Monday, 30 August 2010

Empty Benches

I've just posted the 50th and 51st Empty Bench over on our Flickr photo page. I've been collecting them for a while, and have recently been gathering a few close to home and work that I haven't gotten around to. Of course it's not just any bench. There are some rules. So here's where it started.

This is a text in wrote in response to our travels for Pleasant Land in 2004. A version of it was published in the artists' book Slow, edited by Ian Abbott, and then I performed it as part of the Art-Science Encounters event How To Be Creative last March. That led to it being included in Words & Pictures last year, too. It explains where the bench obsession comes from.



I’m taking a photograph of a bench [1], trying to line it up centre frame, and worrying about whether I should have the bench or the sloping pavement level in the viewfinder. Beyond the bench is a small tree, a road, an industrial estate and a factory. Behind me is a queue of traffic, crawling towards a roundabout. It’s a hot sunny day and windows are down.

“What is there to take a picture of there, mate?”

The passenger of a car right behind me is leaning out of the window trying to find out if there is something I can see that he can’t.

“Why has someone put a bench looking at the the view?” I ask him.

“I don’t know,” he says, as the car pulls away, “I’ll have to think about that…”

We [2] are travelling around England, researching a project about Englishness [3]. We are visiting places we have never been to before, and revisiting places we have been to, to look at them afresh. We are talking to people in the street, at bus stops, in chip shops, and taking photos of things that interest us [4].

I have begun to notice benches. Not park benches [5], or town square benches or any congregation of benches. Solo benches; individual benches placed in a specific position by someone [6].

How [7] are the positions for these benches decided? Some are clearly to look at a particular view. Others are in places where people might need to break their journey, to rest. Some are dedicated to someone who has passed away, who used to visit that spot. Occasionally [8] the positioning defies logic.

But what I particularly notice is that these [9] benches are always [10] empty. Again, not park benches, which are [11] often used as a lunch venue by people who work nearby, and are therefore locations that people choose to use to pass time.

No, these solitary benches, placed facing ‘a view’ [12], placed en route from one place to another, are always [10] empty. At first what bothers [13] me is that these benches have been placed to look at a view and no one ever [14] stops to see that view.

I start taking photos of [15] benches and their views.

But after a while [16] what begins to bother me more is that whilst park benches [5] are used at lunch times [17], solo benches aren’t used at all. No one justs sits on them. No one stops. No one stops, sits, thinks. No one rests. No one waits. No one does nothing. [18]

I decide to start putting instructions on benches [19].

[1] In Hexham

[2] Rachael and I


[4] This is 2004

[5] Or ‘destination benches’, as I will come to think of them

[6] A town planner? An architect?

[7] I wonder

[8] It seems to me

[9] Solo

[10] Okay, nearly always

[11] As comes up in a discussion with friends

[12] Or rather, a nice view

[13] Intrigues

[14] Okay, hardly anyone

[15] Empty

[16] How long is a ‘while’? In Sheffield they don’t say 9 to 5, they say 9 while 5.

[17] To facilitate another activity: eating, reading, smoking, filling a lunch hour

[18] Alright, hardly anyone

[19] How to use this bench: Stop a moment and sit. Do nothing for a bit. Rest. Think. It’s okay. You have enough time.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Inspiration Exchange

Back in March of 2009, whilst we were making Homo Ludens, I was invited to talk at an event called How To Be Creative, as part of Sheffield Art-Science Encounters. Given the impressive line up of fellow presenters (Dr Kamal Birdi, Dr Rachel Falconer, Dr Tim Richardson, Professor Peter Styring and musician John Ball), and the elusive subject matter of the brief, it was a mildly intimidating event to be part of. I gave a response entitled Scratch the Itch, Roll the Dice, Walk to Work, inspired partly by the work we were doing on playfulness and inventiveness, and talking about the bench obsession that later resurfaced in Words & Pictures. All of the other presentations were really enjoyable, and three of us ran activities for participants afterwards.

Feedback on the event was great, so we were invited back this year to talk even more specifically about our Muse. Unable to pinpoint a single muse, I ran an Inspiration Exchange, swapping stories about things that had inspired me over the years, with things that had meant something to audience members...

Colour Combinations
A recording by John Williams
her hands in my hair

It proved to be a great conversation generator, and I mentioned on Twitter how much I'd enjoyed it. Andy Field from Forest Fringe got in touch to ask if something similar would work at the festival this summer. Given the wonderfully collaborative atmosphere at Forest Fringe it seemed to me like a great idea. So I'm delighted that this week, before we run the What I Heard About The World - Research Table (on Saturday 21st), it's going to happen.

