A Modern Estuary story …

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Until April this year, other than what it is/where it is/where it leads to, I knew very little about the Thames Estuary.

Five months on, “Listening with Frontiersman” – created and produced in direct response to the Estuary itself – opened this weekend as part of the inaugural Estuary Festival.

The work is installed in the historic & fantastically eerie 19th century Coalhouse Fort on Thames marshland at Tilbury. Christopher Nolan shot the opening sequences of “Batman Begins” there, and I share his faith in its narrative powers.

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My five screen installation uses the history of the movement of people seeking safety and security up through the seas and oceans of the world – into the Estuary and onto London – as its central atmosphere, and uses a place called Foulness Island as its canvass.

I’d studied a huge ordnance survey map of the Estuary for some weeks before the white, unmarked weirdness of Foulness began to protrude from it.

I didn’t know what was on the Island. I couldn’t understand how a land mass that big could be “private”. And I didn’t understand why the foreland around Foulness was marked as “DANGER AREA”.

The Island is operated by a trans-national arms corporation called “Qinetiq”.

“QinetiQ” is an invented name. “Qi” is supposed to reflect the company’s energy, “net” its networking ability, and “iq” its intellectual resources.

They develop, manufacture, test and sell the most lethal weaponry on planet earth – much of which is currently being sold to and deployed in conflict zones across the world. They also specialise in surveillance systems including drones and space based surveillance systems.

But extraordinarily, “Qinetiq” has also, simultaneously, operated “Borderwatch”; a contractual government operation to secure UK borders from migrants and refugees fleeing theatres of war, including IT and drone based monitoring of mass population movement, and stowaway detection systems.

I tried to explain this to a cab driver who kindly agreed to take me out to the remote and forbidden periphery of the Island, and he appraised thus: “so they coin it from setting the house on fire, and they coin it from locking the door.”

Anyhow, I walked the heavily fortified fence of the QinetiQ base alone several times, accompanied by the odd shrieking vortex of migratory birds and intermittent blasts and nauseating booms of munitions and missiles being tested, echoing out across the Thames like leaden thunder.

It was in some respects a surreal and frustrating experience not being able to go onto the Island itself or see anything of it – this is strictly forbidden.

And then my luck changed. After her security team had tried and failed to seize my digital memory cards for “photographing our livery which is prohibited” (they mean their corporate logo … yep) – a Qinetiq media handler informed me there was one way I could at least perceive the base…..

…. that would be to wait for the tide to go out, and walk onto the sea bed via the “Broomway”; a notorious area regarded as “the most perilous byway in England”.

According to Wikipedia, this notoriety is “by virtue of the disorienting nature of its environment in poor visibility, and near inevitability of death by drowning for anyone still out on the sands when the tide comes in.” I can vouch for the race of the tide when it comes. It’s vociferous, audible and intimidating.

But you can glimpse the QinetiQ base if you’re quick.

I’d been thinking about the refugee crisis and the role of the UK arms industry in that crisis quite a lot, and the abstract atmosphere of fleeing human beings began to react with the fulminating sound of missile explosions and the cycle of surging tidal water.

I decided to have two core motifs to the installation. First, a man – apparently from the global south – walking out of the sea into a series of streets and places that are permanently closed to him … the same man – perfectly played by the actor Lamin Tamba – walks back into the sea on a 17 minute loop. (“Haul”).

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Second, I decided it might be interesting to perform a tragic, iconic ballet solo out there, on the “most perilous byway in England” in the sea, on the foreshore directly in front of a weapons testing base.

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A solo I had come across via some research was “The Dying Swan” – originally choreographed by Mikhail Fokine in 1905 to Camille Saint-Saëns’s “Le Cygne” (from Le Carnaval des animaux) as a pièce d’occasion for the ballet titan Anna Pavlova.

Pavlova performed it over 4,000 times including in Damascus, and it went on to be one of the most popular ballet pieces in pre-civil war Syria.

I couldn’t perform it though, I’ve no natural rhythm at all. In fact I know nothing at all about ballet, to be honest. Zero.

The incredible Anna Du Boisson agreed to help me. I attended some rehearsals with her and her pupils and then Anna effectively cast the equally amazing Cira Robinson for me.

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We shot the films over two weeks in July, for the most part before dawn. Mark Nutkins was the project cinematographer, shooting on Arri Alexa and TOD anamorphic lenses.

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Jim Carey (Head of sound on Banksy’s “Exit Through The Gift Shop” and “Dismaland”) was sound recordist and designer. Joe Morris cut the films beautifully, especially “Mute“, which required a 16 shot, highly complex multi-cam edit.

Each section of the film installation is accompanied by a unique psycho-acoustic sound score, comprised & woven from field recordings Jim and I had taken around the base at Foulness, including huge ballistic explosions piercing across the sea and landscape, migratory bird sound, steel armament covers being manipulated, tidal water, security fences warped by high winds and other elements; some of which are fused with “noise wave” musical samples contributed to the project by Thom Yorke.

We also photographed the entire perimeter of the base, being repeatedly stopped & challenged by QinetiQ security personnel while carrying out this entirely legal activity. Our cameras never pointed inwards though, towards the QinetiQ “assets”.

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This, I had been informed, would result in the legal seizure of the film. Still, to make up for the absence, we have included in the show some marketing material from the company’s DSEI arms fair advertising campaigns (“Upside Down Hedges”) – it’s really fascinating stuff.

If you can get down to see the installation, I’d really recommend Sunday 25th September, its last public day. There are some great screenings in the Fort amphitheatre that evening too, including “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” (1954), so make a day and night of it…..

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