March 13th, 2015

Susan Benn on Matt Hulse’s Dummy Jim

Before flying to India a few months ago, I put a DVD of Matt Hulse’s second feature film, Dummy Jim, into my suitcase as a present for my hosts in Ahmedabad. The film is based on the true story of profoundly deaf cyclist James Duthie, who over 60 years ago pedaled on a 6000 mile round-trip from his home in a Scottish fishing village to the Arctic Circle – and beyond.

Three generations of my Indian family, ranging from five- to ninety-nine-years-old, watched Hulse’s beautiful film with delight and wonder.

To create the sense of journey, the filmmaker weaves elements of fiction, documentary, animation and archive footage set to a lyrical score and visceral soundtrack. Duthie’s present-day fishing village is revealed through the eyes of local school children and the craft of the stonemason whose headstone stands in tribute to Dummy Jim’s previously unmarked grave.

The film, made for both the deaf and hearing of all ages, deserves a much wider international audience.

Dummy Jim by Matt Hulse

Matt and I first met in Arbroath on the East Coast of Scotland in 2008 at PAL’s Artist as Leader Lab. Severe blizzards howled as five Scottish artists, five Scottish cultural policy makers and five distinguished ‘provocateurs’ worked together for the first time over a week at Hospitalfields, the oldest art school in Scotland. Warmed by heated debates, blazing fires, intense days and late nights we interrogated the notion of ‘cultural leadership through artistic practice’.

See the Artist Leader’s Lab page to find out more about who was there and read the lab report here.

The artists brought projects to explore within the wider context of existing Scottish cultural policies. Choosing not to work from a predetermined script, Matt’s work had been struggling to attract existing mainstream funding or fit the few narrow grant-aided schemes on offer to independent filmmakers.

Passionate discussions at the Lab encouraged Matt to evolve his unorthodox, eco-minded, resourceful and ethical approach to film. “Harnessing and working within a creative ‘green’ framework will help – not hinder – production,” Hulse said, then memorably remarked, “If the film turns out to be awful at least I won’t have helped ruin the environment in the process”.

The unorthodox eco-inspired vision made the film (even) harder to finance. Undeterred, Hulse – with support from New Media Scotland – started afresh with a new website. He used it as a means to raise finance through pre-sales of the DVD and bespoke merchandise to potential audience and like-minded souls. Now commonly known as ‘crowd-funding’, Hulse’s initiative in fact preceded Kickstarter, and through it he managed to raise over half of the film’s total budget.

Matt’s self-confessed ‘contrary’ nature and resistance to the conventions of the film industry left a vivid impression on me. In 2013, 13 years after he first began Dummy Jim, I was thrilled to find it had made it to the screen, nominated for a Tiger Award at International Film Festival Rotterdam and the Michael Powell Award at Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Since then the film has been on a 12-date tour of independent film theatres and community arts venues across Scotland, a 16-date tour of Colombia, and has screened at festivals in Yerevan (Armenia), Cork, Stockholm, Geneva and Montreal.

Critical response has made for interesting reading:
Very beautiful and utterly bonkers (The List ****)
A totally unique mixture of documentary, fiction and playful visual poetry (EIFF 2013)
Incredible, beautiful, humane – very moving (Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival)
A committedly visual hymn of praise for the minute and grandiose marvels of Earth (Sound on Sight)

It surprises me however that there has been little interest in Dummy Jim stateside, with no successful festival entries or screenings to date. Perhaps this eccentric, slow-burning tale with its challenging structure and ‘politically incorrect’ title is just too way off-beam. Describing his own experience during recent travels to the USA (North Carolina, Brooklyn and L.A) as ‘unexpectedly toxic’ one must wonder if the fabled ‘division by common language’ is deeper than ever. The ironic outcome of this misadventure, however, is a newly acquired Green Card, granted in recognition of Matt’s professional merits. Happily, mention of high level peer review at the Artist as Leader Lab was helpful in granting him the privilege of becoming – as the US immigration service would have it – an ‘alien of extraordinary ability’.

Shuttling between Newcastle and Beijing, Matt is currently developing his next feature film about the pre-teen punk band he was in with his siblings (‘The Hippies: Punk Rocked My Cradle’) and cultural engagement projects with North Korea.

Click here to buy a Limited Edition DVD with a full director’s commentary, deleted scenes and extras. The price includes a year’s subscription to innovative new UK distribution label Jukebox Kino.

Watch the trailer for Dummy Jim below.

March 10th, 2015

Maureen O’Hara – Women’s Ways of Knowing

On 3 December 2014, 120 women gathered in the august surroundings of the Mitchell Library, Glasgow to hear Professor Maureen O’Hara reflect on the theme of Women’s Ways of Knowing and to talk amongst each other about some of the ideas that came up during the talk.

The women came from a range of backgrounds – artists, doctors, nurses, therapists, organizational leaders. The event was a collaboration between the International Futures Forum and PAL Labs.

Click here to read a Storify of live-tweets from the event.

The event was inspired by the book edited by Mary Field Belenky, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, and Jill Mattuck Tarule published in their seminal work, Women’s Ways of Knowing (1986/1997). Their in-depth interviews with 135 women from different walks of life demonstrated that women’s journey to selfhood, voice, and authorship of their lives diverge from men’s and this influences how they understand and prioritize their lives, careers and actions. The women in the study approached life from a more holistic, relational and affective way of being.

Women's Ways of Knowing

Women’s Ways of Knowing, the book which inspired Maureen’s talk

Professor O’Hara picked up on this theme from the perspective of her own professional life which started with her work with with Carl Rogers, American psychologist who developed person-centred psychology and also her own interest in women’s psychology. It is the latter which has shown her through her practice and the voices of all those she worked which that women’s consciousness is different to the mainstream narrative of who we are. She began to understand that there are real differences in the forms of consciousness that people have – in terms of class, gender, cultural setting where they grow up. She became more interested in the context that people live in and impact of that on their psychology.

At the same time, she become aware that we are in a massive transition – all of our lives in the grip of major global transformation. Although the challenges we are facing as a humanity include technological questions and how we provide food and deal with climate change, how we support refugees, manage/avoid wars and so on – at the core is whether we can cope with this massive change. So many of the ways that we talk about these issues are in a fairly dehumanized way – the person at the centre of it is barely acknowledged.

We have conversations about economics, politics, policy etc but we are not having a conversation about consciousness. A large part of Professor O’Hara’s work is to try to get this question into our public conversation.

Dance At The Edge: Competence, Culture and Organisation in the 21st Century by Maureen O'Hara

Dance At The Edge: Competence, Culture and Organisation in the 21st Century by Maureen O’Hara

After 30 years as a person-centred psychotherapist she has been able to hear in the voices of the people she was working with was a story about the limitation about the kind of consciousness that we are given at school and by official institutional narratives, especially for women. The Western dominant narrative is particularly male.

It is in this context in the early stages of civilisational crisis that non-male, non-white, non-western ways of knowing have to become into focus. Vaclav Havel said: “Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better in the sphere of our being as humans, and the catastrophe toward which this world is headed — be it ecological, social, demographic or a general breakdown of civilization — will be unavoidable.”

In other words, we have an obligation to understand and change/adapt our consciousness at this time as citizens of a global society – impacts economics, politics, and so on.

Experiment after experiment is demonstrating now that in many of the major aspects of psychology there is a difference between different groups of people’s sense of consciousness – men and women, different cultures and nations.

We know that some people literally cant see things, notice or understand things because no frame of reference – meaning making comes from culture, brain develops from culture. Even our sense of wellbeing is different in different contexts. We are learning that women’s ways of knowing are clearly distinct from the ways we have been institutionally taught. The way we see the world, our values, and the way we make meaning are different.

We have been brought up on the narrative of men superior, women inferior. So we’ve tried to cultivate women to be more like men to give them a hand up. This, for many women, is like being forced to be in the world in a way that doesn’t feel natural/doesn’t feel like first language/if I had my preference this is not the way I would do it. In all major aspects of psychology we now know that the differences between women and men differences are clear and significant – significant because they bring us to the big question: What kind of consciousness do we need to go into the 21st Century? What do we need where all our norms all being challenged? Mono cultures are no longer a reality We live in complex multicultured, multilingual, multi-ways of being, multigendered realities and our basic anchors of psychological life re up for grabs and being re-negotiated.

We are in a time when western technological enlightenment’s way of understanding the world: a way which is largely male, largely white, largely western – is no longer adequate for the problems that we have. They are so multidimensional and so big (“wicked problems”) – where everything is connected to everything else needs more than that linear, atomistic western male mind which has been dominant for 150 years. This way no longer adequate for very complex, holistic, relational problems we face.

We need new skills in this transition – skills for seeing networks, recognizing holistic patterns, grasping complexity without being overwhelmed by it, for dealing with multiple kinds of relationships, being able to hold on to emotional ground while operating in highly technological world. Where are these going to come from? Well, it turns out we have a vast reservoir of people who have these skills – for the most part the ways that women are – holistic reasoning, manage subjectivity and objectivity, relational, holistic, complex, knowing things from the inside out.

We also know that women have been leading double lives. We have one way of being with kids, our friends, our communities and another way of being at work and good at both and the interaction between both. Just one example of this is Sarah Ruddock’s work on maternal thinking. She noticed that mothers have particular way of being able to see both the present and future, for example when managing a toddler temper tantrum – here and now and future. Also, mothers are good at treating every child individually but treating them equally, creating sense of justice but in the terms of that child, ie balancing the specific and the general. Mothers do this because they need to in the lives that they lead

We need to stop trying to deal with the messes of 21st Century with the minds of the 20th – our current kinds of learning institutions are no longer adequate for what we need in the real world – we need to look for different places to find out how we organize projects, organize ourselves, do things. At the IFF we have been tracking these people, what we call Persons of Tomorrow.

We find that these people show up all the time – people who seem to have a different kind of consciousness – they are less individualistic, less materialistic, more empathic, more interested in the environment, more sympathetic to relationships. They are everywhere – usually in small scale projects all over the world – small NGO’s with people whose cultural origins – Alaska, Iceland – people are pulling themselves out of the dominant narrative and finding other ways to address issues from child malnutrition, to planting new kinds of crop, and so on. They aren’t ignoring the need the science on the same level as we currently have but they are not limiting themselves to it and are creating new realities and solving problems that used to be unsolvable.

These people are hybrids – they have the linear logic at home in a university in the west but they can also do other things – relate to each other, treat each other well, work out what people need. My optimism is that despite sometimes endless drumbeat of things that are wrong – we are seeing people all over the world who are working differently to create new solutions and creating new consciousnesses which we need in order to play the huge game we have ahead of us and to address the issues that Vaclav Havel pointed it. It will be a consciousness which has some more of women’s ways of knowing as well as some of men’s ways of knowing.



Visit Maureen’s website
The Other Inconvenient Truth: Psychological challenges of epochal crisis (2009)
Dance At The Edge: Competence, Culture and Organisation in the 21st Century

March 3rd, 2015

PAL Labs Annual Report 2014

I am into my second year as Artistic Director of PAL Labs. The first few months involved a great deal of fundraising, relationship building and understanding what the organisation could be since it lost its NPO funding in 2011. Thanks to grant from Esmee Fairbairn Foundation the organisation was on a trajectory to create a mixed economy financial operational model, but was lean on staffing and infrastructure.

We have had a wonderfully active year in terms of labs and lab-related activity. Some of these have been conceived and directed by PAL Labs and some commissioned by others. We have been involved with and met some incredibly talented people across the UK and have worked in England, Scotland and
Wales throughout the year – something we hope will be replicated next year, and we hope to add Ireland to that mix!

We have also been building our relationships in the Middle East and launched our first programme with the excellent Tashkeel in Dubai. We plan to build on this work in the UAE, and elsewhere in the Middle East and Islamic world. We were thrilled to be part of the Cultural and Creative Industries in Pakistan in October 2014.

These pages give you a tiny flavour of our work. We are committed to creating and designing processes to develop new ideas, new work and new research. Our programmes aim to be multidisciplinary and collaborative as they have been for over 25 years. This year our programme included the following work:

• Can Artists Lead Culture? – Tramway and Mission Models Money
• Making the Future – CCA and ACE
• PAL Labs/Tashkeel Collaboration
• Sited+
• Imagination: Festival of Ideas with University of West of Scotland
• Paradoxes: Magazine Lab
• Navigating Change: MMM and Arts Council Wales
• Women’s Ways of Knowing – with the International FuturesForum

We are thrilled that Susan Benn, our Founder and President has worked with us and will continue to work with us on a series of biogs, interviewing some of our alumni. I am also delighted that we have a new Patron in Siobhan Davies and a new set of Special Advisors, including Ruth Little, Shelagh Wright, Amanda Game, Marc Booth, Rehana Mughal, and Emma Gladstone.

We also entered in to a major new collaboration with the beautiful Cove Park in Argyll, Scotland where we are hosting our residential labs.

We are developing our skills as facilitators and now offer that service to anyone who needs support to design and facilitate large group processes – from research programmes, to board away days, to idea generation and conflict resolution.

We have much planned for next year, including the Future of Storytelling programme, a research programme on Beauty in 21st Century, work with Bath Spa, and revisiting Imagination, our festival of ideas with University of West of Scotland and our annual Tramway World Cafe.

Click here to download the full PAL Labs 2015 Report.

–– Roanne Dods, December 2014

November 25th, 2014

Susan Benn on Fiddian Warman

Ten years ago PAL created an experimental ten day residential Digital Science Lab on the 500 acre ‘wired’ farm in Kent that was the home of PAL Labs at that time. This experiment kick started an intensive two-year research, design and production programme for leading scientists, artists, 3 D web designers and programmers to develop new software for teaching and learning about social and ethical issues in 21st century science.

The Lab Director, TV documentary filmmaker and scientist, Max Whitby (Touchpress), challenged participants to work collaboratively to explore radical ideas for new scientific exploration. Fiddian Warman came with playful inventions using electronics, robotics and screen display technology. His creations were original and fun and his curiosity and imagination inspired us.

PAL Digital Science LAB

Formerly a sculptor and furniture maker, Fiddian is passionate about the relevance of a hybrid approach to creativity and technology in cultural, educational and social contexts. He co-founded SoDA in the early 90’s to create an umbrella for hybrid creative digital practices. Years later the digital and physical still inform their practice, interactive installations, objects and online experiences for a broad range of international clients include: Tate, Science Museum, Pearson Education and Boeing. Soda is producing new manifestations of its BAFTA-winning Sodaplay online simulation suite and media montage system MASH.

Fiddian launched Makers’ Guild in 2011, a series of monthly events on making hosted at the Crafts Council, V&A and the Centre for Creative Collaboration. Through their connection with Makerversity, they have developed their work in the realm of the Internet of Things (IoT), and with the ‘Hardware Startup’ community ‘a whole host of good geeky things’.

Fiddian Warman

Over a cup of tea with Fiddian in Makerversity, the subterranean making and learning space ‘for pioneers and prototypes’ in Somerset House, we explored his present and future projects.

He reflects:

We’ve got some really exciting projects going on at the moment crossing the physical and the digital and in particular looking at ways NUIs (Natural User Interfaces) can enable better collaboration and interaction with data. We are also about to launch a Kickstarter campaign to bring Sodaplay up to date and continue make it freely available online for creative learning.

Fiddian has recently made a significant contribution to an ambitious new Information Age Exhibition in London’s Science Museum which opened recently with the Queen sending her first tweet. Working with the award winning digital writer Tim Wright1 and Science Museum Curator, Tilly Blythe (also a Digital Science Lab participant in Kent in 2004), they created a ‘story box ’ about the way the Web works. In a series of six of these boxes about generic Networks: ‘The Cable’, ‘The Telephone Exchange’, ‘Broadcast’, ‘The Constellation’, ‘The Cell’, and ‘The Web’, visitors can explore how modern communications infrastructures came into being by reflecting back on historical technologies and personal stories of how and why objects were developed.

