Hymn to the Sun
I like to be away from home at this time of the year. In fact, out of the last eight, I’ve celebrated only two New Year's Eves in Scotland. This year, I can't travel. Pathologising it slightly, which I’m prone to do, I might have been running away from loss and using it to divert me from the pain, and from attending to my needs. But, anyway, last year I travelled to Zürich then Rorschach, in Switzerland, just after Christmas, and then to Hamburg for New Year, and in each place I stayed with friends. I had worked in Zürich over the millennium, quite literally, only taking a dinner break from 2300 until 0030, and then went back to the office, where, contrary to popular myth, we found and fixed a millennium bug that would have caused a significant headache for our client - a major Swiss investment bank. This time, however, it was all for pleasure and I travelled up to Rorschach on the train with my friend Fabienne and her infant - her partner Pat was travelling up to meet us later. Fabienne and Pat had kindly invited me to stay with them. I love our late night conversations.
In Rorschach, I had an exciting time at the Treppenhaus, where my friend Sam and his new band The Alroys played their debut show, and afterwards another local band, of 26 years vintage The Roman Games played a set. Unknown to me, Pat had mentioned to Roman that I’d been enjoying karaoke, so Roman asked me to join them on stage to sing a Psychedelic Furs song, ‘Love, My Way’. Although I’d had plenty of karaoke practice, the thought of singing with the band petrified me, but a voice in my head said ‘Listen. You’ve always wanted to do this. This is the time of your life.’ So I bounded up onto the stage and once I’d warmed up, I felt exhilarated. In fact Roman made several attempts to wind down the song, long before I noticed and eventually shut up. As I said earlier, these trips might be about running away from myself, but they also open me to new experiences, create new work, and blow away the cobwebs. And it’s invigorating, taking psychological risks, dealing with the anxiety and enjoying the rewards. The self-affirmation. In this case, I also got hugs from a couple of grateful audience members. And, Dear Reader - I like hugs.
Northwards, then, to Hamburg, where I’d been making a film for a few years, and where I often stayed with Catrin, Rick and Caspar - my home from home. I’d been invited to a New Year’s party at a friend’s place, and although I can speak a little German, I enjoyed being amongst forty, or so, native German speakers, letting the conversation flow over me, tuning in and out, people-watching, and occasionally getting involved more directly when it felt right.
I left there at around 0400 on New Years Day, grabbed a bottle of 0% beer from the nearby kiosk, and set off with my headphones on, wandering around the streets of St Pauli until dawn, bumping into fellow-revellers, my nostrils filled with firework fumes, and my body tingling with joy and anticipation for the year ahead.
The year before, though, I'd been distressed, and felt lonely. In early spring, I’d broken off a meaningful and significant relationship, which had run its course, but I held on tightly to the grief. It felt like a change of scenery might help, so I booked a flight to Los Angeles, and planned to, at least, spend a few days near the beach, and perhaps make some experimental films to bring home. And when I got home, I hoped to have left my grief behind, in LA.
Usually, when I travel, I prefer to rent either hotel rooms or self-contained accommodation but this time I wanted to book places to share. I wanted to make new connections. There’s no better feeling than striking up a new friendship and maintaining it through time and distance. And I felt the need to connect.
My first port of call was Playa del Rey, where I took a room in an apartment, sharing with the host, a Russian émigré, who’d arrived in LA ten years previously, via Sydney, Australia. We got on like a house on fire, teasing each other about our strong accents, and chatting about Sydney, since I’d also lived there in the early 1990’s. We’d hoped to socialise together before I left, but she too was busy surfing, I bumped into a business associate, and some work had also got in the way. A few days later I packed my gear, said goodbye, and left for Las Vegas, Nevada. I stopped my rented, bottle green, VW Beetle en route, to book a hotel room for a couple of days, and to make plans to meet my pal Ashlee, who was traveling over from Utah.
