Thursday, 31 May 2018

Listening to the Unseen

With thanks to the NWCDTP I'm off to Svalbard in June (via - appropriately - some Marine Transgression in Bristol). I'm not sure when I first heard the name Svalbard (only in existence since the 1920s when the archipelago came under Norwegian sovereignty), but in some sense it feels like my body has known it since before my brain attempted to articulate it: Svalbard calls me – with its hissed beginning, long vowels and plosive consonants - it synthesizes my auditory sense with my tactile: in voicing it, I enter an unknown space, uncertain, angular and expansive.

Svalbard is a place of sparse human population, contested 'ownership' and exploitation. There is no record of an indigenous human settlement, and anyone may live or work there regardless of nationality. It is a nonhuman more than human world: more polar bears than people populate the islands; and the mix of warm gulf stream with polar currents churns up plankton so the waters around the archipelago contain more than half the phytoplankton of the Arctic Ocean. This abundance of plankton brings more fish and birds to the area: these in turn bring more cetaceans and other mammals: all feeding vigorously over the three months of the summer season.

In traveling to the far north I hope to hear more clearly what it is that speaks to me, how I will receive its language of wind, light, surface, birds, fish, molluscs and mammals, and how I will respond to it. Almost twenty years ago I crewed from Iceland to the Faroes to Shetland, so have some sense of the North Atlantic. But this time I won't be sailing, crewing three hours on / six off. This time I have the luxury of unmonitored time, the freedom to watch and understand the navigational decisions of others from a distance, allowing to me to observe what is going on around us, under us, and above. I hope to understand enough to relate to that which is most obviously foreign: my intuition operating to transmit the experience, to find a language to remake this transmission in my poems, in my artistbooks.

This remote ocean offers the chance to traverse my sense of perception: from how I perceive, through the blur of my short-sightedness, to what I can’t see: the depths, the microscopic marine world, and the inherent interrelationship these have with our unseen futures. I cannot travel deep into the ocean. I cannot descend in a submersible and explore the unseeable sea that way. To travel across the sea, 3000km north, to experience the Arctic at the far edge of Europe is the nearest I can come to encounter that which is concealed from my European / island / white / female / middle-class view. Being both part of my geographical identity and apart from it, the Arctic represents the zone where familiarity bisects unknown, my physicality meets high sea.

This may sound romantic, idealistic, tending towards the heroic sublime of the isolated figure. And maybe in part that is a driver, but I am not expecting a pristine experience. I anticipate seasickness, there always in for the first day or two of being on board. I've recently begun to consider this as a shamanistic ritual: the purging of landlegs to open the mindbody of sealegs. I will be onboard with a bunch of strangers, all on their own quests, some of whom I'm sure I'll connect with, others, perhaps, not so. I also imagine there will be plastic, oil rigs, other boats, the ruins of ex-industry. There will be scummy water and dead things.

June. It will be twenty four hour daylight. What will remain hidden? How will the shadow of the archipelago fall on the sea? How will the continental land mass of Europe affect the ocean there? How will the current, the eddies, the down-welling and overfalls behave up there, where the water cools and, as the ice melts, becomes less salty? How will I perceive this turning of the currents at the polar north, the intermingling of planetary past – as held in our debris – with planetary future – as held in what that debris does next. This fieldwork is a phenomenological experiment with how to immerse myself in that which eludes me. An experiment, I keep reminding myself, that doesn't have a clear hypothesis and may have no clear outcome. An opportunity, as Haraway has it, "to cultivate the wild virtue of curiosity"

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Budget tally

Of course I welcome the possibility of a tax on single use plastic in the forthcoming budget; and while for this budget the term 'single use' includes "packaging, bubble wrap, and polystyrene takeaway boxes", it does not include plastic drinks bottles which may be subject to a 'return and reward scheme'. Hooray.

On my beach clean this morning I thought I'd list everything I found that could be considered 'single use' (I was out for approx half an hour and covered a strip 10m max):
35 plastic drink bottles, various sizes
4 q-tip shafts
1 burst helium balloon with ribbon
3 seedling plant pots
1 earplug
1 bucket
1 Tampon applicator
1 gun cartridge casing
1 two-litre screenwash container
1 cleaning spray container
4 drinking straws
length of meshed strapping
toy bucket handle
toy spade
3 spray cans
5 drink cans
2 food tubs without lids
6 hot drink cups
countless fragments of plastic sacking
countless polystrene balls
a zillion teeny bits of takeaway food containers
3 chunks of polystrene packaging (all larger than 10cm square)

This amounted to four large shopping bag loads. Most of which is now destined for the local landfill, where it at least won't be eaten by sea-creatures but is unlikely to remain inert.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Introducing the Octobook

Several weeks before Blue Planet II hit our screens the Octobook was gestating. A very different beast from my previous artistbooks it plays between physical, image and text equally, celebrating that most extraordinary of creatures, the octopus, or perhaps, rather than celebrating it, the book might be said to be envying or maybe even emulating it.

A how-to guide, a pocket survival manual for the curious and creatively adventurous among us, this beauty is the result, I'm sure, of spending most weeks this year playing (aka sewing, gluing, folding and dithering over colour coordination) under the expert tutorage of Sylvia Waltering (of Battenburg Press ). Not that we made an octobook in class, but having to think about how to make our best book from each design, how to nip and pinch out the cloth, to sew and fold and fold again and just what were we going to do with all these books we've made, the ones we didn't quite make and the ones we've yet to make, we slowly learnt how to, in short, make a book for any occasion.

I fell in awe of the octopus earlier this year when on a Marine Conservation Society organised rock pool safari we witnessed a lard white octopus caught in a net instantly transform to scarlet when it was freed and hit the water. I mean instantly. Split second white to red. I couldn't have blinked faster. Still confused it first swam away from the shore and then curved back towards us before finally diving under, all the while it seemed to be eyeballing me. I was held captivated by its black stare. 

A month or so later I heard China Mieville enthuse about their physical intelligence at Sounding the Sea as part of Hull's City of Culture, then dipped in and out of reading bits and bobs online, and just the other week I read Peter Godfrey Smith's Other Minds that explores cephalopod intelligence, the connection between their evolution and ours and their canny behaviour. 

Underpinning all this has been my thinking about how we might expand our sense of subjectivity beyond our limited egotistical concerns, so learning to converse with, or relate to, a wider world; how we might experience our embodiment differently to remember what our species is in relation to other species, how we might recalibrate our sense of exceptionalism by drawing our physical, mental and emotional understandings in and out of each experience, so we can recognise our power and vulnerability, our coming into ourselves as we reach beyond ourselves, as we lose the rigid sense of ourself.

And of course all that sounds ridiculously self-important and grandiose, so, much better to disguise it, as an octopus would, as something else... a book

You can buy one from this page of my website

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Fking Up

For the past couple of weeks we've been working towards a hardback book, collating things to photocopy onto various pages and then stitching them into signatures adding a spine, covers and fretting about uniformity. Except of course these aren't about being neat and regular. The pages are a mix of blank white paper and coloured textured papers and images of our things. The writing space I am used to is disrupted by stuff that I may be inspired by, irritated by, write around or have to skip over. When Sylvie first introduced the idea I was surprised at how unsettled I was by it. The space I was used to entering was already inhabited and I was going to have to negotiate it. This says plenty about me without having to go further. And enough for me to take the finished book in both hands, excited as to how I'm going to write in it, what I will write in it, in response to or against that which is already there.

I've been writing recently about the control I assume when writing, a similar control to what I inhabit when sailing: if not control perhaps then a calm resilience to face whatever, move through it or accept I cannot take the boat out that day. As part of this piece of writing I tried to write out all the expressions I use in speech (aka shout) with the word 'fuck', and then to string them into one sentence. I can trace this desire back to reading Joshua Clover's and Juliana Spahr's #Misanthropocene. Mine hasn't worked out like theirs (obviously), but I like it as a first dipping in of a toe to the waters of angry. There's plenty to be angry about, and plenty of reasons to channel that anger into articulate writing that still reverberates with the anger to the point that its tension holds the words together while threatening to overspill. Tripping myself up within the confines of a homemade hardbacked journal that will suddenly present something I was not writing about seems like a good place to continue the experiment.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

an immense or boundless expanse of something

..according to the OED, also "(hyperbolically): a very great or indefinite quantity". And, look, all those vowels too. Vowels are how we personalise a word. We pronounce consonants similarly, but vowels, in any language I suspect, are open to how our breath passes through us. 

We were playing with letterpress last night at Hot Bed Press, with the inspiring Elizabeth Willow. There was a choice of four large wooden sorts - limited by the letters available and which each of us wanted to use for our particular words. So, I make a word that is of "indefinite quantity" out of a restriction. And in this image it is the word that has substance in the white, although due to my inexpertise, its substance is feint, thinning, patchy.  

It is a word so huge, in a picture so apparently empty I am lost for more words for this blog. All this feels so contradictory, shunting against my skin somehow. And quietly. It is all so quiet - in me and on the paper here. How can that be when it is so enormous? So full? I do not know if this is foreboding or calm. Just as the letters could be rising or sinking.

Monday, 31 July 2017

Fold upon fold upon fold

As part of Lancaster Words Festival, artist Sally Slade Payne and myself ran a writing and book-making workshop on plankton for 7-10 year olds (and their adult). It's been a while since I've worked with that age group and I'd forgotten just how much fun and zeal there is to be had. Everyone pitched in with gusto: from the simple introductory facts I had about plant and animal plankton, to the relish of creating a new vocabulary for them. We worked as a group to generate ideas and information (there were a few experts on plankton and the sea in the group), and individually to begin to write from the plankton perspective before thinking about how to visually represent them in either a concertina book or a hanging one. Both books had layers in, to convey the ecology of the sea.

What I was most thrilled about was the interest in this amazing plants and creatures, how this microscopic ecology caught everyone's imagination to the extent they created these most amazing books. With luck and some organisation, this will be the first of many plankton inspired workshops...

all pics copyright Sally Payne.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

What the real prize is

It was my last class last night before the summer break begins: two months of thinking about the books and bindings I've stitched and glued and what I might use them for. With a stonkingly stimulating class a week many of us felt there hasn't been the time to think how we might put to use what we're learning ... although learning manifests in odd ways. Just going to the weekly class I've been thinking about my new writing in terms of three dimensional shape and form, how it occupies space and will be carried into a new place. Folds and territory are plentiful in my thinking.

The piece I mentioned in my last post has been bedding in - on the paper, in my imagination, and elsewhere - to the point I made a simple origami whale to hold some of the lines from the poem. I spent one afternoon of great obsessional fun deciding on the right whale (as it were) shape - the more complex origami whales weren't so suitable for printing text on - and then faddling about with layout of the text. And whenever I thought, I really ought to stop and get on with some work, I remembered this was work.

It's only the last class for me because I've been short-listed for the Ivan Juritz prize and there is a party in London next Tuesday night to announce winners and for everyone to meet the judges and each other and hopefully have a jolly nice time feeling experimental and creative. I have an ambiguous relationship to competitions - notwithstanding the cost of entering them (although this was free) I feel uneasy about setting ourselves up in competition with each other. I'm not sure it is necessary in life - I prefer a more cooperative style of considering ourselves in context and amongst each other. Each of us feed and bounce off the work already made/written. Ideally (or idealistically, you decide) we are each producers in the creative chain that stretches in four dimensions (including the apparently invisible), without any of one of us another link might not be made.

And how can we compare such different things as individual artwork? However prizes are great ways of creating interest in what is being written or made. Because people have engaged with my work who may not have already come across it I already feel a winner. Since being long-listed I've felt a surge of confidence in my work that I've not really experienced before - in that I trust what I want to write or make, I trust that someone else out there might enjoy stumbling upon it, I trust that those ideas that just pop into your head and I say Oooh yay! to are actually worth exploring because they might just turn into something that works. I think most importantly, the channel for those ideas has been greased by this and I'm hearing more and more of them. What more of a prize is there than that?