Wednesday, 18 February 2015

On Location with Daria Martin


When I was approached a number of weeks ago with an inquiry relating to the Trimble and its use in surveying, I replied with a factual answer giving details about the equipment I own; the Trimble GeoXH 6000, and the equipment I partly own along with John and Graham in G&J Surveys; the Leica GS15.

As the thread of emails continued I became more and more intrigued as the person making the inquiries passed me onto Isabella Palmer, who in time introduced me to an artist by the name of Daria Martin.  When Daria was introduced to me, Isabella had already decided that she preferred the Trimble and that one person giving advice was plenty sufficient.

Daria Martin - Artist and Director
The thread of emails soon gave details to a life of conceptual art based on 16mm film making, with Daria being the Director of an upcoming film based around what is known as mirror-touch synaesthesia.

To say I was intrigued is an understatement.

Daria wanted to film on location in a mountain environment and I had been found via the Mapping Mountains blog, and as the blog fulfilled both the use of surveying equipment and it being used in a mountain environment, I was asked if I could participate as an advisor with the Trimble GeoXH 6000 being used in the film.

The chosen location was Snowdonia, this soon narrowed down to Snowdon itself with a prerequisite of snow, snow, snow being the order of the day.

As photographs appeared on social media with the higher Snowdonia peaks based in sunshine whilst smothered in snow, and all above a seemingly daily cloud inversion, I notified Isabella and Daria that if having snow was an important part of the film the chosen location was now in ideal conditions.  They acted quickly and organised all necessary personnel to meet in Llanberis on Friday 13th February.  Although the organisation had been excellent the high pressure system that had stabilised over the country for almost two weeks and which had consolidated the cold conditions had now edged eastward as a low pressure system and its rain band edged in.  However, all was not lost and as we gathered in Llanberis on the Friday afternoon the low cloud over the higher peaks added a visual detachment to proceedings that for me, added a certain mystery and intrigue to the forthcoming weekend.

Who is Daria Martin and what is mirror-touch synaesthesia?

Daria Martin is a Professor with teaching interest at St John’s, and the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford University.  Her ‘Film Sensorium’ course explores the overlap between industrial and art filmmaking, including the sensory and conceptual possibilities opened by the medium.  She has exhibited in the New Museum in New York, Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Kunsthalle Zürich in Zurich and Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.  She received the Wellcome Trust Arts Award in 2008 and 2010, Philip Levhulme Prize in 2009 and the Leverhulme Network Award in 2012.

Mirror-touch synaesthesia is a recently diagnosed rare neurological condition, where people physically experience touches that have taken place outside of their body by other people, usually on inanimate objects.  These experiences can be diverse and can include the sensation of a person’s touch on an object or the sensation of touch from something that is seen on screen.

For sufferers of mirror-touch synaesthesia large crowds can be overwhelming, whereas the opposite is true of large open spaces, and this is where a mountain environment with its space, openness and wilderness can help people who suffer with this rare neurological condition.


The bleakness of a Welsh winter with its drab greys and shielded mountain tops was prevalent as I drove to Llanberis.  This drabness of landscape seen from a car was offset with the welcome I received from Jim and Eryl at the Plas Coch Guesthouse.  This was my lodging for the weekend, and it is rather immaculate and tastefully stylised, the atmosphere being one of openness, friendliness and comfort.  It is highly recommended for those wanting a relaxed stay in a town which is situated in the heart of the highest mountains in Wales.

The Plas Coch guesthouse
My first base camp for the weekend
Once I had been shown to my room I quickly headed out to the Y Gwynedd where Daria and her recording engineers were staying.  As I wandered up the road I met Emma and Pete outside the Y Gwynedd as they pulled out a number of steel cases, all of which protected the cameras and lenses that were to be used on the shoot.  Emma was the Director of Photography and Pete the Camera Assistant; they had driven from London that morning.  We chatted as they carried their gear up the stairs to their rooms; they explained that Daria was going to be an hour later than expected due to delayed train connections.

As Emma and Pete sorted their gear I happily watched the steady drops of rain fall outside, puddles had formed on the tarmac and the warmth of watching such a scene from the comfort of being indoors gave a melancholy feeling to proceedings, one where I contentedly became almost hypnotised in thought, only succumbing to my surroundings to visit Emma and Pete and be impressed by the quantity of kit they had brought for the impending shoot.

