When I decided to publish my first book of poems, Mistaken for art or rubbish, I decided concurrently to record and post online a reading of every poem from the book – partly as an experiment, to see if I could memorize them and read them how they sound in my head, and partly with the intention of creating a composite work of art (of some kind) that would serve as an accompaniment to the printed text. That would help give it context, animate it, maybe even explain it – though that’s a bit of a dirty word in art criticism.
This blog post is a guided tour of that process through a couple of photographs taken on my wife’s iPhone of the “set” midway through the recording series, which set happens to be a fully functioning shed adjoining my house; which is convenient for a number of reasons, many of which – if you’ve ever had a shed – you’ll be able to guess.
This is my shed. Correction: this is one of my sheds. (I have several.) One of my sheds is made of stone, one is made of wood, and one is made of a dubious white corrugated substance which I’m pretty confident is carcinogenic.
This is the shed I chose to be my set. I chose it because out of the two sheds that were big enough (wood and stone) it was the one that had the best lighting and seemed most able to be converted into resembling the idea I had in my head of what The Artist’s studio might look like.
For the purposes of this post, “The Artist” refers to me when dressed in overalls and a beret (AKA costume I spent a whole afternoon pondering, thank you very much!) – as I appear in the videos. The Artist is both the narrator of the poems and the central character of most; he’s also actually me (dressed oddly) in one or two; but usually he’s an imagined person or a combination of several imagined people or no one person in particular – more an idea of what you might think an artist is, or what you might think an artist thinks it is, or what I might think you might think an artist thinks it is. In one he’s Damien Hirst; or rather, an idea of what I think you think Damien Hirst is.
And this is his “studio” or place of work; it’s still a shed, even in the make-believe world of (most of) the poems. (In one it’s a “booth” in a factory.) The mostly cleared area in front of the shed was up until recently thick with unwanted plants (AKA “weeds”) and a grubby plastic trellis with a dying old man’s beard entwined through it. (Also a plant, not a severe case of neglect.) I plan to grow vegetables there next spring in a raised bed.
The shed used to be a pigsty, we were told, and we keep our rubbish in it. It seemed the perfect place to film these poems about art. All I had to do was remove several large mouldy rolled-up carpets and give it a bit of a sweep.
And put in my props.
Doubtist books logo, badly sprayed
This is the result of me stencilling my publishing company’s logo on the front door of my shed. It’s really badly done, which is often how things end up done if you do them the first time, unrehearsed. For this reason I usually run through a reading of each poem several times in the shed before I settle on a recording. I’m by no means a perfectionist – as you’ll be well aware if you’ve watched any of the videos. I don’t have time to be and I have no interest in being either; that’s not my artistic oeuvre I’ll say. But I want to basically deliver most of the lines correctly and in order. If I pause too long or completely forget, I’ll cut it and retake. Once or twice I’ve surreptitiously referred to a prompt print-out in the internal window alcove. You can usually see me doing this. Once I actually re-edited in a line I omitted in a really long poem. This was naughty and it felt bad. It looked fine because I cut in a still of something relevant to that line. Once I nailed it first take. By “nailed it” I mean remembered all the lines. It was probably the worst performance as a result. Repeated attempts usually prompt “natural” changes in cadence and action and little improvisations become repeated instinctive tics.
This logo stencil was created because I thought I might spraypaint it on a canvas in the first poem, where it references such tools. I didn’t because by that time I’d decided I would spend five-to-ten minutes before each video working on a painting of what I can see in the shed while the camera watches me. This was actually my wife’s idea. I liked it. I still have no plan about what conclusion I will reach from this, at this stage – about halfway through the recordings.
The swoosh element in the logo, whose lower mark is the filled-in “O” in DOUBTIST, is a punctus interrogatuss (if I’m spelling that correctly); it’s essentially an early Latin ancestor of the question mark. Probably more an exclamation mark in those days, but it looks like a halfway point. This is meant to indicate the ethos of the Has Doubts series of books (currently numbering one); the questioning nature of youth applied as an artistic philosophy, I guess. I’m not young, but I’m trying to rediscover and maintain that nature which allows humans to develop so much in their early years, and whose later (often seemingly necessary) neglect prevents further development in many adults. I feel this is essential for happiness and self-improvement on a personal and special (as in “of or relating to species”) scale. And that’s what I think art should do. Even if it’s done inexpertly or amateurishly or unnoticed; this makes it worthwhile in my book.
I considered using the fanciful “doubt point” proposed by Hervé Bazin, but it seemed too owned and too owning. And too squiggly.
I will repaint the door at some point but I’m in no hurry.
