Writing and….. the object @The Arnolfini

Back in October I attended my second course at  the Arnolfini – Writing and…The Object –described as

 ‘A cross-artform weekend writing course which investigates the relationship between text, physical objects and their collection and display. Examining through practical writing projects how objects can generate and structure writing, the ways in which text can change how we look at objects, but also how language itself can be displayed as object’.

The course was designed to engage with the exhibit ‘Museum Show ‘and was run by Jerome Fletcher, Associate Professor of Performance Writing at University College Falmouth. The sessions ran for two days and combined some theory around the idea of ‘the object’ with a piece of solo performance, the production of some visual/textual art using our own objects and the objects of others as a basis. In addition we could examine and experience the exhibits and draw from them also.

My expectations:

As ever I was a little apprehensive about taking part. Given my lack of background in both arts theory and practice I was supremely self conscious but determined to try to get to grips with things. However, as the course unfolded despite the weighty academic and artistic experience the other participants had – being a cross art form course it seemed that most people were out a little of their comfort zone at some point or the other.  The more I learn about the arts, the more is seems that regardless of education or experience you ‘just do it’ so I decided that I’d just have to get in there and suck it up. In hindsight whilst I  produced some pretty rubbish stuff, it did move my thinking on and I made a significant discovery about myself so I think overall it was worth the discomfort.

I signed up specifically as I wanted to understand how to devise or create work and having taken part in some taster courses in performance had an idea that the role of ‘the object’ in this could be significant. Also the focus on exhibition and references to material culture and museums fitted in with some of the cultural theory around heritage and identity that I had studied and enjoyed as an undergrad. In addition as an ethnographer the role of ‘the object’ can be symbolic and significant when trying to understand culture/behaviour and I wanted to reengage with this, also in a kind of chicken or egg way I guess I was also trying to understand if the relationship between writing and the object and what came first – or how one could relate to the other.

Theory

The day started with an overview of various disciplinary theory surrounding ‘the object’ which was extensive and discussions around what an object was (which we never really managed to define) we debated how and where writing could or should meet other art forms and how it could be ‘read’, how text could transform and object in terms of the meaning it conveyed. We also discussed the difference between an ‘object’ and a ‘thing’.  I struggled a bit here used to clearer specific definitions but persevered. What did come out of it was the significance of values (or how something is valued – culturally/societally) in these two definitions and the symbolism/social construction of language that can frame and artwork and influence our appreciation/understanding/consumption of this as well.

The role of the relic was something that I found really interesting, how these things are valued and exhibited and how a sense of identity conveyed can be ideological thinking back perhaps to colonial collections, or also perhaps in a contemporary sense with regards to religion and ritual/performance. It led to me to question and think about presentation of history – who’s past is demonstrated, how, who and when? Who may be disinherited through this representation of culture or history? What form could this representation take? What is the narrative between objects and how can audiences ‘write back’ and respond to what they see? Who is the ‘expert’ and how as individuals do we use such interpretations to mediate our own understanding of self, landscape, the city and society as well as our understanding of ‘the other’.

Practical exercises

The focus of the course was on practical exercises, the first day being a piece of solo performance using something from the exhibition as basis for the ‘writing’ of the performance. I ended up giving a kind of ‘performance lecture’ falling back on my knowledge of the material production of culture and exhibiting a bottle of Pepsi  as relic but 200 years in the future –  and questioning how our the presentation of history relates to the production of knowledge – it was all a bit dystopian.   I had seen only one piece of live or performance art previously to this and through their contributions my coursemates demonstrated a mindboggling range of possibilities that I had never considered could be ‘a performance’. They ranged from cutting or destroying and remaking things, using sounds and reading, repeating certain aspects of the exhibits. I was really nervous about doing a solo performance as it had been a while since I’d done any and it was only ensemble work that I had at clown school at that point, but I think it went okay in the end.

The performance that stood out in my mind the most was one that took us  out of the room/gallery and to a window to watch the view and a whisper, two whispers in fact were released around the group which we had to pass on to each other. I think this appealed to me as it took the focus away from the gallery or the internal space to the world outside, that the performance was participatory in terms of its audience allowing us or requiring us to connect with each other. It was subtle yet moving.  You could appreciate nature, I also liked the fact that although we were instructed to work individually two people had decided to work together or cooperate in spite of this. I found this quite inspiring and a good way to look at things.

The second practical was focussed toward arranging the objects of choice that we asked to bring in various ways. I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to create but I brought the following:

Yellow duck – This symbolises the beginnings of my own artistic journey (it’s not THE little yellow duck I love but a substitute) also its a representation of the inner child which I felt many people could relate to easily (I’d already decided I wanted whatever I made to relate to childhood in some way).

Umbrella – aesthetically I love them and it was brightly coloured. They keep off the rain 😉

Leaf – sublimity of nature, (and a need to care for nature)

Tarot cards – In terms of theatre pieces I wanted to try and develop something relating to my metaphysical upbringing and the influence that tarot has had on me and my life. I’d been trying to understand this aspect of myself, and given that many people today actively seek out and practice clairvoyance and tarot, I thought this would be a good fodder for a theatre piece.

Peacock feather – aesthetically I love peacocks. The feather was given as an object to me from a close friend and was to represent the gift of creativity. Peacocks are said to be symbolic in terms of rebirth, spirituality and awakening. I like them because most people assume them to be beautiful and delicate by their appearance but actually they are squawky, grumpy, feisty little buggers.

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll – again this is a story of awakening, particularly feminine awakening, its a popular book and the imagery and story are reproduced regularly around us, which again was something I thought people could relate to easily. I realised after that this book is more than that as I’ve had it since school, in fact It says property of my old school library on it. Since then I realised it must be quite significant to me and  I thought that once I’d finished my PhD I would send it back there with a donation to my old school so perhaps they can buy some new copies. Figured I’d be the first person to attain a PhD but I could be wrong. I’d like to thank them in some way (and apologise for nicking the library stock).

We first had to make our own display using written text and two of our objects, I used text from the Lewis Carroll book (quotes relating to identity), the umbrella as a kind of tent almost (the light looked quite good through it) and the duck to represent childhood. Fair to say it was a bit out of place with all the other things, and was a bit odd really (had no idea what I was doing)  but it was well received by some of the group. I also noticed that those of high status may be less comfortable when asked to make themselves smaller in order to experience the art (the display was on a little low table so you would have to bend down and under the umbrella to read the text – like being in a tent almost). This was interesting to me. It made me question this physical movement and if and how it could be used as part of the exhibit/performance experience and what implications this may have.

Our second task was to use the objects of others in an arrangement – this I was not prepared for, and I panicked a bit at this. I struggled and struggled – the objects I was given were quite random, (a piece of astro turf, a didgeridoo, an old canvas, a foreign coin) and I was an object short. All I could think, was that these were not my objects.. this was not my object.. none of these were my objects..so I wrote that. I layed them out in an archaeology arrangement and with a gap at the end emphasising that the final object was unwritten or unknown. I was mortified. It wasn’t art, I felt it wasn’t really anything. I did want to go home at that point when I saw some of the beautiful things other people had made.

It was only when we fed back to our partners and we understood the nature or the story of the objects it began to make more sense. The objects of my colleague were in fact not her objects – well at least they had all belonged to ex boyfriends…. they were relics of her past , of her relationships and she felt she had yet to find her own object/ive and was single and trying to find herself at this time. I asked why she was holding on to them. She said she wasn’t sure and that maybe she should let them go.

I felt then that something had been achieved. I don’t know if it counts as art. but it was definitely  something.

This ‘a-ha’ moment was significant to me too. My work/ideas for my show were no closer to the stage…. but I felt I had started to understand something fundamental about the practice of tarot… so maybe in fact it was?  For a moment take away the ‘supernatural’ element of the tarot instead look at it simply as art. As characters in a book, representing certain people, stages of life, happenings which require two people, (the reader and sitter) to reflect on personal questions and make meaning via the images.  Its not a dissimilar process. In a therapy setting, images, photos etc are often used for similar purposes indeed even in some types of qualitative research methods to understand values and perceptions and prompt discussion of personal experiences.

So I had a little realisation moment followed by an intense feeling of self-consciousness as I realised that other people experienced in this kind of ‘decoding’  could read anything that I produce perhaps even before I knew of its significance to me as creator. I guess its all subjective to an extent – but there was definitely something in this I felt.  My partners representation of my objects was not as clear… she said she struggled with them as to her they seemed quite random.. but she did say she felt there was contradiction contained within the objects and no clear way of setting out the relationship between them.. that seemed pretty accurate at the time.

Conclusions

All in all it was a good weekend even if it was uncomfortable in places. I had a good few ‘a-ha’ moments – I enjoyed the practical work and liked reengaging with the theory. On reflection it felt a lot more academic both in process and environment than some of the other courses I had been on and given the academic background of almost everyone there it would be easy to be really cerebral about it all. I decided that I want to try and avoid this. I realised that maybe, like the window/whisper exercise.. when writing performance the best thing to do is come out of the traditional gallery environment and look out on the world – encourage people to awaken, connect and experience, and I felt this should go beyond and reach more than those experienced in the arts. I realise that my own performance offering on the day could be described as a little self indulgent, (I ended up consuming the product I was exhibiting) and I accept this… to be honest I just didn’t have any idea of the performance possibilities that are out there..  .. but then that’s what workshops, performance and other people are for..

lessons learnt.

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