27. August 2023
Where it all began.
My cappuccino is coming.
It has rained today – and cooled down.
The last week we saw the temperatures rise to 40 degrees. The streets so hot that you would breathe in the flow of a hair dryer as you made your way from one part of town to another, the restaurants sprinkling their verandas, the children finding cool showers in the fountains in the streets.
Now the sky is grey, the air is cool and Place du Forum is again busy with tourists making the most of the milder conditions.
Today is the last day of my exhibition and on Thursday I return to the UK. I expect this is a good warm up to the cooler conditions which await.
I look back on six months now which seemed to last forever and I was lucky to have arrived as early as March to see the city change from its deep wintery slumber to a place so vibrant and alive that every day brought new events, weeks brought festivals and the many months of summer brought sunshine, warm wind new friends.
I will be sad to leave but I will return.
My exhibition was a success with much positive feedback, interesting discussions and the good fortune to have it seen by many visitors from places around the world in Julia de Bierre’s wonderful gallery at Galerie Huit Arles.
Tomorrow I will take down the exhibition and store it for now at a friend’s artist studio in La Roquette.
I spend the last week aiming high with submissions and enquiries to the likes of Tate Modern and The Museum of Modern Art in New York with a view to taking my The Locks of Lockdown photographs and/or my Seven Scenes of Severance Sound Design on as part of their collection. A bit optimistic of course, and so I have also included some smaller institutions in the UK, where I believe this installation is probably most at home given my sound design has a number of cultural references which probably resonate most with a British audience.
DARYL though has had the most encouragement from fellow artists and gallerists as a project to pursue, present at festivals and publish, eventually, in book format. Getting a photo book published is not an easy feat, with much funding for production costs most often raised by photographers themselves. I think I have done most of the work in preparation for a book proposal to send to publishers already in some shape of form. The book mock up is missing yet, but this will be my project for the next couple of months.
Daryl and I will work together again when I am in Bristol in September with two or three ideas for photo shoots already in mind.
As the hour went by Place du Forum is now less busy, late diners have finished their meals, here at Mezza Luna it is ice creams and lemonades.
I will write again tonight – some packing preparation awaits…
18. August 2023
Café de la Roquette, Place Doumer.
A mild summer night – the square is busy with guest at bars and restaurants.
So are the mosquitos despite “Cinq sur Cinq“ Tropical Strength.
It’s my last evening here in this part of town.
Tomorrow I am moving back to my room by the amphitheatre. Twelve more days and I will be back on British soil – for now.
La Roquette est un quartier très sympa. The houses are old, so are the streets, so are the two ladies who only speak Spanish across the street from my friend’s apartment. During Franco’s time many refugees settled here in Arles and there is still a whole community of Spanish speaking people who keep up the old traditions.
You can hear in the music played here every night by a band of Gypsies who make a living out of entertaining the tourists at various times and at various restaurants. In the conversations drifting across the courtyard at midday acroos my friend’s courtyard and the Spanish temperament and flair is most evident in the wonderful Flamenco festival organised by artist and former matador Jose Manrubiawhich happens every year here in August, lasts for two weeks and just ended last Tuesday.
We were treated to probably most perfect flamenco recital in the courtyard of Galerie Huit Arles ten days ago. Only a small gathering of people – the courtyard fitted about thirty guest and under candle light Dani Barba took the stage.
If you think of flamenco as all furious passion and fiery runs on the guitar, passionate laments and clicking castanets, then you have simply not yet been enlightened by the musical sensibility and subtlety of Dani’s playing.
With a repertoire of subtle, intricate improvisations and immaculately balanced renderings of classic flamenco pieces he had us all listening in astonishment. Seldom have I been so captivated by a performance.
The days ahead will be a mix of preparing new portfolios to submit to galleries here, hopefully a trip to the Camargue – with my camera in hand – and to the seaside. I last swam in it two weeks ago on a hot windy day and loved how the water was so cold that it rushed me to intensely run though my veins as I took a full body dive. I didn’t much like that the seagulls that stole all of my French mini salami while I was embracing the sea though.
A worthy sacrifice however.
At Salin de Giraud – the sea is pink.
A deep pink.
Salt from the sea is harvested there in shallow beds, where over the course of a hot, long summer the relentless sun reduces their depth to very little, so that with the water having dissipated, the crystalized salt lies bare, is harvested and then pushed up into high, pure white, large ethereal piles, which reach for the skies above in black nights and blue days.
In the water a particular type of algae blooms which produces carotenoids in order to protect itself from the sun.
The algae not only give the seawater here its deep, rich pink colour, but are also responsible for the soft pink flamingos pride themselves to don. They ingest the algae as they fish for crustaceans in the shallow sea water – nature simply works.
I spend a magical afternoon there with a good friend, photographing her as she moved and danced to the tune of herself against a thin, black horizon across the open water, with her spirit as inspiration and the wind to carry her beyond to the open skies.
The day was a blessing and the photos I will keep as a treasure.
Time to go.
11. August 2023
Fanfares are ringing out from the oncient oval of the arena.
They have done so often when I sat down at the bottom of the old stone entrance leading to the cast iron entrance of the amphitheatre.
I like stopping off here at the early hours of the evening, being served my pastice without asking – just in the shade as the sun still glistens on the sandstone of the Roman arches.
Tourist arrive in waves. Always stopping in awe, always posing for the same family shots, selfies and romantic embraces at the foot of the stairs, the steps rising behind them and the medieval tower which Rises high and wise into the infinite blue above.
Thousands of stories entwine if only for brief moments, one knowing nothing of the other, each writing a a memorable entry in the diary of their lives, each leaving an ethereal foot note on the steps of these stairs, invisible to any naked eye, forever embraced by the flow of timeless life and re-imagined by one or another who will take my place at this table – pastice or no pastice.
The wind of course knows too.
Sitting here is no different from sitting by the sea.
Observed at rest, waves falling onto the shore to die are no different from the perpetual arrival of life stories, unfolding and vanishing before our eyes.
The timelessness of their fleeting occurrence arrests all questions and writes the fullness of meaning into – yes, again – the wind.
Beauty has no name but the moment.
You too would stop asking if you took your seat at my table here next to me.
And for some time we would sit in silence.
7. August 2023
Even the wind here in Arles is carries it and tonight it dropped it by my door.
I have moved house again.
This time to the wonderful apartment of a new found friend here in Arles in La Roquette.
One big room with a sky-high roof, dreams in a mezzanine and a balcony over-looking an open, now windy, gravel-floored courtyard.
It is quiet here.
Just the tinnitus in my ears and the remote sound of the city drifting across the table, where my glass with mellow yellow pastice rests on warm, aged wood.
I have been making plans to return here after my six months are up. Back in September for another year. Warm rays of autumn and the gusty cold wind of winter which empties the streets of the people who live year all year round and back to another explosion of spring and un-bound summer.
And yet tonight I feel homeless.
Maybe this is what a long summer of expectation and excitement leaves behind when the end is in sight.
And so, I am not sure what it is that I am building.
Returning to here.
Does that mean postponing the end? Do I simply not want it to end and think by adding on time I can delay the inevitable?
Or am I looking to build a new adventure? A new life?
Tonight, I honestly cannot tell.
I am tired and will sleep early.
5. August 2023
On my skin the wind sings stories.
In the streets it re-tells them to those who will listen, whispering through graceful fabrics, a caress around ankles – seduction on the back of your neck, a lovers kind touch through the locks of your hair.
The pigeons surf on these stories, just above the head of meandering flaneurs. Women carrying their elegance like a gift of kindness presented to themselves by themselves, men carrying broad shoulders on their measured gait throwing grateful glances forever indebted to this kindness, children carried by care sail the airy current forever propelled forward by perpetual curiosity and dogs raise their heads to the sun, nose in the wind: no subtlety of scent, no note of this reverie de la vie in the breeze that they do not know about.
I have the afternoon off.
The door at Galerie Huit Arles will remain half closed today. The wind might well blow in today’s floating stories and disturb the carefully curated narratives on the old mansion walls.
My installation too will remain silent today.
Silent it was not three days ago.
We had invited friends of the gallery to a special performance of my Seven Scenes of Severance in the vault and a screening of my slideshow DARYL in the romantic, enclosed courtyard of the gallery.
This was to be the first time my sound design for The Locks of Lockdown would be played to an audience in full length.
Twenty-two minutes and thirty-two seconds to be precise. I was suitably nervous.
Before then, only one friend had listened to the piece in its entirety from afar.
His feedback had been a vindication of all that I had meticulously planned out in writing and meticulously put together in the months leading up to the exhibition opening on 3. July of this year. My instincts, so his comments seemed to affirm, had not betrayed me when I had designed the arch of my story and filled in the subtleties of detail.
And what had moved me about the piece had moved him.
Playing it to a live audience and sitting amongst them as it resonated in the old stone vault was a different matter altogether of course.
The devil of doubt that possess every artist sitting on my chest with every artistic intension and sensibility brutally resting under the unforgiving microscope of the awareness of others un-divided attention.
A very long twenty-two minutes and thirty-two seconds for me as I took my seat on the one remaining free chair amongst my audience of seven.
Thankfully, time was forgiving. The dread I felt had not tainted my audience’s appreciation of what they heard.
The Seven Scenes of Severance were very well received, praised with comments about the detail and nuance of the sound world and very beautiful moments that warrant a second listen.
I am very thrilled that my vision, experience as a sound designer and my artistic sensibility translated into a meaningful experience for others
So much so, that it has kicked the devil of artistic doubt into the long grass leaving it to feed on the rotten excretions of its poisonous whispers.
Before I left a second group of guests to relive the lockdown of 2020 in the old vault – this time without me – we projected DARYL onto the courtyard wall which rests framed by the lush vines that grow up from the right and across to the cast-iron railings of the staircase on the other side, to celebrate my work.
Also, for the first time as it is intended, with the eternal voice of Maria Callas filling the courtyard as she sings Tosca’s aria Vissi d’Arte, lending grace and humanity to the photographs Daryl and I had created together over so many years
Of the two sets of photographs, I am showing at Galerie Huit Arles, DARYL is without a doubt the most moving.
It certainly moved me very much seeing it play out on the seasoned sandstone wall at Julia’s Gallery, bringing back with it not just a flood of memories from our time together, but also the spirit of open communication and readiness to go deeper and further with every photography session we undertook.
It moved us all, as frame after frame played out, opening our eyes to difference and possibility and to the desire to transform ourselves in accordance with the many lives that are contained within ourselves – a desire shared by us all.
I am so proud of Daryl and of myself that we have walked this walk together and am so pleased that we will continue down this road to see where it might still take us.
So, my first artist reception was a great success, with much, much credit due to Julia de Bierre for hosting this wonderful event with such gracious hospitality and for giving me the opportunity to show my work at her gallery in the first place.
It feels like I am beginning to get a hold of “being an artist”.
Now the wind has blown past 3pm and there is still much of the afternoon to listen to.
If you put an ear to this virtual page, you will hear its whisperings.
22. July 2023
Le Café van Gogh.
The smell of freshly prepared mussels visits me from the table to my left.
A glass of pastice.
My red bench…
It think it is the heat that wakes me up early every morning now, too early.
Not that my room is too hot at night, on the contrary: I am lucky to live in a house in a picturesque narrow road, over-grown by vines from one side to the other, where the sun only catches our windows for one hour at midday. At night my room remains cool, and I enjoy the summer nights. Somehow though my body clock has reset itself to wake me up at five or six in the morning every day now and my brain seems reluctant to let me slip sway once more to give me the rest I need. Maybe it is the heat of the day, stored in my muscles, bones and blood which – once dissipated as I lie sleeping skin-tight on my orange bedcover – lingers expectant in the air of my small, dark room and sets of my internal alarm clock to announce the beginning of another day.
Tonight, most certainly, an early night. Maybe this is the way to beat the heat.
Looking back now , I see that my last long entry here was at the beginning of May.
Gone seem the early days of my Bohemian wanderings, the deep thinking and the poetry of the world resting on my fingertips. That of course comes as no surprise as my last entry coincides with the beginning of my post as Julia de Bierre’s assistant at Galerie Huit Arles. Now in eight day’s time, on 31. July, it will come to an end.
To summarize all that I experienced, worked on, learnt and achieved during this time feels at this time a futile undertaking. There was so much – most of which was though not entirely, but effectively new to me. Looking back now I think I did well, though it was not without difficulty. A baptism of fire of sorts.
Life at a top gallery brings new challenges every day, with events often making carefully laid plans obsolete just as you are beginning to implement them and it takes and immense drive and determined dedication to the vision that gave birth to the gallery for it to continue to be the very best version of itself. Julia de Bierre possesses both in abundance and the wealth of experience she brings to the work that she does, without fail keeps the ship steady even when the waters get rough.
I have nothing but the greatest respect and admiration for the work that she does.
And so, everything I have learnt in these three months, I have learnt from one of the best.
As an artist it was and remains truly great to be represented by her.
She has shown me so much support and unwavering loyalty and has made me a better artist for it. Thanks to her encouragement to engage with visitors to my exhibition I have had many great and meaningful conversations with people who descended in the vault of Galerie Huit Arles with me to see my work.
In the past, I have always found it frustrating not to have any idea if and how my photographs move people when I have exhibited before. Normally I have only ever been present at the private view of my exhibitions – being there every day and speaking with people is a rare privilege which I cherish very much.
My work is always about people, created with people I get to know on a deeply meaningful level when I work with them and intended for people in the hope that what we created between us might move them in some way as it has us.
Being present with the work as it is on show, ads another chapter to the richness of the story the photographs already holds for me. Sharing them with people in conversation not only validates them in some measure as meaningful creations (and the undertaking my sitter and myself ventured on when we worked to produce the photographs) – doing so also ads paragraph after paragraph, page after page and chapter after chapter to our story.
I will have lived with The Locks of Lockdown for two months when this exhibition closes at the end of July. I miss them already.
Though I am hope to take the photographs and sound design to other places – London, Paris, Venice, New York… – hopefully more chapters will be added in time.
Let it be said here that the exhibition of this project here in Arles at Galerie Huit Arles was, and continues to be, a great success. When Julia proposed to show the Locks of Lockdown in the vaulted cellar of her gallery at the end of last year, I knew immediately that there could not be a better place to show it. And, of course so did she.
Together with my Seven Scenes of Severance sound installation, arriving in the vault after descending the winding stairs that take you down to the coolness away from the sizzling streets above, transports you into a veritable underworld and to another time.
As the clocks that give rhythm and structure to the sonic journey my protagonist undertakes reverberate through the space, the photographs don’t fail to surprise the imagination as you happen upon them as you enter. An experience that appeals to the rich palate of one’s senses, giving you the opportunity to travel in time, back to those slow, other-worldly days of lockdown isolation.
I love the theatricality of it very much and think, that in future I shall seek out similar forms of presenting my work.
Now though, it’s time to drink up the rest of my pastice and to head back to Rue Barbès to rest my head on my pillow.
So, with greetings from a warm, Arlesian summer night I wish you all a good night my fellow travellers.
5. July 2023
Four weeks of radio silence.
Much time has passed – time to involved to make time to write.
Now I am sitting at my new local café – Le Calendal over-looking the antique theatre where I watched a screening of the making of Gregory Crewson’s last work and only a minute’s walk from Galerie Huit Arles where only two hours ago the hall, salons and vaulted cellar which hosts my exhibition was filled with people for our vernissage.
A very well deserved reward for the tireless work Julia de Bierre, myself and the entitre Galerie Huit Arles team have put into creating five truly wonderful photography exhibitions. The transformation of all of the exhibition spaces has been quite incredible and the refined perfection of each of the shows at Julia’s gallery appears like the fancy of fairies to the visitor’s eyes.
I am very proud of my show and the reception it has received here after the many weeks of preparation and my final efforts to hang the framed photographs and to install my Seven Scenes of Severance sound installation.
In addition to my series The Locks of Lockdown Galerie Huit Arles is also showing two prints and a video slide show of my work with Daryl Hembrough in Bristol. You can find the slideshow which is on display at the gallery here. Our work together has very really well received indeed and there are now opportunities to show it elsewhere around the globe. Needless to say, I am absolutely delighted…
For now though, this is where I end today already – back to the gallery for now.
More will follow in the days to come.
5. June 2023
g.o.m.m. – what else?
I think my pastice will last me just long enough for this entry.
In case you were wondering.
It’s not only Dean’s laid-back, velvet chocolate delivery of this iconic ho-bo anthem – it’s also the ingeniously composed brass riffs on the left as the second verse commences. Perfect to the note, laid down with just right the amount of loose inflections and yet with remarkably tight delivery. And I have never found a single low-end note as satisfying as the soft round boom of the tuba (?) marking the lift and drop of a happy hobo’s walk on the two and four on the right in verse three.
This liberating song of strings, opening up the ears of my soul to the wide opening skies of a mild and forever forgiving light blue, mile-high sky.
If you are with me on this one, we know each other in profound and unforgettable ways.
What can I tell you now, that can measure up?
I got up early up.
Well earlier than usual, having resolved to go to bed earlier than most days here, at a time when my tiredness rests easy on the better side of exhaustion. That is not to say that I have driven myself to said exhaustion on other days, but I did extend my waking hours often beyond what my mind and body graciously deliver.
I am fifty-six now and gone are the days when my best ideas rose bright-eyed from the slumber of dormant inspiration at 1am in the morning to demand my attention. The ease of night, free of expectation has always been a great friend to me in that way.
Now though, I stretch my muses’ patience when I struggle on despite the late hour. As in so many ways my ideas of what I am capable of are corrupted by my still persisting misconception of how my time remains forever youthful, my fire burning high and bright and my unlimited yearnings running wild rivers through my veins.
That much is still true of course and I suppose it will never leave me, but the measure of it has certainly changed and I had better not fill my cup beyond what I can consume of it in one session.
And so it’s just gone 11.19pm and Johnny Cash is delivering a version of Gentle on my mind that befits my years.
I shall go and rest soon.
A few more sips of my pastice though.
A few more moments waiting.
Waiting to savour the music, the moment and this drink.
Just a few more, to hear if there is something else that I would like to say.
I suppose somewhere behind my desire to hold the moment for a just a little longer nestles a fear that every artist, scientist, writer and philosopher shares – the fear to leave things unsaid, nun-expressed, un-born to the world from the mysterious essence of lives lived with heightened sensibilities to that what is and to that what can be.
A nagging feeling and a gargoyle on our shoulders. Forever hungry and only ever briefly pacified when we we count ourselves lucky to have found it. That which expresses as a creation in the world which has become deeply known to us.
Like a just the right amount of looseness in a tightly delivered brass riff, the song of mild, light, mile-high violins or the velvet wisdom in Dean Martin’s voice.
It is nothing other than a deep recognition of what it is. Of what we share and what binds us togther in the experience of this, our lives.
My favourite German writer Kurt Tucholsky, once wrote a short piece of prose about this which could not have said it ant better, even though to his dismay that which he attempted to express remained elusive, un-said through words which would redeem it.
Sitting in my garden in the spring of 2022, I too saw what he wanted to express in the few paragraphs he penned then and so I wrote a poem in reply.
Sometimes, speechlessness explains everything when words escape us.
Here is a link to and English translation of Mir fehlt ein Wort which Kurt Tucholsky wrote, sitting at his desk in front of his window looking out onto a birch tree beyond in October of 1929.
Unfortunately, I cannot find the German original anywhere.
Here though is my thoroughly German reply – penned in the spirit of cultural brotherhood (now here is a trap door to fall through…) and with much love for a kindred soul.
Translate it if you wish. Though literary caution is highly advised.
I have outstayed my muses’ welcome.
With this, good night.
Was tun die Birkenblätter im Frühlingswind?
Hast Du Dich einst gefragt.
Du bist fort, dahin gegangen,
Du hast es nicht gesagt.
Ein Flimmern, Zittern, Flirrn’ – ein Flausch
aus andrer’ Bäume Blätterseelen.
Worte aufgefunden, wie berauscht:
stumme, unerlöste Worte fehlen.
Das Wort hat Dir gefehlt – nur eines,
kein großes, das Einzige, ein kleines.
An einander aufgereit, Blätter
– Bücher hundert Jahre weit.
Bewegt hast Du in Deiner Zeit gelegen,
ich wiege mich der Zeit entgegen.
Nimmer müder Schöpfungsdrang,
fängt immer neu von vorne an.
Sie tun es, heute immer noch,
sie tun es, jetzt im Morgenlicht.
Im Frühlingswind, sie tun es, doch:
was sie tun, auch ich: ich weiß es nicht.
Was tun die Birkenblätter im Frühlingswind?
hast Du uns einst gefragt.
Du bist fort, Dein Wind entschwunden –
es ist erlöst: Du hast’s gesagt.
In Memoriam für Kurt Tucholsky
In Anlehnung an “Mir fehlt ein Wort”, 1929
1. June 2023
Gentle on my mind.
Some words sing to you…
When someone finds the perfect equivalent in music to go with them it heals the soul.
Even when you play it on a loop.
Not quite midnight yet – the day gone past still swings in harmony with the warm embrace of Dean Martin’s warm and gentle voice.
My days are mostly spent now on the terrace of Le Calendal.
With the amphitheatre off to the right and the antique theatre straight ahead it is only a minute’s walk from Galerie Huit Arles on Rue de la Calade where I work.
Workdays are short, but intense and I always leave with a sense of achievement, having helped Julia with just a few of the things that make up her working day.
Julia is gracious in every way and I always feel appreciated when I say good-bye for the day to let her continue with the many tasks, she is determined to complete that day.
I am very lucky.
At Le Calendal local gypsies gather at noon and in the evening to entertain the tourists and visiting guests in the nearby restaurants with a genuine performances of passionate flamenco.
Today at lunchtime I found myself clapping along with my best take of what flamenco clapping sounds like.
This evening my hands fell silent though as a group of Gypsies who had gathered at the table next to me, spontaneously broke into exhuberant, poly-rhythmic clapping as a group of four musicians played their music sitting together on the small wall opposite our terrace.
An, effortless celebration of culture, community and heritage played out to the sweet bittersweet taste of the Campari Orange I had chosen to harmonise my palate with the warm, overcast evening skies.
Part of my afternoon today was spent in conversation with Helena Staub – who owns and runs Galerie Omnius where I had performed La Valse des Camonnieurs only a few days ago – and Diana, my friend the Russian artist, who was on her way to collect some of her artwork at L’Air around the corner where she had shown it at an event last weekend.
Conversation turned from the art of voice work, the riches of erotic literature, the displaying of public affection and the conventions of romance in Russia to the magic of travelling back in time to old Europe when visiting places such as Budapest and Prague.
The former I had been lucky to visit in 2016 – a trip that had awoken in me a cultural memory that I had not realised I had held in such sensory detail before I arrived there and the latter a place I dream of visiting one day.
La Vie Bohemienne – here it still visits you.
All you have to do is stop for a coffee on a terrace in the sahde, do a little work on whatever you have brought with you the table to occupy your mind and wait for great company to arrive to start conversations which feel meaningful, rich and relevant.
Stranger son a train.
I have always loved the kind of conversations that drift in on a curious wind.
Every word matters, each fills the air with the expression of deeply personal meaning and profound awareness, each holds its own, while none will be thereafter held in the kind of memory that comes to haunt us when social conventions bind us to expectation and conformity.
This is what freedom looks like.
Erotic literature – it was natural that our conversation should drift to the riches of our sensual experiences as we sat sipping our strong black coffees.
The summer streets here appear to tell them without us needing to invent them.
I relish the sensuous symphony of bodies moving through the streets that passes me by as I sit this terrasse. All ages, men and women appear to wear the pleasures of their sensuality on their skin now. Pleasures we carry like an iridescent night gown, woven from the warm nightly Mistral wind that gently accompanies us home after we finish bathing our souls in the lightness of life here.
The mosquitos too know how the seductive air sweetens our blood.
Their bite is sharp and the marks are thick. And they leave us with yet another itch to scratch. A mark I am growing fond off despite the repellent I now always carry with me and apply to whatever exposed skin I show.
I wonder if I shall stop using it.
The pungent, acidic smell on my skin drowns out all the sweetness the days here gift me now. You can rather bite me if you must, even if your bite is not the one I am dreaming of.
Half the hour past midnight now.
The Little Willies – how can timing be so impeccable…?! – play It’s not you, it’s me.
I am really not sure who it is to be honest, but it doesn’t matter anyway.
I have all I need.
29. May 2023 | The Early Hours
And this… – just makes me happy.
28. May 2023 | At night.
Some music moves me to tears.
It is not difficult to do when the sweet aroma of pastis caresses my lips before midnight.
All of us, join this chorus so we can live in peace for ever after.
28. May 2023
The first letters on these pages are always a deep breath. A sigh of content relief. A home coming.
It is Sunday.
The day is resting in itself.
In the cool breeze on my skin as I type, in the hot air of a seductive summer, the shaded empty tables and chairs on the terrace of Bistro Arlesien in the centre of Place du Forum and in the beauty of light summer dresses, flowing freely, flirtatious and self-content as they promenade, measured only by the gait of the women who wear them, enchanting this day for the likes of me who have the privilege of seeing them meander below the tender trees.
With me is still La Nuit de la Poesie.
Yesterday evening I did my first ever life performance as a voice artist, counting, in French, the endless flow of trucks traversing the motorway bridge across the river Rôhne in a poetic film by Jean-Christian Bourcart.
Jean-Christian and I met in April at Le Café Japonais which is run by Mariana and her husband Hervé – himself a photographer and film maker, whose work I find beautiful and profound in equal measures.
Jean-Christian – or JC for short – met a few days later in a café near La Roquette where he lives, to talk about working together on the film he was making for La Nuit de la Poesie.
Jean-Christian lives close to the motorway bridge at the far end of the quay aby the side of the Rôhne where I go running.
In the evening sun, the many silhouettes of trucks whose seasoned drivers carry goods from far and wide to destinations seemingly further still, had not escaped me. Not long after I had first arrived here in March, it had only enforced my feeling of having landed on an graceful, remote island, where the world only speaks to you through the mysteries of far-away horizons and the places that rise to one’s consciousness as longings born from the from the depth of your imagination.
Jean-Christian had undoubtedly seen what I had seen and felt what I had felt.
An ancient river carrying in its flow up into the land and down to the ocean the centuries and millennia of those who came before, now – and only recently – crossed by a material incarnation of our interconnected modern world manifested in assembled blocks of concrete and deep black tarmac.
Each crossing the other, floating above and below through time and memorial.
In truth, a poetic metaphor for all the things that pass, for endeavours made to leave behind a trace while we still can and for the connectedness of everything that is, everything we are, as we travel, arriving here through time, each heading for a unique destination still unknown while all the while being a part of what makes the whole, whole.
Jean-Christian’s film captures it beautifully.
I will not take away the joy of watching it – I will post a link to the film online here soon – by attempting to describe in words what’s best left to be witnessed through sight and sound.
Only this much be said: having re-created from scratch the rich, rumbling sounds of the heavy trucks traversing the bridge, it was left to me to count them out loud as the audience at Galerie Omnius stood and sat to partake in their epic journey yesterday evening.
It is at times like these, that I feel reconciled with the many, many tedious hours, days, weeks and months of track mind-numbing lay work for the sound design of hundreds of television programmes, adverts and the handful of feature films, which over the years have more than tested my patience.
The repetitive stupidity that goes into meticulously recreating the finely layered sonic fabric of life has forced a stoicism onto the poetic inclinations of my romantic, 19. Century soul which did not come easy and at a considerable cost to the longings of my sleepless imagination and artistic output.
Counting numbers in their thousands an ten-thousands though in Anglo-Germanic accented French to a curious audience looking for poetic recognition , of their lives is probably the high-light of my career as a voice artist so far.
Now that I can already count to treize-mille-huit-cent-quatre-vingt-dix-sept, you may well find me one mellow summer night, feet dangling, bare-footed over the edge of the quay by the Rôhne at the foot of my friend’s – the bridge – vaulted concrete spine to carry on where I left off.
For now though, I will leave you with Jean-Christian’s poem which I spoke over the deep black waters of the river at the end of his film.
Maybe you will find yourself reciting it one day as you travel on towards destinations unknown beyond your horizons.
Sur la voie abrupte, le monde ne reviendra pas. Il s’éloigne. L’air se raréfie et bientôt tu étouffes, tu cries à l’intérieur. / Le monde ne t’est pas donné. Tu veux le conquérir. // La vie, la vie merveilleuse coule au loin là-bas dans la vallée. // La vie miroitante, la vie éclatante, la vie qui s’en va loin de toi. // Le monde devient désert.
20. May 2023
Funny that you should find me here after such a long absence with a heart-warming, half empty, pale pastis by my side as the clocks approach midnight and Felix Mendelson Bartholdy’s iridescent arpeggios are running rings around my heart.
So, it has been a while and I have missed it.
I won’t even dare to summarise the past eleven days – too much has happened, though I wished some of it would have found its way onto these pages as it did.
That much I can say – I am glad to be back.
Glad to see my finger flying across the keyboard, glad to hear the cascading piano arpeggios serenading my truly grateful ears and to feel the warmth of my creamy, smooth pastice running through my veins.
Arles has found its rhythm now.
Not free flowing finger runs on the piano keyboard, more of steady underscore consisting of the continuous influx of tourists that walk the streets every day and to whom my small, narrow street, with its lush green vines rolling down the small town houses and over-head across to the other side, is an always enchanting photo opportunity.
I wonder how many people take the tenderness of this view back home to tell their loved ones about the time they spend here.
To me, sitting as I type this at my little table by the window, looking out through light-grey painted metal railings guarding my small, unpretentious room and into the dark street receding into dark night to a small set of seven stairs, a railing and a dim street light behind a firmament of green leaves that have grown across this little street – off from the long and narrow one I live on – to me these are memories of a life.
Not a visit.
Nothing picturesque about it.
Just the deep riches of my days.
Pastice-yellow painted dreams and the question by my side of what they might mean to me in the future.
Filed with some great experiences and some difficult ones.
Now, the gentleness of John Field’s Nocturne Number One appeases what has not been easy – at least for now – and gifts a melancholic, reassuring glow on those which have been wonderful and in the context of my fifty-six years here on planet earth quite un-expected.
Paris of course being one of those.
How could it not be.
Even without the thrills of presenting my Locks of Lockdown series to an audience for the very first time at PhotoDoc last weekend, Paris is an unforgettable love letter to life, written by hundreds of thousands of hands, which know, and know not what their fingertips write in passing to those who visit.
The poetry and pleasures of its cafés, patisseries an brasseries, the commas and punctuations of the hardly ever careless architecture, carefree inserted, providing an elegant, jaunty little rhythm to guide one’s promenade along its beautiful boulevards, the omnipresence of the quotation marks of history – however pompous and blissfully self-indulgent they might appear at times – and certainement the refined, cultivated French culture of sois de vivre.
No question marks here.
Just a series of dainty, playfully dotted dots…
And of course, the sublime paragraphs of serene reminiscence, reverberating as I walk, of French Bohemian lives lived in profound conversations and the materialisation of deep thought, symphonies of emotions and the hard fought for ideals expressed in proud, wonderful art.
Art, which paints unashamed visions of utopia and unflinching portraits of the abyss at the same time without so much as dropping a beat. Art which drifts in loose, paraphrased paragraphs across my mind as I walk .
And my playlist plays La Valse d’Amour – Edith Piaf.
She sings and yet she never does.
Each song a story that touches a heart.
Each heart beating in time with the eternal story she tells. Each heart carried away on three-four time – each heart recognising their small fleeting, ever-lasting story.
So long boy.
And I wished I could understand the last French farewell entirely.
Somehow I am not surprised.
Hambourg… – my home.
The ship horn in the harbour sounds the last “Auf Wiedersehen” in Edith’s song.
I have heard it often.
A resonant greeting drifting in with wind from the harbour.
I shall never forget what it means.
Well, I wished this night might last longer and the clattering on my keyboard could go on for many more hours
Alas, another day awaits tomorrow.
I shall pour myself another mellow and reassuring measure of pastice and say good night for now.
Just now though, I am left speechless that the playlist I put together some days past for a very good friend who has since left Arles for home, should embrace me with A Whiter Shade of Pale as I close.
Serendipity knows only this moment.
May she bless you my friends.
May she bless you with kindness.
Well, it is late my friends.
My window is open.
It is Mai.
Pastis has warmed the working of my soul and Barry White is soothing my desires.
Pastis is a rather unpleasant colour when not mixed with water.
Much like something you might leave behind in the bathroom and hope to forget the moment you close the door behind you.
Mixed with water it takes on the colour of washed, self-conscious yellow stone that has cooled off after a long day’s unforgiving sun.
Milky – a pastel shade clear water would take on after you had washed a paint brush still rich of the abundance pigments of a jubilant, exalting yellow you applied moments earlier to a canvas harbouring your unspoken dreams.
Of course, this mellow wash of pastels is nowhere near as intoxicating as the sharp and seductive aroma of sublime anis that has been purposefully distilled by wise and tender hands long initiated into this very French rite of passage to nirvana.
Typing though, becomes increasingly challenging.
This, my friends, means it is time to find my trusted fridge upstairs and to go in search of my beloved French salami and my very dear friend, the French banquette.
It is time to apply a generous helping of French, creamy, salty butter to the soft, yet just the right amount of crunchy – not very much, but forever memorable – soft, white inside of the succulently baked, irresistible dough and to proceed to ponder if it shall be the rich, lingering flavour of sea-sworn tuna fish in sun-dripped olive oil or the texture of the French cheese that has currently won my, all too easily won over, sentimental heart.
Some decisions in life can be exceedingly difficult to make. This is not one of them.
I can have both.
And I shall.
Fare thee well my friends and good night.
A milky-white blessing.
Be it off the melting away of the riches of life’s abundant, jubilant, exuberant yellow in innocent, clear and careless water, or the gift of the seductive siren song of anis – it will be finding you knowing more than you know or cared to know.
8. May. 2023
Well, that was a short entry last night.
It’s been on my mind though.
I have had many great conversations with a new found friend here in Arles over the weeks gone by and they always left me feeling reflective and enriched.
Vulnerability doesn’t come easy to anyone I guess.
And as a man I find that probably as difficult as the next man.
I think it is ironic that being open and true is in many ways being seen as being vulnerable. Much energy and pretence is invested in presenting ourselves to others and to ourselves in ways that we have come to believe are expected of us. I certainly hold ideas about how I believe I ought to be. But of course, the reality is that no one expects and if they do it shouldn’t matter.
Last night we had dinner at Gaudina Arles – outside on the narrow curb, not far from Place du Forum.
Charcutierie and white wine.
Amongst many other topics which crossed between us over the delicious selection of cut French sausages and salami, male vulnerability lingered for a while in the air over the cuts of red meat on the large white plate.
Specifically, the difficulty many men have in admitting to it, even in times of often desperate need or a fundamental crisis.
Women often examine their emotional world and their perspective on the circumstances that brough them to the crisis they find themselves in and set in motion an transformative change in their lives to align their circumstances to the lives they wish to lead going forward, men often fall into stasis when a change in circumstances no longer allows them to apply the tool set which they have used to maintain a live they felt validated and secure in. We often don’t even consider vulnerability an option, for too much of our sense of self depends on the persona we have constructed in line with what being a man means to us.
And so, we fall, we freeze, we falter – unable to reach out, take an outreached hand or to admit to ourselves that our tried and tested toolkit no longer works.
We wait. Often for a long time. Sometimes too long until we can wait no more and decide this must end, by our own hand.
Or, before it comes to this, circumstances change again to align themselves to what we have been familiar with before.
Then we get up, clean the rust from our tool kit and get to work.
We have moved on, but not forward.
The conversation drifted on from here to there and as our evening drew to a close, I noticed the last piece of French salami we had both left on the white plate out of courtesy earlier, had disappeared.
I had been too static.
The wonderful smokey flavour of the dried meat had gone to someone who had more initiative than I.
Was that because I was too polite or was it because I am a man.
We paid up, said our goodbyes and as I walked away thought I would like to cultivate a sense of vulnerability for myself.
There must be riches in that and if a small piece of French salami is my reward at the end of this, I shall live to be a happy man.
On Wednesday I started my internship at Galerie Huit Arles and I am really enjoying it. An entirely new role for me. I enjoy learning a lot and being able to help move this season in the direction that Julia envisages.
Next week we will be in Paris at PhotoDoc showing my seven prints form The Locks of Lockdown at Galerie Huit Arles booth there together with work by American photographer Elliot Landy.
I am very proud to show the series for the first time and am looking forward to seeing what response they will receive.
And I very much look forward to Paris of course!
Elliot Landy is best known for his iconic photographs of 1960ies legends such as Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, The Band, Jimi Hendrix and many more.
The set of photographs by him we will be showing are intimate portraits of his wife. They had fallen in love at Woodstock when he went there to photograph the festival but their romance didn’t outlast the turbulence of the decade. They met again some 40 years later and fell in love once more.
The photograph we will show are tender nudes of his wife in her sixties in a private setting. A beautiful story and beautiful images.
Meanwhile, Arles is now in the full bloom of spring. What was dry and brown not very long ago is now lush, green, abundant. It feels it has never been any other way.
The streets narrow streets and open squares are populated by caravans of tourists from around Europe and abroad lead by tour guides who tell stories of Van Gogh, the Romans, and Arlesian life and culture.
Visitors who come for the art and culture can currently revel in the Festival Du Design which shows drawings, in galleries and museums all over town and there is beautiful exhibition by Adrien Neveu entitled Silence et Profusion work at Galerie Huit Arles, showing engravings of landscapes he made during the long, still hours he worked as a night porter.
It is late now and my sound design awaits tomorrow. Good night, my vulnerable and not so vulnerable friends.
Vulnerability my friends, vulnerability.
28. April 2023
The time between my entries is getting longer.
That just means I am getting busier.
The last few days have been mostly taken up with my sound design for The Locks of Lockdown.
My seven scenes are making good progress. I have complete four out of seven and this weekend I will hopefully get the other three done.
Scene three has turned out to be just how I wanted it. A quiet, atmospheric and introspective scene at night, with my protagonist withdrawing into himself and the feeling of dreams and the unconscious at work.
Scene four turns to a wide-open future – the time after lockdown has ended. I remember the freedom to imagine a life where I felt so much was possible. For myself, those I care for and our life in society as a whole. A prolonged in-between-time, like a holiday that lasts longer than the usual bite-size two weeks, longer than the generous three, longer than the four weeks, where the horizon appears to be out of reach and yet still lingers, somewhere at the back of our minds to come back into view just when we thought it would beyond the sky forever.
This time, there was no horizon. Nowhere.
We did not know how the future would be out of reach. It wasn’t that there was no future, it was just there. Not today, not tomorrow, the day after that or the day after that.
And because it was in a place of which we had no knowledge, for which we had not co-ordinates or previous understanding – no ever so vague certainty -, because it was so entirely out of sight, we could begin to imagine it to be whatever we wanted it to be.
And so, we filled it with ideas about a life less pressured, more meaningful, more about what matters in our lives, with community and kindness and all the things that make people good people, the kind of people that they knew they were, but for whom they hardly ever had time before.
The pandemic brought us much grief, great loss, deep frustration, anger and resentment.
But what it also brought was the opportunity to connect with what up to then lay buried under thick, suffocating layers of cynicism. Not long after we closed our front doors behind us to keep the threat of illness, disease and death away, did it dawn on many of us, that we had also locked out much about what we are told about ourselves and which we had learnt to repeat as a mantra day in day out as we looked after our little corner of the great together.
Except it had never been a great together.
It had been a great each for themselves.
The together to which we had bonded ourselves had mostly been stopped from collapsing all around us by slogans which nailed flags to our masts, advertising boards to our street corners, crosses onto our churches, stickers to the chest of our political convictions and headlines to our news casts. In fact for the most part we had lived through a period of division for the last few years.
Now the great together was beginning to feel like a together. At least for a time…
And a great one in that respect.
On that note my laptop tells me it is about to run out of battery and the clock is about to strike midnight.
More on clocks – and the great together next time.
24. April 2023
Sometimes you never really know the meaning of words.
I only learned yesterday what vanity is.
In my mind I had always pictured Dorian Gray, hopelessly in love with his own image. A narcissistic infatuation with his own reflection, aspiring to nothing other than the perfect rendition of himself. A form of misdirected love which glorifies the ego above all else.
Mona Stenseth Edwardsen is a current artist in residence at Galerie Huit Arles – one of many for whom Julia de Bierre provides lodgings and a studio space to work in during the season.
Theo, one of Julia’s current assistants, had invited her to join him for the event and he introduced me to her on the terrace of the gallery, after I had arrived in the early evening.
After the introductions and the customary kisses I have now begun to embrace, the three of us stood for a while, making conversation, talking about the weather (Here! Would you believe it?!) and drinking wine in the still too cool evening air, and admired the still life of peeled tangerines and empty paper cups on the table in the middle of the terrace which the vernissage’s visitors had collectively assembled through acts of randomness and disintegration.
Before long we spoke about our work and about art in general.
Mona is here to complete a set of six paintings about the lies we tell ourselves to keep us from doing the things that really are important to us.
She paints on the – mostly sunny – roof terrace at Galerie Huit Arles and her progress with the work she is doing seems to indicate that she is not telling herself many – if any of these lies. She disagreed though when I said as much, which made me feel that I am not at all alone in my predicament.
Thank you Mona.
I have not numbered my lies, but I will see her on her roof top in the next few days to photograph her working and assume I will recognise most of the ones I rely upon in her pictures.
The lies are still work in progress which can hardly be said about the ones I have pulled out of the drawer on many occasions.
We also spoke about her our work to date and via a brief excursion via still life – one of which the visitor’s application of the third law of thermodynamics had so kindly provided us with, Mona mentioned that she had done a painting everything that disintegrates to be forever lost in the flow of time and that she had called it Vanity.
All things must pass she said: the transience of everything and the inevitable decay of all things to which we attribute permanence in this world.
I thought she had misspoken and had confused what I always thought vanity meant with all that is embodied in what we call Vergänglichkeit in German.
A great word.
Vergangenheit means Past in German and Vergänglichkeit is the attribute of things of being moved into the past. From that the verb vergehen is derived, which describes the active process of it being moved.
Interestingly, vergehen is also often used in the context of finding oneself in an ecstatic state when experiencing something overwhelming, like being in love or having an orgasm for example.
But I suppose that is apt as we know the transience of these feelings all too well.
Yesterday, Mona and I met again at the vernissage for Adrien Neveu’s exhibition Silence et Profusion which is part of the Festival du Design at Galerie Huit Arles.
This time wine without still life, though Adrien Neveu’s work hat an ordered tranquillity about it which is not miles apart from the air of inanimate objects and creatures being arranged in serene compositions. They lacked the morbidity though which one can often find in still lives.
And this is probably where we picked up our conversation from the day before again.
All things must pass.
Still, I was convinced that Mona did not choose the correct English word when she explained that the painting she had entitled Vanity was about the transience of things.
My hunch is that it was my own vanity – for I have lived in the UK for thirty years this October and consider myself at least half a native of the place by now and my command of the language impeccable – which made me made me question her choice of title.
But in our time, foolish vanity is pulled out by its roots in an instant by the casual act of producing one’s mobile phone for all the doubters to see and to nonchalantly proceed with dusting the dried soil off the withered remains of such folly.
Vanity, Mona’s phone said, is the quality of things which describes their transience. And therefore, being vain is not an inflated love for one’s ego, but the fear of loosing what one has, i.e of how we appear to ourselves in the mirror on our wall and in our mind to the passing of time.
But by George!
And hello again Mona…
I have just brought back to life the wilted remains of my linguistic pride which fell on the tiled gallery floor yesterday afternoon.
Thank you old and trusted laptop.
Of course, the best thing about being right is that it doesn’t matter.
In fact, I am much fonder of Mona’s definition than of the Oxford Dictionary’s.
Vanity in the dictionary’s sense has the rather plumb and immoveable quality of being stoically self-satisfied to it.
Mona’s on the other hand gets to the core of what vanity is.
Being vain is living in fear and the self-satisfaction which we condone when we find it in a vain person is nothing but the thick blubber which they use to drown it in so that they do not have to feel it.
As if vanity can protect us from vanitas – the transient nature of earthly life.
Well, and isn’t that where the mind explodes?
Those who know my photography now that my website is called Stills In Time.
That little “s” at the end of Stills is only owed to the fact that the URL Still In Time was already taken when I went to buy my domain name.
I loved the double-meaning of it: a photograph is taken still in time before the transient moment it depicts passes and appears to hold that moment still in time.
That of course is the mystique of photography.
It is fundamentally vain in Mona’s sense, in that taking a photograph is very often motivated by the quiet fear which overcomes us when we become aware of the transience of things, especially of things we are fond of or which we love.
A slightly desperate hanging on and not very Zen, or mindful as we like to say today. The memento mori each photograph is to the person who takes it, arrests the transience which already befell the moment which it depicts the instant they pressed the shutter to capture it.
Every photograph is a death.
Or to say it with Susan Sontag: Life is a movie, death is a photograph.
Vergänglichkeit is a mysterious phenomenon.
We cannot hold it when we examine it. It is not tangible and our only way to hold its meaning is intuitive. No wonder then that we find it in art everywhere.
Capturing the fleeting is a triumph.
It is solid ground under our feet and an anchor on the ocean floor.
It’s a blessing for the living and a yearning for the dead.
In scientific terms Vergänglichkeit it is what is best described as entropy: encapsuled in the third law of thermodynamics. All things will fall from a state of being organised into a state of increasing disorder.
Through this, the arrow of time is created: it moves forward via the unstoppable disintegration of things.
Discarded paper cups and tangerine peels – profound meaning on a table top.
Still In Time.
A fool’s errand and an immeasurable treasure.
This moment too has now passed and I wish you all a very good night’s rest.
19. April 2023
It’s been an eventful few days with my work preparing for my exhibition in July at Galerie Huit Arles.
A quick break for a cappuccino at Place du Forum.
Summer has arrived in mid-April. The kind of summer I have been accustomed to for the last thirty years of my life: air warm enough to nourish the soul and not too warm to break out into sweat as I sit and skies blue enough to free the mind.
Except tomorrow will be the same, and the day after that, and the days after that…
A soft breeze, green leaves on the trees cast their shadows on the central square, the street and pavement and on my table at Bistro Arlésien. Café Mezza Luna is closed – a welcome break before the season starts in earnest I expect.
Well, it is now a day later.
My friend Diana, the Russian artist, had stopped by my place in the sun and we made plans over coffee for a photoshoot we want to do together. We will work in the atmospheric, glass vaulted space in her studio near the Rôhne. I look forward to it.
It is quite late now and I am tired. so I doubt this will be a long entry.
Just this much:
The last couple of days I have been busy making the final selection for the photographs from my The Locks of Lockdown series which I will show at Galerie Huit Arles in July.
I was very grateful to have my very, very good friend Karen by my – virtual – side.
It is never good to make a selection of your own work without consulting someone you trust. I trust her implicitly.
After I had spent most of Tuesday making a pre-selection of photographs and considering candidates, I had been left with a real headache.
The images were good I had thought, but they just would not add up to a coherent series. There was not enough variety in the composition and emotive expression of my selection and the photographs could not be arranged in an order which I thought would tell a story my audience would find interesting and engaging. Tomorrow, Wednesday should have been the day the files would be send to the printers in Paris and I felt the pressure.
And so, through the ether my candidates went to be with Karen when she would wake up the next morning.
Her feedback the next day came early. She had lost a couple of photographs which I felt were the strongest and kept some of the ones I would have been happy to loose.
I knew I had to keep the two she had rejected – they were crucial to the story I want to tell in the accompanying audio installation – and Karen’s finals, though well balanced, could not be the solution to my dilemma.
I was none the wiser.
A good thing it was that I was too.
I had the day before gone through my shots from my session with Svenn in January 2021 with a very fine tooth combe and was sure I had not missed any photographs that could hold their own in a gallery.
Left stranded I had no choice but to do it again.
And so, I reluctantly selected a number of images from the earlier part of or shoot when Svenn was still in the process of embalming himself with the lockdown hair.
Gee it’s good to be back home….
Two days have passed since I was writing the above. I had not been in the mood to continue. Some days I struggle with the work I want to do and that usually results in me feeling distinctly beside myself and pre-occupied with the frustration this brings.
Still, I managed to more or less complete scene three of my sound design yesterday and I think I am happy with what I laid down in the evening.
But back to my selection process.
From the photographs of the embalming process, I selected five or six and added them to the set that had given me such a headache the night before.
With two favourites quickly arrived at and two of the head and shoulder portraits removed, the whole series suddenly fell into place.
Not only was there now a balance in terms of posture and composition, but the whole narrative that I envisage for my Seven Scenes of Severance was clearly laid out in front of me.
And what a relief it was.
Now, only one decision had to be made: one of the portraits I had left in sat beautifully within the series. Two options remained for the second one. I had an inclination about which one should stay and so I send two screen shots of the photographs displayed together with option one and with option two to Karen to ask her advise.
It is wonderful when two creative souls sing in tune and a common intuition lives within two souls.
Her answer came promptly and emphatically and I knew we had solved it
The work was finally done.
I am very happy now with all of the images. All of them are strong stand-alone photographs which leave much room for the imagination to speculate about the story they tell, there is a rhythm to the sequence which will only become stronger when the sonic narratives accompanies it, and the mystery of ritual I want to evoke with my installation will resonate beautifully in the dark and atmospheric cellar of Galerie Huit Arles.
Yesterday I send the photographs to Paris where they will be printed on brushed aluminium Dibond and framed in matt black, aluminium floating frames.
I cannot wait to see them.
The process of creative vision never ceases to amaze me.
Isn’t it wonderful, that our minds can dream up, organise and articulate ideas that have no model in our everyday lives?
A simple proposition, a challenge or problem or our desire to comprehend and express experiences we have had will set in motion. Almost out of sight, it will go in search of answers that will best satisfy the requirements of what has moved us so profoundly and from which we find no shelter until we resolve it.
The mind begins to wander through all it has stored as we walked, talked and dreamed ourselves through the journey of our lives, selects what it decides will best satisfy our sensibilities, copies what it finds onto the clipboard of our unconscious and then proceeds to paste it onto the canvas of our imagination, where, to our surprise, our organisational faculties begin to arrange all the different elements in such a way, that by the end a coherent answer is arrived at which not only releases us from the chains of the unexpressed, but also frees others who have been bound by the same experience that did not llow us to find rest.
Of course, the final incarnation of our response is realised in terms that are all to real: an exhibition as in my case, a musical composition, a scientific explanation writing, drawing, painting, sculpture, film and theatre – they all come from the same place: experiences which moved us profoundly and the unrelenting need to respond with answers to the questions which keep us bound until we have found an adequate response.
This is truly a gift.
For the challenges of our experiences are many, and from one generation to the next the questions the questions that a trouble us a result, never cease to require a response that can soothe our souls.
So yes, there is nothing new under the sun – like my much beloved music lecturer Frank Salter at The University of Salford’s Music Department liked to say – and yet there is in every moment, every beating heart, every layer of life and in the vast open ocean of our minds which we sail on the current of our lives from ashes to ashes.
But now, my second cappuccino of the afternoon just arrived, the sun is gentle and warm on my skin, a dove flies up to the edge of the roof of the house which is home to Bistro Arlésien, and men, women and children are promenading on the streets surrounding Place du Forum.
It is time to look up from these pages and to see it all unfold, here around my beloved seat in the cinema of life.
Bonne journée a tous et à bientôt.
Lot’s of it.
Maryse’s has caught her daughter’s cold and has retired to her quarters in the loft.
I am still in the kitchen, though for not very much longer tonight.
I feel an itch in my bones and a bit tender in my veins, but am not sure if someone ticked my box on the cold rota, or of if this is just niggles left from my 4k run this evening along the river Rôhne. The second in two days and I am slowly beginning to feel lighter on my feet.
Too early to say of course, but it feels like I am establishing some sort of rhythm after a good few years of covid induced inactivity.
I can do with bringing some life back into my fifty-six-year-old bones: the bed I am sleeping on here is simply far too soft for my trouble prone back. I have resorted to a method my mother used to practise: a pillow placed under the hip and lower back to prevent the spine from curving as you sleep on your side.
It’s somewhat re-assuring to know that we suffer from the same ill effects of getting older as our parents did. Being able to rely on another small piece of wisdom my mother mentioned to me once in passing, feels like I am being parented by her again. These precious moments are rare now of course since I have long ceased to be a green shoot on the old generational tree.
Funny how we only grow outwards and upwards for so long and then find ourselves, before very long, at the lower end of the trunk.
From there we will eventually sink further still, into fertile bottom soil if the ground has been well prepared, with not much left but hope that our lifetime’s toil will have helped to strengthen the roots, our life’s endeavours can hold the tree firm against the odds of the elements and that our contribution to those around us might have provided some nourishment to the tender, new shoots being now being blown from side to side in the wind.
Well, it’s late. I should retire.
I shall let you know if, by the morning, I will have woken up coughing.
15. April 2023
Maryse has guests and her daughter has returned from a visit to Marseille terribly ill with a cold.
From the living room animated French conversation, in the kitchen on the stove a carton with a takeaway pizza – pizzas are most definitely a lot bigger here – and on my table, my laptop, a glass of pastis with water, an empty tin of mackerel in a delicious tomato sauce which now rests on the bottom of my belly, sea salt, pepper, aioli and my hat.
Ah, and I just spotted what looks like sumptuous chocolate cake… – not mine, unfortunately.
I have come to realise that describing all that I saw and felt during the six bull fights I witnessed last weekend would come at the expense of the days that have passed since and a good few more that lie ahead.
