‘I seem very mixed up today’: notes on three drawings

16 Sep

by Tom Overton

1)

At the bottom right-hand corner of Sue England’s entry to the Jerwood Drawing Prize, a line of pencilled text reads ‘I am sorry to be like this…I seem very mixed up today.’ The words – almost imperceptible when you look at a reproduction –  are at the densest part of the drawing, looped around and woven into the texture of the irregular grid which covers the centre of the paper. A thicker line runs around the overall shape; because it’s just inside its margins, it doesn’t quite define the edges. The warp and weft of the resulting grid seem to billow out above it, suggesting a sense of depth, or of something contained. It looks like a brain seen in profile through an MRI scanner, facing to the right, the cerebellum slightly lower on the left; perhaps the thicker line is an artery.

The title – The Productivity of Absence (Hairnet) – nearly, but not quite proves this initial impression wrong. The hairnet is the one worn by England’s mother every night, keeping what I imagine to be a neat perm in place: a comforting, regular routine among the slippages, gaps and disappearances of dementia. Other lines are variations on ‘I went for my pension now I can’t find my money’; ‘please help me’ turns up a few times. When England describes the net as ‘holding in her anxieties, while the connections unwind’; the pronoun is meant for her mother, but it can’t but stand for the artist too. And for most of the people looking at the drawing – the Alzheimer’s Society estimate that one in three people in the UK will suffer from dementia.

The lines that gently suggest the owner’s sadness and fear at people losing patience with her are almost unbearable, precisely because of their involvement in such a delicate structure. But when England calls it the ‘the gradual unravelling of a mind and life’, and metaphorically weaves these threads back into family history in old, cotton-weaving industrial Lancashire, there seems to be some kind of consolation in the ‘Northern work ethic’ she talks about inheriting. It’s everywhere in the understated meticulousness of this drawing.

702 England

Sue England, ‘The Productivity of Absence’, 2015.

 

2)

Emma Douglas’s Cato Marble Graffiti (2014/15) is a rectangle of marble, propped landscape-format between the floor and the wall, as though it hasn’t been hung yet. Like England’s piece it doesn’t reproduce very well, but as the name suggests, it’s covered in graffiti. On seeing the name Cato – I knew he was a Latin poet, but Wikipedia says grammarian too – the Roman numerals, and the arrowed love-heart, I started guessing. Was it a wry comment linking drawing to the hubris of toilet-door or school desk graffitists, underlined by the classicising touch of the material. Now this will last, I thought  it might be saying, deliberately telescoping millennia of history by anachronistically scratching a mobile phone number next to Cato’s name. (I remembered, at this point, a story about a mausoleum commissioned by Silvio Berlusconi complete with grave-goods for a contemporary Pharaoh; there was apparently a marble mobile phone in there.)

Just look at the solidity of the marble; it was too weighty to be mounted on the wall alongside those other, flimsier works. But even then, just when such a gesture might seem a little pompous and self-satisfied, it might refer over to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55, with its confidence that it’s the well-constructed declaration of love which will endure, not the expensive material.

Douglas’s statement in the catalogue reassured me at first, explaining her interest ‘in the graffiti you see carved into park benches […] I always fantasise about the lives of people who put it there.’ Then, doing this a little in the space of the line breaks, I read that the hubris had actually been mine. I’d not looked carefully enough at ‘25.12.1988 – 14.12.2010′, in Roman and Arabic numerals:

When my son, Cato, died suddenly at the age of twenty-one, we were building a kitchen for him. This piece of marble was cut out to make room for the stove.

The marks on the marble are part of his story, my graffiti about him.

77 Douglas

Emma Douglas, ‘Cato marble graffiti’, 2014/5.

 

3)

I don’t think I misinterpreted Lee John Phillips’ The Shed Project so much as interpret it in the light of Douglas and England’s pieces. For reasons that will become clear it seems important to be as accurate about the materials used as possible: an A4 Moleskine-type black-covered, cream, plain-papered notebook, and what I imagine to be a series of very fine-tipped pens, running out of ink in succession of each other. With these materials, Phillips has begun a drawn, numbered inventory of his late grandfather’s tool shed, piece by piece, including multiples: there are page upon page of washers, nuts and bolts; some of the pliers and compasses look traced onto the paper. This is only volume 1; he’s completed 4,000 of an estimated 80,000. Thickness and texture are suggested with hatching or, occasionally, an asterisk indicating an unusual material; they have a playfulness and sense of eccentricity which means that, despite the accuracy of the drawings, they look closer to a very precisely executed cartoon than a Haynes manual or set of assembly instructions. Phillips calls it ‘an exercise of discipline’ and ‘a record of my own cultural and industrial heritage, reflecting on a social ethos I feel is being sadly eroded.’ The effect is of an outline of his grandfather: a careful, exacting presence suggested through the surfaces of things he touched and arranged.

2152 Phillips

Lee John Phillips, ‘The Shed Project: Volume 1’, 2014/5

The Jerwood Drawing Prize is open until the 25th of October.

Interview with Jasleen Kaur

25 Aug

Jasleen Kaur

Jasleen Kaur

Elinor Morgan: It seems like your work is a meeting of categories of making and materials as well as locations and cultures.

Jasleen Kaur: I’ve never thought of it in that way but I do think of myself as a cobbler. I pull together unlearned and culturally acquired knowledge in my work. When I was training as a jeweller at the Glasgow School of Art I had quite a particular way of making; I’m not very precise. I was brought up in a very religious Sikh family in Glasgow and although my work is not hugely autobiographical it is about meeting points. 

EM: Does this work represent that cobbling nature?

JK: My dad owns a hardware shop and I use a lot of found objects. The work I have made for the Jerwood Makers Open came from those marbled buckets you get outside hardware shops. I wanted to take the revered material of marble and shift it into a less valuable material. The people depicted shift too, from being Lords or Gods, those traditionally shown in Western portrait busts and Indian religious sculptures, to being three men or women.

EM: But they aren’t women…

JK: No, but I don’t see that as important, especially because I hope the project isn’t finished so I may add women in. There’s a very specific reason why I chose to show these three men. First first is my great granddad who moved from Punjab to Glasgow in the 1950s, the first in my family to come and make that cultural shift. When he left the Punjab he had a Turban and a beard and in the few photos we have of him in his early days in the UK he wears a flat cap and a moustache. He was keen to assimilate and because he didn’t have a community around him until later. He was a key member of the Sikh community in Glasgow; he used to borrow Bollywood films from his friends in Leicester to play in the cinema after temple on Sunday. 

Then Edward Said is in the middle. When I came across his writing at the Glasgow School of Art it gave me a real sense of place as a practitioner. I realised that people were writing about the ideas that I was thinking about and making about. The last is Lord Robert Napier. His great grandfather fought in two Anglo-Sikh wars in the time of the British Raj and there’s a big statue of him outside of the Royal College of Art. The history of British-Indian relations is so complex and so fascinating. 

I contacted the current Lord Robert Napier when I was studying at the RCA. I wanted to tie a turban on his head as a visual marker of where we are now. He said yes, so I took my dad as the turban tier to Wiltshire and we made a portrait. It feels like the three busts represent a starting point, a mid-point – or sense of place – and a sense of how I am working as an artist now to shape the dialogue. 

Jasleen Kaur, Lord Robert Napier, 2011

Jasleen Kaur, Lord Robert Napier, 2011

EM: Busts like this might normally be made from marble. Here they are made from marbled plastic. Beyond this pun, why did you decide to make bust portraits in this rather Western, classical style?

JK: I am very interested in the typologies of sculpture and it’s role. In the European tradition, to make a marble bust is to revere someone through a laborious material process to the point where the material inhabits its own monumental sphere and cannot be touched. I have been thinking about equivalents in Indian sculpture, which depicts Gods and Goddesses and Buddha in this way.  

