a couple of intimate documents, no.2

1 Apr

2. A Letter to Blood

 

Dear M

 

I’ve been thinking about your title ‘Blood’: so innocent and candid in its base simplicity but so visceral and dangerous in its threat. Is it a metaphor and metonym in one? I read on Twitter there was a fire in the basement of the gallery your film is showing in, which seemed to sum up the same epigrammatic explosion configured by that single word.

 

Blood.

 

Weird how a word can be so messy in its image but so clean and complete on the page.

 

I wonder what will happen if I write to the work instead of you? You wrote a girl with ‘strong emotions… welling up inside’, and now I’m going to write to her and the script she moves in, as I’m watching her. This kind of writing is like touching, it happens that quickly, an intimate meeting of word and image. My hand (my bodily signature) dances about the keyboard; it touches the machine and types what wells up inside, from letter to letter, like a scene change.

 

Yours

 

A.

 

*

 

Dear Blood

 

Of course you begin with a red building, B. You abject Bloody Chamber. A rectangular concrete shell that pulses with colour, as rosy and sore as cow meat. I can tell you’re a film about childhood because there’s a mickey mouse painted on the outside wall.

 

But it looks cold up in those mountains, as if my veins would go blue there. Do vampires live there? What about wolves? I tend to write down authors names and books I’ve read when I experience art, as a way of thinking into it when I’m stuck or confused. So I wrote down ‘Angela Carter’ and the catch-all phrase ‘Magic Realism’ when I watched you the first time, as you open with a fairytale landscape of schoolchildren reading from M’s script in an Eastern European accent. My bag is heavy / and my feet are tired. At least these kids are wrapped up warm. They’re helping each other learn to read, orally, but leading us through the story too, like the comforting chant of a night-time chapter.

 

I see Isabel is back; she was in The Udder when I saw her last. But what’s she doing with a sieve on her head? Is it a helmet of domesticity? She is a GIRL, after all. Power to her for asking: Why am I being punished? She holds the hands of an imagined twin, and spins around in a circle. One is dressed in an English country gent’s tweed coat, while the other Isabel is rocking Albanian housewife in a blue woolen dress, embroidered waistcoat and floral headscarf. Blood, your phonetic parts flash up on screen: B L O O D – the caption to Isabel’s tricksy face and dragged up dance. I start to wonder if you’re not so much a film about death (as the title first implies), as a film about life, of living it differently in whatever clothes you choose.

 

Soon we are up her nose. I’ve been thinking about these scenes. First we meet Isabel’s two friends making pinkie promises in pink pyjamas, begging her to play. They spin her round. Isabel finds respite in the giant black nostrils of an even bigger fake nose, but her frenemies follow her, as they double up as the skin-munching antibodies that are causing Isabel’s nasal infection. I bet she’s faking it, they say, pointing towards the fictional infrastructure of the fairytale we are watching. Tell M, when you see her, that was clever.

 

Isabel appears vulnerable in her hospital gown. I wonder if these scenes of you, B, are a comment on the fragility of the female body. The blonde girl is sick, scared, and soon to wither even more as her nose gets bloodier than a playground nose bleed (which, come to think of it, is always pretty embarrassing). And so I guess what I’m asking you, Blood, is this: is the embarrassing exposure of Isabel’s disease, her corporeal failing and fucked over turbinate bone, some sort of willing tactic on M’s part? The turbinate is supposed to clean and filter the air that we breathe in, so the doctor tells us, but Isabel’s is faulty. She is a messy and smelly, sick young thing (invariably described as a monster; a poor creature; a foreign body), rejecting the pre-inscribed femininity that has been mapped out before her. The pink patrol speaks a language of digital girlishness (full of Lols and Seriouslys), but Isabel’s language is infinitely more wayward. She wants to escape the polyester pink and replace it with red.

 

It makes me think of Virginia Woolf making hallucinogenic stories out of her sickbed in the self-referential essay ‘On Being Ill’; or Dodie Bellamy, who made the expression of neuroses (and blood) a feminist literary form in The Letters of Mina Harker. Dodie later wrote about the strategy in a separate essay called ‘The Cheese Stands Alone’: ‘In my gusto for exploding the boundaries between my writing and my lived experience, I was determined to push the personal into ever more embarrassing realms.’ Sickness might mean blood, but sickness also means power: it means transgression. It pushes the body (and mind) into unchartered territories.

 

Quite literally in the case of you, for the next minute we’re in Albania. A river flows across the base of the screen, while a mountainous condensing landscape is stratified across the top. It’s an image of that other life-enforcing element: water. In M’s magic realist tale, the Albanian narrative represents Isabel exploring the depths of her unconscious, enhanced through sickness. She is both in and out of body during this moment of abject rupture, which provides the necessary environment for transgression and desire. She has not only run away from home (and all of the domestic trappings that that entails) but is also seeking out an alternative, of how one might be a girl, and what this might mean. What it could mean. She is literally in battle with her own flesh and blood.

 

I think the next subplot is really bold of you, Blood. It’s a story of transgenderism, transgression, of passing and difference; but it also reveals the extremes of such circumstances, and in this sense is also a story of female oppression, domesticity and chastity, contained in a vessel that is part fiction and part document. I hear the research behind you is drawn from the anthropological findings of Antonia Young’s Women Who Become Men, which I read in the British Library last week. First, it was Edith Durham that struck upon Albania’s sworn virgins in the mid 1860s; then in 1919, while reporting on the situation of refugees after World War One, the American journalist Rose Wilder Lane also delved into similar ethnographic detail. Rose was the daughter of Laura, the author of Little House on the Prairie, which I thought was a funny coincidence given M’s warped vision of childhood innocence.

 

I am wondering how M met Lali, for your credits confirm that s/he is playing a version of hirself. It is real life and real speech reoriented by the permeations of film and fiction and dialogue and writing. Lali introduces hirself to Isabel, explains that s/he chose to live hir life as a man, in exchange for eternal chastity. But if the promise is broken, the sin can only be repaid with the sinner’s blood, reaping shame on all hir family. Antonia wrote a piece for Cosmopolitan on the sworn virgin tradition, but it was the 1990s – the era of the sex column – and the editors tampered with its language, preferring to emphasise the sacrificial element of the task, as opposed to it being a positive redeeming choice for many (as well as the conditions of that choice).

 

I wouldn’t change it for anything says Lali to the bewildered interior Isabel. Meanwhile, the girl’s exterior continues to bleed, straight from the nasal cavity; she’s rejecting those bones and singing back to the infectious mites with finger-wagging rhymes, as her friends also draw on her face with lipliner.

 

In contrast, Lali takes an extended drag from a cigarette and later sips at some liquor while talking about football. What a man, what a man.

