Watching Me, Watching You

Issue 290
May/June 2015
Becoming Barbarian

The Arts

Watching Me, Watching You
by

issue cover 290

Cover: Arctic Moss (5,500 years old), Elephant Island, Antarctic by Rachel Sussman

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Stills from I am a Spy by Sarah Wood

Stills from I am a Spy by Sarah Wood

Film-maker Sarah Wood tells how she uses images of bird-watching to consider how we see Nature – and how free we are in today’s surveillance society.

There’s a scene in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four when the novel’s hero, Winston Smith, takes a train out of the city for his first meeting with Julia, the woman with whom he’s fallen in love. They meet in the countryside, a space of apparent freedom, a space apparently beyond the control of Big Brother. Romanticism frames their view of Nature. It also taunts them and deceives them. Orwell writes:

A thrush had alighted on a bough not five metres away, almost at the level of their faces. Perhaps it had not seen them. It was in the sun, they in the shade. It spread out its wings, fitted them carefully into place again, ducked its head for a moment, as though making a sort of obeisance to the sun, and then began to pour forth a torrent of song. In the afternoon hush the volume of sound was startling. Winston and Julia clung together, fascinated. The music went on and on, minute after minute, with astonishing variations, never once repeating itself, almost as though the bird were deliberately showing off its virtuosity. Sometimes it stopped for a few seconds, spread out and resettled its wings, then swelled its speckled breast and again burst into song. Winston watched it with a sort of vague reverence. For whom, for what, was that bird singing? No mate, no rival was watching it. What made it sit at the edge of the lonely wood and pour its music into nothingness? He wondered whether after all there was a microphone hidden somewhere near.

One of the many telling things about this scene is what it says about liberty – how being observed constrains the liberty, the freedom in the self, of expression. The feeling of being watched may enable performance – the strategic staging of the self to an enemy or a mate. But true freedom is the singing of a song for no other reason than the singing.

This is what has been lost to Winston Smith in the condition of total observation in which he lives – the freedom simply to be. Of course, this is an ironic inversion. The bird, the usual subject of the birdwatcher’s gaze, is free because it is unaware of the gaze that frames its song.

Watching birds as a pastime, or the rambling process of chance observation, transformed in Britain somewhere in the period between the first and second world wars into a new form. The writer Helen Macdonald dates this to Max Nicholson’s introduction of the ‘new birdwatcher’ to the British public. Nicholson described a more defined form of observation, one that made a scientist of the citizen, and instigated new practices that encouraged a noting-down of bird behavioural pattern according to a catalogue of prescribed characteristics rather than encouraging spontaneity of vision. Now knowledge informed what the birdwatcher looked for, rather than offering the surprise of simply seeing.

This moment of change in visual practice interests me as a film-maker, as someone who considers the image and how it frames and records the external world on a daily basis. It forms the starting point for my current collaboration with Helen Macdonald as part of an expanded art project, A Murmuration (which also includes new work by Lucy Harris and Olivia Laing), concerned with the way that watching birds and the movement of birds frames and has framed contemporary forms of social observation.

Here in Britain in 2015, when official figures suggest that there is one surveillance camera for every 14 citizens, it is hard not fantasise about the freed-up space of the countryside. Like Winston Smith, it’s hard not to question, hard to understand the freed-up sound of the unobserved thrush and to enjoy it unobserved. Is this still a possibility? Or does the current renaissance in British Nature writing simply represent nostalgia for an activity that we now enjoy under subtly different conditions from our literary ancestors?

For my part, I am concerned with retracing the steps that led to our current visual framing and to express the near-hidden history that used the experience of British birdlife and its habitat as a frame for the way British surveillance has been conducted in the century just past, and how it is still conducted in the 21st century. With its own ironic inversion, this project is also a questioning of how we, as a surveilled society, behave when we ourselves watch the freed-up movement of birds.

With this in mind the practical starting point for A Murmuration is a reconsideration of the way art has contributed to the rehearsal of our visual framing of Nature. To complement Lucy Harris’s film series, which explores the way visual tricks like scale and perspective have educated our eyes through landscape painting, I have returned to the archive to engage with the way both amateur film-makers and public information productions have recorded and displayed information to us as sources of spontaneous vision and information dissemination. By recutting and recontextualising this footage in counterpoint to Helen Macdonald’s spoken history of modern bird-watching, the reassemblage offers viewers the chance not only to learn from what they hear but also to experience the impact of control and spontaneity in the way the film encourages them to watch. Here the intention is an answer to the control that surveillance exerts. The film is an encouragement to observe observation, to surveil the evolution of surveillance, and to allow the spectator to re-enter the frame, to renew sight, and to re-engage with the world we and our birdlife co-habit.

A Murmuration runs from 2 to 24 May at the ONCA Gallery, 14 St George’s Place, Brighton, as part of the 2015 Brighton Festival. For more information: www.sarahwoodworld.com www.onca.org.uk www. brightonfestival.org

Sarah Wood is a film-maker who works with the found image as a means of questioning the politics of memory.

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