Lead-up to opening for real! Southampton ArtfulScribe residency at John Hansard Gallery

In my last post I wrote about the Sampler week at John Hansard Gallery in February. I next visited in April, and the Gallery was in a funny in-between state, having been open to the public temporarily, but now closed again in preparation for the official ‘proper’ opening of its spaces in May. There was exhilaration in February at having got the doors open. Now in April, there was a sense of taking pains through the detail work with a last chance to get things absolutely nailed down, in some cases literally, before the building was permanently opened.

The installation of the launch exhibition, ARTIST ROOMS: Gerhard Richter, was underway. The work wasn’t on the walls yet, but everywhere the technical team were measuring and making the place ready. I was able to do some writing around the spaces, with the ghosting works of Sampler still visible in some places so that it reminded me of my initial visit to the old John Hansard site on the Highfield campus. Then vinyl from previous shows was redundantly continuing its indication on the wall. This visit though, a site was turning round, rather than winding up.

There was a public reading this visit, with Nazneen Ahmed and Dinos Aristidou, who are the writers-in-residence respectively at Southampton libraries and the Mayflower Theatre. Matt, who as ArtfulScribe is overseeing and facilitating all of our loosely-linked residencies, organised a lunch for the four of us to get together and share experiences. This was really welcome, as we’d been active at slightly different times, and knew about each other’s activities despite not having met. Our reading, that evening at Mettricks, was chaired by Carole Burns, head of the Creative Writing department at Southampton Uni.

Iain Morrison, Nazneen Ahmed, Matt West & Dinos Aristidou

In these and other connections that the residency is allowing me to make, I am grateful for the shared perspectives, whether it’s on practical matters such as good residency programmes and potential funders, or different approaches to the way our work engages with personal narratives. Always interesting to stop and think about your own progress with people who understand the commitments and ambitions you might be balancing as someone making your way as a professional writer.

When I returned to Southampton for my current visit – I’m here now – the mood had lightened. It was the day before the Richter previews, and everything seemed in place, or close enough to in place not to be panic-inducing. It was lovely to see the staff all who had worked so hard towards this moment, all taken complex and personal personal routes to this point, celebrating together and enjoying the attention of  interested and supportive parties like Arts Council England, the University, local politicians, artists and press.

I had my camera out for the previews, recording some footage from peculiar angles for my film poems. As ever I was trying to pull back from the art and the individuals, and capture some of the social feel and the paraphenalia of the event.

still from footage for film-poem in the making

Writing through public speeches was a subtly different prospect from previous note-taking that I’d done; the language being used was so measured and a lot of necessary ritual included. I’m seeing what comes together out of that captured and remixed language in the poem-text I’m putting together to encompass this whole period from the April visit through to this climax point.

On this visit, longer than previous ones, I’ve more time for this nuts and bolts aspects of the writing job. I’ve gathered all my finished and in-progress material to date, and I think the overall structure of the final text is clear. It will start from the December visits to the old gallery, sweep through Sampler and the Richter opening, and end with a final piece of writing from Stephen Foster, the former director’s valedictory show, which opens in September. It will be a palindrome of sorts, or maybe more a mobius band, taking us back to the same place, but somehow on the other side of the page.

Cimitero by Iain Morrison in The Detour Library

I’ve been very busy in my job for the last few weeks, but, hey, I work in the arts and sometimes the spheres of my life overlap. One of my colleagues is the artist Becky Campbell who has an interest in text and language which sometimes manifests in her practice in enigmatic ways. I have a lovely piece of hers which is a delicately sewn blank notebook and I’ve seen other work of hers that uses punctuation marks in a suggestive patterning, or has letters very carefully cut out of existing texts. There’s something stifled in these works that doesn’t get allowed to reach the point of articulation in speech maybe? 

Anyway, the reason she’s ON MY MIND (apart from the fact she’s on residency in Athens and I’m excited for her and missing her!) is that she kindly asked me to contribute to an artists’ book project she’s set up called The Detour Library. It tells you a bit more about it on her blog for it but the general idea is that she selects artists/poets to make a book (broadly defined) and deposit it in her ‘library’ which she shows in different contexts, eventually giving each book to a chosen new owner. It’s a lovely idea and I was pleased to take up the challenge of contributing. 

Click here to link to the entry for my book.

It was a challenge because, as a Gemini(!), I’m told that my natural behaviour is to start things but not finish them. Maybe true. Certainly, I like working with words partly because of the immediacy of getting the ideas down on a word doc or page fairly impetuously and comprehensibly. In the instances where I’ve published on paper, I’ve been uber happy that someone else undertakes the tricky process of making physical objects and works out how to get them to places.

I had a sort of concept for my book but didn’t much like having to recut the paper for the xth time after I’d yet again cut too much off for the cover, or unpicking staples after they’d gone in the wrong place, resaving the word docs as PDFs after going back in to fiddle with the alignment after I’d realised that the text on adjacent pages was out of line. I DIDN”T LIKE THAT BIT!

But, I LIKED the end result once I got there and I retrospectively feel glad to have done all the fiddly stuff that I’ve (hopefully) learned from. Hell, I might even do it again. I certainly liked the control it gave me of how the end product looked. And yes, I think I’ve responded to the challenge of making an artists’ book in which there’s an essential part of the meaning conveyed through the physical form of the book.

The book contains a short sequence of poems about the San Michele cemetery island in Venice. I’ll probably write more about the content later, but the form of the book tells some of the story as you can see in Becky’s fab pictures. The book is stapled into empty plastic flower wrappings – I love the bright yellow of them and it works nicely with the lime green Murano paper inside. There were some happy accidents along the way, like my ageing printer making the photographs I took resemble the faded photographs glazed into the gravestones.