What does being a research project 'artist-in-residence' mean? — Clean Break



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Un:mute by Laura Dean

What does being a research project 'artist-in-residence' mean?

Laura Dean on being artist-in-residence for the Women/Theatre/Justice research project

As part of the Women/Theatre/Justice research project on Clean Break, Laura Dean took on the role of artist-in-residence, responding artistically to the research, and creating an ever-growing collection of images born out of materials uncovered in the project.

"Once upon a time there were a lot of women, and they all fought to live better ever after.
A story of blocked light and illumination in flux."
(Laura Dean, WTJ un:mute exhibition brochure, pg 1)

How did you come to be involved as the artist-in-residence for Women/Theatre/Justice?  

First, to briefly explain the Women/Theatre/Justice (WTJ) project, the team is four women academics from Applied Theatre and Performance and Business Schools, researching how Clean Break operates internally as an organisation and the wider impact of its work on the criminal justice and arts sectors.  Secondly, I was never meant to be here!  That is, having an artist in residence wasn’t part of the initial WTJ project plan. Lockdown restrictions meant that there was a travel and accommodation budget that couldn’t be used. WTJ had previously worked with two artists who visually interpreted their seminar content in the moment, but my role was to respond over time. Two of the WTJ team were already familiar with my work and saw how their project spoke to ideas within my practice. I sent examples to the whole team for discussion, and they gave me the role of responding to all aspects of the project.  

We had initial chats around ideas of human location, and disruption of space.  In a literal sense we saw how art exhibited in non-art places could temporarily liberate an unlikely place and make space a question.  Who is seen? How are we seen? Who is looking? Society’s assumptions are addressed in WTJ’s findings, and present in my work.

What are the motivations behind your practice?  

I work with ideas of women’s places in the world and what I call the ‘human home’.  Home is commonly thought of as concrete, fixed; I understand home as something we carry with us.   It’s both private and public, already enfolded in the outside world through threads of common, interweaved social circuits.

Space and place come into question in my work, and I ask, how do spaces make us feel? How do our bodies occupy space differently according to how they are performed and seen?  

This residency was an unusual role, I was party to everything but mainly in the shadows, mostly having a dialogue in the wings with myself. It was only when my work was shown that I became fully visible and experienced people’s response to my response.  Sharing conversation beyond the making of the work is important to me, until you offer the artwork out for conversation it doesn’t mean much.  

Why have an artist represent an academic research project in this way?  

None of us really knew what to expect from this collaboration. It has become a reciprocal process, for example the WTJ team said they have seen issues in different ways, filtered through my ‘seeing’. More generally, there’s an emotional directness to art that can distil and illuminate complex ideas acting as a connecting tool with audiences.  It’s not there to repeat the research, but it communicates aspects of its layers.  

A common insight is that artworks are more like portals than objects.  They can transport us into other worlds.  Reading about research is already a spatial experience that enters the realm of picturing, and art can turn that picturing into a visceral understanding without reading a word.   It’s because of that sort of impact that artists are increasingly being asked to respond to different fields of research and to further explore the bonds that theory/text/art can weave between themselves through their collision.  

Art semi-choreographs the viewer to a place but leaves the emotion to us. In our project’s case, we didn’t know how the audience might tap into the research via the artwork, but they found connections, ways in, and our exhibition feedback forms gave us an insight into that - most of the comments were very personal and heartfelt.

The images you created utilise a lot of archival imagery from the history of Clean Break’s work – how did you approach the archive, what informed the choices you made, why did you choose to manipulate them in the way you have?

Archives pull us back to things, remind us.  They can be spaces of huge silence until we start to recall and reinhabit what’s passed.  Retranslating fragments from the Clean Break archive felt like rupturing that silence to make new noise from them. I reassembled, rephotographed, drew and digitized the fragments.  Fragmentation became important and played out in my mind’s eye as a sort of pixelated film from a non-linear story.  

As I touched on, the human home is central to my thinking. The Clean Break archives are not my memories, but I carried my ‘Home’ to them to help understand. Searching for the art in something brings a particular route through thinking. Humans tend toward a moral ground of good and bad, whereas art finds its way and meaning without rules. Art is good at eventually making a single language from many things.

The clearest use of archival material is in a piece called what’s she building in there, which now hangs in the Clean Break building. This grew from a photo of the Clean Break premises work site before it was built, and a still of Clean Break production [BLANK].  I’d heard people talk about the building and what goes on there with such affection. I also visited the premises and was particularly drawn to the kitchen and visualised bodies and chats passing through it – that played out in heart 6 – the kitchen.  It all got me thinking of the building’s distinctive atmosphere and how I once heard an architect talk about a building’s genius loci, referring to the feeling of a place having a protective spirit. That felt like a fit for how people received the space, and what’s she building in there came together. Superimposing the production image from [BLANK] over the work site photo and its incomplete bones, seemed to conjure a history hoped, worked hard for, and in action.

Could you talk through your artistic process and the aesthetic choices of this work?

WTJ gave me access to their seminars; interviews; Clean Break’s archives/scripts/on-line and live events; and wider conversations.   I saw how the project's conversations and findings presented data where all kinds of voice were seen to be integral to making change. I listened to many voices and read many words. Over time those words became close to me, as close as sound entering my ears.

