Sunday, 20 January 2019

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Introduction to Writers’ Inner Voices

The idea that writers “hear” the voices of their characters is a common one. Some writers even go as far as to claim that the characters that people their narratives seem to somehow write themselves: that they, the writer, are a mere conduit for voices that appear to have lives all of their own.
The aim of the Writers’ Inner Voices project is to try to understand writers’ and storytellers’ inner speech and the role that the inner voice or voices play in the process of literary creation.

Many writers – from William Blake, to Charles Dickens, to Joseph Conrad, to Philip K. Dick – have written or talked about experiencing auditory verbal hallucinations, or hearing voices that others cannot hear. The Writers’ Inner Voices project also aims to explore what relationship there might be, if any, between writers’ experiences and the experience of hearing voices.

During the 2014 Edinburgh International Book Festival, as part of the Conversations with Ourselves strand of events, authors and storytellers were  interviewed about their creative process and finding out more about the ways that writers and storytellers imagine, hear, listen to and converse with the voices of their characters. You can read more about the project on the blog, where the interviews with authors and storytellers during the festival are kept.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Basquiat - Rage to Riches

This fascinating documentary is concerned with the prolific artistic outputs of Basquiat and the substantive ways in which it embodied and reflected breakthroughs in music, poetry, and a new type of expressionism in modern art.

The story of his art is intertwined with the story of his life. Basquiat's two sisters Lisane and Jeanine give their first interviews for a TV documentary and talk about their brother and his art for a TV documentary. There are numerous contributions from friends, lovers, fellow artists, the most powerful and legendary art dealers in the world such as Bruno Bischofberger, Larry Gagosian, and Mary Boone. They discuss the cash, the drugs, and the pernicious racism which Basquiat encountered and fought against on a daily basis. The main way Basquiat used to fight this racism was through his art. 

In a 1983 campaign which long predates Black Lives Matter, Basquiat used his art as part of a protest movement following the beating to death by NYC transit cops of a friend of his - Michael Stewart.

"In this film, these are only some of the many stories that give shape and insight into a life which was constantly torn between public acclaim and personal pain, the bold confidence of has greatness as an artist and the secret fear he would be regarded a flash in the pan, between a deep desire for fame and money but an even deeper resentment that his work was being transformed into a commodity. Basquiat's relationship with drugs and the role they played in his life, work, stellar rise, and fatal crash - is sensitively and insightfully explored."

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Asking the right questions

As an artist there are often moments when I question what I am doing and whether I am doing 'the right thing', whatever that is!
With increasing competition for opportunities such as exhibitions, commissions, jobs, residencies and funding, it is easy to get disheartened from rejections from applications and begin to ask yourself "Why can’t you succeed with your goals?"
Why does everything have to be so hard?
Why do you get stuck, unable to figure out how to move forward?

At times like these, better questions to ask are:
How can you succeed with your goals?
How to make everything easy?
How to be creative and implement ideas?
If you ask better questions, you’ll get better answers.

Friday, 11 January 2019

Emma Hart: BANGER at The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh

The Fruitmarket Gallery is one of my favourite galleries. I rarely leave disappointed, whether that be due to the reliably top class exhibitions or the excellent range of art and culture publications available in the shop. Located right next to Edinburgh Waverley train station, it is often my first point of call on any trip up to the Scottish capital. My recent visit was no exception. 

I had no prior knowledge of the work of Emma Hart, and this made for an excellent treat. I was immediately attracted visually to the sculptural installation that greeted me in the downstairs gallery. 

"The exhibition presents two bodies of work that represent the most recent developments in her artistic practice: Mamma Mia! (2017), a major installation made following a residency in Italy awarded as part of the Max Mara Art Prize for Women that Hart won in 2016; and a group of new sculptures collectively titled BANGER (2018) made since Mamma Mia! and in response both to it and to the space of The Fruitmarket Gallery.

