Magnetic North Blog
In June 2019, as part of my artist attachment, I was invited to a take part in a three day residency at the Bamff Estate in Perthshire. The focus of the residency was to explore the dynamics between the family of beavers, which had been reintroduced on the estate, the land and us.
Laura Bissell has written up an excellent summary of the residency, which you can read here.
This residency provided a rare opportunity for me to experience a landscape shaped by beavers over a number of days and at different times of day. What at first looked like a really unwieldy landscape was quickly put into context as the work of beavers. This immediately challenged my preconceptions of what a landscape with a keystone species would look like. It looked chaotic. beavers are conspicuous.
What also became apparent, was that despite their relative shyness, they had set up a dynamic in the landscape that both maintained their privacy and security, but also enabled us intruders to watch them. This, I observed was not unlike the performer / audience dynamic, except instead of your two metre clearance, was a pond, and the pros arch and cyc. was a massive Rhododendron.
This was of huge interest to me. This is a dynamic I understand. This is performative.
In response to this, along with colleagues, we filmed ourselves building a dam and ended up showing the film in the main house in Bamff. But rather than just watch the film, the rest of our colleagues had to stand at a distance from the ipad on which we were sharing the film, and view it through binoculars. So it became less about the film, but the act of observing on terms that were not our own. The frustration at not being able to see properly through binoculars, at not being allowed any closer, at the image being an imperfect composition, at not having the usual performer / audience contract honoured.
Another example of us (me) imposing something inherently anthropocentric on another species.
We'd love to ask how we can support our network of artists in these strange times.
Independent artists are used to uncertainty, it goes with the territory, but at the moment it feels like the ground is shifting underneath us all. Isolation is something that all artists feel at times, but right now it feels more important than ever to consider what we can do to help each other. With this in mind, do you have any thoughts about how we might usefully facilitate connections over the next few weeks? There seem to be plenty of Facebook groups springing up, so it doesn’t seem worth adding to this burgeoning field but we could perhaps run regular group video chats, or have an ‘art-buddy’ scheme. You will certainly have better ideas, so please let us know what you want from us.
With best wishes from all of us at Magnetic North,
Nick, Verity, James and Caitlin.
That sequence of words is recognizable to many English-speaking people. Most of us will have had a go at saying the famous tonguetwister out loud; enjoyed the slips and stumbles as we try to say it faster and faster. Some of us might have even questioned its origin – who sells seashells by the seashore? (It’s believed to be about Mary Anning, an early 18th Century scientist who collected fossils).
Tonguetwisters are fun. They’re weird and silly. They’re an odd language quirk that seem to appear in languages across the world. Sometimes they have historical roots (like Mary Anning’s seashells); sometimes they can be deliberately constructed to make the speaker say something rude: I’m not a pheasant plucker, I’m the pheasant plucker’s son. (I sort of love that side of tonguetwisters too. There’s a cheekiness about them.) And sometimes tonguetwisters are just plain bizarre, full of weird imagery: How much wood could a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood? (I don’t know, but now I’m picturing a small rodent throwing piles of sticks into the air…)
So, I had this idea to create an arts project based on international tonguetwisters. Seashells will be a video artwork where I perform a series of non-English tonguetwisters wearing costumes inspired by the imagery in the rhymes. As a musician I’m drawn to the rhythms and tempos that occur in tonguetwisters, and I’m hoping to exploit their musicality even more by not knowing the full language behind the selection of words I’m saying.
I’m currently working at North Edinburgh Arts (NEA) with community participants who have English as a second language. They’re teaching me their favourite tonguetwisters and I’m attempting to learn them. I’m also working in collaboration with brilliant costume designer Ali Brown who’ll design and make the costumes for the video. Ali and I have been attending the Knit ‘n’ Natter group at NEA. We’ve been bonding over knitting needles and creating weird bright pink wooly tongues for one of the costumes. And I’ve been working with people learning tonguetwisters in various languages including Kurdish, Bengali, Arabic and French.
