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A Song for a Circus

Finally we've finished A Song for a Circus ...

Soon to be playing on the Agrifashionista site but those wanting a preview visit our MySpace page.

Karen talks at the Storey in Lancaster, June 17th

I'll be giving a lavishly illustrated talk for the Storey Gallery, 7.30 pm on Tuesday 17th June.
The venue is the Dukes Theatre, Moor Lane, Lancaster, Lancashire LA1 1QE
Tel: 01524 598505

Royal specials and some paranormal

Trying to distribute your own film can at times be demoralising & last week actually hilarious ... I received the email below from a US channel who shall remain nameless ...

Hi Nina,

I received your email and looked at the trailer. Unfortunately, ****** does not license any type of period piece programming, as it is off brand for us. Also, we do not air programs with British or foreign accents, except for Royal specials and some paranormal. Our viewers are very mainstream and tend to tune out as soon as they hear accents, so we are going to pass.

Thanks for keeping us in mind.

I don't know which I find more depressing the rejection or the 'upfront' assessment of their audience! Still if we decide to do a series on the Royals or paranormal I now know where to go.

Not just a composer ... he can garden too
Photo: Nina Pope

Somewhere & Seeds

Things are changing at Abbey Gardens with our project What Will The Harvest Be?

Last week, once the contractors had seeded the whole site with a mixture of wild flowers and 'regular' grass seed, Tim & I went down in the evening to reveal the soil for the 'seed shape' we've made. The idea is to see what grows from the 'original' soil on the site, rather than in the new topsoil now covering the whole area.

In the weeks since we covered the shape over, the plastic (protecting this soil from the 'new seeding') has obviously acted a bit like a cloche and there is already abundant seed growth in some areas! Later in the summer we hope to use the shape as a starting point for some community events.

This is just 'phase one' of a long-term project - our proposals for the garden cover 3 years of development and relate back to its Cistercian origins when the monks used the land as a site of great productivity. This year we have made this 'seed shape', which will be surrounded by wild flower mix already planned by the council - we plan to 'harvest' the wild flower seeds with an urban hay-making day in August. Next year, the whole site will be transformed into a flower and vegetable cutting garden (inspired by the Plaistow Landgrabbers) hopefully generating both community support & plants for the final design to be implemented in 2010.

Right now the site is surrounded by elderflowers - recipes this way please ...

Maryport in the ?1960's

Ye Olde Maryport

Sam Allan recently found this magical postcard of one of my favourite places - Maryport.
The town is one of the starts of our film "Bata-ville: We are not afraid of the future", and I don't think any 'Marras' would take it the wrong way if I said that you could scarcely buy a postcard of the town now, some 40 odd years after this postcard was editioned. It's just not that kind of a place.
Intriguingly, the postcard is addressed to someone in Northern Italy, it's postmarked too, but seems somehow to have found its way back to Cumbria.

Thanks to Andreas for these photos
which I've joined together ...

Summer Seed Shape

We have recently been commissioned by Newham Council to work with the Friends of Abbey Gardens to re-vision the site opposite their houses on Bakers Row in Stratford. The scheme will take several years to complete and we are currently making proposals for a series of events and projects during this time.

Our current thinking is around the cosmopolitan social and commercial hub that medieval abbeys - such as that which once occupied the site - would have been. We plan to relate historic influences (including the more recent history of the site) to East London today and the needs of both the local and commuter communities. We are committed to using the site to produce food or other distributable products, and to raising community engagement in this endeavour via a long term scheme of events. These objectives will be also be embedded into the permanent design scheme by working with the Council's landscape architect on the planting and layout of the garden.

The Council are currently rolling out an interim scheme of sowing a wildflower seed mix onto imported topsoil, bringing colour and wildlife to the area over summer 2008.
To retain a small area of 'original' soil for observation, we have been constructing an area which mirrors the shape of the nearby archaelogical remains on the site. The soil in this section will be left uncultivated, and its natural seedbank allowed to germinate and grow. After three days of hard digging we finally achieved the modest aim of protecting the shape from the seeds about to go down!

You can see more photos of the area and a large version of this one on our new Flickr Group for Abbey Gardens/Bakers Row.

Our final practice session at the bandstand

Swansong for a circus?!

Our Song for a Circus is nearly finished. Poor Tim is at the stage where it seems (to my untrained ear!) as though he's just listening to it over and over on a repeat loop.

The photo is of our last session playing with the band on the 15th of March. Sadly (at least for me personally) this felt rather as though we went out with a whimper rather than a bang - albeit quite a pleasant one.

