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.
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.
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: