I was invited to write this blog about my creative process and in particular my ethnographic approach. In my previous shows Northern Soul and Major Tom I immersed myself into the worlds of pigeon racing, northern soul dancing, championship dog show handling and beauty pageantry. I became an active participant and a physical embodiment of the people I was hanging around with in order to take part in their rituals as research for my work.
Rather than recording, documenting and commenting on Britain’s clubs and tribes, I actively participate by becoming a member and metamorphasising myself in the process. I don’t comment on other people’s worlds, I comment on myself within them. I shine a light on different cultures, but from within the inner sanctums and not from the outside.
Research or fieldwork is key and I am obsessive. Because I make work about clubs and tribes where I don’t initially belong, everything is new to me and has potential. I have to rent a lock up in order to store collected paraphernalia. In one project I can collect over 100 hours of film. In a finished show I probably use 5% of the material I have collected. I need to be truly committed to a project, because the investment is huge; I will usually hang out with a community for at least a year. This is the least time it takes for me to start building up relationships and an understanding of that group.
I also have to have a personal interest and curiosity in the world I am about to enter. A mix of coincidence and accident usually determines where I go next. I discovered northern soul on my hen do, where I instantly fell in love with the scene and its music. Major Tom started when I got a dog and was instantly given membership to an exclusive members only club of basset hound owners. My next project, Hair Peace, leads directly on from Major Tom; it’s about global trade and tracing the real human hair extensions on my head back to the humans who grew them. A well-meaning hairdresser applied the extensions when I was competing as a beauty queen in Major Tom.
It confuses and excites me how my life and art intersect. A project is progressing when I find myself not knowing if I am doing something for my research or for my life. I still remain friends with some of the main characters I have met through my research. “The Brians” (dog shows), Jen the beautician (beauty pageants), Malcolm (pigeon fancier) and Ady (northern soul DJ) still feature in my life. The relationships are real and trust is built over a long period of time. It’s a privilege to be welcomed into these communities and I would never exploit that.
I try not to focus on the end product when in the research stage so that I don’t close my mind off to new possibilities. During fieldwork for Major Tom I was driving back from a dog show after Major Tom (my basset hound) had just come last and the judge told me I should buy a new dog. I was annoyed because Major’s personality wasn’t taken into consideration; it was purely about him measuring up to a breed standard, anything unique about him was seen as a flaw, an imperfection that lost him points. It didn’t count that he has earned the name “walking Prozac” from my friends because he makes everybody happy. It was on that journey home from the dog show that I came up with the idea to enter beauty pageants. That was the moment when the whole project made sense. The show manifesto wrote itself – it had gone from a show about in-group behaviour and Little England to a show more about the beauty myth and its oppressive function.
It’s all true – if it weren’t, the amount of material collected would be unfathomable. I am fastidious about the way that I collect data and I am influenced by the Mass Observation Archive Organisation’s work to study the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain. I have learnt many of my techniques of recording and organising data from their collections. I was flattered when the Mass Observation Archive invited me to donate the research I had collected about British pigeon fanciers. They believed that the collection contributed towards the understanding of that group.
Everything in the shows is faithful to the way it was, except for a few omissions of time for the sake of the narrative. Some of the stories I tell can seem like an imagination run wild, which is why I show video clips – to put faces to characters, to show I was there and to prove it is all true. I am inventive in how I present information; it’s not a lecture. Although I am fascinated by social science, I am not an ethnographer or an anthropologist, I am an artist, and that is why I don’t relay historical and factual information about a group. I dramatise scenes and I tell stories only about my direct experiences.
I am from a long line of storytellers. The surname Melody is thought to have its origins from travelling minstrels: medieval entertainers who were famous for memorising long poems based on myths and legends – and, funnily enough, for including animals such as dogs in their shows.
Before a story makes it into the show it has been road-tested in cafes, pubs and workplaces on unsuspecting friends and colleagues. Although I do this mainly by accident, reactions are duly noted. When it’s a good one that has had a positive reaction, I commit the story and the way I told it to memory and it comes back out in the rehearsal studio. The stories recount my experiences and observations whilst adrift in other people’s worlds.
Simon Critchley wrote that “Jokes are like tiny anthropological essays, and humour is a form of critical social anthropology.” Humour is key to every stage of my creation. During fieldwork, northern soul fans revealed more of themselves to me because I made them laugh so much at my ridiculous dancing. In the shows I use humour as a tool to get to those difficult and taboo places, as Exeunt’s own Rosemary Wagg recognised.
But really I am making the rules up as I go along. For my new project Hair Peace, I haven’t found the immersion yet – perhaps there won’t be an immersion – and I am struggling to imagine how the subject of making visible invisible trade links can ever be humorous. Perhaps I should listen to my own advice and stop trying to focus on the end product. In fact, as I re-read this blog, I get the fear that by committing my working process to paper, or rather the screen, I am committing myself to working in that way. It’s then important to add that I have been talking about what my creative process has been so far. But don’t hold me to it; it may not remain my approach for long. Like most artists, I’m a commitment-phobe. It’s the reason we don’t like artists’ statements, because no one wants to be trapped, we want to continuously evolve.
I try to start every project afresh, with no preconceptions – the aim to make something different from the last. Applying a ready-made creative process to every project is inevitably going to lead to constipation – a creative blockage caused by your own way of working. A better approach would be to ignore previous process and to focus on allowing the art to dictate its process and its medium. So that is exactly what I am going to do. I am going to ignore this blog. I am going to ignore my previous creative processes, in particular my ethnographic approach. I am going to keep my bowel clear and just concentrate on making good art. Art that hasn’t been crow-barred to blend in and be homogeneous with what has gone before it, but art that is allowed to be itself and is better because of it.
Major Tom is at Battersea Arts Centre 10th-15th March.