But what does music do?

Last night I went to see the wonderful ‘Kreutzer vs Kreutzer‘, part of Music in the Round’s May Festival: Beethoven Revisited. Based on a Tolstoy story of a man who confesses to murdering his wife in a fit of jealousy, this setting is told from the perspective of the wife. A play for two actors (the brilliant Stacey Sampson and Sandy Batchelor), and a chamber music concert in two acts. This performance combined Laura Wade’s wonderful play, with Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata in A Major (Op.47) in the first half, with Janacek’s Kreutzer Sonata String Quartet No.1 in the second. From Ensemble 360, violinist Benjamin Nabarro played in both halves, with Tim Horton on piano in the first, and then with Claudia Ajmone-Marsan (violin), Ruth Gibson (viola) and Gemma Rosefield (cello – and her stock bright pink shoes) forming the quartet for Janacek. And what a clever juxtaposition.

The first half, flirtatious, flighty, light-hearted, funny, and the second half conflicted, complex, dark, haunting. Told initially as the story of an affair between a married woman and her music teacher (one cannot get more intimate, the text insinuates – what does music really do if not inspire the passions?), the second half retells the story as one of unrequited and restrained desire. Both have tragic consequences. What is the real story that led to the husband murdering his wife?

I had never heard much Janacek before this – or rather, I had never deliberately listened to much Janacek before this. The play enabled me to hear his work in a completely new light – a really exciting one. It sparked my imagination in a way that may not have otherwise happened. The discordant yet harmonious sounds told me unexpected things, and I wanted to keep listening. It made it relatable. I think there’s huge potential for making more chamber music like this, or for making more challenging pieces of music accessible through combining different artforms together… I think there’s even potential for using the Object Dialogue Box in a musical setting. And what better way to end the Janacek, and the tempestuous performance, than with a violin string snapping under all the pressure. This is what music does.


Imaginative unknowing

Earlier this week, the Object Dialogue Box made the journey from Sheffield to London to meet its curious cousins at the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum. I was delighted to have the opportunity to lead a workshop ‘Extraordinary objects and imaginative unknowing’, with Graham Moore, the Children and Young People Coordinator at Museums Sheffield, as part of ‘Objectively Speaking’, the annual national partnerships conference at the BM.

Here is the blurb we put together about our session:

Museums collect objects so that we can know about things. But what happens if we challenge this knowledge? What happens if we begin from a position that accepts and admits not knowing? And what if we prioritise this imaginative unknowing as a strategy within museum interpretation?

This workshop aims to explore some of these questions through a practical object-based activity using Museums Sheffield’s Object Dialogue Box. Containing a series of extraordinary objects created by artists Karl and Kimberley Foster, the box encourages a sort of imaginative knowing, or, one might say, an unknowing, that often runs against the grain of traditional curatorial readings of objects. Impossibly possible objects act as catalysts for play and imaginary make-believe, which, we argue, is just as important in the work of the museum as c.ontextual object knowledge.

I learnt so much from the process of working together, as well as from the conference itself. Graham’s style of unravelling the box is different from my own. His ritual is a slow, meditative one. A hypnotic, soft voice, and a slow reveal, section by section, with time to reflect on what it is that can be seen at each stage. I loved his quiet and understated approach. I’d love to experiment more with the effect of an individual’s performance on the experience with the objects. Above all, it was fun to work together and share ideas about using the box. Graham talked about how he’d noticed that people often tell stories in the first person, but sometimes (less confidently?) in the third person. I’d never noticed this overtly. We also had interesting conversations about the ’emperor’s new clothes’ phenomenon that sometimes we both worry about. Keen to make sure we went out in the galleries (unlike other conferences which tend to forget their location), off we went with our groups up to the Enlightenment Gallery. We kept disbelievingly saying: ‘wow – we are actually doing this at the BM!’ It felt like the Object Dialogue Box had gone home, even though it has never been there before. The Enlightenment Gallery and all its attempts to catalogue, rationalise, order the world and its knowledge (albeit through mermen) beautifully juxtaposed with this box of irrational, unfamiliar familiarities, and the impossibility of knowing… Unknowing. Hopefully not its last visit there. Our delegates were enthusiastic and full of imaginative thoughts, stories, questions. We left buzzing.

The workshops were part of the day-long conference #objectbasedteaching. Divided into three themes (collections use in academic teaching, creative teaching practice, and digital objects), unfortunately we were limited just to the morning  presentations because we had to deliver our session twice after lunch. Susan Raikes opened the day hoping it would inspire, challenge and stretch. Keynote speaker Claire Brown, whose company Thinking Museum is based in Amsterdam (and who I have chatted to on Twitter but had never met in real life) started by noting just how little people really look and notice in galleries. We had to look at a painting to see what we noticed in a very short space of time, then a bit longer. Her talk focused on the use of objects for three different ends: to develop transferable skills; to stimulate curiosity and wonder; and to combat museum anxiety. She focussed on the skill of looking in particular, drawing our attention to Slow Art Day (today!): the more you look, the more you see. Referring throughout to a tactic called ‘thinking routines’ (which rang slightly cultish alarm bells for me), she spoke about staying curious for curiosity’s sake, playing open-endedly, and using this to develop confidence in museum visiting. I totally agreed with her – for me there was nothing particularly radical (does this matter?) in her presentation. A sort of preaching to the converted. I reflected afterwards though, that her talk would have been probably quite controversial and really inspiring as a new approach for some delegates, and that has to be a good thing. Anything to encourage curiosity-based enquiry. Her thinking museum certainly got a huge amount of positive feedback on Twitter.

Next Claire Ackroyd and Sofia Maskin from Bradford Museums talked about the development of a cross-curricular session there called ‘The Art and Science of Noticing‘. Children make ‘noticings’ on their museum journey. (What a wonderful word!) This session was completely delightful and captivating. A return to the simplicity of thinking through making drawings and using proper drawing pencils to do so.

