Assembled Landscapes: Wembury
This exposition is designed to give context to a film produced as part of a research project that was funded by the Landscape Research Group in 2020: Landscape Stories – an investigation of organisations’ and diverse audiences’ narratives of the countryside to advance landscape justice, led by Dr Laura Hodsdon at Falmouth University with the support of the National Trust S&E Devon team. The film, or “research film” as I am calling it, was intended to not simply provide visuals for Hodsdon’s discourse analysis of a particular site, but to produce an alternative and complementary audio-visual interpretation of a landscape. My practice is concerned with using formal artistic and experimental filmmaking strategies to explore a subject, mostly collaboratively and concerning the landscape. I make dialogue-free nonnarrative films as research, revealing “ideas in motion”, employing techniques such as animation and collage. I find that these artistic and experimental strategies can go further than a conventional and didactic non-fiction film format in producing polyvalent understandings and interpretations of a subject. The conventional narrative and in some cases, commercial format, tends to deliver its information to the viewer in a singular direction through the guise that knowledge can be objective; whereas experimental films can challenge perception and cognition, promoting active engagement (Peterson 1994).
Placing my practice closer to experimental filmmaking rather than a more mainstream filmmaking approach, means embracing fluidity, which is affordable when working alone or minimally with one or two others. This fluidity applies to the traditional film roles (producer, director, cinematographer, etc.) but also in maintaining a sense of creativity and playfulness by not being “too prepared” and remaining open to possibilities. The experimental film, according to Michael O’Pray, has a lot in common with visual art practices and although it might position itself in the margins of commercial cinema, its history is nuanced and fluid with considerable overlaps with video art, poetic and avant-garde films (O’Pray 2003). Framing my work as a “research film” that employs experimental filmmaking strategies, should encourage a more fluid and nuanced understanding of place through active viewing. Such experimental filmmaking strategies, involving animation and collage, will be discussed in more detail below.
The site, Wembury, is a rural coastal location in South Devon and, as in most natural locations, has experienced many (told and untold) interactions with people. It is a National Trust site; the mill and cliffs were acquired in the 1930s and the rest of the land from the beach to the point in 2006. In 1928 it became a holiday camp and in 1940 Wembury Point, the site of the camp, was requisitioned by the Royal Navy, when a radar station and observation posts were built. In 1956 the HMS Cambridge Gunnery School was established then decommissioned in 2001.
I made two visits to Wembury, the first was led by Dr Hodsdon which I treated as a preliminary visit or a recce. Though already influenced by her research, I tried to maintain a blank slate and have little expectation of the site. I brought with me a light-weight DSLR camera to ease the pull of certain shots and encourage spontaneity in my image making. After a few initial photographs, I soon found myself taking multiple bursts, something I often do when exploring a new place: it is as if a single picture is not enough to capture a scene that transforms as you move through it. Or, maybe I feel compelled to instil movement into what I make, and am never quite satisfied enough with a single photograph. I was in fact thinking of multiple layered images when Dr Hodsdon explained the layers of history and stories attached to the place. They (the National Trust) want us to know some of these stories through signboards that colourfully draw the attention to a particular feature, “Why is the mill on the beach?”– we are told what to notice (perhaps the NT are directing us there because it is now their tea room?). But what was more interesting to me, was what we are encouraged notto notice. Further along the track there is another signboard titled “Demolition for Nature”. One side of the board is labelled “an ugly place” showing pictures of the former Gunnery School and fences, among them is a picture of a bulldozer returning the headland to its natural, “truly wild” state. On the other side of the signboard are pictures of the marine, bird and plant life the National Trust are protecting.
The springboard for the exploration of the landscape was the multimodal critical discourse analysis of the landscape at Wembury (Hodsdon 2021: ‘‘Picture perfect’ landscape stories: normative narratives and authorised discourse’, Landscape Research). In the article, Hodsdon pulls out some of the language from National Trust signboards and media reports, which reveal some of the “discursive constructions” formed by hegemonic narratives (Foucault 1972). At Wembury, as in other places, not only do landscapes set the stage for social practices, but they are themselves socially constituted (Meinig 1979), and these narratives are reinforced by signboards and media, full of drama and victory. For example, one media report indicates the National Trust’s saving of a landscape that almost fell prey to the ravages of developers (Hodsdon 2021). On another signboard, Wembury Holiday Camp is described as being ‘sprawled’ across the landscape, “evoking urbanism and unchecked development” (ibid 2021: 11).
Of course, there are reasons to prefer a rural landscape to a housing estate or docks; but while these broad ideologies of preservation and loss are not explicitly exclusionary mechanisms, what they are also not is neutral, since they draw on rural as good, urban as bad binaries, which are themselves layered over assumptions of who belongs in those respective environments (Hodsdon 2021: 11).
