Sunday, 1 October 2017

Kate Tough AIR 2017

Residencies are often hyper-productive times, and I return home with workaholic amounts of new poetry. Outlandia (in so many regards) was different. I realised early that to focus only on making work would be to lose dimensions of the experience on offer. And to a degree, one doesn’t have a choice; the practicalities of accessing Outlandia, and working in an off-grid space, required a different work rhythm.

It’s common for residencies to be in rural locations, and the arrangement for writers is usually a self-contained ‘cell’ for a month (a room with a bed and a desk, and a kitchen nearby) where you hole up, and take breaks when needed. However, at Outlandia, reaching the desk each day asks a little something of you, and I found that daily odyssey compelling and consuming. I loved it.

It’s a gradual immersion into the Outlandia ‘work zone’ as you get closer to the hut each morning, and a gradual emergence after you leave each afternoon. I had my phone on ‘flight mode’ up in the hut and, down in the Glen, my accommodation had no signal, so the ‘out of touch’ state was pretty total. The rareness of that, nowadays, cannot be overstated. It certainly fed into how I worked – disconnecting from established responsibilities and identities; regaining stamina for focusing on one idea and working it through different versions; having patience and space to allow the next version to arise; having tolerance for knowing it wasn’t ‘done yet’.

Being unable to check a wifi-connected gadget every 10 minutes produced a visceral wash of relief for the whole first week, back in a 1980s existence of just doing the thing I was doing, being in the place I was, and not being diffuse and scattered. I felt more ‘myself’ in that space, and that daily physical routine, than I had all year, and part of the takeaway has been to rearrange my weekly work-life so it doesn’t keep me out of touch with my practice, and my capacity to focus.

I’m not sure whether it was all the fresh air, or the physical hiking, but the working days split themselves into two: four concentrated hours in the hut, down the hill for a shower, nap and meal, then a couple of hours working in the evening.

In a backpack each morning I’d put food and water, the day’s work materials, the camera, and a spare long-sleeved thermal. It was a 45 minute walk to Outlandia along forest roads and up the steep Peat Track. Climbing the path while wearing a thermal, a waterproof jacket and a heavy bag meant the vest was pretty damp on arrival. So in the cabin, I’d put on the fresh thermal and the cosy down jacket I kept up there, so that I’d be warm while working. The damp top was hung to dry on the brush pole… I also kept a hand-warmer in the cabin, so lighting the charcoal stick and gently blowing till it ‘took’ was the next task. Then I’d photograph the space, which I’ve not habitually done before on a residency, but I think it helped me merge with the surroundings before I sat down.

It was the final fortnight of September, but I wanted the window open at all times, and didn’t want to be separated from the outside, so the down-jacket and the charcoal hand-warmer let me sit in comfort.

Outside of high tourist season, I averaged one visitor a day at the cabin door and I enjoyed the randomness of who would appear. In the first week I realised how soundproof the insulated hut is (you don’t hear footsteps on the walkway, so solo visitors are only audible if they try to open the door). So, I tucked a small sign saying, ‘KNOCK TO SEE INSIDE’ by the door handle. And they did. The other main visitors were the birds – tits and finches I presume, which would flutter excitedly from tree to tree outside the window when the lid came off my packed lunch. And my favourite, the robin, who would come and check on me if the hut door was open, cocking its wee head. It (or another creature) ate the line of tiny walnut pieces I laid along on the banister daily…

Can you tell that I’m prevaricating on talking about the actual work that took place in the cabin? It’s strange, I feel reluctant to share too much about it, because it feels fundamentally like ‘my’ time and ‘my’ space, in a way I haven’t felt after residencies at group locations. Also, perhaps, because I wouldn’t be talking about finished pieces, and it’s never as comfortable talking about work-in-progress. While something is in formation, it’s not ready to be aired.

Lots of ideas and pieces were started there and now that I'm home, with access to a printer and scanner, I am developing them. About 50% relate to an ongoing poetry project on the theme of Glasgow’s slavery remembrance. I finished a poem in the hut which I was able to read at the Provost's reception in Glasgow City Chambers for Black History Month in October.

I arrived at Outlandia with intentions but no expectations, because it was impossible to predict how the practical requirements would impact on making work, so I had to stay open minded. Serendipity stepped in too – on day one, an object left behind by a previous artist (Alex Findlay’s ink stamp) allowed me to move to the next stage with a piece I’d started in spring (I saw how I could integrate minimal text with maximum effect into a design already decided upon).

In addition to making work, I had time to respond to a set of interview questions I’d been sent by a poetry website, and that facilitated a deep consideration of how I work, and why I work that way, while I was working, which was very useful. 

Having the luxury of time – long days and evenings immersed in nature, with no digital connection and very few distractions – to connect with and develop my practice was possible only because of Outlandia, and for that I am immensely thankful.

All photography courtesy Kate Tough 2017