Odesa: Neptune’s Stately Ghost Hotel

So where does Neptune, Lord of the Sea, Tempestuous Ruler of Ideals, Dreams, Delusions and the Masses, stay when he needs a little break from the incessant waves? Any seaside town can put up a blue plaque in his name, of course –and if you’ve ever veered up Queen’s Rd on a Saturday night, you’ll know that Brighton offers much to tempt the King of Addiction. Having just returned from a week in Ukraine, however, my vote for the sea god’s favourite earthly hotel goes to Odesa. This is no light-hearted accolade: the distinction is not necessarily one to covet and I’m bestowing it on Odesa because its short history embodies both extremes of the astrological Neptune’s immersive yet turbulent nature.

Odesa (Оде́са in Ukrainian; Оде́сса in Russian), a city of just over a million people, is located on the coast of the Black Sea on a site once settled by the ancient Greeks and later the Tatars. Founded in 1794 by Catherine II, herself a German; laid out by a Spaniard, José de Ribas, whose design paid homage to the site’s Hellenistic roots; and first governed by a Frenchman, the Duc de Richelieu, the city epitomises Ukraine’s precarious footing on the fault line between Russia and Europe. As Alexander Pushkin – who spent a year of his youth here in a descending series of hotels – famously said, ‘Odesa smells of Europe’, and even the city’s name has a apocryphal whiff of French perfume about it. Though chosen to pay homage to the ancient Greek city Odessos (Catherine insisted on a feminine ending), according to local legend the name derives from an early hydrogeological report claiming ‘Assez d’eau’ (there is enough water’) – when this proved false, de Ribas neatly reversed the phrase.

To quote an English poet, ‘Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink’: the astrological Neptune’s trade in illusions is present right from Odesa’s start. And yet the city’s founding is also steeped in Neptunian idealism. From the beginning the city advertised itself as a beacon of freedom, progress and multicultural cooperation. Labourers flocked here for the opportunity to live as paid workers, not serfs, while Richelieu’s establishment of a world-class theatre, Lyceum and library attracted a worldly assortment of artists, writers, scientists and entrepreneurs. As my charming guidebook has it, Odesa was the city that ‘became famous from the cradle, where people of more than a hundred nationalities found bread, shelter and a new homeland, the city that always preferred gold to lead . . .’ The Milton Keynes of the Tsars is known in Russia as the Pearl of the South; the city’s own citizens dubbed her ‘Odesa-mama’ and, in thanks to her fertile steppes, appointed Ceres, the Roman goddess of the harvest as her presiding spirit.

From an astrological point of view, this rulership neatly corresponds to Odesa’s sun sign, Virgo the Empress, and rising sign the maternal Cancer. But Odesa-mama is no dour peasant matriarch: depicted in an old city mural as ‘Ekaterina’, she rests her arm on the cog of industrial revolution, and flaunts a winged rod, symbol of Mercury, god of commerce and quick wit – as the de Ribas story suggests, Odesans are also known for their lively word play. This famous sense of humour is also said to owe a debt to the previously large Jewish population – at one point in the early twentieth century nearly 45% of the city’s inhabitants were Jews. That population now stands at 6%. For Neptune lashes at Ceres’ shores, and for complex historical reasons –  that cannot and must not be reduced to a sea god’s jealous tirades –  this butterscotch bastion of creativity and tolerance has also been the site of some of the modern era’s most infamous crimes against humanity.

Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Odesan Jews triumphed against sustained persecution, being subject to a series of pogroms from 1821 to 1905, the latter committed with the support of the Tsarist military. In 1905, as well, Tsarist forces fired on demonstrators in the city, anonymous deaths immortalised in 1925 by Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein in his silent classic The Battleship Potemkin. Eisenstein staged the massacre on the monumental Richelieu Stairs leading down the cliffs to the port – now known as the Potemkin Stairs, though in fact, in a Neptunian twist of illusion, innocent of the killings.

