Postcards from the bathroom
Alwynne Pritchard describes how a lockdown project filmed in her toilet helped her feel more robust, and looks at how the crisis might affect the boundaries of art – for the better
When the shock of lockdown hit me, I lost all heart for working on the composition projects I had scheduled for autumn 2020. Like everyone else, I found it suddenly impossible to plan ahead, to know what the world would be like in six months’ time. But it’s interesting what happens when all your resources are removed. The necessity to be making something kicked in. One morning the idea of my Recorded Delivery virtual postcard video project came to me and I decided I had nothing to lose by setting the wheels in motion immediately.
It felt as though everything around me was shutting down or grinding to a halt, and the only resources I had were the things that were available in my own home. It was like being a kid again, making things up, using one’s imagination and nothing but a cardboard box and a tin can. With social media, self publishing is easy and the results didn’t have to be commissioned or even acknowledged. Being a professional didn’t feel very relevant back in March – everyone was doing something, so the internet was flooded, but at that point I didn’t know what else to do.
‘Looking back now, I was taking a bigger risk than I realised, taking on a greater challenge than I knew at the time’
I put out an open call for people to send me something to which I’d respond vocally. I’d make a kind of virtual video postcard as a reply to whatever they sent me. It felt great to reach out to other human beings, for the call to be as open as it was. Looking back now, I was taking a bigger risk than I realised, taking on a greater challenge than I knew at the time. I had no idea who’d send what, but I made the commitment to respond.
In the end, I was sent everything from musical fragments to random lines of text (without mention of Covid-19, which I didn’t want), drawings, collages and graphic scores. Most (but not all) of the contributors were Facebook friends, many of whom I’ve never met. Some composers recommended their students, there were visual artists and performers, and a very few weren’t artists at all, or involved in the arts.
Making the first 47 postcards in the collection (I’ll record more in the autumn) was quite a ride. When I started I had songs or vocal performances in mind for the videos, but they ended up being more like mini theatre pieces. The acoustic in the bathroom where I filmed is as bad as you’d expect it to be, so I had to find vocal solutions that took that into account.
‘The technical limitations forced me to find creative solutions quickly’
With these acoustic restrictions and the very limited space available, I ended up playing with details of angle, perspective, pacing and movement as much as vocal techniques. The technical limitations forced me to find creative solutions quickly. I had thought I would mainly be singing to camera, but the relationship between my voice, my body, the space, the camera and the microphone ended up being more complex than that. I spent as much time thinking about how much of my body would be visible in the frame, what angle I’d be standing to the camera and what kind of motion or tension my hands and fingers, my eyes, mouth – even my elbows – would communicate as I did about my voice.
The concept and staging of the videos developed while I was making each one. I could only get a proper sense of what worked or not when I looked back at what I’d shot, so sometimes I recorded a postcard as many as 40 times or more before I found a solution. Sometimes I was interpreting and staging a piece of musical material, and at other times I had to involve myself more as a composer, realising or composing out a more open or abstract fragment.
Working on Recorded Delivery was an opportunity for me to exercise every single day – really to limber up as a singer, actor and director. I’ve never done this before on my own, using just my own resources. The ongoing, daily interaction with the public gave it an added element of commitment. I had to act quickly. Like most artists, I’m usually quite careful with whom I collaborate, but I learnt a lot from the openness of this project. I feel more robust as an artist than I did six months ago.
I also enjoyed the project from a practical point of view, in that I just fell out of bed every day and got on with it. I wasn’t trying to make a definitive statement in any of the postcards, as they’re intended to be experienced as a collection. Someone described watching them as being like eating a box of chocolates – they’d watch one and then think, ‘I’ll just watch one more.’ I like that. For me, the project is all about the interaction between the different postcards, as well as between me and the participants. I like the vitality that’s generated through the coexistence of all of these things.
