Oliver Guy-Watkins curates and writes in London in Berlin. He is currently working on an international, multi-participant film project entitled Postcards to Brooke that deals with themes of doubt and isolation in contemporary society.
Noah Becker: You have worked as a journalist and curator between London and Berlin. What are your current projects or future plans?
Oliver Guy-Watkins: For the past year I have been working on a project called Postcard To Brooke, which originated from my personal connection to a poem by Rupert Brooke called Doubts. I first read the verse in 1998 when my mother was undergoing treatment for cancer. The book I owned, in which it was contained, became a comfort blanket over the years, and in April 2008 I began to film others reading the poem. From this base I also began to investigate the theme of Doubt and asked individuals to write their personal doubts on blank postcards. This has since expanded into a sound piece which features news reports and speeches in which the word is mentioned. I have screened the work and held a number of events connected to it in Ireland, London, Berlin and Dubai, and have a number of plans for 2009. My interest lies in different responses from certain social stereotypes. For instance, I recently went to a homeless shelter in the city of Gloucester, in England, where I filmed users of the facility reading. A number of them requested that I allow them to read their own poetry to camera, the majority of which was written whilst in prison. The experience was something I will never forget and gave the work which up until this time had been largely autobiographical, a new biographical content. The beauty of Postcard To Brooke is that every contributor has the ability to push it in a new direction. I am very aware that my role in this work is much more along the lines of a curator and not an artist, and I am lucky to be able to draw on my past experience. However I am very much enjoying the creative elements I have not allowed myself in the past - the building of installations and the framing of each shot, for example.
NB: I'm assuming you have video and text and will be organizing it for something in the future? What amount of material have you collected for the Rupert Brooke archive? Is it mostly the writings or a combination of things? How many people have contributed readings and writings thus far?
OGW: So far I have filmed around 225 people reading the poem, and another 300 have contributed their own doubts via blank postcards. I have just today opened a new avenue for people to submit their doubts by email, for a video text piece, and will also be looking at installing a telephone line with an answer machine at a venue in April this year as part of a month long Amnesty Of Doubt event. A long way down the road, 2014 to be exact, I am looking at installing an exhibition in a public space within London that will portray every reader to that date on an individual screen. However this is very much still in the planning stage. The date is significant as the 100th anniversary of Brooke's death during the first world war, and I would like to do something to mark that, I also believe that the UK should mark that. The time we live in now is not dissimilar to the time when Brooke lived. The world is still fighting wars but against a different enemy, there is a fascination with the cult of celebrity, that also existed then, and we are in a similar financial situation. I have had a great deal of support from those who are still connected to Brooke's world. The Brooke society chairman, Lorna Beckett has supplied me with information and has also read, as has Lady Mary Archer, who lives in Brooke's former house in Cambridge. I have also visited the archives at Gloucestershire University and found a number of interesting articles. My trip to Dymock to see where Brooke stayed was also of great interest, and something I will again remember for a longtime. The one thing that eludes me however is the original copy of the poem, written in the King Edward Hotel in Toronto during 1913 to the actress Cathleen Nesbitt in a letter. The British Library acquired her letters at auction two years ago, but this one was missing. However Brooke was only the starting point of this work, and although I must never forget that, I do not want him to over shadow the genuine concerns that have been raised by individuals regarding their lives within the 21st century.
NB: It says Brooke died at the age of 27. It's astonishing that he accomplished so much. The idea of pushing for the government to mark Brooke's 100th anniversary is a great idea. Your interaction as a curator and filmmaker is interesting. Are you working towards anything full length or will your film work always be an element of your curatorial practice?
OGW: I have a distaste for brackets as a whole. Curator, artist, filmmaker... These words are now nothing but a late twentieth century definition of career, and that is nothing I wish to belong to. So yes, one day I may make a full length film, or complete one of the novels I have begun writing. I may even discover a lost talent in paint. The one thing I believe in right now is honesty. For the first time in my life I am doing something that I really care for, and have a genuine reason to do so. I am doing something I really believe represents the isolation of the individual. Isolation is something I have felt for the entire of my life, and I know many others do. Brooke did die young, and before his death he did accomplish a great deal. But most of it was not recognized until he had passed. The 100th anniversary of Brooke's death is important to me because of the verse he wrote that affected me to such an extent I began this work. It should be important to the UK for many other reasons.
When she sleeps, her soul, I know,
Goes a wanderer on the air,
Wings where I may never go,
Leaves her lying, still and fair,
Waiting, empty, laid aside,
Like a dress upon a chair. . . .
This I know, and yet I know
Doubts that will not be denied.
For if the soul be not in place,
What has laid trouble in her face?
And, sits there nothing ware and wise
Behind the curtains of her eyes,
What is it, in the self's eclipse,
Shadows, soft and passingly,
About the corners of her lips,
The smile that is essential she?
And if the spirit be not there,
Why is fragrance in the hair?
Rupert Brooke, 1913