Behind the Grey is the culmination of a long intended collaboration with visual artist Rob Youngson. Rob and I have known each other for about 3 years now having been introduced by photographer Michelle Lord whilst we were collectively pursuing a possible photography exhibition.
We were attending the Private View of Robs first exhibition at St Pauls Gallery in Birmingham and he and I talked about using computers to make art. We very soon found that we had a lot in common from the point of artistic practice, vision and temperament. I was also deeply moved by Robs work with it's evocation of emotionally charged landscapes of the imagination, it's painterly qualities and his obvious technical proclivities.
Time passed and the "SHOOT" photography project dissolved due to the usual difficulties of keeping a collective together in an environment of diminishing resources, funding and patience. Naming no names, there were factions in the group who had a negatively destructive attitudes which drained the energies of those working hardest to formulate a funding proposal and make things happen. Suffice it to say a hard lesson and an indication of some of the difficulties inherent in planning group shows. (Little did I know!) Towards the end of "SHOOT" Rob and I engaged in further conversations about how we could work together and promised to keep in touch.
The previous year I had been working for Rhubarb-Rhubarb during the Festival of the Image as a support artist and invigilator at their Mini Rhubarb Exhibition being held at The Mailbox. One afternoon, whilst being driven slightly mad by having to endure Acker Bilks Stranger on the Shore over the centre PA for the umpteenth time, I was sitting at the entrance being a good little invigilator whilst a number of visitors floated around the gallery looking at the work of local school children and the photography of John Blakemore. After a while I was approached by a very European looking chap dressed in a neat leather jacket and rimless spectacles.
"Hello!" he said
"Hello" I replied
"I'm Teoman Irmak!" he said. ('cos everything Teoman says is punctuated with an exclamation mark)
"I'm Simon Hope, pleased to meet you"
"I'm a Technologist!"
"Are you? Wot's a Technologist then?"
"Oh, we're searching for the Broken Edge!"
"That sounds interesting, tell me more"
It's at this point I should have attempted to edge Teoman towards the door, slam and lock it and run and hide in the bogs. But I didn't. I kept listening.
"We have a manifesto!" This was like a red rag to a bull for someone who was in the throes of learning the fine art of the autodidact. Desparately searching for identity as an artist I was throwing myself at everything and throwing everything at myself that I could find to do with creative practice, art history, photography, fine art etc - on the telly, in books, on the internet (though I hadn't quite got up to speed with that at the time) and I have to say that I thought Teoman was quite brave (and maybe even a little cool!) to use a term which so strongly evokes a particular art era of vigourous change, increasing dissemination through technological advance, bolder political and personal statement and wider cultural impact and which, in the process, had laid the foundations for much of contemporary art practice. The word Manifesto conjoured up for me thoughts of Dada, Symbolism, Futurism, Cubism, Surrealism etc.
Did I say cool?
"Yes, we have a written manifesto. Would you like to see it?!"
As it turned out, effectively Mr Irmak was the Technologists and he quite successfully recruited another member that afternoon as we fell to discussing marketing (or lack of, where artists are concerned), photography and inevitably art and technology.
Somehow this led in turn to the development of what could be described at a push as a collective. As well as bringing Rob into things we also linked up with photographer Kristin Lyseggen and two of Teomans colleagues, the Chris's Popodopoulos and Vaughn. A lot of what we discussed had a strong effect on my work at the time and I really started to push what I was doing with image manipulation leading up to the beginnings of The A-Z Of Anger Management, a series of images that I feel was a breakthrough point for me just at the time when I was considering the possibility of getting onto a degree course. Robs interest and encouragement at the time also raised my confidence levels considerably.
We worked quite hard at developing a project and at one point it looked like we were going to work with Digital Birmingham on a show which would focus on technology in the arts in the city. Teomans history as an early pioneer of programming graphics for the nascent computer games industry had garnered particular interest with the DB guys and it was going well until the question of money and who was paying for what came up.
I personally kept my nose out of this area of the business. It was really Robs decision to go his own way (and lack of funds) which pushed me in a similar direction when, after the dust had settled and Teoman had refined his plans, he invited me to exhibit at Claire's Gallery with him and the two Chris's (Kris L by this time also having decided not to carry on Technologising) I declined but they had a great little show, sold quite a bit of work and I fulfilled the role of documentarian and created a DVD for further promotional purposes.
I keep in touch with Teoman (in fact he recently gave me some very nice vintage Goodmans Stereo speakers) and I'm sure at some point we'll do something together. He has uitilised the film in raising interest from galleries in Turkey.
