Talaterra

Alastair Duncan, Interpreting Place Through Sound

Episode Summary

Alastair Duncan is an award-winning artist and educator who uses sound to interpret place. As founder and director of StillWalks he develops interactive projects that promote understanding of place and the outdoors. How does Alastair create StillWalks projects? What has he learned about sound? How does he work with schools, community organizations, a local prison, and immigration services? Let’s find out.

Episode Notes

Alastair Duncan is an award-winning artist and educator who uses sound to interpret place. As founder and director of StillWalks he develops interactive projects that promote understanding of place and the outdoors.

How does Alastair create StillWalks projects?

What has he learned about sound?

How does he work with schools, community organizations, a local prison, and immigration services?

Let’s find out.

 

LINKS

StillWalks

StillWalks on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (@stillwalks)

Viewing Nature Scenes Positivity Affects Recovery of Autonomic Function Following Acute-Mental Stress

View Through a Window May Influence Recovery from Surgery

From Orange to Blue: How Nature Imagery Affects Inmates in the “Blue Room”

High Tide Birds soundtrack, courtesy of StillWalks®, all rights reserved.

 

Correction

Near the end at 49:11, when talking about research, Alastair mentioned the University of Exeter. He intended to say the University of Essex.

 

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Episode Transcription

Tania Marien:

Welcome to Talaterra, a podcast about freelance educators working in natural resource fields and environmental education. Who are these educators? What do they do? Join me, and let's find out together. This is your host, Tania Marien.


 

Tania Marien:

Hi, this is Tania. Thank you for joining us. In my work for this podcast, I develop episodes according to certain themes. One of these themes is interpreting place. Today, I am thrilled to introduce you to Alastair Duncan. Alastair is an award-winning artist and educator who uses sound to interpret place. He is also the founder and director of StillWalks, where he develops interactive projects with organizations from various disciplines. These projects promote understanding of the outdoors, as well as promote wellness.


 

Tania Marien:

Today's episode will not have the usual closing segment, so I will tell you now to check the show notes for resources mentioned in this episode. Thank you for stopping by today. I hope you enjoy learning about Alastair and how he uses sound to facilitate connections with the outdoors.


 

Tania Marien:

Alastair, thank you so much for spending time with us today to talk about your work with StillWalks.


 

Alastair Duncan:

It's a pleasure.


 

Tania Marien:

You created StillWalks to provide outdoor experiences to anyone, wherever they may be in the world. Your objective is to prompt people to go for a walk, and if that's not possible, to then bring the outdoor experience to them. The attention that you give to the outdoors is impressive, and it's very moving, and listening to the videos and autumn walks that you have on your website, and the clips on your blog of the different walks that you go on... it provided me with the experience that I have every time I go to the Eastern Sierra, which is my favorite place to hide and hang out.


 

Tania Marien:

That feeling is... well, let's see, it's a realization, really, that when I'm out in the Eastern Sierra, that all of this exists while I'm out sitting still in traffic and doing all these other things that we do in our very built urban environment. You're so keyed into sound and the impression that sound can leave. You have a very long history with nature, is the impression that I get from your work. And so, what is your earliest memory of enjoying nature?


 

Alastair Duncan:

Oh my. That would be from the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland where I grew up. Although I was born in Scotland, we moved to Northern Ireland in 1964, so I grew up there until leaving for college, whatever year that was... a long time later.


 

Alastair Duncan:

My parents had a small cottage up in the foothills of the Mourne Mountains. They rented it for a pound a week, I believe, and it was very basic. There was no electricity, there was no running water, there was no toilet, and it was wonderful, absolutely wonderful. We spent weekends there. We spent holidays there. I learned to love the mountains, and later on, climbing pretty much most of the... in that range, as well as others.


 

Alastair Duncan:

I think it must have been that more than anything else that really helped me to enjoy and appreciate all the particularly natural environment around me, and again, in particular, the mountain landscapes... though I have to say, I love the beach, as well, particularly those lovely big, open ones that we have in South Wales.
 

