In Conversation-artist Molly Erin McCarthy and curator Julia Greenway about Zabludowicz Collection Invites-McCarthy’s solo debut now on until 26th Feb

Stretched out like a daydream, like another future, Molly Erin McCarthy’s invitation favours no half-published interactions. McCarthy [b.1995], a Plymouth-based artist is presenting her solo debut at the Zabludowicz Collection, an Invites Exhibition curated by Julia Greenway.


The narrative that tails throughout the exhibition is a sculptural landscape drawn out; the materials generated are loaded to not make an outflow but as an attempt to forge a newly real rendered digital universe. McCarthy’s work offers a dystopic grounding and is favoured as the lore of the land, sandbags, breezeblocks, lichen, and industrial slag are all materially implicated: an imprint balancing on breaking form to not leave the viewer behind.

The works in view deal with an expansive approach to the material, for filler forms, staged dioramas, and resin-made retroactive symbols that are seemingly inconsequential as the language we use, – as limited as the language we use forge this digitised feeder tableau which abstracts new from the very material at hand. This plays to a trying, a kind of fictioning, a building up of a monument.

Molly Erin McCarthy at Zabludowicz collection.
Picture copyright David Bebber

The Celtic iconography registers with the Zabludowicz Collection’s own church architecture, with works RE:Chayn, [2023] and Spire, [2023] in direct conversation with the stained-glass window. Spire being settled as if it always was meant to be on the window pane, – made from a prophetic dream, the miniature floodlights are most assuredly homegrown. The black sandbags appear as sticky as tar and the khaki dust sheets are almost luminescent under the direction of the overhead lighting, fixing the audience’s view to go further ahead. At the end of the path, when crossed is the interactive virtual environment of the piece SDiAR ver.1.321618720143181418 [2023], the audience is permitted to transverse this open-world-making. All this makes plans with complex aesthetic visions, all collapsed into one another, as the surface becomes structure; the techno-gothic and the noughties visuals are reckoned with their placement in previous, present, and new futures. McCarthy’s authorship spray paints a true aesthetic drive for a digital resolve, for other futures it seems. This endeavoured forgery of worlds carries a superior interiority, which many may find is a home, a storied narrative built from an open-world interactive game.


To know more about the exhibition, we spoke with artist Molly Erin McCarthy and curator Julia Greenway about the run-up, the works presented, and the Invites as a programme at the Zabludowicz Collection as a whole.

Questions with Artist Molly Erin McCarthy

How has this experience of being part of the Invite Artists Programme, challenged previous presentations of your work, and has this stage impacted choices made, ideas had or any new directions went?

I am predominantly known for my digital practice. In Plymouth, I have a catalogue of physical and sculptural works, but mostly I am involved in digital exhibitions and contexts. My Invites show at the Zabludowicz Collection allowed for the staging of my work in a new way. I felt free to go in a new direction which is not common; most exhibition opportunities have strict perimeters that your work needs to fit into, but with Invites, I have been able to push the boundaries of my practice. I had an idea of the exhibition I wanted to make and have been supported to realise it.

Working with the notion of the ‘real,’ how did you prepare for this in-person exhibition at Zabludowicz, as a space to embody, and as a setting to establish this hybrid environment between the digital and physical, fact and fiction that your practice navigates so well?

This exhibition is the result of a few years of physical and digital world building. I wanted the exhibition space to feel as if the viewer was being transported to a hybrid environment – one that’s a combination of a military apocalypse bunker and a spiritual shrine. For the show, I’ve made an installation, sculptural pieces, and a new interactive game-engine work. What I’ve set out to create is the sublime, eerie elements of the landscape I grew up in. I feel the outcome is quite bleak and dystopian, but my intention was that there would be an inspired conclusion. The installation consists of all the elements of a coastal shelter but, as viewers engage with the work and play the game, they will make discoveries and a narrative will gradually unfold.

Your world-building work seems to play to a new wor[l]ding, gaining a visual language as a way of knowing, – as learning to know. How did you conceptualise the physicalism of some of your sculptural work over your time with the Zabludowicz Collection? What did you learn from this experience of world-building?

In the same way that I take inspiration from video games, I have also been influenced by model making such as Dungeons and Dragon terrain and hobbyist railways.

The fabrication of my work also comes from my Dad, who makes sculptural assemblages of found and industrial materials. In model making, there is a crossover with these materials and I felt really comfortable taking that on. In the same way that I navigate the intersection between the digital and physical aspects of my work, model-making felt like a natural progression for me and my practice.

The miniature works included in this show are the physical realisation of the digital assets found in the game work. I wanted to shift the scale for the viewer and have them uncover these small elements. It’s my intention to have these discoverable moments that allow pieces of the narrative to come together. 

Your expansive practice has a distinct aesthetic core from the geological landscapes, the technological age, and soul-to-body gothic. How do you hope your audience will approach and personify your work and its lore? What do you hope their expectations will be when they leave your work and its narrative behind, – if they really do?

You can’t really expect anything, but I hope visitors leave with a sense of curiosity of not knowing what is or isn’t real. My ambition is that they leave feeling transported, for the work to provide a temporary moment of escapism, but I also hope that the viewer walks away feeling like they’ve seen a version of Cornwall that may not have seen before. Maybe that’s part of where this work comes from: I want people to know that there’s more going on out here in ‘the sticks’ than they might think. It’s almost like a love letter to the mysticism of the region. Ultimately, I want the viewer to be curious and enveloped by the narrative of my version of Cornwall. It sounds quite selfish when I say it like that, but hopefully, viewers will reflect on what they have seen along the way.

As your exhibition enters its first week to the public, what would you like to tell the next recipient of the Invites?   

Take risks and push an idea that you haven’t been able to explore through past opportunities. Also, talk to other people, show your idea to others and bring in collaborators – don’t do it alone. Getting feedback along the way was really helpful for me.

Molly Erin McCarthy at Zabludowicz collection.
Picture copyright David Bebber

Questions with Curator Julia Greenway 

The Invites Programme is definitively devout in the artist’s utter inhabitation of the Zabludowicz space, transforming for each Invite. How does this narrative building appear to evolve and re-world with each artist Invite? Have there been pointed expectations made each time or were surprises not foreseen every time?

The Invites exhibitions are fully led by the artist. We provide curatorial and production input along the way, but it is our main objective to support an artist to realise the fullest capacity of their practice with the opportunity. As with any production or exhibition, a proposal is generated with the artist, and as works start to materialise in the physical space amendments often occur. The process itself is determined by the artist and practice that we are supporting at this particular time, for example, a performance artist is going to have a different set of considerations than an artist that makes paintings.

How do you think the Invites Programme has enabled the selected artists over the years to make new opportunities and futures for their work?

It is our hope that the Invites programme acts as a form of career and professional development at a pivotal moment in a young or emerging artist’s career. Invites can often lead to an artist’s work being acquired into collections or future exhibition opportunities. Additionally, the curatorial support and contextualising of one’s practice can really propel artists into the next stage of their careers.

Three UK-based and non-gallery-represented artists are given the chance at a dedicated solo exhibition each year. What has been a rewarding moment for you and for the Invites?

I feel quite privileged to work so closely with the Invites level artists and support them to execute a solo presentation. Working collaboratively with artists is the foundation of my practice and it feels a natural fit for me to work alongside them through the Invites programme. In terms of a rewarding moment, I think this happens in the aftermath of the exhibition when artists come back to us saying the Invites exhibition led to further opportunities in the success and visibility of their work.

What was the triggered instigator for the inception of Invites, and what have been the structural changes from its drawing board beginnings to now?

The Invites series was initiated in 2012 to take up the support that the Collection has always given young artists and bring it to the foreground of the programme. The original schedule of one exhibition a month was quite challenging for both visitors and artists, and we have since expanded the scope to a few shows per year for a longer duration. This is important for artists to realise new work and plan for an ambitious installation process.

I have been leading Invites since 2021 so I am still new to the development of the programming. When I look towards whom to put forward for the opportunity, I set out to showcase a diversity of practices. I want to push the exhibitions to feel widely different from one presentation to the next, I think this keeps the programming dynamic. I am attracted to more experimental and technological based practices; shows like Molly’s where game play and world-building are at the core of the exhibition is a very exciting outcome for me.

What has attached you to Invites to be continuing and building growth since, and what do you plan the coming years to look like for such an inviting programme?

I think there is room for Invites to grow. I would like to provide the artists with a larger space, more funding, and possibly even shifting the way we present their work. All in all, Invites is at the core of the Collection and one of the most valuable and rewarding aspects of our programme, and I foresee us only continuing to lean further into the space of supporting artists throughout different stages of their practices. Few organisations provide such support to early career artists who need it the most.

 The Invites series’ previous recipients include most recently in the 2022 season, Shinkuk Suh, and Rebecca Parkin. As well as previous artists Lindsey Mendick who was most recently part of the Hayward Gallery’s exhibition ‘Strange Clay’ and Heather Philipson, who has been shortlisted for the 2022 Turner prize. Molly Erin McCarthy our current artist Invite offers a new date for the calendar, Invites Artist Presentation: Molly Erin McCarthy on Sunday 5th February at 3 pm. You will be able to join McCarthy for a live twitch stream tour of her interactive work.

Molly Erin McCarthy’s exhibition offers a malleable conceptual: a formalisation of false starts, bits of time, and escaped reality. The physical is learning to see, a new landing playing so well between the physical and the non-physical, an Invite to accept.

For more information: Invites: Molly Erin McCarthy | Zabludowicz Collection | London Art Gallery

By Devika Pararasasinghe

Devika is currently living and working in London, by trade an artist. Devika graduated, as of September with a research MFA at Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford. Devika’s latest Review: The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion – Saatchi Gallery-Now on, until 22 January 2023 (abundantart.net)

Image: 1. Molly Erin McCarthy, O.O.S., 2022. Digital collage. Courtesy the artist. 2. Invites Molly Erin McCarthy, SDiAR ver.1.321618720143181418. Installation view 2023 at the Zabludowicz Collection. Photo David Bebber. 3. Invites Molly Erin McCarthy, Spire. installation view 2023 at the Zabludowicz Collection. Photo David Bebber. 4. Invites Molly Erin McCarthy, ReNew. Installation view 2023 at the Zabludowicz Collection. Photo David Bebber. 5.Invites: Shinuk Suh, 2022. Installation view. Photo David Bebber. 6. Invites: Rebecca Parkin, 2022. Installation view. Courtesy of the artist and Zabludowicz Collection. Photo: Dave Bebber

In Conversation: Chinese Pole Artist Mikael Bres now performing with La Clique at Underbelly Festival, Leicester Square Spiegeltent

PARCE QUE … A man is here, alone, dancing on the edge of his forbidden love, he would give everything to get back to her, all his memories rise in his head, he sees her face, smells her perfume and feels her arms around him. Prior to his La Clique run, we chat to Mikael Bres who dances, moves, climbs around and on a pole, defying the gravity, dropping and catching himself just before hitting the ground!


What is your feeling at that precise moment when you are high up on the pole defying gravity?

The funny thing is that I’m scared of heights. But when I’m performing, with the lights, the music I feel free, and it feels so good to be able to share my art with the public.

When did you start Chinese pole dancing and how did you identify it as your calling?

I’ve started pole back in 2005 and I had 4 years of intense training in an established school of circus in Brussels called ESAC.  It was really hard at the beginning but later I learnt how to tame the form.

Does one need to have a dance or sports background to start on Chinese pole act?

To do an act of pole or any kind of performing arts you need a bit of sport or dance background or movement understanding.

Do you choreograph your routines? What is your inspiration to create?

Yes, I choreograph my pieces, I have so many inspirations that I have collected over the years. Personally, I don’t like when it’s just acrobatics on a pole. I tend to make it more fluid and link the floor moves and the pole moves to create more like an acrobatic dance piece. I love contemporary dance, break dancing in particular.

What is your usual training regime/schedule, that keeps you at your best?

I don’t have a specific regime, but I go to the gym to do some muscles preparation and conditioning to keep up. I feel that the main thing is to be happy and enjoy every time I jump on stage.

Would you encourage people of all ages and skill levels to try this art form?

I would certainly encourage people, but we need to know that it’s hard work and to be able to work with professional companies you really need to train hard and never give up.

Are we seeing more women joining in this art form?

Yes, women Chinese pole performers are increasing in number. I personally like their flow and flexibility in this art form. Visually powerful and beautiful!

What is the key to success as a Chinese pole artist?

The key to success is really to have your unique style, your own way to move and hard work!

You have travelled across the world with your performances. What is your experience of presenting to a culturally diverse audience?

In every country I’ve performed, the audiences have been super focussed, doesn’t matter the ethnicities. What I love is, they are all welcoming despite cultural differences. Fiji, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Australia and many others – it’s just so amazing to be a citizen of the world and share life and passion!

Interview by Abundant Art

You can find our latest interviews here Interviews | Abundant Art

 Foot Notes:

Mikael Bres graduated from school in Avignon, in the South of France, with a major in literature and art. He attended ESAC Home – École Supérieure des Arts du Cirque (esac.be) – the college of circus arts in Belgium and learnt to master the Chinese Pole as well as acrobatics, dance and theatre. Since leaving, Mikael has travelled the world with circus companies including Circle of Eleven and Cirque Du Soleil and has worked with Underbelly on Limbo and Limbo Unhinged. Throughout his travels he has also taught himself to sing, beat box and play guitar and saxophone.

LA CLIQUE La Clique (lacliquetheshow.com)

Leicester Square Spiegeltent

Christmas in Leicester Square WC2H 7NA

9th November – 7th January

Tickets: underbellyfestival.com / www.ChristmasInLeicesterSquare.com.


In Conversation: Choreographer Jasmin Vardimon on ALiCE – a dance adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, at Sadler’s Wells on 28 & 29 Oct and on tour

This autumn, internationally acclaimed Jasmin Vardimon Company presents the world premiere of Alice, a bold re-imagining of Lewis Carrol’s ground-breaking 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  Created and choreographed by artistic director Jasmin Vardimon, with design by Guy Bar-Amotz, Alice promises, a sensory feast of arresting images, powerful performers and striking kinetic scenery. Ahead of its run at Sadler’s Wells Abundant Art got to know more about the production from the woman behind the company, her early dance career and the company’s role in the dance community during the pandemic.



