The story of this notebook, is, in some way the story of the start of the Label-Lit project. It goes back a long way. I have made an entry on the 26th of April 2011. It reads as follows; ‘When the police arrive, unbidden, into my dream, I know I have been lying there screaming out into the night. They ask me what did I think I was doing smashing up all the smiling china dogs that were in the room I was in.
They were ugly and useless, I say.
Later, the ‘dog as Che Guevarra ‘ notebook became the notebook I used to document the letters project, Correspondence. I had tried and failed to get people to engage in letter writing, by leaving letters in places to see what would happen – nothing happened, except me leaving letters in places inviting people to write to me. No one responded. I gave up.
Later still, in a reinvention of the letters project, I broke my own rule of not using the internet to connect with people and put out the call via Facebook. Anyone who wanted a letter from me would get one, and for as long as they wrote to me, I would respond to them.
By this time, I was living in France temporarily. I was recently married and my husband was on secondment for four months. So…we had a four month sojourn in Antibes and I wrote letters, kept a journal and tried to figure out what I should be doing. Letters ebbed and flowed to and from France – some came eventually. Spectacularly one friend, the singer-songwriter Brigid O’Neill, who had embraced the project and the concept with great enthusiasm, wrote to me from her holiday in Cuba. Brigid was an early adopter to Correspondence and she had sent her letter in November….. and it duly arrived the following February, literally as we were packing to leave France for good.
I was experimenting with Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. On the 40th anniversary of his experiment, I repeated it, on the Ormeau Road in Belfast. Perec didn’t have Facebook and Twitter, but I did. No one joined him in his experiment, but people joined me. We made our observations and our drawings on small paper bags and put them in the window of a local shop. I tweeted them. I put the images on Facebook. I eventually collated all the bits and pieces and archived them in the Linenhall Library as an affectionate pen-portrait of Belfast.
In Antibes I also did a further three-day Perec experiment, but I did so alone. I felt myself invisible there and there was freedom in that. While we were living in Antibes I had felt it to be a place without trauma. As a place it was confident and self-assured, life could be simple and I felt myself free from an overlay of my own history and marvelled at how some people seemed to have always lived that way, and I saw it made a difference to their lives… it seemed all pervasive, affecting what they choose to gaze upon, where a look might linger, what there was to hear and smell, how time was spent, or how time passed – place and time determine what counts as a priority.
My husband is a Swede. We talked a lot about the difference in the culture and environment within which each of us grew up, and we unpicked its impact on us, in terms of thinking, feelings, expectations, how we encounter the world, the choices we have made, what constitutes a norm and what becomes normal. It was mostly musing, sometimes amusing and I didn’t push it on into meaning-making.
The attacks on the staff of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris happened while I was in Antibes and with it the atmosphere changed. I observed how the people responded, with their notes and messages left in the public square. I still have that notebook somewhere. Rage. Grief. Disbelief. Foreboding. Defiance.
Later still, on a residency at Kultivera (Tranas, Sweden), I read my Perecian attempt at exhausting a place in Belfast, The Moon. A Plane. A Crow., and talked with the other artists about the process, observing, engaging with the public, interacting in public space – that type of thing, but still with no conclusions and still without enough ground to make meaning of it, other than to say, it was what it was.
My last night in Sweden, I shared dinner with artists who were Portuguese, Welsh and Turkish artists, on the same residency. We talked about the nature of war, of peace-making, the courage it takes to stand resistant and non-violent and what happens in the aftermath of violence – how it perpetuates across time. We watched a short video of how an artist passed sound waves through a single drop of water and we watched over and over again how the change in frequency changed the shape of that single of drop of water, suspending it in mid-air.
Miguel, had arrived that day from Lisbon to join his wife Ines. He wondered out loud how that drop of water and its dance might be different, if the water was a tear. And what, he wondered, would the dance be if it was a tear of joy, rather than a tear of sadness. He had brought a bar of chocolate with him – the wrapper had an image of Fernando Pessoa. We ate the chocolate, drank a little wine and thought about it all.
It was onto the back of that chocolate wrapper that later that night myself and a Turkish man, Gurkan, made a translation of a Turkish song he remembered. The refrain translated, roughly, as “Beauty will save the world; it will start with loving someone.”
Next morning we woke to the horrific news of the bombing of a citizen’s protest in Ankara, in which more than 130 people were killed. The scale of this is something I still struggle to get my head around as much as anything because of what has happened in the intervening years, not only in Turkey, but also in Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Palestine… it just goes on. These thing bother me and preoccupy me. They remind me of life here… and another time here – but those are stories for another day.
The other artists were leaving and Gurkan and I remained another day. By some fluke I had brought more of the paper bags with me and for an hour or so, we sat writing the phrase from the Turkish love-song, over and over again, onto the bags, before we took them out into Tranas and began to pin them to the public notice boards, slip them between the leaves of the books in the library, tucked into signs, between the tins of things in the supermarket, cached among the loaves of bread. We got not responses to our hashtag, but it didn’t matter – there was something about the doing of it which still felt that it had meaning and which felt like it wasn’t wasted – that the weirdness index was not so high as to be entirely dismissible.
Ines and Miguel were on their way to Lisbon, via Copenhagen. They too began to create a trail. Dominic and Mel did some in Wales, Lucy in Cornwall. I dropped a trail of them all the way from Tranas to Stockholm to Dublin and Belfast.
A few days later at the protest against cuts to the arts, at our local assembly, I gave them to any politician who stopped to speak to me. Many did.
The following April, (2016) I wanted to do a project for Poetry Day Ireland, but wanted something more finished, more tidy but inexpensive – something people might be inclined to keep, to notice, to think about. I opted for luggage labels. They were neat, inexpensive, colourful, and had the right mix of being noticeable, nickable, keepable and playful.
Since then, the project has grown and taken on other iterations – an in-house and on the spot observation during an arts festival in Lisbon.
Culture night in Belfast, several community events, a three day homage to Leonard Cohen following his death, and a trail all the way from Belfast to Prague and back.
On my visit to Ines & Miguel in Lisbon – they encouraged me to keep going, to see that what had started as a spontaneous shout out to the world from our residency at Kulitvera, could take on some other significance and could be something else – that both the process and the product were a means of communicating literature and that how it would land with the ‘finder’ would have its own personal and private impact. I agree.
Several months after last year’s Poetry Day in Ireland, I jumped into a taxi outside my house – and there was one of my own labels still hanging where I had tied it. The taxi man told me it was because it might be worth something someday when I died. (Ah Belfast, you never fail…)
After the Prague trip, I got a heartbeat that something was happening: via Twitter an Irish woman contacted me to say she’d found a label from the Leonard Cohen series hanging on the handle of the door of the astronomical clock in the Old Town Square. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prague_astronomical_clock. Later that same evening she contacted me again, to say her sister had found a different label, from the same series, but in Dublin and the previous day. I felt a little like Jocelyn Bell Burnell – picking up the existence of pulsars from deep space, that something had come, back, from a deep and far away place.
I have smashed the ugly, useless, smiling china dogs in my dreams. I have a notebook, with a dog, dressed as Che Guevarra, and the evolution of a (small) revolution, goes on.
Part 2 of this article will pick up on what happened during #poetrydayIRL 2017 – 24 poets in 6 countries…. a total of 675 labels from Belfast to Ballyclare, Lisburn to Lisbon, Ballaghedereen to Budapest, West Cork to North (or was it South?) Carolina, Limavady (nearly) to Liverpool, Dublin to Holywood (Co. Down)….. and eventually to Finland. All in a single day.