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Call Centre Project Report





Call Centre: Art thinking and practice in a time of viral crisis


Martyn Hudson, Northumbria University, UK

Tracey Warr, Ben Ponton, Annie Carpenter, Helmut Lemke, Kerry Morrison, Andrew Wilson, Helen Ratcliffe, Alan Smith


A research project that is inviting people to share their experiences of this time of COVID-19 and how it has impacted on lives and creative processes.

It will engage regional, national and international artists from contrasting rural and urban areas. From their ‘outposts’ the six satellite artists and a writer will focus their research on a variety of areas including home, travel, being stranded, trust, fragility, confinement, politics, the domestic and motherhood.​


Picture above: Emily Hesse



1.Introduction: A Time of Monsters

There is a quote from Antonio Gramsci that I have always loved and it comes from the translation of his Prison Notebooks (although I first read it in the novel 'Daniel Martin' by John Fowles in the early 90s).

'The old is dying and the new cannot yet be born, in this interregnum (between two kings) a great variety of morbid symptoms appear'. In his own translation of this passage Slavoj Zizek replaces 'morbid symptoms' with 'this is the time of monsters'.

Gramsci is actually writing in code so his fascist prison censors cannot understand what he saying - but what he probably means is that capitalism is dying and communist hasn't showed up yet and is rather late to the date - and in this gap fascism turns up promising false solutions to real problems. Monsters in fact.

Now, in a new way our old world is dying and the new world hasn't quite turned up - and there are monsters galore out there - a terrorist massacring three gay men in a park in Reading, white supremacists attacking BLM protestors, the use of holocaust imagery by the president of the US.

I've been reflecting, I know we all have, on the old world that is disappearing and indeed I have been half-mourning it and half-cheering its demise. I won't miss the airplanes and the ecological disaster they are part of. I will miss some things. Call Centre has really raised some amazing questions for me and I have found it incredibly exciting - already our conversations are talking about other species, varieties of fungae, clouds, planets, atmospheres, the sound of the world, the languages of birds and so many other things.

As the artists involved develop their set of correspondents we will see some compelling and powerful responses and reflexes to the old world passing and the new one beckoning. We have talked a lot about home and its meanings, about the domestic, about isolation in forests, notions of political trust and the meaning of the microsphere that we find ourselves in. The Cathar heresy in Languedoc used to refer to their homes as the 'domus' - not just the material fabric of buildings, but the culture of the house, the interactions of people around it, and its spiritual basis. Andrew Wilson has referred to this as a kind of cocoon - and what do cocoons produce - well they produce monsters of one sort or another.

Indeed perhaps we can think of these as 'hopeful monsters' and that our homes are producing new evolutionary and untried routes and species. I can't help but be thankful for the death of that old world - and the markings that art inscribe on its material surfaces will be profoundly different as a consequence. We are world-making in new and untested ways.


2.Reiver Lands: In Northumberland, debateable land, landings and callings

Back in 2013 a group of us based in Newcastle and Northumberland developed a project to try and understand the knowledges that we shared with each other. That conversation included Allenheads Contemporary Arts, VARC and others and we spent a few months thinking about art and culture in rural communities. It was fun and convivial and like any university-supported project full of problems and contradictions and I thought a lot about it ever since. Call Centre has allowed others and myself to come back again to those places that some never left. What were those themes that still, to some extent, haunt me?

Firstly, it was clear that universities often act as predatory knowledge extractors willing to take data and archives and folklores from communities without sharing much in return. I was told, up at Tarset, by one respondent that she wasn't really interested in anything I could share with her and nor was she particularly keen on sharing her hard-won knowledge with me - I was neither asking the right questions nor being reciprocal.

Secondly, and it seems trite to say this but those who are immersed and embedded in specific localities have knowledge of that landscape and the art that can be produced in it that is very different from people like me parachuting in with the arrogance of the outsider. We must listen so carefully to the voices of those fields and trees. Alan Smith often posts pictures and films about the 'nothingness' of that landscape knowing full well that the thingness of those places are complex and emerge out of deep histories.

Thirdly, this is debateable land, reiver territory - from Allenheads to the border and beyond. Indeed it is a land of many borders - the littoral of the sea, the fells and mountains, rivers, dialect, peoples. None of this is seamless - we can see the seams in the land and below it, the fractures, schisms and boundaries. We can see those fractures in our own interiors as our minds struggles with who we are, who we are not and who we construct solidarity with. And beyond this are other places, artists, satellites and correspondents all bringing to us here the embedded knowledges of their own microspheres.

All of this is debateable, its up for grabs, experimental and often chaotic - it reminds me of that fractured landscape up at Allenheads. Contested, antagonistic and full of learning and care.


