Divinatory Models: Conversations with pastry, the past and the inside

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This year I have been making pastry interpretations of ancient divination models using shortbread biscuit dough, and rough, puff and hot water crust pastry, for the lids of pies with various fillings.

Whilst visiting the Vorderasiatische Museum in Berlin in February, I came across a clay tablet from Babylon from the 12th-11th century BC, with multiple representations of extispicy models. In order to understand these images, I have  been incising the forms onto the lids of the small pies. The original tablet contains 14 diagrams, some whole, some fragmentary,  which represent the various configurations of the entrails of sacrificial sheep, and what they might mean to diviners.[1]

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Examples of these models were also incised into the lids of the Andouilette pies, which were served as part of the ‘Intestines’ course of my recent Reflection on Digestion performance dinner at LIBRARY London. In the chapter, I was connecting the intestines to the labyrinth, the labyrinth to the library, informed by literary examples such as the Medieval monastic labyrinthine library of Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and the absurd universal library of Borges’ Library of Babel. I liked the idea that my participants were breaking open the pies, disembowelling the intestines of the Andouilette sausage within, and then ingesting both the actual innards and the ancient representation of them. As Murakami’s Oshima instructs Kafka, in his novel, Kafka on the Shore, my participants too might be able to perceive their insides within, and thereby conceptually and visually (re)-connecting the idea of the digestive system being at the same time inside the body, and part of the external environment, outside the body border.

‘It was the ancient Mesopotamians. They pulled out animal intestines… and used the shape to predict the future…So the prototype for labyrinths is, in a word, guts. Which means that the principle for the labyrinth is inside you. And that correlates to the labyrinth outside…. Things that are outside you are a projection of what’s inside you, and what’s inside you is a projection of what’s outside…’[2]

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A larger pie lid’s inscription refers to the 11th century BC Mesopotamian clay tablet representing the bowels of a sheep, which I found in the Louvre in January. It is a similar model to the Berlin forms, but which appears to be a single image on the tablet.

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Another larger pie lid refers to the divination model from the Old Babylonian period, 18th-16th century BC, housed in the British Museum, which portrays the demon Huwawa’s face as coiled intestines. Huwawa or Humbaba was the guardian of the cedar forest in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The inscription on the reverse of the object reveals an omen that if entrails were encountered that look like this model, it would mean ‘revolution’. This example is not a representation of actual entrails, but rather more metaphorical.

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A form of visual research, these biscuits were made in the Louvre galleries whilst observing the liver models on display from the palace of Mari (19th-18th century BC), and the 11th century BC divinatory tablet of sheep guts.

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There is a certain kind of excitement by taking unconventional materials into museums to sculpt rather than draw from the collections. The clay tablets and models from ancient Mesopotamia lend themselves to being learnt from, translated and transformed through another form of clay, or Greek –gloios- meaning ‘sticky matter’. In much the same way the diviners may have formed the original models translating the actual blemishes and marks on the sheep livers into their clay, I, too, am learning through the forming of paste, what these divining models may have felt like in the hand, and how they may have been formed, incised, and pierced.

There are a few examples in extispicy reports of the ‘baking’ of the results of a divination, which is thought could refer to the preserving of the models. For example, in a letter to the king of Mari the diviner Erib-Sin wrote, ‘I baked […] those extispicies and sealed them in a box and sent (it) to my lord’.[3]

The idea one might get caught ‘playing’ with foodstuffs in a museum is also exciting. There is a subversion, a resistance in this kind of irreverent intervention into such institutions. So often in museums, history is held in such high regard through the preservation of the objects, and their inevitable separation from us, and as a result it can sometimes seem as if history is perceived much more of a thing that is to be conserved and protected, rather than a process or a conversation, that is being created by our interaction and dialogue with it.[4]

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At the beginning of this academic year, we took first year Fine Art students on a study trip to kickstart their practice. My workshop, not surprisingly was based in the Mesopotamian Rooms 55 & 56. I got them to copy cuneiform texts on to biscuit dough, sugar-plate or blue-tac ‘tablets’, as a ancient scribe would have done by imprinting into fresh clay, as well as engaging in ekphrastic writing, attempting to observe through words their chosen objects in the collection. This they did by sending tweets, touching the screens on their smartphones and tablets, imitating the early process of writing as a imprinting or pressing  into a responsive surface, rather than an inscription of line or the trace of a pen on paper, the action of writing has come full circle.

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Footnotes:

[1] Richard Myers Shelton, ‘The Babylonian Labyrinths’ Caerdroia 42, (2013), 7-29 (p. 11).

[2] Murakami Haruki, Kafka on the Shore. (London: Vintage, 2005) p. 379.

[3] See Wolfgang Heimpel, Letters to the King of Mari. Mesopotamian Civilizations Vol. 12. (Eisenbrauns: Winona Lake, Indiana, 2003), p. 213-14, cited in Matthew T. Rutz, ‘The Archaeology of Mesopotamian Extispicy: Modeling Divination in the Old Babylonian Period’, in Matthew T. Rutz and Morag M. Kersel, eds, Archaeologies of Text: Archaeology, Technology, and Ethics (Oxford and Philadelphia: Oxbow, 2014), 97-120, (p. 102).

[4] See Diane Borsato’s performance, intervention and photographs at the museum of Saint Hyacinthe, Québec, Artifacts in my Mouth, 2003 as an example of a radical engagement with historical artefacts. http://dianeborsato.net/projects/artifacts-in-my-mouth/

On Innards | Publication: Launch details and excerpt

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On Innards is a multidisciplinary project developed by artists, Amanda Couch, Andrew Hladky, and Mindy Lee, that explores the changing conceptualisations of guts and digestion, their impact on the creative process and the role they play in constructing and destabilising our sense of self.

