Caitlin Magda Shepherd

"Art belongs not to the active life but to the contemplative life—not to the vita activa but to the vita contemplativa." Nicholas Wolterstorff

Month: April, 2016

Here you Are

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You’ve changed. I can see it in your fingertips. Tap tap tapping on the surface of a violent storm. A bestowed memory, taking flight every morning as the kettle whistles. So much time has passed, ticking seconds, units of accountability, moments lost to the surrender of our bodies. Those hands, those fingers. How they have become stiff and thick.

“Sometimes, they’d spend the night, and Louise would study the web of stars, imagine her place in the universe, and weep, then fall asleep to the rhythmic rock and murmur of river water.”

We would walk for days. Letting the chance of the unknown side step into our vision field, and wrap Orange cloths around our disintegrating plans. Like ConfuciusMencius – let the fluid trajectory illuminate the day, building resilience through flexibility. The big plan is just another means of feeding our fear. Feeding the fear that we only shape the edge of our intention, of our identity, of our trace. For the most, we are shaped by that which is outside of our notion of free will, of intention. And so, hand in hand, in a quiet stupor, magnified by the wonder falling into matter around us. Porto, Geneva, Leeds, Glasgow, Warsaw, San Francisco, Albuquerque, Berlin, New York. We drift, the derive. I want more, more, more.

“With the remaining fabric of her life, Louise wove together a cloth lullaby. She wove the river that raised her — maternal pinks, blues in watery hues. She wove a mother sewing in the sun, a girl falling asleep beneath the stars, and everything she’d ever loved.When she was done, all of her spiders beside her, she held the river and let it rock her again.”

And as we cope with the wild sea, that life turns in on us with; the beating incessant tide of love, complexity, wonder, the stars, ecology, the leviathan, you, me, language…I am presented with a large mouthful of meaning. John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea. 

 

Three screens, three eyes, three brains. Invisible pushed apart, yet united by time, juxtaposition and epic theatre. Tears for forgotten, smoothed over violence. A fever tamed with a Black sodden cloak. Black out. Black heart. Blackness and Silence. But through the film. I remember.  The hunting of whale fat powered street lights, margarine and death coloured lipsticks. The hunting of Black men and women, and photographing them as broken eyed ethnic curiosities. Sad systemic exploits, that lead me to question how brutal the human psyche can become. And I see it around me now. Such isolated disconnection. The Zong Massacre of 1781, where a whole ship of marooned slaves were murdered, drowned and dumped in order to claim insurance money. The Friday 13 November Paris attacks, 2015. How ignorant we are, in the delirium of our fever and the thickness of that Black cape.  The violence of now is only a continuation of the violence of then.

The sea. The undulating force, that swirls around the surface of the planet. It covers our home. 71 % of the earth is dressed in ocean. While these watery chasms contain 99% of the earths living space, the ocean also contains Akomfrah’s reality. The sea is a recurring motif in his work. It seems to me that the ocean contains ecological knowledge that evades us on the day to day. Tied up in climate change, colonial exploits, international trade, deforestation, dropped dead bodies of the Chilean Pinochet regime, water bound people of Patagonia, my vanished grandfather, taken to the early sea grave in his sailing boat. The sea makes me shiver, and like the night sky become humbled by the deep darkness of the unknown. What I do know is that the sea is a place inhospitable to the human, where we pour our pollutants, political, emotional and material. And from the ecological wonder of the ocean to it’s toxic tides, that Akomfrah dredges his narrative iconography. The themes that populate the water in Vertigo Sea, are human exploitation of each other and nature, of the soothing balm of natural wonder, of the majesty of the sea. Whispers of rejuvination and self regeneration, stories of oppression and overlooked histories, and a potent visual language that uses natural order to amplify anthropocentric  disorder. While I reflect on the meaning of one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time, Akomfrah remains intent of maintaining ambiguity and an open endedness. There is no singular meaning to be taken here. Vertigo sea is melancholic and moving. It has been described as the artist as series of lamentations or elegies. The imagery and the meaning has effortlessly etched itself into my conscious mind and Ukiyo-e dreamland.

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Being There

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Shape me

The power of storytelling is a tale of transformation. You shape-shift in front of me and our realities melt. The fourth wall slips away; we are all in this together. Intimate invitations. Hard truths and coercive spaces. How to create an environment that invites a relinquishing of plans, ideas, memories. To engage with the now. How does the artist create a micro now? What is the role of the socio -political story, and how does it help engage audiences with difficult truths, with realities that are hard to understand, and even harder to shape.

Discord

Thoughts swirling through my head as I eek out the clear cut forms of the theme, plot, poetics of my current project. Discord focusses in on examining personal experiences of housing, affordability and personal choice, juxtaposing individual freedoms against the exclusive and often oppressive powers of the housing market and governmental policy. We are not free to choose, we are sold an advert of the dream but not equipped to reach it.

For a bit of perspective here, In July 2015, the average house price for the UK was £282,000 according to the Office for National Statistics, which, if you live in London, sounds like nothing, but don’t worry, the average house price there nudged to £525,000 in September 2015. For the average UK earner, who takes home £24,648 gross, including bonuses, can only afford a house worth around £110,000. To find a job paying that much and a house that costs that little isn’t easy – saving for a deposit while paying market rents is even harder. Yet, dominant culture espouses the virtue and value of owner occupancy, but for many, and in particular the millenials, such security is way out of reach. 

Discord sets out to  demonstrate that there is more than one means of accessing housing. How we house ourselves should be tuned to the desires of the individual, and not as a form of revenue generation for the financial services industry. At the same time, the work sets out to convey that we are not free to make individual choices and shape our reality; while we strive to live the good life, we are disciplined by the dominant capitalist model of ownership, and in particular the financial service industry that profits from our submission to unaffordable notions of housing security.

So I have some ideas for techniques of creating a micro story shift. An embodied zone that invites audiences to encounter stories of the individual, battling with the invisible forces of the labour market, the housing market, and a rapidly shrinking social welfare policy. Discord will be a space that invites participants to impose themselves within an experience of discordant housing realities, come face to face with the voice of systemic oppression and dominant and stifling vales of competition, wealth and meritocracy. If you just work hard enough, you’re gunna make it baby.  By entering the House of Discord, small audiences will navigate the tensions between free will and full frontal credit ratings.

The line is broken

The Discord storyzone is a mash up of memories, associations and analysis. It is not an echo of logical, linear thought, but instead a disrupted narrative of home told from two perspectives; that of the individual and that of the state. It is mimetic of memory; of fragments, strong emotions and isolated moments. But there is clarity in there too; found through the voice of the expert. Why are we in such a social bind? Who can makes sense of the outlandish cost of housing?

Drawing on narrative techniques such as in medias res (Latin: “into the middle of things”) flashbacks and disjointed chronology, the idea is to create a tone of transformation, a narrative immersion. This interest in non linearity is not a new idea. From the late 19th century and early 20th century, modernist novelists Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, Ford Madox Ford, Marcel Proust, and William Faulkner experimented with narrative chronology and abandoning linear order. Some writers and linguists use this approach because of it’s ability to summon human recollection, but others  argue that non-linear narrative relied heavily upon inviting the reader / audience to fill the gaps. To walk into the story, to become the experience. This idea connects nicely with the term “presence” in storytelling. This is the sensation of being there. AsKaty Newton, Karin Soukup write in their article The Storyteller’s Guide to the Virtual Reality Audience

“It’s up to us to convince the audience to suspend disbelief enough to feel present in mind, body and soul.”

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Every Object Counts

From the same article, it was interesting to read about how users of VR engaged with objects, when given a restricted view, but also only a very sparse colelction of objects.Katy Newton, Karin Soukup write, that when testing Paisley Smith’s VR documentary, Taro’s World,  with restricted vision, the audience paid super-close attention to each of the objects, trying to find meaning. Among the objects was a plate of uneaten cookies, an insignificant prop setting the scene. In the test debrief, the cookies — without warning — took over the audience’s understanding of the whole scene. Participants repeatedly asked questions like, “Why isn’t he eating his cookies?” and “Why are the cookies crumbled that way? Who does that?”

Because each object seemed deliberately placed, insignificant objects took on huge significance in the minds of the audience. It is this hyper- awareness of minimal selection, carefully placed objects that help to describe the reality, but also make the audience invest, step into the world; try to understand what the objects refer to, signify and convey. Here, the creation of ambiance, or simply setting the scene is key to inviting the audience to step in, to become; to move through the fourth wall.