By Lucy Neal, Nov 14 2012 05:04PM

'AT RIGHT ANGLES TO THE REAL WORLD' This blog was posted earlier in the summer on the Transition Network Social Reporting site. It gives an account of the Encounters Tooting Transition Shop May 12-20 2012.

I promise to stop short of organising my own funeral, but I am a bit fixated by events; especially of the celebratory or ceremonial kind. Initially this was as director of the London International Festival of Theatre, today it’s writing the script for a friend’s partnership ceremony, closing London’s A24 for a Tooting community carnival celebration of the earth or opening a Shop, on the same High Road, with ‘nothing for sale but lots on offer’. I find celebratory events transformative, and rich in the rehearsals they provide for everyday life.

I am particularly entranced by the space they afford us to imagine things differently. This truth was crystallised for me recently when a mathematical analogy was explained to me. Travelling on a train down from Scotland, a Jenny Patient, patiently explained to me how mathematics makes use of imaginary numbers. The square root of minus one, for example is an imaginary number. The square root of a minus number cannot exist but imaginary numbers, denoted in this instance as ‘i’, are used, apparently, to solve problems with real numbers. ‘They exist’ said Jenny ‘as though at right angles to the real world’.

How wonderful! I love the idea of the imaginary existing at ‘right angles to the real world’, and of having a practical application for ‘solving’ the problems of the real world. This is exactly what I have experienced over the years in staging celebratory events - they take us out of time and our ordinary lives for a while and we return from them changed, sometimes for ever. Known as ‘liminal spaces’ they can be foundational in how we renew, reinvent and re-imagine ourselves and our world.

For nine days last month, I and around 700+ Tooting residents existed at right angles to the real world, in our fine and beautiful Encounters Tooting Transition Shop: a Shop with ‘nothing on sale but lots on offer.’ Each day, we created an imaginary, magical space for passers by to reflect on their lives, recall their pasts and imagine their futures - practical application for solving the problems of the real world.

Seven shops had been created by Ruth Ben Tovim and Encounters Arts in cities around the country. This was their first in London and the first commissioned by a Transition Town.

Could the Shop evolve as a place of dialogue and exchange between the public and a Transition Town initiative? As public art and social project it was a distinct experiment - one that had received funding from Wandsworth Council and was featured in the Wandsworth Arts Festival, (alongside another May event ‘Treasuring Tooting’ a day long well-being walk around Tooting’s key landscapes and buildings.)

What was the idea behind the Shop? Starting empty, it would be brought to life day by day with stories of the town. A neutral public space for people to reflect on everyday life and what it is like to live now for themselves and their community? What memories do they have? What places hold special significance and what world do they long for? Could a positive future be collectively imagined there? Could it build resilience in helping people look at the challenges of the times, in Tooting and the world. Key to the Shop’s success would be the ‘Invitations to Join in’: activities that invite people in in different ways, engaging with what’s on offer and with each other. Over nine days the Shop would map people’s lives, making visible what lies beneath the surface of everyday life and the interior worlds people carry inside them.

The experiment would test whether the Shop could be maintained, once set up by Encounters[1] Artists, Ruth Ben Tovim and Ruth Nutter, by a local transition initiative. We would be left to mind the shop, until Ruth Ben Tovim returned at the weekend to gather up the week’s stories to create a performance of Tooting Stories on the last day.

It felt an enormous responsibility: a nine day ‘event’ with as many ‘events’ within each day as numbers of people who walked into the shop. Sue Rentoul, one visitor commented: ‘I loved watching people change as they entered the Shop, from closed to open’.

I also watched as the ‘art’ of the Shop opened people: their own curiosity created the smallest intervention in their lives - from an elderly and lonely man who came each day to whole classes of primary school children.

To cross the threshold was to suspend what they believed, what they knew. At that moment they seemed open to something new. For a fraction of a second, at that point, everything became possible for them. As the days unfolded, I was in awe at the goodness, kindness, humour and humanity the shop was opening out and revealing in people. Their stories and willingness to leave some trace of their lives was close to the surface. One inkling of permission and there in front of you; their pain, their joy, their spontaneity.

There were three key components that allowed people to be ‘open’ like this:

1. The fact that we were on the High Street - curiosity led people in. Even those who initially said they were ‘too busy’ to stop ended up staying and spending time inside.

