About carolyn black

I'm an artist and also commission contemporary art in unusual locations. As a producer, I fundraise, curate, project manage and deliver projects. I'm also a writer.

Attention series No.4 Covid 19, the rural idyll & climate change

That one is over on my flowprojects website – not about my art practice, but it is about thinking things through.

In the light of the shutdowns occurring across the world, we are undoubtedly struggling to do everyday things that we take for granted. Travel, work, leisure, exercise, culture – all disrupted. How are you coping?…………….read on…..

Attention series No. 3: walking with wandering body & mind

Set off walking, active body

Quite quickly a rhythm settled in, a steady, fairly fast pace

I heard cars close-by to my left, on the A48

To my right the River Severn, and from a distance of around 10 miles, a rumbling noise, from the M5

The terrain underfoot level and there are no obstacles, I found an even stride easily

My attention moved away from external sounds and came closer to my body, to my footsteps, to something rattling in my backpack, to my thinking body

My walking no longer needed an active mind, my gear slipped into automatic

 

I paid attention to my speed and pace, how regular it was

My thinking turned to drumming patterns

Before lockdown I was learning Taiko drumming

I find it very hard to do different rhythms with different limbs at the same time

I practiced doing this while I walked

Stepping 1, 2, 3, 4, left arm up, 2, 3, 4 left arm up – yes, easy!

Then alternated arms, taking an odd number of beats

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 left arm up

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 right arm up.

Yes – that worked too!

 

I walked like that for a mile or so, throwing arms up in flips and flings, marching steadily

Drivers passing by were quite likely mildly amused

I didn’t care

I was on my way to the riverbank, my special place

And I felt I was improving my body, mind and Taiko playing

Once I hit the area where the path is close to the A48 I switched mode again

Underfoot was still ok but the path next to the road arrowed

One slip and I would be in the road, potential roadkill

 

I diverted my attention back to my whole body, in the hope of keeping it so

On my right, just under the railway bridge, the hedges were encroaching

The crows above were making their massive noise

A jogger appeared from nowhere

Social distancing resulted in his stepping onto the road for a few scary seconds

I turned right at the house with the odd ticking noise coming from it

When I first started walking that route regularly, I thought there was something rattling in my bag

Like the ball bearing does in my can of fixative

But I eventually realised it was coming from the house

Which was confirmed, when asked, by the owner – a security alarm

I crossed the railway line with care and wandered through the orchard down to the riverbank

Then I headed for the swing that hangs from the oak tree

 

The field had recently been ploughed, already green lines of seedlings were appearing

I had to watch my footfall there, very uneven

Making me aware of my physical vulnerability

Then I got to the swing – recently designated to be my crying place

Not necessarily sad – I sometimes cry with joy there too!

I don’t sit on the swing on my way out, because I am on a mission, a destination beyond the swing

But I did stop and enjoy the view, notice the gulls on the mudflats, the high contrast edges of the wet sandbanks against the pale grey water

 

I looked across at Garden Cliff, it’s red sandstone marking the corner of the bend, where the Severn flows between Rodley on west bank and Framilode on the east

I took my first photos of the walk, of the swing, shadows on the ground and the river

As I stood facing the river I heard a train pass by behind me, wending it’s way from Gloucester to Wales

I wondered, if due to the variance of lockdown rule, whether or not people are allowed to get off the train at Chepstow

I recalled that when I first started taking pairs of panoramic photos, they were shot as pairs

By taking a photo of the key view in front of me, for example the sea-view or the river

Then rotating and taking the parallel, less noticed view

 

I would then look at them together as a relational pair

An arrangement that created brackets of my presence, as I was always in the centre of the scene, never in the pictures

In the olden days, in the days of dark rooms, you bracketed your shots with different settings

We’re all digital now

I set off along the riverbank, following the path that took me under two wonderful oak trees.

They were like brackets too

I took more photos

I took some pairs of panoramas, just for old-time’s sake

 

As the path veered away from the river I left it and waded through the long grass to my destination

I had to stop my intellectual thoughts, give attention to my body again

Checking whether the ground was solid or not

Avoiding ledges hidden in the grass, or brambles that lashed around my ankles

Once in my little place by the river I set up my video camera, framing, surveying the activity

I had my monocular with me

While the camera rolled and captured the wildlife, I zoomed in to other things

My wandering eye switching between aided and un-assisted viewing

Through the monocular lens I saw a red ball in the mudflats

Then searched for with naked eyes

It took many attempts to find it, so I could film it

Sometimes, however much we want to see something clearly, we simply can’t

Vision and perception are tightly connected

 

I packed up to return, both relaxed and exhausted

I realise as I write this up that all the time I was there I was focussed on the visual

Yes, I heard the trains, the traffic and the crows and gulls on the mudflats and in the sky, but my attention was not on them, sound was peripheral

To my intention

To my attention

Wandering, wondering, walking

 

 

 

 

 

Attention Series No.2 : Thinking Practice

In recent years I have become increasingly aware of attention, during the pandemic my inability has become even worse. For some time now I have found reading a book very challenging and become aware that part of the difficulty is that my curiosity is evoked by something I read – such as the name of  a place, or a particular word I don’t know – and off I go.

In the pre-screen, pre-computer days, one might first search in the glossary of terms for the answer, or open a thesaurus or encyclopaedia. But now we pop onto the computer to learn what we lack. But I have found that, increasingly, once I leave the page, I have left the book. Rarely do I return.

