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events

City As Material 2: London

Yesterday we strolled around London for the second location of City As Material 2, accompanied by the same gang as Thetford: Andrew Hunter and Lisa Hirmer of Dodolab, Josie Mills from the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery and Leila Armstrong. We followed in the wake of Professor Starling as he continued his investigations in the UK, looking at several key sites of historical significance to Starlings.

Outside the British Museum was first, where we received hails of giggles from startled tourists and smirks from Londoners passing by. It was surprising that Professor Starling got so many reactions in London, where there’s plenty of street performers and PR stunts, compared to low-key Thetford. People that did engage with us seemed to be more concerned with the spectacle of the costume than talking about the awareness of Starlings and other birds. This was especially the case when we got to Trafalgar square, after checking out the second-hand book and print shops on Cecil Court, the Professor briefly mourning some of his stuffed kin in the window of an antiques shop.

A descent of the steps leading down to the Mall was next. They were curiously empty, lending a very regal air to the Professor as he grandly strode on, cane in hand, towards St Jame’s Park. Circling the lake amongst the many species of waterfowl, eagerly scrabbling at morsels of tossed bread through the fence, we overheard questionable tales of Starling murmurations in fantastical formations, and laments for the decreasing number of small birds in the parks and other public spaces.

Shedding his feathers and back in human form, Andrew and the rest of the team accompanied us to Gaby’s Deli on Charing Cross Road for lunch. It’s currently being threatened with closure by the landlords, after more than 50 years of service behind it – here’s hoping it doesn’t migrate elsewhere.

Tomorrow we’ll be in Oxford, the final spot of the series.

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events

City As Material 2: Thetford

Last Thursday we travelled to Thetford, Norfolk, the first destination of City As Material 2, centered on the theme of ‘Migrations’. Joining us were Andrew Hunter and Lisa Hirmer from Dodolab, Josie Mills from the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery, and Leila Armstrong. Oh, and the “itinerant avian scholar” (in his own squawks), Professor William Starling – Andrew’s alter ego, who is investigating the decline of Starlings and other species in the UK.

After a heinous early start and a couple of train changes, Giles and I were picked up by Andrew in Bury St Edmunds, a short drive from Thetford. He filled us in on what they’d been up to so far, and we started to discuss a loose route for the day. We arrived and worked our way into the town, along its contours of winding roads and down the High Street, where people drifted past in the slow, content manner of those living in a quiet market town on a warm Winter’s morning, then met the others in a Portuguese cafe. The 2001 UK census suggested that almost 30 % percent of the population in Thetford were Portuguese, drawn by work in the farms, fields and factories.

Andrew showed us an aging tome entitled ‘In Breckland Wilds’, which Professor Starling had been studying to get a sense of the area in past times. I immediately turned to the alluring chapter called ‘Traditions, Customs and Ghost Tales’, and learnt about the spectre of the “flaming-eyed rabbit” and other dubious local lore. Smirking aside, there was a genuine interest in Thetford’s folklore – tales that can allude to the real fears and anxieties of people in the area at the time. On that note we departed and headed for the ruins of Thetford Priory, which in the 13th century had drawn pilgrims to Thetford, after the discovery of a number of saints’ relics in a statue of the Virgin Mary.

Along the way, Andrew transformed into Professor Starling, donning grand attire and a giant bird’s head (crowned by a top hat) and spotted one of his namesake in a tree. Unfortunately it would be the only one we spotted that day. He chatted with passing locals who weren’t fazed in the slightest, cheerfully greeting our unusual ensemble.

I was expecting the ruins to be scattered rubble, but the crumbled perimeter walls were still visible, laid out in thick lines of fist-sized flint, two feet tall. It almost looked as if it was in the process of being built; the stonemasons away on an eternal break. I made some rubbings with tracing paper and a graphite block, gleaning traces of the past, and noticed covered grill pits, sadly filled with rubbish – traces of the now. Saying that, despite being a marvel for us, these ruins must seem very commonplace for the local youth.

We split up after returning to the city centre. Professor Starling and Lisa went to talk to more people on the high street, Josie and Leila set off for Ancient House Museum, and Giles and I took a scenic detour around the town edges, observing lovely flint cottages and houses overtaken by vivid green vines, then slowly passing along the river. We noticed statues of Captain Mainwaring from Dad’s Army, which was filmed extensively around the area, and by contrast, one of Maharajah Duleep Singh, who settled in the nearby Elveden Hall, on the opposite bank. There’s also an odd statue of Thomas Paine, born in Thetford, on King Street, poised with quill as if playing darts and gripping an upside down copy of his book ‘The Rights of Man’. A diverse trio indeed.