This project has been hampered with problems from the word go - it's part of AGRIFASHIONISTA an ambitious project curated by Grizedale arts (who we've enjoyed working with many times before) but funded by the A foundation (who have a base at the old Rochelle school on Arnold Circus). The various projects were all to get a small amount of funding (not enough in fact for the amount of work involved with making a project with 'people involved') but the 'pay off' was to be a live week of performances and a web broadcast from Rochelle. Lots of artists we know and some we wanted to meet were to be involved and everyone was excited to see what could develop. It felt right from the start as though something wasn't quite right about it. Michael the amazing project manager was a model of professionalism and relentlessly optimistic despite date changes and numerous set backs for the many AGRIFASHIONISTA projects he was trying to manage. Eventually though even he couldn't put a brave face on it. A Foundation had 'financial problems' and in effect cancelled the live week a month before it was due to happen (this is cutting a very long story short).

So Grizedale now have a raft of projects at various levels of completion and nowhere to show them (at least at that point) Michael had worked on a project for months that in effect wouldn't now happen (and a bunch of invoices to pay), and we had a band of people we'd worked with for 6 months to tell that the final performance wouldn't be happening! Unlike the other artists projects, ours involved a lot time investment from other people & so we couldn't just stop - for a couple of weeks we went ahead as usual without even being to say that the situation was changing.

Anyway to cut to the final solution, our 'song' will be launched on the AGRIFASHIONISTA website as will the other projects over the next two years, as Grizedale press on trying to still realise them all.

Aside from the fact we still haven't been paid (which I assume will eventually happen) this whole experience did short of shake me. Suddenly I really had to question what it was I was doing ... going out to try and meet people from the Boundary Estate and involve them in a project supported by the A Foundation - an organisation many of them felt a great deal of resentment towards. It seemed that I set (myself) the agenda to try and promote a sense of integration for the Foundation into the community local to their base, only to actually be given the signal pretty clearly that in fact the residents were right - their views or involvement were in the bigger picture irrelevant to the Foundation's workings. Only it wasn't someone from the A Foundation who explained this - in fact we only received one carefully worded letter from them, it was me who had to host the rehearsal were I explained the event we'd all been building up to just wasn't going to happen.

Artists are used all the time to broker 'good feeling' between organisations and local communities, to 'involve new audiences' and all the other jargon terms banded about ... the irony is this time I set this agenda for myself! Nothing on our brief required us to work with local people, or do more than simply turn up for the live event ... but it seems I just can't stop myself. One of the reasons I wanted to do the project was that I wanted to know more about the area and really see what makes it tick ... and I guess I did do this. Maybe I just need to feel useful, but somehow without the final event and the chance for everyone in the band to meet the other artists and indeed the staff from the A Foundation and perform in Rochelle school as well as the bandstand the whole thing makes less sense for me. The song is good, the band were an interesting challenge, and we were the people to benefit from the project with our weekly debates about what the song might be and how the Estate operates - maybe that's enough.

However I can't help feeling frustrated that the organisation who initiated the work literally don't, it seems, want to hear it.

Musical life in the circus of course goes on without us and this weekend you can hear a brass band from Crystal Palace playing in the bandstand. If you play and you want to join other musicians afterwards Jan (our star player) will be leading a jam at NO:ID gallery, if you really want to hear something about Arnold Circus ask Seamus (our singer) if he's there ... but get a drink first it's a long story ...

The 2012 structural hole that is the Olympic Site

Somewhere - A Structural Hole?

We've begun work on a new commission for Abbey Gardens in Newham, right next to the Railway lines coming from Stratford Station & a short walk from the 2012 Olympic site. Due to the discovery of archaeological remains on the site (The Gatehouse of a Cistercian Abbey - St. Mary Stratford Langthorne, Essex) local developers can't include it in the massive regeneration programme happening all around this area. Along with the cottages opposite (Bakers Row) this little patch of land forms a kind of hole in the structure of a changing area. The site is very close to the allotments run by my friends Gordon & Louise, and on Sunday this week Gordon organised a walk in the local area which I went on.

I've known Gordon since our early days on the Internet and in the beginning he was one of the only people I knew with email, his on-line presence has remained a constant in the life of Somewhere but we rarely get to meet in person. Whenever we do its interesting though, and he often seems to be spookily in touch with lots of things we are thinking about or working on. This Sunday proved to be no exception.

I can't actually remember how the conversation began but Gordon started to talk about '*structural holes', making me laugh as I loved the term - in fact I often feel like I inhabit in a 'structural hole'. This walk was no exception, included in our little group were: Chris, of the great Newham Striders, Louise, who runs the allotments, & Lucy Harrison, an artist who I've never met but have read about due to her project on Canvey Island. We all walked to look at our Abbey Gardens site where Andreas joined us (who lives on Bakers Row but is also part of Public Works), by now I was feeling pretty pleased with the structural hole I'd found myself in on a snowy Sunday afternoon.

