It’s my forty-sixth birthday today. Forty-six! Blimey. To mark the occasion, my old pal, Phill Hosking, dropped by the house today with a card – and inside the card, Phill’s portrait-come-caricature of yours truly – grey of beard, generous-of-nose and cosy-looking in my new yellow Christmas scarf. What a nice surprise – thank you, Phill!
Not unlike the little match girl in the well-known festive fairy story, I find myself looking into the dark shuttered interiors of our Tier 3 pubs, wishing for happier times. I feel for all the publicans right now, and worry about all the little dark spots that have opened up in people’s lives where a pint and packet of crisps once shone.
As a former licensee myself, I have never been confused about the real value of a pub or bar to its community. I was probably happiest when I was running a bar; knowing the exact moment to dim the lights or dial up the volume to bring about some deepening of the social interactions taking place before me; knowing how something as simple as remembering someone’s name and their preferred drink in their preferred glass could both settle and ennoble them. I recall fondly all the small ways in which proximity and a lovely bit of buzz would see friendship groups diversify, and move towards unexpected and unpredictable intimacies. I remember what it was like to produce the conditions for the making of companions from strangers.
When I look into the pub windows, discarded face masks blowing about my feet like leaves, I ache for my barkeep self, who was younger certainly, who worried less, who could drink eight espressos and still sleep like a log.
I think too of my other former job role, as course leader for an undergraduate arts degree. Despairing at all those empty chairs and tables, I repopulate them with rose-tinted memories of evenings spent in UK pubs and European bars in the company of my students, alumni, and staff. In these vignettes, we are imbibing gaudy glasses of Aperol Spritz in the lobby of a down-at-heel Roman hotel and sipping mojitos in some gorgeous dive in the labyrinthine heart of La Rambla. In other memories, we are sitting around the sticky, dark wood tables of a Kent boozer, sporting Poundland hats in the shape of Christmas puddings…
Back then, ‘Santa Hat Friday’ was an annual festive rite, seeing staff, students, and alumni convene in our local for an end-of-term wind-down. While not mandatory, the wearing of seasonally inspired hats was encouraged (in truth, very little encouragement was required). After the very last hand-in, after the long hard slog of the autumn term, we would amble down to the Highstreet, making for a colourful, if untidy, ribbon of revellers.
But it would be a mistake to presume there was anything instinctive about this community of ours looking to spend a night out in a pub as some natural extension of an existing culture or innate behaviour. This course tradition had to be enacted. Many of my students suffered with acute social anxiety. A higher-than-average proportion of their number were neuro-diverse in variously wonderful ways. They likewise came in every shade of the LGBTQ+ rainbow. My students were black, and they were brown, multi-faith and studying with us from overseas. There were students who’d never once frequented a public house, students who didn’t drink, and growing numbers of undergraduates who saw ‘the pub’ as a rather strange, pointless, and provincial space, lacking both the insulation and connectivity of their preferred social media platforms.
For these reasons, ‘Santa Hat Friday’ presented a challenge. More cautious members of academic staff on other courses, and some of those among the ranks of student welfare, raised their eyebrows at the propriety of this extracurricular activity. Was it appropriate to organise course-based events in which some students might feel less able to participate? Was I engineering a scenario wherein some members of my course community might feel isolated, othered, or coerced? Indeed, was it even seemly for course staff to accompany their young wards to the pub, and worse still, while wearing a jaunty pair of flashing reindeer antlers?
I used to roll my eyes at all the hand-wringing. For an event like this to achieve such contrary ambitions, the community leader organising it would need to have the EQ of a mince pie. I approached this extra-curricular activity as I approached every other course-related opportunity for the empowerment of a disparate group of young people, who, for all the reasons described above, might experience social disadvantage were they to continue worrying about engaging with noisier, less pastoral, less well-regulated spaces. I felt it important to actually produce the conditions under which my less naturally confident students would actively struggle, in the knowledge they were safe to struggle because the rest of us were there too; in the knowledge that ‘struggle’ is a half-way house en route to something valuable, lasting and new.
Every Santa Hat Friday was a short bonus module in fostering employability – and no, I am not talking about the awful hollowed-out sense of the word that narrows the value of learning to only its most immediate relevance to some industry or other. I’m talking instead about a young person’s cognisance of, and confidence in, following (and resisting), the unwritten rules of the communal workplace and beyond. I’m talking about their literacy in the unspoken languages of the graduate marketplace. I am talking about growing their power.
