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  • Writer's pictureClaire Venus

'Collaboration' as a provocation from Berwick-upon-Tweed based artist Chloe Smith

Updated: Nov 27, 2020

In October 2020 we hosted our second Culture Northumberland network meeting and invited Chloe Smith to talk to us about her practise and about collaboration. The text from Chloe's talk with us is here;


I'm Chloë, an interdisciplinary artist based in Berwick-upon-Tweed, which is where I grew up.

I studied choreography with visual art practises at Dartington College of Arts and it was there that my love of collaboration really began. Dartington encouraged cross-collaboration between its courses and experimental ways of working, and these teachings continue to inform my practice and work today.

I graduated in 2012 and have been working on and off as an artist since then, but I became a full time freelancer in January 2018, which is also when I most recently moved back to Berwick.

Collaboration has always been at the heart of my practice, it stems from my real love of people and the enjoyment I get from working with a wide range of communities.

I've worked with babies right up to someone who was 104 across a range of settings, including: art galleries, care homes, empty shops, in parks, on beaches and in theatres. My work, whether facilitation or performance, always includes a form of collaboration, though this shifts for each project I've worked on.

In 2014 I choreographed and produced Tidal, an intergenerational community dance performance where I worked with 34 local dancers aged 6 - 60. The work was a celebration of the sea and took place on Spittal beach here in Berwick.

Very few of the dancers had any experience of contemporary dance, and so I created choreographic structures that allowed the cast to create their own movement without feeling overwhelmed or lost within the process. The movement in the performance was almost entirely created collaboratively by the dancers, this gave not only a work that was beautiful; I believe there's real power in seeing untrained bodies move in a way that is authentic to them, but also a final performance that the dancers could feel was theirs.

In 2016 I began creating an on-going series of works that explore our relationship to grief. The first of these was Disperse, a durational live performance created for SPILL Festival of Performance in Ipswich. In this work, I sat in a park for 2 days, slowly smashing pieces of wood and inviting passers-by to join me and if they wanted, to share conversations on grief. It was this interaction with the audience that I very much view as a form of collaboration, it was this that the work relied on and came alive with. I had two memorable conversations during the work.

The first was with a young man who told me about his younger brother who'd been in an accident and was now in a coma, he told me how his family had not yet decided when to turn his life support machine off, how he was already grieving and also not.

After he spoke we hugged for a long time, and then he walked away. The second was a middle aged man who I instantly misjudged, I thought he was going to be annoyed about this weird live art happening in the park, but when I told him the work was on anger and grief, he sat on the grass and told me, and all those present about his best mate who'd just died the day before, how he was furious at him for dying, how he wondered who would laugh at his jokes now. When I reflect back on the work, it's these two men I think of.

Whilst performing Disperse, I met Jassy, a photographer and theatre maker from Glasgow and when her Dad died a few months later she got in touch. We didn't really know each other, but both found great comfort in knowing someone else who had been bereaved in their 20s.

Slowly we became friends, through our individual but shared experiences of grief and from there we decided to make a work together. This became Holding It Together, a performance and conversation for an intimate audience of 25 people all sat in a circle. The work was a collaboration between Jassy, myself and a large mass of bubblewrap.

Images from 'Holding it Together' (c) Mihaela Bodlovic

So often we found it impossible to put our experiences into words, and so instead we used the bubblewrap as a visual metaphor for grief. It was all consuming, tangled, comforting, suffocating, light, heavy and always unpredictable. It felt that as Jassy and I had gotten to know each other, we also had to become acquainted with this material and find its possibilities / limitations / qualities and way of being.

At the end of the performance, a grief counsellor introduced herself to the audience and welcomed them to stay in the space and reflect / have a cup of tea / get in the bubblewrap / cry / write / talk to her or us. It was of the upmost importance to us and integral to the work that the audience felt safe, and that time was given after the work for the audience to be vulnerable within.

My new work, This Endless Sea, which I will begin the research and development of at the start of November is, a visual and choreographic exploration of a relationship between grief, the body and the sea.

The work will comprise of a new short film that will be shown inside a purpose built hut that will tour the coastline of the UK. This work is a collaboration between a small team of artists: myself, a filmmaker, a designer, a composer, a mentor, and also, the sea.

For the past two years, I've swum in the sea almost everyday of the year and particularly during lockdown, my relationship with this body of water has sustained me.

At this time when I, like so many others, have been isolated and alone, I've been held by the water.

Although lockdown put a stop to several jobs that I was working on, in many ways it's been a real gift. I've had time away from teaching to focus on my practice as an artist, to spend time in the landscape, to read, to have conversations, to rest, to take part in an online two-week residency with 10 other artists from across the North, to finalise the ideas for my next project, to create connections with the artists who will be part of it and to apply and secure funding for it. I've had time to feel like an artist again, something that can often get lost in this world of constantly trying to earn a living.

I've had time to reflect on my work and to understand the threads that weave between my projects. I've reflected on all the different ways collaboration has appeared in my work, between artists, materials, participants, families, landscapes, bodies of water, buildings and communities. I've thought about how connection and collaboration is at the heart of my work and that it's the power of art to create connections between people that fuels my desire to be an artist. It feels to me that now, more than ever, collaboration is vital.

I'll leave you with two provocations:

1. How can we focus on collaboration at a time when so many people are isolated, when so many of us have to be physically distanced from one another?

2. How can we reframe the idea of collaboration to go beyond simply artists and performers?

To read more about Chloe and keep up with her work visit her website or follow her on instagram.

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