The Embodied Artefact: Perambulations in understanding corporeal performance as creative research
Emma C. L. Rochester
To Cite this Article
Rochester, E. (2022). The Embodied Artefact: Perambulations in understanding corporeal performance as creative research. p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e, 6.
An exploration of the creative research themes that informed artist Emma C Lucia Rochester’s three-year long-durational contemporary art performance to international sacred sites of reverence devoted specifically to the divine in female identifying form. This is a reflective essay that considers sensual aesthetics, the intersection of various artistic disciplines, inter-material exchange, intuitive process, the body as research object, and performance led practice as doctoral research. Accumulating in an ideal made physical that new knowledge can be gleaned from performance and material production.
Creative research, embodiment, practice led research, performance led research, walking art, pilgrimage
Often positioned within walking art, journey making and expedition-art my practice has as its’ pinnacle, a heighted focus on the body. I use my physicality as a focal point to engage with creative research. For this article I would like to look at one three-year performance odyssey that resulted in several exhibitions across multiple countries around the globe. In fleshing out the means in which I engage with multiple methodologies, creative thinking, the crossing of disciplinary boundaries and embodiment, it is my hope that research through making is seen as a real and viable alternative for the development of new knowledge in the creative arts. Performance and studio based research were the driving strategies which came to fruition in the corporeal articulation of a PhD project undertaken for Queensland College of Art, Griffith University. Throughout my candidature I was funded to enact, The Embodied Artefact: A Nomadic Approach to Gendered Sites of Reverence through an Interdisciplinary Art Practice. In short, a three-year multi-sensory research experience where I traveled to 18 carefully selected international sites of gendered reverence. More specifically a perambulation towards and at pilgrimage locales where the presence of the divine as female identifying could be tangibly felt and witnessed. Allowing the journey towards these multitudinous sites to be considered an overarching contemporary art pilgrimage performance.
Translating Embodied Experience into Research Artefact
At each site I experienced, stored, and memorized, a highly concentrated energetic field of information that acutely pertains to sacred space devoted to the female form. At a later date the information gleaned from these sites both in mind and body was then translated into real world outcomes such as conference papers, panels and the presentation of art objects as research.
Whilst peer reviewed papers and academic conferences, are some of the more formal means of presenting creative research, I am also interested in presenting making as research. The performance becomes the mnemonic exploration of discovery, subsequent studio time becomes contemplative, reflective yet tangible implementation of new consciousness, theory and awareness afforded from experience.
It is in making that the body also comes to know the scent of resin curing, the heat of glass before it breaks, the crunch in the sewing machine when the needle breaks. Whilst this level of knowing through doing and understanding takes place based off of experience there is also the intuitive knowing of how to shape the ideas and theories back of the object into the form itself.
In order to understand the collation and collection of information for my PhD project and produce resulting artefacts, I would need to take into consideration strategies for the means of creative research. Rather than just take off to the next available sacred space I desired to fine tune my process, to give order and resolve to the process so that I had carefully considered the journey design, the means of documentation, a process of discovery and a way to absorb the information into artefacts themselves. Thus I needed, to take on and develop an overarching methodology that incoporated the body schema, one that afforded the body an intelligence when maneuvering through diverse environments even if all were under the banner of pilgrimage. Held safely within the umbrella of methodology the performance is research in action, as well as the source for artefacts to be produced where knowledge gleaned is materialised in contemporary art objects.
Sourcing a Sensual Aesthetic
By using my body as a research tool to travel towards, experience, and then shift to alternative, reverent terrains for women and the artist residencies I stayed at en route my body became a sensual agency, exploring the affirmative potential of liberation and transgression that pilgrimage provides. As a finely tuned instrument and located site of resistance, I participated in a multiplicity of embodied pilgrimages to both gendered sites of reverence and artist residencies, so that throughout my three-year durational performance, I became a nomadic generator of embodied artefacts. My research engaged a sensual aesthetic form, which extended the notion of sensuality illuminated by Sara Terreault:
We are mobile creatures: mobile of mind and of body. Pilgrimage is a dynamic and imaginative body practice which means it’s a sensual practice. Concepts and language are necessary but not sufficient in the study of pilgrimage. An appeal to the senses is necessary—an aesthetic appeal.[i]
The success of my project relied on enacting a methodology that sourced a sensual aesthetic response to an engagement with women, perpetual pilgrimage, and the spiritual. Such a methodology would encourage a visual, spatial, temporal and motion-based approach to researching sacred-journey-making to sites indicative of female sacrality as affirmative action for women. Practical yet metaphysical, this methodology needed to tie together art, deity, landscape, and women. Charlene Spretnak argues that art, religion, and women are marginalised sectors within the mainstream. Furthermore, Spretnak suggests that art and religion are the only two sectors within Western–European culture that still provide relational thinking, a quality of cognisance that she describes as sexuate and specifically associated with women:
So these two sectors [art and religion] are considered quite marginal. Pretty far from the political economy, just as women are considered quite marginal in this system. So when the three of them converge as Women’s Spiritual Art a very powerful source of inspiration is formed for women. And this is very important for us [women] if we are working to change this culture, because the culture does regard us as secondary.[ii]
Relational thinking as permeable and rhizomatic thus provides a foundation for the practice of exploring, witnessing, and comprehending oneself inside the unstable boundaries of the sacred; the mystery within life. Yet, despite the extensive number of sacred sites available to visit globally, my individual gesture to navigate newly revised, gendered sites of reverence was conducted within clear and concrete research parameters, and methodological and thematic goals. Guidelines were set out prior to departure and are detailed below.
The methodology of The Embodied Artefact weaves inwards and outwards, accumulating sensory experiences as well as real and imagined perceptions of place, then twines these together with memory, prior knowledge, and schemata. This allows the nomadic process and resulting exhibitions to be artefacts undertaken and created within a contextualised framework, generated by real world involvement.[iii]
Jennifer G. Jesse argues:
Lived experience is inherently interdisciplinary. Another benefit is the growing recognition that most professional fields, most cultural phenomena, and most of real life, can only be understood through multi disciplinary study, and can only be practiced in interdisciplinary ways. This is particularly true in the social sciences where we have fields like international studies, human rights, cultural studies, environmental studies, peace studies, gender politics and race relations.[iv]
In The Embodied Artefact, life experiences from the road were collected like relics and souvenirs found at various pilgrimage sites. These unfolding moments were then distilled into site-specific installations that are composed of fibre forms, drawings, textile design, sculpture, video art and performance artefacts. Each of these mediums is utilised as an intuitive response to the physicality of each gendered site, and the internal and external temporal states that I experienced there.
This intentional use of multiple modes of production inspired by the data collected in and through the body while on pilgrimage allows each artefact to be situated at the intersection of various artistic disciplines. This generates a methodology that enacts a “spatial bricolage”.[v] To manifest the intangible experiences of the body and mind as interrelational, I wove together multiple mediums and actions, including photographing, designing, digital printing, shooting, editing, projecting, cutting, sewing, stuffing, casting and assembling three-dimensional forms, and/or creating moving images that fill or highlight space.
