School Of The Damned,
Merz Barn residency, Cumbria – Part One

Space, Image, Exile action shot, courtesy School Of The Damned.

School Of The Damned (SOTD) is a year-long alternative art course directed by its students. It was founded as a reaction to the increasing financialisation of higher education. The school is constantly redefined by the motives of its students.

The following discussion was conducted via email by James Schofield, Corridor8, and the Class of 2018 as a follow up to the recent SOTD residency at the Merz Barn, Cumbria. The format was chosen to allow any of the peer group to contribute if they wished. Participants include Natasha Cox [NC], Sean Roy Parker [SRP], Laurence Price [LP], Lewis Prosser [LPR], Helena Kate Whittingham [HKW] and Emily Woolley [EW].

[JS] So firstly, how did the group find the residency? Was it intended to be productive in terms of developing works with a tangible outcome, or was it more of a chance to spend time together as a peer group in a new location/situation without any pressure of having to create anything?

[HKW] I think that Merz Barn actually contacted us, Tash and Laurence took the lead on organising it which was great. It often works in this way with SOTD and this year we have a lot of trust. Others can pick up the slack to keep momentum. We stayed for 5 days in total with a few of us coming and going at different times. For me, it was really great to have a base. We work remotely usually (using apps like Slack, group email) so it’s always great to have contact time. We had some group activities, walking… for a very long time…haha!

Some of us set *optional* tasks such as 1 minute videos, finding your animal, silent walks etc. It was really a time for us to make work separately and/or collaboratively too. The thing that was really great though was taking time to cook for each other. With peer-led learning, cooking as a unifying device is really grounding and important to us. I think we’re going to launch a recipe book…

[LP] Hey JS! Tash (Cox) and I prepared a loosely planned programme for the residency to be centred around slowness and the rural. We titled the residency’s programme; ‘Space, Image, Exile’ taken from the name of a book on Kurt Schwitters by Megan R. Luke looking at the wandering Merzbau. We had something every day to keep the momentum of the residency together; be it film screenings, the (long) walk, and collaborative actions including deep mapping the barn and deep listening up in the mountains. Like Helena says, the residency was centred around cooking, so people signed up for each meal, but the washing up and setting up was just as important to the morale and success of each meal.

[SRP] I think I was planning to make tangible work, riffing off the incredible surroundings and materials, but like Helena said, the contact time we ended up sharing was really productive for more immaterial work; extreme slow walks, foraging, encountering the barn, building a fire. I also agree with Laurence that cooking together was a central part of our shared experience and definitely kept the morale high.

[JS] That sounds good, I guess for SOTD it’s a real endorsement having people and places approach you to take part in projects as a collective group rather than just individually. Did you set the activities beforehand or were they all decided on as you went along depending on who was there? Following on from it do you all feel that the chance to just be together as a group for a sustained period in a residency is something that you’d like to do on a more regular basis?

I always think cooking for others (particularly artists) is a beautifully simple but really personal performative gesture. Removed from the ‘usual’ artistic practice where generally there aren’t the really finite deadlines involved in cooking, forces the creation of an end product in some capacity that will always gestate into further social interactions. There’s a really good article (Studio Snoop) in Art Licks with Nora Silva talking about her relationship with cooking as a medium. Could the year group see itself releasing a recipe book as the culmination of the year? Abandon the previous end of year show models, and go off-piste with a publication?

(Also, were your animals not all just roosters?!)

[HKW] Yes I think were very lucky in that respect. I think SOTD has quite a strong legacy and traction already, which makes it quite easy for us to get stuff haha.  Some activities were set already and some were made there.

[NC] The ‘finding your animal workshop’ was actually created by Anna Halprin, a dancer based in California, just up from San Fran. She pushed movement into a revolutionary new direction and used dance as a way to heal and bring communities together. I visited that part of the world a few years ago and heard about her. The drawings she makes, like scores for movement, are also beautiful. For this loose programme at the Merz, Laurence and I were looking for ways to almost speed up the process of letting go of the pressure that city living creates. I suppose we were interested in artists’ works and practice that happen outside of large towns and cities.

We were really lucky to be gifted Adam Chodzko’s film Plan For A Spell (2001) by Adam himself, with the help of Mike and Polly at Film and Video Umbrella. Images and sound in this work are archival and come from across rural Britain. They are encoded on the DVD, which means each time it’s played the sequence combines these elements randomly and infinitely, and a new ‘spell’ is created! This set quite a nice backdrop for group working. We showed it in one of the outhouses on site that had its own wood-burning stove, which was really great. I think I watched it for about two hours!!

We also did quite a few writing workshops and readings together. It was about freeing up ideas and trying to no worry so much about a final ‘thing’. So very much process driven.

[LP] It was also very important for us as a group that we followed through with our labour exchange, which meant that half the school was out logging in the forest, collecting the brash and making a massive bonfire or chopping up wood. We also contributed to the much-needed daily sheep herding, which is important to keep the site a wild forest and allow for all the plants to grow as they want. Having collective activities there to support the organisation hosting us was a really nice way of us saying thank you and contributing to the upkeep of the Littoral Arts Trust and the Merz Barn site.

We have discussed the idea of a recipe book and on our Instagram you can find the recipe for ‘Merz Crumble’, developed on site. The ecology of this crumble is quite unique as the apples themselves are not usually taken from the site. As Ian (Ian Hunter, Director) was explaining to us; the area was left untouched for some years meaning it became a through route for deer, sheep, pheasants and the magpies. In the late autumn, these animals form a circle and gorge on the fermented apples, making all manner of noises as they get intoxicated from the alcohol.

[HKW] I’d love to do more residencies, especially as not everyone was able to do this one. Every other month, we’re not in London. It’s great to break-down the ‘London-centricity’ of SOTD in previous years.

I’d like to do a show about this cooking element. Maybe it’s now a culinary school, and SOTD is actually Bake Off? FACT.

We have spoken about changing the model a lot. We can’t confirm anything yet as we haven’t fully decided, but I think we’ve done a lot of forward facing stuff this year. Post-2016, it’s a real pinnacle time to revaluate what’s going on, why SOTD was set up and what SOTD means now. Merz was a really great place to think about this. We’re really invested in teaching others how to DIY/DIT (Do It Together), which is why we have made the flow chart (which we launched and distributed at the V&A the other weekend)…

Do It Together flow, courtesy School Of The Damned.

Space, Image, Exile, Merz Barn, Cumbria.

14 – 19 September 2017.

School Of The Damned can next be next found in Birmingham on a school trip this November. The open access School Of The Damned library can also be found here.

All information about upcoming SOTD projects and opportunities can be found here.

James Schofield is an artist, curator and current PhD candidate at Liverpool School of Art & Design researching artist-led practice.

Published 23.10.2017 by Sara Jaspan in Interviews

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