“Archaeology is a discipline that seeks to understand unobservable hominid behavior patterns from indirect traces in bad samples” (Clarke 1973:17).
Archaeology is an imperfect science, it can never fully answer the questions it sets itself, it is hypothetical by definition.
We take this as our point of departure, to fill the absence that the ‘bad’ sample represents, to reconstruct a unified whole from the fragment. Our intention is to ask what art can learn from archaeology and vice versa in developing these creative hypotheses. We will interpret a series of sites, through the artist’s open-ended hypothesis and the archaeologist’s constrained hypothesis, producing a contestable, perhaps fictional, but unified whole from the fragments we encounter.
Our project is presented under the rubric of Site/Seal/Gesture: Our sites are a series of abandoned military structures along the Thames Estuary and South East Coast of England, which we will explore over the coming year – these can be thought of as Clarke’s ‘bad’ samples, the incomplete fragment; Seal refers to ‘indirect traces’, the absent tool inferred from the tool mark perhaps. This is akin to a figure/ground of the Chinese seal – a trace, a mark of authenticity, a relationship to place and a contract between people. Finally, Gesture refers to the ‘unobservable hominid behaviour’, which in this case is the actions that we make as artist/archaeologists to create something complete from the fragments and traces we encounter.
We will visit, occupy, map and document a series of sites, which are unevenly integrated along estuary and coastline. While some of them are already formally managed as wildlife reserves and by the infrastructure of tourism, most are only known to the occasional visitor, or to the local, daily walker. Finally, a few sites are isolated from the land by permanent or cyclical strands of water, sometimes responding to an industrial function or classified as military zones of restricted or denied access.
Over a period of decades and centuries, the once intrusive structures have built their very own specific bond to the surrounding natural environment. The access to the territories they once guarded, is now paradoxically facilitated by these monolithic ruins, giving human presence in the otherwise bare lands a feeling of permanence. In terms of their wider function in the landscape, the sites have thus undergone a radical transformation.
We approach these sites as artefacts that impress themselves upon us, leaving traces for us to interpret. Approaching from the perspective of archaeology, we take these fragments and traces of encounter and create hypothesis to fill in what is missing, transforming absent material into presence. As artists we will push this process, creating our own counter artefacts, which will be purposed as remains of uncertain provenance.
Rather than reconstruct a militaristic interpretation of function, we aim to create a counter history evidenced through material artefacts both real and imagined. Through this we aim to give access to the sites, opening them to a public by revealing their extraordinary evocative value for ourselves as for any single other visitor. We can only achieve this through the very human urge of physically making, and leaving a trace that outlives a one-off visit to the places.
Strongly criticized by the methodology of modern Archaeology, indigenous traditions of appropriating one’s past often act directly on ancient material, irremediably betraying its original function and meaning. On the other hand, our orphan times of new-born nations, fragmented communities and displaced individuals are in desperate need for ancestors and homelands. In the process of assembling lavish burials to an unknown relative or adopting a foreign land as a place of origin, we might run into misunderstandings, faux amis and far-fetched projections. The ethics of interventions on traces of past activity are therefore at the forefront of our concerns.
As part of our dual interpretive and creative approach, we pay attention to a variety of embodied gestures, both our own and of those who built these structures. We look at tool use, at movement to, from and through the sites and we treat them as temporary dwellings. We plan to walk and dwell in the remains of past activities, to document this process and to contribute to it through our own creative practices.
To our eye educated by the concrete cubicles that share our urban spaces, these isolated cells suggest the exact opposite of hostility. The innumerable waves of sound, light, wind and water absorbed and deflected by these dense volumes, suggest the fundamental architecture of shelter, emphasised only by traces of the occasional projectile impact visible on their outer surface. By spending at least one night at each site, in different seasons, our duo wishes to fully test and experience this impression.
In between the extremes of the military fort and the home or dwelling, a host of potential functions might be considered, including the possibilities of purely symbolic use. Indeed, many of the sites considered never served the military function they were designed for, and instead became expressions of the miscalculated fears and follies of their builders. Most sites are a layering of several architectural interventions, distanced from each other by several decades, periods described by renewed moments of threat. Our approach acknowledges the speculative nature of the builder’s intentions and those futures that never happened, in order to access a fertile interpretive framework and an inclusive, transhistorical tree of counter-narratives.
One Example – Sound Mirrors
In the example presented here, we seek a suggestive reformulation of the sound mirrors’ function, as a mould for casting perishable kit domes. Only a couple of fragments of the cast shells are left in situ, accidentally baked during a factory fire. The fragments are made out of clay found in situ, our intervention being reduced to the simple act of displacing earth and hardening it on a campfire.
The site, only accessible by boat across a strand of water, requires an amphibious attitude ruling out daily local walkers or occasional visitors. We might think of a way to facilitate access to the site, by simply placing signs of passage, or connecting both banks with a rope.
Originally, these structures were meant to simply gather and concentrate the sound of hostile airplane engines roaming in the sky above, and despite their impressive shape, they were not destined to be looked at. We do not rule out this option, but instead of directing our attention to the sky, we look to the sea.
In the process of preparing our interventions, discussions, sketches and models are posted on our blog page https://sitesealgesture.wordpress.com/ sometimes well in advance, inviting opponents, participants and future visitors to the sites to react on our intentions.