David’s Digest #1

David’s Digest #1: Laying Foundations


The doors are now open to our Viewing Chamber – welcome!

This is the room in the Engine House where you’re invited to view our artists at work. We’ll be following the development of all the Engine House seed ideas as they take shape, using the experiences of artists at the coal face as a pathway to understanding the various challenges involved.

By tackling some of the crucial questions that face artists working in new contexts, the Viewing Chamber aims to make visible the journey towards creating imaginative, multi-disciplinary work that engages with sites, communities and the concerns of the world in which we live.

Questions, Questions…

Where does it begin? How do artists from different disciplines start working together? Where do writers and their craft fit in? What ways are there to investigate a site and all the different influences that shape its use and its form? What happens when you’re all speaking different artistic languages and want different things at different stages of the process?

As Artistic Associate Writer I’ll be in direct contact with all the Engine House participants, collating their thoughts and reflections on these questions and more every three months via David’s Digest – a quarterly reflection tying together their different processes, problems and ponderings and asking what we can learn from their experience. If you’d like to ask something about their work too, let us know via the Contact page and we can put it to them directly.

What Will David’s Digest Give Me?

We’ll share with you a broad range of materials coming direct from the heart of our artists’ work – on-site discoveries, off-site musings, audio, video, visuals, scribblings, makings, sculptings and scraps – if it forms a crucial part of the creation of work, you’ll find it here.

You can also expect exclusive feature interviews, links to relevant news, writers, makers andcommentaries elsewhere in the theatre community around collaboration and, most importantly for us, all of that digested into a growing Tool Kit of practical exercises and ideas that you can apply in your own work.

But I’d Rather Make Than Read…

The philosophy behind the Viewing Chamber is that to ‘view’ something as an artist is a necessarily active engagement: a space to reflect, wonder, digest and absorb observations back into your own practice so that they can positively influence your creative approaches. It’s a mind-set, rather than a methodology (let’s not get too formal about it).

You might be viewing the work of others in production; poring over notes and photographs from their workshops; reading journalistic reviews; studying books or articles or blogs on theatre, or even academic journals, but the idea is to remain actively engaged as a reflective practitioner: and that includes looking back at your own work and asking ‘how and why might I want to do this differently next time?’.

Most of us are doing this subconsciously all the time – but an awareness of this critical questioning is something that will help organise the Viewing Chamber’s content, and is far from exclusive to Engine House. For organisations like the arts-based action research group5x5x5=Creativity, the relationship between reflection and action is crucial to fostering creative innovation.

Why Inter-Disciplinary and Why in Bristol?

Engine House is the Research and Development engine of Bristol-based theatre company Part Exchange Co whose practice has from the outset involved the creative collision of artists from different disciplines together with sites and their communities.

Their 2008 Hidden City performance event in Plymouth brought together ‘composers, choreographers, actors and installation artists all exploring the ways in which a framing narrative can be carried and communicated via different art forms’, leading in turn to collaborations between those artists and writers and a dizzying array of unexpected and original performance languages.

This and more recent productions such as 2011’s Drive-in Deco that involved the animation of a building through film, VJing, music, and writing from Engine House artist Anita Sullivan has confirmed the importance of focusing on fresh and unexpected combinations of writers with sites and other artists, to create moving, exciting and relevant theatrical experiences.

The South West is well-known for its rich mix of artists and a progressive approach to considering the place of writing and writers within theatre and performance. Bodies working across professional practice and academia such as…

…all indicate a region looking to the future and asking exciting questions about what theatre can be, and how writing for performance – and what that means – might fit into the landscape.

Despite this energy and excitement, what we’ve also identified in the region is a need for more resources and opportunities to support writers and artists in making interdisciplinary work – which is why the Viewing Chamber, its focus on documenting process and its accompanyingTool Kit is central to the Engine House project and its legacy in the South West.

Who’s Involved?

So far Engine House has lined up a mouth-watering selection of creative minds including landscape sculptor Mick Petts (check out his stunning Pit Pony and other ‘land interventions’ onhis site), audio-visual artist Tom Lumens, composer and film-maker Alexis Kirke, creative technologist Tim Kindberg and designer-director Stefanie Mueller – all of whom you can read more about in the Body Shop.

The Viewing Chamber will allow the Engine House to document, present and identify some of the principles of inter-disciplinary work as undertaken by these artists, considering how and why it pushes them into new spaces and patterns of creative thinking, and creating a lasting reference point for future collaborations of this nature across the region and beyond.

The Story So Far: An Unknown Journey

Our artists are all at the beginning of their journeys and, as Anita Sullivan points out in reference to her own practice:

‘the journey is everything, the journey is the thing.’

This metaphor of ‘journeying’ throws up some other useful parallels within the creative process: dead ends, wrong turns, crossroads of choice, getting lost, losing the map, wondering what the destination really is because it keeps moving, not being sure who’s leading when, throwing the map out the car window and starting again…as Mick Petts identifies about seed idea Earthed:

‘the process is exploratory: listening to talk, pen to paper, pencil to drawing, boots to the ground, image into camera, finger to keyboard’.

This philosophy is exciting to apply because it promotes the importance of not knowing.

A university professor once said to me that the most important thing with which a student can leave university is ignorance. Not knowing keeps you open and inquisitive and ready to relinquish your habits: knowing only closes off your ability to think originally.

That’s not to say that knowledge isn’t useful, but when beginning the journey with artists from other disciplines, each with different ways of approaching their work, staying open and listening and looking is crucial.

