‘So, what exactly was this project of yours about? You’ve not told me.’
He still looks bored. I don’t really want to go into it. He’ll only trash it. He knows I was at Art College, but I haven’t told him anything else.
But then I think – I should be proud of what I did. I shouldn’t allow myself to be put down by this wanker.
‘It was a video project’ I tell him.
‘Ah’ he says, nodding, as if he might have known. I look at him. I know what he’s thinking – all those pretentious ‘installations’ – a never ending loop of ‘The Artist’ tying his shoe laces titled “Pedestrian Bondage” or some such. I don’t have a problem with it. I’ve done equally silly things, but I’m a bit of a traditionalist. I actually caught myself once in the refectory very earnestly saying “but is it art?” I passed the comment off as ironic – post modern, but really, I meant it. I mean, Conceptual Art – it’s fun – you wake up one morning and say “Ooh wouldn’t that be an interesting thing to do?” Fun ideas, clever ideas, scary ideas, ideas that make you go “That’s bloody weird”. It’s creative, it’s interesting, but I’m not sure it’s art. I believe in craftsmanship. I guess it’s my proletarian roots showing through.
At that time I was working mostly in silk-screen – doing some gritty social realist things - lots of red and black, stars and hammers. I don’t know. It wasn’t really me. I was into nature – Piper, Craxton, Sutherland, but at the time you couldn’t get away with being that ‘literal’, or “parochial”, or “romantic”, so gritty realism it was. I took the time to mess about with ‘mixed media’ and ‘found objects’, and go out a lot and do student stuff. I remember one of the pieces I got especially good responses for was particularly ludicrous, and it was literally gritty. We had this idea late one night at a friend’s place that we wouldn’t need to vacuum the lounge if we just got an enormous roll of sticky tape, covered the entire carpet in it, and pulled all the crap off in one go. Then we got onto talking about what that would look like – a record of everything we’d done in that room over the last two years, impregnated into the carpet, then sealed forever in polythene.
To cut a long story short, I went out and bought industrial quantities of clear sticky-back plastic, and spent a weekend when everyone was away, moving the furniture around, getting a cast of their entire living room floor. (I would have done my place but I wasn’t really messy enough.) It was amazing what I found, although I cheated a bit - the condom hadn’t been there, and I replaced the spliff butts with cigarette ends, but the soiled knickers and the Smiths LP were authentic. It was enormous. I took it out in the back yard, turned it over, and had to buy another job lot of sticky-back plastic to seal the other side. It was pretty disgusting actually so I bought carpet tape to seal the edges – otherwise I think it would have been a serious health hazard. I called it ‘Floor – Laminated’ and I got a first for it. Well it’s not something I want to boast about, but it was quite impressive in its way. The carpet was quite clean too afterwards.
‘I started doing videos after I finished my degree’ I tell him.
‘What grade did you receive for your degree?’
‘A 2.1’ (Who bloody cares what grade I got?) ‘Anyway, my elder sister, Justine, used to take me to Brighton Aquarium sometimes when I was a kid...’ I can see he’s bored already. I press on anyway. ‘I really liked the way they made these underwater scenes, in these huge tanks, big as a room, and really murky and mysterious with these huge grey and green fish looming out of the gloom at you – claustrophobic too – because you could tell the scenery was all fibreglass and stuff, and you could see pipes and so on, and there were the fish just moving about aimlessly.’
‘Fascinating’ he says, almost supine in his chair. I pause. I want to go over and smack him.
‘So, basically’ I go on, ‘you’re in this dark, damp tunnel, smelling of the sea, with light just from these chambers filled with sea water, full of these mindless, dead eyed...’ My imagery gives out. I decide to give up trying to interest him in 1970s public aquaria and move on.
‘So I started making these fish tanks – basically boxes, made of card or wood originally, but later I used old cupboards, TVs, fridges...’
