Alan Smith Waterblast Headstream
Waterblast Headstream is an ongoing project that is taking place in Smallcleough mine Nenthead.
Searching Smallcleough for Voices and Chthonic Memories
The stream is flowing from source to mouth, the passing and falling towards greater water is ceaseless. Its incessant movement is exhausting and the fear of it stopping threatens a loss of communication and exchange with neighbouring elements.
Static travelling has become my preserve and over recent times and I have succumbed to feeling my abdomen, listening to my lungs and contemplating their connecting tissues, this has helped me consider my condition and place amongst others.
Blind to our similarities, we can all too easily lock ourselves inside our respective skins while remaining unable to view the world through the eyes of others. Inevitably we progress towards conciliation and or combat, before defaulting to a view that is narrow and of an indistinct, inoffensive aesthetic and fuelled by unhealthy polite truths and falsehoods. This leads to a transfer of concealed bruising through pressure from an incessantly progressive egocentric wedge. Much better if we can find space to reassess our position and understand that doubting an opinion or knowledge can be beneficial.
In order to progress we would do well to foil the convention of arriving in the nick of time and leave more time and space for personal observations and considerations, without time how else can we hope to progress. It’s not enough to only wish for silence and fantasise about somewhere with no distractions. As Yoko Ono said, ‘Darkness, silence and being left alone are all very important for your health. So you should give yourself such a time’.
Finding time, space and a place
Needing space does not mean desiring a situation devoid of intent, goal or labour, in fact it is quite the opposite. For the past 26 years Smallcleugh mine in Nenthead has been my primary location for exploration, contemplation and production. Travelling into the alien environs of the spectacular man made mines heightens my sub-conscious sensitivities and facilitates a time to think and gain an alternative experience of myself.
Each mine trip begins with essential preparations; assembling appropriate clothing, food, drink, tools and technology. I find these preparations strangely calming, I lay everything out making a note of the components, then double check before getting dressed and finally packing my bag. I then take the time to close my eyes and visualise a route-map of my subterranean journey that lies ahead, then driving over the fell tops to Nenthead I scan the landscape for surface evidence of mining processes and imagine the chthonic architecture below me.
I have frequently travelled the length and depth of Smallcleugh mine but this trip will focus on the section of the mine from the adit (mine entrance) to Winch room, known as Waterblast Shaft; a tunnel approximately 250 metres long.
I have taken many artists and curious parties into the mine to experience and witness the wondrous man-made lead mine labyrinth. Frequently journeying for hours through to The Ballroom; a cavernous space cut from solid limestone and a place that I have used as a studio/laboratory and event space for Chthonic.
This time I am exploring the mines environs and in particular its hallucinogenic acoustics and inherent subterranean black darkness to centre my attentions on the mysterious voices that appear to inhabit the passageway and endeavour to locate and collect. These vocal sounds are of course illusions created by the sound of water droplets resonating off the lime stone tunnel. I am not alone in experiencing these phantom vocals, others have experienced them and comment on the strange sensations while in Waterblast and the extraordinary belief that someone else is in there
In order to intensify my audible experience I cannot permit anything that might distract and prevent me from the anticipated encounter, so for this project I will travel unaccompanied into the mine. Not only will being alone remove any disruptive sound, but it will also intensify my experience by removing the security that comes with company, darkness and anxiety will heightening my senses.
Arriving at the ‘adit’ (a mine entrance) the water that makes the voices is trickling out from the mine and met by daylight and glistens before running down through a grille and returns below ground.
I look back out into daylight before ducking into the low dry-stone tunnel and arrive at the gate which is hinged half way up its height, lifting the gate and squeezing through the low gap the weight of the gate presses into me, I squeeze beneath it and it drops behind me with a loud clang; I have entered the mine.
It is dark, but not so dark that I can’t see my hands and my surroundings are partially illuminated. I carefully pick and feel my way in, leaving any trace of daylight. I’ve not yet switched my headlamp on, I stop and stare into the extreme blackness of the tunnel and my ears have become my primary means of observation. The dripping water is loud and the cavernous resonance allows me to feel its dimensions. It has begun, perhaps it is through my knowledge of what to expect that allows the voices to be so readily received or perhaps they are always in there? I switch my headlamp on and slowly move in, I don’t have to progress far before the voices increase their clarity from amidst the water droplets and they appear to be getting closer.
I must hang on to my logical self and remind myself that no one is in here with me, it’s an illusion, I know these mysterious phantoms exist in my head, but still my heart rate increases and I can’t switch off the incessant jabbering. Something has turned my listening sensitivity up and I can’t help but focus on the imaginary conversations ahead of me, I strain my eyes in an attempt to catch sight of the approaching imaginary group. I shake myself and return momentarily back to hearing water droplets, the voices have gone. As I continue further into the tunnel the phantom voices are returning and I stop, focus on them and anticipate their arrival. Moving on I turn a left around a gradual corner and the voices have now shifted from ahead of me and are now following close behind and when I turn around to check there is no one there, but the voices persist and now I’m feeling a density which gives substance to the mysterious folk who refuse to reveal themselves.
My need to find them grows, until I see them they and can’t exist - but wait – again I remind myself they don’t exist. I can hear them approaching, getting ever closer through the tunnel. I turn to face the exit and leaning against the tunnel wall I am peering around the shallow corner into the black and struggle to catch sight of headlamps illuminating Waterblast, but nothing. Still they approach and the harder I drive my ears the clearer I hear the voices and the more sure I am that they are about to appear, the intensity of the illusion grows.
My breathing is loud, my feet squelch in the mud and my clothing and cave bag rustle deafeningly. I remove my bag and find a comfortable place to be still, I must make myself silent.