At that point we were in lockdown, and listening to those open voices in combination with continual Zoom events shaped my work.  The newly familiar word ‘unmute’ came to symbolise it all and became the project’s exhibition title. The artwork un:mute plays with archive images of Jenny Hicks and Jacki Holborough, Clean Break founders. Eventually text, title, and imagery became equally integral to the work.

Words are often starting points for my images and a quote by acting coach Viola Spolin helped shape that further.  She wrote, “...'see the word' and create a reality for the scene.” Reading the research, I became a sort of roving interpreter wandering in the geography of the data, making sketches and notes on, effectively, what got me in the gut! This ‘landscape’ was packed with signs/systems/codes, sometimes in unfamiliar language.  Once sections started to connect, I examined the notes and sketches to see how I might visually merge art with the life of the research.

Most of the work was made in lockdown with no access to my studio.  This prompted digital experimentation with the hand-made of drawing/collage/photography/print.  Introducing a digital element became an interesting textural expression that sat well with the research.

Then, a digital ‘glitchy-ness’ started to play out in my images.  Our cultural reading can recognise glitches as errors, flaws – implying a broken-ness.  But glitches can make us curious, transforming fragments beyond their static states.  So used here, they are not errors, they are not torn, but are turned. They signify momentum.

This sparked ideas of ‘haptic visuality’, which functions like a sense of touch by evoking physical memories and shared connections.  It looks to engage the viewer bodily, in a way that makes them sense the skin of what they’re seeing. We say we ‘got lost in’ the artwork because it feels the experience of it exists somewhere between our mental and physical reality.  

When I’m making work, that sense of movement and transformation sits in the liminal spaces of my thinking. Those liminal spaces are the in between bits, a thinking space peppered with sensitive points to examine, travelling between ideas of individual and communal experiences.  

That liminal space can also create inward thinking that’s not always useful.  It can result in work that’s too personal to speak to anyone outside of yourself.  In life, that sort of liminal space can close down your world – a limbo where moving on can’t find a way through.  Over time I saw how Clean Break provides a liminal portal out from that sort of space, a door to ease out from and into something. Clean Break provides paths that have a good chance of playing out well, and, in unexpected ways.  They feel like the hopeful bright pixel in the digital glitch.  

As a visual, rather than theatre-based, artist, what was your experience of working with Clean Break?

Some of how I connect to Clean Break is through my previous career as a singer.  I worked far and wide in diverse settings and cultures and there was an instant familiarity with the performative expressions coming from Clean Break.  

Did this project have an impact on your approach to your work in the future in any way?

Clean Break and WTJ have got under my skin, it was like finding a home for concerns I’d worked with for years. I was honoured to gain insight into others’ lives – the researchers, the contributors, the people in the stories. It would disregard people’s lived experiences to think I could grasp all the complexities, but I felt a terrific sense of responsibility. There were so many voices involved that if something wasn’t right then it would be all wrong.  I couldn’t tell everyone’s story but if they couldn’t find themselves in the work in some way, then my concern was they would feel their experience insignificant. That has changed how I think about the impact of my work on the viewer, something I’m currently thinking through.

Also, in my previous work image and text interweave more ambiguously.  Here, spoken, written and semiotic language point at meaning in more overt ways. I better understand the appropriateness of that approach now.  And maybe in the future, less gently ushering in meaning and more nudging up against the language of protest posters!

Sometimes visual art can feel intimidating if you have little experience or knowledge of engaging with it. Do you have any guidance or suggestions regarding how someone feeling like this might approach your work?

Art is simply a result of somebody’s work.  If it’s publicly displayed after making it, it’s an invitation for you to view and respond to it.  It’s an independent and emotional act, and we all draw different meanings.   So, respond as you feel, and come as you are.  

Your response ‘reawakens’ the work, giving it a wider life beyond the artist’s making.  So your voice, your thoughts, are needed for that to happen. “I looked and felt like this or that” are great conversations to have about art. And it can also be a shared experience, building space in common – the art’s house, to the viewer’s house, to a shared house of chat and change.    

What was your experience of working with a women-only organisation?

It was an experience of working with people who create practices of care.

I was so lucky to have access to Clean Break but didn’t work directly with them. I observed in different ways and met lots of Clean Break people in small bursts via our exhibitions or Clean Break events and productions.  WTJ (also all women), were the people I worked with directly, and what eventually struck me is how alike Clean Break’s and WTJ’s working ways are in terms of knowing the power of care - how its presence can make things, and its absence can break things. 

WTJ created an environment that gave me complete freedom but total support – they left me to it, but not in a solitary way.  On multi-disciplinary projects artists can find themselves being asked to ‘just respond as an artist’ which is often code for - ‘we won’t be making much contact’.  As busy as the WTJ women were, doing jobs and lives, they built in a continual rhythm of communication and interest in what I was doing, and to see how they might support.  Their project meetings were masterclasses in listening, contributing, supporting, and creating with empathy. This also played out in their research interviews where, like our meetings, they made room for people to speak.  They moved over to allow people to reflect, to shine, to air messy thinking before it became clear – or to feel low, overwhelmed maybe, and make them feel comfortable enough to share it. They’re also very funny, bonus!

And all those things come from a practice of care, so I circle back to Clean Break.  Like WTJ, Clean Break work with an openness, and understand that care is often not the easy route, it takes effort and time, but it’s what makes a wide difference.  To Clean Break Members, staff, writers, performers reading this, I think you’ll recognise what I’m saying, and I thank you for letting me look interestedly at you over time!

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