Two texts by John Berger have retained a presence during the development of the Ocean project, with both texts centred around Berger's use of Paris' municipal swimming pools:
A chapter of Bento's Sketchbook recounting Berger's encounter & exchange over time with a Cambodian woman at a Parisian pool; & a chapter in the recent essay collection Confabulations, where Berger explores how the mind observes, drifts, & reflects during swimming sessions.
In both texts, Berger's customary ability to link quotidian activity with larger socio-political questions (& in particular injustices) is in evidence: the Bento chapter references the troubled history of Cambodia (whilst at the same time evoking its 'osmotic' relationship with water & linking this back to swimming), with the swimmer's meandering thoughts in Confabulations touching in quick session on Palestinian deaths in Gaza, US troop dispatches to Iraqi oil refineries, James Foley's murder by Isis, & Indian migrants found suffocating in a shipping container, alongside reading the visible sky's changing clouds as texts from the world which gradually come to observe him as well as the other way around. How the considered politeness of swimmer to swimmer contrasts with the limitless & ingrained cruelty of people to each other in the world outside.
Our own researches have run from the individually personal to wider social & cultural histories: the network of municipal baths that evolved in Manchester in the last third of the 19th Century (of which Victoria Baths was the peak) were created to alleviate civic hygiene concerns in the city, & were initially as much if not more about actual wash-bathing than swimming (baths referring literally to the many washbaths in the building, with the pools initially known as 'plunges'), & were used by the local communities who lacked hot water in homes (many homes in the area still lacked bathrooms even into the 1960s & 70s, so the value of the Baths as a washplace was longstanding), as well as by working trades where dirt was inescapable (Prue William's history refers to sweeps coming in black with soot for their bath). Many stories reflect how luxurious the availability of these bathing facilities felt, & the importance of access to these facilities remained etched in the memories of many who recounted their experience many years later to family, even having moved away from the area. Even our own histories have become entwined (see Elizabeth's post below).
The importance of the Laundry building attached to the Baths also impressed - stories of women rolling their laundry to the Baths in prams, the machines which were eventually introduced to alleviate the manual labour of washing which could take up 2 days of a woman's week, & the drying racks which allowed the laundry to dry without immediately getting dirty from the smuts & pollution outside). The nature & effect of the gender segregation which existed in the Baths in various ways is central to our project, with the manner in which this changed & the ways in which its legacy remains evident even today deeply relevant to our concerns (I refer to this briefly here as it will be written about in greater detail in future blog posts).
These were also spaces that played host to the changing communities & cultures coming in to Manchester over many generations; Irish, Asian, African & West Indian communities all encountered each other in spaces like the Turkish Baths (another zone in which weighted gender segregation was in effect) - a space which men frequently used for business meetings, & women as a community space (as well as being popular with Manchester's footballers). The democratisation of the body stripped for swimming that Berger notes is both corroborated & complicated by the Baths' histories.
Berger referred to himself as a storyteller, & the section in question of Bento's Sketchbook begins 'I want to tell you a story', continuing a couple of paragraphs later with 'The setting for this story is a municipal swimming pool...', & while our initial attraction to Victoria Baths was its potential as a venue - a space for us to bring our own work into gradually, the stories behind the space & the stories we discovered in each other have mingled with the conceptual ideas of crowd, time & memory we had been exploring, & these narratives have become embedded in different ways into the work itself.
In the Bento's Sketchbook text, Berger charts the transition from careful politeness with little eye-contact, where physical interaction is accidental & must be apologised for, through the careful camaraderie of semi-familiar acknowledgement (a nod, a gesture), to conversation & the sharing of narratives, & finally to friendly physical contact (the hand on the shoulder) & an exchange of 'things' (the Japanese artists' brush he gives to the woman & the painting made with it she gives in return). This notion of encounter, conversation & exchange is exactly mirrored in our experiences during the project:
Elizabeth & I had already exchanged our own our stories about swimming, about pools & oceans, & our first meeting with Gemma & Gary very quickly morphed into listening to them tell their stories (Gemma trained & swam competitively as a teenager & Gary swims triathlons, with both swimming for leisure in pools, rivers, lakes & seas), & discovering we all had stories in common. Both Gemma & Gary had stories which chimed with Berger's (these incidentally also link to another book important to us, Leanne Shapton's evocative memoire Swimming Studies (see 'Things we're reading' post below)): Gary tells us of conversations struck up whilst introducing his infant son to the swimming pool, Gemma, & both explore the meandering mind of the swimmer doing long sessions of lengths -
& our own personal meetings, in particular with members of the VB staff, mirror these exchanges in both the present (with Chris, the Baths' building manager, & Barry who has guided us through the extraordinary written, oral & visual archives of Victoria Baths), & with the past, through stories (often in their own voices & handwriting) of people for whom Victoria Baths was a sometimes occasional, sometimes daily, & for some essential part of their lives.
