‘One of Audre Lorde’s poems talks about the master’s tools will never dismantle a master’s house. I think there was a real conscious use of imagery to use not the master’s tools but women’s tools, which were traditionally the broom and the vacuum cleaner. It was about looking at power and agency differently, and using women’s ways to create change.’
Suzy Stiles, worker at the Lenthall Road Workshops.
If you stepped through the ordinary-looking front door of 81 Lenthall Road in the 1970s and 80s, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’d stumbled on a covert military operation. In this shabby townhouse down a quiet street in Hackney, East London, you’d find women kitted out in boiler suits, respirator masks, and thick gloves moving around chemicals and heavy-duty equipment. The artist Claudette Johnson, a member of the Lenthall Road Workshop, recalls feeling like ‘guerilla fighters’, ready to ‘change something in society’. The revolution they were planning, however, was a peaceful one: their weapons were cameras, screen-printing materials, and the power of a community united by desire for social change, and they were fighting to ‘change how women were viewed in society’. Posters and other printed material made by the group are currently on display in a small but inspiring exhibition at the Hackney Museum, which traces the history of the feminist Lenthall Road Workshop from its beginnings as a community silkscreen and photography service in 1975, to its collaborations with groups such as Women’s Aid, the Black Lesbian and Gay Support Group, and Hackney Urban Studies Centre throughout the 1980s, and ending with its ultimate loss of funding in 1993.
The workshop was set up as a reaction against the invisibility of women, and, in particular, BAME and disabled women, in male-dominated, white, heteronormative representations of public life. From its inception, the Lenthall Road Workshop focussed on empowering, rather than speaking for, the community – Suzy Stiles notes that the group wanted to give women ‘access to the means to enable their voices to be heard’. To achieve this, the Workshop arranged skill-sharing sessions and offered affordable classes on screen-printing and photography. By learning these skills, ordinary women gained the tools they need to gain both a place for themselves in society and a platform to shout about issues affecting their lives and communities. One section of the exhibition is dedicated to the Hackney Girls Project, a youth initiative set up by the Lenthall Road Workshop to provide a safe space for girls to play sport and hang out with friends, but also to learn practical skills such as self-defence. Crucial to the Hackney Girls Project and the Lenthall Road Workshop’s wider mission was the sense that activism and revolution start at home. To empower women in their everyday lives, the group organised lessons from electricians and other tradespeople; members could gain the skills they needed to improve their own homes and also become more employable. In Eithne Nightingale’s memories of the workshop, she fondly recalls learning to make curtains to liven up her grotty flat.
Perhaps the most striking element of the exhibition is the Lenthall Road Workshop’s total commitment to accessibility and inclusion. Posters that the group created to promote the many feminist festivals, screenings, and workshops they helped organise throughout Hackney consistently proclaim that events support LGBT members, are accessible to wheelchair users, and include crèche facilities. The exhibition includes images publicising a vast range of causes and initiatives, from the Lesbian and Gay Employment Rights’ Black Lesbian and Gay Support Group, to the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp and photographer Gonul Zeki’s prints and t-shirts declaring slogans like ‘HETEROSEXUALITY IS NOT NORMAL, IT’S JUST COMMON’. Equal representation was something that the Workshop viewed as an ongoing process: by the mid-1980s, its core group of organisers were all black working-class women, in an effort to encourage more women from this section of the community to participate. In this way, a genuine concern with engaging and empowering local people was consistently at the heart of the Lenthall Road Workshop’s operations. Beyond offering practical skills, it also facilitated a supportive network for working-class women. The exhibition repeatedly reminds us that it functioned as a crucial space of communication and exchange in a pre-internet era, a place where women could share stories, discuss ideas, and build confidence together. One poster promoting Shintaido lessons features a quote from Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road, which encapsulates a key part of the Workshop’s ethos: ‘all these are the powers and privileges of friendship’.
Stepping out from the museum back in to the Hackney of 2019, it’s hard not to feel a sense of frustration. The racist, sexist, and ableist society that the Lenthall Road Workshop challenged seems sadly all too familiar: rising hate crime against minority groups, the hollowing out of London’s youth services, and a racist, chauvinist egotist as our soon-to-be prime minister make it seem like little progress has been made. Conversely, Lenthall Road today feels like a completely different world – now a smart street with houses selling for well over a million pounds, it’s impossible to imagine that this could be the site of radical activism and community action. ‘Women on Screens’ ends on a call to harness digital technology and online platforms in the continued struggle for women’s empowerment and freedom of self-expression, yet it’s worth bearing in mind that in-person activism and print publications such as OOMK, Gal Dem, and Doll Hospital are still essential agents for change in our digital age. ‘Women on Screens’ is an important reminder that small acts can revolutionise our everyday lives, as well as the need – now as much as then – to build bonds in and across the community, share knowledge, and leave no one behind.
Women on Screens: Printmaking, photography and community activism at Lenthall Road Workshop 1970s-1990s, at Hackney Museum, London, between 14 May – 31 August
With bold colours, pulsating patterns and dynamic figures, the works of the Grosvenor School of Modern Art exude the great vitality and rhythm of modern life in 1930s Britain. This little known group of artists is the subject of the current exhibition Cutting Edge: Modern British Printmakingat the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Taking place 90 years after the first exhibition to showcase British linocuts in London, it celebrates the innovative work made by ten artists affiliated with the Grosvenor School during its short but intense period of activity between the world wars.
The Grosvenor School of Modern Art’s contribution to British modern art has largely been forgotten and under-researched. Yet, the over 120 prints, drawings and posters on display illustrate why these artists deserve to have their moment in the spotlight. Founded in Pimlico, London in 1925 by the Scottish wood engraver Iain Macnab, the Grosvenor School of Modern Art was dedicated to the production of modern printmaking during the interwar period. At its heart was Claude Flight, the artist and teacher is credited as a champion of linocut printmaking and the force behind the school’s promotion of this modern technique as a serious art form.
Developed in Germany in the early twentieth century, linoleum colour print (linocut) was a new art form that involved an accessible making-process and affordable materials (linoleum is a mixture of cork and linseed oil on a canvas backing that was invented in the 1860s as a cheap and easily cleaned floor surface). The democratic nature of this medium offered fresh opportunities for experimentation and expression. Flight promoted linocuts as ‘an art of the people’ since it allowed a great range of people to appreciate modern art and practice it themselves.
The exhibition’s opening room thoughtfully introduces this unique school, displaying archival materials and prints by members of the British Avant garde such as Paul Nash and Christopher Nevinson – the latter whom Flight studied alongside at art school – to illustrate its contextual groundings and modernist approach. Displayed in dialogue on opposite walls, it is clear how Flight’s own work and that of his students were influenced by international Avant garde movements such as Vorticism, Futurism and Cubism: their use of stark contrast, harsh lines and abstracted forms to emphasize speed and mechanics when capturing the horrors of the modern world as witnessed during the First World War.
However, as evident in the following room and throughout the exhibitions, the Grosvenor School group draw upon these styles to present a more positive view of life in Britain during the interwar period. The progressive aims of the Grosvenor School artists – which included staff and students – is also seen in the subject matter their linocuts present. Gordon Samuel, the exhibitions curator, divides the works into themes across six rooms: labour and leisure, sporting life, the pastoral, London and transport. The works wonderfully capture the bustle of life in the 1920s and 1930s, turning every day scenes and relatable subjects into vibrant, captivating works of art.
