An Invitation, a Reply, and a Reflection: The Essay

An Invitation

Earlier this year, I was honoured to be asked to talk, read, deliver a writing workshop, and screen two short ‘essay films’ at TAKING IDEAS FOR A WALK: THE 2018 ESSAY CONFERENCE, convened by Dundee University Review of the Arts on 19 and 20 June of this year, and held at Hospitalfield House, Arbroath. On being asked to talk informally about my practice, specifically cross media essay form, I decided to prepare this as a series of short letters, as a reply to the invitation, and as a ‘speaking to’. This reply is posted below, together with a few new notes and qualifications, and the links to the two short films. This is followed by a two-part reflection on the conference. I must thank Dr Gail Low, Professor Kirsty Gunn, and Professor Tracy Mackenna for their generous and unexpected invitation.

Imagining Essays Panel. Left to right: Graham Domke, Emma Bolland, Gabriel Josipovici, Chris Arthur, & Kirsty Gunn (Chair). Picture, Lise Olsen 2018

A Reply

Sheffield, March 15th

I got an email today. ‘Hi – we’re running a conference up at Dundee. I want to have a panel on the diversity of essayistic forms. I wonder if we could tempt you to come up and speak to what you do, and the lovely, hybrid work—cross-media especially—that you do with the essay form?’
          I thought, kind words, and then, am I an essayist, now? [1] The email re-framed my ideas of self and practice. Not a re-framing as re-fixing, but re-framing as offering a different doorway, a different point of departure. Hybrid, cross-media essay forms. I’ll have that, I thought. When people ask me, what do you do?, I’ll say, me? I work with hybrid, cross media essay forms. And I thought about the movement of the ‘creative critical’, [2] not so much as a walk along a path, but more as an immersion in a mobile topography, where ideas and forms intersect, inflect.
         I thought about the wording of that email, which asked me not to ‘talk about’, but to‘speak to’. An elusive, but important difference. These letters then, are not just to you, but also to myself, and to the ‘what it is I do’.

Sheffield, March 30th

Did I tell you about my time at art college? I was on a course that had been at the cutting edge of performative, conceptual work, but that unbeknownst to me, in the months between applying and arriving, had undergone a coup of sorts, and was being transformed into one of those muscular material places, staffed by men who liked a pint, who had studied together at the RCA, headed back up North to continue their alliance.
The first week, I made my way up to the film and video unit, and nervously asked to come in. Prior to starting art college, I had been writing longish prose poems that were punkish collages of showgirls, traumas, dreams, and horses. A surreal auto-fiction, years before I knew the term, or considered its potential as a critical ‘I’. I would perform these words at gigs, sometimes just turning up at clubs on the night and asking if I could have ten minutes before the bands, perform them with soundtracks I had spliced together, played on a crappy cassette player I carried with me. I wonder now how I had the nerve, and feel quite proud of fearless, naïve me.      It seemed obvious that once at art college I would work across media, draw and paint perhaps, but also write, perform, make moving image—which I think even then, I saw as a kind of writing.
         So anyway, that first week I made my way up to the film and video unit. The lecturers, the techies—all male, this was the nineteen eighties, after all—looked down at me and said, do you know how to use a camera, do you know what kinds of films you want to make? No. They looked at each other, eyes metaphorically rolling—you can’t just come in here if you don’t know what you are doing. I left, shamed, and spent the next three years painting, because that meant I never had to ask for help. It would be nearly twenty five years before I had the nerve to pick up a camera. At the time it never occurred to me that  I could have said, mate, it’s your job to teach me.

London, April 15th

Those last letters I wrote you, I have to confess that they are a kind of self mythologising, a selection of incidents, a selection of me that serves another purpose, of telling a story that is also an analysis, a proposition, an exploration of a wider world than that of myself. If I have a signature, a marker for my work, it is that of the autofictive, the strategically subjective, what Anna Stetsenko referred to, when I heard her speak last month,—did I tell you how great she was?—as ‘s/objective’, s-slash-objective, subjectivity as objectivity. [3] Autofiction in simple terms does what it says on the tin: it combines factual autobiography with fiction. It is an approach that has been criticised as solipsistic, a form whose most ‘crushing weakness [is] historical amnesia’. [4] But maybe certain uses of autofiction might refigure the ‘I’ as ‘eye’, encompass a wider discourse, employ a networked ‘self’ as a ficto-critical tool. [5]

London, April 20th

I’m in the British Library, reading H.D, and thinking about the conditions of writing. How she wrote The Gift, a memoir of her childhood, under the conditions of war. I imagine her writing through the ruptures of the air raids, typewriter keys clattering away above the sound of shelling, writing in fragments; firing off volatile pronouns and tenses; shuffling the sense of who is speaking, of what, and when.

Sheffield, May 1st

A day spent thinking about the potency of the rupture, the break. There are writers, speakers, practitioners who I position as essayists, even though they might not do so themselves. Maggie Nelson, Lara Pawson, Nathalie Léger, Daniela Cascella, and the translator Kate Briggs. In Kate’s most recent book This Little Art (2017) she writes in patchworks and page breaks of translating Roland Barthes, of what it is to translate, of what it is to move between languages, the shifts that occur.
Kate spoke, a few weeks ago, of this book as being the first  in which she has written as the ‘I’, and of the possibility that it might be the last. [6] But who knows, she shrugged. Earlier that day there had been a discussion of the absence of the ‘I’ in academic writing. But we all know it’s there, right?—I said. It might not be written on the page but we all know it’s there. I’ve marked my copy of This Little Art with indigo page markers. I didn’t start reading it until they had arrived. I like to make my favourite texts into objects, and order the coloured markers from Germany. Kate has indigo, Lara scarlet, Maggie grey, and Nathalie a sepia brown. For Daniela’s latest, I think it will be orange, as the cover is dark and the title is Singed (2017).

Berlin, May 5th

I’m listening to a friend perform. They are so good I’m actually in pain with envy. I’m finding it hard to focus on the day, worrying that I’ve been asked to speak to you of what I do, to what I do. I’m happier using myself to speak about something or someone else; which is in fact what I do, so it shouldn’t be a problem, but the fact that it shouldn’t be a problem makes it so.
Anyway, I’ve made some notes about an effort, an essay, of  moving between dreams, fictions and facts, of employing critical and political histories, of using more than one language, of making bad translations, of elegance, of barking like a dog, of mangling syntax, of prose, poems, scripts, images, typographies, collages, objects, ruptures and breaks, of romances, of nonsense, of failure, of  inconclusiveness, of lack. Most of all, of making things up.

Sheffield, May 10th

I’m re-reading Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden (2015). It is  an account, more than an account, of her search for a the life of the actor, writer, and director Barbara Loden. It is cinematic, shifting between scenes and tenses, paragraphs switching from descriptions of Loden’s films, to descriptions of Léger herself as she moves through the same landscapes. A recurring motif is her repeated attempts to get access to the  kinds of materials that are commonly agreed to contain ‘the truth’: archives, press cuttings, letters, photographs, files, interviews with Loden’s surviving family. None of her efforts are successful, and in the end she turns to fiction as investigative method, asking a question of who is writing who,  piecing a speculation. Léger writes that she finds herself wavering between wanting to know nothing and wanting to know everything; writing only on condition that she knows nothing, or writing only on condition that she omits nothing.

Manchester, May 19th

I’ve just performed a text on the top floor of a car park at midnight, a piece I made last year that is violent and messy, that uses as its starting point Lacan’s essay on Edgar Allan Poe’s detective story ‘The Purloined Letter’, in which Lacan proposes that truth reveals its fictional ordering. My text, (which reads in its body as fiction, embeds its footnotes like fact-daggers, and veers off, in its postscript, into lighthouse engineering, Robert Louis Stevenson, and my father), is a bugger to read from the page. I have used different typefaces for different affects, a tactic that I regretted in that moment. Also, I hadn’t realised that the audience would be so young, and was editing out the filth as I went along.
Tomorrow I’m in London, reading a different piece of filth, which is both a consideration of Twitter porn, and a screenplay account of the time I punched a man, for real, on a rowdy train.

Sheffield, June 12th

More emails today. Hi, I wrote, I’m thinking it might be too complicated to show the short films at the essay conference. When you asked about showing work I just assumed (my bad) that the set up was in place, but it seems as though it is getting rather complicated. I imagine you have enough to sort out without all this. I am more than happy to just read. See you on Monday! A reply comes quickly. I’m still looking into this because I love those videos!
I’m pleased, and surprised because it’s hard for me to like my work, and these films were made a while ago. I’ve been told that, if you want to be professional, then to have doubt, ambivalence about one’s work, is not a good thing. Perhaps not, career wise, but doubt is often what I often want from work. Ambivalence and doubt are points of departure, they leave spaces for different kinds of thinking. I don’t ever want to be certain, I don’t ever want to write a surety, I don’t ever want to tell it straight, tell it ‘like it is’—who am I to say what it is like? An essay is—and now I contradict myself, by sounding sure—an essay is a conversation, a push and pull. An essay should not end when it ends.

