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Flying Solo

Updated: Apr 27

In previous blogs I've mentioned Narture, a Community Interest Company (CIC) in Ayr, Scotland. Over the last few weeks I've had the privilege of opening my first ever solo show at their new venue, SHAPE, presenting a screening of one of my films and giving a talk in their studios.

The screening was of my short film Song of a Sourdough and I gave a talk, "Doctor Who, and how I regenerated Into a conceptual artist". I know that how I became a conceptual artist is a topic I've addressed before, but I reserve the right to refashion parts of that story to fit the circumstances. In this case I wanted to focus on the ideas of regeneration and also relate it to the works on display in the show. So it picks up on different elements of what is essentially the one story.

Text of my talk "Doctor Who, and how I regenerated into a conceptual artist":

When I was wee, I was a big fan of Doctor Who. In fact, I still am. Actually, when I was really wee it terrified me, and I’d run up to my room at the sound of the theme-tune. Anyway, a bit later on, I watched the TV series, read the books, either borrowed from Carnegie Library, or bought at the John Menzies in the High Street, and I was a member of the Doctor Who fan club.

I loved everything about it… this alien with a police-box time and space machine using their brain to save humanity and the rest of the universe every Saturday night.

Among all the great things about this Timelord adventurer, one that set them apart from adventurers of the past, was their ability to regenerate. Whenever they were so badly injured that their body could not possibly survive, they could regenerate creating a new body for themself.

And so, in 1974 the well-coiffed dandy that I first knew as the Doctor transformed into a curly-haired madman with a floppy brimmed hat and a way-too-long scarf.

I was a bit baffled by this and I was not sure that I was going to get along with this new character, but I adapted as did others and through this and further regenerations the show and the Doctor have remained with me and been a part of all my life so far.

In the stories, as opposed to real life where the opportunity to switch actors is a terrific mechanism for dealing with stale storylines, contractual obligations and ill health, regeneration is not just a matter of convenience, it can only happen at a point of absolute necessity and without regeneration the Doctor’s story will end.

So, it was around six years ago I found myself in a job where I’d just lost control… it had taken over my life. I came to see quite clearly, that it had been that way for a while, I’d just allowed things to happen and gone along with it… Always on my employer’s terms and not my own as they extracted from me all the energy and interest I should have had for what was going on around me.

I was never truly switched off from work. When I was away, I was obviously absent from home life, but even when I was home my wife said I was absent.

Now, I know I have been, by many measures, both lucky and privileged.

To be in continuous employment in a well-paid job is a remarkable thing these days. But every day it was sucking something more from me and I just couldn’t see a way of changing that.

I knew I was heading towards a major crisis… a moment of absolute necessity. So, I decided to stop. It was time to regenerate.

I don’t expect you to have an intimate knowledge of Doctor Who, but when the Doctor regenerates, especially in recent series, there is a lot of glowing gold light, a massive energy release and then residual golden tendrils of regeneration energy that become the useful deus ex machina later in the story.

That did not happen.

But there was a lot of regeneration energy. I started attending some adult education classes at the Working Men’s College one called Drawing and Painting in the Studio and Beyond, one on art history and another called What is Modern Art.

Also, as a result of a gallery visit on one of these courses, I started volunteering at the William Morris Gallery a fantastic place to learn about the Arts and Crafts movement and the life, art and politics of the man himself… something that has gone on to be a huge influence on a lot of my practice.

I started going along to a folk choir and I also began working at a friend’s start-up company providing some IT help and an occasional bit of computer programming.

I dug out some old sketchbooks when I was preparing this talk and I’d forgotten how I had already been using bread, or at least photographs of my baked bread crusts in collage experiments. How did that evolve into what is installed here at SHAPE.

Through the classes I was attending and generally having more time to read and spend time visiting galleries and exhibitions, I was being exposed to more ideas and more contemporary art. And seeing one exhibition in particular, which I’ll come back to, satisfied some critical threshold criteria that propelled me towards studying and practicing art more formally.

My amazing tutor on my drawing and painting class, Clare Law, persuaded me to study a Foundation Diploma in art and design and that’s where the regeneration really kicked in.

On starting this, I went from being one of the youngest in my adult education classes, to being the oldest by quite a long way… surrounded by 18 and 19 year-olds who were budding film-makers, photographers, printmakers and musicians.

That and the teaching on the foundation really challenged any pre-conceptions I may have had about how this regeneration was going to work.

And when I completed my first project which was an audio work in which my course colleagues collaborated, I knew that my regeneration was in full flow… I seemed firmly set on the road to becoming a (conceptual) artist.

This was also the start of my thinking about self-generative or regenerative processes in my art.

I mentioned there was an exhibition that gave me a final push to start formal study in art. This was an exhibition by French Artist Pierre Huyghe at the Serpentine Gallery in London in 2018 called Uumwelt.

