Making a mess

In my previous blog, I mused about how to provide opportunities to get lost and enjoy the process within the MA that I’m leading at the School of Jewellery.  The answer (one of the answers, anyway) is life drawing, it seems.

This was the first of a series of drawing activities across a number of schools, to encourage students to venture out of their home campuses and get to know peers from elsewhere in the faculty.  My contribution was a life(-ish) drawing session on body extensions, held at the School of Jewellery on Wed 11 Oct.  Taking our cue from Rebecca Horn’s 1970s work, we started off by restricting the parts of the body that permit us the most control over our movements and the marks we make: after a quick warm-up, we drew with non-writing hands, and then with no hands at all.  There was plenty of giggling at this stage, as students used mouths, feet and crooks of arms to produce drawings that were surprisingly recognisable as me, the sitter.

Left to right: drawing with the mouth (Xingxing), feet (Tilly) and I honestly don’t know what, but I love the speculative nature of the lines!

All that was left, at this point, was to introduce the students to the range of materials I’d brought to the session: drawing media (including charcoal, marker pens, ink pens, pencils, chalk),A1 paper, poster paint, garden canes, lining paper, elastic bands, string, straws, balloons, disposable overalls and wooden skewers.  The focus turned to exploring the movements that can be made with parts of the body that might usually sit below the level of conscious awareness, parts of the body that you have to find other ways to pull into focus and documenting these movements with a range of media and approaches.

Two illustration students, Rickie and Alice, played with the idea of collaborative drawing, producing a pair of portraits:

Alice, by Rickie; Rickie, by Alice

Elsewhere, some of those present adopted quite a meditative approach, spending much of the remaining hour with the same media and the same tools.

Left to right: drawing with straws; bouncing a ball of string dipped in poster paints from a chain of rubber bands; rolling a straw/skewer dipped in paint.

Tilly threw herself into the session, and made a number of drawings with some really sensitive marks.  I had a play with a handful of ink pens held on my fingers with rubber bands (until they went blue!), creating a negative image of an intriguing, scissor-like clamp.

Left to right: drawing with feet, and mouth/string/chalk; negative drawing with pen/ink.

The feedback about the session was fantastic: ‘mind-blowing!’, ‘pushed us to try new ways of drawing’, ‘a beginning for me’.  My favourite comment was from a participant who said, rather poignantly, ‘I was able to experiment more freely than I usually do, without fear’; I like to think that the open-ended, messy, exploratory nature of the session created a space in which students could get lost in playful making and drawing.

To finish off with, a final couple of images from the session:

Drawing with chalk and (improvised) chopsticks (Elizabeth).
Drawing with eyes closed (Yiji).

Many thanks to all those who took part.  Here’s to the next one!

Making a mess

not knowing and getting lost

I’ve been reflecting on the value of making space for the happy accidents and surprise discoveries that fuel creative making, and on the difficulty of making this happen in a one year MA course.

Now, bear with me here – it’s five in the morning, and I could just about marshal these thoughts when I was lying in my warm bed, but now I’ve got up and made a cup of tea (is it too early in the season to put the heating on?), the pressure to fix these thoughts down is sending them scuttling off in all directions. This is deeply frustrating, but kind of a case in point. Lauren Child, children’s laureate, is arguing (in this article in the Guardian) that, in order to develop creativity, children should be allowed ‘dawdle and learn by accident…we need to be aware that just having a go has a value. Chance interactions can lead to something bigger’. The goal-oriented nature of much compulsory education means that these opportunities are squeezed out by more formal learning methods.

And this is familiar stuff to artists and designers. Leif Huff’s 5 Ways to Think Like a Designer outlines some of the ways we can free up our thinking and introduce a bit of mess into the proceedings. Points 1, 2 and 4 are all about asking questions – being curious, challenging assumptions and framing simple questions within bigger, more expansive one. The question ‘why?’ is key here: analytical critical thinking begins with taking things apart and considering how they work. In contrast, points 3 and 4 suggest ways in which artists and designers can encourage things to come together: getting lost in dreams and collaborating. It is by giving up control and allowing thoughts to wander that connections are made, ideas are hatched.

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On Not Knowing – cover image: Cole (2004) Birthplace Heterotopia

Recognising the value of not knowing is central to Fisher and Fortnum’s (2013) book, On Not Knowing: How artists think. The image on the front of the book features a figure heading out to sea in a pedalo. So far so PoMo. However, for me the image (by Sarah Cole) is given a particular resonance when I learnt that the image is of a heavily pregnant woman, taken on the day that she was due to give birth to her first child. The image captures the sense of embarking into the unknown that comes with first-time parenthood, and the parallels with making art are clear(-ish!). Both involve making-it-up-as-you-go-along, learning what works and what doesn’t on-the-hoof; play is at the heart of bringing up children, but there’s also risk, too. Fisher and Fortnum explore some of the ways in which artists use playful and sometimes meditative approaches – that do not always lend themselves to explanation or translation into language – to learn about their worlds. They point to different ways of knowing – embodied knowledge, material knowledge, creative making – that are circuitous, meandering and hard to pin down; but which, for that very reason, help to facilitate creative thinking, making space for the happy accidents and intuitive, creative leaps that Child and Huff recognise are so necessary. What (some) artists do so well is to slow down and linger and to think deeply; interrogating the habits that usually pass under the radar and, in doing so, exploring the things that make us the people we are.

This does, however, take time. Students joining the MA Jewellery and Related Products course at BCU have a – very intensive! – year to develop skills in critical thinking, creative making and understanding of the context to their work. How can we push them to achieve their potential, which still giving them the space to linger, play and find their own direction? The answer, I feel, is to provide the richest, messiest, most playful experience we can manage, with workshops, lectures, discussion groups, trips, visits, talks and opportunities to meet with students from other Schools in the Faculty; to ask questions to spark debate and to model the critical thinking that forensically takes things apart so that, ultimately, the students are asking their own questions and generating their own perspectives. Making the most of these opportunities requires them to take a risk, to commit to an experience, a process, in order to slow down and think deeply. I look forward to seeing some of the stuff that emerges.


not knowing and getting lost

Combative drawing

Required: lining paper, wooden skewers, ink; one husband (Rick) and two children (taking photos).

Task: me – to draw a picture (of my hand drawing a picture), using a skewer; Rick – to stop me, using a skewer.

Rules: both skewers must be charged with ink, and leave an ink mark.

Sian draws; Rick blocks

I’m interested in ways in which identity is negotiated in collaboration with others, but I’m mindful that not all interactions are benign and constructive.  So I asked Rick to try and stop me drawing, with the intention of seeing what kind of marks resulted in this more combative instance.  I considered removing the sharp points from the skewers, but didn’t, as I thought the risk of getting prodded with a sharp point would add a certain piquancy to the activity.  As it happened, Rick played very fair, and focused mainly on trying to dislodge the point of my skewer from the drawing surface – rather than stabbing me in the hand; I wonder if everybody would be so…chivalrous.  Might be worth trying it again with – with who? – with my elder brother, aged 15, perhaps?  Now, he would have no qualms about adopting a more brutal approach!

The final image is full of energy, as you’d expect: lots of different marks, produced through the interaction of Rick and myself – fine lines from both skewer points, juddering marks from laying my skewer on its side and pulling ink across the paper, and plenty of spatter, which is always very pleasing:

Sian’s hand, drawing

I’m more interested in the ink marks on my hands, however.  Some of these are probably self made, caused by dipping my skewer in my cup of ink; others are from being caught in the cross-fire of spatter as Rick dislodged my skewer point from the paper.  I like the negative marks created when the skin that was spattered while wrinkled is then stretched and the naked skin can be seen through the ink (see the images: left and right):

Ink marks: Sian’s right hand

This is an entirely ‘social’ or ‘cultural’ intervention, and yet it highlights the skin-ness of the skin: the wrinkles and creases, and the movement of the underlying joints and ligaments.  There’s something about it that evokes camouflage (despite the fact that there are big black blotches on my skin), and maybe this points to the way that we are shaped and marked by our interactions with others in a way that moulds us to the demands of society; our ability to ‘be social’ rests, at some level, on our ability to conform and fit in – to be, at times, invisible.

Interesting that washing my hands removes the ink entirely.

what would it mean to carry no marks of socialisation?
Combative drawing

Flux Conference – 25/6 April 2017 – Assay Office, Birmingham

I was persuaded to attend the first day of the Flux conference by my colleague, Kate Thorley (Programme Leader of the new BA(Hons) International Jewellery Business course that opens its doors in September). I was taken by surprise by the passion and enthusiasm of the organisers and many of the delegates, and I felt like a complete Luddite for much of the day. Here’re my reflections on what I saw and heard.

The opening session was a keynote from Harriet Kelsall about the different circles of practice that jewellers work within. It was interesting for me to see the incremental steps that she has engaged in over the 10 years been in business, gradually building the ethical/sustainable element of business, while still maintaining options for customers who don’t want to/don’t have the budget to go full Fair Trade. She’s clearly held in some regard by the business community (she is on the board of the National Association of Jewellers, and is helping to shape its Better Business group), but she is prickly in her reference to the HE sector. She’s obviously had poor experiences with jewellery graduates (she questions their basic bench skills, and their ability to work with the public), but her criticism has a sweeping quality that sets me on edge: I think – thanks to some pertinent comments from Kate, and some active networking – we set the audience straight about the School of Jewellery’s commitment to our graduates.

