Flow Blog

Making the case for revisiting creative occupation of empty shops and rethinking the High Street

I’m writing this post as an arts professional who has an opinion, with experience of supporting and delivering arts events in empty buildings. Artist-led groups thrived in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, when artists began to initiate their own gallery opportunities, due to the huge number graduating from an overstretched university system. The YBA (young British artists) or the Britpack, was one of the first. That was in the days when artists needed spaces, and councils had empty ones that needed filling.ThThe rest is history.

Below, I make the case for revisiting that model and rethinking the High Street.

Listening to the news today and hearing economists saying (yet again) that we must ‘save our high street stores’, and more or less blaming the pandemic and online businesses for the closure of shops, is depressing. For a start, our high streets have been declining for years. Yes, online shopping has taken the trade by supplying products more cheaply and delivers them to your door. Why is that a problem, isn’t it something that makes people’s lives easier? 

The only reason we must keep some retail shops is so we can buy local, good products, to reduce the need for  importing so many things. That way we keep the carbon footprint down. Shops run by independents, keeping the economy local. The government could invest in  farming and creative companies that work in an environmental way. Ones that support recycling, plastic free and fossil few industries. The recent government report, by Dasgupta, flags all this up. So the government can no longer pretend it’s not an issue – they commissioned the report. 

We need to reconsider a new economy that isn’t just about financial profit.

The biggest problem with the success of home deliveries is not that high street stores are closing, but that all those extra fossil-fuel vehicles delivering are damaging the environment. That could be addressed using electric vehicles, which the government could make a legal requirement. Where jobs are lost in the retail industry they could, surely, be employed in the environmental recovery industry, which must be our priority

For centuries new innovations have changed the way society operates and products are distributed. The printing press saw off town cryers; washing machines replaced dolly stirrers; tumble dryers mangles; tractors horses. The list is endless. Big chainstore shops are no longer needed because they make more profit selling online. Arcadia has collapsed, Debenhams and many others are closing. So what could replace them?

Years ago I read a book written by Louis Gerstner who turned IBM around. In a nutshell, IBM was the world leader in mainframe computers but desktops were arriving which could be used in homes. The closed-shop management team and Board would not acknowledge that they too should take on desktops or would cease to be needed. Part of the problem was appalling internal communications, but the biggest failure was not seeing that however hard you dig your heels in for the sake of the good old days, when a better, more useful and universal product comes along, it will inevitably, eventually, replace the old system.

I appreciate not everyone has technology, or the internet, even now. That is another outcome of social inequality. But if we stop trying to keep fixing broken things, like shops, (especially chain stores that don’t even contribute to local economies) open, and focus on enabling people to shop safely and well online, wouldn’t that be wiser? Don’t forget that libraries were opened to give access to books for all, even those that couldn’t afford them. Or pay for education. We still want, and need libraries now, but maybe for different things? It is interesting too that funding of libraries is no longer a government responsibility, but an Arts Council England one. Clearly our government no longer values our literacy and perceives it as a creative pursuit, not a necessity. Is there a case to argue here that creativity IS a necessity to our wellbeing as well as something that meets the human inclination to be social animals?

There was a time when people worried that cinemas would close down, when TV, video and DVD brought film into our homes. But they didn’t, they came back bigger and better with multiplexes. And to counter-balance that, small film clubs opened up in villages and towns. The film industry is still thriving and also includes small producers and creatives. Cheap access to digital cameras and phone cameras has opened up even more creative opportunities. All of these developments have contributed to social activities. People love to share experiences together, which is one of the greatest sadnesses for many during lockdown.

Mass production of cheap clothes, imported and sold at low prices end up in landfill, which has resulted in a genuine desire to buy quality, natural, handmade artisan products. And to mend them not bin them. The fashion industry are now looking at their own responsibilities in this system too. Fast fashion contributes to pollution, fast food no longer satisfies people.