Fiddian writes…

it was so exciting to get the opportunity to work with the legendary Tim Berners-Lee and the brilliant Josie Long to create the complex and ambitious Web Story Box. Working with Tim Wright to bring his funny and insightful script alive with a multitude of screens connected by LED strips has been a long challenging process but seeing it all animating away makes it all worth it.

The Information Age gallery is free to visit and is open seven days a week between 10am and 6pm. Find more information at

Emotional and empathetic responses on computer screens in the 90s were limited by the technology of that time. Fiddian’s sensory tools in the future for museum curators and visitors encourage them. He stresses the importance of emotional, personal and political intelligence in a world of increasing surveillance and loss of civil liberties. Soda’s recent campaign with Amnesty International against censorship on the internet got us talking about how to help journalists to communicate complex issues of public interest and social importance to a wider public. Fiddian will be working with Gavin MacFadyen, Director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism at Goldsmith University, who shares his enthusiasm for a new gaming platform for journalists and hacktivists to address this problem. 2

1 Tim Wright was an early pioneer of on-line drama at PAL’s European Multimedia Labs (1997-2000). He and Rob Bevan formed a company called XTP to develop BAFTA winning projects. Tim has since been writing and producing for the web, mobile, radio, TV, games and cross platform media projects.

2 See for their international conference bringing leading investigative journalists, whistleblowers and hactivists together to build an alliance against, Secrecy, Surveillance and Censorship at London’s Barbican Center on December 5-6-7 2014.

October 8th, 2014

Susan Benn on Matilda Pye


I met Matty Pye at PAL’s Architecture Lab in 2003 when she was an artist in residence at the Irish Museum of Modern Art and interested in exploring her ideas with architects(1). The Lab Co-Directors, all trained as architects who were exploring their work with non-architects, were Samantha Hardingham, Stefan Kueppers, 
William McLean
and and Andrew Whiting.

They brought a small group of mid career architects and engineers from leading firms in the UK and Denmark together with several other British artists to examine the role of the architect in cross-disciplinary architectural training and practice. There was a degree of predictable tension between the architects and engineers.

Matty remembers a furious row one night between the architect trained light installation designer/artist Jason Bruges and the artist Keith Wilson. Keith attacked Jason for calling himself an artist.

“As Keith vociferously declared that Jason was “NOT” an artist I pondered this erroneous habit of labeling people by the fields in which they have been trained. This immediately limits possibilities for people to be recognized for a multiplicity of talents, skills and unrelated valuable experience that informs them. Not I should add that I think training isn’t hugely important to our subjectivity. I am interested in ‘slippage’ roles…. while working at TATE Britain after my Lab I commissioned Jason Bruges to do two projects for young people; one had hundreds of helium balloons held to the floor with LED magnets, the other a field of illuminated bendy poles covered by spongy lagging, were two variations in part, of a lab theme of a ‘light forest’ in which to play and explore.”

Jason Bruges continued to experiment with digital technologies in his design practice and his multidisciplinary studio currently produces ground breaking works, creates interactive spaces and surfaces that sit between the world of architecture and site-specific installation art and interaction design. Here are Jason’s projects: Sparkle Park and Dotty Tate.

Everyone involved in that first and only Architecture Lab hoped for some tangible positive change resulting from their experience. Two years later EXP, a new Research Centre for Experimental Practice, led by Samantha Hardingham and William McLean, was established at the University of Westminster. EXP continues to expand on the original premise of the Architecture Lab experiment.(2)

In 2005, Experiments in Architecture, a collection of illustrated stories, conversations and fabrications, told by architects, artists, engineers, makers, clients, developers, researchers and educationalists, whose projects are exemplary in their field, was edited by Samantha Hardingham. These stories, including one from Matty Pye and the artist Richard Wentworth, describe how sharing expertise outside conventional disciplinary boundaries can lead to better work and extraordinary discoveries. Using anecdotal evidence gleaned from real experiences, this provocative book sets out a list of recommendations to inspire new codes of good practice in the industry.

Matty Pye


“Another project that the Lab explored was ‘liquid friends’ a thought process I would perhaps categorize loosely today as social design. We discussed wearable technologies and the potential for kids and young people to network through interest, location and Parkas. We also designed a proposal for a regeneration project in Ballymun outside Dublin based on a Pringle / poppadum that was an amalgam of shelter, structure, sculpture. It looked not unlike the Olympic Aquatic Centre designed by Zaha Hadid. I’m saying nothing!”




Between 2001 and 2010 Matty took part in a further five residential PAL Lab programmes focused on various creative challenges for practitioners working between the arts and sciences and in educational policy and research. Her generosity and engagement in PAL activities stimulated adventurous commissions and productive long term working relationships with PAL people. She is known for her sharp observations, keen sense of the absurd, brilliant organizational skills and astute judgment, especially in risky situations. Matty excels in her ‘slippage role’ in her current work at the V&A where she explores creative possibilities between the practice of artists, designers and scientists, curators and policy makers in museums and galleries.

She is currently working on Curating Conflicts, an international conference which will explore the challenges in archiving and curating objects and artefacts of recent and historical political conflict on Saturday 8 November at the V&A; and Posters Politics Protest, British Political Posters at the Peoples History Museum in Manchester Friday 10 October.

Last week we met at the V&A to discuss Matty’s recent book, Artists Work in Museums: Histories, Interventions, Subjectives, (co-authored with Linda Sandino). The book is a successful collaboration between the editors, V&A Learning, V&A Research and CCW Graduate School at the University of the Arts London. Artists Work in Museums brings together artists, curators, historians and museum professionals to explore the history and subjectivity of artists working as museum professionals. The National Gallery, the Royal Academy and the Victoria & Albert Museum provide the opportunity for examining the impact of artists and designers in defining their institutions, their functions and aesthetic. Reflecting on the choices and social conditions that have led them to work in museums. Artist-museum professionals explore the diverse, often hidden and distinctive ways that museums and galleries function as environments of cultural production.

(1) Matilda Pye studied at the Ruskin School at the University of Oxford and the Jan Van Eyck Akedeime in Maastricht. As a practicing artist she has shown in the UK and Europe. She was visiting lecturer on the MA/MFA Fine Art programme at Middlesex University and has lectured at Kingston University. She ran an MA module for Roehampton University and Tate. Since 2004 she has worked predominantly with museums including Tate Britain, Tate Modern, the National Portrait Gallery and currently at the V&A, creating public programmes for adults, students and the creative industries. From 2008-10 she was researcher and project manager for the Engine Room at the University of the Arts, London. Matilda worked closely for over a decade with PAL’s Founder Artistic Director on developing PAL Labs.

(2) PAL’s Architecture Lab, funded by NESTA, inspired the formation in 2003 of The Research Centre for Experimental Practice EXP, led by Samantha Hardingham, Will McLean and others at the Architecture Department at the University of Westminster. EXP continues to support, document and generate experimental design projects as a ‘laboratory’ for the architectural profession, including built and un-built designs, books, exhibitions and other forms of cross-disciplinary practice. It hosts events, collaborates with individuals and organizations, acting as an umbrella body for architects who are developing their own design practice based research. EXP invites interest for PhD study in design related research.

Click here for Matty’s upcoming programme of events at the V&A.

September 12th, 2014

Roanne Dods on What Makes an Artist

Today’s blog is an interview with our own Artistic Director, Roanne Dods.

David Micklem, producer and founder of 53 Million Artists, invited Roanne to be interviewed for a their research with Kings College London.

53 Million Artists is a community website for everyday artists, and a place where everyone can share ideas in any way they wish.

David asked Roanne about what she thinks makes an artist.

David Micklem: The first question is, what makes an artist?

Roanne Dods: What makes an artist an artist? Artists are makers. I do think that artists use either their whole body or use different senses to make stuff. What makes them good is the fact they get used to working over long periods of time due to pure curiosity, from the sense of the thing they make. I have a big question about whether creativity is a subset of being an artist or the other way around. I don’t know the answer to that but I think they’re slightly separate. There’s something about artists being driven to pursue something until they think it’s right. ‘Right’ isn’t an ethic, moral or aesthetic, it’s just whatever they’re trying to work towards. And often you can’t tell what you’re trying to work out until way after the thing so it’s not an intellectual exercise, even though there may be questions.

I often use the word ‘integrity’ a lot in relation to artists. And again I don’t mean integrity in a moral sense; it’s more like truing a bicycle, and getting the spokes in the right place to get the thing to work. It’s something more than a moral thing. It may have that, but it’s not just that.


DM: Do you think there is something that differentiates artists from everybody else?

RD: I think there’s lots of different kinds of artists. I don’t mean different disciplines; I mean kinds of artists. Although that thing of just really pushing something seems to me to matter a lot for a good artist, to the point of not being as concerned about all the things that other people think are important in life. That’s not to say those things are not important, they might pursue a project beyond that.


DM: Do you think more people could become artists given the right kind of support?

RD: Absolutely. One of the things I’m really interested in at the moment is the re-rise of the amateur. I always love the word ‘amateur’ as it means someone who loves something. Quite a few people I’m meeting have become that passionate, driven person over something that they make but they don’t want to exchange it for money. So what they’re doing instead is changing their lifestyles, it’s not a hobby – there’s a soul thing going on. It’s something they have to do, really passionately want to do, it makes them feel good in the world but they don’t want to do it in exchange for some kind of contractual relationship or for money. They do it in and of itself. I’ve come across a lot more people doing that kind of thing so they’re going part-time in their work and downsizing their lifestyles in order to create space and allow those sorts of things to happen. So yes, I absolutely believe anybody can.

I think you can be artistic about the way you live your life too. I know I over-intellectualise these things but it’s also about the way you think about time, the way you think about space. We’ve become so ordered in the way that we think. That fantastic TED video with Ken Robinson – he talks about how we’ve gone from children who use your full body and use your hands all the time. You draw, run, which is what artists do; they use all bits of their body. Then all of sudden you’re only using one half of your brain to function in your adult working-life. It’s the same about time. You order time like everything is allocated and ordered. When actually an artist’s sense of time is very different. It’s kind of almost, I think, human. You do what you’re interested in, when you get hungry, you eat. Not that there isn’t some discipline, some artists need structure. But you have to think through how you work with time in order to appreciate the process.


DM: Terrific. How important to you is participation in culture as well as watching it?

RD: Deeply. Deeply. I mean that’s how I got involved in the arts really. I came up through the community dance world – though we would always call ourselves ‘semi-professional’ – as a performer, and as a choreographer and as a maker. It doesn’t matter what kind of creativity you do, all your senses and body are being used so you bring whole different kind of intelligences. I do a lot of work with craft artists and I love the whole world of materials – textiles, ceramics, glass, everything – it’s all about touch and using your hands to do stuff. When we ran Innovative Craft, we always used to talk about ‘thinking through making’, because you’re moving your body differently and you’re feeling stuff, you’re already starting to think differently about your connection to things around you, the world around you, the people around you. It’s really critical I think to make and participate in art. For me, that would be the argument for doing dance over a sport for example where the relationship is narrower and driven to a competition as opposed to something about interconnection and connecting to the world and people around you.


