Monday, 30 September 2013

planning and improvisation

I always enjoy the planning for arthur+martha workshops, we aren't tied to a syllabus, but are directed by the project brief, and free to follow our current interests and most importantly the needs and desires of the participants. Any plan needs plenty of space for improvisation, to suit the needs of individuals taking part. Sometimes we go in with a plan that we are sure will work- that falls flat, others where just one element takes up the whole session. It feels at times like juggling jelly. What follows is part of an email correspondence, discussing the plan for the making memories session, the morning spent at the Hindu Temple with older people, the afternoon at Respite for people with dementia.

"I'm not finding it so straightforward planning for these new venues, anyhow, I did some sampling of a new technique yesterday, its called Nuno felt It's the first time I have done this particular technique- although I've lots of experience of regular feltmaking, so it wasnt to much of a stretch. The reason I wanted to try it was that its all about colour, patterning and you can use saris as the background fabric,  which i thought opened all sorts of possibilities.

My nuno felt samples being washed

Working with the Indian Association is taking me on a different direction than the way we have worked so far with this project, being inspired equally by their stories, and the visual impact of the materials and colours of the community .

The process of making the felt is very satisfying as its about colour play, it's also such a physical task, and can be worked by a group, giving it a really social feel. Then there is the link with the saris. I propose we invite participants to make either a large piece together (they can always be cut it up after) or a series of individual pieces. To tie it back to the theme of Making Memories, High Days and Holidays, I suggest the felt work is inspired by our discussion,  and note down their responses to the following starting points that could be used for something poetic:

* describe the colours, texture, patterns of memorable sari you wore for an important event (a first festival, dance, wedding, funeral...) 
* what are the words for the colours in Hindu? Sandscript? which language describes the colours more eloquently?
* how did it make you feel to wear it?
* what are the preparations for getting dressed for a big event such as the one you describe?
* describe the event you wore the sari to in terms of smell, taste, colour, sounds
* what happened to the sari ?

How does that sound to you?

Nuno felt being made with sari's and wool tops
rolling the nuno felt

What about the men?  it would be great to hear about their ideas about getting dressed up, as the men are pretty flash to in traditional dress!

In the afternoon, we could carry on with the theme of getting dressed to go out. It might be challenging for some participants to think about one specific outfit,  but we could think about getting ready to go dancing. I could drum up some photos and a couple of books.
What about a poetic exercise based on dance steps:  Foxtrot  SQQ,  or SSQQ,  6 count Swing, Waltz with 3/4 time signature- counted in 1-2-3 with heavy accent on the 1. I will bring my drawing stuff as well, so that participants can do some drawings of their togs for dancing if they choose.

How does that sound to you?

Monday, 23 September 2013

Objects of our affection, Warrington Museum & Art Gallery

This project has been a very moving demonstration for us of just how much pleasure and nurturing can be given by the objects in a museum – and how these objects can also stimulate creativity and deep self-reflection.

Colin's broken watch

As arthur+martha, we often work with people who are dealing with severe physical/mental challenges. The group at Warrington Museum were encountering something more subtle – how to care for someone else. The role of carers is often overlooked in our society, particularly the emotional cost of looking after someone for a long period, which can have a devastating effect on relationships, ambitions, well-being and health generally. Our group brought many of these issues into the room with them, but as many carers do, they tended to hide them under a competent, coping persona.

We decided that our role was twofold. First of all, we wanted to make our workshops a place of refuge and enjoyment, so that the participants had some respite from their lives. Secondly, we hoped to allow them – if they chose - to delicately address some of the issues they faced in their day-to-day lives using the mediums of art and poetry, with museum objects as a conversation starter. We therefore started the workshops by treating the objects as a stimulus for whatever came to mind and writing/drawing these reactions. Later on, we homed in on more emotional connections to the objects – and gradually people sketched in the details of their lives and those they cared for.

Josie, creating concrete poem 

Some of the pieces were immediately striking. One participant wrote angrily about her grief after having looked after her dying husband. Another person wrote about his father, an old soldier, coughing up pieces of shrapnel leftover from a war wound – a shocking recollection. But most of the writing and artwork was gentler – a little portrait of a daughter sitting blithely looking out of a window, a recollection of a psychotic episode told in quietly humorous understatement.

The 'play' with museum objects and making visual responses to them was especially delightful. Making silhouette photographs, sketching outlines, labelling, collaging, all of these approaches allowed people to get closer to the objects and eventually, through imagining past lives for these objects, getting closer to their own lives too. Eventually these gas masks, kitchen implements, old toys, stuffed animals, bits of crockery, became metaphors for people to movingly describe their own experiences.

Josie's clay seagul

All of this was able to happen because of the commitment and support of Warrington Museum and Art Gallery, particularly Bill who was a constant source of support and insight. By allowing us free creative rein, while at the same time supporting and discussing progress with us, the Museum allowed a very rich and far-reaching project to occur. The group bonded happily together and are now keen to continue as a group meeting regularly at the Museum, building on their beginnings with arthur+martha. 

