Holding on to Wonder

ARTIST BLOG | HANNAH FOX   

www.hannahonthehill.co.uk

Being asked to write a short piece about ‘Your Life as an Artist’ is a curious task.

I remember messing around with setting up my first smart phone and being briefly puzzled by the face of the scowling woman looking back at me. There was a full couple of seconds before I realised that ‘selfie’ mode was engaged and the woman I held in my hand was me. Unconsciously observing myself was depressing in a mortal kind of way but also rather revealing in a vital way. As an Artist I spend pretty much all of my time, headspace, imaginative energies and practical efforts looking out at others. At other peoples’ communities, moments and needs and I respond outwardly to those things. For these few hundred words, though, I will turn the mirror of the selfie back on to observe and articulate who the Artist is ( it’s me..)  and how, when, what, where and most importantly why, the Artist makes her work. 

I am nearly 50 and I have been a working freelance Artist all of my life. I grew up in the 1970’s ‘on the road’ with the legendary collective of artists Welfare State International. My parents, John Fox and Sue Gill , along with many others, led this wild and evolving band of musicians, performers, dancers, pyrotechnicians, sculptors and writers. I was a quiet little girl who helped a lot. I sat under the table during meetings, collected scraps of offcuts and made my own costumes, joined in the loading of the trucks, learned my parts on the drum or the trumpet, knew my lines, my cues and set my own props. This was expected of everyone and not a big deal. We lived in caravans and toured the World making work in communities, creating wonder and sometimes trouble, giving, teaching and usually leaving behind a creative impact in the communities we visited in the form of memories, community connections, tangible skills, stuff and inspiration.

After settling in a Northern English town and finally attending ‘proper’ school ( which in itself helped to form me in distinctly different terms) I studied Fine Art at Glasgow School of Art in the beautiful, delicate and now fire devastated Mackintosh building. Dogtroep came to town, a similarly wild band of Dutch creative artists and they made a massive rambling theatre show, Camel Gossip, in the Tramway building when it was still a semi derelict tram shed full of stinking puddles and pigeons. They were seeking a few local artists to get involved and so I joined them. Again, I witnessed extraordinary and surreal art at work crafted by dreamers and makers who worked incredibly hard and knew their stuff. ‘Wonder’ seemed to be their staple and they had developed methods and approaches that were robust and practical to reliably conjure the wonder night after night to audiences of hundreds. These artists were not afraid of magic and they took it very seriously. This epic show formed another formidable apprenticeship for me.

After this immersive, invigorating and terrifying ‘placement’ I was asked by the Artistic Director to join their company in Amsterdam. She knew ‘I got it’ and worked hard. I understood that washers and rivets were as important as wigs and solos and I was tough. I ran away with Dogtroep for 5 years of International site specific performance.

It’s worth spending so many words on these origins because it is fundamental to who I am and my methodology as an Artist. I continually hone my craft, in whatever art form I am utilising, to structurally and reliably hold the wonder for others. It’s often a fragile thing, fleeting and surprising so it’s important that it doesn’t fall down. Badly held or broken magic is worse than no magic at all. 

I work across many art forms making public work; films, digital animations, projections, theatre shows, installations and constructions. I utilise whatever art form best suits the idea, the context, the purpose and the budget. I am commissioned to work Internationally, both inside and out, sometimes on my own, but often pulling teams of other artists together who bond their diverse skills to create a more complex work. Sometimes budgets are massive, sometimes tiny. I am asked into settings; a community, a landscape or a conundrum that needs an artistic response, process and outcome. I meet, talk, draw, listen a lot, ask many questions, look around the back, talk to the people up the road, think, sit and dream and then I know what is needed and what I can do. I don’t call myself a Community Artist but an Artist who works in context. This response might be designing and building an interactive installation for hundreds of families to experience at a free festival, working within a community to craft and tell the stories of their estate or village or animating a set of fairytale films about resilience, fear and hope for children to access and explore with activities during the Covid 19 crisis lockdown. 

