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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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

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?

IMG_5714
Life Drawing Live

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, here’s a taster…

TRAILER: “When you call I shall come”

The Severn Bore under lockdown from carolyn black on Vimeo.

Film will have an online premiere screening at 8pm on Friday 8th May – pour yourself a drink and have a look!

PREMIERE SCREENING ONLINE invitation