"I wanted to offer a decentralised view of the world where the short but significant age of humans is framed by the vastness of geological time and animal evolution."
Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your background? Where did you study?
I’m an artist and filmmaker, based in London. I studied Fine Art at Goldsmiths and upon graduating I received the Nicolas and Andrei Tooth Travel Award which took me to the West Bank for the first time. I wanted to research the stone industry in Palestine (Jerusalem stone is their main export) in relation to my great-grandfather’s role as an architect during the British Mandate.
He lived in Jerusalem from 1917-37 and was in charge of the repair and restoration of the Dome of the Rock (the architectural survey he produced led to Jerusalem Pink, a film I made in 2015). Around that time, I began studying Arabic and with the hope of improving, ended up moving to Beirut in 2013 to take part in the Home Workspace Program at Ashkal Alwan. I fell in love with the city and lived there for the next three years.
You won the Jerwood / Film and Video Umbrella Awards 2018 alongside artist Imran Perretta. Could you tell us about the commission? What were some of the challenges in making this film?
The starting point for Listening in the Dark was a news story I read a few years ago. It described how wind turbines (a form of ecological progress with regard to renewable energy) were actually lethal to bats – a pressure drop behind the moving turbine’s blade causes the bats’ lungs to explode. This particular encounter seemed to speak of the complex and contradictory nature of our current entanglement with the natural world. We are at a point now where human activity is the dominant force on the environment and the climate (this new epoch has come to be known as the Anthropocene). By exploring this encounter and in turn, the fascinating world of bats, I wanted to offer a decentralised view of the world where the short but significant age of humans is framed by the vastness of geological time and animal evolution.
One major challenge was that most of my chosen subjects were invisible or at least hard to capture. Bats are nocturnal, they are found in pitch black caves or woodlands at night. Even more importantly, their cause of death by turbine is invisible as it occurs internally (initially bat ecologists were mystified as the dead bats they discovered showed no signs of physical trauma). Ideas of invisibility, or phenomena beyond the limits of human perception became key conceptually and formally. Much of the film is shot at night, lit by the searching torchlights of scientists seeking out the unknown. Bats themselves use echolocation to see in the dark, something humans have echoed with the development of sonar and radar. Though these technological developments allow us to see spaces once beyond our grasp (the ocean floor, the skies), the film points to what is still unknown and how a more attentive approach to the natural world might provide new revelations.
Your work is largely investigative, often focusing on people, places and materials. Could you tell us what piques your interest and how you choose your subject matter for your films?
I’m drawn to densely layered geological, archaeological and urban sites. My work often becomes a process of unpacking these complex and layered histories, looking at where they collide with contemporary life. Though I work mainly with moving image, I usually begin with something material – a site or an object (a Roman temple, a piece of oil shale, an archaeological fragment, an old BMW). I’m interested in how this site or object might be interrogated to make observations about the context it exists within. The object contains a history, is part of an economy – it connects different people, places and moments in time.
I often work with experts who have an associated physical practice – archaeologists, geologists, mechanics, architects and in my last film, chiropterists. These disciplines depend upon a knowledge or understanding gained through intimate work with their chosen object of study, something I attempt to echo in my own practice.
Time is key, both in my process and form. I work slowly, adopting a documentary approach – there is an immediacy to this process, an attempt to capture and relay something close to what I experience. The videos themselves assume a slow and contemplative pace, allowing for a different form of attention. Time is also a recurrent subject matter. In Listening in the Dark, time appears as compressed stone and landscape. I have always been interested in geological time as something both utterly inconceivable but at the same time physically tangible.
Tell us a bit about how you spend your day/studio routine? What is your studio like?
When I am in the process of making a work, I’m not in the studio much – I do a lot of site visits, research trips and interviews. For Listening in the Dark I was very lucky to meet the inventor of the mini bat detector, J. David Pye (who is now 86 years old), at the Linnean Society, the oldest biological society in the world. His interview ended up forming the narration for the film, in which he describes the world of ultrasound, bat evolution and ‘radar angels’ among other things. I did recently take up a studio at Somerset House in London where a really great community of artists, musicians and other practitioners are based (including Imran!) Making work can be quite a solitary process so it has been really refreshing to be based there.
How do you go about naming your work?
Usually, my titles emerge at some stage in my research process. With Listening in the Dark, the title comes from a book by seminal zoologist Donald Griffin. His experiments at Harvard in 1940 (archive footage of which appears in my film) proved that bats use echolocation to see. I think the title speaks more broadly to the human commitment to progress and scientific discovery, as well as the limits of human perception. Much of the film is shot at night or in dark caves, where the soundtrack takes precedence (echoing the position of bats). I liked the idea that the audience would be sitting there, listening in the dark.
What artwork have you seen recently that has resonated with you?
The Forensic Architecture show at ICA was incredibly important. I have been interested in the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths ever since I did my Fine Art BA there. Much of Eyal Weizman’s writing (Hollow Land, The Least of All Possible Evils) has influenced my own work and research, particularly with regard to an investigation of material objects and sites to narrate events and histories. I think it’s interesting and telling that a major art institution is hosting a show by an organisation that has concrete agency and application within global politics (their investigations have been used within military, parliamentary and UN inquiries). It is a show that gives form to and provides evidence for events that are often ignored or misrepresented by mainstream media.
Apart from your show at Jerwood Space is there anything new and exciting in the pipeline you would like to tell us about?
I’m heading over to Ireland this week for the installation of my solo show at Lismore Castle Arts. My film The Drift will be on there until May 20th.
'Listening in the Dark' was commissioned for the Jerwood/FVU Awards 2018: 'Unintended Consequences'. See it in exhibition at Jerwood Space, London, until 3 June.
All images courtesy of the artist and Jerwood/FVU Awards
Publish date: 30/5/18