“People dashing between events will encounter these ghostly apparitions amongst the trees.” That was my pitch to the arts curator at the Quakers’ 2014 Yearly Meeting Gathering.
I have been working on video shorts of Quaker work during and after WW1 over the last year. One – about the Friends Ambulance Unit – has been screened in the foyer of Friends House since May, on a small TV screen.
Now I had an opportunity to be more creative, and take advantage of a leafy campus venue and a festival like atmosphere.
They assigned me a spot outside a brand new “Chancellors Building”, where the lawn had been landscaped with young trees. I pitched up with a specially purchased caravan powerpack, and projected the videos onto a nearby wall. Alas, the powerpack spluttered out after 20 minutes of projection, and a day of phone calls an sitting about followed before four burly officials came to the rescue and ran a power cable from the nearby kebab van.
After that I spent my evenings rolling out and coiling back an extremely long cable. Fortunately the weather was kind – and thereafter I managed an hour’s continuous projection, showing a different short on a loop each night: the Friends Ambulance Unit, and then Quaker relief work after the war in Austria, Poland and Russia.
Why you may ask didn’t I just screen the videos in a room indoors?
I wanted people to chance upon these images, projected life size and at ground level, so viewers would feel they were looking into the eyes of the young volunteers, and at what they would have seen. To bring the experience out into the open, and for us to look with fresh eyes.
Because the projection was out in the open, people wondered in and out, some just passing for a few moments, some staying to watch the film loop round several times and coming back night after night.
Even more satisfyingly, because the projections were silent, people felt free to talk. Some asked questions about what they saw. Had WW1 affected people in Poland? Was there malaria in Russia? Why did it cost more to build a new house in Austria than in Poland?
Occasionally viewers strayed in from the outside world. Three Chinese students who were amazed they were looking at real footage taken almost 100 years ago. One was an economist and was pleased to recognise the effects of hyperinflation in Austria. The late night bus driver came and leaned on a tree, and another night two builders at the end of their shift waiting for their lift asked me “Is it the Jews?”
Every night at least one of the Quakers present had had a relative who had “been there”. The night I screened some footage in Austria, where there had been a livestock restocking programme, and an old Quaker in a hat told us his father had been a volunteer in Vienna and sent a telegram home about “70 cows arriving shortly”. He had never seen the footage, and it was moving to feel this was the first time he could see what his father had experienced.
People started to talk to each other about what they knew about the war. I had created a space for sharing stories.
Bringing archived images out into the open, jogging memories of the older generation and arousing the curiosity of the younger generation, has been an amazing experience.