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The World of Scribes: making a magical world on Helium’s online art programme

Teenagers with Cystic Fibrosis have been discovering how valuable virtual collaboration can be since we piloted our online arts programme in spring 2019. These young people face barriers when it comes to connecting and conversing with each other: due to cross-infection issues, they cannot be in the same physical space.

Helium Arts embarked on the second phase of the programme from October 2019 to March 2020 in partnership with An Cosán Virtual Community College, Cystic Fibrosis Ireland and the Waterford Healing Arts Trust (WHAT). The project was led by Hungarian theatre-maker Eszter Némethi who previously collaborated with teenagers as artist in residence on Helium’s Cloudlands project at Cork University Hospital. An Cosán VCC provided the online technology and moderated the online sessions.

Using digital tools, online mediated meet-ups and an offline postal exchange system, new and returning participants aged 12-16 explored the creation of a new world through performance, games, group storytelling, writing and artmaking. This exploration led to a group artwork, an interactive publication called The World of Scribes, which was celebrated with an online launch this March.

‘We were making a world that we would love to live in’ – participant

 

How we made The World of Scribes 

The young people connected with Eszter over 9 workshops via Adobe Connect’s virtual classroom, supported by the online moderator and Helium’s project manager. We would meet on Saturday mornings for 1.5 hours, Eszter beaming in from Brussels (where she is currently based) and our 5 participants joining us from Tipperary, Clare, Cork and Wicklow.

The project began with an invitation: what kind of world would the young people like to make and how we might communicate in this world of ours? Eszter transformed the multiple-screen “Brady Bunch” format (what we see through the frame when we see each other) into a performative space to connect us. Wearing carnival-style masks, we passed objects that Eszter had sent everyone in the post ‘between’ each other, tried to synchronise our movements, invented rituals with hand signals and clapping, and initiated a world that became our own.

I was surprised to see that they are more comfortable physically than with sound (both noises and speaking were more daunting).’ – Eszter, project artist

Mapping the world together

It is a land of magic. There is no sickness or hunger. The clouds are colourful if you imagine them to be. The clouds rain sweets and towns are built from this. If there are enough houses there are no homeless and everyone has the same amount of money. The environment is healthy, where all illnesses can be cured…. Worlding, Workshop #1

 

Worlding (for us: the making of a world) was realised in many different ways. Participants physically created blind drawings (eyes closed) of imaginary worlds which Eszter put together as an online map of the world. They typed ideas into the chat box and used the notepad to populate the world with characters (small dragons, mermaids, unicorns, goblins, flying pigs, an ice queen, Wloth the sloth), weather systems, geographies and philosophies (the world growing week by week).

‘Can’t wait to fill the world with art’ – participant

The young people made artworks at home to fill the world and these artworks were digitalised and then reinvented using online drawing tools. They worked as a group to add digital art and motifs to the world using the online whiteboard. In the book editing  stages, acting as editors in chief, they drew directly onto the PowerPoint proof and added text suggestions to bring the World of Scribes together.

Filling the world: participant artwork

Mail Art: From the virtual to the tangible

The postal dimension to the project is very important: before the young people ever meet the artist or each other online, they receive a package in the post full of art materials from Brussels (colourful tissue paper, craft scissors, wool, twine, glitter glue…), curious things (a mask, binding combs, blank white postcards in gold envelopes) whose purpose will be revealed when they meet online, and a welcoming note. This helps to establish a rapport with the artist, creates excitement about what is to come and provides participants with creative tools to develop work between sessions.

Happy New Year! We are now in the final month of the project so it’s all about finishing our book world :)’

As the world developed, the young people received more art packages, playful instructions, postcards of their artworks, story ideas and messages (‘the world will stay happy forever’, ‘the magic properties of the world that keep people happy,’ ‘be kind to each other’) and a book prototype. The postal materials became part of the artworks which in turn were posted back to become part of the book world. Sharing, reciprocity, communication that has a personal touch and a tangible quality… this is the beauty of mail art.

Mail art! Materials, postcards and surprises posted to participants

What is The World of Scribes? 

Dear Reader,
we were the seven stars.
In a place that was
impossible and impassable.

The World of Scribes is an interactive publication encompassing the various ideas dreamt up by the young people with design and production co-ordinated by Eszter.

