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

Saturday, 24 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

Monday, 19 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.

Friday, 16 November 2018

The NewBridge Project Annual General Meeting - 6-8pm - Thursday 29th November 2018

The NewBridge Project
Annual General Meeting

Thursday 29 November, 6-8pm
The NewBridge Project, Carliol House Co-Work Space

You are invited to The NewBridge Project’s Annual General Meeting on Thursday 29 November, 6-8pm in the Carliol House Co-work space. 

The AGM will be an opportunity to hear about NewBridge’s activities over the last year, to discuss plans for the future, and to hear more about some artist members work through a series of short presentations. I'll be talking about my Voices: Within and Without project that was funded by Arts Council England.

Staff, members, artists, volunteers, funders, partners and members of the public are invited to join the meeting.

There will be time at the end for drinks and socialising, and there will be cake!

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Forces News broadcasts video about Great and Tiny War

A couple of weeks ago Hannah King from Forces News visited 133 Sidney Grove to do some filming and interview Wunderbar Artistic Director, Ilana Mitchell about the installation. The film has now been broadcast and can be viewed here:

Newcastle exhibition in a terraced house is extended due to popularity

A museum exhibition is showcasing the role of women during the First World War.

The role of women in the First World War is being explored in an exhibition in Newcastle. It looks not at their part in the war effort - but rather their essential role in keeping households running.
'Great & Tiny War', by artist Bobby Baker, celebrates the women who stayed at home, bringing up children, feeding families and keeping households running while the Great War raged on.
Situated at 133 Sidney Grove, visitors are shown around the exhibition by an audio guide, telling stories about women's lives during the conflict.

Each room is dedicated to women’s domestic experiences during World War One –  an aspect of history Artistic Director of the project - Ilana Mitchell believes is often overlooked: "The focus very often on war is about the fighting, the politics.
"Very often work that is traditionally women’s work, housework, domestic work, is overlooked as something that is valued."
One downstairs room has been dubbed the 'Baked Armoury' and is filled with artistic sculptures, from a dove and a pineapple to barbed wire.
All the artwork has been baked by women with a diverse connection to warfare; some are refugees, whilst others are veterans.
"We started off with the idea of baked weapons," Ms Mitchell told Forces News.
"We worked with bread dough which is a very funny sculpture material because it’s very uncontrollable and also very domestic.
"Actually rather than weapons, most of the works are sort of amulets – sort of more protective, more gentle-seeming."

The final room contains 4,701 peppermint creams, designed to represent how many meals a family at home would have aimed to eat during the 1,567 days of the Great War.
Bobby Baker’s 'Great & Tiny War' will remain open to members of the public until 28 November 2018.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Nicola Singh Artist talk at Newcastle University

Woah, I feel I have just emerged from a really unique environment in which an established artist whose work I admire has shared with an audience her doubt about a performance she has then gone on to perform to us.

Initially Nicola Singh explained what she was about to perform and her reasoning behind her choice of artist presentation. She intended for there to be a discussion at the end of the performance.

This was a performance in itself that was about the performance at IMT Gallery, London as part of a group exhibition.

She had been unsure about the performance in the gallery (ethics, was it making her too vulnerable? was it the right time and place for it), and was unsure about the performance in the Lecture Theatre (what would the audience gain? was she in the right mental state? was the context right? would it be useful?) She did not apologise for her doubt.

The manner in which she delivered the text echoed, in some ways, the content of the text. It had been written as though it was being spoken, with the comments, pauses, distractions and tangential thoughts that would usually be edited out, included. Her voice was soft, and the pace was fairly slow; her manner was thoughtful and composed. At times she moved the weight of her body from one hip to the other, and would tilt her neck to one side as though she was releasing some tension that was making her uncomfortable. She listened to each word as she said them. 

I fully understand the reasons behind reading the text from a script as opposed to memorising it or speaking 'off the cuff'. It revealed that there had been a process of construction and editing prior to the delivery; it was practical; Firstly it included parts of writing that she had made during her time in London, and, secondly, she did not have enough time to learn it off by heart. Reading it also enabled her to focus on where the text came from within her - i.e. her performance came from the heart as opposed to the head, which is where it would have come from if she had memorised it. 

