It came, it went; it was fabulous, and it’s taken me all weekend to recover…
The Beyond Jewellery Symposium coincided with flockOmania2, an exhibition of oversize, theatrical wearables created by my colleague, Zoe Robertson. She asked me to be involved in the organisation of the symposium, partly to share the administrative load, but also to share some of the decision-making and panic around putting on an externally-facing event such as this. I am a naturally nosey person, and was delighted to be part of the team (made up of Zoe, Natalie Garrett Brown (of the Centre for Dance Research, Coventry University) and myself), and it was fascinating to see how these events are put together. Zoe and I were relatively inexperienced, but our hands were held by Natalie throughout, and we’ve been delighted by the results. The response to the initial CfP was, itself, fantastic: two clear strands emerged, and we’re exploring the possibility of putting on another symposium focusing on performativity. For this first event, however, the key focus was on performance. Logistically, we weren’t able to support much in the way of performance itself (although it was fabulous to show Noam Ben-Jacov’s film during lunch), but the discussion centred squarely around the notion of putting something in front of an audience for their consumption, entertainment, provocation. Three professors – Jill Journeaux and Sarah Whatley (Coventry University) and Jivan Astfalck (Birmingham City University) – were invited to chair panels, and we’re enormously grateful to them for hosting the event with warmth and aplomb.
Di Mainstone provided the symposium’s keynote paper, and here she provided some great insights into the breadth of projects that she’s been involved with. She trained as a fashion designer, but has since developed all kinds of technical skills and now creates a really broad range of interactive wearables in order to tell stories, and which are often captured on film. In her keynote, she focused on Hollipophead (a mirror that is danced by Holly Miller), the Serendipitichord (a sonic prosthetic, engaging both sound and movement) and the Human Harp project (which left me cursing the fact that Birmingham has little by way of rivers and nothing by way of suspension bridges). What also emerged was the different foci that her projects adopted as they evolved: from the technical elements, to the people (from dancers/performers to members of the public), to the concepts they carried.
Zoe and her two dance collaborators, Natalie Garrett Brown and Amy Voris, spoke about the very different perspectives they brought to the flockOmania project, and I have to confess that the theoretical frame of somatic dance and authentic movement was fascinating to me. I’m always intrigued when musicians manage to convey something of their world to me, as – outsider that I am – I find myself jumping from one idea to another, and the result is a kind of poetry, rather than anything that I can follow through logic or in full; and the same dynamic was at play here. Their refusal to talk about the title of their paper, ‘Women at Work’ (provided, I think, by Jill Journeaux and Sarah Whatley’s review of flockOmania1, first published in the Journal of Craft Research), was a little teasing: no one seemed prepared to open this subject out.
Caroline Broadhead and Angela Woodhouse gave the final paper of this morning, talking about a long-term collaboration producing performance art that focused on the body: I think they said they first started working together in 2005. And perhaps it was the longstanding nature of their partnership that had given them the time to gather and explore their audiences’ responses. I was intrigued by one response to being touched by the dancer in their piece, Sighted (pictured below): ‘I both loved it and hated it all at once’ – ah yes, I think I can empathise with that!
Panel Two was, likewise, a panel of three, but here focusing on the – often multiple – meanings that are crafted through the process of performance. Fo Hamblin uses thread to explore the body and the space that it occupies in the world. Much of the theory she presented was phenomenological, and the thrust here was on foregrounding the relationship between the body and the space it occupies, seeing them on a continuum rather than the body as existing as a self-contained entity. I loved her insights into corners and the feeling of containment they hint at, but don’t really provide. I also loved the pin-twanging that featured in the film, The Choreography of Making (2mins in!).
Jessa Fairbrother, a photographer, presented a range of stories about herself and her family – her maternal grandmother, for instance: Parisian, exotic and a little terrifying – which were beautiful and poetic, punctuated by haunting images, full of colour and movement. Nikki Pugh, who I’ve written about here before, gave a fascinating talk about the way in which objects that respond to their environment (they have come to be called Critters and are rather more refined now, but they began life as bundles of bubble-wrap with vibrating pads) give their hosts permission to poke around in areas of the city that would normally be left, well – unpoked.
The final panel of short, 10minute lightning talks comprised five talks by artists and academics. Noam Ben-Jacov spoke about the objects he uses, in collaboration with dancers, to create his films. I was intrigued by his comment that once the pieces are good enough, he stops working on them. The performance is clearly, for him, the important thing. This reminded me of the eternally comforting idea of Donald Winnicott, of ‘good enough parenting’: here, parenting is only the means to an end, which is the turning out of reasonably well rounded, socially-competent individuals. Make too good a job of it, and your child will never want to leave (little chance of that in my house, I assure you!). I wonder if the same mechanism is at play for Noam? If they were too finely tuned, perhaps some of the life would be taken out of the performance; perhaps rough edges are needed to ensure there is still room for the performers to make their contribution.
Michelle Jessop provided insights into the version of relational aesthetics that she explored in her doctoral research, giving the viewer of her works the chance to engage with some of the big ideas around what jewellery actually is or can be: what does it mean to wear jewellery? How do we value it? John Moore stunned us all with just how much you can get done in a day of filming if you put your mind to it (and pull in lots of favours!), showing the results of a collaboration with a choreographer, a dancer, musicians, film crew and make-up artist, showcasing a beautiful, oversize and colourful neckpiece. Katrin Spranger’s work focuses on materials that are being depleted in nature, beginning with crude oil, but finishing with a piece that was rapid-prototyped in honey. The piece in oil reminded me of Peter Bauhius’ Gallium Treasure (2011) which – with a melting point of 29.5 degrees – would become liquid if (ever) worn. Katrin was surprised at the audience’s eagerness to take up slabs of the material at the end of the show and take it away with them; I, too, have to wonder what they did with it? Is it on multiple mantelpieces, as I type this?
Julia Schuster’s talk concluded the panel: she spoke about two artists working with clay – Matilde Haggärde and Anindita Dutta – and the questions their work prompts about the meanings that are implicit within the body. I found the images of Haggärde entombing herself in a coiled mound of clay hard to look at. Coming full circle, this threw up all kinds of really visceral tensions about women’s work: within the field of performance, but also within the family and within the day-to-day business of being embodied in a society that seems invested in squeezing women into smaller and smaller bodily spaces.
The immediacy of the flockOmania private view – which brought together a whole host of performers and artists – was the perfect compliment to the talk of the symposium. The concept of ‘playful mucking about’ was embraced as a mode of working by the opening speakers, and – primed by a day of inspiring papers – the audience was more than willing to get their hands on the objects and get stuck in. The kids (more than I’ve ever seen at any Parkside Gallery private view) led the way, and pulled anyone with any remaining reticence into the experience. There was an anarchic feel to the evening; the Dean – David Roberts – was seen (documentation of this must exist?) sporting a piece which he’s since described as somewhere between indigestion and a heart attack (I think he meant it affectionately). Eyebrows were raised: so this is what happens when you invite the Jewellery lot on board.
It was a rich, multi-sensory mix, for which all credit needs to go to Zoe and the team of people she’s gathered around her: Tom Tebby (sound), Sellotape Cinema: Stephen Snell/Steven Chamberlain (projections), Natalie Garrett Brown/Amy Voris (durational dance performance), Kate Hawkins (audience interventions) and Christian Kipp (photography). John Hall, Ixchelt Acevedo Montesinos, Lee Cadden and the BA JDRP team provided logistical support throughout.
Check out the storify link below, for some great images/footage of the day: