Arrivals + Departures — a talk about the collaborative work of Davina Drummond and Yara El-Sherbini @ Artsadmin 12th September 2018
By Claire MacDonald who is is a writer, theatre artist and Unitarian minister.
‘We have fallen out of belonging. Consequently, when we stand before crucial thresholds in our lives, we have no rituals to protect, encourage and guide us as we cross over into the un-known. For such crossings, we need to find new words.’
John O’Donohue, Benedictus
Tonight, as we gather here at Artsadmin, Arrivals + Departures is an embryonic project and a collaborative art project between two women; a project on the threshold of becoming; a project at its most richly possible stage when all is to play for, drawing its strength from the tools that these two artists have already developed to make it. It is, at its most minimal, a pattern language, a proposal & a familiar image: a double board announcing arrivals and departures, in a station — a passed through, public place. Here we come and go anyway, each day, getting on and getting off, meeting, leaving, greeting, picking up and putting down, missing, losing & finding. Every day. A station is a place of temporary refuge, of before and after. It cannot be a home. We can sit, eat, put our heads down and rest even, but we cannot stay. We stand in between times, waiting for our turn. What we see in the mind’s eye of this proposal is not times of arrival and departure in this world but into and out of this world. We witness the double markers of the ends of existence, of births and deaths, held momentarily and then lost to time. Uncanny, this logical extension of travel-time into time-travel. The unfamiliar in the familiar.
Being born and dying are repeated acts, there is no end to them. As we sit here and listen the sound of the board keeps clacking. Listen hard and you will find it at the edge of consciousness. There it goes — turning, turning, all the time, the beating pulse of what it is to keep being in the everyday, which is the only place we have to share, to be born into, to leave from, to find joy, to be witnessed, to love, to grieve and to be remembered. To be born, to be announced, named, delivered even, into breathable air is to enter a finite state of being, to immediately have a point of horizon ahead, to be present to the other side of the board, departures.
The trick is to keep breathing The trick is not to get lost. The trick is just to be.
Here is a story.
It was almost Christmas about ten years ago, and I was back in London from America where I was living, for a short break. At Charing Cross I got on a train for Lewisham, where my sister lives, to go and see her. Late afternoon and the train was crowded – shoppers, kids, commuters. There was almost nowhere to sit but I found a spot a little way across from a person who no one wanted to sit near —a rough looking man: matted hair, shapeless mud-coloured jacket, white, early forties maybe, drinking lager from a can. Not clear if he was homeless or just down on his luck. I sat diagonally across from him, one set of seats away. Next stop another man gets on and – there being nowhere else to sit – has to sit opposite lager man. This man is very different — smart suit, several bags that look like gifts, and a mobile phone on which he makes a call as soon as he gets settled. He speaks fast, talks loudly and laughs during the call. As he speaks lager man listens intently. The man with the mobile phone is black and, from what I hear, I presume he is also African. The language he speaks, which is unintelligible to me, sounds so. I watch the two of them, intrigued. As the man in the suit puts the phone away, the other man leans forward and says to him, ‘That’s my language too’. Mobile phone man registers, but doesn’t respond. ‘It’s my first language’. No response. ‘My parents were missionaries’. Perhaps mobile phone man gives a slight nod I don’t remember – but I do remember the urgency, and the emotion in the other man’s voice, which was surprisingly clear and middle class.
The train slows. The man in the suit gets up and goes to the door, bags in hand. Now there’s a charge in the air. The rough looking man is still leaning forward intently and then suddenly he speaks, and he speaks not in English but in what is clearly the language of the phone call because the suited man snaps to attention, whips round and puts down his bags and, as the other rises and moves towards him, he steps forward and folds him into his arms in an embrace that brings tears to my eyes – and no one else appears to notice. And the embrace - if I could describe it, it was like ... a mother greeting her long lost son; brothers separated by war; the prodigal son. They laugh, they hug, they touch each other’s arms, they hold each other in a long handshake. And just as suddenly, it’s over. Train stops, the doors open. Mobile phone man picks up his bags and steps out. No phone numbers, no mobile numbers are exchanged.
I carry that story & have told it several times. It’s a story about loss, freedom, sadness, fleetingness, as well as colonialism and childhood — and because it is now a story long after the event, it hosts other stories, it is more than the sum of its parts. And it’s a story that resonates now with me about Arrivals & Departures — as if, in the strange spirit of serendipity, it has naturally found its way here. It’s a story about destiny, in the sense that our destiny is ‘the great project of trying to live together’ — as the former United Nations secretary Kofi Annan, who died just this week, said.
