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Getting to Know a Building

Updated: May 28, 2023

It’s one month into my residency with Slumgothic at x-church, Gainsborough. The second full moon of my time here has just passed and now begins the two-week cycle of waning, approaching the darkness of New Moon. I mention this in the context of Kairos time, which I have written about here, and because for the last few years I have been observing the patterns of life and creative practice in relation to the moon cycles and noticing the ways in which ideas, energy and activity wax and wane. So this pause around the time of full moon for reflection on the comings and goings of the last month is part of honouring this cyclical pattern as it comes to fullness.

It is my understanding that buildings, like everything else, have a spirit; a kind of character or nature that invites an opening-up to relationship in order for them to reveal their depth, complexity, and sometimes their teachings. The nature of my relationship with this building, as with all relationships, is informed as much by our time apart from each other as it is by our time together, and I am finding that it persists in a different way within the necessary absence of physical presence between my days there.

Kronos and Kairos

The ancient Greeks had different ways of understanding time which they named Kronos and Kairos. My simplistic interpretation of this is that Kronos relates to clock time, work time, the measuring of time as an hour, a day, a week - a quantitative relationship with time. Kairos relates more to the unfolding season of things, or the quality of a moment - a sunrise perhaps - that takes us into timeless time or time out of time - a more qualitative relationship with time. It is time marked by the opening of buds or the birthing of a child, the fall of leaves or the passing of a loved one. Kairos is the moment that seems to come from nowhere, and interrupts the horizontal linearity of the routines of life, making us aware of something bigger than ourselves, perhaps even something transpersonal and transcendent.

As my slow relationship with the building and happenings here starts to deepen, I am finding myself more inside Kairos time, inside the nuances of a cyclic rhythm of activity and settling that is unique to this place, whilst also being part of a wider universal pattern: the historical imprint of large cycles of ceremonial and prayerful activity and silence that were part of its nature for the 120 years that it was an Anglican church, the current daily silences that descend on the building when the hustle and bustle of activity subsides, the smaller cycles of noise and silence within that everyday activity. Kairos within Kronos.

Horizontality and Verticality

I have rarely experienced the juxtaposition of horizontality and verticality more strongly than I do in this building. The remnants of ancient native forest in Aotearoa New Zealand are perhaps the other places that have evoked this kind of crossing in my body that is centered in the heart-space of human physicality where the horizontality of out-stretched arms (the natural movement I want to make in these spaces) meets the verticality of the spine.

In X-church, the west to east horizontal processional route from one end of the building to the other is still in evidence - in the subtle edge-lines in the parquet floor tiles, in the daily movement patterns of those who use the space now, and energetically as an imprint. And the sheer height of the building - the pillars and the upward sweep of the simple arches - draws energy and attention upwards. There are obvious reasons for a religious building to have such architecture, but I feel challenged to see beyond this, to let it permeate me without interpretation, and see what transpires from a kind of nonchalant being-with.

(Image: brick dust from external wall in gum arabic)

Contraction and Expansion

Cycles of contraction and expansion are also in evidence. The annual seasonal cycle of cold and warmth governs the major activities of the largest part of the building: exhibitions and festivals are generally held in the summer months when the building has been warmed enough to retain a temperature that is conducive, and winter sees less activity.

And the physical imprint of prayerful contraction and expansion - the movement of the body between kneeling for prayer, and standing to expand into the space through the singing of hymns - is also in evidence. I notice my own body contracting against the cold and sometimes against the noise of the boxing at the altar-end of the building, and then expanding into the silences, the music, a moment of connection, or the warmth of the sun through the windows.

(Image: journal entry on board previously used for multiple purposes within x-church)

Slow Encounters

Community is the raison d'être for X-church. The drop-in centre of the Gainsborough Crisis Action Team is next door, attached to the main building. Those who use the drop-in centre sometimes come through the door into the x-church space, and I sometimes walk through that same door into the drop-in space. Conversations and encounters have begun to unfold in this crossing-over. I am a new face in the building and trust takes time, so I am taking things very slowly. Last week one of the drop-in users came through and chatted for a while. We talked about all kinds of things, and he briefly sat down and did a drawing in the moments before he was called back through to meet with his carer. It happened organically, was totally unstructured, and seemed to bring him peace and pleasure in that moment. Perhaps this was an another example of Kairos time.

Lost Words

Words become lost in here - an irony of which I am acutely aware and find more than a little amusing. Not only do the acoustics make it hard to decipher the words of others when they speak into the void space of the interior (unless you are very close to each other - another interesting pattern of movement that has not escaped me, and which I will continue to observe and work with), but I walk into the building some days and it seems as if all the thoughts and ideas that I had about the place evaporate into the central void and can no longer be found.

Video: Erasure Ritual

Considering Gainsborough

And what of the wider environment in which X-church is situated? My research into Gainsborough is in its infancy, but embodied inquiry as an adjunct to more conventional research methods is proving interesting.

There is a sense of Gainsborough being a meeting place of worlds, and specifically of small town with wider world. Quite literally it used to be where the river barges which came from upstream along the River Trent met ocean-going vessels to transfer goods from inland to their destinations in the wider world. Some of the Pilgrim Fathers came from Gainsborough, and it is the burial place of Richard Rollett who settled in Gainsborough and sailed on Captain James Cook's second voyage on the Resolution in 1772-1775 as the master sail-maker. These connections invite reflection on the legacy of colonisation and a being-with the complexities and darker sides of modernity.

Influx of workers from other industrial centres to support the building of the railways, and the historical movement of travellers through the town have meant that Gainsborough has a history of outside influences and flux. Two huge candlesticks found within the building of X-church were brought back from Egypt by the main benefactor of the church, Sir Hickman Beckett Bacon and bore inscriptions from both the Koran and from a Christian hymn - another meeting of worlds.

Further back in the 11th century Gainsborough was for a brief time the capital of England, when Cnut was King of England. And who can talk of Cnut without thinking of his famous attempt to hold the back the tide, allegedly in an attempt to reject the flattery of his courtiers by proving that there was a limit to his kingly powers. It is claimed by some that this famously happened in Gainsborough and related to the Trent Aegir (sometimes known as the Aegre or Eagre), a phenomenon created by the incoming tide meeting with the outflowing waters of the Trent and creating, in certain Spring tide conditions, a small tidal wave known as a tidal bore that travels inland. The Trent Aegir is another example of how Gainsborough witnesses and is host to the meeting of larger and smaller worlds, in this case bodies of water.

The x-church building itself is a kind of meeting of worlds encompassed in the word Slumgothic; built from simple materials put to use in the service of soaring verticality. The aspirational nature of the original church design never came fully to fruition. Funds were withdrawn due to arguments. Completion will never come. It is another of the delicious juxtapositions and truths of life that I find here. Not so much a work in progress as a work that has abandoned pre-conceived and externally-validated ideas of progress in favour of an internally-validated pragmatism. Not so much unfinished as complete in and of itself, content to sit at the meeting place of inland and oceanic worlds, to listen, and to house adaptation and flux.

More content and images from the residency can be found here.

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