Following my reflections on self-isolation, making oneself an island, in this current climate of coronavirus lockdown, I wanted to experiment with creating an earthwork in performance. A moat, while ostensibly being a body of water, is first an earthwork – involving the movement and construction of large amounts of earth. I planned that this should primarily involve my push gesture, on my knees, arms extended, pushing the earth away so that it would create a trench and a mound encircling me.
The video above records this process, which in fact ended up seeing much more tearing and pulling than pushing – I encountered several areas where the earth was resisting my efforts, and felt great frustration and hopelessness. I persevered, and it took great physical effort. I paused at the end to rest, recover my breath, and find peace in the space I had made for myself. Throughout we hear and see the effect of external forces (the wind), and some passersby can be spotted in the background, and reflected in my reaction during my recovery period.
I decided to walk out to Northchurch Common, approx. 25 minutes walk from my home, to conduct this performance, taking with me my camera and holder. I chose this place as I was aware of there being historic earthworks in this area, used for a similar protective purpose. I discovered a tree near to these earthworks with suitably low-hanging branches I could affix my camera to, with a patch of ground that would be appropriate for my experiment.
I particularly wanted to engage with the process of making the earthwork using my hands/fingers, rather than using any tool or gloves to shield or protect myself. Firstly, so that my only protection was coming from the earthwork itself – we have no defence from this virus other than the practices of self-isolation, social distancing, and hand washing. Secondly, to directly undermine this hand washing practice – making my hands purposefully very dirty. Thirdly, as a representation of manual labour – I am literally labouring with my very hands, something that is atypical for someone of the middle class, and in our digital world where we engage less and less with the physical, with nature. Lastly, to make this most personal and direct means of expressing – by sensorially and manually engaging with the earth, I felt I might be better able to channel my emotions through my actions.
I chose to dress in black, to reflect the dark emotions I was exploring, and to avoid drawing focus from my actions. But too, the top I wore was similar to a dance leotard. I chose to keep on my accessories (engagement ring, watch, earrings, hairband), which I felt personalised the video more, made it individual and also feminised. It also roots the act in my identity and social strata (something I cannot escape). I kept on my practical hiking shoes, though in retrospect I think it would have been poignant to have worked barefoot here.
That my top rides up at the back in the video, revealing my lower back, was unintended, but is a curious effect. It highlights my vulnerability in this process, as well as being an unflattering view of my body. This harks back to my future self-portrait, which sought too to highlight and undermine notions of feminine beauty.
I think I will need to do some further research, to understand land art as a context, and what female performance has taken place within a context of nature/earth previously.
Following my reflection, I wanted to explore the push gesture in water. I feel that I may be preparing for a performance at the moat at Berkhamsted Castle, but I want to develop my idea further before doing so. I chose to investigate the water butt in my garden, since being so deep it offered the same darkness/contrast in reflected light that the moat itself has. This limited the extent of the gesture I could adopt here, but it was interesting to explore the ripple effect and methods in video editing in Premiere Pro, since the uni have now had the Adobe suite made accessible from our home computers.
I chose to accentuate the effects on the water by slowing down the movement. The accompanying audio becomes quite mesmerising, and the shifting water creates some very interesting warped abstractions. Here are two videos I made of the footage, one in black and white, and the other in colour, zoomed in so that the edges of the water butt are no longer visible.
I especially like this decontextualised view of the water, further abstracting the reflected imagery. The light dances.
It would be interesting to repeat this on a larger scale – perhaps in the moat itself, though I am unsure if this would be possible within the current lockdown (or if it might break any rules more generally on site).
Water itself has some intriguing connotations – life-giving and preserving, cleansing, and appears in various rituals (washing of feet, baptism, blessing etc.) and routine behaviours primarily associated as women’s work, such as laundry, cleaning/scrubbing, washing up. There is also a sexualisation of water when applied to the body – think of wet t-shirt competitions and the car wash.
It too reminds me of the Pre-Raphaelite painting Ophelia by John Everett Millais, depicting the tragic character from the play Hamlet. She falls into the water but continues to sing, unaware or uncaring of the danger to herself, before drowning herself. The painting is rich and verdant, the figure appears floating and as one with nature, but it is eery too – her face pale and close to death, her palms upraised in surrender, mid-song.
Researching this briefly, I came across an article about the significance of water in this Shakespeare play, which too looks to where else this symbolism is seen (excerpts below).
Water has long been a powerful symbol in literature: rains denote cleansing, the equality of mortality, and the rebirth of Spring. Baptisms also denote rebirth, while rivers and oceans connect people, denote the unknown, potentialities, and broadly speaking, the unconscious. But here we have an eroding kind of water, the sort that might carve a canyon, or a body.
Repetition and action–perhaps in a trade–are ways of lasting, and of keeping out the water, during life and even after death. The great antidote to the will-eroding current of introspective consciousness and the paralysis, stagnation, putrefaction, and death which follows, is action.
A river separates the land of the living from the land of the dead, in both Greek mythology and in the oldest story we have, the epic of Gilgamesh, wherein the protagonist’s contemplation of death drives him to the ends of the earth in an unsuccessful pursuit for immortality. The myth of Narcissus and the pool depicts the same danger of excessive introspection in a more direct and literal manner: Narcissus, enraptured with his own beautiful appearance in the pool, leans in too far and drowns.
Water is both a powerful danger to be feared as well as a necessary agent of changing ourselves. We don’t want to stagnate and rot like a corpse, after all.
It seems then that water is a very apt element for me to be exploring as part of my theme of self-expression, being a tool of introspection and something we both seek out and shun through action. It’s interesting this too should harken to the flaw of narcissism in considering the self too much.
I was keen to get started experimenting with linear gestural mark-marking. It was important for me to capture the process of this as potential starting points for performance too, but as I have been cautioned not to use the studio space in the university due to the corona virus shut down, I was presented with a challenge to make use of my home environment to do this in!
My first challenge was in erecting some way of filming the process from above, as I do not own a tripod or the special craning equipment that would be used by professionals. I discovered a DIY instruction for a cardboard cradle of sorts for my phone that could be affixed to the ceiling using masking tape, and used this for some drawing experimentation in my sitting room. This floor is carpeted, which would mean it less than ideal for paint work, but does give me the most floor space in which to work.
Having centred myself by completing a yoga exercise, and reflecting in my journal, I decided I would explore different modes of attack for my gestural drawings – from standing, from kneeling, and from lying down. I was also keen to see the difference between using a large graphite stick and large charcoal (i chose these large materials to more easily capture my gesture across a wide surface, and for greater distinction in pressure, orientation etc). I opted to do these with my eyes mostly shut whilst moving, so that my gesture might be guided from the sensation/from within, rather than aesthetic appraisal. I did allow myself moments in between marks to assess whether further marks were needed or not.
I think the standing piece is my least preferred, it is more chaotic and less readily understood in terms of being gesture. I especially enjoy the expression of the charcoal, the pushing/expelling nature, and how the paper in fact moved away from me and contributed to the mark itself. Kneeling seems to be the posture in which I can exercise more control of expression, and capture the full arcing of my arm movements. Lying down was intriguing for allowing movement that was not isolated to the arms as much, and for more chance to be involved (when the graphite was caught in my hair and made no mark on the paper).
While the cardboard cradle worked for this short experiment, i found that the masking tape peeled away and the camera angle could not be easily perfected. The sound of the tape coming away was quite distracting, so I decided I would purchase a cheap phone holder as an alternative. I reasoned that if I am needing to use my phone camera to document anyway then this is a worthwhile investment!
I decided to try a paint pour experiment using this holder, this time working on my kitchen floor (to prevent any spills marking my carpet!) and had the holder clamped on my kitchen table. This allowed for a more up close view of the work in progress, but less vantage of my full body movement. I think this shot though is better suited to the A1 paper size I am currently working with.