The session before lunch was a panel discussion on the jewellery supply chain, chaired by jewellery journalist, Rachel Taylor. Five members of the panel reflected the different stages of the chain: mineral extraction (Gold from Columbia and gems from Sri Lanka), bullion dealing and manufacturing, to goldsmithing and jewellery production. A couple of points really struck me, here. The first was from Anna Loucah, who – in challenging the perceived value of ethical products – said ‘That’s just the way it is; it’s not a premium – it’s the right price’. This references the dark art of pricing, and the fact that – with luxury bespoke products – the higher cost of ethically sourced metal is absorbed into the accumulated costs of the product as a whole; the skill is being able to communicate this to the customer in a way that they can buy into. The second theme that really chimed with me was the panel members’ responses to the question – posed by Rachel: ‘what are the obstacles that stand in your way?’ Marcin Piersiak, of the Columbian Alliance for Responsible Mining, said – perhaps unsurprisingly – it’s the actions of governments that represent the biggest obstacle to business. Pete Crump, of Vipa Designs, said his biggest obstacle was the continuity of supply; not being able to guarantee supply of products to the jewellers that buy from him is a key issue. Arabel Lebrusan felt that receiving negative feedback from suppliers and others in the trade was the key obstacle (‘how much better to have a conversation?’), and Anna Loucah felt that the provision of specific components (tube, chain, etc – in fairtrade materials) was key. Lastly, Stuart Pool (Nineteen48) identified the lack of a code of practice for the sourcing and processing of coloured gemstones as an obstacle, a theme that recurred throughout day one of the conference.

Jon Dibben, getting almost as sidetracked and distracted as me!
Jon Dibben, getting almost as sidetracked and distracted as me!

The breakout session after lunch was fascinating (and hilarious!). This was a lively discussion between Tim Ingle (Ingle and Rhode), Jon Dibben (Jon Dibben – Jewellery Design) and Sam Rose (September Rose), chaired by Jane. The discussion ranged around the issues of how ethical business can be made to work in the round. Sam’s point, here, about the danger of making it seem that all the problems had been solved – through the use of ‘badges’ such as FairTrade and FairMined – was an apposite one. Her approach is to work, on occasion, with pre-certified/up-and-coming mines, in order to create the maximum benefits for all concerned. In addition, the jewellers highlighted some of the tensions that existed in their business – establishing the right balance between creating demand, and being preachy or evangelical; being niche and shifting into the mainstream – and the focus came to rest on the need to raise awareness of the issues, without focusing (to the point that would be off-putting to customers) on the grimness of the situation for the worst affected. It’s a tough call, for those so invested in their cause.

Lastly, the session from Sarah Greenaway (of jewellery brand, Mosami) and Liz Tinlin (of brand strategist, Blue Babel) was really enlightening. The focus on their talk was on trust and truth, and this drew into sharp relief my own prejudice regarding the role of business in general. The notion that ethics in business is problematic (because of its overtones of moral judgement, and because of the religious framework that it might imply) is one I can get behind; however, the idea that business scores more highly on the Edelman Trust Barometer is something that challenged my thinking. Liz made the point that ethical business can maintain its place at the leading edge, and that the rest of the market will want to catch it up, generating real change in the market. She outlined the demographic of Globescan’s ‘Aspirationals’ who are interested in, both – to cut a long story short – shopping and values. There was some discussion around their values – abundance without waste; be truly as you are; get closer; all of it; do some good – which sounded, well, not exactly like empty slogans, but the researcher in me wanted to know about the methodology used (more info about this, here).

Globescan's consumer demographics
Globescan’s consumer demographics

However, Liz and Sarah’s point about the need to develop a brand that reflects the values of the person at the heart of it was more resonant for me. Placing this purpose at the heart of the business means that it can inform all aspects of the business: its values, its competencies and its sense of who its customers are. In this way, the values become the ‘driveshaft’ of the business, generating value and, ultimately, profit. Far from being an ‘Aspirational’, I struggle to fit myself into Globescan’s analysis as I feel capitalism needs much more radical change than is encompassed here; at best, I’m an ‘Advocate’ (interested in social value, if not shopping – actually, I’m interested in what jewellery means, and in its ability to facilitate the individual wearer’s performance of identity). However, let’s not be too fatalistic here: this focus is helping to shift the balance away from harmful profiteering; it is also enriching the stories that jewellery is uniquely placed to tell, beginning with the authentic (truthful?) experience of the maker (and, beyond them, the suppliers of components, metals, gems, etc). It was an inspiring talk from Sarah and Liz (all the more so for having snook past my inherent distrust of marketing-speak!), and I’m looking forward to seeing them speak at the School of Jewellery, as Kate has recruited them to deliver a session with her BA(Hons) International Jewellery Business students next year.

