Big transparent egos

So: the last question was: eyes open? Or eyes shut? Is it possible to interpret a film while not looking at it? Or by looking, then looking away? There has to be a space of not-looking in between the looking, doesn’t there? A space for reflection. When I’m thinking very hard, I often can’t make eye contact with people. It’s as if the invitation to be present with other people is difficult to reconcile with intense thinking. So I alternate between one and the other – between listening and looking, and thinking and responding. So maybe there is something important about keeping hold of both – eyes open, and eyes shut?

I’m writing about something different today though. Something that has taken me a while to write, and longer to post.

Something is preventing me from writing this next piece. In a great deal of the correspondence that Anna has been passing on to me, from poets and writers and musicians as they return their thoughts and interpretations to us, there is an undertone of worry. Worry that comes alongside phrases in the artists’ and poets’ emails like ‘doing justice’, or following rules. That said, the creative constraint of the process of embodied interpretation seems to be liberating to some of our contributors – though I also wonder whether the work that seems to flow so easily for some is a result of a thing that already was. I don’t mean to suggest that any of the artists who have given their time so generously to the project are just auto-producing a kind of Blue Peter here’s-one-I-made-earlier Tracy-Island. I also don’t mean that any of the artist’s involved are simply reproducing patterns of work that they have already established. In any case, isn’t that what the term ‘practice’ means? Isn’t what we do a result of repetitive acts of refinement in one way or another? And don’t things improve with practice? But I think I’m digressing here.

Some of the work-in-progress interpretations I’ve listened to and read speak very strongly to the artist’s own mode of practice. There is a sense of ownership of the work that comes through very strikingly as an extension of this. Steve Emmerson‘s conceptual poem, and Sebastiane Hegarty‘s sound composition based on the striking of a match both give me a sense that their interpretations become theirs because of the pathways their work has trodden in the past: the creative practices they have developed over an extended period of time. If I look for a sign of the artist’s own body in the interpretation, I suspect I’ll be unlikely to find it as bluntly or explicitly as that. This is not a criticism – after all, when we sent out the brief to our poets and musicians, we only asked if they could think about how their bodies might become part of the interpretation. We didn’t even know whether it would be possible to produce an interpretation ‘from the body’.

It is not an easy thing to do, particularly if one’s own practice as an artist takes care to erase the traces of a body from the work. After years of academic training, I certainly have found it difficult to find my own embodied voice in my writing.

Something else sticks in my mind about a recent conversation with the poet and writer, Sophie Mayer. I was asking about the presence of bodies and embodiment in translation and interpretation. Sophie, who wrote her PhD on comparative translation some years ago, talked to me about the ways that translation has been described as a ‘handmaiden art’. I can’t ever think of that word without also thinking about Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, and the institutional violence that holds a Handmaid in check. We talked about the implicit gender violence, productivity and creativity involved in the art form of literary translation. Much like simultaneous translation or editing, translation willingly makes itself utterly limpid, entirely transparent, and therefore, completely invisible. Is this what we are asking artists to do? Or is there another way of thinking about it – about being with a work, through a body, where the identity we so often clutch to ourselves is somehow less important?

How many artists are willing to make their work – their practice – completely transparent? What would it take for the big self, the identity of ‘I’ that seems in so many cases to be the point of making art in the first place, to be invisible when held up to the light? So my question for today is a big one: are we wrestling with big transparent egos, when we make creative, artistic interpretations?

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Close your eyes?

10 Days 2013Yes, now I come to think of it Gabriel often closes his eyes when he dances. He becomes totally absorbed in the atmosphere, in the air, the feel of the floor beneath him – he is in the place, this place. How can I ask him to interpret a film through movement? A film he would need to look at?

With his eyes. Open. So. Maybe I am wrong to be asking?

He has integrity in his every move. If his eyes close – they close. The film goes on around him. What do you think embodied interpretation is, when it comes to interpretation of film through dance? When you were taking part in the workshop and Gabriel asked you to close your eyes, it appears, or rather your words appear, embodied. How does, or how did, that transition happen?

I am trying to hold on to Lucy Boston’s words (she wrote in 1968)

‘…I would like to encourage children to use and trust their senses for themselves at first hand – their ears, eyes and noses, their fingers and soles of their feet, their skins and their breathing, their muscular joy and rhythms and heartbeats, their instinctive loves and pity and awe of the unknown…’

Yesterday I was in Cambridge in Fitzwilliam College chapel recording Aaron D’sa (piano) and Deepak Venkateshvaran (tabla) improvising to our film.

Air with Deepak Aaron 01071608

With Lucy’s words in my head, I asked Aaron to begin by concentrating on his body, to think with his body. I imagined he might close his eyes, but I didn’t have the courage to tell him to.

I watched, as he watched the film right through one time before he began to play. He watched intently, with his eyes open, his hands hovering over the keys as if he were hearing it in his head with his eyes … because they were open.

You say, you like the idea of ‘interpretation that cannot be pinned down, nor be made entirely free’. I like that. Maybe what is free for another is not free for me? Perhaps a translation is pinned down and an interpretation is not?