This collage of fragmentary techniques mirrors one of the principles of postmodern nomadic feminism: transdisciplinarity. According to Braidotti:
Transdisciplinarity… means the crossing of disciplinary boundaries without concern for the vertical distinctions around which they have been organised. Methodologically, this style comes close to the “bricolage” defended by the structuralists and especially Levi-Strauss; it also constitutes a practice of “theft,” or extensive borrowing of notions and concepts that, as Cixous puts it, are deliberately used out of context and derouted from their initial purpose. Deleuze calls this technique “deterritorialization” or the becoming-nomad of ideas.[vi]
This transdisciplinary mélange of various methods is a deterritoralisation. [vii] A blurring of boundaries that invites a cross-disciplinary future, one that mirrors the interrelation of mind and body. It is an intentional choice to merge seemingly disparate disciplines, methods and conceptual dichotomies, in much the same way as a pilgrimage enables the seen and unseen, the profane and the sacred, the known and the intangible, to meet and merge. Methodological eclecticism acknowledges the variations between disciplines yet honours the ‘cross fertilisations’ that occur when each discipline is considered complementary to the other.[viii] This generates “various ways of dialectically relating, connecting, linking, combining, or integrating” mediums and disciplines.[ix] Gerard Loughline of Durham University writes:
Some imagined we would now be living in a post-disciplinary age. But the disciplines still persist; those traditions of questions and purposed wonder that let us see the world with eyes both learned and quizzical. And there are still those who work at the edges of such terrains, who wander, though determinedly in the lands between, in places that are at once familiar and disconcertingly different.[x]
By enacting the disconcerting variations of transdisciplinarity, my methodological approach exists at the borderlands.
Inter-, Cross- and Transdisciplinary Definitions
A dynamic meeting point of interchangeability exists in the categorisation of inter-, cross- and transdisciplinarity.[xi] Historically these classifying terms have and continue to be used in overlapping ways, where frontiers between these overarching methodological approaches are indistinct and ambiguous both in their application and meaning.[xii] However Julie Thompson Klein in ‘Typologies of Interdisciplinarity; The Boundary Work of Definition’ notes:
dismissing terminology fails to recognise its value for tracking definitions over time. Terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but patterns of consensus reveal continuities and discontinuities in theory and practice.[xiii]
Thus the potentiality for revealing unity within these often assumed to be indistinct research typologies provides impetus to define inter-, cross- and transdisciplinarity here.
Interdisciplinary research and practice can be loosely defined as the integrative use of more than one discipline in the approach to generating new knowledge. Born from a desire to overcome divisive disciplinary settings within university environs the use of interdisciplinary research methods is reflective of societal expectations and interlinked with social change.[xiv]
Crossdisciplinarity, whilst similar, diverges in the sense that it emphasises the co-production of knowledge by researchers, in different disciplines. This is in contrast to interdisicplinarity where a researcher draws primarily from previously existing knowledge created within an alternate university department. Specifically crossdisciplinarity occurs when two or more researchers from different disciplines collaborate. One or more researchers may be an external stakeholder, such as industry player outside of academia.[xv]
In extension transdisciplinarity can be seen as a mode of research which transcends disciplinary boundaries.[xvi] Overcoming homogenisation transdisciplinarity promotes one-of-a-kind hybrid collaborations where knowledge is unified between peoples of various disciplines both within and without academia.[xvii] Transdisciplinary research avoids classification as each collaboration uniquely takes into account social justice and equity issues respective of each person in the collaboration and their response to changing academic structures, environmental concerns, post/structuralism, and contemporary feminist theory. For this reason three key terms identified with transdisciplinarity are “transcendence, problem solving, and transgression.”[xviii] Collaborators seek to create unique unified ways of responding to researching questions.
The intersection of inter-, cross- and transdisciplinary typologies is representative of the blurring of demarcations. These hazy orientations in research actively support my itinerary of pilgrimage (where the fusion of ordinary and sacred landscapes meet) and the integration of creative outcomes with performative research as a form of new knowledge creation.
Haptic Intermaterial Exchange
Fringe-dwelling places of intermaterial exchange situated between and across distinct disciplinary boundaries, enabling a bringing together of research foci, practice and theory from different areas. In my work, research from Feminist, Gender and Future Studies, cross pollinates and intermingles with theory, ideas and artefacts from Fine Art and Art History. Information gleaned from Religion and the Classics, Psychology, and Literature informs a sense of place, and deepens an awareness of the sacred, while spatial understandings and gendered geographical notions are enhanced through research into the fields of Geography and Archaeology. As Jacqueline Taylor articulates:
This approach opens up a spatiality comprising of a multiplicity of mobile and heterogeneous spaces within/between the theory/practice relation in which one must continuously negotiate one’s position in order for meaning to be made. This approach is not a fixed or universal set of prescribed methods, but is performative and reflexive and accounts for the unruliness of practice and the becoming of ideas. Indeed, practice is not linear, but a constant interweaving of multiple ideas; where ideas are made up of layers of meaning which are constantly changing and transforming.[xix]
Visualising bodies in motion within a gendered terrain, with its feminised cartography for the Sacred-as-She, involves an unruliness of practice and a constructive interweaving of disparate elements that find meaning through reflection.[xx] Jennifer G. Jesse argues that in order to generate a competent and coherent vision for a research practice, researchers must become adept at initiating self-reflective awareness.[xxi] Transdisciplinary research is associated with the cognitive actions of introspection, problem solving skills, and reflecting on the freedom to move between and within disciplines while simultaneously redefining them in order to generate new knowledge.[xxii] Interestingly, these transposable skills are associated with the ability to successfully undertake pilgrimage and nomadism.[xxiii]
With this astute focus on the process and development of a transdisciplinary methodological approach which affirms the lived experience of sexuate difference as woman, I began to search for sites that expressed the sacred as relational. In order to locate potential sites, I referenced the locations sought out by feminist theorists, thinkers and artists of second-wave feminism, women who went in search of a feminine sacrality. These women identified a multitude of female deities around the world that were not part of the common religious and spiritual vernacular at the time.[xxiv]
Early second wave feminists who wished to develop a new symbolic expression of Goddess in the 1960s and 1970s’, such as Carol P. Christ and Mary Beth Edelson, travelled to these sites, recording their experiences through art forms, narrative and theory. These women created a ground breaking genre of visionary literature in both the popular and academic realms.[xxv] Audrey Flack’s work exemplifies how a new research materiality emerged for artists as a result of their feminist use of symbols of the sacred as She.[xxvi] Through these artists’ responses to new understandings of the divine in female identifying form, art production became a form of conceptualising new links between the God-as-She, cycles of women’s bodies, rituals, and the Earth as signifiers of power and empowerment.[xxvii]
Searching academic databases, women’s studies reading lists, and online forums, I amassed a litany of books and articles that explored understandings of woman and the sacred, each one suggesting possible locations to visit and experience as either archaeological site or place of pilgrimage. Adding to this, I asked questions and listened intently for the naming of sites in discussions with colleagues and peers. Principal texts were identified, such as Carol P. Christ’s Odyssey with the Goddess about women who had gone in search of revered sites, whether they be cave, temple, water source, Neolithic site, and/or church. I formulated a list of newly revised gendered sites of reverence, which had been identified and negotiated by the pioneering thealogical artists and writers. ‘Thealogy” which was defined in the Introduction, has a respective literary canon and it is from this discourse of God-as-She that I sourced site locations.[xxviii]
Karen Tate’s 108 Sacred Places of Goddess (2006) exemplifies the act of locating and naming gendered terrains of reverence.[xxix] However, Tate’s book may be aligned with the genre of the field guide or what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari refer to as the “rootbook”.[xxx] This is a book that represents a subjective worldview representative of the author, and thus can never be truly replicated; as Jac Saora writes of such a work, “it does not imitate nor can it truly be imitated”.[xxxi] Thus, the journeys written about by these women are not replicas of the landscape or the site itself, nor can they be mimicked. In this way, while I journeyed to sacred locales written about through means of personal narrative and perhaps visited by my foremothers, I did not seek to emulate their posited experiences but rather to journey as an iteration, an empowered agency, and as a memorial, in order to glean my own impression through the lens of a nomadic interdisciplinary artistic practice. Spretnak notes:
This combination “women spiritual art” is really our mana. Whether it is historical images, figurines from the Neolithic era, prehistoric or even back to the Upper Paleolithic, it reminds us, we are in a lineage: A long line of people who honoured the sacred female and then with regard to contemporary artists; painting, sculpture, women’s installation art, music, contemporary arts, dance. All of these are sources of protected conversion of relational thinking, which is otherwise unavailable in [this] culture.[xxxii]
Many of Mary Curtis Ratcliff’s and Nancy Spero’s artefacts exemplify the combination of ‘women spiritual art.’ Both artists worked with symbolic imagery of the sacred in female identifying form excavated from archaeological sites, uncovered—in the sense that respective artifacts were made publically accessible—by thealogical authors, where God-as-Woman could be palpably experienced and translated into their own visual language to express holistic understandings of sacred woman in place. Ratcliff’s Danuta in Malta and Danuta Looking (both 2002) speak to the process of immersion into sites of becoming. In the former, Ratcliff has her back turned; in the latter, she is facing forward but her gaze is looking away from the viewer. These postures of removal reflect the idea of a transition between realms—of leaving the culturally coded normative experience of the sacred behind, and entering into a new way of being. This is made possible through the primal transformative energy of the site associated with the fluid ever-changing nature of God-as-Woman that was beginning to emerge.