Still from The Battleship Potemkin

But as the pogroms demonstrate, there is no need to fictionalise atrocities in Odesa. In the thirties the Holodomor, the Soviet-created famine that killed between 3 and 6 million Ukrainians, made a corpse-littered nightmare of the city streets. And in 1941, after heroically helping to defend the city for 73 days, Odesa’s Jews were massacred in one of the most exhaustive slaughters committed by the Nazi regime: over a period of three days Romanian and German forces, aided by local authorities, shot or burned alive at least 25,000 Jews. 35,000 others were sent to perish in the camps, and over the next months nearly all of the remaining Jews in the city were exterminated. At the museum I was told that only 600 people survived the events of 1941-2. While the population did grow somewhat after the war, many Jews understandably washed their hands of Odesa forever, settling largely in America or Israel. But while the worst, the Nazi atrocities were not the last of Odesan massacres. On May 2 this year, painful memories of the Holocaust were evoked when 42 pro-Russian separatists were killed in the firebombing of the Trade Unions building – a terrifying and still highly controversial event, sparked by earlier street clashes during which pro-Ukrainian marchers were killed.

The historical Jewish presence in Odesa is still felt through its tragic absence – even the shuddering of the old train stock down from L’viv seemed to echo the fear of tens of thousands of people packed into similar carriages and sent to the death camps. But at the same time, the current Jewish population is prominent and proud, operating tours and maintaining the small but well-tended Odesa Jewish Museum. When I visited, the young guide was adamant that the Trade Unions fire did not reflect the atmosphere of a city in which people still live in communal blocks of flats, sharing space and facilities with their neighbours. Anti-Semitic leaflets from as recently as 2007 were on display, but our guide declared that these vile attempts at rousing old hatreds were rare, and that she feels safe here today.

Or at least as safe as any Odesan. For with a majority of Russian-speaking inhabitants and Crimea just down the coast, the city feels the cold eye of Vladmir Putin roving over it. But Russian speaking does not equate to Russian separatism: though tensions can run dangerously high, the city as a whole accommodates its mixed population and historical ties to Moscow well – many people are bilingual at least, and since gaining its independence from the former Soviet empire, Odesa has acknowledged its debt to Russia with a new statue of Catherine and her lovers. Most of the Ukrainians I met suspect that separatist sentiments here, as elsewhere, are in fact stoked by Moscow. On-going investigations into the Trades Union fire have already included the arrest of several Russian nationals; if these people are truly provocateurs, this is a grave violation of Ukrainian sovereignty – any grievances of Russian-speakers must be aired in a proper democratic manner, free of the militaristic interference that is causing the current devastating war in the East.

Astrologically, war is ruled by Mars, the belligerent strategist. Neptunian violence may be triggered or enabled by war, but is of a different nature – irrational outbursts of fear and rage, the depths of human darkness engulfing militants and masses alike. In a certain light, Odesa is like a stately ghost hotel, haunted by the shades of those who have perished in the bloody storms that periodically wash through its elegant streets. For both good and ill, Neptune maintains a luxury suite here, the replica statue of Laocoon outside the Museum of Archeology a warning reminder of his powers: a Trojan priest of Poseidon, Laocoon enraged the god by making love to his wife in the temple, for which act of impiety he and his sons were killed by sea serpents. But after my all-too-brief visit, my hope is that Odesa-mama may yet curb the sea god’s temper, and continue to nurture his creative and spiritual nature. All astrological speculations aside, this extravagant city’s founding commitment to freedom, multiculturalism, humour and beauty deserves a chance to fully bloom.


The Odesa Opera House



The Astrological Neptune: the Great Dissolver

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKing Neptune by Paul diPasquale, Virgina Beach USA

Now at last in this blog’s long voyage to Neptune, we reach the deep translucent waters of the planet’s astrological significance. These depths cannot be plumbed with the cables of logical explanation; rather I hope that today’s plunge into the world of symbol and myth may offer the reader some not-too-slippery insights into the blurred lines between dream and vision, solitude and addiction, chaos and revolution . . .

