Andrew Tibbles' Immortal offers participants a chance to leave a message behind to be heard once they can no longer say what they want to say. The subsequent exhibition allows viewers to explore a variety of statements and see to what extent their opinions are shared. Andrew spoke to Talking Heads reporter Kirstyn Smith about the project.
Can you tell us more about Immortal?
It has a couple of different avenues, but the one that’s going to be shown at Summerhall is going to be a performance piece with an installation afterwards. So in it, I’ll be talking one-on-one with people about what they want to be heard once they can no longer say it. I use that terminology because at some points before you die you might not be able to express yourself fluently. So, it’s a little bit longer, but more correct.
We usually start off with me asking: ‘would you want to be immortal?’ and usually people say no, which is always helpful for the piece. At that point, they have to recognise that at some point they do want to die. From that, we progress to: ‘what do you want to exist beyond your death? What kind of things would you want to tell people that you’ve learned? What pieces of advice or memories would you like to leave behind?’ And I help signpost that. I don’t want to direct them in any particular route except for asking them what they want to say. So I try and keep to that because it’s something they can have control over, rather than starting to think about what’s going to happen in the afterlife or life after death. It’s slightly practical, but hopefully it’s a good performance piece as well.
How did you come up with the idea?
My background is in product design and in my honour year degree show, I designed an underwater burial system. I needed lots of help from different scientists to get together and ask a lot of questions: ‘How would it be done?’ ‘Where would be the best place to do it?’ ‘What kind of material would be environmentally friendly?’ ‘What are the ethics of it?’ ‘What’s the best way to degrade a body underwater without damaging the sea environment?’
After I did that, I designed the graves. I needed to put names on them, so I asked people who’d contributed to it if I could use their names and, if they got to visit the graves, what would they want to hear from it? So it was borne out of that kind of thank you.
It was always really interesting to see what people would say, because it really reflects their personality and how they perceive themselves. I worked on the format for a couple of years, working out what’s the best way to draw those kind of feelings out from someone in the most natural way. And that’s going to be the Immortal project. A confession-style booth screen was the best way, I found, to do it. If you leave people alone they don’t know what to say and they panic. If you’re in a group, people piss about and they don’t take anything seriously and they don’t express what they actually feel. Doing a one-on-one, face-to-face didn’t work, because they’re always looking for approval from me. So I built a screen where they knew I was there and I could help their thought process and signpost them, but they could talk a lot more freely.
What kind of things do people say?
Everyone is really different and it does reflect on each personality. Some people will want to talk to a large audience, thinking about their aspirations - what they would like to leave behind is usually on a grand scale. You’ll get other people who are more personal, where they feel their family are integrated into their personal life and they would much rather talk to a couple of individuals rather than a broad societal range. Now and again there’ll be other people who just want to give a small piece of advice that they’ve learned to anyone who will listen.
Do you think as a society we’re capable of changing the way we view death?
I believe we are shifting away from the traditional Christian burials, where it’s all very resting on tradition. The talking about it beforehand is more of an issue. But with things like Death Cafes, which I’ve been helping to run, these kind of neutral spaces really help. They either help solidify someone’s thought path and opinion if they have it already, or people will be very interested in new things and discovering what can happen that they didn’t know about. It’s a bit informative and a bit philosophical; I find those spaces really encouraging. A lot of the time, we tend to fall back on tradition. It’s something that we think about so much that when someone dies, if we’re not prepared, we go for traditional things, rather than anything unorthodox. We wouldn’t fall back onto a natural burial – that would be something the person would have to express beforehand.
What are you hoping people will get out of Immortal?
For the one-on-one piece, the idea of it is that what people record is actually their property, and I’m using it as next-of-kin information that will be passed onto them. So, in that way, it’s a bit of a service, but at the same time I’m hoping they’ll have a clearer reflection on how they’re living their life. You can see death as an end point, so what do you want to achieve by then, and what kind of things do you want to express? It could be professional or personal, or it could be something they’re not quite sure of, but they’ll start to discover it as they’re talking about death as a perspective lens, rather than something that has to happen. It’s looking through the lens of: ‘I will die at some point, so I do have a limited amount of time to do certain things I’d like to do.’ I’m hoping people will have a nice, clean feeling afterwards. That they’ll be able to enjoy their life and be able to look around a bit more.
That first part is where it all happens. The second part is that I’ll ask the people at the time if it’s alright if I use their recordings in the exhibition, with desensitised information. We take out names, dates, locations, anything that could be recognisable to that person. What we’re doing is setting up a speaker with each recording down in one of the basement halls and I’m hoping it’s going to be a general murmur of voices all talking at once, so you’ll not really be able to hear any one of them unless you focus on one of the speakers. You’ll get to hear people’s life aspirations and you’ll get to see if there are any similarities with yourself and how you’re viewing your life, and then you can take a new stock of things.
by Kirstyn Smith
Festival of Ian Smith: A Celebration of Death is at Summerhall, 28 Oct-27 Nov. Click here for full listings of the exhibitions, performances and events taking place as part of the festival.
Twenty years ago, I regularly spent lunchtimes gazing at a house opposite my sixth-form college. 183 Hills Road in Cambridge had been the childhood home of Pink Floyd founder and original frontman Syd Barrett. It mattered not that Syd hadn’t lived there for decades. I was a fan, and, like many Syd fans before and since, slightly obsessive.
Meeting Ian Barrett in Glasgow ahead of Dream & Reality – a 70th birthday tribute to Syd Barrett at Òran Mór, held to celebrate the opening week of Alan Bissett’s biographical play One Thinks of It All as a Dream – I wondered how greatly our perceptions of the same person might differ. It felt apt that I, as a fan who never met his hero, should think of him as “Syd”, a nickname, rather than as Roger, the real name by which Ian, his nephew, knew him. In some ways, Syd and Roger seem like different people.
Syd quit show business in the 1970s at the height of his fame. Roger (the name to which Syd reverted) spent the rest of his life avoiding the public eye. Eager for more, however, fans and the press attempted to fill the gap with whatever information they found, fact and fiction often merging to form myriad versions of the same person. Now, seventy years since Roger Keith Barrett was born, Ian is keen to present a more rounded view of the man he knew as an uncle rather than a rock star:
“The house he lived in was where he’d moved back to Cambridge, our gran’s house. It’s not far from Luton, [where] I’m from, so we would quite often go and visit. We always called him Roger because I was born in ’72, almost at the point he gave up music. It was strange growing up because without the internet it was quite hard to work out, from my perspective, what he actually did. You’d have a few music books and magazines, but he wasn’t really mentioned a lot. He’s probably got a higher profile now than he ever had in the ’80s.”
To have a famous relative is unusual and Syd’s fame was stranger still in that he actively spurned it, although this wish wasn’t always respected:
“It was unusual in that he didn’t have a traditional show business career. He refused to continue with it, but everyone else said: ‘Hang on, we’re not going to let that one go.’ And that was one of the problems he did suffer from. He would constantly have people turn up. Word got out about the address. We used to hear stories of people travelling from Italy and other places. Some of the fans would pluck up the courage to knock on the door. I don’t know what they were expecting. I’ve seen videos on the internet of inside his house. Some fans had peered through windows and filmed bits of the inside of his house and that’s creepy, isn’t it?”
Such intrusions were, sadly, neither desired by Syd nor always to the benefit of his wellbeing. From towards the end of his time with Pink Floyd, Syd’s health left him, in Ian’s words, “not particularly mentally strong – no one’s going to pretend he was super sturdy.”
Much has been surmised about these problems, and drugs have always played a part in Syd’s story. Ian admits there is some truth to this:
“Nobody’s denying that any of that happened. But then that’s a different era. I mean, most of it was completely legal then. It took quite a while for a lot of them to become illegal so you can imagine it was easy for people to become a mess.”
It could also be that Syd’s youthful drug-taking simply exacerbated problems to which he was already predisposed, and which may have developed anyway.
In some ways, public awareness of Syd’s health contributed to breaking down misconceptions regarding mental illness. Unfortunately, some of the wilder accounts of his behaviour perpetuated stereotypes. Ian is eager to refute the many myths:
“I think in the ‘80s and ‘90s the focus was on the crazy stories, and, to be honest, I’ve looked into quite a few of them, to actually find out how much truth there was, and when you delve down, there are an awful lot of stories where there’s very little evidence. There’s been an awful lot of mythologising over the years. Some of it might be true but if you don’t know if it’s true, it doesn’t have an awful lot of value, does it?