The above is the rough view of the camera when recording, which camera is placed on a roughly triangular bit of hardboard which has been attached to the wall above the door (presumably to stop crumbling masonry from falling on your head when you open the door). It wasn’t triangular; I sawed it so as to prevent its other corner from appearing in shot and obscuring much of the shed. When I did so I first had to clear a thick pile of debris and dust, under which I found a cache of letters dating back to the mid ’90s (around the time people still sent letters) addressed to a woman who never lived here.
The props seen here have amassed across the recordings. Many feature in poems; some appeared as a matter of convenience because there really is nowhere to put them. (One such recent example being the rolled-up trellis beneath the bench!)
There are acrylic paints and pastels from when I used to practise visual arts myself – generally a drawing or painting a year between my teenage years and my late 20s. One of those paintings, pressed against the wall in the unseen bit of the shed, collects mould and awaits a mercy killing I’m not yet willing to administer. It’s the distinctly unartistic depiction of a couple of large yellow peppers for which I received an A* in my art GCSE, which was the first and last time any official recognized body commended me for any form of creative expression.
There’s a map of Wales that came with the house, an old beer mug given to me by a student of mine in Prague who is mentioned (though not by name) in one of the poems, pens, pencils, quills, a few unused frames intended to look like they’re patiently awaiting artworks to display – and the painting The Artist is working on throughout the recordings. Which is about half-done, I suppose, purely based on the amount of poems I have left to record.
This is a big rusty crowbar that hangs on a big rusty nail in the wall. There’s a bit of dead ivy or something next to it that won’t come off. It provides a handy method of emphasis in some poems, usually when the word “tool” crops up. The word “crowbar” rarely (if ever) does, so mostly it stays on the roughly rendered wall of what used to be a pigsty, but which is now elevated (or relegated, depending upon your point of view) to being a set for a series of videos intended as a work of art.
This first attempt at spray-painting the Doubtist logo (before I did the rubbish one on the door) went quite well. I did it on the main supporting beam that carries the weight of the corrugated metal roof. It fortuitously ended up serving as the second point of reference for framing the camera when it’s positioned on top of a cardboard box and some tiles on the aforementioned triangular bit of hardboard. The logo must be fully in-shot on the upper left hand side of the screen; the corner of the handle of the crowbar (and only the corner) must be visible on the right, in the middle. If you actually saw the precariously balanced camera during recordings, which I somehow instinctively feel you have no right to, you’d look as worried as I often do. Especially if you’d paid for it.
This is the painting in progress as it is now; it’s the result of 17 short bursts (5-to-10 minutes at a time) of work, each done and recorded directly before the first attempt at reciting the poem. Actually, prior to “A verse for the averse” I painted nothing – because that poem’s about creative block – so I suppose it’s 16 short bursts and one fired blank.
Actually, I’m an idiot; I’ve just watched it again to refresh my memory and I did in fact paint – but at the end of the recording, having reached the inevitable epiphany at the end of the poem. And after drinking a very cheap energy drink and crushing the can onto the desk, where it still lies. I’d forgotten it because I never planned it (at least not in any real detail). This is proof of my authenticity and artistic credentials, should you be wondering.
I don’t know what to do with the painting. I wish I’d thought of it before; but I couldn’t, because having the script down that tight wouldn’t have suited my intentions. I’m not an actor (as you’ll see from the delivery of the more in-character pieces). I suppose I hoped it would be really good, really bad, or really… relevant. Or something.
Entirely predictably, it’s very average. It looks like the inside of a shed as painted by someone who can’t (and yet still does) paint. It isn’t art; but it is a prop. So I suppose there is some level of craft involved. It’s very complicated for something so simple, but only to me (and The Artist); it gives me a bit of a headache to think of it. And to look at it; partly because the wall looks nothing like the real wall in the shed (see below); partly because I don’t want it to look like that wall and it looks a little too much like it; but mainly because I don’t know what I want it to look like because that wasn’t “in scope” when I decided to do the recordings. It was important that The Artist was working on something, but beyond the idea of painting the audience, which I liked, I had no aspirations or plans for the conclusion of the piece. I didn’t want it to end, just to be happening at the right times.
This is perhaps why I haven’t yet won the Booker Prize. Or indeed the Turner Prize.
I did come second in a poetry competition once. But that’s only because I entered enough that year that it became mathematically likely.
The inside of my shed
This is the real inside of my shed. Stuff has piled up on that thing that hangs on the wall that used to hang in my shower whether I liked it or not. You can see the box and the pile of tiles on the roughly triangular bit of hardboard above the door. And you can see the bit of light coming through the slightly open (indeed unclosable, from inside) door. And the energy-saving light bulb. And the wall. The real wall, which is (albeit not exceptionally so for a wall) solid and wall-like. This is not what I wanted to paint; and not just because the camera is absent.