See you soon, Emma

Notes

[1] For the purposes of my text, I am disingenuous—of course I know that the essay, among other things, is what I do.
[2] See Stephen Benson and Claire Connors (eds.), Creative Criticism: An Anthology and Guide, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press , 2014, for an introduction to and a range selections of creative critical approaches and essays.
[3] Anna Stetsenko, public lecture at Sheffield Hallam, University 26 May 2018 , talking about her book The Transformative Mind: Expanding Vygotsky’s Approach to Development and Education, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
[4] Elizabeth H. Jones, ‘Autofiction: A Brief History of a Neoligism’, in Life Writing, ed. Richard Bradford, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009, 174–84, p. 174.
[5] I am in the process of thinking through these ideas, of politicising, weaponising, critically and theoretically positioning auto-fiction as a strategy that moves beyond the subjective. Chris Kraus, in asserting her rejection of the term, says ‘I would never use that term. It’s such a strange term. It’s applied to my work, and to a lot of other people’s work, but I would never use it. There are so many examples in the history of literature of a male first-person that’s used pretty closely to the identity of the writer, and we don’t call it that. The corny beat example, Jack Kerouac, we don’t call that autofiction. Herman Melville, do we call that autofiction? All of American realism that’s written in the first person – we don’t call that autofiction.’ (Quoted in Alex James, ‘Drawn from life: why have novelists stopped making things up?‘, The Guardian, 23 June 2018). James’s article, while largely positive about the genre, suggests that autofiction may be a term that has been used to undermine women’s writing because it emphasises the subjective. More than fifty percent of the writers she name checks are women. A Guardian article from 2010 by Sarah Crown asks ‘Is auto fiction strictly a boys game?‘, saying that ‘hardly any women’ have used the form. Even a cursory glance at say, French women writers of the twentieth century would expose the fallacy of this claim. Additionally, Cis and trans women (and trans men) employ autofictive strategies. Juliet Jacques explicitly positions autofiction as political, as the writing strategy which allowed her to write Trans: A Memoir (2015) and offers antecedents in Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues (1993):  ‘The best books on Autofiction: Beatrice Wilford interviews Juliet Jacques‘, https://fivebooks.com/best-books/juliet-jacques-autofiction/.   
[6] Plenary speech at Critical Reinventions, University of East Anglia 12 May 2018

 

Two Short Essay Films

Lectolalia (2015) was made for the Leeds College of Art & Design ‘Library Interventions’ residencies, wherein artists are invited to respond to the library and its collections. A companion text of the same name is available from Gordian Projects. In a performance of the draft of this text I invited the audience to annotate the manuscript, and these annotations are included in the publication as endnotes.

 

The IS of the Thing (2014) was made for the London stage (curated by David Berridge, writer and publisher at Very Small Kitchen, and writer and aartist Claire Potter) 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 was generously hosted by X Marks The Bøkship at Matt’s Gallery.

 

 

A Reflection in Two Parts

I. On Great Men

…the first use of education was to enable us to consult with the wisest and the greatest of all men on all points of earnest difficulty… Let us do this now. Let us see wether the greatest, the wisest, the purest-hearted of all ages are agreed in anywise on this point: let us hear the testimony they have left respecting what they held to be the true dignity of women, and her mode of help to man.

John Ruskin, ‘Of Queen’s Gardens’, Sesame and Lilies (1865)

During the excellent ‘Teaching Essays’ panel (Peter MacDonald, Elizabeth Reader, Mary Bovill, and Gail Low), Peter offered us the above quote as an example of the ‘victorian sage’, the essayistic device whereby the author calls upon an existing authority to underline his (I use this pronoun deliberately) own. [1] This device, whether on the page or from the mouth is—I feel this in my subjective, unmastered, unscholarly, unaccredited, johnny-come-lately, uppity gut—part of a wider and continuing politics of citation wherein great men cite great men cite great men cite great men cite great men. Thus the canon is defended and defined.

The Essay conference was ambitious, and international, and in this ambition had rightly platformed a number of great men, respected voices, major scholars. It was odd though, in these times, to note that these great men were actually all men, older white men to boot. (An aside: being old and white and male is not an excuse. Some of my favourite writers and thinkers are ancient, pasty-faced, and be-penised). It was odd to listen to their assertions and generalisations: that young people are ignorant—they dare to write without reading Proust or Montaigne (there are no other essayists, one would think)—; that academics have it easy (this from a journalist-publisher-essayist, seemingly uncaring that he maligned his hosts); that auto-fictive approaches are not rigorous; that if one was a GOOD writer then one wouldn’t need or want to write experimentally; that there are no good critical essayists under sixty to be found; that the internet is rubbish and no one reads anymore; that the fact that only 26% of the LRB’s contributing essayists are women was ‘a matter for a different conference’; to see the spectacle of one great man unabashedly comparing himself to Gore Vidal; to hear the dismissal of Susan Sontag as someone who ‘lacked the empathy or humour to be a novelist’; to witness a male respondent take up twenty minutes of a shared half hour slot (largely talking about himself, rather than doing the job of responding), leaving the other two respondents (both young women) with ten minutes between them; the indifference to writers of colour, to queer writing, to class, to contemporary political writing; the indifference to contemporary or non-mainstream platforms (both online and in print) for essay practice… it was odd… even more odd was the sense of affront when this generalisation, indifference, grandstanding, and gatekeeping were challenged, as if there was a fear that difference is annihilatory. Do not fear, great men. We are not like you. We seek only to broaden the discourse, not to silence yours. (Also, this is academia, mates. If you want to dish it out, be prepared to eat it up).

The good thing about being faced with the thin rhetoric of great men, is that one is heartened by the richness of one’s own abilities. Arriving at the conference nervous of my status as an outsider, of my background in an art-and-writing rather than a literary-writing world, I was surprised by how much I knew that they didn’t, how my critical ambition outstripped theirs. (is this arrogant? I don’t care. Nor do I care that I bang off these words with dodgy punctuation, with ‘thoughs’ and ‘thos’ and too many of them, and do not have the time to edit, rethink, restructure, refine).

 

II. On the Good Stuff, on the Actual Great (including the best picture I will ever have of myself, ever)

Reading a pornographic essay, watched over by a giant naked woman. She has my nose. (Thanks to Lise Olsen for the photograph).

And breathe. The thing is though, it was great. To meet new and interesting people, to catch up with old friends, to become aware of new work, to hear about constructive and creative pedagogies, to be so generously hosted… To Gail Low, Kirsty Gunn, Elizabeth Reader, Peter MacDonald, Chris Arthur, Graham Domke, Tracy Mackenna, Kenny Taylor (and others, forgive me, whose names I forget), it was my pleasure. To the participants in my workshop, likewise.

I left with the sense that the future of the creative, critical, lyrical, experimental (or whatever) essay form is healthy, situated across disciplines, affirming my knowledge of and belief in the already extant links between creative writing, academic writing, art-writing, artistic, journalistic, and experimental literature communities. Just one example of these relations is Critical Reinventions, a symposium held earlier this year at the UEA. Though hosted by the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing, two of the three keynote speakers, Kate Briggs and Daniela Cascella, have trans-disciplinary writing practices, and teach in art schools. The Critical Reinventions website states that

‘Recent years have been witness to a diversification in the forms and registers of literary-critical writing. Conventional practice continues to flourish, but alongside and in dialogue with an increasingly inventive field of non-standard criticism. The reasons for the emergence of this field are several. They include the so-called post-critical turn, contentious as it is, and the desire for ‘reparative’ as well as ‘paranoid’ orientations in critical practice; the long legacy of critical theory conceived as an ongoing provocation to the content of the form of critical writing; the continued health of small-press and open access publishing, where hybridized and innovative modes of critical writing can flourish; and a renaissance in the essay, along with renewed attention to its histories and formal possibilities. Critical Reinventions aims to mark the diversity of formal invention in contemporary creative-critical practice by focusing on the life, histories and potential futures of a range of types of writing’.

Taking an Idea for Walk: The Essay conference, though very different in feel to Critical Reinventions, was as important, as it opened up the space for conversation and debate, ‘expanding’ the panels through interstices of readings and performance, and through the physical interventions of artworks, curations, and workshops.

Finally, (for I have a deadline to meet, and a bad cold, and it so hot that I am writing in my undies), to the young woman who informed the great men that they would probably all be dead in twenty years, and that younger writers didn’t care about the cultural gatekeeping because they were making their own spaces, their own platforms, inclusive, radical, brave (at which point the room burst into applause), to that young woman I say ‘brava/bravo/bravx’.

Notes

[1] Peter emphasised that he made students aware of these kinds of traditions in the broader context of a diverse and critical history of and approach to the essay, mentioning, among other contemporary and near contemporary practitioners, Denise Riley and Amit Chaudhuri.

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.

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.