As an artistic method, this means approaching human-scale objects and spaces from an archaeological perspective. My goal from the outset, which I followed throughout the project, was not to collect lots of information, but instead to engage experientially, aesthetically and sensorially with artefacts and materials as directly as possible; the cultural, mythical, figurative and decorative aspects of Ancient Greek sculpture have been extensively researched. In the Information Experience Design programme I was running at the Royal College of Art at the time, I explicitly contrasted information as a rational, linguistic series of positions with sensorial, ineffable experience. Philosopher Federico Campagna (2018) frames these as opposing ontologies at the level of cosmology or metaphysics, a level which sits below that of particular politics, ideologies or histories. These fundamentally opposing ways of approaching the world translate directly into particular ways individuals engage with things in the world, and specifically for me, particular strategies for artistic research.
A strategy of direct engagement is well-suited to the museum as a site of investigation, particularly in a gallery which treats objects as artworks. In museums, objects are removed from their original uses, cultures and contexts, and recontextualised among other objects and interpretive information (see also Clifford 1998). An archaeological approach to direct engagement, however, opens them up to interpretations either real or imagined, which may ignore or contest any given curatorial information.
Material culture views objects as arrays of relations, and a strictly sensorial engagement may include emotional or ineffable qualities which cannot adequately be conveyed using language. For example, I was struck by missing faces and appendages in the Parthenon friezes and sculptures. There is a long history of defacing idols, statues and sculptures, and recently, statues representing the Western colonial past have been attacked, raising questions from across the political spectrum about the rewriting of history.
Poetry may be usefully employed to convey emotional and ineffable qualities through the creative use of language, as my co-resident Arévalo used successfully. Or indeed, archaeological writing, like that of Gill and others (2019) can venture into story and speculation. More broadly, historiographic writing, used by both Arévalo (2019) and Roelstraete (2009), engages with and challenges existing narratives.
I would describe my writing here as part of my practice, insofar as it is creative and intertwined with the adjacent materials; and partly documentary, insofar as it details methods and outputs. (The Research Catalogue itself could be a site for excavation.) While I engage in speculation, I do not attempt to put into words those aspects of artefacts I feel cannot be adequately described; for that I cede to visual representations. Campagna (2018) discusses how a single object — any object — simultaneously links to the spiritual as well as the mundane.
The first visual representations I made were photographs, at different levels of focus, from long shots of the gallery to extreme close-ups of materials and details. Representations of humans in artefacts, for example, offer us a different, and perhaps more direct, way of relating to distant cultures than linguistic descriptions. I took inspiration from a student, Virna Koutla (2017), a Greek architect who made direct links between ancient statues and contemporary migration in a film project through an audio-visual narrative, connecting the mundane and the mythical without words.
Direct sensory engagement goes beyond sight: neuroscientist Anna Ciaunica (2019) contrasts distal (visual-spatial) modes of understanding with proximal (tactile) ones. The latter, she observes, developed earlier in evolution and earlier in each individual’s development: in the womb. The skin is the oldest and largest sense organ. Architect Juhani Palasmaa (2011) regards all the senses as an extension of touch — ‘as specialisations of the skin.’ When we observe something, he says, we imagine what it is to touch it, in imagined sensations of solidity and resistance: ‘Vision reveals what the touch already knows’ (ibid.: 60). Translated to a political level, vision is related to distance and control, while touch provides an intimate connection.
In archaeology, as in art, working with one’s hands has traditionally been central. Digital technologies have broken this connection — though this is not necessarily negative: remote sensing technologies mean archaeologists can see below the ground without digging; Barad describes ‘the agential cut’ as simultaneously cutting together and apart (Dolphijn and van der Tuin 2012). The digital in art has added new tools, materials and whole new media. But if the visual creates or preserves distance, we could say the digital creates a kind of distance akin to how an empire remotely monitors and controls its colonies.
Touching museum artefacts is generally not allowed anyway. The British Museum, like others, provides ‘handling objects’, for example in the interpretation gallery adjacent to that of the Parthenon friezes. But my tactile engagement with marble was done outside the gallery — for example touching a carved marble mantlepiece at home. I then experimented with creating an alternative to a marble frieze by printing one of my photographs on heavy tracing paper and backlighting it with a lightbox. While this made a visual connection however, it lacked the sensation of engaging with marble on a tactile level. For this I moved to the micro level.