Sunday, 20 August 2017

Dave Evans AIR 2017

The Outlandia residency really highlighted the contradictions within my practice. I’m interested in the role of asceticism, of self-denial in art, so being in isolated from things in the middle of a forest gave me a great opportunity to be away from all the usual temptations. On the other hand, my practice looks at how this asceticism might work within digital networks so is primarily digitally based. Obviously being off-grid, and camping to boot, mains powered working was problematic. To counter this I decided to split each day in the studio into two, half reading and writing and half working to build a forest Wi-Fi access point populated with a video made in response to the site.  This meant I could do some reading writing in the morning and then work on my laptop or out in the forest for the rest of the day.

The essay I wrote was about art and loyalty (I had originally planned to write a digital ascetic manifesto, but thinking about what it means to write rules ended up being more interesting). I did this by looking at contemporary loyalty through the lens of neo-medievalism, as I’m interested in the lives of early monks and holy men. In my original proposal to Outlandia I said I was going to research Simon Stylites, who lived on a platform on top of a pillar near Aleppo in Syria for 37 years in the fourth century. This developed into a broader consideration of how similar medieval loyalties were to contemporary loyalties, and how eremitic ascetics like Simon and their counterparts the cenobites were not unlike today’s artists. Being on a pillar, in the forest, obviously resonated with this and I enjoyed using the peace and quiet to think about what my loyalties were there, at Outlandia, and to read about neo-medievalism and asceticism.

All images courtesy of Dave Evans

Obviously the forest and mountain did not have Wi-Fi, which I am sure is one of the main attractions for people, for people to look beyond their screens at the landscape and get away. That said, I’m interested in how these devices and networks we use came to be such a bind. Why not have Wi-Fi? Why not have access to a network? I decided to set one up, a local Wi-Fi network that just broadcast to the immediate area. To do this I needed two things, a mast and an ‘Internet’. I made the mast from stuff in the forest, rope, string, logs and sticks. The Internet, made from a battery powered raspberry pi, consisted of one webpage showing a short film I made during the week called Tribute. It is quite obvious that the Outlandia location is quite remote, so the chances of anyone accessing the network were relatively slim, but again, why should this matter? The film Tribute, was just that, a tribute to a person I can no longer see. The film was a message of sorts, and as I sat on the side of the hill, with the network invisibly circulating around me, I felt an intimate connection via the network that was contrary to the type of connection that, perhaps, we feel is so onerous at times.

All in all I had a great time at Outlandia, I got a lot done and the location brought up some considerations that would probably not have arisen in my own studio. It was good having to choose carefully what I took each day and I enjoyed how clumsy I felt when working to erect the mast in the forest. It made me think a lot about how important limitations are to artists, how we all incorporate them into our practices somehow.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Shona McCombes AIR 2017

In 2009 or thereabouts, when I was 18 or thereabouts, confronted with the long and languid emptiness of a university summer, I decided to take a train alone to a town near Fort William and spend two weeks working and living in a hostel, the first trip I ever made entirely by myself. I did this for no other reason than to see if I could. At 18 I was shy and awkward and unaccustomed to independence and I kept to myself, cleaning the toilets and walking out into the surroundings as far as my feet would take me. Not far, it turned out: at 18 I had barely used my body and, carless, my movements followed the ebb and flow of rural bus timetables. The expansiveness I had imagined might reside there, the wildness and the freedom, turned out to be somewhat elusive, and my 18-year-old heart was left somewhat unfulfilled.

 All images courtesy Shona McCombes

In the time since, my only contact with the area has been in brief window-framed flashes, passing through on the way to or from other places. Eight years later, to be back in the same landscape is a strange experience, revisiting a small slice of life that I had mostly forgotten, everything filtered and coloured by the time between. In those eight years I’ve lived in eight different houses across three countries and circled right back round to where I started, confronted again with the overwhelming freedom of an empty summer, a layover between two lives. Halfway through a two-year, two-country MA, I am back in Scotland but not really home, drifting between friends and family scattered across the country, spending my nights in spare rooms and on sofas, trying to slot myself back into old ways of being. In this erratic, formless life, the two weeks carved out for my research and writing residency at Outlandia feel like a space in which to breathe. The cycle along the glen and the steep hike up the peat track sculpt the shape of my days, a straining movement up and away from an everyday life crowded with questions and decisions and replies and obligations and lists and notifications. The emptiness of the space clears me.

