Sunday, June 29, 2008

Tom Marshman in Conversation with Robert Pacitti

Tom Marshman & Robert Pacitti.

Discussion subject: Mentoring process between Tom and Robert which was part of the process of tom making three pieces of work across six months

Tom – background

I’ve been making work for around the last eight years, often the work has been site specific and I’ve done work in allotments, disused offices, for example. The main idea I’ve been working with is transforming the mundane to the magical or making the ordinary extraordinary – ideas around that, highlighting spaces that are often taken for granted.

Robert - background

I am the artistic director of Pacitti Company. I trained as an artist and have been making performance work for about 15 years roughly, the work in the main happens in the main in theatres or performance spaces but I have worked site specifically and made work for galleries, screen and the Internet. This practise is worldwide and I’m also the artist director of Spill, a festival of performance for London.

Robert: the original idea for the body of work – can you outline, tom, where the original idea for the three pieces came from and what their relationship is?

Tom: partly it was I guess having too many ideas but the ideas all had something that linked them; I was interested in making work that used smell and memory and taste. And I was interested in getting the audience to have close proximity with these things. I started seeing them as a companion of work and I was interested in presenting them in a similar format, in a black box space with audience sat around the outside so that audiences could see them in relation to each other but also as separate works.

Robert – can you explain the titles of the three pieces? And its content?

Tom – first was called Her Bungalow heart and it was about my Nan’s bungalow where she lived for 35 years and last year she died and we went through the process of taking away all the stuff in the bungalow; it was stuff that no one really wanted but it still had an emotional connection for me. The second show was the seat of memory, which follows my experiences of working in department stores when I’m not involved in artistic endeavours I do promotional work in department stores and promote perfume. I guess it looked at my experience of that world. The third piece was kind of more an offering to other people around ideas of food and the emotional connection people have with food – that was called everybody’s kitchen. The whole body of work was entillted Everyones comapion to Life and Love.

Robert – what was the process of getting the work to this stage? You spend two years getting these pieces of work to the stage so what was the first process of that?

Tom – One of the first things that I did was submit an abstract proposal to new work network, a peer-led organisation for artists to exchange information they run a scheme called networked bodies where some money is made available through the organisation for pieces of work to be made and those pieces of work are selected through a voting system online, of members of the organisation.

Tom – there were around 60 abstract proposals – it was just 300 words – and through the website, members voted for ten pieces to be short listed and then the short listed ones, three of them got the money to realise the project. I was lucky enough to get the money for that.

Robert – was there anything else apart from the money that was useful to you in that process?

Tom – sure, yeah. It was really the discussion that I had with the members of the site and how people were perceiving those ideas. I talked about the work in terms or archiving the belongings of my Nan’s bungalow and there was much discussion about the work being some kind of cathartic experience for me. I thought I quite clearly wasn’t doing it for that but I guess there must have been an element of that which people picked up on.

Robert – I think something that came up a lot in Her Bungalow Heart was the tension around mourning the passing of someone that you have a strong relationship to and the role of sentimentality.

Tom – and I was playing with that and playing with a distance that I had from the material itself.

Robert – so you got the money from the new work network, what other making mechanisms kicked into place? What else facilitated the process?

Tom – well I guess one of the major ones were my discussions with Picture This and together we formulated the arts council proposal together. (Picture This are a moving image agency that work with artists who make film, Bristol-based.

Robert – and part of the project was to generate film materials as well as performance materials, right? Also there’s something political there that I picked up from you, form the earliest stage, around this tension between making ephemeral performance and putting every moment of your life into making that happen when you’re an artist and how quickly that is over, and for there to be some other way of catching those experiences and so this filmmaking, as much as it was another artistic generation of the ideas was also another strategy for documentation and archiving.

Robert – we’d known each other for some years before that, hadn’t we, through my work visiting Bristol and being at the Arnolfini in the main, and you being a local maker. We started that dialogue very informally, didn’t we? It was in one of those conversations with Helen Cole at Arnolfini you started to think about a potential relationship with me as a mentor, is that right? It feels important to me that we acknowledged that came about because you’d had access to my work in the city, through Arnolfini. There was also a relationship with art matrix that came about, specifically for the mentoring…

Tom – yeah, that’s right. When I saw the advert for the mentoring initiative it just fitted into place, really, because it was an initiative that seemed to have some longevity. I think that it was a very open initiative in the sense that I wasn’t being asked to make a piece of work; it was just about having a mentor to discuss ideas. Because I was working on this really structured piece of work – and a complicated project – it fitted in really nicely.

Robert – then Anna Lucas, the person you’ve collaborated on with the filmmaking, was she suggested through picture this?

Tom – she was, yes, and I knew her already socially and I’d seen a lot of her work and thought there was a sensibility within her work that was simmailiar to my approach.

Robert – so essentially there’s a very healthy support structure for people in Bristol, emerging new practice for work which is not traditional or narrative which is pushing on the edge of things, and which can be highly personal and politicised and is really exploring issues of form and content and that within the city you were able to put together through really hard graft a group of venue partners, producing partners, people who were going to support the film aspects and people who where going to help you broker a relationship with someone like me.

Tom – I feel quite privileged in the sense that I do work with Spaghetti Club and we do these events called three minute warning which are an opportunity to show three minute pieces, and we’ve done those all around the country and with that I really get the sense of the communities in different cities and how they operate and that makes me feel really privileged to be in Bristol and that means I can call on lots of favours from people and just have a continuing dialogue.

Robert – and that’s much harder in London…

Tom – I think in making and conceiving this project I was pretty much on my own, creatively, and despite Bristol being supportive place, the projects were still solo projects and I’ve worked with mentors before and I realised how great it is to have a sounding board and have someone to introduce you to new research tools and allowing you to have a time and space to remove yourself slightly from the piece.

Robert – I think its relevant as well that there’s some crossover between our practices; I work in a way which invests objects and situations between people with political and emotional readings, and that doesn’t always default to a narrative textual or explained route through work but rather is saying things about the way in which images being to accumulate – I think we share that.

Tom – I guess I’ve always seen life as elastic or as confusing, I guess, and I’ve seen that in your work. As an audience that’s not something that bothers me because the ambiguity is what interests and excites me.

Robert – As a mentor I too had had a mentor previously, Raymond Hoag, who has an extraordinary solo and now group practice, a German artist. And he had been Pina Bauches dramatist for 12 years so he knows a lot about how to put work together and the structure, and the construction and architecture of work. In terms of content what I really got from him was support of my structural methodology. I felt I could help you with some of that as well. So there were two other really key aspects as to why I felt I could assist. One was that some images from your work that I’d seen only video had stayed with me and I felt that that sense of resonance only remains effective on one if there is something really strong there so I always believed in that. That we could communicate on that level. And I also felt that from the way you present yourself, not within the work but the conditions around the work, that I could help you with some aspects of professional development and they were as much to do with confidence as practical stuff, like if you lay it out this way on the page, maybe you can achieve your goals more easily. So that’s why I came into the mix.

Tom – and that’s what you did!

Robert – We worked on three very ambitious, quite different pieces of work and those happened at my studio in London and also in Bristol and we spent some time in the Old Vic rehearsal room and I think that what happened is that we did the following:
You would always introduce ideas and that then we would have discussion around how you were researching those, and I would respond to that with suggested materials to consider, and also how you could unpack other areas of research. So from that very embryonic point with the works, - and they were different in each instance (in her Bungalow heart you literally turned up with a suitcase of your gram’s stuff and a whole load of ideas and bits of music that you wanted to use. For Ever bodies kitchen there were some ideas and some text. So we worked very differently in each instance but we would then spend time really dissecting all of the texts and then in part we even re-wrote some of them and I would ask you what the aims and objectives of those texts were and we would look at how they might hang in a larger piece and where text could be subsided because perhaps there was an image or another performing way to communicate that information.

Tom – I think a really good example of that one was when I came to show you some of the work I’d been making on the seat of memory and my complicated relationships with department stores and through those discussions I think you were really pushing me to voice my opinions on that, and all the stuff with the guilt, the sex and the money came from a sense of anger. That wasn’t there when I first turned up to see you.

Robert – I would say it was there when you turned up but without needing me to give you permission in any way for it, I think what I did was to help you have agency over it. And it’s hard when you’ve got a head full of images, and a deadline and some stuff, which you’ve put down on the page to be brave and take the next risk. I think we did some of that work together – I think I helped you take risks.

We also developed those images, once we’d discussed them and turned them upside down. And that was about the professional developing of them as ways to communicate with an audience. So an example of this is the cup and saucer that you worked with in her bungalow heart – we pushed and pushed that image and worked very hard on it and it became very resonant moment for you, in ways that you don’t ever have to tell people about that unless you want to. We talked about how you could take responsibility for the image and communicating it with the audience.

Tom – I think that was the point where I began to have much more confidence about expressing something that didn’t have to have a really clear narrative. I guess I felt it didn’t bother me that the audience might have been confused by that image directly, that there was a sense of ‘something’.

Robert – I think that’s really key, that we were able to work with difficult personal material, and that this relationship was a place were you could share that, and I could help you process that into images that became very loaded without necessary ‘describing’ themselves. This is why some of the images, which you make, have this extraordinary resonance about them because they’re very very layered.

We also talked about structures and dramaturgies. Once we’d got the texts and images and understood then we started to think about how they might fit together, and one of the things we talked about quite a bit was cycles of images and the way that an audience might encounter something and then they get more information, and then they encounter that thing again, and it’s shifted, albeit it in a repeat, it’s shifted in meaning. One of things I was delighted about in this process was your relationship to materials. So you started to use pearls from your nan and then in the second show they became polystyrene balls, and then in the third show they were back to pearls.

So this palate started to build up through the three pieces of work.

Tom – it was great to have those same tools that I was using, and to transform them into something else.

Robert – we also did some practical stuff together. I helped you shape texts for publicity and the programmes and just work out how you make the interface between the works and how you get people there, as strong as you could. That was when the professional development stuff started to kick in for me as well. Has that been useful?

Tom – specifically the programme notes I’ve always felt they are really important to the work and provide a context that is outside of it but vital at the same time.

