Eleanor Wright in conversation with American Mountains about her research trip to a ship graveyard and some audio field recordings she has just played.
Eleanor: I proposed to kayak around the ship graveyard that is just off Staten Island, New York. I went there last September. The recording is from the Staten Island ferry. Itís a remote area, a working place, with a landfill site, metal scrap yard and then chemical plants on the New Jersey side of the Arthur Kill, which is a stretch of water in which the ships have been left, itís not a breakerís yard; theyíre not being salvaged, they're just left, dumped. Probably the last ship was added around 40 years ago. I kayaked for one day with an instructor.
I was very aware that when kayaking around I was taking part, actually undergoing or experiencing my proposal and I was conscious of the act of looking at these things, which I had planned on going to see. It was a really strange feeling or an awkward feeling, rather. Before I went, I hadnít planned to take photographs - of a place that is almost begging to be photographed. Even when youíre on the kayak your drifting past these vessels, they all had this amazing way of revealing themselves in space, which was very filmic. I knew that was going to happen and I wanted to upset that by trying to approach it through field recording. I just wanted to try and access the place, but through another door. I was trying to find some sort of sound and I would get out my microphone and try to record it, but there was water splashing everywhere and it just felt really inappropriate - it felt like I should just be there, kayaking around this graveyard.
I went back to the site on foot with my recording equipment. I wanted to go back and try to understand the place a bit more - all I had done was take pictures and I needed to come back and carry out the task that I originally set out to do. I was going towards the ships and I saw, lounging all over the wrecks, this film crew. They were obviously amateur, they were quite young, they were smoking; they looked kind of hip. They were just on it; on the site and in the ships. I was too scared to do that - I'd spoken to the instructor when I was paddling: "Hey, what if I try and climb onto to one of these things?" - "I wouldnít because the metalís rusted to one millimetre thick and if your leg goes through that you wonít get it back". So I was respectful of these things and I didnít want to interrupt them, I guess. All you can do is look at them. But these other guys were shooting action, using the place as a location - what I was intent on rejecting in the first place, so I stormed off in the other direction and trudged through the mud, this stinking mud. I looked down and realised the floor was riddled with all these tiny little yellow crabs, the kind that have one arm bigger than the other, that scuttle away and bury themselves ñ itís really quite disgusting. That led me to start thinking of this site, this ruin, and the notion of romanticising a ruin and actually looking down to the ground, the mud that has these crabs sunk in it, living off this place. Iím not just interested in all ruins, thereís something about this one; the disgustingness of these crabs, slithering and burrowing themselves in it. As I walked along I was crunching them with my boots. I was creeped out. Again there was that feeling of vulnerability that was there in the kayak, with the bad weather and being thrust towards the ships and then feeling vulnerable with all these disgusting creatures scuttling around me.
American Mountains: Firstly I'd like to bring up the idea of 'ruin porn', which has been thrown around a little bit, I came across it in a New Republic article which was written in January this year, it was called A Case Against Economic Disaster Porn. Thereís a quote in there from a blog about Chernobyl: "Ruin porn seeks the poignancy of abandonment, the presence and poetry of absence ...The tourists come for abandonment. They do not come for the abandoned".
I'd like to ask what are the ethics of tourism, what do you do with this idea of technology, experience and predetermination through research? You've talked at this from the point of making sculpture and you mentioned the word 'sight', and Richard mentioned the 'itinerant artist'. The other day you said "the site is mythologized - you make it into a proposal, you build it up, you build layers around it - and when you see it, its exactly as you expected, you know what itís going to be like and you have to then trick yourself into having 'an experience'". Finally you said, "it was an awkward experience, I felt fine, not amazing, but fine - I suppose I should take a picture".
Eleanor: There was a thought that I wouldnít bring a camera at all. It was wrapped up in this larger thing, of being the first time out in the world on my own. But I did take a camera, and I did take pictures and I did blow them up to 3metres long.
American Mountains: When you explained to me before, about this film crew swarming over them...
Eleanor: Lounging! Disrespecting. I said before about respecting these things. These arenít natural things so its not ëman respecting natureí like in 127 Hours, but thereís the thing of life cycles and dying and them becoming part of the earth, linked to the ground, sinking into the mud, and then the crabs living off it.
American Mountains: So being respectful of the thing you are making a pilgrimage to. Maybe the next thing to ask is about how to recuperate this experience, which is one that is problematised via looking. So I use the word recuperate, which suggests that the ocular experience, not only in relationship to technology, but also what this film crew demonstrated as that being a lacking or ill place.
Eleanor: I guess that links to placing yourself in a vulnerable position - the kayaking, which Iím not experienced in, but likewise Iím not well versed in field recording. But I am well versed in sculptural technique. I make large scale installations; Iím able to engineer things. So coming from that kind of knowledge, I wanted to go back to the beginning. The sound was intentionally putting myself in a position where Iím grasping at things Iím not used to, making myself vulnerable.
American Mountains: Can we end our chat thinking a bit about the ruin? I suppose some of the things you just mentioned about how you might apply your interest in materials and their histories, and how you go about collecting that, taking it home - through the aural. These images, thereís something about the state of the thing - being in a process of becoming, one of life, rather than just decay. I see in this image a relationship to the uncanny and they particularly make me think of the ruins of Pompeii. Thereís a quote here from Anthony Vidler: ìThe burden was that nature, in its own death throes, had become its own artist: death, like a sculptor, has moulded its victim.î You mentioned about how you had to be respectful of these ruins.
Eleanor: Yes - the active ruin, itís developing, itís still moving. I guess that links to 'ruin pornography'. The text you read was specifically about Detroit being photographed, cropping out anything that disrupted the image as that of a ruin. Creating a falsity, portraying a city as a relic. Ruin pornography is cementing something, or freezing it in one spot and celebrating it as that.
In the end, the film crew acted as a catalyst for me to go off in the other direction and find these disgusting crabs, that they then mark this active growth; organic development and feeding - its going forward, and that leaves the ruin porn behind it. And that's where I am right now: growth, rather than regression or stagnation.
Audience member: You talked about trying not to romanticise and to get into that kind of sentiment, and that strikes me as a direct contrast to what Guy Maddin does - he creates a fiction of reality, and through doing so, he encapsulates a kind of truth. Is there a particular reason why you so want to rally against that?
Eleanor: Through embracing that perspective heís sort of insinuating everything he wants to say? I guess he comes from a position of knowing, and that heís trying to portray something.
Audience member: But also heís investigating, investigating these subjective viewpoints. How I imagine him going about making the film, OK itís about his hometown, but there must be a lot of research, recordings and oral histories and combining all of that. By reading between the lines he puts together the pieces, and I suppose you do that too with your own experience, maybe? Maybe for you itís not about laying out the whole of an experience?
Eleanor: I think maybe that I should relate this to sculpture, because through the talks tonight, I did have one moment during Matt's presentation where there was one film clip where I kind of switched off to the talk and I engaged with the film, and then I thought 'oh no, Iím not supposed to be doing that, Iím supposed to be retaining the awareness that this clip is related to this discussion' I guess film naturally draws you in. In my position, thereís something about the object or the things I make, there's a kind of starkness to things, how sculpture sits in a space, thereís something about the awkward relationship you have with the objects.
Off Site transcript of interview from Arthur Kill project New York
Discussion part of of 'Not Romania' event, 'American Mountains', Grand Union, Birmingham, April 2011
Out of Site Crested Screamer : solo sound installation