I am a city dweller; ‘nature’, for me, is always an excursion, always elsewhere. I have become the kind of person who aspires to outdoorsiness, but I’ve never quite managed to successfully embody it – always some item of clothing not quite appropriate, some essential piece of equipment missing, always leaving too late and not taking enough water or taking too much and sagging under the weight of a poorly adjusted rucksack. I am exhausted by the consumer side of the wilderness industry: so many jackets and bags and tents and torches to choose from, so many different kinds of fabric and just-in-case gadgets. Getting back to nature involves a lot of buying.

It’s this and related points of tension that underpin the research and writing I’ve been doing. A place like Outlandia enters the imagination as something wild and remote, something closer to a natural state than everyday urban life, but really it’s embedded in one of the most well-trodden landscapes in the country, a central node in a national network of nature tourism. Each day a steady trickle of walkers find themselves at the end of the boardwalk – camping families and local dog-walkers, munro-baggers and mountain-bikers, organised tours and lone travellers, of scattered origin and varying levels of curiosity about this space they have stumbled into. They express different degrees of romanticism when they comment on the view: for some the landscape is pure aesthetics and awe, for others an obstacle course to be conquered and checked off a list, for others simply the fabric of their everyday lives seen from a new angle. For many the central sensation seems to have something to do with unreality: the word “fairytale” is uttered frequently. Outside, birds and small creatures of the undergrowth go about their lives, and the sky shifts ceaselessly through a spectrum of blues and greys.

All landscapes are heavy with layers of contradictory meaning; all landscapes are etched with invisible lines that mark ownership, heritage, history – and with other lines, the tracks of animals and trajectories of flight that pay no heed to borders or title deeds. From the Clearances to the hunting estates to windfarms and Wild Land Areas, the politics of land, in which animals and plant life are inextricably caught up, have been at the heart of Scotland’s structures of power and its processes of national meaning-making. I have been reading about the laws of landownership and histories of hillwalking, about strange hypnotic relations between people and other living things. I have been writing stories about encounters and exploitations between people, animals, landscapes – about hunting and culling and conserving, and the imbrications of life and death in any attempt to care for the non-human world.

This is not the most obvious choice of topic, perhaps, for a thesis in Gender Studies. But the relations we weave between ourselves and the land and the other beings that inhabit it, the stories we tell about what certain places mean and who they are for, are never by or about a neutral, universal “human”, because such a creature has never existed; they are about the gendering of space and sexuality, the racialising of nation and migration, the class relations of labour, leisure and ownership. They are about oppositions and tensions between threat and vulnerability, between the wild and the domestic, between native and alien, between saving and killing, between nature and culture. In thinking about the wild I am interested in exploring the routes by which power circulates through bodies and spaces, the kinds of national imaginaries and identities that emerge in encounters with dramatic landscapes and endangered ecosystems. The natural sciences and the tourist industries, the environmental policy-makers and the history-making nation-builders, the hikers and the campers, the lairds and the workers all play their part in weaving these stories, and my research is attempting to trace their histories and explore their implications in an age where our relationship to the non-human world becomes ever more urgent and ever more politically volatile.

But part of my aim at Outlandia was also to disentangle myself from the rigid structures of academia, which can be stifling to thought. After months spent writing research proposals and literature reviews and bibliographies, I chose to use my time here not for systematic study but for free association, reading and writing without a quantifiable goal. For the first days I wrote by hand, and I found myself writing about writing by hand – about what it means to leave a physical mark, bearing the trace of the body that made it, a different texture of language than clean anonymous lines of type. Sometimes the page is damp and the ink smudged from a heavy rainfall that soaked through my rucksack; sometimes the text is messy and sloping from an aching wrist; sometimes the heavy score-marks of indecision eradicate what was beneath them, sometimes fragments glimpse through. The stories I started writing at Outlandia all remain unfinished, but my hope is to nurture them into a loosely connected collection of narratives – a series of characters whose stories do not intersect but who inhabit the same small piece of land, who encounter the same animals in different states of animation, in different modes of interspecies relating. As my academic research continues to influence and infest my fictions, I hope these fictions in turn will contaminate my research, make it into something more speculative and imaginative, less constricted by frameworks and categories, something more fluent and flowing. The time I spent at Outlandia was not strictly productive in a measurable, completed sense, but it has been invaluable in beginning to create the space in my mind for this kind of thinking.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Alex Mackay AIR 2017

