Interview with visual artist, Nwando Ebizie

Photo: Anya Arnold

Fizzing silhouettes, low synths, dancing in the dark: ‘Distorted Constellations’ captured imaginations at Manchester’s PUSH festival and Brighton Festival earlier this year. The immersive installation of music, holograms, ritual and dance was designed by Nwando Ebizie, who also performs as part of the work. 

At the heart of the piece is Ebizie’s experience of a rare neurological condition that was barely recognised until 2014. 

‘Visual snow’ came into the mainstream five years ago when Brain, a neurology journal, a paper was published about the experiences of 22 patients. Commonly, people with the condition have their sight disturbed by dots in their field of vision – often compared to TV static. Many also suffer migraines. Authors noted that some patients with visual snow had first been had symptoms misdiagnosed as side effects of anxiety, depression, or even after-effects of LSD. The condition can develop mid-life, or be with patients from birth. There is no cure, and it affects vision, hearing and cognition. For some, it can be disabling. 

For audiences who already experience visual snow, seeing ‘Distorted Constellations’ may be the first time anyone has portrayed, projected and shared the embodied experience of visual snow with people who have no experience of it. 

Ebizie always solicits responses from the audience. (Amongst the 289 recorded in Brighton: ‘one of the most amazing sensory experiences I’ve had’, ‘timeless’, ‘amazing’). Extraordinary encounters seem to be the norm. Recently, she recalls: “An artist who came said that she recently got visual snow. She had had to quit her job: she worked in theatre as a set designer, and she just felt like she couldn’t do her job anymore. 

“Coming to see my project changed her mind because she saw me creating this visual art piece, as someone who has visual snow, and said: ‘Oh, you know, if she can do it then maybe I can still do it.’”

For people affected by visual snow, the work offers them a unique chance to connect and access new research, Ebizie explains: “One of the important things about the project is that it’s offering a model whereby you can have art and science sitting together. You can create an experience that can somehow feeds back into scientific research.” In Manchester, for example, Ebizie hosted an event with Dr Francesca Puledda, a neurologist researching the pathophysiology of the condition at King’s College London. People travelled from Cornwall and Doncaster to attend.

As well as crossing the ‘two cultures’ divide between arts and science, for Ebizie ‘Distorted Constellations’ also fulfills a social mission: “When I started researching visual snow, one of the things I realised is how despairing some people are who have visual snow, and how depressed and anxious it makes them to suddenly have their perception completely change.”

She was doing a project for the Wellcome Collection when she began to develop ideas around visual snow: “Because it was only discovered in 2014, there’s this thing of feeling like it just suddenly appeared. There’s no evidence it has just appeared, but there’s no evidence that it hasn’t just appeared either.”

When she began looking through their library for accounts of symptoms dating from before 2014, she drew a blank: “I couldn’t really find anything, but I realised it was because language and perception is so slippery. One of the main descriptors of visual snow symptoms is seeing something that looks like TV static, which is obviously only something something someone could describe from the latter end of the 20th century. 

“What would somebody have described to us before? So I started looking at other artists, like Van Gogh, like Seurat, who maybe created their reality in a way that actually describes what they’re actually seeing or experiencing.”

Photo: Anya Arnold

For many, tackling such a huge new subject might be intimidating, but for Ebizie she thrives on the opportunity to deep-dive into fresh subjects with every project: “The way I work is, each of my projects works in quite different art forms and quite different kind of subject matters because I get really interested in something and go really in-depth into it. The process always begins with learning a new idea, subject matter or technique. With Distorted Constellations I became a Fellow In Immersion with an organisation called the South West Creative Technology Network and learned about immersive technology. With the opera I’m currently creating I researched medieval Benedictine ritual.”

When I ask her whether she faces any difficult moments working on ‘Distorted Constellations’, she replies: “It’s always really difficult. I’m trying to create something that’s a model of my perceptual reality, which we already know is something that most people don’t have and they can’t empathise with. Neuroscientists now understand that brains are inherently unique, and exist on a spectrum, with some being more typical and some being more atypical. 

“Trying to create the installations, trying to create the systems of the project, can be really frustrating for everyone involved. It’s a collaborative project, so you’re constantly trying to find a shared language of something that hasn’t been created. It’s inherently creative and interesting, but it is also really tiring to feel that you’re constantly explaining yourself, and explaining why certain things are important.” 

The stress was particularly sharp because the work combines two intensely personal (and poorly understood) subjects: “There is a lot of personal material in the idea of the project, because it’s this exhibition that, in a wide sense, is trying to encapsulate my reality. A part of that is my interest in Afro-diasporic ritual, and that’s very much within it, which is a whole other area which most people don’t know about. Having to explain that and weave that in isn’t… Yeah, it’s … Interesting.”

In ‘Distorted Constellations’, immersive sounds and imagery become a medium for sharing the spiritual knowledge and experience that underlie the project. 

One of the two key technologies in ‘Distorted Constellations’ is its visuals. Ebizie’s work with a neuroscientist, Ed Bracey, into neural pathways inspired Its labyrinthine design. Another artist-technologist, Coral Manton, co-developed projections that mimicked visual snow.

The installation’s other key technology is its ambisonic system. Unlike a typical two-speaker stereo system used in many installations as well as cinemas and venues, ‘Distorted Constellations’ has a 360-degree sound setup (in Manchester, on eight speakers, and at other venues, six) to create a more surrounding, immersing sonic environment for its sound ‘palette’ of others’ visual snow symptoms. 

Key to the success of the installation was finding ways to make it more accessible. One collaborator, Guillaume Dujat, produced a binaural mix of Ebizie’s original composition, ‘Twenty Minutes of Action’, by recording the sounds from the ambisonic system on a dummy ‘head’ (the mics sit where the ears would be. For people who will listen to the composition on headphones or audio loop, it provides a really close simulation to listening in-situ). For those who can’t attend the installation in person, an online 3D ‘game’ version of the exhibition is in development.

It’s been a huge year for the artist. As well as touring ‘Distorted Constellations’, Ebizie also held a fellowship with the Southwest Creative Technology Network, launched a new composition at King’s Place last October, and was one of six artists to win the UK’s biggest award for women in experimental music last summer. The Daphne Oram prize, awarded last June, was presented for her work in her pop persona, Lady Vendredi, which has taken her to packed audiences at the Barbican, the Roundhouse and a BBC Music stage at Latitude.

But her achievements have also brought their own stresses with them. From autumn last year to the following May, when Ebizie started working intensively on ‘Distorted Constellations’, she experienced a ‘pretty consistent’ panic disorder: “I was having a lot of anxiety issues and depressive symptoms. I found most things that I do quite difficult because of that.”

A change of scene has helped, she says: “It’s given me more headspace. I felt a constant crushing weight of too much going on, always being on the go. People aren’t like that outside of London.” 

She left London a couple of years ago to move to the Calder Valley, and has been wild swimming and fell-running in her spare time. “If you had told me two years ago I would be doing that I would have laughed in your face,” she jokes, “‘I would never get in zero degrees water, that’s insane’.

“I’m surrounded by the hills so it’s really easy to get away – I mean, not always, because sometimes walking out the door is difficult. But it’s easier than being in London, in that you can go away. In two minutes I’m surrounded by hills, and no people, and sheep.”

Another year looms, and another project. Up next: an opera about a 12th-century mystic. Ebizie discovered Hildegard von Bingen during research into possible historic cases of visual snow. The mystic had already been retrospectively diagnosed by Oliver Sacks, she notes, with what might have been scintillating scotoma. Ebizie performed some original compositions from the opera at King’s Place in London last August, but has even grander plans for the project: “I want to build it up so it’s this kind of modern, secular ecstatic experience related to the ritual that Hildegard, or someone like her, would have gone through when they entered a monastery as a child … A death ritual with a funeral liturgy spoken over them as they laid on the ground, covered in leaves. They would have had to say, ‘I’m leaving this world now…’” She would have been about eight.”

To Ebizie, Hildegard’s significance was more about than her neurodivergence: “I was just really interested in the mind of someone who had that and but was also this crazy, incredible genius at this time when that was so difficult to be. She was crazily strong-willed enough to do it.” As two stars draw together, a new constellation appears. 

Nwando Ebizie presents ‘Distorted Constellations’ in London on 22-24 November




In Conversation with Adetokumboh M’Cormack and Raphael Corkhill: Africa, the Power of Storytelling and The German King

Trailer The German King

Adetokumboh M’Cormack (writer/director/actor/producer) and Raphael Corkhill (actor/producer) talk about their lives, the journey to becoming storytellers, role film has to play in changing the narrative of Africa and their upcoming feature film The German King which tells the true, untold story of the Cameroonian king and freedom fighter, Rudolf Duala Manga Bell, who led an uprising on the eve of World War I against Kaiser Wilhelm II’s oppressive colonial rule.

AM: I remember my first play at the age of 3 at the kindergarten back home in Sierra Leone. I was wearing a mask, fell off the stage and couldn’t wait to get back on! But those early experiences were when I fell in love with telling stories, which stayed with me growing up in Nigeria and Kenya before I moved to the US to train professionally as an actor at SUNY Purchase. Now, I love telling stories that show “us” – specifically Africans – in a different light from the negative and stereotypical images we typically see: terrorists, scammers, drug dealers and child soldiers. We are dignified, proud, smart, so many of us are regal, we have a rich history. But the experiences that I have seen on film do not reflect my own experience, and so I really felt the need to tell a different narrative.

RC: I didn’t start acting until after university so you have a headstart there! I did other kinds of performance: I grew up in London and South Wales and was a chorister in the Queen’s personal choir, the Chapel Royal, I played the ‘cello in various orchestras before becoming a professional DJ, which is how I made money while at college at Princeton. But storytelling, specifically through acting, has been a constant presence in my life. Remind me – how did you first learn about King Rudolf?

AM: It was probably just after the fiftieth time I had an audition to play a terrorist. Growing up I saw these amazing stories like Braveheart or Gladiator – all these really amazing heroes… who were white! It seemed that time and again we were being told that our African heroes did not exist of course they existed – we just hadn’t had an opportunity to tell their stories. So I started researching African heroes and thousands of stories came up. I just gravitated to King Rudolf. 

RC: When you first told me about his story it was like you were uncovering layer upon layer of history and heroism. The fact that King Rudolf not only knew Kaiser Wilhelm II personally, but they’d grown up together as young men and been close friends; the fact that their sons also later grew up together in Germany as friends; the fact that King Rudolf’s identity and loyalties are pretty divided as a result of his early experiences all were evidence of this.

AM: You have this Cameroonian prince who grew up in Germany with Wilhelm and was pretty much brainwashed into becoming German – he spoke German, dressed in a German way and felt German to his core. Then he came back to Cameroon to become king after his father passed and started seeing what tyrannical German rule was doing to his people. Subjugated, enslaved, killed. Not just in Cameroon but also in what is now called Namibia – the near extermination of the Nama and Herero peoples. 

We are especially keen to partner with investors who seek who understand the power of underrepresented perspectives to shape and strengthen group identity, cultural richness and social cohesion the world over.

Adetokumboh M’Cormack

RC: The way their relationship is shown in the film also reveals a different side to Kaiser Wilhelm. He was very much the cruel, irrational dictator he is generally presented as. But the story also shows the nuance of his character: the deep love he has for his family, the duty he feels towards Germany. Even the warped sense of betrayal he feels after King Rudolf’s uprising. Ironically, those same factors motivate Rudolf, the main difference of course being that Rudolf’s eyes are wide open, whereas Wilhelm is blinded by his own insecurities. The narrative Wilhelm created for himself was crystal clear in the script and the film asks us to consider our own narratives and prejudices, which can sometimes be buried quite deep.

AM: The more I read about King Rudolf’s life, the more I realized we were so similar. I had a bit of an identity crisis when I came to America and I remember for the first time being called the N-word. I remember turning around being like “who are they talking to?” To realize that I was that N-word that these people were talking about – in their eyes that was how they saw me. It was a really interesting thing to see that as much as I thought of myself in a certain way, at the end of the day, those who hated me because of my skin color or those who didn’t understand me because of my skin color saw me in a completely different light than I saw myself. 

RC: In the same way that an individual can experience a real split between their self-image and the way the rest of the world sees them, so entire regions can experience the same disconnect between the way they see themselves and the way they are characterised throughout the world. The German King seeks to undo that completely. In fact we go through that process with Rudolf as we see him wrestle with his loyalties before coming to the realisation that he must do everything possible, whatever the cost to himself, to fight for justice, and sacrifice his own freedom and wellbeing for that of Cameroon. 

AM: Building on the buzz from our short film, which has now qualified Academy Award consideration, we’re definitely going to dive deeper into the relationship and complexities of the friendship between King Rudolf and Kaiser Wilhelm in the feature-length film. And we’re also going to see some of the other people who were instrumental in bringing about change. The Africans who fought in WWI, and also ones also on the forefront of bringing about the end of German colonial rule within Africa. We start shortly after the Scramble for Africa so you get to understand why the colonial powers were in Africa in the first place.

RC: The script is ready, the budget and schedule are set, and we’re chomping at the bit to start shooting. Of course, to do justice to the story and King Rudolf’s legacy, the film requires financing and we are currently seeking investment. In addition to the drama and intrigue of this epic moment in history, the film will have powerful battle sequences that portray the violent nature of German colonialism and the Cameroonian uprising. We are especially keen to partner with investors who seek to retell the narrative of Africa, who wish to give a platform to minority viewpoints, and who understand the power of underrepresented perspectives to shape and strengthen group identity, cultural richness and social cohesion the world over.


Adetokumboh M’Cormack was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone and began his career as an actor at the age of twelve. With a background in Fine Arts from Purchase College Acting Conservatory in New York, His credits include leading roles in movies like Columbia Pictures’ blockbuster Battle Los Angeles, Blood Diamond alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, and Captain America: Winter Soldier. He has also starred in hit TV shows like Lost, 24 and NCIS and currently voices the character ‘Isaac’ on the Netflix animated tv series Castlevania. Wanting to tell more stories about people underrepresented in mainstream media, M’Cormack also writes, produces and directs. His works include the award winning short film Irish Goodbye and October 96.

