Jane Hartshorn on Caitlin McMullan's 'First Step Swim'

A close up of a white hand moving through water. The water is dark, made up of deep blues and muddy browns. Light reflecting on the water creates a painterly quality. Weeds float in the water, and they are partly in motion as the hand brushes against them.
Caitlin McMullan, ‘First Step Swim’, 2021. Courtesy of the artist.

We commissioned poet and academic Jane Hartshorn to respond to Caitlin McMullans First Step Swim’ (2021), you can read her text on the work below.

ONE WORK is a series of online discussion events to think more deeply about how an artwork came into being. Focusing closely on a single work, these generous discussions provide space for an artist to present a recent work and talk through the work’s creation. The events are accompanied by a month-long online screening and specially commissioned written response published on the LUX Scotland website.

Caitlin McMullans film First Step Swim’ (2021) was presented on the LUX Scotland website in November 2022 as part of our ONE WORK series.

Jane Hartshorn is a poet and PhD candidate at the University of Kent, writing
about the lived experience of chronic illness. Her pamphlets include Blowfly
(forthcoming with ossa prints), Soft Tissue Rarely Preserves (forthcoming, self-
published), In the Sick Hour (Takeaway Press, 2020) and Tract (Litmus
Publishing, 2017). Her work has been published by Osmosis, Boudicca Press,
Dostoyevsky Wannabe, Lucy Writers, The Polyphony, and SPAM. She is an editor
at Ache Press and founder of CHASE Medical Humanities Network.

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To not end where you thought you did

not with skin but water

not with arms but meadow

of watercress, dropwort, floating pennywort

against all odds to be buoyant.’

– Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, from Preface’ in Swims

In First Step Swim, Caitlin McMullan blurs the boundaries of self and other – self and environment – creating a multi-layered and shifting waterscape that moves between dimensions, oscillating between surface and depth, light and shadow.

Fingers twisting a silver ring, a close-up of the back of her head: the camera often denies us access to any kind of complete, or whole’ picture, drawing us instead into a subjective realm of sensation, where we navigate the visual field of the film via touch.

This stratification extends to the sound design; the suck and slosh of water discords with muffled shouts from the shore, placing us at once beneath and above the surface, McMullan’s own breath acting as a kind of textural cut within this sonic disharmony. Similarly, in an aerial shot of McMullan swimming, we hear both the warping of underwater sound alongside the clarity of bird song, again holding us in a liminal space between proximity and distance, intimacy and alienation.

As viewers, we are thus asked to straddle multiple, contradictory spaces at once, creating a conceptual dissonance that prevents us from occupying any kind of coherent gaze or position of bodily integrity.

This incoherence, or fragmentation, reflects the sick or disabled experience, where the body may not be experienced as a discrete entity with clear boundaries, but as something porous and mutable. Surgery or treatment may break the body’s continuity with its past and be experienced as a disruption in an otherwise linear trajectory of bodily development. The experience of illness or disability may lack a sense of temporal progression, where one event, or stage, logically leads to another. Instead, it is characterised by disruption and disorder, periods of remission followed by periods of recurrence. Similarly, the arrival of new or fluctuating symptoms involves a continual process of adaptation, preventing the body from ever receding into the background of the sick/​disabled person’s awareness.

In First Step Swim, the body of the viewer is implicated in other ways, for instance, there is a moment when McMullan turns and looks directly at the camera, closing the gap between viewer and subject, and reminding us of our own potentially objectifying gaze. Like her intercorporeal relationship with her environment, her relationship with the viewer becomes reciprocal, a conduit, a bodily encounter.

As well as recurring close-ups, there are also several wide-angle shots that appear less subjective in their rendering: a small figure in the margins of the frame sits at a picnic bench, surrounded by coniferous trees, a glimpse of hills in the distance; multiple aerial shots of McMullan submerged in water, the light tracing the ghosts of her movements across the surface of the loch. In these shots, McMullan becomes an element in a larger composition, reminding me of Nan Shepherd’s description of her relationship with the Cairngorms, where she writes that,

Details are no longer part of a grouping in a picture of which I am the focal point, the focal point is everywhere. Nothing has reference to me, the looker. This is how the earth must see itself.’ (Shepherd 2014,11)

In First Step Swim, the loch and its wider environs become a place where boundaries dissolve, where the landscape is an extension of the body, where the I’ of the film becomes decentred and part of a larger ecosystem.

As someone with a chronic illness, my own body sometimes feels like something I drag around with me. Swimming gives me a sense of buoyancy, of lightness. In water, I sink into my body, feel the knotted parts soften and unravel. When we swim or float, or drift, we take on the characteristics of water itself. Our limbs ripple, thrash, or are carried along by tide or current, our hair eddying, our body undulating.

Although swimming is an activity that provides me with bodily relief, I am wary of perpetuating cultural discourses of water as having healing properties, as curative or restorative. From the holy water of baptism or spiritual cleansing to the Wim Hof method, water is often understood as a medium for transformation, an escape from the encumbrance of having a body and a release into a purely spiritual plane.

In First Step Swim, submersion in water is not a means to achieve bodily transcendence. Rather than an untethering, McMullan depicts a bodymind that is in negotiation with its environment, exploring the fragile boundaries of the body via the senses. Fingers tangling with weeds, waterlight pulsing across skin, it is not always clear where the body begins and ends. For bodies are never cohesive, discrete entities. They are always in a state of flux; their margins are always changing shape.

Existing in this temporal space of fluctuation, of unfolding and becoming, the film is a phenomenological exploration of the disabled experience, bringing us closer to what it might feel like to inhabit a non-normative body than any kind of narrativization could.

Works Cited:

Burnett, Elizabeth-Jane. 2019. Swims. London: Penned in the Margins.

Shepherd, Nan. 2014. The Living Mountain. Edinburgh: Canongate.

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Image descriptions:

1. A close up of a white hand moving through water. The water is dark, made up of deep blues and muddy browns. Light reflecting on the water creates a painterly quality. Weeds float in the water, and they are partly in motion as the hand brushes against them.

2. A poem in san serif font sits on a pale peach background. Each line of the poem is one to seven lines in length, and at intermittent intervals the lines are intended.

Audio Version