Here are my notes from the conference ‘Students as Creators’, at Brasenose College, 24 October 2015. Fran Brooks and I presented our book, the ‘Gift for the Illuminated Sphere‘ with reflections on how it has fed into our subsequent work.
I didn’t say everything from my notes, but I think that the Q and A session afterwards gave rise to some really interesting conversation about creative processes, and how creative work can work alongside academic (read: theoretical) research. Thank you to the attendees for asking some really challenging questions and raising some thought-provoking comments.
Being asked to view and respond to the ‘Adventures of the Black Square’ exhibition, with my baggage as a medievalist fully in the front of my mind, was an exciting and challenging experience – one that I am continuing to learn from as I reflect and read more widely around translation and pedagogy.
At the time of visiting the exhibition and creating the book, I was undertaking an art course, using the time before starting my PhD to read up, experience, and gather together the work of other artists who engage with medieval things. This course was changing my approach to my own making and writing too, and thinking about my research in different ways: embracing subjectivity, phenomenology, and acknowledging the role of imagination, of the stories we tell ourselves, when we experience something that we enjoy, even those things that we are supposed to be studying in a scholarly, critical manner.
This mindset was exactly what I tried to maintain through the process of the book making. I had a lot of fun in the gallery just letting myself be drawn to whatever caught my eye – whether that be because of colour, form, content, or movement – and making connections between the stories in the artwork, and the medieval stories I’ve encountered in the classroom. I think of the book now almost as a record of a stream-of-consciousness. I’d like to talk through a couple of my juxtapositions just to show this thought processes.
To start at the beginning. Malevich’s work was the first in the exhibition. Immediately I began to think about what he’d actually painted: was the black or the white the negative space? Were we looking at a white rectangle, or a black silhouette?
This led me to think about the discussions in Old English critical editions that centre on the philological detective work of finding the original, or source texts, for some Old English poems. For example, the genesis of the Genesis B poem has been discussed at length. Much work has been done to find its origins. As an undergraduate this sort of discussion used to rile me – I was interested in what we had on the page: couldn’t we just look at that? Of course I’ve grown out of that – I probably just didn’t like the idea that there was more to read and learn about – but now I think my approach to texts is to always try and look at all sides of scholarship around a text: looking at where Anglo Saxons got their ideas, but also treating what we actually have as whole, complete, viable object, with a life of its own very detached from whatever lost original source might’ve inspired it.
Similarly on this spread, the modern art spoke to my concerns of addressing what remains, and how we deal with what is missing – that the missing, the gaps, can provide exciting opportunities for creativity and thought, there is no need to smooth them over.
Two other pieces in the exhibition made my mind jump straight to bodies, specifically women’s bodies, in Anglo-Saxon texts.
The Ballet Mechanique blurs body parts and machinery, the dancers and models disintegrate as the film rushes along, the women absorbed into the industrial systems that reshaped how they move around, eat, sleep, and work. So with Aldhelm’s audience of nuns, their bodies are blurred together within the manuscript, they become a single mass within the religious order, their feet teetering, unstable, on plinth-like stages, preceeding a text which seeks to restrict, refashion, and reshape their bodies and minds.
And finally here’s Hannah Starkey’s work: which the exhibition notice described as ‘exploring the position of women within the urban environment’. I looked at the photograph and I saw a woman trapped behind glass and steel, camouflaged by the monochrome of her surrounding, her shopping bag, her dark hair and white shirt. So I remembered the experience of revisiting Caedmon’s story, looking for Hild because I wanted to write about her. But she wasn’t there: she was somehow behind the text, the story at once contained and obscured her.
Maybe you can see the reason in these juxtapositions, or maybe you see something different. It almost doesn’t matter. Because alongside exploring our own medieval/ modern connections and interests, another aim of making the book wasn’t necessarily to tell people what to look at, just to show them a new view.
This brings us to the gloss. Fran described putting the gloss together as like ‘a game of word-association’. One of these glosses, ‘illuminated’ could neatly sum up what we wanted to explore with this book: medieval manuscript illuminations turn a light on to the medieval resonances of the modern, whilst the modern work reignites the medieval.
Since finishing the book I’ve been able to take a step back and look at it more critically, to reflect on what we have done. I suppose this is what Anglo-Saxon studies by practice could be – to do first, theorise afterwards, or perhaps to theorise through doing.
An opportunity to reflect on our work came with the call for submissions by the ‘Prize for Creative Responses to Modernism, 2015’, run by the King’s centre for modern literature. The call included the guidance ‘You might see yourself as continuing, challenging or simply evoking the modernist project.’
Fran and I were particular excited to have Deborah Levy read out some lovely words about our book for the Prize. She called it a ‘visual conversation between an ancient language and a modern language’, and ‘the curating… whips the rug under modernity’s feet and destabilises it all over again’.
I love that non medievalists enjoyed the experience of being confronted with our old stories and images being pushed up against the contemporary. Whilst it’s perhaps a dangerous trap (one that I often fall into – sometimes willingly) to imagine subjects of the past as being active participants in a conversation, it is perhaps over-serious to deny that ‘conversation’ – a to-ing and fro-ing, a sense of dialogue – is the nearest description for the feeling that is evoked when we make connections across time.
And looking at the book anew I could see how we had played with anachronism, subjectivity, and aesthetics, experimented with destabilising signs across time, exploring what happens when texts are liberated from their physical location being made to speak across new spaces: perhaps comparable to how objects appear and reappear in books, newspapers, museum displays, or digitised collections, which is what my current research is concerned with.