The pandemic is relevant here because so much time alone has opened the door to far more contemplation-time. I have always worked at my best when there is time to reflect, whether that be in terms of writing, making artworks or simply going more deeply into things. The life of a freelancer doesn’t leave much space for that, having no financial security unless one is constantly multi-tasking. Portfolio working. Only now do I see the irony of that term for an artist. Because a strong artist portfolio will evidence focussed thinking, sequential learning, development, and connected thinking.

Looking back on my own creative portfolio (stepping away from the anxiety of the gig economy), I recall that when I was studying for my degree and for some time afterwards, I divided my images up into irregular grids of works that were  depictions of one thing but from different ways of looking and understanding Close-ups of leaves and seeds next to huge trees or complex roots structures. They were an anatomical representation of my life. Married with two young children, my life was more manageable if I broke it down into little pieces. When I made collagraphs (collaged plates of treated card worked into then reassembled on the bed of the press for intaglio printing) I was literally doing my best to hold my life together.

Jump forward a few years to when I did my MA in Fine Art at Cardiff UWIC, I left the printmaking process behind and slipped into first experimental darkroom photography, then slide dissolve, then video. Another transition about self-identity. The imagery was self-portraiture, inspired partly by the fact that my mother died just before the course began. It led me gently from static printed images into time-based activities. By the time I completed my MA I was writing about the body and technology and creating spatially disrupted video installations that were immersive and drew the viewer into them through portals such as peepholes and mirror tunnels. I had somehow warped time and space using these media. Only now do I see that this was also about giving attention to the subject by zoning in the viewers gaze.

That was all in the late 1990’s, early 2000’s.

In 2017 I began to make art again, after having been producing and curating non-gallery exhibitions since 2002. All my adult life I have had a strong pull towards the River Severn, walking there for 25 years on the east bank and the last 13 years on the west. After a move to the west bank in 2006, I spent much time gazing not just at the river, but also to the other bank. I also loved taking panoramic photos of the river, because they enabled me to create something more than a photograph and less than a video. The attention of my eye whilst taking them was on how to ensure each end framed the centre, and that the horizon line was as straight as possible. I gathered all these photos together, digital as they were and not good enough to print very large, I decided I would draw them. Returning to the messiness of charcoal and chalk after many years of technology and screen, I loved the tactility of the medium. And at one metre wide they allowed my eye to draw the drawing, just as it had tracked the river.

I decided to revisit the places I used to go to with my family and friends, pairing them with the places I had come to know on this bank. Soon I had a big map on my wall with the pairings and I set off to photograph, then draw, each one, and also write about them in parallel. I loved the idea of drawing opposite banks and writing in parallel to drawing, it held a poetic resonance.

The drawings and texts were completed as a looped journey and a book produced – Severnside: An Artist’s View of the Severn. There a followed a period of experimentation, having got my hands on a 36o degree camera I dabbled and considered whether or not to learn more and return to my interest in immersive video, but in the round.

The idea of only being able to make work for screen or headset consumption didn’t appeal to me enough. I wanted to create something that could speak about the immersive landscape, not the immersive artwork. I have always struggled with being in front of a camera, due to my self-consciousness and dislike of being photographed or filmed. During my MA I made glass slides with shed snake skins, acquired from Bristol Zoo, and projected them onto my body. Initially, they acted as a mask to my identity. On reflection, they related to my psychological desire to reinvent myself, as this was the period when I realised I needed to leave home and begin a new life. But I wasn’t quite there yet.

Back to the Severn, the exploration of 360 space resulted in my creating works that responded to my dislike of being filmed. The 360 gaze is all-embracing with nowhere to hide. I turned to art history to find a way to inform my work, settling on Caspar David Friedrichs work by turning my back to the lens and standing on the river bank gazing across, at my past, with my walking stick in hand. A feminist response to landscape, not about controlling it, but becoming at one with it.

I eventually returned to making videos of the Severn – I used to create video installations in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s. I found myself during editing re-creating the charcoal-ness of the drawings, black and white, sharpened contrast, long shots and intimate details. Just like my MA work had been, but that was about my body, this is about a body of water. We both know the process of having a smooth surface and a rippling one now!

My love of the Severn permeates my life now. I have tried to move away, but I doubt that is possible.

So recent works during the pandemic have involved my paying attention to the nuances. The changes brought about by the external impact things have on the river. The disruption of human social behaviour and how their absence during the Spring Bore allowed the river to breather more freely, to expand and relax undisturbed. It was a bit like seeing your lover naked for the first (and maybe, only) time. It was an encounter during which the river was given a voice.

The last one explores the relationship between the artist and the muse. The context and the activities. A meta-narrative woven from three threads, three cameras.

  1. Video filming the subject – the view
  2. 360 camera filming underneath and around
  3. iPad filming the drawing in progress and the shadow play as animation

I share my process because it is integral to the work – and the editing is revealed through the spoken narrative.

Thinking practice is all about how I work through ideas, and mediums, to complete a work. A window into my seemingly scattered mind that reveals a coherence one can only see through reflection and retrospection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Attention series No.1 : A weekend of digital festival experiences

Today’s writing follows a few days of online activity over the May bank holiday weekend, when I signed up  to virtually ‘attend’ two well-known festivals, both usually held in the picturesque town of Hay on Wye.

