Wednesday, 18 March 2009

The Grin Variations


One of the delights of the world is making a mess. Over three weeks I aided and abetted students at International School Hague (ISH) as they splashed ink across paper (and desks) held pens in their teeth to write and abused photocopiers. This was the ISH instalment of poetry project The Grin Variations. The freedom to mess up, in all senses, is one of the greatest human liberties. With it comes a rush of creative ideas and this is what I’d hoped to capture – serious play.

The Grin Variations is a giant poem made up of hundreds of individual pieces written by students of all ages, mostly attendees at Parenthorn High School in the UK, the rest at ISH in Holland. It is a visual poem, in the form of a short film made out of handwriting, intended for the screen rather than the page. The project is part of the international Text Festival in the UK, which brings together poets and artists who are interested in the outermost possibilities of the word.

For three weeks, I early morning-ed on trains and trams from Delft to ISH in Den Hague, bringing my collection of ideas and a hankering for caffeine. Students were shown the visual (or ‘concrete’) poem Grin by the celebrated British experimenter Bob Cobbing - a deceptively simple piece of writing in the shape of a smile. I then asked students to make their own variation on Cobbing – using dip pens and ink and the priciples of concrete poetry – to employ shape rather than rhyme and rhythm to make poems.

People don’t use dipping pens and ink anymore of course (but why ‘of course’?) and many young people don’t write by hand at all if they can avoid it. The sense of touch has been removed from their communications; the trace they leave is a digital one. But losing the physical act of writing can strip words of expressiveness. Shake, blots, imperfect lines tell us much about the writer, just as hand-making anything gives it a unique human presence.

The project is divided into three sections (one for each of the large screens in the plaza at ISH) Grin, Green and Grim. The Grin pieces describe the act of smiling – many of them are joyous little riffs on happiness – others delve the complexity that a smile can portray. The Green pieces are both a celebration and a damnation of mass-produced objects, especially cars. Finally, Grim brings destruction – verses mostly made by cutting up and processing war reportage in newspapers. Put together, the three are reflections on pleasure, consumption and violence – as viewed by young people – and they collectively ask the question: what lessons do we really teach our children?

My three weeks at ISH were a tumble of feelings and faces. Most people welcomed me. I was touched by the attentiveness and thoughtfulness of the creative writing group. Conversely, the sheer exuberance of the primary schoolers gave me a much-needed jolt on a sleepy morning. The art department were my base – their openness to the idea that poetry and art can cross borders into each other was heartening. Head of the department Mark Jalland helped organise my residency, lent his house and was a constant support along with Johnny Regan. The English department were more cautious because I come from an avant garde tradition that hasn’t yet percolated into the syllabus – but very graciously let me into their classes, despite the ink spillages. Carrie Stockwell – whose students were enthused by her inspirational teaching – was especially kind.

Standing clearest in my memory are the students who plunged so enthusiastically into it all, especially the team who helped with the editing of our work-in-progress Filip, David, Desiree and Yakayaki and Charlotte and Alexander who laid out hundreds of manuscripts from ISH and Parenthorn in the school plaza, under the watchful eye of Uka, for an impromptu showing. What we saw laid out for us on that day seemed to me a kind of handmade mirror of the media, reflecting back the litany of pleasure, consumption and war that the papers offer, the more poignant for being the work of children.

The Grin Variations is a partnership project between Parenthorn High School in the UK and International School Hague, devised and overseen by poet Philip Davenport. It is supported by Bury Metropolitan Council and Stroom Gallery, Hague, with additional support from Arts Council England. The project will be exhibited as part of the UK Text Festival in the UK and Holland from 30th April – mid-June 2009.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Taking a pencil for a walk across a large page

Friday 27th February.

Morning session in Cherry Tree Hospital, creating a line along side conversation about over the counter remedies.

Taking a pencil for a walk across a large page... created a line that reminded the lady I was working with of a hill. Although she had never lived by hills or had any strong memories about this, we created a landscape with sheep and a castle that she filled with expensive objects. It is hard to tell if this imagined land sparked off personal thoughts or if they were there already, but she began to tell me about her mother’s corner shop. Her mother worked there during the First World War, selling bacon, butter and cheese, as she sneakily played with coal in the cellar (and how she never got caught still makes her laugh). I liked that this imagined scenery lead her to a personal place in her life, as she took me on a tour down the street of shops. I’m always drawn to categorised forms and lists. I think I find comfort is ordering things. Perhaps because of that, I have become interested in how the imagination spills out between the boxes and rigid forms. I enjoyed this morning’s conversation as it gave us a chance to play and freedom to take me to another place and time.

Anneke Kuipers.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

“I am sitting in a room”

I’m sitting in a room with a soundproof glass window for a wall. In front of me, maybe four metres away, is man seated with his back to me. His name is Vinko Pandurevic and he is both a witness and one of the accused in a war crimes trial. His face and his voice are relayed electronically to myself and the others in the public gallery of the ICTY (International Crime Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) here in the Hague; seated around him is an arc of legal professionals, translators, security guards. The voices in the court bounce through many translations, which cut across each other, creating an unreality of disjunct voices/mouths, part-seen faces.

