Final Workshop For February

This week saw the final session in the first series of workshops, bringing the sessions full circle with a return visit by the group to Nottingham Contemporary after an introductory session at the beginning of the month and two sessions at Bilborough Library and Community Centre making our own responses to Jack Goldstein’s Text Totems and the implied and real sound used in both Goldstein’s records and Anne Collier’s photographs of LP sleeves.

Of course, as previous accounts of the workshops have shown,  the group has expanded since that first visit, so those arriving today included many who had been responding to the works in these exhibitions without having seen them, including Dawn, Albert and Gloria (who also added even more variety to our usual mix by bringing along her small grand-daughter: she joined a half term children’s tour for the workshop’s duration, and will be returning with her gran on Saturday).

With these newcomers to the galleries (and a reporter from the Bilborough community newsletter) joining old hands from week one like Kath, Irene and Maureen around the Studio table, we set about a new exercise, this time to look at the exhibitions and find a work that related to the pieces we’d made ourselves during previous workshops, then write something about it. What did the work make us think about? Did it make us remember things in our own lives, or open up new ideas we might not have come to without its prompting?

The notes could (and did) cover many aspects of the work on show. Some emphasised the materials, others the content – the things portrayed, quite separate from the art-historical and conceptual references perhaps intended by the artists themselves. If Jack Goldstein intended his sound works to cue thoughts about artifice, the nature of the image and other questions of aesthetics, mediation and simulation (the terms in which the records are often discussed) that didn’t preclude more direct responses.

The Burning Forest, for example, inspired one lady to remember witnessing a fire near her home in Epping Forest many years earlier, and she vividly described the sounds, colours and smells of that experience in response to Goldstein’s reminder. Goldstein’s work suggested wartime experience to another participant, who went on to recall her time working for Boots in the Lace Market, testing the seals on gas masks (a process very like that involved in testing a bicycle inner tube for punctures). This led to many other things relating to that time, from meeting her husband (who had his own fascinating path, by way of Australia, to Nottingham, Skegness and beyond) to the making of the asbestos filters for gas masks in rooms on Station Street, where girls worked in air filled with an asbestos dust “so thick it looked like snow”.

In one sense, these very personal responses stray a long way from the standard art-historical and theoretical ways of reading artworks that are often to be found in catalogues, monographs and brochures, but at the same time they tend to tap into the preoccupations of the artists themselves in very clear ways: Jack Goldstein’s interest in the second world war is seen in many works – a kind of shadow running through the whole body of films, paintings and sound pieces – so some in our own group’s ability to sense this in a very direct and personal way suggests that he communicates his concerns on a number of different levels.

In the Studio before the session began, one lady brought in the text totem she’d not completed at the end of our second workshop (seen below) which drew on (among other things) the often beautiful names of British moths and caterpillars from a 1950s encyclopaedia: Broad Banded Yellow Underwing, Clifton Nonpariel and so on. Discussing this led from the recent absence of Red Admiral butterflies from gardens to the production of a remarkable photograph and news clippings relating to her father in law’s role in defusing a bomb that threatened St Paul’s Cathedral during the London Blitz, and the sale of another member of the team’s George Cross medal for £16,000 at a Sotheby’s auction.

Again, the coming together of butterflies, wartime experience and a personal reading of the works in the galleries proved richly layered, and while this final session was – if anything – even more chaotic in some ways than even the high standards of relative disorganisation we’d set in previous sessions, the results were fruitful. With Jo Dacombe, Aimee Wilkinson and myself on hand to make notes on conversations to supplement the notes made by the participants themselves, we managed to gather a lot of material that my next job will be to edit and compile into a written piece that will (try to) represent these sessions in a small publication for display in the Study at Nottingham Contemporary and in the library at Bilborough.

There will also, we hope, be an opportunity to revisit the centre in Bilborough and present the finished writings there before the end of the residency, and those taking part today were certainly enthusiastic about taking part in future projects with the gallery. When the  communities programmer Saima Kaur (who has quietly done most of the day to organising of things like transport, rooms and ensured the all-important presence of biscuits and tea bags throughout these sessions) wrapped things up with a question about looking into future sessions, perhaps involving other artists and writers responding to other exhibitions, the interest around the table was unanimous.

Perhaps the general feeling was summed up by Albert, who passed up the chance to come along for the first session, but joined us in Bilborough for the second workshop, and came to all the rest. Walking around the Anne Collier exhibition, and looking through the panoramic window onto Weekday Cross, he said he’d seen the building from outside and not thought about going in, but now he was here was finding it a nice place to be. “It’s good to have something a bit different to look at”, he said. “I like the pictures at the Castle when I’ve been there and I wouldn’t have thought I’d like these as much, if you’d just told me about them. But now I’m here it turns out I do.”

As aways, just as we felt we’d begun to get to know the group properly, the four weeks were  already over, but with the text to write up and present in Bilborough, and the possibility of further sessions looking good, hopefully our parting of the ways yesterday lunchtime marks the beginning rather than the end of something.

Aimee Wilkinson’s account of the final two sessions is now on her own blog, here.


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