Questions and answers between Sheila Ghelani and Sue Palmer
May 2020, Week 7, Lockdown UK
Sheila – Where are you right now?
I’m in Loughborough at my parents house whom I’ve come to help out and be with during the Covid-19 outbreak. I’m actually writing this in what used to be my teen bedroom when I was 14 years old … I’m 46 now but was just thinking that I haven’t changed much – apart from being a bit more creaky! I used to LOVE this room. I remember the excitement when we first moved in and my cat Katy hiding in the draw underneath my bed.
Nowadays it’s an uninspiring small box room/office full of files that say things like ‘PENSION’ and ‘PURCHASE & INSTRUMENT BOOKLETS’ on the side … You would never know that so much dreaming and scheming had happened in here.
Sue – Where are you right now?
I’m at home in Frome, and it’s the 7th week of the lockdown. I’m in my garden most days – I’m drawn out there so often. I love the greenhouse – it’s small but I’ve sown a mass of seeds this year and watching them break into life is helpful. Usually I wouldn’t have this much time at home so seeing the Spring unfold through the garden every day is a blessing, in amongst the fretting, sadness, phone calls, bewilderment, silence.
I’ve also been mentally tracking what would I have been doing through this time – at the end of April we would have been at LADA and then in Folkestone, and right now we would be preparing for the British Library on Monday 18th May – our last venue on the Common Salt in 2020 – in that extraordinary boardroom hung with East India Company paintings. I was looking forward to it so much – after years of planning!! Who knows – maybe there will be a time when it can happen in real time and place. I wonder whether we will ever show the work live again? I have been thinking about sweaty gigs, dense live performance venues, sitting closely with people, responsiveness and presence and how much I miss it and need it.
Sheila – How does the Common Salt project sit within your life and your art making?
Thematically it’s really enabled me to get to grips with the history of the East India Company – something I’ve skirted around for a long time but hadn’t really fully taken in until we started the research for our piece. This sits well with my practice because I’ve always got an eye on ‘indian-ness’ and how that meets ‘englishness’ (having that indian/english cultural mix myself). It also feeds into my ongoing interest in hybridity as subject matter … What we’ve made is a bit of a hybrid – a cross between something that is a show and tell, a talk and a performance. And a story of intertwining seemingly disparate ‘bits’.
Practically speaking it’s also really great to have finally made a piece that it feels relatively easy to share with others, in an ongoing way. There’s no massive install, we just turn up and as long as there are a few basic things in the space (table, chairs, plug socket) we can share it after a two hour set-up. This has felt really fulfilling as we get to travel to each carefully chosen space and have new conversations wherever we go. So we’re always learning something new in relation to the piece. It also fits easily in amongst all of the other art work I do – a mix of social art, mentoring, facilitation, other types of making etc.
On a personal level I feel a sense of fulfillment that we’re contributing to the discussions around colonialism in relation to collecting, nature and money. And aesthetically it really showcases objects – something I’m particularly interested in…
I also love hanging out with you Sue! It’s nice to have a strong collaboration going on alongside all of the solo and co-creation with the general public I do.
Sue – What have you enjoyed most about working on Common Salt over the years?
There are a few things. I should keep to the most, but there are a few vying for that place.
It’s been a journey of discovery, an education, an uncovering, a series of realisations. It’s also been a very troubling series of discoveries, so as soon as I start thinking about that, it’s an odd feeling. It’s the same as when audience members describe our piece as beautiful, it feels weird because to us it’s a deliberately troubling work, and we understand some of it may appear beautiful but we don’t think of it as that, so when I say the research has been enjoyable, it’s that same oddity of feeling that it has not been enjoyable. To be clearer, it’s the journey through it all – making the connections between things, seeing how things are illuminated in complexity and feeling enriched by knowledge and feeling changed by it.
Showing Common Salt – I really look forward to it. I like the piece we’ve made, the structure, the form, the way it’s held. That has been consistently enjoyable.
The stayovers after the gigs – that funny time in a hotel or room and the hyper-attention and adrenalin you have after doing something live for others. I enjoy staying up late, drinking tea with you, analysing the day, how people responded, what happened.
