Saturday 1 January 2022

the transient bliss of being alive


I really hope this year is a good one for you and those you love and that maybe, just maybe, those that are profiteering in the billions from the manufacturing of covid vaccines, get their act together and distribute their products (or their magical blueprints) to the vast numbers of people around the world who as yet, have no access to their gold dust. Good old Pfizer.

"According to CNN, vaccine sales alone were responsible for 60 percent of the profits as vaccine revenue rose to $14.6 billion from only $1.7 billion a year earlier."

The market continues to ensure the seamless transformation of a pandemic into some permanent endemic state, where new variants will undoubtedly flourish and the coffers of the rich will fill to the brim as the poor, marginalised and vulnerable conveniently disintegrate. Sounds like a win-win situation for those with their eyes on the dollar. A market-driven disposal of those dependent on the state. Then there’s our arrogant and seemingly untouchable political elite…
The CHWA at the Herbert. Image Jenny Harper
Thoughts on lived experience
A couple of months ago, and for the first time since November 2019, I found myself taking part in a group event inside a building! Imagine - no more than close family and friends (or clinicians) near me for two years! Well, I know you can imagine it, but if you’ll indulge me, my diagnosis of multiple myeloma - just a couple of months before the emerging pandemic was beginning to be taken seriously - plunged me into a new kind of social isolation.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I am completely happy romping around the coastline and up the hills in complete solitude, but isolation initiated by cancer and cemented further by all the societal impacts of the pandemic, really does take the biscuit. If life has been limited by disease, to have the possibility of wider human connection taken away, is really appalling. So it was, that, double jabbed and double masked, I took part in one of the Culture, Health & Wellbeing Alliance’s (CHWA) meet-ups in Coventry. I’m not quite sure if my lovely colleagues old and new, quite grasped how delightful the whole experience was for me, what with being hidden behind a mask and all!

Knowing that a significant proportion of the great (independently minded) unwashed masses, were piling on to trains without masks, I decided that a public transport wasn’t for me on this foray into the outside world, so I drove (I know, I know - but bear with me) down to the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum smack-bang in the centre of Coventry and next to the extraordinary bombed out cathedral and its modernist replacement. What a treat.

Inevitable anxieties aside, the meeting was a complete joy tempered only by my frustrations at not to be able to throw my arms around unpixilated friends. Sitting by an open window, the door to the large room thrown open, I was far more relaxed than I thought I’d be, and I quickly found myself part of a community again. I was more apprehensive about the prospect of looking around the Turner Prize exhibition and rubbing shoulders with the wider public, but the galleries were reasonably quiet and our hosts had gone to great effort to organise this visit, so wander around the exhibitions I did.
Though I found all the nominees thrilling, (you might disagree, but a mixture of the collective nature of the work and not being in a gallery for years, really do pique the senses) the one that got to me was the work of artists associated with Project Arts Works from Hastings. Nominated for their ‘practice which celebrates and raises awareness of the dynamic and extraordinary contribution neurodiverse communities make to art and culture’, Project Art Works resonated deeply with me. It still does. I’ve been so fortunate over the last couple of decades to connect with incredible people in similar/different communities. In New York, the extraordinary work of neurodivergent artists working with Carrie McGee at MoMA; in Brooklyn at LAND Studio & Gallery; in Manchester the wonderful Venture Arts and over in Australia, DADAA. There’s always complexity surrounding the language of different groups and projects where people have been traditionally labeled up as differing from the ‘norm’ - whatever that is - so it’s great to see these people and organisations flourishing. Language however, is something I always mess up with, attempting to get it right.

I guess that now I’m ruminating on my own mortality, I’ve got to thinking over some of the people, places and things I’ve been involved in (back to mortality in a moment) and the things that define us, and like the organisations above, in all honesty, my work hasn’t been focused explicitly on health, but rather ‘doing’ art and being creative. My own career (of sorts) began in a long closed Victorian hospital for people with learning disabilities through the 1980’s and 90’s, has been creeping back through my blood these last few months. As a young but inexperienced participatory artist in the making, I really had none of the sophistication of these contemporary organisations, but what I did have, was a fire in my belly, a large studio space and people who with a burning desire to create - and others who hadn’t ever had the opportunity to explore these elements of themselves! Words that spring to mind when I think of these people labelled ‘challenging’ are frustration, anger, desire and joy.
Lived experience is something that’s been explored by some wonderful guest bloggers here over several posting in 2021 - my big thanks to them - and I guess I’m rounding off the year with my own fractured lived experiences, which professionally and passionately have all been defined by other people’s frustrations at not being able to access opportunities for self expression (or rather they had, but it was expressed through frustration, boredom and in less constructive ways). I've constantly been inspired by the personal and collective passion that emerges when people find ways of turning ideas into something tangible - or gloriously incomprehensible!. I remember when cynical people at the Royal Albert Hospital where I was working, described the studio environment we'd created as messy and child-like, I resorted to whipping out images of Francis Bacon’s studio which quickly frustrated them and shut them up. It was about mess and exploration and visceral sensation.

