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Experimental VI – a memory box

Sculpture from Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, Whistler, British Columbia

In the early 1980s I worked for a couple of years as a Community Artist. I was part of a team of artists from different disciplines. We worked with a diverse range of people from 8 to 80 years old, most of them with some sort of special need. Sometimes we worked on our own, and at other times we worked in pairs. It was great fun and hugely rewarding. I learnt so much about life and about myself. It was a great opportunity to combine work on creative projects with teaching. Thus, often we would be developing a new idea, and sharing it with a group as it emerged.

My own disciplines were photography and writing. The writing was something I had developed over the previous 10 years, from my mid teens. The photography was something I learnt as a went along. I don’t think ever really got the hang of using a dark room, but learning how to compose an image from the world around me, and to look, really look at the world around me – that was something that I developed from the skills of those who taught me.

I worked with fine artists, potters, photographers and fabric makers. One project which I still remember really well – partly because I still have my own output from it – was a project where a visual artist and I worked on a memory box idea. We constructed a small box from card, painted it and then filled it with memories. These could be things we had kept that we wanted to put inside the box, or things that we made that evoked a memory. Some of the ingredients in these boxes included mini booklets, scrolls, bits of material and tiny paintings. The box itself was about 10 centimetres across so everything had to be made in miniature. It was a great project to work on. I think the idea for it came from the artist, Lucy. She had done something similar in her degree studies I think. Each version of the basic idea was distinctly different.

From this “maker” project, I developed the idea of memories in a box, bought an old jewellery box from a second-hand shop on Lark Lane in Liverpool (the same shop where I bought a wind up gramophone to play old 78 records! That’s another story) Inside the box I kept hand written notes, cards, postcards, feathers, shells and stones. Each thing bears a memory.

I was looking at this box recently, and wondering how these ideas could be extended into a digital space. I use a lot of online spaces to store things – photos, video, words and ideas – sometimes in Facebook, sometimes Twitter, Google Plus and Evernote. Some of these memories are stored in a  public space where others can see what I have saved. And sometimes they are private. My own space to store things in a virtual, online digital box. Combining the virtual and the real would make a really exciting concept for a memory box.


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alice reimagined

Back in 2004 I wrote a booklet of poems called “the alice conversations“. 13 poems in a short booklet, it was a set of dialogues and conversations with Alice. When I first began working with Carl Jung’s theories of archetypes and active imagination, I developed a set of characters that would reappear frequently in my written work. The character of Alice was my anima, the inner feminine within the man. She appears in a lot of my written work. Other characters include Peter, Lou Meera and Aslan (yes, I know that name has been used before!)

The set of poems that I wrote back in 2004 were fun to write, had plenty of insight into the personality of this character, and were produced at a time when I was looking to make sense of archetypes and find ways to work with them.

A few weeks ago, I was looking through this booklet again. That prompted a new idea – to take each poem of the original 13 and use that as source material for a new section with 5 or so poems. I’m aiming for a complete manuscript of up to 100 poems.

Each poem in the original sequence is the beginning place for the reimagination…

I am aiming to get into the mode and mind of Alice – take a poem, break it up. Print it out and cut it up – look for narratives and threads that are there but not used in the original.

Use the conversation idea in much more depth! Dialogues – exploring the original material and adding in a lot of new material.

alice reimagined 2017

I will write in many different styles – Ferlinghetti, Eliot, Auden, Hughes, Heaney. I am going to draw on other approaches too. This will be an opportunity to stretch and expand my techniques. Sometimes we just become somewhat stuck in a rut of writing. The other collection I am working on at the moment “Hang Fire” has become stuck – diving into “alice reimagined” is my way of unblocking, creating a free space to write and open out the creative approach.

What about visuals? I have been looking for 13 black and white photos from the many pictures I have taken in the last few months, to place these at the beginning of each section. I have 6 already – photos that evoke the mood that I am aiming for in the poems. More posts will appear here as the book develops.


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Experimental V – music with or without an audience

I have mentioned before on this blog that I am a huge fan of the work of David Sylvian and Richard Skelton. An initial google might lead you to think that these two have very little in common. Sylvian began his career in the last 70s and early 80s with Japan, a band that trod the New Romantic route even if that isn’t what they wanted to be called. He broke the band up just as they were becoming popular – and then set off on an eclectic solo career working with an incredibly wide range of musicians from the worlds of jazz, ambient, classical, avant-garde and modern music. His recent albums have been either entirely instrumental musical pieces for art installations or spoken word pieces with found sound backgrounds. All very obscure and truly beautiful (if you like that kind of thing, of course!)

