2017 (originally written in December)

I guess in many ways these kinds of looking-back thinking-out-loud pieces of writing are useful only for ourselves, so perhaps sharing this is all a bit pointless/narcissistic. But we live at present in the age of the narcissist, this is simply how we communicate: through ourselves first and foremost. All of these sometimes silly webpages and monologues and social media sites are not social at all at their heart, it’s a bit of a perverse use of language, they are mirrors for us to look at ourselves in different lights and from different angles. Who are we really thinking about when we read each other’s updates online? Them, temporarily, and then ourselves - how should I react to this, how am I important in this particular event. Digesting the news - another way for us to model ourselves in our reactionary prowess. How could I share my take on this in a funny way, or how can MY INDIVIDUAL BRAIN really dissect this in a way that BLOWS PEOPLESMINDS? You get the gist. Anyway, I’m becoming tangental already and this is meant to be the welcoming line. Welcome. I choose to rejoice in this particular consideration of 2017 being a valuable piece of introspective exploration, at a time of year when suddenly we find ourselves a lot of time to look back and question everything. 

2017 started on a high because I was so thankful to leave 2016 behind.  And if I’m honest almost all of it has been good. I shaved my head! I made some work! I exhibited some work! I talked about some work! I helped start up a photography critique group! I encouraged multiple artists to exhibit their work and helped a few of them achieve this and secure sales! I left the country on my own, I bought myself a new laptop, I learnt to print in the darkroom, I learnt to process colour film, I learnt how to use very basic functions of photoshop, I worked hard, I had fun, I worried less (but still quite a bit), I opened up, I made friends and I drank a lot of beer! This sounds like some kind of lame brag-list a primary school child might write on their first day of school (although if they were drinking beer and practising photoshop I would be impressed) but I think it’s essential to think back about these things in order to recognise what we have done for ourselves. Already it doesn’t feel praise-worthy that I ‘made work’ as somehow this has once again become part of my routine - but at the time, after two years of complete creative and motivational drought, this was massive. 

Of course, globally, the world has continued to stun me in its potential to be a really messed up place, but I have excused myself of being able to change all that. We have incredible access to information and to news now and all the small social updates and massive global-scale problems exist in the same space. It can be very overwhelming to try and process so much data, of varying spectrums, through one digital channel, and within one  and-held device. This is especially true if you are stuck in a routine that doesn’t allow you much space to explore other attitudes as our environments are key for communication. A sort of dependency develops on this feed of news and it can become incredibly difficult to be able to separate your culpability from all of the shit you see online that is so obviously wrong with everything. Don’t underestimate how much of a lifeline a phone and social media can be for somebody stuck in an unhappy mind-set or even a constricting routine. Free time and free cash to go and socialise physically is a luxury - and I think many become really incredibly dependent on their social media spheres to fill this gap. It’s a little worrying, if I’m honest, the importance that many of us put on our ‘digital spheres’ and online declarations. But YADA YADA ONLINE REALNESS IS SCARY it’s nothing Charlie Brooker hasn’t told us all before right? And I’m saying it through an online platform. Go figure.

But I feel like at long last I am finding some kind of rhythm to making work and sharing work and discussing work that felt completely unattainable this time last year. Things are becoming more balanced. When you are used to having this supportive environment provided for you by the educational infrastructure it is a difficult thing to accept coming out of a course program that actually to make this space for yourself will take time and work and allowing yourself to appear vulnerable. You gotta admit to people you don’t know very well that you need help and hope that somebody else in the same position and acknowledging this could be mutually beneficial. Luckily for us, Nic at Stills allowed us the space and legitimacy to make this community happen. Nic was and is the driving force behing Fresh Focus, from the initial recognition of  a challenge facing graduates, to going ahead to address the problem. Not everybody will have a Nic and a resource like Stills to make this easy for you but it doesn’t mean it’s not worth putting some kind of group in place, if you can. Things get easier and things start to happen when you get together and talk about your work.

I have discovered this today, unpublished, written on my train journey home for Christmas in December last year. Thought I would share because reading it back, especially the last paragraph (and after Fresh Focus has gone from strength to strength so far in 2018) I couldn’t agree more. Work hard and make things happen!

I will post something more up-to-date very soon, but thus far 2018 has been very exciting indeed…

Finding focus (a love letter to the darkroom)

Good evening internet,

First of all a huge and heartfelt thank you to everybody who got in touch with me in regards to my last post. I’m happy that some of what I was talking about fell on familiar ears (eyes?) and thankful to live in a time and a privileged position where I can post something from my head on the vast blank ether of the web and have people actually reach out to me with words and experiences. I was really quite touched and it was good to get it out there.

