Interstellar matter

This week I found myself in the pub with a group of astrophysicists – from undergraduate to head of department level. It’s funny to hear people talking casually about interstellar matter almost as an aside, as something they just know about. It left me wishing that I knew more about what happens beyond the earth, and about the building blocks of the universe.

I was asking the physicists about their methods; how do they observe things? How are new things discovered? They told me about some of their methods: spectroscopy involves measuring the emission of electromagnetic radiation from matter, morphology involves looking at the shape of bodies or collections of matter. You can test the chemistry of molecules in a lab by staging reactions on a small scale and measuring emissions, or you can observe stars and galaxies at a distance using telescopes to collect data on electromagnetic emissions and morphology. Observation is combined with mathematical modelling from the (sometimes sparse) data that has been collected.

Two things in particular struck me from peoples responses.

1) There seems to be a distinct split in physics between being an observer and being a theorist. Apparently very few people are both – you either work on the mathematics and the modelling, or you work on observation and data collection. Recently I listened to an old episode of ‘In Our Time’ on optics and in this episode they guests were talking about the separate paths of practice and theory in the development of lenses. Lenses were being made (e.g. for glasses) by artisans, whilst separately philosophers and mathematicians were writing treatises on optics without actually practically testing any of their theories. The programme suggested that it was really only with the enlightenment and the work of Galileo and Kepler that these two separate paths came together. Of course now theorists and observers work closely in the same university department, but I was surprised that this split endures.

2) Interpreting data beyond our visual capabilities can become second nature, like speaking a foreign language. Talking a bit about the large telescopes used to collect data, I asked whether they actually go and look through the telescopes (they do sometimes) or if data was collected and disseminated to different researchers (this is also often true). As a layperson I tend to think of telescopes in terms of magnification – visually observing distant planets. But although some observation is visual – looking at shape and colour – when considering the whole electromagnetic spectrum, most data is outside our visual range, so researchers receive it in numerical form. I asked whether, over time, interpreting this data becomes as straightforward as the visual interpretation that we all do habitually every day. One of the group suggested it’s like learning a foreign language – eventually you can think in this language.

I also had a discussion about how ideas progress and, from this meeting at least, it seemed that a theory often comes first (although in truth the process must be recursive). Then it’s a case of testing whether observed data supports that theory. Some of the Phd students present explained that when they want ‘telescope time’ they have to make a case to book this with a coherent proposal about what they are looking for. I also talked to one person a bit about the meeting point of process, of day to day work and its minutiae with the ambition of astrophysics to explain the universe – the bigger picture of discovery. Interestingly he said that, if you think too much about the big picture you will miss a lot of the detail. I can imagine trying to have both in mind at once, but one at the forefront of your mind and the other hovering in the background.

Holes in our heads (or a few erratic links)

I have been listening to some radio programmes from the archive of Mind Changers, a series about important case studies from the history of psychology. One episode told the story of Phineas Gage, a railway worker who, in 1848, survived a massive trauma when a tamping iron was shot through his head by an explosion. He suffered significant brain injury and became important for the study of neuroscience as people watched how his personality and characteristics changed.

One thing that struck me was that there isn’t definitive evidence/reporting on the impact of the accident. To some extent we don’t really know how it effected him. From his doctor there were some reports of him becoming disinhibited and swearing more often, but records are few. Some other reports on him were not written until 20 years later. There is the suggestion he joined a circus (or a kind of museum for curiosities) but other records indicate that he became a coach driver – a role for which you’d have to be quite self controlled.

The accident occurred at a time when people were starting to theorise that the brain had specialised areas, so some theorists wanted to use his story to illustrate how, when one area of brain destroyed, certain elements of personality/character are destroyed with it. Others thought that all areas of brain carried out all functions, so the fact that he survived and could still live adequately could equally be used to demonstrate this opposing theory.

The question of who is reporting an event and what they remember or what they prioritise also came to mind in two other instances this week. First another Mind Changers programme, about Sigmund Freud and his patient Dora. Freud believed Dora was telling the truth in her account of how her father had offered her to his friend in exchange for the continued sexual favours of the friend’s wife. But Freud was only really interested in the truth of her story for his purposes, in order to prove his theory of infant sexuality. It is another case of selecting or shaping evidence for your own ends.

Taking the idea of reporting events and ‘truth’ in a slightly different direction, I went to see filmmaker Clio Barnard talk about her work. She described how for the film “The Arbor” she interviewed 2 sisters who remembered the same story of a fire in very different ways, one as a story of neglect and the other as a funny occurrence. This relates to memory and how we remember things based on both how we perceived something at the time but also things we imagine or reconstruct them subsequently. For Barnard, this leads to a question of how to depict such stories in film. Her work is concerned with the idea of ‘truth’ and the impossibility of a documentary film that really tells the truth. With another work Road Race, she asked what is more real? – a fiction film that mimics the way we focus our attention in on particular sounds or images, or a film as a document where all sound and vision is given equal weighting. The work depicts a pony and trap race in these two different styles with the result that neither gives access to the full event. Both methods have their limitations.

Reader respond

Last week I attended a workshop by Kate Briggs, a writer and artist who is currently undertaking a project as part of Leeds College of Art and Design’s “Library Interventions”. Kate’s current work is concerned with how we read books, with a particular (although not exclusive) interest in how individuals engage with novels. When we are not reading a book – when we’ve finished it, or when we have yet to pick it up – what is our relationship to it? Is it possible to hold something the length of a novel in mind, so as to truly know it? What aspects and influences from our own lives impact upon on how we read?

Kate Briggs' artwork, tracking her eye movements whilst reading "The story in it" by Henry James.

Kate Briggs’ artwork, tracking her eye movements whilst reading “The story in it” by Henry James.

These questions are to do with memory and emotional impact, but also relate to the idea of expertise. Kate wondered what it means to be an ‘expert’ on a literary form that is so difficult to retain in its entirety. She showed us 3 examples of her work that track her reading in different ways, variously recording acts of reading in terms of reading patterns or the emotional impact of books. She described these works as ‘methodologies;’ they could be repeated with other books or potentially by other people. Her first example involved noting the time and duration of her reading sessions. This included regular short reading sessions and longer periods over lunch time, about which she explained that she often read whilst her child was napping. This ‘extra’ information is not included in the transcription, but her personal anecdote perhaps demonstrates an interest not just in recording the act of reading, but in the lived context and emotive markers that surround it. The work is from a particular period in her life, indicating the routine that came along with it.

For another piece she worked with an experimental psychologist to track her eye movements whilst reading a short story by Henry James. Again her anecdotal explanation was interesting, that she met the psychologist for the first time when undertaking the reading and was initially self-conscious, constrained by the odd situation of sitting in a room, reading in silence with a stranger. The psychologist said that he could tell that the movements got more relaxed as she read, as if she was over-concentrating at first and then as she got more involved in the story, forgot her real world situation.

The final work she talked about – ‘An exercise in pathetic criticism’ – was inspired by Roland Barthe’s advocacy of a ‘pathetic criticism,’ criticism based on the moments of novels that affect us emotionally, that hold pathos. The work involved her talking to a range of people about their experience of reading the “Count of Monte Cristo,” and the bits that were impactful for them. She was surprised at the small volume of material that people described back to her, although the project also made her reflect on reading as a shared experience – knowledge of the same book meaning you can both inhabit the same imaginary space.

I haven’t read “The Preparation of the Novel” – Barthes’ text from which the idea of pathetic criticism is taken – but I have read “Camera Lucida.” It sounds like there is some similarity between the idea of the ‘punctum’ that Barthes advances there and the notion of pathetic criticism. Both are examples of Barthes’ focus on the reception of texts – the ‘birth of the reader’ – but rather than relying on focused, critical ‘reading’ of texts and images, they are concerned with the emotional impact of such representations.

The session made me think about the different ways that I read, on the kinds of attention that I give to books, whether for enjoyment or knowledge. For me reading novels is largely for enjoyment and I don’t think too hard about their structure, or attempt either to remember or critique them. As part of a book group I have realised how little I retain of books unless prompted by others’ recollections. It is perhaps the mood, or tenor of a book that stays with me, rather than its specifics. But are books qualitatively different from other experiences in how we remember them? Is it easier to retain an image-based artwork for example? At the start of the session Kate read a quote from Percy Lubbock on ‘The Craft of Fiction’; he made a distinction between books and sculpture or architecture. The latter he suggests are things that exist all at once (akin to the time/space distinction made by Lessing in relation to poetry/painting). But the whole group agreed that this distinction doesn’t really hold. We may also look at a sculpture or a building and retain just a sense of it, not the finer detail. First of all it depends on the initial attention you give to something when you perceive it and then to whether that perception is retained in memory.

