Cyd-ddigwyddiad hapus ddaeth â Chris Coppock a mi at ein gilydd ar ddiwrnod cyntaf fy swydd yng Nghwm Elan, gan gychwyn proses o ddatblygu’r prosiect cyffrous hwn. Mae Cwm Elan yn lle hudolus, gydag ymwelwyr yn dychwelyd dro ar ôl tro i grwydro’r ardal a mwynhau’i chynefinoedd amrywiol.
Mae’r rhan hon o Bowys yn llawn hanes, rhwng trigfannau oes y cerrig a’r oes efydd, ymwelwyr Rhufeinig a pheirianwyr Oes Fictoria gyda’u syniadau a’u prosiectau mawr. Ym 1892, pasiwyd Deddf Seneddol i godi cyfres o argaeau er mwyn cyflenwi dŵr i Firmingham. Roedd y campwaith peirianyddol hwn yn cynnwys pibell 73 milltir o hyd er mwyn cludo dŵr trwy gyfrwng disgyrchiant yn unig, gyda dim ond 50 metr o gwymp rhwng Tŵr y Foel yng Nghwm Elan a chronfa ddŵr Frankley, Birmingham. Yn ogystal â chyflenwi dŵr yfed o safon byth ers hynny, mae ystâd 72 milltir sgwâr Cwm Elan yn hafan i fywyd gwyllt ar dirwedd heb ei gwella na’i difetha.
Rydyn ni’n croesawu mwy a mwy o ymwelwyr drwy’r flwyddyn, ac yn ymroi i sicrhau profiad cofiadwy iddyn nhw diolch i’n criw o Geidwaid cyfeillgar sy’n cynnig croeso cynnes a chyngor parod ar gyfer crwydro’r ardal arbennig hon. Natur ‘wyllt’ yr Ystâd yw’r apêl i lawer. Mae prinder adeiladau a datblygiadau ar hyd a lled yr ystâd, yn ogystal ag arferion amaethu traddodiadol a dulliau sensitif o reoli cynefinoedd wedi helpu i warchod y dirwedd. Dyw’r rhan fwyaf o adeiladau’r ystâd yn dal heb eu cysylltu â’r prif gyflenwad trydan hyd yn oed!
Rydyn ni’n gwneud ein gorau glas i godi ymwybyddiaeth a dealltwriaeth y cyhoedd o bwysigrwydd Ystâd Cwm Elan, o weithio gyda chynhyrchwyr ffilmiau Hollywood i sicrhau mynediad gwell ar gyfer grwpiau o bobl dan anfantais.
Gan weithio mewn partneriaeth ag Ymddiriedolaeth Cwm Elan a sefydliadau eraill y fro, mae’r ystâd wedi llwyddo i sicrhau buddsoddiad sylweddol o Gronfa Dreftadaeth y Loteri tuag at brosiect uchelgeisiol i warchod treftadaeth. Fel rhan o’r prosiect, bydd byngalo Pen y Garreg yn cael ei ailwampio er mwyn creu lleoliad pwrpasol ar gyfer preswylfeydd artistig a gwyddonol.
Mae byw a gweithio ar yr Ystâd yn ysbrydoli rhywun bob dydd; a’r tymhorau gwahanol yn cynnig anturiaethau newydd o bob cwr. Cefais flas ar y profiad o weithio gyda’r holl artistiaid wrth iddyn nhw grwydro’r Ystâd a cheisio cadw’n glyd yn y bwthyn! Rydyn ni gyd wedi dysgu cymaint oddi wrth ein gilydd ac yn darganfod sut i sicrhau bod y profiad o breswylio ar gael i fwy a mwy o artistiaid sydd am ddod yma i gael eu hysbrydoli gan hyfrydwch a hudoliaeth Cwm Elan.
Rheolwr Ardal Dŵr Cymru
A lucky coincidence enabled me to meet Chris Coppock on my first day in post at Elan Valley, beginning the process of developing this exciting project. Elan is a very special place, with visitors returning to explore and enjoy the varied landscape and habitats.
