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.


The bright and futuristic 1951 Festival of Britain site arises from ashes of WW2

Surfing the sky, freefalling into the digital world

In 2011, I was faced with the challenge of how to resurrect a lost London landmark three weeks before an international press launch: the majestic Skylon.

The Skylon rose out of capital’s war ravaged landscape in 1951. It was a luminous sculpture, a jaw dropping 90 metres high and was built with cutting edge technology. It offered a glimpse into the future with its alien beauty. But this glimpse was snatched away when it was ripped from its foundations and dismantled on the direct orders of Winston Churchill. Yet, even with this tragic history, I didn’t forsee that I would face a similar fear of the new in my efforts to commemorate the Skylon sixty years later.

The Skylon at night with Big Ben in the background

In 2011, I was overseeing the delivery of Museum of ’51, a temporary exhibition that celebrated the story of the Festival of Britain. The Festival was an epic event that sought to cheer people up after years of loss and war. It included a showcase of the pioneering architecture, design and industrial innovation such as the Dome of Discovery and the creation of the Royal Festival Hall.

The entrance to the 2011 Museum of ’51 exhibition included a salvaged rotting old sign from the original Festival found in someone’s garden shed

Fast forward to the anniversary celebrations 60 years on, we raided personal archives and attics across the UK to borrow a huge array of archive materials and objects from the original event. But the museum was missing one crucial element: we had nothing on the Skylon. It had been smashed to pieces and sold for scrap and the rest chucked in the River Thames, lost forever.

In search of an answer, I approached Alex Haw of the design practice Atmos, to re-capture the Skylon in some way for the Museum. They came back with an incredible proposal to create an immersive environment called “Skysurfing” that enabled Museum visitors to virtually climb inside the structure and scale it to the very top. Very few people had scaled the original Skylon except for the architects and engineers that created it, although rumours have it a drunk festival goer broke in for a dare, climbed up the internal ladder and tied his trousers to the top.

Atmos’s digital reconstruction of the lights within the Skylon that illuminated the sculpture

Atmos explained their motivation and concept:

“The skylon was a magnificent icon, but it was always a distant object admired from afar – like the sky it adorned, abstract and remote. Its delicate bulge contained a secret sanctuary that no visitor ever accessed; 18 million people never saw inside the most wonderful creation of them all, even though it was almost see-through. The original architects, Powell & Moya, were only 27 when they won the competition, and lavished youthful energy on beautifully resolved details high in the sky that never met the naked eye – until now.

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The floor based projector box, a striking design in itself by Atmos

Skysurfing resurrects this lost monument, and offers an unprecedented journey through it. A large and immersive projection takes the visitor on a simple virtual slingshot journey up through the very centre of the Skylon, on a voyage of discovery of an architectural space that has never before been open to the public, revealing the exact opposite of what we always knew about it – its innards rather than its skin. The skylon was a groundbreaking early experiment in structural tensegrity, but it was also an astonishing piece of luminous sculpture – and thus well represented by the fond light of the exhibition’s projector.”

Visitors looked up to ceiling to see the centre of the Skylon and were catapulted virtually to the top of the sculpture

Their plan was ambitious but brilliant and I was hugely excited. But my enthusiasm was quickly put in check by scepticism from my colleagues who felt it was too ‘geeky’ . Some felt a small traditional cardboard model of the Skylon would suffice. Many voiced their opinion that it was a museum of nostalgic ‘real things’, of trinkets, souvenirs and furniture. And to get flash with experimental new artworks was out of sync. Sometimes everyone falls in love with an idea straight away, with others I have to be more persuasive. Especially when this was a digital reconstruction that didn’t yet exist. But the original architecture of the Skylon was translucent and it made absolute sense to me that projected light should be the medium we used to re-create its ghostly presence.

Myself and the journalist Cathy Heffernan Interacting with the installation whilst at the Vintage Festival (directed by Hemingway Design)

The Museum of ’51 had one of the tightest deadlines I have ever worked with. 2011 was the year of William and Kate’s nuptials so the opening of the Festival of Britain anniversary programme was put under further pressure out of fear it would be eclipsed by the media coverage of the Royal Wedding. We got there in the end through determined team effort at the heart of which were two gifted archivists Georgia Monk and Emily Churchill and the unflappable design collaboration of Tilly, Gerardine and Wayne Hemingway.

The team was also overseeing the restoration of a Patchwork of a Century at the time, a precious handmade relic from the 1951 celebrations which references The Great Exhibition of 1851. We faced a desperate effort to build a huge display box within budget and on time. At last a suitable box maker was found, only for a cleaner to scratch the entire surface with a scourer a few days after the Museum opened. With so many other challenges in realising the more conventional Museum content, a lot of people thought I was mad to pursue something high risk and experimental with the Skylon.

Meanwhile in another part of the museum, my husband William, a filmmaker and I made some short films of artists and architects that were involved back in 1951. They recounted the stressful but exhilarating last minute experience of making the original Festival of Britain happen on a shoestring budget with little resources after years of harrowing war. It was motivational to listen to their interviews at the time, and my own lesser stresses with the Museum of ’51 were quickly put into perspective.

Skysurfing, despite its fast and bumpy freefall landing into the Museum of ’51, remains one of the bravest commissions of my career. It continues to inspire me to explore the possibilities of digital invention. It is a work that for some requires a few repeat watches to understand and appreciate. Yet despite its initial controversy, it was a huge hit with children who loved playing and interacting with the projection light and shadows.

Alex Haw, the director of Atmos is extraordinarily dedicated to the creation of unique and beautiful things. It was a privilege to get the opportunity to work with him and his studio.

In the last few years Atmos have grown to be a critically acclaimed award winning outfit whose pioneering talents are on par with that of the 1951 architects of the Skylon. Their latest project with the Roundhouse has achieved a much deserved £30,000 grant from the Arts Council. You can explore and discover their awe-inspiring portfolio here.

I wonder what would have happened if Winston Churchill had left the Skylon standing. If its glowing presence had remained, perhaps the whole of central London’s architectural landscape would have evolved differently. There have been campaigns to re-build the sculpture, so who knows maybe it will one day return to reclaim its place and jostle for attention alongside the other old and new giants of London’s skyline.

Sustainable spaceships, to Bloomsbury and beyond

Small Global: Extreme Energy by artists D-Fuse was one of my favourite memories from Bloomsbury Festival 2013, a Festival I directed.

D Fuse’s installation was sited in the basement of Senate House, which inspired George Orwell’s 1984 Ministry of Truth

D-Fuse’s work at the Festival was a haunting immersive multi-screen installation that projected maps and statistical data of the impact of consumerist greed on our society and nature. It was beautiful to experience and yet shocking and disturbing at the same time. It felt like being lost in a sci-fi film, wandering around an alien spaceship that was observing and processing information about Earth, and how it was destroying itself.


An earlier version of Small Global that focused on deforestation

Small Global has travelled the world as an ongoing project beginning at EyeBeam New York in 2005 with an exploration of the impact of deforestation. In the following years the installation has toured China for the contemporary art festival Get it Louder, as well as the Netherlands, Argentina, New Zealand and Germany.

The 2013 Extreme Energy version examines human rights and recent desperate new methods of fossil fuel extraction such as fracking. The work was originally exhibited in the basement of Senate House and commissioned by an Arts and Humanities Research Council programme at School of Advanced Study, with support from Arts Council of England.

Glastonbury’s Greenpeace field




Following a stint at the University of the Arts London as part of Green Week the project was shown in a geodesic dome at the Greenpeace field last month.

These Festivals, like Bloomsbury, offer a captive and hungry audience for art that carries messages of the unsustainable exploitation of our planet.



I first encountered the Small Global movement on a team trip I organised to East London to celebrate the opening of the Lime Wharf Gallery. We had dinner inside the gallery as we sat around an extraordinary carved map of the world created by the design studio Atmos. I’ve worked with Atmos in the past and knew they would offer creative inspiration to the Festival team.

The epic Worldscape dining table by Atmos

D-Fuse were speaking at the event and this led to a fantastic collaboration with School of Advanced Study led by Dr. Michael Eades in the Bloomsbury Festival a few months later.

A project which began as a conversation around a map of the world continues to be a globally important story. I hope D-Fuse’s sustainability spaceship flies on to inspire change wherever it goes next.

If you’re interested in hosting Small Global at your venue or festival get in touch with D-Fuse here

Whatever happened to the Giant Fox? Saving art from landfill

Its perhaps a dirty secret in the arts world that it is an creative industry that often ‘creates’ waste once the show is over. A few years ago I faced a race against time to save a giant fox from landfill.

I’m often asked what happened to the monumental straw creature from the Festival of Britain’s 60th anniversary programme. Such was its popularity at the time, I received emails from commuters who mourned its loss once it disappeared from its rooftop den overlooking Waterloo Bridge in the autumn of 2011.

Fox overlooking Waterloo bridge


Faced with the possibility Urban Fox would be destroyed just as the Skylon had been in 1951 (rumoured to have been furiously dumped in the Thames by the incoming Conservative government of the time in revenge for what they had seen as Labour’s wasteful arts spending), I became determined to rescue the sculpture from the same fate.

The majestic but doomed Skylon of the 1951 Festival of Britain

I imagined I might end up having to smuggle the fox out of London somehow on a back of a lorry like in One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, a bizarre film about the rescue of a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton from the Natural History Museum that always seemed to be repeated on TV when I was young.

The tyrannosaurus rex escaping on a truck to the countryside in the 1975 film: One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing. Myself and Pirate Technics Director Alex Rinsler in front of the fox’s lorry

Some said I should set it alight, seeing as the team that had built fox normally specilised in fire sculptures. But having juggled the complex politics of the fox being a pest in the city and a hero in the countryside amidst anti-fox hunting protests, I didn’t want Southbank Centre to appear to be leaning in favour of one side of the argument, by creating a giant burning effigy!

So, initially it was an issue of sustainability and managing public relations for me, but it grew to be a more personally emotive challenge.

The Fox had been a last minute commission which I had 6 weeks to deliver. Unusually it was entirely funded by commercial sponsorship, with the support of restaurants and shops lining the river. I got the final sign off on the tiny budget in March with the Festival opening in April.

The complex internal design of the fox by Mike de Butts of Pirate Technics

It was terrifying for me to attempt such an experimental and ambitious piece in such an exposed setting that hadn’t been used previously. I had lobbied internally for weeks to build the sculpture and I had nowhere to hide if it was a failure.

The original sketch of the fox, there was a lot of debate over the position of the tail and long conversations with Health and Safety experts about how to stop a giant straw sculpture catching fire on top of a auditorium containing 2,000 people!

You can check out an excellent timelapse of the complex construction and nail biting crane installation here.

The construction of the fox in a farm warehouse in the Nottinghamshire countryside in early Spring 2011

I’ve often faced sustainability dilemmas with large-scale temporary sculptures. An example is Project Morrinho, a model replica of a favela built by young men from Rio. The 4,000 bricks atop of tons of sand made it precariously heavy for the Festival Hall’s terrace and its complex form required a lightweight foundation that did not add to the load. The project team came up with a innovative solution: storm crates.

Project morrinho was made up of 4,000 bricks that were later recycled by giving away to the public

Stormcrates formed the sustainable and lightweight foundation for the Project Morrinho to overcome weight restrictions on the Festival terrace

These are crates designed for emergency flooding situations. By using the crates to bulk up the favela installation we then were able to return them to the company once the summer was over. We also managed to recycle all 4,000 bricks in a mass public giveaway. There are mini brick favelas in people’s back gardens (including mine) all over the country!