This is a different photograph of the painting, showing the shed’s only window and the third source of light, which illuminates the painting or my face, a bit, when it’s sunny. You can also see the flowers my wife held at our wedding, which are a recent addition to the set. They don’t currently have a speaking (or being-spoken-to) part.
You can also make out the collection of brushes encrusted into a solid disc of dehydrated paint, removed from the old ceramic beer mug at the start of a recent video after the shed and its goings-on suffered 3 months of neglect while I went to London to help feed and clothe my family.
This is the little glazed alcove that provides natural light, as mentioned above. Sometimes I put a drink in it and usually I’ll have a knackered old print-out of the poem I’m reading folded up in there to refer to in-between (or occasionally during) takes. It’s wrinkled from being read in the bath, which is where I usually make time to memorize and recite poems. That’s a dime in there, catching the light; it ended up there after the poem “Alchemy“, in which I (as The Artist) threw a collection of coins (of mixed denomination) around in apparent exasperation.
The other day there were about 40 flies trapped in the alcove; I killed them with a harmful and environmentally unsound spray, but have not yet removed them and have made no plans to.
Occasionally a plant grows from the corner. I kill that too, inasmuch as I am able.
It is my shed, after all.
Props in the shed – paint etc.
A close-up of the array of props that are intended to convey the atmosphere of The Artist’s habitat. Among these are some purely personal pursuits which I like to jokingly dress up as subsidiary efforts of my publishing company – like a large demijohn of blackcurrants in vodka. and two jars of fermenting North-African style clarified butter, AKA “smen”.
There is an empty beer bottle. I genuinely forget why; this is not where these are usually kept, and, unlike when I began my early experiments with poetry recording on my old blog, I am almost always sober during recordings. And of course there’s the messy plastic palate that like most of my artistic equipment would have come from either Hobbycraft or The Works at least a decade ago; and there’s a desktop vice I bought on a whim from a village shop in Maenclochog some months ago. It was a bit of an Alan Partridge moment I think. I got talking to the woman behind the counter and got carried away with my own idea of being grown-up. (I didn’t expect her to have a vice in an old box round the back when I asked for one.)
Overall, it’s a rough and messy approximation of anyone’s reality, but its colours and shapes seem to form a kind of coherent whole; and it’s nice for so many of my unused possessions to have a temporary newfound purpose.
Below the bench
This is the floor below the bench (or desk, depending on my mood); there’s a fermenting bottle of blackcurrant champagne down there, but that’s none of my business. It became apparent to me some time after the fourth or fifth recording that little things occasionally appeared or disappeared from the set. I grew to embrace this and now practise the same mischief myself between takes. The set, like the painting at its centre, has become an evolving thing. But this troubles me less than the canvas and its contents because nobody (including me) will presuppose or demand a narrative from the set.
I believe that’s rising damp. Certainly it’s damp, and it’s coming from below.
Mistaken for rubbish or art
And finally; this is the real shed. The corner you don’t see in the videos. A pile of festering bin-bags and half-empty paint pots. That seems fitting to me, although it does mean the smell isn’t always pleasant in there. Fortunately there are so many other competing elements assailing the senses that not even the most pungent binbag can dominate the shed sufficiently to distract me from my artistic vision. Some would say that this rubbish is the tail-side of the coin to my artistic “head”. Actually nobody would say that, but you can imagine why it pleases me to have it there: arriving, sitting, silently breaking down and occasionally being set about by mice or flies in my absence; watching me and watching you behind the camera and leaving in-between poems like a disgruntled theatre-goer making a break for it in the intermission.
The rubbish will probably last longer than the art in this shed, although I have a vague fantasy about cleansing the area more entirely in the distant future and housing the bin-bags in a separate structure nearer the drive. One day it could be a real artist’s studio! Although I can’t imagine I could assume the role of The Real Artist who would inhabit it.
Whatever the conclusion of the series of videos, I half hope I won’t film any more (for future books) in here, as I feel I ought to branch out and be more inventive – film outdoors, in the street; maybe even read in public.
But just as the K-Foundation or Damien Hirst should not be judged for the wealth of their artistic materials (£50 notes, diamonds, expensive megafauna, embalming fluids, etc.) nor should Alexander Velky (or The Artist in this volume) be judged for the poverty of his.
If “Rhymes for all times” (Has Doubts: volume two) must be shot here too then I’m sure the right props and costume will add a sufficiently different ambiance. Heck, maybe I’ll buy a different-coloured bulb for that light.
At some point in future I’ll blog in more detail than you’ll be grateful for about the actual videos.