Video Still from Extremely Valuable Person

Before the pandemic I was working on an idea with my mother. Part of the process was that we would both share and learn new skills by making a film together. I would learn how to make potato chapattis, to knit and to sew (she makes all her own clothes), and I would teach her how to send and receive photos and videos from her mobile phone. The film was intending to utilise two audio interviews with my mother, with a series of still images only. One interview would be subtitled and translated into English and the other a Punjabi voice-over narration. This is something we are still intending to do post lockdown.


Video Still from Extremely Valuable Person


I was self-isolating in March; I felt I had to stay symptom free in case I was needed in an emergency to help support my mother who lives alone and is classed by the government as vulnerable. I’m always concerned she might fall again or become unwell again and my post- trauma fears of loss, especially during a pandemic were elevated. On Wednesday 8 April, I received a text notification from my GP which read, ‘…identified as someone at risk of severe illness if you catch coronavirus (COVID-19)’. So, I too am grouped as an ‘extremely vulnerable person’ and strongly advised to stay indoors for 12 weeks. Initially I found this extremely upsetting as I would be unable to see my mother until July 1 but over the last few weeks of lockdown my anxiety has been easing. Eventually, I will be able to give my mum a hug – I hope.


When applying to New Art West Midlands for this Micro Bursary I was looking to make dedicated time to focus and to tackle the pandemic anxieties that were building up for us both from a health and well-being approach. After several conversations with my mother I decided to apply with her consent. The main focus was to reduce our anxieties around isolation by having a re-focus on other activity that may benefit us by sharing skills and tasks remotely and documenting this activity by recorded interviews, photos, text and video calls.


Initially the project caused more communication frustration in relation to my spoken Punjabi and my mother’s lack of technical knowledge; even accessing photos on her phone was an issue, and this approach was not helping our well-being at all. So, after the first few days we decided to start off with daily pandemic-free conversations. There were many benefits and good things that came out of this time together, such as understanding each other more, but sharing of skills was limited to the weekly tasks we gave each other. I was tasked to appreciate the garden more. She would say ‘… talk to the flowers and plants you water and they will grow for you’ or ‘… climb the stairs five times a day but remember to hold the handrail and then check your blood sugars afterwards’ and ‘… I task you to send me two Bollywood Song videos a day’. This allowed me to step away from my computer and appreciate the privilege of being outdoors in the garden, to start exercising and to become a researcher for her Bollywood film choices. The tasks I gave her were to take a couple of photos every day, to spend more time in her garden, to recommend her favourite Bollywood films, to watch the news less and take photos of her knitting and dress making.


Over the next four weeks conversations became less about the pandemic and more about my mother’s childhood memories, her sense of identity, and the things we were looking forward to post-lockdown. It was good for us to both make discoveries about each other, about our family, about her childhood memories of her mother, and our love of Bollywood film songs. I asked my mother how she felt the collaboration went and she said, “I am really pleased I can now take a photo and view it. I certainly won’t forget now. It’s made me happy.” I asked her what she didn’t enjoy, and she said, “I don’t understand the art you are doing but if it makes you happy then carry on.”


Photo Credit: Harbhajan Kaur. Title: Me


I’m hoping all the documentation I have gathered over the last four weeks will help me think through my practice from a new perspective and potentially take it into places not previously considered. Certain topics and future possibilities are emerging: my identity in relation to the name I was given, conversations of experiences of our childhood and memories of when she first came to the UK. I am considering new ways of documenting these topics through audio, photography, handwriting and travelling research.


I have titled this project ‘Extremely Valuable Person’ because through all the hardships my mother has gone through, from arriving in this country from the Punjab in 1962 (she remembers how cold, bleak and hostile it felt but she made the UK her home), raising six children virtually on her own, maintaining a difficult factory job for many years and never being late or taking a day off sick – she is just inspiring. Ultimately, we are both discovering more about our relationship, the differences and similarities that are often not talked about, celebrated or accepted.


I asked my mother for her final thoughts. “Although I am happy in the UK, I am really missing India and hope I can visit again and perhaps we can go together for the first time.”

Dan Auluk reflects on his recent Micro Bursary activity – a collaboration with his mother Harbhajan Kaur. He used the project to make dedicated time to focus and to tackle some of the anxieties of this pandemic period.

We recently redirected the focus of our next round of Engine Micro Bursaries (a go-and-see resource in previous years) towards evidence gathering around the impact on artists’ livelihoods caused by the Coronavirus outbreak and the unprecedented measures taken to slow the spread of the disease.

We invited artists and arts professionals living in the West Midlands to share experiences of the current situation – case studies and points of view around practice in these exceptional times. The 10 artists selected to receive a Micro Bursary of £250 are:

Dan Auluk

Ania Bas

Helen Garbett

Dion Kitson

… kruse

Taz Lovejoy

Joanne Masding

Demi Nandhra

Adam Neal

Emily Warner

Almost 60 applications were received and the panel were very impressed with the strength and quality of artists’ responses to and stories of the current crisis right across the region. We were by turns moved, saddened and uplifted by what we read and the decisions we had to make were very difficult.