Reuniting with Josie and Leila briefly at the Museum, we saw a Narwhal tusk, taxidermy birds, and replicas of the Thetford Hoard, unearthed in 1979, and now housed in the British Museum. The circumstances surrounding the discovery are shady and it is thought the treasure is incomplete. We started to think about what might be missing, and what the treasures of Thetford today might be.

Over lunch, everyone together again, Andrew recounted some of the opinions he had gathered as Professor Starling. His favourite, in response to his question about why the numbers of Starlings had fallen in Thetford was “Cats!”. Following chuckles, we left for Castle Hill, one of the tallest Norman mottes in England, although nothing remains of the castle which once sat atop it. There seems to be many rumours about buried treasure and hidden tunnels, though our only surprise was how tricky it was to safely walk back down.

Lastly, we drove out to the remains of the Thetford Warren Lodge, surrounded by wonderfully spongy ground that felt like it was absorbing you into the land, and paths sprinkled with knapped flint. Peering through the bars which protected it gave a sense of the original fortitude and seclusion of the structure, standing firm amongst thickets of trees.

Tranquil as it was, we had another agenda: to drive back to town, and retire to the Bell Inn. Pints up!

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news

City As Material 2

This Thursday we’re traveling to Thetford with Dodolab, alongside Josephine Mills from the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery and Leila Armstrong, for the first of the next round of City As Material events, centered on the theme of ‘Migrations’.

Following in the fluttering wings of Professor Starling, who will be investigating the passages of Starlings across Europe and North America throughout the ages, we’ll be looking at the migrations of people to these shores, how these have influenced spaces and communities, as well as more intangible forces – the migration of knowledge, skills and beliefs.

Next up: London and Oxford. Look out for tales from the days, and the eBooks created, very soon.

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inspiration

‘According To The Artists’ / ‘Talking Art’

Before the New Year, we published the first series of Material Conditions, a set of eight eBooks asking professional creative practitioners to reflect on what the material conditions for their own practice are, especially now in relation to the climate of change and uncertainty brought about by the recession and public sector cuts.

Since then, I’ve come across a couple of books that draw parallels – miniature libraries of creative insights and artistic working practices – which should be of interest.

According to the Artists – 13 Questions, 51 Interviews, (the title is pretty self-explanatory).

Talking ArtInterviews with artists since 1976 , (collected interviews published by Art Monthly).

We’re starting to plan the next series of Material conditions, this time centered around collective responses rather than individual commissions. Stay tuned for more news.

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inspiration

Jonathan Franzen vs The ebook

On Monday, the Guardian published an article in which the novelist Jonathan Franzen condemned ebooks, warning that they have a negative effect on literature, and may actually be damaging to society. Whilst I’m inclined to agree with his statements about the nature of physical books, that they are permanent and reassuring tangible objects – monuments to writers’ visions, inscribed with great works – it seems he is speaking with a certain style of book in mind. Grand traditional novels, or epic modern sagas (like his own) that are often weighted by matter equal to their significance. Very real chunks of wood and ink, displaying their age and history, bearing messages to loved ones inside covers and messy notes in the margins.

I own both the printed book of his most recent novel ‘Freedom’, which I’m currently absorbed in, and the ebook, which I had first but didn’t start, despite my anticipation to start reading. The steady stream of text on the flat, grey Kindle screen failed to engage. I remembered the amazing experience of reading his previous book, and how affectionately dog-eared it is now. It was several months before I came across a copy and lunged for it.

This and other seminal novels deserve a commitment, often countered by lengthy, trying reads (thankfully not in Franzen’s case), and having to lug heavy books around. The argument that e-readers are able to contain thousands of books is valid, but carefree limitless access to anything isn’t always entirely positive. I find making the effort to single out one book can heighten the enjoyment.

But books that are liable to be read once (murder mysteries, review copies etc), reference texts, or collections of short stories are perfect for e-readers. They also allow access to out of print texts and numerous edited versions, and of course don’t require masses of trees to be felled. People with sight problems or disabilities can read with greater ease.

Franzen chooses to block access to the internet and uses noise-cancelling headphones whilst he is writing. Other writers choose to work accompanied by music, or in busy places. Readers can choose to remain devout to printed books, or they can leap into the world of the digital. They can straddle both, using hybrid platforms.

Freedom of choice.