People bathe them in milk and feed them fruits and in some situations people even put them to bed at night and wake them up in the morning. This humanises the statues by making them functioning objects in daily routines. The busts I have made signify meeting points between these opposing traditions and, of course, they play with the marble/plastic materials. 

Jasleen Kaur, Chai Tea Stall, 2010

Jasleen Kaur, Chai Tea Stall, 2010

EM: You applied to the Jerwood Makers Open; do you think of yourself as a maker?

JK: I make things that can operate in a number of contexts. For the piece ‘Chai Tea Stall’, in 2010, for example, I made a travelling tea stall with small clay cups. In the gallery it was an artwork by Jasleen the artist, but in a community centre or family home it was just Jasleen making tea. If something functions in a number of contexts then I think it works. That’s a litmus test for me. I am not interested in hierarchies between art and craft or maker and artist. For me it’s about the maker’s intentions. To do something artfully is to give it time and care.

EM: What have you gained from your involvement in the Makers Open?

JK: It has been different for each of the five of us. I applied to shift my practice away from relying on found objects, so that while my work would still be informed by the qualities of found objects I would have more independence and agency. It’s been a chance to produce something in completely different materials with a completely different aesthetic because the project took me out of a comfort zone. 

Conversation with Malene Hartmann Rasmussen

14 Aug

Conversation with Malene Hartmann Rasmussen

3-in-the-dead-of-night-malene-hartmann-rasmussen-photo-sylvain-deleu_670

Conversation with Malene Hartmann Rasmussen
Recorded at Jerwood Space, London
10 June 2015
Listen here.

Interview with Studio Silo

30 Jul

Silo Studio, Newton’s Bucket, 2015. Photo: Sylvain Deleu

Silo Studio, Newton’s Bucket, 2015. Photo: Sylvain Deleu

 

Your work appears to start with an interest in subverting and confounding expectations of materials.
We start with how to challenge the use and perceptions of materials. It is very difficult not to have a preconception of how something will look when completed but we try to be as open as possible. We generally approach things in a naïve way and learn through making.

For us it is really important that the making is evident in the final piece. So, for example, when we made glass pieces with fabric moulds it was very important to us that the stitches and texture of the textiles that had formed the vessels were visible in the final objects.

Tell me a bit about the process of making and how these works came about.
We work with material, process and basic physical principles. Our research involves reading, playing with materials and watching YouTube tutorials. We were both interested in rotor moulding, a method used to make large, hollow plastic objects, tanks for example, or plastic chairs.

What is rotor moulding?
1. It is a two – or more – part mould.
2. You put powdered plastic inside, not to fill the mould, just a little.
3. Then it rotates and is heated and the plastic gets distributed and sticks to the mould.
4. When it cools you have a shiny object that pops out the mould.

It is a cheap process to use for small scale production. It was invented by Swiss Chocolate makers and is used to make Easter Eggs.

I often think about where materials come from but don’t always consider the way that processes of making develop.
All technology has a route; often it is military. Those routes are part of our research. In this instance we were looking at Liquid Mirror Zenith Telescopes, which are a cheaper alternative to conventional telescopes which use glass or polished metal as a mirror. Liquid mirror telescopes are spinning discs of liquid, low-melt alloy, often mercury. When spun the mercury makes a perfect parabola shape. You then put a lens on top and can see things that are directly above the liquid. We realised that this was rotational moulding but only on one axis.

In that instance the liquid is in continual motion; perfectly stable but never set.
Exactly, and we started looking into this and thinking about how Isaac Newton had described inertia with a theory now called ‘Newton’s Bucket’. He hung a bucket of water on a rope, twisted the rope and let the bucket spin. He described how the water remains flat at first but after a while the bucket communicates the movement to the water and the water adopts a parabola shape.

We started to experiment with rota moulding aluminium but we realised that it did not convey the movement in the making process so we started to use acrylic reinforced gypsum plaster (or Jesmonite) which enabled us to use colour to describe the motion. We poured liquid Plaster of Paris with acrylic hardener into a hemisphere shape and rotated it. We used different colours to describe the motion, for example, in the green piece, the middle part doesn’t move as much as the outer part which communicates something of the inertia principle. The bowl starts turning and the liquid has to catch up so you get a dynamic S-shaped curve.

How do you keep the colours separate?
There is an additive in the material that ensures they don’t blend. When we started with plaster this wasn’t the case. This material is much harder and the colours stay clear and clean. We polish the bowls to make them more vibrant.

Are these functional objects? What do you imagine people will use them for?
We see them in the applied arts area so you would not eat from them but they are decorative pieces to be used in people’s homes. They’re not high functional and they’re not high art. We often work in series and these pieces are between a multiple and a one-off.

Silo Studio, Newton's Bucket, 2015. Photo: Anna Arca

Silo Studio, Newton’s Bucket, 2015. Photo: Anna Arca

 

The vessels sit on three-legged metal stools that reference the kitchen stool. Tell me a bit about the display of the work.
The display of our work is important to us. This is something we think should be well considered as it has a strong impact on how the pieces are perceived. Our glass blower made the glass stands so that you can see the complete object and our design studio logo on the base. The metal spinner who made the moulds for the bowls made the tops of the plinths for us and we selected the grey to match the tone of the gallery.

Do you share all of your processes in an open source way?
We don’t want people to copy what we are doing but we want to excite people to explore some of these processes and materials. In fact, that is why we avoid brand names like Jesmonite. It is important to us to use more scientific terms that better describe the materials as you can’t get branded materials across the world and we want to encourage others to make.

We encourage openness in our practice and make videos that communicate how our work is made. These act as a visual aid that helps us to communicate more quickly but also describe the tone and pace of the studio. The videos are shorthand but we also run workshops to teach people some of our methods.

Meeting the Makers

15 Jul

I am not a maker. Like others my understanding of materials is aesthetic: formed by haptic, physical and sensorial experience that has developed into embedded memories of objects and surfaces. My knowledge of making is vicarious, learned through watching, reading and listening. Thinking about how materials are formed fills me with the same feeling I had during most maths and physics lessons in secondary school: a kind of detached wonder that makes my brain float and my body distant. I imagine procedures that probably could not happen, but without any attempt or desire to make them a reality. Sites of industry are for me, as for many others, mysterious places, disconnected from a present where surfaces are coated, veneered and anodised.

Until recently I sat next to artist Ruth Claxton for 2 days every week at Eastside Projects. For me and many of Birmingham’s younger artists Ruth is a font of making knowledge. She is someone who has learnt partly through trials in her practice and partly through more formal training previously available in the form of City & Guilds courses. This type of knowledge, embodied and learnt through activity, is very different to mine. I could ask Ruth questions like: what actually is shellac? And which metals can you weld together? Of course Ruth doesn’t know everything but she has routes to finding out most things. Along with Architects Alessandro and Mike Dring and musician and print maker Sean O’Keeffe, Ruth is planning Birmingham Production Space, a national site for making, both digital and analogue.

I inhale parts of the research undertaken by the artists I work with and thus have a rock-pool-like picture of materials and processes, with areas of shallow and slightly deeper understanding. Recently I have spoken extensively about casting, a process that endlessly fascinates all sorts of practitioners and which (like developing photographs) uses a mesmerising process of reversal. Casting formed the basis of one of the most enchanting artist talks I have encountered, given by artist Florian Roithmayr at the brilliant production site Grymsdkye Farm in August 2014.

Conversations with artists Marie Toseland and James Parkinson have triggered much of my recent thinking on casting. Both are currently showing cast works (in ceramic and glass and plaster respectively), in a group show I curated at The Sunday Painter, Peckham. For Marie casting is an intimate, erotic process wherein the original or container is suffocated by the substance filling it and eventually replicating it; whereas for James it is a system of loops and references through which he can explore the space between the actual and the virtual to look at notions of representation, embodiment and provenance.

