'Unfixed Landscape' - Is it possible to define 'place' through artistic practice? (2012)

Ruby Wallis

About this exposition

This exposition takes the form of a series of experimental and philosophical attempts to represent place through film, photography and drawing. The research is devised through the frame of the self-reflexive auto-ethnographer. I have identified three methodological approaches that question fixed notions of self .The argument is whether it is possible to represent a place without its representation becoming a ‘fixed’ view; and the evasion and determination of a definition of 'place' becomes apparent throughout the body of this research.
typeresearch exposition
affiliationNational College of Art & Design (NCAD), Dublin, Ireland, Graduate School of Creative Arts and Media Research (GradCAM)
published inJournal for Artistic Research

comments: 3 (last entry by Henric Benesch - 10/11/2012 at 01:12)
Lucy Cotter 05/11/2012 at 09:40

'Unfixed Landscape' Is it possible to define "place" through artistic practice? is an innovative exposition in its choice of subject matter (an alternative community) to explore a personal and collective experience of place, as well as in its choice of the experiential as a material source for the research. Its quality lies in the way it weaves together various artistic research approaches in relation to its subject matter, as well as in the self-reflexivity of its engagement.

The exposition allows the various elements of the artist’s work to be seen in relation to each other in a manner that demonstrates a wider area of engagement that is unlikely to be made visible to this extent through a standard exhibition format. The visuals are striking, being neither a portrait in the traditional sense of neither the word, nor a visual documentation in the documentary sense. The image-based work and the research at large hover in-between the two, facilitating a fascinating journey back and forward between the highly subjective and the social, between the philosophical and the anthropological.

The relationship between the artistic work and the issues discussed in the narrative text offers a subtle interweaving of ideas that reoccur and are addressed differently through different media and voices. It avoids any kind of didactic illustration. Its intellectual interest lies partly in this ability not to be closed down into any one academic area. This invites philosophical engagement as well as theorisation of the in-between spaces created.

It is fascinating that this alternative community appears to have survived the dramatically fluctuating economic-social developments within Ireland from the 1970s to the present. I miss some insight into the artist’s ideas about how the displaced ideals of the 1970s have translated into the present and how that shifts the artist’s sense of place now. This is hinted at in the background music of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-changing in two video works. It comes up again in the audio work when one member of the community comments that while the community used to smoke dope they were now more interested in smoking fish. The wider implications of this remark (regarding the economy and sustainability of a community, the re-translation of its founding principles through time etc.) go unaddressed in the main text. Although this can hardly be engaged with in depth within the framework of the current research, passing observations may have been enough to allow the reader some insight into this background.

There are a number of issues identified by the artist that invite further academic engagement – in terms of medium – what, as the artist indicated, slowness might mean in relation to representation, the self-positioning of the viewer in relation to knowledge production through image making etc. as well as theoretical issues: what it means to represent oneself as part of a collective formed around an ethical ideal, the notion of comfort in relation to identification of place with belonging, the role of memory within phenomenological experience of place, among others. The research also raises the question of the auto-biographical as a form of knowledge production. This is an important subject in relation to the border between the traditionally perceived objectivity of academic knowledge production and the traditionally perceived subjectivity of artistic output.

In my initial feedback, I indicated that although the exposition was highly engaging and well presented, I had the sense that the artist had been somewhat reserved in what she shared. I found the artist’s discussions of the challenges of her self-positioning in relation to the research one of the most appealing parts of the text and encouraged her to consider the relationship between autobiography, emotion and knowledge production even more thoroughly and to take further risks in her writing to fully explore the possibilities of artistic research in this respect.

The revised version of the exposition is far more integrated in its interweaving of the artistic and theoretical. It is much more thorough in its engagement with the academic texts referred to, and more ambitious in its theorisation of the artist’s findings. Knowing how great the investment must have been to achieve this and not wanting to undermine the results, I nevertheless find it important to mention that the artist’s voice is now at times drowned out by or buried under the academic. In response to the request to define some of the recurring terms in the exposition (such as ‘place’, ‘experiential’, ‘utopian’, ‘comfortable’) for example, the definitions added are mostly drawn from existing theoretical sources. I was curious rather about your self-definition of those terms, which may lead to a renegotiation of existing theoretical terms through your own experiential research, as your revised title suggests. Your notion of “unfixed landscape” already implies a re-definition of “place”. Turlough swim is a wonderful addition to the revised version of the research exposition, communicating how the landscape becomes unfixed through physical sensory engagement and making palpable what you theorize elsewhere – the distinction between the objective and phenomenal body.

Harri Laakso 06/11/2012 at 12:42

The submission is interesting and relevant in its subject matter (and displays a certain artistic integrity in its approach – which is no small feat). There undoubtedly exist many other similar projects but I find it to always be of value and interest to examine the changes to our communities in the globalized world, and to explore the ways in which the experience of those communities can be visually and aurally performed in a nuanced way. The question of speed and slowness in relation to place is a pertinent vantage point (and a research area) here, as places never exist without duration. In fact, I think that the use of "moving stills" (and slowed down video) is an apt description of that tension. Likewise, the exposition as a whole creates a rich interplay between elements that are seen or unseen, visible or invisible, clearly represented or inchoate.

