Interview with Richard Skelton by Tinna Guðmundsdóttir

Interview with Richard Skelton, June 14 2017 in Seyðisfjörður, by Tinna Guðmundsdóttir


In the beginning, in 2014, you came here for the first time. What was your initial impression?

I’d never been to Iceland before, so - because the project was spanning over several years - I didn't worry myself about how I would start or what I would want to do. The main idea in coming here was to try to explore as much of the area, the landscape, the natural history, the topography, the geology, as I could. So the first thing for me was flying in a tiny airplane from the domestic airport to Egilsstaðir. We were about half way into the trip and there was an announcement in Icelandic, from either the captain or the head steward, and people got up out of their seats and went to the one side of the plane, and the plane started to tip because there were so many people, and then it righted it self again. It turned out that the captain was telling people that there was a very nice view of the volcano. That's one of the first experiences I had of Iceland: people's relationships to the volcanoes. These eruptions take place on a regular basis. On one level they're a part of regular life, and on another level, they're still a spectacle people like to see. I don't like flying so I didn't get up to look. I stayed in my seat and put my hood up and pretended I wasn't there. Another thing that I remember from the first trip were warnings about the volcano when there was a lot of ash or sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere. If there is a really serious eruption of sulphur dioxide, people are normally advised to stay inside and, if they do go outside, not to do any strenuous activity. I didn't know that at the time, and I was out on bike ride... And apparently there aren't sufficient gas masks for everyone if these eruptions get really serious (this story might be apocryphal)! So my initial response to Iceland was that life seems closer to the edge here; more visceral, more in touch with the dangerous aspects of nature. And, of course, then we went to geological symposium and there was a great presentation about how Iceland is on the cusp of two continental plates, and that it is a very young country, geologically speaking, and is reflected in the relatively low level of biodiversity. It doesn’t have this long history of being inhabited, not only by humans, but also by other life forms. This fascinated me, it’s a completely different landscape to the rest of mainland Europe, and maybe even the rest of the world.

Tell us about the work process and the purpose of the blog Towards A Frontier,

As the project evolved, I started to look at the word 'ecology'. It seemed to be central to the whole Frontiers in Retreat project. My initial understanding of the word was that it was concerned with the relationships between natural organisms. So when we think of things ecological, we think about nature. But the more I read about ecology, and the more I talked to the other artists, it seemed that ecology encompasses everything that has to do with the relationship of organic organisms to their environment. So you have in those two things, organic organisms, and their environment; this is pretty much the entire world...

As this is quite a broad arena to investigate, I decided to not focus on one particular aspect. Each day I would start as if it was my first day, and I would explore different things, and what I decided to do was to keep a blog of these explorations. And yes, over the days of the first residency themes started to reveal themselves. But I tried to keep an open mind and not focus on eliminating ideas - just staying as open as possible. I think I have tried to maintain that approach as much as possible on the two visits that I have made to Seyðisfjörður and to Iceland. To simply be as open as possible to this idea about organisms and their environments, and to try to explore them as fully as I’m able.

I suppose you could say that the blog was a kind of sketchbook for ideas. I wasn’t so focused on outcomes. It was quite nice to sketch out ideas and leave them in a kind of embryonic form and to move on to something else - and then see if they resonated later down the line. The nice thing about a blog is that you can use 'tags' to identify certain themes that you might be exploring. So, you can read the blog sequentially (starting at day one and then reading all the way through), or you can click a tag and then list which days I was doing work that related to water, for example, or to mountains, or to plants, or birds, or the effects of weather, etc. I liked the idea that, first of all, it was a sort of diary, so there was a sequential aspect to it, but also it began to organise itself in a more rhizomatic way - so there were connections and web-like structures that began to emerge. It felt to me that if anything were to be an outcome, then it would be this; albeit a work-in-process. It seemed fitting vehicle to explore ideas within the project.

But yes, … inevitably you have to make some decisions about what you’re going to focus on, even if they're rather vague. What kept cropping up for me was the word alterity. It means 'otherness', and it can be used in many different contexts, but my focus was on the non-human, or the other-than-human. This was partially because of the seeming emphasis on ecology within the Frontiers in Retreat project, in the sense of what you might call our 'current ecological crisis': climate change, species extinction, the effects of humans on non-human life. Initially I began to feel overwhelmed at the thought that I, as an individual, could somehow come to terms with such complex ecological issues. As an individual artist it seemed almost pointless to try to make sense of it. And so I came up with the idea of the Centre for Alterity Studies as a way of trying to open this discussion out to others - not just to other artists, but researchers, academics, writers, poets; a multitude of voices. So I put a call out for work with the idea of making a publication, which, in due course became the Alterity journal.

