A Balancing Act – at Mottisfont (NT) .

Pauline Thomas, who died in January 2016, and who made this work with me, would be thrilled to know that Romsey Film Festival and Southampton Film Week have invited ‘Elemental Dialogues – Water’ to be part of their programmes this year at Mottisfont, the fabulous National Trust house, garden and gallery, just near Romsey. .

Pauline and I based our creation of this short film around the importance of the balance of water in both the body and the world. As Pauline’s body struggled to cope with bone cancer her kidneys struggled to maintain the correct balance of water in her body, just as the world struggles with the effects of water levels due to climate change.

We filmed in and around my home in Hampshire, projecting into the clear chalk streams and filming at the dead of night. This film is not constructed digitally, you have to imagine Pauline and I hanging over the bank at Ovington with projectors and cameras – and my husband Paul holding onto our belts and tripods to prevent us falling in… and me saying ‘Pauline, you should be going home’ and Pauline saying, ‘couldn’t we just try one more over here…’ She said one day as she climbed exhaustedly into her car (it was nearly the last day we met to work together) she said, ‘do you know, I felt normal today…’

When asking poets and sound artists to interpret the film we simply told them,  that it was called ‘Water’, and then left them to create their own interpretation through their own discipline. Each interpretation, each piece of music, sound art, poem, piece of writing transforms the meaning of the film.

Because there is no one truth, only competing stories.


24th Sept to 1st Oct 2016 – Elemental Dialogues – Water is the fourth in the series and the last to be made in collaboration with Pauline who died in January this year. Our Water film combined with interpretations will be installed in the Cellarium at Mottisfont. Open daily.

6th November 2016 – 2.30-4.30 in the Cellarium. A live performance of poems and music improvised to interpret the film ‘Water’. Please come and celebrate.

Writing and Sound: Contributions from Tara Roman (Stuckey), Brian Evans-Jones, Briony Bennett, Camilla Nelson, Claire Lock (Hillier), Gareth Evans, Joan McGavin,  Katrina Naomi, Norma Daykin and Knud Stuwe, Owen Lowery,  Penelope Shuttle, Sebastiane Hegarty, SJ Fowler, Steven Kemper and Tami Haaland.




‘Air’ projected in James Turrell’s Skyspace at Tremenheere

I’ve been thinking about Pauline while installing the ‘Air’ film in James Turrell’s Skyspace in Tremenheere Sculpture Garden near Penzance in Cornwall. Our collaboration has been so rich and all-encompassing, it was hard for me to install and to experience this installation without her. And yet she brought so much to the experience even through her absence.

Because her work has always been concerned with mortality and because the film was inspired by our reading of Rilke’s ‘Invisible Breath’ and because now, with her own health failing, my response has such a personal deeper resonance in relation to mortality… because of all this she was, and is,  present through her work, her life and her breath.

So I will write this to, and for, Pauline.

B wire smoke 2

Since I spoke with Neil Armstrong a couple of weeks ago and he offered us this opportunity to install our film in the Turrell Skyspace ‘Tewlwolow Kernow’, I came to realise how important it was to create an installation which did not deny the elemental nature of the sculpture itself. Projecting onto the side as if it were any old wall or screen simply would not do.

Tremenheere Skyspace

I think I mentioned that Robb Higgs recommended a friend of his who plays saxophone to create an interpretation to play live with the film? His name is Andy Marston and he invited Matt Thompson a trombonist to join him – and I had no idea if that was going to work either. But there’s been something about the Elemental Dialogues project hasn’t there? Right from the start. I’ve taken risks by working with so many different contributing artists, and I feel it has stretched us all and given us so much. There has been such a generosity of spirit. But it’s always scary.

So there I was in a panic, when thoughts from Bachelard’s ‘Air and Dreams’ which you introduced me to, came to mind, do you remember us trying to imagine how we could represent air, the invisible element, as a silent film? It seemed so relevant to consider again his idea of air (if I have understood him right) being within the reverie of ‘what is’ between me here and the distant tree over there… and then I remembered me reading the Death of a Moth to you. Virginia Wolf looking out of her window at the space between her life at the table writing, the dying moth fluttering against the window pane and the plough working the field on the distant hill. Here in the Skyspace the air resounds between me and infinity, captured in the ellipse which forms the hole in the top of the space.

