On 30th March 2013 Mark Peter Wright made his way to a point in South Gare – a two-and-a-half-mile stretch of reclaimed land to the south of Teesmouth – and stopped. He made a note of the conditions (temperature, wind speed, humidity) and of his own body temperature. At 12pm, he switched on his audio recorder. He remained where he was, writing down the occasional word or thought, for 44 minutes and 30 seconds. Then he left.
Over the course of twelve consecutive months, Wright returned to this exact same metre-square area, recorded sounds, took photographs, and made notes. Now, just over six months later, the resulting words and sounds and data have been published by Corbel Stone Press as Tasked to Hear: a large-format booklet accompanied by 25-minute sound piece. The result is a multi-layered meditation – both on the place itself (its strange mix of birdlife and heavy industry) and on our understanding of place more generally, our desire to situate ourselves within it. Simultaneously beautiful, beguiling and unsettling, Tasked to Hear is also ever so slightly frustrating.
The book itself is a sparse affair: no foreword, introduction or any kind of explanatory text. As Richard Skelton writes in his excellent Q&A with Wright on the Corbel Stone Press website: “There is nothing to ground us, except the work itself, whose very theme is the difficulty of such a task.” Thankfully, the book is also suitably, and reassuringly, repetitive. The left-hand pages contain Wright’s observations and field notes, while each right-hand page consists of two photographs immediately on top of each other and stretching to the edge of the page. One is the sky above, one the ground below: there are no margins. We begin to find our way only in the rhythm of reading.
Instead of rigorous objectivity, Wright includes all the glitches and human error inherent in the recording process.
Accompanying the empirical facts (External Temperature: 8°C; Humidity: 76%) are a series of more ‘literary’ notations, packed with present participles. It is here, in these little scraps of sketched poetics, that the reader begins to find sufficient details for something visual to emerge – however indistinct. Here’s one:
“Shaking, creaking, shimmering close by; the button on my coat flickering amongst
distant pulsations and echoes; the sky quieting amidst the punctuating ark ark ark.”
And then there’s the sound work itself: a carefully edited piece that threads together the many layers of recording into one synchronic entity. As you read, it runs alongside, sometimes a form of support for the text, sometimes a distraction. For long periods a motorway (I think) simply hums away reassuringly in the background. Then the shriek of a seagull, or the regularly spaced bleeps of a reversing lorry. The crash overhead of a military jet or bird calls lost in gusts of wind. Text or audio: suddenly, it becomes unclear where our attention ought to be. My mind begins to wander.
I’m drawn back to the work by Wright’s approach to the technique of field recording. Instead of the rigorous objectivity that might be preferable for, say, an animal behaviourist, Wright includes all the glitches and human error inherent in the process itself. We hear the blip of the recorder, the rustling of papers. Wright zips up his jacket and exhales. This is a mediated experience, he makes clear, and it has been constructed by a human being with his own thoughts and worries.
Tasked to Hear is both an apotheosis of the site-specific and a kind of flattening of the genre under its own weight.
It’s an important aspect of the work, and one reinforced in the booklet by the two final observations on each page: physical and psychological. These help to reorientate the whole process of recording inwards, onto Wright himself. By noting down his own feelings – “tired”, “distracted”, “extreme back pain” – he becomes a presence that both represents and accompanies the reader/listener. As we turn the pages of the book, he turns them with us too.
The cumulative effect is complicated. Tasked to Hear is both an apotheosis of the site-specific and a kind of flattening of the genre under its own weight. “Behind every generalisation,” wrote WG Hoskins in his 1955 book, The Making of the English Landscape, “there lies the infinite variety and beauty of the detail; and it is the detail that matters.” It is this sentiment that has informed the recent swathe of site-specific art and new nature writing. But as Wright’s work shows, when we become too obsessed with the details, when we lose any notion of context, then a place becomes simply a flurry of words and noises and it doesn’t make any sense at all.
On Saturday 25th May, 2013 Wright notes down his psychological observations: “thinking about other things,” he writes. This is for me – so often distracted as my clunky old Dell whirs away under the pressure of a 46MB audio file, wishing from time to time that I was outside like Wright instead of sitting inside, tasked to hear this work – a crucial observation. The nature of human consciousness means that we are always elsewhere, cut off from the world around us by the very phenomenon that allows us to engage with it. Hence that sense of frustration, which Wright explores here with such sensitivity and clarity of thought.
Tasked to Hear is available through Corbel Stone Press.