The Art of Swapping

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Swap Box front
When I was small I had a brilliant book called ‘Free Stuff for Kids’ I spent many happy hours perusing the pages before posting polite hand written requests to various PO boxes in order to get my hands on cool stuff. The cool stuff dropped onto my door mat in many different forms and I still remember with delight my top 3 acquisitions – a scrap book especially for sticking foil milk bottle tops in, a book of vouchers to exchange for Fab lollies and an i-spy book dedicated to identifying different breeds of cows.

As I transited through my teenage years my postal habits became more of a reciprocal affair and I dedicated myself to sending cool stuff as well as receiving it. I created mix tapes with neatly written track lists and photocopied inlays, made mixed media collages (mostly celebrating The Smiths), took and developed photographs and collected badges, postcards and zines. I carefully curated packages containing any combination of these items and despatched them to the most special of my friends. Sometimes I got stuff back, sometimes I didn’t but the experience of putting together my packages was always joyful.
Swap 03
A month or so ago I spotted a tweet from Oh Comely magazine introducing their November Care Package project. The idea was simple, you registered on their blog, were paired with a stranger and then had a couple of weeks to prepare a parcel of surprises for them to include something warming, something inspirational and something personal. I wondered if this was an opportunity to rediscover the magic of communication 1980s style!

My swap partner was called Tom and over 2 weekends I stitched a felt creature to keep him company during long winter nights, embroidered a quote from Oscar Wilde on a particularly tasteful psychedelic tie and constructed some matchbox sized pinhole cameras for him to experiment with. I carefully selected a suitable box to pack this bounty into and wrapped each component with brown paper and garden twine.

I spent so long faffing with my parcel that I missed the posting deadline and sent an apologetic email to Tom only to discover that he had too which I found very reassuring. Within a couple of days of each other, possibly motivated by the shame of not getting to the Post Office on time, our swap transaction was complete.
Swap 05
As I carefully unpacked my parcel from Tom I realised that he was revealing a snap shot of his life and interests to me through his thoughtful selection of gifts and I was overwhelmed by his kindness. I am now the privileged owner of a

• series of vintage postcards written by a daughter to her parents over the summers of 1952 and ‘3
• jar of pear and chocolate jam made with the spoils of a foraging adventure (+ a battered guide book to encourage me to search out food for free)
• beautifully well thumbed, pre-loved copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover
• ‘Iris’ 7” single by Emmy the Great

For me taking part in the November Care Package project was about so much more than a simple exchange of gifts; it was life affirming experience that struck a chord with my creative practice as an artist. Looking through the comments and photographs from fellow swappers on the Oh Comely facebook page it seems I’m not alone in my emotive response.
Postcard 5a
Over the last few years I have been intrigued by the way in which social media can be used to bring about unexpected collaborations between strangers united by a common interest. I have explored and interrogated my curiosity formally through post graduate research and creatively through 2 pieces of my own work; We found Art and I Would Like to get to Know you Better.

Oh Comely’s project shares the essential ingredients of all of the projects I have studied; it issued an invitation in a virtual world that had the scope to create tangible connections in ‘real life’ and an opportunity for the project community to share their collective experiences, building trust and friendship along the way.

After pondering the joys of swapping and the obvious overlaps with my practice I couldn’t resist instigating a mass creative exchange under the banner of my new venture Creative Communities; a phone call to co-founder Dave Briggs and packet of biscuits later (fuel for creative thinking) and The Artist Swap Box project was born.
Swap Box back
Over the next few weeks we will be encouraging practising artists and art students to sign up on our project blog. We will then pair them up in a random fashion and ask them to create a shoe box sized work of art and some career based words of wisdom to swap. Full details of the project can be found here.

I was very lucky to be able to launch the project at the Art Party Conference in Scarborough (as a member of Lincolnshire Artists Forum) thanks to a bursary from a-n so have my fingers crossed for some very exciting swaps and future collaborations!

Searching for Craftivism at the WI

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Over the last few years I have become increasingly interested in Craftivism, succinctly defined by Betsy Greer as ‘a way of looking at life where voicing opinions through creativity makes your voice stronger, your compassion deeper & your quest for justice more infinite.’

To date the majority of my craftivist activities have been held within the home as a way of presenting a simpler way of life to my children, an alternative to consumerist culture. Our proudest moments have included producing a homemade Christmas and a subversive response to the Queen’s Jubilee through punk inspired DIY fashion.

Although in this form my craftivism could be seen as a solitary act, blogging about my experiences and reading about the experiences of others has made me feel part of a community with a strong sense of shared meaning and mission. I have however always harboured a secret desire to be part of something bigger, something in a physical space involving others with opportunities to create social change through mass creative participation.

Since my renewed interest in craft, I have watched with excitement the emergence of a new generation of Women’s Institutes spearheaded by the likes of the Shoreditch Sisters (founded by Jazz Domino Holly, daughter of The Clash’s Joe Strummer) who have built upon the organisations long tradition of raising awareness of others’ needs through pioneering campaigns. The Shoreditch Sister’s campaigns use craft as a vehicle to get their message across; their vulva quilt which highlights the issue of female genital mutilation is an excellent example.

Writers Betsy Greer and Amy Spencer have both identified the influence of the Riot Grrrl movement, associated with third wave feminism, with the development of craft culture. It is little wonder then that the WI, an organisation founded by suffragettes, academics and social crusaders has become an attractive proposition to some members of the craftivist community.

Although I have a fear of large groups of women and structured leisure time activities I decided to venture out of my comfort zone and investigate the WI in my area. I had heard on the grapevine that Sutterton was the place to be, with large numbers and a varied programme of speakers; my friend Louise had already infiltrated the group and agreed to take me to the next meeting.

We arrived in good time and as I entered the well populated village hall I couldn’t help but wonder if I was being assessed on my age, appearance and the potential skills I might be able contribute to the group. I surveyed the scene; chairs and tables had been set out in a formal arrangement with some seating reserved by a carefully placed book or bag and there were designated areas for the raffle, most interesting napkin competition and charity stall. The President’s table boasted a beautifully embroidered WI tablecloth and a vase of freshly cut flowers.

The evening started promptly with minutes from the last meeting, correspondence from ‘county’ and ‘national’, a request for money to be paid for a forthcoming trip to Cromer, and members with birthdays were presented with a lipstick sized led torch. There was also a lively debate as to whether future Mystery Tours should remain a mystery – they should!

A Lincolnshire South competition was revealed which involved creating a scrapbook of photographs of members drinking tea; after another lively debate it was decided that their strategy should be to aim to represent 100% of the members and to present a good variation of locations, including a mountain if possible. It was at this point that I saw an opportunity to prove my worth as a new member; an involuntary spasm caused my arm to shoot up and before I knew it I was offering my services as the official photographer for the tea drinking challenge.

After an informative talk ‘my life as an evacuee by Terry Grantham’ where I was impressed to learn that the WI had co-ordinated the official WW2 evacuation scheme, it was time for tea. Photographing members with their tea was a fantastic icebreaker and I managed to rack up over 20 portraits in 15 minutes. The highpoint of this unexpected intervention was speaking to one of the older members on tea duty in the kitchen who made me smile when she declared ‘we need more spunk; we need to take more issues to parliament.’

Although my first experience of the WI was weighted towards Jam and Jerusalem rather than Shoreditch Sisters, I thoroughly enjoyed my evening and was pleased to discover a pocket of militancy within the group. With this year’s ‘resolution’ being the ‘decline of our high streets and town centres I left with my head awash with possibilities… I wonder if the ladies would like to meet the King of empty shops Dan Thompson when he spends August in Boston as part of Transported.
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Laughing in the Face of Doom

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Photo credit: Dave Overton

Photo credit: Dave Overton

The last few months have required some extreme plate spinning for me as I have found myself lurching from one disaster to another which explains my 103 day absence from the blogosphere! At times it has felt as if the world has slipped on its axis and I have had to exchange a light touch and gentle persuasion for brute force and dogged determination to keep all of my plates in the air. An unexpected illness, unexpected Home Ed experience and unexpected school move for my daughter have all nestled uneasily against the demands of my freelance work and consequently my current residency at the University of Lincoln has at times been pushed out into the cold.

I have motivated myself to ‘keep calm and carry’ on through this strange time by indulging in a few simple pleasures (consuming my body weight in biscuits, watching the musical Annie and buying unnecessary stationary) and slowly I am bringing the balance of my life, work and residency back into a state of equilibrium. I think it’s safe to slam the door on doom now and to banish it to the bottom of the garden!

The project that I’m working on through my residency hasn’t actually been devoid of attention, it’s switched between ‘pottering’ and full on ‘warp’ mode to fit in with whatever is going on around it.  I’m very pleased with the progress that I’ve made; the pinhole cameras are no longer driving me insane (see previous post), I’ve had my first experience of using a Hassleblad and developing a 120 roll film, I’ve set up a studio shoot and produced a series of bespoke invitations for my project participants.

