Deaf Culture in Quarantine

Check out Sign Night on BBC iPlayer! (optional captions for non-signers / hearing viewers)

I made a new year’s resolution on Instagram at the beginning of 2020 that I would “reclaim” my Deaf cultural heritage and deaf identity. As a 7th generation deaf person, I grew up experiencing art by deaf and disabled artists so I see it as the foundation of everything I now do. I later went on to make work about my own deaf experience as an art student and graduate. I was particularly interested in video projection and made a number of projection works during my Fine Art degree. However, over the years my professional practice has moved further and further away from my roots. I wanted to go back to where I started and revisit deaf story telling in my work.

Then in March 2020, the pandemic shut down the U.K. Suddenly it seemed my ambitions to reignite my own art practice would have to go back into hibernation. Luckily however in response to the pandemic, The Space Arts put put a call for artists to submit low-budget ideas for films for the BBC Arts channel. I jumped at the chance. I wanted to raise the issues the pandemic was causing deaf people and also shine a new light on British Sign Language. With over 2,600 applications, the competition was tough. But to my surprise and delight Sign Night, the projection art based film I had proposed, was selected.

Creating a new work from scratch within a short timeframe in a genre outside my comfort zone was really challenging. As the schools and nurseries had shut, I was juggling the needs of my children throughout the making process. But I’m so proud of what I and my fantastic team achieved. Jo Verrent of Unlimited and Natalie Woolman at The Space were fantastic with their support and encouragement.

Vilma Jackson and Sophie Stone who played the lead roles were outstanding to work with remotely and eventually in person when the lockdown restrictions were lifted.  I will be sharing more details of the making of process soon and I’m also excited to speaking at a workshop with Corey Baker Dance and Simon Wainwright in September for The Space webinar series. Sign Night has sparked a new turning point and creative chapter for me. Its amazing how life can change in such a short space of time. Despite the devastation and loss of income Covid-19 has brought to my family, my peers, colleagues and so many people working in the arts. I feel hopeful for the future.


A sculpture in transition

For the past year I have been working with the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail to plan a series of new artworks for the site. As the production of new works begins, I’ve also been working on controversial plans to dismantle and burn one of the Trail’s older pieces: the iconic Place by Magdalena Jetelova, colloquially known as the Giant’s Chair.

See short film on You Tube

Forestry Commission England own and manage the Sculpture Trail and with over 250,000 visitors to the site annually safety is paramount.  After monitoring movement of Place over many years, it was deemed at risk of collapse. There is great affection for the sculpture locally and its been a sensitive and often heart-rending process to plan the artwork’s last year on its hill-top lair overlooking the Cannop Valley. There has been much debate as to whether honouring Magdalena Jetelova’s original wish to burn the work is an act of  transformation or an act of destruction.  The story has been featured twice on BBC news, with more coverage expected this week.

As part of its farewell, I produced and directed this short film A sense of Place to tell the story of the Giant’s Chair, working with aerial photography revealed to me for the first time the view above the trees that normally tower over me. The film also features Onya McCausland, an artist who has been commissioned by the Sculpture Trail to recycle the artwork into new works.

In addition to the film we invited the public to share their memories, one included my Forestry Commission colleague Judith Lack, who even had her wedding photos taken under the Giant’s Chair. These stories and wonderful photographs can be found here.

Judith Lack Wedding 
Jemma Benn

Earlier in the year I wrote for Arts Professional  about how Place has also been a home to wildlife including bats, and its been a fascinatng process to work with ecologists from Forestry Commission England and Natural England to plan a way to recycle the sculpture into a safe and long term home. I’ll be posting updates on the bat re-homing on the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail Facebook page.

To find out more about the project visit the Sculpture Trust website or Forest Artworks.


A Festival of the Lonely

After ten months of hard work, fundraising and planning, the festival I’ve been directing, The Bloomsbury Festival starts today and runs until the 20th of October. It’s been plugged in The Londonist and Time Out.

I wrote an article about one of the projects for Arts Professional – have a read below.

You can also find out more about what’s happening at The Bloomsbury Festival here: