Stripping the Overburden

Triple Harvest Films, Fermynwoods Contemporary Art, Corby

It’s been a very hard millennium so far for the steel industry, coming immediately after the precipitate decline of the late twentieth century. The UK’s remaining large steelworks, at Scunthorpe and Port Talbot, have been engaged in a pitiless, attritional struggle for survival; whilst Scunthorpe and “British Steel” were bought out last year by Chinese company Jingye, Port Talbot’s owners Tata, facing heavy losses, continue to float the idea of closing the plant altogether. Global over-capacity in steel production and high energy costs in the UK are the factors most often cited in the decline of these lingering fragments of heavy industry. Whilst the remaining sites of UK steel fight hard for their futures, many others have either been levelled long ago (Ravenscraig near Motherwell), re-purposed as offices and edgelands warehouses (Workington in West Cumbria), or left, like the beached iron bones of industrial whales, abandoned and awaiting demolition (Redcar on Teesside).

When British Steel at Scunthorpe was going through the agonies of liquidation and the uncertainties of a sale process, kept on life support by the UK government for a set period, it was noticeable that many supportive and sympathetic social media messages and offers of help came from Corby. The Northamptonshire village-turned-new-town-turned brave-post-industrial survivor went through it’s own agonies of closure (the former Stewarts and Lloyds holdings, as part of loss-making British Steel, were closed after a bitter struggle in 1979/80) and industrial entropy and loss of purpose at the end of the twentieth century. Whilst, thankfully, those days are behind the town, the former steelworks has left a very heavy footprint- culturally, environmentally, socially.

It is in this context that Fermywoods Contemporary Art, based in East Northamptonshire, invited seven diverse artistic voices to engage with four pieces of film from the time when steel-making was the future rather than the past, and when the hegemony of Stewarts & Lloyds over employment in the town was largely unchallenged. These archive films, made between 1945 and 1960, are as important to see as the final works. From the wartime narrative of the PLUTO pipeline, featuring steel tubing made in Corby, the story of mechanical innovation, The Great Jib (1952), to the company-commissioned, patrician narratives Iron Ore in Britain (1956) and Double Harvest (1960), these are films that can simply be looked at visually, with the cut-glass Received Pronunciation narratives tuned out altogether. These are films of earth-shaking explosions, snaking geometric lines of molten steel, glowing-orange pipes in mesmerising movement along a production line. As well as offering a spectacular visual jewellery box for artists, these films also are cloaked in sadness, haunted by the unrealised future promises of modernity.

“There is a sense of security in tradition, which distrusts innovation” opines the narrator in Double Harvest, with a tendentious yoking together of the ancient rhythms of agriculture with the altogether more contemporary extractive patterns of iron-ore mining. Viewed from the vantage-point of pandemic-crippled 2020, neither tradition nor innovation are trusted, particularly. The sense of timelessness and continuity presented in the films has long collapsed into a relative flux. There’s little belief in the future, and the past has become a viciously contested set of cosplay stages both virtually and in real time. The comforting attempt to present the intertwined extractive works of agriculture and steel making as somehow natural, inevitable and progressive stands now as deeply problematic. As Donna Harraway has written:

“Extractivism and exterminationism are not human species acts. They come from a situated historical conjuncture of about five hundred years in duration that begins with the invention of the plantation and the subsequent modeling of industrial capitalism. It is a situated historical conjuncture that has had devastating effects even while it has created astonishing wealth.”

It is Harraway’s analysis of the linking of capital accumulation with resource extraction and commodification, together with an increasingly sophisticated awareness of the environmental degradation that goes hand in hand with the myth of perpetual growth, that are at the root of the troubled feelings associated with the archival films that are the source of this project. The task of the selected artists, too, mirrors the industrial processes that they have been asked to reflect upon; to take inert material, caked with the heavy overhang of post-digital cynicism and numbness, and to forge it anew to hold the attention of a contemporary audience, whilst avoiding the traps of nostalgia and flat-track irony. A stripping of the overburden, if you will, so that we can look closely again at our raw materials before re-working them.

The voices that have been chosen answer the call impressively. The videos divide themselves into three broad areas; those that choose to engage with the material in terms of shape and collage; those that use it as a launch pad to a parallel imaginary; and those that ground their responses in the impact that industrial processes of extracting, re-making and marketing have on the humans involved in them.

Amanda Loomes’ Combine, screenshot.

Let’s start with this last, first. Amanda Loomes’ Combine combines elements of the archive films with contemporary interviews with workers at the Ketton Cement Works in Rutland, fifteen miles North East of Corby. I really liked the way this film focused on the individual stories of the workers, set alongside the processes of blasting and the chemistry of cement making once the raw material was brought to the plant. As such these processes were a parallel to those described in the archive films, with many crossovers between the industrial processes of sixty years ago, and contemporary times.