DM: Is there a place for a cultural movement to positively influence participation in the arts and culture?

RD: Massively, yes I think it will do the world and our children, our politics, everything, it will change the way we behave towards each other. I’m convinced of it.


DM: And any thoughts about what has worked or hasn’t worked around movements, campaigns, to get people into engaging?

RD: Well I think the time and effort put into the Sistema project in Venezuela is probably the one I know of most. That was absolutely about putting children into situations where they learnt about humanity and about connecting to others and finding meaningful lives through music, through the discipline of classical music. So it took kids off the streets and took them out of the drug-filled equivalent of favelas and pretty much rescued them. I mean it’s taken a long time but that has definitely worked. That is happening now in different parts of the world really successfully.


DM: What do you think the potential of 53 Million Artists might be or might do?

RD: The first thing would be a massive impact on wellbeing. Massive impact on solution-oriented thinking, on how people relate to each other, on stress levels, on work-life balance, probably on physical health. It’s just good for the soul.


DM: That’s perfect, thank you very much indeed.


Learn more about the 53 Million Artists project at

August 29th, 2014

Susan Benn on Lee Hall

As PAL’s Artistic Director, from 1989 to 2012, I had the rare privilege of glimpsing the creative processes of many talented international artists, scientists and educationalists who shared a collective curiosity, bold ideas and a desire to challenge the status quo in creative practice and cultural policy. When I meet PAL people by chance these days they tell me how their Lab experiences have since influenced their work. My continuing curiosity and admiration for these extraordinary PAL people prompts me to write this blog. The words in italics are those of the people featured here.

– Susan Benn


When Lee Hall submitted his radio play I Luv You Jimmy Spud to our 1995 Screenwriter’s Lab in Kent, Lab Directors, Colin Vaines and Nicky Singer, and I absolutely loved it and we were keen to give young playwrights like Lee a chance to write their first screenplay.[1]

Nineteen years later, at his house in Suffolk this summer, he remembers living in New York in a tiny studio off Washington Square at that time, where the only space he had to write was on a board placed across his bath. His radio play had been commissioned as a screenplay but he had no ambitions to be a screenwriter. He was dubious about the value of any writer’s ‘Lab’ and reluctant to accept our invitation.


“Isn’t theatre or film or radio essentially a Laboratory? Isn’t Art the place we go to try things out? And isn’t the point of Art that it is driven by a passionate need to say something, to change the world or enlighten it, or enter into a cultural debate? –  most of the Art I admire has a political or aesthetic imperative – so this LAB seemed somehow to miss the point.

But my agent persuaded me to go and what has stuck with me ever since was hearing everyone’s stories about getting their stuff made. This was invaluable. 

I learned that writing the script is only a small part of the screenwriter’s job…that the most difficult and time consuming part would be stopping the very people who’ve asked you to write something, and indeed, who really like what you’ve written, from then completely fucking it up…it was on the LAB when I started to realize this was the real truth of the screenwriting game.”


Lee has since developed a successful career in both theatre and film, believing the challenges and disciplines of writing for film have immeasurably improved his career in the theatre. His award winning screenplay for the film Billy Eliot (followed by its long running staged musical hit) plus original screenplay for War Horse and stage play of the film Shakespeare in Love are examples of his proven ability to work well between stage and screen. 


I think there is an attention to detail, a merciless system of feedback and collaboration in film that does not exist in theatre and has made me much more attentive and self critical than I think I would otherwise have been.”


Lee Hall is currently working on a biopic of Elton John called Rocketman, a stage musical adaptation of Pink Floyd's The Wall and a film adaptation of George Orwell's Down and Out In Paris and London.  Billy Elliot the Musical will be broadcast live to cinemas across the U.K. and the world on Sept. 28th direct from London’s West End's Victoria Palace Theatre.

Lee Hall



Lee describes a writer essentially as an investor in the production of a play or a film.

“You have to be very vigilant about your investment. You have to foster it, find propitious conditions, the right collaborators, see it through to the very end and then make sure it’s exploited properly. This is a very difficult job. Usually in the screenwriting game your creative labor is expropriated even before you’ve written a word – the odds are very much stacked against you actually being able to do your job and tend your investment. But what you write in your bedroom can be shown all around the world… it might be watched long after your dead. That’s a powerful exciting thing.”


But the pool of people making original films in the UK and America has got much smaller. Black or Asian faces are still the tiniest minority, as are women screenwriters and directors.

“In terms of social class, working class voices (whatever their ethnicity or gender) are much thinner on the ground. This is a reflection of society and social mobility as a whole. Our industry feels pretty moribund. Remakes swamp the market (on TV and in Film. The stories the ‘industry’ chooses seem formulaic or derivative; yet when one walks around any of our cities (or even here in Suffolk) life has changed inordinately even since I’ve been writing. The stories which chronicle these changes in our society, how we live, love, feel about our lives have not found their way to the screen in the way that the emergent class of upwardly mobile Working Class writers did in the 60s and 70s.”

Are people who do have compelling stories to tell: of what it is to grow up in modern Bradford, or work in a call centre or a curry house in East Ham or Middlesborough, just not being encouraged to write? Or if they are there, are they marginalized? Why not a home grown Bollywood movie set in a Yorkshire Mill Town or a modern (all female) Italian Job in Port Talbot? It is very possibly the people from these under represented groups who will have the balls and perspective to see how to make the real experience of ‘being-alive-right-now’ relevant and interesting to people? 

