Art: Interview: Caitlin Shepherd
Caitlin Shepherd’s installation A Life, A Presence, Like the Air uses the space of the home and audio recordings of people who’ve struggled with social housing as a way of confronting the dominant stereotypes often presented by political discourses.
Caitlin’s PhD research is tied up with the question of listening. She uses this work to explore how hearing the everyday accounts of difficulties with social housing and the significance people ascribe to their homes can create a more profound sense of empathy than interacting by looking or reading. Ultimately, the work seeks to ask whether listening to narratives from people’s private lives can create an empathy capable of influencing social and political values or systems.
By incorporating authentic interviews with people from Bristol, Wales, London and Stoke on Trent, Caitlin repositions the power of presentation in the spoken word of these accounts, challenging the narratives pervaded by social policy and media representations.
Caitlin also uses the space of the home to subvert the notions of blame and shame placed upon those whose circumstances are determined by a multitude of complex factors.
The physical construction of A Life, A Presence, Like the Air, built by Dan Halahan, is to be set up in three different public spaces across Bristol. The idea is that this public construction is inclusive and disinherits the high-brow location of the gallery by making the installation accessible and free. The 40-minute audio installation will feature edited interviews and a narrative that Caitlin has extrapolated from the accounts. A 20-minute discussion will follow to support her PhD research.
Here’s Caitlin to tell us more about the project:
What was the original inspiration for the project?
I’ve been involved with projects addressing economic inequality since graduating. I used to work mostly with food justice, but a few years ago I become acutely aware of how unfair the private rental market was, and how in adequate and lacking the political will behind funding and building affordable, safe, social housing.
Being affected myself by unaffordable rents was also part of my motivation; I am angry and frustrated at not having enough money to buy, and the high cost of renting in the city, often paying off someone else’s mortgage (and privilege) in the first place. I feel like my story is like many people’s story, and through my work I think there’s a great value in using personal stories to highlight the need for political, structural change – particularly around making sure working people have affordable, secure tenancy.
So the motivation behind my work comes from time spent talking with, and listening to people struggling to secure affordable housing, and also to explore the stories of people living in council housing, and to come to understand how people value, struggle, raise children and identify with making their homes as council-housing tenants. It’s important to me to move beyond the often derogatory and simplistic representations of council housing, and the people that live in them, and instead explore the intricacy of everyday life that plays out within them and link this up to calls for more social housing to be made available, and for it to be re-valued as a key part of a fair society.
For me, economic injustice is experienced in everyday circumstances: what you can afford to buy, whether you can afford to take a holiday, whether you feel safe and secure in your home. But it is perpetuated by political decision-making, hidden power structures, and social prejudices that often blame and shame people living on low incomes and with complicated circumstances.
So, I started making artwork that seeks to challenge these narratives, and to interweave stories of everyday accounts of home and housing with narratives that expose the lack of investment and action on regulating the private rental sector, multi-property landlords and challenge the political narrative of austerity.
It is also work that is rooted in the everyday – in the fact that I spend time talking with and listening to lots of people about their lived experience of home and housing. My practice involves walking around, talking with people, spending time listening and getting to know people over a period of time. The process of making audio work that is based around documenting and presenting everyday stories of home, social housing and struggles to find a home is rooted in a listening practice that cares about the tedium of day-to-day life.
In a way, part of my fascination with housing, is a fascination with studying the everyday to reveal and challenge dominant ideologies – especially around class identity, and more practical aspects of class identity such as job security, income generation and housing security.
Ultimately, what inspires me is the idea that art can play a part in challenging dominant ideas that really give a poor deal and quality of life to working people. I also think class politics is not explored, discussed and spoken about with the arts and society at large, so I am motivated to bring conversations about class identity, power and responsibility to the fore through exploring class identity through the concept of ‘home’.
How did you research and prepare for this work?
For the past eighteen months I’ve been interviewing people in Bristol, Wales, London and Stoke on Trent about their homes, housing situation and financial situation. To get in touch with people willing to share the story with me, I spend time door knocking, visiting people in their homes and hanging out in public spaces like markets and shopping centres. If people are up for talking with me, I tend to go round to their houses and record a conversation about their home.
I ask questions like how long they have lived there, who they live with, if they own or rent, if they feel safe and like the area. I also ask them about their memories and favourite things about their home. We talk about all sorts of things and I record it on a voice recorder. That is the practical side of my research: going out and documenting peoples’ lives in their own homes.
It’s a time-consuming process, and very organic and unpredictable; but I think most of us juggle busy and complicated personal lives at work and home, so it often takes time to figure out a good time to come and spend time with people at home. I also enjoy and take a lot from hanging out in residential areas and observing and watching the rhythms of everyday life, watching social behaviour, interactions and values at play in how people go about living on a day-to-day basis.
Within a more theoretical framework I have been reading into working-class histories of work and housing, referring to the work of Selina Todd, Lynsey Hanley, Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams and many others.
I also contextualise my practice within Everyday Life Studies, which is an area of academic and artistic research that examines the banalities of everyday life and interprets their significance culturally and politically. In this vein of thought I refer to the work of Henri Lefebvre, Ben Highmore, Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart in particular.