Mamma Mia! (2017), consists of ten large ceramic objects which hang from the ceiling, while an eleventh lies sidelong on the floor. The objects simultaneously resemble heads, upturned measuring jugs and lamps. They are glossy and monochrome, and project large speech bubbles onto the floor, some of them periodically sliced through by the shadows of ceiling fans made of oversized cutlery. As you move around and under the forms you become aware that the interior of each is a riot of intensely coloured, highly inventive pattern. The patterns used, ranging from the violent to the humorous, suggest the cyclical nature of anxieties and addictions, as well as the habitual repetitions of everyday life.


Upstairs in BANGER, viewers are faced with Just Because You’re Paranoid Doesn’t Mean They Aren’t After You. Headlights in a rear-view mirror, the work has you projecting forward and looking back, thinking about what’s behind you before you turn left into the rest of the space. And when you do turn, you find yourself face to face with the first in a series of four double-sided sculptures, car windscreens that stand, like road signs, around the gallery. On one side – the outside – you see into the inside of a car. On the other – the inside – you look out to the outside. The sculptures are made from handmade ceramic tiles, closely tessellated in such a way that the same shapes make different images on each side.

The four major sculptures, Green Light, Give Way, Wipe Out and X, are joined by others that direct and affect how you navigate the space – peering at and under the car bonnet of Fix Up; standing square onto the steering wheels of Race You to the Bottom; moving past Gatecrasher, both a safety barrier and a drawing of a car that seems to have crashed into the gallery wall; and tracking the movement of the woman of Wind Down as she winds herself face first down into the gutter and receives a splash in the face.

Throughout the gallery, visual and verbal puns bring things together and apart, both simplifying and complicating your looking as you ’get’ – or maybe struggle to get – the idea. Multiple ways of looking at each sculpture emerge the more you look. This shift in viewpoints plays out in the dual meaning of words like viewpoint and perspective, which are both about actual processes of looking and also about one’s worldview."

I was fascinated to discover that Mamma Mia! is the result of a residency in Italy in which she had "access to lessons about the Milan Systems Approach, a systemic and constructivist method of family therapy at the Scuola Mara Selvini Palazzoli which involves physical re-enactments and the study of repeated actions. The body of work is the culmination of an investigation into pattern, from visual patterns to patterns of psychological behaviour. The work also looks at the design and rupture of pattern and the ruminations in between."

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

BBC Radio 4 Front investigates acoustics in architecture

The look of a building has always been an essential element in architectural design, but less conspicuous are its acoustic properties. Specialists in acoustic design are frequently engaged to enhance the aural experience of people in a room or a building. Their work ranges from blocking out unwanted noise, such as from passing trains, to providing the optimal sound for the audience and musicians in a concert hall. 

In Wednesday's episode of Front Row, Stig Abell visits Arup,
an independent firm of designers, planners, engineers, consultants and technical specialists, working across every aspect of today’s built environment.

Arup has a virtual sound laboratory which they use to inform the design of some of the world’s best arts and culture venues. A look at Arups website, in particular the projects section, 
reveals the wealth of incredible buildings that they have worked on. 

I am lucky enough to have worked in a variety of their buildings in the UK including Glasgow City Halls, RSNO Centre at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and The Reid Building at Glasgow School of Art. I have also visited a number of their other projects such as Angel of the North, Gateshead, Tate Modern, London and The Tetley in Leeds. 

They demonstrate how the same piece of music can change according to where it is played, and explain that they use SoundLab’s sound simulations (auralisations) to demonstrate to clients the impact that major infrastructure projects such as HS2 will have on communities. These sounds can then be taken into consideration when designing the building.

Stig also talks to Trevor Cox, professor of acoustic engineering, about the history and importance of sound in building design.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

marginendeavour - Work in progress

Joseph Grigely

I was recently introduced to the work of Joseph Grigely, an American artist who works in a range of media including sculpture, video and installation. When Grigely was ten he was involved in an accident and he became profoundly deaf. He has since used this to fuel his artistic practice, commenting that he “want[s] to take people inside the experience of being deaf and share it with them.”

