Turn the Page Symposium

Next week I get to take a trip to Norwich, to attend the first ever Turn the Page Artists’ Book Symposium. It will also be the first time I have shared my case study research outside of institutional walls.  The opportunity comes during my third year, with the ‘big write up’ biting at my heels.

My talk will be part of the following panel:

11.20am-1pm – Panel One Collaborative Spaces

Siobhan Britton – The Artist/Librarian and Artists’ Books

Angie Butler – Book Arts Party: collaboration in book arts practice

Noriko Suzuki-Bosco – The Library of Re-Claimed Books

Gemma Meek – Socially Engaged Book Art: Collaborative Production in the Workshop

​This promises to be an exciting venture, and I am keen to hear the various perspectives on collaborative processes. I have also just started a placement at the British Library around their poetry pamphlet collection, with both Britton’s and Suzuki-Bosco’s work presenting some interesting comments on the contemporary situation of library collections. The fair is also host to some wonderful stalls, and I hope to catch Test Centre to hear about their latest poetry publications!

Its set to be an exciting couple of days, and I believe there are still tickets available…

 

 

 

Going on a Hunch

Catching up with a PhD colleague over coffee, the subject of visual analysis cropped up. Both of us are analysing artworks within our projects – for me this takes the form of book art, for her, magazines. Sometimes drawing meaning from images takes the form of a hunch. Something might leap out – the composition, a portrait, the way it interacts with the text, the use of symbols, etc. Yet, how do we write of this hunch? How do we comprehend this starting point which leads to further evidence? In a research environment where ‘methods’ must be evidenced and claimed, could a gut instinct towards an image be validated?

Recently I attended a talk by Fiona Barber who was speaking about her latest research into Margaret Clarke’s painting, Bathtime at the Creche. Barber outlined how she was drawn to this image in an exhibition because of the representation of racial identities – something felt tense, unusual or disconcerting. This reaction led Barber to consider various contextual issues – such as Black representation in Ireland or figures of motherhood. This tracing from instinct, became a way to test assumptions, but was also led by a feeling – a feeling something else needs to be said, discovered or uncovered. Sometimes driven by absence or void.

How might this feeling then be used in a description? How might we trace this through forms of writing?

I am currently writing about one of my case studies – The Homeless Library. I was spending time going through all the images of the books on Flickr, and seeing what connections or themes emerged, before hopefully going to see the library firsthand. I stopped for a long time on the “U Tramp” image. There was something about the juxtaposition of elements, which caused ambivalence. I wanted to write about this image, but I didn’t necessarily know why, at that moment, it had to be this one. Later I would read Steve Edwards singular artwork analysis of Martha Rolser’s The Bowery, and realise that description is often returned and adjusted. As he states:

I am going to begin with a bald description, which will establish some necessary terms and points of reference for what follows. This description will have to be modified as we attend to the peculiarities and contradictions of the work, but is an essential place to start.

These peculiarities and contradictions seem to appear in am intermingle of writing, observing, reading and returning. My first description start to thicken:

U Tramp is comprised of an altered Victorian novel, its pages folded, and cropped, so only some of the original text and image are visible. The book hosts a makeshift aesthetic, held together by a metal binder at the top, the pages precariously hanging loose at the bottom. Frayed edges and folded corners present use, perhaps due to the age of the original pages, or their treatment in the process of its alteration. It is difficult not to make the association of travel – this book would hook nicely onto a backpack or folder into a pocket. This is a book for those on the move.

The written “U Tramp” draws attention. The black ink of the pen is darker, fresher, than the faded printed text. The text’s boxed in nature accentuates the new title, as well as conveying the limits of this label, its sense of enclosure. It conjures speech in its colloquialism and appears directed towards someone – the label given. Underneath, Thomas (presumably the author) connects to the title with a dash, perhaps an association with this label. To the left (the back of the book), the original text of the Victorian novel seems to connect to this title, ‘addressed me directly…’, the ellipsis inviting the readers eyes to follow across the binding, forming the book as a continual loop, back to “U Tramp”. Who is making this address? The reader? The woman in the image? The woman visible in the print seems to be leaning towards an unknown, hidden figure. This period of representing women as carers – gentle nurturers, softens this address. Yet, the invisibility of whom is receiving, who is being branded, who is bedridden, is disturbing. Here, the carer takes on an accentuated presence, leaning over, she commands and dominates the space.

Where was this description leading?

In turns out, it was heading in many directions. This description became a catalyst to think about the construction of labels such as homeless as both constricting and stereotyping, as well as providing political visibility. It also allowed a thinking through of the  process of altering books, forming a tension between layering, destruction and reinvention. The description allowed a consideration of how reading book art takes on different rhythms, a moving back and forth. A return.

Here, the book was entering multiple contexts – and being read through various lenses. The discourse of book art and its formal concerns, to literature on homeless representation – theory was drawn upon in a ‘bricolage’ or (my favourite) Magpie approach. Sometimes you have to build your nest from wire and plastic, rather than traditional materials of wood and straw.

So maybe these instincts should be followed – not operating isolated, but rather the associations and disassociation emerging from past research and writing. Where they go, or how they get there is partially traced in the writing process, structured to appear as if you always knew what you were going to find in the first place! Even if trying to keep some kind of element of surprise for your reader.

Works cited

Edwards, Steve. (2012) Martha Rosler The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems. London: Afterall Books

Ding Dong the Witch is Dead & DIY zines with Cherry Styles

Walking into MMU Special Collections education space, we were faced with the warm smile of Cherry Styles, and an absolute treat – spread across the table was a brightly coloured layer of zines! The zines were all different shapes and sizes, from high gloss finishes, to more scrappy, DIY aesthetics. Some could slide quite snuggly into your back pocket, others would make a grand statement on your book shelf. This was a personal slice of Styles own collection, and we were extremely lucky to be able to see, hold and feel these zines containing an entire range of topics – from sketches of anxiety to the mapping of writing a book.

This was the start of the third session of the Feminist Powerhouse Northwest Reading Group, organised by Laura Clancy, Jess Butler and Jing Ouyang. Previously we had analysed Lois Lane comic books, spoke about the controversy of the term ‘woman composer’ and now considered the feminist use of the zine. Before this latter session we had circulated some pages from The Chapess zine and Alison Piepmeier’s introduction to Girl Zines Making Media, Doing Feminism. With these materials in mind, it seemed only right to go about organising a discussion space. Yet, after a series of table manoeuvres to create a space to talk, it soon became apparent that gravitating away from the zines was an absolute blunder. The table covered with all the zines was clearly where we should be talking, sitting and discovering. The zines, after all, were whispering (or screaming) to be touched. And that’s pretty hard to ignore.

Styles began by introducing the collection, and telling us of her own personal journey to making zines, started by a keen interest in the punk music scene, and trying to connect with other women in what was then a genre particularly dominated by men’s presence. What struck a cord, was her suggestion that zines are often a way into a community gathered around a shared interest – such as music genres, political practices, a TV show or artistic movement. Zines were a way to find out what that community was ‘into’, doing, performing and politicising. Reading zines was in many ways about connecting – finding that energising moment when you want to yell “I think that too!!” And feel a connection with others on a similar path. This is not to suggest that some zines don’t provoke or antagonise, but many searching for zines are looking for connections of shared interests, gaining confidence before making the leap to attend a gig, an art event or performance. Gathering a ‘taste’ of what is to come.

Although this above taster seemed prevalent for fanzines, there were also more personal, emotive examples, containing women’s experiences of mental health, relationships, educational experiences, career moves, body image and sex. These were at times bold, and all barring, leaving some in the group to discuss whether they themselves could be so revealing. Styles spoke about using anonymity, but also the liberating aspect of putting oneself out there. Sharing hardships was a way of processing them, letting them go, or sorting them out. The ‘personal is political’ of 1970s feminist ideals seemed to linger at the edges of the pages, yet in a contemporary setting, was perhaps more playful, self-critical, and also aware of the performative element of self. This ‘performative’ element, for myself, seemed integral, as unlike the self-promotion, and occasional narcissism of social media, which can only take place in fixed web structures (there are of course many positives to an online presence), zines play with the materiality of the page, to create and explore new performances of identity. Font size, layout, design, interaction with image, the weight of the paper, the binding, and the movement of the pages conducted by the reader, made the writing ‘perform’ differently.

This is also explored by those contributing to the zine, designing, or ‘curating’ the content. I spoke to Styles about how some of the material in The Chapess is sexually explicit, and toys with, or negotiates how we view our bodies and ideas of ‘gender’, against the daily operation of our performances in different roles, contexts and relationships, and against the daily stream of ‘everyday’ examples of how women supposedly should behave. Styles stated that she was particularly interest in reducing the hierarchy of authorship, and creating tensions in the content of the writing through layering multiple voices – teens opinion pieces, alongside established writers and artists. This creates a jarring effect in the writing, in which uncomfortable images and highly politicised writings may sit alongside something more mundane or subtle. Here, difference is the mainstay.

As always, there was not enough time to read all the zines and not enough time to make our own! But a few of us managed to create small, one page examples that eventually we will bring together. One thing that was certain, was that Styles had a wealth of information on the scene – with us revealing our individual interests in pop culture or witchcraft, and her having a zine recommendation for each! Definitely a walking archive of knowledge! With a sparked interest in the zine, there is a possibility of using the format to drawing out our discussions in the next feminist reading group, and may result in a trip to the Salford Zine Library in Nexus café!

So, with my own interest in witches, I will end on a little gem from a zine called Hedgehog in the Fog. Hopefully it will give a taste of the punchy, informal language that seems to invade these feminist zines (this is, of course, me branding them as feminist!). Where the grrrr of the 1990s still exists, punctuated with humour, hardships and a touch of sass.

