Approaching the Dog Star*: writing for Micromegas Vagabond Flux

The following text is an extended transcript of a lecture given at L’Université Lille 3 on 19th March 2015 about the process of writing a commissioned text for Micromegas Vagabond Flux, the second in a series of 7 publishing projects and mobile exhibitions curated by Tracy Makenna and Edwin Janssen in response to Voltaire’s satirical proto-SciFi short story Micromegas (1752), with work by Bik Van Der Pol, Jacques Longuecolline, Jonn Herschend, Laure Prouvost, Mick Peter, Stefanos Pavlakis & Tobias Kauer, Tracy Makenna & Edwin Janssen, and myself.  Micromegas Vagabond Flux is published by artconnexion in partnership with Ed & Ellis PS in a boxed, archival edition of 24 copies, and is supported by the University of Dundee and Fondation de France.  A French translation of the lecture will be embedded here shortly. My published commissioned text Dog Star: Dreaming Transmissions from a Cosmonaut Bitch will be available online later in the year.

Dog Star: Dreaming Transmissions Of a Cosmonaut Bitch being read at the launch of Micromegas Vagabond Flux, Lille 2015. Photograph, Emma Bolland.
Dog Star: Dreaming Transmissions Of a Cosmonaut Bitch being read at the launch of Micromegas Vagabond Flux, Lille 2015 with Laure Prouvost’s text poster visible behind. Photograph, Emma Bolland.


Approaching the Dog Star*: writing for Micromegas Vagabond Flux
Une conférence pour L’Université Lille 3, 19th March 2015
Emma Bolland

I thought it might be useful to start by talking about some of the ways in which an artist can write, and the possibilities of writing as part of art practice before I address the process of writing the text for Micromegas Vagabond Flux, and the challenges of responding to Voltaire in the light of recent events.

I am an artist and writer who sees the processes of making and writing as intertwined and at times inseparable. Creating boundaries between making images and objects, and writing texts is not helpful for me. Additionally, I see the act of reading and writing as performative.   You will probably be familiar with the term ‘Art Writing’, which might be used to describe some of the things I do. However, I’m not yet sure what I think about this term, or whether it is of any use to me beyond that of convenience, in that it is a term one can use in a simplistic way to categorise and explain aspects of one’s practice. I wonder if, paradoxically, the term might engender a separation between written and visual practice, rather than enable integration of or discourse between the two.

Unwriting Lispector - Book, notebook & looped video projection. Emma Bolland, 2014
Unwriting Lispector – Book, notebook & looped video projection. Emma Bolland, 2014

What for the sake of convenience we can call my visual work has always, to one degree or another, started from the idea of text. Unwriting Lispector (2014) is an installation that is designed to sit on a bookshelf. A book, Água Viva by Clarice Lispector (which in English can be translated as ‘Living Water’ – perhaps in French it might be ‘eau vive’?) is placed next to a notebook, open at a blank page. Onto these is projected a looped video of me copying out the Lispector text into the self-same notebook. The footage is reversed so that my hand moves up the page and the words disappear – unwriting. This is a piece about writing and reading as process and performance, about an immersion in a text, and perhaps also about the limits of textual understanding. Other works have incorporated elements such as 100 crime novels which I made myself read one after the other, and a desk with a computer, its screen projected out onto the floor, where I spent periods in the gallery writing a sort of screenplay that attempted to animate the installation that surrounded me – see Sylvia Sylvia Where are You Buried? (2005). My short film The Is Of The Thing (2014) is about our relationship with books and reading. The voiceover is a cut-up / collage, of phrases taken from an email conversation between myself, and the curator who commissioned the work, David Berridge, an experimental writer. In our conversation we talked about the process of reading, and also the fear of reading that sometimes happens when one becomes overwhelmed by ones own ignorance, by the infinitesimal multitude of texts that one will never read.

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A slide from What Is A Book If It Will Not Be A Book (2013). A performed paper presentation for the Impact 8 conference at the University of Dundee. Emma Bolland.

In What Is A Book If It Will Not Be A BooK (2013) I turn an academic paper / illustrated talk into a performance, with the slides dominating the spoken and written narrative.

In the same way that my ‘visual work’ is embedded with an experience of text, so my writing starts from the visual and the spatial.  By this I don’t necessarily mean the kind of experimental typography as exemplified by Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard (1914), but more that to write I must first inhabit a visual field. Writers are so often told not to worry about layout in the first instance – told that this is procrastination. ‘Just start! Just get it down!’. However, before I can start to write on the screen, even in note form, I have to choose a font, think about spacing, set the margins, start to design the page – otherwise the words will not come. I cannot shape the piece unless I have a visual framework from which to start.

Screen shot of Over In And Under (2015). Emma Bolland.
Screen shot of Over In And Under (2015). Emma Bolland.

Above is a screenshot of an ongoing piece of work, an experimental translation of Freud’s Überdekkerinnerungen, translated in English as ‘Screen Memories’– in French this might be something like ‘souvenirs d’écran’ or ‘couvercle de la mémoire’? I don’t speak German, so I am translating on what the words look like and sound like, working quickly, in the style of the free association of Freudian analysis. The text is formatted so that Freud’s text and mine follow each other paragraph by paragraph, with Freud’s words minaturised and redacted, written through, impossible to read, so that although both our voices are there, visually, my words are screening his: the page is designed to echo the ideas and processes of both Freud’s text and my translation.