Tania Marien:

When did you realize nature was important to you?
 

Alastair Duncan:

When did I realize? Becoming conscious of the importance of that nature really goes back about 10 years to when... well, a little while before I set up StillWalks, my way of dealing with a period, first of all, of stress and overwork, to the opposite of that, brought about a situation where I really needed to deal with a level of both stress and depression, and that, for me, was walking. I had always done a lot of walking anyway, but it went kind of up the scale, and as I walked and walked in local woodland and on the beaches, and in the mountains, over time, I realized that I wanted to find some way of recording that experience.

 

Alastair Duncan:

I started out just with my phone, taking photographs of the ground at my feet, in particular, the root of the path, and as that idea developed, a comment was made to me by my sister, actually, when I showed her one of my draft tentative videos. She said, "If you didn't have this or that aspect in there, I think some of my clients might like these," so I started thinking about it more seriously as a potential resource for other people. The environment at that time, that recognition of the therapeutic value of it for me, helped me to identify what it was I wanted to provide for other people, and in particular, that was an experience that could... well, as I use now, the tagline for StillWalks is bringing the outside in... an experience that did not involve music; if it was in any way kind of therapeutical, I didn't want music involved, because my experience of that is that... it's personal taste music, and if you get the wrong one, it just rubs you up the wrong way.
 

Alastair Duncan:

I recognize that there is absolutely a place for that, just as there is a place for the meditative or meditation soundtracks and videos that you get where you are being guided through a meditation. There is absolutely a place for that, but again, I didn't want voices. It feels, for me, like it would be a bit of an imposition, so I just want to try and get as close to the actual experience as I could.

 

Alastair Duncan:

The most interesting think, I think, about that is the power that the sound has, and I noticed earlier, Tania, that you said you listened to the videos. You didn't watch them. You listened to them.
 

Tania Marien:

Yeah. No, that's true.

 

Alastair Duncan:

While the videos use still photography, a number of people have made the mistake of thinking that they're actually moving video, because that is the power of the audio. It animates those still images. Through my research and development of StillWalks, which I should say was initially funded by the Arts Council of Wales, I spoke to a number of different people, including the Arts and Health team on the Swansea Health Board, and discovered that I should experiment with the ways in which the images were used, the kinds of images that I should use and so on.
 

Alastair Duncan:

But it also helped me to see that still images are closer to the way our memories work than video. With our memories, we tend to see flashbacks or those memories as still images, rather than moving images; that's not to say we don't see video, as well, but it's not nearly so common. In fact, on a couple of occasions, quite recently, somebody said that they felt like they had been there before watching one of the videos; it was like it was in their memory. I thought, "Ah, that's it. That's exactly what I'm trying to do here, to make you feel at home in this place, and that it is yours." The videos are meant to try and transport you into that place.
 

Alastair Duncan:

It is the audio that does that more than anything else, but as videos, the images are obviously very important, as well.
 

Tania Marien:

Yeah, the nature experiences you provide are very detailed. It's clearly not simply the result of you opening up the voice recording app on your phone and pressing the red Record button. There's so much depth and so many layers there, yet you don't compose those sounds intentionally. You don't necessarily go out with that intention, is my question.

 

Alastair Duncan:

Well, in actual fact, what I put on the StillWalks blog posts are often kind of incidental, in that I will maybe have gone for a walk, and all I have on me is my phone; so, necessarily then, I think, "Oh, I want to get this shot," or, "I could use it for this post," and so on. So, I take photographs then with my phone, and I record sound on my phone then, as well, although that is more problematic because the quality is not, particularly where wind is involved, as good as it could be.
 