Born in the UK, Raphael grew up in London and South Wales. He went to United States to attend Princeton University where he studied history with a focus on colonialism in West Africa after which, winning a full scholarship, he went on to attend drama school at the University of Southern California. Followng this he established himself as a video game voice actor during which time he worked with Adetokumboh. In 2014 Raphael moved to New York to focus on film, television and theatre, playing the role of ‘Hamlet’ in the groundbreaking play United States of Banana by the eminent Puerto Rican writer Giannina Braschi. Raphael’s onscreen work includes The Blacklist (NBC), Happy! (SyFy), The Hunt (Amazon) and, most recently, an acclaimed performance in The Goldfinch (Warner Bros.) alongside Angel Elgort and Nicole Kidman.




Interview with Mazin Saleem, Author of The Prick

Manchester-born Mazin Saleem, a contributor back in 2013 to Litro’s Mystery issue, has since crafted various fiction and nonfiction pieces that have appeared in Open Pen, The Mays, Little Atoms, Talking Book and The Literateur, among others. Today he talks to us about the recent release of his novellette The Prick, a humorous narrative that revolves around a rescue, guilty friendships and stereotypes.

Litro: Often your writing has held interesting philosophies – I found “The Utopia of Sleep” and “The Empire Cashes Back” most intriguing and now with The Prick have you brought another satire to the table? What was the inspiration behind the novelette?

Most of my favourite books are funny. Not “The Big Bumper Book of Jokes” funny. But they have a sense of humour. So they were my inspiration in the sense that you like to write what you read. Though I’ve written more serious stories – “Then Somebody Bends”, for example, in the same series as “The Empire Cashes Back” – there needs to be a formal reason for adopting such a tone. (Not an extrinsic reason, such as an expectation of what good or grown-up writing is meant to be like.)

The idea of a satire is tricky, because it implies an overall point, that deep down the jokes are being serious. The Prick has some serious parts, but its main point, I hope, is aesthetic: have I done something fun and interesting with the story?

Litro: Roland almost sounds like Will’s antithesis. Could you tell us a bit more about the two characters and the nature of the strange bond they form?

Will and Roland first meet when Will is about to drown in the sea, but then Roland saves his life. For one character to rescue another, especially a man rescuing a man, you already have an angle to their relationship, an “in”, as well as a steep, acute power dynamic.

What having one character in debt to the other does is that it gives you a certain amount of sublimated hostility to work with when writing their story. Debt and guilt share a long history – you used the word “bond”. The way their relationship starts means they have a reason to be connected, to keep orbiting each other, despite the bad behaviour that ensues, in the days, weeks, years to come.

Litro: Your chapters are named as “That Day”, “A Week After that Day”, and so on and so forth, establishing an awareness of the passage of time for the reader. It also seems like they wish to draw attention to the “everyman” quality of the narrative. Would you say that the eponymous protagonist in the novelette is more common in the real world than we think?

I like everything in a book to be pulling its weight, chapter titles included, if you’re going to have named chapter titles. With each expansion of the time-frame being highlighted, the reader is not only placed chronologically, they’re continually reminded of “That Day”, as Will is. And there’s a bit of exasperation, too, on the book’s part towards the characters.

Because Will and Roland together are meant to form a microcosm of one of the key drives in people, I’d say they’re pretty common. But the Wills pass by unnoticed, maybe even by themselves, while the Rolands more obviously and intentionally stick out.

Litro: The novelette form isn’t the most common of formats but you used this for The Prick. How do you feel this complements the narrative?

A longer book would have probably entailed more sympathetic characters. Acid flavours are better in smaller amounts. Sympathetic as opposed to likeable: I think any story can last for a long time with ‘unlikeable’ characters, meant in the sense of ‘would I like them in real life?’. What I mean more is that the longer a story, the more the need for varieties of tone, whether in the writing itself, in the characters, and in how you want the reader to feel about them.

The length also gave me a chance to make more noticeable structural choices. You might spend ages building some architectonic grandeur to your 1000-page novel, but I think most human brains struggle to take in or detect structure at that level, not unless you’re rereading and studying the book. With a short book, patterns are hopefully more visible: how each chapter is similar or different to the others, what the narrative transitions are, who is active now and who passive, and why.

Litro: Your style is very descriptive and visual – how difficult is it to find a balance between writing just enough to paint a picture for the reader but not go overboard so that the text retains its element of humour?

The best is to combine the two. TV’s trained us to find most humour in dialogue, which is definitely a great way to do it. But you can have funny description or tonal shifts, or paragraph breaks as the humour version of enjambment in poetry.

Question is, what will the long-term impacts of the internet be on writing fiction? It’s not long now till almost all of a human life, from the banal daily details to the most emotional stuff, will be able to be told through the text you composed in some form or other, lives defined by the written (more properly, the typed) word in a way that’s never happened before in history. On the other hand, there’s the visual side of the internet, let alone of TV and film. Like John Berger said, the rise of mass-reproducible imagery was a paradigm shift. So, in this context, can a writer still write descriptively well? Is there any point?

Litro: During the course of writing The Prick, what did you find most challenging? 

Most challenging was staying under the word-limit, haha, that’s for my editor. Habits as a writer I wanted to work against with The Prick was my habit of writing summary rather than scenes (the book is seven long scenes with some extras), or, when I do write scenes, writing them blow-by-blow, like a lot of us do, as if we’re transcribing a TV show we’re watching in our heads. The challenge instead was to write the scenes in ways that only prose can do.

Litro: Can we expect more such novelettes from you in the future or do you find yourself more inclined towards other formats?

Some from column A, some from column B. In Eleanor Coppola’s book Notes, about her experiences during the making of Apocalypse Now, she describes her husband Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas waxing lyrical about the future of films, how we’ll one day break out of the stricture of “feature films” and “shorts”, that there’ll be films of 50 minutes long or 70 or 30 seconds long. And the democratisation of distribution in films/video has allowed that, anything from Vines to four-hour YouTube film essays.

That these categories still apply in literature, though, that a publisher won’t see the financial point in putting out a book that doesn’t fit into a standard novella/novel limit only takes a successful proof-of-concept to be dismantled. Open Pen provides one.




Interview: Playwright Rabiah Hussain, author of Spun at Arcola Theatre

Rabiah Hussain had given up on having her debut play performed. As a second generation British Pakistani writer she’d found that theatre programmers expected plays about terrorism and fundamentalism. She wanted to do something different. “If you’re an Asian girl you’re expected to write about honour killings,” Hussain says. “If you see South Asian communities on stage there’s always something relating to terrorism, or they’ll be on the opposite end of the spectrum and have completely let go of their culture and identity.”

Her play Spun would feature a terrorist attack, but the focus would be squarely on how it affects the friendship between Safa and Aisha, two British Asian girls from east London. “It’s about how extremes can affect two normal people,” she says. “I didn’t think anyone would be interested in putting it onstage.” Now Spun is set to debut at the Arcola Theatre in June as part of a spring programme which has so far featured work from Mike Bartlett and Will Self.

Last May, Hussain was invited to meet Richard Speir, an assistant producer at the Arcola, after Spun narrowly missed out on theatre’s annual new writing festival. Hussain thought they were there to discuss the theatre’s development programme for BAME artists, but about 20 minutes into the conversation she realised that Speir wanted to direct her play. “There was still a bit of a hesitancy to ask him,” she says. “What if I’m wrong?” It was Speir who finally had to ask her. Even then the pair didn’t realise the play would be performed in just over a year’s time.

Despite a bad night’s sleep and the bags under her eyes to prove it, Hussain, 33, is a fast talker whose measured delivery masks the passion behind her words. You could easily be distracted by her habit of gazing into the distance while fidgeting with her sleeves and miss her powerfully worded opinions on everything from gentrification to microaggressions. It’s no surprise that she moonlights as a comment writer for The Huffington Post and feminist online magazine The F Word. She has found, however, that the immersive, character-driven nature of theatre is a more powerful tool for changing perceptions than the echo chamber of online news.

Hussain has been writing Spun on and off for nine years, originally submitting a few scenes to London’s Royal Court theatre to apply for a playwriting programme back in 2009. Since then she’s been juggling a career in freelance digital marketing around an increasing number of short plays, monologues and writing programmes, always keeping Spun in the back of her mind. “I’ve wanted to write it for a really long time but haven’t quite managed to,” she says. “It’s a bit cathartic for me and quite emotionally draining.”

It’s clearly a personal play. Like Safa and Aisha, Hussain hails from Newham, east London. She grew up in Forest Gate surrounded by aunts, uncles, cousins and “a community of working class immigrant families”. In Spun, Aisha stays in Newham while Safa moves to work in central London and struggles to fit in. Hussain took the latter path and found herself catapulted into an unfamiliar white, middle class working environment. The play hinges around a terrorist attack, a plot point Hussain was initially reluctant to include due to the assumptions she’d encountered about Asian writers. For this she drew on her memories of the 7/7 bombings.

She was in her final year of university when it happened. “It had a huge impact on the way I saw London and the way I saw myself,” she says. She felt ostracised by an increasing number of racist remarks at work. “It was like I had to become more like the people I worked with in order to be normal.” On one occasion she remembers receiving a Christmas present from an Asian colleague; someone joked: “I hope there’s no bomb in there”. “I would hear those kinds of comments and I would try and distance myself from the perceptions that people automatically had of me,” she says.

Spun is about place too. Hussain feels the diversity and complexity of London has never been fully recognised onstage. There have been plays set in working class communities, but never quite the sense of the proximity of affluence and poverty, of different cultures rubbing shoulders on the same streets. A couple of years ago Hussain made her first visit to her parents’ country. Walking into a supermarket in Karachi, Pakistan, she felt like she was back in east London. “It felt completely surreal,” she says. “The shops look exactly the same.” Spun hopes to capture how moving around London can sometimes feel like moving between different worlds.

Hussain has many more sleepless nights ahead of her. A self-confessed perfectionist, she says she’ll probably keep writing until press night. She’s the first to admit that we still have a long way to go before reaching true diversity in theatre, but Spun is a symptom that we’re moving in the right direction.

Spun will play at the Arcola Theatre from 27 June to 28 July




Interview with Phil Harrison: Author of The First Day and Staunch Pats Fan

As soon as I heard the bass bamboo flute coming in and echoing the opening trumpet statement of Sadhanipa, the second piece of music in Ravi Shankar & Philip Glass’s composition, Passages, I immediately thought of Phil Harrison’s debut novel, The First Day, which I’d reviewed in this organ quite recently.

This was a live BBC Proms 2017 performance of the album, Passages, originally recorded back in 1990, with Karen Kamensek as conductor, and Ravi Shankar’s daughter, Anoushka, on sitar. The composition is a delicate interweaving of Philip Glass’s American Minimalism with traditional Hindustani classical music. At first glance, and before hearing a single note, this appears to be a unlikely cultural hodgepodge slap-dashed onto coffee-stained manuscript sheets at half three in the middle of the night, but actually works astoundingly well. Like Phil Harrison’s character, Orr, when he ends up in New York in the second half of the novel. Who knew? In fact, after now listening to the composition in its entirety at this stage twice through con brio, left finger in the ear, I’m convinced Phil Harrison’s novel was inspired and pencilled accordingly from this beautifully profound piece of music. And vice versa.

Passages Track listing:

  1. Offering
  2. Sadhanipa
  3. Channels and winds
  4. Ragas in a Minor Scale
  5. Meeting along the edge
  6. Prashanti (peacefulness)

The conductor, Karen Kamensek, has said that because there’s a ginormous meditative element as part of the Indian tradition and also a ginormous meditative element as part of the Minimalist tradition, in this composition, Passages, there’s a beginning meditation and an ending meditation. Both ginormous. And so too, Phil Harrison’s novel.

Anoushka Shankar has said that Passages ends on a really peaceful note after a lot of drama and dark moments. And so too, Phil Harrison’s novel. Prashanti (peacefulness), the final part of Passages, ends with the Vedic Prayer –

“Oh, Lord. Be benevolent to us. Drive the darkness away. Shed upon us the light of wisdom. Take the jealousy, envy, greed and anger from us, and fill our hearts with love and peace.”

*

Has the story behind this novel been around your head for any length of time screaming to get out?

I wouldn’t say the story as such, but certainly some of the ideas. How far can a person go while equally committed to both his faith and his desire? To what extent does faith and/or desire compromise autonomy?

Did you write many drafts of the novel?

I wrote a couple. The first one had a completely different second half. I liked it, but it didn’t really work – I had let the key characters drift too far from the primary concerns established at the beginning of the book. I threw out 35,000 words – that was a fun day – and started again.

Did you consider telling the story from another character’s perspective?

Not really, though it took a while to get the voice right, and – without giving too much away – the shift in perspective during the book. Even the question of address – not only who is speaking, but to whom, and why – was puzzling. I don’t think I really answered the latter question – but I think the unsettled question helped me get some energy in, which feels vital.

The structure of the novel in two parts and two locations is handled expertly. Your film, The Good Man, which is set in Belfast and Capetown, also uses this technique. Is this an important aspect of your work?

I like dislocation – I’ve spent much of my adult life moving from place to place, living in a few different countries (Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, the US). I prefer character to be revealed than described – putting people into scenarios and seeing what they do.

Did any real life experiences or people inspire this novel?

Not specific people; there were no models for characters. But I grew up in a small religious community not unlike Orr’s – and the various complications and frustrations and kindnesses of that have stayed with me long after I abandoned my faith. I wanted to take those people and that faith seriously, in all their generous, flawed humanity. So in many ways the book is rooted there.

What are the main themes that come up constantly in your writing (if any)?

I’m interested in how people hide from themselves and each other. There are almost no lengths to which people will not go to protect themselves from their own desire. I’m interested in just how possible it is to live as an individual – as Kierkegaard says, to stand on your own before God (or Sartre: before the emptiness of the universe). How possible is it to create your own meaning rather than hand over authority to someone else to do it for you? And what would that look like?

What do you want to achieve when you write? Entertain? Change the world? Write well? Something else? Take this in the context of what you said in a past interview, ‘[I] became increasingly interested in the role of creativity in protest and struggle: how people use photography, poetry, film, music to articulate ideas of identity which move away from and subvert those foisted on them.’

