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)

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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]

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

virtual reality, reality virtual? Matt Collishaw at Lacock Abbey

Matt Collishaw VR work, Threshold, at Lacock Abbey, National Trust Estate, Wiltshire.

I’ve not felt compelled to write a review of any work lately, but today’s visit to Lacock Abbey fascinated me in many ways. I went specifically to see Matt Collishaw’s VR work about Talbot Fox, to inform my own learning about the potential of VR in contemporary artworks. I was not disappointed.

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I’ve seen a few in the past year – Bjork’s show at Somerset House; Rafman in Berlin Biennale and one in a Cotswolds barn, Corridor, by Helen Kincaid. All very different and satisfying in their own way. But I wish to consider context and the visceral experience and interactive qualities of Collishaw’s piece, not just in the space it was exhibited and experienced, but also in the wider location.

Firstly, you need to know that Fox Talbot was a pioneer of photography, so the medium is perfect shown here. Secondly, you need to know that the VR offer was in a tent in a courtyard within the Abbey walls, which enhances the circus-coming-into-town feel. After all, technology is contemporary snake oil, isn’t it?

What you also need to know is the ‘the village’ of Lacock is used regularly as a film set, so is designed to be easily adaptable for that purpose. It too is a VR environment, with all trappings of contemporary living removed from sight – no satellite dishes, no telephone cables, no PVC doors or modern trappings. Flip-flap – the street conceals the real, yet pretends it is real; the VR artwork presents a seemingly real experience that is virtual, by overlaying onto museum display simulations.

Photography was terrifying for many, and Talbot’s first ‘photos’ were made with real objects, such as plants and pieces of lace, on light sensitised papers to capture virtual images.  Contact prints. Touch.

This touch thing is important to our experience of place. What works extremely well with Collishaw’s work is the way you can hold onto the display cases, and even lean on them, (they are naked white blocks, like CAD designs of the wooden ones they are modelled from). Being able to touch the surfaces of the cabinets locates your own body in VR space and time. The virtual fire emanates real warmth and the images in the cases can be extracted and expanded by your hand movements. I even played with a virtual spider which was walking across a portrait on the wall (sadly it only had six legs so wasn’t very convincing!). When rioting chartists are heard outside, you can look through the window and see them shouting below you.

Outside the grounds of the Abbey, in the ‘real’ village, life felt more virtual than it did in the headset. It was more theme park than a theme park. It all messed with my head and really made me consider, yet again, about this merging of real and virtual, and what it means to us and how we experience this world we live in, and create. It all reminds me of Benjamin and Baudrillard, about how a simulacrum is not a copy of the real, but becomes truth in its own right: the hyperreal. Somehow the street reverses that phenomena, and Collishaw exemplifies it.

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an early plate camera on a shelf projects a digital presentation onto the wall, with the concealed projector – Plato eat your heart out
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Film set, BBC website

 

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The main street in Lacock
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just a great shot of the big hall with the sculptures in!

 

 

 

 

 

 

1st encounter with live-relay theatre, reflection & comparison of 3 forms of audience experience of The Tempest

My first encounter with live-relay theatre. A personal reflection and comparison of three forms of audience experience when watching a play, in this case The Tempest by Shakespeare, depending on where we view it and the delivery method used.

In recent years, new technology has allowed those living a long way from theatres to experience live performances in real-time, which is a wonderful development. Small venues all over the world now present live-relay theatre into cinemas, making it accessible to bigger audiences than ever before. But how does it compare with other experiences?

Live-relay theatre in a cinema is neither stage-play or film. It resides somewhere in between those things, as I recently found out. Which left me feeling a little discombobulated by my first experience. The acting and content of the production is not under discussion here, but the visitor experience is. This text explores how attending a play is affected by the context in which we view it.