I had to scarper at this point, and wasn’t able to join in the evening drinks (or, indeed, the second day of the conference). It was a fascinating day, in which I learnt loads about the different motivations that drive the ethical jewellery business, and in which my faith in business as a driver of social change was massively shored up. Thank you to the Flux organisers, to Kate for bullying me into going with her, and to all the delegates who made me feel welcome, despite my early scepticism. I’ll certainly be back next year.

[This post first appeared on the BCU School of Jewellery blog – 30 April]

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Click on the image above for a Storify round-up of the event
Flux Conference – 25/6 April 2017 – Assay Office, Birmingham

Talking Practice

Talking Practice was set up four years ago because staff at SoJ felt that, while we were doing some great things individually, there was little attempt to join the dots and make connections between the projects in order to make something better and more exciting.  We were interested in sharing our practice, making suggestions and critiquing approaches, finding partners to collaborate with and broadening the audience for our work.  What started out as staff talking to each other about their work has expanded and – as well as home-grown speakers – we’ve featured talks from artists, academics, curators and researchers from further afield.  Claudia Betancourt and Nano Pulgar from WALKA Studios, Chile, hold the record for the furthest travelled, so far, delivering their talk – ‘Islands or Archipelagos?’ – to a packed SoJ lecture theatre last February.

Poster for WALKA Studios talk (Feb 2016)

As times, it can feel as if the worlds of jewellery and its allied trades are pretty small ones: outside the four walls of the SoJ, everybody in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter seems to know everybody else and – beyond that – networks of jewellers are well-connected and tight-knit.  The SoJ building is beautiful and the small size of the campus means there is a great sense of community here, but it becomes a bit of a trap if we’re not able to branch out and explore the disciplines around us.  Talking Practice is an attempt to open up the conversation, to explore the wealth of creative practice and technical innovation that’s going on elsewhere to see how we can enrich our individual practice and our collective worlds.

So, this year, we’ve got a smorgasbord of fascinating speakers for you.  Next term we have Joanne Horton (De Montford University) talking about her innovative use of electroforming with fabric to make bespoke garments, and Jon Privett (West Dean College) speaking about patinas and the use of colour in conservation.  Not to mention Dr Sabina Stent (alumnus of Birmingham University) on women surrealist artists, and our very own John Grayson (a PhD candidate here at SoJ) speaking about the Parallel Practices project he’s been working on in collaboration with Kings College, London.

Beaulagh Brooks, speaking at the ChitChat event that launched In The Loupe

Talking Practice is delighted to have teamed up with the newly-inaugurated Vittoria Street Gallery.  In the Loupe – its opening show – kicked off last week with a fast and furious evening of ChitChat (based on the Japanese Pecha Kucha format), in which many of the exhibiting artists provided intriguing insights into their working methods and approaches in 3 minute talks.  In the Spring, the Gallery will feature the work of Jessa Fairbrother – an artist who uses self-portraiture and pin-pricking to create beautiful images – and we’re delighted to welcome her to Talking Practice to give a talk on her practice, alongside this show.

Shag (profile), Bharti Parmar, 2012


Our next event takes place on Tuesday 29 Nov 2016, and is a talk from Birmingham-based artist, Bharti Parmar.  I first met Bharti earlier in the year when she gave us feedback on the skills our graduates need when they enter the workplace, as part of the Transforming the Curriculum process that saw all of our programmes redesigned – and her work has intrigued and perplexed me ever since.  She isn’t a jeweller specifically, and yet her PhD (from Wolverhampton University, in 2009) is about sentimental/mourning jewellery, and she’s very interested in materials that carry a particularly emotional load, or which confuse and confound.  When I visited her studio in the summer, she showed me a series of images that are underpinned by ideas around race and identity that are produced with wood ‘veneers’ that are actually sticky-backed plastic and told me about her five foot square rug made of human hair, I just knew that we’d have get her in for a talk.  She’s kindly shared some of her hair-work and wig-making samples with us, and these can be seen in the pop-up cabinet in the Vitt Street Gallery until Tuesday: bunches of red hair lie next to grey asian hair, and samples of tatting demonstrate the Victorian methods of creating hair jewellery.  Bharti’s talk promises to be compelling stuff – do join us if you possibly can (booking, via eventbrite, here).