All images courtesy Alex MacKay

These days, if I’m asked what I do, my most frequent response is simply ‘musician’; however in the past, myself and others have used terms including composer, sound artist, performer, sound designer and multimedia artist. My output, both by necessity and desire, has been quite diverse in terms of style and format, often working on very contrasting projects simultaneously. Over the past year however - again both by necessity and desire - I’ve felt the need to consolidate the diverse components of my practice into a kind of work which I feel is a true representation of what I do as an artist as a whole.
I’ve spent a lot of time as a touring musician for the band Mogwai, which has been a fantastic experience in its own right, but also put me firmly back in touch with my roots as an electric guitarist and keyboard player - something I spent a fair bit less time on as I focussed on composition and multimedia work in recent years. Being away on tour and spending limited amounts of time in my current home city of Glasgow meant I was thinking less about making work to be performed by other people and more about what I could write, perform and record myself using only the tools at my immediate disposal. Essentially, what I wanted to make was simply a ‘solo record’. So much of the music I love and experience regularly are in the ‘album format; it’s a format with which I have a deep relationship, but not a format I’ve made anything substantial for so far.
I also knew, however, that this wouldn’t simply be a case of just writing some music and then recording it. I knew that my primary tools were going to be synthesizers, guitars and software (tools that I feel very much at home with), but I wanted to go about it in a way that draws conceptually and methodologically on my works in other areas such as notated composition or field recording.

The objective of this residency then became to explore how I can incorporate some of these concepts and methodologies from other areas of my work into the making of this record, and begin working on creating some material that could then be used once I begin putting together the record with my tools in my usual workspace. I will talk about how this unfolded during my time in Outlandia, as well as how the surrounding environment impacted this and became part of the process.

Grids, graphs and data
In my initial experiments in preparation for this project, I had been exploring the potential of different sequencers. Sequencers are commonplace in electronic music making, from entry-level right up to the most advanced and academic circles; I had been using them from my teenage years, however I had recently come across a particular one which gives one greater control over the parameters at play, to the extent of creating near-infinitely evolving patterns out of a single set of input data. I found this expanded approach to sequencing really exciting from both a compositional and performative point of view, and it became clear quite quickly that this would play an important part in the work I was embarking upon making. Whilst preparing for the residency, I began thinking about the parallels between the grid-like structures of representing data in sequencers like this one, and geographical charts; i.e. using a grid to plot information on over a period of time or quantity space. The thought of relating the two approaches to each other appealed to me greatly; taking the practice of being able to use data analysis to look at geographic features that can often look and feel so massive from a perspective that is easier to grasp and relating this to musical practices, through a combination of - what I choose to term for the purposes of this work and discussion - objective and subjective techniques (I’ll discuss how I am using these techniques in more detail later).
This connection between geographic data and musical/sonic material has been there in my work for a while; environmental field recording has been a feature of a lot of my work, as has converting geographic data (in digital form) into sound files, and using these two things as opposing forces within a work. I feel it’s important to note that I’m not particularly interested in direct sonification of data for it’s own sake; it’s the relationship between data and perceptive experience (this relates to what I mean with the terms objective and subjective) that I’m interested in, and how this can manifest and be explored in music. However, working with materials such as field recordings and data translations requires quite different thought processes from the consideration of the implications of such data on how I compose with abstract musical material. This was one of the main objectives of the residency, to make this consideration and deduce whether there could be something of value in this approach to composition.