Screen Shot of Dog Star* - Dreaming transmissions of a cosmonaut bitch. Emma Bolland 2015
Screen Shot of Dog Star* – Dreaming transmissions of a cosmonaut bitch. Emma Bolland 2015

A visual articulation of different voices is also used in the text for Micromegas Vagabond Flux to position the reader within the different narratives at the point of reading, and to enable me to inhabit the voices during the process of writing. Laika (the eponymous cosmonaut bitch) is italicized, Voltaire is diminished in size, and the deliberate use of symbols rather than numbers for the footnotes meant that a visual star could orbit the written Star of the title. I cannot tell you how much this pleases me!

So how did I write it? On the 6th January I received an email from Tracy and Edwin kindly inviting me to write the text in response to Voltaire’s Micromegas. They give me free rein, whilst indicating areas of my practice that might offer starting points: the arena of the ambiguous memoir, the relationships between word and image, the positioning of site and landscape as a repository for personal and collective memory, and walking as a tool for teaching, learning and research. This all seemed good to me, and I think that in the first instance I imagined writing quite an abstract, cerebral sort of piece, probably around place and imagined sites. But then the next day, January 7th, there came the attack upon the offices of the ‘satirical’ magazine Charlie Hebdo, and suddenly Voltaire was everywhere: the poster boy for free speech. It seemed inconceivable that I could write the piece without talking about Hebdo. But the more I tried, the more impossible it became. I talk about these impossibilities at length in the postscript of Dog Star (so in a way I do write about it), but for the purposes of this presentation I’m more interested in how what was impossible shaped what was possible. Thinking through these impossibilities made me angry, angry at the hypocrisy & laziness around the uses and definitions of the term free speech, and the uncritical trumpeting of vague Enlightenment values. What is free speech exactly? Where do its boundaries lie? If, as a feminist activist I receive what I experience as misogynist and intimidating Tweets, should I tolerate them because of the sanctity of ‘free speech’? Is the reason I find them distressing because I am not rational? When I saw the picture of world leaders marching for Hebdo in the newspapers I started counting the number of countries represented wherein its citizens are either locked up, punished, or murdered for ‘free speech’. There were many, including my own. I found Voltaire’s story fascinating and ingenious: but the character of Micromegas paradoxical. In some senses written to be a listener, an observer, a wonderer, he also read as privileged, pompous and self-satisfied. I wouldn’t want to sit next to him at dinner.

Laika
Laika – passenger of Sputnik Two, launched in 1957, who died just a few hours after take off from panic and overheating.

So what shaped the piece in the end was anger. I needed a voice that could be angry, that could disrupt the flow of the writing, that could shout at Voltaire and shout at Micromegas, and shout at the violence committed on both sides of any war. I also needed a voice with which I could be playful, a foil for the serious politicised narrative that I wanted to construct around the moon landings. As I read and reread Micromegas I found myself becoming more and more murderous in my mind – I saw myself following him around, muttering and cursing, and I was muttering and cursing and walking around my studio as I read. We have a phrase in English that is to be ‘dogged by’, which is to be cursed by and bound to – as in ‘he was dogged by misfortune’. We also use the description ‘dogged’, to be dogged is to be persistent, stubborn, determined, to keep at it. It was during the process of these cross and grumbling readings that Laika the space dog, the creature betrayed by science and rationality, came to mind – she would follow Micromegas from planet to planet, snapping at his heels and sniffing him out. I wanted allow Laika’s voice to become more and more feral as the piece went on. I was trying to write growls and howls but they looked unconvincing as words – contrived and inauthentic, and read as whimsical rather than fierce. A solution to this was to record myself being a dog, snapping and barking, and then to transcribe the sounds I made onto the page. (At the time of recording I had very bad flu, with fluid filling up my lungs – the recording is interspersed with much coughing and cursing).

Screen Shot of 'Laika's voice' from Dog Star Dreaming transmissions from a cosmonaut bitch. Emma Bolland 2015
Screen Shot of ‘Laika’s voice’ from Dog Star Dreaming transmissions from a cosmonaut bitch. Emma Bolland 2015

In the process of writing there are many influences and desires that shape our texts. The ones that I can consciously acknowledge in Dog Star* include a wish to try to write in different and dialectical voices and the deliberate juxtaposition of personal memory (particularly my memories of watching the moon landings as a very small child) with historical research, political analysis, and fictional narratives, and the use of a postscript to anchor the present with the past. I tried to situate wonder and reality side by side and let them both retain an integrity whilst avoiding the polarities of whimsy and didacticism. And there were other, more sentimental indulgences, for instance – my partner’s fascination with and imaginative love for the outer reaches of our solar system, so when in the first paragraph I write ‘I slipped the leash and spiralled past the pewter planets of the Kuiper belt, through the fractoluminescence of the asteroids, and the comet clouds of icy moons to sail far, far out into the starry deeps’, I am writing for them.

