Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Telling Stories

What is Produced?

I'm afraid that this may turn out to be one of those hard-core full-on ghastly emo seguing into high theory kind of posts, so please forgive me, and I'll forgive you for skipping the scary bits and heading onto the next post which is nice lite social geography.

I went to an incredible conference the first two days of this week which is where the images come from. I have decided that Cheesy powerpoint slides are the best way to present the complex assemblage of ideas and themes in my thesis. Its either that or strip off and force my 'auditors' to actually participate in the life drawing experience......

It's not that I reject writing or listening to well formed papers, but I'm having big fat problems with my own issues of translating practice into theory, and what happens when a complex and multifaceted and often very individual set of experiences gets interpreted into a particular narrative, which is singular, and doesn't allow any space for other events, possibilities and experiences to be included.

What happens when the style of representation becomes so teleological that it allows no space for surprise, for change, for interpellation (a calling between names) - or interpolation (a calling between people)?

Sorry - it looks like I segued into high theory all too soon there.

I'll try to back track just a little.

the conference was one of the best I've ever attended to date. the range and quality of the presentations was stunning, and there were no multiple strands so we got to all hear each other. the topic was about applying creative research practice, and the applications of creative research and creative practice were mind boggling and soul warming.

Being a neurotic grumpy bastard, I'm going to pick on the only paper that gave me the shits, partly because I don't want to make people turn green at the gills reading about what they missed, and because I want to use this as a starting point to consider more difficult issues.

the things that shat me about the post are also intersecting with the stuff I'm doing in my day job as a qualitative researcher in an interdisciplinary team in Western Melbourne. We are working on participant action research in epidemiology, and my colleagues are biochemists, nutritionists, community psychologists and neuroscientists, CCD workers and community health researchers. I'm employed as the feminist ethnographer, visual ethnographer part of the project.

I'm not really in a position to start writing up my work issues here, because, since I'm working in a team, it's not my story to tell, but one that I hope we can work into some sort of communicable finding. But I mention it because I'm working within a methodology that emphasises evidence based research (ie the process of research is about collective various forms of information) and the thing I really like about this is it's transparence: we are very, very clear about what collecting information is, how we do it, why we do it, and the nexus in knowledge production between participants and researchers.

I find it interesting in relation to my art practice and the way I theorised it/analysed it in The Bloody Tome. ONe of the things that really shat me about art history involved the emphasis on interpretation of an art image as some sort of fixed immutable that was a metonym for the art practice itself: Art historical analysis of life drawing could only analyse life drawings and somehow try to interpret them into a nice neat narrative.

For what its worth, the sheer crappiness of life-drawings forced me to consider life drawing as a practice, and develop an analytical framework of visual art practice that included an evidence based emphasis of the components of that practice, however fleeting, ephemeral, subjective or invisible.

anyway, that's not what this post is about.

this post is about a paper that shat me completely.
The abstract gave me the heebeejeebees because the presenter mentioned the link between depression, child sexual abuse (pretty much diagnosing depression as a symptom of child sexual abuse), and then claimed that art could be a cure.

this sounded pretty emo and intense, but a reasonable enough claim. I'm never keen to go around picking at my own psychic scabs, but as my period at art school coincided with my 4 year therapy for childhood sexual abuse, I thought I would probably find it interesting to see how someone undertook research on what is a pretty intense situation....

(At the same time, I kept thinking of Paul Carter's discussion of polyhedral research and his discussion of the etymology of "hedra" as referring the rump and the saddle, and how this connection of seatedness was the basis on which people mapped paths over places and histories.... and my brain linked this to the bit in Michael Taussig's: A study in Terror and healing where he refers to the imaginative spaced generated between the sweaty arse of he that is carried and the sweaty back of him that carries, and that's a pretty wild segue but it's where my brain kept going, and I almost wanted to mention it......)


the speaker essentially gave an account of her interpretations of the figurative semi-expressionist paintings of an Australian (male) artist who had a bit of a depressive crisis, saw the paintings of Salvador Dali in Spain, and then 'came out' about being sexually abused as a child.

I'm not dissing him, nor the paintings, but this is how I received the account of his life and work as represented by the speaker. She showed large slides of each painting, and told a story about each based on her interpretation of a number of elements that were pictorially depicted, like a man, a hole, a pile of stones, a dog, a river, a field. there was nothing about colour, and shape, texture, form, size, thickness, sheen, and very little about composition. she could have been describing photographs, or films stills, or sculptures, or words written on cards, or words spoken, or a stage set. the fact was, is that she was interpreting a number of image components, but she was not, as far as I could tell, demonstrating any engagement with the paintings; merely applying her own narrative to a Freudian analysis of story telling.