One of the first exercises I undertook during the residency was to sketch impressions of a particular geographic landscape at varying resolutions (i.e. using 10mm, 5mm and 1mm square) on graph paper. The number of units on the X and Y axes were determined arbitrarily/instinctually. While these generated some interesting shapes, as the values were all arbitrary and everything else was instinctual, it was hard to see where the value and meaning in trying to generate material through this material was; I may as well have been sketching notes on a stave in the approximate shape of the mountain in question. The exercise was not entirely futile though; I took some interest in the intersections between the shapes, and identified them as where notes may be positioned on a sequencer. This was not entirely useful in itself, however, when I experimented with writing out scales with pitches at regular intervals on the Y axis, using these intersections to trigger a specific pitch a t a point in time yielded some interesting results. When the points fall between distinct pitches on the graph, this implies microtonal pitches, e.g. the note that would be between, let’s say, a C and a C sharp. Of course, this is nothing new, and I have explicitly utilised microtonality in my works before; however, it isn’t the notes in themselves that necessarily interested me, but the potential in the context of a work for tuning and harmony to be shifting. For example, a line on a graph could be determining how different notes are ‘tuned’, so you perhaps have a chord sequence where the same chords occur (on paper), but the tunings of the constituent notes shifting would make it sound different every time it returned. This, of course, has implications for melodic material too; for example you have seven points marked on a graph, and derive pitch information accordingly to make a scale. If you then decided to make a more detailed analysis of the same data to produce fourteen points on the graph, you have essentially what is the same scale but in twice the detail. Thinking of the potential of having different ‘resolutions’ of a set of pitches (or a scale) was something that excited me, particularly as a parameter in a piece of music to be manipulated as the piece develops. Needless to say, the less ‘straight’ the line that produced, the more interesting and irregular the pitch sets become (this also creates the potential for varying degrees of microtonality throughout the pitch set). So in short, while this provided some valuable insights into how I can use graphs to work with musical material, it didn’t provide a method to link experiences of environment with material in a meaningful way.

The second approach I took to graph work went right back to my geography studies at school; cross sections of map contours. This consists of plotting the contours of a map on a graph in order to create a visualisation of a cross-section of that landscape. While similar ways of working with pitch and rhythm could also be applied as with the other graphs. I realised there was a connection here with envelopes. Envelopes, in a music technology context, are essentially shapes which dictate the rising and falling of a parameter over time. These envelopes could be drawn on a graph like the cross- sections; they are usually very simple however, normally one straight line for each stage of the envelope. I began to think of what it would sound like if the cross-sections were envelopes; you would essentially be able to have musical parameters controlled by the contours of a landscape - it could manifest in how the volume of a sound swells, the spatialisation of a sound, its pitch, the list could go on and on. While some pieces of software allow you to draw in envelope shapes, I don’t currently know of a specific program that could achieve this to the desired degree of accuracy and ability to scale them and apply them in different ways; I will have to do some more research into this, or perhaps write a program of my own to do it. Regardless, it means there is a way of relating at least physical properties of these environments to musical material in a clear, useful and perhaps meaningful way.
Having come to these conclusions around objective and subjective information and how the might and might not relate to the creating and manipulation of musical material, it revealed to me something about my creative process and how this relates to it. How I make and work with material could be broken down into two broad categories; instinctual and systematic. Not only can the material I use be described in these terms, but also how I compose with them; I find that I tend to thrive when working with material which I have differing levels of emotional attachment to, working with instinctual responses against systematic material to create tension and complications to drive the work forward. What I found out from these experiments was, perhaps rather obviously, that the graph making - which is an essentially systematic process - lent itself well to working with the objective information. Unsurprisingly, trying to work with subjective, unquantifiable experiences and information in a systematic way wasn’t going to work very well. That side of it required the engagement of my instinctual ways of working; that however would require having my instruments and other tools to work with, which I didn’t have in Outlandia, therefore making it beyond the scope of what I could achieve during the residency. However, it did mean I had to focus 100% on the systematic aspect of the work, which led me to develop these new methodologies to create material derived from the environment and the data we use to make sense of it. How I then respond to the material in the next stage of the process can then be led more by instinct and emotion, which I suppose is closer to how I respond to these environments when I am in them.

