From congested Colombo, into air conditioned van, on to reclining chairs behind a sleepy driver man. Two hours in the dark together after a long weekend in the city. We all slept. Maybe more than one of us dreamt. An unexpected bonding experience through vulnerable group rest.
In 2013, I went to Sri Lanka for an artist residency lasting 4 weeks. It was the first time I had been on a self-led residency for that long, or been so far away from Scotland. It was a rich and surreal experience which influenced me and my work in many ways. I had the opportunity to work in 2D, 3D and performance. I collaborated with the one other artist in residence working with field recordings and audio. I started development on a new performance, Make A HOO, not long after my return. I developed this over a couple of years into a multi sensory performance about how living in a time of environmental instability affects the psyche. A sole figure dealing with mountains manifesting as monsters and seas that shouted back. I really enjoyed touring that work and seeing how it developed the more it was played. Starting a piece inspired by one place and time, and realising it in another, was an interesting and revealing process.
Five years later, I’m back in the sun, surf and sea town of Hikkaduwa. Back to the place where switches exchange electric kisses on finger tips for shy light. It’s quite a thing to be able to come here again. I’m so grateful to have this opportunity. The last time I was here, I was taking inspiration from the never ending and always beginning imagery in the buddhist temples. This time, I’m here as part of a large group of creatives from all around the world with the aim to devise and perform a performance that deals with issues of identity, community and borders. It’s a brilliantly ambitious project and one that has a few side requests, the main one being, it has to be able to tour internationally afterwards. In that sense, what will be created will act as a template, or format for a production that can happen in different countries and will celebrate a site specific element, as well as feature a mixture of original and new, local and international, performers.
We’ve been working during a time of political unrest in Sri Lanka. We’ve been updated by Neil of UZ, Thenu from the University and the four politically active Sri Lankan artists involved on the project – Jagath, Arun, Venuri and Tehani. The crisis has led to many protests, marches and demonstrations. I’ve heard from many worried tuk tuk drivers and local businessmen about the effect it’s having on their most lucrative part of the year – tourist season. There seems to be celebration and deep concern from all in equal measure.
Inevitably, in asking how to make an audience think about identity, borders and community, one reflects on how one defines these for oneself. It’s a nuanced process. One that isn’t so fruitful if judged or commented upon immediately it seems. There needs to be time to reflect from a wider perspective and allow for what may reveal afterwards. Like sea softened pieces of broken brick uncovered by the waves retreat.
The first few weeks involved a lot of brainstorming and questioning as well as small trials of performative proposals in the new Sura Medura space. Something that came up for me was – in identifying how we define a sense of identity and a sense of the other, how do we comment upon or make space for an audience to re-experience this whilst leaving space for reflection or change. There were many stifling moments and it made me question – Is it the process of trying to probe for right and wrong ways of doing or thinking about things that is void? There seems more in unpacking and compassion that leads to inventive ways to explore self-awareness and the importance of critical thinking.
At points in our conversations about the project, I’ve often recalled a brilliant talk given by a scientist called Maureen O’Hara, which I attended at Glasgow Women’s Library a few years ago. In talking about how the psyche can develop new ways to deal with environmental crisis, as well as a stepping away from victorian or traditional systems in society that aren’t currently coping with such crisis, she described an experiment she had carried out between two groups of people. She showed each group the same picture and asked them to describe what they saw. It was a river scene where you could see the fish under water, underwater plants and a sun in the sky. The response from one group was described as above – they described all the ‘bits’ in the picture. And one group told the story of the fish under water and how it ate the plants to live and how the plants relied on the sun shining through the water to grow. The main difference between the two groups was that one was made of people from the west, and the other group was made up of people from the east.
Thinking about audience is an important part of making performance. I’ve found, that in the context of international collaboration, it takes on new significance.
I’m looking forward to developing the performance, working with all the artists, and taking some of the work out onto the streets next week for a test run…