We have given our film to others to interpret in their own way. We have asked them to consider the idea of embodied interpretation, but we have not imposed it. The interpretations are beginning to arrive – will we know, instinctively, if they are embodied or not?

Maybe we don’t need to know, can’t know, maybe we are just at the beginning – thinking aloud about what it is to interpret and these ideas come up and we follow them like a puppy with a roll of Andrex (and yes Matu has done that) under the sofa where a delicious lump of fluff is waiting to tempt us, we throw it in the air, catch it, maybe choke a bit then spot a wily spider luring us into the corner…I feel as if I might be under the sofa right now. The question is, eyes open? or shut? Am I about to put my hand into the unknown space to feel what is there. Trust my senses Lucy says.

Oh now I’ve gone back and had a look at the beginning of what you wrote and it doesn’t say ‘close your eyes’, it says

‘what would it be like to close your eyes?’

Where does that take us?

Close Your Eyes…

Close your eyes, asks Gabriel, gently. He asks it almost as a question – what would it be like to close your eyes?

I have been thinking about the weekend we spent at Anna’s house. Early November in 2014, with a houseful of near-strangers, Anna’s home in Winchester is bustling with activity and energy – and some of that energy has a kind of nervous frisson to it. Nerves about writing, and about sharing writing amongst this group of strangers. Anna and Pauline have installed films – fragments of films really – in different rooms and corridors of Anna’s home. I’ve had the privilege of seeing them alone the night before, but they feel different now that there are fourteen other wanderers keen to engage with the creative process of embodied interpretation.

We’ve planned the weekend around three workshops: one about creative writing (led by Claire Hillier and Joan McGavin), one about connecting bodily to moving images through dance (coached by Gabriel), and one about what Mel describes as tacit drawing: a kind of performance through mark-making. It is my job to kick-start things with an hour’s discussion about interpretation, what it means to the participants, and how to approach creative activity through the frame of interpretation. Each participant has brought with them a description of what interpretation means to them. After the discussion takes place, I splay out a cartography of meanings across each handwritten note.

drawing on plastic and interpretations

They seem to connect through a whole range of shared connotations. They are not all the same, either: some come across as prescriptive or demanding, some as almost carelessly free. Others strike out at metaphors or images to describe what happens when we interpret. I get the feeling that interpretation, when described in words, often takes the form of something else: another transformation that shows the shift from one sense into another.

I like the idea of interpretation that cannot be pinned down, nor be made entirely free. I think of the looped film, projected onto the inside of a drawer in the kitchen, that we later use as part of a creative writing exercise. Simple kites in primary colours, bobbing and surfacing against a whisper-blue sky. Those kites are neither fixed in place, nor free to flee the frame. Perhaps that film-in-a-drawer is my metaphor for interpretation: straining against an impetus to be free, and a creative need to remain within a frame, within a box, within a house.

I also think about ‘home movies’, and the ways that this house of installations could be so easily described using that visual pun. There is something very special about film installations in domestic spaces. I have seen this before in Anna’s work, especially her artist-in-residence project at Mottisfont, and in her group exhibitions with the Neuf experimental film group in Cambridge. Sitting with an installed film – one that flutters in a matchbox, or one that seems to breathe with the draft in a corridor – these are experiences that feel very different to a cinema screen or a black box gallery. The domestic intimacy brings a different context to my body too, which is why, upstairs in the attic, when Gabriel asks us to close our eyes, I feel it is a question, or perhaps an invitation.

It is also why my responses to the film installed in the loft are so different, before the body-work exercise Gabriel gives us, and after. My body connects to the image – a giant, dew-laden spider web, stretched across the corner of the room – from my belly. That most vulnerable, centring, destabilising core of my emotion. When I read the prose poem I’ve written out loud to the others, Gabriel describes it in one word in Spanish – anhelo. Longing. There is some kind of yearning for something: a yearning to speak silently through my belly, rather than my hands. Not an erotic longing, but maybe a sensuous one: an openness to the possibilities of an umbilical thread tying me and the web, and the corner of the room, together.

I promised Anna my first blog post wouldn’t be too long, but already I can see it is unravelling beyond its means. So I will close with my rough, unhandled prose poem, thinking of bellies and webs, umbilical cords and spiders and motherhood. And the great spider-mother of them all, Louise Bourgeois.

I am spider-mother-matrix
My leaves quiver
Like a long spiny arm reaching over
You and them.
I feel decay inside – a dry chrysalis broken open.
And there she sits.
Spider. Mother.

Semaphore. Morse. Hand.
I am coded in the dots and stripes.
A wounded belly,
knotted around a stump
upturned to the sky.
Stabbing pain:
Waves, rays of sun.
Stare away from the light.
Cradle me. Rock-a-bye. Till she drops.

Spider. Mother.
That peachy flesh behind the net,
caught in the fabric of my pain.
A jagged corner rose thorn
pricks my skin and I will sleep.
Spider. Mother.