Fieldwork - walking/recording
Although I was primarily concerned with how I could apply existing methodologies relating to engaging with an environment through field recording to abstract material, I still felt it was necessary to engage in some field recording itself. One of the things I particularly like about the experience of field recording (although it’s by no means exclusive to it) is the disciplined listening and stillness it requires on the part of the recordist, and the necessity to step back from being at the creative centre of your own work for a brief moment. Although field recording practices are very diverse, I tend to enjoy de-centralising myself as much as possible (of course, this is not entirely possible, as the decisions involved with what you choose to record, microphone placement etc are very much a centralised artistic act) in the recording phase and then putting my creative decision making and technical skills right back in the centre when working with that material. I see this as being clearly related to my process of working with data-related material; the data being presented in a relatively clean form which is then contextualised by my creative response to that material.
So, I decided to establish a daily task of a walk which would feature recording/focussed listening. Where and when I would record, and what would be the focus of the recording was not predetermined, and often I wouldn’t decided upon the route to walk (if at all) until shortly before setting off. Upon reviewing the recordings at the end of the process, I noticed I tended to gravitate towards capturing sensations of motion; for example, a band of rain moving across where I was recording, wind causing metal structures to resonate, water from a river entering a loch (using a hydrophone). It occurred to me that this bears at least some relation to the ideas I was thinking a lot about regarding time-based elements of 'static' experiences.
In order to consider how I might apply methods I would usually employ when working with field recording material like this to other material, I had to first think of how I would deal with this material as it is. Of course, this is usually heavily dependent on the conceptual basis for the work, but for the purposes of this work I decided to think of it purely in terms of the potential of the material for its own sake and what I could bring out of it. I made a list of ideas of how I would approach working with these recordings - here are a few examples (simplified for summary here):

1. process to emphasise/manipulate sensation of movement in the recording 
2. introduce other elements/material that would provide resistance to the movement/cause the movement to change
in intensity 
3. subdue movement to draw attention to detail of other elements (to contextualise how they are impacted by the
movement or not) 
4. use envelope following on the parts of the recording where the sensation of movement is prevalent and use these
values to control other parameters (e.g apply the movement to other elements)
Although this is quite a simple thought excercise, it was very valuable to think in clear and concise terms (as opposed to more heady technical processes or aesthetic/poetic terms) about how exactly approach that material, and as a result, it became quite clear how these processes can translate into methods to work with abstract material. For example;

1. amplify/manipulate dynamics and timbral intensity of the ‘movement’ 
2. introduce contrapuntal material to work against the ‘movement’ 
3. suppress/deconstruct/bring ‘movement’ material to the background of the texture 
4. make other material imitate aspects of the ‘movement’ material, e.g. with pitch, dynamics, gesture etc.
Of course, these are extremely simplified (and quite obviously literal) examples of potential ways of translating the methodologies, but I plan on exploring these in much more detail as I begin to actually work with the material in the near future.

Outcomes and moving forward
The limits imposed on what I could practically achieve and how I could work during the residency by the nature of the environment meant I was restricted to working on ideas and theoretical concepts rather than practically realising them; this was positive in terms of having the time and space to really focus on the ideas themselves without the temptation of jumping too quickly into having them mediated by my usual sets of tools. While I couldn’t realise the ideas there and then, by the end of the residency I had a whole bank of ideas - some were simple ideas for technical processes that could be developed into something bigger, while some were bigger ideas for pieces or over-arching themes for the pieces as a whole - which I felt really excited about working with in the coming days/weeks/months.
The harmonic and melodic material, particularly the material involving microtones, and the structures I developed for them were some of the most exciting and valuable material to have come out of the residency - I have already discussed the technical details of this earlier; usually after a period of preparation for a new work I would go straight into working with my ideas with my usual tools, i.e. computer programs and instrument, however this time, I also had ideas for creating some new tools specifically for the purpose of realising these ideas.
I use a programming platform called Max/MSP, which is very popular with sound artists - as well as visual artists and other artists working with data - who wish to build their own programs to process data. The possibilities are near- infinite as you can build programs from scratch, and is relatively easy to work with due to its primarily visual interface. Whilst I have used other people’s programs built in Max/MSP extensively, I have not built a great deal of my own programs; however as I developed some ideas which were quite technically specific, I saw this is as an opportunity to both improve my programming skills and create some bespoke software which would be better suited to this project than anything I could find pre-made.
I came away with three main ideas for programs to pursue; the first is a program to enable me to send microtonal note information to MIDI instruments, in order achieve notes that lie in between the conventional 12-notes on a keyboard. In this case, there are readily available programs already existing that could do this, however making one myself would not only be a good warm up, but would also allow me to integrate it into sequencers that I use for example. I will be able to control each pitch to the detail of cents, which are very fine units of pitch in between each semitone; one semitone consists of 100 cents. This will allow me achieve notes such as half and quarter sharps/flats and even microtonal inflections upon these notes. Being able to modify a monophonic sequencer to achieve these notes should be relatively easy, however building something capable of producing chords may be significantly more difficult as it may require constructing a whole new interface rather than being able to easily modify another one.
The second idea is to build a program capable of either drawing or importing complex envelope shapes and applying them to other parameters. Envelopes, as discussed earlier, are usually a simple shape with 2-4 stages; however I want to try to create envelopes that could be as complex as the cross-sections of a map. This would allow me to contour sounds in a much more specific way than usual, and work with the ‘shape’ of sounds in relation to each other in a more complex way. This will perhaps be the most challenging to create of the programs, as it will require a lot more research into how to involve drawing or recognising lines in Max/MSP and also scaling them to represent particular values and periods of time, but could be one of the most exciting in terms of potential and versatility, as the ‘shapes' could be assigned to any parameter I’m working with.
Third and finally, is a program to expand or contract intervals between a set of notes to a specific factor (essentially multiplying or dividing the spaces between the notes), accurate to cents as opposed to semitone intervals. This in effect means you could take a conventional set of notes in tones and semitones, and multiply or divide them to create a more complex set of microtonal pitches. This would actually be very easy to do in Max/MSP, as it would simply involve converting the MIDI notes into numeric values (a very simple operation in Max), and applying the calculation.
The first period of time spent after the residency is going to be particularly focussed on programming and building these tools - again avoiding diving straight into making noise - after which I’ll be putting all the material gathered and generated to the test with these new tools and begin to form them into the pieces which will be making up the new work. It’s hard to tell at this point how much time I’ll be needing to spend programming and what obstacles I might come up against but it’s a challenge I’m really looking forward to.

