Wednesday, July 20, 2022

The lasting benefits of collaboration

Guest blog by Brian Woolland

discussing his new novel The Invisible Exchange

Working with Border Crossings

I first met Michael Walling in 1996 at a conference at Reading University, Ben Jonson and Theatre, where Michael had been invited to lead a workshop on Jonson’s Poetaster. Since then we have worked together in several different capacities. We’ve established a warm friendship and a working relationship that has been very productive. I readily acknowledge that my collaborations with Border Crossings have all been greatly influential on my writing, but this blog is specifically about the evolution of my new novel, The Invisible Exchange (published at the end of July 2022), and how working with Border Crossings has been so significant in its development.

I’ve written three plays for Border Crossings – Double Tongue (2001/2002), This Flesh is Mine (2014) , and When Nobody Returns (2016). I also took an active part in The Promised Land project. The development of each of the plays involved extensive research, workshops and discussions – with Michael, the casts and those with interests in the subject matter. The processes of preparing and writing a play might seem very different from writing a historical novel set in the early C17th, but there are surprising similarities.

The historical background to the novel

Frances Howard

I first became aware of the story of Frances Howard at about the time that Michael and I first met, when I was a lecturer in theatre at Reading University, and much of my work was focused on early C17th theatre. Contemporary events are often referred to in plays of the period. Aspects of Frances Howard’s extraordinary story are alluded to (albeit thinly disguised) in several plays of the period – perhaps most notably those by Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton and John Webster. Frances Howard was the daughter of Lord Thomas Howard (Earl of Suffolk). In 1604, at the age of fourteen, she was married to Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, who was about six months younger than her. The arranged marriage was intended as a political reconciliation between two immensely powerful families. But the marriage was a disaster. Despite his inability (or unwillingness) to consummate the marriage, Essex became intensely jealous of his wife’s popularity at court, and he insisted she leave London and live at Chartley Manor, his moated mansion house in Staffordshire, where Mary Queen of Scots had been held under house arrest immediately prior to her execution. Frances was there for much of the summer and early autumn of 1611. 

On 25th September 1613, her marriage was annulled, and thus she became the first Englishwoman to successfully seek her own divorce – but in a deeply misogynist society she paid a terrible price for her fierce intelligence and independent spirit. Two years after marrying her second husband (Viscount Rochester, formerly Robert Carr) she was accused of murdering Sir Thomas Overbury, who had been imprisoned in the Tower of London on a charge of treason. No evidence was produced at her trial which would stand up in a modern law court, and she was not permitted to defend herself despite having to suffer a stream of damning accusations which amounted to little more than malicious libels. The central argument against her was that she was a ‘creature of the deed’ – meaning that if she dared to initiate her own divorce proceedings, then she must be capable of murder.

The story fascinated me for numerous reasons. Frances’s trial revealed so much – not only about misogyny, but also about corruption at the heart of the Stuart court. I was intrigued by the parallels with our so-called ‘modern’ times. Frances was treated as a femme fatale who was branded by her prosecutor as so evil that she wasn’t allowed to speak in her own defence at her trial. The murder of Sir Thomas Overbury resulted in the execution of four ‘bit-part players’ and the imprisonment Frances and Rochester (by then they had become Earl and Countess of Somerset). Frances pleaded guilty to the charge of murder, though it seems likely that this was a kind of plea-bargaining because by then she and Rochester had a daughter, and the family was allowed to live together in relative comfort in the Tower. That in itself is very strange, for if they had been genuinely guilty of murder they would almost certainly have been executed. After seven years in the Tower, however, they were pardoned by King James, and released.

All of this intrigued me, although I had no idea how I would write a novel about it – until I came across rumours in contemporary pamphlets which referred to persistent rumours that Frances was seen in and around London during the period when Essex kept her under virtual house arrest at his mouldering manor house in Staffordshire. There is no evidence in the historical records that she was spirited out of Chartley, but for me it provoked ‘the big suppose’ that gave me starting point for the novel that became The Invisible Exchange. 

Points of view

When Michael and I first met, we naturally talked about shared interests. One of those interests was the theatre of Ben Jonson. Jonson was a complex man who wore his contradictions proudly. In some ways he was a conservative. In his poetry he often champions the stability of an old order, but in his plays he positions those from the underclasses and in the social margins at the very centre, he gives them real agency and invests them with wit and energy that far surpasses their social ‘superiors’. As Peter Barnes (who also participated in that conference) put it: 'Jonson never writes about Kings and Queens, that whole moth-eaten hierarchy of privilege and incompetence, but about people like us, working people who work to live...' (1). It was exactly those qualities that appealed so much to me and which also attracted me to the work of Border Crossings, for one of the defining characteristics of the company’s work is the desire to give voice to those who have been socially, politically, historically and geographically marginalised.

