On the transcendental beauty of the outside; art during lockdown

Perhaps during lockdown, with galleries and museums closed to us, we look instead to the city for our art. 

And I mean ‘art’ in the sense of something transcendental: to catapult our imaginations from the everyday. Instead of peering into glass on the walls of old, hushed buildings we look to the bricks and trees immediately before us, into our neighbours’ windows as a different kind of frame. We summon fictions; reflect back our own meaning. In this way, the interiority of our present existence leads to the outside world - the flesh and bone of the city. Here in Edinburgh it’s perhaps not dissimilar - the same grandeur of grey stone, outside not in, the ability of this place to move us; affect the soul somehow. I find myself being surprised often - as if I’d forgotten all this beauty was here the whole time, before lockdown, simultaneously as electric as the bits framed and catalogued as ‘art’. And this special reverence usually sought in galleries and churches, before a small rope barrier and down-lit bulbs, reserved primarily for art museums and prestige and the stiffness of history - can be found on your doorstep, perhaps! A beam of sunlight on a bus stop becomes a masterstroke, one-of-a-kind; a glimmer of foil in the bushes somehow causes your throat to catch. The same hushed wonder exists in most everything I see, as I walk, earphones in and blinking the screen from my eyes, the smells and the brightness and the othering brilliance of it all almost too much to bear.

From my notebook (January 25th - scribbled when I got in from a walk)

Images are: scribbling, moments outside at a similar time

Lockdown: a personal ramble

Hello word document (which might one day be website blog). 

This is a bid to try and cleanse some of the weirdness in my head, writing helps me think about stuff, so here goes. I know I haven’t posted personal writing in a while but it’s been a busy time (always a busy time) trying to navigate a new career and establish myself as a freelancer. Obviously, due to current circumstances, my focus on employment has been derailed somewhat and now just seems a bit pointless. It’s weird when you’ve been so fixated on something for a long time to have it all vanish; all of the work I had organised for the coming months has ceased to exist and it happened dramatically quickly, so I’ve had to reevaluate my time pretty fast. Anyone who knows me will acknowledge I’m pretty often super stressed because I’ve given myself too many commitments: it’s one of my flaws, I’ll admit it. Hands held up. I need to chill out, I need to acknowledge my own limitations, blah blah blah. I go at 200mph for months and then all of a sudden realise I’m knackered, I realise this and have had this realisation many times over  but no matter how many times I come to this conclusion I seem intent on splicing myself into so many different shards of purpose – jobs, voluntary, creative, academic, social – that I struggle to hold it all in my head. Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment but I feel like I’m being the most successful when I’ve got a lot on. I think it’s come from a history of balancing acts: since working part-time through A-Levels I’ve always had to adapt my time and my capacity to service multiple functions at once. Deciding to study art probably sealed the deal because any kind of transition into a world/industry, especially one so class-based and ‘cultured’ (relying on a knowledge of a whole subtext of philosophers and artists and politics and social structures that I definitely wasn’t taught about growing up), is going to require morphing bits of yourself whilst clinging on to others you still need and value and desire. All of a sudden my obsessive need to order my time weeks ahead is kinda redundant. Once you take away all my scheduled stuff and planning it turns out I’m not very good at being spontaneous and motivated or making things. This time in lockdown has finally forced me to experience time without purpose, without multi-tasking, without being pulled in ten different directions by a variety of commitments. No commitments left, nada, except to stay indoors and deal with it. 