This area of mid Wales has a rich history, with stone and Bronze Age habitation, followed more recently by Roman visitors, then Victorian engineers with projects to be begun. 1892 saw the Act of Parliament passed to construct a series of dams to supply Birmingham with water. This epic feat of engineering included a 73 mile long pipeline to transport the water using just gravity, with only a 50 metre fall
in altitude between the Foel Tower in the Elan Valley and Frankley Reservoir in Birmingham. The 72 square mile Elan Estate has since provided not only a source of high quality drinking water but a haven for wildlife in an unimproved and unspoilt landscape.
We are welcoming an increasing number of visitors throughout the year and we strive to make their experience memorable with our friendly team of Rangers providing a warm welcome and bespoke advice for exploring this special area. The ‘wildness’ of the Estate forms part of the attraction for many visitors. The lack of development across the estate, combined with the continuation of traditional farming methods and sensitive habitat management has helped to preserve the landscape. Most properties on the estate still do not have the luxury of mains electricity!
We are continually striving to increase public awareness and understanding of the importance of the Elan Estate, from working with Hollywood filmmakers to enabling better access for disadvantaged groups of people.
Working in partnership with the Elan Valley Trust and other local organisations, the estate has recently secured significant investment from the Heritage Lottery Fund, with an ambitious landscape scale Heritage Conservation project. Part of this project will see the refurbishment of Pen y Garreg bungalow which will provide a bespoke location for artistic and scientific residencies.
Living and working on the Estate provides daily inspiration; with the changing seasons come promises of adventure in all directions. I have really enjoyed working with all the artists while they explore the Estate and try to keep warm in the cottage! We have learned much already from one another and are discovering how to make the residency experience more widely available to artists to come and gain inspiration from the magical Elan Valley.
Area Lands Manager Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water
I proposed to use an ecological view to explore the ‘reserve’ that is Elan and to map the energy/entropy relationships. Despite a consuming energy focus of simply keeping warm in the cottage, my first visit was very productive. I walked on the hill, looked at the ecology of small things and noted ‘Hill Top – Entropy, Bog – Negentropy’. The cottage felt a bit like the hilltop – clattering hard surfaces, a lot of transient movement, nothing quite sticking – but then small ecologies started to build in the traces of other artists’ visits.
Outside the cottage, I had fruitful conversations and meetings with Elan people. An initial conversation with ranger Janice Vincett led to a farm open day with Sorcha Lewis of Troedrhiwdraen Farm and Tony Davies of Henfron Farm. I discovered links between hill farming, Molinia biochar, Amazonia, cattle grazing, carbon sequestration, peat-free horticulture and terrariums. I also spent time with Janice exploring upland meadows and pollinators. She identified a solitary bee I found dead on a windowsill in the cottage – a mining bee, which feeds on willow and hawthorn – and told me where to find a bank of mountain pansies (above Shelley’s Nantgwyllt).
The positive outcome of my time at Elan is that these threads – pollinators, rhos pastures and upland hay meadows, Molinia biochar, terrariums, Radicalism, the Gothic imagination, entropy and eco-modernism – are beginning to coalesce and I would be keen to develop this further into participatory and public facing work.
Although it was really productive to be alone ‘in residence’, it would be stimulating and productive in a different way to have more communal structure: a spur to articulate, present, discuss, evaluate, perhaps? Maybe the renovation of the Engineer’s House
(a chance for artists to spend time together?) and other buildings (e.g. a public-facing creative space) will provide this.
Elan Valley Notes – October 2015
Absence – it’s about what’s not there. It’s not empty, but many of the things that we surround ourselves with are absent, like phone line, mains power, internet, street lights and other people.
Distance – it’s a long way from many of the things we’re familiar with. Getting around the site makes you aware of a sense of scale as there are large gaps between built things.
Weather – being in the open a lot of the time makes you acutely aware of the weather and its subtleties, changes in wind direction, humidity, brightness and temperature.
Cycle of light and dark – the lack of mains power and street lights makes you aware of dusk and twilight, a period of the day we usually blank out by putting on the lights.
My time at Cwm Elan has heightened my awareness of place and proximity, spending long periods of time alone buffeted by the weather and aligning my days to the cycle of light and dark. I feel that the experience has woken some of my senses from their usual routine, testing me physically and psychologically, and made me curious about how I might read the natural world more effectively. I’ve been reading Tristan Gooley, who has written about natural navigation techniques that rely on signs found in the land, plants, animals, the sun, moon and, of course, the stars. While I would rather rely on a map and compass, at least I’m aware that there are pre-existing ways of finding our way around and it is something I am keen to explore further, trying to access a facility that maybe lies dormant.
