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On Portland

I’m giving a talk on Portland tomorrow, after more than three weeks here and just a few days before I leave. I’ve been doing everything I can to meet people, chat, photograph, gather and assemble some kind of collection of materials for the forthcoming publication, so this is a good moment to take a look at what’s happened here. And to begin some preliminary thinking about what it all means within a larger practice.

Soon after I arrived, someone advised me to say that we’re “on,” not “in,” Portland. There’s no town of Portland. It’s referred to as an island, even though it isn’t. Portland is a peninsula—Latin for almost-island—although there’s nothing “almost” about this place. It’s a solid block of limestone in the sea and it’s got a hard edge. It’s connected to the mainland (sometimes referred to locally as England) via Chesil Beach, as well as by a causeway, although that’s relatively modern. For most of its history, Portland’s only physical link to the outside world was a massive, ancient, 19-mile long pile of pebbles. Its border, crossing the beach and separating it from Weymouth, is only a few meters long.

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Its hard edge is made up of cliffs and coastline—and a guarded demeanor. You can see the island-like outline on a map, but its real shape comes across less visibly in conversation.

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Most of my chats with people here begin with my asking how long they’ve been on Portland. The response, anywhere from entire lifetimes to a few months or years, tends to set the tone of the conversation to follow, or can even shut it down. A few days in, I approached a woman who said she’d been on Portland for only 42 years, and therefore was not a real Portlander. And so, she could not participate in a project about Portlanders, she said, because she wasn’t qualified. I thought she was joking. She wasn’t.

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And so I heard about the family names that have been here for over 500 years, and met some of them. People learn that I’m doing a project about the place and talk to me about generations of Portlanders, proudly showing me family trees and old photos. I’m intrigued by these documents and momentos and I’ve been photographing them, because they act as a sort of evidence of something. Proof of identity. They say “oh, you must try to find so-and-so, they really know this place. They’ve got stories.” I’ve heard about fathers and fathers’ fathers who worked in the quarries, almost as though the family histories come right out of the stone. Pride is careful here. Defensive, even. One can be proud of this place, but only if you are really of the place.

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Portland has a funny way of working with language to support these stories. They’ve created a slang word for those not considered real Portlanders: kimberlin. It’s not an obscure term. It’s written into the poetry and you hear it in local conversation. There’s a Kimberlin Club. And a “stranger’s cemetery.”

And they’ve removed language, too. Saying the word “rabbit” is considered bad luck on the Isle of Portland, so it’s not allowed (it has something to do with seeing a rabbit rush out of the quarries, taken as a sign of imminent collapse). They’ve simply removed the word from the English language. Hare or bunny is fine, and keeping rabbits as pets is okay too—but the word “rabbit” is banned. It cannot be said, written, heard or read. The irony, of course, is that by removing language the concept is strengthened (called the Streisand effect, elsewhere). It’s one of the most powerful stories of the island and it’s continually reinforced, particularly by the elderly, who knock on wood if they hear it on television.

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I guess one way to really be of the place is to know the community’s bounds—its rules and limits—and to pass that knowledge on to future generations. Even when the telling of it is the only reason for a tale’s existence (and this is certainly one aspect of culture, no?).

That original border with the mainland is marked on Chesil Beach by the Portland Bound Stone, and every seven years the community “beats the bounds” by taking two school-children and beating them with a stick while they lay across the stone, with prominent members of the community watching. It’s an ancient custom from a time before maps, when the town would walk the parish boundary and literally beat the line into its collective memory. It’s a ritual to define a territory by physically (and emotionally) inscribing it into the mind. On Portland, the beating of the bounds has been officiated for centuries by the manorial court leet, a small group of men who “exercise frankpledge” and collect rent on behalf of the crown (recording payment by inscribing marks onto long, wooden reeve staffs). The court leet represents the island’s oldest families and watches over Portland’s ways, writing its history and keeping its identity. It’s a tight system and it defines the heritage of this place. While mostly symbolic at this point, it hasn’t gone away.

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Again and again I’ve been directed to those people and places on Portland where I would have access to these easy narratives—who’s been around, who’s got stories from the old days. Who’s real. I’ve explored many of them.

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But on my own, I’ve discovered others who are willing to talk or contribute, regardless of lineage. Recently, a couple excitedly approached me to contribute to the project. “We’re moving to Portland in August,” they said. They’re Portland’s newest and proud of it, even though they aren’t here yet. And I’ve received a submission from one of Portland’s witches (of the local pagan group Dolmen Grove), and from a 13-year-old self-published novelist. And the 30-year-old personal, intimate diary of a long-time resident.

I met a Filipino mom and her young son at a pre-school group. Her husband is Cypriot and they moved here from Cyprus three-and-a-half months ago. How does their story connect—or not—to the place? Are they Portlanders? Portland isn’t a diverse place. Almost everyone is white.

Who is a real Portlander? I’ve asked again and again and never received the same answer.

What about Shahib, who lives in Weymouth but has nurtured his business on Portland—an Indian restaurant—for ten years? I’d like to say that to me, he’s a real Portlander.

Most of the people I’ve met here were not born from stone; they came here because they wanted to. They’ve generously offered me their stories, or some particular view of the place, as outsiders who came and stayed.

And after a month of meeting and talking with the people who live and work on Portland, I can say with total confidence that every one of them is a real Portlander.

If I can offer anything at all to the community, it’s an inclusive view from the outside. Perhaps it’s a kind of challenge, a call to the community to look within its bounds and find itself on the pages of a simple artist’s publication—not as a tight narrative, but as a loose, flowing collection of voices. Changing over time. Isn’t everyone here a Portlander? That’s what I can offer.

And so I’m going to use language too. I’m changing the name of this project to “Portlander.” I won’t try to define who or what that is. I’ll simply include everyone and everything that I’ve encountered, and put a powerful word on it. “Portlander” is more of a question than a statement. Who makes a place?

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A free, public publication.

Portland Bill
A free, public publication.
June 2014

Artist Paul Soulellis will be in residence at Portland Tophill Library for the month of June to produce Portland Bill, a print-on-demand, community newsprint publication. Paul will gather material from Portland communities and design a multi-layered, diverse expression of local life and history. Portland Bill is a participatory publication—all material included will be contributed from residents of Portland and freely distributed back to our communities in September 2014.

Creative writing, essays, folklore, photography, drawings, maps, digital art, found material, poetry and recipes are all welcomed, but anything may be contributed to Portland Bill. Every effort will be made to include all submissions. Any resident of Portland may contribute—regardless of age, education or artistic experience.

Your contribution may be submitted in a few different ways —

— by sending digital material directly to theportlandbill@gmail.com;
— by attending one of the artist’s meet-ups during the month of June;
— by leaving your submission at Tophill Public Library;
— by leaving your submission in one of the local Portland Bill dropboxes.

Submissions are due by 27 June.

Please consider lending words, pictures, memories and impressions to create a diverse, community-based publication. Each voice included will deepen Portland Bill’s personality and add to this unique portrait of Portland.

Portland Bill will be freely distributed during the b-side multi media arts festival in September 2014.

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Portland Bill

post-dinner walk

A few years ago I did the Weymouths project and spent some time in an incredible place on the southwest coast of England. I just went back and looked at the photos and this is one that stands out for me. We took a sunset walk on this seaside path on the Isle of Portland, just off the coast from Weymouth, and I remember thinking: this is one of the most beautiful evenings of my life. A perfect combination of people and place and light that marked the conclusion of weeks of work (months, really). I took a photo because I actually wanted to capture something, not simply consume the scene and be done with it. I wanted to save it and store it away as insurance against the fear that soon enough I would forget it. And that if I didn’t forget it, maybe I would see these new friends and this place again someday. That’s what I see when I look at this photo that I took on August 8, 2012.

And so, I return. For the entire month of June I’ll be in England to create a new publication for the residents of the Isle of Portland. I’ll be based at the public library as an artist-in-residence. The project is a commission for the b-side arts festival and Dorset County Council, funded by Arts Council England.

My proposal: a publication (probably a 64-page newspaper) called Portland Bill (after the lighthouse situated dramatically at the southern tip of the island, surrounded by the roughest of seas), containing content from the people who live on Portland. I’ll collect and assemble their material with little or no editing, and the entire thing will be printed in August (with Newspaper Club) and distributed on Portland during b-side’s arts festival in September.

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The Generosity Echo

“The Generosity Echo” originally appeared in Communication Arts (Typography Annual, Jan/Feb 2013).

Like many designers today, I spend a great deal of time in the cloud—connecting with friends and followers on Twitter and other social media platforms. These tools are important; they allow us to amplify our work and broadcast to a larger design community with incredible speed and ease. And I’ve come to rely on my network as a kind of support, generously encouraging me with valuable feedback, or even friction.

But do these tools actually let us engage in deeper conversations around our work? While I treasure the constant connection to the crowd, I find it difficult to slow down for more focused interactions unless I’m physically present. For me, the opportunity to go further in a discussion around my work—to explore, to learn, to grow—best occurs when it can mediate both digital and physical worlds.

So I decided to take my work outside. Not just out into the elements, but beyond many of my normal boundaries as a designer. Frustrated with my own addiction to the screen and propelled by my need for richer connections, I stepped outside the studio, curious to discover new kinds of encounters.

Working on a commission for the b-side multimedia arts festival (part of the London 2012 Festival), I carried a twelve-volume set of books entitled Weymouths out into the windy streets of Weymouth, England. I had created the books over the course of a year, investigating the connections and disconnects between two towns named Weymouth (one in England, the other in Massachusetts). Three hundred books were printed and I gave them all away, one by one, to people I encountered in the small town. For twelve days, I bicycled the books around in a wicker basket and set them up in highly visible areas—at the town clock, in a public square, at the bakery. I unfolded a large piece of printed fabric with a small sign that said “free books” and stood nearby as people reacted—looking, pointing, commenting. Most threw confused glances my way, without slowing down. Once in a while, someone would pause and approach me to ask, “What’s this about?”