After this, Sandra Kemp talked about a collaboration between the V&A and Imperial College, making visible the invisible in nanotechnology, taking an MSc cohort out of their comfort zone to think about materiality in new ways by looking at museum objects. Practical ideas included having museum trails on placemats in the museum cafe, and blogging in the first person as if an object. Above all this was a paper about rethinking epistemologies. How do we know what an object is? Indeed, what even is an object?

Next, the brilliant Helena Tomlin talked about a project she has been working on with the University of Manchester – a dermatology visual research project, ‘Under My Skin’, a curious collaboration between dermatology, museology and art practice. Observational skills, she argued, are absolutely essential to all these. The dermatologist has much to learn from the artist. She referred to research at Harvard where doctors had also worked closely with art collections when developing observational skills (see Training the Eye). Doctors gained confidence through this looking in a new way. Studies of materiality underpin all these disciplines. What can I see? What does what I can see tell l me? (And how can a talk which shows a juicy Bomberg oil painting fail to inspire?!) Helena called for the establishment of a national network for using underused collections with doctors and for doctor training (and an audience member suggested medical student too). What a wonderful idea. I hope it comes to fruition. It’s sort of the other half of the National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing. The arts as esoteric and therapeutic, and as practically teaching ways of seeing and ways of knowing.

And of course, of imaginatively unknowing.


Who is here to smash the patriarchy? YES I AM! The Guardian recently published Yasmin Khan’s excellent article about inequality for women in the museum sector, and the amazing Space Invaders conference which brought together about 130 women (and 2 brave men) to discuss it at the Imperial War Museum on 18 March 2016. It was without doubt one of the most amazing conferences I have been to. Intelligent, warm, angry, cooperative, inclusive, a challenge. I loved cheering with Shami Chakrabarti that the day on which it was held was ‘tampon tax day’.

It is somewhat ironic that writing this post has taken various iterations before I have felt it publishable. The first time I wrote it (on the train on the way home), I was angry. I talked about the time I was called an ‘utter twerp’ by a male director, the problematic use of the so-called ‘Bradford factor’ to monitor sick leave (look it up – and you’ll see it automatically penalises women), the museum’s collection itself being one of boys’ toys with barely a woman featuring… Paragraph after paragraph. I am still angry. But my anger is more general now, and it makes me want to smash that patriarchy more than ever.

I think comments from the initial talk by Dr Nirmal Puwar were what resonated with me most strongly. How I identified with thinking about the threatening and disorienting capacity of a woman leader. We have to constantly prove our ability: we need to make our leadership skills visible in a way that a man simply does not do. We are made to feel small, child-like – we can only do our jobs because of others. We exist under a burden of doubt, imposter syndrome, a feeling that our authority is misplaced, that we will be harshly judged and criticised. A performance. Sometimes, I have felt this infantilism very strongly. And sometimes, I am glad to say, I have not felt it at all, but have felt respected and valued as a strong, creative, independent woman with ideas, and in a much more equal place.

I don’t want this post to be entirely negative. There is much to be said, for example, for having strong female role models: this is something to have come out strongly from the conference and something in which I believe passionately. The value of surrounding yourself with women, or with those from own own intersections, whatever these may be. Solidarity. I have been fortunate. My AMA mentor, a highly regarded female director, is someone I regularly share thoughts with, and I have a variety of strong intelligent passionate women leaders (both in ‘official’ leadership roles, as well as those who lead from ‘elsewhere’) within my networks. At the last gallery in which I worked, though I didn’t realise at the time, I would argue that the culture was entirely female driven. There have always been exceptional women leaders (both from the top, but also the ‘rebels’ from the bottom up) in organisations where I have worked. There still are now.

Space Invaders has fired me up into taking action. For too long I have sat too quietly on equality. Yes of course I have thought it vital and essential to stand up for what I don’t just believe, but what fundamentally just has to be. I left my teaching job 12 years ago in part because of the men in tweed jackets, gaffawing about cricket and rugby, and the ritual of ‘master’s tea’ being wheeled into the staff room at 4pm every day. ‘Where is my cake?’, I wanted to know. I think there I was branded as some sort of renegade feminist (said in sarcastic tones) even by my female colleagues. And although I didn’t enjoy it much, part of me feels proud now to have been educated in an all female college at Newnham. And prior to that at an all girls school in Dorset where we believed that we could do whatever we wanted to do with our lives. (Although even these admissions, I realise place me in a problematic social/class intersection…)

So what little steps can I take now? I don’t know what other women feel about their own equality (or lack of it?) in my organisation, not just on the executive board, but in its very collections, its policies. I want to find out. How can we bring women’s stories into the museum? I don’t know if the organisation has moved from an equality and diversity model to a diversity and inclusion one (as per Tate’s excellent presentation). The fact that I don’t know what the policies are and who/where they are championed is worrying in itself. I’m cross with myself for not knowing or having sought them, and I want to know. Perhaps some informal lunches with other women to discuss these things, put them on the agenda would be a start…

But I think leadership comes from all places, unexpected ones too. The hierarchical patriarchal pyramid needs to go. It should have gone ages ago. We should be following more organic, flexible, free models, experiments. Skunkworks. Doing things under the radar just to see what happens. It is out of this that I think the most radical change will come. I’d like to gather a bunch of women together, be part of a network, building on what has gone before (with Network for Change), a new generation of women in museums and galleries. Change. For women and for equality. Because this matters. It mattered to the suffragettes and it still matters for women and girls – and for all people – around the whole world. Let’s do this thing.




The Culture White Paper: A Response

I’ve just finished reading the DCMS Culture White Paper, published yesterday, ‘the first white paper for culture in more than 50 years and only the second ever published’ (p.5). I started reading it on my computer screen, but then had to print it out, realising I needed to scribble over it (violently at times) while I was reading. This response is a very immediate, quite visceral one – my opinions might of course change as I share ideas about it with more people and think about it a bit more – but I just felt moved to pour forth some initial rambling thoughts.

I do laud some things: that there is a government report about culture, for example. That my home city of Sheffield is mentioned for a new £1million arts hub (p.32), and given recognition for its affordable studios for artists at Yorkshire Artspace (p.37). That there is ambition to display the Government Art Collection more widely (p.43), and that access and engagement are central. And particularly exciting for my own rummaging interests, that the Museums Review will consider access to collections in store (p.57). I am encouraged by the paper’s recognition of a digital world (p.38), and the need for more digitisation and access to collections including through crowdsourcing, transferring authority out there (p.39). I learnt that there is such a thing as the culture diary, ‘a master list for culture’ (p.43), and that DCMS will continue to work together with the Wolfson Foundation to fund capital projects (where is the money for infrastructure, though?) (p.53). I really do look forward to the Museums Review, and hope the opportunity is not wasted, but is one with genuine new findings and insights, and with data that can be used for change and action.

But the cynic in me asks why there is now this report about culture. And what is this culture?  By p.13, if not before, I was cross. It is a paper purportedly about culture, yet one which has an extremely dubious definition of culture (if it can be defined). ‘Culture no longer simply means being familiar with a select list of works of art and architecture…’ Really?! Did it ever mean this?! In whose world? Certainly not mine, and not even in the Oxford English Dictionary (a bastion of culture if ever there was one…) where the history of the term is painted as complex:

in modern use… the term is frequently used as a general term to denote the arts and other aspects of intellectual life, without any special reference to their historical development (nor to their connection with any particular society), and hence again with less transparent connection with earlier senses of the word…

But in the White Paper, culture is ‘the accumulated influence of creativity, the arts, museums, galleries, libraries, archives and heritage upon all our lives’. Everything, merged together as though these are all the same. The cultural sectors are defined as those organisations and individuals that ‘together preserve, reflect and promote who we are as a nation, in all our rich diversity’ (italics mine). No no no! Wrong on so many levels. What about those that create, challenge, encourage questioning, making, new ideas, open experimenting? Arts. Culture is not just about preservation. And while the term ‘reflect’ is one I would usually use positively and creatively, here, it is relegated to something didactic: it sounds as though it is the cultural institutions alone that have some sort of authority to reflect to the public who they are. Really? Them and us. And what about culture as ‘promoting nationhood’? Don’t get me started…

So I continued reading. Section 1.1 ‘Culture should be an essential part of every child’s education, both in and out of school’. Yes, of course. But then I despair… What is meant by this? The government returns to Gradgrind’s ‘facts, facts, facts’. For here, ‘knowledge of great works of art, great music, great literature and great plays, and their creators, is an important part of every child’s education’. Knowledge of. What about encouraging the creation of new things? What about responding to? Where is our imagination? How does making art fit in? What is meant by great? Who defines this? Why do we have to know about, rather than just make and do? Knowledge is not just about: it is active, sensory, creative, emotional. Just because I know about Shakespeare does not have any bearing whatsoever on my own imaginative response to the things that are being fed in. And it continues, ‘so too is being taught to play a musical instrument, to draw, paint and make things, to dance and to act’. Now, if this sentence did not include the ‘being taught’ bit, I would like it a lot more. But it does. For in this report, we are passive agents, empty vessels to be filled. Knowledge and skills: what and how. No why. No questions.

This paternalism can be found throughout: ‘The government expects all museums, theatres, galleries, opera houses and other arts organisations in receipt of public money to reach out to everyone regardless of background, education or geography’. Great, and of course this is to be welcomed (despite its extraordinary list of elite cultural places). Organisations ‘reach out’ –but where is the dialogue, the shared understanding, the letting go, the community reaching in and out of the organisation, the empowerment? And where is the funding for this ambition? There is no additional money to support the ambitions of the White Paper. It is certainly not in the local authorities whose sources are being cut constantly. How are the regions, other than a few select places mentioned time and again for various initiatives, to carry out these ambitions without the resources to do so? Resilience is the buzz word of the day (and has been for rather a long time now): ‘organisations… must also think more broadly how they will adapt their business models and financial strategies to deal with potential challenges to funding’. In between the lines, if we don’t become successful businesses, or good at crowd funding, or finding a wealthy sponsor, then this government is actually not interested in culture at all. Hmm.

Ironic too to suggest that ‘national museums are looking to build on their existing regional presence’ (p.35) when we all know of the recent debacle of the NMM photography’s move away from Bradford to London. And what on earth is the GREAT campaign (p.44)? Apparently £113.5 million has been spent on this since 2011. Now I work in this sector, and I’ve never heard of it, and when I consulted my colleagues in the office, neither had they. Whiffs of empire. Moving on to workforce diversity: this is vital, and the ambition to publish data on leadership of chairs and trustees is a significant step in the right direction (p.27), but we have heard this before. Does investing £10million in Skills for the Future really change a culture? There is still so much to do just in terms of women’s lack of leadership in a sector full of women. We need radical change, not just another paper. Words, words, words. Curious turns of phrase litter the document: ‘culturally ambitious young people’ (p.22) – what about just ‘young people’? ‘Soft power’ (p. 42, p.57) – what is this? Where is the action? The list of organisations involved in the report is lengthy, but has some notable exceptions. Where is the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at the University of Leicester’s School of Museum Studies? Why was it not consulted? GEM and Engage are also missing.

And finally, the Appendix contains the ways of measuring the impact of the ambition. Output indicators are all about ‘increase in engaging in culture’… What does this mean? We all know there is a huge difference between bums on seats and real engagement. A quick visit (or as some organisations literally just count those walking through on their way to somewhere else), is not the same as a long-term relationship. So why is this paper so insistent on evaluating impact through quantitative statistics? Where is the measure of quality of experience? So many assumptions and unanswered questions. But that will do for now. Action is what is needed. Let’s hope the Museums Review leads to change. And of course that this White Paper does too.

Alex Woodall: UGN5.015

Adopt a slide

Oyl Int Ruwad: Part One

Everyone I know who was brought up in Sheffield can remember the ‘ole in’t road’.

It’s ingrained onto the collective memories of anyone who was in the city between 1967 and 1994. A sort of roundabout with escalators leading underground, part subway, part subterranean shopping centre, it housed entrances to department stores, benches for weary shoppers and tramps, and a giant fish tank full of murky water and miserable fish. It is infamous.

Look it up, and you’ll find it has its own discussion articlesforum boards, Wikipedia entry, and even Facebook page

But my favourite thing has to be this brilliant animated Lego video made by Jason Effex for a song by Sheffield’s finest ukulele wielding Everly Pregnant Brothers.

This is the first of three posts in honour of three slides. Tactile pieces of Sheffield’s history living in Manchester.

This slide…

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The latest exhibition at Sheffield’s brilliant Site Gallery, with pieces also on show over the way at Sheffield Hallam’s SIA Gallery, has just opened. Listening is part of the Hayward’s Touring Curatorial Open – the result of the third open competition by the Hayward and funded through ACE, to take risks and support new and dynamic curatorial approaches. Curated by Sam Belinfante, the exhibition is entitled Listening. Yet it is not simply a show about sonic art: Sam is quick to explain that this has been done many times over the past decade, and his approach does something different…

Sam is himself an artist, performer, choreographer, interested in sound and movement, and his curatorial practice reflects these interests, as well as his curating being an intrinsic part of his own creative and artistic practice. The exhibition is most definitely a creative and artistic project, choreographed as an immersive experience for the viewer/audience (more on this distinction to follow). I was delighted to go along to the curator-led tour and hear him talk more about the exhibition while also experiencing it for myself. I was also really delighted that lots of the pieces had been commissioned specially for the show, and in dialogue/collaboration with the curator. I find that dynamic approach really exciting.

Enough to pull me in just by virtue of there being a Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller piece in Sheffield again, I was in fact delighted, fascinated and excited by the whole exhibition. Yes, the Cardiff/Miller piece is a classic of sonic art, as terrifying as it is thrilling and gripping (over-active imaginations experience a creepy dark forest, hiding in bushes, confrontation, and a shot being fired – different in scale from the Documenta (13) Alter Bahnhof Walk in 2012 which I walked though and from the 40 part motet Spem in Alium which I’ve sung), but I also made lots of new discoveries… 2013 Turner Prizewinner Laure Prouvost’s amusing and quirky use of theatrical lighting, and playing with museological modes of object display and narrative was one such in her new and rather magical commission for this exhibit, as was Amalia Pica’s rather beautiful Eavesdropping piece (which conjured up so much resonance and memory, and for some reason a bit of the aesthetic of Gabriel Orozco’s Asterisms too).

Mikhail Karikis makes another appearance in the city after his Art Sheffield 2013 Children of Unquiet project. In Listening, we find his amazing SeaWomen, based on the lives of women from Jeju, an island between South Korea, China and Japan, who dive under water for ages at a time to find pearls and edible sea creatures such as starfish, having adapted a remarkable way of making a breathing sound (sumbisori) which means they can dive  deeply. I went to Karikis’ talk about this a couple of years ago, also at Site, and it was amazing to be reunited with these women again. (And for weird reasons, starfish have a bit of a place in my head at the moment, so it was a strange juxtaposition to be sitting on a squidgy black cushion on reed matting, in the middle of Sheffield on a Saturday afternoon, but transported to a jagged seascape and starfish associations…)

As someone who writes a lot about disrupting the hierarchy of the senses, particularly through use of touch in galleries, the thing that struck me most about the whole show was that it really is about an embodied sort of listening. It’s not just focussing on the ears, the aural. It’s about a whole process, entirely sensory, and entirely not just about one sense at a time. It’s not, as Belinfante explained, telling people to ‘listen’, but it’s about what our bodies are doing while we are listening in space, and in time, how this relates to what our eyes are doing, what we touch. Listening.

And for me the piece that really encapsulates an embodied sort of touching/seeing/ listening was Laurie Anderson’s Handphone Table (from the year of my birth, 1978). Sitting at a wooden desk, hands over ears, the visitor/audience places their elbows on a dip in the table, and sounds are transmitted through the arms. It’s amazing. Especially if, like me, you aren’t a physicist or musician who understands audio waves. A real playing with what constitutes listening. Someone asked whether a deaf person would be able to hear the sounds: nobody seemed to know the answer, but it would be fascinating to test.

I really liked Sam’s constant references to etymology. So important in the way our thinking develops. In particular, he talked about the words ‘visitor’ and ‘audience’. ‘Visitor’ stemming from words around that visual ‘top of the tree’ sense (as also, he pointed out are many of our words around ‘thinking’ and ‘ideas’), but ‘audience’ from the audio. Definitely something to think about a bit more. And other things that Listening leaves me pontificating about include:

  • the ethics of audio: Nietzsche apparently said that unlike eyes, ‘the ears have no lids’ – we can’t switch off sounds
  • sometimes we have to contort our bodies sometimes in order to listen
  • there’s something sometimes intimate about listening, at others utterly immense
  • sometimes listening is an absence (SB referred to some works as ‘mute’ – which again is interesting in relation to ethics/ways of perceiving sensory (dis)abilities etc)
  • metaphor, mythology and sound – thunder, time, stars, sirens, ebb and flow, conflict
  • exponential expansion of the senses through focussing in on them

I’m unfortunately not able to go to what sounds like (ha ha!) an amazing Listening Conference event on 25 April: what is the listening body? but Listening has certainly given me a lot to think about, and was a thoroughly beautiful experience too. And I like the way too that it’s a sort of curation of curation of curation of curation…

Indian adventure

Tomorrow I am flying to India. That sounds so ridiculously simple, yet so ridiculously complicated! Not least since there is due to be deep snow in Sheffield tomorrow, but when I step off the plane, it will be a very pleasant 24 degrees and sunny.

I am part of a very exciting research project, a partnership between the School of Museum Studies in Leicester, and the National Museum Institute in Delhi, funded through the British Academy and British Council. The project is called Things Unbound: Engagements with Objects in India and the UK, and I have set up a project blog which details the processes, partnerships and learning along the way.

It’s very closely aligned with my own research and practice: we’ll be exploring how visitors engage with objects, emotionally, sensorially, and imaginatively (I think), as well as running some training workshops for museology academics and fellow PhD students to begin to cement a partnership between ourselves several other museum studies courses in India. So far, we actually have very little idea of what we will be doing. This terrifies the control freak in me. I have never been to India, so I am completely not prepared for the culture shock that will hit me, and because of the lack of detail about what we will be doing, and when, it still seems slightly surreal. An adventure, rather than a piece of work.

