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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


Painting in the spirit of Catherine?

Being in a museum after-hours invokes a childish thrill- it’s naughty, daring, clandestine. So the opportunity to sit in the Grand Gallery of the National Museum of Scotland after-hours and be entertained by an auditory-visual spectacular featuring the percussion of  Evelyn Glennie, with Philip Sheppard and Canty, and the art of Maria Rud, was irresistible.

The audience awaits in the Grand Gallery..

I wondered who would be the star of the AniMotion show. Evelyn Glennie is undoubtedly an accomplished percussionist; she certainly knows how to bang her own drum. In the programme notes she boldly claimed to have taken “the lead musical role in the opening of the London 2012 Olympic Ceremony” and indeed to be “the first person in musical history to successfully create and sustain a full-time career as a solo percussionist.” One wonders whether, in Ms Glennie’s world, the beginning of ‘musical history’ serendipitously coincided with the launch of her very own career.

I am perhaps being a little harsh, but my hackles were raised by her claim to have been “on a mission to overcome barriers and stigma”. I once met Ms Glennie at an occasion in London, where she was far from the most celebrated of guests. I was with a deaf friend and colleague who is a native BSL user. As we moved into the conversational circle containing Ms Glennie, she physically launched herself across the space proclaiming “You don’t need to do that. I don’t Sign”, whereupon I was obliged to inform her that I was not signing for her benefit. Instead of apologising to my friend or blushing at her error, she merely tossed that lifeless mane of hers and sniffed, with ne’er a nod to my friend. So I have witnessed Ms. Glennie acting to overcome barriers and stigma.

But I digress. The evening was not about politics, but le spectacle. It was organised by the ever-capable Clare Allan to augment the Museum’s current exhibition Catherine the Great: An Enlightened Empress. The exhibition is truly stunning: Nana was sorely tempted to break out her inner Pink Panther and make off with a horde of goodies on that gorgeous sleigh. *sigh*. But beautiful objets aside, I learned that Catherine’s banqueting hall was at one time fitted with chalkboard placemats. Guests wrote their order on their placemat and- get this- the placemat then spun down through the table on a winding mechanism to the kitchen below, whereupon said dish would be placed on the mat and reappear as if by magic in front of the diner. I mean, come on! This lady knew how to rock. In her menopausal years she managed to kill off her 20-something ‘favourite’ du jour, who suffered from a weak heart. (She kept a special wing of one of her palaces in which to install her succession of ‘favourites’). On the wall at the entrance to her party palace (oh yes) she had displayed a list of house rules, which bound guests to be playful and to join in. Breaking these rules was punishable by forfeit- such as drinking a glass of water (as opposed to Champagne, one assumes) or reciting a particularly tedious poem of Catherine’s choosing whilst everyone else partied on, laughing at your expense. With each breach of the code of conduct, more water and more verses were added to the forfeit. It was with this glamorously playful spirit in mind that I took my seat among the excited throng.

And so it began.  As the voices of Canty- “Scotland’s only Medieval music group” looking rather well for their great age – took flight, the great vaulted glass ceiling reflected the black sky beyond and the sparkling lights beneath and the diminutive Maria Rud began to daub oil colours on to the surface of her light box. Seen in projection, the tangle of her hair and the silhouetted movement of her hand and arm embodied and enhanced the performative. I pondered whether the singers’ process was equally transparent in their performance and why I rarely thought of it in those terms. As colours and shapes appeared, merged and disappeared into white, I found myself comparing Rud’s activity to that of a sign language interpreter. Both work at speed, creating a visual product from an auditory stimulus. And she was working quickly and efficiently enough to make the grade as a fully qualified ‘terp’. But something was not quite right…

Rud at work

I once returned from a long maternity leave and in literally the first hours of my first day back was filmed interpreting -without preparation – a presentation on French culture. I was then filmed reflecting on my experience, during which I acknowledged that I had identified a single underlying theme (comparing English to French) and whenever I began to be overwhelmed by the unfamiliar I had reached for and re-iterated this theme. It wasn’t my best day’s work, but that was the point since it was being recorded as a learning tool (Three Interpretations: Sign Languages International).

Back in the Museum, after only the second piece of music, I began to feel that Maria Rud was using exactly the same coping strategy. No sooner did the audience began to discern unintentional Cubist figures, Van Goghian skyscapes and fabulous Monetian garden scenes in the richly coloured abstracts emerging before us, than they were brushed, wiped and sponged into yet another hooded figure with arms or scimitar upraised, yet another Christ, tree, bird, house or fish. Whenever a percussive burst heralded a change in tempo, a red sun could be relied on to appear.  It brought to mind the MC One Tzu, who recently told me the Edinburgh-based Sketch the Rhyme (where MCs are expected to compose on the spot in response to the output of a visual artist) was quite a difficult exercise since “everyone always draws faces”. Back in the Museum, my inner Nana was about to imperiously call for a glass of water when the interval arrived.

Aha! Something different!

I spent much of my twenty minutes, wine glass in hand, gazing upon a finely carved 18th Century Chinese ivory lantern, longing to see it lit and wondering what intricate filigreed shadows it might cast. How would this evening be , I mused, if the likes of Tim Noble and Sue Webster had been allowed to let rip in the space, doing some live construction of shadow art. Now wouldn’t thatbe something….

Oh to light the lantern

As the second act unfolded much like the first, we again appreciated the indubitably confident, skilful and occasionally rhythmic dynamism of Rud’s work but my eye was drawn to the Museum’s beautiful Chronophage. Whenever I peeped over, its giant insect was eating time at a different pace- now speeding, now slowing, now pausing, now seeming to reverse and again or not. Its movements wove in and out of the music around it. And that’s when I understood the second problem with the evening: Tempo. Rud clearly felt an urgency to produce, such that whenever a sound was ringing out, she felt obliged to respond. What I longed for was what I see when a good sign language interpreter is working well, transforming sound into really visual sign language (not a visual version of a spoken language, like SSE); for what I could see in the Chronophage as it sometimes aligned, sometimes counterpointed, sometimes wilfully ignored the insistence of musical rhythm.

The Chronophage dances

I wanted Maria occasionally to step back from her canvas, to pause, to duck, to weave around the musical stimulus rather than be simply directed by it. If this was an act of translation-in-process, I wanted to feel the relative spaces between the two forms. I didn’t want Rud simply to paint to a tune; I wanted her to allow the paint to dance to it, from it, with it, against it.

It might have been that everyone else in the audience felt the same, it might have been a response to having been instructed on the etiquette of applause at the start of the evening, or it might simply have been that this was an Edinburgh audience, but I didn’t feel a swell of joy rising from those gathered. Catherine might have felt this was not the most swinging party her palace had ever held – although it was engaging and thought provoking for a’ that.

So – a couple of renditions of pretty long poems for Dame Glennie, perhaps a small glass of water for Maria, but a large crate of champagne for the Museum, which stole the show.

And for the real party-goers don’t miss the upcoming Museum Late. Nana regrets most sincerely that she is unable to attend, and for that she is already reciting her verse….


#People of the Eye

In 1910 George Veditz*, addressing the Ninth Convention of the American National Association of the Deaf and the Third World Congress of the Deaf, described sign language people as “people of the eye”. He knew a thing or two. Despite 21st Century discourses, for most contemporary sign language people this remains a more precise description than any that involve lack, loss, disability or the practices of medicine.

Visual artists are also ‘people of the eye’. Although they are not defined by a biological imperative (nor subject to medical interference), they nonetheless tend to be people who think, process and conceptualise the world visually.

What better name, then, for the loose collective of sign poets and visual artists I have been gathering together since my last blog post. (Did you miss me? Go on, say you did.)

The People of The Eye so far consist of four esteemed sign poets: John Wilson, Donna Williams, Paul Scott and Richard Carter and a growing number of visual artists working in various media (including sound). Those engaged so far are listed below, each charged with creating a visual response to one of the poems created and selected by the poets. Their response may be to content, form or any other aspect.

We will be communicating across an internet platform; discussing, questioning and creating and are hoping to collectively blog to the wider artworld.

It’s been a lot of work putting it together, but everyone has responded so enthusiastically to the idea that it has also been a great honour.

We’re all very excited about what might emerge, and the mutual understandings these two tribes of visual peoples might find. We’ll keep you posted.

The work of the poets can be seen at:- http://www.bris.ac.uk/education/research/sites/micsl/poem-repository/

So far the artists are:-

Trina Bohan-Tyrie:  www.trinagallery.com (website launching soon)

Jackie Calderwood: www.jackiecalderwood.com

Howard Hardiman: www.howardhardiman.com

Eliza Kesuma: www.moodymonday.co.uk

Tamarin Norwood: www.tamarinnorwood.co.uk

Kyra Pollitt: www.kyrapollitt.com (website launching soon)

Bob Quinn: www.bobquinn.ie

The Rutterfords (Chris and Fiona): www.chrisrutterford.com

Melanie Sangwine: www.sangwine.co.uk

Mairi Taylor: www.mairitaylor.co.uk

Fliss Watts: www.watermellon.co.uk

Tom White: www.tomwhitesound.com

 

*President of the National Association of the Deaf in the U.S. (1861- 1937)


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