David Harradine is artistic director of Fevered Sleep. The following is an edited transcription of the talk he gave at our Glasgow symposium in February 2011. He also joined us for the rest of the weekend as a collaborator at the Cove Park artist’s retreat.
Thank you Sally, thank you for inviting me to come and talk today. I was going to say, by way of an introduction to the work that Fevered Sleep makes, that we’re quite deliberately eclectic and I guess higgledy piggledy. We make work across performance and installation and publication and more recently film and photography. We make it for adults and for children, especially children under five. So it’s a very deliberately diverse body of work and what I want to try and do in a quick presentation is just to maybe tell some stories and pull together some threads which I think somehow connect with the themes of this network and the focus of this session in particular.
One thing that I think does connect all the things that I do – and that for me runs through what I think is the job of an artist – is something to do with a very intense attentiveness. The work I’ve done in terms of landscape, site, and environment is absolutely about trying to be attentive to place – either very specific actual places or generic kinds of places, which I’ll talk about more in a bit. It’s about that especially because I make work for very young people. I am making art for children, which is somehow involved in the education and the learning of children and young people, and there’s something to me obviously about attentiveness being learning, learning being attentiveness, and noticing and bearing witness to things.
I had one of the AHRC creative fellowships, at the University of Winchester, which ended a couple of years ago, and the focus of it was landscape and photography – and light and performance. Whilst I was first talking with various people about this project I met Jane McMorrow who used to run the Brighton Festival, who said she wanted to commission someone to make a piece about the very particular quality of light in Brighton, and would I be interested? Now, I’m from a little village in Yorkshire, I live in Hackney in East London, I’d done my MA at Sussex University, just outside Brighton, but I hated Brighton. I commuted from home to Brighton, went to my seminars and shot home again as quickly as possible. But now I had this offer for a great commission for Brighton Festival. So my immediate dilemma was – how was it possible for me to go to this place and to somehow claim the authority to make a piece of work about the particularity of that place, and the very strange and ungraspable, particular quality of light – natural light – in that place. And I decided that the only way to think about that was to invest a lot of time. The process of making this work could only come about by investing a lot of my personal time, life and effort in trying to encounter somewhere that was not familiar to me. So for a year, every month – for two, three or four days every month – I would take the train from London Bridge to Brighton, with my notebook and my camera and a set of tasks and a set of questions which I would repeat every time I went. At the end of the year I had 20,000 words in my notebooks, which I transcribed, and thousands of photographs. I had a kind of a sense that maybe I knew something about the particular quality of light in Brighton, but actually a greater sense that the problem and the challenge of this project was how I could make anything at all that could respond in any meaningful way to that place and the particular strange aspect of the light in that place.
So we created a project in three parts called An Infinite Line: Brighton, which is now part of a series of projects called An Infinite Line which are all about light in different places. We’re also now working on An Infinite Line: Dunnet Head, for the most northerly point on the British mainland in the top northeast corner of Scotland, and An Infinite Line: Merseyside, where we’re doing a health and landscape project, looking at the light on the coast of that part of northwest England. An Infinite Line: Brighton was in three parts – a book, an installation of cine films (which I shot over the year as well), and then a performance, which took place indoors. It felt really important to me that there was no point being outdoors in the natural light, trying to say something else about it, because it was just there and it was already so much more extraordinary than anything I was going to do as an artist. All I’ve had to do is make the effort to see it, it was there, and it was extraordinary. So we took over a basement in the city centre for a couple of months and made a piece in that dark space, indoors. The piece that we made was really about the problem of translating this exterior, complex, infinitely variable, constantly changing landscape – place, city, sea, sky – into a performance-based event. The structure of this piece was a constant attempt by the performers — two actor-dancers, two musicians, two horse wranglers. and a horse – to try and create something which somehow said something back to this particular place for which we’d been commissioned to do this particular piece of work.
We had built a set that constantly reconfigured itself, and the event took the shape of a series of tasks to try and recreate light, which always failed and always had to start again. We said to ourselves we couldn’t stop until we’d done something that began to approach what it actually felt like to be outside . . . and that did happen once in rehearsals, and once in performance, and it lasted about five seconds. It was there, and it was gone. What was interesting about this piece – and afterwards, in hindsight, what the problem with it was – was that the audience saw a very fixed point of view. My research had been about going again and again and again and walking and getting rained on and getting cold and getting wet and not being able to see. I was on the beach in the middle of the night. Even though we made a piece which somehow tried to embody the sense of investing time and experience in a place, the experience of watching this performance was different from the actual experience of being there with th light. It was more static; it had lost some of its dynamism. We tried to create something which embodied change because the space was constantly reconfigured and these attempts were constantly being restarted. But in the end it was a very fixed encounter with a very fixed point of view in a very fixed perspective, which dramaturgically felt very problematic to me because I denied the audience the very thing that had felt most important to me as an artist in terms of the creative process.