I’ll be interested to see the outcome of Kate’s project. Because she is undertaking this in an art library she was beginning to think about whether we engage with art books differently from novels. There are potential differences perhaps, including books you use for reference vs. books for enjoyment, books you dip in to vs. ones you read from start to finish, books that are creative objects vs. books that document creative objects, books where images are an aid reading text, books where text is an aid to reading images, or books where text and images help to interpret one another equally.

Uncommon Ground

On a visit to Uncommon Ground: Land Art in Britain 1966-1979, currently on show at Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, I was reminded of the work of Keith Arnatt. On show are his works ‘Liverpool Beach Burial’ and ‘Mirror-lined pit (grass bottom)’ (1968). I recall seeing a similar piece of Arnatt’s work ‘Self Burial’ a few years ago at the Henry Moore Institute, although don’t remember if these two pieces were included in that exhibition too.

Exhibited alongside Arnatt was John Hilliard’s ‘Across The Park’ (1972) – a series of 4 pairs of photographs. The top image in each pair showed a man (presumably the artist) walking across the park. The bottom photograph was the same image but now with a wider crop, so the broader scene is revealed. The artist is following someone, holding a balloon or about to be hit over the head with a piece of wood.

I like both Arnatt’s and Hilliard’s work for its sense of humour. It documents slight or somewhat mundane actions (although burying lots of people, or yourself many times is perhaps not that slight if you think about the process!) The works are playful and they play with our perception. ‘A Walk in The Park’ demonstrates the limits of photographic truth and both artists explore the relationship between performative actions and documentation. I do like work by more ‘serious’ land artists such as Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, who are also represented in the exhibition, but I find them a bit earnest. So the daftness of Arnatt and Hilliard is appreciated.

Another piece in the exhibition that employs quite a dead-pan, repetitive structure but tinged with risk, is ‘Landscape on Fire’ (1972) by Anthony McCall. People in white boiler suits walk around the landscape setting fire to a series of bowls/mini beacons that must be filled with petrol or similar, arranged in a grid shape. They intermittently set off loud hailers and flares. Filmed in the darkening dusk, it is quite evocative with the smoke filled atmosphere, flickering light and noise making me think variously about camping trips, burning moorland, industrial landscapes where you might see chemicals being burnt off from chimneys and of light formations used to guide planes to land. It also brought to mind a more recent film work by Sutapa Biswas. ‘Magnesium Bird’ (2004). Filmed at Harewood House, it shows pieces of magnesium being ignited in series. My overwhelming memory of the film is of the light and smoke and the camera movement as it panned across the scene at an angle low to the ground. I had forgotten the soundtrack of children playing and feint figures in the background evident from a clip of the work available online. (N.B. clips of both ‘Magnesium Bird’ and ‘Landscape on Fire’ can be viewed on the website using the links above. Clips are in the right hand menu).

I don’t think Biswas’ work was specifically devised in relation to its being filmed in a Capability Brown landscape, but it leads me to mention that over the summer I will be making a landscape intervention work with Pavilion at Whitley Beaumont in Kirklees. This is a landscape with equivocal attribution to Capability Brown and forms part of a series of commissions exploring lost Brown landscapes. Although I haven’t started working on it yet, the question of what I might do is sitting in the back of my mind. So the exhibition of land art was perfectly timed to spark some ideas.

Glasgow International

I recently visited Glasgow International festival and particularly enjoyed some of the film and video works. Here is a round up. (N.B. I didn’t take any photos myself so have nicked images from various places on the internet to illustrate, sources are given under each image)

Rasberry Poser by Jordan Wolfson (2014. Image from:

First, Jordan Wolfson. I’d seen images of his work ‘Rasberry Poser’ (2014) online and hadn’t liked the look of it – something about the aesthetic of his cartoon images overlaid on swish, domestic interiors. So I wasn’t excited to see his work, but I really enjoyed searching it out in the McLellan Galleries. The exhibition was very well installed within this historic building. ‘Rasberry Poser’ was my least favourite of his piece, partially because of its slick, sickly aesthetic accompanied by blaring pop music, but also because it has a somewhat sprawling structure. The other exhibited works were much shorter or had a predictable, repetitive structure. ‘Perfect Lover’ (2007) consisted of a speaking cartoon bird, counting hours, superimposed on a footage of a forest. It was installed in the disused ladies toilets and projected at a small scale. I found this slight, looping film piece amusing and engaging.

Perfect Lover by Jordan Wolfson, 2007. Image: Alan McAteer from The Guardian,

Perfect Lover by Jordan Wolfson, 2007.Image by Charlie Porter from:

Contrasting ‘Perfect Lover’, an Untitled work from 2012 was projected large scale on a freestanding screen. It showed slowed down footage of a hand manipulating a decorated claw (a lobster claw I think), reminiscent of painted sea shells and Victoriana curiosities. The claw is bound by a ribbon and at first the image printed on it is obscured by a hand that moves in and slowly cuts the ribbon. When the ribbon is cut and the hand withdraws it shows a pornographic image of a naked young man. Then the whole cycle begins again with a different but similar claw, so perhaps if I had stayed long enough there would be a whole series of claws. What appealed to me about this work was the incongruity of the object and the action, which was quite meditative to watch. So it seemed both quite aggressive and gentle at once and could be taken as a metaphor for breaking something, for literally penetrating or for figuratively doing so in terms of breaking a taboo.

Untitled, by Jordan Wolfson (2012). Image by Charlie Porter from:

Upstairs in the same building I encountered the work of Charlotte Prodger. She was showing a whole-room installation, interesting in terms of its display. It included a narrated sound work, also presented as a transcribed text, that acted as the soundtrack for images and footage shown on 3 monitors. Facing in different directions, you had to walk around the room to watch the different sections/images as they came on screen.

However, in terms of artwork content, the piece of Prodger’s work that interested me most was displayed more subtly on a single, small monitor in the gallery’s landing area. It was a work called ‘Compression Fern Face.’ On screen a rotating geometric shape and alongside this an audio narrative recounts video/performance work by an artist referred to as “D.O.” The narrative describes a series of videos, as if watching them, although I presume the artist and videos are fictional. The work described is reminiscent of that by artists such as Vito Acconci and Dan Burden, produced in 70s. Some of them involved squashing ferns into different body parts. I found it funny in a dead-pan way. (Update: since writing the above I’ve discovered that D.O. is Dennis Oppenheim and the video refers to actual works he did, somehow this didn’t click, even though I’ve only recently seen his work at the Henry Moore Institute).

Echt by Bedwyr Williams, 2014. Image from:

So, now to my favourite venue of the whole festival, Tramway. The gallery was showing two brilliant exhibitions by Bedwyr Williams and Micahel Smith. Williams’ ‘Echt’ was an absolute joy to watch, very exuberant and visceral and good fun whilst being simultaneously incredibly dark and close to the bone. A dystopian fantasy tells of a society where social order has broken down and the people now in charge are those who have hoarded the most stuff. They ‘rule’ their inferiors from abandoned club/discotheque buildings with aggressive bouncers who have over developed facial muscles (from face building as opposed to body building). There was so much going on within the work that it’s hard to summarise but I was particularly taken by the idea and visual representation of the new ‘kings’ and ‘queens’ who show their status by wearing layers and layers of clothing – stacks of cardigans making them hunch backed, caps piled high on their heads. I also can’t shake the image of former councillors and property developers being walled up to die in model bungalow sarcophagi with their heads still visible through mini conservatories. The eerie atmosphere of the work was compounded by its display within a large, dark gallery space entered via a tree lined path but then empty save for the projection and an apparently abandoned coach with its baggage strewn out across the floor.

Echt by Bedwyr Williams, 2014Image: Alan McAteer from The Guardian,

There’s similarly a lot to say about Michael Smith’s work. There was probably about 8 separate video pieces being screened as part of his exhibition, spanning his career. So I’ll just write about my favourite. A newish work, I think, although I cannot find the title/details of it now. It showed the artist in multi-pocketed coats, repeatedly taking items (phone, wallet, glasses, sunglasses) from the pockets, fiddling with them, rearranging them, returning them. He looked perpetually anxious and I have to say it resonated with how I sometimes feel doing a wallet/phone/keys/train ticket check between the various pockets in my coat and bag. Smith is an artist who I didn’t know about before and I’m really pleased to have made the acquaintance of his work. Just to give you a little bit more of a taster, other videos involved disco dancing and ghosts. What more could you want?!