During this time my new housemate Andy had taken up residence at Apex House here in sunny Erdo' and we were starting to get to know each other and finding we had a lot in common, not least of which was a desire to make a creative career for ourselves. His business acumen leant considerable weight to the bid with Birmingham Digital and we had quite a lot of fun during that Mediterranean summer of 2006 hanging out at PV's and arranging dinner parties and various other piss ups with our new arty chums.
Jump forward to November 2007 and Andy and I visit Rob one evening for a curry whilst he is cat sitting for a friend in Yardley. (Not that the cats and the curry are connected in any way!) Rob has been working with poet Laurence Quant for a while now and they have arranged a series of exhibitions which combine wall mounted versions of Laurence's texts with Robs large format prints. Rob had been asked by Nicola Field at arts organisation Steam Control whether he could formulate what was effectively a slide show of his images and he showed the results to Andy and myself after dinner. I could see immediately that the style that Rob was reaching for could be achieved in a much more refined way using a non linear video editing process, flying jpegs onto the timeline and applying slowly transforming dissolves between images to create initially imperceptible transitions from one image to another. Something magical started to happen as we watched the work progress. As well as each and every start and end image there were now suddenly all the images in between, 24 of them per second, compelling the viewer to keep focus as moment by moment visual shifts of texture, fluctuations in colour, contrast and pixel quality occurred which were further complimented and enhanced by compositionally similar elements within the frame creating a coherent flow, worlds in transformation, data drift. Still images processed into something akin to the moving image, movement through or with time rather than in space. Each frame still but restless at the same moment.
The introduction to Behind the Grey consists of four stanzas of Laurence Quants concise poetic texts (1) which begin with an evocation of passing time in the English urban environment and continue with references to land and sea, geology and sense of place and ways that people interact in these domains both physically and emotionally. His word imagery (colour, texture, the weather etc) reflects the visual content of the images that are to follow and plants seeds in the mind of the viewer in order to stir personal memory and reflection.
Rob and Laurence's original intention was to have these texts spoken by an actor (which would reflect to some degree other works to be shown at X'08) but the decision was made not to do this and instead simply leave the passing words for the audience to read and absorb as written texts up on the screen. We felt that this created an imperative within the viewer to engage more closely with the work which is then reflected by other elements of the piece; Image and soundtrack.
The audio component of Behind the Grey was the next to be addressed. During the weeks prior to beginning work on the project I had been gathering material which was/is intended as part of my exploration of Car Culture. Using my video camera I had recorded sounds and images during visits to a number of locations one of which, Salford Circus underneath Spaghetti Junction, gave rise to a recording of busy traffic noise and other ambient location sounds.
I had been experimenting with this source material on the computer, adjusting speed and duration to varying degrees. Taking a segment of this wildtrack and reducing it's playback speed by 75% had essentially modified the sound beyond all recognition. Instead of passing cars and the hurried, frenetic sensibility that this presaged I now had a soundscape of distant rumbling interspersed with peaks of sound which more closely resembled the sighing of wind, the breaking of waves and distant thunder.
Bringing this soundtrack into Behind the Grey had an immediate effect in combination with the text and images, enhancing the mood of passing time and serving as further triggers to imaginative engagement. Accidental co-incidence of dynamic sound elements which synchronised with changes occurring visually suggested that elements of the sound could be edited and placed in such a way as to enforce and underline these changes to positive effect and drive the narrative forward.
We continued to refine this process over the next couple of work sessions until we had a coherent basic soundtrack throughout the piece. At this point Rob suggested that we needed another sound component which would express his intention of evoking a growing sense of hope as the piece progressed. The ambient rumbling was certainly potent in the way that it suggested something akin to a suppressed, melancholic mood in the early part of the film. Sustaining this continuum for up to twelve minute created a suitable sense of forboding which seemed to call for contrast as the piece opened out and we decided that a musical interlude would lift the mood. To do this we brought Andy in to play some piano. Using his midi music set up he began to play a delicate sequence of notes that immediately showed promise and embodied our intentions perfectly. As he played it occurred to me that we should consider this motif as indicative of a search for coherence, a kind of micro-climate within the weather system of Behind the Grey. I directed Andy to play as if searching for melody in a tentative way culminating in a structured sequence of repeated phrases. He cottoned on straight away and the first take that we recorded in Wavelab became the music of the piece. Finally we selected some other sound effects (treated electric guitar) to create a sonic coda during the closing section of the film and these added a suitable dynamic on which to end.
