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.

 

A week of balance and decision making, or not, it’s all about choice

On Wednesday, I had a very interesting discussion with someone I had not met before, all about the choices we make in life. This is because last week I had my head down in a tender for a contract that would be wonderful to do. But the tender was huge, the budget low. And I wasn’t very comfortable about the fee in relation to the workload and the timespan. It didn’t feel right, lacked balance. If it was simply not good enough money, I could let it go. If it was a shorter-term contract, it could work. If it provided more money, or demanded less time, it would be fantastic. And if the tender wouldn’t consume the whole of my weekend trying to answer questions designed for a major supplier contract, I would have happily filled it in, because I would have loved doing the work. It was right up my street, metaphorically, literally, professionally and philosophically.

catch

Last night I was given a session of Alexander Technique with John Stevenson. It is all about balance of body and mind, emotions and gravity. It was fascinating. We began by the therapist throwing small bean bags my way, like playing ball. The instruction evolved as we went. First, I was asked to stand and catch them, as they were sent towards me. Then some were sent wider, or higher. Sometimes I was told to catch, other times not to catch. Then I was told I could decide what to do myself, not take an either/or direction from him. Added to that was the choice to actively move to catch, or avoid. Each movement was a decision made fast. It was incredibly relaxing to do this and it meant my body was finding its balance without my deliberately doing anything in relation to my posture. Gravity will always out. The rest of the session raised my consciousness about how I hold my body in a constant state of tension, and how it feels to let that go. (John’s website)

This morning I see a relationship between these two conversations. And it’s all about balance. In life, in body and in mind. The job opportunity was approached in a similar way to the balls being sent wildly around me and my trying to catch them, because I believed I should. I wanted to get the contract and would move around and adjust my thinking, or position, to do so. But It didn’t feel right and began to make me feel very stressed. As the tension accelerated I knew that, just like the balls, it doesn’t matter if I decide not to catch anything. If I decide to stand still, relax, breathe, and let them hit the ground, it’s ok.

Had the ball game been a competition, like the job application, I would have worked much harder, as I did with the tender. Because there would be a reward dangling, a contract. The ball game didn’t matter to anyone else – the aim was about making me feel stable physically and emotionally. I gave nothing, and had nothing to lose.

Muscle memory in the body is not always a good thing, especially if we have developed bad habits. The brain is a muscle, use it wisely.

I’m really glad I didn’t chase something that would make me anxious. Instead I spent the weekend seeing friends, walking in the wonderful forest on a sunny autumn day. There will be other beanbags, other opportunities. I’ve learned a lesson this week. Thank you to both partners in conversation, even though you may not have intended to have this impact on me.

And thanks to my friends that celebrated my release last weekend!

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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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Story of Objects update – film collage & callout

The Story of Objects represents a return to practice, not in making objects, but in discussing them. SOO has evolved both from my work as a visual arts producer and my thinking as an artist, accompanied by a deep interest in how we engage with art.

I am intrigued by how visitors encounter art in non-gallery locations so have mostly worked in the public realm. How we talk to people about art both inside and outside galleries is imperative to our understanding of it. Yet ask someone to talk about something they keep and love they will talk endlessly, and very coherently, about it.

I became fascinated in how the term ‘curate’ is so loosely used these days – we curate essays, poems, websites, plants. And many TV programmes tell us how to display our objects in our homes – how to ‘curate’ things. So I started asking people about their objects in their homes, why are they grouped like that? Where did they get them from? What did these things mean to them? Most importantly, why do they keep it?

I found myself deeply absorbed in material culture – Daniel Miller’s books allowed me to step into another discipline, as did conversations with contemporary archaeologists. The idea for the Story of Objects began to take shape. I’ve talked to lots of people, from several disciplines:

  • Contemporary archaeologists
  • Museum specialist
  • Curators
  • Artists
  • Health providers
  • Members of the public
  • Producers – for arts and radio
  • Digital providers and app developers
  • Academics

Most recently I have hosted a number of trans-faculty conversations at De Montfort University, and thank them for their support and input.

Two years later I am still developing my thinking. I’ve collated a number of 30-second films together, which you can see below and on my YouTube Channel. It’s great to see them collated like this and I am now motivated to put out another call for films.