Samples of hair in cabinet at Vitt Street Gallery

Talking Practice lectures are free, and open to students and staff from SoJ and the wider faculty and beyond, as well as alumni, members of the local trade and researchers and practitioners outwith BCU.  The talks usually take place on Tuesday or Thursday evenings, beginning at 5pm and concluding with a glass of wine and a chance to chat and network, in the Vittoria Street Gallery.  If you would like any further information about the series, please do get in touch.

This blog post was originally published at the School of Jewellery (BCU) blog, on Sun 27 Nov 2016.

Talking Practice

Tracing the Bridge Conference, School of Design, Loughborough University

workshop2-materailsA month ago, I attended a drawing conference in Loughborough and I loved it. I had to deal with a massive dose of imposter syndrome, as I’d never been to an event – like this – which was aimed primarily at artists, and drawers at that. Nevertheless, I managed to hold my nerves at bay and delivered my paper on day two (gratifyingly, I noted that this time I’d moved up the schedule; my normal slot is at 3pm on day two – this time I was at half-past 10am. I’ll be keynoting in no time!). Some of the other papers were fascinating; drawing is clearly a broad church, and the range of papers reflected this. Howard Riley spoke about how drawing has been forced to develop its conceptual underpinnings since taking its place within the HE world over the last few decades, effectively bridging the gap between art as a visual language, and the concepts that underpin it. This was a whistle-stop tour, but a really pertinent one for me, as craft – in many ways – is set on the same course, gradually developing a theoretical base from which to articulate its contributions to art and design.

Knot sample, by Janette Matthews/Nithikul Nimkulrat

A couple of papers were unapologetically scientific, and fascinating with it. Janette Matthews gave a fascinating talk about knot theory that really piqued my interest. I could sense a collective girding of loins amongst the audience when Janette began, as her talk was entitled ‘Mathematical Diagrams’ and – being a mathematician as well as a textile designer – she really knew what she was talking about. Her talk built on a partnership that has been brewing for a few years with a collaborator in Estonia, Nithikul Nimkulrat, in which they explore what knot theory can bring to our understanding of craft practice. She passed around some samples, one of which bore a striking resemblance to the architectural metalwork that clads the new Library of Birmingham building. She made the point that the notational approach they took (drawing on knot theory) led to novel insights into textile knotwork (in particular, how her and her collaborator could manipulate colour within the designs); and she was enthusiastic about the next steps – to explore the corollary: how textile crafts practice can influence the field of maths. Corneel Cannaerts’ paper, likewise, sparked thoughts in all directions. He began with the question of what drawing’s role in architecture is, in relation to designing and making. Is it about capturing unique ideas as they flit about the designer’s head, or is it about solving the specific problems of putting different materials together? Is it autographic (idiosyncratic, singular), or allographic (a kind of code that allows for buildings to be replicated, again and again)? Corneel’s answer was to appeal to the in-between-ness of drawing (both/and), and here he used creative computer coding to open up architectural practice; he hacked 3D printers to omit the outer shape and exploit instead the ‘fill structure’, drawing directly with the ABS plastic. The results were startling: geometric, yet uncontrolled enough to evoke more organic structures; the forms reminded me of the rutile needles formed within quartz crystals, with a beautiful vocabulary of line quality. I wish I had the technical know-how to be able to keep up with his thinking, but I’m there’s stuff there that would pique the interest of jewellers who code. I think he should talk to Frank.

Delegates at Tracing the Bridge

Catherine Anyango’s talk was a blessing for me. Not only was it beautifully illustrated, powerful in its content, and eloquent in its delivery, it covered some of the theoretical territory that I would return to in my paper the next day. Catherine’s practice spans the disciplines of literature and drawing and – drawing on both disciplines – she dealt with some of the big themes of our time: the crisis of identity experienced as diaspora shift and merge and become part of other communities; barriers breaking down. The abject was always close by, and she moved onto discuss a series of drawings called ‘Last Seen/Scene’, based on public domain imagery – CCTV footage – that recorded the last movements of women before their death or disappearance. Captured as an animation, the repeated strokes distressed the paper and made the drawing hard to see; one had to look obliquely, inferring meaning. Powerful stuff.

What I really liked about this conference was the leisurely pace at which it proceeded, meaning that there was plenty of time for discussion and networking. While the mornings were taken up with presentations, the afternoons were spent in workshops. I spent the afternoon of the first day ambling around the campus of Loughborough University with workshop leader, George Jaramillo, exploring drawing’s potential to capture space in myriad ways. Day two was spent with Rachel Daniel exploring ways of making marks that circumvented the very precise nature of well trained hand-eye co-ordination. We spent a while making marks in sand on the table (which felt very therapeutic), and trying to stop a partner from drawing (which did not). We then used a whole range of materials and media to produce tools for drawing which challenged us to use parts of our body other than our hands. Rachel was drawing on her experience of working with people with Parkinsons disease, who were dealing with reduced mobility and fine motor control. I made myself another limb out of bendy straws stuffed with carcoal, taped to a bamboo cane that I held between my toes while standing on a chair. Which was a giggle.