Working in collaboration with bookwork artist and designer Richard Nash, the record of this two-year project has been dissected, reinterpreted, and reconnected in the form of a limited edition publication.

Lee, Couch and Hladky begin ruminating on their 2013 conference three-way conversation. Their reflections on reflections are interwoven with recalled events, artefacts, images, and stories from On Innards. Curated and intervened, the book becomes an embodiment of digestion, its intestinal form held contained by a mesenteric binding.


To whet your appetite, here is an small excerpt from the book. Richard asked Mindy, Andrew and I the following question, which I have answered below:

We discussed how the publication could become much more than a record. Our intentions were focused on creating a new response as well as an embodiment of On Innards. Now coming to completion, what ‘is’ the publication for you?

From our very first conversation, where we discussed what we wanted the book to become, there was a mutual desire for the accordion pleat to be a prominent feature, which was very exciting, and also for me, inevitable. Since making my first concertina books from the Reflection on Digestion series in 2012, I have been imagining the metaphorical connection of the alimentary canal, its form and function, with the concertina fold, and for me, it is an absolute embodiment of the digestive system. These ideas have been deepened more recently through my engagement with theories of the fold, particularly Laura U. Marks’ aesthetics of Enfolding-Unfolding, in which she posits a new way of articulating the complex relationships between image, information, and experience in the digital age, that go beyond representation[1].

I have been envisioning the gastrointestinal tract as a multitude of folds. Both the digestive system and the On Innards book are folds within folds within a fold. The concertina format which makes up many parts of the book, mirror the form of the small intestine, folded back and forth, crammed within the belly cavity; and then microscopically, there are the folds that extend its surface for absorption, the intestinal mucosa, plicae circulares and villi, which in our book, could be suggested by the extended fold-outs of Andrews paintings and independent and/or smaller accordions within the larger form of the piece, which increase the body of the book; and of course, there is the fold that is the whole alimentary tract from lips to anus, one long enfolding of the outside of the body inwards, which you have brilliantly articulated organ by organ, through the curation of the pages, and the pairing and combination of images, forms, and contributions: For example, starting at the beginning, with the mouth and eating, connecting Mindy’s ‘Venus’ plates, my ox tongue and script from ‘The Mouth’ performance and the physical apertures partly revealing ensuing images; via the stomach, the images of tripe and the double gate fold housing Simon’s harrowing operation on a patient’s failing gut; and the small intestine, where much of our gut flora resides, here you make the visual and conceptual link of the red commas (or lower part of the semi-colon) from Nathaniel’s text, and the red dabs of paint in Andrew’s paintings, to the microscopic phage in our intestine; right through to the end of the book, to the faecal-esque forms of Andrew’s paintings, the annotated rectum/anus page from Gray’s Anatomy, and the ‘End notes’ of Giskin’s ‘Fecal Muse’, all linked by the dialogue between Andrew, Mindy and myself, and now with you in this conversation, the explanation and unfolding of ideas, which also embrace, envelop and enfold the other pages pleated within.

Marks writes, ‘Enfolding-Unfolding ‘privileges performativity over representation, as unfolding is a performative, time-based, social act’… and …‘pays attention to the invisible, the forgotten, or what an artwork deliberately leaves enfolded’[2]. Your approach to the project embodies these ideas; particularly in the way we wanted the book to become more than simply a record of the On Innards project so far. It wasn’t any of our intentions for its form to function purely as a surface with which to transmit textual information, but rather to embody ideas that may unfold slowly, overtime or perhaps may remain enfolded. You have deliberately obscured, hidden, and manipulated excerpts of text, making them sometimes difficult to penetrate, emphasising the focus, the type of engagement, and ‘the act of interpretation’[3], which is required of the reader when encountering the book. In some parts of the book the illegibility of the texts, be it the extract of Carlos’ paper, the yoga instructions, or the re-visited three-way conversation between Mindy, Andrew and myself, first written in 2013 for the ‘Body Horror’ conference[4], with our hand-written ruminations, questions the validity of the knowledge contained within it, and through the (mis)-reading of these texts may offer new meanings and interpretations.

Marks talks specifically about certain images of history that appear to us whilst others remain hidden, and suggests that these aspects of the past are ‘not forgotten but enfolded’[5]. I was thinking about this in relation to our project, and the digestive system, after attending a talk by Ed Thornton, recently at the Wellcome Collection on Descartes and his dualist legacy[6]. Descartes’ emphasis on the brain, and his new way of conceptualising mind and selfhood heralding the Age of Enlightenment, until recently, obscured or ‘enfolded’ earlier understandings of the body. Jan Purnis, scholar of early modern literature unearths the historical importance of organs within the belly cavity on pre-modern conceptualisations of self[7]. She unfolds this history, revealing beliefs about the body, which now through new biomedical research emphasise the digestive system’s far reaching influence on our sense of self, challenging the ‘cerebro-centrism’[8] that is Descartes legacy. So then, the On Innards project, this publication, and through the act of ‘reading’ our book may help to jog the collective memory, and unfold this knowledge. Through the unfolding of the book, unwinding the different elements in the reader’s hands, physical, material, conceptual, unravelling what its contents and form might mean to them, their bodies and sense of self, our readers may enact Deleuze’s idea of ‘thought as explication or unfolding’[9]: thinking as an act of disembowelling.


[1] For a much deeper explanation of the Enfolding and unfolding model, see: Marks, Laura U. and Kelly, Reagan (2006) ‘Enfolding and unfolding: an aesthetics for the information age’ In: Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular 1 (3). At: http://vectors.usc.edu/projects/index.php?project=72 (Accessed 25.7.15); Marks, Laura U. (2008) ‘Experience – information – image: a historiography of unfolding. Arab cinema as example’ In: Cultural Studies, 14 (1). pp. 85-98. At:

http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/journals/index.php/csrj/article/view/2100 (Accessed 20.7.15); Marks, Laura U. (2009) ‘Information, secrets, and enigmas: an enfolding-unfolding aesthetics for cinema’ In: Screen 50 (1). pp. 86-98; Marks, Laura U. (2010) Enfoldment and Infinity: an Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[2] Marks and Kelly, 2006.

