[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.

In 1967, André Bazin 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 passing, ‘sensitive chaos’ [6] and fluminism [7] (Battson, 2018, p.28) what I also wish to contemplate is a tension between presence and absence. Of ‘there and not there’; of the ‘trace’ of something made evident through its absence. Not just in terms of the landscape and objects depicted, but - via the ‘long take’ method - enabling an audience experience that can tend towards being both intimate 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… Holman (1992, p.77) 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."

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 former ‘uses’, or even ‘character’, of the places have been swept away, leaving traces that range from isolated ruins to patterns – micro and macro - within the fabric of the land itself. In all three locations, there is a jostling between the old and the new; between control and release; between capital and co-existence. The post-human ambience of the three videos serves to forefront the journey of deep-time biophysical processes. Over these vast time-frames continents, geologies, mountains and valleys undergo metamorphoses, leaving slight traces of the recursive and fractal 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, p.10).


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


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]  A convex black mirror once used by landscape painters to view a scene. Named for Claude Lorrain, a 17th-century landscape painter, whose name became synonymous with the picturesque aesthetic.

[2] The title of a site-specific installation by Antony Lyons in Cornwall (UK) in 2018.

[3]  As well as ‘Côa Valley’ (https://vimeo.com/378012906 ), see also ‘Sky Tip Circumstance’ (https://vimeo.com/267828721 ) and ‘NebulousNess’ (https://vimeo.com/243714198 ).

[4]  https://vimeo.com/51288400

[5]  A phrase used by Jonathan Waterman in Running Dry: A journey from Source to Sea Down the Colorado River (2010) National Geographic Books.

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

[7] https://seasonalight.com/2020/02/02/fluminismo-el-libro-a-beautiful-collaboration/ Battson’s treatise and narrative on Fluminism is published in Spanish as a 100-page book ‘Fluminismo’ (2020) by Ediciones del Genal.


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

Battson, Ginny. 2018. Love and ecology as an integrative force for good and as resistance to the commodification of nature and planetary harms: Introducing Fluminism, University of Wales Trinity Saint David Lampeter. MA Applied Philosophy.

Bazin, André. 1967. ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’. In What is Cinema? Volume 1, edited by Hugh Gray 9-16. Berkeley; University of California Press. (originally published as ‘L’ontologie de l’image photographique. Les problems de la peinture. Confluences, 1945)

Berger, John. 1972. Ways of Seeing. London: BBC; Penguin.

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.

Homan, Sidney. 1992. Filming Beckett's Television Plays: A Director's Experience. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press.

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

Morton, Timothy. 2016. Dark Ecology. New York, Columbia University Press.

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