Daria had come by train from London to Bangor, and then by taxi to Llanberis, accompanying her was Myles who’s role was as sole actor, also arriving with Daria was Kate and Zeno, Kate being the Nanny to Daria’s young son; Zeno.

After accustoming themselves to their surroundings and introductions having taken place we jumped in two cars and drove upto Pen y Pass.  This had been decided to be our gateway to the higher Welsh wilderness where filming was to take place.  We briefly examined the possibilities of the area up the Pyg Track, this path gives access toward Crib Goch but being enclosed with steep slopes in most directions it is restrictive for a diversity of film locations.

We then walked up the Miners Track, I knew this would give greater possibilities but I was aware of the weight and bulk of film gear that Emma and Pete had to carry, however Pete had said that he had completed the Three Peaks and although he was suffering with the remnants of tonsillitis he looked very capable of being able to cope with extended hours in a mountain environment.

Heading up the Miners Track in late afternoon light
As we walked up the Miners Track the late afternoon light gave a soothing feel to the surroundings with snow streaks appearing out of cloud cover with higher ridges out of view.  The still waters of Llyn Teyrn reflected the higher rock buttresses with ice circling the inner part of the lake.

Llyn Teyrn
The Miners Track climbs at a steady gradient until after the waters of Llyn Llydaw are reached, once around this lake the track steepens until the high watered Cwm of Glaslyn, beyond are the zig zags leading to Bwlch Glas and the last climb upto Wales’ high point; Yr Wyddfa.

Ideally this late afternoon recce needed to find an environment that gave some diversity for filming and one that suited Daria’s sensory fulfilment, this would be dictated by Daria as Director with essential input also by Emma, the Director of Photography.  All I hoped was that my memory of the area around Llyn Llydaw and the possibilities around that lake for filming had not been forgotten, as it had been many years since I had last walked up this route.

We stopped on the path above Llyn Teyrn and looked out at the continuing track as it climbed steadily up toward the horizon; we still had time to head further into the hills so we decided to press on.  By now the weather had become steadfast with a cloud cap of murk over the higher hills but as we passed a small herd of feral goats munching their way through the landscape of Eryri, a thin slender thread of mist nestled against hillsides below the cloud cap; this gave a delicate, almost surreal element to the afternoon’s proceedings.

Feral goats, often found grasing on the lower hillsides around Llyn Llydaw
When we reached Llyn Llydaw Daria examined the land that we could see, as beyond the lake the lower grey snow streaked rock grew upwards into greyness of murk.  We stopped in the area of the lake for a half hour or so and only started our descent when the first heavy rain drops fell, thankfully the expected heavy downpour never materialised, but gentle winter dampness pervaded.

Above Llyn Llydaw
Once at the cars we headed back to Llanberis where I had a quick wash, a change of clothes and joined Daria, Kate and Zeno for a meal in the Y Gwynedd, we were soon joined by Emma and Pete with the Sound Recordist; Jake, arriving later in the evening having had a six hour drive from London to join us.  Myles had opted for a quiet night and didn’t join the festivities in the bar.


We arranged to meet at 7.30am the following morning and once my 6.50am scheduled breakfast had been savoured I thanked Jim and Eryl and joined the others at the Y Gwynedd.  Emma and Pete headed off first to Pen y Pass, Daria and Myles accompanied me, with Jake following in his car.  Prior to the previous evening it had been a long time since I had last parked at Pen y Pass and the ticket attendant seems to have now gone, being replaced by an automated pay and display machine.  Our £10.00s were readily dispensed with and stickers laid on dashboards, and with all necessary kit packed and accounted for were headed up the Miners Track.

Emma Dalsman - Director of Photography
Pete Lowden - Camera Assistant

Jake Whitelee - Sound Recordist

Myles Westman - Actor
As the previous evening was one of enclosed late colour, this morning had freshness given to the landscape, the high summits were still enshrouded by their customary cloud, but the early start gave a subtle hue to the morning’s colour and as we continued toward Llyn Llydaw I happily took photos of our party as they made their way up towards the inner mountain sanctuary around the lake.

On the way upto Llyn Llydaw
Myles and Jake with Moel Berfedd in the background
Llyn Llydaw nestles between the green lower hills and the grey rock somewhere up yonder
Llyn Llydaw is a natural lake that is now a reservoir with waters running into the Cwm Dyli pipeline, this two kilometre long pipeline feeds water into a hydro-electric power station.  As we arrived at the lake Pete unwrapped a protective sheet and laid it on the flat rock next to the Llydau Valve House (Adeilad Falf Llydau), this was to be our base camp for the day and soon a variety of film gear was neatly stacked in protective rucksacks laid out on the sheet.

Base camp for the day, beside the Llydau Valve House
Daria had found three places from the previous evening’s recce where she now wanted to film, we started on the top of a small grassed mound given the height of 446m on the Ordnance Survey map, which is just to the south of the Miners Track as it heads over the Llyn Llydaw causeway.  It was here that Daria wanted the Trimble set-up on its tripod; this was going to be the main prop of the day.  However, Myles would operate this and it only took one lesson on how to assemble the equipment and create a file and log data for him to quickly memorise everything.

Emma and Pete sorting the camera gear
As this was done Emma filmed under Daria’s instruction.  It was fascinating watching the roles of each person, all seemed in sync with words said that I did not know the meaning of, but one quickly followed another as clapper board was clapped, sound recordist quickly confirmed his OK, followed by a quick response by the photographer and then a slight pause until Daria as Director said ‘action’.  All smoothly flowed with much discussion between, with ideas and scenarios being gently bounced from one person to the next, however much I wanted to get involved I realised that my position was on the fringe to be called upon when needed.

Preparing to shoot
Daria had already told me in the email exchange we had prior to meeting that Myles would sing to the camera, this had partly surprised me, but also intrigued as conceptual art via the medium of film was new to me.

As the backdrop of Eryri with her soft coloured winter refinement of beige moor, grey slate hillside and a canopy of morning cloud enveloped us, the gentle sound of Myles’ voice sank out in kindly profusion of sound; motion and land, all seemed to merge into one.  I had wondered how the singing element of what was to take place would work; it slowly took over, giving an enchanted enrichment to proceedings.  It was surreal as well as harmonious with Myles singing numbered readings from imaginary surveys with heights and drops quoted, some of these taken from the blog by Daria, who had scripted the film to match the rhythmic echo of music which Jake; the sound recordist, was playing via an I-Pod to Myles who had a small ear piece, thus giving an added word rendition to a hauntingly surreal melody of music that occasionally crept out to be dissipated amongst the higher peaks of Eryri.  I wonder if they had ever experienced the like of this before.

Myles being filmed operating the Trimble GeoXH 6000
As filming took place Crib Goch would emerge from behind its cloud with steep rock buttresses heading skyward to its knife edged ridge, its profile then disappeared from view as the next take and the hauntingly surreal play of height and drop was sang out again.  I had previously asked Daria why she used film instead of digital equipment and she explained that film gave a greater depth, whereas digital was flat, although the latter was forever catching up with the former.  This was something that I had noticed since giving up transparency film in favour of digital photography, but I had never been able to describe it in simple but eloquent terms as this.  All I could muster was that it was different and didn’t seem to give the same vibrant colour.

Crib Goch above the waters of Llyn Llydaw
As the first scene was completed I packed the Trimble away and we headed back to base camp where Pete soon set-up the portable dark room, which constituted a small tent in which he removed one completed film canister and uploaded the next for scene two.

Pete changing film canisters in the portable mini dark room
The next scene was planned to be one of Myles walking through the land, with Emma positioning the camera close to the ground following Myles’ feet.  The structure of each take was now apparent with one or two trial runs taking place before the first take.  Each scene usually had at least two takes, with some having three or four.  As this scene was filmed away from the Valve House I remained with the gear and took long distance photos as Emma followed Myles with Jake positioning his sound boom and Pete adjusting and monitoring the camera that Emma operated, all looked over by Daria who set the scene up and instructed where Myles needed to be.  I thought this all quite fascinating.

Emma filming Myles under Daria's direction
As I looked out over our gear the first ebbs of cold sank into my body, I had already donned water proof trousers for extra warmth and a fleece top to go over my thermal shirt and under my winter coat, but the cold still crept in, all that remained to be put on was by outer Goretex shell, but this would be my last resort if a shivering chill set-in, thankfully it was not needed.