The large volume of sites identified through this investigative research phase meant that I needed to refine them and identify those that could be accessible and manageable within the confines of the PhD timeframe. This required reflexivity coupled with an intuitive process.
Through the phenomenological processes of collecting, clustering and reassembling objects, artefacts and feminist theory, use of an intuitive response became paramount. The ability to develop a contemplative intuitive based response system would allow me to affirm my sense of self through the informed choices I made in relation to an ever increasing theoretical knowledge based. Sorting, selecting, discarding, monitoring the possibilities became part of my personal story in the full knowledge that the sites I chose to visit would affect me on multiple levels simply through experience.
An External and Internal Understanding of the Corporeal with that of Situated Context
The contemporary female body is a site of becoming, of multiple identities, and of multiple shapes. The female body exists in an ever-evolving world and as such it too is ever changing. As I moved between sites my body is not fixed nor static, but rather morphing and changing as it witnesses and experiences altered states of consciousness in gendered terrains associated with the act of reverence of female sacrality, and the generative potential it represents.
I realised that I am “embedded in a matrix of interdependent relationships”,[xxxiii] embodying a web of symbiotic relationships that exists within my cellular makeup. In short, the dormant and active aspects of my inherited genes inflect my pilgrimage travels. This allows a generative lineal web not just of myself as a singular, isolated, independent identity but rather as a cohesive, but interconnected mutable being reflected in the seen and invisible aspects of my physicality and interiority. My body as site of practice expands the theoretical understanding of empowered agency through spirituality, women, and art within the sites themselves. When arriving at a sacred site of reverence, I became acutely aware of how I felt in situ, alternately experiencing a sense of familiarity, unease, distaste, welcoming, and/or sense of coming home. The complexity of the complementary intertwining of my contemporary understanding and the generic traits I have inherited from my foremothers becomes intermingled with another similarly complex web. The entangled relationships between the guardian/s of the site, tourist, and pilgrim; seeker and cynic; interfaith practitioners and adherents to one faith who all meet together in a mélange of responsive experience. These varied enactments prompt questions about appropriation, authenticity, liminal space, and the ethical use of sites.
Once I had negotiated this boundary of sites and self, I then considered how to make space for newly emerging literature and/or receiving word-of-mouth recommendations that would occur once the performance began. I decided to activate the same lens for receiving information about newly revealed sites, allowing an intuitive and synchronistic element to infuse the research project as well. This element of chance enabled me to respond and relate to the persons I met at sites with openness.
The sites I visited are as follows:
Minoan archaeological sites of Crete, Greece
Neolithic Fertility site at Athens, Greece
Fountain of Youth, Florida, USA
Pilgrimage to stand-alone historical women figures in Philadelphia, USA
Diana temple at Nimes, France
Le Puy en Velay, France
Santa Maries de la Mer, France
Uffington White Horse Hill, England
Island of the Women, off the coast of Iona, Scotland
Megaliths and standing stones of Orkney, Scotland
Sheila Na Gig site on Iona, Scotland
Venus Mound, Highlands of Scotland
Cartargo, Costa Rica
Rose Quartz Mountain at Banff, Canada
Once a site was selected, I travelled to it, experienced, documented, and reflected on it before moving on to the next site of reverence.
By travelling to both rural and urban locales considered to be alternative and newly revised gendered sites of reverence, the physiological exterior of my body doubled with the psychical experience within, becoming the principal medium for art making and inquiry.[xxxiv] A bridge was created between rigorous observation and the choreographic, ritualised process of extended pilgrimage in motion. Articulating the corporeal responsiveness and interior impressions I embody at and between sites is central to the performance-led practice I enacted. While travelling towards, experiencing, and moving away from the carefully selected sites of devotional empowerment for women, my body became like a finely tuned instrument—a terminal through which explorations of imagination, memory, cognitive and sensorial understandings of gendered landscapes are filtered and structured into multilayered works.
Recognising the Pivotal Body
As I travelled to the selected pilgrimage sites and the transitional experience of travelling through multiple destinations. My body becomes constructed space, the theatre and the sensing instrument. In this performative space, I am able to observe the reactions within and without my body and then to translate these into both static and performance artefacts. In this way, I am my own first audience. Through presentation of artefacts in a gallery space, I invite the viewer to move around them, encouraging the audience to become a co-participant in the exhibition and the thealogical pilgrimage experience.
Hence, my body became a research object, one that is inherently part of the artwork.[xxxv] Subsuming the body within art practice reflects a tradition whereby the human body is viewed as a cultural object that always has and is a performing subject, a public corporeal topography.[xxxvi] Markus Hallensleben discusses the use of the body as performative space:
We can use our bodies (or parts of them) as tools, and at the same time we can be the tool that allows living, acting, interacting, creating life and producing spaces, creating ideologies and rituals, producing ideas and material realms, figural topics and urban topographies (cf. Lefebvre). It is exactly this ambivalence of being and having a body that allows for understanding the human body as performative space.[xxxvii]
Existing in a state of perpetual motion between, within, and at the sacred sites, I began to interpolate between thematic ideas around deity, landscape and woman’s body. I considered the implications of submerging my body into the aesthetics of my chosen sacred landscapes utilised by women today, while increasing my awareness and attention on the body and its cellular structure to see if it had its own language and instinct for experiencing the sacred. By moving between sites of making and creating through artist residences as well as visiting gendered landscapes of reverence, I placed myself in a process of deep and authentic inquiry into the relationship between women, spirituality and art in its contemporary expressions. I participated in the enactment of multilayered conceptual theory through the contrast of familiarity of personal routine prominent in artist residencies and the sublime unknown.[xxxviii] I was interested to see if through this process, the multiplicity of pilgrimages in which I became a nomad, my body would infuse and assimilate “the body of sacral presence”.[xxxix]
Knowledge production throughout the PhD project incorporated an acknowledgment and articulation of body positions and gestures of devotion that could be specifically associated with myself and other women at these sites. I incorporated knowledge of the body of woman as a source and conduit of reference. I sought to merge my corporeal awareness of a woman’s body (both of myself and others) with text and image.[xl]
In this way, I became the first audience to my research as I reflected in situ on the performance I enacted; emphasising experience and awareness of relational and responsive states as a form of presence, epitomised and encouraged by the ground-breaking work of 1960s and 70s ecofeminists and thealogians.[xli] My conscious awareness transferred between investigative research processes and the performativity of moving into and beyond the sacred,[xlii] highlighted by my reflections as recipient of the inward gaze and as first viewer.
