Thursday, 25 May 2017

seeing the sea


These are my first ever two-colour lino cuts. My first - last week's single colour - of a minke whale - did not work well enough to share beyond the workshop, so this week I decided to move to the other end of the oceanic spectrum: phytoplankton. A few drops of seawater contains about a million bacteria and about 10 million viruses naturally, swarming and multiplying. And while my registration is not as accurate as it might be, I am rather pleased with these six editions. I don't know what I'll use them for, if anything, but will content myself with being pleased for the meanwhile. It is a rare sensation.

From these two weeks I'm interested in how slipping into the microscopic realm, attempting to represent what I've not seen, has proved itself easier to convey than the huge. Although I've not seen a minke whale in its entirety I was lucky enough to see the fin of one off the Northumberland coast a few years back, Yet what I produced via lino was, I think, too insubstantial to convey the wonder, the fluidity and musculature of the creature and my emotional experience of it. The unseen frees me from the shackles of subjectivity, to explore patterning and abstraction that then is released to become something other than my intention. How many of you recognised these as phytoplankton, after all? And it doesn't matter that you didn't -- that they don't really look like anything that actually exists -- they have a new sense of becoming -- snowflake -- crystal -- doodle -- wheel hub -- it doesn't matter now, beyond their cohesion within the frame they're in.

This is interesting to me given my current writing project: which is notes towards a stranding, working off some fictions I wrote a couple of years ago, autowriting, thoughts on herbicide usage and other - as yet unknown - stuff. It seems to me the only way to approach stringing these thoughts and experiences together is through a kind of abstracted patterning, maybe also to fuck up the registration so the layers do not lie neatly in sync with each other but create a tremor, a blurring, or, as was suggested in class this week, a three dimensional effect. So I think this means writing tons, mashing it up, writing more, cutting away and seeing what is left.

I feel a renewed sense of confidence for my anti-methodological approach to my work since being shortlisted for the Ivan Juritz prize. I wasn't expecting this at all. I was happy enough to have made an interesting piece of work to submit to it in the first place. And now it's sitting alongside all this other amazing work. 

This confidence means I'm prepared to work on / muck about with / write / read / walk / linocut / faff and ignore these ideas, accepting that much of what I'm doing just doesn't work, get excited by small moments of illumination, and keep on at it because I trust this compulsion that is interested in how these things do connect: a compulsion that has brought me back to thinking and wondering about them again and again, that probably won't leave me until I'm vaguely satisfied that I've got them out -- in a form that something in its own right -- distinct from me -- with a pulse of its own --

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Screenprinting the ocean


I laid out the poem a fortnight ago for it to be set into a screen prior to last night's class, so I was already at one remove from it. It's a poem I wrote at the Manchester Art Gallery last year, in response to a drawing by Hondartza Fraga. We were to make several prints of it, in the first hour of the class, so picking colours of paper and then mixing up ink was a speedy affair, overshadowed by the enormous frame we were to work with. With no previous experience of screenprinting there seemed a lot of potential fuckup points to it. Throughout the hour I was focusing on the paint: flooding it, drawing it back; the frame: propping it, setting it; the angle of pull: tippie toes, forty five degrees, pressure. It was me and this large levering machine, which felt as far it might get from writing a poem.

Then the covers: more colour choices, more folding, cutting gluing, tucking, wiping. The poem was lost to my consciousness, hidden away inside quick decisions, physical activity and the desire to get it right. So when I came to open the completed book and read it, I was strangely moved, in a way I've not experienced with a piece of my work before. It was familiar but unknown; mine but also somebody else's (I hadn't chosen the design, after all). I opened the booklet awkwardly, struggled to find the start of the poem, read it slowly, unsure of how clear the ink was on the paper in the folds, and closed the book with the sense of the poem in my hands, the poem had become the thing it was describing, the thing I was holding. It was both an embodied and disembodied experience. Unsettling, sad. It was the poem. The poem had enveloped me. I feel that means it's active, sparking. I think I'm pleased.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Mermaids and other consciousness

This is a trace monoprint. Before yesterday I didn't know such things existed. We were introduced to it at the Hot Bed Press class as a simple way of making edition images. I was skeptical, I'm not an image maker and because of the process any text would have be written backwards. Now I love backwards text. I used to relish reading it (I still enjoy reading text upside down) but writing it backwards gives it a naivety I'm not sure appeals.

