What's On North, March 12th 2014

Artists hold a mirror up to the Black Isle

THE sights — and sounds — of the Black Isle cross the Kessock Bridge to take up residence in Inverness Museum and Art Gallery.

Mirror Lands combines the talents of multimedia artist Mark Lyken and filmmaker Emma Dove to present a portrait of the area in film and sound, combining images of the Black Isle with natural sounds and an original score.

Lyken and Dove gave us an introduction to the work, which returns to the Highlands after going on show at Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts.

What is it about the Black Isle that makes it special?

The Black Isle is on the one hand unusual in terms of the relationships that exist there between nature, rural life and heavy industry but on the other hand it has a familiarity not only to those that live there but also to visitors from outwith the area. I suppose it depends on what you tune in to as an individual - a lot of local people seem to ‘tune out’, say, the fact that there’s an enormous cruise liner floating 3000 people past their front door!

For Emma, having grown up on the Black Isle, she felt it was the place she knew best in the world but came to realise how much she did not know or had not noticed about the place before. Sometimes it takes the focus of putting a camera or a microphone to it to really reveal it.

As a peninsula The Black Isle is not completely contained as an island would be, but it still has the feel of an island, especially being based in Cromarty right at the tip. You are surrounded by the sea and you get that sense of separation from the surrounding landscape as well as a close relationship to the sea. I think that although there are variations between different people’s perceptions of the place, the sea is certainly a common thread that weaves its way through everyone’s experience. It’s like the glue that binds those many different senses of place together.

And why the title?

When we first began thinking about the film we were looking at the conventions of Natural History filmmaking and the ways that the natural world is represented through film and sound. We decided to use this as a jumping off point, not as a criticism but as a way of exploring alternatives.

We were thinking about these dramatised ‘visions’ of the natural world that seem to sometimes be at odds with the disorder and complexities that exist between humans and nature in a place like the Black Isle. It was in thinking about the differences between these representations and reality that the title, Mirror Lands, emerged.

know you consulted with a number of Black Islers over the course of the project.

Just how helpful has the Black Isle community been - and did locals find it easy to grasp the concept behind Mirror Lands?

Being based at Aberdeen Uni’s Lighthouse Field Station in the heart of Cromarty we were immediately immersed in the community in a really active way. I think at it’s heart the idea behind Mirror Lands is a simple one, it’s a portrait of people and place. People were generally happy to talk to us on that basis, although often wondered what they had to contribute, often saying 'but you really ought to speak to so on so...!'

We ended up with a huge long list of people and couldn't possibly have managed to speak to them all! What we ended up with was really a snapshot of the Black Isle over the course of a summer - if you were to go back another time and interview a different 20 people, you'd have a different film. But people were immensely welcoming and genuinely interested and supportive. The fact that Emma is originally from the Black Isle and that Mark had been an artist in residence at the Field Station with IOTA in 2012 also helped, but we also met a lot of new people, and got to know those that we already knew in new ways.

What were the biggest technical challenges behind the project?

As it was quite an intuitive process, we had no real way of knowing what we were going to get each day. This was both exciting and challenging, as you are setting off each day exploring and searching, rather than with a set of shots that you need to 'tick off'. We often found that the most interesting things were moments that we could never have prepared for - we'd be heading to one place but happen across something much more interesting along the way.

I guess like any project, time and budget were big constraints - the bulk of the land shots were reached purely by pedal power so were limited to equipment we could carry on our backs. Although this was a technical challenge in itself with our equipment, it also meant we saw and heard things in ways that would pass you by if you were zipping about in a car. It was certainly a massive learning curve for both of us but luckily we had researched the small amount of equipment we had very well.

How would you ideally like your audience to approach - and leave -Mirror Lands?

I guess with an open mind. It is a curious film, it falls somewhere between documentary and art film without really being either. The film is composed of lingering shots with the action unfolding gradually within each scene.

We wanted to leave enough room for contemplation, so rather than running around waggling the camera at things, the action unfolds slowly. I think it is more akin to the experience of stopping to look at the view. Some people might find this slower pace a challenge, as I think we are used to a faster pace in a lot of film and television. But the idea is to allow time to really tune in to the sounds, images and voices. I think different people will take very different things from the film, as we wanted to leave plenty of room for imagination, and I'm sure it will also be a different experience depending each individual's own knowledge and experience of the place itself.