I have also thought about sound and the way it travels in the steep-sided landscape, especially in certain weather conditions, allowing voices to travel unexpected distances from one side of a landscape to the other. It has led me to explore the alphorn, used to call in the cattle and communicate across the mountain landscape in central Europe. I have also found myself yodelling from the hilltops, but I haven’t found anyone to return my calls yet. I have been in touch with an alphorn player, Frances Jones, who has both
a traditional wooden alphorn and a sectional travelling horn, who I am trying to talk into visiting the Elan Valley. My early attempts at making a crude alphorn of my own with plastic plumbing have been disappointing and I expect I will have to make my own proper horn before too long. The alphorn has no holes to vary its pitch but follows a pure harmonic sequence of overtones, starting quite low because of its length, allowing long soundwaves to develop before they exit the bell.
Quite where this takes me in relation to my own work, I don’t know but then I’ve decided to let the process lead me rather than use it as an opportunity to expand my existing practice. At home I rarely spend time alone – being alone is something usually reserved for the studio – and so in an unexpected way being in the cottage and that landscape has felt like an extension of studio time. My favourite place to be is on top of the hills with my feet deep in the grass and wandering at will. I think I’ll need to make my alphorn light enough to take with me. Perhaps that’s what I’ll leave behind as a legacy, an Elan horn so that artists can call to one another across the valley.
A few collected thoughts on the residency to take to the next stage
The location is isolated and remote offering a place for reflection and privacy. The house is basically equipped with living and sleeping space that can be used for time away from other pressures to reflect on ones working practice and to think about new work in Élan’s setting.
There is vast potential for this residency. It currently works as a place to go and be. This offers a unique and rare experience and is something to celebrate in its own right.
There are no studios or workshops, no Internet access, no tools or equipment or ‘up and running’ exhibition spaces.
Currently there is no prescribed purpose to this residency, as a result the organisers will get varied abstract thoughts and ideas of work from artists. This may or may not result in productive work. It may be that this work comes later from the influences drawn from the residency experience.
The residency house has the potential to act as a haven for individual or groups of artists working individually or together.
The potential directions for the residency are great and expectations must be addressed. It needs to be clear what is wanted as a result of the residency both from the provider and the artist.
What will the Elan’s artist’s residency vision incorporate? How varied will it be? Does it require artworks and if so in any prescribed form? There’s the potential for temporary and permanent group or solo installations, exhibitions, one-off events, performances, readings, workshops, open studios and collaborations.
The big question is what is desired and how to make this happen? If something physical, let’s call it artworks, are wanted, how will the piece/event/installation be commissioned, funded, created and constructed, on site or off site, installed and exhibited?
In my own working practice I require time to come up with an idea and then time to develop that idea into a more concrete piece of work. Usually due to the scale and expense of making my visions a reality, I must consider how ‘it’ can be funded. Once this is resolved I need time to experiment and make the finished work, install and have an event so others can experience the piece.
This residency has the potential to offer both escapism and reflection to the artist and also a chance to make productive work that can be exhibited within a landscape setting. Over time the residency may become known as a building and place that draws artists from all over the world to come here. It may in time become a landmark, a building that holds a record in history of time spent by artists in Elan.
12:60 / 13:20 / 9/8
We live by 12:60 time, 12 months in a year and 60 minutes in an hour. A second is flexible, in viewing the second hand we feel we have the power to change the duration of the time between one number and the next. Try it now . . .
Before clocks we slept with seasons; before lamps, by the setting sun. Previous ancient civilisations lived by 13:20 time; 13 referring to the 13 articulations of the body, such as the hip joint, knee, wrists and neck, 20 referring to the number of fingers and toes. This referred to a direct physical relationship with our surroundings. Like 12:60 time, it is unique to our species; how we passed through the landscape. I read (once) a spider has 48 knees. This means its interaction with the physical world is alien to us. The way it physically connects with tangible world is alien to us. In the valley, there is also grasshopper time, bird time and tree time. There is also the speed of the night, the pace of the sky and the movements of plants.