If you are indeed interested to learn more, I can recommend Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon. Though he describes what bull fighting was like in his time, much of what he wrote is still relevant today. I do think though that you’d best read in in preparation for a Corrida should you find yourself in a bull fighting country one day and wish to experience one for yourself.
If on the other hand you are curious now and would to like to see excerpts from one of the Corrida’s that took place here over the Easter weekend, you can follow this link.
I should warn you though.
This short film includes footage of bulls bleeding from the wounds the picadors and banderilleros inflicted on them and the fatal sword blow by the toreros who killed them.
A few final thoughts on the Corrida.
Bull fighting is definitely a cruel spectacle.
The bulls’ superiority in terms of wild power and pure strength can only be subdued by the team work of seven grown men. In that way it is no different to thew way hunter gatherers overwhelmed animals which one man alone would never have dared to hunt.
But of course, this is very different. Even though the bull is slaughtered after it has lost its brave, yet futile battle and the meat is sold off to those who want to prepare and eat it, the reasons for the killing have nothing to do with sustenance.
The bull is simply unlucky that his stature, power, strength and bravery have resonated deeply in our imagination for thousands of years and thus transformed the reality of a life usually detached from the human sphere and bound to nature into a mythical representation of much we aspire too, desire to conquer and ultimately relish defeating.
Bulls have held this place in our cultures since time and memorial. Be it their representations in prehistoric cave painting some 17000 years ago, the Minoan tradition of bull jumping in bronze-age Greece, or the centuries of bull fighting in arenas up and down the Mediterranean and Middle America – the bull has been engrained as an archetype in our psyche from the moment we encountered him tens of thousands of years ago.
A pig faces no such predicament. In contemporary culture our imagination has not stretched further than comedic value and cuteness. Its downfall is brought upon solely because to our palate it just tastes very good.
Since bull fighting was first conceived the degree of cruelty inflicted on the innocent animals that are being led into the ring has not changed. And those who follow and love it have grown numb to the cruelty which unfolds before them every time they attend a Corrida.
For five to six undisturbed years bulls that are bread for fighting live an almost entirely wild life out in the open. Spanish bulls more so than French, but even the herds of French bulls which graze in the beautiful countryside in these parts have few encounters with people. This is of course done, so that their attacking instincts aren’t compromised by making them feel too comfortable around humans. But still – their lives are good.
Once a bull enters the arena though his fate is sealed.
Well, unless the crowd finds him a valiant and brave fighter and petitions the major to spare his live. Then he gets to graze on those lush green fields again under the same sun-graced open sky and lives out his life until his natural death.
During the thirty minutes a bull fight usually takes from beginning to end, he is reduced from a noble king of his kind to a mere shadow of the strength, power and valour which not only holds in our imagination but which is the mark of his age and the birth right of his species.
He never chose to fight – he was made to. And what befalls him in the end is in no way his fault.
And in that way his fate is much like our own or that of any living being. We did not choose to find ourselves in the arena of life and when death comes to us it is – mostly – through no fault of our own.
It is easy to see the metaphoric value of this ritual.
Except of course as humans we live in the knowledge of what lies ahead.
Though I wonder if an animal’s instincts to escape from mortal danger are not also rooted in an emotive awareness of what awaits should it fail in its attempt to get away.
And isn’t it precisely because we know what lies ahead that we extend compassion to other creatures and strive to protect them from unnecessary harm?
The tradition of bull fighting cultivates a genuine respect for the animal at the centre of its tradition. It lets us experience the elemental wildness of creatures still bound entirely to nature and what it takes to overcome it.
The cruelty we inflict on those animals, whose only misfortune is that they are part of our menu, has in contrast to the cruelty embedded in bull fighting increased exponentially. Factory farming, milk and egg production have established torture chambers of epic proportions. This is, often life-long, cruelty on animals hidden away from our eyes that much exceeds what a Corrida bull suffers in his life.
And yet, we have factored this cruelty in when we buy meat and animal products in the same way a bull fighting afficionado factors in the cruelty he witnesses in the arena. Each have numbed the sense of compassion they otherwise readily extend to fellow humans and other sentient beings and they have subdued their protective impulses so they can enjoy what they desire.
Of course – two wrongs never make a right.
We judge the killing of animals for entertainment more harshly than for sustenance and our judgement feels intuitively right.
But I struggle to see the difference between the cruelty we tolerate which is hidden from view and the cruelty we witness in plain sight.
Maybe bull fighting makes us feel so uncomfortable because witnessing it makes it impossible to deny our complicity any longer.
13. April 2023
A picture is worth more than a thousand words.
Since I started writing this blog, I am no longer sure whether this is true.
My seat in the shadowy side of the amphitheatre was along the elongated side of the oval, with the tunnel through which the parade of matadors, subalternos, picadors and bandillereos and later, during the actual fight, the picador on his horse would enter, and with the tunnel through which the bull runs into the enclosure on the left.
I had chosen to walk up the ancient steps of the amphitheatre to the main entrance, imaging as I did the millions of people who had taken these same steps throughout the millennia before me.
There is something eternal about these steps, much like there is in ancient cities, the sea or big mountain ranges. To find yourself small and insignificant while in the presence of vast timescales is as humbling as it is reassuring. As pre-occupied as I am day in and day out with my experience of me and my relationship to the world around me, being humbled in this way brings much needed relief from ego and my daily endeavours to make sense of it all.
This is the stuff that rituals are made off and what I was about to witness was certainly a very carefully constructed one.
I had walked through the old tunnels to find my gate to the terrace from where I would watch the fighting. Dark tunnels, the ground still nothing but bare earth and light throwing white beams on the vaulted stone walls, every time I passed a tunnel off to my left on my way to the one that waited for me further along to lead me into the arena.
Later, after a torero had killed the fourth bull, nature called and I would discover that amongst the many traditions that are celebrated here, men relieving themselves in the dark corners of the tunnel system was a rite that had escaped the conventions of modernity. Naturally I followed suit: when in Rome do as the Romans do…
Having found and entered through gate sixteen I was ushered to my seat by a friendly middle-aged woman to seat six hundred and fifteen. I climbed up the knee-high steps of the terrace to my allocated seat in the third row, just in front of number four: a wooden bench situated sightly too close to my level and a little to the left of the centre of the long side of the ovals perimeter.
Having read in Hemmingway’s description of bull fighting in the early part of the 20. Century that abandoning your seat for a better one that has not been taken was, though frowned upon, common practice, I trusted this too had not changed over the course of the last century and decamped to the row below me, where three seats over-looking the centre of the arena had remained free.
My choice was vindicated later during the Corrida, when I found that three of the bulls that afternoon were killed just below where I was now sitting.
Not that I had been eager to see the killings up close, but still. I had come here to witness the fighting of bulls and there was no reason why I should be spared the killing which brings the fight to its end by pretending that me seeing it from a distance would somehow absolve me of being a willing participant in it.
High up in the ranks, just above the gate leading to the corals and a large, mainly yellow fin de siècle bull fighting banner – much like this one – was a brass band, all in red, staggered in four rows, a conductor standing below. As he lifted his baton high into the blue, late afternoon sky and brought it down with pace and accuracy in execution of movement, the orchestra sounded the first chord of the pasodoble which would accompany the entrance of the matadors and their entourage.
To my left the gate opened and to the appreciative applause of the assembled crowd, two riders all wearing black, medieval suit together with a black cap and a wide, white collars rode in on two white horses. Their function is purely ceremonial and but they proudly they lead the paseo of all of participating actors of the Corrida. Behind the two riders followed three toreros, finely dressed in their skin-tight – so the bull’s horns cannot catch on any loose material – beautiful and ornate traje de luces, six subalternos – two for each torero -, three bandillereos and six picadors on horseback.
In comparison to the fighters on foot, a picador’s costume is modest: waist-length jacket, hat and trousers – also tight – all in different shades of beige with metal armour protecting their legs from their thigh down to their feet.
Now, the horses didn’t wear the blinds which would later cover their eyes to prevent them from following their instincts when angry bulls would charge at them at full speed. They too are protected by thick, plated armour – a long coat which only leaves their necks and tails free whilst their underside is also wrapped in protective material.
When during the fourth fight of the afternoon, one unfortunate – or was it clumsy – picadors failed to sink his lance into the shoulder muscles of the rampant bull which had lodged his horns in the horse’s armour the crowd erupted into loud booing and shouting. Their disapproval rose to disgust and hardly concealed contempt as the horse was stood up on its hind legs by the charging bull and pushed so hard that it fell to the floor. Once on the ground, with the bull still charging, it lay still on its side as it had no way of standing back up with the heavy armour constricting every movement. Only when the subalternos had succeeded in luring the bull away from the horse, could the combined strength of four men help the horse back to its feet.
Unperturbed, the horse allowed the picador back in the saddle. Both now ready to take on the bull once more, the picador took aim with his long, thin lance and this time found the strong muscles in the bull’s back.
He inflicted an injury which would later force the bull to lower his head when charging the matador so he could carry out the elegant turns and daring lures which would win him favour with the crowd.
Only once he had proved himself the end would come.
The torero would face the bull – then completely exhausted and keeping his head lower still – raise his estoque and lower his muleta to the floor and lure it with a final wave one last time, jumping towards it as it attacked, to sink the sword through his back and into his heart.
With the audience though, this unlucky picador had lost all favour. They hollered and jeered when the matador gestured to him to leave and he rode, disgraced in the eyes of the crowd, towards the gate and disappeared into the tunnel.
In Hemingway’s time, the horse would now have lain dead, gored by the bull’s horns, its insides spilt into the sand. Thousands would die in that way every season, until in 1930 the protective armour that is still in use today was introduced.
Bull fighting has many opponents and the ongoing debate was visible in the arena in the placards amongst the terraces which had been put up in defence of this tradition which is still such a big part of heritage and culture here.
I wonder how long it may take until the compassion which is extended to these brave horses is also extended to the bulls. As it stands their death remains at the centre of a celebration that is one the most joyful affirmations of life I have ever seen.
Come and see the Féria, even if you do not wish to have any part in the killing of an innocent animal.
11. April 2023
I don’t know Bizet’s Carmen at all, but I will have heard much of it over the Easter which has just passed. It is the music of the Féria, played by the brass ensembles in the streets, in front of the amphitheatre as the crowd gathered under sunny skies in the afternoons to be let in, and inside the arena before and during the six bull fights I witnessed.
I had read half of Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon in the weeks before the Féria to begin to understand some of what I would encounter beforehand and it was useful.
Though nothing quite prepares you for the spectacle itself.
I had bought one of the more expensive seats on the third row of the first terrasse and had selected my seat – number 615 in stall number 16 – well. Living just by the amphitheatre I had a pretty good idea of where the sun would set later on and my calculations proved me right as I as I found myself taking my seat on the shady side of the arena. Not that it mattered that much. Temperatures have not yet risen hot enough for it to make much of a difference, but still: not having to photograph against the glare of the sun would prove to be an advantage.
I had brought with me a bottle with water and my Canon with my long telephoto lens.
What can you possibly photograph at a bull fight that has not been photographed many, many times before?
Nothing surely is the answer, but if anything, that can be all the more of a reason to take pictures.
In photography’s infancy and throughout its teens and for many, many years of its adult life, photographs were messages from the unknown and brought stories from one part of the world that had not been told in another. Photographs were imbued with mystery, promises of distant lands – both geographically and psychologically – and each could be a revelation to those who never had and probably never would see that which the photograph depicted.
Photographs opened the world up and introduced connections between people and places which had hitherto remained elusive. An individual act of discovery had overnight become a shared one. Those who made these discoveries were no longer gatekeepers of secrets otherwise bound to remain mysteries with only the flame of our imagination to keep them alive. They – the photographers – had become messengers that revealed to the world that which had been speculative and shrouded in mystery before.
The first photographs of the lunar landscape turned, with just a few clicks of the shutter, millennia of religion, spiritualism, poetry, art and scientific speculation about our celestial companion into chartered territory and terra firma for all to see.
Today 3.2 billion photographs are uploaded to the internet in a single day.
There are no longer any mysteries to demystify, no gods to dethrone and no new terra firma to be discovered.
At least not on this planet.
Why take any pictures at all?!
Thankfully all people who take photographs do it for the same reason that I do – we want to discover everything we see for ourselves.
Everything new we see, every new way of seeing what we see, every unexpected coincidence that reveals a for us unexpected way of seeing is most definitely worth a click of the shutter. Photography is only ever dull when people take pictures of the same things again and again without ever changing the way they photograph it.
But praised be the heavens above and below – we are still curious enough to want to discover all the mysteres for ourselves.
3.2 billion photographs… – so be it.
If anything, this is a sign that millions and millions of people have the hearts of explorers and still need to see everything with their own eyes.
At this point I owe you an apology.
Those who have read these pages from time to time will by now know that I have a terrible tendency to pontificate in pretentious paragraphs about what many, many more capable women and men than I have written many, many learned books, articles and thesis about.
Really, I should get to the – bloody – point.
The bull fighting.
But you will have to excuse my pontificating.
The thoughts that spill onto the page are all new to me. My brain hands them to me as it is currently working and it cannot possibly hold them all at the same time. It’s my curiosity I am afraid that makes me an all too willing assistant and so it is unfortunately you who are reading these paragraphs somewhat belligerently who will have to put up with it.
The bull fighting.
Tomorrow. It is late.
8. April 2023
Words will not give you the rousing sound of the music, the salty scent of freshly made paella drifting in the breeze, the oratorio of conversations on the busy terraces and verandas, or the night I have just passed, where unexpected encounters lead to life stories being told and a bodega on god’s dancefloor.
Yes, god’s dancefloor.
An ornate old church full of poetic, catholic frescos depicting playful angels and holy madonnas with an ornate floor designed by Christian Lacroix and two turntables atop a table spun by two blond DJs who may as well may as well have descended from the fresco above them sometime before we arrived just after midnight. The crowd was dancing to the heavy beats of their fine-tuned litany and so was I.
A service I left late and to which I am likely to return tonight.
I am now a world apart from everything I got accustomed to in my first thirty-nine days here.
Gone is the cold wind, gone are the narrow streets empty except for the regular Arlesian souls that sleep-walked through the hiatus of winter, gone are the small observations of slow days and the blanket of dreams which had wrapped itself tightly around my shoulders as I waited, watched and wondered.
Was what has happened here from one day to another explosion? A firework? A wild flower bed coming into bloom as the sun’s riches fall onto green shoots of all that lay dormant and battered after heavy rains?
You would have to be here to feel the unrestraint relief of life exuberantly celebrating itself, freedom and the gods and goddesses of creation.
It must have happened somewhere in the old arena.
Maybe a quiet turning of the winds, a small coming together of ancient spirits, a hardly noticeable acceleration of time and a bright, light beam of sunlight at dusk drying the very last tear of winter – no more than a small turbulence in the fabric of life in these parts. Nurturing itself, drawing in ever more ancient rites and stories of the past to bind them in its spell, growing exponentially larger and larger until it enveloped the whole of the town and creating inside of itself a sphere for an innocent new future. All we had to do – all of us here – was to step inside, eyes open, ears tuned and hearts ready to receive.
And if all it takes is one step, who would not take it?
I had stopped for something to eat, seduced by all the wonderful food I had seen and smelt on my way to Place du Forum. A little while ago I had wandered there to see if I could take my usual table at Mezza Luna, hoping that some tranquillity might have returned after last night’s drunken revelry, but no such luck.
So, I returned and now have a prime seat on the terrasse here, over-looking the amphitheatre.
I sit and listen to the music of the brass band around the corner and the flow of international voices on the tables around me. The spectators for the afternoon corrida are gathering by the old iron gates and sit on the ancient steps leading up to the main entrance, as I expect the Romanised Populus did some two thousand years ago.
It is Easter and it doesn’t escape me that, much as the death of Jesus Christ which is retold every year at this time caused reverberations in the millennia past, here this festival of life, of the celebration of humanity and unbound affirmation of earthly joy and happiness also flow from sacrificial death.
Not long now and the first bull of the afternoon will lie dead in the sand of the arena, whilst two more will await their unenviable fate in the stalls of the amphitheatre.
Life and death as always divided by privilege, good fortune and odds enshrined in the destiny of every living creature that has ever been born and ever will be.
Today we celebrate because the odds have fallen in our favour. Tomorrow we too will be sacrificed so that those who follow us can sing and dance, smell the promises of spring and look at the gift of life in awe and wonder.
So be it, amen.
But before my service here comes to a close in what I hope is still a distant future, I will recount some of what I breathed and lived through last night.
I had spent much of the afternoon at La Brasserie L’Afficion watching the crowd assemble for the first corrida of the festival.
Expecting the little square in front of it to be over-flowing with people eager to attend the opening corrida, I found the sea of local connoisseurs, far travelled afficionados, excited first timers and unsure novices was much small than I had envisaged. Later I should see that the ranks of the terraces were more sparsely populated than I had wished for and had hoped, that when it would be my turn on Sunday to take my place above the arena, the amphitheatre would be entirely filled with souls who like myself had come to cherish their encounter with the unrelenting pas-de-deux of life and death.
What blessing it is to walk away from it – what tragedy to be left lying in the sand.
But for now, I sat at my table, cappuccino by my side and my camera in my hand taking photos of the events and people passing by at the foot of the amphitheatre.
I was reluctant at first, not wanting to be overtly intrusive, but then un-packed my long telephoto lens a and began taking photographs from where I was sitting.
A telephoto lens is very expressive in the way it invades people’s private space and allows you to catch intimate authenticity while also filling the photograph with context and atmosphere. Sitting down I had an un-conspicuous vantage point out of the line of sight of most people and was very happy with the portraits and street scenes I captured.
As I am writing this now, the stairs, the gates and the small square in front of La Brasserie L’Afficion are filled to the brim people waiting to be let in, a brass band plays the traditional opening fanfares for the Corrida, and to my right the small brook that is the street which winds itself up the hill and around the amphitheatre has become a wild, wild current of electric anticipation.
The un-bounded excitement of a thousand beating hearts is at this moment amplified by the historic façade of the theatre and by the heavy iron gates which for the moment have remained remain firmly shut. It is though, as if through the marching rhythms of the brass band’s rousing fanfares which echo from the sandstone of the old house on all sides, I can hear the eternal, dreamless silence of death from inside the arena. I wonder if it is this silence which remained of the … turbulence, once the expanding sphere of the future had found its equilibrium. This silence does nothing, it says nothing, it wants nothing, but I can tell that I and everyone around me hear it, are drawn to it to witness it and to walk away from it – afterwards, for now.
I did not know what exactly it was I was expecting, but I did not imagine that my heart would join the rhythm of the crowd and music just by witnessing the scene up close. Now I wonder what tomorrow will be like when I will not be watching, but also wait to be let inside.
Well I did not intend to end today’s entry on this note, but the day has moved on, my currently favourite pasta dish – tagliatelle with saucisses aux herbes fried with garlic and onions, with a black pepper, basil and crème fraîche sauce, topped with fresh parmesan and a juice tomato on the side – has been prepared and eaten.
May a Happy Easter bless you with favourable odds and fine company.
6. April 2023
Tonight, is my last night in my temporary home.
It will feel a little strange going from this big, beautiful house back to my little, somewhat functional room in the Rue Armande Barbès, but I think I will soon make friends with it again.
Today, unannounced, spring arrived.
Yesterday the air was chilled by gust of cold mistral winds, the deep blue open sky distant and the sun far and further still. Clear it was, but cold it felt.
Today, the soft air flowed like time arrested in perpetual spring. It held no memory of winter, no worry or winds and the change from a season grown old to a season reborn occurred without so much as a whisper from a deathbed and with the silence and serenityof a baby born without labour.
Outside now, the people too have woken from their heavy out-of-season dreams. Though they seem not to have awoken with similar ease, as their slurred singalongs and bawdy grovelling in Le Pot Du Tabac on the corner still carry the unbroken, long deep sleep which befalls most when autumn dies and winter is birthed.
Still, they will continue their delirious resurrection long into the night I am sure.
Tomorrow the Féria begins.
Galleries have opened everywhere overnight. Now, the diary quickly fills with evening rendezvous at this vernissage here and another one over there.
Tomorrow night, my friend Diana will open her studio near the Rôhne to present her latest work and the party will carry on Saturday night with two DJs and no doubt festive drink. Earier, I already have another vernissage booked in at a gallery I visited last year in September – Sinibaldi.
Before I go to bed now to close my eyes to the drunken reverberations of this new spring sprung a few, quick notes about this day.
Morning spent collecting more sound effects.
Midday spent in the sunshine on the terrace of this house, going through a collection of BBC Newshour Radio recordings I have been send, to select excerpts I want to use in my sound design.
Afternoon spend at a meeting with JC in the white chapel of his apartment to discuss a little project I will be working on with him for the Night of La Poesie in May.
Learned that he has been friends with Nan Golding for thirty years.
Those of you who have read more of my blog will already know how impressed and moved I was by her biography, her photography and her activism, after I saw the film All The Beauty and the Bloodshed three weeks ago in the local cinema here.
Connections like these must come with the outgoing winter winds in these parts.
Evening spent on two video calls with Bristol friends. Grateful for the blessings of the 21. Century.
A few more sounds found. A pastis drunk. A few paragraphs typed.
A good night to all.
5. April 2023
Café Mezza Luna – vows are there to be broken.
The soft wind of change has transformed La Place du Forum yet again.
All around the square and on the terraces of the cafés and restaurants slim frames of sliver scaffolding have been erected and disco lights are now running circles of white light across my table as the motors which drive them spin and whirr above my table.
The Féria starts on Friday.
It won’t be long until the square will be filled to the brim with drunken revellers feasting on heavy techno music and the offerings of the various liquor brands which entice the next young generation into becoming loyal consumers of their intoxicating wares.
I have been told that the Féria has been taken over by the big commercial interests which bring their wealth and power here and that finding the traditional spirit of the festival depends now entirely on putting your ear to the ground so you can listen to the word on the street.
Watch me prostrate myself while there is still time.
This morning was spend selecting and downloading more sounds for my sound design for The Locks of Lockdown. I have decided to hand my sleeping hours over to the rule of my alarm clock and to spend at least four hours each day working on my sound design.
I have realised that what I envisage is quite ambitious and time will fly by.
Because I know how pressure will pile up when the deadline no longer looms but is imminent, I am determined to beat the clock. Being one for arriving one minute to twelve to hand in my essays hot of the press after a sleepless night, I do not find this easy.
I do hope though that this time it will be different.
But where was I…?
I believe I had arrived at the cess pool of questions that is ugliness when I finished writing two days ago.
Let me see if I can bring some order to the fractured and unsettling nature of what we like to refer to as ugliness.
It is tempting to look at ugliness and beauty as polar opposites in the same way we think of good and evil.
Mythology and literature are rich in stories that interpret their relationship in this way.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide | The Frog Prince | The Beauty and the Beast
In fact, today we still continue making this connection when in movie after movie, television series after television series, the villain is inevitably ugly or at the very least on the spectrum of ugliness – with rare exceptions – and the hero or heroess is beautiful or can at least be given the attributes of beauty in some form or another – again of course with exceptions.
I think the relationship between beauty and moral integrity and ugliness and moral corruption would make a very interesting subject to think about. I am sure it has been written about at length before so I won’t.
I guess so have the ideas of beauty and ugliness, but as I have started I will continue.
Ugliness and Beauty
The absence of beauty does not make something ugly and neither does the absence of ugliness make something beautiful. They both exist on their own terms and we only make the connection because the contrast between the two is so stark.
Much in the same way that black and white are seen as opposites because of the contrast between them or silence and noise.
All of these do of course exist entirely independent from each other as their own entities. It is only the gradient between them that leads from one to the other which lets us make us see them as connected. I do wonder if the same is not true of good and evil.
I find it interesting that we like to look for – and often find – something beautiful in ugliness when we are confronted by it. Yet we never look for something ugly in beauty when we encounter it. In beauty we look for flaws – we would never look for flaws in ugliness.
Whatever beauty we do find in ugliness serves one singular purpose: to draw our attention away from ugliness.
Adding ugliness to beauty destroys it, and what beauty is left only serves to distract us from the ugliness we have added.
Because what is left of beauty will draw a substantial amount of our attention to it, we may perceive a heightened sense of beauty overall, because the ugliness within it has no gradient, but exists in stark contrast to the beauty that remains.
Add too much ugliness though and beauty’s remaining power of distraction is reduced to a point where eventually we desperately hold on to the last remaining elements of it, so it may shield us from the chaos of the ugliness, which by then has subsumed most of the beauty that remained.
The gradient between ugliness and beauty though is different when we do not mix one with the other, but reduce the qualities which makes each what they are.
Both ugliness and beauty will travel via the unremarkable – the plain – if we attempt to transform them from being pure ugliness or respectively pure beauty into what we know exists on the other side of the spectrum.
And while moving beauty towards ugliness requires little effort in practical terms as we simply need to destroy it and make it chaotic, moving ugliness towards beauty requires a lot of effort: imagination, application of skill and time and often the expenditure of material or financial resources.
It is no different with war and peace: destruction is easy, even when the material and financial cost the act of destruction might cost can be great. Building peace is difficult because it requires us to rebuild it from the chaos that destruction of war has wrought.
But let me go back to the idea that ugliness is a question. Actually, let me say it is rather a lot of questions.
While with beauty questions such as: “Why is it so?”, “What is it that made or indeed still makes it so?”, “How did it become this way?” and “Will it remain so?“, do nothing of real value to help us truly comprehend the beauty we encounter, with ugliness these same questions suddenly acquire a profound meaning.
This is not because we ask these questions with different intent, but because to us it seems as if ugliness itself was posing these questions in the hope that we may hold the answers which will save it from itself.
Ugliness asks: “Why am I so?”, “What was it that made me so and what is it that still makes me so?“, “How did I become so?” and “Will I remain so?”. We cannot close our hearts or ears to these questions and so we will go only to readily in search of the answers.
Beauty we have been told is an ideal.
Ugliness however is not.
That is because beauty is static while ugliness is dynamic – always striving to change what it is, striving not to be ugly or decaying into ever more ugliness. If only ugliness knew that if it decayed for long enough or simply chose to rest in itself it could become beautiful.
But it does not – it is too busy asking questions.
Its questions make us very uncomfortable and leave us feeling distressed. They make us feel so unsettled in fact, that we quickly endeavour to take action to attempt to change ugliness, if not into something beautiful, so at least into something bearable or unremarkable.
If we do nothing of the sort, we are left with little choice but to bear it and will either be ground down by it, or resort to the tried and tested method of turning a blind eye: to the blindfold of sensual denial.
We may also, in order to solve the dilemma we find ourselves in, redefine ugliness as beauty and thus chose to transform it in one quick swoop into something tolerable if not even desirable, rather than go through the laborious effort to transform it through the application of our imagination, effort and time.
Thankfully our imagination is boundless and capable of substituting a reality we do not like for one that suits us.
There is of course a third way of dealing with ugliness and that is to simply deny it exists.
The idea that everything is beautiful and our idea of what is ugly is formed by a social construct we ought to deconstruct has much merit.
Attributing ugliness to something or someone has been, and still is today, a very powerful tool when someone attempts to cement and propagate their own prejudice, but here the qualification of someone or something as ugly says more about the nature of the prejudice and the person holding it, than it does about the fundamental nature of ugliness.
Denying the existence of ugliness does nothing for removing prejudice.
Only the acceptance of someone or something that is different from us, of someone or something that does not conform to our expectations about how they are or should be will turn our resentment of who or what we encounter into curiosity and ultimately enrichment.
At this point I want to say that I in no way pass any judgement on ugliness in the same way that I pass no judgement on beauty.
Naming something as “ugly” is for good reasons a taboo which we are careful not break, especially when it comes to attributing it to people’s appearance, their circumstances, or their choices. Using the idea of ugliness in a social context is derogatory and it is not only politeness, but also decency which ought to prevent us from using the word in this way. Here I am interested in trying to understand the nature of ugliness without making reference to anyone or anything
So why is it that we find the questions that ugliness asks us to respond to with such vehemence so unsettling?
I wonder if this is because it brings us face to face with what beauty manages so effortlessly to console. While beauty appears to, without any agency on our behalf, answer the questions that we ask ourselves about ourselves, ugliness throws these same questions right back at us and leaves us without refuge from our desire to find answers so that we may find comfort.
For ugliness is not only dynamic – it is also chaotic and its borders seem boundless and contagious. When we encounter it, we desire to hold onto something that restores our sense of balance but find nothing and so we recoil from it.
It would be tempting to draw the analogy of a mirror and to say it reflects our own ugliness back to us, but I am confident that this is not what it does. If it were a mirror, it would also reflect something beautiful and something entirely unremarkable about ourselves back to us.
It is more that it does not leave us alone. It is relentless, un-remitting in its questioning of us – and by implication of what we ask ourselves about ourselves – it seems to absorb us entirely into its borderless frenzy.
And it is precisely this which gives it the one defining quality that beauty does not possess: it is interesting.
In fact very interesting.
Much like a large, difficult puzzle is interesting for as long as it remains unsolved and ceases to be interesting the very minute it is completed.
Similarly, beauty only becomes interesting when we take it apart in order to attempt to reassemble it again.
With ugliness questions may produce answers that lead to more questions which lead to more answers etc.
We all to happily follow the trail of questions and answers, because to us it feels as if we were drinking a tonic which relieves us off the bitter taste that ugliness has infused into every sinew of our being.
If we did not recoil entirely when we first tasted this bitterness, we will indeed uncover very interesting answers and questions as we drink. Our tonic will in fact make ugliness quite palatable and provide us with deeply meaningful insights and a very different kind of profound interrogation about our relationship to the world and ourselves that than the contemplation of beauty provides.
In modernity ugliness has often been favoured over beauty in architecture, literature and the arts because the kind of interrogation it has to offer is much richer in the way it produces questions and answers than the plain and superficial qualities which are often – I think mistakenly – attributed to beauty.
I think that both are rich, profound and deep ways that help us to live fuller lives and help us to understand ourselves better.
I would not favour one over the other in terms of saying something relevant about the human experience.
I do know however what feels better and would always argue that being in the presence of beauty is as much a human right as nourishment, freedom and being safe from harm and persecution, because beauty offers us something we certainly do not find in ugliness and in indeed in few other things: the experience of feeling complete within ourselves and at peace, sheltered from the turbulence of what it often means to be human.
As for ugliness – I love it.
I love it for the questions it asks me to answer about myself and the world, for the way it never allows me to feel comfortable and complacent, for the way it challenges my expectations about how the world should be, for the way it tirelessly stimulates my imagination and for the way it holds me to account.
I hope we can continue to celebrate the difference between beauty and ugliness – attempting to eradicate it will only ever lead us to totalitarianism with all its ugly, ugly, ugly consequences.
Long live beauty. Long live ugliness.
And everything in between.
3. April 2023
I have arrived at my new, temporary home where I will spend the next four nights.
It is very beautiful.
The house belongs to a friend of my landlady Maryse who works in the arts and has a house just around the corner from Rue Armandes Barbés where I live on Rue de 4. Septembre.
Like so many houses here the house is very old, with winding staircases leading up to the two floors where the living quarters are. On the first floor a spacious kitchen, neat and with a dinner table at its centre that comfortably sits four and leaves still plenty of space to get to everything one needs when preparing a meal. Adjacent is the living room, also very spacious with two large sofas at its centre, high ceilings with the heavy wooden beams traversing it that I have seen before when having a curiously examining the interiors of houses here as I walked about town on my daily excursions.
I am typing this sitting on a functional, plain desk which says 1970ies in understated letters, facing the old, white wall where a little higher up two small abstract line drawings are just out of view, but welcome points of stillness when I look up to take time out to think.
Initially I wondered about the placement of the desk in a corner next to the old single-glazed French windows which lead to the balcony over-looking the Rue de 4. Septembre. So much beautiful space and yet this corner feels barren and un-inviting.
Now, as I am writing this, I realise that the spartan design of this desk and the blank wall in front me are the perfect place to think and work. Beauty all around me. I can be safe in the knowledge that all I need to do is turn to be in its presence, but while I face away to type these words there is nothing to distract me from my thoughts. A well thought out place dedicated to learning, thinking and creating.
Upstairs a really well apportioned bathroom, rustic not by design but by its nature, a washing machine, bath with shower, an old wardrobe.
In the hall – like almost anywhere in this house – bookshelves filled with titles about art past and present, exhibition catalogues, philosophy of art, photography.
I spotted a book about Lee Friedlander, big and thick and waiting for me to carry it to this desk to lift the cover from its heavily bound pages.
There are two bedrooms – a large one with a double bed and smaller one just to the side of the very steep stairs which, to my delight, lead to a beautiful roof terrace.
Tomorrow it will be cloudy and rainy – but Wednesday- and Thursday will be sunny and warm. With the Féria starting on Friday and La Place du Forum being given over to mostly young, very drunk revellers, I think I shall not see Café Mezza Luna again until a week from today. I have already decided to leave this house as little as possible in the next three days, so I can create. It will be sweet cafetiere coffee with warmed up milk instead of cappuccinos.
After I had arranged of my few belongings what I would need during my stay here, I had placed my Bluetooth speaker higher up on one of the bookshelves and, going through my extensive playlist on my telephone, selected music which I thought would complement my beautiful surroundings. It couldn’t be the 70ies easy listening playlist I had turned to this morning and I was glad to find Jean Sibelius’ 13. Pieces for Piano.
Now a good fourteen-five minutes later, the playlist has moved on to Khachturian’s Pictures of Children. Brag warning: I am not as musically literate as these quotations make me out to be. But I think I made the right musical choice.
Have mentioned how beautiful and balanced everything feels in this house, it seems fitting that I now elaborate a little about the ideas that have been rummaging through my mind over the last four days.
But really it did not start with beauty. It started with ugliness.
Why it came to me like this I do not know, but it did say to me:
Ugliness is a question. Beauty is an answer.
This is why ugliness is invariably disturbing whilst beauty is reassuring. This is also why ugliness is more interesting than beauty.
But if beauty is an answer – what is the question it is answering?
There may of course be many possible questions that beauty is an answer to, but singling one out would reduce what we feel and experience in the presence of it and we would therefore have to define a single quality that best qualifies as an answer to our question.
But beauty does not work like that. Beauty is a quality which gives rise to what we feel when we are in the presence of it, not through a single attribute it might possess, but by seemingly answering a multitude of questions by being present as beauty in a unified whole.
Anyone who has ever said to someone they love you are so beautiful and meant it, meant all of their beloved, not their face, their shoulder, their kindness or their fragility. Asked why, they could compile an exhaustive list of all of the things they find beautiful, but their list would still not meaningfully capture the whole which it describes. If we behold beauty – and of course what that is can be entirely different from person to person – we know it. We know it in its entirety as a whole. We even know it without asking. And so, it may seem that there is no question at all that beauty is the answer to.
But I do not think that is true.
I think we are the question that beauty is the answer to.
What we experience in the presence of beauty are emotions ranging from joy and jubilation, peacefulness and tranquillity to sadness – sometimes deep sadness – and melancholia, relief and reassurance.
Paradise, in our imagination, is beautiful. But it is not beautiful in the sense of pretty, which gives us only a fleeting imitation of what beauty offers freely and in abundance, but beautiful because it full-fills a promise that has been made to our deepest longings: it puts at rest all of the difficult and at times terrifying questions that life asks of us. The questions that rise from what happens to us – or sometimes what does not happen to us – the question we have about ourselves and the torment that can come from knowing ourself, the questions we have about others, strangers and loved ones, questions about the world, the why-oh-whys, the when-oh-whens, questions about where we come from and questions about where we will be going.
Somehow, in the face of beauty all of these questions come to rest. Just as beauty is present in the unity of its entirety, so we do we become whole when we give ourselves over to beholding it. And so, beauty is an answer to us, to all of the difficult questions that make us us, to all of the questions that resonate through us simply because we are alive and aware, fragmented by the questions that live within us and yet whole and present: everything, everywhere – all at once.
I do not think beauty is THE answer, but I think it is a profound one.
It is unfortunate though that modernity and capitalism have turned beauty into a false prophet. No longer see we within it echoes of paradise. No longer are we permitted to feel whole in its presence. We must look at it as shallow, probe it with questions as if to see whether its sublime bubble will burst if we persist to find fault in what it promises. In fact we must condemn it entirely and ask for something more meaningful. No longer do we sit and contemplate what it holds for us, no longer do we sit and take time for it to answer our questions, no longer can we rest on its promise.
And that is mainly due to the one quality which despite everything it contains it cannot offer to us. Beauty is not interesting. Try as we might – we will not find anything interesting. In fact the number of questions we can ask about it is very limited and mainly phenomenological and mechanistic:
What is it? Who made it and how? What are its constituent parts and how have they been assembled? How long has it been here? For how much longer will it be here?
Generally, it is not difficult to answer these questions and once we hear the answers they do nothing but satisfy a fleeting curiosity and leave us with a feeling of shallowness and dissatisfaction, which in turn will make us conclude that indeed, beauty itself is shallow and somehow unsatisfying.
But beauty is an oracle: you have to ask the right question, the one that does not let you collate a list of established facts and properties, but the one that is all of you.
Beauty is like love in this way.
With love you have to give all of you to give it and to feel it. It is no use knowing the neurochemistry of love or being versed in applying the qualities which you have discerned from it if you want feel and give love. In all likelihood you will soon turn away from it and think to yourself: “I really do not know what all the fuss is about.”
Pity love, pity beauty – they were just not interesting enough.
Beauty though has another Achilles heel: it is static.
Beauty is not in the process of becoming nor of dissolving. It has no tendency to become ‘more beautiful’ as becoming so would proof that it was not beautiful in the first place.
Something “is” beautiful even when we find the process of something turning into something beautiful, beautiful. It will still remain static and not dynamic.
Only ‘flawed beauty” can be dynamic. It can be content with what it is, but at the same time, it can let us revel in its perpetual dynamisms of attempting to be “upwardly mobile”, i.e it seems to continually try to become beautiful entirely.
False beauty can harbour no such ambition, for it has reassembled only a likeness of beauty after it broke it apart to examine what it is made of. Unfortunately, false beauty often successfully masquerades as beauty and don’t we know it too: in our times beauty has been turned from something akin to a spiritual experience to a commodity that is being bought and being sold.
Because of its dynamisms we find flawed beauty more interesting than beauty: it is a question to which there will never be an answer for the answer remains always just out of reach.
It may well be very happy with remaining just what it is though: “I’d rather be interesting than beautiful.” Or it can continue attempting to eliminate its flaws, in which case it becomes more like false beauty, or it can decay into the unremarkable or, further still, into ugliness.
Needless to say, so can beauty and so can false beauty.
And so alas, I have arrived at the bottomless pit that is ugliness. A cess pool of ugly, ugly, ugly questions. Not an answer in sight anywhere!
But it’s time to turn off Jean Sibelius – yes my beautiful playlist has come full circle – and to go and get my beauty sleep, if only!!
I think one thing should be clear though before I take to my dreams.
When I speak of beauty, I do not refer to any culturally agreed aesthetics of beauty.
The conventions of beauty have been arrived at for good reason, as we have through the ages tried to distil its essence so we can replicate it. Beauty is and always has been a very individual and private experience, one that overwhelms us precisely because wherever each and every one of us finds it, it offers an answer to the unique question that we ourselves pose: us.
2. April 2023
A few minutes before midnight. I am in bed.
The weekend has passed relatively uneventful.
Or has it?
I am never quite sure what “uneventful” means for me.
The things I did – drum practise, recording a voice over for an audio tour for a garden in Ireland on Saturday and editing what I had recorded for most of the afternoon today, completing my previous blog entry at Mezza Luna yesterday – these kinds of activities have become part of the life I have by now grown accustomed to live here.
Only a few days ago I would have found all of these acts eventful, because I gave my mostly un-divided attention to them, relishing their richness and deeply appreciating the opportunity to carry each of them out with time at hand and opportunity at my disposal. Now they all of a sudden, they no longer seem noteworthy and so I wonder whether I may have come to the end of my honeymoon here.
Maybe familiarity has caught up with me as it inevitably does with most things we do or experience on a regular basis. Or maybe I have grown so accustomed to the feeling of excitement and the thrill of discoveries everywhere I have been levitated by since I arrived here four weeks ago, that I am reluctant to let it go to make room for something else.
Or, I am just not in a good mood.
The latter feels definitely true, though I couldn’t say why that is the case.
Last night I followed my landlady’s invitation to join her at a small gathering at her friend’s nearby Japanese café, Le Café Japonais.
I was pleased to see Theo there when I arrived and to see Diana arriving a little later with a friend when I had already had a few glasses of the red wine the hosts had provided along with a selection of delicious snacks on the counter to help us celebrate the one-year anniversary of the opening of their café.
It was nice to feel that I had already made some friends and nicer still to have interesting conversations with some of the other guests who were all very friendly and welcoming. Almost everyone I meet here is very friendly and quick to start a conversation, which feels very good, though I still often feel like a lump of rock that a stonemason would present to a friend, with barely contained excitement about how he would transform its clumsy shapes into the wonderful sculpture he had seen in an equally wonderful dream through the application of his craft on the raggedly reluctant stony armour. Except of course, I am not made of stone and I doubt it would be possible to turn my command of the French language into a thing of beauty with a hammer and a chisel.
Luckily my new acquaintances all spoke either English or German.
And so, I did have a good number of interesting conversations last night.
Hervé – one half of the very friendly couple who run Le Café Japonais – had lived in Berlin for ten years before they moved to Arles two years ago replied when I asked what he had been doing there: “Live!”- of course the only sensible answer one can give to that question.
He did go on to elaborate though in perfectly fluent German that he had been creating art and re-invented life amongst like-minded friends there. Then he had met Marina and everything changed.
He added: ”Wie in einem Roman”, and I was slightly jealous.
A little later I met Eduard, who comes from a small town near Arles and now works in Jan’s – who is French and had a great story to tell of a rave he and his Japanese friends had once organised on an island just off the coast of a military base in Japan – restaurant, Izakayan, just “dans le coins” from moi.
Eduard though, spoke perfect English with a London accent. I learned that his father had been British street art pioneer and that some of the murals he painted in the 70ies when street art was still anarchic and subversive can still be seen in Pimlico.
I very much felt I was speaking to a fellow Brit – for I guess I have become one in so many ways now – and found it fascinating seeing him change to his French persona the moment he switched from English to French to talk to his compatriots. I have always noticed how different my son seemed when he spoke German in Germany from the person he is when he speaks English in the country which he was born and raised in – England.
It is easy to notice the extent to which someone changes their persona when they switch from one language to another as if they were just putting on a different coat because the weather had suddenly changed. Language and culture are so seamlessly interwoven. Words, phrases, syntax – they all play us like an instrument without us ever being aware of the virtuoso performance they coax out of us or of the implications this has on how we are within ourselves or which side of us we show to others.
I also met JC, Diana’s friend who was instantly very likeable and we talked a little longer about my work as a voice artist, my sound design work and this ‘ere – my blog.
When I, mid-conversation, made a remark about the difference between saying “rich beautiful people “ and “beautiful rich people” and the nuanced shift of emphasis which the word order made in terms of how we might perceive them, he replied: “So, you are a philosopher too.”
Of course, I humbly declined to accept this rarefied and honourable classification in much the same way I uncomfortable declined being called an artist when Eduard had a little earlier addressed me as such.
Imposter syndrome never quite lets go off the hold it has on you regardless of what it is that you do. But had my very good friend Isadora Vibes in Bristol not called me a photographer some tweleve years ago – she had kindly added the words great at the time, when I think I was anything but that – I would not have begun to see myself as one and probably would not find myself here now doing what I do and typing these very words.
I cannot recommend enough suspending the disbelief in your own abilities when someone you care about sees something in you that you might aspire to, but never quite belief within your capabilities.
Earlier on I wrote that my weekend had been “uneventful”.
It may have been with regard to the everyday activities I carried out over those two days, but my brain certainly had other ideas and had wandered off on an investigation of beauty and ugliness, the beginning of the universe and the nature of god – if indeed he exists.
As it is now nearly midday on Monday 3. April and my schedule today is filled with recording the few lines of voice over I discovered to be in need of correction over breakfast, downloading sound effects for my sound installation at Julia’s in July and with packing my few belongings to move – temporarily – to another house while my room is freed up for some AirBnB guest, which my landlady had booked in due a miscommunication on my part, I shall delay going over my notes and making my arguments with regard to these most fundamental of philosophical questions.
I think I will suspend my disbelief once again.
Who knows, where this might lead.
31. March 2023
It is mild today and the wind is kind.
Before it will invariably slip my mind as the pre-occupations of my Arlesian life will dictate once again the rhythm of memories committed to the story that I like to call my life, I will briefly recall to my mind what my son and I have seen and done together these last ten days.
I had saved many of the plentiful attractions and sights at my doorstep for the time we would spend here together and I am very glad I did. I love discovering places on my own terms very much without guidebooks hand-holding me through a series of apparently pre-ordained places of interest, but it is a different thing altogether to share discoveries with one so close.
My son has travelled the world far and wide in his short life and had, from a young age, been invited to share his mother’s and grandfather’s interest in everything historic and culturally significant from which both of their respective professions have evolved.
Never having been one to plan my travels much beyond arrival, accommodation and departure, I have often walked past the churches, museums and archaeological excavations that always draw so many people from far and wide to learn about their history and by implication about the country in which they seek them out.
I have always been more interested in how a place or a country is now, in the mystery of intuitive discovery and understanding, and in its history only in so far as it still plays a vital role of its people’s lives today. I suppose that is why I have a soft spot for Arles’ Roman amphitheatre: living so close by, it has become a living part of my small new universe and, serving its original purpose to this day for citizens and visitor s alike, history is still played out in its arena today as it has been the yesterdays before and will for many tomorrows to come.
And so, we climbed its ancient stairs which rise from the little square in front of La Brasserie L’Afficion leading to what no doubt has been the main gate for nearly two millennia now on the first day of his visit.
Once inside, my attention was immediately drawn to the oval of the bull fighting arena at its heart, the plain of bright, soft-yellow sand which is encircled by chest high red fencing and the four rectangular boxes that shelter the matadors and their assistants from the most un-predictable and ferocious attacks of the bulls.
Above it, old rows of stone seating rise up and out to form the characteristic vortex of terraces which inevitably fixes the audiences gaze on whatever spectacle would unfold at its base.
I had already spotted where I would be sitting only ten days from now to watch my first serious bull fight. Not on the additional seating constructed from wooden benches and steel scaffolding which now make up for the missing stone terraces higher up, but lower down, one row up from ground level on the ancient stones. High enough to get a view of the ceremonial pomp and ritual in its entirety and still low enough to see the encounter between matador and bull close up when their improvised choreography would carry them to my side of the oval.
Our conversation though drifted quickly to the Romans, their accomplishments in architecture, their penchant for spectacle and their hunger for conquest. The latter much less common today, but still wreaking havoc around the globe wherever it raises its despicable head.
And of course we speculated, imagined them climbing the same imposing stairs we had only just climbed up a mere fifteen minutes earlier, arriving to cement their status as citizens and as excited about the games of mortal combat that were about to unfold inside the theatre, as many of us are today about twenty-two highly-trained, specialised athletes kicking a ball about in arenas we have constructed in the image of this Roman archetype.
I was thrilled temporarily to see one of the many cats that call Arles their home wandering across the sand down below, calling out to what probably was a feline friend hiding below the terraces once it had reached the red fencing opposite from where we were standing. For me history comes alive when it is inhabited today. The chimera of history cannot possibly stir me as much to stretch my imagination to wonder where something or someone comes from and what their destiny may hold for them as that which plays out in its so revered halls today.
Still, both of us enjoyed our speculations and the few nuggets of knowledge we acquired about the history of Arles, and the role the arena had played at its heart for two millennia.
I am now looking forward to my visit to the amphitheatre during the Easter Fèria when, for the first time, I will take my seat amongst five thousand visitors who will sprinkle their presence and undivided attention into the hot pot of history.
From there we went to the Museum of Ancient History, which has only recently been built on the sight where gladiators used to entertain the crowds in chariots in the long-gone circus maximus by the side of the Rôhne.
Busts. Emperors. Sculptures. Gods. Mosaics. Amphorae… – and an almost entirely intact wooden barge from Roman times that used to carry sandstone, goods and foodstuffs up and down the river.
With all the sculptural and pictorial representations of women, men and children all around my son was left wondering why it had taken us so long to be able to paint or draw a life-like likeness of peoples faces. Considering for how long humans have been driven to paint or draw other people, it is quite astonishing that it took them so long to come up with a Mona Lisa. Why is it that no one took time and effort to work out how to create a life-like rendition of someone’s face when so much of each was invested in refining the craft of sculptural representation?
Sometimes you do not ask yourself the most obvious of questions. I am glad my son did.
I think for the sake of committing what we saw to my memory – and probably so that this blog entry does not outstay the welcome of your attention – I will resort to penning a brief list of what we did for the remaining eight days of my son’s stay here.
First up: Affinage!
What a meal we had…
If you like your meat prepared to perfection and served with un-compromised French flair you must visit.
The Papal Palace – such high, impenetrable walls to house a holy man.
Le Pond d’Avignon – indeed, the one of the old song.
French hot dogs !
St. Marie de la Mer
Pink Flamingos. White Horses. A photo shoot. La Camargue.
A very French British dinner together with a native British family of four and an Italian friend. The father | husband revealed himself to be a main contributor to an episode of Drain The Oceans in one of the previous series to the one I worked on until only recently.
A Spain-born French artist, former professional matador in Spain, France, Peru and Mexico and now lecturer in Paris and organiser of a Flamenco festival which takes place here in August every year. Can’t wait…
A day out
The ruins of the oldest chapel in France, carved out of rock atop a hill. Not much frequented and enjoyed for its views and peaceful surroundings.
You will have seen it – the intact, two-storey sandstone Roman aqueduct rising high above the calm waters of the river Garde, nestled in a divine valley and glowing auburn against the blue sky as the sun sets over the hill. At least that was how we saw it. Forever grateful that we arrived after the museum had closed for the day and out of season.
Coffee by the harbour with the tour boats to The Calanque still slumbering by the pier.
Yes, if I ever moved to Marseille, I would live here.
Exhibitions about the Mediterranean diet, the urban histories of Mediterranean metropolis such as Tunis, Athens, Marseille and Kairo and the history of Alexandria at The Museum of Mediterranean and European Culture.
All very good, very well presented and with very interesting perspectives with regard to how people eat and how they navigate and shape the spaces they live in.
Great views from Notre Dames de La Garde over all of Marseille with the modern monstrosities of the Banlieues visible in the far distance. Awe at the golden domes inside. The simplicity of the ornate designs on the wall. Arabic and Iberian influences easily out-do the pomposity of conventional catholic churches!
Champagne and crackers at Julia’s for my son’s farewell in the great company of Julia, Theo and the afore mentioned artist and former matador José.
Finally, a last visit to L’Affinage.
I had the same out-of-this-world s pastry dish with chicken, olives and cream sauce as last time and instead of the superb Angus steak a grilled entrecôte. In fact, we both did.
It thankfully came with the same creamy mushrooms sauce we had the pleasure of having with our dish as last time.
It was much easier to carry my rounded belly home that night than after our first visit nine days ago, despite the light, oven-baked cake with rum we had at the end to top it all off.
A last breakfast together at my house: scrambled eggs with fried pancetta, coffee and an orange juice for him – fruit salad with yogurt, honey and muesli for me. Like all the mornings before.
Then of course a good bye.
We told each other how much we had enjoyed our time together here on the way to the station a ten-minute walk away. Enough time to talk about what lies ahead – we will meet in London in June to see Hans Zimmer perform live – and to walk in silence for a bit, as is natural for people who are close.
I am very glad we still hug.
For me echoes of intimacy and innocence reverberate in our man-to-man embrace. The only expression of tenderness between son and father now at our disposal. I treasure it.
He boards the train.
Of course, I wait for the train to go.
Awkwardly navigating the seconds which stretch out within us before the doors close and the train is set in motion. Should I really wave him good-bye like I did the little boy we sent off on a bus for a school trip what feels like not very long ago?
I can tell neither of us are sure.
But that is how memories are made.
And so, I do.
30. March 2023
Café Mezza Luna
The sun has come out after a cold cloudy morning and it is warm enough to take my place on my table on the terrace for a coffee and overdue writing.
My son left Arles this morning and my heart is still full of the things we did and all the things we talked about. I miss him.
Being a parent is a wonderous thing.
I was there when he saw his first light and held him to my naked chest with warmth, tenderness and love. I cannot count the times I have held him close since – so many moments of intimacy and innocence, beautiful in their simplicity and unforgettable to me in the way holding him re-affirmed us both: the child, and the father.
I feel lucky to have shared so much time and life with him, to see him change at every turn and to see him grow up into the young man he is now. I marvel at how different we are in talent and in sentiment, how we experience our lives in fundamentally different ways, defined by our ages, the epoch we were born in and the timespan that divides us, not just in years, but naturally also in the experiences we have accumulated in our lives so far.
I cannot say though, that I am in any way wiser or more adapt to life as it offered to us in our time than he is.
If anything, I am less sure of my views and opinions, my place in the world and of where I belong. Maybe this is what getting older brings – a certain degree of uncertainty, an uprooting from the rich soil of parenthood and a renewed search for a place where we belong.
Paradise lost…, yet again.
It has to be said though, that being forced out of paradise appears to be a good thing.
Filled with mourning, sentimentality and naturally resentment of course, with the heavy gate firmly shut behind you and filled with a sense of foreboding about all that awaits.
Around you, silence sings nothing. Dim light of indifference. Time rests, unaccountable. Air still.
