Missing Observer Studies

is a time focused online cinema/journal/diary dedicated to the elongation, suspension, and untimeliness of time. Each issue is treated with care, and published indeterminately per the means and welfare of all parties involved. (huner.francis@gmail.com | ig:@huner_francis)

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(From: December 17th, 2020)

Daniel & Clara

"On the Island..."

March 2020, we were staying with family on Mersea island on the Essex coast – reports start to come in of a virus spreading from China. We don't particularly pay much attention at first, assuming the usual media sensationalism. We continue with our plans for upcoming performances and exhibitions and are surprised when talk begins about possibly having to cancel. The seriousness of the situation becomes clearer with the first reports of people in the area getting ill and the death toll rising rapidly. It moves closer to home when arts venues across the UK start to close their doors and all of our upcoming projects and exhibitions are cancelled. A couple of days later the lockdown is announced. For the time being going back to London ceases to be an option both practically and financially so we settle in to what we believe to be a temporary stay on the island until the situation passes.
Daily we watch the government's announcements, doom ladened narratives tailored to spread fear and to make sure we all stay at home to minimize the spread of the virus. We feel lucky to be out of the city. We take our permitted one hour of exercise per day, walking the same route which leads out of the house, down an avenue to the beach, along the sand and shingle to a wooded area which we call the Dragon's Nest, then along a meandering tree lined lane, past fields, back to a main road which leads back to the house.

We walk this route over and over, at first once a day, then twice. Walking in circles, taking the same path, this act of repetition attunes our attention to the details of our surroundings. We get to know particular trees and features of the landscape. We see familiar birds in the same patches of hedgerow, a cheeky robin that hops about on a gate at the top of the lane, a noisy crow who favours an oak in one of the fields. As time passes we witness the arrival of spring, and we see it as we've never done before – it is an event of such drama and beauty that we can't help but feel that for us personally the lockdown has been a great gift.

At around this time we had been given an old slightly broken but usable iPhone, also the month before we had set up an Instagram account and were beginning to question how we could use these tools to create some work. Usually our moving image pieces, whether for gallery or cinema, are  conceived as immersive sensorial journeys, meant to be watched in the dark with the volume played loud so that you can enter the world on screen. But videos presented on Instagram are very different experiences, they are viewed on small screens held in the hand, briefly glanced at alongside a flowing stream of other images, the sound playing through tiny speakers.

Narrative has always been a central concern in our work, initially in the context of moving image, exploring new possibilities for narrative structure beyond the three act form, but more recently experimenting with the narrative possibilities within diaries, letters, performance and photographic works. To seek new forms of narrative is to seek new possibilities for being human. The homo sapiens is fundamentally a narrative making creature. We organise the material of our lives into patterns and stories that give a sense of meaning and purpose. When considering the possibilities of how to create work for Instagram it occurred to us that the platform is fundamentally a narrative tool, it is a way of presenting one's life to the world in a constructed sequential way, it is diaristic, it builds meaning over time, it tells a story of our lives to our friends and followers.

We are interested in how narrative is used to create our understanding of reality. The stories we tell ourselves about who we are, what we are like and what we can be all shape our lives. Stories set the parameters of what is possible, they put in place the limits of reality. Over the ten years of living and working together we have experimented with rewriting our personal narratives in order to expand the possibilities of what we can be. We describe ourselves as 'two humans, one artist', accepting that we exist in different bodies with independent minds but are both in total service of the artist of which we are components. We used to have surnames, we used to have genders, we used to have nationalities. These things, all of which are constructs, defined us and restricted us, so we stopped using them, we changed the way we defined ourselves. The artist Daniel & Clara is the amalgamation of our two human forms and psyches into a third being which we believe can transcend our individual limitations. Together we can do so much more than we ever could alone. Together we can dive deeper into the mysterious depths of creativity, pushing each other on, going beyond our previous limits.

We met in November 2010, and only a few weeks later we began collaborating. Our first project together was a feature film called Savage Witches, a kaleidoscopic exploration of the possibilities of cinema as an art form and a personal meditation on creative freedom. During the 18 month production of this film our collaboration was formed, the conversations that started then continue to this day.
In our early moving image work we used performers and actors, but over time it became necessary for us to be in front of the camera as well as behind it. It was a part of the ongoing process of removing all divisions between our work and our lives. To reach the point where we are the work and the work is us.

We first lived together in Brighton, then Hastings, before spending 6 years in Portugal. Then in 2019 we returned to the UK, first settling in London, and now on Mersea Island. The places we live always impact on our work, we are sensitive to our environment and it shapes the material emerging from the creative sphere.

As we repeatedly walked the island every day, never venturing across the causeway to the mainland, we began to shoot short videos on the iPhone – moving pictures of ourselves standing, looking, listening, laying, sitting and daydreaming within the landscapes. Fragments of time, our time and the landscape's.

These films emerged quite naturally, without much intellect or analysis. Like small notes, sketches or diaries we felt instinctively that they had to be simple, unedited, with the sound and image left as the phone recorded it. They are different in many ways to our previous films, which were often heavily edited with complexly layered sound design. With these new films we needed simplicity, directness, the image and sound pared back to the bare essentials as if we were again at the very beginnings of cinema. But unlike early cinema pioneers such as Louis Lumière, whose films capture moments of the energetic optimism at the peak of the industrial age, we stand at the other end of cinema, facing the climate crisis in a world under the spell of a pandemic. He filmed workers leaving a factory, a train arriving in a station; we film ourselves alone in the landscape.

We stand in the landscape, looking, listening, feeling. The actions are repeated. We release a couple of films a week, as and when we shoot them. They show our friends and followers the places where we walk and spend our time, the setting of our lives through these strange months. As each film is published they build a narrative of our life through this moment. We find that others can relate to them, that all of us in our own way are confined to the local and are navigating a new way of being in the world.

The countryside and nature have always been present in our work, the urban rarely features, but landscape as a subject only fully moved to the centre a couple of years ago. In 2017 we were living in Portugal, feeling very cut off and isolated and longing to find a place which felt like home. We didn't know where that would be, we didn't know where we belonged. Around this time we took a two week tour around the UK showing work at various venues, and on the last day of the tour we visited Avebury in Wiltshire.

We only spent a couple of hours exploring the village and filming the neolithic stone circle that surrounds it, but by the time we left the seeds of change had been germinated. This was the landscape of our inner life and we knew instantly that we needed to live and work in England. It took us two years to edit the footage into what became Notes From A Journey and a month after completion we had moved back to the UK.

The landscapes of our films are never wholly the landscapes out there, the true landscapes are the landscapes of the mind. The encounter with place for us is one of externalising the imagination and of becoming conscious of one's own perception mechanism. Finding a landscape where we felt a sense of psychological connection was essential to us, it helped us to know ourselves better and filled us with a confidence that we could go to new creative depths.

This also coincided with finding an artistic tradition which spoke to us. The British landscape as subject for art is so vast and varied that it can be overwhelming but a number of individuals stood out from the crowd, particular artists whose work resonates with us, whose footsteps we feel we follow and who help us make sense of our own creative inclinations.

John Constable is one of those painters whose work we knew but we didn't pay much attention to until recently. His pictures exist in that space of invisible familiarity, you often see them reproduced but never properly take notice of them. It was only when we moved to London that we started to really look at them. At first it was his beautiful studies of clouds that pulled us in, then the more we looked the more we saw and started to understand how his work was not only about place but also about paint and image-making. We spent the spring and summer seeking out every one of his paintings on display in London, and then made a visit to his beloved home in Dedham Vale, which in itself is an uncanny place, preserved and maintained to conform to Constable's depictions.

What we discovered was that his work is deeply psychological, for him certain places and activities in the landscape were deeply tied up with his sense of self. The world shown on the canvas is not entirely a representation of what he saw but an amalgamation of inner and outer life. The true Constable country is the landscape of his mind – and his sense of self was intrinsically tied up with the places he was obsessed with.

Similarly, early 20th century Neo-Romantic painters such as Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland explore this connection between the individual and place, the emotional correspondence between land formations, nature, weather and the psyche. But it's not just painting we look to, science fiction and horror are also an influence. Films and books which help us to imagine the impossible, to dream beyond the limits of known reality and to glimpse the manifestation of our fears. We particularly like John Wyndham's psychic mutations and killer plants, and Nigel Kneale's eerie encounters between modern technology and ancient magic.

