Tuesday, 6 January 2009

The Floor Becomes Archaeology - Collaboration

Leverhulme funding for the residency finishes at the end of this month. I hope to continue as CRFR associate artist and that some of the possible collaborations with researchers materialise.

However, from February I will be involved in something completely different - a collaboration with impresario theatre performer and director, Andy Manley, to create a show for toddlers called Archaeology. It's not impossible that I will be appearing on the London stage at the end of March. At Polka Children's Theatre. This is the final stop on a tour which will start at North Edinburgh Arts Centre, then move on to the Byre Theatre in St Andrews.

As a visual artist and theatre artist, we've been funded to experiment with collaborative ways of working. One of the things the collaboration has thrown up is how different these artforms are in their modes of production and outcomes. We have had a bit of 'pushing through' to do. (Sixties American Artist Robert Morris says that pushing through is one of the things art is).

Theatre is a group effort, under the leadership of the director. Structure and schedules are part of a process which is orientated towards the goal of the performance. Visual art, along with music and lighting design are usually in the service of theatre providing 'the stage' for the performance.  Ultimately it's all about the performance.  Then the reception of the performance is a collective experience too.  

Visual Art tends to be a more solitary experience, both in  production and reception.  Because of that there is a lot less  'marshalling' - it tends to be a more introverted personal experience. (Curator and thinker, Charles Esche once said that multi art centres were a bad idea for visual art - that after a few years 'the art' was invariably relegated to the cafe walls!)

So this is the territory we have been pushing through.  Our aim is to create a space of performance and explorative play.  What have we done when we got stuck? We talked about the difficulties. We worked separately, but in parallel for a bit.  We consulted with others.  We have used one another's methodology - e.g.  I made a model of the structure, as a set designer would do. So now we have pushed through to a point where we have a space  and the bones of a performance which have potential to develop.  

A lesson - collaboration doesn't always feel like the total being greater than the sum of the parts.  However it's beginning to feel that we are pushing throughrom 2D to 3D both in our idea for the piece and in our process.


Tuesday, 25 November 2008

She Pushed Me!

Two or three weeks ago, I got a request from a highly regarded CRFR project, Connect in Care network 'for staff involved in caring for older people wherever that care takes place'. They were wondering if I had any ideas for workshops or sessions which would encourage and enable staff to share their own 'good practice' stories. It turns out that in training and staff development sessions, if there is a shift in focus from weaknesses and failings to strengths and successes, participants often find it very difficult to 'sing their own praises'.

My email response (informed by clay workshops I'd been doing) reads:
Warm up: working in pairs, people can 'shake hands' with a bit of clay filling the hollow between the two palms. Each space is different and unique to those two people. (Idea courtesy of artist Kate Foster).
Sharing: In threes each person tells their story to the other two and between the three of them they work out a sculpture which reflects the story.
Quite rightly the team thought these ideas would be more suited to a new start up group, rather than the established group they had in mind, so we left it there.
Fast forward a couple of weeks and I'm sitting in a coffee shop with Caroline. We are hoping to get funding to run some creative sessions with a group of parents deemed 'high risk' to get their take on the policy and practice changes in Health Visiting. We were very productive on creating a good context and atmosphere for the sessions, but when Caroline said, 'but what will we do in the sessions?', I found myself falling back into clay warm ups.....'Mmm....any other materials apart from clay', Caroline prompted. 'Well yes, there's loads of materials we could use...they could split into threes and make sculptures and tell one another about their experiences.' 'Mmmm...I think people - all of us in difficult situations can feel really awkward talking...' Caroline pushed. I felt the push. 'Well we could work more physically', I warmed up. 'Physical is good,' prompted Caroline. 'Splitting into pairs one person takes the part of the health visitor, the other the part of the parent, and they position themselves the way the feel- and they could use simple props'. 
Then I thought of Kathy Wilkes, feminist, Glasgow based artist, short listed for the Turner prize this year, who makes installations using domestic furniture and tools - ironing boards, kitchen tables, buggies and mannequins to comment on her life. We can use Kathy and her work as inspiration. We were really warming up now. The months of conversation, research and collaboration are beginning to pay off. An artist, evidently thrives on relational work too!

Friday, 14 November 2008


There was theme of 'boys' on the go last week. First I attended a gathering of men who have been interviewed by Sarah Nelson. She is carrying out research on the care and support needs of male survivors of childhood sexual abuse. The report is due to be launched at a Voices of Male Survivors Conference in February. We had gathered to hear the key findings of Sarah's research so far, to get the men's response to those findings and to explore ways the men, as survivors, might feed into the conference. One of the ideas that came up was to produce posters that could be exhibited at the conference. Various ideas were discussed. One of the group is an artist and the others have good ideas, so I am looking forward to collaborating with them. Next step is to have a look at the venue to help inform the style and design of the posters.