St. Cecilia 2007, paper

Grigely regularly communicates with other people by writing on scraps of paper and napkins. He collects these records of his daily conversations, and organises them according to different systems such as their size or colour.

167 White Conversations 2004
© Joseph Grigely

"When people who do not know sign language talk with me, I explain that I am deaf and ask them to write – a mode of communication that is simple without being simplistic, and generally inclusive. But what gets written is often quite unlike writing in the usual sense: there are gaps, crossed-out words, drawing, lines, all of which looks less like writing that it does talking on paper. It is by using these scraps of paper on which people have written notes, names, or phrases in order to 'converse' with me that I make much of my art, using such scraps of conversations to make wall pieces, books, and table-top tableaux that all take as their subject matter the ineluctable differences between speech and writing, and reading and listening."

The Information Economy, 1996, mixed media

Monday, 31 December 2018

Sunday, 30 December 2018

Leap of Faith project at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

The Domestic Armoury within Bobby Baker's Great and Tiny War artwork is a good example of how contemporary art can fully embrace the involvement of others and how outreach work (in this case with women in the West End of Newcastle who have experienced of abuse, war or conflict) can be an integral part of the artwork. 

I recently found out about another 14-18 NOW project and how this has prompted Leap of Faith, another project involving women who have experience of trafficking, domestic violence or mental ill health. 

© Danny Lawson/PA Wire

Leap of Faith at Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP), responds to contemporary artist Katrina Palmer’s The Coffin Jump (2018) – a major co-commission with 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary, and YSP. It reflects the courageousness of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY). This extraordinary group emerged at a transformative period for women – moving out of passive domestic confinement to enter the battlefield on horseback and administer first aid – and inspired the creation of the artwork.

Led by YSP’s Art & Wellbeing Coordinator, Rachel Massey, Leap of Faith brings together participants from two local authority areas that border the Park, in partnership with Ashiana Sheffield, Kirklees WomenCentre, with Heidi Dawson from Glint [Horse Assisted Development].

Leap of Faith aims to help participants gain the confidence to express themselves, to develop positive relationships, and to build positive new memories. Activity includes creative sessions devised by the participants themselves in conjunction with lead artist Kate Genever and Palmer as well as equine therapy, which has been found to enhance positive behaviour and wellness. Further therapeutic support is provided by group analyst Jacinta Kent, and opportunities for reflection and evaluation have been offered by Dr Harriet Rowley, Lecturer in Education and Community at Manchester Metropolitan University.
© Jonty Wilde

Massey says: “At YSP, we use a range of approaches to help people engage with the art. We are interested in exploring ways to support people to engage with their own creativity and self-expression. This is a unique opportunity to work with women, therapists and artists and create something together, inspired by The Coffin Jump and other art at YSP.

“Throughout the project, we have explored themes of love, loss, friendship, loneliness and connection. The individual moments of breakthrough are too numerous and too personal to describe, but it’s true to say that this project will stay with all the participants for a long time to come”.

Heidi Dawson from Glint says: “Our horses are the true educators in our work. They don’t do role play, so noticing how they respond to our behaviour and energy offers us a unique insight into ourselves and our relationship to the world”.

Leap of Faith is part of YSP’s Arts & Wellbeing programme, which takes inspiration from the New Economics Foundation’s ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’ and is informed by work with experts including artists, mindfulness practitioners, musicians, yoga teachers and others.

Wednesday, 26 December 2018

Tuesday, 25 December 2018

Festive greetings

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank you for your support over the past year. It is a pleasure to share my artistic pursuits with you, and I really appreciate the comments and interest in what I do.

Long may it continue!

Here's to a wonderful festive period and a very Happy New Year.

Saturday, 22 December 2018

Mary Robson on ABC Radio

The Hearing The Voice Creative Facilitator Mary Robson was recently on ABC Radio talking with host Myf Warhurst about Hearing the Voice and its interdisciplinary approach to voice-hearing. 

