Monthly Archives: July 2015

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.

book-reading-pointing

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.

bowls

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

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