Riga. A city of cobbled streets, churches from differing eras, glass high rise buildings, to curved railway bridges. This is the city of Art Nouveau, with a penchant for ‘home museums’, contemporary dance and a good, rich cup of coffee.
Time seems slower in Riga.
With a gentle flurry of snow settling in the park, and sheets of ice forming on the river, the perfect escape in this city is a warm restaurant. Nothing is rushed. A local Inta tells me that Latvian food is cooked from fresh, slow grilled meats take time to prepare. Service is therefore relaxed, food comes at a wait. Time to talk and warm in good company.
This city is where Jo and I take our first workshop, and create a collaborative book with a group from the Nordic Summer University. With a 30 minute slot, the workshop has to be quick, and in many ways is demanding on its participants.
With a brief introduction to Jo and I’s background, we ask the participants to spend some time looking at the 1919, Woman’s Outlook magazine from the National Cooperative Archive. We then invite participants to select text and images from the magazine (not the originals, but copies!) and collage a page to form new readings and interpretations. Each of these pages will then be stitched together to form a collaborative, concertina fold book art.
With only 20 minutes to make their pages, I imagined a chaotic scene of frantic cutting, PVA being flung on paper, battles over favourite pages to transform and cut.
But it was quiet.
Participants sat on their own, or next to one another in a makeshift circle. Most sat on the floor, some on chairs with little desks. Engrossed in the magazine, quiet selection, precision cutting with scalpels or drawing in response to the images proceeded with little spoken word. Perhaps the calm pace of Riga had gotten into our bones.
Occasionally participants would comment to their neighbours about the content, or engage in conversation about other matters whilst cutting out sections of the magazine. Half the time I didn’t know what to do, it was so quiet I was tempted to make a page myself! Jo and I had facilitated the materials, outlined a brief framework of engagement and that was it. We were no longer required!
With this time to watch, it was hard to vocalise what process or environment was being created. Was this a form of sociability? This clearly wasn’t operating as an activity that encouraged participants to talk to one another, share what they were seeing through speech or gesture. There was a concentration in the act of individually making and selecting. But, surely there is a sense or a feeling or being in the same space and working towards the process of producing a page that will become part of a book, a whole? How do you express that feeling?
The last part was to string the two pages together with the person working next to you, and this also was done with minimal spoken interaction. A gestural giving of one page, becoming part of another. It is only when all the pages came together that a conversation of different sorts began. When the book was seen as a whole, which didn’t take place until the day after. The pages showed participants playing with humour in the magazine’s phrasing or subversion of images, some were decisively political in relation to feminism or cooperative values. Others played with a transformation through copying, manipulating and elongating the original imagery. Even a handwritten letter responded to the ‘agony aunt’ page of Woman’s Outlook. These pages sometimes related to one another in chosen themes or images, and reformed a different outlook, reshaped from the original magazine.
With only the author’s names placed on the back cover of the book, individual page contributions remained in many ways anonymous. Only know by the individual contributors, or members of the group that had taken part in the creation.
So where next to explore this sociability or feeling, if indeed it existed? Perhaps next time, we will invite participants to work in pairs on an individual page to see how this may alter the act of collaboration and interaction taking place around the book.
Our next workshop is at Feminist Readings 2 in Leeds, April 2016.