Thankfully, attitudes have improved:
“People have tended to put aside the crazy acts that he was supposed to have done, which is partly why we wanted to do the website. It’s so that people have a direct focus for the things that he did make.”
The new website, www.sydbarrett.com, created by the family, has amassed a huge range of materials concerning his life, music and art:
“We can put out what we want people to see. We thought it would be nice to make sure fans get the right images, and the dates are right and so on. Because one thing fans are very keen on is getting everything right. You’ve got to be on the ball!”
Ian recognises too, though, that there are limits on how much the family can supply to sate demand:
“The one thing there’s never going to be enough of is pictures. In a sense, he had a short career, and, obviously, music is the other issue – there’s not an awful lot of it. Quite often, though, even now, pictures filter through of gigs and things that have been found and sent on. But one thing that’s never going to change is that there’s not enough.”
Ian tells me of a seven-year-old American boy who dressed as Syd for his school fancy-dress day. A decade since he died, Syd continues to attract new admirers. Ian spoke of the public reaction to his uncle’s death:
“I remember going into a paper shop on the Monday because I was curious to see if there was anything in any papers. I picked one up to flick to the music page, but it was on the front cover – that was the bit that amazed me. As a family, we didn’t realise that was the level of interest he had. It was surprising in a nice way that someone who hadn’t played since the 1970s was on the cover of most of the national newspapers.”
Nothing suggests this interest will fade away soon. Syd remains a deeply fascinating and inspirational character, an artist of extraordinary creativity. Before Ian departed for Dream & Reality, I asked if he has a favourite song by his uncle:
“The song Opel. It’s kind of stark, and it never really gets much press. It’s not bleak but it’s haunting.”
I left the interview honoured to have gained greater insight into a man who – whether known as Syd or Roger – means so much to so many, and whose work remains, as Ian so beautifully put it, not bleak but haunting.
by Mark Jones
Alan Bissett's play based on the life of Syd Barrett, One Thinks of It All as a Dream, is now showing at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh from 25–29 October and The Lemon Tree in Aberdeen from 1–5 November. Click here for more information and booking details.
Creativity runs in the Barrett genes, and Ian creates (and sells through his website) a lot of visual art. One of his paintings is even being turned into a song as part of a synaesthesia project. Ian also crafts exquisite items from meteorites and fossils. His Jurassic Jewellery is currently attracting clients such as Sean Lennon and Oasis’s Andy Bell, as well as supplying museums, galleries and the NASA Kennedy Space Center. Click here for more information, and here to read an in-depth interview about his work.
‘It’s really important not to take death too seriously.’
Ian Smith, co-founder of theatre company Mischief La-Bas with his wife Angie Dight, is the inspiration behind the Festival of Ian Smith: A Celebration of Death. Founded in 2015 to commemorate Smith’s passing, this year the festival has expanded to include more performers, more events, and a more open dialogue about the confusing, often heartbreaking, but ultimately inevitable subject of death.
‘I started with the funeral as a way of celebrating him and his work, rather than thinking about his illness. The anniversary event last year was a way to mark the good things about him, to remember him, to remember his work positively,’ says Dight. ‘We want to remember the good things about people who have passed, and we should do that in their funerals and, subsequently, in the way we think about death.’
Exploring death and exploding the stigma around talking about it in a normal way is what the festival is all about, as well as creating a safe - and fun - space to celebrate death, loved ones, and, ultimately, life. Opening and owning the conversation is something that Dight is particularly intrigued by.
‘It does seem a bit crazy that in this modern world we seem to be behind in the way we’re dealing with death and the way we’re talking about it,’ she says. ‘A lot of people seem to be still afraid of talking about people who have died, but I think the more we talk about death in general, the easier it’ll become.’
Branching out from our society’s timid approach to discussing death is something around which artist Andrew Tibbles has based his performance piece, Immortal. Participants enter into a confessional-style booth where they are encouraged by an unseen Tibbles to record something - anything - that they want to be heard once they can no longer say it. Afterwards, Tibbles collects all the recordings and exhibits them: each recording has its own speaker, which provides a gentle murmur of voices until you choose one in particular to listen to.