If something is not the same for men and women, then it is most likely sexist. You wouldn’t sing “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” for some male tyrant. You don’t refer to men as witches in a derogatory way, even though yes male witches do exist.

Also wanna know what a zine is? Check this out: https://ttin.uk/zine-directory

 

A Return to Book Making at the Sidney Nolan Trust

At the end of June I was invited to take part in a residency at the Sidney Nolan Trust in Wales. Playing a small part in the organisation team, I had somehow managed to sneak a place under the disguise of a ‘practitioner’, whereas in truth, my thesis is purely theoretical – it will take the form of a written submission. This ‘disguise’, however, wasn’t a complete lie. Lin, the main organiser, had encouraged me to apply, as for her writing was itself a ‘practice’, and there were potentially other aspects of ‘making’ that I could use to draw out ideas within my research.

I have much to thank Lin for.

Because she was right. The residency allowed me to ‘make’ in a space that it felt appropriate. Surrounded by practitioners, beautiful countryside and super informative staff, and all the encouragement and suggestions that come with this, it felt pretty rude not to give making a go. In fact, it was the first time I made book art (outside of educational workshops), probably since college. And it felt good! I started to understand that making book art was a form of organisation, a way of collating patterns between resources and material. Draw to the concertina form, I could see information in its entirety through laying out the book, or fold down pages to have a more focused insight. Lines could connect together information across pages, or the page could become a single unit to cordon off facts or images.

Although I didn’t focus on my thesis research during the residency, I was drawn to an image of ‘Veritas’, a logo stuck on the front of an old shipping container. This highly gendered image soon became a fascination, with research into each of the symbols, the company, and eventually leading me towards the potential of the well (on which the nude was sitting) as something to find (on the old working farm) and as a metaphor to think through (what is at the bottom of the well?). My book art piece became a fragmentary text including: the map pinpointing the location of the well on the Sidney Nolan farm (which I never managed to find), the conversations I had with staff about the shipping container, stories from my mother on Irish mythology and wells, or images imitating ‘Veritas’ poses. The book was a space of mapping and disruption. Those absences (the absence of the well, and the absence of information) were made visible through the blanks in the pages and the creases of the concertina.

If anything, the residency gave me the confidence to use making as a way to ‘think things differently’, and see book art as another tool. Perhaps I will make my thesis into one long concertina…

If interested in finding out more about the Sidney Nolan Trust or the work of other residency participants, visit the website Practice and Research in Action: http://practiceandresearchinactionresidency.harts.online/

Some Thoughts on Bookmarks 2017, Edinburgh

Bookmarks is fairly new to the book art scene. Running for its third year in 2017, it is a showcase not only of artist books and zines made across Scotland, but focuses on how artists books are ‘used, promoted and created in educational settings’. So it particularly peaked my interest!

Many of my thesis case studies involve the sharing of bookmaking skills, with artists normally running workshop style sessions to teach participants how to create different book forms. The ‘use’ of the book form, or its content, is often dependent on the project’s exploration. For example, in The Homeless Libraryartists Philip Davenport and Lois Blackburn ran sessions with homeless participants at various Manchester based centres around a set theme. When I observed one of their workshops, the theme involved group discussions on ‘bravery’, and books were made using text selection techniques and collages of old 1970s comics. In Feminist Feltartists Miriam Schaer and Melissa Potter taught women’s groups how to make book art in exchange for traditional Georgian felting techniques. Participants decided that the felt book art pieces would be sold to raise money for their local communities. These different projects highlight that although the skill of bookmaking may involve set techniques, the book form can be adapted to fulfill different criteria – from encouraging self-expression to the book as a commodity. I was therefore interested in ways that bookmaking as an artistic practice, and skill to be shared, might be discussed in the Bookmarks symposium.

Generally, the talks at Bookmarks revolved around what might be viewed as traditional forms of education in higher institutions – such as archive research, technician assistance, collaboration and commissions. These were all interesting, and brought some visual gems to the table – from Edwin Pickstone’s explorations of discarded letterpress to John Brown’s discussions of vintage, illustrated children’s books. However, there was one lecture that really stood out for me, and that was by Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) teaching fellow Astrid Jaekel. As an art practitioner, Jaekel encourages students to utilise the book form as a conduit for engaging with place. Groups of illustration students from ECA would be invited to spend time in Oban, Scotland, to sketch, record, narrate and experience ‘place’, which are then brought together in the book form. The outcome is a series of Risograph ‘beak books’, which reveal a tension in the students expectations of Oban (their ideals), in comparison to what they experienced when they arrived. The books, therefore, cover a multitude of themes – some explore a romanticised view of the landscape, for others it is a focus on the fish and chip shop, or conversations with a local resident. The book seemed to be an ideal form in which to ‘gather’ together the experiences of the trip, its physical ‘togetherness’ allowing a sifting through and sorting out of potential findings, into a type of narrative.

