Bristol

What lies beneath, Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter?

The Banquet  by Ana Maria Pachecho. Image: Pratt Contemporary Art

The Banquet by Ana Maria Pachecho. Image: Pratt Contemporary Art

It’s the unconscious mind. We’re all afraid of the dark inside ourselves.
— Dr. Sam Loomis, Halloween II

A visit to Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter – the RWA exhibition that celebrates the life, work and influences of the idiosyncratic writer 25 years after her death – is a profound experience. Provocative. Stimulating. Poignant. It’s hard not to feel moved by a collection that strips bare the surface to expose the underbelly of us all.

Co-curated by Dr. Marie Mulberry-Roberts (UWE) and Fiona Robinson (RWA), the exhibition is a powerful nexus which brings together work from historic heavyweights like Dame Paula Rego and Marc Chagall (a wellspring of influence for Carter), and leading contemporary artists like Ana Maria Pacheco, Andrew Munoz and Wendy Elia.

Pulsating with the recurring themes of subversion, feminism and fantasy, with which Carter has become synonymous, Strange Worlds is on a mission to make, “concrete the visual quality [and diversity] of [her] writing.” By blurring the line between art and literature to see what drifts up through the space (or lack thereof) between, the exhibition asks us to reconsider the fabric of our collective beliefs and, in doing so, what it means to be human.

In Wendy Elia’s Maxime (2010) we see a figure at once masked and unmasked, semi-naked yet guarded, uncertain of the unseen eyes that fall upon it. The hands wring together and the knees fall inward to form a kind of barrier, a re-masking perhaps, to counteract the vulnerability that nakedness demands. Reminiscent of a sad clown, of conventions and the truths they belie, this is bona fide Carter territory.

Similarly, The Bather by Andrew Munoz (2013) is a visceral witnessing of the outsider. A lonely, androgynous figure stands naked amid a desolate landscape but, unlike Maxime, there is a seeming openness at play, an acceptance of (or perhaps resignation to) a vulnerability that is rarely embraced in life or portraiture. Binary definitions of both gender and society are questioned here. You can’t help but wonder where the line between you and the emanating solitude of the piece starts and ends.

A complex interplay of form and theme is alive throughout the space, culminating in Ana Maria Pachecho’s nightmarish installation, The Banquet (1985). Four grotesquely oversized men sit hunched and suited in feverish excitement over the taught, naked form laid out on the table before them.

Tropes of power (white men, suits, a flat, elongated surface) are subverted to become monstrous, cannibalistic, making the point - as Carter so artfully did throughout her career - that truth is what lies beneath, and not above, the surface of conventions.

That quest for truth is the beating heart of Strange Worlds, a bold and fitting testament to Carter’s legacy. The gallery is alive in its consideration of a writer who personified boundless creative expression, and continues posthumously to do so.

In the same way that she re-visioned through her work the fairytales, myths and dreams that inform our collective waking lives, her work is (directly and indirectly) re-visioned throughout the exhibition. It is a frenetic yet considered dialogue, a dynamic narrative in honour of an artist who may have ceased to live 25 years ago but is immortalised by the art she produced and continues to inspire.

Carter studied Medieval Literature at Bristol University and continued to live and work in the city during her early career. The exhibition which closes this Sunday, 19 March – is part of Bristol800, a city-wide partnership programme that celebrates notable Bristol anniversaries.

Written for and originally published by Bristol Women's Voice.

Amy Hydes on music and theatre (and blood and guts and gore)

This Thursday we're throwing back to Mayfest and the wonderful world of women in theatre.

Amy Hydes is a theatre-maker, music-lover, actor, comedian, clown and writer. She's got a lotta hats. We caught up with Amy to find out more about theatre, music and the benefits of collaboration.

You've studied drama, English and clowning in Bristol, London and Paris. Do you think you could have built your career with a less formal eduction?

I think it depends what theatre route you want to go down. Unfortunately, now, if you're from a low income family it's very difficult to be an actor in the traditional sense. Cuts in arts funding and the expense of training make it very hard.