No naming or shaming here, though it doesn’t take much to work out which festivals I am referring to. They are of course very different, so their online presence inevitably reflects that. As a newbie to both, this is an outsider perspective. I have not attended either of them in the past, in the real world. I don’t work for them, know any of the organisers or have any insider knowledge. This account is from the perspective of an attendee and written from that position. I shall explain, because the context matters.

One of the reasons I choose to live in a remote rural place is that I am not fond of crowds of people – especially when they all descend in swarms at otherwise quiet places. So it goes without saying, that I don’t go to Glastonbury, Womad or other music festivals, despite loving live music and fields. I find passing through Hay on Wye on a sleepy Sunday afternoon delightful – so pretty, with lovely walks along the river. But I’ve never attended their cultural festivals. I’ve often looked at the programmes and been tempted, but the thought of packed cafes, no parking, staying in crowded accommodation, puts me off.

I’m not antisocial by any means. I love experiencing culture with others, but preferably in quiet places with three or four people at a time. Which probably makes me easily tolerant of social distancing! I’m just not wired for mass activity. Carnivals, street fairs, football matches, music festivals, protest marches – anything that involves coachloads of people and massive queues, they’re just not my thing. I love arts events such as Venice Biennale or Documenta, because the venues are spread out and take me to new places constantly. They also run over a long period of time, so one can choose the quieter times.

But if there is a choice between queuing to get into somewhere, or having time to stare at a river, I know which I prefer.

So a weekend of cultural seepage into my home during lockdown was very appealing. I scheduled what I wanted to see, when, leaving space for garden time and walks. This smorgasbord of delights suited me well.

I found myself comparing the experience of the two different festivals, not just in content, but also in the physical experience and audience interaction. The focus of this writing (mostly) sets aside the content and refers specifically to my experience as a visitor, and observations on audience interaction. I say mostly, because the truth is I did observe different behaviours from the audiences which related to the content, intention and purpose of each festival. So of course the content is important, as it informs the programming. There are crossovers, the arts and sciences are never far away from each other, but they do use different framing, languages and protocols of engagement.

For me it is a learning curve – I wish to understand the strengths and weaknesses of how the online events were presented. I have no desire to put the events in competition with each other, though the fact that they hold their events at the same time is of slight concern to me – whether live or digital. Because as an audience member, whilst I rather enjoyed being able to flit between them online, I presumably wouldn’t be likely to do so if I was in the town?

The thought of that reminds me of being a teenager and witnessing stand-offs between different ‘gangs’ of bikers and skinheads on a Friday night in the town centre. I put the word gangs in brackets, because really they were youths from nearby pit villages, flexing their testosterone and bravado. Always a social butterfly, I would chat to people on one side of the square, then cross over to the other to talk with people I knew on the other side. That was not really acceptable and often left me on the outside, as I didn’t ‘fit-in’ on either.

When you attend things, there is always the issue of whether you will ‘fit-in’, feel part of the tribe. It is inevitably a shared interest in the content and subject that connects, but as I described above, some people, like me, are curious about everything. To be honest, switching between the online events, I felt a little like an outsider at both. The constant visual and aural attention that was needed made me feel a little voyeuristic. Of course, no-one at either camp knew I was flitting, and nor did I know them. I was a flaneur.

It surprised me that both festivals were online the same weekend, one of them extending for another week. I didn’t realise this is how it ‘normally’ happens, in real (as opposed to online) life. In terms of cultural tourism, that seems a slightly odd thing to do. One festival has been around a lot longer than the other, therefore more established, and it, alone, has always packed the small town to the hilt. So I can imagine visitors, and staff, finding accommodation must be very challenging, a bit like playing sardines. When demand exceeds supply, prices surely go up and the event becomes more exclusive? Would it not be wiser to spread them around the calendar a bit more, making it more accessible? Those things need further thinking through.

At one festival, I paid for a festival pass and could have paid more for ‘inner circle’ events. I would be interested to know whether inner circle events were primarily for funders, press people, reviewers and the ‘in-crowd’- I wish I had paid to enter one and find out. Clearly, due to the extra fee, they were only available to a certain type of audience, and I wasn’t one of them.

The other was entirely free.

ONLINE ACCESS

Whether free or paid was obviously a strategic decision for each. One clearly had sufficient reserves to afford to make it free, whilst the other didn’t. The free festival had invested in, and capitalised on, the marketing opportunity for every single event. They had a powerful visual identity, strong selling opportunity and ways of donating to the festival as a thank you. The programme was easy to navigate and when you clicked to book you could connect it with your online calendar. That provided a link to follow on with when the time came to watch, and you got reminders too. Great.

The other adhered to the layout of a physical festival – the language of the venues identified as structures such as tents and tables. Apart from the cinema, which was not called ‘cinema’, which I found utterly confusing. The navigation to events emulated the notion of moving from one place to another through geographic space. Unfortunately, there were no diary links or venue links from each listing. This resulted in quite a complex process to get it copied and pasted into my diary. The menus were so confusing I opted to keep two page open in my browser – one for the programme, where I could find out where the event was, and the other for the venues. A little baffling there wasn’t a hyperlink on the event listing to the venue.