Another limb: Drawing with my toes

The next day I gave my talk, and was grateful not to have to follow a really strong paper from Patricia Prieto-Blanco. She spoke about an autograph book which belonged to the grandmother of her collaborator, Tanja Kovacic, when she was a prisoner at Ravensbruck concentration camp, and which was used to capture her thoughts immediately before and after the camp’s liberation in 1945. Patricia, a photographer and visual sociologist, reflected movingly on the ripples that this tiny book was still generating within Tanja’s family and on the way that photography could serve as a bridge between the materiality of the artefact and the wider world, allowing its fragile presence to maintain its hold in the world a little longer. After a break, Martin Lewis and Joe Graham gave really interesting papers that tapped away at the performative nature of drawing, literally, in Martin’s case. Joe’s approach was to draw in time to the beat of a metronome, in order to explore the relationship between drawing and time: if free will is the distinction between a voluntary and an automatic reaction, then having time to respond to events must, he argued, be an element of choice or free will. Husserl’s variational theory was brought into play to test this idea, by creating a set of rules to vary the imaginative positions under scrutiny. I have to say, I loved the spare, dashed lines denoting the click of the metronome, a favourite wind-up mechanism of mine. I’m thinking of Martin Creed’s Work No. 180, an installation of eight metronomes playing at different tempos, seen at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham in 2008, but this was more – I don’t know – human? …for its directness: marks on a piece of paper in the bare outline of a tree.

The conference as a whole was thought-provoking and challenging and delightful and exhausting. Thanks to the organisers, especially Deborah Harty and the other members of Tracey. I look forward to the next one!

Tracing the Bridge Conference, School of Design, Loughborough University



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One third of ‘Ply’, for Precarious Assembly at the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester

‘Ply’ was the first outing for a collaboration between myself and the two artists that together form Dual Works: Zoe Robertson and Stephen Snell.  We responded to a call from a group of Manchester-based dance artists whose Accumulations project is examining women’s work and how this can be explored through creative practice.  The idea for our performance piece was hatched from Zoe’s purchase of an industrial Brother sewing machine, and the conversations it sparked: with the women who had spent a lifetime working on it, with our own mothers and grandmothers.  We were interested in the frequently mundane nature of women’s work, and the stories that punctuate it.  I am fascinated by the way these stories become part of the work, wrapped up in the embodied behaviour of the workers and entwined into the products themselves: in some factories (sawmills, textile mills) workers developed ‘industrial languages’, a form of lip reading or sign language that allowed them to communicate despite the noise and strict supervision.  The resulting performance centred around a production line – made up of a typewriter, a sewing machine and a sound box – intended to encourage participants to reflect on the work done by the women in their family, considering the lineage of women and the work that went into the making of them as individuals.  We had the extraordinary experience of performing this work at the Revolutionary Textiles Gallery at the Whitworth, Manchester.  The Whitworth throws open its galleries to a range of artists as part of their Thursday Lates series; taking over this slot, the Accumulations project put on a rich evening of body/movement-based performances, called Precarious Assembly.

catalogue photo
Catalogue statement

The result was an evening of conversations about the people who have made us, the qualities and attributes we’ve inherited from them, the work that underpins it all and the poetry of typing on a manual typewriter.  Participants sat in the typist’s chair, capturing their thoughts on paper, before moving along the production line.  I drew their hands at work, and both pieces of paper – with the typed words, and the drawn picture – were stitched, by Zoe, on the sewing machine.  The stories together formed a stream of bunting celebrating women’s work but, before it was released, a circle was punched out by Steve, creating a brooch for the participants to take away.

‘Ply’: Sian, Zoe and Steve

A soundtrack, created by Steve, accompanied the performance, and ensured that everyone knew that we were there.  Microphone pickups on the typewriter, sewing machine and under my drawing pad captured the noises associated with the production line, and re-created the conditions that gave rise to the industrial languages that inspired the performance.  Most significant, however, was the openness of the audience to take part and to share their stories: some words were haltingly pressed out on the typewriter’s key (in English, and Polish), or clattered out at speed; some participants were able to share rich detail about their family members, whereas the knowledge of others was more threadbare.  What has been most satisfying, for me, is the ripples that have taken these memories and ideas beyond the Whitworth’s galleries.  One participant said she’d be giving the badge made from her words to her mother; I also overheard my mother-in-law (who had participated in the show) talking to her mother (who hadn’t) about what her and her siblings had inherited.

