One rainy weekend last December, I went to a series of events that were a part of the Compass Live Art Festival in Leeds. One of the artists I met that day was Alexander Kelly from Sheffield-based performing arts company Third Angel.
He was running a really interesting session called Inspiration Exchange, which encourages participants to swap stories with him and with each other. We would pick up a word card on our way in, and Alex would tell us the story behind it. In return, we would have to tell him a story of our own. You can read more about what Inspiration Exchange is about on Alex’s blog here, and read about my experience of it here.
Alex will be running another Inspiration Exchange as part of the PSi#18 Conference at the University of Leeds on Saturday 30th April from 10am to 6pm. This free event is open to the public, and will be held at Parkinson Building Room 18.
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Here is what Alex has to say about inspirations, stories and art…
What is Third Angel about?
We’re a group of performance makers telling stories about the stuff that intrigues us, bothers us, worries us and fascinates us from our personal lives and the world around us. For 17 years we’ve been trying to make work that will help people to stop and look again at the familiar things around them and see them afresh.
What, or who, inspired you most?
It’s a long list – as the Inspiration Exchange demonstrates – from day to day things, simple ideas, complex ideas, things we hear in conversation, the work of other people – whether theatre, performance, books, TV, comics, magazines, documentaries…
What made you first become interested in people’s stories?
That’s tricky to pin down. I’ve always been interested in what other people think about things, and their experiences – partly as a way of figuring out what I think about stuff. In magazines and newspapers I often look at the letters pages first, to see what other people are concerned about at the moment.
What was the most inspiring story you heard during your last weekend in Leeds?
That’s a really difficult one, because it’s partly about what they were swapped for, and what story that connection tells…but answering these questions quite a long time after the event (sorry), the one that has stayed with me the most is the idea of “Buildings as Time-travellers” – buildings being static points that time moves past. I like that. It articulates something about the way I feel about buildings and large structures.
Do you feel like the setting at the City Museum was appropriate? Was it cosy? Claustrophobic?
It was great actually. Cosy but not claustrophobic. The Inspiration Exchange works well in a fairly self contained space, so people don’t feel too on display when they are telling their stories, but with a door or doorway that is open or can be seen through, so the passing audience can see there’s something going on. So the back-to-back terrace room was lovely – a bit of character of its own, but not so much that it dominated the piece.
Will you translate stories into another medium – thoughts into actions – in the future?
A few of them, I have realised, are developing into another piece – fragments of a story called Cape Wrath that has now taken on a life of its own. Others will get swapped in future exchanges. I’m happy for a lot them to stay as oral culture – that’s enough for me.
How would you defend conversation as an art?
This is a great question. My flippant-sounding answer is that art is conversation. The more portentous-sounding explanation of that is that surely art is part of the conversation between human beings about what it means to be human. There’s not very much I’m certain about when it comes to art and performance, but that’s one of the things that I am certain of.
But more specifically, conversation as art. I think that, often, when we’re making work we’re looking for the right frame, or form, to best explore the ideas we’re interested in. The form that adds something, that articulates something that another form wouldn’t. I’m most interested, I think, in work that can only exist in the form it is presented in. (I’m not particularly interested in theatre you could easily make a film of, for example). And with this idea, the idea of things that have inspired us, a structured conversation felt like the right form. And it is structured, but hopefully that structure is quite light-touch – the conversation can wander off in different directions, and meander quite far, depending on how many people are waiting; but the card-swap structure is there to reset the piece when necessary.
What will your next show be about and when will it take place?
We’ve got several things on the go. A work-in-progress of Cape Wrath is going to the Latitude Festival in July, and What I Heard About The World is on in Edinburgh and Helsinki in August. A theatre production of Georges Perec’s radio play The Machine will be on in Sheffield in December…
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It’s easy to start taking things for granted when you have lived in a city for any significant period of time. Beijing has been my home for the past seven years. My family still lives here, so I would come back at least once a year even during my time at university. The city has always been special to me, but when people ask me to describe it I never feel like I can do it justice. I know this sounds cliche, but Beijing really is something else.