[3] Marks and Reagan, 2006.

[4] Couch, A, Hladky, A & Lee, M. (2014) ‘On Innards’ in: Folio, J. & Luhring, H. (eds.) Body Horror and Shapeshifting: A Multidisciplinary Exploration. Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press: pp. 51-88.

[5] Marks, 2008; 86.

[6] Thornton, Ed (2015) Minds and Bodies. London [Talk at Wellcome Collection, 23 July 2015]

[7] See: Purnis, Jan (2010) Digestive Tracts: Early Modern Discourses of Digestion [PhD Thesis] University of Toronto; Purnis, Jan (2010) ‘The Stomach and Early Modern Emotion’ In: University of Toronto Quarterly 79 (2). pp. 800-818.

[8] Purnis, Digestive Tracts, 2010; 210.

[9] Deleuze paraphrased in Marks, 2009; 96.


On Innards | Publication will be launched The bookRoom Press at the London Artists Book Fair, hosted by the Whitechapel Gallery, London, from Thursday 10 September, (6pm-9pm) through to 6pm on Sunday 13 September. Lee, Couch and Nash will be signing books at 1pm on Saturday 12 September in Gallery 2. http://www.whitechapelgallery.org/events/london-art-book-fair/

On Innards | Event was generously supported by a Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Arts Award. Attendance at the Body Horror 2 conference, and the On Innards | Exhibition, Event and Publication was generously supported by a research award from University for the Creative Arts.

Textblock digitally printed by Riverprint on Colorplan 135 and 270gsm stock by G. F. Smith. Manilla folder printed on an Epson R2000. Cut, folded, bound and finished by hand. Individually stamped and numbered. Produced at the bookRoom Press by Lee, Couch, Hladky and Nash.

Published by bookRoom Press, Farnham.

ISBN: 978-0-9576828-5-6.

Limited edition of 200.

200 pages of various intersecting formats and custom binding.

260 (h) x 20.5 (w)mm.

Zofia Zaliwska’s directive: Read your piece hungry. Eat when you’re finished

As part of Zofia Zaliwska’s research-creation project Ruminatus, I chose to undertake a second directive, ‘Read your piece hungry. Eat when you’re finished’, on Reflection on Digestion (2012), a calfskin leather-bound book with nine metres of concertina pages. The eighteen pages, made of 410gsm somerset satin paper, are relief printed with black ink using eighteen photo polymer plates. The book is bound with calf skin external and internal covers, and the title is hotfoiled in gold on the front. The total dimensions are 50 x 45 x 900 cm.

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The scribed text stems from a body of written work made whilst on a post-graduate course in education which has been scribed by hand in a continuous cursive line which runs from left to right and right to left from the beginning of the book to the end. Writing, pedagogic knowledge and the body are explored, and the metaphors of reflection and digestion consider process, processing, and ways of knowing and becoming. ‘Digestion’ stems from the word ‘digest’, which can both refer to an arrangement of written work; and to the processing or making sense of knowledge and experience, as well as to break down and absorb food.

I was hungry to re-read this piece, as I have not for a while. In fact, I have only read it once, cover to cover, during a performance reading a couple of summer’s ago in 8 June 2013, during the exhibition, ‘In Other Words’, which was part of Bath Fringe Arts Bath Visual Arts Festival, Bath, UK. I have also done a number of reading performances of extracts of various lengths from fifteen minutes to one and a half hours, from 2012 to 2014.

For this directive, I read the book out loud whilst video recording it from above. The performance reading took around four hours over five sittings, during the course of one day. In between reading/sittings, I prepared dough and made biscuits that were embossed with the same plate as was printed on the first page of the book. The recipe for the shortbread was found online on the website of food writer, Nigella Lawson, and was chosen because it was recommended having a good taste, with a ‘melting, buttery texture’ and holds its shape well during the baking process[1]. After baking, and finishing the final reading of the book, I then tried to read the text on the biscuits and then ate some of them.

The reflections are varied and many, and here are some so far:

The reading reminded me of the many teaching approaches/strategies that since the PGC course I have forgotten about and have not continued practicing.

The piece contains extracts and reflections on the research projects I undertook on the course. The second project, ‘Embodiment and Professional Development: (A) Reflection on Digestion’ of 2011, in which I explored my own digestive system, issues and problems, and the impact it has on my professional self, I wrote phenomenologically to get at the heart of my experience of some digestive issues. At the conclusion of the project, I said I would continue the practice of writing, but have not.

I also made a plan, since turning 40 this year, that I was going to re-visit this practice of phenomenological and narrative writing to ‘unfold’ my insides and get at the truth of my gut now for a new book piece a kind of testimonial or ‘intestimonial’. I would accumulate and edit the texts and then scribe with the same continuous line, this time on the surface of a pig or cow intestine, a length of dried sausage casing that has a very similar quality to vellum. I then hope to turn the intestine inside out, so that the writing is on the inside, and use an endoscope, the penetrative medical gaze, to ‘read’ the text, which would be enfolded and hidden. I haven’t started writing my gut diary yet, so reading this piece is a good reminder to get started. I am also wanting to revisit/update the pedagogical research project and to try and get it published in a journal, so this material could also be used for this.

It also reminds me that I want/need to look more deeply at issues of power and vulnerability and to read Foucault and bell hooks much more deeply, as during the PGC and at the time of working on the project, I was only dancing in the surface of their work.