So I went with a simple mermaid. Simple? Well, yes the process is remarkably simple, a skim of pain on glass that is etched in reverse onto a piece of paper. Strangely absorbing. But the mermaid bit? I'm not so sure. I've been reading about posthumanism, expanded subjectivities and interspecies entanglement and am very taken by it as a way of writing a positive view on the crisis that is our world, a step towards a positive futuring perhaps, that decentralises the human while not dismissing ourselves, especially as fundamental to the current situation. So these past couple of weeks I've been reading Donna Haraway, this, Rosi Braidotti and Anna Tsing and finding my thinking charged.

Until I ran into the question of consciousness, and what exactly it is. I understand the mythological usefulness of creatures like mermaids, but to explore and step inside the consciousness of a fish, as a human, requires another degree of engagement. How do I shed enough of my own perspective to engage honestly with the perspective, concerns and physicality of creatures that breath oxygen through water, live in the near dark and move according to celestial bearings, chemical clues and, the totally alien to me, drifting with currents (as most larvae do). And do not speak. I love Les Murray's 'Translations from the Natural World', I think in it he manages to deconstruct language authentically to convey the consciousness of the animal, but how does this work if I wish to acknowledge the human speaker? If I wish to explore the potential relationship and dynamic between the two? If I want to acknowledge the human presence (and destructive capacity) alongside the animal. How do two consciousnesses interact? Where is that venn diagram? Where do the two awarenesses intersect and separate? How do the bodies know - on a chemical or physiological level - of the other?

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

On testing what I don't know


This is phase one of an artistbook of a diatom chain. I'm not sure how it'll develop, beyond the folds and spots. I have a poem I could put in it, but have yet to establish how it’ll spread across the folds and if it is the right poem. I have a week to decide. As it represents a colony it seems appropriate to let my thinking grow incrementally, visually. 

I currently believe it’s also the starting point of a workshop I'm hoping to deliver with a group of 7-10 year olds in July on plankton, writing about plankton and making a simple concertina to contain the writing and any images.

It is the first time I've made a booklet before knowing what to put in it. I’m taking the year long artistbook making course at Hot Bed Press (thanks to the AHRC) and last night was the first in a two-parter on concertinas. I was immediately attracted to incorporating pop ups (those little corner folds that contain the green dots). I loved pop up books as a kid, how they extended the reach of the book, often asking for some interactivity; and while the geometric delight of these triangles aren’t in the same realm of tugging paper slips and revealing new words they do break the rectangular shape, add another layer of repetition and throw shadows on the card. The concertina is already three dimensional in its structure, the zig zag folds of the concertina and this will have two separate hard backed covers so the booklet will remain expandable as seen above. So to add the folded pop outs in the top and bottom corners creates addition to this depth, a representation of some of the beautiful patterns found in these microscopic algae.

Punching holes into the card may convey the silica, its lightness, transparency somehow. Someone in class last night had used their awl to pinprick tiny holes in patterns which gave me the idea of writing the entire poem in holes. Gulp. This would require neat writing, precision and the acceptance that you’ll only be able to read it from one side. Test required.

Question: how important is it that the two sides are mirrors of each other?

Another test: cutting thin strips diagonally to the folds. More light, more clashing lines, more shadows.

Another test: using ring binder strengtheners. More geometry, more texture, more layers of white.

Question: How much colour do I want for these creatures?

Since only have the one concertina to experiment on I feel limited in the explorations of adding text. There are two consequences to this: I don’t use text, I become entranced with the blankness; or I become bold, step outside how I’ve treated text previously, cut it from another block of text – interesting if I could find text on sunshine or photosynthesis. Perhaps I’m thinking back to the Humument here …

Question: How important is the threat of plastic to this colony?