Turrell has designed lighting which changes as twilight falls and the sky moves from the visible, to indigo and on to become a solid black velvet void, quite reminiscent of the early works of Anish Kapoor we saw at the Hayward years ago, but the lights are not on now. And it is night.

What would happen when our film was projected onto the wall? When music made by humans disturbed the sounds of nature? How could our film possibly add to what Turrell had already created? Or worse still, how could the film not detract from the Skyspace?

So, it’s Wednesday 18th November, 7pm. Pitch black.

Imagine yourself walking up the hill, through the wild, wooded garden with candles in jam jars lighting the way (those that hadn’t been blown out) and down an unlit tunnel into a vast white egg shaped space. Sit yourself down on the ledge which runs all round the edge. Lean back and look up, through an elliptical hole in the roof, into the void. An oval beam of moonlight falls on the wall. An owl is hooting. (Actually there were some magpies too, making an awful noise, though I’m not sure I’m supposed to say that about nature.)

We had decided to project the ‘Air’ film onto the curving wall at the end of the ellipse. The musicians stood, silhouetted below, looking up to follow the film and be aware of the sky. As the film began with the stars floating down and swirling around on the wall, astonishingly the real stars came out, (having been hiding all day behind a furious wind and lashing rain) glittering against the indigo sky.

What was happening was magical because the film interacted with the space and the space interacted with the film, changing my perception of the white walls, the void and the sky, whilst combining with the haunting breathy (and sometimes soaring) notes of Trombone and Sax. The flickering dancing momentum of the film, swaying from dark to light and back again, worked with the void to create a new site specific interpretation of both the film and of the Skyspace itself.

The sky at moments a solid velvet black and invisible as the film lit up the space below, then, as the film darkened to murmuring scratchy dewdrops in the black web, the sparkling sky returned beyond. Lost in this moment, when I thought it could not get any better, a circular wisp of transparent cloud passed low, just over the hole in the Skyspace, whilst the film went on dancing below.

At last I could stop and breathe. I leant back, absorbing the elemental sense of air in the space and in my body, feeling the presence of you Pauline and the terrible sadness of your being so very ill. Whilst all the while, the final words of your favourite interpretation of the film by Briony Bennet – played over in my mind:

 ‘a wisp remains, /  but you can only hold it  / for so long. ‘

A Wisp of You

Dust refracts, 

slows dark turns. 

There— the gap, 

between smoke-climb 

and the curtain. 

There is no chaos,

only roads travelled appear,

through electric windows.


Your code floats,

branches rise,

separating one light 

from the next.

Memories of the sea

carve footprints 

on the air. 


Cobwebs draft light pictures,

answer the gentle 

dispersion of stars.

Your particles delay, 

become fixed

from passing time.


Inevitable waves erode 

the glue-drop silk,

dilating your tracks out 

into the night.

Sometimes, to meet others,

dance parallel,

hollow unspoken curves,


for a moment,

that passes. 


A mirage,

no, reflection.

Waves ebb, 

but do not cease.

Breath is borrowed.

Rips primeval, 

before expiring across moments,

of abandon,

of repetition,

of occasional flourish. 


 You are tethered. 

A spectator,

watching false birds on wires.

A kite, 

reaching the limits 

of your view.

Tail slips, open palm,

a wisp remains,

but you can only hold it 

for so long. 


Jos said – a sky burial…

And I was thinking when that cloud passed over, of 21 grams…

So then,

we all went down to the restaurant and had delicious food and saw the other interpretations screened, with sound, in the café where Penny Florence also presented work about interpreting Mallarmé through digital poetry, so we had good conversations about interpretation with an intelligent and enthusiastic audience. Indeed it was an evening to remember (oh what a cliché – it was brilliant).

Neil and Jane who own the garden, and made it all happen, were so wonderful, we must think of a way to thank them properly. I will write.

Sadly there are no photos. There is no film, no record at all beyond these words. I was too tied up with both the technology of making it happen, and giving myself to the experience. I tell myself that it was not meant to be viewed through a lens (and I forgot to record the music even though I had a mic with me, sorry Andy and Matt). I admit there were inevitable technical hitches, but if you ignored them, it was an incredible experience. I would say that at moments it was sublime! (I’ve been angsting about all the technical stuff but Paul says that to achieve even a moment of ‘sublime’ is pretty good). When we come back next year with ‘Water’, it has the potential to be so much better, having learnt so much this time.









Two paths..

These are the curatorial notes I made to accompany the Drawing Breath exhibition at St John on Bethnal Green. It is still on until 16th May, so do get down to see it if you can.

 There are two pathways to think about this exhibition. I would like to say that they compete, much like the starting point of the project: ‘There is no one truth, only competing stories’. Except that these stories don’t compete against one another exactly. Depending on how you look at the works, you might find any number of stories, threading in and out of one another. Nonetheless, here are two paths to guide passage through Drawing Breath

A path of generosity: elemental dialogues and embodied interpretations

Anna Cady and I have been collaborating for over five years. We were brought together because of the ways that she practices forms of creative collaboration, particularly relating to bodies: the bodies of vulnerable people, the bodies of dancers, of refugees, of children. My research on embodiment and phenomenology in film and art brings me to think about how we experience our bodies in front of creative work, but also what creative practice does to and with our bodies. Elemental Dialogues, of which the film AIR, centrally installed here, forms the third part, is partly a story about ways of linking the interweaving stories of film, poetry, sound, composition, dance and drawing.

Installation booklets, including the essay on this blog

Installation booklets, including the essay on this blog

Some of the artists in this exhibition have sought to understand what it is to interpret ‘from the body’. Some have produced interpretations that stay close to the skilled and ingrained forms of bodily practice that are most familiar to them. One of our participants – Sara Maitland – found the whole process so befuddling that she wrote the gentlest and most thoughtful of refusals to us, writing, “I surrender!”

Anna and I have talked at length about the precarity of making a creative interpretation: how vulnerable a position it is for an artist to let go of a piece of work, and to give it freely to someone else for their interpretation. This is what has happened with AIR: the film was given generously to other artists, who have generously given back to produce the diverse work exhibited here.

The film itself is inspired by the concept of air as an element – in the old sense – as a fundamental component of life. Inspiration – a taking in of different elements – is also what Pauline and Anna’s film works have done, drawing on writing from Rainer Maria Rilke, Virginia Woolf, Lucy Boston, Gaston Bachelard and TS Eliot. However, in opposition to the conventions of film narrative, AIR does not begin with words – it begins with images and sensations. The stories, as Anna tells it, flow out from there.

Installation view of some of the AIR film-fragments

Installation view of some of the AIR film-fragments

The process of embodied interpretation is not about inspiration, however. Part of the thought-work of the project has been to come to terms with what embodied interpretation means, and how the instruction to produce an ‘interpretation’ differs from a response, or an inspiration. What we were seeking, as curators of this project, were not works inspired by – breathing in – the film AIR, but works that exhaled, articulated, an interpretation, through the body of the artist.

So many of these interpretations speak of breath: Tami Haaland’s short poem uncovers the paradox of breathing – how air knows, ‘sees’ our insides in a way that we never can. Briony Bennett’s poem speaks of the things that are given and taken away in a breath. Sebastiane Hegarty’s composition sits on the cusp of the audible, decomposing and recomposing the sounds of a match, struck and flaring. Jan Henrickse’s sound piece shifts echoes, reverberations and rhythms across glass-like textures that exceed the opening and closing moments of the film’s frames. Time is pliable in each interpretation: some stick closely to the time of the film, accompanying it through each fade and billow. Others follow these ebbs and flows with humorous curiosity – like a.rawlings and Sachiko Murakami’s sound poem. Gabriel Galvez’s butoh-inspired movements flex sensuously with his breath; more than this: the breath he takes in, his interior sense of his body’s air, interprets (organically, primally) the film AIR, and the sites in which it is projected: in this case, the softly illumined staircases, arches and galleries of St John.


Gabriel’s shadow dance with one of the AIR films, projected in the gallery of St John. I think the twilight makes Melanie’s drawings look like written scrolls

 The curation of these works had to compete with another layer of interpretation: the weighty, light-filled spaces of St John on Bethnal Green. Light is not a friend to moving image projection. Unlike the dark, companionable domestic spaces of Drawing Breath’s first exhibition at Green Knowe in Hemingford Grey, the heft and texture of church walls, pews, ceilings, staircases insist upon curation that works with, rather than against the early summer light in a church on a busy East London junction.

Church installation of one of the AIR films: central in front of the altar!

Church installation of one of the AIR films: central in front of the altar. The cruciform shape is hard to miss in this context.