There are some incredibly talented actors out there but if they can't afford to go to drama school they're not going to be put in front of the right people. That's not to say you can't be plucked from obscurity but there's a lot of nepotism.

You used to live in London but now you're back in Bristol. What called you back to the South West?

It's hard to be an artist and sustain yourself. There are many brilliant actors out there but they don't have time for castings because they're doing six different day jobs. That's where collaboration comes in.

Collaboration makes it much easier to build a career. And it's so much easier to collaborate in Bristol because people go on their instincts more, they take more risks. You don't need a piece of paper that says you've been to a particular place to get you in the door, you just need to be curious.

Tell us about one of your favourite collaborations.

I work with [fellow theatre-makers] Giulia Bianchini and Grace Swordy on an immersive theatre project called The House Party Collective.

Coming from my passion for music as well as theatre, I wanted to create something where the two went hand in hand. So I rang Giules and said I wanted to do something in a house where live music and musicians were a part of the piece.

Our first show was at my house in Easton. We had five different groups all attached to a character. Each group had to meet in a secret location bearing a gift for their hosts, who were throwing a celebration when their brother turned up to fight for ownership of the house.

It all ended in a showdown in the form of vegetable poker. There was a lot of tension but it was just ridiculous really, born of the idea that adults don't play enough. Live techno and violin played throughout as the story unfolded.

We did our second show at the Stag and Hounds at Christmas and we're now looking for a venue for our third.

So you set out to marry these two passions. What, if any, conclusions did you draw about the relationship between theatre and music?

I think they're shared experiences. Good theatre often makes you question things. You come away feeling like something is buzzing inside you and you definitely get that with music too. Both theatre and music are about stories and journeys. That's why they go so well together.

As well as a theatre-maker, you're an actor, a writer, a stand-up comedian and clown. What are your experiences of being a feminist and a woman in many a man's world?

I think women in comedy especially are massively unrepresented. But it is getting better. When I first started doing gigs I'd be the only female on the bill. I remember one performance where the audience had to vote for who was best and they chose me. The MC came on to announce the winner and said, “Who knew the winner could be a female? Very strange, but here she is...”

What a dick.

Yeah, it was horrible. Some of the men on that bill had really sexist, politically misinformed material but I never see female comedians off the mark like that and I think that's because we have to work harder on our material.

That's definitely the case in theatre too. Women feel they have to prove themselves more. If you're entering a room full of men, even if it's only subconscious, you're automatically on the back foot.

What can be done about that?

With theatre the root definitely lies in more writing for women. We need to champion more female playwrights right from the grass roots. This is happening at places like Soho Theatre where they have a really good literary department and women are coming through, it's just taking a little bit longer.

But it isn't just gender inequality is it? The bias from boardroom to stage leans towards white, middle-class men. Having studied in Bristol, London and Paris, what's your take on diversity in the theatre?

Theatre is a middle class game now but that's just one strand of it. There's a lot more diverse and interesting art to be found outside the four walls of a theatre. The silver lining in the cloud of scarce funding is that artists are pushed to find alternative spaces, which can lead to far more exciting, sensory work.

Diversity also means talking about difficult things, like the refugee crisis. My friends run a community called Now We Make Tomorrow, a collection of artist's responses to the crisis. There are no rules about form, the work could be a painting or a poem, but they're gathering art to create a diverse picture of what's going on around us.

And it's about the bits in life that aren't pretty. The blood and the guts and the gore and the fear. The fear we all have bubbling up and down inside us all the time. Feeling the fear and seeing the fear and admitting that we all have it, we all feel it and it's nothing to be ashamed of.

What advice would you give to a young female performer at the start of her career?

Follow your instincts and be open. Everything’s more liberated now. You don't need to be married or own a house or have a kid by this or that time, or ever. You don't need to feel guilty for not achieving someone else's version of success. You don't have to pigeon-hole yourself socially or artistically. Just be adventurous. Do what makes you happy.

Hear, hear.