There is money and kudos to be made as well as a cultural renaissance to be fostered.

Does a screenwriter accept the status quo, or do they try to change it?

Are we preparing ourselves (and others) to comply or resist?


Lee Hall is currently working on a biopic of Elton John called Rocketman, a stage musical adaptation of Pink Floyd‘s The Wall and a film adaptation of George Orwell‘s Down and Out In Paris and London.

Billy Elliot the Musical will be broadcast live to cinemas across the U.K. and the world on Sept. 28th direct from London’s West End’s Victoria Palace Theatre.


[1] PAL produced 36 residential Screenwriters Lab programmes over 22 years (from 1990 through 2012) across the UK and in Europe, South Africa and India. Award winning Lab Directors, writers, actors and directors created an exceptional body of work for all ages. Strong friendships, a culture of trust and a rigorous professional process to identify and develop original ideas, talent and scripts is the legacy of these PAL Labs.

July 22nd, 2014

Susan Benn on Ruth Padel

Today on the PAL Labs Blog, we present the latest in a series of blog posts about PAL People from Susan Benn: Founder and President of PAL Labs.


On a September evening in 1994 talented writers, composers and singers gathered on a 500 acre farm in Kent to make contemporary opera. Playwright Alan Plater is hearing his first libretto becoming a cantata composed by Tom Adès. Lab Director, composer Robert Saxton, encourages farm hands to join the chorus. Ruth Padel brings her deep musical understanding, love and command of language, curiosity about the craft of libretti writing and rigorous professionalism to PAL’s Opera and Music Theatre Lab to address what she calls a ‘highly stylized way of getting into authentic feeling’.

20 years later, thanks to the King’s College Cultural programme ‘Criticism Now’, she is the first writer-in-residence at the Royal Opera House. She has a wonderful working relationship with composer Michael Zev Gordon: they have collaborated on a highly successful choral work and a cantata, and hope to work together more. Maybe her success in the two-month ROH residency will lead to a commission for a brave new opera? She would love to write her own opera one day.


Ruth Padel at Easter, 2014, in Etz Hayyim Synagogue, Chania, Crete, the setting of several poems in Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth Photo credit: Alex Phoundoulakis

Ruth Padel at Easter, 2014, in Etz Hayyim Synagogue, Chania, Crete, the setting of several poems in Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth
Photo credit: Alex Phoundoulakis


Ruth is a distinguished poet, acclaimed critic and author of adventurous fiction and non-fiction books. She reminds us that “poetry’s effects are inward and personal… that poetry is a necessary living art, enriching what goes on inside us through our lives. It fortifies our inwardness… it is an ideal thing for us to hang onto in our externally driven world of image and screen, surface and soundbite”.

I met Ruth this summer listening to William Dalrymple reading from his Indian historical novel interspersed with beautiful singing by Vidya Shah. We discover mutual interests in South Asia and valuable relationships forged with like-minded artists at PAL Labs. Poets Don Patterson, David Harsent and composer Tom Adès have since become Ruth’s life long friends and colleagues.

This past month I’ve immersed myself in an exhilarating literary marathon to catch up with Ruth’s prolific work to date. Ten poetry collections, including The Mara Crossing, in which lyrical poems map patterns of migration, amplified by scientific and historical prose; seven books of poetry criticism; four very different compelling non-fiction books and a first novel.

Her fast moving adventure thriller/love story, Tigers in Red Weather, about searching for elusive tigers across Asia, is especially powerful because it’s true. On a rainy Sunday I read Where The Serpent Lives, Ruth’s first novel on wildlife crime set in London, Devon and the forests of Karnataka and Bengal. It is magical, intense and frightening.

Ruth mixes scientific investigation with poetic wonder, to stretch the limits of curiosity and imagination. I’m addicted to reading more, to read again and will give copies of these books to my grandchildren so they too can explore this artful mix of adventure, love of nature, insights into humans and animals, scientific knowledge of environmental/zoological research and practice. All inspired by Ruth’s great grandfather, Charles Darwin, and her grandmother, the first Darwin scholar.

My literary journey has reawakened a nostalgia for bygone legendary  bookshops of the twentieth century. George Whitman’s Shakespeare & Co. in Paris and Bernard Stone’s Turret Bookshop in London were significant haunts for writing talent. George let young writers sleep in his and Bernard kept them awake and partying half the night in his. Both men were magical and both are gone.

The cartoonist Ralph Steadman introduced me to Bernard Stone in the early 70’s. He was looking for a bookshop in Covent Garden. I was a children’s book publisher looking for an office above a bookshop. So we made it happen at 43 Floral Street. A tweed-suited life sized waxwork dummy of Sigmund Freud greeted bemused visitors at the door. All the great and aspiring poets of the time came to see Bernard, as well as visiting Americans, like Allen Ginsberg and Ted Joans. The playwright Samuel Beckett and poet WH Auden had great trust in him. American universities wanted first editions and writers’ archives and Bernard negotiated successful deals for writers and himself. He published spontaneously and often; poetry, essays, anything that appealed to him, always in handsome and collectable editions and always with a glass of white wine in his hand.

Ruth Padel’s latest collection of poems, Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth, is beside me now. Her search for common ground shared by Judaism, Christianity, Islam, music and craftsmanship, in the midst of conflict, is all in this slim volume.