No longer supporting chain stores means cutting out the middle men/women. Which risks removing power from those who only care about profits and have little respect for social need or environmental duty of care. 

Surely this is a good thing?

So now, to my point, how does this relate to the arts? After all that is my specialism, it is why you read my blog posts. Here is why:

  • When things progress and there is a sense of loss of things left behind, it is artists that often find ways to find new audiences or the lost social aspects – e.g. film – the big Hollywood films are still happening BUT artists and those who love 35mm are also thriving and keeping things accessible and social.
  • There became a concern that ebooks would destroy book shops – but many people went back to buying books, missing the tactile quality of paper books. And people like to share paper books. People still love going to book launches, the personal touch. Book Clubs thrive online and off. Artist books are very popular, as is bookbinding by hand.

There are many more examples, but essentially, what I am saying is that ART and ARTISTS enliven places and spaces. They are social and accessible. Anyone can join in. 

Since the pandemic began there have been losses and gains for the arts. It is horrendous for those whose practice depends on having large audiences, such as theatres and festivals. But for some audiences, this resulted in a gain. Suddenly, the big city-based event providers started providing access to audiences who had previously been able to see their performances. Those who live beyond the cities in rural areas. Those who can’t afford expensive tickets to attend the London theatres.

Art and craft materials are selling like hotcakes.Online art classes well attended. Artists who walk are thriving too – indeed many nature activities have been accessed by people confined to local areas. It is nigh on impossible to buy a dog these days, unless you have thousands of £’s. 

Everyone is appreciating the countryside more, David Attenorough is the new god, rural areas are packed with more visitors with shiny new camper vans with their puppies. 

So chain stores come and go, high streets have gone temporarily quiet. Those who have just discovered online shopping may well not return. What to do with all those empty shops?

How about artisan shops? Artist studios? Small event spaces? Local makers who run workshops too? Shoe repairers who also teach you how to do it (but they will always do it better!)? Book exchanges, with comfy sofas and serving good coffee and homemade cakes? Community spaces? Convert the big chain stores into a hive of artisan makers, where they make and sell too? Wool and fabric shops? Blacksmiths? Potteries? Artist supplies? Florists? 

The loss could go on.

But in the meantime, until we are able to do this, let’s make sure that local authorities and central government stop pushing for reopening high street chains.  

They are the past, we are the future. 

We need to reinvent not resuscitate.

Hambling, Wollstonecraft & statues – might it be humour?

Firstly, the thoughts I share here are merely that. I have not seen Hambling’s work that is ‘for’ Wollstonecraft, nor have I seen the Aldeburgh work. I only know them from images. I would not usually comment on works I have not actually seen ‘in the flesh’ so to speak, but on this occasion I am responding to how this work has been (mis?)represented in the press.

Most of the press images we see are only of the nude figure, which is showing it out of context. For this writing it is important you see a picture of the whole thing. There is a full image of the work here on Artnet. In the review of the work, by Sarah Cascone (November 10, 2020), a quote from Twitter is shared, posted by Imogen Hermes Gowar “What I hate is the sexy toned female on top. Nameless, nude, and conventionally attractive is the only way women have ever been acceptable in public sculpture”.

Am not sure I agree with Hermes Gowar’s description of the woman depicted in the sculpture (but the name Hermes did make me smile a little in relation to considering classical sculptures). The first thing I noticed in the images of the the figure is her oddly extended neck, in a conical shape, a bit like a Barbie doll. And the narrow hips, androgenous, unlike the voluptuous hips of any Venus. The thought of Venus took me back to Hambling’s scallop shell, designed to celebrate Benjamin Britten on Aldeburgh sands. One can’t see a scallop shell without thinking of a sexy Venus. One cannot see a documentary about Maggie Hambling without thinking of an androgenous lesbian with a wicked and wry sense of humour (well I can’t). Nor can one see a plinth with a statue without thinking of men.

Hold that thought.

While I’m on perspective, let’s return to the long neck and the anamorphic body – the pert breasts (which from below maybe look more like swollen pecs?) and the narrow hips. When you see the photo of the sculpture in its entirety, you see that the figure is tiny and stands at the very tip of a tall column of what looks like solidified liquid. A snapshot of a wave, or an ejaculation of fluid? This is where I began to wonder whether this is Hambling’s humour rising up (forgive the puns!).

Because on seeing a plinth with a plaque, and an inscription which in most works would describe the heroics of the elevated male statue, I immediately questioned what she was up to. Hambling, now in her 70’s, will be aware of the expanded field theory. In 1979 Rosalind Krauss defined sculpture in the expanded field.

Krauss claims that the traditional logic of sculpture transformed into something different. “Instead of making something pretty “logical” or narrative-based, sculptors are able to express their own personality and convey their voice in their work.”

The premise is that sculpture, from then on, did not need to follow conventions of plinths, columns and elevations, but could be an expression of their own personality. Artists were literally looking at the way sculpture relates to the ground, to the human, as opposed to elevation. I’d like to argue that the Wollstonecraft artwork does exactly that. It is ‘for’ Wollstonecraft but ‘about’ Hambling. It pokes fun at the traditional male statues. It offers a different perspective. And the viewer may not get the joke.

Photo with permission from @DrHannahDawson

Imagine going to visit it (I am trying to do so). You won’t be looking the little woman right in the eye, but be craning your own neck to see her, high above you. From that distance, though not as high as Nelson is in Trafalgar Square) what you see with your eyes will not be the same as what the close up camera shots give you. Surely it will be much more androgenous from  down below?

And that big whooshing wave – is that not mimicry of the columns, the perpendicular phallus’s usually used to elevate the famous men? But it is not hard and rigid, it is soft and flowing.

Apparently Hambling describes this figure as being ‘everywoman’ – a figure women aspire to be. Personally, I don’t, and it’s possible others don’t either. But Hambling is the artist and has her own perspective on that.

And, I suspect, has the last laugh too.

post-postcomment:

I have not made a value judgement on the artwork as I have not seen it myself. I have made that clear. I’m a little alarmed at how many people do make value judgements on ANY creative output without seeing them/reading them/watching them. If we only rely on the critic’s viewpoint, without experiencing something ourselves, we are doing a disservice to the arts, all arts.

2020 #Eastenders speaks of so many things in one short film sequence, here’s why

This Christmas is a very weird one and Facebook dug up this blogpost from the archives from 4 years ago. I miss those rich soliloquy’s and one-to-one dialogues from those days. They should bring them back. Especially now we are so often alone – I think that’s why Alan Bennet’s Talking Heads series was so poignant this year too. How often do we find we are talking to ourselves, growling at radio announcements, raging about Tweets about Trump, or sighing in despair about our government? I know I do it more often than I’d like. But these days are a hotbed of it and art of today needs to reflect that.

Re-reading the blogpost today I see how important it is in terms of critical analysis. It plays very much on composition, on light and religiosity. And my recent films have been considering those things too. It is amazing how the camera, the setting, the content can draw you into something very deeply, during very few seconds.

Back to Eastenders, I must say this current series is getting worse by the minute – but it won’t top me seeing what happens at Christmas! It strikes me that the Producer is borrowing methods from the Nordic thrillers – with drone shots, complex plotlines, corruption. I’m not sure it works as well as the references to the old masters did, but things change, and so must we, as audiences. And creatives.

Here’s the original writing, December 2016:

Christmas – I recently blogged about it, how I find it empty. As a closet Eastenders fan , I enjoy watching the build up to Christmas on the square. Impending doom, love, hate, violence and crisis usually thrown into the mix, along with a good sing-song in the Old Vic and a wedding, funeral or death.