The creation of the fox was also an unconventional artistic process. I originally asked Snugbury’s Farm to make the sculpture. It was their story I had wanted to celebrate, a contemporary fairytale of rural life in Britain. It was part of a homage to the ‘Land’ area of the original Festival of Britain that artistic director Jude Kelly sought to achieve in her vision for the outdoor environment for the anniversary celebrations.

Snugbury’s were unexpected makers of giant straw sculptures in the context of their working dairy farm. They make one each year to entertain the local community and visitors in their thousands flock to see the annual sculptures which have included a giant straw meerkat, a polar bear, Big Ben and more recently, my personal favourite: a Dalek. Visitors were charged for ice cream, the proceeds of which were donated to charity.

Snugbury’s giant straw dalek or ‘dalick’ as the farm called it to encourage further sales of the charity fundraising ice cream of the same name

Straw Big Ben

Although they gave me their full support and blessing to replicate their work, they didn’t have the time to juggle a working farm and build another sculpture in London.

So instead I approached company called Pirate Technics, who had an extraordinary portfolio of sculptures built for firework displays at music festivals. The company visited Snugbury’s with me and hatched out a plan around the farmhouse kitchen table. With the creative engineering genius of Mike de Butts and the team leadership of Alex Rinsler (who suggested a Fox be the form the straw sculpture took) we pulled it off.

Sadly, plans for the Fox’s long-term future weren’t part of those discussions around the farmhouse table. I remember when I first visited Snugbury’s farm I found decaying relics of their previous sculptures dotted about their cow sheds next to old tractor tires. It was fascinating to see a giant Big Ben disintegrating on its side with a rusting clock face, as if it had been transplanted from London to rural Cheshire by a tornado in a disaster movie. Yet it was sad at the same time. I wasn’t used to seeing art die, even if the Snugburys didn’t see it as art – just as many art critics may likely agree – it’s just a bit of family fun in the name of charity.

Keeping the fox permanently on the southbank wasn’t an option as each year the the busy arts centre hosts a huge array of different festivals and themed events. But I got a one month extension to keep it there to give me more time to seek a new home. I emailed everyone I could think of. Jude Kelly and the board of trustees at Southbank Centre all supported its plight. “We simply must find a home for our dear Fox!” they all said.

So the pressure was on and I wasn’t always taken seriously by those I approached.

I had many bemused responses to my appeal including a very polite but humorous email from my former Historic Royal Palaces colleague, the television historian Lucy Worsley to inform me that no, she regrettfully did not have room for a 7 meter high straw fox in the gardens of Hampton Court.

I came close to relocating the sculpture to a new fox rehabilitation sanctuary in a forest, which seemed to offer the perfect ending, but it proved too good to be true and fell through after the trustees of the charity became nervous of its scale and dubious of what purpose it would serve.

Then just as all hope was lost, and Urban Fox was doomed to be put down in the most horrible way by being chopped to pieces, we were thrown a lifeline by the owners of Secret Arts, who agreed to re-home her.  The fox lives on in 2014, having left its concrete surrounds on the South Bank to live the rural idyll on a grassy mound in the Cambridgeshire countryside.

Its wonderful to share this happy ending, but I know that I will continue to face challenges of waste creation in the process of making and sharing art. There’s often little money, people and time and a lack of storage space. Making something memorable, special and unusual sometimes means it is destined to be a ‘one-off’. A lot people think art is a load of rubbish anyway, but whatever your view, with a bit of patience, innovation and planning there’s no need for art to end up as landfill.

Here’s a few photos of the fox’s journey to its new home:

On its original den overlooking National Theatre in 2011

Hoisted off the roof of Queen Elizabeth Hall

All strapped onto the back of the lorry ready to go

Crossing the river Thames

Settling into her new home at the Secret Garden Party site in Cambridgeshire. Urban Fox’s designer, and Director of Pirate Technics, Mike de Butts stands atop.

Fox in winter of 2012/13, sporting a bow tie and monocle.

Visiting my old giant friend along with my six month old son at the Secret Garden Party in 2012 where I found that ‘susan’ the fox as she once was named, had been given a monocle and bow tie and was referred to as a ‘he’ by the new owners!



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: