August 18, 2020

Steampunk Bob’s Videogram Express took place during the coronavirus lockdown. An intergenerational project, specifically created to respond to the impact of social distancing and shielding, it helped to connect people during a time of uncertainty when their usual routines were upturned and their physical interactions with friends and family were restricted.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic People United had been planning to explore the power of good deeds and gratitude for our Tate Exchange programme at Tate Modern. Together with associate artist Bob Karper (aka Steampunk Bob), we wanted to explore how acts of kindness might positively impact mood and behaviour inside a defined space. When lockdown came, the gallery had to close its doors, so we encouraged Bob to reimagine the project and then trial some of his ideas in a digital space – and that’s how Steampunk Bob’s Videogram Express was born!

Steampunk Bob’s Videogram Express was created as an intergenerational exchange of greetings and advice between young and old, an online project that would allow the power of kindness and would generate feelings of warmth and connectedness during difficult times.

Here, Bob tells us more about the project and we introduce some of the resulting videos:

“For several years People United have been facilitating Kindness Week residencies at primary schools with me playing the role of artist and treasure hunter, Steampunk Bob. Pupils have always reacted enthusiastically, discovering lots of KQ treasure (Kind Qualities) inside themselves and others. In 2018, we visited St. Stephen’s Infant School in Canterbury, and the whole place became completely involved, even extending the activities long after we left. When we asked if they would like their pupils to take part in the videos, they welcomed us with open arms.

Lockdown was very difficult for many older people, creating and exacerbating feelings of isolation. My friend and colleague Shula Hawes works with The Cares Family – a charity that helps older people living on their own – and she had told me they had been trying to organise zoom gatherings for their ‘older neighbours’ (what they call the members of their scheme).

I’ve facilitated many intergenerational projects in care homes in the past and seen first-hand the bonds of understanding that can be formed between older people and young children. Both groups’ open acceptance of one another, their absence of judgement, their ability to be fully in the present, all contribute to creating a joyful, quality experience. So Shula and I decided to work together to create zoom meet-ups, where the older neighbours would answer questions posed by the children. We hoped that the questions would be starting points for conversation, and possibly the forming of bonds with each other. Little did we know…

We started the project by filming an invitation video to the pupils at St Stephen’s. I dressed up as Steampunk Bob, pitching it as an extension of my past visit – telling them about a further kind thing they could do for my friends who were isolated at this difficult time. I spent a fun lockdown afternoon filming it in my kitchen and editing it with sound effects, pictures and mini film clips.

There were only a few pupils in school at the time – the children of key workers – and they all wanted to take part. Their teacher, Ms Gold, filmed them asking their questions, and you can see that some were at ease speaking directly to an imagined person, and others were quiet or shy. One pupil declined to take part at first, but at the last minute decided she would dance for the camera instead of asking a question. It was much less stressful, and much more fun!

I wasn’t sure quite how the remote chats with the older neighbours would go, but it quickly became clear that they were charmed by the pupils, and that they were thrilled to be responding to their questions. The thoughtfulness of their answers, the care and consideration they showed to each of the children and the gentle encouragement they gave to the shyer pupils remains a delight to see. We scheduled an hour for each session, but this flew past that time. The clock passed 90 minutes and folks were still discussing the questions and chatting about times in their lives that were brought to mind. Shula and I were privately sending each other chat messages: ‘How are we going to end this?’ and ‘I have absolutely no idea…’

Alas, internet connection in some participants’ homes means there is some choppy footage, but I think it fairly accurately reflects the times we are in, and it’s so good to see how 70, 80, 90 year olds are just as able and willing to use (and benefit from) digital technology. For me, the glitches are more than compensated for by witnessing the children overcome their shyness and the caring, encouraging answers from the older neighbours.

We sent the videos to St Stephen’s Infant School in time for the children to watch them on the last day of term. Ms Gold wrote about their experience watching the films:

“The most noticeable reaction from the children was the pure excitement at the prospect of seeing themselves on screen, followed by shyness when actually seeing themselves on screen! Some of the younger ones were sure we were watching in real time and nodded along to the responses. When the participants identified the children personally, they beamed… I think they really felt a connection. The children were interested in the responses, they laughed and chatted, nodded and smiled! They loved knowing the ages and there were a few gasps! Given the challenging times and unusual past few months, I really believe this gave our children a sense of ‘togetherness’, and an understanding of how similar and different other people’s experiences of lockdown have been.”

The pupils from St Stephen’s who took part were Adam, Bill, Blaec, Ezme, Halle, Logan, Malachy, Niamh, Oscar, Sabia & Victoria. The two teachers were Ms Gold & Mrs Vickers.

The Cares Family Older Neighbours who took part and replied with wonderfully considered, funny and engaging stories were Carol King, Corinne & Linda in Liverpool, and Carol Vincent, David, Ed, Florence, Peter & Sue in London. The final videos were augmented with Creative Commons images, film footage and sound effects from wonderful free source sites unsplash.com, Prelinger Archive and freesound.org.

Many thanks to ‘Mega Becky Vincer’ and the team at People United for commissioning the project, and thanks to Shula Hawes from The Cares Family and Emma Gold from St. Stephen’s Infant School for helping make it work so well.”

We are pleased to be able to share a selection of the heart warming and hilarious videos with you here, or you can visit our vimeo page here to view them all. If you are inspired to connect with a neighbour or someone new – let us know!

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