Last night, on 16th December, there were subtle clues for sleuths; relationship shifts and twists, but the best part was the scene of Dot, alone, having not gone to the Nativity play. Sometimes these are the absolutely best moments in Easties – when the characters sit down, shut their Cockney mouths, and show us their inner thoughts by the means of classical lighting and staging. This shot is one of those old mistress/masters moments and I love it.

Most of the square are in church for the nativity play, and while the children sing Away in a Manger, there’s a cut to a slow pan towards Dot’s front door, then this view of her. It lasts for 16 seconds, the sound track continues and the shot ends when the song does, and returns to the church.

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The out of focus corner of the wood panelling on the left, the subdued midnight blue of the cardigan, the deep dye red hair of the hag-like face in contemplation; the upright spine of Christianity; the candle, light of the world, and God; the still life of fruit, Christingle exotic orange, symbol of the world and worldliness; ribbons for gifts, empty chair of an absent friend; string bag hanging on door, empty, no longer used; shiny brass door knob, polished, with care; in the right foreground something brassy – a lamp maybe? Definitely not Ikea. In the shadows, whatever it is still gleams, slightly, as old things do. As does Dot. Excellent chiaroscuro.

It could be about loneliness at Christmas, or a fading flickering light of the square about to expire. There’s a sense of imminence, but we don’t know what yet is going to happen. It doesn’t bear thinking about really. Dot is the Walford  matriarch, we see that when after the service lots of friends and family, having noted her absence, stream into her house with jollity and love.

This one  episode was the frame for this image, this narrative, this moment.

It does what a good artwork does, it holds a thought, incorporates a huge bundle of signifiers. It is both minute in scale and monumental. And very beautiful.

Swings & Films – exhibitions

Recently I have spotted swings being hung from trees around the local area, the Forest of Dean. They have signs near them encouraging users to enjoy themselves, it appears to be a guerrilla-style action with no name. I love it.

Prior to their arrival, I too had developed a relationship with a swing next to the Severn, a few miles walk from home. As an artist and film-maker, I did more than swing on it. It became a place for a daily retreat from Covid19 – a bolthole. I wrote about it as being my new ‘crying place’, having witnessed the removal of my old one. That was a huge tree stump at the top of a hill which looked down over the bend in the Severn near Newnham. But that is no more.

The riverbank swing doesn’t provide big sky views and open vistas, it is very close to the water and offers a wonderful view of Garden Cliff and to see the sunset there at the end of a Covid-day is an indescribable delight to witness.

Over several weeks I visited and made films of the swing swinging, and from the swing swinging. With me, without me. I leant against the trunk of the oak tree it hung from and drew in its shade, often distracted by the dancing shadows of the branches above, and the bugs that came to check on the progress of the marks on my paper. I filmed the silhouettes of the leaves, then filmed myself drawing.

One day I went on a major mission to capture this unusual experience. Gathering all my ideas together, alongside a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree camera; a video recorder; an iPad with an animation app; a phone camera and three tripods; sketch pad and charcoals with a putty rubber and a heap of determination, I made a film.

Several days of editing, collaging and shaping ensured until I had a finished film. “As Above So Below” was the result.

It was the second significant film I’d made since the pandemic began – the other one “When You Call, I Will Come” documented the spring-tide Severn bore without any surfers.

I submitted them, somewhat nervously, to share them more widely. With galleries and venues closed I had to find a way to get them seen because they are so pandemic-influenced they are a record of this strange time.

I am still thrilled by the way people responded to them. Before “When You Call” was accepted for the EarthPhoto2020 exhibition, from over 3,000 applicants, it was viewed by  500+ YouTube viewers. EarthPhoto2020 is run by Royal Geographic Society and Forestry Commission and will tour to various venues.

This boosted my confidence, so I submitted “As Above, So Below” to Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize – a fantastic annual event that had over 4,000 applicants – and it was selected.

“When You Call” can be viewed online on the EarthPhoto2020 website and the exhibition for the drawing prize opens at Drawing Projects UK in Trowbridge, Wiltshire: 2 to 31 October 2020, then tours to Cooper Gallery at the University of Dundee, Trinity Buoy Wharf in London and The Gallery at Arts University Bournemouth.