Eventually fists cease hammering. Reverberations fade, silhouettes of paradise drifting. Long, iron hesitation before you begin to turn, before you sense that this is about something else entirely.
Could it be though that you had simply over-stayed your welcome? Was it not true that you had grown too comfortable, too accustomed to all the riches, pleasures and past times, ungrateful of the gifts gifted?
Had your ‘forever in paradise’ not turned into a calmly meandering, never-ending cruise sailing steady seas, with light, around the clock on-board entertainment: destination unknown, safe passage guaranteed?
Considering the profound sense of loss you feel, you suppose that these questions can be nothing than a rhetorical comfort blanket that you clutch to your resentful chest.
And yet, at the bottom of your heavy heart you know they hold a truth.
And so you look up.
The long and winding road you are facing already no longer cuts so readily and so deeply through your fine skin, no longer severs your soul from your unsteady spine as to hunch you over to indelibly weld you to the ground you are standing on, and no longer winds itself perpetually around the Shangri-La of your carefree self, choking you of all that remains of the last breath you took on the other side of the gate.
But of course, you breathe.
A scent in the air you feel on your skin. Fine, and subtle, carried by the breeze.
And light. Fine light.
And sound, fine, fine sound.
Breathing easy. Much easier than you thought you would.
Now, a tingling first, barely perceptible shudder on the back of your head, neither this nor that.
Then little revelations, particles of caresses pacifying the skin on your skull, shimmering, effortless flows down the line of your neck, enveloping shoulders with grace, the length of your back with ease, the long gradient of arms unperturbed, bracelets of reassurance around your wrists, ponds of peace in your palms – featherlight touch of sensitive tenderness on the tips of your fingers.
Hips held, safely. Groin rising to float on sullen sea of awareness. Brave small waves, buoyancy washing down thighs, bending stiffened shapes of knees, lifting stillness from shins.
Absent agency, singular intention explodes on grief-stricken skin: fiery kindness of an irresistible impulse engulfs the soles of your feet.
It holds all of you. You take it.
That first step.
That step, not to be forgotten – unlike the one you took when everything began, unlike the many other steps you have taken since, most of the ones that brought you here.
Small ship. Small sail. Open sea.
To Shangri-La…. the long and winding road to your door.
I have to say, saying goodbye to my son does in only a small way feel as devastating as the response of my nervous system had felt whenever I had found myself raging against a heaven that had grown tired of my complacency.
But that is because I belong to him and he belongs to me.
Never mind the differences in epoch, age or life experiences – childhood and parenthood run true, run deep and they do not run away.
Café Mezza Luna closes, the sun disappears behind the houses. I feel a tingling on the soles of my feet.
Whatever wind blows for you at the Gate of Eden, or elsewhere.
I hope it is a kind wind.
24. March 2023
We started the day with a nice breakfast. An omelette with fried bacon for my son and a fruit salad for me.
Afterwards we headed over to the Luma Tower.
The tower rises 56m into the sky just off towards the East of La Roquette and was designed by Frank Gehry who was also the mind behind world famous The Guggenheim Bilbao and 8 Spruce Street, for which he delighted in building it with unadulterated contempt just one single foot higher than neighbouring Trump Tower. Oh how narcissists suffer, when someone else’s is bigger than theirs…
Luma Tower is a marvel of shining light. The tower raises to the blue Arlesian sky inside a round hall which echoes the old Roman amphitheatre, anchored in a glass rotund. Inside a set of beautiful spiral stairs, with a soft snail shell appearance topped by a rotating mirror at the ceiling above it which adds life and movement as the staircase appears to wind itself higher and higher. On the outside the architecture is fractured and angled with windows for the offices, studios and exhibitions spaces which have been placed in irregular places in the abstract geometry of the tower as and covered in small silver metal sheets all over.
The metal catches, reflects and fractures the light and all through the day the play of light illuminates ne aspects of its shape. Sunset is when Gehry’s inspiration for the cladding becomes most evident – an expressionist palette of colour and form: Vincent van Gogh.
The building is a great example of modernist architecture that can delight and surprise in equal measure. We felt that its only weak point was that it feels a little in-accessible at times. The organisation of the different spaces is not as readily understand as one would wish and it does lack a little warmth and communal spaces that make you want to spend more time to enjoy what it has to offer
Still – a great building and we were glad we went.
While the weather was overcast yesterday – probably the cloudiest I have seen Arles so for – we decided to go to and see The Whale at Cinéma Act Sud.
I cannot recommend this film enough.
The humanity of its protagonist. The authenticity of the personal dramas which played out for the six characters on screen. The fragility and the determination of our intentions.
It all felt profound without ever feeling profound: simple and honest echoes of our souls.
At times I felt the music score was over-played, playing on our emotions when there was really no need to add to what unfolded before us. But that is a small gripe with regard to a film which will stay with me for quite some time.
The evening was spend with me cooking a pasta dish with saucisson aux herbes, tagliatelle – challenge me if you think you know of any better pasta variation – crème fraîche, garlic, onions and basil. I liked to believe this was French cooking, even though I lacked the white wine to round off the sauce, but of course adding crème fraîche to a dish is no different from ordering pastis and black coffee in the local café at lunchtime in the mistaken belief that it will make you blend in, or mark you out as a connaisseur of local culture.
It did taste very good though.
Today we will explore the Saturday market, the Vincent Van Gogh Foundation and what other museums we have missed so far.
The sun is back.
I am glad to be able to show my son the city when it presents itself to a visitor as it was intended to be: gently seductive, alluringly graceful, effortlessly understated and reassuringly content.
You might be able to tell that I have fallen in love.
23. March 2023
My son arrived today.
We had arranged that he would come and stay with me for a week before I left and I am very happy that he is here now.
My entries here will brief in the coming days as he and I have much to do and to see.
I had saved see yesterday I paid for our tickets and in we went.
Already the arena for the Féria which will flood the city with visitors from all around the globe during the Easter weekend had been erected. Deep red, no ornaments – interrupted just by the four barriers on each side which will keep the matadors safe from the bulls rage and despair when the bull fights start in earnest.
There’s much to say about the timeless echoes of history in a place which to this day plays a central role in the communal live of this city’s inhabitants. Alas, I have no time to say it, as we are about to head out to visit the latest addition to the cultural life of les Arlesiennes: the Luma Tower.
Let me just say though that not only the people of Arles, but also its cats enjoy the impressive oval and the quiet resonance of the feline generations which roamed amongt these stones before them.
Afterwards we paid a visit to the Museum of Ancient Roman finds which is situated along the slong the Rôhne, a little further out of town where in the Circus Maximus once chariots and warriors entertained the crowds with races and battle re-enactments.
More than worth the visit as live during Roman times was vividly brought back to life by the many artefacts, sculptures and frescos which have been assembled there.
We are about to head off now so I will leave you with a culinary recommendation: L’Affenage.
L’Affenage serves mostly meat dishes and we went for an Angus steak with sea salt, small potatoes and a sauce made of cream and morilles. I can’t put it into words and that should tell you enough about how good it was.
It left me in heaven while dragging my satisfied and distinctly rounded belly at my feet.
Carrying it home to go pretty much straight to bed was a small price to pay, though my wallet will have had other thoughts.
So much for today – à demain…
22. March 2022
It is later than usual that I am sitting on terrace of Café Mezza Luna – and it is decidedly cooler than I had anticipated, though it is still sunny.
After a good drum practise in the morning – paradiddles raised to 232bpm – and downloading various ambiences and sounds from an online sound library for my Sven Scenes of Severance sound design, I spend much of the early afternoon battling the countless perils of my online existence. It is astonishing how much time one has to invest into re-claiming it, once one small part of it – in this case my mobile phone number – goes missing.
No online banking, no social media – I am still trying in vain to get access to my Instagram account even though my old number is now connected again – no text messages and no phone calls. Heavens safe us from the entrapment of the virtual world!
These mind-numbingly tedious distractions have also kept me away from my table and chair here much longer than I am used to by now, but thankfully the cappuccino still tastes the same.
I really have gotten used to writing my blog every day and now grow impatient when I am kept by circumstance or obligation from reflecting on what has occurred in my line of sight and on the thoughts drifting in and out of my, at times quite restless, mind.
My two-finger keyboard technique is now fluent enough to keep up with my thoughts, though my thirst for cappuccinos seems to know no bounds – I have just ordered another one.
I have no idea how many people, or indeed if anyone is reading these pages, but not knowing makes me enjoy the process even more.
It is wonderful to commit thoughts, observations and feelings to paper and not to know who might eventually read them: these sentences and paragraphs are really nothing more but messages in a bottle, carefully composed and with purpose committed to no one in particular. Just echoes of my mind, sampled impulse responses of the reverberations of my experience – coded, edited, refined and shipped out into the vastness of the digital ether.
I imagine this is not much different to writing a book: essentially a deep and extended conversation with your own imagination the end of which, when it arrives, I guess might feel like the loss of someone you were intimately close to and cared for very much.
No wonder writers get the blues or feel compelled to start with another book as soon as possible after coming to the end of the one they just finished. Maybe second books are like the lovers we take when we had our hearts broken: an attempt to mend our wounds, to seek comfort when we find ourselves adrift and yet never truly invested with the belief that made us so give all of us to the one we no longer hold close.
But then – how would I know?
I have never written a book.
But the feeling of being so at one with your imagination – which really is just the sister, awake to our attention, of the dreaming that escapes us in our sleep – and not to know who and where that, which we and it have fabricated together, may once more be dreamed by a different, wide-awake individual, is truly liberating. Gone is the censorship of the mind, the persistent voice of internal criticism and gone are the mundane and intrusive tribulations of the every day.
But the best thing is that, once we push the cork firmly into the neck of the bottle we have chosen as the vessel for our reflections, once we have committed them to the current – these grimaces of our mind will no longer be able to get to them.
May those insufferable, ugly gargoyles tear into us in a different mind, somewhere far, far away – let them feast on us there.
Or maybe, on some other shore, – if we are lucky – the song of somebody else’s lucid imagination will silence their spiteful whisperings, if only for a little while.
Time makes time for everyone.
You only notice when you return to the same place every day.
The square, which only ten days ago had been given over to the spectacle of the first Féria of 2023, is now filled with tables, chairs and sun shades. When the bullfights ended on Sunday 11. March, the announcer thanked everyone and ended with “À l’année prochaine!”
Now, a woman wearing a pink sweater and sunglasses is the only customer on the restaurants’ terraces there.
She is busy eating her lunch with the familiar air of someone who has things to do and places to go, while the plentiful tables and chairs which have been placed there since, quietly wait for the all of the other people who will soon populate the Place Du Forum once the season is in full swing. Each new guest and party will carefully select a dining arrangement that suits their desire for public privacy, a good view from which they can observe and measure their surroundings and share in the timeless past time of watching the lives of others unfold while at rest.
In that streets are like rivers, except that the peace and calm one experiences when seeing the world’s affairs unfold from the deck of a boat floating at ease with anchors safely towed away, is not gifted by finding yourself being steered along an open river. Here it is the feeling of being firmly anchored by its side while the currents of life continue to travel with the same unhindered flow in the streets you observe, in much the same way as the waters flowing towards an ocean give rise to the feeling of being held in time.
Now I fully appreciate why artist through the ages have gathered in intuitively selected bars and cafés and why they preferred just the one over any other.
The feeling of belonging, the friendly familiarity with the staff once they have recognised you as a regular and offer you an extra smile and friendly welcome. The warm seat of the chair that you have begun to regard as your own and the imprint of the shape of your body which it has committed to memory. The friends you make there and the conversations which still linger in the air above your table when you return the next day. And all of the unexpected events that raise their heads above the tranquil flow of the every day in the streets beyond its terrace which surprise and delight you in equal measure.
All of these are deeply rich and comforting and inspire the mind and the inner workings of your world to create, to allow you to think and to develop your best ideas and to allow you to go in search for what all artists, philosophers and writers seek to connect with: the profound
Connecting with the profound is of course a tall order. We succeed rarely and on the rare occasion that we do we all to readily dismiss it as folly: nothing other than our vanity flattering our ambitions to rise above the triviality of our lives.
But no good art, no writing, no religion and no philosophical idea has ever been created without dismissing the harsh whisperings of our egos and instead investing belief, trust and endeavour in the hope that we can hold that connection just long enough for us to give form to what is deeply meaningful and intuitively understood not just by us, but also by those with whom we share the experience of being alive
Most artists will struggle with this dilemma for as long as they strive to create and I am definitely no exception.
But suspending disbelief and leaving ego, vanity and doubts at the door for as long as we feel the touch of this connection is the only way to do justice to our ambitions and to our – in time – crafted abilities
Let our doubts have their say when the work is done. We will know soon enough if it was vain folly or simply the echo of our soul.
By the way…
The woman in pink has long finished her lunch and a man and a woman, grey-haired, are the only guests now amongst the empty tables and chairs in the centre of the square.
They are visibly enjoying their meal.
20. March 2023
Café Mezza Luna.
I do not care much for heaven, but I often wish there was a hell. It is easy if, as I currently am, you are content with what is now and happy to accept that this is all there is.
But at times it is unbearable that there is no hell.
Over the last few days I watched the film The Body in The Woods by Bel Trew which is available on The Independent website and on YouTube. It tells the story of Ukrainian families whose loved ones have been murdered in the course of this war and whose remains remain unidentified to this day.
The film spares no detail of the murders and the effect these have had on the relatives of those murdered.
War correspondent Bel Trew goes in search of the identity of a sixteen-year-old boy whose bound, shot and half-burned body was found in the woods near a Russian encampment which had been hastily abandoned when Ukrainian forces re-took Bucha in April 2022.
Bel speaks to the police, government officials, forensic pathologists and the families of the missing to try and trace his family. It goes without saying that she encounters everything that is deeply tragic about war.
One scene in her film, which some of you may have already seen in all its horrific detail online, shows a young couple and their young boy escaping from their hometown along the only remaining route to Kiev – a motorway – by car.
What unfolded then was captured by chance by an Ukrainian surveillance drone.
Whilst the wife is already dead after an initial assault by a sharp shooter who had been hiding in a dugout near the motorway, we see the husband getting out of the car moments after the it comes to a halt. He raises his hands and is also being murdered.
As he too now lies dead the sharp shooter and three more soldiers can then be seen approaching the car.
Two soldiers drag the child and a fourth, already injured female passenger from the car. The woman and the boy are then led away by one of the soldiers towards a green by the side of the motorway where he executes both.
Death has come to those four people un-announced and their lives are extinguished in a matter of just a few minutes.
The murderers though walk away to continue their killing.
Unashamed, and forever un-identifiable as they melt away into the faceless mass of armed, uniformed men who, for good reason, are all made to look the same. Living incarnations of their leaders’ contempt for everything and anyone that might stand in the way of their perverse intentions.
They and their henchmen, free from all earthly accountability, will continue to live their lives under the same sun as the rest of us. They will enjoy the same treasures that heaven on earth can offer the living. And, they will reframe the memory of their merciless murders into a narrative from which they will emerge as heroes, their hand washed clean of the victim’s blood, and claim innocence, which forever can only belong to the women, men and children they have murdered.
For those who they leave behind carrying inconsolable grief, hell on earth will be burned into their living hours for the rest of their days.
We can all live good lives without heaven, if we are fortunate.
But how can we live good lives without hell for those who should no longer walk freely amongst us?
19. March 2023.
Yesterday did not go to plan.
Largely because I spend a good two hours fighting the departmental hell of mobile phone company O2 and the assault of insulting musac in their we-know you-are still-waiting hold cue to retrieve the PAC code I have now been waiting for four weeks.
A telephonic round trip from the UK to India and back until Tony from somewhere up North casually weaved in “my friend” when he asked me what he could do for me. He then went on to further test my patience with his well-rehearsed please-do-not-leave us sales pitch, just when I thought I had reached the finish line I had long become desperate to cross, and eventually succumbed to my resolve not to engage in any further conversation about anything other than what I had tolerated this utter waste of my time for, and e-mailed me the precious eight character code which would finally allow me to claim my digital existence back.
After baring with yet more insulting musac in a cue I passed my code with relative ease to a genuinely friendly female operator (…what a relief!) who – if my vanity is not mistaken – flirted with me throughout, I could finally rest assured that my old number will be mine again from Tuesday. Unless of course there is another hold cue already waiting for me somewhere with bloated, puckered lips to smudge my face with most un-welcome kisses.
The rest of the day was spent with editing a voice over for a training video for Estée Lauder which I had recorded the day before.
Life has a way of serving up contradictions just when you thought you had put it to rights. Having just laid into the obscenely wealthy, their privilege and power on these pages I promptly found myself earning a crust by offering my services to their bountiful enterprise.
Let those of you who are without sin throw the first stone…
For the evening I had been invited for dinner at the house of the British painter whom I had been introduced to at Julia’s one evening shortly after I arrived.
I had met her, together with a friend who was on a five-day visit to Arles, on Rue de 4. Septembre, where I had been searching for a boulangerie so that I could buy a baguette for my lunch a few days ago and we had exchanged numbers.
She had suggested that we meet up for a coffee or dinner at the time and, unlike in Britain where such suggestions are often nothing other than polite chit-chat, here it appears to be an honest proposition when you take an interest in another person. Yesterday, she promptly followed through with an invitation to join her, her friend and another guest for a light dinner at her house that evening.
As is customary here, I brought a bottle of wine – you can also bring a small dish or gift – and was very warmly welcome into her beautiful flat near Place du Forum as I arrived a little late, because I had wanted to quickly finish my corrections of the script, I had recorded for Estée Lauder in my improvised voice over booth the day before.
In addition to her friend from LA – who herself had emigrated to there from Bolton in the UK ten years ago – we were joined by an evolutionary scientist from Mexico, who had come here to work on a research project but, having fallen in love with everything that life here has to offer, never left.
What I have already come to love about life here very much, is the way people come together over an – invariably delicious – meal not really with the intention to eat, but to have open conversations with those around the table. To probe with well-meaning questions those who are new to the round, discuss their interests in a manner which allows all others to share their own perspective on or experience of what they receive as an answer, and to give each speaker their un-divided attention when it is their turn to contribute to the resulting conversation.
The food, the wine, desert and cheese are wonderful, but their delights in truth serve no other purpose other than to make you feel entirely at ease and to sing you a culinary lullaby that calms your nervousness when meeting new and unfamiliar people. Here, the attention you will give to eating what is set before you will help you navigate the decorum of the finely set dinner table on which you have taken your seat and the subtle flavours of carefully prepared food will rest you in the memories of home-cooked family meals and the feeling of belonging and comfort which they have brought you in the past.
The fine French wine is served in just the right measure. Not to intoxicate you, but to lubricate your sensibilities and help your tongue to un-knot the tie that you have brought along with you that evening as you drink that very same wine you bought earlier in the afternoon.
That you are expected to bring one and why soon makes perfect sense as you realise that this is the principle reason – apart of course from the offering a token of your appreciation of the invitation – why you were expected to bring it.
Soon after your first sips of the rosé, white or burgundy red glass by your side, you find your self telling anecdotes and stories which you deep down believed no one had any interest in any longer, offer up opinions which you forgotten you held, and turn you from that tongue-tied, nervous dinner novice into one of those raconteurs you have in the past been so envious off for the ease with which they liven up conversations and entertain those assembled around a table.
And so our conversations turned from the advent of a new age with the integration of AI into all of our lives and the generational changes this will inevitably bring with it to the similar mindset of scientists, philosophers, writers and artists, immigration and the trials and tribulations of those not born with the privilege of a first class passport and to the ancient history of Arles and its role through the ages as an important trade route that took ships via the Rôhne delta all the way up to the Atlantic and as the 2nd most important city in the late Roman empire next to Rome itself.
Describing something as pleasurable or delightful can easily be seen as shallow in the absence of context, but I can honestly say that the evening pleased and delighted me very much.
The attention which was afforded and the careful consideration of everybody’s contribution, was such a tonic in times when most opinions are usually shouted at the top of your voice and when someone’s personal feelings are being regarded as an imperative which cannot be questioned, challenged or probed. This is what we used to call debate and discussion; The free flowing exchange of views and experiences between different people, so that we might arrive at an understanding of how these have arisen, begin to understand their perspective, test their relevance with regard to a wider discourse, and so integrate – or not – their position in a way which allows everyone to feel enriched and included.
When I left and said my good-byes to my kind and generous host and the two new and very likeable acquaintances I had made, I was already looking forward to the opportunity and times when I myself would be able to set a dining table with fine cutlery and china, wine glasses and desert spoons. Then, I would measure my cooking ability in terms of how welcome everyone felt, how at ease they would feel to share their thoughts, experiences and feelings with me and the other people around my table and how enriched they would feel on their way home after they would bid me a genuine farewell.
17. March 2023
Today I will round off yesterday’s reflections on the accumulation of wealth and tomorrow I will get back to my experiences here in the South of France.
Yesterday, when trying to find out where to watch Oscar nominated documentary All the Bloodshed and the Tears about Nan Golding by Laura Poitras online, I found to my delight that it was showing at Cinéma Act Sud, the local cinema here in the Arles.
So, I bought two tickets – one for myself and the other for Diana Hadji whose studio I had visited three days ago.
I had come across Nan Golding’s work documenting the intimate lives of the community of outcasts, sex workers, gays and lesbians she was part of in the 1970ies in Boston and New York City before. I had not realised how ground breaking and totally fascinating her work was and so I had not looked much further than the few photographs I had encountered. But, having read an article about the film a few days prior, I was intrigued enough and very keen to find out more – and how glad I am that I did.
Diana and I arrived at 8.30 pm in front of the large house which in addition to the cinema houses a library and a restaurant, which, judging by the menu which I had a quick glance at before we went in, served up some very appealing dishes. The cinéma seems to be showing the very best of independent films, screening amongst other Oscar winner The Whale which had left one of Diana’s acquaintances, whom we spoke to outside after our films had ended with more than just a few tears she could wipe of her cheeks so no one would really notice. I am bound to return to the cinéma to find out what it was that had moved her so much.
The film that we had come to see, started after a short period of new releases being advertised – no commercials! – was two hours and seventeen minutes long and each one of them was a revelation.
If you have not seen Nan Golding’s work before or have read more about how it come to pass, I strongly recommend you do seek it out.
It is not the type of work though that reveals itself to you by looking at a few select photographs. They must be seen as the series they were intended in order to fully appreciate her photography, which she has with much sensitivity and integrity assembled into narratives which tell the stories of those close to her.
If you feel yourself in any way marginalised and as a singular, un-connected minority amongst your peers, seeing and hearing her work – for the music she selects for her slide shows is as integral to the stories she tells as her photographs – will give you comfort and spoil the workings of your soul with hope.
You will also learn much about the power, determination and abundance of human spirit, creativity and desire fuelled by the hunger for a rich life filled with love, companionship, compassion for the vulnerabilities and frailties of those around you and a burning for justice for those you care about.
The film tells two stories.
One tells the story of Nan Golding’s life and work and the other follows the activism of a small group people who named themselves P.A.I.N – which included Nan Golding herself – who took on and, very successfully, fought a billionaire family: the Sacklers, who made their fortune from Valium and a drug called Oxycontin, a highly addictive opioid painkiller. The widely prescribed drug has led to an addiction epidemic that has caused 100000 overdose deaths in the US every year for many years.
That I should stumble across this film a day after I had written down my thoughts on minorities to affect change seemed fitting and the work of P.A.I.N is a perfect example of the power they can wield.
Not only does the groups tireless efforts to have the name of the Sacklers –generous donors to the most prestigious museums worldwide for decades – removed from the many galleries in the exhibition halls they sponsored, illustrate perfectly how a determined minority affects public opinion and societal change, but it also shines a light on the Achilles heel of the very wealthy: their reputation.
Money and the power which comes with it insulates the 1% against much.
The scrutiny of legislative oversight which could limit their powers and their ability to accumulate more and more wealth.
Their privileged position affords them protection from paying their fair share fore the well-being of the communities they are part of and allows them to avoid making good the damage their enterprise causes to the environment, the health of their workforce and the future generations which follow in their footsteps.
And it of course shields them from the trials and tribulations of those who cannot reap the benefits of a system which above all favours their interests.
And yet, they have two vulnerabilities.
One being the unpredictable dramas of private and family life – which we will find extensive covered in tabloids and gossip columns the world over – and the other being their reputation, they are so careful to construct and maintain.
They too share in what is common to all of us: the need to be recognised by our peers and contemporaries as a descent moral person who, according to their means, makes a valuable contribution to the lives of their nearest, those of their neighbours and their community.
The wealthy only differ in one respect.
Not only do they seek the validation of their moral character by their peers and the society in which they act, but they also often have one eye on posterity and the place they would like to carve out for themselves in at least a number of history books in the libraries of the future. What better way to do this than to stand in the light of art which has stood the test of time!
I believe strongly that a measure of a society is how it rewards those who contribute to the wellbeing of their communities and societies they live in and who they choose to gives these awards to. Those who give freely, according to their means and with integrity of their intentions are deserving of recognition and their recognition in turn validates the values they represent in the eyes of the society which rewards them.
In the greed driven economies though, which now dominate the exchange of labour for employment and monetary recompense for time and effort around the globe almost everywhere, it is not how much a person has contributed to the wellbeing of their communities, but the amount of wealth they have taken from it which to many cements their reputation.
A society with well-balanced values and governance based on an ethics of community, solidarity and compassion, will force even the very rich to tip the balance between their quest to accumulate more wealth, and the cost that inevitably brings for a community, in favour of their desire to maintain a reputation which represents the values which hold the societies they live in together.
It is entirely incomprehensible that societies which take much pride in the values they stand for do not ask the question ” How much is enough?” and enshrine the limits they arrive at into law. Simply making it a matter for debate is still taboo and those who commit the sacrilege of asking it are vilified, ridiculed and silenced, as minorities almost always are.
And yet, those same societies have no qualms about setting precise and often crippling limits on how much is enough for those who are the most disadvantaged in our current economic set up.
The 1% are of course, acutely aware of the immorality which is inherent in the obscene riches they have accumulated and so invest considerable sums into PR and often charitable ruses to deflect from it.
Many, but not all, do so not with the integrity of the intentions which their donations support, but to appear respectable even though they are not.
The effect an attack on their reputations can have, is demonstrated to great effect by “All the Bloodshed and the Tears”. And without giving too much away – the Sackler name has now been removed from most leading museums around the world and they have ceased their collaborations with the family.
Ironically, the group’s campaign was helped, and probably would not have succeeded without someone whose reputation has been rightly cemented by her acts of compassionate story-telling and determined activism – Nan Golding. A reputation built on the honesty of her intentions and her contribution as an advocate and activist for causes which further the well-being of her community and society as a whole.
“But…”, you may say, “…surely privilege is relative, is it not?” – and you would be right.
I am fortunate and privileged in so many ways compared to billions of others less fortunate and, if you read these lines, very likely so are you.
And so, the questions which I have raised do not stop at my door or yours.