As the project’s exhibition now looms on the horizon I am going to attempt a blog-a-thon over the coming weeks to catch up on the task of documenting my journey so far. Although it’s frustrating to be blogging retrospectively I have come to the conclusion that blogging in real time could actually act as a ‘spoiler’ for my project participants.

During the next two months I will invite each of these nine people to take part in three identical interventions. I like the idea of these interventions evolving as secret missions shrouded in mystery; a digital footprint could blow my cover and potentially steer the project down a predictable path. So thank you doom, your unexpected presence may have helped curiosity and intrigue to flourish and increased the opportunities for serendipitous exchanges!

Coagulated Thinking

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Since my last blog post I have slowly been driven insane by pinhole photography. I have experienced a plethora of emotions born of frustration; from disappointment and dissatisfaction to annoyance and irritation. If I had not been encouraged by a minute number of sporadic successes, or been driven by a stubborn desire to create an image via a process which is slightly beyond the bounds of possibility, my tiny army of match box cameras may have met an untimely death by now.

My children have started referring to me as ‘The Nerdatron’ as my pinhole related behaviour has become steadily more obsessive. I can be found lurking in online pinhole forums or hanging out in hardware shops admiring sub 1mm drill bits/pin vice combos and chatting enthusiastically about the benefits of owning a digital vernier calliper. My bulk purchase of matchboxes has also been noted by the women on the cigarette kiosk in ASDA and I fear they may have me down as a potential pyromaniac.

So why do I need to master pinhole photography? Well let me explain; my AA2A project (University of Lincoln) will develop through a series of physical interventions that will allow me to meet and spend time with people that I have met online. These interventions will consider each individual’s relationship with a personal space, place and object and will be documented through an analogue process. The rationale for using pinhole photography has been informed through a combination of research, observation and experience and the cameras I have made will be used to explore the first of my 3 themes, personal space. I have attempted to pull together the murmurings of my brain over the last few weeks below to coagulate my thinking…

I am interested in the way in which we curate both our domestic and work spaces to differing degrees through placing personal, often every day, objects within them. It fascinates me that the worth of these objects is anchored to the emotions that they hold and the memories that they evoke rather than their monetary value. When thinking about how I would go about documenting the personal spaces of my online friends I felt that the use of a conventional camera would be intrusive as would be my presence. Without wishing to plagiarise the answer presented itself via Lucy Phillips’ enthralling project ‘What Cannot be Seen.’

I researched Lucy’s project as part of my MA and its many facets continue to captivate me. Lucy mails participants a match box sized pinhole camera which they use to photograph what cannot be seen before returning it to her for development. Although the idea is simple Lucy has created the conditions necessary for individuals to document a personal, hidden, aspect of their life should they chose to do so and the resulting imagery is not only revealing but beautifully poignant. She has enabled this to happen through combining an invitation open enough to elicit a variety of responses with the resources needed (support and materials) to create an image independently.

Once I feel I have grasped the fundamental principles of making a pinhole image I will post a camera to a selection of my online friends with the invitation to photograph a personal space. Once I have developed the image I will print a copy for them and deliver it in person which will be the first time that we meet.

Learning to Fail

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Last month I was thrilled to find out that I had been selected to be one of the 2012/13 Artists in Residence at the University of Lincoln. I’ll be blogging thoughout over here but thoughts I’d share my project’s first tentative steps on The Thinking Bridge too.

Since being a very small child, I have always held the belief that I am harbouring a hidden talent that I have yet to discover; a talent so amazing that it requires little effort to actualise but has the power to insight awe and wonder in all who behold it. This belief has led to some monumental disappointments with many potential talents being scratched off the list, playing professional darts,  disco dancing on roller skates and speaking Esperanto to name but a few. Heading for 40 with my hidden talent still eluding me I recently bumbled into another epic fail situation through rejecting rigour in favour of alchemy and the quest for super powers.

My AA2A project is going to explore what will happen to a series of creative relationships developed in digital environments when they are migrated offline and will be documented by analogue processes. Darkroom photography was my first love and although I cast it aside for the speed and convenience of digital photography well over 10 years ago a spark of interest rekindled my passion for film this summer which became the inspiration for my project proposal.

