Mountains Underwater

On a trip to the north of Scotland during Autumn 2016 we found ourselves in Thurso, making it our base for a few days while visiting quarry sites in Caithness to make some recordings of rocks, water, and machinery. Exploring those places was interesting and valuable, but more fascinating were the stories our host shared with us about her Father being one of the last people to live on a small island called Eilean nan Ron, the Gaelic name which means Island of the Seal. It has been uninhabited by people since 1938, when the last of its population asked to be evacuated to the mainland because life became too difficult to sustain on the island.

We became curious about other islands around Scotland like Eilean nan Ron, remote places where communities once thrived and people lived out their lives somewhat isolated from the rest of the world. As it turns out there are around 30 Scottish islands which have been handed back to nature, the remnants of human occupation beginning to be swallowed up and hidden by natural forces (or maybe by the sheep left behind).

We’re interested in what kind of stories the past can tell us about these islands, but we also like the idea of looking forward and thinking about the potential of these places.

With Mountains Underwater we ultimately intend to create a series of artworks that imagine what the future of abandoned Scottish islands could be like if they were still inhabited by people, managing new ways of interacting with the natural environment and rebuilding communities. What type of economy could exist? How would modern technology make these islands different for residents? What kind of new island ecology might emerge? What could it sound like? These are some of the questions we’re asking through this artwork.

Our research investigates the histories and present-day existence of several Scottish islands.

Our research investigates the histories and present-day existence of several Scottish islands. To begin with we’re concentrating on Stroma, Eilean nan Ron, the Shiant Isles, the Monach Isles and Mingulay.

A central goal of this work is to investigate what it may have been like to experience life in the past on the islands, but it also aims to propose imaginary futures for the islands influenced by their own history, perhaps with communities thriving once again. The project entails a long period of field research that requires us to visit as many of these islands as physically possible.

We will document these places through photography, videography, audio field-recordings, and meeting the people who still have a connection to the lost island communities through their family history or perhaps their profession.

While we can’t spend a lifetime on an island, we’re going to capture as much as possible and be talking with people who have done so, in order to better convey the island experience through our installations. The sonic environment becomes a large part of the work because of its importance in the immersive experience of place. We’ll be gathering authentic location sound: the waves roaring over the edge of a cliff, the birds calling over the sea, the wind rushing over the islands.

These natural soundscapes will set the scene for the anthropocentric part of the sound world, in which we will imagine what kind of sounds the island villages and the people living there made and what sounds could exist there today if the boat still brought the post and self-sufficient lifestyle utilised new technologies. It’s also important to address the themes in this work visually, and we plan to construct and sculpt forms which evoke the islands’ physicality.

Working with organic materials connects with the ruggedness and purity of landscape that is often associated with islands, and we want to express the power and beauty of nature throughout this project.

Mountains Underwater culminates in a series of exhibitions in different regions throughout Scotland.

The documentation compiled from the research period will be processed into 5 or 6 immersive art installations – one for each island that we explore. The artworks will feature multi-channel sound compositions that bring the sonic environments of each place—both real and imagined—to the exhibition setting. Viewers/listeners can explore the aural space while experiencing a sculptural/cultural landscape made from mostly organic material.

Mountains Underwater offers a new perspective for understanding some of the Scottish island communities that no longer exist, using sound and anthropocentric visual elements to encourage a new experience of place in the exhibition setting. As a starting point, the islands to be researched are Mingulay, Stroma, the Monach Isles, the Shiant Isles, and Eilean nan Ron. Depending on the amount of information available about the history of these places, the number of islands involved in the project may change. The crucial role of the present-day islanders in this project is very clear and we hope to make strong connections with the people tied to these harsh yet romantic locales.

In this way, the project is definitely collaborative—the words of these people will be laced into the work, their memories and descriptions used as guides for what to include when trying to embody the character of the place. Audio recordings of the interviews could even be used in the sound-composition, meaning their voices would literally be heard as well. We will use these stories to influence the emotion and mood in the installations, to inject truth and some history, perhaps searching for the essence of each island.

With such a rich and complex Scottish history, we often look back into time to understand the identity of a place. We propose that through Mountains Underwater we can look into the past while constructing a possible future existence for these Scottish island communities. We view this project as a way to bring these island communities alive again by making them so, in the form of an immersive installation.

Mara & Tyler
February 2017

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