Michele Allen’s current project ‘The Weight of Ants in the World’ explores the tensions that have arisen between a patch of ancient woodland and the industrial estate surrounding it. On Thursday 19th November, Michele collaborated with University College’s SCR to bring this woodland setting into our workspaces, employing Zoom as an installation space. Indigo caught up with Michele after the event to reflect on her negotiation of lockdown, her engagement with environmental activism, and the intricacies of her unique artistic practice.
How has coronavirus and the national lockdown impacted upon your artistic practise and experiences?
It’s definitely been difficult. There’s a difference between my personal experience of lockdown and what it meant on a practical level for my work. In a way it has been incredibly obstructive. I’d got a lot of things that I was planning to do out in the world but everything immediately got put on hold. I also have a child, so I had a child off school for months on end at home. So on a practical level it was really disruptive.
I found it quite interesting going to the woods though. I was really interested to hear the acoustic of the woodland during lockdown. I made some sound recordings in the woodland during the first lockdown. One day I went and recorded the NHS applause from the middle of the woods – there are houses about a mile away so you could hear it happening. One of the things that was really strong for me, though, was how much quieter everything became during that time and how this impacted upon what you could see in nature once sounds like traffic had been removed – it was like acoustic time travel! And, you know, a lot of my thinking about the woods is caught up in its continuity and longevity.
Another thing I did was a dawn chorus record-athon where we invited people to record loads of dawn choruses as a way of trying to generate a mass documentation of that quietness because it was so unusual. I definitely hope that there will be a more receptive audience for my work because more people will have connected with nature and their locality.
How do you think the pandemic has influenced the visual arts scene more generally?
It’s hard to know. I think the financial impact will be very bad for creative industries across the board. I worry that what we’ll see next will be cuts to the arts. Sadly, the money does not always match the rhetoric and I think that the government will probably respond to the pandemic by making cuts to a lot of publicly funded areas of life, just as they have done for the last ten years. I wish I could be more optimistic. I can see the optimism in terms of what could happen, but I’m not sure whether policy, government, and funding will collaborate to allow for it.
I’m more hopeful about the pandemic’s influence on environmental thinking. This is a huge point where we need to stop and really reflect on how we’re connecting to the natural world. What we’re facing in terms of climate change and species loss is really terrifying and I hope that the pandemic will encourage more people to connect these things together.
Given the activist response to your work, how would you define the relationship between art and activism? Is activism important to your work?
It is, though I don’t know if it is a new thing in my work. I’ve been involved in activism for a very long time. Even when I was an art student I was involved in environmental activism, though at the time I felt completely unable to connect art and activism together. I don’t feel the need to call activism art and, actually, I think it can be quite problematic to do so.
I’ve tried to present ‘The Weight of Ants in the World’ as a project that presents environmental issues at a distance. The activism happened because I found out some trees were going to get cut down and felt the need to actually do something about that – I didn’t feel happy to just step back and observe it. An ecologist agreed that the tree-cutting was too heavy handed so we pursued it and got a tree preservation order for the woodland. This feels like a good outcome, but then again it’s such a tiny little patch that’s being protected. What I’m interested in is the symbolic value of the project, however. I hope that the story of this small space can expand out into bigger understandings of the world and trigger people to ask questions.
The audience on Thursday were very moved by the film’s solemn ending, which focused on the felling of the woodland. Does your project intentionally aim to inspire an emotional response?
My own interactions with the wood became shaped by my response to these two trees getting felled. When it came to editing the film, I realised it would make sense to break the footage I had collected into seasons, both to make the material more manageable and to establish a logical narrative for the film. I made a very conscious decision to impose a narrative into the winter section of the film. Though this section has a sad ending, I didn’t want to make it really heavy-handed; the aim was to just quietly show the wood to the audience and alert them to what happened. I did hope that the film might feel moving or impactful for the audience. I think the aim, really, was to make a quiet point. In other sections of the work different kinds of stories are told, some positive, others negative. I definitely didn’t just want to present a depressing image.
Your work can be seen as a composite of creative medias, incorporating photography, film, sound, and text. How do you conceive of the relationship between the visual arts and other creative practises?
Yes, I very rarely just do one thing!
I’m especially interested in the relationship between image and text, and this has been explored in my work for a long time. I think part of the reason for this is that I worked on documentary projects and realised that quite often the most interesting ideas came from things people said to me. It became clear just how important communication can be to the creation of images.
So I began to work in that way, thinking about the gaps to try and produce something that is simply suggestive; something that presents a set of ideas and questions for the audience to explore and manoeuvre. I aim to present my voice as one amongst many – I’m resistant to the idea of being the authorial voice or presenting everything from one point of view.
Do you have any advice for the community of student artists at Durham?
Finding a structure and a way of working that works for you is probably the best advice I could give. I think it is important to work with a bit of regularity, to find something that interests you and to keep working on it. Due to family responsibilities I’ve come to understand the process of practising art part time. For me one of the reasons that photography works is because it can be a bits and pieces process; you can do little bits and build something up and amass something over a period of time. Usually there’s then a point where I need to focus and spend time resolving something, but there’s quite a lot you can do with short snippets of time. I think its about finding a kind of rhythm that fits in with the rest of your life. It’s just having an awareness of what works for you.
Photography: Michele Allen