A 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.
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.
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.
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!