About being there

Testing my workshop method and planning the final presentation of the collected evidence has made me circle back to some of the resources I used earlier this year.

When I was reflecting on my project and deciding which aspects to pull out for the final presentation, I decided to re-watch Marina Abramovic’s Ted talk about performance art, vulnerability, and the impact and place of her own work in our current fast-paced society.

The connection between Marina Abramovic’s work – what likely also attracted me to include her work in my research – and my project is the idea of creating moments of self-reflection where individuals can connect with them selves and be truly present in the experience. As Marina Abramovic says when she talks about the her work in a contemporary context, there is a need for ‘people to actually experience something different’ (Abramovic, 2015). When I started my research, I did not set out to create something that people would find ‘nice’ or ‘interesting’, I wanted to offer people a chance to truly experience something; strong emotions, new thoughts, something different.

Abramovic (2015) says that the art of performance is ‘all about being there, in the real time’ and that performance is something you can’t rehearse.  Performance is about creating moments and experiences. What matters is the process and sometimes transformation that the performer and the participant go through. In a similar way – through active participation and discussions – the deconstruction workshop can result in small individual performances; moments where people perform by sharing their story in front themselves and the group.

In her talk, Marina Abramovic also mentions how she regards immaterial art such as music and performance the highest forms of art. Although I am not entirely convinced the question about what good art is can be answered this easily, her statement does say something about what the essence of art is: process and experience. And it is through process and experience that the transformational power of art and creativity becomes accessible.

As a result of her performance ‘The Artist is Present‘ at the museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010, an idea for an institute that seeks to blur the line between the performer and the public and invites the viewer to engage with immaterial works, was born. With the institute and a method she has developed as a result of her work she aims to explore the roles of artist and viewer. Similarly, my method seeks to explore the relationship between creator, process, and outcome by questioning the role of things such as subject, medium, and product.

Based on feedback and observations from my workshop method interventions, it is clear that the method needs more structure and that the tasks need ritualistic elements; participants will benefit from having specific instructions. Some further questions to be explored then, could be: How can the process be developed with other types of media and practices, such as drawing, repetition, and meditative elements. How can time/space within and between the tasks add value to the process of self-reflection and creativity? And where does performance happen during the process?

 

‘Not an easy place to go to.’ (Workshop part II)

Yesterday I held the second part of the workshop at the Poetry Café. In terms of creative flow and new discoveries for the participants there was a little resistance and the atmosphere was not as enthusiastic as during the first workshop. However when it comes to the research and intervention development it was a very informative and valuable experience.

There may have been many reasons for the lack of creative flow but some of it was a lack of structured exercises and specific guidance; the participants felt they needed more instructions. I was aware that the second part was not as structured as the first part and that this needed to be addressed, but yesterday’s session gave me valuable insight into exactly how I might want to go about doing this.

Out of the eight participants who attended the first session only four could make it to the second, all of whom are poets. Because they engage in poetry and creative writing regularly, it may be more difficult for them to see the process from a different perspective to the one they are used to; the focus remains on the subject – in this case the clothing – the final outcome combined with the purpose of the outcome. People who did not bring an item with them or who did not engage fully in the visual deconstructive task, struggled with the second part of the workshop. This could be because the raw material created during the first part of the workshop lacks chaos and emotional substance. The process is partly about letting go and the deconstructive exercise is where ‘unthought thoughts’ may emerge. 

The workshop is intended as an autotelic activity; the process is the outcome and the material is created by the participant for the participant. However, to facilitate this a readiness to let go and embrace the chaos is needed and the process needs to move away from a linear perspective. Poems are not created like they are read, and when a readerly perspective is applied to poetry it can result in a predictable and sequential process (Davidson and Fraser, 2006). Further referencing Davidson and Fraser: ‘Readerly points of view tend to be product-oriented, forcing the premature creation of an artefact.’ In their article on poetry in Teaching Creative Writing (2006), Davidson and Fraser quote Stafford (1978) who argues for the importance of an intuitive approach to poetry which requires taking risks, allowing for mistakes, and essentially ‘writing poorly’. This will allow for a creation of a ‘palette of colours’ much like the one a painter will work with (Davidson and Fraser, 2006). The poetry making during the workshop is much like the process of creating a palette of emotions and associations that can be used for creative and self-reflective storytelling.

 

Issues discovered during the second session of the workshop

  • The participants experienced difficulty moving away from the garment (greater emphasis on the concept of an object as an access point to storytelling rather than the subject) 
  • All participants are poets, which was both problematic, challenging, and useful for the workshop intervention. It was useful to observe people who are used to express themselves through writing and get feedback from them based on their previous experiences. The challenge was that there were certain presumptions, expectations, and perhaps a difficulty for the participants to let go of their personal writing routines. The participants were focused on poetry as a writing exercise with a ‘specific outcome’ as the goal and did not perhaps fully let go in order to embrace the chaos of the creative process. This is a good reminder of how important it is to remember that even if people master a creative medium it does not automatically mean they know how to be consumed by the creative flow. 
  • The second part of the workshop also needs to be more structured and include some time-limited activities. Furthermore, one participant said that a small task between the two workshops may have been beneficial for the overall process. 
  • It became quite clear that the visual deconstruction – the part where the participants take photos of details in the garment and ‘read’ them – is a necessary step and has to be done in a specific way for the whole process to work. Participants who do not bring an item during the first session and/or do not write down associations prompted by the images, will struggle with the rest of the process. 

