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Introduction to Art Writing Workshop at New Art Exchange (May 17, 2018)

30 May

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For the fourth meeting of our Introduction to Art Writing group, and the last in this initial series of exploratory sessions jointly organised by Backlit Gallery and Nottingham Writers’ Studio in an attempt to test interest in an ongoing network for art-writing in Nottingham, we headed towards New Art Exchange to catch a walk-through and talk about Zanele Muholi‘s exhibition, Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail The Dark Lioness, led by the show’s curator, and Muholi’s long-time friend and collaborator, Renee Mussai. First shown in the UK at Autograph ABP during late 2017, Somnyama Ngonyama brings together more than sixty monochrome self portraits from an ongoing body of work in which Muholi adopts a wide range of guises, often constructed from such everyday found items as scouring pads, clothes pegs, vacuum cleaner tubes, bin liners and bicycle tyres, to frame an implicit commentary on questions of identity, post-apartheid South African history and the politics of sexuality, gender and representation.

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Mussai began by defining the cultural space in which Muholi works, noting that the artist’s intentions are drawn not from art historical frameworks but from LGBTQI activism in the South African context. Muholi established their international reputation with Faces & Phases (2006 – 2016), a body of photographs documenting activists, friends, political allies and others involved in South Africa’s LGBTQI scenes, documenting what was, and still remains, a marginalised and still frequently persecuted community. As Muholi stated in an interview about that decade-long project: “If I were to reduce myself to the label ‘visual artist’ it would mean that what I’m doing is just for play, that our identities, as black female beings who are queer or are lesbian, is just art. Art needs to be political—or let me say that my art is political. It’s not for show. It’s not for play…”

In the light of this, Mussai noted that while the performative self-portraits in Somnyama Ngonyama may superficially appear to draw on a wide range of art-historical referents, as an apparent contrast with the documentary framing of the portraits of the LGBTQI subjects featured in Faces & Phases, the frequent comparisons that have been made to artists like, say, Claude Cahun, Frida Kahlo or Cindy Sherman, are not, in fact, a substantial part of the work’s intention despite some clear, if largely incidental, formal similarities to the work of these artists. Somnyama Ngonyama may take a different approach to Muholi’s political project to that seen in Faces & Phases, then, but it grows out of the same set of activist intentions and objectives, and works towards similar ends. These, in Muholi’s own words, are about “visual activism”, the use of photography as a tool to represent and give voice to a community in the context of a post-apartheid South Africa where, as Muholi points out, there remains a need to fight a continuing denial of that community’s right to exist: “This is about our lives, and if queer history, trans history, if politics of blackness and self-representation are so key in our lives, we just cannot sit down and not document and bring it forth.”

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For Mussai, this made it imperative that Muholi’s work be read from its own activist perspective rather than in more conventional art-historical or formal terms. Within this,  Mussai drew attention to many layers of allusion, outlining those elements in the portraits which referenced specific events in the artist’s life or were intended to highlight particular events in recent and colonial history as these related to Muholi’s experience. Some were particular to individual images or groups of images, as where a portrait acknowledges a massacre of protesting workers at a platinum mine, uses inflatables to echo the forms of cysts removed during surgery, or constructs crowns of clothes pegs and scouring pads in tribute to the artist’s mother and her work as a cleaner for a white family under apartheid. Others thread through the series as a whole, as with the persistent echo of tropes drawn from 19th and 20th century ethnographic photography, the artist’s emphasis on dark skin tones in the print process and the portraits’ deployment of a consistently strong return gaze, giving the images, both individually and collectively, a powerful sense of agency as their subject looks back at the viewer from every point in the exhibition.