The two weeks I spent in Outlandia were without a doubt a really unique experience which has already played an integral part in a substantial amount of work I’m currently beginning. It’s been quite a while since I’ve emerged from a period of research and development with such an abundance of fresh approaches and plans for venturing into new creative territories like this, and it's a really exciting feeling to have these new tools at my disposal with a clear conceptual direction to pursue with them.
I’m really excited about seeing this new work come to fruition; not only the finished product but also what develops in the process, such as the pieces of software I’m working on and new compositional techniques. If, in the meantime you’re interested in seeing how some of these technical tools I’m working on are coming along, please feel free to get in touch ( and I’d be happy to share with you. For now, I’d like to thank those who created Outlandia and made it possible for me to spend time there and start the journey of this new work, particularly London Fieldworks and the Nevis Landscape Partnership, and all those working in the Glen Nevis area for making such a wonderful place to spend time renewing my creative relationship with landscapes and taking it to new places.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Chris Otley AIR 2017

I have a long-held fascination with the 18th century anatomical drawings of George Stubbs. Their pristine and clinical presentation of isolated natural history specimens give no hint at all of the environmental conditions in which the artist presumably made his observations—the maggot-ridden horrors of farmyard barn turned dissection lab. My own drawings take on similar subject matter, but have been produced in a very clean, warm, dry and well-lit studio in the middle of Oxford. I was drawn to working at Outlandia to confront this distance between subject and outcome, and be embedded in a wilder setting.

The daily plod up the steep hillside to the field station treehouse was punctuated by stops to photograph the flora and fauna: fat-headed golden-ringed dragonflies; purple-pink foxgloves; the vibrant green of ferns putting out new growth; cuckoo-spit in the undergrowth; beetles; skittish small birds. On the first day, within minutes of arriving at the treehouse, I saw the brief flash of a red squirrel in a nearby tree (sadly not repeated). Bats have taken to roosting in the interior of the walls of the structure, and could be heard scrabbling about during the day.

Initially, I found it hard to settle. The view was fantastically distracting, and my decision to lock myself in isolation against inquisitive occasional visitors proved to have the opposite effect – about once an hour, people would aggressively try to force the door or shake the structure as much as they could (later in the week, leaving the door ajar led to brief, polite interruptions from walkers every couple of hours, their curiosity quickly satisfied and the conversation increasingly welcomed). I also felt under pressure to deliver exciting or unusual work, and to experiment more than my usual practice tends to encourage, and this resulted in a series of quickly-abandoned pieces with underdeveloped (or simply bad) ideas. I became frustrated at my own impatience, and despite the anonymity of the residency, felt constricted by a perceived need to publically perform. I retreated to research reading, making notes, and planning larger drawings in sketch form. Now, with distance, those abandoned experiments already look more satisfying, and I will definitely return to resolve them back at my own studio in Oxford.

I eventually settled back into drawing beached jellyfish, which I’ve been focusing on in recent weeks. There seemed something wonderfully perverse about drawing this subject matter high up in the glen, and I began to find local, craggy, geological forms in their twisting jellies as I drew. I then spent an afternoon photographing an array of mushrooms and toadstools (the jellyfish of the forest?) in the surrounding woodland, including the scrambled-egg bright-yellow of a slime mold known as fuligo septica, known in Scandinavia as the vomit of troll cats, and in Finland, said to be used by witches: rich material for later work.

Outlandia was at its best when it poured with rain; the skylight became a diffuse James Turrell installation, and mist poured off Ben Nevis down into the treeline, turning the woodland into an even more atmospheric setting. The week was challenging and inspiring, and reinvigorated by the experience, I’m now excited to develop the ideas and sketches stimulated by such a unique environment.  
All photography by Chris Otley

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Katie Blair Matthews AIR 2017

My residency at Outlandia was the perfect way to continue the studio work I had created the previous year. In April 2016, I volunteered with the charity Trees for Life, and used my afternoons at the Dundreggan tree nursery to create portraits of native tree saplings. Armed with rolls of black paper, gorilla tape and a couple of crates from the nursery, I constructed my own photographic studio in a bird-watching hut behind polytunnels. This environment suited me far more than the clinical, dark studios within the photography department at university. I liked the idea of being able to set up a studio anywhere, and I'd spent my last year at university acquiring the equipment that would allow me to do so. Setting up a studio in Outlandia was a test of how portable my equipment really was. A 50 minute walk up Cow Hill from Fort William with one bag on my back, another on my front and a tripod case lugged around my shoulder ( I was determined to get everything up in one go) indicated that perhaps I needed to revaluate my kit.  

Following on from my interest in Scotland’s forestry, I wanted to use my time at Outlandia to create a portrait of the landscape through multiple still life images of natural specimens collected from the surrounding area. My fascination in the notion of the seed bank has led me to use photography as a tool to archive nature and preserve specimens through the photographic image. This scientific approach allows me to research species of trees and plants individually to then understand the wider environmental and ecological history of the landscape.

I had visited Outlandia before, but as a tourist rather than an artist in residence. Once walking down Outlandia’s wooden walk-way, I couldn’t remember how long it took until I reached the hut but it felt a lot longer than last time. My pace quickened in sheer excitement.  After about 4 minutes of walking through the darkness of the forest, the suspended tree house appeared amongst towering Norwegian spruce trees. Armed, finally, with the key to this wonderful wooden structure, I opened the door and was greeted by Ben Nevis at the windows.

All images courtesy Katie Blair Matthews

The inside of the hut excited me but its emptiness also overwhelmed me. The creation of a masterpiece seems achievable when you imagine it, but when presented with the empty, physical space in which you set yourself the challenge, the finished piece feels far from becoming reality. I had placed immense pressure on myself to produce something truly momentous; something which reflected the extraordinary nature of the studio hut and environment itself. 

After completing my studio set-up and carrying out digital test shoots, by day 3 I already felt mentally exhausted from the self-inflicted pressure. This had been a reoccurring problem for me throughout my years at university and on day 3 I decided to confront this issue. Fortunately, I had nature on my doorstep and I allowed myself the freedom to wonder across the Glen to decompress. Perhaps the ability to freely wonder became slightly addictive and distracting. In order to bring focus to my daily routine, I used the 50 minute commute each morning and evening as an opportunity to explore and meditate.  This exploratory commute was something I sorely lacked back in Edinburgh where my office sits a 10 second walk from my bed. 

Over the course of the week I began to understand the daily routine of the surrounding forest. Most memorably was the flock of chaffinches who flew around the hut and hovered by the window between 6-7pm. They were so quick and agile I failed at getting a good photograph every time. The walk to and from the studio enhanced my inquisitive eyes and the forest floor seemed to become more vibrant each day.  

As I began to feel part of the forest and its daily occurrences I also began to feel far more connected to the work I was creating. It provoked me to consider the photographic activities of 19th century colonials who created anthropological studies of native people in their homeland. It was often an entirely obtrusive and voyeuristic task where the natives were objectified and considered purely as scientific specimens.  It’s hard to ignore the similarity to my photographic project. The most fundamental aim of my work is to highlight the importance of species in our landscape and encourage inquisition to better our relationship with nature. My connection, understanding and respect towards the surrounding landscape was therefore incredibly important to me in the production of my work, as well as the way in which I foraged for specimens and set them up in my studio. 