Beyond the mobile parameters of my body, the image/aesthetics of the site itself as well as the forms found within it influenced the new works developed at each residency as well as the durational performance in its totality. Specifically, at each revered terrain, I scanned the architecture (whether it be organic or constructed space) and its decoration (such as textiles, candles, figurines, votive offerings, sculptures and/or paintings) to see if there existed a common thread or generalised aesthetics of art at the pilgrim sites. Interestingly, this way of observing also includes ways in which women at these sites enact fashion and adornment trends while paying homage or bearing witness. The observation of colours, styles, textures and commonalities in dress ultimately became memories and research notes that informed the shape and choice of materials in the culminating exhibition. Architecture, interior and exterior embellishment, personal adornment all swirled together as an evocative aesthetic research process for understanding my experience within gendered sites of reverence.
The openness and spaciousness afforded by this research practice became a critical and creative developmental tool, not aimed at any definitive or predetermined outcome but instead a means through which to explore multi-sensory understandings and to address the efficacy of cross-disciplinary methodologies and the theoretical concepts that underpin them.[xliii] Existing within an ever-shifting landscape of the sacred in female identifying form, time became abstract. The practice of pilgrimage was not just a concept but also subjectivity dependent on a body moving in and through space and time. Similarly Jennifer G. Jesse argues:
The nature of a discipline can be redefined through critical questioning as well as the effects of time. Disciplines thus become housed within unstable boundaries shaped by processes of reflection and time.[xliv]
In one way, my process of extended performance drew on post-performance reflection as outlined by Brenda Downing in Ways of Coming to Knowing through Embodied Methodologies.[xlv] Downing defines her fine art research as employing a body-focused methodology that she divides into two aspects: writing-as-inquiry and performance-making-as-inquiry. In my PhD work, I gleaned ideas from Downing’s research but emphasised holism. Through the use of embodiment within a set and defined series of thematic terrains, writing and research are not at odds with ritualised artefacts, ceremonial performance, and/or the sacred nomadism I enacted. Writing-as-inquiry and performance-making-as-inquiry are conjoined: each aspect of inquiry fuels and provides impetus and stimulation for the act of creation.
Performance-led Practice as Research
The three-year performance I enacted through this project emphasised a holistic framework by complexly fusing periods of reading, writing and making while on pilgrimage. Oscillating continuously throughout the journey allowed multiple facets of research to meld and dissolve together, so that they were no longer seen as dualistic and conflicting. For instance, at the place where paper and thread meet, the folds of the books I read echo the folds of fabric I stitched together.
As Suze Adams states; “Practice-led research, as I understand it, constitutes the active exploration of critical concepts in practice: a process that draws on phenomenological experience as well as conceptual understanding, a process continually open to question, re-negotiation, re-interpretation and ultimately re-presentation.”[xlvi]
This concept is explored by Ann Hamilton in habitus at the Fabric Workshop Philadelphia, USA, in 2016, where she investigated the tactile exchange between text, textile, and image (Near Away, 2013).[xlvii] The production of artistic creation here is embodied and fused, presenting research, practice and performance not as spectral but as interconnected and highly responsive. [xlviii] Jacqueline Taylor notes:
The theory and practice relation has historically been seen as oppositional whereby ‘theory’ and text have been privileged as more valid and rigorous in articulating and constituting knowledge than ‘practice’.[xlix]
Moreover, in order to avoid the conventional dichotomies of body and mind, intuition and intellect, sensation and reason at play in academia, I drew on feminist thealogical research, which has identified binary oppositions inherent in the patriarchal concepts in voicing and writing the sacred, but also affirmed the use of personal experience, reflection, bodily sensation and lived experience as a way to overcome this. Jacqueline Taylor discusses the way dichotomies overlay and merge in her practice:
My written work is presented in the form of an on-going exchange between self and world, practice and theory (as are my installation works)—a process informed by corporeal as well as conceptual understandings and performed via text and image.[l]
Theorists such as Yve Lomax, Barbara Bolt, Estelle Barrett, Hazel Smith and Roger Dean, Lin Holdridge, and Katy Macleod translate and investigate the complex dichotomy that exists between theory and practice.[li] They acknowledge a divide that privileges theory over creative modes of expression, or inversely, practice over theory. This conceptual ideal of a seesaw, which is considered to promote a dynamic oppositional power play, is at odds with the methodology I adopt here.
Recognised scholars such as Mary Daly, Carol P. Christ, and Emma Trout revealed a bias in the repertoire of the sacred as early as 1971.[lii] They noted that the discourse of the sacred divided male and female identifying persons, body and mind, intuition and reason, feeling and logic. One was pitted against another in a hierarchical fashion, so that the masculine was considered sacred while that which was considered other, “the feminine,” was considered unclean.[liii] An exemplar of the volatile iconography relating to the symbolic and figurative representation of women and the sacred can readily be see in Faith Wilding’s Sacrifice (1971), Erika Hoffmann’s artefact Paradise and the Fall (2013), and Kiki Smith’s Women on Pyres (2002). The male aspect was to be worshipped and that which was other reviled and avoided. This process of contrast saw sexual differences as conflicting rather than as complementary and working together to create a healthy functioning whole.
In the holistic view, the body and mind are not conceived as binary oppositions, or separate sources of data collection. Instead, they are seen as interconnected, interwoven, and relational. [liv] These ideas of deconstructing oppositional forces to highlight their complementary nature are examined by Elizabeth Grosz in her metaphorical use of the möbius band to deconstruct binary oppositions and associated hierarchies of mind and body, inside and outside, culture and biology,[lv] or what Steve Pile refers to as “form and formlessness, or internal and external”.[lvi] Using the möbius strip as a non-hierarchical and non-dualistic model, Grosz demonstrates how this topographical puzzle allows for the inside of the strip to be revealed on the external, and the outside to exist within. This is made possible through its form whereby a flat ribbon is twisted once before the ends are sealed together to create a circuitous band. Grosz emancipates oppositions through the use of a metaphor and a scientific model, bringing together the poetic and the mathematical.
Artist Hayv Kahraman uses the concept of the möbius strip to reflect on the between space that women inhabit after an uprooting. They experience a continuous dislocationary non-orientated state generated by the impact of migration, diasporas, emergency and travel. Seeing the body and mind as perpetually moving between sites of leaving and arriving, Kahraman reflects on the use of the body both as vehicle and vessel:
I reject the Cartesian dualistic philosophy of mind/body. The body is never simply just a physical object, but rather contingent on social, cultural and economic attributes and an embodiment of consciousness. To perceive the world is to reflect on possible actions of my body on the world. I both have and am a body, hence the body is socially formed. I also feel that our bodies are vehicles for understanding our very being. An ontological investigation through our bodies is something that I find very intriguing. We are, after all, inhabitants of our bodies and perhaps the space we understand the most is/should be our body. It is an organism that not only pertains to me, but one which also defines me.[lvii]
Working with animal skin and scans of her body using a 3D digital scanner designed for documenting archaeological sites, Kahraman creates “ultra feminine forms woven into the work [möbius strip, which] can blur boundaries of dichotomous thoughts such as masculine/feminine, mind/body and public/private” (e.g., Mobius Body for Extimacy, 2012, and DisEmbodied.8., 2012).[lviii] Interestingly, the infinite form, which the möbius band represents, aligns with the experience of the nomad. The purposeful wanderer participates in a cyclical pattern of movement, continuously shifting from one destination to the next against a blurred horizon, an active position.[lix]
Like the möbius strip, I went from inside the sacred dwelling to the outside, returning to residencies; communities of artists set up as positive sites of creativity and becoming. Travelling to and arriving at a residency can be likened to a pilgrimage and as such is a form of nomadic existence. After arriving at a residency location, a period of making, thinking, reflecting and exhibiting began. The cycle of residencies creates fluctuating states in which I am enmeshed. The outcome of this moving between points allows all my experiences to accumulate towards one creative goal or one transformational state of being.