A great question. When I was younger I would have been very explicit about the political content of anything I wrote/created. I’m a progressive, a socialist – I want to see the world made fairer, injustices addressed. One of my favourite pieces of poetry is from Mary’s prayer in the Gospel of Luke: He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away. But I’m increasingly sceptical of forcing characters into simple political positions, or using them as pawns to make a political point. I’m much more interested in taking characters’ internal lives seriously, with all the complexity and political confusion that entails. I guess that makes me a psychological realist – though as Freud pointed out, realism is a very wide term when it comes to the unconscious. Which pushes me further into the question of form: what way of combining words does justice to the messy human experience?

Are there any no-nos for you in your writing?

Using Comic Sans.

How has your background in film influenced this novel’s pace and structure? Any plans for a screenplay?

No doubt. As mentioned before, I am much more interested in having characters do things than in telling people what they are like – which you have to do in cinema. I’ll definitely write for film again.

Art plays a significant role in this novel (painting, poetry, etc.). A transformative role. It’s remarked in the novel to Sam when he’s working at The Met that painting died as an art form before he was born. Would you like to elaborate on this?

Art seems to me fundamental to the question above of how to be an individual. Art for me is distinct from entertainment; as a way to go deeper into the experience of life rather than distract ourselves. And painting, for me, holds a kind of anachronistic vigour – slow, patient, flat in a world of speed and short attention spans. Unfortunately I can’t paint for shit.

There are many references in the novel to classical music of a relatively more modernist period, in contrast to Sam’s interest in the old masters and the impressionist era. Is this significant?

I’m obsessed with the music Sam listens to: Arvo Pärt, Tavener, Gorecki. But I also love Mos Def, Four Tet, Fela. Bring it all on.

Would you consider yourself working class or middle class and is this relevant for you in your writing practice?

Ha. I was brought up working class, but went to good schools and now have a master’s degree. What does that make me? I’m not particularly interested in the answer to that – but my allegiances and commitments are to the excluded, the outsider, those on the margins.

Is your outlook on life hopeful or despondent or something else entirely?

It seems to me people tend to fall into one of three approaches to life and meaning: repressed (there is a meaning and I must find it – God, nationalism, whatever); tragic (there is no meaning and that’s fucking awful); or comic (there is no meaning – haha, let’s go make some). I go for the comic.

What’s the most influential piece of writing you’ve read?

Probably – quelle surprise – the bible. But also Annie Dillard, Freud, Kafka, and Shoot Magazine.

What’s the last fiction you’ve read?

I’m going to not be a dick and just talk about the last *good* fiction I read: Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica, and Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom.

Are you working on something new at the moment?

Halfway through a new novel, more or less.

I note that you’ve played football to a very high level and you’re a Liverpool fan. When will they win the Premiership?

When I win the Booker. Don’t hold your breath.

A friend (and fellow Pats fan) of mine is a staunch Ards fan (he’s originally from near the area but moved to Dublin a few years ago). That makes me an Ards fan too seeing as though I’ve no other football connections with Northern Ireland other than that. Quid pro quo. He’s a Pats fan. I’m an Ards fan. My question is this; if you don’t support a League of Ireland team already then would you consider making your team in the south, Pats? (He says chancing his arm).

Count me in. I want a scarf though.




Guillermo Cabrera Infante: Two Cities, Two Islands: An Interview with Miriam Gómez

Deep inside the Gloucester Road apartment where the Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante resided from 1967 until his death in 2005, the visitor finds a majestic landscape. This landscape – which the writer once referred to as an inverted tromp l’oeil – is in fact a sash window that frames a magnificent view: beyond it, a sequence of six mesmerizing arches produces a mise-en-abyme that tempts the viewer into remembering Joseph Gandy’s nineteenth century pictorial interpretation of the Bank of England in ruins. Hidden from the nearby bustle of trendy Kensington, with its noisy proliferation of Bentleys and Lamborghinis, the window seems to open onto a different city: one as grandiose as the neo-classical London of Sir John Soane, a city that appears frozen in time like that spiral staircase that rises like bindweed amidst its six arches. The visitor who, guided by the elegant and extremely generous Miriam Gómez, widow to the late Cuban writer, is confronted with such a view can’t avoid but remember the first lines of Cabrera Infante’s autobiographical novel Infante’s Inferno: “This is my inaugural memory of La Habana: climbing marble steps.” That window, one could risk saying, hides – within the heart of modern London – the memory of La Habana.

The daily vision of that staircase lost amidst vertiginous arches must have remained, for the exiled writer, the passageway to that city which he had lost three times. A first time in 1962 when, after the affair regarding the government’s censorship of PM, his brother’s documentary, as well as the closing of Lunes de Revolución, the journal for which he worked, he decided to accept a post abroad as the culture attaché in the Cuban Embassy in Brussels. The second time in 1965 when, after returning to the island to bury his mother, he realized that the revolution he had initially supported had taken an irreversible turn. And lastly, a third time, when in 1972, after months of struggling to write a film script based on Malcolm Lowry’s unsettling Under the Volcano, he suffered a psychic collapse that would force him to undergo electroshock therapy, a treatment which resulted in a loss of memory that threatened to erase all recollection of that city whose decadent splendour and sumptuous resonance he had delectably documented in his 1967 debut novel Three Trapped Tigers. “Guillermo lost his memory and with it those memories related to La Habana. That’s when he spread the map of La Habana over his desk and decided to write, street by street, the memories he had of the city,” Miriam Gómez recounts, pointing to a desk lying at the very centre of the couple’s studio, half way between that magnificent window full of Cuban memories and the window facing Gloucester Road.

One then realizes that it was from that desk that Guillermo Cabrera Infante, arguably La Habana’s greatest narrator, took upon himself the task of salvaging – through writing – the city and its memory from the power of oblivion. Neither he nor Miriam Gómez returned to Cuba after 1965. His writing, however, remained faithful to this task of retrieving the image of a place that had given him – as he would later state – the four greatest pleasures of his life: cinema, literature, cigars and women. Surrounded by thousands of books pilled upon an impressive bookshelf Gómez bought from a young Ron Arad in the early nineties, the bookshelf that holds the books of Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne and Alexander Pope – “three of his reverends,” as Gómez humorously calls them – Cabrera Infante’s desk remains a symbol of the possibility of writing to act as a remedy for the pains of exile. It was from that desk that he finished A View of Dawn in the Tropics, the novel in vignettes where he reconfigured the history of Cuba as a history of violence and cruelty; Infante’s Inferno, the novel that gave him back – thorough the image of his sentimental education – the city he had lost after his mental collapse; Holy smoke, his own personal history of one of his lifetime pleasures, cigars; and Map Drawn by a Spy, the posthumously published chronicle of the last four months the writer spent in Cuba, a history of his growing disillusionment with the same revolution in which he had once believed. “Guillermo would seat down to write dressed with his suit. Soon after he would remove his shoes, then his socks. Soon after he would take off his trousers, his shirt, and he would end up almost naked in front of the page. He would do a striptease in front of the page. He was the type of writer that became the subject of his own reflections. I would often see him there in his desk writing and couldn’t stop asking myself: what is he unleashing? What sort of private story is he telling?” jokingly remembers Gómez, and one can’t avoid but think that for Cabrera Infante, England was that second island that gave him the critical distance from which to better understand the complexities of Cuba’s history.

A fan of both Laurence Sterne and Alfred Hitchcock, London proved to be a fertile atmosphere for a writer who always had one eye on high culture and one eye on popular culture, one eye on the page and the other on the film screen. The London that welcomed the exiled couple was, indeed, simultaneously the Swinging London of the Beatles as well as the London where friends like Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes spent long seasons, sketching in nearby apartments those novels that – alongside those of Cabrera Infante –  would eventually form the great literary tapestry known as the Latin American Boom. As Miriam Gómez recounts, Mario and Patricia Vargas Llosa were in fact their neighbours during the early sixties, before they even moved to Gloucester Road: “We already knew Vargas Llosa from Paris, but soon after we arrived to London he moved in with his wife, who was then pregnant with Álvaro, their first son. Back then we all lived very modestly, but for some strange coincidence we ended up living next to each other, in Earl’s Court. We would see each other often. I remember vividly that both of our gardens faced the tube station. Carlos Fuentes joined later. In fact, I remember that in a way, he inaugurated this house. I had constructed myself a wooden desk and Carlos would come often to write from that desk.” Both terribly modern and conservatively Victorian, home to both Harrods and the Natural History Museum, Kensington was in fact a perfect location from where to produce a literary project that perverted tradition in the most refreshing of manners. Always an advocate of humour, Cabrera Infante had learned from the world of cinema that style is as much a matter of originality as it is an art of playful ventriloquism. Most famously, in Three Trapped Tigers, he had narrated seven times the death of Trotsky, each time parodying the style of one of the great narrators of the Cuban tradition – from José Martí to Alejo Carpentier, from Lydia Cabrera to Lezama Lima – as part of an exercise de style that nodded to the world of cinema, where acting was always adopting the voice of another. “He could imitate Cantiflas perfectly. In fact, that’s how he conquered many women. He could also re-enact perfectly movie dialogues. For example, when a man would come to greet him with a kiss he would often say: “No kissing Frenchy,” imitating perfectly the voice of Humphrey Bogart in To Have or Have Not,” remembers the widow as we sit in the living room, surrounded by their library and dozens of piles of DVDs that Gómez – a retired model and actress herself – has collected throughout the years, as part of an enduring love of cinema that the couple shared since their marriage in 1961. Only encircled by films and books, like an exiled emperor hidden within the walls of a fortress, did Cabrera Infante feel at home.

Cabrera Infante was well aware that at Kensington, however, he was not alone, but surrounded by a literary tradition which he – in a manner reminiscent of Joyce – liked to playfully quote and humorously rewrite. As he states in a beautiful essay entitled London, un paseo al pasado, a simple walk around the neighbourhood quickly becomes a literary pilgrimage. As the famous blue plaques that punctuate the city’s architecture remind us, the streets nearby their apartment hosted dozens of famous artists, writers and directors. Just a few doors down is St Stephens Church, where TS Eliot served as churchwarden for twenty-five years. In fact, as he recounts in the essay, it is said that The Four Quartets was once entitled The Kensington Quartets. A few blocks away, two different plaques remind us that Henry James and Robert Browning also resided nearby. For the Cuban author, however, perhaps the most significant of his famous neighbours was Alfred Hitchcock, who lived in the third floor at 153 Cromwell Road from 1926 to 1939. No plaque marks the historical significance of the place, just as no mark has yet been mounted upon the façade of Cabrera Infante’s building, but for the author of Three Trapped Tigers this proximity to the former apartment of one of his favourite film directors must have felt like a homely breeze within foreign grounds. Like the sash window leading back to the lost grandeur of La Habana, the window overlooking Gloucester Road was an opening to that world of art, culture and fashion that first astonished the young boy from Gibara when, still an adolescent, he first visited the cinema and discovered that the film screen was a magical territory that connected him – under the spell of light and darkness – with distant lands.

That same game of light and darkness that begins to overtake the apartment as the last rays of light begin to trickle through the Gloucester Road window. Only then do I realize that time has passed and that, with the subtle treachery of British summers, evening has begun to set without us noticing. Surrounded by the haze of dawn, Cabrera Infante’s living room has gained a particular atmosphere: it has acquired the dreamlike fragility of the cinema room. Every evening, around that time, in that same room, Miriam Gómez sits down to watch a movie. Perhaps a Korean movie, perhaps a Japanese one, perhaps one of those old Humphrey Bogart films whose scenes her late husband used to perfectly mimic. It is a ritual she has maintained since his death. In the background, now merely a set of shadows, the six arches have also begun their slow descent into the night. I then see the image clearly: Guillermo Cabrera Infante in that precise setting, seated between those two windows that somehow led to his two cities, La Habana and London, turning on the television with the same childlike pleasure he must have felt when, in his adolescence, he first found in the cinema room a solace from the unbearable heat of the Cuban summer.




Litro #162: Literary Highlife | Interview: Jenn Nkiru

Director Jenn Nkiru’s En Vogue, an experimental, high-concept, bold short film documenting the potent vitality of New York’s voguing and ballroom subculture, marked the arrival of an exciting new voice. Possessing a visually striking, poetic style, Nkiru’s work captures stories of the socially marginalised through the lenses of race, gender and music. Of Nigerian heritage but British and a Howard University alumnus, she’s part of a diasporic group of artists who navigate their multiple identities with ease. Having collaborated with Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bradford Young, amongst others, the future looks promising. I sat down with her to discuss her process and forging a path for herself in the current climate.

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Litro: You’ve just launched your first ever series, HASHTAG$, on music and subculture, which you wrote, produced and most importantly directed for Red Bull Music, exec produced by Pulse Films, the same execs behind Beyoncé’s Lemonade music video film. Tell us about it.

Jenn: Yes! This is my first ever series and I’m really proud of it as it took a lot of work to get it out. My series of HASHTAG$ is actually series two of the franchise. There was an initial series which ended up being really successful for Red Bull and resulted in being their most watched. Because of this, Red Bull were really eager to do a second series and approached Pulse Films to do so. At the time I’d been writing music video ideas with Pulse for everyone from Pharrell to Major Laser through to J Cole and Imagine Dragons. This project came in the middle of that and we both agreed it would be perfect for me so we started developing ideas for it. It took off from there. This was a big project – we shot internationally from here in the continent (South Africa) through to Europe and LA and New York. I interviewed over sixty musicians, journalists and tastemakers throughout the project. We shot five episodes and four were released.

Litro: How do you think being Nigerian living in the UK and US has influenced you as a filmmaker?

Jenn: The British-Nigerian identity is a cultural identity in and of itself at this point. Moving to America at twenty-one to go to film school, and at a historically Black university at that, just added another layer to my consciousness and identity as a filmmaker. The biggest influence being the clearest sense of self: learning about my history, who I am, where I’m from, roots and culture. This level of awareness has been the most important influence in my life, making film and the content of my films itself.

Litro: Your first film, En Vogue, was shot by Bradford Young (Selma, Mother of George, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, amongst others). His work is exquisite. Bradford also became the first Black cinematographer to be nominated for Best Cinematography at the 2017 Oscars for his work in Arrival. What was your experience of collaborating with him and collaborating in the US in comparison to the UK?