The Serpentine Gallery is this lovely refined looking pavilion in Hyde Park and I went there with my “What is Modern Art Class”. The first thing I noticed when I went into the gallery reception was the unusually large number of flies around.

Entry to the exhibition was through a hanging rubber curtain and its intended (but partially failed) purpose became clear... it supposed to contain the flies… the gallery was host to a swarm of bluebottles... fifty thousand of them I learned later.

They were on every surface, but most obvious in the corners of the wall-sized, flickering LED screens and on the cupola of the rotunda, which provided the only natural source of light.

Each LED screen displayed images controlled by Artificial Intelligence… constantly evolving forms… maybe a face or maybe an animal, which, like a word on the tip of your tongue, almost resolves into what you are scrambling for, before disappearing again into obscurity.

The galleries were quite cold, just below a comfortable temperature, and the walls had patches of paint scraped away exposing previous décor and leaving paint dust on the floor.

I persevered in the exhibition looking for meaning and resolution in the images and the environment, and stayed long after the rest of the class had moved on. As I had remained in the exhibition for so long my tutor asked me to document my response for the rest of the class. She also told me that a stowaway fly had flown from her handbag when she had opened it at a meeting later that evening.

At the time, not really knowing about the artist’s other work my response was a frivolous drawing observing that what most people took from the exhibition was the most portable item, much like the thousands of hand-painted ceramic sunflower seeds deliberately taken from Ai Weiwei’s installation at the turbine hall at Tate Modern in 2010.

Following that initial light-hearted response, I wanted to know more - it was an absorbing piece of art and I knew nothing of its creator.

Pierre Huyghe creates these complex environments and situations in which his agents, in this case a colony of bluebottle flies, an AI and the visitors, alter their world.

It is the combined actions of these agents and their impact on the temperature, humidity and light levels in the gallery that determine a visitor’s experience.

He said about this work:

“You set conditions, but you cannot define the outcome, how a given entity will interact with another… there is a set of elements, the way they collide, confront and respond to each other is unpredictable…”, (Huyghe, 2018).

What particularly appealed to me was the ever-evolving state of this work and that the artist could have only a limited idea of what someone would experience a week, a month or three months into the exhibition.

Coming back to that first foundation project, the audio with my course colleagues, it was picking up this idea of setting initial conditions and just seeing what happened.

I had written out the lyrics of two songs with which I was very familiar, A Song for Europe by Roxy Music and European Son by The Velvet Underground…Europe was very much on my mind at the time. I then broke these down into small fragments… a significant word or a short phrase, and over a period of a few weeks recorded colleagues, friends and family speaking those fragments.

I wrote a computer program that would read live public social media posts searching for these fragments and then play the recordings whenever the fragment appeared.

When I started, I had no idea what it would sound like, just that it would be a self-generating work, always changing, always unique. This is how it turned out…

I’ve since used versions of this in a number of ways. One was an almost direct copy of the first piece, but using three other songs.

This was at the time when the Tories in Westminster were under investigation for throwing parties while the rest of us were in lockdown. So I came up with a concatenation of song titles: You’ve got to fight for your right, to cry if you want to, for all tomorrow’s parties.

Here’s a wee extract from that featuring the voices of the teaching staff and students from Middlesex University’s fine art programmes.

While these pieces satisfied some of my probing of self-generation, they were still programmed. They did not evolve or regenerate.

So began to think about reintroducing bread to my practice.

I had been baking my own bread for a few years. Initially this was inspired by my brother-in-law introducing me to Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread videos, but this was overtaken by following the wonderfully simple instructions for sourdough in a book by James Morton – the Scottish Medical student who was on Bake Off a few years back and wowed Paul Hollywood with his bread making skills.

Then when I stopped work and began my regeneration my wife got me a present of attending an advanced sourdough baking workshop at a hipster sourdough bakery, and since then, I’ve been making bread regularly – refreshing two or three sourdough starters and regenerating the yeasts that will leaven my bread.

This process is programmed in some way, but the outcome is a product of many factors: ambient temperature, humidity, flours used, time (particularly if I fall asleep while baking), water temperature and more.

It seemed to me that both the regenerative nature and the uncertainty of the outcomes of natural bread making made it an ideal candidate for my studio experiments….

I’d initially planned to make a much larger sculpture, a city or a forest of bread towers and the sculpture that appears in the film and whose regenerated form hangs downstairs was just a model, an experimental prototype.

As you’ve seen in the film, this ended up taking quite a different direction as circumstances took over. I had never intended making a film. Okay, I was filming things as I went along, but that was simply following good practice documenting what I was doing.

Also making the film helped fill a creative gap created by a delay to the start of my MA course.

I did eventually start my MA, but the fist 6 months of that was online. I was very lucky to have some excellent and supportive tutors on the course. One of whom, the course leader Tansy Spinks, is a sound artist. Through our time of working remotely she set us various challenges including on one occasion making very short sound recordings, one each, of things we were fond of, things that were mundane and things we found scary.