A path of mortality… AIR

There is another pathway in this exhibition. A quieter, more hidden one, away from the witty bustle of a.rawlings and Sachiko Murakami’s sound poem, or Gabriel Galvez’s intimate dance movements and Melanie Rose’s tacit drawing. This is a pathway that requires delicacy and gentleness, and is as ephemeral, and as enduring, as the installation itself.

AIR is a collaborative film, co-created between Anna Cady and Pauline Thomas. Their work is mutual, so much so that neither Anna nor Pauline can see where one artist’s work begins and the other’s ends. In this sense, their creative stories are inextricably intertwined. But in a way, they are also quite separate. This exhibition is about breath, just as the previous exhibition at Hemingford Grey this March was too. In particular, it is about limited breath, liminal breath, dying breath. Pauline, whose touching work is gentle, ephemeral, has always been interested in the fleeting moments between life and death, light and dark. And Pauline is dying – or rather, as she puts it herself; she is living with terminal illness.

Pauline has graciously, generously given me permission to write about this. I’m grateful to her for letting me make public such an intimate and personal state of life. The reason I am doing so is because of this second pathway towards Drawing Breath, a pathway of mortality and intimacy. So many of the artists, poets, and composers involved in this project reflected on AIR from the position of breath. And for Anna, the film and the project are entirely about Pauline’s breath: her breathing, fragile, mortal body, but also her gentleness, her inspiration, her fascination for the smallest of gestures (a spider’s web glistening with water droplets, a flame struck endlessly inside a tiny matchbox).

Installation view of Anna and Pauline's films, playing via digital picture frames placed on music stands in the entrance to the church

Installation view of Anna and Pauline’s films, playing via digital picture frames placed on music stands in the entrance to the church

We did not share this information with the participants when they were working on their interpretations. This was both in order to respect Pauline’s privacy, but also because mortality is a life element that so thoroughly colours our experience, it might have prevented our artist participants from making work about the film from any other perspective.

Last year, while I was recovering from illness (such a vague word for so many things) I spent a great deal of time walking around cemeteries in South East London – for no other reason than their proximity to my home. I remember being touched by quite how colourful these graveyards are: filled with flower tributes and balloons, plastic vases and photographs. They always struck me as the most joyful places of the living, filled with memories and kindness. There is a flagstone as I enter Camberwell Old Cemetery that I think about often. About tracing a memory through darkness and light. On it is engraved:

“While the light remains I will remember, and in the darkness I shall not forget.”

Inevitably, there is something elegiac about Drawing Breath. But this is both about Pauline and not about her at one and the same time. It is also about breath as a moment on the precipice between living and not-living, as an invisible trace, as a moth trapped in the lamplight, as a temporary enchantment, as astral dust motes, as smoke unfurling between two towers that coruscate into the dark. As darkness on a bright May evening, as the life of a day lily.

Installation view of a moment from AIR, installed in the Belfry at St John

Installation view of a moment from AIR, installed in the Belfry at St John

All these are pathways through Drawing Breath. Now seek yours.

A Crystal In My Ear

Hello Anna. I will answer your questions, but I want to mention something else first, before I forget it (and perhaps before it goes away).

I am suffering from vertigo at the moment. The medical diagnosis is Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo: I think this means that there is nothing to be seriously worried about, that it has a sudden onset, and that it’s related to my movements or head positions. This sounds like a very long diagnosis for something I could have deduced myself! I also found out from the doctor that it can be triggered by a virus, and I do also wonder whether it has something to do with me trying out too many tumble turns in the swimming pool.

As anyone who has experienced vertigo will know, it can be quite debilitating to suddenly feel like you have lost your connection to gravity. Suddenly the world has shifted on its axis to an indeterminate point. It also feels like something is deeply wrong: I guess most of us are so fixed to our sense of up, down, left and right in the world, to the solidity of the ground under our feet, that any unexpected alterations to this sense of reality really do feel world-changing.

"Tidens naturlære" (Nature of time) 1903 by Poul la Cour, Ill. 40. The book is digitized at s:da:Tidens Naturlære

“Tidens naturlære” (Nature of time) 1903 by Poul la Cour, Ill. 40.
The book is digitized at s:da:Tidens Naturlære

After being recommended various exercises and head movements, I did a little more research (and am very grateful to you for your recommendations as a fellow vertigo sufferer!). From some of the videos online that I was watching, I understand that BPPV is caused by one of the particles in your inner ear becoming dislodged. As it moves around in the fluid of the inner ear, which usually tells you where your head and your body is in relation to the rest of the world (I have visions of an inner spirit-level), it starts sending strange signals to the brain about which way is up. Most of the exercises seem targeted at getting the crystalline particle – called an Otolith – to go back in its correct place, so it stops sending strange signals.