In my view the submission does expose practice as research in a successful way. The main questions and themes are clearly set (that is, the representation, in many technical forms, of a slow community and the artist-researcher's own relation to it and its inhabitants). The three case studies seem motivated and provide a rich range of approaches. The different elements create a vivid and nuanced depiction of various individual responses to places, often providing small but sufficient social clues (sometimes beyond the immediate community - e.g. the Joy Division song heard and Bob Dylan inspire this), which help to create strong atmospheres from a limited set of variables. The "stories" seem at one and the same time individual, personal and unique and sharable on a wider scale (which, I suppose, should be one general aim in artistic research).

The techniques used (slowed down videos, narrated sound pieces, textual fragments) are not as such radically innovative in any particular way (and there is no need that they should be). However, the interplay of the various elements is very effective, and produces tensions and creative leaps, which generate the production of new insight and knowledge. These leaps can be seen as another facet or effect of a "distance" that needs to be overcome, related to the "distance" that the author explores in relation to geography or her own emotional position as a filmmaker. This activation of making connections relates not only to the art pieces embedded in the work, and their mutual relation, but also to the way in which the theoretical frame (e.g. Levinas, Merleau-Ponty) is alluded to and activated.

The artistic practice has great merits (and I think it is a fascinating work) but the exposition’s potential as research would have benefited greatly from more precise grounding in the theory. Since the idea of "place" is central in this work, the author might benefit from reading theory of that precise area, e.g. humanistic geography, for example the work of Edward Relph (his classic Place and Placelessness etc). There are of course many possible avenues available, depending on the author's preference. And as the issues of touch, portrait (face) and landscape come up in a strong way the work of Jean-Luc Nancy (and also his idea of the "immemorial") might be of interest to the author.

Henric Benesch 10/11/2012 at 01:12

What seems to be at stake here is the crucial matter of the how, why and who in terms of representation of place. Artistic issues that have been with us for a long while and most certainly will continue to be with us in the future as a seemingly endless resource of artistic challenges and reflexions. In “Moving Stills” these issues are approached in multiple ways. It involves a return to a community/place and the challenge to respond to and represent this community/place in a “tactile non-verbal way” by means of various methods such as walks/talks (audio recordings and photographs), slow still shots (Moving Stills), phenomenological written accounts and drawing (a map). Altogether the work brings notions such as visibility and invisibility (Ranciere) into mind, where the various positions taken as well as the various techniques (or methods) applied not only make certain (and different) things visible which otherwise might not be visible (but then again rendering others things invisible). In all there is a methodological richness, more generous than rigorous, which still manages to represent the subject in a polyphonic (spoken as well as unspoken) way, which I think we all recognize in our muddled experience of space and places. The work that draws its momentum from the impossibility of representing the “other” (Levinas). The artist’s past in the community/place in question further on brings the notion of “closeness” (and distance) to our attention. When are we too close and when are we too far away (in order to be able to represent something)?  I think the real challenge and resource in this exposition is how to deal with closeness. A notion suggesting an alternative ontological point of departure than (within the sciences) well established notion of distance (or infinite distance as in “objectivity”).

Approaching a community of one’s own in order to represent it in images and words is a subtle and tricky thing. As mentioned earlier I think the polyphonic character of this exposition finds a tone of voice that works in this regard. Still when it comes to being framed as artistic research many question comes to mind regarding what is there and what is not. There are so many interesting things going on here so it would impossible to address them all. When the artist writes “I struggle with definitions, descriptions and distances” I would very much like to hear more of this – accounts of the struggle and perhaps even some conclusions in direct relations to single works. There is also a “distance” between the text and the pieces – why not benefit more from the closeness of being an artist commenting on her own work in the writing. Is it not one of the major points with artistic research that it can become a “scientific” mandate of vicinity and closeness? And although close is difficult both in terms of subject and the methodology I think this is where the challenge is (we are very good a taking things into an account from a distance).

Finanlly, the exposition, as stated by the artist, creates more questions than it answers. It approaches the stated issues and questions in a broad manner by means of various forms such as film, photography, writing and drawing, where that which is a stake seems to emerge in-between, rather than within these forms. The work is explorative, not only in its richness in forms, but also they way this richness in form calls for an explorative mind when approached. Still I think the exposition could have put the “exposition” format more to work, where the focus seems to have been the single works and the written text rather than the exposition as such. The setup is fairly linear and polarized with the text running to left and stills/move “attached” to the right, which in end, although straighforward and “functional”, corresponds little to the layered and polyphonic character of the material and subject matter –which is a pity. Even so, the expositions strongest point is its multiplicity and the energy this multiplicity draws from the articulation of the single pieces, avoiding any priviliged vantage point.

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