Detangling The Knots: a new dimension

It’s like I’ve got a new pair of eyes. I am seeing everything differently. As I am considering what to do next with my project Detangling The Knots, I am also looking back at the last live phase of the project when we did workshops. How to write about the workshops without considering the new circumstances Covid-19 has brought us? Everything we did in the project so far would now seem impossible: visiting research laboratories and running workshops (in real life) with people who have dementia. All these involve physical proximity and closeness with people which is now dangerous and illegal. This is such a strange but important realisation to have.

It feels like I have to reconfigure the project to suit our new reality so that it is relevant. I had chosen to focus on dementia as it was such an urgency in terms of neuroscience research. So many people were living with the condition that it was essential to try and understand its mechanisms with view to find a cure. Things feel extremely different now that the focus has shifted.

The next phase of the project was going to be an exhibition at Red House Museum in Christchurch with a large crochet installation that people were going to be able to walk into. Sensory involvement is really important to my work. This is why I love working with wool and crochet because you can touch it. How can I translate this sensory aspect digitally? How does touch feel like as a concept now that touching is dangerous?

So many things are different but so many things feel clearer. One of the aim of the workshops was to offer a space where bonding and connections were possible. Now that we have lost the physical space and that we can’t sit next to each other, how can we still offer possible bonding through non-physical means? This is what my collaborators and I have been discussing. How do I make the project relevant? How do we reach people who are vulnerable at the momemt? What does it feel like to have dementia at the moment?

I am thinking about the Centre For Health where we did our Rushmoor workshops, how are things for them right now? What are their working conditions? How are they keeping in touch with their most vulnerable patients in the Older People Unit?

Looking at the photos, I notice how close we were all sitting, how small the room was, how the hands we were using to make art are now key sites for infection and contagion. I notice the quiet cosy feeling of being in a room with other people. It used to be so simple and normal, so precious now.

Detangling The Knots: So Far

“I tied myself in knots over it. And it was almost as if the tying of knots and the urge to untangle them was a secret way of… a secret way to… to avoid making my confession.” Nicola Barker, In The Approaches

Since I have started my project Detangling The Knots , I see neuroscience (and knots and tangles) everywhere. Even when I am reading fiction that has nothing to do with neuroscience. I have chosen to intersect the tangles observed in the brain of Alzheimer’s patients with the knots and tangles of my art practice in crochet but I find that tangles are used a lot in fiction to describe thought processes.

After 3 months of very intense residency and before we go into the next phase of the project, I am ready to press pause and start detangling the knots of new unprocessed knowledge in my brain. What happened during the residency? I had originally planned to work with 1 or 2 neuroscientists at the University of Southampton but I ended up spending time with 12 different neuroscientists which really shows the amount of support we have had! Together with my artist partner Susan Merrick, we made sound recordings of our conversations, took photos and video recording of lab processes, asked lots of questions. The scientists were really good at explaining concepts to us, often using drawings. They all used different techniques like putting electric current and chemicals through neurons, using fruit flies and stem cells. Grasping the details of the techniques was completely mind-blowing and always humbling. Susan and I were often exhausted after a day in the lab but hugely enriched and excited. What the research approaches all have in common is they are all looking at neuron degenerations.

What has emerged from the residency? What did the scientists get out of it so far? They have commented on how much they have enjoyed the project . They are looking forward to getting involved in our engagement opportunities later on and in seeing how we as artists will respond to the research. Some of them have started sharing photos of their labs in a similar way we have done as artists.

As an artist, two key concepts have been identified. The first one is manipulation: the idea of touching cells, of changing them, of using hands to manipulate equipment. As a wool artist, I use my hands to make crochet pieces, the pieces are designed to be touched, to be stretched. The question that is relevant both for the neuroscience labs and for my own art laboratory is how far can you manipulate/ stretch things?
The second concept is care/passion: looking at the often repetitive and lenghty lab processes as care processes, looking after the living organisms such as flies and cells, feeding them, emptying the waste, the intensity of it, the labour of it, the personal cost and implication. In my own practice, wool comes with very caring references. It is the material of blankets, of warmth and of comfort. How much care do you put into things so that they thrive? How far can you take care before it becomes something else? I will be taking care and manipulation with me into the workshops with dementia patients and look at their relevance in that context.

