High on the Marlborough Downs in Wiltshire (UK), there is a large and strangely-shaped grey stone. It attracts many visitors, and a common complaint from walkers is that they searched but could not find it.
This is the polissoir, a sarsen stone that was used around 5,000 years ago to shape stone axe heads, grinding and polishing them into being.
Most of these axe heads were made of flint, a common local stone. Some, however, were made of exotic types of stone taken from locations in Cornwall, the Lake District, and other far-off places. These stone axe heads are found by archaeologists many hundreds of miles away from their sources. This prehistoric connection across such great distances was the subject of my contribution to PLACEing.
By exhibiting a small, portable, version of the polissoir, with a flint axe head to grind on its rough, hard surface, I hoped to make a connection between the active experience of shaping the axe head and a remote location that participants could only imagine.
Through this work - the exhibited piece, the actions and energy required to shape the axe head - feelings and thoughts emerge. Physical feelings of stretched muscles and cramped joints, the smell of the ground flint, the contrasting surfaces, the tiniest emergent correspondence with the past. With these things in mind, it was so valuable for me to learn from other participants about the affective and communicative powers of materials, and making landscapes through materials.
PLACEing Objects – Day of dialogue and dialectics
Conceived and hosted by Julie Brixey-Williams
A brief response from Libby...
I so enjoyed meeting you all and encountering such a wide range of artistic practices, performances, exhibits and mini workshops. Apologies for the slow response but it took time to gather my thoughts after such an rich day and then external issues we’ve all been dealing with took over.
Below are brief notes of connections and thoughts that arose during the day. Some of them relate to specific people but might be useful for any of you, so decided just to include all here.
I’ve long thought that this is underestimated as a skill set and tried to draw attention to it at the end of the day in thanking Julie. It’s worth unpicking the layers of what she offered prior to, during and after the day as a means of as a means of setting up generative constraints. If we look at ‘hosting’ as a thing and not to be subsumed within the other highlighted activities of the day it becomes clearer how significant it is. How did Julie set the tone of the event? What was her power in this? What was yours? How did she resource your creative and discursive outlook? How did you resource hers? What were the many techniques Julie used infused through day and so evident in the construction of the spaces? Given this was a day about working in dialogue with spaces how did the ‘hosting’ thing do just that?
There was huge generosity in the spaces and the dialogues I had, felt natural and thoroughly engaging. But how also do we ask the difficult questions? Can we talk about our work without feeling defensive? What assumptions do we make about a groups beliefs, politics, reactions and emotions? I often struggle when speakers use ‘we’ and ‘us’ because I don’t know who is included in that and I might feel that I’m not. What allows safety to enter challenging territory of disagreement? It’s hard to judge how much time to give to open discussion, particularly in a very full day.
The artwork and talking about it
The variety of ways that you each found to talk about your work was remarkable. It felt such a privilege to listen and respond to what you had to say or what you asked us to do. I’ve been to many conferences and symposiums, very often with a mix of workshop/performance and presentation but this was the first where I got to hold a piece of glass, feel a replica stone age axe head, or listen to plastic bags whispering in the wind, or watch a cow adjudicator describe the role whilst evocative sounds are blown around.
I’m curious about the relationship between what you showed and what you told. What were the motivations behind what you offered in the art space and how did they expand these exhibits? As a dance/theatre performer the talks and activities seemed like stories that of course could not ‘explain’ art works, but that bounced off them in a mass of overlapping, doubling, connecting, referencing, mapping, narrating ‘things’. We could have spent half a day on each one – diving into the wealth of images, processes, journeys and discoveries about which you told us.
Language, collaboration and listening
The poetry workshop that Diane contributed was a delight, but it brought to mind both how easy and difficult it is to collaborate. The format Diane designed made it easy to work together to produce poetry gems. But in the process of distilling language in the way we were asked I noticed just how many special terms there were related to each artist. And this reminded me of how hard it can be to collaborate across disciplines when sometimes each word needs unpacking to understand another’s work from other than a simplistic point of view. Of course, mis-readings, mistakes and deliberate re-framings can all add to a creative mix but really entering into an unfamiliar discipline can be painstaking – lots of listening.
Concepts of time threaded through so much of the day. Most obviously was Katy’s glorious talk on flint axe heads and the polissoir that roamed back millions of years – the long view. But time too entered into descriptions of processes whether material transformation or personal artistic journeys. Juliette and Alex indicated how working with transforming materials takes the artist into changing time frames dictated by the materials themselves. Time works too on human organisation with urbanisation and suburbanisation over time creating dis-ease with rural activities and communities. Over time a military technology designed for warfare has been repurposed for everyday mapping. But, as Lizzie demonstrated, the benign change over time, can be politicised through redirecting technological developments towards women’s word inscriptions – emboldened statements.
