A brief look back at my nightmare

On Thursday I spent approximately 40 seconds far outside my comfort zone. I confronted my nightmare, and performed the dress poem during an open mic session at the Poetry Café. I wore the actual dress to include it as a part of the poetry reading. I wrote down the poem in a little notebook just in case, but instead of the poem I decided to go up with a glass of wine in my hand. I told the audience that I would share a brief moment with them, after which I performed the poem about my black dress.

I did not receive any specific comments from individual people, except for one which was much more than I had expected. Poet and curator Alice Hiller told me she loved my performance and thought it was a clever way to perform a poem. I have been in email correspondence with her after the poetry reading regarding my upcoming interventions and she is interested in helping me with my research.

Inside out

On Wednesday I had an inspiring meeting with a psychologist. She is interested in the psychology of architecture so we met at Central Saint Martins and did a little tour of the building before discussing clothes, memories, and mental well-being over a cup of coffee.

She told me how my ‘intervention scores’ had prompted her to spend almost five whole hours looking through her wardrobe and reflecting on individual items and how her clothes make her feel. ‘It was like Vesuvius going off in my head.’ Discovering and exploring the memories and feelings in her wardrobe ended up being intensely memory-inducing, and an element of self-therapy had clearly been present in the process. Her response to the intervention exercises was what I was trying to explore, however, I must admit that I was surprised at exactly how powerful the self-reflective properties of exploring your own wardrobe can be.

She brought a dress and a pair of suede shoes with her and shared some amazing emotional stories triggered by the items. Both were entangled by a vibrant range of emotions and memories. The ‘intervention scores’ may not have reached many people yet, but on Wednesday I gained evidence that they have acted as the root for at least one personal journey of recollection, feelings, and realisations.

She also told me about one of the very first things that came to mind when she thought about my research topic. The memory is from almost three decades ago when she was doing a postgraduate work placement at a psychiatric hospital. There was a woman who kept repeating the words ‘My dress, my dress, my dress.’ which caught her attention and she asked the permanent nurses what was wrong with the woman. To which they replied that her dress is on inside out. That day she learned, to her shock, that they had communal clothes and the nurse would just pick something she thought would fit and put on the patient. This tragic story illustrates, at least partly, how important the things we wear are – clothing is like a second skin and something we often take for granted. This anecdote shows that clothing is not just a frivolous luxury item, but an important part of our being.

She thought my research has PhD potential and that exploring the mental health aspect could be a worthwhile direction to go in. She has been incredibly helpful and said she will compile a list of people who she thinks might be useful contacts for the development of my research. Who knows, maybe the two of us will work on something together in the future…

The photograph and self-therapy

The photograph at the top of this page was taken in the summer of 2006. I recently came across the photo in a folder of digitised, old photos and for some reason this was the image that came to mind when I was choosing a photo to go with the title Magical Fragments. The photo is an ephemeral fragment from my past and I felt that it fits visually with the title because of its fragmented composition.

I took the photo during a one-day road trip with my then boyfriend. I have always liked this photo; although I cannot say it brings particularly positive memories to mind since that relationship was not a healthy one. The memory of the day I took the photo has become as thin and translucent as the wings on the surface of the water, and would perhaps not even exist without the photo. I do not remember much in particular about that summer, although I do recall a general feeling. Nevertheless, I have an emotional connection to this image and there is a story that is not inherent in the picture, but part of my personal narrative.

As part of my research I have been reading about different approaches to the therapeutic use of photography as well as Barthes’ musings on the nature of the photograph. Photographs are powerful storytelling devices that are linked to memories, emotions, self-image, and personal narratives. They exist somewhere in a realm between an object and, quoting Barthes (1980), ‘the return of the dead’. The evocative and self-exploratory properties of photography lead me to include it in my research. Additionally, dress and self-portraits have similarities in that they are both about communication between the inner and outer self and other people. We are constantly creating living self-portraits through the things we choose to adorn ourselves with. It can even be argued that all photographs we take are to some extent self-portraits because we choose, often on an unconscious level, to take photos that reflect what is important to us (Weiser 2008, Loewenthal 2013).