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Shared stories; celebratory bunting

This was a fabulous event, in an amazing venue, with two great collaborators.  The only disappointment was not having the opportunities to explore the performances of the other artists.  I look forward to the next outing!

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Who are you?

Roger Hiorns’ Evensong

Stained glass makes me cry.  The immersive nature of the experience, particularly when the sun is shining, overtakes me and the emotion spills out of me in tears.  The stained glass at St Philips is beautiful and the windows represent the Cathedral’s big guns: designed by Edward Burne-Jones and manufactured by William Morris and Co. towards the end of the C19th.  However, while I call in to see the windows periodically, I hadn’t been to a service at St Philips Cathedral since I was at school until I signed up for Roger Hiorns’ ‘artist-curated Evensong’ featuring the choir lying down, performed on 15 June 2016.

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Horizontal choristers, at St Philips Cathedral

For the evensong service, the main body of the church had been cleared of pews, and kneelers were scattered about the floor.  We took front-row seats, and watched as the choir paraded in and then lay down on the floor; without the choir-stalls to shield them, I found myself noticing details of their clothing – the odd socks, and frayed turn-ups – making the experience a curiously intimate one.

The music was beautiful.

The Dean – Catherine Ogle – made the point that the performance challenged the rhetoric of the church, which foregrounds verticality: the ascension is the most obvious example of this spacial hierarchy.  I’m not sure she knew how to develop on this theme: if it was a student’s work, I would have said it was derivative of the artist’s statement – and this made me wonder if the Cathedral authorities might have been a little out of their depth.  Nevertheless, there was something in her comment that reminded me of Sara Ahmed’s (2006) Queer Phenomenology.  Ahmed makes the point that the way we orientate ourselves towards knowledge impacts on our access to it.  She sketches out the scene of a scholar sitting at a desk looking out of a window, and examines the props and supports that have led to this orientation becoming defined as ‘normal’: the non-scholastic tasks that are defined as, say, women’s work and which take place, invisibly, behind the scenes.  In this work – Untitled (a retrospective view of the pathway) – Hiorns makes the choir shift their orientation so that they engage with their environment in an entirely different way.  Their relationship with the rules and rhetoric of the church shifts, in a very physical way, with it.

I am not religious, so my experience of the service is different again from that of, say, a regular church-goer; and here we encountered another fault-line.  My colleague, Dauvit, and I treated the experience as a concert, and didn’t stand up and sit down with the worshippers (and the other audience members).  The Dean’s welcome had made it clear that we could join in or not, but at the end of the service we struggled to know whether to applaud: it felt (to us, heathens that we are) like a concert, in which case applause was appropriate to show our appreciation, but this was obviously not usual at a church service. While we dithered, the moment was lost; an awkward silence fell as the Dean made her way to the exit to shake hands and share a few words with the congregation as they left.  Eventually, we applauded the artist, who was sitting on the other side of the space, but the call was only taken up by some: when your perspective on social rules and conventions is deliberately shifted and distorted, people don’t know how to behave.

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Chorister in blue

By way of a post-script, we wondered if it was tricky to sing from the horizontal.  I have a lovely mental image of my various colleagues, flat on their backs in their different living spaces, belting out much-loved lyrics.  It’s quite straightforward, it seems.


Roger Hiorns’ Evensong

Under hypnosis

Horniman roof
The green roof of the Horniman library

In a strange game of reverse-research, I signed up as a research participant on a project co-ordinated by researcher, Rachel Taylor, exploring the impact of hypnosis on people handling historic artefacts. For me, this was an opportunity to experience being on the other end of the research process – being experimented on, rather than being the person with the clipboard – ahead of the primary research that I’ll be doing in the summer months.

It was, I have to confess, absolutely terrifying. I knew very little of the project and I had no idea about hypnosis. What started out as an opportunity to turn the tables on myself was becoming rather too real.

I signed up after seeing the opportunity posted on ArtsJobs, and was invited to a session at the Horniman Museum in South London. Having turned up a few minutes early, Rachel almost lost me to the exhibits in the Horniman; they have a roomful of musical instruments, from hunting horns to harpsichords to tin whistles, and the natural history gallery is quite something. Tearing myself away, I presented myself at the Nursery Cottage, completed the requisite paperwork (‘you can film me, but I don’t ever want to have to watch the footage…!’) and found myself in a room wired up for sound and with a video camera trained on me. A recording was played, and I worked hard at relaxing.

It turns out I am not very susceptible to hypnosis. I warmed to the speaker on the recording telling me that nothing embarrassing was going to happen to me, and I was certainly very relaxed, but part of me was still aware that I was in a very small room with 5 people looking at me. Nevertheless, the instructions were to pick up an artefact and, well, muse on it, out loud, so that my words could be picked up by the microphone. This was what I was there for, so off I went.