And preparing the space for the show in the non-arts venues we play. You take the lead on making the space work for the show – these places that are often learning rooms or side rooms with lots of stuff in them like a cow on wheels or an Egyptian mannequin or a polystyrene caldron. I really enjoy watching you make the space work – reordering it, covering things, cleverly hiding them. I especially remember you dealing with the foyer in the Royal Manor Theatre for bside festival – that took you a really long time and a lot of careful concentration but it looked amazing after you’d finished!
And lastly, I have really enjoyed traveling towards Common Salt – to meet and plan, to research, to practice, to show the work – that setting off to make and work – meeting at a train station or a place, or a venue. Maybe that one the most.
Sheila – What about our audience? – how have we planned for them, for their experience? And in the light of that, how do we experience the audience?
They sit in front of a table, there’s only 25 of them at the most … They’re up close and personal. We can look into the eyes of each and every one of them … We can see when they’re moved by what we’re sharing and when they’re nodding off! Although I have to say we’ve been taught over and over again that a sombre or bored looking face doesn’t always mean someone isn’t engaged in the work … Sometimes the work feels like it’s really not communicating from our point of view, but actually afterwards when we chat with the audience we’ve learnt that it has!
At the end of the piece we also always invite people to stay around, look more closely at the objects (on the table) and chat to us. This is always really interesting … People generally hang around for a while, photograph the table and share personal stories – not everyone, but most people … This is where we can generally gauge whether what we’re trying to do has worked or not. I always feel so happy when people come up to us afterwards, or follow up with emails… or share how they’re feeling… and so on.
In fact one of the great things about Common Salt is the regular contact with audiences it has given me over the past couple of years whilst we’ve been sharing it – it’s a small audience, but it’s deeply engaged. I’ve shown works in the past where I’ve performed to much larger audiences in very prestigious places, but afterwards haven’t met one of the audience members. The fact that I get to talk to the people that come to see Common Salt is one of the things I treasure.
Sue – What has the piece illuminated for you that you perhaps weren’t aware of previously?
My situation as a white person, and my privilege. My past as a white person. My family’s colonial history.
How deeply prejudiced 1970s TV and culture was, and the 1980s … I knew it before of course, but my feelings have really expanded.
How appallingly bad my history education was in a Somerset Comprehensive School and how institutionally racist it was (not that I was interested in history then, probably because of the way it was taught – I just drew pictures of horses all the time). As part of our visit to MERL in Reading, the curator Ollie Douglas took a group of Theatre Students around the Museum who were about to see Common Salt, drawing out all the connections between the English rural culture and colonialism. We tagged along too and it was enlightening, and I welled up – the thought of that level of education, of transparency and how profoundly important that is.
My family’s colonial past both in more detail, and also frustratingly not much more detail. The generation above me don’t really like it being explored or criticised, or anyone being implicated in bad behaviour. It’s become very important to allow space for the past to reveal itself and to tell its multiple truths. I have revisited my own past with a need to know – things my Mum has told me: her cousin Graham visiting our house and him leaving his Indian servant in the car outside. Please invite him in for tea? my Mum said. No, no, he can wait in the car said Cousin Graham. This was in my childhood lifetime.
How ashamed I feel and how energising that shame is – I’ve thought a lot about shame.
The horror of the actions of the British in India – the corruption, extortion, bigotry, duplicity and cruelty – both the East India Company and the British Raj.
How we have barely begun to explore the British Empire in relation to injustice and cruelty.
How ignorant many white British people are of our past.
The East India Company is everywhere – in so many places – country estates, buildings, legacies, its money still speaks. Often when we look for connections on internet searches (between our host venue or city and the themes of Common Salt), of course they don’t appear, because it’s generally undocumented (the East India Company at Home AHRC Project was deeply important in relation to exposing the connections between some country estates and colonialism). Then we chip away a bit at a place and we find those implications rise up and appear – for example recently finding out that Stourhead, a National Trust property just down the road from me in Frome, has historic connections with East India Company bankers. I’ve been there a few times – had no idea – and I look for connections!! There’s a lot more exposure to be done about how Britain accrued wealth through slavery and extortion and how it treated people and cultures through colonialism.
Who I follow on Twitter has changed – I really want to listen to and hear the voices talking about the problems, issues and the culture for people of colour, the historic prejudice, social injustice, racism, colonialism. I’ve had an education from that and I’m very grateful for that, and try to do what I can to share and support those voices. It’s illuminated my ignorance and deepened my understanding. Still a long way to go.
