Dialogue: Harriet Plewis

Reading Room: meeting the universe halfway, Harriet Plewis. In 'Loving Attention', May 2019

We talk with artist Harriet Plewis about the background to her project Loving Attention, a special all-day event selected from the Projections Open Call at Tyneside Cinema on Sunday 19 May 2019.


PROJECTIONS:  ‘Loving Attention’ refers back to a project you ran in Sunderland in 2017, Reading Room: Meeting the Universe Halfway. Can you say something about that – and how this event relates to it?

HARRIET PLEWIS:  Yes, the two things are really related. Kinda joined at the hip. Reading Room: meeting the universe halfway was a first attempt at finding a way to read a text that intentionally moved away from lone eyes on a page. To see if a group of us could make sense of Karen Barad’s boggling book Meeting the Universe Halfway (online PDF),which is a wild ride through physics-philosophy.

We spent eight weeks (EIGHT WEEKS!) in an ex-architect’s office in Sunderland poking and pulling at the text and turning it into movement scores, sculptures, trinkets and songs. We also changed the space itself as we went along, adapting it so that its atmosphere contained the book we were grappling with in some way, too. The hope was that we might be able to find a way into an understanding the book together, rather than sweat it out alone in our rooms, through the habitual fog of incomprehension and shame that sometimes accompanies reading complex texts!

There were 6 of us; Nicola Singh, Grace Denton, Victoria Guy, Alice MacKenzieDeborah Bower and me. Some of us work as artists, some as dancers or choreographers. None of us have any background whatsoever in physics. Or philosophy, really. So the understanding of the text that we came to is nuanced, partisan, idiosyncratic. But we own it, I think!

In the final week of the project, we invited a public (ie whoever wanted) to come and ‘read’ with us, via this new way we had found of reading together. In that week, we also shot a lot of footage as we went, which Deb Bower and I subsequently made into 7 separate films: one for every day of the public week.

Reading Room: meeting the universe halfway, Harriet Plewis. Screening in ‘Loving Attention’, May 2019

The Loving Attention event started life in my head as a way to be able to share these films. Deb and I weren’t sure they were right for festivals and were equally unsure about having them in a gallery. We felt they needed more context, a softer setting maybe. So, for Projections, I’ve pretty much made the films a container to sit in. Or I hope I have. They appear alongside films that I think are great, all of which look at ways of absorbing and sharing knowledges. And the event also includes some lite workshop-style activities that might put a viewer in a receptive state for receiving the film programme. There’s also an evening gig that will comprise several interpretations of the songs that we wrote in response to the book during the course of Reading Room: meeting the universe halfway. These will be performed by people that were there in Sunderland (Grace and Nicola) but also people that are linked to the work in a more tangential way. The artist Rene McBrearty will interpret a song: she is someone who I initially approached to be part of Reading Room: meeting the universe halfway but was unable due to other work commitments. So I’m really glad that she’s here for this part. And then there’s Cherry Styles, with whom, along with Sam Whetton, I made the book that exists as a testament and a manual to the process. The evening bit will be like a house gig, hopefully. My very favourite type of gig. And, in addition, the cinema space as we’re organising it at Tyneside has echoes of the space we co-built in Sunderland. It’s gonna be kinda lounge-y. And you can zone in and out, mentally and physically. Which was the case in Sunderland, also. A wandering attention.

PROJECTIONS:  You’ve chosen an ambitious and unusual structure for the event, blending film screenings, live music, workshops, and food – and will take over a cinema screen for an entire day and evening. What is it about presenting this in a cinema that appeals to you?

HARRIET PLEWIS:  It’s funny. I don’t really think of it as ambitious or unusual. Does that make me deranged? Probably. I think I’m just trying to find a way of watching films and sharing an experience that moves away from discomfort or alienation (a lot of gallery viewing experiences) and ableism (quite a few cinema spaces). For Loving Attention, we’ve removed quite a few of the seats and have played around with things like lighting and the possibility of leaving the space if you want or need to. The food will sustain us and the live music and workshops will hopefully suggest a psychic context for the films and event as a whole that you, as an attendee, can take or leave… as you like.

It’s not that I want to dis cinemas, though, at all. Part of the reason I wanted to do it at Tyneside was that well nice thing of being able to be alone with films whilst in the company of others. That feeling of letting a sound system or projection seep into you. That indulgent focus. Cinemas are good for that, aren’t they?