This reading really feeds into my PhD thesis, where I look back to thinkers and makers that have gone before me and asked very important questions about everyday life, alienation, political struggle and the use of the everyday to resist unfair political and economic systems that dictate how and where we live.
My PhD is concerned with examining how the act of listening to stories of the everyday affects audiences that engage with my work, and if listening engenders more empathy than other means of representation and communication, and if increased levels of empathy in turn, lead to greater levels of political action.
What kind of themes does the project cover?
The themes in the work are all about the intricacies and intimacies of affordable housing, and affordable social housing in particular. It’s also about the personal and complex psychology of home. The values we live by, how we choose to live in relation to others, and the material things we surround ourselves with at home.
I choose these themes as the basis for my work as I think it’s vital that we engage politically with demands for more affordable, safe social houses to be built and for private rental markets to be regulated and made affordable. I also think we need to examine who benefits from such an unfair system and figure out a way to make sure people working hard in decent jobs have a chance, if they want to buy a home, and if they don’t want can rely on rents being stable and affordable in relation to their income. The work is a documentation that provokes and invites thought and action in relation to these themes.
Broader themes that arise from such work are discussions and debates around working-class identity, a political history of social housing, and the importance of listening and empathising in addressing structural inequalities of our time. Political engagement through the arts and questions around how the arts in general can, and should attempt to engage mixed and diverse audiences in political discussion and action. As all my work is communicated through audio, the social and relational experience of listening is also an ongoing theme, and my PhD research set out to examine if and how listening increases empathy, and if increased levels of empathy in turn, enhance political engagement.
What kind of debates would you like the project to spark?
The discussion, after the installation, is really part of my PhD research, where I’m seeking to understand how listening affects people’s relationship with the themes and stories told through the audio piece, and if and how they feel listening increases their empathy with others in comparison to looking, touching, smelling etcetera.
So the discussion I have with audiences is structured around my research question which seeks to understand if listening to stories of home and housing in public spaces, engenders a greater sense of empathy and political engagement than other means of sensory engagement and perception. So far, the conversations have been really rich and audiences have contributed generously to the research.
Tell us more about the types of media you are using, and why.
The work is both spatial and audio-led. I worked very closely with engineer and set builder Dan Halahan on the design and construction of the work (well, he built it), while I worked on editing the interviews and writing a script and designing a narrative structure for the audio. So the media is audio-led, but the spatiality of the installation is key, as is the the site.
Audio is a key part of the work: I’m interested in what happens when audiences encounter stories sonically instead of the (more usual) visual aspect being the main feature. This relates to my research interest in the social, relational and psychological affect of listening. What happens when art invites people to sit together and listen: and is collective, intimate listening available in our culture? Is it awkward, gentle, slow, boring? Does it make people feel more or less judgmental, does it engender self-reflection? What is the difference for people listening alone with a headset on and listening together to broadcast sound? What happens to public spaces when people gather to listen? How does listening affect our attention, and levels of distraction?
Lastly, site is a key medium I’m working with. I relate to site and location as a key part of my work. For me the typical ‘white cube’ gallery space is an exclusive space, often targeted towards gallerists, art enthusiasts, curators, critics etc. That type of space is often less concerned with engaging diverse audiences. In this sense, I’m interested in situating my work in public, visible spaces, making sure it is free and easy to attend, and interacts with everyday life.
For example, we put A Life, A Presence, Like the Air in the children’s park in Waring House, Redcliffe this week. Residents asked us what we were doing, hung out in the space, came to the events, and a lot of children took over and played inside the house. During the day we host an Open House, where the audio runs on a loop and people are welcome to come and use the space in any way they want.
Specifically, I’m interested in situating A Life, A Presence, Like the Air (and my other work, which is all to do with stories of home and housing in some way) in residential, social housing spaces – where the work directly interplays with the fabric of home.I like to locate my work in the residential areas where I have spent time speaking with residents, and collecting their stories of work, home, money, dreams, family, and personal triumphs and struggles that have marked their lives with significance.
A Life, A Presence, Like the Air Aug 28-Sept 9: free but booking required.
Aug 28-29: Waring House, Waring House Development, Redcliff Hill, BS1 6TE.
Booked shows: 5-6.15pm daily. Open house: Aug 28 1-4pm/Aug 29 10.30am-4pm.
Aug 30-Sept 1: The Vestibules, College Green, BS1 5TR.
Booked shows: Aug 30: 5-6.15pm. Open house: Aug 31 10am-2pm/Sept 1: 10am-4pm.
Sept 6-9: The Park, 45 Daventry Rd, BS4 1DQ, in partnership with Knowle Media Centre.
Booked shows: Sept 6-8: 5-6.15pm and 7.30-8.45pm. Sept 9: 5-6.15pm. Open house: 1-4pm daily.
Each show is for five people at a time, and is free but must be booked in advance.
The installation will be open house for general visits during the daytime across all three sites.
For details of open house and running times, visit caitlinshepherd.com/A-Life-A-Presence-Like-the-Air
To book your listening slot, visit a-life-a-presence.eventbrite.com
Funded by Arts Council England in collaboration with Bristol City Council, Artspace Lifespace, The Park, Knowle, Waring House, Knowle West Media Centre, the University of the West of England, 3D3 and the Digital Culture Research Centre.