Richard Skelton – Limnology

Meanwhile, Richard Skelton’s music uses drones and found sounds – hence, the connection with the work of Sylvian. In contrast, Skelton’s work has a singular vision – it is incredibly distinctive. His early work was in very limited editions, often with leaves of pieces of bark included to make the work unique. Skelton is a writer as well as a musician. His writing is also very focused – often drawing on the landscape around him – often poetic. His work is impressive for its purity of vision.

Another similarity between these two artists is the way in which they create music – or art – with a singular vision. One has the clear sense that they are creating what they want to because they are driven by a purpose from within. They are not playing to an audience at all. This driving sense of the need to create is at the heart of the experimental. It’s what often makes the product of experimenters hard to understand at first. Their outputs require effort, patience and a willingness on the part of the audience to suspend judgement whilst trying to understand what is going on.

And sometimes the work of the experimenter goes beyond rational understanding. Thus, Sylvian’s albums “When Loud Weather Buffeted Naoshima” which seems to be set in a stark and bleak landscape with strange falsetto voices (Arve Henriksen) and weather creaking and howling – is at times harrowing and at others beautiful. A more recent album, “there’s a light that enters houses with no other house in sight” takes the poetry of Franz Wright read by the poet, and drops it into a bleak soundscape that jars and resonates with the words.

It’s all powerful stuff – both musicians have created their own experimental worlds and developed them outwards to create their own musical vocabulary.

There is so much to inspire in what they do. At once I am inspired by their drive to experiment, and by the stripping away of anything familiar in a quest for the new and surprising. As often happens for me, this creates ideas in my head that jump out of music and into other media. And that is when experimental music is at its richest, its deepest and its most profound. Ah, wonderful!

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Experimental IV – photos

In the last post I mentioned that I worked as a Community Artist in the 1980s. This involved teachings skills in photography as well as creative writing. It must be said that my photographic skills were pretty basic. This was in the days of rolls of film, black and white moody photos and dark rooms with chemicals for developing each photo.

The world of photography has changed so much. These days millions of photos are taken from our smart phones and shared online every day. The technology that supports are photo taking has improved so much that many of the technical skills of the photographer are now done by the phone rather than the operator. But there is still so much that is in the hands of the person who points and shoots.

How we frame the photo and what we take as the subject is key. Then the editing of the photos that we take can lift the images to a whole new level.

Recently I took a batch of photos whilst walking with friends in the Wirral. One of the photos was an unremarkable photo of birds in the sky. I took the photo, cropped it and then added various filters.

Here is the original photograph before it was cropped:

Nothing remarkable in this photo. But once a crop is applied to focus on the four photos on the left of the image – and then some filters and effects are added…

The result is four images that could be a series of paintings. Experimenting with an image, a glass of wine (it helps apparently) and a simple app (snapseed) produces something which I really like.

Bird in Sky I
Birds in Sky II
Birds in Sky III
Birds in Sky IV



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Experimental II

I didn’t get what was meant to be happening with John Cage’s 4:33 when I first heard about it. This was a piece of “music” that lasted for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Except it wasn’t a piece of music because the musician would sit at the piano (or any other instrument) and not play anything for that amount of time. It seemed like Cage was laughing at us – playing the ultimate con trick. Except, when you sit in the space and there is no music, you are forced into a zen-like experience of hearing everything else that is going on around you. There isn’t complete silence at all. You become aware of the sounds that the audience are making, noises coming from outside, the sound of your own breath. Perhaps, even the sound of your own thoughts distracting you. A truly powerful idea!

Simple, abstract and minimalist are all ideas in music and word that have intrigued me over the years. I bought the Gavin Bryars album “Sinking of the Titanic / Jesus’ Blood” when it was first released on vinyl in 1975. Not because I had heard of Gavin Bryars, but because it was on Brian Eno’s experimental label, and I trusted his judgement. I was only 14 at the time – it was an easy thing to do. This album was comprised of two pieces of music each spanning the full side. The first piece was inspired by the idea that the concert band on the Titanic continued to play as the ship sank. This idea is combined  with the idea that sound gradually decays and would be still present after the ship has gone down. Using recorded footage of interviews with survivors and treating the music as though it is echoing and distorting – the result is a beautiful piece of music. But it was the second side which really gripped me. Called “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” this piece begins with the recording of an unknown homeless man who Bryars had recorded for another project. The recording is looped and plays over and over for the 25 minutes of the piece. Instruments gradually join the singer, build and then fade away to just the singer’s voice. It’s a fragile and deeply moving recording.

