by Shane Finan
1. Shared Spaces, Distant Places
When I was a child my family bought a video recorder. After some cajoling, I was allowed to use this technology, and given my own video cassette to produce some home videos. Aside from remaking some of my favourite films (my brother and me made a version of Ghostbusters that is an under-appreciated classic), I spent time in our garden in rural Sligo, Ireland, recording inaccurate documentaries about the trees and shrubs surrounding the house.
At that time, I was often outdoors. My family used to go for walks, often to Hazelwood, a beautiful woodland on the banks of Lough Gill, Sligo. On some visits to that wood, one of the trees would come to life. Named ‘Crann’ (the Irish word for ‘tree’), this enormous living creature would speak to my brother and me in deep tones, telling us and any passing children about the trees and the buds, the swans and the lake, the area and its history. Unfortunately, my father always went back to get something from the car before Crann spoke to us – dad would have enjoyed the tree’s musings.
In 2021, another camera is in my hand, the trees are again my subject, but my thinking is shifted. I am trying to bring the trees to life for other people. But before I do, I need to show what I feel will happen if I don’t. As I was thinking about disconnection between people, I found an ideal subject during a forest ramble who has become the inspiration for the sixth video in this series:
I have had a recurring dream since I was young of a space-age train station, pristine and lined with metallic reds and greys. It is always the same beautiful, austere structure that doesn’t exist (to my knowledge) but that represents a utopian future that my mind has created. The image obsessed me for years, and when I first went to art college, at the age of seventeen, it was part of my imagery of ‘place’ – that ethereal thing that connects us to the world.
As I read further into the built urban environment, I began to see flaws in the utopic view my mind constructed. My research focussed on ‘place’: how people create memories and identities through places . I stumbled across the anthropologist Marc Augé’s book Non-places around this time , and was introduced to the idea of places that had no identity or culture (airports, shopping centres, etc). It is only in recent years that I have started to understand why built urban space, and non-places, resonated with me so much.
I still have that dream from time to time, but instead of seeing a utopia, I notice how empty and barren the place is. There are never any people or animal, just clean metal surfaces.
2. Making Place
Art has a way of making the trees come to life. Like Crann in Hazelwood, it creates a memory that is linked to the place. When those identities are lost, perhaps because the places are changed dramatically, or are heavily polluted, then the connection between those memories and that place is severed. The art theorist Miwon Kwon describes this very well:
Often we are comforted by the thought that a place is ours, that we belong to it, even come from it, and therefore are tied to it in some fundamental way. Such places (“right” places?) are thought to reaffirm our sense of self, reflecting back to us an unthreatening picture of a grounded identity. This kind of continuous relationship between a place and a person is what many critics declare to be lost, and needed, in contemporary society. In contrast, the “wrong” place is generally thought of as a place where one feels one does not belong – unfamiliar, disorientating, destabilizing, even threatening. This kind of stressful relationship to a place is, in turn, thought to be detrimental to a subject’s capacity to constitute a coherent sense of self and the world. (pp. 162-163)
The ability of art to translate complex ideas is one of the reasons art residencies with scientific organisations are becoming more of a norm in Europe. As pointed out by Kasja Kwastek (drawing from Umberto Eco), ‘[T]he more complex the structure, the greater the content of information and the more numerous the possible meanings’ (p.53). Art can translate complex ideas into an aesthetic experience, forming memory, identity and location through the interaction of the audience. This project aims to do just that.
I have abandoned the urban for the rural, although I am not sure there is really such a thing as either. So to be more precise, I have abandoned a faux image of utopia for one that I choose to make.
In the forest there is a concept of ‘pioneer trees’. They are the alder, the silver birch, aspen and more. At Kielderhead Wildwood Project, they are the key part of this phase of planting. They float out and seed in new ground, and other trees follow where they succeed, forming networks under the soil and through their leaves. I am following pioneers too – the brilliant art and research of others – Katie Holten, Katie Paterson, Grizedale Arts, Joseph Beuys, Laure Prouvost, and dozens more.
After more than a year of waiting, I am finally going to be in Kielder on April 1st 2021. Last year I was also due to arrive on April Fool’s Day – I should have always known that was an ominous date. I was delayed because of the pandemic, but I will at last step foot in the woods and pull out my video camera, and pretend again to record some works by my favourite filmmakers (although now it is less Ivan Reitman and more Agnés Varda, Wong Kar-Wei and Adam Curtis).
I will try to learn this place, to meet its people and its trees, and to make memories for myself and for others while I am there.
- Lippard, L. R. (1997). The lure of the local: Senses of place in a multicentered society: New Press New York.
- Tuan, Y.-F. (1975). Place: an experiential perspective. Geographical review, 151-165.
- Augé, M. (1995). Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, trans. John Howe. London and New York: Verso
- Kwastek, K. (2013). Aesthetics of interaction in digital art Mit Press
- Kwon, M. (2004). One place after another: Site-specific art and locational identity: MIT press.