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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Walking As Pedagogy: Two Days In Dundee

‘The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts. This creates the odd consonance between internal and external passage, one that suggests that the mind is also a landscape of sorts and that walking is one way to traverse it.’
Rebecca Solnit, from Wanderlust: A History Of Walking (2005)

MFA studios, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, Dundee, 2014. Photograph: Emma Bolland
MFA studios, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, Dundee, 2014. Photograph: Emma Bolland

On the 11th and 12th of February I spent two days working with a group of students from the MFA ASP at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design (part of the University of Dundee). The course encourages a diverse range of practices and places emphasis on ‘[challenging and extending] its students’ work and relationship to the visual world by providing the creative and intellectual framework for the exploration of current attitudes and phenomena in the context of contemporary art, culture and society.’ It has a high student/staff ratio, and includes periods of professional placements, and theoretical and practical grounding in teaching and learning practice in Higher Education, with students also exploring curatorial strategies. I proposed a two day programme that started with an orthodox lecture / presentation, and went on to include one-to-one tutorials and a hands-on lo-tech group ‘play’ activity around disruptive mapping, and finished with a walk. For the teaching / activity outline click Teaching Outline Emma Bolland DJCAD. For notes on the reading list click here. For a transcript of the lecture with illustrations and links to moving image material click Trespassing Knowledge presentation Emma Bolland 2014. At the core of the two day programme were the ownership and definitions of research, knowledge, expertise and the ‘academy’, and the creative fertility of the states of ‘not knowing’ and ‘getting lost’.

In the studio maps were torn, worked over, reconstructed in an afternoon of play. A photocopier was filled with toner and given over to us for an hour – three flights of stairs up and back again to enlarge and shrink and copy. Theory was usurped by tomfoolery, and finesse replaced by slapstick crafting.

The next day we walked abroad. Myself, Duncan, Laura and Dominique set out into the grey rain. Emil and Jane led the others as subversive sat-navs, the whole of us communicating through a specially created Twitter account: WalkeeTalkeeDundee:

“where are you out there?”
“we are here out there?”
“has anyone seen Duncan?”
“we can’t find the airport!”

We walked to the airport, navigating the anti-ambulant environments of dual carriage and ring-roads that do so much to split the activity of walking into that of the city and the country, the everyday and the leisured. The airport was small, and gloriously blue; the world of our walking wonderfully large. We ate chocolate, and walked back again. Three hours of drizzle. Perfect.

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Thank you to Professor Tracy Mackenna for extending the invitation to visit the course, and to the students who joined me over the two days:

Ingrid Bell
Dominique Cameron
Duncan Campbell
Kate Clayton
Laura Donkers
Joanna Foster (PhD researcher)
Jane Murray
Emil Thompson
Drew Walker
Lada Wilson

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A ‘walking as pedagogy’ tactic has been used in the project Place and Memory, of which I am a mentor. Eight emerging artists and writers who all have experience of mental health problems worked together to produce a group exhibition, texts and films that explored their relationship with the city of Leeds. They are currently running a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to be supported in producing a publication and exhibition to complete the project. They have until March 12th to reach their target, and would greatly appreciate your support. To find out about the project click here.

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.