 

Blood, I am starting to think that you are a film about multiplicity, of being more than one thing at once, as Lali, in white cone hat, plaid shirt and smooth mountain skin says, I am a he and a she. Cosmo failed to note the overwhelming differences between glossy clit culture and rural Albania. M does not, as she gives voice to the protagonist in Lali, in dialogue that feels incredibly honest, even if the set-up is not and the cameras are on hir. In answer to Isabel’s sassy claim (I don’t need to be a man to be free), Lali simply states: Your life is different to the one we had

 

And as Lali takes care of the wandering Isabel and invites her to sip from the very same liquor, her face becomes crusty and deformed. She is a red raw female grotesque with suffering skin, but in the alternative fairytale land of Albania, she is testing out the limits of her messy feminine identity (emotional, sick, intersectional), just like Wolf-Alice in The Bloody Chamber or Kathy Acker in Blood and Guts in High School. Blood, I wonder if your elemental freedom stems from the fact that you are fiction. The fairytale lends itself to a rewrite.

 

Your Isabel with blonde Rapunzel locks is pre-adolescent and pre-woman. She is also delicate, diseased and defective. But herein lies her revolting potential. She is in a marginal state, hospitalized but also moving; it is a frenetic state of being and subjectivity in which change and transgression can occur. When she runs away from Lali’s cottage to the tower, she’s not only running away from her fairytale foster parent, or running away from her failing nose; she’s running away from her old SELF and healing, this unrecognizable poor creature. But with this transformative cleansing comes BLOOD, as the young girl confesses in the closing sequence: At that moment strong emotions were welling up inside me. There was moderate bleeding from the nose and mouth. The odour was very very bad.

 

*

 

A postscript for M:

I wrote a letter to your work, as excessive and scrolling as Isabel’s blood-sucking gauze, because I thought this the most intimate form of writing about it, given its affirmation of the visceral body. An epistle is often stained with blood as well as ink, a hand-stamp of its writer. There’s no blood on this blog, on this shiny screen. But there is feeling. I wrote it in a dazed state, a foreign body, like Virginia Woolf on her sickbed.

 

 

 

‘Blood’ by Marianna Simnett was commissioned as part of the Jerwood/FVU Awards 2015: ‘What Will They See of Me?’ currently showing at Jerwood Space. The Jerwood/FVU Awards 2015: ‘What Will They See of Me’ are a collaboration between Jerwood Charitable Foundation and FVU in association with CCA, Glasgow and University of East London, School of Arts and Digital Industries. FVU is supported by Arts Council England.

a couple of intimate documents, no.1

1 Apr

1. A Letter to L, from your own correspondent

 

Dear L

 

I’m watching your film that begins in New York, and I thought I’d write to you about it, in a way that’s like talking. The film is full of conversations – it’s called From Our Own Correspondent, after all – so let’s chat too, in language that is ephemeral but embodied. Also performed. I’m going to write this epistle quickly, figuring it out as I go, like I would in an email. So sorry if it’s not all that tidy, or clean. Typing before thinking, just as Dodie Bellamy said in Sexspace (which I think you would love by the way). In this story-cum-manifesto for writing, she writes: Sexspace is the site where all impulses originate and return, byte to byte, where fucking is reduced to its barest, most efficient form – two lovers at monitors upright in their office chairs, their fingers scuttling across keyboards, their desire evidenced through fantasy and adjectives. If the digital unleashes lexical looseness, as body coagulates with machine, I wonder where this letter will take me…

 

That loud rustle at the beginning of the film is sort of exciting. It is the dawn movement of sheets, suggestive of a body, suggestive of desire. The sun creeps up, orange and lilac, behind the city’s apartment blocks and hotel penthouses. It is the start of a new working day. No time for morning sex when the Internet is 24 hour, and people are confessing and corresponding ALL OF THE TIME over sexspace.

 

I’ve been thinking about the relationship of the correspondents in the film (and the title) to correspondence (like what we’re doing now). Red messages flash up on screen, scrolling behind the beige curtains: Awake? she asks, awake and desperate, in syntax punctuated by a yearning question mark. In this alternate hotel world, of leaky eggs and leaky hearts, time is no longer divided by the usual workaday units, as work and desire become messy and one. Educated professional (37) brunette. Away from home. Message? Cam? Even when she is sleeping, she is looking. The tabs remain open. The light stays on. The messages continue, shooting through the slime of the screen and the working emails, with body and blood and affect. Threatening the whiteness of the hotel-room sheets. Personal forms of correspondence tantalise and tease, the unruly tab a gateway to pleasure and perversity. I am left wanting more, just like your chat-room brunette.

 

Your film seems to me, L, to be about the flimsy walls between public (work/journalism/the interview) and private (sex/relationships/home/conversation). The locked door en-suite with only a kettle for a kitchen is a sign of constant networking, immaterial labour, as work invades intimacy in this space of digital liquid. Striving for personal relationships but the pop-up gets in the way. Constant distraction: with news and desire battling for your attention. (No time to eat.)

 

I thought it was interesting when, later on in the film, one of your interviewees said that thing about not working within false constraints of time; with no print deadline for these digital journalists, the story can be uploaded and then the facts added later. The text is always moving, its script and structure as fluid as the clock. Multiple stories can be woven together at once. Someone has to be available, waiting, in the hotel room, to make that happen: this total news gush.

 

I’m wondering if this is a woman thing, too: if the online blogger, hopping from story to story, must be gendered female: an open, desiring, leaky cyborg, relentlessly artificial. There’s a thrill in going backstage and witnessing the preparation, as your ‘legs-wide-open’ blogging avatar shows us her white knickers, practices her nods and smiles, totters about the square room in PVC heels, and gets ready for a day of interviews. I can hear the shuffling of her notes and pre-written questions. The new recording device has arrived, its foam packing strewn across the memory foam mattress.

 

In other words: she’s getting ready (programming) for the performance. The Feminization of Labour. It is she who is doing the uploading, and messing about with HTML. In secret. Before it goes public. With smooth skin and silicone gestures, animated to be anonymous, this creature seems to embody what Sadie Plant suggested in Zeros and Ones, when the internet was just getting going. This was Sadie, writing in 1997: Hardware, software, wetware – before their beginning and beyond their ends women have been the simulators, assemblers and programmers of the digital machines. And the digital news.

 

And this was Donna Haraway, sketching out the cyberfeminism that would see us from the 1980s to now. The cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled, post modern collective and personal self, she wrote, presaging the same kind of public intimacy that your anonymous blogger, of bits and parts, must play.

 

Then, from hotel-home to the interview itself. L, do you perform the same strategies as your avatar, interviewing her IRL employees, in order to expose the contrived relationship at play? That’s how it seems to me, as you edit your interviewees’ answers as guilty greenroom confessions, full of all the right pauses and emphases. And they’ve all got such silky hair and perfect skin. (Was that luck, coincidence or performance?) The redhead, especially, seems like a fierce ‘professional’. I wonder how much time she’s got for sexspace correspondence. She says people want to do jobs that come naturally to them but there’s nothing natural about those words, which are carried by the polemical weight of the hand gesture.