Although Frances Howard was an aristocrat (her family was said to be one of the wealthiest in the Kingdom) she has been marginalised by the Jacobean ‘justice’ system and by historians until very recently. I was interested in the way the story revealed the ways that institutionalised misogyny vilified and silenced her. (2) I started on a version in which the story was told predominantly from her point of view, but I found that didn’t enable me to reveal the mechanisms of that misogyny. I continued working on the novel in various different versions over many years, setting it aside for long periods while I worked on other projects, then returning to it. It was there in the background while I worked with Border Crossings on the two Homer plays and on The Promised Land project.

The workshops with Zoukak Theatre in Beirut (3) had a profound impact on me, and on the development of This Flesh is Mine. I took a series of early drafts of scenes which I imagined would form the spine of the finished play. As in The Iliad itself, these episodes were predominantly from the point of view of Achilles. In response to those workshops the play changed in many ways. As I wrote in an earlier blog:

Perhaps the most important single change in my thinking was to realise the importance of Briseis in the narrative. She is only mentioned twice in The Iliad – in the opening pages and the final pages. The … ‘spine’ of scenes referred to above… now becomes what is effectively Act One – which is set in an ancient world.  The characters – Achilles, Agamemnon, Briseis, Hecuba, amongst others – continue through to the second act; which is set in a modern world. In Act One, the modern bleeds into the classical; and in Act Two, the classical bleeds through into the modern. And what starts with Achilles as the central character … gradually shifts focus to Briseis and Hecuba. (4)

This Flesh is Mine

The conversations with Michael and with the workshop participants at Zoukak (and at a later stage with the Palestinian actors of Ashtar Theatre) resulted in major changes to the play that became This Flesh is Mine. On a more sub-conscious level, these conversations affected my thinking about the historical novel (which was gently simmering on a back burner at that time). When I returned to working on it, I knew that I needed to use a different narrative voice, to find a central character who would have the potential to engage a reader through an unusual perspective – in short, an equivalent to Briseis. He or she would be an outsider, who had access to the corridors of power, who knew the world of the Jacobean court but was not part of it. I wrote several chapters from the point of view of a gentleman usher. I wrote chapters through the eyes of Frances’s personal maid. But found that their social roles made them too passive. They could observe, but not affect what they saw. I needed a character who could exert more agency. 

And so, after several false starts, I experimented with telling the story through the eyes of a character who had been a relatively minor player in earlier drafts – Matthew Edgworth, a rogue and a fixer who’s employed by Rochester to enable his affair with Frances. Matthew is a fictional character, although the world he inhabits is thoroughly researched. In the novel he talks briefly about how much he learnt from going to the theatres from an early age. I didn’t consciously create him in the tradition of those Jacobean malcontents who breathe such wit and dark energy into some of the plays of the period – for example, Edmund in King Lear, Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi, Flamineo in The White Devil (both by John Webster), De Flores in Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling – but that is what Matthew became, a cross between a malcontent servant determined to break the glass ceiling and a Jonsonian trickster. As Matthew puts it (for the novel is written in his voice), “I’ve never had my master’s looks but I’m no fuckwit. If a smockfaced page can rise to favour, I too can make my way in the world, even if my scarred face will never decorate the pillows of the powerful.” Matthew’s story began to develop a life of its own. The overweening ambition and ruthless cunning that he’s inherited from his dramatic ancestors drives the novel’s plot, but it also serves an additional function, giving him access to the palaces and grand houses of the aristocracy, as well as the murky underworld of Jacobean London – the taverns, the gambling dens, the brothels and the prisons. 

When Nobody Returns – seeing from inside and outside

Although I cannot identify a specific moment during the development process for When Nobody Returns which is an equivalent to those workshops with Zoukak, it’s clear to me with hindsight that the discussions with Michael and the cast, and with the workshop participants (5) led me to write a play in which each of the three central characters, Telémakhos, Penelope and Odysseus, is in some ways an ‘outsider’. Telémakhos and Penelope have been forced to become outsiders in their own homeland because of the occupation. At the start of the play (and of The Odyssey) Telémakhos is twenty years old, the same age his father was when he left home to fight in the Trojan War. He hears rumours about his father, and is determined to discover the truth about them, so he leaves for mainland Greece to seek out those who knew his father. His identity is bound up with knowing his father, living up to (or living down) the stories he hears about him. When he reaches the court of Menelaus he becomes a stranger in a strange land, and on returning to Ithaka and finally meeting his father, his sense of self, of what is right, of what is necessary to rid the island of the occupation, is profoundly challenged. 

