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

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

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.’

Real World Nostalgia

It’s been there, at the back of my mind the whole time; the philosophy and culture of punk. Breaking away from structures, connecting with a community through individuality, and the process of making (DIY), were prominent parts of punk culture; aspects that also link to emotional well-being and art therapy. Punk fashion is also an excellent example of dress and clothing being used as a medium for storytelling.

I started searching for things related to 70s punk and the philosophy behind punk culture, and came across an article about using elements from postmodern punk rock in art therapy – Creating a Culture of Connection: A Postmodern Punk Rock Approach to Art Therapy by Jessica Masino Drass. I have been wondering if the philosophy of 70s punk DIY culture could be a potential source of inspiration for my project, and I had a gut feeling that something like this must exist out there. The concept of ‘punk art therapy’ links to my previous ideas about using costume, clothing customisation, and performance as therapeutically expressive tools.

I also saw a link between the embroidered jacket by Agnes Richter, created when she was a patient at German mental institution in the late 1700s, and the heavily customised jackets of the punk era.

In a way one could perhaps say that punk was trying to express emotions in a  world that felt like the confinements of a mental institution with an uncertain future. Much like Agnes Richter and her embroidered jacket?

 

And yes, the title is two Buzzcocks songs put together.