Going on a Hunch

Catching up with a PhD colleague over coffee, the subject of visual analysis cropped up. Both of us are analysing artworks within our projects – for me this takes the form of book art, for her, magazines. Sometimes drawing meaning from images takes the form of a hunch. Something might leap out – the composition, a portrait, the way it interacts with the text, the use of symbols, etc. Yet, how do we write of this hunch? How do we comprehend this starting point which leads to further evidence? In a research environment where ‘methods’ must be evidenced and claimed, could a gut instinct towards an image be validated?

Recently I attended a talk by Fiona Barber who was speaking about her latest research into Margaret Clarke’s painting, Bathtime at the Creche. Barber outlined how she was drawn to this image in an exhibition because of the representation of racial identities – something felt tense, unusual or disconcerting. This reaction led Barber to consider various contextual issues – such as Black representation in Ireland or figures of motherhood. This tracing from instinct, became a way to test assumptions, but was also led by a feeling – a feeling something else needs to be said, discovered or uncovered. Sometimes driven by absence or void.

How might this feeling then be used in a description? How might we trace this through forms of writing?

I am currently writing about one of my case studies – The Homeless Library. I was spending time going through all the images of the books on Flickr, and seeing what connections or themes emerged, before hopefully going to see the library firsthand. I stopped for a long time on the “U Tramp” image. There was something about the juxtaposition of elements, which caused ambivalence. I wanted to write about this image, but I didn’t necessarily know why, at that moment, it had to be this one. Later I would read Steve Edwards singular artwork analysis of Martha Rolser’s The Bowery, and realise that description is often returned and adjusted. As he states:

I am going to begin with a bald description, which will establish some necessary terms and points of reference for what follows. This description will have to be modified as we attend to the peculiarities and contradictions of the work, but is an essential place to start.

These peculiarities and contradictions seem to appear in am intermingle of writing, observing, reading and returning. My first description start to thicken:

U Tramp is comprised of an altered Victorian novel, its pages folded, and cropped, so only some of the original text and image are visible. The book hosts a makeshift aesthetic, held together by a metal binder at the top, the pages precariously hanging loose at the bottom. Frayed edges and folded corners present use, perhaps due to the age of the original pages, or their treatment in the process of its alteration. It is difficult not to make the association of travel – this book would hook nicely onto a backpack or folder into a pocket. This is a book for those on the move.

The written “U Tramp” draws attention. The black ink of the pen is darker, fresher, than the faded printed text. The text’s boxed in nature accentuates the new title, as well as conveying the limits of this label, its sense of enclosure. It conjures speech in its colloquialism and appears directed towards someone – the label given. Underneath, Thomas (presumably the author) connects to the title with a dash, perhaps an association with this label. To the left (the back of the book), the original text of the Victorian novel seems to connect to this title, ‘addressed me directly…’, the ellipsis inviting the readers eyes to follow across the binding, forming the book as a continual loop, back to “U Tramp”. Who is making this address? The reader? The woman in the image? The woman visible in the print seems to be leaning towards an unknown, hidden figure. This period of representing women as carers – gentle nurturers, softens this address. Yet, the invisibility of whom is receiving, who is being branded, who is bedridden, is disturbing. Here, the carer takes on an accentuated presence, leaning over, she commands and dominates the space.

Where was this description leading?

In turns out, it was heading in many directions. This description became a catalyst to think about the construction of labels such as homeless as both constricting and stereotyping, as well as providing political visibility. It also allowed a thinking through of the  process of altering books, forming a tension between layering, destruction and reinvention. The description allowed a consideration of how reading book art takes on different rhythms, a moving back and forth. A return.

Here, the book was entering multiple contexts – and being read through various lenses. The discourse of book art and its formal concerns, to literature on homeless representation – theory was drawn upon in a ‘bricolage’ or (my favourite) Magpie approach. Sometimes you have to build your nest from wire and plastic, rather than traditional materials of wood and straw.

So maybe these instincts should be followed – not operating isolated, but rather the associations and disassociation emerging from past research and writing. Where they go, or how they get there is partially traced in the writing process, structured to appear as if you always knew what you were going to find in the first place! Even if trying to keep some kind of element of surprise for your reader.

Works cited

Edwards, Steve. (2012) Martha Rosler The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems. London: Afterall Books

The Homeless Library Ebook

 

First of all the materiality of books feels substantial and we felt that it would give weight to these stories which are sometimes treated as insubstantial by making them exist as “proper books”. The materiality of a book is a powerful thing to work with and can be further nuanced by using inks scissors collage, et cetera. Secondly we feel that the marks people make are powerful emblems of their existence. Third, working on paper people can have a chance to be their own editors, which is empowering. Fourth, many people are nervous of being recorded using a machine but happy to talk to someone using a piece of paper and a biro. It’s less threatening.

Philip Davenport

One of the case studies for my thesis is The Homeless Library (2014 – 2016) run by arts organization Arthur & Martha (artists Philip Davenport and Lois Blackburn). It involves the collaborative production of book art with homeless participants across different centres within Manchester. The aim of the project is to create a first-person history of the homeless, to challenge the stigmatized term ‘homeless’ and provide one of the first material histories of individuals diverse and engaging stories.  The project culminated in 50 books now touring in a mobile library, launched at the Houses of Parliament in July this year and recently shown at the SouthBank Centre.

As part of my research, Philip and Lois allowed me to attend one of the workshops at the Booth Centre in Manchester. This form of research is different to methodologies I am employing for my other case studies, which often utilize email correspondence, secondary documentation and engagement with the books created. This was a first-hand opportunity to see the collaborative production of books in action, and demanded a negotiation and understanding of my position as observer, participant and assistant within this project.

Out of the session I wrote a report of my experience, of which sections were published in the ebook to the Homeless Library along with email correspondence with the organisers. The ebook can be downloaded for free (click here) and contains many of the participants experiences of homelessness, which for too long have been left unrecorded.