Tripping into Nature: An Interview with Daniel & Clara
The British filmmakers Daniel and Clara say they’ve discarded their nationality, surnames, and gender to work as “one artist split in two human forms.” From bases in the countryside in Portugal and, more recently, the U.K., their work expresses a distinctly rural aesthetic. Even at their most direct, Daniel and Clara’s films avoid simple documentation. They communicate the complexities of the experiences they depict, even if those experiences are as banal as taking a walk by the sea.
Their latest feature, Notes from a Journey (2019), hints at being an avant-garde folk-horror film, if that sense of horror is also tinged with the possibility of joy. The directors use music, sound design, editing, and color to point out the limits of our perception and the potential for a sublime connection with nature. Shot during a two-week journey through the U.K., ending at the stone circle of Avebury, it never lets the spectator get comfortable. The image of a forest lies hidden behind bright red tinting, while the screen periodically turns so white or dark that we can’t see a thing. It does include a few scenes of straightforward documentation of Daniel and Clara traveling and recording sound, but even these scenes seem uncanny in context. Sound, rather than image, is the thread that carries the film along, although it’s not a linear one. It’s an exciting follow-up to their five-part series of short films, Exteriors (2017), which takes their tendencies towards abstraction into something new and harder to pin down. Notes from a Journey is both foreboding and beautiful.
This interview was conducted through email, with Daniel and Clara responding to my questions with written answers.
“Revisiting” (2019) seems to create a visionary experience of immersion in nature, but it also keeps reminding the spectator how mediated this experience is. We see people taking photos of the stone circle, as well as pictures of it printed out next to a computer. Why did you include all these references?
“Revisiting” was made during our second visit to the stone circle of Avebury in Wiltshire. Our first visit was in 2017 during a two-week tour around the U.K., which resulted in making our feature film Notes from a Journey. Avebury has had a significant impact on our lives and work, and is in part the reason why we moved back to the U.K. after several years of living in Portugal. The experience we had there was no less than life changing and has directed the focus of our creative practice since. So “Revisiting” is a film about going back to this place of personal significance, looking and experiencing place, and an attempt to express the feeling of returning there.
We are really interested in the nature of experience, and in our work, we are often exploring how to express the experience of experiencing in all its complexity and layers, particularly in relationship to place. When we encounter a place, our experience of it is never one-dimensional; it is not simply a case of objectively observing as if we’re an impassive mechanical device. What we call our experience is built up of layers of complex stimuli, both external and internal.
There are the physical sensations caused by the temperature and weather, and also physical sensations within yourself, whether you are hungry or have just eaten, or if you are ill, have any aches, pains, or all manner of other bodily sensations. Your emotional state also colors the way you react to the place. These will all blend in with the fleeting thoughts that rush through your mind, as well as the personal and cultural associations of the place. All of these things are in a dance in which inner and outer reality seamlessly merge together. In our work, we have been exploring ways to become more conscious of all of these dimensions of experience, and how they play into our perception of what reality is.
Which then brings us to the inclusion of the image-making tools within the work. As our experience of making a film about returning to Avebury centered around the act of looking through cameras and creating images, it felt appropriate to include this on screen.
How did you decide to shoot the Exteriors series on VHS, which gave it a smeared, glitchy quality?
We are interested in consciousness, particularly how art can help us be fully present in the moment while simultaneously aware that reality is a construct that we are participating in creating. When we work with images, whether still or moving, we like to draw attention to the imageness of the image, to emphasize the artifice in the device and the material. But this isn’t simply for intellectual detachment; it isn’t a structural strategy. We do hope to create work that has a dual nature, both detached and immersive, as if we are both lost in a dream and observing it from outside at the same time.
