Shona Illingworth
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Shona Illingworth
Shona Illingworth - Balnakiel

Shona Illingworth - Balnakiel

APEngine talks to Shona Illingworth about her exhibition Balnakiel, showing at Wolverhampton Art Gallery until 1 May 2010.

Balnakiel seems to continue an interest you’ve explored in other work, in people – giving testimony, witness, ‘ordinary’ lives, though it’s a much bigger project – dealing with a community, rather than individuals or small groups…

I’m interested in memory as a dynamic and continually changing agent in the present rather than something that simply encapsulates and frames the past. So in a strict sense I am more focussed on how memory impacts on, and can provide insight into, an evolving and often psychologically and or socio-politically charged present.

A lot of my work has involved people who are somehow challenged by the social, economic or physical environment that they live or work in. For example I have worked with life prisoners in a UK prison. I spent three winter months working with the crew of a Pilot Boat in Berwick. And more recently I made a piece in a former Gulag in north east Kazakhstan.

I’m interested in the ways in which people navigate the relationship between their interior worlds and the world around them, and how they develop an individual and/or collective sense of location. How we locate ourselves in time and space is complex, this is particularly so for groups or individuals whose sense of self, identity or location is contested or under threat.

Balnakiel brings together these interests through exploring the occupation of a remote and some may say extreme landscape by two very different civilian groups of people and the military.

Not necessarily under a specific threat though – because these people are living very hard lives where there’s always a tension – holding things together?

Yes, often there is this tension. A sense of threat that is difficult to challenge directly has its own pervasive intensity.

There is the threat of invisibility too, a main focus of my work in the Gulag camp of Dolinka, where former prisoners and guards now live side by side as they have nowhere else to go. As Kazakhstan moves towards its future these people are somehow stranded in another time, locked within the architecture of a traumatic past with an empty landscape around them that conceals unmarked mass graves, the sense of this is very strongly felt there.

Balnakiel centres on the area around Cape Wrath, the remote and isolated place where I grew up in the North West Highlands of Scotland. The landscape is very rugged, sparsely populated with little grass and few trees. The film explores a layering of different time frames, one of which is the 1970s, which is when I was growing up there. It was a time when the area was incredibly isolated physically. It still is very isolated. The last leg of the journey was a 50 mile single track road – one road in and one road out.

Unlike your previous work, this is about somewhere that you’re from – it’s autobiographical.

The work itself is not autobiographical in the sense that it is not a story about me but I’d started to see threads running through my work that originated in the very particular social and cultural situation that I grew up in.

It’s a place that is extremely beautiful but deeply marked by the previous trauma of forced migration and cultural oppression, and has for the last eighty years or so been subject to ongoing preparations for war and conflict. During the Second World War, the area was part of Britain’s Chain Home radar defence system and at the onset of the Cold War this was to be upgraded into an Early Warning Station. So it’s had a long-standing and evolving orientation towards a perceived threat from the outside.

Balnakiel sets out to explore how physical and psychological landscapes are constructed through a focus on different perceptions, tensions and fears at play in the interaction of three main groups of inhabitants.

A long established local community whose families go back generations, and were subject to the Highland Clearances in the 18th and 19th centuries when people were forcibly removed from their land to make way for sheep farming and suffered the subsequent oppression of their language and culture. A violent period that casts a long shadow over the present.

The Ministry of Defence, for whom the location is a major military training and live bombing range, where NATO and it’s allies conduct co-ordinated land, air and sea exercises, and where the landscape is, and has been, a stand in for successive sites of conflict globally. A lot of soldiers and pilots finish their training there and at the moment its being used extensively to train for active combat in Afghanistan. One could argue that the history of training in this location provides a ‘map’ of the UK’s political alliances and involvement in war and conflict over the last century.

And an incomer community of idealists seeking ‘alternative’ lifestyles. They arrived in the 1960s and established themselves in the former Early Warning Station of military Nissan huts built then abandoned by the MOD at the beginning of the Cold War.

Shona Illingworth - Balnakiel

Shona Illingworth - Balnakiel

And is that how you came to live there?

Yes. The military camp was partially occupied by craft workers who came looking for workshops, places to live. They were that post war generation who came looking for freedom to create a new life, and become self-sufficient. But the camp was still being used by the military as barracks and a refuelling station for helicopters and trucks so there was a very uneasy coexistence between the incomers living there and the military, who occupied the camp during military exercises. Here there were two conflicting ideas of freedom, that of the incomers, many of whom were pacifists and of the military who were training for war in the name of protecting freedom.