Holding my breath I can hear my heart and feel my pulse race, my body rhythms mix with the hallucinogenic dark tunnel’s percussive water droplets and all becomes chaos making my breathing erratic, with short sharp shallow breaths triggering a sudden lungful of air and my brain reacts accordingly and accelerates my senses, which makes the voices become even more convincing.
It was necessary to find another way to engage with this environment, I turned to face the dry-stone wall and the cacophony of real and imagined sound diminished. I turned off my headlamp and stood in the dense black darkness and closed my eyes but continued to see light, this light was internal, it existed in my head but still it appeared to bounce off the wall just centimetres from my face.
In my new found position I could feel and smell the wall and I was under the impression that my dynamic acoustic response to this limited space had intensified, enabling me to physically feel the tunnels proportions.
Time had passed but I had no means of measuring how long. Hearing the water droplets never left me and their echoes that represent the dark squat tunnel disappearing into the distance ahead of me and the mysterious voices are there. I was visualising details, individual rocks, the rails set into the floor and the rise that climbs up into the winch room. I wondered what it would look like when I turned my headlamp back on, will the illuminated condition match my dark extra sensory perception of my locale and what if anything might have changed from my earlier lamp lit experience or what if my memory has been distorted?
It felt as if I had stood in this dark and confined space for considerable time, convincing myself that I was accurately visualising distance, volume and space. I believed that I knew which direction I needed to turn to get to window flats, travel through to Smallcleugh Cross or return to the mine entrance through Waterblast Shaft. But something was changing, the intensity of my senses was multiplying becoming unbearable and my need for light became obsessive.
I turned my lamp on. Slowly looking around, the physical characteristics of my locale were recognisable but had morphed into something ever so slightly unfamiliar. The freshly illuminated dynamite blasted tunnels had become animated with shadows, shadows that I hadn’t appreciated earlier when the headlamp light travelled in with me. This was new and it presented me with other dimensions, dimensions that I have named Chthonic Rorschach. The light and its corresponding moving shadows gave life to this otherwise stationary environment creating an active chiaroscuro world of shape shifting rock forms as the light drew them out of themselves to take on another appearance that suggested breathing.
With sensory sensitivity turned up to max I turn back toward the Waterblast voices, taking position to listen and look before travelling back out towards the exit.
Standing on the junction of Smallcleugh Cross, the danger shaft sign was in front of me and to my left, I placed my right shoulder against the tunnel wall and looked into the dark Waterblast shaft. From that position, the tunnel in front of me turned gently to the left and then right. I looked in, making every effort to see as far into the level as possible while off in the distance intermingling with the water droplets the voices were returning. The familiar murmurings were now accompanied with occasionally raised voices, this was different, real. I could hear a number of people approaching.
I closed my eyes and concentrated on the voices that were gaining clarity, becoming stronger and were more and more convincing. This was no longer just the collective murmurings of a group, now individuals were making themselves heard, I closed my eyes tight and listened hard to scrutinise these new found entities. But still no one arrived.
Was this hydrokinesis? Was it me shaping the water sounds into voices or was it the water droplets that were manipulating my perception? Perhaps it’s one and the same and would it have occurred without the highly atmospheric and resonant physical properties of Waterblast Cross.
Switching my lamp back on I opened my eyes, the illusionary qualities of Waterblast Shaft intensified and I set off towards the incoming imaginary crowd. Leaving the junction where the ground is gravel and mud I walked past the Danger Shaft before arriving at the beginning of the stream that would lead me out. At the waterline I stopped, closed my eyes and listened again, I knew that as soon as I stepped into the water the sound from my boots dragging through the water would disrupt and even obliterate the voices.
What’s real and what’s not
I was about to take my first steps into the stream when I heard mine explorers even louder, they were about to reach me and knowing the tunnel ahead was too narrow for us to pass one and other I stayed and waited for the group to get to me. The voices were now really loud but as yet I hadn’t seen light from their lamps. I switched my lamp off and looked for their lights, I thought I could just make out the slight flickering of a lamp and enough light to expose the profile of the tunnel, they were now much louder but I couldn’t extricate any words from their conversation, time passed and still nothing.
Throughout the experience I would swing from rational thought and practical responses to altered states fuelled by imagination and illusion, but over time my response had changed - I had reached another state where what’s real and what’s not could no longer be differentiated. I switched my lamp back on and the group ahead of me continued to approach, I hesitated gave some thought about my next move and then… stepped into the water.
Dragging my feet through the water I was making sufficient noise to drown the voices but they remained. I paused to listen, they should have reached me by now, I moved forward another 10 metres and stopped - the voices were there but fewer of them and now close behind me, I turned around and nothing. Carrying on around the gentle curve of the tunnel I momentarily caught sight of a light, turning my headlamp off I waited for my eyes to adjust, but nothing. With my headlamp off I edged forward just hearing my feet through the water, ahead there was a blue haze that grew as I progressed, I could now smell vegetation the blue haze was daylight I had encountered no one, I stopped and turned to look back into Waterblast Shaft and again the voices were somewhere in the depth of the tunnel. The voices continued to burble and I smiled at the blue of daylight as I left the mine and bathed in daylight only to discover that I had spent four and a half hours underground.
I sat on the green stubbly grass just beyond the adit, there was a light breeze and looking up into the blue, the high altitude clouds moved at a much faster pace. I had found space and time that delivered contact with all aspects of my surroundings. Most importantly I had found a greater sense of self and my ability to see, question and contemplate had been enhanced through the extremities of my subterranean experience. Closing my eyes I could still hear the voices, I had taken them out with me.
So far 100 recordings have been collected from varying depths in the shaft. These have been layering up creating a composition that represents the length of the tunnel in cross section.