It’s been a few weeks since the performance of IRIS at St Barnabas Church in Erdington – the culmination of months of work with local community groups in the area, gathering sounds and working on musical/text ideas.
IRIS became something of a multi-media piece, which incorporated field recordings, cut-up voice recordings, vintage electronic instruments, Super 8mm film, and a ‘prepared history’ of Erdington resident Iris Threadwell (1897- disappeared in 1968). Although the show was presented as being based in history/research into an actual person, it was in fact an entirely fabricated narrative which was used to explore genuine aspects of Erdington’s rich history. It feels like it might be good to now ‘reveal’ some of the actual processes and outcomes which were involved in the creation of the piece. As this could be quite dense, I will restrict this to a sort of ‘bullet points’ list of methodology used in the work.
- Iris Threadwell was created by Scott Johannsson and Matt Eaton for a one-time site specific audio visual installation in 2010, as part of an exhibition called SECRET LIVES OF A BUILDING. This earlier piece involved live performance, video projection mapping, sound and music, and the creation of an entire history around the character.
- Having started working with the community groups, I decided early on that I would ‘resurrect’ and develop Iris’ history with the help of my collaborators – expanding on what we had previously created and drawing the groups into this process of fabricating a narrative around a character yet presenting it as historical fact. I thought this would be an interesting and unusual process for them to gain insight into, twisting the premise of the for-Wards commission a little to allow for my inclusion of text-based and visual material as well as sound and music.
- Field recording sessions with the Polish Expat Association’s Welcome Centre in Erdington were the starting point in this journey- recording the hustle of nearby Wilton Market, capturing the sounds of rain on gravestones and ambience in St Barnabas churchyard (used as walk-in sound during the final show), and being given the chance to improvise and record with the church’s superb digital organ. Elements of all these found their way directly into the final show in some form or other. The organs recordings, for instance, were the basis for many pieces of sound/music heard in the show: excerpts presented as old tape recordings of Iris playing in 1968; a written piece of minimalist organ performed live by myself (and attributed in the programme to an 11 yr old Iris, entitled ‘Amor Dei‘ which is actually the title of a piece of music by Midlands-born electronic pioneer Delia Derbyshire); and towards the finale of the piece a short recording of St Barnabas’ vicar Rev Frida Evans spontaneously playing one of Bach’s Cantata during our first group visit (she was unaware of being recorded/used in the piece until the day of the performance!)
- Visual materials were printed and given to the audience in a pack- these ‘faked’ documents included a poem written by Iris in the 1930’s, which fills out a little more of her story (she had an affair with an employer which turned sour/somewhat sinister, which she seems to express feelings about in the poem):
- The programme essentially follows a chronology of Iris’ life, including the places that she lived:
- Part Two, ‘The Assembly’ is a quite percussive electronic piece which describes Iris’ time working at Castle Bromwich Assembly during the war, building Spitfire and Hurricane aeroplanes for the Air Ministry. This piece incorporated metallic and percussive sounds captured by Chivenor School in Tyburn, which is geographically very close to the site of the factory and local airfield (it’s known that many of the planes were tested out by female factory workers, and I like to imagine Iris ripping up and down the airfield with the wind in her hair, happy as anything!)
- Part Three, ‘Highcroft Hall’ uses sounds captured by Stockland Green History Group, in and around the actual area where Highcroft Hall still stands- a glorious Victorian-era workhouse building which variously became the famous Highcroft Psychiatric Hospital (where Iris worked in the late-50’s/early 60’s) and is now luxury apartments. There is also a lot of cut-up voice text in this piece, provided by participants from both the Stockland Green History Group and Kingstanding Food Community. Also, working with an actor standing in for Iris, we shot Super8mm film around the Hall (as well as in St Barnabas, the churchyard and around other areas in Erdington) in such a way that the saturated colour cine film was presented as discovered ‘archive’ home movies of Iris from the time she lived there. These films were surprisingly authentic looking/effective! For the show itself, four separate 8mm loops were created using this ‘fake’ home movie footage, real archive film of Erdington as well as some of my own footage shot when I was living in the area in the mid-to-late 80’s. These four loops represented each era/district where Iris lived, and the imagery specifically tied to those times. We also created a fake polaroid of Iris at the church organ in the 60s:
- Part Four, ‘3.33pm’ refers to the last known sighting of Iris by a passing policeman on June 16th 1968. This section is where things get a little weird! Incorporating a lengthy section of material entirely improvised by pupils from Chivenor Primary, utilizing cut-up poetry with spoken word and synthesized sounds, this section led to the idea to have Iris be someone who experienced and reported UFO sightings in the early 60’s. Once I decided on this, coincidences started to pile up- a friend in Germany sent me clippings from a newspaper- images from a new book of declassified MOD files, pictures drawn by people in the 40s-80s. I adapted one and attributed it to Iris:
- A further co-incidence was that the road I had randomly picked to be where Iris lived in the late 50s (Fentham Road, Stockland Green- behind Highcroft Hospital) turned out to have a special significance. Talking about the project, a friend of mine asked me if I had ever heard the incredible story of Cynthia Appleton. I hadn’t. She was an ordinary married Brummie lady who, in 1957 when she was 27years old, claimed to have been abducted by an alien and impregnated with his child. Her entire story is fascinating (and a little sad too). But the thing which freaked me out a bit was that, when I looked into her a bit more, I discovered that at the time of her alien/ufo claims, she was living at…Fentham Road Spooky.