Other burning questions at the end of the residency were: What angle/perspective am I going to take as an artist in relation to the huge amount of data collected?
How do I honour/respond to the research while preserving my distance as an artist?
How do I embrace the chaos/the tangles of new knowledge in my brain?
How do I start manipulating the data?

Reflecting on Mindshapes

For the past month, I have been reflecting on my project Mindshapes about neuroscience which concluded at the end of October.  The project included months of research on the subject of neuroplasticity, a visit to the Wellcome Trust, interactions with Southampton University Neurosience Group (SONG), working with 3 different community groups and an interview with somebody who suffered and recovered from a stroke.

The aims of the project were to introduce neuroscience and neuroplasticity to a wider audience and to engage with neuroscience through art.

What were the highlights? Installing all the tree neurons together and connecting them, interviewing a survivor of stroke and making a piece that responds to her experiences, people touching and manipulating the artworks, the meditation sessions with the Guides and in the space, seeing the tension between the clean definite language of science and the flexible messiness of crochet.

What were the challenges? Money and engagement. I got some small amount of local funding but not the national grant. Not as many people engaged in workshops as I expected, particularly adults.  I did not always feel supported by the key workers. It was a bit lonely at times as the only artist on the project.

What have people’s reactions to the project been? It was a project that provoked strong reactions.  Awe, interest, attention but also fear and refusal to engage. Why? Because “your brain has let you down again and again”. It brought to the surface a lot of stories about the brain going wrong: MS, brain injury, memory loss, anxiety, of not being able to do things. I was confronted by the  strong reality and contrast between my excitement of neuroscience and the personal stories. I was quite surprised because for me, it was an exciting story, neuroplasticity, being able to change the brain. I suppose, in the end, it was good to be able to offer a space where people could engage in discussions about the brain.  I have since then been able to respond to further stories and start working on a sound/video piece about the brain being a cage.

What  happens next? I would like to work on a more specific topic of neuroscience such as depression or dementia and do it  in close long term collaboration with neuroscientists and  with other artists. I would also like to engage with a wider audience.

 

Making Brain Womb: a performance and installation

Yesterday, I spent the whole day on a patch of dried grass between 5 trees. I was commissioned by Fluid Motion Theatre Company as part of the arts festival All In the Mind.

I planned to make a site-specific piece/structure responding to the idea of the brain as a changing structure, considering the various connections in the brain and finally looking at the possibility of creating ourselves a new brain. At the heart of it all, I wanted to make a piece we could curl up in and feel safe.

It all started with defining my space to construct the piece. I was given a little clearing with trees on the side of the pedestrian path of Eastrop Park in Basingstoke.

At first, I was quite overwhelmed by the size of the site which included maybe 20 trees. I had never attempted to make an installation on that scale. I decided to focus on the edge of my little forest, 5 “trees”: 2 proper grown up trees, 1 bush and 2 baby trees. The very first action I did for my performance was framing the space, creating a sort of boxing ring.

Now that I had defined that space, I became aware of some heavy branches hanging over the middle of it, thus offering the possibility of attaching the installation in the centre thus linking the outside crochet lines to the centre to create a dome-like structure.

For the next 7 hours, I became completely absorbed with making Brain Womb. It really felt like I was getting well acquainted with this site. Collecting sticks, noticing the blackbirds, the ants, the smell of lime blossom floating in the air, the warm temperature, the scratchy texture of the dried grass, the stickiness of the sycamore leaves, the spikiness of the bushes, the people passing by, some of them engaging with me, especially children because they thought it was a kind of playground.

There were a few highlights for me: when 3 children came to sit under the centre dome, when my friend Gemma came and gave me a hand and renewed energy, when my teenage my son also had a go, and finally when Leigh the festival director’s came for an impromptu debrief meeting at the end of the festival. He commented on the contrast between the delicate nature of the material and piece and the feeling of safeness we experienced seating inside it.