If you missed us the first time round, throwback to the The World is Listening on Mayfest Radio:

First published on theworldislistening.co.uk

Salt, a not-so-quiet trauma

My first step towards Salt, the compelling new solo show from Leeds-based artist Selina Thompson, is wrong-footed. Miscommunication has the friend I'm going to see it with thinking it's on at Tobacco Factory, so we decide to drive. But it's on at Arnolfini. In the centre of Bristol. At 6.30pm. On a sunny Friday.

Needless to say we arrive late.

As we stumble blindly through the stalls, Thompson is already on stage wearing safety goggles and a white colonial-era dress, smashing away at a lump of, what is presumably, salt.

I got a free ticket to review the show. As we sit down I can't help but think, Shit.

But then Thompson starts talking again and my fleeting panic about what we may have missed dissolves.

The woman is incredible. Only a month since the experience(s) upon which Salt is based, here she is bold as blue sky, on a stage, telling the world what happened to her. What has always happened to her.

So what did happen to her, exactly? Well, in partnership with another artist she retraced a well-sailed route of the Transatlantic Slave Triangle, from the UK to Ghana to Jamaica and back again.

She sets out to journey deep into the past in order to understand some things that are at once intangible and very, very real.

Racism. Diaspora. Grief. The unresolved shame of many nations. There are some pretty heavyweight themes running through this work. Thompson is nothing if not ambitious.

She begins to lay out the pieces from the once-whole lump of salt. Each piece is slightly bigger than the last and represents both the characters on the ship of the first leg of her journey (described by Thompson as a "quiet trauma") and a centuries-old chain of which she, a dark-skinned black woman, forms the weakest, smallest link. A chain in which she, a dark-skinned black woman born in another time and place, would have been tied and beaten and raped and drowned.

That may sound hyperbolic. It is not. Some of the stories Thompson carries back with her, the insults she endured, the way she was made to feel as a direct consequence of her blackness, may sound (if you are not black) like they're from another time. But, shamefully, that simply isn't true.

There is a rawness to the work, in every sense of the word. Over a post-show drink another friend says she felt it wasn't fully formed. More of a sapling than a tree. She certainly has a point.

As a piece of theatre is does feel a little raw, undercooked. Thompson's words are strong and firmly glue the piece together but the way those words manifest on stage does feel like a work in progress. It would be interesting to see again in six or so months time.

It is also, of course, emotionally raw. Thompson is at times breathless not just from the effort of repeatedly taking a sledgehammer to salt (there is more to the show than this by the way) but the weight of it all too. The sheer, physical weight of a lifetime of racism and a centuries-old system which is not gone but all too easily forgotten.

And ultimately it's the rawness of her emotion that makes this work so impressive. Her vulnerability is a weapon and a shield. She stands alone, boldly claiming a space in a world that would – as her journey at times brings into painfully sharp relief – have her disappear.

She peels back her skin and says, Here. Look. This is how my insides are.

That takes courage of the highest order. And what is art if not the junction at the crossroads of courage and vulnerability?

Despite any theatrical polish she may yet apply, Thompson's show is unforgettable.

Selina, we salute you. Keep doing what you're doing.

First published on theworldislistening.co.uk

What's in a voice?

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of delivering a workshop for Saffron Records, Bristol's first female-only record label, for young women aged 16 – 24.

Just before its launch in July 2015, I worked closely with Saffron's Creative Director, Laura Lewis-Paul, to develop the label's tone of voice. Over a year down the line, it's great to look back at all Laura has achieved, and see how established that voice has now become.

Just the two of us

Laura and I were the only two people in the room when we first got together for a tone of voice workshop. 12 or so months on and Saffron has recruited two fantastic apprentices (A&R and digital marketing) and signed three talented young artists.

The vision, values and personality that inform, as well as its tone of voice, everything the label is and does, have really taken root and become a culture. It's an absolute joy to see.

That said, when Laura asked me to do a voice workshop with Saffron's artists I was, initially, a little stumped.

What's in a voice?

Tone of voice guidelines are there to support people communicating on an organisation's behalf. While Saffron's artists are representing their label, they're not really communicating on its behalf in quite the same way as, for example, its digital marketing apprentice.

