I was standing in a dark metal barn. It had been very sunny in the farmyard outside when we had clambered out of the back of the Land-rovers and stood waiting for the start of the work, so in here our eyes tried to adjust to the darkness and constellations of bright white coins of sunlight that were scattered across the walls as light beamed in through holes corroded in the metal walls. There were about fifteen or twenty of us in this dry warm dusty space, watching Rebecca Birch, wearing a miners' light on her head, talk, draw and move large sheets of wood around and thrusting them into piles of...what was it, gravel? grain? It was too dark to tell. She talked in a controlled relaxed conversational way about the workings she had found in the Forest of Dean that lay beyond the boundary of the farm and the conversations that she had had with people who worked there. Each time a sheet was thrust upright into one of the piles, it became a screen and she moved projectors around, showing us drawings and images of rocky subterranean spaces. I have become wary of performance, put off by its assumptions and the demands it often makes, but this experience entranced me. It seemed brilliantly positioned, in the narrative, in the barn and in the networks of fields and forests that spread out, unseen, around us and the lives and experiences that they contained.
We'd gathered outside Tate Britain early that morning. A gaggle of people from London on the Matt's Gallery mailing list, climbing slightly self-consciously onto a coach parked outside a building based on the work of Caribbean slaves and at a point on the river where convicts were transported to Australia. We were to be driven west. To the country. To the first Blackrock exhibition.
It has been fashionable to place contemporary art in spaces that aren't museums or art galleries for decades now. The passengers on this coach had probably traipsed through decommissioned factories without number, a multiplicity of power stations and warehouses in search of video installations and interventions, to an extent where it has become a commonplace and a cliché. Not only have these repeated reframings and recontextualisations deadened us to any effect they might have on the work, they have also deadened us to the effect the work has on the place - not in the sense of the artefact awakening our perceptions of the space where it is displayed - but the function of these contemporary art interventions as an avant-garde of urban gentrification and property development. One year the Serpentine Gallery is staging ambitious interventions in the crumbling Battersea Power Station, a few years later, the power station is the centre of a shiny new development for the international rich.
But the countryside. This is still something a bit unknown. British contemporary art has a particular relationship to the land and the non-urban. Despite the Richard Longs and Hamish Fultons and David Nashs, on the whole it's more a city thing, and the various and different relationships that other contemporary art cultures like Europe or the USA might have with ideas and romances of the land, the countryside, the natural world and non-urban society and so forth, do not happen here in the same way. Our relationships with the countryside have been shaped by our industrial revolution happening so early and effectively that entire populations became deracinated, with the subsequent urbanisation of people and culture. In addition the British class system has made it impossible to imagine the country as representing an unlegislated space, a possibility, a freedom that it might possess on other continents. In the 19th century poaching on private estates could get you transported to the other side of the world. For us city slickers bowling down the motorway, clutching lattes from the Costa Coffee at the service station as if they were talismans, it has become an increasingly imaginary space, unknowable, one that variously contains romantic poets, the Slaughtered Lamb, Tweedy Conservatives and Young Farmers associations, Royston Vaisey, the mystical landscapes of Middle Earth and Stanley Spencer and serenaded by wind-borne snatches of whatever the British equivalent of Banjo music might be.
The arrival at the Lydney Park Estate reinforced this sense of the other-worldly. The coach drove up an avenue and we crunched across gravel to a house so golden and lovely that it looks as if it is in a movie. We were ushered through the house to a lawn that lay above the distant river Severn and we were given lunch that included sausages and burgers made from deer and boar from the estate.
The artists however had been there longer than the coach party. They had spent time living in the farm buildings, talking to people, working with them, and so had moved past the general and into the specifics that had informed the work they had made. These works were spread across the estate, some in the forest, others in buildings belonging to farms and villages. To get to them we climbed into the backs of Land Rovers and were driven through the Gloucestershire landscape from one site to another.
