Archive for October, 2019

Work made visible: Reading

There’s already a lot of material on attentive reading on this blog. Rather than repeating that, this post focuses on my attempts to make the work of reading visible.

Step 1: Generate some data
Daily tracking of reading in a spreadsheet, including a notation of whether the essay/book was completed, set aside, or the reading is ongoing.

Step 2: Data analysis
This data could be used to create some metrics and charts. From late May to mid October I started reading 52 works, and completed 30 (58%), the others being ongoing or set aside. Eighteen (35%) I spent only a day or two with. The longest reading effort was 33 days spent with Agnes Martin (edited by Lynne Cooke – see link) – a wonderful way to start the day.

But why get lost in numbers when the original tracking sheet is so striking?

Step 3: Material transformation

Reading Light Chart

Step 4: Push it further
Layers of transformation, combining with the glyph for light/shadow/reflection.

Reading light and shadow

Postscript: After my post on Note-taking (15-Oct-2019) Claire of TactualTextiles reminded me that we were encouraged to use skim reading during our degree-level courses with the Open College of the Arts. Pretty much the extreme opposite of attentive reading. Why?

I think there’s a fundamental difference in approach. OCA wanted demonstrated learning in the form of an essay, or a clear input to a planned and executed output. Jump in, get what you need, jump out and on to the next requirement. In Ruth Hadlow’s model of practice, you need to be clear about where you’re starting – the terrain of investigation, points of reference, what is attracting your attention. Then you explore, discover where it takes you. How can you discover new possibilities if you’re not being attentive? That’s the journey I want to take in my reading – finding new ideas, making new connections, asking “what if…”.

Articulation of Practice: Note-taking

What is note-taking in my practice?
Note-taking is a compulsive habit.

I carry a note-book everywhere and jot down thoughts, observations, questions, appointments… I wasn’t one of those first year uni students who wrote down “good morning” when the lecturer began, but I wasn’t far from it. I write down points from others. I write down points I want to make when others finish speaking. I doodle and sketch and diagram and outline. I work things out. I think.

When I’m having trouble explaining something I reach for pen and paper. A time axis, some labels, arrows, scribbling through, vigorously underlining – and communication.

What is note-taking in my practice?
Note-taking is an integral component in all elements of practice.

Ruth Hadlow teaches that Practice is Thinking: Reading + Writing + Making + Lived Experience; and uses those words in the most broad and inclusive way. With a computer science background and taking care to shift from noun to active verb I translate to Input-ing + Process-ing + Output-ing + Context/Environment(-ing?).

Input-ing: I’ve heard it said that we generally don’t read word by word, but don’t have further information on that and a quick websearch suggests it’s complicated. There’s certainly skim reading, flicking through and hoping to chance on what you need. There’s also speed reading – again, out of my experience; but I’ve never liked the idea of racing through. Ruth teaches attentive reading. Enjoy the language; observe the structure; be aware of the poetic techniques of adding layers of meaning. You don’t need to read all of every book, but be attentive to all that you do read.

Taking notes – dot points, diagrams, even literal illustrations – helps, as a reminder and also simply as a way to slow down. To maintain focus. Reading aloud, reading while pacing, reading one cup of tea at a time all help too 🙂

Output-ing: Note-taking as writing might seem obvious, but this is writing as a way of having a conversation with oneself. A way of thinking through ideas. In my interpretation writing can also stand with one foot in “Making”. My Morning List (1-Aug-2019) was a writing experiment that started with note-taking as ideas collection, was founded in Reading of Georges Perec, and that documented my morning schedule that includes a focused hour of Reading (including, naturally, some noting).

Most of my Making takes place off the page, but note-taking captures ideas – a resource for the future. It also works in plan development.

In practice, note-taking moves quickly from one element of practice to another. How quickly? The page on the left shows initial thoughts for a data visualisation to explore just that. A bar chart showing the proportions of note-book pages – different colours for times of reading, thinking, capturing ideas, planning making, daydreaming, …

… and resulted in making.

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What is note-taking in my practice?
Note-taking creates notebooks. It builds a store of information.

Again, that might seem obvious. I’m continuing to build the spiral bound books mentioned last year (28-Jul-2018). Such a small, simple, thing – but it gives flexibility and allows me to keep information from multiple sources in a single, chronological store.

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As well as new Reading, my morning routine includes reviewing notes – the previous day, and a dive into earlier pages, last month or last year (using a random number generator to select a page 🙂 ). It helps me make connections, add layers of understanding, strengthen learning.

How to access this store methodically, not just at random? Often I have a visual memory of a page, say a particular diagram, but no idea of when it was written. I have a record of books and essays read (a topic for another day), which might give a rough date. Not satisfying.

But I was already photographing the pages regularly for the bar chart, and that photographic resource created another spiral note-book – a visual index. So if I want to review the peculiar feather-duster that accompanied thinking about philosophy and “truth”, it’s relatively quick to find.

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What is note-taking in my practice?
Note-taking traces threads and exposes slippage.

I wanted more value from my notes, from the index. I wanted to squeeze every drop. What if I needed to find information related to a particular theme or terrain of investigation, rather than a single particular page?

Over time I have developed a series of “glyphs”, extended as new areas of interest become apparent.

Glyphs are added as I write or review pages. If I want to collate material relevant to the terrain of memory, for example, I scan the index for its glyph – ∞. It provides a level of flexible access to the paper-based records – something I sorely miss moving from digital storage. A means to identify and track currents of investigation.

Coding glyphs as I go is another way of slowing down, of pausing to think about what I am writing, what it could mean. I become more attentive.

Glyphs have also proved a rich source of slippage. Wanting – needing – to keep the number of glyphs (my glyph-abary?) fairly small, I’ve overloaded them with “related” concepts. For example ∞ can also refer to time. Or history. Or the past. It’s not yet been tried in practice, but I’m hoping for some surprising combinations of concepts, some unexpected connections.

What is note-taking in my practice?
Note-taking is a generative field underpinning further transformations.

Development of the glyphs has broken open new possibilities, helping me make sideways steps and transformations away from the original material.

A personal language is building, a set of shapes that I can deploy. For example, a photo of a crockery tower (11-Aug-2019), combined with the glyph for unbalance/uncertain, some blurring, layering, masking and cropping, gives:

Something I find quite dynamic and interesting, with layers of meaning.

Having the glyphs also gives me something easy to count. My data visualisation background could spring into action, as it did with That Dreadful Man. Instead, a transformation using a different set of skills.

Two weeks of notebook pages

Basketry. Each glyph was assigned a colour of cottolin thread – a mid blue for “process”, the most frequently used glyph (after all, articulating, documenting and visualising the processes of practice has been my major terrain of investigation). The bright yellow is “mark/gesture” – not much used in the period shown. Mauve was used to mark the end of each page. A core of rope was wound in colours, based on the glyphs recorded on each page. This is a visual representation of my note-taking, just as much as the earlier chart.

What is note-taking in my practice?
Would there be a practice, without note-taking?

This post is part of a loose series. A major focus this year has been developing a creative art practice that sustains me and which I can sustain. It’s all part of the Intensive Creative Research Program I’ve been doing with Ruth Hadlow. As part of thinking about and experimenting with aspects of practice, I’ve been trying to make the work of practice visible.

The Tale of That Dreadful Man (27-Sep-2019) gave an extreme example of my efforts to read attentively. The original essay also also provided the repeated question | multiple response format I have used above.

Morning List (1-Aug-2019) articulated the time schedule that carves out a guaranteed hour of creative practice each day. The list form was inspired by Georges Perec.

Not part of the series but highly relevant are my notes from a previous Articulating Practice workshop with Ruth (25-Feb-2016).

Attentive Looking. Louise Bourgeois: Arched Figure

All the time in the world.

Slow down. Pay attention. You have all the time in the world.

I say it to myself. I write it in my journal. Again and again. And just at the moment, it’s working for me.

Of course it’s not true. Which doesn’t bother me because (a) at the moment I don’t believe in “true” as more than an unrealisable, unreconcilable, abstract concept, a simplification ignoring multiple perspectives in a complex world; and more importantly just now (b) if I act as if it’s true interesting things happen.

