A few months ago I was travelling back from Manchester with friends after seeing a show, realising that the last three small-scale/ experimental/ emerging artist performance pieces we had seen had grandparents at the centre of their narrative. The writers’ grandparents. Or somebody’s grandparents. Probably fictional ones. We’d just Seen Dancing With The Orange Dog by the 154 Collective at the Lowry and the week before Some Small Love Story and Beulah, a musical double bill by the Hartshorn-Hook Collective. Engaging shows all of them, these are by theatre artists a good deal younger than us, probably early 30’s. And all starting with the whimsical and affectionate portrayal of a grandparent. “What’s with all the Grandpa theatre?” we exclaimed as we hurtled homewards along the M62 “What’s going on?”
There have always been current common themes in art and performance, and I suppose one assumes that as artists see each others’ work they are at least subliminally influenced by it. Not exactly copycat art, but grabbing themes that seem to be out there in the galleries and theatres and studios and seeing where one’s own creative zephyr takes it. But maybe it’s more complicated than that.
The other thing I’ve been doing is taking part in ‘Visual Matrices’ as a research activity. The Visual Matrix has evolved from the concept of Social Dreaming, which emerged in the UK in the 1980’s at the Tavistock Institute and was at the same time being developed experimentally in many countries across the world. It is a process or technique which uses the sharing of dreams as a way to cast light on the common unconscious which flows under communities, institutions and groups, and ‘ makes manifest the infinite knowing that is present in these systems’ (Lawrence, Gordon W. (2005) ‘The history of social dreaming’ P 1.). It is also astonishing that an approach which, when described, quickly starts to sound like lines from an early Star Trek script (the sort that William Shatner could deliver so brilliantly with no hint of irony and only the lightest touch of ham), has also found a place in the corporate-commercial world as a way of gaining deep knowledge about organisational dynamics and development. It tells what is going on in the life of the group below the surface. In fact, before it was given the title Social Dreaming, a doctor in Nazi Germany gathered a lot of dreams from patients, and those of colleagues, and found that these revealed not a connection between the individual and the dream as Freud and Jung would interpret them, but a common disturbance in social and political spheres under a regime which controlled their thinking.
The Visual Matrix extends the concept of dreaming into the summoning of waking images, associations, memories and thoughts which are described to the group during an intensive shared and bounded period. So when you’re in the matrix (yes, I did quickly have to banish images of Keanu Reaves slo-mo somersaulting towards me from initial verbal associations I was tempted to share. That was probably me not taking it entirely seriously at first, which I blame in part on my colleague who kept writing facetious comments in my shared diary entries for these events. But I soon got drawn in for real) you literally share whatever floats to the surface. These Visual Matrices, developed by the University of Central Lancashire’s Psycho Social Research team, are starting to be used as a way to gauge what is happening in the collective unconscious of groups they are working with in socially engaged art projects to tackle issues such as addiction and recovery and community cohesion.
Now my experience of the Visual Matrix has been with mixed groups of participants primarily from academia and social work. The first session seemed to throw up spacemen, David Bowie, childhood cartoon characters as common themes. The second session surfaced a lot about gardens, indoor and outdoor space, decapitation and embodiment. One participant told us she had once dreamed she was an orange. She had quite enjoyed it. Somebody else dreamed they were Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. I became aware by the second session that for those who have not been in a Visual Matrix before, the process can feel quite alien and strange, challenging and uncomfortable for those who are used to working with more conventionally empirical approaches. Less so for me. The realisation dawned that, as a producer who works creatively with artists, the process felt quite like the early stages of collaborative idea development, when artists contribute seemingly random thoughts, or those which are stimulated by others’ contributions. There was something about the Matrix which felt familiar.
I’m currently working with a group of artists on a project about the notion of archive particularly relating to the body of artistic work delivered in 2012 as part of the Imove programme. We have had several sessions where ideas have emerged across four artists – a film-maker, a writer, a musician and a theatre director – to start to shape the themes of the piece. We are firmly in the theme of water and the sea ; the seaside – postcards, donkeys, deckchairs, sandcastles ; in themes of memory, forgetting, remembering, the body as archive.
A couple of weeks ago I participated in my third Visual Matrix. It was preceded by a somatic movement workshop which stimulated body and kinetic awareness and a heightened physical exploration of stillness – initially – which developed into embodiment and movement (I’m aware that this is starting to sound quite Twilight Zone, but because this is a physical way of knowing, its verbal manifestations can be as imprecise and dense as somebody trying to explain the Rules of Cricket through the medium of contemporary dance). The effect of this seemed to be a more uninhibited mode of association and loosening of the retrieval of images and memories – so that when we got into the matrix these surfaced more readily and from deeper places.
Among the themes that came through that session were water, the sea, seaside, memory and grandparents. This felt spooky. I thought about the possible explanations, the first that came to mind being the auto-reticular activation theory – you know that thing when you’re thinking of buying a certain model of car, say a Skoda Octavia and suddenly you notice how many Skoda Octavias there are on the road ? Maybe because the theme of our emergent piece was sea and memory and because of the Grandpa theatre conversation a few weeks back, those were the themes I’d noticed in the matrix ? But no, in the ‘debrief’ session which takes place after the matrix, the others confirmed that these themes had indeed been prominent. This led to further questions : what does our recurrent sea imagery tell us, and why did we all have a beach memory or image to share ? Why is the uncomplicated and reverenced view of our grandparents definitely not the same way we would describe our relation to our parents? What do grandparents represent in our shared narrative ?
I was reminded of this last, unanswered question last week, travelling home again, this time from Anglesey after seeing the excellent Hoipolloi’s Things I Forgot I Remembered, commissioned with National Theatre of Wales – a solo performance by the alter-ego of Shon Dale-Jones, fictional ‘emerging artist’ Hugh Hughes. At the centre of Hughes’ storytelling acrobatics, which took us from his house in Llangefni to a hotel room in London and a trip to a distant planet, is Hughes’ ‘Nain’, which is what Welsh people call their Granny. Nain is narrated as the authentic centre of wisdom and love, innocence and untroubled childhood happiness – but also as the font of deep learning the child-man takes forward into adulthood. I had a longer car journey to ponder the wider meaning of Grandparent theatre, and the wider ideas connected with the show : local roots, characters and histories and how we connect our sense of place and origin to our inter-actions with the world beyond and global challenges. In common with a number of shows I saw at Edinburgh last year, it gently but persuasively recruits the audience on the Quest for the Better Self.
I turned over a few theories about this, ranging from the scientific theory that proposes grandparents as one of the top evolutionary reasons for the success of the human race (if you can call it success, the fruit flies could have the last laugh there) to recent reports showing how our parents – or rather the parents of these thirty somethings – belong to the ‘never had it so good’ generation , whereas grandparents represent an earlier age of sacrifice, austerity, salt-of-the-earth community spirit. Whatever the answer is, if indeed it exists, the more interesting thought I came up with, and one which I feel more confident proposing, is that when artists make work on convergent themes they do it not through a process of influence or imitation, but through mining a deeper seam of common consciousness. Whatever the reasons for our yearning for memory, for grandparents, for the seaside and, who knows, maybe for a primordial pre-mammalian water-based state, artists work through a form of visual matrix to express and explore the shared disruptions, complexes and longings of our communities. They always have, long before our every thought and image was out there on the internet and Wikipedia and iTunes and Youtube and facebook and Twitter and blogs like this. And maybe those are the very reasons that our pre-digital forbears are so much in our subconscious and our theatres.
Artists are the real Social Dreamers. Discuss.