Whilst the steelworkers of Corby from two generations ago may have felt at home in the contemporary cement works, with it’s noise, dirt, heat, and heavy plant, they would have been perplexed by the chimerical “order” brought to the process by a variety of computerised manufacturing systems and everything being visible through a series of screens, controlled by a highly skilled technician. The process of cement making, seen on a screen, is very alluring to watch. Perhaps the steelworkers of old would also have found the palpable isolation and loneliness of the film’s subjects upsetting. The values that bound together a past industrial society have gone, even if wonder at the chemistry of the process and respect for long years of service remain. There’s an almost shy, self-effacing series of insights from the workforce, anonymised by the artist; theirs are processes and skills that wider society no longer seems terribly interested in looking at, let alone taking any pride in. As a result, Loomes’ film is surprisingly intimate and revealing of a sweeping change in our values that has altered us almost imperceptibly.

Ikran Abdille’s film Triple Harvest sits somewhere between this focus on the individual and a parallel imaginary, Her work begins with footage of the celebration of Somali independence in 1960 and invites a parallel between the fate of industrial Corby and the fate of Somalia, proposing an uneasy third imaginary space combining joyful dancing and matter-of-fact English provincialism, with the contemporary viewer watching with the knowledge of hindsight.

Marie-Chantal Hamrock There is Something in the Ground, There is Something in the Sky screenshot

A narrative starburst of otherwordliness can be found in Marie-Chantal Hamrock’s film There is Something in the Ground, There is Something in the Sky. The piece quite deliberately navigates a corridor of uncertainty between fact and fiction, seeking to link the land’s mineral wealth with the outer constellations through a variety of poetic devices. The pacing and scripting of this piece, overlaying a re-worked merging of the archive footage with original prints and sculptural and performative sketches, shows a keenly sensitive poetic sensibility and a willingness to take risks. Amy Cutler’s cross-species narrative is similarly ambitious, featuring dizzying editing cuts and hallucinogenic close ups against a detailed voice over, lingering on key words and concepts.

The use of collage, perhaps the most direct parallel with the destruction of material and it’s re-purposing to new forms through the violence of extraction, is prominent in the work of Sapphire Goss and Martha Cattell. Both these artists have produced short films that engage the viewer through layering, patterning, surprising overlays and repetition, giving them an immediate, animated feel. The ending of Sapphire’s film, perhaps of all of the works, reveals most directly the hauntological aspects of the films, made in an awareness of the persistence of a scarred landscape following the demolition of the steelworks; the shattered industrial forms at the end of her work Neverending Jigsaw are reminiscent of the semi-Surrealist forms of destroyed enemy aircraft in Paul Nash’s painting Totes Meer (Dead Sea, 1941). Of all the artists, Sapphire’s work perhaps does the most to challenge the pleasant assumptions of harmony and interdependence between the land and industry, presented in the archive films.

Sapphire Goss Neverending Jigsaw

Vaughan Pilikian’s Conundrum is perhaps the most stripped back and self contained of the films on show. It leans heavily on the narrative surrounding the wartime PLUTO pipeline project, although the work is gripping even if the viewer is completely unaware of those historical details. The visual narrative focuses on interconnectedness, on the surreal man made form of HMS Conundrum– the floating cylindrical cable carrier that enabled huge engineering gains to be made in a very short space of time, under the pressure of conflict. Interestingly, despite this originating on a story of engineering imagination, humans in Vaughan’s film seem almost absurdly small and peripheral to the vast forces and possibilities that they image they control, and have unleashed. The narrative is accompanied by a fragmentary, icy, recurring orchestral phrasing, linking the world of the nineteen forties, which Britain seems determined to live in for as long as possible, with contemporary sonic structures.

In the archive film Double Harvest much mention is made of “Stripping the Overburden”; the beginning of the process of iron and steel making, by clearing soil, limestone and other extraneous material away in order to access the raw iron ore, either through controlled explosions, open-cast or deep mining. In some ways the commissions that the seven artists in Triple Harvest have undertaken represent a stripping of an overburden; an overburden of previous perceptions, of complacent concepts of land use, capital and growth, and of a shallow understanding of how value is extracted from land, re-made profoundly in that process. Taken as a whole, these films offer a deep and nuanced insight into the past and use it as raw material for a deeply troubled and over-written present; a contribution towards the re-forging of a collective sense of self in our shattered contemporary times. As the shouting factory cranks up again after lockdown, then, this is a digital show that is well worth rewarding with the precious investment of time.

Further Reading

Dylan Cave Corby : Steel Town, BFI website, 3 May 2019

Heather Davis, “Blue, Bling : On Extractivism”, afterall 48, Autumn / Winter 2019

“A Giant Bumptious Litter”, interview with Donna Harraway in Logic magazine, 2019, pp. 46-74

Fermynwoods Contemporary Art, Triple Harvest Exhibition

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