The man wears a pinstripe suit and is heavy-set, with a closely shaved head. His face, which I glimpse through the monitors and have seen numerous times on television, is prison pale, his eyes mostly look down. He seems sullen, but then there are flashes of humour and intelligence – and something else, a kind of charisma, but muted. The suit and the bulk of his shoulders makes him akin to oldtime gangsters.

Pandurevic is one of several men on trial for involvement in the massacre of thousands of Serbian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, summer 1995, July 13 – my birthday.

This is the first time I have been in a courtroom and I don’t quite know why I’m here. Perhaps it’s no more than instinct, the sense that this connects to the Kindness project, to all the people we’ve worked with in recent months, that what I’m doing is a kind of pilgrimage on behalf of them and those who’ve suffered like them. Or am I here for more voyeuristic reasons? The common denominator of the former Yugoslavia and the nazi state is genocide. But this is living, breathing a few steps away from me, arguing the legalities.

I sit here and Pandurevic sits there. The Prosecutor takes a long, long time to ascertain information about the locality of the killing. Using Google Earth images he tries to coax Pandurevic into agreeing that yes this was the place and yes these were the houses and yes this was the hotel and the post office… The General disputes every point: the photos are cloudy, so is his memory, he wants to be careful not to say anything that incriminates himself…

It is a painfully drawn out stop-start of legalese and fine detail. I drift a little, watch Pandurevic’s back, his hands, the leather soles of his shoes as he wriggles them under his desk. I wonder if the movement of his feet give some clue as to what he is really thinking? He sits there on one side of the divide, I sit here and the estranged voices swirl. I’m reminded of the sound work by Alvin Lucier – “I am sitting in a room” - and the layered, blurring voices abstracting.

Earlier on this morning I talked with a young legal intern at ICC nearby, where the Lubanga trial is underway. Thomas Lubanga Dylio is on trial for enlisting children in the Congo to become soldiers. The intern said that she wanted to keep working at this kind of trial, preferably in countries at war. I asked her didn’t she found the work upsetting? Weren’t there less grim ways to make a living? She said that she came from Uganda, and I wondered if there was an unspoken answer in there. Then she talked about one of the witnesses from a previous sitting, an African man who was taken prisoner by soldiers and was asked if he wanted to live – having said yes was submitted to four hours of rape by soldiers in front of his family, then they raped his children. It was upsetting to hear, she said. So I watch Pandurevic, try to imagine the human impact behind the dullness and the pretence of what is being mouthed.

The Prosecutor sits down and the Defence launches into Pandurevic with sudden and astonishing spite. The sleepiness in the room dispels and the General is fighting for his own life, his freedom as the attack mounts in ferocity – “Why did you lie, General? Why did you lie? WHY DID YOU LIE…?” And the question hovering over it all – will he finally crack now – will he give the great answer that we are all waiting for at every such moment? The answer to the question – why do human beings DO such things?

But this is an impossible answer, and anyway today it is stalled again not just by impossibility but also by the recess. Pandurevic stands, a big, big man flanked with guards and his eyes flick past me and around the room, measuring the field.

I go downstairs to Courtroom One, where another trial is underway. The man responsible for bombardment of numerous civilian targets in the former Yugoslavia is arguing that he didn’t do it – the whole unfortunate thing was due to a simple mistake in communications, he says. He leans in close to the microphone and the saliva sound rustles in the Public Gallery.

It’s mid-afternoon. I ride the tram across Den Hague, intending to go back to the ICC but partway there I’m overcome with exhaustion. Instead, I catch the train back to my borrowed house in Delft and I go to bed. My head is banging and the images of the day replay themselves and over the top of it all is Lucier’s mantra – I am sitting in a room.

For further information and video recordings of hearings go to:

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

G and H are for…

Lois Blackburn, drawing 'Haemoglobin'
Continuing our collection of reminiscences about ‘vintage’ over the counter and traditional remedies from the project ‘Patience’ We would love to hear your reminiscences....

G and H are for..

Goose Grease
‘Horrible. We would be sat by the fire, and mum rub it on my chest (we had geese, turkeys and cows as well) make the grease ourselves.’

‘It absorbed, it helped us, of yes, very well known thing years ago. It had a fatty smell. They did the job all the old remedies.’

gregory powder
Tasted horrible for bowls. (a laxative powder containing rhubarb, magnesia and ginger. James Gregory (1753-1821) British physician. He advocated preventative medicine, stressing the importance of healthful living and moderation in all things)

Halibut Liver Oil ‘I didn’t like it, and wouldn’t take it. Tasted fishy, it was used for the bowels.’ (a yellowish to brownish fatty oil from the liver of the halibut used chiefly as a source of vitamin A)

Harrogate Iodised throat tablets
‘You had one and you wouldn’t have another, tasted horrible’

illustration Haemoglobin tin © Lois Blackburn 2009