The Beach at Skara Brae (2013 - 17)
3-Screen Panoramic Installation
This work was shot in Orkney in 2013 and was shown in 2017 as a 3 screen panoramic installation as part of Ocean Imaginaries. As always, documenting video installation proves difficult but the three elements are embedded in the version above.
Thanks to Anne Bevan and Linda Williams who were important supporters of this project.
The work has a text element, which is a step away from my previous monologues and something I haven't worked with for some years. Rather than offer of an account of the work here, I have put a transcript of the text below.
The bay frames the sea,
the sea rises up to meet the land.
This is Skaill Bay, on Mainland, in Orkney, just off the northern tip of Scotland. These waves, washing in from the North Sea have pushed this edge back and forth for millennia.
In the 19th century, when every gentleman of leisure displayed scientific curiosities in the drawing room, a big tide revealed a neo-lithic stone village, previously covered by dunes right at the feet of the laird of Skaill Manor, an amateur archaeologist. Amongst his collection too were Captains Cook’s dishes, traded when Resolution and Discovery called in at Orkney on their return from Cook’s ill-fated third voyage.
Like Cook’s voyages the village was not a discovery so much as a laying claim, for rectangular barrows on the Downs of Skaill were reported in a traveller’s account written in 1767, and the village stood first upon this land some 5000 years ago, when it was some distance from the sea, with good grazing and farming to be had between Skaill Loch and the strand.
Now it is daily threatened by the sea that nibbles at its footings, just metres from the tide.
The grasses reach to bind the sand in place, a million, million sentries holding position and stretching to claim a salient where none can be found.
A woven remnant of cyclone fencing begins to assimilate, taking its cue from the grasses.
The tide’s age long tussle with humans can be read in the layers of anthropogenic stone sandwiched in the dune, topped by dry stone walls, the remains of the most recently contested site, an old mill. The mill harnessed the water that flowed in the waterway, the bourne, from Skaill Loch to the Bay, water that is now its undoing.
An entire spool of packing strap, fallen from a passing ship, has reordered itself into a fisherman’s nightmare. A skein with ends lost, quivering at the shoreline.
Submarine nets have been recycled and redeployed in a rear-guard action to maintain the foundations of the mill. The submarine nets are left over from world war two when they worked to keep U-boats out of the nooks and crannies that lead to Scapa Flow which waters sheltered British fleets from the North Sea in both world wars, as they have done back into pre-history.
Here it fights to keep the stone and the sea apart, or at least on separate sides of a line, with order in, disorder out, so that one narrative may prevail over another and stayed fixed, here at the edge.
In its efforts, the submarine net captures yet more nets, those of the fishing fleets who still work the North Sea. As it loses its integrity, it frays, reaching like the grasses, for purchase. Striving to impose the order built into its form again and again, it binds all it meets to its purpose, re-organising it in its own image. Adrift from its purpose, it is caught up or caught upon, it becomes that which it seeks to contain. It drifts from its orderly grid into the tangled chaos of the non-human just beyond the doorstep.
The villagers of Skara Brae, too, fought disorder on their own doorstep as their village was consumed by the encroaching tides of sand and their own rubbish, eventually driven from their homes by the waves of entropy. By a tide covered, by a tide revealed, by a tide now cast asunder.
Pollen in the geological record tells us people came to farm in the rich land between the loch and the sea. Amongst the bounty of the tide is this ancient technology, these giant algae. It is an ancient medicine, food and fertiliser. It was harvested here for centuries to manufacture Potash and later Iodine as well as to create a Sea Tangle tent, an aid for abortions. It is still called Tangle weed.
Like the flesh and bark it resembles, the tangle weed occupies the boundary between inside and out, within and without.
Like all these technologies tangle sits grasping at the oscillating edge, it clings and captures, restraining, constraining, casting a net across chaos to draw its vitality into our grasp.
1 - 2. Stills from The Beach at Skara Brae
3. The Beach at Skara Brae (Installation View)
4. Digital mock-up of the 3-screen installation