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These intentions, and Muholi’s use of the work’s striking technical, formal and performative qualities to carry a range of meanings grounded in personal and political  trauma and celebration, make it clear that questions of agency around identity and representation comprise the over-arching connective tissue that gives Somnyama Ngonyama its unusual potency as a body of work. As Mussai noted, Muholi’s identity in terms of race, gender and sexuality sits at the core of what these images mean even as the implications of these various facets of Muholi’s self-presentation operate on fluid terms. Initially identifying as a lesbian female, Muholi has more recently adopted ‘their’ rather than ‘she’ or ‘her’ as preferred pronouns, highlighting this fluid quality around gender in the images themselves. As Muholi points out“The [intention of the work] is to say, ‘I am one of us.’ I’m not just taking photos for fine arts—I’m producing content that speaks to South African visual history and a group of people who, simply because of how they express themselves, won’t be counted in history. That includes me…”

Muholi 1

Following Mussai’s talk, we were joined by Bethan Davies, creative programmer at New Art Exchange, to tell us a bit more about the history of the venue – opened in 2008, and one of the largest galleries dedicated to BAME arts in the UK – and her own path into her current role, from an English degree to working as a creative producer and programmer with a wide range of artists and communities. Some feedback on the sessions to date was presented by participants and future possibilities and plans for further activities with the Art Writing Group (now these four initial sessions are over and a core group of interested participants is in place) were also discussed. A ‘zine style publication responding to the Slavs and Tartars exhibition Mountain of Tongues is already in the pipeline for a July release, featuring creative texts written in response to the exhibition’s artworks and themes by six group members. Upcoming workshops are scheduled with Bad Vibes Club and One Of My Kind (OOMK), while additional plans for a studio-based writing residency to take a role in shaping future Art Writing Group activities are already in progress. The group will continue as a self-determining network and forum beyond these four initial sessions, with a regular base for meetings and administrative support provided by Backlit. Anyone interested in participating or getting further information on future activities and developments can contact Suzanne at Backlit for more details (http://backlit.org.uk/contact/).

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Introduction to Art Writing Workshop at Nottingham Contemporary (April 26, 2018)

7 May

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For the third meeting of our Introduction to Art Writing group, a series of four exploratory workshops jointly organised by Backlit Gallery and Nottingham Writers’ Studio, we were delighted to have Sam Thorne, Nottingham Contemporary‘s director, lead us in a ‘mobile discussion’ of the role played by writing in the making of the gallery’s current exhibition, Linder’s The House of Fame. With a group of around 25 participants gathered at the Nottingham Contemporary reception, a mix of both regulars and first-time attendees, we set off into the galleries to explore the exhibits and hear from Thorne about the role played by written correspondence in the process of curating the show and the many literary influences and connections on view in the works themselves.

We began in 1981, the date (then 25 years into the future) represented by Alison and Peter Smithson’s House of the Future, a theoretical design made for the Ideal Home Exhibition in March 1956 and installed at the Olympia Exhibition Centre for the duration of the show that month. Thorne noted that the Smithsons’ proposal had interested Linder for many reasons, not least the coincidence of its theoretical future with the importance of 1981 as a date in her own life and career, this being the time when her collage and performance works – ranging from record sleeve designs, photographs and the wearing of a meat dress while performing with her own post-punk band Ludus – were all laying the foundations of her subsequent career. That the Smithsons’ speculative future and Linder’s actual past converged on the same date had given the exhibition a suitably layered starting point for its overview of Linder’s work and influences.

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Thorne also noted that the connections between the art-works that interested Linder, which she wanted to include alongside examples drawn from her own extensive 40-year body of material, and the evolution of her own works since the 1970s, were explored in a very extensive, wide-ranging and ‘in-depth’ email correspondence, a few excerpts from which featured in the exhibition’s broadsheet newspaper format publication. Even before their first formal meeting in 2017, he and Linder had, he explained, exchanged a large number of emails – so many, in fact, that there were around a hundred pages of them already printed out by the time their first face-to-face meeting to discuss the potential exhibition and residency at Chatsworth House came about.

