What follows is part thinking out loud, part explanation of my practice, part proposal for the months to come: It’s bit more formal than reflections on canal journeys and archives, just to let you know…
The Shropshire Union Mainline runs from Autherley Junction, Wolverhampton up to Ellesmere Port. A late bloomer completed in 1835, one of Telford’s last stands, an amalgamation of different companies it was the canal that was nearly a railway. Prior to this Union of Companies (see what they did there-Shropshire Union), there are sections that were built in the late 1700’s, making this stretch of waterway an ideal focus as a microcosm of canal history, pulling out facts, log books, toll charges, technical drawings, photographs and self initiated canal surveys from the archives as split moments of time and small stories. It also ends in Ellesmere Port, giving opportunity to delve into The Port itself. Perhaps The Canal Tavern, the long gone pub with the boxing ring above. Monday: Men’s Boxing, Tuesday: Women’s.
There needs to be movement in this project, as the purpose of a canal is to journey from one place to another, be it for industry or pleasure. And I keep coming back to The Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Company, that walk of the workers, wanting to re-trace those steps, keeping at even pace to the boats.
The way I work, how I create, generally involves activity, an action of some sort, whether it be travelling the length of country to re- trace the journey of a postcard sent in 1910 (more here) or excavating the history of the building I live in (more here) or transcribing a series of letters written between a group of women nearly 100 years ago (here), it involves me creating a story that starts in the everyday by the actions that I make. But it is also about linking the past and the present, what’s changed, what hasn’t, what needed to change for survival. The basic premise of what I intend to do is this (and there will be creases to iron out, knots to untie):
– Researching, transcribing, highlighting, creating moments around particular pieces from the archives that have relevance to The Shropshire Union.
This could be anything from driest of log books and documentation of cargo, to diaries, newspaper articles, profiles of workers and engineers,oral histories. I have already started to gather, and look into this material including an abundance of Oral Histories and a hand written copy of a 1958 Diary Of A Canal Survey undertaken on ‘pedal cycle’ in 1958.
-With this information gathered and known in my head (and that research continuing onwards), walking from Birmingham (where I live) to Ellesmere Port, via Wolverhampton to walk the 66 miles of The Shropshire Union mainline.
Meeting people, talking to people, sharing knowledge, stories, histories. With the likely hood of a call out to participants, people who may want to join for a short walk. Or a long walk. Or somewhere to stay (a veiled hint). Aiming for this to take place in September, planning the route with an idea of taking 5-7 days with over night stays.
-Creating a performance in response to the archive material and the re-traced journey to be performed at The Museum in 2016.
The form would be to create a walking tour around the museum, that reimagines and reconstructs the museum site at Ellesmere Port as the length of the Shropshire Union, using exhibits, boats, stretches of canal as part of this ‘mis guided tour’. With the potential for sound bites, film, and participation from volunteers/ participants. It would be ideal to run alongside this performance tour a series of events; story telling, archive introductions, meeting the volunteers, other people’s creative responses to archive material, creating a ‘mini festival’ around this performance event. Like with all work at this stage, the form may change as it becomes more apparent as to what may suit the material gathered.
-Legacy, Continuity and Adaption
There is a want from both me as an artist and for the museum for a life out beyond a finite series of performances for this project. There are several possible ways of realising this; a high quality downloadable audio version, a version left with some of the volunteers-or their own version of a tour, a re-setting of the piece as a tourable show for small scale theatres, village halls.
There would also be a way for visitors/ audience to connect to the archive material used in a place stored online and/or physically within the archives itself.
Alongside this there would be the continual work of creating workshops, exchanges, storytelling sessions, based on themes of travel, documentation, re-generation and investigation into archives throughout the residency period.
* * * *
The act of the journey itself, is a well travelled path (ahem), this is a popular route amongst long distance walkers and Celia, a local historian, artist and general fountain of boat knowledge, did a circular walk including mainline Shropshire Union, alongside a canal boat as a charity walk a few years ago. It is key for me that part of the journey will be about transposing the archive material on to the modern day journey, glimpsing the past as I create new connections and conversations. The idea is to highlight the history of the canals, their own journey and their importance in this country. It is also going to be fun- both the journey and the final performance. Although I may have swayed into a bit of formal arts speak in this blog, the centre of my work remains the same; creating something that is accessible, entertaining and engaging, resonating with the present day.