What does ALiCE in your new production embody?

ALiCE is re-imagination of the classic Alice in Wonderland.  I focused my adaptation on the narrative of a young girl undergoing the powerful experience of adolescence and the effect that her body changing has on her identity and her relation and understanding of the world around her.

What is your memory of the first moment you thought about creating AlLiCE?

Time. Representation of time moving. It is the first theme that appears in the book, and it represents the cycle and transitions through life.

In reimagining ALiCE you are telling the story of a woman or child and their identity. How do you relate your growing up years and that of the current generation to this theme?

Through my current perspective and experience of being a mother of a teenage girl, I reflected on that transitional time into womanhood. Although times have changed, the issues are as relevant today, as they were when I grew up, and they will always be – the realisation that the time to be a child is running out, and one’s own changing identity as we progress through life. Questioning our identity, while dealing with body changes, both in adolescence and later on in menopause are key to our emotional journey and I reflect on these through the characters of Alice and the red queen.

Do you think that the perspective of the society has evolved through time in respect to women and identity?

Certainly, now we have much more awareness and openness to questioning one’s own identity.

Through the story the caterpillar is changing into a butterfly, while questioning Alice for her identity. For me it represents our changing identity as we progress through life.

In terms of awareness of the issues many women are facing through both adolescence and menopause, I think there is still a long way to go.

Please share some highlights of the creative process for you and the team while making ALiCE?

One section we’ve enjoyed creating started from a sort of a personal wink to my own teenage daughter. It was a fun day playing and creating this section which stayed in the piece. Another moment the dancers enjoyed a lot was a game we’ve created, but in the end, I decided not to include it in the piece.


Any challenges you faced as a young dancer or when you first set out to start your own company. How did you overcome? This is for all the young aspiring dancers looking up to you and are inspired by your journey. 

Starting the company was very challenging on many levels. I moved to London to be with my partner after a serious injury I had, which I thought would lead to the end of my dancing career. I’ decided to start creating but had no money to even book a rehearsal space.  I got access to an old, deserted gym, which was dirty, cold and with concrete floor, but it was enough as a place to explore ideas.  That’s where I and two friends I met in London created my first piece Therapist.  One of them is Luke, who has been one of the main company dancers over 18 years and is still working with me till today.

We’d like to share a little story before we move on to the next question. During Lockdown Abundant Art created a documentary film called Moving Forward Looking Back #2020 supported by Arts Council England, on the real-life stories of three dancers coping with the pandemic and how it affected their careers. One of the protagonists, a young dancer from Nottingham who had then recently graduated from Trinity Laban had moved base to Wales. The pandemic hit right at the juncture when she was about to start her dance career. Overnight she lost work. All sources of income dried up, she faced the worst challenges that life could bring and lost hope to dance again. She mentions in the film that, thanks to Jasmine Vardimon Company for introducing online classes in those early days of lockdown, which she could access, that she couldn’t otherwise dream of attending. This was the turning point during lockdown for her. She felt renewed hope and strength to move on and look for work as conditions gradually eased.

We would like to take the opportunity to thank you for Jasmin Vardimon Company’s initiatives during those dark days to support dancers.

Thank you for your kind words. I wasn’t aware of this film, and it truly makes me happy to hear.

Please could you share a little bit about these lockdown initiatives which you had started in the early phases and what helped you as a company to survive the storm?

When Covid started, I thought about how to continue and engage our freelance dancers, and how to continue our artistic work. We decided to offer our dancers work leading classes and sharing our practice with others. It was free for all to join, and at the same time it provided work to our freelance dancers.

Later we’ve created Alice in VR Wonderland, which was a way I chose to both continue creating and sharing artistic experience, and at the same time researching ideas for the stage production of ALiCE.

The company is about to move into its new home in Ashford. Will the new space in any way contribute to new creative thinking?

I hope it will be a place where we exchange ideas, develop creative thinking and investigate new collaborations – creative hub for artistic research and creative study, where there is a fertile ground for both creation and new learning.

What are the audiences looking forward to next from Jasmin Vardimon Company?

We are planning to open more training programmes, like our JV2 programme, and to offer other opportunities to collaborate, produce and present works in our new building. At the same time, we will continue touring and presenting work elsewhere.

Footnote: Jasmin Vardimon’s ALiCE is currently on tour and is at Sadler’s Wells on 28 & 29 October.  Full details – https://jasminvardimon.com/ The company’s new building JVHome opens in Ashford in December. 

Image ©Tristram Kenton

Interview by Protima Chatterjee

To watch the film: MOVING FORWARD, LOOKING BACK #2020 – Stories of Bravery and Resilience, Artists During lockdown – A short documentary film – Abundant Art




Sean BW Parker In Conversation-His book ‘States of Independence’ is a celebration of independent-spirited music that will have you reminiscing about moments in time!

Sean BW Parker (MA) is a writer, artist and lecturer in art, cultural studies and justice reform, born in Exeter in 1975. He lived in Istanbul for ten years where he gave TEDx talk ‘Stammering and Creativity’ at Kadir-Has University in 2013, and also lectured at Istanbul University.

I had the pleasure of meeting Sean to talk about his latest book ‘States of Independence’ which takes you back to times in your life where music was key in London’s cultural scene. All the tracks Sean writes about will undoubtedly have unique meanings to different people and reading about them made me nostalgic about unforgettable times in my younger years. Days discovering new albums while at secondary school and gigging and dancing with friends in the 90’s and noughties to probably the best music ever written. I bet certain feelings will re-emerge when you read this book. Music is feelings and Sean does his best to look inside some of the best tracks in independent-spirited music, and to locate the root of what they really mean.

Tell us about Kate Dale who you dedicated your book to.

The book is dedicated to Kate Dale, who was a tireless champion of independent-spirited music until her death in 2017. I met her following my return from Istanbul a few years before and discovered she had worked for The Cure’s label Fiction Records in the 1980’s. I also found out she was friends with the band’s long-time producer Dave Allen, whom she brought along to my Chi-Signs mini-fest in Chichester in 2015 and was a ‘meet your hero’ moment for me. Kate would seek out and promote interesting new acts everywhere her innovative curiosity led her and would never stop in her championing of them. The arts rely on people like Kate Dale far more than it will ever acknowledge, and she continues to be greatly missed.

What inspired you to write your latest book ‘States of Independence- From Pop Art to Art Rock and Beyond’?

I found myself in a place with no access to computer or the internet, but still with an almost physical need to write. I collected up all my remembered research from years of writing about what can be called art rock and put it together with the books I could find and my fine art education (from the University of the Creative Arts). Every day we hear about songs being banned or cancelled, from Frankie’s Relax to Pharell’s Blurred Lines, so I wanted to write a book that talked about what these songs really mean, beyond the politicised headlines of the culture wars. I have a long-held belief that Pop in all its forms is not as disposable as some critics have liked to make out, and the charts have never reflected this properly (being a tool of business as they are). This book looks at big business with the appreciative eyes of an art lover or music fan.

