Interviews with Gaia and essays about her practice and exhibitions.
Conversation with Gaia Redgrave 2022
Artist Kate Spence in conversation with Gaia - conducted via Zoom. Kate: "So Gaia, you used to be in Coventry, you studied in Solihull and now you live in Wales... I feel like your work has a lot of curiosity. Sometimes there is playfulness even if it’s serious. Much of your work has this idea of pilgrimage running through it. One of the pieces I want to talk about is ‘15 minutes’. How did that come about? " Gaia: " I needed an outlet, I'm a creative person, an artist, but I was in a position where I couldn't physically get out or mentally cope with things. I couldn't leave the house but I needed that connection. I needed that expression, it's who I am, I can't separate myself from it, as I'm sure you'll understand. I can't remember whether Aleks offered to perform on my behalf or I asked him ... but the obvious thing to do was to write a letter. I could do that, I could sit and do that and express exactly how I felt and the response needed to be in a form that was shocking. I didn't want him to know the contents of the letter beforehand. I wanted that shock within the performance. " Kate: "I remember watching it (the audience at the time had no idea what was in the letter) and watching him hurling himself at the wall. Obviously I know him, I know how strong he is. I know how seemingly unbreakable he is and I know how committed he is but obviously from the from the audience's perspective it was quite powerful. We were worried for him, I was worried. So has he spoken to you about how he felt afterwards?" Gaia: "I know we had a conversation about it, and this was a long time ago. I think it was more a matter of stating facts as to what he did; “Yeah I sat down and read the letter in front of people, I thought about it and then I started”. I don't think there was any more said about what was going on internally for him while he did it, I would love to know though. " Kate: What was in the letter? Gaia: "It explained explicitly about my mental state and despair at the time." Kate: "Now you've worked with Aleks twice in collaborative performances, you've got to have a lot of trust in that person. To honour it, to take it seriously and I feel like when you're making a piece of art with someone that's really important, how do you feel?" Gaia:" At the time my work was cathartic. It was from a point of desperation and at times anger as well, so for me it was more of a release and I just enjoyed watching any reaction. To be perfectly honest I like the shock. I remember another performance I did for HFWAS, ‘You,’ and there was a “woah she's really angry”. I like that shock and that is what I used to look for. The elements of surprise and “woah what's going on here.” That has now changed to something where I want people to explore themselves and their own experience, as opposed to being shocked about what I do. But now it isn't shock for catharsis, it's for well-being or for people to find their own way forward and their comfortable place in the world. " Kate: "I was going to ask about ‘Crucify’ at the Coventry Biennial. I watched it and thought, I appreciate that the reason you're doing this is to highlight the inaccessibility of the building. But again this idea of pilgrimage, this idea of playfulness even in something serious, even in something that you're really trying to highlight was still present. Were you approached by Coventry biennial? Did you propose this?" Gaia: "I proposed it to Aleks, and the space was available so I asked if I could use it. It was no more than that, again it was a thing that I was angry about, it was cathartic. I'm going to get up those stairs irrespective and the day that we did it, it was a day that I needed to use my wheelchair the lift wasn't in use so in between filming I couldn't use the lift and I was carried up the stairs and the wheelchair was carried up separately. It just had to be done. To be excluded from so many spaces just because there are stairs, it's terrible. Just because it's my life experience that there are times I can't walk, to not then be included and to literally have the door slammed in my face, nah." Kate: "Do you think it's an issue where the funders need to add extra money? Should smaller places be asking for money to make their spaces accessible?" Gaia: "It's more to do with attitude. I totally appreciate that some places aren't accessible due to the nature of what they do and where they are and the spaces that are affordable. I totally understand that, but a change in attitude and a culture of care makes all the difference. For example there was a situation where I wanted to join an event that was upstairs. They liked my work, happy for me to join in, however because it was upstairs I was excluded. I offered alternatives. Can we create a performance where I'm carried upstairs to be part of this? Can I do it over the internet? This was pre-Covid, and the answer was always no. No we've not done it before, just totally closed minds and closed doors. We’re creative people, if we're open minded and there's a culture of care and we value people, let's think of new ways of doing things. That's all it is. It just comes down to being a nice person to be perfectly honest, irrespective of whether there are lifts or what have you, places aren’t always going to be accessible for everybody and it's not just physical disabilities. It boils down to a culture of care and being a nice person." Kate: "You were making those things when you were in Coventry and working in Birmingham and that area. Your work seems to have made a massive shift, how has moving to Wales changed your artistic practise and how different has it been working with organisations compared to Birmingham and Coventry?" Gaia: "I think, in general, it has been