Just as I thought the 'linking in' couldn't get much better a white van pulled up and 'Dean' the driver started to question me about Abbey Gardens & what I knew of the site. To cut long story short he lives locally and has had his eye on the site for years, he runs the local flower stall in Stratford station, plus an out-of-town stables ... and what he really wants is to run a stable with pony & cart rides to the Olympic site from Abbey Gardens. As he was enthusiastically outlining his vision Andreas and I looked at each other in that way you do when these sort of project chance meetings occur - a sort of "is this a completely great idea/coincidence or is it just mad" look. Not wanting to stop the links flowing we all exchanged numbers: Lucy for her Stratford station project, Louise for a manure drop off from his stables to the allotments ... and me. What he really wanted to know from me was whether the site had ever been a stables in the past.

We continued our walk over the Greenway and into the current structural hole that is the Olympic site. I tried to work out where the lovely Manor Garden Allotment site would have been before the bull dozers moved in ... Chris and the others knew the site well, and could point out where familiar landmarks had previously stood.

At a recent conference about collaboration, I talked about Somewhere - Karen & I's now 12 year relationship. The chair wanted to know if there were aspects of collaboration I saw as negative. One of the few I could describe was actually what I also feel to be completely positive about working together - that we can afford to be in a 'structural hole'. Since there are two of us, we can in fact build our own little world and remain largely autonomous from art world structures most artists would perhaps have to engage with in a more sustained way. I have always felt that Somewhere spins in its own system and have been happy that way, others may see our lack of engagement with other structures as negative though.

In fact, I increasingly feel that artists generally but Somewhere specifically are asked to come into projects when a 'structural hole' develops that the existing organisations involved don't know how to fill. Abbey Gardens is just such a hole - there are lots of stake-holders, all with opinions, but maybe none with enough flexibility to move around in this hole and even invite other more tangential agents to drop in with them! I'm looking forward to it.

On the Monday I went to Newham archives and looked through old maps of the site. In 1916 the area immediately behind the site (now factories) had indeed been the "Corporation Stables for West Ham Boro.", so I guess I'll be calling Dean.

*"Ronald Burt describes the social structure theory of competition that has developed through the last two decades. The contrast between perfect competition and monopoly is replaced with a network model of competition. The basic element in this account is the structural hole: a gap between two individuals with complementary resources or information. When the two are connected through a third individual as entrepreneur, the gap is filled, creating important advantages for the entrepreneur. Competitive advantage is a matter of access to structural holes in relation to market transactions."

Thanks to Gordon for forwarding this description.

The Historic Asolo Theatre circa 1950

Next stop Sarasota

There's no stopping Living with the Tudors now ... the Blog from SXSW has hardly gone up before we're announcing our next screening. Sadly we won't be there to see this one, which is a shame as the historic cinema looks amazing ... still if you're near Sarasota book now!

Wednesday April 9th 6.00pm or Friday April 11th 6.00pm
Both at the Historic Asolo Theatre

You might even get one of our new 'Limning Badges' ... as they predictably arrived too late for our big fat SXSW Tudor party!

Johnny Hicklenton
Signing books and drawings at Austin Books

Here's Johnny

My last night in Austin this time round was the best, partly due to exhaustion-induced hairtrigger hysteria but mainly due to hanging out with the astonishing Johnny Hicklenton and his wife Claire, subjects of Animal Monday's compelling doc 'Here's Johnny'- which charts Johnny's traumatic struggle with multiple sclerosis over the last 12 years.

Johnny draws the character Judge Dredd for the cult comic 2000AD, and so as the disease takes its toll, the threat to his career and his sanity presses nearer and darker as it threatens to stop him drawing. In an odd echo, in our film 'Living with the Tudors' we meet a character for whom a serious accident jeopardised his sculpting career, though he miraculously overcame his incapacity to continue his work.
For Animal Monday (the directors) the film journey has been epic, starting as a fairly casual record of a friend's life and taking them on a 7 year journey together. The film avoids sentimentality because of Johnny's own at times brutal honesty about himself, and the humour is never far away as the charismatic Johnny 'narrates' past scenes with laconic observations on how fat / miserable he looks!
Presently Johnny's health is good due to a mere 2 and a half months on a new drug, which made it possible for him to leave the house for the first time in 5 years to visit SXSW.
Johnny possesses one of the sharpest senses of humour I've ever experienced, regaling me with incredible stories of 'behind the scenes at 2000AD' and making everyone in their hired SUV hysterical with his take on everything from obese Texans to crack deals.

Long may he continue to kick the ass of the disease he rightly describes as 'fucking mediaeval'.