During the reading, I was already thinking of how I would like to revisit and re-do it. Perhaps in a different version, I would stop reading from the actual text at the point when

ideas/reflections were triggered by what I was reading. I would then either go and find examples of the ideas in texts, notebooks etc., and read from them, or I would just speak out the reflections, making the connections. This would be a way of ‘reflecting in action’, as Schön[2] would say, and is similar to a strategy I used for the research project I undertook after completing the PGC, ‘At the interface: Fine Art and social science research methodologies – Watching a journey with a slippery collision’, 2011-12, in which I attempted to find my way back to my own art practice post-PGC. It is in this project that I first developed the continuous script writing/drawing. See http://www.amandacouch.co.uk/#/lt-research-award/4562650870 for images.

In all these continuous scripts, the writing is not easily legible jumping between word and image. When reading aloud my attempts to decipher the words creates an absurd narrative in which language is, in one moment recognised, the next, nonsense. This distortion is made even more so when I am reading the text imprinted in the biscuits. The two biscuits are printed from two halves of one plate, which corresponds to one page of the whole book, (in this case page one), and so are only fragments of the original piece. And each biscuit is then read separately and so fragmented even further.

Imprint of page one on biscuit dough

My continuous hand or scripto continua make reference to Latin texts from the early Christian era, when parchment was expensive. There were no spaces between words in a manuscript and Latin texts were often used as memory joggers or cue sheets where the reader would already know the text. Tim Ingold and Mary Carruthers recall that writing, right up to the Renaissance, was ‘an instrument of memory’[3] and reading was an act of recollection, a means of recovery’[4]. And in a way that is what I have done with this directive. I was hungry to re-visit and once more discover what was inside this piece of work, and reading it, cover to cover, was a way to ‘re-cover’ these experiences three years on from when the piece was made, and learn again from them.

Jan Purnis, scholar of early modern literature argues that the stomach was once considered to be ‘the seat of appetite’ and that it perceived hunger[5]. ‘Appetite’ she writes, ‘comes from the Latin appete, ‘to seek after’, and in early modern English, as in modern-day English, it could refer to both the desire for other more immaterial things, as could stomach’ [6]. For me, the stomach, alongside digestion could be profoundly connected to the way we think about learning and research. The hollow eager receptacle of the stomach, where food is ‘cooked’ and transformed, could be a metaphor for research itself and the pursuit to quench the insatiable hunger for learning, knowing, and understanding of the curious artist. According to Carruthers, the stomach was also a metaphor for memory[7]. She wrote in The Book of Memory, that scripture was ingested and digested by Medieval monks through the act of reading, re-reading, murmuring and mouthing words, and reading aloud during meals, it was then regurgitated through the act of recall and recitation.

At times the illegibility of the script questions the validity of the knowledge contained within it, and through the (mis)-reading of the text the communication of that knowledge is compromised further. And yet maybe through the struggle to read and the attempts to make sense of the words it brings about new meanings. Some of this knowledge in is almost certainly lost forever, but some of it is in my memory. The various performances over the last few years has enabled, through the repeated act of reading and re-reading, with the help of the legible text, me to recall some of it quite easily.

The awkwardness of the book, its physicality requires me/the reader to move around it to follow each line as they alternate in direction. This action reconnects with the medieval notion of reading as ‘a bodily performance’[8], rather than simply the decoding of words on a page.

My eye follows my finger whose tip surveys the surface of the page, tracing the lettering along the lines and keeping my place along the landscape of the page. This ‘index’ finger follows the same trajectories of my hand that previously made the text.

Through the reading, where I engage with an extract from another of my research projects, ‘Embodiment and Embodied Knowledge in Higher Education in Creative Subjects: A Case Study’, I am reminded of the interview with one of my participants who interprets the subject of embodiment and embodied knowledge, in an academic context, as a marriage of theory and practice, and illustrates it as a process, with a strong bodily image:

‘Abstract knowledge [goes] into the mind, and then you have to put it to practice, to eat and digest it, until something comes out, a crude analogy to the complete digestive process can be used here, replacing the excremental residue by your own version of knowledge’.

Later on in the course when I undertook the second research project, ‘Embodiment and Professional Development: (A) Reflection on Digestion’, which used my digestive problems as a metaphor for critical reflection to explore my role as teacher, I unconsciously drew from this metaphor and developed a project, that is still ongoing, failing to acknowledge this quote/reference – I simply forgot that it existed.

Whilst reading the extract and remembering that I have forgotten its existence and that it clearly hit a nerve, becoming the overarching idea of a whole of work since the PGC course made me feel a bit sick, and has made realise that I need to find a way to acknowledge it.

I am seduced by the beautiful set of circular white bowls containing powders of varying shades of white; flour and baking powder, the crystals of salt and sugar, as well as the yellow yokes of the eggs, and the creamy pale butter.

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First the squashing of the butter: The spoon pushes the butter between the surface of the bowl to begin with it doesn’t feel like I am creaming, rather I am forcing the sharp sugar crystals to cut into the fat molecules, bringing air with it to aerate my mixture. The heat generated by the movement of the spoon as the grains cut and erode the butter slowly melts the two substances together to create the creamy paste. The scraping and crunching of the sugar granules are sound as if they are also scratching the surface of the bowl.

Reflection on this action, I am reminded of an earlier body of work in which I am exploring sugar and my MA dissertation of ten years ago, ‘Seduction and Dissolution: The transformation of sugar in the works of Asaki Kan, Amanda Couch and Anya Gallaccio’[9]. Here I spoke about working with a passtilage called gum-paste or sugar plate, a substance made from powdered sugar, egg white and gum tragacanth, similar to porcelain, to mould into a tea service which I ingested in a number of performances. (See http://www.amandacouch.co.uk/#/sugar-works/4587653245 for documentation of works from 2004-2007).

