I was once a book in a festival; a living book.
Being a living book is precisely how I discovered my latest work of art The Fit In Room.
To view The Fit In Room, you must get inside it. Like a ‘hand held’ book it’s an immersive and interactive piece of art because once you’ve opened that cover you can become completely involved with the story it contains.
A writer called Christopher Isherwood once said, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording not thinking,” and as much as I can relate to what Christopher said, but I’m far more inclined toward seeing myself as a book; actually a picture book, but I’ll get to that.
I was officially a living book for a relatively short time, part of a Living Book Library that was assembled as an Adelaide Festival event in 2008. As things tend to go in my life, I was actually a banned ‘living book’ for a couple of days. Life can get dramatic at times can’t it?
The story is: several of the people assembled to be living books identified as same-sex attracted (including myself) and were all unexpectedly informed that they were “no longer required because there were too many books,” seems a strange idea; a library with too many books. When she noticed she had too many books the government minister who was funding the Living Book Library decided to only get rid of the same-sex attracted ones. To cut a longer story short, after some discussion we were all reinstated onto the Living Book shelf at the Mortlock Library in North Terrace.
I enjoyed being a living book. It worked like this: people could read my synopsis at the front counter and anyone who wanted to browse me was able to make an appointment to loan me, which amounted to sitting with me in the library to ask questions and have a conversation. Personally I really enjoy a good picture book and I remember thinking, ‘if I were ever to be a book again I’d like to be a picture book’. I think it was this simple idea that started me on the road towards creating The Fit In Room.
In the simplest terms that’s what The Fit In Room is, a kind of living picture book. It offers people an opportunity to come and see how things fit into a lifetime and how some parts of a life may or may not fit in. We’re all trained from an early age how to behave, which is just another way of saying ‘how to fit in with the overall scheme of things’.
As we grow and mature we discover if we actually do fit in. Sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t. We’ve all been told to shush or been chastised for some reason by some person at some time in our life. There are so many factors involved in fitting in wherever we go. Values, morals, tradition, religion, law, gender, race, age, qualifications or lack of qualifications, all of these things plus many others feed into how we fit into whatever circumstance.
I’ve had some wonderful success fitting in and some horrendous failures. Even, like I said, when I was part of the Adelaide Festival’s living book library I was banned because it seemed I didn’t fit in to someone’s idea of what the ‘reading list’ should be.
Creating a work of art like The Fit In Room is a big process. There’s been a great deal of planning. I’ve created many works of art in my life, all sorts of things from two dimensional images through to living breathing characters that have been brought to life on a stage or on screen, so I’m well versed in the process of being creative. Some people would call it ‘realising a dream’ or ‘developing a concept’.
When writing a play for example, I will first imagine the characters in the play. I will imagine a situation they are in. I will imagine an environment where they are and I will find the words to make all of these imaginings translate to another person in order for them to understand what I have imagined simply by reading the words. Now I know that this could seem all too obvious to some people, but one thing I discovered when I was a living book in 2008 is that people who are not involved in writing plays or acting or creating visual art are very interested in ‘the creative process’ and that’s what I’m talking about here; the creative process.
The Fit In Room started out as a concept where I could present myself as a type of living picture book; I had invented a piece of interactive art called Poetry Massage for the Spoke Writer’s Festival and I wanted to develop this idea further. The thing I needed was an environment where I could deliver poetry massage so the idea of some kind of room seemed appropriate. I had also worked with an artist Jake Holmes on a page in a book; we collaborated on a page that would be visually designed by Jake, written by myself and included in a handmade book called Spotlight.
I was very inspired by this collaboration with Jake and asked him to screen print our work onto one of my old business shirts. It had been a long time since my days as a visual artist; I’d spent a few decades putting most of my energy into acting, writing and directing in the entertainment industry which is quite a tough industry to work in. I felt very invigorated reconnecting with the task of creating some visual art again; even more so bringing what I had learnt in the entertainment industry with me to the table. I was so enthused by the Spotlight project I bought some classes in screen printing and consequently printed more items onto that old business shirt.
When I wore the shirt out I received lots of very encouraging remarks about it. People really liked it. Feedback is a crucial element in any creative process. When writing a play it’s always really important to hear other people speak the words you’ve written. It is a fundamental part of the process providing you the opportunity to discover if the characters you’ve written sound true or not (real or not). The feedback my shirt received was consistently positive and it was an attractive thing that people responded to, so I started to include this garment in my room; the room where I could deliver poetry massage.
The elements were emerging, the idea was developing; my creative process was under way. It felt like a good time to do some research. Surprising as it may seem it’s really helpful to do research even if you don’t know why you are doing it. I say this because it’s not enough to just imagine a character and an environment and a circumstance. If you are imagining these things you need to make certain decisions about them; are the characters real or fantasy? Is the environment real or complete fantasy? Is the circumstance real or is it totally fantasy? Even if it’s all fantasy, it’s going to be helpful to research some fantasy. Seek out the truth. Find the wisdom or inspiration that has become part of our general understanding, common knowledge and our reality.
I directed my research towards places where you would find yourself purchasing a shirt. This started off a train of thought and a thirst for knowledge; it gave me a creative direction. I had some knowledge of traditions of times past when people didn’t have the technology they do today and life was quite physically different. If there is one thing you discover working as a playwright or an actor it’s this: human beings are pretty much the same concoction of emotions no matter where or when they are. What changes in history are things but people stay pretty much the same. With this in mind it didn’t worry me to be looking at resource information from all over history. Even though I was looking towards creating a space, a room, what I was interested in was the human experience that would be available in that room.
My challenge was finding the right space (the right context) that allowed the type of emotion I envisioned I’d be dealing with. I required a space that wasn’t exactly neutral. It had to give people permission to look at themselves with a discerning if not critical eye and provide an atmosphere for someone to feel comfortable in a potential new skin and judge if they fit in it or not.
After all I was looking for somewhere to deliver myself as a living picture book and my poetry massage as a new idea. There was more I could see in the creative cloud that was forming as well. I was starting to realise that this room was the first step in a process towards a piece of performance art. It was starting to sound like a complete idea and I was starting to get the complete picture of an immersive, interactive piece of performative art.
Once I had engaged in some research I understood what I was developing. It’s a relatively standard place where people go to try something on – these days they’re usually referred to as fitting rooms or changing rooms, and there is a tradition of them that includes intimate salons where a designer would meet and greet clients who were looking to purchase a garment.
So by doing some research I uncovered what it was I had been thinking about and was able to start giving it clear names people could understand. It’s all very well to have what you think may be a great (or even a good) idea, but if you are not able to identify what it is and how it works then it’s incredibly difficult to relate the idea to another person and have them appreciate it or offer you constructive feedback.
A relatively recent phenomenon around Adelaide has been “pop-up” activities or things. Pop-up bars, book sellers, performance events… if you think of the flash-mob or the travelling bookseller with their product on a mobile cart you’ll get the general picture. It struck me that I was creating a pop-up experience with The Fit In Room because I intend for it to have mobility like an art exhibition that moves around from place to place. I want as many people as possible to see what it is I’m doing – and so I intend on taking the experience around. So it struck me at some point in time that I was creating a pop-up interactive immersive autobiographical experience. It’s becoming such a mouthful that I’m wondering if I should create a new word to describe it. The trouble with creating new words is that one still needs to define and explain the meaning of the new word, so for the time being I’ll stick with the mouthful.
I suppose the question that all of this raises is, “why should this guy be a living book in the first place?”
In a nutshell I’ve had some strange moments in my life that are relatively rare and it makes for fascinating ‘reading’ if you are interested in the way people change according to what they experience in life. I was sexually abused as a boy. I have lived with an immune deficiency for half of my life to date. I’ve been on stage, screen and radio. I’ve interviewed lots of very interesting celebrities; so yes, I have a few good stories to tell. But like I said at the start, I’m more inclined to be a living picture book so you’ll have to come along and check out The Fit In Room and decide for yourself.
David Paul Jobling