Elan is shaped by eons of water time, the time that in the early history of the planet replaced the dominance of sun time. This was an era before the oceans formed and the planet was cooling. While still strong in nature, sun’s time has been demoted in our lives by the electric light bulb, we now could truly live outside of natural time and distance ourselves from the rhythms of the planet, unwillingly. At this point we moved to a position of conflict with the world which allowed us to be born into.
Excerpt from Journal Notes 01/12/15
Sometime when the sun was beginning to set earlier and its warmth was starting to diminish, (what we may call mid-September), I was walking on the hilltops high above Garreg Ddu reservoir. Walking against the flow of a small brook, I became aware of a rapid tapping with a regular rhythm. It was almost a regular ticking but had a pause every few beats, like a slip-jig in folk music in 9/8 time. I took some recordings. I returned the following day when the sun was directly above my head. Now the rhythm was slower, the sun heating the path, the flow reduced; I made further recordings. Listening back, the subtle tonal changes as the water trickled through shards of slate could be translated into notes of music.
Excerpt from Journal Notes 26/09/15
The APTElan residency is an opportunity to experience deep time, a place to work outside expectation. It is a place to think differently. On my first visit I took one book, Olaf Stapledon’s 1937 novel Star Maker, with a self-imposed remit not to learn any history or gather information about the valley I was about to live within. An exercise in the value of experience over knowledge. Stapledon’s tale of a man travelling across the universe encountering new civilisations had its moment of symbolic clarity on the third day when I read in the sun. Insects were attracted to the bleached white pages of the book; landing on the text to be confronted with a monochrome system of ink shapes. As I read, flies would explore the paths of texts with their own senses, a maze of ink, this alien surface echoing the main protagonist’s journey in the novel.
Excerpt from Journal Notes 28/09/15
O’n i ‘di amau’r cynllun rhywfaint. Cyfrannu at gywaith ar safle a alwyd yn “English pale” gan gyfaill. Gofynnais am gyngor gan ffrind arall a dywedodd wrtho’ fi i dderbyn y cynnig a’m bod i siawns yn deall pethe’n weddol.
Nid ni sy’n berchen ar ein hadnoddau naturiol a’r diffyg rheolaeth dros ddŵr yw’r symbol pennaf. Tenantiaid ar ein tir y’ ni ar y gorau, dywedodd y ffrind ‘rwyf wedi ei gyflwyno ar ben y llith, wrth i fi ei gyfweld ar ddechrau’r wythnos breswyl fis Medi 2014, ac mae’r tir a chefn gwlad ond yn ei wneud yn drist. Nid yw’n ymddangos yn brydferth iddo a ni fuasai fyth am fynd ar ei wyliau yng Nghymru, y wlad lle mae’n byw. Mae ‘na ddiffyg gafael gennym ar ein diwydiant a’n diwylliant.
Penderfynais redeg. Dwy daith, i hawlio a thrado’r tir, i haeru fod tystio’n gorfforol i’n hanes yn gwneud gwahaniaeth. A pham rhedeg yn hytrach na cherdded? Am ‘y mod i falle am deimlo’r graean dan y croen, am wneud yr anniddigrwydd yn fwy anesmwyth ac i ymwrthod â hamddena.
Falle mai un o nodweddion cymeriad a gwaith JR Jones yw ei bwyslais ar ymdrech, o fynd i’r afael â rhwbeth, boed yn grefydd neu’n iaith. Dywed yn yr ysgrif Oes raid i’r iaith ein gwahanu?,
“…mae galwad yr anerchiad hwn yn alwad i ‘neud yr amhosibl.’ Ac ai syniad gwag ac anghyfrifol ydyw hwnnw– ‘gwneud yr amhosibl’? Nage: y mae wedi bod erioed–yn argyfyngau ‘achub’ gwareiddiad—y yn her ag iddi gysylltiad tufewnol â mawredd yysbryd dyn.”
