Nervous Skies
Amelia Bande, Deborah Bower, Mat Fleming & Annette Knol, ‘Nervous Skies’, 2015

‘Unreturned phone calls, impeded intimacies, homesickness for homes we’ve outgrown: for all of us, these fierce longings are familiar.’ In an essay on the stories of Dylan Nice, the literary critic David Winters wrote of the familiarity of the experiences and emotions which permeate the lives of Nice’s characters adding that ‘if the lives […] are narrow, they’re only as narrow as our own’. [1] The unnamed protagonists of Nervous Skies, a visual narrative in film and text by Amelia Bande, Deborah Bower, Mat Fleming and Annette Knol, express a similar set of ‘fierce longings’, anxieties and regrets that are all at once intense, overwhelming, quotidian and banal. Shoplifting in supermarkets, wishing for different weather, remembering arguments, seeing signs and portents in birds and skies, the story is told as a sequence of abstract shapes and colours which flash, flicker and fade alongside a fragmentary textual narrative reading like a lucid dream.

Amelia Bande, Deborah Bower, Mat Fleming & Annette Knol, 'Nervous Skies', 2015, storyboard
Amelia Bande, Deborah Bower, Mat Fleming & Annette Knol, ‘Nervous Skies’, 2015, storyboard

In the exhibition space, visitors stand in the dark behind a row of four equally spaced projectors on wooden trestles, the room divided at waist-level. The slide projectors in the centre are bookended by two 16mm film projectors in an otherwise empty room, black until the click and hum of the carousels spill colour and light across one long wall in four separate presentations. Three of the four projectors throw shapes—all pattern, colour and ornament, one set of static images, two animated. The fourth carries short, aphoristic sentences making up the written component of the work, a story which conceals and reveals in equal measure.

Along with Peacock Lee (2011) and Two Lakes (2012), Nervous Skies is the third in a series of handmade and collaboratively produced camera-less ‘Gel Films’ in which vibrant colour gels are cut, collaged and applied directly onto slides and 16mm film. All three works take their form and technique from early avant-garde cinema, particularly the abstract cinema of film and animation pioneers from Leopold Survage, Walter Ruttman and Ginna-Corra’s hand-painted films to the abstract animations of Viking Eggeling, John and James Whitney, Norman McLaren, Hy Hirsch and, in particular, Len Lye, whose mid-1930s camera-less films pioneered ‘direct animation’—a process of stencilling, painting, and scratching directly onto celluloid.

Deborah Bower, Mat Fleming & Annette Knol, 'Peacock Lee', 2011
Deborah Bower, Mat Fleming & Annette Knol, ‘Peacock Lee’, 2011

If the visual elements of the work are informed primarily by early avant-garde processes and techniques in cinema, the text borrows from parallel experiments in writing, namely the literary rules and games of Dada and Surrealism. As critics Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito have noted, ‘the avant-garde just loves a game, with its rules of engagement and its unknown outcome’. [2] Nervous Skies was written collectively using automatic writing experiments wherein the four artists produced fast, non-stop short texts activated by prompt phrases, not dissimilar to the methods used by André Breton and Philippe Soupault, the originators of Surrealist automatic writing in the 1920s. For this work, the writing emerging from these sessions was then collected, collaged and edited into a single story by Bande, a playwright, who also scripted 2012’s Two Lakes . But where Two Lakes recounts the excitement, youth and energy of burgeoning, intense relationships in a new city, Nervous Skies feels like an elegy for the loss of those things.

Writing of Oulipo, the 1960s French literary movement, and its early twentieth century antecedents, Elkin and Esposito suggest that such ‘literature performs a balancing act between produced and potential work, between what appears on the page and what is suggested beyond it’. So too, for Nervous Skies, the relationship between statement and suggestion is a delicate one. The story works as a sequential narrative, but only just. Much as it was created, the story is recalled in flashes of memory, an outcome of ‘automatic’ stream-of-consciousness flow. The statements, questions and anecdotes appear fleeting and associative rather than plot-driven or tightly structured. Appearing one at a time, epigrammatic lines are tied together loosely to form a whole, their disjointedness echoed in the transition from visual to aural. In the projection we see text, then comes a pause, a click, and a new phrase appears. And so it continues until phrases appear to repeat and the story ends almost as it began.

As our eyes wander from text to image to text and back again, an experiential free association between colour and light, word and image occurs, and we project our own histories, our own stories into and onto the one unfolding before us. Save for the parallel lines zipping across our field of vision or the hallucinatory purple skies which appear alongside the writing describing them, there are few explicit or literal links to be found between the visual and textual. More often, the connection between word and image is allusive, enigmatic or ambiguous, evoking an emotional rather than strictly formal echo between the two modes of expression.