When I was told by my parents that we would move here back in 2005, I refused to speak to them for a week and maturely nicknamed the place ‘City of Doom’. I was perfectly happy living in London at the time, and could not understand for the life of me why we would want to move to a place that I considered severely backwards.
We arrived on Christmas Day and found ourselves in a city empty of festive lights and carols. The only things that greeted us were a pile of yellow snow on the pavement and a cab that looked (and felt) like it was about to give up on life.
Incredible things happened in the next few years, however, as Beijing prepared for the 2008 Olympic Games. I watched it change before my eyes. Decrepit buildings were torn down as fast as glassy skyscrapers grew up. The cars on the road got shinier and less like scrap metal monsters. The subway map that used to consist of only two lines has now multiplied to incorporate 15 (and counting). McDonald’s and Starbucks started to pop up everywhere.
The Beijing today is a completely different landscape, and I have grown to love every quirky thing about it. People unapologetically clearing their throats and talking at an unnecessarily high volume may be uncouth, but it is part of the city’s soundtrack. Driving through the streets is like being in a bad video game, with cars travelling in all directions and their drivers dismissing traffic signs as mere decoration. But once you get used to the craziness, it’s really quite amusing.
I can now say that I know the city relatively well. I know where to go, how to get there, and what to expect when I arrive. What I have forgotten, however, is how Beijing looks from the other side, when it’s seen through the eyes of a tourist.
I’ve played the role of tour guide many times when visiting the big local attractions with family friends, but not this time. This time, as I joined my boyfriend and his family on a day trip around town, I was to be tourist in my own city for once. It was a surprisingly refreshing experience.
Our first stop was the Beijing Capital Museum. The museum was established in the 80s, but the current building only opened in 2005. It is home to some incredible pieces of relics, from traditional wedding outfits to gold plates to calligraphy scrolls by old masters. Admittedly, it’s not the most child friendly place and little ones may find that it can get a bit dry after a while. I’ve been here on a school trip before, but having James, our tour guide, with us really made a difference. It was interesting to hear him talk us through the items on display while giving us China’s history in manageable – if somewhat censored and carefully phrased - doses.
We then had lunch at a famous vegetarian restaurant, Gongdelin. As a meat-lover, I was not especially impressed, especially since the dishes were all named after their carnivorous counterparts: ‘Sweet and Sour Pork’ was actually made of lotus roots, and ‘Gongbao Chicken’ was really tofu. Much as I felt cheated, though, it was still a place I would not have even glanced at otherwise.
After the food we did one of the most touristy things you can do in Beijing – we rode a rickshaw through hutongs in the Houhai area. Hutongs are narrow alleyways where most people used to live in the old days. There were once over 6000 of them in the city, tour guide James told us, but urbanisation means that there are now only less than 400 left.
I was initially sceptical about the rickshaw ride because it’s so embarrassingly cliche, but it turned out to be a lot of fun. Our driver was a thin, tanned man in his 40s who has been doing his job every day for the past eight years. He also qualifies as a speed devil. It was both terrifying and exciting sitting in the back watching him weave in and out of other rickshaws, bikes, and cars with breathtaking speed, shouting ‘Ey, ey!’ as he pushed pedestrians out of the way.
‘I keep fit riding the bike every day,’ he says, laughing. ‘It’s a healthy job!’
He dropped us off at the Former Residence of Soong Ching-ling (website in Chinese), where James gave us a quick tour. Madame Soong was the wife of Sun Yat-sen, Founding Father and the first President of the People’s Republic of China. Like her husband, Madame Soong also played an important role in the Communist Party. She became the only Honorary President the PRC has had to date.
Her former home, although a lot more comfortable than other living areas of her time, is distinctly simple. James pointed out that nowadays even the poor people’s houses are more luxurious than Madame Soong’s. Her high status is only reflected in the size of her siheyuan - Chinese quadrangles where four buildings surround a courtyard area. The gardens around the house are also impressive. As a dove-lover, Madame Soong used to spend much of her time outdoors tending the birds.
