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Sophie Chapman and Kerri Jefferis: 'Oracular Theatre' at The HUB

Sophie Chapman + Kerri Jefferis make artworks with others in radically non-hierarchical ways. They describe their work as exploring the strangeness of imagining different worlds and ways of being together. Recognising lived experience, they entangle social time and reveal the macro politics in micro acts and find their audience in the moment of making itself as well as exhibition.

Sophie and Kerri recently took part in a residency at the Craven Arts HUB in November 2020, resulting in an immersive installation titled ‘Oracular Theatre’. We caught up with them to reflect on their experience and to offer an insight into their approach to residencies.

Could you tell us a little bit about yourselves as artists?

We have worked together as a duo since 2015, when we met taking part in self organised, collaborative projects with other artists dissatisfied with the way that the role of the artist had been sold to us whilst we were at university. Starting as huge fans of each other and becoming close friends very quickly, we hoped, and at some times demanded, that there had to be another way. One that was less about individual genius or privilege or competition.

Since then we have created films, scores, props, performances and text works - almost always working with wider groups of people too. We often start a project thinking about the kind of invitation necessary to bring people together, in a way that will allow us all to play, improvise and question things. Our process adopts and adapts methods from radical education, theatre, choreography, speculative fiction and games and we are interested in where inter-disciplinary knowledge bumps up against lived experience and poetics.

We see the gatherings we host as ‘temporary autonomous zones’ which is a fancy anarchist way of saying we see them as spaces where you can try and sort of suspend reality the way that it is, and together imagine what it would be like if things were different. A lot of the devising modes we use are linked to learning or unlearning in some way - and we’re super interested in what happens when you occupy these ‘practices of freedom’ (bell hooks) and co-produce art things there. This is with the overarching hope that what we learn together - might empower us when we go back to the world the way it is. And by that we mean - white supremacist, hetero, ableist and classist - to make it a bit more queer, anti-racist, inclusive, empathetic and accessible.

Even though we work with a lot of ‘liveness’ or live moments this is rarely the end point of the work. Instead, the comings-togethers - are often recorded and documented in various ways through film, sound, text. This material then becomes the artworks as its shaped post-event and then shared more widely as prefigurative stories of awkward coexistence and poetic resistance.

Recent works include Idle Acts 2019/20: a scriptless, collaborative film and card game made with amateur actors in Beeston, south Leeds, about everyday surrealisms, neighbourliness and public space. As well as Oracular Theatre, an exhibition and set of sci-fi role play parameters which we made whilst on residency with Craven Arts in Skipton at the end of 2020.

What were your main inspirations and references that you wanted to explore as part of the residency?

Before the pandemic, and off the back of the film project in Beeston, we had been researching and becoming more interested in improvisation. Looking at it as a mechanism for people, with and without acting or performance experience, to be able to come up with and communicate stories that make sense of or convey something about the world as they see it.

Then in the dormant months of lockdown last year we started to accrue and become slightly obsessed with gathering the many headlines, memes, reports etc that encapsulated just how bizarre reality was seaming to get...Covid-19 re-writing our imaginations of what is and isn’t possible on a global scale. Amazon building more and more warehouses to keep up with our demand and hunger for stuff as quickly as we can humanly (or not) get it, making them look like a pixelated version of the sky so I guess you are supposed to not notice them clogging the horizon? Bog roll fights in Aldi. Everyone being forced to speak to their inner demons without the infinite distractions of work, sleep, eat, repeat - but nowhere to go with the enlightened thoughts other than your bedroom. Theatres turning into courtrooms and food banks alike. Trump supporters derailing democracy and chanting STOP THE VOTE in a strange but fitting U turn on Americanism. The list is endless.

We felt like everything had started to feel decidedly science fiction-y, or a bad SNL sketch? We have long been fans of writers like Ursula K Le Guin, Octavia Butler and adrienne maree brown - all of which see science fiction as a tool for studying the present: stepping outside of our everyday to disrupt its logic and examine it. We see improvisation in a similar vein so wanted to combine these aspects to explore the alternative possibilities speculative fiction could offer, in times of acute distress. To make (non)sense of the political, social and ecological moment but allow the chance that improv invites to do this in a less literal, and hopefully more fun, way.