The work might be most explicitly indebted to early avant-garde animation, cinema and literature in terms of its making, but there are also contemporary visual and literary parallels to be drawn from the form and style of Nervous Skies . The most compelling visual comparison perhaps lies with Katy Dove’s animated films of the early 2000s, many of which share an interest in the free-floating, shifting shapes and colours also seen in the Gel Film series. The oscillating, pulsating and mesmeric rhythm of pure graphic form in motion as seen in Dove’s I’m So Ashamed (2001), Luna (2004) or Cruel When Complete (2004) could be seen as pastel-hued precursors to Peacock Lee or Two Lakes. Like these works,Dove’s animations are similarly imbued with a kind of homespun, lo-fi aesthetic, in itself engaging in an art world too often populated by rich, slick, but emotionally hollow production values. Where Bande, Knol, Fleming and Bower collage coloured lighting gels into film strips, Dove’s morphing, pulsing, rotating images look like sugar paper shapes made by children, coloured by felt-tipped pens or Crayola pencils. In both cases, the emotional impact wrought by these simple abstract animations comes as a surprise, whether accompanied by music (Peacock Lee and many of Dove’s works), spoken word (Two Lakes ) or written text (Nervous Skies ). Seen in isolation or in stasis, the shapes and forms of Nervous Skies might also have been lifted from period domestic interiors, anthropomorphised escapees from the Omega Workshops, a Vuillard painting or Marc Camille Chaimowicz-designed wallpaper.

Amelia Bande, Deborah Bower, Mat Fleming & Annette Knol, 'Two Lakes', 2012
Amelia Bande, Deborah Bower, Mat Fleming & Annette Knol, ‘Two Lakes’, 2012

In its confessional, diaristic and intimately gendered tone Nervous Skies ’ raw, nervy account of a love lost sits somewhere between Eileen Myles’ spare, poignant poetry and fiction (collections such as Skies or Snowflake/Different Streets ) and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets . This could be the script of an interior monologue, particularly so as phrases begin to repeat, as though through repetition some order will be made of the mess. A state of grief or mourning is deftly conveyed through the character’s paranoia and her personification of birds, the sky, the wind. Whispers come from shaking bushes, the grass vibrates underneath her, the sky closes in on her, the wind speaks to her, birds follow her. There are aspects of post-punk and/or experimental feminist writing throughout Nervous Skies —the fragmentary, fractured, disjointed style; the lack of a clear linear narrative; the informality of punctuation and phrasing; the corporeal detail and description of bodily sensations; the highly subjective nameless voice; the references to transgression and counter-culture. We might think here of Henry Rollins’ Black Coffee Blues, Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School or the ‘lonely girl phenomenology’ [3] of Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick .

As a portrait of depression, though, the text also shares something of Janice Galloway’s novel The Trick is to Keep Breathing in its mix of prosaic minutiae, domestic detail and psychological disintegration or Faith Wilding’s 1972 performance Waiting, equally mundane and utterly intense. These are emotions and behaviours that are queasily familiar but shameful and rarely confessed. The central, unnamed character of Nervous Skies does lots of waiting. She waits and waits for phone messages, for snow, for her lover to return, for answers to her leaving: ‘I felt absurd and hung onto myself waiting’. While full of self-loathing, blame and regret, she laughs at herself, feels sheepish, disappointed.

Themes of displacement, dislocation and the slippage of time combine and are reflected in the visual abstraction of the animations which flank the projected words, at times frenetic and claustrophobic, at others restful and meditative. The experience is uneasy, anxious and familiar. This is a tale of ‘two girls, so complicit in each others’ lives, so close and impenetrable’ who have been divided, without quite knowing why or how this has happened. Theirs was a bond which was ‘a force of uniqueness envied by others who don’t have another person to whom they might bare their soul’.

Amelia Bande, Deborah Bower, Mat Fleming & Annette Knol, 'Two Lakes', 2012
Amelia Bande, Deborah Bower, Mat Fleming & Annette Knol, ‘Two Lakes’, 2012

There is both a realness and honesty to this work and more than an element of hope, in spite of the dark subject matter. From the artists’ attempt to work in a collective, non-hierarchical manner to the open fetishisation of (almost) obsolete cinematic technology, from their clear delight in making by hand and to their willingness to lay bare unconscious anxieties, fears and regrets, Nervous Skies has integrity and wears its bleeding mind and heart on its sleeve.

Susannah Thompson is an art historian and critic based in Glasgow

[1] Winters, D. (2015) Infinite Fictions, Zero Books, p.88
[2] Elkin, L. & Esposito S. (2012), The End of Oulipo, Zero Books, p. 2