Cooke’s Studios, the extensive red-brick Arts and Media Centre in the heart of Barrow-in-Furness, is home to Signal Film and Media and is the venue for the second of three exhibitions to take place in 2023 as part of their current digital arts programme,TIDAL. Occupying the recently expanded ground floor gallery space, artist Stine Deja exhibits newly commissioned work in Troubled Waters, a digital, aquatic meditation on the origins and existence of AI. On the upper floor, outcomes resulting from local artist Zoe Forster’s micro-commission are showing in the main project space as ‘Looking Out, Looking In’ (2023), alongside elements of work relating to a collaborative performance piece, Sinking, in Slow Motion, by Mel Galley and Nuria Rovira Terradas in the adjacent Smoking Room.
The TIDAL programme began over six months ago in December 2022, when sixteen selected artists gathered in Barrow for a residency weekend of workshops and talks focusing on the ebb and flow of natural and cultural life along the coastline, within a broader context of climate crisis. Attendees were given the opportunity to apply for a mentored commission and Forster’s proposal, an exploration of the relationship between the domestic quotidian of Barrow’s inhabitants and the wild natural spaces of Walney Island through photography and socially engaged workshops, was one of three successful submissions.
Two white, glass-topped cabinets occupy the first-floor project space, the first containing an arrangement of stones, shells, bits of driftwood and plastic foraged by Forster from one of Walney Island’s beaches. She explains later that they ‘were not chosen for any reason other than that they reflected the truth on that particular day’. Each found object is presented with an accompanying replica, cast in concrete or plaster, or both, and a handwritten information card – the results of a workshop delivered by Forster with a group of students from the local high school. The cards are composed and written by the children and, as I enter the space, I observe visitors leaning in to read the cards and laughing.
The second case contains a further collection of plaster castings: fragmented impressions of rope strands, plastic bottles, shells, pebbles, disembodied fingers and fingerprints, the body parts and residual traces hinting at the playful nature of the workshop. Polaroid photographs taken during the event line the wall. Forster reveals that the students were encouraged to write freely about the objects ‘and to imagine they were describing them to a friend’, applying an experimental approach that facilitated inventive, often amusing responses. Extracted from their environment and displayed as museum artifacts, the beach detritus is now part of an inter-woven story. Handled, examined, and replicated, the pieces remind us of the multitude of multi-sensory ways to experience the world and the often overlooked ‘power’ of the ordinary to surprise us when noticed.
‘Looking Out, Looking In’: the title of the work suggests alternative perspectives and this line of enquiry is evidenced in Forster’s photographic works. A series of twelve cyanotypes depict fragmented views looking out to sea. Pinned together in a grid on the gallery wall they form one complete horizon line, interrupted only by several of the turbines that make up Europe’s biggest offshore windfarm. Printed on textured watercolour paper, the cyanotypes have a wash-like quality reminiscent of the moment when the clouds release rain over the sea. The sequential images were taken through an aperture or ‘loop hole’ in one of Walney Island’s two Pillbox defence lookouts. With ‘loop holes’ on all sides, these coastal, hexagonal concrete structures provided Forster’s lens with a 360-degree ready-framed outlook.
Opposite the cyanotypes are two free standing poles supporting a clothesline. A row of white clothing including overalls, a sweatshirt, a baby’s bodysuit and underwear is suspended by laundry pegs and has an image of Walney’s coastline projected onto it. Recognisably a working family’s laundry, this clothing represents the domestic heart of Barrow and underlines the importance of the town’s workforce for the social and economic health of the area. The shadows cast by the laundry onto the brick walls further emphasize the juxtaposition between the minutiae of everyday rituals, such as ‘back yard washing’, against a backdrop of open water and its associated elemental forces.
The Smoking Room, with its decorative dark wood panelling, contains fragments of work relating to a speculative short story and collaborative performance (which at the time of the launch had not yet taken place): Sinking, In Slow Motion’ by Mel Galley and Nuria Rovira Terradas. Lining the walls are a series of nine laser printed etchings on heavy black paper. Subtle and requiring scrutiny, the images describe traces of vaguely familiar landmarks – it’s unclear if the places depicted are real or digitised figments of the artists’ imaginations. Below the images are a series of projections, individually framed to echo the pattern of the space’s panelling. At floor level, a narrow projection of rippling shadows is placed beside a small grey pebble, showing the numbers 16.00.00. Appearing as fragments of a fictional story, the disparate works function like potential clues to a mystery and there’s an ambiguity to the works that suggests nothing is real or as it should be. A wall text explains that the final launch of a submarine is anticipated. Experiencing the work within the space, I’m reminded of Foucault’s concept of heterotopia and the sensation that I’m looking at Galley and Rovira Terradas’s version of reality through a mirror, the images appearing at once familiar but as if in reverse. Like Foucault’s definition of ‘spaces of otherness’, the fragmented elements seem, at first glance, to contain ‘few or no intelligible connections with one another’.
On the evening of theTIDAL launch I attended a talk by Stine Deja where she gave a brief insight into her practice and discussed some of the themes behind her current work, Troubled Waters. The digital installation, a dystopian re-imagining of Monet’s paintings of the waterlily pond and Japanese bridge, presents a future almost devoid of the natural. Water remains as an artificially dyed blue and cascading waterfall or black pools. During the presentation she quoted from the book The Ethics of Cryonics by Frances Minerva, who was in turn referencing J.S. Mill: ‘what we define as artificial is not the creation of something new, but merely the rearrangement of what is already found in nature.’ This perspective poses an interesting way to view the two other works in the exhibition.
While some elements of Galley and Rovira Terrada’s installation hint at human presence (inclusion of a digital clock and remnants of buildings portrayed in the etchings, for example) the fabricated landscapes remain vaguely unknowable or alien, presenting an uneasy duality between the artificial, digitally constructed sense of place and the more natural elements and living things.
By contrast, the components of Forster’s ‘Looking Out, Looking In’ demonstrate a commitment to a democratic inclusion of both the organic and the artificial – the artist embracing the human stories enmeshed in the landscape, much like she collected the plastic jetsam along with the natural flotsam. The Cumbrian artist’s affection for her community and desire to empower its young inhabitants with their own agency is manifest in the workshops’ outcomes. The creative exchanges clearly inspired a sense of curiosity and wonder in the natural world, that will filter down like sediment, hopefully forming solid foundations for positive change.
TIDAL: Zoe Forster, Mel Galley & Nuria Rovira, 102 Abbey Road, Barrow, 17 June –15 July 2023.
Sam Pickett is a visual artist based in Lancaster.
This review is supported by Signal Film & Media.