When Nobody Returns

The main character in When Nobody Returns may be Odysseus, but the point of view in the play shifts. We see the occupation of Ithaka through the eyes of Penelope; and, as in Homer, it is Telémakhos’s curiosity that takes him to the court of Menelaus, where he hears stories about his father. Penelope has become an outsider in her own home, and her attempts to subvert the occupation are important – for what they reveal about her strength, and also for what they reveal about the inhumanity of the occupation. Telémakhos is an outsider in search of the ‘inside’ information that will lead him to his father. And his father, Odysseus, is a stranger to himself, struggling to come to terms with his own identity as he battles those demons that still haunt him after his experiences of war. And throughout the play there is a continuing interrogation of what we mean by home – what draws us back, what keeps us away, and what happens when the solid certainties of home become unstable, whether through occupation or trauma.

Thematically, a number of similar concerns run through The Invisible Exchange. Matthew Edgworth is both an insider and an outsider. Like Odysseus, he’s a shape shifter, a master of disguise who can adapt to different social situations; and like Odysseus, he’s renowned for his cunning, but he is a dangerous man; a danger to others, and ultimately a danger to himself. But there are also echoes of Telémakhos in his characterisation. For all his roguish cunning, there’s a softer side to Matthew than the character he seeks to present us with. As Kate (Frances Howard’s maid) says to him: ‘You are not so heartless as you pretend.’ And the relentless curiosity he shares with Telémakhos makes him open to the different cultures he encounters. He’s successful as a trickster because he can use the desires of those he’s gulling against them. But to do that successfully, he has to be an attentive listener and to think as others think As he says about working for Rochester, ‘… the trick of it was to plant the seed, give it time to grow, then be astonished at his razor wit as the seed sprouted and the plan became his own.’ In the course of the novel, he meets four strong, powerful women, each from very different backgrounds: Frances Howard, the aristocrat; Alice, a woman he finds working as a prostitute; Kate, Frances’s personal maid; and Hannah, a cunning woman. He assumes he can manipulate and exploit them. But each of them challenges his certainties. Despite thinking he can work for Frances as well as Rochester, that he can play them off against each other to his own ends, he realises that Frances is ‘as ruthless as any of the men in her family, and far shrewder than her lover or her husband.’ I’ll leave the reader to discover how Matthew is confounded by his dealings with Kate and Hannah. It is, however, important to mention Alice, for her character evolved in response to our experiences of The Promised Land project. Matthew first meets her when he visits a brothel, ‘the House at the Sign of the Vixen in Petticoat Lane. I’d come to see Diego, the broker for the house. He owed me favours.’ Matthew sees a common prostitute. Alice, however, is not what she seems. As she herself says, ‘No matter where you found me, I’m no whore. And I cannot be bought.’ She refuses the easy labels that society assigns to her, and gradually we (and Matthew) discover her history. The large-scale settlement of Huguenot refugees in Spitalfields did not take place until the 1680s. But the persecution of Protestants in France and Holland had started long before that. This novel speculates that some families, such as Alice’s, had already tried to settle in the area in the early seventeenth century. By the time we were working on The Promised Land project, I had begun to make real progress with The Invisible Exchange. But Alice was still a walk-on role. I had always thought of her as intelligent and spirited, but hearing so many stories of real refugees, told with such passion and dignity, I felt compelled to allow Alice a far more significant role in the novel than I had originally conceived. It was the role her story demanded. I conceived of The Invisible Exchange as the first novel in a trilogy. I am currently working on the second, Creatures of the Deed. The character of Alice has now become so important and her story so urgent that the third novel in the trilogy (provisionally entitled The Turbulent Surge) has Alice as the central character and narrator. She will get to tell her story. 

Work that changes us

One of the things I have most enjoyed about working with Michael and with Border Crossings has been the sense that the work we’re doing may be for others, but it changes us. The process itself is always a discovery. Crossing borders – our own as well as those imposed by others (political / social / cultural) – is at the heart of the work. I have been challenged and my work has been enriched by the collaborations. In The Invisible Exchange, Matthew’s attitudes and assumptions are of his time and his place, but he sees possibilities, and he acts on them:

‘I liked the way Hannah thought. Stay alert to possibilities. When Lady Luck smiles, be sure to smile back and accept what she’s offering with good grace, for she’ll turn on you and damn you quick as blink. You see a possibility. You make it happen.’

The Invisible Exchange is now available in paperback from all bookshops, and in all e-book formats from 28th July.

1 Extract from the text of  Peter Barnes’s illustrated lecture on Jonsonian comedy at the Reading Conference on 10th January 1996.

2 David Lindley’s excellent book, The Trials of Frances Howard (Routledge 1993), offers a closely argued and rigorously research analysis of this institutionalised misogyny. 

3 The workshops in Beirut were funded by The British Council. The original intention had been for Border Crossings to co-produce with Zoukak. For logistical reasons that proved impossible. 

4 Michael has also written a blog about the process of working with Zoukak.

5 The key workshops that informed the development of the play took place in Salisbury with young people from military families, and with Palestinians at a summer school held in Jordan under the auspices of the Al Qattan organisation.