I often think about the origins of, and journeys undertaken by, matter. The recent trend in tracing the lives of materials and objects (think Jane Bennett, Maurizio Boscagli, Mark Miodownik, OOO) has perhaps refreshed my interest in this, which began when I was an undergraduate student in social anthropology. I think too about how the politics of materials is formed by processes of extraction and the environmental and human costs incurred. I wonder if we will come up with a way of manufacturing some of the rare minerals that we currently depend on for our well-loved smart phones and tablets, whether we can produce them in a laboratory as we are now able to produce diamonds, or whether this will come with its own substantial problems. The V&A’s current show, What is Luxury, poses many interesting questions around the production of value through the employment of time, skills and expertise and rare materials.

At a recent conference on production, Fran Edgerley, a member of Assemble, proposed that production is an opportunity for people to be involved in productive activity, and noted the phenomenon of social prescription whereby GPs prescribe activity to aid all sorts of issues including depression and addiction. This reminds me of the meaningful activity utilised in the field of Occupational Therapy and brings me to an internal debate I have been having about the contemporary push for mindfulness and wellbeing. With the Conservative party’s Budget having been announced only 2 days ago, the idea that those who do not engage in normative, healthy, happy working lives are not of value or interest to society is fresh in my mind and I feel increasing scepticism seeping into my understanding of Britain’s new-found ‘understanding’ of mental health issues.

From this position of commissioning and curating as a way of questioning and absorbing knowledge (and let’s not forget that writing and curating are a processes of making and shaping material too) I find myself newly part of a group of people looking after a collection at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, which is comprised in part by twentieth century ceramics and a significant collection of contemporary jewellery. As such I have begun to swat up on studio ceramics practice and to learn about the field of contemporary jewellery, which I have to say is more interesting and political than I previously imagined (my limiting preconceptions showing).

These are the references that form my thoughts on Friday 10 July as I travel to London to see the Jerwood Makers Open 2015 and meet some of its makers the morning after it opened. The posts that follow will reflect on some of the threads initiated above.

a molecular vernacular

7 Jul

Georgie Grace, The machine is almost pure magic, 2015. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Anna Arca.

Georgie Grace, The machine is almost pure magic, 2015. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Anna Arca.

 

1. Reality does not run along the neat straight lines of the printed page wrote Sadie Plant in Zeros and Ones, aligning the infinitely tangled webs of the internet with the infinitely tangled webs of language. In the liquid flow of the data stream, words become isolated fragments estranged from an organizing central narrative. The channels of the computerized network are a-temporal. Against time (as we know it), not in any way with it. To read on and with the screen is to trust your body, and all of its unpredictable eruptions, over the packaged and bound linear narrative. When the machine hums, your body hums too, and so does language. Brains… are not unified entities but hives or swarms of elements, interconnected multiplicities, packet-switching systems of enormous complexity, which have no centralized government (Plant, 1997).

 

2. In Georgie Grace’s video The machine is almost pure magic, swarms of appropriated linguistic fragments combine in a visual narration of aural silence. There is no spoken voice to guide us, only buzzing phonetic hives spelled out in neon text on screen: it is a script of unfinished sentences, leading us to an unknown, but tempting us somewhere. Before she writes, the artist listens and transcribes, scribbling down verbal events (scientific lectures or techno-talks, for example) in the contemporaneous moment of their speaking. It is the live copied (or forgotten), then re-ordered. Mediated by her tinkering hand. The individual voice becomes drowned out and buried by the process (performance) of transcription, so that the original author disappears in the artist’s edit, and she replaces him: I’m interested in the experience of reading and it wouldn’t be a reading experience if it were a listening experience, so how reading is mediated on screen is something that I am concerned with: do I remember things in the same way? Am I able to organise things in my mind when I have multiple tabs and screens open? (Georgie Grace, 2015, 15:03 PM).

 

3. Georgie harnesses Kenneth Goldsmith’s concept of uncreative writing (How do you determine who owns a piece of writing? 14:44 PM) to craft and model a script of stolen lines and lecturing rhetoric, re-modelled as a text of questioning and sensorial combat. Of displacement and replacement. The script is not linear or narrative-driven, but it does build, unfold in some sort of sequence of sense. Sentences meet and merge, then break with the artifice. Fracture with their cut-up arrangement. Georgie’s syntactical collections embody a kind of liquid flow, and excess, as they travel and accrete in multiple directions. Deriving from the transcription-research, the script contains unexpected overlaps: although the content of each speech is different, the tone and language is transferrable. Like a download. Or a copy and paste. There are jumps in it so it is not completely smooth but at the same time it has a flow so you can almost make sense of it. The appropriating impulse of the ‘uncreative’ writer mirrors (as in screen) the immaterial and uncensored walls of the digital network, where authorship and ownership become tangled in the hyperlinked blur.

 

4. The machine is almost pure magic reads like an enumerative instructive manual, an assembly of texts to compute and join together. A text-based narration, it nevertheless ‘speaks’ a language of promotion, profession, aspiration, and work, in ghostly emerald city intonations: ‘You have an extremely powerful and very, very flexible device / you can use it to influence people / you can use it to get a better job / you can use it to increase your prosperity’. It feels as planned and formulated as the digital system it describes, as it performs the language of impenetrable science in creepy imperatives. An ambiguous order to trust and repeat. Real science and fictional science, as Georgie said. When reading/watching, Georgie’s friend declared whatever it is I’m buying one! She thought it was selling her something, a sort of phantom product. As writer and artist, Georgie has constructed a text in which form and content merge and speak: the transcribed language of the lecture is shuffled anew by the artist so that it inhabits, in its fragmentary list-like form, the syntax of the machine. Phrases to click, estranged from a coherent centre. ‘you can put a command in a box,’ the artist writes in place of the anonymous machine of artificial intelligence, flowing into ‘and the box sends out a high frequency signal/ it shoots out a beam of light’.

 

5. Georgie’s video operates as a moving image, linked by cut-and-pasted stills (overlaid with cut-and-pasted language). Aesthetically, it embodies the ‘possibly analogue / possibly digital’ epithet in the script, used to describe the merging of corporeal and technological in a quasi-fictional machine, but equally an apt describer of Georgie’s film-making. Archive photographs of uninhabited sixties interiors are chopped into a mix of rippling animations and magnified grey materials. I was drawn to the idea of what reality is made of in its particles, pixels and half-tones – a focalized, immaterial materiality, in which the granular substance of the abstract background is not so far removed from the granular photographs shuffled in between. The images are filed and rearranged, akin to the ease of digital administration: it feels like a computational aesthetic of uploading and downloading, referring to the ways computers can sort images and understand them. File them irrespective of the date in which they were made. Nearly all of the images in the film document empty spaces, their textures mediated, virtual and digital, so that the past image (which also represents the epoch of cybernetic serendipity in art and technology) is relocated as an image of futurity. Of ‘cosmic significance’, or so says the script. And if the image is reduced to the atomic and molecular, so is the language. The artist manipulates linguistic material in the same way as a nanotechnologist, combing through the detritus of speech to refocus and reveal a fiction of her own.

 

6. From the form to the content. What does the posthuman machine that Georgie is transcribing, tracking and fictionalizing do? In Sadie’s silver smooth text, she wrote of a brain that ‘is body, extending even to the fingertips, through all the thinking, pulsing, fluctuating chemistries, and virtually connected with the matters of other bodies, clothes, keyboards, traffic flows, city streets and data streams’. In Georgie’s artwork, she extends this union further, writing a machine of mind-powered prosthetics, so that brain and body are computerized as one infinite and intelligent object. As the fragments of script direct us: ‘we’ll become machines that act like humans / technology and humanity are going to be converging / we’re going ethereal / like a snake shedding its skin.’ And in The machine is almost pure magic, the fiction of the immortal machine that flows and evolves from imagination to object over the course of the script, is communicated via Georgie’s writing: shedding the excess skin of language, she uncovers scales, molecules and atoms – which will eventually stick together again, to make another fiction new.

