An interview by correspondence - Alec Finlay and Marcus Coates

AF: Before we go into the direct analogies between your practice as an artist and your shamanism; before you recount the action you made on behalf of the residents of Linosa park; and before uncovering some of the field research you undertook for that project, can we discuss how far back the roots of this work goes?

We have talked about the beautiful work of my friend Hans Waanders, who dedicated his fifteen years as an artist to studying and representing the kingfisher. The body of work that Hans created was intelligent and poetic, composed in full knowledge of such predecessors as Marcel Broodthaers, Panamarenko or Beuys: he wasn't by any means an ingénues. And yet, he did make it clear that his artist-bird watching was a continuation of a childhood hobby.

The attraction that the natural world holds for so many small boys - finding, understanding, collecting, and categorising - is an obvious parallel with tendencies in art since the 60's. It would be easy to note the parallel and move on. But I want to begin by looking back to your childhood directly, without reference to art. Let's begin by tracing those roots back . . .

MC: I would like to say my parents were park rangers or ran an otter sanctuary on Mull, but the Home Counties were my wilderness. I grew up on the edge of a commuter town, a suburban street bordering fields and woods and common land, which at a young age seemed limitless.

Not uncommonly my friends and I were preoccupied with building camps and exploring this wilderness. My older brother directed most of my interests. He was our leader, deciding which woods we explored, what design of camp we made, what roofing materials we used (bracken or rhododendron) and the animals we tortured (mainly toads). We were members of a naturalist's group called the Junior Explorers, an anti-establishment version of cubs - which even at a young age felt slightly fascistic. We would go on expeditions with the leader of this group, a man who my parents hardly knew and as it turned out should have been worried about.

I was too young to go on all the trips but I remember my brother going to the Outer Hebrides aged 8, returning with stories of otters
and eagles and Gavin Maxwell and adders giving birth to their swarms of young in the New Forest. My experience always seemed somewhat less exotic, when I was old enough I went on an expedition with them to somewhere in Surrey. It rained a lot, so we spent the whole time sheltering in someone's garage.

So wildlife became a mythical and exotic interest inspired by my brother and his friends. Most of my contact came through books, especially bird identification handbooks. I remember us going out many times with binoculars and a packed lunch on our bikes to see a rough legged buzzard. My brother and his friend had seen it, more than likely it was a common buzzard, quite scarce in the 70's compared to now. We used to return to the same tree where they had seen it over and over again fully expecting it to be there for us. I never saw it. On our return we would draw detailed pictures of the rough legged buzzard from our bird guidebooks, also drawing a honey buzzard, in case it was that.

As an interest, wildlife remained an expectation of an experience for a long time, partially satisfied from drawing and studying books. British Birds and animals took on a mythical status fed by my older companions, on who's every word I hung. Without ever seeing a peregrine falcon or an otter the idea of these animals grew fantastical, I invented and imagined their intimate relationship with me, in the mould of Gavin Maxwell and his otters, Williamson and Tarka, Kes, Jack London, Grizzly Adams, Lassie and Champion the Wonder Horse. A separate world existed where you could have a direct line to animals and nature, an unspoken language an innate understanding. I developed a long lasting romantic and primitivist outlook. where everything could be related to and understood on the same level. If God was in everything then I was in everything, why then wouldn't an otter understand me?

My brother by this time had established his connections with the animal kingdom, and his direct line to nature meant that he had acquired many pets. In our suburban garden we had a menagerie of guinea pigs, rabbits, tortoises and ducks. One duck used to follow us everywhere, it imprinted itself on my brother giving him this extra parental power. It used to sit in a basket on the front of the bicycle, we would cycle down to the river, it would swim with the other ducks then when we left to go home it would get out and follow us. I was always scared it would want to stay with the other ducks. Maybe if it had just been with me it would have? Tortoises got infested with maggots and flies and died, rabbits ate their young, guinea pigs got eaten by foxes and our duck died of TB. This was all hard to swallow as it was so elemental, the only other death I had witnessed were the toads we had killed.

