Shadow Dialling Studio

Wake; The Happy Gazebo; B&W handprint Collage; May 2019

This blog began as a way to document a body of work I’m developing with Belfast Exposed through an Artists career Enhancement scheme (ACES) grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Developing the way I work collaboratively was my reason to apply for the award. In particular I wanted to learn more about participatory practice. How could I weave other  experiences through my work in a meaningful way while maintaining the integrity of my overall visual arts practice?

Increasingly I’ve been combining the ideas in my main area of work ‘Shadow Dial Studies’ with my creative start up ‘Shadow Studio’. Shadow Studio developed from designing a portable DIY shadow kit and since 2012 I’ve been taking my kits around the UK and Ireland to festivals, art centres and schools to run workshops. I love working with a mix of age groups particularly older people and am curious about  how we experience growing older and approach the end of time on a daily basis, in effect exploring the experience of our finitude.

Most of my work takes place within Shadow Dial Studies. A research based practice that uses shadow catching as a photographic method to measure time and the impact it has on identity and memory. I regularly use shadow casting as a way to explore ideas yet never autobiographical aspects of myself or others. I decided to begin doing this with my Dad as my partner and planned to find participants who would work with us by partnering up with a friend of family member of a different age  for the project.

I was delighted when Belfast Exposed said they would be happy to be my partner organisation and we got to work developing a proposal for an Arts Council Northern Ireland ACES award that combined Shadow Dial Studies with Shadow Studio.

 Originally the project was about how we establish identity through recording time. I was planning to explore it through looking at how photography reveals presence by capturing absences in stories eg: through negatives, shadows, shutters and the involuntary/sub conscious , and my methodology was based on shadow catching. 

“One’s relationship to one’s own shadow -which is not the same as oneself, which one does not own, but which is an inescapable attribute and accompaniment, was for me a memorable conundrum. A midpoint between between a familiar self and the otherness of the rest of the world. It is both of one and separate from one’. Wiliam Kentridge, In Praise of Shadows, 2009 p20.

The Shock of Now i-ii

Testaments i
The garden during his wake; the mountain where he died
Testaments; Funeral; test strip collage; 2020

In the first full bloom of spring. Both beautiful, dear and familiar places I rushed to. Really rushed to by slow flight as slow shock descended. I was searching and recording as the wake settled into the house.  Building up a cache of films and files, but I wasn’t present when he parted and I couldn’t find him beyond his waked body. I kept gathering evidence to hoard and scrutinise, too afraid to develop the footage.

“Trauma is stored in bits and pieces in the brain, it is important to create a  narrative to store it properly, when you put words to it and hear those words you can store it better”. Dr Rachel Gibbons; Good Grief Festival; workshop on traumatic loss 2020 

I wanted to agree but the narrative, sank deeper on my bones and it didn’t sit right.

Then  finally in the winter printing began in the darkroom, in a steady, stunned relief, finally watching them emerge in welcomed images. It pained, comforted and controlled me in equal measure, a desperate calm tearing and a strong, pointless pull. 

A series of test strips of my family house at the time of my dads wake, and from the mountain where he died, hung dutifully from clothes pegs in my darkroom. I saw them from the corner of my eye and looked a long time, the test strips made sense to my fractured mind, partly because of their  own split and  fractured state. But fractured for a purpose, with a direction. It was helpful how they fitted the splintered thin thoughts, image flicking across my mind now. They fitted, nothing else did.  Finding something that fits a fractured situation is a huge relief, gives it a place…. legitimising. Legitimising like a theory. Like a process. Test strips , what are they?  Tests, the simplest experiment, to answer questions; How much time do I need to see this picture clearly? How much light will be right? What cut from this scene will each reveal? Which slice of time will my random framing have exposed? As I stared at them hanging by clothes pegs, involuntary coherent  images settled into my vision at last .

Testaments ii
The Happy Gazebo; scattered shadows, baffled house


Fore-bode/beforehand/gathering /make aware/correspondence/casting shadow/

I lived with a foreboding, not the same as the ingrained familiar dread of losing him since discovering death and finitude as a child,  this was a new strong deep distracting  forebode….on and off since early 2018 but steadily gaining pace and momentum until it suddenly subsided 2 weeks before he died. I’d been preoccupied about it, it snapped into my attention in various ways; it fed a PhD proposal,  composed a collage depicting an abstract separation. It was there, a need to prepare for this loss, his loss, the loss of him, gather stories and collate analyse memories, I tried to shake it off, but meanwhile these creatures cut for shadow casting appeared from my scissors, designed as shadows for a deep layered 2D forest. They didn’t serve my PhD proposal or any other project so they never moved past being pinned on a sheet of graph paper on my studio wall, they were left waiting, un-cast until a few months ago. Now I recognise them as foreboders, gathering to correspond.

I cast them on a screen, looming as a set of quasi prehistoric anthropomorphic forms,  now growing into outlines, in vigilance, in  correspondence with ancestral versions of themselves. Now fading into  layers of shadow, cutting, focal length and perspective. Shadow distance betraying their form as they know they can only be clearly seen fully through a glance or a long angled stare. Watching them made the shock feel less severe, silently showing me that my unease of worried, disjointed time had made sense. Instilling an impossible faith in an irrational ability to know or see things before they happen. Within that huge landscape, I was viewing the projection and placement of my own present in a past and future. 

Dust to dust

Studio windowsill; April 2018; Digital C type

Little did I know that this project, and in fact my whole practice,  was primed to be about grief and mourning and the stupefying shock of absence.

Suddenly and unexpectedly my Dad died while out on his motorbike. Throughout the unforgiving bafflement of his wake I photographed. The closing shutter satisfied the incessant mental searching. The rush of photographic process defined and structured (my) loss. I drew back from my plans for Shadow Dialling Studio as working with him sat firmly in another life.

Within a fortnight of his funeral I installed an exhibition in CCA that had been planned months before. At the opening night as I watched my three key pieces; Cinders, Dust and  Blue Room shadow maps, I could finally feel connected again.

Wake; The Happy Gazebo; B&W hand printed collage; May 2019

I was used to (my) photography being swathed in theory underpinned with references to death , but never this way round, (my fathers) death, my state of grief swathed in theories of photography. I wanted proof of ghosts when he died, I got instead,  proof of photography. I have never been so grateful for it, the medium was all I wanted , or needed to work with.

The original project rapidly reformed and refocused to use and understand the process of photography as a tangible form of mourning and a container/ its containment of grief. Through working with the absence of my Dad rather than with ‘him’, I realised the traumatic, rapid and radical shift in my reality had not shifted Shadow Dialling Studio away from its original core concern. The subject matter has changed but the underpinning ideas were the same. As I re worked the project proposal I knew I needed to make work slowly and in a very solitary way while craving to know how others coped with loss, how did they grieve, how did they mourn. When I was able to formulate what was going on into words I wrote a revised project proposal; “The main works in progress are now in three parts to reflect my sense of folded time; Future, present and past i) Foreboding; ii) The shock of Now; iii) Absent History”.

Absent History; Motorbike trip; Scanned snapshot 1990s