While I was reading about memory and therapeutic approaches to photography, it prompted me to look at entries in an old blog of mine – I think it may be the first digital journal I have ever had – that I accidentally stumbled across a couple of weeks ago while looking for something else. There are many self-portraits on the blog; blurry, distorted, and awkward examinations of something intangible. Ever since I was 15 I have been using self-portraits as a way to deal with complex emotions, so when I read Cristina Nunez’s text about self-portraits as self-therapy I was able to relate on a personal level and realised that this was exactly what the photos on my blog and the numerous rolls of film I took as a teenager were about; self-therapy.

Therapeutic photography is a photo-based healing method that involves the use of the affective communication qualities of photography and photographs and people’s interactions with them (Weiser 2004, Loewenthal 2013). Nunez’s method of therapeutic self-portraiture builds on the idea that by forcing us into the now, the self-portrait helps us connect with our emotions on a deep level and this will stimulate our subconscious to communicate through the language of art (Nunez 2013). Facing the camera lens has the potential to create an experience of a deep non-verbal dialogue (Nunez 2013).

‘Shot after shot I live through all my different personas, looking for something that I still do not know about myself.’ (Nunez 2013: 97)

After years of self-portraits and photographing other people, Nunez (2013) eventually started asking other people to take self-portraits with her camera and created a method with a series of self-portrait exercises.

I agree, at least to some extent, with Nunez that difficult emotions are the raw material of art. Throughout history tragedy, pain, and existential angst have been the fuel for many creative works. Perhaps it is because intense emotions leave us feeling powerless and speechless and creates a need to find ways to take control of the situation and express our feelings in an equally intense way as the grip our emotions has on us. Creativity allows you to figuratively scream at the top of your lungs and smash the world around you into a million pieces.

So how does all of this link to objects, dress, and emotional connections. As already becomes apparent in the text, photographs are powerful mnemonic and therapeutic storytelling tools. And much like throwing away an item of clothing, discarding a photograph can be a very powerful statement. The photograph comes to represent a person’s emotional relationship with the object or moment depicted in the photograph and thus throwing away or destroying the photo can represent letting go of part of that relationship.

Photographs, especially self-portraits, and dress are both linked to image-making. Through self-portraits we seek to communicate parts of our identities to others and ourselves. In a similar way the clothes we choose to wear are an expression of ourselves that is driven by internal and external factors. Furthermore, specific clothes can also cause a desire for self-portraits and clothing in photographs has the potential to significantly add to the mnemonic value of the image.

When it comes to storytelling methods, photography can be a very emotional and self-reflective medium.

 

Anecdote: the first entry in the journal I started in October 2006, includes the photo that is now the background image on this blog.

 

Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage 

Loewenthal, D. (2013) ‘Introducing phototherapy and therapeutic photography in a digital age’, in Lowenthal, D. (ed.) Phototherapy and therapeutic photography in a digital age. East Sussex: Routledge, pp. 5-20 

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

An evening of clothes and narratives: intervention development

As previously mentioned, I have been in correspondence with one of the owners at Locus of Walthamstow, Stella Taliadoros, regarding my next intervention. The date has been confirmed as 31 August, and Stella was happy with my plan on how to organise the space during the event.

The event is going to be an interactive storytelling evening to observe how people respond to and interact with the topic of clothes as narrative and affective objects.

An evening of clothes, narratives, and bubbly! 

What kinds of memories and stories do you have in your wardrobe? Do you ever wonder about the lived experience of previously owned clothing? Would you like to get rid of clothes you no longer wear and share memories in a creative way? 

Discover the stories that time has woven into the clothes we wear during an evening of clothes swapping, storytelling, and mingling.  

Bring clothes or accessories you no longer use and swap them for something else. The catch? Each piece should come with a little story from its past life. Maybe it whispers nostalgia? Maybe it witnessed a serendipitous encounter? Or perhaps you wore it to a party on 31 August ten years ago?  

You may even discover long lost love stories in your wardrobe, which is more than okay. If you do not have anything you want to swap, come share your precious story over a glass of bubbly, immortalise it in the self-portrait studio, or turn it into a poem!