What makes an artist different and stand out from the crowd in your opinion?

Well, if only I knew … but the honest answer is that a generous PR budget deployed with a modicum of insight and imagination will make any artist stand out from the crowd. Repetition of one voice within a sea of other one-offs will work, purely by dint of insisting on attention. Another problem is that the new progressive orthodoxy in the arts only seems to have room for positivistic identity messaging, and I struggle to see much of the whole human experience within that. Artists and art orgs all need to wrestle free of culture-political considerations, otherwise they just become poster-children for another new machine.

What made you choose the artists and songs that you write about in your book?

The truthful answer to that is that they are songs which have stayed long after either their release, or when I first heard them. To counter any accusations of over-subjectivity, I made sure I analysed them for circumspection and deeper context, to make sure it wasn’t all about ‘good times’. But they’ll all be good time memories for some people! I can’t pretend Bon Jovi’s ‘You Give Love a Bad Name’ is an all-time favourite for example, but it sums up a universal transatlantic feeling in the mid-80s, so earned its place by cultural relevance (and big hair) alone. Is that song as ‘gaslighty’ as it might seem now? How important is social context in how we hear these songs? Every track covered is checked for this weight of multi-levelled meanings, beyond just the tunes.

How would you describe the spirit that connects different artists that you write about in your book i.e. Amy Winehouse, The Roots, The Cure, Public Enemy, The Flaming Lips, Blur, Bjork etc?

Great question. As your list indicates, it’s not genre that connects them, nor financial independence (re: having no money). Most of those were, or are on major labels anyway, and now every artist is, if they market their wares through Amazon, Youtube or itunes. So it’s not the financial aspect of making modern alternative music that matters, as being a part of something wider now necessitates the old-school notion of ‘selling out’, and even original 1976 punks realise that (as they pay for their grandchildren’s school fees). So, the spirit that connects those mentioned above is a spirit of idiosyncratic independence, juxtaposed with a certain stubborn charisma. They’ve been marketed and image-manipulated somewhere along the line, but their individuality stands out despite that.

What draws you towards writing about music and culture? What does music and culture mean to you?

A counsellor once told me music and culture were my ‘nurture’, and I fell back to them at times of distress through not having had enough love in the family home. To me the arts and creativity in general represent the highest of human values, outside us and within us at the same time. I have had epiphanies from experiencing a certain moment in music or film that were never replicated elsewhere. I guess that’s pretty nurturing.

Who are the writers you most admire?

They tend to be either dead males writing poetry, novels or philosophy, or living females writing about culture. Thomas Hardy wrote about British aspiration like no other. Dylan Thomas invented a new genre of the music of words through modernist poetry, and Jean-Paul Sartre explained the real roots of anxiety decades before it became endemic. Steven Pinker and Will Self are both still alive, and I’m an enthusiast of both (particularly Pinker). Ella Whelan writes and presents brilliantly on the necessity for the end of identity politics, and my guilty pleasure is Julie Burchill who writes with a sort of autistic honesty from the depths of human truth. It helps that I interviewed her a few years back too.

What would you like your readers to get out of your book?

If the reader is younger, hopefully to be turned on to an artist about whom they’d heard but didn’t know much about. If they’re older, the recognition that those songs or artists they loved so well aren’t as disposable or irrelevant as others may have made out – they were just critics, with their own axes to grind. For those between those ages, an entreaty to listen beyond what other people have said about an artist or song, to listening to the song itself. Do you really think it’s so immoral for Rod Stewart to write a whole song celebrating someone’s legs? How do we feel about Freddie Mercury writing a whole song about his orgasm (Don’t Stop Me Now)? Why did the young Coldplay sign such an endless-seeming record contract?

What advice would you give to a young person writing their first book?

There are a lot of people out there who want to be drummers and guitarists, but who find out when they try that they’re not much cop. Some get better with practice, some don’t. It’s the same with writing. Try to work out if you just aspire to be a writer, or if you have a genuine need to express yourself through words. If it’s just an aspiration without a need, and that need doesn’t grow, then find something else to aspire to because there are more than enough books out there already. If you write from the heart, without editing (leave that till much later) and express unfiltered from an individual perspective, it will be picked up on. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soo…you get my point.

You’ve achieved so much already what’s next and what in your opinion has been the most culturally impactful moment for you this year so far?

I’m tempted to say the funeral of Queen Elizabeth has been the most culturally impactful moment of the year so far, but the truth for me is that it was watching the David Bowie biopic Moonage Daydream at an imax cinema. It was like being inside one of Bowie’s dreams of his own life. The TED talk I did was called Stammering and Creativity, and I’m working on publishing a companion book to it (nine years later) titled Stammering and Culture, which will be a look at the condition from inside and out, with the humour lacking in most work on the subject, and referencing Blackadder, The King’s Speech, The Life of Brian, A Fish Called Wanda etc. I also have a poetry collection coming out next year with the working title of Panopticon, gathering poems I’ve written or had published over the last few years.

If you would like to listen to the tracks written about in the book, check out the ‘States of Independence’ Spotify playlist here: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/41g1mhkS0xgddxLPk4m0ly

Hard copies of States of Independence: From Pop Art to Art Rock and Beyond can be purchased here:


This interview was put together by Jules Nelson.

About the Book: States of Independence: From Pop Art to Art Rock and Beyond is an attempt to look inside some of the best tracks in independent-spirited music, and to locate the root of what they really mean. In a time of artists and creatives being ‘cancelled’ or edited in any way because of not being on-identity-message, it behoves any cultural critic to try to look inside that to see what’s going on. Do you really want your culture spoon-fed to you, having passed trigger-warning checks to make sure it might not offend? Why can’t some governors at open prisons allow the bands of rehabilitating prisoners to even practice Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall, in case there are any objections to the line ‘Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone’? 

But it’s also a celebration of the best music written over the last half-century and beyond. Independence in the music industry can no longer be defined as independence from corporate patronage, as every artist needs to be heard on a media platform of some (generally corporately owned) kind; but those corporations rarely interfere with their artist’s material any more, being more interested in those artists hopefully saying something even slightly controversial – as it’s controversy and conflict that sells. But, the only way to say something controversial is to rail against the dominant ‘woke’ orthodoxy in Western culture, to which these corporations now universally subscribe. There is the cultural Catch-22 which lies between the lines (and photos) in States of Independence. 




INTERVIEW: Director of ‘De Matos Ryan’ Jose Esteves

After hearing about De Matos Ryan’s new project benefitting young performers, we were curious to find out more from their Director and architect Jose Esteves De Matos. De Matos Ryan specialises in contemporary design within culturally sensitive contexts and we had the pleasure of hearing about how this recent architectural and design project will recharge one of the ArtsEd schools in Chiswick’s ambiance and extend its space and facilities.

What made ArtsEd decide to redevelop their performing arts school in Chiswick?


