Shuffle Festival is an annual week long event in Mile End, hosting film, science, storytelling, performance art, architectural installations, walks, food, comedy and music, held in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park.
Drawn to the festival to see the art works happening in space, I spent a dreamy afternoon in late July wandering the paths, finding things, all kinds of things – the programme is an eclectic mix of tree top restaurants, live art, hand-built relaxation and meeting spaces, a proper outdoor evening cinema programme, and ‘pavilions’ amongst the trees; the theme was appropriately Movement, Migration & Place.
Shuffle aims to ‘join people together to create the kind of cities they want to live in. As an organisation, Shuffle works to build a more integrated community presence in the built and natural environment’ and to make diverse and creative public places that are real community assets.’
Tower Hamlets Cemetery is a beautiful, atmospheric public park – one of London’s ‘Magificent Seven‘ Victorian cemeteries. It’s a rambling, gracious and thankfully unkempt network of wooded and open spaces looked after by the Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery, with a full and inspiring programme of events and activities, walks and wildlife workshops – over 3,000 ‘Friends’ and volunteers connect to the park, and 3 paid staff supporting it.
I went along to see artist Bobby Baker‘s sensitive and absorbing Roving Diagnostic Unit – artists’ walks, displays, performance and conversation exploring mental health and the history of psychiatric diagnosis, making thoughtful mini expeditions with the public, to ‘diagnose’ specific objects around Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park.
Bobby Baker’s work has explored themes of mental health and well being over many years, and here her process is applied to the park; Does the litter-bin suffer hoarding symptoms? Perhaps the pond is delusional? The bench by the path seems uneasy: social anxiety disorder?
It was a tender and fun excursion, with a provocative and bewildering set of questions posed to us as we stood in front of three selected places in the cemetery, the first being a pond, that looked like it was just being a pond, in a fairly good pond-like state.
But of course, as we approached with clipboards and prying eyes, and the question ‘Is the pond feeling optimistic about the future?’ in our minds, along with the dreaded scale of all of the time to none of the time as our evaluative chart, the exhausting process of examining what you think about anything and its state of being in the world, came sharply, sneakily, ridiculously into focus.
The mapping of these mental health and well being ‘criteria for assessment’ onto the environment astutely reflects the notion that we really haven’t got much of a clue about what state anything is in – our knowledge both vague and subjective. How can we possibly know how the pond feels, or in fact how anything feels? The pond appears strangely both optimistic and totally forlorn at the same moment depending on your perspective, on your own mental state somehow.
Ending by a tree that has clearly stood the test of time, among a pile of old graves and chopped up tree trunks, we are held in the idea that we just don’t know. I left feeling very reflective about the whole area of diagnosis, amplified by reading the brilliant results of the bench diagnosis.
Artist Rachel Henson‘s Flickerscopes were placed around the cemetery – beautiful, simple works that have a playful and mysterious presence, rotating images of a simple sequence of action taken within the environment – dance, movement, play – made with people passing through the cemetery prior to the festival.
Rachel has ‘begun to experiment with using photographic flick books as navigation tools (in open spaces), layering them with animation, to create psychic landscapes within a physical journey’.
The work attracts people to engage through the very satisfying mechanical process of operating it. And leads you from space to space through the cemetery, through the wildflowers and all the ancient, emotional graves.