I’m also working towards producing a scattered-site exhibition, commissioning artists who will be invited to stories of the objects that they keep and gain inspiration from. As always, don’t expect to see these artworks in a gallery space, they will be somewhere deemed appropriate for the work and the concept.

Subscribe if you want to keep informed.

 

 

 

Vantablack article commissioned by Four Seasons Magazine Summer Edition 2016

I was delighted to be commissioned to write for the Four Seasons Magazine about the controversy surrounding  the news that Anish Kapoor had bought sole rights to use Vantablack. Now the copyright period is over I can share it. It’s an opinion piece, as opposed to a review, which set out to raise questions about such legislation, and how one defines who/what an artist is.

Into the Void

Do usage standards for a new high-tech representation of the colour black efface the ideals of artistic freedom?

“The Vantablack agreement goes against the spirit of reciprocity that makes art and science ideal bedfellows.” By Carolyn Black Illustration by Joey Guidone

 

Feeling Unsettled by Social Making, in a good way

The Social Making symposium was devised by Take a Part in partnership with Plymouth University and hosted by Radiant Space.

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There were several overarching themes that evolved as the Social Making symposium rolled out over two days. Those relating to unsettling, succession and time caught my attention. Arnstein’s Ladder was also discussed, there’s an article in response to that on the a-n website, here.

The range of speakers was comprehensive, offering glimpses of the many ways that socially engaged practices are now being delivered internationally. The very nature of successful socially engaged practice is that it becomes deeply, and permanently, embedded in people and places. Take a Part has been doing that in Plymouth since 2009.

Dr. Sarah Bennet (Interim Head of School at Plymouth University) would no doubt refer to Take a Part as an ‘upstart organisation’ as opposed to a startup – they began as a small group with a big idea. The term upstart set the tone, flagging up the need for socially engaged practice to challenge existing new-business models, because not everything is about economy. As the symposium developed and more speakers presented, there appeared to be a growing tension between the notion of unsettling and that of providing sanctuary. How might one create a safe place for people who may have, themselves, arrived in a very unsettled condition?

Dr. Kelichi Nnoaham, Director of Public Health, shared his story of how he grew up listening to hip-hop and rap music, and on entering Cambridge University he had to learn about classical music. That was evidently very unsettling for him and very likely for the fellow students that heard his favourite music for the first time. He referred to this as being ‘a tough war’ which informed his passion for community empowerment and drive for inclusivity.

Michael Bridgewater, engineer and Take a Part Board member, used the term “community interferer”. It’s a good description, unsettling and agitating must have the capacity to constructively re-settle after the event, it’s not just about providing economic validation. And it is messy.

Succession was a big subject at the symposium – how can socially engaged practice withdraw from communities and leave a sustainable legacy that can continue what the artist-as-catalyst began? My article for a-n refers to the Arnstein’s Ladder model that seeks to create total accession through a series of processes, always with citizen control as the goal. I have my reservations whether or not the model works well within socially engaged art practice as it stands, but it could be adapted.

Other projects, such as Homebaked and Effevescent, described how they evolved over time. Time is imperative for succession to come to fruition. There were numerous crunchy little phrases, like “are public artworks empty symbols of civic pride”; “it’s peoples work, humble and messy” and “are indicators passive data, or the legacy of a sense of direction?” to mention a few.

There was a brilliant range of speakers present and it was a real coup to have Turner Prize winners Assemble there to end two days of fascinating discussion. By the end there was a real sense of these being exciting times for culture in Plymouth, both from the speakers and from the conversations in the gaps between. Whilst the audience were seated in the main hall to hear the presentations, there were plenty of networking opportunities, oiled by excellent hospitality by RumpusCosy.

Take A Part should have invited an estate agent to set up a stall – so many people were saying they want to live there. I don’t blame them, it’s a buzzing place to be.

IMG_5034Assemble

I was able to attend the Symposium thanks to a bursary from VASWVisual Arts South West is a network creating opportunities for artists, organisations and professionals to develop their practice, share ideas, knowledge & resources, and cultivate relationships.