2016 February: Valentine’s Day, Origins of Life, Talking Drawing

I went to visit the new art/restaurant space opening adjacent to Apiary Studios in London, where there used to be a Brazilian restaurant the other day. I’ve been invited to present Rosa + Lawrence as part of the Valentine’s program at Honey Moon. I am grateful for my tutor’s recommendation to the organisers, particularly because it is the first time I have been invited to do anything arty at all, ever, and that is certainly a nice feeling.

Volunteers reading on behalf of Rosa and Lawrence. They have never encountered the text before. A big thanks to Leslie Goosey and Joey Ryken for donating their consciousness for this cause.

As is in my logical, somewhat socially oblivious nature, I immediately sent out a comprehensive list of queries about the logistics of what I planned to show. I don’t know, I feel particularly at home within formalities such as these – I hope they do not come across too estranging or stiff, as emails. Clearly I cramp the laid-back style of Honey Moon. When I appeared, the new manager was scrubbing away at dishes stowed away in the kitchen. With her colleague she was on the brink of realising a romantic dream, the two created a picture as though stolen from the revamping-of-the-shop scene in Chocolat. In looking around, I was reminded of the time I spent at Apiary Studios setting up an exhibition I didn’t particularly like last year, in tandem with the professional experience my course required me to go out and attain. The experience was great, I just disliked absolutely all the art (some of it with a sense of humour, some of it with morbid fascination, and some of it plain vehemently). The manager kept emphasising the ‘relaxed’, ‘informal’, ‘chill’, ‘spontaneous’ nature of the events that were ‘hardly planned’ and ‘just happened’ and were ‘not serious, just a bit of fun’. I started to feel embarrassed about this emphasis. It felt ideological.

I am very interested to have the piece performed here, precisely because of the ambience and informal atmosphere. Again, I’ll make a point of capturing it well on film, but as far as the performance pans out, unpredictability is precisely what will come of it. Now removed from a theatre setting, this performance of Rosa and Lawrence will be more of a séance. I’ll distribute the printed cards I prepared for the Cockpit like tarots, but will skip a background film this time to encourage “spirits” to emerge. I think the decor will do the job of setting us in the right tone, despite and perhaps because of the ‘Hawaiian’ theme proposed by the hula dancing manager, on the backdrop of the restaurant’s accumulated antiquities and conservatory elements… at any rate, there is less cause for nervousness this time. I feel unapologetic about the unpredictable reception of the work, and plan to enjoy the night!

How the Night Panned Out

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Here I begin by introducing the performance. I am awkward on stage, and spend just a tad too long fumbling over my sentences to quite hold the attention of a warm and fuzzy crowd of people preoccupied by their drinks and dinners. Nobody offers to read the script aloud, and I find myself strangely non-humiliated as I continue to attempt to persuade them to volunteer for almost ten minutes, to no avail. I guess I have imagined this scenario enough times to have come to terms with it as a perfectly plausible outcome of the performance. L, the director of the space and J, who helped organise the event, finally intervene and prepare to read the scripts.

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Here are the people who refused to participate in my participatory performance. They created a warm candlelight hum. Meanwhile, I think the reading quite literally travelled over everybody’s heads, and as a live performance did not really extend beyond soothing ambient noise.

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L and J’s reading was excellent. They were wonderfully articulate and animated. I was a little flustered to find my camera’s were obscured by the backs of standing onlookers and struggled to get good angles. I only just about scraped out an almost decent recording. But as it turns out the film, for the purposes of the project at large, is gold. The different scenario it presents us with emphasises the travels and recurrences of Rosa and Lawrence. The mirroring of the couple in the restaurant visitors themselves was itself a treasured feature. Even the way Rosa and Lawrence somehow went unheard and were obviously overlooked during the performance, only added to the inertia of their willing to wriggle into becoming. The text seems almost invincible in all manner of situations, because even misreading, neglect and violence seem to serve to emphasise the struggle of the characters in becoming, and through struggle, agency. I ended up enjoying the night greatly. It was haphazard, with many heartfelt poems read aloud only to be lost in the murmur of a disinterested but endearing crowd. Rosa and Lawrence happened to tumble into the eccentric mix of invisibles. Only the two readers and I were there to witness it, along with my sympathising friends. Melancholy was the outcome, a great compliment to the romantic occasion.

