What I did at the weekend – collectively

As I blogged earlier in the week, I spent the weekend with a group of people interested in collaborative writing techniques.  In the event we did a fair amount of arts-based inquiry into our subjects, which tended to be on memory work, as formulated by the great German scholar, Frigga Haug in her approach to collective biography.   We spent quite a lot of the day doing what one of our convenors, Suzanne Gannon, called ‘running interference’, so we had to write about the colour red and then pass that work onto the person on our left who had a task to do which involved altering our text, or adding to it, or subtracting from it, or writing it from a different point of view.  I got a text from Ken, who was sitting next to me who had written about an altercation with his partner about the colour in which he had become very excited.  I had to write into Ken’s text and add my own sentences.  The idea was to experience losing control and ownership of your own writing, a process which is essential for collective writing.  You cannot be proprietorial.  So I took a paragraph of Ken’s and wrote into it.  Ken’s original text is in italics:

I hate the imperialism of red.  Written by a Cornishman.  No true born Englishwoman could have written that sentence.  Separatist, I think with a slight curl of the lip.  Cornwall for the Cornish.  Daphne du Maurier run riot through the landscape, blotting out all the red, insisting on the black and silver.  Well, not for us Englishwomen, bred to thrill to the sight of a scarlet coat.  Bred to give balls the night before Waterloo and to attend to the officer class, to offer comfort to the troops.  Imagine Jane Austen, BBC classic serials go-to girl, with out the Blankshire regiment in their red coats and epaulettes and brass buttons and tight, tight white trousers.  Her oeuvre would disintegrate without the threat of Boney and the scarlet-coated response.

She thought back to a dusty schoolroom in which she had never sat.  She saw the motes dance in the golden summer light.  She smelled the chalk dust on the air.  She was sitting, she thought, in her mother’s classroom, or her father’s.  Two thirds of the map is coloured red.  The empire on which the sun never set.  How the hell did that happen?  There weren’t that many of us.  How the hell did we manage to subdue quite so many natives.  And who, once we had done it, decided that it should be coloured red?  Was it an attempt to drench the map with blood, blood spilled in the name of his or her sovereign majesty?  or was it because early on red was the colour of imperialism, the subject under discussion?  The Tudors had their green.  Elizabeth I her black and white.  Did someone else choose red?  Well, as Cecil Rhodes so memorably said, to be born an Englishman is to win first prize in the lottery of life, and he might have said, to be handed a bottle of red ink and a brush at the font.  Go and decide which bit of the map you want to colour red and don’t come back until you have done it.

Just the word red packs a punch: I hate the discursive force of the way in which it colonises senses of colour.  It is the case that when the red mist descends everything else is pretty much blotted out.  I see this, although I haven’t ever killed anyone, or indeed anything except pot plants with much regularity.  Girls don’t go in for killing particularly even now.  It’s pretty much only chanteuses who put on those Charge of the Light Brigade jackets and pout lacquered red lips on their publicity material, and it always looks like reverse drag, Vesta Tilley walking among us again.  It is the case, though, that once you have seen red nothing  is ever the same again.  Once you have loosed that temper it is hard to reign it back in.  And once the colour red has danced on your retina nothing is ever really the same again either.  She thought back to an introduction to philosophy lecture about the unfortunate Mary, who in the thought experiment, had never seen the colour orange.  And then she did.  One day she woke up and did.  She had missed the point of poor old Mary’s sadly blighted perceptual processes, because she had been so struck by the poverty of a life with no orange in it.

And then in Autumn as the leaves are turning,

orange is the smell of the bonfire burning.

Synaesthesia and Mary destined never to meet.  But she wondered what life would be like without ever seeing red.  Christmas would be bleaker, bleaker than the Midwinter already was.  And, should you glance at the map on the schoolroom wall, you would never realise the full extent of your cultural heritage of violence, appropriation, displacement and oppression.  Red makes a very convenient shorthand.

She couldn’t argue, seen like this red was a discursive entity reducing, blunting and actually discolouring through the very processes which lead to its existence.  And a creeping, corrosive one, red rust silently eating into metal, flaking away things that previously had seemed very stable.  Red, it transpired could be a very subtle enemy.

On the Saturday evening after we had been writing quite a bit we started painting and collaging this enormous piece, seen here in its finished form:

We had to base the artwork on what we had written.  I chose to play with ideas around being British and the collective colonialist past and so I started by making my own map:

The tricky bit was that we then had to be prepared to let other people contribute to our work.  I really didn’t like the idea of that, but in the end, the addition was really rather nice:

The substitution of the Brighton Pavilion for the Taj Mahal  is witty and improves the whole.

I was quite interested in why this had been a bit difficult.  The exercise we did on day two involved making things on our own, and I was happier with that.  I didn’t mind people adding to mine – although I might have done if there had a been a lot of ‘interference’ but I really didn’t like working into others’ paintings, although I did a little bit, mainly with a fish stamp which I thought pulled the whole thing together a bit.  I have to face up to the fact that it is never enough for me just to make and be part of the process: the end result needs to be pleasing as well.

It strikes me as I sit here writing this now, that all this is a bit odd given the amount of collaborative work I do in quilting groups.  I have done pieces where they go round a group and each person adds a bit, and I have made any number of group quilts with the very excellent St Andrew’s Quilters over the years, and I have never had any problem there.  Why should quilting be quite easy to do collaboratively, and art-making with academics quite so difficult?  Is it because the Academy is all about individual effort, and I can’t shake off years and years of conditioning?  Or is it because quilting is usually do to with pattern making rather than analysis?  Is it because in quilting we are all pretty much equally skilled, whereas with the art created at the weekend lots of people were happy to make a statement or show a feeling rather than trying to produce a finished piece?  I also found that I was very happy to do the work – the writing and the painting and collaging, but I didn’t want to join in discussions which were about theorising what is becoming known as the material turn in Social Sciences.  Materiality has been my thing and I don’t want to share.  I was really surprised how strongly I felt that.  And I was disappointed.

While I ponder all this, I had a great time doing my first ever mono prints, which I have seen film of Tracey Emin and Laura Kemshall doing, but had never done myself:

And here is the lovely mono print that Tessa, another of our convenors did of me telling stories in the playground, taken from a piece of my writing:

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