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AlanJames Burns: Cave man noises

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Entirely hollow aside from the dark, Ireland.

The new work by Irish artist AlanJames Burns has its UK premiere not in an art gallery or a maker space, but in a cave near Worksop.

'Entirely hollow aside from the dark' will see audience members ushered into Creswell Crags to experience a unique "psychoacoustic sound artwork", exploring themes of the environment and mental health. We asked the artist to tell us more.

Tell us about the project.

'Entirely hollow aside from the dark' is an immersive psychoacoustic sound artwork taking place inside the depths of the caves at Creswell Crags this September. Using the cave as a physical metaphor for the mind, the cavern personifies the consciousness of Mother Earth as she struggles with her worsening mental health, brought on by the human impact on her body.

Historically, caves have played a vital role in the simultaneous evolution of creativity and abstract thought

In the darkness, an audible inner dialogue, echoing Mother Earth's thoughts and unfolding regrets, and a symphony of choreographed sounds shifts around the cave, mirroring processes of the human mind. 'Entirely hollow aside from the dark' simultaneously aims to break down the stigma surrounding mental health and encourage environmental sustainability.

What drew you to Creswell Crags Cave?

Historically, caves have played a vital role in the simultaneous evolution of creativity and abstract thought. This has been a conceptual underpinning to the artwork's development. Creswell Crags is home to the British Isles' only examples of ice age rock art. It also recently hit the headlines all over the world because of the discovery of hundreds of witches' marks.

Heritage experts have revealed what is thought to be the biggest concentration of apotropaic marks, or symbols to ward off evil or misfortune, ever found in the UK.

Having the opportunity to create an artwork about human consciousness within the historical and cultural significance of Creswell Crags is a privilege and a major highlight in my career.

Given the piece is performed in such an aurally unique environment, how did you compose it?

Initially we built a kind of synthetic cave environment in a wonderfully cavernous studio space in the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. This space was absolutely covered in speakers and cabling, which was reconfigured innumerable times until we understood the dynamics and potential of the piece. From there we test out the installation inside each cave and create a bespoke site-responsive arrangement, ensuring every audience has the best possible experience of the artwork.

Where did the inspiration to explore themes of mental health come from?

One day, while taking part in Resort Revelations residency in North Dublin, I was walking the coastline of the small seaside town of Portrane, where there is an old abandoned mental health hospital and I was thinking about, well, the act of thinking. The tide was out and so I stumbled across Smugglers' Cave and that moment is what sparked the initial idea of mapping consciousness to the inside of a cave.

When we are 'inside our heads', do we speak in monologue or dialogue? Do our thoughts emerge in a linear process or are they sporadic? Do we humans ever stop thinking?

As a visual artist, I think about these questions through making, research and collaboration. Sitting in Smugglers' Cave that day and thinking all this through, the idea for the artwork began to form. In developing the work, I then collaborated with writer Sue Rainsford, sound editor Ian Dunphy and psychologist Claire Howlin to realise this concept.

What role can artists play in averting climate breakdown?

Artists, like everyone else, can do this in so many ways. In our modern way of life, we are over-producing in every sector. As artists we can examine our modes of production and the kinds of materials we use for more sustainable solutions. In developing this project I've worked with sound engineers and electricians to devise a low-voltage audio system which has a low impact on the environment that the experience is staged in. While staging the events at Creswell Crags, my team and I will travel by train and boat rather than fly, we have adopted a plant-based diet and have tasked ourselves to find energy efficient solutions in all aspects of production.

I also embed climate action into my way of working with partners and collaborators. For example, during my meetings with the staff of Creswell Crags, we discussed what they are doing as an organisation in response to climate change and what more can be done. Creswell Crags is part of the Greener Museums Initiative and are committed to climate action. However as a fantastic byproduct of our conversations and richly rewarding creative partnership, Creswell Crags have just ordered a full review of single-use plastics in their cafe and are now in the process of phasing them out.

What is perhaps the most important role artists can play is as storytellers. We can paint a picture, translate messages in song and turn caves into consciousness. It is in this capacity that we have the power to inspire, to educate and make the urgent message of climate action resonate with diverse audiences.

Sam Gregory

'Entirely hollow aside from the dark' takes place from 3-7 September at Cresswell Crags Cave. It is funded by Arts Council England and Culture Ireland.

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