It’s Watershed’s 30th birthday…

… and after looking at the photographs of 30 years-worth of Watershed’s monthly programme covers on Facebook I realised that I’ve had connections with this Bristol cultural landmark for 25 years of those three decades. These programmes seemed a good vehicle for reflecting on the journey we’ve been on together and the role we’ve played in each others’ lives.

Watershed was Britain’s first Media Centre and although that definition has been at times hard for some to understand, in the 80s it had a complete darkroom, full-time photography staff, exhibition space and ran courses and workshops in photography and video. All those features have now gone (much lamented by Bristol’s photography community at the time) as Watershed evolved to survive. By the 90s Watershed had fully embraced what was then referred to as ‘new technology’ and set up a ‘digital darkroom’ and training courses in this burgeoning area – all 4 members of our family benefited from one course or another and eldest son did a traineeship in digital media at Watershed and at the BBC in the early 90s, now a Flash Developer at Aardman Digital.

My first point of contact with Watershed – as a participant rather than simply a cinema visitor – was seeing a photography course advertised late in 1987 called ‘Women’s Exhibition Photography’. I joined, found both confidence and new friends and the course resulted in a group exhibition in ‘The Concourse’ (a rather grand name for the cinema corridor!) in June 1988 called Intuitive Visions – there’s more detail about the exhibition and what it led on to for me in this post but partly as a result of this episode I become a voluntary member of Watershed’s photography advisory panel for 7 years – working alongside the staff to discuss potential photography exhibitions and taking part in portfolio sessions for members of the public.

There was a strong photographic community in Bristol then as there is now and Watershed played an important part within that so many users of Watershed were saddened to see the darkrooms disbanded and the exhibition space turned into a conferencing area in 1998. However, my involvement on this advisory group was a significant point in the development of my relationship with photography.I made another appearance in the brochure eight years later in 1996 by which time I had reinvented myself and become part of artists’ group Ship of Fools and a visiting lecturer in photography at the University of the West of England. All 5 members of Ship of Fools at that point were UWE staff working in film/video, photography and interactive media. Narrative and how you could play with it using this new technology was a theme that ran through all our work and the group doubled up as an academic research project. We were invited to talk about Multimedia and Interactivity from the makers’ perspective at a seminar series at Watershed called ‘The Storytelling Machine – the impact of digital technologies on narrative’ in March 1996. Incidentally one of the other speakers in this series was Andy Cameron, a real pioneer in this area who sadly died suddenly last week. The most recent name check as artist/producer came in December 2000 with a joint exhibition called ‘Six Small Screens’  – a collaboration between Hewlett Packard and 6 artists as part of the uselT Exhibition: ‘A digital exhibition profiling new creative works, interactive prototypes and broadband digital networks’ My presence at Watershed after this evolved through freelance work as a) a producer for “Animate +” a digital skills project for young people not in work education or training (website for project no longer exists) b) co-ordinator for Electric December over several years, and c) as facilitator for a number of digital storytelling projects, and persists to this day in other capacities.

1987 to 2000 was a long and important journey for me – from tentative explorations with new forms of photographic expression through to collaborating with Hewlett Packard on experiential research, and it’s been valuable for me that the route has wound in and out of Watershed over the years too since it’s been largely a fine travelling companion, providing training and space for exhibiting (sadly no longer the case), opportunities for discussion and presentation of ideas, and support and encouragement from some of the talented and enthusiastic people who have worked there; here’s to a prolonged and active life for Watershed!

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