Sometimes the deepest experiments begin with very little material – silence in one case, a short loop of a recorded voice. This gives the boundaries within which the experiment can take life.

How can you place simple boundaries to enable you to experiment?

Have you seen my two books released this year?

Values Count is available from Amazon or directly from my website. It’s a book about values based approaches to work. Essential for anyone who wants to work with a strong sense of purpose.

Blue: Experiments in Sound is my latest collection of poetry with illustrations, the latest stories about Blue, the misanthropic 21st century man in search of a meaning. It is available in a limited edition from my website.


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Experimental I

This is the first of a series of posts on the experimental. This will be a set of blog posts, which feature ideas and experiments. Different approaches.

What is “Experimental”?

There are two distinct definitions for the word. When aimed at science, (of a new invention or product), based on untested ideas or techniques and not yet established or finalised e.g. “an experimental drug”.

When focused on the arts (of art or an artistic technique), involving a radically new and innovative style, e.g. “experimental music”.

Experimental – to take something and test it, try something new, be innovative. Put the two approaches together…

Are these two so different? What is the common ground between them? Why do we always want to separate out arts and science – and then further stratify with humanities and social sciences? Does division diminish?

In the background I can hear “4D Music” by Brian Eno. This is a simple drone, with a pulsing that creates a simple rhythm. A whispered voice repeats and layers the words “Behold the child, in front of me”. The piece – hypnotic and mesmerising, but also unsettling. Shifting slowly, imperceptibly.

Rain persists in the sky. Falling on silent wishes.

Disruption caused by change, new routines, new patterns – all to create different thoughts.

A blog post by Doug Shaw about Patterning – experimenting. Working out Loud – finding a space to share his journey of learning, self teaching…

John Kannenberg, curator of a wonderful web-based record label called Stasisfield which ran from 2002 to 2015. Avant garden, minimalist, micro-tonal. Thought-provoking and stimulating. I loved the music that appeared on this label – all of it free.  A labour of love. Something happened last week, prompted me to go searching – found that Stasisfield has stopped but John continues to experiment with a beautifully crafted site and a blog called Phonomnesis about silent memories of sound, art, time, museums, philosophy, and culture. Experiments.

Graham Shaw showing us all, that contrary to the Art Teacher at secondary school who told us otherwise, we can actually draw.

… and the journey of a year’s worth of Skype calls in 2013 with Andrew Dubber where his role was to persuade me that I could shift from someone who wrote a bit, to a published author. Technical ability making up 20% and confidence and battling the inner critic making the remaining 80%. He did more than I suspect he realised to push me forwards.

Poetry – the experimental. Taking an image and crashing it into something else. Loving the work of Frank O’Hara (writing about him in the new book, “The Journey to Wonder”) and obsessing over the writings of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. How to write with elegance and effortlessness.

Reading the latest issue of “The Wire” experimental music magazine – adventures in sound. Marvelling at the number of experimental magazines that exist at the margins these days. Sampling, trying – pushing the imagination to explore.

Street Wisdom – wandering streets with a loosely structured process to interrogate the surroundings, see it anew and find solutions to linear questions with non-linear approaches. Months later and still absorbing the learning.

And returning to Brian Eno: his oblique strategies cards were created with artist Peter Schmidt as a way to disrupt thinking. Two random examples:

“Be extravagant”

“You can only make one dot at a time”

… the journey to wonder continues.



Have you seen my two books released this year?

Values Count is available from Amazon or directly from my website. It’s a book about values based approaches to work. Essential for anyone who wants to work with a strong sense of purpose.

Blue: Experiments in Sound is my latest collection of poetry with illustrations, the latest stories about Blue, the misanthropic 21st century man in search of a meaning. It is available in a limited edition from my website.


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2017 Live Writing Marathon 4 – Under the Surface

Train Journey #4

Sometimes it’s easy to take a superficial view and get fed up! No words being written becomes seen as a lack of activity. Not true!

No words have been added to “A Journey of Wonder” since Friday. And that feels uncomfortable. Overnight I’ve been wondering what’s going on. Then this morning – in the shower (of course) – I realised that I had been working on this book overnight even if no words are making it onto the page. Things are going on under the surface.

