– a guest blog by Alinah Azadeh

For many years I have made work – installations, sculptures, performances –  which have been sparked by my own personal narratives  – as a bridge for the public to bring their own stories to the work, through objects or texts and latterly, by performing them with me.

I came to Blast Theory to explore and craft find ways of creating a framework for an interactive digital piece about conflict, place, identity and collective memory, via the metaphor of a great Wall. Initially it began as an idea for a collaborative textile installation, with elements of performance and digital input. I have come out with something very different, much simpler in form, but that still addresses the complexity of all the issues I have been looking at. I feel relieved and also see the water rising in the next plateau of work ahead.

So now it is: An App which immerses you in a vivid set of interactive audio stories; human encounters with walls, borders, the invisible barriers between people and those within the human self. And, more importantly, with what lies beyond them.

Be a stranger in transit on a bench at Tehran airport, or at a kitchen table in Belfast. Hear tales of fear overcome in the dead of night, acts of conflict transformation between former perpetrators and victims – or imagined reunions with estranged siblings.

An intimate, provocative and poetic lens on how the human desire to overcome barriers is often stronger than the power to uphold them – and the tension between both of these. You are also invited to contribute your own narrative in response to what you hear, as the project grows globally.

(There is also still a desire to embed the App into an installation so that we can create a touring work with a programme of dialogue and debate, but that is for a later stage).

Having the space, rigorous mentoring from Matt – and the opportunity to learn more about how Blast Theory keep it fresh (after 25 years) and manages the immense amount of moving parts required to create work that is always pushing boundaries – has inspired me to create the fresh momentum needed to get this project off the ground. As the lead artist, what is a natural progression of my own practice, the place where I can best use what I am good at? Also, being in such a welcoming context here in Portslade where there is a genuine desire to help me succeed at what I came to do and a reflecting back of the qualities of my previous work when I started to doubt my current direction, has been a real gift.

I’m always interested in taking a multi dimensional view of any subject – in this case, how a wall / barrier can be both physical, psychological, emotional and mental. I did this with my last project Burning the Books; so, narratives about financial global injustice were recited in performances alongside stories of personal, financial but also ’emotional’ debts perceived to be owed to family members. This happened because when I started talking about debt to people they talked back about so much more than finance. So this gave me the permission and scope to paint a fuller, deeply human picture of how debt as a construct affects the way we perceive and relate to ourselves, others and society. One of the most striking aspects of touring the Book of Debts was the very different narrative space of each book in response to site and how audiences sat and listened to my / our performing of them in such a broad range of contexts, from war museum to club night to town square but with equal focus … and the prism through which they re-evaluated their own view of what debt is and questioned its power and, in some cases, its legitimacy.

We intend to create this kind of collective listening and questioning again, built through relationships to sites internationally, but also accessible in any location – from alone at night in bed, in transit anywhere in the world, to inside a public installation. So using an App as the core platform makes total sense and gives it space to grow over time.

During my time here I experimented with and tested out different guided narrative forms before writing my own personal experiences relevant to the project; the crossing of a literal and cultural border in Iran, facing a wall of silence with an estranged sibling and a recurring dream of a wall from my childhood. Not writing them had become my own personal wall and once they were out, the project seemed to make much more sense.

Over the last fortnight as I worked my narratives and tested them out, with input from Matt, Ju and my generous test group (in person and on email /Skype), I felt the electric current of something heading in the right direction. I have been editing them to find the balance between how much controlled interactivity (through pauses and questions and positioning of the listener) enhances or obstructs the flow of the narrative and noting a whole list of similar stories from the listeners which were triggered by their listening – to see what they heard most loudly and where to shift the emphasis.

I have also asked my collaborators on the upcoming workshop/public programme Dr Craig Larkin and Maria Pattinson, to contribute one their own narratives and now have a shortlist of people to approach from over the last year, to see if they will be interviewed for one of the initial set of starter narratives to produce for the prototype by the end of this R +D period. These are carefully chosen to reflect the different levels of narratives to which listeners might respond and echo back their own stories. I won’t say much more because I don’t want to spoil the surprise of the contrasting content of some of these narratives when we launch them, but I am excited at having found the form and a new set of processes for moving it all on and taking my work across yet another border into the unknown!

Thank you Blast Theory. And Happy 25th Birthday!.

Through A Wall supported by Arts Council England and GHF Foundation for Peace. Seeded by King’s Cultural Institute/3FF. Read the project blog on AN here.

Alinah will be in conversation about this and her other related work at INIVA in London on May 19th, and to follow her work www.alinahazadeh.com and @burningthebooks.

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