In terms of visual experience, the platforms, time keeping and quality, they varied. One had rather a lot of technical hitches, I suspect that was down to capacity to afford professional help. But it was also going out live. Easy to forget that efficient websites cost a lot more to produce than those on a tight budget. The technicians were fantastic and did their best to communicate through the chat rooms while audiences waited, which added a human element which was actually rather engaging, it felt quite ‘real’.

INTERACTION

Which brings me onto the opportunities for the audience to interact with the speakers. And much of that depends on the way the online platform operated, the programming and, when it came to the chat, the different audiences.

Let’s start with the platforms. I have to declare here that I had a personal preference for attending presentations that involved dialogue, rather than lectures. Though I did enjoy both.

As we are all learning very rapidly about using online platforms for multiple occupancy and debate, it has become obvious that there has to be a strong chair or presenter, and participants must have a clear understanding of protocol. Some people attempt to transfer board-room dynamics into online portals. Whilst that controls the dialogue, it does change the dynamic of the space and involves a lot of muting. Muting is not a good tool for discursive conversation. On occasion, the ‘chair’ acted as such, on others they behaved liked chat show presenters and the worst, (to my mind), was the one who used his convener status to put down all the other speakers and flout his own opinions, talking over others constantly and holding forth. This is where the chat window became part of the interactive system, and at one of the festivals was the most interesting place of audience interaction.

I wish I had noted audience numbers at the events, but I didn’t. So my reference to engagement scale is consequentially vague. In all fairness, this was intended to be a fun experience for me over the weekend, so I wasn’t in work mode.

The chat windows – wow, so different. I’ll split this into three sections, arrival, during and departure.

  1. ARRIVAL

On arrival one site began to fill up quite early and a constant stream of visitors greeted each other – Hi from New York! Hello from London, greetings from Aberdeen, hugs from the Cotswolds…….they streamed and streamed. Some people clearly knew each other, but this wasn’t really interactive, it flowed very fast and no conversations took place. This was time-filling while the marketing and fundraising went on prior to the event starting.

Over at the other festival, people came into the chat slowly, steadily, clearly much smaller audiences. This was more discursive, people, introduced themselves as if at an academic conference, name, where from, specialism. They had come for the conversation with the other attendees. The tech support popped up sometimes to apologise for delays, while the technical glitches were ironed out. And there were quite a few, but the chat members used the time to have conversations in quite a rich way.

  1. DURING

Flipping back to the occasion mentioned above, of the convener bringing the real-world dynamic onto the online platform. Conversations within the chat called the host out for mansplaining, getting quite heated and annoyed, whilst the female speakers on-screen had that glazed, clearly angry-but-hiding-it looks on their faces. The chatters empathised with them (which, of course, the speakers were not aware of), while the convener continued on, entirely unaware of the stream of fury that was flowing past on-screen. There was a very human thing going on there.

This is an important point – the convener, and the speakers being unaware, and the audience unable to communicate with the presenters, or vice-versa.

We take our experience of offline interaction into the online. When we are in the role of performer/speaker, we find ourselves presenting to camera in a private cell, created by the frame of the window within the screen. We face forward as if looking at the viewer, but we are actually looking at a grid of people on the screen doing the same. Eye contact is impossible, either with the others participating in the debate online, or with the audiences. We are all detached, untethered from our physical worlds. Those on camera try not to shift about in their seats or seek to quieten their dogs while they snuffled under the desk for attention. In their homes, viewers wriggle about uncomfortably, having sat staring at a screen for hours. Viewers can get up and go to wash up, make a cup of tea, nip to the loo. The speakers are trapped in the grid-cage.

This makes the speakers vulnerable, their home lives and offices made visible, their private workspaces where they think, write, create are laid out for all to see. Lots of bookcases evidence their depth of their minds, their commitment to thought. Each cell of the presentation browser window is a one-way-window on their lives. Observed, but unable to observe themselves.

Meanwhile, the viewers potter around in their pyjamas, picking up socks and having their lunch, unseen. As we have learned to do in our lockdown life. We watch others, but they can’t see us watching them.

Presenters that copied the lecture model sometimes showed visual presentations, which were completely illegible on a small screen, as opposed to the lecture theatre projection they had been designed for. Most frustrating were the occasions when someone gave a solo talk, freeing me up to leave my hard office chair and go and flop onto the sofa. But suddenly a slide would be shown, so I had to leap up and change my specs to try and read the text on the screen. Awful experience at my end. I sometimes gave up or just listened.

  1. DEPARTURE

There is little to say about departure from these events. Because I didn’t really ‘meet’ anyone. Unlike a real event hanging out in cafes and bars, apart from the chat window we didn’t really talk much. There were no visual clues of the other people present in the audience. One chat conversation evolved into someone sharing their email address with me, suggesting we discuss the issue later. That felt a bit strange, a bit like an online hook-up. I didn’t follow through on that, maybe I should have done.

Now if this all sounds very critical and negative, it is not intended to be. We are all doing our best to learn how to communicate in this lockdown world. It is hard, very hard. We need to understand how audiences experience the events, find ways to involve them. When presenting, we need to reconsider the style we present in. There are times when lecture-mode works well, but there are other times they are as boring as being at a conference and a keynote reads aloud 50 pages of their Phd thesis without looking up. Those performances might be better pre-recorded.

