It's long overdue, but I wanted to write with a few thoughts about Hjem (Hyem), our installation piece for BRASS (Durham International Festival) 2014. The piece was up for ten days during July this year, in Durham University Music School, and is showing again as a single-screen work in the London Short Film Festival, 2015.
The film's page on the Satellite site gives a lot of information about the piece as a work, but necessarily doesn't carry a lot about the process within which it was created. Hjem (Hyem) was not just a collaboration: central to the piece were ideas about community and belonging, as well as changes to what it means to live in the UK, generational transitions, the north-south divide, etc. etc. What was really nice was the way in which those shifts, divides and changes were right there, in the production process, and had material effects upon the finished installation. Some effects are visible, and others are apparent after they've been pointed out.
The piece does not seek to exacerbate difference, or to present a cartoon version of it (stereotypes of 'The North', for example) – but rather to talk about how those divides are artificial, and how culture that crosses geographic, generational and technological divides is good for everyone, no matter which side of the divide you're on. To give an example from our initial planning of the piece: We'd hoped that younger audience members might find brass music accessible because of its incorporation in a format that nods heavily to 'music video'; at the same time, we'd hoped that older audiences would enjoy seeing traditional music, with which they might be more familiar, worked into something that was clearly new and to which children and grandchildren might relate. Note that elements of these benefits are fundamentally social; older audiences might not necessarily enjoy seeing traditional culture re-packaged, but they do enjoy seeing that culture being enjoyed and valued by a younger generation, whatever the format. This sharing across a boundary both brings two groups closer together, and at the same time provides a real benefit to each in terms of 'new' experiences – that is to say, experiences which are new to them.
This same phenomenon was visible time and again during the production of the work. Isaac (composer) and Aaron (production manager) worked with John (carpenter) to assemble the screening space, and though it was hard work and not in Isaac and Aaron's everyday skill set, it was clearly enjoyable. Bryony (production designer) dug out old photos of the Craghead Colliery Band as part of research, which we were able to to leave with the band after the project. We spent a day or two restoring the rehearsal room to some semblance of its former glory (the area on screen is actually a temporary pigeon loft nowadays), and an evening filming in the Victory Club (Craghead's working man's club) with regulars and band members, as local kids looked on with poorly-hidden interest. No-one made a big deal out of any of these interactions – they were all things that 'just happened' – but each was a really nice example of groups which cross one divide or other working together with a common purpose, and each gaining something small through the interaction. Each has an effect on the finished film or installation too: from the visual incorporation of the band's official colours, to the echoes of hymnals that are audible in the music.
I also don't want to make out that these interactions were all 'lovely' – nice little things that happen as a result of artwork production, and for which the artists claim credit. Watching Andy, Craghead's hard-working conductor who fits the band around a full-time job, stick around for half an hour after a rehearsal to run through Isaac's notation, was impressive. Likewise Jamie, club secretary, who pulled regulars and staff together and got them behind us, because he just got the project and that it would have some value. Or Ludy, owner of Bar Prague, or Ronnie from Vinyl Records, and of course Colin from BRASS Festival: they came in early, stayed late or pulled in favours to support what we were doing, and the effect of each is visible on screen.
Showing the piece in the shadow of Durham Cathedral for ten days was a great experience. I did something I always do, which is to stand in as a steward for a day and experience the more subtle audience reactions first-hand. Watching an older man and his granddaughter experience the piece together, or a woman experience it twice, once with her eyes closed and the second time with them open, was a privilege. The feedback was universally positive, and lets us know that the benefits of performance go both ways too. It'll be an altogether different experience showing the work in LSFF, but it's my favourite London festival and so it's sure to be good.