The space is going to offer a chance to discover and share stories in an immersive environment. The intervention event has been developed from the four ‘intervention scores‘ and includes similar possibilities for self-reflection. The low participation in the ‘intervention scores’ does not appear to be a result of a lack of interest but rather a ‘lack of time’. By creating an event around the theme I am hoping it will be easier to reach people and record their response in real-time. It will also provide a platform to explore the creative possibilities of storytelling through dress.

poetry

The Oxford Dictionary (www.oxforddictionaries.com, 2018) defines poetry as ‘literary work in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm’ or ‘a quality of beauty and intensity of emotion regarded as characteristic of poems’.

Since poetry is a form of storytelling that places emphasis on emotion, and because I am also drawn to poetry on a personal level, it has been present in my research process from the start.  

The activity of creating poetry is a powerful tool for extracting emotional narratives from objects and events because poetry gives shape to feelings. Reading an essay by Laurel Richardson (1992) – The Consequences of Poetic Representation: writing the other, rewriting the self this week, caused me to reflect on this idea further. The thought of translating emotional connections into poems was already there but after reading about Richardson’s (1992) experience of turning her transcribed interviews into poems, these thoughts were once again pulled to the surface. If poetry is the language of emotion then surely it would also be an important tool for ‘emotional archaeology’.

Based on these thoughts, I started thinking about my black dress in form of a poem. How could I convey the feeling of the moment I associate the dress with, to someone else? Emotions are highly individual and our memories are never entirely objective, therefore a purely analytical recollection of an emotional connection would be nearly impossible and would probably fail to transport someone else into my personal memory. However, by giving us a language with which we can create moments of emotion and empathy, poetry presents possibilities for expressing feelings and thoughts that are otherwise difficult to express due to their complex nature.

 

 

Yesterday afternoon I met with Suzanne Posthumus, who manages the Poetry Café. We had a brief discussion about my research and what I have in mind for my next intervention. After sharing my ideas on how the theme of narrative clothes could be explored we concluded that an event where people can swap clothes in form of poetry – a type of poetry reading that turns your clothing into poems – would be an interesting way to invite people to discover the emotional connections they have with items in their wardrobe. Suzanne was intrigued by my project and kindly offered me use of the café space in the daytime. The Poetry Society can also help me market the event on their online platforms and in the café. Suzanne and I agreed that the poem I wrote along with a picture of the black dress would be perfect to use in marketing because it would clearly illustrate what the event is about.

 

Note. After writing this, I discovered a book called The Memory of Clothes (Gibson (ed.), 2015) – a  collection of essays and stories that explore the evocative and autobiographical characteristics of the clothes we wear. Some of the texts approach this theme in a poetic way; a few are even written in the traditional structure of a poem. I have only read one so far, which is a self-reflective recollection of a stolen dress, that the author took when she could not have the person she loved, ‘the one’. 

 

Richardson, L. (1992) ‘The Consequences of poetic representation: writing the other, rewriting the self’ in Ellis, C. Flaherty, M. G. (ed.) California: Sage Publications Inc., pp. 125-137

Meetings

My meeting with the psychologist was postponed to next week due to changes in her schedule.

However, there has by no means been a lack of meetings this week. On Monday I had a very useful drop-in tutorial with one of the head tutors. Talking with him about my research helped me clarify and further define some of my ideas. He also brought up the concept of ‘stories as currency’, which links well to the idea that objects with meaning have a value.

Today I had a brief meeting at LOW in Walthamstow, which is a creative space that hosts events, workshops, and exhibitions. I contacted them to see if they could help me organise my next intervention. Stella, one of the founders, was very intrigued by my idea of an event that invites people to explore the narrative lives of their clothing. A preliminary date for the event has been set and the next step is to plan exactly what this storytelling space would be like.

In the afternoon I had a one-on-one meeting with the librarian to get some more insight on where and how to look more secondary research. I specifically wanted advice on where to find existing projects and research that relate to the ideas I am exploring. Again a useful meeting that will help me move forward on my research journey.

Tomorrow I will go to Covent Garden to meet the manager at The Poetry Café and tell her more about my project and intervention idea.

