Sea Changers – or, buoyed by hope

Naomi Foyle, Selma Dabbagh, Akila Richards, Mik Scarlet


One of the most exciting tasks of my Fabrica Gallery residency was the opportunity to curate the event Sea Changers, bringing artist-activists Selma Dabbagh, Akila Richards and Mik Scarlet together this past Saturday in the Fisherman’s Vestry at Brighton’s St Paul’s church. It was an intimate evening in a dramatic gothic nook: an antiquarian book-lined vault, its high peeling walls hung with suffering icons, the vestry was designed to allow fishermen to dry off before service and features a whale’s maw of a fireplace. The warden lit the gas coals and, warmed by the blue flames rippling behind us, Selma, Akila and Mik responded creatively to the theme of the sea, and discussed the need for ‘sea changes’ in their various realms of engagement. Though when it came to political discussions the theme of backlash often felt more credible than slow progress, and outside the church walls Brighton proved openly hostile to Mik, the evening’s dynamic interactions left me buoyed by faith in the power of art and community to overcome all and any such challenges to our ideals.

British-Palestinian fiction writer Selma Dabbagh began by discussing her various responses to the Israel-Palestine conflict, which she described as, after this summer’s seven week bombardment of Gaza, worse in terms of sheer devastation than it has ever been. In reference to the sea, Selma spoke of those activists and members of the British public who had felt moved to join the 2010 Gaza Freedom Flotilla. Aiming to bring humanitarian aid to the besieged population of Gaza, the flotilla was brought to a blood-soaked halt when Israeli commandos boarded the vessels in international waters, opening fire on passengers and killing eight Turkish and one American activist on the Mavi Marmara. If events of that night are still disputed, one can thank Israel for confiscating all activists’ laptops and cell phones: an action Selma described as bringing new depths to the term ‘media blackout’. As she spoke of those terrible events at sea, I thought of Brighton’s seafront vigil for Gaza this summer, demonstrators bringing red and white flowers to offer to the waves in memory of the dead.

As a Palestinian, her life shaped by exile and dispossession, Selma channels some of her personal responses to the conflict into her fiction, believing that art can be like a current that runs alongside political activity – deepening its impact, but also drawing in people who might not be particularly informed about a particular issue. In her fiction Selma hopes to reach average readers and the incurious as much as activists; increasingly, draft after draft, she seeks to ‘remove the message’, and allow characters’ personal dilemmas to express the tragedy and injustice of their political situation. She read us a short passage from her gripping noir drama Out of It: the young Rashid heading along the beachfront in Gaza, caught up in a crowd of people fleeing drone and Apache attacks. Unlike his political family, Rashid simply wants to escape the violence – to get ‘out of it’ in a haze of pot smoke, a scholarship to London, an affair with an English girl; his frustration at being forced to shoulder his people’s historical burden is not a predicament previous generations of Palestinian artists have been encouraged to explore. In Selma’s view, perhaps the only positive effect of the Oslo Accords was to bring Palestinians greater opportunities to express themselves creatively, defying the pressure to cut their narratives from the cloth of ideological certainty. If the fighter always has to be victorious in the end, she noted, the number of story lines available is rather limited.

As indeed they have been for the Palestinians: despite increasing international impatience and outright disgust with Israel, any political sea change feels very far from that still besieged shore. Ending on another tentatively positive note, though, Selma mentioned the recent growth of support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and also observed that Palestinian culture is coming to be characterised by a new openness including cultural initiatives. She talked about visiting the Qattan Foundation in Ramallah last summer, where the Literature Programme director told her that the number of submissions of unpublished novels had increased from 10-12 in previous years to 26 that year, with altered themes including a stronger focus on the personal and more overt criticism of political leaderships. An audience member spoke in response of her involvement in Brighton’s public sewing project for Gaza, Remaking Picasso’s Guernica, bringing home the point that the Palestinians’ cultural work is not a message in a bottle, but part of a global movement raising awareness of their plight.