Friday, 20 September 2013

The Hindu Temple

19th Sept 2013 Making Memories, Oldham

This is written with the sound of chanting, temple bells, and harmonising with them, the roar of a food blender from the kitchen. I'm at the Indian Association temple in Oldham and outside it is tipping rain from a resolutely grey sky. In here, the smell of spices, the beginning of big cooking for many people – and colour. The modest corridors and d├ęcor of the building are punctuated by sudden colour-bursting dayglo, from the little shrines and images dotted through the temple.

We're now into our third session at the Hindu Temple and the newness of this mini-world is dizzying. The prayers being chanted here now are in Sanskrit, one of the ancient languages, a key to let us into the far past, like Latin or Greek. I'm listening out for the tell-tale 16 syllable lines, which identify the old Sanskrit prayers, the sloks/shlokas/slokas (depending on who you ask for a spelling). It is sometimes overwhelming to be dropped into a completely new environment, but this newness also brings ideas, which are gold-dust for creative work.

Morning is an important time in the day for connection to the gods and so morning observances are also important and must be clockwork regular. Now the sound of frying, a chat after prayers. Someone walks past me and nods good morning. The bustle of workshops is about to start, but still the high note of the little bells hums in my ears.

We're exploring the power of objects to evoke memory, as part of our wider project to build reminiscence boxes that intertwine object-based reminiscence with making art and poetry. A temple feels like a very good place to do this, given that there are icons (or idols, as some here describe them) all around us. What better environment to explore personal iconographies?

What we're learning here is a tiny fraction of a wholly different culture – instead of Royal Family teacups and old washing boards and Glenn Miller, we have Ganesh and Saris and sloks. There are deeper differences too, which we're just starting to get a sense of – and it is these things that feed more profoundly into the project.

The temple isn't simply an ad hoc gathering of religious stuff, it is focussed towards a serious purpose – that of self-exploration and understanding. We too need to focus the energy that our precious objects liberate. We are compiling creative exercises as we work, which are a way of doing this. But these sets of rules, if they're to be truly effective, must not only bring limitations, paradoxically they must also set people free.  

Thursday, 12 September 2013

1970s we came

Gods must turn the page, by Tejbai Naran (Sept 2013)

The 1970s we came:
1970 in January, came down the worst winter
from India, we didn’t know snow
didn’t know Oldham, snow in street, bath in cellar, outside toilet
went to school me and my sister
Dad dropped us there the first eight weeks
then we knew the way

21 bus, or 27 bus?
catching it we confused
don’t know the language, Manchester, buses
the driver stopped
somewhere strange and he pushed us off
Asian man asked - are you lost
took us to police on Manchester road
we don’t know police station, don’t know words they speak
 - thought they were thieves looking through our bags

in my bag, our address
took us to the police car
we know we don’t go in cars with strangers
us crying, coming home with police
me mum opened the door
they said “Are these your daughters?”

she didn’t speak English
shook her head – what did they think?
she pointed upstairs
then me dad came down, sorted it
dad picked us up another 3 months after that
he worked nights, tired, I felt so sorry.
Thinking now of 40 years before
wellies with snow inside
the crying and the police - did that really happen?

it did – we must tell our children
our stories for
they never know when their days may change.
India, 5 years old in Baladia I was working
one day eating one day not, wishing
the gods turn the page to good luck.
My children have a good life now

Our first poem from our memory box project, Making Memories, written by Tejbai Naran during our session at the Indian Association in Oldham.

Monday, 9 September 2013

The gods must turn the page to good luck

This was our first session with the Indian Association in Oldham, whose meeting place is a Hindu temple. A day full of incident and new learning and the beginnings of a fascinating development in our memory box project, Making Memories.

We were given a mini-tour of the temple and deities by Mukta, one of our kind-hearted hosts. We left our shoes at the door and entered the brightness, colour and sound of a different continent, a different sensibility. A beautifully uplifting room, welcoming and celebratory. We're both still reeling with the overload, with the newness (to us) of this very ancient tradition.

Our first workshop was really a talking shop, as we all discussed what this next phase of the project might be and what we all hoped for. Lois and I are still building our stock of ideas for memory boxes and this seemed a wonderful opportunity to bring in a rich vein of material.

Already the stories have started to come. I jotted down some reminiscence from one woman who described coming to northern England as a young girl during a snowy winter, completely baffled by both cold and language. She accidentally went AWOL with her sister on a bus to school, having got the bus number wrong - and arrived in the wrong place, with no idea of where the right one might be, or how to ask. It was a funny-sad story of the stranger in a strange land - just one of a thousand little struggles to fit in. It reminded me of my own struggles to find my way around China, using my sense of smell to get home via a series of familiar restaurants - but I was an adult, these were two little girls far from the familiar.

