A hobby of mine is to walk around the suburbs of Manchester where I live. It’s sometimes clear blue skies, baking heat, with people sunbathing in parks but more often than not it’s lashing down with rain and quite honestly, it’s wonderful. One particular Saturday afternoon a few years back I found myself on the Fallowfield loop under a light drizzle of rain with no one to see for miles. As I walked, watching the falling rain, listening to the sound it made on the hood of my anorak, I realised how profoundly tranquil everything felt.
I began to think about the rain. Many years ago I had done the Mayer-Briggs personality test. The results of the test are expressed in terms of characteristics such as are introvert/extrovert, judging/perceiving etc. Along with defining characteristics it also assigns you a few tropes such as “task-oriented”, “intuitive” or “conceptual thinker”. I remember my own results ringing true, and although some of the characteristics seemed loose or wooly, one in particular stood out: You like the sound of rain against a window pane . It seemed like a strange characteristic for the test to pick out but one that rung true more than any other on the list, getting right to the nub of who I think I am.
Walking down the loop in Fallowfield I began to think about this. I thought about how years before, when asked to list top places for a summer holiday, I had not picked Croatia, Greece and Italy, but rather Finland, Scotland and Ireland. I thought about how the rain is so often used to depict sadness in films; a lonely person, just separated from their partner, walking hopelessly through the rainy streets. I thought about running in the rain as a child with my brothers while my mum and dad watched us from inside, arguing about whether it was okay or not. I thought about how people thought it was strange that I enjoyed walking in the rain.
And, of course, I thought about Manchester. The City of Rain. About meeting people from London, Sydney, Tokyo, who relentlessly make jokes about how it always rains in Manchester, as though it’s funny or something. It’s true, it does rain in Manchester noticeably more than anywhere else I’ve lived and I’m totally ambivalent about it; sometimes it’s annoying, but often it’s beautiful. I feel my ambivalence is shared by the city of Manchester itself. The reason it exists (the home of the industrial revolution) is as much down to the rain as anything else. And so here we find ourselves 200 years later because of that, something none of us chose, but nevertheless something we have to live with, for better or worse.
That was in 2017. At the time I put a lot of my thoughts down in an audio recording. The intention had been to set the audio to a series of shots of rain over areas of Manchester. The result would have been a kind of essay film, only with no facts. It might have been a boring, narcissistic piece of artist film but I never found out. Following the recording it didn’t rain for over 4 weeks and when it finally did long gone was the calm, gentle rain of September, instead replaced by the vicious, lashing rain of mid/late October. The mood no longer felt right and so the project was shelved.
In the year that followed I worked on a series of film projects, each quite distinct to one another. I made a portrait film about the town of Blackburn for The Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery. I made a bizarre homage to the utah teapot, Utah Dreams, for Channel 4’s Random Acts series. Manchester Art Gallery commissioned me to make two profile films about artists who had produced work for the New North & South programme. I also made two music videos, Bardo and Window for long time collaborators GoGo Penguin.
Along with these projects, I also began to film scenes on my phone. Partly inspired by my film Blackburn , I enjoyed standing still in public spaces filming the events that unfolded around me. As well as enjoying the ease of always having my phone with me I became fascinated by the muddy quality of the videos I was capturing. For both my film Utah Dreams and the music video Bardo I had worked with a director of photography who would operate absurdly expensive camera equipment. The quality of the sensor on the cameras was something I was in awe of, however, over time the quality of the captured images were something I became sceptical of: It seemed dangerous to be able to capture such seductive images and as a result the dirty, terribly compressed mobile phone footage seemed like a pleasant retreat, and something I was keen to work with on a project in the future.
In October 2018, while in Italy, I found myself half asleep filming a heavy rainfall out of an apartment window. The view was the orange rendered wall of the adjacent building lit by a large flood light. I filmed for over a minute and watching the clip back I felt immediately excited; there was something about the image I was drawn to and I felt compelled to continue.
A few days later I was standing in a square in Napoli when the skies opened in a dramatic fashion. I stood in amazement watching rain heavier than I’d ever seen. I walked out in to it and began filming. Looking at the drenched screen on my phone I realised that I should develop a project not about my experience of rain, but rather, about everybody’s experience of rain. What did people feel about the rain in Thailand, Canada, France, Mexico, India, New Zealand, Peru or Nigeria? It was a phonomena everyone on earth witnessed and filming it on a mobile phone was a way to see the world from many people’s point of view.
While I thought about this I looked at the scene my mobile phone was capturing: Holding scarves, coats, newspapers up over their heads people scurried over the square to huddle under umbrellas, canopies and in doorways. People packed in like sardines and watched the rain. The scene before us all was meant to be miserable, our plans for the day temporarily put on hold, only the look on people’s faces told a different story: it was one of excitement, crossing glances with one another to confirm a shared sense of wonder at the sudden onslaught on rain. In any other situation people’s proximity to each other would have been strange, uncomfortable, but in the presence of the rain it was accepted, almost welcomed.
Later on in the project, after I’d received videos from all over the world, huddling to escape the rain became a recurring theme. Some people stood in doorways waiting for the rain to stop while others would sit laughing and joking under canopies. In heavy rain as many as three would walk under an umbrella while others would stand absentmindedly under an outdoor market stall, their life temporarily paused with a sense of peace washed over them.
Not everybody would hide from the rain. Some people, hood up, cap on, or carefree, would meander slowly through the rain, enjoying it, allowing it to saturate them from head to toe. Watching these people I was reminded once more of the joy of playing in the rain as a child: There was a feeling of liberation about it. The rediscovery of that feeling was one I began to get used to as I stood in the open air during downpours and held my phone up to capture the rain. In early recordings I’d often stand for a minute or more holding the phone static, watching the scene through the screen, listening to the sound of the rain on the hood of my anorak. Within that black frame defining the image on my phone I’d be drawn into increasingly smaller details of each shot: broken gutters on buildings would create small waterfalls down the side of buildings; drains would overflow; canopies would bow under the weight of gathered rain; floors became mirrors, reflecting the light above them, increasing the depth of the images captured.
A lot of the videos I received were absent of people all together. Shots of the countryside or suburban areas, all empty of people. In particular I was sent a lot of videos capturing the windows of people’s homes during the rain. In these videos, as well as scene beyond the pane, we’d also be able to see the inside space, (plants, ornaments, curtains, etc). These scenes reflected the cosiness I felt watching the rain but from all over the world, in all kinds of homes.
Another common shot that people would send would be from inside cars through the front, side and rear windows. I’d filmed such a shot on a motorway west of Leeds in August. The repetition of the window wipers as the wet road ahead of me passed endlessly by was mesmerising. Watching other clips back I soon found this footage repeated in Ghana, the US, Pakistan, Thailand and the mountain roads of Switzerland. Seeing those road markings, signs, lights, barriers and curbs made me realise how everyday the car has become. Furthermore, there seemed to me something poignant about these shots in how, beyond those similar car interiors, our world too appeared uncannily similar, no matter which continent you were in.
In all the project has accumulated around 250 videos from all 5 continents that make up our world. The clips were gathered with the help of Rebecca Rae-Evans through the use of social media. In 2019 it’s hard to mention the words ‘social media’ without feeling a great sense of unease. Trolling, corporate abuse of copyright, fractious politics, Donald Trump, are all part and parcel of this prevailing means of communication that the world has taken on. These things are serious, so serious in fact that they threaten to upheave the values our society is built on. However, along with the negatives come positives: people from all walks of life are communicating with people they would previously never have spoken to; we can see events from all over the world; experience new cultures and ways of seeing, thinking and being. As part of the project Homage to the Rain we’ve been able to embrace that as people from all over the world have sent us their view of the rain.
Of course a film is more than just a collection of shots, it’s complete entity, something greater than the sum of its parts. After creating the initial audio recording back in August 2017 I sent it to friends and composer Rob Turner who commentated that his feelings towards the rain were very similar, adding that a lot of his compositions were written to a backdrop of rainfall.
Having talked about the form of the piece and the nature of rain we both felt the final work should feel immersive, shrouding you in warm sounds the same way rain does with it’s white noise effect of cosiness and calm.
Rob teamed up with fellow Manchester based musicians Sam Healey and Conor Miller to produce a series of improved pieces all based on ideas and imagery of rain. A lot of the music was peaceful and ambient, bringing together acoustic and electronic instrumentation that when coupled with field recordings of rainfall created an atmosphere we all related to. From this starting point the final piece was pieced together, following themes in the videos and shifting moods within the music.
The final piece Homage to the Rain , commissioned by Quays Culture and University of Salford Arts Collection, will premiere at Lightwaves festival in December. The setting is Salford Quays, a place where over a 100 years ago cotton arrived on ships to be spun in the damp mills in the north west. I seems a fitting place to show the new work and with a bit of luck it might rain throughout the entire ten days that make up the festival.