It’s been a while since I posted, again, and much longer than I would have liked. I did try and write a post 19 days ago but wasn’t feeling it when I read it back in my head and so abandoned it to the pile of unposted draftlets. Sometimes that happens and I think that’s ok. Generally speaking I have been less inclined to do anything with words recently and I am wondering if perhaps these things come in tides.  For the last month or two language has escaped me (kinda like I used up all my allocated writing in the middle of the year) - but in this instance I think it’s important to direct your energies somewhere they feel more easily applied, like eating, or walking, or sleeping, or thinking. These things are good too.

So, life.  November. It’s been a busy couple of months, as it always seems to be when I look back at time. I most recently helped Paul Fieldsend launch his first exhibition in my place of work Fieldwork Cafe, I turned twenty-five and had three days of non-stop food and booze and loveliness, I was fortunate enough to attend a Masterclass thanks to the Jill Todd Photo Award with Pradip Malde which was fascinating and inspiring and invaluable, we have welcomed new members to Fresh Focus, and throughout all this my bosses have launched a new venture selling carbs and cheese, but perhaps most importantly I was fortunate enough to take part in the Intro to Black and White course at Stills and have absolutely fallen in love with the process of black and white printing. It’s a beautiful thing, and a very welcome break from the ‘virtual’ world - with white light-sources vetoed to avoid fogging paper. The darkroom is a sacred phone-free space. 

And so, because I spent the whole day shut in the dark on my own and loved it, here’s something a bit different:

Finding focus

a love letter to the darkroom in a digital age 

Dear darkroom,

Deep black darkroom. Delicious inky box. I know I haven’t known you for long, and I feel in many ways we haven’t yet reached an understanding I trust we are destined for and capable of and bound to. Many know you better than I, almost all have known you longer than I, and many would scoff at my love; young and naïve. Let them scoff. 

There is little thus far in my life that I could say I revere as holy. I’ve never been much good at prayer. I tried a few times as a child, summoning my most urgent attempt somewhere around the millennium to let god know my budgie was sick, squeezing my eyes and my hands and believing it would reach him directly. Of course, I thought, he would jump to attention. Easy. My budgie died a few days later huddled in the corner of his tiny metal house, a stiff feathery lump that I barely looked up from my Gameboy to acknowledge when mum announced that ‘jimmy was dead’ (and so therefore, was god). 

These days time ticks by in an incessant barrage of information DING oh an Instagram follow VRR VRR you have achieved your daily step target BADABA BADABA two messages at once from a friend I need to speak to, but desire to see in the flesh. I see them all sure, but I swipe them away and forget to respond. There doesn’t seem to be much time for holy ideas, to me anyway, It’s a lot and it’s a little and it’s all the time information from waking to sleep and nowhere in these days and nights of  notification is there really any focus. 

But for you - delicious inky box. Together we are safe in the dark with the whisper of the tap and the hum of light through a lens. Soft humming, a few seconds at a time, like light’s thinking something over, like it’s mulling - and really I am mulling for finally an escape! There are images but they are gentle, they don’t nag or flash but instead need to be coaxed - woven from the magic of light and dust and paper and they are bathed in solution and given life. This must be a holy process, a slow baptism from potential to perceived. Finding focus, solitude, gorgeous winey black. We find a rhythm between light and liquid and I find space in this beautiful, tranquil dark. 

In the darkroom an image takes an hour, or two hours, or more. The impatience of finger-scrolling, media-surfing judgement bends to a process that feels at once perfect and unfamiliar. This is slow, this is soft, this is foolish. In many ways this is magic. I pull an image from the wash and hold it up to look. It is slippery and imperfect and if it were flesh it would cry.

And I know I see you right now in a romantic light quite unfair. I know too this cooing may be uncomfortable to witness and impossible to sustain. But I am unable to cast this roseate light onto my mobile phone and my tablet and my persistent love-hate with connectivity. Perhaps one day years from now somebody will discover this device and write to it too, and marvel at how things used to be birthed from fingers and keys and interactive glass and annoying pinging symbols reminding you are lonely but never alone. I don’t doubt it. 

For now, however, perhaps I should re-consider prayer - I shall squeeze my eyes and my hands tight to believe that in this future fuller still of lights and sounds and vibrations and finger-twitching madness, that there might maybe remain a gorgeous black box. A deep dark room. Delicious timeless red glow and shadow, incubating the future, warming the past. It is you, a looking glass - to find focus, to make magic, to look at what is created, and remember quiet. Easy.

