Published  25/04/2017

Ruth Maclennan: ‘I realised that global warming was happening, and asked, how do I as an artist respond to that’

Ruth Maclennan: ‘I realised that global warming was happening, and asked, how do I as an artist respond to that’

Visual artist Ruth Maclennan talks about what art can do in the face of climate change, her films of Arctic Russia and her latest film, shot in Scotland, From Time to Time at Sea


Ruth Maclennan began her artistic career after studying Russian and French at the University of Cambridge. While in Moscow during the transitional era of 1989-90, she took drawing classes and became interested in performance art. After graduating, in 1991, she went on an expedition to Siberia, visiting the villages of Old Believers (a sect of the Russian Orthodox church), and used a video camera for the first time. Later, she went to Edinburgh College of Art, spending three years there and a year in Berlin, as she wanted to go to where the east and west collided. In Berlin, she started making videos, which led to her film-making.

The importance of place, and the invisible histories and physical traces of what has happened in the landscape, is a central thread of her work, which is exhibited internationally. Her films include a series in Kazakhstan, culminating in Anarcadia (2010) and Theodosia (2013), made in the contested territories of Crimea. In her more recent films, she tells stories of journeys to places reaching up to the Arctic Circle, with economic and geopolitical themes. The artist filmed Call of North (2014) in Karelia, on the west coast of the White Sea, and Hero City (2016) in Murmansk in northern Russia. For her latest film, From Time to Time at Sea (2012-6), she travelled to the north of Scotland.

The artist holds a PhD from the Royal College of Art. Maclennan lives in London, where Studio International spoke to her.

Nicola Homer: News has emerged that the Arctic sea ice may disappear during the summers this century. I wonder if you could tell me how you seek to represent the effects of climate change in your work?

Ruth Maclennan: I realised that global warming was happening, and I asked, how do I as an artist respond to that: “What can art do?” I can only answer that through my own practice. I make films in a place and things come out of that place. So I thought I would go to where it is happening quickest: I went north, to the Arctic. Almost half the Arctic is Russian territory and we know very little about it. I’m in a rare position where I can speak fluent Russian. I can go there and travel fleet of foot as I can carry my camera, monopod and sound recorder. That capacity to move fairly easily was important and is part of the work. At the same time, I was aware that the voices we were hearing, talking about climate change, were those of politicians, NGOs and scientists. That was pretty much it. You don’t hear the voices of people who are actually living where it is happening and what it means in their daily lives. So I wanted to hear those different voices. I wanted to understand it through people who live and work there, to capture the subjective reality, and to show the complexity of the situation. In the north of Russia, they are experiencing economic collapse and political pressures.

NH: In Call of North, where you filmed people’s ways of life in villages in this Arctic region, you observed changes in nature, from summer to winter, by making connections between sound and image, word and place. Could you say a bit more about how you use photography and film to capture the conversation between the people and the place?

RM: The film is episodic and sometimes there is a narrative story told in the voices – for example in the section where ruined wooden, burned-out houses tell the story of the purges and how the place was abandoned. Having fragmentary, overlapping voices works in several ways. You get the information, the tone of voice, and you just listen to the voice. So you turn the voice into an instrument, like the birdsong, and it becomes like music.

There is another section where there are no people at all. There is a sunset and sunrise; it is gorgeous and windy, and there are tides coming in and going out, amazing pink trees and an incredible noise of birds – which is the voiceover. The thing about film is that you relate things within the picture to each other and the frame, the view with the sound that you are hearing at that particular moment. You also make connections with other points in the film. So meanings are both cumulative and instantaneous.

To return to your original question, in a way, climate change is not something that can be represented. The philosopher Timothy Morton calls it a “hyperobject”. It is the hyperobject par excellence in that it is so enormous that we can’t engage with it directly. You can only engage through its manifestations, which are all around us. As an artist, I work with concrete observations. There are telling moments and details that make things resonate and draw connections between different levels of experience, so it might be a Russian fairy-tale toad, which a film historian noticed in Call of North.

In editing the film, I didn’t want to just offer beautiful landscape shots of the Arctic, à la David Attenborough, although I love the Planet Earth films. They are so absorbing, so seductive, that you become uncritical. There is an illusion of being immersed in this amazing landscape, which is at one with our culture of distance, of our screens. Also, it goes with the tradition of landscape photography by Ansel Adams and others. At the beginning of the film, you see picturesque views of Russia, of little wooden houses and churches in the snow. There is a loud snowmobile that goes through it. I used recorded mechanical sounds and the noises of the car radio, the engines and the boat motor, and the splashing, to interrupt that beautiful landscape. Also, in the cuts, in the way that sometimes you may feel a shot is too short, as though to say: “Hang on, why can’t I just bask in the romance of the north?” I wanted to stretch it and break it up, perhaps in a Brechtian way of alienating the viewer, to draw them into the process of making the film.