 

There was a difference between the feedback from participants who brought a physical item with them and engaged with the exercises as instructed, and participants who did not bring an item. Participants who had chosen a physical item discovered far more new aspects about their item and themselves during the process than ones who did not. One participant said she felt there was something in her item that needed to be explored and once she had extracted that content it was no longer in the item but with her. As she wrote in her open-ended questionnaire: at the end of the workshop ‘the emotions really “belonged”’ to her, more so than the garment. The opportunity gave her a chance to look at her chosen item in detail and learn more about herself (participant questionnaire response).  Another participant felt that the workshop led him to an emotional place that was ‘not easy to go to’ but appreciated the opportunity (participant questionnaire response).

One participant who did not have a physical item, did not bring any raw material from the first session to the second part of the workshop, and did not share anything about her process, experienced the workshop as somewhat superficial. Although part of the reason for the limited engagement may have been the absence of an emotional item, I could also sense there was some reluctance to let go of personal routines and perhaps some apprehensions about the workshop. 

 

Workshop development

  • A more detailed structure is needed for the second part of the workshop 
  • A more detailed explanation about the core concept of the process is needed at the beginning of both sessions; it needs to be made clear that there is no specific goal and that the overall process of investigation and embracing chaos is the main objective 
  • The visual deconstruction would perhaps benefit from printed photographs as this could enhance the investigative aspects of the activity – something I have already considered, but because this would add time and/or expenses it has not been included in the first test workshops 
  • A brief discussion to define the terms deconstruction, creativity, and poetry is needed at the beginning of the workshop
  • The workshop is not a creative writing workshop or traditional poetry workshop and this should be made clear from the start 
  • The latter could benefit from some exercises that are less focused on writing during the second session  
  • Taking into account Davidson’s and Fraser’s idea of creating a ‘palette of colours’, and observations and feedback from the workshop, I think the second part of the workshop needs to reflect the idea of creative chaos and intuition more. Especially when people have a tendency to focus on a final outcome as the main purpose of the creative process. 

 

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.

 

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

Planning future success stories by exploring past narratives

I was invited to participate in a workshop of self-exploration by one of the contacts (psychologist and coach Kelly Scott-James) that I have made during my research process. The workshop was based on concepts and exercises used in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and the objective was to explore personal aspirations, obstacles, and feelings.

NLP builds on cognitive psychology and deals more with the ‘how’ rather than the ‘why’. It is essentially about exploring our narrative identity and ‘telling ourselves better stories‘; shaping and adding strength to your personal narratives by turning worries into opportunities and realising our own potential. NLP explores the complexity of a person’s inner world and builds on the idea that the basic tools we use to process the world (sight, sound, touch etc.) are the same but the way these tools are used is highly individual (Grayson, J and Proctor, B., 2000). NLP sees the world in systems of individuals, relationships, and societies that form an ecology of systems and subsystems that interact with and influence each other (Grayson, J and Proctor, B., 2000). Furthermore, NLP believes there is no failure, only feedback – failure happens when something is completed and life itself is a process and not a completed event (Grayson, J and Proctor, B., 2000) – which happens to be exactly the same concept action research is built on – and although sometimes perhaps a dangerously black and white view, it is unarguably a healthy approach to some aspects of life. 

I cannot confidently say I fully agree with the philosophy of NLP and that I know enough about it yet to form a comprehensive opinion, however, there are clearly several aspects that offer a sustainable way of approaching our personal narratives and place within the world.

During yesterday’s workshop we did brief NLP-based exercises in a small focus group of three. We started by choosing an individual objective and then worked on visualising the journey and identifying the obstacles that we have or may encounter. We did a series of self-reflective exercises that eventually lead to a stepping stone activity designed to mentally prepare us for the objective/s we chose for ourselves. I organically ended up choosing my own research process and a PhD as the aim. At the end of the day I had a visual, physical, and emotional manifestation of what the journey could be like. During the afternoon we all realised we have reached similar aspirations before and already possess the tools we need for the journeys we want to do, which can be a highly empowering realisation.

Overall it was an inspiring and empowering afternoon for me both on a personal level and for my current research process. When I received the invite I became intrigued by NLP and the experience of analysing my personal narrative and how it would impact me emotionally, partly because it links to my current research (self-reflective storytelling and affective well-being). The interactivity of the workshop made things seem much more tangible and created a space for exploring narratives linked to a certain topic and how it fits into the ‘bigger picture’. I can see potential in pushing a process like this into even more creative territory by involving different artistic media and combining aspects of NLP with art therapy and DIY culture – a thought that strongly links to my existing research.

 

Grayson, J. and Proctor, B (2000) 'Neuro-Linguistic Programming' in Palmer, S. (ed.) Introduction to counselling and psychotherapy. London: Sage Publications, pp. 159-171

 

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

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.