Links:

Trinity Buoy Wharf Prize

EarthPhoto2020

 

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

THEN: WRITTEN IN ON 30TH MAY

Before reading further, take a look at this video clip.

Is that your rural idyll?

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? Is it very different from your usual everyday life, or is it not dissimilar, but a bit more extreme? Do you miss the noise, the pollution, the packed trains, the spontaneous flights to sunnier climes? The casual shopping therapy to bide your time spending your hard-earned cash?

The video shows a world where nature is simulated, but you can’t touch it. Not like in the good old days, five months ago, when you could walk into a shop and be greeted at the counter, not two metres away from it. The game is as surreal as our present reality.

Until Covid19 the headlines were all about XR, climate change and Brexit. Conversations about those subjects have gone as quiet as our skies and our roads. They are still an issue, but we have taken our eye off the ball, big time. Now the only balls we hear about are rich footballers bemoaning loss of income, or Wimbledon players not being able to play tennis. Really – is that what the majority of people are worrying about? I doubt it. They are more likely concerned about friends, family and incomes. While the media carry stories about unimaginably well-payed sportspeople, at home people are worrying about the NHS, the service providers such as shop assistants, refuse collectors, delivery drivers –  the people who are important to our survival.

We thank them wholeheartedly.

This planet rolls on, for now. It is the biggest ball we rely on for our survival, yet we are still not keeping our eye on it. When I watched the promotion for the Walden Pond video game (above) it made me question the rural idyll – the quietness, the tranquillity, the sense of solitude. Not aloneness, which can feel very sad, but solitude, an act of choice, of preference.

Those of us who create things often relish thinking time, making time. A house by a peaceful lake would be our dream, as it was Thoreau’s. But for many, this is a nightmare. I was intrigued by the mostly accurate depiction of natural objects in the video, and how they move – the water, the sky, the creatures. And mildly amused by the awkwardness of the little boat, very badly located on the bank. Solid objects are difficult to simulate in soft surfaces, just as hard thoughts are challenging when your brain is muddled by fearful thoughts.

Back to Thoreau, my sister told me he didn’t live in isolation, as she discovered whilst researching for her book Technobiophilia:

“By his own admission, he [Thoreau] was hardly isolated. He regularly walked into Concord to dine, read the papers, visit the post office and have his laundry washed and mended.” Sue Thomas Technobiophilia, page 160)

cropped-walden.jpg
Image for Technobiophilia by Sue Thomas

image (c)carolyn black in Technobiophilia[/caption]

It is a bit like that now, with the pandemic. Those of us who live in rural areas feel like we are enjoying a period of solitude, the rural idyll, but we are still connecting with the wider world. Thoreau didn’t have the internet, he just had newspapers, aren’t we lucky!

So what interests me is how so many groups are setting up online forums of support and activity for local groups. Possibly the biggest loss to those who live in villages is not having a chat in the waiting room at the doctors, or at the local pub. Now they go online to their village Facebook page, or join a What’s App Group. Which is great. But there is a risk that unless those conversations are held wider,  localism to such a miniscule level may make us forget the bigger picture.

The media talk about the ‘British’ suffering with the pandemic, yet it is world-wide and others suffer far more than we do. And while it spreads ever wider and wider, individual’s daily lives are shrinking. So many people are switching off the news because they simply can’t bear it. Brexit was like that too.

Social and physical distancing is an imperative, a necessity. And online socialising is a great replacement to fill the gaps. But let’s not let interactions come down to the lowest denominator. Localism is important, but the planet matters more.

Back to the awkwardly placed boat on the side of the pond. It reminded me of me. How I feel.

