Catalogue ---

A couple of years ago I received an unsolicited email from a BBC researcher asking what my plans were for 2014. I was being considered as a potential subject for the TV series, “What Do Artists Do All Day?” Having decided to make “Voyageuse” I answered, explaining how my late mother-in-law provided the inspiration and that the film would take me to Hungary, England and the US via the Antarctic and Outer Space.

The phone rang. During the call, the BBC researcher asked at length about my work before he suddenly informed me how this was his last day on the job, adding glumly that his contract was unlikely to be renewed. I wished him well. That I never heard from the production again was unsurprising but hardly a great loss to broadcasting given my lifelong aversion to being on the other end of the lens.

Two years on, as I inch towards picture lock I often ask myself, ‘well, what exactly do I do all day?’ Since my US trip mostly my days (and nights) are spent in front of three screens, adjusting and/or replacing shots on the five reels that make up the film. In tandem I work on the sound design, creating and weaving layers of ambiences and spot FX to complement Siân Phillips’ commanding rendition of my script. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be recording the score with my composer, deciding and executing the colour grade, the final audio surround mix and making up the closing credits – a pathetically short list consisting mainly of acknowledgements to those kind enough to support me in spirit and/or by granting me access to private spaces.

Multi-tasking takes energy. But so does procrastination. Working from home invites distraction – domestic chores lure me from the desk, another coffee beckons, an email needs answered, a neighbour calls – conspiring to stem my progress. I realise I work best to a strict routine where my day is parsed into specific tasks. It’s horrifying then to think how closely my actions mirror those of Erica, whose waking hours were similarly segmented as she tried to impose a sense of purpose and order on her days.

A zoologist and behaviourist, Erica was a natural if plodding data gatherer. When forced to quit her job at Edinburgh University in the mid-1960s, adrift, she transferred her working methods to the domestic, evidenced by a notebook in which she describes the progress of her first born, my husband. What began as an affectionate account of her baby’s routine – feeding, sleeping, growth – evolved into a formal catalogue where every small change in motor and language skills was recorded. In a touching passage included in my original script but sadly omitted, she noted the infant’s speech patterns, commenting on how his repertoire of animal noises – moo, bah, woof – was marred by his inability to imitate a cat – ‘his “bieow” needs revision.’

Following the birth of her second son in 1967, Erica repeated the exercise. However this second notebook betrays signs of post-natal depression, manifest in her use of columns and graphs where the subject – her own child – was reduced to that of a remote specimen. Here Erica’s entries are chillingly dissociative with each day split into hours and data listed in a series of entries. ‘Feeding. Not feeding. Dirty. Slightly dirty. No bowel movement.’

I’ve long believed Erica’s obsessive data-gathering was a symptom of the loss of her career. In later life she made many abortive attempts at ‘research’ ranging from a study of Scottish wildlife to the history of the colonial sugar trade that required her to spend hours unearthing obscure facts at the National Library of Scotland that at least afforded her an excuse to leave the house. Following her death, while sifting through Erica’s papers, I chanced on her correspondence with various academics in which she advanced her latest theories while criticising what she regarded as flawed arguments. One letter, from a eminent history professor, was polite but dismissive, typical of the rejection she invited by sending unsolicited mail. It must have been crushing for her to receive these letters, her frisson dashed by the curtest of replies or worse, indifference.

Disappointing too was the discovery, countering her claim of ‘writing a book’ about Scotland’s links with the West Indies sugar trade, of a set of incoherent scribblings on scraps of paper. But perhaps the most poignant manifestation of Erica’s ‘research’ written during the early 2000s, was her habit of cataloguing her possessions by attaching notes written in the third person to ordinary household objects: a china plate, a stained tablecloth, a monogrammed fork, where she stated the date and origin of each item, often adding supplementary information about how she acquired it.