I can’t believe I will be there in 48 hours. I’m going to write on this blog, as well as the ‘official’ one. There are several things that I am really interested in, which are an aside from the main purpose of the project. Firstly, I am really looking forward to spending time with Sandra and Margarida, and getting to know them both in different capacities. I am also looking forward to meeting with our Indian colleagues, Manvi, Manjari, Moumita and Juha. I have a feeling that relationships between academics and students in India may be more formal than they are in the UK, so it will be interesting to see how we are viewed as PhD students.  I am also concerned that some of the practices of object engagements which are second nature to me, might be viewed more sceptically by what may be a more traditional museology discipline in India. I am taking my green object box and all sorts of things to rummage about with. But who knows?

Aside from this, I am excited about the utterly different cultural immersion. Living in a place for three weeks, closely working with Indian colleagues is such a different experience than a holiday or travel might be. I can’t begin to imagine the feeling when I get off the plane (apart from exhaustion). Sensory overload I think. But what that looks/smells/sounds like, I really don’t know. And in relation to my theological work, I am really interested in the notion of permanence and impermanence and how that looks in relation to objects in museums, the access/conservation paradox and so on. If all is impermanent, then how does a museum function?

So anyway, back to some practical details. We’ll be staying at the stunning looking Lutyens Bungalow in Delhi for some days (with its lovely garden, and swimming pool), and will then be going to Jaipur for some more days, and then back to Delhi. But I don’t know when or how long for, or even where we are staying in Jaipur…

I think I need to get to grips with this totally different pace: whatever will be will be.




Proposals for things often take up a lot of time and energy. Sometimes they are successful. But sometimes they are not. I seem to have written rather a lot of them over the last few weeks: to present at conferences; to curate an exhibition; to work on a piece of freelance creative engagement work.

And then there are the proposals still on my ‘to do’ list. The competition, the application, the symposium, the essay for a publication.
I propose that I do this… We propose that we do this…

Yet despite the intention that I will do all of these things (for that is what a proposal is), their actuality, their future reality, is (actually) completely out of my hands. If these proposals are not accepted for whatever reason, then they are not actual, and I wonder then, whether then they are even potentialities? Will I still do these things? Which ones can I still do, even in the face of rejection by another? Can I do any of them?

At what stage do we let go of our ideas, consign the possibilities to the bin and move onto the next thing? Perhaps we don’t. I’m not sure why I am mulling these things over. Perhaps there are bigger questions here about freedom, responsibility, choice… Are we all ultimately beholden to the puppeteer who pulls on the strings?

Festival of the Mind

I thought I would write a little review of all the things I have been to in this year’s brilliant Festival of the Mind, organised by the University of Sheffield.

Sounds of the Cosmos. This event, like other events organised by Stewart Campbell, was creative, inspired, with unusual collaborations and innovative formats. In fact, it was a fabulous opening to my Festival of the Mind, as it really did totally blow my mind. Holst’s Planets Suite, played by the Sheffield Rep Orchestra, was interspersed with talks by Professor Paul Crowther from the Department of Physics and Astronomy and the most fabulous visuals provided by all sorts of incredibly clever telescopes and other gadgets at NASA and other organisations. Accessible, but impossible to grasp (that’s a compliment), it did leave me feeling very perplexed. About the insignificance of it all. Not just that we are so ridiculously tiny, but also that the task of astrophysics is doomed as well. I wonder why a physicist doesn’t accept that we will never know (like I think a theologian does – or certainly like the sort of theologian I admire might do) and live happily with this unknowing, rather than keeping on developing a failed and impossible sort of knowing… What really is the point of it all?

So I suppose I couldn’t have had a better start to a festival which celebrates wondering and interdisciplinary thinking and engagement with the public. The matinee, a later add on after the evening sold out, was geared towards schoolchildren – which although a brilliant thing to do – did mean that it was quite a noisy and disruptive environment. I hope it blew some of their minds: we’ll never know…

The next thing I went to (on Tuesday afternoon) was a series of exhibitions at the amazing almost derelict Castle House, home to the former Coop which was still in existence when I first moved to Sheffield in 2005. There were many things in here that I loved. I found the exhibition about the history of the building fascinating. I loved Shaun Bloodworth’s ‘Save the Birds’ collaboration with Tim Birkhead to create films and soundtracks of the dawn chorus, sadly now much changed due to bird numbers decreasing.

Shaun Bloodworth and Tim Birkhead

Shaun Bloodworth and Tim Birkhead

I loved learning about the many languages spoken in Sheffield, the strange gaze-shift installation which shows what the brain does when it looks at shapes, some imagined castles created by school children, and a weird illuminous nerve tent. A real highlight for me as someone interested in sensory engagements with things, was the Tactile Image exhibition by Clive Egginton, a film-maker who lost his sight earlier this year on being diagnosed with brain cancer. Photographs of Sheffield people, and Sheffield things by both him and a few others, were fabulous and thought-provoking in their own right, but when paired with tactile versions, the effect was wonderful. Raised images also incorporating descriptive text in Braille tied in so well with an excellent event I had been to the day before at Kelham Island Museum, celebrating their ‘Access all Areas’ project, in which Patricia Dieng’s TacMaps were particularly exciting to discover. And also reminded me of a project I did at Kettle’s Yard back in 2001, making ‘In To Touch’ packs for visually impaired people which were raised heated polystyrene precursors to all these things. Everything is interconnected.

The Tactile Image

The Tactile Image

Please touch poster

Please Touch

Other projects I found fascinating were the immersive soundscapes for people with dementia by composers ‘In the Nursery’, some of which were really soothing. It was also fascinating to see the thermal images of some of Sheffield’s iconic buildings.

Thermal imaging

Thermal imaging

I absolutely love love love the Letters to Sheffield project, and although I was sad not to see mine when I first went to Castle House, this has since been sorted out by way of a few tweets to the lovely people at Our Favourite Places and at Site who found my missing letter and have now installed it into the exhibition. I spent ages when I went back the second time reading these: funny, sad, poignant, apart from the one which declares Sheffield to be ‘crap, crap, crap’ (!), they almost all reveal a deep love of the city and a real sense of pride of place. We are so lucky to live here. The accompanying book is beautiful and something that every Sheffield person will love.

