Published  03/11/2016

James Wilkes: ‘Mind-wandering has became a productive way for us to disrupt that idea of there being rest and the opposite of rest’

James Wilkes: ‘Mind-wandering has became a productive way for us to disrupt that idea of there being rest and the opposite of rest’

The exhibition Rest & its discontents at the Mile End Art Pavilion, London, is one of a number of events born from the works of Hubbub, a collective of multidisciplinary practitioners investigating busy-ness and rest. Wilkes, a poet, writer and Associate Director of Hubbub, spoke to us about the group’s work


Hubbub are the inaugural recipients of the Wellcome Collection’s two-year Hub award, a multidisciplinary collective – comprising four core group members and almost 50 collaborators – including historians of science and medicine, clinicians, public engagement professionals, social scientists, activists, artists, neuroscientists and broadcasters, whose research is focused on busy-ness and rest. The Exhibition, titled Rest & its discontents, curated by Robert Devcic of GV Art, is one of a series of events resulting from the various scientific and artistic experiments around Hubbub’s investigation.

MK Palomar: Thank you very much for inviting Studio International to this exhibition Rest & its Discontents at the Mile End Art Pavilion in London. Before you show me the exhibition, can you talk about your own practice as a poet, and how that has led you to be involved in this multidisciplinary collective Hubbub, which is currently working at the Wellcome Collection.

James Wilkes: I’m a poet and a writer, so I don’t just write poetry. I also write text for performance and prose. I’m interested in an expanded sense of poetry.

MKP: What is an expanded sense of poetry?

JW: Poetry that pushes at the boundaries of what might be understood to be poetry – so, that might include prose poetry, for example, although that has been part of the canon of poetry for more than 100 years, but also working with forms which don’t necessarily look like poetry but I can claim as poetry.

MKP: How do you claim them as poetry?

JW: Just by saying that they’re poems, really – publishing or performing them in that context. It’s a way for me of trying to expand the possibilities of poetry and blur the distinctions between poet, writer, artist. The idea of rest is central to anyone who works with poetry because it’s integral to the rhythm, and to the creation of rhythm, and to the creation of structured or stressed language. You can’t have that structure and that stress unless you have rhythmicity, and you can’t have that rhythmicity unless you have rest.

MKP: Can you explain how you became involved in the collective group Hubbub.

JW: Before I started writing poetry, I studied psychology and philosophy, so I have a long interest in cognitive science, and I was doing a poetry residency with a neuroscientist at University College London. She invited me to go to Durham to a workshop, and that’s where I met two other people who are heavily involved in Hubbub – Charles Fernyhough and Felicity Callard. And because the residency I’d been doing was funded by Wellcome, they invited me to a day of meeting other potential collaborators for this special grant they were setting up – The Hub Award. That’s where I got chatting to Felicity and Charles, and later to Claudia Hammond and Daniel Margulies, and we planned what became this residency focused around rest and its opposites. And the opposites part is really key to it, because rest as a concept moves in so many different directions and is quite hard to get a hold on. It means so many different things to different people, and it means so many different things in different disciplines. So the opposite is a way for us to try and get a better handle on what rest might mean, by looking, for example, at everything from noise – environmental noise or noise in an aesthetic sense – to work, as another potential opposite of rest, and we’ve got a lot of stuff around the politics of work. Another opposite – or maybe something more than an opposite – is mind-wandering, a state in which the mind is neither fully active because it’s not directed, it’s not pursuing a train of thought actively, but it’s certainly not at rest, in the sense of being passive or doing nothing.

Some of these topics have evolved over the course of the project, and something like mind-wandering has become quite a productive way for us to find focuses which actually disrupt that (maybe overly simple) idea of there being rest and the opposite of rest. Some things can neither be understood as truly restful or truly an opposite of rest, and I think mind- wandering is one of those.

MKP: Is mind-wandering in any way related to daydreaming?

JW: Yes, they’re cognate terms, so mind-wandering is a term that’s used by psychologists and neuroscientists who are studying it – but daydreaming is an equally valid way of looking at it: in fact, it’s one of the things that Felicity is interested in. She’s a geographer, she’s interested in the history of these terms. So the way in which daydreaming and mind-wandering almost mean the same thing, but not quite, and the role that words such as fantasy have played in the longer history of thinking about what we might call mind-wandering or daydreaming – she’s interested in that historical perspective, and we’ve found that these are focuses that can hold the attention of people from many different fields. So, a historian would be interested in this, a psychologist would be interested in this, a writer would be interested in it, a visual artist or film-maker would be interested in it as well. So this is how the project has evolved into these areas of focus for several people – people working together or sometimes pursuing their own projects. We’ve been working collaboratively where possible, but there’s no overarching single thing that we’ve been doing. And as you can see in this exhibition, there’s quite a lot of varied work here, and varied directions that people have moved in.

