Looking back at May 2018 visit to Southampton. ArtfulScribe Writer in Residency at John Hansard Gallery

After spending the last ten days in Southampton on my writing residency at John Hansard Gallery, I have a lot to look back on.

The Gerhard Richter exhibition provoked a lot of thought in me. In particular, an installation that caught my imagination more than I had anticipated when I read about it was 48 Portraits (1971–1991). It’s a subtly effective work that, although it uses the techniques of other Richter paintings, floats layers of potential relations between 48 individual portraits of notable men from the end of the 19th century/start of the 20th century in ways that insinuate lead a long way from the questions of image surface and relationship to subject that preoccupied me with other works in the exhibition. (I’m thinking of the Abstract Paintings Skin, Silicate and Grey made from images of surfaces of milk showing vibration patterns, and that I’m currently visually noting the similarities of to the top surfaces of clouds that I’m flying above on my way back to Edinburgh.) Maybe the deepening of engagement with 48 Portraits happened because I (and others I talked to) already had strong imaginative connections with some of the 48 men depicted, and no conscious connections at all with some of the others; it made for a bumpy and changing reading as I looked among the faces that gave or resisted my recognition.

I picked out the composers amongst the line-up first, familiar with some of the very same images that Richter had gleaned, from my own childhood readings of music encyclopedias – Anton Bruckner photographed with his seemingly taken aback expression has always mentally illustrated for me the stories about him being the more country cousin to the sophisticated Wagner, though now I wonder how much of that was in any sense true and how much snobbery. With their names displayed beneath each Richter-reproduced image, there were occasional shocks as you got close to read a name and realised this was the face of someone you knew about but hadn’t seen represented.

Paul Claudel, one of 48 men represented by Gerhard Richter in 48 Portraits (1971–1991). Image from John Hansard Gallery, May 2018.

Paul Claudel was one such for me – I knew about him from a mention in (one version of) Auden’s poem In Memory of W.B. Yeats. It was peculiar to see him looking so modern in his sciencey spectacles, having thought of him as already far back from the himself dated-seeming, mannered, young Auden. With all these men’s heads and gazes suspended indefinitely, you could daydream about the connections between them all and how their world shaped the time that followed.

I write about my thinking around this work in my poem-text written this visit. It’s turned out to be a long poem, and takes in my April visit (when the installation of the Richter exhibition had begun) and then the day before the exhibition opening, and the preview itself, ending with the writing drawn from the 48 Portraits. Incidentally, the portraits are also incredibly beautifully installed in the Barker-Mill gallery, a self-contained and well-proportioned space in the centre of John Hansard’s new set-up. The presentation really brings you close, into an audience with these faces. I can’t imagine a better way to see and think with this work. Please travel to see the show if you can before it closes on the 18 August.

Jane Birkin and Iain Morrison at the staff club, Highfield Campus, May 2018.

On my visit I was also able to have a much looked forward to lunch with writer and artist Jane Birkin, who works in the archives at Southampton University and whose presentation I had very much enjoyed at the Immediacy! Research Day I’d taken part in back in January. She had shown a very successful work there that used moving image footage of details of a still photograph and drew on the craft of carefully-neutral archival image descriptions to curate an encounter with the image in a faceted way.

There seemed a fruitful discussion to be had given the ways we both in our work started from the point of records/traces. The differences seemed fascinating to me, with Jane’s starting point being images collected and deposited by others and held in a structured system, and my note-taking and filming being more obviously subjective, yet still trying to keep a broad lens on the systems that supported what I was investigating: the public and slightly private life of John Hansard Gallery and its audiences.

Jane and I got onto a good track about the status of description within writing, and its categorisation, often, as an inferior tool to discuss, something that Jane I think challenges. I was interested in how observation (which I felt was a word to describe what I was doing during my residency) differed from description. I came to think of it as being something about intention. But then maybe Jane’s approach in her work is to observe the description? It’s all so interesting. I like the word ‘observation’ partly because it seems so mid-twentieth century with echoes of the faith in science that I associate with that space-race time. The Mass Observation project is also something thing I’m connecting in my head, the ongoing systematic recording of the similarities and different trajectories of human subjects in Britain over a long period of time. And this in turn brings me back to think about the Richter portraits, which feel a related way of taking a spread-out snapshot of a generation or two.

Jane also introduced me to the artist Walter van Rijn who is making an epic work for Hansard’s next show called Unconsumable Global Luxury Dispersion, which is working with the titles of every single work shown in the old John Hansard Gallery site. For a look at how he’s organising and shaping that enormous data-set, look at his instagram for the project here. I think there are going to be interesting connection between our projects to talk about over my remaining visits.

And finally, because it’s definitely part of the pleasure of the residency for a weathered Scot like myself, here’s a picture of my writing station on Sunday, in a beer garden in Winchester just up the road from Southampton. My body doesn’t know what to do with all this vitamin D!

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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.

Artfulscribe writing residency: Sampler week at John Hansard Gallery

Studio 144, John Hansard Gallery’s new space from the outside.

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.

Stair/Slide/Space set up in the Studio 144 foyer

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.

setting up for the Entropics reading with Holly Pester and Iain Morrison (me). Sarah Hayden introducing us.

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.

with Sarah Hayden and her students from Southampton Uni’s English Dept.

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.

 

Visiting Writer Page

The lovely folks at the Centre for Modern and Contemporary Writing (CMCW) in Southampton University have added a listing of me on their blog.

The mission the CMCW sets out of to ‘bring together academics, writers, and research students with interdisciplinary interests in the relations between 20th and 21st-century writing and contemporary culture in all its forms.’

My ArtfulScribe Residency at the University’s John Hansard Gallery has let me swim into their ken and it’s a generous, intellectually broadening experience to spend time in their company.

Just today I spotted in the London Review of Books, a piece on a collection of articles on poet F.T. Prince edited by member of CMCW Will May. I hadn’t realised before I attended the centre’s research day last month that Southampton Uni’s English Dept had been been headed by F.T. Prince in the post-war years. Prince is a poet I’ve been curious about for some time (I posted his ‘Last Poem’ on this blog back in 2012) and it’s wonderful to walk unawares into the centre of research on this rhapsodic, lyrical, sexually-charged voice from a time when many of the discussions that shape my identity as a gay/queer man within British culture were being triangulated.

Am looking forward to further time spent at the centre over the coming year. I hadn’t quite realised when I applied for the writing residency how much access I would have to this aspect of university life and it’s a wonderful boon!