Audience as Artist

I’m just back from Wigtown Book Festival in Scotland, where I saw lots of old friends again and met several new ones.

The great highlight for me (as usual) was Wigtown’s Got Talent, in which visiting writers and artists use their skills (if that’s the word) to compete with local perfomers in a lively event in the local distillery. I did some impro with Robert Twigger, involving the whole audience, but failed for the third year in a row to win the competition. (The clip shows me ejecting Twigger from the group for “blocking”, then letting him back in.)

But I’ve written something for The Daily Telegraph about Wigtown’s Got Talent, so I’m writing here about other things, including my involvement with the Audience As Artist theme – in which we tried to get visitors to recognise their own vast involvement in the creative process.

One way we did that was by making tiny booklets out of A4 paper, to hand out to everybody, inviting them to draw one of the events, collect interesting quotes, make maps, write haikus or interview strangers – or indeed do anything else. The completed booklets will be stitched eventually (by me) into a single volume as a physical, paper-based record of Wigtown 2012.

Getting back to London, I found that my own copy was not entirely finished, so I asked N to write about or draw what she thought I did in Wigtown. Here’s the result.

(It says: “This is what I thourght my dad did in wigton. Steal paint. I mean stealing paint from painters.”)

Beside these booklets, the Audience As Artist theme was extended in the County Buildings, where a beautiful gallery was built by Norrie Steele, to resemble a Victorian collector’s study. Visitors were invited to leave items for a Cabinet of Curiosities, make a representation of themselves using plasticine, make puppets with Allison Ouvry, bake cakes on the theme of Dark Skies (being remote, Wigtown has some of the darkest skies in the UK) or learn poetry skills from John Hegley.

Alternatively, they could also join the artist in residence, Joanne B Kaar, in weaving grass and other plant fibres. I did this myself, and was enormously satisfied to learn something so simple, but so very useful. As well as making rope, I tried on a pair of enormous shoes Joanne had made with grass.

On Sunday, I did one of my occasional bookmaking workshops, and was delighted to have people declare themselves genuinely amazed by the experience – there’s something incredibly powerful about making books, which we learn from a young age to be repositories of great wisdom and fine art. Even most authors consider the process of actually making books to be outside their own area of expertise – something strictly for publishers.

One who definitely doesn’t feel that way is my new friend, the author Tahir Shah who, though he has a long and impressive track-record with major publishers, self-published his latest novel, Timbuctoo, at considerable expense, as a beautiful artefact that is not glue-bound but stitched, and with large fold-out maps.

In the artists’ retreat, Tahir delivered a rousing call to all authors to do the same. I pointed out that it is not possible for all authors to spend the thousands of pounds he spent – a massive gamble, indicative of considerable self-belief – but did mention to him that I had printed, stitched and bound (in my old shirts) several copies of my book Through The Eye Of A Needle (subsequently published as Sew Your Own).

Later, I was enormously gratified to learn that John Hegley, who has long been one of my heroes, inspected my own handmade books on display in the gallery (pictured above), and seemed to approve.

When we met, I told him how much I’d enjoyed myself at his event, reading and singing from his latest poetry collection – and then he happened to mention mending his suit. On learning about my own interest in sewing, Hegley presented me with his needle and thread, wrapped around his artist’s pass. Something for the cabinet of curiosities, perhaps?

One final highlight for me was to introduce Ian Sansom, who talked about what promises to be an extraordinary new book, Paper: An Elegy. One thing that particularly stuck in my mind was his observation that Hans Christian Andersen did amazing paper cuts while telling his stories – some of which he showed us.

Inspired by this, I started a couple of paper cut outs myself, late that night in the artist’s retreat. The result was hardly a sensation – but it was very exciting to rediscover an art form that I’ve not played with since I was a child.