 

The machine is almost pure magic by Georgie Grace as commissioned through Jerwood Encounters: 3-Phase, a new artist development collaboration between two artist-led organisations Eastside Projects (Birmingham) and g39 (Cardiff), and Jerwood Charitable Foundation, through its London based gallery programme Jerwood Visual Arts.

diary-writing the membrane

18 Jun

Kelly Best, 'Velum', 2015. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Anna Arca.

Kelly Best, ‘Velum’, 2015. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Anna Arca.

 

I am sitting in a corner of the gallery. My legs that are encased in light grey jeans are stretched out to make a line that is then extended by the dark grey slate tiles and from these, the dark grey object. An editor of an art magazine is taking notes when I arrive, and admires how the floor and sculpture are tonally working in tandem. He doesn’t know that soon my limbs (and language) will become part of the fixture, too.

 

Typing in this floor position, I am the figurative intruder, filling out the institutional void, and embodying it with material substance. My writing body feels exposed – even though he has now left – as my fingers scuttle across the keys and singular words emerge, in black, on the fake white page. The object stays rooted to the floor (like a tree-trunk, and like my bum) but its lines move: its surface pattern stages action and performance, a nod to the busy bodies that made it. I imagine a swarm of hands clutching pencils and rulers, slinking down the vertical surface and getting physically close to it. This grey and green sheet of two-dimensional surface, and patternised resistance, is a singular monolithic disguise for background teamwork.

 

KB. I told them not to worry too much, not to stress over every mark, which gave a lot more rhythm to the drawing. I wouldn’t stand there watching but I would change people around every ten or twenty lines, to give it a bit more texture.

 

I am writing a diary out of, through and on the work, inscribing and annotating in ad-hoc fashion, just like the workers who drew onto it. We’re both sensing the material; feeling it as we go. The first time I saw the work I couldn’t stop moving about the room, making my own foot-stepped lines, to view and concentrate on it from different angles, and now I’m making different kind of lines, moving trapeze-like across the keyboard. With my eyes tied to the work and the words, it’s a balancing act of looking, reading and writing.

 

I am visible but veiled at the same time. Velum is a curved sculpture that carves the space in two, protecting my private from the outside public. This artificial wall separates the exterior from the interior, the skin from the membrane. The title of the work Velum shifts in meaning in the same way as its quivering string-bound aesthetic moves and shakes (it looks like it could be plucked like a violin). Incurring rhythm and noise. I wonder what it would be like to pluck language, its phonemes spiralling from a linear system.

 

Velum is veil; it is bodily tissue; it is muscle: it is paper. Never one, or the other, but a frenetic experience of them all. From the reference to the inference to the metaphor. I start to wonder that the work is much more corporeal than it first appears, alluding to a phantom body, or perhaps the gallery intruder herself.

 

KB. I like words and titles that have double meanings and the potential of that: it forces the viewer to inspect the work more closely: then you can see it is really made out of thin MDF and is not actually calfskin vellum at all.

 

Kelly Best, 'Velum', 2015. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Anna Arca.

Kelly Best, ‘Velum’, 2015. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Anna Arca.

 

I entered this veiled space from behind (from backstage), its naked construction exposing itself before the main event. This backwards path made me feel curious, unknowing, vulnerable and visible: it is a trick to surprise us. I had to question what it even was to start with, intuit its material substance: is it rope; is it collage; is it curtain… is it flesh?

 

KB. It feels more three-dimensional here because of how you approach it, which is important, as it allows the audience to move around the work and explore it.

 

Velum is a serpentine wooden structure that bends, concave, like a river. It is huge, nearly as high as the ceiling at one end, before decreasing with the curve to a smooth horizontal edge lower than its starting point. This wooden room divider is about twenty centimetres thick, as in three-dimensional, but it performs like a piece of paper – although is in no way flat. Velum contains, and then exposes, a two-dimensional surface that urges you, I, anyone, to touch it. Feel it. Climb all over it and make your own mark with dirty thumb-prints. Doing the wrong thing. I wonder at Velum’s precarious existence, a solid but also ephemeral object.

 

KB. It’s really robust even though the surface is really delicate. It’s odd that I don’t feel that precious about it; maybe I just got rid of that, and let go, when I knew other people were touching it, smudging it, drawing on it.

 

Kelly Best, 'Velum', 2015. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Anna Arca.

Kelly Best, ‘Velum’, 2015. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Anna Arca.

 

It is a stage for drawing two-dimensional light green vertical lines, in all kinds of thicknesses and angles and wayward ripples, hidden amidst the discipline. From grey to green to black to yellow. From a thread to a void. The line is not a homogenous mark, however clean and simple it appears. Accidents happen on this stage. People forget their lines. They become interrupted or change direction, if only by a degree. In this wall of self-imposed excess and regularity – a formula, essentially – it is easy to get lost. It is easy to find pleasure in the tidal marks and constellations that happen and move in and around the order. I find myself desiring the unruly (even if ‘ruled’) lines, the scars that stray from the formula of linear inscription.

 

Velum makes contact with the viewer, and talks to her: asks her what it means to look.

 

KB. It was quite important to me that you could become immersed in the drawing: that it’s the only thing you can see.

 

As it screens out the background faces to only let in background noise, Velum constructs a curiously intimate space for writing, an invitation for a body to inhabit. Once the man leaves, for the most of the day I am the only body in the room, this busy screen of corporeal gesture and willed physicality (it takes muscular effort to draw these lines) inviting wild and automated acts of typing. If writing is meant to be a private experience in which you get to know oneself, in this walled room, I am partly private and partly public. I am intimately public.

 

KB. The work surrounds you: it gives you the privacy you need, to look.

 

To write in and with Velum is to combine acts of seeing, with acts of desire and language, in the middle of a public space. Constantly navigating what it means to be not just a body, but also a writing body, in a room. On the edges of visibility, flirting with risk. I thought I would feel self-aware but Velum, in its curved wing-like hold, is cradling: it understands what it means to write, and what writing needs. What this space needs. I look at it from a side-ways angle, and wonder if it is also a giant scroll, in a constant process of unfolding. Its marks could be words, its linear gestures an ambiguous and personal language.

 

 

This diary-like text was formed from a conversation with Kelly Best, and notes made in front of the artwork at Jerwood Space, 15 June 2015. An in-conversation with Kelly, Georgie Grace and the editor and critic, Oliver Basciano, happened later in the day, incidentally also in front of Velum.

 

Velum was commissioned through Jerwood Encounters: 3-Phase, a new artist development collaboration between two artist-led organisations Eastside Projects (Birmingham) and g39 (Cardiff), and Jerwood Charitable Foundation, through its London based gallery programme Jerwood Visual Arts.

something like life-writing

11 Jun

Alice May Williams, 'An Unreliable Witness', 2015 Photo: Anna Arca

Alice May Williams, ‘An Unreliable Witness’, 2015.
Photo: Anna Arca

 

In the hour that we’re together, the road that forms Tower Bridge stands firm. Little boats motor underneath it. Red buses drive across it. It does not break, this moment in history. But as we talk and get distracted, the edges of this fin-de-siécle monument get fuzzy. The conversation has the capacity to re-write timelines (seen in the towering concrete phallus) with personal affect, and accident.

 

While the river pushes on. (It was the present moment, or so says Virginia W.)

 

Or so quotes Alice May Williams: I was really aware that it is quite strange recording someone’s voice, in that it immediately brings them into the present, but a present that has already passed. It keeps happening in Orlando, as Woolf keeps referring to the fact that it was the present moment and then it’s gone. It hits you on the head.

 

I’m asking Alice questions, just like Ken does of Jessie (aka Great-Great Grandma) in her audio work An Unreliable Witness. Jessie answered back: she wouldn’t let herself get pinned down by the male biographer of dates and chronology, as she fought the masculine recorder with voice itself. It is a voice of shuffling ambiguity, as her Medusa laughs and muddy verbal gestures constantly undermine what he wants her to tell him.

