My doctoral research is investigating (British) sign language poetry, and in so doing it’s exploring Derrida’s ideas of Writing, of grammatology.
Derrida urged us to consider the power of technologies of the written – their omnipresence in our society and how they have come to govern our ways of doing and of thinking. He called this power logocentrism, and he urged us to try to think beyond it – to try to find other ways of Writing (as opposed to writing), that might afford us a different perspective. He became quite interested in the relationship of writing to thought, and therefore in psychoanalysis:
It works no doubt with a mass of elements which have been codified in the course of an individual or collective history. But in its operations, lexicon, syntax purely idiomatic residue is irreducible and is made to bear the burden of interpretation in the communication between unconsciousnesses
So what better place to test whether art practice is capable of lending new insight to theoretical consideration, than in a classroom at the Graduate School of Education in Bristol, where Professor Jane Speedy was conducting a course on Narrative Interviewing (5th and 6th May 2011).
Jane’s own narrative interviewing practices emerge from her work as a therapeutic counsellor. During our course she urged us to try out her method of note-taking a counselling session. Jane works by identifying the main topics that emerge in a counselling session and noting along a timeline the contexts and regularity with which the speaker returns to these topics .
What would emerge, I wondered, if instead of noting these instances, one tried to draw this process; using a pencil to map them, to turn them into top[ic]ography? This is how my third and final methodological exploration began.
In a simulated session, as the ‘client’ talked to her ‘counsellor’ I allowed my pencil to move freely across the page, the pressure of the graphite on the paper to reflect the intensities of speech, the movements of my hand to reflect the speed, and the shapes that formed on the paper to reflect the flow of the narrative.
What emerged was a kind of map of what had occurred. Bereft of content, what was brought to the fore was the intensity, the mood of the exchange- in a way it was a picture of how the person had felt in and about the telling (regardless of what had been told). It struck me this was a useful process, revealing by means beyond the word what lay beneath the word.
As I looked at the squiggles on the paper, I kept returning to the notion of the image as a contour map- its swirls and circles giving a clue to the height and depth of the emotions outlined there.
The idea of mapping took hold and I wondered what would happen to the work if I translated it into another form of map. I chose Beck’s iconic London Underground map as a source material because of the way his map divorced itself from the actual geography of London, preferring to immerse itself in re-presenting something altogether deeper. This seemed to echo what my own map was doing; escaping from the actual words that had been spoken, to re-present instead a deeper level of communication.
As I began to trace colour onto the work, I found myself focussing back again on the lines- how they crossed and interconnected and they began to appear like threads in some crazy warp and weft, making up the fabric of the narrative.
Pursuing the thread analogy, I switched my medium to embroidery. This allowed me to experiment not just with colour, but with texture – long, smooth running stitches where the original pencil mark had been light and easy; an altogether knottier stitch where the marks were jagged, and so on.
Something else emerged from the stitching. As I sewed, I became aware that what was visible to me was ever so slightly different in texture to what was visible on the other side of the paper. Deliciously paralleling the old adage ‘there are two sides to every story’, this was a happenstance that brought me into direct contact with the activity of narrative itself, with the activity of telling and its inherent risks.
I began to stitch onto an acetate transparency, so that the ‘space’ of the act of telling was at once present but invisible (the acetate), and the two perspectives (teller and listener) were each represented, but any third party would no longer be able to discern which was the original.
I left some pieces of thread hanging longer- even beyond the edge of the frame – as a nod to the intertextuality to which we are all subject- to all the tales we have ever ever heard whose words thread their way seamlessly into all the tales we have ever told .
And the activity of stitching itself (not easy on acetate, and increasing in difficult the more stitches, and therefore more holes were added) was a means to other voices – the voices of all the women and men who had ever stitched, to their circumstances, their conversations and to all that they had produced.
The double-sided frame I had snatched up in a closing down sale at Habitat at last found its purpose, and the piece was exhibited in the Tenants’ Exhibition at Art’s Complex in Edinburgh from December 2012 to January 2013.
It seems to me that art practice – that an altogether different way of Writing – unveiled something rather different than (logocentric) written note-taking would ever have done.
What do you think?