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events news

ARCHIZINES World Tour

City as Material recently became part of ARCHIZINES, an archive of independent architecture zines, journals and magazines from around the world, curated by Elias Redstone. I was lucky enough to be able to talk about City as Material and self-publishing at Archizines Live, part of November’s Friday Late at the V&A. Now the collection is touring the world, starting with an exhibition at Spazio FMG in Milan which runs until the 23rd of Feburary. Next up: Paris, Berlin and New York, with details to be announced soon. The photographs of the launch night in Milan look great – best of luck with the other stops!

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inspiration

Poetry & short story pamphlets with bookleteer

I’ve been thinking a fair bit about bookleteer’s role in creating poetry pamphlets and short story collections, and the lack of much of either from budding bookleteers.

It’s boggling – they suit the format perfectly as portable, pocket sized A6 books, or the grander A5 size, and can be made very quickly without any design knowledge, in any word processing application. Use them as cheap and plentiful portfolios of work, or travel booklets for personal reading – anyone with a computer and printer has access to their own print on demand service. If you need to make changes, or they get damaged, make some more.

Or, use the online bookreader to share digital versions, and embed into websites. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve edited eBooks embedded in my portfolio site, but as the link remains the same, there’s no need to re-upload.

Despite the tone of this post, this is not a sale pitch. bookleteer is free, you skeptics. I just want see fellow writers embracing it and adding to our library of eBooks, Diffusion. Get busy!

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inspiration

In the Margins

This recent article from the Guardian Books blog, ponders whether or not it’s acceptable to make notes in the margins of books. Reading it, I was reminded of how annotating draft bookleteer eBooks during the editing and proofing stages of Material Conditions was an invaluable part of the process.

We were able to quickly transform the draft books into the final printed format to get a feel of what they would look like on the page, and then to cross out, change and empathise parts, scribbling notes without feeling they were too precious to make marks on. Having a hard copy of previous changes, with progressive layers all on the same page, lets you revert back if you change your mind – something I’ve also come to appreciate in my own notebooks, when early choices are all too often lost with a newly edited digital file. Working with multiple versions and backing up regularly are safeguards easily neglected, as we all know.

As an alternative, use the online bookreader to preview eBooks without messy edges or any dodgy printer issues, and to show collaborators your work instantly.

Paper or digital? Both.

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inspiration

Book Sculpture Panoramas

Guy Laramee has produced these spectacular sculptures carved from old tomes, excavating covers and pages to build intricate panoramas of natural landscapes and ancient structures. A wonderful paradox of taking away to create, they look as if they have been unearthed, rather than meticulously composed. Mountain valleys and steppes, an idealised japanese garden complete with tiny raked contours, temples set in gaping caverns. Stunning scenes that blur the borders of perception, liable to make you forget their source material – images that linger in the mind, formed not by words in ink, but by hewn layers of the very matter they are printed on.

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inspiration

Read to Write

I wrote a few months back about the level of Narrative Immersion amongst different mediums – books, television, film, video games – championing the depth and unique experience that the written word affords. I was concentrating on the effects of these forms when using them purely for leisure, but the specific focus I’ve placed on literature is in part due to reading books not just for diversion, but as an active process, always mindful of ways to improve my craft as a writer and how to remain open to inspiration.

As much as what you’re reading can influence any subsequent writing, I find staying largely within the realm of text helps me to dedicate more time to these distinctly lo-fi pursuits, avoiding being too saturated with moving image mediums to concentrate, or becoming too fixated with games or other highly involving activities. Reading and writing generate imagery from within the individual (although they can be tinged by external events happening at that moment – noise, the weather, people, etc), rather than receiving it from a projecting device.

Of course, I’m influenced by all things, but it’s the more static forms like art, objects, or powerful images from films, seemingly captured with a mental camera, that allow me to visualise them later, tinkering and contrasting with other images for effect. This leads to the composition of a few sentences, and thus a starting point. There’s also direct personal experiences and sensations, particularly specific moments and microscopic details. Sometimes I wonder about the authenticity of material inspired by these sources, compared to the real world counterpart, or what actually happened, but what is creative writing if not rendering what you see and feel into words, which is then liable to be interpreted differently by each reader? Hounding out the truth can sometimes seem pointless – this isn’t journalism, though that includes a fair bit of fiction these days.

Being able to impose your own prism on the world is vital to create original and humane art. It can allow you to feel competent enough to make a mark, and to be compelled to write. Which, as the universal frustration over blank pages shows, is everything.