The stage set feel of the Smithsons’ House of the Future display was echoed by other representations of Linder’s interest in performance and shifting identity, from Linder’s own 1970s photographs of men presenting as women in Manchester nightclubs to Madame Yevonde‘s 1930s images of aristocrats and debutantes posing as mythical Goddesses. The presence of Inigo Jones set and costume designs for Ben Jonson’s Jacobean masque The House of Fame had given the exhibition its title, grounding Linder’s own activity in a long tradition of work in which visuals, costumes, music and text were combined. As Thorne pointed out, one of the touchstone phrases that arose in the correspondence was Moki Cherry‘s comment, “The stage as a home and the home as a stage”, hinting at the intentional transformation of everyday living into art.

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In other galleries, this was refracted through Linder’s interest in spiritualist photography, seances and other occult and memorial practices, ranging from mid-twentieth century archival photographs of mediums generating ectoplasm (often using lace, collaged faces and double exposures to achieve their effects) to Mike Kelley’s tongue-in-cheek re-enactments of these same images in his Ectoplasm series made around 1977/8. Thorne noted that lace-making had been another ‘thread’ in the correspondence, with the structure of the exhibition devised around an idea of ‘weaving together’ many elements to create a whole pattern. This had, in its turn, brought in many images and objects that touched on these ideas, such as the pioneering museum photography of Isabel A Cowper at the V&A in the mid nineteenth century, an example of which featured here – naturally presenting a specimen of lace.

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We also touched on the ways that text shadowed much of the other work on display, from Aubrey Beardsley’s illustration for Lucian’s second century satire on outlandish travellers’ tales The True History and Max Ernst’s ‘collage novel’ Une semaine de bonté, to such substantial presences as Ithell Colquhoun, an English writer, artist and occultist responsible for such literary works as The Goose of Hermogenes and The Living Stones, and Penny Slinger, whose own ‘psychosexual feminist autobiography’ An Exorcism appeared in 1978. These were all obliquely represented in the various rooms of Linder’s exhibition with small gatherings of paintings, prints and collages by the artists.

The intimate connections between the visual and literary aspects of the exhibition were clear enough, though Thorne revealed that one omission had been a reconstructed model of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, partly conceived and designed by Lord Byron’s daughter Ada Lovelace. This was a machine that could have made a direct connection between the card-programmed machinery of 19th century lace-making and the punch-card systems of 1950s corporate and scientific computers. Its absence hinted at the complexities behind putting together exhibitions, where curators and artists are not always able to get everything they wish to show. The process, as Thorne noted of Linder’s approach to the curatorial task as an extension of her collage work, could often be as intuitive, surprising and rewarding as the making of artworks themselves.

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Following this tour of the galleries, we moved on to one of Nottingham Contemporary’s meeting rooms, where Thorne had agreed to answer some questions about his own route from studying English Literature at university, to writing for magazines about art and music, and eventually taking up an associate editorship at Frieze and beginning his curatorial career. Subjects ranging from the commissioning process to editors’ interest in writing from regions outside the main (London, New York, Berlin) centres of the art world were discussed, and members of the group spoke briefly about their own interests, confidence levels in terms of writing, and current activities.

Once again, these covered a broad range, from specialisms in fashion and social practice to current activity runnning small scale curatorial and exhibition projects in the city. Several participants spoke about the difficulty of moving away from academic styles and approaches in their more personal writing, and others wondered whether their particular specialist interests should or shouldn’t be made clear in the context of a review. The general feeling was that such specialisation can be a limitation, ensuring writers might be sought only to cover the niches their particular interests suited, but where relevant and appropriate this could also generate its own opportunities. Thorne mentioned that one of his own specialisms at Frieze had been the developing art scenes of the Middle East, so being identified with a specialism was not in itself a bad thing.