In the Creative Research program Ruth Hadlow has been teaching us to be attentive. Read a book or essay one chapter, one page, one paragraph, one sentence, one word at a time. Engage. Unpack. Think about what’s being said, how it’s being said, what it is about the work that is interesting you, what your own response is, what is happening between you and the work, how your life experience meets it, how it could extend or change your ideas, your practice. Note the slippage in what I just wrote. The “book or essay” has become a “work” – which could be text, or any type of art work, or an event of almost any kind. A number of us in the class have been facing different life challenges, and we spent time discussing strategies, how to do what we need to do, meet obligations, manage constraints and desires, be responsive and responsible and caring, all within a framework of practice that is sustaining and sustainable.

Easy, right? That’s why they call it “practice” – no end point???

Louise Bourgeois
Arched Figure
1993, cast 2010
bronze, fabric, wood and metal

This work can be seen for another week or two in Here we are at AGNSW. This exhibition “features new acquisitions for the Gallery’s collection by some of the most compelling women artists at work today. Focusing upon figuration and portraiture, their works present human relationships in all their intricacy, pathos and power.” (from the gallery website).

My purpose here is more practice in attentive looking. Careful looking, and for my own purposes, watching my own reactions, my own thoughts.

The work is in the centre of a fairly large gallery, and dominates. I’ve seen it previously, in a much smaller, more intimate area as part of Nude: art from the Tate collection, accompanied by a series of gouache drawings, and included in a section titled “The vulnerable body”. In this larger space that vulnerability has dissipated. I feel less carer or protector, more voyeur. Indeed the body is almost brutally displayed, immediately visible to those travelling down on the nearby escalator. It’s almost like a butcher’s window display. On one visit to the work my thoughts were interrupted by a sudden thump and flurry. Another visitor had tripped on the low plinth and almost joined the tableau, but quickly recovered and continued videoing on his mobile phone, with a quick glance around for more targets, a cruise past two wall works, and on out the entryway.

Am I looking at a spasm of agony, or is it ecstasy? The body is a lean male, and while I first accepted it without question, the longer I look the more it seems unsettlingly mis-proportioned. Just slightly wrong. And the bronze has an unhealthy greenish mottling under the polish.

There is no head, no arms. The contorted arch of the spine, the toes clenching or stretched as the muscles writhe and jerk, express everything. A lecture by Michael Hill on “Rodin’s abject and fragmented bodies” earlier this year introduced me to the idea of the “complete fragment” – just the phrase I find haunting. From Albert Elsen’s book Rodin: “By substituting the test of esthetic and expressive validity for the conventional ideal of completeness, Rodin opened important avenues for the equivalence of form and meaning, through which the modern sculptor could make the human body correspond more completely to his own thought and feeling.” (This may seem to step away from my own attentive looking, but the call to my own recent musing and research is part of the attraction of the work for me). In a physical extreme, the intellect, the head, is not needed. No voice is needed.

The contortion, the muscles in spasm, could be agony or ecstasy. Are we always sure of a difference? Back to Elsen, quoting Rodin’s comments on Michelangelo: “All his statues are so constrained by agony that they seem to wish to break themselves. They all seem ready to succumb to the pressure of despair which fills them.” A veneer of knowledge of Bourgeois’ biography and obsessions suggests agony as a reasonable reading of the work.

One of the readings in the Creative Research program was John Berger’s essay A Story for Aesop, particularly for the example of attentive looking in practice. Berger extrapolates a meandering narrative from his viewing of Velázquez’s painting. Even a generous photo on the Museo del Prado website doesn’t support me in following Berger’s thread. Still, the point of this is not to be “right”. It’s to be engaged. To think. To react. To expand and deepen…

So following my own thoughts, I consider the blanket-covered mattress. It reminds me of the beautiful woollen onkaparinga blankets we used to have (I know mum still uses her’s). The domestic clashes with the crucified (?) figure – that arch of the spine recalls so many crucifixes. An arch, a bridge going nowhere, connecting nothing, a frenzy of denial. And in an awkward segue I must admit my own denial, rejection – of the intense emotion I see, of the role of voyeur, of the exploitation of biography for art.


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