During this process ongoing discussions with Nicola Field led to the understanding that Behind the Grey would be included in a programme of presentations during the X'08 Festival at the National Film Theatre in February of this year. This was to be the 8th International Disabled Film Festival and of course we considered having our piece shown at the BFI something of a feather in our cap and for me important as a collaborative project and the latest addition to my CV of exhibited work.
Nicolas organisation Steam Control are based in the capital and they have successfully held a number of events over the last few years (Nicola herself is a writer and film maker). Their main activity is bringing together artists from different fields of practice, most notably film, poetry and sound and forming collaborations in order to make new work which expresses attitudes to disability and mental health & wellbeing. (for further information on their past and future projects as well as their strongly held ethos go to: http://www.steamcontrol.org.uk/) As Rob and I were initially only vaguely aware of this thematic consideration we had discussions as to how we could give credence to and support notions of mental health through the vehicle we were creating. Firstly we agreed that Behind the Grey addresses how we live and survive in the urban environment and how this cheek by jowl existence affects us in our daily lives. We are all conditioned by where and how we live; consciously and un-conciously and these issues affect our emotional stability in many different ways. Furthermore, Rob expressed how his Dyslexia allows him some understanding of how one can be distanced from the majority through misunderstanding or ignorance of a condition which already has some impact on the individual sufferer to his or her detriment. For me, the experience of working within the field of mental health arts over the past couple of years as well as my personal history gives ample context for opening discussions on the potential impact of work such as ours when considered from this perspective.
As the work neared completion we engaged the assistance of my brother in finalising the transfer to DVD. His technical skill was invaluable in helping us achieve the deadline and also giving me the opportunity to learn more about DVD authoring. Rob also requested that I design an insert for the packaging (2) which I was happy to do and the results of this can be seen with the accompanying disc. Some issues were raised by the technician at the BFI due to the need for encapsulating subtitles and an audio description track for the partially sighted. He was worried that the digital compression required to do this would affect the final quality as seen during projection and requested that we supply him with a higher resolution copy. Sadly I had simply run out of time available for working on the project and we decided that we would have to go with what we had. In the event this turned out to be fine as we witnessed on the day of the show.
Andy and I set out on the freezing cold morning of Sunday the 17th of February to catch the Chiltern Railways train to London Marylebone only to find that all departures from Moor St station had been cancelled entailing a schlep to New St and the disruption of our well researched route to the South Bank as the train we now had to catch terminated at Euston. Consequently we arrived 15 minutes after the start of the show and had to struggle to our seats in darkness, treading on toes and tripping over bags in the process (addressing the mental health issue of anxiety as we did so!)
Behind the Grey was scheduled as the last film in the days programme and I had agreed at Nicolas request to introduce the film. In the event I didn't have much time to be nervous as the film before us ended, the lights came up and Nicola rose to ask if I was there as we had not previously met. I got up from my seat and did the struggling, tripping thing again (this time of course in full view of the 40 or so people in the BFI Studio theatre) and took the mic' for my bit. I promised to be brief and with my eyes fixed on Rob, who was seated on the back row of the auditorium, gave a short rundown of the process that had led us to the day's event, thanking Nicola, Steam Control, Rob and Laurence and forgetting to mention Mr B! Returning to my seat I held my breath in anticipation of a horribly pixellated and inaudible version of the film and having to run for the exit and throw myself into the Thames never to be seen again. As this was the first time we had seen the piece projected on a large screen (and the first time Laurence had seen it all the way through) I was also worried that the opening text would be too small to read. All of my fears were alleviated as the text appeared on screen and the rumbling began. It quickly became apparent to me that the DVD had been transferred to tape (signified by the occasional slight but practically imperceptible drop outs) and in the hushed theatre Behind the Grey rolled out its first public showing.
In the intimate environment of the Studio theatre, surrounded by the shadowy presence of the sell out audience we finally got to watch the piece as we had been imagining it from the start. The audio came across excellently with none of the clipping I had experienced whilst working on it. I put this mainly down to the small Cambridge Audio 3:1 speakers I have hooked up to my PC. They tended to break up somewhat during the louder passages, as did the speakers on a TV but I felt at the time, having run the audio through a quite large set of domestic hi-fi speakers that a proper cinema set up would be well able to cope with both the low frequencies and the peaky snaps of sound scattered throughout the piece. As mentioned previously, the transfer to tape (I'm assuming the use of something like DV Pro or Digital Betacam) was pretty accurate to the mpg2 file from the DVD. Perhaps the colour was slightly more saturated and there was a small increase in contrast overall. I have to say that I'm very impressed with how Robs images have appeared in the final film compared with how they look as large format digital prints hanging on a wall. How much of this is down to processing in Premiere or subsequent software I'm not sure but I think it speaks well for the standard of tools we have available as film makers and digital artists these days.
