Learning by Doing (and undoing)

To demonstrate is to make evident, to describe, to display publicly and to manifest an idea. Demo Week  (21st-25th May 2018) was a deadline for all testbeds artists to have something to show, a work in progress, a reveal.

Day One

The first session set the bar high. Led by Ozzle Box, collaborating with David Murphy and a group of musicians from Sinfonia Verdi, it was an introduction to beat-boxing, its history and importance as a creative language. Oz made the session fun and inter-active. It ended with a spectacular performance by the classical musicians and Oz freestyle beat-boxing together. He managed to keep a room full of approximately thirty 7-10 years old (along with us adults) engaged throughout, and they left buzzing and inspired.

Next up was David Murphy working together with the musicians (https://www.sinfoniaverdi.org/). David ran a workshop which uses conducting as a metaphor for how to understand management structures better. The workshop combines philosophical ideas around methods of leadership, and communication, with the fun, if a little intimidating act of conducting an audience. Everyone was given a plastic tube instrument, which they could hit against their hand to play a note (or any other part of their body- don't ask me where we tried!). Participants took turns to try and conduct the slightly rowdy audience/orchestra to follow their instructions. I volunteered myself twice, and to my surprise found it quite an enjoyable experience. It is possible I did not take the process seriously enough, partly because I was excited by my new found power, and amused at how quickly i lost control, watching the room dissent into chaos moments after I started to wave the stick. The principle of the idea is good, but  judging on my ability to conduct, I probably won't become a CEO any day soon.

Day Two

Gayle Storey kicked off Tuesday with a presentation about her project the Bio-Orchestra. The exhibition consisted of a projection documenting the progress of the project, a stack of large glass slides with markings of the plant's movements, a number of sketchpads which she took to all the locations she visited, and some strange sculptural objects. The gallery space had the feel of a scientific laboratory to it, there were many specimens on show, and it seemed all the objects on display were part of a jigsaw puzzle which will feed into a final work. Gayle spoke about her experiences of collecting the data relating to how a plant moves over the course of a single day, in different locations. These movements are then rendered into abstract lines, which she translated with the help of the scientists into 3D shapes. There was a series of plaster moulds on a bench, to produce these shapes so that a blind musician she is collaborating with, can read the forms and use them to create a new piece of music. I really like the idea of taking a structure or a pattern, and translating it into an entirely different medium, and then translating it again. This process of change, and re-interpretation allows for metamorphosis to occur.

Gayle's sketchpads in which she recorded all the random things she observed in various locations across Luton through the course of a single day were fascinating. Although not the main aim of her project, it is these sort of accidental 'side-creations' which sometimes develop into new ideas. 

Adam and Gillian held a round table workshop, in which they gave an introduction to both their practices. I particularly enjoyed the story about their project Fortnight (see http://proto-type.org/projects/past/fortnight/ ) which used a postal system to create a new community inside a place. The artists invited a group of participants to unusual spots all over the town, to gather, connect and experience their hometown in new an experimental ways. I admire Gillian and Adams collaborative relationship, and ability to articulate themselves so well. I can clearly see how their thinking, process and end performances link and hold onto the questions they are exploring.

Gillian and Adam prepared an exercise where everybody at the table had to talk about an early career job, and demonstrate the physical actions of doing the job. This led to much laughter and undoing, as we shared the more obscure life pathways. There is something thrilling about confessing your more oddball past, I went for the 'safe' option of my experience making lampshades as a teenager for my family's business. This openness and honesty made us feel more connected as a group. Gillian then went on to talk about their new projects at Uni of Beds observing the actions of the scientific researchers. They plan to turn this into a performance. The idea of making public the actions of people who are normally covered head to toe in protective gear, hidden behind closed doors is an interesting one. I look forward to seeing the results.

Following this I attended a workshop led by Sophie Greswell, which was about trying to find an abstract face to represent the collective feelings we have for Luton. The process involved discussions around ideas of a sense of place, and identifying the emotions that we relate to the town. We then had to choose from a series of subtly different and simplified face shapes, which were then projected on top of each other to produce a amalgamated image of a face. Sophie showed us her sonic painting (that when touched emits sounds, the multiple voices of people she had interviewed). The concept of speaking paintings is a curious idea.

Day Three

Wednesday began with Jamie Newell presenting the film 'Make Art Not War' made using drones. Unfortunately I was running late so I missed the first part of the film, but what I did see was excellent (see full film here; https://youtu.be/iTjiXOgEkao). The film edits old military footage of drones, together with recent shoots Jamie has captured in Luton and beyond. My interpretation of the film's message is that it is questioning the ethics of how we use technology, asking whether technology has evolved beyond our control? Is society aware of how drone devices give god-like power to governments and individuals to act upon others without ever having to face them, or witness these acts first hand? The strong messages contrasted with the serene footage of roof tops, coastlines and woodlands. I respect the fact that Jamie is tackling political and difficult subjects. It is all too easy for artists to stay in their comfort zone, focusing on pure aesthetics or safe subject matter. It take courage to challenge audiences to consider empathy, think about other people and world politics. The screening was followed by an interesting discussion about how we as a group perceive drone technology, and the ways in which this project could develop further.

