Wednesday, 16 November 2016

A Better Understanding of Place // Clara Casian

Everyone remembers where they were the night of the Great Manchester Storm. While hipsters floated down Market Street on boats made from the anoraks from Primark and lightning danced over Prestwich, a bedraggled couple could be found sheltering in the Manchester Central Library cafe, hands cosseting cardboard cups of coffee as pools of water form under my elbows.

It had taken some time for me to get this encounter scheduled*,
and we were still uncertain about the best way to do the interview; daytime or evening? Should we meet in a cafe? We decided I’d head to Rogue Studios** where Clara has a base and take things from there. I was still a bit vague on the extent of Clara’s work, and the project for this evening was to explore what this might even mean. Clara has been based in Manchester a number of years now, studying and post graduation, and has stayed to explore her work. The first piece I wanted to examine was a film taking a snapshot of a particular story, as she says to “trace a bit of history from Manchester,” piecing together aspects of alternative publishing and censorship in the 1970s through the history of Savoy Books, while also being a reflection on the changing landscape of the city through other bookshops, such as Paramount Books.

The project came about through a commission by
The Life and Use of Books in collaboration with the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, who asked seven artists to each pick one from a series of seven publications. Clara close Corridor No 2, “a small press magazine, a nice mix of text and image, experimental, born from a time when people could print stuff in their own bedroom. This publication was the first that encountered problems with the censors, caused by a naughty picture on the cover by Bob Jenkins, and a text by Paul Buck “A Cunt Not Fit For the Queen”. In exploring a small incident like that it seems to be part of “a small war going on, as I started finding more, a set of ramifications unravelled that spoke of the raids that happened alongside other censorship stories. Not being from Manchester and knocking on doors, it’s really interesting discovering an unknown facet of Manchester, and whilst researching I’ve discovered so much material, I felt there was potential for a much bigger work.” And so opportunity came for a longer piece. 

“The extended version of the short film will be based on the testimonies and anecdotes of the people involved in the publishing scene to offer an understanding of the place in that time, adapting the concept of censorship to the small publishing house and its feud with James Anderton, the police commissioner.” It starts to sound a bit like a gritty thriller, but for Clara it’s about “bringing things from the past into the present. Since the 1990s everything has been open, so I’m looking at the context behind the Savoy Books and their publishing content which was provocative and obscene.” She was struck by the very direct nature of the work; a point she says was brought out when she interviewed Michael Butterworth – the combining of high and low culture, understanding the work meant “an adversity to the system, but an innocence as well. There was lots of reading involved, I traced back the material, archival footage from contributors, to understand where they’re coming from.”

“I have tapes and other obsolete material alongside new material I’ve shot with interviews that retrace things from the past and throw light on how things have changed and where the anger comes from.”

Clara talks about her film on Chernobyl in similar terms. “It’s an experimental montage of archival footage with testimonies of those cleaning the contaminated site.” There’s the apocryphal story of the amusement park being opened during the crisis to provide a distraction for the people, “the whole story of fact and fiction, whether the park was open before the due date, you can’t prove it was a distraction. It starts like this and unravels with scenes of the Pripyat town being built in the 70’s, and ends on a fictional note, leading from the concept of half-life, the thirty years needed to reach a safe level before people are safe to return back to the environment with the new dream of building a new town. It’s not a political piece, necessarily. I’m an observer, there’s multiple perspectives, interviews with scientists and witnesses, and archive footage. I try not to fetishize.”

The storm arrives with the comforting sense of turning on a warm shower. Heavy drops as we walk from Rogue Studios with distant ominous thunder. It wasn’t forecast, no one is prepared, it would be no use anyway. Our plan is to head to Granada where Clara has an editing suite which she shares with the composer Robin Richards with whom she is collaborating on
Birdsong – Stories from Pripyat, and maybe we’ll find somewhere to talk on the way, so we have to get off at Saint Peter’s Square. At that point there is no shelter from the rain and the only place we can retreat to is the Central Library. In the few metres dash not even my socks have survived. Clara is still not sure whether a trip to the studio is even interesting, except for my personal curiosity. Maybe she’s worried about setting up expectations, maybe it’s a reluctance to drag me out of my way, maybe it’s uncertainty about whether we could have a good conversation there. We’re under cover here, at least. They do coffee. We’ll stay here.

Each of these projects share an underpinning that Clara is careful to be clear about. She chooses her words thoughtfully, there is a line of enquiry that she wants to lead me through. There’s the link through the use of archival footage, and her desire to re-contextualise, and play fact and fiction off each other. In a recent project she was invited by Lauren Velvick to respond to the work of
Christopher Joseph Holme who was trained as an artist and later diagnosed with schizophrenia. “It’s thinking about the concept of outsider art and how his illness affected his career”. Finding her way through the work “I picked, there was so much material. The family saved most of the paintings. He had great support from the family.” Between the five artists engaged on the project they chose the work that interested them which was taken to a space. “I was particularly taken by a folder of charcoal drawings of faces of patients and staff that Chris drew whilst he was hospitalised in Preston at Sharoe Green, their anonymous faces really grabbed me. Then I interviewed the family and asked a psychiatrist to give a diagnosis of Chris’ illness based on his paintings and drawings.” These works link with Clara’s previous practice which involved video performance among other mediums “I became interested in space and mapping. Doing the performance tracing shadows, that lead me to thinking about place and time, and research around the ecology of space, it all unravelled organically.”

We’re secure in the library, like a capsule protecting us from even the knowledge of what’s outside, the havoc being wrought and the international fame that Manchester storm is generating. Clara’s quiet intensity as she works out her answers and how she can best explain what interests her and how she works. “I don’t mind jumping from one thing to another, they feed off each other, and I don’t work in a linear way. Approach and interest are the same.”

“I don’t like it to float, suspended. My work it’s rooted around historical research, archival footage which leads to different references. I’m still working on methodologies of working with archival footage, I’ve not finished exploring that yet, I want to make more work around it.” That work is broad in its reach by engaging with the details of the stories that Clara engages with. The images of Paramount Books and the changes of the Savoy bookshops in Manchester through the years places the viewer very carefully in a particular story, while the way the work of Christopher Joseph Holme is seen in relation to the family and the environment engages and provokes the viewer; this is not a dispassionate response. “It becomes specific with subject, I am interested in personal histories. When looking at the Chernobyl project for example, I look at the political through personal lens through the stories and testimonies on the incident. My work has an anthropological approach. In an interview I did with Michael Buttterworth, he talked about history and politics but I was interested in capturing these thoughts from a personal angle."

The rain has eased off when we finish talking and Clara asks if I want to see her space at Granada where she is working on the Chernobyl project. We’re still wet anyway, and having crossed the city it feels like a natural part of the night to explore where the latest project is taking shape. Its long empty corridors and anonymous doors to the small studio she shares with the composer. It’s just about large enough for the pair of them, not luxurious but practical and I can well imagine the lack of distraction and comfort encourages a work ethic for those parts of the project that are perhaps more solitary, that perhaps require more discipline. But Clara is keen to get going, and once she has seen me safely out of the building she will get back to work picking apart and piecing together the latest edit.

I wonder how the people she talks to reassess their stories through the conversations. “I couldn’t say if it changes their perspectives. I’m curious. In the research for the Savoy film, I enjoy taking the city by foot, knocking on doors and talking to people. It has an investigative quality and I’m surprised by how many layers it unravels.” Sometimes it feels like it could be disruptive, and her subjects are explored in ways they may not have experienced before, so when interviewing Paul Smith from Paramount Books “I had to ask him to turn off the background music as it was impeding on the filming, he’d not turned it off in thirty years since the shop’s been open.” She’s pleased that the results speak for themselves. “I am as passionate with the Chernobyl project, I get more and more physical with the research process.” Clara didn’t have long to get the material together, she only had two days in Chernobyl, three days in Kiev,. “It’s hard to be exact, things went pear-shaped at times, I used relationships I formed before we did the trip and that eased our stay there. I wish I could have stayed longer in the zone as that might’ve helped getting a better sense of the place.

It was a powerful atmosphere that pervades the area, that seems like a Cold War hangover. “You were very aware of the paranoia surrounding the threat of radiation; couldn’t see it, couldn’t touch it, but the fear and paranoia that was emanating was making the invisible more tactile.” This comes through for Clara in the way she edits and the way she integrates the testimony, and how the two are refined. She’s enthused for the results of this work on Chernobyl; as it engages with how you deal with trauma, “not how you get over it but how you live with it. I’m really excited to see it.”

On the train home, the rain has stopped and I watch the lightning dancing over Prestwich.
*  as long as getting time to type it up - it's now Wednesday 2 November.
**  the site of a previous achievement of mine***, and I was glad to seethe place again.
***  the first oxo conference, with Did He Pushed Or Was He Fell.


conversation with Clara Casian took place at Manchester Central Library cafĂ© on Tuesday 13 September 2016 from 6:00pm // @ClaraCasian  //  

Clara was recommended by Natalie Bradbury.  She in turn recommended Sam Meech.


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