 

Alice has clearly inherited her GGG’s oral rebelliousness, as she harnesses women’s talk as a strategy of communality and temporal disruption. We listen in on a female cacophony: voices murmuring in unison, Alice calls it, counteracting and contradicting that person (Ken? Myself?) clutching a microphone, running a script. I was definitely aware when talking to my family members that I did not want to play that directive role, of trying to get them to talk about what I thought I wanted them to tell me, because it is through the tangents where you really uncover the stuff the person being interviewed wants to talk about. In An Unreliable Witness – a fiction drawn from a document – the everyday tangents stall coherent narrative and logic, as space shifts from the cleanliness of Woolf’s Kew to the 1871 dirty streets of Battersea. Fiction and biography are pretty much interchangeable in Alice’s audio object, while time slides and text slides in her composite writing of appropriated verbatim and quotation.

 

Oral history probes and provokes the past, while constructing an edited narrative (however loose) in and out of the present. It is a fiction of potential, as it fills in the neglected gaps of women’s histories – from the domestic to the dangerous to the near deadly. Suzanne Lacy broadcast similar conversations on live TV for The Crystal Quilt, in which a Susan Stone composition of seventy-five women talking about ageing played in the background. Text and subtext murmuring in unison.

 

As a positive reconstructive method, oral history seeks to make women authors of their own past, but what about the ghostly recorder or tinkering transcriber? What if he misses out her pause, or forgets her laugh? The gesture can only ruin him if he remembers it, or respects it, in language. In An Unreliable Witness, the artist’s Great-Great Grandma rejects the interviewer’s presence, and Alice steps in, turning Jessie’s anti-linear narrative into a revised construct of converging generations and multiple voices. All girls together. She is not so much speaking in place of the original speaker, as using the equipment of past and present speaking, to speak for her. And with her.

 

The writer Chloé Griffin assumed a similar responsibility for a life in her oral history of the writer and actress Cookie Mueller, whose dark-humour-heavy, diary-fictions shadowed her dark experiences before becoming another victim of AIDs in November 1989. Cookie’s life has always been prefaced by her death. It is her Internet entry, her presence, but an oral history can seek to do more. It can seek to embody and imagine, beyond the tragic ‘ending’.

 

In Edgewise, Griffin tacks together the voices of friends and lovers that knew her (artists and writers, mainly) in a polyvocal text of shifting temporal patterns. Memories and recollections accrete; extend; contradict. Griffin’s oral history is rendered as a continuous conversation, in spite of the scattered execution of the interviews over eight years, and the mutating time and place of the narratives. We hear her love Sharon Niesp retelling the dramaturgy of their relationship (‘I’d disappear for a while. We didn’t have fight fights every day like neurotic couples do. I would just disappear’), and later Gary Indiana talks of downtown New York happenings, starring Cookie:

‘I took a lot of pictures of Cookie in drag. Kathy Acker and I were asked at one point to do a performance at the Mudd club where we would project slides of our former boyfriends and read letters to them that we had written. I had a lot of letters I had written to boyfriends, but I didn’t have that many pictures of them, so I called Cookie up and said, “Would you like to pose as several of my former boyfriends?” We went to William Coupson’s studio, and she had two costumes. One was kind of manly – Playboy, kind of a smoking jacket – and the other was a Hustler kind of picture.’

Just as Alice’s work extends outwards from one biography to encompass multiple, Edgewise is both a portrait of the (singular) Cookie and a talking (plural) history of the communal underground art scene of the late twentieth century. It constantly moves from the intimate to the public performance of the intimate. And like An Unreliable Witness, chronology cannot be ascertained, as drugs and desire and dialogue bury it.

 

Back to the ‘present moment’ Alice that was: I didn’t want to do to the original recording what is trying to be done to that woman, where he’s trying to pin her down to dates: make it clear who she is and what time she lives. Anything I added I wanted to operate in the same fluid way as she does, evading chronology. My nan did exactly the same thing. She didn’t want to talk in timelines, or necessarily talk about her grandma. She just wanted to talk about what she wanted to talk about, and I knew I had to let her do that, because that is the strength of an oral history – it’s not just about securing timelines or getting things you can read in books – it’s about hearing someone’s current reflections on something. Anything.

 

Alice May Williams, 'We Can Do It!', 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Alice May Williams, ‘We Can Do It!’, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Alice May Williams, 'We Can Do It!', 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Alice May Williams, ‘We Can Do It!’, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

 

As Sherna Berger Gluck writes: women’s oral history is a feminist encounter, even if the interviewee is not herself a feminist. It is the creation of a new type of material on women; it is the validation of women’s experiences; it is the communication among women of different generations; it is the discovery of our own roots and the development of a continuity, which has been denied us in traditional historical accounts. In her 1988 book Rosie the Riveter Revisited, Sherna used this model on the women workers of World War Two, sifting and detouring through past moments, both little and big, as a backwards route to thinking about what ‘contemporary’ feminism might mean and could do for them. ‘Rosie the Riveter’ was also the collective subject of Alice’s video work We Can Do It! (2014), as this bicep pumping, blue shirted woman worker becomes a repeated online image of superficial feminist communality.

 

I became interested in the Rosie the River image due to its constant recycling and repetition, the act of which seemed to be erasing any possible stability it might once have had. It seemed to be an image, a code, a set of words completely up for grabs: it could mean so many different things to so many different ‘We’s’, leading to an unverifiable ‘felt’ kind of knowledge. Part of the appeal of the Rosie image, for me, is the rolling of her sleeves, and I became interested in the possible readings of that gesture: could it be a lesbian code of dress? It’s more like intimation than foolproof knowledge, but I think these forms of felt knowledge are just as much a part of how we make sense of the world, as the information we are given as truth/history/fact. In the current work, too, it is as much how things are said, as what is said. Jessie is dodging the linearity of history or fact by weaving us through sets of feelings or sensations.

 

In An Unreliable Witness, Alice (with Jessie as her sidekick) makes a joke out of living historically, as temporal orders overlap and converse into less structured units. Talking through the past and present at once, as a way to work through and understand it, rewrites the straight and phallic timeline. It inserts in its place a nonlinear concept of time, where histories can co-exist, all the while gazing in multiple directions. There are no first wave, second wave, or third wave feminisms in Alice’s work, as the generations talk to one another in a fragmentary fiction of chatter and noise. And feeling. The years intermix, become layered and one. 2015 becomes 1959 becomes 1865.

 

This is Elizabeth Freeman writing of such ‘non-sequential’ forms of time, which cackle against the normative chronology, just like Alice and Jessie: Queer temporalities… are points of resistance to this temporal order that, in turn, propose other possibilities for living in relation to indeterminately past, present and future others: that is: of living historically.

 

(We look to the Thames, as it curves from the wharfs to the west.)

 

Alice May Williams, 'An Unreliable Witness', 2015.  Photo: Anna Arca

Alice May Williams, ‘An Unreliable Witness’, 2015.
Photo: Anna Arca

Alice May Williams, 'An Unreliable Witness' (detail), 2015. Photo: Anna Arca

Alice May Williams, ‘An Unreliable Witness’ (detail), 2015.
Photo: Anna Arca

 

An Unreliable Witness, the exhibition, is a body of research (with an etched wall drawing posing as a pretend family tree, and a printed fabric of Jessie’s drawn face repeated) that revolves and circulates around the restructuring of a found audio recording featuring the artist’s Great-Grand Grandma being interviewed by a male relative named Ken. This talking trace of 1959 resurfaced a few years ago over the family’s Christmas dinner, when Alice’s uncle played it to her Grandma through a phantom iPhone. I’ve just spoken to Grandma Jessie on the phone she said. As the artist writes of the event in the fragmentary transcript of literary and real-life quotation: Nan wasn’t crazy, or stupid, and she hadn’t lost the plot. She just didn’t have the words to describe the medium, which had channelled her grandma’s voice to her.

 

That medium, that document, was then taken care of by Alice: the responsibility of a life, a biography, in her hands. In the original recording, Ken asks Jessie questions about her life and the London in which she lived. He lingers on dates; she responds with a defiant what else do you want to know? and sends her interviewer off on chronological cul-de-sacs, interspersed with oblique but knowing chuckles.