 

The Internet is supposed to be the arena of honesty, confession and exposure; of getting below the skin, just like the interview, but both seem to be as much about disguise or self-effacement, as telling the truth. I think that is what your film is showing, L, as your real life bloggers morph from case study to character. The interview is a performed and constructed encounter, whereby we play exaggerated or dissipated cover versions of our selves. That is what they will see of them: the stagey stuff of artifice. Questions as opposed to answers. Never pause to look at what I might be asking is the redhead’s manifesto, as she asserts absolute control in this verbal transaction of entrusted speech. Be playful and direct, she adds, with a confirmatory nod of authority, as she leans casually on this hotel’s mahogany desk.

 

It’s dusk now and I’m still writing this letter to you, L. The light outside is dulling, but also acquiring that pink which I only see in London, and that was so much easier to spot when I lived in a top floor flat. The avatar is lying on her penthouse bed, too. She’s done her interviews and is back in the hotel room. The light outside the floor-to-ceiling windows is a mixture of neon blues and greens. The sun is fading in New York. She’s changed her outfit into something a bit more ‘night-time’, to make her feel sexier, and less like she’s at work. The avatar’s closing monologue seems to encapsulate the film’s ideas about the slippery interface between public and private. It’s a speech that feels like a scrolling message feed in its drip like excess and frenetic distractions. Pressing ‘post’ before there’s time to regret it.

 

This closing speech just made me think about how much your film, L, is composed of the first person. The confessional booth or the hotel room interview, or the Internet chat-room, is a space of the intimate ‘I’, even if that ‘I’ is glossed, warped, performed. Back in her false space of privacy and comfort, working to meet the morning deadline, but detouring down erotic online routes, the avatar enters the sexspace field. She’s looking for contact online, but finds only immaterial windows and other people’s messages. Correspondence, but no touching. First she comes across a verbatim, but typo-ridden, transcript someone had posted, containing relayed messages that had become public following the political scandal of a politician tweeting a picture of his penis. What will they see of him? They will see his willy. And the comments about his willy. Because as long as there are screenshots, it will never disappear. The avatar then follows other leads, pop up correspondences and chat room messages: talk to me, they say. Or question, desiringly.

 

I’ve been asking you questions in this letter too, L (just like you). I don’t think it matters if I don’t get a reply, as friendships can be imaginary. They can help us figure things out in our heads.

 

Are the emails and chat room messages a distraction for the avatar, I wonder? Is this letter a distraction? Maybe so, but then who cares: it’s just me, you and all the other trillion avatars trying to make our way in the world.

 

 

Yours,

A, your correspondent.

 

 

 

‘From Our Own Correspondent’ by Lucy Clout was commissioned as part of the Jerwood/FVU Awards 2015: ‘What Will They See of Me?’ currently showing at Jerwood Space.The Jerwood/FVU Awards 2015: ‘What Will They See of Me?’ are a collaboration between Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Film and Video Umbrella (FVU) in association with CCA, Glasgow and University of East London, School of Arts and Digital Industries. FVU is supported by Arts Council England.

Leaky Containers

11 Mar

In the catalogue essay I wrote last year, for the first phase of the Jerwood/FVU Awards: ‘What Will They See of Me?’ exhibition at Jerwood Space, I penned a series of scrolling epistles to a group of woman writers, most of them friends. (Scroll as in manuscript, and scroll as in blog.) And even when they weren’t friends, like the two Anns – Quin and Rower – I imagined that they could be. Separated by decades, but friends through form, as diaristic expression, forms of correspondence and uncensored syntax recur, and reach out, across the temporalities that divide them.

 

An early sort of sharing, as in:

FuckYeahFeministArt&Literature.Tumblr.com.

 

From the Anns’ novels to the blogs of Ariana Reines and Dodie Bellamy, biography is assaulted and sacrificed, to give way for the written performance, as the personal is paradoxically recast as a form of knowingly manipulative masquerade. Performing the confession, in art or online, the woman writer makes herself visible – splurting uncontrollably scaring the patriarchal reader – to then disappear from view in the pixels and fissures of its form.

 

The original ‘What Will They See of Me?’ text came off the back of a long form essay I had written on Ann Quin’s life and work, through which I had become interested in how confession is performed in writing. A literary style, but also a self-conscious act, it is a strategy closer to the visceral protest of twentieth century feminist art, than mainstream literature or ‘artist-genius’ letter-writing. As these writers expose the body and self – in fragmented, playful, plagiarized fictions – the mode of confession slowly unravels itself as a double bluff, more vengeful than vulnerable. Or naked.

 

It is no accident that Chris Kraus references Hannah Wilke as a protagonist in this game of publicity, as the author writes of the artist in I Love Dick: ‘[she] started using the impossibility of her life, her artwork, and career as material… As if Hannah Wilke was not brilliantly feeding back her audience’s prejudice and fear, inviting them to join her for a naked lunch.’

 

But she does not stay naked for long, not in any tactile sense. You cannot see her or touch her, when language returns and fills the gap: embodies but does not violate.

 

And so soon I realised that it is not exposure at all, it is writing: it is artifice. I called the text Artificial Hearts, culled from Ann Rower’s If You’re A Girl, but a gossipy and gloopy tag line for all. IRL confession pertains to truth, and performance art revels in the show, but I wonder if they’re basically the same thing. In The Buddhist, Dodie Bellamy titles one of her blog posts ‘Heart Publication’, as she performs the self in language, mediated by the contextual surround of the upload: an instantaneous rush of emotion and writing.

 

Like a love letter in the post. It’s there in the conjunctive: blog-POST: this ephemeral verbal note is to be sent out, worn out and consumed, by not one but many.

 

I wonder if the blog post is a sort of splurting, or barfing, as described by Dodie in Barf Manifesto: ‘The barf is messy, irregular, but you can feel in your guts that it’s going somewhere, you can’t stop it… you’ve just got to let it run its course.’ In this text, Dodie finds in her friend Eileen Myles’s essay ‘Everyday Barf’ a radical language of bodily upheaval, and in her barf manifesto looks to beckon it in as a feminist literary form. Extending Dodie’s course, I’m interested in how the blog might perform the barf, and how that might aid – loosen up even – the art-critical voice. Writing projectile all over the internet seems more faithful to the 2015 ‘What Will They See of Me?’ works somehow, given the artists’ preoccupations with speech, subjectivity, writing and body.

 

Like Dodie Bellamy noting the influence of Kathy Acker in The Buddhist:

 

This is what I was getting at in my post on public display and operatic suffering – an in-your-face owning of one’s vulnerability and fucked-upness to the point of embarrassing and offending tight-asses is a powerful feminist strategy. Writing is tough work, I don’t really see how anyone can really write from a position of weakness. Sometimes I may start out in that position, but the act of commandeering words flips me into a position of power… Like Kathy Acker, I long to quiver and terrify in the same gasp.

 

Last Spring, I too was performing feminist influence, fantasising about a community of writers in my text, and writing in parallel to the exhibition’s all female moving-image artists. They were Marianna Simnett, Lucy Clout, Kate Cooper and Anne Haaning, each artist exhibiting a film work in response to the probing desperation of the title: ‘What Will They See of Me?’ Notions of visibility, selfhood, technology and posterity found an outlet in works that were by turns chemical, corporeal, muddy and verbal.