Jenn: Brad is magic and his work is magic. I see him as a big brother and we come from the same filmmaking roots (Howard University under the tutelage of Haile Gerima) so that’s family. We’re all so incredibly proud of the strides he’s taken in the industry, yet not surprised. It’s more so at this point, the industry catching up to him rather than vice versa. Brad along with Arthur Jafa shot En Vogue, which also ended up being my graduate thesis film as I was still a student at Howard when I directed it. Working with both of them is like working with master artists. It was an incredibly supportive environment where I got to play and push which they embraced so it was a magical time and a treat of a first professional experience for me.

Litro: You previously worked alongside directors such as Diane Martel on projects with Beyoncé and Levi. As well as being bread and butter, how has that sort of work honed your skills as a filmmaker?

Jenn: Yes, before working as a director I assisted directors and worked across almost every department in the filmmaking process. I purposely did this and it truly served me well because I wanted to have an understanding, even if basic, across the whole production process. It also allowed me to know what my possibilities are as well as what everyone’s role is, which has allowed me to get the best from my teams. Beyond this, assisting, watching and studying directors work on set was really important to me very early on. Directing is as much craft as it is art, that muscle that needs constant honing and exercise to keep it strong. That constant on-set experience working with both commercial directors and huge talents as well as smaller indie directors and talent early on really served me well. It’s allowed me to anticipate things I never would have without it on my sets.

Litro: Can you tell us about being a Black woman filmmaker at this time and what sort of stories you’re interested in telling?

Jenn: I think more than ever we’re at a time where audiences are tired of seeing the same old thing – white male stories – and are interested in a new worldview. This is coupled and most likely in conversation with the fact that we are at an interesting social crossroads where all previous structures are being challenged and the general awareness of us all is growing. People are now awake – woke even. Entering into the conversation at this point as a woman and a black woman and an artist has meant I, and other filmmakers like myself dedicated to pushing culture forward, have been tasked with reflecting this through our work. This is a responsibility which I embrace and take very seriously. I’m looking forward to telling stories about the Black experience and putting us on screen in ways we have never seen us before. We are such a dynamic, multi-layered people who have so many stories to tell so I’m looking forward to telling our stories and reflecting us in ways that are close to who we actually are on screen.

Litro: You set up your own production company Nkiru + Nkiru which is great. What was your thinking and intention behind that?

Jenn: Independence and ownership, period. That’s my biggest aim and goal. It’s really important as far as possible for us to own our work and dictate how that work is formed, managed and exhibited – the individual that controls these aspects is the one that controls the image. If we want to see a change or improvement in how we are viewed we need to control the image. I urge all artists to exercise agency in their work as far as they can manage it. By virtue, my independent work created under NKIRU + NKIRU is my best work as it’s where I feel freest and so does my work.

Litro: You’re credited with having a strong visual style / aesthetic and an interest in sound design. What are some of the ideas behind both?

Jenn: As an artist and filmmaker, I’m constantly interested in seeing things in ways as human beings that we have not before. That is at the centre of what drives my work. I love seeing worlds which typically wouldn’t come together. I’m especially interested in getting out stories from and of people not often typically celebrated on screen; Black people and other marginalised groups. By virtue of being so focused on showing experiences in ways we’ve never seen before by default, it means the visuals will also bring something fresh. Music and sound are my first loves. I also DJ so that naturally finds a special place in my work. Visuals and sounds/music tend symbiotically to come together to create something unique in my work.

Litro: What work excites you?

Jenn: I mention him a lot both personally and publicly: Khalil Joseph. His work is magic and as a contemporary Black filmmaker working in the industry, it’s so affirming to see someone at the top of their craft who comes from a similar thought space be so embraced by the industry and audiences. What strikes me most about his work is he showcases black people, black experiences and spirituality in such a visceral way. Something I am committed to also and that’s what truly excites me about his work.

Litro: Ava Duvernay’s success has been wonderful to watch. Her tremendous documentary 13th was nominated for an Oscar and won a Bafta. Do you draw any inspiration for how she’s carved a path for herself and if so what?

Jenn: Ava is a force and incredibly inspiring. I’m so glad we have her. Whilst I was a student at Howard University. Ava was readying her first narrative feature film, I Will Follow, for release. She called upon us, students and faculty at Howard University to play key roles in distributing her film in the DMV (DC, Maryland and Virginia) where our film school is based. We were tasked with selling out every single screening of her film, which we successfully did. That was the first time I noticed her magic and ability beyond being a great filmmaker to be a great leader. That’s particularly what inspires me, her ability to lead and most of all that she does so independently thus making her model sustainable. That is incredibly inspiring to me.

Litro: How often do you visit Nigeria? How does your connection with it reflect in your work?

Jenn: I don’t visit Nigeria as much as I used to or would like to so I’m eager to change that soon and connect with other Nigerian filmmakers committed to enhancing, pushing and progressing us as a culture and a people. Growing up I had parents that made my sister and I culturally very aware of where we’re from geographically and traditionally, so naturally, whether overtly or more abstractly, there is always that connection in my work, whether it be in the pacing, story, music or general approach. I’m incredibly proud of my culture and it’s intrinsic to me as an individual and to my style as a filmmaker. I truly wouldn’t be the filmmaker I am without it. For that, I’m both grateful and proud.

Litro: You’re highly involved in the discussions about Black cinema and film. Where are we when it comes to that? What has to be done?

Jenn: We still have a long way to go but we’re getting there slowly. Small changes are being made. We all cumulatively regardless of race need to keep challenging the status quo but as Black people need to lead that charge. I think for the longest time, the belief was that audiences felt only certain stories were relatable, worthy of cinema and would sell. In the last couple of years especially, that belief is slowly being dismantled as audiences are showing they want something different, they want stories and perspectives, the kind till recently that haven’t been celebrated on screen. Moonlight the movie is the most recent and direct example of this. For the longest time, there’s been a cloud of erasure both socially and historically when it comes to stories of people of colour. In order for things to continue changing we need to widen the scope of who is greenlighting / commissioning projects. The more range of individuals from broader backgrounds, colours, genders, socioeconomic backgrounds we have in power positions, the more likely we are to see a wider range of stories. We need to see ourselves to know we exist. We all want to see stories that reflect our humanity and our society and to do that those stories have to be colourful. There’s so much more that unites us than separates us and life is just so much more interesting that way.




Interview: Lynn Hershman Leeson

Lynn Hershman Leeson's Venus of the Anthropocene, part of the CASEBOOKS exhibition at Ambika P3. Photo courtesy of Ambika P3 and the Casebooks Project.
Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Venus of the Anthropocene, part of the CASEBOOKS exhibition at Ambika P3. Photo courtesy of Ambika P3 and the Casebooks Project.

Despite recent successes for women in art in the UK – a new female director for the Tate, a blockbuster Georgia O’Keeffe retrospective last year – inequality is still rife. Guerrilla Girls’ 2016 commission for the Whitechapel asked “Is it even worse in Europe?” and the challenge to gallery-goers and curators was a welcome one. As a Time Out journalist pointed out at the time, it was one of only two shows dedicated to work by female artists in London last autumn.

Back in 2010 when the Guerrilla Girls first began to organise, Lynn Hershman Leeson was interviewed for the conclusion of her documentary on sexism in the art industry, !Women Art Revolution. The film captured the mischief of protests at the Whitney and the use of embarrassment as a tactic. The storytelling felt urgent; interviews were shot in bathrooms and hallways and collected doggedly over decades; audiences were bewitched.

Now Hershman Leeson has returned to themes of equality and representation in two new commissions for an exhibition at Ambika P3 gallery at the University of Westminster. Real-Fiction Botnik is a 3D holographic bot informed by astrological consultations from the casebooks, and the installation Venus of the Anthropocene features an animatronic doll with golden detachable body parts.

Both pieces were part of CASEBOOKS, an exhibition of work by six artists inspired by the launch of a digital archive of thousands of medical records dating back to the practices of two English astrologer-physicians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Venus takes its cue from the cases of female patients featured in the archive, exploring issues of identity germane to the contemporary viewer.

“One of the vestiges of freedom we all have as human beings is to choose our attitudes, despite diversity,” the director said in the conclusion of !Women Art Revolution, “to choose to refresh and rescript every circumstance into sustained and creative opposition”.

The artist gave a quick Q&A over email to discuss the difference the documentary made to women artists in the US, and the work featured in CASEBOOKS.

How did you approach the commission for CASEBOOKS? The project seems unique and I wondered how you handled the difficulties involved with developing an artwork inspired by such a huge, old, esoteric archive.

It was not an easy commission but an intriguing one. Most of our sources were online. But I wanted also to use the time of the original in the completion of the piece – for example the materials and techniques of the time like the Pepper’s ghost technique of the eighteenth century that is in Real-Fiction Botnik. I wanted to look also at what the essence of the archive was.

For you, what were the greatest challenges in this commission?

Communication [with the gallery], the budget and finding a means to translate ideas to AI.

Why AI?

AI is a pertinent interface and the software of identity for our time. Think of its role in surveillance – it’s pervasive.

Broadening the conversation out to more general points, it’s been seven years now since you released the documentary !Women Art Revolution (2010). Please could you tell me a couple of ways in which the film changed your career?

Although I cannot say the film changed my career, I think it helped a lot of other women – five women in the film had retrospectives, in fact.

What changed my career was having a retrospective in Germany that Peter Weibel organized at ZKM, having an exhibition at the New York gallery Bridget Donahue and having the book Civic Radar published by Hatje Cantz, again from the ZKM show. This brought visibility and allowed works that had not been ever seen or not been shown for fifty years to surface.

I’d love to know how the new administration affects your work as an artist.

Personally I don’t think it will affect me much because I’ve only rarely been funded and always been resistant, often to things even more perverse.

How would you say the art industry has improved for women artists since 2010 – if indeed you’d say that it has improved at all?

Yes, it has. Women are curating writing and directing museums more than before. To highlight three new or emerging artists or curators who I think deserve more interest and attention, I recommend people look up Wendy Vogel, the writer, Bridget Donahue, the gallery director, and Jenny Schlenzka, the director of P.S. 122.

What’s your advice at the moment to people who want to push forward with the progress we’ve already seen in the art industry since !WAR came out?

Be vigilant. Don’t give up. Save your work. Keep your sense of humor. Keep your self-respect.

CASEBOOKS is open until the end of Sunday 23 April 2017 at Ambika P3, University of Westminster. The nearest Tube station is Baker Street. For more information about the Casebooks Project, click here.




Interview with Annabel Abbs

I’d long been looking forward to meeting Annabel Abbs, author of the highly acclaimed and widely translated The Joyce Girl (Impress Prize 2015). Abbs’ powerful portrait of Lucia Joyce’s struggle to free her artistic passion for movement from her father’s shadow can’t fail to grip anyone with a dream in their head. Joyce, Beckett, Jung – there are many important men in this book – but what sets it apart is the second genius in the family – a woman of talent and ambition whose dreams are denied her.

AB: Annabel, fantastic to talk to you today. Lucia’s fury at the waste of her talent is startlingly real. What made her story so essential to tell?

AA: When I first came across Lucia’s story I was horrified that many of the men in her life became legends, while she, a talented dancer, was confined to a mental asylum. It seemed to be a metaphor for what happens to many extraordinary women – historically and today. Women may not live out their unfulfilled lives in asylums any more but they still face huge struggles combining artistic endeavour with family life, or achieving recognition in more patriarchal cultures.

The image of Lucia languishing in an asylum also served as a metaphor for the many creative females who’ve been overlooked and forgotten. Publishers like Persephone and Virago have done a great job of returning female literary voices to us, but the ‘canon’ still only includes the usual suspects: Eliot, Austen, the Brontes, Woolf. The world of visual art is no better and yet women have been successfully painting for hundreds of years. It’s important that we look back and see ourselves as part of a long lineage of female artists. This means rescuing forgotten voices from the shadowlands of history and remembering those who tried and failed.

I think the shadow of great male writers, like Joyce and Beckett, still hangs over us all. The Irish Times triggered a huge debate on this subject recently when John Banville was reported as saying no writer could be a good father. The hundreds of replies were testament to the forbidding myth of the genius writer – the tortured soul at the mercy of the muse, locked away in his (sic) bohemian garret. That model doesn’t work now but the myth lingers. In The Joyce Girl, I wanted to show the fallout of that myth.

AB: What would you say to the argument that the world has moved on – that women are just people, that focusing on the past is not productive?

AA: In many ways the world hasn’t moved on. The Joyce Girl will soon be published in Turkey, a country where the rights of women have regressed. Meanwhile, the increasing nationalism we’re witnessing has overtones of the 1930s. I think historical fiction plays a vital role in illuminating darker periods of history, but from a safe place. There’s been a lot of press about why the Costa shortlists were dominated by historical fiction. I believe it’s partly because many of us want to escape from the current world, but it’s also because we’re looking back for answers. Historical fiction offers us both in one package – a chance to escape and an understanding of how we got to be where we are.

AB: Why did you choose to write The Joyce Girl as biopic fiction rather than straight biography?

AA: I love the genre of biography but it can’t explore the inner life of its subject in the way that fiction can. It was the inner life, the emotional truth, of Lucia that fascinated me. Even if I’d wanted to write a biography of Lucia, it would have been impossible. She was effectively wiped out of history when her letters, poems, medical and psychiatric records were erased. The remorseless way in which her voice had been muzzled was partly what attracted me to her story and it’s still very topical. Every week we hear about attempts to destroy records or evidence in order to frame things differently. This is how history has been constructed, usually by the victors wishing to present a particular image or story line. I wanted to raise this issue through the story of Lucia.

Today we have the internet and social media, very sophisticated but equally very malleable tools for determining how facts are presented. So the treatment of ‘facts’ is more relevant than ever before.

AB: What did you learn from writing about James Joyce and Samuel Beckett?

AA: I’ve never been on a writing course, so writing about two writers was very helpful. Ulysses is almost a masterclass in writing, because Joyce experiments with so many different forms of narrative. I was able to take the styles that worked and ignore the rest. I still have paragraphs from Ulysses on the wall above my desk. But what I really learned was resilience. I read all the biographies of Joyce and Beckett: they believed in themselves, they never went on writing courses (!), they suffered innumerable rejections (including censorship) but they never gave up. Every time I felt defeated I reminded myself of their stamina. Then I got back to work!

