Or, where to from here. Though I am tempted to quote Machado again: traveler there is no road/the road is made by walking. Still though, we’ll allow for magnetic north and a compass anyway, shall we?
It was decided between Kerry and Veronica and I that we’re going with the ‘shadow objects’ idea, or to put it in much more sensible Kerry speak, an exploration of shadow objects derived through bereavement. The research will be constructed as a group of case studies, where I will be spending time over a series of interviews with a handful of participants, going in depth to their stories, their connections, their relationships. In collaboration with them we’ll agree on how best to represent the shadow left by the object photographically, or in a photographic essay, creating a new artefact out of the shadow cast by the lost one. We agreed to a doctorate through publication rather than a thesis, and I still want to exhibit the photographs as part of sharing the research with others. But I’m not sure it will have the emotional impact of the scars project, and I won’t do it just for the sake of it, so I’m leaving that option open for now, to be examined and decided on at some point down that road I’ll make by walking.
We didn’t discuss autoethnography, and I wasn’t brave enough to bring it up, which translated really means I didn’t believe in it enough. Case studies are my favourite approach to read and (with the grand total of one short thesis under my belt) to write about too, so I’m very happy to go with that approach. Who I am and what I see will be deeply embedded in the work anyway. I’m reading a book on why photography matters, and part of its argument is that how we “understand what photography is and how it works tell us something about how we understand anything.” To which I would extend the observation that how I understand what photography is and how it works will tell you something about how I understand anything. How I understand what research is and how it works will tell you something about how I understand anything.
I’m also aiming to produce a creative non-fiction work based on the research too, and more of me will be explicitly in that. And yes, there’s still the one based on some ideas in the Master’s to finish too. One PhD, two books, a photographic exhibition, marking, parenting, tutoring, filling up my own creative well with random projects unrelated to any of the above.
My mother’s creepy doll is horrified by the idea. But I don’t listen to her much. She’s horrified by a lot of things.
To follow on from the post below. I have also been thinking about how you represent objects that aren’t there from a photographic/artistic perspective, because, ummm…
But then I realised you don’t. What you represent photographically/artistically is the emotional artefact of the shadow objects. So the process then becomes a movement between ‘real’ object to shadow object and emotional artefact, and back again to something ‘real’.
I’m reading research articles of death and artefacts in preparation for a meeting with Kerry and Veronica this afternoon. In one of these I came across a concept from the Nahuas, who speak of the creation and extinction of life, of birth and death, as something that occurs in “places of the night”. Obscure, opaque, shadowed; something important to understand but difficult also. And I thought of another idea from a different article, where they described shame as being an emotional artefact of culture, which in turn reminded me of Penni and her idea of the shadow objects we carry within ourselves. I’m not sure why these connected in my head, but I am sure they led me to thinking about how the only artefacts left behind by either parent that I connect to emotionally both exist only as a shadow object, thrown or given away before I had the opportunity to claim either of them. Somehow they exist in the ‘night’ of my identity, my social world, obscured and opaque, something important to understand but difficult also. Emotional artefacts of family culture; irretrievable, irreplaceable, and absolutely ‘real’, if no longer material.
I am wondering about an autoethnography type of project based around this idea, that would then extends out into other people’s experiences and understanding of the shadow objects in their internal world. I don’t think it has been done before, at least I can’t find an example of it yet. I’m not sure it’s the best way to go about it, or even if it is a good idea at all, but … shadow objects and emotional artefacts. I think yes.
This seems to be the consensus from the supervisors, from my own internal compass of unfathomable attraction, to shift topics now while the shifting is still possible (or forever hold my peace). I’m off to the library today to pick up some more books that I had ordered on portraits and looking and disfigurement and I feel like an unkind lover dumping a generous and interesting partner for no other reason than I just wasn’t completely feeling it, which is really all the reasons I suppose. I tell myself it has no reflection on my goodness as a person that dead people’s things have more of an emotional pull to me than alive people’s adversities (though I don’t believe it), and I have been repeating Rumi’s phrase to myself all morning: there are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
I used to visit op-shops and take photos of the abandoned and unwanted items left there for someone else to love, wondering at the histories and stories behind those things. Who bought them and who left them and why? I never found them sad places, just curious ones, and much more full of humanity than the retail stores, not least because of the ghosts of those stories.