 

Marianna Simnett, ‘Blood’, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

Marianna Simnett, ‘Blood’, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

 

Lucy and Marianna won the awards to make large scale moving image works, which will be exhibited at Jerwood Space from this week until April 26. I snuck a look at the first edit of Marianna’s film, given the curiously pithy title Blood. It tells the abject story of Isabel, the young heroine of Marianna’s previous work The Udder, and the magic realist journey through her own nose. As she suffers with a bleeding and deforming snout, she also finds transformative solace in an Albanian fairytale landscape, as Lali, a ‘sworn virgin’ and committed transgenderist becomes her pre-pubescent spiritual guide. Maternal and paternal. She’s both character and document in this film, as Lali is one of the last of Eastern Europe’s ‘sworn virgins’ to be living out hir life as a man, promising eternal chastity in exchange for patriarchal respect and company. Women Who Become Men, an anthropological study by Antonia Young, is sitting on the gallery’s book-shelf, hinting at Marianna’s own conversations and research.

 

Marianna Simnett, ‘Blood’, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

Marianna Simnett, ‘Blood’, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

 

‘A woman is a sack made to endure,’ Lali – in peasant man-clothes – tells the withering Isabel. By turns sick, sub-conscious, drugged and doe-eyed, Marianna presents the young girl positioned on a fragile bridge between vulnerability/femininity and freedom/androgyny. Located in an alternate interior world, I wonder if Marianna is proposing an allegorical tale of transgression, fusing young girl ‘LOL’ speak with genuine curiosity about gendered subjectivity. The climactic final sequence involving a stream of leaking (crêpe-paper) blood from an oversized (papier-mâché) nose seems less gruesome end, more hopeful beginning.

 

Lucy Clout, ‘From Our Own Correspondent’, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

Lucy Clout, ‘From Our Own Correspondent’, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

 

Lucy will be showing From Our Own Correspondent, which takes its title from a tabloid trend for claiming false authorship for an article, when in fact it has been brought in from outside sources. Lucy zooms in on how contemporary news and gossip is presented and consumed through a series of interviews with the media professionals and bloggers that comprise this round-the-clock industry. The stageyness of the set-up is revealed by Lucy’s behind-the-camera request to remove a snotty tissue from the shiny side-table, communicated through a flash of red subtitles. It is a work that performs its subject (like I am looking to do also), with the exchanges set in a number of anonymously mahogany skyline hotel rooms.

 

The stills from the film show a blogging avatar, surrounded by plasma television, leather headboard and all sorts of beige furnishings. She is connected to the plastic, a coded being, wired to deadlines and breaking news. It is a warped environment of work and intimacy, a space of material and immaterial labour. Writing and talking. Probably tweeting. With a flimsy wall between public and private, the hotel room signifies how within this mode of work, the personal is always leaking (like Isabel’s blood) into the professional, also shown in the desiring pop-up messages that flash upon the screen and the avatar’s night-time monologue. Correspondence (for these correspondents) is work and play, continuing Lucy’s forensic interest into the contemporary mechanics of everyday speech that characterised her first ‘What Will They See of Me?’ work, The Extra’s Ever-Moving Lips.

 

Splurting, barfing, leaking.

No walls. No censors.

The blog performs the un-edit, the un-collected: shame-free. It makes me think of a recent post by Sara Ahmed (whom Lucy also retweeted in August), on her site Feminist Killjoys, which performs the ephemeral as an antidote to the time-heavy academic paper:

 

So emotional; so moved by being heard as emotional. You are used to this. Eyes rolling. You are used to this. Feminists are heard as being emotional whatever they say, which is to say, again, independently of what they say. Being called “emotional” is a form of dismissal. How emotional. Just look at you.

A container, a leaky container.

Be careful: we leak

 

Objects of correspondence as leaky containers, filled in with the hand of the interviewer, letter-writer, emailer, tweeter, blogger. These are positions of writing engaged with speech as ephemeral and moving, sneaking to the fore from the visceral, messy margins.

In more ways than one.

Onomatopoeic discharge.

With a sender and receiver, it is a relationship of embodiment. Always two parts or more, whether real or imagined.

 

There’s freedom in the spill.

 

The blog leaks: it relocates emotion from private to public, like Lauren Berlant’s ‘intimate publics’, as she writes in The Female Complaint: ‘The personal is the general. Publics presume intimacy.’ An intimate public is a ‘space of mediation’, and performance, whereby the personal is processed and churned over through everyday experience and objects, ready for consumption. As a ‘porous, affective scene of identification among strangers’, the blog seems to fit the consolatory promise of the intimate public.

 

I’m going from essay-writer to blog-writer, as the Spring Jerwood Visual Arts’ Writer in Residence. I wonder what will happen in that role-change. Will I write quicker? Will I pour my heart out? Will I pull a scroll from my vagina and read from it like Carolee Schneeman? Will I let them see me? What will they see of me?

 

In Artificial Hearts, I ended with discussions of Dodie Bellamy’s The Buddhist, and Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, both books made from dead blogs. Edited, reframed: cleaned up. I am interested in resurrecting the form, along with other forms of correspondence, such as letter, email and diary, as a method of art criticism. I’m going to start a diary for the first time in my life (bad writer) and see what happens; see what can be pulped from this pool of bodily, immediate language. I will take it with me to the gallery and write notes in residence, in public, as that will be more intimate.

 

I realise this is all a bit self-referential, a blog post about blog posts, but I am wondering how I might harness this form of digital writing, and how it might offer potential for women’s writing and women’s writing about art, and women’s art practice. Tumblr was founded in 2007, providing infinite publishing platforms for all genders and sexualities, in a form inherently infinite. I am interesting in performing that initial promise, using the blog post as a way of writing through art, and getting closer to it.

 

And I will write letters to Lucy and Marianna, to them and to their work. I will look to build an intimate archive: a space of performance that writes art and body in ephemeral literary objects. As when José Muñoz wrote in ‘Ephemera as Evidence’: ‘Ephemera, as I am using it here, is linked to alternate modes of textuality and narrativity like memory and performance’; it is the ‘glimmers, residues and specks of things.’ Ephemera will be used not as information, but as embodiment: a way of writing through the art object. A(rt)-(o)BJECT. This is to be an abject as well as an intimate archive. The blog or digital epistle is a private textual object, mediated through the act of writing and the public screen. It speaks. It barfs. It leaks.

The Jerwood/FVU Awards 2015: ‘What Will They See of Me?’ are a collaboration between Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Film and Video Umbrella (FVU) in association with CCA: Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow and University of East London, School of Arts and Digital Industries. FVU is supported by Arts Council England.

Gallery Tour

17 Feb

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Gallery Tour of Jerwood Encounters: The Grantchester Pottery paints the stage.
17 February 2015

Listen to the tour here.

Laundry Notes

29 Jan

I remember playing in washing, a romantic memory of the feel of warm sun and the smell of cleanliness mixed with a hint of the not-allowed (to dirty the clean sheets would have been trouble). Standing between lines of towels, pants, trousers and T-shirts is like occupying a place between the layers of acetates that make up a cartoon image. When too dry washing becomes crisp and flat like a paper cut-out. Inhabiting this space I had a sense of what the characters made for my theatre must have felt like when shunted back and forth between layers of a cardboard stage-set. The theatre was called The Royal Theatre. An adult had tried to persuade me that The Theatre Royal was more fitting but this backwards syntax made no sense to me at the age of six.

Photograph by Terrill Welch

Surely one of the most-often taken tourist photographs of Venice is one of laundry strung precariously above canals. It gets me every time. The intimate, the familial, hung out across grand, historic vistas interrupting the stasis of set architecture. This laundry evokes personal resistance in a place that is slowly crumbling, a sense that by living and making Venice present its inhabitants might halt the city’s inevitable sinking-sliding.

The two-way nature of those lines, strung up between buildings, makes me wonder if people have washing line wars. The to and fro nature of the thing: does it provoke the kind of neighbourly anger that I have seen result from parking on suburban British streets? Or do people peacefully share lines- one day each perhaps, or one half per flat? Is it possible to feel that kind of petty rage in a place as beautiful and romantic as Venice, or can anywhere feel humdrum once you’ve been there long enough?

Photograph by Craig Atkinson

Perhaps it is this sense of mundanity that modernist architects wanted to avoid when designing their monolith towers of steel, concrete and glass. Hanging such untidy things on the balconies of minimal tower blocks feels heretic, rebellious. To see these garments necessitates an acknowledgment of the individual lives taking place within, of their irregular rhythms and tastes. I enjoy the fragility conjured; the flapping shirt that might fly from its perch high on the side of a building is as precarious as the sock that might plop into the Venetian canal, its owner only noticing its absence much later, when looking for a pair.

Architects might also have been aware that washing on balconies draws attention to inhabitants’ lack of private outdoor space, offering ammunition to the British objection to modernism that comes from a conservative love of boundaries and privacy: ‘but what about a garden?’. And perhaps class is an issue here too. I’m thinking of the intro to Coronation Street: the camera pans down, from a skyline of tower blocks to the more intimate scale of terraced housing, across roofs and onto a yard where a ginger cat picks its way between two washing lines. Does the laundry here in small brick yards highlight the working class yet independent nature of the neighbourhood?

However old fashioned this may seem, perhaps the idea that people are doing their own washing, not outsourcing the work to a maid or using dry-cleaning services, demonstrates a lack of financial resources. Before the widespread ownership of the washing machine in Britain, doing the laundry was a day’s work. Most people in the UK now have a washing machine, meaning that laundrettes are generally places for those in transitory situations or those with very little. Is the washing line, as a public trace of domestic labour, uncomfortable for some people?

Drying washing inside feels sad, cloth lying limp on radiators or huddled around gas fires. When no outdoor space or too much rain make hanging out impossible an endless damp smell pervades, of things that never quite dried. And then there’s the danger of nylons near heat… Here’s to the flapping of clean sheets like sails on a ship. Here’s to the loss of garments from tall hoists above water and motorways. Here’s to the intimacy of showing your smalls in and on public piazzas, yards and balconies.

These notes come, in part, from a conversation with Paul Schneider on the opening of his show ‘Hanging Out To Dry’ at Jerwood Visual Arts’ Project Space.

Painting the Stage

21 Jan

I am on the train to the opening of Jerwood Encounters: The Grantchester Pottery Paints The Stage, curated by The Grantchester Pottery. The exhibition includes work by each of the artists, makers and designers who have made work as part of The Grantchester Pottery. I am Writer in Residence at Jerwood Visual Arts from today until the end of February and then again for July and August. I have known The Grantchester Pottery since they began to work together. I had the privilege of curating the first public showing of their work at Wysing Arts Centre in 2011 and we have stayed in fairly regular contact since, working together from time to time. I am currently wearing a top designed by The Grantchester Pottery as part of a clothing range launched in the summer at an event organised by Her Eyes and My Voice and hosted at Gowlett Peaks, a programme I was running in Peckham. It is black shot silk with a pattern in mint green and claret devised from punctuation. I am afraid that by wearing this beautiful garment and reminding The Grantchester Pottery that I am in ownership of it I will invite them to ask for its return.

The Grantchester Pottery is a construction. It is a workshop and an approach to making. It is two people (Giles Round and Phil Root), their circle of friends and people whose work they admire. It is, in this sense, a familial structure that recalls biographer David Gadd’s description of The Bloomsbury Group: ‘[t]he circle of writers, artists and intellectuals to whom the name is attached was an informal group of close friends, and it was nothing more.’(1.) Its name evokes a sunny place in the early Twentieth Century where friends discuss ideas, eat, drink and swim. The Grantchester Pottery is a fictional proposition. Its name shrouds the group in mysterious anonymity. The Grantchester Pottery is not a collection of ceramicists and they are not based in Grantchester. There is, as Giles, Phil and I found out, a potter in Grantchester already. In fact, if I had to root their work in one medium, I would say that The Grantchester Pottery is primarily concerned with painting.

 

The Grantchester Pottery take their form and structure, in part, from art historical precedents. They are not beholden to the past and do not in any way replicate it, or even treat it with much reverence, but certain ideas and movements have impacted on their thinking. From time to time The Grantchester Pottery borrow Omega Workshops’ title, ‘Artist Decorators’. Like Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops Ltd., the Grantchester Pottery’s work is concerned with removing the false division between the fine and decorative arts. Also like the Omega Workshops, The Grantchester Pottery makes work anonymously, the collective endeavour being more important than the individual voice. The fictional construction and the communal name allow the group to expand and contract, inviting and absorbing other people, their ideas and making.

 

Making and production, both practical and theoretical, form the defining structure of The Grantchester Pottery. The Ceramics Studio at Wysing where Giles and Phil began to talk and make work, sometimes with coffee, sometimes with wine, has become a conceptual and practical home. In 2012 Giles and Phil decorated the studio with murals, a gesture that simultaneously made an offering to the site from which The Grantchester Pottery arose and stated that the studio was the group’s conceptual home and practical base. Interestingly, Giles and Phil do not own the studio. In fact they do not formally own any studio space. In many ways their production processes are post-studio. They have a roaming practice that uses each site of display as a site for production.

The loving decoration of the ceramics studio, though, showed an investment in place that situated the studio as a social and productive meeting place in the mode of Charleston, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s home in Sussex or Red House (but with less laudanum). This activity added to the development of the group’s fictional narrative or creation myth. Red House, William Morris’ short-lived but much-loved home and base, was a collaborative effort in which furniture was used as the bearer of personal messages between friends. (2.) The architectural design for Red House was created by Morris and Philip Webb, and the interior was developed over time, by a number of Morris’ friends and peers on workday visits and holidays. One gets a sense of the growth of a shared vocabulary of references in The Grantchester Pottery’s work with conversations becoming embedded in objects, shapes and colours.