Maybe it’s relevant to say why there was a horse in it. It’s the question that people always ask. It’s interesting because in my practice now I’m thinking very carefully and in different ways, in different places about – I guess – the physical facts of a place, landscape, or environment. Yet I find that the place, the landscape or the environment tends to care very little about me and to pay me very little attention. I felt this very, very acutely when I was in Brighton trying to see something which didn’t want to reveal itself to me, and I’ve also felt it a lot about animals. I have a whippet, a hunting dog (well she’s not, she’s a pet, but they’re bred to hunt), and she used to come on my research trips and be incredibly alert to everything around her. “What can you see? What can you smell?” But she wasn’t really interested in me – she isn’t and I know she isn’t when we’re in our house together. So the horse somehow for me embodied the sense of the indifference of that which is beyond the inquisitive, attentive, artistic human eye looking at a place – and I wanted to bring that into the piece somehow. So we had a horse who did what he liked, which normally meant sleeping actually. Hardly the powerful, dangerous presence I hoped he would have had.
So, on the back of that project we were commissioned, just last year in December , to create a piece for National Theatre Wales, part of their launch year which was very interesting and I think very relevant. John McGrath and Lucy Davies, the artistic director and producer of National Theatre Wales, have commissioned thirteen projects in thirteen months, creating what they’re calling a theatre map of Wales. It’s thirteen different pieces of work, different kinds of theatre in different places, which together – they hope – will somehow tell the story of what Wales is now. I was commissioned to make a piece called The Weather Factory, which was about the weather in Snowdonia, a mountainous part of northwest Wales. This was on the back of this problem I’d had with An Infinite Line: Brighton and this very fixed, static point of view in an arts space. And we made a piece which, in the end, took place in a house – a red and white detached house in a village called Pen-y-Groes, which is a former slate mining village on the edge of Snowdonia where there are two Chinese takeaways, two fish and chip shops, two funeral parlours, and (brilliantly) no arts infrastructure at all. We made a piece which was a series of installations about the weather, in the different rooms in this house. As an audience member you booked a time slot, you went to the pub in the village, had a drink, got the keys to the house, went to the house and let yourself in and did what you liked. There was a room in which there was a collection of skies. There was a room full of fog and light. The bathroom had been rather overtaken by moss. For me it was one of the absolute, living aspects of that landscape – the moss. The wet, Welsh, rain-evidencing moss.
I’d done some work as part of the research for this project with the Countryside Council for Wales, and specifically about the environmental change project who have — since 1998 – been going every Wednesday morning to a very particular spot on the flanks of Snowdon and taking weather readings, and taking a set of panoramic photographs of the same place on the opposite hillside. Brilliantly, they gave me their 3,500 photographs of the same place on the opposite hillside. It’s the most extraordinary visual archive of environmental change because you see one hill, 52 times a year, for thirteen years. So there was an idea underlying this project that this house you were entering had belonged to somebody who was trying to be attentive to this landscape in which they live. And that by inviting people to visit the house, we were asking them to share that attentiveness. Interestingly it was National Theatre Wales’s Christmas show, so it was a show for adults and for children. I would say the audience was 50/50, people like us and people under fifteen – often under 10. So the idea was that by visiting this house people might leave it and look again, or look askance, or look differently, at the place in which they lived. That they might be attentive in a different way.
As I said, part of the reason I was asked to make this piece for National Theatre Wales was because of the work I do with children. A couple of years ago we made a piece called The Forest which, like a lot of the work we make, is theatre-based – it happens in theatres and it tours theatres – but it is still in some way about landscape or environment. We don’t only make work which happens out in these other places, and in fact I’m very interested in the idea of generic landscapes – so in the idea of what a forest is, rather than what this forest here might be. Or what “the weather” is, rather than what that weather there in Wales very specifically was like. So in all the work that we make with children – and because we’re not them anymore (I haven’t been for a long time) – we will spend a lot of time working with people of the age for whom we’re making the piece. And The Forest was for five to eight year old children, so we went to a school in Lambeth, and took some of the children from that school – having done a workshop – to Epping Forest in Northeast London. We talked about what they thought a forest was, and asked them what they could tell us as artists about what this place – the forest – should contain.
I should explain that Fevered Sleep is based at the Young Vic, in Lambeth, absolutely in the middle of London — about 200 yards from the Thames. But there are some schools the Young Vic works with in which there are children who have never seen the river that’s within a mile of where they live. These children are from inner city London. But they spoke to us brilliantly about the forest as a mythical place – as a creative place and an imaginative place. For them, the forest was something from childhood literature and fairytales rather than a real place which they actually encounter as part of their real lives. So when we took them to Epping, they were genuinely interested as to whether they would see somebody dead in the forest. Or if not a dead person would they see a dead fox? Would we see a cottage and an old woman? These were serious things they wanted to know before we went. Would they be safe? Would they get back home? We went to the forest, and it became a very playful place – because we turned this ongoing anxiety of “will we get back home?” into a kind of game. “Do you know where we are?” “Do you know where the path is?” “Do you know where the minibus is?” “It’s just there behind that tree!” So anyway, we made a piece for theatres which took what we’d learned about the imaginative significance of forests to children – as places of death and transformation and renewal, of light and darkness, night-time, becoming lost, chaos, fear and finding your way home.
Right now we’re making a new show, or rather a revival of a show. Today is the last day of rehearsals, which I wrenched myself away from to come here. And the Rain Falls Down is for three and four year olds, and I’m really keen to talk about whether it’s even remotely possible to engage three and four year olds in thinking about environmental change. I do know you can engage three and four year olds in thinking about water, which is what this piece is – it takes water, and the weather, as a way of exploring loss and play and friendship, in whatever way that is meaningful for a child as young as three or four.