The fact that I have been following some interests, themes and objects for a long time, trying to find out what they mean in the layers and layers. And Common Salt has illuminated these connections: my live talk / artwork about tigers (It Is For The Tiger 2005-08) was inspired by a childhood memory of finding a crate of tiger skins in a relative’s house clearance and how he had shot them in India, and that opened up some connections between my family and colonial India. That I’ve worked with salt, flowers and money before, and how some objects recur and your hands search them out again and again.
And Sheila – about your experience of and feelings about your mixed heritage and what that means, something of your world, your experiences and your fears and discomforts.
How difficult it is to approach repair, restitution, reckoning. I am hugely inspired by those undertaking it.
The books I’ve been reading that don’t have missing chapters!
Many many things have been illuminated from making Common Salt. I’m glad for it.
Sheila – Tell me about the objects that you have brought to the Common Salt table, about how you move them around in the show (their choreography) and your interest and fascination with objects.
One of the reasons I love objects is that they have associations which it’s possible to play with or against … Little stories get pulled into the room with each item that’s presented – personal / functional / historical etc. And, these stories can change or be affected when they’re placed in relation to each other … I originally trained in dance (as you know), and so am also interested in the patterns and arrangements they can be placed in, how they enter and exit the table-top performance space, how they relate to each other. I often talk about what I do as an artist as the choreography of objects …
Objects are also everywhere yet we rarely spend time considering them … Like really staring at the cup that your coffee comes in and considering its form, who made it, what it’s made of etc.
In Common Salt I would say that about half of the objects chose us … Mainly because we didn’t have any budget when we were first making the work. So there was always a bit of just grabbing what was about, or in my studio or your house or garden, that seemed to fit at first … And then those things just stuck. The other half were chosen very carefully of course, but several were just to do with chance … Like the 3d egg cards for example … And the plastic box hedge ball. They were both from other projects I’d done … The hedgehogs were from my Grandma’s house (cleared out when she died), the plastic kestrel / bird something that’s sat on various shelves I’ve owned for years … However there’s no laziness there – I think the fact that we could do that is testament to the various subject matters in Common Salt being something we’ve both been exploring for ages beyond this particular work … It’s like any artist going back to the same palette … and I’m all for flow … for economy … for digging into the archive in order to re-present / re-use something…
Having said that I remember the day when I came to your Art Club and David produced that amazing feather he’s got and I felt a bit mournful about some of the objects we place on the table in Common Salt. They could be such a different set of things – like glorious truly unusual things. In some ways the objects we present are very mundane, like salt. There’s this awful story / history held within salt – well, multiple really … We only tell one salty story, there are of course many others …
Sue – What has the collaboration felt like for you?
Good. Easy. Lucky. Complimentary. Very interesting and artistically stimulating.
I like the way you think about different things than me – your particular attention to details, to objects, to qualities. Your sensitised awareness to things that would have probably passed me by. I am more careful now, and a bit slower around assumption, prejudice and judgment. I’ve benefited from your caring – your slow care – in a good way. The collaboration is steady and strong.
You can’t name what makes collaboration work. Teaching at Dartington College of Arts over a decade ago, the practice that the theatre team pursued in the teaching and making with students was usually based around collaboration – students were required to collaborate to devise. Some collaborations instantly thrived, others were a disaster. On reflection, we didn’t allow for the extreme of the difficulties, but we did celebrate the joys. There’s no real telling whether you’re going to have a good collaboration even with good intentions and artistic parallels. It is like a relationship – you just feel lucky when it works and you relish the mystery – a chemistry mystery. And it doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll work again in another time and place, so I don’t take it for granted, although I have come to rely on it.
I think we have worked around some kind of unspoken collaboration guidelines that we have not explicitly named yet have kept to – something like:
- Not having expectations, but anticipating commitment and integrity
- Allowing our individual leanings and skills to have their moments and to take hold. For example, I have leaned more into the text of the piece, and you into the objects, yet there is so much crossover, like you writing the laments, early on, and they have hardly changed. You just wrote them and made them, and I had no need to meddle.
