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Sonic Archeology


Sonic Archeology


in conversation with Abigail Sidebotham

What does the past sound like? Artist Abigail Sidebotham dives into the ancient sound of an abandoned copper quarry with her experimental film Tattered Rocks, while giving rise to the sound of the present and a vision of the future, offering metaphysical reflections on the nature of language and our relation to the world.

We live with our heads in the clouds
And our hearts in the stars

Your experimental short film Tattered Rocks (2016) is split into three distinct elements: the opening of a macro image of the interior of a bottle, two men installing a piano cable across a quarry's ravine and 3D scans of objects, which is accompanied by a voice over narration. How do you see those parts relate to one another and what are the main themes in the film?

Abigail Sidebotham: Tattered Rocks, a collaboration with musician Aino Tytti, is a sci-fi film that imagines what a future archeology might look like, whilst weaving in the narrative of two men searching for ancient sounds trapped within the rocks of an abandoned copper quarry in an act of sonic archeology. Two objects appear as motifs throughout the film and are embedded within the narrative of the two men’s journey to install a 100 meter piano cable across the quarries ravine. As you said, the punctuation of these objects divides the film into three distinct parts.  

The film opens with an introduction by the narrator and a macro image of the interior of a plastic bottle that's been shot through with bullets that I found on location, later the same bottle appears as an animated 3D scan, presented as though it were some kind of forensic evidence. In addition, there is the suspended, bone like, sun bleached remains of a car steering wheel that I also found on location. I see these objects as emblems of a used up, dead ended modernity, which are reflected in the quarries landscape exploited for its mineral extraction. The film’s title, Tattered Rocks, plays with the idea of the landscape as a form of material fabric that can be torn up or punctured. I was actually thinking about the gestural aesthetics of Lucian Fontana at the time, visible in the holes and cuts resurfacing time and again in the film. Like Fontana, I was interested in exploring other dimensions that exist beyond the picture plane — the activity of the men, the landscape and the objects, in particular the bottle characterized by holes, which acts as a type of portal to another dimension, one pointing toward an unseen realm.

The framing and artificiality of these objects make them appear like film props for a Western or Sci-fi film, the underlying narratives of which are often adventure and the conquest of new frontiers, instilling a sense of discovery and exploration throughout the film. The men’s endeavor of sound excavation swings between appearing ritualistic or even shamanistic — in their attempt to communicate with an unseen figure or life force — while at other times comes across as quite naive, such as when one of the characters attaches tinfoil to the piano cable, the resulting spinning in the wind resembling a child’s game. In contrast to this, the character’s approach also reflects scientific precision of measures, which hints at a sense of telecommunication technologies. In these different ways the film dwells on a desire for communication, through or with another dimension, while also being situated in the anthropocentric, it's an exploration of our place within the past, the future and the beyond.


Language plays a role in Tattered Rocks, not at least as the opening subtitles include the following line: ‘He told me he was searching for a language that was completely new. A language that was ancient, buried deep, a language that resisted interpretation’. The tension between the new and the ancient resonates in the film’s setting of a quarry and the means to extract its sound through technological means. What is the significance of sound and language in the film?

AS: I’m really fascinated by premonitions and I believe that art and artists are somehow able to sense and predict things, which they then communicate through their art before it can be articulated in a more or less concrete way through language. 

As I mentioned I was particularly interested at that time in the gestural aesthetics of Lucian Fontana, who himself was fascinated with possible future scenarios. ‘We live with our heads in the clouds and our hearts in the stars’ is a quote from Fontana and I used it, because it touches on what it means to be a human today, linked in and wired up, living as though within a dream. Fontana knew that the future, or even the present world, was something that could not be reflected in a directly representational way, informing the idea and inclusion of silence, which should not be confused with void or absence.

Excavation through layers of earth represents to me a kind of delving into a universal consciousness, which exists beyond language. More recently I’ve started thinking about this is terms of animism. My current film project is about an oil spill that happened off the coast of Pembrokeshire in Wales and I’minterested in exploring the product of oil as an ancient consciousness that bubbled up, rupturing both time and place, as well as its significance in what it transmits.

The ancient element in Tattered Rocks, as well as in my other films, is linked to the idea of something that is hidden or buried and acts as a way of exploring abstract forces and emotions. The tension that exists lies between the hidden realm or spirit world that the men are attempting to reach and communicate with, which is in contrast to the modern world that they inhabit, which is full of these objects that represent a type of capitalist sorcery that has created an absence of myth. The question of what an ancient dimension of sound would tell us isn’t necessarily the focus, as rather the process of engaging with it is of crucial importance.


Even though the film follows the musician Aino Tytti installing a 100 metre piano cable stretched across the quarry's ravine, the frequencies he recorded are absent from the film. What motivated your choice to show and make audible the recording of his recording, but omit the actual sound, staying within the present rather than making the inaudible audible?

AS: There is a beautiful simplicity to the instrument that Aino Tytti stretches out across the landscape that reminded me of early telecommunication experiments and has a anti-modern and anti-technological nature. I wanted to play with the viewer’s expectation thinking that you should hear something, whether that be the recordings or some other sound of transmitted code or music. But by only seeing the infrastructural shape of the network, where the vibrations and currents are absent, the emphasis is on the men’s endeavors and on how the sounds or language moves through and around them as they cooperate in laying this intricate network. This absence or resistance of sound provides in a way the potential of it being the perfect language.


Tattered Rocks open with ‘I am a collection of parts, a copy, a changeling, a substitute for that which never existed.’ Who is the the narrator of the film and what is her relation to the images, the sound and the setting of the film?

AS: The narrator is material debris or perhaps more accurately she is the spirit or ghost that occupies the bottle that we see at the beginning of the film. She’s a copy, a changeling, as she has been reformed from the earth’s fossils and minerals or from other recycled objects. She will be used up and remade again, in a process of continual reincarnation. And with her: ‘We comprehend dimensions of space without limit….‘


Abigail Sidebotham is an artist filmmaker. She's currently working on a year long residency oral history, community art and curatorial project based on the Sea Empress oil spill in Wales, which will result in a new film. She holds an MA in Fine Art from the Royal College of Art.