The Dialogue of Magical Objects and a Chorus of 50,000 Bees – Scratch the Surface Festival 2017

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Scratch the Surface Festival 2017 is presenting eleven days of groundbreaking art from September 30th – October 10th, World Mental Health Day in venues across the city of Coventry, including the world-famous Cathedral. Marie-Louise Plum, Director of Mental Spaghetti gives some background to the festival and writes about her commission Suburban English Magick.

Scratch the Surface has programmed some very diverse events this year. You can witness Liz Atkins live-drawing her Compulsive Charcoal series on Coventry bus routes, a revelatory group exhibition of visual art from Terence Wilde, Bobby Baker and Claire Margaret, and Wolfgang Buttress’s ‘Bee Music’, an orchestral piece, performed live with 50,000 bees.

Scratch the Surface is the brainchild of Collective//Pod, the majority of whose members have experienced severe and enduring mental ill health, who believe that art is a powerful catalyst for positive change. Forging relationships with local, national and international artists, they bring the city of Coventry – bursting with creative life and appreciation of the vanguard.

Following their hugely successful inaugural festival last year, Collective//Pod invited my art and mental health project, Mental Spaghetti, to co-curate elements of the programme and bring thought-provoking events and exhibitions from South East artists up to the West Midlands.

The artists have all been chosen both on the basis of their strength of work and its resonance with this years theme – Dialogue – with visual art work, talks and performances from Gwyneth Rowlands, Wen Wu, Terence Wilde, Bobby Baker, David Beales, John Hegley, Liz Atkin and Sarah Chaney.

For the festival run-up, I was invited to exhibit as an associated artist, in a space bequeathed to Collective//Pod by international artist Bob and Roberta Smith. The ‘CCCA’, bestowed with the tongue-in-cheek moniker ‘Coventry Centre of Creative Arts’, is in fact a large garden shed, and a place to “make your own damn art”. Once situated in a Leytonstone back garden, it later pitched up at the Serpentine Gallery, and now occupies a space at Fargo Village, one of the bustling festival locations.

My brief was clear; do what thou wilt, whilst incorporating a nod to your experience of engaging with Collective//Pod and also ‘The Pod’ itself – the organisation that the collective sprang from. The Pod was once a day centre which provided work and security to service users in the form of an industrial therapy unit, where car parts were assembled for use in Coventry’s booming car manufacturing trade. Fast forward twenty years, The Pod is now a one-of-a-kind organisation, not a nut, screw or conveyor belt in sight, using a ‘social brokerage’ formula to aid people in recovery by pursuing their interests.

The spark of inspiration I was looking for came whilst selecting work for the festival at Bethlem Royal Hospital. I was unwrapping as yet unseen decorated flint stones by the (now deceased) artist Gwyneth Rowlands. During her long stay at Netherne Asylum, Rowlands produced a prolific amount of artwork, and, although exhibited widely in her lifetime, including at the prestigious Halle Saint Pierre, no one has seen these particular artworks since the day they were stored – over thirty years ago.

Thanks to the Adamson Collection Trust, nine of approximately two hundred Rowlands ‘hidden flints’ will be on display during the festival, exhibited between 1 and 3pm, on Wednesday 5th October, as part of Dr Sarah Chaney’s talk ‘Art and the Avant Garde Asylum’, at the Herbert Museum and Gallery.

Attempting to map links between my art practice and working with the collective, I realised connections between The Pod’s industrial therapy history and the industrious way Gwyneth Rowlands worked also existed. I considered how the environment of institution can enable. Indeed, there are many mixed reports from the industrial therapy days that aren’t all as unpleasant as you might imagine. A sense of security and satisfaction was commonly felt by some individuals who produced pieces of work – be it art or car part.

Working with her environment, using what was at hand and transforming it, Gwyneth became a conduit for strange art to appear in strange places. Responding to the surface area of a flint stone, she made it her own, casting a spell that resonated all the way to its core. To handle artwork by Rowlands is to feel a magical object, an outcome possibly thought unlikely, faced with upwards of twenty years detainment in an old school asylum.

I decided, like Gwyneth, to use what I had to hand – the CCCA itself – and a large-scale live painting project was born. I would cover the entire surface area of the CCCA shed, and transform that into a magical object. As I painted, responding to memories of my own environment of growing up in a strange, semi-rural village in Middle England, I painted vignettes and told stories of the peculiar effects my environment had on me and those around me.

Visitors were encouraged to enter the space as I painted, which became an evolving, immersive experience. Listening to recorded dialogue and captured sound bites, I attempted to recreate the feelings of isolation and protectionism that I was exposed to as a child. Visitors to the shed were offered a limited time to experience the environment and share their thoughts. The CCCA has now been restored to its original white cube self, but you can experience the outcome, ‘Suburban English Magick’

Working with Collective//Pod has offered a great awakening, both for my artistic practice and for Mental Spaghetti, as a project, which attempts to arouse and provoke. It has been reenergising, reinvigorating experience, and I hope to see real inspiration being drawn from their set-up for more individuals on their road to recovery, and as an organisation bringing top quality arts and experience to the world.

The next artist in the CCCA is Chinese International artist, Wen Wu, represented by Riflemaker Soho. Wen Wu officially opens the festival with a talk about her highly symbolic ‘literary paintings’ on Sunday October 1st, at 1:30pm.

Scratch the Surface: Dialogue continues until Tuesday 10th October, closing with a performance by poet and comedian, John Hegley, in celebration of World Mental Health Day.

Click on this link for the full Scratch the Surface Festival programme

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