 

The production processes of The Grantchester Pottery sit somewhere between Memphis and Morris & Co. The importance of the handmade is obvious in their work. The ‘camaraderie and joyfulness in labour’, described as a key element in Morris’ vocation by Fiona MacCarthy in the current show ‘William Morris: Anarchy & Beauty’ at the National Portrait Gallery, is apparent in The Grantchester Pottery’s ceramics, painting and fabrics. (3.) The work is imperfect in a painterly, gestural way. The group could outsource all making to ensure the production of identical and symmetrical vessels, but they don’t. The process of learning and experiencing materials, of making together and with others is important to them. Like Morris they have set up a certain amount of facilities with which they can produce work. Other works are developed with specialist makers. They tell me that if they were to mass-produce an item they would be more interested in a narrative and concept than the finished, polished outcome.

 

Their approach is also akin to that of Californian artist Peter Shire or Memphis’ Etore Scottsass, who used glue in the making of ceramics and glass respectively as a way to ‘depart from… the hermetic milieu of specialized skill’. (4.) The imperfections and signs of production in The Grantchester Pottery’s works signal their methods and intentions. They demonstrate a relationship with the work and a conversation in the studio. Giles and Phil have spent time rolling clay, playing with and delighting in the alchemy of glazes and working out how raw canvas takes paint. They want you to see that. One of many ways in which they differ from Memphis is in their relationship to making. Etore Scottsass stated that Memphis designs could be machine-made, which although not strictly true (his Carlton sideboard is a good example of something that would be far too fiddly and complex for a machine) underscored the point that the ideology of craft revival was not at the heart of their thinking. (5.) (Having said this, I should also note that Memphis were in fact heavily reliant on the innovation of Italian fabrication and design.)

 

I am not claiming The Grantchester Pottery as craft revivalists. As I have noted, they are interested in corroding the line between the craftsperson/artisan/maker, the designer, the artist and the theorist. Their work is just as much about conceptual and theoretical making as it is about handling wood, paint and fabric. The group frequently work with others to fabricate certain work (including ice cream, clothing and a metal mural). It would be misleading to state that The Grantchester Pottery collaborate with every artisan and craftsperson who is involved in their production. Some, with whom they work closely, including graphic designers, weavers, artists and writers are acknowledged, while other relationships follow a more traditional contemporary art approach whereby works are fabricated by un-named expert makers. I do not want to get into a complex discussion of craft and the division of art and craft over the past 200 years here, but that is something I may explore in later texts.

 

The Grantchester Pottery take strong cues from these historical precedents but their work is not defined by the past. It is not nostalgic. It does acknowledge, but does not mimic its predecessors. It asks: what does it mean to employ these strategies now? How does this work with or against contemporary production, technologies and notions of the role and status of the artist, designer and maker? Why is there still such a division between the useful, the decorative and the conceptually-led? I do not wish to romanticise The Grantchester Pottery’s processes or history. Their work does not come from heroic gestures. It draws on a quietly subversive British history of modernist art and design. Its core is formed of shared activity and friendship. Other programmes, theorists, makers and artists are currently exploring this but what draws me to The Grantchester Pottery’s work is its grounding in a collaborative making process that enacts what it proposes and discusses.

 

This is what I know of The Grantchester Pottery. I know that Giles is an amazing cook who has a deep knowledge of modern art and design and that Phil listens to lectures while he is driving, has a pretty good understanding of European philosophy and doesn’t like Žižek. What I do not yet know is how they have worked to make their current exhibition, how they arrived at the stage set that they are developing or what the work will look and feel like. I do not know how the stage will be activated now that it is painted. But I hope I get to keep my top.

 

 

Image by Anna Arca

  1. David Gadd, The Loving Friends (London, 1974)
  2. National Portrait Gallery, William Morris: Anarchy & Beauty, Curated by Fiona MacCarthy
  3. National Portrait Gallery, William Morris: Anarchy & Beauty, Curated by Fiona MacCarthy
  4. Catharine Rossi, Making Memphis: ‘Glue Culture’ and Postmodern Production Strategies, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-90 (London, 2011)
  5. Catharine Rossi, Making Memphis: ‘Glue Culture’ and Postmodern Production Strategies, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-90 (London, 2011)

Suspicion Podcast

10 Dec

Here’s the finished podcast, featuring the voices of Dan Coombs, Alfred Hitchcock, Tippi  Hedren, and others.

What happens when a film behaves like a painting?
Can still images contain narratives?
Who is ‘the girl’?

 

Suspicion: a podcast-in-progress

4 Dec

I’ve been very quiet recently – in fact I haven’t said a word – about Suspicion, the current show at Jerwood Space. That’s not because I don’t have anything to say about it, am shirking responsibilities, or am more sinisterly indisposed (have been poisoned, for example…). I’ve decided to respond to the show with a podcast, and, in my experience, it takes a surprising amount of time to put a podcast together.

But a response to the exhibition is in the works, and is partly an attempt to capture, through sound, the foreboding atmosphere that many of the paintings share. The spine of the podcast will be an interview with the painter Dan Coombs, the curator of the show. I recently met Dan in the gallery, where we talked about painting, suspense, and Alfred Hitchcock, among many other things. As Dan explained to me, his idea for the show derived from a ten-second section of Hitchcock’s 1941 psychological thriller, in which the dashing playboy Johnnie Aysgarth (played by Cary Grant) ascends a mansion staircase carrying a glass of milk for his wife Linda McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine). Hitchcock had his special effects department light the glass from within, which lends the object an otherworldly quality. It’s unclear whether or not the milk has been poisoned – we never find out, but the possibility is there – and this ambiguity charges this short sequence with the intensity, visual and symbolic, of a painting.

The podcast should be online in the next few days. In the meantime, here are a few screenshots from the scene in question:

 

I’ll shut up about hands in a moment. But first…

23 Oct

Thanks to @matthewjmclean and @LizzieHom for (inadvertently, I’m sure) embroiling themselves in a mercifully brief but entertainingly awkward Twitter exchange with the author of these blog posts several days ago. I’m glad it happened, though: Matthew kindly recommended a number of recent articles that might otherwise have escaped my (inattentive, at times) attention. I’ll be drawing on some of those texts and images in the following post. And continuing in the open, generous spirit of ‘stealing other people’s research’, I’ll also be discussing a wonderful, and wonderfully understated, short film by Yvonne Rainer suggested to me by Kate Morrell following our recent email exchange.

 

The infinite eloquence of the Picardian Facepalm

 

I was excited (and a little humbled) to encounter Kerry Doran and Lizzie Homersham’s excellent piece ‘Digital Handwork‘ in Rhizome, published several months prior my post, unbeknownst to myself, in which the authors explore the various manifestations of hands in digital art: labouring hands, sensory hands, human connections. Although my ignorance of their text no doubt demonstrates the fact that it’s always good practice to Google your subject prior to going public with an article, I consider this blog an unfolding project – I think I said so at the start – and, actually, it’s as cogent and wide-ranging an essay as one could hope for: ‘In all cases,’ the authors argue, ‘hands act upon viewers, detached from bodies yet still enacting desire.’ The piece demonstrates how the advent of digital networks, augmented realities and technological bodies (engaged in labour or leisure, performance or play) have not rendered biological hands – already a familiar art-historical motif – an anachronism. These appendages have, in fact, permeated the ‘framing of human life by digital technologies, as well as the shaping and subversion of these technologies by humans.’ Humans, yes… But also, for our purposes, bears.

