Pain, love and the ritual of creative expression

‘Pain is love, love is pain. 

And it’s out of pain that I create. 

…In my life I’ve turned my biggest heartaches into songs.’  – Lykke Li(WeTransfer, 2018)

In the process of becoming a mother and simultaneously losing people who were close to her, Lykke Li was also losing herself ‘as a woman and as an artist’ and that she felt like she needed ‘to start all over again (WeTransfer, 2018).’ Losing something or someone important to us, is not only about the physical and practical – the literal empty space – it also affects our identity; in the process of loss we lose parts of who we are, and we may need to find ways to recreate parts of ourselves and adjust to the now empty space.

‘Love is pain, pain is love. And it is out of pain that I’m reborn.’  – Lykke Li(WeTransfer, 2018)

These words by singer-songwriter Lykke Li can be linked back to a paragraph in a previous post about self-portraits and therapeutic photography, where I briefly discuss the ‘healing power’ of art referencing Cristina Nunez (2013) and agreeing with her that difficult emotions are the raw material of art. Tragedy and pain has fuelled many creative works throughout history (Langh, 2018). The concept of pain and raw emotions being a starting point for creativity and rebirth can also be linked to the philosophy of alchemy, as mentioned in the previous post. During a creative process, such as the one Lykke Li is describing, something complex and dark is strengthened through a careful process that results in a ‘purification’ or ‘rebirth’.

 

Resources

Langh, H. (2018) 'The photograph and self-therapy', Magical fragments: emotional objects as a source for self-reflective storytelling, 24 August. Available at: http://henrica.myblog.arts.ac.uk/2018/08/24/the-photograph-and-self-therapy/ (Accessed: 19 October 2018)

Nunez, C. (2013) The self-portrait as self-therapy, in Loewenthal, D. (ed.) Phototherapy and therapeutic photography in a digital age. East Sussex: Routledge, pp. 95-105

WeTransfer (2018) We Transfer Presents Work In Progress: Lykke Li. Available at: https://wepresent.wetransfer.com/story/work-in-progress-episode-3-lykke-li/ (Accessed: 19 October 2018)

Emotional alchemy

 

‘Everything comes from the One and returns to the One, by the One, for the One.’ (Klossowski de Rola, 1973, p. 14)

 

Alchemy is commonly known as a form chemistry of the Middle Ages that was mainly concerned with transmutation of matter, such as base metals into gold (Oxford Living Dictionaries, 2018). However, researchers such as Stanislas Klossowski de Rola have for decades argued that this is a much too simplistic view of the subject, stating that alchemy is a much more complex system which is understood only through careful examination. The secret science of alchemy conceals ‘the means of penetrating the very secrets of Nature, Life and Death’ (Klossowski de Rola, 1973). In other words alchemy was/is concerned with philosophical ideas and questions and is strongly linked to ritual and magical thinking. The Oxford Dictionary (2018) also defines alchemy as a ‘seemingly magical process of transformation, creation, or combination.’

Earlier during my research process I briefly touched on the topic of alchemy because of its close relationship with ritual, magic, and transformation. I also used alchemical illustrations as inspiration to define and structure the main subject areas and core of my research.

I have now returned to alchemy as a means to illustrate the deconstructive workshop process. Because the workshop method is somewhat complex and I am in the process of defining the mechanics of it, I decided to clarify the structure through illustration. Drawing inspiration from alchemy I created the following illustration, which shows the different stages and elements of the process. This also prompted me to read more in depth about the secret life of alchemy and I ended up finding several ideas and concepts that reflect the core ideas of the workshop method.

 

 

In the words of Stanislas Klossowski de Rola (1973) true alchemy, ‘fashions a most precious thing’ out of ‘a small quantity of vile matter’ (p. 13). Similarly, the deconstructive workshop method has the potential to take, not necessarily always or only vile, but raw and complex emotions and through a creative process turn them into something ‘precious’ for the participant.