At first this was dreadful. I would wake up and find it impossible to get out of bed until 1pm, 2pm, because I felt I had no purpose and today, this happened again. No reason to move, to motivate, to make things, to pay attention. Nothing useful to do, nothing to help anyone with, nothing to plan for or aspire to. It took me time to accept I had lost my work, my volunteer work, my plans, my mad dance of keeping all the plates spinning, my regimented Filofax, my financial projections and securities. Why bother getting up and doing stuff, when I can lay and read the news about the world falling apart from my bed? Smaller energy bill. Less washing up. Less laundry. Less bother. But after a wee stint of wallowing where I really wasn’t much fun at all, things started to shift. Yes, I was jobless. Yes, this made it feel like the last 15 months of sacrifices and compromises and grafting to try and cement a career within the creative industries (where I still so often feel like an imposter) had come to an abrupt ellipsis. But I tried to keep these troughs of self-pity as contained as possible, because I was simultaneously very aware that thousands of people are currently very unwell and my situation, in comparison, is fine. That doesn’t mean I can’t feel the loss of these things, but it’s about perspective - plus it’s actually quite funny when you think about it, that I would pretty much be better off in any job I have ever had before this, which I have worked so hard to try and ‘transcend’. God, what a phrase, what a load of wank. It makes my fixation with securing a career in the creative industries seem bizarre, even stupid.  But I think there comes a point in every wallower’s cycle where you start to get tired of hearing your own whining, even if it’s only in your head. Sure you might dip a toe in the self-pity puddle every now and then, that’s only natural, but you’ve got to eventually start re-growing some energy, some motivation and some perspective. Put a bit of time and patience into feeling like absolute horse shite (just accept it for a few days) and you can fester long enough to cultivate a wee seed of OK-ness. Keep moping around drinking wine and randomly crying on your way to the shop and eventually you’ll think ‘oh yay I’ve got mash for dinner’. It comes and goes. And it will probably keep coming and going over the next weeks.

So after week one (which to be honest, was one of the worst weeks I’ve had in a long time) I started taking some action. I cannot thank the folk who did something to give me a wee pick-me-up during this week enough. I am incredibly fortunate to know such sweethearts, and be so loved, and everyone that bought a print from me online, sent me something in the post, called me at random just to check in, and generally kept my mind occupied and uplifted should know how much that meant to me. I didn’t realise so many people knew how much this whole freelance thing had been meaning to me the last 6 months, I’m not very good at admitting when I’m struggling and this meant a lot. Anyway, once I started moving a bit and considering my options the obvious became apparent quite quickly – I had to apply for grants, apply for Universal Credit, apply for bursaries, I even got off my high horse and asked my landlady if she would consider reducing my rent for the next month. It turns out she would consider this, and that’s bought me a lot of time. People maybe aren’t as shitty as I thought and I can’t stress enough that’s it’s worth reaching out to test the water. Of course this is egotistically painful: a cycle of waking up every day to be reminded of your newfound dependency on other people, and asking them for help - but there are more important things than ego I’m afraid and being able to pay the rent is one of them. This is not my idea of a fun time - I hate relying on anyone for anything, preferring to cut off my nose to spite my face and make things stupidly difficult for no reason. I once gradually moved flats via about 7 bus day-tickets instead of just asking someone with a car for a hand, and I’ll always say ‘it’s fine I’ll do it’ in a group scenario even if I’m already working 45 hours that week - I’m weird I know. I think deep down I’m just a massive control freak. All of these applications are done online, for obvious reasons, although many are refreshingly simple to fill out. It’s more straight forward applying for help and  supplying your bank statements than to pitch a creative project for example, or appeal for funding for a period of ‘artistic research’. I was lucky enough to receive a grant from the The Elizabeth Finn Fund, and was swamped with relief that I’d be able to pay the bills, then a weird joy that I’d achieved funding for the first time in my life. Kinda messed up hey, but I’ve never had a successful application for anything before. I really can’t imagine how those without internet connections or computers will weather this period. I can see the benefits of reducing physical contact by moving things online, sure, but this isn’t some king of ever-present entity it’s a product that people pay for and because of this it’s dangerous and outright discriminatory to make essential services and support only accessible to a portion of the population. Without libraries being open how are people in need expected to access essential online support? I worry. And I would say that if anyone needs help accessing these services I can be a web outlet for you – but what’s the point, the only people reading this will be those with wifi and some spare time on their hands. Even if i put a sign in the window how are people going to get in touch? I barely even get signal in the basement. Still - I’ll list a wee chunk of links at the bottom for application stuff that you can feel to peruse if you need a hand with support, but if you’re reading this from a similar position to myself (relative stability, but with all this enormous free time looming and panic-driven googling aplenty) you’ve probably already seen them, and applied yourself. Sending you luck. 

