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Journal

A reflective journal of my practice, process, and thoughts.

Posts tagged reflection
Conversation with David Gelsthorpe, Manchester Museum 08-02-19
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A few weeks ago I met David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Earth Science Collections at Manchester Museum, and we discussed a broad range of topics relating to engagement, representations of time, climate change and positive action. I always greatly appreciate the opportunity to consider possibilities and lines of inquiry in my research from a different perspective, and from within a very different specialism. Museology as a ‘lens’ for representation is quite an established thread in my work and recently I have been reconsidering the effectiveness of that, my use of that, in the past and how I could utilise this again. David provided valuable insight and offered numerous viewpoints which I continue to reflect on moving forward. The following is a transcript of our conversation.

M: In the museum setting, how important is narrative in encouraging audiences to position themselves within the context of, for example, geologic time?

D: I think that narrative is absolutely essential because I think geologic time particularly is a very hard concept for people to understand. I find it quite interesting in terms of climate change and geologies because climate change has always happened - it always will happen, it’s an entirely normal and natural thing.

M: But do we subdue it?

D: Yes, I think that’s a good point because, sometimes, in the context of for example the work we’ve been doing around action on climate change, it’s almost a confusing narrative for the public, because if people get the strong message that climate change has always happened and always will, then people could see it as being a helpless thing. I always heavily qualify climate change narratives with human induced carbon dioxide levels and the massive changes on a geological time scale, which happens pretty slowly generally, but climate change in the last hundred, hundred and fifty years is astronomical. Saying that, there is some reasonably good evidence that in the last Ice Age, particularly from dating different fossils in our collection, for example in bones, that some of the changes were quite extreme and quite quick. From dating bone specimens such as from Hippo from North African type climates and Woolly Rhinoceros for example, some of the major climate changes from those extremes were probably several hundred years, and that is almost a lifetime isn’t it?! And that’s not so radically different to what’s happening now, but now it’s very very clearly manmade, and there are massive consequences to what is happening. So trying to help empower people to act positively is important.

M: Thinking politically on some level, the museum has a voice as an authority doesn’t it, and so does that translate to an exciting position for you to be in here?

D: Absolutely. Basically, we feel very strongly that there are so many public institutions that have a very heavily eroded level of trust – the NHS, the government… so we feel that we’re a very trusted organisation and that people identify strongly with us, and trust us to give them the ‘facts’, in inverted commas, and positive interpretations. We’re very conscious of that and don’t ever want to be in breach of that trust. We try to provide a really safe and balanced space as well, in which people can disagree with us, and we are totally okay with that.

M: We were talking about the power of conversation, and there are so many museum spaces I feel that do not enable conversation in the same way as Manchester does… in terms of a different type of space – the art gallery, there is obviously quite often the element of the uncomfortable or the impenetrable which the public invariably struggle with, and maybe some of those conversations that could happen remain internal because of the pressure of the space. What you have with the Natural History collections in the Living Worlds space here seems to be something which bridges display, and objects, with issues and contexts in a multitude of engaging ways.

D: That kind of makes me think about the question of ‘who has the answers?’. For example, in terms of our exhibition on climate control, we very specifically said ‘we do not have all the answers – what action on climate change would you like to take?’, and we had a lot of responses from visitors that were entirely unprompted, which was brilliant. Equally we had a lot of feedback from visitors who had been telling us they want to do great things about climate change but were overwhelmed and would appreciate some guidance on what they could do to make a difference. In the Living Worlds gallery downstairs we still have the display ten ways to make a difference, which includes a lot of things people have generally heard about already but another thing we looked at were the values we share as well. So, with climate change particularly there is a lot of research which points towards people feeling that they do great things and are ‘doing their best’ but nobody else cares, and actually we are trying to devise a way which shows that other people share your values. With ten ways to make a difference we had sweet jars and we had recycled bits of plastic that you voted into these sweet jars. With each one there was ‘yes I want to do more of that’, or ‘no, it’s not for me’, and the idea was that, with the votes saying ‘yes I want to do more of that’ you could suggest ways forward.

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It’s quite a false environment being in the museum in lots of ways, but people love it and keep coming back, and we get so much feedback when, for example we are doing work on the galleries and renovations people will ask ‘you’re not taking that away are you?!’. The mammals gallery used to be very 1970’s – a very of-its-time undergraduate display and you can’t really imagine why anybody would want to keep that, but for example lots of people really loved the polar bear!

