... of taking time to gaze at the intricate worlds inside tiny flower heads
"Authentic marketing". It is a phrase I’ve used before. I’ve used it when I’ve been trying to convey the importance of finding the joy in what you do as performance artists and colouring your communications with rainbows of that joy. I’ve also encouraged artists, when trying to project their work, to dwell for a while on real examples of the things that have worked, because these are the clues that describe your authenticity, who and what you are. Often those clues lie in the unplanned and unexpected successes that every project reveals.
I’ve just experienced one of those – big time! And I’ve got to share …
The Squilometre concept is finding its place now on the park bench of performance arts endeavour. It’s wriggled its bum into a little space between psychogeography and ambulatory performance and found a natural partner in Placed Based Education (who knew!). All of these realisations are indeed joyful. It’s fun to find out where, or indeed if, you fit. But that’s not the particular joy I discovered.
No, I’ve found out that when you define a place, in the way that Squilometres does; that is through land and sky, trees and water … all the things that we commonly own. When you create with those ingredients, then the people who inhabit and share it, they become an integral part of the mix.
So instead of “targeting an audience” you get to meet with them.
Instead of “developing an audience” you share with them and cherish them.
Instead of “putting bums on seats” you get to talk to faces!
And the depth of this glorious revelation really became clear to me when I decided to deliver invitations to the Sweetbrier Lane performance through all of the 879 letter-boxes myself. This was partly because I didn’t like to ask anyone else to do it but mostly it was because I’d made the decision to create the first Squilometre project in my very own neighbourhood. It was so convenient, it made sense. But, yes, it was a little bit scary. These were, are, my neighbours. If they really don’t like what I’m doing, they literally know where I live!
I slowly realised though that I was completely loving it! I was braced, to tell you the truth, for brusque no thanks yous and angry scowls. At first, I skipped quickly down paths, after delivering, to avoid confrontation. But it wasn’t like that at all. Turns out that people in the big, scary, outside world are really nice. Pleasant, friendly, ordinary people who, if caught at their door, politely take an invitation with a smile.
It was more than that though. I was thoroughly enjoying the physicality of it. I was out of doors doing something useful. Normally, for me, useful is defined by a chair and a keyboard. This was different. I could feel the muscles of my legs responding to the journey and the cold of the gathering evening shrinking my ears and nose. As I watched a startling range of greens, purples and every shade of orange in the western sky I realised that I couldn’t remember the last time I saw the sun set.
And the scents! Do you remember, when you used to play out, that wet pavement had a smell? I found myself, as I made my deliveries, transported suddenly back, by the sharp and herby scent of a shrub, to endless hours of just being out of doors. Of taking time to gaze at the intricate worlds inside tiny flower heads, to examine exactly how the paving stones fitted together and work out how many stones you could actually fit in that gap at the bottom of the wall. Taken right back to a time in my life when being out of doors was just what you did and you didn’t have to rush on to anything else until your mum called you in for tea.
Glorious, glorious revelation indeed. So, this was marketing was it?! What’s more, I found as the week progressed, it got easier and my legs complained a little less. The ridge of landscape I’d chosen to fashion my first Squilometre performance to was paying me back, actually rewarding me, for taking the time to walk it.
And now, when I stroll down my street, I know a few more faces. Where I used to pass without a smile, I now lift my head and nod. Where I would have smiled, I stop and talk. My Squilometre is rewarding me in all sort of unexpected ways and I can’t imagine anything more wondrously authentic than that.
I wrote this some time ago as a reflection of how much we have lost in not being in sync with seasonal life:-
" I started wandering down to the pond after I'd been into the hospital. The garden and the pond were becoming a real refuge. I could just sit there quietly on the bench by the willow and watch the frogs in the pond and just try to get a handle on my jagged emotions.
I strolled down there early one morning and the garden was covered with delicate lace doilies, daintily scattered all over the shrubs; dewy cobwebs, all twinkly and moist in the frosty light. It was then that I realised that the season was turning. I've always loved the changing of the seasons - you can feel it in the air. The temperature drops, I suppose, but it feels more profound than that, doesn't it? - like a planetary shift or something.
I went in to tell mum about it. It's funny, I felt sure that she'd know what I was talking about. This time though I couldn't tell whether she really did. She always tried to respond, always tried to give something back but this time she just gave me a little crinkling of the brow, a slightly raised eyebrow. I went on chatting about it anyway, how the moon seemed to be bigger and how odd it was to feel a chill. It was so blazingly hot when mum was taken into hospital and now the season was changing, it was getting cold and she was still there.
I didn't tell her about the willow. The willow was dying. It had hardly any leaves at all this year. We were going to have to take it down this winter or it might fall. It was a big tree and it was already losing withies all over the neighbours' gardens. It seemed really odd in the garden now. Everything else was so lush and green and there it was, just dying, in the middle of it all. How can there be death in the middle of life? I didn't really know what to do with that. Looking at it made me feel like there was a barren wasteland inside me. Not sad exactly but empty and grey.
Between visits to the hospital, I'd taken to sitting down there thinking all sorts of things. I thought about Autumn and the small death of the deciduous trees. I remembered, from my prehistoric studies that something like 95% of the British landscape was completely covered in mixed-oak deciduous forest. The wildwood. Every season the world of our ancestors was completely and totally changed. According to the season the overhead canopy was either so dense that the bigger world would completely disappear or it would fall from the sky making a huge orange blanket on the floor.
How do you live with such profound seasonal changes, not only in the practical aspects of survival but in the aesthetic and spiritual world? Every season your entire world would visibly, dramatically and completely change aspect. What must an entire deciduous landscape look like in Autumn, when the whole world turns red, gold and orange?
Wow, it's no wonder we feel a thrill when we sense those first signs of season change. It's part of our prehistoric selves to feel in touch with the seasons, to react to them. It didn’t occur to me then, when I was sat down on the bench but I’ve begun to believe now that this closeness to the concepts of life and death must have prepared us for loss and grief. We've not only lost touch with the seasons but with some of the mechanisms to cope with loss. There's nothing in our modern lives that prepares us for the fact that our loved ones will die, just as each season changes. We know it on an intellectual level but we suffer such a confusion of emotions with our grief.
To our hunter-gatherer forebears everything would have been about a state of change not of loss. It would be much easier to have a sense of ease and continuity, even in the face of personal grief, when you lived in the midst of a panoramic exhibition of the cycle of life. No wonder we feel so lost now, so isolated in our grief and trapped into internal introspection rather than sharing. We don't get a chance to practice and rehearse how death will feel, how to adapt our lives to the loss and to know that life always follows death. We're so disconnected from our Land, from its rhythms and meanings, that grief and loneliness are two of the heaviest burdens of the modern world."
Mum died in October 2003. I still miss her very, very much.
JoJo Spinks is a Westcountry writer deeply in love with her landscape and her life!
"Thank you very much for joining me here. Please read on to explore more about Working in the Gift and my joint passions of participatory arts and the Devonian landscape." JoJo :)