Thursday, 2 November 2017

Hospitalfield: A Creative Practice Symposium

Near the end of my weekend at Hospitalfield, the artist Michael Mulvihill said to me that, while he enjoyed hearing about everyone’s artistic practice and research, the opening up of the world of poetry had affected him the most.

For my part, I’d like to reverse-echo the sentiment: discovering the visual and musical arts has, for me, been a revelation. While the experience was at its most pronounced this weekend, with sixteen artists showcasing their works over a two and a half day intense period, I really mean to say that the past two years (and before that), via the opportunities that I have had to meet so many fascinating artists—some of whom I’ve collaborated with—has surely shaped my thinking and influenced my work in myriad positive ways.

Hospitalfield is the kind of place that is a joy to every one of the bodily and spiritual senses. From the culinary delights, to the coastal setting just outside Arbroath, to the pulchritudinous grounds, to the ornate and eclectic collection of paintings, tapestries and sculptures, the house is a fertile breeding ground for new ways of working as much as it is a place of solitude and contemplation.

The project of wife and husband duo, Elizabeth Allan-Fraser and Patrick Allan-Fraser, Hospitalfield occupies the site of a 12th-century Benedictine monastery, since transformed into a beguiling site of artistic splendour. Somewhere between country pile and contemporary gallery, but not really so much of either, Hospitalfield is a genuine one-off. The opportunity to have spent this weekend there, then, was a special one. Organised by Joanne Clement, the Northern Bridge Creative Practice completion symposium brought PhD students from across the Arts together, swiping us from our routines, asking us to address ourselves and the challenges and opportunities our works face in both dividuated and interdisciplinary ways.

For my own part, I was able to frankly discuss with practitioners at one (or several) steps removed from Literature, the concerns I currently have with my work: namely, will poetry of the margins stay in the margins; and to what extent can I, and should I, take steps to steer it?

These open-ended conversations took place, largely and thankfully, in the most informal ways: over drunken dancing to the likes of competition and co¥ᄀpt [Craig Pollard and Sean Cotterill, respectively], musicians not so much at the cutting-edge, but questioning where the edges even are. With Simon Woolham (and the ‘with’ is both instrumental to Simon’s practice and the rationale behind the weekend as a whole; a Harawayan ‘making-with’) it involved following the tracks of his practice: fusing seemingly-disparate artistic ‘hats’ into what I am calling in the most generous sense that of co-curator. His ‘Wythy’ [Wythenshawe] Walks blend citizen map-making with story-weaving in a way that questions where and how we tell tales. Which is a bit like the practice of Christy Ducker, whose first book-length collection, Skipper, draws largely on her Creative Writing PhD, in which she succeeds, splendidly, in de-ventriloquising the Victorian Northumbrian heroine, Grace Darling. Untrusting of ‘official’ accounts while equally suspicious of apocryphal claims, Christy’s poems perform biographic ‘rescues’, analogous with the daring life lived by Darling.

The weekend’s bounties extended further when we were introduced to the meta-narratives of Harriet Sutcliffe, who re-writes with precision and power the female experience back into the visual arts – Newcastle’s Hatton Gallery and Basic Design course – in a way that I’ve never seen. It also meant encountering the Geordie Iaian Sinclair: Michael Pattison’s dérives ’round the river Lea being some of the most pressing engagements with psychogeographic space I can remember. It meant seeing Rob Blazey playing an instrument that he’d not only learned, but conceptualised, designed and built. It meant hearing, in stunning polyphony, excerpts from Linda France’s wonderful new poems about Susan Davidson and the landscapes of Allen Banks and Staward Gorge. It meant wondering with Lisa Matthews where a poem starts and prose stops and how the writer, in electing to blur those boundaries, can create dazzling new commentaries on grief, marine life and un-packed-away holiday items. In Phill Begg’s case, it meant asking how the auditory can push the visual into new kinaesthetic realms in hypnotic and arresting ways. In Juliana Mensah’s, it meant writing luminous fiction in the spaces-between identities, creating wonder and puzzlement equally in the folds of race, gender and nationality. Similarly, for Andrea McCartney, it meant adopting a literal and figurative shadow script to trace the map-makers of conflict-ridden Ireland, quizzing narratives of power. In Sabina Sallis’s work, it meant wondering, on a large scale, how drawing interrogates myth and how that myth is bound up in the interdependent present and might be a solve towards our crises. In not-too-distant terrain, it allowed Michael Mulvihill to probe the hidden nuclear militarism via object-interfaces and popular culture references which situate the reader in a profoundly uneasy position, given the recent US-North Korea chest-bashing. And in Jo Clement’s work, it meant figuring out what we mean by ‘type’: in an alphabetical, anthropological and ekphrastic way, her poems delve deeply into the traces left by the Northumbrian engraver, Thomas Bewick, recasting them as important and beautiful way-markers for how we might live better lives now.

It was a real honour to spend the weekend with these people, who will all, I’ve no doubt, go on to great, great things. Hospitalfield, you’ve been a pleasure: I hope to be back soon.

Thanks to Sabina Sallis for this image.