The first production I saw being live-relay screened was The Tempest, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. I have been to see The Tempest being performed three times in my life – the first when I was about fifteen, with my school. That was at the Nottingham Playhouse and was incredibly engaging and entertaining. It was a traditional production by a touring group. A very memorable moment was when there was a power cut, creating an excitement amongst a full house of schoolchildren. When the lights went out, both on stage and in the house, we were in complete darkness and told to stay in our chairs. To our delight, the young actor playing Ariel entered the stage, using two torches to highlight his presence. He hung from the tree, he flitted across the stage. It was Jonathan Pryce and was a magical thing to behold, very fitting for the flighty character portrayed. Being in the audience was a group experience, shared and discussed at great length after the show with the actors, and later, on the coach going back to school.

The second was only two years ago, when another travelling troupe performed in a woodland near Bristol, outdoors, using an art installation by Luke Jerram, Withdrawn, as the stage set. Withdrawn comprised of five fishing boats seemingly abandoned amongst the trees, on dry land. The play was a promenade performance, with the audience being drawn through the set by the performers. We were part of the action, not passive onlookers. No elevated stage, unless the script required the actors to clamber onto the boats or climb trees. We were literally on a level with the characters. It was a summer evening and the place was green and lush, the smells of verdant leaves and rich mulch heightening the sense of being outdoors, stepping over brambles, ducking branches.

The most recent was merely two weeks ago and was a live-relay theatre production of The Tempest. It wasn’t screened in a huge multiplex cinema, but in a rural film venue in the Forest of Dean. What a fantastic thing to go and see the Royal Shakespeare Company perform live for a sixth of the ticket price for the stage show, and no long-distance travelling. It was my first experience of a live-relay show and I had no expectation of what it might be like or how it might differ from the other two visitor experiences. All I can say is that it was very peculiar and I’m not sure I enjoyed it. Here’s why.

There are social protocols and dress codes for going to the cinema, as there are for going to the theatre. As children when our father took us to the theatre it was a very special treat. We had to get dressed up and behave, to respect the privilege that one automatically associates with going to the theatre.  Men wearing ties, women wearing dresses. That behaviour has maybe softened a little now, but for many, it is still part of the tradition of being a theatre attender. Gin and tonics and posh chocolates for the adults, with ice-creams for the children, was standard fare, and still is. It’s a grand night out.

Going to the cinema has always been a very different thing. You can wear what you want, no-one will see you and no-one is watching, or evaluating you, in the dark. There’s no posing at the bar, no social niceties to be exchanged. In the dark you can put your feet up on the seats, hold hands, have a snog, guzzle popcorn and sip huge quantities of coca cola through an iceberg of crushed ice in a cardboard bucket.

I mentioned the smells of the woodland during the promenade performance and associate the smell of the theatre with lady’s perfume and men’s aftershave. The first thing I noticed on entering the cinema to see the live-relay was the sweet stench of popcorn. The too-warm air smelled thick with it, making me feel quite nauseous. The seats were half empty, the majority of those occupied well above the half-way-up line, to get a good view. I felt very agitated by the smell and the odd atmosphere. The live relay began with an interview between a presenter and a representative of the company that had created the special stage effects.  Some of the audience continued to chatter, as if the adverts were on for a film. They were shushed by others who were trying to listen. That would have been sacrilege in the theatre.

Gazing at the screen I tried to compute what it was I was watching. The interviews were filmed very close-up, resulting in huge heads on the screen, filling the frame sometimes. The sense of us all being human size was removed, and with it the empathy one has with live actors. That frisson between knowing that we are all alive and present, and at risk of stumbling, or worse, forgetting what to say.

When the play began the stage set looked amazing. The camera shots were managed by the camera operators, disallowing my own eye to travel around the set as it so wanted to do. I became increasingly aware that my choices of viewing were trapped, which is not something I feel when watching a film. On this occasion, the stage provided a fixed frame and the camera moved in and out and around it. We didn’t get to see the theatre interior, or the audiences there. It would have been fun to wave to them like one does in a live-relay conference – to engage in some way. Instead this audience were left in their seats, deprived of the subtle sounds that feet on a stage make, or the smell of the perfume and chocolates. What I am describing is sensory deprivation.