Pigfish Otolith  Species Name: Orthopristis chrysoptera Oldest Observed: 4 Years Reproduced using creative commons license from the FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in Florida: https://www.flickr.com/photos/myfwc/5425402603/

Pigfish Otolith
Species Name: Orthopristis chrysoptera
Oldest Observed: 4 Years
Reproduced using creative commons license from the FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in Florida: https://www.flickr.com/photos/myfwc/5425402603/

I tried to find out more about Otoliths, not least because this makes me think of the Otolith Group, a collective of moving image artists Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun, who also collaborate regularly with a range of other artists, including the Black Audio Film Collective, John Akomfrah and Eyal Sivan. I didn’t know that an otolith is actually an evolutionary remnant of our connections to fish. ‘Fish bones’ are much larger than the otoliths that humans have, but both are made of crystalline structures of calcium and protein. In fish, birds and mammals, these tiny crystals are part of the structures that help us to balance, to ‘see straight’ and to figure out where we are in relation to the rest of the world. They are also incredibly beautiful, as you can see in the image to the right. Human otoliths, or otoconia, are microscopic – only 3 to 30 microns across.

So here I am, literally struggling to know which way is up. But while I’m waiting for my vertigo to gradually subside (and apparently it will, with time), it has made me think about the connections between a dislodged crystal in my ear, and processes of listening, of interpreting and understanding the world, that we are asking of our participants.

Vertigo makes the world feel askew. It is not askew for people without vertigo, and it’s not even the case that everyone experiences vertigo in the same way. But what interests me about this is that a bodily sensation (or an impeded sense in this case) completely changes the ways I can experience the world. It is quite destabilizing, and the effect is that I am often distracted by the fact that the room is spinning when I’m trying to listen carefully to what someone else is saying.

So: what Sara Maitland says about the brain being part of the body is absolutely true. The microscopic crystal currently floating around in my ear canals is speaking gibberish to my brain. My brain can’t understand it, and as a result my entire perception of the world is radically, but hopefully also temporarily, altered.

But when my brain is interpreting my body differently, it also affects the ways I speak, the ways I listen, and what I feel capable of doing with my body and my brain. Typing is actually quite difficult because my eyes have to dart rapidly around the screen. Lying down is also quite difficult because this seems to make the room spin even more. I understand that language is abstract – certainly the language we use here in English. It’s true that it doesn’t directly represent an emotion through the series of alphabetical symbols that make up a word. But speech – speech is embodied, fundamentally so. And speech is also language. And the spoken word is, so very often, a richer way of communicating the poems that we have asked our writers to produce as interpretations of Air

I have been utterly bewitched by the recording of Owen Lowery speaking about his experiences and understanding of interpretation as he wrote his poem for our project. I wrote this to Anna once I’d heard it on Thursday evening:

“The way that Owen parses his words is INCREDIBLE. Can you hear the sub-vocal sounds of his breath? Is his breathing regulated by a machine of some sort? I’m asking not to subtract from the meaningfulness of his words but to add to them. He is expressing his thoughts about interpretation and the Air film embodied through his form of breath. And that breath is rhythmically tied to what sounds like the mechanical regulation of his body. I think it’s incredible. I want to be able to hear *under* his words as well as to hear the words themselves. The sound recording of his voice is very meaningful to me in the ways it connects in unspoken ways to embodiment. The words say something and the breath adds something to it.”

Anna explained to me that Owen is tetraplegic, and consequently his speech is performed between breaths on his ventilator. I think this gives astounding presence to the concept of embodied interpretation, not just through the content of Owen’s words, but through the ways his voice embodies them.

I’m not in any way suggesting that my recent experiences with vertigo, and Owen’s embodied recording of interpretation, have any similarities. It’s actually the difference I am much more interested in. The ways that our bodies do speak through language. And maybe writing, as an intermediary in that process, is fundamentally connected to embodiment, whether we want it to or not?

Body and/or Brain?

