Interview | AlanJames Burns on Entirely Hollow Aside from the Dark

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Annie Carpenter


Entirely Hollow Aside from the Dark:
Interview with AlanJames Burns


This September sees a powerful art event transform the unique setting of Cresswell Crags Cave, Nottinghamshire. In complete darkness, visual and environmental artist AlanJames Burns stages a psychoacoustic sound artwork entitled Entirely hollow aside from the dark, running from the 3rd to the 7th of September, following a sell-out tour in Ireland. It will comprise a new version made specifically for the location, which features Ice Age Rock Art and the UK’s largest concentration of apotropaic marks.

Entirely hollow is a collaboration between the artist, writer Sue Rainsford and sound editor Ian Dunph, amongst others, exploring themes of mental health and environmental sustainability, with the cave serving as a physical metaphor for the human mind, as well as the personification of Mother Earth’s consciousness as she struggles with her worsening mental health brought on by mankind polluting her body. We spoke to AlanJames to hear more.

What initially inspired you to work with thought and depict inner dialogues?

While studying at art college, I was learning about and exploring AV technologies, when it occurred to me that Audio/Visuals are how most of our thoughts are manifested in our minds; we talk to ourselves in our heads and we see imagery. I see parallels between AV tech and thought patterns; for me, AV installation is the perfect medium to outwardly express this world.

So many missed communications between people are nobody’s fault per se, simply a failing in our ability to express outwardly our inner thoughts. I think making artwork about this, brings this idea into the physical realm where it can be clearer to understand and consider. My work has continued on this path since college, from “Artist’s Brain with audio”, to “THINK THINK THINK”, to the project on which I am currently working.

What inspired/motivated you to create this sound artwork?

One day while taking part in Resort Revelations residency in North Dublin, I was walking the coastline of the small seaside town of Portrane, where there is an abandoned mental health facility and I was thinking about, well, the act of thinking! The tide was out and so I stumbled across Smugglers’ Cave and that moment is what sparked the initial idea of mapping consciousness to the inside of a cave. When we are ‘inside our heads’, do we speak in monologue or dialogue? Do our thoughts emerge in a linear process or are they sporadic? Do we humans ever stop thinking? As a visual artist, I think about these questions through making, research and collaboration. Sitting in Smugglers’ Cave that day and thinking all this through the idea for the artwork began to form.

In developing the work I then collaborated with the writer Sue Rainsford, Sound Editor Ian Dunphy and psychologist Claire Howlin to realise this concept.

What drew you to creating work in caves? How do the caves in Creswell differ from the Irish iteration of the project, and how did you come across them?

The incredible historic nature of Creswell Crags drew me to it. I wanted to take the project to the UK, so I did some research online and then travelled to go ‘cave-hunting’ in the region for a couple of days. I was blown away by the Ice Age Rock Art at Creswell Crags; the only examples of it in the British Isles. The hundreds of Witches’ Marks; the biggest concentration of apotropaic marks, or symbols to ward off evil ever found in the UK are also pretty jaw-dropping to see in person. The team at Creswell Crags were really open and extremely interested in working together, their commitment to the environmental themes of the artwork was what really got the ball rolling!

Had you known about the “witches markings” at Creswell before you started creating your work and what do you feel they add?  

I evolved the nature of Entirely hollow aside from the dark specifically for this site because of the Witches’ Markings and Prehistoric Cave Art. They add a historical context to the work. Historically, caves have played a vital role in the simultaneous evolution of creativity and abstract thought. This has been a conceptual underpinning to the artwork’s development. The Ice Age Rock Art at Creswell Crags is approximately 40,000 years old, 11,000 years later the walls of the caves were marked by witches and now, in 2019, I am inviting people to gather to experience an Audio-Visual art installation. This sense of time and evolution is pertinent to the artwork’s development. I have to wonder what creativity may be expressed in this unique site in the future.

Mental health and the environment are the most important themes in this work, can you tell us how they interplay with each other?

In redeveloping the work for Creswell Crags, I’ve worked with Claire Howlin, music psychology researcher and Irish Research Council funded scholar. We spoke a lot about ways of looking at parallels between mental health and the climate crisis; our need for natural light and darkness for healthy sleep circadian rhythms are aspects of well-being that apply to both. For example, equating the build-up of plaque in the brain, which causes various health issues, to the build-up of plastic within our environment. A remedy for both is rest. Mother Earth cannot renew and replenish herself until humans change their ways. The project also embraces the physical and mental principles of wellbeing and addresses themes of stress in the context of everyday life and mental illness. The naturally calming environment of the cave reduces sound and light pollution creating an opportunity to demonstrate different states of mind, encouraging biophilia and sleep aspects of wellbeing.

This work sees you collaborating with many people from writer Sue Rainsford and sound editor Ian Dunphy, to music psychology researcher Claire Howlin, along with voice hearers, cognitive psychologists, neurologists and anthropologists. Can you tell us more about how this worked?

Working with others really enriches the artwork. I have my own perspectives of course but all the people I work with are experts in fields in which I don’t have expertise. Some relationships are new and started off by me asking for feedback on an artwork via email (for example), while others are more established in-studio collaborations, such as with writer Sue Rainsford.

When developing projects I approach Sue and describe what my intent with the artwork is and what I want to achieve. Sue somehow always intrinsically understands where I am trying to bring the project, we really get each other! Sue then goes and works lyrical words magic, working up dialogue and development approaches. We then go into a recording studio together with a voice artist and bring Sue’s words to life. The Voice Artist for Entirely hollow aside from the dark is the incredible Caitríona Ní Mhurchú. Having a female writer and female voice was important for me as the artist, I am trying to voice Mother Earth, so their female perspectives were crucial to the collaboration. There is always a tingling feeling of excitement in the studio with Sue and Caitriona when you feel everything fitting together and you know we are capturing magic.

What are the voices saying while the viewer is in the cave? Is it a poem, narrative-driven?

The artwork features the imagined voice of Mother Earth voicing her regrets in the form of an inner dialogue, written in a way that attempts to mirror processes of the human mind. In the darkness, an audible inner dialogue echoes Earth’s thoughts and unfolding regrets, as a symphony of choreographed sounds shifts around the cave. It is a multi-layer soundscape as she talks to herself, with multiple voices in many places circulating the cave at any one time.

What will you hope that your viewers take away from your work?

What is perhaps the most important role artists can play is as storytellers. We can paint a picture, translate messages into song and turn caves into consciousness. It is in this capacity that we have the power to inspire, to educate and make the urgent message of climate action resonate with diverse audiences. Entirely hollow aside from the dark simultaneously aims to break down the stigma surrounding mental health and encourage further awareness of environmental sustainability through engagement with people on a personal level. Using the cave as a physical metaphor for the mind, the cavern personifies the consciousness of Mother Earth as she struggles with her worsening health, brought on by the human impact on her body. By voicing imagined words of Mother Earth, I hope to inspire empathic relation and inspire people to take more action against climate change. I also hope viewers feel more able to start a discussion about their own inner dialogue and mental health having experienced the work.

What have you got coming up?

I would love to take this project on a UK Tour in 2020/21, for which I am currently seeking funding and sponsorship. Right now, my next project is ‘Silicon Synapse’, a Virtual Reality and psycho-acoustic installation set in the disused and historic Carnegie Library, Swords, Dublin opening in November. It will simulate a journey into the personified, conscious mind of ‘Technology’, where you will hear the inner dialogue of ‘Technology’s’ mind as it ruminates over both sides of a lovers’ quarrel. ‘Technology’ and its life partner ‘Nature’ argue about the sustainability of their relationship and their future as a couple. The work will also tour to Brussels and Milan (for more information visit siliconsynapse.net)

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Entirely hollow aside from the dark takes places at Cresswell Crags Cave, Worksop, Nottinghamshire 3-7 September. For further information see: http://entirelyhollowasidefromthedark.com/ & check out a short film here

Interview by Annie Carpenter 


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