‘Once a whole room, for my degree show.’ He nods, satisfied that he is, of course, way ahead. ‘I used a whole load of found stuff to make the exhibits. They started off quite literal, trying to get the gloomy underwater effect of the real thing...’
‘Then it got more surreal – I started using other stuff that reminded me of the sea. Weird stuff, trying to make it look claustrophobic and strangely lit inside.’
‘But it did not really go according to plan?’
‘Well, no. I mean, people liked them – I even sold a few small ones but they ended up being a bit too tasteful really. I wanted them to be spookier. A bit disturbing, but they weren’t. I couldn’t get the light right. I tried using real fish tanks, with real fish for a while.’
‘Really?’ He seems troubled by this. Is he an animal rights nut?
‘Well, it’s like, most people’s fish tanks you see in their living rooms are really tacky, you know, all brightly lit with those pink grow lights, and plants and fish all colourful, when, for me, the thing about being underwater is the light, that wobbly effect you get on the river bed from the ripples on the surface, and the algae on the stones, and the community of fish and other things moving about down there, usually just a few kinds, but maybe lots of them – do you have any idea what I mean?’ I’m beginning to lose patience. He’s sitting there inert, looking at me quizzically.
‘I do’ he says. ‘You wanted people to understand what it means to be under water, instead of just looking at a glass box with a collection of fish in it. I know exactly what you mean. Please continue, it is very interesting for me.’
I’m not at all sure now whether he’s taking the piss or not. ‘Ok, well, it didn’t really work.’ He nods – he saw that coming. ‘Keeping fish properly is quite complicated – you can’t just bung it all in a tank and expect it to do what you want. The system takes time to mature, and you have to get the mix right or they fight, or eat each other and it’s expensive, plus I was renting a room... It needed to be done properly to work, so... I gave that up, but I did have this idea, about using video.’ I pause for effect. I want him to get this. This is The Big Idea. ‘Video technology was really getting going about then. I had this idea about setting up a TV camera on the seabed, sending a constant stream of live images to projectors or screens in a gallery, so it would be like a living aquarium.’
‘Ok...’ he says. Finally, he looks interested.
‘Then I thought, what if you have four cameras, facing four ways, and four screens? A whole room could become a giant aquarium, you could walk into, or maybe six cameras, one up, one down as well, like in a watertight ball, suspended under a buoy? Or, why not feed the images to screens in place of windows in a room, so it looks like the room is under water? Affordable flat screens and digital video technology was on the horizon about then, and I got quite excited about it. I saw it as a way ordinary people could really get to grips with what was going on in the environment without having to cage actual marine animals.’
He nods ‘Why not?’
‘Then I thought, why just underwater? What about rain forests? Antarctica? What about a village in Africa, or Papua New Guinea, or New York? People could see it all. Plus the technology would be easier to install on land, so a lot cheaper – assuming you could stop the locals nicking it. So we got some sponsorship money and did a pilot project on Brighton Station. We made...’
‘I got some guys from Friends of the Earth to help out. We made a sort of marquee in there using old parachute silk and projected live images from a patch of ancient woodland that was threatened by road building.’
‘How did it go?’
‘Well, the rail people weren’t too chuffed about Friends of the Earth being involved, but we got good publicity.’
‘But it worked?’
‘The silk was hard to get flat enough, and there were problems with the amount of light it needed to be really convincing, but yes, you went inside, and, it felt quite convincing. We had live sound feed too of course, which helped. I mean, not much happens in an English woodland a lot of the time, but we had people spending the night in there, chilling out, watching – there were badgers, a deer once.’
‘And that led on to other things’
‘I actually had commercial interest, but I went for a post-grad scheme, supervised by someone who was already working in digital video.’
‘Quite impressive’ he says, and he does look impressed, finally. ‘See? I did have something’ I want to say, sneering and possibly poking my tongue out.
‘I think it finally hit me – all those years, up in my room, every day, thinking I was just doing my own thing and suddenly, whump! Some recognition, maybe even a career. I couldn’t believe it.’