We must think about these things. We need to plan carefully, especially when we are discussing sensitive things in the public domain. Maybe we need to tone down our opinions, encourage debate, find a way of exchanging things? One festival did this by providing online social spaces afterwards, where the audiences could talk and discuss the presentations, that was good. But there is a difference between sitting in a tent, next to people in a social physical environment, then hanging out in a bar talking, compared with switching from one virtual venue/platform to another. It doesn’t translate well.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I also delight in gaining access to things previously unavailable to me, as a rural dweller with limited funds.

The outcome for me is still being processed. It makes me wonder whether I would like to go to a festival in reality when/if they survive and come back. Social distancing could inevitably mean that events have to scale down, be for fewer people at any one time, but needing more events, more programming, more planning. What can we learn  from these experiments?

I’m working on that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If end of lockdown means the loss of access to fantastic cultural performances online, I don’t want it to end.

(copied from my other site http://www.flowwprojects.org.uk)

If end of lockdown means the loss of access to fantastic cultural performances online, I don’t want it to end. There’s a lot of learning going on as we adjust to our lockdown lives. We’re reflecting on what is important to us, and what isn’t.

The wonderful array of live dance, music and theatre being beamed into homes via the internet makes living in a rural area a fantastic place to be. Not that it wasn’t before – but because the cost of travel, tickets and accommodation to top theatres like the Albert Hall are simply prohibitive for those of us on a local income, I confess I have felt culturally deprived in recent years. Not that there isn’t some wonderful work going on locally, but world-class acts don’t have venues to play in the Forest of Dean. Indeed, we don’t even have a theatre.

Seeing the BBC screening of Hofesh Shechter’s Clowns dance performance, filmed at Battersea Arts Centre, or Richard Thompson on Youtube playing in his home, managed by the Albert Hall to continue connecting with existing and potential audiences, has been amazing.

When I first moved here, I used to go to Bristol to see contemporary dance and theatre. But over the last ten years the roads have become gridlocked, the train service is what can only be described as ‘the long way round’ and tickets for train fares prohibitive. Not to mention the (understandable) end of any on-street parking. All very green and sensible, reducing cars on the roads. Whilst city dwellers can easily access the countryside without parking charge or traffic queues (and lets face it drive their cars to get here – not so green!), it doesn’t work the other way around. Cities are increasingly unwelcoming to those that don’t live in them.

Galleries in Bristol, such as Arnolfini, have suffered so many cuts their budgets must resemble paper doilies. Dig around a bit online and you will find some great films of previous shows at Arnolfini, like this one, Emotional Archaeology from 2016 by Daphne Wright.

Artist studios are becoming few and far between (though at least there are some in Bristol – there are no studio groups in the Forest of Dean). Excuse my constant edits, but I keep finding other things to mention – like this video of an empty theatre – Caretaker – A durational installation by Hester Chillingworth at the Royal Court Theatre. This is a very moving work, pregnant with longing for someone to step onto the stage. Maybe they could share files of the footage capture and invite performers and artists to lay blue-screen activity onto the film, to re-animate the stage?

During the pandemic, being in a rural place is ideal in terms of reduced risk of Covid19 infection. We’re not out of the woods (metaphorically or literally), of course, but we can walk freely in openly accessible landscapes without meeting a policeman. We follow social distancing strictly, our village shop and butchers allow one person to go in at a time. Neighbours lookout for each other, share shopping tasks. Very Vicar of Dibley around here. With the pubs and clubs being closed, people like me (who essentially don’t hang out in pubs and clubs anyway), are finding the online live cultural offer a gift gained from a crisis.

The BBC are hosting lots of cultural programmes, including live life drawing, sewing bees and pottery. But still, on TV and in media, we hear people mourning the loss of sports. I understand that – and also believe online screening will never be able to replace ‘the real thing’ – but isn’t it great to have more cultural alternatives now?

In terms of accessibility, live streaming or well filmed performances re-presented as a secondary medium (online or filmed), has to be a good thing. It is ‘as well as live’ not instead of. Perhaps we are learning that rural audiences will lap up what is provided  and could even be willing to pay per view, if they are given the choice.

Prior to the pandemic, few of us got to see the outputs big, publicly funded theatres, in London. Yes, there have been film screenings, but I am afraid going to see that in a rural cinema will never simulate the real thing. (See previous blogpost). But it will widen audience bases and could contribute to financing the huge, beautiful, expensive theatres that are only for those who can afford to, can get to.

This is accessibility in action. The Arts Council mantra of Great Art for Everyone is happening, now, as an outcome of the pandemic.

Let’s use this moment to get world-class culture on the national agenda at all levels, for all people. Not just those that can afford it.

Please don’t stop this when lockdown ends. It has made social isolation bearable and can improve access for all in the future. And maybe even a slot after the national news, just like sport gets.

Because culture matters.

And so do people who live in rural areas.

For other covid-aware writing please visit my arts practice blog.

So now to find out where to screen my latest film about the Severn Bore. View it here.

 

 

 

 

 

Attention Series Introduction: Pandemic writing – attention, reflection

The Attention Series

The Attention Series of writings are both disparate and connected. They speak of a particular time in my life, in our lives, that only four months ago were unimaginable. And how I am processing that world through acting, reflecting and writing. It is a rich time for sharing as we self-isolate and reconsider our place in this topsy-turvy world.