- Enthusiasm for each other’s interests and skills
- Recognising what the other person is good at and not making each other do things we don’t want to do. But taking the slack too: I refuse to iron (on a now possibly out of date feminist principle) and you always iron the costumes
- Listening to what’s going on for each other personally in life
- Questioning everything
- A complimentary way of working through artistic snags and problems – does this work? no? what about this then … I know … ummm … maybe …
- Assembling things and seeing what works – a crafting through action
- Trusting in your skill and perception
- Only a few times has it been scratchy and we know when that’s happening: too much online skyping, a tricky room to organise to host the show, too much admin, too much producing (which takes so much time) and not enough art.
Both of us make work that is personally important to us, is structured like a talk or presentation, relates to place, values intimacy and care of the audience, is about nature and other species, and neither of us want to throw ourselves at walls.
The fact I’m always 10 minutes late and you don’t mind.
The unfolding, and the way we have endured on this project – since 2014!! – that’s 6 years – unbelievable – it was only supposed to go on for a year wasn’t it? We’ve ridden out the endless difficulties we’ve had with determination and quiet persistence – and I also want to mention our producer Sally Rose here: writing 13 different funding or residency applications before getting some seed support in 2017; waiting and waiting to get close to some of our venues – 5 years knocking on the door of Royal Museums Greenwich; getting the Arts Council contacts list for Museums and realising we pretty much already had the same list. Sometimes it’s been so difficult. But we’ve persisted.
Sheila – Have you felt awkward, or that anything is awkward, either in the project or during our tour?
A few times yes.
In relation to money and how embarrassed I am that we’ve done so much for so little over the years. Obviously it’s started to even itself out now we’ve had investment from Arts Council England, but it was a slow road. I’ve really wondered at my own folly in relation to that, and on occasion felt awkward that I invited you into the project in the first place (through Rambles with Nature). I’m still taken aback that we pitched it to so many places and in so many ways only to be turned down, before we managed to get even the littlest amounts to make the piece. It just makes you feel like a terrible artist! – that you’re not trusted to make something worthwhile, or that people aren’t interested. I’ve wondered a few times too if there’s an East India Company curse.
And I still feel awkward when I think back to when I got ill at BAC London. We found out I had Graves’ when we were rehearsing just before opening the piece in May 2018. It solved a mystery because I knew I was being a bit weird during that time, but didn’t quite know why … I felt ‘out of body’, tired, had tremors, migraines etc. I find it very difficult to think back to that time because I must have been a nightmare to work with! You were just so patient …
And in relation to the performance itself … Usually it really resonates and sings as a work with remarkably little effort from us, but every now again it feels like we’ve performed a duffer. I definitely felt that recently at one of our venues. It’s the horror and joy of live performance – that everyone in the room and the context the piece is happening in, contributes to the atmosphere, to the feeling, to whether it works or not. I know the piece really did work for some people in that particular venue (as we had conversations with them afterwards), but it also felt very odd, like everyone was very far away …
Sue – What role do the many species and creatures play in Common Salt?
They populate the journey and the layers of the story. They show how natural history and colonialism are intimately connected. They are celebrated and mourned – they take up space on the table both as presence and absence.
Animals first appear in Common Salt through speaking the names of Eliza Brightwen’s menagerie that she collected and kept at the Grove in Stanmore – a kind of idealised domestic zoo that we ourselves might have loved – tame robins feeding from your hand, a lemur living in the conservatory. These animals populate the table as a charming Victorian world of collecting and keeping, a world of identification and observation. These creatures are also investigated and dissected as part of an enthusiastic study of nature, and we draw on and reference Eliza’s Home Museum that she created on her billiard table at the Grove. We place gift shop models of hedgehogs alongside a real bird’s nest found in my garden. We use different cultural representations of animals – like the cigarette cards featuring birds eggs – to reflect how weird humans are in their desires and needs.
Then we twist to another kind of species list: we speak the names of the thousands of Indian bird species killed and collected by East India Company officers like Octavian Hume – himself a natural historian – who on his days off from working as a commissioner for the East India Company, amassed the largest collection of specimens ever given to the Natural History Museum in London. Species were abundantly killed and collected both as trophies – such as tigers as referenced in your costume – and for museums and scientific study. Colonialism formed both the means and structure for collecting, and the display of species for human study and entertainment.