The quote at the beginning refers to a loop of creation or symbol of eternity and is what the snake or dragon Ouroboros represents while biting its own tail (Klossowski de Rola, 1973). This quote places itself perfectly within the workshop process as the journey is about the individual; everything, the raw material, comes from the participant and returns to the participant in an altered form through a creative process. Furthermore, the process is done by the participant for the participant.

In alchemy, the practitioner has to overcome the obstacles and difficulties of an intricate process that culminates in the production of the Philosopher’s Stone (Klossowski de Rola, 1973). This is the so-called stone that has the property of transmuting basic matter into something precious. During the deconstructive workshop the idea is for the participant to go through a complex process of investigating feelings and identifying and editing different elements before arriving at a poetic outcome.

 

Creative deconstruction

As a result of the latest intervention and my concerns about the accuracy of the ending of my research question, I have edited the question in a way that is (finally) starting to reflect the research core and the information obtained through interventions.

How can creative deconstruction of emotional objects inspire self-reflection and affective empowerment?

I have been struggling to find the right wording for the part of the question that describes the purpose, and after talking to one of my tutors and psychologist Kelly Scott-James, I have re-worded the ending in way that describes the potential objectives of the research without entering territory in which I lack expertise. I was never pleased with the concept of ‘positive change’ as this is highly subjective and not necessarily the aim of my current research. I have wanted to avoid words such as ‘therapeutic’ and ‘mental well-being’ for the same reasons, and because I consider these to be terms which require more expert feedback than I can currently incorporate in my project.

As a result of the workshop method I am developing, I chose to narrow down the idea of creative storytelling into creative deconstruction because this is the concept and technique behind the workshop process; through a process of deconstruction the participants turn an item of clothing into a written piece that reflects the feelings and memories associated with the item.

Prompted by a discussion with one of my tutors and through further secondary research I also realised I need to rethink the use of the words ‘affect’ and ’emotion’. Although often used synonymously, it is important to distinguish between these the two terms. A task that can become confusing not only because of the wide range of terms involved and a history of debate around exactly how to distinguish between them, but also because of what they mean in the first place (Flatley, 2008; Lord, 2016). Trying to further define the two terms did make me more confused, and it seems there are many views on how these two words should be used. The online Psychology Dictionary (Nugent, 2013) defines ‘affect’ as the act of feeling a sentiment spanning from distress to extreme joy’,  ‘affective’ as something ‘with regard to sentiment or feelings’, and ’emotion’ as the complex reaction pattern that involves experiential, behavioural, and physiological elements.’

Further research shows that most sources will define affect as something general that resists being signified whereas emotion is seen as something personal that holds a symbolic link. Affect can be regarded as something that lies on a continuum from undifferentiated and differentiated, with positive or negative feelings being examples of undifferentiated affect and specific emotions being examples of differentiated affect (Ortony, 2009).

My question can shift depending on how detailed my definition of affect and emotion is and which direction I choose when distinguishing between the two terms. Drawing on the Psychology Dictionary’s and a few other sources’ (Ortony, 2009 and Fredrickson, 2001 and Lord, 2016) broader definitions, and the fact that personal objects often are associated with an array of different feelings – both positive and negative – I have decided to define affect as a ‘superordinate term for different feelings that have one out of two values’ and emotions as ‘complex patterns of subjective phenomena’. Therefore I choose to use the term ’emotional objects’ in my research question to reflect the complex nature of objects associated with memories and feelings.

