Artists Helen McCrorie and Emmie McLuskey participated in Collective’s Satellites Programme, getting to know each other’s work through a series of crits and retreats leading up to solo shows at Collective in 2019. Here they talk about McCrorie’s film If play is neither inside nor outside, where is it? (single-channel, HD video, 25min).
The film explores play and learning, following a child-led outdoor playgroup based at Cultybraggan Camp in Scotland. This former military camp, near McCrorie’s base in Perthshire, was transformed by a community buyout into a hub for small businesses, community groups and a growing community orchard.Originally built as a prisoner of war camp, the site also houses a Cold War bunker that is being converted into a data storage facility. The film contrasts the children’s creative outdoor play against the backdrop of military architecture with the privately-owned bunker interior and its hard drive stacks.
E: How did you approach working with and directing children?
H: I was there smiling at them. If they wanted to come over and play with the camera or microphone they were allowed to do that. They were very absorbed and tended not to interact with me but a couple of times I was invited into a game of hide and seek. In advance, I laid down the rule that I would never direct the children.
E: I’m interested in how you see the position of the camera in your work — it operates as an observer, recording and witnessing as opposed to diagnosing or constructing. We’ve spoken previously about your approach to filmmaking as being ‘embedded’. How did your process evolve over the course of filming?
H: I’d been thinking about, and observing the playgroup for a long time, as I set it up for my own kids in 2012. The first time I joined it as an artist was in 2014. I knew then I’d come back to it. I’m drawn to places and situations that I can’t get out of my head, that excite me visually but also pose questions about human activities and behaviours, how these are shaped by power structures and how meaning is constructed. Filmmaking is a way to explore and learn. I feel like the children, learning from the materials — the work leads on from that. I end up gathering a lot of material and the editing process is like collage. Sifting through materials I’ve collected and trying to make sense of it all.
E: How did you come to this point in your practice?
H: I came back after a ten year break. I do feel there’s a bit of a stigma around the idea of a career break for an artist.
E: What did it feel like, coming back?
H: It felt like it was something I needed to do, that I didn’t have much choice. I’d been doing bits of creative writing over that time but was mainly bringing up my children and working to support my family. It felt daunting not knowing so many people, the art scene had changed, artists I knew had moved away to Berlin and London, and lots more artists had moved to Glasgow in recent years.
I moved to a place not known for contemporary art. In terms of studio practice, there are some advantages in this and I find myself engaging with people from different social backgrounds and professions which can lead to some interesting opportunities for film-making. At the same time you get to a certain point with your work where you need feedback from peers. I went to quite a few LUX Scotland and Collective events which was a great way of getting to know people in the arts community again and engaging with those conversations. Participating in Satellites was really fantastic as a rural artist. My practice shifted in that 10 year break, what I was drawn to do and how I felt I wanted to approach the medium has changed, it’s all new territory. Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival was also an inspiration, its community feel, seeing lots of great work there and the chance to meet amazing artists like Deborah Stratman and Peggy Ahwesh.
E: Do you think the break has helped your practice?
H: It made me braver as an artist, not as self-conscious. Now I think: What the hell! I’m going to do it anyway. I think it’s made me more sure of what I’m interested in, confident in my perspective.
E: That you took ten years out is important, there’s a drive sometimes to be constantly producing and a fetishisation of youth. There’s the idea you must have achieved a certain amount by a certain time, a pressure to perform straight out of art school. Slowing down and taking the time and space you need in order to be able to offer something is unfortunately in opposition to a lot of the capitalist structures we seem to find ourselves in.
H: Yes, these pressures distract you from your own studio practice, from your relationship with your work. How many shows do I need to do this year? Which is really secondary to feeling that you are getting a lot from your work.
E: This seems like a good point to talk about your role as a parent and whether you feel that informs your work? Do you think being a parent has impacted, or altered, what you are making?
H: During the time I had a young family, I was trying to do little bits of creative activity that could fit into a chaotic family life, stuff like writing and drawing. I started really observing and encouraging the children’s creativity. I helped run an outdoor play group in Glasgow Botanics and set one up with a friend when I moved here.
E: Why did you feel it was important to be outside?
H: Commercialism is so pervasive in childhood. Companies try to get their hands on children’sminds and what is interesting to them; the way advertising targets children; encouraging the accumulation of plastic junk. Outdoor play is not about toys with prescribed uses but about responding freely to objects and spaces. Any object can be a toy to a young child. They don’t see boundaries in what you can play with and what you can’t. All objects have potential for play and learning.
E: What do you think outdoor play offers that is different?
H: Less restrictions, permission to make a mess. It’s more exciting. You can find walls to climb, you’re allowed to engage with risk outdoors. Commercial toys and apps try to dictate how children should play. Outdoor play gives children respite from that.
E: Can you talk about the reference to D.W. Winicott’s Playing and Reality (1971). How do you speak to his writing around play being essential for psychological wellbeing, in and outside?
H: The film title is a quote from Playing and Reality. Winicott championed play in the 1940s at a time when play was trivialised. Winnicott said: ‘Cultural experience begins with creative living first manifested in play.’ He speaks of play as being the first exploration of both your interior psychological self and the exterior world around you, learning how to keep these realities separatebut interrelated, and how this is essential for our psychological well-being. I found that interesting because I was thinking a lot about why I was drawn to make this work and the relationship between play and art making. Art-making is prolonged play. Play has come into early education more withMontessori and the outdoor play movement but it’s not enough. I feel our education system is still curriculum driven and should allow for more self-directed learning. You have to encourage children’s confidence in their own abilities for that and this starts when they are really little. Play is serious work. The approach that neglects play is about social conditioning. I’m excited about the anarchic potential of play to challenge norms of social conditioning, rules that reinforce societies’ power structures.
