Remembrance sunday

Thanks to the Stroud Book Festival organizers who invited me to install Echo Chamber during Remembrance Weekend.

In remembering all those who have suffered in wars, it feels timely to include the stories of those who refused to fight. It is happening now.  Speaking at the festival of his journey from Syria, film maker Hassan Akkad confirmed that many of the young men fleeing Syria are escaping conscription.

About 200 visitors came over the weekend. BBC Radio Gloucestershire did an interview which was broadcast on two programmes on the Sunday morning. And A plug for the exhibition was included on the 8am and 9am News!

This time, live voices mingled with the recordings. Stuart Butler and Rachel Simpson performed the story of Dorothy and Archibald (local sweethearts who drowned themselves rather than return to the front); John Majoram spoke of his personal experience of national service ( when he resisted orders to shoot); and Rosie Bailey read UA Fanthrope’s poem “The Tin Soldier”.

There were times when the room was buzzing with people, and other times of intent listening.

 

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Photo Essay

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It starts with scaffolding laid out on the floor.

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With a bit of help, Dom raises an octagon.

 

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The wrapping begins.

 

 

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After bandaging, the speakers are hung.

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The reflecting pool filled.

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Edges sewn.

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Signage put up through the building (thanks Judith!)

 

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Visitors come – and leave messages.

 

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At the end of the day, the stewards gather for a quiet moment.

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Taya came back from Israel, to hear her own voice echoing and reaching out.

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Then the time came to empty the pool.

 

 

 

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(Un)wrap the chamber.

 

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Dismantle the scaffolding.

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Take it back home.

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Ready for next time?

Echoes

Over fifteen days, 888 visitors come and engage with 24 stewards.  More than half appear to unaware of Quakers.  Listening to the voices of conscientious objectors and reading their stories,  the visitors are bemused, challenged and profoundly moved.

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After two years in the planning, Echo Chamber arrives in London!

“Very powerful and direct experience, amazing space and exhibition.” Gerard Roberts, DJ and musician

“Initially innocuous then disturbingly powerful. ” Peter Squire

“Uncommon act of aural witnessing deserving of rapt attention and compassionate understanding.” Jeffrey Cupchik, professor of ethnomusicology, Carlton College, USA

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It was a collective experience, strangers listening together to neglected voices.  The stewards played an important role in creating the mood of the space, judging the right moment to engage with people.  Stories were exchanged, some of the visitors had relatives who had been conscientious objectors, or who had wanted to be.

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Joan Sheppard and her son in front of her photograph with her father.  He had difficulty finding work after the war as a journalist because of his record as a conscientious objector.

 

One Saturday a WW1 nurse taught young people how to bandage their parents, and invited them to reflect on how they would have felt sending soldiers back to fight after patching them up.

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Nurse Green with her students.

 

Another Saturday, poet Philip Gross, my  listening ear since the start of the project, came and we had a conversation in the bookshop with some fans!

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The lady at the back (on the right of the photo) was almost dancing with excitement at question time!

 

 

The typewriter elicted a lot of interest.  “Is it participation in the soundscape?” a lady at the back asked.  “It is the sound of bureaucracy, imposing itself on all these individual spirits,” Pat Beard felt.

Younger visitors were amazed such an ancient machine still worked.  Someone remembered typing his thesis on a similar typewriter.  And others left more feedback.

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Frozen artist

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A cold week in March and I’m playing with a sound installation at the Goods Shed in Stroud.  This last year I’ve been planning a new work for The Quakers in London.  And finally a chance to see how it works out in the flesh, and how people react.

Interpreting my drawings, Dominic Thomas has put up an octagonal scaffold (with the help of his very tall son).  I set to bandaging, hoping that I’ve sewn together enough bandage strips.  It should just be simple maths, but stretchy bandage is difficult to measure.

Well it seems thirty strips of four rolls each is enough to cover the scaffold from top to bottom.  Phew! And my rough handstitching creates an interesting effect.

