Nothing Like Anything
During the final phase of the residency, after completing our work for the Biennale, we based ourselves in the village where our house was located.
The strange ebb and flow of energy, the heat and resultant addled thinking meant that sometimes we struggled to engage with the development of ideas and at other times we had too many things to be working on.
There were two ideas that we began, but didn’t manage to complete during our stay:
We had wanted to explore ideas of home through the life of the woman running the Tsunami museum in the ruins of her house that was destroyed by the Tsunami (see blog 1) and we had visited her to audio record her talking about her life. However the museum is right on a main road and it was impossible to get a good voice recording due to the traffic noise, hooting tuk tuks and buses etc. Perhaps we will be able to transcribe the audio and combine the text with still images, however we decided to put the idea on the back burner and focus on other areas.
Photographs feature prominently in most peoples homes, with framed prints (mainly of weddings) standing in groups on the floor. People we visited always showed us their photo albums, often the laminated images having become damp and degraded into fractured versions. Albums of funeral images were also produced.
During the time that we spent finding print shops, we had noticed that the busy photo printers all had computers (very few people have them at home) in the public areas with photos being manipulated, viewable by all. Bride and Groom would be being extracted in Photoshop and pasted onto a more suitable backdrop, shoes were being touched up, tatoo’s being removed and rings being erased from fingers. This manipulation process fascinated us and we began experimenting with photo’s of people we met on the Wewelgoda road. People love having their photo taken and enjoy seeing the image. The idea was to take a photograph and then give back the photo to the subject, but with the photo manipulated in some way to represent the context. We started the project by taking an image of the man who operated the railway crossing. We took a photo of him and then gave him back the photo of himself photoshopped onto the platform of an old photo of the Flying Scotsman. He was enjoyably flabbergasted as he remembered when there were steam trains on his part of the line.
We also took a photos of one of our tuk tuk driver friends and sent him and his tuk tuk into a taxi rank in London in the 1950’s (his reaction when we gave it to him was brilliant) Unfortunately our time in Sri Lanka ran out and we had to leave that project for another time.
The rest of the work took the form of small-scale experimental works, and we worked on completing the remainder of the strands that we had been developing.
We concluded the street bag project. We developed a series of designs that included images and writing reflecting our time in Sri Lanka. The text pieces explored our response to the surroundings and the climate and were designed to be small provocations dropped into the street life in the towns and cities. Ideas ranged from the dreams of lost cosmonauts to swimmers in underground oceans, All explored the feeling we had that there was more than one way that we were ‘present’ in this place. We made multiple copies of each design and made them into bags.
We gave bundles of the bags to street sellers who were delighted to use them as they normally have to buy them from the home recyclers. It was great to hand them out and then walk back down the street and see them being used.
Within this project we also developed a small-scale collaboration with Garry Duthie, Prof. of Nutritional Science at the Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health, Aberdeen. He had been involved in developing a recipe book called
‘Stovies Reloaded’, reworking traditional Scottish recipes to make them healthier. We had been surprised to see so many vegetables commonly grown in Scotland, on sale in the markets; leeks, potatoes, cabbage , beetroot etc
We used recipes from Stovies Reloaded, had them printed and made them into bags for street sellers. Perhaps some Sri Lankan homes will be experimenting with Scotch Broth and leek and potato soup! We are also hoping that the images will make for interesting discussion points about recycling and healthy snacks back in Scotland.
Dogs of the Wewelgoda Road
We completed the printing of our educational posters of the local dogs (see blog 2) and gave them out to children along the road. They had fun pointing out all the dogs that they knew. The poster was on display at the community event that we held (see below). The poster has been laminated and hung at the gates of the local community project for passers by to see. A second poster featuring additional dogs has been given to Eddi who runs the community project with blank spaces for children to draw any dogs missing.
We continued to experiment with our paper flip flops, the process of which helped us to explore the public space in the village which seemed to be mainly temples and space outside the small shops. There are places along the road (which is really a dirt track) where people stop and chat , and outside our house was a small area where boys came and played cricket after school. Our garden was in reality part of the pitch and the ball would often land on our roof and in the garden. We placed the flip-flops in public spaces as well as outside houses and in gardens, experimenting with different configurations. This caused much interest as well as discussion and identification of the plants that the flip-flops were made out of.
Our house was at a crossroads in the village and many people passed us everyday as we worked in the garden. Much of our time there had been spent smiling, waving and saying hello to passers by. We had made friends and people came to visit and chat to us. Everyone seemed intrigued by what we were doing so we decided to have a community ‘showing’ of some of the work that we and fellow artist Hannah Braxton had been making. We put up a screen between the pillars of out house, which was viewable from the road and borrowed a projector from Eddi at the community project.
We made ‘Busby Berkley ‘style stop frame animation with the paper flip flops using photos of the flower that grow in the village as the backdrop. Life in Sri Lanka felt surreal much of the time, and we created the animation to reflect that. We projected this at dusk together with an animation that Hannah had made of local house brooms. We also made an installation with the flip flops inside the house for people to peer in the window at and the dog poster was on display.
We told a few people about the event on the day of the showing and hoped that word would spread – it did! Children came and helped with the preparations and at dusk people started arriving. We were also graced by the presence of one of the dog ‘stars’ of the poster. Together with Hannahs fabulous work, there was a lot to see, and the garden was full of children and adults having a good time – it was a great night and lots of fun.
We met up with Duminda to film him driving around the jungle roads. Glasgow based musician, Anders Rigg (Samson Sounds) had written a great reggae track for his tuk tuk incorporating sounds of the jungle, the daily sweeping and the tuk tuk that we had recorded and sent to him. Duminda has a big sound system in his tuk tuk and you can hear him coming from a long way off.
We hopped in the tuk tuk with Duminda , and with Anders track blaring, he took us on an exhilarating trip round the area including a short cut up a footpath next to the railway to avoid the army checkpoint, while we filmed. The footage gives a fascinating insight into the local area and will be made into a music video and uploaded to YouTube.
Beyond the physical outputs of our work, the residency has had a far deeper resonance for our ongoing practice. We are interested in relationships between people, environment and place, so being immersed in the village gave us not only the opportunity to explore and respond to these relationships, but also a chance to relook at the everyday life in Scotland that we take for granted, and to consider issues of sustainability and social justice.
Sri Lanka is classed as a developing country and most people have limited access to mass-produced goods. This has resulted in the prominence of craft, the handmade and the use of hand tools, and as a result skills were highly developed in areas that we in the ‘West’ no longer inhabit. The localness of production and the recycling and reusing of everything was apparent in every aspect of daily life and we constantly marveled at the ingenuity of people in solving everyday problems with limited resources.
Our current practice concerns issues of sustainability and in Sri Lanka most people we met led simpler lives in terms of material wealth due to limited disposable income. Consumerism and corporateness were far less apparent with shorter supply chains – markets, local produce and small shops – and plastic packaging was minimal (see our bag project above) Some of what we saw was inspiring in terms of sustainability, although as a counterpoint there was the sobering fact of local corruption, people working 12 hour days for a pittance while the monks were reputed to be rich on the back of the donations of local people to the temples.
We became aware of the lack of screen culture, which we now take for granted here. It was interesting to be in the company of people without the constant checking of texts and emails, to look out of bus windows rather than down at screens and notice that chatting and smiling were the main way of passing the time when travelling. People did have mobile phones, but generally not smart phones, and it was rare to see a computer anywhere apart from print shops. (Most houses had old style TV’s with snowy reception mostly showing soaps and cricket)
In offices, records were generally still kept by hand (piles of files everywhere) and the clatter of old typewriters could be heard in solicitor’s offices. We loved being reminded of the hand made, the hand annotated, the handwritten; the individual ways of doing things before the sanitization of computers.
We also realized that a lot of the details that we loved, were noticed but not fully understood, the density of the culture differences and language barrier often being impenetrable.
In some ways there was a sense of liberation as we were released from the usual health and safety constraints in our culture. We hopped on and off moving buses and were crushed into trains. We marveled at the bare wires sticking out of the light over the bathroom sink and the way people balanced on top of walls and fences (and even a 4th floor window ledge) to carry out repairs. Being out of the usual cushion of rules and safety regulations and taking risks was challenging but exhilarating – a really useful component in exploring our own response to a different culture and place.
The residency was a fantastic opportunity for professional development and allowed us time to make new work, but we also wanted to look at our practice in a different context and this meant questioning our presence there. We tried to look critically at what we were doing; was our work relevant? How could / should our work engage with the local community? Would anyone be interested? Would our time there been better spent working more with local community projects? Our discussions were useful and contributed to the work that we made. We were heartened by the response to the community showing event that we held in our garden, and by the fact that so many people made a point of coming to wish us goodbye and asked us to come back.
Being in Sri Lanka was such an intense experience that we are still dreaming about it. We are left with images of the friendliness, gentle politeness and kindness of the people we met, the extreme heat, humidity and feeling of being submerged, the vibrant colours, the constant abundance of fruit and flowers, the intensity and immediacy of life, and the crazy, surreal encounters and absurd happenings which made us constantly laugh and which have permanently penetrated our everyday reality now we are back in Scotland.
We feel energized by our time in Sri Lanka and have been excited to get back to our ongoing projects with new outlooks and (perhaps) new understandings.
Our confidence in our areas of work and interest (socially engaged practice) has been reaffirmed and challenged in equal measure by the residency. It’s difficult to sum up the experience; perhaps the words of the oddly worded advertising for an electronics shop in Colombo do the job – “ Nothing Like Anything”