QofR: A written sketch

Updated: Apr 7, 2021

In preparation for our session with Dr Elaine Igoe, we were asked to create brief narratives about our research journey's up to this point:

Through reflective activities, this session will encourage you to evaluate the research methodologies and paradigms explored in the first three lectures helping you to establish an informed position on your own approach to practice based research.

In this session, you will be aiming to assimilate and ‘make sense’ of this knowledge into your own practice and experience, developing the informed position which is required at Masters level study.

Storytelling is the first technique that we will use. Before the session you need to create or write a short story about your learning on ‘Question of Research’ so far. You can use whatever methods you feel work best for you, creative writing, sequential illustration, video etc. This ‘story’ will be shared in small groups within the session and it would be useful to post it on your blog afterwards. If you choose not to conventionally write your narrative, please bring any electronic devices that might be needed to share it with your peers.

Here is my attempt to form some kind of narrative or textual reflection:

My choice was founded in my past. I know language is an effective tool of communication, and each word has a generally approved definition, but everyone has their own personal remembrances and significations that they bring to various words. So, for one person a tomato might be a round red fruit-vegetable; for another, the word might be an horrific allergic reaction and overnight hospital stay; for another, a mushy, hot mess of a food fight in Spain on a wild year of self-discovery. While the thing a word signifies can be defined collectively, the evocations and images are specific to the individual. Naturally, when you approach a series of these words, ordered into a nebulous question, like, say, ‘How can materiality enhance end user/audience experience?’, you can’t help bringing your own flavour to it. However stupid your ideas might be, there they are, they are your own.

So why materiality and audience experience? I’d studied English in a past life and become a bit obsessed with the reality of how texts exist in the physical world – as, you guessed it, books. This might seem obvious, but when you’re taught English you tend to think of stories and poems and plays as incorporeal works of artistry, communicated directly from the brain of the creator, to the brain of the reader. What you don’t often think about is how we actually see these words - about the reading process itself - or about the teams of experts it takes to put it in front of you (editors, book sellers, printers etc). When I was first introduced to the study of textual transmission and book history, it was like I had to reconfigure my brain. Suddenly, every time I picked up a book, I was painfully aware of how much I could infer about its contents before I read a single word. Pretty big deal for a master’s student who knew they didn’t know much, but at least thought they knew a book was a book.

This revelation about the materiality of text affected me to the point that I made it the centre of my career for three years. I set up a little printing press, with the aim of producing original work (writing and visual art), bound in artist’s books that tried to be as creative and experimental as their contents. I spent hours thinking about how to make a dust jacket that made you think of the 18th century, but was also ‘like really contemporary’, or what typeface would best recall (but not be a pastiche of) the Little Magazines of the 20th Century. For me then, the term ‘materiality’ was like an old friend. Not one I ever felt confident around, but nevertheless found fascinating and irritating in equal measure.

I wondered – as I stared at the six questions – whether if it’s so for literature, then how would it work in the visual arts? I would imagine, as an undergraduate in Fine Art, materiality isn’t something you ignore like an unpleasant family member, it’s something you’re told to stare in the face and do something about. The constituent materials of a piece of art tend to be a key concern, particularly as artists have had increased choice in the materials they work with. Speaking generally, fine artists have a fair amount of control over both the ‘materiality’ and the ‘audience/end user experience’. I know ‘death of the author’ theory applies just as easily to an artist, but (living, or really dictatorial dead) visual artists do tend to have more control over the manner in which the audience encounters their work, so perhaps more control over how we interpret it?

But then what about the illustrator? What about the applied artist, plopped somewhere between fine artist (controller of initial medium) and writer (little control over how the work will eventually be displayed). So that’s where I am. Trying to add to my brain-bank of images and ideas, to come up with something new to say about the materiality of an illustration, and hopefully add something to your brain-bank too.

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