Before I read these poems I’m imagining future generations of poets…. Will they write metaphors in code at primary school? Will they tweet in encrypted haikus? Can Ruth’s work inspire new pedagogies to free their imaginations?

I do hope so.


To find out more about Ruth Padel’s life and work visit


– Susan Benn, Founder and President of PAL Labs

June 24th, 2014

Susan Benn on Janine Harrington

Today on the PAL Labs Blog, we present the first in a series of blog posts about PAL People from Susan Benn: Founder and President of PAL Labs.

As PAL’s Artistic Director, from 1989 to 2012, I had the rare privilege of glimpsing the creative processes of many talented international artists, scientists and educationalists who shared a collective curiosity, bold ideas and a desire to challenge the status quo in creative practice and cultural policy. When I meet PAL people by chance these days they tell me how their Lab experiences have since influenced their work. My continuing curiosity and admiration for these extraordinary PAL people prompts me to write this blog.

Janine Harrington and The Human Clock

Janine Harrington and The Human Clock
Image by Seb Lynch

JANINE HARRINGTON, an artist who choreographs, makes beautiful curious moving books and is an enthusiastic beat boxer. She is celebrating her 30th birthday while we talk about her work-in-progress and memories of two very different PAL Labs. She remembers the impact of reading The Tyranny of Structurelessness by Jo Freeman, after her 2009 Lab experience, which reveals how the lack of obvious structures can mean that covert structures come even more into play.

Interest in structure and different ways of sequencing content led Janine to re-route her developing choreographic practice through studies in visual arts at Camberwell College of Arts where she focussed on book arts.

“In a way the course was a fine arts route – very open, with a kind of dramaturgy of the book – form. This routing, or anchoring helped me to think through ideas around content and how it is accessed in different media; and ultimately helped me to build methodologies for making choreographic work across book arts and dance.”

In 2009 Janine was supported by an “encouragement” award from the Bonnie Bird Choreography Fund, which she used to develop The Performing Book.

“The Performing Book takes as its starting point the relationship a reader has to a book – how they can choose to skim through, turn back the pages, start at the end, and so on. I transposed the structure of this relationship to dance performance, where the audience can alter the movement according to parameters tied to their own positions, speed and direction.”

A different kind of performing book experiment featured in Gill Clarke’s Moving and Meaning Lab in 2011.

“I have a lot of respect for how Gill positioned herself in relation to her field and the intersecting fields of philosophy, anthropology and the other –ologies, and I wonder what she would think about where this work is now. Like many of us, I was deeply affected by Gill’s support.”

Janine’s current “time series” works, which includes the The Human Clock (2013), was initially inspired by the humiliation of not being able to tell the time in primary school. Her participatory choreography explores notions of “algorithmic performance” and includes two impressive large scale site specific works – The Bridge (2012) and LAND (2012, co-created with Charlotte Spencer and Vanessa Cook).

“… harnessing the energetic presence of potential audience members… leading to a complex meeting of the resources of the dancers and the curiosity of the audience. The audience have the agency to access the content of the work, but must do so using their bodies.”

I was in Janine’s audience in an early performance of The Performing Book. When I discovered I could understand and master this collective choreographic experience myself, it was a unique pleasurable experience. It is this gift that she gives to her audience.


Image by Janine Harrington.

In 2013, during a bout of whooping cough and glandular fever – “part of the landscape for many artists who work from project to project without a break!” – Janine spent 6 months in Venice with Tino Seghal; singing, moving and beat boxing in the duet Yet Untitled.

“What this experience gave me was an interest in working with the voice, a sustained experience of performing living and working through the conditions of a visual arts context and a desire to explore performing as well as making.

It’s becoming clearer to me that I want to create/ co-create my own contexts for making and performing. A lot of conversations I am currently having with my collaborators are around questions of organisation and scale. We re-gathered recently to talk through the new work and my plans for the future and they said I was ambitious. It’s funny because I don’t experience it as ambition, but rather as a necessary challenge or vision to sustain me. When things are too close I think that sometimes I can’t see them! Maybe that’s also why I was attracted to working with materials other than my own body.

I want to create a rigorous structure where each action is generated by individual dancers who think through a collective choreographic process. I want to realise the potential of The Performing Book outside existing hierarchical structures and spaces in the theatrical and dance world.. the movement of the audience is a key feature of the performance. I feel my job as an artist, in the midst of overwhelming stimuli, is to try to give people a moving structure through which they can learn what’s going on through their own curiosity.”

Learn more about Janine Harrington’s projects, her writing and her workshops at

– Susan Benn, Founder and President of PAL Labs.

May 14th, 2014

Tashkeel opens doors for talented designers in the UAE for upcoming design programme

Today, Tashkeel announces this year’s design programme that engages designers, makers and artisans living and working in the UAE to develop a range of products that work towards defining a design, aesthetic and production process that is innately from the emirates. Harnessing the cross-cultural range of skills and materials to be found in the region, the programme is based on a long-term experimental process involving an annual rotation of selected participants that will run this year from June 2014 through to Design.

The programme will run in collaboration with PAL Labs, the UK’s leading and most established organization for lab based processes designed to facilitate the creation of new, innovative work by designers and makers. It will consist of a series of two-day workshops led by established designers and curators over the course of nine months. Participants will work in a combination of group, pair and individual work which will involve experimental and collaborative practice, constructive critical feedback as well as investigating new business models. There will be a continuous evaluation of the process throughout the programme.

Please find our press release here: Tashkeel PAL Labs collaboration_ENG_ May 12