Notes from HMP Grendon
By Dean Kelland, Ikon’s artist in residence at HMP Grendon
“My next thought was not of Mike Nesmith but of Dirk Gently, the cover of my notebook and the interconnectedness of all things.”
Henry Ward is an artist I admire and it has been on my mind to choose a moment, when the exhibition/workshop space is finalised in Building 8 at Grendon, to ask him if he would come and spend some time with the residents and perhaps show some of his work. I’m not very good at approaching well known people. I once went to see my childhood football hero Gordon ‘Sid’ Cowans play in a ‘Villa old stars’ charity match and was considerably alarmed at the end of the game to find myself standing in front of the man, who to my mind remains the single greatest passer of a football this country has ever produced. Sid spoke first and I froze, I’d have been better able to manage the conversation had Pele or Picasso, Brian Clough or Cindy Sherman been addressing me. Shaking, incomprehensible noises meant that once I’d secured Sid’s signature I could escape with stomach in knots and a sense of embarrassment at not being able to handle the situation. She had arranged the meeting as a surprise and was totally shocked and amused to see my then thirtysomething calmness crumble this way. Henry had e-mailed me about delivering a talk in Cardiff about Grendon and as I sat reading the e-mail a moment of realisation hit me, I just might be the artist in residence at HMP Grendon…SWiTCH iT’S ALL iMPERSONATiON – iN THE ABSENCE OF A SELF, ONE iMPERSONATES SELVES. SWiTCH I stood in Wilko’s surveying the tester pots with relish. I had decided to treat myself to some new pots for the studio and now stood with pots labelled, Botanical Garden and Garden View in my hands whilst I grabbed at another shade of pale blue/green called Delicate Duck Egg. They were all reminiscent of shades of paint that covered the walls at Grendon and had been perfect for the sketchbooks. I like tester pots. Matt tester pots. They do a job that I haven’t ever found in any other paint. SWiTCH D-Wing had been as welcoming as ever, I sat with a number of the men in a cell while we talked about the space and the future plans for workshops. One of the residents had been making work about masks and through that commonality I’d asked him to work on an interview/discussion with me through Email a Prisoner over Christmas. The first question had been decided and we were knocking ideas around amongst the group. Boris Johnson came up as did Elon Musk and Bill Gates. Vaccination soon arose as part of the conversation and the booster programme had started to filter through for the Grendon residents. “I’m not an anti-vac militant or anything but they’ve been giving us the Moderna as a booster and everyone is getting sick from it.” SWiTCH ALL I CAN TELL YOU iS THAT I, FOR ONE, HAVE NO SELF AND I AM UNWiLLiNG OR UNABLE TO PERPETRATE UPON MYSELF THE JOKE OF A SELF. SWiTCH The chiropractor was a good guy and to be honest I’d been avoiding him, but she had booked me in and I try never to disappoint her so had reluctantly gone along to the appointment. “I’ve just got used to the level of pain. It is what it is and I just get on with it to be honest.” Speaking from behind his mask he kindly asserted, “…but you know you don’t have to manage this level of pain don’t you?” SWiTCH James sat down in front of me and I closed the notebook, “You alright?” I momentarily paused as the words I’d scribbled on the cover suddenly revealed themselves to me. T h e I n t e r c o n n e c t e d n e s s o f a l l t h i n g s. “I am alright yes…I think I might be Dirk Gently.” SWiTCH I AM A THEATRE AND NOTHiNG MORE THAN A THEATRE SWiTCH Cardiff was fantastic, spending time with artists and presenting some of the work that I had undertaken as part of the residency had been a delight. The questions were interesting, the atmosphere productive and I revelled in the opportunity to discuss my ideas with new people. I’ve done countless talks about my work over the years and only ever have a rudimentary sketch in my head of what I might discuss and cover. I don’t do scripts, preferring to see where the dialogue goes and taking questions feels more organic and the unexpected can sometimes emerge by doing this. Freelands Foundation had invited me, through Henry, to talk about the residency and perhaps focus on how artists get opportunities and engage with organisations. The conference room that I stood in was magnificent, the building in which we were gathered, The Temple of Peace, was one of those spectacular late 30s Art Deco spaces that you know you’ve seen in period TV and Film but can’t quite place, probably an episode of Dr Who? I was introduced to the room and then without any plans to do so, I opened my mouth and started talking about imposter syndrome. SWiTCH The space in Building 8 was now suddenly moving in the right direction. After what had seemed ages, the toilet was in place, we had hot and cold running water and James had worked tirelessly to get the walls sorted for the gallery space that we had planned. At the end of a long day on the wings James and I sat in the workshop quietly satisfied that before long the space would be filled with Grendon residents and the nightmare of lockdown would be finally fading. Our contemplative state had accompanied a tea break and just as I sipped the start of my well-earned brew the benign order of my peripheral sight was suddenly punctured by a large brown shape swooping through the air manically towards us. I leapt up and made a yelp before realising that a Tawny Owl was now about to wreak chaos in our new space. SWiTCH My eyes focused clumsily on the light of the digital clock, the house was silent and the time was 2.13am. It was late in the early hours and after my first thought of a toilet trip, my next was about the research I’d been working on earlier in the day. Robert V. Levine’s Stranger in the Mirror had provided a number of touchpoints for me that had spurred on my efforts in the studio. One quote was gently prodding the back of my mind and as I staggered towards the bathroom the words returned to me. “…a troupe of players that I have internalised. A permanent company of actors that I can call upon when a self is