In Conversation: Kevin Crooks / Callan Waldron-Hall / Elizabeth Challinor

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Kevin Crooks is a St.Helens based photographic artist and Deutsche Bank Award recipient, and also the Head of Photography at Carmel College. Kevin’s work explores the effects of how governmental policy, initiatives and programmes shape the lives of people within society.

Callan Waldron-Hall grew up in Leicestershire and now lives in Liverpool. His pamphlet, ‘learning to be very soft’, is published by Smith|Doorstop and won the Poetry Business New Poets Prize 18/19. His poems have appeared in Magma, The North, In the Red and Orris Root. His project ‘more concerned with feeling than sense’ was published in Post-it: Independents Biennial Writers in Residence 2018, and explores ASMR and its place online. 

Their collaborative project utilises photographic images and text to create a current snapshot of Thatto Heath, a small residential area placed within the borough of St. Helens. The text is derived from recent personal and anonymous written accounts from local residents who work and live in the area of Thatto Heath. Callan has creatively re-presented the written accounts to coincide and to respond to an ongoing series of photographs that Kevin has been capturing within and around Thatto Heath since August last year.

You can check out their ongoing IB21 project here –

https://independentsbiennial.com/artists/kevin-crooks/

Contact details:

Kevin: @kevincrooks (Instagram), @kevincrooks (Twitter), http://kevincrooks.co.uk, contact@kevincrooks.co.uk

Callan: @callanwh (Instagram), @callanwh (Twitter), https://callanwrotethat.wordpress.com, cwaldron-hall@hotmail.co.uk 

When did you first start your project and how you get involved with IB21? Also how did you start collaborating together? Is this something you have done together before?

Kevin: The project began in response to St. Helens Libraries Cultural Hubs Creative Commissions. As part of the original application it was suggested that the commissions will be included within this year’s Independents Biennial. Callan Waldron-Hall was a writer that had been recommended to me and on looking through some samples of Callan’s writing, it was clear to me that collaborating and co-producing the work would be a really interesting, engaging and exciting opportunity. Callan and I had never worked together before, however that didn’t hinder our progress.

What are you both working towards during the biennial/what are you looking to achieve with your experience here? 

 Kevin: I have been interested in producing a body of work which has been somewhat unlike the type of work that I have previously produced. I have worked with writers in the past, however the process of production has been quite different. The working restrictions that we were placed within during the period of production forced us both to consider more flexible and accommodating working practices. The project that we have produced together enabled me to consider alternative methods of production.

 I didn’t have any preconceived ideas as to how the work would evolve. I obviously had a defined idea about what the work was about, as well as an open idea as to how the ideas would be resolved and presented. However, given the adaptations that we both realised we would have to make throughout the production of the work, it was clear to me that it was important to have an open mind as to how the work would develop.

Callan: I’ve been really interested in collage poems for a while and working with Kevin has provided me with this great opportunity to produce complementary text alongside his images. I’ve worked with artists previously but never this closely in terms of how the work is presented. As Kevin says, with restrictions in place we’ve had to be flexible, but it’s been really great. I’ve never worked this remotely with an artist before and it’s reassuring to know it’s possible(!) to create a coherent body of work with someone over email (and Zoom / phone / remote tools).

 From the start, we were in agreement that highlighting local voices was a really important element of this project. As a result, I’ve kept my own voice out of the text; everything has been lifted from signage, graffiti, interviews. It’s been an enjoyable challenge working the text to contain all of these histories and characters, to offer brief windows / other ways into viewing the world of Kevin’s work.

What are your individual practises about generally & what processes/methods do you typically use? How has your work that you’re doing for the biennial evolved from this? Is there a big difference between this specific body of work & the work that you usually do? Do your individual creative practises have any similarities to each other?

 Kevin: I work mainly across a range of digital media, normally photography, however I also utilise sound and video recording to accompany the images that I produce. My work usually explores the effects of how changes to government policy, initiatives and programmes shape the lives of people within society. This is one of the few times that I have worked collaboratively with a writer to co-produce a body of work. The main differences have been in relation to the restrictions (COVID) placed on the collaborative and recording processes, as well as the restrictions and alterations that have had to be applied in relation of the presentation and exhibition of the work. I’m not entirely sure whether Callan and I do share any similarities, It’s not a question that I really feel that I have an answer for.

