We are picking our way across black sand in the blustering rain, craning our necks like all the other tourists and marvelling at the outrageous columns of basalt rising up out of the ground like some geological symphony; an Icelandic rock opera. They filmed Game of Thrones on this beach and it is not hard to see why – it feels as mythical as dragons, as make-believe as television. It is a landscape too big and too spectacularly grey for the people scattered across it in their luminous wet-weather gear, disposable ponchos flickering in the wind as they try every possible camera angle that might convey the scale of the rocks and the sea and the sky. We don’t belong here, we are visibly, tangibly out of place.
We are in Iceland to make a show about the natural world and our relationship to it, but perhaps something had gone wrong. Our show, Nocturne, is about the wild animals that have infiltrated our cities and what we might learn from their unlikely survival in this unforgiving urban environment. It was they, not us, that were intended to be the trespassers.
Nocturne began as a series of conversations over skype between myself and the Latvian artist and filmmaker Krista Burāne, swapping stories of the wild animals we had spotted or heard stories about in my city of London and hers of Riga. Krista told me about wild pigs caught on CCTV running in front of trams, and I told her about foxes. I moved to London twelve years ago and have never stopped being captivated by its foxes, the way they seem to appear from nowhere in the street in front of you, as comfortable in this place as they are bafflingly alien to it, like finding a sparrow suddenly staring calmly back at you from the other side of your computer screen.
It was in London, with its foxes, that we started our research for the project, following a family of four as they shimmered back and forth across an a quietly anonymous corner of Deptford and listening to stories shared with us by local people; foxes stealing chickens from the Albany Theatre garden, rats chewing holes in thick leather work boots, eels seeking shelter in submerged shopping trolleys, a chattering of parakeets illuminating the parks of South London with a flutter of colour.
We met a man called Edwin from London Wildlife Trust who took us around a nature reserved carved out of a thin sliver of land next to the railway lines. He told us about a time when the whole of South London was a vast area of public woodland, now reduced to splinters of park and place names haunted by trees: Norwood Junction, Honor Oak, Penge.
From our conversations with him another place began to emerge out of the noise of the city, a place bigger and older than us, in which we were merely visitors. We stood with Edwin in the darkness by Deptford Creek, listening for the bats who had sensibly decided it was still too cold to be out this late at night, and watching the ducks spinning around in the oily dark water of the creek, as I imagined they had done long before we arrived and would do long after we had gone.
If in London our pursuit of animals left the city feeling unsettled and temporary, in Iceland this same feeling this was apparent from the start. Reykjavik still feels like a pioneer town, a place built on the edge of nowhere by a band of belligerent motherfuckers ready to put up with any amount of rain and cold. Here civilisation feels less like an inevitable fact and more an effortful everyday practice. It is a place always ready to return to ruin, as indeed is London though it’s just better at hiding it.
When I first arrived here in Iceland I read an article in the Atlantic in which a NASA scientist proposed that we might not have been the first civilisation to populate Earth, that geology would not have preserved enough of a record of any million-year-old cities for us to spot them, just as what will remain of our own civilisation will be only an almost untraceable slither of carbon lost in the rock. A momentary aberration; a forgotten world for some future civilisation to theorize about in whatever they have instead of the Atlantic. Looking long enough and hard enough at the natural world in the city, it is us and not it that starts to appear fragile, perpetually on the verge of extinction.
It was at about this point that I think I realised that what we are making is a show about longing. An ancient longing to belong to a version of the world that is bigger than ourselves. A longing to be more a than a brief evolutionary accident hiccupped out into the howling deep time of geology and then immediately lost forever. Or, at the very least, a longing for companionship in our meaninglessness, the kind of companionship that John Berger describes animals as offering to the loneliness ‘of man as a species’. If I began by somewhat condescendingly imagining the foxes slinking through the darkening streets of London were the tragic outsiders, the tables have now been truly turned.
Nocturne is part of LIFT Festival 2018, which runs from 26th May to 8th July. For more information, visit liftfestival.com