Until next time. 



Working Title, realisations therein & unwinding post-festival

Hello web-users far and wide,

It feels like it has been a while. 

There is a lot of really exciting stuff to think about right now and a lot to come which I want to write about, but first I’m going to try and cover a bit of the recent past if that’s ok. I am always behind with this blog and commenting on something from a little while ago, but hey that’s life!

We have seen another festival season come and go in Edinburgh, which for anybody reading from elsewhere lasts the duration of August. The population in Edinburgh swells as the city houses a huge array of festivals and festival-goers. There is the Fringe Festival, the International Festival (which I think kinda started it all), Edinburgh Art Festival, Edinburgh Book Festival, the Free Fringe and a whole ton of other things that just merge into one big mass of all-singing all-dancing all-flyering mayhem. It’s a spectacular thing. I come from a small town in Devon where the entire community calendar revolves around a rotation of club nights and drinks deals. Needless to say for many local residents August is a month to be tolerated, taken advantage of if possible and most importantly, endured. I guess I understand - I take the landscapes of the South Devonshire coast for granted on every level. The ocean is a constant for me, the seaside is part of the scenery so to speak. Being able to go to the beach and swim when it’s sunny is something I have always taken for granted. That is the sad thing I guess about growing up around something brilliant - it just becomes second nature. But for all the positive things I have to say about the vastness of the festival buzz in Edinburgh, you have to be careful in your approach. For the last two years I have taken on secondary part-time work surplus to my full-time position in order to earn some extra money, simply because the jobs are there, it’s a good wage and only a temporary situation. Remember, in the words of our puffy overlord: there is no magic money tree. To participate in the luxuries people seem to take for granted in the city and to continue making images (going to exhibitions, having drinks with friends, having dinner when someone comes to visit, shooting things, printing things, buying this stupid domain etc.) you gotta work for it. Last year I juggled full-time deli work with a part-time flyering position and it refreshed my ideas about what flyering would be like. Generally speaking, the public were pretty pleasant. At the very least, they tolerated my chat. This year I entered into a similar situation with some positivity - but I think a key difference (aside from moving an hour out of the centre) was that I was also trying to plan Working Title and maintain some kind of creative workflow alongside the 70 hour workweek. I so badly wanted the exhibition to be good! I so badly wanted to be good at this mountain of work I had given myself and prove that you can do everything on your own if you want it enough! And I guess in some ways you can, but it comes at a price. I’m no stranger to feeling tired, but this was something else. Forget showering and food and all that stuff, I just wanted to be asleep. By the end of the festival my arms were shaking as I tried to make customers drinks, my mood was controlled entirely by caffeine, every time someone came in the shop I wanted to cry because it meant I had to try and project enthusiasm from a mental pool running totally dry, people I knew would try and chat to me and I struggled to think of what to say back. I wasn’t myself and by the final week I lost the ability to be excited and to be patient and to be pleasant and even to JUDGE DISTANCES!  To make matters worse (although technically better?) both my employers were total sweethearts and so accommodating and I didn’t want to let anybody down.

So I extend a thousand apologies to my colleagues and customers and friends and peers if I seemed spaced out or listless or unable to empathise. August taught me a valuable lesson this year: everybody has their limit. Plus, it ended! It ENDED! And for a week going home after work instead of going to give out flyers felt like the biggest gift. Getting to go and cook dinner and take my time doing it was like being on holiday. Walking home with headphones in and not having to stop and engage every passer-by with information about a show was a luxury. Having the time to pet my cat without worrying about an email I had to send was a joy. There was space for reading and sitting and thinking again. And in this way it was worth it because not only did it help out financially, it renewed a fundamental appreciation of myself, of my capabilities, of my body, of existing. It renewed a gratitude for free time, my comfort in listlessness, in being quiet, in having space and being alone. And that is priceless.