My plan for Vegas was simple, but I soon discovered that the execution was complex and fraught with stress. I wanted to film some of the beautiful landscape outside the city limits, from the car on New Years day, and on New Years eve, whilst in the city, film my fellow celebrants at the fireworks display. So why the stress? Well I mentioned that the car was a VW Beetle and I’m certain that a car with a more rounded engine hood simply does not exist. The suction cups of my camera rig struggled to grip on the near-spherical bodywork. Bear in mind that my camera isn’t a tiny ‘action cam’ but a 10kg professional video camera, with a sizeable lens, filters, battery packs, and so on, and you’ll feel the gravity of the situation. But, I fastened the straps, pumped up the suction cups, checked, checked, and checked again, and drove around the car park until I was sure the rig was tight. Practice run complete, I derigged and prepared for my trip to ‘the strip’, that night.
Of course, a professional camera and lens, two-foot-long, and with a heavy tripod, is always going to attract attention, and given that Las Vegas was still reeling from a terrorist attack a few years before, it captured the gaze of every law enforcement officer at each and every checkpoint between the city limits and the strip. Good-natured and thorough, the officers accepted my submission that the lens wasn’t a conventional weapon, that I was an artist, and they waved me on to the next checkpoint until I finally made it into the clear and took my position, embedded in the 400,000 strong throng, holding my breath for the fireworks.
Tension mounted. The wind rose, gusted, and tannoyed announcements suggested the event might be cancelled, but as the crowd grew more restless, and downed more drinks from ever more elaborate plastic vessels, the wind dropped again, and as the final countdown began, I raised my lens and hit record.
My main motivation for filming the party-goers was that for years I’d become increasingly aware of more and more people filming events on smartphones. Some would record lengthy segments and viewed most of the proceedings at arms length, through a bouncing, trembling, 5” diagonal screen. Others, I'd watched wandering through galleries, barely taking time to snap a picture before they moved on to the next exhibit on the list. A few years before, I’d even toyed with the idea of completing a practice-based, film PhD on human relationships and how they’re now mediated through devices and the algorithms of large, tax avoiding, tech-heavy, advertising giants. I reckoned that by openly filming people during the fireworks display, when several TV crews were doing the same, and where people were quite obviously in a public place, I could easily gain consent, face-to-face, and it would provide me with a unique perspective. Of course I was filming them whist they were filming me, which generated some fun exchanges.
As well as the audience's experience, I was keen to better understand my own experience. For example, I often experience a mental flow state when I’m filming, and I feel the sensation of physically falling, a visceral ecstacy, which happens especially when I’m filming human faces. I experience this when I’m making commercial videos too, as well as art work. I wanted to feel this again, and see if I could transform this sensation to the viewer.
So, the fireworks died out, the party died down, and I made it back to the hotel room, just managing to dodge a brawl between party goers and police as I was leaving the strip. I thawed out my fingers and reviewed my work through bleary eyes. I'd captured some interesting shots - great. I backed up the files, packed, retired for the night, left early the next morning, and after a three day stay in a converted factory unit in Downtown Los Angeles, taking in lots of art, walking for miles and miles, and winessing a surprising, inspiring encounter in Venice, I arrived home to Glasgow. It was early, dark, cold and damp. I landed with a bump.
18 months later, Vegas is long forgotten and I was sitting at the desk in my studio working on my latest feature length documentary ‘It’s Not All Rock & Roll’, when a message arrived from Glasgow-based composer Kenny Inglis, with whom I’d been made aware of by Angela Slaven, my friend and editor. Kenny and I spoke on the phone and he asked me if I’d consider making a video for a new piece of music. When I listened to his track my mind flashed straight back to Vegas. Kenny’s grumbling, sinister music, a mix of traditional and electronic instruments, resonated with my ideas about relationships being device-mediated, and how this might somehow pollute their natural purity. And I remembered how the partygoers were in awe of the artificial suns in the otherwise dark sky, when just outside the city limits - the natural world basked, unmediated, in the sun’s wintery glow. I could see how the music - slow-changing and rhythmic - would match the impedance of my shots, if they were slowed down and drawn out. But despite my initial excitement, I needed to complete the feature documentary’s audio mix and it wasn’t until several months later when I could finally concentrate on the video again. I buckled down one free weekend, quickly cut a sequence, and I iterated over another ten or more versions that weekend. I was so absorbed I barely left my desk to eat.
As I write this, we've just completed another full orbit of the sun, and it's 2021. I’m home now, alone, and I have everything I need, right here.
Enjoy the video, Imperfect Stranger / Hymn to the Sun, and in 2021, I pray that your universe provides you with everything that you need.