Robert – one of the thing’s we’ve spoken about is the body within the frame and how images become framed or the text becomes framed. One of the things I’m aware you have developed over the past six months is an awareness of that frame before the work even starts, and how you have that dialogue with members of the public before they’re even sat in their chair. I think the three pieces have been consistent on that level. Do you think that’s going to be a useful way for you to take that forward in the future, to draw on those materials as well as the actual works themselves?

Tom – yes effeminately. Those are really clear things that I’ve learnt.

Robert – And another thing we did was we spoke about other people’s work, didn’t we? We spent time just chewing over the conditions of making work and other people’s work. I’ve been making work a bit longer than you and I have a company and that’s core funded so there’s just some ‘stuff’ there from being around a bit loner but that’s practical stuff. It’s been very shared and recriprocal to talk about work we’ve seen and how that adds to our own practices – that’s definitely something I’ve gotten back in this process. Also, your way of working and to roll my sleeves up and get stuck into these works without having the responsibility of performing in them has allowed me to reflect on areas where I might have done it differently, and why I might have done it differently, and maybe my way wasn’t the right way. I think that’s been really interesting as well, to have that space to reflect and observe and be passionate about supporting you but not be so passionate about the materials and the works themselves that I lost sight of the bigger picture, which quite often happens in my own practice. I become absorbed in it.

Tom – and I think you’ve been very generous in the way you’ve presented areas of research to me or books or stuff because you could have just used them for yourself!

Robert – well, I feel I’m in a particular place with regard to the business aspects of my company as much as I am in the art making aspect of my company and that is now, if you go off and do it better, then that deserves to be seen. If we work from the same text and you make something better it should be seen. I feel I have the confidence and momentum of my own practice and that allows me to feel very relaxed about the sharing of resources and materials and exchange. Even if you did exactly the same as I would do it, it would still be different.

And now the films have been made, what’s happening with them?

Tom – I have showed them at the Arnolfini in the dark studio in September and also in a show in Cardiff and the show is called Paradise. We’re just currently looking at spaces to show them, really, along with Picture This who are helping me.

Robert – and now you’ve made the three live works and they’ve all been performed twice, and they were all full, do you have plans to show them again? Would you show them as three individual pieces? Is there one piece that will emerge? Do you see them as research or are they work that you see as done and you’re now going to move onto something else?

Tom – I still see them as three pieces and I’m interested to know what would happen if I made them into one piece but I want to keep them as separate ones.

Robert – are they a three-act show?

Tom – Could be. I think I’m still processing that, really. But I am very keen to show them again.

Robert – for the process of wrapping up the mentoring process, what have you learnt?

Tom – I’ve learnt some of the practical things that we’ve talked about. I think I’ve just gained confidence, really. Gained confidence in the sense of presenting images that are confusing or ambiguous and I’ve learned to say ‘yeah, that’s what I’m doing’, make of it what you will. There’s definitely been that sense of putting some kind of political voice within my work, which in previous works I guess I haven’t explored so much. I feel all work is political but I’ve just moved it a bit further.

Robert – yes, I think that’s really evident.

Robert – You had various written responses from people who had seen the works. In one of these responses, Helen Cole from the Arnolfini wrote to you ‘as Tom enters this new phase in his professional life I would like to make a further plea that he keeps the chaotic liveness in his work. Learn the text by all means but remember the life in the words you’ve written the reality in the words you conjure up and that we are really here with you, watching you falter and triumph.

One of things we worked on a lot was this issue of performing texts confidently, and I have to say that I really agree with Helen on this. There really is something edgy about the way you deliver texts. How do you feel about that now, having gone through this mentoring process, and us talking about trying to find technical ways to make the text right and then perhaps choosing to ignore it and then just delivering them in any way, on how you feel in the moment but knowing you can draw on that technique if you want to. Where are you with that?

Tom – I feel that when I deliver text I want to get it right. I think that’s all I need to think, really. Because I know I will falter and people find that interesting – that’s just me. I have that strange quality when I deliver text.

I think it’s also useful to say that it’s been valuable to come to London to discuss the works because it’s just given me a sense of distance as well as something to work towards.

Robert – one final thing I’d like to say for the record: I think you’ve behaved and presented your work and been available to show you work to me much more professionally than many salaried people within the arts. We’ve had an instance with someone else where you weren’t’ treated particularly brilliantly and I was able to intervene in that moment. What I would like you to take away from that moment is that they didn’t act in a particularly professional way and you quite naturally do. I think that’s something you should put in your pocket. I would like to end with one last question: did you get enough money for this project and is your ideal situation for how you work next in Bristol and nationally – are you able to carry on working with the resources that you had?

Tom: No, I guess not, really. In terms of past work I have been giving much more funding for this project and that’s allowed me more time to develop the work but it’s a real struggle and my time is now so chaotic, about how much stuff to fit into the day and that’s because I’m having to do temping stuff again.

Robert – for me we’ve made a lot of headway together and you have made an extraordinary amount of headway within your practice, in terms of content, form and professional development and it would be a terrible pity if you weren’t now assisted in applying it.

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