I woke up to dozens of messages on my FaceBook page with comments and suggestions on my new PhD topic. A friend in Wellington (who just went through her own PhD oral defense – I’m pretending for the moment that such a thing doesn’t exist) pointed me to the work of Margaret Gibson whose book Objects of the Deadis about, well, objects of the dead. I’ve downloaded some of her academic articles too, which will be useful, but I was a little deflated with so much work already having been done by her and others in this area. I was also reminded of Daniel Miller’s The Comfort of Things, a book that played a big part in my decision to return to study, and, now I think about it, was likely in the back of my mind when I decided to research Julia’s blog (thereare a few connecting dots, but that is a story for another time). But there was something in Margaret’s approach, or her approach as I viewed it having only skimmed a few of her articles (can’t find her book at the library, but I was in a hurry and probably didn’t look right) that was just a little sideways to what was on my mind, and it was another FaceBook friend who helped me identify what that sideways feeling was about.
Her name is Penelope Russon, and she’s also a PhD student, among many other things, not least of which is author of young adult novels. She told me that her book Only Ever Always was written as a meditation “on things that I wrote after the [Black Saturday] fires, about the objects we treasure, and what it means if we lose these objects (or don’t release them). It’s compelling to think about the real object and the shadow object we carry in ourselves. Sometimes lost things are more precious because they are lost.”
(That my old blogging network is still giving me so much in this way – I met Penelope on FaceBook through an old blogging friend too – never ceases to amaze and humble. In truth, she contacted me, I would never have had the chutzpah to befriend her first, but I’m eternally grateful that other people are much less stuck up their own backsides than I am).
I had been half thinking about the spaces and the gaps of lost objects, but the shadow of them is an even better description, because they are very much still there emotionally, if not visible materially. I wondered (wonder) if there is much research done on these shadow objects, on those lost things that represent both a break in our connection to the people and places of our past, and a parallel strong connection, strong because the emotional impact of their loss itself maintains their presence. The shadow object that we carry in ourselves.
So, here we are back to ripples and shadows, perhaps not solely but at least in part. Ah well. It was always going to happen one way or another, I suppose.
I’m not sure why I wrote Claude in that quote box, as if there is another famous Monet, another famous Monet who would wax lyrical about colourful silence. He wrote a lot about colour, and flowers, and beautiful things in his letters to people (remember when people wrote letters?), and if I could be granted one of those fantasy dinner guest wish things, he would be near the top of that list (also Jesus and Marilyn M.).
Monet also wrote that people pretended to understand his work, “as if it was necessary to understand my work when it is only necessary to love“. I get that. I get the thing about colourful silence too, it’s why I spent a couple of minutes this morning throwing a little bit of paint at my visual diary (one of them – I currently have 3. Or 4? No more than 4.) It didn’t mean anything, it’s not even very good, it’s just … oxygen. A little bit of colour oxygen. If I leave anything behind me when I’m gone that will show you most who I was, it will be some kind of collection of these scattered moments of silence.
I don’t know why I feel such a pull to uncovering the stories of the things people leave behind. I don’t suppose it’s necessary to understand it. It’s only necessary to love.
While imprisoned, Japanese American women, children, and men employed art to remake the physical landscapes of the camps into livable places, establish new and reform existing connections, and create mental spaces of survival.
– Jane Dusselier, Artifacts of Loss
I read parts of this book over the last week and now I am well and truly obsessed by the concept of artifacts. I also wish I had read it before I started my PhD as it gave me a great idea for a research topic, but I already have a great idea I’m committed to, so let’s note it for the next project (it was to photograph and investigate meaning behind the artifacts left behind after people die – my mother’s childhood doll which is sitting in a box in my garage, for instance, or my father’s photographs of Campbell Island, where he lived for two years as part of the team that built the research facilities there). All through my academic study I would say that I didn’t think I would like research and probably wouldn’t go past a post-graduate diploma for that reason, but then I met Kerry and Veronica and discovered that I not only like research, I am passionate about it, and don’t want to really do anything much else. Even when I moan otherwise, which usually just means I’m tired and need a break.
I’ve signed up for a free online course with the International Writing Program at Iowa University – they offer free online writing courses regularly and they’re really excellent. This one is called Power of the Pen: Identities and Social Issues in Fiction and Nonfictionso it’s sort of PhD preparation-ish, which is how I am justifying the time it will take. (Ethics first, K+V, yes). And there is a city-wide photography festival beginning at the end of May, with a theme of identity, so it’s important that I go see some exhibitions in that too, don’t you think? Roger Ballen is exhibiting for the first time in NZ, so the universe says I have to go too. Thanks Roger Ballen, thanks Universe.