Next, writer and performer Akila Richards presented her short story ‘Be Longing’, written for the evening and set on Brighton beach. Of German-Liberian heritage, Akila writes about the UK with the astute eye of the outsider, yet hers is never a coolly critical vision; rather, her spellbinding performances draw audiences into the warm circle of her compassion, humour and sensual grace. ‘Be Longing’ concerns a group of Birmingham church goers travelling by bus to Brighton to pay homage to their African ancestors in a sea immersion ritual. Praying on the beach in their long white robes, the congregation is interrupted by a young woman, drawn to their striking togetherness and yet also challenging it – her Buddhist chants growing louder and louder, her cheeks redder, her gesticulations wilder, until her blue dreadlocks are lashing the church members’ arms. Akila told the story with exquisite control of voice, movement, silence and image: her performance was accompanied by slides, archival images of African American river baptisms, a head of long, sun-flung locs, and then – as the congregation moves into the sea and the story comes to its poignant conclusion – images of underwater sculptures by Jason deCaires Taylor. From prior conversations with Akila I knew that one, Vicissitudes, is located off the shores of Grenada, and has been interpreted by many viewers as an homage to the West Africans who jumped or were thrown from slave ships travelling to the Americas and the Caribbean. The images quietly faced us with a deep ancestral wound.

Being present for ‘Be Longing’ felt like experiencing the birth of a new genre from the waves: not simply a story, but a spoken word, multi-media, collective meditation. That Akila’s powerful creativity is charged with a measure of simmering anger was clear in her later discussion of the lack of ethnic diversity in mainstream UK arts and media, a subject she understands inside-out, both as a black artist and a former Arts Council England employee. Not only has change not occurred, she informed us, we have also gone backwards: she has moved from feeling absent in mainstream cultural institutions, to feeling downright offended by them. I know of Akila’s firm opposition to Exhibit B, the controversial installation intended to critique historical and modern slavery, but cancelled after protests calling for a boycott of its presentation of silent black actors in cages and chains. In contrast, her story approached the theme of slavery with tact and a potent sense of changes wrought by time’s passage. The brief image of the white girl’s whipping dreadlocks created uncomfortable echoes of historical violence, but at the same time her characterisation also expressed the desperate isolation of someone seemingly ‘at sea’ in the world, to be pitied and embraced more than feared. Though I didn’t support the Exhibit B boycott, I followed both sides carefully and it seemed me the conflict escalated to due to the Barbican’s fundamental lack of engagement with the protesters. In ‘Be Longing’ the congregation chants a long list of the names of the dead, going back generations; Akila’s words and images demonstrated that ‘the ancestors’ the protestors were defending are not an abstract concept to many Black British people, but a real presence in their lives.

Finally, I was struck by the gift of Akila’s story to Fabrica Gallery and Simon Faithfull: as though in a call and response, she had replied to REEF with a resonant artwork that stretched from Brighton Beach to the other side of the Atlantic – Jason deCaires Taylor’s sculptures, like Faithfull’s new work for Fabrica, are intended to form artificial reefs, both to encourage the growth of marine life and to create diversions from endangered coral reefs.


Vicissitudes by Jason deCaires-taylor-sculpture

Akila’s performance had established a cabaret feel to the night, which I’d hoped broadcaster, journalist and musician Mik Scarlet could amplify. Mik’s plan to play us a few songs was scotched by muppets and gremlins when the new keyboard he’d ordered online was posted, not to him, but back to the manufacturer . . . instead he regaled us with tales of his life and times as a ‘born and made’ disabled person, sea-doggedly working my aquatic theme into his wide-ranging raconteurship (see, it’s catching). Mik conjectured that he was conceived in Brighton, where his parents used to come in the early sixties, not as Mods but ‘moderns’ – jazz lovers and snappy dressers whose world was dramatically changed when Mik was diagnosed at six weeks with an ‘incurable’ cancer: a tumour so large it was already pressing out of his body. His stunned parents had thought it best to ‘let him die’, but doctors refused, placing him on the trial of a drug that went on to save many lives, a fact for which today he takes just modest credit!

For the miracle of Mik’s survival makes his early band name ‘Scarlet Messiah’ entirely understandable: even when the cancer went into remission doctors thought he would only live five years, but he continued to defy the prognosis, imbued by his mother with the sense that he could overcome any challenge, including a paralysed right leg and the chronic pain he still experiences. Nevertheless, he was not fully prepared for the next challenge to come. When at fifteen his spine collapsed and he became a wheelchair user, for a short time he contemplated suicide. But he could not imagine letting his mother find his body and, instead of killing himself, Mik dyed his hair red and embarked on a rambunctious and highly successful career in music, TV and radio, winning both an Emmy and the Best Children’s TV presenter award, and marrying his musical collaborator Diane Wallace in the process.

