Last week we began the next phase of development for Is this a Waste Land? This part of the project kicked off with an intensive residency in a public access forest in Kent. In order to expand the time frame of our week there to include working at night, dawn walks, star gazing, I was really keen that we lived and worked in the woods. However it’s not possible to camp on Forestry Commission land, so after a bit of negotiation with a private land owner who owns an edge of the same woods, we came to an agreement where we could camp discreetly in the privately owned part of the woods and work in the public access space.
And so we embarked on an extraordinary 7 days with a group of 10 wonderful artists. Gradually we built a beautiful camp for ourselves – a communal area, kitchen (with mug holders and all – see picture below!), compost toilet (thank you Alex for making us a very luxurious loo seat! and to the various hole diggers). Daily activities took a bit more time – collecting water took close to two hours so it became extremely precious. Quickly the phones died or were switched off (hence so few pictures) – they seemed irrelevant somehow there and we started to feel at home amongst the trees.
We worked alongside the woodsmen who were clearing an area of forest close to us. They unloaded their logs whilst we crawled along the ground, did strange Swedish versions of aerobics (Friskis and Svetties – you really should try it!), and hauled around endless lengths of rope and bits of wood. They didn’t ask us what we were doing, but always smiled and waved and somehow we made sure that we weren’t in each others ways. I loved this new kind of ‘side by side’ experience.
Given how much time has lapsed from one phase to the next throughout this project which I first starting working on over two years ago, I’m still amazed by how much I’m dealing with the unknown. This is exciting and daunting in equal measure. I keep thinking I should know more. However much I might be interested in working with the unknown as material, (which is I guess what improvisation is) resting in the unknown isn’t a very comfortable place. Especially because I think my temperament likes to know stuff. I like to feel that I know where I’m going. I’m steering this ship – I jumped in and got a whole load of people to join me, so I have the responsibility to lead it! Yes, all true. But when some of the subject matter is precisely trying to work with dealing with the everyday in uncertain times, then relinquishing prior knowledge is actually quite important probably. It just gets a bit more tricky when (understandably) I am asked to talk about the project, and it ends up something like this:
‘so what is the project about?’
‘…urm well many things…space and how we value land, what happens to our communities in the privatisation of land, err, it’s somehow about belonging, togetherness and difference. It’s about the relentless building and destroying of stuff. It’s about all the stuff and waste and our relationship with waste. It’s about how much capitalism thrives on waste. It’s about how our bodies meet with the environment their in and how much that changes us. It’s about dealing with uncertainty, living precariously in unchartered times. err…yeah all that….hmmm’
‘so what might that look like in your show?’
‘I’m not really sure yet. I know that I want many things to be happening at the same time. I know that I want us to build things and then destroy them/pull them down/repurpose them. I know that I want the audience to feel like their presence is necessary for the work to exist/continue. I have ideas about how we might do that. At the moment we’re working a lot with knots. They seem useful.’
And then I try to finish the conversation as quickly as possible and walk away feebly.
No, it’s not always as bad as that, and actually when I’m meeting with potential programming partners and looking at sites, many of them understand how much ideas can change through the course of a creative process. But not all, and this performance work doesn’t fall into any particularly ‘recognisable’ form.
Once again, I was really struck by the group of remarkable artists who have gathered around this project; three of whom I didn’t really know and had never worked with before. Another kind of unknown. But one that I trusted. Without exception it was clear that everyone was driven by their curiosities around the work. One afternoon I was in conversation with one of the artists after lunch and the rest of the group simply got back to work without any prompting from me – how wonderful!
We took it in turns to lead propositions with the rest of the group. We made an orchestra out of sticks breaking, we walked at dawn and watched the sunrise, we walked at night and saw loads of shooting stars. Tom went searching for Owls every night; he found them and recorded their sounds. We became obsessed with tying knots and the swedish aerobic thing. We listened to internal sounds of trees (yes you can really hear them and it is one of the most extraordinary sensations I’ve ever had). We lay in the ground and listened. We tied ourselves in circles and asked endless questions about belonging.
What do we long to belong to?
What if you can’t not belong?
What do we belong to that we don’t know we belong to?
What belongs together?
What do we belong to that we don’t want to belong to?
Do you have to speak the language to belong?
We worked into and with the environment. We started to become part of it. One thing for sure, was that we were all keenly present throughout – in all our comfort and discomfort and with all of our doubts and our questions. It was a week of great vibrancy for which I am hugely grateful. When we left, there was barely a trace left and as we re-entered ‘normal’ we had few words to say. It has taken me most of this week to re-adjust and find a place and a time for writing. That world and this one that I’m sitting in now feel quite far apart from each other.
I look forward to our next time together in September on a site in Corby. I know it will be so very different from our week last week, but I also know that we will bring some of the forest with us, and that feels important.
I will write more again soon. In the mean time, thank you to Ben A and Ben M and Tom and Gian and Keren and Louise and Jennifer and Kirsty and Petra for making it what it was.
Thank you also to my parents Caroline and Jonathan Spencer who helped with some of the preparations and let us make use of their house at the start and end, and made us delicious lunch on our final afternoon.
Thank you to Our Woods who have commissioned this project and to funding through Grants for the Arts from Arts Council England.