But let me not swim ahead of myself. Named for the Roman god of navigation and his Greek predecessor Poseidon, Neptune’s astrological symbolism also draws on the planet’s astronomical attributes, as well as wider poetic imagery of the sea. The planet, as notorious arch-mage Aleister Crowley pointed out, is aptly named for Lord Oceanus, ‘the great river that girdles the whole earth’, not simply for its entrancing aquamarine shade, but also its outlying orbit – when discovered, and again since Pluto’s demotion, the furthest planet from the sun. Astrologers relate the remote gas giant to nebulous and elusive states of mind and situations: Neptune ‘the Dissolver’ represents dreams, creative inspiration and psychic abilities, but also confusion, illusion, escapism and addiction.

The old gods bring additional turbulence to Neptune’s metaphorical significance: Poseidon, though married, fathered many children from secret affairs, and like their sire, his offspring were famed for their wildness and cruelty: when angered the god would cause storms and shipwrecks. Neptune also represents, therefore, deception, trickery, deceit, chaos and fear. But we always have the choice to rise above these temptations: the planet’s blue-green colour is considered to represent spirituality and healing, and Neptune as Visionary represents wisdom, compassion, sacrifice and universal love.

So there we are: Neptune as a vast blue ball of violence and serenity, implacably rolling through our psyches. While these qualities may seem diametrically opposed, in his usual inimitable fashion Crowley explains that they are in fact inseparable. For:

Is not the sea at once infinitely calm, and infinitely angered? Does not the sea take strange shapes, break up the light into a myriad fantastically coloured flaws? Illusion and art, chameleon and dragon; that is the sea! Is not the sea now tender, now adorable, sun-kissed, now terrible in its torment, a whirl of insatiable desires?

In addition, the demands of spiritual seclusion on weak, undisciplined natures will inevitably result in dissolute ruptures. ‘How spiritual, how star-pure, must then be the secret thoughts of such a one, the hermit of the solar system?’ Crowley asks, ‘How indomitable, how lonely, how refined must be his moods.’ But such solitude is a heavy burden, and those with strong Neptunian influences in their charts must, Crowley asserts, be warned:

. . . it is not in the Neptunian nature to reach harbour. He longs for love and friendship; did he gain them he would retire. For nothing can satisfy that thirst of things infinite; there is no goal attainable. Neptune is man’s boundless spirit; heaven itself is too narrow for his desires. So into his nature comes the gay coquettishness . . . He knows that love is unattainable; and so he plays at love . . . His true nature, thrilled through by the wisdom of the stars with whom he holds such raptured communing . . . leads him to mystic trances, to visions of deity, to mysterious marriages with elements beyond our system. For he, the Ishmael of the planets, never turns his face towards the Sun.

But if he be not steeled to endure exile, to attain the snowy summits of omniscience and bliss by means of the wise eremite, then the false nature mocks the true. In revels, fantastic and fond, in comedies bitter at the core, in the use of strange drugs or of perverse delights, in soulless and neurotic waking dreams, he seeks to satisfy his soul.

Ah, Neptune is the soul!

Back on Earth after that admittedly ornate detour into the psychology of planetary perversity, Myrna Lofthus tells us that Neptune rules toes, feet, malformations, leakage, toxic conditions & infectious organisms; also secret affairs, submarines, drugs, fraud, liquor, spiritualism, psychic research, fog and mist, while the people represented by this planet, are the masses and, appropriately for REEF, divers. Astrologers also believe that the planet’s movement reflects the process of gradual but profound change for the better in the human realm: the ‘sea changes’ that I have taken as the theme of my Fabrica residency.