ArtsEd comprises four distinct schools, previously disparate and located on various sites. The School of Musical Theatre and the School of Acting offer full-time BA and MA courses, The Independent Day School and Sixth Form. ArtsEd Extra focuses on outreach and community provision, drawing in a wide array of the local community to share in the school’s facilities and expert staff through term-time and holiday courses for people of all ages and abilities. Over 400 children and adults participate every week in a wide variety of courses.

The specialist curriculum of the schools and lack of space had resulted in hiring off-site spaces. At the outset, the school looked at development options including relocation and new build development at another site. The existing buildings had many ad-hoc measures in place with none designed for performing arts training.  In spite of this, the school decided that the relationships and community ties that it had established since the 1980s in Turnham Green/Chiswick were too valuable to justify moving to a new site.

Our development of the site will bring opportunities to expand this work even further. Greater and more inspiring space provision with much-needed outdoor amenity space improves both the physical and emotional well-being of its participants and the extent to which Arts Ed can play an active and vibrant role in the local community.

With, economic and environmental sustainability in mind, we have minimised demolition and alterations to existing fabric and maximised the potential of existing spaces by using localised interventions. This lean retrofit strategy to old fabric then abuts the new build areas which deliver state-of-the-art purpose build dance and drama training facilities. Restructuring and clearly defining safeguarding separation has helped to consolidate all students and staff on one site and eliminated the need for either expansive demolition or relocation and intensive new build elsewhere.

What new spaces are you creating and how will they help future generations of creative young performers?


Located in a tight landlocked block, the scheme reorganises a previously disparate campus into a cohesive whole, maximising every millimetre of space to unlock the potential of the existing buildings whilst delivering 2875m2 of new facilities. The project is delivered in 3 phases to minimise disruption. The completed Phase 1 consists of a triple layer volume at the centre of the site housing; three 5m high dance studios, a suite of classrooms, large format rehearsal rooms, capped by a rooftop outdoor recreation space. A naturally lit atrium between new and old becomes the new heart and shared space for the schools. Inspired by ‘natural movement’ and the concept of transformational education through the medium of dance, the design reflects the pioneering vision of the women who founded ArtsEd in 1944. The new façade concept, reminiscent of musical and dance notation as well as physical movement, brings renewed coherence and identity to the campus reflecting the dynamic activity within.

How important is it to match the quality of teaching with facilities and an inspiring space? What’s the secret to creating a state-of-the-art site for performing arts schools?


The quality of teaching is the most important factor to deliver an inspiring performing arts education and ArstEd has this in abundance.  In spite of its lacking facilities, the school continually delivers the highest standards.

That said, the existing building was in desperate need of extension and refurbishment. The site was unable to accommodate all of its students nor provide them with the physical and environmental quality of facilities that they deserve and that its teaching requires. Demands on space were such that Day School students used dance studios at the Polish Centre, requiring travel between the two sites and gave rise to safeguarding concerns. The Day School also had no outside recreational space. The project brings all these previously disparate and physically separated schools under one roof and within one campus reducing travel requirements to and from ‘campus’ and by creating dedicated social spaces, a more cohesive social hub to the school.

Reduced energy loss, energy use and operational costs with a new sustainable services strategy was implemented to improve well-being. Previously, existing practice rooms were poorly lit and ventilated with moisture visibly running down their walls. A new mixed natural ventilation strategy throughout the building, improved lighting and external aspect, reduced noise transmission between studios as well as sound leakage to adjoining properties were some of the environmental improvements put into place to provide outstanding facilities for the students. Improved height requirements of studios, the installation of much-needed sprung floors to prevent long-term injuries as well as the provision of much-needed outdoor space has greatly improved the physical well-being of the students.

Does the school have a strong community outreach and how can the local community share the school’s facilities?


The school has a very strong and established outreach programme. ArtsEd Extra focuses on outreach and community provision, drawing in a wide array of the local community to share in the school’s facilities and expert staff through term-time and holiday courses for people of all ages and abilities. Over 400 children and adults participate every week in a wide variety of courses.

Now you’ve completed Phase 1 of your masterplan and redevelopment what will future phases provide for the young performers and local community?


Phase 2 will deliver a new Studio Theatre/Performance Hub, including a flexible performance theatre space, additional rehearsal rooms, one-to-one singing studios, a new lift core to provide level access to all floors and mediate between the new performance hub and phase 1 floor levels including the new roof terrace/recreational outdoor space.  This phase will also encompass the refurbishment of the existing school refectory and catering facilities.

Future phases can deliver additional 5m floor-to-ceiling dance studios replacing the pitched roof of the existing street-facing main building.

ArtsEd: artsed.co.uk

ArtsEd schools project X De Matos Ryan: www.dematosryan.co.uk

This interview was put together by Jules Nelson who does marketing and operations for Abundant Art.


Interview with Jermyn Street Artistic Director of Footprints Festival Tom Littler

For a second year, Jermyn Street Theatre is hosting the Footprints Festival. From 6 July to 30 July, the mini-season of the festival will feature short runs of an expertly curated array of cutting-edge work from the best of up-and-coming British talent. We chatted with Jermyn Street Theatre’s Artistic Director Tom Littler to talk about his past theatre experiences, the productions, and what it takes to put on such a festival.

1.What was your first theatre job?

Sweeping floors and fetching coffees.

2. Tell us about the Footprints Festival.

It’s a celebration of new work by early-career artists. It showcases the work of our Creative Associates – ten early-career theatremakers we believe have a massive future. The festival is headlined by the winner and finalists of the Woven Voices Prize for migrant playwrights. We’ve done various projects to promote the voices of migrants in theatre over recent years and this prize, co-produced with Woven Voices, is a big step in that journey. Migrants are hugely important to the make-up of our vibrant capital city. The winner, The Anarchist, is a gripping drama by Karina Wiedman set during an election in Belarus.

3. What was the selection criteria when choosing which plays would be featured in the festival?

We read a lot of great work which we’d love to stage, but isn’t commercially robust enough for a full five-week run. Footprints is an opportunity to stage a range of great plays which broaden our artistic voice, for short runs and at cheap ticket prices. The Anarchist and the other Woven Voices finalists came through a rigorous judging process. Then our Creative Associates brought three more brilliant plays – Duck, about racism in cricket; Shake the City, about strike action; The Poison Belt, a radical shake-up of an Arthur Conan Doyle novel.

4. What makes a good theatre line-up?

To see plays in conversation with each other – variety, of course, but it’s not just chucking paint at a wall. You want to see links between the plays, places where they spark off each other.

5. What is the target demographic for the festival?

We hope our core audience – who are quite a traditional theatregoing audience, culture-vultures – seize the chance to try out these new plays. But it’s also a chance for us to welcome new audiences who might be younger and more diverse. We’re on a long-term journey to grow, broaden and diversify our audience, and it is changing. JST is on a very posh street in the West End so there’s a particular vibe to the local area, but once you come downstairs into the theatre, it’s all about the work you’re watching.