She begins by talking about the different types of voices that people hear such as the inner critic, the voice that one may hear when reading silently, the experience of thinking that someone has heard one's voice being spoken aloud and one's internal voice that may, for example, remind us to switch off the cooker etc. 

She points out that many people associate the experience of hearing voices with mental illness, but then acknowledges that in certain cultures those who report hearing voices are regarded as being gifted or particularly spiritual.

Listen to Mary talk about how hearing voices doesn't have to be a sentence for life-time time suffering via the link below

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Introducing marginendeavour

Fellow NewBridge Project studio artist David Foggo and I are working collaboratively as marginendeavour to explore our affinities with text and design. 

Documentation of our recent exhibition, Doing Fine, at The NewBridge Project is now online via this link

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

The ice in voices: Understanding negative content in auditory-verbal hallucinations

In this new article by Frank Larøi, Neil Thomas, André Aleman, Charles Fernyhough, Sam Wilkinson, Felicity Deamer and Simon McCarthy-Jones, the authors explore the complexities of negative content in auditory-verbal hallucinations (AVH), taking into account its theoretical and clinical importance. 

Negative voice-content is the best sole predictor of whether the hearer of an auditory-verbal hallucination will experience distress/impairment necessitating contact with mental health services. Yet, what causes negative voice-content and how interventions may reduce it remains poorly understood. The paper offers definitions of negative voice content and considers what may cause negative voice-content. A framework is proposed in which adverse life-events may underpin much negative voice-content, a relation which may be mediated by mechanisms including hypervigilance, reduced social rank, shame and self-blame, dissociation, and altered emotional processing. At a neurological level, how the involvement of the amygdala and right Broca’s area could drive negative voice-content is noted. As observed, negative interactions between hearers and their voices may further drive negative voice-content. Finally, the role of culture in shaping negative voice-content is considered. 

This framework is intended to deepen and extend cognitive models of voice-hearing and spur further development of psychological interventions for those distressed by such voices. Importantly, much of the relevant research in this area remains to be performed or replicated. In conclusion, more attention needs to be paid to methods for reducing negative voice-content, and further research in this important area is required.

The full text can be accessed via the link below

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Steve Reich's Music For 18 Musicians

The current series of Radio 3's The Essay features authors talking about a piece of music that has been significant to them and their creative development. They explore how pieces inspire creativity through mood, narrative or structure, inviting us to step into the music – and the author’s – inner world. In this episode, New York based author and journalist Hermione Hoby discusses Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians, a piece of music that she has listened to almost every day for the last seven years. In this short radio essay she reveals how this classic piece of minimalism helps her write.

This is one of my favourite pieces of music, and I was fortunate enough to be able to see it performed at Glasgow City Hall. I was utterly mesmerized and in awe of the performers who maintained full concentration throughout the performance. To listen to Music For 18 Musicians is to have an experience, you do not just hear it, you feel it, it has a physical impact.

Hoby describes the work as "music that sounds like what it feels like to write well." She continues, " The opening xylophone notes- are optimistic, clear, urgent, devoid of panic, full of confidence and clarity, - How i want to feel when writing. The pulses are hypnotic and the piece sounds like an experiment that is alive, exploratory, a living construction, built on repetitions, striking enough to drive you ahead, but also distant enough to be able to fade into the background when your own creative juices begin to flow." 

Like Hoby, I find it fairly easy to work at the same time as listening to the music. One of the factors that makes it easy for me to do this is that it features no words. It also helps that there is no solo piece, no musician that dominates and therefore it all seems to work together. 

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Carol Rhodes; a dear friend and an inspiration in many ways

I am saddened to read of the news that my dear friend Carol Rhodes has died. Words cannot adequately describe how I am feeling right now, but thankfully Moira Jeffrey wrote a beautiful Obituary published in The Herald, that gives an indication of Carol's significance, both as a painter and as an exceptional individual.

