Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone
(Full screen available here)
Author: Alistair Oldham
Format: Interactive Online Video
Published: June 2018
How does the project explore the documentation of a multi-layered investigative arts project, both in terms of its methods and its outcome?
The work has been designed as an online video gallery of fifteen short films (that can be viewed on a computer, mobile phone or tablet), but elements of the work have also been viewed as a gallery installation, as a presentation to a live audience and individual films have been shown at film festivals and conferences. The best way into the work is probably to watch the short film Introduction : Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone, followed by the sequence of films suggested in the statement below.
My starting point was being invited by the artists YOHA and arts organisation Arts Catalyst to document the project, Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone, an investigative arts project into the environmental destruction of the Thames Estuary. The work was funded with a £2000 grant from London based Arts Catalyst and was not part of any doctoral or university funded research programme.
As I began to research the project in preproduction, I realised that a conventional documentary narrative (which I am accustomed to as a filmmaker) was unlikely to work, so I had to think of new and different approaches to production, in order to find a form and a process that would adequately represent the complexity of the overriding arts project and the landscape in which it was embedded. The research question that I used to define this approach, was how to best use the documentary form to represent a multilayered investigative arts project.
The arts project itself deals directly with the Anthropocene, particularly in the central piece Graveyard of Lost Species, which documents the excavation of a forty foot, twelve ton cockle fishing boat out of the Essex mud, and turning it into an ‘anti-monument’ to all the lost species and ways of life of the Thames Estuary (please see Refloating the Souvenir, Epitaphs of the Common Mud, Anti-Monument and Final Resting Place). Other aspects of the project also document the impact of the Anthropocene on the Thames Estuary, through the impact of industrialisation on the environment and the communities that it has traditionally supported, for example through rising water temperature, deep water dredging, food scarcity, species extinction and loss of livelihood.
My own process of investigation at the early stage of the project was to discover the most appropriate method of documentation and to design a screen format to most effectively represent it. An open ended methodology was important, to accommodate the complexity of the arts project itself, which involved multiple layers of exploration into local community, landscape, boats, tides, marshes, species extinction, land contamination, tactical media, citizen science and anti-monuments, which would not all together tidily fit into a conventional linear narrative. The emerging form of the gallery also seemed to be the best way to represent the amorphous nature of the Thames Estuary itself, with its concurrent themes of flows, currents and ideas that seep across the boundaries of the different films.
The work fits into my own personal research (or filmmaking practice) in terms of exploring the relationship of environmental sustainability and creative process, adding to an ongoing body of work that deals with these areas : the films The Bristol Bike Project (2011), Bonnington Square (2012) and The Gardens of St George (2014) all deal with environmental sustainability, and Invisible Airs (2013) and Drawing on Topolski (2015) both document the work of artists’ creative process. Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone adds to that body of work by combining those themes, while simultaneously moving toward a more interactive form.
This project was not funded as research and it was not part of any doctoral or post doctoral activity, so I had no particular obligation to present a literature review before embarking on production. However, in the course of my own production research I revisited interactive documentaries such as Out my Window (Cizek, 2016), Bear 71 ( Allison, 2012) and Journey to the End of Coal (Bollendorff & Segretin, 2008), as well as referring to the theoretical positioning of interactive documentary from the i-Docs conference, held at the Watershed, Bristol and the recent edited collection “i-Docs : the Evolving Practices of Documentary”. Another source of inspiration has been the film and installation work of John Akomfrah, particularly for the qualities of creative montage that his work displays, deploying fragmented imagery across multiple screens to create different possible readings and interpretations. Also, since the project’s completion, a reviewer has directed me to the short film Ain’t Got No Fear (Karikis, 2016), which is an interesting reference in terms of adopting a participatory and per-formed response to a similarly post industrial estuary landscape.
These various influences led me to consider strategies of how to best represent meaning that emerges from a distinct geographical space, how to editorially map across different subjects and themes, how to engage different collaborative voices within the production of one documentary project, and how to address considerations of audience that depart from conventional linear story telling. I also researched previous examples of work from both YOHA and the Critical Art Ensemble, to understand some of the principles of tactical media, the notion of the technical object, and of the idea of the anti-monument as a means of cultural resistance.