I cannot end without mentioning that most useful of creative tools: serendipity. As I was struggling to finish the main body of the piece I was contacted by the journalist Cath Murray of DIVA magazine who were planning an article about the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, at the RAF Greenham Common military base in Kent, set up in response to the British government’s decision to allow the US Air Force to site Cruise nuclear missiles there. I had been there as a very young woman, and they wanted to interview me about my memories of that time. Suddenly and unexpectedly I had the ending for Dog Star, for here in those memories was Laika embodied. Feral, stubborn, and uncompromising: not pontificating about the sanctity of free speech, but getting dirty and speaking truth to power.

women dancing on top of the nuclear missile silos during a night time break in to the Greenham Common Nuclear Missile Base. (Provenance of photograph unestablished at time of posting - my apologies).
women dancing on top of the nuclear missile silos during a night time break in to the Greenham Common Nuclear Missile Base. (Provenance of photograph unestablished at time of posting – my apologies).

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The full text of Dog Star* – dreaming transmissions from a cosmonaut bitch will be available on line later this year.

FIELDS OF KNOWLEDGE: Full paper from the ‘Thinking With John Berger’ conference, Cardiff, 4th & 5th September

FIELDS OF KNOWLEDGE: BERGER, THE OUTDOORS, AND THE POSSIBILITIES OF EXPERIENTIAL PRACTICE.

INTRODUCTION

This paper (with accompanying illustrations) was written for & presented at the Thinking With John Berger conference held at Cardiff Metropolitan University on the 4th & 5th of September 2014, organised by Jeff Wallace, Professor of English, Department of Humanities in the School of Education.

Video still
Video still from Spelunker, Deep Sea Diver, Astronaut #3 (2014 version of footage from 2003), Emma Bolland. To view film click here 

‘At first I referred to the field as a space awaiting events; now I refer to it as an event in itself’. John Berger – ‘Field’ (1971)

As artists, in the widest sense of the word, how do we read, experience and learn from Berger? I’m going to start from the position that creative practitioners might be able to have a more fluid relationship with texts than is allowed the orthodox academic; that we can start from the position of not knowing, and then continue to embrace and even nurture this position.

There is a Hegelian maxim that says that ‘it is only in the hours of Darkness that the owl of Minerva takes flight’. This is perhaps an elegant way of saying that it is the territory that precedes the domain of understanding in which we think (Bolland 2014). Receptiveness to the potential of such territory, to the spaces that are the gaps in certainty and knowledge, is the cornerstone of what I would describe as ‘experiential practice’. Berger’s writing – often discursive, wondering, anti-didactic – produces such a space: the ‘space that is in itself productive’ (Lewis 2014, in conversation), the field ‘that is an event in itself’ (Berger 1971). Berger introduces his 1978 essay Uses of Photography: For Susan Sontag by saying:

‘The thoughts are sometimes my own, but all originate in the experience of reading her book.’

This is a brief example of the types of self-facing / explicatory phrases in which Berger allows himself, as reader, to respond to the spaces that can be sought out; that indicate agency, generosity, and reciprocity between the reader and the writer. In a 2002 conversation with Michael Silverblatt he says that:

‘…it is a question of the hospitality to the reader… hospitality has nothing to do with being polite, or being frightened of being offensive… hospitality is a question of allowing a space in the story for the reader to take her or his place, then that place has to be such that naturally there is the possibility of the reader participating, actually participating in the telling of the story, and that finally at its most extreme comes to that line which I will misquote, but it’s the end of one of the marvellous Borges poems in which he says “and the reader who has read this poem, he has written it”’. (My transcript).

I think that there is a link here between the act of reading and what I will call a ‘psychoanalytical situation’ (and I’m talking here of the broader processes of the psychoanalytical encounter, and not of any thematic or sectarian preoccupations) [1]. The creative reader and practitioner might be said to be in the position of both analyst and analysand. A sort of chimeric reader who is receptive to what Adam Phillips refers to as ‘Side Effects’ (Phillips 2006), those thoughts and responses which are unpredictable and surprising. To slip further into therapeutic language, one might say that the opportunity of analysis (reading) is the opportunity for a speculative therapy (interpretation) and for a collaborative and intuitive process of speaking and listening in a space of receptiveness and ‘not knowing’ – a ‘leap into a relative dark’ (ibid). The artist and writer Emma Cocker, in Tactics for Not knowing: Preparing for the Unexpected (2013), suggests that to persist in a productive state of not knowing, given that we are culturally conditioned away from such states, especially in academic and professional contexts, is a challenge. She insists, though, upon its worth, stating that:

‘Artistic practice recognises the practice of not knowing, less as the preliminary state (of ignorance) preceding knowledge, but as a field of desirable indeterminacy within which to work. Not knowing is an active space within practice, wherein an artist hopes for an encounter with something new or unfamiliar, unrecognisable or unknown’.

Emma Cocker’s essay is all about the value of not knowing – and yet, paradoxically, not so very long ago, I would have been afraid to read it, paralysed by a state of not knowing that I had no way of valuing. Far from feeling fruitful, it felt shameful. I’m going to use an analogy now that I think is from Alain Badiou (and I’m purposefully using something here that I may be attributing wrongly, and that I do not have the breadth of knowledge or the resources to verify or disprove), and this is an analogy that talks of the weight of the water. A fish does not feel the weight of the water – it is the ‘natural’ environment through which it moves instinctively. So a person who is comfortable in the environment of the academy, the gallery, the institution, whether by class, education or the fact that such institutions represent their culture and their interests, does not feel the weight of these waters. I used to really feel the weight of the water; now – not so much. Berger’s habits of ‘local’ and attentive looking and working, whilst indisputably informed, value the intuitive and the ‘not knowing’, and provided me with a framework for valuing my own thinking, for meeting texts such as Emma Cocker’s on equal terms.