One work was on show that hadn't been made as part of the residency programme, 'Channels' by Susan Hiller. And for the jeep I was in, 'Channels' was the first stop. I know this work quite well. I saw it when it was shown at Matt's Gallery in Copperfield Road, and I had worked on its presentation in an Art Museum in Australia, so had experienced this large bank of analogue TV screens and their oscilloscope lines and swelling recitations of near death experiences in the sort of spaces where we are used to seeing art. It is a tremendous work. Here, having to drive through a landscape, into a collection of agricultural buildings, walk across a concrete yard with the smell of straw and hedgerow, these new sensations meant that when I came to the work it was differently energised. It became more mysterious, more absolute, less a wonderful artefact and more a possessed and powerful event.
Then we moved to Rebecca Birch's action at another site and here, part of the nature of the residency started to reveal itself. To an extent I was learning about invisible links and histories, but we were also witnessing someone - the artist -learning and being shaped by this new environment, which I was witnessing in an environment that was new to me. That allowed a set of different responses and layerings which seemed specific to Blackrock, to where I was, and to move past preconceptions and into a particular engagement. And this seemed true of all the works that the residency had produced.
Roy Voss had made multiple works. One had been on the publicity for the project, a wooden sign in front of a tumbling mass of rhododendron which read RIOT, but first we were taken to the village hall to see what he had done there. The hall had the strange aura of being between states, empty except for us, but being all set up for other people, a place of potential events. A bar with pumps for beer and cider. A polished floor. Here Voss had installed a painting of a large curtain that, when you moved around to see it, masked off part of the space. The curtain seemed to imply theatres that might take place, dances, meetings maybe, imagined exchanges and lives. But the fact that the curtain was painted suggested that perhaps this sense of imagined activity was indeed an illusion, that we might never know, or even intuit, the dramas, lives and exchanges of others. In doing this, Voss seemed to talk about what was happening outside the walls of the hall, as well as inside, in the Blackrock project and in the actions of our wider perception and viewing.
In the house itself there were works by David Cheeseman. To get to them you had to move from public rooms into other rooms, containing storage, collections, the things that accrete, that are used. One room contained a moon. A drawn moon that was projected onto a closed window by an overhead projector. It was like being inside a ghost story, or an old book or an etching. The moon was an artefact. But it was also the moon, looming in the night. Out there. And always out there, beyond the forest, no matter how it's been understood and represented. Another work had a man lying rigid, supported by two large rectangular beams of wood, one supporting his head the other supporting his feet, it seemingly being only willpower and muscle power that kept the rest of the body straight. Our physical identification with this feat was complicated by the image being shown vertically, so it was as if gravity was negated and the body and beams were sticking out of the side of the world like a handle. The image seemed to be of contemporary art (Arte Povera, Manzoni's Base of the World etc.) and of the place where it was made, as this seeming levitation was staged at the site of a ruined Roman Temple on the estate.
Bronwyn Buckeridge's work was out in the forest that stretched to the high horizons behind the house. She had developed a project that involved three ponds and a hunter's chair, one that you climb up into, to sit high awaiting the arrival of deer or boar below you. She had asked two local witches to make a ceremony to welcome the wild boars back to the forest. The boar had become extinct in the 13th century but a few farmed individuals had escaped in the 1990's back into the forest to become an established population. The witches' ceremony had been recorded in binaural sound (which means that, when wearing headphones it's as if the sound is precisely located around you, moving through space, suddenly shifting). You got to the site, put on the phones, and experienced all this not knowing quite what was natural, what was artifice. And the people who had experienced this were very taken with the work. They loved it. So late afternoon, a small group of us took the sketch map, set out down the road, through the gate and into the forest to find it. And we never did. We passed the sign saying RIOT. We came across buildings that were not marked on the paper that was guiding us. We decided to retrace our steps, back to a fork in the paths and take the other track. This took us higher and further into the trees. We were lost, it was getting later, the sun was slanting through the trunks, it was beautiful, but we could not find the work, and were aware that we had walked quite far. And we became a little panicked that the coach back to the city might depart without us,
...and that we would not leave the forest before the night drew in.... That we might not be able to leave Blackrock that day.