at home, or in a ‘care home’, unable to cuddle their children, wondering when they’ll see them again.
The anger at the enemyships cools as I write. They make me boil and I don’t want to be cooked right now.
The waiting, the larger waiting, in the air you breathe is also a listening, to figure out what to do next. ‘To make the world a better place’ sounds so trite, but it’s just a bit imprecise.
If this were a dream, now would be the time to wake up and make breakfast. That was a long sleep and many are still living the nightmare. Others are ignoring the fragility and ache of bodies just waking.
The half-dream in-between state between sleep and waking can sometimes let loose and bring to the surface deep unfettered wanderings and images, visions and feelings of a different almost world that brushes against this one. The Crown Letter has helped me sometimes to hold on to those moments and bring them into the day, for company.
I listened the other day to a story of how thousands of meteorites were found in blue ice, pushed to the surface in Antarctica. Over millions of years they fell from Space.
June 2 to June 9
May 26 to June 2
May 19 to 26
They will be on the move
They will be on the move.
We’ll all be on the move, next.
Now we’re stuck at home, pacing,
Soon we’ll be leaving our home if we have one, searching
for somewhere to rest,
Or the Moon,
Or Camping until we’re moved on.
Today we take it one meal, one stroll, at a time.
There’ll be no sitting still then, when this is over,
when the heat is on.
It is already of course, and we know it, of course, every day,
There isn’t time to sit still, really.
I heard blackbird, robin, blue tit and a screeching
parrot – brighter than ever, at least in their lifetimes.
“We’ll need five pandemics to really make a difference to pollution and carbon emissions.”
That can’t be right.
Public servants in their private rooms, in public mansions,
Reassure with lies.
If you take stock, during the lockdown,
Those who can,
Who eat readily and have a bed and cash enough to sleep at night,
If we take time to think, together,
And more to work out ways, ‘I can plot, resist and serve.’
If I, if lots of I’s under brighter skies take private public stock during the lock
Then flight from drought and flood and failed crops and torment just might,
Early May 2020
May 12 to 19
May 5 to 12
Walk from my house to the park
A recipe for wild garlic dip.
I soaked some beans overnight, to finish the jar.
Next day I boiled them and left them there in the pot, while everyone wanted eggs and pasta.
Next day in the park again I threw a ball with the boys, spinning it as my son taught me. Kicked it high and straight from the laces.
We’ll have a casserole for supper, with leftover sauce. I must not forget the beans though. They need eating, maybe garlic and spice, as I walked through the trees in the hidden part of the park. I know, wild garlic!
Beans, wild garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper – voilà! Whizz the beans in a mixer, sloosh in the olive oil, squeeze a lemon add salt and pepper tear in the wild garlic.
It tastes of wild, but silky smooth and light with flecks of green, it brings the glade into the bowl.
April 28 to May 5
Windowsill, Lodeyno, July 2018
From The Northern Sea Route series
Photograph, C type print, archival paper, 2019
800 mm x 560 mm
This is the flat of a Sami woman I met in Lodeyno, above the Arctic circle in Russia. I think of her and others looking through windows now, onto empty streets, from empty rooms, wondering and waiting.
April 21 to April 28
It’s all right in the mornings
It’s all right in the mornings
It’s all right when the day is still to make
When everyone’s asleep except the birds
It’s all right in the kitchen –
There’s food to cook and water to boil
It’s all right in the garden –
Needs watering and planting
It’s all right by the open window
It’s all right on the floor –
I can stretch and bend,
Tip myself upside down.
Night sweats and screams and shakes and buries heads.
Fires flame full fear fracking welts appear itches fiercely scrape fierce skin
from within and without.
Burning blood headward rushes –
swells, retreats, rages through again – drowning the floating thing, off guard.
Blasts it – brain thing – to bits.
Then out goes the tide leaving some embers and smouldering.
Fingers tentatively tentacly sweep at the ashes to gently hold the little grey scraps
and the rest of it – in place, and still.
Ashes won’t settle. They rise in gusts of breath scattering dust.
Chase the bigger ones, like bubbles,
this time, grasp the good feeling (good for many reasons I can’t explain).
The good feeling came just before
the memory of a thing from his life lived burst in and exploded, silently,
Instant combustion made boiling blood head.
The living I had lived was nearly given back to me,
and I blew it.
Or it blew me, blew through my blood, to head,
swelling rush of hot tears instead of cool fond remembering.
I’m left with scattered ashes forgetting whatever it was that had remembered itself to me
in that instant. Ashes. My fault –
I blew it, that instant as it was meant to be, as I meant it to be.
All that remains are the ashes scattering my scattering, skittering mind.
My limbs and jaw hold tight and stiff, locked down,
forgetting to soften and sleep.
Held alert stiffly still while burning white blood
sloshes through lung to heart to throat to brain to heart again and lung.
The rest forgets as the steady loving muscle tries to find equilibrium again.
What are the eyes doing? And ears? They didn’t see the rushing blood
or sparks, or ashes blown by the explosion.
The ears missed the white noise blood torrent.
Soon they’ll pick up breathing again, another’s.
They’ll fixate on in and out,
rustle of sheet and nose hairs and whistling.
And next the grey sounds of the night,
of the abandoned street. And then the birds.
And then prone body aches and shifts woodenly.
Ears and brain start up spinning
settling on elsewhere inside, listing
things and forgetting things, blinking blinkering, out.
Side roll bend at the waist, push and sit up.
Reach out feet
stretch hands, gather the scraps that make waking getting up.
It’s all right in the mornings.
Ruth Maclennan, April 2020
Ruth Maclennan is an artist. She lives in London. Her work includes films, multi-channel moving image installations, photographs, performances, writing and interdisciplinary curatorial projects. Maclennan’s films and photographs explore how the climate emergency has irrevocably transformed ways of seeing and understanding landscape and place – both for their inhabitants, and as representation. Informed by ecological thinking, cross-disciplinary research and fieldwork, her works examine places through the relationships, cultures, geographical conditions, and stories that form them. She exhibits in exhibitions and film festivals in Europe, USA, Australia and Central and East Asia. LUX Artists’ Moving Image distributes her films (https://lux.org.uk/artist/ruth-maclennan).