As she stood at the front of the Lecture Theatre, without any images on the screen behind her, my attention was drawn to her body language and my mind created its own imagery based on what I was hearing. 

She outlined what happened over the course of the 4 days prior to the private view of the exhibition;

She had 3 tinder dates in which each of her dates made a clay monkey from air dried clay

She gave a lack of specifics about the dates and the clay monkeys, but detailed her paths of thought, the context and the conversations that she had outside of the dates themselves.

The audience were then invited to pose questions and start a discussion.

I felt that, given that the content of the performance was so rich with a wide range of relevant issues and problems, it was a shame that she would not perform it in a gallery. 

When asked why, she highlighted that her previous experience has lead her to believe that an audience in a gallery would not be likely to enter into a discussion about a performance that they had just witnessed. She also spoke about her need to take care of herself as a performer, and the fact that doing the same performance in a gallery would expose her in a way that she avoided when doing it in the Lecture Theatre in an institution where she was in company with people that she knew and a city that she called home. This has left me thinking about my current experience as a host at Bobby Baker's Great and Tiny War installation. In my experience with this installation, despite the difficult issues within the work, in the kitchen at the end of the tour, visitors are most often happy to enter into deep discussions with strangers over a cup of tea and a biscuit. 

Thursday, 8 November 2018

"Pull Yourself Together"

nb. An appropriate instruction to be given to automatic closing curtains, 

but not to be used to support someone having a hard time!

New artists and mental health resource: Bobby Baker on making art that explores traumatic experiences

In a new a-n Resources profile to coincide with Bobby Baker’s 14–18 NOW commission ‘Great & Tiny War’ – the run for which has just been extended – Lydia Ashman talks to the artist about her experiences of the mental health system and the need to address ‘transgenerational trauma’.

Alastair Cummings and Peek Films, Still from 'Great & Tiny War' trailer, 2018.

The house is populated with multimedia artworks which represent different eras of the war. These include a display of 4,701 miniature meals, crafted from peppermint cream, and an armoury of baked weapons. Visitors, who are greeted by a host and guided around the show in small groups, are accompanied by an audio recording voiced by Bobby Baker. Following the tour, which takes 40-50 minutes, visitors can reflect on the exhibition over a cup of tea in the kitchen.
Mitchell adds: “‘Great & Tiny War’ has had an extraordinary reception, from teens to older people, from the local neighbours to those travelling to Newcastle from all over the UK. And the conversations in the kitchen, inspired by the ideas raised in the work, have been as wide ranging as the people visiting.”
Baker’s installation spotlights the frequently unsung contribution that women made during the war in the form of domestic labour and also highlights the wide-reaching and often hidden repercussions of conflict and trauma on mental health.
Speaking to Lydia Ashman in the new a-n Resources profile, Baker explains that both mental health and domestic life have been recurring themes in her work since the early 1970s, work that often subverts everyday experiences and uses humour as a tool to connect with people.
She also discusses the frustration she feels as an “older woman artist” and how, bar a very few small exceptions, she has only ever been given opportunities by women. At 67, she says she feels “more emboldened to speak out because I discover that there are many women who feel like me”.
“Having periods of bad mental health is part of the human condition and something that people can survive,” she says. “Being an artist is how I processed some terrible experiences, but I’ve emerged, the happiest I’ve ever been. Art saved my life.”
‘Great & Tiny War’ continues in Newcastle upon Tyne until 28 November 2018.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

End of an era for Lyres of Lemniscate

Last night's Drone Ensemble gathering became a bit of a Lyres of Lemniscate debrief.

Unfortunately we do not have enough storage space to keep all the instruments, and so we had to dismantle the two lyres that were created specially for our Lyres of Lemniscate exhibition at Workplace Foundation. This action inevitably marked an end to the Lyres of Lemniscate 'project', which in turn lead to some discussions about future Drone Ensemble projects.

We have decided that, after the past few months of intense Drone Ensemble activity, we are going to have a bit of a break for a little while. But fear not! This is not the end of Drone Ensemble. We are going to give each other a little more time to focus on some of our individual projects. Also, rather than rushing into planning another gig with little time, we want to spend some time simply practicing and becoming more familiar with playing some of the instruments. This experimentation and rehearsal time is vital, and should lead to us developing some exciting new material for us to perform to an audience.

We have some tentative plans for performances next year, and so do keep your eyes peeled for these to be announced.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Spoken Word and Performance workshop with a Shaddock surprise!

Yesterday spent another amazingly inspirational, productive and fun day facilitating an incredibly talented group of Newcastle University Fine Art students on a Spoken Word and Performance workshop.

The students range from 1st - 4th year undergraduates, and are really supportive of each other and engaged in what everyone is doing. Over the course of the day we thoroughly examined everyone's text and thought of numerous possibilities of presenting and delivering the work. The progress made has been significant.

Next Friday is the final session and I look forward to experiencing how their work has further developed between now and then.

I regard my role as a facilitator and am keen to eliminate any hierarchy between them and me. We all learn together and share experience and ideas. I find this fosters a really productive and experimental environment where people are happy to contribute.The students seem to enjoy it too.

At one point in the workshop I mentioned a work that I made involving a shaddock (a fruit).

(When I was a child my Grandad told me that our surname, Shaddock, is a fruit. Years later when I was living in Glasgow, I decided to go on a 'quest to find a shaddock'. I went to my closest greengrocer and asked for a shaddock, only to find they had never heard of one! I asked them to suggest where they thought I would be able to source one, and I followed their instructions and asked there. This process continued until I eventually located a shaddock. The shaddock was discovered by Captain Shaddock who traveled to the Carribean, and brought the fruit back to the UK where he named it. 

Shortly after my discovery, I was involved in a group exhibition, so my contribution was shaddock canapes and shaddock cocktails. 

I later took the shaddock to the Barras market, a traditional market renowned for bartering, in the East End of Glasgow. I had a shaddock stall whereby I offered shaddock produce along with a story about the shaddock in return for a story. Initially people were suspicious of me handing out free produce, but as word spread around the market about what I was doing, this quickly turned into curiosity and I had lots of people really eager to share their stories with me. It was a super way to be educated into the local dialect!)

See some documentation of this on my website

After lunch the students surprised me as they had been to a local greengrocer and bought a shaddock for us to share! It made a delicious afternoon snack.

Great work today folks!

Friday, 2 November 2018

Spoken word and performance workshop at Newcastle University

Over the past couple of days I have been facilitating a Spoken Word and Performance workshop with students at Newcastle University who have an interest in transforming written text based work into spoken word performance. The workshop will continue next Friday and will result in a small group exhibition of work made by the students during the 3-day workshop. 

I developed the workshop having returned from the Spoken Word Residency at Banff Centre for the Arts, Canada last year, and use the workshop as an opportunity to share some of the techniques, skills and tips learned while on the residency.

Following the success of the workshop last year and the demand from students, Newcastle University invited me back to work with a different group of students.

During the session yesterday I showed the group some examples of artists that use spoken word / text / performance. As I was compiling the list to share with them I thought it would be useful to share it more widely, so here are the links to some works that I mentioned. Please be aware that this list is only mean to be a taster and in no way does it cover all artists working in these ways. It is simply a starting point!

ZENSHIP - Mundo Gumbo - Tanya Evanson

This is an example of how a live band can be used in spoken word performance.

Afua Cooper at VERSEfest

This demonstrates that a convincing performance can be given even if the performer is using written notes.

Martin Creed - Words and Music

This is an example of the combination of words, music, visuals (on the screen behind) and how the means of delivery can echo the content of the work.

Blonk performs Ursonate with real-time typography

This is an example of how subtitles can add to a work.

Samuel Beckett - Not I

This is an example of how spoken word can exist in a video and how cropping of an image alters the reading of the work.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Front Row investigates how winter affects the mental health of creatives

Following the turning back of the clocks, Monday's edition of Front Row on BBC Radio 4 investigated the affect the darkening days has on writers, particularly those with mental health issues. 

Poet Helen Mort and novelist Matt Haig examined how the character of their work, their productivity and their routine changes during the winter months.