There were definitely areas we (Hubbub) wanted to investigate. One focus was the city and that has found its way into different people’s projects.

[Wilkes points to two speakers with an image under each.]

JW: This is Christian Nold’s work on Heathrow airport and the noise levels there. This is actually live sound streamed from two different areas, one in Camberwell, London, and one in Windsor [about 20 miles from London], so at varying distances from Heathrow airport – but you hear the aeroplanes coming in, and you also hear quite a wide range of other sounds as well. In fact, it just started raining here 20 minutes ago, and a few minutes before, you heard the rain through one of the speakers – the one in Camberwell – so it’s a strange dislocation, and I think that’s an interesting installation in its own right, but it also is to do with the noise of the city – delay – and space – spatiality.

MKP: Is delay a rest of some kind? 

JW: Yes, it is of some kind. There’s a composer in our project, Antonia Barnett-McIntosh, and when you talk about delay, it makes me think of her work. One of her pieces, which was performed in October at Kings Place in London – we had a night of musical and poetic performances – was a work for string quartet, which explores different forms of musical notation, and how rest is notated or performed. She’s produced a score, which was performed by Phaedra Ensemble’s string quartet making non-traditional noises with their instruments. So scraping across different parts of the instrument, or using physical gestures such as taking a sip of water, and the noises that happen when the glass is put back down on to the floor of the stage, or picked up. Taking the ideas of musical rest and really digging into those a lot further.

MKP: So rest is applied not only to the physiology of the body, but also to the reception of the audience such as the music of Antonia Barnett-McIntosh that you were just talking about. And Claudia Hammond’s work Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception seems to me to be related to our individual experiences in the world and also of place – a new place feels as though it takes longer to traverse (we are on full alert), yet travelling a familiar space we are in a form of rest – we don’t notice time; it just passes. Perhaps time changes shape depending on our familiarity of an experience.

JW: That does relate to one of the things we’ve been trying to investigate, both psychologically and artistically, and that’s inner experience. I mean the ways in which we subjectively experience the world and the differences and the richness and the strangeness of each person’s inner world. And we’ve been working with a psychologist based in the United States called Russell Hurlburt, who developed a technique in the 1970s called Descriptive Experience Sampling (DES), which is really quite simple at its core. Someone carries around with them a beeper – we’ve got one in the vitrine over there, which I’ll show you – with a little earpiece, and when the beep goes off, you need to think about the moment before the beep went off, and you make a note of what was in your experience then. Then, within 24 hours, you have an interview with Russell, or someone he’s trained up, and in that interview, that single slice of experience, that tiny moment of time, will be gone into, over the course of five to 15 minutes where, between you, you both try to come to an understanding of what was fully in your experience at that moment. So he’s been developing this since the 70s and he’s used it as a psychologist to try to get at the qualities of experience of many different kinds of people – everyone from expert guitar players to people with schizophrenia and so on. But, for me as a poet, that’s an incredibly rich resource and I’ve also found it very interesting thinking about the relationship between language and experience. For me at least, what happens in that moment of the interview is that you elaborate that experience in an interpersonal way with someone else, and I think that’s really interesting because it suggests to me that, in a way, experience isn’t something that happens at one discrete moment in time: it’s actually something which gets built up or happens over a longer temporal period than you might assume. Because, for me, the moment that experience comes into being is not exactly at the point when the beep went off, and not exactly at the point when you’re talking about it with the other person. It’s somewhere between those two things – and I can’t put my finger on where exactly that experience happens.

MKP: Surely whenever you talk about something that’s happened already, it’s a form of documentation – it’s a memory of one form or another?  

JW: Yes, definitely memory comes into it, but what I’m more interested in is the role of language there, and that language is the resource for thinking about experience and also the language that’s used in poetry. So what happens when you are listening to someone read a poem, the language of a poem can be realist description or it can be a very compressed form of language that bears little relation to everyday speech – or, in my case, I’m actually interested in using the rhythms and timbre of spoken speech as material for poetry and trying to, as I said at the start, investigate an expanded sense of what poetry can be. So I took some of these transcripts of the interviews and turned them into a performance score, and what’s really interesting about those interviews is that you have three people ostensibly at the same point in “objective time” having completely different experiences – even to the point of experiencing different words. So one person would say: “The beep went off when you were saying escalator and I was thinking about escalators.” And another said: “No, no, no, no – it was the sea; you were talking about the sea.” So it makes you think of attention and experience: in that communal space of the poetry reading, there was a kind of halo of shared attention.

MKP: Reception as well – how each individual is prepared to receive?

JW: And what they bring to that moment of reception.

MKP: It’s almost like a performed illustration of how there can be multiple truths of any one event.