I chose Ultramarine colour to experiment with, as I believe it the nearest to the blue of Yves Klein. I wanted to repeat to some extent the gesture used in my charcoal piece – the pushing element I thought might be interesting explored in a more fluid sense. Perhaps in my execution I was more focused on the pour (I did not perform this with my eyes closed, though perhaps I should repeat this with them shut!) and so there is less forcefulness in my gesture. It seems more meditative.
During our trip to Berlin in half term, we were offered 3 briefs. I chose to focus on the one titled ‘Through the window, outside in/inside out’. Here I was to explore the window as an intermediate space of communication between exterior and interior, as well as its materiality and reflective properties.
I felt drawn to this in particular as this dialogue between exterior and interior could be used as a metaphor for the interior and exterior self, something I am looking to explore further in my FMP. Here I have segmented some of the photos I feel most successful that I took during the trip, according to the theme I feel they best espouse: materiality & reflection, looking in/out & framing, concealment, distortion, openings, with some text discussing each in turn.
Materiality & Reflection
I was particularly interested in this reflective quality of windows. At once, we are seeing through and also back at ourselves/our reality. It creates a new reality, one that only exists at that particular perspective, a fiction. It is therefore fleeting and ephemeral. Something the camera can exploit and frustrate. In this too, in the process of capturing that reflection I was often capturing a reflection of myself, a self-portrait that was not the primary intention of the photograph. These were intriguingly anonymised though, as I held it up to my face to see through the viewfinder, my face is obscured almost completely by the camera itself.
The reflective quality of glass in windows was apparently a central interest for Walter Gropius in the design of the Bauhaus school in Dessau, where he made use of spiegelglas (mirror glass) to enhance reflectivity, which we visited on our trip.
I was also interested to discover at the Bauhaus museum the photographs of Marianne Brandt, who was a student and then faculty member leading the metal workshop at the school. Here she had a series of self-portraits using a spherical reflective surface, choosing to make her face visible, which reminded me of a similar sketched self-portrait by M.C. Escher. These distorted reflections are interesting, though I do wonder if she was more interested in the materiality of the metal than the exploration of self here.
Looking in /out – framing
In review of the photos I had taken that could fit under this theme, I found that I did not like the aesthetic of many of them. I found the framed view wanting. Here the selected group lend a certain eery sensibility. I think from the mode of surveillance/observation that this takes. All of them seem to be off kilter for me as a viewer, and there is something particularly sinister with the harsh highlighting in the first picture, of the man at leisure. It reminds me of Hopper somewhat.
When we toured the Boros Collection during our trip, we were introduced to the work of Peter Piller, who works from an archive of collected photographs from print and digital media, and in this case from the collection of a home photography retailer operating before Google Maps (who took aerial photos of in residential areas to sell to the residents). One of the series from this collection that we saw comprised 9 photos with houses where the window blinds were shut.
I found it interesting how he effectively analysed and catalogued these collections, identifying patterns in behaviour and in the stereotyped language of media imagery. Another series showed people washing their cars in front of their homes. I was interested to explore this for myself, and so took photos of windows that were obscured from external view in some way. Particularly interesting for me was the sense that these sleeping buildings were left derelict, or were more susceptible to graffiti. But too that the means of concealment/shuttering often provided intriguing colour. I especially like the colour scheme of the final photograph, with the sub-bleached pale mint green colour on the blinds, marrying with the mottled pastel pink effect of the distressed white-washed brick walls.
I like these photos for giving a sense of dislocation. The exterior is not visible, reduced only to a blurred white light, and there is little detail in the interior to provide context here either. It subverts the purpose of the window for seeing in or out, and makes it more of an abstract form in itself – we see the window itself. The surrounding light (or absence of it) is in contrast to that which illuminates the window – we see the window as having a primary function of illuminating the interior, bringing the light in. But in each case this purpose is also somewhat undermined by dirt, or blinds, or colouration of the panes. I am most pleased by the depth and shade occurring in the first photograph here, the most abstracted, with the simplicity of just one pane of glass.