So when I find myself standing outside these shuttered pubs, reminiscing about Santa Hat Friday and other ghosts of Christmas past, I’m not feeling sorry for myself, though I’m not above admitting how much I miss large elements of my former life, principally that colourful, untidy ribbon of students, alumni and staff I had the very real privilege of working alongside for ten years or so. Neither am I pining for my days as a licensee, when the cuffs of every white shirt I owned were liver-spotted with Guinness, and I smelled powerfully of cigarette smoke from dawn ‘til dusk. What I’m really thinking about is the impact of COVID on the student experience – not as it pertains to the National Student Survey, or ‘value for money’, or their rights as consumers (yawn) – but as it relates to their opportunities to learn invaluable skills from the rough and tumble of more disorderly communal spaces.
And while I’m in this nostalgic mood, I might kid myself my former students learned everything of real and lasting importance from the content of my lectures… but I know very well, if surveyed, they’d more likely talk about their field trip to Berlin, to Prague, to Barcelona, to Rome. They would recall squeezing into dimly lit hostels, exhausted after early starts and awful flights, negotiating the complex unwritten rules of allocating bunk beds. They’d pick nights out in crap clubs, where they spoke, for the first time, to a classmate they’d otherwise always avoided, or judged, or envied, or fancied. They might point at some group photograph taken on the worn stone steps of some ancient feat of architecture, in which young people from a multiplicity of backgrounds all look as deliriously sleep-deprived as each other. Some of them might even have a fond thing to say about those Santa Hat Fridays, about what it feels like to be part of a community of practice, to feel it binding so reassuringly about you.
In my new role working alongside Dr Tony Reeves at Ding, I’m talking with amazing tutors who have adapted to the new normal of online learning with imagination and dexterity. I have nothing but admiration for the different ways in which tutors have safeguarded their student communities during this hugely challenging time. But as I stand reflected in these gloomy pub windows, thinking how ridiculous I must have looked in my Christmas Pudding hat, I worry more and more about all the little dark spots opening up in the student experience, and I’m keen to understand what more we could be doing to light them back up.
Phil Cooper and I caught up for a chat over the weekend about our ongoing adventures in the weird and wonderful world of Chimera!
Sorry if you’ve received two versions of this post, the first version had a glitch, so please ignore that one and read on ….
As I posted on the blog a few weeks ago, I’ve been involved in an illustration project for a wonderful children’s book called Chimera, written by my friend Phil Gomm.
Chimera is now being released as an audiobook in the form of a weekly podcast, brilliantly narrated by Dan Snelgrove, You can listen to the latest podcast here.
In addition to the podcast, every week Phil publishes a post on his blog about the new Chimera release and about the new image I make in response to each chapter. It’s a stimulating and enjoyable collaboration, especially during…
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This week’s Kick-About was an exuberant and playful affair, in which the participating artists parked their usual conceptual ruminations and had some fun – and how could we not, given we had Norman Maclaren’s Boogie-Doodle as our inspiration?
During my time as a tutor on an undergraduate programme in animation, I spent a good part of my time wrestling with – and against – the constraints of the ‘3 act narrative structure’, as students sought to tell epic-sized stories in just under four minutes or so. Often – increasingly often – I yearned for more direct ways of expression and content-creation, pushing students to produce their ideas with greater immediacy, to just ‘get stuff out’ in the first instance, as opposed to wait for the various ‘theories of storytelling’ to offer something up. Boogie-Doodle delights because it ‘just exists’; it’s what play looks like, an expressive and exuberant risk.
Boogie Doodle, Norman Maclaren, 1941
I had a few ideas as to how I might approach the Kick-About #14. I considered created Boogie-Doodle-inspired soft-sculpture using this technique, then siting the sculptural elements on wire to set them wobbling about. Another idea was to produce a series of synesthetic speed paints in response to listening to jazz music, similar to the images produced for the animation, La création du monde, but then I realised I might have made some apposite work already.
I have a small leather notebook with thick creamy pages that is home to my daily ‘to-do’ lists, which is my very low tech way of trying to give some structure to these strange indistinct times of ours. This same book is also where I doodle absently when I’m on Zoom calls. Given the instinctive ‘straight-ahead’ method of animation on display in Norman Maclaren’s Boogie Doodle, I ultimately decided to liberate some of my own doodles from the various corners of my notebook and release them into the Kick-About for a runaround of their own. My personal favourite is the grumpy-looking blue ‘ball bird’; I think it likely this doodle left my pen on some drab Monday morning…
And, by way of an ending, here’s the wonderful Sarah Vaughan doodling too.
When Marcy Erb over at Illustrated Poetry offered up an actual planet for the Kick-About 11, I had an idea I knew I couldn’t achieve alone. In recent months, I’ve littered Red’s Kingdom with photographic evidence of my multiple escapes into impressionist landscapes, often characterised by the contradiction between their sensorial splendour and their utter ubiquity. Local fields, meadows and scrublands have yielded other-worldly imagery.
