THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

2 posts from May 2019

22 May 2019

Artists’ Books Now: Writing evening 13 May 2019

Gill Partington, host of last week’s sell out Artists’ Books Now: Writing evening, shares some of her thoughts on the event the works and the artist in this guest blog

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Artist Sam Winston describing an example of asemic writing from his recent work Reading Closed Books.

Making Your Mark, the British Library’s current exhibition, is all about writing, its long history and the many varied techniques, systems and conventions that have evolved around it.  The latest event in the ‘Artists Book Now’ series on the 13th May approached writing from a different angle, however. It was all about forms of work that stretch these systems and conventions in unusual ways, pushing writing to its limits and beyond. The four artists presenting their work showed us some varieties of writing that sometimes looked very unfamiliar indeed.

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Dia Batal uses a range of media to create Sculptures based on Arabic script.

Dia Batal’s work is as much sculpture as writing, rendering Arabic script physical and three dimensional in metalwork and other media. The letters may be ornate but the materials have a strength and presence, perhaps because the force and impact of writing are her primary concern, dealing in text that details harrowing stories of conflict and displacement. Sam Winston creates work that hovers on the boundaries of drawing and writing, in durational performances that often take place in the dark, gradually covering the page surface in an intricate, unreadable filigree of pencil lines. Stevie Ronnie turned writing into a series of incongruous, witty objects: an ‘audiobook’, for instance, comprising a rope woven from strips of text.  Wound around a metal winch, it unravels, translating text into metallic clinks. Joumana Medlej created delicate folded paper forms adorned with the Kufic script, an Arabic calligraphy not meant to be read, but which instead has a symbolic potency, an aura rather than a literal meaning. These were diagrams and cosmological charts as much as texts.

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Stevie Ronnie’s infectious enthusiasm as he describes how employs a range of objects in the creation of an artists’ book.

In their various ways, these were all forms of ‘asemic’ writing:  that which can’t be read. The work seemed to ask the question of how writing communicates in other ways, and whether it needs to communicate at all. Does writing need a reader? The other major theme that emerged from the evening was that of discipline, and where exactly writing belongs. Maria Fusco, Professor of Fine Art at Northumbria University talked about what happens when writing becomes an art practice rather than a literary one. She read from her new book, Nine QWERTY Bells: Fiction for Live Voice in which she puts art objects in strange kinds of dialogue with one another.

 

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Book artist and calligrapher Joumana Medlej opens her Book of Love.

The particular piece she chose focused on Ignacio Uriarte’s
The History of the Typewriter Recited by Michael Winslow a video artwork in which the sounds of vintage typewriters are recreated orally, with uncanny accuracy. Maria’s reading was all about tracing this complicated network of crossed wires between voice, writing and object. Her aim is not to write about art, but rather to write through it, she explained. She described writing moving backwards through the gallery space and ‘bumping into things’. This collision between writing and objects - and the conjunctions that result from it - seemed to be what the evening was all about. Writing, we learned, can be stranger than you think.

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Gill Partington in conversation Maria Fusco.  

03 May 2019

Off the Page, Chapter 2

by Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. More details about Off the Page, with a full list of speakers, can be found here

As part of London’s Game Festival Fringe on Saturday 13th April, the British Library hosted Off the Page: Chapter 2, a sequel to the hugely popular original event exploring the increasingly porous boundaries between literature and games. The speakers came from a variety of backgrounds, reflecting the amorphous and interdisciplinary practices which continue to inform and push the medium(s) –including game designers, poets, writers and academics.

Emily Short’s fascinating discussion of metamorphic texts, focusing particularly on her interactive narratives based on Classical stories (Endure, a game about translating four lines of Homer and Galatea, a game based on the Pygmalion story ‘where how we treat somebody changes who they become') were challenging equally in terms of game design – questions of how to design systems that can engage people meaningfully with a feeling of interaction, and also in terms of literary theory questions – what status does the author/reader have in this dynamic? And what is the status of the text? Her comparison between these two areas was an incredibly fertile starting point for both: “Reading is very much a creative act, creating a relationship’, Sort said, ‘A process of constantly building a bridge between the present and the past. Games look at systems and structures, a great medium for inviting the reader and player into their work’.

Thryn Henderson’s exploration of the ‘video-game vignette’ struck a different note, and opened up another critical intersection between literature and game design. Henderson’s conception of the Vignette as a short experience without narrative context evoking a kind of mood is more akin to the experience of poetry, where the reader is asked to observe the often complex and contradictory responses that emerge from highly ambiguous stimulus. ‘Vignettes are difficult in ways that rules aren't’ Henderson said, ‘they take away specificity in a way’. They invite the participant to ‘play with a feeling’. Rather than being about protagonists, proxies, or witnesses, camera perspectives or bodies in space, the Vignette is about the immediacy of the space, the feeling or the narrative.

There is a tension in the Vignette between the highly personal – almost inscrutably idiosyncratic – world of feeling evoked and the form’s reluctance to engage in traditional modes of identification created by structures like character, plot and perspective. It is interesting, then, that short games are often strongly – if obliquely – autobiographical. Becky Lee, in her talk, described making what she affectionately terms ‘trashgames’, which are weird often single-mechanic experiences hosted on itch.io which she describes as ‘journal entries’. As autobiographical writings they are strange but also highly evocative of emotional landscapes, or playful day-dream like flights of fancy.  

This is not to say that the personal is restricted to these short, ‘poetic’ experiences though. Fragments of Him by Mata Haggis-Burridge aims for mimesis and narrative immersion within an autobiographical narrative space; drawing on photo research of real places; real period-specific objects and experiences with real people to draw out the subtleties and particularities of a personal and emotional process -- grief.

Often, though, the variety which is this area of practice’s strength – and the strength of the Off the Page event series -- presents challenges when trying to fit these textual objects into already well-established structures of funding, distribution, and study: are these objects games or literature? The answer (sometimes neither and sometimes both) is confusing for publishers, distributors and the academy. Emma Joy Reay’s talk on the intersection between children’s literature and video games, and her work towards her PhD at the University of Cambridge on the topic, elucidated some of these struggles. Her final invitation and assertion – that Childrens’ Literature departments had their arms open even when traditional English departments run scared – was an interesting and encouraging way to think about the event in general; as an invitation to praise, accept and celebrate ambiguity.