 

Ken: And your father was a river pilot?

Jessie: Not a river pilot

Ken: River…

Jessie: Captain

 

And when Ken tries to bind Jessie to the erection of Tower Bridge, she evades his biographical tricks:

 

Ken: And you went down on the ship

Jessie: Ooh yes, of course

Ken: And when you went where Tower Bridge is now…

Jessie: Yes

Ken: … It wasn’t then built?

Jessie: Wasn’t then, No, no

Ken: Good heavens, we thought it had been there much longer than that, when was it built?

Jessie: Couldn’t tell you

Ken: Bout eighteen…

Jessie: Not the faintest idea, I’m a Londoner but I don’t know anything about London (throaty cough)

 

Alice: I find there is much more humour and humanity in writing verbatim than in formal prose. I think who is speaking and how they speak can really shape a set of words, so I try to let that come through.

 

In An Unreliable Witness, Alice weaves and layers conversations with her mother and grandmother (discussing Battersea Power Station and beauty culture) onto the raw 1959 document, as individual lives go forward and back, and merge, to make an alternative (edge-wise) biography of Jessie that is more communal than singular. Interviews can be a way to invent vocabularies for these social formations, which combine the intimate and the social, the informal and the institutional, said Ann Cvetkovich, in an essay that uses the metaphor of craft as conversation. In Alice’s audio fabric, multiple voices and histories shift and slide in patterns unknown, to be realized in the edit as an oddly biographical and fictional object. I guess I wanted it to be her autobiography, because I think that’s how she controls the conversation and everything else props towards that. But you’ve also got to recognise your place (Alice). Authorship is blurred, as each character (and author) is as unreliable as the next.

 

Alice May Williams, 'An Unreliable Witness', 2015.  Photo: Anna Arca

Alice May Williams, ‘An Unreliable Witness’, 2015.
Photo: Anna Arca

 

We get close to knowing Jessie, but it is more ‘felt’ knowledge, as Alice would say: we never get to see her or chat to her in any physical encounter. Our getting to know ‘her’ is much more psychic. In the same way we are also getting to ‘know’ Alice, through the people and things she has a distant relationship to, like a spindly branch on a family tree. It’s an autobiography of fragility and fiction: performance. Alice gets to know Jessie, gets to know Jane Eyre, gets to know Virginia, gets to know the dead she doesn’t know… calling to mind the naughty, wayward tracks Heather Love writes of in Feeling Backward: Perverse, immature, sterile and melancholic: even when they provoke fears about the future, they somehow also recall the past. They carry with them, as Djuna Barnes writes of her somnambulist heroine Robin Vote in Nightwood: the quality of the way back.

 

Jessie is the forgetful somnambulist, sleepwalking through the past in a forged daze. Alice takes on the same temporal position, giving a fictional life to the intimate and personal time that lies beyond the straitjacketing document. She does not ignore the chaos of feelings, as Jessie’s babble runs counter to ordered public measurements.

 

As Love elaborates in the same book of queer backwardness: Politics and feelings are very different kind of things: the public sphere is big, feelings are small; social life happens out there, psychic life, somewhere inside; public time is collective time, measured by the clock, whereas in psychic life, the train hardly ever runs on time.

 

An Unreliable Witness stages an interplay between these two poles of public and private: never one or the other, but a frenzied both that cannot be located. An Unreliable Witness is not simply an oral history work of mothers and memories, but through starting here, a wider social and economic history of London emerges. I should say histories. On top of her-stories. Buildings go up and down, the collective narrative running parallel to the private, working together.

 

I was interested in Battersea as a place that doesn’t really exist anymore, as a borough that got consumed by Lambeth and Wandsworth. A non-place. And even though they are now working on the regeneration of the power station and the surrounding area, whenever you see it referred to in print, they call it ‘nine elms on the south bank’, or the ‘western end of nine elms’.

 

In the transcript a similar conversation happens between Alice and her mum Jane Anne (with the writing of Virginia and the voice of Jessie stitched in between):

JA: They’re gonna keep the building? The base of it?

AM: mmmm look at this

JA: Quarter

AM: Its not, its like, its gross isn’t it

JA: God, the world’s finest retailers, restaurants, the old power station

AM: It’s not for people like us

Jessie: Ooooh! She screamed Mary! (throaty chuckle)

 

In An Unreliable Witness, Alice avoids the insular, self-soothing trap of making an artwork about motherhood, by using her mothers as characters, as voices, through which to channel broader discussions of identity, biography, time and place. I was very hesitant to make something family-oriented, because I think there’s something a bit gross about it. I really do not want this to be grounded in nostalgia. The artist interrupts the looming presence of nostalgia by forging communities between the living and the dead (Heather Love): she proposes time as something permeable and loose; likewise life-writing, as the artificial notes of Brontë and Woolf’s textual fragments are deposited on Alice’s own in the transcript, and voices of past and present synchronize as artifice in the recording.

 

I finished Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts on my way back from talking to Alice by Tower Bridge. On the face of it, it is a memoir, with the author’s story of queer family-making at its narrative heart. In the first paragraph, Maggie recounts verbatim the first moment of uncontrollable heart confession: ‘Instead the words I love you come tumbling out of my mouth…’ But The Argonauts is not only ‘about’ falling in love and becoming a mother (like An Unreliable Witness is not simply a maternal family tree). This is the book’s life-like subtext (as in similar but not quite). Maggie’s relationship with Harry Dodge: their wedding, her IVF and his top surgery, happens in and amidst critical reflections on language and body, politics and activism, perversion and freedom.

 

It has the feel of a diary that talks, with trespassing voices of anxiety and influence. I was thinking about how to write my conversation with Alice, and looked to The Argonauts’ typographical assertion of ‘real-life’ verbal events (as in: ‘I want you to feel free, I said in anger disguised as compassion, compassion disguised as anger) intermixed with textual fragments from those she has read, learnt from, whose writing and ideas has fed and nourished her own. Motherhood without pro-creation (or just creation of a different kind). The names of Eve Sedgwick, Eileen Myles, Beatriz Preciado and more (including Harry), can be found in the book’s margins. As in: ‘Even identical genital acts mean very different things to different people. This is a crucial point to remember, and also a difficult one. It reminds us that there is difference right where we may be looking for, and expecting, communion. Sedgwick’

 

In The Argonauts, just like in An Unreliable Witness, and what I have tried to write here, the recounting of a life cannot be constrained by a single viewpoint, by one voice. A life is not singular but multiple, as layered and mutating, and unpredictable, as the act of writing. To patch texts and recordings together, as Alice and Maggie have done, emphasises the artificiality and unreliability of memoir. The performance of life-writing becomes the stuff of the real. As Jessie always knew, to reconstruct a life can never amount to evidence, when feelings are sending us off on wayward paths.

 

Alice May Williams: An Unreliable Witness is a Project Space commission supported by Jerwood Charitable Foundation. The exhibition is open at Jerwood Space until 29 August 2015.

POSTSCRIPT: unpacking Blood in stuff

11 May

It’s easy to be seduced by the ink stains and the violent erasures. It’s easy to see in these crossings out, in the artist’s frantic scrawl, traces of the artist’s body. What lies beneath. Evidence of the life, proof of the blood in scanned units. I’m not interested in binding them, protecting them, as in The Diaries of Franz Kafka. I don’t want to romanticize the mess of the notebook or fall for its viscerality, however much I enjoy the ride of the broken syntax. Finding the words through arrows and loopholes. Zig-zagging through ‘multiple narratives’ and ‘too much to take’ and ‘sexuality/pathogens’, appearing as if a visual poem, but in fact a method of writing and research. Note-taking contemporaneous with thinking, faster than the clock. Copying from Archives of Sexual Behaviour Vol. 31 and making your own in acts of guilty trespass.

 

Marianna's sketchbook, 2014-2015. Courtesy of the artist.