Other questions followed, such as a discussion of markets for art writing and reviews outside the core art magazine markets; the changes in publishing’s economics that meant there were more high quality publications but these were generally more narrowly distrubuted than in the past; the influence of fashion cycles on the reputations of particular artists and the coverage given to them by editors; and the desirability, or otherwise, of writers’ opinions being potentially swayed by meetings with artists at openings and events. Was this something to embrace or avoid? This latter point was considered something of an inevitable problem in a relatively small social world like the art scene, where the paths of writers and artists are always likely to cross at some point.

Thorne mentioned press reviewers visiting previews of Linder’s show at Nottingham Contemporary who, during its opening weekend, had sometimes avoided Linder herself as they navigated the galleries, sometimes sought her out. It was probably inevitable that attaching an actual human being’s presence and feelings to the work might influence a writer’s opinion, but this was never going to be easy to escape. And the flipside of this, that a chat with the artist might open up fresh perspectives and deepen or complicate a writer’s viewpoint on the work, was also worth bearing in mind. In the end, though, Thorne noted that he wrote much less since embarking on his current job at Nottingham Contemporary, partly due to time constraints, but perhaps also because his dual roles, as independent writer and director of a public organisation committed to supporting artists, might be seen to clash even where they didn’t.

Next Introduction to Art Writing session takes place on May 17 from 6.30 – 9pm at New Art Exchange (39-41 Gregory Boulevard, NG7 6BE). We will convene for curator Renee Mussai’s talk and walk through of Zanele Muhole’s exhibition Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness from 6.30pm, then at 7.30pm will be joined by NAE’s Programme Director Melanie Kidd for a discussion. Booking is free and all are welcome.

Introduction to Art Writing Workshop at Primary (April 14, 2018)

5 May

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The second session bringing together our Introduction to Art Writing group, a series of four exploratory workshops jointly organised by Backlit Gallery and Nottingham Writers’ Studio, met at Primary on the afternoon of April 14, with the sunny spring weather in the playground outside the former school building making for something of a contrast with the blizzards and heavy snow that had accompanied our first session at Backlit in March. Some familiar and a few new faces gathered to hear from Niki Russell, curator of the public programme at Primary, and to see and discuss Deeper in the Pyramid by Melanie Jackson, a multimedia project designed to unfold across three different venues and take a variety of forms, including an illustrated publication.

For the work’s first presentation at Grand Union, Birmingham, Jackson had presented a sculptural installation with embedded digital video works; at Primary, Nottingham, the same research and text (written by Jackson in collaboration with Esther Leslie, and available in published form as an illustrated book) had been reconfigured as a performance lecture and oblique documentary-style video. A third incarnation of Deeper in the Pyramid is set to be installed at Banner Repeater, London, later in the year. While taking many different forms as it moves between sites, however, Jackson’s project is also an artwork with text, storytelling and the collaboration between visual, literary and performative elements built into its DNA.

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Before hearing from Niki and viewing Deeper in the Pyramid, we first had a round of introductions and talked a little about the range of motivations for attending this new group. Interest in collaboration ranked high, with several participants already involved in collaborative activity, and several people expressed interest in exploring ways of bringing the kinds of informal writing they were doing already into a variety of public contexts, ranging from incorporating interviews with photographic subjects alongside their documentary portraits to finding uses for informal notes on exhibitions or exploring new approaches to making artworks accessible through the creative use of interpretative  labels and text panels in galleries and museums. A few also noted that they had experience of writing at university but expressed interest in developing their writing outside these kinds of academic contexts.

Niki Russell spoke about the role of commissioned texts in expanding the reach of Primary’s programme of residencies and exhibitions, with one or more written responses to each new commission published in the venue’s Programme Notes as a means of ‘creating a legacy’ for the often ephemeral work taking place in the building itself. Writers like Jamie Sutcliffe had written essays in response to Guillaume Pilet’s Dream A Little Drama performances, Padraic E Moore responded with a letter to the installation that resulted from Shana Moulton‘s residency, while Niru Ratnam constructed an oblique fiction in response to Sahej Rahal’s Dry Salvages. Russell noted that sometimes these commissions had led to ongoing collaborations, as when Emma Hart’s response to Jonathan Baldock’s work had led to the two artists developing exhibitions and other work together in the years that followed.