‘It starts off with me asking: “would you want to be immortal?”’, explains Tibbles. ‘And usually people say no. At that point, they have to recognise that at some point they do want to die, and that it shouldn’t be something scary.’
From that, participants are encouraged to consider what they would like to leave behind. ‘And I help signpost that without directing them in any particular route. The idea is that what we record there is actually their property, and I’m using it as next-of-kin information that will be passed on. In that way, it’s a bit of a service, but at the same time, I’m hoping they’ll have a clearer reflection on how they’re living their life.’
Coming from a product design background, Tibbles conjured up with the idea for Immortal as part of his honours year degree show. After creating an underwater burial system, he reasoned a good way to thank the people involved with helping him would be to allow them to write their own epitaphs for the headstones used in the project.
‘It was borne out of that kind of thank you. I worked on the format for a couple of years, and figured out the best way to draw those kind of feelings from someone in the most natural way.’
What people said and how they respond to the idea of leaving behind something for when they can no longer express it says a lot of about how our shifting views of death are perceived, says Tibbles.
‘A lot of the time, we tend to just fall back on to tradition. It’s something that we think about so much that when someone dies, if we’re not prepared, we go for the traditional sense of things, rather than anything unorthodox,’ he says. ‘Things like Death Cafe, which I’ve been helping to run, and other neutral spaces really help. People’s opinions are either solidified or they’ll be very interested in what can happen that they didn’t know about. It’s a bit informative and a bit philosophical; I find those spaces really encouraging.’
Victoria Melody is bringing Ugly Chief to the festival, a show she devised along with her Dad, Mike Melody. Their performances at the festival will be works in progress, but, to be fair to them, they’re still getting to grips with the show’s fascinating origin: Mike was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, but after two years of living with what he thought was a terminal illness, doctors realised he’d been misdiagnosed.
‘Dad gave all of us the news, and I said straight away, do you wanna make a show with me now you’re not gonna die,’ says Melody. ‘It made me realise that we’re so similar and it’s a shame that we’ve never collaborated on a project. He absolutely jumped at the chance, so we’re making a show about his funeral. This show is his funeral.’
It’s strange, she points out, that we tend to wait until people are no longer with us before we give speeches and admit all the nice things we think about them.
‘You’d love to hear that stuff, wouldn’t you? So it’s a eulogy for a living soul. It’s also about breaking that taboo about talking about death. I think there’s something quite comforting about knowing exactly what somebody wants, rather than the time coming and being struck by grief and having to make all these decisions.’
In researching the role, Melody trained as a funeral director, in order to really be able to understand the ins and outs of what happens to you and your body once you die.
‘It’s also about demystifying the British funeral industry. There’s something about being confronted by your own mortality that allows you to really live your life. Really finding out all the behind-the-door routines and rituals that happen to your body made me fear death less.’
One thing all three – Dight, Tibbles and Melody – agree on is that the way we approach talking about death in society is changing, slowly, but steadily and hopefully.
‘There’s a big positive death movement around at the moment and I’ve been working with quite a few people who are trying to open it up for more discussion. People want to talk about this stuff. We’re at the beginning of a movement and at the beginning of change.’
by Kirstyn Smith
Festival of Ian Smith: A Celebration of Death is at Summerhall, 28 Oct-27 Nov. To record a piece for Immortal, visit the Demonstration Room on 29 & 30 Oct, then the installation continues in the basement until 27 Nov. Ugly Chief is in the Anatomy Lecture Theatre on Sat 29 Oct. There are also plenty more exhibitions, performances and events going on, so check out the full listings here.
Read full interviews with:
Angie Dight, Artistic Director of performance company Mischief La-Bas, created Festival of Ian Smith: A Celebration of Death as a way of celebrating the memory of her late husband, co-founder of Mischief La-Bas, Ian Smith. After his funeral, Dight realised that how we think about death, and how we remember those who have died, needed shaking up a bit. In founding Festival of Ian Smith, she is taking a much-needed look at how we remember loved ones who have died and how we marry life and death together in a positive and healthy way.
Can you tell us more about the Festival of Ian Smith?
This is the second year of the festival. We started it last year in Glasgow to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Ian Smith who was my husband and the co-founder of Mischief La Bas. He had suffered from clinical depression for the last couple of years of his life and he took his own life. I think because the end of his life hadn’t been good - he had been really ill - I started with the funeral as a way of celebrating him and his work rather than thinking about his illness. The anniversary was a way to mark the good things about him, to remember him and his work positively. It was about looking at death positively, firstly through him, but then we also had the Death Cabaret which started to talk about death and started to ask other performers to do work about death. I’d never really thought about death much before. I think it was something that had been hidden away. Ian died and then a couple of other people died and I went to their funerals and I began to see that there was a positive thing in this. We want to remember the good things about them, and we should do that in their funerals and in the way we think about death.
How is the festival changing the way people think about death?
From my experience, it feels a bit that death is something for older people, and I think with Ian’s funeral and with his work, it can appeal to younger people as well. You’re trying to bring lots of people in and make it not scary. I think that’s what we’re trying to do - to have lots of different events which are all approaching death in a different way, and which appeal to different audiences. For example, the Death Cafe. I’d be surprised if many young people came to that. But, with the Ofrenda workshop, I can imagine that would appeal to young people. We’re trying to make death less scary, and make it more part of life. And why not? We’ve all got to do it.
Do you think as a society we will be able to change the way we view death?
Yes, and I think it is happening already. There are a lot more organisations addressing death. I think it’s because people want to take control of their own death, or their loved ones' deaths, and they feel that the way it has been treated hasn’t perhaps been quite good enough. So we want that to improve. It does seem a bit crazy that in this modern world, where we, in theory, can have everything, we really seem to be behind in the way we’re dealing with death and the way we’re talking about it. A lot of people seem to be still afraid of talking about the people who have already died, but I think the more we talk about death in general, the easier it’ll become.
Is there going to be a focus on mental health as well?
I think with the event last year, the focus on mental health was really important because we were talking about Ian and mental health and death. This year it’s not just about Ian, it’s about all people, so it’s encompassing all death. Although mental health is part of his story, and although we’re part of SMHAFF, we’re not directly dealing with mental health. To be honest, there are loads of issues around mental health and death anyway, in terms of grieving, the wellbeing of the people who are bereaved, and also illness and death and how that impacts on people’s mental health. So, death and good mental health are very interlinked.
What are some of the festival highlights?
There’s a weekend programme, which is going to be really full-on, there’s lots of events and performances, so obviously that weekend is a highlight. But then all the exhibitions are the things that are close to my heart, because that’s Ian’s work. I’m re-doing his Good Grief, which is an installation that is tributes to people who have died. So I’m making tributes and then I’m inviting the public to add their own. So it’s going to change throughout the festival, I hope. I’m really interested in seeing how that develops. We’ve also got the In Memoriam exhibition, which is an exhibition of five people’s work, of friends of mine, or relatives of friends, so I’m really pleased to have that in there. Ross McLean’s exhibition about the Mexican Day of the Dead is going to be really great as well. Everything’s going to be great!
What else should people know about the festival?
The message really is that we should still be celebrating people who have died. Just because they’re dead doesn’t mean they’re still not living within us. And we can celebrate them and everything about them positively. With Mischief La-Bas, we always like to treat things slightly irreverently. It’s really important to not take life or death too seriously.
by Kirstyn Smith
Festival of Ian Smith: A Celebration of Death is at Summerhall, 28 Oct-27 Nov. Click here for full listings of the exhibitions, performances and events taking place as part of the festival.
In partnership with the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival and NHS Lothian, new magazine She is Fierce held the most spectacular launch night in Edinburgh Castle’s Great Hall on Thursday 20 October. The theme of the evening was Wonderland – also the theme of the launch issue, which is currently with the printers – and, fittingly, a white rabbit holding an oversized pocket watch was outside the entrance to greet us all as we arrived.
With suits of armour, lavish paintings, and rich furnishings, the surroundings were certainly magnificent, but the real excitement was all to do with the people. There was an incredible mood of enthusiasm and anticipation.
We were welcomed by an incredible squad of girls from Simon Says Dance, a company that teaches dance to 450 dancers across Edinburgh and the Lothians each week, to get the evening underway.
This is the third year that SMHAFF has been welcomed into the castle and its Governor, Major General M L Riddell-Webster, welcomed everyone and spoke briefly about how important mental health and wellbeing are to the armed forces.
