Pause for just a moment. Listen…
I have a confession to make to the artist. When I first came to ‘view’ to this piece of work by Geoff Broadway, I looked at my watch, I wondered, ‘How long will this take me?’ I then began to listen. I forgot the passing of time. I soon passed into what I can only describe as a meditative state.
Our experience of much of contemporary culture relies on the quick fix, the instant hit, the affections of style over substance, something to get the adrenalin pumping. Crash! Bang! Wallop! Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame has moved on to 15 seconds of gratification – all mouth and no trousers, as they used to say.
Here though, the style is understated: a darkened space, a set of audio speakers in a semi-circle, a gentle glow of lights rising and falling in response to the voices. It is a quiet piece; it provides a space for reflection, something we seem to rarely make time for in our busy 24/7 lives.
Whose are these voices? One voice, a woman, says, “May I tell you something, I lived an outstanding life, with respect…” Another voice speaks of being wealthy in the mind rather than the pocket. These are elder members of the community, but exactly how old they are is impossible to tell from the timbre of the voice alone. Perhaps they have lived three score and more, those who in many cultures would be considered the wisest, those who carried the most respect in the wider community. In our modern society, respect for elders is not immediately apparent. Elders are often considered non-productive members of society, an increasing drain on healthcare and welfare services. Now, it may be likely that I will live some 20 or more years beyond retirement age. What will I do with this time? What have I learnt that can and should be passed on? Will I continue to learn or will I simply fade away?
Throughout the history of Jubilee, we’ve worked with elders on many projects and value the knowledge that resides in this group, this fantastic and often overlooked human resource and library of life. We believe that art can be a communication tool for dialogue, expression, a powerful force for change and exchange.
Experiencing this work, these voices, literally disembodied, story-telling, passing from the speaker to speaker, like sentinels at the gate of another world, conjured up apparitions and thoughts unbidden.
I found myself thinking of my Father, who died last year at the age of 76. He had been relatively active until the last few months, when he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. I realise I didn’t know him very well. In many ways, he was closer to my daughter, picking her up every single day from school for nearly 10 years until as a teenager she preferred to walk home with her friends. He then adopted a new point of contact, buying her a labrador, which lived at his house of course. (The two of them just turned up with it one day without mentioning it to anyone.) I don’t know if I learnt much from my Father, other than the appreciation of popular culture. I went with him to buy my first Beatles record, to the newsagents to collect American Civil War bubblegum cards or Tarzan paperbacks, to the model shop to buy an Airfix kit of a Messerschmitt 109 or an Aurora kit of Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, to the cinema to see John Wayne and Steve Reeves movies, being allowed to stay up late to watch ‘The Twilight Zone’, to the library to get Dennis Wheatley and Zane Grey books.
In the last hours of his life he relived moments of his past, speaking as if he were a child of the 1930’s again, talking to Mother about the routine of rising, washing, clothes folded on the wooden clothes horse in front of the fire, getting dressed there, preparing a fried breakfast, readying for school on a dark cold winter morning. It was a strange moment, but one I will remember, as if time had stopped and folded back, an insight into my Father of peculiar clarity.
It was not until after his death that I was able to uncover anything other than the bare facts of his life. Born in a pit village in the Potteries, he was just too young to fight in the Second World War (though he tried to join up, under-age, was spotted by a neighbour and dragged ignominously home) and made do with the Air Training Corps instead. He had a friend, just barely a year older, who trained as a Tail End Charlie for Bomber Command and went down in flames over Dussedorf on his first mission. (My Father always related this tale with a certain relish I didn’t understand).
He was clever at Mathematics, and left school to do a series office clerk jobs, lodged once with Albert Pierrepoint – the last hangman in England – ran an unsuccessful shoe shop in Darlaston, worked as an insurance salesman, as a railway clerk in Dudley, as a wages clerk for Lucas in Birmingham, then worked at Albright & Wilson in Oldbury. That’s about it, as far as I know.
Listening to this piece, it’s somnabulance drew me in, comforted me, and I found myself wondering what my Father would have said to the artist, what would have been recorded and preserved? What would be drawn out and shared?
As artists, we describe our work as ‘socially-engaged’, we speak of ‘emerging voices’ and ‘new forms of expression’. This work could not exist without the participation of these elders, or without their conversation with the artist. Equally, it could not exist without the intervention of the artist. The human voice is one of the oldest forms of communication, and here it is recorded, collaged, re-presented, mediated electronically. In this sense it is a shared expression.
These words are valuable. They are touchstones. These rhythms of the human voice, these nuances of the local accent, intricately linked to each other, speaking honestly, simply, are each facing mortality, alongside you. As one person says, “The mind is a strange thing.”
Pause for just a moment. Listen.