Melanie Wilson's new sound piece, Autobiographer, opens next week at Absolut Dublin Fringe Festival.
Read her interview about what inspired her to make the show, her research with her Wellcome Trust advisor has fed into the creative process:
What is Autobiographer about?
‘Autobiographer’ is a poetic performance woven from the last remembered fragments of the life of a charming, affectionate and thoughtful woman called Flora. Flora is the autobiographer of the title and the performance is formed around her stories and recollections.
How would you describe your style of performance?
My work use sound and words to construct intricate and nuanced performance worlds. I seek to create very direct and intimate relationships between the audience and the event they witness, as well as crafting textured and transporting narratives for them to engage with.
How did you become interested in memory and dementia?
Over the last four years I have been making performances and sound pieces that have had a particular interest in notions of identity. My interest in dementia stems from the very particular way that stories and narratives are picked away at and unravelled by the disease, creating a constantly shifting and illusive understanding and retention of the self. Whilst dementia holds undeniably singular implications for identity, I also feel that the predicament of the disease can also reflect wider experiences of selfhood and the loss therein.
What research did you undertake for the show?
I spent an initial four months undertaking research with the assistance of Professor Sube Banerjee and The Croydon Memory Service. During this time I also undertook personal research and reading in the British Library. I made contact with a Singing for the Brain group in Lambeth and was able to sit in on sessions and speak to participants. After having written a draft script and sound score I spent a further four months with the assessment team at the Croydon Memory Service, observing their work and accompanying them on home visits.
Dementia is a huge topic – are there any particular aspects you focused on for your work?
I have focused on exploring the inner, subjective world of the person experiencing dementia. I chose to engage with the subject of dementia in a more umbrella way, rather than focusing specifically on one particular type such as Alzheimer’s. I also chose to engage with the disease at varying stages of development and functionality and this is because first and foremost I wanted to craft a poetic and often abstract portrait of person, rather than a portrait of the disease.
What is the most surprising thing you found out during the research process?
That there is no absolute way to be sure a person has a type of dementia until after their death.
Does Autobiographer drawn on real life experiences?
The piece has been developed using a detailed composite of the many and varied observations and anecdotes I have either read or been told about or seen for myself. I have constructed a very particular framework for the piece, but many of the reflections the character lingers over concerning herself are drawn from real life reports.
If you had to describe the show in a sentence what would that be?
‘Autobiographer’ is a poetic performance using voice and sound, woven from the last remembered fragments of the life of a charming, affectionate and thoughtful woman called Flora.
From who or what did you draw inspiration (in addition to your research) for the show?
My initial inspirations came in an indirect way from my family and have remained vitally so. But my touchstones have also been the extraordinary people I have met during my research process, both the people and carers dealing with dementia and the doctors and clinicians who treat and support them.
The main character Flora is played at different stages of her life by four different actors – why did you decide on this structure for Autobiographer?
I chose this structure because I wanted to be able to poetically inscribe the rich and vivid life of a mind and to draw out the predicament of itself un-tethering from the body. I also wanted to engage with the experience of ageing as well as the experience of dementia and to see the character unmoored in time.
Why is the show called Autobiographer?
It is the job title of the main character and describes the narrative form of the piece. Flora is engaged in ceaseless endeavour to keep hold of her own autobiography.
What part did the Wellcome Trust play in the development of the work?
The Wellcome Trust support was central to enabling the development of the ideas and concept surrounding this project. Through contact with my mentor Proffessor Bannerjee I was able to gain unique insight into the experience of living with dementia and also gain an understanding of the ethics surrounding care and treatment for dementia sufferers. The grants allowed me the time and opportunity to be rigorous in my learning about the disease and considered in my reponse to it.
Do you think artists and scientists are similar beings or poles apart?
They are both engaged in the understanding of human experience. Each unfolds the other. Artists and scientists both apply rigour to their respective processes and share an acute awareness of frailty, possibility and questions as yet unanswered.
What do you think art and science have to tell each other?
Every shift in science shifts and alters how we see our selves, how we understand the lives we are living. For all that we may collectively feel we have an advanced grasp on the science of neurology, having mapped the structures of the brain and the mechanics of memory, we still struggle to know how to manage the disorienting changes that come as memory slips and relationships change. Art cannot provide all the answers to that disjointure, but it can make links between people and speak about the alienation of some human experiences in the public realm.