Wednesday, 27 November 2013

THE DARK WOULD: language art exhibition World Premiere

7th December - 24th January at Summerhall , Edinburgh

Launch (open to public) 7pm, Friday 6 Dec 2013
Venue: Summerhall, Edinburgh, EH9 1PL
Entry: Free 

World-leading poets and text artists exhibit works that cross the boundary of living and dying in The Dark Would: Fiona Banner, Richard LongSimon Patterson, Susan HillerTony Lopez, Sarah Sanders, Jenny Holzer, Richard Wentworth, Caroline Bergvall, Erica Baum, Ron Silliman and many others, including outsider artists. 

Summerhall and its Curator Paul Robertson are proud to host the world premiere of this ground-breaking exhibition, which has been curated by poet Philip Davenport.

Davenport says: "This is an extraordinary gathering that asks what it is to have a body and to lose it. Perhaps this is best done by people for whom language is itself a state of in-between-ness… artists who use language and poets who are artists. Here, the material of language is used as a metaphor for human material, our own bodies, our little lives. Whether poets or homeless people, outsiders or art stars - we all have to find our way through the dark.”

a quilt for when you are homeless (2012) denim quilt embroidered by homeless people, an arthur+martha project

A centre-piece of the exhibition is an arthur+martha piece: the quilt embroidered by homeless people in Manchester with fragments of their life stories, 2012. The Laurence Lane piece Uptight (2012) uses the iconography of rock and roll to describe a schizophrenic episode. New work has been made especially for the show by Richard Wentworth and commissioned pieces include Rorschach drawings by Mike Chavez-Dawson, made from the names of dead poets and live writing by Sarah Sanders. 

Uptight (2011) by Laurence Lane, unframed print

The Dark Would will also have 'answering' works by dead artists and poets including Stephane Mallarme, Ian Hamilton Finlay and Joseph Beuys, taken from Paul Robertson's Heart Fine Art collection which is based at Summerhall. For more information on Heart Fine Art:

SING/WILD/KIND/WOOD (2012) by Alec Finlay 

The Dark Would exhibition is an out-growth of the large same-title anthology of language art, edited by Davenport and published by Apple Pie Editions 2013.

Exhibition contributors: arthur+martha, Fiona Banner, Erica Baum, Caroline Bergvall, Mike Chavez-Dawson, Maria Chevska, Matt Dalby, Philip Davenport, Steve Emmerson, Alec Finlay, Rob Fitterman, Steve Giasson, Susan Hiller, Jenny Holzer, Marton Koppany, Laurence Lane, Richard Long, Tony Lopez, Darren Marsh, Simon Patterson, Tom Phillips, Sarah Sanders, Ron Silliman, Carolyn Thompson, Tony Trehy, Carol Watts, Lawrence Weiner and Richard Wentworth.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

that which made me what I am now

This long piece is one of the poems written (and edited) by a participant in our project in Oldham which ties reminiscence to everyday objects, for the project Making Memories. This particular poem is paired with a tavitho, which is rather like a fish slice and is used for frying. The poem is centred around a favourite arthur+martha subject: food and the eating thereof. 

that which made me what I am now

born Mombasa, then
trouble in Kenya, father concerned
six years old went back to India
studied in India 'til 21, BA in English and Sanskrit
dad thought “Daughters should stand on their feet.”
proud, self-confident
that which made me what I am now
but before that

when I was eight, older sister teaching:
“This is how you make chappati,
you roll it and you roast it, easy.”
We rolled all mis-shapes, couldn't show it to sister:
“We can't show this chappati!”
So we put ghee on and ate it
- did five or six like this, dipped in ghee.
Ate our mistakes, delicious!
By the time I was ten, could make perfect chappatis
made chappatis everyday, all my life
with my eyes closed
but my BA is English and Sanskrit.

For pudding, puranpurri
a little chappati stuffed with sweet lentils
lentils in sugar and lots of ghee, I love it
I cook the best
very old, old, old-
fashioned food, passed from memory
and fill it with
(you know, puran means stuffing?)
lentils, sugar, cardamon, little bit saffron
a little ball of ghee – ah, puranpurri
  taste and memory

of long ago times, farm people working hard
sweat out the ghee
work the fields and house, hard hands
milk cows, churn yoghurt, sweeping hard
round tava pan for the chappati
to flip it, a slice we call tavitho

Father saying, “We are going to England.”
Excitement, disappointment
of leaving friends, families
sadness to say goodbye
to say goodbye
people give you a feast
family and friend, sweet dish, savoury
the feast at one house, at many
“Maybe this is the last feast we are having together.”
Puranpurri pudding
that which made me
a little chapatti stuffed with
I love it.

Surajata Agravat
October 2013

Hindu Temple, Oldham

Thursday, 21 November 2013


This long piece is one of the poems written (and edited) by a participant in our project Making Memories in Oldham which ties reminiscence to everyday objects. This particular poem is paired with a divo, a light. The poem shares the same title as the goddess Lakshmi who brings luck and protests her devotees from sorrows, especially of the money-related sort. 


when she grows, she goes
your daughter is never your own
given away in a wedding song

a little lamp
made of cotton raman divo
in Gujarati
they walk away with the lamp
daughter and groom
girl in front
mother passes the light to mother-in-law

when she grows she goes
a daughter is never yours
you'll give her away
raised for someone else

mother will pass the lamp
“Have brightness in yr new house”
a sad song at the end of the wedding
when your girl says goodbye.

Go and visit your parents
but you'll never be a little girl again.
Play it at weddings
you have to change with time and living
because home is where you are, not where you originate
what we teach is

at the end of the the wedding
the raman divo
passed from the girl's family to the boy's
a happy, sentimental moment

when a daughter is born she never belongs
to her father for long
given to her husband's family
there's a song in ours that puts it inside that

a reminder to the dad:
sasreye jata jojo papan na bhinjay,
dikari to parki thapan kahevay
means your daughter was never yours
don't show your tears
she was never yours from the start.

The song's finished, married and pregnant
at the month of seven we say shrimant
a blessing
for the child in the future;

now the baby comes
after fifteen days have a bath, wash everything
but you wouldn't come to temple
after forty days bring your child there
for blessing

when she grows, she goes
your daughter is never your own
given away in a song

people want sons to carry their name
but when a girl is born they say
we are wealthy in luck
lukshima is born, goddess
luck will look after us
ah, but luck
she was never ours from the start.

October 2013
Hindu Temple, Oldham

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

an easy kick

Today was a cup final moment for us. We brought the Spaghetti Maze life stories that we've been working on for over a year back to their owners. They are life stories as recollected by people with a dementia diagnosis and the contents are in the form of poems, art and reminiscences. These tiny autobiographies are full of life and resonance. They are usually 20 or so pages per person, sometimes a bit more, or less – but many of those pages are the result of much effort – and often  much hilarity - to recollect and then to re-construct memories.

Ivy and Kath with Life Story Boxes.

A group of five of our regular participants sat around the table with us. We'd not been in for awhile and for the first moments we were all slightly estranged. And then people saw their life story boxes – and the atmosphere transformed, we became a team. They opened the boxes like presents. The first image - at the top of each piece – was a photo of the maker, at work. There then followed poems, artworks of varied sorts (inked, sketched, abstracts, pattern-making) and conversation snippets, together with some recorded conversations on CD. It was a pleasure – mixed with a liberal shot of relief – to see their faces transform as they became absorbed in their work, their words. I overheard Lois say to Kath - “You suddenly look younger!” And it was true, Kath's eyes were sparking with laughter.

As people progressed through their work, we travelled with them and asked how it felt to dip into this album of the self, of their own selves.

Kath, normally forthright and loud, went into reverie: “My mum, the old house, boats on the River Irwell, amazing memories. I think we all have something to look back on...”

Ivy, Kath and carer Joanne

Jackie took the ideas sketched in her work and ran with them, plunging into a thicket of play and wistful hide-and-seek. Then she stood back from the memories themselves and said, “I had a good time at home, it was a happy home. Nice to talk about it, to go back. But you always have to leave.”

Doreen commented on just that act of going back: “Seems funny, thinking of playing – we used to do it automatically, now we don't easily play but we could. Singing Humpty Dumpty while we were skipping, it's in this drawing. Now I'm with my grandchildren, I stay with playing – it keeps us close. You know what they're up to and they understand you too... These (drawings and writings) I can bring home, go into them. It's reminding me of before people died. I can remember where I lived, go backwards, put the feelings of the past to them.”

Ivy hooted with glee at the content of her box. She leafed through it again and again, chuckling: “Seeing these it's bring them to me. We was always together my family, helping each other. It learned you. I've had a good life because of it.”

Kath and Dr Caroline Swabrick

We also discussed the work with Dr Caroline Swarbrick the dementia specialist researcher who's been part of our work for the last three years and who came to the celebration. Caroline fitted in easily with the talk around the table, as she always does. She commented on the subtlety people have brought to this body of work, both in the pieces and the making: “It's made from different layers of relationship. The key is that this is not just 'an activity' called reminiscence that can be applied to people. It's about what they want to share and how. Reminiscence can be looked on as a process if you're not careful, but if you really meet someone, you have a conversation and that is made up on the spot, it is truly personal. If there's trust, safety, the right environment, familiarity, then it all snowballs.”

Finally, I read Gordon's pieces back to him and he smiled at the depictions of outdoors: “Always there outside, always football.” I asked him why he loves football so much – and why is it so important to so many? It's a question that has always foxed me. We leafed through his drawings and poems, slowly. The poetic pieces bounced around the pages, the words described movement, play, dance – the joys of being alive in a body. “It's an easy kick,” he said. 

Phil with Gordon

Thanks to all the participants, staff and volunteers at The Pinfold Lane Day Centre, who have made this project possible. Plus the Arts Council England and Bury Council for funding this project.

Monday, 11 November 2013

hand-made from memory

Press release

A celebration of art and poetry made from memory by older people with dementia will take place at Pinfold Lane Day Centre Bury, 19 November 2pm-3.30pm, when the Spaghetti Maze project is shared in a show-and-tell and the project blog is made public.

Older people with dementia living in Bury spent 6 months re-capturing their memories through art and poetry during a unique reminiscence project designed to preserve favourite moments from their lives in poems and images. Each person's life story is kept in a box containing poems, pictures, short conversations and recordings of interviews. When memory fails, the box is there to help stimulate remembering. It is also an heirloom for family members.

Kath's Family Tree

Spaghetti Maze Lead Artist Lois Blackburn from arts organisation arthur+martha explains: “We all rely on memory to know who we are, so losing memories can be extremely scary – like losing yourself. This project focussed on some of the most memorable and happiest moments of people's lives, which they then put down on paper as creative pieces. Poems and art are very intense ways to express ourselves, good for stimulating a deep, emotional response. As people's dementia increases, we hope that these little prompts will help to bring back happy, reassuring associations.”

Blackburn: “Projects like this can only succeed in an environment where people feel safe and confident. Pinfold Lane centre in Bury gives a superb level of care and the kindness of the staff here played a huge part in supporting participants. This beautiful work has often been made in the face of much hardship and we are very honoured to work with everyone here.”

Davenport adds: “We're interested in the intersections between visual poetry, text art and visual and textile art processes. We've also explored the space that experimental poetry allows for other tangential logics and sensibilities to have room for expression and acknowledgement.”

The Spaghetti Maze project is run by the arts organisation arthur+martha, artist Lois Blackburn and poet Philip Davenport, who work with marginalised groups, devising creative experiments to help people express themselves, be heard and solve problems. The project is a community outreach from Bury's ongoing Text Festival and is supported by Arts Council England.

The project diary can be seen at ; the dedicated Spaghetti Maze blog which showcases much of the participants' work is at

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Quick activities, no faffing around.

On Friday Phil and I revisited our project spaghetti maze visiting the Whitefield Dementia Cafe, Bury. We wanted to get fresh eyes on the Life Story boxes and note reactions to the work, before we launch it properly in a couple of weeks.

In addition we have been developing a new project that leads on from spaghetti Maze. Before we try and get funding for this new concept, we wanted to give it a go with a live audience, to see if it is relevant, useful, stimulating, understandable, clear and fun to use... I've been designing pages for an activity book, which will be aimed at older people including those with dementia to tell their life story through art and poetry. The book will encourage through activity, Grandparents to share their lives with their Grandchildren, and visa versa. The challenge for Phil and me is to step away from the activities, to just observe how people reacted to the pages.

The following notes give the responses to the work from our group of 9, including carers and people diagnosed with dementia.

home poem in progress.

'Doing a poem might be a step to far for my mum, but we've talked a lot... talked about being outside- and we've filled in the Hopscotch squares with memories of games. Past memories are there for my mum to a degree- she can't remember current memories. This book stimulates, but whether other people could get into the poem I don't know.' Pat and Bobby.

'I'd like to see amusements in the book- cinema and such' Bobby.

(Diane a volunteer helping Irene) It's really good, its making Irene think about her past, and I'm learning- finding out more about her. We're chatting a lot. We have found something that Irene really like to do- she has spent ages happily colouring in different pages, she's really absorbed. She's enjoyed the colouring in more than the writing.

I think its good, it's entertaining. It's good because it makes you think of the games that we played, games the grandchildren won't have heard of.
(Becky and Shirley)

a selection of the  pages.

family portrait drawing

 I've worked with people with dementia for years. I've seen all sorts of people coming in and trying different activities with them. You've got to hit the ground running, not make much fuss- then you're doing well. You need a simple cue, like that one there, not to much writing- I'm talking about dementia here. Quick activities, no faffing around, not to much explanation, its got to be quick to understand. It's got be happening in you're face. A bit of a challenge is good to, not patronising. Got to have a laugh, like on that page, you're talking about toilet roll. Some bits on the page are a bit small, its best when its simple and clear. There is definitely a place for this book in dementia care. Brian

adding a self portrait to the frame page.

adding a tug of war to the 'outside play' page.

In summary, the activity pages where really successful at sparking conversation, with short notes being written on the page. During our session there was a real buzz to the atmosphere, with lots of laughter. 

The daughter who said that her mum creating a poem was probably a step to far for her, I would suggest she had actually created one without realising it, when she filled in the Hopscotch template, creating a 'concrete poem.' I discovered how popular 'colouring in' is, with people of all ages- I have steered clear of this activity after witnessing years ago on an OT ward, older people working in children's colouring in books- it felt really patronising to me. However seeing an older person colouring in an age appropriate line drawing, drawn by another older person, obviously absorbed and delighted in the activity was a lovely.

Some of the pages where taken home to show family members, showing signs of real pride in their achievements. I found the morning really interesting and successful, it has reassured me and inspired me to take this idea further.

Monday, 4 November 2013


We’re putting together a set of creative ideas for people to use when working with reminiscence boxes, for the project making memories. We’re trying to devise ideas for people with a wide range of abilities, including folk with physical and mental challenges. Today the power of what we’re doing hit us with colossal force, quite by accident.

Our afternoon session is at a respite home for older people for those with dementia. One of our group is wheelchair-bound and trying to cope with a very severe degree of physical damage, including the after effects of a stroke and an ongoing degenerative condition devastating her motor skills.

We’ve worked with her twice and while she struggles to speak clearly, she is clearly desperate to talk, to make, to be involved. In this group, confusion is the commonest enemy, but in her case it’s different. She has plenty to say, but struggles to say it. She has ideas to write and draw and to sing, but her body won’t obey her wishes to do so. If she is given time, she will s l o w l y  s  l  o  w  l  y   s   l   o   w   l   y   articulate clear sequences of ideas, tell jokes, chat. Last week we wrote a poem, using cut-ups of lines from a conversation we’d had. She made clear and sharp decisions on the placement of each line. It was painstaking, but it happened.

This week, she was making art, sitting next to a man who was struggling with a certain amount of bafflement, but fought back with a cheery demeanour. He relaxed her. We were inviting people to make miniature sea drawings. (They subtly recall the work of artist Susan Hiller who is a guiding light for this project.) While listening to a soundtrack of the waves crashing, she entered into the exercise deeper and deeper, fully absorbed. Lois gently coaxed her and the chap beside her gently joked. We didn’t really think anything of it, apart from being pleased that she’d had a good time despite her difficult situation.

After the session ended we were introduced to her relative who is also her carer, a lady on the brink of tears: “This is the first time she’s put anything down on paper in two years. I can’t believe that this has happened. I’ve bought paint, paper, pens, canvas. She won’t even talk to me. She hasn’t been like this in so long! I love her, I’d do anything for her but she just won’t respond. I can’t believe that she’s managed to do this, it’s a massive achievement... ”

As she wept, I realised that this was both for her sadness and relief. What was at stake wasn’t simply a few marks on a page, or lines in a poem. It was a human release; a jailbreak from despair and defeat.