Tuesday, July 05, 2022

Peter Brook


Peter Brook: 1925-2022 

"In a dishonourable age it is challenging and stimulating to be reminded of finer attitudes. Each person can measure himself and see what he would most essentially respect when he is faced by a level of behaviour that is more dedicated, goes further than his own....  When somebody reaches a certain very high level he becomes so close to truth that he is incapable of speaking anything other than the truth."  (Peter Brook)

When Peter Brook said this, he was talking about the ideas behind Mahabharata, which he famously staged in the 1980s, but his words apply just as powerfully to his own long life, which has now ended at the magnificent age of 97. I feel rather ashamed that, as long ago as 1995, I was quoted in The Deccan Herald as admiring his professional longevity, still directing in his early 70s. Nearly 30 years later, he still hadn't stopped. Of course he hadn't. Brook could no more stop directing theatre than a Zen master can retire from meditation: it wasn't a job, but a way of being. Only a few months ago, he was directing our friend and collaborator Ery Nzaramba as Prospero in his Tempest Project, with not a hint of any sentimental and wistful self-portraiture about "the farewell to the theatre".  All the same, I like the fact that The Tempest should have been his final piece: a great text about theatre, colonialism, freedom, cultural difference, magic and the spirit.  These were the subjects that dominated his work.  

Ery Nzaramba as Prospero

I first became aware of Brook as a teenager, when I picked up a copy of Charles Marowitz and Simon Trussler's Theatre at Work for 30p in a library sale.  I was fascinated to read about his open, free approach to rehearsal and his quest to unlock the secrets in the actors' souls, particularly in his Artaud-inspired Theatre of Cruelty season.  I tried out some of the more outlandish exercises on some hapless sixth-formers who had agreed to act in a piece I wanted to do during the summer holidays; but I never really understood them until Alaknanda Samarth and I recorded Artaud's Theatre and the Plague during the 2020 lockdown.  At the heart of Artaud, and of Brook, there is a spiritual longing - and the cruelty is to do with the barriers our society has put between us and our spiritual truth. Our work, our battle, is to penetrate these barriers - or to cross these borders, I suppose...  

I think this is the reason Brook, from the 70s onwards, took on an intercultural approach to theatre-making, turning his back on the British mainstream to work from the Bouffes du Nord in Paris with a shifting ensemble of international artists.  
"Today" he wrote in There Are No Secrets, "the world offers us new possibilities...  Nothing is more vital to the theatre culture of the world than the working together of artists from different races and backgrounds." (p.94)

Of course I agree. And I remain deeply grateful to Brook for having pioneered intercultural performance as an ideal, and as a necessary response to the post-colonial globalised moment. At the same time, I feel wary of some of what he was trying to achieve (and indeed, did achieve) through cross-cultural collaboration. Mahabharata was a revelation to me in the 80s, when I hadn't even heard of the great poem, but it was also, as Rustom Bharucha famously showed, a diminution of the Indian myth filtered through the lens of Western tragedy, both Shakespearean and Biblical. Brook's engagement with non-Western cultures could often seem exotic and romanticised, as if their raison d'être was to serve as a correctional mirror for the decadent West.  For example, in 1989 he told Véronique Hotte: 

"In Third World countries, which are at heart 'traditional', tradition offers a defence against confusion and chaos, against modern life and its formlessness.  This kind of tradition generates very pure currents which give meaning to life."  (David Williams:Peter Brook - A Theatrical Casebook. p.404)

For all his desire to engage with artists from a range of cultural backgrounds, it was not the culture itself that interested Brook, but the desire to move beyond culture to some supposed "human essence", something that he regarded as "universal".  The truth is that this is impossible: any theatrical endeavour requires the use of language, gesture, colour, music, all of which carry specific cultural meanings. The "universal" often looked uncomfortably like Western culture being read onto non-Western bodies. For me, Brook's work was most potent when it acknowledged the semiotics of the body and of distinct cultures, when the performers drew off their differences rather than their similarities. I recall his wonderful production of the South African anti-apartheid play Sizwe Bansi is Dead at the Pit - or the extraordinary scream of Rwandan actor Carole Karemer in Battlefield, which so clearly drew off the recent past of her people. I think of Mallika Sarabhai as Draupadi in Mahabharata - the only Indian in the cast, and so the central symbol of integrity. I think of Mozart's score, so emphatically European, holding together his gentle and thoughtful Magic Flute

The Mahabharata, directed by Peter Brook

It's good to disagree with your teachers, of course: that is how the world and the art form move on. And Peter Brook was a great teacher. Think of all the ideas that underlie modern theatre practice, and how many of them are his: the Empty Space, the Holy Theatre, the Rough Theatre...  His books, which articulate his unending search for the form of theatre and its meaning, will continue to inspire theatre-makers for generations.  

