Putting on a show…


Several months back, thanks to @zoebreen, I got a chance to see ‘the curious incident of the dog in the night‘, the National Theatre play of the novel by the same name. I read the book a while back and was intrigued at how it might be staged.

The book and the play are narrated by 15 year old Christopher, a teenager who loves maths and has behavioural difficulties akin to asperger’s (although this is never named as such). Christopher is trying to investigate the death of his neighbour’s dog, found dead in the middle of the night and to take his math’s A level. Both present challenges, but for unexpected reasons.

What struck me about the play, is how important it is, in a play that includes a differently abled (some might say disabled) perspective, to have that character, in this case, Christopher, at the centre, as the lead. And for everyone else to experience through that lens. The staging of the play, the dialogue, the story was completely illuminated from his perspective: his love of numbers, fear of change, sensitivity to light and not wanting to be touched and hatred of small talk. Indeed a whole new world and unexpected connections to my own life experience were revealed to me. It gave the play the edge of being humorous and poignant – a difficult balance that could have pushed it into being farcical.

This morning, browsing through a New Scientist collection of articles on the human brain (#joy), I glimpsed an article about memory, which states that ‘your personality determines the events that you remember‘ and that this in turn is shaped by our cultural context, the stories we hear about ourselves and distinctive cultural landmarks that shape our identity and personality. And, I wondered if this speaks to the need for diversity in representation on stage and screen. It presents the opportunity for connection, dialogue and potentially transformation between your own world and someone else’s. And for those of us who stray happily from the white, anglosaxon, straight, essentially mainstream portrayal of normality, it reinforces the need to see difference and alternative normalities represented on screen.

I guess this kind of links to a question i was asked via email (i like those emails – thank you!) about how and why I curated a programme of archive films ‘I like Dreaming’ for LGBT history month festival. The simple answer to how, is that myself and partner in diversion, under our guise, Squirrel Nation, were invited to curate a programme by Marion Hewitt at North West Film Archive. We had a sense of some films or themes already but we were provided with a list of films in the North West Film Archives and had several chats and emails back and forth about films in various archives, from the British Film Archive to Lux to the Wellcome moving image collection and of course there is Youtube to throw a few surprises and clips of the films you might be interested in. We knew we wanted to have a focus on artist films to form the core of the programme and to find connections between them and how that might then play out in everyday life. I had a secret wish to find a Hockney film and to somehow link Californian life indelibly to gay life in Manchester’s gay village.

We had a selection of films before we had our theme – more than in the final programme. Then watching and discussing them, a theme of dreaming, dressing up and going out emerged. This then in turn, focussed our search into the NorthWest film archives.

I wanted originally to show ‘Looking For Langston’ (too long for a short film programme really, at 44 mins) but Caroline showed me ‘I Like Dreaming’, an artist film I’d not seen before, that spoke more to the theme and cemented the programme. I was reminded of a time of being on the verge of finishing my Phd, being unemployed/ between employment and part-time work, and spending a lot of time going out in Manchester’s gay village. It was a time of great freedom, in spite of having little or no money. And going out and meeting up with friends in the village was really important. You never quite knew what would happen, but you knew you would dance, laugh, meet new people – a fleeting moment’s eye contact might promise a future romance. The possibility of romantic relationships, having previously lived and worked in a world, where you imagined getting beaten up for being gay, was freedom las vegas. Indeed these memories became a bit of a dream world now, as they are a million miles away from my life now. Yet, the feeling of freedom and creativity resonates with having a fellowship and exploring artistic relationships, and there is a kind of love there, that i can’t quite put my finger, on in words.

Clearing the archive films for the screening was pretty straightforward – you contact the archives, via their websites, follow up with a phone call to go through the details (one off, free, public screening on Bluray or DVD), discuss costs and fantastically in this case the North West Film Archive covered the cost of clearing the films. La voila – the films are sent to the venue and in the meantime you tweet, facebook it and get the programme out there. We got around 1000 flyers produced and we flyered the village in Manchester, The University, The LGBT Centre and got the film circulated via various LGBT focused mailing lists. And of course, North West Film Archive and Archives+ have great connections – which led to getting coverage on Karen Gabbay’s show on BBC Manchester. Via Karen and another contact, Julia Brosnan, that i met at an RSANW networking event, we got in touch with Gaydio and were featured on Andrew Edward’s slot. Basically it helps to be well networked to get the word out with a short timeline, especially for a free screening. The target audience was LGBT community but of course, having an artist component to it probably attracted a crossover crowd. The nice thing about doing the radio shows is that it prepares you to talk about the films and why you picked them – some of it is instinct – but talking helps to draw out more.

Squirrel Nation (Erinma & Caroline) on Gaydio
Squirrel Nation (Erinma & Caroline) on Gaydio

The best bit of course is to watch the films with an audience, ideally in a cinema, but at least in darkness on a big screen. Marion encouraged us to say a few words about each film and why we chose it between each film. This kind of independent screening is very different from curating for a mainstream cinema. Festivals also often have a requirement to screen new films but festivals can also be the opportunity for guest curators, like us, to come in and have an opportunity to programme short films. In the pub after the screening we had a chat about how we need to do more screenings – outside of Black History Month, LGBT month  – – there used to be quite a big independent film scene in Manchester. I am possibly less aware of it – the diehard is KinoFilm Festival – and many of us film peeps in Manchester cut our teeth in the Edge Street Office (now MadLab), programming under mad deadlines on no money.

More recently, there are great nights like VideoJam, where we’ve had our artist and archive films screened and a soundtrack is performed live to your film. The watching experience there, is often in an unusual setting, or in a museum or gallery, and there’s beer and wandering the space. I’m used to curating and programming quite marginalised or niche films. That’s my background really – when i was c0-running an arts and film programme out of Brixton at B3 Media, we’d do amazing collaborations with The London Design Festival, The V&A, Contact Theatre and more. We did an event years and years ago now, where people were responding to little lesser known artist, Miranda July’s collaborative film and image submissions. She came to talk at the Cornerhouse recently and it was great to hear her talk about how difficult it was to break through to make her features (she shed a little tear talking about it) – and that doing that collaborative filmmaking, call and response, helped her create a context for her work.

In fact, a fab low budget project, crossed over spoken word poetry with filmmakers and musicians, and the work was screen at the ICA in London. Taking work from the margins to the mainstream is always difficult – there will be ‘those conversations‘ and negotiations of the work because there just aren’t enough culturally diverse commissioners and programmers. Which is kind of boring, a chore and also a shame – independence seems easier – more risky, freedom Las Vegas – but will draw smaller audiences. Programming for a big cinema is still driven by box office – but audience say is starting to feature more – with pop up screenings of independently funded or crowdfunded films, re-screenings of favourite movies and more. I’m hopeful that places like Home, with its digital and cross art form remit might pick up the ball on more of that. There is also AND festival and FutureEverything which has started screening films. The missing link really is developing the talent.

People sometimes send me films – i got sent an amazing one a few months back from Artist, Noel Wallace.  The story behind making the film is amazing and the film itself glorious – its stayed with me, is part of my memory. In my head i am waiting to find the right place to programme that film – its a gem. It’s a great topic to get onto actually – i am really interesting in commissioning – and bypassing the mainstream ways of getting films funded which is usually all about celebrities being the vehicle for the film to see the light of day.

Jaymini mistry on meercat
Jaymini mistry on meercat 

There is a whole DIY film movement – where people just make content – or just stream stuff live – from Youtube to snapchat, to periscope to meercat – people are just making content and putting it online. On one level its marketing, but actually there is a lovely quality to using these apps as you can download what you film and stitch it together, there and then. It reminds me a little of super-8 filmmaking – in fact it would be so cool to see a digital version of straight8. Now we’re talking! That’s a challenge right there – and very doable – simple talent development vehicle – make, screen, watch together. Filmonik is another filmmaking community, out there, just making films in Manchester, screening them together and doing it again. On Meercat i’ve seen and heard some fascinating stories – coming out dramas, shopping and hair dramas, its all being experimented with at the moment. My favourite stream comes from Jaymini Mistry in Nottingham who broadcasts from her car.

Last week, and back to another kind of reality, I spent time hanging out at a #bigdatavr challenge, where scientists with big datasets and virtual reality games teams came together to essentially illuminate scientific data through virtual reality, to find new ways of perceiving the data and exploring hidden connections that are made visible in 3 dimensions.

It was actually quite thrilling to be chatting about catalysing and scaling social innovation in the morning with Arts peeps at Wellcome Trust, to wondering about the mathematical basis on which to map and model that process, to actually talking to mathematicians in the VR session who can just say… ‘Oh i think that’s this equation…

steady state equation

In a nutshell i would love to have my mind opened up to mathematics and mathematical concepts. To get the feeling of what happens when you understand mathematics. There is a whole world, there that is waiting to be explored, and that i am sure, mathematicians, know the joy of, only too well. I got a small sense of this joy from running Turing’s Sunflowers. Possibly, through virtual reality, in the same way datasets might be illuminated, and i think Erik, a mathematician and biophysicist was alluding to this, there is a whole other way to perceive, when you bring mathematics into the seeing, because you could, in theory, start to see beyond the limits of 3 dimensions that our brain locks us into.

Indeed, tweeting the above picture to Erik, who wrote down (and later updated) the equation then sent me this video. This really is a world we need to get our heads around, because it’s happening with or without us.

And, i wonder if that needs to be the starting point for any virtual reality and data challenge? From what i understood, its possible to create new emergent landscapes in three dimensions from data using virtual reality. A landscape is one thing, but how you navigate it and what you learn from it is another – that navigation, could form part of a game, and the ways to learn maths become intuitive, linked to gestures, movements and pathways through space and time. And, if you are going that far – there may as well be a story element added in. How you play the story of gamified data in virtual reality environments could be really exciting – as long as the scientists don’t insist on being the ‘experts’ that set the rules. Bring on the games makers and gamers!

Another fab conversation i had at the big datavr challenge was with Mo, who was studying user interfaces in VR. He pointed me to this fab Ted talk, pointing to the future of user interfaces, and how movies and science have influenced one another to imagine that future.

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