6. How has the footprints festival evolved over the years?

This is year two! Last year was all about reopening after the pandemic – we staged forty pieces over three months – plays, one-person shows, cabaret, readings. It was all about giving artists a chance to have their work on in a financially sustainable way after they’d had so few opportunities for ages. This year is more tightly focused on our Creative Associates, giving them a great platform. I’m excited to see what my successors do with Footprints in the future – it has huge potential.

7. Do you think the covid-19 pandemic has had lasting effects on live theatre?

It’s not a question in the past tense. We’re still living and working through a pandemic; shows are still routinely shutting down, and we’re in summer. We cannot be complacent about this.

8. Who or what is your biggest influence?

I assisted the late, great Peter Hall for several years when I was young. He was a brilliant director but also a fearless, instinctive and entrepreneurial producer, unafraid of risk. He grew up and worked in a different age, of course, but those were good lessons.

9. What is the role of an artistic director in a theatre festival? What is your favourite aspect of it?

For me at JST, it’s an opportunity to devolve authority. For the rest of the year, it’s ultimately my decision what work we stage and who makes it. At Footprints, our Deputy Director Ebenezer Bamgboye has curated the festival, as his predecessor Cat Robey did last year. I hover about, popping into rehearsal rooms and bringing biscuits. I’m around if I’m needed, and help in various ways, but I get to watch the next generation being amazing.

10. Are there any newcomers (performers or otherwise) taking part this year? What advice do you have for people looking to break into the London theatre scene?

Loads! It’s Karina Wiedman’s first play. Our Creative Associates are all from underrepresented backgrounds and many of them, and the people working on their plays, are very new to the industry. They’re learning by doing. It’s the best way.

Interview by Dina Khashoggi who is a student at City University of London – she is doing a Micro Placement with us in Marketing and Business.

For full listings and tickets go to: www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk

Interview with Director of ‘The Lesson’ Max Lewendel

Icarus’s award-winning staging of Eugene Ionesco’s timeless dark comedy ‘The Lesson’ will open at Southwark Playhouse for a four-week limited run this summer, followed by a national tour in the Autumn. This production has had international stagings, including a sold-out run at Teatrul de Comedie in Bucharest.

Ahead of the opening night in London, we had the opportunity to speak with Director Max Lewendel about the play and get advice for any aspiring theatre directors.

What initially drew you to ‘The Lesson’?

The gradual change from comedy to horror was fascinating to me.  It was the first time I’d seen it done.  The original French and our translation has such a beautiful, roller-coaster flow to it that I was hooked.

The reflections on fascism and abuse of power came to me later and cemented the play in my heart.

Did you draw inspiration from any other works when directing ‘The Lesson’?

Oh yes.  I hope I am standing on the shoulders of giants here.  Every show I’ve ever seen informs this one.  Peter Hall’s The Bacchae taught me about the beauty of chaos.  Rose Rage taught me about the abuse of power.  Every surreal moment in every play I’ve ever seen showed me how to bring an audience on an exciting journey, even when the meaning won’t become clear until after the show is over.

You have expressed a preference for dark comedies (https://creatorsprogram.youngvic.org/member/3746), what is it about dark comedy that interests you as opposed to more traditional comedy?

I find that dark comedy leaves a stronger impact.  Whether there’s a deeper message or simply the juxtaposition of emotions, something about them will stay with you forever.  You can even look back on dark moments with pure joy and excitement.

Which of your past experiences have helped you in the directing of this play?

A very difficult question!  Working in theatre requires using all your life experience.  I’d say some of the most significant moments are growing up Jewish, facing antisemitism and so developing a good sense of humour about even the darkest of moments in life.  Also, my directing classes taught me the difference between the art of theatre and the craft… as well as how to serve the text rather than my own ego.

Do you have any advice for aspiring theatre directors?

Three things:

1. Theatre is collaborative. Your job is to help your team be their best, not come up with all the ideas yourself. Everything brilliant idea that your actors and designers – and even the intern in the corner – comes up with is yours too (and vice-versa); you chose them or chose the person that chose them.  So don’t be afraid to embrace their creativity and don’t impose your ideas: help them find their own path to tell the story you hired them to tell.

2. Anything you allow on stage has to have a reason tied to a singular, underlying message, whether that’s about fascism or simply about sprites playing with silly humans in the forest. The audience isn’t stupid nor sacrosanct: they don’t need to understand the reason for every spec of paint on the furniture.  But to take them on a ride, to entertain, you must know why you make every choice.  That doesn’t mean it has to be logical.  It just has to be explainable and emotionally harmonious with all your other choices.

3. Most importantly, if it can be cut, it should be cut. Text, pauses, or business.  This is the biggest problem in theatre today: If your audience gets bored (or over-stimulated), you will lose them and all other great work your team does becomes less valuable.  Know what are you trying to say with the play, the scene, or even that dramatic pause.

That being said, never be afraid to take your time for your audience to stay with the play. Whether in comedy or drama, the trick is to stretch tension as much as possible, right up to that invisible fine line before the audience or the cast loses focus.

The Lesson opens at Southwark Playhouse on Wednesday 29 June and runs to Saturday 23 July – https://www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photo credit: Bernadett Ostorhazi

Interview by Dina Khashoggi who is a student at City University of London – she is doing a Micro Placement with us in Marketing and Business.

Interview with Zena Carswell, A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Iris Theatre

Following a two-year break from its traditional programming, Iris Theatre is back producing outdoor, promenade Shakespeare with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was initially scheduled for 2020.

We caught up with Zena Carswell who plays Helena/Quince. Her theatre credits include Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet (Orange Tree Theatre), The Importance of Being Earnest (Immersion Theatre), Othello (English Theatre of Hamburg) and Tallulah Brown’s There’s A Monster in the Lake (Vault Festival). We discuss her performance and how she feels performing in this fantastic adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most loved comedies.

How did you feel when you found out that you got the role of Helena for this adaptation of A Midsummer Nights Dream at the Iris Theatres Outdoor Summer Festival 2022?

Absolutely over the moon! Its such a wonderful part and such a beautiful space to perform in. I also feel so lucky to be performing after such a strange few years, so to do so in such an interesting role is a real privilege. 

What do you think Shakespeare lovers will think of the Directors new approach to this classic comedy? 

I am excited for people to see the new take on it! Theres a reason Midsummer is performed so much as it is a brilliant play and I think audiences will appreciate the slight twist on the original in this one. It still has the bits people know and love but with a different perspective on some areas too!

How is the Iris Theatre committed to developing the careers of early-career artists? And what advice would you give to artists embarking on a career in theatre?

Iris gives people a chance who might not otherwise be able to get into certain rooms – they keep the audition process open and are very keen on championing new talent, which is amazing.

 My advice to those embarking on a theatre career would be to stick with it! Sometimes things will be busy and sometimes things will be quiet so just keep going, because thats normal and when its great, its really great! 

What are you looking forward to the most on the opening night on the 5th July?

Being able to share our hard work with everyone and being able to celebrate all that we have achieved in a short rehearsal period!

What is the secret, in your opinion, to making an adaptation really fantastic?

Committing to the vision of it and making sure you believe in it! As long as you feel strongly about what it is saying and the new perspective (as well as the old) then it will be full of treasures!