Origins of Life

A year ago I loosely joined a project upon invitation from a team of young documentary makers based in California. They are comprised primarily of an astrobiology intern at NASA, an animator, and a film director. They asked me to join them upon stumbling across my online readings of books, one of which was Seven Clues to the Origins of Life by the late biochemist Graham Cairns-Smith, as the origins of life on Earth is also the topic of their documentary. Specifically, P the NASA intern is part of a research team looking into hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the oceans as sites exhibiting potentially encouraging conditions for the first emerging life forms on our planet.

They liked my readings and the idea of using my narrator-character as a vehicle for the ideas in the documentary, and thus invited me to narrate it. Obviously I was apprehensive about being contacted online and the viability of such a proposal. But I have been in contact with the team for a long time through sparse but regular Google Hangout calls and seen the project develop slowly but surely. The time has come for me to be more involved as the storyline for the film begins to crystallise. I have been encouraged to get more involved with directorial input, particularly with regard to storytelling. We all agree on a specific way of sharing the research that is happening in the field, and see potential for a lot of visually stunning shots and representations. P has lined up a web of particularly interested theorists in the area, most based in London and the US. The idea is for me to have organic conversations with these knowledgeable people, whereby the film shows my own process of learning, in the state of uncertainty with which science and the search for knowledge is always tainted (as opposed to featuring me confidently delivering facts). A narrative about learning and questioning unfolds along a developing understanding of the science and its imagery. I have been encouraged by the team to involve my drawing, especially after they’d seen my Talking Drawings. The idea then, is whilst developing a rough storyline for the film, to bring me up to speed with some of the science. P is sending me homework biweekly, upon which we meet for conferencing calls to go through some of the material.

I am about to face a great deal of free time for art making, and since I am pretty excited about this documentary, thought I might accept more responsibility and get more involved with its direction. Perhaps I can adopt it as a medium for my own work, spin things my way, as part of my studies here at Wimbledon. I’m interested in giving a go at using drawing as a medium for understanding avenues that will be dealt with in the documentary. The subject itself is yet another approach to some of the concerns of emergence in my own work, and what constitutes ‘life’ in various senses of the word. It’s an opportunity to learn something interesting, engage with a question that is doubtless intimately asked by all of us, but which we often find ourselves too preoccupied with other things to think about: how on Earth did life emerge? It presents wonderful possibilities for drawing I think, and moulding characters in the very first of life forms.

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The “Lost City” Hydrothermal Vent discovered in 2000

We are planning to do the actual filming in summertime, but may have to make some rudimentary footage here in London to provide as ‘minimal material’ for potential funding bodies. I find the team inspiring and vibrant, full of good ideas, and it is especially because of this that I am keen on participating. I might make some documentations of my own process of learning:

  • make a video of myself contemplating the question of origins and life in the first place, stolen away somewhere peaceful, before I have even begun doing my homework. A short meditation, where I consider the project ahead and what I expect to learn
  • do the homework P assigns me, and use drawing to understand concepts
  • after completing a bout of homework, to review everything in the form of a talking drawing-esque video.

All these videos will be short snippets of contemplation. It will provide us with a sketch of the learning process as I half role-play it, half succumb to the endeavours of understanding, and provide potentially useful footage for the future.

Drawing

And indeed, what of Talking Drawings? Having attended a recent DRAW (Drawing Research at Wimbledon) event at Chelsea College of Art, a series of evening discussions and presentations surrounding the practice and phenomena of drawing organised by Tania Kovats, I was astonished to find myself both delighted by and disappointed in Stephen Farthing’s talk on ‘Writing and Drawing’. Obviously a relevant area for me, I expected the philosophical underpinnings of the talk not to be quite so naive. At the same time, his anecdotes and manner were incredibly engaging, and I found myself liking him very much. I agreed with much he said, but disagreed enough to feel compelled to write against his assertions that, for instance, ‘drawing can never be read’. At the same time, I felt a great desire to invite him to do a Talking Drawing, I feel he is the kind of person who would appreciate the exercise and do it great justice. Here is one of his diagrams breaking down genres and modes of drawing, fatally severing thought, conception, cognition from language.