I had the pleasure of working with Carol over a 5 year period at The Glasgow School of Art. She was a gentle character, who spoke softly, but with exceptional intelligence and insight. I admired Carol's ability to remain calm and composed in the toughest of situations (and there were plenty of challenging instances that we encountered!) Even when challenged by illness, Carol remained determined, dedicated and focussed on her artwork. 

Carol Rhodes Carpark, Canal 1994 © Estate of the Artist

Her stunning paintings are influenced by her experience of living in India before moving to the United Kingdom in her childhood. The aerial gaze over the landscapes she imagines reminds me of her reflective nature and the loose painting style with subtle colours gives a sense of her character, serene, elegant and in tune with her body and surroundings.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Art on prescription on Front Row

Last Thursday's episode of Front Row on BBC Radio 4 included a feature about Art on prescription. 'Earlier this month Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that "arts on prescription" is an indispensable tool in tackling loneliness, mental health and other long-term conditions.

The programme features Wellcome Research Fellow Daisy Fancourt, Gavin Clayton, head of the Arts and Minds charity and GP Dr Simon Opher, and they discuss arts and healthcare.

It is based on the thought that changing people's environment can have a positive effect on mental wellbeing. Although ideas like this have been around for some time now, it is believed that about 20% of GP's are now making use of "arts on prescription." Sometimes artists are based in the doctors surgery and the GPs refer the patient directly to the artist, and other times the patient is directed to an organisation such as Arts and Minds that are based in museums and run workshops for groups that involve making art inspired by the heritage artifacts.

Something worth noting is that the government seem to acknowledge the importance of the arts for health, but its status within the school curriculum and in libraries and museums are under threat.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Move over Britannia, Bobby Baker rules!

For the past three months I have been immersed in the world of Bobby Baker's Great and Tiny War, a project that is very close to my heart. I have been working for Wunderbar as a host, guiding visitors around the house, talking to them about the artworks, operating any equipment, making lots of cups of tea and coffee and providing hospitality. Being involved in this project and working with such a supportive team has been an absolute joy and I am really going to miss it. Along the way there have been plenty of challenges to keep us on our toes such as the time when the mechanics behind the surprise element in room 3 broke, and I had to phone Steve, the Technical Director of Great and Tiny War (based in London) and follow his problem diagnosis and damage limitation instructions or the time that the venue for one of the workshops was changed due to an emergency situation, and so we had to change to a space without an oven (pretty essential for a bread-making workshop), resulting in me going back and forth between Nunsmoor Park (where the workshop was) and 133 Sidney Grove where the unbaked bread sculptures were put in the oven and the baked bread sculptures were returned to the workshop and reunited with their respective creators.

There have been some amazing stories gathered throughout the exhibition, and I have plenty of fond memories to take away.

My final day of tours brought with it lots of happy memories. On one of the tours in the morning I was host for a couple of Sidney Groovers (people who live/have lived) on Sidney Grove one whom carried her young son with her. The baby was really well behaved and the women loved the exhibition. When we were talking in the kitchen, one of the women, Olivia, told me how her other (3 year old) child, Frida, walks past the house every day and gets very excited by the sign outside 133 Sidney Grove, pointing at it and exclaiming "It's Bobby Baker'. Unfortunately Olivia did not think that Frida would have enough patience to go on the tour, and so she had explained that she would not be able to see inside Bobby Baker's house. I couldn't bear the thought of her little girl having her dream shattered, and so tried to think of a way that it would be possible to tailor the tour to her. We were fully booked for the rest of the day, but proposed a way that Frida could get a magical experience. I asked Olivia whether she would like to bring her child at the end of my last tour and I would do a special little viewing in a few of the rooms. She thought this was a great idea, and said it would fit in with their bedtime routine. Indeed, when I was in the kitchen at the end of my final tour, the doorbell rang and I opened it to find Olivia with Frida in her arms, dressed in her pj's all ready for bed. I took them to the room of bread sculptures and the room with all the peppermint sculptures, and talked about the work. After we had used the pictures on the wall to identify all the peppermint sculptures, we went to the kitchen for Frida to choose herself a biscuit as a treat. She asked if Bobby Baker was there, and as I explained where Bobby was, I showed them the photo of Bobby Baker wearing the bread antlers that she made for a previous performance. These were hung on the wall, and I asked if Frida would like to wear them and be like Bobby Baker. The result was an extremely happy 3 year old with the biggest grin on her face, an incredibly grateful Olivia, and a very happy Helen! I could not have asked for a better way to end my Great and Tiny War hosting duties.

