I’m tempted to say that this project is finished. Or, that this is a project that should never end. Somewhere between those two thoughts is where I am right now, exactly half-way through this residency in Skagaströnd, Iceland.
The structure of the book work started to reveal itself in the last few days, each collection of artifacts gathered into chapter-like segments. There are 33. Collections, chapters, links, artifacts, voices, evidence of a place. Some are transcribed interviews, or a series of photographs, or data found online (like the daily plots of a fishing boat that was docked here last week), or a list of words, or a recipe for rhubarb pie. The traced ruins of turf houses, the mountain of fish nets at the dump. Nothing more, nothing less.
Powerful language, all of it found in place. Words and images that stand on their own, no explanation required. I’m looking for the open space between lines and pixels where the residue of a particular place, at a particular moment, is left behind. To be read like the impression of a dream.
1 back to god’s country
3 yeah, we have our families, connections, strong old friendship ties
7 the box is a battery
11 those transparencies
16 take three, three cards
19 fjords, on the sea
20 bank sea hermit
21 just in front of me
22 there’s one bird
25 orvar (arrow)
33 hidden world
#25 orvar (arrow)
#33 hidden world
This one was for outlaws.
Ya in the hidden world.
Oh in the hidden world.
Ya the hidden people over there in the cliff over there.
They live in the cliffs.
They live in the cliffs, that was their residence.
And then then they had the outlaws. They put them there.
So that’s einbúi. Einbúi means who lives alone.
One kilometer at 60kph three days after the death of Walter de Maria, on the birthday of Marcel Duchamp, on route 744 between Sauðárkrókur and Skagaströnd, Iceland. 28 July 2013, 3:11pm. 21 photographs. Paul Soulellis and Kathryn Sawyer. (#1 and 21 above.)
Skagaströnd has one bar, one market, one gas station, etc. Áslaug serves homemade soups at the one café, which sits by itself at the sea, just behind our studios. I asked her if she makes any soups with fish (of course) and if she would send me a recipe. This is what I got.
2 tsk karrý
2-3 laukar (saxaðir)
3-4 hvítlauksrif (söxuð)
þetta er sett í pott og laukurinn látin meyrna ekki brúnast.
1 msk olía
þá er bætt í
1 1/2 L vatn
3 teningar fiskikraftur
2 teningar kjúklingakraftur
1 dós maukaðir tómatar
1 dós ferskjur + safinn
salt og pipar eftir smekk
1 peli rjómi
3 flök fiskur (ég nota þorsk, ræku og skötusel)
I ran it through Google translate and got this—
2 tsp curry
2-3 onions (chopped)
3-4 cloves garlic (minced)
This is placed in a pot and finished dead tender not brown.
1 tbsp oil
then adding the
1 1/2 L water
3 bouillon cubes
2 cubes chicken
1 can tomato pulp
1 can peaches + juice
salt and pepper to taste
1 bottle cream
3 fish fillets (I used cod, shrimp and monkfish)
I had serious doubts about the canned peaches. Wondered if the translation was wrong but decided to go with it. And I made it last night at Darr Tah Lei’s house with Kat and Jonathan. With a few adjustments: I added the olive oil at the start, added some white wine after the onions and garlic had cooked, added a chopped chile pepper, and only a drop of cream at the end. In fact, it would have been even better without any cream at all. And I interpreted the 3 cubes/2 cubes part as “3 cubes chicken bouillon.”
Then I strained the soup and added the cooked cod back in.
This soup was really good. Not just good but totally delicious. Memorable. We took the pot into the backyard and served ourselves and then I saw Darr’s neighbor Einar leaning over the fence with his beer. I offered him some soup in a mug and asked him what he thought, and he said “it was okay.” Said it needed lobster. Then he jumped the fence and joined us and by the end of the evening we were dancing and the pot was finished.
Darr Tah Lei and I sat on two chairs across from each other late last night. They were in another artist’s space and positioned deliberately, facing each other and very close, almost touching. In this position the chairs reminded me of Marina Abramović’s piece so we just started mirroring the artist is present—staring into each other’s eyes. We tried to sustain it and lasted about ten minutes. Some laughing and some conversation, mostly about Marina’s intentions, what the experience was like waiting there at MoMA to sit with her. We talked about whether it’s possible to stare into someone’s eyes and open up some kind of passageway to the soul. I’m skeptical, but I like the idea. I like the idea of a certain physical situation, two people looking or not looking, focused or not, as a way to meditate, to open up, to connect. An excuse to be present with another.
At some point another artist opened the door to the studio and I looked away and made some kind of gesture to her and shouted out that we were being present, that “the artists were present.” DTL said you’re really an observer, “you don’t miss anything do you.” And that when she looked into my eyes she saw a coat. I thought she said it looked like I have a cold. Are my eyes puffy? Cold? No, code. Like you need a code to understand me, I need to be decoded? No, coat—and then she spelled it out. C O A T. Covered up with a coat. Like, a coating.
A coating over my eyes.