Afterwards, I reflected on how much more comfortable I was than usual in engaging people with neuroscience and neuroplasticity because I had the visual and tactile aid of the installation

By being really absorbed in it, and by responding to the challenges of the environment, I was involved in changing the very structures of my brain and maybe in a small way other people’s brain. I felt changed, both calm and exhilarated.

Making the Land together: a collaboration

How do you create a piece together when your style is very different? At the core of the exhibition Yarning The Land was the close collaboration between artist Gemma MacLennan and myself over a period of more than 9 month.

Gemma tends to make figurative, brightly coloured  pieces while I am drawn to the abstract, more naturally coloured and highly textured.

We had worked  on a number of common projects such as  Under the Same Blanket and the Wool Festival/ Yarn Bombing Guildford, creating separate works but never worked together on the same piece.

Gemma drew an initial skecth we used as a guideline. We decided we would make individual pieces and that we would put them together at a later stage, a bit like a collage. It is a really flexible technique that enables you to play with the composition. It is a technique I have used in a lot of my work before. When we were pleased with how it looked, we crocheted all the pieces together.

 

Yarning the land

press release image

Here is the press release for an exhibition I am involved in, opening in April.

YARNING THE LAND: TEXTILE ART EXHIBITION INSPIRED BY

WILTSHIRE LANDSCAPE TO LAUNCH AT WHITE HORSE GALLERY

Marlborough, Wednesday 7th February, 2018

The landscape of the Marlborough Downs and beyond is the subject of Yarning the Land, a new exhibition of freestyle crochet, launching at Marlboroughs White Horse Gallery running throughout April. The exhibition features the work of artists Gemma MacLennan and Barbara Touati-Evans and aims to tell stories of the land and the differing ways we relate to it in the modern world”

The artists were inspired by a drive through the Downs and further afield around Wiltshire to create a large-scale collaborative piece and individual works based on what they saw. Further research included examining aerial photography of the area and visits to Avebury and Silbury, where they could examine the structure of the soil, observe local wildlife and interact with the natural world.

Gemma MacLennan said:Yarn is a familiar and comfortable medium for us to work with as we both teach crochet, but its use also ties in with the concept of our work. ‘Yarning the Land’ refers to the idea of telling stories (or ‘yarns’) about the land; its structure, the large and small details of it and the wild things which inhabit it”

Barbara Touati-Evans said:Our work, individually and collaboratively, is about offering multiple perspectives of the Wiltshire landscape using the traditional craft of crochet in a contemporary way. It is about how we view the land through technology, such as the car and computer, alongside how we experience it when out walking or observing nature”

Yarning the Land: An exhibition of textile art’ runs at the White Horse Gallery, Marlborough from 4th – 28th April. Admission is free and artworks will be available to buy.

For more information about the exhibition and the work of both artists contact:

About the White Horse Gallery

The White Horse Gallery, Marlborough is attached to The White Horse Bookshop and was opened in May 2016. Designed by architect Renshaw Hiscox, it has held exhibitions by Eduardo Paolozzi, George Dannatt, Eric Gill and wood engraver Simon Brett, as well as many local Wiltshire artists.

The White Horse Bookshop has been at the present site since 1949 and was bought in 2014 by Robert Hiscox and Brian Kingham, saving it from closure. It is currently the Wiltshire Life Business of the Year.

Art and mental health in the Uk

How can art involvement improve mental health and the lives of people recovering from mental health issues? These were some of the questions I tried to address in my last project of 2017. Organised by Hampshire Cultural Trust, this project matched 5 organisations supporting people living with mental health issues with 5 art practitioners.

I was paired up with the Recovery College run by Surrey and Borders Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. The Recovery College has around 2000 students and runs a variety of courses to promote recovery in mental health. One of the most striking aspects of their work is that it is accessed via self-referral. People do not need to go through their GP to come to the College; they can sign themselves up for the courses.