As artists they're largely in the business of communicating self-expression. With this in mind I asked myself what, for an artist as opposed to an organisation, is voice really made of?

Voice as art (vulnerability)

As Julia Cameron, best-selling author of The Artist's Way and The Right to Write so succinctly puts it, ‘True art requires true honesty, which means that for our art's sake, as much as our own, we must learn the skill of vulnerability.’

To be human is to be vulnerable. An uncomfortable truth, which is probably why vulnerability isn't so easy to sit with.

We often want to skip past it to a place where we feel less exposed, more secure. But acknowledging and drawing from vulnerability can bring real strength, particularly for artists who trade in communicating emotion.

Voice as womanhood (courage)

It may be 2016 but the playing field still isn’t level. That's why Saffron exists.

To be a woman in a male-dominated industry can take courage which, in her excellent TED talk on the power of vulnerability, researcher Brené Brown describes as ‘telling the story of who you are with your whole heart.’

Vulnerability and courage are two sides of the same coin. To tell the story of who you are with your whole heart, you have to be vulnerable. One hand feeds the other.

Standing on a stage sharing your innermost thoughts and feelings, you're inevitably demonstrating both. And (perhaps) for women raised in a society that accepts their right to feel and express vulnerability in a way it (sadly) does not for men, womanhood and courage have a notable dynamic.

Voice as story (connection)

Stories cut to the core of who we are. They connect us to ourselves and each other.

Singers and songwriters are, of course, storytellers, connectors. They connect with themselves to connect with their audience.

This storyteller / listener relationship is old as hills and a cornerstone of the human experience. Any consideration of the artist's voice must surely take story and connection into account.

Voice for communication

We all have values and vulnerabilities, stories and beliefs. The more we understand them the better we communicate.

I love working on tone of voice with people and their businesses, understanding and helping them share their passions with the world.

If you're interested in tone of voice and would like to find out more, please feel free to get in touch.

Let it breathe

Grandma's hand

My Grandmother wasn't the most affectionate woman. Her love ran deep but its journey through and out of her was less than straightforward.

I used to dread a visit to the shops. She'd grip my hand so tightly when we crossed the road that it hurt and frightened me. As a child I didn't understand why she squeezed so hard. As an adult the answer seems obvious: her grip was born of love but ruled by fear.

I sometimes wonder if my creative projects can relate.

The thing

I'm making a documentary which has my family at its centre. For over a decade it lived inside me as an idea but it's now taking shape. It has become a thing.

Heading up a tiny but talented team, I have to take this thing (footage from three weeks in Jamaica, where my brother and I grew up) and shape it into a story. Needless to say I've had my fair share of fears about pulling it off.

Sometimes these fears manifest themselves as an inability to let go, an unwillingness to accept help or even admit that I need it. But a recent light bulb moment changed all that.

I've been so afraid of all the things this film might not be that I've neglected to let it be what it is. Just like Granny wringing the trust from my six year old hand, I've been suffocating the emerging narrative by holding on way too tight.

Yielding

I have, at times, found it difficult to shape what I've come to think of as an unyielding clay. But I'm the reason the clay won't yield. It needs room to manoeuvre.

Although unfinished, Pick Me & Turn Me Round no longer lives in my head. It has claimed a space in the world. If I let go it's not going to hurl itself under the first car it sees. It's going to stretch its limbs and look around and start growing the way it's supposed to grow. Just like anything else that's alive.

Of course it will need guidance and encouragement and perhaps even reprimand at times. But I need to trust and listen to it, not force it to tell. I need to let it breathe.

Whether you're working on a speech, a bid or even a difficult relationship, the temptation to hold on too tight when things get tricky is significant. But real freedom and creative reward can come from loosening your grip.

Oxygen

Life goes better with oxygen. Here are a few of my favourite ways to let things breathe:

  • Go for a walk

    Walking is a well-known problem solver. It takes you away from the issue that you're tackling and gets you closer to the nature that you're part of, even in the middle of a city. 

    It makes a clearing in the forest of your mind and allows new thought to emerge. Just the ticket when the well runs dry.
     