My letter to Sheffield

My letter to Sheffield

Phlegm’s marketplace piece in the Sheffield Bazaar artists’ interventions section downstairs was fantastic – especially amusing to have the old haberdashery sign showing through. In fact I loved this about the whole building, which even though only closed for less than 10 years, seemed so much more ancient, forlorn and forgotten.

Phlegm market

Phlegm market



On the final Saturday, I went to the Turner Museum of Glass for the first time ever. What a hidden gem! Hard to get find, it’s a real reward to see the amazing collections, and, rather than to just appreciate the glass for its aesthetic quality, which is what I’d normally do, it is a whole new dimension to have it exhibited in the department of engineering (I think) where the focus is on the properties of the materials and how glass is made. There are some stunning objects – a bit of Lalique (a moth), a rock crystal Buddha, and glass mainly from various European countries, as well as some ancient Egyptian pieces. Fabulous collection. While there, I chatted to Lynne Fox, the university’s Heritage Officer, and Professor John Parker who is the curator, and hopefully there are plans to do more events, and even have a handling collection one day.

Turner Museum of Glass

Turner Museum of Glass

Later in the day, I returned to a lab in the same building (Robert Hadfield), for a fantastic glass-making demonstration in a seriously high-tech lab full of all sorts of amazing gadgets. It was very exciting, and the second time this year when I have been in a lab doing dangerous experiments! I had no idea what molten glass looked like. It really did remind me of the Mervyn Peake painting at Manchester Art Gallery.

Glass making demonstration

Glass making demonstration

Glass making

Glass making

It was amazing to hold a glass blob (a bit like a wiggly tadpole shape), for the ‘Prince Rupert’s Tear Drop’ experiment which shattered in my hand, and even though I knew it was going to do it, was still quite a shock! 

The final highlight of this year’s Festival were several bird-related events and exhibitions. Firstly, hearing the brilliant Tim Birkhead speaking about the decline of the dawn chorus in the Spiegeltent. As always, his talk was a source of all sorts of bits of new and fascinating information. Such as: bullfinches were as recently as the early C20th, trained to sing German folk songs, and can actually learn them but singing up a semitone(!); there are two particular notes sung as part of nightingale (I think) mating rituals, which can be recorded and replayed to make the birds breed; in the winter, Stoney Middleton is the place to see starlings in their millions. But also that the dawn chorus has fewer birds even than in the 1980s when I was growing up, as more and more of the insects eaten by birds are in decline due to intensive farming and use of land to grow food – all over the world. A massive problem. Made me think that not procreating is definitely a positive step for the planet.

Save the Birds

Save the Birds

After hearing some tweeting birds in the Milennium Gallery avenue, I then headed to Sheffield cathedral. As well as seeing the lovely new interpretation there, an exhibition entitled ‘Loomery Scrolls’ by Chris Wallbank, who was artist in residence with Tim Birkhead on Skomer, was absolutely fabulous – and worked beautifully in the cathedral. Vast scrolls of paper documented the birds on the cliffs, recording their numbers in many instances, and with different ‘experiments’ to record their habits. I loved it.

Chris Wallbank, Loomery Scrolls (the oldest guillemot)

Chris Wallbank, Loomery Scrolls (the oldest guillemot)

The oldest guillemot

The oldest guillemot

So, that’s my little Festival of the Mind. Thank you everyone involved. Sheffield is brilliant.

End of the Road 2014

I have been back for just over a week since the amazing End of the Road festival. It never fails to amaze me how brilliant this little festival is – the most happy and friendly event of my year, and this year’s was no exception. I love it. There are always surprises, things that blow you away when you are least expecting, new discoveries around every tree, things that you find and think no one else has spotted, and firm favourites that don’t let you down. Oh – and just the small factor of the best music in the world ever. In fact this year, the festival was happier and friendlier than ever before, and actually there aren’t any words to describe my excitement – but more of that to follow…

I went with my friends Genevieve, Helen and Mark, but I got there earlier than they did (as soon as the gates opened on Thursday) because I am a geek and like making a nice cosy camping area/nest, and secretly I wanted the challenge of trying to do it all by myself. I left later than they did, staying until Monday (because I could). Four nights of excitement. I aimed straight for the place near the big tree (and the postmen) where I have camped before with Amy. This time with a ridiculous trolley which although I am proud to have built all by myself, did definitely not do the job on mud and long wet grass. Cue lots of assistance as I battled uphill, from friendly people, and a mental note that Mr Trolley is far better. Up went the tent. The gazebo was less successful – I battled in the wind, nearly taking off in the process, much to the amusement of my neighbours (already quaffing the cider) until they couldn’t contain their laughter any more and came to my aid. And then it was all set up. Complete with bee bunting from All Good Stuff.

Setting up camp

Setting up camp

And then I was off. If you haven’t been before, EOTR is held in the Larmer Tree Gardens, once home to the Pitt Rivers family, a magical Victorian pleasure garden with follies and grottoes and strange pagodas, and still full of peacocks and macaws. This year there were even little baby ones strutting through the crowds, seemingly oblivious to it all.

Three baby peacocks with peahen

Baby peacocks

On the Thursday night, there were a few bands playing in the Tipi tent for the delight of the early arrivers. Post Goan fish curry (the food is a real joy here), I saw Cheatahs and then Ezra Furman complete with dress and saxophone (I think, but after so much musical excitement, I may get muddled). I do my homework (yes, I said I was a geek!) beforehand and my little spreadsheet lists all the bands and a few comments and a score out of ten (!) based on about 20 seconds of pre-listening on Spotify, unless I love it, in which case I listen for longer. Comments include things like ‘stunning, Neil Young-esque’, ‘interesting folky musicians’, ‘lovely cowboy music’, ‘kill me now’, ‘bawl the eyes out’, ‘bit too noisy’, ‘let’s dance’, ‘Rockabilly I bet he has a quiff’…  It’s fun when I get it totally wrong and discover something fabulous, but it’s also reassuring and quite exciting when I get it right. Anyway, both of these first two bands were great but a bit less mellow than I usually like. I bumped into a friend at some point during the evening, Ken, with his group of friends who always have a press pass for photography for their music website The Rock Club, and had a few beers with them. So even though I was on my own, I wasn’t really, and EOTR is the sort of festival where people are so lovely and friendly that I would be quite happy to go on my own anyway.