It is the women of the Grosvenor School artists who steal the show. Outnumbering their male counterparts on display, these innovate women illustrate a full mastery of the art forum with seemingly great ease and flair. Central to the group was Sybil Andrews, an artist recruited by Macnab to be the secretary of the Grosvenor School. Her works feature in each room, but two that especially highlight her extraordinary skill were Speedway from 1934 (pictured above) and Straphangers from 1929 (pictured below). Considered to be her most successful print, Speedway depicts motorcyclists racing along the bend of the road as they make their turn around the speedway. Andrews used multiple blocks to craft her composition by building up the layers of colours to form her figures and give texture to the landscape, seen in the top left corner, as well as brilliantly utilising curved lines to illustrate the drivers great speed. Whereas in Straphangers, the curved lines of the block mimic the swaying of passengers as they hold on to the straps from above whilst riding the tube. It is almost as if one is looking through the window from another train carriage to where Andrews has paused the unique moment in which the commuters are suspended to one side as the train hurtles down its track. Erase the top hats and it could a contemporary view of the District line today.
Inspired by Flight’s teaching and books on linocuts that were printed globally, international students came to study at the Grosvenor School. A majority of these students were middle class women traveling throughout Europe studying art, although the wall labels give no distinct explanation for this particular trend. Three Australian artists – Dorrit Black, Eveline Syme and Ethel Spowers – and Lill Tschudi, the Swiss student who first came to Grosvenor at the age of 17, feature prominently in the show and exhibit their great command of linocuts. For example, Dorrit Black’s Dance from 1927-28 (pictured at top) is inspired by a night out at a jazz evening in London. Black translates the energy and joy of jazz music through her use of bold colours segmented by black lines across the flat surface, resembling stained glass. With no differentiation between the floor and ceiling, her figures dance across the page seemingly with the rhythm flowing through their limbs, one can almost hear the hiss and tap of the drums with the crooning of a saxophone.
The work of female artists within the Grosvenor School group show the full range of possibilities and potential of linocuts by taking everyday subjects and turning them into masterpieces of modern art. Their innovative use of colour, form and composition present a positive and celebratory view of daily life in Britain in the 1930s.
The exhibition concludes with a large display of the posters Andrews and Cyril Power – an artist and Grosvenor teacher of architecture – created together under the name ‘Andrews-Power’ for the London Underground, highlighting the mass appeal of the Grosvenor style at the time. It further emphasises how peculiar that these artists have remained largely unknown for so long given the high number of women artists, the group’s progressive aims and success in advertising. It is rare to come across a modern art group and more generally art school from this time that involved many women, and the lack of information specifically acknowledging this was clearly lacking. What were the motivations of international and middle class women being drawn to the Grosvenor School to pursue linocut printmaking as their chosen craft?
Regardless, it was refreshing to see modern women artists prominently featured in both the group’s activities and the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery. The work of Andrews, Tschudi, Black and their fellow female artists demonstrate the innovative ways in which they utilised linocuts to craft unique yet accessible and exciting reflections of work, play and modern life around them in abstracted form. Their images seem so familiar and simultaneously completely new. Their work and their stories illustrate why this exhibition on the Grosvenor School of Modern Art is relevant and important to people, and especially artists, today. Hopefully, as this thoughtful and elegant exhibition at Dulwich Gallery successfully argues, people are inspired further research and delve into the work of the cutting edge women and their contributions to modern art and design in Britain and beyond.
Gee’s Bend is a small piece of land, surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River. In this location, a community have crafted quilts for decades. In 1966, 150 quilt-makers in the rural area formed the Freedom Quilting Bee co-operative. In light of the Civil Rights Movement, this co-op represented a chance to earn a living from the creative output being generated. This collective approach was led by makers Callie Young and Estelle Witherspoon. However, as Linda Hunt Beckham suggests in her articleQuilt Story: Black Rural Women, White Urban Entrepreneurs, And The American Dream there is a tension between the maker’s output and the power dynamics of the contemporary art world. Something the quilters are currently seeking to rectify. Although there has been some financial reimbursement and a larger audience for their work they have also impacted by the shady dealings of art-world gate keeper Bill Arnett. Arnett has historically decided which of the Gee’s Bend quilts have ‘artistic merit’ (unsurprisingly the one’s his family owns make the cut and which spoke reductively to ‘modernist’ sensibilities) and has simplistically painted the community as an ‘unchanging’ backwater. But there has been innovation and engagement with the political nature of their work. The Gee’s Bend tradition has been carried on by women like Loretta P. Bennett, whose mother introduced her to quilt-making. Her contemporary take on the quilt uses bold, sparse geometric shapes, hot pinks and cobalt blues, and materials like corduroy and velveteen, as in the piece ‘Two Sided Geometric Quilt‘. The Gee’s Bend quilts are emblems of a tradition of women’s craft, community creativity and Civil Rights.
I came to realize that my mother, her mother, my aunts, and all the others from Gee’s Bend had sewn the foundation, and all I had to do now was thread my own needle and piece a quilt together.
– Loretta P. Bennett
‘I never thought that a quilt would be in the art world. People would think that was beautiful, that something we’d done could be shown all over the world and people get joy out of it’
Welcome to the first issue of ‘Decorating Dissidence’, an online magazine dedicated to exploring the political, aesthetic, and conceptual qualities of craft and the decorative arts, from the early twentieth century to the contemporary moment. Casting a spotlight on overlooked artists, who work in experimental or non-traditional modes of making, it will explore the legacy of craft’s hidden histories and the alternative practices of contemporary artists. It asks questions such as: how can craft disrupt the spaces of ‘high’ art and culture? Can the decorative be political? What might a feminist genealogy of decorative art and craft look like?
In this issue, we are delighted to introduce you to the work of three exciting contemporary artists whose work utilises craft and traditional modes of making to confront socio-political issues. Jade French interviews multimedia digital sculptor, writer, and curator Rayvenn Shaleigha D’Clark, who combines styles ‘[borrowed] from the decorative traditions of Renaissance sculpture’ with digital technology to create striking works that challenge the commodification of race and gender. Similarly, artist Pinkie Macclure draws on traditional methods of making to explore modern day stereotypes: ‘Beauty Tricks’ reworks styles typical of medieval stained-glass narratives to critique the beauty industry’s harmful effects on women and the environment. Severija Inčirauskaitė-Kriaunevičienė also disrupts decorative notions of femininity with her unique embroidered metal objects. Mixing domestic and industrial textures, her work highlights the labour-intensive nature of embroidery and challenges the distinction between public and private space. Her work is in dialogue with the post-Soviet landscape of her native Lithuania and the craft of her mother and grandmother.
Lottie Whalen’sarticle on Geta Brătescu (1926-2018) highlights the work of a wonderfully innovative multidisciplinary artist, who created tactile, colourful worlds that explore the interconnected relationship between art, the body, and everyday life. The staggering length of her career (which lasted right up until her death aged 92) and its combination of modernist influences with conceptual techniques sets up an interesting link with Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012); like Brătescu, Tanning continued to create innovative, timely work that encompassed both twentieth-century avant-garde practices and early twenty-first-century innovation. Working across mediums, both artists decentre notions of modern art and invite us to contemplate alternative genealogies of feminist art. Polly Hember’sreview of Tate Modern’s thrilling Tanning retrospective explores the artist’s representation of ‘unknown but knowable states’ across her diverse body of work. Finally, Suzanna Petot’s review of Lee Minora’s recent show ‘White Feminism’ looks at the ways that the actor’s portrayal of tone-deaf stereotypical pop-feminist Becky Harlowe shines a spotlight on how we are all guilty of crafting woke personas. As we work to construct new feminist cultural genealogies, Petot reminds us that is vital to reflect on our own practices and to be mindful of ‘how can we be better allies to our fellow feminists of all backgrounds.’
