Emma Dove: through the lens and beyond

A person in the American palliative world that I much admire, once told me she never ignored an enquiry from someone who wanted to make a connection with her work. For who knows what may come of it? The approach is one I have tried to emulate over the years, though it seems somewhat at odds with the instrumental ‘work smart’ ethos that pervades so many organisations today and is unsympathetic to serendipity. So when out of the blue I received an email in autumn 2018 from a person interested in a new project I was developing with colleagues in Japan, we arranged to meet at short notice, just before she was due to fly out to Tokyo. The person was Emma Dove. The meeting place was Thomas Tosh, already featured in these interviews.

Over coffee and scones and with my nine year old daughter listening-in attentively, I learned something of Emma’s background, skills and interests. Trained in film and with a strong interest in photography, she had been drawn to a concern with end of life issues as a result of her personal experience. Working on an arts project with collaborators in Scotland and Japan, she was interested in death cafes, cultural representations of dying and death and the ways in which art might contribute to debate and understanding.

I was immediately impressed by her thoughtful approach. There was also a lot of overlap with my own work at the time and with the team of researchers and students we had assembled in the University of Glasgow, under the banner of the End of Life Studies Group, and based in Dumfries. Quite quickly we were in discussions about collaboration.

I introduced Emma to my collaborator in Japan, a Professor of Philosophy in Shizuoka. A week or so later he met with her at a death cafe in Tokyo, and generally made introductions and connections. Soon after her return, Emma filmed the opening of an exhibition by the Scottish artist Norman Gilbert, showing drawings he had made of his wife as she lay dying in hospital and which had been organised by Dr Naomi Richards in our group.

In the months that followed, Emma was filming visiting speakers at the Crichton Campus and then covered an extended workshop with Japanese researchers working with us on our Mitori Project. She also had the inspired idea of holding a special lunch and afternoon event at the Allanton Peace Sanctuary, where we were able to build on its Japanese connections and indeed learn about a Maggie’s inspired cancer support centre in Fuji City, which our team went on to visit when we spent time in Japan the following year.

In short, that coffee in Thomas Tosh led to some very worthwhile activities. I found Emma to be generous with her expertise, even taking time to mentor one of our team in film-making practice. Her editing of lengthy filmed discussions and debates was often inspired. I was so impressed with her approach that as our Japanese project concluded, I was able to give her a creative commission to explore some of the dimensions we had studied, comparing end of life experiences in the UK and Japan. Going beyond the classic academic documentary, she could bring her own perspectives and influences in an experimental work shaped by diverse influences. That film is in the final stages of editing and is eagerly awaited.

So when continuing here my series of interviews with inspiring people living and working in Dumfries and Galloway, Emma was a natural choice. Her responses to my questions are eloquent and reflective. They offer a fascinating insight into the working life and collaborations of a young person following her own creative path.

  1. How did your first come to live in Dumfries and Galloway?

My partner Mark and I moved to Dumfries & Galloway from Glasgow in 2014 to work on a six month artist residency with The Stove in Dumfries. The project was very open in scope, the only stipulations being to engage with the community and to make new work that would be part of the opening of The Stove’s premises at 100 High St. We thought the best way to do both would be to move down. We planned for the move to be temporary, but seven years later we’re still here, so I think we’re staying.

2. What education and training have you had to equip you for your work?

I remember when I was in high school I was fascinated by the ‘behind scenes’ of things. My big sister Sarah worked in theatre at the time and I sometimes visited her backstage at Eden Court in Inverness and watched ballet productions from the wings. I loved seeing the workings of it all – the dancers waiting to perform, the backstage staff cueing up each scene. A few years later, an opportunity arose to work on a film project with mentoring from a local production company in Cromarty on The Black Isle, where I grew up. After that, I decided I wanted to work in film production. I went to Stirling University and studied Film & Media, also taking Psychology as an elective – an interest that has endured and that I think is closely and inevitably tied to filmmaking. I spent six months of my third year on exchange at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, where I took an experimental film course. This really made me think about the tropes and conventions of filmic storytelling, and encouraged me to begin exploring more avant-garde ways of working with sound and image. 

3. How would you describe the work you do?

I’m often working on several projects at once, and I also work part-time as Film Programme Coordinator at CAMPLE LINE – an arts organisation just outside Thornhill. 

All of my work tends to involve an element of collaboration or community engagement (although there are certainly days when it feels like all of my work is just one never ending stream of emails). But working with people is very important to me. It’s always such a privilege to work with and learn from others, and it has allowed me to work on certain projects and travel to certain places that I could never have imagined getting to if just working solo. I also find it more rewarding to develop new work with others – there is an intermingling of different skills, ideas and experiences which I generally find always add up to more than the sum of their parts. 

