Sit with us for a moment and remember – Lakeside Arts

Below is a Question and Answer with Lakeside Arts about recent commission of Sit with us for a moment and remember which launched over the summer in 2021. Images below from University of Nottingham Manuscripts and Special Collections. More information about the project here.

Firstly, how did you conceptualise the idea?

I saw a call out for an outdoor commission at Lakeside and I thought about the park benches that create an auditorium of memory around the lake. I had previously made a one-to-one performance for a bench which toured the UK, Germany and went to the Edinburgh Fringe called ‘Sit with me for a moment and remember’ (http://michaelpinchbeck.co.uk/sit-with-me-for-a-moment/). It explored how benches are often a site of remembrance and invited audience members to consider how and who they remember. Before applying to the commission, I walked around the lake and found four benches facing each other across the lake that were without plaques, and this was my starting point. The opportunity to work with Lakeside enabled me to consider a new approach to my original idea and consider these four different undedicated benches and how they might be inhabited by four different stories told by four different narrators. It seemed to make sense to relate these four benches to the four seasons, and explore how the lake and the park change over the course of a year, so to some extent the narrators for these stories became the seasons themselves. I then visited the University Archive and tried to find images to use as a starting point that corresponded with the different seasons but also the different views from each bench. I wanted the audience member to be able to look on the phone to see this view from a different time but also evoke it in the text. I found two images each for Spring and Summer. Autumn and Winter were harder to locate. So, for these seasons, I took a more biographical approach and told stories, written in collaboration with performers, about the people who come here. The final piece of the puzzle was getting to and from the benches. I worked with Chris Cousin, the composer, to work on an introduction and coda that could accompany the audience on their journey. I wrote a text that described everything I could see and hear at the lake. I recorded it onto my mobile phone while sitting on a bench and then wrote it down for the performers to record it. This project has opened my eyes about different ways of working and exploring sites using new technology. It is designed to be experienced alone but there might be times when it creates a community of commemoration as different audience members are on different benches at different times looking across the lake. I hope the project can stay in situ throughout the year so the stories chime with the seasons

How has creating the installation during the pandemic affected its conceptualisation?

I started working on the piece in February 2021 when we were still in lockdown so most of the early work was online. I visited the archive virtually and this influenced the digital nature of the project. The original proposal was designed to accommodate social distancing and the fact that people use QR codes and listen to the audio on their own phones gives an audience member the opportunity to experience it alone on a bench at any time. You can also experience the piece remotely without visiting the lake and all the tracks have transcripts online as well. In its theme and its framing as a space for remembering, the installation reflects on the difficult year we have had and the notion of loss we may have experienced. I spent a lot of time walking around the lake listening and observing as the seasons changed and as Chis sent me rough mixes of audio, I have been bringing them back every week to check levels and timings and make sure that I could still hear the ambient sounds of the lake e.g. traffic, birds, bells etc. The pandemic is reflected in the text where I refer to people in face masks and how it has changed us. We recorded some of the audio in the theatre. It was the first time I have been in a theatre for over a year and even though we were still socially distancing, wearing masks, and mics and chairs had to be sanitised, it still felt like some normality had returned. It was brilliant to work with the Lakeside technical team and two of the performers ‘in real life’ in the studio on the project and I have had socially distanced technical rehearsals and ‘beta tests’ with Chris, the composer, after he mixed all the tracks in his back garden studio in Leicester. In many ways, the project has made me rethink the nature of collaboration as a result of the pandemic. Three of the performers recorded their audio remotely and sent it to us. One of them recorded it on a barge in Manchester. Another in a broom cupboard in London. One of the benefits of working online was that it opened up the potential for international collaboration and I invited a dramaturg from Singapore to work on the project. Ben Slater has made several audio pieces for outdoor locations and I met with him every week for a conversation about the project after sending him text and audio. It was 9am in the UK and 5pm in Singapore and it gave me regular feedback and ‘feed-forward’. So, in that sense, this project has seen a large team of creatives collaborate without meeting using Zoom, Whatsapp and Dropbox etc. I am not sure I would have designed it like this if it was not for the pandemic and I hope that one day we will be able to meet and experience the installation together in some way.