PAYING ATTENTION: THE OUTDOORS AND THE ENCOUNTER

‘Seker Ahmet, on the other hand, faced the forest as a thing taking place in itself, as a presence that was so pressing that he could not, as he had learned to do in Paris, maintain his distance from it’. John Berger – Seker Ahmet And The Forest (1979)

spelunker2 still 6
Video still from Spelunker, Deep Sea Diver, Astronaut #3 (2014 version of footage from 2003), Emma Bolland. To view film click here

In 2003 I recorded some audio-video footage whilst walking in woods near the house where I grew up, woods that had been a childhood refuge. That day was the first time I had entered them for twenty years. A quarter mile away my mother was slowly losing her grip on life, the woods visible from her bedroom window. I had no outcome in mind; the activity was initiated by the coming together of a need for an hours respite from the day’s events, having a camera to hand, and the proximity and familiarity of the woods – but in retrospect it was the beginning of what John Newling evocatively calls a backward cartography involving place and memory. The footage was first used two years later, almost unedited, in a full room projection, and has since undergone many transformations.

The walk that day was not the detached, often apolitical dèrive or drift of the psychogeographer, but an immersed experience of place that positioned the walker not as flotsam, not as neutral observer, not as touristic seeker of sights, nor as conquering explorer, but as attentive and receptive, as a brain and a body. More importantly, as a corporeal and active body – not the passive, dissected, examined & observed post-modern body, nor the male body to whom the privileged status of anonymous flaneur is more readily available (Solnit 2001) – but as a body that is part of, and subject and vulnerable to the narratives of the landscape; an experience having much in common with what the artist and writer Helen Scalway (2002) describes as a kind of ‘counter-flaneurie’. It was a walk in which thoughts and visions of the past, present and future, were collapsed into an experience of time as spatial. An encounter with landmarks and sight-lines as inseparable from memory, prophesy, physical sensation and emotion: a sensory and symbiotic extension of the Wordsworthian concept of ‘moving with thought’. The landscape told its own history, and told and continues to tell me mine.

Prince Phillip Playing Fields at Night. Photograph Tom Rodgers 2012
Prince Phillip Playing Fields at Night. Photograph by Tom Rodgers (2012).

In 2012 I began collaborating with curator Judit Bodor and artist Tom Rodgers on a project called MilkyWayYouWillHearMeCall, for which the process of ‘experiential site visits and walks’ was adopted as a deliberate research methodology. Our starting point was the novel Nineteen Eighty by David Peace (2002), which is a fictional retelling of an actual historical series of events – the murders committed by Peter Sutcliffe, the so-called Yorkshire Ripper, and the subsequent hunt for and capture of him in the city of Leeds in 1980. We went to sites in the city based only on the directions or descriptions given in the novel and began the processes of attentive and intuitive exploration. What marked these sites out was their anonymity, their lack of dramatic play. There was no obvious story to be extracted from the topography itself – a narrative was waited for and listened to, through a process of experience of and even meditation on the site.

These walks differed from the walk around the woods, in that that we had gone there with an agenda ‘to make art’, or at least to enact a process of ‘creative research’. However, there were similarities in that we had no agenda in terms of the outcomes of this research – we had made the decision that the research itself would suggest or even be its own outcome. In Bento’s Sketchbook (2011) Berger makes the point that whilst traditionally the term ‘outcome’ refers to how a story ends, ‘it can also refer to how the listener or reader or spectator leaves the story to continue their ongoing lives, and goes on to say that:

‘… in following a story, we follow a storyteller, or, more precisely, we follow the trajectory of a storyteller’s attention… ‘ and that ‘we become accustomed to the storyteller’s particular procedure of bestowing attention… we begin to acquire his storytelling habits…’

The narrative we started with was David’s writing, and our own relationships (all very different), with the sites and with the histories enacted upon them. We attempted to allow the sites themselves to take over the narrative of both the history and the author (David), and for the interactions and relationships of and between the sites and ourselves to shape our actions and outcomes, to tell the story of our collaboration.

My hands, gilded. Photograph Tom Rodgers 2012.
Emma’s hands, gilded. Photograph by Tom Rodgers 2012.

We realised that we had begun to enact informal rituals and acts of remembrance. On the morning of a visit to the Soldiers Field I impulsively put a vial of real gold dust in my pocket, and at the site had used it to obliterate a swastika that had been sprayed on a wall near to where one of the murdered women was found. [2] The dust got everywhere, and Judit drew attention to my metalled hands. As I stretched them out towards her, Tom took the photograph that captures them: weathered, burnished and speaking of work and loss. The encounter between the space, our actions and our interactions invoked the image and the story of the present and the past.

Crown&Target, Emma wearing a crown of grasses, Lewisham Park 2012. Photograph, Tom Rodgers
Crown and Target: Emma wearing a crown of grasses, Lewisham Park. Photograph by Tom Rodgers 2012.

Crown and Target also captures a moment when place, intuition, encounter, movement and collaboration came together. We were preparing to leave Lewisham Park. Tom was at the car, his camera packed away. I had paused, and on an impulse pulled a clump of wet grasses from the earth and twisted them into a circlet, placing them on my head; and, as I did so, turned back to call to Judit who was still in the field. Tom heard my call, looked up, lifted the camera and captured the image with the last of his film. A sightline that joins us to the space and to each other.