This dislocation was also explored by an artist I saw at the Kindl gallery in Berlin, who made a site-specific in the Kesselhaus there. She covered the 3 windowless walls with true-to-life floor to ceiling prints of the windows that are seen on the fourth wall of the Kesselhaus. When we observe these prints, we are simultaneously seeing the exterior, but not the exterior we would see were those windows in fact real.
I was also interested in windows where the distinction between interior and exterior was less clear – when the window is open or broken. A broken window implies some sort of violent act (whether human or not), in the act of breaking the glass itself, but also violating that boundary of exterior/interior. But whether cracked or open, it would still for us be defined as a window all the same.
One of the things that captivated me following the initial group ideation session we had around Futures, was the notion that technology could progress such that not only human-computer mental interfacing was possible, but human-human, i.e. telepathy (the communication of ideas/thoughts by means other than the senses).
The idea of telepathy first caught on in western culture in the 19th century, following on from the spread of spiritualism (communing with the spirit realm/the dead) and animal magnetism/mesmerism (whereby healing can occur via induced trances and hypnotism). These pseudosciences caught on in response to the fantastical advances in science that were making the world at once more understood and more mysterious. Why should we only trust our senses if there are microscopic cells (with cell theory – that we are made up of cells – only being formulated in 1839), and if time can be relative (theory of relativity in 1905).
Hilma af Klint was interested in spiritualism, and can also be credited with the first abstract art – exploring automatic drawing in attempts to visualise this non-visible reality. I encountered some of her sketches in the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, and enjoyed how naive and free they seemed, some of which are below. The nesting and interaction of colourful organic forms, and looping, swooping lines also appeal.
Magicians then, using biological cues, performed ‘thought reading’ stunts, which still continue to this day. Indeed, much of the trends seen in the 19th century reared their heads again during the New Age in the 1970s, e.g. the idea of ‘channelling’ spirits or the collective unconscious via trances to gain new information. This took a strange turn as documented in the book and film adaptation of The Men Who Stare at Goats, with the American military hoping to harness the power of psychic agents for intelligence-gathering (and also, bizarrely, attempting to harm or kill psychically)
This idea of psychic ability being used as a weapon or military advantage is also explored in fiction, e.g. in Star Trek with the Vulcan mind meld appearing in it’s first season, and then later too with empaths such as Betazoids and the hive mind of the Borg. The notion of ‘hacking’ or mind control of another by means of such interfacing is a central theme of fiction such as Ghost in the Shell. This relies too on the notion of interconnected technological knowledge and AI systems within a ‘cyberspace’ – a concept conceived before the internet by William Gibson in his Neuromancer novel, but now a term used to refer to it.
But for me, I am interested in the consequences of such technology. If we were able to communicate telepathically, would this make language redundant? Would we lose language, particularly in our more intimate relationships? This could be a means in which telepathy could be a force for good, and answering a central human desire to be understood – enabling us to fully intimately understand and know our romantic partners and significant others. But what might be lost from our current relationships, and would this be a destructive or positive change?
There is a unique mode of communication already in existence between romantic partners, a secret language you only use within that context – formed of in-jokes, pet names, and particular phrases or patterns of speech that you build together. In a world where you could communicate without language, this would be defunct. I explored some ideas for how we could record these future dead languages, to house in future museums.
Below is a work I encountered in an exhibition at the Whitechapel gallery, curated to explore a post-language society (here conceived as a post-apocalyptic eventuality). The work below explores communication through a personal visual language, which are curious, but I’m unsure if they truly communicate (though perhaps they are recognisable to a native spanish speaker!) – it’s intriguing to see here again colourful, somewhat organic forms appearing.
Returning to my idea… The thought that these languages would be shared, which previously have been intimate and private between two people, is intriguing but one which made me feel unsure I could in good conscience ask people to share with me openly. This is interesting in itself, that I would hesitate to do so. That making open and shareable something entirely private is similar to this notion of sharing our inner most thoughts with others via telepathy. It is certainly an uneasy future being imagined.
What then could be more private than our own sense of self, our inner eye. What might it mean for our perceptions of self, if we can be fully aware of how others perceive us, and view ourselves through their eyes? Would this exacerbate or destroy the current situation of ‘selfie culture’ – whereby we feel pressured to curate our online image to the extent that our bodies, our lives appear perfectly manicured (whether doctored through photoshop or filters or not), and the comparison of ourselves to the online image of others is damaging to our mental health. The obsession with picturing ourselves in any and all situations can be seen as narcissistic and superficial, but it reveals our humanity too. Our desire to understand ourselves, to fit in and be understood by others. To mark our place in the world, and confirm yes I do exist. But this conflict between our inner world and how we appear externally is hard to process – and body dysmorphia and eating disorders are on the rise.
I very rarely take selfies of myself. My profile picture for several years on Facebook has me in sunglasses that obscure much of my face. This is not out of a particular desire to be unknown, or undocumented. I admittedly do see flaws in my appearance, and suffer that horror when you accidentally have the camera facing the wrong way when you turn it on on your phone. So I never spontaneously feel the urge to do so – to take a selfie feels contrived for me, though I understand it can be different for others! I was interested then to explore this possibility, of the complete knowledge of my appearance to others, and engage in a process that exposed me more than I would usually be comfortable. To invade my own privacy.
To do so, I recorded my appearance in a typical evening at home with my fiance. By attaching a head-mounted GoPro to him, I hoped to approximate his point of view and gain this notion of the self-image through someone else’s eyes. Below, I edited together only those moments when I was in frame. It provides a disjointed account of the time spent making dinner, and the conversation appears surreal.
The camera angle feels like I am floating above myself – as though in an outer-body-experience – which I suppose this is! It is disorienting how it jerks around according to his head movements.
It is uncomfortable seeing so much of myself in a video, to see less than flattering angles and lighting. Much like the confusion when hearing your voice on a recording (how it never sounds quite as you hear it in your own head), it seemed strange to see my idiosyncrasies – mannerisms and facial expressions – played out in front of me. I feel vulnerable in particular when seeing how my eyes remain closed sometimes when talking – something I am unaware of doing in the moment. Also – I seem so short! In all I think this was a successful experiment.
Here are some musings I had around the future. It is intriguing to me how futures have this dualism, being at one point something within and outside of our control. The knowledge that there are infinite possible futures can be both empowering and bewildering. But then the notion that our futures are already decided, or not within our power to change, is similarly fraught.
Anxiety is commonly to do with concerns and worries surrounding future events (whether immediate or distant), because of imagined negative predictions. The uncertainty of what will occur in future events means that we all predict to some extent what to expect in order for us to effectively plan for that event, whether our brain is reliably doing so or not is a matter for mental health professionals. But it is intriguing for me this planning and prediction, and fear of the unknown.
I thought it could be interesting to explore this prediction/imagining of the future through some questions posed to my peers, to see how differently they might all be doing so. I chose to create a questionnaire with suitable ambiguous and open-ended questions in order to do so. I also wanted to ensure I was accessing their personal future, rather than a prediction about humanity, which could rely less on their own personal prediction than something they have read elsewhere. So I chose to play with the dual meaning of ‘where are you going’ as in a physical or spiritual location. A destination that can be self-determined by the respondent. Below is an example of a response to my questionnaire.
Recent trends which have addressed this anxiety (which we are told is on the rise) include mindfulness, as well as the popular pursuit of yoga and pilates. These all bring us back to Zen buddhism practices, which I was reflecting on previously.
observation and being seen (how not to be seen video)
I think it could be interesting to create a set of instructions for navigating the unknown. Not only in terms of the map making that I have explored so far with the grid, but also in the other ways we make sense of the world, and how we might go about getting to know the unknown, e.g. stories, histories, signs, rules, rituals etc.