What is the purpose behind the installation, and what do you hope people will take away from it?

The purpose was to explore the landscape of the lake and Highfields Park using audio triggered by plaques. Lakeside invited me to respond to the archive and the benches available to us and I wrote texts inspired by these and the views from each bench. What struck me most about some of the photographs, particularly in Autumn and Winter, is that there are people looking at the camera. They were looking at a photographer when the image was taken, in 1930 or 1960, but now they are looking at us, in the archives and on our phones. That led to me asking what it would be like for the audience member to imagine themselves there when the photograph was taken and that is a device I return to as a motif. In that sense I hope people will take away the experience of inhabiting the photograph, or of encountering history, and seeing the lake in a different light as a result. The essence of the experience is you sit on a bench remembering a time and a place in a photograph, or in a story, and perhaps when you leave the bench this will stay with you. I hope that when visitors take their headphones off they might think of the site differently. Chris described the piece as ‘ethereal and transporting’ and I hope it takes you somewhere. I hope also that if they enjoy the piece, they might come back again at different times of year to experience it in different seasons. I hope it might also inspire them to explore the archives themselves and perhaps introduce them to an immersive experience for the first time. The soundscape is also an integral part of the piece and I have been listening to it for nearly six months now and every time I do I hear different notes and tones that ghost the past onto the present like the photos. When you finish experiencing the piece, walking back to the boating kiosk, and you take the headphones off, there is a moment when you fade back into reality and the 45 minute journey starts to feel like a dream. I want people to experience that moment.

How do the different elements (audio, images, et.) combine to bring the installation together? What is the intended effect on the participant?

I have made a number of recent theatre pieces that I would describe as ‘immersive theatre’ where the audience are invited to inhabit the story in some way. Because of the pandemic, it is not really possible to make this kind of work but this project is also immersive in nature. It allows the audience member to inhabit the story of each season and encounter the lake and its history. The intended effect is that the soundscape and text combine to evoke the lake’s history, its present and its future, and perhaps invite you to see it in a different way. Images are present on the website but they were the scaffolding I used to write the text so I combined them to create hybrid blended images that ghost the past onto the present, like the audio itself as you listen to a story from a different era. I do find it very powerful when I imagine all these people were standing or sitting where we are now with the same view. I am inviting the audience to reflect on their relationship with the site and the stories it tells. The most important part of the project is the site itself, the music and texts would not have been created without it. The plaques are also an important part of the work. They are both an invitation to sit and remember but also a dedication to the people who they remember. Another thing to note is how the other people at the park become part of the piece when you sit on a bench and look across the lake. The trees form a proscenium arch.

What is the significance of Highfields Park for you?

I have come here many times over the years, sat on benches and looked across the lake. I grew up in Nottingham and used to come to the park and the boating lake with my parents as a child. Now I bring my own children here and have spent a lot of time walking around the lake, with pushchairs, scooters and bikes as well as attending shows at Wheee! and other outdoor festivals. I have also shown several theatre performances at Lakeside Arts over the years and rehearsed here. It has always been a place of reflection and creativity for me and this project offered an opportunity to combine the two. My other work has also explored the performance of commemoration and staging loss and I have always been struck by the messages people engrave onto plaques to remember someone. So I have also studied all the plaques for this project, as well as finding benches without them. Actually, there is a reference in Spring to how ‘there is plaque dedicated to a gardener near here’ because I found one while walking around the lake and wrote about it. By drawing on images from the archives and dedications on plaques I seek to listen to the site and find the stories that could be told and I have also learned more about Highfields Park by working on this project. For example, a groundsman living in the boathouse. The model boating club that meets every Sunday. Students partying in the caves or climbing the rocks. The time when the lake flooded and how the lido was also filled with water from the lake. The images tell these stories but I have done research and then responded to it. I have also written about what I have seen as landmarks around the lake e.g the ice cream van, life buoys, the lions and the clock tower, which chimes every 15 minutes and features heavily in our piece. As part of the process, the composer, Chris recorded all the sounds of Highfields Park and sampled them in the soundscape he created, so in this sense the park is part of the score.