Research is also important – research in quite a fluid, informal sense. In my role at CAMPLE LINE I am often researching films, thinking about film programmes, and contacting filmmakers and distributors in order to arrange screenings and Q&A events. This time last year – in the great ‘pivot’ to online forms of delivery – much of my time was spent researching various online platforms and thinking about ways that we could continue to connect with our local communities whilst unable to meet in person. 

4.  What are the core interests and values that underpin your work?

I often wonder what connects everything I do, and recently realised that at the core of it all is thinking about representation. This might sound obvious, but you can get so tied up in the details of what you do that sometimes it’s hard to see what ties it all together. But really it all goes back to those days watching from the wings, seeing ‘behind the scenes’ and getting my head around the workings of things. It’s about looking and listening and asking questions. 

When working on my own film projects, that manifests in thinking about how to represent a person, a place, a project, a community – and being aware of the ways in which my own life experiences, personal tastes and the social norms that surround me play into all of that. Film (and media more widely) is all about representation, and I think it’s one of the fundamental ways that our understandings of the world and of one another are communicated and absorbed. The esteemed cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall wrote the “encoding/decoding theory of communication” in 1973, which draws attention to the ways in which media is produced (encoded) and how it is interpreted (decoded). Hall’s theory is all about the ways in which intended meanings and values that are ‘fed in’ by the producer aren’t necessarily the same meanings and values that are ‘taken out’ by the viewer. In short, a film will mean different things to different people depending on their own life experiences, personal politics, ideologies, etc. We each extract meaning in ways that make sense to us.

With my work coordinating film screenings, I spend a lot of time thinking about representations of people, places, and communities which are often not familiar to me personally. In this sense, I’m somewhere in the middle of that encoding/decoding process. I sit between producer and audience. I’m part of the dissemination, and the programming choices that myself and my colleagues make have a bearing on the experiences of our audiences. In this role, it’s important to think about both the encoding and the decoding. What’s being represented here? Whose perspectives are we fore-fronting? Who will it speak to, and in what ways? Are there any barriers to access? Do we need to include any safeguarding measures? Amidst all of this, I suppose a key goal of mine is to share ‘good cinema’ (obviously subjective!) which gives platform to lesser or under-represented people, places, communities, experiences and perspectives. 

5. Which experiences or phenomena have you found particularly inspiring and relevant to your work in recent times?

Over the past few months through my role at CAMPLE LINE we’ve undertaken some mentoring with artist Juliana Capes around audio description for blind and partially sighted audiences. Juliana is very experienced in this field, and takes a personal and creative approach to audio description. She has mentored (via Zoom) three of our Assistants to develop descriptions of their own favourite artworks in our current exhibition, undo the knot by Sara Barker. The process is really about active and attentive looking, and finding language which communicates not just size, shape, form and materials, but also something of the feeling and the essence of a ‘thing’ (in this case an artwork hanging in a gallery). Again, this is very much about communication and personal interpretation. The process is essentially decoding and encoding simultaneously, recreating said ‘thing’ in a new form, using language to draw a map and then fill in the details. I have been blown away by the descriptions that our Assistants have each developed – the whole series is available here.

The process has triggered a lot of thinking around the many ways that we access and participate in the arts, including where there may be barriers, but also the ways in which looking/listening/watching/moving with a different perspective offers up entirely new and rich ways to experience and understand something – be it an artwork, a film, or something else. 

6. You have developed a particular interest in Japan, how did that come about and how has it developed?

This and the following question very much link back to the opportunities that have arisen from working with others! With Japan, in 2017 my partner Mark Lyken (also an artist and filmmaker) was working on a project in Taiwan. As he was already on that side of the world (!), and Japan was a place we had both always wanted to visit, I flew out to Tokyo when his project finished and met him there. It so happened that a curator from the Highlands, Susan Christie, whom both Mark and I had previously worked with on several projects, was also in Japan at the same time, as part of a curatorial research trip with the British Council. We managed to meet up with Susan one afternoon, all a bit incredulous that we’d managed to find ourselves in the same place at the same time on the opposite side of the world than our usual. 

In 2018 and 2019 – knowing I had some prior experience of the country, culture, and navigating my way through Tokyo – Susan invited me to return to Japan with her on two follow up research trips, acting as filmmaker and sound recordist. In particular, we recorded paired conversations between a number of women in Japan, around the themes of motherhood, birth and death, creativity, tradition, feminism and patriarchy. We also recorded paired conversations between women in Scotland, and are currently editing the full set of recordings into a series of short films with accompanying publications. 

7. Likewise Svalbard?

Visiting Svalbard in 2019 was an incredible privilege, which came about through a project developed by Stuart Macpherson, a musician based in Dumfries and Galloway, working with sound recordist Pete Smith and myself. The project is a creative response to the spring migration of the Barnacle geese from the wetlands of the Solway Firth in South West Scotland to the Islands of Svalbard in the Arctic Circle. 

In 2017, Stuart, Pete and I spent time recording the many thousands of Barnacle geese that overwinter at Caerlavarock Wetlands Centre, often filming around dawn when the skies fill up with geese flying inland for the day to feed. In 2018, Stuart spent time himself on the islands of Træna on the northwest coast of Norway, an important stop for the geese as they follow the ‘green wave’ of energy rich spring shoots northwards. Then in July 2019, we all travelled to Svalbard together for a month to record the geese in their summer habitat. 

There’s so much to say about Svalbard. It is at once otherworldly, and also strangely not. We spent much of our time in and around Longyearbyen, the largest settlement on Svalbard (and the world’s northernmost settlement of any kind) – originally a company town built around coal mining, but now mainly driven by tourism and research. As such, there’s a university, hotels, cafes, trendy shops and a swimming pool. There’s even a Thai supermarket. Pair this with 24 hour light and being constantly alert to the possibility of meeting a polar bear, and it makes for quite an eclectic experience. Whist in Svalbard, the geese are mainly land-bound due to their summer moult and raising chicks, so their behaviour is completely different to when they are in Scotland. Much of our recording was done from – or very close to – our hire car, which acted both as polar bear protection and mobile bird hide. We also gradually became nocturnal (albeit in broad daylight), usually working between 10pm and 4am when noise from the town was generally less.

8. Is living in Dumfries and Galloway important to how your work is developing over time?

I suppose place in generally is important to me. I’m interested in how people connect with place. My upbringing on the Black Isle is still significant in that regard too. But something I really value about Dumfries and Galloway is the vibrant creative community that exists here. It’s a network that I feel a part of, and that sense of connectedness is something that I don’t feel I’ve really had on the same level anywhere else. I also very much value the rurality of Dumfries & Galloway. Again, that harks back to my upbringing! But I enjoy being able to live in a wee cottage in the woods but also be in the centre of Glasgow in just over an hour. It’s the best of both worlds. 

9. Could you pick out some examples of your work that you consider especially important to you, and tell us why?

A moving image work that stands out for me is The Terrestrial Sea which I made with my partner Mark in 2014. The film was a companion piece to a suite of sound works that Mark had made in 2012 whilst Artist in Residence at The Lighthouse Field Station in Cromarty. Run by Aberdeen University’s School of Biological Sciences, Ecologists at the field station study the behaviour of marine mammals and seabirds in relation to natural and man-made environmental change. Making The Terrestrial Sea was significant in two ways. Firstly, we were editing moving image to pre-existing sound – the opposite approach to usual film production where sound follows image. And secondly, it created an opportunity to look at the juxtaposition of industry, rural life and nature in the Cromarty Firth – the firth I grew up around – in a completely new way. To really focus on the colours, shapes, textures and movements that were so normal during my upbringing that they had become invisible.

The film gradually layers and blends multiple shots to create a sort of palette of different elements of the environment, slowly but constantly evolving. The work is in some ways also a companion film to an earlier film made my Mark and I called Mirror Lands, which focuses more on local people’s relationships to place. 

Another work that’s been significant more recently in an ongoing photography series, Tending Towards a State of Chemical Equilibrium. In 2015, I lost my sister Katy to cancer. Katy was also an artist, and was a mentor to me in many ways. Around that time, I found I had many questions around the way we handle death in the present day, and spent time researching death customs and rituals across different cultures. When Katy died, I inherited her stills camera and so began to take more still images. I was thinking a lot about transience and change, and wondering how I could capture a sense of this within a single, static image. Experiments using a slow shutter and different techniques around movement led to the development of the photography series, which I continue to add to over time. I find the process mesmerising. It is an interplay between myself, the camera and the environment and I love that I never quite know what image I will capture. It gives me permission to be playful and let go of some control, and is in many ways quite therapeutic. 

10. How might your work develop from here, do you have any particular goals and ambitions you want to pursue, and how might you be able to approach them?

This is a bit of a ‘wood for the trees’ question for me at the moment as I am in the middle of quite a few longer term freelance projects, along with my programming role. For a while I was keen to develop the photography side of my work more, perhaps through some further education. But since working at CAMPLE LINE, I’ve realised how much I love working in the production and dissemination of the arts – supporting other artists to make work, screening films, hosting workshops, developing mentorship opportunities, and working to broaden access to the arts. Working as part of a small team is also really significant for me. I think I will always maintain my own creative projects in one way or another, but perhaps I now see more of a career future in programming and or/working as part of an arts organisation … We shall see!

Connections:

You can contact Emma though her website at: https://www.emmadove.net/ 

Published by David Graham Clark

I am a sociologist and writer. Pieces on this site include reflective writings, stories, and memoir on aspects of daily life, along with associated images and videos. In these various ways I try to illuminate what I call the quotidian world, particularly my own.

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