Leave/Remain?

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I was asked recently to consider entering some work for the upcoming members exhibition Leave/Remain at the Bank Street Gallery in Sheffield. I hadn’t previously considered it, to my mind it was a clear reference to the recent Brexit calamity and something that I never thought would be of interest to me – I was too emotional about it. However I did think about it and it kept recurring as a constant motif.

A few days ago I decided to go for a walk, not one I had done before but one that had held my attention for while. I would catch a train from my local station – which is by the Oxford Canal – and get off at Banbury after two stops, also very close to the same canal and then proceed to walk back. A distance of about eleven miles. I would take a camera (or two) to record some visual thoughts along the way. Events conspired to eliminate a gentle stroll because I had the need to back at home within five and half hours of catching the train.

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I started to recognize notions of Leave/Remain/Brexit as soon as I left the train in Banbury. The canal – built by foreigners to the Oxfordshire countryside – brought commerce and wealth as a very successful legacy connecting the Birmingham factories with London. Those enterprises in the Banbury landscape as I left it, stood testament to those who travelled there for work, enriching it as they did.

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The canal passes under the relatively recent M40, another commercial artery, it runs alongside the railway – yet another example. And still the canal today brings commerce, via the steady influx of tourists on holiday barges heading up to Tooley’s boatyard in Banbury town centre.

All that echoed in my mind, how, we were all better off for those enterprising individuals who, for whatever reason, came to this northern edge of Oxfordshire and left it a better place for those who came behind.

I wish it had been more of a stroll, than the half race it turned out to be as I would have had more chance to discover both people and place as I covered the distance. Nearing the end of the walk I met a man who seemed interested to chat and I wrote about that encounter here:

“I met a man lying almost fully prostrate on the floor, his head against the brickwork of a bridge over the canal. I wondered at first whether he might have been “sleeping it off” in the afternoon sun, but as I approached I could see he was fully awake.

It turned out he was fishing for crayfish because his elderly brother, who wasn’t very well apparently, had requested tasting them once again. It seemed, by implication, that his elder brother was quite poorly. The fisherman told me that he and his brother had fished for crayfish in their childhood, which he informed me, was a long time ago as he was now 76.

“Of course they were English crayfish then” he said, smaller and more difficult to catch. “They had a lovely flavour…very tender and sweet almost.” His brother wasn’t going to taste English crayfish, these were American Signal Crayfish, much bigger and so much more aggressive 

The invading species was introduced in 1976 and, unbeknown to those introducing it, carried what is known as the crayfish plague. All American crayfish are carriers and to the native crayfish it is almost always fatal.

When I was a boy – he told me – there used to be a lot of fisherman on this canal fishing matches, now they have given up as the water is teeming with these American crayfish.”

I then set those words as a commentary to an edit of the images I made during the walk. I knew I wanted to make a piece about the recent referendum, I wanted to create a narrative that dwelt on the themes of “othering” that upset me so much about some of the rhetoric that underpinned it. At this moment I feel I have achieved in developing less than half of the narrative that I have set out to deliver. I have tested the video on some students with no contextual framing, just to gauge reaction. I am pleased that it hasn’t directed any of the responses to that narrative line about Brexit. I am also aware that my delivery is stilted and needs some rehearsing. I need also to write the “second half”.

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The inspiration behind the format came from my tutor who suggested quite strongly that I look at La Jetée – a film I was already very aware of – as an example of a work created from still images with a ‘voice-over’. This idea came from watching the video of my artist talk in Sheffield, where I delivered a narrative that was conceptually connected to the imagery but did not reference it whatsoever.

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Much as my story (whether about an old man and his crayfish story, or Brexit, or perhaps both) was created to deliberately not reference the imagery, it was curious that there were echoes in the voice-over to the images and this was picked up by some of the feedback. I am interested in developing this idea – perhaps the format more than this particular narrative thread – further, I think it might help me to develop ideas around memory. I am also aware that the imagery needs to work and I have still not found a way to introduce people into the viewfinder, which I feel instinctively to be a limiting factor.

The first version of the video is here:

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