On Friday 20th, 12 - 5pm Forest Fringe will host Inspiration Exchange, with Laura McDermott, Deborah Pearson, James Stenhouse and myself. We've had one devising session via skype, and will meet up in Edinburgh the day before; I'm really looking forward to it. If you're going to be in Edinburgh, why not drop in and swap something that has inspired you for something that has inspired us?

Monday, 2 August 2010

At the Research Table

photo by Mark Cohen

What I Heard About The World was born during a conversation in Jorge Andrade's flat in Lisbon in 2007. Since we had met in 2004 we'd been talking about making something in collaboration with Jorge's company, mala voadora.

As is often the way, we had had a moment of realisation that this collaboration wasn't going to happen unless we actually, you know, started it. So we met for coffee, each bringing a few ideas to the table. Jorge told me about several stories that had caught his attention recently: the US military's programme of providing servicemen's families with 'flat daddies' whilst they were away; a survey that claimed that the number one pastime for off-duty western soldiers in Iraq was play war-sim games such as Medal of Honour; demonstrators-for-rent in Germany. I pointed out to Jorge that all of the stories he had been collecting were about fakes, stand-ins, replacements.

The conversation moved on to maps and mapping, and how a map is a fake, or a stand-in. We began discussing a project that located these stories of the inauthentic on a giant map, a map that morphed and shifted between different projections and purposes. By the end of the conversation we had the title, and enough information for a project proposal.

Something that looks like chocolate, but that isn't chocolate.
Something that looks like cheese, but isn’t cheese.
Something that makes it look like a house is built out of stone, when the house is still built out of brick.
Something that is like a person, for you to have sex with, but isn’t a person, but is still for having sex with.
Something that is like a person, but isn’t a person, that is used to measure the damage that a real human being would suffer in car accident.
A machine that makes waves like the sea, but in a pool.
A machine that lets you do something that is like going for a run, but is actually staying for a run.
Cardboard boxes originally used for protecting machines whilst being delivered to their new owners, used to protect sleeping humans.
On the internet, and in the published press, fictional characters commentating on real world politics.
In 2009 the amount of digital storage capacity surpasses the amount of information in the world.
A grown woman lies in bed, unable to sleep, listening to generative lullabies on a phone application invented by a man who was once famous for making music.
To make models’ lips look more kissable they are injected with collagen, to the extent that the make up artist is told to only use the softest lip brush, and the gentlest of touches, lest the models’ lips explode.
The bible being translated to a phonetic language that some people think cats would speak like, if they could speak. srsly.
A well paid football player, who works on possibly the best tended grass in the country, has his own lawn replaced with astroturf for his children to play on.
camera perfect.
disaster capitalism, selling futures.
collateral damage and friendly fire.
longterm relationships with a girlfriend simulation service.
cut flowers. here you go, watch them die.

Fast forward. Jorge and I have been joined by Chris Thorpe as co-devsior/performer, and have been kicking ideas around with the generous team at We are in the process of making two discreet pieces, one of which is a research engine for the other.

The theatre piece What I Heard About The World opens with a three week run at Sheffield Theatres in October, before transferring to Lisbon for a Portuguese tour. The research process for that piece has been running since the start of the year, online, in conversation and at work-in-progress showings in Sheffield, Glasgow and Oldenburg.

The work-in-progress showings have produced a stand alone durational project, that we refer to as the Research Table, and which we will be running for 12 hours at Forest Fringe in Edinburgh, on Saturday 21st August, 11am - 11pm. Chris, Jorge and I will be attempting to map the world, alphabetically, using post-it notes; we'll be discussing, no doubt, what territories are, and are not, actually countries. And we'll be collecting stories, hopefully one for each country. Stories of the fake being used in place of the real, stand-ins, replicas and replacements. We'll be retelling those stories throughout the day, labelling each story with just two words, and illustrating it with a single hand drawn image.

Those stories will then feed in to our bank of material for devising the theatre piece during September and October. If you can't make it along in Edinburgh, you can still contribute to the research process online. You can comment here on the blog or email us at alex[at] We're also running the research on Twitter; you can find me @AlexanderKelly, or simply tweet something with the hashtag #whatiheardabouttheworld. We'd love to hear from you.