And of course, with the sudden influx of incomers into this camp, wearing funny clothes, wild kids running around, staying up all night, listening to loud music and making things, there was huge tension between them and the nearby local community.

And three fundamentally different perceptions of location. The incomers thought they were coming to live on the edge of the world, for local people this was the centre of their world and for the military it was a front line during the Cold War and a generic landscape used as a stand-in for other sites of war and conflict. The remoteness of the area and the harsh landscape seemed to intensify these differences and the tensions between these overlapping territories.

So, different kinds of memory.

Yes, I’m interested in how we negotiate the disjuncture between the fragmentary experience of memory, and the inherent need that we, and more broadly, society, have to form coherent narratives to describe events. Imagination intervenes, so you could say that the construction of memory for experience is in itself a creative and a motivated act.

Some memories are deemed publicly acceptable – they conform to dominant cultural or collective memory constructions or are even expected, and there are others that aren’t valued or encouraged, especially if they challenge a dominant version of events. I’m interested in situations where memory is contested territory – and in those people whose experience and memory is not valued or who remain on the outside.

Often in my work voice is fragmented, it struggles against the environment – surfaces and disappears again into ambient sound. In Balnakiel the voice fragments contradict one another, and create images that run counter to what is being seen on screen. I don’t identity the speaker, so their meaning contains an ambiguity.

I’m also interested in the influence of forgetting on memory – how memories that are no longer accessible still exert an influence on the way we remember, and in particular those emotions that are triggered by memories that are no longer accessible to conscious thought. It’s a dynamic psychological landscape and often things we remember are completely random. We navigate and inhabit this landscape but cannot always explain or translate it into logical or pre-determinded narratives.

In Balankiel your approach to gathering those cultural memories was in collaboration – with a scientist.

With Martin A Conway, a cognitive neuro-psychologist. His specialist area is memory and the self, and memory for experience. We’ve had ongoing conversations for about seven years, articulated through the practice and process of drawing. In the last three or four years I’ve been recording these conversations.

How does that work?

Maybe I should show you a drawing…

This was made when I was working on a piece that precedes Balnakiel called The Watch Man. I worked with an 80 year old man who had experienced one of the most traumatic events in the Second World War. He was deeply traumatised by it. I wanted to explore how an individual carries the painful experience of a major historical event in private, and how it continues to affect their lives with an intensity that can increase with age as they become more vulnerable.

During our conversations he talked about a sort of fantasy place that he’d constructed over the years from details of other real memories as part of his defence against his traumatic memories. This place was a forest and he would try and inhabit this fantasy place as a refuge in memory. Over time, repeated rehearsal of this ‘false memory’ reinforced it until he said that he wasn’t sure if it was a real memory or not, it had become so vivid to him.

This drawing maps out a theory of confabulation – as a scientist or memory researcher would understand it. What’s fantastic about drawing is that it lays everything out on one plane so the trajectory of my conversations with Martin can then proceed in many different directions.

So through these conversations is it that Martin has an analytical understanding of what those memory processes are, and you, as an artist, get an understanding of what that analysis is?

Often I’ve found that in my work that I’m pursuing something, which reflects theories that are already current or emerging in memory research. An understanding of scientific analysis opens up new ways to think about how developing spatial and time-based exploration of memory my work. This is not a purely biological or neurological analysis but involves deeper philosophical questions about perception, emotion, an enduring sense of self and relationships between imagination, memory and ideas about reality.

Another set of drawings retrospectively explore two contrasting aspects of memory that overlap in Balnakiel.

In the film we hear a the voice of a man describing the feeling of overwhelming physical anxiety that he associates with the past but which is still triggered by walking through the local village in the present.

This memory has an added force because it is precisely what he can’t remember that causes him greatest anxiety as an adult. The emotions triggered, by a stone wall in actual fact, are intense but it can’t easily be contextualised within a clear narrative, even one of a violent incident, leaving him with this deep and resonant sense of foreboding and fear of what may have happened there. The physicality of the feelings he describes is so intimate and internalised, that there’s a strange kind of tenderness in his voice. The peculiar kind of intimacy one can have with one’s own fears.