This project could also be seen to fit into a history of book art and education. I recently did some research on Chicago based organisation ‘Artists Book Works’ (1983-1993), established by Barbara Lazarus Metz and Robert Sennhauser. As advertised in the journal Umbrella (1983), from the outset, one of the main aims of the organisation was to form a community of ‘book-makers, critics, collectors, binders and printers’. The centre held regular classes, lectures and exhibitions, including Winter in Chicago a long running mail art exhibition, with many of the works held in the Newberry Library collection. The organisation also held workshops on a variety of different technical skills including, box making, bookmaking, calligraphy, rubberstamping, paper decorating and book repair. It was the first centre of its kind in Chicago and arose at a time when printing and artist books were beginning to emerge as popular practices. As well as a series of classes and exhibitions, Artists Book Works also had a strong focus on school education, which differed somewhat from other US book art institutions of the time. Although distribution and production became the main concerns of New York centres such as Printed Matter (established 1976) and Visual Studies Workshop (founded 1969), fuelled in part by Lucy Lippard’s (1993) ideals of the democratic multiple, there was also an increased desire for institutions to take on a more educational or community based role. Pyramid Atlanta, Washington (established 1981) and Artists Book Works, Chicago (established 1983), began offering regular community bookmaking workshops and develop increasing partnerships and programmes for schools. Their school programs were particularly concerned with encouraging bookmaking skills in the curriculum (through all levels of education), collaborative production and exhibition opportunities for students. This resulted in some fascinating projects, such as that reviewed in The Chicago Reader (1987). The article mentions a project run by artist Myra Herr’s with Lincoln Park’s Hawthorne School, in which students made autobiographical books with stories, visuals and poems in stitched codices. Artists Book Works also had an open call advertised in Umbrella (1985 & 1991) for book artists to send images of their works to form a slide registry for the use of curators, collectors, educators and museums.

This research into the use of book art within education is still in its infancy, and one I will no doubt be continuously pursuing! What my experience of Bookmarks has highlighted, is that there is clearly a continual use of book art as a form of educational and artistic practice. Although Bookmarks seemed focused primarily on the university setting as a site of learning and engagement with the book form, there are plenty of practices which are situated outside of traditional institutions. And where the practices differ, or relate, is always of interest!

 

 

 

Encounters

Colleague Sara Davies and I recently led a session for the methodologies class, Arts and Humanities, MMU on ‘encounters’. Sara, a practitioner. And me, an Art Historian. It was a difficult terrain to tread – where could you possibly start when considering ‘encounters’, not only in terms of theory or action, but a methodology? Could encounters even be a method?

After much consideration and some wide net casting, we decided to establish an encounter through Tim Ingold’s materiality and then present two textual perspectives on what ‘encounter’ entailed for us, personally. Ingold’s encounter of wetting a stone and placing it on your desk can be read in his article:  (2007) Materials Against Materiality.’ Archaeological Dialogues. 14(1) pp1 – 16

What followed was much anxiety. The methodology class picked up on the anxiety of not ‘properly’ capturing or representing the encounter, not experiencing the encounter in a complex or intuitive approach. Alongside this fear, this clawing fear, that my role might prevent me from seeing or experience an aspect of the artwork, from lack of touch, knowledge or attention.

I present here the text in its informal form, as it was spoken in class. It is not final, finished or even confident. It starts through a reaction to Sara’s text, in which she describes an encounter with one of her Grandad’s schoolbooks.

As Sara describes the worn, yellow pages of the old schoolbook, I can almost smell the age. It conjures a whiff of second hand dusty bookshops, and my fingers tingle as I imagine the feel of the worn edge on the top of the spine, where it has been drawn from the shelf again and again. Who has touched this book? Why does it remain, when others may have been discarded?

It takes me on a path to thinking about my own schoolbooks and the ones I selectively keep in my keepsake box – the brightly coloured, lined, exercise books and the tattered textbooks with ripped pages and graffiti doodles. It makes me remember how I would always misplace them, shoved at the back of school trays or buried among other books within my own home; among the stacks of picture books my mum collects, the terrible spy thrillers my dad reads and my old collection of Goosebumps and Point Horrors that excited me as a child.

I begin to loose Sara’s encounter, and unexpectedly, or perhaps expectedly, I am taken into my own. I journey through my own associations and disassociations, dreams and memories, and I am reminded of Jacques Ranciere’s writing on the act of spectatorship. He asserts:

The collective power shared by spectators does not stem from the fact that they are members of a collective body or from some specific form of interactivity. It is the power each of them has to translate what she perceives in her own way, to link to the unique intellectual activity makes her similar to all the rest in as much as this adventure is not like any other. This shared power of the equality of intelligence links individuals, makes them exchange their intellectual adventures in so far as it keeps them separate from one another, equally capable of using the power everyone has to plot their own path.

 As we invited you to dip the stone in the water, and set it dripping onto the table, did you all feel the same about the experience? Did this seemingly collective encounter produce the same interpretation through its ceremony? Was the importance of the task that we were all, for a moment, presented as equals in the act of wetting the stone?