required.” The moonlight illuminated the space and beckoned me towards the studio. There’s a box of DVDs in there and in that moment, I’d decided that I needed to watch The Strange World of Gurney Slade SWiTCH Henry seemed happy with what I’d done in Cardiff and had sent a further invite for me to talk at a conference in Berlin. I couldn’t quite believe it, I picked up my copy of his book Shed Paintings and leafed through it as I considered a trip to Germany and whether I thought I’d be any good for it. I’d always wanted to revisit Berlin after a trip there with students 18 years ago. I put the book down and typed my reply. SWiTCH James looked over at my desk as I worked on the sketchbooks. I’d hit a point where I’d stopped and as I sipped from my tea and stared at the pages I felt compelled to reach for one of the little hand bound notebooks I carry with me. Almost automatically and without much thought I picked up a pen and wrote on a strip of masking tape that was wrapped around the cover “HEY, HEY WE’RE THE MONKEES, AND PEOPLE SAY…” I don’t know why, it just came out of the pen. “What’s that you’re doing?” enquired James, “…erm, do you like The Monkees?” I replied. James answered firmly, “No, they mean nothing to me, I wouldn’t even know their individual names.” SWiTCH I AM A WALKiNG TELEViSiON SHOW, I CAN’T GET AWAY. SWiTCH “Let me show you an amazing little place on the East side.” Henry guided me purposefully along a street called Veteranenstraße that he pointed out had a distinctive line along one side, “that’s where the wall was, you can still see.” As we approached a little booth I noticed period signage and the word PHOTOAUTOMAT and I was immediately struck with a sense of nostalgia and tentative excitement. “Does it still work?” I asked, Henry smiled, “It does, and I think we should go for it, don’t you?” SWiTCH “We have to own up to our behaviours in here and now we’re back in therapy it’s important that we remember that…if you’ve sprinkled on the seat then it’s your responsibility to wipe it up, simple as that.” SWiTCH I HAVE NO SELF iNDEPENDENT OF MY iMPOSTORiSM. SWiTCH The TV in my room had the German version of Ninja Warrior filtering in as background noise. I looked out of my window in the NH Berlin Hotel on Potsdamer Platz and opened my sketchbook…the clarity I sought suddenly arrived and I worked alongside the quiet industrial backdrop of the Stresemannstraße that lay before me. The lens through which I have been working had still been letting in light but as my pen busied across the pages I felt that this city had cleansed the surface of that lens. There was a sudden precision to my notes that felt decisive. SWiTCH The frantic feathered creature bounced awkwardly of the walls of Building 8. I stood and watched as James chased the now concussed owl with a makeshift blanket that he had fashioned out of an apron. James loves owls, they are his favourite bird. He has often commented on the majesty of the owl and how he and his wife would occasionally visit owl sanctuaries around the country at weekends. The admiration for this type of bird was clear as he took an instant lead on the rescue and leapt into action without a thought for his own safety. His mission included tracking the bird carefully like a ninja walking on rice paper before hopping discordantly from foot to foot in as he loomed over the dazed bird. Just as he was about to make his move to harness it under the apron he addressed it directly, “Come here you stupid twat!” SWiTCH WHAT I HAVE iNSTEAD iS A VARiETY OF iMPERSONATIONS THAT I CAN DO, AND NOT OF MY SELF – A TROUPE OF PLAYERS THAT I HAVE iNTERNALiSED…A PERMANENT COMPANY OF ACTORS THAT I CAN CALL UPON WHEN A SELF iS REQUiRED, AN EVER EVOLViNG STOCK OF PiECES AND PARTS THAT FORMS MY REPERTOiRE. SWiTCH There were so many great moments in Berlin. The journey had been horrendous but spending time in a once divided city and meeting so many good people along the way had been a real treat. The talk itself had come and gone and it had been, as far as I could ascertain, a success. I’d spent time looking at the painting exhibition housed in our venue, Gropius Bau entitled, The Cool and The Cold. I stood for some time entranced by a number of works I’d just never seen before. Ilya Kabakov’s Row (1969) really peaked my interest and for a moment I thought about the distance between where I stood in the moment and where everything was back home, this had been a chance to take a breath and consider what I needed to do in terms of the residency. Work was planned but had been held up and whilst this was an expected part of returning after the lockdowns it had become a niggling thought in the back of my mind that had acted as a barrier to the clear thinking I required to sustain the practice. Just being in Berlin was enough to know that. SWiTCH OFTEN MASQUERADES TELL A DEEPER TRUTH, THAT MASQUERADiNG AS OURSELVES REAFFiRMS AN ENDURiNG SELF (NETWORK OF SELVES) iNSiDE US SWiTCH Henry waited outside as I positioned myself on the round plastic adjustable chair in the booth, I felt a sudden pressure to make these four photographs worthy in some way. I thought of Grendon and then Buster Keaton and then the agony of perceivedness and then…I performed. In this momentary thread of thought I’d reconnected with some of the practice and earlier ideas that pre-dated lockdown. As I looked at the images with Henry on the pavement of Veteranenstraße next to the Photoautomat I wanted to say thank you for this reconnection. But explaining the reference to Keaton and Film seemed incongruous at the time, so I didn’t. Instead, I’ll say it now. Thank you Henry Ward and Berlin! SWiTCH My phone pinged to alert me to a WhatsApp message, it was from my friend, The Legendary John Brown. There was a picture attached to the message and I opened it to see the youthful face of Michael Nesmith and the words beneath, “Did you hear the sad news?” I typed back a quick response having assumed the demise of the former Monkee, “I didn’t – Oh No!” my next thought was not of Mike Nesmith but of Dirk Gently, the cover of my notebook and the interconnectedness of all things.
Art at HMP Grendon is supported by the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust and HM Prison and Probation Service.