Spending the day with Roaming was such a welcoming experience, full of warm exchanges and mutual curiosities. Right from the start, our conversations weaved between history and modernity via found artifacts, bus-trips, ley-lines and pilgrim routes in the UK to refugee camps and field hospitals in South Sudan and Nigeria.
Ideas of chaos and symbolism led to thoughts about old ways and new – from wooden clubs to metal machetes in Papua New Guinea, from herding to agriculture in Ethiopia, from common land to holiday homes in Penwith. We talked about community voices and the creation of myth and memory, the passing down of oral histories and song; we discussed the act of bearing witness and taking testimony at times of great trauma; we wondered about feelings of anger and helplessness, whether truth always leads to reconciliation, how healing begins… and we thought about solidarity or being present as a kind of compassionate action in and of itself. Phew! It was a great morning.
Looking at possible frameworks for our art, we shared some of our creative experiences while writing and painting, e.g. using subtitles or fragments to help form an essay or using imagery in art to represent deep layers of emotion or thought. I admired all the different works of art in the exhibition and at Breadline and I heard about some of the ways in which paintings can reflect the individual self as well as speak to a wide audience.
A lot of our discussions seemed to take on the theme of borderlands: ideas of migration in Europe - birds and people; different cultural beliefs about the living world, the spiritual and the liminal zones between. We hopped quite easily across the traditional borders of art to examine it as gesture, as tool, as communication.
Over a deliciously spicy Mexican lunch we shared ideas about veganism and vegetarianism and looked at the sorts of dilemmas and wobbles that exist in everyday lives – whether finding affordable ways of living and traveling in and out of Cornwall, or coping with ‘normal’ life after working in humanitarian emergencies. There were thoughts about right and wrong: whether ‘wrongs’ can be mistaken by-products of good intentions (we discovered ‘evil’ is a word that some of us struggle with!) and how solutions to one problem can sometimes cause unintended consequences, both at political and individual levels.
In the afternoon we collected the exhibition from the Redwing Gallery and I enjoyed reading some short excerpts from my writing. The pieces were mainly set in field hospitals or refugee camps and reflected on relationships and meaningful dialogue between people: patient and practitioner, outreach worker and mother – those micro-relationships contrasting greatly with the larger bureaucratic systems and political backgrounds against which they are sometimes set. At one point I was pleased to receive a standing ovation from Olive, Laura’s dog, who shook herself to show solidarity with the refugees’ animals who can also suffer in the chaos of motion.
It was an active, gentle day of finding common ground and connection through story, art and companionship. I was impressed by this group of engaged artists and found them a real inspiration and example of how making space for one shared passion can bring people together and spark conversations about so much more.
Frances Orrok works with people in crisis and her humanitarian work has taken her to Cambodia, Nigeria, South Sudan, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, South Africa. She is currently working on an essay collection and writes between Cornwall and New York.
LW - I was in Preston this weekend and took the opportunity to visit two of my artist friends there.
Bernie (and David) gave me these wonderful jars of jam and marmalade they had made and delicious homemade pikelets, a Lancashire delicacy, for breakfast. It's interesting how homemade or homegrown food so often provides a context for meetings about art. Bernie is a community artist, she worked for many years for Prescap an organisation forced to close, like so many others, as a result of the government's austerity measures. Bernie continues to work in the community independently. She showed me some wonderful garlands of origami flowers that she is currently producing with a community group for an event somewhere. Bernie has vast experience of working with all kinds of groups of people and also the background, unseen work that enables these things to happen. We talked together about how it is sometimes people observing the kind of work we do and how we do it, who identify what is actually happening in terms of value and community development. It seems the processes of putting together a day or more of art workshops can be quite intuitive and as a result the decisions taken, which may in fact be quite complex, seem to be very simple and obvious to us as artists.
Barbara (and Andrew) is primarily a musician but is nowadays concentrating much of her time on drawing and painting. She is concerned with learning accuracy in life drawing in order to then be able to work more instinctively. The process, I think, is rather like practicing scales in order to be able able to perform a piece of music with skill and sensitivity. While she was showing me her work I spotted one or two of my raku pots that I had made more than 25 years ago when I lived in Preston and used to fire them in the yard behind Barbara and Andrew's house (usually to the accompaniment of violin lessons, french horn practice and once, quartets). We talked a little about who or what the work is for and how important this question is in making work. Barbara also showed me what she described as a deliciously simple soup she was making from butter beans, garlic and fresh herbs cooked slowly together in her Aga.
I am considering these meetings and what I can take from them for Roaming.
Anthony Schrag's walk from northern Scotland to the Venice Biennale, Lure of the Lost, has been the occasion for a number of discussions over the past week. We talked it over with Janet McEwan, who called it to our attention, with those who joined us at Roaming last week, and with Anthony himself (e-mail). Even before he actually begins the walk, the design of the project refers to a pilgimage, a journey requiring a firm commitment of time and energy as well as a sturdy faith, for such a trip can hardly be without danger and discomfort, and a pilgrim must rely on the kindness and sympathy of many strangers on the way to a destination of acknowledged significance.
Only for the members of Roaming, Venice is not a destination of acknowledged significance. Some understand that the city hosts what is probably the single most prestigious art exhibition in Europe, if not the world, every other year. Still, that world is far away, and the people in it adhere to a different faith.
A recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement (10 April 2015) contained, in its "Commentary" section, piece by Matthew Bown entitled "Traces of the holy: the contemporary art work as 'crypto-relic'" (pp. 14-15). The essay sets out to gain an insight into how the art world generates monetary values that are utterly incomprehensible to many outside that world, how an object that would be considered trivial or disgusting in almost any other context can command princely sums as art. Bown proposes that there is a system, and that it is corresponds to the object's material, bodily relationship to the artist. He goes on to draw a persuasive comparison between this system and the one that generated the -- sometime astonishing -- values of relics in the medieval church: a relic did not need to be beautiful or well-crafted, and did not need to have any use value at all. It needed only to have an authentic material connection to the saint.
I'm not sure how far the metaphor goes, how much it actually explains. Perhaps it does help to describe a relationship between art and faith, and to identify a very particular kind of faith that sustains latter-day art pilgrims.
This is a page for notes about how Roaming is related to contemporary art as a whole. We hope the contributors list will expand.