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Dom is a man to keep things neat, and he gets me to sew little pockets for the speakers to keep them hidden.

Fishing wire, hooks, metal washers – all the little tricks to keep the technology invisible. The overall effect is quite minimalist.

The bandages are translucent – and when the sunlight filters down through the skylight, it feels like they are glowing slightly.

We turn on the speakers, and for the first time, I can hear how the piece works in the space I had imagined.  First run through, and I am hearing the voices afresh – it feels like having set them free.  Second loop and I’m starting to pick out things I want to change.

 

A few days of playing, and we are ready for the first visitors.  Philip Gross the poet, and the young artists group Mould arrive together.  All listen thoughtfully.  Philip is familiar with the subject, Mould are not.  What will they make of it?

They sound like my grandparents – old voices – reassuring.  Then I heard about the man about to be hung!”

“I like it when all the voices come on at once.  It makes me realise how many conscientious objectors there were.  It’s not like listening to history – I don’t get stressed out if  I miss some of it.”

Philip liked the silences in between.  He heard the voices most clearly when they were coming on or off.  “Use the pauses…”

They all seem energised by the experience – happy to talk on, despite the fact it’s the end of a long day at school/work.

Saturday we open to the public.  Very few people wander in initially, then more and more start coming, word of mouth spreading.  Many are happy to write down responses to what they hear, or chat about conscientious objectors.  One man produces a poem!  And later, a blog appears in Radical Stroud.

Good ol’ Stroud!

(Thanks to Ruth Davey for the photographs and Stroud Valleys Artspace for letting me use the Goods Shed)

 

 

 

new venue…. old video

I once met an artist whose signature work was to take a cabbage for a walk (lead and all) every new ciOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAty he went to.

Am starting to feel a little like that with the Friends Ambulance Unit video.  Not complaining mind…. great to find the work has legs!  This time the video is being screened at a museum, as part of “Faith & Action“, an exhibition at the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.

It documents what Quakers did during the First World War and it’s aftermath: some were imprisoned as conscientious objectors, some volunteered in the Friends Ambulance Unit, and others joined up.

The exhibition uses rare archive material to explore aspects of Quaker humanitarian, medical and relief work in Britain and Europe.

It’s been a real labour of love, years in the planning, involving Woodbrooke (the Quaker Study Centre) and the local community.

If you get a chance to see it, it’s on at the Community Gallery in Chamberlain Square till 7 June 2015.

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BRINGING STORIES TO LIFE

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“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.

out and about

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Last week I met the daughter of Corder Catchpool, a conscientious objector during WW1. Her father had been a volunteer in the Friends Ambulance Unit, but after conscription was introduced, he refused alternative service and was imprisoned for two years.

She was one of 66 family members of WW1 conscientious objectors who had come to mark International Conscientious Objectors Day at Tavistock Square on 15th May, 2014.

As each CO’s family members filed up, showing a photograph and speaking about them, the same list of punishment and prisons came up again and again. “Sentenced to death, commuted to 10 years hard labour, send to Dyce Camp, Wakefield, Dartmoor…” They had a terrible time, and their families too.

It was incredibly moving – perhaps this was the first time these CO’s have been remembered publically in this way.

Corder Catchpool’s daughter was looking at my video trying to see if she could spot her father. There is a group photograph of the young FAU volunteers before they went off, fresh faced and determined, but we weren’t sure which was him. The photograph she carried was of her father after having served two years in prison: thinner, older, sadder.

"Another View" screened at Friends House Euston in May 2014.

“A Different View” screened at Friends House Euston in May 2014.

Gloucestershire Quakers have organised a touring exhibition during May & June about the work of the Friends Ambulance Unit. My video, “A Different View”, is being shown along with panels from the Quaker Memorial Trust.

FAU exhibition at Nailsworth Quaker Meeting.

FAU exhibition at Nailsworth Quaker Meeting.