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Action/Assemblage: Drawing Together

The second of a series of three posts written before, during and after an event curated by yours truly, supported by The Afterlife of Heritage Research Project and hosted by the the Royal West of England Academy.

A version of this post first appeared on the Afterlife of Heritage Research blog. All photographic images by Alice Hendy.

The weather forecast lied. The galleries of the Royal West of England Academy were pretty quiet on the Saturday afternoon of one of the few gloriously sunny bank holidays in living memory. This did not bode well for the first of the two Research to Public events I had been busily planning. Action/Assemblage: Drawing Together was scheduled as one of the activities running through the RWA’s Drawn exhibition. It was designed as an interactive visitor experience, and it wouldn’t work without visitors.

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I was relying on a host of folks to help the event along. The most important members of the cast were the Signartists Richard Carter and Paul Scott who had agreed to perform the poetic works they had created in the visual-gestural medium of British Sign Language. Then there were the interpreters, Pascale Maroney and Naomi Bearne, without whom the Signartists and visitors would not be able to communicate. Finally there were the members of the research-through-drawing collective HATCH who had volunteered to lead the graphic responses to Richard and Paul’s work, and Alice Hendy who was to record the event with her camera.

After arriving to arrange the ‘Drawing Lab’ gallery space far too early and sweating through the superfluous empty minutes supported by my partner who had generously elected to lend a hand, the cast began to arrive. Fifteen minutes before the start of the event we were all assembled. All that was missing was a ‘public’.

‘Assemblage’, but not yet ‘Action’…

But I needn’t have worried. Once the Signartists began to perform, their movements conjured visitors into the space as if by magic…….

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The Drawing Lab quickly filled. What’s more, the visitors didn’t leave. Most stayed for the entire two hours of the event.

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As an inveterate wimp (see my first blog on this subject), the bravery of others never ceases to impress and I was bowled over by the readiness of casual visitors to engage with drawing practice. They drew, they wrote haikus, they asked questions, they made comments and appreciative noises, and observed long intense silences while Richard and Paul performed, and I scribed provocative quotes on the blackboards. And as the event drew to a close and artists and visitors mingled and chatted, the voluntary contributions box began to fill with drawings, comments and those haikus.

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The success of the event was all the more rewarding because the whole was designed as a performance of the activity of my doctoral research. I’m looking at image in sign language poetry, and asking whether analyzing this ‘Signart’ through art epistemologies can offer a greater understanding of the form than purely linguistic or literary analysis permits. So Richard and Paul were performing the subject of the research, the visitors were performing the research practice by drawing, thinking, writing and commenting, whilst I was performing academically by relating all of these to existing knowledge.

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It seemed to work. I can only hope my thesis will be as well received.

And perhaps the brightest planning idea – which came from Gemma Brace, the curator at the RWA – was to run the event twice. This offered the opportunity for ‘rewrites’ and ‘corrections’.

The first event put a lot of pressure on the Signartists to perform continuously, whilst the position of the blackboards meant the content of my work could easily have been overlooked by visitors. In short, the three activities of the model were performed but could perhaps have interacted with each other more fully. At the next event, a few weeks later, I punctuated the Signartist’s performances by reading the statements I had written on the blackboards. This helped the ‘academic’ content inform the visitors’ ‘research’ activities. Both the visitor turn out and the responses were just as satisfying the second time round, but the discussion was a tad richer.

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I enjoyed the experience enormously!

I can’t tell you how fascinating I found the event.

I’m an artist. I’ve lived in Bristol for six years and this is the first event that has attracted me to the RWA.

 It was really moving, and incredibly inspiring and thought provoking!

Fascinating.Where is the line drawn?

I have never seen sign poetry before, and I didn’t even know it existed

Brilliantly expressive and strong. Mesmerising!

Wow! Really interesting challenge.

IMG_0433Haiku:

with eye,hand,lip

a concentration of

movement

understanding will come soon.

Yes


Learning lessons in public

This post first (and recently) appeared on The Afterlife of Heritage Research Project blog, as the first of a series of three posts written before, during and after a planned event. Take a look to see what other contributors are up to. 

