May 4 to May 11
It was a warm, sunny day – perfect for climbing trees, having a picnic and marching. We did climb trees, and statues, and sat swinging our legs next to Winston Churchill’s sturdy torso; there was lots of singing and dancing, and we watched while some of us planted seeds in Parliament Square. Apparently there was a very good crop of hemp later that summer.
These drawings are from a May Day protest many years ago. It started as a Reclaim the Streets action, with guerilla gardening to model a different a way of living in the city, challenging the corporate sell-off of public space, and calling for action on climate change. We were exercising our right to protest, to call the government of the time to account, to use our bodies collectively to speak to power. I have been in this square many times exercising this right, before and since. Twenty one years later, this May Day, there were protests in London and all over the UK and elsewhere in the world. In the UK, this time the protests were to defend the right to protest at all, as the government is pushing a new bill that would give increased powers to the police to arrest protesters and prevent dissent – aimed at Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion. So, #Kill the Bill! Elsewhere, individuals glued themselves to bridges in Extinction Rebellion’s Covid-sensitive Protest of One to address the climate emergency. Looking at my old drawings I feel nostalgic for the jostling, exuberant, joyful crowds, for large gatherings without fear of infection, or arrest. Putting your body on the line is currently riskier than ever. My thoughts right now are with Crown sisters and their families and friends in India and Argentina.
April 28 to May 4
April 21 to April 28
A Crown Garden
A year on.
‘Maybe it’s the quality of the experience of/with art that will be important, not the object. What has happened to looking at art? The context is everything, the chatter is still there, but doesn’t sound the same.’ (April 2020)
The letters and conversations have helped give the weeks a shape, if not the hours, or days or months, and certainly couldn’t be expected to shape a whole year. ‘The Crown Letter has been a lifeline.’ Not quite an overstatement. We cast lines, threads of conversation and other matter, a few notes of bird and other song, many words, leaves, streets, stones and shadows. The letters are for each other, often, or reaching for others, or for the world glimpsed through the haze. Or perhaps a letter is sometimes a gift or a kiss to ourselves in a future too hard to contemplate as we rock from fear, or grief to hope and back, from one side of the room to another, or roll up and down the stairs, the hills, the streets.
I’m not sure I can bear to look back at the year this minute. Birthdays bring one up against hard time, dates, and memorials. There’s so much going on just now, unresolved or still to reckon with. I’ll let the thoughts come unbid, worked out in my sleep or other drifting off time. Instead, these spring flowers herald new life in the garden that has fed my family with tomatoes, apples, quinces, chard, sage, rosemary, chives and mint, and cheered me throughout the year.
Instead of a cake, here is a birthday garden for the Crown Letter.
April 13 to April 20
April 6 to April 13
March 30 to April 6
March 23 to March 30
March 16 to March 23
March 2 to March 9
‘Sardines and moonlight…If you love me, let me know. Tell my heart which way to go…’
February 23 to March 2
February 16 to February 23
February 9 to February 16
February 2 to February 9
January 26 to February 2
For All That
‘Why won’t you release him?’ the woman in Saint Petersburg asked the policeman. He kicked her in the stomach.
On Saturday, Russians gathered to protest in cities across eleven time zones. They waved toilet brushes and blue underpants. A toilet brush in Putin’s palace was said to cost 700 euros. The poisoned underpants were meant to kill Navalny.
Protestors threw snowballs at riot police.
Down with the Czar
It’s not all the same to me.
We are not leaving.
He is not afraid – I am not afraid.
Russia without corruption.
We will not put up with this any longer – we are not afraid.
Legalise freedom: Khabarovsk all Russia.
My Russia sits in jail.
Over a megaphone a recorded message droned on:
‘Уважаемые Граждане, данное мeроприятие незаконное’.
Dear citizens, this event is illegal.
Today, Monday 25 January, is the birthday of the Scottish poet Robert Burns. His poem ‘Is There for Honest Poverty’ seems to fit the day as I watch footage of the protests in Russia, wondering, worrying, but full of admiration and hope and joy at those snowballs. I called my cousin Shane who often gives the address to the haggis on Burns’ Night and asked him to recite the poem. He sang it instead. ‘Gowd’ is gold. ‘Coof’ or cuif is a dolt, a fool. ‘Aboon’ is above. ‘Shall bear the gree’ is ‘have the first place.’ Glossaries for the Scots and Marshak’s popular Russian translation are easily found online.
The other poem that comes to mind is Osip Mandelstam’s epigram to Stalin, or the ‘Kremlin Highlander’ with his plump fingers, and the kicking he gives at the end.
Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.
What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man’s a Man for a’ that:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.
Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a cuif for a’ that:
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that:
The man o’ independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.
A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s aboon his might,
Guid faith, he mauna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities an’ a’ that;
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.
Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.
January 19 to January 26
January 12 to January 19
January 5 to January 12
The Sound of the Light
Although it is only the beginning of January the end of last year has fallen away abruptly. I am still tying up bits and pieces from last year, bracing myself for the weeks or months of uncertainty with the virus spreading faster than ever in my city, and another lockdown. The political failures are depressing but not worth dwelling on here, or anymore. The Crown Letter is different: a gift, a correspondence, a gathering of possibilities – happily the best of last year is carrying on into this one.
I made this recording ten days ago for a friend’s radio broadcast, Thinking Through Light, about artists working with light, to send out a burst of optimism and hope for the coming year. You can hear the whole broadcast here, about 30 minutes in: https://www.mixcloud.com/Resonance/bad-punk-27-december-2020-thinking-through-light-1/
I’d like to hold on to the feeling of walking against the wind and the relief when I turn around to lean on it, the shrill insistent alarm call of oyster catchers, the crusty frozen mud under my boot and the crack and squelch when I break through the ice on a puddle.
December 15 to December 22
December 8 to December 15
The temperature has dropped. It is close to freezing and a fog hung outside my window this morning. It was a watery indecisive mist, not a heavy blanket, not the kind that muffles the street sounds. I turned on the flashing lights on my bike to make sure I didn’t disappear. Wearing a cloth face mask trapped my warm breath, a moist cocoon.
My filmed horizons this week are all watery. Watery horizons often seem full of promise, longing, and sometimes danger. Some of these horizons are arctic, but not wintry. There is no ice, though a dusting of snow on Sakhalin. The water is mostly in motion – water churned by waves, wind, tides, river currents, motors and other boats. There is a glimpse of Crimea – a southern dream from Russia’s north. And the polar summer night shimmers into day on the White Sea coast.
A friend told me that a pan from left to right is meant to suggest that something is going to happen.
I dream of stringing together horizons across the globe, like bunting made by many people, each view waving the next one in. I can lose myself quite happily looking outward, and forget the inward gaze for a time.
Please keep sending me your horizons (see week 29, November 11-18, for details).
December 1 to December 8
Please keep sending me your horizons (see week 29, November 11-18, for details).
November 24 to December 01
November 17 to November 24
Horizon (first lap)
The hand-held panning shot is a risky one, as one is bound to trip over a root, or speed up or slow down as one tries to steadily revolve like a lighthouse shining a beacon for ships passing by through dangerous waters.
Receiving video clips this week has been like receiving postcards from far flung places but more mysterious. What is hidden in plain view here? What was going through the mind of the person filming? What if anything is happening? Even the views that I filmed myself don’t reveal themselves to me.
This is my first attempt at sewing together the footage I have been sent into a rolling horizon. It is silent for now. Sounds may come later. I’ve been promised some.
Please send me more clips. You can send me a message on Facebook, or Instagram, or email the Crown Letter.
The space between us seems to ripple, or fold, or maybe unfold.
November 10 to November 17
Horizon – the space between us
I would like to invite you to help create a collective film.
A second wave of the Coronavirus pandemic is causing governments to introduce lockdowns again. I feel my horizons simultaneously shrink to the size of my neighbourhood, and expand as my thoughts and dreams are filled with events far away. On Saturday night I wished I were dancing in the street in New York or Philadelphia. Instead I raised a glass with my next door neighbours over the garden wall, which was also a delight.
The rifts between people seem especially deep right now. But maybe others share this feeling of shrunken and overstretched horizons, whatever their immediate surroundings, fears or disappointments. Forest fires, floods, empty streets, streets full of protests, or celebrations, or both, long, socially-distanced lines at polling stations or banks, an iceberg floating in the Antarctic Ocean – all these scenes have been happening before our eyes.
I would like to create a collective, continuous – potentially infinite – landscape film, to see if our horizons can join up. I would like to see what happens when we follow a horizon line. For a first experiment, a first shared horizon, I’d like to invite the Crown Letter artists (and their friends) to contribute. The instructions are simple:
Use whatever device you have to hand (a phone or a video camera), hold it horizontally and find a horizon line. It can be just a line – a break between up and down, foreground and background. Holding the camera steady (in your hand will do, or on a tripod), slowly pan from left to right, or right to left. Try, if possible, to begin and end your clip with a dividing line visible in the middle of the shot – the horizon.
