As part of SPOOR 2021 in The Galloway Forest Dark Skies Park, Sanctuary Lab commissioned Clare Archibald to create a loosely delineated star shaped ‘Lone Women Wood.’ This work will produce an ongoing record of answers to the question often asked of women, how do you feel about going into the woods alone, and will facilitate the voices of those who might not otherwise do so, to be heard there. Clare Archibald, at the core of this project, spoke with The Fountain about the inspiration, the expectation and the variety and stretch of the 140 audio files sent by women that will be heard in the Galloway Forest on 25th and 26th September.

TF: You are involved with Sanctuary Lab to curate this project, if trees were lone women what would they sound like, can you elaborate on this? 

Sanctuary Lab is a really amazing 24 hour arts experiment run in the Dark Skies Park of Galloway Forest in Dumfries and Galloway by artists Jo Hodges and Robbie Coleman. If trees were lone women what would they sound like is a sound installation which will play the audio of 140 women from around the world from 17 trees as part of a ‘lone women wood’. Women were asked to send in words, sounds or music relating to being in a forest alone. The call-out was open to all women, including trans and NB and contributions could be in any language with audio recorded on phones.

I submitted a proposal on the basis of my Lone Women in Flashes of Wilderness project. Lone Women is a collaborative project that I’ve run for the last 4 years. It’s very DIY and came about largely because of my frustration with the boxing in of women’s experiences of being outside, alone and/or in darkness in both real and imaginative terms. Rather than women being told what their relationship with outside was I wanted to create an organic project that tries to offer opportunities for nuanced and individual expression but with a collective and supportive vibe. I wanted to do something that was neither art nor activism per se but an everyday exploration and assertion of the shifting nuance of experience.

To me it’s not a nature project or about being ‘wild women’, it’s as much about concrete and graffiti and how we might reimagine spaces that we are in on our own terms, that’s not to say however that that’s how other people see it and that’s okay. For me though it’s about what it means to move through the outside in varying degrees of aloneness and/or darkness, literally or imaginatively whether that’s waiting at a bus stop or climbing Everest. Don’t get me wrong, I love the natural world of which we are obviously part but I think things can be, and are, simultaneous multiplicites and don’t think imposed boundaries other than the loose themes are helpful.

So far we’ve had car parks, the first ever all women night walk in Epping Forest as part of the Waltham Forest London Borough Culture celebrations in 2019, a moving image piece on men and dogs in relation to being alone outside for the Not Quite Light Festival in Salford (with music from the very skilled Lippy Kid), and a project, Watched, on going to gigs alone for Gold Flake Paint magazine (whose talented co-editor Hannah Boyle created the Lone Women logo). 

The project started at Sanctuary Lab in 2017 when I did some remote broadcasting on my own from the forest, reading pieces I’d written from public responses woven with my own. I wanted to do something this time where there was a clear delineation between my own voice/work and others as I’m still trying to figure out a way to detangle the first pieces from 2017 as ideally I’d like to create a publishing element to the project so that a public record exists of the many things that women feel about being alone outside in different contexts.

I did initially put a performance by me in the proposal for ‘if trees were lone women what would they sound like’ but once the contributions started coming in it became clear to me that rather than being the dialogue I had imagined that it would be an obstruction to people being able to really immerse themselves and contemplate the polyphony of voices in the trees. For me the Lone Women project is an ongoing healthy lesson in balancing creative ego and/ or aesthetic with the underlying principle that it is contributions based. There is no judgement or categorisation, you do not have to code switch to participate, you do not have to know the right people, you just have to be interested in the themes. In an ideal world I’d have time and resources to take it beyond the realms of social media but it is what it is, which is an honest and positive low key, DIY endeavour.

TF: Inspiring and creative, I am curious to know where your inspiration came from for such a project? 

I actually did the proposal for ‘if trees were lone women what would they sound like’ about an hour before the deadline. In my own work I’m interested generally in articulation and place and it felt to me that this was a way to connect those ideas. Forests are also hugely important, evocative and have (literally) layers of different interest so it seemed like the perfect way for women to input from whatever angle they wanted to come at it, whether that was folklore and myth, trees themselves, fear or pleasure etc etc. Really I just carry ideas around and wait for the right deadline to present itself. I also wanted to evolve my own practice so proposing a sound installation means I’m able to experiment with something I’ve not done before (and to be mentored in this by sound artist Ruaridh Law).

With the ongoing, often divisive narratives around women being alone, I just really wanted to find a way of bringing women’s unique and individual responses (in this case to the idea of being alone in a forest) together in a way that kept the nuance but felt connected. I wanted to build an ongoing record of responses as an answer to the same old questions being asked. I guess maybe certain things annoy me but when they do I’m interested in how that can be transformed. 

In creating a small ‘lone women wood’ I hope that some women feel able to come and experience it alone and am also aware that for some women their voice will be heard in a place they’re not able to be for many different reasons. It’s a privilege to be trusted with this work and I hope that those experiencing it get to really contemplate the many facets of what it might mean to be a woman alone in the forest. 

TF: And what made you choose to work alongside Sanctuary Lab on this, have you worked with them before? Or was it the location? 

It’s both. Mainly though it’s because I really admire their ethos. I think they do something that is hugely interesting and quietly important without any need for razzamataz or endorsement. In fact I’m sure the off the scale social media notifications for ‘if trees were lone women what would they sound like’ have probably been doing their heads in. They take chances on people and their ideas, irrespective of track record or connections and are interest led. I can honestly say that them giving me an opportunity before changed some quite fundamental things in my life. It’s not often you get to try out an idea and feel that if it doesn’t work it’ll have still been a success. When I did the remote broadcast thing in 2017 Robbie said to me when he gave me my transmitter pack “of course it might be that nobody hears you” and we agreed that that was okay. That’s why Sanctuary Lab. Plus for a project partly focused on darkness it’s hard to beat Galloway Forest! I’m very lucky we were selected as this year the selection process was very competitive and went to a short shortlist.

TF: You must have received some curious pieces of audio with your collaborative approach for material, can you divulge some of them to give us a flavour? 

I think, confidentiality aside, me telling you about them doesn’t really do them justice. I specifically wanted audio because I felt it was important for the actual voices of women to be heard without mediation. Nothing is edited or manipulated other than I’m looping some pieces to be heard on repeat. Everything else will play once only and so depending on when people are in the ‘lone women wood’ they’ll hear different things. Whether they chose words, sounds or music, to express it these women are speaking for themselves in the way they wanted to. We have 140 contributions in 10 different languages, a huge range of the poetic, the everyday, songs, music, soundscapes and combinations of all. We have an amazing composition from an 11 year old who is really happy that someone will hear their music, the shutter sounds of a lone photographer in the woods, ice sounds, all kinds. I’ve also had lots of very moving messages about what it means to have words and music playing from trees in a forest when not able to go to one. I’m also really proud of all the women who made something or something in a new way for the first time, and those who faced their tech and voice fears and recorded and sent audio files made on their phones. I’m hoping the weather is atmospheric enough to be in dialogue with all the amazing sounds without drowning us out with rain!

TF: Lastly, how can the public attend this event or get involved in this project? 

The call-out to be played from the trees has ended but people can come to Sanctuary Lab next weekend (25th and 26th September) and listen to the trees to hear what lone women sound like, details here. It’s open to the public and free. I want to say thanks also to Robyn Janine McLennan who created the event image and contributors list. There are also lots of other great things happening over the duration of Sanctuary Lab. I’m also looking into creating a ‘lone women wood’ in Ireland next year and have been approached by several organisations re touring versions of if trees were lone women what would they sound like and so there will be opportunity in future. I’m also thinking through different iterations where there can be wider accessibility and appreciation of the contributions in full. Plus I have a lot of other ideas waiting for deadlines.

For more information on the event at the weekend see here