Hodsdon argues that the binaries created by this language draw on the dualism, urban = bad; rural = good (Cresswell 1996) while framing the National Trust as the hero of the story. Moreover, the concept of returning Wembury Bay to its “former glory” (BBC 2019, cited in Hodsdon 2021: 11) is, as Hodsdon points out, an imagined and contradictory fantasy. For nearly a century, military buildings and a holiday camp were part of the landscape, and before that, a medieval furnace and pilchard fishery. Ironically, military presence has meant the return of seabirds thanks to areas like the Great Mewstone being off-limits to visitors.
The second Wembury visit took place about two months after the first, in January 2022. Between the visits I had let the first impressions of the landscape and subsequent reading of Hodsdon’s paper sink in and inform how I might approach the task of filming. I had been thinking a lot about the constructed landscape: both in terms of how we perceive it culturally and its actual physical or geological construction. According to James Corner, landscape architect and theorist, landscapes are culturally constructed places made distinct from “wildernesses”. This is a view that places the landscape as nature that is already entangled with the human. Corner’s research reveals that landscapes, as the name implies, are realms of human activity and that the Old English term landskip originally referred to an image or a picture of the land (Corner and Hirsch 2014: 241). This picture or image – he terms “eidetic”, meaning mental image – varies depending on the position or intent of the viewer on that landscape. He draws a distinction between the “insider’s” eidetic image experience of the landscape, relating to phenomenology, and the “outsider” (for example the tourist, an administrative authority or planner), who sees the landscape as an object, not only scenically but instrumentally (Corner and Hirsch 2014: 243).
In Hodsdon’s discourse analysis, there is a particular relationship to the landscape being put forward by an authority that is imposing its institutional view of the landscape as an image or object of enjoyment. It is evident that there are “… discourses that cohere and (re)produce ideologies based on normative narratives of the rural.” (Hodsdon 2021: 19). This authoritative voice is singular and dominant with its signposted suggestions of how to experience Wembury, reaffirming stereotypes for who and for what purpose the landscape represents.
Curiously, traces of rusted posts remain in this multi-layered landscape, despite the National Trust’s plan to remove all evidence of what had been there and, paradoxically, return the site to nature. Signboards indicate that erasing Wembury Point’s military history will restore it to a “truly wild, natural headland”. There is a narrative in place and what is left over from the past creeping into the present does not fit with the current story. However, it is the bits of poking out metal and conglomerate stones that I found most fascinating. In some cases, it appeared as if nature had impacted with culture with such a force that it forged new entangled entities. On that first visit I had brought my audio field recorder and was recording the environmental sounds when Dr Hodsdon and I started a conversation about these strange objects:
Me: “It’s literally the manmade colliding with the natural”
LH: “Yeah, and sometimes you genuinely can’t tell… what a weird line to be drawn because you would think it would be really obvious, but it’s actually quite fluid”
I have placed this conversation quietly under other sounds somewhere halfway through the film. In this process, I enjoyed the idea that I was hiding something or perhaps entangling it with the natural sounds of the wind and sea. I decided to repeat this formal strategy at other points in the film with other materials as artefacts. Hodsdon had discovered some archive images of Wembury from the 1930s which we acquired from the Francis Frith archives. In the edit, I hid (by digitally cutting out and placing) the image of the old ballroom, formerly part of Wembury Holiday Camp, under some rocks and enmeshed objects that I animated so that the image ends up appearing nestled inside.
I have applied the word “enmeshments” to describe some of the strange leftover objects that evidence a past where culture appeared to have collided with nature. It seemed fitting and a form of tribute to anthropologist Tim Ingold, whose use of the term meshwork describes entanglements of organisms, materials, culture and creativity. In other words, the term itself illustrates the world we inhabit without binaries.
“This tangle is the texture of the world. In the animic ontology, beings do not simply occupy the world, they inhabit it, and in so doing – in threading their own paths through the meshwork – they contribute to its ever-evolving weave.” (Ingold 2011: 71)
For Ingold, the animic world (relating to animism and the agency of all beings) is in constant change and interchange with the participants that move within it. In my film, I wanted to suggest the agency of some of these enmeshed objects through experimental animation, but also by incorporating them in the final scene’s composition, which layers and recontextualises the picture postcard shot of Wembury Beach and church above it.
On that second visit to Wembury, I brought two cameras and had a sense of the location of each of the four archival landscape images (the ballroom was the only indoor image). My idea was to attempt to reframe those wide landscape shots using moving image cameras, specifically, a digital SLR and a 16mm Bolex. I often work between digital and analogue, enjoying the interplay and conversation the two formats can have. Using analogue, however, means more than evoking a sense of nostalgia. Rather, it is about reconstituting an idea of a subject or place or landscape with an image quality that may confuse or disassociate the time we are in.