Much has been written by many about the ways in which the shrinking-powers of the pandemic have heightened the sights and sounds of the natural world; I’m tempted to call it the ‘Dorothy effect’ after that wonderful moment in The Wizard Of Oz when Dorothy Gale first leaves her tornado-tossed farmhouse and enters Oz for the first time, sepia giving way to the sugar rush of Technicolour.
As I write this, the UK is having its expectations managed further regarding the continuing effects of the COVID on our spheres of activity and interaction. Our respective worlds look set to shrink a little more. The idea I had – but couldn’t accomplish – was to literalise the idea that my various escapes out into the landscape had indeed been welcome journeys to other worlds. Anyway, the word ‘planet’ derives from the Greek word for ‘wanderer’; how apt, considering my own wanderings through these gauzy landscapes of vivid vegetation and gaseous colour.
But how to turn a high-resolution digital photograph of an East Kent meadow into a planet and its accompanying nebula?! Fortunately, I knew just the person to help me realise this cunning plan, VFX whiz-zkid, Deanna Crisbacher, who I had the pleasure of teaching and working alongside back when Dee was an undergraduate, and again afterwards when I roped her into a bunch of other ‘impossible things’.
My email conversation with Dee went like this:
Me: I’ve got this idea of wrapping some of my photos around some ‘planets’, so producing my own constellation of ‘strange new words’ presented similarly to the one in the prompt image… tell me if this is a thing we could do without it being too much work?
Dee: Hey Phil, sure I’m happy to play around with some alien planet-like objects! I love that sort of experimental stuff, as you know…
You have to know what I’m about to write next in no way gives credit to the hours and hours and hours of time, energy and perseverance it has taken Dee to be able to do the stuff she can do using the technology she does. When I write ‘So, Dee took my photographs and plugged them into her CGI-dream machine to produce a bunch of digital planets’, I’m explaining nothing at all about the actual process or acknowledging the breadth and depth of Dee’s skillset. Simple to say, she’s a bit of a magician (only it’s not magic, it’s knowledge and experience). Dee and I tried it a few different ways at first, with one test resulting in these rather wonderful-looking artefacts!
A few more attempts later, and Dee was able to use one of my later Boughton Scrub photographs to produce this planet (below), with the details in the image driving all the implied topology. Dee and I were very happy with this result. You’re also looking at lots of decisions around lighting and rendering – but those decisions are Dee’s; my role was just to say ‘yes!’ very delightedly when it started to look cool!
I asked Dee to grab a few screen captures from her computer when she was developing the planets. I don’t think it’s important that non-3D literate visitors understand what they’re looking at here. What’s important is understanding nothing here is happening automatically or at the hands of ‘the computer’, but rather at the hands of an artist with a very powerful tool at her disposal!
With huge thanks to Dee then, I can now present a collection of ten planets and corresponding nebulae, all of which originate directly from photographs taken while I wandered through the fields and meadows of the ‘new normal’.
After the long, slow, sleepy life-cycles of the Kick-About#8’s cicadas, I felt we needed a bit of clatter, percussion and forward velocity in the mix. I knew just the thing, unleashing John Adams fast machine and setting it rocketing off into the bloggosphere. You can see the full range of work Adams’ music inspired here – everything from adorable little witches riding steampunk brooms to strange abandoned industrial sites in Berlin.
I’ve long been fascinated by the creative quest to visualise music and have been involved in a bunch of projects endeavouring to do just that. Some of these projects have been all about the pure subjectivity of music, so not an attempt to divine some universal visual language originating from a particular composition, but rather to celebrate the differences in the way a community of artists might ‘see’ music. Another project sought to crystallise music into physical forms. Working alongside whizz-kid, Ethan Shilling, another approach was to find an alternate, but precise language by which to abstract music still further, and use this abstraction to drive the mechanics of animated simulations.
It was to Ethan to whom I turned again to meet the challenge of the KickAbout#9, who took Adams’ Short Ride and converted it into a spectrogram – a visual transcript of the whole piece assembled out of its assorted frequencies.
Short Ride In A Fast Machine as a spectrogram.
I knew I didn’t want to fiddle too much with the resulting spectrogram, otherwise what was the point of producing it? That said, my over-riding feeling in response to the spectrogram itself was in direct opposition to my emotional experience of the music originating it. If anything, the spectogram has a distinctly calming effect. (Indeed, in his comment on the Kick-About, fellow blogger João-Maria suggested the spectrogram reminded him of the moonlit Seine, and now I cannot see it otherwise!). This changed when I divided the spectrogram into quarters. All at once I felt I was looking at POV shots of someone plummeting past Fritz Lang-inspired skyscrapers or views from great glass elevators speeding up and down. To be honest, once my brain had connected these images with the POV of falling people (a very short ride!), they in no way felt representative of Adams’ music, the energy and aliveness of it, and perhaps this can only be expected if you take something as dimensional as music and flatten it into a monochrome 2D strip!