Mik also discussed his disability rights activism, first noting that access in Brighton was extremely poor: though he was very forgiving about the narrow church toilet, the scarcity of disabled parking spots in the town centre had really irked him. He spoke too about his passionate opposition to assisted dying: when disabled people have equal access to life, he argued, then we can talk about giving us all equal access to death. To illustrate, he told us about a friend of his who, with the closure of the Independent Living Fund, had just been stripped of her live-in personal assistant, meaning that overnight she went from being someone with a job she loved, to being unemployed and imprisoned at home, isolated with no realistic prospect of regaining her independence. Under those conditions, anyone might feel depressed enough to want to end it all. Although the subject is a hot topic, the night was not a debate, but an opportunity to contemplate different perspectives, and allow them to enlarge our understanding. The response of one audience member, the relative of a young boy with learning disabilities, suggested that Mik’s resolute emphasis on dignity and equal rights in life rang true for her.

Like Akila, Mik was scathing about the lack of diversity in British public broadcasting. From his days at the BBC he also had an explanation for the backslide. After successfully setting up Disability and Ethnic Minority Programming Units in the eighties – colleagues who often collaborated – as the nineties ended the BBC decided to ‘integrate’ minority groups into regular programming. The disabled presenters and producers were, in fact, Mik told us, ‘integrated into the dole queue’. Here Akila joined his conversation, both finding common cause, and common fault with management structures: as Akila said, she didn’t just want to see her face on screen, she wanted to sit in the director’s chair too.


Palestinians and older women are also routinely excluded from the BBC’s screens, of course. A female whistleblower has recently reported on the corporation’s practice of asking employees to sign gagging clauses to prevent them from exposing the way it axes or quietly drops older women journalists, while watching the news one night this summer I incredibly heard four Israelis interviewed about the bombardment of Gaza with not a Palestinian in sight. Mik advised complaining to the Beeb, which I have done, after the 2008-9 assault on Gaza, all the way through to losing my final appeal. ‘Balance’ was achieved across programming, I was told, though was given no evidence to support this statement. I was therefore highly encouraged to hear of Akila’s campaign group Just Culture, currently demanding accountability on diversity from all public institutions, and my evening’s theme was saved when Mik suddenly heralded the arrival of a tsunami of minority group activists, all converging and crashing at the same time on the BBC. Perhaps not an impossible dream – one of the highlights of my summer was marching with thousands of people in London, all pausing beneath the broadcaster’s offices to chant ‘Shame on you BBC!’

The Sea Changers event was another high water mark of the year for me. For a few hours a genuine current of concern for each other and the world had moved between artists and audience. Somehow, we all felt enlarged, heard, transformed by a sense of shared purpose. Perhaps the event was just a drop in the ocean, but it shone like a diamond. Sunday, however brought a rude jolt of reality. Out in Brighton’s Lanes Mik and Diane encountered not only inaccessible new buildings, but myriad hostility from passers-by, behaviour ultimately so baffling and infuriating they left the city before noon. I felt ashamed of Brighton, its trendy veneer masking such antiquated attitudes and architecture, and when Mik offered to lend his support to local groups challenging these dire conditions, I was glad that Akila and I were able to make some such connections for him. For that was the precise purpose of the evening: to allow talk and art to meet action. I’m now dreaming about holding more Sea Changer events, involving as many artists and activists as possible. Watch this space!


With thanks to Fabrica Gallery for hosting, Jonathan Swain for stage managing, Diane Scarlet Wallace for permission to use her photo of the speakers, and Mik Scarlet for his reflections on the evening for the Huffington Post. The photo of the disability rights protest comes from the blog of Jeffrey Preston.



An Ode to the Sea Lord: Neptune & the Poets


After all my musings on the astronomical and astrological Neptune, it was fascinating to explore the sea god’s literary lineage in two evenings at Fabrica Gallery this month, the first dedicated to poetry, the second to prose. Though Neptunian themes of illusion, fear, chaos, spirituality and transcendent beauty overlapped both nights, the poetry I found mainly explored submerged and interior worlds, while the prose pieces I chose also took us out into the heavens. Let’s begin with the poems.

In homage to the Greeks, who still defiantly call Neptune Poseidon, I started with the Homeric ‘Hymn to Poseidon’. This ancient song opens by acknowledging the earth shaker’s desolate domain, but ends with a trusting appeal to his better nature:


You are dark-haired
you are blessed
you have a kind heart.

Help those who sail upon the sea in ships.

from The Homeric Hymns (Penguin, 2003)
translated by Jules Cashford


Is this really a hymn to wishful thinking, Neptune’s powers of illusion, the remarkable human ability to see what we want to see in difficult people or tyrannical autocrats? Or did Poseidon in fact harbour a secret tenderness for us poor humans he had lost by the time the Romans got hold of him? Classicists, please enlighten us!