The last of these, Playing By Ear, was published as recently as 2019, and is a meditation on sound and music.  It also, therefore, deals with silence - and the centrality of real silence to any profound theatrical or  spiritual practice.  At the end of this last book, Peter Brook wrote:
"Once, in the Sahara, I climbed up a dune and, looking down, saw that the hollow in front of me was very deep.  I slithered down the sandy wall, and when I reached the bottom I was completely isolated from the desert, and all its tiny sounds had vanished.  There, for the first time, I actually experienced the living presence of total silence....  A touching old English saying arises in my mind: 'Words fail me'.  So this is the moment to end. The most precious thing is: 'Keep Silence.'" (p.138-9)

Tuesday, June 07, 2022


Treasure Island in Shiraz's version

I'm not sure whether I've read Treasure Island before. I certainly feel as if I have: it was a staple of BBC Sunday evening family viewing in the 1970s, and several films. I remember it being an inspiration for something I wrote at primary school, and I recall discussing Ben Gunn's mental state with my father while we looked at an old edition in his sister's house in Leeds. It's one of those books that is so embedded in the culture that you feel you've read it, even if you haven't. Well, now I definitely have read it - and it's not quite the book I believed it was.

The reason I think this is that the copy I read was in a beautiful new edition by Four Corners Books, issued as part of their Familiars series. They take a classic text, and they commission an artist to work in dialogue with it. In the case of Treasure Island, the artist was our friend Shiraz Bayjoo, the Mauritian artist who designed THE GREAT EXPERIMENT. He tells me that, when Four Corners approached him, his first instinct was to turn the job down, because he didn't really like the novel. That, the editors told him, was exactly the point. They didn't want him to illustrate the novel so much as deconstruct it, engage with it, expose it and play with it. And that is exactly what he has done.  

If you saw THE GREAT EXPERIMENT, you'll remember how Shiraz works with archival imagery to create vibrant and provocative interactions between past and present. Applied to Treasure Island, the effect of this approach is to shock the reader into a realisation of how deeply Stevenson's text is anchored in a context of British imperialism, slavery and racism. Shiraz's archive imagery reveals that the Admiral Benbow Inn is named after the naval commander who protected British plantations in the Caribbean.  When Jim Hawkins goes to Bristol, the choice of pictures reveals this as the city of Edward Colston.  When the text mentions how three pirates hoped for a reward for their deeds, Shiraz adds an image of St. Louis Cathedral, Mauritius.

Joseph Johnson, in Shiraz Bayjoo's illustration 

Above all, Shiraz's choice and placing of imagery brings out layers of racial politics in the novel that I would never have suspected might exist from the BBC teatime or Disney versions. This engraving of the black sailor turned street singer Joseph Johnson is placed at the beginning of the novel, in the section introducing the old sea captain Billy Bones. It gives a whole new meaning to the description of him as "a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man". Nor is Billy the only "pirate" who could be a black man. Israel Hands is described as "that brandy-faced rascal", and Morgan as "the old mahogany-faced seaman". When Jim Hawkins first encounters Ben Gunn, he comments "I could now see that he was a white man like myself", suggesting that this was not his initial expectation. Most strikingly of all, Long John Silver's wife, who never appears but who is clearly central to his plotting, looking after his considerable fortune while he is at sea, is called "his Negress". When Squire Trelawney writes to Dr. Livesey about Silver, he remarks: "He leaves his wife to manage the inn; and as she is a woman of colour, a pair of old bachelors like you and I may be excused for guessing it is the wife, quite as much as the health, that sends him back to roving."

Trelawney's obvious racism and sexism sits very uneasily with a contemporary reading, but it highlights the novel's extraordinary approach to morality, and its political basis. Everyone in the novel is trying to obtain the treasure that the pirate Captain Flint buried on the island: it's just that some are seen as "good" in doing so, and others as "bad". The "good" characters just happen to be white and British. If we understand that the "bad" characters are lower class in origin or black, then it becomes clear that the perceived ethical difference is simply a manifestation of rank. White British men are entitled to wealth because of who they are: black men and women, and people born into poverty, are considered evil if they try to obtain the same wealth by the same means.  

This blog post was written in the aftermath of the Queen's Platinum Jubilee celebrations, and the day after Boris Johnson survived a vote of confidence by Tory MPs.  

Wednesday, June 01, 2022

REMEMBRANCES - Guest post by Matthew James Weigel

Matthew James Weigel

I am grateful to share this space with you and everyone here at Border Crossings’ ORIGINS Festival, Birmingham 2022 and the Birmingham International Dance Festival. My name is Matthew James Weigel. I am a Dene and Metis poet and artist, born and raised in Edmonton Alberta, Canada, and here is where I live, work, and create. I was welcomed to this project by Michael Walling, and I am especially grateful to him for my inclusion in this project working with both ɅVɅ Dance Company and b.solomon/ /Electric Moose. It is a great pleasure and honour to be invited to contribute my poetry.

