Friday, 3 June 2016

A restorative

Here's the talk I gave on May 13th at Residence's event: I'm Still Standing - How to Keep Surviving As an Artist...

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Some Background:

  • My collaborative practice is about 20 years old 
  • My solo practice is about 14 years old 
  • This talk was originally given as part of Side Burns at Buzzcut in Govan in Glasgow on Weds 6th April 2016 organised by Phoebe Patey-Ferguson with the generous support of Stephen Greer and Deirdre Heddon of The University of Glasgow. The question asked there was ‘How Can an Event Strengthen a Community’ so my talk refers to that location of Govan a fair bit. But where that happens I’ve since briefly linked it to Bristol too. The section I was speaking in that day was right at the end and called ‘Tipping into Precarity’.
  • Residence were speaking at that event and it was there that we discovered that there were lots of resonances between what we were each talking about (which is why I’m here today in Bristol).

A restorative 

(something that restores health, strength, or well-being, especially a medicine or drink)

I’ve bought a backdrop with me, to share with you, of a picture of an old sailing boat on a large canvas.  It was hand-painted to order, somewhere overseas, and originally bought several years ago (over the internet) for the final re-working of my show Rat Rose Bird (I did quite a few re-workings of that show)…

It’s a bit kitsch.

In the end it never got used, because, in classic last-minute ‘making’ fashion it didn't arrive until after the performance had taken place.  Far from ideal. And in the end if I’m honest the piece didn’t really miss it (already stuffed full of far too many objects). 

The intention for using it in the first place was to draw attention to many things sea related, not least Colonialism and Empire - something I was trying to work out my own personal relationship to… I’m of mixed heritage Indian/English, and its a relationship that feels complicated.

But anyway, it didn’t arrive…

And so, since then it’s been rolled up in a suitcase, hidden away from view, stored in a forgotten corner of my studio in Deptford. A gentle but constant reminder of…

mis-spent cash. 
an opportunity missed.
artistic folly. 
waste.

and also (just off to the side)

unknown hands 
hard at work
in far off places
unseen.

Until now. 

Because I’d like to engage in what I’m going to describe as a restorative act, an attempt to shake off some of the backdrop’s past associations. By surrounding it with you.

We’ll unfurl it together. Maybe even admire it a little, because it’s actually weirdly magnificent I think. Also, no-one’s really seen it before, apart from at Buzzcut, which doesn’t feel right. 

Shall we do it now? 

Twitter pic by @search_party


So, now there’s a massive boat in the room. Also something liquid (which I’ll explain properly later) and some cups (also found in my studio btw).

This feels apt. 

Govan (where we were that day when I originally gave this talk) was once the centre of the Clydeside shipbuilding industry…and the building we were sat within (The Pierce Institute) was named after William Pearce - manager (amongst other things) of Fairfield’s Yard - a yard that in the 1870’s would eventually become the biggest in the world.

Of course, Bristol too (as I’m sure you will all no doubt know in much more detail than me) also has a strong history of boat building. Some quick research I did a couple of days ago, drew my attention to Hillhouse Shipbuilders (later known as Charles Hill and Sons) based initially in a dry docks near Hotwells and later also Albion Yard. That iteration of the company existed from 1845-1977. Also, William Paterson and Sons, established by a scotsman who after making his way to London to work as shipwright in Rotherhithe (where I currently live) had a short but v successful yard or two here in Bristol at East Wapping -  he most famously became involved in the construction of Brunel’s boat The Great Western (1837). 

Archives and online databases hold extraordinary detail about all of the boats built in both Govan and Bristol and I’ve got lost in them several times, attracted to sections on ‘Clyde-built Ghost-ships’ such as the SS Brier Rose and the SV Knight of St Michael.

Boats ‘Struck Down by Typhoons’ such as the SS Uganda (quite recently in the 1980’s)

and ‘Ships Declared a Total Loss’  - Orian, Gallant, Lurcher, Juno.

I also liked the sound of two ‘steam packets’, called Lady Charlotte and the Mountaineer and the East India-Man Fame.

