Whitespace: Learning from repeated performance

Over the past few months, my piece Whitespace has had eleven performances, and while I’m not quite done with it yet – it seems to be the piece that is perpetually redefining itself – I feel it’s time to start drawing together my ideas about it and seeing if I can make some sense of it all.

I’m not going to summarise all the versions that have been performed so far – I’ve talked about all these over on the vlog (episodes 10, 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16 so far, if you’re keen to review). Instead, I want to think more broadly – what I’ve gained from doing all this and what larger ideas have emerged that might go somewhere else.

Whitespace has been a piece that’s really surprised me in the amount I’ve learned from it and how far it’s gone – it started from ideas about my notebook as a form of studio (something which keeps coming up in discussions with my supervisors), and from there thinking how the space of my studio could relate to the space of a piece of paper. At the start, I had it firmly in mind that it was a solo piece, for me, in my studio. As opportunities arose to test it in other locations and other ways, it began to expand though, becoming an ensemble piece, finding sound in it, taking it outdoors, and now, returning to the studio, invigorated with new ideas about the space and its potential relationship to the score.

It’s important, I think, to acknowledge that this piece is also a research instrument, a way for me to understand my working spaces better. As such, moving it out of the studio and into other locations and onto other people’s bodies, has been extremely valuable. The first time I performed it (solo, in the studio), I became aware of how many obstacles there were in my room – furniture, stuff lying about on the floor – that wasn’t apparent from my normal paths across the space. The most recent performances have focused in on the sounds made by the actual things in the room, and I’m much more aware now that I have longstanding patterns of efficient movement in the studio which have been brought to light by performance.

Returning to the studio after eight performances in other locations also made me more aware of the levels of ambient noise in my working space (single-glazed windows looking out onto a main road, sounds from activity elsewhere in the house) and its position as a space within a space (studio within home within neighbourhood). It doesn’t stand alone as a space – it cannot, because these surrounding spaces leak through and form part of my sonic working environment. I’ve become aware too of my own presence in my studio – initially was I so focused on what was in the room that I wasn’t thinking at all about who was in the room. But my presence is what makes it my studio – otherwise it’d just be a room at the top of the house that contains some specialist equipment.

I’ve been diligently filming all these performances, and this has been vital to identifying ideas about space, and performance within a physical space in relation to the space that is the frame of the video camera. Questions about position, distance, visible detail, identification, being in and out of frame. Also questions about who and where the audience is, and whether they really matter in a participatory piece like this which is more about performing than it is about observing or listening. The recording has been almost as important as the performing in these respects.

But where to go from here? There’s been so many ideas prompted by this piece that it’s hard to choose what to focus on. Whitespace has already led to a new project, which is in progress – an altered book, using an existing (printed) book as a notebook. The early performances of Whitespace made me realise that while my studio is almost always a mess, the pages of my notebooks are lovely and blank when I go to work on them. My physical working environment is filled with noise, but the notebook is (visually) quiet. So I began to wonder how my working process might be affected if my notebook was as noisy and chaotic an environment as my studio.

Altered book, spread 33

I’ve been working through drawing, collage, writing and overwriting to try out new approaches and consider my responses to this new noisy environment. I’m not sure yet whether this will be an ongoing project or a short-term experiment – mostly I’m using it to challenge aspects of my process that I’ve been taking for granted up until now.

My latest work with Whitespace is to work out how it can be accessible to other people. It’s very much a participatory piece – it’s more about doing it than watching it, even in public spaces – so I’m trying to figure out how to create an overarching score for it that allows for the variety of variants I’ve already worked through, as well as ones I haven’t yet thought of. The challenge is to be precise about what needs to be done, while being as vague as possible about how to do it, I think…

Taking the private public

NotebooksThere’s something rather odd, really, about making a decision to share private material in public. It’s a process which is attended with questions like ‘why would anyone care?’, ‘but what if people are mean about it?’ and of course ‘what if people think I’m a raving narcissist?’

These are all quite possible of course and perhaps, with what I currently have in mind, even probable: what I’m currently considering is publishing my composition notebooks online.

Perhaps some context is needed. My notebooks pretty much ARE my creative life. Those of you who visit here often, or follow me on various forms of social media, may already be aware that for the past 6 months I’ve been creating video blogs of my composition work – regular updates where I talk about what I’ve been working on and how pieces are developing. Just about everything I talk about in the vlog episodes started out in the notebooks. It’s where I make notes of peculiar ideas, develop my thinking around those ideas, build them up with notes on things I’ve read or listened to or watched, paste in photographs or screensnaps of related image-based work, and generally develop my thinking. It’s also where just about everything in my professional life gets noted – meetings with Bastard Assignments, meetings with website clients, lists of library books I want to check out, lists of what I’m reading and listening to, great long rambles about how I’m tired and stressed and don’t have a clue what I’m doing. Everything.

I write a lot in these books – normally I go through one 250-page notebook about every 2-3 months, although this current book I’ve had for 3 weeks and am already 115 pages in… So we’re talking about serious volume here.

At this point, perhaps we need to address that last question above: ‘So, Caitlin, are you in fact a raving narcissist?’
Erm… no, I really don’t think so. The idea behind this plan isn’t that I think I’m so very special everyone’s going to want to read everything I ever wrote. It isn’t that I think this stuff needs to be preserved for posterity. Instead, the purpose is transparency of process and to see what effect this private-work-in-public might have on how I work, the quality of work produced perhaps, how I feel about my work, where my own boundaries are, and other questions that are being raised as my PhD research investigates the line between public and private.