There lies the rub. There was a collision between the live performance and the film not only in the production values, but also in the protocols of cinema and theatre. The promenade performance was fitting for Shakespeare, as many of his plays were designed to be in the round. A film can create a space for the viewer by taking the eye around from place to place. The live relay was almost like a picture hanging on a wall. An aperture into a wider experience that wasn’t on offer. Flat. Or, at its best, two dimensional.

Last summer I experienced virtual reality headsets on several occasions. I think watching The Tempest wearing them would be amazing. I want to control how I look at something, to allow my eyes to dart sideways when I hear footsteps enter the stage, to look up as Ariel swings down from a tree, the scuffing of a shoe on a board. We experience all art through our bodies, our physical presence is part of the overall performance. Immersion in the magic is all and is what keeps us sitting on the edge of our seat in awe.

b6575-tempest_review_hub_1440x1368_v3-tmb-wo-720Mark Quartley as Ariel, RSC website

I would absolutely recommend that people go and see this live if they can – it is avbsolutely wonderful!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last chance to see Blackrock in The Forest of Dean

oreilly-panoramic

Note: This review is a personal one. I write to commission professionally, I write here, on my blog, because I enjoy the freedom of voice it offers me. (C) Carolyn Black

The Blackrock Residency Programme 2016 is a partnership between Matt’s Gallery, London and Lydney Park Estate on the edge of the Forest of dean, Gloucestershire. This is an art project – which needs to be stated clearly – whilst BlackRock (the investment company) is hitting the news big-time at the moment.

It is, of course, tempting to riff on this coincidence, but that will come later when I write an article for CCQ Magazine later this year.

The background to the development of Matts Gallery + Blackrock is very relevant to any critical analysis of both the exhibitions and the works they contain. Roy Voss, an artist and lecturer at Bristol UWE is also part of the founding group of Blackrock, along with Robin Klassnik (Matt’s Gallery, London) and Rupert Bathurst (Lydney Park Estate, Forest of Dean). It is very tempting to refer to them as the three R’s. In conversation, Klassnik referred to the group as a ‘triage’˚. A triage is defined as the process of ‘examining problems in order to decide which ones are the most serious and must be dealt with first’. It fits nicely and is an excellent way to describe what they have put into action together.

The first outcome was developed in 2015, when 4 artists were selected to take up residence on the Bathurst estate to develop new works for an exhibition, which was hosted that September. There was also a Susan Hiller work shown in a hall in Aylburton, a sleepy little place on the A48. It was wonderful walking into that space to witness a massive wall of TV monitors flickering in the dark. I wrote about it last year.

This years exhibits have moved further out into the landscape, utilising several spaces that are workplaces to those who work and live on the estate. Alison Turnbull’s beautiful notations overlaid onto historical accounts ledgers can be seen in the Estate Office. The relationship between the mark-making and the patterns found in and around the space create their own rhythm. I imagine if they had a sound, it would be that of pen on paper, accompanied by the clicking noise that Spirograph makes when cogs interlock.

Sound is quite high up on the programme this year, alongside natural selection and the theme of Us & Them. The BBC voice that narrates the found-footage about an experiment and enquiry into the survival rates of black moths, compared to white, was poetic, nestled as it was next to the Bathurst family museum that houses many finds from the estate. Artist Alison Turnbull has also scattered small images around the walls of the Collections Room, of the moths showing their varying levels of camouflage. The white ones were survivors.

Elsewhere on the Estate, the sound coming from a strange arrangement of floral curtains standing in a huge, otherwise empty, glasshouse, draws the viewer in. This random collection of drapes is not unlike a refugee tent, cobbled together for shelter in this leaky botanical incubator. The film it contains reporting on social issues of vulnerablity and loss of home while the rain beats down on the glass.

Walking through ancient scowles in the woodlands down to a field, you find two huge words built by Patrick Goddard, with timber from the Estate. Shouting across the field to each other, US retreats to the edge, whilst THEM is set up to burn and flame, roaring loud and clear. THEM is to be destroyed and feared. US watches quietly from a safe distance. It reminds me of American sci-fi films, in which aliens are usually the enemy and to be feared.