The man’s voice is set against that of an Air Traffic Controller who is guiding in Tornado jets, fully armed with 1000lb live bombs, in a tactic called a “Show of Force”, which is used increasingly in contemporary war fare, in Iraq and now Afghanistan. This is when a unit on the ground calls in jets to fly as low as possible over a given target area and through the extreme noise, speed and terrifying force of the planes presence, frighten a civilian population into hiding so that the ‘enemy combatants’ are exposed.

For one person the landscape is full of intense emotion triggered by half forgotten memories. In contrast, the military are engaged in complex multi-operational exercises where the repetition of command and action are designed to develop a ‘mental schema’, which can be transposed to a live conflict situation elsewhere. Building up associations such as mastery and accomplishment.

While these two kinds of memory seem opposite there is a for me a strange resonance between them as of course war is full of encounters with fear, unresolved trauma and difficulty in maintaining a clear conceptual framework for experience, so one becomes an inverse echo of the other.

It seems to be a necessary science of emotion, of what it means to be human, which is also a function of art.

I think that’s where my conversations with Martin are the most dynamic and interesting, in the areas that are so difficult to define for both a scientist and for an artist.

You’re dealing with real subjects, real people in real places – is it a kind of expanded documentary?  Is that a term that works?

That’s such a broad term I’m not sure what it means. I would say that although I work with actual people, their memories for experience and the locations within which they live, my work is an exploration of something beyond the detail of their lives, and also involves conceptual construction on my part.

But it’s also about things that documentary often doesn’t acknowledge – recollection, memory, that they’re fallible things…

Yes, in terms of memory one could say that a memory for an experience is a construction that is unique to the moment of remembering. That you can’t have exactly the same memory twice as it is a mental construction that is influenced by where you are at the particular time you are remembering and your conscious or unconscious motivations.  So you can’t have the same memory twice.

Of the same experience?

Yes. I don’t mean the kind of memory for what your name is. This is because memory for experience is a construction, it’s dynamic, it’s transient.

The director of an archive where people send memories, told me once that a woman sent a memory in and ten years later called up and said “I need to change that memory, it’s wrong.” There was a discussion about who owns the original memory and how true it was. The archivist decided that they couldn’t change the original memory but could add another version of it.

It’s perhaps a question of how you link memory to ideas of truth, or fact. I’m very interested in how Michael Haneke deals with violence in his films, the affects of violence pervade the present but the focus is not on isolating the violence to the responsibility of a single perpetrator, where it can be contained, everyone is implicitly bound up in the repercussions of violence and so there is no easy solution. In this respect his exploration of repressed memory and violence in Hidden (2005) for instance is I think extraordinary.

You mentioned truth and that’s where you diverge from documentary isn’t it because you’re acknowledging that there is not truth, a truth is still what…it’s a kind of drive isn’t it?

I saw Marcel Ophuls The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) a few years ago. It explores the French involvement with the Nazi occupation in France during the Second World War and the roles that people took. It’s about five hours long. He gives people time to in a sense reinvent their memories. Because part of the telling of the memory is to do with how they want to be perceived in the present.

The film reveals how people reconstruct the past to serve their needs in the present. Perhaps this is where the ‘truth’ lies. There’s a deep sense of guilt and shame, and a sense of conflicted memory – it blows apart the idea of a collective and shared memory for this period of history that affected everybody in this very small area.

And is that what you found in Balnakiel?

I went to the area imagining that there was a clear division between locals and incomers and actually it’s much more complex than that. In many ways there is but there are a lot of similarities too, which were unexpected for me. Although people were culturally very different, out of necessity a lot of values were shared across those two communities, which I hadn’t anticipated and of course this has changed over time too.

And the intervening years must influence how people remember?

Yes there was a distinct difference between the process of remembering for people who hadn’t been back there since the 70s, and those people who had been living there from the 70s to the present. People still living there also tended to be more cautious about what they spoke about.

And there’s a fiction element to the work as well. There’s a narrative, there’s a figure, a child. Is that you?  What time is she in?

The passage of time is inscribed in the film in different ways, overlapping different temporal registers and rates of change. The sound architecture of the work is very important in this respect. There is the geological time of the landscape, the mountains introduced almost as silent sentinels at the beginning of the film, then two jets in tandem rip through the air, high end technology, the military radios controlling complex coordinated activity happening at high velocity in three dimensional space, land air and sea and the crummy domestic radio which the girl uses to search through static to find voices from the outside, the sound of a leaf hitting the floor, the ruined house and heather burning, the scanning hum of radar, the mercurial weather fronts, rain and wind and changing light that sweep in from the North Atlantic, the slow erosion of the landscape and a final silent explosion.

