Tall Tales: An Interview with Sarah Forrest

Before the major touring group show Tall Tales comes to Glasgow Women's Library in October, Sarah Forrest describes learning the drums and the exhibition run so far

Feature by Adam Benmakhlouf | 08 Sep 2016

“I started off trying to learn the drum solo for Led Zeppelin’s Moby Dick, the Albert Hall version,” – Glasgow-based artist Sarah Forrest describes beginning the process of making her piece for UK touring exhibition Tall Tales. The 17 artists who are taking part have been broadly organised as women that playfully use storytelling in their artworks.

“Working with that theme... for me that was a great opportunity to make a new work.” And after receiving funding to develop Recital, the process of learning the drums and writing began.

“I watch a lot of drum solos online, and there’s this moment of  emotional release. You’re there with someone.” This kind of experience spoke more broadly to interests Forrest has been following across past works. “Within my own practice, I’ve been thinking a lot about feeling and knowing and if you can know what you feel, and can you feel what you know. And how one is held as more reliable than the other.”

As much as Forrest took the task “deadly seriously,” she knew the goal wasn’t to become the next John Bonham – see the 15 minute video of him playing the solo with Led Zeppelin on YouTube. “The idea was I’d write about the edges of that, and see how I could think through these ideas by performing these actions with my body.”

Sarah Forrest, The Pot

Learning a drum solo turned out to be as complicated – maybe more so – as the Glasgow-based artist expected. “I went to Calton rehearsal studios and I thought I’d be able to break down this improvised moment beat by beat, then learn it. But it turns out you can’t do that.”

“To learn it, I’d go through this process with my body, and it doesn’t answer to critical thought or reasoning, in any way whatsoever. You’re just lost in that moment, you just have to learn it. You have to force your body through repetition.”

After learning the solo, and holding a performance in her studio for the work that will feature in Glasgow, the drumming will only be present very subtly. “The rhythm I edited with was taken from playing the drums, different from how I normally cut. And it’s a split screen, working with the left and right side of the body. Learning the drums, you had to separate yourself in that way.”

Thinking Around Drumming

Not an account of learning a solo, but instead Forrest orders the footage she made around what was most pressing for her. That’s to say, “how do you talk about things when you’re too close? Do you need to have critical distance?”

Forrest combined night rehearsals in the Glasgow Project Rooms in Trongate (so as not to disturb the other residents during daytime) with attempts to write about the experience. The idea of improvisation started to combine with what it takes to write fiction, “veer away from facts” and also a sense of what it feels like to go through a certain kind of emotional loss of control, for example through anger when “it’s a completely ad hoc, non-cognitive thing.”

Everyday Storytelling

Thinking about making narratives, Forrest describes the “everydayness” of her work. Though working experimentally in important ways, it’s still necessary that Recital has a sense of being relatable. So Forrest in the video includes text about a woman waking up, trying to make toast, but everything’s too close, then she calls the optician.

Not writing in a straightforward way about the feeling of learning the drums, what was more relevant for Forrest was the kind of negative space left by the time dedicated to practising. Every day, certain routines were observed during the time Forrest had free before practising at night. “I’d eat a grapefruit every day at a certain time, or drink an entire bottle of fizzy water a day.” There were basic actions she was repeating: eat a grapefruit, drink a bottle of fizzy water. As well as filming her rehearsals, she began to document these everyday routines.

Sarah Forrest, The Pot

Adding to this sense of time, Forrest had already brought a metronome into the space as part of her rehearsals, and a clock. At some point they transformed from practical and necessary to become the content of Recital. Joining the tick, tock and metronome click, there are images of flowers blooming then wilting.

Acknowledging that these might be “clichés” in some ways, Forrest also think about the importance of “moments of familiarity in other people’s writing” and that she “love[s] when you read [something] and you know it, you recognise something in it. The truth for me [in Recital] was feeling quite lost in this, so I have to write about being lost. If I don’t, I’m shaping this into something else.”

Exhibiting Together

Broadly speaking, a touring contemporary art show with 17 artists doesn’t happen very often. Forrest speaks about it appreciatively as an important experience. “I’m learning a lot about when you should compromise and when you definitely shouldn’t.”

In Glasgow, Forrest’s work will be presented differently than it was in Rochdale, the previous stop. The work will be shown over two monitors and “it’s cut across two screens simultaneously. The camera focuses and defocuses making a [whirring] sound. Every time a word comes in there’s a click, but it doesn’t play on every word. That feeling of having a bit of distance, but also feeling a bit disorientated is important.”

Thinking of the other legs of the tour, Forrest remembers fondly the Freud museum and in particular Ruth Barker’s performance, who worked in Anna Freud’s room. Barker made a feature of the loom that was removed and returned to the space, after being thought of as potentially distracting from Freud’s work as a psychoanalyst.

“Ruth had some of Freud’s jewellery, a necklace with nine pearls or stones on it. She was pregnant at the time and linking them with the nine months. She had this big dress on, and it joined onto the fabric on the table. She came in and we were really unsure where the performance began and ended, as she welcomed everyone in, then read [what she’d written] about the nine months and the pearls.”

Significant Storytelling

An important part of the exhibitions so far have been the panel discussions. One particular invited speaker, Dr Cleo Van Velsen (whom Forrest hopes will join her in the Glasgow panel), spoke about her experience as clinician in the Personality Disorder Medium Secure Unit in East London.

While the emphasis is on playfulness and tale-telling, there’s an undeniable significance that comes across as Forrest remembers Velsen’s contribution. “She was so fascinating, she was talking about her work with prisoners and beginning by finding out the facts.” While the emphasis might be on playfulness here, Velsen made clear the undeniable importance of narrative building. In short, storytelling “completely alters how you live.”

Tall Tales Comes To Glasgow

For the Glasgow launch, there will be performances on the Friday 21 October during the preview from 5-8pm. Tickets can be booked from the Glasgow Women’s Library website (womenslibrary.org.uk) or by telephone (0141 550 2267). The next day, there will be an open day with tours, discussion, screenings, celebration, nibbles and refreshments.

In advance of the opening there will a series of workshops to make a collaborative artwork for display in Tall Tales, through sharing stories and skills from week to week – as part of the artist Lauren Sager’s work Call for Cloth. They run on the 14 and 22 September, then the 6 October – all from 2.30-4.30pm.

The Chandelier of Lost Earrings will be showcasing from 17 Sep-21 Dec
Tall Tales, Glasgow Women's Library, 22 Oct-21 Dec