But unlike the stone, I have not touched Sara’s granddad’s book, but hear of it through her written exploration. Does this make my encounter less authentic, or secondary and inferior? Is it wrong to move away from her home, into mine, or does her encounter invite this experience? Perhaps we are moving closer to the position of the art historian, and should spend some time considering this space.

I first want to invite you to look around the room, search the space that surrounds you and the people/objects within it. Why are you here? Circumstances dictate that none of you are likely to be here by chance – you have been given access to the encounter. We have walked or plotted our paths, which have led us to partaking in research, or more specifically, within this moment, and I am guessing that none refrained from partaking in the material ritual of the stone and the act of listening to Sara’s text.

This accessibility of encountering art or even the accessibility of education is not necessarily open to all. We understand from the writing of authors such as Carol Duncan and ideas of ‘cultural capital’ asserted by Pierre Bourdieu, that such sites as the museum, the university and the theatre are not only embedded with ritual encounters, but that the cues of this ritual, the beliefs that these sites present, are aimed towards certain individuals (whether due to their education, class, social relations etc.).

Does this mean the encounter, before it occurs, is already constructed or controlled? Already learnt? Do we not visit a museum to encounter art and perform this encounter according to behavioural cues? How can an encounter be unexpected or provide surprising meaning if it takes shape within an arena in which certain protocols are demanded?

And yet, I can still be surprised by artworks. I can be surprised at my friend’s recollection of an installation, which seemed so different to mine. Or, the experience of visiting a museum several times, only to spill your drink one day and notice the tiled floor in the café with unexpected interest in its design. Like the experience of walking a street for many weeks, and then seeing it in a completely different light from the top of a double decker bus. After all, these spaces, although technically fixed in design, are by no means encountered the same way each time. Memories, fleeting sights of people, your discussions with others, changes in weather or mood, all produce new encounters; and to be in the position of looking, seeking and questioning only heightens these potentialities.

Perhaps it is also something about touch. Sara’s description creates desire to feel the book, to feel its weight. So much of art seems out of our reach, reliant on other senses. But isn’t touch about closeness? And isn’t that what Barbara Bolt states artists understand about artworks much more than historians? The techniques of making, the materials, and their properties? How will I ever understand these aspects without touch, without contact with the physical object? Perhaps that is why I am drawn to book art, a medium which cannot be understood without touch – without making its pages fold and turn, letting the shadows dance across the images or the paper curl to produce sound.

And when you know someone really well, do we not say we are ‘close’ to them, closeness equated with understanding and intimacy. This is emphasised in dialogical art practices, where conversation between individuals (particularly those open and empathetic to conversing) and the sharing of a physical space (to hear their voice and view their body language) is said to alter one’s subjectivity and create a social cohesion. As Grant Kester states

…[W]e determine the relationship between our interpretation of another’s state of mind or condition and his or her actual inner state through a performative interaction, an empathetic feedback loop in which we observe the other’s responses to our statements and actions (and modify our own actions accordingly). This empathetic identification is a necessary component of dialogical art practice – it provides a way to decenter a fixed identity through interaction with others.

 Here, observing and responding to the other is suggested to only take place in proximity, in intimacy, in closeness. But does this mean an encounter with another through digital media, through a letter, through an archival document has a loss of intimacy, of closeness and hence of full understanding?

Does this also mean we pull away from the encounter when we enter our books, our reading and speak our words?

David Beech recently wrote about how he encounters exhibitions, stating that looking is not enough when it comes to art critique. Beech asserts that reading and writing about art after the encounter was a mode of ‘self-education’, a ‘means of coming to see things that I could not previously see.’ Here, the encounter with the artwork is not spontaneous, but a process of multiple viewings of the artwork, other readings and other interpretations – it is a dialogue with other writer’s, and a positioning and defending of one’s own.

For Beech, the encounter is a struggle, a means of fault finding or raising questions. He states

After enjoying an exhibition I would not be able to review it until I had made extensive notes on the work. Note taking, which is a metonym for thinking and rethinking, usually showed me problems that I had overlooked when in the gallery. Writing called for a mode of thinking that appeared to produce an accumulation of faults in artworks that had been experienced without those faults. Preparing to write was a process of picking something apart; note taking was colder than aesthetic experience.

 The struggle is perhaps to be found in the direction in which the encounter proceeds. When should you end the encounter? When your reading stops or the paper is published? When the artwork is destroyed, or no longer accessible in person? What about those artworks that must be destroyed in the encounter? Does the encounter in fact ever end? If Simone Varriale informs us that our relation to music develops over time, as we begin to recognise material patterns (rhythm, melody, structure), but also develop emotional and social attachments, can we ever break free from a habitus of familiarity? Are encounters ever autonomous? As I read and write, am I moving away or closer to that initial encounter?