AB: Writing courses have become increasingly expensive. Other than learning from Joyce and Beckett, how did you write a novel without attending one?

AA: I read constantly. I have one writing exercise that I did and still do. I noticed that my artist friends spent a lot of time copying the artists they admired. I started doing the same. Whenever I came across a thrilling piece of writing, a gripping opening, a brilliant character portrayal, I’d copy it out, long hand. Then I’d type it up, playing with the sentence structure or the punctuation or the language to see if I could improve it, which invariably I couldn’t. After that I’d rewrite a section of my novel in the same style or tone. Then I’d throw it away. That was how I finally found my ‘writing voice.’

But as a debut I found writing without the support of fellow writers difficult and lonely. It takes considerable self-discipline too, so I don’t necessarily recommend it. Competitions were critical, both as deadlines and as a means of getting feedback. I’m a huge fan of writing competitions and the incredible people who organise them.

AB: Tell me, how can a novel like Ulysses be simultaneously regarded as the best in the English language and the hardest to read?

AA: It’s not the best, but it was very radical for its time and it changed the course of literature. It’s hugely inventive, brilliantly observed and still very relevant. Its exploration of what it means to be an outsider seems particularly pertinent at the moment. Finnegans Wake is much harder to read than Ulysses – I’d say it’s unreadable. Personally, I like a book with a plot so I’d never sacrifice readability for linguistic invention. However, Eimear McBride (who I consider Joyce’s true successor), managed both in her brilliant A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing.

AB: Interestingly Eimear McBride’s books are not seen as ‘women’s fiction’. A lot of readers and writers find this term frustrating – why should books by women or books with female characters so often be differentiated from the mainstream when women make up half of humanity?

AA: I agree – it’s infuriating. Why is there no ‘men’s fiction’? I suspect this is partly to do with the economics of publishing. Women buy and read many more books than men. To make life easier, publishers have created a category of ‘women’s fiction’ but it’s seen as less literary, less worthy. Where female writers have overcome this, it’s often because they’ve written about men: would Hilary Mantel have achieved the same prominence if Wolf Hall hadn’t been about Thomas Cromwell?

On the other hand, there are some fantastic female publishers, like Honno, enabling female writers to have a platform they might not otherwise have.

I actually think men are more open to so-called ‘women’s fiction’ than is often implied. I get more letters about my novel from men than from women, but the reviewers of it (on GoodReads and blogs) tend to be female. That suggests to me that men are reading books about women but not necessarily going public!

AB: Going back to fury, we have recently seen record turnouts at Women’s Marches across the world, with Donald Trump since living down to expectations. I know you marched in London – is writing stories relevant to politics?

AA: Literature is essential if we’re to combat extremism. The writing, reading and dramatization of stories are the most effective ways (I think) of increasing empathy, improving diversity, creating a more humane world. Only by slipping inside the skin of other people can we understand what makes them human. Our imagination gives us a route into the future as well as the past. Possibilities of every sort can be explored. I’ve been imagining a world controlled by people like Trump – and it’s frightening.

The Joyce Girl
The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs is published in the UK by Impress, was a Guardian Reader’s Pick 2016 and has been longlisted for the Waverton Good Read award.




An Interview with Annabel Fielding, Author of The Pearl and the Carnelian

The Pearl and the Carnelian, by first-time author Annabel Fielding, is published by Nielsen.
The Pearl and the Carnelian, by first-time author Annabel Fielding, is published by Nielsen.

Our current political climate is becoming increasingly polarised. As we seemingly edge closer to the borders of extreme ideologies, many people are left harbouring feelings of alienation and antipathy towards the other side. This is why new novels such as The Pearl And The Carnelian by first-time author Annabel Fielding are more important than ever. Within these pages, Fielding explores the attraction of power, issues of class and racial prejudice and brings about pertinent questions on how hatred seeps in and distrust can seize a nation.

The book begins in 1934. Over in Europe, Hitler is rapidly gaining power. Back in the UK the fascists are mobilising themselves under the leadership of aristocrat Oswald Mosley. Hester Blake, our protagonist, is an ambitious girl from an industrial Northern town. She finds a job as a lady’s maid in the aristocratic Fitzmartin household. Lady Lucy Fitzmartin, her patron, is a rich, intelligent young woman with lofty ambitions for political influence.

 ‘Much of the inspiration for the novel came from being angry at the existing state of historical dramas,’ says Fielding. ‘I was left feeling bitter over period pieces that followed in the wake of Downton Abbey. A lot of them are set in the interwar period, and, if they featured a Nazi sympathizer at all, they usually portray them as part of a loony fringe group, or more frequently – some unhinged fan girl, a sudden blot on the beautiful world, inhabited by our virtuous protagonists.’

Fielding’s rejection of the clichéd period drama begins with her antagonist. Lady Lucy is the classic would-be-dynamite-if-only-she-were-a-man character. However, Fielding’s treatment of her is subversive: instead of valiantly proving her success against the odds stacked against her, Lucy takes a darker turn and falls under the spell of Mosley’s extremist views. ‘Stories of driven, magnificent individuals descending into darkness have captivated us since the days of Shakespeare,’ says Fielding ‘I wanted to create a passionate and talented protagonist, who could make the reader think “how have you have fallen.” I also wanted to explore the allure of the extreme ideologies. They are extraordinarily seductive; they offer simple solutions, clear divides and easily defined ideals. This glorious simplicity was – is – powerful enough to capture even the most intellectual of minds.’ The result is an altogether more fascinating character: the study of what makes a woman a villain, what goes into the destruction of her character, and what is going on inside her head when she makes such decisions about life and love.

Hester’s character is equally undermining of the clichéd portrait of the working classes in period dramas. ‘I found myself irritated by the saccharine world “downstairs” we usually see in fiction and on TV. After reading memoirs from those who served in the great stately homes, I found quite a different story. Some of them, of course, were genuinely fond of their employers, but it was hardly the unquestioning loyalty we usually see portrayed. I wanted to create a “downstairs” character who had her own joys and ambitions beyond being a good girl for her masters.’

The novel also fits into the LGBT sub-genre, with a lesbian romance between the two central characters. It is an unbalanced relationship where we can find themes on class prejudice taking root within an intimate setting, rather than as a vague societal issue.

The historical detail throughout the novel is staggering, ‘The research took me about a year and a half,’ says Fielding, ‘I started with general history books such as We Danced All Night: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars by Martin Pugh. I used biographies, such as Anne de Courcy’s Viceroy’s Daughters, which follows the Curzon sisters, or her account of Diana Mitford’s life, which I loosely based Lucy’s character on. I also relied greatly upon the memoirs like The Lady’s Maid: My Life in Service by Rosina Harrison. The real difficulties started when I started looking for information about the British fascist movements. These are the topics no one really wants to talk about, I had to delve deep into the world of obscure academic articles and semi-intelligible MI5 archives.’

It feels to me that Fielding strives against the romantic notions of British history, when pressed on this she replies, ‘I wanted to dig deep. No evil simply springs up in the middle of a perfect world. The evil grows from its very soil; it’s nourished by its very culture. The relationships between Britain and the fascist regimes of the Continent are often imagined in terms of inherent adversity. It is a reassuring tale of a sensible, egalitarian society inevitably triumphing over the violent and reactionary ones. In reality, most British supporters of the “new Germany” were powerful old men, usually MPs and industrialists. National newspapers saw nothing shameful in singing praise to the Continental dictators as well as to home-grown fascist movements. It would be misleading to think that our society possessed, or possesses, some kind of supernatural immunity against fascism. As history shows us, this is simply not the case.’

The Pearl And The Carnelian exposes uncomfortable truths about our societies previous relationships with oppression, prejudice and extreme politics, but they are crucial truths that can help us to understand each other and navigate the difficult terrain of politics today.

The Pearl and the Carnelian by Annabel Fielding is out now, priced £12.30 in paperback and £4.61 as an eBook.




A Flash Of Inspiration: ‘El Raval’ by James Brodows

Photo by Markus Grossalber from Flickr
Photo by Markus Grossalber from Flickr

 

Our Flash of Inspiration this month is ‘El Raval’ by James Brodows a sharp, tight unravelling of the narrator’s evening.

A flash fiction piece can grab your attention for any number of reasons. The lyricism of the language, the vividness of the setting, the voice of the character, an unexpected or unnerving ending. Sometimes though, the pace and control of the author takes you by the hand – a shockwave of excitement or unease that keeps you reading.

In the case of ‘El Raval’ I fell for the tight, giddiness of the events described, the anger and sexual uncertainty, the narrator’s feverish isolation in an unknown and open-ended situation. The ending is clever and fitful, sending the reader back to the beginning, over and over. James gave us these answers from somewhere in the stark Russian winter.

 

James Brodows
James Brodows

 Interview With James Brodows

Cat: Who was the reader you had in mind for this story?

James: The reader of this story.

Cat: What were you doing when your best ever idea came to you?

James: I don’t know.

Cat: Are your ideas generated/borrowed/stolen?

James: Sometimes.

Cat: What do you do with an unconvincing piece of work? Rework/recycle/reject?

James: Rebirth.

Cat: Who do you admire in spades?

James: Johnny Miller, on/off course.

Cat: Urban or rural? Domestic or exotic? Language or plot? First, second or third person?

James: Everywhere everybody everything.

Cat: What’s the best or worst rejection you’ve ever received?

James: The New Yorker.

Cat: What are your cardinal rules for writing flash fiction? How often do you bend them yourself?

James: None.




Flash of Inspiration: The Player by Louis Gallo

Photo by Markus Grossalber from Flickr
Photo by Markus Grossalber from Flickr

Our Flash of Inspiration this month is ‘The Player’ by Louis Gallo a dark and complex story with many psychological layers.

A short story can grab your attention for any number of reasons. The lyricism of the language, the vividness of the setting, the voice of the character.

Sometimes though, it is the subject matter itself which gives you a jolt – a little shockwave of excitement or unease that keeps you reading.

In the case of ‘The Player’ I fell for the intense wiring of the language, lined up against stunningly naked portraits.

When I first read this piece I immediately felt alert, tense, curious, invited to reread, to guess, to be bounced about like a pinball on a fast glittery ride.

The story is hard-hitting, painful, we are all caught up in this game. It’s a story I don’t think I could tire of rereading. Each time the raw ending opens a nerve. The questions are intentionally playful – it’s hard to approach a writer in a way that might show readers the grit behind a great flash piece, how does one nail it? I was curious about ‘The Player’ so I felt I had to ask.

 

 Interview With Louis Gallo

Cat Who was the reader you had in mind for this story?

Louis I had a general audience in mind, no particular gender, race, creed or whatever.

Cat What were you doing when your best ever idea came to you?

Louis Generally, my ideas come to me in a flash when I least expect them to, often when I am having what I think of as writer’s block. Sometimes a single word or memory image triggers the story or poem. I was remembering playing the old wooden pinball machines and smashing that idea into a tale of woe told to me by a woman.

Cat Are your ideas generated/borrowed/stolen?

Louis Not sure what this means, my ideas are self-generated. T.S. Eliot said great poets steal, they don’t borrow. I am definitely influenced by the work of others, but I hope against hope I haven’t stolen or borrowed.

Cat What do you do with an unconvincing piece of work? Rework/recycle/reject?

Louis I usually try to re-work. If the piece is hopeless, I trash it. I have a giant boxful of trashed pieces . . . so, in the end, I suppose they are not trashed after all. Just waiting.

Cat Who do you admire in spades?

Louis I have no idea what this question means. Is this a rock group, a band, a deck of cards?

Cat Urban or rural? Domestic or exotic? Language or plot? First, second or third person?

Louis I am urban, born and raised in New Orleans. But setting of “The Player” is meant as a smaller, say, college town. I go for language first, plot last. Usually I work in first person but often third as well, sometimes second. I believe all work is autobiographical. Therefore, first person comes naturally.

Cat What’s the best or worst rejection you’ve ever received?

Louis Well, I have had many exceptional rejections. The worst was an editor who snapped, “Poetry is serious business.” That was long ago, but it still burns. I have also received glowing praises for varied works that were rejected for one reason or another.

Cat What are your cardinal rules for writing flash fiction? How often do you bend them yourself?

Louis To finish it at ONE sitting. This is crucial for tone, character, for everything. Then go back and copy-edit after a week or two. Not sure what you mean by “blend.”




LitroTV: Seth Clabough On His Debut Novel All Things Await

LitroTV caught up with past contributor Seth Clabough to discuss his debut novel, All Things Await: his writing process, the art of writing the short story and the dangers encountered in Costa Rica while finishing his novel.

Seth’s short story To Become Immortal was published in Litro in the Family issue.

 

Seth Clabough is a professor, fiction writer, poet, and scholar. His work appears in places like Sixers Review, Aesthetica: the Arts & Culture Magazine, Citron Review, Fjord’s Review, Magma Poetry Quarterly, The Chaffey Review, New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, Women’s Studies and other places.




Litro #154: Cuba | Interview: Ahmed Dickinson Cardena

maxresdefaultDescribed as “a true pioneer” (Classic FM Magazine), award-winning Cuban guitarist, Ahmed Dickinson Cardenas, is one of today’s finest performers of the Cuban classical guitar school. Ten years ago he came to London from Havana to study at the Royal College of Music, and has made his home here ever since. Leila Segal met him, to talk music, Cuba—and navigating two cultures.

LS: It’s great to have this opportunity to see London through the eyes of a Cuban artist—can you start by telling us how easy or otherwise it’s been to make the transition to life in the UK?

AD: The most difficult element has been for me to express myself, because I have a huge vocabulary in Spanish—and I can be very eloquent when I express myself in Spanish but when I first arrived I couldn’t communicate with people the way I wanted to. I knew there were things missing when they were talking to me and I knew that there was a big desert. I really like to tap into people’s minds and see what can I learn, what can they learn from me—that’s what interaction is about. I hate small talk, so when I wanted to speak to people about anything, I felt I didn’t have the words.

How does your musical life here compare with that of Havana?

Here, it’s overwhelming because I feel that the opportunities are way more than what I could achieve in a lifetime—the people I meet, projects I can set up, the opportunity to travel further. I’ve played and taught all over Europe, and just launched my new album, The Bridge, in Spain. It’s incredible—you begin to see how big the world is. You also learn that there is space for everybody, creatively speaking.

You didn’t feel that when you lived in Cuba?

Not really, because it is a small island—it’s as big as Britain but the society is created in a very narrow-minded way. There are no spaces for grey colours. Here, there are spaces for everybody—you just need to realize what makes you different from the rest of the crowd and amplify it.

What makes you different?

My repertoire. I had a classical education, and that’s one part of who I am, but at the same time I am from Cuba, where you have salsa, rumba… everything else on the street. You don’t really have that here—it’s very difficult for people to navigate different cultures as fast, whereas for me, it’s in my blood. With my music, I can approach different styles and I just feel them, like different languages.

Different languages, but you move very freely between them.
Exactly. It’s just switching.


You have said that you are an ambassador for Cuban music in the world. Could you tell us more about that?

In my concerts I try to combine classical and Cuban composers. Although the guitar is a Spanish instrument, because it’s been also developing in the Americas in the last 100 years, it has taken on many other musical styles—pre-Columbus, African elements of the slaves, the Spanish and European traditions. In Europe, the guitar went into pop and jazz but in terms of specific traditions, country by country, it hasn’t experienced the same evolution as it has done in the Americas.

Will this diversity be reflected in your new album, The Bridge?

Yes. The music is written by Eduardo Martin, one of my teachers in Cuba—he is about mixing everything that falls into his lap, from classical, jazz, pop, rock, South American rhythms, Afro-Cuban rhythms, everything. His music is so vibrant, so alive. You feel that yes, it comes from somewhere, but it also lives in the present and moves forward.

How do you think you’ve changed during your time in London?

I have become more independent: I have become a man. But I’ve had to do it according to British standards. I didn’t pay rent in Cuba, I didn’t have to think about how to pay all my outgoings at the end of the month—everything was heavily subsidized by the state. I didn’t have to go out and find work: the company I worked with in Cuba would just give me my allocated performances for the month. I knew when I was going to play, and got paid no matter what.
When you get here, you say: Yes, I’m living in a capitalist country but let’s see how this pans out. Yes, there are things that need to be changed in this society but there are things that work really well. It’s the same in any other county in the world because they are societies run by humans. So we will always have elements in which we have to evolve.

Most of my friends at the Royal College of Music thought that I came from a rich family because a musical education is so expensive here, but in Cuba you receive your entire musical training free. At the same time, I had to leave Cuba because after I finished my studies there wasn’t much more I could do. So Cuba has its limitations. Britain also has its limitations—not everybody has access to the education that I had.

Yes, there are many obstacles here—not only money, but also believing that you’re entitled to it.
Exactly. I think the difference is that sometimes this society wants to put you in your place really early on: the way you speak, the accent you have, the school you went to, everything. People always try to see where you come from, which box they are going to put you in. In Cuba we’ve got other problems, but it’s not like that. I had to learn to navigate the different landscape… in both places.


How do you feel when you go back to Cuba?

I love Cuba, but because I usually go for two or three weeks, my hopes are still here—my plans for the future are still here. It’s not that I feel like a tourist when I go there, but that reality doesn’t belong to me any more. Every time I go to Cuba I have a project back here, or I go to further something I’m doing here—collaborating with Eduardo, for example. And even if I have the ideas, over there, I feel that it’s going to take a long time for me to put them into practice, because people in Cuba are not ready to do things fast, like you can here.

On the other hand, Cuba has an energy that’s missing here.
Yes, big time. It’s really edgy. But the reality of life in Cuba is that you have to look for food, for transport—basic things that don’t allow you to look beyond, and that’s the sad thing. People in Cuba have an enormous energy and will power, and sometimes I feel like they really can’t do much with it. Because… they have to live.

The Bridge is available at www.cubafilin.com




Conjuring a Sense of Place: Interview with Calexico’s John Convertino

John Convertino of Calexico playing in Melbourne Australia March 2016

Tucson-based band Calexico will tour Europe again in July 2016 promoting their 2015 album, Edge of the Sun (ANTI-). This tour includes the Larmer Tree Festival in Dorset (16 July 2016) and the Citadel Festival in London (17 July 2016). Calexico enthrall their audiences around the world, who are treated regularly to the band’s passionate and diverse live repertoire. Their music is intent on “negotiating borders” and is often derived from exotic landscapes and cultures they have immersed themselves in. On their recent Australian tour, Melbourne writer Venita Munir interviewed Calexico co-founder and drummer John Convertino about what influences his songwriting, from literature, landscape and place.

Generally speaking, how do books and reading fit into your life?

I love books and reading. Nothing is more satisfying to me than reading a really good book. My wife and son are ferocious readers and can go through books much faster than I can. There are always lots of goods books to read around the house, and that I can take on the road with me.

What books have influenced your thinking and your songwriting craft, and how? 

I think The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy was a big influence on our early songwriting in Calexico. Getting out of Los Angeles, into the desert and reading those books, put us in a place mentally and physically that was a good fit for what we were doing musically.

The beautiful short novel by John Fante, Ask the Dust, was important as well because the romance involves immigration – what it’s like to be an immigrant in America, trying to understand how to fit in and find an identity.

Your music evokes your country’s landscape as clearly as a portrait. When I listen to your music I see a desert in Arizona or a colourful busy city in Mexico. How does landscape influence your songwriting?

A sense of place, like the Sonoran desert, can certainly conjure up images, and like painters or writers, it is important to have a connection to your subject, to express what you see around you. But there is the inner landscape as well, how the place where you live sinks into your heart, how it troubles it, how it brings it joy. This comes out in the music in ways that are harder to explain, or maybe even inexplainable (sic).

There is no set method of songwriting, or recording. Certain perimeters can be set in place, but things always change and there are so many variables. Allowing the song to find its way to you usually gets the best results, but that takes a lot of intuition and trust, that can take years to develop.

How do you write landscape into music, both instrumentally and in lyrics?

Allow for space. Break the silence, but don’t fill it up too much. Like in writing, it’s important to allow for the reader to use imagination. Same in music. Tone and sonic texture can direct your thoughts. Words can give you hints, but it’s the space that will allow the listener to imagine his own take on it. The song can become a part of the listener in this way.

Do you write lyrics too? Or is that Joey (Burns)? And do the lyrics come at the same time as the music or after?

I have written some lyrics. On the record Algiers (ANTI-), Joey asked me to write lyrics for three of the songs: ‘Epic’, ‘The Vanishing Mind’ and ‘Para’ … Joey rewrote most of the lyrics on ‘Epic’, but the other two he liked and kept them as I wrote them.

On earlier records I would help him make word choices. We would go over lyrics together and I would help him find more abstract ways of saying things. Lyrics usually come at the end after we have put the music together. Joey is the main songwriter. He has a million ideas all the time. I think he enjoys working with other people to get perspective. I happen to be one of those people.

I do write songs and present the ideas to him, and on occasion, he will develop them more and they become songs for the record, or for our tour-only CDs. I wrote a solo record a decade ago called Ragland. It’s instrumental, only three instruments: drums, vibes and piano. I had been working on another solo record when it turned into a collaboration with Naim Amor. It’s called The Western Suite and Siesta Songs and is going to be released on the LM Duplication label.

How do you form such precise observations of nature and inner insights that can shine through in your music? Do you write inside or outside?

I think we are writing all the time. It never lets up. Once you write your first song, you are always thinking about the next. Inside, outside, in bed, walking around, in museums, reading, movies, books and conversations, eavesdropping; all of it is part of songwriting. Heartbreaks, children, even pets. It’s all there. Just looking at the scenery as the miles drive by. It’s so important to daydream.

Australian Aboriginal people have a concept of ‘Country’, not like ‘country music’, ‘country & western’ or Australia being ‘a country’. It’s a totally different concept that encompasses the land, flora, fauna, water, sky, people and spirituality all integrally linked to their Country. How might you describe this notion of belonging to your own Country?

I have been thinking about this a lot. I once was a very religious person, put a lot of faith in God and spirituality. I feel very different about that now. I feel more connected to the earth and its natural state. I feel that is where I am from, and that is where I will return. My spirituality finds itself more on a molecular level. Indigenous peoples have their beliefs seemingly much more connected to the earth.

I love the book Caleb’s Crossing (Geraldine Brooks), about the native American boy who meets a missionary’s daughter and they describe to each other their beliefs in God.

A sense of belonging to the earth and the human tribe becomes so much more open to me, taking any notion of religion out of the equation, or nationality or borders.

Another good book that touches on that for me is The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck). Humans lose touch with the earth getting wrapped up in their creations, their walls, their beliefs, etc.

How do those ties to the land influence your sound and songwriting?

I think where you are conceived, where you are born, the bloodlines, they all make up who you are. Any culture is a learned culture. When someone says, ‘It’s in your blood’, there is something else going on there, something not learned, something more instinctual. You are feeling something for a reason… it’s not learned. It has to do with where you were born, where your cells came together to form you, your blood. Yes, you have license to write about your country, but you can write about what you learn too. What compels you to write about is there for a reason. What you choose to write about is in your blood. What you may reject or not want to write about is in your blood too. I think cells influence our thinking.

I relate to Italian culture. I love a lot of things about it, and Irish culture too, but really, I am a human being. The cells came together to make me a human. What I am trying to learn everyday is not to be Italian, Irish or American, but to be human. To fight off the things that bring us down, and look for the ways to bring us up.

Have the countries of your ancestors, or their cultural landscapes, influenced your music to date? For example: have the songs, lullabies, fables, poems and urban myths of those cultures found their way into your songwriting?

Yes, very much so. I will choose to pick up an accordion and try out a melody because I feel it’s in my blood, but the accordion is also German and South American and Irish. There are themes that are universal. I love how when the early rock bands started experimenting with different forms of music and blending them in with what they were doing, how it opened up so many people to different cultures. The same happens with food too.

Obviously you’ve lived and worked in the U.S. for most of your lives but do you perceive that as your Country?

The U.S. is my country. It is where I was born. I woke up in a bed made by Europeans conquering a land and a people. The history of my people is something not to be proud of, but I can change that with my own life. How I bring my kids up, what I can teach them and what they can learn from so many different cultures.

I read that you moved to El Paso, Texas. Has it changed the way you write? Has the landscape or political environment been inspiring in different ways to Tucson?

I love being in El Paso. It is different than Tucson in that it is the border. Whites are the minority and in some areas Spanish is the preferred language to be spoken. It’s something I’ve always felt, but becomes increasingly clear living here – there really should be no border fence or wall between us and Mexico. I know that’s easy for me to say, and it’s much more complicated than that, but that’s how I feel.

I think wherever you are or wherever you live is going to affect your writing. How it does that, or in what way it will influence is never really known until it happens.

My belief is that we modern humans disrespect the land and have been too greedy and consumerist for too long. I really hope that we can all learn to cherish what we have and keep the bigger picture in mind. 

Yes, I agree, humans do not respect the land like they should. Capitalism and greed are the roots of this seemingly endless abuse. As much as we know how to solve the problems, there is no turning back the fact that we are the problem. So we have to keep chipping away at what it is we do that brings it all down and find the ways to bring it back up.

 

 




Litro #153: Open | Q&A: Author | Jane Rogers

Jane-R-banner

I recently had the extremely good fortune to be able to interview one of the most decorated writers in the UK, Professor Jane Rogers, about her creative process. Over a long and prestigious career, Rogers has won numerous awards including the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Somerset Maugham Award, the Samuel Becket Award, the Writers Guild Best Fiction prize and the BBC National Short Story Award. She has been longlisted for the Man Booker, the IMPAC prize and the Orange Prize and she has also been nominated for a BAFTA. It was heartening to hear that even a seasoned writer like Rogers can still feel uncertainty about whether a story has legs or not and that, on occasion, she still abandons a story without completing it.

NK: What does the first thrill of discovering a story feel like? How do you know that this is the story/novel you’re going to be writing?

JR: I wouldn’t really describe it as a thrill, because it isn’t a single moment. For me, a novel idea gradually comes together over a long-ish period of time. With Conrad and Eleanor I knew I wanted to write about a long marriage, but many different strands had to fall into place before I could be sure it would be a novel.

The first goes back to my schooldays. Around the age of 16 I was told, probably in confidence, that a friend’s father had disappeared. He had left home and not told his family where he was going. I’m not sure how much I embroidered this in my own imagination, but what I thought was that he was fed up with his family and unhappy in his life, and that he was looking for a new life. It seemed to me a much more romantic and a much more radical thing to do than leaving for another woman or man. It was open-ended, and he might or might not return. The idea of his vanishing has stayed with me and has changed meaning over the years of my adult life, as my own father later left my mother, and as I myself felt the pangs of uselessness that came with teenage children growing up and needing me less. So that was always something I wanted to understand better, by exploring it in writing.

Other elements of the novel, for example the interest in IVF and stem cell research, came from earlier research I had done for a TV drama that was never made.

When I sat down and started writing Eleanor’s story, I was very unsure that it would properly develop into a novel. And yes, that is precisely why I wouldn’t call it a thrill! It is mainly uncertainty about whether it actually is a novel, and I seem to feel that uncertainty right up until a first draft is completed. So the real answer is, I don’t know that this is the story I’m going to be writing!

NK: Do you enjoy research? How do you know when to stop?!

JR: Yes, I enjoy research very much, and have done it for most of my novels. Historical research for Mr Wroe’s Virgins, The Voyage Home and Promised Lands, and scientific research for The Testament of Jessie Lamb and Conrad and Eleanor. I like learning things, I guess, and writing a novel gives a specific focus to what I need to research. With Mr Wroe’s Virgins I didn’t know when to stop, and I spent a year or more trying to learn everything I could about life in 1830, from British foreign policy to apocalyptic sects to what kind of underwear people wore, and how to make oatcakes. Eventually I realised it was impossible to know everything, and then I wrote, and did some checking up afterwards. Since then, I think I’ve come to realise there is a kind of tipping point. I keep on doing research until somehow I reach a stage where I certainly don’t know all there is to know, but I feel at home in the world of that subject. Then it is possible to write about it.

NK: We’ve talked before about ‘story totems’, about whether there are particular objects that connect you to a story or to your writing generally.

I have a number of beloved objects which I keep on the windowsill above my writing desk, and I often stare at them while I’m concentrating on writing. But I don’t think any of them specifically connect me to any one of my stories; it is more that I think of them as part of the landscape while I’m writing, and in a way they are talismans. Mostly they are gifts from people who are close to me; there’s a little wooden frog my son brought back from Madagascar; two tiny bronze women – one reclining, one kneeling to chat to her – made by my sister Helen; a clay echidna, whose prickles sometimes crack off, sent by my Mum from Australia; a wooden snail whose curly shell is made from a violin, given to my daughter when she was 3, by a good friend who is a violin maker. There are a few other things too, and a lot of pebbles. I love the shapes and feel of smooth pebbles, especially from beaches and rivers, and I do pick them up and fill my pockets, wherever I go. That suddenly sounds rather Virginia Woolf-ish! I fill my pockets because I love the feel of the pebbles, not to weigh me down! The pebbles are probably the most useful while I’m writing, because there are a few favourites which I like to hold and turn in my hand as I’m thinking and trying to move on with a story. I suppose they are rather like worry beads, only bigger. There are far too many pebbles in my work-room, and I sometimes have to take a bag-full and deposit them in the garden, to make way for new ones. It’s quite nice to come across some of the old ones in the garden from time to time, when I’m weeding.

My short stories are often inspired by a single event or image, or indeed something I have read. But it’s more common for a physical object from my life to take up residence in a story and make the story real for me. For example, when I was commissioned to write a story about Alan Turing (‘Morphogenesis’ appears in Rogers’ Comma Press collection ‘Hitting Trees With Sticks’) I needed a scene between the teenage Turing and the boy he loved, Chris. I found a way of anchoring that in reality by having him present Chris with a fircone from his pocket, using it to demonstrate a mathematical point. The real fircone was sitting on my windowsill at the time, and looking at it carefully and focussing on it gave me the way into the scene.

I suspect most writers do this, though. Good, precise writing is always a result of careful observation.

NK: Are there particular artists that trigger creative responses for you?

JR: I love visual art and yes, there are certain works that have been important while writing particular stories. There’s a wooden sculpture called Infant by Barbara Hepworth which I loved when I visited St Ives, and the postcard of it lives by my desk; likewise, a Samuel Palmer picture which must be about 20 years old now. I’m not sure that they exactly ‘trigger’ creative responses, but they help me to try and be true to what I want to say.

NK: I think a lot of writers feel doubt and are often plagued by a sense of futility (‘Can I really do that all over again?’). Does that still happen for you and, if so, how do you deal with it? How do you deal with periods of creative drought?

JR: Yes, indeed. But I know the only way to deal with it is to plough on. And when I really can’t write, I do something else. Gardening, walking, cooking, reading. I do sometimes give up on things, but I am very stingy and like to recycle stuff, so stories which I have abandoned are sometimes resurrected years later, and finished off.

NK: You’ve had a long and distinguished career. What are your thoughts about longevity as a writer? How does one keep the pot full, the fire lit?

JR: I don’t know! You do what you know how to do. Writing is, in the end, a job like any other. I suppose one of the things that makes me want to write is reading the work of other people. I find other writers inspiring, and I can name specific novels which helped to inspire specific novels of mine. For example, Waterland by Graham Swift inspired The Ice is Singing. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go inspired The Testament of Jessie Lamb. William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury inspired Mr Wroe’s Virgins.

NK: Is your creative process familiar to you now over so many novels? Or are there aspects of it that still surprise you? Has it changed?

JR: It’s difficult to say. I think I usually write my way into things. That is to say, I do a lot of writing which is not kept, which is no use, but which I seem to need to write my way through before I get to the voice or idea or language I’m after.

NK: I wondered if you would say a few words about truthfulness/truth-telling in fiction. For me, the mark of a real artist is the drive to voice the truth even if it feels self-exposing or difficult. It feels to me from your work that you don’t shy away from telling the truth. Is this a conscious choice?

JR: Yes, I think telling the truth is the whole point, really. As a reader, you can tell when a writer is being honest, emotionally honest, honest about the way her or his characters think and speak and react. Which is not to say they are familiar or easy to understand, but they have integrity. Hemingway says every writer needs a crap detector, and to my mind that is about truth. For example, easy descriptions are crap: The golden sunshine poured down over the meadow sparkling with beautiful flowers. If you want to write truthfully, is sunshine golden? Does it pour? Can a meadow sparkle? What are ‘beautiful flowers’ and how can I make the reader see them? What colours and shapes do they have? Truthful description is specific.

I know your question is about bigger truths and yes, I’m trying to understand the things I write about, so it would be stupid of me to be dishonest because then I would never understand them, and sometimes a drive to truthfulness does lead into some dark and difficult areas. But for me, exploring and understanding difficult things is the whole point of writing, and it starts in the language, in the sentences, the words.

9781782398233Jane Rogers’ tenth novel, ‘Conrad and Eleanor’, an intricate and nuanced portrait of a dysfunctional marriage as it unravels, is released by Atlantic Books on June 2nd.




Litro #152: World Series: Sweden -Artist Q & A with Maria Friberg

Maria Friberg

We interview our cover artist this month, known for her works revolving around themes of power, masculinity and man’s relationship to nature.

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos.

I am an energetic and playful person with an impulsive love of starting new projects and taking risks. I was raised by my mother and for a while we lived in a commune. Our home was always open, which meant I had the chance to meet many different types of people. This was during the 70s when there was a feeling we could work collaboratively to change the world for the better. Coming into contact with such a broad spectrum of people was a formative experience that has influenced my artistic practice.

Who inspires you?

My surroundings were full of creative energy when I was growing up, my mother was a ceramicist and hairdresser. We also had an artist living with us for many years, me and him used to draw and paint together after school, a process that was very calming and helped me focus. I was also drawn to his free and exciting lifestyle.

How did you get into art?

I started to study art history but soon afterwards felt it would be far more fun to create art. My mother has supportive of me, even today I still love to discuss my works with her.

Visual art, like all art, is about communication and expression. How does your work fit within our cultural conversation? And how do you ensure the conversation carries on with your work?

I´m a social person and like to talk about my art – and I of course use social media. But the artworks also live their own life. As an artist you have a great sense for what is happening and what is soon going to happen, you pick up the mix of feelings in the air, and then you create a work from that. I feel that if I create something that communicates the mood of a period, then it is a sign that I have succeeded.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?

That cardamom bun with plenty of butter. Yummy.

What’s your earliest childhood memory?

I was four years old when my grandmother fainted and the ambulance came to pick her up. It was a scary experience and this has stayed with me.

How do you relax?

I walk and swim-outdoors, I love to be outdoors. I also hug my husband a lot.

Can you give us your top 5-10 tips for budding Artists?

Be focused on your ideas, don’t take on too many side projects and don’t take that extra job that drains your energy and time. You must believe that your income will come from art, even if it’s difficult in the beginning. Trust your ideas, don’t judge them. Have fun, your art is your life.

Could you name your top five Artists – and explain why they impress you?
Ann Edholm. Abstract painter. She and her art is so bold and honest.
Janet Biggs. Video artist, noting can stop her on her big and adventures projects in remote places.
Sara-Vide Ericsson. Painter. Small things that feel mysterious and unexplainable.
Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916). Painter. For the Nordic melancholy light and colours and romantic lonesomeness.

How would you define creativity?

For me it’s like an extra door that you didn’t know existed that just opens from the side and you see things suddenly in another ways. It’s like your brain opens up from your normal routines and you think in new ways. I have to be relaxed for new ideas to come to me. To be creative you have to see the possibilities that are everywhere. And use them.

In an internationalist, interconnected world, ideas and creativity are constantly being flung across community threads, internet chatrooms and forums and social media sites (among many others). With so many different voices speaking at once, how do you cut through the incessant digital background babble? How do you make your creativity – your voice – stand out and be heard?

I have a problem with background babble, I cannot think and feel if it’s too much. I slowly learn how to choose what information I want and when so I can be intact. Concerning my art, I trust my ideas and work and give them just a great push out in the world. And hope they will start the conversation.

What’s next in terms of future projects?

The future is open, I’m just trying to breath after my last project, Matador.The project involved building a massive vortex in a tank filled with 6,000 litres of water. Many professionals were involved, including a carpenter, glazier and pump- technician,camera man, light technician, yet we still had major technical issues. It was my most challenging project yet. I’m so happy and relieved that we succeeded: there was a point in which I thought we would get nothing out of it.




An Interview with Rose Lewenstein, Author of New Play Darknet

Rose Lewenstein, author of Darknet at the Southwark Playhouse.
Rose Lewenstein, author of Darknet at the Southwark Playhouse.

Starting this week, the Southwark Playhouse plays host to Darknet, the latest play by Rose Lewenstein. The play, which engages with the deep web and our approach to our personal data, is about an internet giant called Octopus Inc. that allows users to exchange personal data for currency.

Lewenstein wrote her first play, Ain’t No Law Against Fish ‘N’ Chips, on the Royal Court Young Writers Programme. Her other plays include Only Human (Theatre503, 2012), about a chance encounter between a stripper and a lawyer, and Now This Is Not The End (Arcola Theatre, 2015), a sweeping historical drama about three generations of mothers and daughters in Berlin.

Darknet is the third of Lewenstein’s collaborations with theatre director Russell Bender. Since 2012, they fused together their different backgrounds – Bender studied physics at Cambridge, Lewenstein performance art at the Central School of Speech and Drama – to create a string of fascinating productions, each based on a particular scientific, mathematical and technological phenomenon. The first, Game of Life at the Yard Theatre, used John Conway’s mathematical model to explore free will in a trio of intertwining plot strands. The second, Entries On Love at Rich Mix, was inspired by psychologist Robert Sternberg’s triangular theory of love. Where those projects had elaborate conceits, Darknet is much more topical, its questions much more urgent. We spoke to Rose to learn a little more.

Darknet is your latest in a string of collaborations with theatre director Russell Bender – all plays based on scientific/mathematical/technological phenomena. How does Bender’s natural sensibility differ from your own? Without these collaborations, what would you consider your natural “comfort zone”?

Every project is a bit different, but our process usually starts with a big idea and then it’s about casting the research net very wide before I boil it all down and make a story. Russell and I work in such a way that the content and form is developed almost simultaneously, so he’ll workshop material from early drafts and begin coming up with a visual language for the staging. In terms of my own process, while I’m writing I’m writing, but the journey as a whole is a lot more interdisciplinary than my other work.

I wish I did have a natural “comfort zone” – but, if anything, the process of writing gets more difficult and more “uncomfortable” with every new play. I think that’s because if you want to challenge your audience then it means you’ll have to challenge yourself a bit too. With Darknet I was trying to write about a pretty challenging subject in a way I hadn’t seen before, so there was no good/shit barometer. That was very difficult at first, but in the end it was also quite freeing.

In the light of this, how do you feel Darknet develops from your previous collaborations? Do you feel that it marks a departure?

I wouldn’t say it’s a departure exactly. With each new project we get a bit more ambitious. That’s because we’ve built up such a tight working relationship over the years that we can trust each other to take risks. Like, the first draft I handed to Russell last year was very long and completely bonkers and hardly made any sense, but because of all the shared research he kind of understood what I was getting at and so instead of just saying “this is mad, this will never work”, he could offer constructive feedback. Similarly, I trust that he’s going to pull off whatever I write. He’s not coming to the idea cold, so if there’s a scene in which a network gets hacked, for example, then he’s probably already thought about the visual language of that.

How did you research Darknet?

I was very inspired by Jamie Bartlett and his book The Dark Net. He manages to humanise situations and transactions that can at first glance seem technically baffling, which is exactly what I was trying to do with the play. Thomas Rid (author of Cyber War Will Not Take Place) is another person whose ideas were very influential in our early research. Also, tech journalist Geoff White and ethical hacker Glenn Wilkinson and their performance The Secret Life of Your Mobile Phone. Russell and I spoke to loads of people – academics, security experts, journalists, hackers, government agencies – who were all so generous with their time and seemed genuinely excited that we were trying to tackle these subjects as theatre makers.

I read a lot and watched a lot. I spent a lot of time on Tor, sometimes delving into the murkier parts of the internet. It felt important to do that. It also felt important not to get too hung up on how stuff works technically. You don’t need to be a tech wiz to engage with the ideas in the play – it’s a story about humans, not computers.

Could you describe a little more your experience of using Tor?

It’s a different experience to surfing the clear web because onion sites aren’t indexed in the same way, so you can’t just Google what you’re looking for. I started by using the Hidden Wiki to find particular sites and then as I discovered various forums and listings I followed certain leads and found it a bit easier to navigate. I’m sure I only touched the tip of a massive iceberg.

The main difference visually is that a lot of the sites look like they were designed in the ‘90s, and I think that’s because the people making them don’t care about user-friendly glossy interfaces. It’s strange because in some ways it feels like this exciting and dangerous underworld, but once you get over the novelty of seeing drugs and guns for sale and hit men for hire, it’s also just another part of the internet.

Is your view of the Dark Net more positive or negative? 

That’s a difficult question to answer because there are so many sides to it. If you create a space where it’s possible to browse anonymously then that creates opportunities for good things and bad things to happen. We’ve seen how, even on Twitter, people who might act like perfectly reasonable human beings AFK [away from keyboard] turn into nasty trolls. Yes, the deep web enables people to do stuff that’s illegal. But since it’s a space without borders, what’s legal and illegal – or even good and bad – can mean something different wherever you are.

The media loves to sensationalise the dark marketplaces (e.g. Silk Road, Agora, Alphabay), and they are fascinating in themselves because they present a whole load of questions about ethics and the line between illegal-but-okay and illegal-but-wrong, and of course there’s an argument that says the model actually makes certain transactions a lot safer (e.g. ensuring the quality of drugs and avoiding potential physical violence), and of course there are some things that seem so obviously wrong, like circulating images of child porn or assassination services. But Tor is also a safe space for people who have real reason not to be identified, such as those trying to fight or escape oppressive regimes. We need to think about why so many people – not just criminals – are using Tor. It’s an understandable antidote to mass surveillance.

You’ve mentioned this time that you worked “inside-out” from the characters, rather than “outside-in” from idea. Could you tell us a little about the characters and what inspired them?