I’ve never worked with a dance company before. In fact, I rarely work collaboratively! I create both visual and lyric poetry which can be very solitary. But that being said, it has been an absolute delight to chat with everyone involved and talk about our shared goals and what sort of inspirations lift us up collectively. Some of my poems are written intentionally as spoken word pieces, and I think there is a special connection that spoken word artists share with dancers. There is an embodying process that happens, where the sounds and the stories live inside you and connect you to the world around you. These were some of the things I was thinking about specifically when I wrote this piece for REMEMBRANCES.

When we started, I wrote a piece responding to Michael’s writing, and we talked about it a little bit and chatted with Avatâra and the dancers. I was really fascinated by the process of creating choreography. There was a lot of familiarity to that process, in the sense that I could tell there was an analogous sense of vocabulary, technique, imagery and metaphor. Watching dance activates a different part of you from listening to poetry, but there are concepts of performance that are shared between them. You are hoping to connect with your audience and tell a story that exists in a single shared moment. During our conversation what came out was how important that connection was, not just a connection with the audience, but with the body as well. So, my next crack at the poem was to take what I had started with, which was a heavy meditation on the place that I live and the ground that supports and fuels me, and to activate the embodied experience of being here. I can genuinely say that the collaborative process allowed me to write a better piece of poetry than I had ever expected.

I think that’s the beauty of collaboration, not just between artists of the same medium, but when artists collaborate across mediums. We stretch across forms to find connections in new ways of thinking and moving in the world. And if anything, that is what art is for, it’s for helping us move through the world.

I think about this a lot in my art and my writing. My work is heavily invested in my relationship with the land, and how that relationship extends through to the non-human relations around me. Because my writing is so heavily based in research, it’s important for me to centre my work in those connections and relationships. I think it would be impossible to share archival and historical materials in an effective way without sharing my relationality to them, otherwise I feel like there would be an insurmountable distance within the work. To best tell the stories of the land around you, you have to do your best to understand the stories that brought you there. I am incredibly privileged to live where I live. The street I am on has its origins in a trail down to the river that my ancestors would have walked down. That river provides my drinking water. The clay from the river valley was formed into bricks that compose many of the buildings around me. And so, in that one set of relationships, me, the water, the buildings around me, there is a complex story of the history of me, of my family, and of the colonial history of Edmonton.

I take a great deal of inspiration from what is around me. From the spruce trees, the magpies, the willows. And so, the poem that I wrote for REMEMBRANCES follows the same path my work always follows: down the old path to the river, through the trees and surrounded by the beautiful conversations of magpies.

Matthew James Weigel's Whitemud Walking is published by Coach House Books. 

Monday, May 23, 2022

REMEMBRANCES - a new project for Birmingham 2022


Remembrances in development 
Georgia Rose Thompson, Avatâra Ayuso & Amy Hollinshead

It was more than two years ago that Avatâra Ayuso started to think about the need for the Birmingham 2022 Festival to acknowledge Indigenous peoples in its programming and its approach to performance.  Avatâra had been part of ORIGINS 2019, with her piece NO WOMAN'S LAND, in which she collaborated with Inuk Elder Naulaq LeDrew, so she has a strong awareness of the political complexities that the Commonwealth holds for Indigenous people, and the importance of welcome in their cultures.  As an artist based in the Midlands, she was acutely conscious that the conventional sub-Olympics torch-lighting would not be adequate to encapsulate the shifting relationships between the City that had supplied the arms that sustained an Empire and the Indigenous athletes and artists who would be visiting this year.  When #BlackLivesMatter highlighted the historical roots of current inequalities and racial tensions, the need seemed more urgent still. And so we approached the Birmingham 2022 Festival for a commission.  

There is a significant Canadian investment in the Festival's commissioning programme, and so it was to First Nations Canadian partners that we turned. As often happens, this pragmatic choice became creatively and politically potent.  b.solomon//ELECTRIC MOOSE had also been part of ORIGINS 2019, creating the wonderful WESTWAY SOLSTICE with the North Kensington community, and presenting THE NDN WAY at the Playground Theatre, so he seemed an obvious choice. What we hadn't realised was just how acute and immediate the challenge of welcoming First Nations Canadian artists would become with the discovery of the mass graves at the Residential Schools in Kamloops and elsewhere across Canada. These atrocities of colonial policy drove home the question we have placed at the heart of REMEMBRANCES:

"Who are we now to welcome you?"

b.solomon//ELECTRIC MOOSE & participants in WESTWAY SOLSTICE

We have been working on the understanding that we occupy different physical and cultural spaces: that the performance itself will represent our dialogue, and so, in a very real sense, our processes need to be distinct. Avatâra and I have been exploring British identities and responses to our colonial past, working with a very diverse group of dancers, and taking cues from a First Nations Canadian poet, Matthew James Weigel. b.solomon has been creating his work in his own country: what he knows of our work is that it will attempt to offer a nuanced and considered space of welcome, with an awareness of past wrongs. We do not know how he will respond. He may accept or reject that offer - certainly he will shift its meaning in some way.  