Hi Jenny – I have been having such fascinating email correspondence with the contributors to this project, particularly with Sara Maitland, (she wrote ‘On Silence’ and other books)  who is, or was, going to  contribute words, but now has come to the conclusion that a prose interpretation  of a film-poem is impossible. Her email begins ‘I surrender’. She has approached the idea of interpretation with such integrity that it has prevented her making one; and I see where she is coming from and respect her for it. One particular aspect that she brings to the debate is – should an interpretation be able to be interpreted back again? Hmmmm… I look at everybody’s interpretations and see that they couldn’t, so then  I wonder, were we right to use the word ‘interpret’ at all? Would an interpretation in words only be possible if one wrote a description? Perhaps Sara is right, it is the ‘being a poem’ rather than a prose piece that makes it possible.  Joan McGavin’s lyrical poem comes closest to ‘an interpretation’ so far. Anyway I do see how the idea of interpreting back again, once lodged in the brain, would make life difficult, if not impossible.

As you said in your last post, ‘when we sent out the brief to our poets and musicians, we only asked if they could think about how their bodies might become part of the interpretation. We didn’t even know whether it would be possible to produce an interpretation ‘from the body’. I wonder, Jenny, how you will respond to what she has written here:

‘Where we seem to be at odds is that I think of my eye certainly, but also my brain as part of my body.  (If you turn off your brain you are dead – this is a biological fact.) Is it interesting that in little (partial) brain deaths – strokes, heart attacks, severe concussions – it is most usually language that goes? (This is followed by the sense of “touch/feeling”; and then taste. Sight and smell seem to be the senses least affected – and language the most.)  One point here though is surely that “speech/language” is NOT an embodied sense (like sight, hearing, feel, taste, smell); it is an output (a response to external stimuli) and it is entirely cultural/social and, if I may and in very small letters, necessarily intellectual. Unlike the “senses,” language takes a long time to learn, can only be learned through models, and is almost entirely “abstract” (there is no embodied connection between the word for a thing and the thing itself. “Embodied language” feels a slightly odd concept to me. This is part of the reason why I was so fascinated by your project and why I am longing to see how other writers managed this (to me now, though not before I had embodied my own  failure) internally contradictory “stunt.” (Stunt is meant in an entirely positive way – like any other “skilled practice.”)’

In response  I would say that Claire Hillier’s piece ‘Sestina’ (which she wrote for Elemental Dialogues – Fire) was truly an embodied interpretation, both from the writers point of view and for the viewer too… So from Sara we will have to accept her words about the process rather than the results of it, (which I have much enjoyed) though I was so looking forward to what she might have written as her interpretation. Meanwhile I am still in correspondence with Sebastiane about the title of his piece which desperately (to my mind) needs a title. He would like to call it  ‘Air struck gently away from the body’. Some, no doubt, wouldn’t have a problem in interpreting this as being the instructions for striking a match, but I am not sure it would have struck home for me. BUT Sebastiane has sent a picture which is perfect I think. Don’t you? (And beautiful). OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Big transparent egos

So: the last question was: eyes open? Or eyes shut? Is it possible to interpret a film while not looking at it? Or by looking, then looking away? There has to be a space of not-looking in between the looking, doesn’t there? A space for reflection. When I’m thinking very hard, I often can’t make eye contact with people. It’s as if the invitation to be present with other people is difficult to reconcile with intense thinking. So I alternate between one and the other – between listening and looking, and thinking and responding. So maybe there is something important about keeping hold of both – eyes open, and eyes shut?

I’m writing about something different today though. Something that has taken me a while to write, and longer to post.

Something is preventing me from writing this next piece. In a great deal of the correspondence that Anna has been passing on to me, from poets and writers and musicians as they return their thoughts and interpretations to us, there is an undertone of worry. Worry that comes alongside phrases in the artists’ and poets’ emails like ‘doing justice’, or following rules. That said, the creative constraint of the process of embodied interpretation seems to be liberating to some of our contributors – though I also wonder whether the work that seems to flow so easily for some is a result of a thing that already was. I don’t mean to suggest that any of the artists who have given their time so generously to the project are just auto-producing a kind of Blue Peter here’s-one-I-made-earlier Tracy-Island. I also don’t mean that any of the artist’s involved are simply reproducing patterns of work that they have already established. In any case, isn’t that what the term ‘practice’ means? Isn’t what we do a result of repetitive acts of refinement in one way or another? And don’t things improve with practice? But I think I’m digressing here.

