We had the chance to do a Q&A with artist AlanJames Burns about his ‘Entirely Hollow Aside from the Dark‘ project. You can see the results below…
Visual Artist AlanJames Burns Announces The National Tour Of An Exciting Artwork ‘Entirely hollow aside from the dark’ Immersive Artwork To Be Installed Inside 5 Caves Across Ireland from July to September 2017
Visiting – Caves of Keash (Sligo), Lickhill Cave (Skibbereen, Cork), Aillwee Cave (The Burren), Smuggler’s Cave (Portrane, Dublin), Pollnagollum Cave, Boho Waterfall (Enniskillen, Fermanagh) – Full Dates are below…
How did you pick the caves?
I became an avid location scout. I got awarded the Arts Council of Ireland Touring and Dissemination of Work Scheme in March of this year, then I hopped into the car and drove all over the country hunting caves for two and a half months. I went from county to county, ringing heritage officers, local historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, Geological Society of Ireland, speleological union of Ireland, coast guards and caving, adventure and canoeing clubs anyone I could think of. If I wasn’t on the phone, I was on the road. I met some of the most helpful and friendliest people in this country. This artwork needs a lot of support at local level to ensure it can happen safely. In each location of the tour we have the full support of the local authority and communities. The caves have been chosen for the events, mainly, down to this support.
What were you looking for in each location?
Size matters, the dimensions and volume of the caves are important – not just for safety but also this affects the way the audience experience the 3D audio and how it swirls around the cave. The piece was originally commissioned by Fingal County Council for their Resort Revelations programme 2016, so having already produced the piece in Smuggler’s Cave in Portrane last year, I had a good sense walking into the different caves if the piece could work there. The artwork is not just the sounds you hear in the cave it is the journey to and from it. The audience become adventurers where they travel by moon and torch light through holes in the landscape that open into the thoughts and words of an assumed consciousness. It wasn’t just the size of the cave but the journey to and from it that I looked for in each location.
The logistics of this are mind boggling, between tides, access etc. What are some of the more interesting problems you’ve encountered?
For me, finding caves had to be the initial challenge. There are hundreds upon hundreds of caves dotted around Ireland, and the only way I could tell if it would work was by visiting them.
Most caves in Ireland would be sites of archaeological and anthropological significance, I have had to work closely with environmental agencies to ensure the artwork and events leave no trace on the caves. The biggest one was to devise a system for hanging the speakers, and after months of splitting hairs I developed a simple silicone and wood based technique.
One of the most problematic issues was the sheer amount of liaising, administration and managerial work that has been involved in this project. Within a few months, the project went from working alone in my studio to working in a large studio in the National College of Art and Design with a team of administrators, technicians and sound engineers. The team grew and grew and we have consistently kept high production values for the work.
Anything you didn’t expect?
What I didn’t expect from this project was the sheer amount of support and interest. Throughout the country I have had an overwhelming response at all levels, national and local. Everyone seemed to instantly understand the concept of the work and the experience we are trying to create and want to help. The support from friends and agencies has been so big that it has actually been a bit emotional at times, in the best possible way.
What permission do you need to have an exhibition in a cave? Who did you have to talk to?
All caves are owned by someone so, first and foremost, I had to obtain the permission of the landowner. Some caves are also protected archaeological sites, and others are homes to protected species, such as bats. I had to get permission from local authorities, bat specialists and environmental agencies. I had to then work out support with the festivals and local communities we are collaborating with at each location to provide event support.
This is a collaboration with writer Sue Rainsford and sound editor Ian Dunphy, how long have you know each other?
I have known both Sue and Ian for a number of years now, the collaboration started last summer when we developed the first iteration of the piece. They have blown me away with their talent numerous times throughout this project. We work extremely well and closely together. In developing the script and soundscape of the work we drew inspiration from the historical, geographical, and cultural contexts of each cave site to adapt the work for the tour. Everyone who has been part of this project, from tech assistants, web designers, administrators, photographers, have all been long-time friends of mine. I feel grateful that I have been able to work so closely with my skilled friends on this project.
Who came up with the initial idea?
One day walking the coastline of Portrane I was thinking about, well thinking really, when I came across Smugglers Cave and that’s what sparked the initial idea of creating a consciousness inside the cave. I started developing how that would play out and the logistics of it. However, I came to realise my ambition could only stretch so far, I am not a wordsmith or a talented musician but Sue and Ian are. I asked both of them if they wanted to work on it and the piece grew and developed from there.
The press release has one line that jumped out at me. “We all too often talk about what we think and rarely about how we think.” – How will this project explore the thought process?
Do we think in full sentence structures?; Do we talk to ourselves in nouns and pronouns?; When we are ‘inside our heads’, do we speak in monologue or dialogue?; Do you sound like yourself inside your head or does your inner voice sound like the Queen of England?; Do our thoughts emerge in a linear process or are they sporadic?; Do humans ever stop thinking?
As a visual artist, I think about these questions through making, I learn by making. For Entirely hollow aside from the dark we talked with cognitive psychologists and neuropsychologists and also to people with varying cognitive perceptions. We came up with more questions than answers, but ultimately, that’s what learning is and that’s the aim of the artwork is, for the audience to think of their own processes of thinking.
As the audience travel deep into the cave, the caverns assume a consciousness with words and sounds of the caves inner dialogue fling around across your head from one audio speaker to another achieving one relatable parallel to the processes of the human mind. In the dark environment of the cave, the audience’s aural senses are fully engaged, and without visuals, you go in-between listening to the thoughts of the cave and the thoughts inside your own consciousness.
Has this exhibition made you appreciate the art galleries of Ireland? Do you think you’d attempt something like this again?
I love to make, both in galleries and outside of them. Working in galleries has its own institutional benefits as well as limitations, however so does a cave, which exposes a lot more challenges when it comes to health and safety and producing the work. Even getting electricity into the cave takes a lot of planning. And of course there are limitations, e.g. drilling into the cave’s walls is not an option. So thinking creatively is key in order to work with the conditions of the cave environment, instead of against it.
Would I attempt something as ambitious as this again? Hell yes, but only with the support of the full team. This project has been a big challenge and has only come together with the help of a very close group of friends and without them the initial idea simply could not have become a realised project. And who knows, if we had sponsorship and funding we may even tour this work all over the Europe.
Entirely Hollow Aside from the Dark – Tour listings and partners
– Caves of Keash, Keshcorran Co. Sligo, 27, 28, 29 July, in conjunction with Tread Softly Festival, supported by Sligo County Council, Sligo Arts Service, Creative Ireland, The Fox’s Den Public House
– Lickhill Cave, Skibbereen Co. Cork, 2 & 3 August, in conjunction with Skibbereen Arts Festival, supported by Cork Arts Office, Cork County Council
– Aillwee Cave, The Burren, Co. Clare, 24 & 25 August, in conjunction with Heritage Week, supported by Aillwee Cave, Heritage Week, Clare Arts Office, Clare County Council, Clare Heritage Office, Creative Ireland, Burren and Cliffs Of Moher Geo Park
– Smuggler’s Cave, Portrane, Co. Dublin, 10, 11, 12, 13 September, in conjunction with Bleeding Pig Festival, supported by Fingal Arts Office, Fingal County Council, Lynders Mobile Home Park
– Pollnagollum Cave Boho Waterfall, Enniskillen, Fermanagh, 29 September, supported by Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, Cavan County Council, Cavan Arts Office, Creative Cavan, Creative Ireland, Marble Arch Caves UNESCO Global Geopark, Boho Community Association