‘You couldn’t believe that what you had always been striving for all those years might actually be recognised as important.’
‘How did your family react?’
‘Oh, well... I don’t think they really understood to be honest, well, my sisters came to my show. They thought it was wonderful, but mum and dad I think found it all a bit scary – you know, some of the other’s stuff was a bit, you know, “challenging” if you know what I mean.’
‘So they never went.’
‘It was ok. I understood.’
He looks at his papers but doesn’t appear to be reading. He looks distracted and irritated actually.
‘So you began this post-graduate project. What did that involve?’
‘Oh, well, loads of stuff – actually getting the thing to work properly for one thing, finding sites and doing some trial runs in the UK, approaching various NGOs to see if they’d be interested in funding it...’
‘And you worked well with your supervisor?’
‘I thought so at first. It was a woman for a start, so I thought she wouldn’t be as hard-headed as a man, more receptive, less egotistical ...’
‘Something like that. Anyhow, she just took over. It just ended up being her project and I was just doing the stuff she didn’t have time for, plus, she wanted me to do all the IT and electrical stuff, which I wasn’t interested in, or at least, I knew there’d be some, inevitably, but I wanted to be in on the creative side too. The first installation we were aiming for was to do a market place in Sierra Leone, because she had contacts, and get publicity for one of the aid charities out there, by showing what it was really like to live there, day to day. I was all set to go out there and work with them, which I must confess, was a major bonus for me. It would have been a fantastic thing to be involved in...’
‘But it never happened.’
‘No, she went instead. She was pissed off that I wasn’t doing as I was told. I was bogged down in electronics and writing up. I was just a technician in the end.’
‘So you gave up.’
‘I did. I took her down with me though.’ I stop and think about that for a moment. It feels like such a defeat but I still can’t imagine how I could have gone on with it, with her. ‘I screwed her project when she lost my funding, but she deserved it. God she was horrible. She had this thing that she was sassy and ambitious and everyone else was just jealous, but actually she was just stroppy and obnoxious and everyone loathed her.’
He looks at me with that ironic gallic expression of his – the one that tells me he thinks he has a more informed opinion on the matter, probably, than I do, but that he’s going to keep it to himself because he can’t be bothered to get into an argument with me. I know what he wants to say anyway. He wants to point out, as almost everyone I tried to explain this to did, that as a woman she would have had a very hard time getting to where she did and perhaps that explains her attitude and I should have had more sympathy.
To which I reply ‘Well boo hoo. My heart bleeds. I wasn’t the one who gave you a hard time. Don’t take it out on me. Bitch’ or words to that effect.
‘She just thought if she pushed hard enough eventually I’d just buckle under...’ I take a deep breath and look across at him.
‘But you were already half way through?’
‘Oh it had been wrong for months. I held on as long as I could but it just got worse. Then, when she said she was going to Sierra Leone without me I flipped.’
‘Did a bit of yelling at her, lodged a formal complaint with the college and the funding body and walked out.’
We sit in silence for a while. I can see blue sky outside, and hear music from the lounge.
‘I just felt so tired of it all.’
‘What did you do then?’
‘Went to Spain, taught English for a bit...’
‘Forgot about it?’
‘No. Oh look I know, it was partly my own fault. I’ve never been any good at doing as I’m told. I just knew I could do it my way and make it work, and she just wouldn’t let me. Had to have it her way. Had to take over, interfere...’ I sit and brood on the memory for a while. He sits and nods. It occurs to me now that he knows exactly what I’m talking about.
‘It could have been fantastic’ I say.
‘I don’t doubt it’ he says. It occurs to me that he doesn’t look bored at all. He just looks very weary.
‘Some things are hard’ he says quietly. ‘Things take time.’
So I should just shut up and get on with it like everyone else – is that what he’s saying? Just stop making such a fuss and grow up?
No that’s not what he means. I leave, confused.