So much history is buried beneath our feet, and histories buried in other ways, by forgetfulness or disregard. If you live in a former mining area in Britain, that history is deep underground. Evidence of the coal mines have been erased from the landscape, swept away in less than a generation. Deeper still in the past there’s a buried history of women working underground too. When I found out about the women miners, I thought of my sister, the sculptor, Melanie Wilks, working on the site of a former colliery turned into parkland, hand-carving stone on the very ground above where those pasts are buried.
Such fragments of contemporary life and shards of history I hauled together to build Underbelly in digital media, collaging a rich and often grotesque mix of imagery, spoken word, video, animation and text. It’s an interactive story about a woman artist who, while sculpting on the site of a former Yorkshire colliery, is haunted by a medley of voices.
It includes video of my sister carving and the voices are performed by me. The historical content is drawn from the testimonies of 19th Century women miners collected by Lord Ashley’s Mines Commission of 1842, which exposed working conditions in the pits.
My sister and I were raised in Morley, a Northern industrial town, whose prosperity in previous centuries was built on shoddy mills, coal mining and quarrying. Our family has lived in this area for generations and, although we both moved away, we found ourselves returning to Morley to live.
When we were growing up here, the place was black, black with soot from the mill chimneys and heavy industry. Pollution clings to carboniferous sandstone and almost everything, apart from the modern housing estates, was built from the local sandstone. It felt like the coal-black of the pits had risen above ground, as if the back-to-back houses, the chapels, the pubs, the civic buildings were built from coal. I even remember, as a baby, my sister used to like eating the stuff. We had coal fires, of course, and there was warmth, but I wanted to escape all that blackness and the weight of the Victorian heritage bearing down on us.
So it’s ironic that I ended up back in my old hometown, Melanie too, both of us creating artworks that are rooted in the locality, which Underbelly clearly is if not my other works. As for my sister, well, most of her creative output is located in the area. She carves it from the local sandstone, often working in the local quarry (where she met her husband, Neil, an ex-miner). She is quite literally a local artist. Whereas, in some sense, I’m not really present in Morley. I’m in my computer most of the time, in virtual space, roaming the internet, connecting, conversing and often collaborating with other people, geographically far away, in other countries.
And where does my work exist? It’s digital, conjured up out of code – just zeros and ones when you get down to it – it’s nowhere and anywhere and all over the place, scattered or drifting, packets of data being pulled and pushed in cyberspace. Whereas Melanie’s stone sculptures are unequivocally present, rock solid in a geographical location. We’re at opposite ends of the scale – sisters, so similar and yet so far apart in terms of the materials and processes we work with. But both of us, in our different ways, working with the past in the present.
Neo-Victorian Art and Aestheticism
Recently I gave a talk about Underbelly, and performed it too, for the Neo-Victorian Art and Aestheticism Conference at Hull University. My aim was to explore the connections between the digital fiction’s vernacular Victorian representations and its 21st Century sculptor, whose art practice is based on that of my sister, hand-carving in what could be viewed as a traditional and vernacular figurative style. It’s no coincidence that Melanie’s work is often commissioned by local communities in West Yorkshire to commemorate the passing of their traditional industries or, more particularly, the passing of those working lives. There’s a poignancy to the sculptures but they also evoke a strong sense of Neo-Victorian civic pride – for example, The Weaver and The Miner, two sculptures by Melanie sited in front of Morley’s grand 19th Century Town Hall.
For my presentation, I tried to unearth some of the rich ironies, contradictions and correspondences between our almost diametrically opposed art forms, our experiences as working women, our uses of the past, and also how and where our artworks are situated in the (past)present. You can see the images I talked about and draw your own connections in my Underbelly Cabinet of Curios, which is a digital collection of some of the sources, influences and catalysts that gave rise to Underbelly. There’s also a peek at one stage of the process of writing and structuring the digital story. In another compartment of the ‘Cabinet’, I’ve collected some creative works by others that struck a chord with me in relation to the themes I explore in Underbelly. Speaking of which, here’s another…
Neo-Victorian Folk Song
Another instance of a vernacular Neo-Victorian aesthetic in a traditional artform, The Unthanks sing the testimony of a girl miner. I used some of Patience Kershaw’s testimony in Underbelly too.
Thanks to James Pope, one of the judges for the New Media Writing Prize 2010 (which was awarded to Underbelly) for drawing my attention to this moving Neo-Victorian folk song (originally by Frank Higgins) on The Unthanks album, Here’s The Tender Coming.
Performance Writing 2010 – PW10 festival 8 & 10 May
PW10 is a partnership event between Performance Writing and the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol. It will be a two day gathering of many who have been associated with Performance Writing over its illustrious 15 year history. The weekend will comprise performances, talks, readings, exhibitions, interventions and a workshop.
Underbelly is part of an exhibition of digital textwork/e-literature curated by J. R. Carpenter for the festival. It’s being shown alongside these works by the following fantastic writers/artists:
J. R. Carpenter Entre Ville 2006, and three new Python story generators.
and the launch of _feralC_ a new web work by MEZ 2010, commissioned by Arnolfini
Before sending a CD of Underbelly to J.R. for the exhibition, I made some tweaks to it, which I’ve long been wanting to do but hadn’t found time lately due to the demands of my freelance work. So now I think I should accept – deep breath – that the piece is finally finished! I can move on to new work… Bliss!
Binarykatwalk is an online exhibition space for experimental digital work, curated by locative media/new media artist and writer, Jeremy Hight, and this month sees the launch of the Kate Pullinger section of The Line of Influence, which is:
…a series of a few artists selected to show their work alongside who influenced them and those they see as kindred spirits coming up. This is not an ordinary exhibition, but instead a chance to show how ideas and works progress over time and how no artist is a solitary force out there.
Recently I’ve been working with the if:book team on The Museum of the Future of the History of the Book, an innovative digital literacy project for schools. So what form the book may take in the future has been much on my mind lately.
Here’s an interesting, if somewhat absurd, possibility by artist and book cover designer, Stefanie Posavec. Writing Without Words ‘is a project that explores methods of visually representing text and visualises the differences in writing styles of various authors.’
It’s absurd – and I don’t use the term pejoratively – because it’s a visualization that obscures meaning, therefore it’s paradoxical printed matter (you can buy prints), a visual oxymoron or an oxymoronic visualization, since the usual aim of information visualization is ‘to help people understand and analyze data.’ According to Wikipedia:
Visual representations and interaction techniques take advantage of the human eye’s broad bandwidth pathway into the mind to allow users to see, explore, and understand large amounts of information at once.
Which is the exact opposite of what a novel is about. Of course, Writing Without Words is art so it shouldn’t have to make literal sense. But could this be a future way of navigating a digital book? Or, since information visualization is designed to ‘provide some means to see what lies within’, could this be a future way of judging a book, not by its cover, but by its data visualization? Intriguing questions.
But I can imagine a time when books become more like art objects for people who like books, as opposed to people who like to read – the idea of being a big reader might not go hand in hand with being a lover of books, as it still does currently.
I look forward to doing most of my reading in future on a lovely e-reader… I also think the digital reading future may be liberating for the paper fabric book, turning book objects into wonderful works of art – interactive sculptural objects with stories to tell! Most objects will probably be RFID tagged anyway, so everything will be linked up to the web in one or another. All manner of things will be possible. Convergence will go many ways.