Marianna’s sketchbook, 2014-2015. Courtesy of the artist.

Marianna Simnett, sketchbook drawing, 2014-2015. Courtesy of the artist.

 

  1. Going back to the notebook. It’s called sketchbook but there’s more writing than drawing (aside from the wide-eyed girl with a red-stained mouth). She’s sketching her thoughts and having fun with word play. From ‘hymenologies’ to ‘Hi Men’. And later: ‘Film takes on blood as currency / Nose as virgin Nose = virgin.’ Reading these fragments, I remember Isak Dinesen’s story ‘The Blank Page’, in which the bloodied flax of formerly virgin brides is displayed for public consumption. One anonymous princess exhibits a sheet of ‘snow-white blankness’, withholding her body in act of radical resistance, owning the page as M does her notebook. Blood moves and mutates through the turning of each scanned page, in numbered narratives and feminist concepts about men being hot and dry and women being cold and moist. Order and health versus disorder and illness. Meanwhile, the author and artist asks herself to do things and buy the best value equipment, the backstage clutter and correspondence. She writes down questions for Isabel and nose surgeons, as well as phone numbers and emails, so to talk to people who might help; she talks to herself, too, not as a means of confession, but as a means of making. Of seeing things happen. Unfold. This is starred, hence important: ‘ *build up of blood causes girls to become delirious, violent, even strange themselves’, which I can relate to as I write more text from stuff, libidinal and automated, building layer upon layer – as in the chaotic and cluttered syntax of the notebook.

 

I knew I was interested in experiencing Blood in ephemera when I asked Marianna to dig out some stuff for me a few weeks ago, but I was still unsure of how I might use it. It was titled FOR ALICE, transferring its responsibility and desire through the click of a send. I’ve been circling the works and the artists for a while now, writing letters and emails to them, building an archive of intimate texts in the margins of the internet. Through the stuff of language exposed we are very nearly touching, if not physically, then maybe materially, as Berlant says: ‘In an intimate public sphere emotional contact, of a sort, is made.’ I am drawn to this writing of embodied hesitation.

 

Some of our correspondence will stay public, performed in text, but some things said will remain invisible, languishing in the bottom end of the inbox. Or the back pages of the notebook… It might find its way out in time, but time will be different by then.

 

Marianna Simnett, Nose-build for Blood, 2014-2015. Courtesy of the artist.

 

  1. An arm (could be left or right) is outstretched as in ‘The Willful Child’, cropped as a colour image with no defining hand. Or thumb-prints to investigate. But it is scratched and pink and sore, with lines appearing as bloody inscriptions. Her flesh is shot with blue, like a fabric woven with two threads. Those veins look difficult to manage, probably made worse by the Albanian winter. I wonder whose limb this belongs to. Marianna’s, Lali’s or Isabel’s? Does the sick child of the story also self-harm? Inject heroine into her blue threads? Anna Kavan died this way. I turn to her Asylum Piece, in which she territorialised her own (institutionalised) illness in writing: ‘It seems ages since I have been able to concentrate on my work: and yet I am obliged to put in the same number of hours each day at my desk.’ (The ill in willfulness.) I later learn that this image called ‘PROCESS’ is evidence of Marianna’s cut-up arm: when nose-building goes wrong. I stumble across two consecutive images of the nose and find pleasure in these x-ray view-points: from the wooden, chicken-wired construction, stripped back and naked, to the newspaper layer that coats it. I imagine M climbing all over it, screaming at the sharp edges of its skeleton. In physical pain. But also because it’s her film. And because she can.

 

The archive is a space of affective attachment and contact, of getting closer to the object and oneself (often through the pencil markings you make). Through making more stuff. It’s a resource but also a partner, a companion, and a friend. (It’s basically Lali.) In the time between the email I sent requesting ephemera and the time and space of writing this post, I’ve moved a bit in my thinking, worked out that the archive I am getting to know is less the archive of secure institutionalised masculinity, and more the floating archive, the one you might ask for but the one you can’t predict. Or value. I am less interested in discovering context and biographical detail, as imagining narrative and desiring the marginal object, away from the exhibited final thing. My inquiry is formed by intimacy: the unfinished, the open, the leaking. Bodily forensics without the proper tools, forgetting the protocol:

 

Calling to mind José Esteban Munoz in ‘Ephemera as Evidence’: ‘Queer acts… contest and rewrite the protocols of critical writing …’

 

  1. Staying with photographs, or a photograph of photographs. This one has been mediated and compartmentalised, perhaps to make it easier to compare the sworn virgins’ faces – their immediate exteriority. I know Lali, or at least I feel like I do (she’s got her thumbs up in another photo); and I’ve met Drande before in a video. She’s bottom right. I feel bad for thoughts surrounding who looks more masculine, as if the reproduction of a ‘male’ aesthetic is the only cause or reason of their passing. That said, Lali has a naval hat on and is smoking, by the sea, not in the mountains. She is beautiful and beguiling, not as man or woman, but as both or either. This must be one of her’s and Marianna’s first meetings: the interview research. I don’t have the audio so can only guess at their conversations, words and phrases that probably found their way into the script, reframed and chopped up. All of their faces are smooth, but some are more lined than others. Only the second virgin is showing her teeth, a smile of understanding and warmth. Contact. There was a character to fulfill for the purpose of Blood the fiction, but the life extends beyond the frame.

 

Ephemeral objects embody the traces of the performance and are in this sense, objects of performance, too. Time-based and durational is this material waste, but it is also the wayward document constantly performing itself, mediated through the scanned selection process. I want to extend the fiction, create an assemblage of bloody stuff. I want to write in and out of the ephemera, and get close to it, not in order to prove something about the work but in order to inhabit it and desire it and imagine it and perform it. In language. To provide the work with a queer life outside the gallery walls.

 

  1. Isabel sits on a green chair in front of Marianna and her camera. She is Goldilocks. She wears a white vest and grapples with the script in her fingers, crosses her legs, makes only occasional contact with her interviewer. Spurred on she says, repeating my same confusion:

From some angles she looks like a woman and from some man. It’s quite weird that she’s devoted her life but I can see why…

M responds: Can you tell me?

Men get more advantages and more freedom than women who like clean and cook. Women are basically their slaves, basically…

The language of the young girl is, like, reoriented in the texture of the script… resulting in a fictional Isabel that, through Lali, and through hysteria, and through a red bleeding body, challenges the stable foundations of femininity. Precariously balanced on the ‘wobbly chair of heterosexuality’, this is Dodie Bellamy writing of her own Goldilocks Syndrome, unearthing its sickened potential:

‘Rather than identity, we uncover a void, a vacuum, an inrush of sticky desiring others – a non-position where the unbridled power of the libidinal child can be unleashed, the child who can blow up the world with her thoughts, the child whose body gets blown up over and over again, each time resembling in ways that get stranger and stranger, the child that people back away from, otherness blazing from her, a molten orange and red aura. When this child enters the discourse of heternormativity language is going to fry.’

 

The blazing young girl: dangerously red in her otherness.

 

When Munoz wrote about looking at an image of a Tony Just performance, and found that ‘a few people recognized the image as that of a toilet bowl, many saw it as a breast, some only as a nipple, others as an anus and still others as a belly button’ he also opened up the indeterminate and desiring potential of ephemera. It desires us and we desire it back. It’s mutual; this performative relationship of dislocated time. The ephemeral object is bound to the temporal moment in which it was spawned, but it also rejects it. Tagged by time it likewise travels, down into wonder – where feeling and writing merge.

 

MS_ACME_14

Marianna Simnett, Lali, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

 

  1. Getting lost in the nose. A kind of building with separate rooms and levels, its insides painted pink. Raw. In through the anterior and out through the uvula, making my way through the inferior, middle and superior turbinates. Imagining I was Isabel. Running through viscera and excess. The anatomical drawing of holes and vestibules and winding passages sums up the experience of hallucination: ‘STORYTELLING’. Marianna’s own graphite drawings of vivisected noses follow the science. No bottom lips are drawn in these androgynous shapes, only the nose and cupids bow. The final nose is lined and withered, her lips indented by the daily drag of a cigarette. The scanned image is untitled and un-named: I wonder if it is Lali, re-drawn… (a good guess, I later discover).