Alastair Duncan:

But for the StillWalks videos, I would go out on a production day and for... because I do that on my own, and I have a lot of kit to carry for that, that is still one of the reasons that I use the cameras that I do. They're three-quarter frame Canons that are a bit smaller and a bit more compact than the full frame DSLR cameras, but a little bit more easy, less weight to carry, along with the sound kit and so on.

 

Alastair Duncan:

But it is important that the sound is recorded at the same time as the photography is done, and I get a lot more than is actually used. So, a production walk could take anything from three or four hours to seven or eight hours, depending on the walk and what I'm capturing, and that's edited down to between, what, six and nine or 10 minutes; so, I might only be using 10 percent of the images that I take, and the soundscapes, then, are built around those images.
 

Alastair Duncan:

Of course, I'm able to identify which sound recordings I've got are specific to the photographs that I'm using, because they're all time-stamped; that doesn't mean to say I don't have some license to bring in aspects of the walk that don't quite match up with the photos or whatever, but it is really important to get it as genuine as I can, because I know that there are those out there, quite rightly so, that if they heard a particular bird, perhaps, in this location, they're all, "You don't get that bird in that sort of environment." Somebody would comment on it. They would notice. So, yeah, it's very important that it's genuine.

 

Alastair Duncan:

I think, remembering one of the other points that I wanted to say about the production process, the audio that I record intentionally uses, intermittently, the sound of my footsteps along the route, and whilst there have been a few people... only a very few... that have found the sound of the walking disturbing, the vast majority of people have found as it as the thing, more than anything else, that puts them into the environment of that walk. But I have to be careful about how they are presented to certain groups of people, in that if an encounter, for instance, with a dog comes up... dog barking, or whatever, which is occasionally the case... in the notes that I would put with the videos that are going out to certain groups, I would identify those things, "If there's anything that you need to be careful about, watch another video," because I don't want negative memories to be triggered. So, that's important.
 

Tania Marien:

Yeah. You've done a lot of research into nature experiences, the impact nature has on wellbeing, and health and wellbeing. What have you learned about sound, and where to find it, and how to use it to interpret place?

 

Alastair Duncan:

Sound, it's a very, very interesting area. There is no such thing as silence, even where they try to produce a situation of silence... I can't remember the name of the room that they have now, and one of them is in Paris, where they've created a room environment where there is no sound getting in or out of that place at all... but as I understand, sitting in a space like that, you adapt and you start hearing your heart and your blood pumping. Because there are no other sounds, your brain tries to hear what is there to perceive something to give it sense to that environment.

 

Alastair Duncan:

So, another aspect to sound is noise. Noise is a sound that is not being listened to, and that's a quote, I can't remember who from. I read it recently. I thought, "That is wonderful." Yeah, noise is a sound that you're not listening to. Prior to reading that, I have walked in many different environments and I've produced StillWalks in different environments; they are not all natural. They are urban, as well. One of my walks in Swansea, where I live, it follows the River Towe down from a wooded area alongside the river into the town itself, and a busy bridge over the river into the city, with a lot of traffic and rumbling and so on, those urban sounds that you expect to hear.

 

Alastair Duncan:

Even that video on the home page, I think it's one of the park in Swansea... I may be wrong... it has the background sounds of the city in there, and sound is about listening, so that quote I mentioned of, "Noise is a sound not being listened to," it rings a bell with me. It makes me think of the sounds that we so often consider noise, but actually when you start listening to them properly, in depth, you start to realize that there are many, many different layers to those sounds.
 

Alastair Duncan:

I've got to qualify this, in that I would agree that although listening to a sound that you would normally consider noise, if you're listening to that all the time, you may be able to hear the nuances of its different levels, its different peaks and troughs and so on, but that doesn't mean to say you want to do that all the time. So, it is almost inevitably going to go back to being noise, like the sound of traffic on the motorway, that kind of thing.
 

Alastair Duncan:

Really, we're remarkable things, we human beings, and we have the ability to filter out what we don't want, to a large extent. One of my favorite walks locally is on our local salt marshes, Tithe Marsh on the River Estuary, where I live, and across that estuary runs the M4 Motorway, and even in lockdown, when it became as quiet as it was 30 years ago on a Sunday... it's not normally like that... but when I'm walking on the marshes, I'm listening to the wind and the reeds, and the rushes, the grasses. I'm listening to the sounds of the birds in the background, or perhaps they're not in the background. I'm watching and listening to the sounds of the water, and although the traffic is there, I'm not listening to it until I want to, and then I can focus on that, and I hear the trundle of lorries or the squeaks and clanks of them as they cross the expansion joints in the bridge, and that kind of thing.

 

Alastair Duncan:

So, yes, it's about our experience of listening and focusing on that that makes sound such a powerful thing. So, bringing attention to different aspects of an environment through developing the soundscapes of the videos is very important... the clank of gates, for instance, or the sound of footsteps changing as you go through a tunnel or over a wooden bridge, through grass; even different kinds of grass will give different sounds, to your feet swishing or rustling through it.
 

Tania Marien:

Yeah, so true. Most [inaudible 00:19:54], because we don't have the equipment that you have when you go out to record sound, a lot of those sounds go unnoticed.
 

Alastair Duncan:

You do have the same equipment that I have, though. They're here. They're your ears. That's your equipment. I am very interested, though, at the moment, in the experience of the world as perceived by people with different disabilities; well, we call them disabilities. I should say different abilities. We are all different. Somebody who has a hearing impairment, for instance, will experience the audio of those videos differently. The images may be more important in bringing what sound they can hear, however they hear it, but not necessarily. It may be simply down to the vibration of sound waves.
 

Alastair Duncan:

I'm collaborating with some Disability Arts Cymru at the moment; it's on hold for now because of the lockdown, but I have been in the past and I will be in the future working with them to investigate more thoroughly the different perceptions that people with different abilities have, in terms of experiencing sound, vision, touch, and so on... although when I say touch, that's also a bit of an issue at the moment with COVID-19, in that the work that I am doing with audio and my tapestry weaving, as an artist, involved interaction with the audience. To date, that's been very successful, where people have been able to touch the artworks, and to a degree, create their own sound piece, because it being polyphonic, you can touch more than one sensor at a time.

 

Alastair Duncan:

That has been very successful. Unfortunately, with COVID, I'm having to explore other options as to direct touch, and again, the perception of audio in relation to the rest of the world around us, or in the case of an artwork, the work in front of you or around you; that perception, or those different perceptions that we have, is very important in how we interact with them.

 

Alastair Duncan:

So, yes, you do have the same equipment that I have, in that you have ears, and they work as they're intended to. It is true that recording sound kit can give you a different experience, and in the walks that I have led with groups of people, enabling them to listen to the environment through my headphones or shared headphones has been good, but that's only because you can turn the volume up a bit. Yes, the quality of the kit does make a difference, but it comes down to listening more than anything else.

 

Tania Marien:

Yes. Oh, yes, absolutely, good point. You mentioned earlier, there's no such thing as silence. I've had an experience in the Eastern Sierra on a long bike ride... it was a century ride... and at some point, I stopped... a century ride, it was a 102-mile bike ride through the Eastern Sierra. At one point, I stopped to see if I had reception, because at one part of this course, a long part of this course, you don't have any reception, and so I had just left the most remote part of this course, and I checked my phone, and I stopped my bike. No one else was around me. I immediately noticed the silence, and there was no wind, there were no insects. The highway was still too far away. There was no sounds of cars. There were no other cyclists. It was the most profound and the loudest silence I have ever heard.
 

Tania Marien:

That was such a wild experience, and I just stopped, and I just stood still, as still as I could, to take that in, because as I said, it was loud. The silence was loud. There's a lot of places in the Sierras where you can have a quiet moment, but there was this void of even nature sounds. I mean, it was nothing.