The prospect of having use of a disused bank only added to the melodrama and dystopian ideas we had, and as well gave us an opportunity to think about world building in a physical sense, not just imaginatively. So we also called upon references from absurdist theatre and Live Action Role Play and gamer techniques - all methods that eschew conventional plotting or structure to explore the human condition under alternate realities.

Did you find that the exhibition space, a disused high street bank (an alternative to the traditional white cube), limited or enhanced the work that you produced?

The building was brilliant. We were much more at home in this cold, mouldy in places, dusty old office space than we would be in a white cube for sure. It felt like a bit of a playground. We would hold up there all day everyday as much as we could and it really started to influence and become as big a part of the work as any of the references or ideas we had brought in.

Our aim going in was to create ‘sets’ that people could walk around in, inspired by theatrical illusionism and almost trying to create a video game you walk into, to allow people to step off a rural market street into a multi-level alter reality. We wanted each room to host its own world: large scale augmented reality animations paired with sound, drawings, projection and props; atmospheric cues affecting how people interact with the space. We based these different worlds off of stories we came up with by assembling and riffing off parts of the various news headlines, memes and anecdotes pasted up in clusters on a big wall - trying to create scenarios that might offer glimpses or provocations to the ‘players’ to think about. Sort of ‘what ifs’ like...gaining the power to hear your competitors thoughts with genetically modified mushrooms? And what happens the night before ground zero? Or conversations whilst rebuilding in the ruins of ecological collapse? Trapped in a mass CGI work simulation?

The bank was the perfect set for this strange collision of elements, with its many twisting corridors and abandoned bits of server or wires poking out the walls. It really gave that familiar but also disquieting feeling that the usual activity of the place had long since ended, and whoever worked there had left things almost as is, and fled or something. Feeding into the sci fi, gamer vibes. The perfect set for these stories to emerge, it gave enough space that sound could leak from one thing into the other, but you could also spend time with each element, so that navigating the building was like picking up queues for a story you were and weren’t being let in on and had to investigate.

As part of the residency you did a workshop with students at Craven College, could you tell us a little bit about that and the work that they produced as part of it?

Sure, we approached Fresh Perspective as Kerri had been in touch with them in early 2020 about a mural workshop but of course that was no longer possible. We wanted to host something that built on some ‘improv with strangers’ sessions we had run online earlier in the year with 12o Collective but bring in the new elements we were experimenting with.

Whilst we wrote loose character archetypes and storylines we had the workshop context in mind and so instead of writing a beginning-middle-end fiction we produced 8 scenarios which essentially ‘set’ you in a storyline - in one you pick up a ball which bounces through your window and drop into a vast ocean where you’re ‘swimming in your dreams’, in another you find yourself in a library reading the ‘history of truth’. The characters needed to offer some framing but open enough for people to develop so they were sent the characters name, one trait and one fact about them. The stories set the atmosphere, tell you about the look of the place, hint at storyline cues and often end with you addressing another character in the room or location. This is the point where the workshop participants/players ‘take off’, improvising a dialogue as their character, set in the narrative which has the option to explore the location or expand from it through their interaction. It sounds really scary and complex and it is definitely a challenge as it asks for a lot of spontaneity, vulnerability and for us to embrace a chance meeting - but it is also super playful, funny and poignant.

We designed the process for total beginners, like us, amateurs4ever. So it is daft, friendly, supportive and step by step. Players are sent their character cues in advance and are invited not to prepare but come with a generous approach and open mind. We warm up as a group with some prompts and games to allow everyone a chance to get used to each other, then explain the basics of improv before going through some character development to allow folks to shape and step into their new selves before pairing people up in break out rooms. Here, they are gifted a recorded storyline to listen to, a Zoom back drop and some instructions to get them going and away they go!

Fresh Perspective were great to work with and helped develop the promo assets and get the word out. They also joined the session to help with tech support. We had about 12 people join who had very different reasons for joining, interests and levels of experience doing anything remotely similar; they hailed from across the UK and even one person joined from the Philippines. I guess that is one of the incredible silver linings of embracing the limitations and experimenting with online formats at the moment. The session went so much better than we anticipated, as we mentioned we had hosted something similar to this but nowhere near as in depth and had never utilised scenario driven narrative before quite like this. After everyone paired off we really had no idea what would play out quite literally until the group rejoined the main call for a quick feedback and debrief (something which we will extend in the future.) BUT, people had travelled so far! So fast! And really responded in profound, awkward, expansive, sensational and sensitive ways.