After scene two had been shot they moved farther into the hills and looked at two other locations, during this time I started to examine my immediate surroundings in greater depth.  This is something I’ve gotten used to when on long surveying trips with John and Graham when four hours of data is sometimes taken, amusement and conversation is then usually at a premium, I can do both quite easily, and long waits seem not to bother me.  I find immersion in one’s surroundings to be beneficial and as Daria, Emma, Myles, Pete and Jake wandered ever higher I found conversation with a number of people who came my way, all were friendly and only too willing to pass the time of day and chat with me.  However, two of the friendliest were Filip and Hannah; they were a wondrous couple as they uncannily matched with their beautiful smiles and joy of being together.  But above all else their appearance was striking, with brightly coloured matching garments, I had to take there photo and they obliged with big happy smiles, and many thanks to both for giving permission for their photo to appear on my blog – thanks Filip and Hannah.

Filip and Hannah
One by one the film crew headed back to base, I’d kept my eye on proceedings from a small bump above our base camp and had spotted Daria and Emma heading up into the snow and disappearing behind the ridge, they soon emerged again and descended on the path heading down from Lliwedd Bach.

We now headed back to where the first scene had been shot at the top of the 446m map heighted mound.  Daria again wanted the Trimble assembled and once set-up Myles sang an accompaniment of lyrical words, some seemingly disconnected, others smoothly flowing and all being perfect toward the other, an endless eloquence of scene and sound.  It was now making more sense to me; I am ever a person who enjoys experiencing out of the norm situations, and this situation was quickly fitting into an understandable element of motion coupled with sound mixed with landscape, all merged harmoniously as one, a flux of rhythmic tranquillity, a gentle forbearing of delicate portrayal, a silken thread pieced together by a conceptual mind, and a mind that seemed to view motion in a very different way, certainly from me at least, but a mind whose concepts bore fruition and one that explored meaning, and a mind that challenged the norm.  One element fitted another, all blending and merging with Myles’ voice intrinsic as the soul piece.  All quite wondrous, it pulled me in hook, line and sinker!

Preparing to film
Myles singing heights, drops and words associated with landscape
Once completed the Trimble was packed away and we moved from the top of the 446m high mound to another mound that overlooked the lake, Daria then set up another shoot with Myles filmed walking to the edge of the mound overlooking the lake and the ever emerging backdrop of Y Lliwedd.  I happily took photos and watched as a number of people headed down from the end of the horseshoe stopping en route to watch proceedings as one by one the film crew positioned themselves and ‘action’ was called.

Filming Myles with the bulk of Y Lliwedd as backdrop
By late afternoon the peaks were finally emerging
Before filming the next scene Emma filmed the mountain backdrop, it was perfect as the cloud had now lessened with the peaks leading upto Yr Wyddfa slowly emerging, even Wales’ highest mountain made a dramatic appearance for all too short a time as its pyramidal outline was again swallowed whole into the quickly approaching night.

Filming the mountain backdrop
The Director's view
The penultimate scene was filmed beside the shore of Llyn Llydaw with Myles playing with the feel and sound of ice which had split into straight lined slender blocks.

Reflections in Llyn Llydaw
Beside Llyn Llydaw with Crib Goch in the background
Filming Myles playing with the ice
We now decamped toward our initial base at the Valve House but not before the final scene, this was another of Myles walking with a backdrop of mountains.

Filming complete we headed back toward the Miners Track
Once completed we made our way down the Miners Track, Pete and Emma shot off ahead as they wanted to get back to the Y Gwynedd to sort all their gear before having an evening meal as they had a long drive back to London the next day.  This left Daria, Myles, Jake and me to walk down the track.  Daria wanted a recording of Myles singing all the threads that had been sung during the day.  And as darkness imperceptivity crept toward us we sat next to the track with Jake recording Myles singing in his smooth and gentle voice as one lyrical word led into another.  Daria suggested a second take, and then a third just of the end worded song.  It was all quite beautiful.  Something that was transient and heightened in its passing in time.  There and now gone, a moment in time to be savoured.

We left chatting our way down to the cars, a very fulfilling and interesting day on the hill, one of the like that I had not experienced before, but the ending was perfect as by the time we arrived back at Pen y Pass it was 6.45pm and dark, which added the final element to a most unusual but highly enjoyable day.

Please visit Daria Martin’s website, it has a serenity of style and a gentling affect. 

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