Contemporary odes to Neptune were harder to come by, but divine intervention ensured I found one that mentioned him by name. One of the highlights of my recent trip to Odesa, discussed here on the blog, was a visit to the literary museum, which houses a small collection of Anna Akhmatova’s work. The statuesque Russian poet, melancholic lover and resolute witness to the Stalinist terrors, was born near Odesa and spent her childhood summers in the region. The display included a palm-sized booklet of the long poem ‘Close to the Sea’, or as my host translated, ‘very close’: an intimate relationship. I looked it up in The Complete Poems when I got home and assumed it must be ‘By the Edge of the Sea’. The ballad of a fierce young woman willing the arrival of her beloved from the waves, the poem was too long for the workshop and extracts would not do it justice. A shame, I thought, setting down the 950 page book, which promptly fell open to:


In Vyborg
to O.A.L.

A huge underwater step
Leading to Neptune’s kingdom ―
There Scandinavia chills, like a shade,
All of it ― as a single shining apparition.
Song falls silent, music is dumb,
But the air burns with their fragrance,
And white winter, on its knees,
Observes everything with reverent attention.

Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966)
translated by Judith Hemschemeyer


Workshop participants were arrested by these lines, spending some time discussing  their ambiguous fusion of land and sea, silence and scent, pagan and Christian imagery. Perhaps all poems require us to take that ‘huge underwater step’ into a world of fluid associations – powerful enigmas also wash through ‘Convoy’ by Charles Causley, the Cornish poet and schoolmaster whose early work reflects his first career in the Royal Navy:



Draw the blanket of ocean
over the frozen face.
He lies, his eyes quarried by glittering fish,
Staring through the green freezing sea-glass
At the Northern Lights.

He is now a child in the land of Christmas:
Watching, amazed, the white tumbling bears
And the diving seal.
The iron wind clangs round the ice-caps,
The five-pointed Dog-star
Burns over the silent sea.

And the three ships
Come sailing in.

Charles Causley (1917-2003)


Here the bright Christmas miracle merges with a cold sea tragedy – or many tragedies. For the anonymous drowned man evokes the Unknown Sailor, remembered in Odesa by a coastal obelisk – built to honour the sailors who attempted, on land, to defend the city from the 1941 Nazi invasion:


A small but rich poem, in two deft strokes ‘Convoy’ alludes to both Shakespeare’s Full Fathom Five and Auden’s ‘The Old Masters’, which famously ends with the image of a ship sailing serenely past the drowning Icarus. Causley’s three ships evoke the joyous Christmas carol, triumphant vessels that, in the poem, may have survived a human tragedy but in the cold eyes of commerce or war arrive complete. Or perhaps the paradox suggests something more consoling – the acceptance of loss, and the renewal of faith in life’s abundance after a harrowing bereavement.

Emotional loss was also the subject of the night’s last poem, Sylvia Plath’s ‘Lyonnesse’. We discussed the complex nature of the Lyonians’ god – no lusty Neptune, but a bored, cerebral giant, lonely and weary, in a moment of sensual langour abandons those who, the poem’s opening lines suggest, depend on him for their very existence. While compelled by the poem’s mythological grandeur, and not wanting to sink into a shallow autobiographical reading, we also wondered if it might be possible to interpret it as a metaphor for a family governed by a self-absorbed, absent father. Two Plathian scholars give their view here, but I’ll leave you with the poem, and perhaps, like me, with a desire to visit the Seven Stones reef between Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, said to be the site of a beautiful land with 140 churches, lost to an earthquake and tsunami on the night of November 11th, 1099 . . .


No use whistling for Lyonnesse!
Sea-cold, sea-cold it certainly is.
Take a look at the white, high berg on his forehead-
There’s where it sunk.
The blue, green,
Gray, indeterminate giltSea of his eyes washing over it
And a round bubble
Popping upward from the mouths of bells

People and cows.
The Lyonians had always thought
Heaven would be something else,

But with the same faces,
The same places…
It was not a shock-

The clear, green, quite breathable atmosphere,
Cold grits underfoot,
And the spidery water-dazzle on field and street.

It never occurred that they had been forgot,
That the big God
Had lazily closed one eye and let them slip

Over the English cliff and under so much history!
They did not see him smile,
Turn, like an animal,

In his cage of ether, his cage of stars.
He’d had so many wars!
The white gape of his mind was the real Tabula Rasa.

All poems copyright the writers and translators, reproduced here and at the workshops for educational purposes and free of charge.




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.