JW: Yes, I think that’s right. So, that’s been a really fruitful area of investigation which comes out of people wanting to investigate mind-wandering, but has gone into a very different sphere – for me as a poet, into the poetry reading, and what that means and how we might think about it.

MKP: So how does this exhibition tie up with the research that you’re doing at the Wellcome Collection? Is it part of the findings?

JW: That’s a really good question because I think that there are many different ways of doing research, and this exhibition includes work by people who are artists and people who are researchers in other fields. Or, by artists who are informed by conversations with researchers in other fields. I would say that, for a lot of the artists here, this is their research. One of the things we’ve been consistently pushing through the project is that artists do research in their own way, and that research can change people’s thoughts about a subject in just the same way that a historian or a scientist might make new discoveries. The discoveries of an artist are equal to the discoveries made in any other field – although they certainly don’t look like the kind of discoveries that a scientists would make, and the forms of rhetoric and the discourse are completely different, and the forms of making as well. But I think what people on this project have in common is a certain commitment to experimenting, and those experiments sometimes take the form of self-experiments, sometimes take experimental form and they sometimes take the form of improvised experiments.

[Wilkes points out a plinth with an album cover inside a glass case and a pair of headphones hanging next to it.]

JW: This is a sound piece by Holly Pester, who is a poet and a researcher involved in the project. It began as an investigation into lullabies and the form of the lullaby. It eventually became an investigation of what the lullaby could be if it was removed from that scene of mother and child or parent and child. And what a lullaby might be if two adults were to sing to each other. So it’s become a form of improvisation. The piece that’s actually on the headphones is a collaboration with a sound artist called Claire Tolan, and it began with the two of them improvising vocal sounds to each other and then Claire has worked with those – so it actually doesn’t bear much resemblance to the original improvisation. The album is going to be released later in the year, and in the earlier stages of the project, we would all just go into the sound studio at the Wellcome and we’d be improvising songs around the table for each other. So that’s improvisatory and that’s the sense of experiment in that piece: you don’t know what’s going to come out of that, you just set up the scenario – a group of people singing together – and you let it run and see where it goes, and then you make changes to the context as you go on. Holly has ended up working with different collaborators from outside the project. So to come back to your question about the way that research figures or works with this exhibition, I think a lot of the artistic pieces are research outcomes if you want to use that kind of language, they are the product – but often they are still in process. I think Christian Nold’s piece, for example, is a prototype. The piece is called Prototyping a New Heathrow, and it’s one stage within a project, and I think many people in our group would identify with that sentiment, that this is one stage in an ongoing process.

We’ve only been at it for under two years, still the ideas are emerging, I think.

MKP: Can you talk about this wall of images behind us?

JK: This is Lynne Friedli’s work (with Johnny Void and Rosanne Rabinowitz), Reclaiming Our Lives: Anti-Work Struggles Past, Present and Future. Lynne is a researcher and a political activist – her work on the project has revolved around the politics of work. It began with an investigation into workfare, which is mandatory work done for state benefits, and it evolved into a broader investigation into the conditions of work now, primarily in the UK. Working with Nina Garthwaite, who is an audio producer and is running the radio station here, Lynne held conversations with a group of men who live in a homeless hostel about conditions of work, workfare and related concepts. But this wall itself is the latest iteration of her research and it began as a callout to her network for material related to anti-work, and the struggles not only for better work, but for less work, and that idea, finally, of freedom from work. So this is a group archive assembled from many people’s personal archives, some of it from the 70s and 80s, other more recent materials, and it consists of materials that people have felt are significant to them.

MNKP: Can you talk about Nina Garthwaite? You said she’s running a radio station here.

JW: Nina has been here regularly throughout the exhibition, and she’s recording conversations with visitors and all the live events, many of which have been extensions of Lynne’s project. Last night, we had an anti-work cabaret for example, with songs from Dolly Parton, Kurt Weill and The Silhouettes.

MKP: Where is it being broadcast?

JW: There are two elements to it. One is a micro-broadcast, so there’s a tiny radio transmitter, which works within a few feet, and you can listen to it here. But there’s also a SoundCloud stream where Nina’s uploading the podcasts. She’s also created these short snippets of audio from all the stuff she’s assembled both during the exhibition and during the two years of the project – interviews with people; live recordings, vox pops, a whole host of music and sound and speech. And those elements automatically recombine into a stream that runs continuously. It’s called the Default Mode Radio Network, because the default mode network area of the brain is associated with mind-wandering, so she’s taken that name and used it metaphorically to create this constantly wandering stream of audio content, which randomly juxtaposes sounds by people involved with the project, people associated with the project, and people she has gone out and found.