 

Alastair Duncan:

I think your expressing out silence as loud is excellent. It is an experience, in itself; as close as you can get to it, it is loud. It is expansive. It is all-enveloping, and it is a wonderful experience, I think, absolutely.
 

Alastair Duncan:

Interestingly, if you Google silence, or if you try it on YouTube or whatever, you will find various recordings of different people's perception of silence. It could be interpreted, for instance, as a lack of human sound noise, interference, or whatever; so, the silence of the jungle, for instance, would naturally include the sound of the birds and the monkeys, or whatever it may be, the animals there. The sound of the desert, however, doesn't have those things, just as you have described.
 

Alastair Duncan:

I recognized a silence... inverted commas again... a while back in listening to a recording in an attic at the loft, a space in a house that is not normally used except to store things, yeah? And as I listened to whatever number of minutes it was of this silence, the atmosphere of that space in the house was so easily recognizable. It was strange. It's a unique space in a house. It's one that we don't normally use except for that specific purpose of storing luggage, or whatever it might be, and it's different to the rest of the house. Gradually, I could hear the distant sounds of traffic and the urban landscape, or whatever, but it was very, very faint, and it had so much the atmosphere of an attic room, as opposed to a living room or wherever else, and yet, it was close to silence, but still had that atmosphere.
 

Alastair Duncan:

So, you're experiencing the desert there, where there is so little, or apparently, no sound at all. I can visualize it. I'd love to experience it.
 

Tania Marien:

Yeah, it was definitely a special moment. I've also spent time in the field in the desert, in the Mojave, before sunrise, and you mentioned the desert landscape. The sound there of a desert morning... it's the color that has the sound, that makes the noise, because there's one brief moment in the desert where the sun first hits the plants, and there is this beautiful, pinkish-orange kind of... and that is sound for that brief, brief, first moment in time.

 

Alastair Duncan:

I suspect you don't actually have the synesthesia, as it is called, the interpretation of one sense to another, seeing words as colors or whatever. Sound is texture, perhaps? Sound is a very important thing.
 

Alastair Duncan:

I think that both what you and I are describing here is almost synesthesia. Our senses, as many of them as there are, it's not just the five normal senses that we think of normally... they are combined in our perception, and this is one of the reasons that I'm interested in collaborating with people of different abilities, because their perception all around is quite different to mine or yours.
 

Alastair Duncan:

But, yeah, synesthesia. I like that word.
 

Tania Marien:

You mentioned that you are also a weaver, and you're a textile artist.
 

Alastair Duncan:

Yes.

 

Tania Marien:

That work informed how you view textures and sound, and you've mentioned that already, textures and sound. You've also mentioned that you are looking for other ways to interpret place that doesn't include touch, that doesn't involve touch. What are these other ways that you are exploring?
 

Alastair Duncan:

Well, one of the first thing that I'm looking at is the actual sound that is used in integration with my weaving. So, to date, my tapestries have included contact sensors and proximity sensors. Proximity sensors so far have not been ideal, because it's okay if you can control the environment around them, but in gallery situations, for instance, light is changing and that kind of thing, so it's more difficult to control that.

 

Alastair Duncan:

Touch sensors, contact sensors, are not going to be so practical for the future if COVID has any kind of legacy that I expect it to have, but the audio that you hear when that aspect of my work is triggered, I think, is going to be more important again. I'm looking to find a way that the audio can describe what is in the visual and tactile nature of the work; so, it will be the textures of sound that become even more important. To date, the themes, perhaps, of the content, of the visual work and the content of the audio work, have been more important, but I think that texture of the sound... I'm going to try to relate more closely to the expected experience of touching the weave, for instance, or whatever other materials are being used.
 

Alastair Duncan:

I work a lot with metal, as well, in the weave, and wire and stuff like that, so that's an important part of it. Actually, the element of interaction and triggering the audio experience... there are many different possibilities for indirect touch. I mean, it could be foot plates on the floor like they use in gaming. It could be audio itself. I mean, we interact with things like... what are they called? I don't have one. What's the Amazon thing that they do?

