By Catherine Owen
In which I discuss the process of a deep engagement with my physical environment in Edmonton where I lived from 2006-2009, partially through the aegis of a visual artist with whom I spent several years working on a project called Archives of Absence.
“When you find your place where you are, practice occurs” – Dogen
June 2006: I arrive at the four bedroom house in the Millwoods neighbourhood of Edmonton I will rent with my partner Chris for the next three and a half years, dash inside excitedly and gaze out the back window over the yard. A quarter acre of yellowy grass greets me, a mountain ash tree, then the boundary marker of a faded red fence and, what’s that? A hill? It rises up against the sky, sprouting small pines that Chris and I first imagine as playing a trick of perspective on us. Our vision is Vancouverite; they have to be larger than they seem and the vista must lead somewhere romantic. A park perhaps? Then we climbed it. I was devastated. The hill was only an eroded moonscape at the apex of which was a rutted walking trail and beyond, the Whitemud freeway, a bridge leading to the Millgate bus depot and scattered industrial tumuli: Epcor, Spartan Controls. Yes, the trees were that short. The landscape wholly alien to me, closed. How would I endure it?
September 2006: Particular lexicons so often provide the lure for my art. I realize this once more when I am gifted with the word berm. I think could not have even begun to engage with the hill across from my home, its unique habitus, without knowing the precise term that defines it. This need does not emerge from any desire to scientifically classify but from an ache for specific sounds, from the way a word, used in its specificity, resonates, opening up a new world within its syllables.
Sydney Lancaster, mixed media assemblage artist, Celtic musician, and all-around ignition, gifted me with this word shortly after I met her at a multimedia event called Cortex she helped organize at the Red Strap Art Market in downtown Edmonton. This night was my entrée into the diversity and liveliness of art creation in this land, its circus-whirl of painters, dancers, poets and eccentrics confirming the possibility of continuance for me as an artist in this province. The night I met Sydney, I also encountered other future collaborators, among them painter Jenny Keith-Hughes and photographer Paul Saturley, as well as the Mile Zero dancers and videographer Tim Folkman, whom I would later invite to my home-based performance series, 44th Avenue Troubadour.
At some point in the evening, I remember describing my house to Sydney, a born and raised Edmontonian: where it was situated, my reaction to being in this divergent and thus challenging land.
“There is a hill behind my house above the highway,” I said, “it’s all I have left of the mountains I have always known.”
“O the berm,” she replied, smilingly, “you mean the berm!”
The berm. Only one syllable, but so explosive on the tongue, a motoring of rrrs that draws itself out into the honey of its terminal m, a word that contains such lengths within its brevity, a term that, in effect, holds its own topography.
I was enchanted.
And the word turned me towards the window again as I began the initial phase of the project: Archives of Absence, as Sydney as I were eventually to dub this collaboration, commencing the year-long fragmentary journal poem known as “Berm: morning eclogues.”
Sydney: I have spent the majority of my life surrounded by the visual and linguistic punctuation that is this place: berms, sound walls and freeways cutting through land I knew as a child to be filled with space, wild grass, and small animals and birds. Farmland I grew up near and farms I worked on now covered with asphalt, groomed lawns, and large-housed subdivisions. The berm especially, a phenomenon particular to this place: a place in constant transition, busy mostly with marking out what it is not, or more clearly, the desire to keep discrete distances between the realities of boom economics and fragile attempts to live life on human terms. Berm: this is the space between, the mountain of not that is so carefully constructed here, that has become integral to my understanding of life and place.
In meeting Catherine, and in encountering her initial reaction to the berm, I became unsure of myself: No longer able to dismiss this space with jaded resignation of one living in an oil-dominated city. Forced to look again, with and through new eyes. Forced to absorb an entire series of new implications for this not, and thereby take this land into myself again.
