‘Animate Me’ is a short story that was commissioned and published by the art gallery PEER and Animate Projects alongside their 2014 Out of Site commissions: animation works by the artists Savinder Bual, Kota Ezawa, Karolina Glusiec, and Margaret Salmon. An unusual aspect of the project was that the resulting moving-image works were projected onto the inside of the gallery windows, to be viewed from the street. ‘Animate Me’ was given away free as a 2-sided A4 flyer by PEER during the show. The flyer was designed by Joe Ewart.
Luckily for me we had animation students for lodgers in those days, and one of them had shown me how to do eyes, sideways-on and with different expressions. Little things like that. It doesn’t take much to start you off. It was a small town with a big art school, and I could draw, so it wasn’t long before it was my turn to escape.
A bit of background. Over the years I’ve written many short stories that have been commissioned and published by arts organisations, or by galleries and museums as part of exhibitions, in this way. Sometimes these works are published in exhibition catalogues, sometimes in standalone publications, or online. Other artists whose work I’ve written about using the medium of fiction include: Chris Dorley-Brown, Jane and Louise Wilson, Alison Turnbull, Bob and Roberta Smith, Alan Phelan, Liliane Lijn, Stuart Brisley and Maya Balcioglu, Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen, and others. These works of fiction have been published by the Wellcome Collection, Forma Arts and Media, Bookworks, Russian Club Gallery, PEER, Transmission Gallery, Irish Museum of Modern Art, The Arts Catalyst, the Science Museum and others.
These kinds of commissions are an important part of my work as an author. Working in this way allows me to experiment, to learn from and to reflect critically upon the work or the practice of exceptional artists in an accessible way, and to take my fiction to new audiences.
I’ve also contributed stories to collaborative and interdisciplinary projects and group shows with London Fieldworks, Las Cienegas Projects (Los Angeles), the artist Steven Hull, Barbara Campbell’s 1001 nights cast, SCAN, Blast Theory, Situations, Resonance FM, and more. Including most recently the Inventive Podcast, which brings together authors and ‘superstar engineers’ to tell innovative stories about engineering.
My own story for Inventive – ‘The Hotwells Cold Water Swimming Club’ – was inspired by a brilliant aeronautical engineer named Sophie Robinson. As I was talking to Sophie and then writing a short story inspired by her life and work, I realised that at the heart of the story I was wanting to tell was an issue that had come up in our conversations and was of great importance to both of us, in different ways. And it was a question to do with class and access to education in the UK. In my case being working class and getting access to an arts education.
In 2020 when I was teaching a group of postgraduate creative writing students at Brunel University, the question of class came up in a Q&A.
‘How,’ one student asked, ‘did being working class manifest itself in my fiction?’
That’s a really good question, I said. Because it was.
My first thought was to talk about the jobs I’ve done and how I’d written around full-time working, how almost all of the characters in my fiction are working class, and how I often gravitated towards – and learned from – other marginalised voices. (I’d been talking to the students about voice, and discussing the work of James Kelman, and of Linton Kwesi Johnson, among others.)
But then – put on the spot as I was – I realised something that I maybe hadn’t quite noticed before. (Students are good at making you do that.) This, for me, biographical fact, to do with the challenges of getting access to education and to a life in the arts, was not something that I’d left in my past. It was part of my motivation in teaching, after all, and in the work I’d done over many years at the Arts Council and for Resonance FM, but it had also been a recurring theme in my fiction, in many of my short stories. Questions of class and access to education are actually right at the heart of the narratives – the very thing that is at stake – in, say, my 2012 novella ‘Dicky Star and the Garden Rule’ (published alongside a touring exhibition by Jane and Louise Wilson), the 2011 short story ‘A Porky Prime Cut’ (commissioned by the former digital arts agency SCAN out of research undertaken with communities in Bournemouth and Poole), my story this year for the Inventive Podcast, as discussed. And also I think this story, ‘Animate Me’ written for PEER and Animate Projects in 2014.