Of the other week when I walked by the Severn and wanted to lie down on my back and watch the clouds. There was no-one in sight, so I did. I don’t usually lie down outside in public places, as I am a little ungainly when I do so. But that didn’t matter. And when I settled with my spine firmly grounded on the earth and watched the huge white clouds zooming across a bright blue sky, I thought to myself “if it has to be zoom, can it be this type of zoom please?”.

While the media bemoan economic crashes, find yourself a safe space, a private place, make the most of it, because it won’t last forever. Take the opportunity to lie on your back and wonder, wouldn’t it be great if it was always as quiet as this? And how can we move to make that our rural idyll?

How about we steer some of our strategic thinking back to planetary issues? Use online interactions to do something useful. We are getting used to our narrower lives now, our new normal, and no doubt enjoying the resultant quietness of it all. This *is* the rural idyll we have been going on holiday to find. We are living it. Go for a walk from your house, see how far you can go without meeting a soul. Listen. Look at the springtime rising out of the soil, blooming on the hawthorn bushes, the blackthorn. Wild garlic to eat, ferns unfurling, swifts and swallows have arrived. The sky above, only occasionally chalked with the vapour trail from a transatlantic plane. Goods trains keeping our industries going, farmers still working the land, tending their livestock.

Let’s get through this together and plan for what is ahead. I’d like to hear from others about this, as I am sure I am not alone. If we are going to talk online, on phones, over garden fences, let’s talk about the long-term future of the world. Doing so may also distract our thoughts from immediate concerns, like getting more toilet paper.

Our communities are getting stronger together now, it is no longer the rhetoric of ‘big society’ – people are actively working together to find solutions, and that is brilliant.

We need to hold onto that thought and keep our eye on the ball, collectively.

NOW: WRITTEN IN ON 14TH JULY

Updating, things have changed recently, new issues tom deal with. Lockdown being tentatively lifted, shops and pubs opening, football games happening but behind closed doors.

How do I feel now?

How do you feel now?

I for one miss the sense of safety that living in a rural place gave me. As the streets get busier, I see more sadness. Elderly people wandering around looking confused. Streets lined with crash barriers to widen paths. Though the risk of crash is not a vehicular one, it is both a physical and psychological one.

If there was music playing, it would sound ominous.

The land is bracing itself for increase of pollution, planes hitting the skies, roads churning out fume. We can wear masks, but what can the planet do?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

a myriad of opportunities for artists!

Just writing the title for this post warms my cockles! It’s been a while since I have been able to share opportunities – two very different ones – both a pleasure to be involved with. And what makes them special is they are both in the Forest of Dean!

  1. Destination Lydney Harbour – a public artwork contract – £70k budget – open to all

I am pleased to say I have been working as a consultant on this project. This is a substantial contract and requires experience of delivering permanent art in the public realm. You need to register with the procurement portal to get the brief and tender documents.

Publica – In-Tend Portal

The document downloadable below may be helpful in navigating the portal:

Publica Group partners_Supplier e-tendering guide

Artwork Commission_Flyer


2. canopy network micro-commissions and bursaries and gatherings too! – open to Forest of Dean Creatives from all sectors.

I’m the Project Manager for canopy in the Forest of Dean, (very part-time).

Thanks to an Arts Council England Emergency Grant, we recently contracted Rod Maclachlan as an Engagement Manager, to deliver engagement activities during lockdown

Visit website to see full details of the opportunities and subscribe to canopy mailing list.

Web

 

 

 

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

Another blogpost sitting comfortably in my practice blog, rather than here. Some of the attention series fit one site or the other, some both.

This one is about the experience of heading off to the riverbank and observing how my attention shifts from body to mind constantly, depending on purpose and context.

enjoy!

 

 

 

Attention Series No. 2 Thinking Practice

This one is on my artist website as it is about practice rather than theory. But my experience as a producer enables me to analyse my own practice in context. Pop over and have a look if you are interested, there are some films to watch!

Introductory paragraph:

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. [more]

 

 

 

 

 

 

ATTENTION SERIES NUMBER 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pandemic writing – giving 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.