Multiple connections between locations may appear to be disconnected or discordant experiences, yet, when layered one over the other, they support a form of political agency and a particular motivation for being in the world, which is in accordance with Braidotti’s ‘nomadic subjects’.[lx]
From the outside in, to the inside out, my body was able to move as a nomadic subject with agency backed by methodology to multiple sites and yet produce both documentation in situ and contemplative creative artefacts in retrospect. This article highlights the complex interweaving of a sensual aesthetic, the intersection of various artistic disciplines, inter-material exchange, intuitive process, the body as research object, and performance led practice as research all accumulating in an ideal that new knowledge can be gleaned from the inside out and vice versa.
Emma Rochester, Custom-designed fabric documenting pilgrimages with Carol P Christ to sites such as Knossos and Phaistos on the island of Crete Greece 2014-2016, digital print, 147 x 210cm. Image courtesy the artist.
Emma Rochester, Custom-designed fabric documenting pilgrimage to the Black Madonna Icon at the Monastery of Panagia Hozoviotissa (Grace of Panagia -Virgin Mary) in Amorgos 2014-2016, digital print, 128 x 182cm. Image courtesy the artist.
Emma Rochester, Custom-designed fabric documenting pilgrimage journey to solar temples at Santorini, Greece 2014-2016, digital print, 147 x 210cm. Image courtesy the artist.
Emma Rochester, Custom-designed fabric documenting a repeat visit to Saint Sarah associated with cults of the Black Madonna at Saintes-Maries de la Mer, Camargue, France 2015-2016, digital print, 128 x 182cm. Image courtesy the artist.
Emma Rochester, Custom-designed fabric documenting my departure via tour bus as part of a pilgrimage to the sanctuary of the Black Madonna of Montserrat, Spain 2015-2016, digital print, 147 x 210cm. Image courtesy the artist.
Emma Rochester, Custom-designed fabric documenting my pilgrimage to Venus Mound at Forres, Scotland, UK 2014-2016, digital print, 147 x 210cm. Image courtesy the artist.
Rochester, Documentation of Sculptural Fibre Form of Women on Pilgrimage with Emphasis to 1970s Core Feminist Imagery for the Exhibition “In Her Hands” 2017, Custom-designed print on upholstery weight cotton and silk crepe, block colour cotton material, synthetic hair, and haberdashery thread, dimensions variable. Photo courtesy of Carl Warner.
Rochester, Documentation of Sculptural Fibre Form of Women on Pilgrimage with Emphasis to 1970s Core Feminist Imagery for the Exhibition “In Her Hands” 2017, Custom-designed print on upholstery weight cotton and silk crepe, block colour cotton material, synthetic hair, and haberdashery thread, dimensions variable. Photo courtesy of Carl Warner.
Rochester, Documentation of Sculptural Fibre Form of Women on Pilgrimage with Emphasis to 1970s Core Feminist Imagery for the Exhibition “In Her Hands” 2017, Custom-designed print on upholstery weight cotton and silk crepe, block colour cotton material, synthetic hair, and haberdashery thread, dimensions variable. Photo courtesy of Carl Warner.
[i] Sara Terreault, “The Thousand-Word Picture: Teaching Pilgrimage through Images ” in 5th Annual Symposium for Pilgrimage Studies 2016 (Williamsburg, VA: College of William & Mary, 2016).
[ii] Charlene Spretnak, “Women’s Spiritual Art as a Source of Female Sustenance,” in Parliament of the World’s Religions (Salt Lake City: Parliament of the World’s Religions, 2015).
[iii] Marilee Sprenger, Teaching the Critical Vocabulary of the Common Core : 55 Words That Make or Break Student Understanding (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development (ASCD), 2013), 7.
[iv] Jennifer G. Jesse, “Reflections on the Benefits and Risks of Interdisciplinary Study in Theology, Philosophy, and Literature,” American Journal of Theology & Philosophy 32, no. 1 (2011): 67
[v] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
[vi] Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Theory: The Portable Rosi Braidotti (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 36.
[vii] Mark C. Taylor, “End the University as We Know It,” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/27/opinion/27taylor.html.
[viii] Adams, “Practice as Research: A Fine Art Contextual Study,” Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 13, no. 3 (2014): 223.
[ix] Jesse, “Reflections on the Benefits and Risks of Interdisciplinary Study,” 65.
[x] Heather Walton, Literature and Theology: New Interdisciplinary Spaces (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011), ii.
[xi] Bernard C. K. Choi and Anita W. P. Pak, “Multidisciplinarity, Interdisciplinarity and Transdisciplinarity in Health Research, Services, Education and Policy: 1. Definitions, Objectives, and Evidence of Effectiveness,” Clinical and Investigative Medicine 29, no. 6 (2006): 351.
[xii] Leo Apostel, Guy Berger, Asa Briggs and Guy Michaud, Interdisciplinarity: Problems of Teaching and Research in Universities (Paris: Organisation for Educational Cooperation and Development, 1972).
[xiii] Julie Thompson Klein, “Typologies of Interdisciplinarity; The Boundary Work of Definition,” in The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity 2nd Edition, eds. Robert Frodeman, Julie Thompson Klein, and Roberto Carlos Dos Santos Pacheco (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017), 21.
[xiv] Andrew Abbott, Chaos of Disciplines (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 2001).
[xv] Andrew J. Hoffman and Jessica Axson, (2017). “Examining Interdisciplinary Sustainability Institutes at Major Research Universities: Innovations in Cross-Campus and Cross-Disciplinary Models,” University of Michigan Ross School of Business Working Paper Working Paper No. 1366, 1-64.
[xvi] Choi, “Multidisciplinarity, Interdisciplinarity and Transdisciplinarity,” 351.
[xvii] Julie Thompson Klein, “Discourses of Transdisciplinarity: Looking Back to the Future,” Futures 63, November (2014): 12.
[xviii] Ibid., 10.
[xix] Jacqueline Taylor, “From ‘or’ to ‘and’: L’e´Criture Fe´Minine as a Methodological Approach for Fine Art Research,” Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 13, no. 3 (2014): 305.
[xx] Jesse, “Reflections on the Benefits and Risks of Interdisciplinary Study,” 64.
[xxi] Ibid., 66.
[xxiv] Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation; Goldenberg, The Changing of the Gods; Judith Plaskow and Carol P. Christ, Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1989); Judith Plaskow, “The Coming of Lilith: A Response,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 23, no. 4 (Spring 2007); Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective; Kartikeya C. Patel, “Women, Earth, and the Goddess: A ShāKta-Hindu Interpretation of Embodied Religion,” Hypatia 9, no. 4 (1994).
[xxv] Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Hamlets Mother and Other Women (New York: Ballantine, 1991).
[xxvi] Janis Jennings, “Tending Hestia’s Flame: Circumambulating the Sacred Feminine,” Psychological Perspectives: A Quarterly Journal of Jungian Thought 51, no. 2 (2008); Merlin Stone, When God Was a Woman (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Inc, 1976); Leonard Shlain, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict between Word and Image (New York: Compass, Penguin Publishing Group, 1999).
[xxvii] Budapest, The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries; Asphodel, “Feminism and Spirituality: A Rewview of Recent Publications 1975–1981.”; ibid.
