The stars are the map

I recently completed a short residency at the Scottish Poetry Library, and produced this short (3 minute) film poem. The film debuted at the 30 years’ celebration of the Scottish Poetry Library that was held during the Edinburgh International Book Festival this summer.

The text below explains the film and the process of making it, and was read at a recent cross-disciplinary discussion of the work, which took place at Hugh Miller’s Cottage in Cromarty.

The Scottish Poetry Library’s own blog pages list further upcoming Scottish screenings. Meanwhile the film is circulating through deaf communities via social media.

I’m hoping to get the film screened at some deaf festivals and various other places. If you’d like to screen the film, please get in touch.

The film is a work of translation art; a synthesis of voices, languages, and perspectives crystallising around a remarkable journey.

It was made for the Scottish Poetry Library during a short residency, funded by Creative Scotland and the National Lottery (as part of the PEP programme), with the aim of extending the Library’s reach to communities beyond its existing demographic.

Having just completed a PhD by research into sign language poetry – that is poetry that is created in a natural sign language – I wanted to bring sign language poetry to the Library’s collection and to introduce these poetic communities to each other.

At this point it is probably important to dispel a few myths.

British Sign Language is one of Scotland’s indigenous languages. It is not, however, merely a pantomimic version of English. Much scholarly work over the past half century has determined that British Sign Language is a unique and intriguing language. It can compound, much like German, uses classifiers much like Swahili or Hebrew, has a mainly Subject-Object-Verb syntax- unlike English- and so on.

As part of the residency, the Library’s staff were given awareness training, introduced to British Sign Language, to Scotland’s deaf communities, and to the basics of poetry created in a sign language. Most of this behind-the-scenes work was completed before the film was made. In addition the Library held an evening of sign language poetry performances, and a workshop for aspiring Scottish sign language poets led by eminent practitioner, Paul Scott.

In many ways, then, the making of the film marked the end of one journey and the beginning of another; the end of my residency and the beginning of the Library’s new relationship with sign language poetry.

The original proposal for the film – entitled ‘A Vispo Billboard for the Scottish Poetry Library’ –  grew to envision two short films that could be projected onto public buildings in Scotland.The idea was to create two companion pieces- one which took a sign language poem as a source text, the other which worked from a poem by a published Scottish author. Both pieces would be made accessible to both communities.

The subject of each piece was carefully considered, with the intention of offering both communities an insight into each others’ cultures and allowing these communities to speak to each other through poetry.

Gerry Hughes’ solo circumnavigation of the globe via the five great capes was a feat later recognised with an honorary doctorate from the University of Glasgow. But at the banquet held in the weeks following the sailor’s safe return Gary Quinn – in the true bardic tradition of British Sign Language poetry – honoured Gerry in verse.

Gary’s original poem witnessed Gerry’s life, his struggles, his determination and his triumph in a full fifteen minutes of flowing creativity.

In the year that passed between its first performance and the making of this film, Gary had been asked to recite the poem so many times he was grateful for the opportunity to commit it to record, despite the necessary dramatic reduction in its length. A kind and generous soul, Gary took news of each further cut squarely on the chin, acquiescing with a gentle nod of his head.

Gerry Hughes lent his support by generously allowing us access to his personal photographs.

Securing the BSL source poem was merely the first step, however. The question remained of how to translate the poem, and how to demonstrate some of the beauty of its poetic form. Gary’s piece, like most BSL poetry, takes its language beyond the everyday, creating arrestingly unusual and beautiful images.

Of course the Scottish Poetry Library famously holds the Edwin Morgan Archive, and in honour of his work I wanted to allow any translation to ‘emerge’, rather than seeking a more direct or literal linguistic translation. And after two decades of working as an interpreter and translator it is the inevitable spaces between languages that interest me – the gaps that are filled with our cultures, our selves, our imaginations.

Enter Christine da Luca.

The Edinburgh Makar greeted the idea of this project with honest excitement. To start the ball rolling, she and I looked over the rough edit of Gary’s poem and discussed the loosely descriptive content notes I had provided. I pointed out particularly creative lexemes and phrases and explained the significance of Gary’s poetics from a BSL perspective.

Over a Skype connection between Lothian and Shetland we giggled as her own poetic imagination conjured words that captured Gary’s metaphors and laced his work with her own fingerprints. A new work ‘emerged’.

And Christine did her homework; researching all she could of Gerry’s journey she noted those in whose wake he had sailed (‘Odysseus, Chichester’), alongside the facts of his voyage (‘8 months, 32000 miles’).

In her native Shetlandic, the flow of the verse changed again – eddies catching around yet other moments (‘smeddum’, ‘aber, foo o sea stories’).

The results were no more a set of literal translations than Gary’s original verse was a literal translation of Gerry’s journey.

Yet despite Christine’s beautiful texts, the majority of people coming to this film BSL would still find the niceties of the BSL difficult to appreciate. An audience might need further guidance to unlock some of the BSL poem’s visual treasures.

David Bell’s kinetic typography, therefore, represents yet another layer of translation.

As we sat in his Appleton Towers office, in Edinburgh University, I explained the significance and particular beauty of Gary’s expressions, handshapes, movements, tempos and spatial placings whilst David harnessed his technical and artistic abilities to bend Christine’s English to the service of these properties.

The technicalities required a little further editing of the source (BSL) poem.

In the final, finished version, you will find elements in the Shetlandic that are not fully represented in either the English or the BSL, elements of the BSL that escape both written (or spoken) languages and so on. I hope, too, that you will find different elements of beauty in each.

The languages and translations of the film do not exactly echo each other, but sometimes follow each other, sometimes travel alongside each other, sometimes cross paths and sometimes divert around the invisible obstacles of language, culture and modality.

I had wanted to make a piece that placed BSL – one of Scotland’s indigenous languages – alongside some of its siblings, that demonstrated how these languages live alongside each other everyday, forming the rich weave that is Scotland.

And I had wanted to create work that might in some way allow those who do not sign to begin to encounter the beauty of sign language poetry.

Sadly the second piece, which would have seen a work of Christine’s translated into BSL, remains on the drawing board. But perhaps its time will come.


A strange urge

I recently popped into Bristol’s Arnolfini to immerse myself in the brilliant Table of Contents: ‘a durational movement installation co-created by Siobhan Davies, Andrea Buckley, Helka Kaski, Rachel Krische, and Matthias Sperling, each using their own history as a choreographer and performer to question how dance is archived.’

This was a wonderful series of pieces performed interactively with the public; each dancer taking it in turns to lead or direct a work. Amongst these glittering gems a very simple piece caught my imagination.

The dancers each invited a member of the audience to work in partnership with them. Each dancer then laid down on the floor. Their partner simply had to instruct their dancer to stand up, movement by movement. The dancers were very reasonable, but very disciplined in following their instructions precisely.

The difficulty of this simple task quickly became clear, with dancers contorted into all sorts of unsustainable shapes.

The piece succinctly demonstrated the limits of spoken language, of logos.

Yet I couldn’t help musing that if the partners had been able to give instruction through any natural sign language, the task would have been achieved quickly and efficiently.

Australian scholar Dorothea Cogill-Koez has argued that the elements of sign languages known as ‘classifier predicates’ are remarkably similar to ‘typical systems of visual representation’, such that sign languages use ‘two equally important channels for conveying explicit propositional information, the linguistic and the visual’. Although I disagree with some of the further detail of her argument, that sign languages do not always have to rely on the linguistic to communicate information was a premise of my own doctoral study.

Because sign languages can visually represent the physical acts involved in standing up, the communication would have been conveyed much more easily, the dancers spared their agonies.

But more than that sign languages are languages that are inscribed through the body; they are body-conscious languages operating through, around and in relation to the body. Sign language helps me to locate emotions and sensations in my body, to read them in others, and it provides a physically-centred orientation in the world. What was so striking about the struggling speakers at the Arnolfini was how very dis-embodied their speech was.

So why did we ever adopt it as a form of communication? What were the evolutionary advantages to the urge to speak?

Although deaf people are often very noisy signing can be a remarkably quiet form of communication (good for hunting), and is much more efficient across distance. It is very useful in noisy environments, too. The only advantage speech offers, as far as I can see, is that it can be used in the dark (although in one’s humble opinion using sign to communicate on the body of another in intimate situations is far preferable).

So did humans find a sudden need to hunt only at night? When did all the lights go out?

Isn’t it time we switched them back on so we could all see each other more clearly?


Found poem #1

Nana has been feeling guilty for not posting any thoughts here in some time.

In her defence she has lately been occupied compiling and submitting a doctoral thesis.

Since her energies are currently directed towards preparing for the viva examination, she hopes you will accept this small token of her continuing devotion.

Perhaps you might even play along?

Here are the rules:

Create a poem from snatches of talk overheard during any journey. Your poem must record the utterances in the order in which you heard them and you may not edit or otherwise alter them. Record when and where you found your poem, the distance you covered when capturing it, and the number of speakers who created it. It would be lovely if you then posted your poem here.

Bonne chance!

Found poem #1

(3 speakers, 200 yards on foot, Corn Street, Bristol, 20.3.2014)

You’ve got to get up

Get down

Jump up

And put it on the shelf

 

By the way, if you are interested in poetry you would most certainly enjoy the Scottish Poetry Library’s website  and if you are also in Bristol the fabulous Poetry Can is about to unleash the Bristol Spring Poetry Festival (17–19 April 2014). If you’re a fan of walking, perhaps you might try sideways walking and other altwalking adventures, with guidance from mythogeography.


Action/Assemblage: Drawing Together

The second of a series of three posts written before, during and after an event curated by yours truly, supported by The Afterlife of Heritage Research Project and hosted by the the Royal West of England Academy.

A version of this post first appeared on the Afterlife of Heritage Research blog. All photographic images by Alice Hendy.

The weather forecast lied. The galleries of the Royal West of England Academy were pretty quiet on the Saturday afternoon of one of the few gloriously sunny bank holidays in living memory. This did not bode well for the first of the two Research to Public events I had been busily planning. Action/Assemblage: Drawing Together was scheduled as one of the activities running through the RWA’s Drawn exhibition. It was designed as an interactive visitor experience, and it wouldn’t work without visitors.

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I was relying on a host of folks to help the event along. The most important members of the cast were the Signartists Richard Carter and Paul Scott who had agreed to perform the poetic works they had created in the visual-gestural medium of British Sign Language. Then there were the interpreters, Pascale Maroney and Naomi Bearne, without whom the Signartists and visitors would not be able to communicate. Finally there were the members of the research-through-drawing collective HATCH who had volunteered to lead the graphic responses to Richard and Paul’s work, and Alice Hendy who was to record the event with her camera.

After arriving to arrange the ‘Drawing Lab’ gallery space far too early and sweating through the superfluous empty minutes supported by my partner who had generously elected to lend a hand, the cast began to arrive. Fifteen minutes before the start of the event we were all assembled. All that was missing was a ‘public’.

‘Assemblage’, but not yet ‘Action’…

But I needn’t have worried. Once the Signartists began to perform, their movements conjured visitors into the space as if by magic…….

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The Drawing Lab quickly filled. What’s more, the visitors didn’t leave. Most stayed for the entire two hours of the event.

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As an inveterate wimp (see my first blog on this subject), the bravery of others never ceases to impress and I was bowled over by the readiness of casual visitors to engage with drawing practice. They drew, they wrote haikus, they asked questions, they made comments and appreciative noises, and observed long intense silences while Richard and Paul performed, and I scribed provocative quotes on the blackboards. And as the event drew to a close and artists and visitors mingled and chatted, the voluntary contributions box began to fill with drawings, comments and those haikus.

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The success of the event was all the more rewarding because the whole was designed as a performance of the activity of my doctoral research. I’m looking at image in sign language poetry, and asking whether analyzing this ‘Signart’ through art epistemologies can offer a greater understanding of the form than purely linguistic or literary analysis permits. So Richard and Paul were performing the subject of the research, the visitors were performing the research practice by drawing, thinking, writing and commenting, whilst I was performing academically by relating all of these to existing knowledge.

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It seemed to work. I can only hope my thesis will be as well received.

And perhaps the brightest planning idea – which came from Gemma Brace, the curator at the RWA – was to run the event twice. This offered the opportunity for ‘rewrites’ and ‘corrections’.

The first event put a lot of pressure on the Signartists to perform continuously, whilst the position of the blackboards meant the content of my work could easily have been overlooked by visitors. In short, the three activities of the model were performed but could perhaps have interacted with each other more fully. At the next event, a few weeks later, I punctuated the Signartist’s performances by reading the statements I had written on the blackboards. This helped the ‘academic’ content inform the visitors’ ‘research’ activities. Both the visitor turn out and the responses were just as satisfying the second time round, but the discussion was a tad richer.

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I enjoyed the experience enormously!

I can’t tell you how fascinating I found the event.

I’m an artist. I’ve lived in Bristol for six years and this is the first event that has attracted me to the RWA.

 It was really moving, and incredibly inspiring and thought provoking!