‘The critic’ had appeared in a vast circular courtroom type space for an interview from ‘the money momma, head of finance’ where the C-O-O-O-O’s credentials and methods were under scrutiny and the power balance shifts from the interviewee becoming the interviewer to reveal some less wholesome truths about invasive mind control techniques and the consumption of human doings in much loved corporate brands. ‘Minion’ and ‘Bob, the Longevity Ambassador’ in a carpark just before the precipice, the break, the changeling. A rollercoasteresque gadget rumbles overhead and they muse on each’s ‘plan’ the tools their bringing forth and if they will jump at all. A non-verbal cucumber alien also encounters an ‘architect’ whilst children build sandcastles in the street in a post-apocalyptical moment - ‘Alexa’ the subservient mushroom meets ‘Baroness Sinkhole’ at a student flat party and ‘Tender’ met ‘Justin’ who left their scenario through co-therapy into a deflated basketball. As we said, people went far!

Players were asked to record their interaction, and if comfortable, share with their co-storyteller (and us) to check out afterwards. These were just so dense and great and expansive that we asked permission to edit into little sequences which we decided to share in the exhibition at The Hub and some fragments appear in the walkthrough video.

We REALLY want to do more of these as the potential and affect sort of blew our wee brains. So we are currently applying for every open call under the sun (!) trying to get some resource to support its further development into a mixed reality version, hosted on Mozilla Hubs. Ideally we would like to host groups of people over the course of a month or so to enter different storylines and play different characters and really develop their capacity to improv as a group - Hubs allows you to build simple virtual worlds and experience them as a avatar and hear in a spatial way - we would like to walk people through the process of generating their character/player and improving whilst in these spaces which we would build to reflect elements of the stories.

What impact did the pandemic have on the residency, and also on yourselves as artists?

The November lockdown meant that we couldn’t open the space to the public until after the residency was finished. We thought this was a shame to begin with but in retrospect it allowed us much more time to mull over and play with different elements and approaches as well as producing more films and works as a result. It is quite rare that we work in this way actually, usually involving other people in the process from quite early on, so it was good to push ourselves out of that comfort zone and also gave the workshop room to breathe and the resulting work be an element of the exhibition that was produced.

Like many other artists, and people across all professions really, we lost out on a lot of work. This was scary at times as our main sources of income (teaching, mentoring, producing, researching, facilitating) totally dried up, and the grants on offer didn’t always apply to us. We both took quite a bit of breathing time, and needed the space anyway after a busy few years, to reflect and rest - as hard as that was at times. We found solace in the communities we are a part of, gardening, reading, therapy and trying to be there for each other whenever we needed it - outside our work as collaborators just as mates.

Since, things have slowly started back up again, we are both pleased (for the bank balance/ability to pay rent more easily!) and a little apprehensive. It felt like there were some big realisations during the early stages of the pandemic, both personal, in the art world and globally, politically - the simplifying or localising of economic impact, the racial reckonings, the aliveness to our interdependence on each other/the planet and so many more. We hope those shifts come to something more concrete in our lived realities, and both in our separate ways, and through our work - are trying to keep that spirit of ‘rip it up and start again’ - going. As we really strongly believe that things shouldn’t and can’t return to ‘normal’.

Do you have any advice for artists who perhaps would like to apply for a residency but don’t necessarily know how to go about it with the application process? Or those who don’t feel confident about how much research or experimentation they should be doing whilst on a residency? I know I’m one of them!

Wow, that is a really great question. Honestly we always feel so lucky to have each other as friends, co-conspirators and creative partners this 100% gives us a space to hold the weird complexity of both the practical stuff of organising the situations for research and making as well as holding that space when we're in it and negotiating that, even when it doesn't go as expected or ‘right’.

In terms of an application process we always tend to use it as an excuse to literally speculate, wildly. To look at the opportunity closely and critically and be like, clear about what it is and what it is asking and then as ourselves - honestly, if we could do anything what would we want to do here - and how do we make that happen? Often this gets us in the shit a bit cos we set the bar high or try to work with processes or materials we have no idea about just yet but even if we don't make what we said or set out to do, we land somewhere. So basically, just be as honest as possible, state your speculative aims and desires and drop some references to what you're currently reading/absorbing/testing/obsessing over.

Try to think of it as an act of creative writing rather than a nuts and bolts promise. The reality is it is super rare that anyone will completely hold you to everything you write in the application, although it articulates a direction of travel, some guideposts and an expectation on both sides. We have applied for lots of things we haven't got but somehow, as frustrating as it is, some of the ‘duds’ often contain seeds, hints and shifts and it does that thing of forcing you to put it into words which can offer a kind of clarity at certain moments. When we saw the open call, it was the right space and moment for us so that always helps as we had gathered a lot of material and felt like OK, we need a space to sit with this, play and see what comes of it. It needed context and a nudge to get off of laptops or screens and into other things. Important to say - we had applied to about 4 other things with similar themes in the summer before and not got a thing, so it felt like this one must have been the perfect time.

Advice wise - check out your residency carefully - ‘residency’ has become a catch all term for so many different things from hard core production and delivery targets to actual time and space to ruminate to live and work. It can mean ‘we want you to respond to the context and place and deliver x, y, z’ really specifically to ‘just come here, take some time out your day to day, bring your bits and bobs and just allow it’ or, ‘here is a week, we want you to make a show for free’.

Some residencies carry prestige and prize and others are low key or self organised and each puts different pressures on what can happen creatively there depending on where you're at with your work so investigate carefully, reach out to others who might’ve done it, be realistic about the time frame (you have to eat, sleep and poop too), seek out info about expectations and be clear about your own needs to make sure you get something that is conducive and not destructive to your practice, at the time, whatever shape that takes. Some are funded, some partial funded, some self funded and this all makes a big difference to your time, commitment and what you can do right? So scrutinise things and if something sounds like a big ask, with no support, and not much space for wiggle room, it probably will be all of those things and maybe you could’ve called a pal, hauled up in their backroom or set up a google doc or postal project and it been much more generative ya know?

In terms of how much research and experimentation you should do I guess that depends on the duration, set up and where you're at with the project or piece you are working on. This residency was fairly experimentation/production heavy and 4 weeks flew by as we had a workshop, talk and exhibition to set up alongside too and really tried to keep our weekends off to recover and come back fresh. Although we were offered the space no charge, it wasn't paid so we self funded to make it possible - realistically that meant we had already spent a bunch of time pulling a last minute Arts Council application together and were seeking out other resource to allow us time away from other commitments/jobs to make use of the time and space. But other ones for example, one we did at the Scottish Sculpture Workshop (which is part-funded but brilliant by the way) that was also 4 weeks was almost totally new work ideas, in the context of whole new processes i.e. bronze and ceramic making but with no ‘final outcome’ or ‘show’ so it was very much a dance between using the workshops during technician hours to try things and learn and then utilise the evenings or other times for drawing and reading and watching relevant film as well as the other artists on the residency etc. Other residencies are also more open to just providing space in order for you to finish things, or reflect etc, Hospitalfields or METAL’s Time & Space residencies for example.

I guess one thing we always try to do is remove every other commitment from our calendars and literally put an ‘out of office’ on if we can. We have always got a lot from literally going to other places to make, especially now as we don't have a shared physical studio. That won’t always be possible for us/everyone in the same way but we definitely notice it when we get the chance to really submerge into the project and sort of eat and breathe it for a while consistently. Like with lots of people, it’s in the unconscious moments where the best realisations or creative collisions arise and that comes from a set of things being carried about with you for a while and when you keep showing up and persevering and trusting the process even when it feels like a struggle or like it doesn't make sense. Then all of a sudden - ideas pop up whilst you're in the shower, in your dreams, when you're out for a walk, washing up but that needs flex and flow between absorption, embodiment and idleness.

But essentially - go for it. Shut out the noise. Trust the process. Try every idea that pops in your head even if it ‘fails’ it will tell you something. Push back against unrealistic expectations. Play AND rest too.

We'll be sharing lots of images from the residency on our social media pages over the next few weeks, along with a walk through video of the exhibition. In the meantime, you can view more examples of Sophie and Kerri’s work at and also on their Instagram accounts (@kerrijefferis and @sophie_chapman.) With thanks to Jules Lister for all images, Andrew Walker for the 3D/CGI, Samra Mayanja for the voiceovers, and Bella Millroy for the creative captions for the final film.


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