Shona Illingworth - Balnakiel

Shona Illingworth - Balnakiel

The girl exists in and out of these time frames, and importantly she is on the threshold of adolescence, which is the time when memories become socially contextualised. She is the only civilian we see and yet she is silent. She is set against the military and so there are these two active scopes of vision if you like – that of the child on the ground, and that of the military who have a privileged aerial perspective – analysing the territory and using high end technology to move through the space.

Details such as the Tilley lamp and the radio are taken from experience, from the ‘70s when as kids we used to try and tune in to the jets.

During the Cold War this particular corner moved from being on the periphery to being on a military and political frontline. There’s a sudden move from the perception of being located physically where one lives, and being located in relation to a global territorial map. We used to imagine the world outside of there, while our parents were terrified it was going to all come crashing in. It was a weirdly, intense period.

So no she’s not me but she could be all of the children that lived there; in reality she is the last child to have lived in the camp.

The architecture and landscape are important… and contrast…

I’ve long been interested in the ways people respond physically, emotionally and psychologically to specific building complexes – and particularly how people are constrained by institutional architectures and the psychological and imaginative strategies they develop to counteract that constraint.

Buildings can act as containers for memory and become charged spaces. In an earlier work, Walking on Letters (1999) – I remember you saw it at Cafe Gallery Projects in London – a man who spent many years in prison and in solitary confinement describes how he imagines that he can train his feet to sense or feel who letters are from just by walking on them in bare feet in the darkness of his cell every night. And in a later work The Watch Man (2007), an architecture becomes a container for a horror that continues to insist on the present with increasing intensity and to haunt him over 60 years later.

In Balnakiel the architecture of the military camp play a key role in the work. The buildings were built very close together which created a kind of intensity and on the outside there is this vast landscape.

The film opens with a military aerial view – you see the camp/village laid out below you, its compact modular structure instantly visible, then you see a close up of the girl climbing out of the window of one of the buildings, now in darkness, her route through the camp cutting through the regimentation of the architecture. Later, a helicopter flies over and she ‘becomes’ the helicopter spinning wildly on one of the roofs – she bodily incorporates the helicopter in an act of both exhilaration and fear. The sound of helicopters often feature in traumatic memories of war, the noise, vibration and volume penetrating the physical body. As she spins we see the camp/village spin, broken up and activated, through her eyes, in vivid colour. In both sequences the regimentation of the architecture is broken up.

In the film most of the windows look out onto other buildings and windows, the architecture turns in on itself. I was interested in how these spaces become charged with memory, running counter to the hardwiring of the utilitarian military institution – in a sense the goshawk in the film is a kind of charge in an empty space.

And the landscape?

I’m interested in how our internal ‘landscapes’ map onto the outside world and in this sense elements such as the bird in the film are not stable self contained entities but both provide another scope of vision and simultaneously are part of that landscape.

Some people in Balnakiel kept wild birds in their buildings, as a child I remember fulmars, corncrakes, starlings, buzzards, hawks, all manner of birds, often injured and being treated, kept in the end of someone’s building.

The bird in the film is a Goshawk, a bird of prey with a very limited memory, one of the fastest birds it acts purely on the instinct to kill and survive, rather than learned behaviour, one could say that it has in a sense an internal world free from memory.

On the other end of the scale the ‘wilderness’ Highland landscape is ‘haunted’ by a violent and traumatic past.

You show the film alongside photographs and drawings.

The Balnakiel project as a whole sets out to explore how these different territories of occupation impact on one another, how physical and psychological landscapes are constructed and in particular, how the military use of landscape affects the civilian population.

I’d always conceived of the film as part of a wider project as well as something that can be shown on its own. This includes photographs, texts… another shorter video that’s shown as part of the installation, and drawings – they’re all different strategies for exploring these issues.

Film and Video Umbrella will also publish a book relating to this project and the previous work, The Watch Man, that I mentioned earlier.



And have you taken the work back to the communities?

Ah ha! This Wednesday, yes.

There’s this fantastic mobile cinema called the Screen Machine, which is amazing. A lorry that unfolds into a state of the art 80 seat cinema, with lights down the aisle and everything. So it’s going to be shown in that, in the village square.

Balnakiel is commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella in association with John Hansard Gallery and Wolverhampton Art Gallery. Supported by Arts Council England and an Arts Award from the Wellcome Trust, with additional support from the Highland Council and the Danish Embassy, London.

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