Here’s Nana’s ‘before the event’ blog:

Of course I think my PhD is interesting. To paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davis, I would say that wouldn’t I? But I don’t foresee a queue forming outside Waterstones’ in eager anticipation of the submission of my thesis. So when I came across artsmethods@manchester’s Research to Public strand, offering guidance on making my research public-facing, I was immediately excited. After all, what’s the point of research if it’s not meaningful to reality?

Research to Public offered two structured and intensive full day workshops at the University of Manchester, supplemented by documentation and an online presence designed to prize open the rusty doors of the ivory tower and let the daylight of practicality flood in.

Eager applicants to the scheme were initially subject to a selection process before being invited to the first workshop. Then, after considerable input, we were sent forth into the big wide world and told to come back with an institutional partner- a gallery, museum or other public institution interested in our proposal and willing to play host. The second workshop honed our ability to co-operate with our partners and the resulting carefully budgeted and considered proposals were then submitted to a panel charged with distributing prize funding.

I am very fortunate to have had my proposal selected, and I write this on the eve of the first of the two events that I proposed. As you can imagine, the whole process has been challenging in lots of ways; some anticipated, some unexpected, but all very, very useful. So here are some of the lessons I’ve learned thus far. I apologize if you already know them, but some of us are slower on the uptake.

Lesson 1:  Don’t be precious

There’s wisdom in that there Kenny Rogers song about knowing ‘when to fold ‘em’ and ‘when to hold ‘em’. There may be some ideas that are worth being deeply precious about, but these are rare. Actively seek the opinions and contributions of others. Be honest with yourself about your level of commitment to the idea as it stands, and give due and respectful consideration to the tweaks others propose. Every contributor (from the gallery curator to the chatty passenger sharing your train journey) brings different expertise; learn to harness it.

Lesson 2: Network

Contributing to as many networks as you can effectively manage is good for your creative soul. It’s also kind of karmic. I had cold-called a number of institutions who were all enthusiastic but already committed to a schedule, before a network connection yielded an introduction to an institution that wasn’t even on my list. It turns out the institution was looking for something that would reach beyond its usual remit and demographic, and I could propose just the thing. Who knew?

Lesson 3: Refining is a lived process

Like most other things in life – and unlike the fairy tales I’m still addicted to – perfect proposals don’t just appear fully-formed, ready-sprinkled with magic dust. Business proposals, academic theses, paintings, life – all require adjustments and rewrites.

Lesson 4: Plan and anticipate

Like the archetypal mum checking before her child leaves for school in the morning- Homework? Packed lunch? Gym kit? Keys? Hanky? Umbrella? It was quite fun spending time just thinking about all the possibilities and unlikelihoods surrounding the events I’d proposed. It was even more fun when the gallery curator was able to identify a few more.

Lesson 5: Make it real

Isn’t there some great quote from a famous person about the number of brilliant ideas that lie gathering dust in obscurity? Despite what I hope (with some effort) is a bubbly public persona, I’m actually ‘a bit behind the door’ so the process of taking an idea and making it real has been quite exhilarating. It’s both humbling and inspiring when other people believe enough in your idea to lend themselves to it. Ok, so I may have had to gather myself a little before plastering my event all over Facebook and Twitter but the whole R2P process has given me renewed confidence in my ability to communicate to others through writing, talking, thinking and sharing, and ultimately performing. I think it’s no coincidence that my painting and sculpting, as well as my academic writing also seem to have received a bit of a boost.

I’ve spent today having final meetings with the artists involved, gathering the hardware I’ll need for the space, making a Blue Peter style audience contributions box, monitoring the Twitter publicity spread (currently standing at 45 RTs, 7 mentions and 3 favourites), and checking the Bank Holiday weekend weather forecast (chance of rain, 13˚C).

What are we planning?  Will it work? Will anyone care? These tales will be told in the next blog. For now, let’s see what new lessons tomorrow brings…

 


Nana, you SHALL go to the Ball!

February: the month of lovers.

The sun has begun to shine (intermittently). The birds are returning two by two, twittering happily as they trace lovehearts between the treetops and the clouds.lovebirds

Even the foxes are keening.

But for Nana, St. Valentine’s Day came and went with ne’er so much as a card.