The spark bizarrely took the form of a £3.50 Polaroid camera that I found in a charity shop; I took a chance and loaded it with the considerably more expensive film and headed off on an analogue adventure. The thrill of flipping the chunky camera casing to reveal its lens and flash, the heavy clunk and whoosh of the ejected Polaroid and the nervous anticipation experienced as the image developed combined to elicit ridiculous levels of excitement! With each press of the shutter I was left with a tangible, yet slightly imperfect, outcome of a carefully considered composition.

The whole Polaroid experience led me to consider both the value of photographs as physical artefacts and a renewed interest in exploring the fundamental principles of making an image. Once inducted as an AA2A artist I decided that experimenting with pin-hole cameras would both be an excellent starting point to take my analogue adventure further and a useful device to find my feet within the Lens Based Media department at the University of Lincoln.

I set to work and after a fruitful spell of internet research, I meticulously crafted 20 lightproof cameras which I loaded with light sensitive paper. This however is where my enthusiasm and belief in super powers took over and confused my logic. Instead of choosing one subject and using a series of cameras to photograph it, making an incremental change to the length of exposure each time, I chose a range of subjects, took a single photograph of each and used an exposure time plucked from the air. After 10 minutes in the darkroom, the small black rectangles of photographic paper that I had carefully retrieved and developed told me that I had another hidden talent to strike from the list of possibilities.

Despite wanting to go home to cry into my tin of failure I took Samuel Beckett’s advice to ‘“Try again, fail again, fail better.” I enlisted the help of Dave O the department’s senior photography technician who very patiently helped me to take a more robust research based approach to calculating exposure times. He also introduced me to the baffling inverse square law which reminded me that photography is all about physics.

Had I not have failed I wouldn’t have thought about physics and photography and I wouldn’t have prompted myself to rewatch this film by Daniel Meadows about his very humanistic take on the subject.  After experiencing the sheer joy of creating an image as a by-product of determination I am now happy to continue the rest of my residency learning to fail.

A Year in Photographs

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A year ago I spotted a tweeted challenge from my friends Jan and Chris at the Caravan Gallery. It was the first of 52 weekly photo challenges to be set by fifty-two accomplished photographers from a project unsurprisingly named 52 by 52, the brain child of designer David Gillett. I joined the community of 52 by 52 members, and over the course of a year we interpreted each photographer’s challenge in whichever way we felt appropriate and submitted a weekly(ish) photo to the project’s Flickr group.

As I have always lacked the necessary levels of discipline, dedication and commitment to keep a diary I am phenomenally proud to now have a year of my life archived in photographs. The 52 by 52 experience has had a huge impact on my creative practice and I feel the need to reflect on what I have learnt, my lasting thoughts and my favourite bit of the project.

52 Weeks of Learning

I have learnt to be braver with my photography both in terms of subject and sharing images. I use my camera in my professional life as a tool to document the projects that I work on but did originally specialize in fine art photography in my art college days. 52 by 52 has opened up the myriad of genres between these two tried and tested approached and encouraged me to be a photographic explorer of the world. I have discovered the sheer joy and pleasure of image making which I don’t think was there before; I have an insatiable desire to find the magic in ordinariness which reflecting on the year seems to be the theme connecting each of my 52 images.

The need for dedication, the time restricted nature of the project and the presence of an immensely supportive 52 community has encouraged me to have the confidence to share images that I’m not 100% happy with. For a control freak this has been a steep learning curve but has led me to view the way that I use Flickr differently too; it’s no longer my intention to present a polished portfolio of images but to create an open sketchbook of work in progress.

52 Weeks of Pondering

My lasting thoughts/memories from participating in 52 by 52 relate more to the experience offunctioning as a member of an online community and less to the completion of each challenge in terms of creating an image. In some respects taking the photo was the easy bit and the real skill of the project was contributing to the peer critique of other member’s submissions. I really enjoyed the camaraderie that built within the group as the project progressed and was surprised by the familiarity and sociability that grew through interaction that was limited to the written word.

I was overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of other member’s comments and intrigued by our shared understanding of the unwritten rules of online etiquette. We traded in appreciation and recognition and used our intuition to construct feedback that was supportive and helpful to each other.  Personally through avoiding flippant ‘great photo’ comments I learnt to be more perceptive and disciplined when offering feedback and invested the time to really consider what worked or didn’t work in the photos that I critiqued.