 

Tania Marien:

Oh, the…
 

Alastair Duncan:

Kindle? No, not Kindle.
 

Tania Marien:

Yeah, the voice, the Alexa.
 

Alastair Duncan:

Yeah, Alexa, that's it. Alexa and Echo and stuff like that, so that's a possibility. I've been experiencing sound in a different environment in the last few months, in that I have been working at Amazon, in fact, for a while now, and listening carefully to the multitude of sounds in there. It's fascinating when you listen. They're using scanners in there all the time, for instance, and phones use QR codes; so, AR, augmented reality, is a potential vehicle for virtual connection to trigger other aspects of the audio in my weaving work. There's many, many different possibilities that I'm hoping to be able to work on next month.

 

Tania Marien:

Yeah. Well, that's wonderful.
 

Tania Marien:

You mentioned that you have current project is working with people with different abilities to experiencing the world around them. What other type of projects have you done in that theme or in that line of work, or other projects involving sound and the outdoors?
 

Alastair Duncan:

Well, one of the things that partly, I suppose, brought me to develop StillWalks was the experience that I had built across many different projects, both digital interactive and design and weave projects with schools and communities throughout South Wales. Those projects allowed me to both get training and experience in using sound recorders and recording voice, as well as environmental sounds, doing photography and video and so on.

 

Alastair Duncan:

A number of the projects included working with people with different learning disabilities, I called them at the time; the terms are changing all the time. There have been one or two projects that I've done through Disability Arts Cymru where I have been working specifically with people with autism, Asperger's Syndrome. One of the projects that has been canceled, or postponed for the moment, was to work with children with autism and Downs Syndrome in London where I have an exhibition booked, that will hopefully come off next year now instead of this year.

 

Alastair Duncan:

So, I've got a fair degree of experience in working with people with all sorts of issues, but you're always learning, always learning. As I say, everybody's perception of the world is different, whatever your abilities, so you need to be continually on the watch and the listen for how people are reacting to things, and adjust your approach accordingly. One of the things that I would be doing with... will be doing, I hope... with the children next year, along with a solo exhibition I have near London, is to take them on a walk with their helpers around the gardens, the Sunbury Walled Garden in Sunbury-on-Thames, is where the exhibition is to be and where the workshops will be done. We will be listening to the sounds of that garden: the people, the water, the birds, the wind and the roses, and things like that. We will be looking at my exhibition and experiencing the sounds of those, and looking for reactions from those individuals.

 

Alastair Duncan:

I talked about synesthesia earlier on. The translation from one medium to another is important in this respect, in that whether it be people with autism, or any other learning disability or whatever, one of the ways that I have worked in the past in schools is to ask, as a starting point for a project, the children and adults to do mark-making with different materials; charcoal, of course, is a great one because you get so messy with it. Some people can't cope with that, but others can. But when you ask people to use the charcoal or whatever medium it is, vigorously, or be angry with it, or be calm and smooth and gentle, and follow the line of a bee or whatever... they are challenged in their expression and their inhibitions. Some will open up and go crazy with it, and others, it's a major challenge and they find it very difficult.
 

Alastair Duncan:

Either way, the translation from one medium to another, as with the audio to visual and vice versa, it is releasing. It allows people then to say, "Oh, I can do this," and so many people say to me that they can't draw. I thought, "If you can put a mark on a piece of paper, you can draw," and that's what it's all about, expressing yourself.
 

Tania Marien:

Yeah, absolutely. You've mentioned in a previous conversation we've had, is that you've brought StillWalks to places like the immigration centers and prisons. Describe that work for us.
 

