Ding Dong the Witch is Dead & DIY zines with Cherry Styles

Walking into MMU Special Collections education space, we were faced with the warm smile of Cherry Styles, and an absolute treat – spread across the table was a brightly coloured layer of zines! The zines were all different shapes and sizes, from high gloss finishes, to more scrappy, DIY aesthetics. Some could slide quite snuggly into your back pocket, others would make a grand statement on your book shelf. This was a personal slice of Styles own collection, and we were extremely lucky to be able to see, hold and feel these zines containing an entire range of topics – from sketches of anxiety to the mapping of writing a book.

This was the start of the third session of the Feminist Powerhouse Northwest Reading Group, organised by Laura Clancy, Jess Butler and Jing Ouyang. Previously we had analysed Lois Lane comic books, spoke about the controversy of the term ‘woman composer’ and now considered the feminist use of the zine. Before this latter session we had circulated some pages from The Chapess zine and Alison Piepmeier’s introduction to Girl Zines Making Media, Doing Feminism. With these materials in mind, it seemed only right to go about organising a discussion space. Yet, after a series of table manoeuvres to create a space to talk, it soon became apparent that gravitating away from the zines was an absolute blunder. The table covered with all the zines was clearly where we should be talking, sitting and discovering. The zines, after all, were whispering (or screaming) to be touched. And that’s pretty hard to ignore.

Styles began by introducing the collection, and telling us of her own personal journey to making zines, started by a keen interest in the punk music scene, and trying to connect with other women in what was then a genre particularly dominated by men’s presence. What struck a cord, was her suggestion that zines are often a way into a community gathered around a shared interest – such as music genres, political practices, a TV show or artistic movement. Zines were a way to find out what that community was ‘into’, doing, performing and politicising. Reading zines was in many ways about connecting – finding that energising moment when you want to yell “I think that too!!” And feel a connection with others on a similar path. This is not to suggest that some zines don’t provoke or antagonise, but many searching for zines are looking for connections of shared interests, gaining confidence before making the leap to attend a gig, an art event or performance. Gathering a ‘taste’ of what is to come.

Although this above taster seemed prevalent for fanzines, there were also more personal, emotive examples, containing women’s experiences of mental health, relationships, educational experiences, career moves, body image and sex. These were at times bold, and all barring, leaving some in the group to discuss whether they themselves could be so revealing. Styles spoke about using anonymity, but also the liberating aspect of putting oneself out there. Sharing hardships was a way of processing them, letting them go, or sorting them out. The ‘personal is political’ of 1970s feminist ideals seemed to linger at the edges of the pages, yet in a contemporary setting, was perhaps more playful, self-critical, and also aware of the performative element of self. This ‘performative’ element, for myself, seemed integral, as unlike the self-promotion, and occasional narcissism of social media, which can only take place in fixed web structures (there are of course many positives to an online presence), zines play with the materiality of the page, to create and explore new performances of identity. Font size, layout, design, interaction with image, the weight of the paper, the binding, and the movement of the pages conducted by the reader, made the writing ‘perform’ differently.

This is also explored by those contributing to the zine, designing, or ‘curating’ the content. I spoke to Styles about how some of the material in The Chapess is sexually explicit, and toys with, or negotiates how we view our bodies and ideas of ‘gender’, against the daily operation of our performances in different roles, contexts and relationships, and against the daily stream of ‘everyday’ examples of how women supposedly should behave. Styles stated that she was particularly interest in reducing the hierarchy of authorship, and creating tensions in the content of the writing through layering multiple voices – teens opinion pieces, alongside established writers and artists. This creates a jarring effect in the writing, in which uncomfortable images and highly politicised writings may sit alongside something more mundane or subtle. Here, difference is the mainstay.

As always, there was not enough time to read all the zines and not enough time to make our own! But a few of us managed to create small, one page examples that eventually we will bring together. One thing that was certain, was that Styles had a wealth of information on the scene – with us revealing our individual interests in pop culture or witchcraft, and her having a zine recommendation for each! Definitely a walking archive of knowledge! With a sparked interest in the zine, there is a possibility of using the format to drawing out our discussions in the next feminist reading group, and may result in a trip to the Salford Zine Library in Nexus café!

So, with my own interest in witches, I will end on a little gem from a zine called Hedgehog in the Fog. Hopefully it will give a taste of the punchy, informal language that seems to invade these feminist zines (this is, of course, me branding them as feminist!). Where the grrrr of the 1990s still exists, punctuated with humour, hardships and a touch of sass.

If something is not the same for men and women, then it is most likely sexist. You wouldn’t sing “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” for some male tyrant. You don’t refer to men as witches in a derogatory way, even though yes male witches do exist.

Also wanna know what a zine is? Check this out: https://ttin.uk/zine-directory

 

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.

 

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

 

Reading as Jogging

Every Wednesday morning, a group of PhD students and I spend two hours talking about writing and of course spend some time writing. It is called Writing Matters and it is led by Myna Trustram.  This Wednesday we were presented with some objects from MMU’s Special Collections to stimulate our writing, and gain perspective on the process that occurs when writing about objects. Now some of these intriguing objects were books (which made me particularly happy), as MMU holds a fantastic collection not only of artist books, but also fine press examples. Our goal was to select an object and spend time talking about it among ourselves, and then to write a response in relation to our senses or theoretical position.

After flicking through the various books and trying not to pick the rather bizarre femur stool, I settled upon a box, which contained Midsummer Morning Jog, a poem by Michael Horovitz with drawings by Peter Blake. I decided to write a subjective text that described my experience of reading, hearing, touching and seeing this book. Surprisingly slow, this is my jog through a book about jogging:

The box is heavy, weighted and enclosed. Its gold embossed title on the spine instantly conjures a fine press tradition of employing luxurious details. The front image of a gate is surprisingly unwelcoming, blocking my entry into the text. The uniformity of the green ink increases the organic boundaries of shrubbery, trees and plant matter.

I love the worn edges of the spine and corners, where it has been pushed against the shelf. Thumbs have gently worn the creases of the corners through the lifting of the lid. The brown is damp, like moist walls or rain soaked sofas left abandoned in the shrubbery. The box scratches subtly, grazing the sides with a soft stroke as the lid is lifted.

The inside covers of floating petals, ferns and seeds in pastel colours remind me of childhood experiments in flower pressing. I can imagine picking up the stalk of the seed bearing plant from the page, sliding my thumb and finger up the stalk and feeling the seeds bunch and break to scatter on the floor. This book is for Christmas, so the insert states. Already boxed and ready to give.

The book is thinner than I expect. I like the ribbed, textured, forest green cover. I wonder if anyone would pay this book much attention if it sat on a shelf, missing its shell of dampen card.  I pick the book up and realise the inside cover is real pressed leaves, seeds and flowers. One of the windmill style leaves has escaped from the paper, its crisp flesh delicate and frail. The small flutter of air caused by lifting the book for a brief moment gives it flight, only to settle again.

The cream paper is rugged and thick. The font of the title echoing the style of William Morris’s Kelmscott Press and the green of the cover. There again, above the first lines of the poem is the image of the gate with the words ‘A five barred gate’s straight lines assert, the stubborn human will’s survival.’ This seems to be the only still image in the book. Before long your jogging (or wandering, watching) with the author through the forest. The words miss obstacles in the blank spaces, playfully darting across the page. Water droplets and puddles occasionally appear opposite the text.  Reflections and shadows make it hard to tell the direction of sight. Are we looking up towards the canopy, or down to the puddles beneath our feet? There is no time to stop, the jog hasn’t ended.

I wish the pictures were among the text, not separated to their own pages. I wish I was within the forest, so I could feel the spray from grass as I jogged through the undergrowth, or heard the bracken crack beneath my feet. Or the sunlight catch my neon jacket. Because all joggers wear neon right?