Maybe one day, when the time is right, I will invite him to do a Talking Drawing. But I still need to work out the field of drawing with more of my own experiments. I am not doing enough of them. The other day I made a drawing of my roommate and found myself terrified to be drawing something from life again after so long – and indeed, the drawing was not much to speak of. Here is what I see coming up for Talking Drawing:

  • A video much more heavily entrenched in the Youtube tutorial format; I will earnestly try to teach the public something about drawing, against my natural impulse to not tell anybody how to do anything. I might make a ‘how to draw a plant’ tutorial, with multiple angles shooting a very demo-like setup: carefully selected flowers, clean pencils, paper upon a black tablecloth in a spotlit room: no space for distractions from the lessons of this tutorial! I hope I manage to teach myself something. I will speak about my relationship to the plant, and uncover methods of approaching it with my pencil. I will talk about looking, and fencing with the pencil. En garde with the plant!
  • A video in which I help someone make a Talking Drawing almost like a hypnosis demo. I will force them to articulate minute decisions they make about their drawing in real time. I will need a resilient patient.
  • But besides making videos, I need to set myself personal challenges in my drawing. My abstract organic structures were a revelation to me when they first appeared, they were so different to anything I’d done. But I’ve lapsed into a kind of comfort zone which prohibits ambitious behaviour in drawing, and this I miss. Perhaps I have become high and mighty about attempting to draw something out in the world. But there is much that can be learned by the practice of looking with a pencil. I will return to this as a practice and a challenge to help fuel my research forward.

Griselda Pollock

I attended the second of a lecture trilogy by Camberwell’s resident practitioner, Griselda Pollock. Coming from the same city, I knew the name of the Leeds-based scholar, but did not know anything about her work. I admittedly cringed at the title: Archives, Affects, and Logics: The Case of Raphael after the Holocaust in the space of Contemporary Art. I often find it incredibly difficult to marry the Holocaust with any cultural concern, even though it is inextricably linked to history and culture. I simply have failed to wrap my head around such atrocities, and rarely find insight in what people have to say about them, persuading me to avoid discourse on it altogether. I knew that Pollock is referred to as a “cultural theorist” specialising in “feminist postcolonial studies in the visual arts” and somehow found all these vagaries intertwined foreboding of an evening of feebly linked arguments with very big, all-encompassing names. I knew I was probably being unfair but these were my intuitions.

Yet I’ve rarely enjoyed a lecture this much. Although, I came out of it with the feeling that it had acted upon me as would an exceptional work of art: thoroughly unsettling my preconceptions on a range of topics I couldn’t quite pin down, in ways I couldn’t readily point out. The journey involved historical background on a string of events and artworks, combined with live and recorded readings from novels, clips from films and operas, photographs of executions of women and their children, Raphael’s painting of the Sistine Madonna and countless reactions to it throughout the ages. The lecture was a collage of traced histories and reproductions of various texts and artefacts that altogether presented something vigorously novel and contemporary. The outcome was too innovative to be done justice by analysis, and although the lecture was highly critical and reflective on a wide range of issues (some of the arguments were intriguing but beyond me, I caught onto but a few), I experienced it as a whole, as an artwork. I have no idea if that is what Pollock intended.

But it might be. She began by saying that her approach to the lecture was affect. She was going to affect us with the lecture by exposing us to strong material strung together in subtly connected ways. One of the underlying motifs, the Sistine Madonna, was throughout the course of the lecture utterly transformed from a quaintly beautiful religious painting of centuries gone by, into a charged object depicting two undeniably contemporary faces of mother and child. This was achieved through a juxtaposition of the work beside Vasily Grossman’s novels involving an imagined final letter from his Jewish mother who had been taken to be killed in his absence which was then recited aloud in a passionate performance by an elderly French actress, as well as grainy black-and-white Holocaust imagery and contemporary reworkings of this photographic material by artist Bracha Ettinger.

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Still from La Dérniére Lettre by Frederick Wiseman after Vasily Grossman’s novel Life and Fate

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The Sistine Madonna, painted by Raphael In 1512, and my own drawing of the Sistina 2016
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