And still the invitation to the second round workshop of the Afterlife of Heritage Research to Public initiative gathered dust on the mantelpiece.invitation

Would no cultural institution in shining armour escort Nana to the Ball?wailing

Unlike many of the more graceful belles, yours truly has no pedigree in the arts and cultural heritage sector; no friends in high (or even low) places to return overdue favours; no advantage reflecting from the looking glass.mirrorstanding

Nothing for it, then, but some good old-fashioned scrubbing up.mirror

Lacking white mice, Nana turned to the keyboard. She wrote a proposal. Then realised there should perhaps be two (to indicate range and to demonstrate a willingness to be flexible). Or perhaps three would be better……..

But then how to compose a love letter when you don’t know who you’re writing to?

Hmmm…..

Nana got digital and started internet dating- scouring websites for a potential match.

It took two days of procrastinating, some nail-biting, quite a lot of chocolate, and a little encouragement from Jenna Carine Ashton before Nana could press SEND. After all, what would happen if they refused?

They refused.

Nothing terrible happened.

And they refused politely and sweetly, and with some very helpful recommendations of others whose dance cards might not already be so full.

Nana reflected. Ah yes, what was it most of us had failed to include when we practised this at the workshop? Oops.

Rewrite #1 (including the crucial ‘What’s in it for you?’ section). SEND.

Rewrite #2 (including more potential strands). SEND.

Rewrite #3 (reducing the material requirements). SEND.

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And then it happened. THE AMAZING THING. Our interests match, we’re looking for the same things, we’re talking the same talk, the timing is perfect, we’ve met face-to-face and we like each other….

Nana, book your train. For on Thursday you SHALL go to the Ball, and you shall dance….

….with the Royal West of England Academy!

to the ball


#Research in process: A series of illuminating events

Isn’t it funny how sometimes life just insists it has something to tell you? This last fortnight I’ve been going through various procedures in preparation for a submission to the Research Ethics Committee, hoping for permission to busy myself with real grown-up research in 2012. The procedures that the University lays down are pretty thorough, so who’s to say whether they foreshadowed the strange series of events that unfurled last week, or whether this was a major case of synchronicity (*cue spooky soundtrack*)?

I guess it all began with one of my Supervisors who suggested that, before making elaborate plans to actively involve poets and artists in a research process, I might first think to ask some of them if they considered this a good idea. Sound advice, and an obvious oversight on my part. Thus it was that I found myself as hearing-person-with-videocamera talking to (‘interviewing’?) some deaf poets.

Now that might seem a fairly innocuous activity, and I thought so too. I’ve known all of these people socially for years, I’m fluent in British Sign Language, and we talked in various locations –some of their choosing, some merely of convenience; involving tea and cakes, pot roast suppers and planned cocktails. All very cosy. But, with hindsight, a couple of things were disturbing. One was that, very occasionally, some of the folks I was chatting to seemed to default to a sort of ‘automatic pilot’ script, and I had to gently remind them of the topic of our conversation. The other arose from what we might call a tiny disaster; one poet and I’d had a good old chat for over an hour but the video camera hadn’t worked, so we had no record of it whatsoever. This was annoying, but not disturbing. What was disturbing was that when we tried to reschedule, the deaf poet’s diary was stuffed with appointments to be interviewed by various hearing researchers. So that was the first event in this process of illumination.

The second event occurred over coffee with a colleague. I was busy picking his brains about ethical procedures and the like when he uttered the sentence “I’ve been interviewing [name of one deaf individual] for ten years”. For the purposes of our conversation, this was intended to illustrate his seniority and experience, but I think the raw content took us both aback.

And suddenly I began to understand that automated script response that had nudged into my ‘friendly chats’ with some of the deaf poets. Suddenly I saw that- despite what I thought of myself- I was in many ways just another hearing-person-with-videocamera come to extract what I could from the deaf subject.

A Gestalt therapist would have been cock-a-hoop (pun intended) because this connected incredibly strongly with the one and only time I have been the subject of this academic value-extraction process. I HATED it. I’m still trying to get over it, but whenever it rears its ugly little head it is still guaranteed to bring out an apoplectic tornado of spat feathers, claws and bile. Not my best side.

For me it wasn’t just the appropriation of my work and insights, nor the power exercised in the exclusion of my agency,  not even the superficiality involved in ticking the ethical boxes (Phone call: “I’m at a conference and I’m just about to give a paper. I just wanted to check with you that it’s ok to use your name and show images of you…”). All of these experiences were destructive and demeaning but the worst, by far, is the ongoing experience of the researcher now positioning themselves as ‘expert’- a position validated by the field.

