Monday, 27 January 2014

Saint Cowboy Bill

Making Memories

We are putting together a project in which we devise creative 'recipes' for artwork and poetry stimulated by reminiscence. All of the ideas are trialled by groups of participants, reacting to objects we've brought along. The groups often include people with a dementia diagnosis and people with very pronounced physical problems, like mobility issues, or visual impairment. Both of these things were in evidence during today's sessions.

When faced with a group of people who have profound confusion and an array of physical challenges to boot, there is a strong temptation to simplify activities. But while game-like amusements like bingo or quizzes are a good and valid way to pass time, they dont allow people space for self-reflection or individual expression. Actually the opposite approach is sometimes better for long-term well being, the opportunity to let off steam about complex needs and quandaries. But how to do this safely whilst introducing challenge? A question we keep running into is how to make writing or art exercises that are accessible to many folks, without being hopelessly dumbed down. 

The answer comes in the unlikely guise of William S Burroughs, the notorious inventor of the 'cut-up'. We have often brought cut ups to our workshops. They used to be among the artiest avant-garde writing strategies, but are now very commonplace. The beauty of cut-ups is that they allow unusual, tangential logics into the making of a piece of writing. These qualities are of course common in dementia, so in a way this process mirrors aspects of dementia. However, rather than making unusual logic a handicap, we embrace it.

Alice with cut-up poem

There are many variations on cut-uppery in our workshops; usually somebody will write down people's reminiscences about a particular subject and then cut them up into individual lines. The participant then arranges those lines in whatever order they like. Once the order has been decided, however wild and random (ah, Saint William, delinquent angel!) the lines are sellotaped down onto paper.

This process can also be very useful for somebody who has difficulty seeing. A series of cutup lines can be arranged by touch, and then read back to see if they sound interesting. We did this with one of the poems today and the writer was very pleased with the result, tweaking it a little but leaving most of the structure as he had shaped it, by touch. Not knowing the literal meaning of the words because he couldn't see them, he trusted to chance. I read the piece back to him and he made final adjustments by ear.

Michael with cut-up poem

We were working with these groups loosely around a theme of high days and holidays. We took notes about people's reminiscences of holiday travel on the trams, omnibuses and seaside donkeys of yesteryear. We also read out the poem Sea Fever by John Masefield, which was a set text in British schools, decades ago. The reminiscences were cut up into individual lines and intermixed with John Masefield's famous verses. The results were sometimes funny and sometimes eerily lovely. They started pleasure and recognition in the makers and I hope they managed to put a little of their worldview onto a piece of paper. Travelling isnt necessarily an easy experience, it ushers in change and challenge albeit of the nicest sort. Its an aspiration that we have for our sessions too.

I must go down the sea again. cut-up poem

Psychologist Polly Kaiser, who convened our morning group, talked about the care we put into making this session a safe space for people to work in, despite all the distractions (internal and external) that beset our participants. If people are going to fully engage with their creative selves - and bring back something useful from the encounter - then they need a safe, steady launchpad. Polly has been keenly observing the progress of these workshops and we hope to document them and analyse the process together as we go on - under the watchful eye of WSB.

The Making Memories project is funded by the Barings Foundation and is a partnership with Gallery Oldham.

Monday, 20 January 2014

The Dark Would on vimeo

This is a guided tour through The Dark Would poetry/text art exhibition at Summerhall in Edinburgh. It is narrated by Phil, who curated the show and includes interviews with contributors Simon Patterson, Sarah Sanders and Steve Emmerson. We thought that followers of this blog who can't make it up to Edinburgh might enjoy the chance to take a vimeo walk around, because it includes a large piece from arthur+martha. Discussion about the piece, a quilt for when you are homeless, is 8 minutes in, towards the end of this short documentary.

