Each time I visit Southampton for my Artfulscribe writing residency, I coincide with key dates in my host gallery’s calendar as it makes its move into it’s new city centre site. February’s Sampler week was always going to be a particularly hot date, as it marked the first time that the new building, Studio 144, would be open to the public. The plan was to throw open the doors for a celebratory week, along with other newly installed venues nearby, in order to give a taste to its keen anticipators of what the new programme could be, and then to pause for breath and complete the building’s fit-out, before the official launch of John Hansard Gallery at Studio 144 in May of this year.
For my Sampler week visit, I had planned to buddy up with the collective Stair/Slide/Space. They had run a playful project in the park behind Studio 144 back in August 2017 to make gentle contact for the gallery with the people living and working near the new site. They were creating a new version of that project, called Conversation Station, for the foyer of Studio 144 to run throughout Sampler week. People were encouraged to build dens and chat with each other and with the collective’s members, who would record unobtrusively the thoughts and views that came up. As Stair/Slide/Space’s project already involved setting up questions and opening up conversation with the public, it seemed a good starting point for me to tease out threads of the communications that were beginning to run between the gallery’s programme and its newly constituted audience as it was forming. At a previous meeting with Jo, Abi and Diana from the collective, as well as having great conversations about how my residency might go, and about what their work was doing so effectively, we worked out that my questions for this week could float within the frames of the conversations they were hosting.
Mostly, I wanted to find out what people *weren’t* expecting from the gallery, as I thought that might be a useful collection of preconceptions that would be fun to challenge, as I was sure the gallery would indeed go on to do.
On the day I was there, it was clear that there was a difference from the vibe from when the installation had been in the park. This had been anticipated and was in a strong sense why Stair/Slide/Space were making the work in the foyer, visible through Studio 144’s big windows from the High Street outside. A hope was that people would feel free to come in and that the collective would be good mediators between the street and the new, public spaces. It was no doubt easier to be in the conversational orbit of people in the more obviously democratic space of the park. The flow of people into the gallery was less easy to manage as a continuation from the street. As there were fewer potential interactees, I felt more self-conscious about my additional presence in the set-up and was keen to not derail the possible interactions that Stair Slide Space are very good at engendering. I was able to listen in a bit to the conversations they were holding with visitors, and it made a nice context for writing, but I also found it useful to travel around the building and write notes within the exhibitions themselves. So I drew some writing from the art on show in the galleries directly, in a way that I hadn’t been expecting. And the other unlooked for source of material was the great conversation provided by the staff working on invigilating the exhibitions. Voices were finding their way in, and I was able to grow my confidence to work in an ad hoc way. There’s a hopefully juicy cache of notes which I can write up into poems to represent this chapter in the residency period.
The other part of February’s visit, was looking back and presenting all of my residency writing so far at Sarah Hayden’s Entropics poetry night. The event was held, for the first time, in the foyer of Studio 144. My reading comprised of three poems from my residency: one drawn from the old building in December 2017, one from a staff meeting in January 2018 and one much longer text from the Immediacy research day which had happened at the Centre for Modern and Contemporary Writing (see previous blog). From my point of view on the night, this turned out to be the most effective piece of writing. As I read through the long Immediacy text (which wrote-up responses to each of the talks that were given in the research day) I had the pleasure of making eye contact with speaker after speaker who was in the audience for the reading I was giving. To see their faces either perplexed or amused or pleased as I read their material back to them filtered through the distorting processes of my poem, was to feel a gradually growing confidence that my writing was recording the experience of the day in a recognisable, if discombobulating way. Sarah Hayden, the organiser, gave me the generous feedback that I’d moved beyond site-specific work to site-and-time-and-audience-specific work. I was delighted by this as it’s a real aim of the project to amplify and reflect back to itself (for its consideration) the community forming around a new space and a renewed organisation.
I read at Entropics alongside Holly Pester, of whom I am a fan! Because of the format of Entropics – somewhere between a symposium on the poets’ work and a reading – there was time to tease out connections between how Holly and I were working that I hadn’t expected and that I really valued. For example, both Holly and I were using sound-structures/repetitions/echoes that came from an awareness of music I think. And both of us were responding to either archives or notes that in some sense were indexing periods of time – in her case with the Glasgow Women’s Library’s material for her Book Works publication, and in my case with the chronologically forming notes I was taking over the residency.
We went to the pub with Sarah and her students afterwards and it was also really valuable to have conversations with them about how they were thinking about writing, and it was flattering to feel I was able to bring interesting gobbets to the conversation and feed some ideas into the way they were studying and writing.
The next visit was in April between the Sampler week and the ‘real’ opening. I will be writing about that privileged in-between experience in the next post.