 Callan: I mainly write poetry but sometimes write prose too. I feel I tend to do a lot of -writing- in my head first / often feel I can’t start the actual process of writing until I have a good chunk of work planned out. Working with existing text has been really refreshing as it’s a complete 180 to what I usually do – I’ve been reading and testing and going back and forth with what feels right and what doesn’t / generally just spending time with the work. As Kevin says, I’m not sure if we do share any similarities, but we’ve definitely found a sort of meeting-place between image and text and appreciation of how they can work together.

Did you have plans for your work (& to present it physically) before the festival was moved online? Did this change in platform affect you (& your work) much, or has it always been suited to being available digitally? How do you manage your work collaboratively when working remotely? 

 Kevin: I did have plans to present the work physically before the festival was moved online, and have started to reconsider my original intentions to physically present the work. The work is now due to be exhibited in the original intended venue of Thatto Heath Library in June 2021. I normally do consider how the work that I produce can be altered or presented in alternative forms, including digital platforms, therefore I didn’t find the prospect of presenting the work digitally a particularly daunting prospect, nor did I find it especially challenging. There were obviously considerations in terms of how the work would be perceived and ‘read’, however I actually found the restrictions of presentation quite informative in terms of aiding the editing and selection process of the work.

 The content of the work was created to be viewed specifically within the venue of Thatto Heath Library and as a consequence I do feel that the work will make more comprehensive sense when it is physically situated in the library space. However, I have found that the process of presenting the work digitally has been informative and constructive in aiding the development of final culmination of the project.

 I don’t feel that working remotely has held the progress of the work back significantly, however I don’t suppose I will ever know how different things could have been if Callan and I had the opportunity to meet up throughout the process of producing the work. Callan and I maintained communication regularly and were able to exchange ideas and samples of work pretty freely.

Have you been working as part of your residency prior to the launch, or have you only just started your working? 

 We have been working on the project since August 2020.

What’s it like (or been like so far) working with the Independents Biennial? Do you get much support from the organisation?

 Kevin: I feel that it has been a thoroughly enriching and productive experience. I have felt adequately supported at every stage and have been really grateful to have been given the opportunity to work with the Independents Biennial. They have maintained excellent and consistent forms of communication which I have really appreciated, I have always felt included within the process of the festival and have felt very proud to have been represented.

 Callan: As with Kevin’s response, working with Independents Biennial has been a really productive experience. I’m really grateful for Kevin and IB for reaching out and considering me. Communication channels have been reliable, consistent, and most importantly I think, honest. I’d say yes, there’s been support at every stage. Being part of something like IB, that’s platforming local artists, is really rewarding and I feel proud of everyone who’s come together showcase so much brilliant work.

Do you think you’d ever try and display the work physically once everything’s reopened safely & restrictions are lifted? Or do you think once the biennial is over, the project is just like, completely finished/you’ll never touch it again? 

​Kevin: The original intention was to exhibit the work in Thatto Heath Library. This was obviously then reconsidered in response to COVID. We are now planning to go ahead with the installation of the work with some alterations due to the restrictions that are now placed upon the physical display of the work. Callan and I are continuing to work on the project from now up until the end of May, after which, we then intend to install the work at the beginning of July of this year.

How did you both decide on what your project would be/actually start collaborating together?  Were you responding to each other’s work, or was it more of a discussion of thoughts & ideas before you solidified it?

 Kevin: Callan was introduced to me by Patrick who was involved in the original selection for the commission that had been awarded to me by St. Helens Library Service’s Cultural Hubs Programme. I stated within my original application that I was interested in collaborating with a writer. I had worked with a writer on a previous project really briefly, however the writing that was produced was written after the all of the photographs were taken. This project was different in the fact the photographs were produced alongside the production of the writings.

 I was keen that within this project that the writing was an ongoing contributing and supporting element of the work. Therefore, I felt that it was important that Callan and I remained in contact with each other throughout the production of the work, especially in the respect of lockdown and other COVID restrictions that were in place.

Callan: Kevin pitched the idea to me and I thought it sounded great; I’ve been really keen to work on a project involving text and images. The poems came about from directly collaging interviews that Kevin collected, and responded to the mood of the images he captured.

How did you find actually working together & do you think it benefitted your work in any way? Are there benefits to working collaboratively? I know you mentioned you’s have never worked with each other before, but have you both ever worked in other collaborative projects previous to this? Would you ever work together again? 