 

Resources

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001) ‘The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology: The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions.’ in The American Psychologist, 56(3), pp. 218–226. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3122271/ (Accessed: 16 October 2018)

Lord, N. (2016) Thing Theory, Material Culture, and Object-Oriented Ontology Movement in the Motif: Semblances and Affective Criticism’ in Transformations: Journal of Media and Culture, 27, http://www.transformationsjournal.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Lord_Transformations27.pdf (Accessed: 13 October 2018)

Nugent, P. (2013) Psychology Dictionary. Available at: https://psychologydictionary.org (Accessed: 16 October 2018)

Ortony A. (2009) 'Affect and Emotions in Intelligent Agents: Why and How?' in Tao J. and Tan T. (ed.) Affective Information Processing. London: Springer doi: 10.1007/978-1-84800-306-4_2

 

 

 

Poetic closure

During the informal testing of my workshop method (latest intervention), the participants and I concluded that the process has to be broken up in two parts because of its emotionally intense nature. It is also beneficial for the reflective and creative process to leave some space for the participants to process the raw material extracted during the first part before attempting to shape it into a story.

Yesterday I tested the second part of the workshop with one of the participants from the informal test group. This gave me the opportunity to test the activities and structure of the second part, and my workshop participant the chance to continue with the emotional and creative process she had started. Because this method so far has shown it can bring unconscious thoughts to surface, it is important the participants are offered an opportunity to bring the process to an end.

The structure I had initially planned for the second part worked well, and the participant told me it felt like a very natural process and that she would not have wanted to do things in a different order. We started by reading some poetry to set the mood, after which we discussed and reflected on the material discovered during the first workshop – my workshop participant told me she had lately been sleeping in her garment as a result and as part of the process. After a conversation about relationships, identity, and the ethereal nature of memories, we immersed ourselves in a jumble of words by using different creative methods and started shaping a poetic interpretation from the raw material.

After a while my workshop participant stopped the creative tasks and said ‘I’m done.’ with a smile on her face. She then told me how liberating and amazing it felt to have put all these feelings she had been struggling to define into a creative process with a poetic outcome. Even though the emotions are still chaotic, she now has a new sense of control over them. With the help of the workshop she has both let go and held on to emotions and memories that until now had been difficult to process.

The evidence from the first part of the test workshop and yesterday’s events, show that the method I am developing has significant transformative and self-reflective properties, which supports my research question and shows there is potential for further exploration. And, like my workshop participant said, if it works for one person, it will likely also work for others.

Personally, I could not be more pleased. I want my project to have meaningful impact, rather than create brief moments of curiosity or pleasant feelings; even if it is only among a handful of stakeholders.

Methods

Somewhat to my surprise – and as a result of secondary research, intervention testing, and personal artistic experiments – my most recent intervention ended up becoming a workshop method. 

During the development of this method I found a book called Opening up the Wardrobe: a methods book, which helped me realise I have developed a new method from scratch that could potentially be applied to a number of research areas and/or stakeholders. For example, my workshop collaborator Alice is interested in testing it with people who express themselves through drag.

Opening up the wardrobe covers a range of different methods used for exploring the contents and experiences of wardrobes. Most of them however, look at clothing and wardrobe behaviours mainly from a materialistic and aesthetic point of view. Even when there are self-reflective and emotional elements included, the premise is to examine and influence the behaviours of people as users and consumers, rather than agents of their own narratives.

Opening up the Wardrobe shows each method in form of a set of questions about its background and applications. After reading the methods that were most closely linked to my research topic, I decided to apply the same questions to my own method as I thought it might be useful for clarifying the structure and potential applications.

Below is my method explained through the questions asked in Opening up the Wardrobe: a methods book.

 

Where did you get the inspiration from?

The method is based on a complex structure of interdisciplinary research and artistic exploration. The main inspiration comes from concepts within phototherapy, Barthes’ ideas about the Punctum and ‘essence’ of the photograph, and poetry as a tool for emotional storytelling and healing.

What aspect/question/entity does your method explore?

How affective objects can be used to trigger creative and self-reflective storytelling, how subconscious emotions can be accessed by deeper investigation of memories and emotions associated with a specific item of clothing, and how the participants benefit from this process.

How do you go about using your method?