After walking around for a while, James informed us that we would be visiting the home of a lower class family next. And so the rickshaw driver took us to the Zhang residence, located on Beiguanfang Hutong, where our journey on wheels ended. This siheyuan is much smaller than Madame Soong’s, but it’s nonetheless very cozy.
Mr. Zhang, a former mechanic, greeted us and gave a brief history of his family home with the help of a photo album. They have owned the grounds for over a century, he said, and it has been passed down through five generations. Their courtyard is a happy riot of fruit and vegetables, and Mr. Zhang’s face lit up as he pointed to the twirls of grape vine and green tomatoes peeking out from their leafy homes.
After Mr. Zhang’s retirement he and his wife have been carrying on the family craft of paper cutting from home. They have converted one of the rooms into a workshop, in which all their wonderfully intricate works are made and sold.
We then bid our goodbyes and James led us down Yandai Xiejie, an alley that resembled a Chinese version of The Shambles in York, UK. There were shops on both sides, selling everything from qipao (traditional Chinese dresses) to postcards. A few more minutes’ walk took us to our final destination of the day – Gulou and Zhonglou, the Drum and Bell Towers of Beijing respectively.
I’ve passed by these magnificent buildings many times, but have never given them a second thought, let alone make the effort to step inside. James handed us the tickets and ushered us towards the entrance of Zhonglou. I peered up and felt momentarily queazy.
‘The guide books all say that there are 70 steps,’ said James. ‘But I’ve only ever counted 69… Anyway, let’s go.’
And so began the long march. Fortunately, it wasn’t as bad as anticipated, but I lost count of my steps half way up and therefore cannot confirm either figures.
The view from the top should have been stunning were it not for the white smog that covered the city like a giant ball of cotton candy, but the bell alone was worth climbing up the stairs for. The massive copper structure was built in the 13th century and renovated and relocated to its present location in the early 15th century.
Legend says that the Emperor had ordered the bell to be cast in three months after three years of failure, threatening to kill all the craftsmen if this were not achieved. When the set date came, however, the copper was still not properly set.
Just as the men thought that they were all doomed, the head coppersmith’s daughter, Hua Xian, ran forward and jumped into the furnace. The fire immediately roared and the copper began to change colour. As heartbroken as the coppersmith was, he ordered the bell to be cast, and it was beautifully complete by the time the Emperor arrived. Hua Xian has since been referred to as the Casting Bell Goddess.
The bell was the city’s official timekeeping mechanism until the end of the Qing dynasty, and James told us that it used to be struck every two hours. Sadly, its deep bellow can now only be heard once a year on Chinese New Year, and even then it’s mostly drowned out by the cackles of fireworks.
We then stumbled our way back down to ground level and made a final stop at the Bell Tower Tea House. There, a lady called Miss Deng introduced us to various types of tea as well as their characteristics and benefits. As a half-Brit and avid tea-drinker, I thought this was an apt way to end our day. We sampled some great teas, but my favourite was without a doubt the Lychee and Rose.
All in all I had a great day. I would not have had the motivation to make such a trip by myself, but I am so glad I went along. I learnt more about Beijing that day than I did in the past few years, just because I’ve never had much of a reason to do so in my daily life.
I found out, for example, that the wires tracing the rooftops of ancient buildings are there to protect them from lightning. I also learnt that the city gates are aligned so that in the old days when they were all opened, you could stand at one end of Beijing and see right through to the other end.
The biggest lesson I learnt from the trip, though, is that it’s good to play tourist in one’s home city once in a while. This is especially the case here in Beijing, where thousands of years of history has been preserved and is allowed to mingle with the modern world. And sometimes, in a place that is still undergoing such rapid change, one does need to take a step back and just see the city for what it has been, and for what it is now.
I feel that I got to re-know my city that day, and can appreciate it even more afterwards. I really enjoyed myself despite how cheesy everything felt at the time, and would definitely recommend doing something similar wherever you are.