Birmingham Camera Obscura is an independent project run by Jenny Duffin and Pete Ashton. All modern cameras are simply the present day ancestors of the ancient camera obscura. The first was built over 3,000 years ago and consisted of a large box with a hole in one side through which light could pass. This light then projected an exterior image onto a smooth, flat surface inside, whereby it was reproduced and inverted appearing to the operator upside down. Jenny and Pete built their first prototype in 2014 before a more substantial unit was developed little more than a year later. It has been on tour in the city ever since.
This year Birmingham Camera Obscura have been working with four artists whose work premiered in the spring. The first of those artists, Gen Doy, chose to write a song inspired by Winterbourne which she intended to perform inside the camera obscura. Gen has worked for many years in the field of visual culture, as a lecturer, writer, and curator. Her work is characterised by the use of sound, performance and installation.
Gen was invited to Winterbourne in 2015 and soon began to see upside down images of the garden as evocative of a time infused with radical spirit: “I made my first visit to Winterbourne late last year to take photographs, and experimenting with turning images upside down, and some of these later became a set of postcards with texts. My ideas for this came from a book about the English Revolution by Christopher Hill: The World Turned Upside Down, Radical Ideas during the English Revolution, which is about the Diggers (who wanted to occupy land to grow food for the poor) and the Levellers during the English Revolution, and their desire to reform society. The title comes from a quote from the famous Digger, Gerard Winstanley, in 1649 who wrote ‘Freedom is the man who will turn the world upside down, therefore no wonder he hath enemies.’ Maybe this makes this project a relevant one for the gardening staff! Strangely I only later realised this additional connection between referring to the Diggers and Levellers in the song, and the digging activities as they exist today at Winterbourne. Maybe I should do another song specifically for the garden staff!”
Once Gen had composed her song she settled upon the Lower Lawn as the perfect spot to reflect upon Diggers past and present: “After thinking about the world upside down and what that might mean, I wrote words and music for a song to sing to people as a live performance inside the camera. I used some allusions to Marx’s Communist Manifesto, the Bible, and to Winstanley. The song was intended not to illustrate or comment on the upside-down image in the camera obscura, but to make allusions to it in a subtle way, whilst also making people think about things in the wider world. I chose a site where we would be able to get an image of a grass lawn with lovely trees against the sky (upside down). Occasionally a bird would fly past at the bottom of the image.”
Unlike a modern camera, the camera obscura does not create an image you can take away. You can only see the image whilst inside the camera itself, a quirk which makes picturing the world through a camarea obscura an intimate experience, a notion Gen was keen to exploit: “The space inside the camera is quite intimate, and the experience of singing to people in such a small space was new to me. However the people who experienced this with me found the experience very interesting, contemplative and evocative. The comments I got were very interesting, ranging from people who found themselves transported back to being a child again, people who found time standing still as they were almost hypnotised by watching the slow image, to people who really ‘got’ the idea of the need for the world to be turned upside down. Everyone was given a set of postcards to take away after the performance ended. The postcards are intended as a kind of souvenir for visitors to the camera. Since the whole idea of the camera is about seeing, viewing and making something into an ‘image’, I thought that having pictures and postcards to take away would be like a reference to people buying ‘views’ of the places they visit.”
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