Mae’n sôn am ewyllysio a mynnu bod yn genedl, a’n bod yn wynebu argyfwng tranc ein gwareiddiad. Ma’ rhedwyr yn bobl unig. Mae’r Cymry’n bobl unig. Mae yna ddigon o ramant ynof i feddwl y bu geirau JR yn fy ngherddediad. Ma’ rhedwyr wastad yn
sôn am y boen y maent yn ei brofi wrth redeg ond o’n i wastod wedi meddwl ma’
rhyw boen dedwydd oedd hwn a ellid ‘i anghofio wrth droi rhigwm neu ddwy yn ‘n feddwl. Weithiau ‘roedd ‘na lif o eiriau a lluniau ynddo. Weithiau, ddim. Weithiau o’n
i wedi syrffedu, a ‘da ddim i’w feddwl amdano ond nodi fod un cam yn dilyn y llall yn anesmwyth. Gosod cyn lleied o’r droed ar lawr am cyn lleied o amser. Unwaith, roedd ‘na blu oddi tanynt. Llosgodd esgyrn fy nghluniau. O’n i’n araf iawn. Claddais ddŵr ar hyd y ffordd ar gyfer y daith yn ôl.
Rhedes ddwy daith, un lan at y gwersyll Rhufeinig ar Esgair Perfedd (mae’r enwau’n dal ar y map), prynhawn hyfryd o chwys a haul a gwartheg a mynd ar goll. Trodd cylchdaith o saith milltir yn bymtheg. A’r llall, yr un o’n i’n ei hofni, mas i Abaty Cwm-hir, lle claddwyd corff Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, y llyw olaf, taith o 24 milltir i gyd. O’n i ‘di blino wedi cyrraedd ac am fynd i gysgu. Meddyliais alw tacsi. Nes i ddim; ond mynd un gam ‘r ôl y llall yn ôl o’dd raid. Cerddes y dair olaf. Amhosib.
Ardal â’n hanes yn blaen ar y tir. Dylunio gan Anne Cakebread
As a photographic artist, one can’t help being affected by this dramatic, awe-inspiring location with its sublime vistas and jaw-dropping engineering. But as we know, our rural landscapes are imbued with multiple meanings as industry, agriculture and culture play their part in turning our ‘untouched wilderness’ into something else. Here at Elan Valley, the human impacts are profound and for me the task of unravelling this ‘landscape’ was both rewarding and concerning at the same time.
This wasn’t my first experience of mid Wales melancholia. Much of my childhood involved driving from our family home in Birmingham to west Wales via Rhayader and the Cambrian mountains. I have powerful memories of empty hills covered in sheep and grey pebbledash farmhouses. My father used to threaten to leave me by the side of the road at Devil’s Bridge if I didn’t finish my fish and chips. And more recently, I have been documenting ‘Wet Deserts’ in Britain’s western uplands, which has immersed me in the debates on what constitutes ‘unspoilt wilderness’. . . often simply summarised as wide open empty grasslands versus ‘rewilded’ native forests. So I entered the Valley with both a sense of awe and an awareness of some of the environmental issues.
Pretty soon into the residency I felt there was a ‘tension’ overhanging the Valley. A tension between a positive culture of conservation and regeneration set against a backdrop of commercial deforestation and destructive sheep farming. The replanting
of native trees, wildflower meadows and the creation of sanctuaries for birds and wildlife, in the shadow of empty grasslands, poor acid soil, silent pine forests and low biodiversity. Certainly, you only have to rise a few hundred metres from the Valley floor before you encounter wide open grasslands dominated by sheep and nothing much else. George Monbiot’s statement, in his book Feral, immediately comes to mind . . .
‘We live in a shadowland, a dim flattened relic of what there once was, of what there could be again.’
The book is a powerful critique of the state of the Welsh rural landscape and an argument for replacing monoculture farming (essentially sheep farming) with multi-species habitats, including the re-introduction of key wild animals. He calls for the ‘rewilding’ of vast swathes of upland Wales in order to reconnect us with the natural world.
As the story of Elan Valley and its water is intrinsically linked to the surrounding landscape, this ‘tension’ is, I believe, an important area for reflection, critique and dialogue. This landscape harbours important contemporary issues, such as how to conserve and rebuild our threatened natural habitats, how to challenge monoculture farming practice, the politics and meaning of water (the new oil), how to culturally reconnect a generation with nature, and how to plan and manage our rural land in the context of climate change and global population growth.
This artist residency programme could become a vibrant destination for artists wanting to contribute to these challenging issues at a time when so much land management is dominated by the miserable ethics of agribusiness and unsustainable farming practices. Whether we favour the romance of the rewilders’ ‘eco nostalgia’ or completely new ideas of high biodiversity regeneration, what is clear is that there is an opportunity here for new thinking. Artists may be able to stretch the possibilities and inspire in a way that the financial shareholders cannot. If nothing else, they will expose truths that can only inform and enrich decision making.
As a not-for-profit organisation, Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water, the ‘steward’ of this land,
is ideally placed to create a visionary and sustainable future for the Elan Valley that couldn’t come from a solely commercially driven organisation. Let’s hope it shoots for the stars! On this note, many thanks to Ed Parsons and his team of rangers at Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water, who were always incredibly passionate and helpful throughout my time on the residency.
I arrive for the first visit; the cottage feels cold and abandoned. If I am going to get the most out of the residency I will ‘live’ here rather than camp here. By day two it feels like a home, a base, a studio. The routine of living starts to feel normal; keep the fire alight, take a candle up to brush my teeth. I have to wait for things, to slow down, to pause.
The world outside the door feels wild and unknown but over the days that follow, as ever-increasing circular walks spell out the world around me, paths become familiar.
On these walks my mind ranges from thinking about what I am doing to take in much broader thinking, random association, as I move through the landscape. I see few people; occasionally I pass a walker and hear more about Bob, who used to live at the cottage I am in.
As I set the rhythm of walking I wonder about the ‘mirror’ of the water bouncing light back up at its margins. I wonder who was in the valley before the water. I think about the vertical journey of the water, from atmosphere, to reservoir, through pipes into houses and out again. I think about the horizontal line of the reservoir surface drawn against the rough banks. A line through what was there before. A new horizon. A crossing out, an underlining.
I wonder how many songs I remember the lyrics to. I immediately wonder who can hear me. I think about the residents that are in the valley now, and the residents that were here. At night I convince myself that I can hear a deep bass sound deep in the hill, or is it deep in my ears? I think of the noise of the river, the streams running over rocks through the centre of the valley before it was silent beneath the weight of the water. I wonder what is expected of me. I walk and film and read and listen and watch. Time slows. I follow paths and my mind follows different thoughts and I start to work.
The time spent at the Elan Valley residency project has promoted many ideas and posed numerous questions. The unique conditions afforded by this residency equally challenge and inspire, creating an amazing context in which to re-consider art practice: isolation, away from distractions of the everyday, connectivity to the rhythms and cycles of seasons and daylight hours, a different sense of time, pace and presence.
Time is key, and for me, extended, uninterrupted time here, in this very particular place, enabled me to think deeply without the pressure to produce any particular output. I
was able to clarify that my work is centred on the study of how landscape is culturally constructed and the problematic tension between structured experience and an open engagement with a place. This has been paralleled within what has become an extended painting practice which converses between materiality and image, surface and illusion, painting and photography and the phenomenological nature of both experience within a place and of a painting.
As an artist engaged in exploring notions of landscape and the dialogue between image and experience, the Elan Valley residency posed certain questions and challenged my practice in particular ways and revealed itself as an extraordinary situation to locate a practice concerned with space, environment and landscape.
Firstly, this is an engineered place. In regards to the series of dams the appearance of this place and its reception has been carefully considered and managed. And in a less aesthetically considered way the surrounding landscapes are also shaped, by farming, both through sheep grazing and tree planting.
In response to these structures I found myself needing to find ways to subvert these implicit directions by physically exploring, through walking from the house; spending many hours of the day sitting in the woodland or on the hillside, in the wind and
rain, filming, photographing, recording sounds, drawing and painting. Or just sitting and looking, becoming part of the place; not looking at it but being in it. Weather and movement, light and temperature have all become new areas of engagement.
From the house on the hill it is clear that, in the distance, the homogenised mass of deep evergreen Scots pine is alien to the surrounding environment of yellowish-brown marshy grassland. The edges and shape of the forest plantation are clear and distinct, as is the shape of the reservoirs seen from the forest or the visitor centre, or in driving along the approach roads; their form is also defined and alien within the wildness of this place. Therefore, how does an artist respond to such a place, which has offered direction of how to be seen and experienced?
This introduces the second question, which has emerged from prolonged living, looking and engaging in this place: the enigmatic question of distance and the relationship between the notion of distance, painting and landscape. I have made two extended visits in the depth of winter which meant that some of the day, through necessity, was spent
in the house looking out at the surrounding environments. This architectural framing
of the landscape promoted this consideration of distance, both in relation to actual experience and to photographic processes; the composition of a ‘view’ and the embedded hierarchical associations; the idea of the view as a mechanism for distancing or detaching from experience; architectures of looking and how to re-imagine distance through art practices.