3.Nothings

Alan has talked of the ‘unnerving quiet and isolation’. The world became quiet and our conversations began, a kind of whisper into the abyss, a connection across the abyss that separates us. We talked across borders, counties, countries. These were the sounds of emptiness and the sounds of fullness. Alan posted the sounds of nothing and they were full, replete with winds and birds. The sound of the traffic died down from a roar into a nothing, our days became full of nothingness and at times we had to listen to ourselves and our thoughts, monstrous thoughts often full of grief for the people we missed and the world we had lost. And then the cars and the trains returned, people turned up in our yards and gardens who we thought had been lost in the deluge, drowned out. The boundaries we made around the silence became permeable again and other voices appeared to disrupt, to bring noise, to scatter the daws from the benches in front of the old schoolhouse. Helmut shouted to the forester beyond the garden, Annie picked up the child, Andrew looked out into the garden and the city beyond. The students returned to annoy Ben, the books arrived by a ding dong in the post, the tourists returned to the beach and left their broken bottles as the porpoises played in the bay, their revelling disrupted by trawlers again. Of course there were no nothings really, the hand scrawled the page and the gamekeeper waved from the pasture below.


4.He and I, She and I: May 27th 2020

Kerry talks about reduced liberties, fears and anxieties. An excess of computers and screens, an annihilation of social practice and consumption:

My own person take, as an artist, on this moment in time: this time of lockdown and reduced liberty; this time of fear and anxiety; this time of restricted movement; this time of limited purchasing options; this time of excessive computer and internet usage; this time of make do; this time of getting to know where I live; this time of being in one place for weeks on end with one other human; this time of being isolated in a forest; this time of time; This time of Coronavirus Covid19.

The last time I saw Kerry was at a conference at Manchester School of Architecture. We talked about species and plants a few of us and exchanged emails afterwards. This was the world before the deluge and all has changed. It was a day of storms that day in Manchester, the city was building and re-building. The monument to Alan Turing was closed off as the new office blocks were built around the square. Squalls, trains, coffee and across the Pennines back to home. Crowds, crowds of people, the boundaries of their bodies intersecting with others, shaking hands, embracing, sharing cigarettes and elevators. Unmasked then back in 2017. What was Kerry bringing to this: thinking practice as an artist in a unique condition of lockdown in a remote forest in Scotland. And this was thought in a moment when trust, as Kerry says, was totally unthinkable and problematic: trust towards governments, governments who had governed over destruction and destitution of us, of artists and indeed of entire populations: the governance of capitalism.

There is someone else in the room with Kerry: a He here too. Helmut and who is he? They share a home, in the cottage, in the forest, on the edge of the western night. They share poodles and bees, a marriage. They are sometimes antagonistic and sometimes harmonious. They make in different ways but also, often, together. For Kerry:

My experience of this time (as above) is both the same and yet very different to his. My experience of this time (as above) is both the same and yet very different to hers.

Each day we go through the same ritual of: ablutions, breakfast (and discussing what we’ll have for tea), recording birds over breakfast, dog walk, morning coffee, lunch, afternoon tea break, afternoon dog walk, an aperitif (new to this coronavirus situation), cook dinner, eat dinner, eat chocolate, watch telly, evening dog walk (just one of us) up to bed, ablutions. Sleep. Dream (a lot).

Each day our experience of the above ritual and the space between these punctuations is our own. Sometimes we are on our own, doing our own thing. Sometimes we are together working on one ‘project’ like gardening

For the Call Centre, our daily ritual will remain. However, during the breaks, the time sat drinking or the time spent walking, we can, and most likely will, ruminate and share call centre thoughts and reflections.

They bring other artists, and even economists, to our party. They will ultimately stop making during lockdown, almost as if the silence of the forest where they live makes everyone go to sleep, and they do sleep. I cannot think of them there over the border above us, beyond us without thinking of a gigantic hawthorn hedge that encloses them from the word outside, or even the vortex of a storm that keeps all out. Only the deer can make it through the great hedge. And for a century the cottage in the western night remains behind that hedge. Protected from the ravages of capital, removed from the metropolis, a place full of birds and the wind through the larches.

Out of the garden Helmut emerges, a figure out of Norse myth, his beard resplendent in the may sunshine. Perhaps it is he who is the sleeping beauty here behind the hedge or the prince come to the rescue. What does Helmut bring to the calls we make across the void. Of course it is the same routine, with minor distortions as that of Kerry:

My own person take, as an artist, on this moment in time: this time of lockdown and reduced liberty; this time of fear and anxiety; this time of restricted movement; this time of limited purchasing options; this time of excessive computer and internet usage; this time of make do; this time of getting to know where I live; this time of being in one place for weeks on end with one other human; this time of being isolated in a forest; this time of time; This time of Coronavirus Covid19

In collaboration our creativity expands

My experience of this time (as above) is both the same and yet very different to hers.

Each day we go through the same ritual of: ablutions, breakfast (and discussing what we’ll have for tea), recording birds over breakfast, dog walk, morning coffee, lunch, afternoon tea break, afternoon dog walk, an aperitif (new to this coronavirus situation), cook dinner, eat dinner, eat chocolate, watch telly, evening dog walk (just one of us) up to bed, ablutions. Sleep. Dream (a lot).

Each day our experience of the above ritual and the space between these punctuations is our own. Sometimes we are on our own, doing our own thing. Sometimes we are together working on one ‘project’ like gardening

For the Call Centre, our daily ritual will remain. However, during the breaks, the time sat drinking or the time spent walking, we can, and most likely will, ruminate and share call centre thoughts and reflections.