Utopia? Lessons from SAR 2016

By Jessica Bradley 

I spent the end of last week at the Society for Artistic Research conference in The Hague with my colleague, artist Louise Atkinson, with whom I presented a paper which was based on a work in progress that is our writing collaboration. The theme for the conference was ‘writing’ – writing as practice and practice as writing. Our paper was about writing in digital space, and the multimodalities of interdisciplinary collaborative work. It was a messy piece – very much work in progress. I really enjoyed presenting it, and the conference in general. We had some interesting feedback, heard some fascinating papers, and had some good conversations.

The morning before I left for The Hague, we held the penultimate of our local festival workshops in Leeds. I’ve written about this workshop here. I was disappointed to miss the final session on the Thursday, but very grateful that two of the TLANG team – Co-Investigator Mike Baynham and post-doctoral researcher Emilee Moore – were able to attend in my place and also to experience what we’ve been doing. I read emails from Emilee and Mike about the workshop while I was at the conference and was delighted to hear how they had found it all.

Being away was great for many reasons. First of all, being able to hear from such an array of speakers – from art, philosophy, literary studies, academia – was wonderful. Secondly, being away from the day-to-day on occasion really helps me to see what I’m doing from a different perspective – including getting a new perspective on this project. Thirdly, presenting my work with Louise – albeit our messy work in progress – enabled us to work out where we are going with what we are doing. I should add that the speakers in one of the plenaries mentioned that they had embarked on a similar kind of endeavour to ours – which is an emergent taxonomy of writing (see here for the current version, for which Louise should take the majority of the credit).

So what lessons can be drawn from the conference itself? For me, the main lesson is around the importance of conversation. The conference was about writing, yes. But in the conversations (with artists, with composers, with psychogeographers, with photographers) I learnt more about what I am doing. I learnt more about translanguaging. I spoke to a Finnish artist who carves out the words of letters that were written three generations ago into the snow using her feet. The words are in Tartar, a language spoken by fewer than 1000 people in Finland. Where is translanguaging here? Can we think about art of this kind as translanguaging? As translanguaging space, carefully created? As ephemeral space? What is it about the snow, what is it about its temporality that makes this the space in which she chooses to do this and the media which she chooses to use? What is it about carving out the words using her feet, the embodiment of the words? What is it about writing  directly onto the ground? Is it that she feels every word? And of every word affecting every part of her movement as she writes? I have been wondering about it since I first had the conversation with her over lunch on Thursday in the foyer of the Royal Conservatoire. We talked about translanguaging and she said that it does in some way conceptualise what she is doing with language, with embodiment, with the landscape.

In the opening plenary by Alva Noë, he compared choreography and writing. He said that we need to invent the means to write ourselves – to write what we are saying and what we are doing.

According to Noë, dancing is a way in which we organise. As human beings we are dancers and we are creatures of dancerly habit. Choreography does not make more dancing but it does create a perspicuous representation of our dancing selves (following Wittgenstein). This loops down and changes the way we dance. In the same way that writing loops down and changes the way we talk. Choreography and writing can reorganise the activities that are presupposed. Revolution by remaking as an inevitable by product. Writing entangled with the linguistic activity it presupposes. Choreography entangled with the dancing activity it presupposes.

Noë is suggesting, therefore, that writing and choreography have similar purposes and functions. So…choreography / writing is what is required of us if we are to thrive and survive…

But what does this mean for the Welcome Utopias project? How is this relevant? Why am I writing about this here, in this blog post? I have been considering this, and the conversation with the artist who writes in snow (my 3 year old also likes to use her feet to make art – she paints with her feet whenever she can). If writing loops down and changes the way we talk, is this not what has been happening in our workshops? The silk paintings, the writing out of words in different languages. The placing together of the words, the images, onto a larger piece. The bringing together of each individual’s piece of work into a whole. Does this loop down and change the way we think? And what of co-learning, what of co-production, what of collaboration? Do these loop down and change the way we work? The way we communicate with each other? Is it all completely entangled?

Mike sent this reflection on the workshop he attended in an email to the TLANG team. The photo shows a product of the silk painting part of the workshop, which as you can see is highly multilingual, the singing/voicework sequel also brought in a Persian song and Panjabi Sikh meditation chants.  When he left the man who gave us the Sikh chants took a photo with an imaginary mobile then touched his heart, as if to say “I will carry the memory of this morning in my heart”. 

The writing in the snow, the taking of imaginary photos. In the workshops I have been talking to people about what it means to be welcomed. So many of the people, when talking about welcome, touched their hearts. Hearts, phones, feet, snow. Pens. Ethics forms. Hearts, phones, feet, snow. Pens. Ethics forms. 1,2,HMMM,4,1,2,HMMM,4,1,2,HMMM,4.

On a completely different note, while I was in The Hague I saw a mouse. As I walked along the corridors of the Royal Conservatoire, passing rehearsal rooms and workshops, cellos, shopping trolleys and concert posters. A tiny, grey mouse scuttled along and into a cupboard right in front of me. Not in a windmill. Not in Amsterdam. Not quite like the song. But close enough to tell my children the tale when I got home.

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