Our other duck was so distressed at the death of her companion that she started laying strange shaped eggs for months after, long and thin, she would sit at the same place everyday next to the window where her mate had died in a box in the house. I knew ducks mated for life and our family shared its pain and loss.

There was a reality about these experiences that both supported my connection with these animals and the natural world, but also conflicted with it. And it seemed they weren't the same with me as they were with my brother; perhaps you needed to be a special kind of person to really understand them . . ?

AF: A person willing to tie dead birds to their head, be buried under the earth, or climb a high Scots Pine? Willing to give themselves fully to an encounter that they are still haunted by. It is a strong impetus, this sense of emotional urgency that you've suggested. How many artists are caught by such childhood experiences? I know that well, the imprint of a magical world, but one that is within others control. Access denied. There is that desire in your work to seek out a plethora of connective relationships, but also, to fail in that attempt, that seeking.

MC: I've heard it said that all artists are using their 'lost' or unresolved childhood experiences as subject matter. Isn't that the case for everybody? I think the fascination comes from re-encountering an irresolvable experience that as adults has become explained and made rational. To re-invest in this 'innocence' is to feed on your mysterious and unknowable connection with the world. I don't think I want this resolved - confusion, contradiction and uncertainty creates a dynamic and energetic state that helps you stand outside of society. For me this is an exciting position, it requires you to lose control or lose yourself but simultaneously to be able to manage that state, much like playing sport or a musical instrument or acting. I think there is a certain amount of power here where your potential as a human being feels unlimited, this is something I'm sure that the Shamans nurtured, their gift was the ability to move in and out of another world as they wished, from the unconscious to the conscious.

AF: I'd forgotten how deeply pets - and also wild animals that visit homes and become domesticated - are tied up with familial relationships; children learning fathering and mothering skills, or seeking some comfort for what the home lacks in a bundle of fur they can cuddle.

In our garden there is a little corner that will always be a pet cemetery, where my father buried two cats and a hare. The hare was young and sickly, a foundling from the daily family walk over to the burn and round the edge of the moor. He named it Cowper. (Dad, being the poet, always did the naming, while Mum, being Mum, did the nurturing). We kept it for 3 weeks, fed it grass and milk, and petted it. If my memory is true, one of us kids had it outside on a rug and went indoors for a second to get some juice, and a cat, or actually I think it was a bird, snatched it. away. I can remember how it quivered and how its nose twitched. And I can remember it taking milk from a dropper. Of course, I hunted frogs and had my spell of torturing, but there can also be an awed tenderness for those wilder animals. They do have magic, especially at that age.

MC: For me that magic is a reverence or perhaps a sort of fear, like when a bird flies in the house, it's as though an alien has arrived, the need to empathize with it is overwhelming but the bloody thing doesn't know you are trying to help it. It's so wild and so huge, so much bigger than its tiny body. It's behaving as though it's fighting for it's life, it doesn't know that it doesn't have to, we'll take care of it. It reacts to things in such a 'primitive' and 'stupid' way, flying at the windows thinking they are open, the house becomes a different space, seen through the eyes of the bird. This sort of encounter is fascinating because it fixes and shows you your humanness in such a basic way, the bird changes meanings, it alights on a lampshade - making it a perch, as good as a branch, it flies up and bangs on the ceiling - a false sky. The house is wrong, awkward and doesn't fit all of a sudden. The bird operates so simply, on the basis of a few reactions - and that comes into the house like a shock wave, a shrine to complexity. Domesticated animals are a different matter, but still keep us in touch with a wider sense of ourselves, as we understand our dog or cat we feel a mutual connection that is satisfyingly deep rooted.

I was always fascinated by the idea that some animals could be tamed and others couldn't. Gavin Maxwell tried to tame a fox as he had tamed otters but came to the conclusion that it was not possible, that they were innately wild. In the 'Goshawk' White relates his arduous efforts to tame/train a goshawk - a notoriously difficult bird of prey to handle. Something in them will not accept it.

