..I arrived here on Monday morning having never been to the city of Coventry. I was swept up in the movement of the ring road and was eventually spat out somewhere in the area of part of the University! I entered my studio base through the back of the Ellen Terry building, seeing the inner workings of the building before her face, which is an old cinema! My studio space is plentiful and the floor is coated with a black lino, which allows me to work freely with water, water colour in deep black on black! I unloaded all the glass containers and stools and jars containing water from different places in the country and the world, into this room with the black floor, realising that although I could create an almost instant landscape in the room with the objects I had brought, I had no idea about the landscape of the building, its inner workings or how it was placed within the larger workings of the city. I had heard of the cathedral, I had heard of car manufacture, I had heard of massive bombings during the blitz, the whole landscape of the city and its multi layers is new to me. So I began within the studio, marking the space around me with the objects, a landscape both totally new and somehow familiar.
..I have begun to orientate myself within the city and to look for the lifeblood of the city, its water. Under the city runs a river, the Sherbourne. I could see some of its course plotted on the city map. I traced the river towards its source on Watery Lane near Corley Moor and where it entered the city under Meadow Lane and again where it re-emerged at Gosford Street roundabout; there may be a glimpse of the river in the centre of town. I have spent the second day following the river towards its source, the river running under the bridge at Four Pounds Avenue has hidden secrets, the up stream river bed is full of coins as for wishes and the down stream side has an offering of a circlet of red rose buds, as I walked across the open space on my way out of the city, I stopped to watch a lesser spotted woodpecker feed its noisily insistent young in side a hole in a river willow. I walked out of the city as far as Allesley taking time to pause in the nearby meadow on the edge of the Sherbourne as a stream; the red clay here reflects the colour of the stone and brick that built the city. I exchanged water from the source of the Thames with water from the Sherbourne, creating a simple ritual to mark the connection of all living things within the web of life.
I caught the bus back to town and then found my way to the downstream part of the river at Gosford roundabout at the end of Jordan Well and walked beside it to the end of the first playing field. The river on this side of town is a sad affair, it is full of the discarded and unwanted, there is a stagnant smell about it in the air and the city rats glean the banks for food. Trees border the river in places, some sprout from the damp walls of the old brick industrial buildings doing their work of transpiration as best they can. I hope to follow the water further out of the city to see how it fares.
I again exchanged water that I had collected from the source of the Thames, with this tired city water and hope that the homeopathic essence of the newly emerged water from the source of a sister river would assist in its revitalization. I take time to thank this lifeblood of the land for its hidden work under the city. Part of the work I undertake with water, is simply to acknowledge its existence and its wildness in different places on the earth. I feel an important part of intuitive live art is its healing power; the maker and the witness have the possibility to view something familiar, from a different perspective and in waking up into the ‘new view’ with a change to see or respond differently. Water is something that each of us can so easily take for granted; we forget that it is wild, all its origins are wild, we tame it to serve us, often without thanks.
I imagine that many Coventry city dwellers do not know of the existence of a river beneath the streets. As I walk the land beside the river, both through fields beside the ‘young’ waterway and across the city itself over the hidden river, I am aware that I am beginning to relax into my new surroundings, my body begins making sense of the environment through movement and covering ground. The time I take for a physical arrival allows my creative senses to open and begin to respond. I can begin to ‘see’ through many layers at the same time. Once back in the city, I have more questions than answers, a receptionist in the City Hall directs me to the Library in the Herbert Gallery for historical information on the path of the river. I am directed to a copy of a map of the city created in 1750, held in the Herbert Gallery Library, which shows the river running openly through the city. I take photocopies of the maps with me into the studio.
..The installation in my studio shifts daily, it is a work in progress, a visible process, the shifts are subtle and shift as my intuitive understanding of this part of the earth and the city itself begins to grow. I have always had a close relationship with land and can often sense hidden stories. I set out to see if I can pick up a sense of where the river runs under the city. There is a place on the contemporary city map called The Burges, which is also on the 1750 map, I think there were two bridges at this point at one time. When I come to The Burges, the land begins to fall as though into a river basin, something pulls me into Palmer Lane between two buildings and towards a building site at the back. I turn my eyes to the right and there is the river! It is a joy to find it, seeing this untamable expression of life force in the open air between one culvert and the next! I hang out of the window of the Coventry Cross Pub to get a better view and watch it flow!