TRESPASSING KNOWLEDGE: WALKING TOWARDS PEDAGOGY

‘… the idea for Ways of Seeing began with going round museums… and seeing so much insufferably, intolerably boring stuff which was called art! – and so we thought, well maybe we should just accept this and admit it and try and explain why it is so boring …’ John Berger in conversation with Michael Govan (2002)

Wrapped in luminous cloud, pushed by the wind, we walk up out of Hayfield in the steps of the glorious trespass, April 1932. The cloud is not a metaphor, the art is terrestrial. Eventually our heads will clear it. Stamping the ground, stamping mystery and privilege into the soil, we walk up into our work, hauled on our breath. The foundation of the state is not violence but education. Thought is free on the wind-steps. Rills under grass arches. It can only be a completely open field.
Peter Riley – The Ascent of Kinder Scout (2014)

Place and Memory: underpass in Seacroft, Leeds. Photograph Tom Rodgers 2013.
Place and Memory: underpass in Seacroft, Leeds. Photograph Tom Rodgers 2013.

We decided that we wanted to try to use ‘walking as research’ as a tool for teaching and learning with people in settings outside of formal education. [3] In the Place and Memory project, which ran from June 2013 to May 2014, we worked with eight adults with mental health difficulties who wanted to develop their creative practice. With varying states of confidence, recovery and previous education, it’s fair to say that they really, really felt the weight of the water. We needed to enable them to take ownership of ‘research’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘expertise’, and remove this conceptual territory from the hands of the institution, the academy and what they perceived as the elite other. Tom, Judit and I all had our own overlapping and complimentary frameworks for facilitating this. Judit, for instance, brought the ideas of the French artist Robert Filliou and his 1970 document Teaching and Learning as Performing Arts to bear, perhaps summed up in this quote:

Research is not the privilege of people who know – on the contrary it is the domain of people who do not know. Every time we are turning our attention to something we don’t know we are doing research. Fillou (1970)

What all three of us emphasised was the importance of the participants each developing and valuing their own ways of looking, moving and paying attention. In his introduction to Understanding a Photograph (2013) Geoff Dyer states, with reference to research and criticism, that Bergers method was always too personal, the habits of the autodidact too ingrained, to succumb to the kind of discoursethat seized cultural studies in the 70s and 80s. And Berger himself states, in his conversation with Michael Govan, that all of his writing as an art critic came first and foremost, not from reading biographies or art historical documents, but from looking at the work. We also accepted that they could challenge the orthodoxies that we would inevitably bring to our ‘teaching’. As project mentors, we had to accept the criticisms levelled at us about the ways in which we presented our versions of culture and practice, and about the ways in which we used, and I quote, ‘arty bollocks wank speak’. It pleases me greatly that the author of that phrase was recently accepted onto an MA in Creative Practice, where she promises that she will continue to challenge and unpick such language.

Filming underneath the Dark Arches, Leeds. Photograph Tom Rodgers 2013.
Filming underneath the Dark Arches, Leeds. Photograph Tom Rodgers 2013.

The eight participants were each given the task of choosing a place or places in the city that held, or could potentially create, memory or meaning for them. Over the summer we went as a group on long ‘research walks’, [4] talking, drawing, collecting, photographing, recording sound and moving image, asking ourselves questions about these places, sharing stories so that new stories might be told back to us, but most of all paying attention, listening to the space. The sites we explored included woodlands, wastelands, housing estates, disused graveyards and the place where a river flows underneath the city. One of the participants took us to a hospital’s Accident and Emergency unit where she had spent a traumatic night, and we retraced her journey around its corridors in covert ones and twos, meeting on corners to exchange whispers. Filming and audio-recording on hidden devices.

The Place and Memory participants started from the position of an un-valued not-knowing, and worked and walked over the space of a year to a position of valued not knowing – to an ownership of knowledge and research, to an ownership of their own learning, and to an ownership of a creative practice. They developed (to varying degrees) the muscle to resist the weight of the water and created works that have an authoritative voice, but that still leave both their audience and themselves a productive space of uncertainty.

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WY65OOFp332sv-eK2Ux3PDl72eJkfbmt4t8yenImKBVvK0kTmF0xjctABnaLJIm9The Place and Memory project outcomes included two exhibitions, film screenings, performances and readings, a ‘creative documentary’ using footage and texts from the site visits (to view the film see below) and a book that wove their visual work, photographic documentation and writings into a text / image psychogeographical poem that explores the emotions of ‘place’ across the city of Leeds during the summer of 2013. The book costs £5 plus post and package and is published by Gordian Projects: you can find out more and buy the book here.

 

 

 

FOOTNOTES

[1] It might seem odd to talk of psychoanalysis where Berger is concerned, given that he is often (though not always) dismissive of its theory, at least where Freud is concerned. (See John Berger with Michael Silverblatt, Conversation 1, link below).

[2] The tiny vial of gold dust had been bought in 2002 on a trip to Venice with my mother (then aged 82) a year after my father died and a year before she died. She walked my legs off, fearlessly hopping on and off the Vaporetti, and, somewhat suspiciously all the bar owners – with whom she flirted outrageously – greeted her by name and pulled bottles of homemade extra-strong Fragolino from under the counter to pour her a measure without her having to ask. Born into poverty on a working coal barge in 1919 – a fact we only discovered after her death – she had reinvented herself in a spectacular fashion. A capricious, cold and bewildering disaster as a mother, as a woman she was to be admired.

