Writing on the body at the Arnolfini

In January I bravely signed up for ’Writing on the Body’ . Led by Dr Barbara Bridger from Dartington College of Arts, a two day workshop at the Arnolfini. I’m from a social science/studies background, and I was curious to understand what the arts could offer in terms of cultural theory and interpretation of this notion of ‘the body’. I’d previously studied as part of my first degree the sociology of the body and I was interested in thinking about ageing bodies is in relation to my research. I was hopeful that the course would perhaps stimulate my thinking in a different way. So. Being brave. I wandered quite naively into the room ever the optimist.

There was some background theory – some basic Derrida which was great and a reminder of how despite how disciplinary boundaries may be defined – fundamentally the thoughts and thinking of key theorists along with political, social and cultural changes often permeate the teachings of both the social sciences and the humanities. Although there may be some way to go before philosophy dribbles into the teachings of pure science though? Or maybe not?

It was a good workshop. Scary but good. I was introduced to a range of textual practises and ways of writing for the body. To be fair I hadn’t anticipated the amount of practical work we were expected to do. This element was totally new to me.  Not being an artist or at least not being anything like one for a number of years I was totally unprepared for the level of self exposure (maybe not the right word – maybe self expression) that the practical element expected. Suggested practical tasks were things such as: photographing your body and using post it notes to tell a story of you (such as scarred bodies), writing the story of a body part on a piece of paper and burning it, or making an artwork using your own bodily fluids (the tutor re-laid a story of one of her former students cutting herself during a performance. We were not specifically encouraged to do this but I got the distinct impression that the tutor sort of maybe felt that the student concerned was within her rights to do so.  Interestingly I had also heard a rumour through drama students at my current university that a similar thing had occurred during a performance for an avant-garde module, and the result being the performance was stopped.   This raised an interesting ethical dilemma for me, I have not seen enough theatre to comment on any specific performance but in terms of pedagogy – where do you draw the line?

The body is a form of expression not just in performance but in everyday life – through the embodiment of physical actions with signifying meanings, through conscious self expression or display (tattoos, hair dye, piercings, cosmetic surgery etc) and the ongoing societal struggle and scientific quest to halt or delay the ageing process. Bodies are places of struggle, they are canvases and are often key signifiers to others of our place in society – disabled bodies for instance. What is *normal* v’s what is *different*  what is our attitude to live bodies vs dead bodies? Where does the person end and the body begin? What is viewed as more preferable old body or a young body? Why?

We also go the opportunity to look around the exhibition on the same theme which had some breathtaking exhibits, which certainly made you think about the body in a different way. It was a great experience for me to go round in a group and discuss responses to the pieces as I I’ve often no idea really (or felt a little bit of a luddite) sometimes around visual modern art. I’m getting there (I seem to be better with sculpture than paintings in this respect).

What I did notice sadly though was the absence of ageing related exhibits, examples and theory in both the literature, the workshop and the exhibition/examples we were shown.   So whilst this issue of the body appears to be alive and well in sociology and the arts, the issue of ageing has yet to be explored or represented thoroughly perhaps in both disciplines.. and ageing and transport? Nonexistent.

I’ll give it a go.

I didn’t get around to producing any practical pieces, and I was unable to attend the second day as I had a rehearsal. I was also really rather glad of this, to be honest I was terrified.  But perhaps I will revisit that list at some point. I have had a few ideas since then (mainly relating to the commodification of the body) that I could explore.

Another thing that struck me was how overwhelmingly introverted or (can I say it) navel gazing I felt it was… I guess my attitude has always been that any inner turmoil is (was) what it is, but there is always a worthier story to tell than mine. A bigger cause than any anecdote about my own suffering. Perhaps I just wasn’t angry enough?  Take Tracy Emin. She has suffered. She has produced some great art. But blimey O’Riley sometimes I just think ‘get over it’. Perhaps the subject is not her. I sort of think it is though? It seems epistemological (subject/object?) debates are central perhaps to artistic production and interpretation just as they are in qualitative research.

Similarly my in research, there are some authors who,  using ethnography, have endeavoured to reveal the nature of transport spaces through observations, but ultimately what I hear in the final write up is the voice of the researcher, not the observed. Is it not more powerful to give voices to others to enable them to tell their own stories? I don’t know enough about art or performance yet to answer these questions (both why and how) but at least for research to a greater degree as possible, the story is about them, facilitated by me. I will never be able to truly understand the meanings associated with older people’s experiences and how these experiences affect and impact on them both physically and psychologically, but I can attempt to find a way to reveal the stories of the people I meet if it is simply not possible to empower them to tell their own.

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