In this regard it’s important to note that due to Neptune’s turtle-slow orbit of 164 years, it is considered to have mainly a generational influence on human affairs. For example, Neptune was in Scorpio, the sign that governs sex and addiction, during the sexual revolution of the sixties, and in Aquarius, the sign that governs innovation and intelligence, in the late nineties and noughties, when the information revolution arguably consolidated its effects on the world. Since 2012 Neptune has been moving through its home sign (and mine), Pisces. Early stages of a Neptune transit can bring chaos and confusion, and from an astrologer’s perspective the planet’s entry into Pisces, sign of spirituality, makes sense of the current violent upsurge in global religious conflict. But the Arab uprisings, the Occupy movement, and increasing grassroots climate change activism also reflect Neptunian themes. Neptune’s passage through Pisces could also represent a profound positive change in human consciousness: the rise of the enlightened masses; the People Power Revolution.

In the meantime, Neptunian processes do also subtly affect us as individuals, working at slow unconscious levels to dissolve old patterns of self-interest in our search for universal wisdom. Getting technical, the planet’s house placement in a chart; natal aspects to other planets; and transits (the relationship between the current movement of Neptune to planets in our natal chart) will indicate when, and in what area of our lives, these personal sea changes will most affect us. If you’d like to know more about Neptune’s placement in your own chart, and to use this information to inspire some writing of your own, please do come to one of my Neptune Nights in November. As the event page indicates, if you send the gallery your date, time (exact as possible) and place (city/town) of birth, I can draw up a chart beforehand and give you a short, basic reading on the night.

In any case, I hope that my explanation today has not been afflicted by Neptunian nebulousness, and, if not entirely convinced, you may have emerged intrigued at least, by the astrologer’s view of the distant blue giant and his role in human affairs. Finally, I’m also curious to know what you make of current sea changes in national and international affairs: the Savile inquiry and related disclosures of institutional child sexual abuse; this summer’s world protests against the Israeli assault on Gaza; increasing extreme weather events and related protests against the fossil fuel industry and other environmental polluters. Revolution, End of Days or la plus ça change: what’s your interpretation of our turbulent times and how to survive them?


A Spiritual Approach to Astrology by Myrna Lofthus (CRCS Publications 1983)

REEF: Art, Science & the Stars

Argo_Navis_Hevelius                                   The constellation Argo Navis drawn by Johannes Hevelius


One of the fascinating things about REEF is the difficulty of containing it in any one conceptual space. The exhibition exists in multi-dimensions: as an installation in a gallery – Fabrica’s disused church as tall, dark and timbered as a sunken hull; as images and sounds in videos that may be screened on other monitors in the future; and, most enduringly, as a sculpture twenty-five fathoms under the sea. For as well as the subject of a recorded performance the boat we see sinking in the videos is a material artwork: Simon Faithfull bought a crude concrete hull then built a wheelhouse and painted the whole craft the colour of rust. Is the Brioney Victoria a work of art rather than amateur shipbuilding simply because a professional artist refurbished her? Perhaps the right answer is ‘no, it’s both’; but to my mind the deliberate creation of the illusion of metal, and the primary intention to sink, not sail, the boat, do tip a balance towards sculpture. Finally, overflowing aesthetic boundaries altogether, REEF is also a project of great scientific interest: though the ‘Spring Watch’ aims of the exhibition have been unfortunately disrupted by the loss of the live video feed, the process of transformation of boat into a reef can be observed and documented by divers for years to come. (Unless, that is, as sailor and poet Sarah Hymas fears, human activities continue to alter the chemical composition of the sea so dramatically that its waters may one day be plastic compounds, no longer capable of supporting life.)