 

Peter Ole Rasmussen, '4 Bears, 3 Standing, One Bending Down', oil on paper. Photography Benjamin Cosmo Westoby

 

Peter Ole Rasmussen’s work in the Jerwood Drawing Prize 2014 is the self-explanatorily titled ‘4 Bears, 3 Standing, One Bending Down’. The ambiguity of the image – the slightly sinister aura of a clandestine congregation of muscular animal-men; the eyeless, inscrutable faces, one of which appears to have just this moment apprehended the viewer; the suggestion of stalled movement, of creatures paused in a journey east; the quivering outlines, the sketchily drawn and re-drawn lines – make the piece, for me, among the most intriguing in the exhibition. Some of the other drawings in the show – the works by Gary Edwards and Jonathan Huxley in particular – emphasise the gravity of carbon; the paper’s receptive surface warped beneath repeated applications of lead, the steady pressure of the artist’s hand. Rasmussen’s work in oil, by contrast, offers a more provisional vocabulary of gestures and marks, one which naturally extends to his depictions of (four-fingered) hands.

 

 

It would be hard to imagine these cartoonish hands fondling smart-screens to upload selfies or fling revengeful birds across cartoon terrains. Yet the ‘inaccuracy’ of Rasmussen’s bears’ hands, their protruding, balloonish chubbiness, points towards an obvious rift between the physical hand and the surface image, the digit and the digital. Fundamental to the development of Apple’s first ‘multi-touch glass display’ – the tactile screen that to a large extent defines the operation of iPhones and iPads – during the early 2000s was an acceptance of the fact that fingers are, by computational standards, massively inaccurate, and that any technology premised upon the encounter of fingertip and computer chip would need to be built from scratch (partly, one assumes, to secure a new patent on any such technology, and thus greater market share). Who wanted a stylus? Not Steve Jobs, for one – he could not countenance that fiddly mini-pen. Retiring the stylus was an elegant and necessary design choice, to be sure, but it presented Apple with a problem. Rather than modify an existing hard- and software, a whole new operating system had to be written; one built around the fact that fingers, in relation to pixels, are fat. On this point Jobs may have been inspired, but probably wasn’t, by the episode of The Simpsons in which Homer gains weight in order to work from home.

 

 

Homer Simpson’s fatness, like his low IQ, is a running joke. By conventional Western liberal standards, he is a ‘bad father’ – stupid, capricious, lazy, self-involved; a neglectful protector and scatterbrained disciplinarian – and therein lies his satiric potential. The fact that he’s a cartoon and not a real person means that his excessive corpulence to be exaggerated for grotesque effect, milked for parody: the ‘inaccuracy’ of his representation (yellow skin, bulging eyes) makes him, counterintuitively, a perfect vehicle for exacting observation.

I first saw Rasmussen’s drawing at the Jerwood Drawing Prize 2014 private view, a matter of days after attending the private view for Paul McCarthy’s current show at Hauser and Wirth. McCarthy himself was there – haggard of beard, wicked of grin, but sporting a beautiful pair of spectacles, he resembled a gin-swigging uncle made good – in a hot room thronged with the requisite quota of perma-tanned millionaires, chatting with the (immaculately attired, to my mind) curator H.U.O., and although I was not close enough to eavesdrop it was clear from his (Obrist’s) genuflecting body language that the work was being lavishly praised. Among the lurid paintings on display was one memorable piece in which a skinny nude woman with vivid, wound-red nipples and oversized head could be observed squirting a long brown streak of liquid faeces onto the eyeless, open-mouthed supplicant below, while, elsewhere in the image, yet more pink and eyeless creatures gave and received fellatio – for all its apparent dynamism,  it was a strangely numb-seeming debauch.

 

Paul McCarthy, WS, Dolce & Gabbana, 2014 Acrylic and collage on canvas mounted on board. Hauser & Wirth

 

McCarthy’s new works were vaguely fun in a deviant, Johnny Ryan-ish way, but they were not shocking; and without the shock, there was little interest. And so, as we finished the final millilitres of our complimentary beers (Becks, the labels loosening off the bottle with condensation), we moved into the final room, which was filled with drawings.

If McCarthy’s paintings presented the ‘headline act’ in all its predictable fullness – an excess that you predicted prior to seeing the works on show; an excess that fails because it fails to exceed your anticipation of it – then the drawings possessed a virtual quality inherent to the medium of the sketch: a form which by its nature is unable to produce a ‘finished’ work. Instead of the paintings’ wisecracks and punchlines, these drawings – messy, gestural, seemingly the product of a minutes-long tantrum – were less resolved, and thus more openly suggestive. The best of these works did not present pornography as pornography (McCarthy-the-painter’s modus operandi, it would appear) but hinted towards the grim rituals by which the body is rendered object, and abject, without asserting such contexts blatantly. Hands and other body parts were caught in tangled webs of scrawling lines, carbon swirls of malignant energy.

 

 

McCarthy’s pencil-drawn hands, like Rasmussen’s pencil-and-oil ones, have a sketchy quality that invites multiple readings. The subjects and subtexts that these artists explore are clearly worlds apart, but share a resemblance in terms of technique. Indeed, the best drawing in the McCarthy show – a drawing which I did not take a photo of, have been unable to track down online, and therefore cannot present here – contains a number of bear-like creatures huddled, if I remember, in a sinister group. In the absence of that particular piece, here (and above) is ‘Mad House Drawing 3′, a work from 2011 that wasn’t actually in the show. But it gives a general idea.

 

Paul McCarthy, Mad House Drawing 3, 2011 Pencil, charcoal on paper. Hauser & Wirth

 

Conceptually and visually, sketches have an open texture that leaves them open to dismissal – vulnerable to those who disregard ‘incomplete’ work; who like to see the labour on the page. It is equally possible to fetishise the sketch, its perpetual deferral of finality, its teasing refusal to close the circle. It’s only once you get up close to Rasmussen’s work that you notice that the darker, more immediate lines, rendered in black oil, are secondary to the delicate underlying pencil. The ‘double vision’ effect draws attention to the relative importance of pencil and oil in the hierarchy of artists’ materials. The pencil marks are swifter, lighter, less consequential. The ink retains a sense of quickness, but is certainly more considered, more final. Artists’ hands always speak through prosthetic extensions, tools which have social histories; tools which in turn create a sense of motion in the hand, the foot –

 

 

– and the head.

 

 

(I never got round to the Rainer film. I’ll save it for next time.)

Interview with Kate Morrell

8 Oct

Hands are not neutral appendages. They shape and alter what they touch, leaving residues of sweat, salt and DNA; expose the fragility of protected things; surround static objects with choreographies of encounter and display; reveal the continuity of material culture through time (in touching an ancient artefact, you are, in a sense, ‘touching the past’); suggest the presence, and absence, of gendered authority; and portray the human body in ambiguous relation to the things it seeks to possess and protect.