Box Office: https://iristheatre.ticketsolve.com/shows 29 June – 13 August

Interview by Jules Nelson who does operations and marketing for Abundant Art.

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Interview: Producer of Wandsworth Arts Fringe – Cath Mattos

Wandsworth Arts Fringe is back with its first full-on festival since the pandemic.  With 150 events taking place, there’ll be an explosion of colour in the streets, intimate live performances in surprise locations and a huge celebration of art as Wandsworth’s pubs, theatres, galleries, studios and churches are transformed.

We caught up with the Producer of WAF Cath Mattos to pick her brains about this year’s festival.

When and how did the Wandsworth Arts Fringe festival start and how has it evolved over the years?

Wandsworth Arts Fringe grew out of Wandsworth Arts Festival which grew out of the Shimmy and was a programmed festival taking place in the borough. We realised there were a lot of local arts organisations and companies in the borough that wanted to get involved and so we created an open registration process and WAF sprung to life and so began the organic chaos that has ensued. Companies and artists took WAF into their hearts and into their year-round planning.

The lockdown happened just as we were launching our WAF 2020 programme in March, leaving 15,000 programmes boxed up and ready to go. We decided with a 6-week turnaround to ask our artists if they were interested in being part of a digital WAF and with an enthusiastic ‘yes!’ we started planning. WAF In Your Living Room 2020 was born. We have had a ‘WAF in Your Living Room’ element of WAF for a number of years, but this was on a whole other scale. The WAF artists really appreciated the platform to give them support and a purpose at that time, there was so much enthusiasm to be involved. We held weekly meetings with all our artists and although it was a difficult and stressful time a wonderful community was created.

In 2021 we ran a hugely successful hybrid WAF with the WAF Big Top and lots of outdoor spaces were used and many events streamed their live events to their audiences that were still shielding. We are keeping our WAF in Your Living Room element though it takes a smaller part of the fringe this year. We run our WAF contributor networking meeting still mainly online, so our national artists and international artists can get the same support as the local companies.

How does it feel to be back with a full lineup of LIVE events?

It feels exciting and exhilarating to be back up and running for WAF 2022. Our programme is vibrant and engaging and there is something for everyone. It is weird though to be working in relatively normal times, we are used to the added layers of difficulty now, but so relieved we are back in our venues this year. We are partnering with 70 venues across the borough and this is just such a joy! The artists are super excited to be coming together and shining a light on creativity in Wandsworth.

What made you choose to shine a light on dance at this year’s festival? How will the festival be celebrating this art form?

We are celebrating Wandsworth’s emerging dance quarter as the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) open their brand-new headquarters on York Road in Battersea, joining a cluster of local dance companies including Tavaziva, bbodance and London Children’s Ballet, which opened last year. On Friday 10 June, WAF will launch with a promenade performance along the riverside around Battersea Reach, charting a course between bbodance and RAD’s new home and discovering hidden music, spoken word and dance gems along the way.

The WAF Dance Weekender has set a two-day extravaganza of dance styles from around the world, popping up in public spaces around Battersea. Find us in York Gardens on Saturday 18 June for contemporary dance from London Butoh Dance Company and Hallomai Dance, and accessible dance workshops with disability-led dance troupe Magpie Dance. Shake your tail feathers with the most fabulous flock of senior citizens in town, PC*DC’s Royale Dancehall Flamingos, then head over to bbodance for African movement, drumming, ballet and more with Tavaziva Dance and the English National Ballet School. On Sunday, WAF takes over Battersea Reach with another all-dayer featuring pop-up performances from Flamenco Con Gusto and Orleta Polish Folk Song and Dance, African drumming and movement from Tavaziva Dance, and even a chance to learn Japanese Tenshintaido with martial artist and calligrapher Beatrice Boivineau.

Alongside our free public events, there’s a brilliant dance programme of amazing contemporary dance and ballet performances – check it out!

Do you have any young artists exhibiting and performing this year? What’s the best way for young artists to get involved?

WAF is always a fantastic platform for young people to showcase their talent. We’ve got performances from Youth Club Providence House, World Heart Beat Music Academy, London Children’s Ballet and On Da Beat Studios – all organisations working with the next generation of young creatives, performers and artists. WAF works with local schools and supports a cohort of young visual artists to exhibit professionally via the RCA Bursary Scheme. We are also bringing back the WAF Young Reviewers scheme for a second year following a successful pilot in 2021 – providing an opportunity for young people aged 14-19 to review WAF events, receive professional mentoring in critical writing, and get published!

In what ways does WAF offer development support for artists and contributors?

Each year, WAF hosts a series of networking and learning sessions for artists and contributors in the lead-up to the registration deadline and festival dates. These are a great opportunity for artists to meet the WAF team and get the most out of taking part.

So far this year we’ve offered 6 open-access online support sessions for artists covering marketing, sustainability, event registration and ticketing, venue/artist matchmaking and accessibility – as well as an in-person publicity launch event, where artists and venues get to meet in person ahead of the festival.

We also offer online toolkits and guidance, and a 1-1 clinic session for more specific advice on realising ideas and fundraising, including making an application to the WAF Grant scheme. Every year Wandsworth Council sets aside £20,000 in funding for WAF Grants. The WAF Grants help artists, makers and community groups realise their creative vision for the festival and engage with Wandsworth communities. For 2022, we distributed £32,382 among eighteen creative companies, including local community organisations and internationally acclaimed artists, for projects taking place over this year’s festival.

What’s the best thing about working in the arts and what advice would you give to a young person who’s interested in pursuing a career in the arts and working for festivals like this one?

Working in the arts comes from a passionate belief that the arts can make the world a better place, it fosters community and a shared experience. Art deals with difficult issues in a positive and engaging way. Working in the arts is hard work but it is so rewarding when you see projects like WAF come to life each year.

The advice I would give is to get yourself to festivals, theatres and meet people who work there and find out avenues to get in through the door. I love freelancing but other people prefer the stability of being a secure member of staff in an arts organization, and there is definitely a benefit to this.

Go with your passion and interest and you will head in the right direction to suit you.

For more info about WAF please visit their website here:  www.wandsworthfringe.com

Interview by Jules Nelson who does marketing and operations for Abundant Art.


Documentaries from Ukraine: Life Amidst Conflict

Ukraine’s right to national self-determination is being violently desecrated by Russian colonialism. Putin’s invasion threatens not only the immediate safety of the Ukrainian people, but also their very culture and identity. For those of us with the time and means, learning about local cultures is a way to resist the cultural erosion that Ukraine faces as Russia attempts to expand its borders.

In Britain, this war has been swathed in media coverage quite unprecedented in recent history; notably, neither the conflicts of Afghanistan, nor Yemen, topped the Guardian’s headlines for nearly as long. Amidst this frenzy and endless political commentary, documentaries from pioneering film-makers have provided me with much-needed solace, redirecting my gaze to the actual lived experiences of people disrupted by seemingly endless conflict. The documentary form is unique in its capacity to transport the viewer to faraway places without recourse to fiction. They are easily transmittable and for this reason, politically powerful: documentaries of life in Ukraine comprise a precious archive of the very cultures that are today being jeopardized by war. For me, watching these films has helped me to picture that it is the very fabric of people’s lives that is imperiled: their homes, their environments, their very ways of being.

