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


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