So - then came week three and by this point all prospect of time had gone out of the window. My Filofax continued (with increasing emptiness) to become a list of things with red lines through them. I kept going on night walks to get out of the house without the added stress of bumping into people coughing everywhere and footballs flying about, shopping a maximum of once a week (also at night), and learning that a lot of the things I liked doing before all this were incredibly banal. Things like ‘popping into Tesco on the way home to look at the reduced fridge’ are no longer a responsible action, and also were maybe always a questionable idea of a good time. I started making promises to myself to be more social at the end of all this but know I’ll probably immediately bog myself down with work stuff again. Seeing pals is obviously vastly limited but thankfully still there, we did have one great skype call where we were laughing so loud at Jack’s rotating middle finger music box at half-past-midnight that his mum gave him a row and told him to go to bed. It feels weirdly like being a teenager again. In one group chat we try and send a daily selfie, to feel together (apart). I don’t know if some of these re-connections would have happened without all this and it has been nice in its way to talk together, whether in Glasgow or Poland or Menorca we’re all suddenly locked down and inherently kinda accessible. These things are fun despite the circumstances and I’m consistently reminding myself to not feel bad for having pockets of contentment or humour. Weirdly, I’ve not had a single inclination during this time to use a film camera or to practice drums - some vague sense of guilt for not doing so sure, but no real desire. Up until very recently these were the main things keeping me happy in my tumble of work/life commitments, it’s weird. I started really wanting to bake in week three but didn’t really have any ingredients, and I have this notion that all the flours in the world are being horded by desperate mums and dads determined to think of ways to entertain their kids – fair play. I’m definitely not the neediest of home-bakers right now so I need to sit tight, I’m still pretty elated drinking a cuppa soup so I’ll let the desperate parents have the flour for fairy cakes or whatever, easy. I do have a vat of oats which I’ve been experimenting with – oat biscuits, oat crackers, oat risotto is on the cards for next week. It’s the small things. Those oat crackers are probably the best thing I’ve ever made though, legitimately, if you take one thing from anything I ever say ever again give those delicious seedy bastards a go.

Now I think it’s week four but I’m starting to lose track, and I’ve been offered a couple of bits of work - amazing. Something to think about, something to cling on to. Some trickle of money coming in. It’s still the highlight of my day (/night) to go on a walk on my own in the dark, and I really look forward to posting the photos to Instagram. Sounds ludicrous I know but that’s pretty much all I’ve got going right now that I feel on top of, capable of, all over. It’s a way to feel connected and productive somehow, plus a nice bit of routine and necessary waiting.  Jocelyn Allen has recently been posting a portrait series about pregnancy titled Waiting For Things In A Time When You Rarely Wait For Things and whilst this was not intended to be about quarantine in any way it’s true of this too; this whole lock down is an international exercise in patience and restraint. Both things haven’t been particularly necessary for many of us recently, as digital technologies and the pace of life seem to demand instantaneous gratification, satisfaction and response. For a while now I’ve been so intent on keeping ‘things’ going (‘things’ plural, all the ‘things’, there isn’t really a hierarchy of what I exactly care about the most) that I’ve not been very focused on any one thing at all. I’m not saying that lockdown is a ‘blessing in disguise’ (that would be absurd) and whilst I might be lucky enough to view this subjectively as some kind of personal exercise in ‘living in the moment’ this is still a pandemic. This is an extraordinary situation, a global crisis that is catastrophic for many hundreds of thousands of people and will prove to still be catastrophic for many more. Therefore, not only is is important to not romanticise it too much but it’s also not really like I can achieve a new ‘normal’ under this very not-normal conditions. I’m not saying ‘voila, this has achieved a zen I never knew I had’ – far from it. Even in my bubble of privilege and newfound free time I’m feeling bombarded by stuff: the necessity to socialise, to be applying for funds, looking for jobs, to be keeping on top of updates, to stay creative, to read the news, to keep active indoors, to be worrying enough to not feel guilty but not worrying so much I can’t move. It’s a funny thing, the self consciousness of concern. 

For now it still seems impossible still to really look ahead, foggy at best, but if anything I hope that this period forces a new kind of accessibility for those who have been struggling to be involved their whole lives. For many people being unable to visit the shops or unable to go to a show or unable to see friends isn’t a temporary inconvenience brought about by a pandemic but the reality of every single day, and I’m finding myself thinking a lot about how I can help, now and afterward. I can only imagine that this current situation of crisis has made these particular struggles even more difficult. The internet and our virtual capacity for connection has so much to offer how we come together as a community and make accessibility adaptations - this pause will at the very least force exploration of that. I’m a great believer in the internet’s ability to innovate new ways of being together, of being inclusive. We can only hope that this experience will bring about positive change – even in the smallest of ways – once we begin to rebuild our communities, economies and relationships. I’ve come to accept that it’s ok to try and think about this on a small scale right now, even when you’ve got the whole world in your pocket. I don’t know how much I can offer the big questions at the minute (or ever), but I’m ready to listen. I’m hoping and hopeful that I can be of some greater use once it’s safe to throw myself out there. In the meantime, if anybody is still reading this (wow, hello you, I can’t believe you’re still here) knows of any volunteer groups in Edinburgh North that need a (washed) hand, or any way my digital skillset can be useful (including the miracle of any paid online gigs out there) that I can fill my time with, please be in touch. I’m fairly ok at copy-writing and transcribing and promoting things - although I understand there isn’t a lot to promote at the minute. I’m not used to having nothing to do and it’s making me a little bit weird. I have registered as a kindness caller with Chest, Heart & Stroke Scotland (so will be ringing those who may be feeling isolated soon to have a blether, probably about biscuits or birds or my cat or a crossword) and I’m giving blood this weekend so those are some ideas I’ve had at least for anyone else feeling useless. I’m open to suggestions, and being pointed in a direction of being useful. So now to close - and it’s impossible to really summarise this post isn’t it, I’ve zigzagged between the intensely personal and the bigger concerns, but I think if anything that’s illustrative of how we’re all probably navigating the days at the moment. Be gentle with yourself. Don’t feel guilty for feeling terrible. Don’t feel guilty for feeling OK. I’ll list the resources I mentioned above, below. And finally (sweet jesus I can ramble can’t I) I just wanted to send some kind of virtual love: an e-high-five maybe? No that’s too triumphant – an e-arm-squeeze? Kinda weird. Whatever you want - an e-touch to everyone, and anyone, who could do with it.  XO





Review of ESFF: Love Be Damned

Some thoughts from Edinburgh Short Film FestivalLove Be Damned 

Screened October 25 (initially written October 30)

Love Be Damned was suitably timed as October ticked toward Halloween and this condemnation of love delivered everything you’d expect - resentment, revelation, violence, perversion and actually quite a lot of straight-up murder. On the whole the programme was an original and compelling blend of material and TIGRE (Delphine Deloget) was a fantastic way to start. This film was expertly crafted and knew how to coherently deliver a short story, I can’t believe this was 22 minutes - it felt like a breath - and there is something delicious about a revenge story so ridiculous. Effective visual foreshadowing in the quieter scenes meant that the building sense of atmosphere crafted through set design, pacing and cinematography was gradual and intense. I’ve never been to a safari park and I can’t imagine that the security measures in even the most middle-of-nowhere shitholes are this lax but why spoil the fun?  When you think of what a short film should be, this is it. The characters were unusual but simultaneously utterly believable, and TIGRE had punch to it: keeping you hooked and taking you somewhere unexpected. FANTASTIC PLASTIC (Sarah Tafel) was carefully shot with some tense moments and palpable audience discomfort. This is a story that we’ve seen before but Tafel approached it in a fresh way that caused audiences to linger uncertain as to what was real, and whether or not it really mattered.  ACCIDENT (David Cocheret) was a concise, confident film that I would prescribe to anyone as an antidote to heartbreak. A simple premise made no less satisfying by its short and sweet format, the dialogue was stripped to the bare necessities and every line was carefully crafted to deliver the laughs and the levity necessary. The edit was tight too, with the audience granted just enough time to get a joke before being hurled into something else. Bravo. In contrast, MANO A MANO (Louise Courvoisier) employed indulgent long shots to reveal the complexities of the observed relationship and there were large stretches without dialogue, where the viewer was encouraged to consider the subtleties of the characters’ behaviour. We witness with the couple the constant balancing-act of life as a partnership. Parts of this perhaps lingered too long as sometimes the pacing didn’t feel quite right and I think I would have preferred more time spent in the final scenes than in the middle. I appreciate that this was crafted precisely to take us on a particular journey but I was left hungry for more time together with them at the close of the arc. Maybe I’m just greedy. 

