Summer is drawing to a close and the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness is upon us: an appropriate time, then, to reflect on and draw in / draw to a close/ draw together the fruits of my Research to Public events.
In the early summer I staged two ‘happenings’ at the Royal West of England Academy. Each coinciding with the major summer exhibition Drawing, each taking place in The Drawing Lab – a gallery space given over to interactivity. The happenings brought together, in embodied performance, three elements of my research: ‘sign language poetry’; art practice; and scholarly writing.
The whole premise of my research is to re-search (re-see) ‘sign language poetry’ as much more than poetry. In language and literary terms it is undoubtedly poetic, and there has been a deal of scholarly research into the form; focussing on line, prosody, phonology, metaphor and so on. But these accounts address only the language. Early in the process of research I had interviewed practitioners as well as fluent and naïve audiences- all of whom had alluded to additional aspects as being equally as important as language to their performance and enjoyment. In my thesis I name these as drawing, gesture-dance, cinematics, composition and social sculpture. Taken together with poetic use of language, these aspects constitute the synthesis of artforms, the potential Gesamtkunstwerk that I now prefer to call Signart.
I have been exploring each of these aspects of Signart as Gesamtkunstwerk through a ‘blurred methodology’ known as a/r/tography. In my research practice a/r/tography is a blend of art practice, translation and scholarly writing.
The happenings modelled (performed) my research practice. Richard Carter and Paul Scott took it in turns to stand or sit by a full length mirror on one side of the gallery space, performing and rehearsing their silent, visual, gestural works. In the centre of the room members of HATCH – a research-through-drawing collective- ‘translated’ their responses to the Signart onto paper through art practice, whilst I responded to both activities by scribing – on the wall-mounted blackboards – quotes from scholarly works which drew together or sought to question and stimulate both sets of artistic activities. Chairs, desks and paper were set out for members of the public who were invited to drift in and out or stay and contribute, effectively to engage in research. And they did, with active participants numbering approximately thirty over the two events.
So what difference did it make? Well, not none.
Just having Signart performed in a gallery space raised questions.
The obvious starter was that gallery staff, volunteers, and participants of all stripes realised that ‘public’ includes ‘deaf’, and became aware of adapting their communication accordingly. More profoundly, though, general perceptions of deafness (or more accurately deafhood) as disability or ‘special need’ began to fall away as the beauty and skill of Signart began to unfold. In the discussions at the end of each ‘happening’ (ably facilitated by interpreters Naomi Bearne and Pascale Maroney) some people found themselves engaged in deep and animated discussion with a deaf person for the first time in their lives.
And what they were talking about was art: about line, and mark-making, about the ephemeral and the permanent; about movement and stasis; about the properties of different media; about acts of translation; about forms of inscription and encoding; about image.
And that affected the Signartists. Informed that they were poets by years of research, and unused to a gallery audience, their reception encouraged them to perhaps reconsider their positioning. They found themselves talking about their work in quite new and different ways, their consciousness of certain aspects heightened. The same was true of the deaf members of the public, who were more accustomed to seeing ‘sign language poetry’ at their local Centre for Deaf People than in such prestigious and creative surroundings.
The happenings also raised questions for the HATCH members, who were interested in the aspects of Signart that resisted capture and exploration through drawing – what was lost (‘remaindered’) in translation.
And because a/r/tography is a ‘recursive’ methodology, the happenings affected the research too. The drawings, comments and contributions of Signartists, HATCH members, and those who took some time out of their days to observe, sit, draw, write, question or otherwise contribute were collected and are currently feeding directly into the PhD thesis.
And of course, the happenings also happened to me. This was the first time I had curated, the first time I had performed in any significant capacity in a gallery space. The whole process was a learning curve – from conception through to structuring a focussed written proposal, budgeting, liaising with key personnel, sourcing materials, organizing zero-budget publicity, managing the comfort of participants, health and safety, managing the events, performing the events, ensuring effective channels for feedback, cleaning up the space after the events, thanking everyone, paying everyone and documenting the process. The training I received through the Afterlife project, and the accommodating, insightful and gentle support of Gemma Brace (Exhibitions and Membership Manager at the RWA) combined to ensure that curve was gentle and the happenings happened successfully.
Morrissey, I think it made a difference.