I thought you might be interested in the Australian playwright and director Jenny Kemp whose plays work with the concept of vertical time. That is, rather than the play deal with linear time of plot unfolding sequentially, her productions explore one moment of time. So, for instance, to compare to the Sway day - I sat playing with glass in my hand, my haptic senses alive, whilst I listened to Alex, felt the people around me, imagined connections and had a dream memory pop into my head – the experience of vertical time. So with one of her plays, The Black Sequin Dress, the whole centres around one action - a woman falls down in a night club. Four women play a single character so different aspects of her being can all be present simultaneously and the resonances and metaphors of the action are made dynamic. A couple of refs:
Jenny Kemp’s website https://www.blacksequin.com/
Worth, Libby, ‘Desire and Danger in the Long Journey from Door to Table: An Exploration of Movement in Jenny Kemp’s The Black Sequin Dress.’Contemporary Theatre Review. 14/3 August 2004.
I thought about time also in relation to the liminal and ideas around the shaman raised by Clare. Stories, beliefs, religions that survive and shift over time absorbing new forms of practice and connectivity to the land and to the artist.
Ideas around the way materials transform in response to human impact or chemical process sits alongside the way materials transform whoever or whatever they encounter. This is quite an unfamiliar terrain for me in the way you spoke about it, but one that touches on site responsive dance and theatre. A very different kind of dialogue and one I find utterly compelling as the realities of climate change hit home.
Katy, I remembered the scholar I worked with on Terminal 5 Heathrow cursor, it was Professor Clive Gamble. Below is a tiny quote from his website:
"Following my involvement in the British Academy Centenary Project I continue to investigate the role of emotions and the aesthetics of materials as the resources that transformed social life. These basic resources were used to amplify such basic human skills as laughing, crying, music, language and artefact making. As a result these skills became social performances of far greater intensity and in so doing created stronger social bonds".
Adam and Oren Your joint presentation made me think of the performance artists Lone Twin. Do you know them? Their website is down at the moment but there is a wonderful book on their work: https://thecpr.org.uk/product/good-luck-everybody-lone-twin/
(Julie:Noticed this one is live: https://forma.org.uk/artists/lone-twin
I’d also recommend the writings of David Williams and Carl Lavery who edited the book.
Lizzie I spoke briefly to you about the duet that Julie and I did involving dancing embroidery patterns and sewing (into brown waxed paper) dance manual instructions. Here’s the link to the article we wrote on the process with lots of photos.
Brixey-Williams, Julie & Worth, Libby. 'Step Feather Stitch: an unfaithful reading', Choreographic Practices, 2012, vol.3, pp.43-63
Juliette In dance and theatre writing there’s a whole history of writings on anti-dualism split of mind and body, with all sorts of terminology that tries to get round it. But you might be especially interested in a book by Frank Camilleri, Performer Training Reconfigured: Post-psychophysical perspectives for the twenty-first century. London: Methuen, 2019. It’s quite theoretical but does an important job of combining new materialist thought with bodymind focus. I know it’s not quite your territory, but I think the way it brings importance of objects and space into thinking about movement and the physical could be helpful.
Thank you everyone for a feast of day and Julie for dreaming it up and making it happen!
All very best,
Dr Libby Worth
Reader in Contemporary Performance Practices
Co-director Research, Department of Drama, Theatre and Dance,
University of London, Egham, Egham Hill, Surrey, TW20 0EX
Sonia Overall http://www.soniaoverall.net suggested using her Drift cards on Twitter for a lockdown virtual #DistanceDrift (use Twitter hashtag to see photos) on Sunday 5th. Socially distanced, each of us walked alone across the UK - but connected collectively, as we drifted for an hour posting our responses to the cards posted. Katy Whitaker (who drew the invitation), Clare Parry-Jones and I were part of a larger group who took part.
Thought you all would enjoy this sensitive short film. Created by Lucy Cash (film maker & director) and Simone Kenyon (choreographer and lead artist) How The Earth Must See Itself is a short film produced by the National Theatre of Scotland and Scottish Sculpture Workshop, with texts read by Shirley Henderson from Nan Shepherd's The Living Mountain. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tty8pAPD8HY