I wonder what my grandfather was thinking as he landed on this beach, sometime between 0725 and midnight on 6th June 1944. His ghost haunts my doctoral project, and I sometimes ask myself if it is all a convoluted attempt to get to know someone who has long been lost to me. I took this image with my feet in the sea, approximately in the position he would have come ashore.
Site Reports is a series of single-page documents deriving from the military term ‘sit-rep’, a report on the current situation. My Site Report from Gold Beach contains several photographs, a rubbing of the plaque on the small shelter (tucked behind the white van) where a Victoria Cross was won, a textual account of what I saw and what I felt, and some computer print-outs of photographs. It is the most recent in an extensive collection of reports that began during the first days of my doctoral research. The varied nature of the sites meant that for a long time it was just an activity without clear intention, something that I did, something that was unexplained. I did not really understand what I was doing and I came to believe that it was a false trail, like so much upon my way. I connected them with WG Sebald’s accounts of walks through my beloved home county (Sebald, 1998), a trail of homesickness and nostalgia. I detected in them an attempt to recover a history of East Anglia’s involvement as part of air-carrier Britain that was once very clearly written on the landscape. Many of the visits took place in East Anglia, as I attempted to uncover the hundreds of small airfields that had existed during World War II – and at an early stage this was a factor in my mis-recognition of the work. I became fascinated by a range of websites such as www.28dayslater.co.uk, which bill themselves as urban exploration forums – sites where you can post images of what you may not really be allowed to see, although the cited example does differentiate between ‘permission’ and ‘gonzo’ visits. I was keenly aware that though the aims of and approaches common to site documentation on these websites were not ones that I shared, there was a formal element that I found useful as I sought to create in my own images the prevailing sense of being a dispatch. I knew that they were completely unlike a military dispatch, and began to wonder whether they might be a dispatch from an artistic ‘front-line’.
Following my Terra Foundation residency, where a series of studio visits from art historians had encouraged me to question anthropological and ethnographic themes within my practice, I began to understand these small, unconsidered documents, and the constant drive to document and ‘collect’ these locations and experiences. I had been using the term ‘sit-rep’ about these pieces for some time, but it was only when I physically saw them all printed out, rather than as computer files, that I understood their connection/function and started calling them Site Reports. The Site Reports differ significantly in content, though my experience and knowledge of the site is a binding factor. Some, like the report on Gold Beach are closely connected with my personal history. Others are essentially voyages of discovery, such as the report on Walnut Tree Prison Yard in Philadelphia, where I tracked down relevant sites using an eighteenth-century map, and found the landing-site of the first American flight in an unmarked plot next to a Wal-Mart. What each of the reports does, however, is chart and record a process of detection work.
If I were to describe my art works in military terms, Site Reports would be the intelligence work, the place where unrelated things are all assessed for patterns (and of course, one Site Report does include Bletchley Park). From them, I have learnt aspects of intelligence collection, and how those techniques might be echoed and mirrored in studio art practice. There is a clear difference between what I perceive is the ‘innocence’ of the early reports, and the deliberation of the more recent reports. It is hard to resist returning to those earlier documents to ‘correct’ them, but to do so would be to destroy them as evidence of learning.
Site Report: Blue Danube (2011) features in The Nuclear Culture Sourcebook (ed Ele Carpenter, Black Dog, 2016).