In addition to the visibly distant, during the short hours of daylight and, on the first visit, no electric lighting, notions of space and proximity expanded outwards through the ability to hear through the darkness the invisible rushing of water over the flooding dam. Sound animated and expanded the place. How as a painter could this understanding of space form part of a visual practice?
Sound, too, formed part of the experience via the small portable radio tuned only to
long wave where it was possible to catch the news. Listening daily to world events re- contextualised this experience of being off-grid, no phone signal, no internet; again, no matter how much this residency enabled a celebration of isolation and deep connection to the present experience, the connections beyond are permanent.
In between the two visits I had the opportunity to spend a month in Buenos Aires, where I met an Israeli artist, Roy Efrat, who shares similar interests in the relationship between painting and lens-based media and, most importantly, between experience, image
and time. On the news came a report of a shooting in a bar in Tel Aviv where he lives; suddenly the political and historical contexts of land came into sharp focus. I wondered how he would respond to this place, so detached and so connected to human survival through the most precious commodity, water, which physically connects this rural place to the inner city?
Reflections: Elan Residency 2014-2015
To date I have spent three periods at Pen-y-Garreg, Elan: 30 October–2 November 2014, 21–25 January 2015 and 6–9 August 2015. I hope to revisit in spring 2016.
Each visit was planned around my intention to experience Elan in different seasonal conditions, and indeed, my experience is that a stay at Pen-y-Garreg is certainly an immersion in the conditions.
On a practical level, living at the cottage demands an amount of attention to the basic needs of habitation – particularly in winter, where my experience of losing the generator and the phone on the first day led to a particular mode of living, where candle lighting and keeping the Rayburn in were an initial novelty.
The cottage is a great resource, both in in its location above the valley and in the way it brings a visitor into a relationship with basic needs, the work that one must do in order to work . . .
I think there are some simple systems that could disrupt this reality and make things easier for visitors. One of these could be that in cold weather that the Rayburn is lit early in the day before an artist’s arrival. In my experience, it takes the house 36 hours to warm up from cold.
Contrastingly, this summer I hardly spent any time at the cottage, apart from sleeping, and I didn’t need the Rayburn. I wonder in the future if the huge physical and energy resources of Elan could be harnessed, avoiding the need for a diesel generator, and instead the quality of living conditions could be based on available sun, wind and water energy.
I know that a large part of this pilot project is about identifying what might be needed to sustain a residency programme at Elan. Another suggestion would be to galvanise the work and energy of the participating artists towards fitting up, furnishing and developing the conditions at Pen-y-Garreg into a home for residencies. In my visit this summer I enjoyed the accumulation of books and the evidences that spoke of a transient community of people passing through the place. In the future I can imagine a work day, where artists turn up, work together and make some improvements to the place.
Finally, something about the emerging practices from my time in Elan.
In autumn and winter I concentrated on chopping wood(!) and walking randomly the grazed uplands above the cottage, attempting to get a geographical perspective and a way to internalise the beat of the place. In autumn I chose a rather random strategy and walked whilst listening to ‘Fear of Music’ by Talking Heads – an album that way back had a huge influence on me, and one that in its time reflected a collective fear of the future. The seasonal bleakness of these Elan uplands coupled with the music heightened my sense of melancholy and temporary isolation here. I made a bad recording of ‘Life during Wartime’ at the trig point on Esgair Pen-y-Garreg, and I hope to make some more.
In January I came across snow buntings up here. Apparently they are seasonal visitors and feed on the seedheads of the reeds, grasses and sedges that grow above the snow line .. .
In January I got lost in Gwaelod-y-Rhos and found my way back in the dark and this summer I spent two days cycling and walking along Dol-y-Mynach and Claerwen. This gave me insight into the appearance of the other reservoir valleys and hill farms before they were drowned. I slept up on Claerwen dam on my last evening.
I will make a more detailed contribution to the online resource in due course and will expand on the processes and possible outcomes of practice.
In summary, my time has been taken up with contingencies and improvisations in response to the scale and complexities of this place, many of them practical. I intend to continue to expand this process; to make a final springtime visit will identify any possible emerging outcomes.
17 October 2015