I also saw this fascinating and amusing work by Hito Steyerl called How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File at the Tate Liverpool gallery. It provides a series of instructions for how to avoid being seen, and takes it’s name from the Monty Python sketch.
I find the voiceover particularly fascinating – it reminds me of the robotic voices of assistive AIs such as Siri, but also sounds like it has been distorted or slowed down, slurring. This reinforces the ridiculous nature of the film, which I enjoy.
In a similar vein, I have drafted a set of instructions for navigating unknown spacetimes. The intention is that a person should act out the instructions whenever they find themselves in a place that is unknown that they would like to become familiar with, to help them navigate this anxiety. I have sought to make this similar to the mindfulness meditation exercises commonly shared. For instance, a suggestion on this website is to meditate while washing up:
Savor the feeling of the warm water on your hands, the look of the bubbles, the sounds of the pans clunking on the bottom of the sink.
Apparently this form of meditation is proposed by Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh! I love how this everyday experience has been transformed into something transcendental and spiritual from mere instructions on what to focus your attention on. Something so simple but seemingly world-bending, while doing a mundane chore.
Below is a download link to a draft of my instruction leaflet.
I intended to try and cover the different ways humans go about getting to know or make sense of places (indicated by the different chapter titles), and imitating them so that I could create a set of actions that could capture this in miniature, to readily turn an unknown place into one you are well-acquainted, or in fact intimately knowledgeable of. I think this achieves this (though I or some willing participants will need to test it out!). I have also managed to work in my learning about grid cells and how the brain ‘maps’ the world, by including instructions for moving using a hexagonal pattern. What I feel I have lost though from the examples I have looked to, is this sense of humour and nonsense… though some of the actions do seem odd, I don’t think they go as far as to be funny. I like though that the framing of it as for ‘conscious agents’ and ‘spacetimes’ implies for me that it could almost be a future person, or alien person discovering a wholly new place and time, though it remains open to interpretation.
I was keen to explore how the grid cell pattern, once ‘unveiled’ within the world, might disrupt people’s movement. I was also eager to understand the nature of future as unknown, and something we can only imperfectly plan for.
In order to capture this, I decided to ‘disrupt’ space that is usually transitory in nature, and might see a more predictable mode of transport across it. I laid out a grid of post-it notes on the floor of a corridor in the Art school, choosing intentionally one that is a little unusual, for having uneven floor, a partitioning rail, and small staircase, as well as obstacles such as a fire extinguisher.
Participants were first asked to plan their route across the grid on an exercise sheet I provided. I intentionally did not provide a scale or inform them of the side of the grid they would enter first, or reveal the location of the grid within real space. Once they had drawn this, I brought them to the end of the corridor where they would approach the space and let them do so unassisted.
Following their interaction, I asked them to record the route they had taken in interacting with the grid.
It was interesting to see the participants engaging with the grid space, several of them adopted a less-natural gait in order to more precisely recite the route they had planned, and we saw their arms being used for balance and to help navigate obstacles. It could be interesting to reenact these movements once decontextualised by the grid/this particular space. Several participants walked on tiptoe in order to avoid stepping on the post-it notes.
An unexpected observation was the change in participants’ mental states throughout the exercise. There was a certain nervousness and confusion when first being instructed on the task, and uncertainty in the chosen route. Some expressed some frustration on discovering the grid was unlike the space as they had imagined. There was a general sense of focus and concentration during the task, followed by a sense of achievement and enjoyment on completion of it. If I were to repeat this I think I would seek to find a way to record this change in mental state more fully, as this anxious anticipation could be a natural state of future thinking.
It would be interesting to do a similar exercise using a much larger space, and/or to repeat the exercise with participants who have more expertise in gesture and movement, e.g. dancers. I enjoyed when there were two participants engaging at once, and having multiple agents seeking to complete their routes at the same time could be interesting in itself.