Mark Donne in relation to his piece ‘Mute’, a segment piece from wider film installation “Listening With Frontiersman” commissioned by Estuary Festival.
A modern Water story
Prior to writing and making this series, other than what it is, where it is and where it leads to, I knew very little about the Thames Estuary.
After a process of around five months dogged scent work, “Listening with Frontiersman” – created and produced in direct response to the Estuary itself – opened as part of the inaugural Estuary Festival. It was installed in the historic & fantastically eerie 19th century Coalhouse Fort on Thames marshland at Tilbury. Christopher Nolan shot the opening sequences of “Batman Begins” there, and I share his faith in its narrative power.
The five-screen installation used the history of the movement of people seeking safety and security up through the seas and oceans of the world – into the Estuary to London – as its central atmosphere, and uses a place called Foulness Island as its canvass.
I’d studied a huge ordnance survey map of the Estuary for some weeks before the white unmarked weirdness of Foulness began to protrude from it. I didn’t know what was on the Island. I couldn’t understand how a land mass that big could be “private”. And I didn’t understand why the foreland around Foulness was marked “DANGER AREA”.
The Island is operated by a trans-national arms corporation called “Qinetiq”.
“QinetiQ” is an invented name. “Qi” is supposed to reflect the company’s energy, “net” its networking ability, and “iq” its intellectual resources. They develop, manufacture, test and sell the most lethal weaponry on planet earth – much of which is currently being sold to and deployed in conflict zones across the world. They also specialise in surveillance systems including drones and space based surveillance systems too.
But extraordinarily, “Qinetiq” has also, simultaneously, operated “Borderwatch”; a contractual government operation to secure UK borders from migrants and refugees fleeing theatres of war, including IT and drone based monitoring of mass population movement, and stowaway detection systems.
I tried to explain this to a cab driver who kindly agreed to take me out to the remote and forbidden periphery of the Island, and he appraised “so they coin it from setting the house on fire, and they coin it from locking the door.” Acute observations.
Anyhow, I walked the heavily fortified fence of the QinetiQ base several times, accompanied by the odd vortex of migratory birds and the intermittent blasts and nauseating booms of munitions and missiles being tested, echoing out across the Thames like leaden thunder.
It was a surreal and frustrating experience not being able to go near the base and see anything on it, or to access the Island which is strictly forbidden.
Then my luck changed. A media handler from Qinetiq – after her security team had tried and failed to seize my digital memory cards for “photographing our livery which is prohibited” (they mean their corporate logo … yep) – informed me there was one way I could perceive the base…..
…. That would be to wait for the tide to go out, and walk onto the sea bed via the “Broomway”; a notorious area known as “the most perilous byway in England”. According to Wikipedia, this notoriety is “by virtue of the disorienting nature of its environment in poor visibility, and near inevitability of death by drowning for anyone still out on the sands when the tide comes in.” I can vouch for the race of the tide when it comes. It’s vociferous, audible and intimidating. But you can see the QinetiQ base if you’re quick.
I’d been thinking about the refugee crisis and the role of the UK arms industry in that crisis quite a lot and the atmosphere of fleeing human beings began to fuse with the sound of missile texting and surging tidal water.
I decided to have two core motifs to the installation. First, a man – apparently from the global south – walking out of the sea into a series of streets and places that are permanently closed to him … the same man – perfectly played by the actor Lamin Tamba – walks back into the sea. (“Haul”).
Second, I decided it might be interesting to perform a tragic, iconic ballet solo on the “most perilous byway in England” in the sea, directly in front of a weapons testing base. The solo, “The Dying Swan” – originally choreographed by Mikhail Fokine in 1905 to Camille Saint-Saëns‘s Le Cygne from Le Carnaval des animaux as a pièce d’occasion for the ballerina Anna Pavlova. Pavlova performed it over 4,000 times including in Damascus, and it went to be of the most popular ballet pieces in Syria.
I couldn’t perform it though, I have no natural rhythm. In fact I know nothing at all about ballet, to be honest.
The incredible Anna Du Boisson agreed to help me. I attended some rehearsals with her and her pupils and then Anna effectively cast the equally amazing Cira Robinson for me.
We shot the films over two weeks in July 2016. Mark Nutkins was the project cinematographer, shooting on Arri Alexa and TOD anamorphic lenses. And Jim Carey (Head of sound on Banksy’s “Exit Through The Gift Shop” and “Dismaland”) was sound recordist and designer.
Each film is accompanied by a unique psycho-acoustic sound score, comprised & woven from field recordings Jim and had taken around the base at Foulness, including huge ballistic explosions piercing across the sea and landscape, migratory bird sound, steel armament covers being manipulated, tidal water, security fences warped by high wind and other elements; some of which are fused with “noise wave” musical samples contributed to the project by Thom Yorke of Radiohead.
We also photographed the entire perimeter of the base and were repeatedly stopped & challenged by QinetiQ security personnel while carrying out this entirely legal activity. The cameras never point inward though, to the QinetiQ “assets”.
This, I’d been informed, would result in the legal seizure of the film. Still, to make up for the absence we included in the show some marketing material from the company’s DSEI arms fair advertising campaigns (“Upside Down Hedges”) it’s really fascinating stuff.