Magnetic North Blog

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Nicholas Bone is Artistic Director of Magnetic North and has directed all of the company's work.  He has also directed for Scottish Opera, Traverse Theatre, Opera North, Actors' Touring Company, Bristol Old Vic, NIDA and Dundee Rep. Nicholas wrote the text for A Walk at the Edge of the World, co-wrote the libretto of Happy Story (Scottish Opera), co-created Pass the Spoon (Magnetic North/Southbank Centre) and adapted Henry David Thoreau's Walden for the stage.

Pointing and thinking - what I learnt from Giacometti


A few weeks ago, Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti's sculpture Pointing Man was sold for a world record $141 million [Guardian story]. I first saw this sculpture in real life, rather than in reproduction, at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art about 15 years ago as part of a Giacometti retrospective.

I thought I knew his work quite well from work I'd seen in other galleries and from reproductions, but being confronted by a collection of the work in one place was quite a different experience. I was very moved by what I saw, by the cumulative effect of seeing so much of his work together, and the sense it gave of what he was trying to do. I had probably thought till then that he made a lot of work that was quite similar, but I was missing the point. He was working to refine an idea, not to repeat himself. Particularly striking was the variation in scale. This piece is large - life size, you might say - but other sculptures were tiny, just a few centimetres high. Giacometti said that he didn't set out to make them so small, but that was how they kept ending up. 

So, there are two things that fascinate me in particular about this work: first is the removal of all unnecessary flourish. this is about as far as you could get from baroque style. I remember staring at this sculpture in the gallery and thinking it looked like a figure seen from a distance in a heat haze: the form told you it was human because it contained the essence of the human form, even though there appeared to be no detail. What is interesting about this is that in the mid-1920s – about 20 years before this particular work – Giacometti made a conscious decision to change the way he worked. He had become frustrated by his approach, which was based on the traditional method of working from a model. So in late 1925, at the age of 24, he decided he would work only from memory – he separated out the task of observation from the task of interpretation and his work was transformed.  If you look at his work from before this time, it’s good, but lacking in the  character that makes his later work so distinctly his.

The second thing was about the humanity of the act of pointing. It was only later that I began to see this. Pointing is a human act: no other species understands it as we do. If you try to direct an animal by pointing, the animal will look at the end of your finger, not to where you are pointing. Humans have developed an ability to abstract a pointing finger: we understand that it refers us to something we aren't looking at, or maybe even something we can't see because it's over the next hill. It's such a simple act, but it summarises the sophistication of the human brain. If I point to my cat's bowl, she stares at my finger; if I point to my son's bowl, he looks at the bowl. So here is this beautifully refined - in the sense of anything extraneous being removed - sculpture that perfectly captures what it is to be human, and perhaps what it is to be an artist. The act of pointing is a wonderful thing in itself, but think of how we have refined that act still further. When I went to vote in the Scottish referendum last year, I saw this sign.


It's nicely old fashioned in style - the finger is still there, recognisable, though someone has interpreted it.  We see this on signposts sometimes:

Fingerpost sign in Carmunnock 2b Coppermine 7322

but even then it can be abstracted further to an absolute minimum of form that tells us exactly what we need to know. 


So is that the job of an artist? To tell people exactly what they need to know? But then how do you know what it is they need to know? Or is it more complex than that? Are artists there to point to the right question? Or to point to a number of possibilities? To leave space for the listener or observer to fill in the gaps?

What would happen if you thought you had found the answer?  Could you carry on?  What’s interesting about the answer Giacometti found when he changed his method of working was that, although it answered one question, it enabled him to ask many more.

This blog is based on part of a talk I gave at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in October 2014.

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A Requiem for Edward Snowden

Magnetic North at Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2015

A Requiem for Edward Snowden

by Matthew Collings and Jules Rawlinson

A ‘digital opera’ about loss of faith, hacking and privacy in an online world will be part of the Made in Scotland 2015 showcase

A Requiem for Edward Snowden is a new audio-visual performance work created by composer Matthew Collings and video artist Jules Rawlinson. Performed live by Collings and Rawlinson with a violinist, cellist and clarinettist, A Requiem for Edward Snowden plays against a background of video projections incorporating images from live cameras, stock footage and hacked documents. It will be performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this August as part of the prestigious Made in Scotland programme, which showcases the best Scottish work to audiences and promoters from around the world.  

Described by its creators as a ‘digital opera’, it is based around the actions and decisions of whistleblower Edward Snowden. It focuses on themes which are extremely relevant to how we live in the 21st century: loss of faith and security, the hacking of digital media, invasion of privacy and personal sacrifice. Snowden’s revelations have shown that we live in a world where we are totally reliant not just on electronic communication, but on daily routines in which our privacy is routinely compromised. The phones that we carry with us in our pockets not only keep us connected to the world, but also allow others to delve into our most personal data. A Requiem for Edward Snowden explores the consequences of this through a combination of electronic sound, acoustic instrumentation and live visuals in a 50 minute-long performance.

Matthew Collings’s interest in mixing digital media with traditional instrumentation is reflected in the style of performance.  The piece’s musical structure combines with an intricate and expressive visual language to create a unique performance that has already proved popular with audiences.

A Requiem for Edward Snowden was developed with a Creative Scotland Artist’s Bursary and in collaboration with New Media Scotland and Edinburgh College of Art. It was premiered in October 2014 to a sell-out audience at Edinburgh's Reid Concert Hall, and was subsequently performed at the CCA in Glasgow in March 2015. Matthew Collings and Jules Rawlinson both live and work in Edinburgh, and Collings took part in Magnetic North's artist development programme Rough Mix in 2014.

You can find out more and listen to excerpts on the Requiem webpage

Listings information

Venue: Stockbridge Parish Church, venue 317      Box office: 0131 226 0122

Tickets: £10/£7 conc/£6 students

Dates: 20-22 August                                           Time: 8.00pm

Twitter: @magnorththeatre @mlscollings #requiemsnowden


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Magnetic North's plans for 2015-16

We've got a full programme of artist and project development projects between now and March 2016, following a successful funding bid to Creative Scotland. Among the highlights are Our Fathers - a new project about faith, to be created in collaboration with playwright Rob Drummond and based on Edmund Gosse’s book Father and Son; Rough Mix - a multi-art form artist development residency at Summerhall in Edinburgh and Space/Time - a creative retreat for experienced artists at Cove Park, Argyll and Bute. As part of its commitment to developing and widening opportunities for all artists, we will ensure that at least one of the residency places is taken by a Deaf or disabled artist.

We are really pleased to be announcing this exciting programme of new work – it is great that Creative Scotland has recognised the quality and strength of the work we have been doing with artists across art forms over the last few years. Since we ran our first Artist Development residency Rough Mix at Dance Base in late 2006, we’ve worked with over 50 established and emerging artists, supporting them to explore new ideas and giving them time to reflect on their work. I’m particularly excited to be working with Rob Drummond on a project that is very close to both our hearts and which we have discussed for some time.

Our Fathers is the working title for a project based on Father and Son, the poet Edmund Gosse’s memoir of his upbringing in a strict, evangelical Plymouth Brethren family. Tightly bound to his father by the early death of his mother and his father’s burning sense of Edmund’s destiny as a great preacher, Gosse came to a gradual realisation of his own sense of self, culminating in his rejection of religion. Rob and I were both brought up in religious households and had fathers who were clergymen, so we have a very personal take on this story. We'll be working at the Tron in September to develop ideas for the production, which we plan to tour in Autumn 2016.

Rough Mix is a two week, practical, multi-art form residency for 6 experienced artists and 2 emerging artists. Previous residencies have taken place at Dance Base and Summerhall in Edinburgh, and Tramway in Glasgow; this year’s residency will again be at Summerhall. Previous participants have included playwrights, composers, visual artists, choreographers and film-makers. The residency will take place from 14th-25th September and we'll be announcing deatils of how to apply at the end of May. You can read more here.

Space/Time is a week-long retreat for established artists. It combines facilitated dialogue - built around self-generated questions and a series of provocations and tasks - with individual time for reflection.  This year’s retreat will be at Cove Park Artists’ Centre in Argyll and Bute from 19th-26th October. Previous retreats have been held at Lyth Arts Centre in Caithness and Cromarty Arts Trust. Details of how to apply will be available at the end of May.

We will also continue to support participating artists after the residencies by offering tailored support in the form of individual mentoring advice on further development opportunities for their work, and introductions to other artists or producers who may be of help to them. The company is now using its producing expertise to work with Rough Mix alumni to help them put on their work: it is currently working with composer Matthew Collings (who took part in Rough Mix in 2014) to produce his A Requiem for Edward Snowden, a collaboration with sound and visual artist Jules Rawlinson, which will be performed at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe as part of the Made in Scotland programme. 

We'll be announcing more work soon.

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Taking A Walk

At the beginning of June 2013, Ian Cameron, Tristan Surtees, Charles Blanc and I sat down in a room in Edinburgh overlooking the East Coast mainline and a rather rundown velodrome to start work on a new piece that had nothing but a title. By the end of the month, we were giving the first performance of A Walk at the Edge of the World at Mull Theatre.

A little over a year later, we’re back at Mull Theatre with a revised version of the production – part of a tour that will take the company around Scotland between now and the middle of September, including three weeks at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art as part of the Edinburgh Festival fringe.