In the barns nearby are two films by Goddard, one a virtual garden and the other a film from a go-pro camera attached to an Alsation dogs head. It rushes through empty industrial units, the voiceover referring to the disenfranchised – more us and them. Back in Aylburton, in the Barn Hall which has been reconstructed and reborn as a gallery, photos by Willie Doherty are shown. The majority are of the troubles in Belfast from the late 70’s, early 80’s. Whilst they could be read as historical, they resonate with the now too. Some things don’t change. Someone commented that they could be photos taken from the Forest of Dean. They were right – it’s a poor area, burnt out cars, barriers and poverty. The images of roadblocks bring back thoughts about refugees….this is still happening…not so much in Belfast now, but in other places, worldwide, every day.

Whilst this all sounds like gloom and doom, it’s most definitely not. It is provocative. It makes people think. And ask questions of the art.

This is the final weekend to catch it. The first weekend delivered a brilliant performance, twice, written by Sally O’Reilly and performed by Rosie Thomson. More here about that. Sorry, you won’t get to see that again, but believe me, it was fab.

Saturday 24th and Sunday 25th September. 11.00am-5.00pm

 

 

 

 

 

Blackrock 2016 US & THEM

US & THEM is one of the artworks by Patrick Goddard.

Residency artists:
Patrick Goddard
Sally O’Reilly
Alison Turnbull

In the newly converted gallery at Lydney Park Estate, Matt’s Gallery + BLACKROCK is also showing the work of Willie Doherty

Last year Blackrock launched at Lydney Park in the Forest of Dean, so this years second offer was something to look forward to. I wrote about it from a personal perspective last year. This year the project feels more consolidating, more like  Harvest Festival, whereby the artists have gathered their thinking from the land and its history and shared it with others on the Estate . More mapped. More grounded in place.

That’s not to say the artworks last year weren’t grounded in place – indeed they were, very much so. That’s the good thing about residencies, the artists have time…..something very important when expecting artists to work in somewhere so far from a city.

As Robin Klassnik, of Matt’s Gallery said “Blackrock is national and international”, and is emphatic that it shouldn’t “pander to the locals”. It doesn’t, but it does bring excellent art to the area to be enjoyed at a local level for those that are interested, as I am.

And this year I have time to assimilate, to think and reflect, to consider what these artworks are collectively sharing with the viewers. And what they say about both Blackrock and the wider world.

Thankfully, there is another weekend coming up when the artworks can be revisited to inform my thinking. That’s on 24th & 25th September. Look out for information online, Facebook , or visit their website.

The first weekend included a performance by, or written by, Sally O’Reilly, which will not be repeated the second weekend. It was absolutely brilliant and what she refers to in her introduction speaks of the core curatorial concepts that all the artists have investigated and, duly,  responded too. A harvest festival with rich pickings and excellent produce.

Autumn arrives & as the weather cools down the work activity warms up…

Settling back into my office in earnest, it’s time to consolidate plans for projects, get back in the saddle. It feels good.

An interesting article came to my attention this morning and switched me into Story of Objects (SOO) mode: “Evoking the magic in everyday life” by Sally Bland. That is a good way to describe what SOO does.

“Sometimes the connection is quite straightforward, like for the narrator of the first story who has collected objects since she was a child, concocting stories about them: “I don’t necessarily have to save, own, or touch the object. Spotting it, even fleetingly, is usually enough. But once in a while I stroke the object methodically, my fingers creating an invisible grid around it, then cradle it possessively in my arms to feel the story enter me directly.” (p. 7)”

I like that she is using the objects as connectors, as inspiration for stories. I’ve used some of the stories people told me to create Flash Fiction, there’s an example here, in response to a video-short here.

I am increasingly fascinated by how and why these objects and stories are so rich in content, what they do to our thinking, how we relate to these ‘things’. In response to my interrogation of the potential of the process, I’m planning more research to test out a range of possibilities. Like prising open a nutshell and exploring the contents, tasting them, cracking them open, sniffing them, handling them, gaining a sense of the texture.

Like autumn nuts.

EveryTHING points to The Story of Objects – metaphors abound, we can’t resist them. So maybe the sharing of these stories about personal objects can offer a way of articulating other things, opening the mind and the senses. I witnessed that when I held an encounter session with people who have dementia – the process is far more than the action.

