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  • 5.18.09

Simon Whitehead in conversation with Melinda Buckwalter

SEEDS FestivalOintment, SEEDS network

Melinda Buckwalter: This interview is in anticipation of your trip to the States in June to co-teach with Jennifer Monson at the SEEDS festival (Somatic Experiments in Earth, Dance + Science) at Earthdance in Plainfield, Massachusetts, starting June 14th, 2009. How about a bit of background to start. Are you based in Wales? Did you grow up there? Simon Whitehead: Yes, I live in a small village in West Wales, Abercych, with my partner and 3-year-old daughter. I grew up in North England, my family is originally from Wales. I moved to live here from London 14 years ago.

Melinda: Small village, how many people? I live in Western Massachusetts near Earthdance in a town of about 1000, with still a few dairy farms and lots of organic gardeners.

Simon: Approximately 300 people—mainly large dairy and sheep farming, and increasing organic small scale. Forestry in the valley, quite wet here, so a lot of woodland and river activity nearby.

Melinda: A river is lovely. So you did the city thing and chose to move back to the country? How did you get involved with movement arts. Did you study dance? I am curious if you have a music/visual arts background because of the models you use in your collaborations. Do you consider your work somatics/dance/movement study?

Simon: Increasingly I am interested in making my work in the valley, next to the farmers and others who live and work here—sometimes the performance lives alongside the other activities. Yes, chose to move to the country, needed to immerse and find my own practice awhile and I stayed. I studied dance after a degree in geography and sports science. I have always collaborated. I’m interested in how ideas translate through other lives and disciplines.

Melinda: Were you involved in a dance scene while in London? What kind of dance did you study?

Simon: I studied at the Laban Centre and then frequented Chisenhale to study and dance with experimental choreographers, and began to make my own work. People like Rosemary Butcher—probably the most influential post-modern choreographer in the UK. When I studied with her in the early 90s she was working a lot with scored improvisation—very rigorous instructions and heavily layered. Also, visiting dancers like Simone Forti, Nancy Stark Smith, and Miranda Tufnell were important influences early on, and then visual artists working with performance/body like Marina Abramovic were later influences, before I found my own way….

Melinda: There is a feel of the installation/visual arts tradition in what you do from my experience. Can you talk about “finding your own practice”? What were the first things you tried once you were in the country? Was it an extension of what you’d done in London or a starting over?

Simon: I guess you always bring something with you. Mine was a curiosity about how this work I was doing was going to transfer to a rural place/culture. My main strategy was walking, walking the land, fields, coast, as a way of internalizing the place and becoming visible. The first thing I did was walk a path in the winter from my door up the mountain each day, and by walking, making a physical path that was reclaimed by the mountain in the spring when the grass grew back…. Later that year I carried a kitchen table through the village and to the top of the hills.

Melinda: How did the village respond at first?

Simon: With bemusement initially, but then there seemed a certain kind of warmth, amusement, and conversations followed. This was another village by the way, in North Wales, which is mainly Welsh speaking, so the language was another thing to bridge. I learn slowly, so the performances (if that’s what they were) became a way of speaking.

Melinda: Interesting. We hear so much about the little towns and how insular they can be. I wonder if you struggled with isolation as an artist initially or did you crave that to get into your own process? That is a big struggle for me as a mover/dancer who loves the country but needs dialogue to create.

Simon: There was a certain hardship initially and it became hard to sustain without dialogue, but the time there was formative and an opportunity to understand my own process. I obviously kept working relationships going from outside the village and this was important. I stayed there for four years before moving to West Wales and my practice was so shaped by my life and experiences there.

Melinda: There is something that strikes me about the slowing down that would happen moving from city to country, having to learn the language. It’s almost like you put yourself in a situation that created the possibility to slow down enough to hear yourself. Does that make sense? It seems to be a theme of yours, right? The 2 mph walk?

Simon: Yes, the adjustment to time has been huge. The rhythm is so different and I guess one way of marking time was walking pace; the walks were often works in themselves, and often led to and influenced other outcomes: dance, film, installation, book, etc. Often the other forms were ways of telling stories.

Melinda: I am curious if you took walks with your family growing up in the great British tradition?

Simon: It was there early on, but interestingly often by myself. I walked to school from age six and loved to wander off, get lost. It was this early lostness/disorientation that seems to underpin a lot of the work I make. I’m easy with getting lost.

Melinda: So when you walked, did you consciously do it as fodder for a performative project or was that instinctual somehow? Maybe you could give an example of an early work that grew out of the walking. Also, I am interested in how you mean the other forms are the story telling part.