A team of ‘Shop Hosts’ trained in guiding people around the activities inside. Ruth said “The heart of it is people out there coming in through the door. The most important thing is how you are in relation to people. They may walk in or need coaxing. They are customers. We are the hosts – we offer a sense of attention. We aim to get them to leave a trace of themselves in the shop, but they can leave when they want. It’s important to follow your instinct – consider how you’re going to encounter each person – be aware of how you are yourself. The shop is a neutral space for communities to come together – to express what it’s like to live in Tooting, in the world now – and imagine different futures. It’s a place to be moved in, charmed in, to come back to – it’s about you.” We found also that the barriers to overcome are often within oneself.

The Invitations to Join In - these were the key structure that held the way people engaged and conducted what Ruth described as ‘a remote dialogue’ with themselves and their community. 12 in all these included:

A Blackboard with a different question on it everyday (What holds you back? Who would you like to thank? Who or what do you miss? What is the Spirit of Tooting?)

A ‘Memory Map’ where people could mark a place in Tooting that had special significance for them

‘I Told a Story About’ which invited them to sit on a sofa share a story with a friend or stranger around ‘Home’, ‘Loss’, ‘Belonging’ and other headings written on a pack of cards

Tooting Micro Worlds which invited people to create their own worlds from cut out photos - these were very popular and gathered up and exhibited on the wall

‘What is it Like to Live Now?’ - a chance for people to honestly express their concerns about the world today in answer to a question posed by an imaginary figure on the wall visiting Tooting from the future. ‘What happens to my pets when I am not there’ to ‘What actually happens at the end of world?’. This activity led onto another question about the future that people wanted to create that they longed for and another about what they wanted future generations to thank them for. This ‘journey’ around what we called the ‘concerns corner’ proved the richest and most powerful aspect of the experiment. The ‘remote’ dialogue between young and old was most sincere and powerful here. It set up a resonance and energy throughout the Shop.

Emilio Mula’s final film will show how the shop changed each day to create a richly layered story of Tooting. My own blog [2]documented some of these also.

We have a rich resource to feed our ‘transitioning’ over the next months and years: the question “What do you want to grow in Tooting this Spring?’ (answered in black pen written on whittled sticks and planted in pots around a blue wheelbarrow in the window) conjured a collective plan for the future as rich as any energy descent plan.

On the final Sunday, Ruth gathered up all these stories for a final ‘event’; a performance reading of Tooting Stories performed brilliantly by Ruth herself, Nicky Malin and Saira Naizi. ‘Tell me a story about Home, about Accidents, about Love, about what it was like before’ - a kind of Tooting Under Milk Wood that I found immensely moving.

Like nectar gathered in a hive all week from everyone’s contributions, here was the honey. Honest, ordinary, moving, sincere, magical. What if in everyday life, I wondered, we could always be so sincere with each other? so open? so honest? so affectionate? so embracing of life’s possibilities? so straight about what bothers us? so clear about what we long for? At the end, we each read out a statement of what we would like future generations to thank us for. We were all involved, all accountable, all connected. Transformation indeed.

“This sort of place should be offered on every high street.” wrote several people in the visitors book. “It was very calming and reflective. Well done Thankyou” wrote another.

“Lovely space. Makes you think about the things that really matter.” ‘Time to reflect and anchor one’s feeling on the purpose of existence’ wrote Naseem.

The Tooting Transition Shop has closed but we will exist at ‘right angles’ to the real world for a while longer as along with the 700 plus people who crossed the threshold, we ponder on what the Shop with nothing for sale but lots on offer has shown us we can newly believe in: ourselves and how very very capable we are of creating the world we long for.

When Suzy Gablik refers to the ‘re-enchanting of our culture’ she refers possibly to what was happening both in the Trashcatchers Carnival and in the Encounters Tooting Transition Shop: a co-created knowledge that a sense of precarious future can be transformed collectively into a potentially hopeful future. In this context art, and its accompanying events, has a useful role to play. Personal creativity can connect to a social, moral and ecological responsibility. [3]

Events provide critical incidents in people’s lives: a trigger for a new start, a new slate to begin again from. When this becomes a shared experience, the possibilities for re-invention are endless. Why, even funerals can become places of celebration and renewal!

Images: Who or What Would You Like to Thank; I Told a Story About . . .: What Concerns Me about the World Today Is . . .; Memory Map (all photos by Lucy Neal)

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