 My residency at Outlandia became so much more than the project I had intended to do there. It influenced me to reconsider my creative process by offering me the physical and mental space to relax and explore. It encouraged me to adopt methods of dealing with self-inflicted pressures and procrastination whilst bringing focus through the freedom that I feel from being in nature. 

Digitalis purpurea,    Foxglove

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Garry MacKenzie AIR 2017

How does it begin?
With the piper’s drone
with the coarse fabric of the land
in greens and greys and purples,
the lines of hoof and song
that cross it.

Landscape as pibroch,
                           the drone
          never silent, never still,

then fingered notes
lift high above the moor:

the hill’s sharp profile.

All photography by Garry MacKenzie

I’m working on an English translation of Duncan Bàn Macintyre’s eighteenth-century Gaelic poem In Praise of Ben Dorain. This is a long poem which demonstrates an early kind environmental awareness, based on intimate observation of a Highland landscape and its population of red deer. My version of Ben Dorain isn’t simply a translation of the original, but also incorporates modern ecological research into deer behaviour, as well as a range of voices reflecting contemporary experiences of Highland landscapes: it’s a conversation between the 250 year-old poem and the modern world. During my residency I spoke with people who lived and worked in the local landscape, including people with links to forestry, gamekeeping and tourism, and I’ve been incorporating their voices and knowledge into the poem in ways that interact with Macintyre’s representation of the eighteenth-century Highlands. My translation explores the human ecology of the West Highlands, and Outlandia was a base from which I could immerse myself in this context. I spent my week walking, reading and writing, getting a feel for the colours, sounds, textures and biodiversity of the landscape. 

Outlandia also afforded me the time and the peace to get on with the spadework of translation. The view from the treehouse was an ever-changing and constant inspiration – in true Highland style it has resulted in an increase in lines about clouds and rain in my poem! The residency inevitably involves a lot of walking, and I started exploring ideas to do with paths, lines and walking in the poem too – this begins with the imagery in my verse introduction to Ben Dorain, above. Working at Outlandia was an unforgettable experience, and I was sad to walk away over the duckboard for the last time at the end of my stay. Thanks for an amazing, challenging, and enriching week!

Garry MacKenzie is a poet and non-fiction writer based in Fife, Scotland. His poetry has won awards including a Scottish New Writer’s Award and the Wigtown Poetry Competition, and been published in journals including Dark Mountain, Corbel Stone’s Contemporary Poetry Series, The Scores and Northwords Now. His non-fiction Scotland: A Literary Guide for Travellers is published by I.B. Tauris: .

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Lasma Poisa AIR 2017

Inspired by Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, I used my time at Outlandia to explore the idea of getting lost as a cultural and psychological metaphor; of losing oneself, of loss and longing. Because of its remote location and the distance from home, Outlandia held the potential of losing oneself in the wilderness. 

Each day, planned in accordance with the weather forecast, I made the two hour round journey to and from Outlandia; time I used for observation, exploration and creativity. I made countless stops to record my findings, each time searching through my enormous rucksack filled with essential equipment for that day. I made journeys into the woodland in and around Outlandia and the neighbouring Cow Hill. During this time I created a wealth of source material (photographs, sound recordings and videos) to be processed later on my return to my Manchester studio. 

I picked the brightest day to experiment with off-grid cyanotype printing, which, simple in theory, turned out to be more challenging than expected; carrying heavy 2lt bottles filled with mountain stream water up the very steep Peat Track, building ad-hoc darkroom due to unforeseen skylight and then balancing the chemical reaction of the ever changing sunlight.  Eventually I managed to create a series of prints and cyanotype postcards of Outlandia that I sent out the following day.

I realise now that the work I created in my residency is about Outlandia; it is about the fantasy of withdrawing from society, the longing for wilderness and about finding somewhere to disappear.

‘For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that colour of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The colour of that distance is the colour of an emotion, the colour of solitude and of desire, the colour of there seen form here, the colour of where you are not. And the colour of where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains.’
Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2005) pp. 29-30.

All images by Lasma Poisa