more open and welcoming. However, the biggest shift has been in me because I will now stand up and say hold on a minute how do you create an environment that's welcoming to disabled artists? And I’ll walk away from opportunities. I'll use my anger in a positive way instead of just ranting, I think that's been the biggest shift. I found that the people I've connected with support everybody to do well instead of sidelining you because they’re just doing it for themselves, there's a lot of that in the arts. Maybe I've just struck lucky where I'm located, maybe the ethos is different here. I don't know. I don't really want to get into an argument about the difference between England and Wales because it's such a huge generalisation. I have found it different here, but that could be the change in me." Kate: "When I first met you when we were at Solihull college. I really connected with what you were making at the time because there was a lot to do with memory and I feel like you've really been on this journey with looking at the past, feeling that anger with the present and then moving into a space that you want to inhabit. Your early work was about memories and trauma. How do you feel when you look back on that now?" Gaia: "I love 15 minutes. Crucify is still at the forefront of what people enjoy looking at in relation to my work. Somebody said the other day ‘Wow! Look at that film.’ I can’t remember who it was, but people still return to Crucify. It is still an important part of what I do. The message still needs to be conveyed, the story still needs to be told. I loved doing it and I still love having those pieces in my portfolio because they're so powerful." Kate: "What about before those? G What was I doing before then? K There was something to do with the doors, a chair." Gaia: "Oh the doors! That's a neuro-divergent thing. Pulling things out of skips, making something out of nothing, I loved 73, the installation, but it was just an inkling of the foundation of what I do now. A totally immersive experience, the creation of a space. That was my first real attempt at doing that and now that's what I do all the time. I'm creating an environment for people. It's so important, it's the foundation of my work. I wouldn't be where I am now without that and I love it. I think my work has more depth now. I certainly have more understanding of where I'm at and what I'm doing. Which is really really important to me, so I can really focus on the direction of where it goes and how it might help other people as well. I think older work like 73 is simpler but it's definitely the foundation of my current work." Kate: "Let’s talk about your current project ‘Cathedral of the Trees’. I'm struggling with being a chronically ill person in the middle of a pandemic whilst everybody is pretending it's over despite the virus being rife. The terror and fear I experience just leaving my house and knowing the art spaces are completely inaccessible to me as employee, artist and audience. I struggle in Birmingham because everywhere feels chaotic, busy, there are no areas that feel empty or in nature, possibly in a similar manner to Wales but your ‘Cathedral of the Trees’ is something that people can just do without you present, from anywhere. That opens it up for people to participate." Gaia: "I've just run a couple of events with Cathedral of the Trees. One was a guided event online. The original concept is that it will be a physical pilgrimage space for people to experience, either in a structured way or as an individual. However, I realised that we are the trees, human beings are the trees. We can gather in any way that human beings can, so we've done it online. We've created the one where it was an actual physical event, an event where I was present with everybody else online. We created an environment where we collectively created our own earth song to connect to the land. So you can go away by yourself and do that. You don't need me there to do that. It's something that you can explore and push further. Create a song for all the elements, fire song, air song, spirit song, water song. The second event was within a specific period of time on one day. People went out as family, as individuals, friends, couples to any outside space whether it be their own, countryside, somebody else's. To actually just play. Play as a form of becoming at peace with yourself because if you're at peace with yourself that just radiates out into the community and then that radiates out further. I mean the whole idea of the Cathedral of the Trees is world peace but it starts with the individual, it starts inside us, so yeah it's something you can just go out and do yourself, I don't have to be there. You don't have to be in a physical cathedral of the trees that I've created, it's not about me. Yes, the idea is mine. I founded the Cathedral of the Trees and I will create events and curate aspects of it but people can just do it." Kate: "Is there planting of trees involved?" Gaia: "In the future hopefully, I need some land." Kate: "I want to find a way to approach the pandemic in this interview, as it is what is happening now and it's not going to go away anytime soon. It will be affecting so many artists, audiences and people who may have worked in the arts who either have health conditions or simply don't want to risk their health, or someone they live with. How are you approaching it? How are you surviving it and do you have any plans moving forward?" Gaia: "My plans at the moment are to keep away from everybody. I don't have a great deal of choice so I'm trying to come up with alternative ways for myself and I'm coming up with alternative ways for other people, because obviously I'm in a similar position to other people that need these alternatives. This is one of the reasons why we did Cathedral of the Trees