PROJECTIONS:  Well, yes, we think so! The workshops include a ‘deep listening’ hour and visualisation session. Can you tell us something about what these are?

HARRIET PLEWIS:  The visualisation that we’ll do at Loving Attention stems from a practice that we devised in Sunderland for Reading Room: meeting the universe halfway. We looked at Skinner Release Technique and Eric Franklin’s approaches to ‘imaging’ the body whilst lying down to give ourselves a break from perhaps critiquing our bodies whilst they are in motion and also to give ourselves some time to think of the body as granular, as consisting of small particles that make up a whole. Which relates, in the most basic sense, to a lot of what Karen Barad talks about in her book. I am also keen to try to gift a set of images to people that are there for the workshop. A set of images that they can take away and bring to mind at a later date. Your spine being brushed clean by broom heads, your pelvis as a bowl of fruit. That type of jive. It’ll also be a break from watching a screen. Well, you’ll get to watch a screen of your own choosing. The one behind your eyes. Cheesy. But good.

The deep listening hour draws on the massive and brilliant work of the late composer Pauline Oliveros who presented listening as something distinct from hearing and something that was active. Activism, even. Oliveros’s Deep Listening asks for an attention, a close attention, that I was so interested in as a pedagogical approach when doing Reading Room: meeting the universe halfway.

Pauline Oliveros with additional design by Lawton Hall, Wind Horse, 1990, text score

Oliveros says “Deep coupled with Listening or Deep Listening for me is learning to expand the perception of sounds to include the whole space/time continuum of sound – encountering the vastness and complexities as much as possible… Such expansion means that one is connected to the whole of the environment and beyond”. And that feels pr-etty physics. Or physics as it is filtered through Barad. The Deep Listening activity also feeds in to the film The Third Part of the Third Measure by The Otolith Group that looks at the practice, statements, utterances and approach of the late composer, dancer, vocalist Julius Eastman. The sound in this film is key, is muscle, is guide. I guess I hope we might have readied our ears for this amazing work via the Deep Listening hour.

PROJECTIONS:  It’s going to be fantastic – not least because you’re re-opening a conversation that you started in the North East two years ago with the Reading Room series: it feels right that it’s taking place here, working with many of the artists who were part of the original project. You used to be based in Newcastle, and are now in London. What kept you here, and took you there?

HARRIET PLEWIS:  Aw, this question makes me sad because it touches on so much feeling! I initially came to Newcastle to lend a hand to the building and setting up of the wonderful Star and Shadow Cinema. Which I think was everything I needed from life at that moment. I also fell hard for Newcastle. Cue emo music. And then I think growing up in London took its nasty toll and I began to long for anonymity again. And different, home-style sounds. So I went back down the road. Now, of course, I long to be back in the North East. Rather than being continuously chewed up and spat out by London. Have I gone off piste here?

PROJECTIONS:  No! Newcastle love is most certainly on-piste, skis on, goggles down. Well, it’s good for us that you chose to apply to the Open Call with such an amazing project, as the North East gets to have you back for a while. Anyway, now for the most crucial details: what’s on the menu, and will there be a merch table?

HARRIET PLEWIS:  Ah, so glad you asked. The menu is next level and, unsurprisingly, given the immersive (aka totalising!) nature of the event, it’s related to the content of Loving Attention. Artist Heather Bonnie Reid is making sourdough brittle stars (a creature that comes up a lot for Barad) to have with your mushroom soup (a vegetable that also comes up) and there’ll be a cocktail that goes with the evening gig with which we’re gonna make some toasts: to some of the partic-u-lar people who made the event and its themes possible.

And then the merch. God, it’s the first time I’ve done merch. But there’s something important about dissemination when thinking about life-wide learning, maybe? So the book that Sam, Cherry and I made from the proceeds of Reading Room: meeting the universe halfway will be available as well as some t-shirts and wall hangings. I mean, those last two are less about dissemination and more about adornment. But adornment is important, too, I think.

Loving Attention takes place on Sunday 19 May 2019, from 10 – 22.30: find out more here. Dialogue is a new series of interviews with artists and curators involved in the Projections programme. 

18 May 2019