I imagine I am loosing you by now, that you have also moved from Sara’s granddad’s book to another place. I feel that I too have perhaps got lost, and presented to you more questions than answers. And within that labyrinth barely moved from objects and traditional sites of art, to other potential encounters.

Perhaps I’ll go back to the start of the text, and the encounter with its words will have changed. It is as Gary Spicer once told me, an encounter is much like an intersection, a point where a history crosses another and produces another path.

Works cited

Beech, Dave (2016) ‘On Critique.’ Art Monthly. 393.

Bolt, Barbara (2006) ‘Materializing Pedagogies.’ Working Papers in Art and Design. https://www.herts.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0015/12381/WPIAAD_vol4_bolt.pdf

Bourdieu, Pierre and Jean-Claude Passerson. (1990) Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. London: Sage.

Duncan, Carol (1995) Civilising Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums. London: Routledge

Kester, Grant (2013) Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. California Press: University of California

Rancière, Jacques (2009) The Emancipated Spectator. London: Verso

Varriale, Simone. (2015) ‘Beyond Distinction: Theorising Cultural Evaluation as a Social Encounter.’ Cultural Sociology. 10(2) pp.160-177

The Exposure of Self: Reading Wonderland Artist Books

A few months ago I bumped into Dr Amanda Ravetz whilst getting off the bus. We were both on our way to University. We got speaking about the summer holidays, and soon conversation turned to a project Amanda had collaboratively organised called Wonderland. Wonderland is an artistic research project by and for people in recovery from substance use disorder and/or mental health issues. As the website explains,

the project is part of a new North West Social Movement, under the proactive slogan of Recoverism, allied to the arts, harnessing social change and emancipation by re-framing cultural identities around substance use disorder.

The project involved participants working with artist Cristina Nuñez and her self-portrait method to produce a series of photographs and artist books.

Later that day Amanda kindly let me borrow the artist books from the project, and I spent time exploring the book’s contents as well as watching the online Wonderland film and listening to the audio recordings. The artist books particularly peaked my interest (I suppose I have a research bias), and I started to write a response to the experience of reading what I saw as highly intimate, raw visual narratives.

After returning the books to Amanda, I wrote her an email about my thoughts on the artist books.

The books were beautiful, some really raw and brutal, others quite poetic – some of the portraits reminded me of traditional, art historical styles – the dark backgrounds like Velazquez, the lady with long red hair, very Pre-Raphaelite. When reading the books, I almost felt like I was imposing or entering very personal spaces, and at times this made me feel rather uncomfortable. I don’t view this as a bad aspect, I wonder if in some ways they are meant to be slightly confrontational and honest. Were the photobooks meant to be viewed outside of the group? Were the participants making in mind of a particular reader?

I also watched the video on the website, and from the first scene, hearing the heavy breathing, and watching this individual change into an emotional state was really intense. I don’t think I could easily go to depicting fear, rage or despair with such fluidity, or within the pressure of a performance in front of the camera. It also felt strange returning to the books after watching the video. Watching the video, but also watching the making of the images, gave another layer to the participant’s personalities, changing the way as a reader you viewed the books.

I think there is definitely something interesting in the creation of books in a ‘private’ space that then circulate within a ‘public’ domain – Johanna Drucker talks about this in relation to artists’ books. There must be something quite liberating about putting out a visual narrative that contains personal aspects, that have been staged, deliberated, performed and lived through. A form of sorting through past experiences.  Although the books are images of those in recovery, they touch on themes, emotions and places that I felt many could relate too – we are of course all vulnerable in different ways.

Now, reading back these initial, informal responses after having finished the Wonderland article, is to see how dialogues with Amanda and reading around the subject has challenged, altered and transformed these initial reactions to the artist books and film. Here, statements seem ‘raw’, naïve and undeveloped. It reminds me of questioning the place of intuition in research, raised in the methodology class, which is part of the Research Development Framework for postgraduates in Arts & Humanities at MMU. Perhaps these statements are intuitions, initial reactions to the experience of reading these books with little knowledge of the project. That elements of the ideas remain in the final article, perhaps asserts a place for intuition in research approaches.

Although still requiring a few tweaks, this week the Wonderland website was launched as a digital archive of the photographs, artists’ books, Wonderland film, evaluation responses and a series of writings. The website can be accessed here, and is a beautiful piece of work in itself, with a set of spaces users can navigate through and interact with to discover aspects of the project. The website also includes the final version of my article ‘The Exposure of Self: Reading Wonderland Artist Books’ in the exhibition space.  I would like to thank Dr Amanda Ravetz for this opportunity to write on what I see as an incredibly important project.

 

The Homeless Library Ebook

 

First of all the materiality of books feels substantial and we felt that it would give weight to these stories which are sometimes treated as insubstantial by making them exist as “proper books”. The materiality of a book is a powerful thing to work with and can be further nuanced by using inks scissors collage, et cetera. Secondly we feel that the marks people make are powerful emblems of their existence. Third, working on paper people can have a chance to be their own editors, which is empowering. Fourth, many people are nervous of being recorded using a machine but happy to talk to someone using a piece of paper and a biro. It’s less threatening.