One other thing Berger mentions in these texts is the immersive sensory nature of swimming: the importance of touch, taste, smell & sound to this project are lightly explored in the post below.
Here is where we meet, John Berger, Bloomsbury 2005
Bento's Sketchbook, John Berger, Verso, 2011
Confabulations, John Berger, Penguin, 2016
Swimming Studies, Leanne Shapton, Particular Books, 2012
Victoria Baths: Manchester's Water Palace, Prue Williams, Spire Books, 2004
...if water is touch...
many of our own recollections, & the narratives uncovered in our research, have all hinged on the sensory experience of water, of swimming, both in pool surroundings or in the sea.
the haptic connection, that one experiences water through touch, & that this touching often seems to work both ways, has been central to our thinking - a swimmer is constantly immersed or semi-immersed, the contact between water & the body continually changing as the encounter lines between the two travel & shift around & over the body, as the water splashes, as the hands push at the water & the legs kick; the waves, eddies & currents that push & pull at the bathers & swimmers at the shore -
& the tactile nature of these: the threshold, the littoral, the point of contact, where the water laps at you at the shore, where the wave embraces or shocks, where the water line rises up the ankle, calf, thigh, waist, chest, head; the point where the shore or the pool floor withdraws its contact, intermittently & then permanently, & the body gives itself up & floats...
but it's not only touch - despite water often being referenced as a tasteless, odourless & colourless element, both seawater & pool-water have smell, taste & sound which are immediately & strongly evocative:
the narratives our researches uncover, alongside our own & our collaborators' personal stories, repeatedly reference these - the clamour of swimming galas, the noise of children in the pool, the smell & taste of chlorine in the water & the burn of the chlorine gas in the tankroom, the sound of the clock mechanism & the bell-strike -
the smell of salt as you arrive at the seaside town, its presence on & in your skin, its taste on your lips & in your mouth; the continual sound of the surf, infinitely repetitive & infinitely varied, the smell of beach barbecues in the summer & wet sand in the winter, & the seaweed, the cries & shouts of playing, the tap-thunk of bucket & spade, slap of beachball on water, rasp of sand & clink-clatter of pebbles...
Throughout the early stages of this project, in wrestling with our approach to human relationships with water, one of our main foci has been unpacking and reconciling the delicate, precarious balance between crowds and the myriad unique, individual stories that exist within collections of people. Through many of Gavin and my early conceptual discussions of this piece, our conversations frequently hovered between highly individualized, subjective, physical experiences of water, and the social contexts in which we come into contact with it. We struggle and strive to put into words the unique physical experiences of coming into contact with water – its incomparability to other sensations, as well as our own poetic and symbolic perceptions of it – while also conceiving of this in relation to the other unique, social, physical experiences simultaneously occurring for each individual person in any given social, water-oriented space.
This delicate balance became particularly exposed for us in approaching Victoria Baths as a space in which to develop our work. As we discover more and more about the Baths and its/their histories, we become increasingly aware of the quantity and nature of stories that are brought together by their link to the building throughout its existence, as a social space, a piece of architecture, a functional facility, now a community centre for arts, etc. Engaging with the space as a site for our artistic creation, we are not only confronted with the question of how to develop our own artistic ‘narrative’ moving through the space, but also how to relate to the multitude of stories that already exist there, in ways that seek to evoke their individuality and uniqueness. While we attempt to engage with some of the social and physical realities of others’ presence in the Victoria Baths throughout its history, we seek to do it in ways that emphasise and celebrate the individuality of these stories, without clumping them into a generalized ‘other’ entity in our piece.
This process of coming to terms with our artistic narrative through the spaces of Victoria Baths while interacting with other stories and narratives that already exist in/around it is obviously a multi-faceted process. It has involved learning about various socialities through our initial research into the historical uses of Victoria Baths, its evolution as a community centre, and the other socio-political contexts and under-currents at play in Manchester throughout the 20th century. It has also involved working with the volunteer archivists Barry and Adam at Victoria Baths, who maintain and manage an extensive written, oral, photographic, sonic, and audiovisual archive there. Uncovering individual stories relating to the space has also involved the discovery of a personal family link to the building through my step-grandfather, who learned to swim in the pools in the late 1920s.