How we answer will always be up to us, but we can rightly claim that our response will shape the values, opinions and the fabric of our communities today and tomorrow until others proof more useful.
16. March 2023
La Brasserie L’Aficion.
Coffee already served and consumed – French phrases memorised.
The sun is back after a couple of days of overcast skies and cooler temperatures. I have moved from my table in the sun into a shaded spot underneath the pergola of the restaurant. Who’d have thought I’d be wanting to escape the sun in the middle of March.
Well, my musings on wealth, luxury and business ethos…
In bed two days ago, after I had written down the Marxist thoughts that I had been visited by while brushing my teeth that morning, my brain had decided to offer up very interesting elaborations of the same.
I am always surprised by and rather delighted with how our brains bring up thoughts, ideas and memories all by itself when I have put its wheels in motion by engaging in thinking about something or have taken in information that interests me. My brain conjures up new ideas, thoughts or useful recollections on its own accord and for just long enough that, if I give them my attention, they become tangible and, though yet un-ordered, malleable into concrete ideas, concepts, plans or actions. Much in the same way that I can rely on my memory when, at home in my house in the UK, I go downstairs to do something and find that I have forgotten what I had come down to my kitchen for in the first place. I know that, if I refrain from engaging in frustration or straining my memory to remember what my intention was, what so easily was forgotten will shortly be delivered to me by a short-term memory filing system which is as reliable as it appears to be entirely inaccessible at times.
But, I am digressing. Which, of course, is just as delightful a treasure the brain will happily offer to anyone ready to receive it as the surprising inspirations it generously gifts us, given time and our inclination to pay attention to allow it the opportunity to do so.
The accumulation of wealth by the few…
It is likely you will have heard the names of some of the few people who have accumulated that incredible amounts of wealth through their enterprise that they belong to the class of what we now like to call “the 1%”.
I certainly know them, but I – and I probably assume correctly neither do you – do not know the names of the other select few who make up this elite minority. That we don’t know them is for a good reason. And it is not because we cannot hold more than five names at a time in our memory, but because they’d rather we didn’t know who they are. They prefer to set themselves apart from the 99% and go about their business largely anonymously for the simple reason that it is easier to do so away from scrutiny by the majority who make up the many.
For the 1% are a minority – a very small one in fact.
Of course, minorities are of crucial importance in our democracies and in society in general. They are the driver of change, often, but not always, progress and develop new ideas which will in time be adopted by the majority for the common good. Be it the founding generation of a religious belief, a revolutionary idea, a scientific idea or discovery a cultural tradition , an art movement or of the organisation of our communal lives – all of them were brought to us by people who once found themselves in the minority. Whilst minorities are often vocal, determined and resilient, majorities prefer the status quo, are often reluctant to listen to or adapt new ideas and often express their reluctance by suppressing the forceful calls for change which the minority carries on banners, publishes in papers, voices in parliaments or presents to it in its art and literature.
This is why democracy is such a wonderful way of governance, as it, much like evidential science, allows new ideas to develop, to be heard and to win consensus when the arguments of the agents of change are either convincing or their truth can be no longer escaped as circumstances make their adoption inevitable and the critical mass when a minority becomes a majority has tipped.
This is also why dictatorships will (and must) violently suppress minorities, whether they are ideologic, ethical or religious. Their forceful desire to be heard and their inherit power to affect change are a force to be reckoned with and cannot be permitted, whatever the cost.
The minority of the 1% though does not behave like all the other minorities
It is characterised by the same quality as the majority. It prefers the status quo which has gifted them the conditions that have allowed them to become elite receivers of the distribution of wealth, endeavours to insulate itself from the threat of the ideas the minorities which oppose its wealth and use the enormous power their privileged position brings to suppress all (often democratic) attempts to change the status quo from which they so benefit.
And, whilst in a democracy minorities are very vocal and dynamic forces, they are with little power to affect the change they crave until they reach the critical mass which turns their ideas into the widely held views which are then assimilated into the opinions and values held by the majority – the minority of the 1% though holds almost limitless power and is rarely scrutinised to an extend that leaves them no choice but to adopt a position which accommodates the values and ideas of the majority, let alone forced to by democratically elected institutions.
On the contrary – their minority ideas and values are what shapes and maintains the status quo. Whether it is through their – often financial – support of parliamentarians who act in their interests, the withholding of information which threatens their dominance or the propagation of that which cements it, or the development of technologies which are used to influence and shape the opinions, desires and actions of the majoriys. The latter of course evident in the dominance of the very few companies (and CEOs!) which the digitalisation of our lives has allowed to grow beyond its wildest minority (garage…) dreams.
And so it is precisely because the largely un-named 1% minority behave like a majority that it is a luxury a healthy and thriving democracy can ill afford. Their existence is essentially un-democratic. And we should endeavour not just to hold them accountable, but to begin to develop and put into practise ideas which will underpin an ethical economy, where the rewards of enterprise are distributed according to the principles I wrote about two days ago.
I will conclude by reflecting on an argument that is quite often heard when someone voices their opposition to disproportionately accumulated wealth.
Surely, you are just envious of the wealth others have created for themselves Why should they not be allowed to make as much money as they want to?
Well, I – being in their opinion supposedly in the minority holding an opinion to the contrary – shall revert to the majority and consult their views.
I think the measure of envy which is at the heart of this argument exists on a sliding scale. The closer you find yourself to the privileges the 1% have claimed for themselves, the more envious you will be as you essentially subscribe to the greed and hunger for power which has elevated them to their position. Enough will not be enough for you as you put much of your effort into join the club, or to at least into making a nest close to the summit.
The further you are away from the lofty heights of accumulated wealth, the less envious you will be. For you will be occupied with making ends meet and with earning just enough through investment of your time, your effort and the application of your talents to support yourself, your family and your community. Your opinion will be motivated not by envy but by the desire to be in a position that allows you to achieve both of these objectives which are fundamental to all of our existence. You will simply consider it a matter of fairness that you should have enough when a select few have so much.
And as the majority of the world’s inhabitants belongs to the latter group, let the very rich minority who hold the opinion that their unimaginable wealth is wholly justified convince us, the majority, that their opinion should be adopted by us and integrated into the values and structures of societal organisation.
Let them act like all other minorities do: with determination, resilience and by laying out their well-thought arguments until they have convinced us of the usefulness of the
Let them act like all other minorities do: with determination, resilience and by laying out their well-thought arguments until they have convinced us of the usefulness of the
Let them act like all other minorities do: with determination and resilience and by laying out their well-thought out arguments until they have convinced us of the usefulness of their entitlement.
14. March 2023
The wind is softer today.
Still ripe with the cold winter air which has not yet been pacified by the warmth of the sunshine falling on my skin, but already gathering the sweet aroma of springtime in the fields of La Camargue and the mountain range of Les Alpllies nearby.
It will not be long though until the un-hurried promises of springtime will fill the quaint streets and squares of Arles and envelope the many tourists which the reputation of this beautiful city in the Provence draws in every year.
Walking past the shop fronts of two estate agents earlier today in La Rue Du 4. Septembre, my thinking was naturally drown to the future and to where I will be after my stay here ends at the end of August.
Will I return here to make Arles my permanent home? Would it be better to rent a small apartment rather than buy one and make Arles my base for the winter to explore nearby Spain and follow the call of Africa to Tangiers?
Much despised Ryan Air has flights there every day from Marseille.
Would I return to my ordered life in the UK and pick up where I left off only two weeks ago? Or would I go somewhere else entirely to carry on this life of bohemian work and pleasure which I feel begins to suit me very much?
I do not know how I will feel when, by the end of August, the sun will burn down on the narrow streets and I will put as much effort into escaping its by then relentless rays as I do now into catching their tender caresses.
From where I am sitting now – yes, you knew already: on the terrace of Café Mezza Luna on Place Du Forum – the road ahead appears wide open and inviting.
It is not difficult to see which way I will be inclined to go. Time will tell – as it has the habit of doing.
1pm, the next day – the kitchen…
My bluetooth speaker plays Bartok – slow piano music.
At Mezza Luna yesterday afternoon I met Diana Hajii, a young Russian visual artist whom I met at the vernissage for Gilles Massot’s exhibition at the MRO Foundation two days after my arrival.
Diana now lives and works here in Arles, and later early in the evening she showed me her work and the studio she has painstakingly cleared of years and years of rubbish and randomly collected like three sharpened swords, one of which has found its incarnation in one of the Christian iconographies which she is in the process of re-working.
Her studio is spacious. Bare heavy stone walls, the old big windows open to the street, where at this time of day the traffic coming off one of the main bridges leading in and out of the city weaves its way into La Roquette, the old town, where I also live.
I like the bridge.
When I go for my runs at sun set I can see the silhouettes of cars and big trucks against the evening sky crossing it to leave the city on their travels to, in my imagination far away destinations.
I, with my feet falling in regular but not yet very fast paces onto the flat, concrete quay that borders the waterline below a pedestrian walkway about three meters up and follows the smooth curvature of the riverbed of the Rôhne as it flows through the city, feel at the same time removed and connected to these distant lands. Far removed, because the country that I now live in, the one I came from and much of the rest of the world feel like they only exist beyond the slowly meandering water of the river, and closely connected because by simply being here I am heeding their call.
Diana’s work is very varied. From screen printing, painting, wood work collaborations to photography, performance and costume making. All rich in colour, fine detail and produced during the eight-hour periods she devotes to her work every day.
Further into the big house, where she lives on the top floor, is a good-sized room which has a large, triangular skylight as its ceiling. At the top, on all sides, tall walls enclose the opening entirely and the sky is clean and far up high above it where the walls open up to a neat, square opening.
We stood in the dim light that fell from above in front of an exposed wall, dark grey mortar covered the sandstone below it, as we discussed the idea of creating some photographs together.
I am very glad to have found someone to work with already and admittedly envious enough of this great space to want to ask her, whether I could use it as a studio space from time to time when I meet more people who might like to be photographed in the weeks and months ahead.
The light is wonderful.
My writing now had earlier on be interrupted by a ninety-minute online chat with O2 in the UK, where I had taken out and immediately cancelled again a mobile phone contract, because I had changed my mind about getting a new phone to take with me to France.
Needless to say, that my thrifty decision has caused all sorts of chaos with my old number having being put out of use, an erroneous bill of over 1200.00 pounds from O2 in my inbox, and my by now sixths visit to the friendly repair man at the mobile phone shop around the corner.
He has promised to take another look at the broken connection which he was un-able to fix when I last stopped by to collect my phone after visit number five. Meanwhile I am getting by with an old iPhone 6 which I had brought with me “just in case”. If all else fails – I will get the phone had ordered in early February after all…
Boy, am I glad to feel far removed from those far away – and disturbing – distant lands!
So, for now I will finish, as the day is nearing sunset and I will take a walk along the Rôhne before the sun will set.
I will continue with some more thoughts on yesterday’s musings on wealth, luxury and business ethos and with some reflections on how it feels to be writing this blog every day, tomorrow.
Unless of course, I am being held in a cue somewhere far away as I telephone O2, for what I hope will be the very last time, to request the PAC code I have now been waiting for, for what feels like a very long three weeks.
13. March 2023
La Place du Forum lies empty.
Gone are the bulls and fighters of the Féria and they have taken with them the warm spring sunshine. An overcast sky and the sound of small plastic bunting fluttering in the cold southerly wind remain.
Still, I took my spot on the terrace of Mezza Luna to have my cappuccino and finish writing the synopsis of my Seven Scenes of Severance. I am rather pleased with it all.
Now, cold and with fingers a little numb, I sit inside with the best remedy against the cold by my side. A good old, British cup of tea.
Yesterday evening I was invited to a working dinner at Julia’s to talk through my plans and my upcoming role as her assistant when work will start in earnest on Open Walls Arles.
French Salad. Sheppard’s pie. Red wine. And for dessert another rendition of her delicious lemon crème rounded off with a cup of fine herbal tea.
Why meetings aren’t held in this manner at all times I do not know.
It was great to find Julia direct and frank with reservations and constructive comments, open to be convinced of ideas she felt would be of merit and add to the quality of work I will produce, enrich the audience and benefit her gallery as a whole and enthusiastic about the venture of creating something together we are both excited about.
I also learned in conversation a good number of important things to be aware of whilst I am embedding myself bit by bit in French culture.
The morning was spend writing a few e-mails I needed to send to manage my currently dormant life in Bristol as well as an overdue Whatsapp message to a very good friend, feeding the dried-up remains of a baguette I bought last Friday to the four beautiful pigeons who have made my street part of their crumps-picking daily morning stroll, forty-five minutes of drum practise (half-hearted today) putting the washing on – the second since my arrival 12 days ago.
I travel light and the grey boxer shorts I bought last week at the local supermarché did indeed prove to be a very tight fit as suspected and so I needed supplies to keep me going until next Sunday.
I have no idea why, but this morning while doing the little bit of cleaning which living in a single room requires, my thoughts turned to what the purpose of running a business is.
We live and have sadly become accustomed to the rather unpleasant idea that the primary aim of most commercial enterprises is to turn a profit for its owner(s) and shareholders. This is how business practises are legitimised and indeed how their success is measured. Nothing like a profit report to give an impression of value, power and business acumen.
Now, there is no need for me to reinvent Karl Marx’s ideas – I have neither his insight nor capacity for precise analysis – but it seems quite obvious to me that the primary purpose of a business is to sustain its workforce and enable them to live richer and an, as much as can be expected for anyone born into the community of sentient beings, worry free existence, to produce goods which further these same aims and bring enjoyment to producers of their products and consumers alike, to secure a stable environment in which the business can continue to thrive and the stability of its workforce be secure and to reward those who put effort, creativity and time into realising all of these objectives with renumeration over and above what is due to them per agreed wage when the business succeeds beyond them.
Only when all of these aims have been successfully realised can wealth be accumulated by those who claim ownership of the enterprise. And when it does it cannot be allowed to be withheld in secure vaults.
Much of it must be used to remedy the damage that running a business invariably brings with it to one degree or another, to further the lives of the communities in which they thrive and to help aid those who for one reason or another cannot benefit from this economy of purpose or partake in it.
And whilst the accumulation of wealth certainly brings status, power and privilege it does little for the pursuit of happiness or purpose.
The accumulation of wealth, we have been made to believe, represents the established order of things. It is in fact a corruption of the order things.
And as for the public expression of and private pleasure of wealth, luxury…
The acquisition of excessive luxury by a few is of no use to the many and I question whether it is indeed of any use to the few.
Luxury is only luxurious when it a rare thing or experience which therefore enriches and is acquired outside of the norm. The acquisition of more and more luxury quickly transforms it from a rarity into a norm, which only even rarer things and experiences can exceed, like super-superyachts or 1000-billion-dollar cities built in an Arabian desert. I am lucky as my own luxury away from my norm, consists of a cappuccino with whipped cream and a place in the warm spring sun.
I end with a reflection on the language of our economic organisation.
I am “self-employed” and would not want to change this for a billion superyachts.
But I do not employ myself – and I am certainly not “my own boss”.
I work for myself. And, I do not know anyone who doesn’t do the same.
We work for ourselves, our families and at times for our communities.
We never “work for” somebody else who exchanges our investment of time, talent and effort into their enterprise for the currency of employment and renumeration only to walk away with the gains they derived from these.
So, the next time when somebody should ask you who you work for, just say:
You can add: “…thank you very much.” at the end of it, just to make sure you are being clearly understood.
12. March 2023
If, like me you have been blessed with making the dream of one day living in the place that you fell in love with on one of your travels a reality, I imagine you know well the fascinating feeling of being a stranger at home in an unfamiliar, more often than not in your imagination exotic and certainly far superior place than the you have been – by chance or circumstance – accustomed to up to know.
Nothing quite compares to the ceaseless bonfires of curiosities, customs and discoveries that simply stepping onto the street each new day will give you. Closing the door behind you with purpose will every day bless you with new sights, sounds, smells and tactile sensations which will wed themselves to the fabric of your spirit, invigorate all of your senses, sharpen your skills of observation and give you the privileged opportunity to hold each moment dear, to explore its shape, its contour and form as if you had woken up blind and your good tidings and fortune depended on it.
If, in the past, you have dismissed this dream as folly, don’t hesitate to put your finger on the map and start your plans at the earliest opportunity possible.
And as if being said stranger at home in a new, strange world isn’t enough, being able to revive a language you once cherished while you inhabit the place where it was born is better still.
Early on, when you find yourself still at the beginning of your linguistic tour de force, you realise to your surprise that you are actually entirely at ease.
Invariably you will venture out to mix with people with whom, sooner rather than later, you hope to be able to hold your own in some measure in friendly conversations, to say “Thank you!”, “Please…” and “You are very welcome!”, and to be able to ask for your favourite local, yet affordable speciality in your local corner shop.
You put the time in.
You study your phrasebook, grammar and seemingly infinite list of vocabulary and synonyms.
You repeat the few clunky chunks of you new language that you have already memorised.
Slow at first and doubtful whether any of them will actually be committed to memory so you can put them to good use at the next opportune moment. And you are – very! – proud of yourself when the meal in front of you at dinner time is indeed the long-craved dish you have been looking forward to while you were still at home making plans, and not some obscure, mundane, barely palpable dish you mistakenly asked and paid for when you last went out to the shop.
But here, now…: this moment, where you are still alone with the whirring spirals of your linguistic machinations, is in truth a very beautiful, serene and peaceful one.
Insulated from the day-to-day chatter of worries, chores and personal drama around you, the cacophony of the mundane which you cannot help but overhear as you hurry along whilst more or less diligently managing your affairs at home, you now only stick one ear out of your bubble very occasionally when a snippet spoken slow enough for you to discern the novel arrangement of words and unfamiliar vocabulary sparks your interest, which – thanks to your actually quite reliable memory – is actually comprehensible to you.
You will have guessed by now, that this is the state I currently find myself in.
Oh wandering, curious heart!
Here, from me to you, a heartfelt and carefully measured pause of peacefulness so you can partake:
Well, if you could feel this miraculous blessing, you and I have shared a very precious moment between us.
The wonders of language – spoken and written – never cease to amaze me. Especially now that I have the time and inclination to write down my thoughts and feelings in good, kind words.
Good words are the best and their kindness is not dissimilar to the recognition one receives from a loving parent, friend or lover. Good words, when we find them, bring us closer to our selves.
They hear us, they touch us in vulnerable places, they comfort us when we are in need and they bring laughter and joy to that which we intuitively feel to be true.
When we find them, we find our place. When they find us, we find ourselves.
As crowd disperses after the last of the bulls has been fought at the Féria until next year and the sun disappears behind the old houses, I finish by sending you peaceful greetings from my beloved bubble.
May good, kind words find you wherever you are.
11. March 2023
I have returned to my corner at Le Café La Nuit on my velvety, red bench.
I have received my cappuccino – yes another one… – which is topped with a blooming white flower of whipped cream, and will receive two sachets of white sugar from me to complete it to my satisfaction any moment now, and the yellow glass of pastis I ordered swiftly and gratefully.
A just reward for the planning, the long hours of meticulously laying down the thousands and thousands of sound files for my sound design of Drain The Oceans and all of my my hectic efforts to put my life in the UK in order before imminent my departure ten days ago. Now, the first truly warm day of spring is here and I am living the life of meandering, bohemian contemplation I had first envisaged for myself last September.
The streets are now just as busy as they were then, except that today they are frequented by promenading locals from Arles and the surrounding areas, as the presentations of the Féria which started yesterday continues over the weekend.
Last night, as I was editing my photos of the young men and bulls measuring their wits against each other in the small arena, I could hear the faint, rhythmic sound of flamencoesque dance music, echoing in the narrow streets outside the window of the kitchen where I do my work.
After lending half and ear to the music as I adjusted my white balance and colour balance, hues and luminosity, I did began to worry that this may be the beginning of an ongoing and irreversible musical, aural hallucinations – which indeed does exist and is just as debilitating a condition as the incessant, monotone frequency of permanent tinnitus.
For this music appeared to my ears as if it was playing the same four bars over and over and over again on a continuous loop. Vocals, drums, bassline, Spanish guitar… – to my ears all sounded the same repetitive series of lyrics, notes and beats without a rest.
After a while, my attention having been entirely absorbed by the process of finding “it” in this new set of images, I did not pay it attention any more, much in the same way as I have been for some time now been accustomed to do with my own, quiet tinnitus I have inherited from too many years of band practise with amplifiers turned up to eleven and my enthusiastic, pubescent drumming bravely measuring up to the acoustic assault of rock riffs and four on the floor bass lines.
When I had finished my work after an hour or two – who can say how much time passes when one is being held by the kind embrace of the muses – to my good fortune, the hallucination had disappeared and given way to the true silence of the night.
A very good ending on two counts: I had found “it” in a few photographs of boy and bull and, I would not be haunted at every waking hour by the same four bars of appropriated flamenco music for the rest of my days.
Still, there was more left to edit, and I was looking forward to polishing a few promising shots into a faithful rendering of my experience of what had occurred at La Place du Forum in the afternoon.
When I arrived at Mezza Lunatoday to take a seat at my usual table amongst the outside seating in front of the café , young children were playing in the small arena. As they were playing catch, they were already practising the runs, turns and twists of the rasateurs of Le Tours Carmaguaise which would perform to their springtime audience later in the afternoon.
I settled myself in my chair to the penetrating sound of Italian dance music a DJ was playing outside the Grand Hotel Nord-Puis to entertain a crowd of merry locals on the opposite side of the square.
“C’est très bruyant à votre bureau aujourd’hui!”
It is really nice when the waitress begins to see you as a regular.
A status which, to my delight, the friendly Madame who runs La Brasserie L’Aficion at the foot of the old amphitheatre has also kindly afforded me by now.
I can be sure to hear the sound of the coffee machine behind the bar at the back of her interior dining area – where you can find a medium-sized framed photograph of her attractive younger self sitting at one of the tables next to the handsome face of a young Robert de Niro – being put through its paces upon arriving there after drum practise.
Not long and I would receive her friendly greeting along with my usual cappuccino and glass of tab water, my Maigret already in hand and the first new phrase of my self-assigned portion of French already memorised.
Now, at La Place du Forum, armed with my second coffee of the day, I carried on with writing my synopsis. It is, I feel, still much too long in order to convince Julia of the merits of my re-worked exhibition concept.
At any rate – I will likely save my new ideas for another showing of this series, with more opportunity to plan the technical details and with funding already in place. My life here will be easier for it and I will be better able to give the work as Julia’s assistant my undivided attention when I start working for her in May.
Still: make hay while the sun shines. And so I continued writing
As I was fleshing out the details of the sound design for scene four of what now carries the subtitle “Seven Days of Severance”, I looked up to notice that a full crowd of curious onlookers had come together around the oval of the arena once more.
The bruit of the DJ’s dance music from outside the Grande Hotel Nord-Pinus had been replaced by the sound of loud, metallic bangs – a lucky reprieve from another potential life-long musical hallucination: this one would have been much more intolerable than the other.
The increasing, bass-heavy frequency of powerful impacts reverberating across the square though, could not be mistaken for anything other than the heads and horns of angry bulls inside the heavy cattle truck which had parked up one side of the hotel, and would have been driven into an opening in the angled fencing while I had been engrossed in my sonic vision for my seven scenes.
Today it was the turn of the men.
Dressed all in white as is customary for the rasateuers and readying themselves for the fully-grown bull they would imminently face, they were about to perform the rites of Le Cours Carmaguaise to their appreciative audience.
It is now the next morning and ,as the next blank page for today’s entry, which I intend to write later today, is already lined up in my virtual typewriter, I will keep it brief.
Thus I will leave you for now with pictures instead of words to fill in the blanks of what I observed on Place du Forum yesterday afternoon.
Do feel free to follow this link and look at the set of photographs I walked away with…
11. March 2023
It’s the afternoon – still of 10. March 2023.
I had gone to La Place Du Forum to sit in café Mezza Luna to continue my work on my synopsis, when I happened on the small bull fighting ring that had been erected in the centre of the square.
A mixed crowd of onlookers had gathered around the metal re-enforced fencing around the small arena and I realised that this was the opening of this weekend’s presentation of young matadors and in preparation for the Ferida d’Arles in the antique Roman amphitheatre over the Easter weekend in April.
Having handed my mobile phone over to my trusted French friend at the repair shop around the corner just minutes earlier, I was now cameraless and thus made the short walk home to fetch my Canon and my long lens.
Once returned and having found a spot behind the fence to the right of the encirclement, the following scenes unfolded in front of me.
Inside the arena, flanked by the on these occasions customary and alert distractors, each holding pink capes de brega, stood a young matador.
Not older than thirteen or fourteen years of age, dressed in the full, elegant and ornate attire of those who have been apprentices and masters of La Carrida before him, was a very handsome young teenager, still more of a boy, but quite evidently on the cusp of the change that would see him grow into a man not so many years from today.
The boy was already carrying the poise of a young, yet seasoned dancer who had known nothing but the strict regime of the bar, plié, croisé, tour en l’air and grand jeté. Intoxicatingly elegant poses handed down to him by generations of his ancestors through time and memorial.
In his hand the red cape was propped up by a thin sword.
It was still blunt, but it would not be long until the sharpened blade of a matured matador would blink in the serene spring sunshine of this beautiful land, his poise dignified and manly to a fault, as he would coax an angry and utterly exhausted grown bull towards him for one very last time.
Assembled around the arena and looking on as the fascinating, not yet grand, spectacle unfolded, all of us could already envisage a very last wave of the cape de brega, a final unflinching matador pose he would execute to perfection, a last firmly spoken encouragement luring the bull into attack. A drop of the shoulder, one last, balletic rotation of his by then manly torso, the flamboyant cape flowing in one weightless move gracefully around his démi-pointe as the bull would rush, drunken with rage, desperation and fear, head on into the fiery red fabric of his matador’s talisman.
One swift, graceful, merciless strike – or was it merciful now that the bull had exhausted all of his mature, virile strength… – with the shining blade, which would fall like blinding, luminous light from the heavens above, deep into the pulsating, furious heart of the doomed animal, four hopelessly exhausted knees collapsing, a heavy fall onto the sand-filled arena and to a cheer of the exited crowd in the ancient round the bull would draw one desperate, hot, last breath – and die.
Now though, the matador opposing him was still young. And so was he.
Equal to each other in terms of their maturity. Already unequal foes with the outcome of their age-old duel already enshrined in the proud history of La Camarque for generations to come.
Both just beginning to blossom, growing in strength and self-assured confidence, though a world apart determined by the birthright of their species and yet invariably entwined in a future encounter made of an earthly brotherhood, warm, spilt blood and the sharp end of all living creatures’ pre-ordained fate.
And so, it unfolded in front of me.
Innocence, youthful vitality, lush green fields of promising futures, the improvised dance of wild, angry hooves and controlled, arrested feet.
Afterwards, the young, adorable bull would graze, freely in the wide, open pastures of the sun-bathed fields of La Camargue. He would mature and soon claim the wild, un-capricious virility and prowess of his kind for himself.
