One of the now-established motifs of lock-down is the way in which an appreciation for bird song became a thing. That I decided to start-up a blog-based, creative challenge for artists during the first lock-down is another COVID trope, which in common with rhapsodising about birdsong, baking banana bread and crayoning rainbows, will likely produce a collective shrug of indifference, as in, ‘You as well?’ and ‘So what?’
Sometimes, often, we don’t do things we feel we want to do, because we assume they’ve been done before and better. We have ideas, but don’t enact them, because we know, reasonably, that somebody, somewhere, is likely doing something like it too. We maybe think we cannot admit to the pleasure in discovering the sound of birdsong for ourselves because everyone else is already talking about it, or that our own joy at the trilling of a robin cannot be articulated valuably because other people have said all of it for us.
Back when I was teaching undergraduates, when all I really wanted for my students was for them to make their own work fearlessly, the hardest balance to be struck was between showing them the work of others, by way of inspiration, and freeing them from the work of others. So often, or so it seemed to me, the very act of contextualisation had a real and appreciable chilling effect on the ability of students to make the first mark on their drawing paper or type the first words of their scripts, or dare open their mouths to admit to the temerity of their own inchoate ideas.
Sitting at an old garden table in the small spare room of my house, my professional life unravelled following my decision to leave university teaching, and the world unravelling a bit too, picked apart by the pandemic, I took comfort from the black bird singing atop the telegraph pole at the end of our garden. I took inspiration too, from the bird’s directness. I don’t think for one minute this bird was worrying about all the other songs being sung elsewhere, or waiting for permission to sing, or worrying how his song compared with the songs of others, or how his song might be received or critiqued or contextualised or canonised. Neither was the blackbird waiting for the legitimacy of funding, or trying to be more or less of something else in order to qualify for it. The black bird was just singing, and our terraced street loved him for it and awaited his recitals with anticipation.
Keen to create stuff as straightforwardly, and likely because I was missing my students, I started The Kick-About – a blog-based fortnightly challenge in which creatives of all stripes make new work in response to a given prompt – a painting, or literary quote, or an image, practitioner, or concept. The guidelines are minimal, the prompts permissive, and the participants eclectic. Regular Kick-Abouters include painters, production designers, crocheters, animators, digital artists, sculptors, writers – and oh, also, my auntie, who has no formal art education at all, but wanted something fun to do.
At time of writing, the Kick-About has been running for sixty-four weeks, which means I’ve personally produced thirty-two new pieces of work, including short films, short stories, photographs, sculptures and drawings – and always quickly, always directly, and always shared, and always done with. There is always pleasure in being done with things. My fellow Kick-Abouters are as prolific, surprising themselves week-on-week, their confidences growing with each new challenge set, met and dispensed with. I think back to that difficult balancing act, between looking to the examples of others for inspiration, and looking away from them, and see how our Kick-About prompts inspire meaningful creative activity by offering up just the right mix of steer and risk.
A few weeks back, the prompt for the Kick-About was ‘Fundus Photography’, with fundus pertaining to categories of retinal photography. Challenged to respond to imagery that was both ‘of the human body’, but also suggestive of more galaxial realms, I set about inflating a latex glove with water and floating it in a goldfish bowl filled with water coloured with some old black ink cartridges I found at the back of a drawer. As I was assembling these ad-hoc components (only let’s call it ‘playing’, for that is what it was), I had no idea I would soon be making a short experimental film in collaboration with another artist, Deanna Crisbacher. As I was holding the latex glove under the tap, I had no guarantee (or indeed much hope), that my idea would come to anything at all. Importantly, I suppose, I didn’t care. I didn’t know then, as I turned the water black with squirrelled ink, that I was in the early stages of making a strange little film offering up expansive, cosmic impressions born from a combination of domestic objects. I didn’t know then I might be writing about this project, even going as far as drawing out from it some final conclusion about the transformative and transportive power of creativity, of making directly, of doing quickly, and the value of community.
But all of that comes later: next up, I add a hefty glug of cooking oil into the goldfish bowl, which sits on the surface of the black water like a scattering of coins. Then it’s out into the garden to explore the resulting set-up through photography, where I make happy use of the low afternoon sun, and all the while, perched on top of the telegraph pole at my back, a black bird, singing.
Phil Gomm is an award-winning writer, director and producer with over ten years’ experience in the successful design and delivery of creative education. A practising film-maker, photographer, blogger and educator, Phil is also director of Ding, a consultancy specialising in creative learning design.
Phil is always happy to welcome new people into the Kick-About community, and is very happy to hear from anyone who wants to participate: https://reds-kingdom.blog/contact/