All the work I make has a purpose and I tether the art tightly to the purpose. The purpose shapes the work and the art must respond and bend to the how, when, what, where and why.  The art is the tool to fulfill the purpose and, although it is free to soar in surprising directions, it must always serve the purpose, for responding with care to the context, the job in hand, is the work. My role is, in many ways, simply to hold the space.

Having taken this selfie and probed at my practice to briefly describe it on ( digital) paper I can recognise that my work is direct, daringly simple. It seeks to be connected, meaningful and beautiful, welcoming in participants rather than spectators. It endeavours to be playful and imaginative, to make an impact where it matters, to frame a different perspective with depth and honesty and most especially, during these terrifying times, to hold on to wonder.

Cultural Literacy and Public Art in a Global Pandemic

Introducing Pippa Hale, Artist

I was fortunate enough to encounter Pippa Hale’s work through the Special Interest Group’s case study of the project ‘Walking in Others’ Footsteps’ run by Mirador Arts, a highly active, charitable Community Arts Trust based in the North-West of the UK. The sub-project for which she was responsible was called ‘Skip, Play, Repeat

‘Skip, Play, Repeat’ involved re-enacting street play activities of previous generations of children by recrafting the artefacts which were commonly used at the time. Children of all backgrounds from schools in Preston took part in outdoor events in which they learnt how to master the special skills demanded by the newly refashioned ‘toys’.  But this was only the start. An extensive interview with Pippa for the case study and a visit to her website bore witness to the range of her creative vision and to the impact her recent work was having in the Leeds area.

Many professional artists who rely on commissions and externally funded cultural projects to further their contribution to community wellbeing find themselves constrained by the cutbacks in local government support, party political interests and the priority given to large scale economically driven projects which are dependent on the private sector. Other drawbacks are the limited timeframes of funded initiatives whose sustainability UK Research and Innovation and The Arts Councils have only recently begun seriously to address.  And then there is the small matter of COVID 19.

How would leading artists such as Pippa survive the present crisis? 

Her varied work in sculpture, installation, co-curation and infrastructural initiatives such as the establishment of prizes and new cultural venues was beginning to make real inroads into the Leeds environment. Like other self-driven, multi-talented, entrepreneurial artists with a strong sense of mission, she was clearly a core catalyst in the cultural renewal of the City. Her personal blog below gives a sense of the challenge facing her and others like her.  It is an aspect of cultural literacy which will be explored in greater detail in subsequent entries on this site and elsewhere.


Pippa’s Blog
Cultural Literacy and Public Art in a Global Pandemic

Being an artist is a struggle at the best of times, but the Covid-19 global pandemic is having a devastating effect on the cultural sector, the ramifications of which will be felt for generations.

I’m a contemporary artist who works with heritage venues, galleries and in the public realm,  making works that respond to the history, people and geography of places. Since having kids of my own, I’ve also become interested in play and its correlation to creativity. Projects are commissioned by local authorities, museums, private companies, educational institutions and arts agencies and have included works in sound, film, events, iron, found objects and foam. Sometimes the works are permanent, sometimes they are temporary, but the overall narrative is about rooting artworks to their location, connecting people to their history and place and each other.

Issues confronting artists working on public projects / What are main challenges professionals in my position have to face?

Being an artist, no matter what your practice, is a challenging career choice. Whilst it can be enormously rewarding, it necessitates incredible amounts of self-discipline, chutzpah, humility, persistence, resilience – not to mention creativity. At no time is this more true than when working in the public realm. Whereas galleries have experienced staff who support the presentation and dissemination of contemporary art, public art can be commissioned by multiple partners who perhaps haven’t worked with artists before.

The impetus to commission works of art for the public realm are varied, but are often political. Artists are often brought in at a time when places are undergoing change and artworks are commissioned to smooth the planning process or to sweeten local communities.

What kind of contribution does my work make to the ‘cultural literacy’ of communities?

One of the first things I do when working on a new commission is to connect with people in the local area. I never assume they have an interest in contemporary art, but I know they are passionate about the places in which they live and work. Talking to them is crucial when trying to get to know a new place as it builds up a personal picture of somewhere that is based on memory and local networks rather than the official stories recorded in regional archives. I can get a deeper understanding of how that community and its culture interact and it’s those conversations that ultimately inform the artwork.

At the end of the day, I’m making a new thing for that place, be it an object or an event, something that will simultaneously connect contemporary communities to the past and to current debate.

I believe good public art is essential because it reflects who we are as a society, our values and beliefs, our pasts and presents and adds depth and meaning to our cities, towns and villages. In recent weeks, public art has been at the forefront of contemporary debate with the toppling of memorial statues in Britain and the USA. Now, more than ever before, public art has an important role to play in defining who we are a people, a society, a nation. Now is the time to be commissioning new works of art to reflect these times and to provide a legacy for the future.

Unfortunately, this moment is happening during a global pandemic where arts funding for new projects has been shelved as public and private bodies redirect their funding to meet the immediate financial needs of arts organisations. And of course, we hardly dare imagine what that new landscape may look like, let alone ignore that niggling worry that these funding streams may never come back on line.

Dealing with these issues as the future unfolds is a topic I hope to be able to discuss publicly: through the medium of this website, as well as through workshops, presentations and other fora which build on what has already been achieved, not only in Leeds but elsewhere in the UK and abroad.

Pippa Hale, Leeds
June 2020

Cultural Literacy in lockdown

By Robert Crawshaw, April 2020

Tuesday 17th March 2020 found us desperately trying to leave France.  We had been about to embark on a seven-day, guideless, ski-mountaineering tour in the area of Mont Thabor in the South Vanoise, near the Italian border. Instead, after a fifteen-hour journey, we had found on arrival in Valfréjus that all the Alpine huts were closed. The small, purpose-built resort would be evacuated the following day. Our families were texting us to get out quick while the going was good or we might be there for the duration.  But how? Ingenuity was called for. Friends in Lyon were telephoned. Paris should be avoided at all costs. Macron had spoken the previous evening. Flights had been cancelled and France was in shut down. Patience and alacrity were called for. Just as well we had the language.

The train was packed – ‘bondé’. Passengers were seated or standing, cheek by jowl. Social distance it was not. Most were masked, wiping ethanol on their hands, peeling gloves on and off. Surreal. A scene from a wartime documentary. A race by ghosts in human clothing to beat border closures before the tanks rolled in. Lyon Part-Dieu station was like an evacuation centre. Movement all but impossible. Only a phone call to Brittany Ferries in Portsmouth secured us a place the following evening on the last boat to leave Saint-Malo. Literally the last. But we still had to get there. On-line reservations cut. Dawn found us in front of the automatic ticket dispenser at Lyon-Perrache.  Office closed. Travel authorisation forms compulsory. Security guards everywhere. Imagine our astonishment when, alongside a ticket, a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire popped out of a neighbouring machine.

Five years earlier, I had encountered poetry on the Paris Metro. ‘Vive la France!’ Why couldn’t the Brits do likewise?  It was only when I began researching the topic for a paper on cultural literacy, subsequently published in Liminalities, that I discovered that the London Underground had got there first and that the idea had been imitated all over the world.  Poems in routine public spaces were clearly a marker of a modern society’s attempts to inject humanity into everyday life. Was it now in its death throes?

The poem by Apollinaire was long.  Although grouped in a category called ‘Littérature classique’, it was not one of his best known. It described fairground performers – saltimbanques, even then only rarely to be seen on the streets of Paris, having for most part retreated to the provinces. Alternatively, members of the public could contribute poems of their own. The whole programme had been systemised and technically incorporated into popular experience. Trans-generic cultural embedding à la Fahrenheit 451, in a dysfunctional, mobile world devoid of people and infrastructure, policed by guards and stalked by plague.

Apollinaire died young of Spanish flu in 1918 as modernism hit the buffers. How might cultural literacy be possible now in a space-time compression where traditional educational practices had been virtualised and the very nature of physical human contact called into question. The tectonic plates of western culture were shifting irreversibly under our feet. Yet it was only days after our landfall in the United Kingdom that the implications of separation and their ominous consequences made themselves truly felt:

Un fantôme de nuées

Chaque spectateur cherchait en soi l’enfant miraculeux

Siècle ô siècle des nuages