Magnetic North Blog
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Reflecting on Stories from Here
As I sit with this idea of reflecting on Stories from Here - a live series that took place online for 30 minutes each day for a week in early May 2020 - I am conscious I am tired of hearing about the pandemic. I want to read, watch and listen to almost anything else, I’m sure I’m not alone. That is however the timing of this collaboration with Magnetic North and somewhat of the instigator. It materialized quickly following a trip home to the UK in March, Charles, my long-term collaborator, and I were in the first wave of travellers back to Canada to be asked to go into immediate isolation. A few days in, on a video call, a trusted friend and curator asked candidly and somewhat expectantly 'what are you thinking? What are your thoughts about working in these times? How is your work responding?’ Back then our honest answer was we were still sort of stunned, stumped, as an artist who works within the public realm, what do you do when that realm is shrunk to your bedroom, what is and how do you work with this ‘context’? His question however continued to touch a nerve (as I think he intended). Over the next couple of weeks Charles and I talked a great deal about art and the idea of social practice and what it means in this global and equally local context? We returned time and again to something a City of Calgary lead flood management strategist said to us in the cafeteria of the municipal Water Centre a week after the 2013 devastating floods in the city: ‘we need artists now more than ever’. He didn't mean filling sandbags (although artists did that too). Of course in my heart I knew he was right, art is no less vital in these times, perhaps it's more so. We had spent our professional life as passionate advocates that art is not just a nice to have, but part of living.
For 20 years now our collaboration has been fuelled by a fascination in people's relationship to place and context. The Artist Placement Group coined the phrase ‘context is half the work’, this has always felt true, the social, environmental, historical, alongside the banalities, peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of a place, are not so much an inspiration as the collaborators. When a work ‘works’ it seems it's because this relationship has been established, the context is part of the work and vice versa. It's very hard to explain to commissioners or grant agencies that the journey to form this relationship is not linear, there is not one formula, no guarantee. A conversation is a good analogy, like any good conversation it is iterative, you sort of find your way together.
And so as in 2013 this was the unchosen context, and for the first time in my lifetime at least, a global shared one. As we have often done over the last two decades when we can see something in the fog but not the path through, we called Nicholas Bone at Magnetic North. For those of you who have not yet had the pleasure of working with Nicholas, Nicholas is one of those rare people that can absorb sporadic thoughts and associations and offer his own, there isn't the dogged pursuit to find a resolution but rather an appetite to get lost together. At some point, often it seems almost by surprise (to all of us), a destination is arrived at, and it is always richer for the journey. Not only have these experiences over the years taken us in new directions and allowed us to explore shared fascinations, each work without exception taught Charles and I a great deal, perhaps most telling they have been some of the most enjoyable and rewarding projects we have worked on, Stories From Here was no different.
Stories from Here shared a collection of genuine memories from individuals which had been collected between 2015 and 2019 with over 150 people in Calgary (Alberta), Kansas City (Missouri) and Laramie (Wyoming), each of whom generously accepted an invitation to participate in an exploration of the sense of place through people’s individual memories. Using a specifically developed exercise derived from police cognitive interview techniques, memories were recalled in unexpected detail, these memories were then retold accurately with the originators permission as true short stories. The series of readings was hosted by Nicholas and read by actors Anne Mason, Apphia Campbell and Peter Parolin, accompanied by a selection of photographs by artist Mike Sinclair. These memories, some funny, some heartbreaking, some seemingly banal, but all extraordinary in their own way, invited the audience who joined from around the planet to listen to a different place and time through an individual's memory.
In one sense this project couldn’t have been simpler, it was just the act of telling and listening to stories, done with great care and thought of course, but it was not elaborate, if anything our collective intention was to keep it simple.
They were not my stories nor was I the person reading, I was a member of the audience, and although I knew the stories, many of them very well, each day I left feeling deeply emotional. A friend wrote later "There's something about it happening every evening at the same time that is magical. It marks the days/time, a bit like a bedtime story for grown-ups….I am left with the glowing affect of other people's memories (now my memories) and a feeling like I've 'felt' the point where individual becomes collective- actually a bit unsettling and affirming at the same time!’
I think that's how I felt too, I also felt a sense of togetherness and coming together between all of us, actors, photographers, artists, directors and organizations who worked to make it happen and, perhaps more than any other production I’ve worked on, a feeling of sharing an experience with an audience rather than for an audience, the magic feeling of sharing an experience with other people where they were, in their own context, yet scattered around the world, together apart.
That was then, before Zoom was a word we all knew, before the aching days of countless screen meetings and attempts to be social, socially distanced, the realities we have now all lived and know too well. I don’t know that we would make this same work today, the context has changed. I also don’t know if the motivation at that moment was in part a means to work through a sort of paralysis, and to have a reason and purpose to convene with others, I do know it reaffirmed a sense of social compassion and the place of art in community.
Tristan Surtees & Charles Blanc, Sans façon.