I have previously written a blogpost reflecting upon my first experience of live-relay theatre from London into a rural cinema in the Forest of Dean.  More recently, I wrote one about the gratitude I have during lockdown for suddenly having access to cultural resources that previously were too far away, or too expensive, for me to enjoy. These texts are growing into a collection of thoughts that cross reference each other and all relate to how one gives attention to the world, both online and offline. And the differences between those experiences. They are first person observations and the associated thoughts, physical sensations and emotions that arise when one attends to them. It was not my intention to connect them into a collection but is, I feel, a timely thing to do so.

Intention, attention and outtention seem to be a talking point during the Covid19 pandemic.

Intention:

A thing intended; an aim or plan

(In medicine) the healing process of a wound

Attention:

Notice taken of someone or something; the regarding of someone or something as interesting or important.

The action of dealing with or taking special care of someone or something.

things done to express interest in or please someone.

(Military) a position assumed by a soldier, standing very straight with the feet together and the arms straight down the sides of the body.

Outtention: no dictionary definition

Found online, referred to in dialogues about the soul: “…..about levels and layers of our intentions, one of them being “out-tensions” vs. “in-tentions”. An “out-tention” is the first layer of intention that you are projecting externally. This energy serves the exterior version of you, the self that others see, and the one detached from the soul.

I initially added outtention as a term that evolved in my own mind, whilst considering the relationship between attention, intention and the strange wobbly place we are in now. When I searched for outtention online, it was revealed it lacks definition, but is a term used for things relating to the soul.  My experience is that external things presently seem more raw, my senses are uber-alert, my mind stimulated by the effort it takes to simply exist in the context of this pandemic. Or risk falling into the void.

We need to draw on all out senses and discover new ways of seeing and understanding the world. It is both curious and frightening. I find my curiosity is winning most of the time as I reflect and try to understand this new world.

If I were to define my use of the term ‘outtention’ it would be to “pay attention with intention – to deliberate, to attempt to understand something one has never experienced before in life”.

These writings are the best I can do.

And documenting how I experience the pandemic in words and imagery.

 

premiere online screening of film about Severn Bore under lockdown

When You Call I Shall Come – Calling in the Severn Bore – Filmed During Pandemic

The Spring Tide Bore was a silent one, apart from the natural sounds of the river, the incoming sea and birds. It was both melancholic and beautiful. The bore surfers respectfully stood down. This may be the first time ever, and hopefully the last, that a pandemic has resulted in stand-down.  Knowing I am unlikely to ever get such a chance again to experience it with wonderful weather and a natural soundscape, I relished every minute of filming.

Spring tides are usually a highlight of the Severn Bore Surfing year. This year, on 8th, 9th and the 10th a four-star bore was due to occur every morning. Living in Newnham on Severn, we get to see the bore as it first manifests, having been channelled between a narrow part of the river between Awre and Bullo Pill, it enters the horseshoe bend, then races around the wide corner at Westbury on Severn. From there is gets funnelled tighter and tighter as it approaches Minsterworth. Many surfers enter the river at Arlingham and Newnham, with a few joining a little before, around Awre and Bullo Pill.

I usually make a simple documentary, unedited footage with top and tailing then uploaded promptly – filming the bore arriving then passing. But I also make video art, films that dig deeper into the nature of the river, look closely at the particularity of this fantastic phenomena, which I have the privilege of witnessing regularly at the bottom of my street. I draw, photograph and film the Severn constantly. I wrote about it in my book – Severnside, an Artist’s View of the Severn.

Every morning, when I awake, I look out of my bedroom window to see how the Severn is that day. I touch base with it.

Many people watch the wave form at Newnham, then rush upriver to other locations to see the bigger, louder, powerful waves, which give instant gratification to the people that witness them. Personally, I prefer the long slow arrival of the wave as it manifests, then hanging around to watch the drama of the fill. At this point you can study the conflict between river and sea evidenced by bidirectional tides, whirling vortexes and sea-horse waves.

Bore-watchers often line the riverbanks on both sides, some travelling many miles to see the surfers ride the waves (or not!), while enjoying the safety of standing on dry land, rather than quicksand. Various buzzing airborne things fill the sky – paragliders, drones and microlights – while other watchers ride in small boats with noisy engines. The landscape acoustic is added to by the bells of St. Peter’s Church ringing, alongside transatlantic planes overhead and trains nearby, creating a considerable cacophony of sound.  It’s not easy to hear the natural sounds, but that is fine with me, because I love the celebratory events few days per year that the Severn is a social destination. The majority of the time, people can enjoy the quietude. But it does mean that one can never encounter a high tidal bore in peace.

This year, April 2020, was very different. There were airborne risks for the surfers. With lockdown, only essential journeys were permitted, and the bore-surfer community respectfully stood down. The risk of injury was far outweighed by the risk of spreading Covid 19. Social distancing would be impossible for those lined up on the crest of such an unpredictable and exciting wave.

It was truly a unique moment in time for those who could walk to watch the bore that week, and, like me, those that filmed it. The surfers know I often do the first film of each event, posting them online as soon as I can, often before the wave has got as far as Minsterworth. I have asked for a one-day amnesty in the past, a chance to film without all the noise distractions. It was a perfect storm in some ways, one I took very seriously. I felt honoured to be asked to film it and share it with the surfer community so they could see it.