In the creation of the dough I was thinking about what Gaston Bachelard called ‘the material imagination’[10], a way of accessing the world of matter through the senses:

‘When we have succeeded in making water truly penetrate into the very substance of earth reduced to powder, when flour has drunk up the water, and when water has eaten up the flour, then the experience, the long dream of ‘binding’ begins’[11].

In the first stage of mixing, this squashing, my arms are ok, but as I am having to actually cream they quickly become tired. The butter’s fatty power resists the pathetic force of my body. An ache pervades the whole arm, from fingers to elbows up to my dodgy right shoulder, and I realise how weak I am and how women who cooked, baked, stirred, creamed, and mixed in the past, would be so strong. Looking back over my footage I don’t think that I creamed it fully.

As the oven is not big enough to take a biscuit printed with the whole of one plate I had to print them in two parts. I did not cut or neaten their shapes and left the edges as raw pieces of rolled split pastry.

The biscuits before and more so after baking, look like fragments of ancient texts, the Rosetta stone, in particular, Babylonian clay tablets, that I have recently been looking at, similarly paste (in the form of clay), imprinted with texts (the end of reed, to impress the cuneiform script), and then baked in the sun or in kilns. Ancient tablets that were cooked only in the sun were less durable and could be soaked in water to be re-processed into fresh surfaces for new texts. And in the case of my biscuits, they will also be re-processed through ingestion, digestion and excretion into a new text.

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Sometimes during reading I am annoyed by the ‘quality’ of my cursive hand. Even though the work’s origination was partly an exercise in durational performance, reflecting the experience of the body, especially the hand, and the process of writing over a long period of time, I still seem to be drawn towards creating something visually beautiful, a perfect script, whatever that might look like, rather than feeling entirely happy with an authentic document of a process how ever it might be.

[1] Lawson, N. (2015) Nigella Lawson: Butter Cut-Out Cookies. At: http://www.nigella.com/recipes/view/butter-cut-out-cookies (Accessed on 19.05.15)

[2]Schön, D. (1991) The Reflective Practioner: How Professionals Think in Action Avebury: Ashgate

[3] Ingold, T. (2007) Lines: A Brief History Abingdon: Routledge, 15) & Carruthers, M. (2008) The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 206.

[4] Ingold, 15.

[5] Purnis, Jan (2010) ‘The Stomach and Early Modern Emotion’ In: University of Toronto Quarterly 79 (2) pp. 800-818; 804.

[6] Purnis, 804.

[7] Carruthers (1990) p206

[8] Frese D. W. and O’Brien O’Keeffe, K. (1997) (eds) The Book And The Body

Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, xiii.

[9] Couch, Amanda (2004) Seduction and Dissolution: The transformation of sugar in the works of Asaki Kan, Amanda Couch and Anya Gallaccio [M.A. Dissertation] Royal College of Art.

[10] Bachelard, G. (1983) Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter Dallas: The Pegasus Foundation, 1.

[11] Bachelard, 1983; 105

Collaboration with Zofia Zaliwska on research-creation project, Ruminatus.

In March 2015, I was invited by Zofia Zaliwska, a PhD candidate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto to collaborate on a project she was exploring within her doctoral research, Ruminatus, inspired by Nietzsche’s concept of rumination. The project engages issues around data and methodology, and in particular, the scholarship of research-creation, described by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as ‘an approach to research that combines creative and academic research practices, and supports the development of knowledge and innovation through artistic expression, scholarly investigation, and experimentation. The creation process is situated within the research activity and produces critically informed work in a variety of media (art forms)’.[1]

Her invitation was to invite artists, scholars and students whose work she has referenced in her literature review to revisit and ruminate on their publication(s) ‘to expose the activities and processes of reviewing literature, to develop more intimate relationships with “secondary” sources, and to possibly reveal the way we, as scholars, write about and teach culture in the humanities and social sciences’[2]. The invitation asked us to enact one or more directives she had compiled and document our activities in anyway we saw fit, ‘to explore what data-as-event can do to traditional educational research methodologies which still hold onto the constant desire to represent data as an unmediated capture [3].


The first directive I have undertaken is: Write out your paper by hand using cursive.

I have chosen to undertake the directive on the script that accompanies ‘Reflection on Digestion: A Performance Dinner’, 2013, the version that was enacted as a participatory performance on 17 December 2013. The action of scribing the text took just over six hours, over the course of two days, Sunday 24, and Monday 25 May 2015, and was documented through video and sound. The resulting trace of the action exists as a piece of writing/drawing, black ink on a roll of white Fabriano drawing paper, approximately 270 x 43 cms.

Zofia-directive-whole-2-72-sm

Background on the original text: ‘Reflection on Digestion: A Performance Dinner’ is a participatory performance in the form of a dinner and reading, which explores the processes and image of digestion through food and language. The event consists of six chapters, four of which are dishes prepared from offal originating in the digestive system, and are served alongside the reading of a text collaged from a variety of sources on the specific organs of digestion, the process of digestion itself, and embodied knowledge. For the creation of the script, I collected texts, and like a magpie, scoured the Internet and libraries for anything that sparkled with reference to the organs and processes of digestion and bodily knowing, plundering a variety of disciplines; literary, philosophical, artistic, historical, and contemporary biomedical research. The chapters of the script correspond to the subject of each course of the meal, which in turn, follow the order of the digestive process. To begin, there is an introduction in which I set out the premise of the piece, the rules (i.e. no talking), and frame the ideas for the participants to contemplate during the meal. An apéritif is then served, at which point I talk about different kinds of opening up and knowing through the practice of diatetics and dissection. Ideas concerning the mouth, tongue, teeth, and taste accompany the serving of tongue; discussion of the stomach is shared alongside a dish of tripe; tales of all things hepatic are dished up with liver; and Andouillette sausages are paired with an examination of the intestines and the fold.