We also chatted to the brains behind modernist digital humanities project ‘Navigating the Avant-Garde‘ who are bringing Mina Loy’s archive to a whole host of new researchers and unpacking the many strands to her life as an artist.
We warmly encourage submissions from all disciplines – art practitioners, curators, makers, activists, academics, writers – as we strive to break down disciplinary boundaries and find new ways to intervene in feminist art history. Take a look at our Call for Submissions and get in touch: email@example.com.
The Tate’s first large-scale exhibition of artist Dorothea Tanning for twenty-five years offers one hundred works from her incredible seven-decade career and leads the viewer from room to room. This is rather apt, as Tanning’s paintings hinge on the transitory. Doors are often left ajar, hanging open with light peeking through in ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’, or leading to a mise en abyme of other doorways in ‘Birthday’, or literally protruding from the canvas in ‘Door 84’ as two female figures push against the frame. As the gallery-goer wanders from room to room, through doorway after doorway, they transverse deeper into the unsettling, disturbing and brilliant wonderland. Curiouser and curiouser, the eight rooms vaguely follow the chronological trajectory of Illinois-born Tanning, from her early engagement with gothic oil-paint tableau that saw realism collide with fantasy, to flamboyant costume designs for the ballet and theatre, to her later paintings which are looser, more abstract and gestural, where body parts merge into unintelligible, uncanny dioramas of colour and affect. Throughout the later rooms soft, fabric, textile and oddly tactile material sculptures (created on Tanning’s sewing machine and stuffed with wool) burst through wallpaper and protrude from stands; a disembodied pregnant bulge here (‘Emma’), a curved leg there.
Tanning first encountered surrealism in the 1930s, having moved to New York to pursue a career as an artist. She described and embraced surrealism as a ‘limitless expanse of POSSIBILITY’, with a profound ‘effort to plumb our deepest subconscious to find out about ourselves’. This impulse to engage with the deepest and often darkest parts of human nature can be seen across her phenomenal oeuvre. Walking into the first room, her famous ‘Endgame’ stands to the right of the entrance, denoting a surreal chessboard and a stamping glass slipper. This playful piece, the curators state, ‘represents intellectual and artistic interplay with members of the surrealist circle, as well as her romantic link with Ernst.’ The vague story of Tanning and the surrealist painter Max Ernst’s meeting has been told many times; he would name her self-portrait ‘Birthday’ (many critics have cited this as the ‘birth’ of her as a surrealist painter) , play a game of chess after the exhibition they met at, and then would marry in 1946. Ernst and his influence is often discussed in conflation with Tanning’s artistic practice; but, walking through the many rooms in this brilliant exhibition, thoughts of Ernst barely make it through the first door.
What overwhelms the exhibition is Tanning’s engagement with the female body and desire. Bodies are often depicted in movement, flux or transition. Whether it’s a liminal lingering on the precipice of a doorway (‘Birthday’), dancing (‘Tango Lives’), or caught in a kaleidoscopic whirlwind of oil paint where you can just about make out the shape of a torso or an arm (‘Deux Mot’); the paintings are sensual, sinister and evasive in their depiction of space, movement and embodiment.
Perhaps this fixation with movement or motion within her painting is a means of resistance, flight and freedom. These paintings move away from or outside of the hegemonic, patriarchal constraints of convention, gender stereotypes, tradition, marriage, motherhood and domesticity. Tanning’s soft sculpture of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is ‘Emma’ is a stark and startling commentary on motherhood and tradition; a huge cushiony pregnant stomach that protrudes from dirty, tea-stained Victorian frills and lace. Tanning’s ‘Maternity’ is set in a harsh, overwhelming and infinite desert where a despondent mother cradles her child and a small, Pekingese dog looks out to the viewer with a human child’s face amid the fluffy dangling dog ears. Tanning’s depiction of maternity is odd, affronting and ominous. Room Three shows Tanning’s many depictions of a sinister ‘Family Table’. She subverts traditional notions of a family dinner table, stating these paintings are ‘generally a comment on the hierarchy within the sacrosanct family’. A huge, towering and authoritarian father figure looms in the background in ‘Portrait de Famille’, and ‘Some Roses and Their Phantoms’ scatters wilted, decrepit petals over dinner plates.
The most striking is the installation piece that awaits around a corner in Room Seven: ‘Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202’. A dusty french hotel room with soft fabric limbs, bellies and shapes that capture a startling yet sensual sense of the uncanny valley as bulges of stuffed fabric are contorted in what might be pain or pleasure. Whether it’s an episode of Stranger Things with demogorgons bursting through walls, or perhaps a line from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper: ‘I don’t like to look out of the windows even—there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast. I wonder if they all come out of that wall-paper as I did?’, or the song that Tanning named the installation sculpture after; this piece is hugely evocative and haunting. The odd material limbs extend out of the walls, merge with the furniture and encroach on one’s very own sense of materiality. Caught in motion between object and subject, alive or inanimate, Tanning reflects that she wanted the dingy hotel room to look as if ‘the wallpaper will further tear with screams’.
Through these eight rooms, through the doorways in and protruding out of Tanning’s work, and through this collection spanning her seven-decade career, this exhibition demonstrates and celebrates her profound contribution to surrealism as a movement, and explores the ways her subversive approach to craft, practice and feminism dismantled the reductive tyranny of the patriarchal family portrait, motherhood and allowed the female form to launch itself chaotically and gloriously through new doorways to explore, as Tanning desires, ‘unknown but knowable states’.
Dorothea Tanning is at the Tate Modern, London, until 9 June 2019. Book tickets here.
Words: Polly Hember, a PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London.
Rayvenn Shaleigha D’Clark is a multimedia digital sculptor, writer and curator based in London. She explores hybridity, form, and the reframing of black anatomy and autonomy in her work. The lifelikeness of her sculptures belies the handmade and crafted elements at play; the attention to detail in the Nylon plaster, the machine-grooves, the application of hair and make-up. Underpinning her work is a commitment to exploring the commodification of race and gender, with her most recent exhibition at the Aylesham Centre in Peckham unpacking the contemporary ‘meme’. Interested in textuality and temporality, her sculptures pack a political punch and are accompanied by impactful pieces of writing on her website.
Check out the exhibition Black + White = Grey, in collaboration with Picnic Gallery & @TheWrytr, occupying the long window at the Aylesham Centre in Peckham (31st March – 25th May 2019) .
1. Could you give us some insight into who you are and what you do?
My body of work is an act of elevation; exploring ‘positioning(s)’ where the fictions
surrounding black bodies can very easily been seen either in heavy
contrast / parallel to the everyday ‘collective’ experience of black people(s);
a nuance which is seldom discussed. Under this I consider myself a digital
sculptor – as an image maker / artist – but also a writer, with a focus on
figuration. To me, within my oeuvre it feels necessary to defend
manifestations and the interests of blackness against its ‘systematic misuse,
assimilation and containment by the
culture as a whole […] to define
its own autonomy
as art in the face of these
constraints’. This becomes
fundamental to what I hope to achieve in my work;
a reconvening of history. To explore at the way
characterisations of PoC has been (traditional) curated with
aggression/censorship towards black bodies and then to repurpose that narrative
into a contemporary, modern – highly digitally technical – aesthetic. It them
emerges in a cross- disciplinary practice embedded in everyday collective
experience, as ‘the singular- discrete artistic object is dissolved
into the functional demands of material transformation’ (Kattenbelt, 2008, p.91).
My admiration of discourses related to simulacra through the ‘hyperreal’, grounded within the illusion of depth and they very real impact it has on black bodies is a constant tension in which we can examine the space between objects modelling the real, and its ability to usurp/question the original – or historical narratives – as a self-sustaining fictions. These features of our surrounding culture inexorably and involuntarily alter our sense of what does and what does not count as reality, and of the various categories to which things can be assigned (Benson, 2013).
2. What does ‘craft’ or the ‘decorative’ mean to you?
Craft – when defining the ‘act’ of making is centred
within my practice. However, it is not so easy as task to identify due to the
fact that primarily I am digitally based and technologically driven.
However, within my practice, the meaning of ‘craft’ can be applied in to different ways: On the one hand, as an activity involving skill in making things by hand: By this definition aesthetically, my artwork(s) borrows from the decorative traditions of Renaissance sculpture that typifies classically ’white’ busts, figures and ‘decorative traditions’ that contemplate key figure throughout the period of antiquity. Thus, working on this (sculptural) format, it can be related to craft in physical manifestation of these aesthetic ideals, as embodied by I Don’t See in Colour (2018). On the other, craft a type of ‘skill’ used in deceiving others: By this definition, I believe that such objects – my artwork to some extent –despite their very absolute materiality are simulacra; its connection to the real thing ‘severed and replaced by its connection with a string of 0s and 1s stored in a computer file” (Benson, 2013), both “an utter transparency, yet the presence of a ‘thing’ in its absence” (Lechte, 2012).
3. Why were you drawn to the process of digital sculpture?
When having to specially contemplate the hybridisation within my work – where science meets technology (digital) meets aesthetics – there’s a duality in my critique of the online real in its manifestation of black bodies, yet a certain amount of utilisation of the same material process that is used to create – and spread – the artwork. In my opinion, the way that the internet continues to be a ‘white’ space – carved out on the spirit of the white imagination – (online) ‘autonomy’ against the proliferation of images of black bodies online – similarly, it is a discussion of the presumed ‘factual’ nature of digital artefacts despite the ‘non-status’ of its creator as they emerge upload artefacts into the digital realm. I employ digital technologies, processes and platforms to attempt to reframe the way people interact and perpetuate images of black peoples (memes for example which contain a specific dimensionality around the black bodies (blackness) they depict, often for comical effect) in a more positive way, especially in its relationship to whiteness and the way that white viewers (non-black peoples) perceive that very particular nuance of that body IRL, to explore at the way characterisations of PoC has been (traditional) curated with aggression/censorship towards black bodies and then to repurpose that narrative into a contemporary, modern – highly digitally technical – aesthetic.
They belong to no one, and yet the culture that they often depict remains very necessary and relevant to someone from that particular culture. How then does ‘fictionalisation’ relate to how blackness as seen in a digital world? To what degree are we given simulcra and fictions of black bodies – and what does that do to a black person’s experience of life?
4. You’ve theorised the idea of ‘Objecthood’ – something that sits between the digital and the handmade – as being abstract from the tradition of figurative art. Could you explain a little more how this comes across in your work?
My arts statement contemplates a ‘practice exploring
digital hybridity of sculpture following
the affirmation of media, chronicling black
anatomy through the mediation between three- dimensional
processes alongside the handmade aesthetic within an extended analysis of ‘Objecthood’’. The resulting objects emerge contextually abstracted
from traditional representational aesthetics and figurative traditions. Such an ideological positioning shifts the normative function of figurative practices
within this mode of self-referential questioning, which engenders a self-sustaining (non-) fiction rooted in authenticity and criticality that allows audiences to break free from reference once and for all in a new form of hybrid
The truth is that for the past 20 years we all have been adapting to a new set of
rules that we are barely
conscious of – something natural
and therefore unnoticed – and it has fundamentally changed us. We are increasingly participating in society
that is entirely mediated by digital
images, and my body of work is taking
part in this tradition. The ‘Internet’ has however endowed us with one important additional factor: technological selection
means, which means that we only
deal with the ‘mediated image’.
With all this in mind, the genre must now make a very
difficult and important
decision; Where next? What can this
look like? Who will it favour?
Whilst the tide seems to be turning towards a more
equitable future, similarly, media co- relations have resulted in new forms of
representation; new principles of structuring and staging words, people,
stereotypes, gender and class boundaries etc. and within that developing new
modes of aesthetic perception within the everyday, generating new cultural,
social and psychological meanings – irrevocably subverting aesthetic and this
how is what I try to emphasise within my work.
5. What do you hope an ideal viewer (if there is such a thing!) would take away from your work?
I’m of the opinion that once you make the work it no
longer belongs to you. So, whilst I hope that audiences are going to find
something tangible and relevant within my sculptures,
I also recognise that same relevance may not resonate
with me, and I’m OK with that. I
believe that there’s more
than one truth. And everybody has their own perspective and rationale.
More recently ‘naming’
my artwork has become very important
when creating new work as it offers so many vantage points in which to begin the discussion. So, take
for example the title of my recent
solo show BLACK + WHITE = GREY which
describes the intersect between they
in which whiteness engages with blackness and how the resulting
outcome(s) leave us in the uncomfortable grey-area; where 3D / digital
technologies have birthed a world without references – what is imagined can be made possible, thrust
into a world of tones of grey, each
illuminating the world in new and unexpected ways – hence, I was very
particular in naming the show in a very considered way.
When deciding to make new work I am in many ways trying
to ‘fact find’ (theoretically and aesthetically) for myself more so than the viewer, because
in many ways I cannot account
for what the viewer feels or how they will react to the work; a large
part of my thesis surrounded the
notion of the body politić ([black]
bodies considered collectively) which remains a key research interest within my body of work. The way images and cultural
nuances related to black bodies survive
– thrive almost
– in the online digital
realm, I want to shift the expectations of the formal arrangement – visualisation / manifestation / transmission of black figures
– using figuration as a tool.
6. How do you play with technology and temporality as both an artist and writer? Is this ‘play’ political?
The intersect which bind these two factors together is
always political; if you choose to view them through the perspective of
figuration – and ‘centre’ black bodies into this narrative the image of black bodies,
it is undoubtedly political. The praxis between
the past and the present, where intersecting identities
(individual versus collective) come
together within my oeuvre in my self-exploring the inherited legacy of
trauma and history, ultimately reconstructing the narrative of race within
narrative history that departs from cultural traditions where misconceptions
and distortions of the truth are omnipresent.
I wrote an article recently that opened with the following statement: ‘Information, from afar possessed knowledge which gives it authority even without verification…’ In its relationship to questions of power, hierarchy and undoubtedly race, this includes imagery directly related to or depicting black-brown bodies and the presumed (digital) dimensionality of ‘blackness’ in its direct relationship to ‘whiteness, I ask, when will the black body truly escape [from] the guise of the white imagination?’
The vey temporal
nature of black bodies and the way that
they manifest and spread online is a perfect dimension
in which centre my practice as a millennial. It is in this duality
that a strict contextual change occurs – where the human anatomy is
reinterpreted and transformed, redefining the black aesthetic towards a more
positive – heroic even – portrayals of black people(s). I attempt presented to black bodies
abstracted from bias everyday externalisations and race-based gendered
stereotypes. Hence, each artwork informs each other, maintained within its own
unique narrative history and theoretical underpinning, that I similarly explore
within my writing..
7. The piece ‘I Don’t See Colour’ is powerful. How does this / your work more broadly explore the dynamics of race, gender and commodification?
