It’s not a programme to do your ironing to, my producer, Anna Scott-Brown, warned me minutes before the transmission of, The Art of Now: Return to Catalonia (an Overtone Productions programme for BBC Radio 4), which you can listen to on iPlayer on the link above.
I’d spent the previous three days feeling like I was trapped in an elevator shaft with the lift about to drop on my head from the tension of waiting to hear it!
With such a short run up time I’d thrown myself into the project and relied on hyperfocus to develop the creative concept and refine every detail needed to retrace my father’s exile journey from Spain to England in 1939, making creative responses along the way.
We finished our recording in Spain, and my part was over. Anna and (co-director) Adam Fowler, then toiled at the edit and sound design to craft the woolly mammoth of material we’d created into a 28 minute programme ( we generated so much material in fact that the editing software groaned, registered full, and would take no more!) I just couldn’t imagine how they would do it.
During transmission I was transfixed. I honestly sat staring at the radio with my ears cocked like a spaniel – I really did – as a dazzling geology of sound whizzed about my ears seeming to stop time.
It is the most extraordinary radio programme I have ever heard – due entirely to Overtone Productions artistry. I’m incredibly proud to be part of it. It’s a rich, immersive, sophisticated listen – the imagery piles in from moment 1.
My extended family sat 60 miles away gathered around the radio, listening intently together as families once did. My teenage daughter surprised me by slinking onto the sofa unbidden to hear it.
Messages flooded in. Enhorabuena! The layering is really beautiful! Your voice sounds wonderful….
A poet watched patches of sunlight dance on the wall which she said looked exactly like the sound of my voice as she listened. She sent me a video – it really does.
The following day I heard from friends who’d toiled up the mountain of listening (like the exiles crossing the Pyrenees) to unpick the intricate soundscape. Hearing is not always a given we must remember, and in this case a husband lent his ears to transcribe it from iPlayer for his wife. An act of love and dedication (on so many levels) echoing the love which went into making this programme.
I’m immensely grateful, and somewhat in awe – I feel I’ve reach a summit. This was my dream job – an artist can ask for no more. To open up my soul on Radio 4 has been quite extraordinary – to have shared this journey with Overtone Productions is even more precious.
The genius of their work is that in each listening (and I keep on listening) you hear more layers. It took 5 times for me to catch my own voice lowered and playing under the sound of me digging in the sand – ¡Buenos días, dictator! I intone…the title of my recent exhibition, which is so so resonant in this moment of my ritual.
Having murmured into a recorder almost every day and sent endless files through WeTransfer, I realise that few people will understand my work better than they. They’ve heard me talking down my demons on my walks around Oxford, and know that I have all my best thoughts in the shower. It has been a revelation to record myself – something which I will continue to do as it’s such a useful creative tool. I will miss talking to Anna though – she has been such a wonderfully encouraging and receptive creative companion.
If you haven’t heard the programme yet I urge you to give it a listen. An art piece in itself, its a portrait of creative reliance in the face of inherited trauma. This has so much to say to us in present times.
Visual output from this project can be found on my website
(Still from my new film called, With You.)
Life’s a bit full on at the moment, but in infinitely good and exciting ways. My work with Overtone Productions for the Radio 4 programme, The Art of Now: Return to Catalonia, continues apace and is all consuming, partly because we have such a short window in which to make it. It’s also a compelling piece of work to be making at this time of high tension and uncertainty in Catalonia.
I am loving working with Overtone who make this easy for me, and are infinitely encouraging about all the sound pieces I’m recording ahead of our trip to France and Spain next week. The process of recording myself is in itself fascinating – a new form to learn about and enjoy from behind the scenes.
Mainly, I find myself thrown headlong into an intensely personal creative exploration where family history, the recent conflicts in Catalonia, and the opportunity to extend (embody & flesh out) the visual language of my practice collide. I’ve been scared at times that this could get messy, and I still don’t quite know what my journey will bring, but I feel so well held by Overtone and the various people now supporting this project in Barcelona that I’m mostly reassured and have begun thinking about my work in terms of transmission and reception. Amid the fear engendered by buried trauma (a second generation inheritance called postmemory) there is a new sense of welcome which opens out possibility. This is deeply inspiring on the importance of welcome and receptivity in both cultural and human terms.
The title to a Nora Jones song – Strange Transmissions – has worked its way into my brain in relation to recent conversations with Dr Helena Buffery. She works with me on my father’s plays and together we try to make sense of his creative project in the context of Spanish exile. She has also facilitated the reception for my work in Barcelona. It’s immensely beneficial to the preparation to have a sense of arrival for the project once we hit Spain.
Intense processing has led me to what I hope will be a coherent outcome in terms of the art-making side of the programme. I now have a plan, and it’s a pretty tight one at that. With so few days on the road – traveling in quick succession through the camps of Frances at Argelès and Barcarès, over the border at La Jonquera and then on to Barcelona – I’ve needed to think this through in the finest of detail possible.
Last week we recorded the English leg of our journey at Shipton-under-Wychwood. It was a cold and soggy day with enough time spent outdoors to thoroughly soak our feet and test out our waterproofs – mine being newly acquired for the purposes of this journey. It was a good excuse to equip myself properly and has paid for itself already by enabling me to film on location and capture footage I’m incredibly pleased with. It couldn’t have gone better I feel, and rain added a perfect melancholy and depth to the work.
So I’ve created a new film to take with me to Spain called, With You – which I’ll upload on this blog nearer the time of the programme – the still capture (shown above) has been taken over a transition. I’m excited by this effect and the way in which it says exactly what I want to convey about the layers of my project by superimposing one image over another.
Yesterday I cracked the piece for the final leg of my journey in a momentary flash of inspiration on acquiring a new and unexpected object. I can’t wait to share this with listeners to Radio 4. Tune in on the 19th March at 4pm and all will be revealed!
(I’m taking a camera which can’t take pictures to document the erasure of this history).
The Art of Now: A Return to Catalonia
BBC Radio 4
Transmission Date Monday, 19th March 2018, 4pm
Presented by Sonia Boué
Produced by Anna Scott-Brown
So I’m finally returning. I can’t help wondering what Abuela (grandma) would say?
I wish too that my father could know that I am going back to Catalonia, via the beaches of Barcarès and Argèles (where he was held in refugee interment camps), to retrace his exile journey to England in 1939.
At the age of 18, he, along with 500,000 other Spaniards, fled for his life across the border to France. I have spent the last five years building a body of work in response to this family history, and have also cast my net wider to encompass figures such as British artist and Spanish Civil War volunteer, Felicia Browne, and the exiled Spanish writer and broadcaster, Arturo Barea.
Now, I have been asked to make a programme for Radio 4 with Overtone Productions, and my question about taking my practice to Spain will in part be answered. I will be retracing my father’s footsteps and creating responses along the way. We have a very short timeframe to make this programme and so I’m thrown into sifting and planning (in ways I am very conscious the exiles couldn’t) the artistic side of my journey.
The job feels vast, and at times overwhelming in the time available – not helped by a brain which likes to canter off in 10 directions at once. Reigning in and staying focused is the thing. Here is where my obsessive nature is hugely beneficial to my work. I dig in and apply myself to the detail.
My feel for the bigger picture is pure intuition – I trust I can make the stages of my journey join up by getting each stage right conceptually speaking. My work is made easier because I can draw on some existing pieces in my growing collection, but I will be making new responses and hoping to bring them all together by the end of the programme.
I’m brimming with gratitude to Overtone Productions for pitching this programme, and feel a weight of responsibility – this is a highly sensitive history. Also lurking is the spectre of inherited trauma – as I probe more deeply into it I gain a firmer grasp on the terror through which this history was suppressed. I hear new information from my mother which confirms it and brings it closer.
I feel my father’s fear as though it were my own. As though it were live.
I conclude that it is. This is what we mean by the term, postmemory. Recent events in Catalonia serve to demonstrate how difficult Spanish history is, how tensions remain from the unresolved legacies of the Civil War.
I won’t really know how to respond until I get to the beach of Barcarès, or until I’m confronted with the entrance to my grandmother’s flat (which she left in 1975) in the Barceloneta. All I can do is plan and pack my suitcases full of artistic possibility.
Each morning I pinch myself anew. Somehow I’ve landed the job of my dreams.
Photograph by Stu Allsopp with the object based installation for the show.
It’s been a while since my last painting exhibition – due to working in other media, and in my roles as project manager and mentor – and showing my new ¡Buenos Días Dictador! work is proving to be a truly fascinating experience.
Looking back at my previous blog posts as the series emerged it’s not surprising that the paintings are eliciting a range of reactions. This is why blogging can be so important and act as an aide memoire of actions and intentions. I can remind myself how unexpected these paintings were, and the range of emotions which accompanied their making. I’m especially drawn to the following paragraph.
“Wilful imagination – powerful unconscious compass! You take me where you need me to go but not where I planned for. Like forgetting to take a coat on holiday and arriving in a storm – I am unprepared. My work makes me naked but actually I love that.”
In my last blog post I wrote about the peaceful feeling instilled by the work for someone who is effectively living in the UK in political exile, as my family were.
There have since been many other visitors and reactions. I’ve had the joy of hanging out, chatting with guests, observing how people view the works (always interesting) and catching up with the comments book.
An artist friend had been worried ahead of visiting – paintings sometimes get flattened out in photographs and she really wasn’t sure she’d like them. Seeing them in reality, revealed the complex layering and textures. This was a relief – she could tell me honestly that she loved them! I found this so informing in terms of how I often present my work online where it may not be best served unless I can arrange for a photo shoot with a macro lens and professional lighting.
It’s wonderful when people find beauty in what you’ve made, and I’ve had many such comments – but I’ve been a little uneasy on this score too. It’s been nagging at me that this exhibition can work and be read on many levels and in many ways. I worried that the ever-present menace of Franco’s dictatorship could be missed – and I have to accept that it will be in some cases – as everything depends on the level of engagement with the material that the viewer is able or willing to give to it.