Friday started with a hot shower (managed to have one every day and thoroughly enjoyed the walk back to the tent just wearing a towel(!), and this year, there were a few more than usual, and some beautiful flushing water loos too – and I’d like to acknowledge the incredibly hard work of the loo attendants, who literally worked their socks off all day and night to ensure the loos were clean and had never-ending supplies of loo roll!). I had some breakfast then went of for an exploration now the main site had opened. Amazed to see the cinema no longer in a tent, but in a proper building, I wandered off into the woods to see what I could find and remember where things were. I love the quirky art installations. Here are a few examples…

Flux by Jess

Flux by Jess

Pirate - David Shillinglaw?

Pirate by David Shillinglaw?

World Within - Tori and Joseph

Poo Lorry from ‘World Within’ by Tori and Joseph

The latter was incredible – a miniature version of the entire festival inside one of the buildings in the garden. Lots of very amusing detail. Continuing my wanderings, I headed to the library stage, a new invention as the previous woodland library must have outgrown itself. Here I listened to the very modest poet Will Burns, followed by a highly entertaining talk from music magazine editor Mark Ellen (who played in a band with Tony Blair and amongst other accolades told anecdote after anecdote about Live Aid and almost every singer since the 70s). And then it was time for the music.

I might get the orders a bit wrong – but I saw the fantastic Phox on the Garden Stage and fell in love with their bouncy tracks ‘Slow Motion’ and ‘Kingfisher’ – for me there’s definitely a twinge of something Merrill Garbus about these.


Loved the golden spandex catsuit of Arc Iris next up with their lovely cello playing:


And then I headed to the Tipi tent, after some delicious Tartiflette, to see Laish (singer Daniel Green). Particularly liked the solo acoustic song he was playing when I got there – lyrics something like ‘When I’m coming for you’ – but not sure what it was as this is a new discovery, and really liked what I heard of the rest of his set.

Then I saw the quite extraordinary Alexis Taylor, complete with his thick-rimmed NHS style specs and eclectic electronicky folky music. Loved this singalong one with lots of catchy la-la-las.


And soon after that my first friend, Genevieve, arrived – not before I had celebrity spotted Sheffield’s finest Richard Hawley checking in at the artists’ entrance. Genevieve and I did the obligatory squeaking and explorations in the now twinkling woods. Tibetan Momo for dinner, and then Helen and Mark arrived, built the tents and got ready for the evening’s party which consisted of British Sea Power at the Garden Stage (the third time I have seen them this year!) complete with their bear.

The day’s highlight was however, the Gene Clark No Other Band – this 1974 album (which I confess I had never heard until doing my EOTR homework and falling in love with it straightaway and buying the original) has been restaged by an almighty line-up of musicians including Daniel Rossen from Grizzly Bear, Robin Pecknold from Fleet Foxes and several playing in other guises at this festival. Having toured the US, this was the only UK performance – a proper once in a lifetime experience to be there, hearing this, in the Dorset countryside. It was absolutely magical and one to remember forever. I think I can hear myself squealing on this film…


And so ended Friday. (After a few cheeky ciders from my massive vat of the stuff from the quirky Owermoigne Cider Museum…)

Saturday. Little did I know when I woke up bright and early to cook my fellow happy campers a proper fried breakfast on my cooker (complete with toast!) that this was going to be the most exciting day ever…

One of my discoveries in advance was Nick Waterhouse, who was playing on the Woods stage first thing in the morning. I loved what I heard on Spotify, and guessed that this was a band to get us in the mood for a happy bouncy day ahead. Yes, he was the rockabilly one who I was not disappointed to see did have that quiff and the 1950s outfit.

Nick Waterhouse

Nick Waterhouse

He was incredible and had a truly wonderful band: two women included a really powerful, stunning singer whose bluesy voice had the audience totally enraptured as she wielded a variety of different tambourines and an amazing baritone saxophonist, and then there was the keyboards guy with a Hammond organ (who I am sure kept smiling at me ;o)), bass guitarist and drummer who all did their little jazzy turns every so often. ‘This is a Game’ had me dancing right from the start of the set.

At some point, lunch was from Moorish – an amazing plateful of deliciousness. Then Lau, three extraordinarily talented musicians whose proper folky tunes, accordion and fiddle were absolutely beautiful and mesmerising. I still want to know what the spoon and fork gadget they had on stage was.


I also popped in to Celebration (a bit loud) and The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, had a nice cup of tea (brewed for exactly three minutes!) and then saw the fabulous, highly charismatic St Paul and the Broken Bones. Lead singer Paul Janeway was spectacular – as almost gospel-like singer (definitely not the voice expected from a small rotund white man!) and as a brilliant dancer – a great showy front man in this seven piece soul band which again had everyone dancing around the grass.

And then came the utter highlight of my whole festival… I am not sure why I went for a wander, or how I ended up in the Rough Trade tent at this time. Serendipity is the most joyous thing. There was a big queue as I staggered in, and I looked into the corner to see who it was. I did a double take. He looked very familiar. It was JOHN GRANT! Should I stay? What would I say to him? Would I get any words out? (It could not be worse than the hideous Germaine Greer moment in about 1997). I got into the queue and met another lovely person called Louisa in front of me. We were both as excited as each other and it was good to have someone to talk to to alleviate the palpitations. (Another blog post to follow about my thoughts on all this).