Simon: I think the walking was the first, instinctive response. Early in my life here in Wales, I made a dance piece that emerged from walking the coast (littoral) close to my home each day over a season. I collected artifacts on the walks (an old caravan amongst others) and placed them in the performance space. They had a sculptural presence, but there was also a narrative in the choices I made. Some dreams during that time also became a strong presence in the work. I made field recordings and sent them to my collaborator, sound artist Barnaby Oliver, who used the recordings as raw materials to treat live in performance.

Melinda: You really combine media. I was reading on the website about your electric guitar piece on the frozen lake. Could you talk about “performing alongside”? How did that evolve? Do you inform people that you perform “alongside of” of the activity? Is it a collaboration or a synchronicity?

Simon: Performing alongside is interesting. The guitar is an object I have worked with a lot, it is an incredibly sensitive thing and is in constant dialogue with its environment. What I enjoyed in Quebec was turning on the guitar and listening to what it was picking up, and following, often in a state of waiting, both for the conditions to change or the guitar to reflect something else. In a way, it was both a cultural and environmental barometer for me. I was out of place and certainly out of season! The guitar was a collaborator.

Melinda: How do you view performance? There is this alongside idea, there is the collaborative process with others, the long walks as process but also visible to townspeople. Your idea of performative seems to shape itself to rural life somehow.

Simon: It is increasingly alongside and woven into life. Here I realize more and more that this is how I can find resonance. This year I collaborated with Barnaby on a remote project, where we record our performances online and perform them where we live—this year, on our local rivers, with the approach that as we stand in the river we are standing in the same unbroken body of water. Even though he is in Australia. What also happened in this project is that what I was performing was visible not only to people working and passing by, but each week I would encounter the same wildlife: birds, foxes, buzzards, fish, and I began to wonder at the effect and the dialogues that were happening. The project is called pings.

Melinda: My next question then is about gathering an audience in a rural setting, and how that can be a challenge for a theater work, but your performance concept is transformed.

Simon: We also do events in our village hall here, often with an element of work outside. It takes time and consistency, and the work is supported by a collective of people—the individual artist is an illusion.

Melinda: Ah ha! An illusion. But the interest of the townspeople, their curiosity is built around actions like carrying a kitchen table I imagine.

Simon: Maybe, but is wasn’t my table.

Melinda: Whose kitchen table was it?

Simon: Well, I’m actually writing from the table now. It’s an old table, bought at a sale, probably 18th century… though that’s not really relevant.

Melinda: You carried it through the town, but you said it wasn’t yours. How did you come to carry it thru the town?

Simon: I bought it later. It was part of the furniture at the house I was living in at the time. I began to think about how I made my work visible in a small village I had just arrived at. I was having breakfast at this table and imagined carrying it to the top of the mountain behind the village, so I did it. I walked with the table; a bus passed, a farmer passed, a neighbor passed. Nobody seemed that bothered. Stranger things had happened maybe. But later, sometimes months later, people did talk to me, to ask me why, and referred to me as the man with the kitchen table. I just talked to them about my work, about making a statement in the place I lived in. About being a newcomer, about wanting to engage.

Melinda: It seems you have incredible patience! You found you had an effect months later. That must have been very confirming somehow. You said something about how walking was a way to internalize the land and about the question of how to become visible. Is that a pattern you still work with?

Simon: Now I’m working in similar ways in another village, life has changed. We have a small child, I have less time, I try to be more efficient and clear with the time I have. I have been walking to the river to talk to a friend in Australia, but the performance is present here. And shared. We also show work in our village hall, bring people together, try and provoke conversation, responses.

Melinda: The project in the river involves a certain reliance on the imagination of the connection through the waterways? Does it involve responding through movement?

Simon: Yes, sometimes. It is quite contingent on the day, weather, our states… The new phase, which begins soon, will probably be more movement-based and synchronous.

Melinda: How do you make this visible then, the river piece? Will you bring it to the town hall somehow?

Simon: It is visible where it happens. Sometimes people come across it. It also goes out to subscribers via podcast (the recordings).

Melinda: There is an interweaving of the “alongside” with other media as far as it being performative.

Simon: In this case, yes, and using the media to spread the presence and dialogue with the work.

Melinda: One thing we are concerned with at SEEDS is putting language around the relationship of movement/dance to an understanding of ecology, the interconnectedness of humans/nature/the land. It seems very obvious to us as movers who work with the land! There’s something special that is revealed in this process of internalizing and then responding from to communicate. Does this come up for you in talking about what you do to people—how to explain that connection?

Simon: It is a difficult one for language. I guess we have begun to use the work—performance, dance—to create and inspire conversation and observation of what is happening, what these relationships are. Spoken word is always difficult here, it is also bilingual. Performance, dance, has an implicit language, another way. Responding is great, but I wonder more on whether just being where we are allows us to be part of, rather than respond to.

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