The method is realised in a workshop format with a group of no more than 10 people. Due to its emotionally strenuous nature, the workshop is designed in two parts. For the first session, each participant is asked to bring with them an item of clothing that they have an affective connection with. The clothing and its affective associations are then explored through an investigative process that combines written, tactile, and visual elements. The raw material discovered during the self-reflective process, which starts during the first workshop and continues afterwards, is then used to create a written piece that represents the feelings found embedded within the piece of clothing.

How is your method different to others?

This method differs from other ones mainly because of its deeply investigative nature, with potential to reach previously ‘untought’ thoughts. I am not aware of any other methods that use a combination of photography and poetry to explore the affective and mnemonic properties of a specific item of clothing. I am also not aware of any therapeutic methods that use this approach.

In your experience, what insight does this method generate?

This approach can give both the participants and the researcher valuable insight about the affective lives of clothing and the transformative potential of exploring them, as well as facilitate new discoveries about individual identities and relationships with other people. The method can also offer insight into the creative process in general.

How have you used the data your method produces?

The method has informed the development of my MA research and my PhD proposal. It will be a useful tool in identifying target groups and potential applications for my research.

 

References

Fletcher, K. and Grimstad Klepp, I. ed. (2017) Opening up 
the Wardrobe: a methods book. Bollington: Novus Press

Exploring emotional narratives through clothing: a workshop

The date has been set for the official workshop, and it will be 24 October (2.30-5.30 at The Poetry Café in Covent Garden). This workshop will give me a chance to test my research thesis and the idea of ‘affective archaeology’ with a larger group. The event is open to everyone over 18 because I want to see what type of people the workshop attracts and if there will be any patterns or linking theme among the narratives shared during the afternoon. The group is limited to 10 people due to the sensitive nature of the process and based on Alice’s previous experience with poetry workshops, and because a smaller group is also better in terms of observing change and finding new knowledge for my research.

https://poetrysociety.org.uk/event/this-is-not-a-dress-exploring-emotional-narratives-through-clothing/

Would you like to investigate the feelings and memories 
your clothing holds through a creative storytelling process, and find the poetry that is stitched along the seams? 

Come join a two-part workshop designed for poetical exploration of clothing and discover your personal narrative in a new way. During the first session we will extract the raw 
material from the clothing, while the second workshop 
(optional) focuses on turning your personal findings into a story. The workshop is part of designer/artist Henrica 
Langh’s MA research and is being realised in collaboration with writer/poet Alice Hiller.

My collaborating partner, Alice, has shared the link with some of her poetry contacts. She told me there has been ‘lots of positive feedback’ regarding the workshop, and five people have already registered so we are off to a good start. 

'Dear Poets

I'm going to be collaborating with Henrica Langh at 2.30 on 24 of October at the Poetry Café on a free workshop working with clothes and memories. I'm facilitating the writing processes and Henrica is leading the workshop.   We have trialled one together already and I got an interesting poem afterwards from the material that came out of it.

For those of you who came to the Stanza Bonanza - Henrica did the performance art piece around a meeting that may or may not have been a meeting. She wore a black dress and had long auburn hair. It comes out of research for Henrica's MA. Henrica is also a fashion designer and performance artist. I'm interested in developing it to work with people who express alternative identities through drag at a later stage.'  - quoted with permission from Alice Hiller

P.S. I have also created a new blog, which will act as a more official record of my research, because I did not want to link the event page to my learning log. 

An arctic bird, sleet turned into shiny ice, background noise, and a pot of soup

Yesterday afternoon I tested my storytelling workshop concept in a small focus group of three – unfortunately the fourth person had to cancel. It was a moment where I got the chance to see all my research in action, and for the first time truly test my research thesis.

The response was positive, and I gained a lot of information about how my research could be applied in practice and identified future challenges. Because the workshop is a result of extensive research, iterated ideas, external feedback, and a solid project core, I knew the potential of the workshop. However, yesterday ended up being almost overwhelmingly valuable and exceeded the expectations I had. My workshop collaborator congratulated me on a successfully realised workshop and said she thinks I am doing interesting and valuable work, which is welcome feedback since I am not doing my research just for the sake of the MA, but because I have identified something that I strongly believe others could benefit from and I see potential in developing the project further.