[xxviii] Carol P. Christ, Odyssey with the Goddess: A Spiritual Quest in Crete (New York Continuum, 1995); Laughter of Aphrodite: Reflections on a Journey to the Goddess (San Francisco: Harper & Row., 1987); Galland, Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna, a Ten Year Journey in Search of the Feminine Face of God; Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor, Travelling with Pomegranates: A Mother and Daughter Journey to the Sacred Places of Greece, Turkey, and France (London, UK: Viking Penguin, 2010). Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor, The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth (San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco, 1987).
[xxix] Karen Tate, Sacred Places of Goddess: 108 Destinations (SanFrancisco, USA: CCC Publishing, 2006).
[xxx] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London, UK: Continuum, 1987), 5.
[xxxi] Jac Saorsa, Narrating the Catastrophe: An Artist’s Dialogue with Deleuze and Ricoeur (Bristol, UK: Intellect, 2011), 17.
[xxxii] Spretnak, “Women’s Spiritual Art as a Source of Female Sustenance.”
[xxxiii] Christ, “Cutting Edges,” 129.
[xxxiv] Elizabeth A. Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994).
[xxxv] Markus Hallensleben, “Performative Body Spaces,” in Performative Body Spaces: Corporeal Topographies in Literature, Theatre, Dance, and the Visual Arts (Amsterdam, NL: Rodopi, 2010), 9.
[xxxvi] Ibid., 11.
[xxxvii] Ibid., 15.
[xxxviii] Adams, “Practice as Research,” 218.
[xxxix] Charlene Spretnak, The Spiritual Dynamic in Moden Art: Art History Reconsidered 1800 to the Present (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 158.
[xl] Adams, “Practice as Research: A Fine Art Contextual Study,” 219.
[xli] Jantzen, Becoming Divine: Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion; Sarah L. Peters, “Ambivalent Devotion: Religious Imagination in Contemporary Southern Women’s Fiction” (ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2009).; Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen Seventy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Marion Woodman and Elinor Dickson, Dancing in the Flames: The Dark Goddess in the Transformation of Consciousness (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1997); Asphodel, “Feminism and Spirituality: A Rewview of Recent Publications 1975–1981.”; ibid.; Juliet Blair, “Women’s Self Concept and Belief: A Feminist Approach to Empowerment Symbolism,” Women’s Studies International Forum .8, no. 4 (1985); Carolyn Merchant, “Peace With the Earth: Women and the Environmental Movement in Sweden,” Women’s Studies International Forum 9, no. 5 (1986); Charlotta Hensley, “‘Womanspirit’ and Other Issues of Feminist Spirituality,” Newsstand Magazines (Spring 1987); Lerner, The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen Seventy; Melissa Raphael, “Feminism, Constructivism and Numinous Experience,” Religious Studies 30, no. 4 (1994); Irigaray, In the Beginning She Was.
[xlii] Taylor, “From ‘or’ to ‘and’,” 305.
[xliii] Suze Adams, “Practice as Research,” ibid.: 218.
[xliv] Jesse, “Reflections on the Benefits and Risks of Interdisciplinary Study,” 68
[xlv] Brenda Downing, “Ways of Coming to Knowing through Embodied Methodologies,” Outskirts Online Journal 32, no. May (2015).
[xlvi] Adams, “Practice as Research,” 218.
[xlvii] Anne Hamilton, “Cloth · a Commonplace,” Tumblr, http://cloth-a-commonplace.tumblr.com.
[xlviii] Taylor, “From ‘or’ to ‘and’,” 305.
[xlix] Ibid., 303.
[l] cited in Adams, “Practice as Research”, 219.
[li] Yve Lomax, Passionate Being: Language, Singulatiry and Perserverance (London, UK: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2010). Hazel Smith and Roger T. Dean, “Practice-Led Research, Research-Led Practice: Towards the Iterative Cyclic Web,” in Practice-Led Research, Research-Led Practice in the Creative Arts (Research Methods for the Arts and Humanities) 1st ed, ed. Hazel Smith and Roger T. Dean (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009); Estelle J. Barrett, “Situating Creative Arts Research as ‘Successor Science’,” in Doctoral Writing in the Creative and Performing Arts, ed. Louise Ravelli, Brian Paltridge, and Sue Starfield (Oxfordshire, UK: Libri Publishing, 2014). Katy Macleod and Lin Holdridge, Thinking through Art: Reflections on Art as Research (New York: Routledge, 2006). Barbara Bolt, “A Performative Paradigm for the Creative Arts?,” Working Papers in Art and Design , no. 5 Research into Practice Conference (2008).
[lii] Christ and Trout, “Alternative Images of God: Communal Theology Conference of Women Theologians.”; Daly, Beyond God the Father: Towards a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation.
[liii] Kathryn Rountree, Embracing the Witch and the Goddess: Feminist Ritual-Makers in New Zealand (London, UK: Routledge, 2004).
[liv] Ignaz Cassar, “Towards a Criticality in the Now,” Journal of Visual Arts Practice 8, no. 3 (2009): 230.
[lv] Grosz, Volatile Bodies.
[lvi] Steve Pile, The Body and the City: Psychoanalysis, Space and Subjectivity (New York: Routledge, 2013), 186.
[lvii] Hayv Kahraman, “Q+a between Hayv Kahraman and Myrna Ayad, Editor of Canvas,” http://hayvkahraman.com/press/HK_Extimacy_Essay%20QA.pdf.
[lix] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus.
[lx] Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference, 21.
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Thompson Klein, Julie. “Discourses of Transdisciplinarity: Looking Back to the Future.” Futures 63, November (2014): 10-16.
———. “Typologies of Interdisciplinarity; The Boundary Work of Definition.” In The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity 2nd Edition, edited by Robert Frodeman, Julie Thompson Klein, and Roberto Carlos Dos Santos Pacheco. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017.
Walton, Heather. Literature and Theology: New Interdisciplinary Spaces. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011.
Wark, Jayne. Radical Gestures: Feminism and Performance Art in North America,
Quebec: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009.
Webb, Ruth. Ekphrasis, Imagination and Persuasion in Ancient Rhetorical Theory and Practice. Surrey, UK: Ashgate, Routledge, 2009.
Woodman, Marion, and Elinor Dickson. Dancing in the Flames: The Dark Goddess in the Transformation of Consciousness. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1997.
Essay for Emma Rochester’s exhibition catalogue by Charlene Spretnak
Has something been held in reserve within the silence
of a history in the feminine: an energy, a morphology,
a growth, and a flourishing still to come from the female
realm? An overture to the future that is still and always open?
— Luce Irigaray1
The French philosopher Luce Irigaray has observed that modern societies could experience an endlessly creative culture of intersubjectivity, the dynamic interchange between male subjectivity and female subjectivity, if only the latter were present. We live, instead, in a monoculture where language, philosophical concepts, rules of society, systems of knowledge, and the structure and conduct of institutions have all evolved to be comfortable to the sex that was in charge. The Western languages (except Hungarian, Finnish, and Basque) all derive from the Indo-European language, which was brought into Europe from the Eurasian steppes during the Neolithic Era by nomadic warrior bands that had a patriarchal social structure (evident from the burial patterns and other indicators). The Indo- European family of languages is nominalized, that is, the emphasis is on naming things – not on expressing dynamics of interrelationship, flux, and change (such as the Hopi language, for instance).