REEF asks us to look back to a singular dramatic event and forward to an unknown future; down to the ocean floor and up to the high ceiling of a gallery, seeing it afresh as the undersurface of a night sea. As Artist In Residence I have been looking higher yet, to the stars, and would today like to consider more deeply their ancient role as navigational guides, not just for sailors, but the soul. Already I’m getting into deep waters . . . so let me explain. In my view, like a work of art, astrology can be understood in different ways; some more useful than others:

1) As a science or pseudoscience. Astrology is predicated on the assumption that there is a real correlation between human behaviour and the movements of the planets. Some astrologers argue a causal effect, due to the pineal gland, electromagnetics, or interstellar radiation. Others believe that the stars are simply timekeepers, synced to underlying and not-yet-understood cosmic processes – as, for example, if you wake at seven am every morning, it is not because the clock ‘made you’ wake up; it simply measured your sleeping pattern. Conventional scientists argue that these various claims are either untestable or downright false, with some studies even showing that there is huge disagreement between astrologers about the basic meaning of a chart. Astrologers might respond by disputing the nature of the experiments, or calling on unconventional science, such as Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance, David Bohm’s idea or implicate order, or Karl Pribram’s idea of holographic order. Though none of these thinkers have endorsed astrology, perhaps a non-materialist science would be more capable of exploring the ancient claim ‘as above, so below’.

But is all this a useful debate? Personally, the claim that astrology is untestable most interests me. I have had many uncanny encounters with astrologers, tarot card readers and psychics, including an astrologer who suddenly blurted out my father’s forename, and a woman who took my pulse and then announced my mother’s death date. As a Tarot card reader myself, I’ve also had flashes of accurate clairaudience myself, giving names of significant people and places to clients. These occurrences are mysteries to me, and I don’t believe that science can measure them. Science by its nature dismisses anecdotal evidence and demands repeatable results; in my experience such psychic insights are not guaranteed, but arise from the unique circumstances of a human encounter. I am never confident I can repeat such pinpoint intutions, but am in awe of whatever is happening when they do visit me.

In addition, psychic or not, astrology concerns human behaviour, and like psychology can never be an exact science. Psychology has changed dramatically over the last century, from Freud and Jung to CBT and drug-based therapies; differences in approach that are fiercely debated, and may never be fully settled. For despite the best efforts of advertisers, drug companies, religious fundamentalists and dictators, human behaviour is not easily explained or controlled. While general conclusions are useful to a point, ultimately, we are complex individuals subject to myriad biological and social factors that make it impossible to predict exactly how a specific person will react to a given situation or treatment. We are also meaning-generators, with an enormous drive to understand the world in ways that make sense of our own unique experiences, and for many of us that means valuing not only our rationality, but also our emotion, intuition and spirituality. In my case, following my own chart over the years, I have observed many instances of close correlation between astrological events and events in my life – being asked to run an artist’s residency on the theme of the sea during the exact period when Neptune is making its final transit over my sun being just one of them. That knowledge has fed into my understanding of the residency, and what I hope it can achieve for myself and others. If astrology is a science, then, to me it is a form of therapy: like good psychologists, good astrologers offer their subjects a different way to think about their lives, and empower them to make their own decisions. Studies so far seem to have concentrated on astrologers; perhaps studies of their clients would be more revealing.

2) As a way of predicting the future. Again, this feels misleading to me. As anyone who has ever battled an addiction can tell you, human beings have free will. Though it may take an enormous effort, we can re-evaluate our lives and conditioning and choose what to do and to think. According to astrologers, the positions of the planets can suggest personality tendencies while transits correlate to opportunities or challenges, but even if this is so, the way people respond to events in their lives is ultimately in their own hands. As Joseph Campbell said: ‘The best way to predict the future is to create it’.

3) As a map of the spiritual dimension of the universe. Some people see astrology as a way to chart the realm of the collective unconscious, its archetypes and processes. This view requires faith in a realm beyond the material, and a sense that human consciousness is be somehow not only transpersonal, but a way that the universe as a whole reflects upon itself. Again, this is a untestable claim, but if it makes intuitive sense to you, this might be a good metaphor to use – bearing in mind that a map is there to help us make wise choices in our travels.