 

Expectations or apprehensions before the workshop

The test group was curious and intrigued by the theme of the workshop, and were hoping to explore the ‘magical’ aspects of their chosen item of clothing. The majority were also a little worried about what they might discover and about exposing their vulnerability (both to others and themselves).

 

The process and discussion

The task of choosing the item had already triggered a self-reflective process and when everyone described their emotional items at the beginning of the workshop it became clear there was a lot to be shared and explored.

We started the creative process by reading a poem, ‘The Slinky Dress’ by Selima Hill, that I chose from a selection of poems Alice collected exclusively for the workshop. We then had a brief discussion about the poem. This helped create the ‘right’ atmosphere and was a way to avoid the metaphorical blank page.

We started with a brief writing exercise that Alice put together, during which we described the item as an animal, weather, a song, and a fragrance. This was a perfect introduction to the creative process and allowed everyone to see their piece of clothing from a new perspective. Even some significant discoveries were made during this stage and the subject in question said she was subconsciously aware of these things but had never previously been able to bring them to the surface. Most things discovered during a process like this are not new; the person is already aware of them either consciously or subconsciously, but this type of process helps one externalise them and see them from a different perspective; it creates a distance between the subject and their feelings. This idea of looking away in order to see something more clearly – which Barthes (1981) discusses when he writes about the experience of looking at a photograph – is embedded in the building blocks of my research and the workshop core.

The main activity during the afternoon was exploring the item through images. Because of my background in clothing design combined with high attention to detail, close relationship to my research process, and previously testing the activities myself, it is difficult for me to see this activity with fresh eyes. I was therefore looking forward to seeing how other people would engage with the task. The people in my focus group said the activity presented entirely new ways of looking at the garment and you could see how words simply poured out of everyone – including myself, which I did not anticipate.

 

Feedback

The younger female participant answered the question ‘Do you feel creative workshops are within your comfort zone?’ with ‘It’s actually the first creative workshop I’ve done’, and that she is not intimidated by the creative part of it but rather about ‘experiencing’ herself. After the workshop she was very happy she participated and is looking forward to continuing the self-reflective process in hopes of reaching a type of closure by turning the process into something creative and ‘tangible’.

Even for someone who is used to writing and using creative workshops as a means of ‘accessing places when they seem closed’ to her, yesterday’s workshop led to ‘a new avenue of thinking.’ She said that exploring her relationship with the item through images gave her some potentially useful raw material.

Everyone’s item was somehow, either directly or indirectly, linked to a person. This suggests that it may be very natural for people to choose an item that they associate with their relationship to another person. This also links to observations made by Csikszentmihalyi (1993) that generally, people who form more meaningful relationships also tend to own more affective objects.

A common theme yesterday afternoon was loved ones who have passed away and the legacy they leave, which shows the workshop has potential to be used as a grief ritual to both nurture the connection to the lost loved one and finding ways to let go.

 

Conclusion

The reflective process was emotionally very straining, and yesterday’s workshop was only the beginning of it. We all agreed that bringing the process to a kind of closure with a second, follow-up workshop would be highly beneficial. I could clearly see that exploring the item through visual details opened a flood of thoughts and emotions that will need time before being further processed or explored. I plan is therefore to design the workshop in two parts, with a couple of weeks between the two workshops to ‘look away’ from the experience and allow the subconscious to process it.

I also see potential in exploring this process long-term and adding more creative elements such as self-portrait photography and creating ritual objects or costumes.

To the questions about whether the experience was enjoyable and helped them discover new aspects about the item, themselves, or their relationship someone, everyone answered yes, even if they had the option of choosing ‘not sure’.

As for the question about connecting with the clothing itself, everyone expressed that they felt an even deeper connection with their item than before. Two people specifically said they now appreciate its emotional value even more and want to take better care of it in the future. We concluded that affective objects are very important and that it is a good thing if you know how to value those connections; they’re part of our personal rituals that help us make sense of our world.

