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.

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