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



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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

Beyond Jewellery and flockOmania2

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
Georgina Hampton Wale prepares to perform Mainstone’s Human Harp on Bristol Suspension Bridge

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!

Sighted, by Angela Woodhouse and Caroline Broadhead, and performed by Stine Nilsen

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 speakers!

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:

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Sian Hindle
Dancer in rehearsal (Sian Hindle, 2016)
Beyond Jewellery and flockOmania2