Material Culture Unearthed:
Five Verses on Six Sacks of Earth

Five Verses on Six Sacks of Earth Day, In-Situ. Photo: Reece Straw
Five Verses on Six Sacks of Earth Day, In-Situ. Photo: Reece Straw

From East to West Lancashire, there’s been digging, drilling, excavation, and extraction. Unearthing materials in an attempt to continue the places we have settled. But the fracking near Blackpool, where the land has shaken (in anger?) and ground the operation to a halt, is not the same as the archaeological exploration which took place earlier this year in Pendle.

As part of their role in the Pendle Hill Landscape Partnership, In-Situ invited Nastassja Simensky and Rebecca Lee to be artists-in-residence at an archaeological dig at Malkin Tower Farm. The aim of this dig was to look for evidence of seventeenth-century dwellings and material culture. ‘Material culture’ refers to the objects, buildings, spaces, and resources that humans make or form around themselves. When we cleared the land of trees for farming, we constructed dwellings and keeps, made tools and vessels, crafted ornaments and adornments – traces of these histories are kept buried in the earth.

Simensky and Lee gathered field recordings and interviews, delved into archival material, and worked with landscape mapping technologies to create a micro-opera, which was performed across four East Lancashire sites. I attended the penultimate show at Clitheroe Library – a location which added further meaning to time travel via situation of object and place as many years ago I had attended the town’s sixth-form college. Returning was like seeing a forgotten face. A strange sense of de-familiarity set the tone for this opera.

Present in the library’s meeting room: a choir and musicians, dressed in costumes inspired by the particularities of the local earth. Fragments of the pottery found at the dig were enlarged as hollow polystyrene shapes fitted with internal speakers to whistle, creak, and groan with pre-recorded sounds.  Via these elements we heard a hawthorn tree tell us of its time spent rooted, watching centuries of human activity. A curlew’s undulating call was translated and sung back to us so we could hear its detailed and intimate knowledge of the locale.

Catherine Reardon, one of the archaeologists, had her thoughts recorded as a text piece, which was read to the audience: we heard why she was involved in the dig and her connection to the folklore of the area. She is Canadian but with a mother and grandmother from Yorkshire, not too far from Pendle. Readon was born under circumstances that would have marked her out as a witch a few hundred years prior.

The soundscapes devised by Simensky and Lee layer but never blend. Voices are sprechgesang to build up and fall back over the field recordings and bassoon and viola da gamba knit everything together. This composition was an attempt to describe the collision atmosphere, human influence, and the natural stratification of time present at Malkin Farm Tower.

At its best, this performance felt close to hypnotic, with a beguiling power to draw you to a contemplation of human and natural influence. Storytelling in this way worked on a number of levels; particularly in the way it allowed for a non-linear experience of time to be expressed. Certain parts needed more clarity: the character of Greg (a seventeenth-century foundation stone and star find of the dig) only became clear in the Q&A after the show.

In the Q&A, Simensky and Lee said that this opera was a work in progress, which they hoped would eventually encompass a film. Hearing this made sense, feeling that the depth of research within this piece had not yet been properly realised. I look forward to following this project’s development.

People often feel apathy for their own locality in the sense that they believe there is nothing particular to it. In East Lancashire, the hills brought the clouds, which brought the mills of the Industrial Revolution, and this helped populate a perpetually damp pocket of England. These hills still bring the same clouds to sit heavy and grey. Pendle Hill is the word – ‘hill’ – three times. We’ve named the same thing and forgotten or lost use of our old words so we layer new ones one top.

It is easy to consign our past – whether real or imagined – to the archives; records to be referenced and quoted to support our march into the future. But what if we were to reassess our settled histories for a present experience, in a way that acknowledged a temporal space outside of a linear progression? We are hurtling forward at a destructive pace as if we are limited on time. Simensky and Lee remind us that this does not have to be the case.

Image: Reece Straw 

Published 07.12.2018 by Sara Jaspan in Reviews

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