When I start the project up again in the autumn I’d like to try dropping the call for participants into social media groups that are as far from my regular communities as possible. When I was working on the first round, a lot of people thought they couldn’t take part because they weren’t composers or artists, but that’s not the case. I found it easier – and sometimes more rewarding – to work with fragments rather than compositions or more complete works, in whatever medium. But in all cases, the exchanges with other people were incredibly rewarding – I hope for them, too.
‘Lockdown has been an opportunity for people to relate to one another outside the institutional contexts that normally define a huge part of most of our artistic lives’
It’s understandable that we feel disillusioned and fearful in a situation like the Covid-19 crisis, but these feelings can of course be a kind of engine, too. And when one thing is taken away, a space opens up for something else. Lockdown has been an opportunity for people to relate to one another outside the institutional contexts that normally define a huge part of most of our artistic lives. There’s been lots of that going on online since March – not just well-known artists being intimate and relatable, but also young people, students, human beings who want to share something that they’ve done, a skill, an idea, an experiment, a bit of fun. In some ways, lockdown has given many people a chance to break free creatively.
Over recent months, art has maybe become more about sharing experiences and information than jostling for institutional acknowledgment or for work. With art institutions closed, their role as arbiters of quality has temporarily been suspended. Many questions about what’s valuable and important have been put on hold. Instead, we’re asking ourselves what we can make and share within the constraints imposed. It’s not ideal, by any means. Artistic institutions play a huge and important role in the lives of artists and audiences alike, and we need them to be healthy and to thrive, but we also need them to have the ability to transform. Like each and every one of us, they must be flexible and creative enough to be shaped by the impact of the Corona crisis.
‘These past few months have shed light on art as a series of exchanges – the motion rather than the ‘thingness’ of art’
There’s a lot we can learn from the shift in focus away from artistic quality (as defined by both artist and object) towards different qualities and processes. These past few months have shed light on art as a series of exchanges – the motion rather than the ‘thingness’ of art. I’m interested to see what impact this will have on arts institutions when they open up again.
In June, my partner Thorolf Thuestad and I received a small amount of funding from the local council (Bergen kommune) to do a one-day, outdoor drive or pop-in festival at our home. We have a large terrace at the front of the house that would act as the stage. The bus stop directly opposite is the Sletta stop, so we named our event SlettaFest. The project was a Corona initiative, intended as something people could experience parked in their cars, or for those passing by, waiting for and getting on and off the bus, or who wanted to drop by and sit in our garden.
An additional concept for the festival was that the artists be booked and the event promoted just one day before. This was to ensure good weather – not an easy challenge in Western Norway – but it also had the added bonus of keeping costs down. We paid a producer and a sound engineer and hired the technical equipment and, of course, we paid all the musicians (almost all freelancers in need of a summer gig). We had a bit left over for artists’ catering and transport, but the usual admin costs were cut right back.
‘Directing more money towards artists and away from administrative infrastructure is something institutions need to address more vigorously post-Corona’
With so much money often being directed towards infrastructure in the arts (leaving the artists themselves hanging on by their fingernails), it felt good to do something that was so light on admin. Obviously, these were exceptional circumstances but, nevertheless, directing more money towards artists and away from administrative infrastructure is something institutions need to address more vigorously post-Corona.
As for programming, Thorolf and I considered ourselves hosts rather than curators. Although we were trying to put together four hours of music that would keep visitors engaged, the programme ended up also being shaped by whoever was available at one day’s notice. The music at SlettaFest ended up being a mix of everything from traditional folk music (from Scotland, Ireland, Syria and Spain), jazz standards, experimental improvisation and pop, contemporary compositions, computer music and African traditional and pop. I love the fact that this eclectic mix came together partly by chance.
We had forewarned our neighbours that a festival would be taking place and were heartened on the day to see them emerging from their houses to listen, or enjoying the music from their own gardens. People driving by also stopped and others came by bus from the centre of town. We’'ve had enthusiastic feedback from the neighbourhood since, with many people requesting that we do it again next year. We shall see! For us, SlettaFest was, at least, one good thing to have come out of these strange and terrible times.