REMEMBRANCES will be performed in the open air in the centre of Birmingham on June 25th and 26th.  We'll also film it for streaming. We don't know exactly what's going to happen: but the dance will be extraordinary, and it will be a performance like no other. 

Friday, April 01, 2022

The Strange Case of Kew


Banksias at Kew Gardens

When we started the BOTANY BAY project towards the end of last year, one of the most obvious partners to engage with seemed to be Kew Gardens. We'd had some initial discussions with them before we applied to the Heritage Fund and, while these didn't lead to official "partner" status, there was a clear sense that they liked what we were doing, and that they would be open to help with expertise, filming opportunities and the like. Earlier this year, we contacted them again - and everything seemed different. It's now very clear that Kew will not be part of the project.  

This was a particular surprise to us, given that Kew had been quite vocal in its response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement in 2020, and that our conversations with them had given the impression they were keen to set up exchanges with Indigenous ethnobotanists and environmentalists, whose insights could help them think differently about their botanical and historical collections. Their Director of Science, Professor Alexandre Antonelli, had clearly acknowledged Kew's "legacy that is deeply rooted in colonialism"; and their Manifesto for Change, published in March 2021, had stated that "We will move quickly to ‘de-colonise’ our collections, re-examining them to acknowledge and address any exploitative or racist legacies, and develop new narratives around them". None of this should really be surprising, given that Kew's first de facto Director was Joseph Banks, the botanist who sailed with Captain Cook, collecting plants from Australasia and the Pacific, and establishing what would become global networks of economic botany, underpinning the workings of Empire. The most striking example, which we've been discussing with young visitors to the Garden Museum in the last couple of months, is the breadfruit. Banks discovered that this Tahitian plant was cheap, nutritious and easy to grow: as a result of which he despatched William Bligh to arrange its transportation to the Caribbean, where it served to feed enslaved people. In its Manifesto, Kew was simply acknowledging the basis of its wealth and status. As the Director Richard Deverell wrote there: "We shouldn’t forget that plants were central to the running of the British Empire."

So what happened to make the management of Kew step back from this important process?  The answer seems to be a report, published at the end of 2021, by the right-wing Think Tank Policy Exchange. This report, entitled Politicising Plants, directly attacked Kew's decolonising agenda. It's important to note that this was not done by generating any counter-argument to the historical narrative I've summarised above, but through a more legalistic approach. Kew, argued the report's authors, exists "to provide scientific knowledge rather than a historical narrative". They base this assertion on the statutory functions outlined in the 1983 National Heritage Act, which does indeed emphasise "the science of plants and related subjects". The Manifesto for Change, they suggest, outlines a plan that is ultra vires, because it moves beyond "science" into a politicised realm. "Politics", they say "has nothing to do with the science of plants and Kew has no business providing a platform for political views. Doing so falls outside Kew’s statutory scientific responsibilities and, as such, using Kew’s funds for these sorts of exercises is illegitimate."

A mere fortnight after the publication of this report, Kew dropped its decolonisation project. This was also the time when they stopped engaging with our work. Policy Exchange was triumphant.

It's astonishing that a conservative Think Tank should seem so powerful that a major national institution should simply submit when it clicks its fingers, but Policy Exchange is more than just a talking shop. As George Monbiot has shown, it is part of a shift in the way our country is run: a shift that is dismantling the constitutional structures of the civil service and the judiciary, replacing them with "advisors" who report to the Prime Minister's office and are answerable to no-one. Monbiot also highlights the way Policy Exchange attacks academic freedom (on the specious grounds that it indoctrinates students with "wokery"), and whips up media fury against environmental groups like Extinction Rebellion. He points out that the funding of Policy Exchange is opaque to say the least, but that its known donors include "the power company Drax, the trade association Energy UK, and the gas companies EON and Cadent, whose fossil-fuel investments are threatened by environmental activism." An anti-colonial agenda in relation to plant sciences is also, of course, an environmentally active stance.

It's a shame that Kew gave in so easily. After all, Policy Exchange's report is nonsense. It assumes that "science" is an objective truth, and so cannot be part of a colonial legacy. This is always the way in which the right constructs the narrative around its own opinions - that they are not opinions, but facts. What we are discovering in the BOTANY BAY project is that this objectifying culture, which regards the natural world as something other to ourselves, something to be explored and exploited, is an expression of an aggressive imperial mindset. Indigenous cultures, which regard plants as non-human persons to whom we relate within a ecosystem, tend to be dismissed as fanciful, but are in fact telling us truths in ways that are just as "scientific": they are simply couched in different language. Trees do talk to each other. Crops do grow better when they can fertilise one another. What Policy Exchange was actually saying was not that the political was legally distinct from science, but that they refused to acknowledge the political nature of science itself, and indeed of all other knowledge systems. Very convenient for their funders' agenda.

