[on the politics of space & cultural interventions]

Côa Valley

Updated: Mar 11


Independent Artist-Researcher

This text discusses the context of a videosonic poem - Côa Valley (6min 28sec; Antony Lyons, 2019) and two related works.

FIG 1 (above): Filming location: Faia Brava, Côa Valley, Portugal: ‘The Biologists Track’

This is one of the most impressive viewing points in this rocky and rugged zone of the Côa River valley. From here, it is possible to see large soaring birds of prey, such as the Griffon Vulture, Egyptian Vulture and Golden Eagle. It also a good place to see and hear smaller birds, such as the Blue Rock Thrush, Eurasian Crag Martin, Red-rumped Swallow, Rock Bunting and several warblers. Also to be found is the plant species-mix typical of the Mediterranean scrublands. Originally this trail was used by shepherds to bring their herds to the steep valley sides. It was abandoned for several decades. More recently, Portuguese biologists and wildlife tourists have used the trail for birdwatching. It crosses an area that was purchased by ATNatureza in 2012,’

Faia Brava Nature Reserve signage text (translated by Antony Lyons)

"I had come from wondrous lands, from landscapes more enchanting than life, but only to myself did I mention these lands, and I said nothing about the landscapes which I saw in my dreams."

Fernando Pessoa - The Book of Disquiet

Place-based creative research involves dynamic, fluid enquiry. For me, this is mycelial and rhizomic in nature - embracing a cluster of approaches under the umbrella term of ‘geopoetic’. Infused with flavours of ethnographic and geographical study, while attuning to more immediate eco-social and political undercurrents and shadows, there is contact with deep (geological) time and cyclical-time patterns. Slow, deep observations of landscape and place can reveal new amalgams, consisting of multiple overlapping pasts, futures and presents/presences. Geopoetics could be described as processes by which rationality and science are reflected in the mirrors, camera obscuras or claude glasses [1] of subjective, imaginative and landscape-situated knowledges. From this perspective, filmic methods are based on the observation of light and darkness (or degrees of shadow), in both technical and psychological senses, juxtaposing the real and imaginary; representational and intuitive.

In the gradually depopulating Côa Valley region of Portugal, we find traces of prehistoric animal rock-engravings located alongside, and influencing, active efforts aimed at conserving endangered species and supporting ‘rewilding’. This was the field-recording site for one of a triptych of long-take video-sonic pieces, all three of which dwell on elemental, weather-related, forces of nature-culture change, disappearance and re-emergence. Traces of the past; portents of the future. Using video as an observation method, and perhaps even a form of cartography, a storm in the valley provided an opportunity to record a particular ‘limbo landscape’[2] atmosphere. In the resultant moving-image work, as cloud slowly envelops the scene, the accompanying torrents of rainwater are palpable. Through watching - and listening - the viewer is encountering some of the flows that have contributed to the formation of this steep-sided, rugged valley. Not imminently threatened with destruction or oblivion, it was however facing inundation by the planned Foz Côa Dam project in the early 1990s. EDP, the Portuguese electricity-generating company began work on a 100m-high dam across a gorge close to where the Côa has its confluence with the much larger Douro River. The project was eventually abandoned, due largely to a campaign of protests to save and protect the hugely significant Palaeolithic rock-art engravings found in the gorge. The 1995 rallying cry (derived from a song by the hip-hop group Black Company) was ’As gravuras não sabem nadar! (The engravings don’t know how to swim!’).

My own aim of capturing the shifting nebulous valley conditions for a ‘long-take’ film was cut short by the mounting vigour of the storm, threatening to flood both me, my companions and my equipment. Coming into collision here are erosional stormwater-flows, river currents, old pastoral-shepherding pathways, new interventionist ‘re-naturing’, serendipity and creative fieldwork. Within the dynamic mesh of activities, there is a blurring between cultural and natural realms. Through this series of elegiac moving-image works [3] (plus related writings and intermedia installation-art), I am contemplating some entangled relationships between topics such as (re)wilding, sanctuary, invasiveness and dark ecologies. Timothy Morton (2016, p.5) describes dark ecology as “ecological awareness, dark-depressing. Yet ecological awareness is also dark-uncanny. And strangely it is dark-sweet.” Each of the triptych of videos exhibits an elemental post-human ambience; and in the more-than-human presences, there are suggestions of feral-ness and ongoingness. Cloud, mist and fog bring us humans into more intimate connection with visceral moistness, miasma or ghostliness. Enveloped in the mist, there can appear to be a suspension of flow and time, awaiting the vectors of rains and streams, the portents of future floods. These nebulous meteorological processes wash and sculpt the landforms as well as human and animal structures and natures. All that is solid melts into water.

FIG 2 (below): Terras da Beira [Lands at the Edge]. Stills from three video-sonic poems, from three landscapes: Cornwall clay-mining area (UK), Orford Ness & lighthouse (UK) and Côa Valley (Portugal).

Nothing is weaker than water,

But when it attacks something hard

Or resistant, then nothing withstands it,

And nothing will alter its way.’

Tao Teh Ching (via Bruce Lee)

The various forms of water are characterized by dynamism and transformation. Neimanis (2014) writes, from a hydro-feminist perspective, that ‘as a lively and unruly substance, water strains against the bounds of its geophysical containments – levees break, skies open, pipes burst - and this wilfulness pertains equally to water’s capture by discourse.’ In The Spell of the Sensuous (1997, p.32), anthropologist-magician David Abram speculates that ‘despite all the mechanical artifacts that now surround us, the world in which we find ourselves before we set out to calculate and measure is not an inert or mechanical object, but a living field, an open and dynamic landscape subject to its own moods and metamorphoses’. Increasingly, the dynamics of material transformation and biological cycling and regeneration are seen as a continuum, ongoing. Also, in Ways of Seeing (1972, p.87), John Berger writes about the way we view landscapes as being ‘ultimately determined by our attitudes to property and exchange’. This introduces the issue of the human desires to grasp, to ‘fix’ or stabilize our surroundings. Fixity is a continuation of status quo, and in one sense, this continuation can be regarded as a form of ‘sustainability’. At play, along with the materiality - and transformation - of things, places, landscapes, there are the intangibles – the values and meanings we impart and invest.

Fig. 3 (below) Stills from the video-essay No Concept (Antony Lyons, 2012)

In 2001 and 2003, I spent periods of time in the valley of the Guadiana River in southern Portugal, before and then very soon after it was flooded by the huge – and controversial – Alqueva Dam/Reservoir project. My main focus then was the impact on the unique ecology of the montado cork-oak forests, which includes the critically endangered Iberian Lynx. Later, in 2011, as artist-in-residence at the Grand Canyon (USA), I again found myself in a close encounter with a dammed landscape – that of the Colorado River, whose over-extracted waters no longer reach the once fertile delta region in Mexico, evocatively described by proto-conservationist Aldo Leopold nearly a century ago. In my video-essay, No Concept [4], based on these two encounters, I contemplated the changes, displacements and sense of loss in the ‘Post Dam-Nation era’ [5], and the entanglements of landscape terrains with human and non-human ecologies.