Deconstructing our conceptions of ‘story’ and ‘narrative’ has also been an important part of designing the structure of the piece itself. For me, photography and the design of images has been one part of reconciling some of these issues in developing the piece.
One recent facet of my photography has been experimenting with capturing movement. In some cases this has meant using video to play with balancing moving and static objects/subjects in the composition of a shot, but for OCEAN I have been developing collections of static photos of moving water taken with high(ish) shutter speeds – effectively ‘burst’ mode on my camera. Although a fairly common tool, I’m interested in the different ways these collections can be used, and the conceptual effects and implications of different modes of presenting the photos in this particular installation setting. Here’s an example of what I’m referring to:
Instead of shifting through each of these photos to find one single, perfect captured moment, looking at the collection as a whole becomes looking at a series of captured moments. It’s the documentation of a process, but with gaps – there is obviously un-captured, un-seen movement between each of these individual frames. In some cases, proximity to any given subject, here, water, makes this particularly obvious:
Looking at all of the photos in any collection makes me aware of the number of individual moments that make up this process of movement, but also of the undefined moments in between. The dynamic, moving process is defined by a series of arbitrarily-frozen moments, yet clearly they eventually make up a sequence or outline a process when viewed together.
Although we have been experimenting with a number of ways of presenting these images (digitally, in print, etc), one that has stuck with me from the beginning is the physical (printed) presence of each of these arbitrary moments in one space. Surrounded by this collection of moments, repetitions of the same subject viewpoint, what does the literal, physical space between prints become? How do one’s eyes travel between/across/through them? Does each print draw attention still?
In the context of this project, for me, these photos have become conceptually linked to wrestling with the quantities and qualities of the many stories that Victoria Baths represents. Any individual story or perspective on this building/space is, while unique, a single perspective, maybe of a particular time period or experience. It may or may not have many commonalities with the other infinite stories surrounding it, but any isolation of that one story is arbitrary. Although we are attempting to gradually become more aware and informed of the social histories of the people that passed through, visited regularly, or were indirectly involved with this building, the documentation of these stories is, to some extent, a collection of arbitrarily-captured moments and perspectives – the select individuals that contribute their experiences, the memories that can still be recalled, the snippets of archive that I/we eventually happen across. Collectively, these all form a narrative of an evolving history of infinite components, but also pose questions about the undocumented moments/perspectives/stories in between, and the similarities and uniquenesses of these moments/perspectives/stories.
our researches for OCEAN have already taken us to some interesting places, exploring everything from the experience, poetics & politics of crowds to the logistics of clearing pool debris. 2 books that have played a big role so far:
Prue Williams: Victoria Baths: Manchester's Water Palace
Leanne Shapton: Swimming Studies
another very important bit of reading is an article by Elaine Aston exploring her experience of the Brazlian Grupo XIX de Teatro's staging of their work Hysteria in Victoria Baths. The analytical article, Swimming in Histories of Gender Oppression: Grupo XIX de Teatro’s Hysteria, both evokes the experience of the Baths as a performance space redolent with gendered history, & how the Grupo XIX work exploring the testimonies of incarcerated Brazilian women dialogues with this. This writing crossed several pathways that have been important so far in how we've thought about this work (gender, crowd, audience/performer/space relationships, etc). The article can be downloaded & read here: http://eprints.lancs.ac.uk/54676/1/displayFulltext5.pdf
we hope to write more fully on how these elements of research & others have affected our process, so keep watching this space!
welcome to the blogspace for OCEAN, where creators Elizabeth & Gavin & performers Gemma Bass (violin) & Gary Farr (trumpet) will be posting news, thoughts, happenings, ideas & more in relation to the project.
to get things rolling, we're excited to annouce some audio uploads from our first workshop session with Gemma & Gary last December, which can be accessed by following the AUDIO link in the OCEAN drop-down menu above, or by clicking here. these little snippets from both studio & workshop sessions give some idea of the sounds we were exploring.
these emerged from both a simple desire to explore sonic possibilities on the instruments, & from ideas more particularly related to concepts/content we're exploring.
more clips will be added as the project evolves...