This work has been called brave, inducing sadness and a sense of isolation (good!) in one visitor who shares aspects of the Spanish legacy. The sunshine of Spain is missing, said another, the paintings are icy (yes – also good!). I’m delighted when people absorb the the peculiar and surreal atmosphere of my childhood – where the dictator’s presence was invisibly felt at every turn. I want it to be understood that I’m working with a taboo subject – but can see that this takes time to absorb and retain.
In each canvas there is a brooding cloud (or form) and I hoped to capture the uneasy balance of our lives; on the surface ‘normal’ but with an extraordinary dark undertow.
Yesterday brought two extremes – one a 1/10 review in the comment book! This appears to have been a prank!
This was outweighed by a charming and fully engaged viewer, who’s written a lovely review on his Instagram account – a new immersion course for English language students based on cultural tours of Oxford. I wish him huge success.
I’m now looking forward to my artist’s talk on the 9th February. If you’re in Oxford come along, but don’t forget to book first.
11th January 2018
The day has finally dawned on the ¡Buenos Días Dictador! exhibition at the lovely Arts at the Old Fire Station Gallery. The opening is this evening 6-8pm.
The install began on Monday and took two days. I can honestly say this has been the best install experience ever, due to the phenomenal team at the gallery. I could get used to being so well looked after!
Usually it’s just me and my toolkit – though I’ve had some great fun installing shows when friends have helped out too.
But there is something wonderful and indeed magical about having the work installed for you, I have to say. Rebecca Lee, the Technical Manager, has quite inspired me with her calm precision, and a quietly methodical approach – she’s quick too. I would literally bury my head in some detail (my exhibition notes for example) a few moments later (it seemed) she’d sail past me saying she was off to find a particular type of pin. I’d nod, busy my head again, and then pause, look up – and BOOM – whatever she was working on would be done, and looking bang on right.
More than once I stood back and revelled in a WOW! when did that happen, moment.
It was also total pleasure to work with Visual Programme Director, Sarah Mossop, again. Having curated my Through An Artist’s Eye project in 2016, she knows me and my work well. Sarah is also unerringly calm and reassuring and I felt (as ever) in very safe hands indeed.
Alex Coke, Marketing & Programme Manager, has made the usually worrisome jobs of promoting the exhibition feel seamless. Her ability to translate my work for audiences, and the gentle encouragement to drop some of the art language I’ve acquired (as a jobbing and blogging artist) has been a revelation. Never has writing up the regulation exhibition ‘blurb’ been so easy. I’m not a fan of art speak really – but it can creep in.
A great part of the joy of this show also lies in the partnership of Arts at the Old Fire Station with the charity, Crisis. Thanks to the work of Participation Officer, Racheal Harrison, I’ve been lucky enough to be the artist whose show has come at the very beginnings of a gallery internship for one Crisis member. It’s been especially gratifying to talk things through with her, and to learn that my own work on exile is inspiring to her in a particular way. She has told me that my work instils calm, that she didn’t realise you could work on such a painful subject as exile and yet create something beautiful. This was a lovely moment – and it also got me thinking about my own practice.
The exhibition struck also struck a deep chord with her own experience of displacement and political oppression and we spoke for a long time about the situation in her own country. I’m now looking forward to inviting her into my studio space later this month, as part of her internship.
Being able to show your work is surely the tops for any artist. I’m extremely pleased to have works on show in such a fabulous gallery in this particular central location where Crisis members, among many other members of the public (I hope) will be able to see what I’ve been up to in my studio.
It’s felt quite odd at times to see these works take their first outing. They were made in the first quarter of 2017 (I think) but the year has been largely spent outside the studio on other projects and it’s all a bit of a blur. In the interim the number of works seemed to have grown! Did I really paint so many, I found myself wondering, and yet they’re all so familiar – each one like a dear friend I hadn’t seen for a while. A gallery space can really transform a series and help you see what you’ve achieved. Having the space to view the works together without the clutter of the studio makes all the difference.
It’s perhaps my most intimate show to date. There are all kinds of personal items, relating to my family archive, on display on a low shelf. The viewer is invited right in at hand level. Only I’d rather people didn’t actually touch the objects and move them round (they are attached)!
The idea is to create context, to show visitors the object relatedness of the work, but the shelf is also a work in itself. Pulling it together in the space was probably the highlight of the install on a practice level. Working with objects in an exhibition space is once step away from the performance side of my practice – where I make live assemblage pieces. But that’s another story.
In this exhibition I want to close a circle maybe, and bring about a further resolution of my family history. But in truth I hope I’m opening up the space for more. My determination to create a body of works, which gives expression to the exile experience is something I’ve written about many times, and each time I show my work there is a sense of a story untold. The silencing by terror and political means spills out into the contemporary – a failure in Spain to acknowledge and work on recent history continues.
¡Buenos Días Dictador! could even be a contentious title for an exhibition in the Spanish context, and as ever, I ask myself whether my work could be shown in Spain. The answer remains a question mark, or at best a maybe. And so I know my work is not yet done.