 

Barthes, R. (1981) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage 

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1993) 'Why we need things' in Lubar, S. and Kingery, D.W. (ed.) History from things: essays on material culture.Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, pp. 21-29 

Designing participation

On Saturday I attended an informal workshop at The Royal College of Art called Designing Participation, which was led by PhD researcher Jack Champ from Kingston University. The objective of the workshop was to share ideas on how to engage participants during the research process. I joined the afternoon in hopes of getting some concrete ideas about what to keep in mind when planning workshops, and this is exactly what I left with. The things that came up during the afternoon will be useful in the planning stages of my own upcoming workshop.

The group was small but we had a good discussion about what to be aware of when organising workshops that engage people in your research. We discussed the topic in pairs based on mutual themes – my group’s connecting theme was empathy – and compiled a list of things to consider.

After writing down the key points on a big white balloon, we had a brief conclusive discussion with the other groups.

These are some of the things that came up:

Test it yourself. When you test potential workshop 
activities yourself you will have better understanding of 
what the participants are experiencing.

Be mindful of the researcher-research subject relationship. Does your presence affect the result and in what way?

Think about the space and atmosphere. What kind of mood do you want to set?

Do not start with the 'blank page' as this can feel very intimidating. Provide some stimuli as an introduction (e.g. 
visual imagery, music, objects, etc.) while still leaving 
space for people to create and interpret freely; there is 
a difference between offering stimuli and imposing 
structure.

Co-creation. In some cases you may want to engage in the 
activities together with the participants.

 

Investigative deconstruction

I am in the process of planning my next intervention, which will be a small focus group where Alice and I will test and develop the ideas for our upcoming poetry workshop. Because the haptic and visual senses are strongly linked to each other and to the emotion and memory processing parts of the brain, I think it is important to focus on both visual and tangible aspects in the upcoming workshop.

When thinking about ways to structure the workshop I ended up playing around with ideas inspired by deconstruction and forensic investigation – partly sparked by a book called Vintage Details that I bought on impulse after my meeting with Alice Hiller – as potential approaches to the creative process. The idea is to visually deconstruct the garment and explore its details in relation to emotions and memories.

To test the idea in practice I experimented with it myself, again using the black dress, and photographed a few details that I then analysed visually.  I wrote down any words and thoughts that surfaced when ‘reading’ the detailed images both in a factual and fictional way. 

Picking apart the garment in this way allows for new associations and emotions to surface. I am looking forward to observing how people who do not continuously include visually creative processes in their daily lives might respond to this type of activity.

 

My personal experiment resulted in the following poem.

‘No strings’ you said 

so I carefully folded myself into your 

creased 

chaotic 

abstract 

History 

and stitched a neat little hem to hold the dust of 
future memories 

Until my fingers bled and ached 

 

It’s a complex weave  



delicate, uneven, tightly wound

 

The ghost of clothing: a thought

There are similarities between how Barthes (1981) describes the Photograph and the process of observing it, and looking at certain items of clothing or outfits. Much like a photograph refers to a moment frozen in time; something that once was there, worn clothing refers to a body that once inhabited it, or still regularly does. Worn clothing speaks: ‘There has been a body here’.

Worn clothing refers to a living body; flesh and bone, feelings, memories, identity. The more it has been worn the deeper the connection will be.

When looking at images of Frida Kahlo’s dresses in Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress: Frida’s Wardrobe (2007) – after recently finishing Camera Lucida (1981) – I cannot avoid thinking about the clothing in relation to the body that the items once adorned. The outfits subtly hint that also my clothes are in the process of becoming empty; devoid of me. Like the photograph, clothing becomes a referent to the passing of time.

 

Barthes, R. (1981) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage 

Rosenzweig D. and Rosenzweig, M. (ed.) (2008) Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress: Frida's wardrobe. San Fransisco: Chronicle Books LLC