The other strand to my work was more personal; reflecting my anxiety about how to answer such a big question. What can artists do - how can artists contribute to a discussion on climate change and ecological crisis? We are not experts. So how do we negotiate the blizzard of fact and counter-fact, rumour and insinuation. How do we find a way to assimilate all that complex information into our work. I don’t know that we can … and actually, only recently I found a quote by the writer Rebecca Solnit which put everything into context. She says: “Scientists transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen. Whereas artists get you to that dark sea”. But there's a trend in contemporary artistic practice to adopt the language and processes of scientific enquiry; we conduct research and experiments. But perhaps we should be concentrating on what makes us unique as artists? Our communication is experiential, and there is value in our individuality.

During my time in Iceland I kept a personal, unpublished, diary of thoughts, sketches, photography, music and film. Towards the end of my stay I began to feel quite strongly that I should share something of this private experience; of being neither a visitor, nor a resident; of being in this uncertain place in-between, where I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere. The purpose of residencies is often to be in an unfamiliar place for a long time, and so you enter into a kind of limbo state where you are living there, but you’re not really living. And you’re hypersensitive to the environment around you, and to the culture, and to everything that it comprises, and you begin to lose your skin. You become hypersensitive to everything, to all the stimuli from this different place. And so this is my ecology, this is me as an organism responding to my environment. I decided that this would be… my personal work; that I would to try to communicate my own personal ecology within this residency environment. I did that with the film, No Frontier, which includes captioned text that I adapted from the Poetic Edda, because I think the artistic process is partially about absorbing these different aspects from the environment - so it felt appropriate to adopt the language of these founding documents of Iceland; to use them to speak for me. 

Can you tell us a little bit about the other video work, In Pursuit of the Eleventh Measure?

I think the film is motivated by an interest in landscape and natural history, and the cycles and processes of nature. But I’m also interested in how landscapes are embodied in the imaginations of the people who occupy them, and this often is transmitted through folklore and folk stories. One of the things that struck me very forcibly when I came to Seyðisfjörður was the number of fosses around the fjord. I would visit them and make recordings - there is a music to them that overpowers your senses, and it's very easy to imagine how people hundreds of years ago might have visited these fosses and had mystical experiences; had magical encounters. In my research I read about a Scottish tradition concerning waterfalls and divination. If there was a problem in the community which couldn’t be resolved, then a designated person would go to the local waterfall and submit themselves to the waters. They would enter into communion with the waterfall and have an out-of-body experience. It was thought that an answer to the problem would be given through this visceral relationship with the water. I didn’t see why that wouldn’t be something that might have happened in Iceland, hundreds of years ago. I then started to look at water folklore in a Scandinavian context, and I found a beautiful old book with lots of mythology from Scandinavia, and one of the bits of folklore concerned a divine creature called a 'Neck', and also the 'Fossegrim' or 'Strømkarl'. This is the divine embodiment a river or waterfall, which - if an appropriate offering is made – will impart knowledge or skill. One of the myths about this exchange is that if you are a musician, then you can learn your craft from this creature. You would make an offering and you would be given the skill to play, and not only play, you would play so well that you could make trees dance.

You can see this myth being retold in the story of the blues guitarist Robert Johnson in the 20th century. He goes to the crossroads and sells his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to play the guitar. It's basically a Christianised version of this European folktale. And it's just this idea of exchange, I think, that’s what is interesting. It’s a connection made with the agencies of the landscape. So when I began to look at the hydroelectric plant in Seyðisfjörður. It struck me that there is a kind of analogy here. We are getting our electricity from the river, but what sacrifice have we made? I don’t think we made a sacrifice, and because we haven’t made a sacrifice, there are consequences yet to be paid. You know, a debt is owed. And I then found out about the Kárahnjúkar hydroelectric dam, where there was a lot of environmental protest because the dam would be built in an area of wilderness, and also because the dam would be used to power aluminium smelting.

In the past there was an exchange that was deemed to be fair. When you look at pre-Christian religion, offerings were made to the genii locorum, the spirits of place. If you wanted something from a landscape you needed to make a sacrifice, and that was a way of keeping the balance. We don’t keep a balance anymore, and we have environmental crises. I’m not suggesting that the two are causally linked, but I just think it’s interesting to explore. So there is an analogue between learning one's musical ability from the water spirit, and this building that houses the water turbine which produces this beautiful murmur, this musical note... And the film is imagining that within the foundation of this building is this sacrifice itself, this offering that we actually didn’t make. But what if, in an alternate reality, we had made this sacrifice, would things be different? And I finish the film by making the observation that in 2017 a pagan temple is being built in Iceland, the first for a thousand years. So I'm just alluding to the fact that the ideas inherent in paganism - this sense of exchange and equality with nature – maybe they're cyclical, and they will come back again.

Can I ask you, what can we learn from your research, from your artistic output and even maybe, what did you learn?

Well, I think again this goes back to the idea as to whether artists are answering questions, or asking more questions in turn. I think that if we are answering questions, then perhaps we are not behaving like artists, we are trying to be something else. I think for a long time in this project I was trying to answer those questions head-on. I was trying to think what can we do to respond constructively and meaningfully to the issue of environmental degradation and species loss. One of the things that I did do was to look at The Red List, which is a list of critically endangered species from all over the world. And I think - quite simply - one of the things that people could take away from my work is the knowledge of its existence. For myself, I wasn't aware of it until I started work on this project. I knew there would be such a thing within the scientific community, but whether or not it was available to the layperson I wasn’t sure. So I think by bringing this document into artistic discourse, into a gallery setting, and to talk with fellow artists about it, and to try to stimulate interest in it from members of the public -  maybe this is something that people can take away. Maybe my work raises people's awareness of the existence of The Red List, and therefore it raises their awareness of species loss, of the loss of biodiversity, etc. 

I mean, it’s a small thing to do, and it doesn’t really feel very helpful in the larger scheme of things, because it's not in any way doing anything to help those organisms that are on The Red List. I think part of this whole experience has been a feeling of impotence. How can an artist contribute meaningfully to these issues? Before I came here, in 2015, I did a residency for a different project on the Orkney Islands. Artists were asked to volunteer time to various environmental projects that were happening on the island. So we were helping to repair part of a cliff that had been eroded, and we were planting trees to help secure the ground, and also to provide a windbreak so that food could be grown. These felt like positive tangible actions. And the question then is - well if it's done within the context of an artistic residency, is it art? When an artist plants a tree, is it art, or is it simply planting a tree? These are interesting questions, but what felt fundamentally more important was to simply to do these things. To be doing something that has a positive effect with regard to these environmental issues.

I think that this created a bit of a crisis in my artistic life, because I then began to think that this simple act of planting a tree was more meaningful than any artwork that I was making. I began to feel that I was wasting my time making art. It seemed to me that art was very self-indulgent, and very narrow in its reach and in its effects, and I even considered, last summer, whether I would continue to be an artist or not; whether I would do something else with my life that was more meaningful. So you know - I wouldn’t have got to this stage if I hadn’t participated in this project. I don’t know if that is a good thing - an artist doing a project, and then at the end of it they decide they don’t want to be an artist anymore! Ultimately, I don’t think that not doing art is something I can do. I think being an artist is part of who you are; it’s a calling, as it were; you feel that you have to do it. The question then becomes: should you make your art about the environment? This is a very complex debate and that goes back to your question: What should people get from this? You can place too much of a burden on an artist, or on art itself, by asking it to answer questions, or to instruct people, or inform people, or to be a tool for enlightenment or social change, or all those things. Sometimes the art simply has to be itself. It can be anything, and it can't be reducible to certain demands or expectations. So a lot of the personal work that I’ve done is made without any fixed idea of an outcome. It’s been quite a surprise for me how it has evolved. For example, I don't know how the film No Frontier came together. I wouldn’t have been able to envisage that piece before it was made. And similarly, with a lot of the collages I’ve been making - these happened rather serendipitously; about three weeks from the end of the residency last year, my computer started to break down. The computer was my primary tool for my recordings, the film pieces, and also the blog. So I had to think about how I can still maintain an artistic practice without using my primary tool; and that’s when I started to make collages and drawings. I began to explore Icelandic staves. There are these medieval manuscripts that have very complex magical sigils. They’re geometric, and are used for various purposes - like if you wanted to get safe passage over sea, you would take a certain one of these staves and you would draw it on your self, or on a piece of wood, or on the stern of the ship, or what have you; and this would be a petition to whatever supernatural powers that govern these aspects of the world, and they would help grant you safe passage. And so I began to experiment with them; developing my own staves as a way of trying to grant myself safe passage through this project - through the choppy water of the environmental debate; how to negotiate all the different aspects of it.

Photo: Autumn Richardson