Thoughts and Reflections

As part of the development of make-shift, Helen and Paula spent a two week residency at Furtherfield in London.

 

Beaford Arts
Beaford Arts

Two weeks in the art bunker
by Helen Varley Jamieson

from 12-24 july, paula & i were in residence at furtherfield, for the first phase of development of "make-shift". i intended to blog about our process and progress during the residency, but we were so busy that i didn't have a chance. every night we talked incessantly until 2am, then we got up around 8am & continued talking, researching, making, listing, discussing, eating, walking, stretching, trying, writing, thinking, gathering … we based ourselves in the HTTP Gallery space, with a hum of activity drifting along the building from the furtherfield team working on their own projects. most days we all ate lunch together at 1pm - exchanging food flavored with discussion and stories. a vibe of past net art adventures hung in the air of the building, and traces of the last exhibition (by annie abrahams) remained on the gallery walls.

my research during this time focussed on plastic and its sinister ubiquity; how it has quietly infiltrated almost every aspect of our lives to the point that even a ballpoint pen can't be purchased without a layer of plastic attached. i thought about the journey of plastic, from the factory to the retail outlet to our shopping baskets, kitchens and rubbish bins; and from there to the landfills and the oceans, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. i read about how plastic never biodegrades, it just breaks down into smaller and smaller particles until it enters the food chain in microscopic ways. how much of our bodies is now plastic? how much plastic are we ingesting on a daily basis and what is that doing to us, and to future generations? we know so little about the consequences. i didn't even know that cigarette butts are made of thousands of tiny plastic filaments pressed together. i walked the streets with my head down, counting the butts on the ground. i also learned about plastic recycling projects - how to make everything from laptop cases and wallets to bras and kites out of discarded plastic.

after 10 days of solid work, we gave a work-i-progress showing to a small invited audience (on site and online), presenting a rough sketch of where we think the work might be heading. we arranged a sequence of a selection of our material, including visual and movement ideas and some audience activities. it was very useful to see how the audience responded to our provocations, and to get a better idea of practical logistics such as how much time and instructions we needed to give them. interestingly (& happily!) most of the feedback from this presentation has been aligned with what we were already thinking. we also listened with interest to people's response to the content, and the stories or ideas that they found in the material and wanted to share.

for me, what was most beneficial about the residency was having dedicated, focussed time to collaborate on one project. removed from our normal daily  distractions, we were able to tune in to each other, to the material and technologies that we are working with and largely ignore the rest of the world. in this situation it's possible to achieve a lot in a short space of time, and the deadline of the presentation date ensured that we didn't get lost in the meandering trajectories of our research. we had to make decisions and solve problems within the available resources. it's a very productive way to work, for someone like me whose usual modus operandi involves multiple layers of multitasking.

now comes the sifting process: what key elements and ideas will form the skeleton of this work? what new things have emerged from this process, and what are the things that we can carefully fold away, perhaps to re-emerge later or even in a different project? at the same time as sifting, we are preparing another work-in-progress presentation - this time a 20-minute excerpt that will be presented at the 101010 UpStage Festival. we will further develop characters, images and ideas in UpStage and test out the online audience's response to some interactions.

 