Boys were also the theme of the adventure lunch last week in the refurbished Chrystal MacMillan Building - the new home of the School of Social and Political Science. The idea of the adventure lunch is to spotlight a contribution from each of the  different disciplines on selected themes, in this case boys. It was fascinating to hear these different perspectives on a subject close to my heart. Every artist who works with children and young people as part of their practice has at least one story to tell about 'problem' boys and 'art' experiences which reveal them in a completely different light.

It was particularly interesting to hear from Lesley McAra and Susan McVie of the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime
 They were focusing on serious offending and vulnerabilities. Their findings show that the most vulnerable and victimised boys aged 12 -13 are the ones most likely to go on to serious offending.

The Edinburgh Study findings also show that nurturing advocacy at the point of transition (age 12 - 13) is the most effective intervention, but that agencies are not good at identifying vulnerable boys. Since serious offending is very common among boys aged 15 (50% according to some figures) it begs the question that maybe all boys should have access to nurturing advocacy. Perhaps argued for along the same lines as for universal school meals.

The Edinburgh Study demonstrates to me the power of quantitative research to back up personal experience, although what was also evident was the passion and commitment of Lesley and Susan to use their figures to argue for different ways of seeing and responding. Chrystal MacMillan would have applauded.

Chrystal MacMillan

Friday, 7 November 2008

Last Week's Art Session

animation concentration

clay figure

Thursday, 23 October 2008

The Ignorant School Teacher

I was reminded of French philosopher Jaques Ranciere's book The Ignorant School Master during last week's drop in art session using clay. This book describes the emancipatory education of Joseph Jacotot, a post-Revolutionary philosopher of education who discovered that he could teach things that he himself did not know! After a first week of folk playing with the clay I was unnerved to see two or three of the group heading down the figurative route. I hadn't done any 3D figurative modelling since primary two when the teacher told me I was 'making' a very nice dog when infact I thought I was 'making' a very nice bird...

Perhaps since Duchamps Urinal in 1917 Art has been a contested practice. It may be that there is most agreement about the negative - what Art is not and hasn't been for a while. And that is representation. There is a broad (but not universal) consensus then,  that modelling from life as an end in itself is not-Art.

Fair enough, but that left me in a precarious position vis-a-vis my art group who were looking to me for guidance..off to the Fine Art Library then on George IV Bridge to seek out some helpful 'working with clay' manuals.  Tentatively I started following instructions for a simple figure using six balls of clay. Quite quickly  however, I started thinking, or rather feeling yoga - one of my favourite poses - Upavistha Konasana to be precise.  I proceeded with pleasure, enjoying the process and content that the result, although rough, did communicate to me anyway, some of the tranquility of the pose.  

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

View From My Window

I've recently moved back to Inverkeithing after a fifty two year gap! This is part of the view out my window - a contour drawing without looking at the paper, which is a brilliant exercise in quieting the bossy side of the brain. In the background Arthur's Seat leads on to the Castle Hill, Blackford Hill and the Soutra Gap behind. Then on to the Pentlands, not all drawn, but I can see the whole range. Then in the middle ground Corstorphine Hill and Cramond Hill are a backdrop to tanker and tug in the Forth. The defunct paper mill chimney dominates the foreground, with Inverkeithing Bay behind. Rooftops of flats and houses lead me back to my window seat in a Glasgow style tenement built about one hundred years ago to house paper mill workers. Further right tucked in from view is the cemetry where all my grandparents are buried. If I chart a line from the cemetry through the flat and on to the north I come to my grandad's small holding where I moved too when I was three. All my cousins on both sides cherish memories of the smallholding and helping my grandad with his pigs, hens, bullocks and heifers.

There is a strong feeling of homecoming after a long journey.

In art there is a recurring tension between being nomadic and being settled, as I guess there is generally. I remember in the late 70's after I completed a mosaic mural with some children in Lerwick, Shetland, I pondered the possibility of becoming a wandering muralist, relying on the generosity and hospitality of residents in places I would end up. I wasn't brave enough to even try it...something I've mildly regretted over the years.

Now I find I have a strong sense of belonging in Inverkeithing. I ponder the possibility of artistic interventions without the discomfort of questioning my right to intervene 'in other people's business'.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Desire Lines

I met with Zoe Fothergill from Talbot Rice Gallery a couple of days ago. They are developing an 'off site' exhibition entitled Desire Lines for the first half of next year, and have commissioned six artists to create site specific works in and around the university. We are discussing the possibility of developing a project with a local nursery, where the children visit some of the works, then get the chance to make their own work inspired by what they have seen, and in doing so, chart their own desire line.