[3] In February 2014 I used some of the teaching and learning tactics developed in Place and Memory with students on the MA in Art, Society and Publics at DJCAD, University of Dundee. For visual and textual documentation of the workshops and their outcomes, and an annotated suggested reading list click here.

[4] A note here about walking. Walking is free, useful, democratic, and often political in terms of environmental impact and issues of private and public space. Above all it is ordinary. Although walking and the concept of walking are rich areas for creative thought and exploration, walking is not the property of psychogeographers, urban explorers, or anyone who seeks to mystify and intellectualise the everyday. It belongs to all of us and we should glory in that.

BIBLIOGRAPHY / SOURCES

Berger, J. Field (1971), in About Looking (2009) Bloomsbury.

Berger, J. Uses of Photography: For Susan Sontag (1978), in Understanding a Photograph (2013) ed. Dyer, G. Penguin Classics, London.

Berger, J. Seker Ahmet and the Forest (1979), in About Looking (2009) Bloomsbury.

Berger, J. Bentos Sketchbook (2011)

John Berger with Michael Govan, Conversation 3, Episode 6, October 2002 http://podcast.lannan.org/2010/03/30/john-berger-with-michael-govan-conversation/

John Berger with Michael Silverblatt, Conversation 2, Episode 5, October 2002 –http://podcast.lannan.org/2010/03/29/john-berger-with-michael-silverblatt-conversation-2/

Bolland, E. Tides, Texts and Transformations (2014) https://emmabolland.com/2014/05/16/tides-texts-and-transformations-unpacking-my-library/

Cocker, E. Tactics for Not knowing: Preparing for the Unexpected (2013), in On Not Knowing: How Artists Think (2013) ed. Fisher, E. & Fortnum, R. Black Dog Publishing, London.

Dyer, G. Introduction to Understanding a Photograph (2013), Berger, J. ed. Dyer, G. Penguin Classics, London.

Filliou, R. Teaching and Learning as Performing Arts (1970). Translated facsimile published 2014 by Occasional Papers.

Lewis, B. (2014) In conversation.

Newling, J. Writings by John Newling 1995 2005 (2005) ed. Newling, A., SWPA.

Phillips, A. Side Effects (2006) Hamish Hamilton, London.

Riley, P. The Ascent of Kinder Scout (2014) Longbarrow Press, Sheffield

Scalway, H. The Contemporary Flaneuse: Exploring Strategies for the Drifter in a Feminine Mode (2002).

Solnit, R. Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2001) Verso, London.

Unsettled by & Open To: writing, making and being for ‘Shady Dealings London’.

Last month, at the invitation of curator / writers David Berridge of Very Small Kitchen and Claire Potter I took part in the London stage of Shady Dealings With Language, a series of four events curated around the intersection of art, writing and performance in Leeds, London, Manchester and Edinburgh; the London event generously hosted by X Marks The Bøkship at Matt’s Gallery. The curators framed their invitation with the following statement:

‘In Pure Means, Yve Lomax considers the moment an action is somehow interrupted and the possibility of experiencing pure means arises – the very gesture of gesture. To illustrate, Lomax invites the reader to imagine an actor whose acting is doing everything to show the means of acting, and moreover, to show it is the means that are being shown. Pure Means demonstrates and explores the philosophical potentials of such a moment through a poetry of terminology, ideas of subjectification and forms of government, and the figure of the author. We too want our effect and affect tight together. We seek a writing that affirms the affective, the somatic, while accounting for the analytic; a writing that moves toward a true politic.’

Rewriting Lispector - Book, notebook & looped video projection. Emma Bolland, 2014
Rewriting Lispector – Book, notebook & looped video projection. Emma Bolland, 2014

My contribution was conceived in three related and interdependent ‘acts’ – both continuous and sequential. They are all works in draft form, made together in a couple of weeks, rough and raw. They left me unsure of myself but sure of them, of their generative nature. I am not done with the ideas they grasp at.

‘Unwriting Lispector’ comprised a copy of Clarice Lispector’s 1973 text Água Viva and a blank opened notebook placed at the back of a bookshelf. Onto these object was projected footing of myself copying out Lispector’s text into an identical notebook, the footage reversed, her words disappearing as my hand ascended the pages, until the filmed notebook was as blank as the one that lay below its veil of light. This tiny, discreet installation ran throughout the course of the event. Then I performed a text and screened a film. A Fiction Of A Fiction (The Woodpecker’s Heart), is a ‘writing towards’ or a ‘writing with’ the narrative of the film, which is titled The Is Of The Thing, a phrase taken from Água Viva – ‘I want to grab hold of the is of the thing…’ These pieces are about reading and writing and making, and fear. I ask you to read the text first, and only then view the film, which can be found at the foot of this post.
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A Fiction Of A Fiction: a speculative draft of a script for a film that is a place where a book might be, or

THE WOODPECKER’S HEART

Opening titles: a red / orange ground – the text a knocked back pale gamboge – a series of fading stills. Typeface to be decided… Lucida? Palatino? Perpetua?

In ‘An Essay on Typography’ by Eric Gill, first published in 1931, Gill makes much of the ‘natural’, functional and symbiotic evolution of the Roman hand and typeface, giving examples of clear and pleasing lettering, and utilising an oddly impassioned and indeed venomous vocabulary to describe those shapes of which he disapproved. A ‘Y’ is ‘mutated, monstrous, perverted’, as if he were talking of a repellent, brutal and evil character, a Mr Hyde of a letter: low, base, and twisted. Gill, known mainly as a sculptor, was also a designer and typographer. His most enduring typeface, fittingly named Perpetua, is a pleasing, balanced and elegant form which ranks amongst my favourites, at least of those fonts made freely available on my laptop. Gill was also subject to rumours of incest, and I use the word advisedly, concerning the relations between himself and his two young daughters. Whilst never announcing or admitting to such behaviour for and by himself, he is nonetheless on record as considering incest between father and daughter – a father such as himself: educated and capable of finer feelings, a sensitive soul who could appreciate and understand beauty – to be a natural, pleasing and beautiful thing. He saw such societal and familial freedoms as part of the shift from the Victorian values into which he was born, to the new bohemian and intellectual sensibilities to which he supposed himself entitled. Identifying as radical, he was at heart conservative, rather like the elegant type that he so favoured. There is no record of his daughters’ views on the matter. They are blank pages.

Possible title/s:

‘The is of the thing?’

‘What is the language?’

Others? I don’t know…

Fade to white. If the first frame is the cover, then fade to white is the page between the title and the texts. The exquisitely blank page.

Scene 1:

Is this even how you write a screenplay? I have no idea. Do the fucking research.

Scene 1:

It is at this point that I lose my grip on this film, this book, this idea of the book, this space where a book might be.

In 1970 the colours of the wallpaper were red, orange, a knocked back pale gamboge. Children’s books were not available and so I read such texts as I could find.

The Dictionary

The Bible

Fear of Flying

Flashman

The Devil Rides Out

Beyond Belief

Playboy / <stroke> Knave / < stroke> Razzle

I was once allowed to visit a library from which I selected an illustrated copy of The Little Humpbacked Horse, a fairy tale in long poem form by Pyotr Pavlovich Yershov, edited by his close friend Alexander Pushkin. From its initial publication in 1834, up until 1856, it was available only in extract form. Deemed by the authorities to be anti-tsarist propaganda, it was published with dots representing omitted verses and songs: a text of voids and vacuums, floating with starry ellipses. I do not remember the form of the illustrations for The Little Hunchbacked Horse, but I do remember their tone. They mirrored the text in advocating and illuminating the value of the common stock over the refined and flighty elegance of the thoroughbred. The humble beast was honest, intelligent and courageous, despite the affliction of an ugly hump, much mocked by its indolent, self-regarding stable companions. One night the hump erupted: and revealed two feathered wings that sent the beast soaring above the jewelled domes of the Kremlin. A Payne’s Grey sky flooded with an Indigo ocean. A Via Lactaea of delicate Zinc White spray.

The book demanded an intervention, and I set about its transformation with materials stolen from a box concealed in my sister’s wardrobe. (Aged eight I was a shameless, expert and recidivist thief, with a particular taste for expensive papers and pens). When my work was discovered I was beaten, and never taken to the library again.

I am in a library now, writing this, and my back is stiff and my eyes screen-sore.

Fade to white.

Scene 2:

A gallery. Zinc White with French Grey shadows. A woman stands in front of a photograph. The photograph is titled Untitled and is part of the series Coeur de Pic, created by Claude Cahun to illustrate the book of the same name, a book of poems for children written by Lise Deharme, and published in 1937. The woman wishes the words ‘Coeur de Pic’ to mean woodpecker’s heart. They do not.

The photograph is the size of a mirror that might contain my face – a silvery flat. A black twig stands upright on a hill of feathers. The dull-metalled nibs of dipping pens are clipped along its branches, their forked legs gripping tightly like persistent inverse leaves. I lean closer and see that the feathers are not feathers at all. The little twig tree stands on a drift of ink strokes. The wind has blown the writing from the branches. I have been thinking of the wrong kind of quills.

I’m typing this out now, and I suddenly stop to change the font from Perpetua to Palatino. I fucking hate Perpetua.

Please verify this text – it is very likely mis-mnemestic.
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Notes On A Reading List: Trespassing Knowledge (for DJCAD February 2014)

Research is not the privilege of people who know – on the contrary, it is the domain of people who do not know. Every time we are turning our attention to something we don’t know we are doing research. Robert Filliou (1926 – 1987)

And the meaning of Earth completely changes: with the legal model, one is constantly reterritorializing around a point of view, on a domain, according to a set of constant relations, but with the ambulant model, the process of deterritorialization constitutes and extends the territory itself. Deleuze and Guattari  – Nomadology (1986)

On the 11th and 12th of February I will be spending two days working with students on the MFA Art, Society and Publics at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design (University of Dundee). I will be be giving an orthodox presentation / lecture, facilitating a workshop around subversive mapping and ‘not knowing’, and leading a long (and hopefully challenging) walk within and around the city, with participants both walking with me, and connecting / participating remotely through text & image sharing, online mapping, and acting as ‘subversive satnavs’.

