A Company of Strangers

It’s been almost a year since I began this blog during my residency at Courtyard Arts in Hertford, and because I’m about to do another exhibition there I thought I’d join the two points together with an interim post. It will be a bit of an update on what I’ve been doing during this post-university year and will also be helpful for me to see where I’m at.

As you might remember, I fell in love with Hertford and made many friends during my month in the gallery, so it seemed a logical step to take a studio there. Since December I’ve been happily ensconced at the Arthouse Studios in Port Vale, just around the corner from Courtyard Arts. There are artists, craftspeople, ceramicists and a clock-repairer, and it’s a very friendly place. It was damp and leaky and cold in the winter, but after some roofing repairs and the addition of a heater things got hugely better. Now it’s a real pleasure to be there, with all the doors open and birdsong coming in (including the screams of swifts, birds which are sadly not so common any more).

This fellow takes up a lot of space, but he’s friendly. His trunk crumpled and had to be rebuilt, and crumpled again – maybe he shouldn’t have a trunk.

Here are a few images of experiments that have been taking place in the studio over the last six months:

Quite a lot of weirdness with balloons and plaster – still unresolved but in the process of coming together.

Above and below: experiments with tissue paper, wire and textile off-cuts

I had to commit to a title for the exhibition a couple of months ago – even though I hadn’t (and still haven’t) drawn everything together into a cohesive whole – and came up with A Company of Strangers, and produced a blurb which would keep my options open and flexible enough that I could change tack slightly if I needed to. (More about ‘the unknowingness of the more-than-human world’ later). What I have decided to do is make my sculptures communicate tangibly with the viewer, by giving them ‘voices’; my works often have trumpet-like apertures (similar to His Master’s Voice) and it has become increasingly clear to me that they are trying to say something. I’ve wanted to experiment with sound for a long time (in fact, I have created sounds for some of my short films, but have never combined them so definitively with my sculptures before). Lucky me, there was a sound-artist working alongside me at Beechwood Park School (where I teach piano), right under my nose, and a chance conversation alerted me to his vast experience in working with visual artists. His name is Tom Fox, and he’s the Design Technology teacher at the school. His lessons are so popular that many children come in during their lunch-hour to carry on with their projects. He advised me to purchase a Bela Mini Starter Kit

which is extremely complicated but luckily I don’t really have to understand it now Tom is helping me! All I have to do is create the voice-sounds for each piece (I have up to 8 channels) and embed a small speaker into each one. With more time, I can work out how to use it myself and Tom says the possiblities are endless for interactive sounds and more experimental stuff.

A speaker inside one of the sculptures
Painting another speaker to blend into a red trumpet-aperture

I’ve been to a few Extinction Rebellion protests including April’s The Big One (four days of peaceful protest in Westminster), where the aims were to get the government to call a halt to new fossil fuel licenses and to allow emergency citizens’ assemblies. (The government didn’t even respond). I met up with Courtyard Arts friends Barbara and Liz on the two days I was there. This may not seem relevant to my work, but I increasingly think that it is (more to follow…)

With my son Sam outside the Houses of Parliament

Back to the more-than-human world (jumping around a lot – this is my disordered brain): I’ve been reading a fantastic book called Ways of Being by James Bridle. It’s about more-than-human intelligence (including a lot about how AI can be used positively and beneficially in the future). It’s a sort of tool-box of ideas for me; I researched posthumanist philosophy for my degree dissertation and I’m captivated by the idea of de-centring the human being. I love the concept of the ‘umwelt’ – our surroundings – and how true intelligence should perhaps be measured less by conventional human-centred intelligence tests, and more by how successfully beings interact with their environment. By this measure, humans aren’t doing too well and certainly don’t warrant their feelings of superiority over other entities. If we presume to ‘know’ and judge more-than-human beings using our own limited means of understanding, then we belittle them. Respecting their ‘otherness’ might be a way of moving forwards in our current crisis.

In their chapter on randomness, James Bridle also talks about how important citizens’ assemblies are (to get back to the subject of Extinction Rebellion); participants are chosen at random, like jury service, from all walks of life, genders, races, classes etc. Decisions resulting from such assemblies are proven to be more beneficial to society than those from ‘top-down’ government. Citizens’ assemblies have already been used in several countries including Ireland in 2016, where they were organised in order to debate abortion; their recommendations were acted upon by the government. And related to citizens’ assemblies is the concept of bestowing personhood and legal rights onto non-human entities (this is being thought about in countries such as India, and also in South America where forests and rivers, for example, are being recognised as ‘persons’ with legal standing). As James Bridle puts it, objects then become ‘subject beings, possessing agency, needs, desires and vitality’. So I’m thinking about these ideas as a way to consolidate my upcoming exhibition. The voices of my strange beings are going to speak at random intervals but every ten minutes or so they will synchronise, united, in chorus.

I’ve spent a lot of my time this past year applying to fine art masters’ courses in London and have been offered a place at the Slade School of Art, which I’m procrastinating about accepting just because it’s an awful lot of money. But people keep telling me I’d be mad not to go, and I’m really starting to believe them. I have until 22nd June to decide.

The exhibition is before then, though, and it would be lovely to see you at the private view (which will be on Monday 12th or Tuesday 13th June in the evening – watch this space) or during the two weeks of the show. I’ll post again when I have the details.


7 responses to “A Company of Strangers”

  1. Amazingly written! I love “A Company of Strangers” it sounds perfect.
    I think you should go for Slade as well. Such an opportunity.
    I really hope to make the exhibition!

    Lots of love

    X ❤️ X


    1. Thanks Vanessa – I could give you a lift home, probably… hope you can make it! xox


  2. Sally-Ann Turner Avatar
    Sally-Ann Turner

    Fantastic! I can’t wait for the exhibition Anna. I love the title and am really looking forward to listening to your ‘strangers’ speak – I can almost hear them already! I can appreciate that the tech for this has been complicated – you’ll rock it for sure though. Really great blog (you’ve had a very busy year). Good luck for the next few weeks & huge love😉🥰xxxx


    1. Thanks Sally-Ann – yes, it’s a bit complicated and lots of work embedding speakers in my pieces, but I hope it will be worth it xxx


  3. damarisrevell Avatar

    Fascinating. You are a mesmerising writer together with your other talents. Creating the voices will add another element to your beings and I can’t wait to hear them. I think you might regret the Slade if you don’t go…


  4. The amount of research and informed thinking that has obviously gone into these works of art of yours, are truly inspiring! It’s not at all surprising that the Slade has offered you a well deserved place! Wishing you the best with whichever direction you feel most compelled to take. I imagine your exhibition will be a combination of intrigue and awe! Lots of love and luck Anna, with it all.


  5. Thanks Miranda! I’m 97.5% sure I’m going to go to Slade… xxx


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