When we work with photographic images in particular, we want to push them to a place where they cease being documents of something, to the point where they become things in themselves. We hope to make work that isn’t only about the subject but that is also an experience for the viewer, a first-person encounter with the work. When watching something filmed on VHS, one becomes very aware of the recording device, very conscious of its limits as an accurate depiction of external reality. But it is also a beautiful, painterly, and hypnotic kind of image. When staring at the shifting colors and flickering images, you get sucked in. For us, it is a medium that can express well our interest in a dual experience of reality.
Your choice to put electronic music over the last few minutes of “EXT. WAVES” (2017), and cut the sound during parts of “EXT. FIRE AT FAIRLIGHT GLEN” (2017), push the films towards abstraction that made me forget the literal nature of what I was seeing. Did you ever plan to use live sound all the way through?
You are right that the sound choices in those films have made them more abstract. The way we use sound is the same way we use images, as something that activates experience, but also with an awareness of it as an artifice. We are always amazed at how subtly sound can alter the experience of an image; sound can overpower it and flatten it, or sound can breathe life into it. Sound is even more powerful than the image in guiding the viewer through a film and establishing the reality of the experience. In a way, it works more imperceptibly; it impacts our bodily perception, our visceral perception of what reality is.
We always shoot our films silently, and edit image and sound separately so we can have more control of how they interact. Sometimes the sound goes close to the image, seeming to synchronize, but then at other times it goes away from the image, as though there are several realities existing at the same time.
There’s no composer credit on your films. Did you write the music yourself?
Our early films were often made in collaboration with musicians and sound artists, but since 2016, we began making the sound and music ourselves. This was partly due to working more quickly, and on more than one project at once, and the need to be able to jump freely between different projects when creativity called, so it became impractical to work with others. We are not trained musicians, but we have developed some personal strategies to create music, often treating it more as sound and image than score.
The images of a forest behind red tinting can be seen in Notes from a Journey. But I kept wondering if the faint images I perceived behind the white screen were optical illusions. Is that extreme light covering something up?
We call those sequences in Notes from A Journey the color fields: faint shots of landscapes barely visible through a digitally created flat field of bright red, blue, white, or black. When we first created them, watching a full sequence back in the darkness of our studio was a shock to our retinas. The extreme color fields push our eyes to the limits of perception in which the image is so hard to see that we doubt what is there. We question whether what we see is on screen or an effect of the colored light on our eyes. Of course, it is both, an intermingling of stimuli and physical mechanisms that is then translated by the brain. Watching these moments of extreme color fields in the dark, one can become aware of how our eyes are reacting, and also how the mind is attempting to make sense of what it sees, how it reads the tiniest glimpse of an image and fills in the blanks — building a picture from the vaguest hint. This fascinates us, to be in the experience and to observe it at the same time.
The interplay between image and sound in Notes from a Journey is very intricate. How long did the editing take, and how much of it did you spend working on that aspect of the film?
Notes from a Journey was edited over two years, but most of that time was spent on other projects. We would have short bursts of working on it, but then would need to step away. It took a long time for us to find the right approach to the film. We like to work on several projects at once. When one reaches a moment of standstill, we move across to something else. We find it helps creativity flow better. Often when we return to look back at a work in progress, we can easily solve whatever it was that was causing us trouble before.
We edited the film silently and had the edit locked before starting on the soundtrack. Often this part of the process is quicker for us. The sound and music of Notes from a Journey was created over one month using a mix of field recordings, as well as sounds recorded in our home. Lacking a sound studio, we hung blankets around a cupboard and created a makeshift sound booth, where we recorded all the Foley and body sounds.
Your films have overtones of pantheism and a hint of occult ritual. Do you follow any particular spiritual or religious belief system, and if so, how is it tied to your interest in rural areas and nature imagery?