I Don’t See in Colour’ (2018) was a response to
discourse surrounding the commodification of women; imposed upon them through
consumerist trends and unrealistic capitalist idealisations and visualisation,
this work was an exercise of turning the system inwards, on itself. The
inherited legacy of trauma and history, ultimately, I wanted to reconstruct the
narrative of race that departs from cultural traditions as seen in ‘I Don’t See in Colour’ which
reconditions stereotypes and mediated reflections of the black body (politić)
within the duality of invisibility versus hyper-visibility where it resides.
In making such work, I felt to be engaged within the process of keeping the black figures at the forefront of our consciousness; the image of black bodies becoming lasting and impermeable by being sculptured into objects, through extending the practice of manifesting black bodies into less traditional mediums. It begs the question what the body politić is moving towards in the present. The work itself presents the duality between objects modelling the real and its ability to usurp the ‘original’ as self-sustaining fictions; of past and present. The print stands smaller than life size, a proportional mirroring of the sitter – on ode to… Concurrently, colour is removed from the object; somewhat a more objective attempt to discuss issues of blackness, race, hyper-visibility vs invisibility, absent the visual cues of black bodies which remains a loaded symbolism is the present: ‘What is Black in Visual Culture…?’
In taking black figures and reconfiguring the narrative, I wanted to explore what does it mean to repurpose the lens of whiteness on black figures, no longer subjugating them to positions of inadequacy. It becomes fundamentally ideological position of framing. The piece exemplifies the outer limits of the virtual platform afforded by the internet and digital technologies – and several kinds of digital manipulations – as a sculptural tool, shifting expectations of the formal arrangement of figuration by questioning traditional self- representational practices.
8. Finally, could you tell us a little more about your exhibition at Picnic Gallery, Black + White = Grey (on until 25th May)?
Black + White = Grey – in collaboration with Picnic
Gallery & @TheWrytr– is a brand new installation of 3D
lenticular prints exploring the shifting viewpoints of race online. When it
comes to how the lives of black people are portrayed online, these fictions end
up spreading at rapid pace through the online world, having real life effects
on the people they depict.
My work seeks to breaks down these biased and
un-thoughtful visualisations to reveal the fractured
nature of ‘truth’ in the web-space. Created by using a body scan which is
digitally rendered, the digital file is layered into a lenticular object which
allows for multiple viewing points to be present within a single image. As the
world of internet memes and viral images continues to grow exponentially and without accountability, the figure in the lenticular is a ‘non- object’ or more simply
a ‘copy, of a copy,
of a copy. However, through
centring the black
figure as a constant from every viewpoint, I seek to positively reframe
the way people interact with and perpetuate images of black peoples.
The inclusion of the short poem by @TheWrytr titled ‘hooked.’ – written in the style of the ‘Imagist’ which is intended to capture a moment in time to draw the reader’s attention introspectively – really helped to reinforce the narrative of the show. The undertone of the poem – much like my own practice – explores shifting viewpoints and as such well placed within the thematic investigation of the show.
Middle fingers up and pink pussy-hat on – Becky Harlowe (Lee
Minora) makes her entrance into the room. She stands tall and smiles with a
wide grin as she coos “Don’t be afraid, I mean well…” like a horror movie
villain who has just broken into your house. Sporting a perfectly styled blonde
wig, hot pink lipstick and three-inch high heels, she tells us to sit back,
relax and “watch her make progress”.
Lee Minora is an American theatre-maker, solo-performer, comedian and commentator who “dissects red hot political and feminist issues with scalpel sharp humour and stealthy smarts.” Presented as part of The Sick of Fringe: Care and Destruction three-day festival at the Wellcome Collection in April 2019, Minora’s incredibly witty and uncomfortable show White Feminist does exactly that. First developed during Minora’s residency at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia, PA, the show has also toured to San Francisco’s Fury Factory and the Edinburgh Fringe. It is no wonder, then, why Minora was asked to bring the show for its London debut as part of a festival that sought to showcase some of the most exciting voices looking at how the body is in dialogue with a world in pain, societal injustice and systems of oppression
Through her character Becky Harlowe, a well-intentioned but vain talk-show host, Minora beautifully crafts and embodies the quintessential “white-feminist”. To be brief, white feminism is the label given to feminist efforts and actions that uplift white women but that exclude and fail to address issues faced by minority groups, especially women of colour and LGBTQ+ women. Over the course of the hour-long show, Minora simultaneously dissects this identity before our eyes, using audience participation to draw awareness to the problematic behaviours of white feminists. As Harlowe demands us to repeat with her upon returning to the stage, “we are all Beckys today.”
Becky Harlowe’s persona draws
direct characteristics from former American daytime talk-show hosts Megyn Kelly
and Kathie Lee Gifford, such as her sleek blonde hairdo, constant references to
her family and white wine drinking habit. The entire talk-show setting and
“live audience” environment was crafty way to hold this critique of mainstream
feminism and capitalist liberalism. Minora skilfully incorporates elements of
the female talk-show to construct Becky’s character and identity. The “Becky’s
Time” set has all she needs: a high table for where she can comment on the important
topics, flowers to keep it feminine, a low side table for those more intimate
side-segment moments, and a big “B” to remind us all who is the star of the
Throughout the performance Becky speaks in slogans, pulling
out all the right words and phrases from the stereotypical, liberal non-intersectional
feminist playbook, such as promising that she is always “100% real” on her show
and referring to the audience as her fellow “citizen heroes”. She makes an
apology for promoting a non-inclusive makeup brand and is devastated to find
out viewers did not find it convincing. Becky asks us “Who participated in a march? Who signed an online petition? Who is
tired of Brexit?”. No matter our answer, Minora’s skilfully improvised
remarks ensures our eyes, and judgement, remain on Becky. Becky took up space at the Women’s March, Becky too suffers from outrage fatigue. Through her performance,
she holds up a mirror to contemporary activism and its shortcomings, from the
trendiness of protesting and ubiquitous well-meaning online acts to how racism
and sexism fall on both sides of the aisle.
These crafted segments of the show continue to weave together the deplorable yet seemingly well-meaning image of Becky in front of us. Does Becky really feel this way or is she a feminist only when convenient?
Then we begin to see something of the ‘real’ Becky behind
her TV persona. She moves to a segment
for reading the live twitter feed and we begin to see her distress at the escalating
language used by the commenters, starting with honest criticisms tagged with
#boycottbecky to increasingly startling remarks promoting violence against
women. This prompts Becky into the finest part of her character’s development
where we see her inevitably start to break down over her confusion about what
she has done wrong – “What do I do? I’m
sorry white women voted for Trump! I’m sorry we stole yoga, but I don’t know
how to give it back!”
We are all laughing at Becky: her narcissism, her ignorance and then – silence. In a true moment of weakness Becky discloses her own #metoo trauma. Minora uses this moment to gather our sympathy for Becky and demonstrate her character as both the oppressor and oppressed.
It works brilliantly. We start to feel sorry for Becky, for
the traumatic experience she has gone through. Have we been to too harsh in our
judgement of Becky? Perhaps this confession is the beginning of her journey
towards change and real intersectional feminism. But then Becky goes back to
reading the live twitter feed with a returning smile from all the tweeting supporters
who commend her bravery and pledge their allegiance to “#Becky’sArmy”. Wearing
her pink pussy hat like a crown, Becky announces that she is proud to lead the “#metoo”
movement and stands defiantly towards the camera as if ready to “save” the
world. That moment of potential enlightenment for Becky is gone.