The play asks questions about privacy and transparency, so I wanted to try and get into the heads of people who had arguments for and against both. It imagines a world in which data is literally currency and there are some characters who conform to that and some who don’t and some who have no choice but to try and subvert the system. I don’t really believe in creating characters as such – they are what they do and different actors will bring different interpretations to each role. I guess the starting point is finding that thing they have to fight for and then seeing what they’ll do to get it. And then I just start writing and if the character feels real then he or she will speak for themselves. It felt important not to let my own views dictate the argument. I don’t want to write goodies or baddies.

How effectively do you feel that the theatre is addressing online themes? I am reminded in particular of plays such as James Graham’s Privacy, Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information and Tim Price’s Teh Internet Is Serious Business. Do you feel that the theatre is pulling its weight, and what ways do you feel theatre can be better in portraying this facet of our lives?

I really rate all the plays you mention. Theatre is starting to address online themes in really interesting ways, but at the same time it’s got a lot of catching up to do. The way people view art and consume content is changing, but in my opinion the only way theatre can interrogate our relationship with the digital world is by embracing the live-ness that is theatre. I don’t think it works to simply try and recreate the digital world on stage. Why go to the theatre to watch a simplistic and diluted version of something you can experience via your screen?

We spend more and more time online, so naturally theatre wants to respond to that. But I think we’ll reach a stage where we’re not separating “internet plays” from “real-life plays” – whichever spaces we inhabit, theatre is a way of trying to work out why humans do the things they do.

You were recently shortlisted for Film London’s Microwave scheme, which provides funding opportunities for first-time feature filmmakers. Could you talk a bit about your ambitions for the screen? 

Yes, Microwave was a brilliant experience. I’d love to write for screen. I probably watch more films and dramas than I do theatre, and I watch a lot of theatre. This is an amazing time for TV drama and the Netflix binge-watching culture proves that even though social media might be making our attention spans shorter, people aren’t getting tired of long-form stories. And speaking of how art addresses online themes, it’ll be interesting to see where film and TV takes that next.

What do you plan to write next?

Right now I’m working on a few new ideas and also co-writing a political cabaret.

Darknet runs at the Southwark Playhouse until May 7. Tickets are £20 (£16 concessions, £12 previews).




An Interview with Rose Lewenstein, Author of New Play Darknet

Rose Lewenstein, author of Darknet at the Southwark Playhouse.
Rose Lewenstein, author of Darknet at the Southwark Playhouse.

Starting this week, the Southwark Playhouse plays host to Darknet, the latest play by Rose Lewenstein. The play, which engages with the deep web and our approach to our personal data, is about an internet giant called Octopus Inc. that allows users to exchange personal data for currency.

Lewenstein wrote her first play, Ain’t No Law Against Fish ‘N’ Chips, on the Royal Court Young Writers Programme. Her other plays include Only Human (Theatre503, 2012), about a chance encounter between a stripper and a lawyer, and Now This Is Not The End (Arcola Theatre, 2015), a sweeping historical drama about three generations of mothers and daughters in Berlin.

Darknet is the third of Lewenstein’s collaborations with theatre director Russell Bender. Since 2012, they fused together their different backgrounds – Bender studied physics at Cambridge, Lewenstein performance art at the Central School of Speech and Drama – to create a string of fascinating productions, each based on a particular scientific, mathematical and technological phenomenon. The first, Game of Life at the Yard Theatre, used John Conway’s mathematical model to explore free will in a trio of intertwining plot strands. The second, Entries On Love at Rich Mix, was inspired by psychologist Robert Sternberg’s triangular theory of love. Where those projects had elaborate conceits, Darknet is much more topical, its questions much more urgent. We spoke to Rose to learn a little more.

Darknet is your latest in a string of collaborations with theatre director Russell Bender – all plays based on scientific/mathematical/technological phenomena. How does Bender’s natural sensibility differ from your own? Without these collaborations, what would you consider your natural “comfort zone”?

Every project is a bit different, but our process usually starts with a big idea and then it’s about casting the research net very wide before I boil it all down and make a story. Russell and I work in such a way that the content and form is developed almost simultaneously, so he’ll workshop material from early drafts and begin coming up with a visual language for the staging. In terms of my own process, while I’m writing I’m writing, but the journey as a whole is a lot more interdisciplinary than my other work.

I wish I did have a natural “comfort zone” – but, if anything, the process of writing gets more difficult and more “uncomfortable” with every new play. I think that’s because if you want to challenge your audience then it means you’ll have to challenge yourself a bit too. With Darknet I was trying to write about a pretty challenging subject in a way I hadn’t seen before, so there was no good/shit barometer. That was very difficult at first, but in the end it was also quite freeing.

In the light of this, how do you feel Darknet develops from your previous collaborations? Do you feel that it marks a departure?

I wouldn’t say it’s a departure exactly. With each new project we get a bit more ambitious. That’s because we’ve built up such a tight working relationship over the years that we can trust each other to take risks. Like, the first draft I handed to Russell last year was very long and completely bonkers and hardly made any sense, but because of all the shared research he kind of understood what I was getting at and so instead of just saying “this is mad, this will never work”, he could offer constructive feedback. Similarly, I trust that he’s going to pull off whatever I write. He’s not coming to the idea cold, so if there’s a scene in which a network gets hacked, for example, then he’s probably already thought about the visual language of that.

How did you research Darknet?

I was very inspired by Jamie Bartlett and his book The Dark Net. He manages to humanise situations and transactions that can at first glance seem technically baffling, which is exactly what I was trying to do with the play. Thomas Rid (author of Cyber War Will Not Take Place) is another person whose ideas were very influential in our early research. Also, tech journalist Geoff White and ethical hacker Glenn Wilkinson and their performance The Secret Life of Your Mobile Phone. Russell and I spoke to loads of people – academics, security experts, journalists, hackers, government agencies – who were all so generous with their time and seemed genuinely excited that we were trying to tackle these subjects as theatre makers.

I read a lot and watched a lot. I spent a lot of time on Tor, sometimes delving into the murkier parts of the internet. It felt important to do that. It also felt important not to get too hung up on how stuff works technically. You don’t need to be a tech wiz to engage with the ideas in the play – it’s a story about humans, not computers.

Could you describe a little more your experience of using Tor?

It’s a different experience to surfing the clear web because onion sites aren’t indexed in the same way, so you can’t just Google what you’re looking for. I started by using the Hidden Wiki to find particular sites and then as I discovered various forums and listings I followed certain leads and found it a bit easier to navigate. I’m sure I only touched the tip of a massive iceberg.

The main difference visually is that a lot of the sites look like they were designed in the ‘90s, and I think that’s because the people making them don’t care about user-friendly glossy interfaces. It’s strange because in some ways it feels like this exciting and dangerous underworld, but once you get over the novelty of seeing drugs and guns for sale and hit men for hire, it’s also just another part of the internet.

Is your view of the Dark Net more positive or negative? 

That’s a difficult question to answer because there are so many sides to it. If you create a space where it’s possible to browse anonymously then that creates opportunities for good things and bad things to happen. We’ve seen how, even on Twitter, people who might act like perfectly reasonable human beings AFK [away from keyboard] turn into nasty trolls. Yes, the deep web enables people to do stuff that’s illegal. But since it’s a space without borders, what’s legal and illegal – or even good and bad – can mean something different wherever you are.

The media loves to sensationalise the dark marketplaces (e.g. Silk Road, Agora, Alphabay), and they are fascinating in themselves because they present a whole load of questions about ethics and the line between illegal-but-okay and illegal-but-wrong, and of course there’s an argument that says the model actually makes certain transactions a lot safer (e.g. ensuring the quality of drugs and avoiding potential physical violence), and of course there are some things that seem so obviously wrong, like circulating images of child porn or assassination services. But Tor is also a safe space for people who have real reason not to be identified, such as those trying to fight or escape oppressive regimes. We need to think about why so many people – not just criminals – are using Tor. It’s an understandable antidote to mass surveillance.

You’ve mentioned this time that you worked “inside-out” from the characters, rather than “outside-in” from idea. Could you tell us a little about the characters and what inspired them?

The play asks questions about privacy and transparency, so I wanted to try and get into the heads of people who had arguments for and against both. It imagines a world in which data is literally currency and there are some characters who conform to that and some who don’t and some who have no choice but to try and subvert the system. I don’t really believe in creating characters as such – they are what they do and different actors will bring different interpretations to each role. I guess the starting point is finding that thing they have to fight for and then seeing what they’ll do to get it. And then I just start writing and if the character feels real then he or she will speak for themselves. It felt important not to let my own views dictate the argument. I don’t want to write goodies or baddies.

How effectively do you feel that the theatre is addressing online themes? I am reminded in particular of plays such as James Graham’s Privacy, Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information and Tim Price’s Teh Internet Is Serious Business. Do you feel that the theatre is pulling its weight, and what ways do you feel theatre can be better in portraying this facet of our lives?

I really rate all the plays you mention. Theatre is starting to address online themes in really interesting ways, but at the same time it’s got a lot of catching up to do. The way people view art and consume content is changing, but in my opinion the only way theatre can interrogate our relationship with the digital world is by embracing the live-ness that is theatre. I don’t think it works to simply try and recreate the digital world on stage. Why go to the theatre to watch a simplistic and diluted version of something you can experience via your screen?

We spend more and more time online, so naturally theatre wants to respond to that. But I think we’ll reach a stage where we’re not separating “internet plays” from “real-life plays” – whichever spaces we inhabit, theatre is a way of trying to work out why humans do the things they do.

You were recently shortlisted for Film London’s Microwave scheme, which provides funding opportunities for first-time feature filmmakers. Could you talk a bit about your ambitions for the screen? 

Yes, Microwave was a brilliant experience. I’d love to write for screen. I probably watch more films and dramas than I do theatre, and I watch a lot of theatre. This is an amazing time for TV drama and the Netflix binge-watching culture proves that even though social media might be making our attention spans shorter, people aren’t getting tired of long-form stories. And speaking of how art addresses online themes, it’ll be interesting to see where film and TV takes that next.

What do you plan to write next?

Right now I’m working on a few new ideas and also co-writing a political cabaret.

Darknet runs at the Southwark Playhouse until May 7. Tickets are £20 (£16 concessions, £12 previews).




Litro #151: Adrenaline: Artist Q & A with Emma Coyle

emma coyle

Emma Coyle is this month’s cover artist. Coyle has been based in London for the past ten years. Her work has appeared in numerous galleries and publications internationally as well as locally. She has also expanded her audience by exhibiting in LA and NYC where her work has been well received. She is represented by DegreeArt, the Marylebone Gallery and the Stowaway Gallery in London.

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos.

I grew up in Ireland and graduated in 2003 with a degree in Fine Art. I have been based in London since 2006, specialising in painting. Just this year I have started incorporating sculpture into my practice. I have a strong interest in the process of making of art, of which colour and line work are very important in my paintings.

Who inspires you?

I spend a lot of time in the galleries and museums in London, I find it interesting and an important part of my work, to see what is going on around the city. For me this is my main inspiration or encouragement.

How did you get into art?

I don’t remember anything driving me in particular. I think I just always liked the process of making something.

Can you tell us a bit about your latest project ‘Untitled’? What inspired you to focus the themes on fashion and seduction?

I have always liked the idea of using the style of Pop Art and incorporating it into something more, mixing new and old. Previously I worked with mixing the style along with imagery from the Silver Screen and Japanese advertisements of the 1920’s. Since moving to London I found a new interest in fashion history and I wanted make my imagery more contemporary with using fashion photography from the present. My Untitled series is a progression of this idea. I think the seduction theme goes hand in hand with today’s fashion photography, I don’t think it was something intentional on my part.

 Visual art, like all art, is about communication and expression. How does your work fit within our cultural conversation? And how do you ensure the conversation carries on with your work?

I think any artist working in contemporary art mirrors the world around them. We look to now and the future which embraces our current existence, our work carries on as we live life.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?

At the moment I have been collecting American art publication from the 1950’s to 1980’s. I have a huge interest in art history, in particular the New York Art School and I prefer to read books written of the time.

What’s your earliest childhood memory?

I honestly don’t know, it would of course be something to do with living in Ireland in the 1980’s. I’ve always had a strong interest in movies and I inherited that at a very early age.

How do you relax?

For me working on my art is relaxing. Without progressing my art from week to week would definitely make me on edge.

Can you give us your top 5-10 tips for budding artists?

I think anyone would only need one main tip, and that is to always make the art that you want. Never get tied up in other options and social media. Take advice from others in the field but only use what you are comfortable with. The artists who I most respect are educated in art, this doesn’t necessarily mean a formal education but taking your own initiative to read about all forms of art and going out in galleries to see what is happening in the art world. Once you have a knowledge of art history and the art around you, your art will get stronger as the years go on.

Could you name your top five artists – and explain why they impress you?

My top five contemporary artists would be Julian Opie, Mel Ramos, Claes Oldenburg, Miles Aldridge and David Downton. I think each of them represents a high quality in the production of visual art and the execution of artistic ideas. Their individual artistic progression of art practice is a real inspiration.

How would you define creativity?

I think it’s quite simple thinking. Visual artists, musicians or writers all start with a thinking process, how ideas are incorporated or executed is up to the individual.

In an internationalist, interconnected world, ideas and creativity are constantly being flung across community threads, internet forums and social media sites (among many others). With so many different voices speaking at once, how do you cut through the incessant digital background babble? How do you make your creativity – your voice – stand out and be heard?

I think I have always stood out as an artist by not embracing social media and the Internet to strongly and keeping to my own work process with my own ideas. I have always been an artist who prefers to work on my art practice on my own and not use my energy on discussions or thinking about people’s responses to my work. I am very focused when it comes to my work and I am a very private person, for me social media ect can be intrusive. I use LinkedIn only, which is how I was fortunate to meet you. I find it a nice formal format to extend my art practice to a greater audience. The internet is an important platform for the art world but I think it can also become a distraction as it is 24/7. High quality publications like this one have more interest and substance to me than an online blog.

What’s next in terms of future projects?

I have completed the Untiled series and have been working on a new idea within abstraction. I was interested in combing painting and sculpture to forward the ideals of abstraction using the term ‘Linear Abstraction’. Using a section of an abstract painting, I am working the section into a three dimensional sculpture. It has been a process which I am very proud of and has been visually successful.

I am also working on combined paintings, matching and combining images of female portraits and cats on large canvases. This series is very much at the beginning.