Friday, 31 October 2014

Breaking the circle

Phil has been working with Blackpool Arts for Health on pieces for the new mental health facility The Harbour, which is being built on the edge of Blackpool. Over the next few days, we will post some excerpts from Phil's Blackpool blogs from this summer and autumn. A complete set of the blogs and photos is at the Blackpool Arts for Health blogsite.

Phil writes:

A stranger to description

4 August

This third session with the Smartarts group in Blackpool: people worked hard at creative writing exercises, which we took at high speed and high intensity. The level of concentration in the room was almost touchable. I invited folks to write first (in memory of John Cage) for 4 minutes 33 seconds, observing the nature of the noisy town centre 'silence' around them and then their own scurrying thoughts. Pens sped over the paper, people gazing down in concentration, occasionally coming up for air and for more observations.

After that, a short written meditation on moments of peace in their lives. Peace is a shy creature, often a stranger to description: when it has come, what it's made of, how it might be found again. There are many cliches about the desirability of Peace, but stillness can be terrifying as well as restful. What is it that we're asking for, when it is invoked? Then, finally, I asked the writers to illustrate the four seasons with incidents from their own lives, taking us through their personal cycles of growth, fruition, renewal.

Breaking the circle

18 August 2014

The last session of this project, a big final push to make the best of the little time we've had. And yet stay relaxed.

Then a drawing game, making improvisations on the theme of circles that's been the core of this project. Pete wanted some wobbly circles for the designs, something (he explained) to dodge perfectionism and leave some oxygen for the imagination.

Pete put the artworks/poems made thus far onto individual tables for the group to arrange in patterns, as they liked. It was astonishing to see how much they'd created in four short weeks. From little doodles and sketches to poems and collages. As they worked on the arrangements, our official photographer Claire snapped the bustle.

Circles can be relentless things. As well as symbols for renewal, eternity, life cycles, seasons and all that  profound stuff, they can also be a trap. A couple of people have commented that, for them, circles bring to mind cycles of destructive behaviour that go round and round, without end, imprisoning and oppressive. So our final exercise was about breaking circles. A simple little writing  exercise to pop the bubble and bring release for those who felt the need for it. I won't share the exercise right now, but if you happen to be around in thirty years time when the time capsule is opened, you'll know.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

The humble doodle

Phil has been working with Smartarts Blackpool and painter Pete Flowers on pieces for the new mental health facility The Harbour being built on the edge of Blackpool. Over the next few days, we will post some excerpts of Phil's Blackpool blogs from the summer and autumn. A complete set of the blogs and photos is at the Blackpool Arts for Health blogsite.

11 August 2014

Phil writes: 

Today, Pete brought in his jotters, which officially were records of meetings and unofficially were chock full of doodles, fields of intricate marks and cartoonish skeletons. Pete handed round some circular paper sheets (leftovers from the art game Spirograph, remember that?) and our group got busy doodling. Every so often I'd give them a word from a prepared list, to react to as they pleased. The resulting pieces were a delicious mixup of pattern, mind-map, drawing and word game. 

After the essential comfort/tea break, we tried an exercise which plays with the same sort of writing aesthetic pioneered by the American poet Robert Grenier. Bob Grenier's work is at first sight a series of multi-colour scribbles, but on closer looking, words can be discerned in the seemingly random marks. Here we rewrote one word "Beauty" many times, using elbows, teeth, mirror writing, anything but the usual method. I then invited people to fill in the negative space between the overlapping letters until, beginning from one clear word, the pieces moved into abstraction into doodles, in fact. 

The humble doodle is an underrated artistic form it seems to me. Some of the most intense, yet most free, art-making takes place in the margins of notebooks, telephone scribble pads, appointment diaries.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014


Phil has been working with Smartarts Blackpool and painter Pete Flowers on pieces for the new mental health facility The Harbour being built on the edge of Blackpool. Over the next few days, we will post some excerpts of Phil's Blackpool blogs from the summer and autumn. A complete set of the blogs and photos is at the Blackpool Arts for Health blogsite.

24 July 2014

First Steps

Pete's many circular objects, to inspire our circular design

The first session of any project is always a step into the unknown, no matter how much prep you've done. Today was even more unknown for me because not only was I working with a new group of participants, the Smartarts group in Blackpool, I was teamed up with a new art partner too, the artist Pete Flowers. Together, Pete and I will facilitate this group in an ambitious new piece.

We're all working together on a circular plaque that will sit outside new mental health facility The Harbour, at Blackpool. It's ambitious because we are making something that'll be cast in iron, so it'll last a long time. A VERY long time. Casts last hundreds of years (unless of course they get swiped and melted). As we sat and chatted through it all, the enormity hit me. This is a piece of work that will possibly not only to outlive me, but all of my books. In a sense it is a time capsule, sent by us into a future that we will never witness. In such circumstances there is a temptation to force profundity. But trying to make something BE IMPORTANT is always the kiss of death in art-making, so instead we began quickly and modestly.

Pete started the ball rolling by inviting folks to each sketch a symbol of themselves, quickly and spontaneously, an image held within a hand. As the group worked I went from person to person, asking them to explain the thinking behind their pieces. I jotted down the explanations, which became a poignant little textwork in itself. I read it back and we all looked at each other, looked at the artworks. Not a bad start. In fact, say it quietly, very promising...

31 July 2014

Zen Tightrope  

This is the second week we've worked together and our group is slowly starting to become familiar to Pete and myself (the facilitators) and one another. People shared paper, responding to the circular objects Pete had selected for them to draw - and responding to each other as well. Making creative pieces can be a wonderfully calming process, several people in the group commented on the therapeutic feeling that has been conjured up in the space as people busy on drawings or poems. It was a delight to walk among the makers and share some of that fabulous busy calm. 

But there is a flipside, as one person pointed out. With creativity comes exposure, the possibility of getting it wrong, of harsh judgement. Today, as the group started to relax with each other, some deep-seated habits began to emerge, among them cruel self-criticism. We're trying to develop an atmosphere in these sessions that is both non-judgemental AND gently challenging. It's a sort of zen tightrope between control and looseness. Great musicians "play" music with absolute control and yet lightly. Perhaps we too can enter that state, as a group, to bring back something that is playful and meaningful too - eternity, connection, peace, continuity, fullness - playful, but serious play.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

A restless soul

Phil writes:

My first day on our new Homeless Library project - chock full of nervousness and anticipation.

I was booked in to see Andrew at the North West Sound Archive, to get some advice on our planned recordings for the Library. The Archive is an amazing resource, with over 150000 oral history recordings in its vaults and years of experience between the staff members. As we talked, I could hear another conversation in the next room. While Andrew had a nicotine break I put my head round the door to see who was there - the room was full of old reel-to-reel machines. The voice was a recording of a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, a member of the famed International Brigade. It was the voice of history itself, with a capital H. I felt daunted again by the responsibility of the job we are trying to do - to make the first ever history of homelessness in the UK.

Andrew kindly talked me through some do and don't basics for oral history recording, which I will share below. He also reflected on our own project.

Here are my notes from that morning:

Basic point one. Ask essential questions. This isn't just a chat, it's an interview. If it is allowed to become too random it'll lose its way and you'll forget what you need to ask. Decide what questions you want to cover before the interview and make sure you ask them. The NW Sound Archive suggest 5 basic questions to start off with: what's your name, where were you born, when were you born, what did your parents do for a living and where did you go to school? These questions tend to relax an interviewee because they're easy to answer. They also give a clear time and place to the material and gently bring in issues like social class. A sixth question for our project might be 'How did you become homeless?'

This is a sound recording of the interviewee, not the interviewer or anything else. So give them as much space as possible. Try not to interrupt, not even with encouraging noises, umms and errrs, and keep an ear out for background noise that could disrupt the recording. Strip lighting buzz has destroyed many recordings. In our project traffic noise might be a problem, although it is also descriptive of the environment in which some homeless people live. Don't put words into people's mouths, let them describe events and give their opinion on them as freely as possible. Keep quiet, nod and smile. The most powerful oral histories are the ones that are allowed to flow uninterrupted. Don't strain to be significant, 'historically valid', or generally smart arsed, the main thing is to catch people's stories as clearly and spontaneously as possible. Future historians will sift through this material for what they need, making their own selections. Although edited versions of the material (like our one minute day-in-the-life recordings made with homeless people) are valid, always keep the original interviews too.

After we had talked for a couple of hours, Andrew looked quizzical. "I've never come across a project quite like this one y'know."

I asked him why. After another ciggy break he came back with a reply. Our project is unusual for a number of reasons. It is difficult to get recordings of homeless people because there has to be a relationship of trust built up and few people have done that. It is also unusual because some of the recordings will take place in very uncontrolled environments, for example on the street, with interruptions of many sorts and the world intervening generally. Most profoundly, it is unusual because our project is more concerned with people's emotional history and motivations than it is in recording witnesses of known historical  events. The questions we ask will tend to be about internal, emotional events, not verifiable facts. Andrew suggested that we look the Getting Our Heads Together project, which documented the experiences of a mental health group in Blackpool and included very subjective material about people's emotional lives to become part of the texture of their oral history accounts.

After I left the Archive, the voice of the International Brigade veteran was still with me. It was a haunting little phrase that I'd overheard from the recording. Somehow seemed to speak to our own project and the people it will include: "He was a restless soul."

The Homeless Library is a project devised by arthur+martha to document the heritage of homelessness using interviews, artworks, poetry. It is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.