Invariably, they were delighted to hear that this was an art project. And yes, they would love to receive a free book.

I know what it’s like to work on something precious and deliver it to a client or a gallery, or to post it to my blog. This was different. By bringing the books outside, and opening myself up to chance conversations and surprise, I was able to watch the project come alive in ways I couldn’t predict. By provoking the audience and giving the books away, I came face-to-face with people stretching to accept art and design in an unexpected context.

I felt totally exposed, like a performer on stage. No amount of market research could have prepared me for the uncertainty of standing in the street with my work, waiting for an interaction. In my twenty-year career as a designer, I’d rarely come into contact with the people I visualized while designing. In Weymouth, I experienced the vulnerability— and privilege—of meeting every person who received one of my books. And I witnessed the remarkable, real-time creation of conversations and community around my work.

Aside from UX designers, rarely do I hear my peers referring to the end users of their design work as a community. Print designers, especially, tend to think of their audience as isolated individuals, perhaps because of the private nature of reading. And the ability of a print designer to communicate with the recipient of a finished piece is fairly limited; we’re typically removed from the end user by a distributor, be it client, agency or publisher. It’s also common for a print designer’s work to reach its end recipient as a purchase, which tends to separate creator and audience. Because Weymouths was a commission for an arts festival, I was able to remove the commercial barrier of book distribution and give the work away for free.

What I quickly discovered at the start of the twelve-day “performance” of Weymouths was that the free book was simply an excuse for interaction. By giving the books away, I removed the dead-end feeling of completion that often accompanies a financial transaction. Instead, surprised by the more open-ended gesture of gift-giving, the audience was quick to engage and reciprocate with their own sense of shared value. At the very least, a conversation was exchanged. Many of these chats were the start of friendships; all were fascinating.

On day one, within two minutes of setting up my first public book encounter, I met Pete, the popular proprietor of Aunty Vi’s Tea and Cake Shanty on Weymouth Beach. I gave him Volume #1 and Pete fell in love with the project. Acting like my agent, he encouraged his customers to go get a “rare book;” for days, he spread news about Weymouths across town. The following week, he took me into the Dorset hills in his truck and we ended up in the forest where allied forces slept before departing for Normandy on D-Day. Pete’s appreciation for the project was so great that he was moved to share his own Weymouth with me, generating new connections across time and space.

On day four, I gave two books to an 82-year-old man at a pub. I learned that Geoffrey was a retired astrophysicist from Oxford. He was eager to share his work with me and drew me diagrams of his experiments, telling me that they explained exploding twin dwarf stars in distant galaxies. A few days later he gave me a copy of one of his papers, published by the Royal Astronomical Society—“Mass-transfer bursts and the superhumps in cataclysmic variables.” I was humbled by Geoffrey’s interest and generosity, and immensely inspired by his ability to reveal something sublime in the minor exchange of book and conversation. The next day, Geoffrey told me that he was saving one of my books to give to a friend.

Sally, a Weymouth artist, was moved to spontaneously compose a composition for a music box, based on one of my books. She performed it for me and an audience that had gathered for a talk about my work at the local bakery. One elderly woman, who listened to the performance and then read through every one of the books, thanked me “for creating this fascinating social networking project.” I watched as the spirit of gift-giving reverberated throughout town. The books were creating a community.

By the end of the project, I had received several gifts in return: books, notes, original artwork, countless stories and powerful memories that will stay with me forever. I continue to be inspired by all of the encounters. The community that formed around my books was small but seemed expansive in its ability to generate new meaning. In each connection, regardless of what was exchanged, my audience countered the books with their own sense of the meaningful, and passed it on. Sometimes, the shared action touched one or two people; other times, it expanded and bounced around town. I called it the generosity echo.

Weymouths was an experiment in orchestrated serendipity and small-batch community- building. It’s not exactly a sustainable model; we can’t give everything away. But try it for yourself, at any scale: see what happens when you let go of some of your work—and your assumptions. By stepping outside and returning to the face-to-face—and confronting the fear of an unknown audience—you may re-discover the power of real-time conversation. Sometimes the only thing that separates your work from an engaged community is being present.

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Five proofs.

I finished the last book in the series of 12 today, so the design of Weymouths is complete. Or rather, the design of the books is complete—I still need to create the reading room experience for the installation in Weymouth, England 27 July – 12 August. The total work is starting to come into focus. After the next six proofs arrive I’ll photograph the entire set.

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A preview of Weymouths Volume 1.

Test book just arrived from Edition One Books in Berkeley, CA. This is Weymouths Volume 1—The Interviews.