I am an optimist. What I am sharing in this film is evidence of river-knowing. I allowed the tides to reveal themselves through a series of static camera shots that followed my eye as it flitted around, searching for tiny events to capture. Shot in short spurts. While the camera filmed one scene, I scouted for the next and calmly redirected the lens, again and again. Some scenes are very short, others unravel over a longer period. My eye revisited sites to record slow progressions and shifts or followed a floating object on its journey. I wanted to share with viewers how the sea and the river negotiate their territory. And of course, the river eventually succumbs

Once it came to the editing stage, I was keen to keep it loyal to the timeline of filming, not modified in terms of speed or direction. Some shots are close-up, some long distance. The source audio is camera recorded, so some wind noise is evident. Then there is the most distinctive element of the film – the kulning song. That needs further explanation here.

Kulning is the word for the ancient Swedish herding call, that has its roots in the Nordic medieval age. Because of its special high-pitched sound, it was used to communicate with animals and creature through very far distances.

As well as being an artist, I produce arts events in non-gallery locations. A few years ago, I explored the possibility of commissioning a composer to write a kulning song that, instead of calling in animals, would call in the bar. I had a vision of that in my head and earlier this year I experimented with animated drawings, trying to create a simulation of how that might be. You can see one of those tests here.

When I began to edit the April tide footage, I sought some suitable music to help me create a rhythm that would anchor the cuts. After many attempts at finding something suitable, I tried a kulning song. On Spotify I found the perfect track, recorded by a number of Swedish performers, apparently for a radio programme. The two voices you hear on the film at Eva Rune and Susanne Rosenburg. They kindly gave me permission to use their sounds for which I am very grateful, and Ivor Richards did a great job of polishing the audio.

It is the singing that expresses both my love of the Severn and the yearning of the bore-viewers when they await the arrival of the wave.

What I hope is conveyed in the film is the detail of the flow, the strange thing that happens when a river pursues its route towards the sea with dogged determination, as the tide turns. It is nothing less than amazing to see. The seagulls on the bank caught my attention and I love the way the water filled the screen, while the birds did their best to stay until the last moment, hoping to snatch a fish from the cusp of the wave. Had the bore surfers been around they would have scared the birds away.

I want to thank the surfing community for their caretaker role of the Severn – I can only imagine how sad they must have felt. Fingers crossed for the future tides.

Meanwhile, we proceed with lockdown and social distancing, enjoy the river, but respect that it can be a dangerous place too. Watch, look and listen – you will be well rewarded for doing so.


 

Covid-time keeps me in a semi-liquid state, which is rapidly becoming my normal.

Set off for my daily exercise feeling a bit low. Walked about 2 miles but when I got to my destination, a swing next to the Severn, it was broken. I wandered along taking photos of other broken things, there were so many. My heart sank even further, like a boulder in the Severn mud.

BROKEN THINGS BY CATEGORY

BODY PARTS: Hearts Bones Ankles Wrists Teeth

COMMITMENTS: Promises Will Loyalty Trust Agreements Laws

FRAGILE THINGS: China Glass Jewellery Dreams Governments

TECHNOLOGY: Televisions Radios Phones Internet Computers Data

REMAINS: Pieces Shards Fragments Remnants Damaged Communities Debts

Just when I was beginning to feel very sad that it was shockingly easy to find many broken things, I turned towards the river and saw two blackthorn bushes, loaded with wonderful blossom. I smiled and my step lightened. A few steps away two bright yellow flag iris’ caught my eye – fantastic!

So easily up

So easily down

Mood swings

My emotions are not broken, but I sometimes feel as if they are on the edge of collapse. Like cornflour mixed with water, they pour and dribble towards that edge, yet are amazingly resistant to hard knocks. Should they become so liquid they drip off the table, I retreat from the world for a few hours, then simply gather them up and put them back again. And give them a good bashing to make sure the alchemy is still holding them firm. Call it willpower or survival impulse.

Covid Time keeps me in a semi-liquid state, which is rapidly becoming my normal.

As I walk further along the riverbank, feeling happier and highly sensitised, I notice the smells of the grass, the light on the river. Suddenly, a small cloud of birds passes overhead, looking like a shoal of fish in the sky, swerving en-masse and swooping, like a murmuration of starlings, but more tightly, in a soft pillow-like formation. As they swerved, they flipped over slightly and the sun hit their white undersides, making them appear to glitter as they moved. Like flying, glimmering jewels. Later, on my way home, the wind had risen and was blowing the silver birch leaves wildly in the wind – they too revealed their silvery underbellies. Like a visual echo of the birds.

Back to the riverside, my eyes locked onto a pair of barnacle geese wandering around in the mudflats. One watched the other as it traced loop de loops in the sand with its feet, leaving behind patterns like those that a sewing machine leaves in paper. They shouted at each other occasionally, like a grumpy couple. The wader dipped his beak down into the grey river silt and pushed it along like a mini-bulldozer. 

I settled down close to them in the long grass and got out my drawing materials.

Within a one hour period I had switched from rigorous speed walking, to slow, sad searching for broken things, then accelerated with glee at the beauty of the flora and wildlife. All that looking and the erratic emotions, were akin to sharpening a pencil in preparation for a period of deep engagement and immersion in the act of drawing.

When I ran life drawing classes I called them The Looking Class – partly a pun on Alice and her adventures, but also referring to it being a class where you learn to look. Because to be able to do observational drawing, you need to be able to see before you can draw. What you look at may not be in the room, but inside yourself. No matter. Whether you look out through a lens at an object, or reflect back into your imagination, you must be in a state of super-sensitivity. 

I decided I would write about this and use the photos I took as a mapping of the moods.

