How do we come to understand what time is? What we will do with it, what it will do with us?
The word for Summer comes from the old English Sumor, from the proto-indo- european root sam, meaning both one and together.
Ali Smith, Summer
(A writer who so effortlessly hosts and
pays testimony to the creativity of others)
At the end of a summer that has been perhaps, of all the summers in my experience, most about being attentive to the moments that we can be together, artists Phoebe Banks, Yvette Bathgate, Kirsty Russell and Jake Shepherd, who are also curators, who make things with others, have found ways to invite and hold a space for other artists who also do that vital work of creative hosting. So that inevitably more are invited. There is initially a worry about space for all these practices, but as things spiral outwards it turns out this elastic term together makes space for itself in an easy way.
In the curatorial team there is a concern to give this holding work a physical presence. To make the structures we take for granted, that allow us to rest together, be intimate and comfortable, held but also not constrained, visible.
In our conversation Yvette shares a relational nugget with me: In online meetings if you interact in the first few minutes you’re more likely to speak later on. For her and Jake this has meant trying to create the conditions for visitors to participate gently, using their hands to mould shapes as they arrive and being able to leave traces. In this way the exhibition is in process, unfolding as a collaborative sculpture.
I approach the exhibition in this way too, the work becoming a conduit for my own memories as Mae Diansangu’s Namesake takes hold. Nowadays, more and more we rely on technology to keep our memories. They would like to brand memory blue framed or encircled gradient red. And in this strange time we’ve been experiencing, that passes both so slowly and in an instant, Mae and I agree it’s harder to remember what has happened, when it’s all the same; screen time. We’re delivered (and allow ourselves) only the memories we want to bottle but in all the similar shots of airbrushed happiness, where is the space for our experience of other things like grief, growth or difference?
A small salt tear escapes as I hold Mae’s poetry in my head and let the words meet my own memories.
I’m reminded that memory takes you to all the senses; tastes, sweet and bitter, warmth, the presence of touch and its absence. Stories are containers for it. From my desk, here and now, Mae’s writing takes me to the grief of my own grandmother’s passing:
I see her, lost in memories about a small coin, no longer in circulation, worrying that someone might think she was a thief for not being able to find it. Lost things, long gone that still keep a hold. I look down concerned, trying to understand and help carry whatever it is she is struggling with. She recognises my face and travels a long distance to be back in the room, smiling at me. I know this journey back to a childhood memory is a reckoning. Where borders are porous, love is a tether.
How are we tied? Mae tells me that a live performance is always a shared process. That creating is not exactly about bringing something new and magical into the world but about making a channel to ideas we share. When we’re together even the silence created by an audience is palpable, holding a voice, thinking it through in the space between. In this exhibition though I think Mae is getting comfortable differently, moving the chairs around, being both absent and present, offering memory as something too precious to outsource. She tells me that
her afro-futurist nightmare would be a place of enforced amnesia. I think of the book Memory Police and the endless winter it suggests, where the continuous presence of snow comes to signify erasure of contrasts. Change is hard but without it there is no growth. We speak about how the collaboration has given Mae a chance to explore a different focus in their writing, producing deeply personal work that is edgy and raw. The exhibition has created that space, to draw a curtain protecting intimacies we hold dear, but in its nod to memory, as a tactic we can share, the politics of earlier writings breaths, for me, and lives differently.
While Jake and Yvette are making a structure for people to participate and Kirsty is deploying the inner linings of a curtain (showing its own supporting part, complete with relational holes) to create the intimate space needed for experimentation, Phoebe is making chairs that move easily. In all my hosting roles moving chairs has been a constant, so I appreciate these. They also trigger a memory. In Aberdeen Natalie and I attend a group regularly, called Art and Community, hosted by artist Jonathan Baxter. One week we’re asked to move the chairs together so that they express power, bringing Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed to our little shared space in Aberdeen. We all take a turn and miraculously a drama unfolds as we find a way to act together to balance the odds and champion each other.
Sitting down with Natalie now in London and myself in Glasgow, we remember that group. Natalie describes an exhibition she made at that time, Departure Lounge. I’m in the photos looking at her work. I remember it as full of optimism, the public side to a social practice that I appreciated in other contexts more, for being great at connecting people, particularly across class, through simple gestures. Departure Lounge used the window of an art gallery,
looking out into public space, to acknowledge all the people who had supported her in a list of names.
Now distant in both time and geography, Natalie explains how she has returned to this project and through it to Aberdeen, while she was thinking with Kirsty and reading about friendship. Some connections remained strong while other names had faded. In the post-pandemic moment Natalie remarked that she feels more generosity and gratitude, with people genuinely excited to maintain friendships and make new ones. In this new window of opportunity Natalie has seen tactics for togetherness as a reason to reconnect with some of those names, sorting them into categories according to closeness, geographically and emotionally, and reaching out over time in a light touch way to ask people how they are. The traces of this call and response produce a portrait of that moment of reconnection. Deceptively simple words contain a heady mix of tenderness, nervousness and romance as we try to catch up with each other in snippets of time increasingly squeezed out of our productive lives.
Natalie and I make time as well to examine what this means. I tell her for me the work is quietly subversive, asserting a different value system. The interactions will become wall pieces, maybe vinyl or evoking type writers, something that extends the care and precision these relational moments contain into the form. She is keen to say she wasn’t naïve about this process but entered into it not expecting as many responses or the openness engendered, but taking the risk anyway and being captivated by the bite back. And in this there is also space for the silences, where people have not got back in touch. In amongst all the positive replies, these minority responses do weigh heavy for Natalie and are a part of the portrait.