As time went on, the first lockdown was eased. We had already started going further afield, exploring other areas of the island but we'd still not crossed that threshold known as the Strood which separates us from the mainland. The summer was a glorious gathering of inspiration and sensation, we walked, read and did our daily work, we felt that great sense of freedom and ease that the sun and warm breeze lays around you. When the trees are thick with leaves and the birds sing cheerily from 4am it is almost impossible to remember how cold winter can be. But then in September, autumn sent forth hints of its arrival like a postcard from a sinister aunt announcing she is coming to stay. We sensed it moving in not only by observing the changes to the sky and the trees but we felt it in our bodies – a stirring anxiety of sorts, the creeping realisation that the ease of summer was at an end.

This moment tied in with an invitation to spend two days in Sussex, to create a new moving image piece set in the village of Mayfield. For us each project always mutates into the next. For this commission we created En Plein Air – an 18 minute film set over a single day, about the psychological impact of place and weather. It turned out that the day we filmed was the wettest since records began in 1891.

The journey off of the island was filled with tension, travelling for the first time since March, the world had changed. Whilst travelling through London it occurred to us that we had barely seen other people in all these months. On the island we keep to ourselves, walk our paths away from the more populated corners of the village, our naturally introvert tendencies had intensified. After two long days of filming we returned to the island, feeling a sense of security to be back to the safety of this circle of land. We realised this place had become home, not just in the practical sense, but that some psychological roots had grown here.

We've recently been reading about neolithic cultures, particularly in relation to the creation of standing stones and earth works. An interesting idea that stuck with us was how particular places became sacred, how meaningfulness came to be imbued in certain areas of the landscape. In the transitional period from being hunter gatherers to farmers, our ancestors would move according to the seasons, tracking animals and staying for a season in particular locations before moving on. At the end of the season, before leaving, they would gather all their rubbish, the debris from cooking and hunting, and they would bury it in pits. These pits would over time become markers that they would return to and with each generation they would come back to the same place, forming a tradition and sense of continuity. We imagine that maybe after a generation or two the original reason why a particular place was returned to was forgotten, but they would know that their parents and grandparents had made a base in the same place, establishing a feeling of interconnectedness between their family and the area. This helped us to understand how a sense of connection to a place comes about, how time and repetition are key to the creation of meaning. A sacred place is a site where one both projects a sense of the self and connects to something bigger than oneself, whether it be our ancestors or gods and spirits.

In this sense we are beginning to see how, through making art on Mersea, the island is becoming a sacred place for us. We do have ancestral links here but it is also becoming more personally meaningful through our creative engagement with it. By creating art on and about the island we are forming a psychic connection to the landscape and it becomes a receptor to our psychological and imaginative projections.

On the Island... continues, we plan to film over a full year before stopping. It is December 2020 now, the shortest day is close, the nights are longer than days and winter is creeping in. Each season has its moods, purpose and gifts, so for now we'll continue to walk daily, observing the shifts in light, atmosphere and landscape as well as the parallel shifting in the creative, imaginative and psychological landscapes of ourselves.

© 2020.
Daniel & Clara two humans one artist on a journey exploring dimensions real and imagined, the results of which consist of moving image, photography, installation, letters and performance. Since meeting in 2010 they have dedicated themselves to a shared life of creative exploration, they discarded their birth genders, nationality and family names to form a single artist. Their work investigates the complex narratives we create to make sense of our own existence, raising questions about the nature of reality and how we construct meaning in regards to our experiences.

Their work has been exhibited and screened internationally at galleries and film festivals including Whitechapel Gallery, Kettle’s Yard, British Film Institute, Fabrica Gallery, Rencontres Internationales Paris/Berlin, Slow Film Festival, Alchemy Film & Moving Image Festival, Doclisboa. Films by Daniel & Clara are included in the BFI National Archive.

daniel-clara.co.uk         |        @daniel_and_clara


Missing Observer Studies:
Micah Weber, Roseanne Johnson.


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