The basic problem I have been working on is the way that the writing was somewhat hijacked on Friday by an outpouring of appreciation, passion and of course, Wonder, for the musical influences that have shaped me. As I said yesterday, that left me wondering what I should do about the other influences – writers, poets, thinkers etc. It’s not solved yet – but the revelation this morning was to realise that maybe there are two book ideas here creating tension within the one manuscript. As soon as I had the thought, I felt a releasing of tension. Now, a few hours later – I am not sure what to do next. So, here I am blogging to resolve it. I could:

  • carry on regardless – keep writing each of the sections that I intend to and work out later what to do about the fact that there are two books.
  • start to pull apart the two books – and decide which one to work on.

I do need to figure out whether and how these two book ideas differ. ‘A Journey of Wonder’ was intended to be a book about people who inspire me and many of those are musicians. The writing I did on Friday (which covered John Peel, Kate Bush, Robert Fripp and Neil Young) has left me wondering whether those sections still fit into a book about other influences like Carl Jung, Seamus Heaney, Margaret Wheatley and James Hillman. As I am writing these sentences – working out loud – it feels like I should carry on with option one. Churn out the sections and worry about the overall structure and whether there are two competing ideas, later at the editing stage.

Blogging – a solution generating process. This is how working out loud works!

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2017 Live Writing Marathon 3 – Blocked

Train Journey #3

Here we are – Saturday afternoon and I have not written a word yet today. I am stuck. Now, before I tempt you to think that this is writer’s block: that’s a concept I don’t believe in, so it can’t be that.

I had some non-writing jobs to do this morning, so I didn’t find the space to get to the laptop until early afternoon, but I have been avoiding the writing for nearly 2 hours. It’s time to check in and see what is going on, and to draw down some of the learning points from the first Writing Marathon I completed back in 2015.

First, let’s check what is happening. I did a short meditation earlier and the following issues surfaced:

  • At the beginning of this process I had two possible manuscripts to work on. Yesterday I spent most of the day focused on “A Journey of Wonder”. Overnight I have had doubts – did I go for the wrong one? I need to dismiss these thoughts. There is no wrong choice here – I just need to get on with it. If it means so much, I could spend some time on the other manuscript later today or early tomorrow.
  • The sections I have sketched out for “A Journey of Wonder” have become a bit skewed. I was intending this book to be a collection of the people who have been big influences on my thinking and my ways of working. The sections I wrote yesterday, and the names I added to the list to write about, were predominantly musicians. That feels helpful, but I have been worrying that I have missed out a whole lot influences. I am settling this issue at the moment by noting that music and musicians are a huge influence on everything I do, so just run with it.

I thought it would also be useful to remind myself of the key learnings from 2015:

  • starting each day with a short meditation really helps me to get started.
  • having a structure ready in advance so that I am sitting down with a job to do, rather than a blank page is a big help.
  • the process has shown me that I have the ability to focus far more than I thought I did.
  • doing this over three (four in this case) days builds mettle, as each day goes I gain in confidence.
  • the power of the visual post-it note technique for helping me to build a structure for the book was remarkable. It really helped me to see what the chapters could be and how they fit together.
  • it is also remarkable how much the ideas come together in the actual writing process itself. Whilst writing, new examples occur and connections between sections become more obvious.

Those notes are really helpful to get me focused and sharpened. I will pull together a timetable now, and report back later in the day. All for the sake of #writingoutloud.

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2017 Live Writing Marathon – 2

Train Journey #2

It’s early evening of the first day of the writing marathon. So far so good! I’ve been working, head down and writing for much of the day.

To be fair, it took me a while of circling the material before I finally started. After some time, but not too long, going through email and finding other things that needed doing, I managed to get on with the writing task.

Interestingly, the distraction approach of the early part of the day did mean that I got some things done that really needed doing.

My first target for the marathon was to write 10,000 words for the manuscript called “People who inspire me” over the four days. I have really good news about this. So far I have produced 5,000 new words. I already had 5,600 words produced on this, so it has grown to 10,600 words which is an excellent start. I had 20 people who I wanted to write about – that has grown to 45. This is because the process of writing about people who have inspired me has thrown up other names as the day has progressed. It’s been really fun writing this. I’ve managed to keep the Critic / Editor at bay, so I have no idea how good the words are. That’s not the point at this stage.

The other good thing to report about this manuscript is the title. I did a quick exercise mid afternoon. I’ve blogged about it before – imaginary letters. I wrote an imaginary letter to Seth Godin, and then wrote a reply. In that exchange a new title emerged. It’s still a working title but I like it at the moment. Please comment if you have a view. The title is “A Journey of Wonder”. Of course, I may have accidentally ‘borrowed’ it so need to check it’s not already in use.

I have also written a first draft of a new poem for the “Hang Fire” collection.

So, good progress so far…

Time for food methinks!