Minora presents a wonderfully crafted and very convincing embodiment
of the problematic and harmful “white feminist.” Her excellent in-character
improvisation from audience interaction makes it clear that each performance is
its own tailored experience creates a sense of intimacy within the audience and
comfortability with Minora, especially as she covers some pretty uncomfortable
topics. Minora’s success inWhite Feminist comes from her
ability to both present and dissect a completely believable and recognizable
character, who embodies the toxic ignorance inherent in white feminism.
However, there is a danger the show is merely preaching to
the choir: a performance with a title such as this is likely to attract those
already conscious of the limpness of white feminism. Another criticism is the
lack of women of colour directly in the show, other perspectives to this
weighty topic. That is something I had wished there was more of, and who knows
– perhaps in the future “Becky’s Time” will have some well-needed guests to the
conversation about race, gender and privilege.
The importance of this performance is how it acts a reminder
that no matter how liberal or feminist or “woke” you think you are – especially
white women – there needs to be a constant awareness and rechecking of our
privilege: where can we improve and how can we be better allies to our fellow
feminists of all backgrounds.
The embroidery works of Lithuanian artist Severija Inčirauskaitė-Kriaunevičienė takes texture to a new level. She takes metal as her starting point – buckets, spades, even cars – and stitches into them. Challenging the domestic association with embroidery, these found objects are placed into the public realm. The kitsch cosiness that Inčirauskaitė-Kriaunevičienė associates with cross-stitching is given a twist as she pokes through metal gives new life to discarded objects. She draws on a post-Soviet landscape in Lithuania in her work, as she writes on her website “in the postwar years, our grandmothers stitched tablecloths in the villages, and the paths were so decorated, and in the Soviet era, our mothers made crossed cushions and napkins through household lessons”. This intergenerational skill-sharing is then developed in her practice, to question sentimentality and access to embroidery practices. She doesn’t want to make “private kitsch for private interiors” but rather expose the work, patience and mindfulness that goes into the cross-stitch practice. Taking the floral designs from hobby magazines, these “popular culture citations” make us look back at the origins of the techniques. These established traditions recontextualise the objects they adorn – whether that’s on broken gun shells or metal spoons. Imbued with new use, these forgotten objects might tap into a nostalgic aesthetic but actually point us towards history in a new way.
Pinkie McClure is an artist using the allegorical power of medieval stained glass as a vehicle for contemporary expression. Stained glass was invented in the 12th century to communicate to a largely illiterate population, its vivid colours having a seductive quality that’s hard to resist. However, its narrative role has been largely abandoned in recent years, which is something she hopes to change by making work that reflects the world around us today.
Artist Statement: On ‘Beauty Tricks’
My goal is to seduce the eye, but crucially, to deal with contemporary subject matter, telling darkly humorous stories from modern life. When I started work on ‘Beauty Tricks’ I wanted to make something beautiful. This led me to question interpretations of beauty and immediately a multitude of thorny contradictions popped up.
I decided to explore the way the beauty industry affects us and our environment. The central figure is based around a classic madonna, but she has liposuction lines on her torso and hypodermic needles and scalpels adorning her halo. Her nipples have been censored. Two little girls gaze up at her beautiful pink frock from a grey world of abandoned plastic containers. Above her, medieval scales traditionally used to symbolise the ‘weighing of souls’ refer to the long-running L’Oreal ad ‘worth it, not worth it’. A woman fires a gun at a mirror, smashing it to smithereens. To her left, a ‘kindly’ grandmother knits a web of Barbie dolls and to her right is a bulimic Rapunzel. The palm trees refer to the palm oil industry, the roses symbolise feminine beauty. At the top, Satan is hopping across the towers of Oxbridge with a pile of books heaped on his back, stealing all the knowledge while the women are distracted.
At the 2017 Venice Biennale’s Romanian Pavilion, Geta Brătescu’s exhibition ‘Apparitions’ cemented her status as a rising star on the international art scene. Aged ninety-one, Brâtescu was something of an unusual art world darling, yet she was well-known in her native Romania for a rich, multidisciplinary body of work that she would develop up until her death in September 2018. Subsequent exhibitions of her late work have emphasised the surprising ways that Brătescu continued to add depth to her innovative oeuvre. The drawings and collage pieces on display at Hauser and Wirth London’s exhibition The Power of the Line offer a vibrant display of bright shapes, jazzy geometric patterns, and lines that romp across the paper making manifest the physical ‘gestures of the [artist’s] body’. Her collages recall the energy of Matisse’s late cut-outs and the colourful verve of Miro; yet they express a kinetic and performative zest that is uniquely Brătescu’s and that threads, in various guises, throughout her seven-decade-long career.
the first piece that greets visitors to Hauser and Wirth’s The Power of the
Line, is a joyous introduction to Brătescu’s musical, mercurial form. A
collaged photograph of musician Louis Armstrong is followed by a concertina sequence
of colour and pattern that bursts from his trumpet. Vibrant yellow and red
tones evoke an ecstatic explosion of music; jagged, rhythmic lines of thick
crayon dance through each section, occasionally merging to form flailing Keith
Haring-esque figures. Brătescu drew ‘Armstrong’ with her eyes closed,
channelling her own inner visions in a manner that recalls Surrealist automatic
drawing. This method demonstrates Brătescu’s absolute faith in the line’s
expressive physicality; like singing and dancing, the act of drawing lines on
the page communicates the rhythms of the physical world around us. She worked
across many mediums, but the line remained a fundamental part of her artistic
vision and practice:
“The spider’s thread borne away on the wind is a flying line. Drawing owes a huge amount to the energy with which the hand traces lines and the character of this energy is determined by the character, the mood, the culture, the vision of the artist. In fact, it is a mysterious phenomenon. To trace a line, a simple line, with the feeling and awareness that you are producing expression; that line is necessary to you beyond reason.”
Although her work has a clear relationship with non-objective
abstract art, Brătescu creates an embodied art that is in dialogue with the
material, ephemeral everyday world. Works assembled from discarded objects,
such as crumpled paper, coffee sticks, matchboxes, netting, nod to Kurt
Schwitters; in her journal, Brătescu described Schwitters’ Merz as the
epitome of the conflict ‘between the ideal of the gesture and the perishability
of the matter caught up in the gesture’ – an impression that gains a particular
resonance when viewing pieces created by a housebound artist at the end of her life.
Like Brătescu’s earlier performance art and work with fragile textiles, the
drawings and collages on display at Hauser and Wirth express a sense of the
finite. Many bear the traces of the artist’s labour: faded lines where the
marker pen begins to fail, patches of glue, the trace of pencil marks. This
also speaks of the spontaneity of Brătescu’s approach, which is evident in Gestul, desunul (‘The gesture, the drawing’), a
wonderfully engaging film of Brătescu working and reflecting on her process
with fellow Romanian artist Stefan Sava. She is shown seated at her desk,
utterly absorbed by the paper she works on; her hands shake and, at times, struggle with the pen. As she
inks in blocks of colour, she jokingly acknowledges the painstaking effort,
asking first Sava and then the pen in her hand if they ‘have the patience’ for
her process. This hands-on, slow method is essential for an artist who understood
drawing as a gesture of the body; a physical act, like a dance, through which she
explored and captured the world around her. Brătescu’s reading of Proust’s A
La Recherche du Temps Perdu offers an insight into her own perspective: she
describes Proust’s world as one of ‘absolute tactility…full of forms and
colors, not so much seen as traversed’, words that could easily be applied to her
Brătescu shied away from politics: she dismissed feminism as ‘a uniform’, played down the experience of life under Romania’s repressive communist regime, and declared her studio to be an ‘apolitical’ space. Yet, the centrality of the body throughout her oeuvre hints at a certain political intent. For a series of works inspired by Medea (the Medeic Forms of the late 1970s), Brătescu used her mother’s old clothes and created a method she called ‘drawing on textile with sewing machine’. These unsettling abstract textile works suggest the violence and conflicted desires of womanhood, as well as the stifling strictures society places on them. Aesop, another mythological figure, featured prominently in Brătescu’s work as a joker; her fondness for him and for the more modern fool Charlie Chaplin suggests a similarly disruptive design behind her ludic lines. In the late drawings, they impishly morph into smiling faces and shapes that evoke breasts, ova, and sperm, evoking a defiant joi de vivre that mocks autocrats and old age alike. Following Brătescu’s lines lead us into a space both playful and profound, where our expectations of avant-garde culture, age, and gender are upended and a joyous chaos of form reigns.