Creative technologist Tim Kindberg working with writer Anita Sullivan on the seed idea Future Tourist – an exploration of how governments in the future might make use of the data we unwittingly provide for them, and how that might fit into a scenario involving the tracking and monitoring of foreign tourists travelling through a city – offers a healthy reminder about the importance of not knowing:

‘My most significant moments [as an artist] have always been learning itself: that I was wrong, that I was right, that there was something I hadn’t thought or known about at all.’

Briefs and Boundaries

Both Anita and Mick Petts, the land sculptor working on seed idea Earthed – a performance project hooked around the making of a new landform in Bristol and an original story cycle of land myths, reconnecting audiences physically and psychologically to the earth – also refer to their practice as usually operating within boundaries.

Mick characterises this role as a ‘reactive mode, trying to match the aspirations of a set project with what I can dig and delve for’ whilst Anita describes her writing practice as often responding to and exploring the ‘inherent constraints’ of a bigger artistic landscape. The ‘knowing’ of a brief in both cases helps shape the practice they’re undertaking.

With the Engine House seed ideas however, along with director Rachel Aspinwall and their partner artists – myself and Tim Kindberg – Mick and Anita are embracing a shared laying-down of those foundations and boundaries for exploration, allowing a collective mapping of the project terrain to emerge from the work, rather than pre-existing it. We have to work together to define our landscape and our journey.

‘without experimentation nothing is learnt’ – Mick Petts

Let’s Get Physical…

The metaphor of the journey is also applicable to the way our artists are already thinking about audiences, and how they might interact not only with the final product of the work they’re making, but be part of its creation.

On Earthed Mick mentions the importance of ‘trying to build in physical engagement and performance opportunities within the development process’ so that potential audiences can be invested in the project’s philosophies and ideas through making choices about the direction it takes, not just as passive receivers of the work.

Tim’s explorations with pervasive computing, which he describes as ‘software and hardware that is integrated with the world away from the desktop’ through apps or other pathways has at its heart the notion of ‘physically embedded applications of technology…apps for us to experience while physically together’. The idea of the audience as live, collective, active (and interactive) brings a different dimension to the concept of spectatorship, and to the world of ‘virtual’ experiences.

Essentially there is something exciting even at this early stage about considering audiences as co-collaborators in the shaping of these artistic works, including them as part of the R+D process not just in a reflective capacity – watching silently and then asking questions – but embedding them physically and creatively within the map-making for each idea, building a theatrical vision in which they have a voice.

Playwright and academic Liz Tomlin wrote this year in Contemporary Theatre Review about the importance of teaching collaborative practice to writers. Through a process of sharing more experimental work with audiences at a very early stage, that sharing helps identify new rules of composition, and new mappings for the overall shape of the work.

Her assertion is that our previous models of knowledge (as both audiences and artists) should not be relied on as the pro forma shape for new work:

‘…the first draft must not be understood in relation to how well it traces a pre-existing structure or adheres to pre-existing rules of competence, but as to the multiplicity of entryways sketched within it (including in collaborative context, other theatrical vocabularies and starting points), and the potential of its being ‘torn’, ‘reversed’, ‘adapted’, ‘reworked’ or ‘reconceived’ from the perspective of any one of them…’

Right now in the Engine House – and this feels like a good place to wrap up our first digest – this idea of a ‘multiplicity of entryways’ is applicable to both the artists and the future audiences of the work.

If we have numerous ways in to creating and defining the shape of work as we make it, and have a practical engagement with audiences along the way, those pre-existing ‘structures’ (for the artists) or ‘competences’ (for the audience) can fall away and leave in their wake something none of us have ever seen, experienced or known before.

Oh, and the strap-line to Tomlin’s article?

‘Make a map not a tracing’. 

Maps are useful, but they always need updating.

For now, in the spirit of progressing from what we know, I’ll leave you with Tim Kindberg’s provocative statement about our need to create a new fiction in Future Tourist around mass deployments of technology by ruling powers:

‘1984 is a great work – but could do with an upgrade.’

Where Are We Going With All This?

The big vision for the Engine House is production of new and adventurous interdisciplinary theatre by Part Exchange Co. We recognise the importance of developing work, but know that only in its fullest realisation can it have a significant impact on audiences, artists and the theatrical landscape.

For the Viewing Chamber, our future vision is a deep well of online resources to which future artists can refer. Over the next eighteen months we’ll continue to add to that groundswell of creative documentation, offering everybody the chance to learn from current practice and enjoy the translation of that material into usable tools.

So don’t miss out on my future digests either – fill in your details in the Stay Up To Date box on our Home page and we’ll keep you informed.

Moving the Conversation Forwards

Engine House is not just focused on making work in the South West but also developing the region’s artists. Part of that process is creating a dialogue with them about what they want. So – let us know what you’d like to see featured within the Viewing Chamber, who you’d like to hear from among our range of artists, or if there’s something or somebody out there that we need to be reading, watching, considering or employing! Just drop me a line atdavid@partexchangeco.org.uk

Two more digests will follow by mid-February, by which time our artists will be well underway developing the Engine House seed ideas – in the meantime keep an eye on the Melting Pot for news about ways to get involved with our projects.

Remember you can get a first glimpse of Engine House work this Sunday 17th November at 8.00pm as part of the Tobacco Factory Theatre’s regular Prototype event. Click here to book – we look forward to seeing you there!