I have to admit that I was immediately disappointed, and now I can’t stop thinking about this coat on my eyes. Because I’ve been feeling the barrier between me and this place. I’ve been frustrated with how the town seems guarded, distant—coated (or coded) in some way. That it’s inaccessible. What if I’m the guarded one?
I need to get closer. But I don’t know what that means. What it feels like is this: if I could, I’d like to sit across from that other chair and look into the town’s eyes. To sustain some kind of focus on this place and have the work reflect something intimate. This idea that a deeper understanding of the place will reveal a deeper work.
Maybe I’m already doing that. But I don’t think you get very far in two months. If I’m learning anything, it’s this—that to really become embedded, and to transform yourself within/of the place (to be of the place), you need a good amount of time. I’ve only got two months. When I got here, two months seemed endless. Now, almost halfway through, it’s not enough.
At what point is the observer engaging? Can the observer also perform?
I think I’ve been the observer forever. All of my work has this quality, even the projects I did in school over twenty years ago. When I spent a few days in Susquehanna and did my architecture thesis about the town, I didn’t dare speak to anyone who lived there. It never even occurred to me. Instead, I looked at it. Dipped in, but kept my distance. I worked with found objects, views, maps, photographs, and something grew out of that. I’ve often looked back at that project and wondered what it would have been had I talked with residents of the town.
When I took a semester off to do a film project I called it “eye view.”
In the last few years, I’ve started to talk to people as part of my work. I think it came from years of client work—interviewing people directly to understand their needs. 273 Relics for John Cage started with a recorded conversation with Laura in the driveway at the John Cage Trust. And that 30-minute conversation is embedded in the work.
I did more of that with Weymouths. And even more now in Skagaströnd. Talking, recording, transcribing. Forming relationships with people in the town. Light connections, but still. The woman who owns the café, the librarian, people I’m starting to meet as part of daily activities. The mayor. They’re all informing the work.
What more should I expect. It’s the ambition (and impatience) in me, wanting to go further, get more, do more. Or something earlier: the need for acceptance. As a child I found myself in a small village where I was unable to speak the language. Again and again, I felt like an alien, exposed, and covering up was my protection.
Here I am, forty years later, in a tiny village, looking to connect. Still coated. These trips are like time travel for me, feeling my way through like a child. Looking for resolution in the work.
I used our open studio as an opportunity to organize the images and text voices that I’m collecting, annotated and bound by clothespins. Book work parts. Twenty-two elements so far:
- back to god’s country
- there’s one bird
- just in front of me
- take three, three cards
- Fjörds, on the sea
- einbúi (the one who lives alone)
- (19–22) yeah, because we are just, we have our families, we have our connections, strong old friendship ties
Up on the wall, the 18 chancewords, and the map.
- svartfugl—common name for alcids
- blikka—flash (the headlights)
- tæmandi—exhaustive description
- flan—rash action
- austar—further east/more easterly
- hornauga—take a dim view of, look askance
- sveipa—wrap up, cover
- samþykkja—agree, approve
I asked Linda Hentze, 18, who lives here in Skagaströnd, if I could hijack her Instagram feed for my project, and she graciously said yes. Collecting voices here.
Fjords, on the sea, which is visible at their original position of two factory direction of a shop, and is a short display of irregular perspection of which, further up, opens in Stranda Syssel, receding houses, a shop, and thrown down, and is pleasantly situated by the to both sides striking resemblance in every now and snow-cappearance in every now and snow-cappearance top of Spákonufell, the summit of the top of a fort, and thrown down, and to both sides striking vallies.
Near Höskuldstad is the H North Cape. Behind to both sides stretch a range of which still occupy they are broken every now and is the north Cape. Behind the rocks; some of which rise the prospection. The factory is pleasantly situated about in every now and is their original position of irregular columnar rocks, you have a fine projections, which rise the opposition of which, furthers a most bears a most beautiful display of which, furthern terminated by into the spacious gulf, where the walls of which is a small creek, fort.
Near Höskuldstad is a striking resemblance in irregular columnar rocks; some of irregular perspect of two factory consists of the summit of which still occupy the promontories and lie scattered about in every dwelling in the summit of a fine promontories and then by the sea, where the factory consists of lower mountain of a range of a ridge of Spákonufell, the rocks, you have a fine prospect of which rise they are broken every now and othern terminated by the sea, which a ridge of which are terminate
Syssel, receding in every dwelling vallies.
Near Höskuldstad is pleasantly situated by they are the bold projections, where termination of which, further up, opens intervening resemblance. From the top of which still the walls of which are broken every now and Hruta Fjords, on they are broken every now and the high mountains into the walls of the spacious gulf, where terminated about in irregular perspection. The factory consists of a fine promontories and to then by the to the spacious gulf, which a Cape. Behind the summit of a fort, and is pleasantly situated at a small creek, formed by into the bold prospect of which bears are terminated by the summit of a stretch are broken every direction. The factory is a shop, and is the high mountains, which still occupy the rocks, the prospective till occupy the spacious gulf, which still occupy the prospect of the opposition. The factory is the opposition. The factory dwelling houses, and is visible at the bold promontories and three or four warehouses.