So that is over. Festival is over. And as much as near the end my leg muscles were ticking and my head was spinning I had some fun along the way. And out of the madness came the best thing to happen to me for a long while: Working Title. Working Title was an exhibition organised by Zoe Hamill, Erin Semple and myself, wherein we exhibited work-in-progress downstairs at Stills. This was partly a celebration of a new critique group Fresh Focus, and partly an opportunity to get feedback on a variety of projects we were working on independently. For me this was a chance to finally air my work Chapters of Anxiety and I couldn’t have predicted how transformative this experience would be. Getting a chance to put this stuff out there, on a shelf, was bizarre.  I made this work without really knowing what I wanted to do with it and even whether I wanted to show anybody. Once it was done and on show there was a brief feeling of nausea. I realised how much of my most private conflict was out in a room where I couldn’t see it, where I couldn’t monitor who was reading it and apologise for how self-indulgent it is and make sure they knew I was feeling better now. But swiftly after it was terrifying  it was incredible.  Realising it had been released (and released is a really key word) was incredibly freeing. Both literally and figuratively I took my anxiety, wrapped it up in paper and then left it on a shelf in the basement of Stills. I couldn’t stop smiling. I can’t stop smiling. Talking briefly to people about the books’ purpose and about that period of my life is the only time I have had a way of discussing my experiences and in doing so has made me realise how far I have come. It has allowed me to confront an ineffable subject because I now have an item I can use to try and explain it for me. Further than this though - putting something so personal on any kind of platform has legitimised my belief in self-expression. Chapters of Anxiety is the most honest thing I have ever created, and that has value. It’s not perfect and it’s not very accessible and it’s not pretty but knowing this and still seeing it on the shelf and hearing people respond to it has proved to me that there is some space for authenticity in the art world. I wanted to see something like this, last year, and now other people will. Working Title has allowed me to believe once again in the value of making things. 

So, a little more on mental health before I close. From the end of 2015 and through the entirety of 2016 I struggled with my mindset in private. I am only beginning to understand now through comparison how much trouble I was in, and you realise in little ways. I laugh loudly at stupid stuff in public and it takes me by surprise. I watch my cat and feel a strength of love untainted by the ever-present paranoia he is gonna die and it will be my fault. I am starting to consider the future with tentative excitement as opposed to fear and frustration. I am realising that the world doesn’t explode when you admit you’re struggling. I went into a bookshop and bought two books last week without feeling crippling guilt. Two! I have stopped giving myself a hard time all the time, and stopped hating everything for being so difficult. An excerpt from a letter I wrote to a friend of mine this morning: ‘I hope it brings you joy to know that these days there is more in this fantastic world and in this magic experience that excites and delights me, than there is that makes me feel weak and alone.’ But it’s important for me to stress this is not a decision I have made all of a sudden, this is not a matter of just one day changing my perspective. This is something I was completely incapable of doing last year. I would have read this were it written by someone else and thought ‘oh how fantastic for you but what am I supposed to do with your sense of relief?’. This is something I tried my best to ignore for a long time. I don’t understand mental illness and I don’t understand what was wrong with me. I feel unable to accurately use relevant terminology and whilst we are increasingly being equipped with the ideas surrounding depression and anxiety I don’t feel confident defining things or seeking help. My small attempt to seek medical advice was fruitless and uncomfortable. In this way I’m afraid I have little useful advice to give - feeling better was not a decision made be me, this was not a course of drugs, I don’t have an answer. Instead it feels like a release from something I was not in control of. It was really as if the part of my brain that made me me, the bit that made me occasionally funny and engaging and excitable and naïve, had shut off. I couldn’t access it. I could feign it sometimes when in certain situations but I was in a constant state of fear induced by the knowledge that I was no longer in control. 

You could say it was like being in a car and knowing that the brakes no longer work. You can’t do anything but keep driving. Your options are pretty dicey and you can’t slow down and think about things and you can’t go back to that nice bit you’ve just driven through, you are consistently and terrifyingly powering forward without all the bits of the vehicle working and without the really important bit that puts you in control. Nobody can see that anything is wrong if you stay calm enough until you crash into a tree head first and go flying through the windscreen. I realise I am at risk of sounding like a total moron with this extended metaphor but using it as a vehicle (pun intended) may be useful. In my case I gripped the steering wheel best I could and carried on driving, no brakes, no service stops, no  maintenance - and it played itself out ok. I can’t say if the same will be the case for everybody.

Anyway - fingers crossed for somebody this has been insightful. Reading it back it doesn’t look like it but I intended this as incredibly happy post. It hasn’t been professional or formal or really very good at advertising all the exciting things coming up but I needed to get it out of my system and into the web for those of you out there who don’t feel very professional or formal and who need to hear about someone else’s bad times for a while. My next post will be much more POSITIVE with info about Fresh Focus and my work-in-progress and some photos from Working Title to give you an idea what it looked like.

In the next couple of weeks I am also going to be working to find the best way of putting Chapters of Anxiety online. In the meantime if you would like me to print you a copy, please let me know. I don’t care if we don’t talk any more or if you don’t know me that well I would love nothing more than to imagine my ‘self-indulgent shit vomit’ could be of some comfort. 

Speak soon.

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