There is a reconnection with a former self as well, with some parts of the original project feeling clunky for Natalie, including the formal consent process she initiated then, doesn’t fit now, instead all conversations are anonymous, with personal details left out. And for me the power on display in the window of Departure Lounge, knowing some of the names, was uncomfortable. Now she is looking for something distilled and contained that still starts a generous dialogue with others and herself, then, in Aberdeen.
Exercises in listening
When this all started (the pandemic) I was hosting two students from China in the library (yes I work in a library, the space of palpably shared ideas), we sat and ate cake with them in a ritual we have temporarily given up, where we sweeten the leaving (they gave us a beautifully cut card, showing the great wall of China and we marvelled at the finely carved holes, thinking not of what separates us but about how beautifully porous even a wall can be) and they told us of family members stuck in tiny apartments for six weeks or more. It seemed so distant until it was here. Then in shock we tried to slow down together, to see what we already knew, that the virus was showing the points of weakness in our togetherness. The not togetherness of how we would experience this crisis.
Arundhati Roy said the pandemic was a portal, telling us stories of the millions not at home in India, and asking us how we wanted to walk through this portal? With the heavy luggage of our prejudice and hatred, our dead rivers and smoky skies or lightly, ready to imagine another world?
This exhaustion evoked by Roy’s description of heavy luggage runs through my conversation with artist Carmen Wong (who occasionally enlists the name oho_co in their writing). We talk about how we will connect and the first gift from Carmen is agreeing to a zoom even though we both know too much time on the platform leaves us drained. We know we’re drained by our technologies, but also the accumulated disasters and shortages they signal to us. And that exhaustion is embedded in joyless apocalyptic thinking, which Carmen says, speaking from personal experience, is not possible to sustain. Negativity hits our immune systems first, as Natalie also felt in those hanging responses, whereas joy needs care and repetition to bed down and aid our collective recovery. But there is also energy in what our conversation suggests and some of the hope of Roy’s appeal to step lightly.
Starting with JarSquad, a living social practice artwork between Carmen and collaborators that works with surplus fruits, suitably seasonal for the month of harvest. Despite at first seeming to tie into the stockpiling aspirations of so called, end of the world, ‘preppers’, JarSquad has been less about disaster and more about tapping into the mutual aid care economy which creates joy out of necessity. Making Jam alone is not fun but doing it together is. Carmen explains that working with food is a possible shortcut to building trust; in a world where we’re guarded, food disarms. Putting a substance into your body signals a willingness to be opened to another presence, which is perhaps the most basic survival strategy.
We talk about Rowan berries, because there are lots of them where I live, which they describe as a ‘jam symbiont’ needing the pectin from something different to change its texture so that it can be preserved. We’re building a metaphor together. And I can see Carmen is doing that for the Tactics for Togetherness exhibition as well, working with artist Angela Margaret Main, whose practice is to create responsive performances in social contexts. Angela will be tasked with delivering a score in four parts, for imagining that other world Roy is maybe hinting at. In this process Angela is a surrogate, someone open to the presence of difference in quite a radical (definitely labour intensive) way. This role seems appropriate for Angela, an artist whose practice often takes her to our watery borders. Being part of her performances is like discovering you have a companion, at the edges of your thoughts, working hard to hold back tides of worry.
The score, Dream Loops is about rethinking performance, it provides the notes, but the feelings, which are a part of the context it enters, vary. The unseen labour is to try to anticipate where the mind goes, to invite and guide with a somatic practice. And the content? Well it’s also a rethinking of what it means to be radical. So long associated with war metaphors, guerrilla tactics, van guards and rupture, Carmen asserts that actually revolution is contained in many more mundane practices that we know already. As Mae asserts, some ideas endure and Carmen wants to channel a deep optimism that sees post-capitalist futures as something we need to get ready for by arriving, witnessing and being attentive to ourselves and our ideas of self/selves. They mention Valarie Kaur’s assertion that every being (is it with a nod to Donna Haraway that expands this to include the non-human?) is just a part of ourselves we haven’t met yet. And as a migrant performing identity for different contexts there are many past selves to be reckoned with. For Carmen this realisation gives a necessary softness to relational work and provides an argument for deep care for self (a self that is not separate from others) as a tactic for togetherness. Being with others is on a continuum with relating to ourselves, not in a neurotic or narcissistic way, but on a level of deep self-acceptance.
What do you wonder about?
Still participating, I play oho_co’s questions in my head, knowing that all the works in the show have delivered some answers already, some things in common and some names I hadn’t met yet:
What do you wonder about? What of our world do you love?
Tell me about the world you dream of, could you describe how it feels?
One where time stretches out like an open palm, things slow down. We look about together, refreshed by the different perspectives we have gifted to each other. We’ve left the economy of want and surplus, where I don’t have it and you have too much. You listen and smile and make space for me.
If most things in the world require us to arm ourselves, Dream Loops is an act of generosity, in a context that has been shaped by similar impulses. Taking the time to explore these practices is a reminder that it’s ok not to be cynical or to take a leap of faith despite cynical feelings (and I had many writing even those three small sentences above), that we can hold space together both for grief and also to dream up something lovely.
- Text by Caroline Gausden
Ali Smith Summer Penguin Books, 2020
Yoko Ogawa The Memory Police Vintage 1994, translated by Steven Snyder 2019
Arundati Roy The Pandemic is a Portal April 3rd 2020 sourced from https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8- 74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca
Donna Haraway Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene , Duke University Press 2016
Text by Caroline Gausden