Philip Davenport

One of the case studies for my thesis is The Homeless Library (2014 – 2016) run by arts organization Arthur & Martha (artists Philip Davenport and Lois Blackburn). It involves the collaborative production of book art with homeless participants across different centres within Manchester. The aim of the project is to create a first-person history of the homeless, to challenge the stigmatized term ‘homeless’ and provide one of the first material histories of individuals diverse and engaging stories.  The project culminated in 50 books now touring in a mobile library, launched at the Houses of Parliament in July this year and recently shown at the SouthBank Centre.

As part of my research, Philip and Lois allowed me to attend one of the workshops at the Booth Centre in Manchester. This form of research is different to methodologies I am employing for my other case studies, which often utilize email correspondence, secondary documentation and engagement with the books created. This was a first-hand opportunity to see the collaborative production of books in action, and demanded a negotiation and understanding of my position as observer, participant and assistant within this project.

Out of the session I wrote a report of my experience, of which sections were published in the ebook to the Homeless Library along with email correspondence with the organisers. The ebook can be downloaded for free (click here) and contains many of the participants experiences of homelessness, which for too long have been left unrecorded.

That is a Lot of Paper: Reflections on Research Matter(s)

As Jo and I set up our workshop ‘Unfolding the Archive’ at Research Matter(s) conference, Birmingham City University, a realization dawns on us both: There is so much paper. There is paper to make the ‘beak books’, paper in the concertina fold book art, consent forms and information sheets, paper for collage and paper for writing down thoughts. It is the dream of a green world turned nightmare. So how do we claim importance for this amassing of paper? If the conference questions why ‘matter’ produced through research is often deemed peripheral, how can we bring this physical, material, paper presence to the forefront of our research?

I suppose I could start with the idea that engaging participants with a physical material is a well deserved escape from the digital screen. This is something so argued in the book art world, the concept of haptic handling reconnecting us to material properties; the movement of pages, the smell of antique texts, the sound of the book spine cracking. Don’t get me wrong, I happen to love the falling apart, yellow tinted pages of the old Penguin books. However, there is material, bodily engagement in a digital world. As Engin Isin and Evelyn Ruppert clarify, cyberspace is a space of relations between and among bodies acting through the internet, not a disengaged, separate world. Why is the iPad screen a rectangular shape? Like the page of a book, or a sheet of paper? It requires an awareness of our bodies, as our finger moves or rotates images, taps and swipes. I hold the iPad above my head as I read, laying on my bed. Or rest it on my lap as I snuggle in an armchair. My phone is also held in a certain way, I carry it in my pocket, it is a bodily attachment. I use it within a geographical location, a context and a time. Perhaps it not entirely the materiality of paper that is important.

It could be the physical act of making through material engagement. Andrew Eason has argued, many artists make books primarily for the anticipation of a reader, what he terms ‘making-reading’. This approach suggests that artists make books in desire for contact with their readers, tying together the creative process felt by artists with the experience that readers have.

I make a book. I make it for you, my imagined reader. I make it for you to open, for you  to touch, for you to read and to see that I am here. If I can let you know what I think, we can meet there, in that place where the idea is, and we can share a discussion later, based on what we both see there. I don’t know what you’ll do with this. Will you see what I think you will? Will you invent something I didn’t foresee? All to the good.

This act of discussion, the deviation or elaboration of meaning from the act of creation to the reading process, becomes apparent in our workshops. As participants make a collage page in response to the 1919 magazine Woman’s Outlook, new meanings are exposed. The contextual and cultural relations in sync with the individual’s interpretation draw new meanings from this archive material. The book art calls for more readers, begging to be opened, to stretch out it’s concertina pages. We encouraged this further at Birmingham City University, calling on participants to read the book art made in response to Woman’s Outlook and form new inventions in the form of ‘beak books’. The small, portability of the beak books invite a form of ‘passing on’, as we keep a copy and the participants get to take a book home. Eason states that book art could be viewed in the context of a ‘gift’, as the process of creation indicates a desire for ‘exchange’ with the reader in the making of meaning. This is furthered by the contexts of production and distribution existing around book art. Artists often desire face to face contact with their buyers at artist book fairs and with library collectors, and time spent on these exchanges often doesn’t equate to profit. It also relates to a notion of ‘skill sharing’ that these workshops enter. With free conferences such as Research Matter(s), the passing on of how to make a book becomes symbolic of a gift. Here the material amassing is secondary, the process of making (whether that is learning to make a beak book or a concertina fold) becomes the site of knowledge sharing. My own knowledge of making books particularly lies in this exchange, as I learnt the art of flower fold pages from the Old Bear Press and stitch binding from artist Sheelagh Frew Crane. Yet, we know from historical writings of Marcel Mauss that gifts are nearly always reciprocal, and come with certain obligations. What are these obligations in a research context?