Please follow the URL below, the photo above, or click on the title of this blog to see The Dark Would on vimeo

Phil writes:

The arthur+martha artwork a quilt for when you are homeless is the central piece in an exhibition that gathers world-leading artists and poets. The quilt, stitched by homeless people, is directly juxtaposed with works by Richard Wentworth, Jenny Holzer, Simon Patterson, Mike Landy, Caroline Bergvall, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Alec Finlay, Guy Debord, Pierre Albert-Birot, Joseph Beuys and Tony Lopez, all of whom are internationally significant makers of art/poetry. Putting a community artwork into this context raises questions about the value and ownership of art, and about who we listen to, who we trust.

The quilt documents difficult lives with a combination of emotional power and restraint. If you take away the issue of price tags (some of the works in the exhibition were worth many thousands of ££££) and look at this as an object, next to other similar objects it makes its point with tremendous clarity: if you are homeless you feel the cold, both physically and symbolically. You are shut out of shelter and out of dialogue too.

I placed the piece on the floor, with the shape of a body underneath it, because I wanted visitors to picture it as a person lost within a dark forest of possibilities: of the violence, madness, joy, love, revolution and despair depicted by the other artworks. Putting the work on the ground felt contrary to my instinct to elevate and celebrate this piece. But it also made a sharp point - many people are excluded from social interplay, from art, poetry, shelter, food, money  - and yet perhaps they are the ones who should be listened to most carefully of all, because they see what everyone else cannot.

The Dark Would exhibition is at Summerhall in Edinburgh until 24 January. Admission 11-6pm is free to all.

Thanks to Peter Dibdin and Summerhall for permission to use the exhibition photograph.

This project has been assisted by the NALD as part of a large multi-voice poem, Albion. 

Download catalogue

Friday, 17 January 2014

the gymnasium of the mind

Project: Making Memories

Games are more than games. The games of childhood remembered become metaphors for our younger life. Running, skipping, hopping are early years, then comes the more sophisticated hide-and-seek and next along tag and hopscotch. Finally, just before adulthood there's kiss-chase and truth or dare. Board games and cards also tend to come in life stages: starting with the enthusiasm of snap, we're shortly into snakes and ladders and then the brutal pleasures of monopoly, pass go and we've arrived at chess.

Today Lois brought in an armful of old board games including some that had been the property of her grandma Queenie, a keen and competitive games player. These beautifully boxed vintage games carried mysterious titles like Bezique and Lexicon. A wonderful Mah Jong set on close inspection had bone or ivory pieces (we couldn't tell which) while the cover on the time-worn box showed a scene from pre-Revolutionary China. We passed around the games in the two groups we worked with - both of which included people with a dementia diagnosis. I noted the conversations, then folks interacted with game-like grids on paper, colouring abstract patterns or writing in the squares.

Polly Kaiser, who had invited us to work with a group she helps to convene at Royton commented on the pleasure of the conversation, and how we use it to build a safe space to remember and express. She also observed that post-structuralist ideas of non-linear reading work nicely here, the fragmentary found poem emerging from the conversation was rich and multi-valent. By allowing fluid logic into the poem-making process we perhaps free up creative space for people (such as those with dementia) who think along other shapes and pathways.

Out of these marvellous items from Lois' gran flowed a conversation that hopscotched between memories as though they were still occurring right here in front of people's eyes, although in some opinions they happened many years past.

I've put the poem below, but the most profound part of this workshop was the deeply-felt engagement with in-filling the grids with decorations of colour, snake-ish swirls, movement, creating sumptuous abstract/abstracted art.

Snakes and ladders tiddlywinks sixpence the board games when it rained stopping in and playing or all to Blackpool snap was a favourite a set of coloured dominoes all the rainbow still raining draughts and time passes Lexicon there's an instruction book to pass time to find out what we like the socialising 

Caesar seized his knees and sneezed rain and draughts and time passing to pass time to find out what we like have a beetledrive or life can be boring there's no television hide the money when you're playing monopoly as a family get your little counters 

I like Cluedo or a flutter on the stock market remember dominoes huffing jigsaws cribbage have a punt win with difficulty go over the top huffing a few years ago childhood jumping over you huff them hop flag