4) As a poetic language. If you have no spiritual beliefs, or pressing desire for a novel way to examine your life, a hermeneutic approach to astrology may still be useful and interesting. Astrologers, in this view, are interpreters of a complex and ancient body of thought, some more informed, sensitive and insightful than others. Theirs is a rich language plumbing the depths of human psyche, and using planets and constellations as potent symbols of the various aspects of our nature. Astrology in this can be enjoyed in its own right, without any need to believe its wider claims or apply them to one’s own life. Perhaps that is why poet Louis MacNeice took such a strong interest in the subject, his last book a detailed and beautiful volume on the subject. More recently, one of my favourite astrologers, the American ‘pronoiac’ Rob Brezsny, takes an exuberantly creative approach to the art of horoscope writing, while poet Hoa Nguyen has blogged this year for the Poetry Foundation on astrology as ‘an advanced form of pattern recognition’. And that’s where I’ll leave us, with the notion that what astrology ultimately reflects and embodies is the profound human need to detect patterns in existence.

Those are my views, and still a work-in-progress. What are yours? Have you explored astrology beyond your sun sign? What have been your experiences of it? And what about art and science: are they separate fields of endeavour, or can they fruitfully overlap? Do let me know in the comments below.

Blue Mover: the Astronomical Neptune


REEF is giving me much to contemplate. The exhibition raises fascinating questions about the Earth itself as an art space, and more troubling ones about the human impact on the sea. There’s also the opportunity to explore the show’s connection to the Brighton Photo Biennial which, with its theme of Community, Collectives and Collaborations, is fuelling my interest in dissolving boundaries between art and politics. But I’ve had a request for more about Neptune, and reflections on my guiding star seem a good place to start my journey. So as not to immediately frighten anyone off, I’ll begin with the astronomical facts. They are poetic enough in themselves, but be warned: this post ends with a flash of my astrological license!

To begin, though, with sober statistics: over fifty seven times the volume of Earth, but only seventeen times greater mass, Neptune is classed as both a gas and ice giant. For all its great size, it rotates quickly; while it takes 164 Earth years to orbit the sun, its ‘day’ is just 18 hours. Largely atmosphere, the planet is composed mainly of hydrogen and helium, traces of methane absorbing red light and lending the planet its luminous blue colour – though it is speculated that an unknown chromophore is responsible for the tint of the clouds. Invisible to the naked eye, this lustrous behemoth was discovered by mathematical prediction: the erratic orbit of Uranus suggested the gravitational pull of an outer planet, and thanks to the calculations of French astronomer Urbain Le Verrier, Johann Galle located the culprit on Sept 23 1846, from his observatory in Berlin. In fact, Galileo had first observed Neptune in 1612, calling it ‘the blue star’, but as he didn’t twig it was a planet, is not credited with discovering it. (Here I simply must insert a little joke I heard at a talk last week by Israeli peace activist Ruth Edmonds – when asked how she refers to Israel-Palestine, she said ‘Pluto’, after the small planet of highly disputed status . . . ) Sorry about that – astro-politico geek moment over, we can return to Le Verrier, who initially suggested naming his new planet for the Roman god of the sea. Successfully locating a gas giant must have gone to the astronomer’s ego though, for he was soon campaigning to instead christen the planet after who-else-but-himself. In the end, the Parisian had to settle for the slightly less immortal recognition of a medal from the Royal Society: Neptune, and its various global translations, was adopted by consensus – though be careful how you go in Greece, where the ‘Sea King Planet’ is defiantly known as Poseidon.

