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Shallow Time

I now have access on a regular basis to studio space at the university – a making space outside my home.

In front of me, stuck to the wall, is a sheet of A1 cartridge paper on which I have written stuff. I say stuff, as I cannot think of a single word that encompasses all that is there. It is largely things that I encountered over the summer and a bit before, and includes:

  • places I have visited

  • exhibitions attended

  • books read

  • books and authors identified to be read

  • objects and features seen and photographed

  • artists on my mind

  • making outcomes

and scattered among the tangible are ideas, techniques and recurring thoughts.

Many of the recorded items are interrelated, but I’ve not written them in that way – they are scattered haphazardly across the surface and I’ll come back to these.

I have also stuck some pictures to the walls. These are grouped thematically, and the groups are linked by being part of a personal narrative, which may also have broader significance.

Directly in front of me, as I write, are 5 images of office buildings that I have worked in from the earliest to the most recent. These were captured using a camera obscura & digital camera. I already had a few images before the summer and made a couple of giclée prints that I exhibited at the Coningsby gallery. I added to these during August, going into the City on August bank holiday Monday and photographing 3 more office buildings: Wallbrook, One Aldermanbury Square and 88 Wood Street. The light was very poor on the day and I’m not happy with the quality of the images – they are captured a too low a resolution to be blown up much. I’ve adapted the camera obscura design to be a bit bigger and I’m hoping for days with better light to repeat this exercise.

To the left of these are some photographs I found a couple of weeks ago that were taken at a Compaq factory in Erskine, Scotland, in the early 1990s. I can’t remember who took the photographs, or how I come to have them. I was there with a team from my company to give a demonstration to the Met Office of how the system we were proposing for their weather information service would meet the performance, scalability and resilience requirements of the project. For this we needed around 100 computers all pretending to be weather stations reporting weather data back to a central node using a messaging protocol called X.400. The demonstration was a success, but we did not win the business.

Studio wall - front right

The images of the CRT monitors side by side resemble a photograph I took this summer of hotel minibar fridges stacked up, seemingly as junk, at the rear of a Novotel in the centre of Edinburgh (is there a trend for hotels to no longer have minibars?). Both pictures sit alongside a yellow ochre reusable office envelope and a yellow ochre print I made during the summer called Inter-office Memorandum depicting a Swiss cheese plant. I wonder what will happen to all the Swiss cheese plants as more and more offices are closed. Will they join the minibar fridges is some sort of business travellers (road warriors) Valhalla?

On the wall to my right are three photographs taken while staying with my mum during the summer. The first, showing some scrub land and rowan trees, is where a whole street of 48 homes once stood. The street, Mossdale Terrace, was round the corner from the street in Bellsbank where I lived from when I was born until I was 11 years old, and was where my grandparents lived from 1968 until 1983. The houses were built around 1963 and stood for less than 50 years. Alongside the photograph of Mossdale Terrace are two photographs of what is left of the secondary school I attended in Ayr. One of the ground on which the art huts stood and the other of the boarded-up and dilapidated south building. Its twin, the north building, was demolished a few years ago. I’ve now added an arrangement of lino cuts to the original set if images.

Studio wall - right - shallow existence

The final set of images, 3 camera obscura and one lino cut, are of an industrial or economic past. Crail harbour is slightly out of place – it is still a (small) working fishing harbour in the east of Scotland, and when I moved to Ayr (on the west of Scotland) from Bellsbank, Ayr was home to a substantial fishing fleet that has since become distributed among smaller harbours and Ayr is no longer a fishing port. The other images all relate to coal mining, the two camera obscura images are taken at what used to be National Coal Board offices at the Dunaskin Brick Works in the Doon Valley. Both my parents worked at these offices and the standalone building is the weighbridge where my dad worked when my mum first met him. Even though the offices were here, the collieries were a few miles further along the valley. The lino cut is based on an old photograph of the winding gear at Pennyvenie Colliery - the last working colliery in the Doon valley that closed in 1978.

Coming back to my words written on the A1 sheet in front of me…

Spelling mistakes and all

Close to the centre is the word shallow which has been on my mind for a while coming from exposure to subjects in art, science and technology that emphasise the deep… deep time, deep learning, deep listening, deep space… I’m intrigued by how to represent their opposites.

I recently read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Clara and the Sun whose central character is an AI (or AF – artificial friend in the books terminology) and while the AI is something of incredible sophistication, its continued learning and understanding of the world has a beautiful and naïve logic that I can’t help but think of as shallow learning.

Considering the collection of images around me in the studio, they represent in some way things that have risen and passed in a very short period and their presence if not already eradicated, on the way to being so. That a whole street has been erected, lived in and returned to nature in a period of less than 50 years, seems incredible to me. Similarly, my school which, while not yet demolished, was left derelict after only 40 years. The ripples of their impact have already calmed… is this shallow time? Or is it a time we are coming to the end of now (perhaps) – the era of office worker and business traveller, no longer continually on the move commuting to an office or moving from hotel to hotel?

These are just a couple of examples of where I may explore the shallow. I may even create a Shallow Manifesto.

Seeing the wilderness where my grandparents’ house stood shocked me, but also encouraged me to review my memories of that place, visual, auditory and olfactory. Dark greens and darker browns, a swiss chalet musical box, a painted mirror, the smell of Brylcreem and soup. Songs… there were always songs at family parties, chiefly at New Year. The uncles, aunts and, under considerable duress the cousins, would all sing their favourite songs, unaccompanied and with only vague nod to the original words, or tune. I’ve dabbled with songs in a couple of previous works, but I may take this as a point of departure for something new. So that’s on my sheet of stuff.

Not even 100% human comes from reading Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life and the extent to which our bodies coexist with microbes that are independent lifeforms within us and is a reflection on people who consider themselves to be purely something, e.g. English or British.

In a recent interview with Philippe Parreno that I listened to, he was asked if he had to live with only one piece of art, what would it be - an epic science fiction book, or series of books was his answer. There then followed a discussion about how science fiction is viewed more positively in the arts now than it was perhaps in the 70s and 80s which I found quite refreshing. Partly due to this, and also my reflection on the AI in Clara and the Sun, I’ve been revisiting other science fiction particularly that of Iain M. Banks more concerned with deep space and altogether more deeply sentient and deeply devious AI Minds.

There has been strong ecological theme running through much of my reading recently, whether the research I was conducting for my Critical Debates symposium covering artists such as Katie Paterson and the collective Cooking Sections, or my summer reading which has included William Morris’s News from Nowhere, Robert McFarlane, Merlin Sheldrake and Timothy Morton. The word rewilded appears in the context of the street Mossdale Terrace having been returned to nature. This may be something that I address directly in my work, or I may fall back on Timothy Morton’s assertion that all art is ecological.

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