Geta Brătescu: The Power of the Line was on display at Hauser and Wirth London, 27 Feb – 27 Apr 2019.
So begins the manifesto for a new project on Mina Loy. The brains behind ‘Navigating the Avant-Garde’ — namely Prof. Suzanne Churchill (Davidson College), Prof. Linda Kinnahan, (Duquesne University) and Prof. Susan Rosenbaum (University of Georgia)– are combining rigorous research with an aesthetically pleasing website. The results are pretty inspiring. Opening up Loy’s work in this way takes us out of the archive (which has recently been digitised here) and into a new space. A non-linear approach to a canon of work that allows for exploration and innovation. Spanning Dada, Surrealism, Futurism a user can travel to Paris, Florence and New York as the creators think about mapping in a way that really opens out what digital humanities can do. Jade French and Charlotte Whalen find out more about a project that takes us from the centre out towards the en dehors garde…
Hello! First of all, could you tell us about your research interests and how you came to have a focus on the works of Mina Loy?
Suzanne Churchill [SC]: The germ of this project grew out of my long term interests in Mina Loy, modernist poetry and little magazines. I’ve also developed more recent interests in digital humanities and how scholars can use digital tools and platforms for both teaching and research. Digital tools and platforms can transform humanities research, not just in what we can do — for example, computerised textual analysis or mapping — but how we publish our research and interact with our readers. So, borrowing from Craig Mod who’s written about the digital book, I started thinking about not just how we could change our scholarship to publish it digitally but how digital might change scholarship. And it does so in a variety of ways, including: digital scholarship has to be more collaborative, it’s obviously multimedia, it’s often non-hierarchical, and all that relates to the collaborative nature of having to work as equal partners, bringing different skills and training, presenting work in more non-linear ways.
Susan Rosenbaum [SR]: My scholarship centers on twentieth-century American poetry, especially women’s experimental poetry, and on interdisciplinary approaches to literature. I’m especially interested in poetry and the visual arts, so the book I’m just completing — or maybe completed! — is on surrealism, American poetry and the visual arts. It’s titled “Imaginary Museums” and explores poetic collections that work across word and image or in many kinds of media simultaneously. Because of this background I’ve been attracted to the possibilities of a digital platform as a stage to explore artwork and literature that crosses genre and media, work that print can’t do justice to.
I think Loy is a great case study for why theories of the avant-garde come up short. As Suzanne was suggesting, Loy doesn’t neatly fit in to avant-garde movements or conventional histories of the avant-garde, and it’s been exciting to think with Linda and Suzanne about how experimental women artists/writers like Loy make possible a new history and theory of the avant-garde. So I would say for me the collaborative aspect of this project has been exciting and just inspiring.
Linda Kinnahan [LK]: My focus has been on twentieth century American and British poetry across the century, working with both modernist and contemporary writers. I was introduced to Loy in graduate school, in the 80s, and at that time there was relatively little scholarship on her. You know, all of my Loy materials fit into one teeny-tiny little slender folder of several articles. Writing about her was often a matter of tracking down, as you all did too, where she shows up in other people’s work or where she shows up in little magazines. So it was really an interesting time to encounter Loy, and she’s stayed with me since those early years, especially as I’ve become increasingly interested in the ways in which poetry and visual cultures and media intersect and interact, with particular interest in photography, Loy, and poetry. When invited to work on this project, I was fascinated by the multimedia potential of digital platforms and the capacity for digital platforms to open up ways of presenting work in non-linear ways so that we can more richly understand the intersections and overlaps of the visual and the verbal. Writing about these multiple, often simultaneous and layered intersections is often difficult to undertake in linear ways . I would say that my interest in visual culture drives my enthusiasm about a digital scholarship but also more and more informs my work with Loy.
Modernism as UX Design
Could you say a bit more about how you created your design language? It feels very crisp and modern.
SC: As I’m sure you’re aware, there are ongoing debates about what constitutes digital humanities along with questions such as whether you need to know how to code. A lot of the leading edge scholars in digital humanities are learning how to do different things with the technology, but there’s relatively less interest in and even a relegation to minimalised or feminised status for anybody who’s interested in the work of ‘building pretty websites’. That’s not considered the serious work of the digital humanist.
But I was inspired by John Branch’s ‘Snowfall’. It wis a New York Times multimedia publication about these backwards skiers who do all this crazy stuff. That’s a topic that doesn’t interest me at all, but the story was designed so beautifully that it became immersive, and I read start to finish. That was a really eye-opening moment, suggesting that maybe I don’t like online reading because it’s typically not aesthetically gratifying. Scholarly websites, precisely because of our hierarchies of values, tend to put that design and aesthetic aspect of experience to the bottom rung. The thicker and denser the prose, the more worthy the ideas, right? And so one of our feminist interventions is revaluing style and aesthetics and reclaiming the perspective of feminist, female avant-garde artists and poets like Loy, who certainly didn’t neglect the significance of design, style, or even fashion.
SR: We want the user to choose their path. Mina Loy’s career can’t be neatly slotted into any of the avant-garde movements which she circled around, and we want her own circuitous path to inspire how our users can navigate the website. Users do not need to follow a linear path.
SC: When you start publishing digitally, your work is instantly more user-centric. As scholars, typically it’s ‘I’m interested in this’ and ‘I want to figure out that’ and suddenly, you have to think ‘what do my users want?’ and ‘how are they going to interact to this material?’.
As soon as you start doing user-centric scholarship, you also have to think about design. Questions of the design and organisation of the site, and the page and the menus and the visual hierarchies and integration of visual media come to the forefront. All of these concerns seem to not so much pull away from my research interests in Loy, but point back to her, as the ideal case study for thinking about how Loy scholarship might be transformed in a digital environment. Her peripatetic career just doesn’t fit into one linear trajectory and she doesn’t fit categories so I started thinking about this project and sought a grant for a full year’s sabbatical to explore it and very soon started talking to these brilliant Loy scholars to my right and left because I knew that this would be bigger and I needed their help.
Were you inspired at all by the little magazine in the development of the site?
SC: I think it is an inspiration, now that you mention it and make that connection! The appeal of the little magazine came from the moment I discovered it early in my graduate career. When I pulled the bound volume of Others off the shelf, modernism was opened up to me as a very different constellation of writers, in which Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams and Mina Loy were on the same pages with people I’ve never heard of, like Skipwith Cannell and Jeanne D’Orge and all kinds of “others.” I realised that T. S. Eliot was once a scrappy unknown struggling artist, and suddenly I thought — wow I really need to think about my relationship to these so-called great writers and the monumental works they created in a very different way.