I was a young boy Saturday afternoon to Newhey catch the bus from Scotland Lane a drink of Oxo and play whist or draughts cards with grandad whist twist pontoon cribbage little matchsticks for a laugh

mum's mum and dad playing chase the ace didn't approve of cards on Sunday hide them when we heard the front door going backgammon when it rained stopping in they tied up the swings that was years ago passing chess is the gymnasium of the mind and there's £200 when you pass 

Friday, 10 January 2014

‏Dementia vs the remarkable charm of spinning tops

Dementia clearly ransacks people's lives and yet who is to say that burglarised minds are not still full of richness and value? And, as for all of us, these lives need acts of explaining, reflection and reinvention if they are to have meaning. But what happens if the tools to make and explain - language and gesture and logic - are radically altered by disease, or even stripped away? The tendency then is for things that  create meaning, like conversation or writing or art making - to be neglected because it's so difficult to find new language forms, new ways of making.

chalking a design on the top, of a 'whip and top'

For the last year, we been inventing playful creative exercises that go along with reminiscence sessions - some of which are for folks who have a dementia diagnosis. When we hit on a success it is a wonderfully satisfying moment because not only do we have the pleasure of a goal achieved, we are also rewarded by the pleasure of the people in the session. 

Today we tried out what might seem the simplest thing but turned out to be a solid-bottom Class 1 treasure - spinning tops. Lois had gathered together a  selection of old wooden toys for people to handle and to reminisce about. Amongst them were three wooden spinning tops - and an exercise she'd come up with for making self-decorated cardboard spinning tops.  

As soon as the tops made their entrance, the session changed tone. One of the men, who'd been locked in repeat-play of a memory from 50 years back, suddenly blinked with recognition - he'd seen an old friend. His face was suffused with warmth, eyes bright. He grasped this tiny wooden toy in his big, gnarled hands as though it were a rare visitor to a lonesome place and he named it, seemingly delighted to find the words on his tongue: "A spinning top!"

The tops ushered in memories of childhood but also muscle memory - most people in the group had a go at spinning a top. This was something that could still be done! There was a rustle of approving interest. Lois then played her trump card: would people like to make and decorate their own spinning top? Discs of black card were cut out. People decorated them with chalk marks and the discs were then skewered with cocktail sticks, ready to spin. The spinning patterns made bright little eddies of colour, bringing exclamations of pleasure. 

I'm aware that in writing, the activity might seem childish, to some. But I'd dispute that. These pieces documented a journey back into childhood made by people for whom memory can hold many terrors. The marks on the tops might not be decipherable into English or Art or any other familiar mode of communication, but still they represent the continuing human drive for self-expression, which is a profound need that arthur+martha try to provide for. Just as angels are said to dance on the heads of pins, these spinning tops carry remarkable dancers.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Start stitching the wars

Some fantastic news to start 2014 on an upswing: arthur+martha have been awarded a significant grant to carry out the reminiscence arts project Stitching the Wars.

This will be a collaboration between older people in Derbyshire and arthur+martha, creating artwork and poetry from the reminiscences of the First and Second World Wars. We’ll stitch together a living, emotional document of that time, contrasting the so-called gentleness of rural life and traditions, with the hardship and the need to change. We’ll particularly investigate what happened when the devastating wars of the 20th century shattered rural traditions and scattered families…

In collaboration with older people and volunteers, arthur+martha will realise two embroidered quilts, layering poetic lines of memory and drawings embroidered onto handmade and recycled fabrics to build an artwork rich with experience and feeling. Reminiscence will be collected during sessions as short videos and recorded as oral history. This will be edited together with historical photographs, photos of the artwork and participants memorabilia in the form of short films.

Stitching the Wars will be a legacy left by all involved, a unique way of sharing and passing on history. The finished quilts, poems and films might be a conduit for the grief and anger of those who have lived through the wars or lost a loved one, but also celebrate lives lived, in an act of community remembrance.

In addition to funding from The Arts Council England, we are delighted to announce we’ve also received funding from Derbyshire Community Foundation, Derbyshire Dales Council, Derbyshire County Council. Workshop hosts and partners on the project are Age UK, The National Trust, The Farming Life Centre, The WI, and The Quilters Guild of Great Britain, and the Alzheimer's Society.