Webb-Ellis offering a platform for youthful hope at Nunnery Gallery

I was a little critical in an earlier post on the duo Webb-Ellis’s 2019 Jerwood/FVU Award winning film, For the First Baby Born in Space. Their documentary collaged snapshots of a gang of disillusioned teenagers from their hometown of Whitby, a north eastern coastal town desperate for some levelling up. My post riffed on the lack of narrative structure in postmodern art and in particular the lack of any personal narratives in the film’s documentation of its subjects whose sketchy pen pictures offered only fleeting glimpses of teenage anomie. I wanted to know more about their situations but accepted that this fragmented approach was an evocation of the post-millenial’s confusion when confronting an adulthood of precarity in post-Brexit Britain.

As I often seem to be saying recently, time has led me to rethink my initial judgements. Having just seen their recent film installation, This place is a message (2022), on show at Bow Art’s biennial Visions showcase at Nunnery Gallery, I can now appreciate the value of presenting subjects in a depersonalised context. This film is similar in that it is largely devoted to teenage larks and musings against visually entrancing backdrops. But the point I missed is that they are poetic avatars of youthful idealism not conventional case studies in specific scenarios (duh!). It helps that this film is focussed on wider philosophical speculation rather than adolescent navel gazing.

A group of teenagers recovering from their Leavers Prom tumble from the customary stretch limo. It is parked in the cosy, magical confines of a shallow chalk quarry and they are still in their party plumage. We sense an unspoken apprehension at the cliff edge of adult responsibility and are invited to join them in a rite de passage which incorporates singing, dancing, drawing, debating and baking potatoes in a campfire. We hear their reflections on the meaning of life, the future of our species and the search for a universal language of timeless symbols and rituals. One of them zeroes in on our unique facility for cooperative communication. They quickly come to the conclusion that the human face is crucial in bonding our species together and set about creating large chalk drawings on black banners that eventually form a glowering backdrop in the makeshift marquee in which we view the finished film.

We feel enclosed in an intimate ritual space with these nominated “seers and prophets.” Their insights are joined by online contributions from a posse of remarkably articulate 9-12 year olds extracted from a philosophy-in-education session run by Grace Lockrobin. I would recommend the fascinating full transcript of this session generously offered in an accompanying booklet, Markers, delightfully designed by Rose Nordin. The discussion on communicating universal meanings widens to apply the question to a practical thought experiment: how can we warn off generations far into the future to keep their distance from the nuclear waste dumps we have created around the world? This is not just a random starter exercise as it forms the basis for the obscure and newly formed academic sub-specialism of nuclear semiotics which posits the use of rituals and symbols to create universally understandable danger signs.

Moving image artists presenting the young as avatars of hope is a recurring theme of the blog going back to the early days in 2016: Mikhail Kirikis granting children the privileged status of voicing a social critique written by an adult philosopher in Children of Unquiet, Ulla von Brandenberg recruiting children to perform an implicit critique of Brexit through a re-enactment of a Euro confectionary culture fest and more recently Oliver Beer enlisting 500 children to re-imagine the sanitised Disney version of Snow White. We enjoy their creative potential but adult regard for children is often ambivalent.

Adult attitudes to the young can veer from irritation at their restlessness to sentimentality for their idealism. Underlying the anger, envy and romanticism is our guilt for bequeathing a wretched world for them to struggle through. As if in atonement it is tempting therefore to grant their words a treasured status as we have with globally renowned Greta Thunberg’s. In reality her despair at civilisation’s alienation from nature is as old as the hills. Nevertheless we cannot help ourselves from putting our faith in the next generation and it is surely helpful to their confidence to give their voices a platform as Webb-Ellis have done in this film. It is also remarkable how consoling it is to hear children coming at problems with a fresh and lateral approach. Let us hope this does not get drummed out of them as they strive to impose some of their new ideas on a resistant adult world.

To reinforce this message the group contribute a Meredith Monk-style musical soundtrack of animal and bird like vocalisations guided by musician Phil Minton to express a deeper sense of yearning for a kinder world. The surrounding giant chalk heads seem to confront us with the new generation’s blank incomprehension: how on earth did you get us to this place and what are we expected to do about it?

The film culminates in a low key outdoor party but to the filmmakers’ credit they swerve the cliched celebratory bonfire. Instead the trees seem to twinkle with scattered beams and we realise that they have mounted a glitterball. Kids just wanna have fun. Perhaps we should lower our expectations.

Much credit should be given to the group of teenagers who participated so wholeheartedly in the filming: Elizabeth Adedayo, Jessica Ampadu, Molly Burnett, Ritika Gogna, Haydn Guildford-Ross, Lydia Swift, Stephanie Walker, Manahil Zahra and Tyler Zziwa-Longe and to the enthusiastic contributors to the online philosphical debate: Elsa Bielby, Ethan Dsouza, Orla Prince, Sasha Revyakin, Luca Zalokar, Ella Gannarelli.

All images courtesy of the artists, copyright Caitlin and Anj Webb-Ellis. This place is a message (2022) continues screening as part of Visions 2 at Nunnery Gallery until 18th December

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