How does nature break the “black box” of the film screen? And how can we form new collectives to curate/ hack the nature documentary as a vernacular form?
GeoHumanities Early Career Research Fellow and PASSENGERFILMS founder Amy Cutler won the national commission from the organisation Live Cinema UK to create a world premiere event at the launch of Sheffield Doc/Fest (the largest documentary festival in the world). This event, developed from her previous Wellcome Trust funded public project of nature documentary re-scoring, Liar Lyre, investigated the production of public concepts of “nature” via different screening practices and broadcasts. Taking place on Saturday the 9th June, the event brought together experimental composers, musicians, geographers, and even an AI to lead new re-inventions of the heroes, villains, sounds and spaces of traditional, popular nature broadcasts. From new drone laments for deep-sea darkness, to the conducting of “feral singing” by the audience, this project is a series of re-animations paying homage to the contexts of nature documentary as produced, invented, and re-invented by live cinema forms.
The programme at Sheffield Doc/Fest included the national, inaugural Live Cinema Summit (8th-9th June), which convened panels and events on “Live Scores and Archives”, “Experiential Cinema”, and “Audience Participation”, as well as roundtables, expanded performances, a sci-fi experiment with the guerrilla geographies of film re-creation in the Sheffield settings of the BBC’s 1984 nuclear apocalypse docudrama Threads, and discussions of Nature’s Nickelodeons and the GeoHumanities at “Meet the Artists” panels on Friday the 8th. Nature’s Nickelodeons itself included two events; a Feral Choir workshop open to all, experimenting with techniques for thinking the nonhuman through vocal improv, followed by the world premiere screening and concert. (Event photos above by Oliver Ibbotson.)
Nature’s Nickelodeons (World Premiere)
Saturday 9th June, Feral Choir workshop 12.15-2.15 and public screening 4pm-5.30pm
The Leadmill, Sheffield, S1 4SE
4PM – 5.30 NATURE’S NICKELODEONS
Experience the nature documentary, but as you’ve never seen or heard it before.
Inspired by an abandoned idea of Walt Disney’s to build natural history cinemas in zoos, experimental composers, musicians and even an AI join filmmaker and Doctor of GeoHumanities Amy Cutler to re-invent the heroes, villains, sounds and spaces of nature broadcasts. We’ll travel through submerged volcanoes, bio-luminescence, flocking birds and swarming insects, accompanied by new performances, from live drone laments to the conducting of “feral singing” by the audience.
Phil Minton’s feral choir will lead the audience in vocal improvisation around swarm footage of locusts, mice, and dying flies; musician and live cinema beatboxer Jason Singh (whose previous residencies include Chester Zoo) will create a new commissioned sound-work for nature’s oddballs, misfits, and mudskippers; Anna Ridler and Amy Cutler will generate a new anthropomorphic nature documentary voiceover by neural network.
MUSIC: saxophonist and composer Nick Roth and improvising musician / computer scientist Panos Ghikas will perform a composition based on the flocking behaviour of birds and bird flocking simulators in response to nature documentaries which use inflight cameras to track migrating geese. Áine O’Dwyer (whose albums include Locusts, 2016, and Beast Diaries, 2017) will use voice and harp to create ceremonial music for the web spinning, death and mating of silk spinner spiders; and Vibracathedral Orchestra’s Bridget Hayden (whose albums include A Siren Blares in An Indifferent Ocean, 2011, and Shipwrecked, 2013) will create synth compositions and reconfigured blues exploring the subterranean spaces of deep sea nature documentary, from slo-mo shoals to drowned volcanoes.
12.15PM – 2.15 FERAL CHOIR WORKSHOP
Any attendee of the screening is also welcome to participate in the amateur Feral Choir and attend a free workshop of training beforehand in improvised “feral” vocal techniques inspired by insect swarms: sign up here or by emailing email@example.com. The Feral Choir is a legendary vocal experience for those who sing, for those who do not sing and for those who will never sing. Led by the unique and extraordinary singer and improvisation musician Phil Minton, the feral choir is a series of vocal workshops in which choirs are formed on the day, concluding with a public performance of an orchestra of improvised noise. It often focusses on unloved and unwanted sounds – hence it being used to create brand new scores for the mice and locusts and unloved, invasive natures of nature documentary.
The free two-hour workshop from 12.15 – 2.15 at the Leadmill in feral voice techniques will culminate in the mini-concert at the world premiere of Nature’s Nickelodeons, 4-5.30pm on the same day – one of the Special Events at Sheffield Documentary Festival. This public performance will involve around 12 minutes of group improvisation to footage of swarms, locusts, and feral mice overrunning human habitations.
No previous experience of vocal improv is necessary, and this is open to anyone who takes a delight in the freedom to experiment – particularly around ideas of breaking out of habitual modes of human voice to explore all kinds of breathing and vocal techniques to re-imagine nonhuman lives and swarming insects.
Re-Animating Nature as Live Cinema
The modern nature documentary has long been one of the most loved – and most successful – examples of British broadcasting. Moments from Planet Earth II and Blue Planet, such as the bloodcurdling iguana and snake chase scene scored by Hans Zimmer and declared by The Mirror to have become the nation’s “stuff of nightmares”, are live tweeted by thousands of people and rapidly become the TV events of the year. They are also increasingly being loudly argued over in the public eye – regarding bitter issues of authenticity and artifice, which have dogged the nature documentary since its origins (and through its phases of history, from men dressed in gorilla suits for colonial adventure films of the 1920s, to the staged intimacy of science films such as The Private Life of Gannets). From the titillating and the trashy, to the tug on the heart-strings, it’s hard to think of a format which revolves more around the manipulation of audience appeal – including comic and emotional spectacles, melodrama, and dazzling special effects. Why is it so important to intervene in the idea of the nature documentary – often the most passively consumed form of nature narrative – and draw attention back to its social life as, first and foremost, a live experience?
This event partly builds on Amy’s RGS-IBG postgraduate conference workshop which was titled “Re-animating Nature as Live Cinema”. As much as the “white cube” of the gallery space, we need to break out of the “black box” of the film screen. Amy’s workshop explored the production of immersive and live cinema events provoking and changing the public conversation around ideas of space, geography, nature, and nonhuman others. In particular it focussed on the nature documentary as a hybrid genre format, and as produced by diverse screening practices: mobile cinema; live music; 3D spectacles; DIY cinema; IMAX technologies; national television events; live-streaming; and even the history of zoo cinemas and theme parks, including the audio-animatronic installations at the Spaceship Earth cinema. How can we intervene in these super-popular divergent forms in our writing, our curating, and our work as geographers?