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Mutiny on the Process of ‘Devising’

We are a working group of artists, making projects across disciplines and digital media. Increasingly, other people describe us as an ‘artists collective’ which actually does define our approach well, although we never defined ourselves in that way. We are excited about working with live presence, mediated experiences and the potential to use technologies as a part of making, producing and distributing our work.

Devising forms a central role in what we do. For Future and Form, we have had to devise online, using Zoom for all three projects. It’s not ideal, as we like to ‘get in the room’ and build rapport and meet people. But the devising techniques have proven surprisingly robust in these projects.

At the inception we knew that the overarching process was ‘R&D’ but as the projects unfolded within the context of being presented at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, it became clear that we would need to adjust this – because audiences are demanding, they don’t expect things to be in a testing mode. However, we have held onto the tails of R&D, with the support of Tim Wright, Executive Producer, and the UEA academics.

Being a ’technical partner’ was unlikely to be the deal as far as we were concerned, we felt certain it would be more. Devising takes us beyond this, where the lines of making and shaping a creative work blur. We have had a formative creative role in all three of the works, pushed even further by the need to have mitigation in place for the COVID-19 pandemic. All three writers have worked with us openly and generously in the process of devising out the projects.

With Eleanor, by Imogen Hermes Gowar, we worked with the writer on the medieval route through Norwich. The devising method involved meetings with the Castle Museum in Norwich, an informative walk through the city with Dr Tim Pestell, Curator of Archaeology and roundtable discussions with Professor Rebecca Stott, academic lead for the project.

Building an Open Source web app is not to be considered lightly, as the technical challenges are much higher than for a native iOS or Android app. However, the benefits are the ability to make something that can be rapidly updated and changed in code. Sophie Mellor built the main shell of code using LeafletJS and ARJS. We also worked with Nicolo Carpignoli on some of the AR code. Lining up story and assets for a walking experience is an odd combination of coding and GPS coordination. On two occasions, with roles reversed, Sophie and I worked between our studio in Plymouth and a laptop on the ground in Norwich lining up the assets, using latitude and longitude coordinates. This approach is more akin to the work of the SAS, than an exercise in new writing.

An important stage in the story was to involve Jean Pierre Rasle in scoring the music. This has given the project a wonderful tone of early music, recorded by him. This was then augmented by the foley work of Sandy Nuttgens (part of the collective). Imogen was very keen to voice up her own writing and this gives the experience an intimacy, where the listener is right up close to the writer. We are really pleased with this work.

Provenance, by Ayobami Adebayo, was entirely devised over Zoom with multiple scripts passing backwards and forwards. Both Sophie Mellor and Marcus Romer played a key role in producing scripts and visual treatments for the work in progress. The central story idea was shaped early on, but of course the elaborations of a novel (script outline) could not be achieved on the budget and within COVID. Sophie and I have worked on a number of three screen installations and we felt this might work as a way to present the work. From this point, Marcus worked closely to devise out a script that could be shot either in Lagos or Norwich. As the second wave hit the UK, it became clear that our best intentions to do this were not feasible. The devising process eventually led us to a way to shoot a restricted number of actors in a COVID secure studio at Riverside Studios in London and to use a Nigerian illustrator, Osaze Amadasun, to convey the historical narrative. Provenance really is a film about what can be done in a pandemic. Marcus cast and crewed the shoot, with academic lead Professor Jean McNeil attending. Lateral flow tests and wiping down of props and kit had to be factored in.

© Jean McNeil

The live presentation of Provenance at Dragon Hall, Norwich, at the Writer’s Centre, has been a revelation and reward to us all, after the perpetual mode of Zoom. Devising the work at this point required consideration of what can be done in a listed building, as well as our intention to work to the brief of Future and Form, in terms of new writing. The work straddles the live and digital spaces; it is an example of a piece of writing and an artwork that can morph itself. We imagine that one future of new writing will be understanding the temporal, spatial and extended nature of experience (predicted back in the 1960s by Marshall McLuhan).

Shifting Lines, by Mona Arshi, was the third devised project. Mona had a clear idea of working with traditional poetic forms, such as the ghazal, as well as a desire to ‘jump in’ to the technical frame. This meant that she worked with us on the recording and post-processing of her work. The outcome is something that is experimental in form and able to engage audiences at the Norfolk Wildlife Trust site at Cley in North Norfolk. Again this was achieved through the extended nature of digital production and a considerable amount of trust from the writer back to us. Once the sound files had been processed and shaped, we then built ’the machine’ in Resolume (VJ software) with stunning photographs and video from Matthew Usher.

© Matthew Usher

Perhaps this work meets the R&D brief the most, in that we would not expect to see a work like this in this location. Shifting Lines, as an installation, iterates an idea of a work that can take in live data, recorded elements and re-processing. On the digital spectrum this gives us a work that is both far and near, while also telling us about the fragile nature of Cley in itself.

Professor Henry Sutton has stood by us throughout the working process, even when it looked unlikely that any work would meet a physical audience. We thank him for this.

Simon Poulter, for Mutiny, May 2021