M: I must admit I’m a real sucker for that as well. The last time I visited the comparative anatomy gallery at the Jardin des Plantes, which is basically the old Great Chain of Being style display which seems very impenetrable in terms of language – there seemed to be almost no attempt there to tease out any kind of dialogue or question from the collection and the context of the arrangement; it did literally seem like a dead space in a lot of ways and seemed very static and fixed. Which in itself of course is fascinating and has its properties. 

D: I think we tend to approach from the perspective that we have an incredible building here from 1888, and I guess there are two ways you can see that – we try to see it as something which nobody else has got – very atmospheric, beautiful and a phenomenal backdrop to work on. Or you could see it in the other direction of all the cases being listed so we can’t do an awful lot to them or with them! It’s never going to be a white cube space. We can’t have a Brontosaurus in our space for example! But we’ve absolutely tried to play on our heritage as something that’s an absolute treasure, and our objects play a similar role in that – the key ones in terms of popularity I guess now would include the T-Rex even though we only got him in 2006, but you can’t possibly imagine that space without him in it now. It’s interesting how things evolve in that sense.

M: This makes me think about the relationships between funding and engagement with the big charismatic pieces. The Natural History Museum had its Diplodocus and the dinosaur exhibit is still such a big sensational selling point… a lot of those people might visit and take away that they’ve seen big dinosaur models but what is embedded in terms of knowledge or the present?

A very different experience to that might be that in terms of the Holderness coastline every now and again when I’ve read about the geological history of the area or visited museum collections, I‘ve seen examples of Woolly Rhino teeth or Ice Age animal remains from the area, or even just online or in the local news… someone has been down to the beach and pulled a tiny Ichthyosaur vertebrae or part of a fin or something out of the cliff and this happens a lot and that opens up questions I suppose about why they aren’t there anymore – ‘that’s an amazing thing that I’m holding but that isn’t there any more’… or is it? Just transformed?

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D: With Ice Age animals for example, they are categorised as sub-fossil bone, so they are half way between being the original animal and the fossil. Half-way between the bone being replaced by mineral content. I always find it quite interesting that when you take it out the ground, to stop it from being destroyed, you’re also stopping the geological fossilisation process – almost halting it’s potential in some way.

M: I’m interested in that within my practice and my research – looking at absence or ‘fixedness’ and trying to draw parallels between geology and memory loss. Most of my grandparents suffered from degenerative neurological diseases and witnessing those things as a young person aren’t necessarily unique or unusual, for a child to lose a grandparent, but there is something I’m trying to explore there on some kind of poetic or experiential level about erosion and transformation. What you are describing about retrieving things from the ground and ‘fixing’ them in the process is similar maybe to the ways in which we encode memory; encoding, consolidation, retrieval. These are very broad ideas to unravel!

D: In lots of ways those suggestions make sense. Things that spring to mind involve erosion which is obviously something very stark on the East Coast – effectively time is speeded up. This makes me think about the top of Mount Everest being made up of marine limestone – how more extreme do you want to get than that?! In terms of the fossilisation process, some bits have a much higher chance of becoming fossil – this is so complicated but the process is so heavily dependent on water, water temperature, chemistry of what is around at the time dissolved in the rocks et cetera which might be displaced, so there are so many variables on whether something becomes a fossil or not, and even if something is on its way to becoming fossilised it might be pulled out of the cliff and not get that far and placed in a museum or something…

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M: Which is similar to a memory in terms of variables – the strongest memories taking hold for a number of reasons becoming more robust possibly either because of being very negative or very positive, mostly I think the negative memories are those which really take hold but are easy to ’confuse’. I was talking to my lecturer about this and the act of reframing memories as being transformative rather than being positive or negative, for example witnessing a process of neurological degradation as being something in which a person might reach a state of peace or a different space which is unique to them and is almost protective rather than purely terminal and traumatic for the people around them. There is something within that that takes me back to what you were saying earlier about viewing climate change as something which is transformative but it’s not something that is very definitely terminal – maybe we are in a space now in which a lot of collective reflection is happening…

D: I think thats maybe right. I think one of the key problems we have when we’re talking about rising sea levels et cetera… Manchester for example: currently it’s looking like it might be a few degrees warmer maybe but the feeling is that we’re safe, or even that those differences are desirable – the reality of course is that there could be thousands of refugees, we could be struggling to get certain types of foods… to take it back to the exhibition we did on climate change, in the case of our brilliant front-of-house staff, they took quite a lot of ownership of the public workshops we ran, they devised flashcards as a way of talking to people and asking questions, and we had items for example like a model of a Manchester tram driving through the snow to get people thinking about the idea that we might not be able to get work. We are just trying to think about some of the smaller or more subtle ways in I guess. 