She described how tough life had been in her life in India, how she'd worked from 5 years old onwards. How her family prayed for a change for the better: "The gods must turn the page to good luck."

We were lucky enough to be invited to join the group for lunch and more memories unspooled. I've jotted down a few words in hindi in my notebook, but looking at them now they seem a tiny fragment of what we are stepping into. What's more, I've almost certainly jotted them down incorrectly, out of context. I put them here only as a token of how many other words, meanings, experiences we have yet to discover.

Methi Tepla - a spiced bread, a kind of chapati
Lapsai - a sweet puree
Supbi - a tray used for separating grain from husks
Baladia - original Indian home of the woman whose story is told above. The L in this anglicised version of the word actually more of a U and L combined, but untranslatable.

I would like to thank our hosts on a very happy and memorable day - particularly Krishna, Mukta, Vamil.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

The Madeleine

Phil writes:

We're working on a reminiscence project alongside Gallery Oldham, devising new ways of working with reminiscence boxes. A reminiscence box is typically filled with themed objects dated to within living memory, which are used to help older people remember the past.

But boxes of memorabilia aren't just the territory of museums. For the last century or so, artists have used objects, especially boxed objects, as a tool for creative expression, alchemising powerful and subtle associations, often out of bric-a-brac. Perhaps the the most famous of these boxmakers is Joseph Cornell, whose cabinet works contain toys, photographs, pages from books, newspaper articles, star charts and a tiny world of personal icons.

Cornell has been a touchstone for us, in thinking about the boxed memory. But there are many other box makers too, in fact some of the most famed Western artists of the last 100 years – Marcel Duchamp with his museum in a valise, for example. And speaking of Duchamp, there are the artists who use 'found' objects as their art. Duchamp is the grandaddy of all this, with his bicycle wheels and bottle racks. Joseph Beuys used fat and felt to reconstruct the memory-sense of his wartime aircrash and rescue as a Luftwaffe pilot in Russia. And what about Susan Hiller and her cabinets of bottles of holy water? Then there's Damien Hirst with his medicine cabinets – initially a portrait of his dad, made by gathering his father's prescription medicine packaging. And Mike Kelley with his installations of bedraggled toys – measuring too many love hours to ever count.

There's another strand that has come into the weave – writers. In the 20th century the idea of trying to write a whole life in all its minute detail was revisited many times. The trail starts with Proust, who famously begins his epic account of the memory-self with the taste of childhood – a Madeleine cake. This one prompt is the first step of a huge novel of numerous volumes full of interior echoes among which the reader begins to lose their own lifetime, In Search of Lost Time. (I was told of one reader who, unable to stand any more Proust, took the book outside and beat it with a stick.) Proust hid himself in a draped room, turning away visitors, turning in towards himself, hopelessly pursuing the taste of the Madeleines like Hansel and Gretel following their lost breadcrumb trail.

Ezra Pound also attempted to write his life in the equally enormous, erratically brilliant Cantos that dwarfed other comers in 20 Century poetry. Building a maze of literary, historical and personal allusions, Pound erected a monument to remembering as complex as a synaptic map. Pound bumped up against many of the greatest artists and poets of the 20th Century (Joyce, William Carlos Williams, Yeats, Jacob Epstein, for starters) peregrinating across the US and Europe. In trying to make his 'poem containing history' he asserted his will onto the flow of the world, but it refused to change course for him. Like Proust he also lost grip on his own present while mythologising his life – and became further derailed by his belief in fascism, which cost him imprisonment and breakdown.

Pound's self-myth segues into Derrida's writing on the function of memory – and his speculation that it is there not as a documentary of the past, but to feed our self-made myths of identity. Memory is the ash of the past, burned to nought and unavailable except as the tall tales we tell ourselves. Adjacent to Derrida is Wittgenstein and his thinking around private language – his sense that a language shaped wholly for our own experience can never fit onto the tongue.

Lyn Hijinean has more recently collapsed her life story into a written sequence, far more modest than Pound's grandiloquence, but penetrating and haunting, her life rewritten as she ages, each time growing more lines to accommodate the growing number of years – and the sentcent scencetense seentun sentences reformulated in an argot that hints at Wittgenstein. Interestingly, her work reads to me a little like the conversations I've had with people who have to reinvent what it means to remember through the filter of dementia.

Proust is interested in what it is that makes memory arrive – the Madeleine that fires up recollection. It's the same impulse that Cornell plays with in his magical evocations of the ballerinas and opera and filmstars who he obsessed over, unable to possess them, only to attempt to divine their aura. How to make them come alive, for him? And Beuys with his heaps of fat and felt, who somehow hopes to spark within us an idea of his history.

We too are trying to spark associations from those who use the boxes we make – and that is why we're looking further afield than museums and reminiscence experts for our ideas. Because art is one of the most powerful conduits we have into the past – and that is where we must travel, both to celebrate it and to leave it behind us.