Tag Archives: scholartistry

The turn to [w]righting

I loved the PhD process – it felt like the best kind of holiday. But the post-doc slump was a limbo where potential only served to paralyze.

I spent three years labouring to construct new paths, only to dither at my own crossroads, punchdrunk and confused. Everyone knows you meet the devil at the crossroads if you hang around there too long.

The recent UK election results were a slap in the face though, weren’t they?

A wake-up. A call to arms.

I’d love to be mistaken, but I have a sense that I’m about to witness the dissolution of many things I hold dear to my homeland, my landscape, my reality.

So what can I do?

I can write. I’ve always written. I’ve never not been able to write.

But I have always taken it for granted.

After the PhD, I trained as an English teacher and have spent time volunteering in classrooms with teenagers and adults who are learning English. They are some of the most wonderful people I have ever met. Their stories are inspirational – how brave must you be to leave everything, and perhaps everyone you have loved and begin again in a new and distant unknown?

How inspiring when a thirty year old woman who has never had the opportunity to be literate in any language struggles through her first formal lesson, returning the following week having diligently conquered not only the manipulation of a pencil but all the letters of our Roman alphabet. How not to shed a tear watching her quietly and proudly score full marks in the spelling test?

So now I see the privilege and the power of writing. But how to use it?

I asked a professional writer I met lately. She told me, ‘You have to be selfish to be a writer. You start with competitions online; that’s how you get into it’.

I didn’t have to think about this much to know this is not my kind of practice.

Then I found myself working in a wonderful, integrated but temporary environment. It feels both entirely natural and starkly unusual to work in this little utopia, in this company of people that properly represent the diversity of our society. We are working on a piece about transformation.

It was when I was pouring tea and affirming – “Yes, yes. We must give voice’.

So that’s it then.

This is what I can do. So I will do it. I will gather stories and give witness.

I can use all my scholarship; the languages I have learned, the linguistics I have studied, my Social History degree. I can use the decades of translating and interpreting, the years spent lending my voice to others.

Isn’t this ‘translation art’, after all?

I can use all I learned at CeNTraL (the Centre for Narratives and Transformative Learning) from wonderful women like Jane Speedy, Susanne Gannon and Tami Spry; the Writing as Inquiry, the Narrative Interviewing, the Collective Biography, the Auto-ethnography.

I will wrangle with words until I am a wordwright. I will write, so the weight of the words may help right the imbalances in our homeland, our landscape, our reality.

Nana Froufrou does [w]righting.

So now I’m packing my pencil and heading out. It may take time to develop this practice, but I’ll keep you posted with notes and sketches and voices….

Copyright@2015 Kyra Pollitt

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A tale told and retold

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.

P1030287

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.

tale_told_detail

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.

tale_told

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?


#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….


My prize-winning failure in #translation

If you follow this blog (thank you) you may recall that the last blog ended with us playing with understanding acts of translation….

Here are some more thoughts on this that should eventually bring us back to art and a/r/tography (or another exciting descriptor for what I do- scholartistry)….

We’re all familiar with the notion that there’s always something lost in translation (yes, thank you Scarlett). Indeed, to believe that a perfect translation is possible we would have to believe that exact correspondences could always be found between two different languages (which operate to encode different cultures, which in turn are different ways of being -in-the-world). In short that two human beings were capable of experiencing exactly the same thing. Direct correspondence is pretty unlikely then (even between two speakers of the same language). The best translation can hope for is not to be perfect, true, direct or accurate but to be successful. But what would make an act of translation successful?

Lately I’ve been pondering the notion that in order to be successful a translation must attempt to re-produce what Barthes called the zero degree (the after-feeling/ resonance) of the source text in the target text, so that the new text can occupy a similar place in the social relations of users of language Y as it did to users of language X. I’m not making a claim here that any translation can achieve this, merely that this is the holy grail of translation, the translator’s Mission Impossible.

It’s important to claim that this can only be an attempt, because despite any translation being similarly intended to the original it must inevitably be differently received.

This gap between intention and reception is a tricky expanse to bridge between any language combination but, I contend, it is particularly difficult when working between a sign(ed) and a written language. (If you want to dangerously stretch the metaphor, what you’re going to end up with is less the Clifton Suspension Bridge and more a rickety and rotten rope bridge).

Words on paper ≠ Signs in space. This may be because a large part of the semiotics of any sign language is not contained within the word (Sign). Since sign languages are visual, gestural and spatial (i.e. operate in 3 dimensions ) they do not need to restrict themselves in this way and can make use of all these semiotic dimensions – and in my book, this accounts for the failure of structuralist linguistic approaches to adequately describe sign languages, but perhaps more on this in a later blog.

Sign language poetry, for example, occupies 3-dimensional space and because of the real-world presence of the poet and viewer, they already and inescapably begin to map their spatial and social relations in the act of telling and receiving. This is not the same set of relations commonly found between printed-word poets and their readers.

This extremity of difference between the materialities (Kress) of the written word poem and the Sign poem [even when the Sign poem is recorded on video]  means that the act of translation can no longer be purely linguistic (and here I’m necessarily adopting a post-structuralist stance- in opposition to Saussurian thought- subsuming linguistics into semiotics). To reduce Sign poetry to a written translation is to attribute a false ‘presence’ (Derrida’s false aura of certainty) to the written, which brings us face-to-face with logocentrism and issues of différance.

To capture the movement of the poem, for example, or its directionality in space, a successful translation must surely co-opt broader semiological practices of interpretation to avoid being overly reductive.

e. e. cummings was a pioneer in this regard; stretching the (re)presentational potential of the written form with his painterly eye (he practiced as a visual artist all his adult life).Taking my cue from him, I thought I’d try pushing the potential of the written word to translate Joanna Mesch’s (sign language) poem ‘Ocean’.

You can view Joanna’s poem here:

To see the InsideArts-Faber prize-winning result of my endeavours, click on this link:Finalised translation

Although this translation may have won the prize (=1st alongside William Reed, who was working between written German and written English), it can only fail to adequately re-present the original for the reasons outlined above. This translation can (I think) only work in conjunction with the original, providing a (partial) key to the source text (i.e. when you read the translation, then watch the original you may begin to access what is going on there). But the translation does not stand alone in the way the original does, and therefore cannot hope to re-produce the zero degree of the original, nor its social relations. We still find ourselves fettered by logocentrism.

As Wittgenstein might argue, we need a different meta-language here. This is where a/r/tography comes back in.

e.e.cummings was on the right lines. His visual sensibilities ensured his poems explored what we might now term the concrete-visual continuum. We just need to be able to take this further (to the furthest reaches of visual poetry?).

If we consider that sign language poetry itself acts as a kind of meta-epistemic to the boundaries of both poetry and visual art, then its translation requires some other, non-logocentric, intermedia-ry (intermedia in the Fluxus sense, combined with the function of intermediary or go-between).

Perhaps the bridging material that is required to successfully translate sign language poetry is visual art after all…..


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