What I often did was ‘curate’ public exhibitions and events with collaborators: Lancaster Litfest; the Dukes (theatre); Ludus Dance; TATE Liverpool and Lancaster Museum amongst others. In terms of the visual arts I recently unearthed a portfolio of hundreds of drawing and paintings from the days when the hospital closed down, largely dating from the 80’s. Inevitably my walls are now festooned with rather smartly framed images, the artists all of which I remember well, though all of them are now long dead. Woe betide anyone who thinks they are created by my children! Some of these paintings, now resplendent on my walls,
 are peppered all over today's blog. Of course, I am uncertain about sharing the full names of the artists. In truth, the people I worked alongside back then, have informed everything I have done in the name of arts and ‘health’, though at no time then did health come into it, and only now reflecting on those years, can I really see the liberating force of what we were doing and how those studio sessions really opened up all our lives in different ways. Those determinants of health are complex and messy and quite probably, immeasurable things. Lived experiences too, are myriad and inspiring in their differences. 
A personal call out to share lived experiences around our fleeting here and now's 
So, back to mortality, and I should advise you, there's nothing at all clinical or miserable here, just a call out from me to find some potential collaborators. Go on - read on and I promise not to give you the willies or make you depressed - seriously. I am developing a piece of work that hopes to explore the experience of living with a life limiting illness. Hold your horses - it’s beginning to sound grim - but I’m not in the slightest bit interested in doom and gloom (though of course, ill health is a pisser on multiple levels) - I’m interested in moments of crystalline clarity, of unexpected euphoria in the moment. I don’t want to focus on grief or the inevitable rollercoaster of frustration or anger, but shimmering clarity of fleeting here and now’s. What might I mean?

One of the best examples I can give is when the playwright Dennis Potter was being interviewed by Melvyn Bragg. Poor old Potter was in his last months of life and swigging away on champagne and morphine and all the while puffing away on cigarettes. It was a bravura performance and while lambasting Rupert Murdoch (he called his cancer Rupert) he described that feeling of being alive in the here and now so lucidly - in fact, he described it as ‘nowness’. To illustrate this he talked about a white plumb blossom tree in his garden, which he’d seen for years, but only now, with his impending mortality, could he really see it for what it was. It was a profound moment - and one that has stayed with me.
Jackie B
Experiencing profound feelings of love is something that Tracey Emin has recently talked about in relationship to her treatment for cancer. She spoke beautifully on the BBC’s This Cultural Life, and it’s this kind of overpowering experience that I’m looking to explore with people who regardless of their diagnosis, have found themselves unexpectedly experiencing that feeling of nowness, or an enhanced perception of beauty - and of course - the transient bliss of being alive.

So if you, or someone you know, is, or has experienced, this kind of heightened perception, I’d really like to have a conversation, which will influence a new film and sound work this year. This is something being developed alongside my scrutiny of anonymous super 8 home movies from the 60’s/70’s which I’m exploring as reimagined domestic narratives. 

Get directly in touch with me HERE.  

William R
Get Creative, Get Outdoors
Creativity and Wellbeing week 16 - 22nd May 2022
Creativity and Wellbeing week is run by London Arts in Health and the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance. The festival started as a small event based in London in 2012 , to coincide with the Olympics. In 2019 the week went national for the first time – allowing thousands more people across the UK to participate in culture and creative activities. The festival creates core partnership events, while encouraging and supporting organisations and individuals to organise their own activities. Events can take any art form and can be held in clinical settings, cultural buildings or in the community – as long as they  involve either accessing or participating in cultural activities that improve health or wellbeing.
HERE for details.

Commemorative Project
Swansea Bay University Health Board is calling for applications from experienced and suitably qualified artist/s to design and realise unique, external interventions on a number of hospital sites. These are to commemorate the extraordinary experience of staff and local communities during Covid 19, to honour and remember those who lost their lives, to recognise front line workers who put patients’ lives first, and to capture the social solidarity and support our community gave to us.
 The successful artists will respond creatively to the aspirations, recommendations and themes arising from Finding Words, a recent consultation report. It recommended creating external spaces on three sites and a number of echoes elsewhere. Key comments include: ‘A place for quiet contemplation’, ‘A focus on growth and hope’ and an interest in engaging the senses, nature, seasonality. It is anticipated that the successful artist will include an element of creative consultation as an aspect of the commission and work strategically to meet the project aims across sites.

Tender publication date – Tuesday, 04th January

Deadline application– 12.00 noon, Monday, January 17th 
Anticipated start date – Wednesday, February 16th
Project completion date – Monday, October 31st

The deadline for applications is date midday on Monday January 17th, 2022. 
Applications will only be accepted through the eTender Wales system. If you do not have an eTender Wales account, the Health Board strongly advises that you register as soon as possible.

More details on the Wales Arts, Health and Wellbeing Network website: HERE.   

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