Filming in the Shetland Islands

10 March 2014
[opposite]<br/>Extract from Erving Goffman's unpublished PhD thesis, A Study of Life in an Island Community, describing his initial masquerade as an agricultural student

A week ago I returned from filming in the Shetland Islands, and I'm now immersed in editing the new piece.

What I found in the Shetlands was suprising. I had begun this project with the iconic image of the kishie woman, carrying turf on her back and knitting at the same time. These were images I'd had for a number of years, connected to a body of research involving knitting, particularly Icelandic knitting. I revisited the images at some point last year as I was working on a commission for the National Women's Council of Ireland concerning the representation of women and work. For me there was a compelling connection between the Shetland images from the late 1800s / early 1900s and contemporary images of female multitasking: typically images involving laptops and telephones, occasionally carrying children too instead of turf. In particular I saw a connection between the activities of hands busily knitting, or texting on a mobile phone, whilst walking: mind and body active at once, constantly busy, voluntarily mining all the body's physical and mental resources in order to be productive.

The image of the Shetland knitting woman is particularly strong as such women could sell their work, but not for cash. The illegal system of 'truck' (barter) persisted well into the twentieth century in Shetland, so that women when bringing their knitted goods to the hosiery merchant would be paid in goods such as clothing: stories abounded of finely dressed women unable to feed themselves, as it wasn't easy to exchange such items for cash elsewhere in order to buy groceries. It was also difficult to get cash in the first place, in order to buy the wool to produce the knitting: elaborate grey economies of theft and credit were involved in the procuring of wool, knitting of hosiery, and eventual sale of the product. (The cultivation of a successful or relatively wealthy outer image might conceal or obscure an inability to feed oneself or buy warm enough underwear. Doesn't that have some resonance with the sometimes obscure rewards and irregular payment-in-kind of contemporary self-employment or precarious freelance work?)

The women featured in the film are all creative workers in one way or another, generating material that includes knitwear and pattern designs (Hazel); photographs (Floortje); public speeches and campaigns (Kaylee). There is a certain challenge in how to represent the labour of representation many of the women are involved in; both Floortje's image-making and Kaylee's voluntary work as a representative in the youth parliament are quite complex cognitive tasks that are not easily visualised. All of the women cultivate a web presence, through personal and professional websites, blogs and social media profiles. Honey, a woman who works as an escort on the islands – who briefly became the focus of media attention last year when she began to advertise her business from Lerwick on the island itself, rather than Abdereen – describes her internet presence as "extensive". The patterns of precarious labour that I was connecting to the historical image of the kishie woman do exist here: zero hour contracts, multiple part time jobs, demanding self-employment. But what I found was that this connection to an older form of subsistence economy, a negative image of scarcity as much as resourcefulness, was not found to be an unfavourable existence for these women. This leaves me with a couple of difficulties in editing the film: firstly, what to call it, as the title I had given no longer makes sense? And secondly, a difficulty Kaylee articulated in relation to her own experience: how to represent views that are not mine, in fact, may disagree with mine?

Before I visited Shetland, I'd already decided to shoot the film on a smartphone and talked through with cinematographer Kate McCullough why and how we might do that. This was an attempt to change the dynamic of the filming process – there is a kind of absurdity in mounting an iphone on a heavy duty tripod, the camera just doesn't impose the same kind of authority. It also gives the image a certain look, although now that it's being made monochrome in post-production, the grain in the image starts to feel quite filmic. There is an attractively reflexive nature to the smartphone camera that flips between looking outwards and inwards, towards oneself and what one looks at. I also like the idea that the camera is an object, a thing like other things; not a disembodied eye. The film is deliberately stylised and will contain little, if any, dialogue. I was clear when meeting the participants that this isn't a documentary or a heritage project. Composer Alma Kelliher has been working on the soundtrack, creating a contemporary 'work song'. The film is being structured in a similar form, moving between moments of naturalism and what might be described as abstraction.

By coincidence, just before traveling to the islands I discovered that sociologist Erving Goffman had worked there just after the Second World War; in fact his best known book The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life was based on his fieldwork in Unst, the most northerly of the islands. The context of this discovery was the publication Persona, edited by Melissa Gordon and Marina Vischimdt, which arose from the project A conversation to know if there is a conversation to be had – a series of meetings of practicing female artists held at semi-public spaces since 2010 in New York, Amsterdam, Berlin, and London. In each city ongoing discussions continue, and from these are developing a series of individual publications addressing more specifically the main concerns being raised. LABOUR, published last year, is a tabloid-format publication addressing the general conditions of feminised labour, and how a feminist reading of work benefits a critique of the current scenario for art workers. The second issue PERSONA looks at the condition of self-presentation for the contemporary artist, and in an expansive manner encompasses discussions on embarrassment, refusal, interiority and identification. So this was the world of ideas within which Goffman was referred to, revisiting his analysis of everyday interactions that made use of theatrical metaphors.

The Goffman connection, both to Shetland in particular but also implicitly to ideas of contemporary work and self-display online, felt like a moment of serendipity. In the Shetland Museum and Archives I was able to read Goffman's unpublished thesis (where names are changed and the Shetland context is unidentified), as well as some secondary material:

Maybe he was a spy. He could be seen walking around the island in big boots strapped to the knees. He had a khaki jacket full of pockets. He asked questions to people and scribbled lots of notes in his pad. He took pictures with a Leica camera – certainly not many of them in Shetland.

(from 'Baltasound as the Symbolic Capital of Social Interaction' by Yves Winkin in Erving Goffman, ed. Gary Alan Fine, 2000)

Goffman became rather famous in sociological circles and apparently a raft of biographers and academics subsequently came to the islands enquiring after him. The most striking document in the archive was a series of notes that interviewed the daughter of a man discussed at length, and named, in Goffman's published work. The woman had encountered the above Goffman biographer, who had quoted sections of his book back to her that mentioned her father (a book that Goffman politely, but firmly, refused to send to a different man in Shetland who requested it, once he had heard of its fame). The woman was tormented ever after by what she viewed as an attack on her father's memory, a terrible blemish that existed, somewhere, in print. Her recorded reminisinces make painful reading and serve as a cautionary tale for any professional observer who might generate representations of people who exist in one place, and distribute those representations in another. Fragments of the Goffman text, viewed on microfiche, are visible in the film itself. Partly as a matter of practicality and partly as a matter of structural integrity, it became necessary to place myself in front of the camera, performing this task of research in the same way as the other women perform their work.

Hazel blogs here, Floortje blogs here, and choreographer Feaghus Ó Conchúir has written about his work on the project here. The exhibition will open at CCA Derry-Londonderry on March 29.