I told that story last November at the opening of Durham Lumiere, organised from here at Toynbee Hall, by Artichoke, as part of a talk on where we are headed, on what’s left to believe in. At that event I talked about two people who have influenced my own thinking about how we engage with the times in which we live: philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah and theologian Ivan Illich. I said that they had taught me about two things.
In 1973 the Jesuit theologian and social thinker Ivan Illich coined the term ‘tools for conviviality’. Actually he wrote a whole book called Tools for Conviviality and what he was writing about was the difference between tools that allow our humanity and our autonomy to flourish, and tools that lay waste to the world. Convivial tools are those tools that work without power or dehumanizing one another. Tools need to be repairable and durable and widely usable, robust, simple, environmentally friendly and they might be soft tools, such as conversation or collaborative social art practices — as well as bicycles for instance.
The poet and philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah taught me about conversation, which he claims as one of the most important tools we have — (You may remember he gave the Reith lectures in 2016 on faith and ethics), and it may be one of the best tools we have in ‘the great project of trying to live together’. He says that, like conviviality, the etymological roots of conversation lie in ‘living together’, dealing with one another, conducting ourselves. When I say that A&D is conversational this is what I mean. Not that it gets us to talk, but that it engages with the project of what it means to be here. It places itself on the horizon of being in a deeply everyday, ordinary way. A board, an announcement, a matter of life and death, and yet we know how hard it is to know that we are here, that our times are finite, limited, our times, and to be glad of them, as the poet Helen Dunmore put it in one of her last poems, to know them and to engage with the deep, definite knowledge that we cannot stay.
One of the people who spoke after me at Durham was Sue Gill, with her partner John Fox one of the two founders of Welfare State, the definitive theatre collective/carnival band/troupe now resident in Cumbria, but birthed in Leeds in the 1970s. Sue spoke movingly to the words by John O’Donohue with which I began this talk, not that she knew those words, and not that she would ever consider herself a religious woman, even though she is deeply spiritual. Sue creates new rituals for life and death, what we might call rites of passage, and for her the artist has always been a kind of mover, a way-maker whose job is to open up places where what it means to be human, in sorrow, in joy in loss, can be acknowledged. The artist embodies something like being a walker, or a teller, a midwife, a conductor, a medium, a facilitator.
We live in dangerous times. Ok, it has always been so, but these are our dangerous times, the world will never be like this again and we are the only people in it. And we have to navigate our dangerous times, somehow. We have no choice. In order to navigate we need to tools and we also need the pilots, or midwives, or ministers, or conductors, or mediums, or technicians — all of which apply to what artists do — to find the way. Not necessarily to lead us and certainly not to tell us what to do, or how to be better, or more expert, for now, at least, we have lost faith with all that. A midwife, or a minister, or an artist, is not a leader, or a politician, but a maker of the way across the moving edge of being, that unstable wave on which we dwell (or try to). Since we know we cannot stay, we keep having to move. As a minister and an artist and writer I think I am supposed to have a place closer to the edge of that wave, at least to be able to look over it, or even acknowledge that it is there instead of thinking that the wasteful, wet, dirty encampment we have made is safe and warm and stable.
Our times are our times and in our times what artists are required to do is to listen and take note, and to invite us to listen and take note; to invite us to engage with one another in the light and dark of what it means to be here. Getting used to one another through imaginative engagement with the presence and being of others may be critical in this world where so many are strangers to one another, and where who belongs and who doesn’t is a critical question. Conversation does imaginative work. Conversation takes place on the horizon between what we know and what we don’t. It may in its way be a sacred act. It is at least an act of hope.
It needs faith to sustain hope. The sort of faith that the American activist and writer on the environment Rebecca Solnit talks of when she says us that hope is not a menu you order off of. She talks about hope in relation to the recent protests against the oil pipeline planned at the Standing Rock Native American reservation in North Dakota, saying that even if the pipeline is built, it does not diminish the great accomplishment made by people reviving what it means to stand and work together, saying ‘You know what you do, but you don’t know what you do does.’
So an artistic act is an act of faith in what we can be here now in this everyday world in which the tools we have to make the art we need are the tools we have to get from place to place. Faith that it is worth it, faith that what is at stake is that we all matter. Faith that it will enable, that it will make a shared world better. Faith is a thing with feathers, to paraphrase what the poet Emily Dickenson said of hope. It’s our temporary refuge, our swinging perch, our unstable home. It’s where we fold our wings and get ready to fly.