Another test: Stamping ink circles from the end of Q-tips found on the beach.

Question: could these be random or in syncopated patterns?

Questions and tests stretch ahead, which need to be punctuated by walking and researching. John Cleese once said no one (or was it just Monty Python?!) was ever inspired by the computer. I don’t agree. It can inspire if tempered with interaction with the physical world. That lies as the foundation for my current thinking and writing: the mix of experience and scientific understanding. How essential it is for me to balance the multiplicities of how to engage with the world, especially a world that is so often remote, invisible or microscopic. 

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

wave motion



I was blown away when I first saw Paul Nash’s painting Totes Meer, some years back. How it transforms the sea into a body of war and death. The butting of waves (wings/graves) against waves suggest a disturbed sea where wind blows against a prevailing tide; nature at odds with itself. This is a contained sea, but only just. There are points of spillage onto the beach, high tide shadows the sand, the sea is in retreat. The moon is in its first quarter. This is a neaps tide, due to rise up the beach further in the next week. A solitary gull, too distant to be definitively identifiable, glides out of, or over, the wreckage, appearing almost a part of it, one of the ribs of the broken carriers. Some crosses can be seen, insignia of German fighter pilots. The pilots presumably lost at sea. Metal turns to motion, in an awful alchemy. The sea cannot be viewed in the same way again.

What looks like driftwood lies strewn on the beach. ‘Wrack’ is still used around Morecambe Bay for waste material brought up by the sea, another meaning given by the OED is “a vessel ruined or crippled by wreck”. Both land and sea are affected by this crippling. Nash suffered PTSD after serving in WW1. Painted in 1940, just after the Battle of Britain, the Tate’s commentary, where it hangs, claims he intended it to instill patriotic, anti German sentiment.  To me it, like the sea itself, spills beyond any particular side, and represents the carnage of war in its entirety. The same commentary also says Nash called aircraft killer whales, making permeable the line between aircraft and animal, metal casing and water. There is no absolute where one starts and another stops. Just as the men are tossed and churned beneath the waves. And yet ‘No!’ this is not how my sea looks.  The painting galvanizes a desire in me a desire to clean the sea of this wrack. This is not what how I want to perceive the sea.

It is this horror (although far less dramatic than war) this provocation to agency I hope to stimulate in the 'Wave Motion' artistbook. Coctored photos of can yokes, those plastic rings discarded everywhere, seemingly indestructible, translucent and spiralling like the waves themselves, represent the crests of an incoming tide. An uncanny beauty, a near familiarity, a noose that is not so large nor dramatic as Nash’s wrecked aircraft, signifying a war more prevalent in the twenty first century, the perpetration of civilisation’s onslaught on the environment.

You can buy 'Wave Motion' here
(crab casts not included)

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Reading into the Light

photo taken from @seanhewitt on Twitter
Last Saturday at Ilkley Literature Festival  I had the rare pleasure of reading poems to an empty room. It wasn't completely empty. I had fellow poets/readers Helen Tookey and Seán Hewitt with me; and rows of pages from Tom Phillips' A Humument . But for the first few minutes of our set it was just us in the room.

I was reading a new poem about eight hundred of us walking across the bay, which was to be followed by single poems from Helen and Seán before we read an interleaved extension of them. It was an attempt to honour orally Phillips' idea behind 'A Humument': the making anew of an old text. We'd picked poems that evoked incantatory views of the natural world: a estuarine bay, a valley, a tree; so to begin the reading in the beautiful light, low ceilinged room of the Manor House in Ilkley was to open up a new dimension to the set. I felt was reading to the altered pages: each beautifully rendered artworks with either lyrical or funny statements remade from the novel 'A Human Document', in which words were connected to each other by carefully travelling veins of white space Phillips had drawn between the prose. The pages looked like maps or body scans, the unwanted text still visible under the coloured images.

We have not lost our homes to the sea    families to war     ...

The room received my voice, held it. The glass of the picture frames shone. The floorboards glowed.

    ...  We have chosen to feel this smallness  ...

Should I continue? Would anyone come? Did it matter if they didn't? If they did?