Twelve minutes later it was all over and as the lights came up and the audience showed their appreciation I was somewhat conflicted in my emotions. Very happy that all of my worries over technical issues had been allayed and that the piece itself looked beautiful on screen but also feeling that all the work that has gone into Behind the Grey had culminated in this brief experience. I think every one involved experienced some measure of this sensation and I suppose this must be typical when one is deeply involved in the making of a work that is intended for public display especially with a time sensitive medium such as film. In creating art that is static in nature such as sculpture or wall mounted imagery one knows that when exhibited in a gallery the work has an inherent element of continuity which allows for considered appreciation and viewing. The audience has time to develop a relationship which is very different from the transient nature of the moving image.
Behind the Grey is now moving into a new phase and to some degree that sense of culmination is repositioned as Rob and Laurence continue their collaboration with more shows planned, beginning with the current exhibition at the Grant Bradley Gallery in Bristol where the film is being shown along with large format versions of the still images as prints and extracts from the text produced as photo-etched aluminium panels displayed side by side.
One further element of our work together has emerged. Bringing Robs images together on a continuous timeline where the transitions between them reveals new combinations we have selected some of these moments and re-exported the still images as editioned prints to be sold alongside the larger works. This unexpected outcome is giving us the opportunity to explore our collaboration more closely and consider how we can develop these techniques in future projects.
Rob Youngson - Michelle Lord St Pauls Gallery Birmingham Summer 2006
The sun rises on the grey1 road to work and sets behind the grey2 slates and chimneys of our house
1shades of quiet blue washed in fresh morning rain
2cold grey, warmed by the gas fire below but glazed above, by the last of frost
behind the grey
The shingle roars as the blade crashes into the rock And hisses as it falls from the receding shovel A spade through shingle laid down over the garden bed before we came here Crash and hiss Roar and recede
Rainforms roll starboard Night deepens from crow’s nest to tree root Rain-spray gathers new basins On the bows and sterns of building decks Rain-wash seeps through seams and breaches In the concrete city raft
We lay on our backs, face down: from the bottom of the bench, beneath the patio we gazed down: past gable and chimneystack, way down, to constellations below…
2. Text From DVD Insert - Behind the Grey:
Robert Youngson: The images chosen for Behind the Grey are taken from Youngsons continuing exploration of landscape in the digital realm. Combining a desire to push computer technology into delivering beyond predictable results (or beyond factory settings) with traditional approaches to landscape which reference Turner and Caspar David Friedrich he paints with the mouse, allowing areas of the work to reveal the medium through deliberate pixelation and damage. This contrasts with other elements which appear to be glazed in oil. Though not attempting to imitate paint he explores the digital mediums textural qualities; the pixels are not hidden but taken as an inherent quality of the medium. Originally intended and exhibited as large format digital prints these images begin to travel towards filmic possibilities when combined in the manner presented here. The time sensitive nature of Behind the Grey reveals shifting subtleties in the image surface; atmospheric vapours transform into flora, the Urban returns to nature and back again, tiny details appear then vanish in a continually changing sfumato of evolving pixelation, drawing the viewer into a contemplation of the sublime and the transient nature of our surrounding environment.
Laurence Quant examines the visual nature of poetry. Aesthetically, his poems gain a sense of freedom from being released from publishers’ constraints (such as those in pre-formatted anthologies). He creates fine art-poems specifically to be shown on the wall. He reworks and refines his verse until brevity is achieved allowing the reader instant access: big themes portrayed in simple, short lines. As with Imagist poets like Hilda Doolittle, this approach enables him to bring the idea of the sublime into his work, as narrow everyday landscapes often become wide expanses and events lasting millennia. Behind the Grey opens with Quants concise evocations of landscape and environment, planting themselves in the imagination of the viewer as the starting point of a contemplative visual journey. As the images begin to reveal themselves the audience enters into another space where fragments of text memory enhance and reflect what is seen.
Simon Hope & Andy Brittain:
After Text and Image a third element enters into Behind the Grey. Hope & Brittains sonic landscape of manipulated found sound and treated musical instruments serves as a pad or base upon which the visual elements of the piece are at once rooted but also allowed to drift as they find each other in a variety of subtle and dynamic interactions which unfold over time.
(Text Copyright Rob Youngson/Laurence Quant/Simon Hope 2008)