Back in the studio I compare old body maps I have of the flow of lymphatic fluids through legs, coloured blue, with the old river maps of the city. The water ‘spills’ off the maps and into watery landscapes I create on the floor of the studio, they change fast, the air conditioning in the windowless room makes the water evaporate rapidly, so the temporary ‘rivers’ I make, turn to lakes and then ponds and then disappear leaving an almost invisible record through the deposited salts the water leaves on the floor. I find it exciting to paint with water on to a black floor! The room feels animated and alive with the presence of the changing water.
Day 11. I received a visit today from my long time collaborator and friend Ann Rapstoff. Ann and I have worked together for ten years, firstly running and curating VAIN liveart a national live art platform based in Oxford over two years and then collaborating as artists working in the areas of installation and performance.
Ann and I are currently investigating various aspects of the element of water both as individuals and in some collaborative pieces. Our water work collaboration began with The Go-Between, linking the rivers Thames and Rhine. It is of great value having new work witnessed and to receive some feedback by a trusted colleague. When working in performance, the use of a video camera as witness is helpful but it is no substitute for the responses received from or the questions asked by another human being.
It was useful to hear Ann’s responses to the installation and to speak together about the links between the layers of the work, through my body out into the installation space and into the river scape, both, under, through and around the city. Ann and I have often stood in witness to each other’s work, on other occasions we become photographer for the other and we have built a strong sense of trust over the years. I am enjoying the new experience of working in the same ‘landscape’ while making individual work. During the day Ann and I visited some of the river and well sites that I have been responding to in the city.
Day 13...I began the day by working with photographer Christian Kipp, who spends much of his own creative time repeatedly re-visiting the same watery landscapes and noticing the subtle sifts of light and water levels through his lens. Christian began to find his way into my installation both as it stood alone and while I inhabited it. It is a complex landscape, part museum, part laboratory, part ‘land’, part ‘river’, it is a site for ritual and a site for environmental comment. We moved together through the layers, caught up by and following different aspects, knowing there was always another thread in the web, right there whispering to follow. Sometimes we met across a narrow stream or beside a pool or though the inverted images inside a glass vessel full of water. We both felt the complexity of the layers.
On occasion, I empty the space of objects and reintroduce one element and focus on one aspect of the work or the properties of the water as it moves across the floor, this allows the detailed aspects of the work to expand out of the complex whole. I was reminded me of an occasion when I watched a dew drop on the end of a blade of grass for long enough discover whether the water evaporated into the atmosphere or dropped from the tip of the grass to the earth. I watched as the sun rose and as the drop of dew became smaller and smaller and eventually evaporated! The public showing of my work today was a residue of the work Christian and I had done earlier.
...My studio was closed to the public, which gave me the whole day to make further investigations through the city. I have been building a sense of the movement of the river Sherbourne through the underground culverts of the city. There are many place names that have come through from Coventry’s early history and are still present on the contemporary city map, I am particularly interested in the sites that directly refer to the once natural route of the river. The bus station is at Pool Meadow, some of the old wells exist near Jordan Well, the river still flows out from under the city at Gosford Gate it flows just outside the site of the old city wall, which is marked on the forecourt of the tyre and exhaust centre in paving of a similar colour to the original medieval wall. Armed with my enlarged map of the city centre I set off to follow the river, to build a sense of where it was flowing under me by using old and new maps and primarily the lie of the land itself, walking with a sense of the river basin, the ‘fall’ of the land, and asking myself, where would the river flow through this city if it were still above ground?
I began at the site of the old Gosford Gate where the river still emerges from its journey under the city and began to walk against the flow of the underground water. I found my way along remnants of the old wall, under the ring road, past the bingo hall, the bus station, the back of a building site behind the Coventry Cross pub where the river is briefly visible, beginning again outside the Kebab shop on the Bruges which bridges the river, crossing the road feeling the river under me, here I had to take a slight diversion round the multi-story car park instead of through it and into Corporation Street, at the end of the street I was attracted by the Elizabethan buildings that still remain and are inhabited, in Spon Street and happily followed the diversion away from the river. . Spon Street runs parallel to the once natural river bed, it was once situated outside the city walls and in relationship to the river above its floodplain.
There has been a butcher shop on Spon Street in the same building, for well over a hundred years, the current butcher has been in residence for over twenty, I asked him if he knew anything about the current course of the river near his shop, he sent me in the direction of the empty Woolworths, a car park and through the ground floor of New Look. I completed the cross city journey at the edge of the Ikea car park, here the river emerges from under the ring road and is briefly visible before it dives under the city. Before the water was visible, I could feel it in the air and sense the drop in temperature, I watched the water through the railings of the culvert, as it followed its concrete container that forced it sideways at an angle. Later in the day, I repeated the journey with a hazel dowsing rod, feeling the river through it, travelling below me, I walked the invisible river once more along roads and through buildings. I passed people in the city going about their business with the river beneath them hidden from view.
