‘Underbelly’ is a highly original work that makes great use of the multimedia potential provided by computers. It blends text, sound effects, voiceover, archive drawings, and photographs to create a rich meditation on reproductive rights and dilemmas in both twenty-first century, and nineteenth century England.
I first met Christine Wilks when she was a student on a MA in Creative Writing and New Media that I helped run. She began working on ‘Underbelly’ for her MA thesis, and I’ve been fascinated to watch the work develop since that time. It was clear then that Christine was creating something extraordinary, an important work in the newly emerging field of digital fiction, one that shines a light on a little known part of the history of the mining industry, while illuminating a contemporary story of a woman artist at the same time.
Studies in the Maternal is an international, peer-reviewed, scholarly online journal. In addtition to the papers and reviews (listed below), this special issue also includes visual media art, on the theme of Maternal Subjectivities, Care and Labour, and Kate Pullinger writing about her novel, The Mistress of Nothing.
Marina Velez – two photographs, ‘My Family 1’ and ‘Strowis Motherhood’.
About the Study Day
MaMSIE is an international network of scholars, artists and activists working in the emerging interdisciplinary field of maternal studies. Our 6th event focuses on the interrelations between labour, capital, care and the maternal. In particular, it will consider the diverse ways ‘maternal care’ has been, and continues to be delegated and shared, and the implications for our understandings of maternal subjectivities and the labour of care.
The study day will open up ‘maternity’ as a term that includes the paid and unpaid work of a diverse range of social actors. It aims at generating a dialogue between two rich and substantial bodies of feminist scholarship; work on the social histories of domestic labour, service and servitude and current debates about globalism, migration and the care industries, recasting existing scholarship through the lens of maternal studies.
The Keynote speaker is Stella Sandford. Other speakers include: Rosie Cox, Lucy Delap, Alison Light, Mirca Madianou,Daniel Miller, Jenny Mitchell, Kate Pullinger, Rachel Thomson, Imogen Tyler, and Helen Wood.
Many thanks to the MaMSIE network and the organisers of both the Study Day and the Digital Media Competition. For more information see MaMSIE events.
*Mapping Maternal Subjectivities, Identities and Ethics
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.
Underbelly is my latest playable media fiction that I created in Flash. I call it a playable fiction because you need to explore it with your mouse to find and play the many voices of the narrator. It’s about a woman sculptor, carving on the site of a former Yorkshire colliery, now landscaped into a country park. As she carves, she is disturbed by a medley of voices, along with her ticking biological clock, and the player/reader is plunged into an underworld of the artist’s repressed fears and desires mashed up with the disregarded histories of the 19th Century women who once worked underground mining coal.
Taking my cue from another Transliteracy presentation, Kirsty McGill on Remote Audiences, I’d like to engage some remote user testing of Underbelly. As discussed in my panel’s session, one kind of transliterate practice is where an individual artist takes on a number of roles to create a multimedia digital work across what are traditionally considered different disciplines. This is certainly how I made Underbelly – I devised, wrote, designed, programmed, animated, image-edited, sound recorded/mixed and even performed the voices. One thing I didn’t do was carve the sculptures – that’s the work of my sister, Melanie Wilks. I relish working in multiple media on my own, independently, but one of the downsides is that I hardly have anyone around me to grab and say, ‘Hey, have a go at this, does it work for you?’ (other than my hard-pressed partner, Dane Gould, whom I can’t thank enough) and usability testing is essential for interactive pieces.
So I would be very grateful if, after playing with Underbelly, you would leave comments for me here about any bugs or issues you might find, or any improvements you’d like to see to the user interface. Comments on any other aspect of the work would be most welcome too. Cheers.
Here’s how Lisa Baraitser and Sigal Spigel describe the work in their editorial:
Christine Wilks’ wonderfully quirky interactive digital media work: Fitting the Pattern: or being a dressmaker’s daughter… is a memoir about her mother, a skilled dressmaker, whom Christine grew up with in Leeds. Christine makes use of biographical minutiae at their intersection with cultural representations for exploring the emergence of subjectivities within mother-daughter relations. The work invites the reader/viewer to take part in the exploration and mediated construction of perplexed yet intimate mother-daughter relationship.
About Studies in the Maternal
Studies in the Maternal is an international, peer-reviewed, scholarly online journal. It aims to provide a forum for contemporary critical debates on the maternal understood as lived experience, social location, political and scientific practice, economic and ethical challenge, a theoretical question, and a structural dimension in human relations, politics and ethics.
The e-journal publishes “articles, essays and reviews from academics, writers, artists and clinical and cultural practitioners who engage with the maternal from diverse perspectives,” including multimedia work that “falls outside of the textual tradition.”