Governed by extremes, Neptune is a planet of exorbitant beauty and power. Its fiercely cold surface is whipped by the fastest winds in the solar system: if there isn’t a Mod badge for Neptune, there ought to be – one of its prominent cloud formations is known as ‘the Scooter’ for its speedy circumnavigation of the planet. Elsewhere, goths and Oya worshippers will be pleased to note, rage storms large enough to engulf the Earth. Beneath this turbulent veneer, Neptune’s foggy atmosphere is thought to eventually merge with an icy mantle, though the technical term is misleading – the planet’s middle layer is in fact a hot dense fluid composed of ionised water and ammonia. Smelly and scalding it may be, but Marilyn Monroe and Eartha Kitt would have loved it: close to the planet’s 5000 °C heart it is conjectured that diamond crystals rain like hailstones into a slushy diamond sea, sailed by massive diamond-bergs. At the centre of this dazzling ocean is the planet’s rocky core, a jagged furnace of iron, nickel and silicates, thought to be slightly larger than Earth. As for rings, Neptune has six thin ones, plus a slender necklace of moons. For over a century the planet was thought to have just one satellite – Triton, the coldest known world in the solar system – but as of 2013 thirteen more, much smaller moons have been counted, the last still unnamed, the rest suitably honouring Greek and Roman water deities.

Life as we know it cannot exist on Neptune, but the planet has long animated the human imagination, not least that of astrologers. At the time of its discovery – and now again since the controversial demotion of Pluto to ‘dwarf planet’ status – the blue giant was the last planet of the solar system (and in any case, Pluto’s eccentric orbit means that sometimes Neptune outlies it). This fringe existence caused infamous occultist Aleister Crowley to call Neptune ‘a lonely sentinel patrolling the confines of our camp’. Crowley associated Neptune’s solitude with psychic abilities and perverse undoings, but I will reflect on his characteristically astringent theories in a future post. For now, having staked my astrological flag on thoroughly dubious soil, I will leave you safely in the marvellous gravitational field of Derek Jarman.

For naturally, upon encountering the magnificent word ‘chromophore’ – suggesting a kind of cosmonautical sign language of hue – I reached for Jarman’s lyrical autobiography, Chroma: A Book of Colour – June ’93 and, like Triton by the giant, was immediately captured by the iconic British artist’s meditations on blue:


In the pandemonium of image
I present you with the universal Blue
Blue an open door to soul
An infinite possibility
Becoming tangible.


Absent by name in the chapter, Neptune is wholly present, to me, not just in such lucid invocations of its spiritual associations, but a moment of uncanny prophecy – losing his sight and his life to AIDS-related illness, Jarman, ever the visionary campaigner, asks:


What do I see
Past the gates of conscience
Activists invading Sunday Mass
In the cathedral
An epic Czar Ivan denouncing the
Patriarch of Moscow


Perhaps Pussy Riot read Chroma – why not, Jarman loved punkbut the weird personal resonance with my residency event, Sea Changers, bringing three artist-activists to the vestry of St Paul’s Brighton, is currently giving me the scootery shivers. I need to immediately seek out Jarman’s classic films Blue and The Tempest and watch them wrapped in a duvet of warm clouds –  more from Crowley and other blue angels next time.

Emerging . . .

Kidd Pivot Frankfurt Rhein Main "New Work"

Here it is, rising from the primordial chaos of inspiration and admin: my first post as the Fabrica Gallery Artist-in-Residence for the Simon Faithfull exhibition REEF. My role is to engage audiences with the themes of the exhibition; to write a blog and curate events that will ‘work with ideas of the sea as a metaphor for emotion, the imagination and psychological space.’ For those who don’t know me, I am a poet, science fantasy novelist, professional Tarot card reader and part-time activist for a just peace in the Middle East, and the potential of the brief to dissolve the boundaries between these various aspects of my life intrigues me more than I can say – though I will have a go!

As a poet I have used images of the sea to express deep, recurrent emotional states; as an SFF writer I am drawn to the magical hidden worlds of Atlantis, Lyonnesse and Solaris, Stanisław Lem’s compelling vision of a planetary ocean of repressed memories. As a Tarot card reader I work with the sea as a symbol of boundless creativity, of sensitivity, vulnerability and passion. And, finally, as a human rights activist I am concerned with the possibility of political, cultural and personal ‘sea changes’: fundamental shifts in perception and changes of narrative, opportunities for long-denied truths to emerge. The sea being a pretty big theme, I hope you’ll now allow me to entertain a big claim: in a time of climate change, renewed war in the Middle East, the devastation of Gaza, with both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism on the rise in Europe, and seemingly every day bringing another national revelation of the sexual abuse of children, institutional racism, the abandonment of the poor and disabled by a government racing to cut basic provisions and privatize our NHS – artists can make a difference. By applying our empathy and intelligence to urgent issues of justice, diversity and environmental catastrophe, and – however subtly – allying our personal vision with collective action, we can explore the complex undercurrents of social and political conflict, and, by diving deep into the human psyche, support real and lasting change.

‘Sea change’, then, has become the main theme of my residency, and its icon, for various associated reasons, the mysterious blue planet Neptune. Astronomically Neptune is cold and appropriately tempestuous – its surface racing with the strongest known winds in the solar system, up to 2100 kilometres an hour. In Roman mythology, Neptune was a god of springs, lakes and rivers, only later associated, like his Greek forerunner Poseidon, with horses, storms, earthquakes and the sea. In astrology – which can be viewed as mythology-in-motion – Neptune represents chaos, dissolution, temptation and illusion, the turbulent, overwhelming power of the sea; but also compassion, spiritual wisdom and universal love, the ocean’s pacific nature. In its movement through a chart, Neptune signifies the gradual breaking down of old psychological patterns, and the slow emergence of change for the better. Whatever you think of astrology – and I will write more about it soon – I hope you will agree this is a worthwhile aim.

Researching ‘sea change’, I learned – navigating full circle back to literature – that the phrase, like so many, was bequeathed to us by Shakespeare, in lines of The Tempest that, with their imagery of coral and submerged bells, converse over the centuries with Simon Faithfull’s project, deliberately sinking a boat in order to allow it to become an ocean reef:

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made,
Those are pearls that were his eyes,
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change,
into something rich and strange,
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell,
Hark! now I hear them, ding-dong, bell.

The metaphor of a voyage from suffering to ‘something rich and strange’ will be the essential theme of my residency. Over the next two months I will be blogging on various aspects of the journey, but for now I just wish to introduce my main events for the gallery, to all of which you are most cordially invited:

Night Contact
A one night multi-media festival: Saturday Oct 18th.
Screening projections across indoor and outdoor spaces Night Contact showcases a range of still and moving works exploring ideas of collaboration, authorship and influence in relation to the photographic image and the screen. A map outlining a visual trail across the city encourages visitors to view film and photographic works in various spaces across central Brighton. As part of the activities surrounding this event – Fabrica will be staying open until 10pm. Between 7-9pm I will be in the gallery to chat about science fiction writing, being a poet, the significance of Neptune to astrologists and my role as a tarot reader.

Neptune Nights
Poetry: Tuesday 4 November, 7.30–9.30pm
Prose:   Tuesday 11 November, 7:30-9:30pm
I will be leading two creative writing sessions exploring the mythic, scientific, literary and astrological significance of Neptune and asking participants to reflect on its themes. Participants who wish to learn the placement of Neptune in their chart are asked to submit their date, time and place (nearest city/town) of birth. No previous experience of creative writing or astrology is required.

Sea Changers
Saturday 15 November, 7.30–9.30pm
The Fishermens’ Vestry, St. Paul’s church, West St, Brighton BN1 2RE
In front of the large open fire built to dry out fishermen before church services I will host performances and discussion from three artist-activists. British-Palestinian novelist and lawyer, Selma Dabbagh; spoken word artist, coach and diversity practitioner Akila Richards; and musician, actor, writer and accessibility/social inclusion consultant Mik Scarlet will use the theme of the constantly changing sea to present their work and to discuss the relationship between their creative and political activities.

The November events are free but places are limited and booking is recommended. To book please visit the Eventbrite page, speak to a member of the gallery team, or call 01273 778646. And if I don’t see you in person, I hope to meet you online – the comments are open!

Image from The Tempest Replica, a dance production by Vancouver-based choreographer Crystal Pite, created for her company, Kidd Pivot.