He also talked about his own role as an occasional art critic, reviewing exhibitions and events, and noted how this activity overlapped with his curatorial work at Primary and elsewhere, and fed into his ongoing work with the artists’ collective Reactor, a project developing films, performances and other platforms through inherently collaborative processes. The practicalities of reviewing – from writing with fixed article lengths to tight deadlines and occasional pressures to offer strong opinions even when the work under review might not necessarily inspire them, were also touched on – though ultimately reviewing and writing were felt to open a way of thinking about artworks in depth, giving shape to thoughts that might otherwise remain less well defined, and generally offered a positive way of exploring the works encountered in galleries. The results may not always be the final word, but the texts were part of a process and added a layer of reflection and substance to the fleeting encounters we often have with particular works and the artists who make them.

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In the discussion that followed, we considered questions such as whether the views expressed in published responses were ever revisited and changed (quite often, though less so as the length of time allowed to reflect on the work’s more lasting effect was extended by deadlines), and how magazines and newspapers decided what to cover and what to omit from their reviews and feature sections (a complicated process which venues’ marketing budgets, artists’ public profiles, topicality, fashionability and the relative weight of particular writers’ enthusiasms could all play parts in shaping). Experience of working with editors could vary widely, too, with some editors offering extensive suggestions for revision, others printing texts exactly as submitted – which puts the onus very much on writers themselves to ensure all the information in their copy is accurate at the time it goes to press.

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We concluded the session with a viewing and discussion of Jackson’s Deeper in the Pyramid, in its Primary incarnation a 40m film drawing on documentary and more oblique, fictionalised material to explore the social, cultural and psychological contexts and meanings that surround our relationships with milk. Exploring themes ranging from the mythological significance of milk in Ancient Egypt and Greece, its association with the maternal, its transformations into cheese, cream and butter, its role as a substance inspiring strange dreams in early twentieth century comic strips, its industrial production and packaging in pyramid-shaped ‘tetrapacks’ for sale in Africa and India, its role in sexualising fashion and advertising photography – the film offered a richly layered journey through the hidden meanings of a substance we often take for granted.

Other References:

Art Writing Blog at Nottingham City of Literature

Plastique Fantastique (cited by Niki during his talk)

Kaleidoscope (cited by Niki during his talk)

 

 

Introduction to Art Writing Workshop at Backlit (March 17, 2018)

24 Mar

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The first Introduction to Art Writing session took place on the afternoon of Saturday 17 March, and despite the day’s heavy snow and blizzards drew around twenty five people to Backlit.

Matthew Chesney, Backlit director, introduced the session and touched on some of the host gallery’s activities, including his own experience of putting together a publication, House of the Flying Wheel, that explored the history of the building (once part of the textile empire of Samuel Morley and the Morley textiles company) and the evolution of Backlit itself as a place for artists’ studios and a venue for performances and exhibitions, currently Strike Site, a group exhibition based on ideas and experiences of migration, displacement and borders curated by the writer Sacha Craddock.

Following this, Wayne Burrows introduced some samples from the wide range of outlets for different types of art writing, noting the ways that each has its own particular approaches: an article in an academic journal will take a different form to a review in a specialist contemporary art magazine, while newspapers and more general interest magazines covering art, but not exclusively about art, will make very different assumptions about the reader’s knowledge and potential interest in the subject. Looking at journals as diverse as Frieze and Art Review, Nottingham Visual Arts and LeftLion, and a variety of artists’ books, catalogues, press releases and other publications, we touched on how each makes its own distinctive demands on the writer.

