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.


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