The robin has a particular place in Common Salt. When we went on one of our first research adventures together to see what had become of Eliza’s Grove in 2014, we found the old Grotto that featured in her books, hidden in the undergrowth, and there was a robin singing beside us. The recording that is playing as the audience comes into Common Salt was recorded in the woodland around that Grotto – birds and planes.
Robins are known for being consistent to place, and the robin singing at the Grotto may well have been a descendent from Eliza’s robins. There was also a beautiful piece of writing we found describing how a robin had visited Eliza as she lay dying, sitting on her the edge of her cup, at the Grove in 1906.
Towards the end, we bring the robin’s song onto the table using a Bird ID app on a mobile phone – an unsentimental yet strangely tender way of making the absent present.
Sheila – List three things that you wish could happen with Common Salt
1. I still wish we could share the piece in some of the institutions that we’ve approached but have got nowhere with! Like the V&A where lots of East India Company stuff is on display, or the Natural History Museum where Hume’s bird collection ended up … Perseverance definitely pays off as we’ve managed to get into a few key spaces after years and years of trying, but we just don’t have capacity to keep on pursuing all of them do we? Especially now – since our producer Sally Rose is now more of an advisor it’s just you and me doing the producing for pretty much nothing. It can take ages to find the right person to contact. And then there also has to be a bit of luck on our side meaning that we fit into a theme or season, or that the person programming will take a leap of faith and trust that it’s worth their while to let us in … They’re often already really rushed off their feet and we’re this weird ‘event’ for a very small audience that needs a quiet space but wants to perform in relation to an object or picture that’s usually very public. It’s very complicated … I suddenly feel really grateful to the places that do say yes!
2. I’d love the piece to reach a wider audience than the live one and to not disappear without a trace once we stop sharing it … and for more ‘gate-keepers’ to see it (those people that have a bit of sway / power or that we really admire). But again, that takes a bit of capacity to build up interest, and more of that ever elusive luck … I guess that’s why we’re making our Common Salt book. The whole piece is about evidencing and re-telling a few stories that have been forgotten about, but that shouldn’t have been … Perhaps what I’m really saying here is that I’d love our piece not to be forgotten. Maybe a fool’s errand now I come to think of it – so few people have actually seen it compared to say a mainstream gallery show or sit-down theatre piece. I don’t know … I just have so much drive in relation to this tiny little piece of work … but we’re just ants!
3. For it to be shown in India. Imagine that! Unlikely though given the current circumstances… Will we ever be able to travel normally again?
Lastly Sheila – An extra question / coda : What’s the moment you most look forward to in the show?
I always like Turn 6 (our piece is structured as 7 Turns and an Island from the design of Hampton Court maze) as the whole piece binds together, and if we get it right you can feel the whole room shiver with something like recognition. Or sadness. Or understanding … or something … And I love it when I blow the cardoon seed into the air and it really floats, and then I say What do we do? … Because what do we do? To sort everything out. The mess of the world? It’s so complicated and such a massive question… And your answer always feels so perfect …
I also love it when you share the titles of Frankie Avalon’s films … They always make me feel a bit hysterical.
Sue – What’s the moment you most look forward to in the show?
I think it’s soon after the Hedge Removal video which is two-thirds through the show, because we take such a weird set of segways and connections: the YouTube video of the guy removing the privet hedge by force connects not to the hedge as you might expect, but to the soundtrack that’s been used which is The Vaccines’ Teenage Icon, and that song name-checks Frankie Avalon and we loop that to the fact that Frankie’s been forgotten about, and link that to your Dad and you talking in the kitchen about forgetting history and then comes the list that we both speak together Everything is going to be forgotten and we have a slight dissonance between the tones of our voices that we have never planned, but when that happens it gives me a shiver that something is happening and we’re changing the air. I do believe in the power of language and the naming of something being part of a mending.
And then we’re on into Turn 6, the questions and answers, which I always look forward to – sometimes you can feel the audience running with you, jig-sawing the pieces together that we have dispersed across the table, and it starts to connect and stack and layer. And I always like asking you Sheila – Will the kids be alright? That is part of laying out the conditions for an intense atmosphere for how the blown seed will fly and fall.
Supported using public funds by the National Lottery through Arts Council England. Developed with support from b-side and One Final Act by Rajni Shah Projects.