It’s their names that have been drawing me in I’ve realised, beguiling in their own way, suggestive of characters, stories and feelings, but also, acting as a kind of screen against me thinking really deeply about more ‘unseen hands at work’ - those that did the building of the ships, manoeuvring in water and at times desperate swimming as their vessels crashed against rocks or capsized in bad weather. Also the actual purpose that some of the boats were in reality built for…We’re not just talking paddle steamers here, but ships built to carry loot, to defend and shoot. There’s actually nothing romantic about that. And that’s important to remember… Hilhouse for example built on the back of money made through the Slave Trade and ‘privateering’ (essentially legalised piracy) and Paterson and Sons made several gunboats incl. HMS Ernest and HMS Escort 

Nowadays most of those shipyards no longer exist, however Fairfield’s in Govan (according to what I could find out online) is still in use, and most interestingly of all (to me at least) now part of BAE Systems Maritime - Naval Ships a subsidiary company of BAE Systems PLC

BAE Systems PLCBritish multinational defence, security and aerospace company -providers of weaponry and warships to the Ministry of Defence… 

I’m sure that none of this is news to you, but, suddenly we’re in deep.

Just the tiniest bit more research reveals the names of 6 Type-45 Destroyer ships built in BAE Govan (the programme office of which I found in a random document online was  also in Filton, near Bristol - now what a programme office does I have no idea but it’s interesting to note that there is a link). Anyway, the names of these 6 Type-45 Destroyer ships I discovered were - Daring, Defender, Dragon, Diamond. Dauntless and Duncan.

Duncan, like before, seems funny as a name for a Destroyer, until I read that the ship is equipped with something called the Sea Viper Missile System.

I start to look this up on the internet, but catch myself feeling uneasy. How did I get here? Typing Sea Viper Missile System into a search engine… What am I trying to understand? Ship-building has always been inextricably linked to war and trade no use pretending otherwise… 

Time to listen to that instinct and tack-off in another direction for a while. Purposefully even, towards a couple of new threads of thought also woven into the fabric of this image we’re gathered around, equally important to share with you, also in need of some unfolding.

Like the fact that rediscovering the backdrop wasn’t really by chance. 

Unfortunately, the building my studio is in, has rather stereotypically (especially for London!), been bought by a ‘developer’ - and so I’ve been going through a process of clearing it out. Discarding what I don’t need, preparing to move on. Attempting to downsize as next time I’ll be sharing a space with long-time collaborator Marty Langthorne - my own space (of course) being impossible to afford.

This process of sorting through what’s in my studio has felt particularly odd. Not only because soon my battered leaky workspace will be the kitchen of someone far more well-off than me, but because I’ve been forced to look face-on at the detritus and stuff collected around my art-work and think about what it all means (what pieces might I never show again? What exactly have I been spending my money on all these years? Why did I think I needed all of those glass ampoules, flower presses, broken hearts, umbrellas, types of glitter, nurses outfits, watches, fake hedging, that amp, those spices, knick knacks, tiny toys, precious stones - I could go on…). Whilst others have been out buying houses, I’ve been out buying slide-show viewers.

This oddness of looking through the traces of my own labour, has been exacerbated by a parallel clearing out I’ve been engaged in - this time of a domestic space - as I’ve unexpectedly over the last few weeks had to help my mum move my grandmother (her mum) into full-time care. 

We’ve had to empty her rented flat, talk to lawyers, go through her private papers, pack-up keepsakes, re-cycle, donate and watch once-prized furniture get broken up with an axe. It’s felt brutal, incredibly moving and exhausting in equal measure. Happily, Gran is now settled in her new space - a care home she herself was once the cook for when in her early 20’s, (offering some kind of comforting circularity about the vulnerability of her situation). 

Now 95, there’s a palpable sense that hers is a life at a very particular tipping point. She’s been alive for nearly a century. What an incredible robust lucky thing given all that’s happening in the world. Yet, so full of fragility despite her stately age. In a way it feels as though she’s already disappeared, just out of sight. Become submerged. Ghost-ship like. So dependent on the care of others.

I mention this because spending time with her and mum over the last few weeks has seeped into my bones, into my fingers and affected how I’ve sifted through my own studio ‘stuff’. Archiving fliers and reviews - evidence of a set of extraordinary experiences, and the contributions to practice I’ve played a small part in over the years - has felt anything but. Instead, alerted by gran’s slow drift elsewhere, I’ve followed her beneath the surface and found illuminated more starkly than ever all of those troublesome ‘conditions of artistic making’ just hanging there brazenly, out in the open - the lack of thought about longevity, of how to age well in relation to artistic output, the airplane and car fumes (so many vapour trails, so much pollution), the long hours and little money, the endless application-writing (how many hours have we all spent on those? What could we all have been doing with that time?), the lack of any real security - and any money that was floating about, now embodied in odd ephemera - in my studio at least - such as this backdrop.

Yes, these are precarious times, Yes I’m at an edge teetering… 

But it is relative… 

Right now compared to many artists I’m in a position of some privilege. I have a body of work behind me, I have some funding that will last me until Autumn.
I’m currently obsessed by Elements and elementals. Alert to the connectivity between everything on a material, economic and an environmental level.
And still full of the poetics of having spent the last two years staring into hedges with others… (how lucky is that?)