The next session was a consultation about branding by Four Faced Films, a team of female film makers based in Luton. The conversation focused on their logo, and the new options. We got to see their first short which was an adaptation of a story about a young muslim man trying to pursue a career as a contemporary dancer. The screening provoked an interesting debate about social stereotyping, and how important personal narratives are in representing communities.  

The final session of the day was led by Girls Du Filme. Shakira and Shelana are setting up a new organisation based in Luton to promote BAME women artists of a range of artistic professions. Their presentation was exciting from beginning to end; both super slick and political. It is worth mentioning that just before they came on stage Oz, Jamie and Deborah kept the people waiting entertained with an improvised collaborative performance. It is these moments which makes being on Testbeds so extraordinary.

Girls Du Filme presented their logo and main aims, backed with a substantial justification based on the statistics about how many women, and in particular BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) are represented in media and film at the moment. The figures are shocking.

The first short film, a mini introduction to Girls Du Filme, evoke a feminist punk attitude. Making clear that this company is about strong women being creative and unapologeticaly asserting their right to a platform. 

The second short film was mind-blowingly good. It told the story of a young black girl (approx 10 yrs old) coming to terms with her afro hair and how to wear it. Shakira explained there is a terminology for classifying the curliness of afro hair, 4C being one of the more tightly curly types. I am aware of the debate around black hair and the prejudices black women face in terms of how they style their hair, and whether they choose to straighten it and bleach it or not.

Growing up and becoming aware of your appearance is difficult for all genders, sexualities and ethnicities, but when you are also dealing with racism and negative perceptions surrounding your own natural hair/skin type, this adds another layer of prejudice and othering. Recently I read the book by Reni Eddo-Lodge entitled 'Why I'm no longer talking to white people about race', and I strongly recommend reading it. It is a real wake-up call to read the perspective of someone who has spent their whole life being oppressed and discriminated against because of the colour of their skin. I realise that I as a white person have benefited from white privilege, and I need to acknowledge this that in what I do and say on a daily basis. As Reni writes; 'Whiteness positions itself as the norm'.....'its is a problem, because we consider humanity through the prism of whiteness'

Day Four

Moriam Grillo's clay workshop was the first session I attended, and I was very happy to be given this material to play with. The aim of the workshop was to investigate emotions and how creativity can influence mental well-being. At the beginning of the session we were asked how we felt, and then again at the very end of the workshop. We sat around a large table on which there was a huge clay mound, which people had shaped and added their bits too. We were invited to think about a memory, perhaps from childhood and try to represent it with the clay. I chose swimming in the sea, which is a very joyful memory from when I was about 11 years old on Sheppey. The Thames estuary is cold and sometimes quite rough, the waves can be very big, all this and the salty smells are embedded in my memory of my childhood. Once we had each made a form to represent our memory, we sat together and listened to each other share our stories.

Nicola Moody held a transformative weaving workshop, in which participants made a giant weave using the entire room as a loom. Again we were thinking about a particular memory and working with that private thought, to influence the stitches that we made. This workshop felt relaxed and friendly, we chatted about a range of topics as we stitched. I find the act of stitching meditative and calming. It has strong symbolic value in terms of self-healing, which is what I think Nicola is interested in.

Mary Hearne ran a collaging workshop in the main theatre, which she had transformed with streamers everywhere and political textiles artworks. Mary talked about her experience of being a carer for her father who had recently suffered a stroke, and her report was moving to hear. She wanted us to use the various materials and magazine images to create a collage which expressed our own identity. This activity was hugely rewarding, I love collage! I don't do it enough, and when you know the amazing work of Hannah Hoch and other DADA artists, I am missing a trick not using this method of image making more often. I like it's low-fi punk aesthetic, its very quick and easy to do, allowing for accidental creativity, which is always a good thing.

I am disappointed i missed both Caroline and Andy's presentations, this was due to my other work commitments. I am sure they were both brilliant.

I did however get to see Deborah Knight's performance using projection and sound. I was impressed by her philosophical thinking. Deborah spoke so eloquently about science,  psychology and states of mind. Her poetry is based on a huge amount of research and reflection. She is experimenting with using projections alongside the spoken word to influence the audience experience. I volunteered as part of a team of five people to perform from a text we had only just been given. We spoke in chorus and sometimes alone, and we wore masks to hide our identity. Having never read poetry in front of an audience before, I found it exhilarating to do so.

I will blog about my own demo week presentation separately, but I wanted to record the wonderful experience of seeing everyone elses' work for the first time. It was great fun to spend a whole week together as a group, and it has given me the motivation to try and make my project the best it possibly can be, to meet the high standard of the other testbed artists' work.

nicole mollett