The young matador would continue to refine his already accomplished skills in this pas de deux of choreographed mortal combat and learn what has been studiously honed by his father and his father’s fathers before him in ornate halls and the carefully calibrated round of purposefully constructed arenas.
He too would mature and grow into what they willed him to become from the day when he was born under these same, sun-lit skies.
Beautiful and adored by many, a proud emblem of Provenceal manliness, envied by many, wedded to the, in truth universally all too easily accomplished, triumph of man over beast.
Until one day they would meet, again.
To the death.
Just after midnight, before I go to sleep for the night, and it’s been a week today since I first closed my eyes in this comfortable double-bed.
By now I feel like my life here has fallen into place.
I know my way to the bakery where I buy a fresh baguette every other day, the little corner shop where I get my apples and pears, the grocery store – which has been closed all week due to a refurbishment – and the friendly mobile phone repair man a minute’s walk away who replaced the battery and earpiece of my phone on Saturday, and whose shop I have paid a visit again yesterday and the day before, because after he had returned the phone to me on Saturday the microphone on it was sadly no longer working.
Yesterday he was too busy to do the work it needs and today he told me he didn’t have the part that my phone needs so I can use it to make my phone calls.
He is very friendly and just as talkative, but I hardly understand a word he says to me, as he speaks with the heavy Southern French accent the locals speak around here.
He does realise I struggle to understand him and so he repeats every detailed technical explanation of what he will need to do with my phone at least two times – and each time he does so at breakneck speed.
He explains it twice, because he thinks I do not get it the first time and then a third time because I will have interjected after the second explanation to ask him to speak slowly. My polite plea though has no effect on him and the third is delivered at the speed which I am familiar with by now.
Still, he is friendly and helpful and I am not really in a rush to make a phone call for the time being. And so I will be back there tomorrow afternoon.
After morning drum practise, I happened to find the local supermarket while I went for a walk waiting for the mobile phone repair shop to open. A very useful discovery, though unfortunately I realised the cashier had a point when she asked me whether I did indeed want the white t-shirt in L.
“Vous-ne pouvez pas le retourner Monsieur. Vous-êtes sure?!”
I was. I have always worn L.
Now I really will have to succeed with my diet. French men are very distinctly a different size when they are large. Still, once the pounds have dropped, I will have a very nice muscle shirt.
Having not only bought a t-shirt, but also three boxer shorts in M (the jury is still out if a Frenchman’s waist circumference is actually equivalent to a German Britishman’s), peach jam, French jambon, two packs of my beloved tagliatelle, a pot of fresh aioli to go with the fine French salami which I have come to love at least as much as my tagliatelle, a bottle of pastis (what took me so long…?!) and a bit of this, that and the other, I was asked to part with nearly 120.00 Euros at the till.
And I ran it all through my calculator before I headed to the exist exit. It all added up.
I swore never to return.
Then French practice. Then an hour spent carrying on with my exhibition concept synopsis. Then twenty minutes waiting for my phone to be re-assembled (ten of which would be accounted for by giving my best to get the gist of what the friendly repair man was explaining to me on the first repeat to is I could save time) and a hurried walk to Julia’s Galerie to arrive fifteen minutes later than arranged to look at the space for my exhibition in July with her.
I will be showing my work in the old cellar of her beautiful gallery.
The perfect space.
My installation will be a photographic and sonic journey back into the long, long days of lockdown. I couldn’t imagine a better setting.
The audience will go through a wooden entrance door, bow their heads so as to not bump their heads on the low stone ceiling above them and descent down a narrow metal staircase into the somewhat claustrophobic cellar which is built of thick, heavy, old stone.
Having set foot in a small dimly lit corridor with a narrow tunnel straight ahead of them, where most probably some of the photographs from the BJP’s Open Call 2023 will be hung, a small corridor awaits. Upon turning right, they will the enter the main part of the cellar, where they will find a good sized room with a vaulted ceiling, chunky white gravel on the floor and off-white, charismatic stone walls. Further into the space to the left is a small cave, the floor of which is covered with natural, white pieces of beautiful slate, loosely laid over each other – a beach, a quarry, a stone garden.
It is easy to imagine my photographs on the walls in here.
This hidden underground space in so many ways perfectly represents the feelings of disconnection from the world outside, the absence of sound emanating from what lies beyond its walls and the stillness and unforgiving slowness of the passing of time which we all experienced when lockdown descended upon our lives.
A small and unique, introspective universe of isolation, yearning for connection, so close in proximity to other confined worlds. Worlds which seemed forever to be accessible only in our vivid imagination, the burning sensation of our desire for relief from our groundhog day predicament and in our vision of an uncertain future waiting for us on the other side of lockdown.
As we measured our days not by the rhythm of our busy daily lives, but by the quiet ticking of slow-moving clocks, 24/7 news bulletins and the by then familiar patterns of ebb and flow in how we felt and what we thought, we waited.
If all goes well this cellar will make us wait in that universe again. But this time the door to the world will remain open.
Just don’t knock your head on the way out.
9. March 2023
An overcast day today, but unlike in the UK, this feels just like the weather giving us a run-up to the sunshine that is near certain to illuminate the skies tomorrow and not like a marathon where you are told that you have to go back to the beginning just after you crossed the finish line.
It’s just enough of a sprinkle of disappointment when you wake up to find the sky covered in clouds here to make you have something to look forward to for the next day – not the heavy downpour of resigned disillusionment that the perpetual greys and sunless skies of the British Isles bearing down on the machinations of our souls from early October to the beginning of May invariably illicit.
Drum practise in the morning…
My paradiddles are already sounding more rounded and are getting faster again, and I’ve moved on to the 6-stroke roll already. With accents placed on different strokes of course for increased difficulty…
Much of my time until 3pm was taken up with writing up the rest of my entry from yesterday and doing my best to do Gilles Massot justice when recounting his ideas. It was very interesting to think it all through a little more, to put it down on “paper” and to add a few small ideas of my own as I did, which served to make me understand his thinking that much better.
Not with regard to Gilles meticulously researched and thought thorough paper.
I truly love ideas or concepts that are formulated with little regard for whether someone else (who by all accounts is or was probably more learned or clever than myself) has developed them before.
Not because I may (falsely) believe mine are original and want to enlighten the world with until now undiscovered revelations, but because at the root of scientific, philosophical or artistic inquiry lies unbound curiosity and the need to work an idea until it has become a tangible likeness of how things are, appear to be or how they might feel to us.
What better way to look at a pasture that has already been comprehensively grazed than by imagining them as rich greens of untouched nourishment!
My whole approach to photography (or to ideas, writing, music…) is based around the notion that everything I see and encounter is there for me to discover, investigate and probe with my sensibility and work away at, as if no one had seen what I see, thought what I thought or felt what I felt before me, or had tried to capture its essence so that it may become recognisable as a kind of truth that not only I, but also other people who happen to encounter it can recognise.
Getting it just right makes me understand what is before me in a way which thinking about it hardly ever can achieve: I see “it” and “it” sees me.
Getting it wrong, leaves me feeling abandoned and “it” in chains.
Having started this entry last night, I am continuing this it this morning.
It turns out that sunshine is still on hold after all and I was greeted by light fog when I stepped out of my front door this morning to buy my baguette.
In the days since my arrival said front door has been restored by a very likeable, bearded man in his late fifties who arrives every day on his old, nineteen-sixties bicycle to inspect the work he had completed the day before and to return later in the afternoon to carry on with his task for a couple more hours.
The old sandstone frame had been carefully sanded down, new sandstone mortar expertly applied to make good on what had crumbled away over the years.
Since yesterday the heavy wooden door – which I was told I had better lock behind me when I entered to go to my room to stop the local youths from stealing my few possessions of value – has sprung back to life and is now painted in a deep and very satisfying semi-gloss black.
He, the stonemason, always carries a warm smile, a good tune and the decidedly légere air of a seasoned craftsman who knows the measure of time one must afford to do a job well.
The seasons in these parts and the years of a life well lived are etched on his face and upon exchanging greetings and a few words with him every time he arrives, I cannot feel but that there is much to learn from the rhythm of his exacting labour and the balance with which he rides his trusted bicycle, packed with the tools of his trade behind the old leather saddle when he sets off to maybe another job to inspect and continue.
After drum practise in the morning, the day was mostly spend working on a synopsis of the re-worked concept for my exhibition, returning to the phone repair shop just a minute’s walk away around the corner to get my phone’s microphone fixed and stopping by at Julia’s to see the space where my exhibition will be hung in July.
Though instead of my tour of the space, I was instead invited to a glass of rosé as she welcomed two new guests to her guest house. The conversation turned from the war in Ukraine, to gender and trans rights, J. K. Rowling and the disturbing alliance of the far left and the far right at an anti-war / anti arms to Ukraine at a protest in Berlin.
I love very much that Julia takes her time to welcome all the guest who come to board with her in her fantastically beautiful town house with a glass of wine or champagne and (very tasty!) crackers alongside warm conversations that are invariably very interesting. Opinions are exchanged, heard and probed and I feel richer with new points of view to ponder every time I step out onto the street afterwards.
In the evening then a long walk with a new found friend along the Rôhne and the cobbled streets at night, gaining new insights into the social fabric of Arles, a-who-is-who guided tour of sorts and with talk about photography, personal histories of romance, aspirations in art flanked by a promenade past the cruise ships on the quay of the Rôhne which are currently in being in the process of being re-furbished for the coming season. On through historic, dark, nightly alleys and glimpses of effortless, exquisite private courtyards and a peek at a billionaire philanthropist’s grand town residence.
Apparently she has just bought the similarly imposing property neighbouring hers on the left.
Afterwards, I returned home, feeling the run and yoga workout I had managed to squeeze in around late afternoon in my – just about middle-aged – bones. I couldn’t help but briefly check the rounded , plum belly and shapely man boobs of which I am currently a proud owner, to see if any of the stubborn fat that had made itself so very comfortable on both had succumbed to my dietary efforts yet.
I like to think they have.
I brushed my teeth, settled in bed with a nice cup of tea and began to write todays entry.
I end today with looking back at what I wrote last night about my approach to photography:
It is very interesting to me to note the contradiction between Gilles Massot’s ideas which I attempted to explain yesterday and my own approach to photography or in fact artistic expression.
Whilst he demonstrates credibly that photography is at best only ever a reduction of an (assumed) truthful reality into a two-dimensional slice of arrested time, it is precisely this quality of an incomplete rendering and the ambivalent relationship of the photograph to the reality it depicts, which allows me to arrive at a truthful rendering of what I encounter with my camera.
If and when I succeed with a photograph, it is precisely the combination of the apparent reality of what I have captured and the unanswered questions which the photograph give rise to, which complete the rendering and make me see “it” and “it” see me.
8. March 2023
Quantum Physics and Photography.
What has the one to do with the other you may ask.
If you were to think it was quantum physics that enables the photographic progress you would be mistaken according to French artist Gilles Massot with whom I had the most interesting conversation at Julia de Bierre’s kitchen dinner on Monday evening.
Julia had kindly invited me to join her and her internationally assembled guests at her house for that evening and around the table were gathered a photographer, writer and curator from New York and his Swiss friend – both heads of a photography foundation – a painter from the UK who had come to live here in Arles some years ago and never looked back, Julia herself who would proceed to serve us the most delicious three course meal, her kind and current assistant from Indonesia Theo, said French artist – Gilles Massot – and myself. After a warm crackers and champagne welcome and introductions all round we were led to a finely set dining table and each seated with a suitable companion at our side.
A wonderfully fresh, green salad with added fruit and walnuts, with what I assume was a (finely balanced) blue cheese dressing, was followed by Penne Arabiata and for dessert a homemade lemon crème made with yoghurt and just a touch of crème – to die for. Plenty of fine red, rosé and white wine and plenty of good conversation. I learned much about life here in Arles, the arts and photography environment, Luma Tower (if you do ever come to Arles you ought to go and visit) and the annual bull fighting festival which draws crowds of around fifty-thousand people of the Easter weekend each year.
After dinner we stepped outside into the courtyard for a bit of fresh air in preparation for coffee and tea a little later and I asked Gilles about his ideas about quantum mechanics and photography. I have had a great interest in Physics especially astronomy, Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum physics since I was a child and first encountered Star Trek in my Sunday best every Sunday evening at 6pm at my neighbours’, the gardener’s house, where my parents would allow me to watch television once a week on account of us not having one ourselves.
After my cousin and I tried to count the rising stars in the night sky at nightfall as we were sitting in a vineyard near the cold castle above the house were he was growing up we quickly learned the impossibility of it and gave up at around a hundred realising we could no longer tell if we had counted this one, that one or the one rising far on the right of the eternal firmament.
The abundance of faraway worlds overwhelmed us (and still overwhelms me today) and I realised that there must be better ways to try and account for this marvel, the audacity of existence and for my small, insignificant place within it all. Insignificant in the face of infinity and yet, so it appeared to me looking up, at the very centre of it all.
And so, the physics of how stuff came to be, of where it resides, of how it interacts with all the other stuff big and small, of me here and you there and of yesterday, today and of tomorrow became a lifelong companion over the now fifty-six years of my life.
Physics at its core is a philosophical branch of science, as much driven by the question of how we came to be and why we do what we do as philosophy itself, the world’s religions past and present, as literature, painting and sculpture, theatre, music, cinema and of course photography, which I have made my current tool of enquiry some sixteen years ago now.
It had been a long time since I had read a book on contemporary physics and so I jumped at the chance to question Gilles about his thoughts on how the intriguing world of the quantum sphere may relate to the unbound mystery of the abundance of the bright shimmers of light and shades of dark, to the intoxicating explosions of rich jubilant, living colour, the seductive and morbid lure of coalescing greys and relentless blacks and the intrinsic and to the endlessly captivating mystique and curiously interrogative quality of photography which I have grown to love so much.
To go back to the beginning of today’s meanderings: if you thought quantum physics is at the core of what makes the photographic progress possible you thought wrong.
According to Gilles it is photography which transformed you, me, here, there, yesterday, today and tomorrow and all the stuff around us. The inventors of the photographic process – unbeknown to most of them – rang the bell for the dawn of our modern world and photography would become the foundation and single most important interrogative process that led to the ideas that have given us a birds-eye view of the machinations of the smallest bits holding everything we know together: quantum physics.
I can only recount the impassioned explanations and ideas he gave to me in that courtyard, enveloped by the tall sandstone walls of Julia’s old, multi-story town house and still cold late winter night here I brief, but his well thought out argument goes something like this:
Before the invention of photography by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1816 passing on the information embedded in memory through visual art was confined to painting, drawing and to some extend sculpture. Each rendering was unique and always almost always existed as a physical rendering only locally in much the same way that the events they depicted were a retelling of mostly localised events. Photography changed all that. It made the local global and individual and collective memory reproducible through the invention of the calotype technique by Henri Fox Talbot later in 1841.
The new technology of photography must have felt like the next best thing to a miracle to people alive at the time.
Whilst until this moment of invention, time had been experienced as a continuum of ever-changing moments where memory was only ever broken up into discreet chunks that could be individually re-called or assembled in collective narratives, now it could be captured, fixed, reproduced and transferred from one place to the other. And – most importantly – it would be evident to the viewer who came upon a photographic rendering of a particular reality that what they were seeing was an accurate, reliable and truthful rendering of particular events in time, of fixed and definable places in space and of the un-deniable fact that what a photograph pictured existed as solid evidence of the truthfulness of what had occurred at the time it had happened.
According to Gilles, this perceived quality of the photographic process went on to be the turning point where the ancient was left behind and modernity began.
A totally new era where the world would increasingly occupy itself with continuously reproducing renderings of itself, assembling and revising a growing collective memory and find its purest expression in the advent of the selfie early in the 21. Century.
Of course, the notion of truthfulness has been widely debated since then by photographers, those who reproduce and those who consume it. To us 21. Century citizens of the world, the advent of digitalisation and the lives we are now accustomed to living in the virtual world increasingly question and undermine this notion. It is for good reason that the BJP has chosen “What is truth in photography today?” as the theme for this year’s open call.
For Gilles though, photography has always been a trickster and not the harbinger of truthful memory and evidence based scientific enquiry. On the contrary – to him it is innate to the photographic process that it is in fact inaccurate, whilst making us believe that it isn’t.
Actual events, people and places exist in four dimensions – three of space and one of time – photograph collapses the four into two. The remaining two dimensions exist outside the frame, forever lost to the world and the person viewing the photograph. In fact, we cannot help but add the missing two dimension in our imagination to make up for the information that is missing in the first place when we see a photograph. Incidentally this is the one defining quality that adds mystery to a photograph: it engages our imagination because of what is missing, not because of what it represents. Were it truthful it would allow us to be in the place and at the time of what it shows us: it would be as we had been there ourselves and the extraordinary would become un-extraordinary.
And so, photography is never truthful no matter how much credibility we invest in it or hold it up as an undeniable proof of an occurrence or a particular place in space.
Nevertheless, evidential science is founded on the notion that photography is a reliable tool in modern scientific enquiry.
A picture is a proof. And it will remain so until it is superseded by another picture that says otherwise.
In quantum physics it is the famous double-slit experiment that opened the door to the quantum world. An experiment that fired individual photons of light through two side-by-side slits onto a piece of photographic paper placed on the other sides of the slits. The unexpected pattern of randomly accumulated exposures across the width and breadth of the paper proved that light is a wave and a particle at the same time – a result that asked for a whole new set of physics: the quantum theory was born.
But, if photography is not undeniable truth but “a trickster” as Gilles likes to put it – isn’t there a fundamental flaw at the core of quantum physics?
He likes to think so.
I am very intrigued.
If you would like to learn more about his fascinating ideas in more detail than I can reproduce here, please join www.academia.edu, find his profile under Gilles Massot and read his paper on “The White Space”.
I hope to leave you here with a few things to ponder and hope these paragraphs have left you with healthy dose of photographic quantum curiosity.
7. March 2023
Light grey skies today and a friendly brief drizzle. Warmth and sunshine from tomorrow.
I had wanted to write about my first two days in Arles yesterday so I don’t forget the memorable first impressions that my arrival here have made on me.
I will try – before they fade from memory.
The old town of Arles – La Roquette – is a sandstone city, much like Bath, but the stones weathered by eternal sunshine and the cold northernly Mistral which visits the city in fall and winter seem lighter, at times weightless and much more at ease with themselves, representing nothing but the centuries of time gone by rather than the aspirations and reputations of their inhabitants past and present.
It feels natural to feel elevated by the history of lives lived and yet insignificant and at ease in the face of its beautifully aged townhouses, the cobbled streets and the remains of ancient Rome’s cultural conquest and civilisation.
I do not know many other parts of France other than Paris, but here in this town of essentially a quaint and to an extend provincial mindset, the many influences of immigration and the global reach of France’s’s colonial history are nevertheless evident.
Naturally they find their greatest expression in the fresh and joyfully prepared food which one can sample at every street corner. There are plenty of restaurants serving up the wide and wonderful range of French cuisine, but Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Moroccan, a good selection of a wide range of African dishes and many other flavours from around the globe can just as easily be found and sampled without too much pain caused to one’s reluctant purse.
Every day I prepare my own meals: salads, some pasta, fruit with muesli, yoghurt and honey…
It all tastes that little bit better prepared here, though my cooking so far does not differ much from what I have been used to doing in the UK. I look forward to trying my hands at preparing some French cuisine before too long.
I am very glad to have arrived here early in March, when the city is still quiet, with only a few tourists one can see promenading around the amphitheatre, the central square, or eating and drinking coffee in the restaurants dotted around the Place du Forum, made famous by Vincent van Gogh’s painting of Le Café La Nuit.
I loved sitting there, tucked comfortably in a corner against the big yellow wall when I last was here in September 2022. I am certain I will return to my little corner in the café to sit on the soft, padded red bench when the it opens again, timed to the imminent arrival of the tourists from all over the world, to enjoy French cappuccinos made with whipped cream, not milk.
The open call is an annual competition where photographers from around the globe submit their work in response to a theme set by the BJP. This year it is “What is truth in photography today”.
The selected photographs will be part of a group exhibition at Galerie Huit Arles which will run alongside the world famous Les Rencontres d’Arles which starts here on 3. July and continues until 24. September.
If you love photography, the summer in Arles has been the time and place to come for many years!
My exhibition at Julia’s gallery will start at the same time, though it will not be part of the official Rencontres programme.
My concept for my exhibition includes seven photographs from the series, the hair I had collected for me after lockdown number one and number two (which I have brought with me stuffed into two black rubbish bags in the suitcase that is missing one of its four wheels) and ambitious plans for an installation that will feature a complex and emotive sound design, a large ticking clock and these same locks of female and male lockdown hair.
Time can fly when one while’s it away so I had decided to start work on my exhibition as soon as I arrived.
And so I did.
Having had a great conversation with a filmmaker at the end of February with whom I worked when I did the sound design for the fifth’s series of National Geographic Television’s Drain The Oceans in the months leading up to my departure, I had made plans to change my original idea for the sound design and the presentation of the photographs.
And so I set straight to work on day one and arrived at a concept, with which I am very pleased, yesterday.
Tomorrow I will get to see the space that Julia has in mind for my work and I hope that she will approve of my new ideas.
On a more mundane, practical level my days are quite structured.
Fruit salad after getting up, shower, an hour or so of practising drum rudiments on the small practice pad I brought along, updating my blog with what I wrote in bed the night before, leave the house for my first coffee in the sunshine at La Brasserie L’Aficion, which catches the sun for most of the day, reading my “Maigret et Le Clochard” book by Georges Simenon (which comes with handy practise questions at the end of each chapter), going through my list of French vocabulary to memorise the new phrases which I would have transcribed from its pages as I read, a run every other day along the Rôhne followed by some self-made yoga, dinner, maybe something social like last night when it comes along, blog writing and then lights out.
It is a good routine.
The only thing that is currently missing is finding the time to sit down to work on the various sets of photographs which I have shot over the last six months, that still await sorting through and editing. I will make that part of my day soon.
On Sunday, with La Brasserie L’Aficion busy with tourists having lunch at midday, I went in search of a cheaper cup of coffee and a place to read my Maigret.
Not far is the Place Voltaire – a grittier place, just a stonethrow away.
There, two brass bands had assembled to play their jovial and mostly danceable tunes to a small standing audience and the locals assembled for lunch in the cafés and restaurants surrounding the square.
One, all in black and rather gothic, the other an all-female ensemble wearing large red lips as headpieces. Luscious lips which threw red-hot kisses at the small crowd as the trumpets, trombones and tubas bopped to the groove of their music. The women would at regular intervals brake into song at the top of their voices whenever there was a break in the musical arrangement of the English and American hits they were playing.
Naturally, they sang the familiar lines in French, not in English.
I spotted a small, busy snack bar on the other side of the square, with cheap tables arranged outside and a rather plain looking interior, which was nevertheless heaving with local midday guests. I soon found out why, as I spotted plenty of bright, foamy beer and half-empty red wine bottles on the tables and a good number of small liquor glasses filled with mellow-yellow pastis in people’s hands as I entered.
It goes without saying that I rolled with what everyone was drinking and also ordered a pastis in addition to my customary coffee at that time of day.
Having given my order to the friendly French man behind the bar, I must have made an impression on one not very tall, glassy eyed looking man standing right next to me.
“Vous-êtes très grand Monsieur!”
He looked me up and down a couple of times and then insisted that I would tell him exactly how tall I was, and how much I weighed.
Visibly satisfied after I explained to him in my still pretty un-polished French that I was 188 cm tall and (currently… – I am on a diet.) weighed 100Kg, he seemed to be even more appreciative of the measure of the man who stood at his side on one of his regular, drunken midday visits to his local hang out.
He raised his glass for a toast and a nod.
I nodded back and wished him a god day before I went outside to find my spot in the sun, where I sat for the next hour, drank my coffee and pastis in turn, did my French reading and listened to the all-female brass band’s raucous performance until the last note and red-hot kiss had been carried away by the still pretty callous and cold Mistral.
6. March 2023
I woke up to sunshine. At the beginning of March!
The following day I would sit in the Brasserie L’Aficion at the foot of the amphitheatre in my t-shirt drinking French coffee.
You have no idea what that means to someone who has lived his entire life with winter cloaked in grey and mostly miserable skies. Whether in Hamburg where I grew up, in Manchester where I went to study in 1993 – seasons didn’t really exist in that vibrant, colourful city when I lived there for four years in the Nineties – or in Bristol in the South of England for the past twenty-five years: the sky would hardly ever flinch to let in a brief hour of sunshine to relieve my weary, rain-soaked soul. This is what I have been waiting for ever since I left my birth country Brazil at the innocent age of two years and six months.
Next weekend it will be 20 degrees Celsius here…
On my first day in my new home though I decided to treat myself to a delectable buffet at the local spa on top of the small hill that surrounds the ancient amphitheatre near which I now live.
It was just a breakfast buffet, but then it wasn’t.
Everything, from the burgundy-red smoked ham, the seemingly freshly made seductive peach jam, the crusty fresh crunchy baguette – which I buttered, generously, before placing a thick slice of that beautiful ham onto a single thin slice of it – to the mini pain au chocolat, the self-boiled egg (five minutes to perfection) and the re-vitalising orange juice for which one would take two oranges from a fruit-filled basket and juice them oneself…: everything, everything was such a liberating tonic for an under-nourished palate.
Especially mine, as I have in the past so often neglected it day after day by offering up more or less the same predictable and convenient choices. Little variations of course thrown in every now and then to appease its fine sensibilities. Just enough to maintain at least the pretence that I cared for the delicate pleasures it would offer to those who cared for its riches, but never enough to share in its exuberant jubilation when it could. Though both it and I knew that exhilarating sensation of heady tastes embracing the inner workings of the spirit very well – well enough to dearly miss it.
Here, now: abundance! I will have to pace myself according to needs of my wallet. But I am sure I will return an educated man in many fine culinary matters.
After breakfast I stepped out onto the spa’s terrace atop the hill in which the amphitheatre nestles to round my sumptuous breakfast off with another helping of dark French coffee.
It feelt like yesterday that I had been here in Arles in September 2022, except the air was now cold and the open blue sky just a little clouded over in places – weightless, white clouds.
The city lay in front of me, quietly, with just a few people here and there in the cobbled streets and the flocks of doves which reside here all year round perched on the rooftops, nestling together, heads tucked in, calm and collected in that Provenceal kind of picture-postcard way that justifies all of its clichés by the self-evident integrity of its beauty. I pinched myself a number of times but in vain. I did not wake up and then realised I wouldn’t for another long and full six months.
White, white horses and proudly pink flaming flamingos, far away tranquil horizons and blue, open seas. The annual rites of the festival of fighting bulls: these, in their prime, enraged by terror and fear, yet blind to the futility of their brave struggle, would fight, fiercely – and die.
Gypsies gathering in their thousands and thousands like they do every year here in Saint Marie de la Mer. Coming together to celebrate all of what is alive for them today and not in the far away yesterday land of our gullible nostalgia.
