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

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

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?

Slowing Down

For the last couple of weeks I have been thinking about time. Time always seems to be a point of conversation when completing a PhD. What time are we meeting? When is the RD1 deadline? Am I doing enough with my time? How should I be using my time? In the bustling world of contemporary life, time is nearly always a luxurious commodity. After all, things have to be done ‘on time’. But don’t worry there are things to help. I haven’t got time to cook – don’t worry there are ready meals. I don’t have time to watch TV tonight – don’t worry there is catch-up. I don’t have time to finish my work today – don’t worry there is overtime. Perhaps we don’t fully understand how precious we have allowed time to become or appreciate how time moves due to the technologies that we use to tell the time. I wonder if the slow watch would change the way I use my day? With a 24 hour dial visible, and time indicated by one hand, it’s aim is to show its user the entire day, to allow them to see it progress and make better use of that time. I suppose the real question is what is a better use of time? But that’s a big question, and one I wouldn’t dare to answer. Instead I want to map some connections around time that I have been faced with since starting my PhD.

On 4 November I attended the ‘Wellbeing Beyond GDP’ conference at MMU. Steve Earnshaw, Professor of English Literature at Sheffield Hallam University, spoke about the need to move towards considering ownership of our time. He questioned why inequality was nearly always based on income, and that time was never a considered factor. An individual working on minimum wage would not only have a low income, but may work 7 days a week and have no ‘free time’. Yet a CEO of a prestigious corporation may earn more, work five days a week and have more free time. I realize that these are large generalizations, but the point is to illustrate how perhaps wellbeing is not only in relation to income but also the amount of ‘free time’ we are allowed. Would we have a better quality of life if we worked less hours? Is indeed time even our own, when in our free time we are pushed towards consuming (shopping, leisure activities, eating out etc) sold to us as free choice that has the added value of building our economy. I was really drawn to Steve’s question of if we did have ownership of time would we do anything differently with it? If I only worked three days a week would I be a more responsible individual, doing volunteer work in my free time? Or would I simply watch more TV? At this point I won’t reveal my Netflix account.

This idea of responsibility with our time and ownership of our time also relates to the notion of speed, or perhaps more importantly to the need to slow down. To tackle the increase in mental health conditions particularly in the UK there are many charities, NHS guidelines and even apps that are promoting mindfulness and the need to slow down and take some time for individual reflection of our own state and surroundings. Perhaps this is where considerations of Wellbeing are visible in Earnshaw’s discussion of the ownership of our time. If we could separate just for a moment the necessities and responsibilities in life to a focus on thinking about ourselves, our bodies and those around us perhaps our quality of life would improve. The need being of course that all of us have time to do this. This need to stop, step back and reflect upon a situation has also been discussed in line with the recent atrocities that occurred in Paris most eloquently written in a letter by Judith Butler. A gut, emotional reaction to this situation is understandable, but there is a need to be patient and ‘think through the situation’. Jumping to increased state surveillance, what Butler terms an ‘enhanced security state’, although understandable, could have consequences on the democracy we stand for. Stopping, slowing and reflecting are becoming more important tools.

This need for a sudden response is also a topic of conversation in relation to the role of the art critic. In a conversation between Tom Finkelpearl and Grant Kester in What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation (2013) they discuss the ‘sudden response’ that object based art often demands of its viewers. For Kester, when walking into a gallery the object (he uses a Jeff Koons sculpture as an example), generates an immediate feeling, he subjectively likes or doesn’t like the piece and makes a judgement, often a very distanced judgement. For collaborative projects, Kester states that the reaction is different, it is a process of peeling back the layers of ‘interaction and transformation at a given site'(p.121). It requires more involvement and more time to understand the complexities of the collaboration, the dialogical aspects and often its interdisciplinary nature. This slow critical analysis is something that resonates in reading book art, although the metaphor of peeling back layers is perhaps better addressed in the turning of pages. Therefore, book art although object bound does not generate this ‘sudden response’ that a visibly whole Jeff Koons sculpture might. It requires interaction from the reader, in the turning of pages, the pulling out of sections, the creasing of the binding and the cross reading of text and image. This is a slow process, but is as equally subjective to the ‘like or don’t like’ reaction that art demands. Not to mention, that reading book art produced in a collaborative, socially engaged approach often involves peeling back the layers of participant interaction/creation, processes of making and movement/physical relations alongside the finished book object.

Making art slowly also seeps into the book art workshops of Sheelagh Frew-Crane, who teachings the art of bookmaking to promote wellbeing. Frew-Crane has been running book art workshops at Guideposts Trust, Mind, LP Café and Watford Museum, to encourage people to use the space of the book as a mode of mindfulness, a space much like a diary to place thoughts, drawings, ideas and reflections. She sees pages as moments of time, representing days, nights or thoughts, and therefore as visual records of our transitory experiences. Frew-Crane also sees the act of physically ‘building’ a book as a therapeutic venture that occurs slowly and rhythmically. The stitching together of pages, designing the cover, staining the pages and bringing the book together is both a safe and cognitive process. This desire for wellbeing through book making is due to Frew-Crane’s interest in ‘voice hearers’ and mental health, she wants to empower people through providing a space in which to record their experiences and have control over that process of reflection. Frew-Cranes interactions with voice hearers and desire to challenge stigmas attached to those with schizophrenia is currently addressed in her exhibition in Watford Museum’s Space2. I would highly recommend a visit. Spend some time, slow down and own that time.

 

 

Bear with me readers, I am new to this.

Why would anyone want to read my blog? I am sure this is the thought that goes through everyone’s mind when even contemplating the idea of putting your research out on the big wide world of the web. What if people mock my research? What if my research isn’t good enough for a blog? What if my blog makes me come across as a narcissist? What if no one reads my blog? And the questions persist. I hear my PhD group discuss the commonly felt imposter syndrome and squirm in my seat. Why are you doing this research? I ask myself. Because I want to bring to the forefront socially engaged book art projects, generate new ideas alongside peers and become part of a keen group of individuals using art for social change. I want to share what I am doing to get feedback and reactions from a wider public, and perhaps the best way to do that is to get it out on a blog. Of course, I would be dishonest to say it is entirely devoid of selfish reasons – such as the visualisation of research progress and the exploration of writing. But, perhaps these elements are more connected than I originally thought. What better way to test an idea, than to share it to another person? To invite a response. We shall see.

So how is this blog structured? I would like to say that I have in mind a coherent structure – that old familiar term ‘start at the beginning’, but I don’t. My colleague Su (another PhD student at MMU) told me that her writing process is messy, like that of the creative process – and this messiness is unrestricting and can allow her to pull out strands and links that may not have been visible to her if she followed a structured approach. I think I will borrow this method of Su’s and see my blog as an organic entity, developing around my reading, conversations and interactions as they occur, but constantly moving towards creating a reading method for socially engaged book art. Perhaps this is a starting point? All I ask is that you please bear with me readers, tread softly, because I am new to this.