In addition, the cultural DNA of Western thought since the time of the Pythagoreans and Plato has incorporated the perception of a strict discontinuity between body and mind, between humans and nature, and between self and the world – as well as Aristotle’s method of knowing nature by categorizing it. This cultural habit of seeing life as composed of isolate entities was codified in the mechanistic worldview of the 17th and 18th centuries: the human organism, society, nature, and the entire cosmos were seen to be structured and to function like clockworks or other mechanisms. Modern science and medicine, education, business, and governance all hewed closely to the efficiency of sophisticated, mechanistic thinking because it seemed self-evident that life is composed solely of separative, disembedded (thoroughly autonomous) life forms.
Why would such an outlook – and the entire civilization it informs – be particularly comfortable to the male psyche? It is difficult to distinguish between socialization and biological tendencies as causal influences on our attitudes and behavior, even after the discoveries in recent years that sex differences exist not only in every organ but also in every cell and gene in the human body. Still, a pair of tests of visual perception that was created in 1954 in the United States and has since been given numerous times around the world has consistently found a strong gender correlation in the results of both tests. Women tend to see the foreground figures and their surroundings as integrated, that is, as a gestalt, whereas men tend to focus strongly on the foreground figures and to view the background as instrumental to the given task but otherwise unimportant.2
That women tend to see the world as composed of interrelationships should come as no surprise, but girls learn early on to suppress that perception in order to function well in school, at university, in the workplace, and in the modern monoculture in general, which is so firmly rooted in the mechanistic worldview. Such an exacting mental contortion goes unremarked in manstream cultures. As Irigaray observes: “Sexuate difference is the question that remains unthought in our epoch.”3
What if a woman were to step out from the mechanistic framing of modern culture to immerse herself in the gestalt of deeply female-resonant sacred sites? She might embark on a three-year nomadic pilgrimage to sacred shrines, caves, springs, lakes, shrines, and temples, some dating from the Neolithic Era, where divine presence was perceived as female. This historical, and prehistorical, spiritual orientation, in all its variety at locations on several continents, was not an arbitrary social construction. Rather, it evolved from the similarity of two physicalities: the elemental powers of the female body – bleeding in rhythm with the moon, swelling up like the full moon and producing a person from her flesh, and transforming food into breast milk for the infant – and the elemental powers that created the cosmological dramas of day and night, the cycles of the moon, and the rhythm of the seasons, as well as the bountiful growth of plants to eat. In response to those powers, culture developed.
What if the pilgrim selected sacred sites for their location in the regions where her Motherline had dwelled? Might she commune with significant currents in the lives of her mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mothers? Might the pilgrim honor moments in their lives when the gestalt is palpable? Surely religious experience would be one source of many such moments.
What, then, would complete this exploration, this research into female- centric grounding? Irigaray would urge the woman to translate the explorations at those sacred sites into the unbounded language of art because she regards it as a primary mode of liberating and cultivating female subjectivity in this world:
The between-men cultures have deprived us of the expression of meaning through images, which for the most part constitutes our female and maternal genius…. The loss of divine representation has brought women to a state of dereliction, which is felt all the more because sensible representation is our primary method of figuration and communication…. In my view, we can and must rediscover the originality of our works.4
All of this is the context of Emma Rochester’s works of art in The Embodied Artifact – but is only a bare outline of the fuller context, stretching as it does from the Upper Paleolithic to the present and shimmering in subtle vibratory waves across vast fields of dynamic interrelatedness from the artist’s subatomic agency, to everyone she has ever known, to the Earth’s full range of bounty, to the entire cosmos . . . and to every person who engages with this art.
1 Luce Irigaray, “Sexual Difference,” An Ethics of Sexual Difference, translated by Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), p. 19.
2 See the discussion of Herman Witkin’s two experiments, the Rod and Frame Test and the Embedded Figures Test and the extrapolation from the data about cognitive styles in Diane F. Halpern, Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities, 3rd edition (Mahweh, NJ and London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000), pp. 110- 111.
3 Luce Irigaray, “Words to Nourish the Breath of Life,” Why Different? A Culture of Two Subjects, translated by Luce Irigaray and Sylvère Lotringer (New York: Semiotext(e), 2000), p. 139.
4 Luce Irigaray, “How Can We Create Our Beauty?” Je, Tu, Nous: Toward a Culture of Difference, translated by Alison Martin (New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 110-111.
Biography of Charlene Spretnak
Charlene Spretnak is author of eight books including Relational Reality and The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art, 1800 to the Present. She is also editor of an anthology, The Politics of Women’s Spirituality. She is a professor emerita of philosophy and religion and lives in California with her husband.
Feminist Art Created in Community – Radical Act For Embodied Artefact
Essay for Emma Rochester’s exhibition catalogue by Ilene Sova
Dominator culture has tried to keep us all afraid, to make us choose safety
instead of risk, sameness instead of diversity. Moving through that fear,
finding out what connects us, reveling in our differences; this is the process
that brings us closer, that gives us a world of shared values, of meaningful community.
— Bell Hooks
I was introduced to Emma Rochester’s beautiful artistic practice firstly through her application to the Feminist Art Residency (FAC). I facilitate the multi-disciplinary residency, which takes place for two weeks each spring on the secluded Toronto Island at Gibraltar Point. The unique residency is located in an old 18th-century schoolhouse transformed into an artist retreat, a fifteen-minute ferry ride away from Canada’s largest urban centre. Before British colonisation, the secluded Toronto Island was a consecrated place that local indigenous people travelled to from the mainland for sacred activities. Indigenous elders have told us that the women in particular would have gathered here in groups for female-centred ceremony and discussion. We feel that this small island on Lake Ontario, with such a rich and layered history, is an ideal location for the feminist residency to gather women artists in a collective studio environment.
This intersectional and intergenerational residency has artists coming from all over the world to work together towards a dynamic shared goal of developing a body of work. The end of the residency culminates with the launch of a large open studio exhibition for the public to attend. When I came across Emma Rochester’s application in the pile of potential artists, I was immediately drawn to the striking aesthetic qualities of her work. I was struck by the deep crimson reds next to stark white, the vibrating pinks next to intricate patterns and textures, and large blotches of ‘feminine’ colours that looked like pools of liquid emanating from an unknown source. As I moved through the images of her artistic output on my computer screen, I felt that the work had a strong visual root with the feminist art of the past. Again and again, the images I was looking at harkened a visual vocabulary that strongly linked with the DIY feminist art of the 1970s. However, Rochester’s imagery had a freshness and element of surprise that was unexpected and immediately captivating. Along with the artwork, Rochester’s hand appears both literally and figuratively, making an appearance in her documentation and her artwork. Her hand as a symbol seems to be leaving a metaphorical trace of her as a woman artist. A woman artist, working, creating and staking a claim in contemporary art practice. I was very inspired by what I saw and moved on to read more into her thoughts, philosophy and approach to art making.
Her written application outlined her reasons for wanting to join the community we were creating at the FAC residency. After learning that she had been travelling to these sacred sites around the world, I was immediately and viscerally attracted to these proclamations in her submission, “These research trips enable an affective reimagining of female agency. Weaving myth, history, archaeology, study of religion, popular fiction and cutting-edge scholarly thought, my embodied art practice looks at what it means to travel between gendered sites of reverence. This is part of a growing international reconsideration of the concept of woman and empowerment. I see the research and artefact I produce as part of a broader body of work being produced by feminist artists that call for a return to the insights of ecofeminists and theological scholars” (Rochester Application to FAC Residency) I found this way of researching, working and creating to be an enriching and refreshing approach to a feminist art making practice. Later, as the facilitator of the residency and a member of the community, it became apparent that this process that Rochester was embarking on was as important as the work itself. Examining that context in which the art is created is imperative to understanding the roots of her work and its ultimate manifestation.