Together, every element of the walk is important to the outcome. On this occasion, the outcome is a strange rambling text, a series of photos connected by the concept of broken and a drawing that records the marks in the sand as described above.

And this blogpost.

Be well.

 

 

 

 

Letting Go, Refusal and the third space during Lockdown – a time when you have nothing to do and everything to do

Letting Go, Refusal and the third space

Lockdown – a time when you have nothing to do and everything to do – both at once.

Do you feel hypersensitive at the moment? Does your brain seem to be like a colander today, yet memories of significant things in your past float up constantly? Do they then create links with today’s thoughts in strange, unexpected ways – tethering the present with the past? Mine certainly do.

My instinct (or is that intuition?) is to listen to those collisions and collusions that my mind, and my heart, are offering me. Some people say we must respect our ‘innate’ intuition, others believe intuition is the outcome of cumulative knowledge (I’m inclined to believe both). I feel we are offered a new understanding of past and present if we can reconsider them through different lenses, at different times. If we allow them to have a dialogue, to intertwine, they may inform new ways of thinking about this strange period we live in. And we might learn more about ourselves.

I’m half-way through reading a book recommended to me by other artists, spotted on Instagram:  “How to Do Nothing – Resisting the Attention Economy” by Jenny Odell. One of the people who has read it told me “it will change your life”. It already has, yet I’m only halfway through. Which says something about my inability to do nothing. I spend way too much of my life on social media, for work and for pleasure. I love sharing photos, videos and seeing other peoples, especially during self-isolation. And, double irony here, I would not have heard about the book if I didn’t.

So, I am sorry Jenny, but your book is so loaded with things I knew nothing of before, I have to stop reading periodically and go and follow my curiosity – seeking out links and downloads to follow up with. If I don’t do it whilst live-reading, I may forget (see comment above). This is not an issue in terms of practice, it is a research process, but nor is it the outcome I anticipated when picking up the book.

The writing is delicious – the combinations of narratives on offer flow freely – the nuggets of examples from philosophy and contemporary art thrill me. A literary and creative feast. So much so that when I came to make my breakfast, I randomly added rosemary and garlic to my mushrooms and parsley to my scrambled egg.

  • Parsley: useful knowledge, feast, joy, victory
  • Rosemary: remembrance, love, loyalty, fidelity
  • Garlic: protection, strength, healing

I chose rosemary knowingly, as I had already considered its meaning when my brother died. I was also aware that garlic is for protection, strength and healing. But I didn’t know that parsley means ‘useful knowledge’, so that alone is somewhat spooky. Those things will now be intuitive to me.

Covid 19 is time to eat parsley, clearly. The remembrance issue relates not only to a family death, but also to that of an artist, Clare Thornton, who I worked with some years ago when I was a writer in residence for Redefining Print, at Double Elephant Print Studio.  A Facebook post about the anniversary of her death sent me off to dig deep into my archives where I found a recorded conversation with her about her work, in which I comment that I knew her partner from my time in 2002, when I did PVA LabCulture. I have shared that with him. Clare introduced me to the Triadic Ballet, which I have loved ever since. One of the people that set up the residency was Simon Ripley, who told me that the book (see above) will change my life.

During LabCulture I shared some films of inanimate objects being released into action then slowing down to a halt – the series was called “Letting Go”.  It was also the year that my marriage was slipping away.

Last week I made some slo-mo films with my iPhone – I pulled back a swing that flew above the River Severn (my muse and inspiration for all I do), and let it go. Only today have I spotted the link with the LabCulture films.

Collisions and collusions – past and present.

My film of the swing is also about letting go. Here, now, in this unpredictable, unknown place we are in, we must let go of many things. If we don’t it is too painful. Our daily routines have changed, forever, but not through intention. There is little choice.

In Odell’s book she writes eloquently about refusal. She refers to Diogenes and his explorations and actions relating to refusal. She describes his actions as creating ‘a third space’ – a magical exit to another frame of reference.

“For someone who cannot otherwise live with the terms of her society, the third space can provide an important if unexpected harbour (pages 68/69)”.

Might it be that our creative selves can provide us with our third space, when we urgently need a magical exit to our present frame of reference?

Wearing a quickly-made paper mask influenced by the *Triadic Ballet, and photos by Inge Morath & Saul Steinberg, (which came to me from a friend sharing on Facebook), for a zoom meeting, allowed me to prevent others from scrutinising my facial expressions. A refusal.

Sitting on a swing by the river allows my dreams to flow with the tide. Editing film takes me into another zone, as if doing meditation.

Making a silly video of my relationship with the screen, influenced by my watching the eyes of Villanelle in the TV series Killing Eve, lifts my mood.

I don’t think I really want To Do Nothing – I doubt it is even possible.

Just as John Cage proved you can’t record silence. Like Bartleby the Scrivener, if you ask me to do nothing I shall probably respond with “I would prefer not to”.

Surely this image from Triadic Ballet is calling out for a re-enactment during social distancing?

Screenshot 2020-05-03 at 10.56.46

 

*Note reference Triadic Ballet – made in 1922 by Oskar Schlemmer, it is a great early example of performance art/dance choreographed for filming for the screen. The activity is played out within that frame, just as Wood & Harrison do in their work. I propose that the screen of ZOOM and other online video conferencing facilities provides a ‘third space’ we can explore through creative practices.