For the time I was available to the public today, I decided to experiment with a walk I have been devising, through the city with the group who gathered. I planned to mark the pathway under the streets of the hidden city river, with pure water from the source of my home river, collected some time ago and that I had stored in a ten litre plastic container. Gian Paolo Cottino, artist and Summer Dance installation manager, taped the container to my back and across my chest, like a rucksack, using white gaffer tape and secured a tube inside the container to allow a continuous gravitational flow of water through it from the bottom of the tank which I could then control with my fingers. The group gathered and we walked down to the site of the old Gosford Gate where the river emerges from the city culverts. After spending a few moments watching the emerging river, we set off in the opposite direction to its underground flow. The tank and tube emitting a constant slow flow over the paths and roadways mirroring the underground river. As I got further into town, passing Meadow Pool, now a bus station, and through the back of Palmer Lane where the river is briefly visible in the city centre. I had to negotiate large buildings which forced me to divert away from the river path, I skirted the walls and edges of the buildings, remaining as physically close to the true course of the river as possible. I passed beside bus queues and busy shoppers, stopping and renegotiating my direction when faced with a brick wall or shop window.
I had not taken in the vision of my whole before I had left the Ellen Terry Building, but my choice of brown trousers and walking boots in combination with an unrecognisable contraption on my back emitting an unknown liquid onto the streets caused a bit of a stir! I must have looked somehow threatening! I was almost at the end of the walk across the city, when, several policemen who arrived in cars with lights flashing ‘apprehended’ me! A number of fearful residents unsure of my intention had contacted the constabulary!
I have to say, the police, quickly understood that although I may have unwittingly looked as mortally threatening as a suicide bomber, that I was in fact an artist with a tank full of spring water on my back. They didn’t prevent me from reaching my goal of the small section of open river near the entrance to the Ikea car park, but one of the officers walked beside me and others followed by car. I completed the ritual walk with a police escort and the group. When we arrived at the river I allowed the remaining spring water in the tank to pour into the river below. We all stood a while and watched the body of water disappear under the city. When I had finished, I was asked to remove the empty tank at the request of the police, so that I didn’t cause any further public consternation on the return journey! It was suggested that should I repeat the action, I contact them first.
Chatting about the work afterwards, some of the members of the group, students of the university, said that they had been unaware of the existence of the river, even though they passed by close to it often! Now, I imagine, it will be etched into their consciousness! It was also suggested by Gian Paolo, that next time I might consider what the possible perceived meanings of my clothing might be, though not necessarily change the choice! Or, if I did want to be inconspicuous, perhaps I should wear a flowery dress and wobbly antennae!
Each day that I have opened the studio and activated the installation by inhabiting it, the resulting actions have been totally different, I have worked both within previously executed forms and followed new and unexpected outcomes in the moment. This has enabled the work to feel alive as I continue to explore its possibilities with a curiosity. The form of each opening is also affected by the constellation of the particular viewers and what aspect they bring with them into the studio. I involve and include the viewer at some points in the work, by asking them to take care of a jar of water from the wide range of collected waters of the world which include precipitation, ocean and river water or I ask them to tend one of the large egg shapes that I fill with water.
The final opening was part action, part story telling from within the installation and my research both into the element of water and within the city. Towards the end, one or two of the viewers asked questions or asked to conduct their own small water experiments within the installation; this enabled me to witness even more avenues and possibilities available within the work!
In working between the river Sherbourne, the city of Coventry and the studio, I have created a real and visible context for the work, placing it within the immediate environment.
During the time that I have been researching this particular step of the work in Coventry, I have had contact with many of the inhabitants who have added to the richness of my investigation in various ways, they given me directions, free bus rides when I didn’t have the correct change coming back from the river source, they have told me stories about the river and their lives, made me delicious coffee knowing by the second day that I only take half a sugar, they have stopped their cars turning off blaring music to ask me with genuine curiosity what I am doing with my hazel dowsing rod and then been amazed to discover that there is a river under their city, they have taken me through their bookshops to see excavations for Roman remains, told me the history of their butcher shops and which car park the river is under, they have called the police because I looked suspicious, they have allowed me to dangle bottles out of pub windows and down wells to collect indigenous water and much, much more.
Coventry is a city that has had to reinvent itself more than many others. The layers of its past are both visible and hidden, I have found it fascinating.