 

Artefacts and affective archaeology

 

‘Too seldom do we try to read objects as we read books – to understand the people that created them, used them, and discarded them.’ (Lubar and Kingery, 1993) 

 

Our collective, as well as personal histories and cultures are partly driven and shaped by artefacts – objects made or modified by humans. Objects are and become part of our narratives and their meaning can be interpreted, or ‘read’ as the familiar metaphor suggests. According to Maquet (1993) this is a metaphor that could be considered misleading because it suggests that artefacts are texts and texts should be read analytically, unless it is poetry. But what if we read artefacts like poetry?

Meanings are not inherent to the object or assigned by the designer but created by the people or the person to whom the object is relevant (Maquet, 1993). Meaning cannot exist outside the body; meaning is produced by our interpretations (Chapman, 2014) and associations. Therefore meanings may change, and usually do, when audiences (Maquet, 1993), time, and context changes.

Prown (1993) suggests that similarly to dreams, artefacts are unconscious representations of our hidden mind and can thus unravel deeper cultural truth if ‘read’ as fiction rather than analysed as history. He bases this idea on the storytelling nature of the human mind; the fact that we subconsciously (and consciously) create fictions in form of dreams using the language of fiction – simile, metonymy, synecdoche, metaphor (Prown, 1993). Prown mainly refers to the way artefacts are shaped in relation to current cultural context; the way our environment unconsciously reflects our current worldview. However, the idea of reading objects as fiction opens up intriguing possibilities and dimensions when it comes to our understanding and interaction with the material world.

History can never fully retrieve the past because of its complex and layered nature (Prown, 1993). The past does not only consist of places and dates, it also includes emotions and sensations and spirit (Prown, 1993). However, we tend to focus on collecting tangible events and facts from the past and rarely retrieve the abstract, ‘the affective totality’ of what it was like in the past (Prown, 1993).

The study of artefacts in relation to past human behaviour can be considered a broad definition of archaeology and everything that fits under this could be described as one or another type of archaeology (Lubar and Kingery 1993). Building on this definition, could then a study of artefacts in relation to the emotional connections produced by past events be considered a type of affective archaeology? How do we extract the emotional narratives that have become part of an object when the memory does not exist within the object itself but is reflected in it through association by an individual?

Artefacts are an extension of the self. They act as tangible focus points in people’s narrative identities by linking to the present moment, past events, and future objectives; and they function as concrete evidence of cherished relationships (Csikszentmihalyi, 1993). Csikszentmihalyi (1993) discovered that in general people who have fewer affective connections to objects are more likely to be socially isolated. In other words, the depth of meaning in people’s relationships to others is reflected in the objects they surround themselves with.

The kind of selves people choose to build influences the way they interact with material culture and therefore also impacts the natural environment that is being exploited in order to create it (Csikszentmihalyi, 1993) and the overall world of production and consumption. What Csikszentmihalyi (1993) expresses here links to my own thoughts on the value of appreciating the emotional properties of objects, in  particular the clothes we wear – this is even something I mentioned in my Applied Imagination application letter. Seeing beyond the intrinsic and materialistic value of objects and placing greater value on the emotional narratives can have a positive impact on the way we produce, use, and discard objects.

 

Chapman, J. (2014) 'Designing Meaningful and Lasting User Experiences', in Moran, A. and O'Brien, S. (ed.) Love Objects: emotion, design and material culture. London: Bloomsbury Academic, pp. 138-148

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 

Lubar, S. and Kingery, D. W. (ed.) (1993) History from things: essays on material culture. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press 

Maquet, J. (1993) ‘Objects as instruments, objects as signs’ in Lubar, S. and Kingery, D. W. (ed.) History from things: essays on material culture. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, pp. 31-40

Prown, J. D. (1993) ‘The truth about material culture’ in Lubar, S. and Kingery, D. W. (ed.) History from things: essays on material culture. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, pp. 1-19

Black dress and blue shirts

I have a black dress that has just been hanging in my wardrobe for the past 8 years (at least). It never fails to remind me of a specific moment with a specific person. At some point the essence of the dress shifted from that of an object to the recollection of a feeling; I no longer see the dress when I look at it, I feel. Reflecting on my emotional connection to the dress I realised that I have not worn it a single time after the person left. However, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the dress. In fact, I have always been very fond of it, it fits me perfectly, and it has a timeless style. Out of all the dresses I have ever owned it is one of my favourite. Yet it continues to simply hang in my wardrobe and I could also never bring myself to part with it.