...  We have lost nothing
        but the certainty 
                of our mass diminishing into the expanse around us ...

Would someone walk into this space, drawn by the voice? Would it sound different if another body entered the space? I tried to imagine, as I was reading, the difference between a live voice reciting words to a recorded voice. The difference of intention, of meaning, of urgency. Somebody (in this case, me) was giving their time and body to recite words to the space, a lack of audience. Did it matter? How foolish was this? How committed?

... voices         washing out
in the rinse of silver       ...

Then someone, two people, looked in and walked through the threshold. And another and so the room changed, the resonance of the poems changed, our role as poets in the space changed.

Afterwards Helen talked of walking into a Sikh temple some years ago to a similar experience, a man reading from the scriptures with and without an audience, she talked of the sense of an observance of place, of space, of time, in this act of reading with or without an audience. The collision of time and place is marked by this strange presence, its communication to whomever, or to no-one but the speaker themselves. The incantation of voice, of words lose one meaning because the sequence has been lost, disrupted, turns the words into audible breath, to music rather than signifiers of anything other. Words that on Saturday, for a minute or two, were being spoken only to pages of a novel that had been rewritten, illustrated, transformed.

The meeting of this work and my voice both inflamed and deflated the words I spoke. I felt what I was doing was both as obsessive as the commitment Phillips has showed to this project (he calls it a lifetime's work in the intro) and as fleeting as the original work he had transformed. This ambiguity was probably heightened by the age and lightness of the building held from 1892 to that day.

Speech. Light, Text. Glass. Space. They all span into and out of those few minutes, so by the time we finished the extended poem, to an enlarged audience, the room seemed sharper, deeper and quieter some how, just as the new poem also hung in a fresh light. Perhaps we were also changed by the experience.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Finding quartz in granite


Myself and Maya Chowdhry (who took this pic) have been researching for a new immersive walk - in Aberdeen. As with previous walks I'm interested in how to fuse the past and present of a place with a potential future. Peeling back the layers that are both visible and invisible in the architecture, landscape, waterways. So we've been walking the city, in search of locations from which to anchor our walk and draw characters.

What most impressed me on our first research foray around Aberdeen, in fact when I first arrived in Aberdeen, was the sight of huge container ships right in the centre of the city - the harbour nubbing up to the train station. Of course the port has made the city - from the herring industry to oil - the migration of people in and out through the docks. I like how their presence is still so very visceral, the cargo ships and passenger ferries still using the dredged harbour, bring the water and that traffic right to the flux of the city.

Because we are exploring how to connect our work to some of the themes found in Dickens' work I was thinking about slavery, child slavery in particular, and how that industry is still very much in evidence. Also, there are plenty of stories of stowaways who have arrived in Aberdeen over the years via the the hulls of ships, people escaping one life for another. The secrecy, fear, shame and desperation of this act seems so incongruous in comparison to the bright enormity of the ships in the harbour.

Add to this mix, my reading and loving the speculative fictions of Margaret Atwood, especially the Oryx and Crake trilogy, in which people are modified, or modify their own bodies, for the benefit of others. I wanted to fuse both these forms of slavery - the past and present immigrant who indenture themselves in order to be given horrific transportation across waters  - and those forced into 'service' industries where they are then 'adapted' to fit a certain stereotype of desirability. Atwood took it one stage further with her prostitutes being given reptilian skin.

So, enter the 'swangirl', who appeared from these elements, with her question: what does love feel like for you? She is a runaway, found at the dock and forced into indentured service, and has her appearance radically altered to safeguard her: looking as she does, what else can she do? Where can she go? Who would recognise her? How can she reintegrate herself into society with the modifications made to her face and body?

As a character, she is still 'in development' and it may be she comes from Norway. In the future that is her home, oil doesn't have the value it once did. Norway is a less stable, affluent country. Migrants come from the north as much as they do from the south. It may be this new life, as performer, some how suits her. It may be, she is a portent of a new, nightmarish genre of performance. It may be, she is catalyst for hope... I need to keep walking and staring at the granite light