We are grateful to our panel of selectors which included Melanie Pocock, Ikon Gallery; Hannah Taylor, Asylum Art Gallery; Adelaide Bannerman, International Curators Forum; Anne de Charmant, Meadow Arts; John Cussans, University of Worcester; Mike Layward, DASH and Glen Stoker, AirSpace Gallery.

Our website and social media accounts will be places to gather focus points including the impact on studio-based artists, on freelance curatorial activities, on practitioners based in rural contexts, on the student perspective, and on artists and curators who are commonly disadvantaged due to race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion and disability.

Each of the 10 artists will be supported to make and research within this unprecedented context. We will be sharing results of their work – be it video, text, audio, drawings, photography or other responses – on our website and social media channels over the next few weeks.

We recently invited artists and arts professionals living in the West Midlands to share experiences of the current situation – case studies and points of view around practice in these exceptional times. We are pleased to announce the 10 artists receiving support via our Engine Micro Bursaries scheme to share their stories.

Ian Andrews - documentation of a video performance test - GRASSLANDS Residency 4

We spoke with Dan Auluk, artist, curator and GRASSLANDS founder about his upcoming residencies and plans for the future of this unique space in Birmingham.

Ian Andrews – documentation of a video performance test – GRASSLANDS Residency 4

Why did you decide to set up GRASSLANDS? What are its ambitions?

I have a very long garden and half of it was unused for a couple of years. Originally myself and my partner thought of running a community allotment project but this did not quite take off! We quickly realised we were not gardeners and didn’t really know our neighbours that well. So I decided to run an art residency project that was interested in finding artists who wanted to collaborate with others and produce art that was experimental, temporary and beyond the usual confines of studio or gallery based work. I usually find artists that have not met before and are from differing art practices or approaches to making contemporary art. I am interested in developing GRASSLANDS further by producing a work space area to run various workshops, develop one off and regular events and generally have a more structured programme that invites a wider pool of creative thinkers and makers to produce hybrid collaborative work.

Tell me about the challenges and opportunities of running the site.

Some of the challenges are around organising time to be available to facilitate GRASSLANDS residences and how this works for artists too. It is also financially challenging as currently it is self-funded by me but I hope to generate some income in the near future for this. The residencies usually last for a whole weekend and they are therefore quite short but this increases the intensity of the art activity and conversations that takes place.

Sarah Fortes Mayer – Artist Hand – GRASSLANDS Residency 1

Which of your past residencies have been most successful?

All the residencies have been successful in their own way especially when the work produced was unexpected and made through collaboration. Making new discoveries, skills or skill-sharing and collaborating is what makes the residencies most successful. Another success is when conversations lead to working with other projects, artists or potential opportunities.

Natalie Ramus, Hand Stitched: Monument

You selected Damian Massey and Natalie Ramus for a residency from New Art West Midlands 2017. Can you tell me why you selected them for your Special Opportunity Award and what you are hoping for from them?

I am hoping Damian and Natalie will collaborate together to see what hybrid work can be made. So a sculptural practice (Damian) working with a performance and sculptural practice (Natalie). After looking through the selected artists for New Art West Midlands 2017 I produced a short list of artists based on images and statements from their website and web links. I was particularly interested in Damian’s art for its sculptural qualities and possibilities, the conversion of manmade materials developing into natural forms. I was also interested in the ideas driving the work, more specifically concerns around urban environments and the impact of human culture. I was equally excited to select Natalie’s comprehensive website which showed a real engagement in pushing her own boundaries of performance through the physicality, emotional, action-based research and experimental work in response to a personal journey in relation to the public and the private and the conflict within this. Natalie’s ideas around perpetual performance resonated with my own research.

Damian Massey

How might Damian and Natalie work with the other two artists also on residence?

All artists are at different stages in their art career and all at an exciting time, producing individual work and collaborative projects. I am looking forward to new conversations they have and art making beyond each other’s practices.

The other two artists are previous GRASSLANDS artists. They are Ian Andrews and Sarah Fortes Mayer. Ian’s prolific art practice is largely sculptural and responds to site. His art practice is a personal exploration of how the mind works, interprets and remembers the experiences that make us who we are. Sarah’s practice is inclusive of performance and sculpture and looks into the invisibility of older people, confronting audiences with “the voices and images of the overlooked” as she describes them. Both Ian and Sarah also run an art project called In-Public, an Arts Council Funded community project recently looking at inter-generational approach to tackling invisibility, titled Age Yard Shift.

What are your hopes for the residency in July?

I hope the artists will collaborate with each other, share ideas, make new discoveries and stay in touch. After July I am hoping to run an annual event where I will be inviting all previous GRASSLANDS artists to meet up for an informal gathering.

We spoke with Dan Auluk, artist, curator and GRASSLANDS founder about his upcoming residencies and plans for the future of this unique space in Birmingham.