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

 

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

 

Fleshy Exteriors of a Muted Dwelling

In MMU’s Special Collections there is small book by Anna Fox called My Mother’s Cupboard and My Father’s Words (2000). I chose to write about this book, and the experience of reading this book for one of the Writing Matters sessions. The writing had to reveal nothing about the title or author, as when read aloud to the group had to signify what artist book was being spoken about and who had written the text through the description and ‘voice’. Images of the book can be found here. It revealed an opportunity to freely write about the experience of reading outside of a perceived theoretical framework.

Cupboards are those spaces within the house that lock away all the clutter, and keep back those objects that must remain unseen. Those objects are the working elements of the household, that extra strong bleach, those ironed tablecloths, the Lemsip max and finest crockery. They are what makes the house tick, breathe and operate. They are the tools that uphold and maintain the domestic image, yet remain absent from the representation of the home to outside eyes.

Sometimes words like objects should remain shut away from the prying eyes and ears of visitors. Appearances of harmony and composure upheld. There is no better place to contain words than in the pages of a book. Like doors that open and close, pages can enclose secrets, sometimes violent, of the happenings in the household.

This dinky, pink book appears to belong in a dolls house, rather than the ‘real’ space of the home. The slick, pretty paper, which adorns the cover, is stereotypically feminine, sweet and innocent. As I open the book, the image forces my view into the back of the cupboard. I can imagine peering into this space, my face against the cold, smooth surface of glass. There is something familiar about this interior. Her mother’s best crockery kept safe, a sense of Rococo flamboyance in that light pink, floral patterning.

Then out or through the cupboard, to the next page. A dedication for her parents, from the author, their daughter. Later I wonder what parents would want such a dedication, for a bitter, muted representation of their relationship? Perhaps they do not know.

There is always silence before the storm, the tense absence of building anger in the blank space of two pages. Nevertheless, yelling does not follow. Just her father’s quiet bitterness, all beautifully scripted in curls and flicks. So small is the text, I wonder how his daughter heard his words? A murmur under his breath. His words inflict trauma on the body of his wife, carving her bottom into slices of ham, grilling her with lashes of grease. The pink cover starts to change to fresh meat, raw and vulnerable.

But, where is his wife? Is she amongst the cupboards, in their muted dwelling? Amongst those claustrophobic stacks of plates and printed cups, which throw ominous silhouettes at the back of the cupboard? Is her mother, his wife, another cog in the clockwork of objects that keep the household ticking? Perhaps she is simply hiding from her husband’s wrath.

As I flick the pages quickly, the images blur into a deep, dark cupboard. An endless tunnel. The book becomes the container. The images black box silhouette trapping her father’s words, as the image outline becomes visible through the back of the paper. The feminised font dissipates the authority of her father’s words as he vies for control of her mother’s body, the utensils, the space of the cupboard and in turn the household. “Your mother’s in control now, I’ve got no control.”

As the back page closes, the door shuts, and I wonder what the family portrait may have looked like.