It is always great to handle museum objects. It makes you feel privileged, and the conservator’s gloves are just part of the performance. I honed in on an artefact that had a bale – a ring or loop that a chain or string passes through – marking it out as a piece of jewellery. It looked like a chunk of burnt brick, however, and was covered in sharp edges that must have rendered it painful to wear; one edge seemed to be silvered and it was shot through with metallic flashes. It was full of contradictions, and it really intrigued me as a result.

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Shell fragment from 1914 bombardment of Scarborough. ©Horniman Museum and Gardens

A post-hypnosis debrief informed me that all of the 7 or 8 artefacts in the box were amulets, in the collection of the Horniman. The piece I selected was a piece of shrapnel from the bombardment of Scarborough by German ships in the First World War. It had clearly been found, made wearable, and then worn in the hope of protecting the wearer from the return of the shells. Post-hypnosis paperwork involved scoring my engagement with the piece (‘Did I feel like the piece belonged to me?’), and my feelings of wellbeing. It had to be said, by this point I was feeling fantastic, in the way that pushing yourself out of your comfort zone often does – after the fact. I’d had an – ahem – interesting encounter with an historic artefact, met Rachel and found out a little more about her really fascinating doctoral research (the hypnosis project was something of a side-line; these seem to proliferate alongside PhD projects!). It helped me to frame the experience that I want the participants that take part in my research to have, and to ensure I find ways of minimising the terror as much as possible. Most importantly, I guess, it’s taught me to value the contributions that volunteers make. It must be near-impossible to eliminate fear entirely: researchers hold pretty much all the cards and much of the time it takes a leap of faith by those taking part. I need to make it as welcoming, and as engaging as possible, and I also need to acknowledge these feelings and work with them.

Under hypnosis

Enamelled Mechanical Marvels

Show 3
Enamelled Mechanical Marvels at the New Standard Works

It’s been a more-than-usually-hectic end of term at the School of Jewellery, so forgive the silence for the past couple of months, and prepare for a rush of posts about a handful of intriguing events that I’ve been involved with since then.

Enamelled Mechanical Marvels showcased the work produced by eight students from the School of Jewellery (from the BA(Hons) Jewellery Design and Related Products/MA Jewellery, Silversmithing and Related Products courses), who had been working with designer maker and post-grad researcher, John Grayson.  John provided a six-day masterclass in wet process enamel and automata-making.  This really stretched the students, as much of the content was entirely new to them; in addition to learning new techniques, they then spent the second half of the course applying them to a piece of original work of their own.  The results were fascinating and full of risk; the students were thrown into this challenging project (alongside the demands of their courses), and yet they embraced the opportunity to develop as practitioners.

And that’s the point of stuff like this: students get to take part in learning that doesn’t have learning objectives and assessment criteria – instead they get to focus on skills and making, under the close watch of an expert.  It can be career-changing, as Becky Williams, one of last year’s participants discovered; her practice shifted direction entirely as a consequence of working with John.  But even for those who stay on more familiar ground, this is an opportunity to get off the assessment treadmill, and to get a taste of creative practice as it unfolds in the field: work emerging on the bench; design decisions made on the hoof.  It provides an opportunity for students to work alongside makers within a community of practice that involves sharing ideas and techniques – and something of themselves in the process.  This reminds me of the discussion of professionalism I encountered recently in a blog by Kate Bowles, that – as she points out – runs counter to the current drive in HE to herd students, account for their time and seek to bring the development of life skills within the formal curriculum.

John and I were keen to mark the students achievements but, given that the School was already running at capacity in preparation for the graduate show, we contacted our new neighbours at Ruskin Mill.  This is a charitable organisation who are currently developing the New Standard Works Building on Vittoria Street, turning it into Argent College, with provision for students with support needs.  The New Standard Works building is a beautiful, decrepit manufactory; the second floor has been converted into learning and teaching spaces, but the ground floor is still relatively undeveloped, and the staff generously agreed to let us use their space for a pop-up show.  The show was an object-lesson in reciprocity: Ruskin Mill provided the space, Rick from 3D Rigging provided the lighting, and the School of Jewellery provided the wine.  The show was fantastically well attended, and it was great for the students – both exhibitors and visitors – to see the work, experience the space and toast our new neighbours.  Enormous thanks to Rick Waterworth, Jo Chapman, Janine Christley and Suzanne Carter (whose blog about the event can be found here) for making this happen.

Poster blog
John’s interpretation material

As a final flourish, check out this tweet featuring the Mechanical Marvel made by Danielle Laurent.


Enamelled Mechanical Marvels