Philip Samartzis talks to artist Madelynne Cornish about the trials and tribulations of sonically documenting the Finnish winter landscape during her residency at the Serlachius Museum in Mänttä.
What is the aim of you project?
undertook the Serlachius Museum and Mänttä Art Festival residency for three months to produce a new audiovisual work entitled “ Muted Landscape” . This was a winter residency in which I responded to two sites located in the museum’s environs - the frozen shoreline of Lake Melasjärvi, and the forested area known as Lemmenpolku. The aim was to document the subtle atmospheric shifts occurring in the winter landscape over time.
What interests you about Finland?
In 2016 I was undertaking research for an audiovisual project called “Common Ground”, a transnational project that examined the impact of logging from a social, commercial and environmental perspective. It was important that I found a country where I would be able to freely access the plantations without having to seek permission from the harvesting companies. While researching I learnt about Finland’s Everyman’s Right legislation. In a nutshell Everyman's Right means everyone in Finland be they citizen or visitor has the right to access the forests and enjoy outdoor pursuits regardless of who owns or occupies the land, provided you do not cause damage. It was with this in mind that I chose Finland, in particular Mänttä as the place to undertake fieldwork for “Common Ground” . This freedom that people have in Finland to access nature and enjoy its bounties, without having to pay or seek permission/permits continues to fascinate and entices me back.
What surprised you about your most recent visit?
On a personal level the first thing that surprised me was how easily I adapted to the change in temperature. I went from experiencing 35 degrees in Australia to -10 degrees without missing a beat, I had great clothing. I cannot stress enough the importance of investing in good clothing and shoes when working in cold climates. I was able to go outside and work in the snow and at times wet conditions for extended periods, I remained dry and warm at all times. The lowest temperature I was working in was -16 degrees. I witnessed the impact of poorly chosen clothing when I was out in the field with one of the residential artists. They wore sturdy leather shoes and over gear, but the problem was none their apparel was truly waterproof and within a short amount of time they were wet and cold.
Regarding the location, when I arrived in Mänttä one of the first things I noticed was the change in the Lemmenpolku forest soundscape and not in the way I expected. I had spent a lot of time documenting this forest during my first residency in the summer of 2017. At that time I was surprised by it’s quietness, I heard very little bird life. I was amazed to hear and see so many birds in the winter landscape and I was delighted to hear their voices on my recordings.
Can you describe some observations emerging from your fieldwork?
When working on a project I don’t undertake any documentation that isn’t related. For “ Muted Landscape” the parameters I set where rigid as far as location and subject matter went. I focused on documenting Lake Melasjärvi and the Lemmenpolku forest area. I ran into difficulty almost immediately when it came to documenting the lake, as it was quiet. I had it in my mind that people would be skating on it and I thought that the lake itself would be a lot more noisy when it expanded and contracted, but this was not really the case. To date I haven’t achieved what I set out to in regards to Lake Melasjärvi. Although I have a lot of experience recording, none of it is in winter landscapes or quiet environments. I am looking forward to the B–CSC’s winter masterclass, and learning from Doug Quin given his vast experience working in cold climates. His knowledge would have come in very handy when I was trying to record Lake Melasjärvi. In regards to Lemmenpolku, I’m very happy with my recordings. But in saying that I have to say it wasn’t a quiet environment that I was recording.
What is the greatest challenge working in a cold environment?
The greatest challenge I found working in the Finnish winter landscape was moving around in the snow and on icy paths with the large Nagra Vl and all the other equipment one needs in order to record whilst wearing bulky clothes and gloves. I remember the first day I went out to record I was wading through thigh deep snow for about 2km, it was exhausting. I realised then and there that I needed to reconsider the equipment I would use when facing such conditions.
The sound recording itself was challenging. When I was documenting Lemmenpolku forest I was moving around a lot. I attached microphones to the logs and sleds that I was dragging around, which placed a lot of stress on the equipment. I damaged two sets of headphones and one of the DPA 4060’s microphone cables. In all the years I’ve been recording I’ve never damaged the gear, but then I’ve never recorded in such conditions before.
Tell us about the residency and how it has been beneficial to you?
I have now undertaken the Serlachius Museum and Mänttä Art Festival residency twice, 2017 and 2019. Both have afforded me the opportunity to interpret my practice in new ways. Each residency saw me experimenting and extending the way I document the environment. In 2017 there was a shift in how I visually recorded the landscape. Up until that point I was shooting video footage with a 35mm DSLR camera and I used stillness as a means of responding to the temporal and spatial morphology of the landscape. “Common Ground” saw me working with a drone for the first time and aerial footage featured in the exhibition outcome. During my 2019 residency, many changes occurred that pushed my practice beyond the framework I had become accustomed to. The most significant being that I moved beyond documenting landscape absent of humans. “ Muted Landscape” documents Italian land artist and architect Guido Mitidieri’s daily routine of working in the forest as a means of capturing the shifts that occur in the winter landscape over time. Filming Guido also instigated a change in how I sonically recorded the environment. In order to capture the physicality of what was happening I needed to move beyond stationary recording where microphones are set up in an optimal position and are left to record the environment. Instead I choreographed the microphones to capture the movement and strain that was occurring. At times they were stuck to my shoes and on various other items such as a sled.
What outcomes do you hope to achieve through your residency?
At this point in time, I can think of a few outcomes that I’d like to pursue. One is to develop further opportunities for creating and presenting work in Finland. Secondly I would like to collaborate with some of the artists I’ve met while undertaking my residencies. An opportunity has already arisen from my 2017 residency. At that time I met London based Chilean artist and researcher Ignacio Acosta. Ignacio is a photographer and critical writer who explores the geopolitical power dynamics in minerals, geographies and historical narratives. We are currently discussing the possibility of undertaking a project together in Australia. Thirdly, I’d like to exhibit “ Muted Landscape” once it’s completed. I envision it as a multi-channel audiovisual installation possibly presented outdoors. I’d also like to include Guido Mitidieri’s drawings and photo documentation showing how he worked with the harvested logs. Guido is a freelance architect and land artist who is currently based in Finland.
What do you know now that you didn't know before starting your project?
I know now that just because you have experience working in one sort of climate doesn’t necessarily mean that you can transfer that way of working to a harsh winter landscape. Sure using a recorder remains the same, but what changes is what you wear and how you physically move around an environment. This impacts the way you carry the equipment. For example, on the first day I went out to record I was wearing bulky clothes. I had a large backpack on my back which contained leads, microphones, windjammers and a microphone bar and stand. Additionally I was carrying the sizeable Nagra VI, the strap was worn cross-body with the recorder dangling in front and at times to the side of my body. The weight of the backpack and the position of the Nagra made it extremely difficult to walk in dense snow. I found it incredibly hard to lift my legs and to maintain balance. In normal conditions the weight and the way I carry the equipment would not have presented a problem. On reflection what I should taken on that occasion was a much smaller and light weight recorder.