This book is a book … It is also the world itself … The book can be disassembled, displayed, touched, folded and sent.’ – Outroduction to The World of Scribes

The World of Scribes: Book cover

World of Scribes is a … pop-up book

The book is a treasure trove of stories, rituals, character portraits, maps, weather systems, poetry, and physically and digitally created artwork. One of the participants designed a celebratory card with a pop-up cloud of fireworks on the inside. A bespoke version of the book was produced to include this pop-up and also a map pop-up of the world shaped like an origami fortune teller. A weather weave poem was created during one of the workshops, with each participant’s lines woven together to create one poem.

World of Scribes is … postcards from our world to yours

Early in the project, Eszter explored the idea of the world as a message in a bottle, ‘A nice adventure to see what sort of message you can send from a space like this.’ The young people created artwork and text for a series of postcards from our world to Earth. These postcards were integrated into the publication: the pages were produced in postcard-weight size and perforated so that readers could easily detach them. On the back of each ‘POSTCARD  from a star’ there was a short description: ‘View of the incredible landscapes from the World of Scribes as it was first imagined by the seven stars themselves.’

World of Scribes weather system: pop-up cloud of fireworks. The pop-ups were made by DarkLab Design.

World of Scribes is a … place for games

The book contains instructions on how you might use it (once you’re read it the whole way through of course!). The perforated pages can be torn out to remake the map, to turn your bedroom wall into a mini gallery, to post to people or to use as bookmarks in other books.

The middle of the book contains a story generator with white paper cut into thirds so that readers can play the ‘but / if / and / when’ game that participants originally used to devise ideas for the world. By recombining elements, the reader can bring new details to the world or create their own worlds: ‘People can do magic / when / they are in the sea.’

World of Scribes is a … tool for making art

The second part of the book is made of pale pink origami paper that you can use to fold into the animal characters that populate the world. There are detailed instructions for creating origami flying pigs, goblins, dragons, unicorns and Wloth the Sloth. There is also a special recipe for a colourful sugar landscape which Eszter introduced in an early workshop to brainstorm the material properties of the world. After all, it as a world where ‘the clouds rain sweets’ and towns are built from candy.

World of Scribes is a …. performance mask

The book jacket is not your usual removable paper cover. It is the mask of the every-shaped tree inspired by one of the participants who wondered what it would be like to become a tree. Cut out the eyes and follow the instructions to create your own mask, close your eyes … and become a tree.

World of Scribes is a … secret known to the seven stars

The Seven Summer Stars is the name young people on phase one devised for themselves. In this phase, the seven stars are the young people, the artist and the project manager. Elements of the book are mysterious with ‘quivering gestures’ and rituals known only to the creators. Participants wanted to keep their world a little bit mysterious ‘because then people reading can use their imagination’. 

The World of Scribes - origami tutorial

‘Making the book was so much fun and seeing the final product and all the work that went into it, it was amazing. Thank you so much for giving us this experience.’ – participant 

 

Online Launch       

The final session was a celebration. All the participants had received their books in the post and were glad to discuss something magical at a strange and uncertain time. The launch took place on 21 March 2020 with most of the world in the midst of a shutdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. For people with CF, physical distancing is not enough, they are confined to their homes.

Today we launched a book in another world. Because the impossibilities remained the same there even as possibilities reduced here. So this project didn’t get cancelled. This book launched like a small raft just as planned.’ – Artist Eszter Némethi

Online launch: Final postcard created by the young people from their world to yours

The young people received video congratulations from fans across Europe: Helene Hugel, CEO of Helium Arts; Noémi Herczog, a Hungarian theatre critic; Balázs Némethi who is Eszter’s brother and helped with the book design; and Esther Rodríguez Barbero, a Spanish performer and architect.

I just have to close my eyes and I’m suddenly there. And I was meeting all these creatures who inhabit it. I was having some conversations with the street dragon … And the street dragon told me that it is because we create worlds in between us that we live longer, that we live forever in the hearts of those people that are touched by these worlds that we create. – Esther Rodríguez Barbero

We performed a final ritual and closed the world.

The World of Scribes is produced by Helium Arts in partnership with Cystic Fibrosis Ireland, An Cosán Virtual Community College and Waterford Healing Arts Trust. The project is funded by the Arts Council, Dublin City Council, the Health Services Staffs Credit Union and the Waterford Healing Arts Trust. 

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