  • Spend time alone

    Modern life is busy. Solitude often eludes. But if you don't make time and space for yourself what hope does your project have?

    Joseph Roux once said: “Solitude vivifies.” Whether you read, go for a walk or meditate, spending time alone is an excellent way to vivify your project, and yourself.
     
  • Do something else

    The blank page. The obstinate paragraph. We've all been there.

    There's a time to grit your teeth and plough on and there's a time to walk away. If you're strangling the life out of something then you might want to consider the latter.

    Play that hard-to-get muse at her own game and take someone else out for dinner. The work will still be there when you get back.

Resistance is futile

I have a confession to make. I hear voices.

Well, I say voices but there's really only one. And as for hearing, most of the time it chats away without my conscious acknowledgement. On and on it goes, unchecked and unquestioned. Therein lies the problem.

I'm talking about the voice of resistance. The sound of my own mind telling me why I can't, do, be or create this, that or the other. It's the thing that gets in between me and the fullest possible version of myself. Like its cousin, self-doubt, it's born of fear and is resisting not the shadows within, but the light.

I figured I'd silenced it. Last year I quit a stable, well-paid job that was making me unhappy, set up as a freelancer and returned to the country of my birth to make a film.

I'd wanted to do these things for a long time but I resisted. When I stopped resisting it all happened, so I thought my work was done. But that's the thing about the voice of resistance, it comes at you all the time.

It's perhaps inadvisable to admit this on my business blog – I should probably project an air of unflinching confidence – but every time I start a new project, that negative little voice is right there beside me, resisting positivity and telling me that I can't do what experience has proved, over and over again, I can.

What is that about? I do good work. I get great feedback. And yet there's always this lingering uncertainty, this sense that I'm a fraud.

Stranger still is the fact that it's not really failure I fear, but success. Failure's fine. It's what the voice expects. Success on the other hand flies right in the face of everything it's trying to tell me about myself.

Surely I am not alone here. Aren't we all a bit afraid of ourselves? Fearful of claiming the fullest, most honest space that we can?

I work part-time in a café. Until recently I told myself that this was because I enjoyed the social side. I like my colleagues and customers and writing can be lonely. It's nice to get out and be around people. It's also a way of hedging my bets, maintaining an alternative source of income in case I need something to fall back on.

There's an element of truth in all of that but something truer runs beneath. I'm resisting. It's not about having something to fall back on. It's about stopping myself from falling forward, without resistance, into the life I have chosen. I'm getting in my own way.

Goethe once said, "Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back."

I thought I was committed. Quitting your job to follow your heart sounds pretty committed right? Or maybe it just sounds clichéd. Either way, as long as I cultivate groundless fears then I'm not committed at all. I'm demonstrating hesitancy and resistance.

I don't know if it's possible to switch off the voice completely. Perhaps it's just as integral as lungs and skin and maybe, on some level, the want to defy it drives me on. But it doesn't really know what it's talking about and it certainly can't be trusted. Essentially, it's futile.

I'm turning the volume down.

Feet first into freelancing

I did it. After over five years in government communications I recently took the plunge, made the leap, jumped feet first into a freelance copywriting career. "Are you mad?" I hear you say. Probably, but the freedom, excitement and potential for change more than make up for any security forsaken.

Of course there are challenges. But if you have the skills and you're prepared to graft then you're ready to go it alone. It's that simple.

I got back from Jamaica a few weeks ago, where I was making a documentary about home. Since then - as well as working with a valued client - I've immersed myself in the teachings of other freelancers. Their lessons are invaluable and I'd like to share a few of my favourites.

  1. How to create ad-copy that sizzles. There are hundreds of helpful acronyms out there, many of them geared towards getting you to put yourself in your readers' shoes. Here Jessica Swanson runs through the AIDA method: grab their attention; get them interested; appeal to their desires; ask them to take action.
     
  2. 15 blogs for freelance copywriters to run to when they need answers. Nuff said.
     
  3. This video is great. Lots of useful tips for all freelancers here.

This isn't an exhaustive account of all available hints and tips, just a brief overview of a few I've found helpful. Maybe you'll find them helpful too.