[Wilkes then shows me the work Resting on the Rest Test Results by Claudia Hammond (psychologist) and LUSTlab (design lab)].

JW: We conducted a large-scale survey of people’s resting habits – more than 18,000 people took part, from 134 countries – and this is a preliminary way of visualising the results.

MKP: I want to point out that this fabric is quite visually un-restful to look at: it jumps at your eyes.

JW: Yes [he laughs]. There was a space in the survey for people to describe what rest meant to them in any way they wanted, and what they’d do if they had more time to rest. So what Claudia Hammond and LUSTLab did was to break these down as different categories. So this variously coloured material covering the cushions on these six benches are graphic representations of that.

MKP: Reading from text woven into the fabric: “1,800 people said what rest means to them and how they rest. We grouped the results.”

JW: This is a very preliminary investigation, but this (area of the fabric) is the proportion of people who use words related to relaxation. This is the proportion of people who used the word Rest; here is the proportion of people who used the word Relax; over here, is the proportion of people who used words similar to Being Free. There is another area of the fabric denoted for Change, another for Meditate and an area for Renew. There are also areas for Energise, Stop Thinking, Recharge, Chill and Think. We haven’t chosen these words – these are what people used when they did the survey. 

MKP: I like the practicality – that the graphs are now cushions to relax on.

JW: Yes, this is what I mean by the research leading the work, and it not all being work by artists. This work is by a design studio in collaboration with a psychologist, and it’s a way to explore all that data, which we will look into in due course.

MKP: What happens to Hubbub after December?

JW: The project ends, for now, and we’ll all go our own separate ways – but hopefully there’ll be a second phase of it.

[Wilkes leads me over to a flat screen.]

JW: This piece is by Antonia Barnett-McIntosh entitled Breath. Normally for a flute player, a rest is the point at which you breathe in, and they train for years for that breath to be inaudible to the audience. So what Antonia did was make that in breath audible as an integral part of the sound of the piece.

MKP: So they had to unlearn that silence? That’s frightening for a flute player.

JW: The variations of sound are quite extreme.

[We listen to the recorded sound of a flautist gasping for breath and I immediately feel the need to gasp for breath. Then Wilkes shows me Joceline Howe’s work.]

JW: Howe works on 16 mm film, directly scratching and painting on the film, then digitises it and combines it with digital footage. A lot of her work is participatory, and involves creating costumes – creating scenarios for people to dance and to perform spontaneous or choreographed movements. She has combined previously shot footage of her work with participants with analogue footage exploring static and noise. And she has provided these costumes for people to wear here – you can see people using the costumes in the film.

MKP: Can you show me your own work – The Lathe Had Melted?

JW: This is my piece on the glass windows. What this actually takes as its starting point is The Peckham Experiment [a health centre in Peckham, south London], whose archives are in the Wellcome Library. The history of the place is that it started as a leisure centre and health centre between the world wars. I find their investigations into what makes for good health really interesting in the context of rest, but also it spoke to many other aspects of the project: for example, their interest in experiment, while the archive itself is a really interesting conjunction of strange ideas. You’ve got the biological experiment, the commitment to biology, but you’ve also got this esoteric spirituality – one of the founders was a theosophist – and so you’ve got all these things that are held in a slightly uneasy conjunction. You’ve got the sort of anarchist spirit of it, but you’ve also got an almost eugenicist interest in, particularly women’s, bodies, and the body of the mother. So there are all these quite uneasy materials, which are held together, and it’s just a very interesting set of things to work with. So I was working with fragments from that archive. This one is from a speech given to the members of The Peckham Experiment health centre by one of the founders when it opened.

[Wilkes reads another extract included in his work The Lathe Melted.]

“This meeting therefore is to incorporate you as watching and active partners in our experiment in watching life, just ordinary daily routine life. We are only just discovering how worthwhile is the study of life. You are the material, but now you are also the things which are doing the things which we want to see done: ie, you are the data but you are also the instruments.”

And I really was grabbed by that phrase: “You are the data but you are also the instruments.” I think it’s so interesting that you might make people – with all their frailties and their subjectivities and their non-objective quirks, the instruments that are gathering the data. So this story is an exploration of one particular individual’s attempt to be the data and the experiment. The story goes off in a slightly weird direction, but it takes as its starting point that wish, and desire, and attempt to take seriously ordinary life, and the ability of an ordinary person to actually be an instrument collecting data. Other quotes are from a book published by Innes Pearse (one of the cofounders of The Peckham Experiment) and Lucy Crocker, who worked very closely with her. And I thought that some of these quotes spoke to me about the project we’ve been trying to do (Hubbub) in a weird kind of temporal blur, the way in which we’ve been trying to “furnish a space with people and their actions”. Whether that’s here in the exhibition, or in our workspace in the Wellcome Collection.


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