Côa Valley

ANTONY LYONS

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.

"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

Creative research involves dynamic, fluid enquiry. For me, this is mycelial and rhizomic - 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-time and cyclical-time patterns. Through slow, deep observations of landscape and place, there emerges consideration of multiple overlapping pasts, futures and presents/presences. Geopoetics might be described as a process by which rationality and science are reflected in the mirrors of subjective, imaginative and landscape-situated knowledges. From this perspective, filmic methods encompass contrasting light and shadow, in both technical and psychological senses, juxtaposing the real and imaginary; intuitive and factual; condensing, flowing, soaking-in, leaking-out.

In the now depopulated Côa Valley region, we find prehistoric animal rock-engravings located alongside, and infusing, active efforts aimed at endangered species protection and ‘rewilding’. This was the recording site of one of a triptych of long-take ‘video-sonic poems’; all three dwelling on elemental, weather-related, forces of nature-culture change, disappearance (and re-appearance). Traces of the past; portents of the future. Using video as an observation method, and even a form of cartography, a storm in the valley provided an opportunity to record a particular ‘limbo landscape’ atmosphere. In the resultant moving-image piece, 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 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 the Côa meets the much larger Douro River. The project was soon 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’ was cut short by the mounting vigour of the storm, threatening to flood both me and my equipment. Here we are at the confluence of erosional stormwater-flows, river currents, old pastoral-shepherding pathways and new interventionist ‘re-naturing’. In the mesh of activities, there is a blurring between cultural and natural realms. Through a series of elegiac moving-image works1 (and related writings and intermedia installation-art), I am contemplating the entangled relationships between topics such as (re)wilding, sanctuary, invasiveness and release. Each of the existing triptych of videos exhibits a post-human ambience - elemental and dark; also suggesting 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: Terras da Beira [Lands at the Edge]. Three video-sonic poems from three landscapes: Cornwall clay-mining (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)

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), 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), 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 desire to hold on, to ‘fix’ or stabilise. Fixity is a continuation (of status quo), and in one sense, this continuation can be regarded as ‘sustainability’. At play, along with the materiality - and transformation - of things, places, landscapes, there are the values and meanings we impart - tangible and intangible.


Fig. 3: Still frames from the video-essay No Concept (Antony Lyons, 2012)

In 2001 and again in 2003, I spent time the valley of the Guadiana River in southern Portugal, before and then soon after it was flooded by the huge – and controversial – Alqueva Dam/Reservoir project. My main focus 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 (or damned?) landscape – that of the Colorado River, whose waters no longer reach the once fertile delta region in Mexico, evocatively described by Aldo Leopold nearly a century ago. In the video-essay, No Concept2, based on these two encounters, I contemplated the changes, displacements and sense of loss in the ‘post dam-nation era’, and the entanglements of landscape terrains with human and non-human ecologies.

André Bazin (in What is Cinema?) wrote of the medium: “The film is no longer content to preserve the object, enshrouded as it were in an instant, as the bodies of insects are preserved intact, out of the distant past, in amber…Now, for the first time, the image of things is likewise the image of their duration, change mummified as it were.” Through these works, as well as a reflection on time, time passing, ‘sensitive chaos’3 and fluminism4, what I also wish to highlight is a tension between presence and absence. Of ‘there and not there’. Not just in terms of the landscape and objects depicted, but - with the ‘long take’ method - enabling an audience experience that can tend towards being both present and distant. Alison Butler (2017) describes how – in discussing this aspect of the work of American film-maker James Benning – ‘impressions of immediacy and estrangement, proximity and distance, are combined in a work simultaneously “framed” as an art object and a view of the real world’. And in a highly resonant comment on Beckett’s television play …but the clouds… Sidney Holman suggests that “Clouds seem permanent but are ultimately impermanent; they cannot be touched, yet can be seen; they are nothing more than condensed water, yet remain a symbol of romance, of the imagination beyond practical measurement – they are, in a phrase, at once here and elsewhere."

This highlights a state of ‘in-between-ness’. The landscapes depicted in the video triptych are in-between places (and frequently referred-to as such); but likewise, the human experience in these landscapes has a liminal quality. The past ‘uses’, or even ‘character’, of the places have been swept away, leaving traces that range from isolated ruins to patterns (large and small) within the fabric of the land itself. In all three locations, there is jostling between the old and the new; between control and release; between capital and co-existence. The post-human ambience of the three videos brings to the fore the deep-time biophysical processes. In these vast time-frames continents, geologies, mountains and valleys undergo metamorphosis, leaving slight traces of the recursive theatrics that have occurred on the earth’s surface. This is a geological perspective - or a geo-philosophical one, and in this vein, I will end with the words of Canadian poet Don McKay, who, in his essay ‘Ediacaran and Anthropocene: Poetry As A Reader of Deep Time’ speaks of geopoetry as providing “a crossing point, a bridge over the infamous gulf separating scientific from poetic frames of mind, a gulf which has not served us well, nor the planet we inhabit with so little reverence or grace.” (McKay, 2011)

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY


Abram, David. 1997. The Spell of the Sensuous: perception and language in a more-than-human world. New York: Vintage Books.

Butler, Alison. 2017. ‘13 Ways of Looking at a Lake’. In The Long Take – critical approaches, edited by John Gibbs and Douglas Pye 177-191. London; Palgrave Macmillan.


McKay, Don. 2011. ‘Ediacaran and Anthropocene: Poetry As A Reader of Deep Time’ in The Shell of the Tortoise. Gaspareau Press


Neimanis, Astrida. 2014. ‘Alongside the right to water, a posthumanist feminist imaginary’. Journal of Human Rights and the Environment. 5. 5-24.

The video works and creative research are linked to an academic research project (Heritage Futures www.heritage-futures.org ) and supported by a grant from Arts Council England.


1 As well as Côa Valley (https://vimeo.com/276379794), see also Sky Tip Circumstance (https://vimeo.com/267828721 ) and NebulousNess (https://vimeo.com/243714198 ).

2 https://vimeo.com/51288400

3 The German romantic writer, Novalis called water ‘Das Sensible Chaos’ (The Sensitive Chaos) and Theodor Schwenk wrote a book of the same name. It was also the title of a site-specific intermedia installation by Antony Lyons at Orford Ness, UK, in 2019.

4 https://seasonalight.wordpress.com/2017/01/23/fluminism-as-an-environmental-ethic/ (Ginny Battson)

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