Home Architect Helen Cammock on her songwriting workshops with women

Helen Cammock on her songwriting workshops with women

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View of Helen Cammock's bass notes and site lines,” 2023, Lover, Brooklyn.  Photo: new document.

View of Helen Cammock’s “Bass Notes and SiteLines”, 2023, Lover, Brooklyn. Photo: new document.

Helen Cammock’s art re-evaluates the role of women in politics around the world. Her Turner Prize-winning film The Long Note (2018) depicts the diverse efforts of women in Northern Ireland’s civil rights movement. A recent exhibition at Art and Practice in Los Angeles entitled “I Will Keep My Soul” (and a book of the same title) juxtaposes the story of Elizabeth Catlett’s Louis Armstrong statue in New Orleans with archival material from civil rights organizers and musicians. And she movie Bass Notes and Site Lineson view at Lover in Brooklyn until June 18, explores the ethics of caring as modeled by Cammock’s workshops with women who are at risk or who have been separated from their children.

MY FATHER WAS BORN IN CUBA, where he was happy. Then I realized there was a hurricane. Any family not originally from Cuba had to leave. He was forced to migrate to Jamaica, where his parents were born. Her family lost their sewing business. He received a scholarship and walked to school through the mountains, barefoot alone in the dark, every day. One day he found a cat with a badly cut face. He took him home and stitched up his face. His mother died when he was twelve. She was taken to the hospital and he never saw her again. He told us this when we were young; it was the beginning of my understanding of a lack of care in a political and historical sense.

When I was young in London, our house was sometimes full of laughter and always full of conversation. I was happy at school. I learned the instruments. I did sport. Then we moved to the Somerset countryside. We were quite isolated and sometimes ostracized. We have been racially bullied. My father’s mental health deteriorated. At different times we found our way and made good friends, but it was a real shock.

We had a lot of political conversations around the dinner table. My father talked about South Africa, apartheid, the African National Congress. As a teenager, I became a member of an anti-apartheid organization in the South West. He talked about Northern Ireland. He showed us the news, and we unpacked these things. I took it with me. I was a folk singer, then a social worker. I worked for what is called a “play unit”, where we played with children outside in different public housing estates. I have worked in a family centre, doing individual sessions, a sports group for parents with mental health issues and a cooking group for women with learning and caring difficulties. Also for a project on domestic violence with women and children (many of whom had speech difficulties). We used disposable cameras to create images that captured how they felt and what they wanted to say. Then they could talk about their feelings about what the picture was doing.

Eventually I went back to school to study photography and film. And developed an artistic practice. A few years ago I spoke with a curator from the Serpentine Galleries, who asked me if I would work with social and health workers in Barking and Dagenham as part of Radio Ballads. I did, but felt like the story wasn’t complete and complex enough. People receiving care needed to be part of that conversation.

I wanted to think about care in a way where it’s not devalued and not weaponized. Break [a London-based program which supports women at risk of or who have been separated from their children] worked with ostracized women. They were mostly working class, although of different races. Some had been in foster care. Some had had abusive relationships. From our conversations, I gather that many of them experienced a politically and historically produced social and emotional lack of attention.

In the beginning, women did not come regularly to our workshops. Then I brought in a photo studio. People could work behind the camera if they didn’t want to be in front. They can work in teams or pairs, or alone. We talked. We’ve built a series of workshops around trying to articulate through different creative forms. Soon the women came regularly. All the while, I was filming. Then we started thinking about music, which women said allowed them to be with their feelings without having to delve into them, and to share feelings without having to say them. We started writing a song very slowly, using different games and activities. This tightened the group even more and fairly quickly the women arrived at the sessions before me.

By the time I sat down to edit my images into a film, the woman had, in a way, drafted it. I wanted everyone who participated to be in the film in some way, even if they didn’t want their voice heard or their face seen. I wanted to capture the feel of what was happening with us. I wanted to express my ideas about having a voice, being able to use your voice and being heard. We launched the movie and performed the song about a year ago, and the women keep coming back. They want to finish the job they started. We are currently in the process of recording and cutting a vinyl of the song.

Pausing starts a healing cycle. Women accessing services have eighteen months of support. Then they are invited to become mentors for other women. They say to themselves, “You have value. That’s part of what I wanted to do with this film. I wanted people to feel that they would like to be part of it in some way. It is transformative. A curator who saw the film told me she never sings. But after watching the movie, she sang loudly all the way home.

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