I have recently been thinking about this act of collection and curation in relation to Nietzsche’s idea of reading and rumination. The Latin word for reading, lego actually refers to ‘a process of gathering or collecting’[4]. When I was collecting, I was working fast and felt as if I wasn’t really reading properly or going deeply enough into the texts: not really ruminating. But through the act of reading, re-reading, copying, collaging, reframing, and performing my understanding began to change and I believe I was actually ruminating. Now, by enacting this directive, through the act of re-reading and scribing my collection, another layer of rumination is occurring.

We take texts in, incorporate words, images and experiences, and we reflect and process them, we chew them over and we ponder, and then as artists, the way in which we understand is articulated in the artwork that we make.

Reflections on the continual line: I have enacted a similar method of writing/drawing that was also used in an earlier piece, the manuscript that was to become the printed ‘Reflection on Digestion’ monumental accordion book of 2012. Employing such a joined up text, each word tied to the previous, to the next, and to the subsequent line, running from left to right, and then right to left the other way up, connotes the diagrammatic image we have of the digestive system with its nine metres of twists and turns crammed into the body’s cavity. The intestinal mucosa, the folds of microvilli, are mirrored in the loops and tails, ascenders and descenders of the handwriting itself. Looking at the writing/drawing piece from a 90-degree side angle and softening your gaze, the top of the letters of pairs of lines that face each other describe the boundaries of a tube, further referencing the tubular digestive tract. The ascenders and descenders of some letters traverse the space between them, and are also like stitches of a piece of knitting and make connection to ‘Entrail Troyen’, a sculpture I have recently been working on: a tubular piece of French knitting, its form articulated loop by loop of threads pieced together from a collection of salami skins and sausage casings.

The act of collection and ‘knitting’ together of a narrative so it flows as a continual line of enquiry is embodied in the visual form of the writing/drawing piece, which resembles a long piece of knitting; the kind made by a beginner whose attempt at a scarf has gone slightly awry towards the end. It brings to mind the Knit Books of Cair Crawford, notebooks of pages of line drawings that suggest knitted panels, which she makes as products of the process of thinking when she doesn’t know what to do next. She writes, ‘they are a meditation on a thousand-thousand folds and an ironic commentary on the subversive nature of knitting/writing’[5]. The folds of my cursive hand are also depictions of language, but more specifically drawings of actual words, at the same time image and text. Naming the piece writing/drawing is informed by Tim Ingold’s, Lines: A Brief History in which he writes, ‘so long as writing is understood in its original sense as a practice of inscription, there cannot be any hard-and-fast distinction between drawing and writing, or between the craft of the draughtsman and that of the scribe’[6]. For arguably, until the invention of the printing press, ‘the very art of writing…lay in the drawing of lines, and both drawing and writing, materialise by way of the ‘gesture – of pulling or dragging the implement – and the line traced by it’[7].

An extract of the video documentation can be viewed on Vimeo via this link; https://vimeo.com/131568177

As the text was scribed, the words were read out loud. I tried to speak the words syllabically, and at the same speed as the writing/drawing action, complicating which came first the written word or the spoken one. The video documentation supports this, shot with an aerial view, focusing on the surface of the paper, the action of the pen inscribing the paper, my hand, arm and sometimes the back of my head, and the sound of the spoken words, -the originating script is not in view- and it is therefore not clear if the scribe is writing what is spoken or reading aloud what is scribed.

Durational work can always be deciphered through the language of the body. As well as the language of the text, scribed and spoken, this piece is also embedded with the language of my body. When one writes with a continuous line, connecting words, it takes concentration of mind and body: The scribe must keep the pen nib in the same place. She must pay attention to the pressure of the hand in holding the pen to the page: Too much pressure or holding for too long may take the nib through the surface to puncture or tear, whereas not enough pressure may make her lose her place or risk slipping and making a mistake. For me, this tension over the six hours of holding the pen caused some pain in my right thumb, as well as in my wrist. On the first day, my wrist was a bit sore during the action, but it wasn’t until I did yoga at the end of day two, that I noticed it more fully.

It is implicit in the final form of the wriring/drawing piece, that the body had to move around the paper in order to write the lines, up one way, round a tight bend and then back the other way, so I was not able to sit down. The physicality of bending over the writing/drawing surface meant that my body was more physically engaged than the usual wring position. This was evident in the aching in my upper and lower back, despite my attempts to hold my torso muscles (around the digestive organs) to support myself. Breathing was also affected. The continuous line from start to finish is like a continual breath, there being no punctuation marks or capital letters, devices that ordinarily directed readers to breathe, and where the scribe may suitably take a breath. Of course, this piece could not have been made in one breath of six hours, but I noticed that when I am writing by hand, I normally take a breath when I take the pen off the page, after a couple of words or so. However, in this piece, each word is connected, and so when can I take a breath?

Some other reflections on the action: Despite it taking just over 6 hours in total, it was undertaken over two days. I would have like to have done it in one go or in fewer yet, longer sittings, however practical reasons such as re-charging video camera batteries, and the space of my home, as I am currently without a studio, which had to be shared with my boyfriend prevented this! I also killed the video camera that was used during much of the shooting and so the final films have a different feel and are not visually consistent.

The action has pushed me to be more confident in my work, and I have decided that I will write to my major sources, (the alive ones, i.e. Annmarie Mol, Jan Purnis, David Hillman, Steven Shapin), and tell then about my work, why, and how I have been using theirs, and its impact on my development, thinking and the formation of the larger ‘Reflection on Digestion project, as well as to say thanks. So thank you too, for the opportunity to contemplate these things.