Probably I just need to get over myself.

And of course, these are the very moments that art can be best for… These fragile moments. To help process a tipped world that consistently favours a few, a way to respond to and cope with all of the good (& bad) decisions that get made daily. To make space for those people just out of sight (like gran), and ideas, and to reflect on and remember those histories that have been disappeared from view - sometimes by accident, sometimes purposefully. 

Unseen but still reverberating.
Like a colonial past. Not over and done with as yet…
Held in stories of boats. Waiting to be uncovered.

I’ve always been interested in such themes - in invisibility and race - my own mixed heritage apparently missing in plain sight. Also in care… I’ve long explored this theme through context and content, working in hospitals, care homes, schools, libraries, anywhere and everywhere.

My own current (very inexpert) interest in boats and ship-building stems from my own project Rambles with Nature a body of work begun in 2013 exploring the hedgerow. The project is now mostly complete, apart from one unruly ramble which refuses to end - a collaboration with artist Sue Palmer (who is speaking later)…

Early on in our research Sue and I stumbled across the story of a ‘Great Hedge’ planted across india to tax salt as part of the East India Company’s transnational business, it sounds an unlikely story, but is in fact true.

Two years on we’re still deep inside our research about the East India Company - the pre-cursor of the modern multi-national with a trading empire that once encircled the globe. Made possible by boats of course (and a lot of brutality). Our trail has now led Sue and I towards investigating 3 East India-men (ships) ship-wrecked of off the Dorset Coast - and recently we attended a conference on the Maritime Archaeology of the Company in Bournemouth.

That day we heard lots of surprising stories about various ship-types connecting coasts, countries and ports, about dives, treasure and how to identify cannons recovered from a sea-bed, but nowhere, not once was there even a hint of talking about what those cannons were made for, about the Indians strapped to such canons and literally shot through the body as ‘a lesson’ to others (a form of execution called ‘blowing from a gun’ most famously employed by the British Empire during the Sepoy Mutiny). Nor even the social and political impact of the Company itself. 

Events unseen but still reverberating.

It was so surprising…

And just like that I’m right back on course. I can feel the fire in my belly again. Myself turning away from the trickier parts of being an artist. Happy to be involved… Happy to be looking in the directions many of us don’t have time to. Grateful to be able to drop in and out of disciplines, be a cross pollinator of ideas.

There is a very real possibility that in a decade or so I might have become literally worn out   by practice - something else I can feel in my bones (from all the carrying of odd items on trains, the unbelievably boring task of packing up and moving my studio, the stomach churning risk of it all), but for now, sat around this backdrop, I’m still very much on board.

I’m reminded of a Kathy Acker quote that I’ve carried around in my notebooks for years. I’ve shared it before in public and it seems appropriate to share here. It’s from her essay Algeria published in the Semiotexte reader Hatred of Capitalism. Introducing the essay she writes…

“A series of invocations, because nothing else works”

So yes. I’m committed to keep on making despite the precarity, but also because of it. To address it. So there’s room to consider a life in its middle age, a life at its end.
So there’s the space to think about ships and all that they carry with them, and examine disappearances from view, spend time in rooms like this… because as Acker identifies sometimes ‘nothing else works’.

Which feels like an appropriate place stop and take in a second restorative…

At buzzcut I chose a Pale Ale (originally brewed by the East India Company for the people crewing their ships), this time I’ve got a Rose Water cordial bought from the re-invented  East India Company as it felt a bit early for beer… The new East India Company (owned by an Indian), knows about the darker parts of its history, but trades on the recognition of its name: 

“Deep within the world’s sub-consciousness is an awareness of The East India Company, powerful pictures of who we are. You’ll feel something for us; you’ll have a connection to us, even if you don’t know us. The East India Company made a wide range of elusive, exclusive and exotic ingredients familiar, affordable and available to the world; ingredients which today form part of our daily and national cuisines.” East India Company website, The Company Today.

Rose water also reminds of my other (Indian) gran Jaya Lakshmi, because she used to take me to the bottom of her garden to pick rose petals, which we’d then carry back to the kitchen to wash and eat…

Would anyone like to join me? 

We’re drinking to:

the unfurling of images in public with others… 
our ever-changing studio spaces (may they keep us warm and our ideas sharp), 
To art and to us (and the day ahead).


The unfolded backdrop


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@sheilaghelani

https://www.facebook.com/sheilaghelani.co.uk/

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