To mark her mother, Vera Eisner’s 90th birthday, in 1999 I compiled a book of photographs with a transcript of interviews recorded shortly before Vera succumbed to dementia. Retrieving the book during the house clearance, I was struck to discover a page of notes written by Erica, a verbal upbraiding that not only disputed her mother’s version of events but also contradicted my own assertions, even down to the correct spelling of obscure East European place names. As futile acts go, it was petty – she wrote it five years before her death in 2004 – but again it was typical of Erica’s reluctance to openly discuss what she perceived as errors and omissions.

Towards the end of her life, Erica simply ran out of things to catalogue. It’s a sobering thought and one, I’m sure, shared by anyone seeking purpose to their days. In pursuit of this film only recently I’ve realised there is nothing else to shoot. My task now is to make the best of what I have to tell this story and, once complete, to show the film in a more meaningful way than to upload and lose it in the morass of content on Vimeo or YouTube. For the moment, however, I’ll return to my desk.

So in answer to the question What Do Artists Do All Day? What’s still to be done.

The above image is of two baby Bengalese finches; a photograph taken by Erica during her tenure at the Department of Zoology, Edinburgh University in the early 1960s.

Comments ---

David Gibson

Dear May,
as always you write with honesty. The truth of being an artist is awkwardly ignored by many people and by those thinking and probably believing themselves Artists; caught in the trap of belonging to the art world, now part of the art business.

Erica by your description strikes me as a woman of great creativity and being even by today’s standards an interdisciplinary artist.

You, too, are such an artist. And we look at the world differently from most others. Certainly, we remain as Outsiders despite all that we do; respectively.

How wonderful you examine through your work the inner person and outward persona. You do so for yourself and for your subject muse; certainly for this moving picture which I think must be a new kind of image making theatre and combined musical score. And because I know you, I know to expect something beautiful and unique.

Because you work on every aspect and detail of making an exceptional work with love. I can write this knowing what you have done already is exceptional. Because I know this Truth, I know there will be ignorance and jealousy among the art world business and film entertainment world.

You are a remarkable woman, artist filmmaker and friend.

I’m so glad the TV programme passed. No artist should need to explain what they do all day. And yet as I recall seeing one episode, I think it featured Cornelia Parker, whom I collaborated with and she made me two beautiful drawings, but somehow Cornelia fell into the false world and again with Yentob played the celebrity game with her recent work on the roof of The Met, NYC.

So maybe it’s hard not to play the game to some extent.

But I think about Cocteau on what it is to make a great work of art being told by Diagalev who asked only “Astonish Me”

May, it seems you have already astonished me, by your work ethic, your praxis, your writing and communication. I could go on and on. And still for all you have done to reach this point, there is the joy I have in knowing I will see Voyageuse and the lives of everyone seeing the film will forever change.


Thanks for the kind words, David.

I recall the Cornelia Parker episode of WDADAD and thinking how engaging she was. I like the series. On one hand I was disappointed not to be chosen but on the other, I was relieved, knowing I’m painfully self-conscious and unused to putting myself out there. I also felt inadequate to the task because it’s hard to show how the plainest elements can combine to greater effect.

Of course, we live in times where one’s ‘career’ lives or dies by self-promotion. My background and upbringing denied me the confidence needed to succeed in the cut-and-thrust of the art game and/or the entertainment business. Over the years I’ve acquired a fairly unique set of skills but somehow I’ve failed to parlay it into a useful, remunerative job. Frankly I’m rubbish at the funding game and I fear I’m too old to sit-up-and-beg or embrace the ‘establishment.’ I’m not complaining though. I’m able to work, limited as it is. As Robert Bresson says – ‘he who can work with the minimum can work with the most’. I like that.

As for screening this film, I’ve yet to finish my thinking. No one has approached me to request the film and I don’t anticipate that they will. I’ll try for the festival route first. After that, who knows? I’m not looking to make a sale to a distributor – the film’s too leftfield for arthouses and, I suspect, too conventional for galleries. Time will tell.

Thanks again and give my best to Trish.