It was such an appealing ideal, not to idealise it, but the modernist little magazine represented an experimental, often short-lived, more egalitarian, experimental space. Women often had very leading roles in these magazine and were featured with more prominence than they were in subsequent histories, and I would say the same for African Americans if we look at the rise of an explosion of periodical culture in the twentieth century, the establishment of The Crisis, Opportunity. Magazines were a really important vehicle for transforming access to knowledge and culture and visual culture, changing the images that circulated in the popular imagination.
The website also has some literal mapping too, in the form of Linda’s notes on Florence and Loy’s time there. How important is this sense of ‘place’ to the project?
LK: I’ve gone to Florence twice with the express purpose of locating and visiting the places associated with Loy or her network of friends, writers, and innovators. It was just really lovely to map out her locations; there’s something about seeing the textures and light of these places. I know we are now one hundred years beyond her time in Florence, but to walk the hill of Costa San Giorgio still opened up my eyes to the early poems she wrote while living there or soon after. I’ve always, of course, thought of these poems from the 1910s as her ‘Florence poems’ but to really see how much that place is embedded in the poems is illuminating. I’m working on a chapter for the project informed by reading the poems through more direct attention to place. Like Suzanne and Susan, I’m thinking about how mapping and navigating speaks to/through Loy’s poems, particularly as these Italian places become sites for exploring themes that interest her, such as gender dynamics. How do these poems relate to physical places and the socio-political presence in her works? You need to go to Florence!
SC: Of course, there are challenges when it comes to thinking about chronology and Loy; her work doesn’t fit neatly into those frameworks. So we’re thinking about reconceiving the site around geographical locations. Studying her work in terms of places that she visited and we’ve visited in order to fully understand her complex, multifaceted, and peripatetic career. We want to foreground these ideas using images and mapping tools…
SR: We want place, travel, and navigation to be a material way we can unsettle the conventional history of the avant-garde, and a means of mapping and thinking about the en dehors garde. We were noticing that late in her career, Loy still draws on some Futurist and Dadaist techniques; her engagement with the avant-garde isn’t restricted by historical periodisation. She does not follow a linear trajectory. This is also something we hope to discuss in the theorising of the en dehors garde.
A Feminist Strategy
Speaking of the en dehors garde, it seems like a really useful way of thinking about centres and margins — why that phrase and why now?
SC: We were thinking about avant garde theories and why they weren’t accommodating Loy’s work accurately, and I got talking to Nancy, Selleck a dear friend of mine from grad school. She’s an early modern scholar and had a career as a professional ballet dancer with the New York Ballet prior to going into academia. She said to me, ‘I think you need a new term. The avant garde isn’t really working — how about en dehors garde?’. I’d never heard of this term. In ballet, she explained, it means coming from the outside or turning outward.
It seemed so perfect to think about an alternative avant-garde this way — and appropriate that the term would come from an outsider to modernist studies. And from the dance world, which was important to this period in terms of being an area of great modernisation and innovation that influenced the other arts and intrigued Loy as well (who is very interested in Isadora Duncan and modern dance). Once Nancy said ”en dehors garde,” it resonated.
SR: It really did. I was writing about the history of experimental women’s poetry in the U.S. and whether or not the avant-garde was a concept that was really useful. There are writers like Cathy Park Hong who make a really convincing case for getting rid of the terminology altogether because it’s so exclusionary. That’s an important stance (see her essay “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant Garde” in Lana Turner №7). I think developing this concept of the “en dehors garde” allows us to still engage with the history of the avant-garde and the experiments associated with that history, but to encompass those who were doing something different or who were on the margins of those movements.
LK: This engagement becomes a very powerful feminist strategy. The gender ideologies underlying the very language of the term “avant-garde” have played out in its theorising. When we use en dehors garde, the idea of movement rather than placement (as in “advanced guard”) emerges. The en dehors garde suggests how writers and works move, how they operate and interact with each other, rather than how a writer might claim a position. The concept of movement becomes very important to us as a strategy of undoing — no longer ‘being ahead’, which has such a hierarchical and privileged connotation, but ‘turning’.
SC: We need to think about different paradigms and platforms for accommodating the contributions of other people who are present and part of these movements as they happened, but not in the ways that our current theories account for.
SR: It’s a feminist intervention to come up with your own theory. Because in the past theory itself had been claimed as a masculine endeavour and then we’re in the position of just reacting to the theories that men have already put out there.
How have academic reactions to ‘feminism’ changed or evolved in the last ten years, with the arrival of digital platforms?
LK: I came into modernist studies in the 1980s and early 90s at a real high point for feminist modernist scholarship. To my dismay, after a while, recovery work and other forms of feminist intervention began (in some quarters) to be seen as a little passé — as if we were somehow getting beyond all that gender stuff. I think I could even look back at conference programmes and see ways in which this energy was in danger of being ellided or marginalized. So, for me, it’s been tremendously reassuring to see younger scholars really interested in reinvigorating those feminist conversations and building new ones. To my mind, the critical issues made visible by feminists have never gone away. There was never any way the could have because we never finished that work! So, I think there’s a new energy that’s really wonderful to see.
SR: I do feel like it’s a lot of younger scholars who are boldly claiming that.
Collaboration and Community
The idea of collaboration seems an important part of the research process . It’s a generous type of scholarship, to share Loy, to allow younger people to identify with her in a very immediate way. How did you develop the collaborative nature of the project?
SR: You know that book ‘Possession’ by A. S. Byatt? I love that book, because it describes a common model of proprietary scholarship, as in, I work on Loy, so she’s “my” poet! I would say all of us are passionate about Loy and other artists and poets we work on, but we aren’t proprietary. The aim of the platform is to democratise access to Loy. I’m all for democratising access to writers and artists, as much as possible, and inviting people in. I detest that proprietary attitude on the part of scholars and critics towards cultural work. Democratising the work of art and integrating it into everyday life is an important part of one strand of the avant-garde.
LK: Absolutely, right now we have a couple of different structural elements planned for the platform that consciously seek to incorporate wider collaborations. We’re developing a type of flash mob to be launched this summer, where we will invite other people to begin generating postings and ideas about the en dehors garde and bringing that spirit of collaboration into the actual development of knowledge. It’s not just our knowledge.
SC: I’m struck by your use of the word “generous” and don’t know if you know Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s recent work on generous thinking in the humanities and digital humanities. This idea of generous thinking — including using open source platforms and freely sharing everything we develop — is very much part of the avant-garde culture of digital humanities and feminist scholarship. It’s about openly sharing, inviting and to collaborating with people as equal partners — so not treating librarians, IT staff, and students as mere sort of tech support or research assistants but recognising them as equal partners in our intellectual endeavors.
I think this ethos informs our ideas for the flash mob formation of the avant-garde, where we will be inviting students, scholars, artists, poets, enthusiasts to contribute posts in whatever form or genre you would like, and also in the non-hierarchical way we imagine presenting these posts. We’re still talking to Greg Lord, our amazing designer and programmer. What we want is the users to be able to first see all the posts in a random grid: you can then select and check favourites and arrange them in your own formation, so that you’re participating in the project. Users effectively get to assemble their own theories of the avant-garde…so there’s this idea of it being collaborative, participatory, somewhat more ephemeral and not locked into one formation that might involve a certain hierarchy; an ever-chaning theory that is sortable, searchable, and interactive.
SR: And we’re trying to also think about the visual design of that kind of shifting array, so we’ve been talking a lot about what that might look like; hopefully it will be visually stimulating.
SC: Yeah, and aesthetically gratifying. So that, for both creators and readers, the work of scholarship could actually be pleasurable!
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