Clothing is not simply a material object. It is closely linked to the body and ultimately does not exist unless there is a body; clothing is always designed for the body – even when it is not intended to be worn. Clothing is also closely linked to performance. The ritual of getting dressed is preparing for a performance by highlighting yourself, disguising yourself, or even trying to become someone else. There is always an element of performance in dress. Dress is transient and driven by the moment; it is linked to the user’s needs and feelings in the present (Medvedev 2007).

Clothing constructs a personal habitat (Abbot and Sapsford 2001 referencing Craik 1994), where the clothing and self become entangled with people and moments (Banim and Guy 2001). Banim and Guy (2001) have observed that sometimes the clothes themselves and the images they portray are much less important than the ways in which they represent a relationship with people who are (or have been) connected with the clothes.

So does throwing out clothes like these represent a decision to let go of part of yourself (Banim and Guy 2001)? Or vice versa, does holding onto them represent a desire to preserve a connection to the past or to a relationship?

Because of its close and intimate proximity to the body, clothing has the potential to carry deeper emotional meaning than many other objects. This becomes particularly apparent in the case of ‘a boyfriend’s T-shirt’ and the wardrobes of lost loved ones. The following quote illustrates the role of affective objects in our personal narratives and the intimate emotional connection to a lost loved one’s wardrobe.

‘…I have a recurring ritual as soon as I arrive at my parents’ home that helps me settle in and adjust to the Hungarian way of life faster. I open drawers and cupboards and examine their contents. I spend quite a bit of time looking through my father’s possessions, which are still the same and still as blue. When I stroke them or inhale their scent, I sense his presence: his smile, his slight stoop, his delicate hands. When I shut the wardrobe, his presence vanishes.’ (Medvedev 2007)

Similarly to my experience with the black dress, Medvedev is transferred back in time via her father’s shirts. Medvedev’s mother found it hard to discard her father’s blue shirts. She did not even want to give them to her brother because she did not think he was responsible enough to wear them and even though she gave him other objects such as his favourite watch. (Medvedev 2007)

Dress shapes our identity and vice versa, we choose our clothing based on our present state, we hold on to clothing that is no longer being worn, and we wear or do not wear items because of what we associate them with. But exactly how much do the relationships we have to our clothes, as well as other people’s clothes, shape our narrative identities? And how can the affective connections in our wardrobes be used for self-reflective and therapeutic purposes?

What are the affective, mnemonic, and therapeutic possibilities of dress?

 

Note: In the first paragraph of the text I mention dress as the style of garment that is traditionally worn by women in the Western world. In the second part of the text, dress mainly refers to the things we modify and adorn our bodies with, including but not limited to, clothes, shoes, jewellry, and body modifications.

 

Abbot, P. and Sapsford, F. (2001) ‘Young Women and Their Wardrobes’, in Guy, A., Green, E, and Banim, M. (ed.) Through the Wardrobe: women’s relationships with their clothes. New York: Berg, pp. 21-37 

Banim, M. and Guy, A. (2001) 'Discontinued Selves: why do women keep clothes they no longer wear?', in Guy, A., Green, E. and Banim, M. (ed.) Through the Wardrobe: women's relationships with their clothes. New York: Berg, pp. 203-219 

Medvedev, K. (2007) ‘Dress, Hungarian Socialism, and Resistance’, in Johnson, D. and Foster, H. (ed.) Dress Sense: emotional and sensory experiences of the body and clothes. Oxford: Berg

Connections

I have a meeting with an expert in psychology next week. I suggested we both dress in something we have an emotional connection to and share our stories when we meet. To which she replied:

‘Oh my gosh, I think dressing in our stories is a fabulous idea, I’ll enjoy thinking about that one.’