Our recent project film Winter looks at the racist structures inherent in botanical classification systems and languages. It isn't actually "objective fact" to classify plants using Latin names as Linnaeus did: it's a reflection of how he viewed and wanted to order the world. True science (the word actually means "knowledge") engages with its own context, recognising the contingent nature of all human attempts to understand and interact with the world. We need dynamism and development, not stasis and decay.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Botany Bay: Manchester Museum visits Schools

 Guest blog by Marine Begault

Back in December, two schools in Manchester received their first visitors as part of the Botany Bay project: the Manchester Museum. 

As the Manchester Museum is currently closed for refurbishment the Learning team, as well as their newly appointed Curator of Indigenous Perspectives (Alexandra P. Alberda),
visited the schools in person. 

Marine Begault is the Project Manager on Botany Bay.  Here she reflects on some of the themes and questions addressed through this first interaction with the museum and the schools.

Pupils explore the different varieties of maize

Alexandra Alberda and the team developed a session especially for this project. The learning team were extremely excited to be part of the session and learn from Alex, as this is an important part of the Museum’s journey towards decolonising their collections and practice. 

Alexandra introduced herself in her native tongue and as Blue Corn, which immediately set the tone to the session. 

The museum brought some pieces from their Botany and Entomology collections. Most children knew what Botany meant (‘investigating plants’ as one child put it) but Entomology was a new word for most.

The children were given a few minutes to circulate around each of the objects brought by the museum. In small groups they were asked to discuss whether they recognised them, if they had seen them before and where, and whether they had any stories or feelings associated with them.

The Butterfly Station (a glass case of 10 different butterflies) led to some interesting conversations around why we don’t see that many butterflies (some saw them on holiday or in some cases in their garden), which led to an understanding that we live in cities and that butterflies need flowers. I was really interested in hearing some conversations around ‘are they real?’ or ‘are they dead?’, which made me think about the ways younger children might struggle with the idea of something being dead and real at the same time. Being dead but visible and conserved. Dead but existing in the world. There were also some conversations around the ethics of killing the butterflies (it turns out they were trapped in a jar and put to sleep with a gas in Victorian times as a way to study them).

The Blue corn and dried chilli station was interesting in that most children thought that the blue corn was rotten ‘normal corn’ and few recognised the chillies, or again thought they were rotten or old.  

The plant station included dried Yaupon leaves and an Echinacea plant in a class case as well as botanical drawings of medicinal plants. Again a conversation around the plants being ‘real’ or not came about, but also the children enjoyed trying to read the labels of these items: ‘black tea’ being used to describe the Yaupon. A conversation around drinking tea, when they drink tea, what tea they are allowed to drink etc. ensued. When I asked one student the type of tea he normally drinks he answered ‘normal English tea.’ When I asked him about what he meant by that, he wasn’t really sure what I was asking. Unpicking responses like these is exactly why I find this project so fascinating.

The children were brought back into a circle, and Alex told everyone about the significance of the circle in her culture. She began the story by introducing her relative, corn, who like herself is the eldest sister. She told story of the Three Sisters, and how they revealed themselves to the villagers to thank them for their kindness and generosity on a cold winter evening. The children really responded to this story. Some asked if it was real, if Alex was real, if she was magical. It brought about a certain level of mysticism. I think there is something really interesting in bringing this magic, this mysticism into the classroom (and valuing it) as a different way of knowing. I am interested to explore its role in how we learn, particularly in the context of this project and the intention to create a space where children can connect with ‘the more than human’ and build a relationship that is based on reciprocity. 

The session concluded with a game, which explored relationship and kinship as well as some of the harmful effects of colonialism. The group were separated into humans, butterflies and medicinal plants. Alex explained that as plants and animals came long before humans, Indigenous people had learned to survive by listening and observing. Rather than forage for hours on end for medicinal plants hidden in the shrub, they followed butterflies in the meadows to the correct plant. 

The humans were told that a fever has broken out in their village and that they needed to find a particular flower to help them heal their families. They came to the butterflies for help. Human’s one gift, Alex reminded them, is gratitude; and in order for this relationship to be reciprocal the human had to say please and thank you to the butterfly.      

Each layer of the game brought another disease, which the butterflies needed to help the humans with, and each layer brought further obstacles. For example, farmland got rid of a number of wild flower meadows and therefore butterflies, while private property made it impossible for the villagers to follow their butterflies to pick the plants. Each obstacle broke down the relationships further. 

I really enjoyed hearing about the different properties of these plants. A lot of children did not know that medicine is in fact (mostly) plant based. I definitely found that hearing about all of their properties and the ways in which they help us made me admire, respect and love them more. The feeling of being in awe of nature and all its gifts might be a good starting point for shifting this relationship of domination and destruction.