Wayne also discussed the development of his own work, from working mainly with poetry and journalism to projects that use collage, exhibitions, films and performances alongside publications as vehicles for fiction and the building of alternate realities:

Wayne Burrows links: https://wayneburrows.wordpress.com/links/

Beyond the more straightforward field of critical writing, where the standard formats might be reviews, essays and interviews, we looked briefly at those points where writing about art blurs into writing as art, and it was here that the most creative approaches seemed to be found. Whether the more hybrid kinds of poetic essay, artists’ text – or even in works where the artwork itself employs characterisation and narrative, or constructs a fictional world or history – there were forms that art-writing could take that pushed through the confines of the kind of prose found in press releases, exhibition information panels and catalogue essays.

With this range of possibilities and potential responses in mind, participants spent time in the Strike Site exhibition and were invited to write down (or simply think about) a few lines that might embody a response reflecting a particular viewpoint, rooted in the participants’ own interests and reasons for attending the workshop. During the discussion that followed, there turned out to be no standard angle, but rather a range of individual concerns: some focused on the issues raised, others on aesthetics; some were positive, some critical; some considered the forms of the works included, others paid closer attention to their positioning, relationships or content.

In exploring these responses we also discussed some future possibilities for the group, with developing writing skills, sharing work, making connections between people, creating a group to discuss exhibitions on a ‘book club’ model and building a network all mentioned at one point or another. After resolving an earlier technical hitch, we concluded with a short screening featuring three short films, chosen to illustrate the points made earlier about the more creative, ‘expanded’ aspects of how thinking about writing – in the form of both text and strategies of fiction-making or world-building – can apply in relation to particular art-works.

Shana Moulton Whispering Pines II 2007

These films included Shana Moulton discussing her Twin Peaks-inspired Whispering Pines series of artist films featuring an alter ego named Cynthia; footage from a live text-based performance by Sophie Jung; and a short film in which the artists Tai Shani and Florence Peake introduce the fictional archaeological and political ideas that informed their collaborative installation Andromedan Sad Girl at Wysing Arts Centre last year. Links to all three films are included here for those who missed them:

Shana Moulton: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Z1kow40WGY

Sophie Jung: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2TwYQ6bcF4

Tai Shani & Florence Peake: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hv4bavXUV_c

Tai Shani & Florence Peake Andromedan Sad Girl (2017)

As a final note, here are some of the comments written during the day on the pages put up around the workshop space to collect suggestions and thoughts from participants. These will be used, along with the comments made during discussions, to shape future sessions.

Ideas/ suggestions

Mini biogs – ‘As much as I hate them, introduction circle helps my social anxiety to be over ridden. So to intro and bio is easier when everyone does it together’

Facebook page – ‘I need to meet in person to do anything productive. Social media feels too impersonal and lacks accountability sometimes‘ (perhaps we can look at alternative online platforms?)

Seeds to grow, to create a network of writers, creatives and like-minded souls

I love writing in response to visual stimulus/ art in poetic form. Also love overlap of forms – eg: photography, theatre, performance. Would love to hear more about others’ backgrounds and interests…

What is everyone reading? I’m struggling to find new authors…

A ‘bookclub’ but for exhibitions? Go and see it, than have a chat later?

I’d love to see/read other people’s writing

Practical discussion and critique of each others’ own artwork

Thanks! worth coming, maybe fragmentation into sub-groups, also convening to re-connect would be helpful.

Great to be in a room with a dynamic range of people with a variety of reasons for having an interest in writing about the art.

The day has been amazing, informative, great content and brilliant opportunity to network.

Interesting to think about writing with a mix of participants/ fresh views.

Melanie Jackson - Deeper in the Pyramid (2018)

Next Session:

Saturday 14th April, 1 – 4pm at Primary, 33 Seely Road, Nottingham NG7 1NU. Please book your place via the Eventbrite link at: https://bit.ly/2ua96mk

Primary are also hosting an event on Thursday 12th April at 7pm with Melanie Jackson’s performance lecture and exhibition opening, free to attend and no booking required: http://www.weareprimary.org/2018/02/melanie-jackson/