Unofficial Histories

In May, I attended a conference at the Bishopsgate Institute titled “Unofficial Histories” which set out to discuss “how society produces, presents and consumes history beyond official and elite versions of the past”. Then in June, I went on a visit with Hayley Newman and Slade PhD students to The Mayday Rooms, a new initiative which was set up to work with historical material and make it relevant to today’s social movements.

The conference was opened by Hilda Kean who started out with a quote from Raphael Samuels – of “history as a social form of knowledge”; an ensemble of practices in which a “dialectic of past-present relations is ‘rehearsed’”. She discussed different examples of individuals and groups consciously creating their own history, for example the suffragettes created own museum at time of their campaign, as they saw their own activities as worth commemorating.

She explored family history as a different way of exploring people’s relationship with the past, using material culture as a way into exploring identity, memory and absence, and the importance of recognising the link between emotions and history, as “feelings and analysis are not mutually exclusive”. Finally she described history metaphorically as a house of many rooms – with different inhabitants in different rooms, but said that at the moment academics see themselves as in possession of the house. How this might be changed was addressed through other speakers papers, and as Andrew Flinn began: “history is too important to be left to professional historians” (this was in the first issue of History Workshop Journal). He explained the progress of worker’s history from the first workers libraries in 19th century, through Ruth and Eddie Frow’s collection in their house of materials relating to working class history, to current initiatives, which grew out of the idea of “a usable past” (James D Young, 1990. The Workers City)

In my session I presented a paper titled Market Research (or) Unravelling the Idealized Spectre – artists producing history in the public realm, which discussed issues of the subjective role of the artist in constructing situations in public, breaking down the idea of a united ‘community’ or ‘public’ identity. Kyle-Patrick Hart spoke about the invention of AIDs through the media, and how self-representation localizes production and viewing of work, and Melissa Bliss spoke about reviving memories of hackney radical activism through guided walks. This lead to a discussion about embodied practices of making history, and the risks and responsibilities involved in this type of work. Making spaces for otherness to be heard was vital, but required careful consideration of how material is then processed and used.

I enjoyed Rosa Ainsley’s paper on her book 2 Ennerdale Drive, which explored architectural narrative and its place in the social, excavating family history through a new form of memoir. Her book combined image and text, memory and factual history to explore her own family story through the architecture of the family house. This type of topoanalysis or site writing – which combines poetic practice and theoretical analysis – is as she describes an approach to the “slippery hieroglyphs of family history”, cultivating a lack of certainty and ambivalence, and playing with both the official content and form of history.

The conference prompted me to thinking about who the producers and the consumers of history are, what is fuelling the desire for history, and which versions of history we are told; are consumers fuelling a desire for certain versions or types of historical material/content, or are producers offering certain versions for consumption?

Visiting the Mayday Rooms new headquarters in an old Newspaper Office on Fleet Street offered another perspective on these questions. Their intention is to create an active space for the use of history, processing materials which relate to the ‘unofficial’ histories of social movements, artists networks and education, but rather than holding an archive, to encourage people to come in and use the material in relevance to contemporary concerns. Therefore, history becomes a tool for researchers challenging current power structures. The project grew out an archive which was set up at Central St Martins to rescue material relating to the educational history of the institution, much of which was outside the current ‘image’ the school wanted to portray. Recognising the value of this alternative history in the current struggles of higher education, the instigators of the Mayday Rooms set out to collect and republish/index this material, and now the physical space of the project allows many more possibilities.

Set in a building which is located by the site of England’s first printing press, it offers imaginative approaches to how material culture, technology and research might be combined to creatively use historical materials which relate to those marginalised and untold stories of struggle, and working outside of or against structures of power with their ‘official’ versions of history.

What both the conference and the Mayday Rooms offer is a renewed interest and passion to not only tell marginalised histories, but to re-examine who does this and why it is done. The suggestion is that these histories, and this material, can have power in changing the contemporary, so that past figures are not just spectral but can offer ways to materialise questions that have still not been resolved about power and control of our cities and institutions.


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Silk routes

I started the residency at August Art, Shoreditch High Street, last week and have been slowly making progress with the map of routes, based on the Brixton stories we collected last year. I based the map on lace making patterns, which relate to the history of the area as a centre for the Huguenot silk trade and fabric and lace-making.

I went to the national archive at Kew where there is a collection of Huguenot silks and laces. The paper patterns are still partly visible on the reverse.

I traced the filmstrip narratives of the Brixton stories onto paper, and these became the patterns for the journeys on the map.

I then began to pin out the routes, using silk thread to knot around the pins. As the journeys converge and cross, a patterning of lacework will emerge. I am calling the work “Pattern Language” which relates to the idea of a design syntax, of a set of variables which can be used as a vocabulary and grammar to describe ‘solutions to problems in a field of interest’. It also relates to my interest in translation and the incoherence of the palimpsest of different histories that make up a place, the tangle of interwoven lives at any given moment.