We had 5 sessions of Artspace at the West End Centre in Aldershot. I did not know what to expect as I had never done a project of this kind. I was very well supported by Colette Lane (Senior Recovery Coach) from the Recovery College. The aim of the sessions was to explore a variety of art media in a safe and supportive environment. We did not plan to explore mental health issues but rather to provide a safe space to try creativity.

I decided not to find out anything about people’s conditions in advance as I wanted to get to know them as people without labels. What did I discover at the first session? That I had planned far too much, that first sessions are always intimidating regardless of the context, that support and kindness from peers are more important and effective than tutor support and that some people struggle with whole group communication.

As the sessions progressed, I shared some of my mixed media practice, how I use painting, collage and crochet, all on one surface. All the students were really receptive and kind and interested. They developed their own work and made their own choices. We discovered some real artistic insight and flair. We shared some stories.

I supposed what stayed with me is that it was not really a mental health project, it was a people project. The challenges and joys we lived through in this project were the same as in any other art project I have done and concerned keys issues like choice, self confidence, independence, starting, trust, control and risk taking.

What did I witness and experience? Lots of kindness, lots of friendships. Lots of struggles and through that, meanings being created. I was amazed at the level of connections we created in just 5 sessions. WE were linked to each other and created something as a group.

And of course, the art produced was amazing.

Now for the science. The students filled in a variety of questionnaires at the start and end of the project to measure their progress. On average, the results show a significant reduction in mental distress from a score of 26 to 16 and an increase in recovery from a score of 26 to 34.

From the word of one student “I am less socially isolated since the course and making new friends helps me manage my feelings of intense loneliness in society.”

Connect to the land

 

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How do you connect to a place ? As an artist, how do you make a piece of work about a place ? How do you explore a place?

These are all questions that fellow artist Gemma MacLennan and I have been exploring for the last couple of months. We wanted to collaborate together on a project with an exhibition at the end. We already had a  family connection to Marlborough as  Gemma’s husband is the Manager of the White Horse bookshop which happens to have a lovely Gallery attached to it.

Landscape mediated through technology

We decided early on that we were going to do something about the land and the history in and around Marlborough. How do you explore the land today? First of all, you drive through it. As textile artists, both of us loved the textures, shapes and curves  of the fields, the natural colours. Then we looked at photos including aerial photos on the internet of Wiltshire and it started to give us a collage of ideas for our main piece.

Scale: from large to microscopically small

The main piece will be a large crocheted panel (approx. 3.5mx 1.7m), a collaboration between myself and Gemma offering our interpretation of the landscape from quite a large scale, like an aerial view.

Other avenues of exploration are to do with the composition of the soil which are mainly chalky. Looking at microscopic pictures of chalk (also from the internet) led to an amazing inspiration and wonders.

So our research and work in the last couple of months has made me realise how technology mediates our relationship with the landscape and how technology has enabled us to bring different  scales in how we encounter the land (from aerial to microscopic).

The next avenue of research is to explore the land by foot. Gemma has been researching about the Avesbury ‘s stones and we are going to visit and walk around them.

The exhibition will take place all throughout April 2018 at the White Horse Bookshop Gallery, Marlborough, Wiltshire, UK.

Community wellbeing

I was so pleased today when one of the participants at the Crafty Culture group I run told me today “Everytime I managed to turn a corner, I think of you and say thank you Barbara.”. She is of course referring to an actual corner, of the wooly variety, not a metaphorical one as she is talking about creating corners on a crochet granny square.

I have been running and attending this group for about 6 months now and I am amazed how much of a difference it makes to all of our lives. The group is free and open to all and takes place at the West End Centre in Aldershot once a week and offers art and craft activties but so much more. Most of the participants are women and the occasional men. We tend to get up to 30 people attending.

Even though the primary aim is to make things together, the benefits go way beyond. A few participants have long term physical and mental health conditions and have found attending the group have made a huge difference to their lives. It has improved their confidence and their motivation. They have made new friendships and learnt new skills.

In the light of medical reports about loneliness and how dangerous it is for our health, this group seems so important. It brings social cohesion, relieves isolation, and stress, creates connections and new friendships, teaches new skills.