We follow the creative spirit wherever it takes us, but we don’t follow any external spiritual structures. In the early years of our collaboration, our focus was more on the inner experience and interior visions. We spent a lot of time investigating the images from our dreams and the workings of the imagination, and using these investigations to inform our practice. More recently, this solely inward gaze has shifted to more of a dialogue between these internal images and the places we are in, an engagement we can best describe as seeing with one eye open, looking out; and one eye closed, looking in. But we have always been strongly attracted to the countryside and natural spaces, especially those where the human element is present but feels somehow mysterious or out of time. It is there that our fantasies can play out, where our dreams and the landscape intermingle. For us, the landscape is not a thing in itself out there, it is in us too — as we encounter it, we encounter our projections. To respond to it through image making is to go on a journey of the self, of perception.
You’ve created a website, Moving Image Artists, to help explain your work and write about your colleagues, especially experimental filmmakers who are also working with nature imagery. Much earlier, you published a zine in which you wrote about film. Have you been gratified by the reaction MIA has received?
MIA was born from a need, a need of our own and our friends who work with moving image, those of us making work that exists in the space between gallery and cinema but doesn’t conform to pre-existing theoretical frameworks. When we moved back to the U.K. in 2019, we were looking for a place where artists could come together, share ideas, and work in a spirit of openness and collaboration without any hierarchical gatekeeping. Such a place didn’t exist so we had to create it. We started the Moving Image Salon, which is a monthly meeting for artists working in all forms of moving image — whether they’ve been working for many years or are just starting, whether they are making experimental film, video art, expanded cinema, artist feature films, etc. They are all welcome. We have featured guests each month, as well as an open platform for anybody to show work.
We are pleased that we decided to do this. We had no idea how popular it was going to be, and we have met so many wonderful and inspiring artists through it. We have been delighted that so many others find it a useful and inspiring space too. A community has started to form around it, with collaborations and cross-pollination emerging from the discussions and encounters. The online magazine is there to serve as a platform for artists writing about their own work, share their research and processes, or interview other artists. We see it as a way to document and share what is happening now in contemporary moving-image art.
During the current lockdown, the only way that people can see your work is on home monitors, which are often fairly small computer screens. (I watched them on my laptop.) Given that they frequently play with the limits of darkness and our perception, how do you think the experience of seeing them in that context works? Have you had many opportunities to show Notes from a Journey theatrically?
So far, Notes from a Journey has screened at Rencontres Internationales in Paris, the Slow Film Festival in the U.K., and Festival Ecrã at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio. This is not enough, but we’re very glad we had at least these opportunities before the coronavirus pandemic hit the world and lockdown started. Due to this, unfortunately, all of our upcoming screenings were cancelled, and we’re not sure yet when we’ll be able to screen again in a cinema space. Notes from a Journey is not designed for viewing on the home screen, but for the moment, we are happy that the film is out there on a platform like Kinoscope so people can have access to it. We know the film presents a challenging experience to view at home, but we’ve been positively surprised with the insightful and rich responses we’ve had to the film, so we feel there is still something that one can gain from viewing it this way. It won’t be the same as a cinema experience, but it becomes something else. We would recommend that people view it in the dark with headphones, or with the sound very loud, to have the full effect!
What is your latest project? How far along are you on it?
We are spending lockdown on Mersea Island on the Essex coast. We are working on a few projects that are keeping us sane, safe, and creative during this time, some partly in response to the situation.
We have a mail art project, a series of letters that we send out to friends, subscribers, and a few strangers. We’ve been doing this for the past year, but it has become an increasingly important part of our work now that we find ourselves in isolation. Since everything is going online, it is important for us to find ways to create a physical connection — sending letters has this, a material work sent directly from our hands to the viewers.
We are also developing a new moving-image installation that is in the early stages. It’s being filmed on Mersea Island, and it’s very much inspired by hedges, thorns, undergrowth, and the empty pathways along the fields and woods around the island — but we’re just beginning so anything could happen! You can keep in the loop here: https://www.instagram.com/daniel_and_clara
Daniel & Clara’s Notes from a Journey is now streaming on Kinoscope.
Moving Image Artists: https://movingimageartists.co.uk/
Daniel & Clara’s website: https://daniel-clara.co.uk/
Top image: “Notes from a Journey,” Daniel & Clara