The following day I received a message from Olivia thanking me for engineering the opportunity for Frida to visit the installation. She reported that Frida had been talking about Bobby Baker all day!

I've met lots of very special people and made some life-long friends. The other hosts and the Wunderbar team have been such a support to one another and we have shared our experiences and thoughts via a Hosts Book. I'd like to thank all involved for making the experience so powerful, nourishing and stimulating. I really hope that the project continues to live on in some form, and that the hosts and Wunderbar team keep in touch and work together again.

Thursday, 29 November 2018

The crumbling of the breast plate

As part of Great and Tiny War, Bobby Baker worked with a variety of women attending local women's groups. She ran a number of bread sculpture workshops in which the women were asked to make their own armoury; items that they would use to protect them, to show their strength or to provide them with comfort. During these workshops Bobby showed them some of her own bread sculptures that she made for previous performances. These included a breast plate and some antlers for protection. These items have been displayed in the kitchen at 133 Sidney Grove for visitors to Great and Tiny War to look at and wear. 

A couple of weeks ago, when I was in the kitchen hosting a group of guests, I was startled by a sudden thud. The bread breast plate had fallen off the cupboard door where it was hanging, and as it hit the floor, had broken in half. The effect of this was significant and was gradually revealed over the final two weeks of the exhibition. Not only was the bread plate the dough the bound the various different elements of the exhibition together, it was the shield that protected the exhibition and guarded against bad fortune. 

The crumbling of the breast plate signified the fragility of many of the elements within the exhibition. It was ironic that this happened in the final stages of the exhibition - in the period of time that the exhibition had been extended. It was as if certain elements had reached the end of their natural life. Technical issues became more commonplace, visitors (and hosts) encountered more problems getting to the exhibition on time due to the unreliability of public transport, and biscuit supplies dwindled (although this was quickly remedied!).

They say all good things must come to an end, and maybe the crumbling of the breast plate is evidence of the truth within this expression.

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Should all art students learn to paint and draw?

In a new paper, What Happened to the Art Schools?, the painter and art critic Jacob Willer claims that today’s fine art degrees do not offer the necessary teaching to produce exceptional artists. Painting and drawing have come to be seen as “no more than art’s old ceremonial vestments”, he writes.
Willer, who visited art schools around the country, says that while the odd talented student stood out for him, the general standard was “depressingly low”. “I would encourage you to look back through the UCL collections to see the quality of paintings that students at the Slade were routinely making in the first half of the last century and you will see for yourself how things have changed,” he says.
Willer goes on to suggest that in order to restore standards, higher art education ought to focus once again on craft and life drawing. But, he says, since current teachers would mostly not be capable of teaching painting and drawing – “because most of them know nothing about it” – the best way for students to develop would be to spend time appreciating old masters such as Titian and Rembrandt. 
Teaching practices at art schools have indeed changed over the past few decades. The foundations of today’s schools were laid in the 60s, when local colleges merged to create tertiary-level art schools and polytechnics, where students could receive a diploma in art and design and were increasingly treated more like artists than pupils. But there have been significant political and cultural shifts since. The 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, which saw polytechnics and independent colleges become universities, left formerly independent art schools to grapple with the same issues universities do – most notably the rise in tuition fees. Variety became necessary in a crowded market.
Unlike Willer, many believe that these changes have not been for the worse. For Michael Archer, professor of art at Goldsmiths University, art schools’ approaches have become less prescriptive, drawing on a growing range of traditions and cultures. A return to a technical focus on painting and drawing would be restrictive, he says – and “completely misguided”.
Richard Talbot, head of fine art and professor of contemporary drawing at Newcastle, says weekly life drawing classes are held for any student who wishes to go, “but it’s important to expose students to a wide range of staff and practices”. Talbot models the course on his experience at Goldsmiths during the “70s heyday”, when he and his contemporaries were free to explore their interests without any restrictions. He follows this open-ended approach while offering his students a variety of practical workshops on specific skills such as developing your colour palette, priming a canvas and applying paint. “We’re not saying ‘you have to know this’ but instead, ‘this could be really useful for some of you’.”
Tutors point out that an exposure to various media and traditions shouldn’t come at the expense of a technical education. 
Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd

Friday, 23 November 2018

A live discussion on the current state of arts education

"Arts education has become the focus of a great deal of passion and concern recently, since the core, knowledge-based subjects took precedence over the creative subjects when the EBacc was introduced in England by the then Education Minister Michael Gove, announced in 2010.
With the arts not being a requirement in the GCSE syllabus for the English Baccalaureate (the EBacc), leaders in the arts and the lucrative creative industries have been very vocal in their criticism of government policy."

Last Wednesday evening in a special edition of BBC Radio 4's Front Row, Stig Abell chaired a live discussion on the subject from a Soar Valley College secondary school in Leicester with leading figures in arts and education.
On the panel were:
Deborah Annetts, the Chief Executive of the Incorporated Society of Musicians or the ISM
Trina Haldar, graduate in chemistry and engineering, and subsequently director and founder of Leicester-based Mashi Theatre
Branwen Jeffreys, the BBC’s Education Editor
Mark Lehain, interim head of the New Schools Network, a free schools advocacy charity, and the Founder (and former headteacher) of one of the first secondary Free Schools. He also leads the Parents and Teachers for Excellence campaign
Julie Robinson, the headteacher of Soar Valley College in Leicester
Carl Ward, Chief Exec of the City Learning Trust, which is a partnership of schools teaching a combined total of 6000 pupils in Stoke on Trent

The episode can be accessed here

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Bobby Baker on what it takes to make an exhibition accessible

Great & Tiny War is the most ambitious show I’ve ever made. Or maybe I’ve said that before?!

How to Live where I launched my own Therapy Empire at Barbican Theatre in 2004 was really massive. When I had the idea of 2,000 ‘pea patients’ dancing the Mexican wave as a finale, accompanied by a choir and full on light show, I hadn’t quite thought through how much work (and money) and pure skill by the production team it would take to pull off. But we did. Which I suppose encourages you to be optimistic you can do it again with the next big plan…

Great & Tiny War takes a whole house and transforms it into a complex art installation where people come in groups of 4 and go on an audio guided tour from room to room with a host. It opened on 9 September and has proved to be so popular that we are keeping it open 3 weeks longer than planned until 28 November.

The team

The most important part of any show, and why it succeeds or not, is the people in the team and their assorted talents and skills. The Great & Tiny team are exceptional – mainly due to Ilana Mitchell and the amazing Wunderbar team. Their strap line is “extraordinary projects conceived by artists and made by audiences.”

Wunderbar has a long track record of creating great art in unusual places, and we share a passion and belief in doing what we can to reach people where they are, and to make the art as easy as possible for everyone to see.

It takes a lot of technical skill to achieve this so having a good team is vital.

I’ve worked with Steve Wald, technical director, and Miranda Melville, production designer, for many years – their skill and experience is the reason the dancing peas worked so wonderfully for How To Live. Each of the 5 rooms in Great & Tiny poses complex design and technical challenges.

Wunderbar recruited talented local artists and technicians to help install the show and host the tours. Lots of them have been drawn to the project because of what it’s about – transgenerational trauma, feminism and the politics of domestic labour and health care. Many of us have experienced hard times and felt excluded. So it’s been great working together and really fun too. And it’s definitely meant everyone shares a focus on the ethos of fairer access.

Inclusion and equality consultant Sarah Pickthall has been part of the team from the start – helping plan and budget the work needed and oversee the brief. And for the first time we used the opportunity now provided by Arts Council Grants for Arts to receive extra funding for extra support for me.

Great & Tiny War access resources

Here’s a list of what we’ve done to try and make the show accessible to all:
  • A captioned film showing what’s upstairs. The house is on two floors so some people, including older people, can’t see the whole show without some sort of digital package. The film we’ve produced is shown on a tablet in the comfort of the kitchen downstairs.
  • There’s a bespoke built accessible toilet in the yard at the back (the porta-loo Wunderbar ordered was denied access due to overhead telephone wires in the lane. The production team created a new one to fit.)
  • Audio descriptions for the blind or partially sighted
  • A portable hearing loop
  • A transcript of the audio guide
  • The option to listen to the audio tour on loud speaker
  • Bespoke visits tailored to your needs, including relaxed and BSL on request.

I’m pretty sure what we’ve set up is rare for a temporary art installation. We know we haven’t been able to do everything but, given our resources, we’ve done our best to make the show as accessible as possible.
And the best thing is that we have been able to be responsive to people and the tailoring of bespoke experiences – partly because we have the resources, but mostly because the hosts of the show are so welcoming and ready to adapt.

What we’ve learnt

Despite all our planning it’s been much harder than we thought to make this happen due to stuff we just hadn’t anticipated. So, for the record, here’s some top tips I would give myself when (hopefully) working on a massive project again and planning access work.

Typically, and considering how complex the installation is, a team of about 10 of us worked right up to the last minute before the first preview to finish. What we hadn’t factored in was the time needed to also produce great quality digital access material.

The film, text, images and so much care went into making all this material. I mean, if you’re making a film of part of the show for people who can’t physically get round the installation then as much care needs to go into that as into the art work itself.

Filmmaker Alastair Cummings was brilliant . He worked around the crashing and banging of the installation but inevitably finished filming it all after the launch when quiet enveloped the house. So that took an extra week to get working on the tablets.

Producing the rest of the digital access work took longer still. Geography was challenging – Great Tiny War and Wunderbar are in Newcastle, Caroline Dawson, our access specialist from Daily Life Ltd, the sound producer and I are based in London and, after the launch, so was technician Steve Wald. Sarah Pickthall is in Brighton, Alastair is in North Shields. Communication and time and travel cost energy and cash… we hadn’t quite thought through the logistics of all that.

Sally Flemons, Wunderbar’s Communications Director, ran a really top class campaign for the project working with SFPPR and the 14-18 NOW team – hence the high audience level.
With Sarah Pickthall we had a plan for a special comms campaign to reach new networks – but didn’t make enough allowance for the extra time needed, including finding just the right people to reach. We could have done with local specialist help budgeted in.

How do you budget properly? It’s the most important thing surely? We did a pretty good estimate with Sarah Pickthall but what we hadn’t factored in was the extra time it took us all. Film, text, images, recordings, installing it on headsets, testing it required so much care and time. Next time we would budget for another local person on the team to help project manage the making of the access materials, as well as more time for comms.

And finally – Me
I’ve never tried to work out my own access needs and costs in advance for such a massive amount of work. I’m rather exhausted now with every joint in my creaky body aching. I’m seeing the doctor later today and the physio too, about pain management and recovering from it all. So I think reflecting on what I could have arranged better will take another blog…!
But despite all this we are so pleased with what we have achieved given all the challenges. Feedback from audience members has been very encouraging.

We’ve thought very hard about how we communicate our accessibility offer so as to be really clear (plain English) but not patronising and avoid ‘labelling’ – readers of my last DAO blog will know how I feel about this.

People have been getting in touch with bespoke access requests and we’ve been doing what we can to help support these. We are also very keen to listen to feedback and be dynamic in our approach so please do share with us any comments or suggestions.
There’s 2 more weeks to see the show… see what you think and let us know!

Tickets for Bobby Baker’s Great & Tiny War, an art installation in a house in Newcastle, are available until 28 November.