‘Woman’s Outlook’, Past Present Future

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

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

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

Here is an abstract of our workshop proposal:

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

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

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

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

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.

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.



A few thoughts on book art and the London Underground


What is socially engaged book art? This is the question that I know will haunt me for many months to come. Is my position like the met office warning I read today? Snowed in by the circle of possible names for book art. If it should be called book art at all.

Artists’ books, bookworks, biblio-objets, book objects, artist’s publishing, the-not-book, are just a small selection of the terms used to describe a set of practices where the book and art converge. This flurry of possibilities on the one hand is exciting, it encourages new works by allowing artists to push boundaries outside of the limits of definition and set practices. But for critics, one has to choose a position, a point of entry into certain works to situate their writing and engagement with the practices that are taking place. I am going to have to choose.

Or do I? For the book art world, practice often falls into a ‘zone of activity’ rather than a fixed definition, first propounded by Johanna Drucker in The Century of Artists’ Books (1994), then later by Sarah Bodman and Tom Sowden in A Manifesto for the Book. This proposed zone tries to reveal the many intersections that are involved in the creation of book art, to highlight that a fixed statement or a rigid diagram doesn’t quite reveal the complexities and interdisciplinary nature of this mutable form.

But, perhaps this zone is not as free as it first seems. Imagine each author’s proposed zone is a zone on the London Underground.  Zone 1 is Drucker’s zone and represents artists’ books. The stations in her zone are features that she feels represent that classification or practice of making artists’ books – generally they are multiples, self-published, experimental and inexpensive. Zone 2 (and by no means lesser, just in case you were considering the housing prices around the stations of the London Underground) is Bodman & Sowden and represents book art. Coming later to the underground map (2010), their stations are perhaps more diverse and wider reaching, encompassing stickers, zines, podcasts and new digital experiments. But each has its boundaries. Drucker would not consider livres d’artistes in the zone of artists’ books although recognises their historical impact, but Bodman & Sowden happily include livres de luxe. Drucker’s artist book examples are generally editioned and often explore the traditional codex form and an interplay of text and image. Whereas, Bodman and Sowden’s examples can extend to one off sculptural works or a mobile phone novel sent over texts, with no ‘physical’ body.

However, both Drucker and Bodman & Sowden have chosen their zones for different purposes, and are admittedly subjective. Drucker was establishing a critical foundation for artists’ books to pave the way for further analysis. Drucker wanted to establish the artist book as ‘the quintessential 20th-century artform’, therefore focusing on examples that fitted with a history of conceptual, performative, avant-garde practice. For Bodman and Sowden, the zone was a way of focusing more on practice rather than historical lineage, and therefore presented a less specific zone, encompassing  a wider variety of artistic modes of engagement.

‘It has become apparent that Book Arts is the most inclusive term. It includes ‘book’ which is of great concern to many of the practitioners we spoke with; it helps them to place their work, identifies their realm of practice, and is the most generous title through the sum of “arts” + “book”. This allows the genre to extend its previous limits; if you can add arts to book it implies all works surrounding and related to the subject – ‘art’ adds an extension to the definition of a book.’ Bodman & Sowden

So I suppose I have to ask myself what is the purpose of my zone that is called socially engaged book art, before I can embark on a definition. What stations does it stop at and how are they linked? And then of course what is socially engaged art? And is book art being produced in a socially engaged approach? Back to the drawing board.

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.