Some of the work-in-progress interpretations I’ve listened to and read speak very strongly to the artist’s own mode of practice. There is a sense of ownership of the work that comes through very strikingly as an extension of this. Steve Emmerson‘s conceptual poem, and Sebastiane Hegarty‘s sound composition based on the striking of a match both give me a sense that their interpretations become theirs because of the pathways their work has trodden in the past: the creative practices they have developed over an extended period of time. If I look for a sign of the artist’s own body in the interpretation, I suspect I’ll be unlikely to find it as bluntly or explicitly as that. This is not a criticism – after all, when we sent out the brief to our poets and musicians, we only asked if they could think about how their bodies might become part of the interpretation. We didn’t even know whether it would be possible to produce an interpretation ‘from the body’.

It is not an easy thing to do, particularly if one’s own practice as an artist takes care to erase the traces of a body from the work. After years of academic training, I certainly have found it difficult to find my own embodied voice in my writing.

Something else sticks in my mind about a recent conversation with the poet and writer, Sophie Mayer. I was asking about the presence of bodies and embodiment in translation and interpretation. Sophie, who wrote her PhD on comparative translation some years ago, talked to me about the ways that translation has been described as a ‘handmaiden art’. I can’t ever think of that word without also thinking about Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, and the institutional violence that holds a Handmaid in check. We talked about the implicit gender violence, productivity and creativity involved in the art form of literary translation. Much like simultaneous translation or editing, translation willingly makes itself utterly limpid, entirely transparent, and therefore, completely invisible. Is this what we are asking artists to do? Or is there another way of thinking about it – about being with a work, through a body, where the identity we so often clutch to ourselves is somehow less important?

How many artists are willing to make their work – their practice – completely transparent? What would it take for the big self, the identity of ‘I’ that seems in so many cases to be the point of making art in the first place, to be invisible when held up to the light? So my question for today is a big one: are we wrestling with big transparent egos, when we make creative, artistic interpretations?

Close your eyes?

10 Days 2013Yes, now I come to think of it Gabriel often closes his eyes when he dances. He becomes totally absorbed in the atmosphere, in the air, the feel of the floor beneath him – he is in the place, this place. How can I ask him to interpret a film through movement? A film he would need to look at?

With his eyes. Open. So. Maybe I am wrong to be asking?

He has integrity in his every move. If his eyes close – they close. The film goes on around him. What do you think embodied interpretation is, when it comes to interpretation of film through dance? When you were taking part in the workshop and Gabriel asked you to close your eyes, it appears, or rather your words appear, embodied. How does, or how did, that transition happen?

I am trying to hold on to Lucy Boston’s words (she wrote in 1968)

‘…I would like to encourage children to use and trust their senses for themselves at first hand – their ears, eyes and noses, their fingers and soles of their feet, their skins and their breathing, their muscular joy and rhythms and heartbeats, their instinctive loves and pity and awe of the unknown…’

Yesterday I was in Cambridge in Fitzwilliam College chapel recording Aaron D’sa (piano) and Deepak Venkateshvaran (tabla) improvising to our film.

Air with Deepak Aaron 01071608

With Lucy’s words in my head, I asked Aaron to begin by concentrating on his body, to think with his body. I imagined he might close his eyes, but I didn’t have the courage to tell him to.

I watched, as he watched the film right through one time before he began to play. He watched intently, with his eyes open, his hands hovering over the keys as if he were hearing it in his head with his eyes … because they were open.

You say, you like the idea of ‘interpretation that cannot be pinned down, nor be made entirely free’. I like that. Maybe what is free for another is not free for me? Perhaps a translation is pinned down and an interpretation is not?

We have given our film to others to interpret in their own way. We have asked them to consider the idea of embodied interpretation, but we have not imposed it. The interpretations are beginning to arrive – will we know, instinctively, if they are embodied or not?

Maybe we don’t need to know, can’t know, maybe we are just at the beginning – thinking aloud about what it is to interpret and these ideas come up and we follow them like a puppy with a roll of Andrex (and yes Matu has done that) under the sofa where a delicious lump of fluff is waiting to tempt us, we throw it in the air, catch it, maybe choke a bit then spot a wily spider luring us into the corner…I feel as if I might be under the sofa right now. The question is, eyes open? or shut? Am I about to put my hand into the unknown space to feel what is there. Trust my senses Lucy says.