Here’s my favourite tonguetwister that I’ve been taught so far:
Kolikatar Kakoli kakaki kohilo, kaka kaak keno kaka kore? (Bengali)
Kakoli from Kolkata asked her uncle, uncle why do crows make the kaka noise?
You can expect to see me struggling to say that in the Seashells video wearing a fully knitted crow costume!
I'm doing another drop-in session to learn more tongue-twisters on Friday 23rd August at North Edinburgh Arts from 1pm-4pm.
Seashells is funded by the City of Edinburgh Council Culture Service Project Fund in partnership with the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo and supported by Magnetic North.
I’m on the other side of the world, at the almost northernmost point of the north island. This is Cape Reinga, where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean in a spectacular swirl of currents. It is a sacred site, steeped in spirituality; for Māori, this is the place where the wairua (spirit) of their recently passed loved ones depart to the afterlife, their homeland Hawaiki.
If you travel over the river Forth on either the road or rail bridge at the moment, you see an extraordinary sight: the almost complete new Forth road bridge. Watching a bridge being built is an amazing sight, it always makes me appreciate the astonishing feat of engineering that a bridge is. Too often, we travel over them, taking them for granted because they’re just there. But can you imagine the leap of faith that was necessary to build the first bridge? Maybe someone found a fallen tree over a stream and used it to get over. Maybe then, someone thought that they could move that fallen tree to a better place? But how do you get from that, to building stone bridges? And from there to building huge suspension bridges?
The development of bridges from fallen trees across streams to structures two miles long connecting islands is a beautiful example of a long term collaboration. Over thousands of years, the gradual refinement of the idea continued, sometimes led by improvements in technology: the development of steel wire in the 19th century enabled spans and loads to increase hugely. Sometimes by vision: maybe someone asking the question ‘why shouldn’t we bridge that gap?’ Sometimes by necessity: ‘how much time could we save if we could go straight over there, rather than going round?’ This strikes me as a metaphor for artistry. Some leaps have arisen from technological developments – steel strings rather than gut, for example – others from a creative leap – someone deciding that rather than a narrator and chorus, a character could step forward and speak for his or herself; or both - perspective required both the imagination to understand it was needed, and the technical understanding to codify it.
I remember being shown a slide of the painting "Christo Morto" by Mantegna at school and being startled by how daring the foreshortening was and how modern it seemed, even though it was 500 years old. But whatever the root of a development, and no matter how sudden or gradual a development is, it is always a collaboration between the past and the present. So just as we couldn’t have the new Forth bridge without someone putting a felled tree over a stream thousands of years, so we act as creative bridges between what has happened before and the potential for something else to happen in the future. How we interpret that is a matter of choice. Do we want to acknowledge what has gone before us? Or do we want to ignore it? Either is a choice, but we have to be aware of the choice. The worst thing is either to ignore the past without knowing it, or to assume that received assumptions are correct. When Marcel Duchamp did this:
It was an apparently simple act of defacement, but there are several layers of meaning within the act – by defacing this particular image, he not only changes perceptions of what constitutes a work of art (Duchamp’s contention being that anything can be a work of art if an artist decrees it one), he defaces an iconic ideal of beauty. But by using a cheap, poor quality postcard reproduction, he also draws attention to the degradation of the image that has already taken place, he questions whether we have unthinkingly accepted it as a great work of art without ever really looking at it. He looks back into the past and forward into the future at the same time and knows he is doing it.
But are we just our own bridges, connecting past and future, or are we part of a whole system of bridges, rivers and streams? Should we see ourselves as part of a network of connections and links – linking audiences to our work, to other people’s work, linking us to other artists and other artforms. Are we part of a great tradition that progresses inexorably from one thing to another, or are we part of a net that stretches all around us? Is our job as artists to look for the tiny capillaries of connection as well as the thundering road bridges we can see from miles away?