What happens when you let a poet and a performance artist-academic loose in a planetarium, with some big ideas and Hello Kitty beach balls?
In September co-Lead Artist, Paul Hurley and I presented #SmartCityDampDataCitizenSpectaculecture – our artistic response to The Bristol Approach to Citizen Sensing – a project spearheaded by Knowle West Media Centre (KWMC) which aimed to create, “a new framework for running inclusive, community-driven digital projects that involve sensor technologies”.
Are We Making Sense?
KWMC have been in the area for 20 years this year, and continue to do amazing work equipping citizens with skills to create change in their own and others’ lives – and The Bristol Approach was an ambitious project aiming to do just that. What data could citizens gather collectively to combine with existing data, and present to those with the power to make changes? Could we create a unique sensor tech together, which people actually wanted to use?
We worked with the KWMC team on the creative delivery of a large public engagement workshop bringing together around 60 citizens from across community interest organisations, technology, local authority, small businesses, and others. Initially, the project drew in three subjects that it might address using The Bristol Approach:
– Private tenants and advocacy groups reported damp problems in homes
– Independent traders, who said they found it difficult to predict customer flow and numbers
– Wildlife groups were keen to measure the biodiversity of parks and green spaces, to demonstrate the health of the local ecosystem and protect it in the future
After this initial workshop, the issue of damp in rented accommodation was selected to take forward – and after a further workshop to explore and frame the issues, they developed the ‘Frog’ sensor (a creature which thrives in damp places).
KWMC have summarised The Bristol Approach model in this handy diagram:
There’s also a detailed description of the project on an Issuu publication here.
And, somewhere alongside/outside this diagram, Paul and I were to create an artistic response…
One of Bristol’s most striking landmarks is the at-Bristol Planetarium which – these days – has an alter-ego: The Data Dome. With its thematic link to The Bristol Approach, we were to use the unique space to create our response. How often do you get free run of the UKs only 3D planetarium to tinker with?
Paul is a performance artist and academic; I’m a poet, performer, facilitator, filmmaker and educator. Somehow, between all these disciplines, we realised we’d be making some form of theatre – a warped lecture, with real intellectual and critical points, but which engaged with and subverted this spectacular space. And as I’m a sucker for a neologism, or a portmanteau – the Spectaculecture was born. (The combination of words is also a play on Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle, one of our critical influences.)
To call working in the Dome a learning curve would be understating it: while it’s an incredible tool and space for performance, it’s also a very specific one, with very specific tech requirements (the words ‘Pixel Aspect Ratio’ are now forever etched in my mind). But we were so fortunate to have the able and amiable assistance of the at-Bristol team, being granted a few trips to see what the Dome could do (3-D landings on Mars!), and then gradually to understand what we could do…
Having borrowed the science centre’s 360 GoPro camera, we found you can project this footage straight on to the planetarium. The space lends itself so wonderfully to expanse, interplanetary travel, spectacle – that sort of thing. But for two artists with a moderate level of tech ability – the interesting thing was to bring the scale of things down, into intimate spaces, beneath things, rather than over them.
So we researched and developed the show, we started re-exploring the city – and the process of developing and making the show – using the GoPro as the documenting tool. It was like having a new pet, and wondering what it might make of certain situations. We’d place it on table tops in a café as we puzzled over the performance, or on the grass while we played fetch with the dog.
Once I’d become a little bolder, I placed it in the middle of a rubber-duck catching game at a fairground in Anchor Square (outside at-Bristol). We started to look for round spaces (which worked well on the dome) and see the city from the ground up (low-angle also worked well).
And through this process, we realised that what we were thinking about was SPACE – but not the usual kind that went on in the dome. We were talking about Domestic Space (our homes, our laundry, our privacy); Common Space (the spaces we share, the park where we walk the dog, the data commons); Market Space (the stalls that scream their wares to us, the shopping centres that purport to be ‘common’ but are private, the data marketplace). At a point about two-thirds of the way through the show, we erected a light-up badminton net in the space, and initiated a buzzword game of volley ball with about fifteen Hello Kitty beach balls – so there was a touch of Carnival Space, too.
Don’t Be Shy, Conditions Apply
‘Poetry filmmaking’ is an expansive and exciting form – and can mean anything from a poem performed directly to camera, to archive inspiring poetry and interweaving with the poem, to text on screen, or an existing poem reimagined through film. I used to work in media production – and am very interested in the crossover between poetry and moving image. So it had been in my mind to create some videopoems around the themes which emerged from the project – in this case, 360-degree ones.
There was a degree of serendipity in creating the video poems we included in the show. They sat between the sections, which Paul largely delivered as the ‘academic straight-man’, and were scarcely commented on – creating conceptual breaks between the types of ‘space’.
Sing me the song of your laundry
The cycles of this cylinder
Its bright voltaic hum.
In looking at ‘Domestic Space’ and damp – we realised how significant laundry and laundry routines were. As a couple making work together, it was interesting to subvert both the space, and to bring our domestic space into this spectacular one (including hanging our damp washing out in front of the audience). The videopoem I included was a ‘Laundry Song’, which included footage captured in laundrettes (spaces I’m quite obsessed with), rotating at an enormous scale on the Dome screen. I worked with an editor on this and a couple of the videos – and found that her ability to make connections between my writing and the footage I’d captured really enriched the process. To have a giant, dark washing machine drum bearing down on the audience, on the line ‘salute the pixelated Sun’, was inspired – and I would have completely missed it!
The other videopoems included a strange and dark poem set in Brandon Hill park in which someone throws a frog off Cabot Tower. I entered a previously untouched ‘non-space’ near our flat – which contains (and still contains) a broken TV and a chair, in a poem called ‘Omission in the City’. For the ‘Market Space’ section, I visited a greengrocer near our studio and recorded the owner calling out his wares, with shots from my shopping basket.
The final sequence of the Market Space chapter of the show included my circling the audience screaming a greengrocer-style ‘found poem’ made of Terms and Conditions from Google, Apple, Wikipedia, Creative Commons – as all the lights flash and loud gamelan music plays (we used this as a motif through all the videopoems too – with its influence on early electronic music). A carnival, a cornucopia, a baffling mass of words, terms and conditions.
We’re so often swamped in Ts & Cs, by choice, by ‘data’ – that it can feel utterly overwhelming. But it’s up to us to keep talking about it, stay as alert as we can, and – where possible – take charge of the data that might enable us to change things:
Come on then folks, anyone else for Data!
Your extra large sets of Data!
Don’t be shy, conditions apply!
We’re excited about the potential to work in other domes, in other cities – possibly creating bespoke ‘portraits’ of them – and perhaps working with portable, inflatable domes too. We’re continuing the conversation with the KWMC team, to see where the Spectaculectures & dome-ified videopoetry might go…
Caleb Parkin is a poet, performer, facilitator, educator and filmmaker, based in Bristol and working with organisations across broad sectors.
Having worked for some time in media production for the BBC, for a science publication and in education, he is currently studying for an MSc in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes, and is Membership Secretary and project manager for Lapidus: The Writing for Wellbeing Organisation, as well as a facilitator and project manager on freelance arts projects.
His writing, performance and projects has featured in locations as diverse as planetaria, schools, museums, computer shops, wildlife events, and festivals. He often writes about animals, machines, science and technology – and has been published online and in print anthologies, through commissioned projects for the Poetry School, Green Man Festival, and others.
Most recently, he was commended by Philip Gross in the Ware Open Poetry Competition. Read more about his projects and publications here: https://couldbethemoon.co.uk/where/publication/ and on www.word-rocket.co.uk
More Images from the Show: