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/

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

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

 

‘Woman’s Outlook’, Past Present Future

Rip, Mark, Stick, Create, Multi-Vocal Image Making

On Thursday morning I fly to Riga, Latvia for the first in a series of collaborative workshops with my colleague Jo Darnley. The workshop will take place at the Nordic Summer University under the Winter Symposium, Practicing Communities: Transformative societal strategies of artistic research. This exciting endeavor was brought on by Jo & I’s mutual love of printed material, in particular a desire to understand methods of ‘reading’ printed material and what it might mean to ‘read with others’.

Jo works with The National Cooperative Archive, and researches women’s identity within and through Woman’s Outlook, a magazine produced between 1919 – 1967. It soon became clear that my research into collaboratively produced books (often as a means to create/explore identity) and Jo’s research into a magazine (which explores a particular historical construction of identity and community) could prove an interesting crossover. With Jo’s desire to ‘open up’ the archive through encouraging discussion and interpretation around the magazine and my wish to watch the act of collaboratively producing a book in action, a workshop was born!

Here is an abstract of our workshop proposal:

The reading of images and texts as a mode of transformation connects Jo Darnley’s research into Woman’s Outlook, (WO), (1919 – 1967), a magazine which enables entry into a women only, political, broadly non- party and regional perspective, published by the National Co-operative Publishing Society (Est. 1871) and Gemma Meek’s reading about socially engaged book art (2000 – present day). This collaborative workshop proposal, aims to explore a multi-vocal approach to selecting, responding and transforming imagery from WO magazine.

Participants will be invited to engage with pages from WO through an open discussion on what themes and imagery speak to individuals. This subjective approach aims to reflect the transformation of imagery through participants’ readings, highlighting both the challenge and freedom that underpin the critical enquiry of the historian. Furthermore, this multi-vocal approach to artistic research can be seen as a move towards transforming society through the fostering of critical and creative everyday reading and awareness. Therefore, challenging the singular voice of the historian through disrupting perceptions and encouraging research communities.

Participants are invited to ‘play’ and investigate, creating a collage page of clippings, drawings and writings. These pages will be collated into a book, as a new space in which to map connections between readings, repositioning the authority of the historian’s voice.

So, off to Riga it is! Watch this space!