The primary methods of the project derive from conventional documentary filmmaking but also from some of the conventions of interactive documentary. The project has also evolved from observing the work of undergraduate students on the multiplatform documentary module that I teach at UWE, Bristol, where filmmaking is combined with an interactive approach to documentary production. In recent years this has involved the students working with Klynt software to create fluid and non linear approaches to documentary narrative.
The work has also adopted new methods in its collaboration with other artists and filmmakers, with footage coming from a range of different filmed sources. Some of the films were produced and directed by James Ravinet, a postgraduate student from the Royal College of Art, (Epitaphs of the Common Mud and the sequence of Conversation films with local historian and author Rachel Lichtenstein), some of the footage was shot by Graham Harwood and Fran Gallardo (a PhD student from Kings College, London), and other films were made with UWE Filmmaking graduates, Jim Smith and Zander Mavor. I personally took on the role of overall producer and director, designing the interface and arranging the content across the fifteen different films, including directing individual sequences and conducting interviews. Some footage was shot entirely on GoPro cameras by people who would not describe themselves as filmmakers. Some of the most interesting sequences were shot in this way, with cameras mounted on paddles, on the bow of a boat, and on top of someone’s head, in situations where it wasn’t even envisaged to end up being in a film (eg the films Refloating the Souvenir and Foraging and Hadley Ray). This principle of adopting a participatory approach to production was partly inspired by previously viewed collaborative interactive work such as Out of my Window.
A lot of the method of the project was collating and gathering footage together in this way from disparate sources, and then adding to it and shaping it together into individual films with a coherent and overarching editorial strategy, that represented the broader concerns of the Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone project. This selection and arrangement of the material, deciding what stories to follow and then deciding how to best organise them in relation to each other, was a core element of the project’s design. The gallery’s organisation is built around the central project The Graveyard of Lost Species, and this forms the narrative spine of the material, which can be followed through the films Refloating the Souvenir, Final Mud Day, Epitaphs of the Common Mud, Anti-Monument and Final Resting Place. But the wider themes of the overall project are also picked up and expanded on in the Introduction window, and in the edited interview sequences with local author Rachel Lichtenstein, whose book “Estuary” features two chapters on Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone, and who comes to act as a very useful mediator of some of the more complex ideas in the project overall.
The gallery format has enabled a different means of representing the sense of place of the Thames Estuary, not just in the very specific location photography of Hadley Ray and Canvey Island, but also in the way in which a deeper mapping of landscape emerges across the different spaces of the films, for example through the walking sequences of Foraging, Hadley Ray and Citizen Science, and in the edited visual sequences of the interview sections and Thames Estuary. The ‘open ended methodology’ referred to earlier has in this way allowed a deeper texture of space to emerge through the films, and often from the nonhuman perspective of GoPro cameras, which manage to capture something of the intertidal zone of the Thames Estuary, a space without real edges or boundaries, and where stories and ideas can seep across the different elements of the gallery space.
A further outcome of the project is to show that the documentation of an arts project like this, can do much more than just record its process, and can actually add discursive value and reflection to the project’s original activity. So although themes that relate to the Anthropocene such as the impact of industrialisation, environmental damage to the Thames Estuary and species extinction are all central to the arts project itself, their expansion through interview, voiceover and filmed montage and juxtaposition is given added value in the interactive documentary. The documentary has given the artists space to speak about a range of more detailed issues related to the Anthropocene (for example, the shipping industry, necro-capitalism, and the post industrial landscape) that would otherwise remain unrecorded in the arts project by itself. Some of the films, such as Hadley Ray, Canvey Island and Thames Estuary are not even part of the original arts project, but have been included in the interactive documentary to substantiate and expand on it, and in this way the documentary project can be argued to have added additional layers of meaning to the arts project itself, so that the documentary and the arts project start to feed off each other, rather than one being simply the record of the other.
Practitioners in other research disciplines might also gain inspiration from the possibility of breaking a subject down into multiple strands in terms of its filmic representation, rather than being tied to a more conventional linear narrative . This online gallery based approach has been designed to represent an investigative arts project, but the same model could be applied to similar explorations that deal with historic or geographic representation, where the act of documentation can offer added value beyond the simple recording of process. In this respect, the medium of film and then also of interactive documentary can enable a much more expansive investigation of a project’s principal themes, in this case locating the investigative arts project very much into the environment from which it has evolved. Film can take you out into the field in a way that other mediums might struggle to do. And the format of the interactive gallery can then expand that field of vision even further, allowing a variety of viewpoints and perspectives much in the same way as you might experience being in an actual landscape.
Since completion the work has been shown in different contexts, particularly in galleries, conferences and festivals, as well as online, where it can be viewed on smartphones and tablets, as well as on a computer.
Individual films have screened at the Crossroads of Art & Science conference (Hermitage, St Petersburg), the Voices from the Waters Film Festival (Bangalore, India), the Ostrava Environmental Film Festival in the Czech Republic, at the large outdoor screen of the Focal gallery (University of Essex, Southend) and at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney, Australia. The work has also been shown as a gallery installation at the launch of Arts Catalyst’s Centre for Art, Science & Technology (Kings Cross, London) in an exhibition called ‘Notes from the Field : Commoning Practices in Art and Science’ , as a conference presentation at the annual NAHEMI Talking Shop conference at the London College of Communication, and most recently at the i-Docs conference at the Watershed, Bristol (March 2018), and it is also due to be presented at the Avanca Film Conference in Portugal (July 2018).
These varied forms of dissemination have enabled the work to be tested out and received in different ways, for example by a more autonomous audience led navigation in an installation or gallery based setting, compared to being guided through the material in a conference setting, or the more traditional narrative form of conventional film festival screenings. The Arts Catalyst installation and the Hermitage screening have both enabled the work to be experienced in the specific context of the convergent fields of Arts and Science. These differing contexts of distribution have in themselves been an unexpected outcome of the project’s design and I would like to explore further how and where audiences might experience the work. As previously mentioned in the Outcomes section, the dissemination of the project into various settings, is enabling me to gain more insight into my own practice, particularly as a traditional filmmaker trying out a different way of working for the first time.
Screenings (for example at the Voices from the Waters Festival in Bangalore and at the Ostrava Environmental Film festival in the Czech Republic) and conferences ( for example at i-Docs, at the Focal Point Gallery in Southend, and at the Arts Catalyst gallery, and at the Crossroads of Art and Science conference in St Petersburg) have facilitated discussions around issues of environmental destruction, particularly in tidal estuary areas. Other screenings, for example at i-Docs and the NAHEMI Talking Shop conference, have opened up discussion about working in the interactive documentary form. The project has also been used for teaching documentary at UWE, Bristol and on the MA Digital Cultures course at Goldsmiths College London.
Aston.J, Gaudenzi.S, Rose.M (2017) : i-Docs, The Evolving Practices of Interactive Documentary. Wallflower Press.
Aston.J, Gaudenzi.S (2012) : Interactive documentary : setting the field. In : Studies in Documentary Film. Vol.6 Issue 2.
Critical Art Ensemble (2001) : Digital Resistance, Explorations in Tactical Media. New York, Autonomedia.
Lichtenstein.R (2016) Estuary : Out From London to the Sea. Hamish Hamilton.
Filmography / Installations and Interactive Documentaries
Vertigo Sea (2016) dir. John Akomfrah. Smoking Dog Films.
Purple (2017) dir. John Akomfrah. Smoking Dog Films.
Out My Window (2010) dir. Katerina Cizek. National Film Board of Canada.
Bear 71 (2012) dir. Leanne Allison. National Film Board of Canada.
Journey to the End of Coal (2008) dir. Samuel Bollendorff & Abel Segretin. Honkytonk Films.
Evil Media Distribution Centre (2013) dir. Graham Harwood & Matsuko Yokokoji.
Ain’t Got No Fear (2016) dir. Mikhail Karikis
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement
I very much like the format here. The presentation on the dedicated website of the 15 images and titles which all open up into differing films. This is a very exciting way of representing what can be termed the ‘texture of place’. It also could be seen as a form of Deep Mapping. Clearly all landscapes are highly complex with economy, culture and ecology at work, and with history temporality etc. Many researchers are seeking non-linear forms of narrative and representation. This seems to offer that, and opens that up very well with multiple routes into the landscape, politics, history, ecology and so forth. The nature-culture heritage and performativitiess of place are very well presented – for example in the ‘foraging’ film. The anti-monument film sets of the political sensibilities of the sub-project overall project in a very convincing way.
The Introduction sets out the context, aim, and scope of the project very well. One technical issue is that I am not sure if the sound levels in the differing films are consistent. I think maybe some of the sub-film headings could have slightly more explanatory headings – or sub-headings – which speak back to the themes of environmental destruction, loss of place distinctiveness etc. I think the mix of interviews and walking is very in tune with current forms of practice based ethnography in a range of disciplines. There is currently a great interest in the landscapes of estuaries and rivers and tidal spaces in geography, nature writing and so forth. This is a really exciting contribution to that. I fully support its inclusion into Screenworks. The statement is very clear and sets out the aims of the project and the rationale of the methods and final format very well. I suggest this, or some version of it, is added to the site as a readable downloadable text.
Review 2: Invite resubmission with re-edit of work and/or statement
Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone reflects the diversity of the participants concerned in this project and the power of film to convey context; the unspoken is well established here as well as including other modes of film-making such as interview and text to build a picture of the place and impact being weighed upon it. There is considerable craft in the visual and auditory composition of the pieces, which have been produced by a varied team of film-makers and non film-makers. Adherence to this kind of inclusivity in the film-making process is admirable and well executed. There is a really interesting theme which emerges, that the landscape is ‘loaded’ with the knowledge and the experiences of the people who live there, through the wrecked boats which lie around; the resurrection of one becoming a representation of protest against the presumptions of those in local and national government about who does or does not inhabit this space.
The statement, however lacks clarity around the research questions. There is the beginning of them, pointing to the relationship between the Anthropocene and the creative process. I’d like to know how the film-maker connects the two other than recording our relationship with the environment. What affordances are provided by using film as a medium and offering the audience the non-linear storytelling device of the iDoc? What are the theoretical underpinnings to working in this way? Oldham describes different ways the films have been exhibited, both in gallery spaces and online. What do those different opportunities offer in terms of the way the material is viewed?
In terms of methodology, there is some consideration of the non-linear, collaborative processes, but with little reference to texts or theories which have informed the artist’s approach. What the research statement lacks is drawing on those other texts, both visual and written which engage in the Anthropocene and the creative process. Establishing a developed theoretical framework around the work, would afford it a greater sense of context and provide the film-maker with a layered presentation of the work and the processes behind it. It might be valuable to look to John Urry and his ideas on mess as methodology. (Urry, J., 2006)
Oldham also refers to the need for an open ended methodology, which the iDoc can offer, but why is it important? Does the nature of the on-going arts project require it? And if so how is the iDoc used with this in mind? Equally, how the organisation of the material is reflective of the theme is not clear. If the film is presented as interactive, offering the audience choices, how did the film-maker work with this in the way he made editorial choices in the selection of the films and the arrangement of them? It feels as though a deeper analysis of the construction of the platform and the episodic nature of the films is needed.
Currently Oldham only draws on his own body of work as reference with little detail as to how the group of films connect other than through the theme referred to above. This is a departure in terms of format for the film-maker. The fragmentary nature of the project, clearly lends itself to the iDoc format. Are there links between this format and the fragmented nature of the way the community is presented in discourses around the region? This is something referred to in the ‘Conversation II’ and ‘Epitaphs of the Common Mud’ films. Perhaps connecting the material, both in terms of theme and format would give a greater clarity on the working approach.
There is a growing canon of work which deals with the ethnography of place using participatory practices and which are presented in different formats: Hollowdocumentary.com presents a multi-media approach to the representation of a city in US in the form of an iDoc. Another filmic, multi-layered project is that of Mikhail Karakis, who worked with young people on the Isle of Grain in Kent. The participatory film, ‘Ain’t Got No Fear’ produced with a group of young people is the culmination of a series of workshops Karakis organised in the area, examining young people’s responses to the isolation of their village. While the focus is not the same the approaches and participatory elements and methodologies of both works would offer interesting comparisons to ‘Wrecked in the Intertidal Zone.’
I understand that the work has been completed within the last six months, but what are the aims of the impact of the work? Even if this has not been tested out fully, who is the audience and which stakeholders might respond to the work? What were the aims of the built into the project design at the commissioning stage?
Adherence to referencing and a bibliography are also needed. Otherwise there are some minor spelling mistakes which should be addressed.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response.