I started to remember that bit in Deleuze and Guattari about little Hans and the Melanie Klein interpretation of whatever he was saying that insisted on a clear interpretation of his toddler babble that bound it within a Freudian doctrine of Oedipal angst, and the phallus, or something similar.

I felt like little Hans, I wanted to scream. I really wanted to scream when she said "Storytelling is the best cure for Sexual Abuse victims. If they can tell their story, then they can be healed of their depression".

I think I may have believed that for a few stoned moments in the early 1990's, but fortunately that belief was shattered when reclaim the night rallies started featuring redemption stories of born again christians recounting their stories of sexual abuse by satanic cults. Stories are important and powerful not because of the truth of what they say, but of the conversations that are allowed to happen around them . I believe truth is in the weird gaps between words, in the murky spots between images, in the fumbling for words, the stumbles, the spaces and the silences. The parts where they eyes mist and meet, where bodies curl or hands unfurl. I was lucky enough that my psychoanalytic journey was via somatic psychotherapy and it gave me the courage to stop telling stories, but to sit silently and feel, and sense, and wait, and open myself up to a discovery of what couldn't be described or told or narrated, but how living, remembering, grieving and healing actually felt, and feels like, and how it feels.

where Freudian story telling emphasizes the past, and reinscribing a new telos on an old one, I'm more interested in the future, in how the past suddenly appears in the present and what can be done with it, where it can go.

My own experience of depression is that it involves a vast fatigue, a deep anomie, and a shutting down that refuses all communication. At its best depression is a space where I've been able to rest, to stop telling stories but just mooch about sobbing and sulking for a while. At it's worst, it's utter fucking hell, which is why I've embraced biochemical solutions, to try to manage and contain the collapse into myself while still trying to let myself go numb for a bit, and retreat from the world.

I guess I found the paper offensive because the interpretations silenced other interpretations of the artists' paintings, except as narratives of horror, and from what I could tell, there was a lot more in them than that. It also silenced other interpretations of healing and surviving sexual abuse. Given the statistics, there would have been 20 other people in that room who had experienced childhood sexual abuse, and dealt with that on a daily basis in the course of creative practice. It just happens. we don't tell our story and get miraculously healed. Damage insinuates itself into every cell of our being, and it's something we have to learn to walk with, sing with, fuck with and breathe as we continue to move through life.

One of my art school teachers said that "painting is a bout secrets" and I believed him. I believe it is these secret sacred parts ourselves that get embedded between our bodies and the stuff of the world where creativity lies, they do have the power to engender new sensations, connections, new possibilities for how life can be made marvellous, and not merely endured.


lauren said...

*arousing plause*.. ermm.. *rousing applause*

bravo, bravo!!

oh how i wish that after that paper, the conference became a debate and you presented for the negative, miss mayhem.

i am totally green with envy about missing that conference (my theory in practice is working a day job that interrupts such things) and i know that i would have felt equally as unsatisfied with that paper as you.

melissa said...

On the conference that I went to on the session that I presented on Real Emergency, was a person doing a similar reading of artwork through reoccurance of masonic symbols in Mathew Barney as indicative of ritual abuse - I had same feeling that it reduced a complex system down to one pseudo forensic reading implying the artist was abused (ritually). When you wrote "the interpretations silenced other interpretations of the artists' paintings, except as narratives of horror" I felt that this was exactly what the author had done. While there was no denying the presence of masonic symbols in work and sexual overtones in cremaster series the discussion of the evidence of abuse within an artwork without discussing the other elements of the artwork and other interpretations reduces the artist to the status of victim the art work the document of victimhood (if that is a word) and as such denies all other readings

But then your comments on the single line narrative structure of the conference paper is also very thought provoking - I have definately have been doing that very easy to remain within the system and expectations of the academic world while chasing solid footing in a career beginning

mayhem said...

Aww thanks guys!

Some people might say that the Cremaster cycle is itself a form of abuse, and quite a few boffins equate Barney with Salvador Dali: ie a protofascist manipulator of signs, that eliminate the possibility of creation and movement, but maybe they are just stroppy bastards.

jebni said...

Fucking awesome!

Skanky Jane said...
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