Oh now I’ve gone back and had a look at the beginning of what you wrote and it doesn’t say ‘close your eyes’, it says

‘what would it be like to close your eyes?’

Where does that take us?

Close Your Eyes…

Close your eyes, asks Gabriel, gently. He asks it almost as a question – what would it be like to close your eyes?

I have been thinking about the weekend we spent at Anna’s house. Early November in 2014, with a houseful of near-strangers, Anna’s home in Winchester is bustling with activity and energy – and some of that energy has a kind of nervous frisson to it. Nerves about writing, and about sharing writing amongst this group of strangers. Anna and Pauline have installed films – fragments of films really – in different rooms and corridors of Anna’s home. I’ve had the privilege of seeing them alone the night before, but they feel different now that there are fourteen other wanderers keen to engage with the creative process of embodied interpretation.

We’ve planned the weekend around three workshops: one about creative writing (led by Claire Hillier and Joan McGavin), one about connecting bodily to moving images through dance (coached by Gabriel), and one about what Mel describes as tacit drawing: a kind of performance through mark-making. It is my job to kick-start things with an hour’s discussion about interpretation, what it means to the participants, and how to approach creative activity through the frame of interpretation. Each participant has brought with them a description of what interpretation means to them. After the discussion takes place, I splay out a cartography of meanings across each handwritten note.

drawing on plastic and interpretations

They seem to connect through a whole range of shared connotations. They are not all the same, either: some come across as prescriptive or demanding, some as almost carelessly free. Others strike out at metaphors or images to describe what happens when we interpret. I get the feeling that interpretation, when described in words, often takes the form of something else: another transformation that shows the shift from one sense into another.

I like the idea of interpretation that cannot be pinned down, nor be made entirely free. I think of the looped film, projected onto the inside of a drawer in the kitchen, that we later use as part of a creative writing exercise. Simple kites in primary colours, bobbing and surfacing against a whisper-blue sky. Those kites are neither fixed in place, nor free to flee the frame. Perhaps that film-in-a-drawer is my metaphor for interpretation: straining against an impetus to be free, and a creative need to remain within a frame, within a box, within a house.

I also think about ‘home movies’, and the ways that this house of installations could be so easily described using that visual pun. There is something very special about film installations in domestic spaces. I have seen this before in Anna’s work, especially her artist-in-residence project at Mottisfont, and in her group exhibitions with the Neuf experimental film group in Cambridge. Sitting with an installed film – one that flutters in a matchbox, or one that seems to breathe with the draft in a corridor – these are experiences that feel very different to a cinema screen or a black box gallery. The domestic intimacy brings a different context to my body too, which is why, upstairs in the attic, when Gabriel asks us to close our eyes, I feel it is a question, or perhaps an invitation.

It is also why my responses to the film installed in the loft are so different, before the body-work exercise Gabriel gives us, and after. My body connects to the image – a giant, dew-laden spider web, stretched across the corner of the room – from my belly. That most vulnerable, centring, destabilising core of my emotion. When I read the prose poem I’ve written out loud to the others, Gabriel describes it in one word in Spanish – anhelo. Longing. There is some kind of yearning for something: a yearning to speak silently through my belly, rather than my hands. Not an erotic longing, but maybe a sensuous one: an openness to the possibilities of an umbilical thread tying me and the web, and the corner of the room, together.

I promised Anna my first blog post wouldn’t be too long, but already I can see it is unravelling beyond its means. So I will close with my rough, unhandled prose poem, thinking of bellies and webs, umbilical cords and spiders and motherhood. And the great spider-mother of them all, Louise Bourgeois.

I am spider-mother-matrix
My leaves quiver
Like a long spiny arm reaching over
You and them.
I feel decay inside – a dry chrysalis broken open.
And there she sits.
Spider. Mother.

Semaphore. Morse. Hand.
I am coded in the dots and stripes.
A wounded belly,
knotted around a stump
upturned to the sky.
Stabbing pain:
Waves, rays of sun.
Stare away from the light.
Cradle me. Rock-a-bye. Till she drops.

Spider. Mother.
That peachy flesh behind the net,
caught in the fabric of my pain.
A jagged corner rose thorn
pricks my skin and I will sleep.
Spider. Mother.