Fascinating.Where is the line drawn?

I have never seen sign poetry before, and I didn’t even know it existed

Brilliantly expressive and strong. Mesmerising!

Wow! Really interesting challenge.

IMG_0433Haiku:

with eye,hand,lip

a concentration of

movement

understanding will come soon.

Yes


Learning lessons in public

This post first (and recently) appeared on The Afterlife of Heritage Research Project blog, as the first of a series of three posts written before, during and after a planned event. Take a look to see what other contributors are up to. 

Here’s Nana’s ‘before the event’ blog:

Of course I think my PhD is interesting. To paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davis, I would say that wouldn’t I? But I don’t foresee a queue forming outside Waterstones’ in eager anticipation of the submission of my thesis. So when I came across artsmethods@manchester’s Research to Public strand, offering guidance on making my research public-facing, I was immediately excited. After all, what’s the point of research if it’s not meaningful to reality?

Research to Public offered two structured and intensive full day workshops at the University of Manchester, supplemented by documentation and an online presence designed to prize open the rusty doors of the ivory tower and let the daylight of practicality flood in.

Eager applicants to the scheme were initially subject to a selection process before being invited to the first workshop. Then, after considerable input, we were sent forth into the big wide world and told to come back with an institutional partner- a gallery, museum or other public institution interested in our proposal and willing to play host. The second workshop honed our ability to co-operate with our partners and the resulting carefully budgeted and considered proposals were then submitted to a panel charged with distributing prize funding.

I am very fortunate to have had my proposal selected, and I write this on the eve of the first of the two events that I proposed. As you can imagine, the whole process has been challenging in lots of ways; some anticipated, some unexpected, but all very, very useful. So here are some of the lessons I’ve learned thus far. I apologize if you already know them, but some of us are slower on the uptake.

Lesson 1:  Don’t be precious

There’s wisdom in that there Kenny Rogers song about knowing ‘when to fold ‘em’ and ‘when to hold ‘em’. There may be some ideas that are worth being deeply precious about, but these are rare. Actively seek the opinions and contributions of others. Be honest with yourself about your level of commitment to the idea as it stands, and give due and respectful consideration to the tweaks others propose. Every contributor (from the gallery curator to the chatty passenger sharing your train journey) brings different expertise; learn to harness it.

Lesson 2: Network

Contributing to as many networks as you can effectively manage is good for your creative soul. It’s also kind of karmic. I had cold-called a number of institutions who were all enthusiastic but already committed to a schedule, before a network connection yielded an introduction to an institution that wasn’t even on my list. It turns out the institution was looking for something that would reach beyond its usual remit and demographic, and I could propose just the thing. Who knew?

Lesson 3: Refining is a lived process

Like most other things in life – and unlike the fairy tales I’m still addicted to – perfect proposals don’t just appear fully-formed, ready-sprinkled with magic dust. Business proposals, academic theses, paintings, life – all require adjustments and rewrites.

Lesson 4: Plan and anticipate

Like the archetypal mum checking before her child leaves for school in the morning- Homework? Packed lunch? Gym kit? Keys? Hanky? Umbrella? It was quite fun spending time just thinking about all the possibilities and unlikelihoods surrounding the events I’d proposed. It was even more fun when the gallery curator was able to identify a few more.

Lesson 5: Make it real

Isn’t there some great quote from a famous person about the number of brilliant ideas that lie gathering dust in obscurity? Despite what I hope (with some effort) is a bubbly public persona, I’m actually ‘a bit behind the door’ so the process of taking an idea and making it real has been quite exhilarating. It’s both humbling and inspiring when other people believe enough in your idea to lend themselves to it. Ok, so I may have had to gather myself a little before plastering my event all over Facebook and Twitter but the whole R2P process has given me renewed confidence in my ability to communicate to others through writing, talking, thinking and sharing, and ultimately performing. I think it’s no coincidence that my painting and sculpting, as well as my academic writing also seem to have received a bit of a boost.

I’ve spent today having final meetings with the artists involved, gathering the hardware I’ll need for the space, making a Blue Peter style audience contributions box, monitoring the Twitter publicity spread (currently standing at 45 RTs, 7 mentions and 3 favourites), and checking the Bank Holiday weekend weather forecast (chance of rain, 13˚C).

What are we planning?  Will it work? Will anyone care? These tales will be told in the next blog. For now, let’s see what new lessons tomorrow brings…

 


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