 Kevin: I undoubtably think that the collaborative process benefitted the work that has been produced, it was always part of the original plan, therefore I didn’t envisage it working in any other way than the way it was planned.

 Since lockdown I have had the fortunate opportunity to work with two writers on two separate projects and have really enjoyed and valued the experience. Not only in terms of aiding and benefitting the quality and dynamics of the work and the outcomes that have been produced, but also in the respect of the experience that has been gained. By collaborating and co-producing work, I feel that it enriches the working process. I feel that it is quicker to confirm decisions, it is easier to moderate creative choices and I also feel that it can enable a more rigorous and considered selection process.

 I would most certainly be keen to work on a project together at some point in the future if there was ever an opportunity to do so.

Callan: I’ve really enjoyed working with Kevin: he’s a brilliant photographer and has been really great in involving me with the project. There are infinite benefits to working with someone! It gives you the opportunity you never get when working alone – to bounce ideas, to just send bits of work over and say, ‘is this the right direction / is this rubbish’. I’ve worked collaboratively before in co-editing poetry, but never worked across multiple mediums on a project. If given the opportunity, I’d definitely work with Kevin again.

Do you think working together and sharing ideas has changed your own individual practises in any way?

 Kevin: I’m not entirely sure, maybe that is something to reflect upon at a later stage. There have been a lot of firsts in relation to the production processes that I, and I am sure that we have both experienced whilst working together. I think the pandemic has naturally forced us all to consider new and alternative working practices, some of which may never be utilised again and I can imagine some that will change the way we work as we move forwards out of the restrictions.

 I feel that working together would have been a very different experience, given the fact that Callan and I have not had an opportunity to physically meet to share and discuss ideas, neither have we had the opportunity to meet in the location that our work is a response to.

Callan: Absolutely. I’ve really thought about stepping away from that poet-I (where the I is me) and how stories can be collectively held. I do echo Kevin’s thoughts here too – had we been able to meet, perhaps the direction of the project, or how we went about creating work, might have been totally different.

How come you decided on working in/around Thatto Heath? Has basing your work here sharped (or even changed) your view of the community there? Is the location vital to your project, or do you think it’s something that would work as effectively if you moved it to a different location within Merseyside?

 Kevin: Having grown-up in Thatto Heath and now living close by, I have always felt a connection to the area. My family have lived around Thatto Heath for several generations and I also  currently work in the area too. Therefore, I felt pretty well placed to produce a project which I felt considerately responded to and reflected the community of Thatto Heath. I do think, as for most places, that the are has changed considerably, maybe more so in recent years and I think especially so in relation to the pandemic. I hoped to use the content of the work to enable residents and people connected to Thatto Heath to reflect and consider the changes to the area, whilst also drawing attention to what the area has to offer its residents at this particular moment in time.

 The work was always intended to be primarily produced for the people who were familiar and had some kind of connection with Thatto Heath. I was concerned that if people were to see it outside of the context of Thatto Heath that it would lose most of its significance and relevance and would become ambiguous and abstract. This was certainly something that I was wary of when presenting digital outcomes for Independents Biennial.

 I do think the approach and methods that Callan and I have utilised throughout the duration of the project could be applied to other projects that could be produced in other locations…

How did you go about approaching the people in Thatto Heath for the written accounts? How did people generally react to the project & feel about being involved with your work? 

 Kevin: I thought about many different ways of engaging with people and encouraging people to participate. Then, as a consequence of the COVID restrictions I was forced to consider other alternatives. I was planning on walking round the area and asking questions of the people I came in to contact with, I also considered entering shops and other businesses, however those approaches became increasingly difficult to facilitate. I then decided to send out questions to my family and friends and then asked those family and friends to send the questions to their family and friends and so on. Some came back and some didn’t, some people I knew and some people I didn’t, everyone however had some connection with Thatto Heath. Some answers were thorough and detailed, some were vague and brief. There were some responses that were outspoken, some positive, some negative.

 I think it was essential that all were anonymous and that I made it clear that each persons responses would remain anonymous, I think that enabled honest and uncensored accounts. People were generally happy to participate and offer some kind of response, which was obviously helpful, as the more I felt I had, the more breadth of reponses I had to choose from.

 I also thought it was helpful to do two sets of questions. The first set of questions were quite open and pretty general, the second set were most specific and responded to the first set of questions and also the responses that I received. All of the people who responded to the first set of questions were asked to respond to a second set of questions, all of which were returned.

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