In my last post I wrote about what happened when I decided to make beach cleans the focus of my MA in Art and Environment. I was working on my own: cleaning beaches on my own and then working on my own in a studio trying to make art from the ocean debris I found. I was very much stuck in the idea that art is done by lonely artists who keep their work close to their chest until it gets shown in an exhibition. You know, that genius in a garrett who suffers for their art.
I also resisted setting up formal beach cleans because I thought art was about making, not organising, and I wanted people to think about picking up litter as something they do all the time, not just once a year. Yet, almost without knowing it, I was beginning to collaborate with others and share what I was doing. In January 2011, I performed in Watering Spirits, a shadow play devised by Emiko Tokai, which involved improvising with light and water in front of a screen in order to cast shadows that are viewed by an audience. It was both a performance and a meditative and very private experience, and it reminded me of what I already knew from years of yoga classes: that sharing a personal experience with others – in this case an audience – creates a new, and potentially more powerful, experience for all.
I also began posting snippets from my beach cleaning on Facebook and persuading friends and family, (some a little camera-shy,) to join me, bags in hand, on the beach.
So when Jan Nowell, another MA student, suggested working together I agreed – but soon realised I felt uneasy about the whole thing. I was scared I would lose ownership of my ideas, my work. A part of me wanted to run back to my lovely studio, just me and my stuff. After a weekend of worrying, I told her my concerns. We talked it out and established some ground rules for communication: if you have a question or a concern, speak up. And if you are working on something that you feel is uniquely yours and so not to be shared, say so. Collaboration is a very productive form of working – so long as everyone is on the same page.
Turns out that Jan and I work very well together. We worked in an experimental way, a kind of learning by doing: go to a beach, clean it up, process and record the finds, make a note of what we’ve learned, repeat. We’ve cleaned beaches in Falmouth, taken the ferry to clean beaches on the Roseland, and the train to beaches on the North Coast. We began to see variations in the types of debris we found on different beaches and wondered about how much these are influenced by tides and currents. We met with people whose work overlaps with what we were doing and talked rubbish with them. Along the way we’ve met all sorts of people, and had a lot of fun: making rubbish kebabs, talking to people on the ferry, and investigating the beach using quadrats – you can read all about it in my previous posts.
Working with Jan made me see that I can open up my work to include others. Sometimes just a few of us working informally and spontaneously, and sometimes by inviting people to a specific event. (Yes, art can involve organising!) Working together makes the job of cleaning beaches much lighter. And the act itself becomes a space in which art occurs. It occurs in the work of transforming a beach, (however temporary that transformation may be,) and in the conversations we have had with passers-by and on the ferry. It occurs in the investigations made on beaches within quadrat squares and the unexpected participation of strangers. You can think of it as a performance, or a dance, perhaps. Not so different from performing in front of an audience in a shadow play – none of us knows quite what will happen next but the very act of working and talking together deepens the experience for all involved. In this context art is not so much about ownership, not an object you make or possess, but an action you share with others. It is a gift.
I still clean beaches on my own, especially Arthur’s Beach, my personal favourite. Sometimes I talk to people I meet and tell them what I’m doing. And the old codgers who look after Arthur’s know what I do and help out when they see me. But, to be honest, it’s Jan who has the knack for conversations. I share through this blog, and through the connections I’ve made with people all over the world who also clean beaches, and streets, and parks. They are very special people. I’m hoping those connections will lead to more collaborations, and more art, in the future.