Something I really need to work out though as I try to fathom how to go about this, is the question of redaction. I feel quite strongly that as little as possible should be removed from the books – too much editing and the whole enterprise would lose its purpose. But it’s a tricky line to tread – where do you stop? At what point does discomfort with openness become actual redaction? I feel there needs to be solid, objectively constructed rules so that mere embarrassment doesn’t decide whether something is hidden.

A recent spread from my current notebook
A recent spread from my current notebook – click to view larger

At the moment, the key to redacted content seems to be to protect the people in my life who are a significant influence on my work (Bastard Assignments and my supervisors, for a start). I’m considering obscuring or perhaps coding names, and I’m considering a blanket rule to remove the notes I take in my supervision meetings because I’d rather my often quite scrappy note-taking didn’t have the chance to reflect negatively on my supervisors. Most of the things raised in these meetings end up being discussed in other forms afterwards as I get around to looking at them in detail, so nothing of consequence should be lost as regards process.

After the question of content comes that of logistics. And much of that will rest on what level of engagement with the content should be facilitated – the setup to just allow browsing of pages is much less complex than that which would allow, say, viewing of all content relating to a particular piece or topic. And of course, the whole system has to be able to be streamlined enough that I’m not spending hours and hours and hours redacting and categorising content which may – realistically – never actually be looked at!

Are you aware of other creative artists who routinely post their working notes online? Do you have any suggestions for software or approaches I might consider? I’d love to hear them!

The deep sea of ignorance

Three weeks ago I started my PhD. I knew that there’d come a point when I felt adrift on a sea of ignorance, but frankly I hadn’t expected it to happen quite so soon! I think all research projects go through this stage. You start out, full of eagerness and anticipation, reading everything in sight, you start to develop some ideas and then – BAM – confusion and disorientation. And somehow I’ve reached this point within a mere three weeks of part-time study.

To be perfectly clear, I actually don’t mind this. This sea of ignorance thing is just fine by me – I usually find that it’s a moment where so many possibilities have opened up that it’s hard to pick a direction and while it’s a bit daunting, it’s also very exciting. Especially given that I’ve got the time to pursue these different directions, which is something I need to keep reminding myself of. In previous research projects, time limitations have meant that while I’ve enjoyed the research process, there’s also been an underlying sense of panic that I might not get through everything I want to. I’ll probably still not get through everything I want to, but at this point I have the time to explore these different avenues and decide whether to pursue them further.

So while I don’t have any particular topic to talk about today, I think it might be useful to drivel on a bit about all the different things that are rattling round in my brain at the moment:

  • Having discovered that when I talk about art, the terms I use are actually music terms, I’m investigating the art-meanings of words like ‘gesture’ and ‘space’ which is actually kind of blowing my mind and making me look at all the things I do in a whole new way
  • I’m reading Allan Kaprow’s Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, which is fascinating and one of the best-written books I’ve read in a long, long time. Beautiful use of language + interesting content = reading-nirvana
  • I’m carrying on with reading Anselm Kiefer’s Notebooks, Vol. 1, which I’m enjoying but not finding it as enlightening as I’d expected to. I’ve also read a number of interviews with him and while I’m finding much in there that reinforces my existing interests, I’m not really seeing anything that’s opening up new paths in the way that the Richard Long research did at every turn. Possibly it’s just that I’ve matured as an artist since first looking at Long, possibly it’s just that what I have from Kiefer isn’t connecting as well with my thinking, but at the moment it’s looking like the Kiefer aspect of the original project1. may be dissolving away to be a sideline rather than the project’s focus
  • Most of what I’m currently looking at is art-based, which feels a little unbalanced but is also clearly the deep-sea trench of ignorance for me right now. It’s catch-up time, really. So I’m attempting to redress this imbalance by developing ideas for the cello piece further and thinking about some fixed-media stuff I could work on in the interim. For a while I’ve had this idea to include visual & audio elements from the composition process within the finished work, so I’ve been working through some ideas on how to do this – how to deal with the circularity of the concept and also how I feel about the necessarily artificial nature of presenting my creative process in this way, given that it’s not possible to display the entirety of what goes into a piece, and what role the curating of the process will play. Also how to draw links between this material and the material which results from the process so that the relationship between them is strong and it’s not just a piece with some background stuff layered over it.
  • In relation to that, thinking about ways of documenting my process: photographs, having a permanent setup to video myself working, video up close and centred on the work, video that considers the space in which I work too (this one goes back to point 1 and considering how artists define ‘space’), recording sounds, drawing diagrams, perhaps? I suspect I’m going to need to be a lot more structured about how I record work on a daily basis if I’m going to go through with this. I also suspect I’m going to need to buy a simply massive external hard-drive to store all this stuff… Possibly a new scanner too, given that mine seems to be refusing to scan anything.
  • Reading really is very time-consuming, isn’t it? I’m not a particularly slow reader, but to read something, really understand it, and then contemplate how it may or may not apply to one’s creative work really takes a frustratingly long time. I never noticed this before. Possibly this has something to do with everything I read and every conversation adding another 15 items to my want-to-read pile…

1. return The title of my proposal is “Questioning the division of ‘public’ and ‘private’ creative spaces through an interdisciplinary approach to composition derived from a performative interpretation of visual art processes” where Kiefer was to be the ‘visual art processes’ part that I was going to be performatively interpreting.

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