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

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