[1] Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Canada. (2015). Definitions of Terms. At: http://www.sshrc-crsh.gc.ca/funding-financement/programs-programmes/definitions-eng.aspx#a22 (Accessed 23 June 2015)

[2] Zaliwska, Z. (2015) Re: Requesting participation in research-creation project [Email sent to Amanda Couch, 26 March 2015]

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ingold T. (2007) Lines: A Brief History. Abingdon: Routledge, 15.

[5] Crawford, C. (s.d) Brooklyn Museum: Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art: Feminist Art Base: Cair Crawford. At: http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/feminist_art_base/gallery/Cair_Crawford.php?i=3200 (Accessed 1 June 2015)

[6] Ingold, 3.

[7] Ingold, 43.

On Innards | Exhibition & Event – October 2014

ON-INNARDS-text invitation

On Innards | Amanda Couch, Andrew Hladky, and Mindy Lee

Blyth Gallery

5th Floor Sherfield Building, Imperial College, Exhibition Road, London, SW7 2AZ.

8 October – 7 November 2014.

On Innards is a multidisciplinary project developed by artists Amanda Couch, Andrew Hladky and Mindy Lee, that explores the changing conceptualisations of guts and digestion, their impact on the creative process and the role they play in constructing and destabilising our sense of self.

The project will involve an exhibition at Blyth Gallery, Imperial College, from 8 October until 7 November 2014, with an opening reception on 7 October 2014 from 6 until 8.30pm. To accompany the exhibition there will be a daylong multidisciplinary event at Blyth Gallery and Kensington & Chelsea Central Library on 11 October 2014 from 10am until 5pm.

On Innards | Exhibition | 8 October – 7 November 2014

The exhibition at Blyth Gallery will consist of artwork by Hladky, Lee and Couch exploring intestines, entrails, and the digestive process as material, image, and metaphor. They will show paintings, objects and prints that move between representation and realism, making reference to Gaston Bachelard’s claim that digestion ‘is the origin of the strongest kind of realism’. Central to the work is the desire to avoid the flattening effects of representation and encourage more embodied ways for people to encounter artwork. We hope to remind our audience of their physical presence in relation to images and language, as well as showing the inner workings of the image and text.

Cutting across media, Amanda Couch’s work uses the processes and lived experience of her own body as material and metaphor to create images and objects that are both visceral and narrative. Andrew Hladky is interested in the inner bodily processes of his paintings, revealing the conflict between their surface illusion and the lumpen material that forms them. Mindy Lee’s plated paintings are served as a cannibalistic smorgasbord of revived images regurgitated from historical painting.

postcard-DRAFT

On Innards | Event | 11 October 2014

Accompanying the exhibition Lee, Couch and Hladky will lead a participatory and experiential day-long event exploring multi-disciplinary perspectives on digestion, innards and the interior body. It will bring together researchers and practitioners from the fields of gastroenterology, cultural theory, art history, yoga, performance and fine art and the medical humanities, and participants to share knowledge and experiences. The event is free and open to all.

Recent medical research re-imagines the digestive system as a sensory organ and second brain, the site of our most direct and complex physical exchange with the external world. It has a profound effect on our mood and ability to function, but its reasoning remains largely inaccessible to our awareness. The idea that our guts lurk behind the scenes exerting a decisive influence on our actions is an unsettling one, challenging modern cerebro-centred images of selfhood and agency. This event will highlight some of the ways different imaginings of the gut can clash with customary ways of viewing our bodies and ourselves.

On Innards / Event is free, open to all and on a first come, first serve basis. Tickets should be booked in advance via Eventbrite, http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/on-innards-event-tickets-12834078073

On Innards is generously supported by University for the Creative Arts, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Imperial College and is a part of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Celebration of Science 2014.

Download press release below: ON-INNARDS-text invitation

On-Innards-Press Release-FINAL

Entrail Troyen is now 95cm

Entrail Troyen

Entrail Troyen is now 95cm.

The length of the large intestine is 1.5 metres or 5ft. i.e. my height, and so I am hoping to get it to this stage by the On Innards show in October. Eventually it would be great if it was longer, 6 metres, referencing the small intestine, as is perhaps more like this part of the system: For example, a thinner tube, the stitches and loops refering to the villi which increase the surface area, or the tight folds on the walls, that churn the food-turned-chyme in a spiral motion, like the movement of a ‘row’ of stitches in French knitting.

Through this slow and careful act of French knitting (the threads can be very brittle and can break easily), the form of the tubular tract is articulated, loop by loop, through each stitch. It is the knitting and looping of this long thread that is making a form, the ‘skin’ and tube. This looping and stitching connecting previous loops/stitches could be like a metaphor for the research process itself: making connections, making form, making sense, meaning and understanding out of the tangled length of thread, which has been joined together from disparate fragments, collected from a variety of sources. The recent addition is the skin from the salami we had at the weekend for Charlotte’s birthday picnic.

Thread Salami skin

I would like to make a map of where the elements that made up the thread came from. They began with cured saucisson sec saved from picnic meals everyday from my holiday in France last summer. To begin with I saved them without knowing what I wanted them to become. Over the three weeks the idea of joining them together to make a thread to knit with formed in my mind and then (as I was in France) the idea of the form of French knitting to re-create their original tubular form, set in. On the final leg of our trip we visited Troyes, because I wanted to try Andouillette de Troyes in Troyes, where I came across the Hosiery Museum at the Hôtel Vauluisant, which introduced me to the important historical position of Troyes in France’s knitting industry and saw knitting machines on a large scale.

AndouiletteTroyes Knitting machine

The knitting machines making tubes of jersey seemed to me absolutely related to the simple 17 pronged ‘dolly’ that I was to fashion out of cocktail sticks (symbolizing the start of the digestive system, often used at the dinner table to clean one’s teeth, and a part of a toilet roll, signifying the end of the intestinal tract!)