“The desire for confrontation that exists [in one] meditating upon an infinite universe” – Gaston Bachelard
on the fencepost
at the very edge of the berm
a crow curves
into an ovoid
beak paradiddling the treated wood
which, if they disappeared
in fifty years, would carry
all the birds with them
while humans, if every
last one of us, yes,
how the berm would flourish,
in summer divested
of the machine that slashes it
into stubble, of the muddying
people, particulates from Chevron
turning its earth acid
how the grasses would
straighten their backs
and wind sussuring
It wasn’t until February of 2007 that I could begin composing the eclogues. Place is a seepage. I poured the berm into my eyes for months until I was sufficiently sodden with detail to match the dirt, grasses, flowers, trees, clouds, birds, thunderstorms, snowflakes and passersby with an equivalent language. No, match is the wrong word, too perfect, pat. In fact, the aim of this year long cycle of seasonally-grounded fragments was randomness, raggedness. A work that hovered somewhere between a raw jotting of notes and a polished sequence of lyrics. A record of attendance if you will. I woke up every morning, made coffee, fed the pets and then stood before the kitchen window. This view of the berm is ideal because it provides a perspective that weds proximity to privacy. One is close enough to see the berm clearly but far enough away to grasp its breadth and to maintain some objectivity. The birds that circled, rabbits that scattered, people that strode down the path couldn’t see me in my daily witnessing, a luxury that became even more crucial once I began to film the berm.
After the course of a year, with regular interruptions for travel every few months, I had produced 113 fragments. Early pieces had more truncated lines, up to 31 of them. Later on, the lines lengthened and the fragments shortened to 15 or 17 lines, some as few as 6.
My rules were as follows: the temporal frame must lie between 8 and 10 a.m., the fragment must be constituted of what one notices directly within that time period, if reference is made to some political or personal aspect that lies outside this space, the leaping off point must be the berm, description should be as uncluttered and language as simple as possible, conclusiveness must be resisted, the desire to edit avoided.
As I was composing, I tried not to determine whether this work constituted literature or not, but instead to approach the writing of the eclogues as a meditation of sorts on belonging, as a practice of awareness, a deliberate, daily movement towards awe. And yet, if I was bored, if the berm, some days, seemed a divested zone, stultifying to the spirit, I wanted to allow for that too and honour its own capacity to reveal. At times, I felt I was attaining a kind of progression in my relationship with the berm: was I becoming less alien, more a denizen of this terrain? Then this illusion slipped away and I realized there would be no defined trajectory here towards knowing. That I could accept that condition, even welcome it.
All I had, at the end of a year. Fragments. Small roughly hewn doors that opened an inch. And then closed again.
Sydney: The berm defines presence through absence. We are all always voyeurs here, because this is a space of impermanence, within which none of us can ever truly claim pride of place. We bear witness to passages: of time, people, animals. What they leave behind (their absence) is the beginning point for our twinning search; the objects we gather take on totemic weight: the markers of seeing newly.
During the course of the year, I was also engaging with this space through other modes. I walked down the berm almost every day, unless the temperature sank below minus 20, alone at first and then with my dog, Melek. From the berm’s heights, I attended to other details: the sky’s curvature around this mound of earth, its vast length, the variety of trees and bushes on the side facing the highway. Its height wasn’t then as noticeable, nor was the gradations erosion had wrought into its house-facing flank. And then there was the wind, occasional rain, the snow to contend with, the ice to navigate and in Spring, the mud.
I began to notice that while rabbits and hawks, for instance, were only erratically present on and around the berm, magpies more often, a fox only once, people other than myself had also developed a routine of the berm; they strolled it, ran on it, used it as a corridor to get to work or the bus depot, flew kites above it, slid down it on sleds and sat on it in lawn chairs to watch the Canada Day fireworks. Becoming conscious of how the berm serves as a nexus for so much activity, I determined to set up a video camera and tripod and record another series of fragments, this time visual ones with a more overt intent to track human movements around this space, again, mostly at a regular time of day, morning. I would have been able to record a higher amount of human interaction later in the day, say around dusk, but selecting a time period which had a greater chance of consistency took precedence over the availability of subjects. At times though I wriggled out of my own rules and shot snippets in the evening.
On a regular basis, the morning began with me setting the camera up over the sink and turning it on for between 10-20 minutes each morning I was in town. Occasionally, I forgot it was on and the segment ran longer, containing mysterious content I had failed to witness or annotate. At the same time, whether walking the berm or watching it from behind my window, I was snapping pictures: of the way the sky altered so rapidly above the berm’s horizon, of the snow curved sharply into wind-encrusted peaks, of the magpies teetering on the meagre pine trees. The interplay between the fixed captures and the flowing video fragments intrigued me. Sometimes, the photo would hold movement while the video clip would seem to be a still life. With both photo and video, I tried for a wide range of perspectives – close-up, from a distance, right, left, central viewpoints prioritized, then occluded, a zoom in on one shrub, a singular angle of hoped-for entrance into this environment and its irretrievable moment in time.
Again, I resisted an inner critique on what I was tracking, needing to trust in whatever it was that emerged. I kept hand-written notes on each video clip, stating the date, the length of time that I filmed and a few details regarding what each segment contained and quite commonly, little quotidian sketches too, as in:
June 25 9:20 – Didn’t film in the morning yesterday, was out, but shot two evening snippets of under 30s. 1) my neighbour walking along, a newbie to the berm, 2) a father chasing kids along the top while the mother walked behind.
Sunny. Still. Close up on central berm w/trees. Coffee. Dog eats. Sniffling of allergies. 2m 54s then pan right to get movement of ash tree in. Sometimes with the berm I wonder what the difference between still shots and video is. 2 more min. pan out to yard, dog. 21 min total. Forgot about it while I dried my hair. The dog barked. Birds.
9:40 am July 17th – After a long hiatus (since July 4th?) summer loosens everything at its hinges. Things fall apart. Few mosquitoes this year. Tons of allergies. Cottonwood seeds, grasses. Mid-range shot w/sky, different shades of green, a distant bird on the light standard. In the evening the berm is populated by young girls playing with water balloons, old ladies walking dogs, cyclists, those who toss frisbees, bocce balls. Yet I shoot now, in the silence, emptiness. Close in at 9:50, then widen out over the ash. Clouds w/streaks of sun. Down at 9:54 to green contrasts w/fence between. 16.51 sec. Did nothing really happen?
Aug 10 – 9 am – Light hazy, dim. Distant shot then zoom in on berm plants, which have been growing wildly without the mower + with rain. Small breezes. The ash berries are a faded orange. Zoom back out. the dog watches, chases birds. Zoom in again on white berm flowers. I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing the berm flourish until this summer. All over, crickets. Zoom back out. Bird soars. 11min 31 sec.
Sept 17 10:13 – The trailer has been moved into the back yard, impeding or at least altering, the view. So I film it, left, distant of the berm for 8 or so min before shifting up to sky. Very windy after a too hot, too still night. And higher @ 11 min. The clouds are dancers today. 18 min 7 sec.
These notes were mainly designed to serve as guides for Sydney whom I knew would later assume the difficult role as editor for this burgeoning sequence that perhaps records what most people would perceive as material scarcely worthy of attention: too dull, too random, too static, a potentially absurd elevation of a banal space into matter fitting for what is essentially a documentary. Or an anti-documentary as the case may be, a record of un-happenings, occurrences outside of what we’ve been conditioned to consider any frame of relevance. As Gary Snyder comments, most of us have been taught not to see what is in front of our eyes, “plain thus-ness.”
Observing the berm for that long was a lonely pursuit, necessarily so. But also necessary was the collaboration with Sydney that developed over the course of these two years, at first from the simple impulse to work together in a range of mediums and trace what emerged, and then from the further impetus of the berm itself, how it coalesced our stuttering into speaking, drew our disparate energies together through a space that, in engaging us both at depth served as form, discipline. In Jane Hirschfield’s words, the berm became our “path to concentration.”
Sydney: Again and again I return to Catherine’s words, and to the photographs we have both taken; fragments, yes, but as the months pass, they feel more like razor-sharp puzzle pieces for which I have no key. I become obsessed with bridging the silence that is inherent in the work I do as a visual artist, and Catherine’s work in the symbolic, in language: finding a way to express two voices clearly. I know I cannot work the way I ordinarily do (although the notion of combining fragments into loose narratives is central to my practice). I eventually settle on means that speak to several issues I have been wrestling with: the idea of the documentary, and its relationship to images that are really capturing our shared emotional response to the space, rather than strictly only what it contains; the interplay and tension between transparency and opacity – both as ideas/metaphors for our experience of the space, and in the literal forms of photo and video image and in the objects we have found and collected; and notions of structure, containment, order, and the actions of selection, recording, and archiving that provides discipline, but also functions to privilege specific ideas around value and vision. It is only through sharing this work with Catherine that I find the means: through.
“Relationship is the key insight of ecology” – Suzi Gablik
As a native Edmontonian, Sydney’s deeper familiarity with Albertan species and topographies provided an essential counterpoint to my tentative explorations of this still-alien land. Further, as a primarily visual artist, she also brought a broader palette of the tangible and sensory to Archives of Absence. Her differing perspectives allowed me to access other versions of this place-based narrative and to then question my own restrained use of materials, my own motions towards perfection, closure.
Working with another artist one gains only to the extent one is able to give up a certain measure of control. Trust in a foundational commonality is the basis of this ability to collaborate. Sydney and I have in common our intense connection to the natural world, our belief in the symbology of animals, birds and trees, our faith in an earth imbued with an abiding animus. From this core, we could rely on each other’s relationship with the berm and know that regardless of what emerged, however challenging it could be to our artistic or personal comfort zones, it would never compromise the initial vision. From this basis, while mainly focusing on what our primary artistic praxis could bring to the project, we were both also able to enter each other’s visual and linguistic realms, experimenting with forms and mediums we didn’t initially consider “ours.”
Through communal walks on the berm and regular confabulations, our project began to unfold in many unexpected and myriad parts: as well as the eclogues and other lyrics, the photos and the video sequences we plan to edit into loops of varying focus, Sydney has also created gel transfer images of the berm on blocks of wood; we composed a corona poem together; and Sydney is constructing “cabinets of curiosity” to contain samples of the detritus we found on our strolls, complete with GPS coordinates and other documentation appropriate to the objects and their location. While Sydney has engaged more substantially with the material base of the collaboration, I have expanded its intent through genre, writing everything from a spoof travel guide to the berm, a berm lexicon and a manual, incorporating textual erasures, on how to build a berm.
During this process, we have resisted the desire to codify the work within either notions of ownership or according to strict definitions of what constitutes art versus craft, or even what some might call garbage. As we grow more comfortable working together, playfulness has become central to the project, even when the subject matter has darkened, as when we recorded the spraying of pesticides on the berm’s wildflowers, even throughout the grim time I was forced to leave my life in Edmonton and physically, if not psychically, abandon the berm. Before I left, I buried the little deaths I had gathered up over the years beneath one of the berm’s pine trees: a mouse, several birds, a rabbit’s foot. I asked Sydney to return in the Spring when the snow had melted and see if she could find and catalogue these bones in the same manner we had been store- housing other leavings: a scarf, old magazines, empty bottles, a busted scooter, signs that humans were there and then, gone. Instead of turning away from these hard truths of the berm, we brought our artistic sight to bear on them, transforming loss into commemoration and even a strange beauty.
Sydney: As I continued (and continue still) to work on aspects of this project in Catherine’s physical absence from Edmonton and the berm, the project has become imbued not with these losses, but with the sense that this work both contains and surpasses all that it has brought to light for us as individuals and artists in this ongoing dialogue and relationship. I returned to the berm in the autumn of this year, after over a year’s absence of my own, and found the place transformed. Not closure – but a different kind of not than we found initially: a new seeing, through our multiple – and at times divergent – emotional experiences of the berm, and through creating art from our visual engagements with the space. A flowing of sorts, between and through process.
In April of 2011 at the Edmonton Poetry Festival, Archives of Absence had its premiere. In words, music, and images it was enacted as we had envisioned it, almost miraculous after all this time and its long periods of separation. The berm, a space that engages according to one’s level of engagement, a place that participates in what Bachelard calls, “intimate immensity,” continues to be honoured by our acceptance of a relationship with it, both ecologically and artistically, this connection strengthened by the other relationship that is collaboration, more than just one individual gazing out upon the unknown, and singing.
Catherine Owen lives in Vancouver, BC, Canada, and has published nine collections of poetry and one of prose. This essay comes from her forthcoming book, Catalysts: Confrontations with the Muse.