this building is a survivor
In his capacity as a 'conservation architect ' Alastair Cook extensively mapped and developed an understanding of the sugar sheds within a historical context.
He said of the experience, “desk work can never prepare you adequately for the experience of entering a cathedral to industry.” The definition of the structure could be construed as a big brick shed, but to Alastair it was very much alive with memory and he set about bringing into existence, through artistry and imagination, voices that had remained silent for a lengthy timespan.
In 2008 Alastair met Alec Galloway whilst completing a Masters at Edinburgh College of Art. They both enjoyed a mutual fascination and love for glass. As a result of this fortuitous collaboration Alastair was accepted into a glass residency at North Lands Glass in Lybster. A connection forged, they remained in touch throughout the subsequent years. Speaking about his involvement in the project Alastair said “by the time he approached me about his ideas for Absent Voices I was beginning to look at older photographic technologies and developing a project about poetry-film, called Film poem.”
In bringing life, once again, to the subject of sugar and all the facets of industry pertaining to the sweet and the not so sweet subject, poetry-film, as a medium, is used as a journey of discovery. As an artist, Alastair wishes to maintain a philosophical view on definition and what he describes as ‘the sifting of terminology.’ He determines that a poetry-film, ‘is just that’ and goes on to say that it is a “single entwined entity, a melting, a cleaving together of words, sound and vision. It is an attempt to take a poem and present it through a medium that will create a new artwork, separate from the original poem.”
Alastair commissioned a series of film poems surrounding the sugar industry in Inverclyde
A ghostly return to the sheds featuring glimpses of colonnades, abstract crane structures, rusty rivets and urban decay. Revenant is evocatively visual, perhaps somewhat reminiscent of a child twirling in a sugar high within the sheds themselves. Furtive glimpses of fiery faces emerge from a blackness as dark as molasses. The sound effects of seagulls; the hiss of falling sugar interrupted by the clanging of a door acts as an atmospheric undercurrent to the words and visuals. Directed by Alastair, Revenance is written and read by award winning poet Jane McKie with music by Rebecca Joy Sharp on the clàrsach (celtic harp).
GOD OF SUGAR
Written and read by Vicki Feaver, Emeritus Professor at the University of Chichester, God of Sugar speaks of 'red tipped sweetie cigarettes' – end products of the industry itself. The anterior visuals are of the Clyde with an effect track of water preceding the poetry describing the desolation - ‘no shouts of dockers’, as she goes on to tell of the ‘chill and hush of a cathedral’, as flashes of the sheds spark up on screen. A bright light emanates from under the double doors of the sheds and prayers are offered - ‘What prayer should I offer to this God of Sugar’ 'Prayers for the slaves' are offered for their suffering and displacement. Luca Nascuiti's edgy soundscape enfolds the film poem giving a sense of unease and discomfort.
Written and read by Sheree Mack, this film-poem explores lives stolen in slavery and the imagining of sheds ‘once alive with raw energy.’ The dark side of the sugar industry imagined within sheds that are now ‘open to the sky.’ Exploring the issue of slavery, Sheree noted that “As a black person, I can say that racism is not in the past. It is part of the everyday.” Concerned about the portrayal of an accurate narrative, Sheree is of the opinion that “anything written/ shown about slavery has always been desensitised, sanitised, glamourised to keep the audiences of the now happy and not make them uncomfortable.” Luca Nascuiti's ambient soundscape weaves through dark visuals creating layers of sensory stimulus.
The chemistry of sugar refining can sometimes include bone-char – a substance used to remove organic impurities. This film-poem explores feelings relating to the uneasy practice of using this refining substance. The juxtaposition of the white sweetness with the process of extracting the bone char by boiling the flesh; the unpleasant associations of 'radius' 'ulna' and ‘femur’ while you ‘stir us into your morning tea.’ The last words defiantly spoken by Gerard Rudolph ‘Until next time may your teeth rot.’ In the final visual the eyes that remained closed throughout finally open.
Written and read by John Glenday, this film-poem explores the atmosphere of the sheds; extremes of dark and light with the hint of a naked man stepping back into the blackness. John speaks of these apparitions as more an ‘interference of the light’ than ghosts of the past. ‘That Walker's girl’ preparing the sweet treats, ‘we're her ghosts after all, waiting to be born.’ Spinning camera sequence prefaces the theme that all the artists have embraced ; that of the double doors in darkness with shards of light appearing from the gaps. ‘Sweet is the dark that clings to this place and to it's ghosts.’
THE FISHERMAN AND THE WEATHER WIFE
A wonderfully descriptive film-poem written by Angela Readman and read by Gerard Rudolf. Both the narration and the visuals marry together to create meaning allowing the audience to progress through the film-poem. Gerard's voice, deep and full of resonance, narrates detailed and eloquent recountal; ‘her boots are the sound of hail in a stone bath.’
Visuals are sourced from Jimmy Rodgers' 1942 film 'Song of the Clyde.' This film-poem is a glimpse into the past; a past that was filled with bustling industry. Some landmarks remain exactly the same but the yards and foundries are long gone. Alba is a poem by John Glenday arranged for music by Luci Holland.
HOW WELL IT BURNS
The sugar refineries, distillery and foundries of Greenock were extensively damaged when fifty German Luftwaffe bombers attacked the town in a random fashion between the 6 - 7th of May 1941. Written and read by Brian Johnstone the narrative explores this historical happening through the eyes of a pilot -’eyes fixed on dials.’ Original footage of WW2 is supplied by Ministry of Defence showing aircraft and personnel that were trained to ‘creep up like some sneak,’ they sought to determine position over water that ‘glistens like molasses.’ 1000 homes were all but destroyed; 280 lives lost and 1,200 injured; ‘this whole town of sugar must see flame tonight.’
EVERYTHING WE HAVE EVER MISSED
Alastair and John Glenday collaborated on the Absent Voices book project 'Everything we have ever missed.' Alastair said, “We were not clear at the start of the project, so it gradually came into focus after we began.” The book is a collection of double exposure photographs made using 35mm film. Alastair uses a technique of sending the film through the camera twice, hiding the resulting images until processing. The images accompany poems by John Glenday who Alastair has worked with previously. “I've worked with John for a number of years, making films with his poetry. His book 'Grain' is a constant companion of mine. We walked the sheds in the winter and I talked while John made notes.” The result is an impactful collaboration that writer/poet Sarah Hymas describes as ‘quiet, layered and insistent.’ “This book brings that place, its history, to me and in doing so shows me another way of seeing my place, its history, my history.”
This artist's vision involved complex planning and co-ordination with poets, cinematographers and musicians to produce an extraordinary body of work that Sarah Hyman describes as an alternative way of seeing simple views. “They are fixed and fluid, shadowy and concrete, of nature, of industry. I love the geometry of them. I love the snatches of light, the hinting at preciousness and life, at where humans stand next to or inside nature.”