 

This is Kathleen Stewart writing of the fluid (sometimes perverse) way we experience everyday objects: ‘From the perspective of Ordinary Affects, thought is patchy and material. It does not find magical closure or even seek it, perhaps only because it’s too busy just trying to imagine what’s going on.’

 

Accidents happen here, in this space beyond the frame,

as the stuff of making finds a new frame in writing:

 

In this, my postscript to the intimate archive, I have tried to imagine what’s going on in the archive of Blood. Write as I find it. Pay it a different kind of attention. We might recognize it and its people; we might not, the stuff of this bloody catalogue, or notebook.

 

Marianna Simnett's diary, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Marianna Simnett’s diary, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

 

  1. A scrappy ring bound notebook for a diary, a vessel of documentation and of fiction. The writing moves in and out of description as this resilient, sleepless writer (‘Yesterday, I mean this morning, I left home at 1:30 am to catch three nightbuses to Heathrow) hones in on the everyday details. Latte macchiatos can last for as long as you will them to, as the act of waiting is then trapped in the act of writing. M (I think it’s M) is sitting in a café, like the protagonist in Marguerite Duras’s Moderato Cantabile. The French novelist is also scribbled in M’s notebook, along with other reference points like Angela Carter and The Company of Wolves. Also: Antonia Young; Balkan Peace Project; Mike Kelley. The first person dominates this diary form. Of course it does. It’s the language of the young girl, older than the first, but still candid and confessional. We think we can see her, but the page is dislocated from the narrative, like a cut-off arm.

We cannot see the whole of her.

 

 

‘Blood’ by Marianna Simnett was commissioned as part of the Jerwood/FVU Awards 2015: ‘What Will They See of Me?’. 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.

Appendix 1. messages to activate.

1 May

Transcript of an email interview with Lucy Clout

 

A: From Our Own Correspondent continues your previous investigations into ephemeral forms of speech: can you explain your interest in the interview as a mode of verbal exchange?

L: I listen to a lot of podcasts in my studio; particularly interview podcasts, of which there are many. It’s a quick and cheap way for them to make content. Interviews such as these are not hugely edited, and are often much longer than would be typical of more traditional media platforms. They offer me the comforting background witter I’ve talked about in previous videos. In From Our Own Correspondent the journalistic interview is used as a model of professionalised conversation and exchange, one that is potentially full of hierarchy and flattery; the skilled formation of intimacy and formality, and the drawing out of people and directness. In the beginning of making From Our Own Correspondent I was thinking about those podcasts, of producing, essentially, your own chat-show: I was thinking about the difference between asking a question where you know what you want the other person to say, and asking a question where you need the other person to bring something you can’t provide. Of course, these aren’t separate situations, but things that might play out within a single interview in which the power dynamic ebbs and flows. In my work, which began as a performance practice, I have long been interested in the exchange between performer and audience. During an interview (a certain type of interview at least) the interviewer and subject can play both the roles of performer and audience at various times within the exchange. Much of what I wanted from the journalists I spoke to was to perform themselves: that is, as women with jobs, as professional people who are rather protective of their professionalism and who are expert at understanding what is at stake when you speak publicly.

 

A: The Internet is seen as the arena of confession, and in much the same way the interview is obsessed with exposure, but both seem to be as much about disguise and performance as truth…

L: Absolutely. Confession, intimacy, shame and visibility are all important in the work. The confessional, the biographic, and particularly the ambiguously fictionalised memoir, seem to be having a moment in the work of writers like Chris Kraus, Eleana Ferranti and Karl Ove Knausgaard. There is a question at the heart of the video about the need and desire for contact with another, and also with what that contact might supply you with and how. Online spaces also demonstrate how confession can exist without needing to relate it to a whole person or a whole truth – as a type of rhetoric. This exists against the backdrop of intermingled professional and personal lives. In a way the pleasure of online sex is that it offers relief that can be compartmentalized, that it does not disturb one’s whole life (except when it does). It seems like it is a public act when in fact it is mainly very private. In the last third of the work an unseen person re-posts, retroactively, the banal and shame-filled conversations of a disgraced politician, which the avatar is puzzled by and drawn to. She enjoys the emotions surrounding confession and shame, providing a witness to the original act of re-posting, in turn activating that unseen person’s feelings and desires. In From Our Own Correspondent, I was interested in the idea of a ‘story’ as a set of events that can be separated out neatly, in order to be presented. There is the final monologue; there are the five women edited together to create an authoritative voice; there is the avatar. It’s very much a video about being, and not being, intertwined with others, about the ways in which the performance of various professional and personal roles blend into one another, both online and psychically.

 

A: I am also interested in the way you perform your subject matter, as you interview the interviewers, and make them interviewees…

L: It reiterates that documentary trope when the film acknowledges the maker in order to acknowledge the subjective process of the making. From Our Own Correspondent is not an objective work: it addresses the wants and loneliness of a not hugely realistic avatar. And so, the journalists were so suspicious of me. I mean, of course they were: they are people who have thought more than most about their visibility in their work; about posterity, and about what might be given away as an interview subject. I am a bad interviewer, in contrast. There is a moment in the film when I am told off for all the nodding reassurances I keep doing. At other points they tell me to ‘relax’, to ‘try asking the question again’, or ‘ask it like we were sitting at a bar together’. My amateurism allows those particular exchanges to happen; except, of course, I am not exactly an amateur. One of the reasons the journalists were so puzzled by me was that I was describing the interviews as my job.

 

A: What does the avatar symbolize for you and what are the sources behind her construction?

L: She is a maker; she is a worker. She is an example. She is also just a woman in her 30s with a job. Designing her look involved trawling the pages of the Next catalogue (it still exists as a physical object it turns out!) and searching ‘professional work wear woman’ online. There is something of the Holly Hunter in the film Broadcast News (1987) in her hair. She is older and fatter than the original version, and that scaling was tricky: the gusset was scaled particularly poorly at first. She wears these knickers of an almost towelling texture. I had in mind a type of foamy material that is used to make cheap everyday seamless underwear dense and absorbent. She has taken her skirt off in order that it doesn’t crease, or maybe she hadn’t put it on yet, signalling a half-readiness to perform. She is both rehearsing alone and running over her day, performing a looping type of stasis within the hotel room.

 

A: What is the significance of the hotel room in the context of the work?

L: The hotel straddles domestic-space and workspace. It also offers the work a particular flat tone that means the empty hotel room can be read as a still or CGI. The potential for pleasure and horror is abundant in those spaces. Checking into a hotel alone I always have a ghoulish wonder if this is where I am going to kill myself. As well as suicide, hotels are a place for honeymoons and meetings and good sex and luxury and presentation writing over a slow Internet connection. Mainly, of course, nothing happens.

 

A: I was wondering if you could talk about the relationship between the ‘work’ of the interview and the ‘play’ of the correspondence and pop up messages that flash across the screen? Is it something to do with a breakdown in public and private spaces?  

L: I was really thinking about anxiety and work and self-soothing. There is something in there about the breakdown between work and non-work time; about the vigilance that is felt to be required to protect a professional persona, and the psychic toll of that. Which of course means that spending time on hook-up sites makes perfect sense: what is masturbation but anxiety, attractive risk and self-soothing? Did you read about those judges who all got disbarred recently for looking at porn on their work computers (but not while they were actually in a trial)? My woman is not working all the time: she is looking for someone to message; she has time to fill and an empty hotel room that might be full of promise. She just needs someone else to activate it.

 

 

 

‘From Our Own Correspondent’ by Lucy Clout was commissioned as part of the Jerwood/FVU Awards 2015: ‘What Will They See of Me?’. 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.