I spoke over Zoom with the Ukrainian film-critic Daria Badior, who helped me better understand the context and history of documentary-making in Ukraine. Daria explained that Ukrainian documentaries have accrued international recognition only during the last ten years or so. Avant-garde film-makers, said Daria, turned to the documentary in order to eschew the social conservatism of traditional Ukrainian theatre and professional actors. Of course, when conflict broke out in Eastern Ukraine in February 2014, film-makers from around Europe also travelled to Crimea and the Donbass in order to capture on screen the lives of people stuck within these war-zones.

One of the most poignant reflections that Daria shared with me was her confusion at how to continue living life now that war has overtaken the whole country. The way she put it was this: ‘Is it right to enjoy a slice of cake now in Ukraine?’ This question lies at the heart of many of the films I watched. Each of them, in their own way, evokes how strange it is that life continues despite war, and yet how quickly uncertainty and loss become familiar, even expected. They testify to the resilience of the local people as they continue even the most mundane of activities, like shining shoes or going for a walk as their communities are being destroyed. Remarkably, people even go on staging cultural events: Mariupolis (2017), for example, features a theatrical performance and a wedding. Each of these moments takes on a new political significance against the background of conflict. Such films beget the question: Is eating that slice of cake when your country is at war an act of political rebellion, personal stubbornness or a psychological necessity? Every one of these documentaries offers a nuanced answer.

I was startled (and quite concerned) to find that neither of my favourite films were directed by Ukrainian film-makers: The Distant Barking of Dogs (2016) was created by a Danish production team led by Simon Lereng Wilmont, whilst Mariupolis (2017) was filmed by the late Lithuanian director Mantas Kvedaravicius. I was worried that this rather undermined my chosen focus on Ukrainian culture. Yet having mused for a while, I realised that it was perhaps becausethese documentaries were created by film-makers so enmeshed in local life, yet irrevocably alien to it, that their films moved me so much.

Both films offer a profound intimacy into the lives of the families they take as subject; the camera is invited inside people’s homes and records personal conversations over the course of a year, if not more. In The Distant Barking of Dogs, there are moments when the handheld camera shudders as the cinematographer runs to catch up with ten-year-old Oleg and his younger cousin Yarik as they run home from pond-dipping, their towels flying in the wind. Yet at other moments, the camera affords the family a certain privacy; we watch at a distance as Oleg and his Babushka walk home alone.

Similarly, Mariupolis captures a moment of joy as a group of girls dance around a beautifully frescoed town hall to traditional folk-song; the scene is beset by movement and laughter. But when the screen shifts, we are repositioned outside the building and beyond the community, in immense stillness. It is beautiful; serene. The only movement detectable is that of the dancers’ shadows as they glide behind the small window separating subject from audience. Away from the immediate laughter comes a distance with which to pause, reflect, and inevitably grieve.

What particularly struck me about either film was the lack of commentary presented by either director or editing team; we are simply shown the way of life of a few local people, their families and communities, without narrative imposition. There are, of course, clips that elicit an awareness of the film-makers’ presence: in The Distant Barking of Dogs, I suspect that the teenage Kostyas shows off for the camera. Moments of gently tragic comedy arise in Mariupolis, like when Ukrainian soldiers conglomerate in their make-shift barracks that still bears its former name – ‘The Library’ – to which the camera cleverly directs our gaze. It would be tempting for a director to forge a narrative from the events that we witness; The Distant Barking of Dogs could be reduced to a story of boyhood lost to war, or Mariupolis turned into a story of one community’s resistance to its destruction. Yet neither film succumbs to this temptation, and I suspect that this symptomises the status of film-maker as guest in these communities, with little claim to foreground his interpretation of events as they unfold.


In Mariupolis, tranquility is soon to dissipate as soldiers approach. (Credit: Mantas Kvedaravicius)

These juxtapositions between proximity and distance illustrate the film-makers’ sophisticated handling of their chosen task, one ridden with ethical quandaries. How can we film, or write about, or by any means attempt to share the stories of vulnerable communities not our own? This is something that resonated deeply with me, a journalist who works with displaced people. These film-makers, like me, bear the privilege and responsibility of sharing stories belonging to people we have come to know deeply and, in some way, can never understand.

For the director of Mariupolis, Mantas Kvedaravicius, loyalty to his adopted community led to tragedy. Kvedaravicius was filming a second documentary in Mariupol when he was shot dead by Russian soldiers on the 2nd of April, camera in hand. This year, Cannes showcased the footage from this unfinished work, which has been edited by his fiancée and co-director Hanna Bilbrova and given the title Mariupolis 2. The first time I watched Mariupolis, Kvedaravicius was still alive and Russia was yet to launch a full-scale war. Upon second viewing, with this feature in mind, I felt the notes of elegy roused by the film in new intensities.

Mantas Kvedaravicius

Mantas Kvedaravicius in 2016, around the time he filmed Mariupolis. (image taken from Cineeuropa.org)

The difference between viewing these films before and after February 2022 is a subject that Daria and I also touched upon. Most of the documentaries I’ve watched were filmed before the short-lived ceasefire of 2016; of course, no one could have then predicted with certainty the immensity of the war that was to follow. The experience of watching these films today is overcast by tragic foreshadowing and a transience that for Daria makes watching too painful to bear. A professional film-critic, Daria has not viewed a Ukrainian documentary since the war began. Yet for me, a privileged newcomer to Ukrainian culture and arts, watching these films has given this war a newly acquired human face. Where are Oleg, Yarik and their beloved Babuskha now? Do the girls from Mariupolis still have the energy to dance?

Oleg looks out to the horizon

Oleg looks out to the horizon. (Credit: Simon Lereng Wilmont)

Sadness takes on many shades in these documentaries; grief and loss certainly make strong appearances. But these are not war-films. They are films before war, within war, around war and in spite of war. They are slow in pace, beautiful in abundance, and undeniably human. With lenses both intimate and distant, they provide their audiences with the chance to revel in the immediate glory of local life; and then, when the lens pans out, to appreciate with distance that soon these people, like us, will be far away from the places the camera depicts. Moments of joy and love in the harshest of conditions are what keep subjects and audience alike from despair: when Oleg’s grandmother suffers a nervous breakdown, Oleg manages to stoke the furnace alone and softly places a cup of tea on her bedside table. Yarik strokes her hair. This is the human face of living within a war-zone: helplessness, desolation, and the love for people and place that makes endurance worthwhile.

The Distant Barking of Dogs is freely available on BBC iPlayer: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m0015nnw/storyville-the-distant-barking-of-dogs.

Mariupolis is also available on ARTE, which showcases select award-winning European films: https://www.arte.tv/en/videos/067103-000-A/mariupol/

Sophia Sheera is a writer interested in migration, cultural citizenship, displacement and queerness with a focus on Central Asia and Northern India. Sophia is inspired by talking to the people whose stories are sidetracked by sensationalist headlines, and as such aspires to share those counter-narratives through political journalism.