E: How did you bring these ideas into the film? Can you give specific examples?
H: There’s a shot in the middle of the film where two children are falling down. The children are testing the limits of their bodies and their social bonds. You wouldn’t see two adults repeatedly grabbing each other and falling down. The image has lots of different connotations in it, the children are wearing very gendered clothing with slogans. You can see the influences of the adult world at an age where they are starting to pick up on social conditioning signals related to how they should behave and how they should move but they are still quite anarchic with that and turn convention on its head a bit. So I was interested in showing the way the children mess with those signals from the adult world.
E: The shot feels full of tension, it moves in multiple directions for me, particularly in relation to gender. I felt compelled to watch the children test the limits of their bodies, throwing their body weight around, despite it feeling, at the same time, problematic. I think it’s interesting you have chosen this specific age group. In your embedded approach you create a greater opportunity for chance encounter. I was thinking about this in relation to the choice to bring in your early adolescent daughter as the narrator. There is an intergenerational play with who is speaking in the film and where authority lies. Can you talk about this choice of voiceover?
H: I was thinking of the voiceover as a kind of impossible manifesto from the point of view of the children. However this manifesto could also be that of an artist or for creativity. I tried using my own voice and it sounded very teacherly and didn’t seem at all right for the dynamic. I also tried working with my youngest daughter, she’s 10 but it was quite obvious she wouldn’t use that vocabulary. In the end my 13 year old daughter did the narration as she could have written and used that language. I use a lot of voiceover in films and I’m always thinking about the authority of the voiceover and trying to push against that in some way. I felt my eldest daughter’s voice disrupts that, moving it away from an adult voice of authority.
E: I wanted to ask you about the use of sound in the work.
H: The way it was filmed meant I couldn’t have any additional crew and it was very hard to capture the location sound. As it was a social group the adults were constantly chatting — this was something I didn’t want in the work. So I held a series of sound workshops with the children, child-led sound workshops where there were lots of Loose Parts Play materials indoors. I provided noisy natural materials and objects and allowed the children to play and make lots of noise and recorded the sound. I tried one big session with the playgroup and Mark Vernon (artist and sound designer) recorded the session. It was great, a crazy chaotic orchestra but unfortunately the parents were whispering in the backgroundeven though they had been briefed. Parents naturally encourage children and a lot of play is about developing language, so parents are constantly echoing what the children are doing. It didn’t really work so I did a few other workshops with just two children where they played with materials and each other and this was really successful. The vocalisations in the film are from those sessions.
Mark and I also played with objects in the studio making Foley sounds to some of the footage. In the end the problems with location sound were fortuitous: the live recorded sound didn’t give enough weight to the children’s actions. Using Foley brings you into the tactile experience more, gives a sense of the intensity of play, engaging the imaginary worlds.
E: The architecture of the site was where I went to when writing about the film (Emmie’s text on Helen’s film: www.collective-edinbur… ) because it creates a contrast. The data centre becomes a character, a site for all these worlds to come together, enacting the relationships between past,present and future, all of it full of historic and impending violence.It is interesting to me that you chose this as a background. Relating this to your thoughts about education and play being in opposition to advertising, and outdoor play being a break from consumerism, there’s a tension hovering underneath the images — this is the crux of the film for me, it holds all the complications.
H: The location is so heavy in terms of its siting. It’s a nuclear bunker, a data centre and a POW camp. It epitomises ideas of institutional violence and control. In contrast, these children are engaged in emancipated learning, their situation advocates for care. The playgroup offers space and respect. It’s a group where individuals are allowed to have certain freedoms, embedded in a community.
Helen McCrorie, If play is neither inside nor outside, where is it?, Collective until 6 October 2019. The film will also be exhibited at The Tetley, Leeds as part of James N. Hutchinson’s exhibition Untitled from 27 September 2019 and screened in the Radar programme at Loughborough University in October 2019.
Helen McCrorie’s recent exhibitions and broadcasts include; We Are Formatives, Radiophrenia 2019; Against the Flow, Perth Playhouse Cinema, 2018; This Is It-Universe, No. 35 gallery Stirling; The Clock in Commune, Glasite House, Edinburgh Art Festival 2016.
Emmie McLuskey’s recent projects include; these were the things that made the step familiar, Collective Edinburgh; To: my future body with Janice Parker, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin; The Perfect, Perfect Look with Jude Browning and Amelia Barratt, Glasgow International Festival and PAC Festival, Marseille. Emmie McLuskey, Kimberley O’Neill and Ima-Abasi Okon programme the Artist Moving Image Festival for LUX Scotland and Tramway in November 2019.
Satellites Programme is Collective’s development programme for emergent artists and producers based in Scotland. Satellites aims to support practitioners at a pivotal, emergent point in their careers through a critical programme of retreats, workshops, studio visits and group discussions, public exhibitions, events and publishing. Artists are selected from an open submission by a new panel each year. The 2018-19 participants, Helen McCrorie, Emmie McLuskey, Kimberley O’Neill and Katie Shannon, were selected by artist Kathryn Elkin, writer Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith and curator Camille Videcoq.