I remember going out with an ornithology group to net and ring birds. This involves catching birds in fine nets weighing them and attaching a small identification ring around one leg. As the ringers handled the birds they described their different personalities, a jay or woodpecker would be very aggressive and constantly try to peck and escape, a kingfisher would be patient and lay still in your hand. It was incredible to be that close to a bird to be able to see its plumage in every detail and feel its heartbeat in your hand and feel its wildness, you feel very privileged.

AF: And you became, or are still becoming, that special kind of person? Hans (Waander) had that same Romantic sense of seeking an encounter, but he was also a pragmatic ornithologist who knew his subject - he made it clear that he knew where to find a kingfisher if he wanted to. He could be very matter-of-fact about it and I gradually understood that it wasn't just the moment of the kingfisher itself; it was something more to do with the process of seeking. His was largely a studio practice based on research. Perhaps the adult artist recognises that the deferral of this Romantic encounter with the beloved, and an investing creative energies instead in research, studying habitat, behaviour, acquiring the rational and scientific knowledge and the cultural lore of kingfisherness, this was an effective choice. After all, one knows how withheld, how remote or lost, those magical worlds of childhood are, and even at the time they were largely an experience of exile. The artist or poet can see that along the path that leads towards those edenic sites there lie a series of way markers, lodes of meaning, the matter that transmutes into works of art.

MC: I feel like a fraud. People see my activities as an expression of "that special kind of person" I quite enjoy them thinking that, but for me it is never realised. I know when and where to see young peregrine falcons making their first flights and kills; I know where and when to see short-eared owls hunting, or otters playing practically on my doorstep in Berwick. The more I enter into these worlds and the more people I meet who dedicate their lives to experiencing/recording such events and phenomena, the more I realise how ones life is ordinarily not designed to not know these things, and that it is a struggle to have a sense of all this. My research is an excuse, a job I give myself partly because I want to legitimise my activity and partly because I revel in the absurdity and pointlessness of the study. And it makes it interesting in the context of what we are supposed to be doing in society, being productive. Like the classic amateur who might as well be professional but enjoys the process for its own sake too much.

AF: Not designed? But we have these five senses still?

MC: I mean in a cultural sense, the pattern and structure of our everyday lives, permits the catching of a few minutes break here or there or a day on Sunday perhaps. It's difficult to observe and be a part of nature as an incidental activity, which is a relatively new phenomenon - since industrialisation. When you do experience the 'outdoors' it is as a visitor, it is a conditional/needy relationship where nature is there for your benefit, a space for your spare time, an expectant/idyllic relationship.

Increasing familiarity however means that these moments are very special, but not necessarily separate from one self - just ongoing and ordinary for the animals. So it starts to be not about recording and studying, but more a wider awareness, or a sense of belonging to a different culture - one which is defined by the non- human patterns of tides, seasons, dawn/dusk, habitat, etc. People are like this, not because it is their hobby but because their job depends upon it: farmers, fisherman, and reserve wardens, bird song recordists. They have to have a constant overall picture of hundreds of natural parameters, a separate culture, which I am amateurishly on the fringes of. I have created a job so that I can exist on that fringe and still be preoccupied with the equally fascinating ordinariness of human culture.

AF: At the fringes, but also an intersection? It's interesting how the identity of the artist has slowly transformed into that of a deskilled anthropological antennae, imitating highly specialised skills - whether they are the skills of a geneticist or a sparrow hawk. In our clunky clumsy ways we sniff out the weather of culture, and it's whether: that's what you're saying, that you pull the leads together and make the connections. As a child you identified inner and outer pathways, but you weren't the pathfinder then, you only followed. You're still struck by that spiritual and animistic tabula rasa, still wedded to that human-natural world, and now you're the navigator. For now I will grip on to the magical aspects within that workaday world you described - for you're not a game keeper, or a farmer, or a botanist, with their specific expertise - as we should trace the deeper aspects of the animal natural psyche a little further. We're still working our way back to or from that the shaman, slowly...