Watch this space, as I learn more I will share on here. And am happy to discuss options with interested parties who share my curiosity. To help the story both escape and reconstruct new narratives.

 

 

Anticipation, expectation and delivery – a post-referendum interpretation of the visitor experience of the Berlin Biennial 2016

I recently attended the 2016 Berlin Bienniale, alongside ten other arts professionals from the region, with the support of a bursary provided by Visual Arts South West. Prior to going we read some of the reviews of the Biennial which were not very promising. The article in the Guardian by Jason Farago had the headline “In the hands of New York fashion collective DIS, one of Europe’s biggest exhibitions is now a feeble blancmange of ads and avatars – where is the art?” Written on 13th June, following the opening, Farago began with a reference to drowning refugees, before stating “this show does not argue for a better art world; it argues for giving up on art entirely.”

Despite the negative review, as someone who has a history of interest in the virtual world and wrote my MA Fine Art thesis about the Virtual Body, I looked forward to making up my own  mind. I set off in anticipation of enjoying some of the works and was not disappointed. But I’d be lying if I said his comments hadn’t impacted on my expectations. I sought to keep my attention on an exploration of the visitor experience, in this case, my own, in the company others to discuss it with. The conversations were, as anticipated, very informative and revealed some useful learning.

Our visit to Berlin was only one month after Farago wrote his piece, during which time a referendum was held to decide whether the UK would remain in the European Union, or not. The result was to leave. As was one of the 48% that voted to remain, I arrived feeling like giving up, not just on art, but on the UK too. I was not alone. Since Brexit, the world seems to have become untethered, not only might the UK split from the EU, but it too has come under threat of collapse. A country divided. With no-one holding the reins, those responsible walked away, leaving no forward plan in sight. So the Bienniale was experienced through the lens of Brexit and shrouded by the emotional sensitivity that it had aroused. We entered a world that no curators could have predicted. The science fiction novel Bold As Love by Gwyneth Jones, written in 2011, is a book about that very possibility, but I haven’t finished reading it yet. I can’t help wondering whether the DIS team had.

When we had our meeting with two of the DIS curators, Lauren Boyle and Marco Rosso, they began their talk by making reference to the Guardian article. It was still a sore point for them, but I already felt that Farago’s diatribe was no longer relevant because the context for the exhibition had shifted so far since he wrote it. He experienced the show in a different world, the old world. The curators explained that the Bienniale had evolved around the concept of an ‘incomprehensible present’. Many of the works connected across the showing spaces as part of a hyperlinked landscape, bridging the city and the locations. The works themselves were mostly very fast, very virtual, very surreal, yet oddly a little bit like retro sci-fi. The now we are confronted with is not looking good, the present we are living in is, or should I say was, because it moves so very fast, both incomprehensible and unimaginable.

When DIS initially set out to provide a mix of contemporary works that would represent, and illustrate, a sense of loss of future, it was a good premise to work towards, as a theory. Three years ago when they took up post as the curatorial team, no-one could have imagined the impact of Brexit. Little did they anticipate that a sense of loss of future would become the norm for millions of people.

The ‘futures’ they shared were pretty tame and unimaginative, based mostly on 1960’s/70’s science fiction narratives which didn‘t get close to foreseeing the events of the present. The world that they imagined as so intangible has proved to be real. No artworks could hold up through a period of such a constantly-shifting timeline of daily unanticipated change. When DIS planned their show they did not know that a referendum would be called, nor that Brexit could occur; or that the refugee crisis would be as damaging to the world as it is now; the devastation of the war in Syria or, while we were present in Berlin, a truck ploughing down people in Nice and a military coup in Turkey.  Every day brings more twists and turns which flash up daily on my iPad. Every morning brought something more shocking than the previous one. Racism, violence, suicide attacks, mass slaughtering. A little like what science fiction films are made of.

So, returning to my intention to write about the visitor experience, I will reference just one work that encapsulated the overall sense of disorientation that the Berlin experience evoked in me. And I believe in others too. And it sums up how anticipation, expectation and delivery can impact on our experience of art, and can be very different for each visitor, depending on their own unique encounter.

The work that sticks in my head most is View of Pariser Platz, 2016 by Jon Rafman, which involved wearing an Oculus Rift headset.IMG_6015

As a group, following the curators talk, we were excited to try out this new experience and only one of us had ever worn an Oculus Rift headset before. Being English, we politely queued (see above) in an orderly line to await our turn. From the balcony of the Akademie der Kunste, we looked out at the Brandenburg Gate to the left and across to the French Embassy, on the other side of Pariser Platz. It was the morning after the truck drove through people on the streets of Nice. To don an Oculus Rift headset that merged the virtual and the real was more potent due to the events of the previous night. On the balcony were placed some strange, monstrous creatures and the white tent-like structures (see photo) were outside the Embassy where people were leaving flowers, and high security surrounded the area.

According to the Bienniale website the programme offered a situation whereby “The intangible becomes real, and the real becomes incomprehensible”. The experience of the Rafman work would need reframing, it is more a case of the real becomes intangible and the intangible becomes placebo. The film we all experienced was, to my knowledge, the same one. It began by locating us where we actually stood or sat, on that balcony. Then the surreal imagery was layered over the ‘real’ place and became immersive. From conversations after the event, it soon became clear that we all had different experiences, so much so that we began to wonder whether there were various versions of the film, not just one.

What intrigued me was to what degree our place in the queue, near the front or the back, and the conversations we had with those before us, influenced our reception of the experience, not just emotionally, but physically too.

When the first people wore the headset they mostly decided to stand up. Some stood stock still and gently turned their head around, as if watching quietly, whilst others became very animated, twisting their bodies, leaping back as, we later understood, images approached them or threatened them. The more active the early experiencers became, the more nervous those of us queuing felt. When people took off the headset they often looked disorientated, confused, startled and a little dizzy. At first we asked people about their visual experience, but we soon became increasingly concerned with the physical impacts. The steward was asked if anyone had thrown up during the experience. “Yes, several people have done so” was the reply. Therefore those of us who suffer from vertigo decided to sit in a chair rather than stand. The longer we queued, the more anxious we became.

The thought of public vomiting did not appeal to me. I sat down, as did others. The presence and absence of the people on the balcony was punctuated by people reading their mobile phones, snatching the wifi moment. Even the steward read hers while each person took their turn. We were physically a group together, but were worlds apart in our heads. It is slighly ironic to consider that the player here is not looking at the people, who are looking a their phones, but at something else entirely, quite possibly a virtual rendering of the rhino-creature behind him swimming past…….

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Later conversations revealed that those who enjoyed gaming were more animated, those of us who don’t were more likely to take a seat. There were varying levels of comfort with the virtual experience. But the truth is, the biggest discomfort from my perspective was the horror of the real world unravelling outside. The massive development of the area, the new buildings on the horizon, the private mourning of the families that had been devastated the night before in Nice. All those things, alongside my fear of feeling sick or dizzy, prevented me from immersing myself fully in the experience. I was distracted by the world. It appears that those who were most fulfilled by the experience were those that succumbed to it fully – mind and body.

Going to the Bienniale in the middle of Brexit created a fracture, indeed a rift, in my body and my thinking. It has informed the way I experience art and life. With a raised awareness of the impact of prior knowledge and experience of audiences and the thinking about the present speed of social change, it raises challenges for curators and producers in terms of time. These huge, scattered site shows take years to plan and prepare. What I learnt is that you cannot foresee a future, so to deliver against a futuristic agenda is to make oneself vulnerable to failure. Just as the experience of the Oculus Rift disappointed those that possibly had time, by queuing, to build up an emotional armour, likewise Biennials will always put themselves in the firing line unless they choose their theme wisely. Preferably one that won’t disappear down a black hole of social instability.

Another critique of the delivery of the exhibition is that the content of the 9th Berlin Bienniale was so heavily dependent on the virtual it was destined to be defunct even before it was installed. Because that is the nature of the virtual, it can override the real. On this occasion, it was upstaged by it.

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