Then how to restore the colour and light-fantastic into this clever/fascinating/boring strip of data? And what is that tickle of association in my brain, triggered again and again by the horizontalism of the spectrogram, by its flaring rectangles and bright little squares? Oh yeah…
Maybe this is where it all comes from – that compulsion to pull light and image out of music? One day soon I’ll finally do it, commit to discussing my love affair with this film, but until then let me just come right out and say Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) burned a bloody big marvellous hole in my head when I first saw it as a nipper. Those final rhapsodic scenes – with the mothership, the singing lights, and that rainbow-coloured graphic equaliser-thing – woke me up to image and music – and to fast machines powered by music too. So, with a nod and a wink at Spielberg’s science-fiction classic, I tried a couple of colourised versions of the Short Ride spectrogram to go some way to linking the image back to the idea of music, momentum and technology.
My restlessness continued however, as I still waited for the clunk-click that accompanies the moment you arrive at something you’re truly convinced by. I fiddled around with the idea of ‘the machine’, taking the spectrogram and collaging it digitally to produce something with the semblance of cogs and moving parts. I started to get something interesting – something that reminded me of another film a little less celebrated than Close Encounters – At The Earth’s Core from 1976 starring Peter Cushing and Doug Mclure! I could see the barbed head of that movie’s mechanical mole machine – and that’s where I left things, because Adams’ music is very clearly not the sound of a giant drill-bit chewing through rocks!
But something about that cheesy b-movie with its drilling machine brought me to Luigi Rossolo’s 1911 futurist painting, The Revolt, with its forward thrust of heat, noise and energy; and something about The Revolt associated with the opening credits to Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) – and my exhilaration in response to them as a wide-eyed child (I get goosebumps even now, so perfect is this combination of soaring score, heroic typeface and sound design!); and from Superman‘s title sequence, it was another short cognitive jump to Kubrick’s celebrated stargate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yes, this is the stuff! This is what my short ride in a fast machine needs in order to leave the ground!
The Revolt, Luigi Rossolo, 1911
Opening titles from Superman, Richard Donner, 1978
The Star Gate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick, 1968
So in the end it was actually very simple: first, you turn Adams’ Short Ride In A Fast Machine into a spectrogram, which you colourise suitably to suggest heat, light and sizzle, and then you steal from Donner and Kubrick and give the whole thing some cinematic swoosh.
A while back, some old 35mm photographs resurfaced of my secondary school’s production of the musical, Calamity Jane, in which I played the comedic role of Francis Fryer – a vaudeville act booked to perform in a spit-and-sawdust saloon bar – The Golden Garter – for a rowdy audience of cowboys. The joke, of course, is ‘Francis Fryer’ is assumed to be a female performer, an assumption resulting in an impromptu drag act and a rather risque musical number that goes, ‘I’ve got a hive full of honey for the right kind of honey bee’…
Francis Fryer’s Y chromosome comes as a shock in the 1953 film, Calamity Jane.
Francis Fryer (Dick Wesson) in drag performing on the stage of The Golden Garter, Calamity Jane (1953)
Francis Fryer performs Hive Full Of Honey, Calamity Jane (1953)
I was fourteen when I got the part of Francis Fryer. It’s 1989 and the annual school production is the highlight of the academic year. I only have very positive memories of my involvement in Calamity Jane. I remember being taught to walk in high heels by the deputy headmistress, which I enjoyed thoroughly, not because of the opportunity to click about in a woman’s shoes, but, more boringly, because I somehow valued this new informality between myself and this otherwise formidable adult. It was special-making and highly unusual, as intimate and demystifying as hearing teachers use each other’s first names with one another. I felt brought closer to the world of adults, a world I instinctively preferred over the inelegancies and bun-fights of my own age-group.
I remember very distinctly the dress rehearsal, when all the hired-in costumes arrived at the school, and I saw Francis Fryer’s saloon girl costume for the first time, an extraordinary confection of red and black satin, with a swishing fishtail at the back and only the tiniest scallop of fringed fabric hanging down at the front. Even now, I can conjure-up the prickle of mortification accompanying the moment I was given my notes by the director after the first dress rehearsal: “Philip,’ he said, ‘If you’re going to do that with your legs, you need to wear black pants.’