A Walk…, like a lot of the work Magnetic North makes, began as an idea that nagged away for a while. In 2001, I read W.G.Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn and it cast a strange spell on me. I’m not alone in this: many others have been similarly in thrall to it in a way that reminds me of the way people bond over cult films or bands – “You’ve read it too? But I didn’t think anyone else knew about it.” And, like an obscure 1960s Italian movie, The Rings of Saturn is also heartily disliked by those who find it dull and pointless. What entranced me about the book – and what I suspect the Sebald-haters find so irritating - was its intangibility. What is it really about? Is it true? Is the narrator Sebald himself? Did he really go on this walk? What do the pictures mean? To me, it captured the tangential nature of thinking that walking provokes, and wove together seemingly unconnected events and memories into a web of narrative that left any conclusions up to the reader. It alluded to the holocaust - one of the trickiest subjects for fiction to approach – but by stealth. Every reader of the book has their own take on it – Will Self gave a talk about it at the Edinburgh Book Festival three years ago in which he suggested that its central theme is the environment. To me, the most fascinating aspects of it were the use of black and white images as a counterpoint to the text, and what I saw as its central concern with the fragility of memory.

Over the twelve years that elapsed between reading the book and making A Walk at the Edge of the World, I thought a lot about walking and how it might be used as a starting point for a new project. I read many books about walking, I listened to music inspired by walking, I read poems inspired by walking and absorbed more ideas than I can remember. At Rough Mix in 2012, I made a first attempt at doing something with the ideas: I used some of the elements of the final piece – projected images, memory, direct address – but in a very different way, creating a movement piece with four performers speaking fragments of stories culled from the description of different walks. I tried to use Schubert’s Winterreise as a soundtrack, but, as Ian Spink succinctly observed after the session where I tried it out, ‘Schubert’s always going to win.’ In other words, Schubert’s romantic minimalism needed nothing more added to it and would overwhelm anything that was put near it. One lesson learned.

the performer and director Ian Cameron came to see the Rough Mix showing and told me afterwards that he had a copy of The Rings of Saturn. Later, we met to talk about the project and I asked him if he'd like to work on it with me. Although I wasn’t intending to adapt the book - like Schubert, Sebald needs nothing added – it acted as a sort of touchstone for the mood of the piece. I developed a framework to construct a narrative around that shared the central image of The Rings of Saturn – a coastal walk – but be a new piece of work. The framework was that of an illustrated talk, the audience going for a walk together, and the idea of a man who doesn’t realise that the long walks he has dedicated his life to are a means of trying to get away from something in his past that he doesn’t understand.

I asked Tristan Surtees and Charles Blanc – the environmental artists Sans façon with whom I had worked on Walden in 2008 and 2009 – if they would join me and Ian in working on it, and they said yes. So it was that the four of us came together in the strange surroundings of St Margaret’s House – a building that doesn’t hide its past as an office block, which is part of its charm – and began to try and pull together all the many threads. We had all brought with us images that intrigued us, and I had a pile of books that were connected with the idea. We created a wall full of images and ideas – far too many for us ever to include – and improvised around walks. We would set up an idea, which Ian would then try to lecture about while Tristan and Charles rummaged through images on their laptops and projected them onto the wall. Every evening, I would write up what I had taken from the day’s work and bring it back in the next day. We ended up with a series of episodes with simple titles - “Lost Ways”, “Ice Journey”, “Night Walks” - that we then built into a structure. We had to lose a lot of material which we were very attached to – I was particularly fond of a sequence about airships – as we edited the talk down and shaped the hidden story that is revealed. It was a fascinating process of creating a character about whom we knew nothing initially other than that he loved walking.

My initial idea was that the talk would be followed by a communal walk in silence. On the second day, Tristan innocently asked “Why is the walk at the end?” The answer was that it was there because that was where it had seemed obvious to me to put it. But the strength of collaboration in the creative process is that there is someone else there to ask the really obvious question that hasn’t occurred to you before. Of course the walk had to be at the beginning! What on earth had I been thinking about? From the two performances last summer – on Mull and Iona – we learned how much the performance is affected by both the walk and the character of the place where it is performed, and understood more about how audiences engage with the storytelling.

When we returned to re-rehearse it this summer, it was like meeting an old friend who has done something different to their hair. Although I had done some re-writing, the piece was fundamentally the same, but there were things none of us had seen or understood about it before. As so often happens, the piece has revealed itself to its creators gradually, as if it has a life of its own.

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Rough Mix 2013 participating artists announced

Rough Mix 2013 participating artists announced

This year's Rough Mix will take place at Tramway as part of the Rip It Up season.  The residency runs from 11th March and there'll be a public showing at 7.30 on Friday 22nd March - more info here.

The artists at this year's residency are:

They'll be joined by emerging artist Sarah Bradley and a group of performers.  The residency is led by Nicholas Bone. 

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Latest Comment

J. Sharp Taking A Walk
07 September 2014
Very much enjoyed your show at the Brunton Theatre last night and the silent walk to start was an excellent addition, creating the perfect atmosphere....