All of these resonances are at play in the work of Kate Morrell, a multi-disciplinary artist who produces books, sculptures, installations – and drawings. Throughout her work there is an emphasis on tactility, from the uncoated paper stock and risograph ink of ‘Alpine Spoilers‘, which emphasise the textural pleasures of handling books, to her ‘Stone Axes (Group II)‘, which with their scalloped ridges and handy sizes suggest an ancient ergonomics translated into contemporary materials.

Her piece selected for the Jerwood Drawing Prize 2014, ‘A.V.M, 1954, Screenshot 2013-12-10′, is one of the reasons I’ve chosen to pursue the theme of hands. The deep ambiguity of the image – this ghostly, black-clad figure emerging from the right of the frame to put down (or pick up?) what appears to be a fairly plain, unremarkable chunk of rock – invites multiple readings. This complexity or uncertainty of perception is underscored by the pointillistic technique the artist has used. Seen from across the room, the picture has a soft and hazy, almost underwater appearance; up close, however, the image resolves into billows and gusts of tiny black marks of extraordinary precision. These marks enhance the Giclée-printed image across which they move, but also suggest a newly mediated encounter with the source material, distorting what is brought to light. The nested histories the drawing contains – the ancient world of the artefact itself; the TV programme in which the object is displayed; and finally Kate’s present-day (for the time being) drawing  – are connected by the presence of hands: hands that sculpt, handle and draw.

I spoke to Kate via email.

 

'A.V.M, 1954, Screenshot 2013-12-10' by Kate Morrell, selected for Jerwood Drawing Prize 2014 (Original image by Benjamin Cosmo Westoby)

 

Firstly, I’d be interested in hearing how the A.V.M. drawing sequence came about. What drew you to the subject? Did it emerge from ongoing research, or a chance encounter?

The work is part of a series of four drawings which were made for the solo exhibition ‘Pots Before Words’ at Gallery II, University of Bradford. The project was the result of my research within the Jacquetta Hawkes Archive, which is held at Special Collections, University of Bradford. Hawkes (1910-1996) was a writer and archaeologist who played an important role in popularising archaeology through her writings and radio and TV appearances. Much of the work produced for my show focussed on Hawkes’ interest in prehistory, and her humanist approach to archaeology. There are images of the show on my website.

The screenshots are selected from early episodes of a BBC panel show produced around the 1950s. It was one of the first examples of archaeology within popular media and Hawkes was one of the few women to appear on the programme as an expert in her field. The programme featured a panel of male ‘experts’ and a female assistant, or object handler. Objects were displayed on a slow-turning circular display wheel. Through the process of logical thought, experts identified the objects for the audience. Other than her hands and wrists, the female assistant is never shown.

I was interested in the different ‘handlers’ within the show and their role in the production of object-meanings. I found the handling by the silent assistant quite compelling – particularly these performative (but un-choreographed) gestures for display and interpretation that were created.

In the series, three of the drawings feature the (female) assistant, and one drawing shows the (male) archaeologist reaching into shot, to remove the object from the display wheel for inspection. Only the male hand features in the Jerwood Drawing Prize 2014 exhibition. It’s a shame all four drawings were not able to be shown.

 

'Pots Before Words' installation, 4 drawings

 

It would be good to hear a little about the experience of making the drawing. How long does each drawing take, for example? What is it about this specific way of working that appeals to you?

The drawings are roughly A2 size. They are made with drawing ink and paintbrushes used for miniature painting. Each drawing took around 20 hours to complete. I used 7 paintbrushes to make the series – each one was eventually discarded once it begun to disrupt the uniformity of the lines. I might have achieved greater precision with a technical drawing pen, but I like the fact that brush and ink reveals evidence of the hand, and tools, used in the process.

I’m quite conscious of the time invested in drawings. In the previous blog post you talk about ‘the work of art as a vessel of invested time, the lasting relic of ephemeral gestures’, which I think resonates with this series too.

Are you interested in this relationship between tactility implied by the image of hands, and the tactility of drawing?

A few (fragmented) thoughts:

I think this tension between protection and possession, implied by object handlers in the drawings, is also reflected in the archaeological approach to excavation and collecting. Archaeologists aim to protect and preserve, but the act of excavation itself can be destructive. It’s interesting that people who care for archives are often called the ‘keepers’ of a collection.

In handling, objects become free from their fixed interpretations assigned within static museum displays. In the process of scientific interpretation, the knowledge of the past is undergoing continuous reconstruction. The repetitive drawing technique has a transformative quality. I wanted it to depict these object-meanings to be in a state of flux.

The brushes used to make the drawing indicates the microscopic, scientific lens and a transformation of matter under close scrutiny. Lithic drawing is used by archaeologists as a process for recording finds. When illustrating stone tools, the structure of the rock, including its tactile ripples and fractures, are documented using finely-drawn black lines. It’s thought to be one of the best ways to understand the method of its production (other than through flint knapping). I think it’s an interesting use of drawing within a scientific discipline – one that relies upon direct handling and re-interpreting.

 

Experimental Archaeology workshop, organised as part of a residency in 2011. These hands belong to flint knapper and re-enactor, Will Lord.

 

Page from 'History from the earth: An introduction to archaeology', J. Forde-Johnston, Book Club Associates, London

 

Alongside this idea of drawing as a kind of science, I wonder if you would consider your drawing sequence as a form of ‘interpretation’, another ‘layer’ in the histories of these objects?

Yes, drawing is used to add another layer to the interpretation of objects, although I didn’t want the new layer to feel fixed or definitive. Much of the original image remains under the shadow.

Is there a connection between the A.V.M. drawings and your earlier sculptural work ‘Flint’? The markings on the surface of this work are quite similar.

I began the ‘Flint’ series in 2010. The markings are quite similar, but they are applied to the surface of large pieces of flint stone. They both demonstrate the transforming quality of this repetitive drawing method. This additional layer of interpretation both overwhelms and enhances the original surface markings.

 

'Flint' by Kate Morrell (2010)

 

Do hands appear in your work more widely? 

I’m planning to make a new piece of work using a stone turntable I produced: ‘Lazy Susan: Portable Toolkit’. It’s a stone apparatus which functions as a portable, table-top display. I’m going to approach various archives and collections with the sculpture, in order to play host to a series of female archivists and archaeologists and the chosen artefacts of their profession. Objects will be re-animated by the hands of archaeologists, geologists and archivists and the object presentations will be filmed.

In this context, the Lazy Susan device is a counterpart to the potters wheel – on both surfaces, matter is re-modelled, displayed and performed.

Are you also drawn to more recent non-archaeological examples of ‘handling’ and display? I’m thinking in particular of infomercials and game shows, which often feature (silent) female assistants. 

The (mostly unintentional) humour of these outdated formats appeals to me. The lo-tech lazy susan device still makes appearances on these game shows too.

I also look out for instances within printed matter, although I don’t see many contemporary examples in print. Below is an image that I picked up at a car boot sale. It was part of a portfolio of advertising images by an unnamed photographer.

 

Schweppes advert, photographer unknown