Mark Lyken, international filmmaker, composes a shot and hits record. He’s in Hawick, Scottish Borders, as an artist in residence with Alchemy Film & Arts, conducting research into the town’s rhythms and cultures, the patterns of its unofficial behaviours, its less visible routines.
They’re installing a new footbridge on the Teviot, the eponymous river of Alchemy’s current programme of residencies, commissions and community engagement, which is part of Culture Collective, and Mark has arrived at the scene to film it. A sustained, steady-stare shot, the tripod-locked camera unmoving as it observes this long, durational ritual unfold: pivoting crane, dangling bridge, a small crowd gathered. Like that scene at the beginning of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, with the helicopter carrying a statue of Christ over Rome.
The new bridge replaces – improves upon – another as part of Hawick’s ongoing Flood Protection Scheme. The town’s industrial heritage owes much to the watercourse snaking through it – the softness of the water itself is commonly cited as a reason why the cashmere produced here is so good – and it has also become the root of regular turmoil for residents, businesses and properties along the riverbanks and its parallel streets; flooding has become another expression of inequity, of the ways in which some communities bear a town’s traumas more than others.
Across its 18-month stretch, The Teviot, the Flag and the Rich, Rich Soil endeavours to investigate the borders, boundaries and lines of Hawick, reframing the town’s cultural identities (emphasis on the plural, always) as they relate to land, water, industry, territory, place and environment. Mark is one of three artists taking up a six-month residency: the others, Jade Montserrat and Julia Parks, will arrive in November and May 2022 respectively, working with communities to explore the violence of landscape and alternative models of growth.
These six-month residencies complement a programme that also encompasses new film commissions by Jessie Growden, on women, labour, and Hawick’s textiles trade; by Andy Mackinnon, on a new permanent archive-based installation reanimating the Victorian waterwheel beneath Hawick’s Tower Mill; by Leah Millar, on the commons and land usage in the Borders; and by Natasha Ruwona, on Atlantic salmon, the Teviot’s ecologies and the legacy of Hawick-raised Tom Jenkins, Britain’s first Black schoolteacher. Our programme also includes a bursary granted to Borders-based artist Kerry Jones to develop a new cine-caravan project working with and for Borders communities; and a series of traineeships and professional development and mentorship workshops.
As such, Alchemy’s Culture Collective programme expands and extends the community resilience work we’ve been building and delivering over the past three years, connecting artists and communities to challenge the myth upheld by older vanguards that good artistic work must be produced away from and at the expense of community involvement. We take pride in and have the highest respect for the fact we are funded with public money: we demand meaningful engagement from experimental film – that expressive, creative, infectious and applicable genre of film that those in the central belt call artists’ moving image – and we have confidence in our aims.
As the extent of the world’s intersecting crises of capitalism and white supremacism have been exposed and worsened by the pandemic, the function and methods of Alchemy’s work have both intensified and been clarified. But the kind of development we’re talking about here brings practical challenges. How to host residencies without a residency centre? How to sustain a new baseline commitment to paying Scottish Artist Union rate? How to make sure a film’s production costs aren’t coming out of an artist’s fee? How to systematise care for the communities that pre-exist and outlive a visiting artist’s stay?
We know from etymology that criticism is linked to crisis, that curation is linked to care, that no worthwhile or ethical cultural work can be carried out without good governance and administrative systems. And we know that communicating these things in tandem – and in different ways to different communities – lends form and structure to good practice.
What we didn’t know was how to lease a property as a charity, how to deal with the commonly and casually neglectful practices of landlordism. What to do, for instance, when a nice-but-overpriced flat that you’re reluctantly agreeing to rent due to a shortage in accommodation, and because someone who’s relocating for work (and an artist residency is work) should know in advance where they’ll be staying, falls through at the last minute for reasons not given by an estate agent.
Is more lost by indecision than wrong decision? Is the question itself a desperate reflection of our accelerated need to demonstrate and quantify our organisational value in a climate in which so-called covid-recovery funding feels like a one-off stipend? You proceed because you must: terrified of wider currents and unknown futures on the one hand and confident in the profound trust and relationships that you’re building on the other. These relationships are with artists, with community groups, with colleagues: a tangible, human reality amidst economic and therefore abstract, widescale precarity.
This is project management. The workflow is a stuttered stitchwork of deadlines, dates, data dragged and dropped, timelines tracked on Trello. If an artist is arriving in June, you sign the lease for their accommodation in April. These are the starting requirements: pin them down enough so that if and when the milestone’s missed, you’ve time to note why, to regroup, to continue to hold yourself accountable – organisationally – for someone else’s wellbeing.
Assume nothing of an artist’s comfort zones; ditto a community’s. Normalise pronouns, do plant-based catering for public events, signal values and draft policies in the positive rather than negative, be there for introductory meetings, important shoots, communicate clearly what the terms of participation are; ensure withdrawal of consent is an uncomplicated option. Do the work so others needn’t. From and within the space generated through these measures, good artistic work emerges.
The sweet life. What does it mean for an international filmmaker to live and produce new work in a rural deindustrialised town of 14,000 people?
Mark Lyken’s camera attracts attention. Passers-by strike up conversation. “Ah, you’re with Alchemy…” Some people advise on where he should bunker down to get the best shot; others are bemused by the man with a movie camera’s decision not to move his device, to allow the action to unfold within his composed frame without succumbing to the temptation to get another angle, a closer view.
No sooner has Mark hit record on a quietly compelling composition than an arm comes into shot, half-obscuring both the filmmaker’s view and that of his eventual audience, when the film itself premieres in Hawick, Scotland’s film town, next year. The filmmaker’s view is further obscured by a hand holding a mobile phone, capturing the same scene from the same viewpoint, on a device of inferior image quality and in inevitably shaky handheld.
Watching the raw footage, hearing the offscreen conversation between Mark and the man who is now obscuring his shot, I love this gesture and what it communicates. It respects and leaves the artist to do what he wants and needs to, but it also casually signals that there are other cameras, other viewpoints, other people watching this ritual. An artist can be special for all the reasons we know, but they are always just one human among many.
Michael Pattison is a Director of Alchemy Film & Arts, a cultural organisation invested in experimental film as a means of generating discussion, strengthening community and stimulating creative thought.
More information about The Teviot, the Flag and the Rich, Rich Soil Culture Collective project is available on the The Teviot, the Flag and the Rich, Rich Soil project page.