Beaford Arts
Beaford Arts

Residency reflections by Paula Crutchlow

  1. I arrive at Furtherfield with a grand aim that I have rationalized into one sentence “.to use the daily practice of tele-communication to make a performance that speaks to the distance between us rather than just across it. “ I also have a bit of techno fear that I am going to a place where everyone will speak ‘advanced computer’. This fear turns out to be totally unfounded. There are many inspiring and enabling conversations. There is an invitation to be part of a shared workspace and shared lunches. There is a lot of good literature and generative images. There is a large map of the Middle East on the bathroom wall and looking at it everyday for the first time I consciously realise how close Turkey is to Iraq. There is much more talk about the politics and economics of human relationships and how the quality of these can be enabled by digital culture, than about ‘innovation’ or the next new shiny photoshopped thing. I feel a sense of shared values and enthusiasm about what our work might meaningfully reveal about our changing communication patterns, and what kind of relationships that might generate between us.
  1. I spent the whole of my twenties traveling, living and working in various countries and on various continentsand maintaining numerous long distance relationships. I spent quite a lot of time imagining the homes of my friends and what they might be doing in them, as I wrote them short, witty messages on postcards or spoke about my ‘love life’ on the phone. It seems weird to think of it now but in 1991 when I was living in Lisbon, my main form of contact with my friend in Prague was by letter. Although once we exchanged gifts by arranging a time for her to meet a Portuguese business man I was teaching English to in a hotel lobby whilst he was there on a business trip. I can’t remember what I sent or what she sent back for me apart from a letter. I just remember asking him how she looked when he met her, what she was wearing, if she looked happy.
  1. During my 10 days in the http gallery space I have a split focus and complex set of emotions that move between the relief of having such a luxury of space and time to concentrate outside of my family responsibilities, and fear that something terrible might happen to everyone whilst I am gone. I am very happy to be somewhere else for a while interspersed with moments of very strong longing to be in the other place. The Portuguese call this ‘saudade’ a kind of homesickness for people, places, objects that aren’t with you. Every day I send a short video from my phone. A circular pan of the particular place I am in with me in the centre. The gallery space, Green Lanes, the local pub, Tate Modern forecourt –they are a series of whirling, haptic documents; always ending with a shot of my face looking into the camera showing the emotional quality of the day. I receive back short films of my children moving in their world called woods, water, music…
  1. I met Helen whilst living and making theatre in Wellington, New Zealand and became friends with her over the 5 years I stayed there. By this time I had graduated to making VHS messages with a borrowed (very large) camcorder edited in camera. In fact Helen appears in one of these messages standing with a spade in her organic veg patch wishing our mutual friend in London a ‘happy Christmas’. Helen’s sofa was the last place I slept before I left Wellington and she dropped all my boxes for shipping home at the harbour in her 35 year old Chrysler. In 1996 I went on a short course she was running on internet skills for women and I returned to England in 1999 with a brand new hotmail address (that I had to go to Streatham Public Library to access). I bought my first mobile phone, got gifted a reconditioned PC from my software designer cousin and found that I could maintain my friendships on the other side of the world with a speed I wasn’t used to. It made me miss people more somehow.
  1. 4. After having my first child I was so deeply shocked at the level of responsibility I had for another human being I didn’t leave the house at night for nearly a year. I grew a strong affinity with the internet and an interest in working from my house – physically and imaginatively. The size and shape of it, what type of things happen there, what and who was missing from it. My partner and I had just moved to Exeter and only knew a couple of people with no family nearby.  With a young child who needed fresh air, exercise and daily routine we were forced to organize our time less solipsistically. We had to grow a network of friendship and support in physical space, and to find places and people that allowed us to not just exist but flourish. I have grown used to being held in my house and this city according to my family’s timetable, but more than ever I think about places I haven’t visited yet, about packing up and moving on.
  1. I have quite a few moments when I am really challenged by the sheer amount of different skills, knowledges and attitudes we are asking of ourselves in this work. It feels like making a musical where we expect ourselves as the ‘actors’ to perform the big finale together whilst in different rooms and without a band or conductor. We can hear each other faintly in the distance but in the end we have to rely on our own strength of presence and interpretation of the score. I often feel very ‘theatrical’ in this digital arts environment. But somehow I don’t mind this – in fact I am excited by it.
  1. In the second week of the residency my friend Vicky who I met and got to know in Exeter dropped in for lunch, took some photos for us and gave me a book by Lewis Hyde called The Gift: How the creative spirit transforms the world. I didn’t have a moment to read it when we were working, but on the cover Margaret Atwood says it’s ‘a masterpiece’ which should be a recommendation in anyone’s terms. Having managed to get stuck into it during my summer break, I am now hooked and feeling like it’s going to be a really important influence on my thinking for make-shift. It is a kind of manifesto on the practice of being an artist in today’s western European economic environment; the differences between ‘worth’ and ‘value’, the relationships (or antagonisms) between poetry and market forces.  It feels like a good starting point to begin thinking about what has resonance in this work and what the strategies of working between audiences might look and feel like.
  1. In our final presentation the group of audience both in the gallery and online share with us their skills and expertise with lightness and a real willingness to engage with the form, content and politics of the work. I don’t know why I am surprised by this. It is the difference in attitude between asking someone to critically observe something and tell you what they think of it and trying to make the conditions in which its possible to show something, share something and talk about it together.