The horizon needn’t be a distant view of hills or sea, or buildings, or sky – your landscape can be your kitchen shelf, the kerb, a leaf or rock. Your interior or internal landscape is perhaps the nearest to hand, the most vivid, the horizon that holds your attention right now.
Please send me your clips – between 5 and 30 seconds – and I will sew them together. You may include sound or not, or record sound separately. Please send a few words to accompany your moving images, and include your location. Thank you.
November 3 to November 10
An extended interruption
I can’t see anything clearly right now. Not because of a lack of clarity on my part, though there may be, but because of the suspense of the past days and nights and those around the corner. Last week I didn’t send a Crown Letter, though I filmed this week’s film. So this week’s is really last week’s, though I see it differently now.
I feel caught mid-sentence, mid-thought, mid-breath, in an extended interruption. The US election is tomorrow although 90 million people have already voted, including me. The result may not be decided for some time (by whom?). The suspense and the possibility that Trump could win again is excruciating. The suspense is nothing compared to the nearly guaranteed destructiveness of this single person continuing in power. The suspense has leached into everything. Or rather, there are multiple concurrent tragedies that are a cause for suspense, uncertainty, fear and sorrow, and an overload of dread: the brutal attacks on a teacher and a priest – people who live to help others – the exponential spread of Coronavirus, and the acceleration of warming and methane release in the Arctic. It is much too much to go into here or all at once, and yet it is all happening at once. Instead we try to be productive or get on with work or domestic life, to think about other things for a time and distract from the gloom, and the wait.
I look forward to the Crown Letters this week, and to sharing the grief and suspense.
October 20 to October 27
October 13 to October 20
October 6 to October 13
‘When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and woods: what would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall?’
Henry David Thoreau
The current campaign to stop the building of a train line – known as High Speed 2 or HS2 – through ancient English woodland, to connect cities that are already connected by train lines, reminds me of the destruction of woodland by developers who built on the beach next to Walden Pond in Concord Massachusetts. This was where Henry David Thoreau lived for a while in a hut he built himself. I grew up hearing about this story. A legal case was brought against the developers and failed, was appealed and won. The developers were obliged to remove the buildings and restore the habitat as far as possible to its original ‘natural beauty’. Judge Cutter who wrote the decision was my grandfather.
Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Middlesex.
John E. NICKOLS et al. v. COMMISSIONERS OF MIDDLESEX COUNTY. Eleanor T. MOORE et al. v. COMMISSIONERS OF WALDEN
POND STATE RESERVATION et al.
Argued March 11, 1960, |Decided May 3, 1960.
September 29 to October 6
Annihilation of Caste – an undelivered speech by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar
The exhibition ‘Ideas Travel Faster than Light’ curated by Clair Joy and Jasone Miranda-Bilbao, is the second exhibition in which a group of artists in one country give instructions to another group of artists. This time, artists from India gave instructions to artists from Canada, USA and Spain.
I was asked to collaborate with the artist Jogesh Barve. He asked me to read aloud Annihilation of Caste by B. R. Ambedkar. Ambedkar was a social reformer, first minister of Law and Justice and principle author of the Constitution of India. He inspired the Dalit Buddhist movement and campaigned against discrimination against the so-called Untouchables or ‘depressed classes’. He wrote the speech in 1936 but was unable to deliver it because it ruffled too many feathers. It is an indictment of Hinduism and the Caste system in India. Although he specifically attacks the Hindu caste system and its defenders, his painstaking and ferocious dismantling could apply to many other systems of class, caste and racial discrimination. Ambedkar published the speech and it became hugely influential. Recently it has been picked up again internationally – its ideas on caste applied to race and class, in the context of the US and Britain. Ambedkar studied at the London School of Economics in the 1920s, not far from Mecklenburgh Square. He wrote that his years in London and New York were a release from the prejudices he experienced in India.
On Saturday 26th September, on a cold and windy day in Mecklenburgh Square in Bloomsbury, with the help of friends, I read aloud the entire text of the undelivered speech. The rhetorical rhythms of the speech make it roll off the tongue, although we did sometimes stumble over the Sanskrit couplets and references to contemporary thinkers and writers. At times I felt Ambedkar was speaking through us (which he was) and that the speech was addressed not just to his audience but to unwilling audiences everywhere: to all the establishment hypocrites afraid of losing their power and privilege, and to those afraid of rocking the boat, from all times and places. It certainly made me want to rock it more. There was an uncomfortable passage where he talks about Eugenics, which in the 1930s was mainstream science, and I had to snap out of the speech and talk about it with the audience. At other times, I felt hopeful and assured that with such an ally, justice could be achieved, and would be.
This is a tiny extract.
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).