It’s tempting to frame this story as the moment I knew I was gay, that somehow the touch of red and black satin riveted me at once to my sexual identity; or it was those high-heel shoes, or the tights, the wig, or the ticklish slink of my red feather boa. It wasn’t like that at all. There was no such realisation or great awakening, no light-bulb moment or epiphany. The act of dressing-up as a woman didn’t feel encoded for me, or provocative, or transgressive. It was just what the character had to do in the story and that was that.
But it did make me feel special in one very obvious way: the role of Francis Fryer, and specifically his drag act, was a sure-fire way of making people laugh, and people did laugh, not least because during one performance the black sequinned garter on my left thigh became entangled with the fish tights on my right, effectively tying my legs together for the duration of my musical number. I waddled through my routine, penguin-like, while mugging furiously at the front row of the audience, mining my wardrobe malfunction for maximum laughs.
The whole point of Francis Fryer’s drag act is that it’s not very good – and I wasn’t – but that just brought the cheering and the applause. Off-stage, I was likely awkward as a foal, and always painfully self-conscious at how skinny I was, but on stage I was ‘a character actor’, a physical comedian! On stage – with those legs in those tights! – I looked ridiculous and that was power.
So no, I didn’t feel switched-on sexually in my saloon girl dress, but I did feel powerful. I had audiences eating out of my hand, knowing one bit of silliness with knock-knees and a feather boa would bring down the house. When you entertain people, when you clown for them, they reward you with affection. I felt liked. I felt popular. It was wonderful really, stealing the show from all those much better-looking boys. I knew I wasn’t leading man material, but I was the funny one.
But when I look at these photographs of that same time, my feelings are more complicated and it’s this I sought to capture in my unexpectedly personal response to the most recent Kick-About prompt.
When I look at the juvenile forms of the cicada, I experience instinctive distaste and also fascination. I feel similarly about these images of my own larval self. I experience some distaste at my physical appearance back then in the way we all recoil a bit – unremarkably – when we see images of our younger selves. This isn’t an admission of body dysmorphia or deep self-loathing, but only the truth of things. More uniquely perhaps, I experience distaste because of what I know awaits the boy in the photographs, and how the reappearance of these images returns me to a period of my life I have no wish to revisit.
This isn’t quite true actually; when I look at these photographs I do want to revisit this exact place and time – to warn, to mentor, to coach, and to save – but I know I can’t. Ultimately, that is what I find so unwelcome about these images; my powerlessness to intervene.
He doesn’t know it yet, but the boy in the dress in the photograph is going to be bullied by other boys. He is not going to tell anyone about it, because that is what boys do. He doesn’t know it yet, but the boy in the dress in the photograph is very likely embarrassing the other men of his family. Perhaps they can see something getting started in him – some adult-form coalescing – an anomaly. It’s surely what his bullies are seeing too. Funnily enough, the boy in the dress in the photograph doesn’t seem to be able to see this same thing as keenly. The boy thinks he’s popular with everyone. He is the centre of attention suddenly because he is making people laugh. Turns out, people are laughing at him a bit too, but not because he’s funny haha, but because he’s odd, peculiar, different, not cool, not hard, not savvy, not a success at being a fourteen year old boy.
Oh dear! The boy in the dress in the photograph doesn’t even realise, in dressing up as a woman and appearing to enjoy it, he’s upsetting and disappointing people. Some might even say a fourteen year old boy who chooses to put on a saloon girl’s dress, who learns to walk in high heels, is asking for a certain kind of trouble.
But you see, the bullies, and all the other disappointed men, are right about him – their suspicions will be realised. The boy in the dress in the photograph, who may as well be neutered for all the interest he is showing in matters of sex and sexual relationships, will, in time, emerge from his chrysalis – or rather his closet. We are looking at the nymph of an adult gay man in this photo, but everything about this individual’s gestation will be slow, and his final form not butterfly-like or in any sense spectacular. No, rather like the cicada itself, he will have to settle for ‘interesting’ over ‘beautiful’.
The boy in the dress in the photograph will soon learn to cocoon himself. He will grow a little more inward and ever more watchful. He will separate himself off from some of the men who find him disappointing by creating a shell and moving inside it for as long as it takes to feel ready enough to leave it again. The boy will do other things to keep himself safe, and not all of them will be kind or generous or brave or entirely honest.
So it is I came to the creative decision to use these happy/unhappy photographs as the raw material from which to fashion a collection of pupa, collaging with them digitally, using the same limited number of Photoshop manoeuvres last wheeled out in my Metropolis images. The decision to present the resulting images as faux zoological plates came from an idea I had about just how old these photographs feel to me – like relics, or fossils, museum pieces certainly – but also to communicate something of my scrutiny for this subject; the way distaste can give way to curiosity, and curiosity to an acceptance of the form things take on their way to being other things, and the time it takes, and also, I suppose, to marvel at the instinct to survive, and in the end, to do more than this.
An old wallet of photographs surfaced recently from an era of my life I otherwise have no tangible reminders for, including a set of very poorly exposed snaps taken one bonfire night. The subject of the photographs is the burning of a human-sized alien effigy in the small garden of a pebble-dashed house somewhere in the largely unlovely environs of Hemel Hempstead. It was to this pebble-dashed house I’d go every other weekend following my parents’ divorce, where I’d try and make the best of the new arrangement that had seen me acquire a step-mother and two step-siblings. To be honest, I’m not sure I did always try and make the best of things during those visits. I suspect I often had a face on me like a slapped arse, raining on various parades like a passive-aggressive sprinkler, and radiating generally my very deep displeasure at the new arrangement and all that led to it.
One of my more positive strategies for getting through these weekends, which I would otherwise find to be both stultifying and rage-inducing, was to invent stuff; I’d write plays for my step-siblings and we’d perform them. I’d invent entire fantastical worlds to escape into, taking my step-siblings with me, who little suspected I was only using our adventures together as a tool for tunneling my way as quickly as possible from one side of the weekend to the other. I was a storyteller and I was the clown, and like a clown, my smile rarely reached my eyes.
It’s different now, but back then, Bonfire Night was a big fucking deal. I loved fireworks. I loved boxes of fireworks, those colourful collections of cylinders, cones and coiled discs with their twists of blue touch paper and ‘hope-over-reality’ nomenclature promising extraordinary spectacles but rarely delivering them. Dad liked fireworks too and could always be relied upon to take the moment seriously and put on a good show – a bit of risk, a bit of showmanship, a precious annual ritual making daring little boys of all of us.
I do not recall why I decided to create a green alien guy for Bonfire Night. I suspect the effort I gave this task was directly proportionate to my effort to bend my dad’s new family to my will, or rather I was seeking to re-make that pebble-dashed house in my own image – to make it look more like somewhere I could reside more comfortably. I can absolutely recall making the guy, sticking together two old lampshades for the head, and papier-mâchéing over them. I remember where I made it too – in the narrow strip of landing outside the front door of the first floor flat I lived in with my mum and stepdad, making the whole building stink with the smell of metallic green spray paint.
My stepdad was suitably perplexed. Why go to all this effort to make something that was destined to be burned in a barrel? I’m not sure I ever gave him a satisfactory answer. I probably went sulky, feeling criticised and misunderstood. The answer lies in the act of making itself (is the answer I didn’t give at the time), the restorative and mediative process of bringing something into being; the satisfying wet slick of the papier-mâché, the delightful pop and wobble of all those ping-pong ball eyes as I skewered them one-by-one onto their antennae of wire.
And it was a monster, of course, a happy fiction dragged from the unreality of 1950s b-movies and creaky episodes of Dr Who, and made-over as concrete and tangible in my personal quest to put things into the world that were larger than life – to do away with what was mundane, to summon into being freaks and creatures and monsters and ghosts. It was never just that house in Hemel Hempstead I wanted to re-configure in the image of my imagination, it was everywhere else too.
When the time came, the alien burned very fast in his barrel. Looking at these blurry photographs today, I worry about the Chernobyl-levels of lung-corroding toxins produced by setting fire to something as caked in paint, varnish and plastic as my alien guy. There’s likely scientific data somewhere that dates the opening up of new hole in the ozone layer due exclusively to this extraterrestrial immolation.
In common with all those tantalizing boxes of fireworks, the burning of my alien was a great big anti-climax, not least because it didn’t achieve any kind of seismic change to the reality of my weekends at dad’s house. It didn’t make me more popular with anyone, more likeable or more interesting. They probably thought I was just showing off. In truth, I probably was.
But making something is always a magical act – lead into gold, straw into gold, two old lampshades into a monster.
Metropolis – our last kick-about prompt – inspired a wide-range of creative responses from a wide-range of creatives. I experienced a proper thrill of anticipation as the submissions began to arrive via email, blogposts and Twitter. ‘Metropolis’ brought with it some very clear and beloved associations; many of us couldn’t wait to channel our inner Fritz Lang. Prompt No 3 – ‘Dance of the Happy Shades’ – was an arguably more elusive start-point inspiring another rich collection of responses in a variety of different media. Enjoy!