So this was the third surprising and illuminating event. I had imagined I was just going to have to suck sour plums on that one for evermore and say ‘NO!’ very firmly whenever anyone else approached me as subject. It was only this week that I realised this might, in fact, be a most useful and empowering experience. Because that experience, inadvertently, has given me insight. Not on a theoretical level, but emotionally. I know how it feels.

Of course I don’t know how it feels to be treated like that year after year. What it must be like to watch whole cadres (of the friendly folks whose tribe routinely dominate and oppress your tribe) use your knowledge, experience and insights to become experts in your field, to be legitimated as your superiors, to get the social kudos and to carry home fatter wage packets than you.

How do deaf subjects tolerate this? But then what choice do they (feel they) have? I gave so much away because I didn’t want to be nasty, and couldn’t bring myself to be so cruel as to withdraw consent when I knew I was the only subject of the study. I mean, how would that look? On one occasion I found myself in a group being ‘taught’ by the researcher in question. The researcher was obviously disconcerted and struggling with the situation so, with a discreet wink and temporary generosity of heart I feigned ignorance of one of the most basic premises of a subject I had taught at post-graduate level for over a decade. Alas, the researcher had come to believe their own research paradigm and so was convinced that this action merely evidenced their academic superiority. But what on earth drove me to such generosity with someone who might otherwise be understood as simply out to exploit me? I can’t find a word to answer that question, but it is a beginning of an understanding of the position of deaf subject.

As far as my own research goes, I already knew that I didn’t want to use the interview as my basic methodological tool, but I hadn’t hitherto considered quite how conditioned as subject my co-researchers might have had to become.

I hadn’t considered that it might be a good idea to tell them about my own experience, how much I hated it and how much I really wouldn’t want to do that to anyone (unwittingly or no).  And I also hadn’t considered that perhaps I should make it clear that I’m not involving myself with sign language poetry because I’m crafting myself a future as an ‘expert’ in that area (actually a nice little job as a researcher in a museum would be lovely, thanks).

I can’t change the fact that I am hearing, and I most definitely shouldn’t ignore it, but I can and should seek to mitigate it- and that takes some very careful and honest consideration.

After all that reflection I sat down to revise the research ethics documentation I’d been putting together, but what emerged from the keyboard was a map of chapter headings. Sometimes it’s difficult to control where your mind will wander. I gave in, finished the map and then took a chat break with another colleague. We talked for a while about Tom Docherty’s article in the THE (10.11.11). Tom recounted a number of considerations important to research and teaching, such as “We [should] go into a seminar or a laboratory or a library not knowing what we will have found out when we leave”. I told my colleague about my chapter headings map. She asked “So what are your conclusions going to be?” Weird event number four.

Now she was probably being tongue-in-cheek about the likelihood that my chapter headings map will bear any resemblance to the finished article, or perhaps she was simply encouraging me not to forget to reflect at the end of the process, or perhaps she was suggesting that no kind of map can be value free, naive.

Whichever is the case, the ambiguity reminded me just how deeply ingrained those traditional research paradigms are (data>analysis>conclusions), and how firmly these practices are married to the pseudo-scientism of researcher-as- sole-expert and all the power relations that entails. How hard it is to kick over these traces!

I recently travelled to Salerno to give a paper to an international audience of interpreting and translation practitioners and academics. Working with a group of translators, I had put together a piece of collective biography that distilled their thoughts-in-process and re-presented them (in song/poem form). The research did not follow the traditional Social Science model; I was not presenting myself as an expert above all others (by claiming the data as my own, or making conclusions that would stake some claim on absolute truth). The work was in engineering an opportunity for these voices to speak (and to speak together), and in claiming a space for them in the current academic discourse of the field. The results were dramatic. The room divided before my eyes into practitioners and practitioner-academics on the one side versus academics on the other. Something of a humdinger ensued. One group got it. The other group couldn’t cope with this as ‘research’. I’ll leave you to guess which was which.

Of course I had been hoping that inviting poets and artists to co-research the topic of my PhD might upset some apple carts, but it may well prove more challenging than anticipated- to all concerned.

This ethics process sure is tough….


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