the way we did so anybody could join in. If all you'd got was a window box or a houseplant you could still join in. If you couldn't join in person, if you couldn't leave your house, you could still join in. Everything is posted on Instagram, there is interaction with me, there's interaction with people that are involved with it, so there isn't any isolation. I believe that all events now as far as humanly possible should be hybrid. Because, if they're not, you're excluding people. You have to see the flip side of it because people in rural locations don't necessarily have internet access so that needs to be considered as well, but I'm not changing the way I'm doing things. I’m currently exhibiting in Dulwich for the Dulwich Festival and yes that's in a gallery space and people are going in to see that space but there is opportunity to understand the work and view the work online as well. I'm trying my best to create a cultural shift. I want to subvert the system from within. I was nominated to apply for the Jerwood Cultural Accelerator. I have told them exactly how it is, so if they don't like it then it's not the right thing for me because although I've never seen myself as a curator, I would enjoy subverting the system. I've told them that's what I want to do, what the problems are and what needs to be changed. If they choose me the conversation would be - change starts here, how are we going to do it?" Kate: "Yes, that's the thing even before the pandemic there were so many people that couldn’t access these things and then suddenly the pandemic happened and they made it possible for a brief period of time. Then as soon as people were vaccinated and felt safe, oh forget about it. Even if there isn't a pandemic we still need these things." Gaia: "Yeah, and I'm still shouting about it every time there is an event. I say, well is this hybrid? Where's the online aspect to this? How can this be accessible every time? I'm not letting it go because we can't go back to where we were. I've become very well known here for saying that the only thing that has even remotely leveled the playing field for disabled artists is a global pandemic, and that is not because you wanted to include us but rather because you wanted business as usual and things have now slipped back, but I'm not letting it go. I have a voice here now and I'm using it." Kate: "That makes me happy to hear. I've done the opposite. I've retreated because I just can't take it. I'm in that anger that you were in back then." Gaia: "I've got 10 years on you to work through it all." Kate: "I think your work is honest and that's what I admire. I admire that you're honest and that you're honest with spaces and it takes courage and I was wondering what your advice would be, I don't know even if this is possible to answer, to artists currently in this climate in terms of pacing themselves or finding ways. What would your advice be to people that may have to totally change the way they work and suddenly find new skills? What would you say to those artists that are sick of being gaslit or lost all their confidence or think it's not possible anymore because life’s just become about survival and life is short. What would your advice be to any of these artists in this climate?" Gaia: "One of the main things I've found is, you need to find your own strengths. Look for that little pilot light that is still lit inside you, however small it's become with everything that's happened, however tiny it may feel, find out what fans those flames. What builds your inner strength. Forget everything else. Nothing else is important at the moment. What do you need at the grassroots level, at a primal level to look after yourself? Find out who you truly are and then build from that. Build your practice from that, whatever that means. Try things out, anything. I've tried and tested so many different things to see what I should be doing and who I am. It doesn't matter what you try. Another big part of it is finding your tribe. Yes, there are people out there that don't subscribe to a culture of care, and there are people out there doing it differently. There is a real undercurrent that is rising up now, where people care about each other and support each other and work from a point of radical kindness. Radical kindness will give us power, comfort, freedom and the ability to flourish. All of us, not some of us that are lucky enough to be born strong and healthy and have not acquired anything to change that over their lifetime, but everybody, whether that be down to health whether that be down to colour, sexual orientation, because you’re a young mother with children (that was me), because you have a low income, whatever. It's important that we all create an environment that nurtures everybody and that we are all valued. Maybe one day we'll get to a position where we just value everybody as human beings." Kate: "How would you advise artists to talk to organisations and what would you be saying to organisations yourself?" Gaia: "I think probably the best way is leading by example and coming together with your tribe, with the people that are doing the same thing, that are supporting each other and by showing others how it's done. Turning up to things, turning up to online events when you can, doing what you can, putting stuff out on social media and saying 'hey this is what we are doing and this is how we are doing it differently.' There are places that are listening so work with those."
Cathedral of the Trees – a manifestation of peace (and why the Earth hums in B flat)
Essay by Lindsey Colbourne
"One of the many resonant idioms in the Welsh language, is 'dod yn ôl at fy nghoed' – literally 'to come back to my trees:' To come back to my senses… to sense… to make sense. This is, in essence, what I think Gaia is doing with Cathedral of the Trees.