Magnetic North Blog
As I sit with this idea of reflecting on Stories from Here - a live series that took place online for 30 minutes each day for a week in early May 2020 - I am conscious I am tired of hearing about the pandemic. I want to read, watch and listen to almost anything else, I’m sure I’m not alone. That is however the timing of this collaboration with Magnetic North and somewhat of the instigator. It materialized quickly following a trip home to the UK in March, Charles, my long-term collaborator, and I were in the first wave of travellers back to Canada to be asked to go into immediate isolation. A few days in, on a video call, a trusted friend and curator asked candidly and somewhat expectantly 'what are you thinking? What are your thoughts about working in these times? How is your work responding?’ Back then our honest answer was we were still sort of stunned, stumped, as an artist who works within the public realm, what do you do when that realm is shrunk to your bedroom, what is and how do you work with this ‘context’? His question however continued to touch a nerve (as I think he intended). Over the next couple of weeks Charles and I talked a great deal about art and the idea of social practice and what it means in this global and equally local context? We returned time and again to something a City of Calgary lead flood management strategist said to us in the cafeteria of the municipal Water Centre a week after the 2013 devastating floods in the city: ‘we need artists now more than ever’. He didn't mean filling sandbags (although artists did that too). Of course in my heart I knew he was right, art is no less vital in these times, perhaps it's more so. We had spent our professional life as passionate advocates that art is not just a nice to have, but part of living.
We hope that you are all keeping well and looking forward to better times in 2021.
Magnetic North has just published a summary annual report for the year ended 31 March 2020. You can read it here.
An annual report is always and inevitably out of date, but 2019-2020 now feels like a different world, never mind a different year. So we also wanted to share a brief account of what we’ve been doing since March 2020 when the world changed. Magnetic North is in the fortunate position of being regularly funded by Creative Scotland, and our aim has been to use that position of privilege to keep working to support artists.
During the Covid-19 crisis we have:
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.