Around this time, my wife and I were making sauerkraut for the first time – we had just attended an online workshop hosted by a friend. As the sauerkraut was doing its fermenting thing, in addition to the smell, I noticed this very quiet intermittent hissing sound. This was the sound of the built-up gasses escaping through the seal of the kilner jar. I decided, as you do… well as I now do from time to time, to record this as my mundane sound for my tutor’s exercise.

Over the next few months, I recorded other sounds associated with making… the crackling of bread as it cooled, the grinding of coffee beans and the popping of jelly jar lids as freshly made bramble jelly cooled and the air inside the jar contracted.

Making bramble jelly is a tradition that I’ve kept up from my granny and my mum. I remember gathering brambles as a wee boy and my granny had this massive, well-used jeely bag that she hung from the pulley in the kitchen over an enormous pan. Maybe they just seemed huge to me at the time.

We do not have anything as exciting as that at home, but we did succeed in turning our kitchen into a slasher movie murder scene when our jelly bag contraption collapsed dropping a couple of kilos of brambles from height into a bowl full of freshly extracted bramble juice.

And later I asked a friend who was a keen home brewer and had recently moved to the Lake District to record sounds as he brewed his next batch of beer in his newly purposed beer shed.

[A compilation of these sounds that I’d called Makers Kitchen was broadcast on As If Radio, a collaborative radio space operating in Glasgow during the climate conference, COP26.]

I was remembering the earlier audio pieces I’d made cued by social media, and I began to search for conversations about sauerkraut, sourdough, brewing, fermenting, coffee grinding and making jams and jellies. I’d find the terms appearing frequently but not always as I’d first expected. Of course, people were stuck in traffic jams, talking about trouble brewing or getting on with the daily grind of work.

While I was thinking about constructing these sounds into an installation, I was also manipulating them, slowing them down, stretching them. The jam jars lids popping became a low sonorous thud like a tuneless church bell. The coffee grinding became the churning of earth or drilling through rock and the spinning sparging arm (yes, it’s a thing in brewing) became the up-and-down of a railway handcar.

And so I developed the work to listen to social media for the positive, happy making terms and also for the terms that reflected a less positive situation and to play the associated sounds in a soundscape that was a reflection of current mood. The initial version of this, created at the end on 2021, In Times of Ferment, was a six-channel speaker installation that I think reflected a pretty low mood as it was in the depths of winter and we were approaching the second Christmas that was going to be impacted by the pandemic.

I’ve created a new version of this work for installation here at Shape which you may have seen if you have already visited the exhibition downstairs. It uses many of the original sounds – some updated with new batches of jam and new loaves. But I’ve added some new sounds… the sound of a dawn chorus recorded last year for an annual follow-the-sun audio broadcast called Reveil, and a tune which was composed and recorded by Tansy Spinks, my tutor from my MA, as setting for a William Morris poem, Message of the March Wind.

The installation still searches for and reflects both the positive and negative connotations of fermenting, brewing, jams and grind, but I’ve added to that the months and words of springtime to reinforce hopefulness for rebirth and regeneration.

I’m going to try and run a live version of this just now for you to listen to. Remember this is live, so I’m not entirely sure what we will hear.

Pause to play.

<% cd “/Volumes/RubyDrive/Art Practice/All Night Vigil/news feed”

% . venv/bin/activate

% python src/ macos_rss_ferment_input.xlsx --time 10 --interval 15>

I’d like you to just switch off you other senses for a few minutes and just listen for a few minutes.

I have a clip from one more piece of work that I’d like to share, consider it a trailer as I’m hoping to be able to organise a screening of this film at some time.

I’m not sure if it’s clear from the earlier film, but I’m originally from Dalmellington, or to be precise, Bellsbank, and this is a film about memory, place and impermanence.

In September 2022 I went back to the site of my grandparents’ house in Bellsbank. The house and the whole street that it was in had been demolished between 2002 and 2010. The houses were built in 1963, so they had all stood for less than 48 years. I had taken with me a tape of songs recorded by my cousins, my sister and me that had been sung in the house by our parents and grandparents when we were growing up. I unwound, rewound and played the tape on the site of the house and made a film of the event.

I started this talk wittering on about Doctor Who and that ability to regenerate at a point of absolute necessity.

We’re not timelords, so when that moment of necessity comes it won’t just happen.

A conscious decision has to be made to do it.

And then a long process to see it through with lots of support from very understanding people.

I’m not there yet, but opportunities like this give me that wee bit if extra regeneration energy to keep at it.

…And so to Narture and to Saskia and Robert. I am so grateful for the existence of this place, this organisation, this enterprise. I’ve been talking about a personal regeneration, but they are taking on a whole town with bread and art and doing it at a time of absolute necessity. I am in awe of them.

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