“I started off by painting some foliage and flower shapes onto tracing paper, cutting them out, placing on a light box and photographing them. I meant the results to be shadowy and rather gothic, but they turned out rather different. Perhaps because it feels like full-on summer here in Berlin this week, and perhaps because I watched Picnic at Hanging Rock the other night, the photos have more the atmosphere of a languorous sunny afternoon in the garden – not what I set out to do at all. I was so seduced by the colour palette of Picnic at Hanging Rock, I’ve let the images go in this direction…”
“On reading the title “Dance of the Happy Shades” I immediately thought of shadows, and the shades of tones in the shadows, rather than shades of greys and colours. I thought of the subtle tones in a desaturated situation, like during twilight, one of my favourite times of day. Still, I needed a relatively strong source of light to create the shadows. Also, I was looking at translucent rather than solid objects, to get more nuances in the tones, as well as texture – translucency and texture being also some of the things that most inspire and attract me. I tried and looked at few different things, including rereading “In the Praise of Shadows” by Junichiro Tanizaki, and watching the Zhang Yimou’s film “Shadow” – an amazing film. In the end, it was the moving reflection on the wall of three glass flowers I made few years back standing on my mantelpiece that I wanted to do. I was originally going to paint them with the Chinese ink and brush technique, but I started sketching them out in colour pencil and rather enjoyed the process, and the result was close to my idea. Pencils on hot press watercolour paper. 84×60 cm.“
“I’ve got two quite different responses this week. Firstly, one very silly gif. This was inspired by a friend, when I asked her, ‘What do you think of when I say ‘Dance of the Happy Shades’?’ she responded, ‘I just see a dude dancing in shades.’ Her response made me think of an older gent embodying a Dad-joke of sorts…”
“The second idea that came to mind was old Disney style – Fantasia – but instead of brooms and the like, it was floor lamps, with shades. (It’s a tenuous link, I know!). I hadn’t fully worked out how I could animate the idea (plus I left it too late anyway) but that didn’t mean I couldn’t embody it somehow! So here’s a silly storyboard of some dancing floor lamps! I put together a quick animatic – it’s not as motion-filled as I’d like, but I hope it gets my daft idea across a bit better. Haha!”
Inspiration came from Alice Munro’s Walker Brothers Cowboy, the very first story in Munro’s Dance Of The Happy Shades. In it, a little girl and her brother are too hot and listless in the back of their father’s car. They play I Spy to pass the time:
“We play I Spy, but it is hard to find many colours. Grey for the barns and sheds and toilets and houses, brown for the yard and fields, black or brown for the dogs. The rusting cars show rainbow patches, in which I strain to pick out purple or green; likewise I peer at doors for shreds of peeling paint, maroon or yellow.”
I wanted to evoke the languor of a similarly long hot day and the way lethargy encourages you to look for escape-routes in ordinary and over-looked places – like the peeling paint on a garage door, which if you squint, might come to resemble some glinting sea or exotic terrain. With the exception of a few sound effects purloined from the BBC SFX archive, the majority of sounds in the film were recorded in an around the rather careworn seaside town I call home. At risk of sounding bossy, grab some headphones for a suitably immersive experience. “
“My Rorschach ancestor mirrors himself and transforms in both vertical and horizontal directions. It was fun to add a little nonsensical creation to my days.”
He seems friendly
enough, this presence
of the past, shifting
languorously as if
drugged by sun
light shining in his eyes
after a thundering rain
In truth his voice
is seldom called
corners and along
His dance contains
move around him
as his buddha smile
in the dark
“I found a photo of the author of Dance Of The Happy Shades, Alice Munro from 1971, a couple of years after the book was published. I thought it would be nice to add some colour to it. While it was possible to find photos from a few years later that I could reference for eye colour, skin tones, hair etc, I still feel there’s a large degree of fiction in this, or any other colourised photo. Where the photo was taken, what time of day, what colour clothing all became something imagined without proper sources. This is an interesting contradiction for me, because by trying to bring something to life, it actually makes it more like a woozy loose memory. I’ve been doing something similar with old family photos recently, and have been able to test the memories of elder relatives in the photos for details. While a modern sheen of colour makes the image feel more appealing, I often wonder if the photos are more meaningful in their original state.”
“My mind went straight to ballerina dancers and wanted to capture them in a loose style, and was thinking of black and grey shades. So I did some small charcoal sketches of ballerina dancers as an initial response while sitting out in the park… I moved them into Photoshop and did some tweaking and painting to make them fit into a more complete image.”
“I was thinking of a very exuberant Flamenco Dancer wearing a fabulous skirt of happy, bright and gaudy layers. I painted on Yupo paper for the woman’s figure and used scraps of silk and net individually twisted and bound for her skirt. I enjoyed the whole task very much and it definitely made me want to do a happy dance!”
