Coming out of the dark

It’s a strange business this ‘artist’s life’. We spend 95% of our time working towards something: pinning down our ideas, writing endless applications that prove that we know what we want to do enough to know that we can do it, but not so much as to remove the all important ‘risk’ without which, apparently, good art cannot possibly emerge. You send your thoughts ‘out there’, receive a yes (if you’re lucky) and jump for joy before crashing out exhausted and daunted by the reality of the situation you are now in: for all those times that you shouted in frustration about “not being given a bloody chance”, now here you are and, I’m afraid, here it is.

You’d think that receiving any substantial support might be just the kind of affirmation you needed. Finally you enter the sublime experience which is the 5%: making new work. Here I am, earning actual money in return for my creative work. I’m a ‘real’ artist, turning up to ‘work’ in the studio. Isn’t this what I’ve always wanted? But still, the world is intent on putting you in your place. Here’s how it went for me:

The first ‘sharing’ of the work in progress, two weeks into the project: I got cold feet, wasn’t sure I wanted anyone to see it, and then got a little upset when no one bothered anyhow.

Week three: we travel to Bedford and find that our studio is full of children on summer camp. A few phonecalls and one frantic staff member later, we have a space. Crisis averted. Phew. We head to our hotel later that day (travelodge in case you wondered) and “no, we don’t have a reservation for you.” Cue: walking an hour to the OTHER END of Bedford and back EVERYDAY because I mistakenly booked the wrong hotel. Oops.

Week four: I turn up in Lancaster and endure the very humbling experience of having to explain to the ‘lady in charge of the keys’ a.) who I am and b.) what I’m doing there. Very good questions, I thought privately.

Things finally began to pick up for us in week five. We worked at Jerwood Space, rubbing shoulders with Tori Amos and David Walliams in the green room, feeling smug and oh so professional….just the small issue of having no time left to finish the piece….

And that was just the practical stuff. There is always a point, about midway along where I realise that I may have bitten off more than I can chew. Actually the knowledge is always there, it’s just that at some stage I have to confront it. Now sometimes, as in this case, all that was needed was for a practical re-evaluation of my project outcomes and some decisive action on this front would have been handy. But instead this was the exact moment when I decided to have a bit of a break down. Confidence plummeted, and with no one around to scrape me off the ground, I slowly began to unravel.

There was a game we used to play as children, skimming pebbles across the sea. You had to find a pebble that had the right kind of flatness to it and you threw it side ways so that it skimmed the water’s surface. If you threw it wrongly it would just plonk into the sea. If you threw a ‘good one’ it could skim the surface up to three of four times before running out of speed and sinking. I think putting an idea out there is a bit like throwing a skimming pebble, once it leaves your hand, you have no more control. You can only trust that you’ve given it the right kind of guidance to keep it moving . In my case the problem wasn’t that the idea was sinking, it was that it was moving on a course that I had no control over. I had an idea and set it in motion. Somewhere along the line I took a turning that was absolutely the right turning to take, but as the journey continued, I realised, that I was going somewhere that was new to me. There was absolutely no question of steering it back. This piece was somehow making itself. At the end of it all the resounding feeling was that ‘I’ was not in it….

This was where I was at when I arrived in Lancaster in week 4, with my mini identity crisis in hand and my confidence at rock bottom. At this point I was supposed to have completed part 1 and should have been ready to start part 2. The former had clearly not happened, but the latter still had to regardless. There was a shift in energy and focus as I began to work with another collaborator. Three days into this collaboration it became obvious to me that the mix was not right. I’m baffled by what exactly went wrong. But I feel that there was a clue to this in a conversation I had with my collaborator on the evening of her arrival. We were sitting in a cafe eating the only palatable food on the menu (no wonder students put on weight when all they eat is pizza and chips), when the discussion turned to Malta – the country I grew up in and still associate myself with, being still a ‘Maltese’ national. My collaborator had just returned from a holiday there and explained to me how she found the Maltese conservatism was a superficial guise for the reality which was quite different. For example, top-less bathing is against the law, but then everyone leads hugely hedonistic lives with couple swapping and orgies, apparently a norm. She seemed to assume such an air of authority that it took some strength of will to say: now just a moment, I grew up there, and unless I’m terribly mistaken my parents don’t couple swap!!!!!! and the people camping in the free camping zone on Comino are not exactly reflective of the average Maltese. Now here’s the thing. What do you do if you’re about to start working artistically with someone who appears to over generalise and has a very assertive sense of what she knows, even when she doesn’t know?

I left Lancaster with part 2 in disarray, but as they say: lots of lessons learnt. Returning to London where I could focus on completing the project in the comfort of my home town was such a relief. I felt as though I’d emerged from a very dark room and I was starting to find my feet again. A week later I was plunged back into my teaching work, back to routine and classes and the see-saw of applications and rejections, elation, self-confidence crashes, crises and resolutions. Welcome back to the 95%. The only question is: “Now….where am I?”

Come and see “Where am I?” at the Giant Olive Theatre, 27th and 28th September



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