My ACE (Arts Council England) supported R&D (research and development) project ‘Surroundings’ is uncovering some fascinating, evocative and highly emotional stories, experiences and opinions from my volunteer interviewees. The difference between my original vision for how the interviews might pan out and what is actually happening, is as unexpected as it is inspiring.
Volunteers’ understanding of the meaning of ‘Surroundings’ is far wider and more open to interpretation than I could possibly have anticipated. Their life circumstances, experiences and opinions vary extensively, particularly when considering culture, economics, gender etc. And this is what R&D is all about. As my project progresses, my creative processes have become increasingly more experimental, with a considerable chunks of trial and error.
As an artist, working with the experiences and perspectives/viewpoints of a wide variety of people, I am learning to adjust my creative approach to accommodate any variables. Therefore, I am developing more open-ended structures for my interviewing processes and my creative development. I have taken a leap of faith into the unknown, inspiring me to further develop the breadth, depth and meaning of this new artwork and it’s extended discourse.
So far, I have recordings of people from the London borough of Southwark, Munich and the regions around it, including Dachau (in Bavaria, Germany). Considering that my project and the word ‘Surroundings’ has varied meaning to people in the UK; in Bavaria the word has an entirely different interpretation. The Bavarian translation is limited to physical location, the property you live, work or study in etc, or urban and rural environments and is not as open to the same interpretations as it is in the UK.
The dictionary meaning in the UK is; “surroundings; environing things, circumstances, conditions, etc.” From the onset of the project, I have been co-editing the type, structure and framing of each question for the ‘Surroundings’ interviews (for both British and German interviewees) with Dr Jürgen Müller-Hohagen. And although he fully understands the measure of meaning for the word ‘Surroundings’, we hit this barrier head on.
During our first interviews in Bavaria, we encountered confusion concerning this particular word. We realised that German interviewees needed another word or phase that would give them the opportunity for a similar scope for interpretation, as in the UK. What he has coined is ‘Heimat’ (‘Homeland’), which is similar to our understanding of the word ‘Surroundings’. This complexity of langue has incurred a considerable learning curve and Dr. Jürgen Müller-Hohagen’s solution is now bridging this international language gap. But this is only the first hurdle, there are the interviews with people in the UK who have a more limited English vocabulary because it is e.g. their second language etc.
For many volunteers, I have had to further qualify my interviews with clear concise explanations of what my project actually means. And then there are further complexities when interviewing disabled people because the word ‘Surroundings’, particularly for physically disabled people, is a highly loaded word. I have been using a wheelchair for 18 months, so I can roughly anticipate what that might entail, due to the impact of change to my own physical surroundings. But I can’t base my conclusions on the experiences of others because every impairment (visible or hidden) carries a different yet equal weight in terms of what ‘Surroundings’ means. Physical and emotional barriers to physical location, attitudes of people around us and society at large will complicate, as well as open up this myriad of experiences into a complex discourse.
My first draft installation/scratch performance will incorporate recordings from people living in Southwark, which have to be carefully and thoughtfully edited into a single soundtrack, that does not alter the meaning of what each interviewee has volunteered to the project. The installation/performance will be a one-day event on the 24th of April 2019, at the South London Gallery. Where I will construct an installation comprising of projected imagery that reflects my responses to what I have been recording, using film and photography taken from areas of Southwark, where my interviewees reside, work or study.
I am creating imagery that will provide an atmospheric feel to the installation, to enhance the audience’s experience of listening to the recorded voices and not divert the viewer away from them. In simpler terms, the imagery needs to be abstracted enough to give atmosphere rather than a direct interpretations of what is being said. To achieve this, I am entering new creative territory.
In conjunction with this aspect of the project, there are the complexities of the live sound performance. I will be playing keyboards, alongside Dee Fry (guitar), Jo-Anne Cox (cello) and Zack De Santos (Viola). Our performance will be an improvisation. And after a meeting at the Royal Festival Hall, my musicians and I have agreed that they will not listen to the sound track until the day of the performance. Our intention is to deliver a fresh direct emotional response to the recorded voices. We want to ensure that we listen, more than play, limiting us to a more spatial and atmospheric way of paying together, than if we were previously prepared, thus giving the recorded voices the central role. And my response when playing, will be directly influenced by what my musicians perform, to stop me from directing our performance, in accordance to my previous knowledge of the interview recordings.
The next and final installation/performance will take place on the 26th of June 2019 at the Plough Art Centre in Torrington, North Devon. The soundtrack will be edited from the interview recordings of people living, studying and working in North Devon, along with recordings from Southwark and Bavaria. For this final stage of the project, I will be working with Sue Austin to develop a 360° installation. Sue will be providing her 360° rig, which will be an immense difference from how I am projecting imagery at the South London Gallery. Her rig will provide a sculptural centrepiece housing the imagery and musicians, so that visitors can walk in and around the installation/performance. She will help me edit my visual material and film a dry performance (without audience) to be uploaded to the Internet. I have not worked with 360° technology before, so this will be another major learning curve.
Both installations/performances at South London Gallery and the Plough Art Centre will be testing grounds for my innovation, ingenuity and integrity as an artist. Therefore, I am in new ‘Surroundings‘ of unexplored innovation and creative territory. I look forward to responses from anyone interested in commenting on and in extending any discourse around my project.
I am also trying to reach another disabled volunteer interviewee living, working or studying in Southwark. If you are that person, or know anyone who might be interested, please contact me via this blog or on Facebook.