Animated short THE FEATHER PILLOW (Joseph Specker Nys) was visually accomplished with fantastic set design and attention to detail but I spent much of its duration confused and have scrawled in my notes: ‘wins the award for the most heavy breathing in a film outwith the adult film genre’. The sound design is enthusiastic but felt clumsy - relying on visceral squelches that make me think back to old episodes of Scooby Doo and children playing with ‘silly putty’ (plus I guess more recently, those ASMR youtube accounts of people stirring mashed potatoes and cutting hair). At points how THE FEATHER PILLOW looked toed the line of Tim Burton, but the soundtrack missed the mark and this short failed to hit notes in the story that bring such animated horrors to life. THE NIGHT (Martín Romero) used a similarly compelling visual style and the delicious animation almost succeeded in camouflaging a tired motif. When something is done with such confidence it is easy  to presume that it has something valuable to say, and I immediately had high expectations of this short from its unusual and psychedelic aesthetic. Unfortunately I thought the animation was the only ‘fresh’ thing about the film and I was disappointed to uncover that this story is the one of the man who puts his sexual selfishness before all else and in doing so ruins everything. We’ve seen it before. What begins as a love story sours when the wolf-and-moon couple discover a baby and adopt it as their own. This means there is less attention for the wolf-man protagonist and in one scene when he attempts to interact sexually with his partner she bats his hand away. It was then frustrating to watch as an alien she-ghoul lures the protagonist into some water, seducing him with a hand down the pants in exchange for the baby’s life (which he happily concedes) because no matter how surreptitiously positioned in cool pink animation this is the same tired angle: putting the blame of villainy on a representation of the female body. What a convenient way to avoid personal responsibility for this character’s actions and pin the title of ‘baddie’ on some faceless alien metaphor. Whatever it is that the she-demon is meant to represent feels half-formed and the point of narrative no-return falls instead on the denial of consent, to me positioning the woman’s ‘not now’ as the un-doing of the love story. I watched this film and I felt sad - not for the pink wolf-man protagonist who I wonder if we’re supposed to empathise with (who then conceals his actions and sweats a lot) but that we are still sitting as audiences accepting the woman wife as all-loving, protective and pious, the child as demanding and divisive, and the male lead a poor bumbling penis that seeks attention from a creature in a lagoon when he’s told, once, not right now.

As somebody who generally mistrusts romcoms, and especially in a programme titled ‘Love Be Damned’ my reservations for LA LLORONA (Harold Leonard) were robust but quickly abated. This short sees a young heartbroken man on a quest for alcoholic repentance for his broken relationship and plays with ideas of the infantilized single man and societal pressures to be happy. Without the injection of the obsessive, serial-killing ‘weeping woman’ (or La Llorona) this would be at risk of being stale, but thankfully there is a delightful chemistry between the two. Bizarrely charming, the laughs are plenty as this pair of ill-fated romantics come to terms with their respective betrayals. Some questionable edit choices are made throughout, including repeated shots of night street scenes and recycled footage that I still can’t decide were a purposeful device. But regardless of occasional clumsiness, there is something touching about this short that uses its ridiculous premise to make fun of societal stuffiness, leaving audiences charmed instead. But finally, the most arresting short of the night was HORS SAISON (Stella Di Tocco), which struck a chord with me perhaps more than I would care to admit. Somewhere between its documentation of an off-season holiday resort, a woman who courts alcoholism and the treatment of one of the most rewarding and fragile relationships between human and pet, I found a lot of common ground and it was expertly navigated. There’s a lot of complexity in this film and I can’t help but feel this would serve better as a feature as I wanted to stay longer in their world. By hesitating to condone or condemn the protagonist’s behaviour this short was actually deeply sad, gently investigating the commitment of dog to human and the protagonist’s commitment to an idea of a good time that never quite seems to materialise. HORS SAISON was more heart-breaking to me than the other tales of murder, betrayal, revenge and illness. Whilst it might not have the punchy twists and knee-jerk joy of TIGRE or THE ACCIDENT, this is the one that I found myself mulling over on my walk home and this is the one that I will continue to think about - trying somehow to find lessons to be learned.

Congratulations to all the short films selected to be screened and thank you to ESFF for programming this event!

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