Markhov chain text generated by Almar Freyr. Seed text from Iceland: Or, The Journal of a Residence in that Island, During the Years 1814 and 1815, Ebenezer Henderson, 1819 (the single paragraph beginning “The factory consists of two dwelling-houses…”):
Today marks the 14th day of chancewords in my studio in Skagaströnd. Every morning, I generate an Icelandic word from a printed Íslensk-Ensk dictionary that I found, like this—
- The dictionary is on pages that are numbered 15–425. Using random.org I generate a number to choose one of these pages.
- Each page has two columns, so I generate a 1 or 2 to select the column.
- I then count the number of words [x] in that column and generate a number from 1 to x to select the chanceword.
The words are of the language and the meanings are of the place. Icelandic is a notoriously closed system with very few loanwords, and it’s not spoken widely outside of Iceland. The chancewords procedure is a site-specific machine to generate meaning. Slow poetry, or chapters, or maybe this is just another voice in the town. I don’t know what I’ll do with these just yet.
The two colors were chosen from this photograph of einbúi, the rock at the harbor that’s named “the one who lives alone” (from my meeting with Magnús the mayor).
I’m transcribing a 1.5 hour meeting with the mayor of Skagaströnd. I just walked into his office and asked him to tell me about the town. He gave me his version of the history of the place, from sixteenth-century Danish trading post until now, by describing the evolution of the fishing industry and how it created and transformed Skagaströnd.
That same day, I visited the Museum of Prophecies, dedicated to Þórdís, the tenth-century soothsayer who was one of the early settlers of the area. And I had a tarot card reading from one of the town fortune tellers.
One meeting about the past, leading up to the present, the other very much of the present moment, looking at the future.
I recorded both. I’ve been looking for some kind of narrative thread for the project, and these two voices are powerful, maybe even more so if paired together. Both are intense views—one looking out at the town, the other looking in, at me, in the town. Dual vision within the space of a few hours. My instinct is to merge the two voices. They’re both descriptive, highly interpretive, very much of the place. They’re both seers.
The interior voice—
Take three, three cards
You have to choose wisely
A lot of people around you
Good card, very good
I start here
Here is two persons that is very close to you, they are
Yes, they are very similar, personal, persons, because they both came as a sword
The exterior voice—
And you know always when we have crisis, a self-sustainable thinking comes up
And that was exactly what came up here
The economists looked at this village and said oh
There’s enough land here, we have our big bay, with a lot of fishery, so there is a possibility to build up a town here, a herring town
so it was really thought out, there was an agenda
He said, yeah, he came back to the government and his report said
We could build you know like a utopia town here, in this village
So the idea was utopia
At the top of Spákonufell mountain is a box. The box contains a book to sign, a stone to touch, a kite, a fading letter, pens and a slot for coins. If you make it to the top of the mountain this box, which looks like a treasure from the outside, is more like a set of instructions: unwrap the book from its plastic, sign it, rub the stone, fly the kite, leave something behind. I signed the book (date, name, “NYC”) but Liz and Paris didn’t, and on the way down we talked about it. Why sign the book?
My first thought was: I leave a trace and I’m reassured that my recorded presence is known to a future audience.
It’s publishing, no? A collaborative book. Add to the book. Any kind of publishing is temporal—this particular information was put down, posted, broadcast at a specific time, for the future audience. It’s a difference between publishing and performance. An audience is usually present for a performance, or witnessing in some kind of synchronous way. In publishing the audience is asynchronous. I post for the future. Make a post, posted to the mountain. When it’s site-specific, add the idea of place. Geo-temporal. Geography, physical presence, x marks the spot, “I was here,” at this moment.
Later, someone else will be here.
I saw where Ellen and Phil signed the book five days earlier. And there’s a photo of a dog on the mountain, taped to the book in the box on the mountain, 2 August 2009.
Time and place set a story in motion, but the book doesn’t move. It’s understood that the objects in the box don’t leave. People come and go at the top of the mountain but this is like one of those flight recorder boxes, traveling with the plane, holding some of the information, traces, parts of stories.
There’s a kite in the box. Bound up in the kite is the choreography of each flight, the wind pulling on one end, a human on the other, the energy wound up in the chord and returned to its sleeve, returned to the box. The energy of an entire mountain below. The box is a battery.
And this fading letter that someone left behind. Another story there but not there, bound up in paper. Potentiality.
I’m okay not knowing what the author intended. But I’m curious about the conditions that brought the letter to the box. Was it written on the spot? Something spontaneous. Or did the note travel up the mountain with its author, purposefully. I can see only a few lines more clearly than the rest, “To be a part of it / To be a part of it / I am a part of it.”
Something about that box connects to this photo album I photographed last week. The librarian walked over and said, “Oh you’re photographing the blank pages too.” The book is the whole container, storage for the parts. Book as box, box as battery, stored energy.