“Originally, I wanted to respond to a couple of quotes within the book, make some kind of lively piece with dancers and muted colours, but after reading up on Orfeo ed Eurydice, I decided instead to look to the Greek god of the underworld, Hades. Not only did it relate to this Kick-About prompt, but also to another project I’ve been working on. Right now, it’s called “So, this is life?” and involves a goddess in the stars being banished from the heavens and forced to live among humans. I’m basing the characters on constellations and Greek mythologies, so Hades was perfect. I’m still working out kinks on the story but the basic world-building is the “constellation” gods and goddesses watch over whatever humans were born under their star and act as lore keepers for them. When the humans die, they must journey to Hades and the constellations hand over their lore to Hades. This current design of Hades is the first iteration. He’s bound to change as I develop this concept further.”
“I am absolutely loving these Kick Abouts! It has completely opened my eyes to the possibility of doing quick little ‘micro shorts’ – and this time I decided to give it a whirl for a film of sorts. For the Metropolis prompt, I was drawing and animating the creative responses using a particular set of Photoshop brushes that are always my go to. I was in my bathroom and opened up my medicine cabinet, and just as I did, the light from outside was shining into the window and through a crack of the medicine cabinet door. It created this brilliant concentrated brush stroke of dancing illuminating light that mimics one of the brushes I love to use in Photoshop. I took out my phone and filmed myself opening and closing the medicine cabinet door over and over again, as I knew this would not last long because of how pinprick precise the light was in that moment. I realised I could work with the videos to produce something for the kick-about, so I started to play.
A lot of what is going in the film fell into place through experimenting by mixing all the videos together, playing with blend modes, light, shadow and shapes. The song is Grey Drops by Sergey Cheremisinov. When listening to Cheremisinov’s unique pieces I always imagine something odd and intriguing coming to life, something with a lot of texture. I envisioned things moving in the shadows that shouldn’t move. The best thing about creating like this is something magical happens by itself; as I was swinging the medicine cabinet door, I noticed it looked like the light was giving way to these phantom spectres that were projecting part of themselves away and then consuming it again with every swing of the door. Everything started to intensify as I edited the film together, and then a story started to flourish.”
“Dance of the Happy Shades is a title as evocative as it is elusive. In an attempt to understand the mystery and make the shades dance, here is a little series of blindingly colourful, expressionist and illusionistic photographic manipulations.”
“It all turned about-face after the start. The studio’s sense of itself took over. Nuances I set about exploring ended up as grey-scale shades flowing from colour. HB pencil, on Artistico Fabriano 640gsm hot pressed. 77cm x 56cm. 24 hour drawing.”
“I was going through some old paperwork when a photo fluttered to the ground, one of me as a child, which prompted a rush of memories. I found other photos, of other times, and I tried to set down in words the feelings and images they evoked. I recalled sounds, music, voices, and wanted to find a way to combine images, words and sounds to share with others the emotions they aroused in me. I don’t have the technical knowledge or skills to create what I envisaged – but luckily, I know a man who does! We talked for a long time about the ways and means, of shape and substance and then he took my words, my images, my memories, and between us produced the following short film.“
“Optimism isn’t my comfort zone, but it was lovely to work more abstractly and suggestively than usual. I’ve never read Dance of the Happy Shades, but the title alone suggests to me the movements of grass fields, dappled sunlight and a shifting summer breeze. This is the best I can do to evoke Van Gogh. Unfortunately, the grey British skies did not imbue my blood with a great talent for evoking the beauty of the sun!”
Watch Jordan paint live at twitch.tv/jordan_buckner
Courtesy of Berlin-based artist, Phil Cooper, we have our new prompt – a short sequence from Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950). In common with all previous kick-abouts, you’re invited to respond to the new prompt in anyway that gets your juices flowing, and if you’ve enjoyed this third creative run-around and you want to get involved, then crack on!
When participating Kick-About artist and animator, Emily Clarkson, offered up ‘Metropolis‘ as the second prompt, I wasn’t alone in looking forward to walking into the expressionistic world of Fritz Lang’s epic work of science-fiction. At the outset I knew I wanted to begin with the concept drawings for the film by Erich Kettelhut, and I knew I’d be seeking to produce something by following the principles of collage and layering. What I didn’t know was that I’d find this particular challenge hugely addictive and satisfying, and that I’d produce a lot of stuff on my way to choosing the image for the Kick-About with which I was most happy.
Every image in this post (and many others not in it) were all seeded by one pencil drawing and my guiding principle was a simple one; do now as I did back on my art A’level and subsequent Foundation course, which is to keep pushing a very limited series of processes and tools until something interesting happens! What I enjoyed particularly about the later stages of the process was my inability to stop the imagery coalescing into rich Art Deco pattern-making, as if the stylistic motifs of the original movie are themselves somehow irrepressible.