Methuselah (and John Grant and me)

Well, I said ‘Hello John Grant!’, shook his hand, and was beaming from ear to ear as we chatted for what seemed like quite a long time. Anyway, like I said, this deserves a whole blog to explain the Methuselah caption and some of my conflicted thoughts about it all. Louisa took loads of photos for me, and I have never ever in my life had so much adrenaline pumping round my body. What an absolutely lovely man. Real generosity of spirit to be so seemingly friendly and at ease with a queue of complete strangers, all of whom think they know you, yet of course they don’t. After swapping emails with Louisa, I scampered back to the stage to find the others, and just couldn’t stop jumping, grinning inanely, smiling, looking at the picture he drew for me, squeaking like an idiot, and forgetting that the people around me were trying to watch another band… I remember lying on the grass wiggling my legs in the air. It’s been a long time since I have squealed so much and it was fantastic. Thank you John Grant.

I am not sure what band was playing at this point as it’s a bit of a blur… I think it was Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit and I think they were really good, but my head wasn’t really there. Fuelled by an early morning cocktail and several ciders, Genevieve and I went to the Photobooth to have our portraits drawn by Rosie Curran. I think her self-described 30% accuracy rate is slightly harsh as the picture did look vaguely like us, and she said she had done over 200 that day. This was followed by the tortured Perfume Genius but again, I think I was too over-excited to concentrate properly.

Tipi tent

Tipi tent

Back to the tent to put the socks and jumpers on. Then I wandered through Marissa Nadler in the Tipi tent and Unknown Mortal Orchestra (I think?) in the Big Top, before Gruff Rhys‘ inspiring American Interior set with a few favourites thrown in for good measure. Like ‘Gyrru gyrru gyrru’ (which I just had to look up how to spell). He is so brilliant live (miles better than the recording below). A fantastic set – so glad I made it.

And then my friends went off to see their highlight – The Flaming Lips. I didn’t. I only know one of their songs and despite hearing what a great show it would be, I knew I wasn’t going to see them. John Grant was my reason for being there, so after discovering a new bar next to the Garden Stage, I went to get prime position at the front of the stage all ready for the most amazing performance I have seen.

John Grant

John Grant

There were tears.


Not least during Glacier.

And there was still more that day/night. A meet-up with the others, who loved what they had seen and recounted tales of Flaming Lips in a zorb going into the audience. A bit of audience participation in some random people’s dancing activities (‘in in in the middle’ with Mark doing an incredible turn and a headstand!) in the food area. Then to Richard Hawley who was DJ-ing in the Woods disco, and a bit more staggering about looking at sparkling things, taking all sorts of random photos before falling into bed.

Twinkly trees

Twinkly trees

On Sunday morning I woke up super early, probably still slightly intoxicated, and had the most lovely walk around the completely deserted site, enjoyed a bacon bap at the Red Bus in the sunshine. Strange how there can be over 10,000 people there, but I was the only person on an early morning stroll.

Very early Sunday morning stroll

Very early Sunday morning stroll

The first band on Sunday was the brilliant The Melodic, again a discovery I had made during my homework, and who were strangely playing in the Big Top (which is usually a bit loud for me!). They really were melodic, a bit Andean in some ways, with three guitars and a mini mouth organ piano thing (what is that called?). Lovely first band of the day.


The next band was a real discovery, enhanced also by the discovery of a new secret garden, just near the Garden Stage – can’t believe I have never found it before, but it was a beautiful and peaceful place from which to listen to the gorgeous Futur Primitif. This made me very happy indeed.


I think Genevieve left at about this time to get back to her boys (I did note her conversation with Mr Trolley though about the mattress and fairy lights, so that bodes well for next year!) Then I pottered off to the Comedy Stage to see a fellow Dorset woman, Jessica Fostekew. Wasn’t sure to begin with, but laughed out loud and loved her by the end. Curry Shed for lunch (or was it dinner? I can’t remember but it was yummy whenever it was). Caught the end of something pretty remarkable in the Tipi – the eccentric Lonnie Holley, making things up as he went along, a rambling and strange monologic tune, and a real character. ‘Thumbs up for Mother Earth’ he sang, and we obliged and loved it.

Lonnie Holley 'Thumbs Up'

Lonnie Holley ‘Thumbs Up’

Stealing Sheep are always very jolly, and their Garden Stage set was fun with nice bashing of the bass drum. Then Daniel Rossen again doing a solo slot this time, a weird slot on the little theatre stage in the garden by Yo La Tengo which we couldn’t really hear as it was a Q&A with the audience thing.

My next surprise highlight was Radiophonic Workshop in the Big Top. These guys reminded me of my Dad, with brilliant between the tracks chatting with the audience, a whole load of 1950s/60s-looking gadgets, and white coats – the latter obviously a requirement for their inventions in sonic discovery. Just had to stay for the whole set, which of course included the Dr Who theme tune. Which I filmed, and might post to announce when I am a Dr. This meant that I sadly missed Tuneyards‘ rendition of Gangsta, first heard and loved at EOTR in 2011, but I enjoyed the remaining few songs in their set. Helen and Mark had to leave after this to get back for work on Monday, so I was on my own again.

Caught some of Andrew Combs in the Tipi which I really enjoyed. Proper EOTR style Americana. Then the legendary Richard Thompson on the Garden Stage. Totally exhausted by this stage, I made it to see the brilliant Tinariwen on the Garden Stage, and finally Wild Beasts headlining on the Woods and closing the festival although after so much excitement in such a short time, I was a bit too sleepy, and his opening comment ‘what are you lot doing here?’ annoyed me (must have been really tired!), but I did love Wanderlust.

And so, three and a bit days of lovely friends, intense and amazing music, happy people, delicious food, lovely woods, and a feeling of utter freedom, escape from the world, and joyful exhilaration like nothing else, it was time for bed and to leave the next morning (with a Mr Trolley this time!)

Thank you so much to Genevieve, Helen and Mark for such a wonderful sunny time, and to all the people who work so hard to make End of the Road the best festival in the world ever. To the organisers, musicians, backstage crews, artists, catering staff, Andy’s Loos, volunteers and everyone there for being lovely people, thank you. I left the site listening to Pale Green Ghosts on full blast (my picture clutched next to me on the passenger seat), crying my eyes out.

Tickets already bought for EOTR 2015.

Mark, Helen and Genevieve

Mark, Helen and Genevieve