NH: In Hero City, the narrator, a film-maker, retraces her journey to an unnamed city above the Arctic Circle. However, as she tells the viewer about her trip to a museum and travels around the city, she appears to play with the idea of memory in a fictitious way. How do you navigate the relationship between documentary and fiction in this film?

RM: In the film, I’m reflecting on this idea of something catastrophic that is going to happen and the tension with the fact that it is not necessarily visible now, although we have got signals: the melting ice cap, islands, tsunamis and storms. I’m navigating that tension between a big theme and the concrete detail of the actual city, of being a little film-maker, a stranger in the city, with a sense of something terrible. That is why I invented this character.

I am very interested in seeking truth, and I sometimes think that you get to the truth better through other ways, although I think documentaries are incredibly important. In the voiceover, I was thinking about that relationship between the voice, the words, the description and the images, and how, if somebody sets out to make a documentary and they want to tell a particular story, they will show the things that show that story.

In Hero City, I was drawing attention to that process of looking and that subjective experience of the city, so there is a reflection on filming. I have woven things that happened into a story. There are wonderful, serendipitous shots, such as the woman dressed in pink, walking past the pink house, the pink puddle. There are these strange, surreal moments, such as when I took a commuter bus and filmed the backs of the passengers’ heads, and I went to the far side of the military port, to see icebreakers from that side.  

I’m introducing an element of fiction in the museum. It is an amalgam of museums: part of it is a folk museum in a school in Chupa in Karelia; the main part is the Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic, opened in 1937, in a neoclassical, 19th-century church in St Petersburg, and the arches have paintings of Arctic explorers, and Stalin and Lenin. I used heroic Soviet film music from Aerograd by Aleksandr Dovzhenko (1935), about founding a city in the far north, as it fits with the heroic idea. Murmansk was a “hero city” – a term used for cities that fought in the second world war and suffered.

NH: Could you tell me about any artists or film-makers who have influenced you?

RM: Futuristic films such as Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965) and Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) and Sans Soleil (1983). There is a sense of memory, and the relationship between the story and the image. The cataclysmic aspect of La Jetée is there for me in the world.

NH: Finally, I would like to talk about your latest film, From Time to Time at Sea (2012-6), on show in Somewhere Becoming Sea at the Humber Street Gallery in Hull. You present a layered narrative of life in Scotland, with folk songs and fragments of poetry. How do you use such stories to evoke the reality of life in the north and why should people make the journey to see the film?

RM: I shot the film over several years, on a residency in Birsay with the Erlend Williamson Art Foundation and a Cape Farewell Sea Change expedition. For some of the time, the camera is being moved by the sailing boat, a 100-year-old herring drifter from Shetland called the Swan, which we were travelling on. I also filmed from the land and that horizon is there for much of the time. The sea always looks different; it is about the surface. Under the sea is the main part of the world, but we don’t understand it very much. Marine biologists will say this, too. I have read The Unnatural History of the Sea [by Callum Roberts] about our exploitation and use of the sea, and how far back it goes. In the film, you can see islands where life is dictated by the relationship with the sea.

I’m focusing on the materiality of the world. You hear the effects of the place in the voices and the stories from many generations. One poem is written and read by the playwright Bryony Lavery, and that overlaps with the voice of a driver, telling stories of Hoy in Orkney and of salmon farms being bought by Poles. Later, it overlaps with a poem by George Mackay Brown, read by the singer-songwriter Karine Polwart, who also sings an old Norn song. Norn was a language spoken in Shetland until the late-18th century. The singing voice and the sounds of birds and the sea are instruments.

The film is part of the show Somewhere Becoming Sea, which is about that encroachment, partly because of climate change and shifting sea levels, which Hull has experienced. In the film, there is a sense of solace and resistance, the beauty and the fluorescence of life, and the fact that the sea does continue, even though we can’t see all the damage that we are doing. We have to see why we would want to stop doing what we do. There is that capacity for constant invention and creativity, which I mean in a literal sense of making and labour. The film is an immersive experience, in that it is an installation with surround sound, so the voices come from different sides and corners. You get a sense of the sea as all around you. The conversation is there and then it is carried off into the ether. There is also a sense of the conversations that you have on the move. When you are walking or travelling, you have a different kind of conversation.

Ruth Maclennan’s films are distributed by LU X.

From Time to Time at Sea is on show in Somewhere Becoming Sea, Humber Street Gallery, Hull, UK City of Culture, until 17 June 2017.

Hero City is being screened as part of a programme of short films, curated by UEL Moving Image Research Centre, at Close-Up Cinema in Sclater Street, London, at 7pm on 31 May 2017.

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