Entrail-Troyen-Looking through-048-sm

The artist/filmmaker Jayne Parker also knits with intestines. Here she writes about her 1989 film K ‘…I bring my intestines up out of my mouth and let it fall in a pile at my feet. I take the end and proceed to knit, using my arms in the place of knitting needles, until I have knitted the whole length. I hold my knitted intestine in front of my body so that it covers me. I bring out into the open all the things that I have taken in that are not mine, and thereby make room for something new. I make an external order out of an internal tangle.’ (Jayne Parker writing in Body as Membrane quoted in The Artist’s Body, p130)

Jayne Parker Inside Out 1990 (Film still relating to K)

For me, she is talking about the ingestion and digestion of knowledge and experience, of research, of ‘things that are not mine’ and is attempting to make meaning through the ordering act of knitting, ‘I make an external order out of an internal tangle’.

Helen Chadwick’s Loop My Loop 1991, with its fairy-tale golden blonde hair draped and wound around a glistening pink inflated sow’s intestine, is a kind of abject love knot that draws you in and at the same time repells, like I hope my Entrail Troyen will do.

Helen Chadwick Loop My Loop 1991

I hope Entrail Troyen’s engaging form and intricate stitches will entice you closer to it and follow the journey of a few loops. But the smell may prevent you getting too close. Employing the olfactory sense in the work breaks the visual-centricism of sculpture, and a body-environment dualism: Entrail Troyen will force itself into your body and will leave a little of it in you even as you leave the space. It is well known that memory is triggered by smell, and Entrail Troyen hopes that its smell will ensure it is not forgotten, at least whilst its odour molecules are bound to the cilia particles into your nose.

I am to be doing a series of reading performances on Friday and Saturday, animating my Reflection on Digestion book and this act of French knitting, the continuous thread which articulates form through loops reminds me of the continuous script in the book where loops and garlands of the handwriting creates a joined up text that remains connected from the beginning of the book to the end, and a new book I am planning using this continual script, but more on that later…

Reflection on Digestion 2012 (detail)

References:
Notes taken from Guts: The Strange and Mysterious World of the Human Stomach (BBC Four, 2012) first aired 12 Jul 2012.
Hosiery Museum at the Hôtel Vauluisant, 4 rue de Vauluisant, 10000 Troyes, France
Jayne Parker K 1989 (film) in Jayne Parker: British Artists Films Vol.4, BFI, 2008, DVD.
Jayne Parker in Body as Membrane quoted in The Artist’s Body, edited by Tracey Warr. Phaidon, 2000: 130.
Helen Chadwick, by Marina Warner, Mark Sladen, Mary Horlock, Eva Martischnig. Barbican Art Gallery/Hatje Cantz, 2004.
Julia Kristeva. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Columbia University Press, 1982.
‘Reflection in Digestion’ in The Book is Alive! Edited by Emmanuelle Waeckerlé and Richard Sawdon Smith. RGAP, 2013: 164-7.

Inspired by a trip to Oxford

Last Sunday, I visited Oxford, with a friend, combining a spot of wild swimming in the Isis via a muddy meadow which gave us many Matthew Barney material moments inspired by our recent viewing of his epic, River of Fundament.

We also went to the Barbara Kruger show at Modern Art Oxford in which there were collages of images of mercury filled teeth, as well as installations of texts which helped me to think about a new bookwork which is to be scribed on the parchment-like cow’s intestines that I have been drying in my studio.

Kruger’s use of the imperative got me thinking about how I ‘implicate’ my participants in my performative meals and how I can more ‘direct[ly] address’* them and their bodily functions. In my meals I am not using the imperative, but a more gentle tone, for example, asking whether you can distinguish the different tastes and flavours of Campri as it passes over your palate? Or what it feels like to have two tongues in your mouth? Or are the gut hormones, PYY and grelim, making you want more or is the idea of tripe, your prejudices or past experiences, of offal governing the present one?

In Oxford, we also visited the Pitt River’s Museum where I was able to see many-a-guts inspired artefact.

1. The plaster mould for making wax ex-voto figures of the stomach and its wax positive.

ex-voto-stomach-pitt-rivers-652-sm

2. Katharine also spotted an ancient Roman terracotta ex-voto of what looked like an intestine with an anus opening. Turns out it was a womb and cervix, which is a shame, but the Katharine thinks I can co-opt the form for my own interests!

ex-voto-terracotta-womb-pitt-rivers-823-sm

3. And rather amazingly three garments made from seal gut: Two parkas and a cape. All are very brittle and some have been restored using pig intestine, as this is apparently is the closest material to seal gut, but all have beautiful details, embroidered edges and bright coloured furs and threads detailing within the seams.

 gut cape-pitt-rivers-717-smgut parker-detail-pitt-rivers-806-sm

Seeing the gut parkas have clarified some things. I have been racking my brains to come up with the right choice of garment that makes sense with the material, and its, and my history, and which I can feasibly wear during the participatory performance meals. As they dry, the cow intestines have delicate lace-like patterns formed by the variation in fat deposits on the inside surface and the pig’s has lines created by the residue of the mesentery and connective tissues.

Cow intestine dried-detail-007-smPig intestine dried-detail-004-sm

The paperly quality of the dried intestines could refer to stiff blouses with high necks of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. More historically, such a garment could also be connected to the stomacher, which was a panel of fabric worn at the front of the bodice, connecting the edges of the gown. 

I could perhaps make a performance piece in which I am eating a (bloody) or juicy piece of meat or offal and the blouse becomes sullied by the activity, (bears some relation to my sugar tea party performances of a few years ago).

sugar tea

 

* both terms come from the exhibition notes from the Modern Art Oxford show.