“Its customary now to start each blog with an apology for not posting for a long time with the addition of an excuse. I won’t do that this time” I wrote 3 months ago…and then forgot about it…..here it is now…if that makes any sense at all.
Most of the first part of the year..are we really half way through?…was taken up with a project that developed out of the work for the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and the Scottish Refugee Council (described in the previous blog). At the end of that project one of the participants asked me if there would be opportunities to do more creative work. Taken aback (as I was still struggling with the incongruity of something like animation with the horrors of fleeing as an asylum seeker), I said I would see what I could do. Coincidentally I had noted that Glasgow International had put out an Open Call for artists who work participatively to develop a project during the festival.
What was clear from the call and the context was that it would have to be something ambitious. I went back to the group to see if this was something that would appeal…it did and so with Gillian Steel we set about devising a proposal that became Make Strange. We duly submitted the proposal and presumed, as you always half do with proposals no matter how much you love and believe in them, that that would be the end of it. Aside from the compulsory letter stating how overwhelmed they have been with the response, and that, on this occasion the application has been unsuccessful.
So when we got support for the project I was a little surprised.
It was great to go back to the group and tell them that we would be doing a bigger project. Three of the group couldn’t come sadly, but three could and another 12 soon followed.
The run up to the festival wasn’t without its issues. We had proposed hand processing 16mm film, a process that Gillian was very familiar with, I less so. What we didn’t know was that the chemical packs routinely used for this process were no longer commercially available. I will resist going into the details of this, but every stock of film requires slightly different chemicals and times for processing. There were numerous calls to labs to see what we could get for the specific stock that we had already bought and all of these came up short.
Fortunately, searching for people who might have an answer to this conundrum we stumbled on the parallel world of Caffenol processing…a process that uses as its main ingredient (the cheaper the better) instant coffee and a couple of other ingredients commonly found in kitchens. Having sourced a Soviet era bakelite lomo tank from the Ukraine via ebay we began the process of shooting material and processing it to nail down the correct formulae, timings, temperature and chemistry. Each good attempt seemed to be matched by a roll of completely black or completely clear film, yet, by the beginning of the festival we were good to go…albeit with nowhere to go to.
In certain parts of the city, Glasgow would appear to have more empty shops, bars and cafes than functioning ones. However the owners and their agents are, to put it mildly, reluctant to open them up to artists, citing paperwork and insurance as a block on anything other than long term leases. Fortunately GI, courtesy of Clyde Gateway, came up with the goods and found us a beautiful office space, The Albus, in Bridgeton where a number of other shows were running. We had to be a bit sneaky with the space – a kind gas engineer “accidently” forgot to lock the door on the boiler, thus allowing us a space we could black out to load the tank. And we were soon to discover that the hi tech security entry toilets weren’t very user friendly if english isn’t your first language…what appears as a warning on a button in one language can be a positive invitation to press in another.
We ran the project for a couple of weeks prior to the festival opening, initially working from our proposal to view the city through the eyes of strangers to make it strange….in the style of Brecht, representing it back to the audience:
“The best school of dialectics is emigration. The most acute dialecticians are refugees. They are refugees as a result of changes, and they study nothing but changes.” Brecht, Bertolt. Flüchtlingsgespräche [Refugee Conversations]
All the participants, bar a couple of people from Ethiopia, had escaped from Eritrea, a land of 3.5million people in North East Africa. They had escaped from indefinite national service, prison, torture and servitude. Although I had worked with some of them before I hadn’t realised the grimness that lay in their past. The fact that this was so unknown to people in Glasgow was what was strange for them and this then became the central idea of the project.
Having the space, time and budget to explore ideas and play with materials was great for all concerned. It felt like there was a genuine flow of ideas. For instance, some of the participants had been involved in tailoring in Eirtrea – their former link to Central Scotland had been in the form of Clydebank built Singer sewing machines. Looking at the experience of asylum seekers, forbidden from working, developed into the idea for hand stitching interview ties out of their screen prints. One of the ties fed into an idea for a film. This in turn suggested exploring double exposing the negative.
In conjunction with this there were public workshops in screen printing and 16mm film. For this we went back to the original idea of looking at what is strange in our environment, developing an observation of the asylum seekers that in the UK we live in one of the safest places in the world yet obsess on security and danger, surrounded by CCTV, with streets that seemed to be absent of children. This work fed into the ongoing work of the group.
Much of the impetus of the work that we were doing explicitly drew upon agitprop devices of interwar years. To this end we employed screen printing, pamphlet production and filmmaking. It took a while for people to open up about their experiences. One of the participants told me about being locked in a 4 x 4 m metal box with 70 others for three months in an environment where the temperature regularly gets to 40C. Apart from the psychological scars, he had them physically where his skin had blistered and burst in the heat. Others had been held in torturous holds, known as figures of eight, for several days or spent months digging and refilling holes in the blistering heat. Most of them had been moved around the country’s notorious network of jails that outnumber schools
These stories fed into the work, but are rarely on the surface. They are folded into the pamphlets, in asides in the film work or in the images of the screen printing.
You can read a brief interview with us about the work here.
We are hoping to bring all the work together in an exhibition later in the year*, with the anticipation that people will become more aware of why people from Eritrea have fled their country. As one of the participants put it “we didn’t want to come to Glasgow, we just wanted to get out of Eritrea”.
*It is later in the year….later in the year from when this was written anyway…and it turns out the exhibition will be early next year. January 2017 in Trongate 103.