The discussion function on Flickr has also highlighted the democratic potential of online spaces for me. A total of 81 discussions were posted and responded to over the course of the year which gave the project multiple voices.   I’m keen to see if I can integrate the sense of openness and sharing that this type of interaction creates into my offline projects. I am currently experimenting by using a Flickr group to support a programme of offline photo-walks to encourage conversation between meets and to contribute to the planning of future routes and I am excited to see if there will be some positive or unexpected outcomes as a result.

52 Weeks of Favourites

Choosing a favourite challenge is a challenge in itself as the majority have opened up opportunities for eccentric behaviour, random encounters and full on adventures. Image making high points have included playing with light sabres after dark, stalking buskers, caravans and giant kangaroos, being pelted with custard, meeting Father Christmas and discovering a suppressed passion for railway architecture.

I am torn between two challenges as my absolute, unmitigated favourite and will therefore have to declare a tie for first place. The first is #40, set by Chloe Dewe Mathews, ‘The painter Bonnard said “Make little lies to tell a great truth”. Use that as your inspiration.’

My response was to use a Polaroid camera, which I had found in a charity shop, to add instant nostalgia to an image created in the present. Using real film reminded me of the fundamental principles involved in making an image and the value of creating something tangible. It was such a thrill to see the image develop and even more of a thrill to discover a whole community of Polaroid photographers through fellow member Meredith.

Challenge #48, set by Simon Roberts, ‘Take a photograph of an event. Focus on putting it in the context of the landscape and those watching,’ is joint favourite for similar reasons. I was really lucky to have the opportunity to visit Simon’s exhibition We English and was enthralled both by the scale of his work and the minute details held within. His use of a large format camera to create images reinforced the idea of reconnecting with the fundaments of image making. I made a conscious effort to slow down and although I shot my response in digital I tried to take an analogue approach and was really pleased with the results.

The legacy of 52 by 52 is a renewed passion for photography and I am determined to make a return to my darkroom days which will no doubt influence the future direction of my work. I am immensely grateful to David Gillett for creating such an inspiring project and unselfishly devoting every spare moment of his time to it. Bravo!

You can view my year in photographs here

The Curious Case of the Golden Closet

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On a crisp autumnal morning at an hour almost early enough for the birds still to be asleep in their nests, the Moveable Museum of Found Objects (the offline product of my online project We Found Art) set off on another adventure. Its destination was Oakham in the tiny county of Rutland; a piece of middle England sandwiched in between Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Peterborough and Northamptonshire. Its mission was to both demonstrate the creative potential of social media and to ‘show and tell’ We Found Art’s learning journey.

As the museum’s adventures are often accompanied by the need for extreme towing skills and advanced manoeuvring techniques I enlisted the help of two of the project’s biggest fans to take responsibility for navigation and driver support. Val and Colin Smith (aka Mum and Dad) stepped up to the mark and also provided travel sweets which was an unexpected bonus! On arriving at Oakham C of E Primary School we were allocated a superior spot to pitch up on in the car park which didn’t involve the previous challenges of the North Sea, black ice or steep gradients which was a huge relief!

With the caravan support team despatched to explore the town I prepared to welcome 80+ pupils to explore the Museum’s collection of found objects and to find out more about its origins as an online project. My visit was part of a day of creative activities to launch the school’s ‘Telling our Learning Stories’ project, developed in partnership with The Mighty Creatives. The project’s aim is to explore the different ways in which the school community can capture and tell their learning stories through creating a group of young learning documenters. These young people will be supported to develop new approaches using ICT and social media which will eventually be rolled out across the school.

During the day pupils visited the Moveable Museum in groups of five; they peeped into cupboards with awe and wonder, admired the 70s inspired decor and asked many, many questions about caravan logistics. The hands-down winner of ‘favourite object of the day’ was a match attack card found in a muddy puddle closely followed by a skeletal bird’s leg brought home in a lunch box. It was however the photographic gallery in the Golden Closet that created unprecedented interest; it seemed to have magical powers, igniting the curiosity of the young visitors and drawing them in. There were several pupils who accidentally shut themselves inside the gilded gallery as they admired photographs of Mablethorpe and I soon realised that I needed to count each group out.

Many of the staff and young people that I met throughout the course of the day shared their stories of their own collections and I was also introduced to Geocaching (www.geocaching.com) which I got quite excited about! I was also thrilled to be offered found objects and although We Found Art is no longer accepting postal submissions I am hoping that there may be an influx of uploads to the project’s Flickr group (www.flickr.com/groups/wefoundart).

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