Alastair Duncan:

A major project that we have ongoing at the moment... I say we, because with StillWalks Distribution Limited, I have a co-director in Paul Allen; I think his profile is on the StillWalks website, as well... is to work with people in an immigration removal center in Britain, where, although the numbers are down there at the moment because of the COVID situation, it normally has quite a high level of occupancy. Now, not getting into any of the politics of that sort of issue, the fact of the matter is that the people that are in that kind of situation, whether it be an immigration removal center or a prison, they're in a position, along with the staff that work there, that is highly stressful. If you're locked away or in a situation like that where you have no access, other than through a screen, for instance, to the outside world, things can easily kick off, and situations arise that need to be calmed down quickly.

 

Alastair Duncan:

So, over the last year, we have been introducing StillWalks videos to both the staff of the center and the detainees there. To date, they have had a very good response. We are currently experimenting with VR video, virtual reality, because the demographic of the people that are detained there, I think, will respond more immediately, more effectively, to that kind of natural environment as presented through VR than the more meditative videos that are StillWalks. That's not to say that the standard StillWalks videos, which are meditative, are not of use; they are most definitely of use, in that they are very calming; they prompt you through repeated use to look more carefully, to listen more carefully, and in my own experience, as well as others, as you watch and listen to videos multiple times, if I'm making notes on what I'm hearing, what I'm seeing, they're different every time. There will be some similarities, but they're different every time, and it just amazes me that that is so true.

 

Alastair Duncan:

So, with that particular delivery and with the VR... with VR, as it's expected with the standard videos, we already do facilitation training so that the staff are able to deliver the benefits of StillWalks videos to the people they're working with, as well as understand them and how they can be used more effectively themselves, and there's different levels to that facilitation and understanding of the use of the videos. The VR experiment will be taking off soon, and we've got a couple of examples there as drafts. They'll be using the VR headsets, but given the situation that they're going to be used in, they will need to be facilitated with, so that's going to be the next stage of our training for that.
 

Alastair Duncan:

One of the things that I have identified at this stage is that using a VR, it is more effective to use video as opposed to still images. I reserve the right to go back on that.
 

Tania Marien:

Yeah, uh-huh.

 

Alastair Duncan:

It's interesting how different the VR experience is. It gives you a much more greater overview of the environment that you're in, which you could then go and investigate in more detail if it's in a more meditative StillWalks video on a flat screen. It's exciting. It's exciting.
 

Tania Marien:

Yeah. How are the meditative videos and the VR used? At this point in the project, can you explain that, how that is implemented in a setting like that?
 

Alastair Duncan:

Well, at their most basic, the StillWalks videos are provided to you, the client, that is, as a collection of videos. There are some, obviously, on the website that are available to anybody, and of course, the blog is always there, but I specifically don't use video on that, except on one or two occasions.

 

Alastair Duncan:

But you are given a collection of videos, from which you can pick one to choose from, and there is guidance provided at the start, where it is suggested that you stop. You select the video you want to watch, you switch off your mobile phone, you sweep everything else aside. You've made the selection of your video, you put it full-screen, if that's relevant, and then before you start watching, you sit back in your chair, you take a deep breath, let it out slowly, relax your shoulders, and then click, “Play."
 

Alastair Duncan:

I don't have it at the moment on my screen, but I went through quite a long period of where I sat up on my computer screen because I was working at the computer every day; 12:00 notification would come up: "Watch a StillWalks video." I could ignore it or I could watch one, but it was a prompt to do that, and more often than not, I would watch a video and follow my own guidance. Within the first couple of minutes of a five to eight minute video, if I weren't actually sort of in that place and completely relaxed, I was aware of the fact. I was conscious of it. StillWalks is about awareness of your environment. It's also about awareness of yourself, ultimately.