Men and women of all ages dressed just ‘comme ça’, in a ‘vraiment admirable’ French way, wonderfully conscious of the debt they owe to their cultivated and cultured upbringings, proud and adamant and always aware of the reputation they have to uphold to the rest of the world.
Seeing them promenade under my fluffed up blue sky I understood why it matters.
And of the children the sweet Southern smalltown innocence and sun-soaked laughter lubrication.
And of the graceful, elderly French women and men the sculpted wrinkled faces – chiselled, without much care, from joviality, camaraderie and paternity. From hard, hard work and strong, thick, dark tobacco, from raucous red wine soirés and the slicing, sharp liquorice aroma of thick, pale-yellow pastice.
As I brought the last remaining drops of velvety coffee to my lips it all began to make perfect sense to me.
Arles, 5. March 2023
It is now four days since I arrived.
The days before my departure from Bristol, were hectic – nothing is ever ready until it is, regardless of how much one thinks one has done ahead of time.
So, it came as no surprise that to me early on the morning of 1. March – the day of my departure to Arles in the South of France from London Heathrow – I found myself scrubbing my bathtub, trying in vain to remove the unsightly ring of grease and dirt around the lower third of the tub that my washing of the women’s hair I had collected for me at Coven Hair Studio in Bristol after the second lockdown had ended in 2021 had left behind the day before.
The locks of hair had still been greasy from the honey my model had used to apply the multi-coloured strands over the entirety of her body when I photographed her in the nude in 2022.
Some of it was still lumped together into tight little balls from remaining un-washed for too long. Some was knotted into long and rigid dreads, as I had thrown it all carelessly into a large black bin liner when I tidied up the studio after we had finished our shoot that day.
The grey-brown residue of grime and dirt proved too stubborn for my sponge and cream cleaner, and so I had to leave the job incomplete, the ugly ring now running along the entire circumference of the old but otherwise immaculate tub.
The Austrian family of seven, who were to move into my house in Easton later that day, would be left to wonder what in god’s name I had done to myself that would have left behind such grimy evidence upon draining the no doubt black bath water after I had finished washing my naked, filthy body.
There wasn’t much time to concern myself with their alpine imaginations though. In the end they probably just thought it remnants of the almost thirty years of dirt I had accumulated in these lands, after moving to Britain in 1993 from Germany – all washed away in one long, final sitting in the vintage tub.
In all fairness: I had kept myself pretty clean through-out those years, had found the grime that did stick to me from time to time tolerable and furthermore readily removeable with no more than a quick shower in the morning and a good dose of the good humour I had acquired along with it on these, the British Iles.
A few remaining things that had no place anywhere: hastily thrown into cupboard and its doors thrown shut, a last good-by to my cat Ella who had decided she’d rather she was nowhere to be seen as I left her at the mercy of strangers, a slam of the front door, a turn of a key and my two suitcases, camera case and rucksack were squeezed into the small car of my lodger Ken, who had kindly volunteered to give me a ride to Bristol bus station to catch the 9 o’clock that would deliver me to terminal 5 at Heathrow.
Traffic at the M32 roundabout proved unusually busy – a no rush rush hour of sorts… – but, once on the dual carriageway leading into town, Ken’s SatNav’s neat little time display assured us with charachteristic virtual confidence that I would arrive with time to spare: time which I would a little later make use of to buy myself a nice pair of crispy Ploughman’s sandwiches and an small bottle of succulent orange juice, having skipped breakfast earlier that morning.
Upon arrival at the back of the station, where you would usually find one or two black cabs waiting to pick up arriving passengers eager to make their way home, we shook hands inside his car to say a heartfelt, but un-ceremonious good-bye to each other.
I, off to a sunny, bohemian life in the South of France, he soon to fly off to Northern Patagonia, Argentina to put his feet up closer to his daughter.
“Good-bye, farewell – let’s keep in touch!”.
Two large heavy suitcases, one of which missing one of its four wheels (thanks very much my son’s grand-dad for returning the suitcase to me without it after lending it to you many moons ago…) a camera back and a large rucksack are a bitch to manoeuvre!
Only much later that same evening, whilst wheeling my luggage from Arles station across vintage street lantern lit, un-kept French pavements, pot holes and roads that were being re-surfaced in preparation for the tourist onslaught in the summer, did I master the complex art of double suitcase pulling:
Put one in front of the other, angle in such a manner that the suitcase nearest to you lifts its back wheels off the tarmac just enough to be able to pull it. Then, grab the handle of the one behind, let it drop down a little and make it follow suit: the missing wheel of the anterior disappears, as seven wheels are reduced to a comprehensive set of four, et voilà: they obediently follow as I begin to walk.
Camera trolley in the other hand, cold northernly Provenceal wind in my face we move.
Cursed be French curbs! Pot holes! Roadworks!!!
Of my journey to London Heathrow and me boarding my flight to Marseille is not much to tell, other that I bought a box of assorted shortbread and a London mug featuring Big Ben and a red telephone box for my landlady-to-be as a little present. That I had a small gate scare that saw me searching for my flight to Marseille amongst the various iterations of gate 14 (a,b,d,c,d,e,f…) and flights leaving for Seattle, Hawaii and the Bahamas announced on the departures display, before I realised my flight would in fact be leaving from gate 44, which was – thankfully – only a very brief ride on a fast travelling tram shuttle away. I have missed flights before through sheer absent mindedness and so I opted for a steady jog to be sure to avoid such unfortunate mishap on this, rather important, occasion.
”Ladies and Gentlemen! Due to a technical breakdown at the gate we are currently unable to proceed with boarding. We apologize for the delay. Please remain seated until we update you with further information. We apologize for the delay. Thank you!”
Nowhere to sit, so I stood. And waited.
Insert delayed boarding, lift-off, being given a small plastic bottle of clear water courtesy of British Airways, French learning reading my little Maigret crime caper, a visit to the on-board toilet, glowing orange sunset over the waters of the Mediterranean near Marseille, touchdown, gratefulness for finding a trolley at baggage reclaim, angry phone call to Mobile Phones Direct for managing to not request a PAC code from O2 so I can get my old phone number back, bus ride toward Marseille Airport train station plus staying on the bus until the end of the line, being told I had missed the stop for the train station, kindly being allowed to stay on without having to buy another ticket as the friendly female bus driver made her return back to the airport, getting off at the train station, learning about rotary dials on French train ticket vending machines, having one of my suitcases carried up the last flight of stairs to the platform by a sturdy young Frenchman who clearly thought I looked too old (!!!) to manage by myself, fifty minute train journey to Arles through a late winter night, keenly holding on to my luggage whilst sitting on a foldable seat just by the train doors, half blocking people leaving and getting on the train, getting off at Arles and – please see above…: learning how to successfully turn seven suitcase wheels into a comprehensive set of four.
And alas: two friendly young Frenchmen helping me out with directions.
They kindly walked with me.
One took one of my heavy suitcases off me and pulled it alongside of him towards my destination. This time not because I looked old…, but because by that time, I looked as exasperated, tired and fed up as I felt.
We parted ways at the bottom of the ancient Roman amphitheatre.
”Juste-la, dans le coins: la petite rue à gouche..”
Rue Armandes Barbés.
Je sonne à la porte et la porte s’est ouverte.
“Ah bonsoir – vous êtes Claudio !”
“Bon soir Madame – je suis très heureux de vous rencontrer.”
I was so pleased with myself for getting the greeting I had carefully rehearsed on the plane off my exhausted, but very happy chest and to wheel my few, cumbersome belongings into the room just to the right at the bottom of her stairs.
13. June 2020
It has been almost a year since my last entry – much has moved me since, not least the past three months that have touched all of our lives in such a myriad of ways.
The breakdown of our predictable lives before the virus has caught me – like I am sure many others – in a whirlwind of confusion, anxious emotions, worry, a very bittersweet satisfaction about the crumbling of oppressive certainties and in feelings of elation about what now seems possible in terms of creating a more just, peaceful and inspirational society.
Personally this land of limbo has strengthen my resolve to shape my life in ways that best correspond to my values and beliefs, independent of sanctioned ideologies and with the best interest at heart for the well being of other people and myself.
I believe we have much to hope for, building on these times where materialism, political wrangling, power and exploitation have all been superseded by values of compassion, integrity and solidarity. It certainly has taught me to discard of much of the fatalistic cynicism that I have given in to as the years have gone past.
I hope now and in future, I and all of us, can cultivate the trust we have build in each other and in ourselves. Nothing heals the soul like the belief in the honesty of our own intentions and values and in those of of others.
Creatively I have attempted to capture the ambivalence between hope, mortality and crisis in a series of nudes created in lockdown.
This is an on-going project for which I have approached my friends and the friends of my friends to be photographed (physically distanced and covid-safe) in my house. Everyone is asked to bring a decorated facemark, flowers and – thanks to my friend Sarah Middleton‘s idea for her own shoot – an item that symbolises mortality to them.
Below is the result of my shoot with my friend Maryem Meddeb – photography and music by myself.
If you like what you see and would like to be part of this series I would be delighted! Please use the contact form on this site to get in touch with me. I really look forward to hearing from you!
20. July 2019
I have submitted five images to the LensCulture Art Award 2019.
Here is my submission review….
Thank you for taking the time in submitting your work with us. This is a very interesting collection of single pictures, and to be honest, all are quite extraordinary. Despite the visual differences among the images, you have managed to establish and maintain a certain feeling within that framework. That’s a lofty goal in and of itself. Congrats.
What I see in this work is an obsession with the idea of decay. The traumatic experience is being at the center of the content, sometimes visually, others mentally. I also feel a strong intuition behind these images. Artistic expression sometimes is simply intuitive. At least in part. I believe that all artists should trust their intuition, but only a few know how to handle it down. I believe that you are one of them. The way you are approaching your subject whether is a real person like Daryl or a manifestation of the human presence feels deeply intuitive, and at some point, it reminds me of the work of Francis Bacon.
Your pictures characterized by a philosophically analytical tendency. It is as if you are struggling to find out what is going on beneath the flesh, how the human soul looks like, or why our body is so fragile. Perhaps my interpretation is wrong but that is what I feel by looking at your images.
The primary goal of this contest is to discover the diverse and creative ways that photographers are pushing the medium and reinventing the definitions of art photography. Your submission undoubtedly fulfills the objectives of this contest, and my engagement with your work moved me.
Images 1 and 4 are, for me, the most powerful. On the other side, the less strong image is picture 5, mostly because it looks entrapped in a formalistic context. I believe that color suits you more.
I find your artistic level very high and I suggest you to continue presenting your work but not as single images. The series category is, of course, far more challenging but I believe that your work has to be in there. The depth of content of a series cannot be approached by a single image, no matter how good it is. Nonetheless, it’s up to you to decide what to do next.
I am looking forward to seeing more of your work in the future.
In a world flooded with photographs, it is important to make valuable work.
18. June 2019
Not really a blog entry – just these impressions…
27. December 2018
It was selected to be included in the Society of Scottish Artists’s Annual Open Exhibition.
What an end to 2018…
7. October 2018
It’s two weeks now that I am back from Moscow.
It was a journey through time…
The plane – an Aeroflot plane, one of the worst airlines to take travellers to the skies as the seemingly indestructible era of Soviet rule was nearing its eventual end – shook heavily and was pushed side to side as I was about to touch down on the airfield of Moscow Airport in the winter of 1988. Early evening, darkness, snow and storm. I had wanted to see our descend through the window as I always loved to do – and still do today, but I could not see beyond the plastic bulls-eye next to my – back then long-haired- head: snowflakes were rushing through the air, hurried along by howling winds weaving an impenetrable blind that twisted my gaze in all directions until it resigned itself on the darkness in the distance.
There was a white field, there was deep snow, there was darkness folded around the coldness of neon lights – and black buildings that were swallowing the night hole.
Travelling is a journey to a destination long imagined, made familiar through stories heard from others about far away lands, told through books by characters we befriend and learn to love as they visit our world from distant places, brought to us by the moving images of the films that touch our soul and imprinted on our consciousness by the pictures we have seen with wide eyes open or in passing as we dream.
Not so when flying behind the iron curtain in the late 20th Century.
I had booked a trip to Moscow via the Hamburg division of the YMCA who had advertised a trip to attend a Rock Festival in Moscow that winter in a local paper. It sounded alluring – out of this, out of my world. And so I decided to go.
I had no idea of what lay ahead of me, no vision of what I might find, no Shangri-La already constructed to test against reality when I would get there – the Iron Curtain weight heavily on the imagination even from afar. The red line that marked the border to the Eastern block dividing Europe into friend and foe ever day in the evening news back then didn’t just demarcate the geography of ideology – it also ran through all of our heads and minds. Beyond the red line the topography of our imagination, the conjured up landscapes and places that make us knowledgeable about lives, people and events we have only ever visited in daydreams – beyond the red line this topography was blank. And heavy, grey, cold, hungry, scared and angry… – that was all we knew.
When my plane shook and swayed and slid side to side and roared with relief as it came to a halt deep behind the curtain that evening, I was not at all surprised that there was nothing there except darkness, wind, the whitest of lights and the coldest of snows .
Nothing quite compares to arriving at unimagined places.
To be continued…
4. June 2018
This is my first film…
SOAK is the debut poetry collection by poet extraordinaire Isadora Vibes.
To be published this September by Burning Eye Books.
written and performed by Isadora Vibes
cinematography, edit, sound design by Claudio Ahlers
concept by: the magic of a moment
1. June 2018
This morning at 7.30am as I was leaving the night shelter after my first over-night shift, I saw a shy, African man who had spend the night in the dorm, now sitting on a bench over-looking the square where the shelter is.
It promised to be a warm sunny day, but as he was sitting there it seemed obvious that he would have nothing to do, nowhere to go – nowhere to be.
We waived a warm good-bye…
on the street your heart beats
flutters in the city
early morning hope
a dream not yet broken
warm in stillness
save in observation
tranquil in limbo
wandering in invisibility
a siren song
jealous lovers from the past
your self holds on
you do not notice
you pay no heed
you seek no comfort
as it gently separates
down your skinny frame
onto the pavement
still your dark skin
glows a promise
you do not care to know
while all the while
your sunken eyes
desire eyes like mine
to bathe the power that this holds
your heavy feet
your hardened hands
and I to know
never heavy on your shoulders
blessed are those who see
beneath your heavy coat
the flurr of feathers
on the tips of my fingers
a sad shining shimmer
on your palm
28. May 2018
I have received a review for my submission to the LensCulture Street Photography Awards.
You can read it in full below:
Dear Claudio, thank you for your submission to LensCulture.
It is a pleasure to review your series.
I like your images!
I think you employ a unique style, particularly in how you approach post-production. The images you present here have a gritty and atmospheric-haze quality to them. I assume you photographed these with a DSLR, but the grainy quality of the frames causes me to wonder if it’s the result of high ISO film. Based on your “background” section comments, I think the gritty quality is an effect you added in a digital environment in post. Regardless of the process, the resulting images are a rare example where grain and a lack of tack-sharpness operate perfectly to reflect the subject matter and mood. Very generally, I’m a stickler for smooth, sharp images, so I don’t offer this compliment about work like this often.
Reading your statement, I appreciate that this is where you call home, and that you hold it in high regard. I like how you describe the neighborhood and city as typically busy, but hauntingly lonely on these two nights. I’m also curious why you elected to shoot on major holidays, rather than capture Bristol on an ordinary night. I’m curious to know how the visual elements would change. Regardless, I find myself intensely interested in these cityscapes, and the people who populate the frames. I feel the psychic energy you hope to capture, so bravo.
I like the way you’ve sequenced the series here. It opens with a dark and desolate view of the street and unfolds to other mysterious views and unidentified people. When you transition to New Year’s the photographs become a bit lighter in mood, and we see faces of individuals, rather than unknown outlines. The final image of the shop owner, free of customers, looking out into the street is a nice a way to close the project. Along the way, I’m drawn into each frame. It is an odd phenomenon for me to be interested in each scene equally, but you’ve done it. The emptiness of image 2 is as spectacular as image 6, where two lovers kiss and throngs of revelers walk the street. I’m also interested in image 7, as the handicapped man sits alone outside of the “Love Inn”. The contrast between the language and the subject is stark.
Photographing in bad weather at night brings a tone of gloom to this place. It has a melancholy aspect to it that is surprising, given your love of this place. Perhaps you don’t see the melancholy, or perhaps you embrace it. I’m not sure. What I do know, is that you’ve created a bit of magic in this work, and I’m happy I had the opportunity to see it.
I typically have points of constructive criticism, where a frame might benefit from a crop, or I point to a technical problem that is reducing the quality of a picture. However, despite my attempts to find helpful advice for improvement, I’m stumped. I think you are presenting a highly resolved body of work in terms of craft, content, and creativity. It is a project as close to perfection as I’ve ever seen. I think you should look for opportunities to exhibit and publish this work.
Additionally, you might consider participating in portfolio review sessions. There you will receive additional professional feedback while expanding the audience for your images.
Thank you again for your submission.
14. May 2018
Time has travelled painfully slow through my perforated drain pipes, cold and wet and slow, aching from the darkness of grey skies, faces and bleak dreams. Where have I been and why was there no blue sky for so long, so long, so long…
The sun has washed the sky, my feet, my soul and all the people I meet.
Now it is May.
Music is light, floating on the breeze – light is music pulsating on my retina: the electrifying dance in my eyes.
The People of the Croft all around me, past and present – in the street, on the gallery wall.
THE SPACE, Stokes Croft
Here I invigilate, contemplate and hesitate what to make of it all.
Memorable magic of 24 hours spend in deep December on the street now hangs in print on the wall. People come, look, they go, passing through much like pedestrians – only glancing, not stopping on their way to gather other glances from which they weave a day at the end of the day.
The photos I took are nothing but fragile thread – impossible to hang the resonance of these brief encounters on the wall.
They’d run down the steep gallery walls, down onto the flat, hard, gallery floor – washed away without any notice, out of everyone’s grasp but mine. I cannot pin my memory to these white walls (not yet) but I can pretend to distill it, force it on paper, I defy gravity and time with pins and blue tag and I can make people believe that they bear witness… – when really they have come here to pin their own memories onto each and every picture they see, to create new, momentarily present ones in the depth of their minds as they wander past, wander on and barely notice as these moments sink away.
Now though, the music of my memories fills the air.
And I dance, still, enchanted…
26. December 2017
I was on my own this year for Christmas and after having spend Christmas Eve in the company of my great friends Chris Harper and Victoria Bourne (aka incredible The Husky Tones) sampling dark ales in the centre of Bristol. I knew Christmas Day was going to be very quiet for me. Having been spared by the angry angels of hangovers and with the taste of dark, sweet expresso ale still lingering on my tongue, I had spend much of the day editing photos from my 24H OUR CITY shoot.
I needed to walk and and I needed air. As the rain came and as dusk began to fall I took my Canon and my 50mm lens, wrapped them in my (my until then never used before rain cover), put my skiing jacket and a pair of waterproofs on and walked into the falling night, over to Stokes Croft. I am glad I did.
Not only had the city fallen into a deep, exhausted silence – a silence as if it had waited for these past three hundred and sixty-four long, frantic, endlessly tiring, dogged and laboured days to finally be put to bed by the Spirit of Christmas as it dutifully descended upon each and every home and every one: the ghosts of Stokes Croft had also taken hold of and cast their spells upon every slab of pavement, the bricks, the mortar, the dark, aged roof tops and the glistening street.
They had thrown a light made of absence and memory, like a veil made of a melancholic alcoholic’s delerious dream around every corner, over every building and through each and every window and my camera and I were determined to catch some of it as it fell on these so familiar places, into my willing eyes and my grateful lens…
There was no-one but me so it seemed for a while, but then shadows of strange men began to drift past me, many looking as if they did not really have a place to go to, balancing on the precarious, wet pavement as if they might fall off it at any time: down, down, down – down to the end of the world, determined yet carefully rushing from a close-by nowhere place to a far away somewhere place, un-known in time, to them and to us.
Khair at the 365 day a year chippy SLIX – open even when no-one comes just because someone will, some time – Khair and I stopped to talk. About religion. Islam. Christianity. Judaism. How they are all the same. Jesus. Mohammed. Abraham. Peace be upon them. And the message is love and respect. And he let me take his photo and he gave me a can of tango.
Jeff Knight, the 365 days a year Big Issue vendor – much loved by many of us for his hugs, his fist pumps and his indomitable spirit – he is the Living Spirit of Stokes Croft: Jeff was there, selling his Big Issue to the ghosts of the night street. They passed him by, unforgiving. But Jeff did not care and kept on selling. He gave me a fist pump. This, is his street.
An old man, sitting down on the wall by Turbo Island, resting.
He walked the slowest of slow walks. He and his silver walking frame, crossing by the lights at the junction to Jamaica Street over to Hamilton House, stopping again to rest, making his way towards Café Kino, the junction with Ashley Road, always staying close to the tall walls of the battered buildings he passed. He never turned around as I followed him on his way. I could not get enough of his silhouette as it battled the darkness, the rain and the headlights of occasional, oncoming traffic. I lost him when he turned the corner at The Arts House Café, wondering if he too was coming from a nowhere place to make his way to a somewhere place or, whether – at the pace he was proceeding – whether he might indeed eventually fall off the pavement: down, down, down – down to the end of the world. But, he was more determined than all of the others. He knew where he was going.
I found the grim reaper embossed on a wall in crack alley. Colonel Sanders smiling down at me from the window of a ripped open telephone box near Lakota. A cash point doing what only cash points can do in the abandoned darkness of Jamaica Street. And the Spirit of Christmas imprisoned in the glow and haze of Christmas lights, slowly penetrating the fogged up windows of the houses I past as I walked home through Montpelier. When I arrived, even my flat was in an embrace with the blackest darkness.
All there was, was the pitter-patter of the wettest, heaviest rain on my windows – the loneliest I had heard in a very long time.
17. December 2017
It’s been two weeks now since I finished my 24-hour portrait photography shoot early on the morning of 6. December 2017 in Stokes Croft here in Bristol.
I first had the idea to do 24hour portrait shoot with the people of Stokes Croft around five years ago. I wanted to reflect in the photos a sense of belonging, a sense of the people passing through or living in a unique urban space that plays a pivotal part in their lives – much like our homes and in particular living rooms do in our private lives. What could could be better than building one then right there on the pavement where people walk past to work, to go shopping, to spend their nights out, to come and create or indeed to live like many of the homeless people who live on Stokes Croft.
I ran the idea past my friend and installation artist Sarah Middleton, for whom I had worked in the previous years as a photographer on a good number of art events she had organised. Sarah was immediately taken by the idea and we agreed to make it happen. Initially we had planed to make it happen in the spring of 2015 but it took until December 2017 to realise our plans.
So this October Sarah went to work and bought up used furniture that she would paint and modify to make our set. While she also acquired the necessary permissions and police consent I went to look for volunteers who would be willing to work with me in six hour shifts over the 24hour period. Having contacted the University of the West of England here in Bristol, I met a fantastic group of volunteers who are all studying for their Photography Degree at UWE. We were also lucky to graphic designer Eva Gilder and photographer Marco Cedrola on board who were also both very generous with their time and talent.
On the day of the shoot everything went as we had planned: Sarah’s set was a perfect fit for the location and with the help of our volunteers the photography element went extremely well with sitters being ushered into the set, having their picture taken, leaving their contact details and having conversation with us about what we are doing. When these conversation went a little further than the what and why of our project, we often had the chance to quite quickly learn a lot more about people’s life stories.
There was the humble and very likeable, animal rights campaigner who had been sentenced to 5 years’ imprisonment for conspiring against a multinational corporation and had only recently been released on probation.
The homeless lady who came to be photographed four times, drawn back each time to our pop-up living room:
” This is something I don’t have in my life…”.
From being antagonistic to begin with she grew quite fond of us and heartfelt warm words and embraces were exchanged in the end.
There was the white-haired old man who stopped to tell me about how he used to work just round the corner from here – born and bred in Bristol, he now lived the other side of town, the recovering addict on his way to rehab which he was so enthusiastic about, the graffiti artist who invited me to a secret interview who would only be photographed with his hood down, the two young men who had spend time behind bars and told us much about what life is like in prison
Thankfully other than drunken stupor and drug infused deliriums of the late, late night regulars we didn’t experience any of the dark side of the Croft and stayed safe. I do say though that the witching hour begins around 3am and ends at 6am. Trying to move on a group of hardcore drug users and alcoholics will remain forever an impossible task!
It was a great experience to see the street change as the hours went past. To see it as a very busy commuter street in the early hours, a relaxed communal walkway through-out the day, to meet the people who work there, those who return home in the evening, the ones that go out to party into the night and those who live there on the street hustling for money, food, drugs, attention and company.
I did enjoy the shoot very much, despite being tired for days after and look forward to editing all of the photographs over the Christmas holiday!
25. November 2017
At the beginning of October I had a shoot with Chloe Wykes with whom I had worked before in 2016.
Her and I had no particular plan but I knew that I wanted to shoot using daylight in my studio and photograph her against black. Chloe came with a quiet intend to give herself over to the direction of the photographer and so she created an atmosphere, where we both could look in earnest at ways to photograph her. Working with her was beautiful, because she was so attentive and willing to feel herself in the places that I found for her and I love the depth and honesty of the resulting photographs very much.
Chloe had also recently begun studying Japanese Butho dance and when I asked if we could also produce some video together she very naturally begun to perform. The soundtrack that was playing in my studio was a perfect blend of slow electronica and organic sounds – I wish I remembered what it was now!! – and when we started filming Chloe just gave herself over to the movement and the music. The resulting footage is stunningly beautiful and I really look forward to editing a little film from it.
Chloe has now left Bristol to keep on travelling but I do hope we will get the opportunity to work together again.
5. November 2017
Welcome to my blog.
Outside, cold winds and wet skies ring the bell for autumn and the winter ahead.
After sending off two of my photographs to be shown at Nude Nite, Miami, USA next weekend they arrived safe and well in the hands of the curator Juliana Davidson on 30. October. So far un-wrapped from their layers of bubble wrap and cardboard everything appears to be OK. I hope that is still OK when the box is opened and the framed photographs are taken out to be hung. Broken glass would be a sad sight. Fingers crossed…
Two weeks ago I had the honour of photographing my friend, inspirational person and poet extraordinaire Isadora Vibes for the cover of her poetry collection soak which is due to be published in 2018.
We arranged to shoot in her bathroom – in her bathtub to be precise and we were both mesmerised by the luminous images we created on the day. A single, steady light was fantastic – gifted by my friend Duncan Parker from Falcon Productions for the day. It sculpted Isadora’s features beautifully and bathed the scene in a glowing light that gives these photographs just the kind of radiance that is needed to introduce her powerful poetry…
I will also be releasing a video of Isadora re-citing one of her poems floating in a milk bath.
You can see more images from the set in the New Work section of my website.