In A history of experimental film and video, A. L. Rees discusses the idea of film as a time-based medium, which is particularly central to the avant-garde or experimental film (Rees 2011: 6). Just as duration and fragment were introduced to modern art through cubism, he suggests that material techniques, such as rapid camera movement and the long take, become central elements in the experimental film, which, “direct attention to film as a material construct and as a time-based medium” (Rees 2011: 7). As indicated above, I was interested in disrupting a sense of associated time by layering, reframing and collaging. There are some scenes where this is more obvious and an archive image is placed on top of a moving image one, rectangle within rectangle. Then there are longer durational takes where the 16mm moving image film slowly dissolves into the digital, taking up the whole frame and depicting the exact same landscape scene recorded moments apart.
“Landscape and image are inseparable.” says Corner, “Without image there is no such thing as landscape, only unmediated environment.” (cited in Corner and Hirsch 2014: 241). Though it would be impossible to know or be in an environment without mediating it in some way, Corner’s implication is that we only ever interpose our experience of the landscape through images, whether physical or eidetic. My idea with the film was to present multiple images of the same landscape, each interacting and intervening with each other in different ways, through still photographs, archives and the two moving image formats. Further to this, to reveal those hidden enmeshments that can only really be detected in the close-up. With some of these, I have isolated and recontextualised them into larger scenes through collage. The motivation, in a sense, is to voice the landscape in multiple ways, presenting an alternative to the voice of authority’s singular narrative.
Throughout this writing, I have discussed my filmmaking process in terms of being physically in the landscape on location and then thinking through the edit while being informed by research and collaboration, though not necessarily in any particular order. In fact, this is a realistic reflection of my practice, where I often conceive of the edit while I am filming and research happens at various stages, before, during and after. I tend to think of editing and filmmaking as a collaging of ideas and images, and literally make collages that form part of the work. Collage artist and photographer, John Stezaker, suggests, “Collage offers the possibility of challenging the hold which pictures exert upon our imagination, perceptions, even our situation (vantage point) in the world.” (1978: 5). With my work I am attempting to offer up the possibility of multiple vantage points and stories about a subject, so that it can, in turn, be interpreted in more ways than one by viewers. In a sense I am thinking through filmmaking, and filmmaking is the research, presented by ideas in motion, revealed through processual understanding.
“Space by itself is neither sensible nor imaginable, but is instead created in the act of imaging. Such eidetic constructs effectively bind Individuals to a collective and orient them within a larger milieu. Thus, a highly situated and subjectively constituted schemata, eidetic mappings lie at the core of shaping an invisible landscape, one that is more an unfolding spatiality than surface appearance, more poetic property than the delineation of immediate real estate.” (Corner and Hirsch 2014: 247)
What I have gleaned over the course of this research project, is that the landscape, in conventional and normative western culture, is often perceived as an object designed for human enjoyment. This view is a distanced one, literally and figuratively: we are not encouraged to imagine ourselves as enmeshed or entangled with nature. Such a view is disorderly and unmanageable from an objective hierarchical perspective. The idea that we are separate from nature and, furthermore, above it, is perpetuated by the voices of authority who tell us how to engage with landscapes. But how does this view instil a deeper experience of nature or sense of care? In my mind it does not do either. If nature or the landscape are managed sites that have been constructed for our own enjoyment, then there is no agency instilled in caring for them, let alone “being in” those environments (Ingold 2011). Perhaps if the story of how we are historically bound up with nature was made more explicit, then we might feel entangled and bound and therefore more responsible for the landscape and natural world?
I would like to imagine that some of the enmeshed objects that have been left behind at Wembury will go unnoticed by those that want to restore it to its “wild and natural” state, and continue to tell their own story in spite of the narrative that tries to make those objects invisible. Binaries are damaging, to us as the natural world; seeing ourselves as part of nature can help reshape the discourse around our experience of natural environments, replete with visible culture.
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FOUCAULT, Michel. 1972. The Archaeology of Knowledge. New York: Pantheon Books.
HODSDON, Laura. 2021. ‘’Picture perfect’ landscape stories: normative narratives and authorized discourse’. Landscape Research [online]. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01426397.2021.2016666?scroll=top&needAccess=true [Accessed: 8 March 2022].
INGOLD, Tim. 2011. Being alive: essays on movement, knowledge and description. New York: Routledge.
JONES, Rachael. 2022. Assembled Landscapes: Wembury [Film].
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STEZAKER, John. 1978. Fragments. London: Photographer’s Gallery.