Janette Parris’s Hatfield Conversations presents a series of conversations with the people of Hatfield, gathered and rewritten by Parris and voiced by actors for the short animation that is currently playing on a large screen in the Art & Design Gallery. Parris has travelled around Hatfield to speak to its residents about their experiences of living and working in the town. She found that fourteen themes emerged during her interactions, and these have become the subjects of the fourteen scenes that make up her animation, and a comic book that will be produced later.
Parris refers to the subjects of her animation not as participants or interviewees, but as constructed “characters”. Parris’s scripted conversations are “slightly fictionalized”, “snippets of conversation” reformed into narratives. She elaborates and extrapolates, and adds “bits of fiction”. With these scripts, Parris is not merely telling a story, but “writing a character”. She develops “an idea of how I want the character to sound, in relation to how the [real] person spoke”, and invites actors to voice these characters as she feels they ought to speak.
She likens her approach to docu-drama. In its broad content, it is an authentic representation of the conversations that she has recorded, but the fine details have been enhanced. The final scripts are “amalgams of several conversations”, and similarly, multiple characters have been rolled into one. In one animated scene, Parris depicts an imagined conversation between Hatfield’s two mayors, pieced together from several conversations that she had held separately with each. Another scene depicts a conversation between a woman and a horse on a street corner. “There really was a horse,” she tells me, “outside Asda”, but the words it speaks in her animation were originally spoken by another individual who she met that day. Borrowing from a tradition of observational comedy, she allows surrealism to creep into her tales, in ways that a truly authentic documentary would not allow.
Everyday conversation is, proposes Parris, inherently humorous. In retelling and dramatization, apparently mundane concerns and observations can be revealed as quirky, witty, or surreal. The voices of actors, as well as the “short-hand” rephrasing that Parris has used in her script, are designed to highlight the humour that might have gone unnoticed at the time of the original conversation. She notes too that her choice of format – comics and animation – establish the “expectation of humour”.
The light-hearted presentation format allows Parris to address potentially contentious topics of conversation. “I don’t shy away from serious issues,” she says, explaining that the format makes these issues more palatable. She acknowledges that her choice of format was part of a conscious effort to ensure that people are not “put off” by her handling of serious themes. She stresses that it is important not to “dumb down” the content of the conversations, as the format itself is enough to make the content accessible.
Accessibility is another important issue for Parris, who hopes to attract people to her exhibition who have not previously set foot inside a gallery. Her comic pays homage to familiar forms such as tabloids and gossip magazines, in the hope that this familiarity will widen participation with her work. Among the new audiences that she hopes to attract, she counts her subjects. The people of Hatfield, who took part in her conversations, are her most important audience. These include interviewees who would not normally engage with art in a gallery setting, and the goal that Parris has set herself is not just to meet their approval with her work, but also to overcome the feeling that they are somehow unqualified to appreciate art.
UHArts would like to thank Vortex for providing the large screen for Janette’s show.