A few years ago I was very struck by John Purser's History of Scottish Music, which begins with a recording of birdsong and then states that he first music in Scotland, after the Ice Age's passing, was the call of the snow bunting. On the radio version of his History Purser plays a recording of an ancient pipe tune, performed on a chanter, and a recording of Gaelic mouth music that replicates this call. Pilee-eu. pilee-eu. The Gaelic word for music, ceol, derives from this sense of pipe, with its connotations of birds and breath. I'm holding on to my own Romantic fallacy, the idea that if we trace culture back far enough there is a moment of direct unmediated connection with nature, with that snow bunting as music, nature as culture. Is that something you would argue for?

MC: I'm not arguing for, but testing for a common consciousness, degrees to which We know what it is like to be something quite foreign to us, like a bat. I'm testing the idea of absolute humanness - an unavoidable sense of us having arrived on the planet complete and totally formed and definable as human - unavoidable because of the impossibility of us corporeally knowing our evolution.
Can we have a sense of our inherited humanness, from ancient cultures or when we inhabited very different bodies or even further back when we were unrecognisable as mammals? In our present condition we have no signs of our genetic heritage beyond our generational ancestry, but perhaps our being holds an awareness or corporeal memory of the first taste of consciousness. By corporeal I mean an innate sense of physical connectivity. Our limited engagement with other species holds clues for us. We relate to the dog, it knows what it is to be a mammal and so do we, but beyond that is mystery. Our sense of our connections with other species, however much or little we genetically share with them, comes down to intuition. We have a need to anthropomorphise to make a claim on our similarities with other species and a need to define the distance from them, between is a territory worth exploring, both romantic and coldly scientific, somewhere one can inhabit a knowing sense of belonging.

AF: The trace memory of the snow bunting still in our consciousness? Can you give a specific example from your own life experience . . .

MC: The use and maximisation of our vocal utterances follows fairly common evolutionary lines restricted by our physical capacity to make basic sounds. Inthis sense it becomes more plausible for us to relate to other species especially those with a highly developed vocal culture (language) like birds. The fact that I, through practice can make the sound similar to a curlew, means that I have started sharing something with that species of bird however elemental. I know an ornithologist who when talking about birds mimics their walking patterns, particularly when identifying different waders. He demonstrates but also inhabits as an actor does. For a brief moment he is 18" tall, on the mudflats, and is probing for lugworms. I use the word mimic, although this seems too slight, it's more like when children play, they are the pirate/dragon/princess or whatever, it is not so much a matter of pretending more one of becoming.

AF: And so what is it your tracing in the Allanheads piece? Do you pair the postman with a grouse as an act of caricature, a direct resemblance between human characters and foibles and animals? Anthropomorphism never seemed to me be at the root of your work. There was a grace and gentleness in that piece, because each person who 'sang' their song was revealed in human terms - it was all in all a very warm and kindly series of portraits . . .

MC: I think anthropomorphism is unavoidable and to a certain degree should be celebrated because it opens up magical ways of seeing the world. To an extent it is a useful parameter to work with and against, to explore how we define ourselves against a nature that we unavoidably see through our cultured human eyes.

In that piece there was a complicated process of slowing down birdsong to the same pitch as the human voice, filming people singing along, then speeding the film, resulting in an uncannily accurate rendition of birdsong by a human. It was important to match the tonal range of the slowed down birdsong to the range of the individual persons voice. Most of the selection of singers apart from that was fairly random and it was down to that was available. What was extraordinary was that people seemed to exhibit the physical mannerisms of the birds as if singing in a certain way forced your body into the bird's reflexive/unconscious mannerisms. People said the film uncovered something fundamental about the singers personalities, I think it emphasised the particularities of their humanness by showing them as birds. I remembered and I hadn't thought about this for a while, or at least hadn't connected it in any significant way (sounding like therapy). As a child I used to crawl around the house rather than walk, however this went on up until the age of fourteen/fifteen. I remember being at my grandparents' house when I was about 14, and crawling down the hall, I caught the eye of my bemused grandfather through the door of the next room. I have a vivid physical memory of a sudden awareness and an acute embarrassment, not that it was a discovered secret, but that it was degrading somehow.

May and June 2005

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