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Feature: Wild Whispers & Up Deva! at Chester Contemporary

For most of our daily life we move around towns and cities unaware of the spaces we share with others. Residents and visitors alike, we concentrate on our own business and musings relatively oblivious to matters that we deem not our concern.

Currently the Chester Contemporary a visual arts festival, curated by Ryan Gander, is attempting to make its presence felt. Responding to spaces and places around Chester, the event features a number of acclaimed artists: John Akomfrah, Fiona Banner, Simeon Barclay, Jacq Bebb and Ryan Gander.

The video piece ‘Wild Whispers’, at Storyhouse, is part of the Chester Contemporary Fringe Festival. The Fringe runs alongside the curated event and is open to everyone to contribute.

Before the launch of the Chester Contemporary, Ryan Gander spoke about the festival to students and staff in the Art and Design Department at the Creative Campus Kingsway, University of Chester. His enthusiastic presentation stimulated discussion amongst a group of artists who were part of the AA2A (Artists Access to Art College) scheme, including Estelle Woolley and Steph Coathupe.

Although the festival was intended to be inclusive, it was noted that some inhabitants of Chester might be left out of the celebration. Notably, the wild animals that reside in the city’s famous zoo. It was from this observation that two projects have emerged: ‘Wild Whispers’ and ‘Up Deva’.

The ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) video ‘Wild Whispers’ is a collaboration between Estelle Woolley, Luke Moore and Stephen Clarke. The video, shown on a monitor, positioned on a low plinth, is intended to be watched by a seated lone viewer.

Throughout the video the artist, Estelle Woolley, is the sole speaker of her AI generated poem. In whispering tones she makes the nocturnal connections between animals at two different zoos separated by thousands of miles. Artist and listener share the intimate space of dreamscape where the animals in the zoo dwell.

‘Wild Whispers’ is a response to black and white photographs taken by myself [ed: Stephen Clarke] in San Diego zoo in 1987. A starting point for the video was an earlier collaboration between Clarke and the California-based Bill Poschman who had used Clarke’s photographs of Burtonwood for an ASMR video.

For ‘Wild Whispers’, composer and producer Luke Moore has edited my own photographs and found video clips to visualise the fluid dreamlike state that Woolley’s poem articulates. A mixture of colour filters and close-ups of the photographs, and Woolley’s somnolent voice, envelops the viewer.

In the same manner that San Diego zoo stands in for Chester zoo, for the exhibition ‘Up Deva’ the ancient city Pompeii is twinned with Chester city. On show at Chester Pride’s Rainbow Tea Rooms, this exhibition is a collaboration between myself, the illustrator Steph Coathupe and the writer Hannah Harry.

Coathupe has responded to my own black and white photographs of Pompeii that were taken in 1989. She has inserted brightly coloured drawings of Chester zoo animals into the monochrome photographs of the ruined Roman city. The mischievous implication is that we’ve let the wild animals loose in Chester city centre.

Although not included in the official Chester Contemporary, the animals of the zoo make their presence felt. Hannah Harry’s contribution to this project is captions for each print.

These brief texts give voice to the animals in the form of written postcard texts that the animals dutifully send to their relatives. ‘Up Deva’, a reference to the TV comedy ‘Up Pompeii’ (1969-70), is a satirical reaction to the festival. It pokes fun at Chester’s claims to Roman origin while suggesting that the artists and the human visitors to the festival might be exotic beasts.

The theme of Chester Contemporary is ‘Centred on the Periphery’. With artworks dotted around the city, Ryan Gander’s intention is to make use of spaces where art might not usually be encountered such as a boat on the River Dee, a cocktail bar, and a tattoo studio.

Expanding on this theme, Estelle Woolley, Steph Coathupe, Luke Moore, Stephen Clarke and Hannah Harry have playfully brought the animals of the zoo, who are literally on the periphery of the Chester city, to the centre to share with others the excitement of the visual art festival.

Wild Whispers is open at Storyhouse until 11th November
Up Deva! is open at the Rainbow Tea rooms until 1st December 2023
Words, Stephen Clarke