Next up was Hannah Taylor, proud founder of She is Fierce, which she described “a magazine collective for girls, by girls”. She spoke with anger and frustration about the mainstream media and the messages that it sends to young women. She urged us all to think about whether or not this was what we really want to teach our girls.
Herself a mother of a 10-year-old girl, Hannah discussed the way that her daughter always feels good about expressing herself however she wants to, and she doesn’t want her to lose this. Hannah herself used to be bolshy like her wee girl, but, at some point along the way, she lost that bolshiness in trying to assimilate with everyone else, for example, in pretending to like Backstreet Boys, rather than old-school hip hop. This assimilation is only encouraged by the media and, as Hannah says, the bottom line is that “the media are not doing a good enough job when it comes to our girls”.
Hannah’s Kickstarter campaign for the magazine was fully funded within just three weeks. Organisations such as TEDx and the NHS have lent their support to She is Fierce and the limited edition zine, Minus One, which came out in earlier in the year was extremely well received. Hannah acknowledges that “finding your tribe is not always easy” and that She is Fierce is all about letting girls create their own media.
MC for the evening was Emily Millichip, an Edinburgh-based independent fashion designer. As well as doing a fabulous job of introducing everybody, she spoke very eloquently about how the media currently specialises in the “commercialisation of insecurity”. However, Emily also drew attention to the opportunities that the internet affords for people to put power in their own hands and deconstruct some of the old hierarchies. Emily shared an important lesson that she has learned, that you are at your absolute strongest when you’re being who you are.
The next treat was a selection of songs from Amy Louise Rogers, a young singer-songwriter from Fife. She shared a “couple of happy songs” with us, including a brilliant mash up of Tom Jones’ She’s a Lady and Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun that she’d put together especially for the evening.
Natalya and Fiona from Pyrus were next to speak and they are delighted to be featured in the first issue of She is Fierce. They are botanical stylists and flower growers and spoke about the path they had taken from art college, to meeting each other when working in a flower shop, to setting up on their own. Natalya and Fiona both became disillusioned with the floral industry and, in particular, the exploitation of poorer countries where flowers were grown and the mass-produced nature of so much of what was deemed beautiful.
Pyrus is now five years old and they’ve just expanded, taking on a three acre walled garden, a move that Fiona explained essentially takes them from gardening to farming. There are lots of arms to the business, from weddings and events, to set-design and installation pieces. The overwhelming – and inspirational – message the girls shared was that you never have to be pigeon-holed, you can always forge your own path.
The multitalented Rebecca Monks spoke next, a playwright, writer, journalist and spoken word performer. She shared a short spoken piece from her Edinburgh Fringe show Tyke, which tells the story of an elephant who – after 20 years of abuse – killed her trainer on stage. Rebecca spoke a little about the process of putting the play on and she shared some really important points about creativity with the audience, in particular some reasons why you should spend time writing:
1. It’s rewarding.
2. It’s important to share stories.
3. It’s an excellent way to express yourself, and a way to help with mental health.
4. Because girls who write are fierce.
We were treated to more dancing next, performed by the Mini Jackers from Ashley Jack’s dance company Jackin’ The Box, before talented young poet Aischa Daughtery performed the poem she wrote for the magazine, ‘Pretty girls don’t cry’. It was a beautifully dark poem about identity and self-esteem and it is well worth getting hold of a copy of She is Fierce to read it.
Ailsa Stratton, teacher and director of Thrive Wellbeing addressed the crowd next, speaking about purpose and how to work out who you want to be. A few years ago, she started to become concerned about what was happening to our young women and about the ways in which schools were not helping young people to flourish. This led her to start her business Thrive Wellbeing and explore the Japanese idea of Ikigai: the concept that where your passion, mission, vocation and profession meet is your purpose. I loved what she said in closing, that you will be happier and healthier if you find your passion and do what motivates you.
Edinburgh Dance Academy rounded off the evening with some fabulously choreographed routines, before the final speaker of the night, Linda Irvine from NHS Lothian, beautifully summed what we had seen. She stressed how important it is that we all look after ourselves and each other. Her final message to the assembled crowd was: “Keep your hair messy and your heart curious!”
by Rachel Alexander
Click here to order a copy of She is Fierce - The Wonderland Issue.