Now back to marking Kerry’s post-grads. When that is done I am going to visit a beach I have never been to and take my camera with me, and spend hours just looking and not thinking. Chocolate may be involved; definitely coffee.
artefact: (n)An object made by a human being; from Latin arte ‘by or using art’ + factum ‘something made’
I’m told that the origin of the word artefact comes from anatomy, where it was used to denote “artificial conditions caused by an operation”; scars, I suppose, or scissors sewn inside an abdomen. The archaeologists then pinched the term for all the manmade objects ancient worlds and peoples left behind, artefacts of their culture, their humanity. Bowls, temples, wall art. There are Runes 8 feet up a wall in a cave on the island of Orkney which read: “A tall Viking wrote this”. Warriors, marauders, tellers of truly awful Dad jokes.
I am thinking about the artefacts of interpretive research, the created things that tell the stories of the research story, both grand and mundane. Theses, articles, artworks, presentations, blogs, emails to tolerant supervisors, emails to equally tolerant sisters, facebook and instagram updates. A series of procrastinatory craft objects created to avoid the discomfort of feeling inept and out of depth again, again. (Procrastinatory may not be an actual word, but it really should be). Transcripts, notes, graduation photographs. Each one of them an object made by a human being, each one of them revealing some small fraction of the research whole.
And I was thinking about these artefacts, about how some are ‘official’ and some just background noise, the chaotic mess that lies behind the final curation. And I was thinking how one of the reasons I have chosen to carry on with my doctorate is to challenge perceptions of how research can be done, and that there is little in my current doctoral plan, as it stands, to be much of a challenge methodologically. It’s just an instinct at this stage, but I feel that there is something that could be done with these research artefacts to further qualitative methodologies. I don’t know. I just wanted to bookmark this vague and amorphous idea.
Because I’m a Master now, and Masters are in control of things. The dictionary says so. I told my children they can all be my servants if they want, but it turns out that they very strongly don’t want.
I was watching my fellow graduates and graduands walk across the stage as I was waiting my turn, and thought how, in a physical sense, we’re all kind of bundled around the mean. Ordinary height, ordinary looks, ordinary weight.
But every now and then there was a particularly tall, or particularly short, or particularly beautiful human walk across the stage, and their very difference changed my ‘gaze’ of observation. I could see them more easily as individuals, for instance, rather than a blur among the many. And there was an underlying sense of curiosity too – what must it be like to be so tall/short/beautiful? I can remember others with unusual features, such as pink hair, but that was more about the hair than the person behind the hair.
None of these had that sense of discomfort, however, as looking at, or trying not to look at, those with a noticeable disfigurement might have, and it’s that gaze of discomfort that is becoming central to my burgeoning PhD project. The Gaze, Disfigurement, Portraits. I have books on all three reserved at the library, a new notebook to take notes on the same, and, now I have officially laid the last ceremonial process of my Master’s degree to rest, a renewed sense of commitment to this next academic stage.
I loved kindergarten. There were books and dolls and people to play with and there was paint!!! My first most vivid memory of kindergarten is standing before one of those kiddie sized easels and just splashing the brush all over the paper. It was the most fun thing I’d ever done.
(My second most vivid memory is being given a plasticine cake to hold while everyone sang Happy Birthday to me. I was three, and I thought the plasticine cake was utterly ridiculous because it might have glitter and candles, but it wasn’t really cake.)
I still paint of course, and mostly with fingers, I don’t know why. I start out with a brush and try to be all controlled and precise, but at some point the finger painting inevitably takes over. Which is very messy and most clothes I own now have some level of paint splashed on them, as does my erstwhile pristine white desk. Because I am not as sensible as kindergarten teachers and don’t make myself wear an apron, or cover my surfaces with paper to clean up the mess with. Entirely not the point. But I do have a point which I am sure we will get to eventually.
I sat down over Easter with my Evil Master Plan* and a blank diary to sort out how I need to spend my days to get the important things done. On time. I have been so distressed about how behind I let myself get on a few important jobs; lie awake at night and mentally kick yourself to sleep sort of distressed. But I’m almost caught up, finally, and don’t want to let that happen ever again. I may be a flake, but I’m a responsible one.