M: Maybe the places that we read about this happening can also be very potent politically and the challenge is to keep the critical mind open. In terms of migration, you mentioned refugees – I have this fascination with historical migration in particular as regards the last Ice Age and conceptions of Doggerland’s submergence – the implications this would have had on our distant ancestors and the idea that our island isn’t a fixed shape. Im not entirely sure we are all familiar with the reality of what it might be like to be a climate refugee today or are even vaguely presented with objective information on how immigration actually works. If our institutions and our media and our education systems aren’t adequately explaining without political agenda or bias why immigration might be occurring in and from certain areas in a more accelerated fashion then we’re left to make judgements, maybe treating people as numbers possibly rather than in a humanitarian way – the rightwing press in my opinion has an awful lot to do with this. There is something very strange about this because at least in my mind if I think about migration its nature is as a very human or a very ‘natural’ phenomenon which adapts to pressures and changes over time and is not some huge threatening and fearsome set of behaviours. 

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D: I think the key is having something people can relate to in terms of how to intervene and engage with reality. It’s also interesting thinking about the last Ice Age in terms of what exotic animals we did or didn’t have in Britain at different times, and its migration in and out of Britain rather than localised extinctions that shaped our landscape then to a large extent. Something which struck me a few years ago when I was working on a research paper was that even though we talk about a land bridge between Britain and Europe we tend to make it sound much more simple than it really was – there would have been really massive substantial rivers that created boundaries which animals like Giant Elk could obviously swim across, but it wasn’t as casual as maybe the images in our minds would lead us to believe. Presumably the people of the last Ice Age would have found it quite traumatic if they managed to settle in a place with access to hunting and a degree of relative safety, and they gradually found that life was getting harder and harder, and actually people can relate to that.

M: That sounds very present!

D: Yes it does – absolutely. And no doubt there were people migrating elsewhere all the time and simply couldn’t survive. You’re right that I think it’s saturation point in terms of information, that it’s too much and you just switch off, but actually some of the interesting conversations we had around the climate change exhibition were about us not overwhelming people with facts and leaving people depressed, and feeling unable to act… actually we came to conclusion that it was okay to make people aware of realities and possibly even a little bit depressed as long as you give them the tools to deal with it, and the means to actually do something about it, a strong sense that other people you care and have shared values. It’s something that we can influence positively. For us here as a museum, if we’re not meaningful and relevant to people visiting here then we are not going to get funding and we don’t have a future as an organisation. If we’re irrelevant and unpopular then we cannot exist. People will not come here if we do not care about relevant issues.

M: What does the future look like?

D: The future is an exciting place where things can be quite amazing. I think the future looks like something we can shape. I don’t think that we are victim of where things are now and where they are going. I don’t think a lot of people think that necessarily. There’s sometimes a feeling amongst people that things are only ever getting progressively worse, and it will be worse for our grandchildren, but that doesn’t have to be the case.

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This Is_Land / Process & Print
REIGNITE BRITISH SPIRIT (2).  2018.

REIGNITE BRITISH SPIRIT (2). 2018.

I am still deliberating over the ‘success’, at least in terms of having positively communicated some ideas and questions, of a project I exhibited earlier this year at Artlink Hull, and carried through to the Hull Print Fair last Sunday. ‘This Is _ Land’ grew out as a branch of my research last year, when I realised that my interest in social ecology in relation to migration was very much interwoven with my concerns about geological change, and a number of broad questions bloomed from that: how do we respond to climate change or resource driven migration in humanitarian ways in an age of rising nationalism and an intoxication with borders?

The Banksy piece on Scott Street Bridge in Hull which appeared back in January. To me, it feels gesturally powerful in it’s location at the end of Hull’s City of Culture year, a city in which the majority of voters in the EU Referendum opted to Leave, something which still does not quite correlate with my experience of the general values of the people I have grown up with and around. Maybe this vote was both a decision given to the public and taken away at the same time; personally, I wonder to what extent the result was a demonstration of the stranglehold of right-leaning press and mainstream media power, and rising populism on opinion, promoting experiences of the past lived vicariously, because none of us were there when we knew economic harmony; ‘It didn’t used to be like this’, so the headlines ‘remind’ us. Fear the unknown, for it is worse than it ever was.