I will continue the residency over the next few weeks and am also interviewing local residents and passers by, which will add to the archive of narratives to draw on in the next stage of work.

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Contested Sites..

In early March, Rebecca and I went to Chelsea College of Art to take part in a conference called Contested Sites organised by TrAIN (Research centre for Transnational Art, Identity, Nation. We resurrected our market stall and asked conference participants to tell us their narratives and journeys that their research had led them on. Some of these became lines of thread on a map, a trial piece for the work I am now making in the gallery.

We also presented a paper on the Brixton work, which lead to an interesting discussion about the nature of memory, who memory belongs to, who can collect and tell it. This echoed the themes of the day which were sparked off by keynote speaker Eyal Sivan’s discussion of memory and representation through filmed image, in his context in Palestine, where the settlers ‘created’ the image of an empty desert.

He asked, who is looking? Who is giving the commentary? Who is the actor and who is the witness? The contestation becomes not just over site but over the role different individuals and communities play, and the role we play as researchers and actors in our own research.

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Nomadic Sites

I’ve been reading ‘One Place After Another’ by Miwon Kwon, which has led me to thinking about the nature of practices which engage with site. In the book, Kwon discusses the genealogy of site-specific art from the Serra era of works which respond to environmental conditions, to Suzanne Lacy’s new genre public art and beyond.

What emerges through the text is the evolution of art practices in which site is structured intertextually not spatially; site as a fragmentary sequence of events and actions through space (a model being the itinerary of a journey). This changes the role of the artist, as “..the intricate orchestration of literal and discursive sites that make up a nomadic narrative requires the artist as a narrator-protagonist…”; of the artist as facilitator of relationships in space.

Suzanne Lacy describes what exists between ‘public’ and ‘art’ as the unknown relationship between the artist and audience; a relationship that may itself be the artwork. So if architect and site are displaced by community, audience and social issue, as different kinds of spaces, how does this affect approaches to practice in the public realm? One way can be for artists to see community as what Bruce Robbins calls an ‘idealized specter’, enabling a fiction of unity that in fact reinforces ‘a closed system of differences’ (Chantal Mouffe).

Through conversations with my sister and collaborator Rebecca, I have been thinking about how our work could reverse site and situation, in an attempt to counteract this. Rather than the physicality of site, to insert situation INTO site. So that the practitioner and site are effectively nomadic, and we design and adapt situations according to the conditions we find. Situation as a filter for design; site as answering a set of criteria for situation, rather than the other way round.

What this has made me realise is key to my work is the logistics, and negotiation processes, involved in creating situations in sites. That in fact this might be where the practice is: not just in the outcome or the final event but in the processes and relationships, and the knowledge accumulated through dialogue.

Therefore, developing work for a new exhibition at August Art in March with curator Winnie, what emerged was the idea of a live residency in the gallery which will create the work on site, in part using the Brixton stories we collected, and also responding to conversations which take place with gallery visitors and passers by. I’ll be researching and posting further ideas on the work and process over the coming weeks…

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The Charmed Life of Objects

At the Wellcome collection, an exhibition called ‘Charmed Life’ showcases the Victorian collector Edward Lovett’s 1400 amulets, with responses by artist Felicity Powell. Her delicate wax traces on mirror-backs are far more ethereal than the stumpy rough-hewn objects invested with magic power by the Victorian poor of London. The other exhibition on there, of Mexican ex-voto paintings, collects hundreds of hand-painted images of near-death experiences and salvation, naïve offerings in gratefulness to the divinity who has prevented catastrophe.

I then visited the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and come across more charms and ex-votos. Wax castings of body parts giving thanks for healing; diverse objects with magical powers to cure (including a potato carried around for 3 months as a cure for Rheumatism); a bottle carrying a witch. What is fascinating is the solidification of the spirit; the investure of the material with power so strong it can kill or cure.

I bought a book called Dime Store Alchemy, a series of texts by American poet Charles Simic about Joseph Cornell’s boxes.  I find one box I keep coming back to, called Untitled (“Dovecote”). It is reminiscent (on a different scale) of Alexander Brodsky’s works, which I saw him talk about last week at the Royal Academy. Between art and architecture, his works frame or contain vanished memories. For one work, ‘Grey Matter’, he used unfired clay to recreate lost objects from memory.

In one text by Simic, titled ‘Totemism’, he talks about the secret rooms inside everyone. “Every once in a while an object on the table becomes visible: a broken compass, a pebble the colour of midnight, an enlargement of a school photograph with a face in the back circled, a  watch-spring – each one of these items is a totem of the self.” These totemic objects ‘give the soul something to grasp onto’. (Michel de Montaigne, Essais, 1580 in Charmed Life Exhibition catalogue)

So, is it possible to fabricate totemic relics in response to a specific set of narratives? I wonder how might they become visible, be displayed, and contained – the reproduction as a deliberate attempt to render loss physical, to retain loss.


All photographs taken at the Pitt Rivers Museum.



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Melting pots

Whilst getting the material together for the upgrade seminar I presented last week, I was searching online for  ‘Brixton’ and ‘melting pot’, and saw an advert for this on Gumtree.

So I tracked it down and had a exchange in a Tesco car park, and now it is in my studio awaiting further experimentation. I’ve been reading more about salt and alchemical processes, and how salt represents the stable, ‘fixed’ element in alchemy.

Hillman talks about salt as ‘soul’; “the mineral substance or objective ground of personal experience”. In Hillman’s analysis, salt represents the drive to remember, and a trauma is a salt mine; it is a fixed place for reflection about the nature and value of our personal being, where memory originates and personal history begins. This connects with Jung’s psychoanalytical framework based on the four stages of alchemy: nigredo, albedo, citrinitas and rubedo. So I’m thinking about the connection between objects, memory and transformative processes, (and salt), and wondering how I might use my melting pot to translate narratives into physical material, or vice versa…

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Geographical Imaginaries

The week before last, I attended the Royal Geographical Society annual international conference, “The Geographical Imagination” which encompassed geographies of the archive, death, emotion, suburbia, invisibility and futurity, to name but a few.

The first session I attended, “Me Myself and the Archive”, explored the relationship between archive and user, with Christine Bichsel discussing Derrida’s idea of the archive as a desire to reach out for things in the past, for a sense of origin. She argued that if we see the archive as a metaphor for memory, we will undergo a transformation by engaging with it, developing narratives of use. Anne Marie Kramer also presented the idea of the archive as a space for dreams and revelations, where the past can be made personally meaningful. Adeola Enigboken’s interesting presentation explored the archive of (digital) data that exists ‘out there’ -and how its changing our notions of searching, using and analysing information.

In “Necrophenomena – political geographies of death”, Lakbar Jasal explored the contested nature of burial sites of migrants in England, while James Thurgill discussed processes of enchantment, describing his research with ghost-hunters (with a degree of healthy scepticism). Further into the spectral, and Jun-Huu Lin explained how office workers in new buildings were using the idea of ‘ghost’ to explain spatial conditions which were uncanny and abnormal to them. The spatiality of the spectral seemed to loom large, with ‘ghosts’ used as social sphere to construct pasts/transmit local knowledge, and as an indication of human/environmental relationships. Similarly, Avrill Maddrell’s work on the geographies of bereavement found a strong sense of the spatial in public representations of mourning, and in the informalisation of memorialisation.

Art, Science and Geographical Imaginaries” included some bizarre and wonderful new technologies including a biodata system which enables you to measure your emotional state as you move around; and a GPS/poetry/music project which mapped non-linear elements of sounds into spaces so you could roam and collect them. Someone aptly quoted Jonathon Raban: “the city has a language that speaks to you” (Soft City, 1974). Questions arose around intention, purpose, use and usefulness, the different approaches of artists and scientists, research-based versus process-based work. Artist Nick Edwards talked about how several trips to Cape Farewell had lead him to adopt a Perec-style approach, using an ethnography of proximity, doing some “internal travel-writing” and exploring the very local instead of the very distant. Marcus Vergette’s bells were a beautiful metaphorical approach to memory and landscape, whilst also containing complex science within their form. They sit at the edge of the sea, and as the tide rises and falls notes are played within the bell. And Sara Bowler’s Field Station project in the Happidrome, Cornwall, asked how bodies of knowledge around particular places are collected and kept, in the context of artists working with scientists and other ‘experts’.

The “Sacred Journeys” session had a wide range of interpretations of both the sacred and journeys. Rob Irving’s research on crop circle makers explored our need for the sacred and to make this visible, or “ostention” of this (from ostendum, latin for “to show”). Alan Terry spoke about how Pilgrimage in 20th century can be redefined as any journey redolent with meaning, an individual search for meaning and identity, for example motorbike enthusiasts attending the TT races on the Isle of Man. Suka Shakkour’s work on the return of exiled Palestinians in search for their homes described the language of ‘site sacralisation’ in defining and making markers of the sacred, away from the actual site; where a key becomes revered, even enshrined, and reproduced, and a story of home gets told and retold until it becomes myth. After I presented my paper, Hugh Prince, a geographer from UCL said it reminded him of the Canterbury Tales, and I thought again of Calvino and crossed destinies; that it is the telling and sharing of the journey that sacralises it.

The final session I attended, “Art, Politics and Space”, saw presentations by artist duo Kennard/Phillips, Artscatalyst, and TJ Demos. Demos questioned how to address geographies of invisibility, and proposed that perhaps its not possible through straight documentary, which for me illustrated the importance of artist’s roles in the research process. Artists imaginaries combine with geographers to create new ways of thinking, and to challenge existing political structures with “dreams of the future from the past*”.

*a reference to the work of the Otolith Group.


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