What immediately struck me was that Rochester’s work and approach were synergistically aligned with FAC as a collective. With a feminist framework as our guiding principles, we outline our goals of building community in the following manifesto “We will create a space that is celebratory, positive, intellectually engaging and provocative…by providing an opportunity for feminist artists to meet and share their work, we believe we can provide opportunities for networking and future artistic collaboration that can inspire social change and empowerment. We have the vision that the ripple effect from this type of artistic sharing and learning can provoke positive transformations in both our communities and our minds” (Sova). Rochester’s work emulates these very notions; a positive return to women in the flesh, women in the community, women at the centre of creation. In her thesis, she speaks to the multitude of women’s art collectives and religious pilgrimages where people came to deeper understandings through the process of community, travel and worship. Together, these participants created seminal works, developing their understanding collectively, travelling to sites, connecting with spirituality and being transformed in the process through collaboration.
How does this way of working, seeing and making affect the way a feminist artist creates? Feminist scholar Bell Hooks examine these ideas in her book All About Love. Throughout essays in the book she deconstructs the loss of community centred societies to capitalist patriarchy. She argues that, under current financial systems, people are intrinsically separated from one another, living alone in small patriarchal family units. In this way, people are isolated from the community and the support that it can offer in all aspects of our lives: relationships, childrearing, family cohesiveness and conflict. She convinces us that without community’s triumphant return, we as a society will be unable to overcome issues of social injustice both personally and societally. The contemporary feminist movement must put at its centre a practice of collaboration, community and collectivity. To be relevant and activate for social justice means to revive notions of artistic collectives, communities and shared workspaces as areas of support, self-care, and idea incubation.
In much the same way, the artist as an actor in the contemporary art market is only successful as an individual commodity maker. In a capitalistic framework, the mythical lone artist is relegated to private studios where they are to work in isolation, in secret. This lone artist no longer participates in artistic movements with their relative communities, responding to the world around them. Instead, they are set up to compete with one another, disconnected from their audience and ultimately severed from public interaction with politics and social movements. Taught an academic art language few understand and encouraged to be obtuse, the contemporary artist is relegated to an elite world and understood by few. When Rochester describes what is central to her process, “Art Practice is to experiment with translating continuous pilgrimage, and its role in affirming and empowering women, into tangible art forms by travelling between newly revised gendered sites of reverence and artist-in-residence communities” (Rochester).
This is in radical antithesis to what artists are ‘groomed’ to do by the art world itself, both from an academic and market standpoint. Instead, artists should be participants in the commodity system that rewards a single-minded lone genius, a person whose ideas have ‘market value’ that is theirs alone. Not to be shared. Young artists are pushed to create the copy-written commodity to be bought and sold. To return to the artist collective, to work in collaboration at an artist residency, to come out of the private studio and share a workspace is firstly a radical act of resistance; a return to the artistic community. Performance artist Carolee Schneemann states this eloquently, “Success is now lined up with the realm of glamour, money and accoutrement which in essence have nothing to do with an originating vision, but they do have to do with establishing recognition in commercial culture. I think women artists have a chance to deflect that and break that grip apart” (Schneemann).
At the FAC residency, Rochester fully participated in those moments of authentic community place making as she created her work. She integrated her artistic process in both the directed programming and in the organic crossroads that happen when artists share large living spaces. A visit to the large communal kitchen for lunch turns into hours-long conversations on production and idea generation. A shared studio between four artists creates cross-pollination between minds and aesthetic practices that could not happen had the artists worked in isolation. Natural mentorship and deep relationships happen between generations. Over tea, older artists offer advice-giving sessions on financial survival, creative output and artistic longevity. Curated speakers from the FAC community at large take a ferry to visit the island and offer insightful unpacking of the work; invaluable to its development. In this community, a deeper growth occurs, more meaningful art making is created. Art is made that has an immediate feedback loop and a genuine and profound connection with the society that it speaks to.
The programmed group critiques were rich with discussion, extremely helpful, with thoughtful declarations on each work. For many artists, it was the first time that they had people viewing and looking at their work who had a collective experience similar to their own. This alone was transformative in its action and reaction. As such, deep emotions ran high as much of the work feminists do is related to trauma and issues that they had experienced or know someone who has experienced. As Rochester eloquently emphasises the importance of this experience when she proposes “In this way, I challenge the paradigm of the detached scholar by presenting the validity of personal stories of a spiritual/religious nature in academia. I combine feminist scholarship with experiences of visits to the sites themselves through the lens of the artist” (Rochester). Directly challenging that disconnect that we have been taught, like Hooks, Rochester asks us to return to feeling, sharing, and visceral experiences that allow us to connect, build and heal for social change.
The artistic collective was incredibly supportive of this process as they worked through the topics and gave thoughtful feedback, words of encouragement and practical approaches for development. The artists responded both sensitively and constructively. This is the brave and audacious work of the feminist artist – to tackle issues head on with directness and sensitivity. At points the group was reminded of this – as feminist artists, they have chosen to do work that they care about and are passionate
about. Therefore, by working in community, these artists are on a more challenging path than those who make art about less charged topics. This type of exploration at its core requires a community to fully unpack, appreciate and act as witnesses in the process. Rochester eloquently explains the importance of this experience to her work when she states that “I was filled with a desire to reinterpret the many empowering and regenerative images I had seen. Both static forms from the past as well as my interaction with women who experienced altered states of consciousness, and who demonstrated articulated gestures of liberation and freedom—perhaps for the first time in their lives— played evocatively through my body and mind as both imagination, memory, and sensation” (Rochester).
As an artistic community of strangers develops, it also reveals what it has in common. There were many topical themes that seemed to thread themselves through the final pieces of the artists at this residency. What do these issues mean to the feminist art movement at this time? What do they say about the social justice movements across continents? Throughout almost all the work, like Rochester’s examination of women’s pilgrimages and the lineage of artists who came before her, there was a sense of a robust and passionate push to bring what was in the past into the communities of the present: To look at history, an issue, a personal narrative, an incident, a symbol or a feeling and bring it into the present with a newfound eye. The artists asked their audience to look closer at something they may not have noticed before, to dig up a forgotten history and re- examine it, to connect what is happening now with something that happened twenty years ago or hundreds of years ago.
Embodied Artefact is a beautiful rallying cry for the return to community arts and women in the flesh. Like our Feminist Art Conference curatorial theme in 2015, ‘Looking Forward, Looking Back’, the artists at the FAC residency working in community strove to reach into larger herstories or personal herstories and re-interpret what had happened. They did so with a new voice to bring people to a new political and activist understanding. As Rochester’s Embodied Artefact acts as a performance, as an installation project, as walking performances, as embodied resistance, it is rooted in a community project. A group of hands, in groups, making together. The resulting work is an intricate and impassioned vision that symbolises and communicates this return to our past ways of working together and building a society based on equity and social justice through art.
Hooks, Bell. All about Love: New Visions. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016. Print.
Brooks, Katherine. “12 Beautiful Quotes From Women In Art Who Aren’t Afraid To Call Out Injustice.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 06 Mar. 2015. Web. 02 Mar. 2017.
Sova, Ilene. “PHILOSOPHY.” Feminist Art Conference. Feminist Art Conference Collective, 19 Sept. 2016. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.
Biography of Ilene Sova
Ilene Sova is an Artist Educator who identifies as Mixed Race, with a white settler, Afro-Caribbean, and Black Seminole Indigenous ancestry. She also is an artist who lives with a disability. As such, she passionately identifies with the tenets of intersectional feminism and has dedicated her career to art and activism. Ilene Sova is the founder of the Feminist Art Conference and Blank Canvases, an in-school creative arts programme for elementary school students. Sova is the Ada Slaight Chair of Contemporary Drawing and Painting in the Faculty of Art at OCADU University and her atelier, at Walnut Studios.