The Banksy piece on Scott Street Bridge in Hull which appeared back in January. To me, it feels gesturally powerful in it’s location at the end of Hull’s City of Culture year, a city in which the majority of voters in the EU Referendum opted to Leave, something which still does not quite correlate with my experience of the general values of the people I have grown up with and around. Maybe this vote was both a decision given to the public and taken away at the same time; personally, I wonder to what extent the result was a demonstration of the stranglehold of right-leaning press and mainstream media power, and rising populism on opinion, promoting experiences of the past lived vicariously, because none of us were there when we knew economic harmony; ‘It didn’t used to be like this’, so the headlines ‘remind’ us. Fear the unknown, for it is worse than it ever was.

Part of my objective with the project was, possibly, to have more of an objective. It is part of the nature of my process as it stands, that I simultaneously try to distill, while naturally abstract information. This is perhaps not especially unique, but my aim here was to explore a slightly more ‘direct’ aesthetic - to utilise saturation in order to comment on saturation, and I wanted to play with a type of visual counter-point reflective of the binary modes we are conditioned to process feeling through politically, with at least reductive and at worst catastrophic - and unwanted - results, as a way of opening up questions on what we are being fed by sensationalist news feeds and agendas. The idea of, on some level, subverting convenience was present in this as well. This began to take the form of screenprints from digital manipulations. I am always interested in the suggestion of the halftone as being a mediator, and the screen as a mechanism for processing and transferring information, conferring emotive material, the basis even of an agenda, through the code of black dots (or something like that). This is obviously ingrained in the ‘press’. In parallel to the physical work, I created a separate instagram feed for the project, and as I worked through a range of different combinations and churning of those into screens, it became increasingly clear to me, especially after the Artlink show and in evaluating that, that the digital work seemed much more potent and engaging in it’s digital form, and with the print based work I received better feedback for the pieces that were less busy, with fewer layers. In designing the digital manipulation layers for the screenprint series, drawing from sensationalist tabloid cuttings, screen grabs from pixelated propaganda films and news reports, iOS function symbols, I realise now that they became overwrought and slightly laboured, whereas the digital pieces did what I had originally intended much more effectively. This has brought about a real sense of question for me now as I move forward - what is the physical ‘stamp’ of the print doing that the digital representation isn’t. The question of what it means to digest print digitally is something which I am now thinking about a lot. This context might be creating an interesting ground for innovation in print. In an article from July 2009 on the site Printeresting, exploring a web-based program which allowed the creation of protest-poster style graphics, designed in reaction to the aftermath of elections in Iran of the same year, the term Metaprint was used to describe the generation of the work:

“At the risk of overusing the ‘meta’ prefix, the Internet seems to be creating an era of Metaprint. Historically, images had to be distributed by physical means to affect change. Now, distributed is executed through an electronic network and reaches the audience without a printed component. The print (if there is one) is the last step, a step farmed out to the audience as an optional souvenir.”

Selection of social media post collages, IG: thisis__land, 2018.

Selection of social media post collages, IG: thisis__land, 2018.

The word ‘souvenir’ connotes a number of things and if they tend to be keepsakes or tokens, then there is an element of souvenirs representing memories, or as being ‘reminders’. This is something that also fed into the act of participating in the Print Fair last weekend. Back in the lead up to my spotlight show earlier this year I labelled a number of pieces ‘Reminder’s - postcard size screen prints on reflective card representing geological change and excavation, and these were exhibited beneath larger, more densely layered collage pieces at Artlink. That particular choice of wording ‘souvenir’ in my reading of the article has a slightly negative tone which suggests that the physical piece would essentially be the inactive, obligatory object. This is interesting in itself, and while that’s not necessarily representative of how I feel at this point about print work (the physical piece can ask of a small investigation from the viewer, is a gestural communication, is a space, and is an important mode of presentation in so many ways whether this is referring to a mounted piece, a print in a smallholder’s display rack, a publication), the argument is compelling and something I intend to be mindful of in my process - the pursuit of making work engaging in a saturated environment, and using those platforms which are now very much a mainstream visual currency, inside and outside of the gallery; the screen.

In evaluating the project now, I can identify a few important action points for moving forward. The work I have made so far has bloomed into a broad collection - probably broader than I had originally intended, interrogating a range of visual sources from life rafts in online museum collections and tabloid articles perpetuating misinformed immigration hysteria, to technicolour renderings of oil spills and ecological catastrophe in 1970s National Geographic issues and photographs of thawed animal remains from the Siberian permafrost. This wide, exploratory approach both in terms of subjects and mediums has led me to reshaping my intentions. In a return to the basic questions I had at the beginning of the year, I have recently begun discussing social ecology and political myth with regards to nationalism and climate change, with Dr Jeremy F. G. Moulton, Associate Lecturer in Environmental Politics at the University of York, and these discussions are having a significant impact on my knowledge of the issues surrounding my concerns. In a collaborative spirit we are continuing to ask questions of one another’s concerns from the perspectives of our individual practices and experiences, and I am planning on publishing transcriptions of these conversations online soon, as part of a dedicated This _ Land __ site. The site will also feed from the project instagram account, and be a screen-based experience and space for continually developing visual work, as I learn more about the specific contexts I am addressing and how my experiences of those have been shaped, through related ideas and possibilities arising from collaboration.

What I stand for is what I stand on.
— Wendell Berry
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Tutorial 1 - 29/10/18, Jonathan Kearney

My first tutorial with Jonathan has really helped me start to consider reframing the emotive experiences at the roots of my exploration and questioning the potential of experiences which might be initially considered traumatic or generally negative, as actually opening up spaces for reflection on the nature of change. We each discussed some our own personal experiences of witnessing changes in the health and wellbeing of loved ones, such as processes of neurological disease, a discussion which I am very appreciative of and has helped me to begin thinking about our (to some extent) default reactions to ecological loss; human, physical or mental (memory, language), and environmental (resources, wilderness): Jane Bennett in Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, discusses how our “modern selves are feeling increasingly entangled, cosmically, biotechnically, medially, virally, pharmacologically, with nonhuman nature. Nature has always mixed it up with self and society, but lately this comingling has intensified and become harder to ignore”.

We spoke about our understandings of transformation, and how we might reposition our perspectives on experiences which we might be almost programmed to ‘view’ and process as being either positive or negative, as instead being transformative, with the power of this as a kind of lens being to re-evaluate our relationships with the present: how do we respond to environmental degradation if we lose sight of the hope in acting on change? What is being done today in the pursuit of re-aligning negative effects and trends in human ecology, with helpful concepts and strategies? This is a question which I am interested in pursuing in terms of my communications with both neurologists and geologists. I am also spending some time concentrating on the aspect of personal narrative within my project which is a thread we discussed in my tutorial but has also come up in our symposiums, in relation actually to several of our practices including Friederike’s work, particularly in relation to types of mythologised experience; I am drawn back to Joseph Beuys in this regard as I begin to work with materials in new ways.

^ Hiroshi Sugimoto: ‘Pre-Photography Time Recording Device 040’ (left), ‘PPTRD 028’ (right), ‘South Bay Drive-In', 1993’ (centre)

  • Transformative experiences. Question of ‘negative’ experiences such as witnessing disease progress and take hold over the lives of loved ones as being powerful in opening up unique spaces for reflection, and re-evaluating our experience of the present.

  • These situations and changes make us shift our perceptions, pushing us to explore a sense and space of time pausing. A release. Associations between relative space and geo-biological foundations.

  • Natural change versus our feelings about how natural change should behave.

Returning to Beginnings

Thank you for visiting my journal. This week marked the beginning of my study on the MA Fine Art Digital course at Camberwell, and I am so excited to investigate a number of questions I’ve wanted to explore in my practice for a long time - to seek collaboration, and dialogue. I would like to use this journal not solely to document my process, but as a space in which I can ask questions of you, and you can ask questions of me and my practice.

Landscape in terms of both psychogeography and geology is occupying my mind a lot right now. ‘As above, so below’. I live and work in Hull and the surrounding area, which is situated on the River Humber, and the 'waterland' that my ancestors have farmed on for generations is working it's way back into the forefront of my memory, as the land itself crumbles rapidly into the sea here on the East Yorkshire coast. The gaps in those memories are the parts I'm maybe the most interested in…

My practice is interdisciplinary though this is something I am keen to develop. Primarily I utilise printmaking, often in it's broadest sense or pushing the notion of what could be considered print, to spark poetic associations between subjects. Subjects such as museology and the agenda of the museum as a voice and authority, and recently curious developments in relationships between geological change and migration politics, have become threads of my practice. The digital plays a huge role in my work in terms of design and manipulation of information, but I feel I can extend my knowledge of new digital technologies so much further, and this is one of my overall objectives, to explore entirely new ground, and question the nature of making in the digital age much moreso than I have to date.

Starting an MA now, ten years since I began my bachelors, is a wonderful feeling. I don’t know where those ten years went other than to know that I found my amazing wife and we found happiness, and without her I highly doubt I would be in the privileged position I am at in my life right now. I urge you to check out Emily’s practice on instagram - @effigypottery, doing so may also help give some context to the connections and activities I might discuss as time goes on.

I am ready to return wholeheartedly to my practice, which has returned to me the importance of questioning structures, parameters, and time - which is at the centre of my already sprawling MA mind map.

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