Proof. That word that conjures ideas of evidence and progress, that which nods to what happened, what occurred, what physically provides witness. The concertina books that Jo and I made with participants in conferences in Latvia, Hungary and UK are proof that workshops occurred. The stitch that holds the paper together, along with the photograph illustrating the participants stitching, creates a paper trail of evidence. This paper trail, this ‘stitch’, is furthered through blog posts as ‘witness’ accounts of what has occurred, the consent sheets of the participants as claims of both ‘I was there’, as well as agreement to use their presence as witness and consent to the occurrence of the workshop. It happened, I was part of it, you can say I was part of it and you can use my image and my writings as evident proof. In this sense the ‘gift’ of the book that participants get to take home, in which they made but also learnt how to make, is in exchange for the validation of research which encompasses both Jo and I’s theses, but also that the other book copy can and will become part of the archive, and hence come to represent it.  Is this what research matter is? An act of witness? An act of record?

But this witness is further complicated. How is this evidence being interpreted? What is being collected? What is given hierarchy? What cannot be given physical, material witness? At the close of the workshop, a discussion of the process of making books in reaction to Woman’s Outlook and the book art responses, turns to that which is missing or hidden. What women are represented? What aspects of their lives remain undisclosed? Who is speaking on behalf of whom? A participant is drawn to a page in the concertina book art piece that lists a series of words that she finds problematic, that she finds undisturbed. Perhaps the same question should also be asked of our own research matter. Rather than considering what research actually matters, what research matter is missing? This is always an area so highlighted in an academic context: how will you research area contribute to knowledge in an original approach? What matter is deemed appropriate documentation? Newness is integral. Newness can be found in the past, through the bringing of Woman’s Outlook out of the archive. It can be found in the learning of a new book skill. Even in the re-consideration of a word, such as Zhandra Belgasmi’s reclaiming of “No” as a term shied away from by women. It can be done by ripping up a literature review and rearranging its pieces, as demonstrated by Sian Hindle.

The messy, torn-up literature review brings me back to the scattered paper on the workshop tabletops. I need to tidy the paper, to draw it to closure, to make sure it matters. But I am reminded of the promiscuous feminist methodologies in education proposed by Sara M. Childers, Jeong-eun Rhee and Stephanie L. Dazs, who embody ‘dirty theory’ and ‘messy practice’. Promiscuous feminist methodologies aren’t necessarily a way to do research, rather a form of metaphor, one which is grounded in an engagement with materiality and understanding of what is ‘always already happening.’ It recognises that research is often a partially failed and violent attempt to represent the world and other within current symbolic systems and languages, so highlighted by Hindle and Belgasmi, and a running theme throughout the Research Matter(s) conference. Here research matter on the periphery could actually be a strength due to its marginalized position, working within the mechanisms of critique, but pushing at the edges of what is possible within an academic context.

Working with and against what we read as the bounded and mainstream discourses of what counts as feminist research, we neither attempt to reconcile our approaches with the mainstream nor the margins, but rather accept unfitting and edgework. Promiscuous feminisms do not represent a desire for inclusion or synthesis or to assert a new center or margin. Rather, coming to see our work/selves as promiscuous has become a source of energy and survival in our institutions and research lives. It has been the link to our “selves” and others, a reminder that vulnerability, contamination, wildness, excess and being pushed out (or existing between), though painful can be powerful.

There have been times in which Jo & I have felt our workshops on the periphery of the conference context, often in a sense that somehow book making isn’t ‘theoretical’ enough. This of course is not always the case, there have been other conferences, including Birmingham City University, when testing of materiality, theory and embodiment are closely linked. What I believe the metaphor of promiscuous feminism allows us to see is that excess, moments of vulnerability and even the space between, although areas of difficulty and sometimes conflict, can be the most rewarding in terms of drawing out meanings. Perhaps we do have too much paper, too much matter, but shifting through this messy pile allows us to draw new connections, see that which we missed before, consider matter which is ‘unofficial’ within discourse. So when one participant finds a statement in their bag on their way home from the conference, reading ‘she sank unconscious to the ground’, this decontextualised statement from Woman’s Outlook magazine reminds me both of our own vulnerabilities, but also the vulnerability of matter to be forgotten and then hopefully found again. Often at the periphery, often at the bottom of our bags.  And so I hope that this somewhat messy blog post, unfinished, provides new answers and further questions when I return.

Works cited

Childers, Sara M., Jeong-eun Rhee and Stephanie L. Daza (2015) Promiscuous Feminist Methodologies in Education Engaging Research Beyond Gender. Abingdon: Routledge

Eason, Andrews (2010) ‘On Making Reading’ The Blue Notebook. 5.1, pp.37 – 42

Isin, Engin and Evelyn Ruppert (2015) Being Digital Citizens. London: Rowman & Littlefield

Mauss, Marcel (1970) The Gift Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. London: Cohen & West Ltd