Over the last few months, Lancaster Arts has supported artist Jenny Gaskell to trial her new work, With My Ear to the Wall. Here are a few words from Jenny about the project, and how it came about:
Well, we’re still at it then. Patiently waiting for things to return to normal. Biding our time. Holding our breath. Wishing vaccines well and warding away news of new variants.
I’ve been struggling with a feeling of lost intimacy. I’m pretty sure we all have. Nervously clutching on to my last scraps of optimism, hoping this clampdown is the last one, I’ve started to think about what it will be like to be around people again.
These lockdowns have forced me to look inwards more than ever before – first out of panic, and then out of routine. In the beginning, I was stuck in a loop of: ‘am I okay? are my friends and family okay? are my neighbours alright? Okay settle down, repeat tomorrow’. There have been weeks when I couldn’t watch the news, I was too overwhelmed to take in the lives of strangers. ‘Yes, I’ll donate the money, but I’m not reading the article. I’m going to spend five hours watching Netflix and turn my bed into a fortress’.
Then there’s other weeks when I was climbing up the walls, desperately grieving lost touch and connection. Thinking about nothing else but kissing. Squeezing out the intimacy in otherwise mundane service provider phone calls. Feeling overcome when I bumped into someone I recognised in the street, shouting “how are you? how are you feeling? what do you smell like?” from a two-metre distance.
I caught myself talking about this to my close friend and collaborator Lisa Mattocks. Lisa has a series of invisible disabilities which cause chronic pain and, Covid aside, sometimes she goes for months on end without being able to leave the house. “This must be very 2017 listening to people complain about being isolated in doors”. Thankfully she found it funny, because she has THE. PATIENCE. OF. A. SAINT.
The thing is, I’m sort of out of the practice of thinking about things from other people’s perspectives. At some point, I felt I had to surrender to a smaller world of introspection. I’ve been so thoroughly wrapped up in myself and my immediate vicinity, with less understanding of what other people are going through because I haven’t seen it or heard it. The thing which really unnerves me is that in times when I’ve wanted to shut the wider world out, I’ve found myself dangerously uncurious about the lives of others. It scares me because wanting to know how people are, what their lives are like and how they see and experience the world – I think that’s the glue. It’s the impetus to connect, the starting point for living in a compassionate society, and to be honest, the main reason I ever want to seek out art, theatre, books, go to the pub or spend time with people in the first place.
So, this year, for anyone who has felt like me, I’ve started making some new projects.
With My Ear to the Wall is an intimate, tactile and socially distant audio piece. Inciting empathy, a sense of closeness and an almost voyeuristic curiosity, With My Ear to the Wall is designed to create the feeling that audiences are eavesdropping into the next room - overhearing tender insights into the lives of strangers.
The idea is that audiences listen to snatches of conversations by placing their ear and a specially designed ‘glass’ to the wall, which has little speakers hidden inside. They’re sort of portals into other worlds and into the lives of others. The audio is pre-recorded, then placed inside the 3D printed ‘glass’ tumblers, designed by creative technologist Chris Ball.
I’m hoping that something in the naughtiness and nosiness of eavesdropping will create that urge for people to want to listen to others, particularly to people who are not always heard. It’s a little bit like how we can be crap at asking people how they feel, yet desperate to read their diary.
I want to be able to make a version of the piece which can be experienced in a gallery, and one which can be experienced remotely at home – with glasses being posted out to people’s houses on a rental basis. If you are someone who continues to need to stay at home, we’ll make the home the art place.
It’s still a work-in-progress, but it’s a process I’ve been loving. Lancaster Arts have helped connect me with three people with different home lives and perspectives on the world – all of them are generous and open. I’ve been receiving audio support from Serafin Dinges, who is guiding me through the process. I’ve just started remotely interviewing people now. An early version should be available this Spring, with the hope of growing the project with more participants and a wider tour in Autumn.
Hopelessly Devoted to Universal Credit is the sister project, exploring intimacy and how we source it in strange and desperate circumstances. It’s a seemingly frivolous semi-autobiographical love story about the time – mid 2020 – when I developed a crush on my Universal Credit consultant. A crush which, even in the moment, I recognised to be symptomatic of a peculiar brand of loneliness.
He was called Chris.
He was lovely.
He used to call me up, ask me how things were going… what’s new… have I found a job yet… you know, cute stuff.
Despite never meeting in person, and the fact that none-the-wiser Chris was just trying to do his job, our weekly five-minute phone chats sent me wild. There was something in the fact that I was forced to sit by my phone, waiting for a call at an allotted time, and if I missed his call, it could be all over. I wonder if this is what romance was like in the 50s – very much in danger of losing a date and all your financial security if you neglected to hear the phone ring.
This project is again a tactile audio piece, which will take the form of a series of Universal Credit phone meetings that you can eavesdrop to on the phone. It will be available to listen to on telephones in galleries/theatres, or from people’s homes. It’s recreated with the aid of Chris Thorpe, creative technologist/graphic designer Lisa Mattocks and audio support again from Serafin Dinges. I’m still writing it at the moment. I think it’s going to be a vehicle to talk about lots of things – sex, shame, survival. That kind of thing. I’ll try to make it funny.
Can’t wait to share these artworks publicly. I should be able to share something later in the Summer.
Thank you so much to everyone supporting the projects, I’m feeling extremely grateful to be a freelance artist who is working during this time. Thanks to Lancaster Arts, Tara Centre, Lancaster, Cambridge Junction, HOME, a-n, Arts Council England and Lowri Evans.
*if you want to find out more about Jenny’s projects, contact Alice on firstname.lastname@example.org