We will be working with ideas such as: – the ownership of knowledge and research: who determines what research is; as artists, how do we (and why should we) challenge and disrupt these orthodoxies?   – Research as practice, research as being and doing. – How can we (and why should / would we challenge the boundaries of the ‘academy’ and the hegemonies of ‘expertise’?  – What are the possibilities of collaborative and interdisciplinary research and practice between the orthodox and the unruly, the academic and the emotional, the empirical / validated and the wondering / intuitive? – The value of ‘not-knowing’ and its enrichment of ‘knowing’. – The physical and metaphorical exploration of site: walking / wandering / wondering as research and practice.

Below is a suggested reading list of texts / blogs / films that deliberately includes few specialist contemporary art texts, followed by my thoughts on a selection of these in terms of their relation to each other, and their relevance to aspects of our work. These notes are primarily for the students at DJCAD, but I hope they will be of interest to wider readers.

Dickens, Charles. Night Walks (1861). For full text click here.
Bolland, Emma. Every Place A Palimpsest Part Two (2013). For full audio click here.
Bolland, Emma. What Is A Book If It Will Not Be A Book (2013). For full text, illustrations and audio click here.
Cousins, Mark. What Is This Film Called Love? (2012). For the official trailer click here.
Fisher, E. and Fortnum, R. On Not Knowing: how artists think (2013)
Lewis, Brian. The Meridian (2013). For full text click here.
Lewis, Brian. Eastings (2013). For full text click here.
Perec, Georges. Species of Spaces (1974). For full text click here.
Solnit, Rebecca. A Field Guide To Getting Lost (2005)
Solnit, Rebecca. Wanderlust (2000)
Woolf, Virginia. Street Haunting (1930). For full text click here.

The essays by Dickens and Woolf, Night Walks and Street Haunting, could both be described as a narration of and by the detached eye, and are perhaps precursors of what the Situationists would call the dérive (drift). Both Dickens and Woolf wander the city without a predetermined route (or ignoring a predetermined route), observing and noting events, particularities of place and people, and even their own sensory and emotional states from the position of spectator. A drift is not a means of getting from A to B, and therefore is an experience of the spatial. Cities are the ideal places for such endeavours. Their crowds offer the opportunity for lonely anonymity, and the contemporary (and near modern) city as both literally and metaphorically textual positions the wanderer as reader. In a city, one is never truly lost. Contrast these accounts with the two-part essay sequence The Meridian (presented at the Occursus 2013 Post-Traumatic Landscapes Symposium) and Eastings by Brian Lewis. The essays contextualise and narrate a particularly gruelling example of Lewis’ endurance walks, a continuous 65 mile 33 hour trek from Hull to Spurn Point and back again, walking almost continuously from 11 am in the morning on New Years Eve 2012 to 8 pm at night on New Years Day 2013. Unlike the drifts of Dickens and Woolf, this walk was linear, and planned. The physical effort, the weather, and the hours of darkness replaced detachment with immersion, a focussing (a retreat) into the body, the physical. The almost complete absence of the textual, of human presence and of light for much of the walk meant that getting lost was almost inevitable, and when towards the end of the walk the textual and the human reappeared an almost hallucinatory state of exhaustion made such signifiers unreadable.

Solnit’s Wanderlust is a wonderful (‘wanderfull’) book. It is also very long. A terrific (to my mind) chapter sequence that works as a discrete narrative is, in order: Citizens of the Streets, Walking After Midnight, and Aerobic Sisyphus and the Suburbanised Psyche. Each chapter deals with the politics of space in different ways: revolution and protest from the French revolution to Occupy; gender, and the positioning / oppression of the female body in the context of the urban outdoors; the dislocation of the human body from its environment and the commodification and commercialisation of exercise and fitness. Solnit famously stated that ‘the treadmill (of the modern gym) is a device for going nowhere in places where there is no longer anywhere to go’. The chapter following these, The Shape of A Walk, talks specifically about artists who have explicitly used walking as part of their practice, although the selection tends toward the ‘heroic’).

My two short papers Every Place A Palimpsest Part Two and What Is A Book If It Will Not Be A Book both deal, in different ways, with the narration of landscape, ‘knowing’ and the inevitability and fruitfulness of ‘not knowing’. Palimpsest looks at a particular site in terms of traumatic history and the civic project of erasure versus the creative effort of exploring meaning (and creating work). What Is A Book looks at the materiality of an artwork, and the spatial unruliness of creativity in the context of MilkyWayYouWillHearMeCall, a project with site, wandering, collaboration and not knowing at its core.

On Not Knowing: How Artists Think (2013) (ed. Fisher and Fortnum) contains many essays of note. On The Value Of Not Knowing: Wonder, Beginning Again And Letting Be by Dr Rachel Jones offers a philosophical and psychoanalytical argument for the necessity of ‘not knowing’ in relation to creativity and the aesthetic sublime.

Studio Visit. Left to right Emma Bolland, Judit Bodor, Roddy Hunter, Penny Whitwoth. Photo Tom Rodgers 2012.
Studio Visit. Left to right Emma Bolland, Judit Bodor, Roddy Hunter, Penny Whitwoth. Photo Tom Rodgers 2012.

The photograph above is of a visit to my studio in 2012 to discuss the work being made for MilkyWayYouWillHearMeCall, an ongoing collaborative project by myself, curator Judit Bodor and artist Tom Rodgers, which has at its core a relationship with site, walking, and not knowing. We were joined in the studio that day by artists Roddy Hunter and Penelope Whitworth. We look, we think, we talk. We know, and we do not know. We begin again.