However. [Insert big dramatic forlorn sigh]. When I try to write lists and schedules, and lord knows I do try, I feel so bossed around. I hate that feeling, like I’m being punished, and who wants work to feel like a punishment?
(My middle child pointed out, rather patiently she thought, that you can’t really be bossed around if you’re the one that wrote the lists and schedules in the first place BUT IT’S NOT TRUE. Past self can for sure boss around current self, mine does it all the time.)
What to do, what to do?
Well, doodle, obviously.
I wasn’t sure how to set up my likely-to-fail-anyway new diary, but while I was thinking I started to doodle. And paste in some left over pictures I had printed out for something else. It’s no masterpiece, but it did make me want to at least open the damned thing to look at it.
If pictures and colour make me want to open the first page, then maybe it would work on the second page too.
And the daily pages. Maybe next to the boxes I have to tick to keep my assignment marking schedule on track, I could draw slightly metaphorical mountains, and add in salvaged drawings from old notebooks, with excellent quotes from an excellent poet.
And create space for notes on an upcoming meeting.
Or buy a $0.50 notebook and cover it in some old paper I had laying around and a printed Van Gogh quote stolen (foraged?) off the internet. Then fill in that notebook with old research to motivate the writing of the last few pages of the last overdue piece of work.
It already works better than anything I have ever been told about being productive. I’ve felt a failure my entire life because I could never get anything sorted, even really important things that I absolutely wanted to do, at least not sorted in the kind of way I thought it should be.
It never crossed my mind that the problem wasn’t me. The problem was that I kept trying to apply all those things I had been told about being productive even when they kept failing, and then calling the failure mine. Deciding it was lack of will power, or being lazy, or sheer uselessness. The problem was in not understanding that it doesn’t matter if that advice works well for a lot of people when it doesn’t work well for me.
Perhaps doodling and scribbling and cutting and pasting would be a colossal waste of time for most, but it’s not a colossal waste of time for me. I find it calming and invigorating at the same time, is that even a thing? It clarifies my thinking and motivates my problem solving. Also there are flowers, and what is not to love about flowers? Go tell Monet there are things not to love about flowers…
I filled in half the book and came to realise that something Veronica had told me in relation to my thesis is true for my whole life; in my weakness is also a strength.
If my mind is the kind of mind that prefers ‘playing’ to ‘working’, then perhaps I can play with my work. It doesn’t make the product frivolous, but it does help the process run better. You could call it a margin of freedom** if you want to, and I almost certainly do.
And perhaps, too, I can bring that sense of play to everything I do.
(And tea. Of course tea.)
It’s that everything that is (finally) the point. I believe it is true that we can’t separate our lives from our research, that reflexivity is experience, and that disrupting our ways of thinking can help shift us from what we know to what we have yet to imagine. That all of who I am is important. I’ve certainly pontificated on it often enough.
But until now I didn’t understand it. Not really. Not with regards to the everyday things, the housework and gardening and staying connected with my increasingly independant children***. In scheduling assignment marking and taking medications and making sure the important people in my life understand how very much I love them even when I’m busy. Especially when I’m busy. I suppose I understood how my life was important to my research, but I hadn’t yet understood how what I learned in my research was important to all those quotidian things in my life.
Never did say I was very quick-witted. Give me a crayon some time, though, and I’ll get there in the end.
*The plan is World Domination, which is what makes it evil.
** Yep, still banging on about that.
***We’re having Cake Month in May, in which everyone gets their favourite cake baked for them on alternate weekends, except Warren, who has to have his second favourite because his favourite is fruit cake and that’s just gross. Though at least it isn’t plasticine.
Don’t tell K or V, but I’m re-writing the research article I was supposed to do for my Summer Scholarship (late, yes, but also I spent months on skin infections and small vein inflammations and serious child crises, and am behind on everything, slowly catching up now, will be able to breathe again next week, or possibly in July). I had become too bogged down in feeling I had to explain and theoretically justify everything qualitative, which, er, encompasses quite a lot. But it really only needs to talk about creative/arts-based research, and even then mostly just my own work, because that’s mostly all I have experience in anyway. Second attempt is going much better.
Sometimes Megan, it’s the tree and not the forest.
(The accompanying illustration in this instance is mere lovely floral puffery. Floral puffery that I stole from my youngest’s school, sssh, please don’t tell about that either.)