 

Alastair Duncan:

People have often used the term mindfulness when I talk in this way. It's not a word that I use, because I know that different people understand mindfulness in different ways, have different experiences of it. I don't mind them using that. If they come to that term, that's fine, but for me, it is a more incidental thing of regularly using StillWalks as a tool, a resource, to manage stress and anxiety... yes, and depression, as well, certainly, in my case, by putting yourself into these situations. If it is possible to get out because you have legs you can walk on, then I hope they do act as a prompt to both go out and walk, and to be more aware of your surroundings. If it's not possible, for whatever reason... and that might just be rain in Wales... then, it can bring the outside in.

 

Tania Marien:

Do you have plans to write about all your projects? Do you have a book in your future, do you think? Or do you write research papers as you complete each of your projects, be it your exhibition work, the work that you do with different groups in your community?
 

Alastair Duncan:

This has been asked of me so often. Write a book. Write a book. I have thought of it frequently. The closest I've come to a book is to put a small digital one up on Blurb, and it simply consists of a short introduction and some captions with selected images that I've been particularly pleased with and that I think that other people will like.
 

Alastair Duncan:

As far as writing about the StillWalks work is concerned, I have certainly had to do that on any number of occasions, both in the form of reports for funding that I have received, and in selling it, I suppose, to potential clients, and explaining what it is about and how it can work, the benefits that it can bring. We've done a lot of research in that respect, and indeed, some very important stuff having come from the United States, specifically the Oregon State Penitentiary. They had been doing a project with their prisoners to... I think they called it a blue room, where prisoners were taken when a situation looked like it was about to flare up, and again, the feedback on that was very positive, and that they enjoyed that environment. It helped calm them down and deal with that. That is not only important to the prisoner, obviously, in that situation; it is extremely important to the staff.
 

Alastair Duncan:

Then, the other piece more recently, which actually is a piece of research that has been done in various places and I had been aware of for some time, but this specific one came from the States... where research had been done with a small number of people to look at the effects of, when in hospital, having a natural view outside their ward window to trees and so on, or having the view of a brick wall. It was notable, the difference that it made to the recovery time of those people, and the medication they required, as well, that were able to see the trees outside.

 

Alastair Duncan:

There's been research done all over the world on umpteen occasions by almost every country you could name into the benefits of the natural environment on our mental wellbeing. One of the most important for me that started StillWalks was from the University of Exeter, where they had found that using green images, as opposed to red... green images, a green environment was much more positive in bringing down heart rates and muscle tension, blood pressure, and so on, and that's something that can be measured, just as they were measuring doses and recovery time in America, those things that are measurable.

 

Alastair Duncan:

We haven't done a clinical trial in this respect yet. That would take quite a lot of time. We do not promote StillWalks as, in any way, a medical resource. Yes, it's therapeutic, but that's a different matter altogether.
 

Tania Marien:

That's wonderful. That is wonderful, Alastair. What's next for you?

 

Alastair Duncan:

Well, I think, as I've said already, the ongoing project with the IRC, the Immigration Removal Center, with the VR, that is a very exciting one and has, over the next year, the contract has been renewed to continue with the trial. We'll be looking very closely at that, and it's very exciting. If, as I think we expect, that proves successful, then we'll want to look to rolling that out to a wider audience, and I think that I will want to use it, however, as a bridge for some people to using the more in-depth... is it more in-depth... the way I think of it is the more in-depth experience and meditative experience of StillWalks videos.

 

Alastair Duncan:

We do have StillWalks with other organizations, as well. As I've said, I've led walks with people through mental health organizations. I've done mental health first-aid training myself, and one of the organizations we have, the OTs, the occupational therapists, are in their... they're going into their fifth year, actually, of using this with individuals that have complex needs in an environment up in the north of England, and it's not just autism, it's a lot of other things. They have found it very beneficial for individuals in that community, so taking that further would be good.

 

Alastair Duncan:

To be honest, I would love everybody to be able to take advantage of these things, and there are a lot of resources out there that people can and do use. I'd like StillWalks to be one of those with a wider audience, so again, once we gain greater confidence through the proof of its efficacy, then I think that we will be in a position to promote it more widely and more confidently.